Author: bhut PM
Inspired by Maladin's latest chapter in his Circus story, this is something of an AU.Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance - Chapters: 3 - Words: 7,742 - Reviews: 2 - Favs: 1 - Updated: 04-15-09 - Published: 06-12-07 - id: 3589588
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Rising to the Kyoshi challenge, or
How Zuko became a big boy
The A:TLA characters belong to Mike and Bryan. ZukoXSuki relationship was inspired by Maladin "Circus" story.
The story is rated M for mature themes and innuendo.
It would be a misnomer to say that the Kyoshi village was totaled; rather, it would be more accurate to say that the village was burnt most severely, leaving the villagers with the less than enviable task of fixing it.
"…and the darn Avatar just took his bison and blew it, like the Air Nomad that he is," despondently muttered one of the villagers. "No honest work for one of them, as my grandpa told me."
If she currently was not so busy helping Sephi and Ami with the hauling and putting in place, of a roof, Suki would have growled – but busy she was, and so the unfortunate man was spared the tongue-lashing of the Kyoshi's chief warrior…
Of course, as Suki mused several moments later, trying to avoid burnt straw from getting into her eyes, the Avatar could've stuck around and helped them rebuilt the village – a powerful air bender would've been a lot of assistance of to a village of none to small bender-types, but apparently he couldn't. Worse, he took Sokka with him – the first boy who ever stood up to Suki and her friends…
Well, maybe not the first, but that boy getting here was even less likely than Sokka; not to mention-
"Hey, everybody!" Koko and her posse ran back into the village amongst the general groans – the younger sisters of the warriors were generally more irritating than helpful, and tended to get underfoot at the worst moments ever. "Do you know what we saw?"
"What?" Suki groaned – Koko was her little cousin, she had to deal with her. "What did you see? It better not be the Unagi doing its sea monster things."
"Oh, it's not! It is that Fire Nation ship – it has moored in that bay about forty minutes away from us! It's being repaired!"
"It's damaged?" Suki said, almost wanting to disbelieve Koko – but no, the aspiring warriors to be were anything but liars: no one wanted to besmirch their reputation as a liar even before they were of age to become Kyoshi warriors themselves – so they had to be telling the truth.
"Well, it's mostly scraping off the rust," Koko shrugged, half-pleased and half-wary of the sudden attention she and her friends received. Then she remembered something else. "Oh and there are a lot of half-naked guys doing the scraping!"
Upon hearing that quite a few Kyoshi faces turned red. Although the progenitor of their order, the Avatar Kyoshi herself, was a woman of a very stern honor code, she, however, did not leave any prohibitions or vetoes regarding her warriors' relations with the members of the opposite sex; in truth, it was quite the opposite.
On the other hand, these guys were from the Fire Nation, and given the recent events-
"Humph! Well, I guess that shows what they think of us!" spoke up Midori, Suki's second-in-command and worst rival. "Although maybe they have heard of our barge adventure and that has colored their decision, hmm?"
"What are you implying, Midori?" Suki immediately rose to the bait, ignoring Sephi and Ami's attempts to placate the two.
"I'm saying, Suki," Midori said coolly, "that since you've been such an admirer of the Fire Nation since that incident, you can go there and talk to them in an attempt to shame them into either leaving our coastal waters for good, or helping us fix their damage."
"And so I will," Suki rose to the challenge, but kept her 'leadership' face intact. "After all, it is my job – thanks for reminding that, Midori."
Midori's eyes widened slightly: the barbed reminder about who had the final word had hit home, as usual.
"Well then, o great leader, don't let us detain from doing your duty," Midori said calmly, but her gaze spoke volumes more.
"Ah, and so I shall," Suki said graciously, her own gaze as revealing as Midori's. "Sephi, Ami, you're with me. Midori, take your team and take over our assignment."
Midori nodded, and Suki felt a bit more cheery, seeing the worry in her opposite's eyes, as her rival took a good look at the charred, heavy roof-beam, and the equally charred, but more destroyed, remains of the straw roof.
"Yes, leader. As you command."
Sometimes, Suki mused, it was good to be the one in charge.
