Nie Huaisang wasn't a coward. Okay, he was.
Not the way you think.
He wasn't afraid of fighting.
He was afraid of qi deviating.
As a Nie, he had to practice using the saber, an improper way of cultivation, which always causes qi deviation. Then early death. All of his ancestors ended like this.
Nie Huaisang didn't want to end like this.
Nie Huaisang wanted to live, to have a long life.
And then, he liked arts better. He preferred catching birds and collecting beautifully painted hand fans over duelling with sabers.
Tho, he was interested in cultivation. Using magic to capture singing-birds? Oh, yeah. Talismans are useful.
Also he didn't want to disappoint his brother.
So Nie Huaisang formed a golden core.
Later than the others at his age, but he did it.
Although he did not use it. He changed his mind.
Why cheat to catch a bird or a fish? Where is the fun in that?
So Nie Huaisang stuck to arts and hand fans.
Back then he didn't know that there are other ways to use a hand fan than to fan himself or express emotions and opinions with it.
But everything changed when he found a special one.
One day Nie Huaisang was wandering in the small village next to the Unclean Realm, favorite fan in his hands, searching between the vendors. He was looking for new brushes (Nie Mingjue broke his last one. Again.) and inkstones (he accidentally spilled out all of his ink when he tried to hide his painting from his brother, it flipped down the desk when he hurriedly pretended to practice sword formations).
Nie Huaisang visited the village quite often for art supplies so he was very excited to discover a new merchant at one corner. He took his path over there.
"Ah, gongzi," the old merchant greeted him. "Can I help you with something?"
"I have never seen you here before. What kind of commodities are you selling?" Huaisang asked.
"Ah, gongzi, I'm a peripatetic, I'm roaming between cities, towns and countries. I've been at a lot of places. I got most of my goods via trades, exchanges or as gifts for my help. For example, I got this hairpin…" The merchant picked up a lilac, flowery hairpin from the table and showed it to Huaisang, "from a lady when I was in Yunmeng. She chose another hairpin, she liked that better."
Huaisang hummed, he rested his closed fan under his chin, he was interested.
"This comb," the merchant continued, pointing at a red comb, "is from a young man. He traded it for some papers after he got rejected by his chosen one. Then I got this beautiful painting for a red inkstone."
Nie Huaisang's eyes went wide. "Red inkstones? Wow! Those are very rare!"
The merchant nodded. "Mhm. I won them in a card game in a far away land from here. I noticed you are interested in arts, gongzi, but I'm sorry to say, that was the last one."
"Mmmm" Nie Huaisang got a bit sad.
"Ah, don't be mournful, gongzi. I see you like fans, I have something special for you." The merchant disappeared behind his stall for some seconds then righted oneself with a cloth in his hands. He unfolded the cloth to reveal two folded hand fans.
Huaisang noticed in an instant that they weren't ordinary ones. "Can I…?" he asked, pointing at the fans. When the merchant nodded and held them out for him, Huaisang hid his own in his sleeve and took one in his hands.
It felt different, it was heavier. And it wasn't made of paper and wood, it was made of metal. Huaisang opened it, it got stuck at some places, maybe because of not using it for a while. There wasn't any painted motif or landscape, it was plain yellow, a bit darker at the bottom where the wood should be. Huaisang hummed thoughtfully.
"I haven't seen fans like this before," he said. "Where did you get them?"
"Many years ago when I was in Dongying a young man hopped on my cart. We traveled together for a while because we headed the same way. He traded these hand fans in exchange for a comb and a pair of hairpins for his beloved. He told me that they belonged to a warrior a long long time ago in his family."
"They battled with these?" Huaisang asked, studying the creation in his hands.
"Yes! The young man said it was a tradition in his family. The tradition stopped when it wasn't needed anymore. He told me these warriors wore makeup during the battles!"
"Yes, waterproof makeup," the merchant nodded. "They painted their face white, red near the eyes, to scare the enemy."
Nie Huaisang wanted these fans. He couldn't explain but he felt a bit strange looking at them. Something drew him to them. He wanted these for his collection. Also, they were used for battles? Cool.
He had only one problem.
"I know you trade in things but I don't have anything by me at the moment I could give you. Do you accept money?"
"Gongzi," the merchant started but Huaisang chimmed in.
"Ah, wait, uncle!" He searched in his sleeves. "I bought some new good quality brushes and inkstones. Are they good enough for them?" Huaisang presented them for the merchant who thoughtfully examined the brushes.
At the end, he picked out three of the five brushes and two inkstones. "Yes, gongzi, these will do it," he nodded.
