-1A/N: You love Avatar. I love Avatar. Let's all get along, shall we?
The events in this chapter and those to follow begin about seven or eight months before the events in the first episode take place.
I've worked hard on this story, and any and all criticisms and critiques are welcome. I hope you enjoy.
And remember, kiddies: Don't drink and firebend.
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Only the highest gods in the great pantheon of fandom, Michael and Bryan, may state such a claim and not be smote down by the great cosmic power that is Nickelodeon.
On Surviving and Other Things:
A Practical Guide
Taverns Are Excellent Places to Begin
The night was dark and damp in the dingy town, and in the center of the city the faint stench of mildew clung to the surface of the buildings and drifted on the hot, smoky air. The great pyres set up on every street corner contrasted too harshly with the dark sky, hot red and orange scarring the deep black blue with ghostly afterimages. It had rained some hours ago, turning the dirt packed streets into dead grey mud.
As the medley of shouts, insults, and poorly played music spilled out from the tavern, Kree decided two things: One, she shouldn't be anywhere near here, because this place was dangerous and as a whole, Kree usually tried to avoid dangerous things whenever possible.
The reason Kree decided that the pub was dangerous was because of the town it happened to be located in--Port city Tsi Ko, an established Fire Nation base, merchant port, and colonist residence for the noble peoples of the Fire Nation since the Twenty-Second year of the Great War. The place was crawling with Fire Nation soldiers and officials, also dangerous things Kree generally liked to avoid whenever she could.
The second thing that Kree had decided was, she was crazy.
The reason Kree decided she was crazy was because despite her tried-and-true philosophy of avoiding dangerous things, she had made all haste to this Fire Nation town in a little less than a week, spent all day wandering about its dirty and crowded and unfamiliar (and dangerous!) streets looking for a tavern that looked seedy enough to allow her to enter without too much of a hassle.
Well. Found it, Kree thought, crouching in the shadows of the alley across the street from The Singing Dragon, watching the shadows of the patrons in the tavern move from behind the dirty windows. Now what?
Minutes ticked away and still Kree stood in the alley, hesitating. Occasionally, cold gusts of the winter wind would blow from the north, chilling her though her worn cotton tunic. She huddled closer to herself, and imagined how warm it must be in the tavern. It was almost the middle of spring, but it seemed like the winter followed her for as long as it could, just to spite her.
And still, she could not work up her nerve!
"Humph!" Kree huffed, frustrated. "So I'm crazy enough to come all the way here, but not crazy enough to go though with it? Not a chance!"
Kree had had enough shivering in the alley. With new fortitude, she grasped her traveling staff and stepped out briskly into the deserted street, making a beeline for the tavern door. . . .
. . . . Just as two Fire Nation soldiers burst out, landing in a flaming heap--nearly on top of her! Kree darted back into her alley just as quickly as the newfound fortitude she'd found a moment before crumbled.
The two soldiers, apparently immersed in a drunken brawl, hadn't noticed her. Marveling at her close call, Kree watched the soldiers, her heart pounding. But soon she became so fascinated by the soldiers' behavior her panic evaporated entirely.
Kree had seen a few firebenders in action before, and she supposed that what these two soldiers were doing could be considered firebending, or at least a spirited parody of it. Kree understood that firebending required precise movements and aggressive maneuvering. . . . Yet the battle she was currently witnessing possessed none of these qualities.
After an awkward bit of grappling on the ground, both opponents staggered back from each other, and sloppily resumed fighting stances. Kree noticed the squat fighter closest to her hiding place was swaying slightly, to the left.
The other fighter, a tall, bumbling figure in clanking armor, suddenly charged. In response, the squat fighter performed a movement with his arms that Kree suspected might have been quite impressive had the man been sober--but as he was assuredly drunk, the movement resembled little more than wild flopping of the arms. Nevertheless, the squat soldier managed to produce a burst of flame. It shot out. . .
. . . And missed his opponent by half a dozen feet.
The charging soldier dodged it anyway, and quite enthusiastically; in his haste to avoid the flame that wouldn't have hit him anyway he charged headlong into a pile of empty barrels sitting by the side of the street, and then crashed into a wall.
The soldier groaned loudly, but didn't get up.
The squat soldier gave grunt-like laugh. "Not 's tough now, are 'ya?" he slurred, dropping his arms. He staggered over to where his opponent had fallen, hiccupping occasionally. The squat soldier peered down at the man for a moment, muttered, "Lousy bum," and then, apparently satisfied, turned back toward the tavern door and staggered back in.
"Adults," Kree muttered wonderingly, shaking her head.
She turned her attention back towards the tavern. No one had come out to witness the brawl in the street, and as far as she could tell, no one but her had even seen it. She waited a moment, but no one came out of any of the buildings lining the street to see what the fuss had been about, no one looked out any of the windows.
"Well, if they all have aim like that when they're drunk, maybe I don't have anything to worry about after all," she said, but didn't move. Actually, Kree found the thought of going into the tavern even more daunting than before.