"You know, Suki, I sometimes wonder if you will stop forgetting that you are the one in charge of us," Sephi shook her head, as the three girls, once more in their full warrior regalia, were walking through the forest path to the remote bay. "I mean, back with the incident with our barge-"
"Can we not talk about the barge?" Suki shook her head. "I mean, we were beating those pirates, but still, it was embarrassing to see quickly did they flee once the battle was joined."
"Eh, it was pure beginners' luck," Sephi shook her head. "We are the Kyoshi warriors, we triumph over all odds!"
"Yes, but some help is always welcome," Ami shook her head. "I mean, even Avatar Kyoshi herself wrote that it takes two to tango!"
"Yes, but it was also decided that that chapter was included into the wrong section of her writings; I mean the style of it-"
"Girls!" Suki slowly shook her head. "I think we're here."
The other two immediately fell silent, readied their fans, and listened. Sure enough, there were several voices coming from the other side of the bushes; the gurgle of the brook, though, made it hard to tell how many there were exactly.
"Maybe it's just two – we can take them," Ami said thoughtfully.
"No," Suki shook her head. "We're not here to fight them – not yet. We're here to talk."
"I don't know," Ami stubbornly shook her head. "I mean, if these guys and our earlier attackers were the same, then maybe they won't be so eager to talk."
"Then we bluff and mention the Unagi," Suki said firmly. "Let's go."
"Now she remembers that she's the leader," Ami muttered despondently to Sephi.
Suki did not bother to respond, as she marched through the bushes, and said, loudly. "Halt!"
Worried, the other two girls joined their leader and saw what was going on. There were soldiers of the Fire Nation at the stream; in fact, all except for one – an older, heavyset character, who was currently staring at them with a bemused grin – were pretty much young, buff, and naked. And the Kyoshi warriors could be – in fact, they were - highly appreciative of such qualities.
"Hi!" Sephi cheerfully as Suki seemed to be hard-pressed to speak. "We're from the village on the other side of the forest."
Silence went on.
"I'm sorry, dear girls, but haven't we met some time before," the older man said cheerfully, slowly getting back to his feet. "Weren't we the ones we rescued from the pirates?"
"That was you! This is you!" Suki slowly began to regain her composure. "And where is your leader?"
"Oh, my nephew? Why, he is right there! Wave hello to the pretty girls, Zuko!"
Working on pure reflex, the three Kyoshi warriors turned, just to see the ship's leader, also working on pure reflex, wave, unfortunately changing the position of his formerly strategically placed sponge.
Suki felt her eyes bulge out of her sockets from the new spectacle: "Gah!"
Zuko felt like drowning himself immediately and saving himself further humiliation: "Uncle!"
Several months before today
"Uncle! Leutenant Ji! Come and take a look!" yelled the exiled Fire Nation prince as he observed the new spectacle through the ship's spyglass.
The older men exchanged a half-curious, half-wary look. This was their second year together with the young prince, and by now, they knew that the prince did not tend to call them about anything unimportant, so whatever was taking place, it had to be serious, and probably unprecedented before.
"To think that I used to worry that he'll waste our time on every giant whale-squid's spout and funny-looking cloud," Jee muttered. "Now I wish that he had."
"What was that?" Zuko snapped.
"Nothing," Ji quickly shook his head. As far as young leaders went, prince Zuko was quite decent, and had a very, very good understanding of, well, the world as it was – which was far more from what Ji was used to, when dealing with the actual Fire Nation's nobility, let alone members of the royal family.
Of course, the others said, the prince behaved this way largely because of his uncle, the retired general Iroh, who lately developed an even better understanding of this war-torn world, but Ji, after seeing Zuko's eyes a couple of times, had his doubts that the prince was that gullible as to not to notice how his uncle did his best to influence the prince – but the Leutenant kept his silence. Stand not between two members of the royal family, or you will be burned from both sides.
At any rate, though, that was not the time to wax political philosophy, not when there was a small naval battle going on not too far from them – a pirate vessel was busy attacking an Earth Kingdom barge.
"So? Leutenant, you're the senior-ranking marine here, what do you advise to do?" general Iroh said softly.
