Emotional Liability
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The Book of Primal Illusion



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Chapter 15: Endoskeleton

Sokka was glad his mind was preoccupied, otherwise he was fairly sure that he would have started an international incident by now.

His thoughts hadn't stopped churning since they hit Kyoshi Island. Suki's face had been grim beneath her makeup and it didn't take long for them to figure out why the Kyoshi Warriors were mustering with such stern expressions. Things had gone horribly, horribly wrong while they were away. Actually, that was a bit of an understatement.

Appa had chafed underneath the weight somewhat, but was now being thoroughly pampered. The Kyoshi Warriors were providing crucial reinforcements around the Imperial Palace – not that there were many of them, but it was more a figurehead than anything else. It was half practicality and half politics and all of it was making Sokka's temper shorter by the minute. Of course, with their uniforms and stark makeup, the Kyoshi Warriors were a powerful symbol that the Earth Kingdom stood with the Fire Nation. Already things were tense despite overwhelming evidence that the Earth King had not sanctioned or known about such attacks, and Sokka didn't entirely blame them, seeing how the Palace was still in a miserable state. A few highly adept Earthbenders had come with them, but one entire wing was on the brink of collapse, and the very foundation around the main hall had been shattered. It was an architect's nightmare. Sokka was fairly sure he had seen an architect sobbing haplessly into his sleeves, actually. Or maybe it was just a brother or father of one of the many lost soldiers. Hard to tell.

Already Suki had gathered together the remaining recruits for a training exercise, and they had barely been on the ground for a full four hours. But those that remained were painfully young and inexperienced. Aang quietly explained the situation to Suki, and it became clearer in Sokka's mind: all of the palace guard was so young because only the newer recruits did not have strong ties to Ozai's regime. Every older guard so close to the Firelord had to be carefully tested and vetted, and even then, Captain Deshi was the youngest of his rank in the entire Fire Nation armed forces.

Sokka could feel the tension in the air as the nobility filtered through the broken palace. He understood placing a high value on stocicism in the face of danger, but it was absurd how many of them seemed to not care that their Firelord had been first poisoned and now kidnapped. Some of them even sounded glad. Anyone could see that there were plenty waiting in the corners of the room for the news that Zuko was dead so that they could swiftly usurp the throne from his daughter. There had already been the unpleasant bitterness in the air when Zuko took the throne, a threat of civil war, but now the stench was just growing stronger.

At least nobody had outright tried to kill Mei Lien yet, Sokka thought grimly. Taking a bite out of the silver sandwich and all that.

He was furious, but there was nobody to specifically lay blame on. General Iroh was trying his damndest to keep the nobility in line, and for the most part succeeding, even if he could barely walk. And Captain Deshi looked so close to a nervous breakdown that at least three different members of the Kyoshi Warriors had decided he needed to be hugged... but what else could they truly do for a man so worn down by writing letters to grieving families and trying to take in the sudden influx of fresh hew faces in their ranks?

...and when had all of the new recruits suddenly become so young, anyway?

At least Sokka had those thoughts to preoccupy him. Otherwise it was fairly certain that the two nobles standing nearby would have been chucked into the wide pond below the decorative bridge a long time ago.

Maybe it was because Sokka gave some vague grunt when preoccupied with his own thoughts, but the nobleman had latched onto him and now would not stop talking. His admittedly very pretty daughter standing beside him didn't even help, because she was so pretty it became tacky again. Also because she was busy fishing out a flower petal from in between her ample cleavage. Then sniffing her finger to check on her own boob-sweat. Not that charming.

"...simply a disgrace that our dear Firelord is wasting the prime of his life like this," the noble blustered. "Not kidnapped, of course. But alone! There hasn't been any shame in the title for decades – Imperial concubines are a well-respected tradition!" Sokka winced. Now he was actually half-listening, if only to remember his quiet shame when, just before Zuko's coronation, he had spent time ogling all of the very beautiful women moving out of the palace only to be told by Zuko that they were his father's whores and they most certainly would not be coming back (nor would they even look in his direction if they could help it). Apparently having a small harem was one of the supposed perks of being Firelord. "It took us months – months! - to even be invited to the Imperial Palace, and now this..." The noble sighed and shook his head as if this was a personal inconvenience for him. "But I'm sure with your influence, Master Sokka, this trip wouldn't be in vain...?"

