(One person Yue's mother might have been, and five things she never did.)
"Never fear, we will turn them back," is the last thing Arnook says to her. The bender stationed on the nearest line of battlements catches three fireballs with the wall of ice he raises, but the fourth is a little too high; it skims the top of the wall and curves down, smashing into Arnook's chest.
Atkah screams and sobs and clutches at him until Yugoda and Tiriak drag her away to somewhere safer; later, the only thing she can remember thinking, aside from This can't be happening, is that she's glad Yue isn't there to watch her father's body burn.
Arnook isn't the only loss. The Fire Nation attack is repelled eventually, but it is devastating: they lose hundreds, and it probably would have been thousands if the Fire Nation force had been larger.
Atkah overrides Master Pakku's objections, and every bender strong enough to be a help works for days to repair the walls, every healer that can be spared paired off with a soldier who can teach them the necessary moves. The non-benders do whatever they can; Atkah sends even Yue around with food for the laboring benders, and then off to spend nearly thirty-six hours straight in the healers' stations, cleaning and changing the bandages on wounds deemed too minor for a bender to deal with. Atkah herself cannot work on the walls, though she itches to try—there is too much still left to coordinate.
Katamik comes to her after four days to tell her that the walls have been restored to their former glory. "Good," Atkah says. "Now make them taller." She is the chief now; she will not let this happen again.
Master Pakku thinks that the end of the crisis means that everything will go back to normal; this mistaken impression lasts until Atkah interrupts his bending class for the younger boys with Tiriak at her shoulder, and, behind them, a group of seventy-odd other women who showed a particular talent when they were assigned to the walls. "Teach us how to fight with it," Atkah says.
Master Pakku frowns. "Now, listen—" he starts.
Atkah doesn't let him finish. "If you won't teach all of us directly, then I'll order you to teach me, and then teach them myself," Atkah says. "Or I'll find another man who will."
Katamik is probably a better teacher than Master Pakku would have been, anyway.
After a few years, the city is thriving again. They have had to expand back into the ice to the northwest twice, and the walls are thicker and taller than ever. The women are all as well-trained as they could hope to be, and Yue is seventeen—old enough to be left in charge, if Katamik and Tiriak are there to advise her.
That is, appropriately enough, when the Avatar comes to them, and tells them about the Day of Black Sun.
Atkah takes two hundred benders and sails around the eastern coast of the Earth Kingdom. It doesn't take long, with the benders switching off between holding together the icy scow they're all standing on, and propelling the giant wave that carries it.
The Avatar and his group lead them on his sky bison—except for the Southern Tribe girl; she rides with them, on the ice, so that Atkah can spend the trip teaching her bending. Her footwork's not quite as tight as Atkah's, but she's not bad.
"I need to see the Earth King," Atkah tells the uncooperative man with the peculiar beard.
"So you've said," the uncooperative man says sharply, "but the Earth King is a very busy man—"
"He's not too busy for this," Atkah says.
"I can see that," Master Pakku says, his disdain only barely concealed. "But our tribe has customs—rules."
Atkah watches the Southern Tribe girl's face tighten with anger, and steps forward before she can say anything. "The same is not true in the South," she says.
The girl's burgeoning anger is replaced with confusion. "No," she says. "No—that's why I came up here in the first place. I'm the last Waterbender; there should be someone to train me, but there isn't," and she shoots a vicious sideways glare at Master Pakku.
"If he won't teach Katara, then—then I won't learn from him," the Avatar says.
Atkah looks at him, at the determination writ large over his young face. Well, she thinks, that settles it. They cannot let the Avatar go untaught; what are Northern customs when weighed against the fate of the world?
"My grandmother was Akkaya," she says. "She came here from the South."
Master Pakku gives her a look that clearly asks why she is bothering them all with this irrelevant fact, but the girl's face speaks of recognition. "She was Gran-Gran's oldest cousin," she says slowly. "And a master Waterbender."
"So she was," Atkah agrees, and there, yes; Master Pakku's eyebrows are beginning to draw down into a frown. "My mother was a bender also, and so am I." She meets Master Pakku's suddenly thunderous gaze with a steady stare. "I can teach you what you need to know," she tells the girl, and smiles.
Arnook gives Sokka kind of an assessing look, but Sokka's weirdly not nervous; if there's one thing he knows, it's what Fire Nation troop uniforms look like. "My wife is in charge of this mission," Arnook says after a moment, pointing to the woman who introduced herself earlier as Atkah. "If you would tell her what you know, I would ... greatly appreciate it."
Atkah's patient and attentive in a way that reminds Sokka of Yue, which is a little weird. He'd say he's always tried to avoid thinking about his crushes while advising their mothers on the details of covert military operations, except this is the first time he's ever had to worry about it.
She listens, is the point, and a few hours later, all of their captured uniforms have been modified.
It's surprisingly easy for them to sneak onto the Fire Nation ships—maybe it speaks to how crazy this plan is, that nobody's expecting them to try it. Sokka nearly gets impaled once, when a Fire Nation soldier comes suddenly around a corner, but this guy named Hahn whacks him in the temple with the haft of his pike, so it all turns out okay.
Zhao is up on the command deck with an older guy who looks kind of familiar; Sokka peers around the corner to make sure that it's him, and then nods to Atkah, because it is. It's strange—the older guy must see Atkah as soon as she springs out from where she's flattened against the wall, and there's—well, okay, it's only maybe a second between her first movement and when she drags Zhao down to the deck, but he doesn't even start to yell.
Zhao does, but Atkah already has him by that point. Sokka and Hahn and everybody take down the soldiers who come at the sound of the shout, and by the time they turn around, Atkah has heaved Zhao's unconscious body over the side, and has a knife to Older Guy's throat. "Show us how to steer the ship," she says, and Sokka can't quite keep from smiling when Older Guy nods and leads them to the bridge.
Atkah is looking for Yue when she runs into the scarred boy who has the Avatar slung across his back. Nearing a battle is a bad time to realize you don't know where your daughter is; she can't come up with a reason why Yue might have gone to the Spirit Oasis, but she's looked everywhere else, and she thought it couldn't hurt to check.
The boy looks startled for a second, and then his face goes grim, and he curls up one fist and punches a ball of flame at her.
A Firebender, Atkah thinks, ducking; how did he get so far into the city? The fighting's barely even started, there's no way the Fire Nation has already broken through the walls. This boy must not be under General Zhao's command—but who would be crazy enough to break into the city and kidnap the Avatar alone?
She can't bend for anything but healing, she doesn't know how; but she does have her pike, and she swings the haft around so that it knocks the boy's feet out from under him. He tumbles to the ground, landing right on the Avatar—Atkah hopes the Avatar will forgive her for that.
"Wait," Atkah blurts out, and takes the fish from Yue's hands—she tries to be careful, but her hands are shaking a little with the nearness of her daughter's sacrifice, still not fully averted. The moon has gone red above them, but not black; the koi is bloody but still twitching against her fingers. "Quickly," she says, and she's not sure to whom, "get everyone you can find, hurry—"
The Southern girl, Katara, doesn't even move for the entrance to the Oasis; she just throws one hand into the air, and a jet of water follows the motion, darting up high enough that it's probably visible even to the Fire Nation ships out on the ocean.
A moment later, Tiriak skids in, boots scraping against the ice, just as Atkah is stepping into the water.
"Here, quickly," Atkah cries, and Tiriak rushes into the pool without a moment's hesitation, hands already glowing blue. Kirima follows her a moment later, and Chulyin, and Putyuk; someone is shouting, probably explaining to them, but Atkah cannot spare the concentration to listen, when she is already so busy trying to put the koi back together.
It's lucky that they're in the Oasis; the spirit water here is stronger, and something about it pulls them all closer together, makes it easier to coordinate. Putyuk is keeping the koi surrounded with water, so that it cannot die gasping while they are working; Chulyin is pressing the blood back so that Tiriaq and Kirima can repair the flesh in the deepest part of the burn; and Atkah knows it all without asking. She herself can feel the spirit fish's heart, through her bending, and she holds the pulse steady when it would try to speed up out of shock, or slow down from exhaustion.
It feels like hours, but it must only be minutes before Tui arches, sudden and vigorous, and flops out of the circle of hands and back into the pool. Atkah staggers back, as drained as though she had been the one burned; it is her own daughter's hands which catch her and steady her, Yue disregarding the water and plunging right into the pool to hold her up.
She looks at her daughter's face, and at the moon in the sky beyond—bright and full again, as though nothing ever happened—and lets out a long sigh of relief. If she never has another day like this in her life, it will be too soon.
(Five things Katara and Sokka's mother never did.)
With Hakoda gone to war, it is now Kya alone who hunts to feed her children—though Sokka will soon be old enough to help her. So she must stay out longer, and travel further than she used to, paddling out among the icebergs.
That is why she finds the frozen boy.
"We know there's one left," the soldier growls. "Now tell us who it is."
Kya pretends to cringe toward the wall in fear, and feels around for the handle of her club. "Please, no—" she says, and the soldier leans in threateningly.
The club hits him in the temple, and he tumbles to the ice without even a cry.
Kya ducks the dart of fire that blazes toward her, and swings the club again, catching the second soldier's ankles. The third rushes her with his sword drawn; she kicks out sharply toward his knee, and is rewarded with a popping sound and a cry of pain.
They know that the Prince's ship is coming; they have very little time, and very few options. There are only six of them—Kanna is too old to fight, and Yimika's little boy isn't even eighteen months old; better that she be captured by the Fire Nation and still able to care for him than leave him to die.
They cannot take on an entire ship's worth of soldiers, so they must be clever, instead. The Prince's ship cracks the ice like a summer thaw; when the ramp comes down on the wall with a crunch, Kya is crouched low on one side, with her gutting knife in her hand.
The Prince himself comes down the ramp, and Sokka, painted face strangely stern, rushes him like the warrior he will one day be. The Prince fends him off with a sharp blow, but for one moment, he is distracted, and Kya leaps up and catches him around the shoulders with one arm, and presses the knife to the thin skin of his throat.
The Dragon of the West has been sieging Ba Sing Se for a year and a half, and the walls are surrounded. Kya doesn't know how the messenger managed to make it out of the city alive; but he did, and now he is kneeling in front of her. "For Lady Kya of the Southern Water Tribe," he says, and hands her the scroll with the Earth Kingdom seal.
Technically, she is not a lady, but chief, since Hakoda was killed; but she suspects that is not a title the Earth Kingdom is especially familiar with.
She has long been of the opinion that the remaining free nations will need to band together in order to stay that way—but now, at last, the Earth King agrees; she no longer needs to hold back the Southern Water Tribe's fleets because he refuses to ask for help.
Kya can handle the storm; it is bad, to be sure, and very fast-moving, but not the worst she has ever seen.
But the sea monster is a little bit beyond her experience.
She flees as best she can, but her control over the boat is limited, and there comes a point when the monster's jaws are just too much for the boat-frame. It cracks around her, but it holds the monster's teeth apart long enough for her to slide out and dive back into the water.
She drags herself up onto the shore with heartfelt thanks to the spirits, and then lets herself slip into unconsciousness.
When she wakes up, she is surrounded by green—green skirts. She blinks.
"Who are you?" a girlish voice demands, and then a white-painted face leans over her.
