Final Exam

A/N: This takes place during the Book of Water, shortly after "The Blue Spirit" chapter. It probably would have been more effective had I written this when the idea was originally conceived, which was before Book of Earth, but I was busy writing 'Erosion' at the time. It should be known that I don't know a great deal about archery. I did some research, but there will probably be some inaccuracies along those lines. I think we can all agree that the yu-yan don't necessarily adhere to realistic skill sets anyways. No romance, so don't get your Zutara hackles up. And no, the entire thing isn't in a first person point of view, just the prologue. Think of it like Katara's intro to Avatar.

Special thanks to AvidReaderAlso for remembering a character I mentioned in passing a long time ago.

Rated: Teen for language.

Disclaimer: Avatar, its characters and properties belong to Nickelodeon and not to me. This remains true for this chapter and every single chapter that follows.

Prologue

It is said that of all the people of the world, those born in the Nation of Fire are the most proud. We are fighters, with the determination to carry out whatever we start, and we have always been this way, even before the war. Only those born in our nation are blessed with fire, the superior element. Our benders are the only ones capable of manifesting their element as a physical extension of their own chi. It is that power, and the mastery of such that makes us strong as a people.

Perhaps that is why, in the Fire Nation, strength and power so often go hand in hand. Those who are smiled upon by the Sun Spirit, those who are blessed with strong bending skills, are rewarded with positions of importance in our Nation. They are our leaders. From the Fire Lord, who is said to be the mightiest bender of them all, to his Admirals and Generals; to be someone of value in the Fire Nation, to be someone worthwhile, one almost has to have an alliance with the element of fire. Both of my parents were skillful benders and they were both officers in the Fire Lord's army. So you can imagine their disappointment when their first-born, Keisuke, and I both were born without a hint of their talent.

In the Fire Nation, those born without the ability to bend are often regarded as second class citizens. Unlike those blessed with fire, our usefulness to our nation is not immediately evident. Neither Mother nor Father was willing to wait to see if Keisuke or I would develop any skills of value. Foregoing their duties as parents to return to their vastly more important roles as soldiers, they left us both in the care of an aunt and uncle who also could not bend. I don't really remember them. But my older brother, who was six at the time, never forgot.

Our aunt and uncle were both busy people. They had found their niche in the Fire Lord's war machine by working in a local foundry, laboring from dawn to dusk to turn out weapons of iron and steel, since they could not be weapons themselves. Day by day, without reprieve, they would return home worn and tired, smelling of acrid smoke; the wear and tear of physical labor showing on their bodies. They were the living embodiment of our future as productive citizens of the Fire Nation.

They had little time to care for young children, but those born in a nation at war do not stay children for long. Keisuke took on household chores and other jobs he could handle and I became his omnipresent shadow. Throughout the days he would talk and I would listen, absorbing his words. Often he spoke of how unfair it was that he was born with such a disadvantage.

"We're nobodies," he would say, "And we're always going to be nobodies, just like Aunt and Uncle. We'll spend our days working until the day we die, and it will never be enough. Mother and Father will never come back, never look at us, never acknowledge us. No one will."

The veracity of Keisuke's words were reinforced by our treatment at the hands of those town children who could bend. Although the bullying wasn't directly condoned by the parents of the benders, neither was it condemned. With our own advocates so far away and our substitute caregivers busy at work, we learned to get by on our own. There was no choice in the matter; no one would defend children such as us, children so worthless as to be abandoned by our own parents.

Or at least, that is what my brother said.

Keisuke's feelings towards the people who gave us life were mercurial. One day would be spent cursing their names for discarding us; the next would bring bitter sobs as he mourned their absence. To me, Mother and Father were vague, formless memories; to Keisuke, they were both angels and devils.

As time slowly past, Keisuke's words became darker and more bitter. Then one day he was given a glimmer of hope. Three archers visited the town in which we dwelled; odd looking men dressed mainly in red-browns and tans. Exotic and fierce looking individuals whose stoic personalities contrasted with the warrior's paint on their faces, they wordlessly proceeded to put on a display of archery the likes of which we had never experienced outside a storybook.

Their unsmiling faces and narrowed eyes initially scared me, but my brother was instantly enamored. It was the first time we had ever seen skilled fighters who were not benders. Their dazzling display of talent proved that a non-bender could indeed be admired and respected; a person of value and importance in our nation where fire ruled extreme.

