A/N: God, this chapter took far too long to finish... I've never written anything Suki-centric, and though it was difficult to find the right angle from the beginning, towards the end I felt really connected with her character's voice and am extremely pleased with the end result. I really hope that this was worth the wait for the lot of you-- thanks for all of your reviews and support. It has really been the only thing fueling this slow process, and I'm grateful for every comment, criticism, and compliment. You guys are amazing.
P.S. I'm now a college graduate, with a BA in Communications and a Minor in Advertising. I'm also broke and unemployed, so I'm hopefully going to have a lot more time to write! Hooray for bittersweet victories.
Disclaimer: I do not in any way profit from this work of fiction. If you sue me I will probably be forced to live in a box and beg for change outside of a liquor store. So, yeah. Please don't?
Despite how uncomfortable she is living in the Fire Nation, surrounded by the soldiers that she had warred tooth and nail against (men whose blood she's spilled without a second thought), Suki knows better than to say anything about it. They've all fought hard for the tense, fragile peace that has settled over the four nations and it's not her place to remind her friends that maybe this wholly harmonious world isn't exactly like they'd pictured it to be (there's still blood on her fans and under her nails and she hates lying to herself about how happy she is to be sleeping down the hall from someone she'd have killed ten months ago, but what else can she do?).
She dislikes the suspicious looks she receives from Fire Nation soldiers in passing (do they remember her killing a close comrade in battle, do they resent her alliance with the formerly-banished prince, or is it for her Earth Kingdom roots that they cast their disparagement and disapproval?). The sinewy muscles along the tops of her shoulders ache from being tensed and on-guard at all times, she's nervous and jumpy and wound like a spring—and every time she passes one of Zuko's armed guards she gets this little itch in the palms of her hands, aching to be clenched into fists (to stop feeling like a victim she has to remind herself that to them, she is the invading conqueror in this twisted situation, she is the enemy in their home).
Suki is a warrior woman from Kyoshi, trained to fell men three times her size with little more than a flick of her wrist—her hands are calloused and strong but it seems that all they're good for now are tying long, elegant sashes and signing heavily-worded legal documents and shaking the frail, pampered hands of royal dignitaries. If she weren't so tired of it all, she'd find it ironic that a girl who spends so much time hiding her face with paint would feel so fake and costumed without it (she's not used to being a proper lady, dressed like an expensive doll and treated with such poorly hidden condescension by men and women powerful enough to buy Kyoshi Island without making a dent in their coin purses. She's out of her element).
More than anything, she wants to go back to her island and rebuild her village (she misses her home and she misses her friends and she even misses the damn unagi), but Zuko needs her here to represent the southern Earth Kingdom during council meetings, and Sokka needs her to stand with him beside the Avatar. Her country needs her and her boyfriend needs her and her friends need her, and so she stays.
Under the guise of peace, the four nations are still teeming with unrest—thousands of people are fiercely unhappy with the shift of power in the Fire Nation, with the post-war economic recession plunging them into poverty, with the rising taxes and the rice crop shortage—and though most of the fighting has stopped she and her friends have yet to feel safe (she wants to go home and play with her sisters and paint her face and cut through training dummies like rice paper but she's still trapped in enemy territory with no way out).
At least, she's not the only one feeling like a sore thumb in this new world. Though their favorite earthbender is a surprisingly pretty girl, Toph looks as out of place in silken finery as a grumpy bear-cougar might (with the manners to match). The earthbender's skills are crucial during the many political hearings following Zuko's coronation—with her ability to so accurately detect deceit and ambiguous threats—but Suki can see the perpetual frown line carving itself between the girl's eyebrows the more difficult the peace negotiations becomes. It's the same disappointed look she sees on Katara's face every time she goes to brush her fingers across the flat pendant of her mother's necklace (only to find it replaced by a newer, unfamiliar stone). That look is a testimony to all of the mottled, ugly feelings that brew in Suki's chest as she wanders the lavish, gold-embellished hallways of the Fire Nation Palace—not even Sokka's strong hands and loving reassurances can chase the doubt and sadness away.
Suki hates it, hates it worse than she hates Ozai and Azula, worse than she hates the war and the prejudice and the killing, killing, killing. But it doesn't go away, it doesn't ever go away (it only gets worse).
One day it hits her hard (literally). It starts when she picks a fight with Mai.