Kya would return the question, but she is too busy passing out again.
(Five people Suki's mother might have been, and one thing each of them never did.)
Tezura reads the letter again, and again, eyes flickering up and down the lines, because she knows that when she sets it down, she will never read it again.
Ryoharu is dead; that is what it says. They have been married less than a year, and six months ago he was called away to the front; and now he is dead, and the baby currently weighing down her stomach will never know its father.
She knows what her mother will say, when Tezura tells her what has happened, and she knows, too, what she will say in response. Some people are lucky enough to have flexible hearts, but Tezura is stubborn in all things. She will not marry again.
Her father would never let her join the army, even if she were able to; but she has heard that in the southern islands, women make their own choices about these things.
So she leaves the letter on the table, puts together a pack she will be able to carry, and goes.
Kyoshi Island is one of the smallest islands in the southern ocean; if her family chooses to look for her, they are very unlikely to look there. The head of the Warriors of Kyoshi on the island is a woman named Chideko, who looks like she was born in her war makeup, and doesn't give Tezura an inch even though her first month of lessons with the iron fans is also the last month of her pregnancy.
When Tezura's daughter is born, it is into a circle of women in green battle robes, and the first thing she touches with her tiny new fingers is an iron fan.
Suki is eight when the pirates come, and Chideko takes a blade to the thigh and doesn't get up again. She recovers, but experiences shooting pains and sudden weaknesses in her leg that will not go away.
Three months later, she comes up to Tezura after a training session and shoves the first's headdress at her chest. "I am still a Warrior of Kyoshi," she says, "but I cannot be the first if I cannot know when my leg may choose to buckle." She snaps her fan warningly at Tezura. "If you try to keep me off the front lines, I'll take that back from you."
"I know you will," Tezura says, and takes it. She has about fifteen years less of training than anyone else, but Chideko is like Tezura: she never likes to do anything the easy way.
When Suki is fifteen, a canoe pulls up on the shore of the bay near the village. Tezura tosses her daughter's fans to her, and when Tezura knocks out the boy with the shaved head, Suki is right next to her, bringing her fan down on the girl dressed in blue.
"Tie them to the statue post," Tezura orders, when all three of them are unconscious. "We'll see what they have to say when they wake."
Shintsumi is a farmer, the daughter of a family of farmers, the wife of a farmer. So how she has ended up chief of the village, she's not entirely sure.
The Fire Nation attack was particularly brutal; that, she understands. Chief Oyaji was killed; that, she remembers. But the rest is something of a blur—Ashiya tells her she took command, that it was her intervention that saved the rest of the village from destruction, but all she recalls is that she saw what needed doing, and ensured that it was done. It felt like a very small thing, at the time; but the fur around her shoulders and the respect in the other villagers' eyes says otherwise.
She still can't quite understand it. This village is hers; she could not have stood by and let it be burned off the earth. Nothing she did was exceptional—it is only that there was no other path.
She and Yumo move their things into the chief's house, attached to the back of the main gathering hall, and she takes Suki by the hand and leads her through the rooms—three of them, two more than any house Shintsumi has ever lived in before. Showing her daughter their new home gives her a chance to pretend that all of this is normal.
Shintsumi strides down the hill toward her daughter, eyeing the prisoners her daughter has captured with all the haughtiness she can muster. She feels ridiculous, but it seems to work reasonably well; the prisoners look moderately cowed.
"You three have some explaining to do," she says.
The Fire Nation took Ba Sing Se five years ago, but what was once the Earth Kingdom does not bear a Fire Nation yoke easily; particularly not the southern islands. Kyoshi Island does not seem important, but it is. It is the site of the first true resistance to Chin the Conqueror—it is where Kyoshi turned the tide against his armies. The spirit of rebellion is strong here, and so is the spirit of the Avatar, though the current Avatar himself—an aging man now—lies in chains somewhere in the depths of the Imperial Palace.
This, Ayako knows, is why the Phoenix King has come.
Ostensibly, he is simply touring the territories now under his control, surveying his new lands like a child inspecting a new doll. But the unnatural stillness of the village as the imperial fleet draws closer, the shuttered eyes and tight jaws of everyone on the street, tell a less innocuous story.
The Phoenix King is brought up from the bay on a palanquin, but he chooses to step out of it at the bottom of the main avenue, mere feet from the post that supports the great statue of Kyoshi. A kindness, Ayako might be tempted to think, except she knows better. He's not doing it to put himself on an even footing with them, as a sign that he is not a distant and callous lord; he is doing it so that when he looks at them with disdain, they will be able to see it.
He tours the village circled by advisors and officials—one of them, Ayako sees, is Totsuro, who was once the mayor of the largest island in the chain Kyoshi Island is part of, and who is now one of the Phoenix King's many regional authorities; he is especially blatant in his desire to show the Phoenix King how Kyoshi Island has been tamed. Idiot, Ayako thinks.
The people of Kyoshi Island do not give the group much of a berth. Unintentionally at first, Ayako is fairly certain; they are simply dedicated to their everyday business, and unwilling to let the Phoenix Lord's presence disrupt their usual routines. But soon enough, those who pass by begin brushing arms and elbows as they go, knocking baskets against the knees of governors and generals—horridly disrespectful, and even the apologies the townspeople murmur as they go cannot hide it. Ayako watches the Phoenix King's face grow stormy, and feels only vicious satisfaction.
She has been watching from the shrine, high on the hill. Maintaining it is a duty that fell into her hands several years ago, and one she took up gladly; she has sat there often in the last five years, smoothing Kyoshi's robes and dusting her fans, and drawing a quiet strength from them. Suki has begun helping her, tall enough now to handle a broom, and Ayako encourages her to spend time in the shrine. Though Kyoshi warrior-paint is forbidden now, Ayako has seen her daughter outlining where the patterns would lie on her own face with curious fingers, and felt her heart grow glad.
Suki is there now, carefully brushing the dust from the great painting of Kyoshi on the island, and Ayako moves to help her—Suki is still too short to reach the top half of the painting. So she is busy with work when she realizes a crowd is gathering outside. "Stay back," she tells Suki, and steps toward the door of the shrine.
The Phoenix King is standing outside the shrine, surrounded by a half-moon of fawning officials, with a few of the townspeople pausing curiously on the outskirts; Ayako sees Tenzu, Nanpo, Yumeya and her daughter. The Phoenix King's face has taken on a look of almost vindictive displeasure, and Ayako feels her heart begin to pound.
"I ordered this destroyed," he says.
"You did?" says hapless Totsuro, and then rapidly corrects himself. "You—did. Of course, Your Imperial Majesty—it will be done—"
"I wouldn't want to burden you," the Phoenix King sneers, and then sweeps a hand forward, flames springing whole from his palm.
Ayako doesn't think; she stands in the doorway of Kyoshi's shrine, settles her feet, and punches a boulder up out of the ground. The Phoenix King's handful of fire splashes off the surface with a hiss, and fades.
She lets the rock tumble back into place, and when it has settled again, the Phoenix King is staring at her, mouth twisting with rage. "You dare," he says, almost wonderingly, and assumes a real bending stance.
She meets the whirling cone of fire he bends at her with a wall of rock, and then splits the wall into pieces and sends them all flying at him. The officials scatter; some of them must be benders, Ayako thinks, but afraid to interfere lest the Phoenix King take umbrage. He's the sort to think of accepting a helping hand as a weakness.
He throws a whip of flame next, and she is not quick enough to block it; it sears her ankle with pain, and she falters. His chin lifts in triumph, and he throws a dozen darts of flame at the air around her. She lifts a dozen stones at once, and catches most of them; but one slips through and sets the shrine wall alight.
She sees a flare of blue out of the corner of her eye, and shouts "Suki!"; Suki must know that she means it as a scolding, but she doesn't back away—she just keeps pulling off her outer robe, and then shoves it against the wall, smothering the flames.
Enough, Ayako thinks, and slams her foot into the ground, pressing her fists together end-to-end. Enough of this, and she shoves each fist toward the opposite elbow, and cracks the earth beneath the Phoenix King's feet apart.
Mikyoza crosses her arms, impatient. "Surely you can see this is the only way we are both going to get through this," she says.
The chief of the village dips his head, neither a nod nor a shake—infinitely frustrating, but, Mikyoza thinks wryly, it will make their negotiations go even more slowly if she cuts off his head. "Yet there are many issues to consider, here," he says. "Issues of safety—issues of trust. You and your band have robbed us many times, have killed our neighbors and friends and families."
Mikyoza shifts a little, and remembers what she was thinking mere moments ago with suddenly acute discomfort. "Not haphazardly," she says. "In self-defense—"
"Because they tried to keep what you would have stolen," the chief says.
Mikyoza frowns. Technically true, but it sounds worse than usual when he says it. "Never children," she says at last. "Never anyone who had not already raised a blade against us."
"I know," the chief says. "That is why we are having this conversation at all."
When Mikyoza steps back outside the village hall, the Warriors of Kyoshi and the bandits are still eyeing each other warily in the village center, the Warriors in a tight knot of green and white with fans flared, and the bandits leaning on fences and walls, pointedly cleaning their swords.
Mikyoza gives the nearest, Nairi, a flat look.
"What?" Nairi says, a little petulant, but she sheathes her sword right after, so Mikyoza knows she knew what she meant.
They linger in the village's lone street long after dark; they have nowhere else to go, really, until the negotiations with Chief Oyaji are complete. It's peculiar, being surrounded by the light of so many hearths shining through the windows; the bandits have camps, of course, eat together and laugh together and watch each other's children, but they do not settle into such houses. Such homes.
And, of course, they have no camp here, no fire. They will sleep on the ground, and perhaps in the morning Oyaji may be convinced to grant them a space to cook some breakfast.
Mikyoza sits, leaning against a convenient wall, and falls asleep thinking these things; she wakes the next morning to find them unnecessary thoughts.
"Excuse me?" the man says again, peering down at her doubtfully.
Mikyoza blinks at him, and then at the bowl cupped in his hands, and tries to arch her sore back without letting on that that's what she's doing. "I'm awake," she says, "thank you."
"No, it wasn't just for—that is—" The man pauses, faintly flustered, and then shoves the bowl in her direction. "Here," he says stiffly.
Mikyoza peers into the bowl: rice porridge, with a small helping of grilled fish on the side. She looks up and sees that there is a small crowd watching her; her own people, trying to look as though they aren't watching, and the townspeople nearby, some with bowls in their own hands, unabashedly staring. Many of the villagers have baleful looks on their faces, and the man who gave the bowl to her is gazing at her warily. Waiting to see what she'll do. This is a test, Mikyoza thinks, glancing up the hill to where Chief Oyaji is standing with arms crossed. A chance to prove that they are able to be kind to one another, if they try—and able to trust, in some small way, if she accepts the porridge without making someone else check it for poison first. She wonders whether the man volunteered, or Oyaji made him do it.
Not a very hard test, Mikyoza thinks, in the end; she is very hungry. She eats it.
The other villagers nearby give out more food—grudgingly, at first, but then Nairi's bowl slips through her fingers, splattering rice porridge down her front. She catches the bowl again, back to her usual deftness, and then stares down her shirt and starts to laugh. The woman who handed the bowl to her blinks, startled, and then cracks half a smile. "At least you saved my bowl," she says, and ushers Nairi into her house to clean the porridge off.
