"Walking meditation." Surrounded by firebenders on Suzuran's stern, Jinhai clinging to him, Tingzhe regarded the lit candle in his grasp with some bemusement. He and Shirong already had to shield theirs from the wind of the ship's passage north; that Lieutenant Teruko's burned slow and steady spoke volumes. "We have it in earthbending as well, though I doubt it's for the same purposes."
"It's about the union of opposites, right? Um. Professor," Private Sukekuni added, at just the slightest glance from Sergeant Kyo.
"Correct," Tingzhe nodded, intrigued. "Where did you learn that? I had been under the impression that most of the Fire Nation considered other forms of bending... uncivilized."
"As Colonel Piandao once said," Corporal Shoni stated, studying one of his knives' edges, "you are just as dead if they kill you with a pointy stick."
"Ah," Tingzhe said dryly. Well, and what did you expect? he told himself wryly. Yijiao was little different when he was on the Wall. The enemy is the enemy, even if you may respect them.
"Well, that and I used to listen in while General Iroh - um - showed people how to play Pai Sho," Sukekuni said in a rush. "He'd talk about other bending styles, and how they were tied in with strategies. It kind of stuck."
"Losing a week's pay tends to do that," Private Rikiya smirked.
"I did not!"
"Really." Rikiya drew it out, with a grin too broad to be anything but trouble.
"Okay, once! You would've lost a lot more."
"Oh, no." Rikiya's eyes were bright with mischief. "Because I, unlike some I may know, listen to the whispers in the wind. And those whispers say... the general has a rep." He cut a glance across at Tingzhe. "Total tile-shark. Dangerous man."
"Ooo." Private Fushi grinned, bouncing. "So you would have lost a whole month."
Rikiya didn't - quite - lose that edge of mischief. "I would not."
Kyo cleared his throat.
"...Which has totally no bearing on the lesson at hand," Rikiya said without missing a beat. "So how does that work with rocks, Professor? I mean, people move. Fire moves. Rock? Kind of doesn't."
"Which is a key point of the meditation," Tingzhe stated. "To bend earth, you must match your will against its tendency to remain in place. Rather like water, from what I have learned from Amaya; though water must be persuaded, not commanded... well, I'm certain we can discuss that at some later date." He frowned, thoughtful. "The walking meditation I know serves two main purposes. Philosophically, to consider the paradox of motion in motionlessness. More practically, to accustom a student to simply moving stone. Never mind that it is muscle and bone which do the work. What mind and body work together to accomplish, bending will do."
Jinhai was watching him, fingers slowly easing their death-grip on his robes. Risked looking straight at Kyo. "Cousin Lee never did that."
"Tight quarters on the Wani," the sergeant said, unfazed. "He probably got out of the habit." Kyo raised a gray brow. "But next time, ask your teacher, little guy."
"Huh?" Startled, Jinhai looked at Teruko. "But..."
She's a girl! was written all over his son's face, Tingzhe thought ruefully. Though at least he hadn't said it.
"So the rumors are true?" Shirong's face was calm, but already Tingzhe had begun to be familiar with that attentive twitch that was the Dai Li's Aha! I knew it! "The Fire Army has some female instructors?"
For a moment, Tingzhe imagined, you could have heard a pin drop.
Rikiya twitched first. "Some." Half a cough; half a laugh. "Yeah, I'd say - what is it, four out of five, Boss? Yeah, that's... pretty much some."
Tingzhe tried not to stare.
"Combat bending instruction's done by the Home Guard," Teruko informed Shirong. "Most of them are women or retired veterans. Sometimes both. Though not many women go for the Marines or the Navy. Private Fushi and I are kind of odd turtle-ducks." She eyed Jinhai. "Your cousin's first firebending teacher was his mother. Trust me, you would not want to cross Lady Ursa. She could singe a fly off a moon-peach at a hundred paces. I grant you she's not as scary as the general, but there's only a handful of firebenders in the world as scary as General Iroh."
"One of those being the Fire Lord," Shirong said soberly.
That brought quiet, and a handful of uneasy looks. But Teruko squared her shoulders, and nodded. "Let's put it this way, Agent Shirong. Stories say the tunnels under the capital are full of lava. They also say the Fire Lord can walk through them, any damn where he wants."
"Lieutenant," Tingzhe said mildly, hand on his son's shoulder.
"Sorry, Professor." She gestured for Jinhai to take his candle. "This isn't too far off how your father's meditation works. The point is to get used to moving fire while you're moving. Part of the trick is learning how to make the flame feed itself. So you take advantage of the breeze, and it doesn't get snuffed out."
Jinhai nodded, evidently determined to take this seriously even if Teruko was a girl. "So if it goes out, I lose?"
"This isn't a contest," Teruko said firmly. "No matter what you see Rikiya and Sukekuni doing."
Behind her, both firebenders suddenly tried to look innocent.
"Just keep it lit, and walk," she went on. "If it goes out, light it again. And keep walking." She smiled, gold eyes warm. "Trust me, it only looks boring. When you start figuring out how the wind plays into it? It gets interesting."
Candle in hand, she started walking.
Sitting on the deck by a bit of rock he'd brought up from below, Tingzhe watched.
Hmm. She has done this before.
He could see it in the way she kept an eye on Shirong and Jinhai without seeming to, only stepping in with a quiet turn more this way, or work with the wind. And, every once in a while, good.
Jinhai, Tingzhe was sure, was convinced she had eyes in the back of her head.
Nothing so mystical, the professor smirked, eyeing the one firebender sharpening blades with Shoni instead of practicing with the rest. "So you're the spotter?"
"Don't train a firebender without one," Sergeant Kyo nodded.
"Lee did," Tingzhe observed.
Kyo gave him a serious look. "He have a choice in the matter?"
"No," Tingzhe admitted, absently carving off a slice of stone to crush into sand. "And he always made certain there was someone else with him. And a sand-bucket."
"Lousy setup if you've got other options. Otherwise - not bad." Kyo gave him a considering look. "You have something against that rock, Professor?"
How best to put it? Was there any good way to put it? Likely not. "You all seem... very sane."
"For bad guys?" Kyo's smile was dry. "Blame the captain. He spent months with the general. It rubs off." An armored shrug. "Last winter this was a pretty sorry bunch. Morale was shot. We weren't even a crew. Just a bunch of sailors nobody wanted, jammed onto one ship. So if somebody screwed up, we'd be the only ones who went to the bottom."
"Ah." Ruthlessly pragmatic, Tingzhe thought. Which far better fit the skull-faced armor of his nightmares. "But Captain Jee changed that?"
"Captain's stepped into a few messes himself," Kyo observed. "Got stuck with the exiled prince. Which was about one step up from getting tossed out of the Navy the hard way."
Tingzhe frowned. "The hard way?"
"You don't want to know."
