Title: White Ribbon
Summary: Wu reflects on how she has changed since leaving Two Rivers, and she finally frees herself from her destiny. Open-Palm Ending.
A/N: This is a small divergence away from "The Garden of Two Rivers." I hope you enjoy.
Disclaimer: BioWare and Microsoft own Jade Empire. This fanfiction and the author have no affiliations with either.
Not one person disagreed when Student Lin speculated one day that if Wu the Lotus Blossom had a choice, she would never bother to tie her hair back at all.
It made sense why Master Li demanded that all students tie their hair back if they had enough hair to tie back. A warrior's hair, if too long and too untamed, could easily become his biggest weakness no matter how well he held his defenses or how strong or quick his attacks. Either his enemies would use the loose strands against him, or the loose strands themselves would get in the way of the warrior's attacks. Nobody, least of all Wu, questioned that authority.
And yet, she was the only student who did not keep her hair tied tightly in a bun, simple or fancy, upon her head. Every time she showed up for lessons or sparred another student, her ponytail was as free as she could get away with. Loose strands would often frame her smiling and laughing face, and she would often have to tuck her locks behind her ears if she was too hard-pressed for time to redo her ponytail before, during, or after a match.
During the rare times when she would spend her free time not sparring or tending to her other lessons, she took the white ribbon out of her hair to dance with the teasing gentle breeze. Some of the townspeople thought of it as Wu freeing her wild side, the side where she was just a young girl who loved life and loved the world—the side where she was not the top martial arts student of Master Li, she was not representing the Two Rivers School, and she was not the mature, serious example that the rest of the students were to model themselves after. It was that freedom that placed the smile on Dawn Star's face, that made most of the other students antagonizing Wu impossible, that always kept Wu grounded, never growing hot-headed and narcissistic, and that always lent a hand to any needy soul.
Only Wu and Dawn Star survived when Two Rivers burned to the ground, and Wu never let her hair free once during their excursions through the Empire trying desperately to track down their master. She never gave it any thought, not even when Sagacious Zu bid the girls to rest for the night after a particularly long day, or when she and Dawn Star sought to keep Wild Flower's childhood alive by playing games with her. She laughed with her hair in that loose ponytail at the Black Whirlwind's banter with Henpecked Hou and at Kang the Mad's tinkering antics. In the heat of passion, neither she nor Sky took the time to undo the ribbons—they instead focused on desperately loving each other in fear that it may be the only time they could. Even when the Water Dragon was finally released and Empress Sun Lian attempted to usher everyone into more proper attire (in which Wu and Wild Flower were the only ones to respond enthusiastically), Wu never once thought to completely liberate her hair. In the months that passed, she went to bed and she awoke with her hair in the ponytail, only freeing it for the briefest of moments to tighten the binding.
As the days wore on and each member of their party began drifting away on their own paths, Dawn Star noticed that Wu laughed a lot less and smiled a lot more. In place of play, she meditated. Perhaps the stress and strain of publicly aiding Lian in rebuilding the Empire and privately supporting Sky in restructuring the Guild had something to do with it. Perhaps she was still recovering from their master's betrayal and their destroyed home, from the battles she had to endure, and from saying goodbye to her comrades who had stuck by her through the toughest of trials one-by-one. But when it came time for Dawn Star to say her farewell to her childhood friend, she finally understood why Wu no longer seemed the free spirit she had been at Two Rivers. It was with a sad smile that she left the Imperial City.
Wu remained in the Imperial City for only a couple more years after that. In the middle of the summer when she discovered she was with child, she and Sky bid their final farewells to Lian and set out to the south. They went by foot as not to alert the people to their leave of the Imperial City and not to gain the attention of the Guild. Though Lian protested that a flyer would be safer for a woman in such a fragile state—and Sky was inclined to agree—she knew that Wu could take care of herself against lurking threats in spite of it. She also could not disrespect her and Sky's wishes to keep their exit out of the public eye, and so she sent them on their way in the same manner she had sent the others: an open invitation to return to the Imperial Palace whenever they wished. Perhaps she would track them down someday, when the Empire did not need her immediate attention, and they promised to keep a lookout for Silk Fox.
Sky spent most of the days traveling worrying about the toll the journey may take upon Wu's body, despite her greater strength and stronger will, and so they only trekked less than a sunlight's time a day. She teased him, gently, that at this slow rate she would give birth in the wilderness instead of in the comforts of their new home, but she understood his fears and did not argue whenever they stopped for the day, no matter if the sun hung high or low above the horizon.
It was midday when they came to a clearing in the northernmost edge of the Great Southern Forest. The trees were lush and green and the birds chirped a happy melody amongst the leaves, adding to the wonderful echo of the waterfall crashing into the stream as the waves gently lapped at the rocks. The air was too beautiful, too peaceful not to stop for a day or two. Wu and Sky quickly set up a simple camp, and then Sky left for a nearby village to stock up on dwindling supplies. He promised to be back before sunset, and though they never once had to ask each other to be careful, they never left each other's side again with the words, "I love you," unspoken between them.