Mikyoza watches the villagers, who themselves are watching the house, like they expect Nairi to burst out any moment covered in blood, sword high. But Nairi emerges wearing Kyoshi Island blue, arguing politely with the woman about her shirt. "I can wash it myself," she is saying; "even bandits know how to do laundry."
The thaw comes rapidly after that; nothing unites people like a common enemy. The bandits may have killed some of the townspeople, but it has been a long time since their last raid, and the Fire Nation has killed far more. Mikyoza's bandits have not gone unscathed either—the Fire Lord does not care for Earth Kingdom citizens who carry swords, whether they are soldiers or criminals.
The man who gave Mikyoza her bowl is named Banji, and he keeps watching her with hostile eyes long after most of the other villagers are willing to smile at her.
"You're the one who brought me food in the first place," Mikyoza points out to him one day, tired of the angry weight of his gaze on her face.
"I did," he agrees, "and I would again; because it was the right thing to do, not because I wanted you fed."
This is an utter reversal of the way Mikyoza functions in the world: she does what benefits her without shame, and if she should happen to accomplish something of merit at the same time, all well and good; but she doesn't chase after such things. To hear someone profess to act because what that action means is more important than what it actually does is highly peculiar.
"Huh," Mikyoza says.
The Fire Nation controls a significant portion of the mainland, and the southern islands are undoubtedly becoming a priority; but when the armies of the Fire Lord come again to Kyoshi Island, it is as a fleet heading for the South Pole, limping from a heavy storm over the ocean—a fleet which was evidently planning to stop on Kyoshi Island to make repairs. The soldiers are searching for wood to stoke their fires when they come upon the village.
There is simply not enough time to be divided; Warriors of Kyoshi end up alongside bandits not as part of a grand gesture of acceptance, but because they are taken by surprise and have only a few minutes to form a fighting line. Mikyoza is mere feet from Banji, and the inexplicable terror that grips her when flames flash close in his face means that it takes her a moment to realize she has reacted by charging forward and striking a man's head with the hilt of her sword.
"Yon Rha!" someone else shouts, but they are too late; she slides her blade between the man's ribs with practiced ease, and doesn't regret it at all.
The first thing Suki does every day when she wakes is leap up, run to the window, and check for Mama. "Do you think she'll be home today, Baba?" she always asks.
And Baba always smiles at her and says, "I'm sure she'll be home soon, Suki."
Some days he doesn't really sound like he believes it; but when he says it, he lets Suki pretend Mama will come home any day now, so Suki figures the least she can do is let Baba pretend he means it when he does.
She does her best to help him; there's so much work to do with Mama gone. But she's only seven, and there are some things she's just not tall enough or big enough or strong enough to do. Yet, Suki promises herself; one day, she'll be strong enough to do anything she wants.
Of course, it wasn't always easy with Mama there, either. Suki doesn't remember Mama very well—mostly just an impression of strong arms and a wide smile, and the way her glaive glinted when she practiced with it on sunny days. But Baba tells her stories all the time. Mama wasn't a farmer at first, not like Baba; she was a soldier, all the way from Ba Sing Se, and the first year after they were married she'd nearly broken the plow at least a dozen times. Suki knows every tale Baba has to tell her like the back of her hand, by now, but she thinks he likes to tell them nearly as much as she likes to hear them. So he tells stories, and they work, and they wait for Mama to come home.
But at last there comes a day when they head into town and everything looks different—everyone is smiling, laughing, instead of hurrying from house to house with their eyes low. "The war is over!" one of their neighbors, Genzo, cries, when he sees Baba in the street. "The Fire Nation has abandoned their last colony in the north—the war is over!"
Baba laughs even though his face looks like he's about to cry, and he picks Suki up and twirls her around once before squeezing her close. "Now," he says. "Now, Mama will be home any day."
Suki's expecting a sign, something that will mark the day as lucky right from the start, but that's not how it happens. She trips bringing water back to the house from the well, which means she has to go back and haul another bucket and she's skinned her knees, and Baba cuts himself when he's trying to fit a new tooth into their old rake. He's still sucking on his hand and grumbling when Suki sees the figure coming up the path, and drops the second bucket, too.
"Suki," he says, faintly exasperated, but then he sees it, too; the figure's still too far away for them to see a face, but there's dark hair and Earth Kingdom armor and sunlight glinting off a blade.
Suki always thought she would run to Mama the second she saw her, but it's like her feet have been nailed to the ground; she can't make herself move an inch. What if it's someone else? Or, worse, what if it's Mama, but she doesn't like Suki anymore? It's been so long—how can Suki be sure? So she stays where she is, clutching Baba's uninjured hand, and they wait.
They don't have to wait long; the figure works its way up the slope toward their house, and then looks up, and it is Mama, of course it is. She smiles, just as wide as Suki remembers, and runs the last thirty feet, even though the pack on her back must be heavy. "Tekaro," she says, right before she hits Baba with a thump and knocks him back against the wall of the house.
"Chunyi," Baba says, sounding like he's choking, and wraps his arms tight around her—even the hand he cut. "Commander," he adds, after a moment, and Mama pushes back a step and laughs.
"Shut up," she says, and then dumps the pack from her back, and even lets her glaive fall to the ground. "Suki," she says, and catches Suki up close like Suki is years younger. "Oh, Suki, Suki, my darling girl. You're so big now," and now it's Mama who sounds like she's choking.
"Not that big," Suki says, wrapping her legs around Mama's waist and curling her arms tight around Mama's neck. "I've got plenty of big left to go."
"And I'm not going to miss a bit of it," Mama says firmly, kissing her cheek.
(One person Jet's mother might have been, and five things she might have done.)
Jinshiang loves her parents dearly; loves working on the farm, tending the pig cows, raking the hay. But it's exhausting work that never ends, and she sees how her parents stoop, the weariness that curves their shoulders, and knows that she can't spend the rest of her life doing it.
She has four brothers and two sisters, so she knows she will not leave her parents without anyone to care for them, and she resolves to herself that she will send them as much money as she can spare; more, even. This alleviates much of the guilt she feels for deciding to head for the city.
She tells her mother first, because Mother will see the sense in it even if she doesn't want to. Father won't want her to go, and he'll let that overwhelm all other considerations; but Mother will understand. Chaoying and Mei Sun are pleased for her, and when they are all squeezed into their bed together that night, they whisper to her excitedly of all the wonders the city undoubtedly holds.
When the day comes, Father cries; not as an attempt at persuasion, only because he is sorry to let her go. Mei Sun helps Mother and the boys comfort him, and Chaoying winds her arms around Jinshiang and murmurs, smiling, "Don't forget to send me presents."
Jinshiang laughs and shakes her head, but she knows she won't.
Their farm is in the northwest; not as far as you can get from Ba Sing Se, but not close, either, and the trains don't go that far from the city. Jinshiang is prepared to walk the whole way—her legs are strong, she thinks with a smile, after chasing down so many pig chickens—but perhaps halfway to the train, there is a family with a cart, and they let Jinshiang ride on the back corner and make sure none of their belongings fall off the back.
The train is beautiful. The track looks like a bridge from far away, arching over the ground like all that stone weighs nothing at all—like a bridge to the sky, the way it ends where they're waiting. They can hear the train coming long before they can see it, the Earthbending that pushes it making the track shake and rumble, and by the time it finally comes into view, Jinshiang feels like her heart has been pounding for at least an hour.
She helps the family with the cart load their things onto the train, and then takes a seat, as close to the back of the train as she can. She thinks she'll like being able to feel the quiver of Earthbending through the train floor, knowing every tremble is bringing her closer to the city, and she won't mind if it takes her a while to fight her way back to the door when they arrive. This train is hope incarnate, her path to her new life; she won't complain if she ends up spending ten extra minutes on it.
Jinshiang bows to Shing Minleng as deeply as she can manage, and wonders whether she can figure out how to put lice in the five bolts of silk he has just ordered.
If she has gotten the job, that is; she turns, and sees Mistress Tsu smiling at her from the corner where she has been watching, invisible from where Lord Shing was standing. "Good," she says decisively. "If you can handle Lord Shing on the first day, you can handle the job."
Jinshiang lets out a sigh of relief, and only realizes it was audible when Mistress Tsu laughs. "My apologies—" she starts.
Mistress Tsu waves a hand. "Enough," she says. "You have only just come to the city, haven't you? You have the look of someone who has just stepped off the train."
This is not precisely true; it has been nearly a whole month, a month of sleeping in doorways and on roofs so that she may devote her dwindling store of coins to feeding herself. She was not quite clean enough, fine enough, to pass the gates into the Middle Ring, so she spent a whole handful of money yesterday to get all her clothes laundered, and if she had not won this job, it might well have been a waste.
"They are not all like Lord Shing," Mistress Tsu assures her. "And he pays well, which you will find helps to make his foibles forgivable."
Jinshiang thinks he surpassed foibles a long time ago—he is both rude and demanding, and sighed like she was deliberately thwarting him when she told him it would take time to obtain the exact dye shades he requires. But if he pays well, and Mistress Tsu demands it, Jinshiang will touch her head to the floor in front of him, as long as she can keep this job.
Mistress Tsu insists that Jinshiang cannot work at the shop wearing such clothes as she has, even though they look better than they ever have before; Jinshiang suspects this is half truth, and half an excuse for Mistress Tsu to give her a generous stack of silks. Jinshiang went into the shop at random, but she chose well: Mistress Tsu is kind and thoughtful, with a gentle sense of humor. When she finds out Jinshiang has nowhere to stay, she helps her find a place in the Lower Ring that is reasonably priced and not unpleasant, and pays her early so that she may move there immediately.
And she was right; all the customers are not like Lord Shing. Certainly, there are other lords and ladies whose every action seems designed to tell Jinshiang that she does not meet their standards for service; but they get tailors, too, and women from the Middle Ring who embroider the most beautiful things Jinshiang has ever seen in her life.
At first, the silks catch on Jinshiang's rough hands, but soon the callouses of the farm fade and she handles the cloth as delicately and confidently as Mistress Tsu herself. She sends money home as fast as she can make it, and saves up enough money to buy silk robes for Chaoying and Mei Sun and Mother from one of their best customers.
Her favorite days are when Lord Shing sends his servants, instead of coming himself. She appreciates deeply what she has been spared, and if she is lucky, the servant who comes will be Peng Shao. Peng Shao is polite, with a face made for smiling, and never complains once when she lingers over the bolts and talks with him, even though it makes an hour-long visit out of what might easily have been a ten-minute trip. Mistress Tsu teases her often about Peng Shao, and though Jinshiang protests, it makes her face hot with happiness.
They cannot afford a house in the Middle Ring, but the nearer you are to the gates between rings, the better the Lower Ring becomes; so they find a perfectly good place in the Lower Ring by the Great South Gate, and they have lived there for nearly a year when the fire starts.
It doesn't begin anywhere near them, but it has been a dry summer and the wind is high, so it's not long before they hear a distant roaring.
At first it sounds like the wind, and Jinshiang pays it no attention; then it sounds like water rushing, and Jinshiang listens to the change in volume for a moment before realizing something about it is unusual. She leaves the rice to heat briefly unattended, and steps toward the door, sharing a look of confusion with Shao.
