Disclaimer: Avatar: The Last Airbender is the creation of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, and is owned by Nickelodeon. Good for them. This story and its contents, however, belong to me; I'm willing to break thumbs to keep it that way.
Author's Note/Warning: This story is written in "segments" not chapters. The reason is because this fic started life as a drabble idea…then grew too big for the label. So, if you're looking for a blow-by-blow, chapter-by-chapter account of a single event—you won't find it here. What you will find is a series of drabbles, vignettes, not-quite-short short stories and, hey, even a funny list or two, all of which describe a life that didn't happen (or three lives, if you want to specific.)
Tempest in a Teacup: Prologue
+stars against the sun+
Iroh looks up from the map with its intertwined roads of water and land, and places that are not home, and stares at the ship doctor a moment before nodding. "Ah? Good. How is she feeling?"
The medic, Shuang, shrugs with deferential casualness. He is a good man, a capable healer, and has been under Iroh's command for nearly twenty years. Iroh trusts his knowledge and opinion. In return, the doctor trusts Iroh's intuition and decisions. Even so, there's a tinge of unease on Shuang's thin face. "She didn't say. In fact, the child hasn't uttered a sound since opening her eyes. She's not screaming, not crying, not asking questions, nothing." He frowns. "Normally I'd attribute the silence to shock considering the atypical circumstances of her situation but…" Shuang stops, having noticed the expression on Iroh's face. Folding his hands back into his sleeves, the doctor looks away. "Either way, she is awake. I thought you would like to know."
"Thank you. I appreciate it." Iroh nods again, politely grateful, and reluctantly rolls the map closed. Reluctantly not because he grieves leaving, but because he knows his respite is a short one. But that is a matter for later. Now he has a different duty to answer.
"Take me to see her," he says.
The walk to his quarters is short and familiar, but Iroh feels a difference in the passage. The sight of the doorstep makes him unaccountably anxious. He opens the door, feeling unsure of what he'll find.
It is the eyes that he notices first. How could anyone, especially a Fire Nation anyone, ignore them? They are a curious combination of pale and dark, luminescent in a way that has nothing to do with the room's firelight. They are blue. Blue. Blue like deep water or late hour skies, blue like a sweep of diluted ink on paper or a wave under the noon sun. Blue like only the eyes of a Water Tribe native can be. Because of course that is what she is, this girl hunched on Iroh's bed. Even in the dark, the bandage around her head is a gleaming contrast to her dark skin, a mass of lightless hair pouring out from it in a heavy tangle. The rest of her is lost among the thick blankets and the too-big robe wrapped around her. The robe is Iroh's; the excess fabric engulfs the girl like a collapsed tent. There is less of her than he remembers. Somehow, sitting up she looks smaller, less substantial, then she did lying down. Perhaps it is simply that he is unfamiliar to her being upright, welcome change though it is. For the past three days the child has lain feverish and unmoving, her breathing a ragged noise in the dark. Iroh thinks she may be six, maybe eight, most likely younger than ten. In reality he knows only one definite thing about the Water child silently watching him come into the room. That she is awake, means Iroh has succeeded in saving her life.
Just as three days ago, he destroyed it.
Shuang follows him in and immediately goes to the girl's side, his attention dedicated to the swath of bandages around her head, the scabs on her palms. She flinches a little at the physical contact but makes no move to ward him off. The complacency has Iroh wondering if she understands the situation. The wounds on her skin, the iron walls around her, what, if any of it, is registering within the current of her Water mind?
What is war to a child?
Iroh cannot remember a time when the word "war" was alien to him. He was raised under its definition, first as a boy and prince, then as a man and soldier, now as a general and Dragon of the West. Such is the fate of every child born with Fire Nation blood during the past century of conflict. Iroh does not think that this child, born of Water as he of Fire, has suffered a fate much different.
Shuang finishes his ministrations, proclaiming the injuries to be healing excellently. He mentions needing to change the bandages in the morning, recommends a gentle diet, and then stands waiting, watching Iroh. Released from the doctor's concentration, the girl draws both knees to her chest and stares at her toes.
"Where shall she be moved?" Shuang asks. "I don't advise putting her anywhere near the soldier's barrack but some spot in a quieter area, the infirmary maybe, would do."