Unsettling. Which, ironically, calmed him; the Fire Nation's military was supposed to be unnerving. Not friendly.
"Captain doesn't talk about it much, but the prince made him think twice," Kyo went on. "Screw-up, maybe. But the prince worked. And if he couldn't carry out his orders the way he was supposed to... well, sometimes the prince found another way."
"Training a firebender with hot water," Tingzhe murmured.
Studying his men's form, Kyo gave him a swift glance. Raised a brow.
Amused, Tingzhe nodded.
"...We have to pick that kid's brains." Kyo chuckled wryly. "Like that, Professor. The captain wants good order and discipline, and the ship running at the end of the day. Outside of that? How we get the job done is up to us."
Tingzhe's brows went up. "So you do have reason to protect the prince."
Kyo gave him a thoughtful glance. "You teach the advanced classes, Professor?"
"Yes, actually," Tingzhe admitted. "Are there facts I lack, that would make my conclusion incorrect?"
"Nope." Kyo looked a little smug. "Though Corporal Shoni's had to pound the reasons into a few heads."
"We take oaths to protect the Fire Nation." Shoni carefully buffed one of his smaller blades. "One of our greatest tacticians, who was correct when he warned of the dangers of spirits in the North, says spirits intend to destroy our nation." Shoni looked up. "The Fire Nation is not walls, or ships, or even islands. It is our people. It is fire, and the blood of dragons. So we will follow our oaths to the Fire Lord, and defend our people." Steel slipped out of sight. "If exile is the price of that oath? We will pay it."
Stubborn as the walls of Ba Sing Se, Tingzhe thought. And clenched sand into stone, to fight that wave of longing for home.
Home is not a place. It is my family. My wife. My children. My brother. The people who made us welcome.
The Fire Nation's definition of home. Oma and Shu, what had he done?
What I had to. What I chose, for my clan. Spirits, why am I even considering this? It's far too late to back out now.
He knew why. Unfortunately.
"Something bothering you, Professor?" Kyo's polite sidelong glance was clear statement he knew something was - but he'd take none of your business for an answer.
And I know that, because I know Meixiang's silences, Tingzhe realized. I know the woman I love. "How do you deal with it, Sergeant? With... the dragon?"
"Huh." Kyo mulled that. "Most of us don't have it as bad as the lieutenant. Definitely not as bad as the prince. Dragon-child," he elaborated at Tingzhe's raised brow. "Bad temper, hates to be backed into a corner, hates it more if they can't see the sky. Remember that, and that they're the last people you pick as a diplomat, and you're okay." A faint smile. "Best people in a fight. And they're really sweet kids. Like little kitten-owlets. Mess with their kids, though - better have your will written. If Lady Ursa'd been in the Fire Nation three years ago, we might be short one son of Azulon."
Tingzhe glanced at Shoni.
"Captain Jee has made known the circumstances of the prince's injuries," the corporal said precisely. "Of course, one cannot criticize the Fire Lord. He is the leader of the Fire Sages, who interpret Agni's will on earth."
An interesting and deliberate pause, there. "Of course," Tingzhe murmured.
"But under most circumstances, it would not be unreasonable to accept a surrender at the beginning of a duel," Shoni observed.
"Ah." Tingzhe thought furiously. "Bear in mind that I am from Ba Sing Se, and so far from certain what I do not know about the Fire Nation. A thirteen-year-old is old enough to fight, and suffer the consequences?"
"For honor," Kyo nodded. "You don't ship them out to the Earth Kingdom until they've got more training. And a bit more brains."
"I have also been told that it is a parent's duty to haul a child away from a fire too hot to handle," Tingzhe said cautiously.
"So it is," Shoni agreed. "Particularly among the great names. Of course, they cannot tolerate fools among their children. And only a fool would deliberately show disrespect to the Fire Lord."
Enough evasions. "You know he did not," Tingzhe challenged.
"We're here," Kyo said levelly.
Not good enough. "It's inhuman," Tingzhe said bitterly.
Kyo's eyes narrowed. "That what you really think, professor?"
My family. My son. Jinhai's candle had just blown out yet again; the boy looked ready to throw beeswax to the deck and stomp on it-
Then Jinhai looked at him. And heaved a dramatic sigh, and pinched the wick, determined, until it lit again.
Tingzhe smiled. Held it, until Jinhai turned away, before surrendering to that awful, bone-weary worry. "I... don't know."
"Looks like a good kid," Kyo said softly.
"He was a surprise," Tingzhe admitted. "Even before the firebending." Belatedly, a thought struck him. "Do you have children?"
"Had." Old grief, worn as wind-smoothed stone. "Bandits."
"I'm sorry." He was, Tingzhe admitted to himself with some surprise. Enemy soldier the sergeant might have been, but loss... that, they had in common.
Even if he's not human. Do dragons go to war? Betray one another? Grieve their children?
He didn't know. He desperately wanted to know.
Shoni snorted. "What the sergeant is not saying, is that you have said nothing that would require such a long face, Professor. That was not a request for aid. His vendetta has been carried out, and is over." Shoni rolled his eyes. "Despite possible orders that the situation might be considered too delicate to pursue, as the bandits had retreated deep into the Earth Kingdom, almost to Omashu." A sharp-edged smile. "Almost. But not quite."
Tingzhe eyed them both.
Kyo gave him a wry grin. "And now you know why my squad's on this ship."
"Years ago," Shoni sniffed, waving it off.
"Command doesn't forget a whole team going AWOL," Kyo said dryly. "No matter how well Fushi and Rikiya cooked the books." He scowled.
"They would do it again, and you know it, sir," Shoni replied. "There is law, and there are orders. And there is what is right."
As there had been in Ba Sing Se, Tingzhe reflected. With the Dai Li.
Kyo shook off memories, and straightened. "Ought to stop second-guessing yourself, Professor. Especially when you're right. We're not all human."
"We are hunters, like our kin," Shoni nodded. "You who bend earth, or air, or water - what you seek exists, of itself, and is sufficient. But fire must burn."
"I've seen you create-" Tingzhe cut himself off, recalling Lee's lessons. "Of course. If there is nothing to burn, then you fuel it with your own chi." And the reserves that must take, the sheer amount of energy drawn from a living body; spirits, it wasn't-
It isn't human.
"How do you reconcile that in yourselves?" Tingzhe wondered. "How... what must that first firebender have been thinking, to join with something - not of our world?"
Shoni and Kyo traded a look. "If the tales are true," Shoni offered, "it is humans who are not of this world."
"That's the old stories," Kyo nodded. "This is the spirits' playground. The dragons' world. Sky bison, badger-moles, canyon crawlers - they live here, and the spirits look after them. Then one day, humans showed up. And not all the spirits were happy about it."
"Showed up," Tingzhe echoed thoughtfully.
"It is a story," Shoni shrugged. "Perhaps the ancients only meant that humans were created later than other creatures. The old stories do not always make sense..." He trailed off, at the slight shushing motion of Tingzhe's hand.