After Nie Huaisang arrived at home, he packed down his things in his room then he went to attend dinner with his brother. When he was finally back in his room, he started to pack out the things he bought. The remaining brushes and inkstones to the table, next to his almost-finished painting. The snacks into separate bowls, then he put those to different places: on the table, on a shelf, next to the bed (for late night snacks). Then he looked at the folded cloth.
Nie Huaisang unfolded it.
There they were.
A pair of fans.
He opened both, each in one hand. He twirled them, amused. So, these are actually weapons? Interesting.
His eyes traveled to the pouch he got as a gift from the same merchant. "Take this also, gongzi. These belong together" the old man said.
Nie Huaisang opened the pouch, he found two small boxes in it.
What is this?
One of them was full with something white, the other one with something red.
Oh, right, the merchant said, those warriors wore makeup.
Nie Huaisang got a sudden idea.
He stood up and searched through his room. Some minutes later he sat back down to his table and positioned the small looking glass so he could see his reflection.
Then he started to apply the makeup.
Nie Huaisang never wore makeup before, it was his first time. But he was quite satisfied with what he saw in the looking glass. He didn't know how those warriors wore it so Huaisang just went with it, did as he felt like doing it.
He painted his whole face white, putting the color red above his eyes, till it reached his eyebrows.
He liked his own reflection but he felt like something was missing. He stood up again, looked through his room. He found some remaining red berries from some days ago when he flew out to the kitchen quarters for some more snacks after midnight. He put the berries in a bowl and squished them until they were close to liquid state. He plunged his index finger into the dollop and smeared it on his lips.
He looked into the mirror.
Huaisang stood up and picked up both handfans. He tried them out, twirled them, stepped around in his room with dance-like moves. He enjoyed it.
Suddenly, he lost his balance, he felt a bit dizzy.
Then the world went dark.
Nie Huaisang woke up in a strange room. It wasn't his own, it wasn't his brother's either, nor any other room in the Unclean Realm. It was different from any inn he stayed in before, and it was quite small.
Huaisang sat up in the bed and looked around. A table with a jug and a cup, probably with water in it, a wardrobe, a small bookshelf and of course, a bed. The door was shut.
Maybe he just hit his head too hard when he fell and his eyes play him. Huaisang lifted his hand to his head to realize that the fans are still in his hands. Then he noticed he wasn't wearing his robes, he wore a green-black armour instead.
What the heck is this?
The door suddenly flew open and Huaisang jumped startled. A woman walked in, wearing a similar armour to his and the same makeup on her face. Her hair was dark and short, barely reaching her shoulders.
The legendary warrior!
Ah, so it's a dream.
"Who are you?" asked the warrior. "And how did you get here?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know your name?" she raised one of her eyebrows. This makeup was really terrifying, he had to admit.
"No. Yes. I mean… I know my name. I just don't know how I got here. I'm very convinced that this is a dream."
The warrior walked to him and hit his arm without warning.
"Aiyo!" Huaisang clutched his forearm. "Why did you do this?"
"Did it hurt?" she asked, emotionless.
"Then I'm afraid it's not a dream."
"Aiya, da-ge will kill me" Huaisang whined.
All of the sudden there was a cold blade near his neck. Huaisang's eyes went wide with fear and gulped.
"I won't ask one more time" the warrior said. "Who are you? Are you a spy?"
Huaisang closed his eyes tight. "Please don't kill me, I'm not a spy, I don't know anything!"
The blade touched his neck. "What. Is. Your. Name?" the woman gritted through her teeth.
"Nie Huaisang," he said in a high pitched voice.
"Nie Huaisang," he repeated a bit louder.
There was a clicking sound, metal falling on the wooden floor, the warrior dropped her sword. Huaisang warily opened his eyes, to see the warrior stand before him, frozen, eyes wide, mouth open.
"Um," Huaisang started. "D-did I say something wrong?"
The warrior dropped down to her knees and kowtowed.
Nie Huaisang was very confused.
"Oh, sir, please accept my apologies for treating you like this! I should have known!"
Nie Huaisang got more confused. But he thought he should go with the flow of this not-so-dream.
"Oh, well, it's all right, I accept your apology" he said.
"Thank you, sir!"
"You can stand up."
"Ah, yes, thank you, sir." The warrior was very flustered, the exact opposite of what she was before.
"So…" Huaisang started. "It seems like you know my name." The woman nodded. "What is yours?"
