A/N: Welcome to "Erosion" the sequel-prequel to "Shattered." This self-indulgent story stars my O.C. Anko, who was introduced in the last story. This is basically her back story, as told to Zuko by Iroh, so if you're expecting Aang and company to make an appearance, or an extension of the "Shattered" storyline, you're going to be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you liked Anko as a character, or wondered about the scar on her left hand or about her relationship with General Iroh, this is the story for you. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, go read "Shattered" first. It really is the better story anyways. I'm not really expecting a lot of readers here; I just had to get this out of my head.
This story is rated "T" for violence and mild language. It is a war story, so expect some blood shed and some death. I don't intend to get too graphic with it, but it will be there. Also it is completely A.U. with the Book of Earth. I've had to make a lot up which, in truth, makes me a little uncomfortable. The present part of the story takes place just before the last two chapters of the Book of Water. Ah well, enough apologizing. Read it or not, your choice.
Disclaimer: I own nothing of Avatar or its characters or properties; the nice people at Nick do… I'm just borrowing them for a little while. I do claim Anko for my own though. This remains true for this chapter and every consecutive chapter that follows.
Many years ago…
Her feet carried her swiftly down the hard packed dirt streets of Yopoko. Her thick black braid thumped lightly across her shoulder blades as she ran. People smiled and waved as the soon to be fourteen year old passed by; she waved back, but didn't pause, not until she rounded Market Street, not until she had a clear view of the harbor. Anko slowed to a stop, grinning as she saw it. The trader ship, her ticket to the mainland, was still anchored in the harbor. Just one more day. Tomorrow was her fourteenth birthday. It seemed as if she had been waiting for that day forever. Sometimes it made her feel so excited that she could hardly keep her feet on the ground, other times however, Anko found herself filled with a quiet sense of foreboding. She hadn't found the courage yet to tell her Grandfather of her plan. She sighed. Somehow, she knew he was not going to be pleased.
"Hey, you fat little pig, where are you going?" Anko frowned as the nasty voice broke through her thoughts.
"What's in the basket, huh?"
Anko backpedaled a few paces until she came to an alleyway.
"P…Please, those are for the inn. I need to get them home."
"All those sweetbuns are for the inn? Well, I'll just take your share. You're so fat, you don't need any."
Anko scowled as she recognized the people in the alley. Little Saki, the innkeeper's daughter, was standing on tip toes trying to reach her basket. The antagonizer holding it above her head was Torimaru, the headman's younger son. Watching silently while leaning against a wall was Shikimaru, his older brother. Anko snorted in disgust. Torimaru was seventeen, his brother was past twenty; how dare they pick on a twelve year old.
"Jump little piggy, jump!" Saki missed her basket and fell. Tears started down her face as Torimaru taunted her. "Here Suey, Suey." He started to make pig snorts at her.
Anko turned her head as the sound of running water hit her ears. Her scowl turned into a grin.
"Aww, is the baby going to cry?" Torimaru mocked as he leaned over Saki. He suddenly staggered sideways, dropping the basket of sweetbuns. "Ah…Ahh! What is this!" A big ball of mud had smacked him in the head, coating his entire left side. He wiped his face.
"Oh, sorry Torimaru. You were making so many pig noises that I thought you were a hog begging for a cool-down." The thirteen year old farm girl inserted herself between the headman's sons and Saki. She was tall for her age, almost as tall as Torimaru and she casually crossed her arms in front of her chest as she smirked at him.
"You know you're not supposed to use your earthbending in town, Anko." Shikimaru asserted as he stopped leaning against the wall.
"I know that grown men like you should be working this time of day."
"This mud smells like horse piss! I'm going to kill you, you little…" Torimaru charged the girl, only to be stopped by his older brother. Anko had fallen in to what she hoped was a convincing stance. Her earthbending repertoire was limited, but she was strong and could defend herself, if necessary. "You're lucky you are an earthbender, Anko," Torimaru spat.
"Come on Torimaru, you've had your fun. Anko's just jealous that one day we'll rule this town and she'll never be anything more than a stupid, poor, dirt grubbing farmer." Shikimaru sneered as he said the words, but the far younger Anko just sneered back.
"I'll forward your regards to my Grandfather."
