Disclaimer: Avatar and its assorted characters and settings don't belong to me and I'm not making any profit off of them.
This fic takes place in the same universe as Bad Day, but it's meant to stand on its own. And no, I don't even want to know where this particular plot bunny came from.
long long time ago
It takes the Fire Lady a long long time to find the swamp and its secret people - the last people, Lu's papa used to say, the only people to make a nation all on their own, out of nothing. But a long long time isn't the same as forever, and so one day the Fire Nation comes marching in with their machines and their boiling black smoke. They cut through the roots and muck up the water and burn the Tree up, which is the worst of all.
And they take the little benders. They hunt them all down and grab them and take them away - everyone born after a long long time ago. But Lu's smart. Lu doesn't bend a drop, not even when her cousin Ji wails and reaches for her, not even when her papa and the other grown-ups fight back and get knocked down hard enough to never get back up.
Lu just holds her baby brother so tightly that her arms hurt and hides her face in his hair, because this happened before, much much longer than a long long time ago, and it isn't always the Fire Nation and it doesn't have to be. If she tries to fight now she'll get locked up and disappear for years and years, which might as well be the same as forever.
And then she cries because she doesn't know how or even what she knows, just that she does. Her papa - her papa with his face in the water and his arms burned raw, her papa who could make the roots dance - he used to say she was old before she was born.
Everyone who's left gets herded to a mining town far outside the swamp, where there's no Tree and the land's dead and all Lu can think is that the world is heavy like baby Ahn on her back. She can't hear the water anymore, so she crouches on the cracked ground and tries to listen to the soldiers' campfires and the dust and the air - and sometimes, just sometimes, she thinks she can hear them talking to her too.
One of the men in the mining town takes her in. He feeds her and wraps her in a blanket, his hands dark with coal dust and his hair pulled into a thick braid all the way down his back.
"My son would have been a little younger than you," he says.
She thinks he's trying to explain something, but she's not sure what and she doesn't know how to ask, so she just mushes the strange sticky rice up for Ahn. "I'm not that little."
He smiles like he learned how to do it from someone else and doesn't really know what it means. "And how old are you?"
"Seven this winter."
She is busy with Ahn, so she does not see how quickly the not-smile disappears.
He tells her that his name is Haru and his wife's name was Wen Bi and his son's name was Hao, and then he tells her that he's an earthbender, which is a secret. The Fire Nation puts earthbenders on ships and locks them up in inside metal, where they'll never hear the rocks and dirt again.
"They took my friends too," Lu says. She's wearing one of his wife's old shirts like a dress, and she gums up a pretty green sleeve wiping it across her eyes. "And my cousin and all the babies but Ahn, 'cause they're waterbenders."
"And so are you," he says.
She just stares down at the ground, dry and dusty and dead like the Tree, and feels like she's broken into bright hot pieces. "The Fire Lady's not gonna find who she's looking for," she whispers, and wonders how she knows this. "Not yet."
Her mama died the day Ahn was born, but Lu remembers all the songs she used to sing, her voice rich and deep like Old Hue's drums. She remembers Papa Sun and Mama Moon and their children, Water and Earth and Fire and Air, and how they joined hands and danced the Tree into existence.
Sometimes she can hear her mama's songs in the ground under her feet or in the wind blowing over the dry fields. She wonders what would happen if she were a new Tree - if she were big and strong enough to hear the music in the fire instead of getting burned up by it - and so she spreads her arms and plants her bare feet in the dust and imagines that she is a thousand different branches, a thousand Lus from a thousand swamps.
She thinks this must have been what the Tree felt like when it was little - six years old and not quite sure what's strange about her, just that something is.
A couple seasons after the Tree burns up, she wakes up screaming and screaming - high and frantic like Ahn, her hands clutching at her blankets, crying more than she ever did for her papa and Ji and the baby benders.
When Haru comes running, she tells him that she sees fire falling through the sky.
"That already happened," he says. "That was before you were born."
Lu has never heard of Fire Lord Souzen, but just then she knows what a comet is all the same.
They move closer to New Ozai in the autumn, because there's work there and it isn't locked up tight and airless like Ba Sing Se. Haru puts her in Earth Kingdom colors and bundles Ahn on his back, and when they're picking their way over furrowed cratered soil he holds her little hand in his big callused one.
Ahn calls him papa sometimes. Lu doesn't have the heart to correct him.
Haru knows lots of back roads and secret paths, and when they're alone he tells her all kinds of stories - about the people he's met and the places he's fought in and the wife and son he buried with his own two hands. He used to be a soldier, when Souzen's comet hadn't returned and there were parts of the Earth Kingdom left besides Ba Sing Se and things were better. Things were always better before a long long time ago.
Mostly he talks about earthbending. He tells her how to reach down deep like the whole world is made out of water, and he shows her how to stay steady and strong like the Tree and listen to the pebbles. She doesn't know why he tells her this - she's a waterbender and sometimes there's no water for miles, not a drop except the bit they carry with them - but she lets him talk because she thinks maybe he wants to teach someone.
