Spring air. The promise of a perfect sunset behind the pink blossoms. The smell of fresh lava hardening against the breeze. Victory.
Kyoshi Island was born. Like a newborn infant, tears slid down its face, and there was much rejoicing. The people not only rejoiced for themselves, but for the entire Earth Kingdom. Chin the Conqueror was no more. His reign in the land would fall with him, the Avatar had said.
"What now, Kyoshi?"
"We wait until the time is right, Li-Sang, and rebuild this kingdom."
Kyoshi looked down the jagged cliff and into the water below. Smoking lava was hardening on the cliffside, and she replayed the scene in her mind. She had killed a man, split her home from the mainland, and used every drop of power she had to sail a landmass into the sea. Such power. Who else has held lava in their hands? Who has told the earth to sail away?
"Who knows how much work it will be to restore the damage Chin has done. The sooner we begin, the better. We will make this right," Kyoshi said, turning to Li-Sang.
The young woman's earthen-green eyes matched Kyoshi's, and what she lacked in height, she made up for in beauty. If anything, Kyoshi was most proud of her success in protecting women like Li-Sang. She was a member of the Kyoshi Warriors, a group of women Kyoshi had trained in self defense. When Li-Sang proposed the name for the group, Kyoshi was flattered, but hoped it wouldn't stick. The group wasn't about her, after all. But when the rest of the girls cheered at the recommendation, she couldn't stop it.
"I want to help you, Kyoshi. I want to travel with you and help make things right."
Some people want to join the Avatar for the thrill and the pride. Others were sincere. Like Li-Sang.
"Welcome to the first annual Kyoshi Day! Welcome," Dahst announced, beaming at his friends with outstretched arms, "to Kyoshi Island!"
Everybody cheered. As Dahst was raising his bowl of fresh mango juice, beckoning the crowd to do the same, he was yanked away by someone rushing past his other arm.
"Dahst, please! What are you doing?" hissed Kyoshi as she planted herself out of earshot of the crowd.
"What? We all love you, Kyoshi!" He replied, reaching his hands up to her shoulders, trying to calm her. "We must celebrate today's victory."
"You would rejoice in death coming through my hands?" Her eyes were wet.
Dahst breathed. He spoke without words, his eyes whispering as they danced with Kyoshi's. He rubbed her shoulder. "Our people were saved today. It was the only way."
"It all happened so fast." Kyoshi coughed trying to hold back her tears. She hugged Dahst tightly. He braced himself as always, trying not to fall.
"It's okay. We stand behind what happened today."
She exhaled through her mouth. Dahst knew she was overwhelmed at the events of the day. She wouldn't let others see this side of her, and he counted himself lucky to be the one she came to.
"I love you, Kyoshi," he whispered to his wife.
"Daddy!" Kyoshi heard as she followed Dahst into the hut. She watched as Koko tottered towards Dahst and wrapped her arms around him. He swept her off the ground and into his arms.
"Oh, honeyfly, there you are!" Koko's legs kicked the air as Dahst hugged her and lowered her to her feet. "Where's your brother?"
Koko turned away to face nobody in particular. "Gramma!"
Kyoshi met Dahst's eyes and shared a laugh as an older woman walked in from the other room. Dahst's mother was strong for her age. Known affectionately as Gran to the entire village, she was a mother to all.
"Well, Suhnd, go on and get him," she said to the young boy slipping off his grandmother's shoulders. He hit the ground and ran to Kyoshi.
"Mom, did you save us?" he asked as he grabbed for her hand.
"Of course I did, Suhnd. While Gran was watching you, your father and I made sure those mean men would never come back."
A look of victory grew over him. "Did you kill the Chin man?"
Kyoshi opened her mouth to speak, but Dahst replied first. "Suhnd," he began, kneeling to see eye to eye with his son. He sighed. "We must not rejoice in the death of anyone. When Chin decided to keep doing very bad things to the people of the Earth Kingdom…" Dahst shifted slightly, considering his words. "Suhnd, the good news we can celebrate is that the evil that threatened us is gone. Chin did bad things, but it would have been much better if he turned from his bad ways and did good instead."
"Oh…" Suhnd replied. Clearly he was thinking about what his father had just said.
"Remember, son. Good and bad are at war inside us all. It is not about killing the bad guy; it is about killing the bad inside of us so that good will prevail."
"Do you think the Chin man could have been good?"
