102 AG-- Ba Sing Se, Earth Kingdom.
The war destroyed lives. Homes. Families. People.
The Fire Nation was the cause of unspeakable acts, ones that broke the bonds of humanity itself. Power hungry and brainwashed, the nation's people rallied with Fire Lord Ozai to make the world one, all belonging to him.
There wasn't a thought about the poor Water Tribe children who lost mothers and fathers.
There wasn't a thought about the Earth Kingdom men who would fight for their country, and end up dead for its victory.
There wasn't a thought about the Air Nomads, who lived with a philosophy of peace-- their kindness being taken advantage of for all of their people to burn to crisps.
But, if there was one thing Hana took from her mother, from the short time they were together, it was to always have hope. To believe in someone who has the power to do great things. She lost her parents to the war, but if she could find some way to help end it, so that they wouldn't die in vain-- she would do it. And she did find a way.
Hana first met Zuko in a small town, right in the middle of the desert. Being a wanderer all of her teenage life, she constantly traveled across the Earth Kingdom. She had no place to call home, so the world was her home. Every tendril of grass in the dirt, every ocean, every sunrise and sunset, they all greeted her. Welcomed her. The stone caves were her shelters, the forests provided her with the fruits she needed to survive, and freshwater streams would quench her thirst. The world had also given her something so special, the certain something that would keep her warm at night and prove to be a true friend: her deer-dog who she so lovingly named Hina.
Life wasn't the best. She hadn't known much of luxury. But it was good enough. One who many would be envious of, and for that, she was grateful.
But, when she saw Zuko, she knew who he was. The banished prince of the Fire Nation. The prince, whom she felt, was somehow wronged. Hana could tell by the look on his face, that all he needed was for someone to be on his side. This Prince Zuko, he wasn't evil. Not like his father. He was simply misunderstood, and had the greatest potential to become a good man.
The hope she saw when she looked at him made her realize that this was the man that could not only help end the war-- but help it's scarring after effects. He was going to be a revolutionary.
So, she had to do her part. She would help him along the way. Silently. Undetected. Unknown to the world. All that mattered to her was that she knew what she did. She knew she helped a man that would save the world. Hana had been following the Avatar's whereabouts since he first appeared back into the world, and hoped that one day she could help him and his friends too, just like she would help Prince Zuko. A girl could hope.
Hana remembered every time she helped Zuko. She remembered the exact look on his face when he received these little gifts from her. A gentle smile, a look out into the distance, so he could find her. Thank her for everything. She even recalled that after the dozen or so times she did it, he spoke. Zuko said, "Where are you?"
She didn't answer.
After the war was over, Hana found a bar in the city she was staying in and celebrated with strangers, all who were inside so happy to have their freedom back from the ruthless Fire Nation. She drank rice wine (the security measures were a little lax that night), she danced, she sang-- much to her future embarrassment. She was so unbelievably happy because she remembered that she, Hana, had helped save the world. A simple repayment for taking care of her when she had no parents to do so.
After that night, she decided to settle down. Her final migration around the Earth Kingdom was to its capital, Ba Sing Se. The city which held so much promise to its refugees and migrants. There, she found a job at a restaurant, becoming a waitress who served people with a smile on her face. She moved into a tenement building, where she had friendly neighbors, and found a whole tight-knit community there. Another part of the world which would so graciously care for her.
Sure, she had struggled to get where she was, and even still she struggled to get ends meet, but life was good to her. Hana had survived, and continued to survive every single day.
Now, time blurred into a spiral of normality, a routine happening every single day for her. But this normality was much appreciated, especially after enduring a war which gave people the unexpected 24/7.
Sometimes, though, she wished something would come and break that spiral. Something unexpected. Something that would truly lead her to who she was meant to be.
"HANA! DIM SUM TO TABLE 6!"
The loud crash of the restaurants gong rang in her ear, making her jump up to her feet in a state of panic. She grabbed her wooden serving tray and stuffed it under her arm, going to the kitchens to place a large bowl of roast duck filled dim sum on top. It smelled so delicious, that her instincts told her to reach out and grab one, but she knew it wouldn't be worth it if anyone found out.