She'd been in taverns before--as a traveler, she found they were often the best places to gleam what one could of the local atmosphere in any town. She'd been in clean, warm taverns in friendly towns, and she'd been in dark, disgusting taverns in bitter towns.
But she'd never been in a Fire Nation tavern. She'd never even been in a Fire Nation town.
She gripped her traveling staff and shifted her weight nervously. As she did so, the leather pouch that hung from her neck swung out slightly and fell back to her chest. Kree looked down at it; she'd forgotten she was wearing it. She gently held her hand up to it and worked the soft leather around in her fingers. She looked up at the tavern again.
Come to think of it, it was what she had overheard in a tavern that had brought her all the way here, wasn't it. . .
Kree squeezed the small pouch and allowed herself to vividly remember.
The town of KampoLa was one of the friendliest places Kree had ever visited. Located in a small valley between two treacherous mountain passes, the town had been rural and secluded for all of its existence, having few visitors and having been far away from the conflicts of the Great War. They were not completely isolated, however; news of the war passed along by the occasional traveler was a much discussed topic among the inhabitants, and even some young men would take the journey away from home to serve as soldiers. But the battles were far away and the ugliness of war was beyond their view--and the crops were doing well, as they always did.
What did they have to complain about?
And when a small group of Fire Nation soldiers came upon them one day and declared their town property of the Fire Nation--that didn't really bother them either.
The people of KampoLa understood one thing to be true: the land was all and the land was to itself. They respected it and took what they needed from it--but balked at the idea of "ownership." They never owned the earth, who else could? The idea was laughable.
So they tolerated and chuckled at the young, impertinent Fire Nation captain and his small band of men--so long as they weren't prevented from tending the land and living on it like they had for hundreds of years, let anyone call it anything they wanted.
Perhaps the Fire Nation captain had been surprised at the people's easy acceptance, Kree had wondered after being told the tale from a local townsman. Or perhaps he had been relieved not to have to use force, having so few men with which to enforce martial law, and deep in enemy territory. Kree supposed it didn't matter. The soldiers set up camp nearby the town, and left everyone there well enough alone.
When she had first arrived and been welcomed by the locals (as well as pumped for news concerning the war), she had been amazed at how nonchalantly the villagers coexisted with their supposed enemies. But as she spent more time there, observing the kind and easy ways of the people, she almost got used to it.
She'd acquainted herself with the local tavern owner straightaway--a burly and weathered woman named Ninyu who ran the place practically on her own. After a bit of conversation and a little clever maneuvering on Kree's part, two things came to light--Kree was in need of a temporary place to stay during her visit to KampoLa, and the barmaid was in need of an extra set of hands. It worked quite nicely after that.
She'd spent a little over a week in KampoLa before the night it happened--rising in the morning to fresh mountain air, enjoying the countryside, working leisurely (for everything in KampoLa was done leisurely) in the tavern, absorbing the atmosphere and chatting with the locals as she bussed tables and delivered drinks.
That night had been a particularly lively night in the village, and, Kree was given to understand, that on lively nights the villagers would actually invite the Fire Nation soldiers for a drink and a hot meal. And then, if that weren't enough, the men would spend all the night drinking Ninyu's homemade brew, until both parties forgot there was a war going on at all, never mind that they were on opposite sides.
So when a group of townsfolk entered the tavern at dusk with a group of five or six firebenders behind them, Kree delightedly seized the chance to observe this unparalleled phenomenon by pretending to bus and clean all the tables near where the group took their seats.
For the most part, Kree was severely let down. The group talked of nothing but the weather, the crops, the weather's effect on the crops, and any recent animal behavior that would indicate anything having to do with the weather or with the crops, for the entire time Kree pretended to bus tables around them. Apparently the Fire Nation troops had developed an interest in horticulture in order to better fit in with the villagers--whether from a genuine desire to get to know them out of loneliness or simply an attempt to keep their peaceful indulgence--Kree couldn't guess.
She was almost thankful when Ninyu called her away to wash the dishes.
Kree soon finished and peeked out from the kitchens at the strange crew of customers--purely out of curiosity--to find that Ninyu had done a very good job of supplying them with drinks, and their conversation had, from the sounds of their raised voices, taken a decidedly more interesting turn. Kree eagerly made her way back to busing the already clean tables, careful to look as casual as she could.
"Y'see, I don't think any of us really fight because we hate you, or think we're any better than you are," one very drunk Fire Nation soldier was saying. "It's just expected of us, y'see. My father," he declared, thumping his chest with his fist in a gesture of pride, "fought in the war. An' his father, an' his. So, we Qui-shin will be fightin' and fightin', my sons and their sons after."
"If you ever have children."
"Yeah, you need a woman for those!"
The table erupted with bawdy, howling laughter.
"Go on, laugh!" the man whose name was Qui-shin cried indignantly. "Make light of it! But it won't change none. S'in our bloods, the war is, s'always will be. From all the way back. . ." Qui-shin trailed off to swig from his keg, and seemed content to leave it at that.
"True, true," croaked one townsman. "The war's been about, out there, as long as I remember. . ."