"No need," Iroh replies. "She can stay where she is. Here."
"Here?" Incredulous, but too much a veteran to show it, the doctor surveys the room. Iroh's doesn't because he knows well enough what there is to see. His quarters are large enough to show respect to his station but they could be larger. Likewise the furnishings could be grander, more ornate and flattering. The absence of opulence is intentional; it is something Iroh does not invite and thusly doesn't receive. Which is not to say there aren't some concessions to luxury; the twin silk calligraphy scrolls on the walls, the sandalwood writing table with jade inlays, the red lacquer medicine chest with golden handles, Iroh's room does not belong to a poor man. And then there are the small, precious things whose value is sentimental or merely curious, and thus apparent only to Iroh's eyes. The painted wooden rhino "on loan" from his nephew, for example. A child with blue eyes is not so odd an addition, one could say.
"Here," he repeats. "Nobody will bother her; surely, the peace won't do her any harm?"
Slowly, Shuang nods, his gaze settling on the girl who is effortlessly ignoring them both. "Rest is a fine medicine, yes. I don't know how well she will sleep because of the different surroundings, but yours is a friendly face to wake up to, I suppose." Pity enters the doctor's eyes. "She will have to adjust fast."
"Children are better at surviving changes than the rest of us." But they should not have to, he thinks.
"She'll heal." The conviction in Shuang's voice has a surprising amount of steel. "Girl has a good balance of elements in her—even if she is mainly Water. And I doubt she's actually mute, either."
Iroh agrees. When the doctor leaves, Iroh sits down to think. The room's silence thickens into clay, somnolence; Iroh remembers that he is very tired and very far from home. He looks at the girl. Surprisingly, she is looking at him.
"Well. Here we are, little fish. I suppose this is many times stranger for you than this is for me," he muses. "My name, by the way, is Iroh. Would you like to tell me yours?"
"Ah. Well. Later on, perhaps, when you are in better health and mood. In case you are curious, we are on my ship, more or less, and this is my room. You have been asleep for the past three days." A shadowy flicker of—what?—surprise, fear, loss, passes over the little brown face to be suppressed under tightened lips. "If it is all right with you, I was planning to have you remain here for the rest of the journey." He tries to smile. "It is not much, I know, especially for a young girl but hopefully the surroundings will do for now. Once your wounds heal, we will see if there's some other accommodations can be made. But you won't have to move if you do not want to; provided you can bear my snoring."
Still, she says nothing. Truly, he didn't expect her to.
"Nobody will hurt you. I swear by my honor, child, I didn't bring you here with harm in mind. Whether you believe it or not, you are safe here."
The words are honest but hollow because he has nothing to convince her with and she has no reason to believe. Instead a hundred years of experience sits between the child and the soldier, watching both with bleak eyes.
"She won't eat."
Iroh receives the disturbing news midday, pre-lunch, delivered by a pickled-faced Shuang.
"Her breakfast was brought to her," Iroh begins only to be cut off with surgical precision.
"Yes, I know. I saw it sitting untouched on the table. My guess is lunch will not be receiving a fonder treatment."
"Maybe she's not hungry?" Iroh is an optimistic man. Shuang frowns at him.
"After three days of being a corpse with a pulse? She should be starving, as I know she is, but the little fool is determined to be obstinate. The question is whether her stubbornness will outlast her stomach." The doctor's lips thin dourly. "If you wish to have that child alive to see land on the horizon, I suggest you find a way to put rice on her tongue."
Iroh tries. He orders dinner brought to his room, encouraging the cook to be creative and receiving enough fare to satisfy the fattest appetite, and he watches the girl ignore it. Stubborn, indeed. Seeking inspiration, Iroh turns to the food: roast duck, spiced noodles, bowls of thick soup, and tea. An addition of rice gruel sits like an unkind reminder beside the kettle. Shuang's orders, no doubt, something malleable to avoid exhausting a weakened constitution. Iroh has little experience with doctoring, although he has plenty being a patient; he is not a man who knows much about medicine. But Iroh is a general who knows plenty about the importance of good ammunition. Iroh is also an uncle twice over and knows something of children.