"Professor?" Kyo ventured, after a few minutes' silence.
"I am an archaeologist, by training," Tingzhe began. "I do much of my work in archives, true, but I also do a fair amount of digging in the dirt. When I was a young man, before the war had surrounded us, I made several long trips outside Ba Sing Se." He paused, gathering his thoughts. "You can trace a town's growth in the earth. Below streets are centuries of trails, and below houses old farms, and below even that traces of fish-drying posts, or nut storage pits, or... spirits, any number of things. But Ba Sing Se... the city is old. Very, very old. The most ancient parts of the city are caverns deep within the earth itself, and in those caves-" He had to hesitate. "Understand, we are earthbenders, and much may have been reshaped over the millennia. But I believe I know the signs of such work. And if what I saw in those caverns was accurate - Ba Sing Se did not begin as a settlement. It began as a city, a tremendous city, all at once."
Silence. Shoni rubbed at the back of his neck, as if the hairs there were standing straight up.
"I could be wrong," Tingzhe observed. "I would dearly love to spend time in one of your archives."
"Ask the prince," Kyo advised, after mulling that over a moment. "We've got what the Earth King handed over. I'd bet he'd love to add to the hoard... here he comes." He waved a hand toward Lieutenant Teruko, that even Tingzhe could see meant look out.
"Sir." Teruko brought the walk to a halt as Zuko approached, inclining her head.
"Carry on," Zuko said raggedly.
Spirits. He looks awful, Tingzhe thought. Not quite as bad as that frightening day the young man had laughed about his own maiming. But bad enough.
"Jinhai needs a break." Teruko shooed the boy Tingzhe's way. "Rest with your father. Get warmed up. Meditation's a lot harder than it looks."
Privately amused, Tingzhe wrapped robed arms around his youngest. Who was a bit chilled, by his shivers. Neatly done.
"What happened," Shirong asked bluntly, "and how lethal is it likely to be?"
Zuko blinked, as if the question had come from far away. Shook himself, like shedding water. "I think if my grandfather and my uncle decide to maim each other, I'm going to let them. And pick up the pieces afterward."
The marines stiffened. "They're fighting, sir?" Teruko asked swiftly.
"Arguing, I would guess," Shirong stated. "What happened?"
Zuko opened his mouth. closed it. Clenched fists, with just a spark of flame, and took a deep breath. "My mother's alive."
"Um... yes, sir," Teruko said cautiously. "We knew that."
...Oh dear, Tingzhe winced.
"You knew that," Zuko echoed, edged and chill. "Well. It's nice to know all of Byakko knew something no one told me for six years."
"Daddy?" Jinhai whispered against his chest.
"Shh," Tingzhe murmured. "He's not angry at you."
"You didn't...?" Teruko paled. "Sir. She's Shidan's daughter. Your mother. You'll know if she dies."
That made the scholar in Tingzhe prick up his ears. They know? How? Certainly, nobles and powerful earthbenders felt when another name had to be carved in the family tablets. But how on earth could that work with fire?
"No one told me that."
Simple words. Controlled words. But the rage and grief beat against him like waves, and Tingzhe had to catch his breath.
"Sir. You'll know." Teruko held out a hand, palm up and empty. "A lot of us aren't that lucky. But strong firebenders? When one of our clan's fires die, when their spirit leaves us... we know." She lowered her voice. "No one ever told you, sir?"
For a moment, a bitter smile shadowed Zuko's face; then calm settled like snow. "Thank you, Lieutenant. It's good to understand what my uncle went through six years ago."
"Sir?" Teruko had the wary air of someone sure she'd missed something.
A few feet away, Tingzhe caught Shirong's wince. What? Why?
In the Fire Nation, Shirong and Meixiang had both told him, so much hinges on what you don't say.
If he says General Iroh suffered six years ago, he implies he did not, Tingzhe realized. From all I can tell he adored his cousin, so they would have been clan- oh.
Oh, indeed. And damn. Shirong had told their family of that battle atop the train, in terse but vivid detail. How could anyone who'd lived through that believe-?
Zuko stepped back from that hand, and nodded. "As you were."
Shirong's eyes narrowed. "I believe the lieutenant was about to start sparring practice."
Stalking away, Zuko didn't slow down. "That would be why I'm clearing the deck. Enjoy."
"I see there are distinct disadvantages to a chain of command," Shirong mused. "If you don't come back here, I'm going to start pegging rocks at you."
Marines tensed. Didn't move, as Teruko raised an eyebrow.
Zuko stopped. Took a deliberate breath. "I've read Captain Jee's file on the lieutenant, Agent Shirong. You should take advantage of skilled instruction when it's available." Jaw set, he kept walking.
"I can't believe I'm going to have to do this," Shirong grumbled, heading for Tingzhe's rock. "Professor? I suggest you take cover."
"Sukekuni," Kyo stated. "Rikiya."
"-Extra ammo, on it!"
Before he could blink, Tingzhe found himself and Jinhai yanked behind an iron plate Sukekuni had pulled up and locked into place. With a rattle that sounded like - why was Rikiya dumping coal on the deck?
"Professor," Sukekuni panted, the panel was not light, "are Dai Li all crazy?"
Stone gloves whistled through air; there was a sudden, snarling yell-
Tingzhe watched flashes of fire over iron, and smiled, even as his heart raced. "I wouldn't be at all surprised."
It's quiet, Jee thought darkly, blowing warm air on ink to dry it before tucking the ship's log back into its niche on the bridge. Tobito had the helm, Lieutenant Sadao was making sure everyone aboard had at least a corner to call their own, Captain Donghai had just returned one of their hawks to affirm the fleet didn't have any problems a few drunken nights in port couldn't solve, and Prince Zuko was handling the dragon.
...Which made him shake his head. Again. A dragon. On his ship.
It's quiet. Too quiet. I wonder what Lieutenant Teruko-
Ah, yes. There.
On the one hand, if he didn't see it, he didn't know about it. Officially. On the other, Sergeant Kyo's crew had been quietly effective in persuading some of his more stubborn sailors to actually consider the realities of the prince's situation. If they'd suddenly come up against something that required a less subtle approach, they might need a hand.
Or, they could be just practicing.
Curiosity fought common sense, and won with the third fireball.
Retreating to the rear of the command tower, Jee peered past smokestacks to the stern. Coal. On my decks? I don't care what Rikiya says he needed it for, this time the squad is scrubbing the plates down with used ink-brushes- oh.
A sweep of green-clad arms, and a coal wave intercepted a fireball. Crushed together in a ball to snuff out sparks, then surged like a scorpion-viper after the firebender who'd challenged it.
The motion was blurred by green robes instead of red armor, but in that leap and twist away, Jee recognized the form he'd seen the prince drill a hundred times.