Kyoshi knelt down to address her son. "Chin had power over many people, Suhnd. He should have used his power to help those people. But he chose to do evil instead, even after we asked him to do good."
"I want to do good and help people, Mom. I want to be like you." Suhnd wrapped his arms around Kyoshi's waist, and she hugged him tightly.
"Thank you, Suhnd. Our village needs boys like you to lead us." A confident boy smiled back at her. She traded glances with Dahst and knew to change subjects. "Suhnd, Koko, sit down, there's something we need to talk about."
Kyoshi's mind sifted through her thoughts as her family sat on the floor around the table. The feeling that Chin and his army had expanded as far throughout the kingdom as they had because she was at home with her family was inescapable. Every day, the smiling faces of her growing daughter, her maturing son, and her loving husband anchored her to this village she called home. But now was the time to leave.
"Now that Chin is defeated, your father and I will have to leave home and travel throughout the Earth Kingdom to help restore balance. You two will have to stay here in the village." Kyoshi waited for their response.
Koko hung her head. "Mommy, will Gran stay with me?"
Gran wrapped an arm around Koko. "Little dear, don't worry. Of course I'll take care of you."
"Do I get to lead the village while you're gone?" Suhnd said quietly with his eyes wrinkled up in thought, as if he had been working at solving a riddle.
Dahst looked to Kyoshi and back to Suhnd. "Now son, you might be a little too young for something like that." At his father's words, Suhnd's shoulders fell a little. "So you won't be leading the village all by yourself-" and Suhnd's eyes widened as he looked up, "-because you'll be working with the Kyoshi Warriors for that."
"I-," he began. "You mean, I will help the Warriors really lead the village?"
Kyoshi met her son's eyes, "I believe in you, Suhnd. You will help them greatly. Can you do it?"
"I can do it."
Li-Sang ducked and spun left under Tarala's outstretched arm. As she swept her leg behind her opponent's, she blocked another blow with her full arm, hoping to have momentum on her side. But it wasn't the case. As Tarala twisted out of her hold, Li-Sang toppled forwards on to the practice mat.
"That was a close one," Tarala smirked down at her. She held out her arm to help her up. "Good work, Li-Sang."
"Thanks," Li-Sang laughed. She took Tarala's hand, began to upright herself, but suddenly yanked Tarala down to the ground. Tarala let out a quick gasp of surprise as she landed on the mat near Li-Sang.
"Ha. You got me," she said before letting out a sigh.
The light that sprayed onto the ceiling and walls from the morning sun was brilliant. The spring air, the sound of the village's new location - an island in the middle of the sea, it was home now. It was the same, but different. The same home, refreshed by Kyoshi's incredible defeat of Chin the Conqueror. And soon she would be leaving again.
"I'm going to leave the village and travel with Kyoshi."
"I knew you wouldn't stay here forever, Li-Sang," Tarala said. Li-Sang turned to look at her friend. She was laying with her hands under her head as she looked up at the ceiling, but she seemed to smile at Li-Sang's glance. "Don't worry, I think you'll do great. I'd be jealous, but this is my home more than it is yours–I mean, I grew up here and you didn't. I'm content staying right here."
"Part of me doesn't really want to go. I've been scared to leave ever since Kyoshi took me in, you know," Li-Sang said it knowing Tarala had heard it all before. "But I feel like it's time."
Tarala didn't reply. There wasn't a need to. Not on this spring day shared between friends. In the silence, Li-Sang flipped through memories in her mind. Tarala had been the leader of the group of women that became known as the Kyoshi Warriors ever since Li-Sang first met Kyoshi just over a year ago. How Tarala was so skilled, Li-Sang didn't know. She was a few years younger than Li-Sang, but it had always seemed like Tarala was a master in combat and training, not to mention a natural leader.
"You'll do great keeping watch over the village, Tarala," Li-Sang said as she pushed herself off the ground and to her feet. "Now, I think I have some kids to say goodbye to." She offered a smile and headed towards the door.
Tarala didn't move from the floor, but called after her. "Be careful, I think Suhnd is in love with you!"
"I've already told him he's a bit too young!" Li-Sang laughed back her usual response. Li-Sang smiled at the joke she shared with her friend. It's how we say goodbye.
Morning rose without much notice. The brightness of the sky was veiled by clouds. Dahst allowed a cool breeze to whisper past his face as he let the air escape his chest. Not everything was going to change today. But it was the day they would face what the world was coming to. Had he let Kyoshi stay home in this village for too long? Surely the civil wars across the kingdom would be growing more severe than they had last heard.
