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|More from Firebender896||Action/Adventure||PG||None|
The next few days were a half-conscious blur, made up of faint sounds and dull colors. Rokan was aware of the pain in her legs and back when she fell hard onto her hands and knees just a few yards away from the Earth Kingdom village. Distorted voices shouted out in concern, but she could do nothing more than fall on her side, her vision becoming consumed by blackness. When she next came to, Rokan was staring up at a thatched ceiling. Glancing around, she saw a simple room, and realized that she was lying on a simple but soft cot. A damp cloth had been placed on her forehead, and a droplet of the warm water with which it was soaked dripped into her eye. She blinked at the sudden sting, and forgot to open her eyes again for a long while...
The third time Rokan awoke, her vision had returned to its usual sharp focus. The cloth was gone from her brow and she felt that she had the strength to move. Swinging her legs off the cot, she brought herself to a sitting position and rubbed her temples with her palms. She was dressed in an old, ragged grey tunic, and her Air Temple clothes were folded neatly on the floor, her katana propped against the wall. Heaving herself off the cot, Rokan bent over and picked up the green vest that was now faded and worn. Leaving the white long-sleeved shirt on the floor, she laced the vest on and pulled on her torn grey pants and battered boots. Lastly, she tugged on her green bracers, tied her headband about her forehead and slung her katana over her shoulder, wincing at the strain on her sore muscles.
Struck by the absence of people in her tiny sickroom, Rokan trudged through the doorway into a small main room of a hut. Crouched by a small fire pit in the center of the room was a young woman with hair that was prematurely streaked with grey. A child of about two was held on her hip while her other hand busied itself with stirring a sad concoction that was colored a watery beige inside of a simple cook-pot. Huddled in the far corner of the tiny room was an ancient old man with blank, pale eyes. His shrunken mouth moved silently and his raisin-like fingers twitched compulsively.
The young woman looked up when Rokan entered the room. Her bright green eyes contrasted greatly with the drab colors of the house and her clothes. The woman stood, bouncing the toddler upwards so to adjust the child's position on her bony hip.
"You're awake!" she said with a smile, "Please, have something to eat...it's not much, but at least it's something."
Rokan looked at the bubbling cook-pot but did not move or speak. A crease appeared between the woman's eyebrows.
"Are you well?" she asked with a tone of concern.
Rokan narrowed her eyes and took in the full appearance of the woman. She was young, she was a mother...she was poor, poorer than dirt. Malnourished...it looked as though the majority of her rations were given to the child in her arms, though he looked less than healthy. What could this woman possibly have to gain from helping Rokan? Surely she was intelligent enough to notice the golden gleam of Rokan's eyes, marking her as the enemy. The enemy...
"What is your name? Where are you from? Please, tell me, I want to help you get home." The woman took a step forward, and Rokan countered her actions with a distrustful pace back.
"You know where I'm from. I can't understand why you'd want me under your roof," said Rokan coldly.
The woman looked surprised and a perhaps a little frightened. The little boy on her hip tugged at her stained dress and buried his curly head in her shoulder.
"I—You were wounded. Don't think I don't know what kind of injuries you had. There were arrows in your back and leg, and the only nation that uses archers extensively is the Fire Nation. You've been fighting the Yu Yan, haven't you? Why would I let that sacrifice go unrewarded?"
Rokan laughed a deep, spiteful laugh that was not her own.
"If your idea of a reward is prolonging a life of misery, then I pity other beneficiaries of your 'charity'." Why am I acting like this? This woman did nothing wrong...
Rokan strode towards the arched door that was practically hanging off of its hinges, fuming with anger. Was she angry with this woman, or angry with herself? Or was she just confused and hurt?
The woman shifted the child from one arm to the other and hurried after Rokan, catching her on the shoulder with a soiled hand. "Wait! You might not be fully healed! I want to help y--,"
Rokan swung her arm around and slapped the woman's hand away.
"Get away from me!" she hissed hoarsely. The child began to cry and he wrapped his thin arms around his mother's neck.
"What would you have had me do?" said the woman quietly. "Leave you in the street to die?"
