As they traveled through the fire tribe territory, they came upon yet another poor village. The torn huts were filled with sickly, hungry people who looked at them with hopeless eyes, the meager and translucent hands reaching out desperately. Despite her best efforts in suppressing it, the princess shuddered, though her friends knew her disgust was not directed at those people in front of her. It was aimed towards those who let things come this far. Yona turned but briefly to nod to her companions, before she took out her water bottle and knelt beside the nearest villager. "Here, drink this."
The man, middle-aged and with chapped lips, tried to lift his head, but he couldn't, so Yona placed her hand under his neck and helped him taking slow, careful sips from her bottle. And she was not the only one aiding the villagers. Yun was already in search for the head of the village, to ask for a hut he could use for medical care, Zeno was helping an old lady to some of his bread despite his growling stomach, and Jae-Ha and Hak had already started inspecting one of the nearby huts, discussing ways to fix its roof quickly.
Shin-Ah had climbed up a hut and used his dragon eyes to inspect their surroundings. Despite his worry for the people close to them, he first had to look out for possible threats. But when his eyes spotted no soldiers or officials nearby, he jumped back down and hurried to Jae-Ha and Hak. For a moment, the two were so deeply in conversation that they did not notice the quiet dragon. Only by chance did Jae-Ha's green eyes brush over the young one. "Ah, Shin-Ah-kun. Is there something you need?"
As was his custom, Shin-Ah just looked at the other in silence, his expression hidden behind the ever-present mask. It was Hak who said in his stead, "Want to help, huh? Well, Droopy-Eyes and I are already working on the huts, and Zeno and the Princess are taking care of the villagers. You could go and see if Yun needs any help."
Shin-Ah just nodded briefly, then turned around, the white fluff of his headdress fluttering around. He heard Ao squeal as she held on to the white smoothness, softly p'kyuing in his ear as he went in search for Yun. The blue dragon strode past a corner, when his golden eyes suddenly caught something of interest to him.
To his left, some children were playing a game of ball. Their toy was old and damaged, but the young ones still threw it around in glee, squealing happily as they kicked it with their feet, trying to keep it from touching the ground. Despite their obvious hunger and weakness, all children seemed happy.
All but one. Some feet off, a boy sat on a tree stump, the chin resting resentfully on bruised knees, face hidden behind a mass of black hair and crossed arms. He could not be older than seven, but his eyes carried a mature dullness as he watched the others play. When he noticed Shin-Ah staring at him, he looked up, only for him to quickly cover his face again. But Shin-Ah had seen it.
With a soft tap, the ball lightly jumped towards the boy, stopping at his bare feet. Slowly, as if he was reluctant to do so, the child lifted its head and bent forward. With the ball carefully held between his hands, he got up. "He-here." His voice was soft and insecure as he reached out with his hands, offering the ball to the group of children staring at him. "Could I… play with you?"
Immediately, the children jerked back, their faces displaying horror and disgust. One of the boys took a brave step forward and yelled, "Keep the ball! We don't want it anymore, after you touched it! Monster!" He turned around and ran away, the other kids flocking after him. The black-haired boy remained, the ball still between his now shaking hands.
A shadow fell upon him. Startled, he looked up, already itching back in fear and anger. Shin-Ah loomed above him, quietly looking down. The boy took half a step back and hissed, "Wh-what do you want? Will you call me a monster as well?" Hot tears fell from his eyes, and he brushed them off with his torn sleeve.
"Do you… want to play?" Shin-Ah's voice was softer than ever, his finger pointing at the ball.
The boy blinked rapidly in surprise. He looked at Shin-Ah, back at the ball in his hands and up at the stranger again. His eyes, the color of hazelnuts, were narrowed in distrust. "Are you making fun of me?"
Shin-Ah shook his head, and the motion caused Ao to fall off the white wig. She rolled over Shin-Ah's shoulder, wiggled her legs and tail in the air and caught herself with a jump on the ball. The black eyes full of surprise, she looked up at the boy and tilted her head. 'P'kyu?'
