A/N: This will be a chaptered Ursa/Hakoda story, interweaving with the events of the show. I'm going to write it so that it doesn't contradict anything in the canon of Avatar.
My profound thanks to Rachel, Emma, Ryke, Kate, Faith, and Matt for helping me with this, whether it was helping me work out characterization, offering suggestions, finding out information, letting me ramble, or anything else.
Disclaimer: Wouldn't you know that Avatar is still not mine?
Chapter One - The Innkeeper
There was a storm coming. Ursa watched the gray clouds gathering out over the ocean as she worked in her garden, pulling up weeds and plucking a few herbs here and there for use at suppertime. She had a good view of the sea, looking down a rolling hill and past the cottages of several villagers. A few boats were hurrying to get to port before they were caught in the coming gale.
"Ursa!" Len, the young girl who worked at Ursa's inn a few days a week, burst out the back door, twisting her hands in agitation.
Ursa stood, quickly tucking her herbs into her apron. "What's wrong, Len?"
"They're back! The soldiers! They aren't due for another week, at least!"
Ursa's stomach clenched, but she maintained her calm, reaching out to lay a hand on Len's arm. "I'll handle this. Please stay out here until they're gone."
Bracing herself, Ursa walked into the inn. She could hear their voices before she had made her way to the front room, where a counter and a group of tables greeted anyone who walked inside. One of those tables was currently occupied by a married couple and their three children, and they were clearly apprehensive of the Fire Nation soldiers standing around the door.
The leader of the soldiers flicked his eyes over Ursa. "Ahh, if it isn't our generous innkeeper."
The knot in her stomach squeezed tighter. "Unfortunately, my generosity is running very low at the moment. You claimed most of my earnings three days ago." They'd taken most of her earnings that they'd been able to see, anyway. She wasn't stupid enough to keep all of her money where anyone else could find it.
"You've obviously had some business since then," the leader responded, walking toward the family who was watching the exchange with fear in their eyes. "Perhaps we should deal with your customers if you can't bear to part with the money they gave you."
The littlest child at the table whimpered, but Ursa already had her coin box out and was opening it. "That won't be necessary."
She waited, fury boiling beneath her cool composure, as they took all of the money in the box. "The Fire Nation appreciates your contribution," the lead soldier called as they kicked over one of her tables and filed out the door.
A low rumble of thunder sounded as the door closed, and Ursa let out a long breath. "Are you all right?" she asked her guests as the husband jumped up to help her right the table.
"F-fine," the young wife stuttered. "Do they…come here often?"
Ursa's fingers clenched the table. "That depends on what you consider often. The Fire Nation set up a patrol base two towns west from here about three months ago. They seem to feel it necessary to harass the nearby villages." They didn't have enough soldiers to fully control the village where she lived, but they did their best to make their presence felt. They were bullies and cowards, and there was always such deep anger in her when she saw them. Anger, and shame. Sometimes she wasn't sure which was stronger, but in the end she knew that her shame had the deepest roots and it could choke out everything else if she let it. "I apologize. Is there anything I can do for you?"
Her guests exchanged glances and told her no, but the husband added, "I think we'll be moving along shortly."
"Of course." Ursa nodded at them and made her way out back again.
Len was holding onto the doorframe, peering cautiously around. "Are they gone?" she whispered.
"For now." Ursa sent her inside and checked to make sure the garden was in order before stepping back into the inn. "Len!" she called. "I need to take some bread and jam over to Misaki. Watch the inn until I return, please."
"Yes, ma'am!" Len called from somewhere upstairs.
Ursa gathered up a loaf of bread, some appleberry jam, and her umbrella. The first thick raindrops were beginning to fall when she stepped onto the street. She made her way to the heart of town, where street vendors were hastily closing their shops and tucking wares into compartments so they wouldn't get ruined in the rain.
Ursa turned to one of the houses, attached in a row with others just like it, and knocked swiftly on the door. "Misaki? It's Ursa. I brought you the bread and jam I promised."
It was a moment before the door opened. The woman who stood just inside was leaning on her cane, making her seem far shorter than she already was. Her white hair was pulled up into a neat knot on her head and she peered up at Ursa with pale eyes that were getting increasingly blind with every passing day. "Ah, Ursa dear. I'm glad you're here. Come in, come in."
Ursa stepped inside the house as thunder pealed again, much louder.
"Dreadful weather," Misaki muttered, ushering Ursa toward the sitting room. "Felt it coming. These old bones are at least good for that much."
Ursa smiled as she set the bread and jam on a low table.
"Oh, lovely. I'll get the tea," Misaki said.
"I can—" Ursa began, but Misaki pointed firmly to one of the cushions on the floor.
"You can sit right down, missy, that's what you can do. You're my guest, and I will fix the tea. If you really want to help, you can get some of that bread and jam ready and we'll have it with our tea."
It was a few minutes later, as they both sat eating bread and sipping tea, that Misaki stretched a gnarled hand across the table and patted Ursa's arm. "You work too hard, you know. Running that inn, helping your neighbors, and that's among other things." Here, she gave Ursa a significant look. "Sometimes you just need to let others look after you."
