The Call of the Nian
An original story collaboration by Flair the Demon Dragon King and kellythegreat
"Do you think it had something to do with what happened under Ba Sing Se?"
Aang leaned heavily on the railing of the balcony, overlooking one of the main plazas of the Western Air Temple. Since Teo and his father had renovated the mountain temple, it had become an embassy of sorts, a haven for those left homeless after the tragedies of the war. Mothers, who had lost their sons during the course of the last twenty years, took in orphans of Fire Nation soldiers and Earth Kingdom recruits; high atop these mountains they began life anew, far from the troubles of a healing world. Aang was named unofficial leader of this odd group on the mountain; but he was so often busy with affairs of the world, the task of leading this small nation had fallen upon his earthbending wife. Balance was still a hard thing to accomplish, even with the banner of peace flying at the Palace of the Fire Lord; that, and all that now remained of the Air Nomads resided in the Temple: the Avatar and his son, the last airbenders of the known world.
Toph walked to his side, both of them having grown swiftly into adulthood during the last twenty years or so. It made the great earthbender's mother proud, every time she visited her daughter; she was looking more and more like her everyday. Toph, of course, had nothing to compare too - but as Aang often reminded her, she was a beauty, and age had not dulled her. Aang himself had become a very tall and trained Avatar, and with the aid of Fire Lord Zuko, was slowly patching the wounds of the world. No amount of hope could ever bring the airbender's nation back - but it was all well enough, for the Avatar had his own family now.
"I only ever heard what you told me about that," Toph said, truthfully. "You just said you... fell. That Katara brought you back."
She linked her arm in his, but Aang's face was drawn with memory and a lingering, dark shadow of fear. Below them, in the garden, a teenage boy with ragged, short black hair was hitching a saddle up on Appa. The great beast was shaggy and slow from age now, white hair grown well past his eyes, but this had not lessened anyone's love for him. The boy preparing his saddle even received a friendly lick from the great sky-bison; his midnight hair flipped back beneath a laugh, revealing the faint, blue line of an airbender tattoo.
"It was like everything got ripped away," Aang flinched at the memory of it all: the total awareness of their vast universe, of dark and light, of harmony and power - and then nothing, just the feeling of falling, of suffocation, like being drowned and stabbed to death at once. "...and I was gone."
"You didn't stay gone," Toph smiled and nudged him in the side with her hip. She didn't like it when Aang thought about things like that; it made him dark and depressed, and very unlike himself. "We shouldn't worry about it - at least until you talk with Avatar Roku again. It was only once... it's not like what used to happen with you."
The mention of the previous Avatar worried Aang nowadays, as he had only spoken to Roku once since the downfall of the Fire Lord - and that one time had been a short, ominous meeting. It still bothered Aang when he thought about it, fresh after his defeat of the Fire Lord, Roku's haunting words.
"Yeah... you're right," and Aang slipped his arm around her as she kissed the edge of his lip, probably missing her original target. Aang corrected this mistake swiftly; then he took a final look at the height of the sun, judging the time of their departure, and released his wife. With one swift motion he unfolded the new, blue-lined glider Teo's father had made for him, having outgrown his old one.
"Ready?" he lowered himself before Toph so she could grab onto the glider. She groaned unhappily, but slipped her arms around the wooden beams, as she had learned to do over the years with the Avatar.
And, as always, just as she was about to open her mouth to speak, Aang took off full-speed intot he air, so that she yelped and practically hit him across the head.
"Gods! I hate flying. You know I hate flying."
"What about that glider ride you took with me to the Temple Peak?" Aang practically had to yell it over the wind as they rushed down to the plaza.
"That was different, and you know it...!"
Aang landed Toph in the saddle, still delightfully fuming a little at her husband, at last enough to punch him lightly in the shoulder before he leapt down to join his son. Luggage was resting beside the boy's feet in a small pile; Aang methodically began to airbend packages and sacks of clothing and food into the saddle where Toph stuffed it awkwardly to one side.
"Thank you, Chin. Do you know where Hanabi is?" Aang asked over his shoulder.
"Nah, dad," the airbender hitching the saddle shrugged, before finishing the last clasp on the under-girth. Appa groaned and shuddered to his feet, Toph ill-at ease in the saddle. A very irritated look crossed the Blind Bandit's face, before she drew in a great, long breath, and called for her daughter.
"Hanabi! Dear Gods... Chinmoku, find your sister, will you?"