Despite himself, the boy had to giggle. Gingerly, he stretched one hand towards Ao, and the squirrel reacted by chewing on his finger. The boy yelped, and Shin-Ah reached out for the squirrel to pull her back before she could do further harm, but the blue dragon stopped himself when the child laughed. The boy wore a grin that made him seem more like his age. "You two are weird. Is this your pet? What's its name?"
Shin-Ah took his time in answering, as he always did. "Ao."
"Ao?" the boy echoed and eyed the squirrel which was still chewing on his finger. His grin widened. "What a weird name. And yours?"
"Shin-Ah," the boy repeated slowly, as if his tongue was tasting the name. Then, he nodded. "I'm Taesun. Nice to meet you." When Shin-Ah just continued to look at him in silence, Taesun shifted curiously. "Say, Shin-Ah, why are you wearing this mask?"
The blue dragon reached up, his fingers lightly brushing against the wood. "My eyes…"
"You can't show them?" Taesun asked. His face lit up a bit in understanding. "Could it be that you are like me?" He, too, reached up for his face. His fingers brushed over the grand scar deforming the right side of his face completely, twisting the side of his mouth and almost shutting his eye completely. With his eyes softening a bit, the boy said, "I was born with this. The villagers say that I am a monster because… because my mother died at my birth." His voice cracked and Taesun had to swallow a few times before he could go on. "My grandma says it's not my fault. That mom loved me. And that this has nothing to do with who I am." His expression became sadder still. "But no matter what grandma says, no one listens to her. They say I'm a monster and… and…"
The tears forced their way out. Taesun shivered, trying to suppress them, but instead a sob broke through. Suddenly, he felt a hand patting his hair. Startled, the boy looked up to meet Shin-Ah's calm expression. The touch was light, almost faint, and yet Taesun felt strangely reassured. He worked up a smile. "Thanks, Shin-Ah." He paused and looked back down at the ball between his hands. "Do you really want to play with me?"
The blue-haired man just nodded in reply, and Taesun's face lit up. With a call of joy, he ran a few feet away. "Get in position!" He let the ball fall on his feet, and kicked it towards Shin-Ah. The silent man reacted quickly and shot the ball back – several feet above and behind Taesun. The boy cried out as he tried to hurry after the ball, but it fell on the ground before he could reach it. He picked it up and turned back to Shin-Ah with a pout. "You can't shoot it this far. That's unfair."
Shin-Ah made a quiet, startled sound, then he nodded. When Taesun kicked the ball at him another time, he responded much more softly, and the young boy could reach the ball in time. A delighted chuckle broke from Taesun's lips as he continued to play with Shin-Ah and his eyes were bright and happy. And despite him making no sound at all, Shin-Ah seemed happy as well. In fact, he was so absorbed into the game with the child that he didn't even notice someone approaching him.
After having watched the youngest dragon silently for a while, Zeno broke away and turned back. "Oh, look, it's the Seiryuu!" he called out to his friends, his face adorned with a broad smile as always. The others stopped turning their heads in search for the youngest dragon and came running, each a look of concern on their faces.
Yun eyed Shin-Ah for a moment, then scratched the side of his head. "What a pain. I was starting to get worried he might have gone lost, but looks like he's fine."
"As if Shin-Ah could get lost!" Kija protested protectively. "With his mighty dragon eyes, he could make us out where ever he was! There surely is a valid reason for him to stray from our side for so long."
"Speaking of," Hak broke in with a frown. "What is he doing?" Using this as a cue, the happy hungry bunch turned their heads curiously towards the young man, who was still playing with the child. Taesun ran after the ball eagerly, barely making it, and Shin-Ah took this as a sign to soften his kicks a bit again.
Yona blinked twice. "It looks like Shin-Ah is playing with this child." She was unaware of the sarcastic glance Yun shot her way, and instead she turned her head towards Hak. "But why would he do such a thing?"
