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|An Era of Peace|
An Era of Peace
It was about three days before Rokan regained enough strength to walk. Leaning heavily on the back of Teo's wheeled chair, she stepped gingerly onto the porch overlooking the courtyard of the Palace. With a tiny grunt of determination, Rokan walked a few steps by herself and rested her arms on the railing of the porch. Teo rolled up next to her, shifting his chair so that he was at an angle and therefore more level with Rokan. The wind blew their hair into their eyes as Rokan held her right arm out in front of her, looking dejectedly at the bandaged stump.
"You know," Teo began softly, "I've been in this chair for as long as I can remember...my whole life. I couldn't walk, so I learned how to fly. As much as we want to believe it, we have no limits, Rokan. You'll get through this, and you'll adapt to something greater."
Rokan drew a deep, shaky breath.
"I—I just need a minute by myself Teo."
Teo nodded knowingly and began to back up. Turning, he paused and said quietly over his shoulder:
"Oh, and another thing: technology advances every day at an amazing rate. My dad is already drawing up plans for something that will get my out of this chair. Maybe he can do the same for you."
Rokan did not reply. She didn't even nod to indicate that she heard what he said. How could he expect her to hold on to hope when everything she did seemed to backfire against her? The strong breeze whipped Rokan's loose hair into her face, brushing the strands against Taiko's headband. The wind made her eyes water and though she couldn't find the resolve to let out her distress herself, the very forces of nature brought a tear out of Rokan's eye. She wished it wouldn't fall; she was so sick of crying.
Unsure of how long it was that she stayed on the porch, Rokan started when she heard the scrape of Teo's wheels on the stone floor. She sniffed and pushed her bangs out of her eyes before turning to face him.
"There's someone who wants to talk to you, Rokan. She's just inside," said Teo, gesturing back at the door of the infirmary.
Rokan furrowed her brow and grimaced as she walked back to Teo. With a hint of a smile, Teo held out his hand to her. Their fingers laced together, and Rokan didn't feel the need to lean so heavily on her friend.
When she came back into the infirmary, Rokan halted abruptly. There was a young woman seated on the edge of Rokan's bed. Two tiny children were with her, giggling and bouncing on her lap. As Rokan approached, they grinned at her and tugged at their mother, who looked over her shoulder at Rokan. She had a beautiful face with large dark eyes and velvety black hair that was tied away from her face. Her complexion was slightly too pale, as if she had spent too much time away from the sunlight. As Teo and Rokan approached, the mother slipped her children off of her lap and nudged them away. The boy and girl toddled happily away and out of sight while their mother stood and walked around to the other side of the bed.
"Are—are you Rokan?" the woman's voice rang out in a clear, flowing tone.
Rokan swallowed and nodded, still gripping Teo's hand for support. The woman looked at Rokan with eyes filled with sympathy. Her gaze slid across Rokan's scarred face, the bandages around her waist and finally the blood-stained dressings on her severed right arm.
"Oh, child—I am Azia; I am married to Zhensu."
An icy feeling settled on Rokan's heart and she almost lost her balance. Teo looked at her with concern, but she slipped her hand from his.
"Leave us, please," she whispered to him.
Teo nodded and disappeared on to the porch as quickly as he came, leaving Rokan and Azia face to face. Rokan rubbed her bandaged stump in terror, a lump rising in her throat. So those two children...they were Zhensu's family."I—I'm s-so sorry..." she choked out faintly.
Azia let out a little moan of compassion and held her arms out to Rokan. Stumbling slightly, Rokan fled to her and buried her face into the woman's shoulder, sobs racking her body. After the first few tears there were none left to shed, and Rokan succumbed to dry, heaving coughs that barely resembled crying. Azia held her close, guiding her down onto the bed where they sat, Rokan's head cradled in Azia's arms and her handless arm limp in her lap.
"I'm sorry...I'm sorry..." Rokan whispered over and over.
"Oh, you poor soul," soothed Azia, "you have nothing to apologize for. It was Zhensu who was in the wrong, and he was forced into devastation by that tyrant Ozai. Do not blame yourself."
Pulling away, Rokan searched Azia's warm eyes for truth.
"But...but I—I k-killed him!" Rokan cried hoarsely. "You've got to hate me for what I did! I tore your family apart! I'm no better than Ozai!" Azia blinked.
"Killed him? You mean...you mean they didn't tell you?"
With wide eyes, Rokan shook her head. Azia smiled broadly and put her hand on Rokan's cheek.
"Dear girl...he lived."
A sickening clash of terror and relief made Rokan break into a cold sweat as she looked at Azia in utter disbelief.
Azia could barely hold back her smiles.
"Keep in mind, dear one, your friends wondered the same thing of you when they carried you in here. My husband is strong, and the wounds he sustained were just shy of fatal. He is leaving the care of the healers today, and that is why I have come to you."
Rokan scrambled to her feet and stepped behind the end of the bed, putting the dark-stained wood between herself and Azia.
"How can you be so forgiving? Wait--," Rokan screwed up her eyes and dug her palm into her forehead. "How are you even here? You're supposed to be dead!"
Azia's expression darkened and she rubbed her wrists idly. For the first time, Rokan noticed that they bore faint scars of rawness, and it provoked her to resume her place on the bed beside the woman.
"It was Ozai," Azia said bitterly, glaring at the wall across the room.