The headman's sons both blanched. Kazuma was getting on in years, but he tolerated disrespect from no one, especially not young men like them. They moved to leave. "You can't hide behind your Grandfather forever Anko. We'll be around long after he's gone." Shikimaru spat out his parting shot as they both left.
Anko let out a sigh of relief, then turned to her friend. "You all right? You shouldn't let them push you around like that. Get an adult or something."
Saki brushed away her tears. "B…but they're the headman's sons and Mom says to always be respectful to them."
Anko scoffed lightly as she helped Saki to her feet. "Well my Grandfather says respect is earned, not given as a birthright." She handed the innkeeper's daughter her basket.
Saki gave her a wavering smile. "Won't you get in trouble, for using earthbending against them?"
Anko grimaced a little bit. Her Grandfather had told her early on in life that she wasn't to use her earthbending to bully or threaten people, only for self defense and only as a last resort. What made matters worse was the fact that Yopoko village was built on a dormant fault-line. Children were not to bend in town, ever, out of fear of someone accidentally triggering an earthquake. Still, questionable use of earthbending was the least of her worries. What bothered her more was the fact that Shikimaru was right. She had used her Grandfather as a threat; a habit she would have to lose if she ever wanted to turn her dream of being a soldier into reality.
They exited the alley and walked towards the Portside Harbor Inn, Saki's home. "Say Saki… do you know how long that trader ship is going to be here?"
"They're leaving at high tide tomorrow and heading to the Earth Kingdom. Hey, isn't your birthday tomorrow? Fourteen, right? I can't wait until I'm fourteen. Have you picked out a husband? Oh! You haven't fallen in love with one of the sailors, have you?"
Anko rolled her eyes skyward before casting them down towards her chatty, younger friend. "No," she answered flatly, although a touch of humor colored her tone. "I'm not thinking of marriage. Don't tell me you are?"
Saki blushed a little. "Maybe… when I'm fourteen. I want to have a big family. But Anko, then why did you want to know about the ship?"
Anko hesitated, her black eyes narrowing as she looked out over the harbor to where the trader ship was docked. Saki was a nice enough girl, but she couldn't keep a secret to save her life. If I tell Saki, there will be no turning back. The whole town will know by tomorrow. I'll have no choice but to tell Grandpa and follow through. The odd sensation of excitement combined with dread filled her. Her Grandfather had been very angry when her father had joined the Earth Kingdom Army. But it's different with me, right? I'm much stronger than Father was, everyone says so, and I'm sure once he's done being mad, Grandpa will be proud of me.
After all, Anko had been planning for this day since her father's death two years ago. Father. Even now, it hurt. Anko closed her eyes briefly. She had been eight when her father had left for the mainland, now her mental memories of him were starting to fade. But that didn't matter. She remembered the important things, like his great loud laugh and the way he used to tickle her with his beard when she was sad or scared. The way his warm brown eyes would twinkle. Anko opened her eyes. She would never see him again and it hurt. It was a constant sore, an emptiness, a hollow aching sadness. When they had received the letter telling of his death, she had cried for days. When at last her tears had dried, Anko turned to anger.
It was the Fire Nation's fault. They had killed him, and she hated them for it. Since then, whenever she was in town she had taken to hanging around the Portside Harbor Inn. She had sat and listened to traveler's stories, tale after tale, each illustrating how horrible the Fire Nation was, how brutal and wrong. She had held on to their words, feeding them to the hatred that already burned inside her; waiting for the day to come that she would be able to do something about it. She had trained herself in earthbending, practicing the simple bends she had been taught over and over again until she surpassed the few other earthbenders on the island.
Working on the farm made her strong, heredity had given her height and now time had finally granted her age. Fourteen was the age where, on Yopoko at least, kids were started to be regarded as adults. Some got married, others entered apprenticeships and Anko intended to sail to the mainland to become a soldier. She was tired of listening about how bad the Fire Nation was. She wanted to do something about it. She wanted to make a difference. But mostly she wanted revenge. Revenge for the pain and the tears, revenge for watching her Grandfather age a decade in just two short years. The Fire Nation was going to pay for what they had done.
"Anko? Are you mad at me? I know I talk too much at times. Did I say something wrong?" Jarred back to reality by Saki's plaintive voice, the farm girl realized that she had ignored her friend's question and that they had walked in silence all the way to the Inn.
