I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender
Author's Note - Spoilers warning. Now this is inspired from the end of The Search, but not really following the story line. It's an alternate universe and takes place after the end of the war. It's also inspired from a story on here that was deleted called The Dragon's Lament. I really enjoyed it, but unfortunately it went away so this is just me licking some wounds. I'm eager to see your comments because I want to know what you think, and it's a real booster, so please read and review.
You're Not The Only One
In the farthest part of town, he continued to walk down the narrow path, listening to the soft critters hidden in the dark trees and gazing at the luminous moonlight shining over him. The sodden path was soft under his feet. He ambled further, knowing that by now Katara would be worried about him since she just felt like something was up with him each time he seemed distant and silent.
The dimly lit homes bundled together at the foot of the hill he traveled down were warm and welcoming, promising a small inn with a warm bed and peace of mind. The citizens barely noticed him entering Ba Sing Se's Middle Ring, and that was the way he wanted it. It was better traveling these nights, because no one noticed him and he wanted to hide within the crowd. To forget that he held great responsibilities over his shoulders, even in this time of peace.
The market square was still open, buzzing with vendors who tried to sell the last of their merchandise. The gentle breeze brushed against him and fluttered dried leaves over the ground. Once he found his way through the busy market that didn't seem like closing down anytime soon, he couldn't help but let out a sigh of relief, smiling at the closely knit buildings lining a dark alley way. He didn't know where he was, but he was sure that an inn was nearby.
Out of the short quiet alley, he noted the street lantern on his right, lit over a tiny inn facing the docks over the lake a few feet away. An elderly woman stepped out, pulling the ear of a little boy while she disappeared into the alley by the inn. He watched the skies, a pitch black mass, and some of the villagers who began to disperse over the once busy streets. He needed to retire for the night.
"Young man," he looked over at the woman who had scolded the little boy earlier toss him a warm smile once she came up front, gesturing for him to come over. The boy was probably put to bed. "It looks like you need a place to sleep. Come, we have a room for you over here. On the house."
He grinned and gave her a respectful bow before he approached her. "Thank you miss, but there's no need. I intended to come here on my own."
"Nonsense," she said, her dark green eyes and warm grin prominent. She was old, but he could tell that she still took care of herself. With rouge lips, and subtle blush, along with her dyed and primped hair, she exuded elegance with the wave of her hand and grandiose demeanor. "Lady Xi, and you must be?"
"A very handsome man you are, I'm sure we'll find you a good bed to lie in tonight." she said, opening the door enough for him to watch the crowded bar. "Come on in, and don't mind the drunkards."
"Not at all."
There was a tiny passageway once he entered the inn. His robes were taken off for him, and warm hands gently took the traveling bag he held by the hands over his shoulder. As he followed the elderly woman out of the passageway, the scent of jasmine welcomed him into the bar. Immaculate as it was, he noted the many women in provocative attire propped up on the laps of generals and politicians.
Some couples were hidden in the dark, kissing softly under the dimly lit area. Men drank sake among these women serving them, and when he saw a woman allow herself to be pulled over a pot bellied merchant's lap, he knew that this was no ordinary inn.
The prostitutes noticed him in the middle of the bar, and one darker girl with grayish eyes and a bright cheery smile had waved at him from afar with a demure look. "Oh yes, and do know that any woman here is also on the house. But be sure to leave them something. Sometimes these ladies aren't that charitable, my boy."
He quickly shook his head, "Um there's no nee-"
"Nonsense." Lady Xi turned with a gleam in her green eyes as they approached the stairs to the upper level. "A warm bed and girl for you. I know you're a good man Lian, but even good men need to unwind once in a while."