She finds the future Fire Lady in the courtyard, sharpening her aim. She observes in silence as Mai skillfully spins a pair of shining kunai between her pale, spindly fingers before flinging them towards a wooden target at the far end of the garden with more force than necessary. Under normal circumstances, Suki would have simply taken note and then left Mai to her own devices; however, it is the uncharacteristic sloppiness in Mai's form that gives her pause. Mai's slim shoulders are slightly hunched at an awkward angle and she's holding too much tension in her upper arms—it's throwing off her balance and hindering her aim (Suki watches Mai's carefully composed face as the kunai fly wide of the target, her expression blank as they imbed themselves in a nearby tree and she wonders what could have possibly gotten the pampered future queen so upset).
"It's generally a bad idea to sneak up on someone throwing sharp objects," Mai admonishes flatly as she pulls two more sharpened needles from her sleeve, her face as empty and polished as white porcelain. She gears up for another throw. "I would have figured a Kyoshi warrior would know better."
Were she in a better mood, Suki may have let the niggling little comment slide. However, the ugly feeling is back, blackening her insides and hardening her heart and Suki bristles despite herself.
"I guess I figured with your aim being as off as it is, you weren't much of a threat," she replies flintily. The way Mai's sharp little eyes narrow brings back the ache in her palms and makes her fingers itch.
"Making a habit of underestimating your opponents will get you killed." There's a harsh edge to the noblewoman's voice that has Suki's guard raised (she knows what Mai is so subtly referring to; they're both thinking of charred homes and stolen armor and Azula's horrible laughter).
She feels something vulnerable and soft inside of her stiffen until it's hard and dead as a bone. "As will overestimating your own skills, Lady Mai."
The awful feeling that's been gnawing at her insides sparks a tension in the air like electricity (when she inhales she breathes in the taste of copper). She tenses on instinct and moves her hand to the heavy fans tucked beneath her sash, feeling more like the warrior she's supposed to be.
Mai's slim frame stiffens at the challenge in Suki's eyes, straightening to her full height and squaring her shoulders. She looks elegant and ruthless like a woman unused to disappointment and opposition, all sharp edges and cool intimidation. She looks like a woman who knows how to kill a man with the flick of her wrist. Suki recognizes that look easier than she recognizes her own face without the powder and the paint (they are still bitter enemies but they had both worn the same armor once)—every nerve ending in her body is tingling with anticipation.
The air between her fingers crackles. She's never felt more ready.
"It's a dangerous world, I suppose," Mai comments offhandedly, before abruptly sliding into a firmer stance and launching a barrage of senbon with a wide swing of her arm.
The tiny projectiles whistle through the air with surprising speed, but Suki's reflexes are quicker. Throwing her weight to the right and pulling her fans free from her waist, she rolls easily into a crouch, needles striking the dry ground where she had been standing only a moment before.
Mai gives her no time to gloat about the miss. She's advancing steadily, sending another volley (kunai this time, Suki notes as she sees the thicker knives glitter in the afternoon sun) humming through the air.
With a forced exhale, Suki bats them aside like spider-flies, heart resonating with the chnk! of kunai bouncing off of the metal edges of her fan—she has missed this openness of war, the honesty of battle (she's tired of hiding behind conference tables and expensive dresses and half-hearted manners—she wants to pin someone bigger and stronger than her down with her bare hands and feel alive again).
A practiced twitch of her hands and both of her fans are fully extended, but her opponent is already upon her. She's pleasantly surprised to find that Mai is just as skilled at hand-to-hand combat as she is with long range weapons—her strikes are crisp and swift, and Suki finds herself forced onto the defensive at the sheer precision of Mai's offence. The two girls are breathing quickly, muscles straining beneath layers and layers of expensive fabric, sweat beginning to stain their embroidered collars as they fight (it's as much tension as it is release' Suki is a warrior woman and Mai is a warrior woman and this is this only place in this peaceful world they can snarl and snap and claw). Suki blocks blow after blow, dodges fierce kicks with rolls and flips and spins that would have put Ty Lee to shame, but regardless of her skills she finds herself being pushed back towards the pond at the edge of the courtyard.
She needs to put more distance between them. Swiveling on the balls of her feet, Suki switches to an offensive stance and lashes out with her fans, reveling in the feel of air parting around the blades and feeling more like herself than she has in months. Mai arches back hastily, spine bending back at an obscene angle as she narrowly avoids getting her head severed at the neck. The attack works—Mai lands a back-handspring with textbook precision, placing a much needed gap between them and giving Suki an opening to move to more open ground.
She focuses on controlling her breathing as Mai regains her offensive, senbon pulled from the hem of her sleeves becoming air born with a too heavy flick of her wrist (she's using her whole arm, putting too much speed and power into the throw and sacrificing her accuracy). It's almost a disappointment how easily she sidesteps the onslaught.