The first thing she sees when she opens the door is people running. The second thing is the great black smear of smoke hanging in the west, the sun glinting redly through it like a molten coin.
"Shao," she cries, and looks to the west, and yes, there, she can see the flames, pulled by the wind into whirling arcs and towers. The wind is coming from the west, blowing into her face hot as a bellows, and she feels a spike of fear deep in her belly.
They run for the Great South Gate. It's lucky they are so close, Jinshiang is thinking, and then slows, uncertain. There is a great crowd at the gate, people banging on the wood with their fists; but the gates are not opening.
She stares, uncomprehending, but Shao yanks her back with a terrible, knowing look on his face. "Keep running," he shouts, over the noise.
"But the wind," Jinshiang yells, "the sparks—they'll go over the wall—"
Shao shakes his head. "They won't open the gates," he says. "Not if they think it will help save the Middle Ring. Keep running," he repeats, and they do.
They live, because they are fast and lucky; they outlast the wind, which changes direction in the evening, as it often does, and then dies down.
Squads of Earthbenders in the Middle Ring raised the walls, and lifted stone against the backs of the wooden gates to keep the fire out. Only when the wind has changed do they rush into the Lower Ring and raise earthen barriers against the flames, and begin to beat the fire back.
Their house is gone, leaving behind half a blackened frame and a smattering of scorched dishes, cracked by the heat. They have nothing left to pack up, which makes it easier to leave.
Ostensibly, they leave Ba Sing Se because their house has been destroyed, and they need somewhere to go. But when Jinshiang steps back onto the train—hope incarnate, she remembers, and feels suddenly ill and tired—she knows that's not the real reason.
They held their wedding ceremony at the Peng family home, Jinshiang's parents traveling far west across the Serpent's Pass to help select an auspicious date; so they settle in relatively familiar surroundings, a boon after the harrowing experience of the fire.
Jinshiang does not start out with the intention of running a silkworm house; to be honest, she has barely any plans at all, not knowing what she will do if she cannot sell silk in this new city. But Mistress Tsu clucked often over their fabrics, exclaiming that these silkworms must have been fed duckweed, and those nothing but the finest white mulberry, and when Jinshiang passes the silkworm house on the bank of the lake, she remembers it all at once.
She still has her silk-clever fingers—one thing the fire could not take from her—and she develops a knack for steaming cocoons, and takes to even the most tedious tasks with an ease that surprises even her. Stirring until the sticky gum loosens from the silk fibers is oddly calming, with built-in breaks because the water must be kept hot; and in mere weeks, she is reeling silk like she has been doing it all her life. Soon enough, the other women are calling her Mistress Peng, which makes Jinshiang want to laugh; she feels about as much like someone's mistress as she did when she first climbed onto the train to Ba Sing Se.
When her son is born, they coo over him, and her best customers bring gifts of silk woven from her own worms; and as soon as he is tall enough to reach, she teaches him how to pick only the best leaves from their mulberry bushes.
She will never forget the fire; she still dreams of it sometimes, and wakes with her breath harsh in her throat, covered with sweat as though she has been running. There are days she cannot help but remember, when the sun sets with a particular scarlet glow, or when the wind brings them the smoky smell of wildfires on the western plains.
She thinks it is one of those days, at first, when the smell of burning comes to her, and closes her eyes for a moment over the tray of silkworms she is feeding. She hates those days.
But then Yang comes running in, eight-year-old face tight with fear, and she knows it's something else.
The silkworm house is on the outskirts of the city, their home even further, so she can afford to stand still for a moment and stare at the smoke. Everyone had known the Fire Nation was close, but General Yu had been between them and the Fire Nation's armies; they had assumed they were safe.
But the flames consuming the market district say otherwise. Even this far away, Jinshiang can see the banners of the Fire Lord, hidden by the smoke one moment and flapping free the next.
"Home," she tells Yang, "home right now," and starts planning where she will hide him before the soldiers come.
(Five things Zuko and Azula's mother never did.)
"Everything I do, I do because I love you," Ursa murmurs into her son's temple, and holds him to her for one more moment. "I hope you understand that, and I hope you will forgive me."
Then she settles him back into his bed, and goes to kill her husband.
She has planned it all precisely; the guard will sleep just long enough for her to take his sword and drive it through Ozai's heart, and will wake with a bloody blade in his hand, the tromp of boots coming around the corner, and a purse full of Earth Kingdom coins in his room. No explanation he can muster will save him, and odds are that he will confess to it anyway, if he is tortured long enough. Ursa hates herself for what will happen to him; but she has made arrangements to provide for his family when he is executed, and while he may be punished in this life for a crime he did not commit, his next life will undoubtedly reflect his true innocence.
Azulon recalls Iroh from the front as soon as Ozai's body is found; now he has only one heir, and the Crown Prince can no longer be risked when there is no spare to replace him. The Siege of Ba Sing Se has ground to a halt since Lu Ten's death, so it is not as great a loss to the army as it could have been, to have Iroh removed back to the capital city.
Ursa cannot say she is sorry to see him, exactly; he has always been kind to her, and, more importantly, he has always been kind to Zuko. But it is a sad and painful collection of circumstances that has brought him back to the city, and it is hard to see the marks his grief has left on him. Iroh is quieter than she remembers; he smiles less; and the first time Zuko comes running to see him, shouting "Uncle!" and throwing his arms around his waist, Ursa thinks Iroh looks like he might cry.
"Ozai!" she shouts, and steps into the Agni Kai arena.
"Stay out of this, Ursa," he says, still extending his hand toward Zuko; but the flame that was growing at his fingertips has vanished. "This is not your business."
"My family's honor is certainly my business," she says. "It is my right to challenge you for the insults you have dealt to my son."
Ozai stares at her, uncomprehending. "He is my son—he is our son," he says; "this is ridiculous—"
"Do you refuse?" Ursa says.
Ozai's frown turns thunderous. "I refuse no challenge offered to me," he says.
Ursa smiles, and settles into a bending stance.
Ursa is banished, as she knew she would be; she has a boat prepared several days before Ozai is crowned and the decree takes effect.
She is planning to find herself some obscure corner of the Earth Kingdom, settle there, and wait. But there is a storm when she is crossing the southern ocean—a huge one, she has never seen the like. It gets so bad that she binds herself to the tiller, which is the only reason she does not wash overboard and drown when a sudden wave cracks her head against the side and knocks her out.
She wakes damp and too cold to shiver, to bright daylight and the sound of ice creaking and scraping against the hull. She has been mostly frozen in, but a few blasts of flame and the boat is free—and she also feels warmer, which is a relief. She wraps herself in every spare piece of cloth that wasn't washed overboard, and steers for the great span of ice in the distance that must be the South Pole.
She drags the boat up onto the ice as far as she can, but it was not designed for one person to carry; she melts some of the ice around it, so that with any luck it will re-freeze, and stay there until she returns for it.
She has only a general idea where the great city of the South Pole is—she was, after all, planning for the Earth Kingdom, and the only maps she has with her are of Earth Kingdom land.
So, in a certain sense, it is very lucky that she stumbles upon the ice-fishing boy with the club.
He sees her the moment she climbs the rise in the ice that was between them, and drops his fishing line immediately, taking the handle of the club with both hands and raising it to shoulder height as he scrambles to his feet. "Who are you?" he demands, bold and unafraid.
"No one important," she says, and it might not even be a lie now.
She keeps her hands up, away from her sides; the boy keeps the club high, but comes warily closer.
"Hey, Katara," he shouts over his shoulder. "I think maybe you should go get Dad."
Ursa is content to live in exile when she knows that it keeps Zuko safe and healthy. She hates to be away from him, but as long as it is necessary, she will bear it. But news of the Fire Nation Prince's scarring and banishment reaches even the outskirts of Gaoling eventually; and when it does, it is not long before Ursa leaves her house in flames and sets out for the coast.
Perhaps Ozai hoped she would never hear of it; or, hearing of it, would not act, softened and made lazy by her time in hiding.
He never did know her very well.
The trailing eastern arm of the Fire Nation has always been somewhat looser in its loyalty to the crown—parts of it are closer to the Earth Kingdom than they are to the capital city, harder to control, and it is more highly traveled, more exposed to the rest of the world, more tolerant of differences in opinion.
The perfect place to start a rebellion, Ursa thinks.
The terms of Ursa's banishment are very specific, particularly in the section describing how any and every citizen of the Fire Nation is permitted to kill her on sight. But on balance, she thinks, it is a very small price to pay for Zuko's life.
She goes to Omashu first; she is briefly tempted to stay, but it is too close. So she lingers only long enough to trade for clothes of Water Tribe blue, and leave her old red things moldering in a hole in the ground. She has heard that the Southern Water Tribe is slowly collapsing; but the Northern Water Tribe still has cities and fortifications. If she cannot lose herself from the Fire Nation there, she probably deserves to die.
She manages to gain passage on one of a small fleet of Southern Tribe ships headed for the north; they are heading for the front on the north peninsula of the Earth Kingdom, but they tell her there are many trading vessels that travel to the North Pole.
And, sure enough, it is not hard to reach the capital city of the North from there.
She is used to the royal court of the Fire Nation; compared to that, the people of the North are near guileless. They accept her claim of membership in one of the smaller clans from the South, her false name, and her offer of service almost without question.
And then comes the day. "The Chief's wife is looking for someone to chaperone Princess Yue," Yugoda tells her, when Ursa is helping her clean up after the healers-in-training. "I know you are bored here, Ushaka; you should go, and see if it appeals."
"I am Ushaka," Ursa tells Princess Yue, and bows.
"My name is Yue," the girl says, smiling. She must know that Ursa already knows that; but it is kind of her to avoid assuming, and introduce herself as though they are equals. The Fire Nation would eat this girl alive. "I hope I'm not too much trouble," the girl is saying, when Ursa starts listening again.
You can't be worse than Azula, Ursa thinks; the pang of that thought is a little deeper than she is expecting, but she can bear it. "I think I'll manage," she says aloud, and smiles.
(Five people Lu Ten's mother might have been.)
The first time Iroh meets Mei Ta Sing, she makes no impression whatsoever on him. It is at a banquet—one that was preceded by truly terrible tea, and Iroh was not in an especially charitable mood even before that particular travesty.
Ta Sing is shy and silent and keeps her face averted, her hands in her lap except when she moves to eat, one perfect tiny bite at a time. Her father talks loudly with Azulon, and Iroh rolls his eyes and wishes he were back in his room and could make himself some proper tea, since there is no one interesting at the high table.
The second time Iroh meets Ta Sing, she is setting things on fire in the garden in the middle of the night.
Not very efficiently, granted; her stance is off in a dozen small ways, and the sweep of her arm lacks confidence, which is probably why only a small dart of flame bursts from her palm to set one of the pearl lilies alight.
"You might want to put that out," Iroh says.
Ta Sing whirls around, paler than the moonlight alone can explain, and says, "Oh—oh, no—I didn't—"
"You should be ashamed," Iroh says, and Ta Sing shrinks back against the stone bench behind her and lowers her eyes.