Ursa met Misaki's eyes and her voice was carefully neutral when she spoke. "I owe so much more than I can ever give back."
Misaki pursed her lips. "So you always say, but I have a hard time believing it."
If only you knew. The guilt, never very far away, prickled the edges Ursa's conscience and she quickly swallowed a mouthful of tea, grateful when Misaki said no more on the matter. They finished their snack amiably while the storm raged, wind howling and thunder clapping almost loud enough to shake the house. Only then did Misaki finally get to the real reason Ursa had come. She pulled a sealed scroll out of her robes and handed it to Ursa. "There you go. Be careful, Ursa."
"I always am." Ursa slipped the scroll into the inner pocket of her own robes. It was thanks to Misaki that she had ended up doing this work for the Earth Kingdom army. The old woman had taken Ursa under wing during the worst time in her life and had helped her through so much, even if "helping" her sometimes consisted of being pushed and prodded and lectured like a little girl.
Ursa wasn't exactly sure how long it had been since the Earth Kingdom army had established an underground network with various citizens to deliver information, provide safehouses, gather information and intelligence, and perform a multitude of other tasks. As efficient as it was, she expected it had been going on for a long time. As owner of the only inn in the area, Ursa was able to do a lot of things and see a lot of people that might otherwise have made her look very suspicious. Misaki handled as much as she could and watched Ursa's back with a fierceness that belied her frail appearance.
Ursa rose to her feet when Misaki did, bowing respectfully to her. "Thank you for the tea."
"Won't you at least wait until the storm is over before you head out?"
"Thank you, but I have guests to attend to and I have a feeling this storm is going to be a while."
"Well, be safe, dear. Thank you for the bread and jam. It was delicious." Misaki led her back to the door and saw her out into the downpour.
At least the thunder and lightning wasn't as bad as it had been while she was in Misaki's home, but the rain was still coming down fast. The wind was blowing too hard to use the umbrella, so she tucked it tightly under her arm and hurried back to the inn, the weight of the scroll bouncing against her side.
When Ursa arrived home, it turned out she didn't have any guests to attend to after all; the young family had left as soon as she had gone to visit Misaki, and there were no other customers. The storm finally eased into a steady rainfall, and Len scurried home before it could chance getting worse again.
Ursa spent the early evening tidying the inn and making herself dinner. Night fell as she tossed herbs into a small pot of soup. The rain finally ceased, allowing the moon to peek out from behind the clouds and shine through her windows.
Her soup was almost done when she heard the bell over the front door jangle. Wiping her hands on her apron, she left the soup simmering and headed for the front room, where a strange man stood just inside the door. He bowed slightly at her as soon as he saw her. "Good evening."
"Good evening." Ursa greeted him with a bow of her own. "Are you looking for a room?"
"Ah, no. I'm here for other reasons." The man looked at her meaningfully. "May the sun shine upon your path."
"And may the moon guide your steps," she replied.
Smiling slightly, the man took a step toward her, and his movement set off a warning in Ursa for reasons she couldn't quite pinpoint. There was something about the way he held himself and the way he walked. "How may I help you?" she asked.
"I believe you're holding information for me."
All she had to do was give him the scroll and he would leave. She was supposed to give it to him; he'd already given her the correct phrase used between the members of the Earth Kingdom underground. There was still something that seemed off about him, though, and she had not survived all these years by ignoring her instincts. She wanted to figure out what was bothering her before she handed over anything.
The man walked all the way up to the counter, and it hit her like a sack of rocks why his movements bothered her. How many years had she spent in the royal court, studying all the subtleties of body language? How many years had she spent among firebenders? This man walked like a firebender.
Her mind raced with questions. What was a firebender doing here? Had he infiltrated the Earth Kingdom network? How much did he know? He could have captured the person who was really supposed to pick up the scroll, or he could have been working undercover for the Fire Nation for a while.
A small part of her whispered, And what if he isn't a Fire Nation spy? What if he isn't even a firebender? What if you're wrong? And even if he is a firebender, how do you know he's not like you and really working for the Earth Kingdom? It's unlikely, but not impossible.
"Is everything all right?" the man asked her.
She couldn't give the scroll to him without knowing. She couldn't take that risk. If he was a Fire Nation spy who had had somehow infiltrated the Earth Kingdom underground, they were all in a lot of trouble.
The weight of the scroll in her pocket suddenly seemed far heavier than it should have and her heart was pounding so loudly she could hear it. If she had to, she would find out what was on the scroll and deliver the information herself. She couldn't be sure she could trust him.
But could she just let him go without knowing if he really was a Fire Nation spy? Even if she convinced him she didn't have the information he was looking for yet, even if she snuck away quietly and got this message into the right hands, she had to know if the Earth Kingdom was in danger from a spy in their citizen network.