Ji pondered about that. On one hand, the pirate ship was doing the job of a Fire Nation's ally, attacking what could easily be a supply ship for the enemy forces. However…
Firstly, the pirate ship did not fly the colors of a Fire Nation's ally; rather, it was an independent vessel, attacking ships of the both sides of the conflict. Secondly, by now, after the defeat at the Yesenny river by general Chang-ho, and the following naval defeat by the forces of the admiral Jeong-Jeong, the naval forces of the Water Tribes were severely reduced, and tended to consist almost entirely of the their tribal boats, and tended to stay near the Poles of the world, rather than hug the coasts of the Earth Kingdom, where either the navy of the Fire Nation or the forces of Chang-ho would come upon them. This, in turn, led to the conclusion that what they were witnessing was nothing more than a blatant act of pure piracy, and both sides of the war had views towards that.
"Empower the engines, prepare the catapults – we're going to ram that pirate!" Ji yelled and only then remembered that he was not technically in charge, and looked at his superiors. The old general beamed with open approval; the young prince was more restrained, but looked quite agreeing with Ji's sentiment as well.
The naval battle was joined.
"This isn't going well!" grunted Sephi, as she used her fans to deflect the thrust of a pirate's spear at her. "Someone must have a lot of time and money on their hands to send those scurvy sea dogs at us!"
"Or maybe you said the wrong thing to the wrong somebody," Ami grunted, as her opponent jumped out of reach. "Midori does have a point – if you don't walk the walk, you shouldn't talk the talk!"
"Ames, that just not makes any sense. At least Midori has this attitude to pull something pompous like this off – you just come out sounding stupid!"
"Well, you should shut up and fight!"
"Girls!" Suki grunted, as her opponent hammered his cudgel once more at her. "Please?"
"Sorry," the two girls echoed, jumping up, and kicking the cudgel-wielding brute in the torso, causing him to stumble long enough for Suki to get away – the war fans were not made for such hammering punishment. The cudgel-wielding brute, on the other hand, seemed to be made just for that, as he leapt into the air, swinging his cudgel in a descending arc – and excessively quickly than a man of his solid built should have.
Lightning came out of the clear sky smiting the cudgel-wielding brute.
"Zanthar! Zanthar! Sighvat's down!" somebody yelled in the following pause.
A flaming catapult missile smashed and burned into the pirates' masts, partially disintegrating them in effect. Everybody froze, and looked around, seeing that a new player has entered the fray – and it was an armored Fire Nation warship, armed and ready for battle, as the next fireball proved, by nearly smashing the pirates' prow.
"Wait!" yelled Zanthar, supposedly the captain (or the new captain) of the pirate ship. "Fire Nation, we're your allies, men of Chang-ho's army! This barge is an enemy ship!"
"Lies!" Sephi yelled, jumping up and down, enraged. "We're a neutral ship! We're from Kyoshi!"
"They are telling the truth, uncle," Zuko said softly. "These war fans are used only on the Kyoshi Island – and it declared itself decidedly neutral, especially after the victory at the Yesenny, is it not so?"
"Very so," Iroh nodded. "And I know Chang-ho – the man is as vicious as an oni, he and his men won't hesitate to start trouble out of nothing!"
"But isn't Chang-ho our ally?" Leutenant Ji felt like playing the devil's advocate in this scenario.
"Yes, but piracy is still piracy – if he has any honor, he'd hang his men for this anyways, and if he doesn't, well…" Zuko shrugged, and his eyes hardened. "Leutenant Ji, sink them."
Leutenant Ji nodded, noticing the hard notes in the prince's voice.
"Catapults, double blast!"
It was over, as the Kyoshi warriors could tell, in a matter of moment. At one moment, the pirate ship was standing there, the next – twin flaming catapult missiles slammed into it, smashing it to kindling.
The battle was over, and the surviving pirates fell to the warriors' feet, begging for mercy.
"Will you able to handle it from here, warriors of Kyoshi?" a surprisingly young voice came from the Fire Nation ship.
"Yes!" Suki yelled back. "Thank you for what you did!"
"Think nothing - it was the honorable thing to do!"
The girls exchanged looks – this was not what they expected to hear.