Dahst turned away from the window, his eyes slowly crossing the room. The soft gray glow of the morning cast an eerie light into the small, already gray room. He caught his own breathing matching Kyoshi's chest slowly rising and falling as she slept in the bed across the room. He let himself sit down on the bench next to the window, just to embrace the moment. His chest rising. And falling.
Kyoshi loved this place. Her home. Their home. Their children. Their village. Their life. Together. Could she really be ready to leave? They had prepared for this, of course, so she had been so calm when telling the children of their plans to go. But Kyoshi was the Avatar. Starting a family had always been a tough decision, and now there was nothing she loved more. Suhnd was old enough to be left at home in Gran's care, to be sure, but Koko was still so young. There was no reason to worry, but even knowing that, Dahst couldn't help but think that Kyoshi was having a hard time with leaving her.
Dahst silently sighed thinking of the challenge that would come today. Surely he would have some convincing to do. Not one of talking Kyoshi into leaving on their journey, but of opening up and admitting her attachment to everything she was leaving. Nothing meant more to her than this. Except me.
A soft rustling from the bed caught Dahst in the midst of his thoughts. Kyoshi's head turned and her eyes slid open, not for a moment unlinked with Dahst's stare. He smiled at her beautiful face. The curve around her strong chin gave shape to her face while her delicate lips, nose, and eyes pushed everything else out of his mind, as always. She swept away a strand of dark hair that had fallen in front of one of her eyes. Dahst saw her in a way nobody else did. Did others take the time to see that her hair wasn't even truly black? He was well acquainted with the faint shade of brown that lightened it ever so slightly. The first impression of Kyoshi, the tall and strong woman, had melted over the years and the depth of her beauty had been added.
Kyoshi woke to a familiar sight. Dahst was sitting on the bench near the window of their bedroom looking into her eyes. Today was the day they had prepared for. And this was the day she pushed out of her mind ever since starting their family. How could she leave them? Nothing meant more to her than her kids and her village. So why did she have to go?
"We shouldn't waste much time this morning. It's best we get going soon," she said to Dahst after brushing a hair from in front of her eyes.
"You're ready to get going, then?"
No. "Yes, we must not delay."
His voice softened. "Kyoshi, it's okay for today to be hard." When she didn't reply, he walked towards the bed as he continued. "We'll have Li-Sang with us. She's practically family. And the other women will spoil Suhnd and Koko far more than we ever do." He offered his arm, and Kyoshi held on as he pulled her up from the bed into a hug. As always, her head rested slightly higher than his as they stood together. "Before you know it, we'll be back right here."
"As long as I'm with you, I'll be fine." Except I won't have my home, or the kids. "It's been so long since I've really been away… since I've really been the Avatar," Kyoshi said as she stood up straight and sighed. "I just hate change. But today's the day. Let's get going."
She led Dahst into the sitting room. As they walked, the smell of breakfast greeted them like any other day. Kyoshi instinctively smiled at the smell of home in the morning.
Kyoshi saw Gran's head peek out from the other room and quickly disappear again. "Eggs and toast! Who'll eat the most?" Gran called from the kitchen.
"I eat the most!" she heard Suhnd's voice reply. Oh, that I didn't have to leave them.
Kyoshi was jarred from her thoughts as a knock on the door came from outside. Before she even fully turned towards the door, Kyoshi saw familiar fingers wrapped around the door, pushing it open slightly.
"Good morning in there," Li-Sang's voice called. "I'm coming in!"
Li-Sang peeked her head inside before entering and gently closing the door behind her. Kyoshi smiled as she let what would happen next play out in her mind.
"Li-Sang, Li-Sang!" Suhnd's voice grew louder as he rushed from the kitchen to the door and wrapped his arms around Li-Sang before she had even turned from closing the door.
Li-Sang bent her knees to lower herself to face Suhnd and greet him sweetly. "Well hello Mr. Suhnd, how are you today?"
"You're going away with Mommy and Daddy," Suhnd said, folding his arms across his chest, smiling. "And I'm going to take care of the village with Tarala when you're gone."
Li-Sang tousled the hair on Suhnd's head. "Well then this village will be safe, won't it?" And she put her hand on his shoulder. "You'll do a great job, Suhnd." She returned his smile. "We'll miss you, but we'll be back soon."
