The morning Wendi-Lin Ying, of the Bloomcloud Mountain Yings, met her future husband, she was - not to put too fine a point on it - madder than a cassowary-mule chewing on bumblebees.
The situation had started out innocently enough, just three days ago. She’d been out inspecting the orchards, like she did every morning, and while most of the trees were bursting with cherries and peaches and apples that were not-quite-ripe for the picking, she’d noticed that a line of cherry branches on the very edge of the back forty were looking pretty sparse. Wasn’t much helping it, she told herself. You couldn’t chase off every bird that swooped in for a snack.
Two days ago, she’d gone down to the river to dig up the century eggs she’d buried a few weeks back, only to find someone had already dug them up for her. And eaten them for her, too, judging by the empty holes they’d left behind. From the looks of things, they’d started by digging up half the riverbank for roots, and found her eggs by sheer dumb luck while they were at it. She’d stared at the crime scene for a good long while, hoping to convince herself it was just the doings of a wild marmot-pig - but there wasn’t much mess left behind. No eggshells crushed by hooves, no half-eaten tubers sticking out of the clay. The eggs had been dug out cleanly and the roots had been neatly cut, and whoever the thief was must’ve carried them all away - which meant they had to have hands. Wendi-Lin had fumed to herself as she dug out the one stash of eggs the thief hadn’t found - thank Oma and Shu there were some left, she’d been hankering after these eggs for weeks - and she’d stomped back to the house to tell her family her findings over dinner. Pa had frowned and Aunt Su had looked worried, and Gran had forbidden the kids from going outside, which meant Wendi-Lin had to help Ma hang the laundry out in the courtyard instead before they all turned in for the night.
Just this morning, Wendi-Lin had woken up to find that someone had stolen her favorite blanket right off the clothesline. As well as a rucksack that’d needed a good wash after her brother Shu’s latest antics. And a glass jar of ginger root tea her sister Lu-An had left on the porch to steep overnight.
“That’s it!” Wendi-Lin declared, taking up her crossbow.
“Wendi-Lin Ying!” Lu-An exclaimed, watching her saddle up the family’s cassowary-mule. “Just what d’you think ye’re doin’?”
“Goin’ after the varmint what stole our stuff!” Wendi-Lin snapped back. She didn’t have time for her sister’s fussing. “First my eggs, now yer tea, and my blanket and a bag and - and I’ll bet you anything they’ve been eatin’ the cherries right off our trees, too!”
“Could be bandits,” Lu-An said.
“Can’t be that great of bandits, if all they’re stealin’s eggs n’ laundry,” Wendi-Lin scoffed. “Whoever this thief is, I’ll just scare ‘em straight a’fore they get any other bright ideas,” she continued, taking up Rusty’s reins. “Lock the gate behind me, and you tell Ma and Pa where I’m off to when they wake up.”
“I’m tellin’ ‘em right now so they can save yer fool hide from whatever trouble ye’re about to get yerself into!” Lu-An snapped back, and she stomped out of the barn back toward the house. Wendi-Lin rolled her eyes, and steered Rusty toward the gate.
The gate had still been locked when she woke up that morning, the heavy wooden beam still wedged between the door handles the same way they locked it every evening. No one had forced their way through, so the thief must’ve jumped the garden wall, which was a good eight feet high. If nothing else they were athletic, Wendi-Lin had to give them that. Once outside she had to figure out which way they might’ve run off, but at least she knew it wouldn’t be east - her great-grandparents had build the house right near the edge of a cliff. Anyone travelling that way would have nowhere to go but down. There were still plenty of other directions the thief could have gone, but Wendi-Lin had a hunch.
Sure enough, she found what she was looking for outside the wall to the west of the house - a trail of lightly-trampled grass and footprints in the morning dew. It headed north, and Wendi-Lin smiled grimly, flicked Rusty’s reins, and taken off toward the back forty. The thief had started farther out and slowly moved in on the Ying farm over the last few days - first the trees at the edge of the cherry orchard, then the creek deeper into the property, now the house itself. Wendi-Lin supposed it made sense if she followed it backwards.
She stopped at the creek, giving the bank a quick once-over. There’d been more digging, she could see, though if they were looking for eggs they weren’t gonna find anymore. Rusty hopped to the other side of the bank, flapping their wings a bit for balance, and Wendi-Lin paused as she realized the trail didn’t continue on this side of the water.