Tsungi Lee's was a fine establishment, a great place for a warm meal and a casual atmosphere. There was home-style cooking that made almost anyone want to write to their mother, and cheap alcohol for all who could drink it. Every patron was friendly (well, almost every patron), and all of the people that came in made the restaurant feel alive, it bustling with warm energy and happy thoughts. Haku, the owner, was a lovely young man with a great talent for cooking, having all of the old recipes that his family passed down throughout the years. It was a great job, and Hana couldn't be more thankful to Haku for giving her the position.
"Here's your roast duck dim sum." Hana smiled, gently placing the bowl down on the table between the couple who were on a date that obviously wasn't going very well. The man looked creepily attentive and the woman-- she looked up at Hana with a pleading expression. Help me.
She knew what the woman was trying to do, remembering this same look on her own face. Hana had to get by somehow, and as she got older, that meant going on dates with men that would give her money if she did it. She didn't like a second of it, but it was necessary. So, Hana instantly went to help the poor woman.
"Oh my goodness, Big Sis! I haven't seen you in forever! Where on Earth have you been?!" She exclaimed, dramatically tossing aside her serving tray and taking the taller woman into her arms, the woman instantly going along with the unspoken plan.
"Little Sis, I've missed you so much! I've been here, in Ba Sing Se, while Father sent me off to boarding school."
Hana pulled back slightly and made a face at the woman's last words, getting the verbal hint that boarding school was not something pleasant. "Father is a loon. He ran off with his mistress months ago. I've been trying to find you ever since."
"Well, I'm here now, and I'm never leaving my adorable baby sister ever again." The woman reached out and grabbed Hana's cheeks, pinching them slightly and giggling as they went to hug once more. After a few moments, the woman turned back around and made a falsely disappointed face at her date, the man looking up at the two girls in shock. "Oh, Ryu, I hope you don't mind if I take a rain check. I can't bear to continue this while being so distracted by my dear sister."
"Fine." Ryu grumbled, roughly throwing the money for the bill on the table and leaving the restaurant with a very unhappy face.
The two watched Ryu leave, and relief instantly flooded through the woman, stepping back to give Hana some personal space after their whole act was over with.
"Thank you so much. I don't think I could have lasted the night with that insufferable brute of a man."
"It's not at all a problem. And technically, he paid, so you can have that dim sum all to yourself." Hana grinned, turning back around to pick up the serving tray she tossed aside and continue the night's work.
"I want to share it with my hero of the night." The woman pulled Hana back around, guiding her to sit in the chair across from her. She leaned in closer, squinting her eyes to read the characters on Hana's nametag. "Ha-na. That's a lovely name. My name's Tsubaki."
Hana looked over at the other waitress serving that night for approval, and she nodded, Hana's mouth instantly watering over the meal that was in front of her. Her wish had been granted. "It's nice to meet you, Tsubaki. Thank you for sharing this with me. I'm no hero, but I appreciate it."
"Nonsense. You saved me from Ryu-- I've got to give you credit for that."
The two laughed, and went to talk some more, getting well acquainted as they ate their dim sum. Hana's shift went by without her even realizing it, and soon enough the time got later and later, the girls spending all of it chatting and giggling together. Tsubaki realized it was late and dismissed herself, thanking Hana once more and leaving the restaurant with an extra tip for Hana. She pocketed the coins with care and helped to clean up the place seeing as it was closing time, saying goodbye to all of her co-workers once she was done and walking out into the streets of Ba Sing Se.
Hana decided to wander a little that evening, passing by cute little shops and other well established restaurants. Everything was still busy in the city, despite the late hour. She picked up some guava to enjoy that night for dessert, and headed home after that, taking a scenic route she almost never used. It was all closed for now, except for one large shop at the top of a hill, which had its lights on but no people inside. She noticed a figure at the top of the hill struggling to take the garbage out, and so to complete another good deed for the day, and a workout, she ran up the stone pathway and closed in on the figure, recognizing an old man. But not just any old man, it was General Iroh of the Fire Nation. An ally to the Avatar and his friends-- including Prince Zuko.