Her bodyguard just shrugged fairly uninterestedly, but Jae-Ha chimed in, "It seems like our pretty Shin-Ah-kun has a soft spot for children." His green eyes took on a caring sheen as he looked over at his youngest dragon brother. "I always knew he is a soft soul."
"Since when do you know that?" Yun muttered disbelieving. A bit louder, he said, "That's odd. Shin-Ah has never shown much interest in children."
Jae-Ha's perfect eyebrows twitched. "You do know you just said that in a very naughty way, right, Yun-kun?"
But the green dragon was ignored by the others. As if he hadn't heard him at all, Kija wisely said, "There doesn't have to be a particular reason for Shin-Ah to be caring towards children. They are the future of this kingdom, after all. In fact," he added with brightly shining eyes, clasping his hands together in an admiring fashion, "this only adds to Shin-Ah's purity and greatness as a dragon. As his older brother, I am truly moved."
"Don't break into tears, White Snake," Hak commented dryly, evading the blow that quickly followed from Kija's right hand.
Yona smiled softly and tilted her head, her red curls waving lightly. "That's so nice. Shin-Ah has never interacted much with others. I am happy for him."
"It's quite natural," Zeno said quietly. His companions turned towards him, questioning looks on their faces. His smile a bit lighter than usual, the yellow dragon went on, "When you consider his past, I mean. The Seiryuu could never play with children, even when he was still one of them. And look at the child." He pointed out with his lean fingers. "It has a terrible mark on its face. The other children surely resent it cruelly, so it ended up all alone with the ball in its hands." Zeno let his arm go down, and he lowered his chin just a bit. Closing his eyes, he said "I am sure the child reminded the Seiryuu of himself."
It was quiet for a few seconds. They all looked at Shin-Ah, each seeing the truth in Zeno's unusually serious words.
"H-h-how sad!" Kija exclaimed finally, his bright blue eyes swimming in tears. He sniffed loudly and turned his head away. "I just feel that much more impressed by Shin-Ah. What a wonderful young brother I have!"
"What are you crying about, Kija?" Yun questioned with a shaking voice.
Hak leaned sideways, giving the youngest member of their group a sarcastic look. "You're crying yourself, you know that?" Yun shook his head vehemently, but when Jae-Ha, who had tears in his eyes as well, placed one hand reassuringly on his shoulder, he took hold of the hand with a silent sob.
Hak smiled to himself and turned to take a careful look at Yona. His princess was standing firmly, but her eyes, too, showed a mix of sadness and movement. Sniffing very quietly, she said, "Oh Shin-Ah. Isn't there anything we can do for him?"
Zeno tapped his chin thoughtfully for a moment before his face broke into a bright smile. "Well then, how about we all show the Seiryuu how much we love him?"
The sad, teary eyes of his friends turned into excited ones. "That is a wonderful idea, Zeno!" Yona praised happily, and the yellow dragon grinned back at her. The princess clapped her hands and turned towards her friends. "Listen, everyone. Tomorrow, we will all show our appreciation and love for Shin-Ah, alright?"
They all nodded in agreement, expressions of determination on their faces. Casually, Yona called out for Shin-Ah, who immediately turned at the voice of the princess. He bid his silent farewell to the young boy, who begged for him to come back someday so that they could play again. When Shin-Ah promised to do so, both Kija and Yun almost broke into tears again.
The next morning, Shin-Ah awoke in absolute quiet. He frowned slightly upon this unusual occurrence as his hand searched for the mask he took off only for sleep. After many nights, he had gotten used to Zeno's loud snoring, Kija's occasional shrieks when he discovered a bug upon himself, the calm, quiet breaths Jae-Ha took. Even Hak's fluttering of eyelashes, when the man looked about for possible dangers at night, was a sound now known to him.