"You shouldn't have interfered!" snapped Rokan. "If I die, I die, who's going to know the difference in the world if I'm not in it?"
"You're fighting with us! You're actually standing up to the tyrants of the Fire Nation! You're—you're on our side!"
Rokan slammed her fist on the doorframe, a spontaneous action which produced a small yelp from the woman and a throbbing pain in Rokan's wrist.
"I am not on your side," she said in a dangerous whisper.
The woman took a step back, holding her son closer to her.
"Don't follow me," Rokan interrupted.
Turning her back on the woman, she slammed the rickety door shut with her foot and broke out to a run. On the horizon lay the ocean, her only way home. Rokan pushed herself to run faster, though every second footfall brought a twinge of pain to her left leg. Her eyes watered from the wind, and her stomach growled from hunger, but she didn't care. She was lost...she wanted to go home.
When Rokan arrived at the harbor after a full day of travelling, she was tired and hungry. She was able to exchange her long-sleeved white shirt for a bowl of lukewarm noodles, however, so she didn't exactly starve. In her years on her own, Rokan had learned to keep expectations low for her meals.
In order that she might gain free passage to the Fire Nation, Rokan approached a tall, stiff warden of the Fire Nation prison nearby. The only ship that was departing for the Fire Nation was a prison ship that was heading for the Boiling Rock. A long line of men and women in chains wrapped around the dock as soldiers used fire whips to persuade them less than gently. The warden did not believe that Rokan was Fire Nation till she determinedly pushed back her bangs and showed him her bright golden eyes and let a flame dance on her fingertips. She explained that she needed to get back to the Fire Nation capitol, and that she was willing to aid in keeping the Earth Kingdom prisoners in check on the voyage. The warden agreed, as there were several wounded Fire Nation soldiers who also needed to return to the Royal City.
"You can't go waltzing among the prisoners dressed like that, though," he said, gesturing at her Air Temple clothes. "The prisoners might mistake you as a friend. Go see Private Zhu about a spare uniform."
Rokan followed the point of the warden's finger and met a young woman, about eighteen, with tanned skin and long black hair woven in a braid. She had a dagger sheath at her hip and was flipping the weapon up in the air and catching it with clean reflexes and skill.
"Excuse me...Private Zhu?" Rokan inquired.
Zhu turned her head to Rokan and pushed up the visor of her helmet, revealing large brown eyes. "Can I help you?" she said, a puzzled look on her pretty face.
Rokan explained her position as a volunteer on the vessel and asked for a uniform so that she could blend with the other soldiers. Zhu looked questioningly at the warden, but he nodded reassuringly.
"Alright...you'd better come aboard then," she said, and she led Rokan up the ramp and onto the great metal ship. Zhu slipped into the storeroom below deck and called up for Rokan to join her. In record time she found a uniform of the appropriate size for Rokan.
"Put it on quickly, we're almost ready to disembark."
Rokan let out a little puff of breath when Zhu thrust the armor and helmet roughly into her arms. The young Private shook her head and gave Rokan a disgusted look, doubt clearly etched on her face.
"You can Firebend, right?" she asked skeptically, not even bothering to turn her back as Rokan slipped her green vest off.
"Of course I can. Want me to demonstrate?"
Zhu held up her hands and shook her head vigorously, causing her thick black plait to swing back and forth. "Oh no, that's alright. You'd probably set fire to the ship."
Rokan was halfway through lacing the backs of her new boots when she paused, taking a deep breath. Control yourself, Rokan. As much as you want to tear this stuck up Zhu apart, you need to get home. Don't screw this up.
"What are you stopping for? Move it! We're leaving port in two minutes!" Zhu snapped, turning her attention from her fingernails to Rokan's crouched figure.
Rokan gritted her teeth and stood up quickly, slapping a sarcastic smile on her face and saluting Zhu patronizingly.
"I'm ready to go, Ma'am," she said in a falsely cheerful voice.
