"I don't get it! I just don't get it!"
"Young Master, please calm down. Amestrian is a difficult language but the sooner you understand the basics the easier it will get."
"But I DON'T understand the basics!"
"That's why we are here."
I muffled my laughter. Like always during the lessons Young Master started an argument with the teacher about how pointless the foreign tongues were. I smiled and continued to translate the page in front of me. Amestrian was a difficult language, indeed. My mouth always hurt after such a session. The ways you had to curl your lips and twist your tongue to produce the right noises were rather complicated, but writing was easy. The new letters were strange though it was great fun. Obviously my master didn't think of it that way.
"…won't leave this country once! So I will never have to speak like this!"
"Young Master, please!"
Bao, the scholar of the Yao Clan and our teacher, had a tough time dealing with the infuriated prince. I tried to save him the remaining nerves.
"Young Master, I will help you." Sighing I took his notebook to check on his grammar. He had a lot of trouble with it. The boy kept yelling at the old man who just smiled weakly and endured it. While the noises went on in the background I focused on the words, carelessly slapped across the paper. I immediately spotted a mistake.
"Young Master!" I called out to him to get his attention. I pointed at the first sentence he'd written. "It's supposed to be: 'Die Vögel führen uns singend durch den Frühling.' not 'Die führenden Vögel singen während des Frühlings.'"
Ling stared at me in confusion. Was that so hard to understand?
He let himself fall into the cushions prepared for him next to me. "Geez," he moaned. "You just have the knack for foreign languages. I didn't understand half of what you just said!"
"It's really not that complicated." I corrected his work and gave him back the little book. Bao tried to explain it to the young master once again. It came so natural to me; I never understood how my master could be so clueless. The rest of the lesson I watched the clock. The hands kept circling always keeping up the same tact. It sounded like the rhythm of the music they used to play at the market. I hadn't known that flowing life had a melody.
Fingers touched my shoulder. I tensed and look up. Young Master stared down at me and briefly shook his hands.
"Are you coming?"
I blushed. I always did around him lately. "Yes, Master." I piled up my papers and got ready to leave. Bao bowed and turned around to clean up the room. We silently made our escape before he could ask us to help.
"Ah!" Ling grinned and stretched. "I hate class but it's always a relief to finally leave that damn place and greet life again."
I just nodded and lowered my gaze. I could tell that he noticed my silence. I hadn't talked since we'd left the room. It was pretty awkward. He didn't remark it and just kept walking down the corridor. I followed him. A dark figure approached us and Young Master stopped; so did I. I was more than surprised to see my grandfather coming at us. He was supposed to be with the clan's chief now. Automatically I stiffened and fixed an attentive look on my features.
He bowed to the young master and eyed me suspiciously.
"Did you progress today?"
"Yes, grandfather." I answered, too scared to think my response over. Even with the looks of an old man, my grandfather was everything but slow. I knew how fast he could strike. I knew it all too well. His hand sometimes was even invisible and it always took me a few seconds to realize that he'd slapped me.
"Yeah!" Ling shouted suddenly, making both of us flinch. "She really knows everything! If I hadn't her around I probably would never understand anything." I hid half of my face beneath my collar to cover my amused smile. He was, apparently, trying to help me. I didn't know why but at this moment I was convinced that that was the sweetest thing someone could do for another.
"Is that so? Ran Fan, your mother insists on celebrating tomorrow. Be in your quarters before sunset the next evening." Said it and disappeared.
I steered onward, though I could feel my master's gaze on me.
"Ran Fan." He just pronounced my name and I felt like I just received a detailed order to stop and turn around.
"Young Master, wishes for something?"
"What is the cause of that celebration Fuu talked about?"
"It's nothing special, really. My mother is just a little emotional lately."
"There has to be a reason, hasn't it? Tell me." Ling demanded suddenly. Startled I looked up and confessed: "It's my birthday tomorrow. I'll turn twelve; old… old enough to marry." I shrugged. I could hear Young Master catching his breath. Concern filled his eyes and a sure hint of disapproval. "Are you… Did they already engage you?" the hesitation in his voice, the slight trembling; as much as it worried me I felt flattered. He cared for my future?