"Zhensu explained everything to me. You were stirring up trouble, and Ozai needed you stopped. He needed someone skilled, someone who could be trusted to finish you off. But Ozai knew that if Zhensu caught wind of the cruel nature of his task, he would take no part in it. There was no way Zhensu would concede to assassinate a child who had herself been oppressed by the Fire Lord! So Ozai sent his soldiers to our home. They—they broke down the doors and took my children from me before clapping us all in irons. After that, Zhensu told me, they blocked off the exits and burnt our home to the ground, stowing myself and my children away in a covered cart before anyone could see.
"I don't know how long we were in the dungeons; only that it took a great toll on my children. They were too young to be shut away in the dark, kept barely alive on disgusting rations and restrained with manacles."
Azia paused and took a deep breath, blinking several times.
"But we are released now. Little Zya and Kyozu have recovered miraculously quickly...I cannot express how grateful I am that they are safe, and that they still have a father."
Not entire sure of how she might comfort the woman, Rokan placed a hand awkwardly on her companion's pale shoulder.
"I still don't know how you can forgive me so easily. Whether it was my fault or not, I still nearly murdered your husband. Aren't you at least a little bitter?"
Azia looked at Rokan with her large dark eyes.
"I was at first," she admitted, "But in truth, I do believe you are the greatest victim of us all. You don't need any more enemies, Rokan. It's time you led a life of safety and comfort; there is finally peace in this world! You are perhaps the most deserving of a rest from war."
Rokan smiled for the first time in weeks. She did feel ready for a rest. At last she had the chance to live a real life; no longer would she have to be on the run. She could make friends without retaining a fear of losing them. She could finally experience real peace.
"Thank you, Azia. You've been so kind...but I still feel guilty for what I did to Zhensu. If there is any way I could...if there is anything I can do to make it up to you, will you tell me?"
Azia put a slender hand to her chin in a good-natured, overly dramatic mime of thinking.
"How about this: when you are ready, promise to come and see us. I know it may take some time before you feel you can face Zhensu, but please..." Azia trailed off and looked hopefully at Rokan, who could scarcely believe it.
"I—of course. If you'll have me," she stuttered.
Azia smiled. A loudening chatter of small voices met their ears, and both the woman and the bandaged girl turned to look at the door.
Zhensu stood there, clothed in a simple white tunic and brown pants. His face was patched with bandages and he walked with a slight stiffness so as to not upset the bindings on his ribs. Kyozu skipped ahead of him, and little Zya, the spitting image of her father, held tightly to Zhensu's fingers with both her hands, uneager to release him from her grasp.
Kyozu stopped at the door and bolted in to his mother, who swept him up and covered his pale cheeks with kisses. Zya grinned and waved to her mother with her elbow, as using her hands would require her to free her father's hand.
Rokan stood and faced Zhensu, and for once they remained where they were, uninclined to rush at each other. Zhensu looked so different without the dark mask covering his face and the headband across his brow. Despite the faint bags under his eyes and the indentations in his cheeks, he looked younger. His pale yellow eyes were no longer rimmed with red, and for once they looked kind and warm. He was no killer. Rokan felt an unshakable guilt as she dwelt on the fact that she had been the cause of his pain and trauma. But no...she couldn't think like that. Azia had forgiven her. And if Azia had received the information from Zhensu, it must mean... Zya swung her father's hand slightly, looking up at him with confusion on her round face. Zhensu smiled down at her with a beautiful expression of peace and love before turning his gaze once more to Rokan. His smile did not fade.
A lump thrust itself into Rokan's throat and she put her hand to her mouth, unsure of how to respond. Shaking, she lowered her hand and smiled back at Zhensu, taking deep breaths in an attempt to slow her pounding heart. Zhensu's smile broadened as though he was holding back laughter, and he nodded lightly.
And in that moment...all was forgiven.
A familiar voice called her name, and she spun around to see Teo, grinning elatedly, resting in his wheeled chair just outside the doorway. He looked healthier, stronger. There was a new color in his cheeks, and for the first time Rokan saw that his legs were not bandaged.
"Rokan! You won't believe what my dad is working on! He's making me leg braces! If he can work out the jointing process, he says I might be able to walk!"
Rokan could find no way to respond as Teo's joyful cries rang out to her. Her crippled healer had tears in his eyes as he wheeled himself closer toward her.
"I tried them on for the first time just now," he said, "And Rokan...I stood. I actually stood!"
The two of them stood there, facing each other, and there was such a feeling of happiness in the air neither had ever experienced before. Then, in a sudden burst of confidence, Rokan thrust out her hand and grasped Teo by the collar. In a sudden, shocking instant, their lips met. Surprised, but not at all displeased, Teo breathed slowly and closed his eyes. He raised his gentle hands and placed them on Rokan's cheeks, brushing back her hair as he did so. Rokan's bandaged stump of her right arm rested on Teo's chest, but she didn't even notice her handicap. Right now, she was invincible.
The seconds they kissed felt like hours, and when they pulled apart time seemed to right itself to its previous rhythm. They were both slightly shocked, and the silence between them was deafening.
"Fire needs air!"
Not entirely meaning to, Rokan blurted these words out with little thought. Her tone was almost defensive, as if she dared Teo to contradict her. But he didn't. On the contrary, he burst into jubilant laughter, a suit which Rokan quickly followed. The sparrowkeets chittered in the trees that rustled lazily in the hot breeze, and the sun beamed down on the two lovers, who at last had found cause for laughter.
"So...what's your plan now?" asked Teo cheerfully, dropping his hands from Rokan's face to her shoulders.
Rokan laughed brightly and shook her head.
"Plan? For once, I don't need one."
She smiled, and the sunlight sparkled in her golden eyes, making Teo's heart leap. He pulled her closer and planted a kiss on her nose. So much joy was between them, they wondered why they didn't rise to the clouds.
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