Fanning the Flames

Summary

Highwaymen have been causing trouble for towns within Kouka and the HHB takes it upon themselves to come up with a plan to catch them.

Genre:
Romance / Action
Author:
Wrath_Of_Dawn
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
1
Rating:
5.0 3 reviews
Age Rating:
16+

Fanning the Flames

The rain poured heavily with a steady beat as it chased the last of those who loitered on the streets along with the drunkards, already singing their loud and bawdy songs in between draughts and slurs, into the shelter of the pub for the night.

There had been rumors about highwaymen robbing merchants and raiding towns if the merchants failed to pass through.

They weren’t just any highwaymen, however.

No, these were not a group of poor folk down on their luck and stealing whatever odds and ends they could from others in order to get by.

Yun had gotten wind of the situation at hand when he run into one of the few fortunate merchants who had managed to evade the gang thus far.

According to him, these were the young sons of Kai nobles. They had been going from town to town through Kouka Kingdom, robbing its people and merchants for sport and taking pleasure in destroying houses and property, releasing livestock and causing general all manner of chaos and torment as they went.

Upon further discussion with the man, he managed to catch wind of the last few towns they had swept through and it didn’t take a genius like Yun to guess that this town was their next likely target on their path.

They were headed south from the border, likely planning on travelling all the way through to Sei, considering how the two had had relations against Kouka in the past with the Nadai incidents.

After buying a few supplies they needed to stock up on, including a bag of rice, some bandages (something in which they always seemed to be in need of) and a bit of salt, he wished the man a safe journey before heading back to relay the news to the rest of the group.

This is how The Happy Hungry Bunch now found themselves in a shady pub within the red-light district of a town that lay straddled between Water and Earth Clan lands.

According to rumor, the men often stopped for a drink before and after their nightly raids in self-reward and celebration of their crimes.

The trick now was to figure out where they were in the pub –If they were there at all.

This is where the group decided Yona would come in. Similar to how she had danced for the Nadai addicts in Sensui, she would dance and try chatting to various groups of men to try and figure out which ones were the highwaymen and get them to divulge where they planned to stage their attack that night. With this information, they would be able to get there first and ambush them.

It had taken some convincing for a few of the boys given how quickly her last dance had gotten her into trouble when a few addicts had tried to grab her. But, in the end, they relented with the knowledge that at least if things went south this time, they could count on drunkards having enough of a sense of pain to back off or blackout after a single punch from any of them.

Jae-ha’s role was easy enough to decide. As he was the only musician of the group, he would join the band that evening and play for Yona as she danced as well as be the closest one to help her if they needed to get out quickly. The rest of them would all be stationed around the pub in various sections to cover more ground while they too tried their luck chatting with other customers to see what info they could glean.

And so, with a plan decided upon and jobs for each of them, the group went to the market that afternoon before the sun went down to get prepared.

Yona was quick to head out to the pub early to try and get permission to dance there that night. While chatting with the other girls who worked as dancers in the pub, she managed to convince them to let her perform there as well tonight while Jae-ha would play his flute for her, letting another girl have a break in between but giving her whatever she earned from her performance. The girl was very grateful to her as she explained that she only worked there to help look after herself and her younger brother in between numerous other jobs she worked during the day.

Unfortunately, it was a sad tale that Yona had heard many times during their travels and so she found herself thankful that at least in this small way she could help at least one of them.

In return, the girl helped Yona find a suitable outfit to wear and lent her the fans that she used when she danced.

Much to her surprise, however, the fans were not like any of those she had used before as they were covered in silk that trained off into long veils, as opposed to a delicate paper.

They were lovely.

She tried to politely refuse the girl’s offer at first, claiming they were far too beautiful and that she should keep them safe herself, but the girl only scoffed at her and upon her kind insistence, Yona humbly accepted the loaned gifts.

When the girl left to go and grab the outfit she would wear that evening, she took the time to lean against the wall and run her hands fondly over the soft fabric.

It had been a long time since she’d held such fine silk in her hands, and even as she missed feeling its soft whisper against her skin every day, she found happiness in the freedom the light clothes she now wore, brought her.

Found happiness in knowing that she could finally put such finery to good use as she used these fans to dance.