Chinmoku, the ragged airbending boy, unfolded a brilliant green glider similar to his father's, and took off - and all the while said nothing. It was not in the nature of the Avatar's son to speak much, which may have been a combined trait of the blind earthbender and the peace-seeking airbender. As his mother waited and listened, so did Chinmoku wait and listen; only he did not possess his mother's wild, defiant attitude, but a calmer nature reminiscent of the Air Nomads. His overarching silence no longer bothered anyone much, though it had worried his parents when he was younger - until age four he hardly spoke a word, until one day when he erupted into a string of complete sentences. The coherency of his language had always been far superior of his age - he had just never chosen to abuse it. Even his name meant, 'silence'.
"Why don't you find her? You know, earthbending style," Aang tapped his heel on the ground to remind her that, after all, she could find anyone within a two mile radius if she wanted to.
"I'm quite comfortable in the saddle now, thank you," Toph crossed her arms and leaned back against the leather. Aang airbended himself beside her, grinning despite himself, his son flying off distantly towards the higher peaks of the Temple.
"So, the Blind Bandit finally overcomes her fear of flying..."
"I am not afraid to fly!" Toph erupted, punching over blindly to where she guessed Aang was.
"That's not what I remember... you know, when Azula was first chasing us, in that big machine...?"
"We were free falling, you -"
Chinmoku landed where he guessed his sister to be; she came often to house of the blacksmith these days, in an attempt to better her metalbending. While her mother was a prodigy in this regard, Hanabi had yet to master this style of earthbending - though everyone said her ability to see probably made up for that.
The blacksmith was in his forge, in the midst of making a set of nails, but he directed Chinmoku towards a neighboring courtyard with one gruff, glove-covered hand. Hanabi was there, seated upon a little earth platform, struggling with some task Chinmoku was more than confident had something to do with bending. He said nothing, but she knew he was there - people said it had something to do with them being brother and sister, and perhaps being on more likable terms than most brothers and sisters.
"Chin?" Hanabi turned as soon as Chin's foot fell in the courtyard, and her face lit up. Her eyes were a blinding blue-green, as her mother's would have been had they possessed sight; her long, black hair, however, was straight like her father's, hanging down just above her breast. She wore a yellow headband to keep her bangs up and out of her face, though they flopped down close to her eyes anyway. Her smile was her mother's - massively triumphant in her round face. "Chin! Look, I'm getting good -!"
Hanabi stood, with a lumpy piece of reject iron between her hands. In the time it took for Chinmoku to grow extremely hesitant, Hanabi had attempted to bend the ball of metal flat, straining visibly as she did so. The only thing she achieved, however, was to push her own energies so far that the lump of iron cracked and flew wildly from her grip, smashing into the wall above Chin's head.
Chin had ducked (thankfully, or else he probably would have gotten a chunk of metal lodged in his eye) and turned to look at the iron embedded in the plaster. Then he turned back with a raised eyebrow towards a very shocked and disappointed Hanabi.
As soon as her brother's eyes were on her, though, Hanabi crossed her arms and looked away stiffly.
"Ok, well, I was doing better earlier. Really."
Chin grinned and shook his head, and then gestured with one hand back in the direction he had come. Hanabi's attitude immediately did a one-eighty; her face burst into a smile and she ran towards her brother like it was the morning of her birthday.
"We're going? Alright! I can't wait to see Senshi! Oh, wait - that firebender's going to be there, isn't he? We'll have to pawn Kuree off on him..."
Chin just smiled, as Hanabi grabbed the glider the same way her mother had moments before, and the pair leapt down gracefully towards where Appa stood, impatient to fly.
The Fire Palace looked far different than it had twenty years ago, when Ozai still paced the halls, a demon among mortals. Fire still encased the throne of the Fire Lord, and the designs of the towers and courtyards were fierce and powerful and tall, but if one looked close they would notice differences. Perhaps here, a pond where that had not been one before; a river, rerouted to flow past the Palace gates; and maybe, if you were lucky enough to venture inside, the redesign of several rooms, to resemble the blue-tone glow of the Northern Water Tribe.
They were all small changes - an entire nation could not instantly be made to love a culture they'd been taught to hate for the last hundred years, nor to appreciate the benevolence of a peaceful Fire Lord and his righteous, if foreign, wife. The economy was low and unstable, and the issues surrounding it had sapped up most of Fire Lord Zuko's time. That, and the efforts of his still rebellious sister had drawn the war out long after Ozai's death. Her imprisonment fourteen years ago had brought two things to the throne: a wary peace, as rebels lost their leader and begrudgingly submitted To Fire Lord Zuko; and a three-year old boy born of Azula.