"Ally or not, Chang-ho is insane!" another voice came from the Fire Nation's ship.
Suki froze. "Chang-ho? You work for Chang-ho?" she asked one of the surviving pirates.
"Yes," replied one of the pirates, and this sealed their fate.
"Ami," Suki said slowly, "get them a rowboat and a barrel of fresh water, and release them."
"You think that this is a good idea?" Ami replied equally slowly, glancing overboard, as if already seeing the serrated backfin of a sharkodile in the waves.
Now, not even the Water Tribes hated and reviled the Fire Nation, as the inhabitants of the Kyoshi Island hated and reviled Chang-ho. Although a native of Earth Kingdom, the ronin general had thrown his lot with the Fire Nation over his homeland, but that was just part of the problem.
The other part was that Chang-ho was built like a bloodthirsty oni, and had descended from one, as far as the Kyoshi warriors were concerned – the descendant of the already power-mad Chin the Conqueror had surpassed his ancestor not only in stature, but also in power-hunger and cruelty – and added his own twist. Chang-ho blamed the Avatar Kyoshi for that fact that he and his family did not rule the Earth Kingdom, and fully intended to take it out on the Avatar – if the latter had not vanished for over 100 years by now. So, instead, he took his vengeance on the Kyoshi warriors who went to fight along the mainland Earth Kingdom's and Water Tribes' fighters at the battle of Yesenny river, where they were slaughtered, and the Kyoshi warriors of that times – grandmothers, grandaunts, and other relatives of Suki, Sephi, Ami, and others – took martyrs' deaths, as general Chang-ho made sure that they took a long, long time to die.
And now, these men planned to capture them alive and bring them to him for the same demises! Suki and her friends exchanged pointed looks. Avatar Kyoshi did not approve of lynchings, but the warriors knew that their families would brave this disapproval in this case if the truth about the pirates was to become known…
"What are they doing?" Zuko asked his uncle, as they took turns with the spyglass.
"Giving these pirates a bigger chance than Chang-ho would've given them," Iroh shook his head in approval with the Kyoshi warriors' tactics.
The rowboat with the pirates was unceremoniously dumped into the water. Iroh doubted that they would get far – few sailors really knew how to row, and was that a serrated backfin of a sharkodile in the waves?
Shaking his head, Iroh turned his attention back to the Kyoshi warrior, even as their warship was slowly leaving their barge behind them.
"Good-bye! Don't be a stranger!" the wind carried their voices back to him and his nephew.
Iroh smiled into his beard. "What and polite nice girls, my nephew!"
Zuko just shook his head. The Avatar – and his honor - beckoned.
"Yes, prince Zuko?" the older firebender replied, hiding his grin behind his beard. "Is there something wrong?"
Zuko released smoke from his nose.
"Oh, do it again!" Sephi giggled. "You do such a cute body blush-ai!"
Suki ground her heel in the foot of her more spunky sister-in-arms. "You!" she said as air finally got back into her lungs with a gasp, "you! I… remember you?"
"I daresay that you do, dear girl," the older firebender said, rather cheerfully. "You were the girls with the barge, now weren't you?"
Another silence came onto the clearing, broken only by the pained squeals of Sephi, who tried to get her foot out of Suki's heel.
"That was you?" Suki slowly said.
"Yes, I believe so," Zuko said, looking longingly at his clothes, discarded for the dip. "Why do you ask?"
"Because," Suki was slowly recovering from her blush, "if you are honorable men, as we presumed on that day, then you will answer me honestly, as to why you did attack our village!"
"Because of the Avatar."
"Really?" Suki was honestly surprised. "But he's prepubescent! What he got that you want so much?"
"Oh." For the Kyoshi warriors' honor was nothing to scoff about or treat lightly. "How did that happen?"
"Why do you care?" Zuko asked bitterly.
"Well, it would make it easier for us to forgive you for doing damage to our village," Suki said softly. "We know that honor is no laughing matter."
"Right," Zuko said, not really convinced, but unwilling to fight about that in this condition. "But as for your village, I admit that I and my men have acted wrongly, by invading neutral waters. Will you accept this apology?"
"Only if you help us rebuild it," Ami said evenly.