With closed eyes, Shin-Ah listened attentively. There, finally, he heard some rustling and bustling past the tent. When the mask was secured on his head, Shin-Ah opened his eyes, seeing past the black holes. Behind the mask, the colors were slightly dulled, but he had gotten used to it. To him, the world wore its usual colors, and he did barely care for it as he got up to leave. His frown intensified a bit when he noticed how an additional pair of blankets had been piled on top of him, and he dutifully folded it before he looked around for Ao. But when the squirrel dame was nowhere to be seen, Shin-Ah shrugged it off – it was usual for the sweet animal to dash off in search for food and the like. He opened the flap door of the tent – and the smell of delicious food greeted him. Immediately, Shin-Ah's mouth began to water, and his eyes searched for the source.
"Ah, good morning, Shin-Ah," Yun greeted as he saw the young man. Waving with a big spoon, he gestured for Shin-Ah to come closer to the pot he was stirring in. "Are you hungry? I made a soup of fish and seafood." He stirred once in the promisingly bubbling broth and gave Shin-Ah a warm smile. "I used some of our more rare spices to make it extra tasty and rich. You like seafood, right?"
Shin-Ah stared at the food and nodded. He leaned forward and sniffed visibly, causing Yun to smirk. "Does it smell that good already?" Again, Shin-Ah nodded, and a soft, honored blush appeared on Yun's cheeks. Clearing his throat, the handsome young genius said, "I'm glad to hear it. It will be ready in a minute, so why don't you take a seat over there?"
"No firewood?" Shin-Ah spoke the words softy, yet the surprise was unmistakable. He looked down towards their rather meager pile of branches and chunks.
But Yun just waved. "No, not today. You always gather the firewood, so I asked Hak to do it today – it's about time that Thunder Beast puts his strength to use before he goes wild, anyway" the young man added thoughtfully as he stirred in the pot. After inspecting his cook for a moment, Shin-Ah nodded to himself and sat down. Not a single muscle moved as he looked at Yun preparing the food, and once in a while, the man with the strawberry-blond hair peeked over his shoulder nervously. When Shin-Ah noticed Yun's discomfort, he looked another direction, and noticed something. "Where are they?"
Yun just took a taste from the soup, his blue eyes closed in silent judgment. "Yona and the others? They were all busy with... something, but they should come back soo- ah, look," he interrupted himself and pointed behind Shin-Ah. The blue dragon turned to see the rest of their happy hungry bunch approaching.
Kija was carrying staples of firewood on his right arm, seemingly unaware of their heavy weight. "Good morning, my young brother," he greeted Shin-Ah brightly. "I hope you slept well?" When Shin-Ah gave a quiet nod as reply, Kija's face became even brighter. "I am glad to hear it. You seemed awfully cold at night, so I gave you some of my blankets to keep you warm – you shan't catch a cold." The white dragon nodded to himself. "After all, you are a very important member of our companionship, and we all rely greatly on you and your godly powers. Oh, but not only them!" he was quick to add when Yun glared at him. "Even without your powers, we would still like you the same."
Jae-Ha stepped forward and put one hand reassuringly on Kija's shoulder. "Well said, my pretty white dragon," he praised with a hint of irony, yet a genuine smile. Towards Shin-Ah, the green dragon inclined his head. "I bid you a good morning, Shin-Ah. Truthfully, you almost appear as wonderful as a maiden on her wedding today – you're radiating with youth and beauty." Elegantly, Jae-Ha swept his hair back, his green eyes almost on fire with enthusiasm. With his lids hooded even more than usual, he went on to say, "In fact, I fear your beauty might outshine mine! If it were any other person, I would have to kill them, but as it is you, I feel outright honored to lose to your looks and -"
He stopped mid-sentence when he was suddenly hit by a fist from Hak. Flying a few feet back, the green-haired man coughed and twitched. "Ooops," Hak made with a dry tone of voice. "That was so not supposed to happen. Sorry, Droopy-Eyes. Guess my fists just can't stand idiots." He ignored Jae-Ha's muttering of 'good pain' and nudged Yona. "Hime-san, you've been holding something in your hands the entire time – what is it?"