Always the same problem. He'll break his root in a heartbeat to get into the air.
Yet against an earthbender, the air was where Zuko apparently wanted to be. Which didn't quite make sense-
Watching Shirong fight, Jee let out a hiss of breath. I'm a fool.
What had Teruko and General Iroh told him about Lady Bei Fong? She read the ground.
Barefoot soldiers, Jee thought grimly. I fight from the sea; I've always stayed as far off Earth Kingdom soil as I can. But the prince fights on land.
Earthbenders draw their strength from the ground. Their chi is the heart of the earth, and they move that energy up. From their roots.
The farther you were from your enemy's source of chi, the more of his own strength he had to spend to strike. That was how earthbender prisons worked at all; keep them away from earth. Keep them weak.
Feet on the ground can be trapped, Jee realized, watching Zuko execute a heel-spin to sweep away bonds of coal like paper. A stance that touches earth - or metal - can be felt.
Three years exiled from the Fire Nation. Crossing the world on a quest everyone knew was hopeless. Crossing the Earth Kingdom, which meant fighting earthbenders.
Intrigued, Jee settled in to watch.
When this is over, Shirong thought, skidding aside from yet another slicing blast of fire, I owe Rikiya a drink.
He'd proposed this little experiment to Lieutenant Teruko with the idea that he'd just be using the rocks scattered on the deck. After which she'd given him a look generally reserved for drunks and small children with hammers, and proceeded to outline exactly what level of lethal skill one could expect from an imperial firebender.
Hence the coal. And stern advice to keep Zuko at a distance. Coupled with strict instructions to yield if the fight turned ugly. Jee would never let either of them live it down if he were sloppy enough to-
One moment the young firebender had been poised, ready to jump away from fists of stone yet again. The next, Zuko's sliding skid took Shirong's feet out from under him in a wave of flame.
Get his ankles, immobilize - uh-oh.
Lethal feet whipped out of reach, as bare hands slapped the deck and torqued his opponent away in a spin that looked oddly familiar-
Should have expected that, Shirong reflected, gripped in ice. Why am I still surprised?
Rolling to his feet, Zuko deliberately slowed his breathing. Lifted a hand, and let it sink gracefully down, melting ice away. Waited for the agent to stand, and bowed.
Shaking off a few stray drops, Shirong grinned wryly. And prepared to do something even more lethal than sparring with an angry firebender. "As I've been trying to tell the lieutenant, when it comes to bending, you're fearless. If it's anything but fire."
"Lieutenant Teruko's trying to help," Shirong said quickly. "So sit on that temper. I know it takes a lot of sitting on, but listen."
Please listen. I know I'm right. But we can't help if you won't believe.
A slow jerk of a nod. "Lieutenant," Zuko said stiffly. "Explain."
Teruko stood straight and correct. "Sir. I think you should hear Agent Shirong out."
At least he had Zuko's attention. "I was sixteen when the last Earth King was assassinated," Shirong stated, painfully aware of listening ears. This wasn't going to be easy. "Just a trainee, called out when the city went dark and everything went insane." Screams, running in the streets, fires that burned green without ever casting light...
Breathe. It's over.
"I ended up separated from my mentor, which was bad. But I kept trying to do my job. Which turned out to be worse."
Pale hands, a sweep of hair like black silk, and elegant weeping...
"It was a fountain square. Everyone else was running from... well, all kinds of things. But I stopped. I saw a woman sitting on the bench, rocking her baby, numb to the world. Or so it seemed." Breathe. Go on. "She saw me. Just- came into focus, eyes waking up. I was sure she'd snap out of it and start moving with the rest of the civilians. Instead, she put her... bundle down on the bench, took a biwa off her shoulder, and started playing. So I went over to talk to her." Shirong paused, looking back on that long-ago stupidity. How could he have missed her hair, her too-fine, too-revealing clothing? The way the bundle squirmed, like no human form could move?
Young and stupid. It happens.
Gold eyes were focused on him. Listening.
"In fact, she was playing for her children," Shirong said dryly. Remembering shadows of a sharp-edged smile, coils of trapping silk, and pain. "Lots and lots of little, eight-legged... offspring."
"Oh, boy," Fushi whispered, eyes wide. "Jorōgumo!"
"We call them xiāo yāo jing," Shirong said, trying not to shake at the memory. "The spider-woman. She wrapped me up in silk over water before I could blink, and then - you know what spiderlings do with prey."
It's over. Put it away. Do not think about it.
"I got lucky, for the last time in my life." Shirong tried to stuff the nightmares back into their cage, remembering after. "Long Feng had secured a guard around Earth King Kuei, and was leading teams out to smash some of the worst intruding spirits. He found me before I'd been quite drained dry." Keep going. It's daylight. Nothing can touch you here. "I don't know how he handled the xiāo yāo jing, but I know it was lethal. I felt her fangs pull out of my spirit. That's the last thing I remember of that night." Just a little more. You can do this. "The next I knew, I was waking up in Amaya's garden at sunrise. There were too many injured, you see; she had to stuff us in everywhere..." He swallowed. "I've never seen anything as beautiful as that dawn."
Iroh thinks La's been watching Zuko since he was born. How long have you been watching me, Agni?
"Amaya's good, but there are limits," Shirong went on, voice level. "I carry those scars, and the death that almost had me. And I would have done anything for Long Feng. Not just because he saved my life. Because I know what's out there, I've fought it - and he saved our city from those nightmares." The agent's hands were trembling. He forced them still. "For Long Feng, I would have faced any foe. Even Azula. But to this day, I can't hear a biwa without breaking into a cold sweat."
There. My nightmare, spread before you like silk for painting.
What will you do, young friend?
"I'm sorry," Zuko whispered.
"Don't be sorry," Shirong said firmly. "I refuse to let the fear rule me. Ever. But it's a scar on my soul. It's a weakness in my defenses, and I have to plan for it. I flinch. And that has nothing to do with courage. It's pain, and the memory of pain. Instinct remembers the threat of death, and tells us to run before our minds can catch up. Before we can think, and realize that running is the last thing we should do." His eyes narrowed. "And it's worse when our minds and feelings are already at war. I was trained to help and protect civilians. So I did. And it nearly killed me. And you..." Shirong eyed the young firebender. Dragon-child. "You say you're predators. Guanyin as my witness, you've reminded me of pygmy pumas since we've met. And when a cub makes a parent angry? They go limp. They don't fight."
Zuko was pale. Trembling.
"Everyone I've spoken to, everyone, says surrender was a viable option," Shirong said quietly. Easy. Easy. "It should have worked. But it didn't." Please listen. Just a little longer. "And because it didn't, because the best decision you could make failed - you don't trust your judgment. Not in firebending." He took a deep breath. "I imagine your great-grandfather never encountered anything so crushing to the spirit. Even when he was dying, he knew there was something he could do."
Zuko flinched. But held his ground, pale gold wide and wild.