I shook my head, a reassuring smile on my lips. I was still in training after all. I had bigger problems than my husband-to-be. I actually never thought about that, and I wouldn't start now. "No, Master. I'm not engaged. This won't change for some time." I tilted my head to one side a bit, a questioning look on my face. "Why…?" I stopped, noticing the immodest nature of my thoughts. Luckily I was able to shut up before speaking them.
Ling, of course, didn't want to let that one pass. "Why what?" he snarled leaning closer to me. His slanted eyes widened a bit and he wasn't smiling anymore. It was a rather scaring expression.
"M-Master…" I stuttered. "D-did I anger you?" I could feel the blood rushing through my veins and suddenly my whole face was heated up. In response to that I pulled up my shoulders so my face could vanish beneath the fabric of my collar again. He blinked, probably just becoming aware of his hostile behavior. His face lit up again as he shrugged and laughed: "No, of course not." Maybe I was being paranoid but it seemed a little exaggerated, as if he was playing one of his acts he did to get what he wanted. That was his specialty.
"…Your birthday, eh?" Ling mused. He began to stroll down the hallway again. "I'll give you a present then." He announced proudly. Before I could say anything he entered his personal quarters and slammed the door behind himself.
I was left alone outside, frozen with surprise and fluster.
I would have like to tell him that this wasn't necessary at all.
But he wouldn't have listened to me anyway.
"Happy Birthday, sweetheart!"
"Stop babbling nonsense already and open up your present, will you?"
I flushed and frowned.
"You got me a present? That's way too much!"
All my complaints fell flat on the floor; as always with her. She handed me a little bag. A cord kept the red fabric tied up. I weighed it in my hand.
"Open up!" My mother exclaimed. I looked around. Everyone was watching me; my family, alongside with my friends Ju, Lian and Cai, even a few of the older guards had come. I bit my lower lip. I tried to smile and removed the string carefully. Two kunai appeared underneath the textile. I stared at the weapons wide-eyed.
Grandfather smiled a bit and explained: "Your training is almost done. Soon you'll attend the final examination. It would be a shame if you hadn't your own blades to fight with." Ju came nearer to peek at the metal in my hands. "My father made these. I had to convince him to make them for free. But he told me to tell you 'happy birthday' for him." She smiled. "Do you like them?"
I tried to say something but it seemed I forgot how to speak. So I just nodded. Her sister, Lian, giggled and drew her own weapons. She was older than the rest of us and already a full guard of the Yao Clan.
"Father makes the best. Of course, they are great. He built mine, too."
"Yes, they will serve you well." Tian, one of the bodyguards of the clan's chief and a good friend of our family, smiled proudly and patted my head. The tall man snickered as I blushed.
"Hey, Ran Fan!" Meng, the son of the guard's headman, shouted. "Now that you're old enough: Come and marry me!"
Everyone laughed and slowly the attention began to drift away from me. The crowd surrounding me started chattering and swapping old stories. It was so peaceful and loving I couldn't believe it. It seemed that everyone who came really enjoyed the little party my mother had organized. I sneaked on the balls of my feet to the corner of the small room. I sat down on the floor and watched the others. Cai started flirting with Meng and Ju kept complaining about that. Tian and grandfather had a conversation about the use of martial arts in unison with blades. My mother always worried about everyone's health told Lian to stop playing with her kunai. Later someone brought food and the afternoon was swiftly followed by evening. Around nightfall even I began to have fun. My friends and I played some old games and tried to top each other with the stunts we could do. After a perfect round-house-kick followed by a somersault done by me the door suddenly flew open. All heads turned around.
In the doorframe, smiling brightly stood the young master.
"Hey, guys!" he greeted.
For a second no one said a word. I just stared at him, a shocked look frozen on my features. Someone coughed meaningfully and we all hurried to bow.