"You're not distracted, are you?" Suki asks as a needle whizzes by harmlessly. "I once heard you could hit a flea off of a tabby-dog's back from two hundred yards away."
Mai's throwing arm twitches angrily, fanning kunai between each slim finger. "Funny. I heard that Kyoshi's finest warriors were defeated by only three Fire Nation spies."
Suki tries not to let the comment pierce a nerve (and it doesn't hurt like it should, or make her angry, it only serves to strengthen that dark part of her heart and make her whole body feel numb). With an almost mechanical ease, she swings her arms and pulls into a crouch, ready for the oncoming attack, one fan shielding the lower part of her face and the other glinting sharply behind her. "I suppose in desperate times even the lowliest of creatures can sometimes infiltrate your best defenses and take what's most precious to you."
Her words echo dryly in the stale air like corn husks in the fall and the attack never comes.
The tense standoff lasts a small eternity, Mai's knives deathly steady and Suki's fans twitching with anticipation. Both are finely tuned to any and all movement, muscles coiled, breath slowed, waiting.
For twenty full seconds, no one moves. Even the breeze rippling the pond's mirrored surface has stilled and died, leaving only the tension building like an electric charge in the space between them. The heady current in the air seems to spark and twist even in the unfathomable stillness, perpetuated only by the way Mai's dark eyes are shining with more intensity than Suki has ever seen in them (if she didn't know better, she'd say that the Fire Lord's impassive future bride was about to cry).
The glossy wetness to her opponent's harsh gaze brings Suki back to the present, where she has picked a fight with the most powerful woman in the Fire Nation in the middle of the Fire Nation Palace and goaded her to the brink of tears. It jolts her hard, like a chunk of ice dumped squarely into the pit of her stomach (she feels like a heel).
She drops her stance and stands straight, fans hanging loosely at her sides, the fight leaking out of her like air from a punctured balloon.
"You're upset." It's not a question.
"You bore me," Mai snaps, jerkily flinging her unspent kunai to the far end of the courtyard, where they kick up dust as they haphazardly hit the ground.
But Suki is remembering what it's like to be a good guy, to care and be kind to those who need it, and so she presses, "Is everything okay?"
"What do you care?" Mai sneers and it feels more like old times, the whip of the banter and the abrasive attitude like sandpaper after Suki's gentle considerateness. "I'm not part of you and Zuko's little group, remember?'
"We're all on the same side, Mai," she says, each glittering tear building behind the other girl's hastily composed hostility stinging like a paper cut (she doesn't think she's felt this guilty since she kissed her sister's boyfriend when she was thirteen—she wants to make this better. She wants to fix this).
"You don't think I know what your stupid little friends think of me?" Mai's already rough voice is harsher now, gravelly with suppressed emotion. "I shouldn't be the one feeling so… out of place. You're the ones who came into my country and overthrew my life. I was happy. Zuko and I were happy before…"
"… the Avatar stopped you from colonizing the Earth Kingdom? From destroying my home? The Fire Nation was upsetting the balance, Mai, and you were helping them do it." There's no bite in her voice, only sympathy as Suki folds her fans carefully and cradles them against her chest. "There had to be change, and it had to affect you."
A beat of silence passes, long enough that Suki is unsure Mai plans on responding. But eventually, Mai shakes her head, her dark laughter rattling like reeds in the wind.
"Oh, Suki," she says sardonically, the eyes that once glistened with unshed tears now hard and dry as a bone. "You think I don't know how it feels to have someone else come in and take what's yours?"
Mai's back is straight and her steps are measured as she walks away, the gold hem of her expensive robes trailing through the dust as she carves her way through the courtyard back to the marble hallways of the palace. Suki watches her go, wondering why her heart tugs with sympathy towards the other girl who looks so lonely in her big, empty palace, why she suddenly feels the urge to find Sokka and pull him into her room and make him prove his love to her (she wants the certainty, because the blackness in her veins is thickening with the ominous feeling that tells her something awful is coming). She can't put her finger on it, the uneasiness left in Mai's wake, but it doesn't go away, even after her strong, warrior's hands retie the sash around her dainty, womanly waist.
Suki leaves the courtyard feeling balmy and unsettled, the edges of her fans beneath the sash digging subtly into her waist.
Three days later, Ozai escapes from prison, and her worst fears are confirmed.
Reviews are amazing, like my new kitten. But not as cute (usually). :)