"You're stronger than Kuzon," Shirong went on. Agni, if you care, let him hear me. "He burned to the last, until he burned out. You were crushed into ashes. But you still fight. You still face firebenders. Spirits, you still faced your sister."
"There isn't any choice," Zuko ground out.
"There's always a choice," Shirong disagreed. "You're just stubborn enough to convince everyone else you don't even think about other options." He paused. "Even your uncle."
"Uncle's not responsible for my failures!"
Oh good, Shirong reflected, deliberately ignoring the flames sprouting from clenched fists. I finally got him mad enough to fight.
But a threat wasn't an attack. Not yet. "It's not a failure to be afraid of what almost killed you!" Shirong snarled back. "It's instinct!" He let out a huff of breath, and shook off the fury. "It's human."
A flat, deadly golden look.
Ah, yes. Human is a bit tricky here, isn't it?
"I don't know if this will help," Shirong admitted, avoiding the problem. "But if we're up against everything Kyoshi and Sozin set in motion, and who knows what else... you say Lieutenant Teruko's a good instructor. Well, show me."
Now it was Teruko's look that promised murder. Shirong smothered a chuckle.
"He's got a point, sir," Teruko said steadily. "General Iroh's one of the best, when it comes to mountain style. Wave style, though... I haven't practiced it much for a few years, but I can help you double-check your stances." Her lips twitched into a wry smile. "Don't take this the wrong way, but Lord Kuzon was a bit taller."
Don't laugh, Shirong told himself firmly. Eyeing the rest of the marines, to find Kyo had beaten him to it; every firebender looked as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths.
"I'm just sorry you never got a chance to meet him," Teruko went on. "Even if he steered clear of Fire Lord Azulon, he would have sent a bloodknot for the welcoming."
Zuko blinked. And seemed to deflate, as if all the anger had drained away. "Oh."
"Bloodknot?" Shirong asked. Noting he wasn't the only one who looked confused; Rikiya had a carefully bland look, while Sukekuni was openly bewildered.
Fushi, on the other hand, was bouncing on her toes, grin wide and eager. "Old family tradition. You don't hear much about it, but everybody does it-"
"Not anymore," Kyo said flatly. "The history books call it one of those outdated superstitions. Which is probably why you two never heard of it." His gaze lingered just a little longer than it had to on Rikiya.
There's a story there, Shirong thought, as Rikiya looked guiltily away. The way he acts, just a little too casual around power... ambitious relatives?
"That's just wrong," Fushi insisted. "Family's important." She turned a hopeful look on Shirong. "You got welcomed into your clan, right?"
"Yes," Shirong acknowledged. "It was... very odd." Blood and wine and a snap of something locking into his own spirit, a certainty he'd never be lost again...
That's what comes from being a lone agent so long. You forget about family. Shirong smirked at himself at the irony. We spend so much of ourselves doing our duty to protect the city from spirits, we forget others' duties to the spirits. Especially our ancestors.
So the Fire Nation tied together clan spirits with blood instead of ancestral tablets. Why was he not surprised?
I wonder. The elders named me dead when they knew how unlucky I was. When I joined Wen... did I die twice?
"You send a bloodknot if you can't make it to the party," Fushi shrugged. "Blood and hair, and they can just burn it and add the ashes. And everything's set."
"Dragons do it with scales," Teruko stated. "Or so I've heard." She gave Zuko a sympathetic look. "Sorry, sir. I keep forgetting your mother had to be careful about what she said. Or did. Parents' fires - you're born with that link. The rest of the clan takes some work."
"Which is Guanyin's mercy," Shirong said bluntly. "We lost a lot of people on that night. Plenty of them nobles. If Kuei had been made known to all his kin's ancestral tablets before then... there are good reasons to keep children from the spirits until they're old enough to handle it. Even family spirits."
Shirong raised an eyebrow. And the other, all but feeling the wince as the marines went silent. "Was it something I said?"
"Um." Sukekuni cleared his throat. "How old did you say the Avatar was?"
Shirong blinked. And swallowed hard, as a sudden warm breeze of summer river-mud curdled his stomach. Oh, damn.
"Spirits." Plop went a pebble into the numb stillness of the bay. "Sheesh." Another plop, as Toph scuffed the fuzziness of sand. "The Avatar must concentrate to properly sense creatures of the world beyond!" Done echoing Tao's grim tones, Toph rolled her eyes. "Duh. So maybe this is new. So maybe he needs some quiet to get started. But he's a bender. He can't concentrate when people are flinging rocks at him, he's gonna be toast. Graaah!"
Okay, that lump of rock she could still feel in the water. Though it was muted. Like having someone step between her and a fire. You knew it had to still be there, but it didn't feel warm.
Didn't matter. She was plenty hot enough for everyone.
"So we were distracting Aang," Toph grumbled to herself. "Well, duh! We're his friends. We're kind of supposed to. How's Twinkletoes gonna save the world if he's all serious all the time?"
She'd seen Aang serious in the desert. And up against the lake serpent. It wasn't good.
"Sokka," Toph declared to the splash of waves. "Tao ought to be teaching Snoozles about the spirits."
Only Tao didn't think Sokka ought to have anything to do with spirits. After all, he wasn't a bender.
Which had ticked Katara off enough to make her join Sokka on his latest hunting trip. Summer meant snow-berries at the South Pole, and Katara swore she'd smelled something like that on the forest wind.
So Tao had what he wanted. Aang, with no distractions, while the Water Tribe was off being responsible their way.
Which had left Toph to loudly declare sitting around while Aang trained was not her idea of fun, and she'd head out to train herself.
And she was. Already, she had just a little better idea of where rocks ended up in water. She might have an even better one, if she'd just been focusing on the water.
Toes stretched into the sand, Toph felt back towards camp, where Aang and Tao were still sitting while Momo probably flitted through the air. Appa was a solid, breathing weight behind them, heart slow and steady. Looks okay.
Not like she didn't trust Tao. She did. Mostly. But Tao was an old guy, he was a teacher, and Aang stuck to teachers like iron on loadstone. It was kind of scary.
And she was being snippy about Tao, and she knew she was being snippy, because she couldn't come out and ask what she really wanted to know.
Is Sparky okay? Is Uncle?
She'd talked Sokka into asking his dad to spread the word around the Earth Kingdom people helping them that they wanted news from back in the city. Wasn't hard. If Sparky had pulled off something crazy, Sokka wanted to know just as much as she did. So far, the word coming back from Ba Sing Se was stunned with a side of what-were-they-drinking?
Depending on who you asked, the Fire Nation had gone crazier and incinerated the whole trading fleet, families included. Or a swarm of ghosts had destroyed the Earth King's palace. Or a flock of Air Nomad survivors had unleashed a wind storm to punish the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Princess alike. Or the Earth King had forced allegiance from Wan Shi Tong to spirit half the city's army mysteriously away.