In the palace itself, a woman in a dark blue gown was seated before a low table, spread thick with parchment and pens and bottle of ink. In her lap, facing the writing desk, was a young girl of perhaps seven; she resembled the woman in blue almost to a fault, though her face was still rounded with youth, while her mother's had grown longer. Her hair was tied back in a traditional Fire Nation top knot, but in an effort to emulate her mother, she had allowed two locks of hair to fly free on either side of her head. She had not reached the point where she wanted to tie them back into loops, so they flew free around her face, much to her mother's dismay.
"Mom - me and Sun Yee, today we -"
"Sun Yee and I, Rukai," Katara corrected her daughter mildly, trying to guide her hand to write the next character.
"We started - Sun Yee and I, we started a club today. We - um - we were in - we made it near the pond, we have a clubhouse -"
"Rukai! The ink -!"
But it was too late; Rukai's small wrist had flittered across the table, completely skewing the character on the page, and knocking full blast into the bottle. Syrupy, black ink drenched the parchment, slid down the length of the writing table, threatened to drip into the eight-year old's lap.
"Move - move Rukai!" Katara took her daughter underneath her arms and lifted her aside, as the ink dribbled down the side of the desk and collected in dark puddles on the floor. With a swift, graceful motion, the waterbender swept all the ink from the carpet and bent it back into the bottle. It took only seconds, but Rukai's head was down.
"I'm sorry, mom..."
"It's all right, Rukai," Katara put an arm around her daughter, and showed her the clean floor. "See? It's gone."
"I wish I were a waterbender!" Rukai brightened up immediately as her mother stood and took her hand. "Then I - I'd make Great Uncle a big bird, out of ice -"
"Oh! Iroh's present!" Katara went back down to embrace her small daughter. "Thank you Rukai, I almost forgot -"
It was then Katara caught sight of a figure moving past the doorway to the study room; his back was to her, but she seemed to recognize him instantly. Stumbling forward to catch him, she broke the meditative silence in the palace by calling out, wildly:
The man stopped at his name, But did not at once turn around. He had shoulder-length, ebony black hair, straight as a board just like most of the royal family; he looked nearly a man in years, though youth still lingered about his frame. Unlike Katara and Rukai and most of the servants, he was not wearing formal Fire Nation attire, as was custom around the palace; he was in a loose training shirt, and for all the world looked very ill-pleased with his life.
Nonetheless he turned respectfully when Katara called him, and two blazing gold eyes glowed out, strong as embers from a fire. The veiled intensity and power of his gaze did not seem to phase the waterbender.
"Can you take Rukai to her Sifu? I have to wrap your Great Uncle's present," she spoke swiftly, walking forward to place a kiss upon his cheek. He did not flinch at the touch of her lips, but he did not entirely seem to enjoy it.
"Oh! Sifu Ming!" Rukai grabbed the man's hand and tried to drag him away. "Koro! Let's go!"
"...Yeah. Of course."
There was a passive, restrained way in which Koroshimasu relented to Katara's request. He bowed stiffly to her before Rukai practically pulled him out the door, towards the training rings where her firebending Sifu was waiting. As they walked, she berated Koroshi with a number of questions she very quickly found answers to herself, which was a way she had about her. In fact, if there was any difference between Rukai and her father, it was that even at her young age, she was an incessant chatterbox.
"Koro, did you see dad today? Mom says - she says he's with a man, who - it was a di - a daplo, she said he was -"
"A diplomat," Koroshi said it flatly.
"A diplomat, Rukai. Zuko is with a diplomat from the Earth Kingdom."
"...Oh. What is he do?"
"They... talk about things. Grown-up things. Money and land, mostly."
"Oh... are they friends?"
Even Koroshi smiled a little at her question.
The training ring was already half-full of female students about Rukai's age, and Sifu Ming - a slender, gray-haired women about ten or so years older than the Fire Lord - was waiting patiently for the precious Princess. The sun was high in the sky - noontime, the best time to practice firebending. It brought back a very unwelcome rush of memories to Koroshi - of a man with a half-scarred face, teaching a five-year old his proper breathing techniques, late afternoons and laughter and willing hugs by an adoptive mother. Before innocence fled, before Rukai was born, before chantings over the walls of demon-son...
"Bye, brother Koro," Rukai stood on tiptoe so she could kiss Koro's cheek, as her mother had done. Koro consented less stiffly than he had with the waterbender - and then Rukai was gone, running happily to meet her Sifu.