To help her country’s people from the greed and callousness of The Northern Empire.

{*****}

They had agreed to all met up again that evening once the boys finished scoping out the best positions in the pub to keep an eye on her.

Hak was the first to head over to the back room where the other dancers and Yona were getting ready so that he could check up on her and go over the plan once more. Time and time again he’d allowed her to put herself in potentially dangerous situations and she’d held her own, but that still didn’t make it any easier for him to let go even as he watched her pull through with pride.

He’d left the others behind as Zeno had begun to try juggling bottles of sake from behind the bar while Shin-ah clapped, and Yun yelled at him to put them back before he dropped one and they had to pay for it.

Upon opening the door and entering the room however, he was suddenly stopped dead in his tracks.

She was stunning, – well she always was in his mind –but this . . . this was something else.

Similar to her last outfit when she’d danced in Sensui, the dress she wore was in two pieces consisting of a long skirt that tied at the hip and a simple band of muslin that had been wrapped multiple times around her chest to cover her breasts.

Different however was the choice of colour. Where before she’d been dressed in lighter, warm colours meant to inspire jealousy at her bright and happy appearance, this outfit was its near opposite in every way.

This ensemble was a dark black morphing into charcoal grey so that it resembled smoke on a breeze. Different again was her coat. Last time her coat had been large and baggy and was cut short just above her midriff.

This time the band that wrapped her chest created delicate short sleeves that fell lightly off her shoulders and gently draped over her upper arms.

She had left her hair down and loose, despite it being long enough to put up again now and at the insistence of the other dancers that she would look stunning with any number of the decorated hair sticks they offered her.

It seemed they were still trying to convince her of one style of another that she could wear, and yet, again and again, he watched her politely decline, saying she liked how light it felt when it was left down and unadorned.

He couldn’t help but smile at this. She was far from the spoiled girl who had lived in splendor as she was before, and it only made her more radiant for it in his mind.

While indulging himself and taking in the sight of her one more time, however, something stuck out to him as odd.

There, on either side of her hips at the band of her skirt were two wooden sticks, seemingly apart of the skirt itself. It was strange, to say the least. He’d never seen women wear such wooden ornaments like that before and he couldn’t see that they had any particular purpose.

He was distracted from his puzzlement however when the rest of the boys came flooding in to greet them. Zeno was the first to compliment her, saying “The Little Lady looks very pretty!” as Shin-ah nodded in agreement while Kija blushed madly and stuttered out that he agreed she looked lovely.

Jae-ha, true to form told her she looked positively ravishing and blew her a kiss before running off after one of the other dancers before Hak could swat him upside the head for it.

Yet Hak himself didn’t say a word the whole time.

He couldn’t.

No words would seem to fall out of his mouth no matter how much he tried. Even as she looked up at him expectantly, probably assuming he’d at least crack a joke or offer up a snarky comment. But looking down into those vibrant waiting eyes only made it worse and he couldn’t get his mouth to work. Instead, he forced an approving nod of his head before hastily making his way back to the central part of the bar. He was grateful that evening had already fallen at this point and the room was already dim, lest his face betray how flustered he was.

{*****}

A few hours later, with four or so dancers having already come and gone, none of them had had any luck gathering any intel, leaving Hak in a foul mood.

This had to have been the fifth group of guys he’d come up to and still, they let nothing slip about what they were doing there or how long they were staying etc. At this rate, the whole plan was turning out to be a big waste of time.

He was about to find an excuse to leave the group and go grab a drink by himself when suddenly a flash of red caught his eye.

It seemed that it was now Yona’s turn to dance as she walked up on the little platform they used as a stage as Jae-ha begins to play his flute for her.

Where before she had been a happy dancer meant to inspire envy at her joy, this time she seemed to pull you in with every step and made you want to spill all your secrets and confide yourself in the waves of fabric that billowed off her shoulders and around her legs as she leapt and twirled.

Hak found both he and the man he had been talking to were now transfixed by her (the later note somewhat irritating him), their conversation long forgotten as Jae-ha’s flute sang both sweetly high and alluringly low with minor notes that sent shiver down your spine and lending Yona’s performance even more of an ethereal feeling.