Once they reached up, with the noise below dying down the farther they moved away down the small corridor, quiet humming from behind one of the rooms caught his attention. Aang nervously wiped the sweat of his palms over his pants, his mind working to find another excuse for-
He had to blink to look closer within the shadows ahead. A door had opened, and now a young woman peeked from behind, her shoulders bare and dark hair caressing them. She gazed fondly at Lady Xi, who was much shorter than the tall beauty. He watched her slip back inside the room without saying anything to them, before Lady Xi opened the room he would be sleeping in for the night.
"Very good girl, barely talks though." The elderly woman muttered while unlocking the door to his room for the night. "There you go. And be mindful to tip Hanome for the cleaning."
A good room indeed, with a bed plumped with plush pillows and a warm blanket along with a small dresser in the corner of the room. Lady Xi dumped his bag over the dresser, and clapped her hands. "Now sit here and I'll find something for you to eat-"
"I really appreciate it but I honestly have to-"
Lady Xi held her waist. "Will you come off it? You're a tall handsome young man and you shouldn't sleep with an empty stomach. Hanome will get you something."
"Hanome," he repeated softly. "That's her name right? The woman I just saw?"
The elder women graced him with a knowing smirk. "Yes that is her name."
At the sound of the click of the door closing, he scratched his head of hair, lying back against the bed. He had to look over his arms, satisfied that the ointment was still working. He stretched and adjusted his body over the small space. He did it as far as he could, his legs hanging over the edge. He could still hear the muffled noises of the men below, and the light laughter of the prostitutes.
Him being uncomfortable in a brothel was soon forgotten. Somehow, the naked girl who had peeked out of her room to only acknowledge the elderly woman occupied his mind. He didn't see her very well, but her soft smile alone lit the darkness of the corridor.
He and Katara haven't been on the best of terms in their relationship. They were drifting apart, but their friendship somewhat promised that their parting would be a swift yet mournful one. He was older, and had a different mindset despite his duties as the Avatar. As an adult, so many things were changing, and even though he felt that being with Katara would last, these changes unfortunately proved him wrong.
Katara was no longer the girl of his dreams, but the friend he would hold on to for the rest of his life. He reckoned that seeing other beautiful women stirred up those emotions and didn't necessarily mean that he wanted to be with them in anyway. Yes, that just could be-
The soft voice roused him from his thoughts. His gray eyes blinked open to the woman who happened to hold his gaze. She stood there with the tray, her brown eyes waiting for him to speak. In a gold bordered kimono that grazed her upper thighs, he gaze at her exposed limbs through instinct, all the way to the joining of the hems over her neckline.
Then she cleared her throat quietly, still watching him. "Oh I'm sorry…" he said and rose up to help her with the tray, but she held on to it, her blank gaze moving over to the bag over the dresser. "Off." she said quietly, but he still couldn't comprehend what she was saying. "Off." she repeated. Oh, off the table…
He hurriedly took his bag off, watching her place the tea over the dresser. He paid close attention to her set the honey aside, mulled over the softness of her hands, and the side of her face.
"So do you uh..." he trailed off, not knowing why he couldn't speak the moment she turned to look at him. Was it just him or...
"Do I?" she asked with the tilt of her head.
Close to him, she smelled of the white jade bushes from the gardens of the palace he resided in. He liked the way it wafted over to him, lingering as her presence did. Under the lantern, her milky skin shone, and bowed lips parted. Her dark hair fell past her shoulders, but the upper half was placed in a loose tail. "Do you work here?"
Her lips barely rose, but the smile was there, "On call."
"I see." he said, watching her set the tea up over a smaller table in the inn and methodically pour the hot liquid inside two cups. His thought was to tell Lady Xi that he just wasn't comfortable with this, but watching the back of the woman's neck, he didn't listen to his morals this time.
The tea was spiked with sake, and a hint of honey was placed inside to mask the taste because jasmine tea was that transparent. He had realized this as he kissed the naked woman over the bed, roving his hands all over her sides. Flames within the lantern flickered, making the light within the room dance over the entwined bodies. Hanome's lips were soft and plaint against his, parting for him to delve in.