The warrior was surprised, she probably expected a different question. "Ah, right, sir, my name is Kiki. At your service" she bowed.
"Kiki-guniang, what's this place? Where am I? Which sect is this? And why did you react to my name like that?"
Kiki opened her lips to answer but before she could, another person stepped in the room. Another warrior, same armour, same makeup, same hairstyle, but this one had a headpiece too. She was probably the sect leader.
"Kiki," she called. The other woman startled, then bowed to her.
Ah, yes, she's really the sect leader.
"Did you find out who he is?" she nodded her head in Nie Huaisang's way.
"Yes, Chief, he is the Chosen One. We found him!"
The sect leader turned to him. "So you really came! I can't believe my eyes! Haha!"
"Um… My apologies, sect leader, but what is this about? I don't understand anything."
"Ah, yes, my apologies, sir Nie Huaisang, I'll tell you everything."
"How do you know my name? Kiki-guniang didn't say it to you," Huaisang furrowed his brows.
"Please follow me, sir, I'll show you around and tell everything." The chief warrior invitingly opened the door.
Well what can he do? There's no other choice.
Nie Huaisang stood up from the bed and walked out the door.
He saw other small houses, like the one he was in, a few people walked on the field street, wearing casual robes.
Both warriors stood next to him. The leader turned to him.
"Nie Huaisang, I'm the leader of this small village, my name is Naoki. Welcome to Kyoshi Island!"
There was a prophecy.
The prophecy stated that a man will come to Kyoshi Island to learn how to use a fan in battle. He is the Chosen One. That man will have excellent skills in arts and planning. No matter which village he will appear in, the warriors have to help him, even that he is a man. In the opposite case, if they don't help, the village gets 100 years of bad luck. The Chosen One is a reincarnation of a former Kyoshi warrior, whose soul got trapped in another dimension. The man can't get back to his dimension until he perfects Kyoshi's martial arts.
The prophecy also wrote down the Chosen One's name.
The name was Nie Huaisang.
Nie Huaisang couldn't believe it, even when he held the scroll in his hands. He grazed his name written down on the paper with his fingers.
This is insane. This can't be true, right?
Well, it felt very real. And that smack on his arm still hurt.
This is not a dream. And he can't get home until he is ready.
"Ah, shit" Huaisang mumbled under his breath. The two women leant closer because they didn't hear it.
"What is it, sir?" Naoki asked.
"Ah, nothing, nothing" Huaisang waved his hand. He took a deep breath then turned to Naoki. "So, in this case, Sect Leader Naoki, please teach me your use of martial arts" he bowed.
"With pleasure, Nie Huaisang!" Naoki smiled and returned the bow.
Nie Huaisang felt like every part of his body was aching. He only started the training an hour ago but he spent most of the time laying on the ground.
He always ended flat to the ground and not because he was lazy. Naoki left teaching the basic moves to Kiki and she was very cruel. She did not heard about mercy at all. It didn't matter what Huaisang did, she flipped him over.
Nie Huaisang regretted not practicing saber properly.
"Can we take a break, please?" he huffed, trying to lift his right arm.
"No, you have to strengthen your stamina. There are no breaks on a battlefield."
"But we aren't on a battlefield right now."
"I can't believe the Chosen One is such a coward! I thought he will be a brave and strong person with high intellectuals. But you?!" Kiki was yelling. The other training warriors and their disciples stopped to look at them curiously. "You are weak, chicken-hearted, and a good-for-nothing!" She drew out her short sword (Huaisang now knew that it is called a katana) and pointed its end to Huaisang's chest. "Nie Huaisang! You are a coward!"
Huaisang took a breath and swallowed.
"I know," he answered. He forced himself onto his elbows. The katana touched his armour. "I know. Everyone says this to me, you aren't the first one. I know. I'm a coward. And? This is who I am. I can't change it, I can't turn suddenly brave." He was now sitting. "I'm not good at fighting, I know, I'm weak. But if you want to discuss about art or birds," he stood up slowly" I'm your person."
Kiki put away her katana with a sigh. "Nie Huaisang!" her voice calmed down. "The Kyoshi warriors's fighting style isn't about being brave or strong. We use our opponents's energy and strength against themselves. And no one can be one hundred percent brave. Everyone is afraid of something, everyone is nervous before and during a fight. A good warrior's secret is overcoming this fear and nervousness, at least for that time."
"Hm" Huaisang nodded.
"Do you want to go home as soon as possible?" Kiki asked.
"Then stand in position and start over!"
"I didn't hear you!"
Nie Huaisang stopped counting the days after three months. He's starting to lose hope that he will ever get to come home.