Suddenly, another musician joined in with the steady beat of a drum as Yona made her way to the middle of the stage, each step in time with the music before she began to gracefully rise to the very tips of her toes, her back to the audience giving the feeling of suspense.

And indeed, that feeling was justified the moment she reached as high as she could, where in one swift movement, she spun around in a tight circle while grabbing at those two odd wooden sticks that hung from her hips and pulled them off.

It was only then that Hak realised that they were fans.

As she pulled them from the waist of her skirt, trails of bright red silk followed behind and began to ripple through the air as she opened the fans with a snap giving the illusion that she’d just been surrounded by a ring of fire.

And just like that, she went from a whisper of smoke on a breeze to ash reignited as she spun and kicked with trails of ribbon-made-fire behind her in long sweeping arcs.

Not an eye strayed nor an ear was left unlent towards her performance as she continued to encapsulate a force of nature as a flame personified.

He’d seen her as a dignified princess, he’d seen her as a warrior in training, and he’d seen her as the young girl she was, struggling to achieve her goals.

Yet even as he’d seen her dance before, never had she felt as untouchable, as out of his reach as she did now. It was ridiculous really, but he found himself questioning if perhaps this whole time she was in fact something otherworldly and that’s why she continued to draw him in and hold his heart in her hands with ease.

The thought alone filled his heart with longing even as he found himself smiling at the thought.

She truly never ceased to surprise him.

{*****}

As Jae-ha’s music began to slow, she finished her performance with a deep curtsy, much like she might have when she’d still been living at the palace and with just as much elegance. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jae-ha give her a smile and a wink letting her know that she’d done a wonderful job before she made her exit.

Now finished with her dance, it was time to start the second half of her job for the night –To coax the highwaymen into revealing themselves to her.

Still in her dancing attire, she tucked the fans back into the hips of her skirt handle first and wrapped the trailing silk ends over her shoulders like a scarf before beginning to look around for a table to head to first. She could see that Hak had been making his way somewhere around the left-hand side of the room, closest the main door, and Kija was still as the back chatting with a rather drunken trio that insisted, he was going too easy on them with their arm-wrestling match.

That man has no idea, she thought to herself with a light chuckle. Mercifully it seemed that he was using his left hand instead of his right, keeping his dragon claws hidden under the table.

Shin-ah, Zeno and Yun had opted for standing around the bar which left only the right-hand side of the building nearer to the back doors and the room where the dancers got ready.

With this in mind, Yona gathered her wits, put on her most charming smile and began to saunter over to a particularly bawdy group of men by the back corner. They seemed to be squabbling over something, meaning their guard was down as they got caught up in their bickering.

This would be her best opening.

“You boys from around here?” she asked, her voice sickly sweet with innocence as she tilted her head and leaned her hip against the edge of the table.

This certainly caught their attention as the men seemed momentarily stunned to hear a feminine voice float over their grunts and grumbling. Certainly, she was surprised she didn’t have to repeat herself before they took notice.

A rather tall man who seemed to be in charge was the first to look her way and catch her attention. He was fairly good looking for someone who seemed to be squatting in the backwaters of a town during a downpour, and not so dishevelled that one would assume him to be without a decent income of sorts. His hair was still slick and dripping with rainwater and he gave her a disgustingly lust-filled look as he looked her up and down, but she managed to keep her face placid and endearing as she continued to study him while he was distracted by her own attire.

There!

As he went to take another swig of his drink, she caught the gleam of a broach hidden on the inner collar of his shirt.

A pin –A crest of some sort.

This had to be them. If he had a family crest or seal of some sort, he would have had to be from an upper-class family and yet he wore clothing in a style she did not recognise and bore no other items on his person that would suggest he originated from Kouka.

Looking around at his companions a similar deduction could be made for each of them, with some variances in clothing style from person to person. It made sense then that they had chosen to hold up in the least crowded area of the pub. This was not exactly a large town and while it did get travellers, it would still strike an observant person as odd if they had a mind to take note of them.

“No, little lady, I can’t say that we are. We’re just passing through and thought we’d stop for a drink. Care to join us? We saw your performance just now, and I must say, I myself found it to be quite satisfactory to watch.” The tall man said with a leer.