Yona followed Hak's regard. "Oh, this? This is something I made for you, Shin-Ah." She looked up to meet her blue dragon with a gentle smile and walked up to him. "Do you remember the wildflowers we saw on our way here yesterday? You kept looking at them, so I thought maybe you'd like this." She opened her hands to offer Shin-Ah a bundle of flowers. They were lumped together and awkwardly crooked, and some of them had lost their petals through Yona's touching. When Shin-Ah received it, yet another bunch of petals fell off and Yona cringed. Both the receiver and the rest of her friends stared at her creation for a couple of seconds in silence.
Finally, Hak couldn't contain himself any longer. A chuckle broke through his lips and roared in his chest as he desperately tried not to break into laughter. "Hime-san, would you care to enlighten me as to what this is?"
Yona blushed prettily and whipped her head around. "It's a flower crown, of course!"
"Of course?" Yun echoed as he eyed the disaster. If he had been asked, he would have guessed for weeds ripped from the side of the street, or some biological weapon.
"I thought so from the start," Kija was polite enough to say.
But when Jae-Ha stared at him and incredulously asked, "Really?", the white dragon became silent.
With a huff of air, Yona placed her hands at her hips. "This is not funny! I really tried my best making it. It's just so difficult," she added and looked down on her hands, her eyes watering in comical tears. Quickly, Kija was by her side to reassure her of the uniqueness of her creation, but Hak just chuckled to himself.
With a blank expression, Shin-Ah looked back down on his gift. Then, he placed it on top of his white fur, ignoring the petals falling down. "Thank you, Yona." His voice was void of any hint of irony, and he even gave a sincere nod when Yona turned, startled.
"You really like it?" she asked, and her cheeks flushed in happiness. With a grand, triumphant smile, she turned to her bodyguard and proclaimed, "You heard that, right, Hak? Shin-Ah likes it."
Hak lightly scratched his forehead with closed eyes, but kept all of his thoughts to himself. "Say, Shin-Ah. Once you're done wearing that, let's go train together. You've got some nice moves with the sword. I wonder if you can stand against me, though" he said with a challenging grin.
"Wait, wait, wait!" Yun broke in as Shin-Ah was about to get up, his hands clasping a big bowl. "First, you must eat! You cannot train without a proper breakfast, and this is the most proper of all!" He practically shoved the food into Shin-Ah's hands, who dropped back down with a somewhat overwhelmed expression. Dutifully, the blue dragon started to eat, and Yun nodded proudly. "There you go. I wouldn't want to be up cooking for hours for nothing."
Shin-Ah stopped his eating for a second to look up at Yun. Then, he devoured the soup even faster than before. Yun blinked in surprise a couple of times. "Is it... that good?" he asked doubtfully. Without ceasing his eating, Shin-Ah nodded, and a proud smile formed on Yun's lips. "If you like it that much, then I don't mind making it for you. As long as you're happy."
A chill suddenly went down Yun's spine, and he turned to see Yona, Zeno, Kija, Hak and Jae-Ha staring at him. "Mother!"
"I don't remember giving birth to you!"
When Shin-Ah had finished his bowl of soup – and his seconds – he was taken along by Hak, who took him to an open field where they could swing their blades against one another. The blue dragon, despite being filled to the brim, moved quickly and smartly, earning him more than just a few of Hak's compliments. Both men were soon drenched in sweat, so Hak proposed they take in the nearby lake. Suddenly, Jae-Ha appeared.
Hak gave a groan. "Where do you come from, Droopy Eyes?"
Jae-Ha threw his hair back and smiled. "Why, watching beautiful men working their bodies is a sight even I can enjoy," he answered sweetly. Turning to Shin-Ah, he said, "Come, let me carry you to the lake. You must be tired from all the training." Before Shin-Ah could reply, Jae-Ha had picked him up bridal style, and quickly jumped towards the lake.
"Hmpfh. I'll walk, thanks for asking," Hak muttered as he trotted after them. He had barely reached the lake and lowered himself to bathe when Zeno and Kija turned up, the former holding a ball in his hands.
"Hey, Seiryuu! You wanna play with Zeno and Kija?" the yellow dragon asked cheerfully and raised the ball high above his head.