Did anyone notice that he disappeared? Does Nie Mingjue search after him? Does anybody miss him?
Kiki and Naoki trained him in changes, both of them said he is almost finished with his training.
Although they didn't know what to answer when he asked them how he will get back. They didn't know either, the prophecy did not write about it.
So Nie Huaisang just waited for the moment.
However, it did not come for - what Huaisang felt - a long time.
In his period of stay in Kyoshi, Huaisang befriended the villagers. After he got used to the intensive training - and he didn't go straight to his small house to flop down on his bed and sleep till dawn because he was that exhausted - he started chatting with the other warriors, then some elderly and the kids.
Two weeks after his arrival Huaisang got used to the new environment and sometimes he caught himself enjoying it.
In a month, he started doing activities other than training and sleeping. He bought paper, ink and brushes and started painting in his free time. Once when he was painting outside his house in the sunset a bunch of children noticed it and asked him to teach them. So after that the kids would come every three days to learn about arts from the Chosen One.
The village had a weekly bonfire where they would crowd around the fire at night to eat lunch, play music and share stories. The villagers, especially the children, were very interested in Huaisang's stories and legends about the other dimension he came from. Non-benders who still have magic powers, can jump high, fly on swords and use talismans, whatever those are! Wow! Cool!
During these nights Huaisang shared stories about his family, about his friends, Wei-xiong and Jiang-xiong, about his studies in a very strict place called Cloud Recesses. The kids laughed at his silly pranks he did with Wei-xiong, the elders shook their head but they couldn't hide their smile either.
Nie Huaisang also got educated at these times about this dimension. Among common people there were benders who could control one of the elements: water, earth, fire and air. Moreover there was always one person who could control all four elements: the avatar, who always got reincarnated. They said that their island were also named after the famous Avatar Kyoshi!
In daytime he mostly talked with the warriors. Before, after and sometimes during training - which got him in trouble not once. The women and young girls just giggled at him but helped when he did something wrong.
In exchange he taught them how to use a fan in a very different but also not so different kind of way: flirting. The younger girls enjoyed it very much, they even used it in fights to distract the other one.
Of course Nie Huaisang noticed some warriors were cutsleeves and were pining for each other so Huaisang did everything to help them get together. He smiled behind his fan each time he saw them holding hands.
Once their village got attacked by the Fire Nation. It was a very short attack though, it didn't even last for two hours. The Kyoshi warriors were strong and with the help of Huaisang they defeated the firebenders soon. It was Huaisang's first real fight, the adrenaline swept through his veins, his reaction time got shorter, he felt the metal fan in his hands and much of his surprise he enjoyed it.
He gained a lot of muscle, also his golden core got stronger. He used his cultivation while battling, at first he did not want to try it then he noticed that this type of swordsmanship - well, hm, mode of fighting - won't cause him qi deviation. He even learned new techniques to help qi to flow properly in the body. Maybe he can use this on his brother too!
After the attack he heard the rumors of him being better even than the Chief herself! Huaisang saw Naoki shake her head sighing, hearing the rumors but she did not deny it.
Well, he is the Chosen One. Why can't he be better than the leader?
Nie Huaisang was proud of himself.
Huaisang was standing in the middle, surrounded by at least fifteen warriors. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
They attacked him at the same time.
Nie Huaisang opened his eyes.
The time slowed down for Huaisang. His senses sharpened. He heard every noise.
The fight did not last ten minutes. Huaisang countered, attacked, defended, twirled. When he fell on the ground, he jumped up to his feet immediately.
At the end Nie Huaisang was standing in the middle, surrounded by at least fifteen warriors, all of them were laying on the ground.
It was the last test battle. He can go home now.
He helped the warriors to stand up, he did not hurt them - at least not that much -, it was only a test fight.
Naoki and Kiki walked to him. They bowed to each other.
"Nie Huaisang" Naoki said. "Congratulations! You passed! Your training is completed, your studies are finished here. Now you are allowed to go home" she smiled.
Huaisang imagined a lot of times how it would happen: he wins, he gets his goodbyes then a light descends upon him and transports him back home.
But nothing happened.
He was still standing there, on a practice fighting field, next to the forest, on Kyoshi Island.
"Maybe we missed something" Huaisang sighed.
"No, we taught you everything we know" Naoki said. "You even learned more than what you had to: about our culture, our history."
"Then it looks like it still wasn't enough." He lowered his head and sighed again. "It's not your fault, it's mine. I'm not good enough yet." He walked past Naoki and Kiki, in the direction to the village.
