Kiss of Fire
Chapter 44 – Loneliness
When I woke up, I felt rather groggy, and climbing out of bed seemed to take a ridiculous amount of effort.
"Katara?" I murmured, rubbing my eyes and seeing that her side of the bed was empty.
"Tara?" I called out as I sat there on the edge of the bed, trying to orient myself. My limbs felt leaden, and I shook my head, blinking several times. I waited several moments, regulating my breathing and concentrating on my inner Firebending, feeling heat shoot through my limbs, invigorating me. The sun had already risen, sitting just above the horizon and filling the apartment with light.
My Waterbender was nowhere to be found. Had she decided to take a walk? No. If she did, she would have told me. Or a guard. I was unable to shake off the notion that something was very wrong. However, I saw a piece of paper on my desk in the study, held down by a gold dragon paperweight. I was almost afraid to look at it. Was it some kind of ransom note?
I steeled myself and picked up the paper, reading the message left for me in her neat calligraphy. No. No.
My heart was pounding as I tried to process her words, denying them all the while. Looking for answers? What answers? Gone? She had left? No. My hands shook as I held the paper, and I almost didn't read her postscript, written in smaller characters.
Don't panic, my love. Doubtless your heart is pounding right now. The guards don't know that I sneaked out. I didn't involve anybody in this. When anyone asks, tell them what you like. You can say I am visiting my parents, or the Water Tribe, or whatever suits you. I know you're angry and upset, but I have to do this.
Don't forget to burn this letter when you're done.
The letter fell from my hands. My wife was gone. She had slipped away like a thief in the night. I remembered the leaden feeling in my limbs. She had drugged me so I wouldn't be awake when she made her escape.
Why couldn't you talk to me about this, Tara? Why did you have to run away from me?
When I woke up, my nurse put out breakfast for me at the little table in my room. Here on Ember Island I had breakfast with my parents pretty much every day and I loved it. So I was sad to see that I was to eat alone.
"Where's my father?" I asked as I glanced up at Neomi. She shrugged.
"He simply said that you were to eat breakfast and do whatever you liked for the day. He went down to the docks."
"I don't know." She frowned a bit. "I didn't see her with him, but she's not here, either."
"I'm going to go look for her." I was starting to remember what she had said to me in the night. She had been acting funny for the last few days, not talking much and wanting to be by herself, and I knew that this made Father sad. I hoped that there wasn't a big problem or anything like that.
"Certainly, but first eat."
"... Fine." I pouted a little.
"My Prince, I am sure your parents had something important to do. The Fire Lord did not seem upset with you when he said you were to keep yourself occupied."
"Yes." She smiled at me. "Now, eat. There's hot spicy dumplings, I know you like these."
I nodded. My old nurse hadn't let me eat treats or spicy foods. She insisted on plain and boring food and was always saying that I had to worry about my nutrition. I wasn't quite sure what nutrition was, only that it helped you to be healthy. Neomi always made sure I ate my vegetables but she also gave me treats, and I did really like spicy dumplings. So I sat down and ate, and she took the dishes away when I was done.
"What would you like to do now, my Prince?"
"Look for Mama."
But when I asked the guards, they said she was gone too. Nobody knew where she was, and through the day, I looked for and asked for Mama. I was summoned to supper but when I came to the table, Mama wasn't there.
"Where's Mama?" I asked after I gave my proper greetings and sat down.
"Gone." He took a bite of rice, not looking at me. Gone? Gone? People said that when other people... No! I felt tears coming. Not Mama! I screamed. Father jumped out of his seat and grabbed me as a couple of guards rushed in.
"No! No! It can't be!" I screamed before I felt his hand over my mouth.
"Leave!" Father commanded the guards. We were left alone and the doors quickly closed. When he lifted his hand from my mouth.
"Shhh. No, she's not gone like that! She went on a trip."
"... A trip? Where?"
"She has gone on a private mission." Father said after being quiet for a few moments.
"Why?" I asked. He was quiet again. I stared up at him, whimpering quietly. What had happened to make Mama so sad? Why would she want to leave?
"Because..." Father frowned faintly, "She needs answers."
"Answers for what?"
"Answers about herself."
"She's coming back, isn't she?"
He nodded before hugging me tightly.