"Please," she says—whispers, really—"please, don't tell my father I was bending—"
"No, not that," Iroh says. "I mean, of your moves. That was awful." He doesn't say that Lord Mei is an idiot, to let a woman with enough talent to piece together a half-decent bending sequence by herself go without teaching; but he thinks it.
Ta Sing blinks at him. "Oh," she says.
Kang Mashei eyes him with great skepticism, and takes a delicate sip of her tea. "Are you always this good a conversationalist?" she asks, after several moments of silence.
"Only when I am this sure my time is not being wasted," he says, making sure his smile is polite.
Mashei's eyes narrow. "You are too kind," she says.
Iroh sighs. "Look," he says. "It was—a pleasure to meet you, Kang Mashei, but unless you can occupy me more thoroughly than an Agni Kai ring—"
Mashei holds her swords with noticeable confidence. Perhaps, Iroh thinks, this will actually be interesting.
Iroh stares up at the sky and wonders whether his ribs are cracked, or merely bruised.
Mashei smiles down at him, and sheathes her swords. "I may not be a bender," she says, "but that doesn't mean I can't still knock you on your ass."
Iroh huffs out a startled laugh. "Such language, for a lady," he rasps out.
Mashei beams. "I want you to feel comfortable, Prince Iroh," she says—a blatant lie, Iroh remembers the look of glee on her face as she slammed her foot into his kidney. "I assume that is best done by meeting you on your level."
It takes a very, very long time, to craft a treaty that is acceptable to Ba Sing Se; but Azulon is willing to do it. The war has been losing momentum for the past fifteen years—better to deal while the Fire Nation still has the upper hand, if by a narrow margin.
Coming to terms with the southern islands is even harder. To be fair, they were hit harder, too; the walls of Ba Sing Se were never breached, though Iroh has some vague ideas about how it could have been done, but the southern islands—the southern islands suffered, the southern islands burned.
So it's not a big surprise that they want as solid a guarantee as they can get that it won't ever happen again.
Her name is Akemi. She is the third daughter of the Earth King; her mother was from the south, and she was sent to the southern islands when she was a little girl, to train as a Warrior of Kyoshi. The perfect choice: she has almost as strong a tie to the south as she does to Ba Sing Se, and they could ask for no one of higher birth.
She seems inclined toward quiet, but she looks Iroh in the eye when the First of the Warriors introduces her, and even though she isn't smiling, there are still small signs of pleasantness in her face. Iroh doesn't think he'll hate her, and that's all Azulon requires.
She spends most of her time in the palace's many training rooms; it is only natural that Iroh should come to watch her when he has nothing pressing to do. Today, she has only one fan out—a practice one, Iroh guesses, because he can spot no bladed edge. It's interesting to watch; there are jabbing moves that are something like Firebending, but also the occasional longer, curving motion, more like Waterbending than anything else.
She whips her right arm across her body, and Iroh expects her to flare the fan; so it's a surprise when instead the folded fan comes flying toward him. He throws a hand up reflexively to keep it from hitting him in the face, and catches it.
Akemi tilts her head a little, and angles a look at him; then she reaches back into her waistband, and draws out a second practice fan. She switches back to a stance Iroh remembers from a sequence she did relatively early on, and then stops.
Iroh glances at the fan in his hands.
Akemi taps his wrist until he bends it a little further, and then nods. "Close enough," she says. "Next, I'll have to teach you how to put on the makeup."
When Iroh glances at her, startled, she grins.
Iroh is supposed to be conferring with General Yao over their battle plans for the valley of Sun-Jiang; but when he reaches the command tent of the army that has joined him from the east, General Yao is not there.
"I am An Li," says the woman who is; she doesn't look up, but keeps frowning down at the maps spread across the table.
"Where is General Yao?" Iroh asks, even though he's pretty sure he already knows the answer.
An Li glances at him, then, and gives him a tired, unamused smile. "He got a little too close to a cliff face, and the Earthbenders brought down a rockslide," she says. "So I got a promotion."
General Yao was a smart man, and a good general; but he was never very flexible. The last time Iroh had to coordinate an assault with him, Iroh spent a lot of time being clapped on the back with a laugh, and told that he had some very funny ideas.
General An, though, is right there with him. Iroh has a bit of a talent for grandiose plans of attack that tend to turn out successfully; but An Li has a talent for adjusting and honing details until those plans are not just grandiose, but magnificent, which Iroh suspects may be the more valuable trait. A mediocre plan tweaked into genius is better than a brilliant plan executed without care.
Near midnight, they are finally done; but when An Li sits back and sighs, she doesn't look happy. "The twenty-third battalion," she says, staring down at the map.
Iroh glances at the marker with the characters for 23 etched on it; it is in a rather tight spot, but it has to be—it is essential for the fifteenth and sixteenth battalions to attain their positions.
"They probably aren't going to make it out of that alive," An Li says.
"No," Iroh admits. "Probably not." He reaches over and grips her shoulder, so she'll look at him instead of the doomed marker. "It's a good plan," he says. "They will die with honor; there are worse fates."
An Li wraps one hand around his forearm, and looks down at the map for a second; when she looks up again, her face has cleared to something between resignation and acceptance.
"The granddaughter of the Avatar is always welcome in my court," Azulon says.
Iroh's pretty sure he doesn't mean it, since he's never struck Iroh as particularly respectful of the memory of the last Avatar; but the sentiment is at least polite, if not sincere.
"Thank you," Ursa says, bowing in acknowledgement, and smiles.
Iroh watches for a bit, in case Ursa needs an avenue of escape; but Ozai is making an effort to be charming, in his own arrogant way, and Ursa seems to appreciate it well enough.
So Iroh is free to take his tea and sidle out onto the balcony, and from there down the steps into the garden.
He is startled a few minutes later, nearly spilling his tea, when Ursa says, "Is it common practice in the capital city, for hosts to sneak out of their own parties?" from a few feet to his left.
"You nearly lost me a very fine cup of ginseng," Iroh says, setting his narrowly-rescued tea down on one end of the bench.
"Goodness, how awful," Ursa says; he can't see her face very clearly, the lighting is poor, but her voice sounds like she's smiling. "I hope you will accept my abject apologies."
"I'll consider it," Iroh says, and slides over a little on the bench.
Ursa takes the tacit invitation for what it is, and sits. "So," she says. "Do welcoming banquets always bore you, or is it just mine?"
(Five things Iroh and Ozai's mother never did.)
Ilah waits the traditional forty days before naming the child, and insults her roundly whenever she speaks aloud, to keep the spirits from being tempted to snatch the girl away. But the baby is still there, still well, when the sun sets on the fortieth day; and as soon as the last light fades, Ilah puts her hands on the girl's plump cheeks, and says, "My little Ming Yun."
Ming Yun grows up strong and clever, already walking and talking readily after barely a year. She doesn't seem to quite know what to make of it, when little Iroh comes along, but after a few months she apparently decides that she is meant to be her brother's constant guardian. She always goes to bed in her room at night, but in the morning, Ilah keeps finding her fast asleep on the cushions next to the baby's bed.
Azulon is always harsh with her, and Ming Yun is not yet hard enough to bear it, so Ilah is not surprised when the day comes that she finds her daughter tucked behind a column, sniffling into her sleeve.
"Oh, Ming Yun," Ilah says, and gathers her close. Ming Yun is almost thirteen now, and only irritated to be treated like a child when she is angry; when she is hurt, she doesn't mind so much.
"I did my best," Ming Yun whispers.
"I know you did," Ilah tells her, smoothing a hand over her hair. "I know you did—and next time you'll do better, as long as you keep practicing your bending. You're the Crown Princess, my dear; and one day, you will be Fire Lady."
"I am not a general, but I have some experience in battle, and I will be a visible reminder of your authority," Ilah tells Azulon. She is careful to keep her gaze down; he will like that small nod toward deference, and it will make him more likely to agree. "Send me with them, my lord, and the Southern Waterbenders will never trouble us again. And let me take Iroh—it will be a good experience for him."
They sail south for weeks, through terrible storms and long dark days where the ice lies so thick on the deck that even Firebenders cannot clear it off entirely; but at last their fleet reaches the great white expanse of the South Pole.
Ilah sends scouts off in all directions; on good days, two-thirds of them return. But they know the southern city is here somewhere, so she keeps trying.
Finally, one scout is rushed into the bridge with blankets still wrapped around her shoulders, the tip of her nose red and white with frostbite.
"You have found the city?" Ilah asks, and the scout nods in answer; she still hasn't quite caught her breath.
"Well, this is unprecedented," the Water Tribe chief says, when Ilah is close enough. "Usually it's not the invading army that raises the flag of truce."
"Unprecedented measures, in unprecedented times," Ilah says.
He leads her into the large igloo in the middle of the city—beautiful, the way the ice gleams, and it is blissfully warm inside, particularly compared to the freezing wind outside.
She allows for a short round of introductions, and then gets right to the point. "I do not speak for the Fire Nation," she says, "only for myself and the battalions I have brought with me. My husband has lost his mind—"
"So you noticed that, too," Chief Toshota says dryly.
"Indeed," Ilah says. "I have no problem with war; but he is not warring with you, he is trying to exterminate you, and that, I will not condone."
"And you came all this way just to tell us that?" the chief's wife, Kanna, asks. "How will your disapproval help us?"
"My disapproval comes with Fire Nation legions attached," Ilah says.
It's only logical; Ilah is an accomplished Firebender, and the walls of Ba Sing Se will not be crumbled by anything less than all the strength the Fire Nation can muster. She is highly ranked, but not a full general, and military structure must be maintained.
But it's still strange, to let her son give her orders. At least, she thinks, her grandson still has to answer to her.
Ilah's battalions are rushing the gap in the wall when it happens. Casualties have been high all along, because the Earthbenders are not hesitant when it comes to crushing Fire Nation troops with waves of stone, and the chaos is ridiculous, so Ilah can't say exactly what it is that draws her eye to the bender crouching on the rubble.
He claps his hands together, and an enormous chunk of masonry trembles; he stamps his foot, and the boulder flies into the air; he punches out with one fist, and the stone whips outward, away from the wall.
Ilah leaps into the air and flings out her palm, letting a fireball fly with a crackle of heat—it doesn't strike the piece of rock quite on-center, but it's enough, enough that the boulder misses Lu Ten's head by an armslength.
Ilah can tell it's coming as soon as the messenger comes with the news that Lu Ten has been killed; Ozai gets that look in his eye, that expression of violent satisfaction that always makes Ilah uneasy.
She loves her younger son—of course she does—but he takes after his father in frightening ways, and Ilah suspects there's nothing to be done about it. She loves her younger son, but she has only rarely liked him; and if he becomes the Fire Lord, if he is handed that kind of power, even the brief flickers of kindness he now displays will vanish.
She lets it be known that she is riding out with a large contingent of guards to meet Iroh, who is traveling in from the east of the Nation; the obvious but unspoken assumption that they will return to the capital city together does the rest of the work for her. Most people have no imagination.
It takes only a few days to arrive; Iroh's guards usher her into his tent, and let the flap fall closed behind her.
"What are you doing here, Mother?" Iroh asks tiredly.
Ilah pauses a moment just to look at him: he is obviously grieving, but beyond that, he seems strangely exhausted somewhere even deeper. When his wife died, he still had Lu Ten; but now Lu Ten has died, and he has no one.
