Character: Zhì Shé
8th Year of Ozai, 21st Year of Kuei - Late Winter
['Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.']
("It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland.")
The hospital had once been a summer palace for Earth Kings past, the cliffs of Xihi protecting it from the dangerous coastal storms that so often struck the Fankou. Beautiful as the sprawling structure was, the only thing that mattered to Zhì at the moment was that, against all odds, she had gotten lost, and was now adrift in the labyrinth of halls and back-ways that had once been the domain of rulers, courtiers, and the servants that feted them. It took the better part of an hour for common sense to overwhelm pride.
"Pardon me!" Zhì called out to a nurse making notes in her station log.
The young woman, her hair constrained by a widow's white veil, tucked the book under her arm and smiled at the handsome young sailor running toward her; he was hardly the first person to lose his bearings in this maze.
"I seem to have lost my way," Zhì announced, slowing to a stop so as to collect what was left of her dignity. "Do you happen to know where Officer Recovery Ward 3 might be?"
"Yes," the nurse replied, biting her lip upon realizing that the "handsome" sailor was actually a surprisingly young female lieutenant commander. "You're actually quite close to it. Just go down this hall, turn left at the second doorway, and Ward 3 is at the far end of the hall."
Zhì bowed deeply. "Thank you very much!"
"Not at all, Lieutenant Commander!" the nurse exclaimed, amused by the passionate courtesy and the bright pink blush that blossomed over the sailor's already-sunburned cheeks. "I hope your visit goes well."
There was no reason to tell her such a thing was impossible. Zhì marched down the hall, turning as directed, ending up at the entrance to the north wing of the former palace. This section of the estate had once served as chambers for the many Court tagalongs who might have followed their King south to this temperate clime. Most of the walls had since been torn down, turning the wing into one long ward, its many windows admitting the rare warmth of the late winter sunlight, so vital to the spirits of firebenders. Zhì's pace slowed as she reached the doorway marked as her destination, and stopped all together before she could cross the threshold.
'"What's the hold up?"' a voice that sounded like her first-year drill master demanded. '"Are you afraid of what's waiting for you?"'
'No!' Zhì lied. Taking a deep breath, she poked her head into the ward, like a nervous midshipman daring to peer into the fleet admiral's quarters.
Most of the beds in the front half of the ward were empty and squared away, their erstwhile occupants asea on the transport home or on their way back to their units. Zhì's attention went immediately to the trio gathered around a pair of beds five rows down, carrying on in voices more suited to a barracks than a sick room.
"… and that's why you catapult crankers don't get it!" declared the soldier standing at the foot of the far bed on his crutches, the loose, empty left leg of his hospital "uniform" swaying as he leaned forward, grinning. "If a scorpion snake wandered into the road in front of you, you'd stop dead in your tracks and start trying to put together a plan to build a road around it! In fact…"
"Watch who you're calling a 'catapult cranker'!" the younger soldier seated sideways on the nearer bed, his back to the door, interrupted with a wider grin. "For one, I'm a 'bridge bum,' and don't you plate-heads forget that! Secondly, the only reason you'd be running into a scorpion-snake in the first place is because we combat engineers laid the roads and bridges it took to get your sorry ass from Points Zero to Three before you wobbled your way off the transport!"
'Huan…' A year had changed him, but he looked none the worse for wear, that she could see. Zhì's hand moved over her breastplate as her heart gave a flutter, borne aloft by the sudden, irrational hope that maybe, just maybe, there had been a mistake, that Huan was just visiting some old friends... His shoulders were broader, his face a little thinner, though he still looked younger than their mutual twenty years. He had started to grow his sideburns out in the Army line officer fashion, but he still lacked any facial hair worth mentioning otherwise. 'That has to bother him,' she thought, smiling at the easy opportunity to tease him after so many months.
The last of the group, an older soldier sitting on the bed opposite Huan, a bandage swathing his head and left eye, noticed her standing there, obvious and out of place as she was in her bright red armor. He motioned to Huan, getting the young man's attention, and pointed wordlessly in Zhì's direction with a slight smile.
Huan turned just in time to see Zhì grinning down at him. "Hey there, "Little Brother,"" she said, "I see you're still having trouble with…" Her eyes widened.
"Zhì!" her twin brother exclaimed, his surprise turning to joy. "Long time, no see!"
She could not hear him, could not answer. She could only stare at the empty sleeve sewn up nearly to her brother's right shoulder, her mind struggling to grasp that the rest of his arm was simply not there, that that's what the harried staff officer at the base meant when he said Huan had been "wounded in action," that someone had cut off her brother's arm…!
Huan ducked his head, stopping his hand from reaching instinctively to the stump of limb that Zhì was staring at. The other two looked away quickly, retreating from the embarrassing tableaux. "If you'll excuse us, gentlemen…" Huan said, breaking the painful silence. He rose and placed his hand on Zhì's shoulder, looking to his fellow officers to ignore the burning scarlet of shame blazing across her cheeks. "My sister and I have a lot to catch up on."
"It's not your fault," Huan ventured as they walked, side-by-side through the dead, empty garden adjacent to the ward. He sighed, releasing a long billow of steam into the cold winter air. "If none of the orderlies told you, I'd be offended if you weren't shocked by it." He laughed, peering out of the corner of his eye in the hope that Zhì would follow suit.
Zhì could almost shout and punch him for it, for pretending that her shameful behavior had not hurt, for not getting angry at her lack of self-discipline in front of his fellow officers! But… "Huan, I'm sorry. They… told me you were here when I visited your unit," she said quietly, watching the scattering of pebbles scuffed along by the bronze toe-caps of her boots. "I got leave to see you because…"
"'Because'?" Huan prompted, uneasy at Zhì's uncharacteristic hesitation. Clearly the fact that he was now a cripple had shaken her, but there was something else, almost furtive, about her manner.
