Everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. It just wasn't supposed to change like this.
Nuraya, fourteen, was currently making her way to the nearby village, having run from her own. Why, you ask? Well, that's a bit of a long story. You see, Nuraya is a Fire Nation native. Her family has lived here as long as she is aware of, and that's at least since the start of the war, those hundred years ago. Her great grandfather refused to get involved with the war though. He believed it was foolish, and felt the people living together in harmony was more than ideal. So, he turned down everyone who asked him to join the war efforts, and they respectfully left them alone.
This tradition was passed down through the generations - the whole family refused to be involved in the war, even though they were some of the best firebenders in the nation. Not greater than the Fire Lord and his family, of course, but they would be a worthy rival.
Just last week, Nuraya was out in the yard, practicing firebending with her father.
"Yes, just like that!" he proclaims as Nuraya perfects the latest move they've been working on, which involves kicking the fire out in multiple directions.
Nuraya rights herself again with a smile on her face, her long dark brown hair starting to escape the bun it was pulled back into for practice. Her hazel green eyes shine in the flickering firelight from the torches she had lit earlier.
"Keep it up like that, and you may be able to best me," her father says with a smile and a laugh. "You certainly are a talented young girl."
The bell at the gates rings and, confused; her father pauses their training to check who is trying to reach them at this time of night. Nuraya, ever the curious girl, follows behind him.
"Commander Zhao," he says when he opens the gates, a frown in his voice. "What are you doing here?"
"Mrithun. I saw that someone was practicing their firebending from the fire that shot out above your wall and was intrigued. I wanted to see who happened to shoot their fire that high into the air."
Looking back, Mrithun sees Nuraya behind him and wraps an arm around her to bring her close and up front. "That would have been my daughter here, Nuraya. We were just in the middle of a training session, so if you would excuse us -"
"Actually, I was also looking to talk to you, if you have the time."
Mrithun purses his lips and looks down at Nuraya, then says, "Go ahead back inside, we can work more on your chi after this conversation. Take this with you.” He pulls a Pai Sho tile out of his pocket and pushes it into her hands.
Wanting to hear the conversation but not wanting to disobey her father, Nuraya nods and walks back to the house, closing the door behind her so her father knows she made it back inside.
She puts the tile in her pocket before sitting down in front of the mirror in her room and takes her hair out, fixing it by brushing through it and putting it back up in a bun. She then takes a deep breath and closes her eyes, trying to meditate so that she's ready for the next lesson. Because of this, she doesn't know a thing that's happening outside.
You see, Commander Zhao had simply made the excuse of the firebending; he wasn't all that interested in seeing who it had been. He was more interested in trying to enlist Mrithun, to which he refused, as is usual for the family. Except Zhao isn't one to accept no for an answer. He doesn't care if they're one of the most powerful bender families, all he cares about is that they won't support the war, which in his eyes is treason. So when Mrithun closes the gates in his face, Zhao takes that as the final act of treason and sets the house on fire.
The smell of burning is something Nuraya is used to, being a firebender, so she doesn't notice anything until it's too late - until the fire's already taken over most of the house. She hears someone's screams and opens her eyes to find the fire engulfing the room, racing towards her along the walls.
Panicking, she tries to open the door near her but has to pull her hand away because of the heat. She holds her hand in her other to ease the throbbing but doesn't know how else she'd get out of the building. Sure, she can firebend, but there’s too much fire. She’d never be able to do anything to it.
She decides to grit through the pain and opens the door, scalding her palm on the handle. Smoke billows through, and she drops to the ground, coughing, having to resort to crawling around to find a way out of the house. Creaking noises can be heard around the new room, the house ready to collapse any minute now.
The house finally gives way and starts to fall, sections falling everywhere out of the ceiling and the walls crumbling away. She does her best to dodge the falling timbers, but without being able to see them... A particularly loud crack makes her look up as one of the flaming logs falls, landing on her face. It burns the side of her head as she screams in pain, and her hands burn as well as she pushes the heavy log off of herself. She's made it this far though and is determined to use what little energy she has left to get out of the house. Once the log is off of her, she manages to get out of the house where the grass is already burned up. She shakily stands and makes her way out of the burning walls, her legs finally giving out in front of a river, the house a distant fire on the horizon.