Kyoshi met Li-Sang's eyes as she walked farther into the room with Suhnd at her side. A quick nod and a near smile shared between them was all the greeting Kyoshi could offer before Dahst entered the room with Koko on his shoulders.
"Look who's awake?" He announced as he lowered Koko down, setting her feet on the ground. "And, Gran has breakfast ready at the table," he added, ushering the party towards the kitchen.
When Kyoshi reached the kitchen, Suhnd and Koko had already found seats at the table with Dahst. Whether Dahst or Suhnd had helped Koko into her chair, Kyoshi couldn't tell. While parenting was hard work, and certainly had given her an excuse to stay in her village instead of traveling the Earth Kingdom during the current civil wars, she was waking up to the fact that she couldn't stay here any more. Suhnd was quickly becoming more mature, even to the point of helping around the house and caring for his sister. And, of course, Gran was more than capable of taking care of the kids. The Kyoshi Warriors always offered their help, too. Everything will be fine. I am free to go. To be the Avatar again.
Li-Sang's voice brought Kyoshi's mind back to the table. "Gran, this smells delicious," Li-Sang said as she filled her plate. "Thank you so much for breakfast."
"Of course, dear," Gran said, smiling. "It's all because I knew you were coming, naturally."
Dahst chuckled. "We're right here, Mum. Can't you tell Li-Sang that she's your favorite in private?"
"It's not my fault that Li-Sang is everyone's favorite around here." Gran said, waving her hand to dismiss Dahst's comment and winking at Suhnd. "I make that joke whenever I can. Just let me have my fun. And remember to have seconds. Suhnd thinks he can eat the most."
"Eggs and toast, I'll eat the most!" Suhnd laughed. Kyoshi couldn't help but laugh at her son's smiling face. It was contagious, apparently, because everyone else laughed as well.
Breakfast continued as it had begun. Kyoshi basked in the moments of laughing, smiling, and being with her family. Her children were growing up so fast, and she let the scene tie things down in her mind. She was ready to go. Her family would be safe. Suhnd, Koko, and Gran staying here in the village with the protection of the island. And Dahst and Li-Sang going with her. She would protect them.
When they had finished eating, Gran insisted that Kyoshi, Dahst, and Li-Sang gather their things and prepare for their departure. As they double checked their packs by the door, Kyoshi was focused more on the sounds of the kids helping Gran clean up in the kitchen than on the journey ahead.
But Dahst had everything handled. Their packs were ready and he was leaning on his staff. "That's everything for us. Li-Sang?"
"I'm all set, too." Li-Sang sighed as she said the words.
Kyoshi met Li-Sang's eyes and saw the young woman's hesitation. And she wasn't surprised when the flustered Li-Sang initiated a hug. Kyoshi let out a sigh herself and patted Li-Sang's back.
"Thank you, Kyoshi. Avatar Kyoshi." As Li-Sang addressed Kyoshi as such, she looked up. "I wouldn't be able to leave here like this without you. I-Well I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you. I never imagined leaving again."
It took a moment for Kyoshi to find her voice. "You are strong, Li-Sang. You know that you are family to us now." And you know that we'll protect you.
"You'll be safe with us, Li-Sang," Dahst added. "And, if this goes according to plan, then our trip shouldn't be too… exciting," He said as he patted his staff.
"Looks like it's time to say goodbye," Gran said as she entered the room with the kids at her side. Kyoshi fought the words as they crawled through her ears, wanting to be heard.
Dahst promptly hugged Gran and the kids to say his goodbyes, and Kyoshi followed.
"Thank you for everything, Mother," he said to Gran before kneeling down to the kids. "Suhnd, you do your best to take care of those Kyoshi Warriors while we're gone. And make sure they spend plenty of time playing with your sister!" When he turned to Koko, he grabbed her and stood up. "I'll miss you lots, honeyfly. But we'll be back soon and Gran will take good care of you."
Kyoshi took Koko from Dahst, to hug her and set her back down next to Suhnd. "I love you two, and I'll miss you so much." No other words came. No other words were as true.
As Kyoshi stood, Gran pulled her into a hug and then offered a serious smile. "Behind every Avatar, there's a good Gran." She said it with such moxie that if it wasn't already true, it was now. "And you're a great Avatar. It's time this kingdom heard from you again. I'm proud of you. And don't worry about a thing while you're gone."