"Yeah, but what's that to any of us?" asked another townsman suddenly. "I've never fought in it, and I'm almost fifty!" he declared, setting down his mug with all the force of his realization and splashing beer all over himself and the table.
There were replies of agreement from the other townsfolk around the table; the Fire Nation soldiers that were sober enough to remember that they were currently fighting in the war looked uncomfortable; those who weren't heartily agreed with the townsmen.
Then, the oldest of the group spoke up: a balding, scrawny man with a dropping mustache and crooked, drunken grin. Slurring terribly, he addressed the Fire Nation soldiers, "Ish you guys that have it rough. Fer you it's noshing but war war war from day one, and then when you're old enough, they jusht shend you off. Ship you off, jusht like, like. . ." he struggled for the word. "A package!" he said brilliantly. "Just like a package."
There were warmhearted mumbles of agreement from the townsmen, and even, Kree was very amused to witness, brotherly back-slapping from the more drunken of the townsfolk. But the balding drunk man wasn't done.
"So's you fight and you fight fer your entire life, and fer what?"
"Not for recognition, that's for sure," muttered a middle-aged Fire Nation soldier, whom Kree suspected was the soberest of the entire lot. "It's the nobility that get all the promotions. The rest of us stay down at the bottom for life."
"A shame, a true shame," said a young townsman, shaking his head.
Kree paused from stacking chairs and stopped to observe the strange band of men sharing drinks together. She was suddenly struck with how perfectly implausible what she was seeing and hearing was. She decided that nowhere else on earth could there be found anything more remarkable then these men from opposite sides of the most evil war ever known--breaking bread with one another, openly sympathizing with their enemies! Kree swore she would remember this till the end of her days.
But then the conversation took a different turn, and Kree was startled out of her ponderings:
"What we fight for is greater than recognition!" a young soldier cried passionately. "We fight for our homeland! We fight for honor!"
"And whadayah you get fer it?" questioned the balding Earth Kingdom man. "Eh? Eh? You give 'em thirty, no, forty prime years, and whadayah you get fer it? Do they call you hero? Children learn your names in school?" He leaned over the table to look the young soldier in the eye. "Or, d'they give you. . ." he whispered, ". . . a medal?" He tipped himself back into his chair, cackling hysterically.
"I've heard it told," a dark-bearded Earth Kingdom man said suddenly, speaking over the din of the old man's laughter, "that the Fire Nation honors its soldiers at an annual ceremony. The honor a different retired battalion every year." As he leaned into the table and closer to the oil lamp that illuminated the darkness, the shadows grew to form ominous caverns under his heavy brows.
"This year I heard that it's the Thirty-Third."
At this Kree stopped pretending she was rubbing at a stubborn spot on the table she was pretending to clean. Suddenly this conversation meant more to her than any thing, any other conversation she'd ever eavesdropped on before. . .
"The Thirty-Third," the young Fire Nation soldier whispered reverently. Murmurs of admiration from the other Fire Nation soldiers traveled around the table.
"Our nation's heroes," remarked Qui-shin, a lopsided look of pride on his face.
"They were the ones to seize Kam-Bo-Shen. . ."
". . . lasted only six days. . ."
". . . with just three hundred men, horribly out-numbered. . ."
"And," the young soldier said even more reverently, "led by the Great Three of the West."
"--And the Dragon!"
Even more murmurs of admiration passed around the Fire Nation soldiers, and they toasted their drinks, joined by a few of the marginally drunk townsfolk, as well as the bald man and the dark-bearded man.
There was a brief silence filled only by the sound of throats drinking heartily, and then one soldier gave a regretful sigh.
"Now there's only one left," he said sadly. "The Tiger is dead, the Blaze is a traitor. Only the Dragon remains to guide our nation."
"And he's retired!"
"I've heard that they're summoning the whole battalion to Port Tsi Ko next week for the ceremony. . ."
". . . Probably going to hold it in the Grand Hall of Harmony there. Or was it Grand Hall of Tranquility?"
"I've been there. You can not believe how huge it is."
"Naw, they wouldn't have it there. It's a war ceremony, for Agni's sake!"
"Wonder if the Dragon will be there."
"Why wouldn't he be?"
"I'd give my firstborn to meet him."
A snort. "Again, Qui-shin, you need a woman first. . ."
Kree stopped listening. Her stomach was doing funny little flips and her mind was so awash with speeding thoughts she could hardly think straight. Next week. Port Tsi Ko. Thirty-Third battalion. . .
"Kree! If you pan on eating tonight, you better stop daydreaming and finish up now, girl! And for goodness sake, get the other tables clean too, would you?"
The tavern woman's harsh voice jolted Kree so suddenly she jumped in the air. "Yes ma'am!" she yelped, and began to work again.
But all the while the solders conversation clattered about in her head, and she often caught herself cleaning the same table twice.
Kree had left the next morning. Little less than a week later, she stood outside a tavern in the Port city Tsi Ko, and it had begun to drizzle.
She looked up at the dark wet sky, and pulled the hood of her tunic over her head. Gripping her staff, she walked through the door of the tavern and went in.