Chapter 45

"I would rather cut off my right foot."

"That's a bit extreme, Jae-Ha."

"I'd like to see him try."

Shin-Ah frowned, concerned the Jae-Ha would follow through with his threat. As it was, the green dragon was standing as far away from Yoon as he could get without leaving the clearing. He glared off into the woods and then flung his scowl at Yoon.

"It'll only be temporary," Yoon said, irritation clear through his gritted teeth. He held up the pot in his hands and nodded toward Kija. "Kija's going to do it."

"Kija will still do anything Yona asks him to," Jae-Ha said. He swiped his ponytail back over his shoulder, obviously offended.

"I'll do it," Lien said, smiling a bit. "And I don't do everything Yona asks me to. I'm simply refusing to be afraid of hair dye."

Shin-Ah wasn't really sure why everyone was getting very excited over the pot Yoon had bought from the village. It was the first Kai Empire village they had come across after a full week of traveling through the mountains, and only Yoon and Hak had gone into town. They had come back with a small bag of rice and the pot of black liquid that seemed to horrify Jae-Ha. Yoon was calling it hair dye.

"I don't see why it's necessary," Jae-Ha said, crossing his arms over his chest. "We've never used it before."

"I've never had a good chance to get it before," Yoon said, "People might get suspicious, and we don't use this often in Kouka."

"It would make everyone stand out a little less," Kija said uncertainly. "I'm willing to try it."

"It's going to ruin me," Jae-Ha snapped.

"You can't get much worse than you already are," Hak said, his tone lazy and mildly annoyed.

Jae-Ha shot him a glare. "Your hair is already terrible."

"Ow. My feelings." Hak smirked, completely unaffected.

"Won't it be weird if we all have the same hair color, though?" Yona said. She looked over Yoon's shoulder at the contents of the pot.

"You won't," Yoon said, "I'll add some stuff to the dye for everyone, so it'll turn out different for each person."

"Yona has a point," Jae-Ha argued, "If we all have the same hair color, we'll be even more recognizable."

Yoon gave him a dead-eyed stare. "It won't be the same. And you're saying that everyone having black hair is more memorable than seeing people with green hair, white hair, red hair, yellow hair, and blue hair?" He raised one finger for each color he named and then wriggled his five raised fingers at Jae-Ha.

Jae-Ha sniffed. "I like my hair."

Yoon blinked. "It's. Green."

"So is Lien's. It's just much lighter."

Shin-Ah looked down beside him at the top of Lien's head. Her soft hair was such a light shade of green, he didn't see how was comparable to Jae-Ha's. His was dark and bold. Hers was gentle and there were bits of silver shimmer and a hint of curl.

She suddenly glanced up at him, and he jerked his head to the other side so he could stare at a tree instead.

"Maybe we should just leave everyone's hair alone," Yona said. She gave Yoon a smile as he glared at her, one hand on his hip. "I'm not sure if the hair dye would be enough to make us blend in, though it's a great idea, Yoon."

"Then if it's a great idea, we should do it," Yoon argued.

There was a pause of awkward silence. Jae-Ha drooped an arm across Yoon's shoulders. "People don't always follow great ideas. They follow their heart. And my heart says that you need to leave my hair alone."

"That makes absolutely no sense," Yoon countered. He stepped out from under Jae-Ha's arm and looked around at his friends. "What am I supposed to do with this dye if we don't use it? Hmm? You're all telling me I just wasted our money on this because you're too weird to do it?"

"I'm sure you'll find a good use for it," Jae-Ha said. "You're clever like that."

Grumbling, Yoon turned away and stomped over to their fire, glaring down at the stew that was bubbling away over the crackling flames. When he shot the rest of them a fierce glare, they all turned away in different directions and made themselves busy with chores.

Tomorrow they would be going down into the village to see if they could find the kind of crops that would grow in the Fire Tribe lands. They hadn't seen any fields or gardens yet, but they hadn't ventured far from the clearing. Even Hak and Yoon had stayed in the village and not roamed much when they had gone down to get the dye and a few other things. However, they had noticed people carrying farming equipment like hoes and shovels, so there was a possibility that there were farms on the other side of the village.

As everyone split up to do different tasks and chores, Shin-Ah helped Lien carry everyone's spare clothes down to a nearby creek. They had decided to wash their Kouka clothing and dry it so they would have it in case they needed it. Lien and Yoon had both agreed that it would be better to have clean clothes in reserve rather than dirty ones.

At the edge of the water, Lien knelt down and began to scrub Kija's white robes. After all this time, they had gotten a few stains, and the bottom hem wouldn't come completely clean. Reaching over, she scooped a bit of the soap that Yoon had bought out of its jar and rubbed it into the cloth before she began scrubbing it against some clean river rocks.

Shin-Ah had gotten somewhat used to washing clothes. Back in his village and in the mountain, he had been in charge of washing his own clothes, but he had only ever dunked them in water, let them dry, and put them back on. Often he just went into the cavern water with his clothes on and considered them clean after that. But everyone else liked to use soap when they could find it, and it did make the clothes smell better.