With not a hug too many from the family, Li-Sang followed Dahst and Kyoshi to the small harbor to the west of the village. Stepping foot outside the village felt foreign. Until only recently, home had never referred to an island. Li-Sang shuddered to think of the collection of places she had called home. But as they walked, the island felt sure of itself. It was as if the peninsula had always wanted to swim away from the shore, and Kyoshi had given it permission.
The harbor was as it had always been. There were three old docks with small boats attached. The wooden boats were small and unkept, but they appeared to be in working order. There was another boat past the original three that rested on a small patch of ground that jutted out from the shore. It looked like it had jumped out of the water and landed there to be taller than the other boats that rested in the water.
"Well," Dahst said. He was leaning on his tall staff as he looked to Kyoshi and Li-Sang. "Here we are."
But Kyoshi never stopped walking as Dahst spoke. She stopped in front of the boat resting atop the land. Li-Sang noticed Kyoshi strengthen her stance before thrusting her arms out and up into the air. As she did, ground appeared along the sides of the boat. Looks like this is the boat we'll be taking.
"We start by heading north," Kyoshi said to both Li-Sang and Dahst. But she was looking at Li-Sang. "Back to the mainland." She thought for a moment and looked back toward the sea, then continued. "Hopefully the citizens are anxious to help rebuild, as we are, now that Chin has been defeated. We'll help in the villages we travel through on our way to Ba Sing Se. It's possible we may be needed there the most." Dahst nodded to that and began stepping into the boat, laying his staff and packs in first.
Kyoshi entered the boat behind Dahst, leaving room for Li-Sang in the front. She gently nudged her pack beneath the wooden seat and sat down. Thankful that the small boat felt sturdier than the others looked, she turned to Dahst and nodded. "I'm ready." He smiled and returned the nod, and turned around to Kyoshi.
As Li-Sang braced herself in her seat, she felt the warmth of the morning sun reaching higher. Her shadow danced amid sparkles in the shallow water in front of her. With a low rumble, the boat's nose fell towards the water and the ground underneath shifted and flattened. Li-Sang's fingers went tight and pulled her close against the seat at the sudden motion. The boat slowly stepped away from the shore, and Li-Sang turned her head to see Kyoshi's arms raised and a low wave propelling the boat forward. Moment by moment, the shore behind Kyoshi slowly faded.
The shore, Li-Sang sighed as she turned to face the oncoming sea. She was leaving the safety of Kyoshi's village. But Kyoshi and Dahst were here. There was nowhere safer than under the wing of the Avatar herself. Kyoshi was protective and able to protect. Wise and able to guide. A hero to the helpless. A teacher to those willing to devote themselves to study and practice. And I have a lot to learn. But she trusts me to make this journey with her. Li-Sang turned again to watch Kyoshi in action. Slow, graceful movements bending the water around the boat as they sped forward.
"Li-Sang," Dahst leaned in to make eye contact. "What do you expect we'll encounter once we reach shore?"
Li-Sang felt her face wrinkle as the question sank in. She was struck by both the serious question and the eye contact with Dahst. Though she was comfortable enough with him now, it took time throughout the past year to accept it. Trust in men was hard to muster.
"Kyoshi had been hoping you would join us when the time came," he continued, but broke eye contact and looked past her into the distance. "And I hoped so, too. You have a strong heart. The kids love you. You really have become family. We're proud to see you so eager to join us today." Dahst turned to Li-Sang's eyes again and gave a quick smile before resuming his serious tone. "Now, tell me. What do expect we'll face as we travel the Earth Kingdom?"
Well, I expect to face myself, for one. She searched for an answer. "I expect we'll be helping people regain control of their villages. Now that Chin is defeated, I hope I can help you and Kyoshi restore those villages."
Dahst nodded. "Chin is gone, but I suspect his army is still spread throughout the kingdom. Remember your training with the Kyoshi Warriors. You understand that you may very well need to use those skills, correct?"
"I do," she replied, the words coming slowly. "But I have a lot more training to do if I want to be as good as some of the other Warriors."
Kyoshi's arms halted and the boat slowed as Kyoshi entered the conversation. "You're strong, Li-Sang. You're progressing as well as anyone in training with the Warriors. Whatever we face on this journey, know this: you have what it takes."
The responsibility weighing down her shoulders didn't quite lift, but Li-Sang felt herself sit a little taller at Kyoshi's words. Turning again to the sea in front of them, she couldn't stop the corners of her lips from curling upwards towards her reddening cheeks. As the shore ahead drew near, Li-Sang was only thinking of how proud she was to be with the two heroes seated in the boat behind her.