"When I was a boy," he says, picking up a small dish of dumplings. "My favorite part about celebrating the Solstice was this, sweet dumplings. They made them especially for festival time. I never had enough patience to wait for the banquet's start, though, and would find a way to sneak into the kitchens. The cooks let me get away with thieving because it was too embarrassing to chase me out, or worse, catch me. Sometimes my brother would join me. But eventually he grew older and realized it was below his station to do such things. Pity: he was better than I at not being caught. My nephew, well, these are his favorite too but unfortunately he is even worse at sneaking than his crazy old uncle. Plus, he is too honest." Indeed, Iroh thinks sometimes that Zuko is too good a boy in general and feels oddly disquieted by the thought. "He should be nine by now, probably not that much older than you. No? I haven't seen him in over two years. But I'm willing to bet these are still his favorite treat." Iroh smiles at his audience of one and offers the dish. "Would you like to try one? They have walnut and melon seeds."
She turns away. Iroh sighs and sets down the plate.
"Perhaps you do not like sweet things. My apologies. How about noodles? I like them with soy jam or shredded pork but maybe you'd like some with sesame paste? We are low on fresh vegetables but the ship stores will get refilled soon; I'll have the cook prepare stuffed peppers or stir-fry some bitter melon. A small body should receive plenty of good, green things to help it grow." His coaxing elicits no response; the girl sits on the bed, blankets huddled around her, mouth a firm pale line. She looks small and fragile as only a young, hurt child could.
Sighing, Iroh pushes aside the food. "Then we shall not eat tonight. Would you at least consent to sharing a cup of tea?" Thirst, he knows, is more debilitating than hunger. Though there is no identifiable gesture of acknowledgment from the child, Iroh sets out two cups. "They say a perfect cup of tea requires clear rainwater from a cool night, wise hands, and serene spirits. All good things to have if you have them, I'm sure. But I have a peasant's soul; to me a good cup brings serenity rather than requires it. Of course, it helps to have a clean kettle and warm company. Also, ginseng." Carefully, he pours the golden liquid into the painted cup. "It's my favorite, you know."
Iroh fills the second cup with equal care before looking at the girl again. Her lips are dry, he notices, a spot of blood oozing through the cracks. When Iroh stands up and approaches the bed, she does not shy away but tenses nonetheless. He offers her the cup.
In life there are moments holding more substance than others. To predict them is hard, to measure them upon occurrence is impossible. They are gifts, or curses, or disasters, whose worth only time will tell. Within their invisible walls are worlds disconnected from the ordinary patterns of a person's life, intimate domains where every move is significant and holy. To taste such a moment is to understand the power of transformation.
They are moments of change.
For as long as he lives, Iroh knows he will remember this; the quiet room, the gentle heat of the cup again his skin, the fragrant scent of spice, the small brown hand fisted in the blankets, the sway of the ship, the suspicion clouding her blue eyes, all of these enter him like light does the eye or music a lonely soul. He feels their presence become a weight inside him.
She takes the cup from his hands, silent, and the air between them changes. The moment passes leaving behind it an unknown world and the scent of ginseng.
"She's not afraid of you."
Shuang's observation comes during dinner, a time he often spends in Iroh's quarters by old invitation. Iroh looks up from his bowl of minced beef and chili, surprised. "Why would I want her to be?"
"Merely making an observation." The doctor takes a small sip of tea, his thin face thoughtful. "It is not a bad development. Certainly better than the competitive starving match you two were indulged in."
"Indulge is not the word I would choose for the experience," Iroh retorts, sardonically but without true ire. Forgoing any substantial eating for nearly three days had not been enjoyable. "It was kind of her to relent and begin eating."
"Would you have honestly continued to fast if she had not?"
Iroh shrugs. "There are worse trials."
"And this one was potentially less harmful for some than others," Shuang observes dryly. "It is a kind heart indeed that takes pity on your gut, General. Still…" His eyes stray to the third occupant of the room who is typically ignoring them both. But she is doing so with a bowl of steadily diminishing amount of soup in front of her and both men are relieved at the change. "She is a stubborn one. Almost two weeks and not a word; I am tempted to think she may be mute, after all."
"I think," Iroh says, "that when she has something to say she will say it. The little fish will not be rushed."
"Little fish?" Shuang repeats. "Huh. Yes, I suppose she is. A little fish onboard a big ship, out of water and in company of Fire." Pity gathers in the corner of the doctor's mouth. "A hard trial for one so small."