They spent the day displaying their skills, the watching crowd making up for their silence with gasps, cheers and wild applause. The archers shot at targets from seemingly impossible distances and positions, hitting dead center every time. They shot multiple arrows at a time, with the same results. With unflinching, steely gazes, the oddly attired men shot arrows at each other, the target snatching the loosed missile out of midair only to nock and return it to its sender in an impossible game of 'catch'.

At the end of the demonstration, the eldest of the three announced that the organization of archers known as the yu-yan was seeking applicants to take six years of training: five on Simetra Island, one in the field under the watchful eye of a fully trained yu-yan. Only those children from ten to twelve years of age who could demonstrate considerable skill with a bow would be accepted. The students would tough it out for six years of constant training, not leaving the island at all during the first five years. Of all the applicants accepted, only one or two would make the final cut to be deemed worthy of one on one training with a master yu-yan. Only the best of the best would succeed.

The older archer, his hair pulled back in a topknot and kept out of his face with a black headband, was brutally honest when describing the amount of determination, dedication and skill it took to endure the years of training. It didn't deter Keisuke in the slightest. The only thing that stopped him from signing on then and there was his age. At eight, he was too young; not to mention that he had only shot a bow once before.

Still, the yu-yan gave my brother something he had never had before: Hope.

Hope for a brighter future, without the mind-numbing labor our aunt and uncle endured. Hope for involvement in the war without becoming a sacrificial lamb on the frontlines, as non-benders often were.

His dreams were similar to those any child raised under such circumstances would have: he would meet our parents in the middle of a fierce battle, perhaps by saving their lives with his skills as an archer, then maybe save the day by winning the battle too. Silly, childish dreams; but neither one of us really understood what it meant to be yu-yan at the time.

For Keisuke, it was an out; a chance to prove his worth to our parents, a chance to be someone.

After begging our uncle for a bow, he began to practice archery constantly, albeit very poorly at first. The twang of the bowstring became an omnipresent background noise. He carried his bow and quiver everywhere. His left forearm sported a nasty bruise from where the bowstring would occasionally strike against it; his fingers developed painful blisters from repetitively hooking and releasing the arrows. And yet, my brother was happier than I had ever seen him before.

And that made me happy too.

Three years his junior, I never-the-less struggled to do more and more of his chores so that he could spend more time with his bow. Whenever I could, though, I'd be with him, watching him practice archery, fetching his stray arrows, and most importantly, watching his contentment.

The combination of his determination and constant, tireless practicing paid off; at the tender age of ten, Keisuke was regarded as an accomplished archer in the town, often besting those teens on the verge of adulthood, and sometimes even experienced adult hunters. I was so happy for him, so proud; until the day finally came when the yu-yan returned. With our guardians' permission, Keisuke was accepted as a trainee and he left that very same night.

He never looked back.

Not once.

It was then that I realized something. All those years of listening to my brother's bitter words had given me no understanding of the emotions behind them. I had accepted the fact that my brother felt the way he did about our parents, but I had never truly comprehended it. After all, I hadn't been completely abandoned; I had always had Keisuke.

He was my family, my older brother, my world. As long as he had been by my side, the loneliness that had devoured him couldn't touch me.

And then he left. He packed up and left and never looked back at me. Not once. His eyes were firmly locked on the future and I was a part of his painful past. Was I really so worthless, so pathetic, to be deserted by the brother I adored? The only answer that presented itself was a harsh one. His bitter, caustic words now made sudden sense. I was nobody to him. I was nobody to the world. Just as our parent had cast us aside for more important work, so too had he left me.

How could I have been so blind and stupid?

Was this my future, to be all alone and unnoticed?

The whole time I had faithfully followed after my brother, had he ever seen me at all?

I didn't know. I didn't know anything. Only that it hurt. I had inherited Keisuke's place in the lonely darkness and I didn't like it at all. The thought of living without my brother, the thought of never seeing him again, terrified me as nothing else in my short life had. I didn't want to be alone, living out my life in this town. I had no desire to join the small flame of my life with countless other non-benders like my aunt and uncle, worthy of only menial, unrecognized labor.

No. If the sun of my life had gone somewhere else where I could no longer bask in his warmth and light, then I would simply have to follow. And this time, this time I would prove myself worthy of his notice. I would be someone Keisuke could be proud of claiming, "That is my sister." And if the world happened to notice me too, so much the better.

With a newfound purpose, I picked up his cast off practice bow and took the first steps in following after my brother. I practiced day and night, developing the same bruises and blisters that he had sported. I trotted down the path my brother had so boldly blazed, until three years slowly past and I too was old enough to be considered as a yu-yan trainee. I would show Keisuke; I would show the world.

My name is Shiori, and this is my story.