...Maybe the thief had walked up the creek a while? Or would they have walked downstream? She chewed her lower lip in thought. “Whaddaya think, Rusty?” she asked. “You smell anything?”
It was a valid question - cassowary-mules’ noses were sharp as glass. It was why Wendi-Lin had chosen Rusty over any of the ostrich-horses for this venture. Rusty sniffed the air a few times before giving a whinnying squawk and taking off away from the creek, deeper into the cherry orchard. Wendi-Lin barely had time to wonder how the thief had gone this way without leaving a trail before she realized they were heading straight back towards the pilfered cherry trees.
...Actually, a lot of the trees they were passing by now were looking sparser than they should. And - she had to do a double-take as Rusty trotted onward - was that a pile of cherry pits? Had the thief actually had the gall to steal her cherries, eat them right here in her orchard, and then spit them out when they were done with them?
“Ye’re either real brave or real stupid, and either way I’m gonna give you what for,” Wendi-Lin muttered, urging Rusty onward. The cassowary-mule seemed to know where they were going - here and there Wendi-Lin saw trampled grass beneath a tree, and she decided to let her steed take the lead, even if the rest of the trail was strangely absent.
They reached the edge of the orchard, where the fruit trees gave way to forest, and Wendi-Lin pulled Rusty up short before they plunged into the wild. “Alright,” she said. “They go that way?”
Rusty was peering into the woods, ears flicking back and forth. They’d been right about the trail so far, and Wendi-Lin was happy to let them do the tracking at this point. Cassowary-mules were wonderfully stubborn and highly territorial, and Rusty looked eager to hunt down the thief that’d encroached on their turf.
She glanced back the way they came, but didn’t see any sign of Pa or Lu-An or anyone else following her. Of course, it’d take ‘em a bit to get the ostrich-horses tacked up, and then they’d have to follow her trail - spirits knew they wouldn’t be able to follow the thief’s, not without Rusty’s nose. She had some time yet before they caught up to her.
“Alright,” she said, flicking the reins. “Let’s go.”
The route Rusty took was...strange. Not long, not terribly convoluted, but strange. Wendi-Lin had tracked plenty of game over the years and could easily pick out a trail, but she was having a hard time seeing what Rusty was following, exactly - they were mostly navigating by scent. And even that was strange - the cassowary-mule kept their head up in the air as much as on the ground, sniffing toward tree branches and the sheer rock faces of the mountains that stretched above them, rather than along the ground. At one point they came to a massive boulder, and Rusty had glared at the top of it for a good ten seconds before trotting the long way round to the other side and picking up the trail again.
Wendi-Lin hoped they weren’t dealing with an Earthbender. She was good with her crossbow, but she didn’t want to worry about dodging flying rocks.
Finally, they came to the edge of a cliff that looked out to the north. It dropped into a shallow, wooded valley. In the morning light, the cliffs across the way were shining the bright, rusty red that had given the Fu Shi Mountain Range its name.
Rusty stopped at the cliff’s edge, snorted, and shook their head. Wendi-Lin frowned first at the cassowary-mule, and then at the cliff. The thief had to be an Earthbender, to have gone over that. Cautiously, she slid off of Rusty’s back, checked her crossbow, and stepped toward the dropoff to have a peek over the edge.
She found herself looking right at a man crouched on a ledge just a few feet down, and her crossbow came up quick as lightning. “Don’t move, ya varmint!”
He jerked briefly, but his wide eyes landed on her crossbow and he wisely decided to stay still.
“Hands where I can see ‘em!” Wendi-Lin added, and the man hesitantly held his hands out and away from his body. One of them held a long staff. “And don’t you dare try any earthbendin’ tricks, mister, I guarantee I’m faster ‘n you are!”
He blinked up at her. “I - uh - okay,” he said quickly. His eyes flickered away from her briefly, toward the stone cliff face in front of him. “Okay, no earthbending, got it.”
Something about the way he said it sounded like a trick. Wendi-Lin didn’t take her eyes off him. “Where’s my stuff?”
“Your - stuff?”
“The stuff you stole,” she snapped. “My blanket, my rucksack, my tea, my - well, I s’pose there’s no gettin’ the eggs back. Hope you enjoyed ‘em, you thief.”
“But I know you just took that blanket this morning, so hand it over!”
“I don’t have it!” he said. Sure enough, there was nothing besides himself down on that ledge. He wasn’t much to look at, either - looked like he hadn’t had a wash in weeks, unkempt hair tied back behind his head, scruffy beard, tattered clothes that probably didn’t have a single pocket. No wonder he’d stolen the rucksack.