She spent the night at the riverside, trying to use the water to help cool the pain from her wounds and tearing the bottom of her shirt to make bandages. After that night, she decided she couldn't bear to look at the house again since everyone was more than likely dead, and sets out in her tattered and burned clothes for the closest village.
And that's how she got to where we are now - just outside a small town, perfect for her to stay under the radar. She knows better than to think anyone other than Commander Zhao started the fire, so she doesn't want him knowing she's still alive, just in case.
As the weeks pass, Nuraya goes from town to town, looking for someone to give her a job, some reason to stay there and not move onto the next. She has to live off of scraps people give her, or, when it gets really bad, out of the trash.
Her burns weren’t healing as well as she had hoped, so that didn’t help. The pain was finally starting to go away as the skin healed, but a lot of her skin was scarring over, mainly in the places that didn’t hurt after she got out of the fire. She’s lost all feeling in her hands, which are definitely scarred, with some spots tapering off up her wrists. The right side of her head is also scarred, her hair missing. That scar extends a little onto her face, cutting down her forehead and through her eye, but not quite reaching her cheek.
That’s one of the worst things possible for someone in the Fire Nation – if you’re covered in burn scars, that means you were hurt by a bender, which could mean a whole array of things that you did to deserve them.
Town after town, she’s treated as an outcast, most people not even willing to talk to her.
I’ve got to get out of here, she thinks to herself as she huddles close to the fire she started. She’s never thought of leaving the Fire Nation before, but now, she can’t imagine staying. Maybe someone somewhere else would take pity on her; think she got injured in an attack from the Fire Nation. Which, in a way, she was.
There is no easy way out of the Fire Nation – the sea is the only way, and it’s not like Nuraya has any money to buy passage on another boat. Or that there would be any boats other than warships leaving anyway. All she has is her ratty clothes and the Pai Sho tile in her pocket. If her only options are to stay and suffer or try to stow away in one of the warships, hoping that it would take her to either the Earth Kingdom or the Water Tribes… yeah, she does the latter.
It’s surprisingly a lot easier than she thought it would be. Once she finally makes it to the ship docks, her expertise in firebending helps her incapacitate a member of the navy – he must have been new. She steals his uniform and acts as a soldier, easily hiding her face under the masks they wear. If Commander Zhao had been on the ship she was, she’s sure she wouldn’t have made it. But, luckily, she gets by in the ship she’s on until they finally reach the Earth Kingdom. Where the soldiers were headed, she doesn’t find out, leaving in the middle of the night when it was her turn to guard the campsite. She loses the uniform before she goes to make it harder for them to find her if they come looking.
Back in her tattered clothes, she realizes she’s going to need to find something else to wear before she meets anyone. Her brown pants might be okay, albeit the ragged look of them, but the red shirt has to go, or they might think she’s Fire Nation. She is, but she doesn’t want them to know.
As she’s distancing herself from the camp, she comes across a farmhouse, complete with clothes hanging on a clothesline. It’s in poor taste to just take it, but she doesn’t know what else to do. She fishes around in her pocket and finds a coin, dropping it in the dirt and hoping the family will find it to make up for the clothes she takes.
There are no shirts in her size, but there is an earth green dress that looks to be the perfect size, so she loses both the pants and the shirt in favor of the dress. The black shoes she’s got now will have to do. Before she leaves, she makes sure to take the tile her father gave her. It’s all she has left.
As dawn is breaking, Nuraya makes it into a town, people just starting to rise with the sun. She gets some curious glances from those already out and about, but no one outright ignores her or turns their nose up at her because of her scars. She still feels self-conscious about it though and wishes she had found a cloak so that the hood would have covered her face.