Last night had been a blur, but Hanome's tongue and soft sighs he would never forget. He could feel the rising sun peeking out of its horizon, but he wasn't sure if he wanted to leave just yet. He pulled away from Hanome, stroking her tousled hair as she peered at him with her chin over his chest. There was a small garden with wild flowers in the backyard of the inn, where some of the customers drank tea to quell their hangovers.
He's been studying the color of her eyes, which did look brown from a distance last night. But under the daylight, her eyes were in fact a startling gold. "What part of the Fire Nation are you from?"
She blinked confusedly, before she said, "I'm not Fire Nation. My parents are Earth Kingdom and they live in the Lower Ring. I'm their first born."
"You look very Fire Nation."
She nodded, waving her legs up behind her, "You're not the only one who's said that. Father tells me that his ancestors were probably Fire Nation at some point."
He let his fingers brush the small of her back, watching the way she gazed out the window of the room. There was something about her that made him look a bit more closely. A nagging feeling in his head egged him on, but there was no other place he could have seen this woman.
"Why do you work here?" he asked.
She smiled. "I want to. Father needs medicine for his illness, and medicine can be very expensive in the Upper Ring. He sees a physician, so the money helps. I don't work that much if that's what you're inquiring."
He laughed. "No. I just…" Again he was staring at her eyes, eyes that seemed more older than he thought. "Don't you think your family would want you doing something else?"
She played with the hair over his chest. "Yes..." she said and then tossed him a sly look. "But you wouldn't tell, would you?"
He traced her lips with his thumb, watching her hand slip under the blankets. When she held him, and caressed him, his conscious slowly left him. Hanome's sweet scent lulled him, her hands worked over him, and her unpainted lips reached up for his. He has been with women before, but none of them were like this one. Quiet yet playful Hanome. Hanome…
As their tongues tangled, and wet sounds and smell of him inside her filled the room, he was vaguely aware of the room growing brighter. He held on to her thighs as she moved over him, brushed her rosy nipples with his thumbs, drawn to the way the sun seeped inside the room, lighting her side. But that nagging itch returned. It was insistent. He was sure that he has seen this woman somewhere, but then again, he didn't recall meeting a village girl in the Lower Ring.
Her shaken sigh at the height of their peak was the last. She melted, hands braced behind her as he rose to wrap his arms around her waist. Like a lover would, he kissed the side of her cheek, making her laugh quietly under his touch. "I have to go." she murmured.
"Mm." Then she slipped off, reaching for the garment abandoned on the floor next to the bed. Swiftly, she slipped the garment on, her back to the man whose name she had yet to know. The man with the dark hair, and no arrow marking his skin.
"Come to the garden. Lady Xi is serving tea and the food she was supposed to give you last night," she said before she slipped out of the room, her warm gaze the last thing he saw before the door closed. When he washed his face and dressed, he slipped a palm full of gold pieces in his pocket.
The corridor was a bit more fuller this time, with several women chattering to each other while they changed with their doors open. They noticed him walking down, but didn't bother hurrying to shut their doors. It was as if they were comfortable in their own skin, unashamed by any man who took a look. "Look at this one. Hello handsome..." a slightly chubby girl called out, waving at him as he nervously laughed.
"Uh, good morning."
"Bet you had a good sleep with Hanome, right?" she said, earning a slap on her arm from a friend before the two women fell into laughter, directing him to the gardens with their hands. They must have heard them last night, but he had a feeling that Hanome wasn't the one they were laughing at. His cheeks reddened even more.
He sauntered down the steps, entering the bar that was now almost empty, save for the servants who cleaned the table tops and swept the floors. He noted the few men who stayed behind, eyeing him as he made a right then a left turn to the side opening into the back yard. They sat in whatever shadow was left, continuing to stare at him as he ventured out.
Outside, a few more men were served tea and conversed quietly as some of the women tended to the gardens. He found Hanome watering the moon flowers under the shade in a longer garment, unaware of his presence.
