Of Tangerines and Vulnerability
Chapter information

A Thousand Dreams of Fire



Written by




Release date

July 5, 2012

Part 1- First Dreams are as Sparks-

Agni, five years old

Agni is born in a tiny village in the unforgiving heat of the Fire Nation summer.

Her first memory is of tangerines; that first intense starburst of flavour on her tongue as she bites into the sun warmed citrus.

The tangerines were the main export of the village and every summer they would swell and swell on the trees, sweeting until ripe when crates and crates would be carried down on the shoulders of villagers to boats moored on the limpid river that moved lethargically past her house.

Even now just the scent of the skin is enough to remind her of her childhood; the lazy mornings spent at the languid river, the dry starry nights, the blood red monsoons in the rainy season stirring up the dust which they played in, miniature battles the children would fight under Kai's command. Kai is always the leader; has always been, no one argues that.

Kai is much more than this. He is also her brother and best friend, the reason she smiles, the reason she laughs, the reason why she cries now when she tastes tangerines.

Agni, eight years old

Suddenly she is eight. And she is noticing that her perfect world of tangerines and easy smiles is not as perfect after all, that even tangerines are not simple as she had believed but complex, with many flavours and tones; a little like people in fact. There are the hushed, hurried whispers among them that she now sees and worried faces that she glimpses. It feeds this uncomfortable feeling of change, of something off that she can't quite place. There's a new flavour to the tangerines too but she can't work out what exactly it is. It tastes different.

Kai now thirteen, is different too, Agni has always looked up to him, he has always been ahead of her, above her but now the distance between them seems somehow increasingly insurmountable, the space between them an abyss that her words fall into and do not reach him.

"You said you'd play with us today"

"I can't Ni; I've got to help Papa." He crouches down a little to her level which only reminds her of another distance between them, a physical difference borne from that five year age gap that has never seemed important until now. When did he get so much taller?

"I'm sorry, it can't be helped."

"But Kai-" He shushes her, a warm hand tilts up her chin which is trembling with indignation and he looks her in the face with a seriousness she was not even aware he possessed. In that way that only Kai can he shows her all his feelings with his eyes. She falls silent and lets him walk away un-protesting. Later when she tries another tangerine she finds a word for that new flavour, the one that matches the emotion in Kai's eyes. It's bitterness.

Agni, twelve years old

In the year Agni is twelve two things arrive, the first could never be joyful and the second should be but isn't. The first is a blight; a disease that affects the fruit orchards. It's been growing for years slowly affecting their taste but there's no mistaking the bitterness of the tangerines now; they are shrivelled and discoloured and taste as sour as lemons do. The villagers fall into a quiet desolation that is more frightening than the loudest panic. It is an omnipresent fact -unspoken of but the knowledge of it curls every shoulder young and old forwards with despair- that without the vital trade brought in by the fruit the whole village is dying of starvation.

The second thing that arrives is Agni's little sister. She is tiny and fragile and there's just nofoodnofoodnofood until her wailing stops completely and she's just a coughing bundle of blankets. Her eyes, under the mossy covering of her wispy hair lose their initial green vivacity -they look like dull mud- and each tiny, shuddering breath crumbles like dry earth as it escapes her tiny mouth. She is never named.

Agni's mother is catatonic. She sits there four days after, clutching the bundle. She is deaf to the pleas of Kai and Agni to do something, to eat, to sleep, to let them at least bury her.

"Mama -"Kai pleads "please listen"

In the end they bury the two of them together.

Kai digs the graves, as tall as their father now at seventeen; their father who has been nowhere to be found since their mother died too.

And they stand there, with their doubt and their cynicism and their hurt pouring into the silence, all the emotions that have festered in the abyss left behind when they abandoned hope. Or when hope abandoned them. It doesn't matter anymore. There's no point in making a distinction that the world's already given up on.

They stand there until the dawn is breaking and she cannot remember how to move or summon up the will to, would be content to remain a statue in the sunrise. They stand there and remember; the air resonates with their loss. She thinks she should cry but she can't even find the energy to do that. She's so weary of life - she wants to just lie down and sleep for a hundred years.

Agni turns back to look at Kai. The contours of his face are shadowed in the half-light, a haunted look lingering, concentrating in his smile, soft and bitter, that upturns the corners of his mouth. He meets her eyes with his own, their colour and shape achingly familiar but the person behind them is one she realises she has never really known. Gone are the days they could hold whole conversations with a held gaze. She is looking for someone in them who is no longer there. It's no surprise then when he disappears the next morning.

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