Oh spirits, he'd said Sokka's name. Now they were both looking at him expectantly, and he gave a nervous grin. "I'm guessing you're about to ask me for a favor."

"Oh, an exceedingly minor one," the nobleman gushed. "Just that you could convince General Iroh to let us stay until the Firelord returns! I'm sure that once he sees my precious Anyu, he will certainly be smitten." The girl fluttered her eyelashes at him coquettishly. "And the Firelord deserves to be surrounded with beautiful things, of course, to cultivate tranquility and wisdom in the mind – what better than to start with a beautiful girl to cure his loneliness?"

Sokka stared at them flatly. The girl's wide brown eyes flicked away for half a moment; there was something distinctly bovine about them, as if she clearly wasn't interested in doing much thinking for herself at all. But her gaze was caught by a small blur of color across the gardens. Sokka recognized the sound of the crying: Mei Lien.

And the hopeful concubine muttered something underneath her breath about ' that wretched child'.

"You know, I don't think you're going to be his type. At all."

The two stared at him in shock at being so bluntly turned away. Color drained from the nobleman's face as his obvious attempt to grab more power failed. "Well... I'm sure that perhaps even you are enchanted by my daughter? I suppose she must seem rather exotic -"

"I'm engaged. And she's also not my type." Sokka, to his credit, kept up a bland smile. "Follow General Iroh's orders, and get out of the palace." A moment's pause. "Or I'll chase you out myself. Your choice."

The nobleman huffed something about 'Water Tribe savages' and they both stormed off, noses in the air. It was finally a moment of peace, and Sokka bowed his head, sighing as he braced himself against the railing of the small bridge. At least the extensive gardens were largely untouched. Blossoms hung on trees, mimosa ferns starting to curl their leaves for their nightly sleep. In a small terrace nearby, a gamelan ensemble had spread out their instruments and started to practice. The soft chiming building into complex melodies was relaxing, even if it was incongrouous to the rest of their surroundings.

Sokka's head hurt. He let it drop into his hands, rubbed at his eyes, finally stood tall with a sigh. There were too many things clattering around in it, to the point of making him dizzy. Mostly there was frustration and bitterness, and nobody to direct it to, and that was clouding his thoughts. So many problems that he couldn't fix.

Well, maybe he could fix one.

Princess Mei Lien had lodged herself in a tree, and her nursemaid stood at the bottom, looking near tears. "Please, Princess, come down!"

"No!" She sobbed, giving the tree a kick. A flutter of cherry blossoms fell to the ground, and the nurse looked increasingly vexed. Sokka ambled over, watching the two as the nurse pleaded and cajoled and the princess steadfastly remained up in the tree. As he put a hand on the nurse's shoulder, she flinched and nearly screamed – Sokka didn't blame her in the least for being so twitchy – but he gave her a quick, reassuring smile.

"It's okay. I think I've got this."

Even as Mei Lien snuffled and sobbed quietly into the sleeves of her elegant dress, Sokka hoisted himself up, pulling himself onto the first branch, then another, then another. After a day of riding quietly on Appa's back and then pacing in-between meetings, the physical exertion was a relief. The small girl barely even looked up as he sat nearby, opting instead to bury her head in her sleeves as she cried.

"Hey, Princess."

She glanced up just enough to see him and gave a sticky sniff. "Hi." It was hard to tell if she really said the word at all, or merely curled her lips around it.

Sokka chewed on the inside of his cheek. Well, he hadn't really thought about what to say next. 'What's wrong' sounded far too condescending. Of course Sokka knew what was wrong. Mei Lien's home was half in rubble, her grand-uncle was severely injured, and her father was in enemy hands. It was hard to think of an upside to that, especially if you were five years old and your world was rather small.

"You can go 'way now," Mei Lien whispered a little more loudly, saving Sokka from having to try and continue the conversation alone.

