“Because I’m your brother!” The words struck Lan Jue like a slap to the face.
It was the first time he’d heard anything like that come out of his brother’s mouth. A look of incredulity overcame his features, but vanished as quickly as it had come.
“Mika was of the Dark Tower. Satan’s daughter, and his successor. Satan’s blood, his power, lies within her. The strongest of his brood. If that taint isn’t controlled, the consequences could be catastrophic. She’s trapped between two powers; the Pontiff’s castle, which seeks to exterminate her, and the Dark Tower which seeks to exploit her – to lose herself in the madness and bloodlust as a reincarnation of Satan. But Mika… she’s got a good heart. It was on the cusp of the Awakening when Satan’s power was consuming her that she came to her senses. She ran.”
“Later we crossed paths. I took her in, taught her to suppress the darkness, and brought her here. So long as she didn’t use them, Satan’s power would never awaken. It’d be locked inside her forever. Not long ago I let my presence slip. Something… caused me to forgo caution. The Castle found me, manipulated me to bringing them to the Shattered Starfields. There, we faced the Angel of War, the Messenger of Death, the Angel of Healing and the Cherubim. Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel had set a trap for us. Luckily it was the Moonfiend Empress who warned me to their presence. I was able to prepare, otherwise I’m afraid we really would have died out there. That, is what happened.”
The recounting was short, succinct. Lan Qing listened, lapsing in to silent consideration once all was said. A few moments passed before he lifted his head, and regarded his brother. “And you still wish to help her?”
“Why would anything change now,” he responded.
Lan Qing nodded. “Very well. You’ve made your decision, time to follow through. For this, there’s no need to get the Avenue involved. You don’t need to go chasing after the Castle’ s people, either. As I see it, the Avenue already knows. As is their custom they’ll cover things up, handle what they need to. From now on, you shouldn’t leave Planet Skyfire. Under the Avenue’s protection neither the Pontiff nor Satan would dare come knocking. Your own abilities should also be sufficient on your home turf for self-preservation. As for the girl, make sure she doesn’t go anywhere, either.”
Lan Jue’s eyes narrowed, and anger shone in the depths of his eyes. But whatever his thoughts, they weren’t given voice. Silence hung over them for a time.
After a while Lan Qing spoke again. “Your wounds are serious. You shouldn’t draw on your Discipline for a while, or you could make things worse. You’ll need at least three months to recover.”
Still, his younger brother was silent. A flash of hesitation came across Lan Qing’s features. “Do you want me to stay?”
This took Lan Jue by surprise. He lifted his head and asked, “Do you have time?”
Lan Qing nodded.
But Lan Jue’s sardonic smile returned. “Since when does our illustrious supersoldier of An Lun have time… go, I can manage by myself.”
Lan Qing’s response was brief, and tepid. “Then rest up.” He turned and left without another word.
Ting ting! Once again the sound of the door chimes ringing hung in the air. Alone with the silence, a pained look came across Lan Jue.
Lan Qing shut the door behind him, but didn’t move towards the Avenue’s exit. Instead he leaned against the wall of the shop and looked towards the twinkling heavens.
Beep-beep! The communicator on his wrist interrupted the silence. He answered.
“Admiral, when can we expect your return?” The man’s voice on the other end sounded urgent.
“Family matters. For the time being I wont be returning,” he answered.
“But Admiral, as I’m sure you know, the delegation will be arrival in half a month. Will you be ready to receive them by then?” The caller sounded even more agitated by the news.
“I’m afraid not. Tell them I took leave for personal business.” His expression was blank and stony as he spoke to the man on the communicator.
“But, sir, this could impact your promotion. Admiral…”
He unceremoniously cut the connection. He’d already put the message out of mind, instead letting his thoughts dwell on that day, those message, three years ago.
“Brother, something doesn’t seem right. Hera might be in trouble. You’re closest, go help her.”
“Is your mission really that important? Hera’s your family! I’m begging you to go save her!”
“I’m sorry, A-Jue!” The words were bitter in his mouth.
“What are you doing here?” The voice came from not far off. A flash of silver, and suddenly there was another beside him.
Lan Qing shot her a glance. “You’ve been lurking for a while already. Don’t pretend this is some chance encounter. What do you want.”
An Liu stuttered, flustered. “Y-“
“Do you have a cigarette?” The admiral turned his head to ask her.
“Eh?” An Liu blinked at him. “I thought you didn’t take anything that could impact your judgment.”
“Right now,” he said, “I’m not the admiral.”
“Wait a moment.” With that, An Liu disappeared in to the darkness. When she returned, she bore a packet of cigarettes and a lighter.
He opened the packet and slapped the base. A single stick poked free from the opening. He plucked it out and, running it under his nose, took a whiff. Something like regret shone in his eyes. “Do you remember? I was eighteen, you were fifteen… we were curious, so we stole away with a cigarette and sat smoking in the thicket. So strong. We couldn’t stop coughing. It was so bad that he heard us and found out what we were doing. Beat us both.”
