Disclaimer: Avatar: The Last Airbender is the brainchild of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and is owned by Viacom. I own none of the characters in this story. If I did, I wouldn't be posting it on a fanfiction site, after all . . . they are all lovingly used without permission. This story is written solely for my personal amusement (and posted for the amusement of others) and to keep the crazy idea from boring a hole in my head, so I can get on with my life. I make no profit from this other than peace of mind!
Forgotten Ones: Letter to Song
Song stared at the messenger in confusion. He was clearly an Earth Kingdom rider, but the parchment he presented the young brown-haired woman didn't look like it was from said kingdom. It did look very official, however, and she was wary to touch it. She had learned in her past experience helping to manage the herbalist clinic she stood in the doorway of right now and helping her mother with their house, that official documents rarely gave peace of mind.
"Are you Miss Song, or not?" the bearded messenger in green asked again, somewhat impatiently. He clearly had other messages to distribute, as his bag was stuffed with missives, none of which shared the odd coloration of this scroll's parchment.
"Yes, that's me," Song replied and reluctantly took the message, and the gruff messenger looked slightly relived, "Do you have any idea who it's from?"
The man shrugged, "I've been wondering that myself. What friends could someone in this little Earth Kingdom village possibly have in the Fire Nation?"
"Fire Nation!?" Song looked shocked and dropped the scroll as if it was a venomous pricklesnake, and it rolled back to the feet of the messenger.
He sighed and retrieved the message again, "Yeah, you can tell by the parchment. Only the Fire Nation makes it that way. And," he tapped one of the red end caps of the scroll which bore a stylized golden flame, "that part sort of gives it away."
"This must be some mistake," the girl said, again thoroughly confused, "I don't know anyone in the Fire Nation!"
The messenger pulled out a long list from his shirt and perused it to double-check, "Nope, no mistake. It definitely says 'Miss Song, Herbalist Clinic' and this village specifically. Oh!" it looked like something else on the list had just jogged the messenger's memory. He rolled the list back up and returned to his well-behaved ostrich-horse, removing something from behind the saddle. When he returned to Song by the door, he presented her with a small black chest bound with brass. It looked simple at first glance, but the brasswork was amazingly intricate when observed more closely, portraying images of dragons which might have been better suited in gold. They almost seemed alive when the light of the sun played upon them. "This goes with the letter," said the man by way of explanation, and deposited both objects in her hands, "Take care, miss."
Song wore a rather comical expression on her face at the abruptness of the weight in her arms, but by the time she had presence of mind to protest, the messenger was already back on his ostrich-horse and trotting further down the road, well out of polite shouting distance.
That evening, when Song returned home, her mother was there to greet her.
"So, I hear you got a letter today at work?" the older woman said without much preamble. She was smiling mischievously.
Song winced. Knowing her mother, she probably had her own theories as to who it was from, and those theories always revolved around boys. It sometimes made her wonder who was supposed to be the one finding dates and thinking about a family in this house.
The teenager knew she couldn't hide anything from her loving mother for long, though, so she decided to volunteer as much as she did know. "Yes I did, but I don't have any idea who it's from. They sent this chest, too," she said, hefting the small, but slightly heavy package she had tucked under her arm.
Her mother's eyes widened and her mouth formed a delighted "o." "My, what a lovely present! Whoever your secret admirer is, he must have good taste and plenty of money. Is there anything inside?"
Song blinked. She honestly hadn't even thought about looking inside, though the weight of the chest was obviously not caused only by its exterior. She'd been more concerned with the fact that it had come from the Fire Nation. The girl knew that the war was over and had been for a few months now, but that couldn't erase her feelings. Fire Nation soldiers had driven her from her home once before and physically scarred her . . . and when she thought of her own scar, she couldn't help but think of another scar: the one that marred the left half of a young man's otherwise handsome face.
She felt a pang of pity for Li, still as fresh as when she had almost touched that scar so many months ago in the spring. Drawing attention to it had obviously bothered him. Doubtless he hadn't wanted to think of the pain of the wound or his situation as a refugee, even though he'd probably been one for awhile, judging by the apparent age of the scar and how far he and his uncle must have traveled. The poor boy couldn't even hide his scar like she could hers. People would see the scar and not him, she thought, and she still felt sorry for him, even though he had ended up stealing from her and her mother when he'd left.
"Well?" her mother asked, startling Song from her reverie.
"Huh? Oh," Song blinked again, sat down on a cushion, and placed the ornate box on the table gingerly, as if it might bite her if she wasn't careful, "I haven't opened it yet."