When she brushes her hands against the boulders lining the side of the road, she hears things whispering under her fingertips, bubbling and gurgling like the biggest slowest stream that ever existed - and she's scared of it right down to her bones. She's afraid that the bright hot pieces inside her are going to open up and swallow her, gulp her down inside her own special Tree so there's no more Lu left, just whatever she used to be.
She doesn't want to be anyone at all.
"Ever meet the Avatar?" she asks very suddenly, like the words snuck up on her and pounced before she knew they were there.
Haru just kind of looks at her - just like her papa used to, when he told her she was born old - and then he smiles his not-smile again, soft and tired and so sad. It makes something behind her eyes itch, like she wants to cry.
"Yeah," he says softly. "I did."
New Ozai is full of awful smelly crowded houses. Haru sneaks them right up to the walls and earthbends a little hut tucked away in the shade. During the day he goes looking for work, so Lu bundles her baby brother on her back with strips of green cloth and picks through the old rubble heaps with the other children. She's not the best at finding things, but she's never the worst either. The swamp gives its people good eyes, Old Hue used to say, and not just for seeing the water and roots in front of them.
She sings to Ahn - the songs from their mama, about Papa Sun and Mama Moon, and sometimes the ones from Haru, about soldier boys and falling leaves. Sometimes she sings about Oma and Shu, about temples in the mountains and Agni Kai, and when she realizes that she doesn't know what these things are she falls down on her hands and knees among the whispering stones and tries to remember how to breathe.
That's when she wonders what her papa saw in her - if maybe he thought she was as old as the Tree and its child the Avatar, the great neverending spirit. She wants to ask him what he knew, but he's burned up with the rest of the grown-ups.
And they're not like the Avatar, not any of them. They don't have to come back.
That's when she starts dreaming of the boy.
He looks and talks and acts like a grown-up with a silly blue drawing on his head, but he's a boy the same way she's just Lu. She comes up to his waist and is filthy from the rubble, and she thinks that they are alike, as if she's looking at her reflection in still water.
"What am I gonna do?" she asks, even though she doesn't understand what the question means.
And the boy smiles at her - he smiles like Haru - and shakes his head a little and ruffles her hair.
"What you always do," he says.
She wakes up with tears running down her cheeks, and the worst part is she doesn't even know why she's crying.
When they've lived in New Ozai for lots of seasons - when she's eight years old - the city gets a new governor. He isn't a good man like the old one, because he doesn't try to make room for all the people, and suddenly the rubble gets smaller and the work goes away and it gets even more dangerous to go outside, especially when she's got a little brother to take care of.
One day something goes snap like a big branch cracking, and suddenly there are people in the streets and soldiers everywhere and rocks and fire flying through the air. Lu plants her feet on the ground and bends water out of a pitcher to put out the flames - and when Haru grabs her shoulder and asks what she thinks she's doing, she can't think of a single explanation.
He is very quiet and still, even with Ahn sniffling on his shoulders, and she realizes that he's seeing her and his son all rolled into one. Then he lets his hand slip away from her. "It's time to go."
She puts the water back in the pitcher and looks at the chaos around her. The houses are deserted; there is something lumpy and stiff and sprawled in one of the doorways, but of course she's seen dead bodies before. "What about everybody else?"
"You save who you can," Haru says.
And that is how Lu finds herself here.
She is not in the north. She is not in the swamp, and she is not big and strong like her papa and Haru and the Tree. She is at New Ozai's gate - and this is the only way out now, through the fire and the rocks and the angry hungry people and the soldiers who think sharp things make them powerful, which means that it's really no way at all.
Haru says a word she's sure she shouldn't know and makes a wall out of the whispering earth and wraps his arms around Ahn, and then he reaches for her like her cousin Ji did, but the noise and press of bodies keeps her away from him. The air smells like sweat and fear and flames - like her papa burning up like a torch in front of her, like the Tree and the roots.
She sees Haru's big earth wall start to buckle and she hears Ahn crying for her, and if she reaches out all the people she touches will die here, burnt up or crushed.
This will be the second home she has lost, and the second family that has been taken from her.
You will do what you always do, the dream-boy says.
Lu closes her eyes and spreads her arms and lets the world eat her up, because that is all she has ever done.
When she sees again, the gate of New Ozai is open and the walls are scorched. There is water all around her, from every pot and pan and bucket in the whole city. And there are so many people watching her - scared and angry and maybe she can taste the hope in the air - and she digs her fingers into the cracked soil like the Tree trying to hold on tight.
When Haru approaches her slowly, Ahn on his shoulders, she smiles like he always smiles at her and tells him she picked who she's going to save.
"Everyone," she says. "I'm gonna save everyone," and he stares at the watching people and is silent.
Her papa says she was old a long long time ago, before she was even born.
Lu hears the whispers of the world and wishes he hadn't been right.