He worked on one of the cloaks that had gotten particularly dirty. It probably belonged to Hak; he always seemed to get things dirty and bloody. He was focused on washing when a splash of water landed on his hand.

Glancing over, he saw Lien dutifully washing Kija's robe, but the corner of her mouth was quirked up.

Shin-Ah went back to his work. He dipped the cloak into the water and brought it up just another little wave splashed over his hands. This time, he had seen Lien slap the water and send it his way.

He turned toward her and then tilted his head to the side. Did…did she think he needed to wash his clothes? Or his hands? He looked down at his hands. They were clean…

"It's playing."

He lifted his eyes and drew his fingers in, self-conscious. Lien's long, slender fingers toyed with the water, patting it before she slapped it once more. It spun out like the fan she now used to fight with and created ripples. She smiled at him.

"I guess it is a little too cold. When it gets warm…" She pushed her hair back behind her ear. It was such a light, fine green, and it was getting longer. Lien went back to washing the robe.

Shin-Ah touched the water, his fingers skimming the surface. He flicked a bit of it her way.

Bright honey-colored eyes met his before she laughed and very gently bumped her arm and shoulder into his, playful.

"That's the spirit," she said.

When she went back to washing clothes, he looked down at his arm and then brushed his arm back against her for a moment. She stopped working, and the two of them simply knelt at the water's edge for a while, leaning against one another.

There was a pause of awkward silence. Jae-Ha drooped an arm across Yoon's shoulders. "People don't always follow great ideas. They follow their heart. And my heart says that you need to leave my hair alone."

"That makes absolutely no sense," Yoon countered. He stepped out from under Jae-Ha's arm and looked around at his friends. "What am I supposed to do with this dye if we don't use it? Hmm? You're all telling me I just wasted our money on this because you're too weird to do it?"

"I'm sure you'll find a good use for it," Jae-Ha said. "You're clever like that."

Grumbling, Yoon turned away and stomped over to their fire, glaring down at the stew that was bubbling away over the crackling flames. When he shot the rest of them a fierce glare, they all turned away in different directions and made themselves busy with chores.

Tomorrow they would be going down into the village to see if they could find the kind of crops that would grow in the Fire Tribe lands. They hadn't seen any fields or gardens yet, but they hadn't ventured far from the clearing. Even Hak and Yoon had stayed in the village and not roamed much when they had gone down to get the dye and a few other things. However, they had noticed people carrying farming equipment like hoes and shovels, so there was a possibility that there were farms on the other side of the village.

As everyone split up to do different tasks and chores, Shin-Ah helped Lien carry everyone's spare clothes down to a nearby creek. They had decided to wash their Kouka clothing and dry it so they would have it in case they needed it. Lien and Yoon had both agreed that it would be better to have clean clothes in reserve rather than dirty ones.

At the edge of the water, Lien knelt down and began to scrub Kija's white robes. After all this time, they had gotten a few stains, and the bottom hem wouldn't come completely clean. Reaching over, she scooped a bit of the soap that Yoon had bought out of its jar and rubbed it into the cloth before she began scrubbing it against some clean river rocks.

Shin-Ah had gotten somewhat used to washing clothes. Back in his village and in the mountain, he had been in charge of washing his own clothes, but he had only ever dunked them in water, let them dry, and put them back on. Often he just went into the cavern water with his clothes on and considered them clean after that. But everyone else liked to use soap when they could find it, and it did make the clothes smell better.

He worked on one of the cloaks that had gotten particularly dirty. It probably belonged to Hak; he always seemed to get things dirty and bloody. He was focused on washing when a splash of water landed on his hand.

Glancing over, he saw Lien dutifully washing Kija's robe, but the corner of her mouth was quirked up.

Shin-Ah went back to his work. He dipped the cloak into the water and brought it up just another little wave splashed over his hands. This time, he had seen Lien slap the water and send it his way.

He turned toward her and then tilted his head to the side. Did…did she think he needed to wash his clothes? Or his hands? He looked down at his hands. They were clean…

"It's playing."

He lifted his eyes and drew his fingers in, self-conscious. Lien's long, slender fingers toyed with the water, patting it before she slapped it once more. It spun out like the fan she now used to fight with and created ripples. She smiled at him.

"I guess it is a little too cold. When it gets warm…" She pushed her hair back behind her ear. It was such a light, fine green, and it was getting longer. Lien went back to washing the robe.

Shin-Ah touched the water, his fingers skimming the surface. He flicked a bit of it her way.

Bright honey-colored eyes met his before she laughed and very gently bumped her arm and shoulder into his, playful.

"That's the spirit," she said.

When she went back to washing clothes, he looked down at his arm and then brushed his arm back against her for a moment. She stopped working, and the two of them simply knelt at the water's edge for a while, leaning against one another.