Even as she realized that the only way to know for sure was going to be potentially dangerous and life-altering, she knew that she had to do it. Wasn't this what she had signed up for in the first place? She had always known there might be dangers, and there was more than just her at stake right now. She counted slowly to five, made sure she was completely calm and ready, and told the man, "I can't give you anything."
He was beginning to look impatient. "Can I ask why?"
She met his eyes, knowing the impact the next words could have on her entire life. "You're a firebender."
Shock flashed across his face, and then his expression quickly shifted to something else. "I'm sorry?" He tried for innocence. She might have bought it, too, but there was something dangerous in his gaze and demeanor, simmering beneath the surface. "I think you must be confused."
And I think you have no idea who you're dealing with. "I'm not confused," she said, positive now. "You are a firebender."
Ursa barely had any warning before he brought his arm up toward her face. She dropped down behind the counter and saw the fire whip over her head. She threw herself toward the door that led out of the front room and to the hallway, but he leapt over the counter and grabbed the back of her robes, jerking her backwards hard enough to slam her into the ground. Sparks exploded in front of her eyes as her head collided with the floor, and she felt the pressure of his foot on her stomach, pinning her in place.
"How did you know?" he demanded.
Ursa blinked and her vision cleared enough to show him standing over her, a fist aimed downward at her face. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would kill her, that he had to kill her to protect his identity.
"How did you know?" he shouted.
"How did you infiltrate the Earth Kingdom network?" she shot back. She might not have been a firebender, but she knew something of self-defense. Unfortunately, it had been years since she'd had opportunity or reason to practice it, and longer since she'd learned it in the first place. Dear spirits, just let me get out of this alive. I need to warn someone about this.
Ursa brought her leg up and slammed her foot into his groin, and the pressure of his foot on her stomach disappeared. She rolled quickly to the side just as he shot fire toward her face. It struck the ground beside her and scorched the floor. The firebender was doubled over, trying to regain his balance, and she took the opportunity to rise to her feet and slam her hand into his jaw, hearing it crack.
He fell backward with a shout of rage. Fire roared from his mouth and out of his hands. The ceiling, counter, and a tapestry on the wall caught fire. Ursa dove for the front door as the firebender swung his hand in her direction, blasting more flames across the room and toward her. She wrenched the door open and made it outside, only to discover the bottom of her robes had caught fire.
Ursa paused long enough to extinguish the flames, burning one of her hands in the process. Biting back a yelp of pain, she hurried to her feet. If she didn't move, more than her hand was going to be burned.
She started running down the road toward the harbor; it was easier than running uphill toward the town, and she knew she couldn't bring this trouble on her neighbors anyway. She had no idea where she could go or how she was going to get away.
Fire shot past her ear, so close she could feel the heat on her skin, but she didn't look back to see how close her pursuer was. It was dark, wet, muddy, and slippery; all of her attention was focused on not falling.
She was passing the cottages at the bottom of the hill. The beach was right ahead of her, with several boats still docked at the shore. What would she do even if she did reach the harbor? There was nowhere to run.
Ursa heard other shouts then, and in the moonlight, she saw three figures running toward her. Panic seized her—what if she was running straight into more firebenders?
She didn't have much choice in finding out. She was caught between the firebender chasing her and the group in front of her, and going too fast downhill to stop herself. In a heartbeat, the people in front of her were looming; her vision was filled with blue clothes and the glint of metal weapons. Ursa tried to dodge them, but her foot came crashing down into a puddle and she just barely missed slamming into one of them. She slid past him, grabbing onto his arm and using it to swing herself around to keep from falling flat on her face. She pulled him off-balance, but he held his ground, and she released him as she found her footing. She bit down hard on her lip; she had grabbed him with her burned hand and it hurt.
Part of her fully expected to get blasted into ashes right then and there. Instead, the man she had collided with held up his weapon—some sort of club or sword. The firebender had caught up with her. He eyed them all for a split second, and then threw fire at them.
Ursa's vision was suddenly blocked by the back of one of her apparent rescuers, and when he moved out of the way, she saw that the firebender was down, crumpled on the ground in the mud. It took her a moment to realize he wasn't dead—she could see his chest moving up and down. One of men in blue knelt down in the mud and began tying the firebender's hands and feet together.
She heard a commotion behind her and turned to see more people coming toward them from some of the boats in the harbor. She tensed, but then realized they were dressed the same as her rescuers. Now that she wasn't fleeing for her life, she got a good look at them, especially since they were all turning to look at her. She had never seen so many blue clothes in one place in her entire life. They were all men; some of them wore their hair longer, with parts of it pulled up. Others had ponytails or headbands. They wore various adornments, belts, and even had bits of fur on their clothes.
Water Tribe. Ursa knew part of the Water Tribe had been helping in the Earth Kingdom for many months now, though she'd never chanced to meet any of them. In fact, she hadn't ever seen anyone dressed like them except in history books.
A flare of orange caught her eye, and she looked back up the hill. A dizzying sense of unreality sank down upon her when she saw that her inn—her home, a place built out of pain and hope, a place that had been refuge and sanctuary not only to her, but to others—was being devoured in flames.