As much as she would like to stay in the first town she comes across; if she can make it in one night, she’s still too close to the army. She needs to find a place that hasn’t been touched by the war – somewhere safe. She had dinner with the army the night before, so she passes through the town without stopping for anything.
She’s not quite sure where to go, but she’s glad she’s out of the Fire Nation now. It seems so peaceful around the forest — nothing like what she’s used to at home. Birds are flying around in the sky and animals are running around in the woods – and everything here is susceptible to burning. She’s got to be careful around here, lest she give herself and her bending away.
During Nuraya’s travels, she finds out just how bad the war has been. Some towns she comes across are in control of the Fire Nation, forced to pay rising taxes in order to keep their houses from burning down. Some of them are still free, but a tense air lays over the town as they wait, day after day, to see if there’s going to be an attack.
The further into the Earth Kingdom she gets, the more the Fire Nation seems to be around. It’s probably because the main battle is in the capital of Ba Sing Se, but even General Iroh couldn’t make it through the walls.
There’s a child running around on the road up ahead, and Nuraya stops to talk to him.
“Hey there,” she says as the boy stops and stares. “What are you up to?”
“Playing,” he says sheepishly.
Looking around, Nuraya asks, “All the way out here by yourself?”
He bites his thumb. “I got lost.”
“Far away from home, huh? Me too.” She extends her hand out for him to hold. “Come on; I’ll help you find your way back home.”
He reaches out for her hand and latches onto one of her fingers, his thumb still in his mouth. As they start walking, Nuraya wants to make the kid feel safe, so she starts talking. “You must be a strong earthbender, huh? Brave enough to have journeyed all alone this far from your village.”
He giggles around his thumb, gripping her finger tighter.
They climb over a hill as the sun starts to set and there’s a village at the bottom. The boy takes his hand out of his mouth to point, saying, “That’s my house!”
Nuraya smiles. “Let’s get you home.”
They enter the town as dusk settles and the first thing Nuraya notices is it’s occupied by the Fire Nation. She holds his hand tighter as they weave through the streets.
“Kwan!” a woman calls from down the street. She starts running towards them. “Oh, Kwan, we thought you were lost!” She picks him up and hugs him.
“I was!” he points at Nuraya. “The nice lady helped me home.”
His mom looks to Nuraya and smiles. “Thank you for bringing my little boy home.”
Before Nuraya can respond, Fire Nation soldiers come out of the nearby alley.
“You there! What’s all of this commotion?”
The mother cowers in fear as she turns to face the soldiers, holding Kwan closer to her. Nuraya steps in-between the groups, standing tall. “She just found her lost son,” she tells them. “I think she deserves to be happy about that.”
The soldier gets closer and towers over Nuraya. “You seem to be new here, so I’ll let you off the hook just this once. There’s a curfew here in this town. Once the sun goes down, it’s supposed to be quiet, and you have to have a good reason to be outside.”
The mother grabs Nuraya’s wrist, pulling her backward. “Come with me; I’ll get you out of here.” She drags Nuraya away from the soldiers and into an open house, closing it behind her. “Stay here for the night. Those soldiers are everywhere, and you’ll have a hard time leaving. Besides, I owe you for helping my son home. Let me heat some dinner for the two of you; you must be hungry.”
Nuraya tries to protest, but the mother won’t hear of it, so she quietly sits down and asks questions as food is being prepared.
“Are they always like this? The soldiers, I mean.”
“Yes, unfortunately. They’ve been here for years now, and no one’s been brave enough to stand up to them. They run the town and keep us in constant fear. That’s why, when I couldn’t find Kwan, I was afraid something might have happened to him.” She hands Nuraya a bowl and some chopsticks. “That’s also why I have insisted on housing you for the night, for bringing my little boy home.” She looks over at him fondly, eating his own food, and lowers her voice. “The last person to stand up to them was his father, and they took him off somewhere when they defeated him. No one’s seen him since.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Nuraya stays the night at the house, planning on leaving in the morning.
“Please, I insist, let me buy something for your travels.”
“As kind of an offer as that is, I haven’t done anything to deserve it.”
