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It Takes a Village

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            Another couple is hastily herded to their seats, already sniping about the wait time, and Hyun is cursing the Spirits of chance that brought abundant customers and a sudden employee shortage.

            Li vanished off the map, and all his friends could say is some nonsense about “traveling.” They’d just had a newborn. Hyun would cut off his two thumbs if they’d had enough spare wealth for a vacation.

            Placating smile already growing stiff, he apologizes once more to the noble couple, and rushes to the kitchen.

           

            “Ahnjong!”

            She looks up from the four hissing pots, perspiration dotting above her eyebrows.

            “Has no one come in?”

            Her dark eyes turn over the empty room, making a show of checking.

            “Ha. Ha,” he huffs, eyeing the intimidatingly high pile of dirty dishes, “Please just get someone? Grab ‘em out the alley if you have to.”

            “Aye,” she says, rag-covered hand already pouring a line of cups.

 

           

            The rest of the day passes by in a perfumed, ginseng, jasmine-scented blur. Stale smiles, embellished, gaudy friendliness coloring his voice in a way that stings in his throat, hot porcelain sharp on his fingertips, gasps of joy, surprise, disgust, and flashes of an unfamiliar head of hair scrubbing over a basin of dishes.

 

 

            The bell above the door twinkles dully as he shoves at the sticky doorjamb. He twists the lock. He sighs.

            Knees and heels aching, he shuffles back to Ahnjong.

           

            He leans on the doorframe, watching as she clatters through the cupboards, tidying the counterspace. She hums in acknowledgment, puffing at a lock escaped from its bun.

            “Tomorrow should be calmer,” Hyun says, ignorant of its truth.

            She rolls her eyes knowingly and flips the damp rag from her shoulder.

            He waves his hand, “Yeah, yeah.”

            Ahnjong knows him far too well to fall for any of his acts.

 

            “If tomorrow isn’t calmer, you’re bartering for the oolong.”

 

            He winces.

            She passes him, untying her apron, and climbs the stairwell, not even bothering to cast a smirk over her shoulder.

 

 

 

 

            He ends up bartering for the oolong.

 

 

 

 

            A week later, he swings around doorframe, quip already on his tongue, and is so rudely interrupted by a conversation between Ahnjong and a complete stranger. Standing at Ahnjong’s height, the young man is pale, scarred, and carrying a frankly concerning number of blades for a teashop.

            “I’m sorry,” he says, anything but, “am I intruding on something?”

            The other man startles, turning with one wide eye.

            Ahnjong rests a hand on the guy’s forearm. It was bent towards his hip; he was probably reaching for a knife. How does he get himself in these situations?

            “Easy, Hyun–”

            He glares at her, “I can’t fathom how you thought this’d be a good idea. We just got this place running again,” then at the intruder, “you, out.”

            Before anyone can budge, Ahnjong snatches the young man’s bicep, returning his glare with something that can only be described as murderous. Behind the roiling in his chest, he feels a pang of anxiety.  

            Her deep grey eyes are solid as stone.

            “This is Lee,” she says, cold, “our new dish-boy.”

            He scoffs, “I doubt that very much. I’ve never seen this man in my life.”

            The man in question is frozen still, chest barely moving with his breaths. His– Spirits– singular gold eye is narrowed and pierced on Hyun’s face. He suppresses a shiver.

            Ahnjong doesn’t let go; simply cocks her head, goading further response.

            He stares back.

           

            She doesn’t blink.

 

            Shifting his feet, he crosses his arms. “Fine. He can stay,” he notes Ahnjong’s smirk, “but I don’t want any weapons drawn in my teashop.”

            His last-ditch effort at authority is met with two rolling eyes and one blank eye, blinking in lack of comprehension.

            No one thought to teach this kid that life can be traversed without violence? A truly depraved upbringing.

 

 

 

 

            This certainly isn’t to say he trusts him. No, he is not a fool. But Ahnjong seems attached, and he knows better than to work against her wills.

            There’s something dangerous in the way he holds himself, watches every slight movement, pauses at sudden noises. And the way he scrubs the teacups; he looks almost mournful. It’s unsettling.

            Thus, Hyun avoids Lee as much as he can. There’s only so much he can shake off at the end of a day.

 

 

           

            “He just seems–” he grapples with the right word, “haunting.”

            Ahnjong scoops her hair back, “Haunted, more like.”

           

 

 

 

            “He likes the smell,” she offers, one morning, upon a long silence during breakfast.

            Hyun looks up, “Lee?”

            She hums, “Jasmine. Reminds him of home.”