Ling waved it off and walked toward me. He was wearing unusual casual robes, still the sword showing up behind his back proved him being aware of his position. This night he had been down a guard after all. Shame overwhelmed me. I knew we shouldn't have made such a deal out of my birthday. I didn't dare think about what could have happened to him. Ju and Cai squeaked in unison:
I could almost see the little hearts swirling around their heads. I had no idea why that bothered me so much. At least Lian was more composed and bowed politely. Meng nodded respectfully and shot a disapproving glare at Cai. I stood up and approached my prince. "Young Master, why are you here? Is there something I shall help you with?"
"Huh? I thought I told you. I'm going to celebrate your birthday with you. Sorry, I'm a bit late but grandfather just wouldn't let me go before I finished the contract about the water reservations."
"Y-You don't have to apologize, Young Master." I stammered. "You didn't have to come, either. I wouldn't want your studies to be hindered by something so trivial."
"Ah, studies! I don't want to hear about that. By the way, your birthday isn't trivial in any way. As far as I'm concerned this day is pretty important. You're one of my closest friends. What would I do without you, hm?"
I could hear the girls giggle and I, of course, got all red. Ling laughed aloud. "See? How empty would my life be without you blushing all the time?"
Tian chuckled from behind: "Actually, a warrior has to keep his features composed."
Lian poked his arm. "Hey! Why is it 'his'? There are women, too."
The two of them argued further but I wasn't listening.
The young master smirked and declared: "I might have the solution for that problem."
I eyed him questioningly. Then I suddenly noticed that he was hiding something behind his back.
"Come!" He grabbed my hand and dragged me outside with him.
The garden of our house wasn't very big but a little path led way deep into the vegetation that spread wildly across the estate. It was the path Ling headed for and I just followed him. He walked till we couldn't hear the voices of my family and friends anymore.
First he was silent and I wondered if I should speak. I counted till ten in my head. Still the young master didn't say anything but even with the heavy darkness surrounding us I could see that his cheeks turned deep red.
He suddenly lowered his head and held out a package in my direction.
"It's a gift!" he almost shouted.
I blinked in surprise and took the little box. Shyly I kept my gaze locked on the thing in my hands as I unwrapped it. I could feel smooth material underneath my fingertips. Black holes stared at me.
It was… a mask!
On the forehead a little Yin-symbol was painted. A simple pattern covered the lower part.
"Master… this is a… guard's mask." I gulped, totally stunned. Ling nodded bashfully.
"Yes. I know, you're no full guard yet, but once you are you'll need one. I… I painted it myself, by the way."
My mouth was hanging wide open by now. Desperately I searched for something to say. How could I express my feelings properly? Now I was, again, the one blushing.
"Yeah, the painter said he'd need some time but I had no time, so I did it. It was fun, but I guess it isn't very pretty. You don't have to wear it." He rubbed the back of his head while smiling in excuse.
That did it.
I threw myself at him and embraced him, while happy tears developed in my eyes.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you! I love it! Of course I'll wear it!" I pulled back and tied it behind my head.
Young Master stared at me with an expression I just could call dazed.
"G-Glad you like it…"
We grinned at each other.
That was the best birthday I ever had.
Later this night I traced the pattern of the mask for the hundredth time. I lay in my bed and just couldn't sleep. In my eyes this was the best gift I'd ever received. I knew how proud Lian had been when she got her own mask. This one was even more special. It was made by him. My own master made it for me. As I stared at the mask in my hands I noticed something new. Right underneath the holes made for the eyes there were big red spots.
I couldn't help but quietly laugh.
This was so very Ling. Knowing him I should have assumed that there was something greater to it.
This was the way he pictured me, wasn't it?
I was fine with it.
My cheeks were always bright red around him.
It was only natural that my mask was blushing, too.
Note: The language used to express the foreign language is german.
Translation: 1. Singing the birds lead us through the spring. (Ran Fan's sentence)
2. The leading birds sing during spring. (Ling's sentence)
Disclaimer: I don't own Ling, Ran Fan and Fuu. Don't sue me!!