When he was out of sight, Wu strolled to the shore of the river and closed her eyes as the soft breeze spun delicately around her limbs and danced with the loose fabrics that hung from her waist. Though she took up Lian's offer to wear the silk robes of a noblewoman during her time in the palace, she only wore them in the palace; when she and Sky left, Wu wore the same purple outfit she had fought many battles in. She suspected that once her belly showed more than a small bump she would have to wear something that covered her entire body—for decency's sake, of course—but she decided to worry about that when the time called for it.
For now, she concentrated on her breathing, and the fresh air of the surrounding wilderness poured into her at an exponential rate. She clenched and unclenched her fists gently, and a smile tugged at her face as she opened her eyes. After all this time, after all the fighting and all the leading, the secrecy, the betrayals, the revelations, the redemptions, and all the strife and turmoil and a friend leaning upon another, she finally had what Dawn Star loved about her isolation in Two Rivers, and what she had often sought otherwise: to be.
Wu swiftly ripped off her shirt, pulled down her skirt and tugged off her boots, and undid the white ribbons in her hair. She dove into the pool at the base of the waterfall, and she emerged with a spectacular splash, laughing as droplets of the river fell around her. She combed her fingers through her hair from the scalp to the dampened ends, uninhibited at long last. No longer the model student, nor the fearless and unstoppable leader, nor the hero of the Empire and a woman known throughout the land: she was Wu, a woman living and loving her life.
She danced and swam and played in the water all throughout the afternoon, wishing that Dawn Star was here to join in the fun, for she never had an opportunity like this, at least not as far as the last time Wu had heard from her dearest friend. Perhaps Kia Min and Jing Woo, or even Student Wen and Student Lin… she imagined them, shocked at the display of the top student, and yet slowly joining her in her antics. Dawn Star perhaps first, perhaps last, and at last calling their fellow students "friends" would not sound so detached.
She took in a deep breath and dove back underneath the brim of the pool. She imagined, instead, Dawn Star and Wild Flower playing tricks with the water, and Wu giggled at the thought of sneaking up on the both of them and hauling a tidal wave over them both, drenching the poor girls dreadfully. She could see Silk Fox rolling her eyes at their silliness, and yet yearning to allow herself to participate; she could hear Sky laughing, and Kang muttering to himself about unnecessary distractions from his work as he tinkered with his Marvelous Dragonfly. Hou would be failing to keep the Black Whirlwind from emptying the wine supply whilst cooking up far more delicious soup than travels could ever hope to expect, and Wu could almost see Zu pretending to hold back a grin as he watched the girls throw water at each other.
Wu emerged from the water, and she saw not Dawn Star or Wild Flower with her in the water, or the Black Whirlwind and Hou huddled around the burning fire, or Zu or Silk Fox keeping their own comfortable distances from the rest of the group. There, instead, alone, stood Sky, mouth hung ajar and his eyes wide and full of wonder. He had seen her bare many times before, but never like this. When Wu realized where his eyes were fixated, she quickly threw her hands up to pull her hair back, to tame it once more.
Before she could gather her hair together, Sky smiled, and he approached her, slowly, wading waist-deep through the water.
"Don't," he said, gently grabbing her wrists and pulling them down to her side. They stared at each other, and she found that she couldn't breathe, much like the moment they were reunited at Dirge. His smile softened, and he tenderly stroked the strands behind her head, his thumb brushing her cheek. "Wu, my Lotus Blossom, only you could find some way to make me to fall in love with you all over again."
He kissed her, though unlike the many times before. There was no desperate passion like Dirge or after the fall of Sun Li. There was no tender relief like their nights together when he would return from his duties with the Guild and she would return from her duties with Lian. He was slow now, and uncharacteristically careful.
Wu was astonished at first, but she hesitated only briefly before sliding her arms around him tightly. It wasn't long before she had stealthily thrown his blue robes along with hers on the sand, and his hair had become undone as well, and the two remained in that state in each other's embrace for three days. Their eyes rarely gazed away from each other, and Sky spent most of the time combing Wu's hair with his fingers gently, telling her so much and so little and then loving her endlessly into the night. It was as though they were spending their first night together, or their last night—the beginning, or the end, or perhaps both, and it was not a solemn occasion.
On their last morning at the clearing, Sky had already redressed and had begun packing up the camp. Wu reclaimed her own clothes, though she stopped short when she reached for her white ribbon that had twirled itself on a fallen twig. She slowly picked it up and held it in both her hands, staring at it, her eyebrows knitted together and her lips curled in a contemplative frown. Three whole days. Never had she gone three whole days.
She glanced back at Sky, who quickly noticed her, and he smiled that same, roguish smile she had fallen in love with those many seasons ago, that smile that might have died when she had, for he had so rarely smiled like that again, even after her rebirth. Her heart warmed, and she clenched the ribbon in her hands before holding it up to the wind and letting the breeze take it away into the depths of the forest.
It was common sense, after all, why Master Li would have demanded that all his students tied their hair back; if Wu had a choice, she would have been the first to admit that she would never have done so.
How any poet managed to hear this particular tale of Wu the Lotus Blossom, savior of the Empire, nobody could begin to speculate. Yet in the telling and retelling of the legend, this was the last in the many verses that accompanied her odyssey. For from that point forward, she was no longer a hero, but a woman, a wife, a mother.
Wu finally lived her own life.