 

 

 

 

            Lee does well keeping to himself, doing the dishes. It was pure duress that forced Hyun to push him out front, apron and notebook in hand. The abject terror on the kid’s face would have been hilarious if he’d had a moment to enjoy it.

            Now, he’s regretting every single one of his actions that led to this point. 

 

            Ahnjong is snickering, and Hyun, hands in his hair, watches as his beloved business falls to ashes.

 

 

            “Um– If you want– I mean– There is– uh–”

 

           

            He could cry. He could, Oma and Shu as his witness, weep a damned river.

            “Why, why, why…” he mumbles.

            Ahnjong starts cackling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

            The kid persists in being frightfully awkward. If Hyun had his way, Lee would stay in the back, doing dishes the whole day long. However, Ahnjong disagrees. Spirits forbid.

            She throws the guy on unsuspecting customers, challenging loyalty of regulars and newcomers alike. No man should have to bear the full force of Lee’s stammering, short tempered services, but she only smiles at the complaints.

            All his pleas are met with an innocent look.

            “Needs socialization,” is all she says, and no more.

 

           

 

 

 

            Hyun feels more than sees trouble arising in the sudden sharpness of the air around him.

Smile waning, he thanks the departing guests one last time before turning back to Lee, who’s standing before a noble couple.

 

            “My dear, I sure hope it wasn’t hot tea that did all that damage, or we’d best find another shop!” The lady laughs like a twinkling bell.

            Her husband huffs a breathy amusement.

            “Certainly. Yes. But I don’t assume one needs both eyes for brewing tea.”

            They erupt into a cacophony of high-pitched warbling and wheezing chuckles, and Lee looks stiff as a wooden plank.

            If he were able, he’s sure steam would be pouring out of his ears. Red-faced and stock still, Lee is trying not to explode, and, if the fist by his side is any indication, his efforts aren’t going to win.

 

            As quick as he is able, Hyun skids across the busy floor, coming to a stop at the noble’s table.

            He places a hand on Lee’s shoulder, ignoring the full-body flinch, and squeezes.

            “Pardon me,” he bows, “I’m dreadfully sorry, but I must borrow your server for a moment.”

 

           

           

            Once in the kitchen, he drops the shaking kid into Ahnjong’s hands, who looks appropriately concerned by the turn of events, and steals the notebook from his grip.

            “Another rule in customer service: The customer is allowed to insult you, but you don’t have to take it alone.”

            He catches Ahnjong’s knowing smile as he leaves, and wonders, with a sinking in his gut, what in Spirit’s name he’s just done.  

 

 

 

 

           

            He knows before it happens, that Ahnjong will force Lee to talk to the gaggle of young teenagers. ‘He needs friends his age’ she’d say. Sure. But these people? They’re loud, colorful, and everything Lee is not.

            Halfway to the table, the kid freezes, shakes his head, and continues, albeit slower.

            The shop is mostly empty, so Hyun can just watch, queasily, as they batter the guy with questions. Like the shy person he is, Lee keeps his head bent at a painfully low angle as he writes in the notebook.

            This stilted, mostly one-sided, conversation lasts a few minutes. ‘Few’ meaning ‘more than several.’ Even Hyun’s patience is starting to falter.

            Finally, they’ve ordered, and the kid lifts his chin and turns to face him, relief palpable.

            “It’s you!”

            Startled by the volume, Hyun stumbles from his position by the kitchen door. The kid who’d screamed it is smiling as wide as the Si Wong desert and pointing right at Lee.

           

            The kid in question goes pale, looking uneasily between him and the accusing finger.

 

            “No, it is. He saved me!”

 

            Squabbling from their corner grows louder and the three kids are yelling and gesticulating before anyone could parse meaning from anything that’s been said.

           

            Seeing the opportunity, Lee slips past Hyun into the kitchen, all wide-eyed.

 

            “No, wait!”

 

            The kid leaps from his seat, hops over chairs, and nearly runs straight through Hyun, who doesn’t remember deciding to move.

            “Excuse me? I need to talk to him.”

            His eyes are big and bright and young, and he bounces on his toes as he gestures to where Lee disappeared.

            “Um.”

            “Please? It’s important.”

            Somehow his eyes get bigger and more glistening. Pout firmly on his lower lip, he clasps his hands under his chin.

            Hyun swallows before steeling himself.

            “Sorry, young man,” he says, affecting his customer service persona, “but this door is for employees only.”

            “But–!”

            “I sincerely apologize for all this trouble. Can I interest you in some complimentary tea cakes? We have lemon, cherry-nut…”

           

 

            With cakes in tow, the other two pull a sulky-looking kid out of the shop. Hyun waves peaceably at the older boy, who seems genuinely contrite.