"Huaisang…" Kiki looked after him.
"I'm going back to my room" he said. "We will continue it tomorrow."
Back in his room Huaisang flopped down on the bed. He laid there for a while and then he stood up to get changed. Groovily took off his armour and put on his favorite casual robes he got from a kind, old villager.
Then he sat down to the table and took off the makeup. It's water-resistant but he got an oil from Kiki what helps to get it off.
He gazed into the looking glass, holding a paper fan he painted last week.
"Huaisang, Huaisang" he said to his reflection mournfully. "You'll never be a Kyoshi Warrior. Whatever you try, you will be the same, coward Huaisang. It doesn't count that you now know how to fight, you are still the same Huaisang."
I should go to sleep now, maybe tomorrow will be better.
It was still daytime but Huaisang was sad. He laid back down on his bed and curled up clutching three handfans: two metal and one paper.
Not much later, when Huaisang almost finally fell asleep, someone opened his door.
"Naoki, Kiki" he mumbled. "I would like to be alone right now. Please let me."
It wasn't Naoki or Kiki. No one from the village he knows. It was a woman's unfamiliar voice. He clutched the metal fans tighter.
"Who are you?" he asked.
The shadow walked closer, now Huaisang could see her.
She was a warrior.
But he knows all of them from this village, so she might be from another village.
"No, Nie Huaisang" she said. "I'm not from another village. I'm disappointed you don't recognize me after hearing about me and spending six months on my island." The woman folded her arms.
"Yes, Nie Huaisang, I'm Avatar Kyoshi, and I'm here to bring you back home to Qinghe."
Huaisang wanted to sit up but his body was heavy. Kyoshi stood next to his bed.
"Great job, Nie Huaisang! You aren't the Chosen One for nothing" she said. Then she knuckled his forehead with her middle finger and the world went dark.
"Gongzi! Gongzi! Hurry! Wake up!"
Someone was shaking his shoulder.
"Mmmm, just five more minutes, Zonghui" Huaisang mumbled. He had a very weird dream, he met Avatar Kyoshi! Naoki and the others won't believe it!
Hold on a second
Nie Huaisang held his breath then lifted his head to look at the person shaking him. His eyes went wide.
He's back at home! In Qinghe!
Nie Huaisang was so happy that he hugged the flustered Nie Zonghui.
"Um...g-gongzi…" he stuttered.
Nie Huaisang remembered the etiquette here and pulled back. He got used to the more affectionate Kyoshi villagers.
When he wanted to straighten his robes, he noticed that he wore his usual robes and the three fans were still clutched in his hands. The makeup was gone, he took it off yesterday in Kyoshi. He was sitting on his bed and not on the ground where he fainted at that night he left.
Nie Huaisang looked out the window. The season did not change. Could that be…?
The time stopped or slowed down while he was away. No one noticed.
Then why was Zonghui here if not because Huaisang was missing?
"Zonghui" Huaisang called. "Why did you wake me up? Where is Meng Yao? Usually he is the one who wakes me up."
Nie Zonghui blinked, he suddenly remembered why is he here. "Gongzi, The Wens attacked the Unclean Realm! Sect Leader Nie commanded me to take you to a safe place. Gongzi, please come with me!"
"Oh, hell no!" Huaisang stood up. "I'm fighting too!"
"But, gongzi, your brother…"
"Don't worry, he will be happy for me!" Huaisang cheerfully took both metal fans and walked towards his door, not bothering changing his robes. "Watch me!" he winked while opening the door then jumped out and up the rooftops.
He ran and jumped until he found his brother in the middle of a fight, surrounded by Wen cultivators. One of them tried to attack Nie Mingjue from behind while he was looking in another direction, currently fighting another Wen soldier.
"Da-ge!" Huaisang shouted and threw one of the fans in Nie Mingjue's direction.
The fan hit the sword out of the Wen's hands and flew back to him like a boomerang.
Nie Mingjue looked up and witnessed Huaisang catching the flying fan in the air.
"Huaisang?" he mouthed, not believing his eyes.
The other just smiled and fanned himself, then bowed theatrically like it was some production. Then gestured his older brother to turn back, more Wen's were coming to have a duel with him.
Nie Mingjue's concentration went back to fighting the Wen's.
Nie Huaisang took off his big sleeved outer robe, he won't need this.
He looked down on the battle beneath him, one hand on his hip, fanning himself with the other. He sighed.
"Well, here we go!"
Then Nie Huaisang jumped off the roof.