Anko gave Saki a reassuring smile. "No, no, I'm sorry. I was just thinking about how much I hate the Fire Nation." She gave the trader ship one last long look. Why am I hesitating? I've waited so long for this opportunity. I can't let it pass me by. With a grin she leaned closer to Saki. "Can you keep a secret?"
Fourteen year old Anko stared as Yopoko Island, the only home she had ever known, started to grow small in the distance. She wiped away tears that wouldn't cease falling, no matter how hard she tried. Her Grandfather had not taken the news well at all. He had yelled at her, something the normally even-tempered man rarely did. He had called her a fool, a selfish, stubborn child. Anko wrapped her arms around herself in a hug. "If you walk out that door, don't even think of coming back. Do you hear me? Walk out that door and I have no Grandchild. You have no home here!" Kazuma was kind and loving and had cared for her since she was eight. She loved and respected him. She wanted him to be proud of her, not angry. I know you're worried Grandpa, but you'll see. I'm not going to die like Father did. I'll make the Fire Nation pay for taking him from us. And I'll be back before you know it, telling you all about the battles I've won. I'll be such a good soldier; you'll have to forgive me.
"Hey!" a voice shook her back to reality. "Aren't you supposed to be working for your passage?" The sailor came over and looked at her, noticing her red-rimmed eyes. His voice softened, "Homesick or seasick?"
Anko rubbed the last of her tears away. Crying wasn't going to make things better, only action would. "I'm fine;" she said firmly, "Show me what you want me to do."
Anko stared wide-eyed at the bustling Earth Kingdom port of Nalaru. It was easily ten times the size of Yopoko village. There were people everywhere and all of them seemed to be hurrying somewhere else. Voices filled the air and new smells assaulted her nose. Overwhelmed by it all, she wandered the streets haphazardly, much to the chagrin of the local populous. After the third time she was bumped into, she found a much quieter street to catch her breath in.
"Hey, look out!"
Anko whirled in time to see a large animal bearing down on her, its short strong legs propelling it rapidly down the street. It looked like a hog, only much, much larger, and its lowered head seemed to be plated. Instinctively she stomped her foot on the ground, transforming the hard packed dirt street into soft, loose soil. The creature slowed as its feet started to drag through the stuff, its own body weight causing it to sink. Within a couple of paces it was stuck.
"Hey, thanks!" A young man dressed in farmer's clothes came running up. "You're an earthbender, huh? How did you know to make the earth soft instead of trying to erect walls around it?"
Anko shrugged. "We raise jackalopes on my farm; they're too quick to try to wall in so I usually catch them this way," she explained.
"Oh yeah?" the farmer smiled at her. "Good thing too, this is an ankylohog. Their hard heads can smash through anything." The man rapped on the hog's head to demonstrate. "And once they smell food, it can be hard to stop them."
Anko smiled back, feeling more at home than she had in a long time. "Can you tell me which way is Omashu? I was told I could find a master earthbender there."
"Sure," the brown haired man attached a chain around the ankylohog's neck. Anko helped him pull the beast free. "In fact I'm heading there myself to take my hogs to market. Do you want to come along?" The young teen nodded, grateful to find someone that she had a common connection with. "These ankylohogs are such a pain, I'll be glad to be rid of them. I think from now on I'll raise something more docile."
"Oh, I don't know… maybe cabbages?"
Anko followed the guard down the long hallway leading to the royal throne room. It had taken some time, but she finally had an audience with King Bumi, who by all accounts was the strongest earthbender in Omashu. The guards pushed open the large wooden doors, allowing her entrance to the King's throne room. Anko blinked. The entire room, from top to bottom, was painted in various shades of green. The King, on the other hand, was dressed in a gaudy orange outfit, the bright clashing color making her eyes water. Anko eyed the man uncertainly; this was the strongest earthbender in Omashu? He was old, even older than her Grandfather, and bent over. His hands were gnarled; one eye was oddly larger than the other and that outfit! Who in their right mind wore so much orange? Still, her Grandfather had taught her not to judge people on looks alone and she noticed that while he appeared disinterested, the King's eyes had a calculating look to them.
Anko squared her shoulders and marched forward. "Anko of Yopoko," the page announced. She paused in front of the throne, belatedly realizing that she had no idea how to act in front of a King. Should she bow or kneel? His majesty saved her the trouble.