"Help you?" Zuko said, not enthusiastic, but Iroh was quicker.
"Of course we will," the old tea-drinker said promptly. "We planned staying here tonight due to the music night all the same, might as well combine the useful with the pleasing and help you fix the damage that we caused – it's only honorable, after all. But first, though," he added with a mischievous twinkle in the eye, "we'll have to get dressed, if you don't mind."
"We don't," Sephi squeaked as Ami and Suki began to drag her towards the bushes. "But don't take too long – it's going to be dusty work."
"We won't mind," Iroh smiled. "What nice, reasonable girls, eh Zuko?"
The prince of the Fire Nation just groaned.
"Suki! Girls! What took you so long?" Oyaji, the mayor of the village ran hurriedly to meet his daughter and her friends. "Did the soldiers give you any trouble?"
"No," Suki shook her head. "They in fact were perfectly co-operative and have agreed to fix what they've done in the attack."
"What?" For the first time Oyaji and others saw the significant number of currently unarmored but still formidable men behind the three girls. "They have?"
"Yes sir, we have," the surprisingly young leader of the firebenders nodded curtly. "We have behaved wrongly, and not even you hosting the Avatar can fully excuse our actions. We're here to make reparations and to help."
As the villagers, including the other Kyoshi warriors, just stared in mute awe at the surprisingly atypical Firebenders and their leader, Suki almost felt cheerful.
Take that, Midori!
The day that had started so routinely, seemed not to intend to return to routine after it turned into night. The strange Firebenders, who seemed not only understand honor, but also the satisfaction of doing honest work, also showed that they had lighter sides to their nature with their music night.
The natives of the Kyoshi Island prided themselves on their rich cultural heritage, but even they had to agree that not covering such an event was a bit of oversight in Avatar Kyoshi's holiday regulations, and they planned to correct that, after the Fire Nation men left. Music was fun, and they could use a bit of fun now and then.
As she walked through the nocturnal forest, though, Suki could not help but feel confused. "Why are they acting so nice? Can it be that the Water Tribes are wrong?"
"What are you talking about, Kyoshi warrior?"
"Gah!" Suki whirled around and stared into the scarred leader's eyes. "You startled me, firebender!"
The firebender – who was pretty much Suki's age – just shook his head, and leaned back against the pine he was sitting next to.
"Sorry," he said contritely, "didn't mean to. Please continue to do whatever you were doing?"
Suki winced. By now, the music night was over, and both groups went off to bed – but quite a few of the sailors went to the beds of her compatriots, who were quite eager to share and to learn even more about the Fire Nation customs. Suki herself was tempted to follow their advice, but… she was reluctant to, for some reason. Maybe it was her pride as the leader, but… she had always reached for the best… but right now all the best were taken, leaving the too-old uncle Iroh, lieutenant Ji, who preferred the company of his fellow men to women in every area, and the scarred leader of the ship, Zuko.
And that opened a completely new assortment of problems. Suki did not really know how to talk to people her age that she did not know to begin with. The Avatar and his companions were easy – the Avatar was a typical 12-year-old (at least until he captured the Unagi and saved her village), Katara was actually like another warrior-sister to Suki, and Sokka, well, Sokka was practically a typical teenage boy of any nation, arrogant and supposedly superior to any female, a waterbending sibling not withstanding.
However… however, he traveled with the Avatar, and had actually saved Suki from the scarred boy sitting across her… who actually did not look that intimidating without his armor, and was somewhat cute hugging his sungi horn…
"Want me to leave?" Zuko said quietly, after he noticed that the leader of the Kyoshi warriors was just staring at him. "Wouldn't want to be a bother, after all."
"Oh no," Suki shook her head, "we need to finish our conversation."
Zuko turned red.
Suki blinked and turned red herself. "No, no, not about that," she said quickly, "I mean about your honor."
The redness faded, and Suki found herself looking into a pair of very hard golden eyes. "Why do you care?"
"Because…" Suki paused, "just please, tell me. It's important for me to know what to expect from you."
"You think that we will meet again?" Zuko said rather incredulously. "I doubt that. I need to find the Avatar and bring him back home."