"What about the letter?" the curious old lady prodded, "Ooh, let me guess! It has to be from one of those boys in town. Gan Su, maybe? Oh what a nice boy. And his father's a merchant! I wonder what trinkets he brought back for you from Omashu?"
"Mom," Song chided her mother before she could go on, "It's not from anyone in town," she said, pulling the official-looking scroll from her belt.
The old woman's eyes widened again, this time in surprise as she noticed the distinctive end caps of the scroll immediately. "Fire Nation?" she finally asked in confused shock, "Why would someone from the Fire Nation be sending you anything, let alone such a handsome box?"
"I have no idea," she said. Several possibilities had actually occurred to Song by now, though she'd tried not to think too hard. It could be anything from a job opportunity in the Fire Nation (who knew if they had good herbalists over there?) to a declaration of war on her personally with poison inside the box. There were dozens of such ideas that had made her wary to open either the box or the scroll.
As she was thinking about this, her mother had already popped open the lid of the small chest and her eyes glittered, "Oh my . . ."
"Mom, what do you think you're doing?!" Song panicked a little and reflexively moved to slam the box back closed, but not before she got a look at the contents and stopped.
It was filled with gold coins. There looked to be enough there to easily equal half the value of their house, or maybe a team of the best ostrich-horses! It could keep the herbalist clinic open for a year or more just by itself!
"Who . . . why . . .?" Song tried to start, but her mother had recovered enough to be practical.
"Well, why don't you read that letter and find out?"
Song looked at the letter in her hand with trepidation. Such an act of goodwill from the Fire Nation was bound to come with a horrible price. The normally sweet and kind girl had learned her mistrust the hard way. Even though they weren't enemies anymore, it wasn't likely that 100 years of war could be forgiven so easily, even though she hadn't lived through even a fifth of it herself. Give her a scar, and then give her gold? Why was she so special?
She took a deep breath and untied the gold-colored ribbon sealing the scroll, but then paused. Song shot an annoyed look over her shoulder at her mother's curious face, causing the older woman to flinch.
"You're right," her mother said, backing off politely, "It's your letter, I should let you read it without me hanging over you . . . You will let me know if it's from a cute boy though, won't you?"
Song sighed and gave a slight chuckle, though she still felt more nervous than amused, "Of course, mother. Don't worry."
Once her mother was out of the room, Song unrolled the fine parchment. The first thing she noticed was the elegant, flowing calligraphy. As she read, it almost felt like she was perusing a work of art, rather than a letter:
I know you may not remember me, but I do remember you, your kindness, and my betrayal of that kindness.
I guess it was last spring when a young man with a scar and an old man with a horrible rash came to your clinic in search of help, and you gave it without asking for payment, as we had no money. You also offered us dinner, and in return we lied to you. We were refugees, driven out by the Fire Nation, that much is true, and my father was fighting in the war, in a way, but the rest was false pretence, especially our names.
As you have probably guessed by now by the very scroll I'm writing on, we hailed from the Fire Nation. My uncle and I had been traveling outside our country for several years, but it was only a week prior to meeting you that we had both been branded as traitors for our actions at the North Pole and had bounties posted on our heads. We needed help to survive, but we were enemies of the Earth Kingdom, and the Fire Nation would have given us a fate worse than death at the time. Keeping our identities secret was paramount to our survival when we sought your aid, so I hope you will understand those falsehoods.
There is no excuse, however, for stealing your ostrich-horse, especially when you and your mother had been kind enough to feed us and even provide us with extra food for our journey. I have done many things in my young life that I'm not proud of, some in search of honor and some out of perceived necessity, and perhaps this act fit into the latter, but that is still no excuse. Maybe it was your mention of the Avatar, the lost hope I'd been chasing for so long, that prompted my action. I'll probably never truly know. But I do know that I'm sorry to have done it.
You might be pleased to know that your ostrich-horse was well cared-for and served the two of us very well all the way to an oasis at the edge of the Si Wong desert, where we were forced to abandon it in order to continue to Ba Sing Se, the only refuge we could hope to have from the Fire Nation.
Once the Avatar defeated the Firelord, many things changed. My father was imprisoned while prisoners were set free, and I returned to the Fire Nation and inherited, my past "betrayal" forgiven, if not forgotten. My uncle chose to stay in Ba Sing Se and run his own tea shop in the upper ring, the Jasmine Dragon. Hopefully he has learned his lesson by now and won't be making any more tea out of strange flowers. I'm sure he would love for you and your mother to visit if you ever find yourselves in the area.