Her mind flashed back to the first time she saw his face, and the other times she had gotten the opportunity from then on, smiling with the occurrence of the memories. The last time she saw him the whole group of fighters were at the Western Air Temple, and she had delivered some rice and some fresh produce to their campsite. That was the time when he spoke to her. She could still remember his voice.
Hana approached Iroh with a friendly smile, waving to him in greeting before speaking. "Hello! Would you like some help with the trash?"
"Oh, yes. That would be much appreciated." Iroh instantly took her offer and handed her one of the heavy black bags, Hana almost sinking to the ground with a yelp as the sudden weight of the garbage being put in her hands acted as a force to drag her down.
"Are you alright, young lady? I hope it isn't too heavy for you." Iroh fretted, but Hana waved a hand to dismiss his worries, smiling again and hauling it over her shoulder to take to the bin at the corner of the tea shop. She had never been in the place before, but had always wanted to, hearing rave reviews about it from tons of people around town.
"All done." Hana announced, helping Iroh with his trash bag that he had still carried and wiping her hands on her dress after, feeling a bit grossed out by all the trash, but it was nothing compared to the things she'd seen over the years. "Is there anything else I can do for you while I'm here?"
"Actually, there is. How about joining me for a cup of tea? To reward you for your kindness." Iroh offered, but Hana felt bad about accepting. She didn't want to bother the man, especially since there were better things for him to be doing with his time, like getting home to relax after a long day.
"Oh, are you sure? I don't want to make you stay at work too late, a-and you've already done enough for me, sir."
"I certainly don't mind staying, especially if in exchange, we share some of that guava you've got."
Hana giggled, giving into Iroh's offer and nodding. "Okay, then. I'd love to join you. I always need someone to help me finish dessert."
Iroh chuckled along with her and led her inside the tea shop, setting up a small table for the two of them with comfy cushions on the seats. He brought out plates for their fruit and a tea set with some jasmine tea inside, the two waiting for it to steep as they talked and cut up the guava into slices. It made her hands sticky when she grabbed a slice to eat, but she didn't mind, especially because it tasted so good.
"I've been meaning to ask for your name." Iroh spoke, reaching out and shaking her hand. "My name is Iroh."
"My name is Hana." She politely answered, pouring them both a cup full of the tea once she saw that it was done steeping. "Although, I know your name already, Iroh. You were one of the brave fighters in the war. Thank you for what you did."
"So that is why you told me that I have already done enough for you. Well, I appreciate the kindness and warmth you've shown me, Hana. There is no need to thank me for what I did, however. It is my duty just as much as it is the next persons to do what is right." He said, smiling at her as he took his cup of tea and drank from it.
The two began to talk, just as Hana did earlier with Tsubaki, Hana silently enjoying the two people she was fortunate enough to share a meal with that day. It was lonely eating by herself in her tenement building, even with Hina there, and so any time shared with another person made her cheerful. She had to admit, her mind strayed to Zuko as she talked with his uncle, but she tried to remain focus on the person that was here, to not be rude. But, when Iroh began talking about Zuko, her heart began to flutter nervously.
"My nephew will struggle during his reign as Fire Lord, I know that, but he is already proving to be such a great leader. He shows compassion and has the best of intentions for his people. He is the kind of ruler the Fire Nation needs after the war." Iroh smiled wistfully, looking out the window as if he were longing to see Zuko. "I am so proud of the man he has become."
Hana smiled, her images of Zuko brightening, showing him smiling as well. That small, little smile that appeared on his face. When she brought him supplies.
Hana suddenly snapped out of her daze, reaching forward to take their cleared plates and the husk of the guava that they both had devoured. "I'll clean these up for us." Before Iroh could insist otherwise, she turned back and went into the kitchen, finding the sink and the soap with ease. She thought she heard the door jingle and some rustling in the sitting area, but figured that was simply Iroh who was finishing up some last minute chores. Once the dishes were done and dried, she went to bid Iroh goodbye so she could head home to Hina, but paused when she looked up and saw someone who wasn't Iroh standing there.
In fact, it was probably the person she would never expect to be standing in front of her, ever. In her entire lifetime. Despite the fact that she had just been daydreaming about him.