Except her, she thinks, and ignores every piece of royal protocol she knows in favor of climbing the temporary dais and curving comforting hands over Iroh's shoulders. "I'm sorry," she says quietly; "I loved him, too," and she lets her son cry into her sleeves.
She tells Iroh the bare minimum and lets him infer the rest; it seems like a bad time to go into all the details of just how readily his younger brother will turn on him. Even that minimum is almost too much, as hard-pressed as Iroh is to care about anything right now. But Ilah knows he will care later—that's why she is doing this, because she knows Iroh wants to see Ozai crowned about as much as she does.
There are some curious looks, but no one questions it when she orders that they turn back and travel away from the capital again, and head for Jashian. It is a large city, far from the capital; and her mother was from Jashian. If she is going to start a civil war, she'll do it in a place where the people are already inclined to like her.
"It was Ursa," Azulon rasps, "she must be punished; and Ozai—"
"Yes?" Ilah murmurs, still clasping his hand.
Azulon coughs out a laugh. "Ozai should be crowned," he says. "An impressive feat of assassination, using his wife instead of doing it himself—and he was right about Iroh."
Ilah stares down at his drawn face, grey with the strain the poison is placing on his body, and thinks that Ursa has never in her life been used by anybody to do anything that wasn't originally her idea; that Ozai has never in his life been right in the things he thinks and says about Iroh; that Ozai would not in a thousand years have moved against Azulon himself, and certainly not over so small a thing as Zuko's life; and that Azulon is an idiot if he can't see any of these truths.
But she doesn't tell him any of that. "I will make sure that it is done," she says instead. It is a lie, but Azulon will not live long enough to know it.
"What did he say?" Ozai asks, and the hunger in his face is poorly concealed.
Ilah looks at him impassively, and then beyond him, to where Ursa is standing, pale but composed. "He did not know who poisoned him," she says, looking Ursa in the eye. "Before he passed, he bade me take the throne."
"You?" Ozai says.
Ilah can't help it; she lets herself smile, just a little bit, and behind Ozai, Ursa slowly mirrors the expression. "Yes," she says.
(Five people Sozin's wife could have been, and one thing each of them never did.)
Sozin's not sure what it is that wakes him—a noise, the shuffle of feet on carpeting, or a sensation, the breeze on his face from the suddenly-open window. But he wakes, and a moment later becomes aware that there is someone in his room. Someone who has just stubbed a toe.
"Ow!" the shadowy figure by the table hisses, bending over. "Who'd leave a book there?"
"Don't try anything," Sozin snaps.
The figure glances up, and then steps a little closer—into the light from the window, and Sozin can see now that it is a girl, not much older than he is. "Oh—you are awake," the girl says. "I thought you might be, but I wasn't sure."
"What are you doing in here?" Sozin demands.
The girl glances down at the things she's clutching in her hands—a couple of rings, a few gold hair ornaments, a small enameled box. "Uh, stealing," she says. "What did you think I was doing?"
It's a peculiar question; Sozin doesn't know what to say. "You won't escape," he tells her instead.
She looks at him for a moment, narrowing her eyes, and then suddenly smiles. "I will if you let me," she says.
This girl is the strangest person Sozin has ever met. "Why on earth would I do that?" he says.
"Because you're nice?" she says. "Look, I could have slit your throat or something; taking a couple rings isn't that bad. Especially when they're this ugly."
A week later, and Sozin still can't figure out why he let the girl go; so when he wakes up in the middle of the night to a breeze through the window and a shadow over his pillow, it's like the spirits are giving him a second chance.
"What are you doing back here?" he says, sitting up.
"You're interesting," the girl says, shrugging, and makes herself comfortable on the edge of his bed—on the edge of his bed, like he isn't the Crown Prince himself. Her presumption is truly incredible. "I didn't think you were actually going to let me go last time, and I don't think you thought so, either; but you did."
Sozin feels himself flush inexplicably. "So?" he says.
"So, that's interesting," the girl says, and smiles. "My name is Wen. Want to take a walk?"
It turns out that by "walk", Wen means "death-defying jaunt along the palace roof".
It's terrifying, but Sozin's not sure he's ever had so much fun in his life.
"Come with me," Wen says.
Sozin blinks. "What?"
"Come with me," Wen repeats. "You hate it here—"
"I do not—"
"Oh, yes you do," Wen says, rolling her eyes. Sometimes Sozin is so difficult. "You've never said it in so many words, but I know it's true. If you stay here, you're just going to end up hating yourself, and everybody else. Is that really what you want?"
"I couldn't," Sozin says, but it's not very convincing, and Wen can tell he doesn't mean it by the way he keeps his eyes off to the side. She knows she's right; he's told her before about how the years his mother has spent on the throne have made her hard inside, and as often as Sozin interrupts himself to say it's only right for a ruler to be practical, she can tell that he doesn't want that to happen to him.
"Come with me," Wen says again. Beating Sozin into submission through pure repetition has worked wonders for her before, after all. "We'll go to the south coast; it's beautiful down there, you've never seen a city in your life as colorful as Ma-Dan-Ling."
Sozin looks at her, pinching his mouth up as he thinks. "All right," he says at last, and Wen smiles.
Shien-Sa is not anyone important. She's some minor noble's brother's cousin, or something equally ridiculous; she comes from a tiny estate in the southeast, which everybody knows is nothing but farmland and scrub and pig cows everywhere, and she's only at court because the minor noble's brother made a promise he couldn't back out of.
So why Sozin keeps catching himself looking at her is a total mystery.
"All right, seriously," Roku says, and jabs one of his stupid sharp elbows into Sozin's side. "This is embarrassing. Go talk to her."
"And say what?" Sozin hisses.
"'Hello, I'm the Crown Prince. Love me'?" Roku suggests, deadpan, and then laughs when Sozin punches him in the arm.
As it turns out, Sozin doesn't have to go talk to her. He ends up strategically retreating to one of the balconies to escape Roku's relentless needling, and has strategically retreated all the way behind a column when Shien-Sa comes around it and nearly walks into him.
"Oh!" she says, and then glances at his hairpiece; her eyes go wide. "Oh," she says again, "I'm—I'm so sorry, Prince Sozin, I, uh—"
"It's all right," Sozin says, magnanimous and princely.
"—I didn't see you, I just—I mean, I was just walking, I didn't think there was anybody here—not that it's bad that you're here, that's not what I meant, and—I should just stop talking," Shien-Sa finishes. There is red all down her cheekbones when she bows; it's quite fetching.
"Wait," Sozin says, when she starts to back away; it's a little less princely, but he suspects Shien-Sa will actually listen to it. "Please," he adds, pathetically enough.
But it works—Shien-Sa stops. "You need me to embarrass myself a little more?" she says, with a small, awkward laugh.
"Well, it was certainly entertaining," Sozin says, "but I thought perhaps we could just talk, if that's all right."
Shien-Sa smiles, slow and pretty.
That settles it, Sozin thinks; he is doomed. Roku is never going to stop mocking him for this.
"Are you sure this is what you want?" his mother says, regal and distant behind the wall of flames.
"Yes," Sozin says, and he's startled by how true it is; he was always planning to say it, but he was secretly expecting to feel at least a little regret. "I want to marry her; you've told me yourself I can't do that and keep the throne. Santsin will do at least as good a job as I could have."
"Oh, I'm fairly sure I'll do better," Santsin says—but lightly, and when he glances over at his sister, she smiles back.
"But you do understand why he has to leave, don't you?" Toza asks, because she wants to make sure. Sozin's temper is so unpredictable, and he can be strangely unreasonable about some things.
"He's the Avatar, he has a destiny, he needs to be free of earthly attachment," Sozin says—all of which is true, but there is an ugly mocking undertone to his voice that makes Toza wish he would, just once, wear his upset on his face like a normal person.
She's not happy about Roku leaving, either; he's her brother, she's going to miss him horribly. But she knows that she's not going to bundle the hurt up inside and let it fester and rot away in her—she can't say the same for Sozin. She bites her lip, and then reaches out to take both of Sozin's hands. "He'll be back," she says quietly. "You know he will."
Sozin is glaring off at the ground to his right, but then he sighs—making the air ripple with heat—and meets her eyes. "I do," he says, and squeezes her hands.
For a while after that, he seems mostly all right; there are moments when he's suddenly sharper than Toza thinks is usual, with a cruel edge she doesn't remember from their childhood, but they're so intermittent that it doesn't feel like a real problem.
And it isn't, not really, not until the day the Water Tribe ambassador visits. She is a clear-eyed woman named Satora, with a face that, appropriately enough, makes Toza think of a still lake; and Sozin is so abrupt and disdainful toward her that it makes Toza flush with shame by proxy. Thankfully, most of it is hidden: only one comment is loud enough and straightforward enough to strike the entire high table quiet, and Satora smiles calmly in the face of it, instead of storming out the way she would be well within her rights to do.
Toza steers her aside after the feast, far enough that no one will be able to hear them, but close enough that she might be able to repair some of the damage—the court takes its cues from Sozin, but the impact of his obvious scorn for the Water Tribe will be mitigated by the honor of personal attention from the Princess.
"I want to apologize," she says right away, because there is no reason to beat around the bush. "My husband was—discourteous, he should not have said those things." She pauses briefly; but if nothing else, Satora has proven that she is capable of discretion, and Toza is fairly certain she is safe saying things to her that she might not say to others. "I wish I could tell you the drink went to his head, but I am not sure it would be true."
Satora ducks her head graciously, smiling a little, and then lets her expression turn more somber, and fixes Toza with those odd blue eyes—normal for the Water Tribe, of course, but the lack of yellow still disconcerts Toza. "I will return the confidence," she says, taking one of Toza's hands between her own, "if I may speak frankly to you, Princess."
"Of course," Toza says, and means it.
Satora says, "I think—" and then pauses, as though she is trying to figure out how best to say what she means. "I think—the tide is changing," she settles on at last, and then, with a small sideways glance back toward the tables, "and I fear it is not for the better."
Toza would probably have said that the fire needed banking; but she knows what Satora means, and she gives the high table a glance of her own. Sozin is not eating, nor is he drinking: he is holding his cup in one hand, making flames leap from the rim of it, and staring into them with the brooding expression that tends to precede his sharpest outbursts.
"But all flood tides must one day recede," Satora continues, and her grip on Toza's hand tightens briefly.
Satora was oblique enough that Toza can pretend not to know what she meant, and give herself time to think; the visit will last another few weeks, there is no rush. And, much as Toza hates to admit it, it is an offer worth considering, vague as it is. She loves Sozin, in the sense that she loves the person he was, and she still sees glimpses of that person in him on good days. But whatever generosity he once had is gone; the sentences he passes down are harsher and harsher, the orders more and more restrictive, and his mood increasingly unpredictable. He frightens her now, more often than not, and Toza does not like being frightened.
And then, a week before Satora and her entourage are scheduled to depart, there is an uprising in one of the cities on the eastern islands. Where once he might have sent a light patrol to help keep order and a court advisor to manage the complaint with the city's governor, this time he goes himself with dozens of battalions. It takes them two days to reach the island, and the evening of the second day, the fire-signalers stationed on the palace walls receive reports of massive civilian casualties. The morning of the third day, the sun rises violently red through the cloud of smoke hovering in the east, and Toza puts her face in her hands and cries.