She groaned internally. So typical of a nobleman to make a compliment into an insult and to look down his nose at her despite clearly finding her more than ‘satisfactory’. Despite coming from royalty, she’d seen enough of this sort of behaviour from the gentry towards maidservants to be more than familiar with it. Still, she had to hide her disgust at least for the moment. She had a role to play.

“Well, I can’t say that I’m one to drink but I’d be honored to accompany you gentlemen this evening.”

“Here!” One of the other men called, a short fellow who reeked of smoke and wore far too many rings. “I’ve got a seat for you right here, little lady.” He said patting his lap and looking far too confident in himself.

“No need, I think I’ll just sit myself right here.” She replied as she perched herself on the edge of the table instead. The man looked like he was about to complain, but before he could she gracefully crossed her legs and smoothed out her skirt, leaned towards him resting her chin on her palm, “Is that a problem?” she said, making sure to pout her lips.

The man seemed satisfied with her little performance and content to just watch her for now, so he sat back in his seat, “No, no. Not at all, I think I like the view here even better.” He replied licking his lips.

Oh, she could not wait to be able to give this man a piece of her mind once they ambushed them outside.

There were four men in total, and with nothing more than bringing them over a few more drinks, a little flattery and flirting and she had them tell her everything.

In no time they were spilling promises of buying her jewels and dresses to wear when she danced with the money they had stolen, all while she took mental note of each and every unsightly thing they had mentioned having done on their raids that they let slip.

She would be sure to pay each slight laid out to her people back in kind soon.

Eventually, she managed to get them to tell her where they planned to attack next by saying she’d wait nearby to congratulate them on their conquest if they did. They gave it away all too easily.

Now that she had gotten what she needed from them however, it was time to regroup with the boys.

This. . . was not as easy.

She tried to excuse herself saying she needed to change back into her regular dress if she was to meet up with them later, but they were having none of it. It seemed they much too preferred how much skin her current outfit showed which left her feeling even more nauseous in their presence than before.

The more she tried to excuse herself though, the more impatient the men became, now insisting that she come with them outside for a moment saying “We have something we wanna show you. Come on it’ll only be a minute.”

This was not going well.

Before she could come up with any other excuse, one of the men, the quiet one who hadn’t said anything and had just stared holes into her the whole time, grabbed her by the wrist and started tugging her to the back door as the others got up to follow.

His expressionless face now holding a gleam in his eyes that she did not like the look of.

Shit.

The pub had grown even more crowded over the last hour or so and with them clustered around her like this there was no way Jae-ha or any of the others would see her being taken outside.

She wasn’t even sure if he’d been able to see where she went from where he was on the stage.

This was definitely not apart of the plan.

Once the quiet one got her out the door, the other men began to crowd more, leering and cackling as they tried to drag her further into an alleyway further away from any prying eyes of people that could see her plight and try to help her.

Not that she thought anyone would still be outside as the rain continued to pour.

When one of the men tried to grab her butt though. She had had enough.

Without a second thought, she grabbed the hand holding her wrist and twisted it back painfully until the man let go with a surprised yelp. He had not expected her to be that strong and she had Hak’s continuous weapons training to thank for that.

Now she stood there, no longer being manhandled at least, but surrounded by four fully grown men in an alleyway still dressed in shadows and smoke with her red silk fans draped over her shoulders like an expensive scarf.

The men laughed. “So this little kitten isn’t so sweet after all? You gonna try and hit us with your fans there sweetheart?”

“I simply don’t enjoy being grabbed roughly.” She said sticking her nose in the air, trying her best to still play the part for the time being.

She was beginning to come up with a plan, but she needed them to stay distracted and away from her just a bit longer while she figured out the rest of it.

Still cackling amongst themselves, one of the men, the tall one she’d first noticed, began to stalk towards her, intent on grabbing her and taking her as his own little prize probably.

’That’s it!’ She thought to herself in a brief moment of triumph.

Slowly, she pulled off one of her fans, trying her best to walk in a manner that would seem seductive and weaving in-between the group of men. They seemed surprised but not at all disappointed with her change in attitude, allowing her to strut around as their eyes followed, believing that either way they’d get what they wanted soon enough. They might as well enjoy the show, right?