Zhì stopped so suddenly that he walked on a step or two before realizing it.
"Zhì?" To his horror, tears were dripping from his sister's eyes, which she hastily and futilely swiped away as she tried to force her voice to work. "Come on, Zhì," he coached, gently placing his hand over her topknot and touching his forehead to hers like they used to do when they were children, plotting against their brothers. He swallowed against the anxiety clawing at his chest. "Whatever it is…"
Zhì clamped her eyes shut, wishing she could stop her ears against the sound of his voice, so reassuring, so calm, when…! Hating herself, Zhì gathered her courage and spoke:
"Yaozu is dead. He was killed by insurgents in Omashu almost two weeks ago."
Huan's hand fell away and Zhì forced her eyes open, forced herself to look at the shock and pain her words had inflicted on Huan because her sense of "duty" would not allow him to hear of their youngest brother's death from a stranger or a faceless message like the one she had received on the deck of the Hui Jian the day before yesterday.
"Yaozu is…?" Huan whispered, blood draining from his face.
"No…" He held his hand up, as though to push her, push her words away, stepping back, only for his legs to give out under him.
"Huan!" Zhì grabbed for her brother, too late, and Huan fell, sprawling, on the cold, hard ground.
"I'm all right!" he rasped, thrusting himself upright with his one arm, trying to get back on his feet, but his legs were not obeying him. "I'm…!" He covered his face, jaw falling slack as a low, keening moan escaped him, tears trickling between his fingers.
Zhì knelt beside him, knees nearly touching his thigh, her fingers clasped, white-knuckled, in her lap, and waited.
Huan's shoulders shook as he dragged in a deep breath, lowering his hand to look up at the pale, clear sky, blinking away the traces of tears. "Are you going there… to take him home?" he asked at long last.
Zhì shook her head. "He… his ashes are already on their way back to the homeland." She glanced at Huan, trying to read his face; he did not seem to have heard a word of her reply. "When I got the notice, I was afraid," she confessed suddenly, unable to keep it secret any longer. "I thought, 'What if they're both…?' I had to see if you were all right!" She cringed at the words and bowed automatically. "Huan, I'm sorry, I…!"
"Stop apologizing for things you couldn't help, Zhì." The words, spoken with a tone of resignation rather than anger or impatience, stung like a slap to the face. "You're the last of us, you have to…"
"Huan?" Zhì asked, certain she had not heard him correctly.
Huan dropped his gaze from the sky to his hand, turning it palm-up in his lap. "Rong under the wall of Ba Sing Se, Kei in front of it," he intoned, closing his pinky over his thumb, "Yaozu in the heart of Omashu," bringing down his ring, then middle fingers, "and me, in its teeth." He pointed at Zhì. "That's four of us down, leaving you…"
Something gave his topknot a yank and his forehead collided with what felt like the side of a tank. "OW!" he howled, jerking away from his sister, rubbing his bruised skull. "What the hell was that for?"
"The same to you, idiot!" Zhì snarled, rising up on her haunches and looming over him, eyes burning with rage. "What the hell are you going on about? 'Four of us down' my ass! Was your brain that arm they lopped off?"
"Zhì…" Huan growled, unfamiliar anger boiling up at her mockery.
"No! You listen to me, Major Huan Shé, son of General Jun and Lady Li-hua Shé, of the Fire Army! Yes, that's right," she declared, not giving Huan a chance to interrupt, "that is who you are, so long as you're alive! You're not your arm, you're this," she poked him in middle of the bruise beginning to darken his forehead, "and you're this!"
"Ow!" Huan yelped, grabbing his chest. "Dammit, Zhì, is this a Navy tradition, punching cripples in the ribs?"
"No, but we do smack idiots upside the head so they'll stop being stupid!" she retorted. She lunged at Huan again, and grabbed him by the shoulders before he could take evasive action. "Huan, listen to me!" She swallowed her tears, focused on the anger, focused on the need to beat her words through his head. "You're still a soldier of the Fire Nation, you're still a combat engineer, you're still the smartest in our family, in our clan, you're still you." She gave him a good shake for emphasis. "The enemy can't take that from you unless you let them! Rong, Kei, Yaozu… they aren't gone, because we still have them here!" She thrust her thumb at her chest; Huan got his hand between her and his abused sternum before she could jab him again. "Got it?"
"If I say yes, will you get off me?" Huan asked, deadpan. He could not keep up the front, not when Zhì's face turned so many colors so quickly. "Yes, yes, I understand, "Elder Sister"!" he exclaimed, laughing, tears running down the corners of his eyes. "I got it," he affirmed, once he could breathe again. He sat up and knocked his forehead against hers. "Thanks."
Zhì's eyes began to sting, so she let him go to rub the itch away. "Good," she muttered. "I'm glad."
"Let's get back inside before someone sees us and we become scuttlebutt bait," Huan suggested, getting up and offering his hand to Zhì with a smirk. "Bored soldiers are worse than old ladies when it comes to finding new grist for the rumor mill."
Zhì grinned, grabbing his wrist and pulling herself up. "Bet my sailors could come up better rumors in half the time, and have the whole fleet hear about it before sunset," she replied.
Huan rolled his eyes. "Agni, is there anything you won't turn in to a contest between the Army and the Navy?"
"Hhhn, thought not…"
- Postscript -
'Died some, pro patria,
non "dulce" non "et decor". . .
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men's lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places…'
[~"E.P. Ode pour l'élection de son sépulchre" - (Hugh Selwyn Mauberley) - Ezra Pound]