And She Watches the Fire: Part 2
For five years, I stayed with my father. I went from being an apprentice, to a Princess in the blink of an eye, because my father, unlike like my mother, didn't try to hide me from his people now that I had arrived. The shock of my parents' indiscretion was not as big a surprise to the Fire Nation, whose aristocratic history was filled with intrigue and lies, but the rest of the world buzzed about it for years afterwards.
Uncle stayed for the first year, but had to return, or else face the wrath and possible rock hurling of my aunt. He and my father have a strange relationship, one I compare to two snake-sharks circling each other in the water, but it is clear to me that there is a mutual respect there. It's just that too much has happened, and they can't go beyond that anymore.
My half-siblings took a little longer getting used to me, but in time, they came to accept me. Princess Zara is one of my closest friends as I am hers and she still can't seem to get over the fact that she finally has the sister she's always wanted. Every chance he gets, Prince Taku teases me about being a master of all things soggy, but I enjoy having an older brother, and am reminded of Mom's stories of how Uncle used to torture her, especially when Taku interrupts my Waterbending with a well-aimed blast of fire through my water. Their mother, however, is a different story, but I've made my peace with the fact that she will never warm up to me. I'm not so sure I can blame her.
My father, I am happy to say, deserves all the love my mother had for him, and now all of mine. He doesn't have much of a sense of humor—something Uncle enjoyed pointing out—but he is as honorable as they come, and loves his family to distraction. Taku benefits from his patient teaching and Zara from his wise words, and both are spoiled mercilessly by him. Because he'd missed out on my first 17 years, he has promised me more than once that he'll make up for lost time.
During my time in the Fire Palace, Dad and I spent hours in the garden, sitting by the turtle-duck pond. He liked to hold my hand, as if he needed to remind himself that I was really there. He watched me bend, laughing when I made silly shapes with the water, but most of the time we talked.
He told me stories of his life before he became the Avatar's Firebending teacher, and after. He told me stories of his life after he became Fire Lord, from the grand to the ridiculous. And sometimes, he talked about my mother, but I saw that thoughts of her still hurt him as much as it hurt her, to remember that part of their lives. I can't imagine loving someone so deeply, but I'm young still, and he told me I'll be lucky to love that much.
You'll have to excuse me if I don't exactly call that being lucky.
Mom never visited once, but sent me lots of letters. I knew she was hurt that I decided to stay for such a long time, but she understood why I did. I remember Dad got quiet when he saw those letters arrive, but he didn't ask about her and I didn't say anything.
The day I left, he, Zara and Taku stood by the docks. There were no handlers, no courtiers, and only two guards who stood far enough away to give us our privacy. The Fire Lady didn't come, having said her goodbyes to me the night before. We stared at each other, this strange family of mine, and when Dad held out his arms to me, I ran into them. He didn't cry, but he trembled, and I could feel the heat coming off his body like a fire. His expression was stoic, but his eyes were sadder than I had ever seen them. We made promises to see each other again soon, which is true. Zara and I will meet in the Earth Kingdom in three months time, and Taku will be journeying to the South Pole in a month. But Dad...
I stared at him the longest, remembering his face and vowing never to forget a single detail. This man, this King, my father. In his eyes, I saw what might have been, if he wasn't who he was. I saw him and my mother, together the way they wanted to be.
Before I boarded the ship, he pressed something into my hand. Parchment, like the one my mother received years ago, but wound around it was a pendant on a red ribbon. I looked at it closely and saw a symbol that is familiar, and yet not. When I held it up to the sun, I saw that it was fire and water, intertwined. And in my mind's eye I remembered the letter Dad's uncle brought to Mom, the seal that had pressed it closed. It was their symbol.
My tears fell then.
I didn't watch the Fire Nation as I left. I didn't want to imagine Dad standing at the docks, an arm around my sister, and my brother's hand on his shoulder. I didn't want to imagine the angry, bitter face of the Fire Lady at her window, watching me leave and probably thinking good riddance. Instead,I pointed my face towards my home, and thought of my mother, sitting by the fire, waiting for me and waiting for him.
Two weeks later, I'm back home.
She's not waiting by the fire, but outside the house when I come walking up the familiar pathway. Her face lights up in a way I remember, and I'm happy to see that little has changed since I've left. Her arms are as comforting as always, though I'm much taller than she is now, and she has to stretch to reach me. Before I know it, I'm sitting by the fire, my boots off, and a plate of seal jerky on my lap. I devour it eagerly.
When I finish, she tosses question after question at me, and although I was worried about how she would react to stories of my siblings and of my time in the Fire Nation, she takes it all very well. There's nothing artificial about her enthusiasm and her empathy for my experience, and I remember then what a wonderful woman she is. But we skirt around the more obvious bit of news she wants to hear.
We're quiet for a time, and then she asks in a low voice, How is he?
Without a word, I hold out the letter with its necklace. She removes it, a trembling hand held to her lips. She turns away from me, and faces the fire as she reads his letter. I try not to peek, but I can't help it, and I see a few words. Important words. Mom cries and tries to tie the necklace around her neck, but her hands tremble too much.
Gently, I take the necklace from her and do what she can't. She bows her head, crying her silent tears. I put my hands on her shoulders, offering what little comfort I can, and she puts one hand over mine. Raising her head, her blue eyes settle on the fire before her, but they see the man she'd left so many years before.
And she watches the fire.
Author's Note: Thanks to FlyAwayOhGlory for being a strong and thorough beta. The first version of this was such a mess...