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Chapter 22: Bitter Burdens
"Fire was easy," Yoriko began. "I mean it...I was good at it. You guys would've loved it, I think." She frowned. "I hope..."
The flower that had rested between their gravestones now rested in her hands. Her memories of them just brought more pain, yet it felt...wrong...to forget.
"So...Liung and I learned Firebending together," she said as she allowed herself a small smile. "You really haven't seen Firebending 'til you've seen a dragon do it. It's...amazing. I'm lucky; I didn't learn Firebending from a human." She laid the flower back down where she'd found it. "I got to learn it from the source. Master Galba taught me after—" She stopped and pursed her lips. "Well, Mom...she wasn't gonna let Saitei teach me."
"Do you blame her? The former Fire Lady almost hit you." Liung's words echoed in her head from afar, as the dragon moved closer. "I assumed that this kind of response was normal for a human parent."
Yoriko glanced back at her. "Liung...I'm...can you not, while I'm here?"
"I don't understand," the dragon replied. She exhaled through her nostrils and came closer still. "Why do you insist on talking to the dead? Is this a human custom you haven't made me aware of?"
In an instant, Yoriko's eyes narrowed. "It's the only thing I can think of, okay? I miss them, and I..." She turned away. "...I need this."
Liung's eyes widened. "I'm sorry. I didn't think—"
"No, you didn't." Yoriko's hands balled into fists. "As much as you want to, Liung, you can't understand this."
"Yoriko, I didn't mean to—"
She bit her lower lip as more tears welled up. "I know. It's just...you literally can't understand, and I'm not gonna tell Mom. I can't. It's so hard, and I'm so scared."
Liung lowered her had so that she rested at eye level with Yoriko. "You aren't alone. Sukan is so protective it's frightening, and I'm not going anywhere." The dragon glanced away for a moment. She couldn't go anywhere.
"Thanks, Liung," Yoriko replied. "I just...I need to be alone for this, okay?"
Sukan watched as Liung walked away from Yoriko before taking to the air. The red dragon soon landed next to her and glanced back at her friend. Yusha and Rioku had taken to talking amongst themselves for the moment.
"Something you've got to understand about us humans is that we don't take loss well. It gets even worse when we see that loss happen right in front of us."
Liung press her snout against Sukan's outstretched hand. "I always forget...she watched them die. That would be rough, I think."
"Don't you two ever talk about this?" Sukan asked.
"She...no...she isn't forthcoming with things like that. She's all about the moment when it's the two of us." Liung poured happiness into the link. "Don't get me wrong, she is not aloof or withdrawn, but she will not talk about this with me."
Sukan nodded. "Makes sense. She doesn't talk to me much anymore, either. It might just be her way of working through this."
Liung growled. "I don't think so. She's completely different now than at any point—well, since about a month ago, I think. I've noticed things..."
Her heart skipped a beat. "The nightmares again?" She noticed that Yusha turned slightly toward them as she said that, but it didn't matter.
"She is hardly sleeping well. She stopped waking up, though. Instead, she just tosses and turns, begging someone or something to stop." Liung gritted her fangs. "I'm scared for her, Sukan."
"Then we'll just have to keep supporting her, like we always have," she replied. "Once she learns Earthbending, the Order will help us get her through the Spirit World; her past lives apparently wish to reunite with her as much as we want them to."
Liung shuddered. "From what I understand, they were never meant to be separate; Yoriko isn't whole without them. The..." She growled. "She hates it when I call her this, but...the Avatar isn't whole. It isn't right."
Sukan closed her eye tightly and sighed. "I'm going to go talk to her. She needs to know that we're here for her."
"Yes..." Liung said. "We're all...we're all here to help."
Taiko held the phone to his ear, nearly shaking with anticipation. "It's done, then?"
"Yes, it is. Qiang is dead." The Owl's voice rang through the receiver. "But his daughter was not present; I discovered her airship was delayed just after I put the plan into motion."
The Airbender grimaced. "If she isn't killed, she'll just take his place, and I doubt you'll get a second chance at infiltration."
"They do think I'm dead, a casualty of the real assassin. If I'd known that this was going to happen, I wouldn't have burned all of my bridges."
"Damn it!" Taiko slammed his fist into the table. "Can you get to her and get this done?"
He heard a chuckle at the other end. "If I can kill almost a dozen Airbenders in a cramped hotel suite, Qiang's daughter will die. Her guard is not enough to stop me. Once I found out where she's staying in light of this, I'll finish it."
He smiled sadly. "And thus the fires of revolution will be lit in the Earth Kingdom, and we can move on."
"Indeed, we've begun something, that's for sure. I'll call you when it's done."
As Taiko put the phone back in its receiver, he heard a knock at his door. "Come in."
"Hey Dad," his son began as the door creaked open, "I was wondering what time we were seeing everybody tomorrow?"
"Well, Kun, I was thinking that we would give Miss Sukan and Master Rioku a call in the morning, and we could figure things out from there."
His son nodded and smiled. "Alright, that sounds good. I can't wait to see Yusha and Yoriko again."