"What was that?"

"I said go 'way," she whined, hugging her knees. "I don't wanna talk."

"I was just going to watch the sunset," Sokka said innocently.

She raised her head, staring him down almost accusingly. "No, you're trying to get me to talk," Mei Lien huffed. "I just wanna be up here. You don't need to – to -" The child drew in a hiccupy breath. "T-try and teach me how to fight b-because it won't matter! I wasn't even brave enough to help Daddy!" Her voice rose to a chrescendo, and then finally broke into ugly sobs.

So that, out of everything, was what bothered her the most. Sokka understood far more than he would have liked to, and tried not to think about how he had been so convinced that if he had just been a little quicker, a little braver, a little stronger, he could have done something to help save his mother...

"You're plenty brave."

"N-no I'm not!"

"Yeah, you are." Maybe it was the sad tone of his voice that caught her attention, but she looked up. "One of the bravest things somebody can do is keep on going." This momentarily silenced her, or at least brought her sobbing down to a dulled and muffled weeping as she tried to figure out what he meant. But Sokka quickly put on a smile, extending a hand out to her. "And anyway, I've got something super important that I could use your help on. Super important, and you're just the person for the job." That definitely caught her attention, and Sokka couldn't help hamming it up a bit as he leaned in and dropped his voice to a stage whisper. "Avatar Aang's sky bison is really tired, and sore, and lonely, and I think you're just the person to help me cheer him up. Will you come feed him some treats while I work on brushing out all his fur?"

Princess Mei Lien bit her lip for a moment before mumbling a very quiet "okay".

The late summer sunset was nearly finished by the time they were anywhere near done. Sokka had only brushed out half of Appa's long coat, but this still managed to produce a lump of shed fur enough for Mei Lien to hide in. Most of the time she spent petting Appa's forehead, initial reservations melting away with Appa's first friendly lick. She still sniffed every so often as if her nose wouldn't let her forget about how she had been crying, but for at least a little while, she was merely a happy little girl.

Suki wandered up to stand hip to hip with him as Mei Lien sleepily waved goodbye, her nursemaid carrying her off to go tuck her into bed. All of them looked exhausted. Suki had spent long, hard hours drilling the new palace guards, trying to figure out how to defend the new points of weakness, and she showed it, her hair coming down out of its elegant headpiece. But her arm reached around Sokka's waist, and he returned the gesture, smiling as he squeezed her hip.

"I didn't know you were so good with kids," Suki teased softly. "Keep that up and you'll make me want to have, oh, about fifty of them."

"Fifty?" He raised an eyebrow, grinning. "Can I talk you down to around thirty?"

"Mmm... okay, you've convinced me." For a moment they simply smiled at each other before leaning in for a well-deserved, long kiss. Whatever else may happen, they had each other, and that was a considerable comfort.

...even if Suki did promptly swat him over the head for that grope he managed to sneak in.

And the sun snuck a little lower in the sky.

It was sunset in earnest by the time Ty Lee was truly free from her duties. As a personal friend of the former queen and a Fire Nation citizen by birth, she held an odd status in the Kyoshi Warriors, ending up as the liaison between the two groups all day. It was exhausting work, of course, but a job Ty Lee was happy to do. It was good to be useful, it was even better to be needed. But now she was very tired. She had washed off all of the traditional makeup. She had hung up her Kyoshi Warrior uniform so that it could air out overnight. She had taken her hair down out of the headpiece and braided it simply like she used to do. And now she was wearing a simple dress as she shuffled out into and past the palace gardens.

The dress had been Mai's. Ty Lee guessed it fit well enough. She was so used to hand-me-downs in her overly large family, anyway, that it didn't make all that much of a difference. It was a simple and beautiful thing, dipped many times in different dyes; pale orange-peach tickled her feet, gradually moving through blues until midnight darkness sat around her shoulders. A perfect mirror of the sunset going on behind her. Ty Lee thought she probably would have been very striking, if anyone was around to see her, but nobody was. In the crook of her arm she held a large bunch of flowers, and in her hands, a small fruit tart.

