A/N: This is a Dawn Star/Scholar Ling fic. It's too bad you can't have a f/f romance with her in-game – Silk Fox turns out to be more pleasant when romancing her than I first thought, but I still prefer Dawn Star. Failing that, a females-only romance with Zu would've been nice... anyway, I can dream. Or write fanfiction! So here it is – enjoy!
All eyes in camp were fixed upon Dawn Star as she weaved a story. Ling would have called it typical male behaviour, but the gaze of little Wild Flower had also been drawn. Besides, she doubted that typical male thoughts could even make themselves heard within Kang's chaotic mind, yet he was staring too. There was just something about Dawn Star.
A true scholar, Ling was mostly ignoring the conversation, or attempting to. She had a light tome open in her crossed legs and was hunched diligently over it, though she had just reread the same word for the eighth time.
Ling valued her solitude and her studies highly. She tried to make time for reading wherever possible, but it had grown more difficult since leaving Two Rivers. Always at the centre of a gaggle of followers, she could barely think for all the talking or fighting. And there was little hope for intellectual conversation. Previously, she and Dawn Star could sequester themselves away from prying eyes, chatting for hours on end about their thoughts. Now, she was lucky to spend a minute alone with her friend, with the exception of their recent excursion to the forest. That hardly counted though, seeing as the entire time was spent setting ghosts aflame or reassuring Dawn Star's spirit-stricken composure.
As for the other companions, any logical conversation with Kang would soon transcend her understanding; Hou seemed preoccupied with his wife's looming remonstrations; Sagacious Zu was very antisocial and had clearly decided to dislike her; Sky just flirted; the Black Whirlwind was interested only in killing or drinking or both at the same time; Chai Ka provided an interesting source of philosophical conversation, but she had to talk to him through Wild Flower, which was quite uncomfortable.
Ling wondered whether she should just get to her feet and find a peaceful spot outside their camp. However, she caught Zu's eyes on her as she glanced towards the exits, and knew she didn't want to hear him admonish her for selfishness again. The nerve of it – it had been Dawn Star who tried to steer his questions away from herself and towards Ling. Yet he had snapped at Ling as though she was trying to push her friend into the shadows. His protectiveness of her friend shouldn't be surprising. It wasn't the first time; people seemed to feel compelled to protect Dawn Star, whether she needed it or not.
She was telling another story about Two Rivers. This time it was the one about how they had gone fishing and in her excitement at a catch, Dawn Star had capsized the boat. Once they had hauled themselves – laughing – from the water, they discovered that Dawn Star's impressive catch had in fact been a mouldy old boot.
Ling smiled, her face softening as she gazed at her friend. She quickly found her attention rapt. Dawn Star had always complained of feeling like an outsider, of feeling as though the others were wary of her abilities. In truth, Ling had always felt a degree of the same isolation – a result of her skill and Master Li's favouritism. In Dawn Star's company though, it never seemed important.
Regardless of the fools who feared Dawn Star's talents though, most had loved her in one way or another. She was kind and gentle – though formidable if provoked – and always had words for those that sought them. Ling loved her too.
For all her intuition though, Dawn Star seemed blind to Ling's feelings towards her. Or perhaps she was just feigning ignorance. Either way, Ling had been unavoidably relegated to friendship, without any hope of developing something more between them.
"...That's when Ling put a frog in his bed. Gao was so terrified, he didn't come near me again for weeks. Too bad that stopped working when he got older," Dawn Star added wistfully. "Ling's always had a fitting retribution against the school bullies."
"Wow, remind me not to get on your bad side," Sky said, grinning and winking at Ling.
She ignored him. It wasn't due to deliberate unsociability, but she had no intention of leading him on. Ling had no interest in him or any other man. Having said that, she didn't want him to turn his attentions to Dawn Star either.
"Dawn Star makes you sound almost as formidable as my dear wife." Henpecked Hou shuddered.
"It was his own fault for harassing you like that," Ling said severely, before sweeping a glance round Dawn Star's huddle of listeners. "I'd do the same to anyone else who threatened you."
Dawn Star laughed. "This is why I've never truly needed a family. I've got my big sister right here, and Master Li." Her smile wavered slightly as she remembered their missing teacher, but she fixed it firmly back on her face. "Anyway, enough about the past. We should get the cooking started – I was thinking about having some of those rabbits Zu caught, stewed in Hou's wine."
"Uh, Whirlwind drank all my wine," Hou replied. "Even the bottle I was storing in that old sock."