Having dealt with the stupid owl-spirit's sinking library, Toph kind of doubted that last one.
But the one that confuzzled Chief Hakoda the most - and still made Toph want to bust out laughing - was the story that, drawn by the Avatar's command, a rampaging northern water spirit had fallen hopelessly in love with the palace specter, and vowed to do battle with her enemies until Ba Sing Se was once more a free city. Complete with flashing dao, spirit-masks, ghost fires, haunted ice-sheathed trains, and all kinds of sneaky derring-do that included spiriting the Earth King right out of Azula's claws.
Oh, she'd laughed herself sick on that one.
Though feeling Aang's shocked recoil at dao, masks, and sneaky? Not so funny.
Whichever of the stories were or weren't true, none of them even whispered that Zuko or Uncle had turned up dead. Toph was counting on that being good news.
You hear me, Sparky? That better be good news. Stay in one piece. And give 'em all hell.
So. If Zuko had figured out all new ways to give the spirits a headache, she'd better figure out her own.
Keeps Aang on his toes. And it's fun.
"Salt in water," Toph muttered, dipping her own toes into that endless, fish and seaweed-smelly emptiness. "Must be really tiny salt."
There were really tiny earth-bits in metal, too. And she'd made that work.
Yeah, well, I could see those.
She'd bent side by side with Katara on that sludge from the drill. But same deal. Lots of water, but plenty of earth to see. This? Was like standing on the edge of a cliff, with no way to know what she might hit on the way down.
Sparky can wrestle hot glass. There's gotta be a way to do this.
She knew how to do earth. You out-stubborned it until both of you moved. So she'd been trying to out-stubborn the whole bay.
It wasn't working.
Which was ticking her off. She could taste the salt kicked up in the air every time wind dashed the waves up on shore-
Licking her lips, Toph frowned. Salt.
She bent what she "saw". Whether that was rocks in the air or sludge on the ground. But she couldn't see this.
Zuko couldn't see fire in hot water, either. So how'd he do it?
Maybe if she just got a little closer to the water...
Footsteps without feet frantically tangled with hers, pushing her back and away.
Boots? What the-
A slight tremor in the slope of the beach into black. Barely a whisper through her toes.
Toph slammed sand into a solid dome over them, gritting her teeth as something pounded on the sandstone shell. Not fast, but hard; like standing in the raging torrent when the skies tore open that others called a killing storm.
The world went gray.
Boots was shivering against her, a quiet rattle like feathers snapping over each other. Toph felt those shivers tremble the sand under them; a faint shimmer, against the pounding gray of water fuzzing every vibration of the earth. Like the desert, but worse. This wasn't just the way sand shifted instead of carrying a steady feel. Something was making the world blind, water pounding in a headache like iron spikes, seeping up through her toes in chilling static that made Boots squeak like leather rubbed wrong-
Oh no you don't!
Toph reached for earth, and scooped their whole shell inland. Stomping sludgy sand, driving that icy water down and away-
It surged back, a wave of freezing empty that sucked down her toes. Sucked down the world.
Can't see can't - focus, Toph!
Reach, and yank, and reach-
Air slashed through gray and sandstone; in the dust on her hands, she felt Sokka scrabble through the hole. "Toph, come on!"
Strong hands wrapped to catch a razor-sharp boomerang yanked her out, slinging her over his shoulder with Water Tribe swears. She shivered in the black, biting her lip not to yell that she needed earth, she needed to see, where were her toes-
There was yelling. A lot of yelling. Aang from one way behind them. Katara and Tao from another. And a roaring, like waves and storm and something even bigger than a badger-mole.
"Put me down." Toph tried to yell; winced when it came out more of a whimper. She was the greatest earthbender in the world; she was not a whiny girl, ever! "Put me down! We gotta help them-"
"Tao told me to get you up here," Sokka said, just as rock-stubborn. "I'm getting you up here- ow!"
Sissy. She hadn't bit him that hard.
The rocks up here were hard and dry. At least that was what her hands said as she landed. Her feet gave her just thumps of gray. "I can't see!"
"Yeah, I bet." Sokka didn't sound mad at all. Just worried.
Which made her gut try to tie itself into knots. Toph knew just how mad she'd be if Sokka bit her. This was bad.
"We need to - darn it, you don't have time for that." Dropping to the rocks by her, Sokka picked up the lumps on the end of her legs and tucked them under his tunic. "Brrr!"
It burned. Like walking out in winter snow. Toph swallowed the pain and listed to the rumble and roar of water, earth, and air. "What are they fighting?"
"...You don't want to know."
"Toph? Right now, I wish I was blind."
Familiar trilling as Momo landed nearby. Which meant he thought it was too scary to go up in the air. "What's out there?"
"It's big," Sokka said at last, as thundering splashes went on. "Big as a Fire Navy ship. This huge mass of red arms in the water, with suckers and teeth..." He shuddered. "Don't think I'll ever look at pentapuses the same again."
Toph swallowed. "That big."
"Way big. And way sneaky," Sokka said grimly. "If Katara hadn't seen it wave an arm out of the water..." He bent, and blew on her toes. "You feel that?"
"Yeah," Toph gritted out. Ow.
"Good." Cloth rustled, as Sokka wrapped his tunic around her feet. "Stay put, okay? I'm going to get a fire going."
Toph bit her lip. "I miss Uncle," she whispered.
Maybe not quiet enough; she felt Sokka's pause in the earth under her hand. "Right now?" Sokka admitted. "I miss him too."
Toph tracked the fight as well as she could, from hisses and sliding splashes and the trembling of the shore as waves smashed it. Which wasn't good at all - but she thought she'd feel something coming fast enough to shield Sokka. Maybe.
Boots was a mist-touch of leather and feathers against her arm, pressing close whenever one of the massive waves struck. "Thanks, little guy," she murmured.
Slipper-soft stomp. Nudging, like wisps of koala-wool over her arm.
"Yeah." Toph swallowed bitterness. "I guess that was stupid."
"Kind of, yeah," Sokka said impatiently, striking spark rocks. "What were you thinking? Nobody goes near shore alone. What, you want a tiger-seal to eat you... Toph?"
Toph scrunched her fingers in sand. She was not going to cry. No matter how much her feet hurt. "What's a tiger-seal?"
Flames crackled as tinder caught; she felt wisps of warmth as Sokka stacked the fire with fuel. "Right. You lived in the hills." He helped her shift closed to the fire, partly unwrapping cloth so his tunic funneled warm air over her feet. "They swim, they eat fish, they only come out of the water when they want to warm up or show off to their girls, and they're about as big as an ostrich-horse. Most of the time, they leave people alone."
Toph felt queasy. "And when they don't?"
"They've got teeth like a leopard-shark, and a temper like Zuko's," Sokka said bluntly. "Get between them and the ocean? About all that's left of you is a bloody mess in the snow."