"But why? He has not had puberty yet! How can he restore your honor?"
Zuko paused; surprised that she remembered that from their earlier conversation. After a pause, he decided to tell her just a little bit and see what happens then. "I spoke out of turn in the war room, and got banished," he explained. "I cannot return home unless I bring back the Avatar. What would you do in my place?"
"I don't know," Suki sat down next to the firebender. "Why did you speak out of turn in the war room anyways?"
"Because a company of still green recruits was sent into a hopeless battle," Zuko snapped. Maybe it was the night, maybe it was the smell of the flowering bird cherry, but Zuko felt like he could confide in the Kyoshi warriors' leader without too much embarrassment.
"And you got banished for that?" Suki said incredulously. "What are your generals – insane? This is basic common sense!.."
"Please don't start," Zuko said quietly. "The war has become very profitable for the generals and Fire Lord Ozai… well, it pains me to admit it, but his father, Fire Lord Azulon, had a better idea of how to be the Fire Lord."
"I see," Suki said slowly. "Still, it sounds like a very bad thing to think about during such a fine evening."
"Yeah, it does," Zuko said with something like a smile on his face. "But what can you do?"
"Well, we can do the obvious in this situation," Suki said wryly.
Zuko slowly shifted, recognizing for the first time that he had a very pretty girl sitting next to him. "You're kidding, right?" he said flatly. "I mean, I'm not stupid, and I do look in the mirror occasionally, so I know that I'm no prize-"
"Zuko," Suki rolled her eyes. "As my mother once told me, scars actually make a man more handsome… and besides, I already saw you naked today, remember?"
"How could I forget? Your friend Sephi took great joys of reminding both of us."
"True," Suki said, feeling her blush return despite her resolve. "So, uh, I guess it would be only fair if I return you the favor, see?"
Oh yes, Zuko could see the return favor very well. Although the armor of the Kyoshi warriors was made to at least partially absorb the impact of both bending attacks and ordinary weapons, it was not very practical when rebuilding a village, so through the day the girls used to walk rather armorless, dressed in ordinary clothes – and when the music night came, they changed into something a bit more appropriate; and now, well…
Zuko broke into a sweat, as his hands reached out to grasp the pretty girl that now revealed herself to him and squeeze a certain parts of her body. In addition, there was a particular feeling in his body that generally suggested that he might not have to stop just at squeezing either.
Suki looked at the boy across her, at how stiff he looked, and got even more determined not to shame her ancestors tonight – all that Zuko needed was one final push.
"So, feel like you can handle me, big boy?" Suki spoke, giving Zuko (and herself) that push.
And as it was his habit, Zuko rose to the challenge.
"Wow, Koko!" one of the younger Twinkies whispered excitedly to their leader. "What is Suki doing with the Fire Bender? Looks like some sort of wrestling."
"Yeah, it's wrestling all right," muttered Jojo, Koko's unofficial second-in-command, "isn't it, Koko?"
"Aha," the Twinkies' leader nodded her face deep in thought. "Jojo, think that the Avatar would like it if we wrestled with him like that?"
"Let's wait till he comes here next time and surprise him," Jojo shrugged. "But it should probably remain a secret until he does."
The senior Twinkies exchanged some deep conspiring looks. (If Aang had seen them, he would have run away screaming.) The Avatar was indeed in trouble.
"Oh yeah, score!" crowed Avatar Kyoshi from her strategic observing place in the Spirit Realm. "Take that, Roku, you yin-obsessed stick!"
"Glad that you feel that way," uttered Kyoshi's co-conspirator, Azee, the guardian spirit of the bird cherry trees.
"Oh! Thank you, Azee, for providing the atmosphere," Kyoshi tried her best to regain her Avatar stature, but failing – she was just too happy for her direct descendant's success.
"You know," the tree spirit said slyly, "there are other observers, as well."
"Oh?" Kyoshi looked and smiled again. "I see that my island nation shall go far indeed."
Azee frowned. "Not everyone will be happy about this."
Kyoshi shook her head, sobering for real this time, as she thought about what she had not shared with her friend. "Then they shall deal with that," she said softly, but with steel underneath the softness. "Then they shall deal."