Despite her best efforts, her eyes are still red when she asks a servant to bring Satora to her; Satora clearly sees it, and her face softens. "I am sorry," she says.
"So am I," Toza says quietly, and then lifts her chin. "If I'm going to hold the harbor against him when he comes back, I'm going to need your help."
Satora breaks all protocol to step forward and clasp her hand. "The fleets of the South are yours, Fire Lady," she says.
Shusula cares for very little, aside from her broadswords and her staves. She dreams of joining the army, but she knows the odds are not on her side; noblewomen do sometimes enlist, but her parents have plans for her that do not include a uniform.
When she first marries the new Fire Lord, her only worry is that he won't let her fight; so when he says dismissively that she may do as she likes with her time, provided that she fulfills her duties as Princess, she's satisfied. The royal Agni Kai arena is legendary. Having a couple of children and attending a few court functions isn't nearly as high a price as she could easily have had to pay to retain a fair amount of independence.
But, of course, it doesn't stay that simple.
Shusula is not a politically-minded person, but even she cannot miss the strange undercurrents of tension in the court. The Avatar and his wife are frequent visitors, but not cheerful ones. Shusula doesn't know Sozin well, but he strikes her as the kind of person who would revel in an Avatar with ties to the Fire Nation; and yet Avatar Roku's presence tends to make his jaw tight. Walking down the corridor to the Princess's chambers—Shusula can't quite start thinking of them as hers yet—she keeps catching bits and pieces of arguments. No, that isn't quite right: not multiple arguments, more like one long argument that keeps getting interrupted and can never quite be finished.
Sozin tells her nothing, and she barely even considers trying to discuss it with him; he is not a person who invites questions. She feels presumptuous just thinking about striking up a conversation with the Avatar. So in the end, it is the Avatar's wife she speaks to.
Really, it is mostly luck that everything works out the way it does. The Avatar is departing for his home soon, and there is likely to be a farewell feast—much as Sozin seems to privately begrudge Avatar Roku his visits to the palace, he would be an idiot to publically appear less than gracious toward the Avatar. Shusula has vague plans to make sure the Avatar's wife, Ta Min, is seated next to her, and speak to her then; only a light conversation, she thinks, enough to start an acquaintance that will make it less rude to push on their next visit.
But nearly a week before the feast, Shusula is stretching in the arena when Ta Min enters with a glaive—not one of the elaborate guan dao from the palace armory, but a light and obviously well-used weapon, clearly her own. "Oh," Ta Min says, and bows, beginning to back away. "I hope you will forgive the interruption, Princess—I did not know the arena was in use."
"No, no," Shusula says, and picks up her broadswords. "Please. Would you mind a fight? I can only cut up so much air before dueling nothing loses its thrill."
Ta Min laughs, and bows her head, acquiescing. "Of course, my lady," she says, "I would be honored," and goes into a fighting stance.
The duel is a good one; not serious, neither of them aims for blood, but Shusula manages to tear several holes in Ta Min's robes, and will undoubtedly have a massive bruise where Ta Min struck her leg with the flat of her glaive blade. After nearly an hour, they stop for water, and Shusula decides she may as well start asking now.
She's no good at being diplomatic; the moment she says, "If I may, Avatar Roku has been looking worried," Ta Min's eyes narrow.
"If the Fire Lord told you to speak to me, I can assure you right now that you will get nowhere," she says, tightening her grip on her glaive; the servant who brought them the water pitcher and the cups starts backing away nervously.
Shusula lets out a breath, and decides to be forthright: it is what she does best, after all. "The Fire Lord does not tell me what to do," she says, "and if he did, I am not sure whether I would do it."
Ta Min relaxes her stance, but her face is still wary. "Then why do you pry?"
"Because I want to know," Shusula says truthfully. "If the Fire Lord and the Avatar are at odds, then at the very least, I'd like to know so I can get out before the palace gets flattened."
"Colonies in the Earth Kingdom?" Shusula says, thinking she must be hearing wrong.
"We think so," Ta Min says, looking grave. "We are not certain yet. I think Roku wants to give Sozin a chance to tell him himself before he goes looking for proof. They were friends, once," she adds, when Shusula raises her eyebrow; "when he was younger, Sozin was—not so bad."
Shusula shakes her head. "Well, he's definitely lost it now," she says. "Invading the Earth Kingdom—what is he thinking?"
"I probably shouldn't have said any of this," Ta Min says; "now I've dragged you into the middle of it."
"I think it's better that I know what my husband is up to," Shusula says dryly. "And if worst comes to worst, and you need someone to drug him in the middle of the night, you know who to ask." Unpleasant, but true: Sozin has never endeared himself to her, and has evidently gone power-mad; if it comes down to a choice between the world getting dragged into a war because of one ambitious Fire Lord, and Sozin being shut away somewhere for the rest of his life, Shusula knows which she'll pick.
Still, she wishes she'd been a little more delicate about it when Ta Min blanches. "I hope it doesn't come to that," Ta Min says quietly, but she doesn't sound very optimistic to Shusula.
In the abstract, Sozin grasps the value of being married; but he's not especially eager to put that theoretical understanding into practice. So when he does decide to marry, he chooses carefully: he needs someone who will maximize his political capital without having much actual power herself, someone who will do what he needs and stay out of the way the rest of the time.
There are several decent candidates, but the best fit to his criteria turns out to be Shing Li Sun. She is the daughter of a lord from the north of the Fire Nation—he is a rich man, with considerable influence in the region, while Li Sun, by contrast, is shy and scholarly, with few friends. She will bind the north to him by association without having any real pull herself.
Sozin is pleased with his choice, insofar as anything pleases him these days. Shing Li Sun is just as he imagined: quiet, incurious, and perfectly content to spend the vast majority of her time in the newly rebuilt palace library. She does have an odd habit of conversing regularly with the servants, but everyone has their quirks; she doesn't try to talk to him, and that's what counts.
It has been nearly five years since Roku almost destroyed the palace and gave Sozin that ludicrous ultimatum, and the thought of it still tears at him. But the repairs are finished, the palace has been returned to its former glory, and, thanks in part to Li Sun, the nation is once again united behind him. These things go a long way toward easing his rage.
It takes a long time for Sozin to get the opportunity he wants, because he can't make a move as long as Roku is paying attention. Good thing Sozin has learned to be patient.
The day the volcano erupts, everyone in the capital city can feel it; the force is great enough that it even gets Li Sun out of the library.
"What was that?" she says, clutching her book to her chest and blinking at him over her spectacles.
"Something too far away for us to be in any danger, lady," Sozin says. He tries to keep the dismissive tone he usually uses when he talks to her, but he is looking out the window; the faint plume of smoke and glow of light are coming from the direction of Roku's island, and Sozin's heart is pounding.
"Oh," Li Sun says, somewhere in the background, but Sozin really isn't paying attention anymore.
"Tell me, Meiling: the Avatar lives in that direction, doesn't he?" the Princess says suddenly, pointing out the window in the lower hallway to where the presumed volcano is turning the early evening sky orange.
Meiling frowns a little and stops sweeping; after ten years, she knows that the Princess doesn't ask idle questions. "Yes, my lady," she says, slowly.
"And the royal dragons," the Princess says, supremely nonchalant; "anyone in the royal family may use them?"
Meiling stares at her, and then starts to smile, just a little bit. "Yes, my lady." The problem with the Fire Lord, Meiling thinks, is that he confuses external quiet with internal quiet; he thinks that because his lady rarely speaks, she also rarely thinks.
Meiling, though, knows better.
Roku clutches weakly at his chest and watches Sozin walk away; his eyes are already streaming from the heat and the stinging gasses, but if they weren't, he's willing to admit to himself that he would probably be crying. Sozin hasn't been a true friend in over a decade, but the weight of everything that came before has kept him tucked still into a small fond place in Roku's heart—apparently the reverse is not true. But there are worse ways to die, Roku thinks. He is a fully realized Avatar, yes; but fire is still the element closest to his heart, and if he has to go, it might as well be while he is surrounded by it.
He's closed his eyes and started to let his mind drift away, putting a little distance between himself and the sharp pain in his chest, which is why he doesn't notice right away when a hand comes down on his shoulder. The arms that loop around his shoulders, he notices, though; he's too weak to really be much help when they start dragging him, but he does his best.
Whoever it is manages to pull him away from the volcano's mouth and down to a clear patch of rock, and suddenly there is actual air in Roku's lungs, not a poisonous approximation. He is still coughing when his mysterious rescuer hauls him up onto something—a dragon, Roku thinks; his eyes are still too blurry with tears to see very well out of, but he can feel scales under his fingers—and then they launch into the sky, the blistering heat replaced with sweet cool wind against his face.
"Li Sun," Roku says blankly, aware that he has dropped her proper title but too surprised to worry about it. Besides, she just saved his life; she's probably not going to mind too much.
She smiles. "Avatar," she says, and bows formally, fist against open palm. "My husband has displayed some small flaws in his judgment. I hope you will do him the honor of teaching him the error of his ways."
(One person Aang's mother might have been, and five things she might have done.)
Sister Iio smiles at her. "All right, go on," she says, "take an apple. And remember, Sungtsi, choose carefully. I know it is not your nature to be patient, but your sky bison will be your companion for life."
Sungtsi nods solemnly, and takes the biggest, reddest apple she can find—she wants her bison to like her.
The bison calves are eight months old, and already big enough to ride on, fluffy with the blustery wind that was blowing when Nya led them down. Nya is Sister Iio's; she likes Sungtsi well enough, but it's not quite the same as having a bison for your own.
Sungtsi almost gives the apple to the closest bison, and then remembers Sister Iio's advice. Not that the closest bison doesn't look like a sweetheart, all huge brown eyes and puffy fur; but Sungtsi is supposed to find something special.
So she holds the apple tight and keeps looking. The second bison is shy and skittish; the third is already eating Lin's apple; and she is about to look at the fourth when she is suddenly knocked over. "Oh," Sungtsi cries, laughing, and gets soundly licked.
It is the smallest of the calves, the runt of the litter, who is panting in Sungtsi's face. Sungtsi looks at her and thinks, Kima, without entirely meaning to. "Kima," she says aloud, just testing it out; giving Kima the apple is almost an afterthought, because she's already Sungtsi's.
Sungtsi finishes the move and then brings her hands together, and laughs aloud. Even before she looks and sees that Sister Iio is smiling, she knows she's succeeded.
She's fourteen and has never really cut her hair before, so it's almost down to her waist. They have to shave it to give her the tattoos; she's sorry to see it go, but she knows it will grow back, and it's worth it, to have earned her arrows.
Lin helps her cut it, to make the actual shaving a little easier. Lin doesn't have her arrows just yet, but Sungtsi knows she will soon, and tells her so.
Lin laughs. "You're just saying that to make me feel better," she says, slicing off a lock and letting it drop to the floor.
"Am not," Sungtsi protests. "You beat me last time we played partner airball, it's only a matter of time."
Normally the Mother Superior would do the tattooing, and Sungtsi's mother would be there to witness. But Sungtsi's parents are dead, killed by a sickness when she was two; so it's Lin's mother, and Sungtsi's aunt - Miisei - who sits by her, clasping her hand, and smiles proudly as the Mother Superior pushes blue beneath Sungtsi's skin.