"It should be fun; I look forward to seeing how far the Avatar has progressed," he replied, all the while returning Kun's smile.
Sukan wrapped her arms tightly around herself as the wind blew a tad harder than before. Brittle leaves fell from the few trees that dotted the cemetery, and she took great caution not to step on any of them. Yoriko didn't need to know she was there just yet.
"...the temple was really pretty, and I think Mom—Miss Sukan—liked it too. But she...seemed sad, I guess. I don't know. With Airbending, like everything else, history was just as important to them as the martial arts."
Sukan grimaced; she knew exactly what Yoriko was referring to. She'd been given a tour of the Southern Air Temple while Yoriko was introduced to her instructor, and that tour had changed things. The shrine to the Airbenders who lost their lives back during the Hundred Year War was in a prominent place, and that was one thing. However, she hadn't expected the statues.
"They told me my history...the Avatar's history," Yoriko almost spat the words out. "This room with all of my past lives on display, with the exception of the last three in the cycle. My past lives...as if I'm bound to them anymore." She lurched forward, and Sukan contemplated interrupting, in the end deciding against it. "They're nothing but a burden! I don't need them; I don't want any of it!"
"Yoriko...please...don't talk like that." She took a step forward as her daughter turned to face her with a glare in her eyes and tears rolling freely down her cheeks.
"Why not, Mom? They never did anything for me, and this whole mess is the spirits' fault!" she cried.
Sukan sighed. "Argho saved you, Sweetie. He pulled you out of that spirit's grasp."
Yoriko's glare softened. "I know...I know..." She grunted as she stood up. "I think I would've liked to have talked with him, y'know. Everything I've been taught says that Aang and Argho could communicate with their past lives whenever they wanted."
"You'll be able to, as well, if I have anything to say about it." Sukan embraced her tightly. "We'll fix this, all of it. You'll master Earthbending, and then we'll make this whole thing right." She pulled back and looked into her daughter's eyes, noticing that she was finally smiling. "I love you, and you'll become the greatest Avatar ever. I know it."
With that one word, Yoriko's smile vanished. "I love you too, Mom..."
"Just...you'd tell me if something else was wrong, right?"
Yoriko pulled away, and stared at Sukan with a furrowed brow. "Liung told you."
"Don't get angry at Liung. She's your friend, and she wants—"
"I'm not mad at her, Mom," she replied. "I just didn't know if I should tell you about the nightmares or not; I didn't want you to worry. But if she's that scared..."
Sukan smiled. "We're both here for you. You know that, right?"
"I know," she replied, and a small smile graced her features. "Like you said, when I've finished mastering Earthbending, we can hopefully fix this. And...and I never have to have those nightmares again."
"What do you—?"
Yoriko frowned and pulled away. "It's always the same, and it's nothing you can help with. I'm not a little kid anymore."
As Yoriko turned back toward the grave, Sukan opened her mouth to speak again before deciding against it.
The stars were on full display outside of the airship as it made its way toward Ba Sing Se. Kuan Ti gazed out at them, and they showed brightly in the absence of the city lights.
Republic City. It had always been a contentious place for him and his Equalists, and that hadn't changed, even when things had settled down and Argho was keeping balance.
What I wouldn't give to have you here now. I'm getting damn tired of playing investigator.
Then again, if Argho was alive, Kuan Ti wouldn't have been the one doing this. Qiang's killer might've even been stopped. As it was, a fourteen-year-old girl with a broken spirit stood in Argho's place.
She's not a bad kid, but...it doesn't make things easy.
He sighed and shook his head slowly. Dwelling on what he couldn't change was something he should've learned to avoid long ago. It was that lesson that Zhan had failed to learn, and it killed him. So instead, Kuan Ti turned his thoughts to making sure Qiang's daughter, Yi Wen, was ready to take her father's place. Not only did the transition need to go smoothly, but he wanted to question the assassin himself.
"What kind of assassin goes and gets himself caught like this?" he wondered aloud.
A chime sounded throughout the cabin, and a voice came over the intercom. "We're about two hours out from Ba Sing Se and ahead of schedule due to good weather conditions. Passengers will be notified of any changes to the schedule as they occur."
He laid his head back and closed his eyes. Argho, if only you were there to guide Yoriko. It would make me feel a lot better.
"Liung was with me for the whole year I was in the North," Yoriko said. "Master Moro taught me a lot, but it wasn't...it didn't come naturally at all." She pursed her lips. "You ask me, they let me slip through so that I could learn Earthbending."
She glanced toward Liung and her mother. "They're trying to protect me, but who...who protects them from me," she whispered. "Who protects them from the Avatar?"
Yoriko shook her head. "It doesn't matter; I'm gonna fix this." She shoved her hands into the pouches lining her thick northern coat, which was still helpful in facing the dry cold of Republic City in winter. As she turned and began to walk away, she whispered one more time.
"Thanks for listening..."
- This chapter's a bit short, but I think it works.
- Is it just me, or is it getting depressing?
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