Koroshi hesitated only a moment before turning back inside, lost beneath the vast golden archways of dragons and flame. His mind was clouded with doubt and anger these days, and despite the efforts of those closest around him, nothing had eased his confusion. The walls of the palace were worse than prison for the Prince, who was hardly allowed past the gates. It was all for his own protection, he was told - but even that infuriated the firebender. If there were enemies on the other side of these walls, who hated him for his mother, for his existence - let them come. He'd silence them with flame, with the unforgiving flash of blade. At least then, they would be silent.
He had not walked far before turning a corner near the war-chambers, and finding himself before a very tall, imposing man, with a crown of gold flame in his top knot. Fire Lord Zuko's scar remained the same as it had since those many years ago, when Ozai was thrown down and peace restored; but the lines of his face were deeper and longer with age, with care, with worry - and mostly over the man who stood before him.
"I thought you were in a meeting," there was hostility in Koroshi's voice as he tried to walk past the man. It did not go unnoticed by Zuko.
"I was," Zuko tiptoed around his words cautiously, as though any wrong step would set the young man off. "We've drawn up an agreement - Huong will be returning to Ba Sing Se tomorrow morning to show them to the King."
"A good day for you, then," Koroshi seemed to want to beat a hasty, angry retreat from the Fire Lord's presence. Zuko, however, had different plans, stepping forward boldly to his sister's son.
"You should start coming to some of these meetings. It would be good for you."
A flitter of aggression, then suspicion, passed across Koroshimasu's face. It vanished as soon as it came, and then his face was dangerous and glaring again, as he took a step back.
"Rukai Heisei's your heir, not me. Make her go."
"Koroshi!" Zuko took a step forward, hand outstretched as though he would touch Koroshi's shoulder. The younger man, however, seemed to shy away from the Fire Lord's touch as he had almost shied away from his wife's kiss. Inches from his shoulder, Zuko paused, reconsidered, and took back his hand.
"...I've always tried to raise you as my son, Koroshimasu," he said gently.
A flame lit in Koroshimasu's eyes at these words. His retreat seemed suddenly forgotten; he stepped forward, face-to-face with the Fire Lord, only half an inch shorter and a thousand times more vicious.
"But I'm not your son. Uncle Zuko."
Zuko opened his mouth, and there was no telling what he would have responded; perhaps something about him not having to take him in, how everyone was against the idea from the start, how he should be thankful because his mother was the one who left him, abandoned him to save her own hide from justice - none of which would have been smart things to say, and all of which would come back to bite Zuko.
Zuko's eyes was caught, distracted, by the woman in blue who had just appeared in the hall behind Koroshi. Katara's eyes were stern and soft at the same time, in that bewildering way she had, and it was enough to make Zuko remember his manners. Following his adoptive father's line of sight, Koroshi noticed the waterbender as well, and instantly backed away.
They had never fought in her presence, nor did they ever plan to. The tension between the Fire Lord and Azula's son had only grown over the las three years or so, but this did not carry over much into their dealings with Katara. This angered Katara to no end, as she felt unable to ease or heal their feud; but in some unspoken code, both husband and nephew knew, beyond anything else, that they could not allow their argument to hurt Katara. She had been savior to them both, and both felt unworthy when she was near.
"Lady Katara," Koroshi bowed respectfully, but Katara seemed unhappy that he greeted her so formally. She was not allowed a moment to speak though, for as soon as Koroshi had straightened up he was turned to leave - to escape, to go anywhere but this space between the woman he admired and the man he was starting to hate.
"What?" Koroshi snarled it, half-turned to face the Fire Lord. The savage, golden glint in his eyes was all too intense, all too familiar. It always made Zuko's insides crawl, when he saw the anger in his nephew's eyes; like staring his mad sister in the face, before she lit her hands to flame.
"Avatar Aang and Toph will be here in two days with their children - as will your uncle Sokka and aunt Suki. Did you remember to get a gift for your great uncle?"
It took Koroshi a minute to register what the Fire Lord had said, and to calm down enough to respond. When he did, he was already turned back to disappear down the hall.
"Yeah, I remembered," his golden eyes had gone dark in the dim light.
Zuko watched him go with a sad, disappointed air. As soon as his frame had disappeared around the corner, his shoulder went down, and he sighed defeatedly.
"I wish he'd cheer up. I wish he'd see that we love him. He's so..."
Zuko sighed and pinched his nose, wrapping his free arm around his wife. Katara grinned at him, and he looked at her coyly, apprehensively.
"That's not the most comforting thought, Katara," he reminded her.
"Better like you than like Azula," Katara said, softer in case Koroshi was still somewhere within earshot.
Zuko thought of this for only a moment, before kissing his wife gratefully on her forehead.
BTW: Kudos for anyone who can figure out who Ming is in the original show :)