But there are worse. The fact of their existence is a cold comfort to Iroh's guilt but the chill lessens with every mouthful he sees her swallow.
"She must remind you of your niece."
It is a fairly logical assumption and Iroh doesn't fault Shuang for making it. But it is not true.
In truth, she reminds him of his nephew.
Outwardly, there is no resemblance between the two; one is loud, demanding, the other is mute, withdrawn. One runs around without hesitation, confident in the consistency of the world before and beneath him, and the other holds still, closed off and numb in the shell of her skin. Nothing he sees in the girl mirrors what he has seen in the boy; what about a river, after all, can be called similar to a bonfire?
The center of the blaze, the core of a well: both house the essence of purity. Each is a small bright place that begins its existence untouched by the hunger and violence of the world. Iroh thinks of the child being raised to wage war and looks at the child wounded by it, and he prays that each shall receive the will to survive.
They are similar because they make Iroh remember the power of hope.
"She recognized Zhao."
Iroh frowns at Shuang. "Unlikely. No, she was simply scared and panicked. Being in a room with so many strangers must have overwhelmed her. Given the circumstances we should not blame her for what happened."
"I think you are underestimating the amount of guts under our little fish's dark skin. Scared or not, the girl knew what she was doing when she picked up that wine flagon. Damn good aim too; her strength is recovering faster than I expected." One of Shuang's brows rises marginally in a gesture carrying more amusement than, in Iroh's opinion, the situation warrants. He has spent the past three weeks worrying about sheltering his blue-eyed charge from the crew. Apparently, he should've been preparing to protect his crew instead.
"What set her off, do you think?" Iroh wonders out loud.
"I do not think it takes much when dealing with a man like Zhao."
"He's a strong soldier, Shuang." The words are true, calm, but something in Iroh's conscience turns cold eyes upon them. "The sort who will go far in the military."
"Happily crawling over the charred bodies of others to do it." The doctor's face hardens in disapproval. "That man has no hesitation with sending his troops into battle; every other patient I receive is under his command."
"We are at war."
"Does that mean every man below the rank of sergeant is cattle? I'm not denying the man's efficiency in battle, only his methods. A man should not fear the scent of smoke but neither should he hunger for it."
Tiredness, tasteless and gray, saws at Iroh's bones. Shuang is not wrong but his words have no place in the times they live in. "Zhao's methods are not very different from that of any other leader in this fleet. Including me."
There's a clatter from the room's far corner. Iroh turns to watch the girl kneel to pick up something that has apparently fallen to the floor; he recognizes the tiles from his Pai Sho set. Learning the game is a new ritual between them, adding to the habit of having a cup of tea during the meals they share. It helps pass the time from when she wakes up in the night, ripping away from a nightmare, to when she is calm enough to sleep again. Iroh, a solid sleeper by nature and a light one by trade, has become attuned for signs of a sudden gasp across the room. Despite the series of late hour lessons, which occur with damnable frequency, her stoically listening and watching him move painted tiles across the board, she has yet to make her move.
Until now apparently, Iroh thinks. Ah, irony.
"She has the right to be angry," he admits quietly but without the intent to hide his words, gaze still on the girl. Surprisingly, she looks away first, turning back to arranging the game pieces according to rules of her own design.
"She also must have a reason to focus that anger towards Zhao in particular, since there were plenty of other Firebenders available within range," Shuang says. "And it was a Firebender she was aiming for, make no mistake about it; there were other flasks on the table but the girl picked one full of wine. Flammable. I doubt the selection was accidental."
Quiet in her corner, the child listens and says nothing, staring at the lotus tile in her hands.
Shuang's face is anxious, its characteristic stoicism cracked with worry, and his dry voice is more strained than Iroh has heard it be in a very, very long time. A detached part of Iroh's mind remembers that the doctor, surprisingly, has no children of his own. The rest, however, is busy beginning to panic at the news.
"Missing from where?" Iroh asks while ice water starts to churn in his stomach. "Since when?"
"I don't know, not long. She was mixing honey and bran, helping make burn ointment; I stepped away for a moment to get more water for the blend. When I returned she was gone. I checked but there was no sign of the child anywhere around the area."