The Royal Cemetery was a fairly good walk while still being on Palace grounds. It was an opportunity to shuffle along through all the flowers and take her time. Ty Lee always thought that flowers seemed so much like nature smiling at her, so she smiled back, beaming in her usual enthusiasm. But her smile started to slip off her face as she entered the gate to the Royal Cemetery, and walked down the elegant edged pathway to her destination. She knew the characters well, but she still reached out to touch the gold letters spelling out the name on the elegant black obelisk of a headstone. Instead she propped the flowers up in their holder and noted that there was already a fresh bunch there (no doubt Firelord's orders, still being kept) and then crouched down.

"Hi, Mai."

She smiled at the black obsidian and her reflection smiled back at her. "I met your daughter today! Well, I met her again now that she can say hi and remember me, I guess. She's so pretty, Mai. And she's just like you!" Ty Lee laughed a little, looking at the fruit tart she had been carrying. "See, I wasn't even able to get this tart before she took a great big piece of it for herself. Oh, and her hair's grown out so long and pretty! She even wears it with bangs in the front -" Ty Lee gestured excitedly to her own forehead. "She looks so much like you, Mai."

Ty Lee paused before giving a little sniff. "Things are... things are pretty bad right now," she admitted, her voice going quiet before she laughed again, this time far more sadly. "I guess that's how you know it's really bad. Didn't you say that once? That when I start saying it's bad it's time to panic, or something? Well... yeah. Something. Anyway, I'm not panicking." She drew in a deep breath and smiled. "I'm going to do all I can to put things right! I'll have the new palace guard whipped into shape in no time. And I bet these – whoever they are who have taken Zuko – I bet they've never seen any chi-blocking attacks before. It'll be easy. So you don't need to worry."

She paused and looked down at the fruit tart in her hands. Originally her plan had been to have a bit of a snack, as if Mai was really there to eat with her. But now all Ty Lee could do was set it down at the base of the headstone, withdrawing her hands and tucking them in her sleeves. The very distant sound of the gamelan ensemble echoed out over the gardens, the ringing notes oddly mournful now that the sun was retreating below the horizon. The air was stagnant and heavy with the scent of jasmine and roses. Ty Lee hadn't brought incense, just the fruit tart. She liked to think she knew Mai well enough that she would find the sweet custard and fresh fruit more appealing.

Ty Lee hated it when she cried. She hated it with a passion. She knew it made her face go red and scrunch up, and she knew it made snot run from her nose, and she knew she gave a terrible little whine when she sobbed and tried to take in a breath. Most importantly crying wasn't a happy thing to do, and Ty Lee always tried so hard to be the joyful. Being gloomy was Mai's thing, after all, and she had done it so stylishly. Ty Lee had been there to be quick with a smile and a joke to make the rest of them smile, too. That was what she did. And if she couldn't even make herself smile, what was the use of that?

Her lip trembled dangerously and she tried looking anywhere else, but the tears were already forming in her eyes, and as she glanced at Mai's name on the headstone they spilled out onto her cheeks. She choked back a sob in a snuffling manner and held a sleeve up to her mouth as if to keep each cry in.

"I miss you," she finally admitted, voice going squeaky as it broke. "I miss you a lot, Mai, even if you thought I was annoying or – or stupid, I don't know. It's just hard being here, around everything, I guess."

She frowned, failing to choke back another sob. "Everyone forgets that you were my friend, too."

Kyoshi Island had never seemed like the appropriate place to cry about Mai's death. Maybe the others noticed how Ty Lee got quiet at the same time every year, but she had tried so hard to let those tears stay on Fire Nation soil. Around the other Kyoshi Warriors she had to bring smiles and laughter, because that was her proof that they all tolerated this weird Fire Nation girl. Maybe they even liked her, and that sense of belonging was something Ty Lee craved so badly it hurt.

But with the Imperial Palace in the distance, and the shadows of the cemetery all blending in to one another, and the wind carrying familiar scents and tunes of home, Ty Lee bowed her head and let herself sob.

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