"It's not like the wine was affected," Black Whirlwind pointed out dismissively. "Once I pulled that sweaty sock off it, the drink tasted fine. I think. Can't actually remember, but that just means it did the trick."
"Hou could've soaked the sock in the wine, and I'm sure you'd still have gulped it down," Sky laughed.
"Well, I'll just cook the rabbits with herbs," Dawn Star decided. She turned to Ling. "Are you going to help out?"
Ling agreed, although cooking was certainly not one of her skills. Hou would be a better choice, but she and Dawn Star regularly ended up cooking the dinner and besides, she enjoyed the time that they could spend mostly alone.
Black Whirlwind went wandering off in search of fights to build up his appetite. Hou ventured into Tien's Landing in order to replenish his wine. Kang worked on the Marvellous Dragonfly. Sky meanwhile took Wild Flower for a walk around the port. Ling had the feeling that the little girl reminded him of his own deceased daughter.
She began the unpleasant task of skinning the rabbits and stringing them up to be cooked, whilst Dawn Star prepared the vegetables and herbs that they had collected in the village. It made sense to have as filling a meal as possible whilst near civilisation. Attempting to gather sustenance in the tainted forest had not proven fun.
"Are you feeling better, now that we're back in camp?" Ling asked.
Dawn Star shivered. "Mostly, but I still can't get that sensation out of my head. It was as though there was some malevolent presence pressing down on me. I felt it the moment we entered the forest, along with smell of rotting leaves. I guess it was probably the Mother, but still..."
"It's a good thing you didn't join me in the ruins. It was overrun with ghosts, I wouldn't want them overwhelming you."
"Oh, I'd have been okay," she said, smiling. "I just feel so melancholy sometimes, when they're all crying out for help and I know there's so little I can do."
"We can help them," Ling assured her. "I think that's why the Water Dragon keeps sending me visions; she wants me to rescue Master Li and help her. Once she regains control of the Great Wheel, the she will lead the spirits to their resting place, and you can be free."
"And normal," Dawn Star breathed, as though tasting the idea.
Ling doubted her friend would be considered 'normal', even without her connection to the spirit world. She seemed to have a compassion that Ling hadn't noticed in the others she'd met – not to the same extent. For instance, Master Li was a kind man but he was also firm and strict, if Ling had injured herself due to her own foolishness, he would tend to her, but with a fury that scared her as a child. Similarly, when they first met Sky, he was rescuing slaves, but he was dispatching their captors with an almost vengeful glee. When Dawn Star was forced to kill however, she always seemed to lament the loss of life, even when it was some unworthy scum like Gao the Greater. Her empathy drew others, where many people's selfishness pushed others away.
She moved to where Ling was preparing the meat, and they both grabbed handfuls of vegetables and herbs, stuffing them inside the rabbits. They knelt side by side, shoulders touching. If Dawn Star had spoken, Ling could have felt the breath on her skin. Their fingers kept brushing, and Ling felt a sudden desire to grab Dawn Star by waist and push her backwards into the dusty ground, for them to rip the clothes from one another, for her to trace kisses across her friend's bare skin as she writhed in pleasure.
The heat of the fire was far too strong. It was clearly addling Ling's senses. She quickly stuffed the last bit of vegetable into the meat and strung it over the fire to roast. Dawn Star cleaned her own hands on a moist cloth, and then moved over to Ling, wiping hers off too.
Ling gazed at Dawn Star, her delicate eyebrows curved as she concentrated, the light of the flames flickering in her dark eyes. The other woman finished cleaning her hands of muck, apparently satisfied. Ling tilted her head forwards slightly, as though the earth was pulling her towards Dawn Star.
Dawn Star glanced upwards, feeling the warmth of breath against her lips. And then came the pressure of Ling's mouth, gentle at first but slowly more insistent. The emotion she had pent up for years was pouring from her to Dawn Star.
She seemed surprised by Ling's sudden move, but didn't pull away. Instead, her hands slid upwards towards to smooth curve of Ling's breasts. A burst of pleasure filled Ling's body at her touch, it shot straight down her spine to her groin. She worked her palm along Dawn Star's inner thigh, kissing her harder as her hand reached a more intimate place.
Dawn Star froze, jerking away and standing up. She smoothed her skirt down in an absurdly measured manner, whilst Ling stared in confusion. Her friend met her gaze, seeming embarrassed and awkward.
"I... I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me," she gestured uncomfortably at the fire. "I think the heat is giving me a headache. Perhaps I should just go for a little walk to cool off."