"You left her alone?"
"Only for a moment." Guilt hides under impatience in the doctor's voice. "Considering the wellness of her constitution lately, there seemed no reason to expect problems. The child has been eating and accepting treatment without a wisp of trouble, and she's stopped quaking at every shadow; I thought she had…recovered. There was little reason to believe otherwise."
Except that she is a child who spends her day surrounded by the unfamiliar and her night struggling against nightmares. "She never goes anywhere alone."
"Exactly," Shuang agrees, tense. "Where would she go?"
The answer, of course, is anywhere. It is a big ship and she is a very small girl. Fear, bare and shapeless, rises in Iroh's intuition.
He checks his, and hers, room first. At first glance nothing looks changed from how he left it in the morning after their shared breakfast of smoked salmon and spicy red sprouts (along with a small bowl of rice congee for the child, per Shuang's orders.) Then he notices the wet teacup on the table and the lingering scent of oolong. She has never, to Iroh's knowledge, drunk tea alone.
Halfway out the door, Shuang runs into him. He actually runs, although Iroh has never seen the man adopt any pace less calm than a brisk walk. The worry on his face is now entirely evident. Wordlessly, Iroh follows him upwards to the open deck of the ship.
Let it not be too late, he prays.
She is a small, bold mark against the horizon. A hard wind tumbles long thick hair away from the small brown face, holding the dark wings back to reveal an expression of lucid blankness. The clothes she's worn around the ship, warm pretty woolens purchased at various ports (because Iroh can't resist a bargain or an excuse to use it) have been replaced by garments of poorer condition. Recognizing the faded bloodstain on the blue sleeve, Iroh curses himself for not burning the clothes the moment she had others.
Slowly, he walks towards her until stopping a few feet away, realizing he is as close as the unspoken tension in her will allow him to come. Sitting on the ship's rim, her feet over the edge, she watches his approach and makes a small twitch, hands tensing in preparation to let go of the border they clutch. If she jumps now, he has no chance of catching her in time. If she jumps now, weak-bodied and determined, she will drown. If she jumps now, she will seize her last chance to avoid entering the Fire Nation. She knows the last, having been told by Iroh himself.
If she jumps now, she will escape the future by ending it.
"No," Iroh says. "Please, no."
Blue eyes look at him, dry, their light somehow untouched by the darkness of the bruises yet to heal on her body. Her gaze is a question.
Iroh doesn't know. Why this child when he has seen countless others bleed, scream, die? Because it was the right thing to do—no, he will not accept the mercy of the thought; he is not that naïve. Because of guilt? Because of honor?
He doesn't know. Because ever since he looked around the decimated village and spotted a bundle of blue against the snow, ever since he kneeled and reached down thinking to deliver mercy, to kill, and ever since he felt the pulse underneath his hand and knew he could, would not, let it stop, ever since he saw the luminous color of her Water eyes—he has felt the beginning of something unnamable. It has opened red wings inside him, turning towards the sun, and though Iroh cannot see its face he believes it wears the expression of hope.
If she jumps now, she will die and it will change nothing.
"No," the Dragon of the West repeats. "Not here and not like this, little fish. Do not extinguish your life this hopeless way, child; your soul will mourn the waste. And there must be…must be…"
"There must be something, anything, in the world ahead you want to see. Even in the land of your enemy there must be something left to look forward to, if only for the sake of curiosity."
There must be something. Something that survives war, that lifts its face towards the sun and does not fade, something beyond what is. Something to hope for. Something to start with.
"What's his name?" Her voice is surprisingly clear and only a little threadbare from weeks of disuse; it has a sweet lilt. Iroh can't help but lose his own voice in surprise, momentarily startled into the role of a temporary mute.
"Your nephew," she says. "What's his name?"
"Zuko." Iroh says. "His name is Zuko."
She nods and, carefully, swings her feet back over onto solidity. Giving one last look to the span of water ahead, she walks towards him.
"My name," she says, "is Katara."
Next: Arc I: "patterns of ink and metal"
Insurmountable thanks to ddrfaeryspice , flutie2891, kawaiilyn, Sammy R, skravelle, melodiee. Like a pack of purebred Alaskan Huskies, they weeded through the text and helped pull a story out. Ladies, I salute thee.