It was Fire Lord Zuko.
He was wearing his full Fire Lord get up, and had his hair tied up with the royal crown holding his bun, Hana noticing how it was different from the shaggy haircut she had seen him with before. The bun very much suited him, just as the shaggy haircut did as well.
"Oh, um, hello. My uncle was just telling me about you."
His words made her heart skip a beat as she just stared at him dumbfounded, it taking a few seconds to realize what was actually happening.
She was in the same room as Zuko.
Zuko was looking at her, and acknowledging her presence.
Fire Lord Zuko.
Hana swiftly backed up into the wall behind her and crashed into the nearby table, haphazardly pushing the chairs back in and placing a hand on her forehead. Her mind had just had a massive headrush, memories and feelings all messing with her and making her brain ache. Her eyes were widened in shock...she didn't know how to handle this situation.
"Are you alright?"
"No." Hana instantly answered Zuko's question with blunt honesty, rushing past Iroh and the Fire Lord without another glance their way. She had to get out of there, in case--
"Wait!" He called out, grabbing her wrist before she could push through the door to leave. His eyes were lingering on her satchel, the only piece of her mother she had left. The only thing telling people that she was halfly Water Tribe. It was brown with a blue cloth strap, the insignia of the Water Tribe stitched into the front with other tribal markings. It was one of a kind. Recognizable. "Where did you get that bag?"
"Where do you think? The Northern Water Tribe. Duh." She said without even turning around, her cheeks a bright red as her face was scrunched up in fear, scared he might call her out at any moment.
"As far as I remember from my visit last week, there was no merchant selling that bag." Zuko replied, keeping a firm grip on her wrist, not wanting to let the girl go when there was something so oddly...familiar. "Try again."
"It's mine, okay? Why does the Fire Lord care about a stupid satchel, anyway?" Hana deflected, scoffing like she was actually angry. She wasn't. Because Zuko was dangerously close to holding her hand.
"I care about your satchel because it is the same satchel that once delivered the Avatar, Katara and Sokka from the Southern Water Tribe, Toph Beifong, Suki from Kyoshi Island, and I, food, when we were out of money and desperately needed it. It is the satchel that has brought me, personally, food and water on too many occasions to count. And I remember, because I would leave it empty where I found it, and the next day it would be gone." Zuko told her earnestly, turning her around to look at him. When he saw her fearful face, he was a bit stunned. "Is it you? Are you the one?"
"I'm sorry." Hana tore away from him and ran out of the tea shop, going as fast as her legs could carry her. A part of her yearned to go back, to tell him that it was her and have him know her. But, she felt like it was too much to ask. She was supposed to have a simple life, where no legendary heroes would ever speak to her, let alone know she had been helping them.
And of course, the one hero that did speak, was the one she dreaded. Because she was sure she was in love with a man she had never met, and knew she could never have.
Hana heard a knock at her door. It was the thing that had pulled her out of bed that morning, since she had been lying there for quite awhile after she had woken up. She was scared to go outside. Scared that she would run into Zuko again.
Last night, once she had gotten home, she instantly washed up for bed and put on her pajamas, not a word being uttered the entire time. Hina had jumped up there in the middle of the night and rested at the foot of it, like she usually did, and also hadn't moved since, due to her laziness.
She crawled out of her bed reluctantly and put on her short blue kimono over her nightgown for modesty, going to the door and opening it to see a mailman at the front. Hana figured it would just be more bills for her to pay, but the man handed her a scroll made of nice, thick paper. Now, the paper wouldn't have impressed her had she not been a massive bookworm, but she had seen so many books, good and bad, fancy and poorly made, that the little things tended to get to her more easily.
"This message is from Fire Lord Zuko, ma'am. He sends it with the utmost urgency."
The mailman's words made her gulp nervously, fear flooding her features again as she shakily thanked the man and closed the door. Hana left the scroll on the small table by her front door as she walked to the washroom, staring at herself in the mirror.
She couldn't run away forever.