I know this is small comfort, but in light of the wrong I have personally dealt you, I wish to make reparations. If the messengers have done their part, you should find delivered with this letter, a small box filled with coins. There should be enough there to pay for your lost ostrich-horse ten times over. Please accept it along with my thanks and sincere apologies. As for more serious offences, I regret that I can't undo what my countrymen have done to you or the rest of the Earth Kingdom, but with the end of the war, you have my assurance it will never happen to anyone else. Beyond that, I can only apologize on behalf of my country and look to the future to see it become the shining, honorable nation it once was.
Perhaps we shall meet again someday, with fewer secrets and more honorable behavior.
Song stared down at the letter for a minute before reading it again. Besides the author apologizing for his entire nation, it was the signature on the bottom that bothered her the most. Somehow, she could swear she'd heard the name Zuko before . . . and it was signed so simply, too, as if that was the only name he'd ever need.
She was on her third reading when her mother had apparently thought she'd had enough time and came back out of the kitchen. "Well?" the old woman prodded, "Who is it from? Should I be expecting you to bring home any more odd little gifts?"
Song answered the last question first, "I don't think so, Mom. It's from Li."
"Li?" her mother looked confused, probably trying to figure out who exactly her daughter meant from a list of half a dozen faces until she gave up, "Which one?"
"Do you remember a young man with a scar traveling with his uncle who I invited to dinner last spring?" the young woman shifted uncomfortably. The theft of the ostrich-horse had been a sore-spot with her mother for weeks afterward. She had even checked through her jewelry and other valuables in case anything else had been stolen and became inconsolable one morning when she found her mother's favorite necklace to be missing. She'd blubbered and cried for half a day until Song found it slipped behind the jewelry box.
Fortunately, Song hadn't told her who'd taken the ostrich-horse, even though she'd witnessed its theft. She had pitied the young man enough to let him go without a word. "You mean that quiet young man with that horrible scar and the charming uncle?"
"Yes," Song replied and handed the scroll to her mother to read, "They were really Fire Nation citizens seeking refuge in the Earth Kingdom . . . and he's the one who stole our ostrich-horse. The letter is an apology and gold in the box is to pay for it," she amended the last part quickly.
"Hmm," her mother was thoughtful as she read the letter, "I must say, that is pretty surprising, but quietness didn't seem to suit that boy, so I had a feeling something was wrong. I never thought Mushi would be Fire Nation, though!" she laughed a little bit, doubtless remembering the charming grey-haired man fondly.
"So you're not mad about the ostrich-horse?" Song said warily.
"Well," her mother said, reluctant to break from her reverie, "He did the honorable thing and paid for it and the courageous thing for apologizing for it, didn't he? He's even sorry for what the whole Fire Nation did!"
"I guess you're right . . ."
"Of course I am. You should always listen to your mother. He even went as far as to tell us how he and Mushi are doing! Now that's a nice young man. Such beautiful handwriting and excellent taste, too. And a recent inheritor, no less! I bet he's the son of a wealthy merchant or landowner! You should write him a thank you letter right away. You never know," the old woman made a conspiratorial wink, "he did mention wanting to see you again."
Song blushed pink and snatched the letter back away from her mother, "I don't think that's what he meant, Mom. Besides," she said, looking at the letter critically again, "he only signed one name at the bottom and didn't even give a title or address. There's no way a letter would get to him just addressed 'Zuko in the Fire Nation.'"
Her mother paused and looked thoughtful, "You don't suppose . . ." she shook her head, dismissing the thought, "No, that's just silly."
Song was confused, "Don't suppose what?"
"Well, I thought that name sounded familiar. Isn't it the name of the new Firelord?"
The girl blinked, "You might be right. But there's no way the Firelord would have visited here as a refugee from his own country, is there? There must be tons of Zukos in the Fire Nation."
"Well, as your friend said in his letter, a lot of things changed."
Song shrugged, "I guess the only way we'll know is if we go to Ba Sing Se to find Mushi or send him a letter. I think there's enough information here to find him, at least."
"You can start on that tomorrow, then, dear," her mother said on the way back to the kitchen, "Dinner's ready."
Song sighed, "You didn't make too much roast duck again, did you?"
"If only we had some charming Fire Nation men to share it with!" the girl could practically hear the wink in her mother's voice. She could feel this swiftly becoming a running joke for the next few days.
She glanced at the letter again, more thoughtfully this time and thought of the young man with the scar again. Maybe everyone from the Fire Nation wasn't so bad after all?