“Wh-…” An Liu looked up at him in confusion. Clearly she couldn’t understand.
Lan Qing didn’t elaborate. Instead, he lit the cigarette and took a long, slow drag. Almost instantly he started to cough, the smoke bursting forth in plumes. “Ach! Kha!” The sudden coughing fit was so violent it brought tears to his eyes. Still, he was smiling through it all.
An Liu felt her heart skip a beat. That electric jolt that ran through her, was a feeling she could never get enough of.
“Are you alright?”
Lan Qing, coughing, took another drag on the cigarette in lieu of a response.
Ting ting! The familiar sound of the Jewelry Store’s bells made an appearance once more. Lan Jue pushed the door open and exited, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker. Wordlessly he settled beside his brother, snatching the pack of cigarettes from his hand. Like his brother before him, he slapped the bag, pulled a stick, and lit it.
An Liu watched them both, silent and unsure what to do. Her first thought, Are these two sick in the head? Her second, though, was that her presence here wasn’t for the best.
Silently, she faded in to the surrounding darkness.
The cigarette was quickly spent. Lan Qing’s face was red cough coughing. Lan Jue’s wasn’t much better.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to just go back,” Lan Jue said, his voice heavy with remorse.
“Go back?” Lan Qing cracked a bitter smile. “Lamentation is the crutch of the foolish. Right?”
Lan Jue rolled his eyes. “Always the realist.”
“No, not realist. Pragmatist, maybe. No point in dwelling on the things we can’t change,” he countered quietly.
Lan Jue frowned. He pushed himself straight, stuffing his hands in his pockets once more. “Whatever you say.” He walked back towards the door to the shop.
Ting ting! He stopped in the entrance and turned his eyes towards his older brother. “I’ve never blamed you. Never. I just blame myself. Tomorrow you go ahead and head back. I’ve already told A-Li, he said he’d come. Plus I’ve got Xiuxiu and the other girls. Nothing will happen.”
“Hm?” Lan Qing hadn’t moved, and turned his head to look at Lan Jue.
The Jewelry Master’s hard expression melted away. “I always wanted an admiral as a brother. It’s something I take pride in. And it looks like I’m on the edge of a breakthrough. You better hope I don’t catch up to you, or I’ll beat you just as badly as you used to beat me.”
Lan Jue disappeared from site as the door shut behind him.
Lan Qing remained where he was. He remained still for what felt like an age, before extricating another cigarette from the pack, and putting it between his lips.
Another smoke was pulled free, but this one was thrown to the darkness, towards An Liu.
“Don’t skulk around. Join me in a cigarette.”
An Liu plucked it from the air and made her way back towards the admiral. Wordlessly she took the lighter from him, and lit the stick. “You know, you can really lay low a person’s self-confidence.”
Lan Qing smirked and shook his head. “It’s fine. We’ve been like that ever since we were small.”
An Liu gave him a cool look. “I was talking about me!”
Lan Jue’s outfit today consisted of a coffee-colored shirt under a white business suit. A white neck tie hung around his neck. He looked, as usual, meticulously put together.
Breakfast had been prepared for him by Xiuxiu, and it was wonderful.
“Boss, did the Young Master leave,” Xiuxiu asked nonchalantly.
He nodded. “Early this morning.”
The news elicited a sigh of relief. “You and he…”
Lan Jue shot her a quick look. It was enough to kill the sentence before it left her mouth. “I’m going to the university today,” he interrupted. “I’m afraid if I stay away much longer they’ll fire me.”
Xiuxiu looked at him nervously. “You want to leave the Avenue? But your condition…”
He cut her off again with a shake of his head. “I’m not so fragile. Still Planet Skyfire, still Skyfire City,” he assured her with a smile.
Xiuxiu screwed up her courage. “Well then how about I go with you.”
Her boss laughed in spite of himself. “So you really do think I’ve got one foot in the grave, eh?” He lifted a finger and waggled it at her. A thin bolt of electricity writhed at the end. “Take it easy, nothing’s going to happen. I haven’t forgotten I still have to look after you crazy girls. Besides it’s been a long time since the store’s been open. You need to be here to help manage things. I’m off.”
Lan Jue pushed his way out of the jewelry store. It wasn’t his first excursion since returning, but nonetheless he still looked up and down the street before proceeding.
By the storefront a small pile of cigarette butts had accrued, and he felt as though the smell of smoke still hung in the air. It somehow brought a smile to his face.
“This time I came out the victor. Probably the first time in my life.”
His high spirits persisted as he left the avenue, got on his bicycle and made for the NEU. The rattling chain of his bicycle gave sonance to the beautiful scene of clear sunlight, fresh air, and warmth as the young man made his way to work.