"Yopopo, huh?" he asked in a slightly gravelly voice. Without any warning he sprang off his throne and started to do a little dance. "Yopopo, Ho! Yopopo, Ho!" he sang while Anko just stared at him dumbfounded. What kind of madhouse have I stumbled into?
"Your Majesty," the chamberlain interrupted. "Your Majesty, the young lady is from Yopoko, an island to the north."
"Oh." King Bumi stopped hopping around and sat down on the arm of his throne, one skinny leg dangling down the side and one planted in the seat of the chair. "So what do you want? Speak up. Do you want some fruit? Page, fetch this girl some fruit."
Anko's dark eyes narrowed; she had the distinctive feeling that the old man was mocking her. "Your Majesty, what I want is to be trained in earthbending so that I can be a soldier. I was told Omashu trains the best earthbenders so I want to train here."
"A soldier, eh?" the King eyed her with his odd shaped eyes. "Hmm…Nope! You're too young!" The farm girl blinked in surprise; most people overestimated her age because of her height. She was about to protest when the page returned with a platter filled with small bluish globes. Anko tried to wave him off.
"Take the fruit!" King Bumi ordered in a no-nonsense tone. Then, speaking far more gently he uttered, "It's good for you." She eyed him for a moment before filling a hand with the berries. He nodded with satisfaction, the motion causing two brightly dyed orange feathers on his cap to flop this way and that. "Good, good… now run along; back to Yopopo with you."
"Now wait a minute, I didn't spend the last two months traveling here just to turn around and go home!"
"What? You've got your fruit haven't you? Isn't that what you came for?"
Anko could feel her temper slipping. Her angry black eyes met the King's, her mouth dropped open to shout a protest when a sudden thought stopped her cold. Her grandfather used to pull this same trick whenever he was in danger of losing a board game to her. She had finally figured it out and called him on it last year; the old man had just leaned back in his chair and smiled. "Anko, there will always be people in this world who anger or annoy you, deliberately or not. If you can remember to keep a calm, cool head, even when being intentionally provoked, you will have an advantage over most people." That had been the first time she had ever beaten him at Shoji.
Thank you, Grandfather. Anko smiled pleasantly up at the King of Omashu. "Thank you for the fruit. Now, perhaps you will allow me to prove myself worthy of being trained. Give me a challenge. If I succeed, you personally will train me in earthbending. If I fail, I'll go pester someone else. But I won't fail. I am the strongest earthbender on Yopoko, after all."
Bumi leaned back on the arm of his throne, puzzled. He had been sure the child was about to storm out of the throne room, as most people did when he messed with them. Instead she had calmed down. This was turning out to be interesting. "A big fish in a small pond is still fish food in the ocean," he muttered. "So it's a challenge you want huh? Very well, follow me." Anko smiled, then looked down at her hands, still filled with the bluish-purple berries. Not seeing a place to put them, she stuffed them into her pockets before trotting after the King.
They stood in a courtyard. "There," the King gestured across the way, "see that statue? I'm tired of it. Get rid of it for me." He privately smiled as the girl walked over to inspect the stone statue. Little did the child know, but the statue was made of pure titanite. It was a type of stone heavy in metal ore, which made it resistant to bending. Even he would have trouble moving it; there was no way a young teenager would be able to do it with earthbending alone. Of course if she was extremely clever, she might find a way to get rid of it, but most earthbenders simply gave up in frustration when the thing refused to bend for them. It was a good way to burst the egos of self proclaimed "Strong" earthbenders.
Anko carefully inspected the large statue. Embarrassingly enough, the thing was of a nude King Bumi with a loin cloth as his only cover. It seemed ridiculously muscular for an old man too. No wonder he wanted rid of it! Still, the statue was… odd. Normally she could feel the earth around her, but she couldn't really sense the statue at all. She glanced sideways at the King, who was smirking at her. Her brows furrowed down. Experimentally she tried to "push" the statue, but it didn't move. Frowning, she planted her feet. Pulling back an arm, she threw a punch at it, her fist stopping a fraction of an inch from the statue's surface. That move was usually enough to make boulders into dust, but the statue didn't show any damage at all.