“Then where’d you put it?” she gritted out.
He looked back at the rock wall before him. “I...dropped it.”
“You dropped it?” she repeated incredulously. “What kinda a thief are you?”
“Not a very good one,” he admitted, looking up at her with a strained smile.
“Listen mister,” she said, “I don’t know what kinda game ye’re playin’, but it ain’t funny. I’m gonna give you ‘til the count of three to tell me where my stuff’s at, or I’m turning you into a pincushion. This is a repeater, I’ll have you know.” She patted the magazine of her crossbow, where she had ten shots lined up and ready to go. “One.”
His lips twisted, and his gaze fell back to the rock in front of him. She really hoped he didn’t bring the cliff down on both of them.
He looked back up to her, eyes narrowing. She noted dimly that they were gray as stone, and just as hard.
He made no move to bend or speak, but he looked tense as a rattle-viper ready to strike. Wendi-Lin tilted her crossbow toward his knee, aimed, and fired.
Where the blazes did this wind come from?
It happened so fast she wasn’t sure if her shot was blown wide or if he was just that quick to sidestep or both, and the next thing she knew her thief had finally moved. But he didn’t earthbend. Using his staff, he leapt up, higher than any human she’d ever seen, and she craned her neck to watch him arc right over her. Rusty squawked indignantly, stretching their neck up to snap at the man as he passed overhead. He landed some twenty feet away, out of range of the cassowary-mule’s powerful feet, and he twisted around to give her a challenging look. “You want your stuff back so bad? You’ll have to catch me first!” And then he was running off into the forest.
“HEY!” Wendi-Lin shouted, drawing her crossbow up again and firing off two more shots. Both of them missed the man by inches, and then he disappeared into the forest. She lunged toward Rusty. “The hell are we dealing with?” she grunted to the cassowary-mule, swinging a leg up. “Not much of a thief, not much of a fighter, has a few tricks up his sleeve but ain’t earthbendin’…”
Just as she was about the flick the reins and start the chase, however, she heard a sound from over the cliffedge.
Wendi-Lin froze. Her eyes flickered from the forest the thief had disappeared into, back toward the drop behind her.
Tricks up his sleeve, she thought, and for a second time she dismounted, crossbow in hand. Rusty stamped a foot, but she patted their neck and stepped back toward the cliff.
There was no one on the ledge anymore, but raspy coughs still came from below. It seemed her thief hadn’t been as alone as she’d thought, though whoever his companion was, they didn’t sound like they were having a good time of it.
It was a seven-foot drop, but there were enough rocks jutting out of the cliffside to use as handholds and footholds. Wendi-Lin made it to the bottom of the ledge and found that the thief hadn’t been staring at a stone wall while he’d been talking to her at all. He’d been staring at a shallow cave, barely more than a sheltered overhang. And in that cave Wendi-Lin could see the shells of century eggs, and a rucksack filled with cherries, and a jar of ginger tea, and her favorite blanket, which was wrapped around the head and shoulders of a shivering figure sitting against the cave wall, their forehead resting on their knees as they coughed their lungs out.
Wendi-Lin stared at the scene, trying to make sense of what she was seeing.
“Alright then,” she said. “Well, now that I’ve found my stuff…” She stepped into the cave, crossbow still at the ready in case this was a trick. “Hey,” she said, nudging the foot of the supposedly-sick person. “Once you catch yer breath, mind tellin’ me who you are and what ye’re doin’ here?”
The coughing turned to hacking, and after a good ten seconds of watching the other person struggle to breathe, Wendi-Lin decided that this probably wasn’t a trick. She dropped her crossbow and grabbed the jar of tea from the floor instead. Hesitantly, she knelt by the sick person, who she was pretty sure by now was a woman. “Uh,” she said, reaching out carefully. “Sounds like you could use a drink.” She put a hand on the stranger’s shoulder, only to pull it away when the sick woman jerked and lifted her head mid-cough, giving Wendi-Lin her first real look at her.
She was an awful sight to behold, no way around that. She still had a few clumps of hair on her head, but most of it had apparently been burned away, and angry red wounds streaked down her head, over the right side of her face and down her neck and shoulder. What little clothing she had was looking pretty charred too, and the hands that clutched her knees were red as the cherries on Wendi-Lin’s trees.
It looked like it hurt. It looked like she’d fallen into a cooking fire. The burns - they were burns, not scars - were fresh, and oozing in places, and looked like they might be infected.