In a flash however and using the silk that she had wrapped into a tight rope while they had been distracted by her pretty face, she threw it around the neck of the tallest man –the one she presumed to be the leader of the group –and twisted it into a tight hold.

Before he can even begin to struggle and grab at his throat, she kicked his feet out from under him while yanking him down to her height so that he was kneeling in the mud before as she stood behind him and brought out the short sword that she had kept strapped on her person under her long skirt to rest just between the valley of two ribs. Right where his heart lay beating wildly now in his chest.

“I’m afraid I may have been rather misleading gentlemen. I have no intention of keeping any one of you company tonight. In fact, I already have my own companions and have planned a different sort of companion for each of you. I’m sure we have enough rope for each of you not too feel too cold tonight.” She said, finally letting her anger and disgust slip into her voice.

It felt like a breath of fresh air to let it show.

“You bitch! I’d like to see you try!” yelled the fourth man, a stocky fellow who had done nothing but brag about the supposed superior breeding of his horse for most of the night.

Just as the man was about to charge at her, the tall man she had at knifepoint let out a garbled yelp and threw out his hands trying to get the other man to stop, not wanting to find the sword she held lodged between his ribs in the process.

He needn’t have worried. As angry with them as she was, she much preferred letting the merchants have their chance to give them a piece of their mind and reclaim their valuables over gutting any of them.

Putting them to work to fix the damage they had caused would be a much more enjoyable and humbling punishment as well.

Still as the man continued to charge at her, ignoring his friends strangled pleas, she lowered her stance and got ready to give him a strong kick.

She counted down.

Three.

Two.

One.

He’s finally in range. He thinks he’s won.

Just before she went to land a kick, however, someone else beat her to it as a flash of dark blue crossed her vision before suddenly the man was facedown and gargling in the mud with the wind knocked out of him.

Hak.

“While I’m impressed that you managed to get a hostage Princess, next time give us a heads up before you do so that we can bring the rope in time.” He called over the rain as he dragged the man out of the mud up by his collar.

With a few more ‘oofs’ and the sound of punches, it seemed that Kija and Jae-ha and managed to grab the last of the men while Zeno came running out with the rope already starting to tie them up.

Shin-ah was quick to come over and offer to take the man she had at her feet from her which she gratefully accepted. It was still raining and with barely more than a thin skirt and wrappings over her chest, she was freezing. The boys had been smart enough to keep their cloaks on keeping them dry and keeping a low profile, but she hadn’t had the luxury to wear hers with her costume.

“Yona! Here, use this before you freeze to death.” Yun said, rushing over and offering her a towel.

“T-thanks, Yun.” She stuttered out.

“Come on, let’s get these guys tied up so we can get back to the inn already, I managed to get us two rooms this time to we won’t be so packed.” He said, ever the prepared and worrisome mother of the group.

{*****}

It was now well past midnight as the group make their way into the inn for the night. Having gotten permission from the pub to leave the highwaymen tied up in one of their back rooms after closing hours with the promise to get rid of them in the morning, Yona went back to return the borrowed outfit and fans whilst apologising to the girl for bringing them back drenched from the rain.

She had simply waved her off saying lightheartedly that they would dry and that it was fine before saying goodbye and heading home to her brother for the night.

And so now Yona found herself still in damp clothes (though at least they were her own now) and shivering on the floor of the smaller of the two rooms they had.

She sneezed twice as she tried to wring out the towel Yun had given her so that she could dry her hair a little more as it was still dripping and soaking through the back of her dress.

Hak was setting up their beds for the night. They would share the smaller room as they all agreed after her performance in the pub is was probably better that Hak stay with her just in case any of the other patrons got any ideas of their own and decided to follow her to the inn.

Once he was finished with the beds he sat back on his heels and looked over her still shivering form. It was different than when those men before had looked her up and down. It was endearing and concerned and made her feel a little less cold and so grateful how different the men in her life were to that group.

Hak especially had always looked out for her (with only mild complaint) and would give her the best of whatever he had to offer, even if it meant that he would go without.

As if he heard her thoughts, he began to shrug out of his overcoat and offered it to her.

“It’s not much but if you stay in those wet clothes, you’ll catch cold.” He told her gently, and without another word, he dutifully turned around so that she could change in relative privacy.