“You don’t know how much it means to me that you brought Kwan back home safely. I insist, at least food for today.”
Sighing, Nuraya relents, letting her and Kwan drag her into the market.
“I don’t need all of that,” she sighs as the mother piles food into a basket.
“You will get all of this and more,” she says. “I can tell from your scars that the Fire Nation has affected you. I don’t want to pry, but if you’re looking for a spot to get away from the war, Ba Sing Se is the only place safe enough. Its walls are impenetrable.”
“Thank you for the information,” Nuraya responds, trying to sneak some of the food back out of the basket.
Three soldiers walk into the market and the air turns tense as the people turn away from them, not wanting to upset them. They walk around the market and look at the stalls, finally stopping at the vendor next to Nuraya.
“Let’s have some of that,” one of them says to the stand owner, pointing at something on the cart.
“Do you have money?” the owner asks quietly.
“Money?” the man says, slamming his fist on the vendor’s cart. “We’re in control of this town, if we want something we get it for free!”
Little Kwan, who had been watching the whole thing, was feeling inspired by Nuraya’s act of defiance yesterday and throws a rock at the soldier to get his attention. “Hey! That’s stealing!”
The soldiers turn away from threatening the owner to tower over Kwan, each of them looking at him in disgust.
Nuraya takes the basket of food now that it’s been paid for and turns to see the soldiers looming over the small boy.
“He’s just a child, please, forgive him,” his mother pleads, but the soldiers won’t listen.
“The brat should be taught a lesson on who’s in charge,” the lead soldier says, and swings his arm back to hit the boy. It never connects though, for Nuraya catches his arm, the basket of food laying in the dirt.
“He’s just a boy,” she says, letting him go and stepping in front of Kwan.
“A boy who should learn some respect,” the soldier spits, “as do you, it seems.”
The people scatter as the man gets into a fighting position, Kwan’s mother pulling him out of the way. Nuraya does the same, ready and waiting for the soldier to attack first.
“From the looks of your scars, you’ve been in a fight with a firebender before,” he taunts. “Do I need to prove to you not to talk out of place by marking you even more?”
Nuraya takes a deep breath, not wanting to lose control because they made her angry.
When nothing happens, the soldier attacks, shooting a fireball at Nuraya, who dodges easily.
“You’re fast, you little brat, but not fast enough for three of us!” All three soldiers attack her with fire this time, but again, she dodges all three of them.
“How are you going to fight back if you keep running away like a coward!”
Nuraya curls her lip and jumps at them, using her momentum to slide under the first one and trip him, then jump up and kick one of the others in the face.
Now the soldiers are too angry to taunt her and start attacking more frequently as Nuraya dodges and weaves in-between them, kicking and punching them and knocking them over.
Unfortunately, they start to learn her moves, and while they are certainly getting rattled up, one of them manages to shoot a fireball at her while she was off-guard.
Gasping, Nuraya quickly throws her arms up in front of her, making the fire dissipate with a fireball of her own, shocked gasps escaping everyone watching.
The soldiers grin turns to a look of shock as the fire disappears but Nuraya is unharmed.
“How are you not hurt?!” he yells, and Nuraya, knowing now her cover is blown, drops down and spins with her leg kicked out, shooting fire at the soldiers and knocking them all over again.
“You’re a traitor!” one of them yells as they scramble to get back up. One of them starts to run away.
“And you’re a bunch of bullies!” Nuraya responds, throwing another fireball and making another soldier run, leaving one left. “I am Nuraya of Mrithun, the best non-royal benders in all of the Fire Nation! You will leave these people alone!” Another blast of fire from her sends the last soldier running away.
Turning around to survey the damage done, Nuraya notices everyone cowering under her gaze, trying to protect each other from her. She looks down at the ground, crestfallen, and picks up the basket she dropped, picking up what fell out and putting it back in. Kwan hides behind his mother as she glares at Nuraya.
Sighing, Nuraya walks away, putting the town behind her in the distance as she starts for Ba Sing Se.