Dawn Star hurried from the ruin that they had made into a camp. Ling listened to her retreating footsteps, anchored in place by the hurt of rejection. It made no sense. She had been certain that her friend felt the same heat between them. Surely no one could kiss so passionately without feeling attraction? She had little experience in these things; too many years spent studying, or wishing for Dawn Star to realise her feelings. To have her dream realised, and then snatched away... she had never thought Dawn Star capable of such callousness.
Dawn Star must realise how Ling felt, so why flee? Did she panic? Questions threw themselves at her. Ling was used to questions with no clear answer – it was in the nature of a scholar, to consider various arguments and reason – but at this moment she just felt frustrated and bewildered.
Ling heard a sound, barely audible. Someone was sneaking around out there. Whoever it was, she was going to conjure the largest ball of flame imaginable and send it directly at the intruder's head. If this person had just witnessed her exchange with Dawn Star, then she would vent her fury on them. She had poured all her feeling into that kiss, and she wouldn't allow some enemy to see her laid bare like that. They wouldn't see her vulnerable.
With a fireball nestled in her palm, Ling got to her feet and edged over to the wall. Taking a deep breath to steady her emotions to their usual state of cool efficiency, she leapt round the corner and threw the flame towards the interloper.
Sky yelped, jumping backwards and just missing a fireball to the chest.
Ling scowled at him.
"How long have you been skulking in the shadows there?" she demanded.
His guilty grimace was answer enough. Ling had sworn to set afire whoever intruded on her moment of hurt, but she could hardly attack her allies without cause, so she turned on heel and walked back into camp. She checked on the rabbit, which was cooking well, before gathering up her book and wrapping it securely in her pack. She heard Sky follow her into camp but resolutely refused to acknowledge his presence. If she kept busy, she could hide the pain in her face and disappointment in her movements.
"I know you won't want to hear this–"
"So don't say anything," she said tersely.
"...but I saw Dawn Star heading for the beach... and I saw the reason why she left." He quickly moved on as she fixed him with an icy stare. "Before you jump to any conclusions – I only came back because Wild Flower was getting hungry, so I only saw a moment. After that I went off to help Wild Flower collect some herbs, and waited until I saw Dawn Star hurrying out of the building."
Ling just stared at him. If he expected her to just disgorge all her feelings about Dawn Star then he could simply forget it. Clearly her friend had no interest in her, and had just been... swept up in the moment? Lonely?Either way, Dawn Star didn't seem to feel as strongly for Ling as she did for her. Therefore, perhaps it would be best for both of them if it was just forgotten.
"I think Dawn Star genuinely cares about you," Sky continued, more confident now that she didn't seem to be attacking him. "It's clear in every look she gives you and every time she tells a story of your adventures."
He waited, seeming to expect a response. None was given.
"I don't know exactly what happened in here, but I can guess. I think she ran due to simple fear, nothing else. She was afraid of pursuing things with you."
"What do you know of it?" Ling snapped, finally tired of Sky's all-knowing talk.
"More than you think." He smiled, and she looked at him again. This time though, she considered his words. "It wouldn't be easy for Dawn Star to admit she loves another woman. Not when she would have to keep it secret from everyone, when it would be far simpler to marry a man and raise a family. Unfortunately, we don't choose who we fall in love with."
Ling wondered whether Sky truly did understand more of the situation than she had first realised. She knew that he had pursued various women, that he had married and had a child, but perhaps he had also been involved with another man at some point. Had he been in this same situation, wondering if the man he loved felt the same way, despite everyone saying that two people of the same sex could be no more than friends? Did he really understand why Dawn Star had run?
"You think that she loves me?" Ling asked cautiously.
"Of course," Sky grinned. "I'm a very perceptive fellow. I can also see that you love her too. It's slightly disappointing to see two lovely young women unavailable to me, but you can't deny your feelings. It's natural."
"I have no idea where to go from here."
"The Imperial City would be our best bet, what with the Dragonfly prepared and our pressing need to rescue your mentor from the Lotus Assassins."
Ling shot him a glare.
Sky held his hands up in a placating gesture. "I think you should allow Dawn Star a little while to think, before you speak to her. But, you should probably say something before we set off in the flyer. It's so loud, there's no way you could hold a private conversation with her while onboard."
She nodded, deciding that this was reasonable advice. A little well of hope rose within her. She wouldn't allow herself to get her hopes up again until she had spoken to Dawn Star, and aired all the feelings that needed to be voiced. However, if what Sky said was true perhaps Dawn Star had simply panicked, and her flight was a setback, not a rejection. Ling could live with that.
"Very well; you gather our party members, and I will prepare the meal."
Sky smiled. "I know who to fetch first."