Sometimes he was too much. Too kind and caring that it left her feeling selfish to always be on the receiving end of his kindness and attention.

Still, she was grateful for his coat and quickly peeled off her own vest, dress and shoes. She left her underthings on however and made do with one of the ties they used to keep their tent wrapped up to use as a makeshift belt.

When she was done, she made her way over to lay her clothes out on the floor on the other end of the room to dry as best they could, the ends of Hak’s coat dragging on the floor as it was much too long for her tiny frame.

When she finished laying them out evenly in the hopes it might help them dry a little faster, she quickly made her way back and snuggled down into her bed for the night, wrapping herself in as much of the covers as possible.

“Done,” A muffled call came from behind him.

When Hak turned around and saw that the voice had apparently come from the living pile of fabric he chuckled before blowing out the candle in the room and heading over to his own bed beside hers and getting under the covers.

“Can you even breathe under all those blankets there, Princess?” he asked leaning his head on his elbow as he faced the moving mass of bedding.

“Kinda, kinda not. I’m still freezing though so I’d rather breathe through this little air hole then go without them.” She replied poking her hand out of a small opening under the covers that he hadn’t even seen.

The scene itself, he couldn’t help but find quite comical, seeing his Princess bundled up like a child in a pillow fort after spending the evening deceiving and taking down thieves almost entirely on her own.

Truly, it seemed there was nothing she couldn’t and wouldn’t do to help the people of Kouka. Especially those who found themselves helpless and without aid from anyone else.

Some might call her a bleeding heart for her constant need to help those around her and put herself to the hazard, but he’d seen her heart break and bleed before, and she’d raged against the darkness that it tried to drag her into. Instead of drowning in it she’d become stronger than anyone else he’d ever known, even as she rolled herself more tightly into her little blanket kingdom.

“Rather than risk you suffocating in the night should your breathing hole collapse, come over here.” He said tiredly as he reached under the covers and tugged her to him.

She squirmed a little for a moment as she made herself comfortable but certainly didn’t seem to oppose his offer as she pressed herself as close as she could to his chest and tucked her head beneath his chin.

To her utter delight, he was warm. So soothingly warm as the wind and rain continued to try its best at shaking down the inn.

“Better?” he asked quietly as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled the covers closer around them both.

“Much.” She sighed contentedly, letting her eyes drift shut. Let her mind begin to lull into contentedness as she listened to the steady beat of his heart.

“You know, I have to say. I was quite impressed with you today. You did well finding those guys and dealing with them on your own before we got there. I almost feel sorry for the poor bastards getting wrapped around your little finger like that.” He whispered down to her with a grin.

He felt her giggle a little before she spoke, “Want to know how I did it?”

“How?”

“I just imagined they were you whenever I had to pretend that I even wanted to tolerate them.”

“Oi! You saying you have me wrapped around your little finger?” he asked even as he held in his laughter and felt his cheeks warm.

She dared to bring out a hand from under the covers enough so that she could flick his nose.

“No, dummy. I’m saying that I’m grateful that there are men like you in this world over those creeps.” She said, though after a thought decided to add in a cheeky voice, “You said the rest all on your own.”

The lightheartedness and teasing she had expected in return, however, never came. Instead, she watched as Hak slowly reached for her hand, gently lifting it again as he looked at it more closely. A deep line began to furrow his brow.

Ah. She’d forgotten about that.

Looking down at her own wrist, she cringed as she noticed the bruises left by the man who had grabbed her so roughly.

It seemed that now her body was on an artistic mission to turn them an even uglier shade of black and blue than they had been before.

It’d probably be only a week or two before they fully went away, she guessed. Still, from now until then, she’d have to be careful that her sleeves didn’t fall back when they were out in public. The last thing she needed was to frighten anyone for no reason.

Putting her musings aside, however, she took a deep breath before returning her gaze to Hak’s face, where the concern had now faded into something so heavy-hearted and pensive that it tore at her heart.

Time and time again he blamed himself for every bump and scratch she got. Felt that it was somehow a result of him failing her in some way.

Seeing him shut down inside the way he did whenever she got hurt, that was what was most painful to her. Yet somehow he never understood that.