"Oh, I guess you're not such a strong earthbender after all," the King mocked. Anko planted her hands on her hips. All right, so she couldn't just break the thing. If he only wanted to be rid of it, maybe she could move it somewhere? She tried moving the earth under the statue. For a second, the hideous thing trembled, but then fell still. Too heavy, she thought. Apparently it had a large base buried beneath the soil. Frustrated, she leaned against the courtyard wall.
"What, giving up so soon?"
Anko scowled at him. "No," she answered. I could bury it, but then he'd probably just say that I didn't get rid of it, that I only hid it. Hmm… I guess I could try throwing the courtyard wall at it… But the stones that made up the wall were soft and crumbly sandstone. They wouldn't make a dent in the hard statue. There has to be a way. Noise was filtering in from beyond the wall; apparently this courtyard was adjacent to the marketplace.Anko's eyes widened as her frown turned into a smile. She recognized those noises.
"I don't have all day, you know," the King reminded her. The girl just grinned at him. "Just a second, your Majesty." She searched the courtyard until she found three suitable egg-sized stones. One by one, she threw them at the ridiculously muscular legs of the statue, all at the same spot. Propelled more by the bending than by brute strength, they actually managed to make an indentation in the leg. Anko used her bending to remove the weakened stone, creating a cavity in the statue's leg which was the narrowest part of the sculpture. Taking some of the berries from her pocket, she crushed them and shoved them into the hole. Purplish juice came out, staining the stone as it dripped down the leg. Anko walked backwards away from the statue, dropping a crushed berry every few steps until she reached the courtyard wall. Please, please, let this work!
Taking a spinning step forward, she pulverized the soft stone wall into dust. "Suey, suey," she called, hearing a familiar squeal-snort in response. "My hogs!" a desperate voice exclaimed. Anko raised herself up on an earthen column just before a dozen ankylohogs came charging through her opening, following the scent of the berries. Squealing and snorting, they ran straight to the statue. Unable to reach the delicious fruit they could smell in the narrow cavity, the large hogs circled and charged, smashing their hard plated skulls against the statue's legs. Mindlessly they attacked again and again. Unable to withstand the pounding, the legs gave away, the statue falling hard to the ground.
A cloud of dust obscured the courtyard. King Bumi cleared it with a gesture. "Heh, clever girl." His mostly naked statue lay in pieces, the ankylohogs rooting around in the rubble for any fruit remnants they could find. Anko grinned at him from atop her earthen spire. "Where do you want it?" she asked as she dissolved her column back into the ground.
The King of Omashu eyed the girl; she had displayed an intelligence and cleverness that was rare. But she was so young. Far too young for war. "Child, why do you want to be a soldier?"
The dark eyed girl lost her grin, her face falling solemn. "The Fire Nation killed my Father," she answered gravely. "They've killed a lot of fathers. And I know that Yopoko is neutral, but how long can that last? If the Earth Kingdom falls, won't Ozai try to take everything else?" Anko looked down at her calloused hands. She had a lot of strong, passionate feelings inside of her, but she didn't know how to express them. "I… I hate the Fire Nation. And I want to do something about it, something besides overcharging them for the produce they buy, something besides giving their ships dirty looks when the soldiers aren't looking." She raised her eyes to meet the King's. "You are the strongest earthbender in Omashu and I bested your challenge. Please, train me."
"Nope!" The King turned and stared to depart from the chaotic courtyard. "You're still too young."
"But I'm fourteen!"
"Exactly!" Bumi whirled around to shake a gnarled finger at her. "Here in Omashu we don't start training warriors until they're sixteen." He eyed her with his large misshapen eyes. "Tell me child, have you ever seen a man burned alive? The skin chars and peels, the eyes boil in their own sockets. The smell is something you'll never forget." The King straightened his posture so that he was taller than her. "Do you really think you are ready for that? Are you ready to kill; to take another man's life, to watch as the light in his eyes extinguishes, to have his blood on your hands?"
Anko remained silent for a moment, then she too straightened. "I'm not afraid. You can't scare me and I won't go back home. I will be a soldier and if that means I have to wait two more years, then so be it."
King Bumi sighed. "Very well. I'm going to apprentice you to a healer named Izumi. She tends to our returning injured soldiers. We'll just see if you still want to be a soldier after you witness first hand what the consequences are." He cocked his head to one side, a bit of the crazy look coming back to him. "All this talk has made me hungry. Care for some flambé?"