Zhu opened her mouth to say something, but the whistle blew from above deck and all she could do was shoot Rokan a poisonous scowl. Rokan grinned to herself and followed Zhu's haughty figure up the ladder to the main deck, where she fell into place in the line of soldiers.
The journey to the Fire Nation took three days. They were favored with fair weather and a calm sea, though the sun beat down unbearably hot in the late afternoon. The prisoners were lulled into submission by the rocking waves and humid air, and Rokan found herself wishing they would try to escape just so it would stir the mood and shake her out of her rut of boredom. But the Earth Kingdom prisoners did nothing of the sort. They were tired, frightened, and quiet, and they shrank away in fear whenever a soldier passed within five feet of them. Needless to say, Rokan was glad to see the Fire Nation harbor on the third day. It meant that she could leave behind the terrified prisoners and arrogant Zhu, who made a point to harass and jeer at Rokan whenever they were in the same vicinity (and with their place being on a confined ship, this was all the time).
The minute the prison ship dropped anchor, Rokan pulled off her helmet and sent it clattering across the deck. She had already put her old clothes on under her armor despite the fact that it was against regulations. In a flash, she had broken the ties that held the metal plate together and let the armor drop to the floor.
"What do you think you're doing?" snapped Zhu.
"Getting away from b--..." Rokan paused and considered her word choice, "...bullies like you."
Zhu swore under her breath and caught Rokan's wrist as she tried to walk away. "You can't just waltz off whenever you want, idiot! You volunteered for this job, so start acting like an adult and take some responsibility. We've got to get these prisoners off this ship!"
Rokan wrenched her arm from Zhu's iron grip. "I've got enough responsibility on my conscience, you"—Rokan used a rather impolite term—"and I don't have to take orders from you. Eat my dust."
Spinning on her heel, Rokan stalked away, pushing other soldiers aside with her elbows. Zhu stormed after her, and as Rokan was hurrying down the ramp to the dock, the Private called:
"I knew you were worthless! Just an egotistical child who thinks she's better than she is. But you run away when you get scared! You abandon your duty to your country!"
Without a moment's hesitation, Rokan whipped around and bolted back up the ramp, and with a swing of her arm she planted a red mark on Zhu's beautifully sculpted cheekbone.
"YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT I'VE BEEN THROUGH!" she screamed hoarsely, jutting out her lower jaw like she always did when trying to be intimidating.
Zhu had no chance to speak. Rokan sprinted down the ramp, angry shouts from the soldiers stinging her ears. When her feet hit the dry soil, a jolt of energy seemed to course through her. She was home. All her guilt built up anew in her chest as she ran towards the looming mountain that housed the Fire Nation Capital.
Rokan ran till her breath was ragged and a stitch pinched her side. She fell heavily into the side of a stone building and sank to her knees. A lump was lodged in her throat but no tears came. The familiar sights and sounds made old terrors resurface, and her head was suddenly filled with the sight of Taiko collapsed under the beams. Her own childish voice rang in her mind, screaming. Rokan heaved dry sobs and tore at her tunic, ripping the green fabric at the hem.
"I don't know what to do...I don't know where I belong...I'm lost..." she whimpered pathetically.
It's burning me, Rokan!
"Stop it...no, not the swamp again..."
You run away when you get scared!
Take some responsibility!
"Stop it!" Rokan was on her knees, her head pressed into the ground and her hands clamped over her ears. The voices began to overlap each other. Every mistake she had ever made returned fresh to her memory, her responsibility for the death of her family being the most vivid.
"Stop it...go away..." she whispered. "It's too painful..."
It's not too painful.
Rokan froze as she remembered the words of a crippled healer who was wise beyond his years.
You're ashamed of your mistake. Let go...and put your conscience at rest.
"But it's all my fault..."
Rokan took a deep, shuddering breath and let it out shakily. It wasn't her doing. She did the right thing by refusing to help the Fire Lord. She had spared an innocent life. The murder that took place was not her doing. The only mistake she had made was running away and refusing to face her fears. But that would change now.
Kneeling up on her heels, Rokan took another deep breath. When she released it, something seemed to click inside of her. It felt like water was allowed to flow after years of being blocked off.
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