“Princess, I—”

“No, Hak. Please, don’t. Can’t we just be happy that things went well? That I did well tonight all on my own?”

Now it was his turn to sigh, but it seemed less heavy than the look he’d had on before. To her surprise, he even managed the ghost of a smile as he gently rubbed his thumb over the bruised handprints, careful not to use too much pressure.

“I’ll never be happy or be able to ignore any of your injuries Princess. It’s like trying to ask you to sit still and do nothing.” He said, giving her a look and raising an eyebrow, “So practically impossible.”

“But,” He breathed deeply again before continuing, “I am proud of you. You did do well today and proved once again that you’re more capable than any other girl I know, so just bear with me, can you? It’s not you that I don’t trust, it’s the world around you.” He finished, gently grabbing her hand, curling her fingers around his and guiding it up to press against his forehead as he shut his eyes.

She smiled a warm smile then and took her hand from his, making him meet her eyes again.

“You can’t be sceptical of the whole world forever, Hak. You have to remember that there are more good people out there than bad. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing, after all.”

She laid her palm against her face and stroked a thumb over his cheek just as he’d done her wrist.

“And, you have to remember that we’re not alone. We have, Yun and the Dragons and friends like Lili. We have allies. So that has to prove something about the world around us doesn’t it? I’m proud of every scar I get. Every scar I earn, because it proves that I struggled and made it out alive. So, don’t look at my injuries with self-loathing, and be proud of me. Be proud with me.”

Hak reached up and covered her hand with his own.

“I’m always proud of you Princess. And I’ll try, but it’s because you’re just too important to me to let it go so easily.”

She let her smile turn impish as she pinched his cheek now, causing him to raise an eyebrow at her once again, “Try harder then.”

That, at least got him to laugh and bring him back to his usual self, much to her relief. Being downtrodden just didn’t suit him. Stoic, maybe, but not that.

“I guess if the Princess demands it then I must comply.” He stated in a mock-serious tone.

“You’re damn right about that!” she said, her own laugh bubbling up as she felt herself begin to feel at ease again.

Stretching out her limbs and yawning, she felt the heat from what Hak the bubble of blankets provided her finally seep down to her bones before snuggling up close to him once again.

He might be hard as rock with muscle, but he still made a good pillow. Especially on cold rainy nights.

Hak for his part just quietly wrapped his arm around her again, holding her to him as he let his other hand play with her hair.

She noticed that he seemed to do that more often these days (not that she minded). It made her feel safe and cared for. Something that while she loved her growing independence and how capable she was now, she was still fond of.

Maybe it was something that had stuck with her from her days as a spoiled Princess wandering around her castle, or maybe it was just something that Hak always seemed to emanate and so she found herself used to its comfort. Used to his comfort unlike anyone else’s.

In the end, it didn’t matter though, she supposed. All that mattered was that the day had gone well, her friends were alright, and she was here safe and warm in Hak’s arms. And it was these thoughts that she let lull her to rest.

“Goodnight Hak,” she whispered, her face hidden in his chest.

He smiled to himself and held her closer, glad to see her shivering had stopped.

“Goodnight Princess.”

{*****}

Next day, the group rose early and began to trek their way down through the muddy streets to pick up the highwaymen from the pub. The men now looking far meeker than they had the night before, now tied up with rope and without the flow of alcohol feeding their ego.

Leading them out through the town, many people took the time to give them awful looks and say good riddance to the lot of them, and Yona felt no reason to persuade them to do otherwise.

In the end after a long discussion during breakfast they decided that it would probably be best to hand the group over to Lili and her bodyguards seeing as she would be able to bring them into custody under her father’s jurisdiction. That, and the Happy Hungry Bunch were on much friendlier terms with the Water Clan than Earth.

Unfortunately, despite their aid in Awa, the Earth Clan’s leader Lord Geun-Tae was closely loyal to Su-won after he helped them regain some territory they had lost during King Il’s reign. To be truthful, this was a smaller reason for his loyalty than the simple fact that he had allowed the man to return to his glory days on the battlefield, something the Lord lived for and prided himself in.