 

 

 

            “No idea. Wouldn’t say,” Ahnjong says over evening tea.

            “He wouldn’t say anything?” He finds that hard to believe. As close-lipped as he is around Hyun, he is nothing of the same to Ahnjong.

            She holds his skeptical gaze with expertise. He changes tactics.

            “They damn-near scared the bones out of him. Thought I’d have to chase him out of the rafters with a broom.”

            She just rolls her eyes.

 

            “You admit it, then?” she asks.

            “Admit,” he narrows his eyes, “…what.”

            “You care for Lee.”

            He sputters.

            “Ridiculous.”

            Ahnjong smiles.

 

 

 

           

           

            Hyun surveys the baskets, noting the low stores of Lapsang Souchong. His interest is piqued, but he knows Da Hong Pao is a better seller. Sure, it’s a little more expensive than usual, but that must mean it’s in demand, right?

            He shakes his head; he has to stick to the list Ahnjong made. The last time he came home with too much Pu’er and not enough Pouchong he was set straight.

            Leaning down, he sniffs the Lapsang, shuddering at the bitter smokiness. Yeah, Ahnjong was right.

            He holds up a finger, calling the attention of the vendor, and hands him the list. After bowing in thanks, he turns to survey the calm atmosphere of the shop.

            In a moment of chance, he catches the eye of an older man hovering over the chamomile.

            “Happy morning, sir,” he bows.

            “Oh, thank you. A happy morning to you as well.”

            “Are you new to the area? I haven’t seen you here before.”

            The man chuckles, eyes crinkling. “No, no. The other vendor closed down. I was told to come here.”

            Hyun smiles, “Very well. You can’t get better tea in all of the Earth Kingdom, than here.”

            “Glad to hear.”

            “Do you work nearby?”

            The older man hums pleasantly, examining the price of the ginseng.

            “I do indeed. Right over at Pao’s Tea Shop.”

            Hyan scoffs, “Oh, that old lout? He scalds the greens!”

            At that, the man laughs, hand to his chest.

            “That he does, but it’s a living.”

            With such a kindly expression, it’s hard to believe Pao relented against his advice. Well, no. It’s not, really. Pao is as confident as he is incompetent.

            “Well, if you’d prefer proper tea, my tea shop is always hiring. Or even if you’d just like a spot of good tea for once–”

            He’s interrupted by the return of the vendor, large sack in hand with packets of his order inside, presented from behind a partition.

            “Why thank you. And thank you,” he turns to the older man, “for the lovely conversation. I hope to see you soon­– uh…”

            “Mushi.”

            “Yes, yes. I hope to see you soon, Mushi.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

            It’s near the end of the day, and customers have slowed to a slow trickle. There’s only a couple more hours before Hyun can gleefully slam the door shut on, what he’s considering now, one of the most strenuous days in the tea shop’s history.

            He pauses behind the kitchen door, wiping sweat off his upper lip, when he hears the bell atop the door jingle.

            Reaffixing his garish grin, he steps through the entrance, only to drop into something more genuine at the sight of his new good friend.

 

            “Ah, Mushi!”

            The man grins heartedly, “Lovely place you have, young man.”

            Hyun feels the blush color his cheeks. “I am no more a young man than you are the Fire Lord,” he laughs.

            Mushi chuckles.

            “Please, I would be honored to give you the full tour,” he says, bowing exaggeratedly.

            “And I would be honored to accept.”

           

 

            He leads the older man around the modest dining area, where only one table is currently occupied, designing lavish stories for each spoon, plate, and piece of artwork on the walls.

            Mushi laughs at the appropriate intervals, throwing embellished praise in front of the only two present customers.

            This is a man fully acquainted with customer service. Hyun can respect that.

 

           

            “And this is where I hide my delightful other-half, Ahnjong.”

            He turns back, expecting the usual, jovial expression on Mushi’s face. Instead, he sees a man stricken with grief, staring, unmoored, at Lee.

           

            Noticing the silence, the boy looks up from his task. He jolts, as if experiencing a physical blow.

           

            For a moment, the two stare at each other, pale and wide-eyed, and Mushi brings a hand to his mouth, where, to Hyun’s shock and confusion, tears have already started to collect.

 

            Recognizing the flighty look in Lee’s eye, he situates himself in front of the exit into the alley.

            “How– How do you know each other?” he asks, softly and delicately.

           

            As if connected by a great force, blocked off from the world, neither respond. Even Ahnjong, stilled by the rack of cups, looks uncomfortable.

 

 

            Mushi falters first, taking a deep, steadying breath.

 

 

            “Oh my– my nephew. I’ve missed you.”