Aside our few conversations over the last several days before she had fled, Katara had been quiet and withdrawn, often meditating or going on walks and leaving me with Kuzon. I was glad to spend time with my son, but she had withdrawn from him as much as she had me. She didn't respond like she usually did though she wasn't cruel to him, just... seemingly distracted, and I had seen the confusion and sadness in his eyes when his bids for her attention went unanswered. Her questions had covered a wide variety of subjects, but one subject she had seemed particularly interested in was the fate of the Avatar.
Was she going to see him? What for? To apologize for the events of the past? I rose to my feet quickly. Agni be damned, I was going after her!
A couple of days after Mama disappeared, the servants were bustling around and packing things from Father's room. I saw trunks being carried out and taken to the harbor where Father's ship waited and the guards and servants were rarely still. I was kept occupied by Neomi but I still wanted to know what was going on. I was finally able to find Father, but I had to chase him down since he was moving around so much.
"My lord!" I cried out, squeezing between the guards and grabbing his sleeve. He looked impatient, but his face softened a little when he saw me.
"Are we leaving?" I asked. This place was different without Mama. With her gone and Father distracted, I wasn't enjoying my time here as much. He took my hand and sat down with me on a rock on the beach.
"I am going after her." he said quietly as he looked down at me.
"I thought you said she was coming back."
"She did not say when, and I am concerned for her safety."
I nodded. I knew that one of Father's big rules was that I and Mama always had guards with us. He was very concerned for our safety and was very strict about it.
"Doesn't she have guards with her?"
"No, she went off by herself." Father said. I gasped softly. Mama without guards! I couldn't imagine such a thing!
"What about her mission?"
"I will let her finish it. But not alone. Kamas, Sylid, and Jeong Jeong will keep an eye on things while I am gone."
"What about me?"
"Of course, Kamas will take care of you. And your nurse as well."
I frowned and shook my head.
"Please, Father. Don't leave me behind!" I begged.
"You wish to come with me?"
"Yes, please. I miss Mama and you don't know how long you will be gone and I'll miss you too."
"Oh." He wrapped his arms around me tightly, and I hugged him back.
"You can come with me. I'll tell the servants to pack your things as well."
I was so glad by that that I just hugged him more tightly.
The island of Kyoshi loomed in the horizon as I stared ahead, feeling the crisp late-winter air against my face, I tugged at my collar, raising it higher up my neck. After over a year in Sozun, I had become so used to the warm weather and mild winters. Yet the cold and clear air was welcome, and I found the chill bracing. It'd been nearly a week since I escaped Ember Island. I had made my way to a larger and busier island – not far from Ember Island itself – and rode one of their ships to a city on the west coast of the Great Continent, a bustling Fire Nation city known for commerce and trade with the other two nations. From another ship there I got a ride to Kyoshi from a captain who didn't mind taking on a few passengers for his cargo and trading trips. I had been able to manage a good deal, and with my Bending and martial arts training, I could defend myself if needed be. But I had not come to such occasions. I had kept in safe areas, walked with confidence, and did nothing to draw attention. Nearly anything could have gone wrong, but as if the spirits themselves were guiding me, my journey was smooth and pleasant. I talked with the Captain and traders as well as villagers, wanting to see what the world was like from their eyes.
I'm sure the Court would think it shocking that the Fire Lady travel as a commoner. But I had all the memories of my travels with the Avatar. Not only that, but I had anticipated that servants would ask where I had gone, and I had acted accordingly for Zuko's sake by adding a postscript message on my note for him. After all, I was still Fire Lady.
There was no doubt that Suki had recognized me when she came to Sozun. What would she say when she saw me again? I had agonized over what to do with Sokka during my journey. He believed I was dead. The appearance of his long-dead sister would shock him, and I didn't know if he might react positively or negatively. I had decided to seek out Suki first, and work from there.
When the ship came to port, I quickly disembarked, disappearing into the crowd. It had taken me a while to get used to the fact that I had no servant or guards. I had grown so used to the presence of my guards and the space they provided for me by keeping others at a distance, and always having a servant or another at my beck and call. But the hardest thing was dealing with the loneliness of not being with my husband. Not a day or hour went by that I did not think of Zuko.
The island of Kyoshi had several villages, and the one I was looking for was at the southern tip. According to my calculations, it would be just a couple of hours walk. That I could definitely manage. I wasn't some weak and spoiled noblewoman needing to be carried around everywhere she went.