"Oh." The noise had died down, though she still heard Aang yelling at something. "Okay. Scared of water now."
"That's not what I - argh." Sokka grumbled something rude under his breath. "Toph. You're blind. Most of the time, that works out okay. Sometimes? Not that great." He sighed. "Just let us help, okay? We're Water Tribe. We kind of know things about water."
Splash. And spreading silence.
Footsteps, getting more solid as her feet warmed. And then Katara was there in a sliding skid, moving cool water over heels and toes in a swoosh that eased away the pain. "Thanks," Toph sighed.
"What did it do?" Katara pounced. "It almost feels like frostbite, but - not exactly. And it's kind of... mucky."
"Chi drain." Tao's staff tapped the ground. "Kamuiy know human weapons can't harm them. They move quickly to thwart that which can." He sighed; tired, but still gentle. "Now do you see why you must learn to sense the spirits, Avatar Aang? Those spirits and spirit-creatures who wish your aid will try to attract your attention, if they can. Those that seek to do harm will conceal themselves. I knew the fēnglàngshāo haunted this bay, and still I could not sense it until it was nearly too late."
"I understand," Aang said, resigned. Jittered on his toes. "But Toph didn't do anything!"
"Hey!" Toph stomped a still-chilly heel, almost knocking Twinkletoes off his feet before he jumped. "I was getting myself out of there, if you didn't see it."
"No! That's not what I mean!" Aang protested. "I mean, you didn't do anything to that spirit!" He hesitated. "Did you?"
"Hello?" Toph sputtered. "I was just there!" Playing with the water, yeah - but she hadn't done anything.
"Have more faith in your friends," Tao advised. "It is not unusual for a human to offend the spirits without ever intending harm. Unfortunately." Curiosity crept into his voice. "You said you meant to train. Why train there?"
Toph sucked in a breath to explain - or complain, it wouldn't have mattered where she trained if he'd just said there was a nasty tentacle-thing lurking in the water - and got a mouthful of smoke instead. She wrinkled her nose, trying not to sneeze. Gah. Tastes like ashes.
"Sand makes her feet see fuzzy," Katara stepped in. "She's been trying to fix that... Toph?"
Ashes. Toph licked her lips, and sniffed the air. Dirt's kind of like ashes, sometimes. And she knew where the smoke was, she could feel it warm against her skin as she reached over the fire.
Air is delicate.
Hand in the smoke, she slowly curled her fingers. Like a wasp-snail, gingerly unfurling its wings from their shell.
Barely breathing, she pulled the eddy of smoke to her.
"Whoa." Sokka's voice was all grinning teeth.
"Guanyin's mercy, no!"
Toph's reflexes had been honed in dozens of Rumbles. She countered the sudden stony trap rumbling around her with slaps that crumbled spikes into dust. "Hey! What gives?"
"And you call yourself the Avatar's teacher?" Tao said sternly. "How dare you- young lady!"
That, to an all too familiar crackle of ice now trapping him in place. Toph grinned at Katara.
"Don't you young lady me," Katara said angrily. "What'd you do that for? She's still hurt!"
"She bent smoke," Aang said, stunned. "Toph, you... how... why?"
"Ignorance, I do hope," Tao said grimly. "Or else she does not care that her teachers told her it is forbidden."
"Forbidden?" The swing of Sokka's shoulders spoke of a skeptical guy reassuring himself just where Boomerang was. "That was totally cool!"
"It is totally lethal," Tao said sternly. "To Toph." He twisted against ice. "If you would be so kind?"
Reluctantly, Katara beckoned her ice into water and away. "What do you mean, it could hurt Toph? It was just smoke."
"It was trespassing," Aang said solemnly. "He's right, Toph. You can't do that again."
Make me, Twinkletoes. "Why not?" Toph shot back. "I'm a bender. I bend."
"But you were born an earthbender, and it is earth which claims your power," Taos stated. "To attempt to vest it elsewhere is arrogant, and an insult. Both to the spirit whose element grants your power, and the one in whose realm you have trespassed. The spirits take revenge for such insults. Usually, that is fatal." He shook his head. "Warrior Sui, one of Avatar Kyoshi's closest friends in her training, was a renowned earthbender. But he tampered with water to save her life, when she had not yet completed her training to face Chin the Conqueror. And no healer could save him. He simply wasted away." Tao sighed. "Some disliked how Avatar Kyoshi enforced the separation of our nations, but she did it out of mercy. So no bender should ever be tempted to violate the spirits' wishes." Staff leaning against his shoulder, he spread an empty hand. "The Avatar, and only the Avatar, is granted the right to call on all the spirits' elements. The rest of us... we are only human, Toph."
"But Aang and I worked together to bend clouds," Katara protested. "And Toph and I bent the drill-sludge. Nothing happened to us."
"Then you've been fortunate beyond belief," Tao stated. "Toph, please, think of your friends. Bending water, you may have escaped harm; it's near kin to earth, as fire is. But to bend your opposite-"
"I wasn't bending air!" Toph burst out. "I was bending the smoke! The ashes, you dummy!"
Tao drew in a sharp breath. "The... ashes."
"Really really tiny ashes!" Toph shot back at him. "Like really really tiny bits of earth in metal. And I can bend it, because I am the greatest earthbender in the world!"
In the quiet after the echoes, she could feel Appa's heartbeat.
"She really is," Katara said; with a shift of her weight that spoke of her gaze not quite challenging Tao. "She took on most of the Earth King's guards when we raided his palace."
"Shook the whole place out of whack," Sokka added. "You should have seen the looks on those guys' faces. One minute they're all ranked on the steps; the next, they're headed downhill to the moat. The hard way."
"Bending earth in smoke," Tao mused. Sighed, and rubbed tired eyes. "Be careful, Toph. If you're right, Oma and Shu will watch over you, and all will be well. If not..."
"She'll be fine," Katara insisted. "Right, Aang?" She paused. "Aang?"
"...I don't know."
"But you're-" Katara tensed, swallowing words. "Right. You said at the North Pole, no one taught you about being the Avatar. But Tao's a shaman." She shifted her head that way. "Don't you know?"
"Even if I knew how the Avatar was to be properly trained, which I do not, such training might be less than accurate now," Tao stated. "The world is out of balance. The spirits are angry. Old agreements may not hold, and old alliances may be broken. All I can do is teach the Avatar what I know of the spirits, and pray."
"No," Sokka said bluntly. "That's not all you can do. You can teach the rest of us, too."
Tao's feet had the gripping toes of a frown. "Sokka, you are a gifted fighter, but you are not-"
"Where we came from, the whole village held ceremonies for the spirits," Sokka interrupted. "And Katara was the only bender left. Why can't you teach us?"
"It's not tradition."
Sokka flung up his arms. "What's tradition got to do with saving the world?"