"Oi! Over here for your tea and food, sir." the boy he saw last night called out. He was farther away on the other side of the gardens. He noticed Lady Xi conversing with an older man, bidding her a good morning to which she waved off happily.
Once seated, he couldn't help but seek out Hanome, who now smiled at him by the shaded moon flowers. He gingerly drank his tea and wolfed down his plain jook and sweetened buns. It never occurred to him that Lady Xi had no idea that he didn't eat meat. It was still early in the morning, and the streets had yet to be filled.
In four hours, they would be busy again, and he needed to find his way back to the others and prepare for the summit conference in the following few weeks he had left to spend here. As he watched the young woman continue to water the plants with her side to him, the thought of coming back one more time sounded appealing. He liked Hanome.
"She's a fine young woman, isn't she?" Lady Xi's voice startled him, but he grinned bashfully while scratching the back of his head. "She's been here for four years, but she just recently began to work with the girls. Only on special occasions. Like you, young man."
"Oh-" he reached for the gold pieces in his pocket, to which Lady Xi shook her head and placed her hand over his hand.
"I have it covered."
"At least let me tip her." he said.
She regarded him with a warm grin. "You're very generous, young man. Give her the money, it's not mine to keep."
"You've been the generous one. Thank you for your hospitality, Lady Xi."
"You're most welcome, and feel free to come back anytime."
On his way out after he drank all his tea, he approached Hanome, who now trimmed some of the plants off farthest away from the crowd. He placed his arms around her waist, and slipped the gold pieces in her pocket, smiling at her stunned expression. "I think you're worth a lot more, but I just want you to have this as a thank you."
She didn't look at the gold, but regarded him with an expression clearly showing her gratitude to him.
"Will you come back?"
He leaned against the stone wall, nearing her until her lips were mere few inches from him. "Would you mind if I came back over here? To you?"
Hanome smiled. "No. I'd like to see you again."
"Then I'll come."
After she planted a kiss over his lips, he left the gardens, entering the bar. Again, the men watched, but he realized that it wasn't him they were watching, but out in the gardens. An unsettling feeling came in the pit of his stomach, so he went back upstairs to get his bag and came back down to confirm his suspicions.
The men were no longer seated in the bar. Their backs were turned towards him instead as they rounded a corner in the gardens.
He narrowed his eyes, and followed then with his bag over his shoulder. He saw Hanome regard them with a blank expression as they tried to flirt with her. She was well composed, and laughed at a blatant sex comment they tossed her way, adding an insult of her own. He couldn't stay for long, and although they didn't do anything, he still found it difficult to leave her.
But they weren't doing anything. Just dirt talking to a young woman, who didn't seem to mind. Before he moved, he watched a few of the women who served tea slip near Hanome's side, chasing the men off with their quick tongue. Amidst the rousing argument between a young lady and the bearded one of the pair, Hanome gave him a small wave, to which he responded with his own.
So he left the inn, rounding a corner once he got to the end of the pebbled walkway. The morning breeze washed over him. He stretched his arms, smiling at the wind and the image of Hanome watering the gardens.
She was deeply hidden in the back rows to the point where he'd only see the top of her dark hair whenever he looked up from his podium. She was there again this morning, her long hair hiding her face away from the students. The woman attended class lectures, and was the only one who cared to take notes studiously in their advanced mathematics course.
She was one of the few who carried scrolls bounded by string rather than the parchment tablets everyone seemed to get these days. For months, she has been the first to enter the classroom and the last to leave. He would watch her carefully take notes, oblivious to the world around her.
She was an exceptional student, who even surpassed their top alumni, but if she weren't a woman and from the outskirts of some dry town miles away while whoring for a living, he would have cared to notice she was there.
