Debts Repaid

by Tenshi

(based on post-series speculation!)

News traveled quickly. The events in the Fire Nation Capital had been the subject of so much talk in the village that Song could recite the rumors by heart. They were the only topic of conversation to be had at the clinic of late, and she had learned to not roll her eyes too much as she reached for a jar of ointment or roll of fresh bandages. Only when conversation turned to the Avatar did she pause to listen in, wondering if such things could even be true.

More often though, the old healers and villagers rambled on for hours about politics and tactics, and the new Firelord, and the economic repercussions of peace. What did any of that matter to Song, in her tiny village in the Earth Kingdom? The Fire Nation army had withdrawn. That was enough for her. She was glad to treat the potter's sore shoulder, and the teahouse owner's sneezes. So long as there were no more mangled young men returning from the war, and children were only burned when they grabbed a too-hot cookpot. It pleased her healer's heart to mend injury that was born of accident, and not deliberately inflicted.

There were more travelers these days, with the fighting over. People felt safer on the roads; soldiers at last returned home. But Song had given up looking down the roads long ago, waiting for a father she finally realized would never come home. Hope and Avatars were one thing, but the Fire Nation capital was far from her, and she knew that no victory would restore everything her family had lost during the war. Some things, once gone, were gone forever. She was glad enough for the fortune she did have, to see a long war end.

Rust flaked away from the well chain as the thudding gait of what sounded like several ostrichorses drew closer. Song tried not to be bitter, wrestling with her bucket. An ostrichorse would make things simpler around the house, to be true, but they did not exactly grow on trees.

Pointedly turning her back on the empty livestock stall, Song lifted her pot and started back towards the house. She had only made it a few steps when she realized the riders were coming right up to her gate, and they were not mounted on the sturdy Earth Kingdom birds.

Three Fire Nation war rhinos had pulled up just short of the edge of her property, draped with scarlet as though for a parade, tapered banners limp in the still summer evening. These were no soldiers returning home. They were noblemen or officers, the steel-capped horns of their rhinos bloodred in the dim lamplight. Song's scars burned as though newly-inflicted, the waterpot slipping from her grasp, shattering on the ground and splashing the hem of her hanbok. What were they doing here? Had the rumors all been lies? Had the Fire Nation broken the treaty? Song had so little left for them to take away.

She had not been able to run when she was a little girl. She was not willing to run now.

For a moment the riders seemed to confer. In the darkness, Song could not see their faces, only the threatening shadows of men on armor, occasional glints of metal. None of them wore those horrible skeletal faceplates that still haunted her nightmares, but they might as well have been. In the intermittent light of the rising fireflies, they were little more than ominous ghosts.

"My lord, are you sure...?"

"Wait here," the lead rider said, tossing his reins to the side and sliding down off his mount. He busied himself for a moment with the tracings on his saddle, at last freeing two lead reins. Under the breathy snorts of rhinos Song heard the muted rustle of ostrich feathers, their restless clucking.

The man approached the gate, and Song's fingers curled into fists. She would fight him, if need be, with every breath in her body. She would not wear another scar.

As though knowing her boundaries, the man opened the gate, but did not enter. Instead he tugged the lead forward and a pair of ostrichorses trotted up behind him. They were the finest Omashu blacks, bright-eyed and strong and gleaming like satin in the dim light from the house. The man himself did not cross the line into that pool of illumination, but instead stood perfectly still, as though watching her carefully. She could see, in the darkness, the outline of his topknot. It seemed shorter than that worn by most firebenders, shaped oddly. At last he simply looped the Ostrichorses' leads around the gatepost, brought his hands up to his chest, and bowed.

In that second time seemed to contract. Everything seemed the same: the summer evening, the fireflies, a silent young man offering reluctant courtesy at her gate. Leaning forward into the light, his face came into view only long enough to show the dark smear of scar tissue around one eye, painful and inelegant. But as he straightened, the light caught something else: a flash of hammered gold bound into his topknot, an unmoving metal flame. Something closed on Song's heart, a vise made of every tale she had learned by accident. The new firelord, a once-banished prince.

"Lord Zuko?" one of the mounted riders asked.

The stranger had not moved. "Thank you," he said finally, exactly as he had done a year before. Mounting again, he called to his riders, and the firelord and his guard wheeled and vanished into the darkness.

Song's knees gave way, her hands to her mouth as she stared at the two elegant beasts roped to her gate. They were worth ten times as much as the old tired one that had been stolen, a hundred times over the price of food and hospitality given willingly.

She had nursed the memory of that young man's face for a year now, rolling over the hesitant name he gave her as though it was a pebble that should have been gold. She had only seen him for a moment tonight, but he was so changed that without the scar she wondered if she would even have known him. In a firebender's gilded armor instead of patched green homespun, dark hair bound up like a prince and not cropped close like some private shame, she wondered how she could ever have mistaken him for anything besides what he was.

The Fire Nation will never change, she had said that very morning, to a young assistant whose bubbly optimism had finally grated on Song's nerves. What does this Firelord Zuko know about grief and loss and war? He's just another firebender like the rest of them; just a spoiled prince.

She was going to have to make an interesting apology the next day, Song thought, wiping her eyes on her sleeve and getting to her feet again. Leaving the shattered pot where it was, she slowly walked to the gate to get the two animals settled in the stables.


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