It's one year after you earn your arrows that you're meant to leave the Temple and rejoin your clan, unless you want to stay at the Temple and be a nun; but you're also supposed to have your mother to go back with you, so Sungtsi gets to wait until Lin and Aunt Miisei can leave with her.
She was right about Lin—it only takes a month after she gets her arrows for Lin to earn her own, and Sungtsi helps her cut her hair just like Lin did for her, even though Lin's is shorter.
And then, a year and a month after Sungtsi gets her tattoos, they leave the Eastern Air Temple.
The morning they leave is bright and clear and autumn-crisp, and Sungtsi can hardly get Kima to keep her feet on the ground long enough for Aunt Miisei and Kun to take off first.
Lin's Naika is huge, especially next to Kima, who is still tiny for a bison her age; Sungtsi sometimes imagines that calm, patient Naika must think Kima is an idiot, and only bears her ridiculousness for Lin's sake.
Their clan usually travels the southern foothills of the Eastern Island; it's the furthest Sungtsi and Kima have ever flown together. Sungtsi's a little bit surprised by how nervous she feels—not that Uncle Ryo hasn't visited them at the Temple before, or any number of the cousins, but they still haven't been with the clan in ten years. If it doesn't feel like home anymore, Sungtsi doesn't know what she'll do.
Somehow she doesn't think she has the temperament to be a nun.
They find their clan in the late afternoon, camped in the foothills with a blazing bonfire—they had word, when Lin got her arrows, and it's traditional to light a great fire to guide new masters back to their clans when the waiting year is up.
The moment they land, they are surrounded by congratulations and grinning faces, until Uncle Ryo makes everybody give them some room to breathe. "Welcome back," he says, smiling, and Sungtsi throws her arms around his neck and wonders why she was ever worried at all.
They run into the Ming-Tsa Clan near midsummer; it's been blistering hot for at least two weeks, hot enough that even flying doesn't provide much relief, and everyone's glad for the excuse to relax and have some fun. The Dzo Shao Valley is big enough for both clans to land all their bison and still have plenty of space to spread out.
Sungtsi is weaving her way through the crowd, hand tight around Lin's wrist, looking for familiar faces; and then someone shrieks, "Sungtsi!" and a moment later Sungtsi is nearly bowled to the ground.
"Mian!" Sungtsi cries, when she realizes who exactly it is who has latched onto her shoulder. Mian is Ming-Tsa, a few years older than Sungtsi and Lin; she was at the Temple until Sungtsi turned ten, and is the reason Sungtsi knows how to climb onto the part of the Temple's southwest roof that nobody can see from the ground.
Mian backs up a little and beams at her, and then says, "Oh—yes, and this is my brother."
"Ming-Tsa dan Bao," the young man behind her says stiffly, and bows, awkward in his tallness.
"Yiensun dan Sungtsi," Sungtsi says.
Mian is just as bright and friendly as Sungtsi remembers; Bao ... isn't. He's quiet, instead; quiet and dour, and he seems to view everything Sungtsi does with great suspicion.
It's hilarious. By the fourth night of the impromptu festival, Sungtsi is smiling at Bao over the firepit solely to watch his eyes narrow.
"What's the matter with him?" Lin says. "Did you set him on fire once or something?"
"Not that I know of," Sungtsi says.
On the second-to-last day of the two-clan feast, Bao finally breaks, and corners her. "Why do you keep smiling at me?" he snaps.
Sungtsi considers this carefully. "Because I like to," she says; and it's true, but something about the way it sounds when she says it out loud makes her face feel suddenly hot. She laughs at herself a little bit, and then looks up and starts laughing harder, because Bao is staring at her, mouth open, hilariously nonplused.
"Oh," he says, "um," and then goes slowly red.
When the baby is almost due, the whole clan goes back to the Temple. After six days, Sungtsi finally feels the first rippling tug; she labors for sixteen hours, surrounded by Aunt Miisei, Lin, her thirteen other female first cousins and four other aunts, and the sisters of the Temple.
The baby is tiny and wrinkly and distinctly ugly, when Sungtsi is done; and Sungtsi thinks she could have cried for happiness, if she had not been so tired.
The child is a boy, so it is for Sungtsi to name him—if he had been a girl, the task would have gone to Bao. She hopes it will come to her right away, the way Kima's name did, but it doesn't.
"Well, you have to think of something," Bao tells her. "Or else I'll just have to tell little Nobody that his mother didn't love him enough to give him a name."
Sungtsi punches him in the thigh. "Watch it, or I'll be stuck explaining to him why his father walks with a limp," she says, laughing.
"Please tell me you've picked something," Lin says. "It's been three days already."
"I think maybe I have," Sungtsi says; she's not sure about it until the moment she's done saying it. She's been turning over a few options—Ryo, for Aunt Miisei's husband, or Shung, for Bao's grandfather, but the one she's come back to again and again, she just made up. "Aang," she says. It's the first time she's ever said it aloud, and it sounds good.
"Aang," Lin repeats consideringly, and brushes a finger against the sleeping baby's wispy hair. "I like it."
(Five sets of children Yue never raised.)
Hahn is arrogant and unbending; the times it starts to bother her, she takes three deep breaths and reminds herself that she knew it when she married him. Besides, underneath it, he is not unkind—only too occupied with what other people think of him, too willing to do something only because it is well thought of, and not because he thinks it worth doing.
Taami's birth softens him, though, and when Yue puts his daughter in his arms for the first time and sees the look that comes over his face, she thinks she is starting to understand what her mother meant when she said you never stopped getting to know people.
Taami is very like her father in a lot of ways, except that Hahn was an only child, which Yue sometimes thinks is the reason he never learned to modulate the worst in him when he was young, and Taami has Dakan. By the time she is eight, she is grudgingly polite to anyone her little brother so much as smiles at, and calmly horrible to everyone else.
Dakan, by contrast, is sunny-sweet to everybody, except the boys he punches when he is thirteen because they say they hope Taami will fall into the ocean and freeze someday soon.
Yue wishes she could say that she knew beforehand; that she sensed that there were two, with a mother's quiet intuition. But she doesn't know she's having twins until Katara says, "It's a boy, Yue, he's so—oh—uh, wait a second—" and motions frantically for Suki.
"What? What's going on?" Sokka yells from outside, and Yue can't help but laugh; he's been pacing out there for hours, too squeamish to come in and too nervous to leave. "Everybody's still alive, right?"
"Not if you keep distracting me," Katara shouts back, amused, and then nods to Yue. "Okay, push," she says, and Yue does.
"Twins? Seriously?" Sokka yelps, and then even the specter of blood and sweat and babies isn't enough to keep him out of the room; he charges in the door, a hand over his eyes. "Okay, I'm coming in," he intones. "Everything covered up?"
"I don't see why you're worried," Yue says innocently, "you've seen it all already," and laughs when Sokka splutters.
"Hah," he manages at last, and then looks down at them, strangely somber-eyed. "Is one of them a girl?" he says.
Yue nods, a little curious. "On the left," she says, and tilts her elbow up so that Sokka can take the baby.
Sokka picks her up, careful to keep a hand curled under her head; Katara has lectured him about it at least twenty times since Yue started to show. He stares down at the baby's face, stroking one cheek with his thumb, and says, suddenly serious, "Can we name her Kya?"
"Of course," Yue says, and squeezes his elbow with her free hand.
The baby is left tucked against the palace wall; she must have been sleeping at first, because no one can remember seeing her be left there, even though Yue finds her because she starts screaming her head off.
The first day, she throws up on Yue twice, refuses three out of five attempts to feed her buffalo yak milk even though all of them are the same temperature and have been prepared exactly the same way, and then falls fast asleep in about a minute flat.
"Being dissatisfied is very hard work," Mother says, sounding fondly amused in the way she always does when she's remembering Yue's childhood. She offers to take Yue's two ruined robes away to be cleaned, but Yue refuses.
"It's the baby's mess," Yue says reluctantly, "and she's my baby."
Mother's eyebrows rise.
"I mean—for now," Yue stumbles. "Until someone comes for her."
It's ridiculous, she thinks later, scrubbing the last of the vomit out of her second-best robe. The baby is horrid, picky, and clearly ill-tempered. She's like Hahn in miniature, but more forthright; and Yue has to stop scrubbing for a moment to laugh at the mental image that thought gives her. And, more importantly, she belongs to someone else. Still, when Yue goes to lie down—Mother has advised her to sleep whenever the baby does, or she may never get a moment's rest—she lays out her old spare robes for the next morning.
Tien turns out a little addlepated; but that doesn't really surprise Yue, considering his father is Kuei. She loves Kuei, but even after his return from his journey to learn more about the world, he's never what you would call sensible.
Bosco is starting to go grey around the muzzle, and his eyes aren't much good anymore, but the bear can still hear well, and when he catches the sound of Tien's voice, he always looks up right away. He loves Tien, and the feeling is mutual; Tien even takes him into the library sometimes, because, according to Tien, he's nice to lie against when you read.
Yue can't say she's ever tried it, but she has to admit that it's probably true.
It causes friction sometimes, of course. Ling Mei tends to think of the library as her domain, and, more importantly, as a place to worship books as they deserve to be worshipped—not to flip through them while you lean on a pet bear.
"Hey, look," says Ty Lee, nudging Yue's shoulder. "Do you see that?"
Yue does see it: a colorful piece of cloth caught in the space under a couple of boards leaning against a wall. Her heart catches in her throat; she hopes desperately that it isn't part of a body. Aang's fight with Ozai caused an earthquake that tore up a lot of the capital city, but the initial rescue-and-repair phase is almost over, and Yue hasn't had to try to bend the life back into anybody for days. She's not sure she could stand to find one last corpse now.
But it's not a corpse; it's a child. Two of them, actually, both girls, dressed in dusty Fire Nation red and staring up at her with frightened eyes—at least until Ty Lee comes up beside her, wearing red herself, and they both relax.
The taller of the girls has a flurry of cuts on one cheek, and Yue kneels down and twists off the cap on the pouch for her bending water, but then the girl flinches back.
"No, hey, it's all right," Ty Lee says comfortingly. "She's not so bad." She turns a little, and winks at Yue.
Yue doesn't know Ty Lee that well yet. After all, it hasn't been all that long since Ty Lee was still on Azula's side of all this. Sometimes she feels like she's waiting for Ty Lee to suddenly change her mind again. But Ty Lee has been unfailingly friendly, always dimpled and beaming, and willing to do flips and tumbles for the rescued children waiting for their parents; and she keeps smiling at Yue in ways that make Yue's stomach wobble.
Turns out the winking makes it wobble, too.
The girls turn out to be sisters; Ji-Lan and Zhang, Ty Lee tells Yue, when she manages to pry their names out. Zhang is the older one, the taller girl with the cuts, and she lets Yue heal her as long as Ty Lee stays with them. Ji-Lan is the younger, and refuses to talk to anyone but Zhang; not even Ty Lee can get a word out of her. She seems to take a shine to Yue, though, and when they walk back to the temporary shelters set up near the palace, it is with Ji-Lan's hand wrapped tightly around the end of one of Yue's pale braids.