Ooo, not good. Toph winced, feeling Tao's heart rate pick up in stirrings of anger. "Uh, Sokka? Tradition's kind of... well, everything. Almost."
Katara growled under her breath. "The Fire Nation doesn't care about people's traditions-"
Appa sniffed the air, and surged to his feet with a rumble.
Aang was at his head in a bound. "What's wrong, buddy?"
"I guess he knows coal smoke when he smells it." Sokka's hand was raised to shade his eyes, as he peered out over the emptiness of water. "Fire Nation, heading this way!"
Oh boy, Toph thought. Time to make a hole and pull it in after them.
"What? No!" Katara's hand fell to her waterskin. "They couldn't have gotten past Dad-" Her voice cut off, anger fading into a laugh. "I don't believe it!"
"Um, guys, hiding?" Toph pointed out.
"No, it's okay!" Sokka was doing a mad little dance. "It's Dad!"
"Chief Hakoda seized a Fire Nation ship," Tao murmured, also making no move to hide. "Amazing man."
Yeah, he is, Toph thought soberly. But not as amazing as the airbender bouncing happily around her.
She was glad Chief Hakoda was back. He was a great guy. In a Fire Nation ship.
Clue, Aang. How do you think he got it?
A/N: If anyone's interested in poking into history in general, particularly with an archaeological viewpoint added, I recommend any book by Brian Fagan. Fish on Friday is of particular interest to those curious about the effects of holidays on culture and history.
Xiāo yāo jing: xiāo - long-legged spider, yāo jing - evil spirit; alluring woman. This is, of course, an expy of the Japanese youkai, the jorōgumo. According to Wikipedia, that's written as "絡新婦" ("binding lady") or "女郎蜘蛛" ("whore spider").One of the forms it takes is a young woman carrying a "baby"; the spider's eggsack.
Fēnglàngshāo: (風浪 风浪 fēng làng (n) wind and waves; storm tossed sea. 蛸 shāo long-legged spider; one of the original Japanese terms for octopus I ran across was "sea spider".) Expy of the Akkorokamui, (アッコロカムイ) a gigantic octopus-like monster from Ainu folklore.
The history with Sui came from a reviewer suggestion on just what would have happened if Kyoshi met someone who became a yāorén, and died of it. Thanks! Yes, Tao is wrong about what happens when you bend a foreign element, and why. The knowledge of the yāorén has been lost a long time.
Note on Blue and Orange Morality in reference to dragons: Very cool entry, people. Very cool. I liked this a lot more than I anticipated from the first version that went up. Yes, exactly; Zuko's instincts are a mess, and the poor guy knows it.
Though, please re-read 39. Dragons did not participate in the Air Nomad massacre. They just didn't help. Either side. Just like the Air Nomads didn't help the Earth Kingdom when Chin the Conqueror was tearing up the place. After all, humans said that was the Avatar's job.
In Shidan's case, there are two main reasons he didn't help, despite actually liking some Air Nomads. First, because he and Kuzon were Up To Something that kept them very busy. (If you've read this far, you've got a good idea what.) Remember that in canon Sozin's actions caught almost the whole world off guard, and the bulk of the massacre was carried out in one day, much of it thousands of miles from dragon territory. The vast majority of dragons couldn't have helped whether or not they'd wanted to. Second - Kuzon, Ran, and a host of other people were dying. Byakko goes, Shirotora goes up. Shidan had priorities.
Also, you might want to do more research on Kent State than Wikipedia has up. And on the Sixties in general, and the so-called anti-war movement in particular. A lot of those people were not pacifists. You're not a pacifist if you throw rocks at firemen and police; you're an idiot, depending on someone else to act in a much more civilized manner than you are. Also note that at the same time said shootings occurred, groups like the Weather Underground and others claiming to be part of the anti-war movement were busily wreaking havoc, inflicting property damage, and murdering people across the country. And there were all kinds of rumors and noises about people like that being in the crowd. Potentially with bombs.
Context, people. Know your historical context.
But let's go back to dragon behavior, and why Blood Knights and Proud Warrior Race are, indeed, a fair description of what's going on.
Read up on the behavior of any intelligent, social predator. Look up wolves and chimpanzees. Not the Disney version; the real stuff, particularly later works by Jane Goodall and anything on the Druid Wolf Pack in Yellowstone. Social predators may not be interested in slaughtering random bystanders, but they are inherently violent. If one aggressive group meets another and senses weakness, blood will out. Warning, what Goodall found out about cannibalism in chimpanzees is not for the faint of heart.
(If you really want Nightmare Fuel, look up what groups of dolphins have been found doing to smaller porpoises. Anyone familiar with Zoe's quote about the Reavers in Firefly? Dolphins don't make clothes. Outside of that...)
Recall Shidan said that among dragons, pacifistic behavior is insane. And that he knows humans don't think so. The Air Nomads were not dragons. They were not in dragon territory. Hence, they didn't "need" killing. Dragons tried to judge them by human standards. As far as they understood them, at least.
Dragons and firebenders know they run a fine enough line in sanity that they've formalized the Agni Kai. They know they're aggressive. They know they have to set limits on it. What do you think all that excessive formality of customs in the Fire Nation is for? Formal customs, as opposed to the improvisational types of social interaction we tend to have in the West, can let you slow down and think. They give you time to cool down.
That said - have I ever said Azula and Ozai are not sociopaths?
Here's another thought to chew on. We have wolves, Canis lupus, and dogs, Canis lupus familiaris. Still closely related, after several thousand years of natural and human selection. Still with similar instinctive behaviors - but a dog has key differences from a wolf that allow them to negotiate living with us on a usually safe basis, despite the fact that dogs are descended from apex predators. Short definition: apex predators (wolves, killer whales, and humans, to name just a few) hunt - and almost nothing hunts them.
Crossing wolves and dogs is a bad idea.
With a hybrid, you can't predict what it will look like - and more importantly, you can't predict what it will behave like. They may be tamable. They may be wild. They may be totally fearless and aggressive toward humans, far beyond normal wolves; it's speculated wolf-dogs may be behind some werewolf legends of people getting gruesomely eaten.
Now consider that with dragons (who are, hands down, apex predators), firebenders, and anyone not in the Fire Nation.
Dragons aren't good neighbors for humans? Oh, so true. I may think the Fire Nation got a bum rap in the show. I may think Iroh is one of the best uncles in fiction, flat out. But I would never, ever claim they're safe. They're not tame.
Okay, that's the history and biology lesson for today. (To quote Professor Digory Kirke, "What do they teach them at these schools?") *Cracks knuckles.* Next?
Coming next time:
After years as a leader of firebenders, Iroh had made a habit of not leaving flammable objects in plain view in his quarters. It served him well when dealing with a hot-blooded nephew. And also, it seemed, with dragons.
Smoke still rising from his robes, Shidan gave him a wintry smile. "Feeling better?"