That aside however, it took most of the morning and well into the afternoon before they reached Lili’s residence in Sensui. They decided to send in Zeno ahead of the rest of the group to go find Ayura and Tetora first and let them know that they had something for them by the gate as opposed to simply waltzing into the residence unannounced.

Luckily when the rest of them reached the gates, the two female bodyguards already had the rest of the guards that Lord Joon-Gi had sent to watch over his daughter ready to take the highwaymen off their hands and to the capital where their fate would be decided.

Lili was also there waiting and eagerly raced over to bold Yona over with a hug as soon as she saw her.

“Yona! It’s been ages since you last came to visit! And what’s all this about highwaymen? Are you all alright?”

Yona simply laughed in response before walking in with Lili side-by-side as she recalled the events of last night for her. The boys taking that as their que to go in and get something to eat after a long day’s walk.

“You certainly are brave to try that again after what happened in Shisen when we first met.” Lili said when she was finished, eyeing her friend with a mix of concern at her choices and awe at her bravery.

“Maybe so, but I made it out alright this time and the guys were there if things went wrong.” She replied casually, though making sure to keep her sleeves down just in case Lili noticed the bruises. She didn’t want her friend to fuss over it, as good natured as it was.

“Well, in any case, it’s good to see you again. Why don’t you stay the night? I’m sure there’d be no problem if you’re not heading anywhere immediately.”

“That’s kind of you, but we shouldn’t stay for too long. Once we dealt with this issue, we planned to head East to check up on how Tae-jun was doing helping the Fire Clan villages. He seemed to be doing well last time, but I wanted to give him our thanks in person.” She explained.

Lili looked a little disappointed for a moment, but it didn’t last long, “Well then you’ll at least have to stay for an early dinner before heading on your way again! We get help you stock up on any other supplies you might need for the trip too!”

“Really? Thank you Lili, that’d be very helpful and much appreciated.” She replied with a grin.

“Right then,” Lili said, linking their arms together as she took off on a steady march towards the main house, “Then let’s get started shall we?”

And so within the hour and under Yun’s guidance, the managed to have a feast ready for all of them to enjoy out under the pagoda where they all ate until they felt they’d burst.

Afterwards, Ayura and Tetora helped show them to the storehouse, providing them with a few extra rations or not a sweet treat here and there as well as some extra blankets from inside, knowing how the months ahead would only get colder. Particularly in the more northern areas on the Fire Clans territory where they were headed.

Now fed and restocked they were ready to head out on their next journey, though Yona had to admit she was loathed to leave so soon.

“I cannot thank you enough Lili, and I apologise for not staying longer. I hope you continue to fair well here in Sensui until you return to Suiko Palace,” she said taking holding Lili’s hands in her own and giving them a squeeze.

her friend only rolled her eyes in response, “Please, as if I’m having any trouble here at all. You should just focus and worry about yourself.” she said with a huff, though she could see the seriousness in her friend’s eyes at how she worried for her.

So she gave her a reassuring smile and a hug.

“I will. And I promise to stay for longer next time we visit.”

“You better!”

and with that, they both laughed before saying their final goodbyes and the group headed back out on the road.

A few minutes down the road, she felt a presence beside her and she smiled to herself, already knowing who it was without even having to look.

“You sure you didn’t want to spend the night at Lili’s, Princess?” Asked Hak, casually strolling and stretching his arms behind his head.

“It would have been nice, but I know Yun is eager to check up on both the people from Katan and Senri village.” She replied.

“Still, no harm in staying one night. I know you two haven’t seen each other in a while.”

“It’s fine. We’ll stay there for a night the next time we pass through.”

“Whatever, you say Princess. You just pick the course and I’ll follow,” he said, and while she knew it was meant to be lighter and more teasing, she could sense the sincerity of the words. The truth behind them.

“Promise?” she asked looking up at him and holding out her hand.

He looked surprised for a moment at the gesture but soon recovered, taking her hand in his own and giving it a light squeeze.

“For you, anywhere.”

And without a chance to reconsider his actions he used the hand he used to hold her own and pulled her close, pressing a light kiss to her forehead, as if assuring that promise.

"For you, anything."

And without another word, hand in hand, they continued to follow the others on their path to their newest journey and whatever it held in store for them.

Together.

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