It was a pleasant morning as I walked along the road, my pack securely strapped around my shoulders. I was happy for the clear weather and lifted my face to the sun, feeling a bit of warmth on my cheeks despite the nippy air. I passed several people on the road, including a small group of Kyoshi Warriors, though none of them were familiar to me. As I approached my destination, I thought about what I would say or do. I pulled the cloak over my head in the chance that Sokka or Aang might be out and about in the village, and I swallowed thickly as I saw a roof amidst some trees. As I made my way over the hill, I saw more roofs and the border of the village. It was nearly as I remembered it, not much bigger than it had been. I looked to my left at the small mountain that sat at one side of the village, recognizing the Kyoshi warrior house at the foot of it, though it now had an addition built to one side and what appeared to be a freshly thatched roof.
I walked by the warrior house, but I didn't see anyone, and was hesitant to come knocking on the door. I knew that Suki was the person I needed to find, but I was loath to come knocking on her door, in case Sokka happened to see me. So what could I do? I could hope to catch her during one of her errands, or see if I could locate one of the other Kyoshi Warriors that had come to Sozun. But what would they say about seeing the Fire Lady here?
Suki it was. I kept the cloak over my head, but walked with my head up and shoulders straight, otherwise I'd look as if I was hiding something. The villagers were clad in mostly blue, though I did see a good few citizens clad in green. In the marketplace, I saw a couple of men and womne dressed in the yellows and oranges of the Air Nomads although they lacked tattoos.
I stayed in the marketplace, buying myself some food and sitting in a quiet area that gave me a good view of most of the town square. I recognized the statue of Avatar Kyoshi, the same one that had greeted Sokka, Aang, and myself when we had first come here. It looked well-maintained, with a clean coat of paint. To my mild surprise, I saw a statue of Aang, done in the same size and set up on an upright pole just like the Kyoshi statue was. It stood near Kyoshi, painted in the orange and yellow, and if there was any doubt, the blue paint on the statue's forehead dispelled them.
My heart thudded in anticipation. Would Aang be here? Or would he be on a peace-making mission somewhere? He was the Avatar, after all. If he wasn't here, I would be disappointed, but there was still Sokka and Suki to see. I imagined that Sokka would resemble Dad now, broad-shouldered and handsome like Hakoda. And what had happened to Dad? Was he still Chieftain of the Southern Tribe? Was he still alive, even? And Gran-Gran? I let out a quiet sigh. One thing at a time, Katara.
I saw the usual bustle of activity – people selling various wares, families or single people shopping and haggling, others sitting around and enjoying food, or just gossip. After a while, one woman caught my eye. She had three children with her, all below the age of puberty. At first glance, there was nothing out of ordinary about the children, but when I glanced again, I realized that the little girl – the youngest out of the three – didn't resemble her brothers too much. The boys had green eyes and brown hair like their mother, but the girl had black hair and gray eyes.
Gray eyes. I had never seen anyone at Court with gray eyes, though I had seen silver-blue among my own people and gray-brown among the Earth Kingdom citizens. Ty Lee was the exception to that rule, did she have Air Nomad blood in her? I set aside that question for the time being as I looked back at the girl. The shape of these eyes., and that little girl's grin as one of the boys whispered something into her ear...
"Come along, don't dawdle. We have a lot of shopping to do."
"Yes, Mom." The boys and the girl agreed, following her obediently. My heart thudded as I watched them meander amongst the crowd, and I placed my hand to my chest. I know that many years had passed, but to see that girl...
I watched the town square for a while, and as luck would have it, I saw Suki alone. It was easy for me to recognize her without her makeup, and I rose from my seat, weaving my way through the people as I approached her. I was so tense and excited that I feared I might actually faint. I waited until she started to turn towards a stall with bolts of cloth and bits of ribbon before I touched her sleeve. She turned toward me, and I saw confusion on her face for a moment before I lifted my face so she could see it better. I saw her eyes widen in surprise.
"Hello, my lady.." she finally managed to say after a few stunned moments of silence. I saw her eyes dart around – doubtless looking for Zuko or guards. I shook my head.
"I am alone. Let us talk as friends." I murmured. I felt her hand on my arm as she guided me over to a less crowded spot.
"It's nice to see you again."
"I could say the same, Suki."
"Miumi..." I could see the confusion on her face.
"Katara." I responded calmly. She stared at me for a few moments, comprehension slowly filling her features before she pulled me into a fierce hug.
"Welcome back to Kyoshi, sister."