There had been a time when Song believed that when the war was finally over, there would truly be peace. The day eventually did come, almost a year ago now, when the newly crowned Fire Lord had pulled back his troops. The war was declared over.
A whole year passed and yet the hospital was as needed as ever. Not every war general followed his new Fire Lord's decree. Not every Earth Kingdom solider could lay down his or her weapon at a moments notice. War and struggle was what anyone in living memory knew, and Song came to realize, with a bitter taste in her mouth, that there was no such thing as peace.
Not even, it seemed, from their own people.
The men who had charged into the hospital's main room were stereotypical Earth Kingdom: tall, broad-shouldered, green-eyed with slabs of muscle packed upon more muscle.
They carried heavy, stone-weighted clubs, too.
"We want medicine," the burliest of the group sneered, tossing a burlap sack down to the floor. A few people backed away, looking everywhere but his eyes. Song, as the only healer on duty, stepped forward.
"If someone is hurt, we will be happy to treat them here," she said, keeping her voice soft and unexcited. Some became shrill with surges of adrenaline. Song always turned quiet and watchful. "We never charge those who cannot pay."
The man leered at her, exposing brown, dirtied teeth. "No one's been hurt," he said, adding, "Yet."
"Please," Song said. "There are people here who are in pain, who need the medicine now. If you take it away from them-"
She got no further than that.
The burly man lifted one paw-hand as if to slap her. With his strength and size he could knock her clear across the room. Song flinched and stepped back, although she knew it wouldn't do any good if-
A man stepped out of the crowd. He had gone unnoticed by Song before - tan, swarthy of unremarkable height. Yet, in a blink of an eye he stood before Song; putting himself as a shield between herself and the burly earthbender.
The sing of metal sounded loud in the quiet room.
The tan man stepped forward - he had a sword in hand, Song realized, although she had not seen him draw it. A flick of movement, and the burly earthbender's pants abruptly fell to his knees.
The earthbender gave a squawk and reached down to cover what he could, but ended up tripping stupidly over himself, pushed aside as another robber came at the swordsman, his wickedly stone-tipped club swinging.
The swordsman stepped forward again, slapping the club away with the flat of his blade. Another flick and the club fell, cut from the handle, and onto its owner's bare foot. The second robber screamed, hopping on one foot and clutching at his toes.
The last three came all at once and Song drew in a startled breath, a hand to her mouth. The swordsman moved like nothing she had ever seen; something only heard about in campfire stories, maybe. The ones where there were beautiful princesses in distress and dashing heroes to save them.
Only Song was no princess. She was a healer with dust and spots of someone else's blood staining her work apron. And her hero was probably too old for her, and fought like he's simply dancing while his opponents were all too clumsy, too slow to keep up.
And when the swordsman had sent the last of the would-be robbers running - he had hurt not a one of them, but humiliated all of them - he stood, back to Song, watching them leave with the tip of this sword planted by his feet.
Then he wavered where he stood, and collapsed in a dead-faint.
The man had a deep wound on his shoulder – a deep, week-old cut which had already taken to festering and must have pained him horribly. It was amazing he had even been able to stand, much less fight off five men, each twice his size.
One of the other healers suggested they amputate the arm to save the rest of the body from blood poisoning. Song argued strongly against it, dug in her heels in a way she rarely did, and won. She drained and cleaned the wound herself, volunteering for the night shift so she could keep an eye on him.
When he woke early the next morning, Song asked him if he was in any pain. She asked him if he remembered what had happened.
His eyes had crowfeet along the corners which deepened as he smiled. "I remember a healer," he said, voice coming out as a rasp, "who stood up to those who came to her with ill-will, and told them no when no one else did."
Song reddened, but before she could remind him of what had really happened, his eyes slid shut.
His name was Piandao.
He told her this on the third day of his recovery with a heavy sort of reluctance, as if there were many things attached to his name and not all of them were pleasant.
It was a name unlike anything Song had heard before. A strong and brave name. When she told him this he smiled. A real, true smile. The first she seen from him.
His body was lean, fit, and clearly used to rigor. He healed quickly and before long Song caught him in the courtyard on a fine spring day with eyes closed and sword in hand; performing measured, practiced moves: a slow dance with his weapon as his partner.
Song leaned against a pillar and watched the sun cast shadows along his tanned skin, his finely tuned muscles rippling with not one ounce of wasted effort.
When Piandao opened his eyes, his gaze met hers. And amazingly, he was the first to blush and look away.
Song always brought interesting boys home to meet her mother: the cool, strong, bad-boys and the lost looking ducklings who just needed someone to love (and sometimes turned around and repaid the favor by stealing her only broken-down ostrich-horse).
She never brought Piandao home to meet her mother. He was a secret she wanted to keep all to herself.
"I have healed well under your ministrations."
Song paused in wrapping his shoulder, though he hardly needed it now. The stitches had come out and the arm seemed to be perfectly functional. Soon, all that would be left was a long thin scar, and her memories.
"It was nothing," she said.
He caught her hand in his, stilling her. "You have a talent, Song. There are places other than this where you will be needed... welcomed." He paused, giving his next words weight. "Come with me."
Her mouth felt dry. "I'm needed here."
"For now, perhaps. But Song," his hand closed over hers in something almost intimate. "The war is over, and peace will soon return to this region."
"Until then," she said, firmly, although she felt her chin quiver. He was leaving and she would stay. "I'll be here."
Piandao held her gaze for a moment, a smile ticking at his lips. He was such a serious man, but every time she had seen him smile, it had been only for her. "I thought you would say that," he murmured, and when his hand left hers there was something heavy and solid in her palm.
Song looked down, saw a small tile in her hand - a Pai-Sho tile? When she looked up, a question on her lips, he was gone.
Months passed. Song wasn't sure she believed Piandao when he said there would one day be peace. There had been a time when she would have accepted any bit of hope without question, and it surprised and saddened her to realize how cynical she had become.
But peace did come, in little stages: less horror stories, fewer patients suffering trauma, and finally... hardly any patients all together, until an entire week went by where she was only treating sunburn and giving checkups for children with colds. Then a month.
Song set out on a crisp autumn day, her clothes packed into a careful bundle and the strange Pai-Sho tile safely tucked away in her pocket.
Song didn't know what lay on the road for her: if she would find Piandao at all, if he would welcome her, if she would be needed, be useful to anyone but him... Or if, at the end of it all everything the mysterious swordsman could offer could even be enough for her.
She didn't know, but she wanted to find out.