As Hana moved her hands up, she felt a rush of cold water come and splash her right in the face, without even having to pump any in the sink. She disappointedly sighed, remembering one fact about herself that she had never embraced, simply because she didn't have the time to. She was a waterbender. Just like her mother was. Without a master to teach her, she was never able to use the gift that her mother had given her. It made her incredibly sad to think about, but just like with other things, Hana pushed it off and focused on the task at hand. Zuko.
She watched as Hina happily strutted to the living room and barked for Hana to give her food, Hana doing it with a sigh. This time she gave the deer-dog some leftover pork from the other night, it being a favorite of hers.
Hana grabbed the letter and pressed her back against her front door as she read it, her eyes almost hungrily scanning the words that Fire Lord Zuko had to say to her.
Last night I told you that I remembered your kindnesses, yet you ran away from my uncle and I with an expression of fear. I am confused as to why you did as such, but I would like to repay you for what you have done to help my friends and I win the war. My uncle and I are leaving for the Fire Nation this afternoon, and would be delighted to have you join us, so I could gift you with a stay at the Royal Palace and a tour of the capital city. If you would like to accept my invitation, please meet us at the harbor at precisely noon. If not, I am sorry to not repay you in someway. I would like you to know how thankful I am to your kindness, and I would truly welcome you into the Fire Nation at any time, if you should ever choose to visit.
Thank you again.
Fire Lord Zuko
She noticed the several blotches of ink and lines in the characters when he scratched out certain things, giggling at the effort that Zuko had put into a letter she didn't even think was worth much effort. His sophistication was merely an act. At least, for now it was.
Hana noticed how she felt when she even read his writing, how happy she was. She felt lighter than air. Like she could sing and dance without a care of who was watching her.
Her feelings made her stop to think. She truly was in love. And if she went on this trip, it would be detrimental to her to come back without his feelings in return. But, if she could just have a few days with the Fire Lord, to really see what he was like...then she could say for sure if she loved him or not. She could get clarity on her feelings for him. Were they real? Or was it all just a ruse?
After spending all of her life in poverty, didn't she deserve a little time to be treated for once?
With that determination in mind, she brought the scroll to her lips and kissed it, giving it a loud smooch. "Just you wait, Fire Lord Zuko...you're gonna know my name. And you're gonna remember it, too."
Hana darted to her bedroom and grabbed her satchel, emptying it of anything inside and taking off her pajamas to put inside. She didn't have very many clothes, but she made sure to wash what she did have often. She then put on her usual outfit, a green dress with a pair of tight black leggings underneath, along with her blue kimono on top. After her pajamas, she threw in the book that she was reading and some treats for Hina, that being all she really had. Hana looked at herself in the mirror before she left and tried to smooth out her unruly brown hair, brushing it so it was nice and soft. She widely smiled at herself and talked herself into doing this once more, instantly calling for Hina once she was done and practically running out the door, but making sure to lock it.
She jogged to Tsungi Lee's and told Haku that she would be taking a vacation, which he dismissed her to without a care. As she continued to run to the harbor, she noticed a market along the way and picked up a couple of pears, knowing that Iroh would appreciate them. All of the sidetracking made her narrowly close to her deadline, but she was determined to make it, when this amazing opportunity was in front of her.
Her heart was pounding and she was panting almost as much as Hina was as she ran alongside her. She would see Zuko again.
She got to the harbor just as Zuko and Iroh were heading up the gangplank to get onto the boat, shouting out in the hopes that they would hear her. "Wait! Wait, I'm here!"
Zuko turned and noticed her with a gentle smile, one that Hana instantly recognized from the times she saw him receiving the food. That only made her cheeks turn a deeper shade of red.
She approached them with Hina happily barking at her feet, breathlessly staring up at Zuko with a grin so wide her cheeks began to hurt.
"I'm glad to see you could make it."
"I'm glad to be here."
They stared at each other for a moment, the tension good, but thick between them.
"So, Mr. Fire Lord, are you ready to give me the vacation of a lifetime?" Hana piped up, cheekily joking with him.
"Are you? I mean-- uh-- that's not--" He shook his head, cursing himself under his breath for a failed attempt at a response. "I mean, yes. I'm ready and very much willing."
Hana felt her knees go weak.