Most at this elite university knew that anyone with no texts under their wing and with sandals under murky clothing were most likely wanderers. Students like them were usually sacked, but in this time of peace, the university saw it fit to make it an open secret. These wanderers were not students, but they still came to lectures to gain knowledge only meant for the elite. It was a shame that students like that were usually the most intelligent, whereas the others who could afford their education were more concerned with themselves than studying.
But there was a place for peasants and a place for the elite. Mishimoto took a sip of his tea in front of the man with darker hair. From a distance as the man had approached his home in the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se, his scar was enough for Mishimoto to realize who he was.
At twenty five summers, the Firelord still shocked people with his indifference to the boundaries within class hierarchies. He rarely wore his royal robes but still traveled on palanquins.
Sometimes he'd stunned his servants by stepping out of the palanquin to buy merchandise from some of the vendors in the market square. And he'd do this in his royal robes, at times bargaining with the vendor who would try to give him the merchandise for free.
The Firelord gained so much respect from the people of the other nations, but his own people had yet to give him that. The elderly professor took a sip of his tea, watching the young man leave his untouched.
"Do you want another cup?"
"No I'm fine." Zuko said with a wave of his hand. "I only want what I came here for in the first place, and you have yet to give that to me."
"I understand you're impatient, Firelord, but you have to consider that I'm quite confused about what you're asking for. Why would you be interested in a non-student from the Lower Ring?"
Mishimoto did not seem to accept the man's answer, but he knew that by the look of the man's guards who flanked him in Earth Kingdom wear to disguise themselves, he couldn't play fly any longer. This wasn't his business anyway.
"Very well, she's Hanome." Mishimoto said after taking down the rest of his tea. "According to my assistant, she is in fact not a student at the university, but comes to lectures anyway. She lives in the Lower Ring with her parents. Her father has a severe illness, and she whores herself to pay for his treatment without his knowledge as well as pay for her sisters' school fees."
Zuko nodded hesitantly. "How long has she been in the Earth Kingdom?"
"How long?" Mishimoto said with a furrow over his brow.
"When did she move here?"
Mishimoto shook his head. "She was born and bred here. A student of mine had seen Hanome once or twice as a child. Hanome's father is known around town. He was a vendor, and I even used to buy food from the girl when she would manage their stand alone. There's no way she wasn't born here. I don't believe she has a place at an elite university, but I do know that she is a fine student and a smart girl."
Zuko tapped the table with his hand, frowning deeply at what his acquaintance just said. "I believe she knows someone who is planning a campaign against me."
"Is that why you're interrogating me?"
The man nodded. "Yes."
"And is she a part of those plans?"
The Firelord calmly watched the man accept the lie. For a man who prided himself on an upper class education, he wasn't the brightest. He leaned over his elbow, his tea long forgotten. Hanome was born and bred here, so she couldn't be her. This was another dead end.
Most of the people who knew Hanome told him the same story. A story succinct, clear, and straightforward with no faults. Hanome was born in the Earth Kingdom with an ill father and a mother who was too old to work. She was the eldest of three children, and her two younger sisters were currently going to a private academy.
The young woman worked at an inn for four years. The men he would send over to the inn would tell him the same story. That the young woman looked exactly like his sister, but was born and bred in the damn Earth Kingdom. The girl's childhood friends were a testament to that, insisting that Hanome, who looked nothing like her parents was an Earth Kingdom citizen.
As he continued making his way to his temporary home further up north, he thought of the last time he saw his sister. Her tortured screams, and his state of helplessness when she fell into the thrashing seas.
Once he reached home, he locked himself inside his room. He took out a blank scroll, his slab of dark ink. He dipped his writing instrument inside the dark liquid once he used the slab to mold the dark cake and water up to ink. For the rest of the night, he wrote his long letter to Aang.
End Note: Please tell me what you think, it keeps me pumping some more fuel. And I will definitely answer any questions you guys have in mind. And please remember its alternate universe, so I'm not following the story line much. If I did, this chapter would be a bit too much for you guys.