Shin-Ah, who had just been rather involuntarily scrubbed by Jae-Ha, looked up in surprise. When his mask-hidden eyes saw the ball, he almost got up immediately and gave an eager nod. Even when Jae-Ha called after him to bathe a little longer, the blue dragon got dressed quickly and hurried after Zeno and Kija. With a sigh, Jae-Ha leaned back in the lake and gave Hak a half-grin. "You know, I wonder if all of this might be a bit too overwhelming for our quiet dragon."
Hak snorted. "Why would you think that?"
Later, Hak and Jae-Ha went to join the ball game, and even Yona tried her luck. She missed the ball more often than not, and while Shin-Ah and Kija were especially careful when kicking the ball over to the princess, Hak had fun kicking it high and far, grinning to himself when then princess' face turned red in exercise. Yun observed his friends with a happy smile as the sun set, then called them sternly to dinner. Another delicious dish was waiting to be served, and coincidence just so had it that Shin-Ah's portion was the biggest. The blue dragon was visibly exhausted from the eventful day and ate his meal fairly slowly, despite heavily nodding when Yun asked for his opinion.
Their youngest group member gave a soft smile. "You must be tired, Shin-Ah."
Startled, Shin-Ah looked up. After eying his friends for a moment, he put away his plate. He opened his mouth once and twice, searching for the right – and possibly fewest – words to say. "All of today. Why?"
They all looked at each other with happy smiles, but it was Yona who spoke. "We saw you playing with that lonely child yesterday, Shin-Ah, and we came to realize something. There were a lot of things you didn't have when you were younger, and we thought that maybe we don't show you our love enough." She smiled at her youngest dragon and placed one delicate hand on top of his pale ones. "So we wanted to show you. We want you to know how much you mean to us and that we are all here for you, to make you as happy as we possibly can." Yona chuckled. "But we probably overdid it, huh?"
With his eyes hidden behind the mask, no one could see how wide-eyed Shin-Ah was. Moved, he looked down on Yona's hand, and the faintest of smiles graced his face. Suddenly, he got up and bowed down. "Thank you."
It was gratitude directed towards all of them, and they all felt warmth spreading in their hearts. Yun, on the verge of getting emotional again, brusquely said, "But don't you expect this kind of treatment everyday! We are often busy, as you know yourself."
Kija smiled gently and gave his dragon brother a squeeze on the shoulder. "But that doesn't mean we care any less about you."
"If you ever need something – anything -," Jae-Ha stressed, "you know you can call us."
Hak grinned. "We're comrades, after all."
Shin-Ah stared at his friends in amazement. He felt his eyes going hot, so he quickly bowed down once more, then hurried into the tent. His cheeks burned, and Shin-Ah rubbed them a couple of times to calm himself. There was a warm, fuzzy feeling inside of him, and the faint smile on his lips wouldn't fade. He felt utterly happy and utterly exhausted at the same time, so he proceeded to let himself fall on his bedroll.
A crunching occurred, followed by a dull pain in his back. Confused, Shin-Ah rolled around a bit, but the dull pressure remained, softly digging into him. With a frown, the blue dragon got up and threw the blankets back.
His bedroll was filled over and over with acorns. A startled gasp got caught in his throat as Shin-Ah looked around, and then, he finally found Ao. The squirrel laid beside the bed on her back, the tiny chest heavily lifting and lowering. Slowly, her black eyes opened, and she gave Shin-Ah an exhausted, yet proud 'P'kyu!'
For a moment, Shin-Ah could just stare. Then, his smile widened even a bit further. He squatted down and carefully brushed over Ao's head. "Thank you, Ao."
And then he piled up the acorns beside his bed. One by one.
Another Secret Santa story, this time for the tumblr person goldeneyedshinah. I was asked for happy family feels, and I hopefully delivered them. Truthfully, I think Shin-Ah needs a lot more love - he missed out on so much due to his horrible childhood, so the Happy Hungry Bunch could definitely grant him a day or two like this. What do you think?