But just when Wendi-Lin thought she was over the shock and horror of it all, her eyes fell on the woman’s forehead where, despite the disfigurement, she could still make out the remains of a blue arrow tattooed on the woman’s forehead.
“Oma and Shu,” Wendi-Lin breathed.
The woman gasped for air between coughs, and Wendi-Lin wrenched her gaze away from her forehead to her gray eyes. Well, the one gray eye she could see - the right one was burned shut, and Wendi-Lin wondered if it even worked anymore. The left eye was wide with pain and fear and lack of breath, and also not entirely coherent.
Wendi-Lin unscrewed the jar of tea. “You need to drink this,” she said, holding it out.
The woman shook her head.
Wendi-Lin reached out very, very gently and placed a hand on the woman’s forehead. It was hot to the touch. She pressed the jar to the woman’s lips. “C’mon, have a sip. It’s my sister’s recipe and sure she’s a li’l heavy on the chamomile, but that might actually be good right now.”
The woman stopped shaking her head, but only because she was practically hacking up a lung.
“DON’T TOUCH HER!”
A gust of wind filled the little cave, and Wendi-Lin found herself blown clear to the other side of the small cave. By some miracle she managed to keep the tea from spilling.
Seemed that her thief was back. He was glaring at Wendi-Lin as he anxiously patted the sick woman’s shoulder. Hadn’t taken him too long to realize she hadn’t followed him, then. His gray eyes were the same shade as the woman’s, and coupled with the tattoo, and the weird winds that kept coming out of nowhere...
“You ain’t a bandit at all, are ya?” Wendi-Lin said, straightening up. “Ye’re Airbenders.”
“You stay right there!” he snapped back, brandishing his staff. “One more step and I’ll - I’ll blow you off the mountain!”
Wendi-Lin frowned, but didn’t move. “Thought you folks didn’t like fightin’.”
His face scrunched up a bit. “Yeah, well that hasn’t exactly worked out all that great for us, has it?”
She raised her hands in a show of peacefulness and took the opportunity to look him and his friend up and down. She could see him for what he was now, see the risks he’d been running and the trick he’d tried to play, and she had to hand it to him - he’d almost had her. Taunting her with what she wanted, taking off like an obvious target, attempting to lead her on a merry chase. Like a killdeer-wren that played at having a broken wing and lead predators away from its nest before miraculously healing and flying away. If his friend hadn’t given herself away, Wendi-Lin would probably be off in the forest right now, trying to figure out where her thief had gone. And he’d probably have flown right back here, maybe to collect his friend and high-tail it out of here.
Not that it looked like the woman was up for much high-tailing. Her coughing was dying down, mostly because her body didn’t seem to have the energy for it anymore. She looked so sick she needed two beds, and here she was without even one. “She’s in a bad way,” Wendi-Lin observed.
“What’s it to you?” the man scowled.
Wendi-Lin held out the tea. “Here.”
The man didn’t move to take it.
“You said I couldn’t take another step, so ye’re gonna hafta take it yerself,” Wendi-Lin huffed.
He did, staff still held at the ready as he stepped forward, snatched the jar from her hand, and went back to his friend. He coaxed her into drinking it, and she did, apparently more at ease with his voice than she was with Wendi-Lin’s, and her coughs subsided.
“Y’know, ginger ain’t what’s best for a fever,” Wendi-Lin said.
“I couldn’t find any elderflower,” he snapped back.
“Yeah, bloomin’ season was a month ago,” Wendi-Lin said. “My brother an’ sister were all up an’ down the mountain fillin’ up our stores.” She gave him a considering look. “We got plenty back at the house, if you like.”
He stared at her.
“Got beds and blankets and food, too,” she added. “If you wanted to come back with me.”
He looked outright suspicious. “Why? So you can turn us in?”
“Turn you in to what?” Wendi-Lin wondered.
“The Fire Nation!”
“What makes you think I’d go an’ do a thing like that?”
“Because it seems like a pretty popular thing to do, these days,” he said darkly.
“I’m guessin’ you ran into trouble recently,” she said.
“Those burns aren’t from the comet!” he snapped back, pointing at his friend. His own clothes were looking pretty singed too, now that she was looking.
“Ye’re in Ba Sing Se,” Wendi-Lin pointed out, but even as she said the words she was thinking back to her last trip outside the city walls. Just a few months ago she’d gone out to one of the lakeside towns beyond the Outer Wall on a trading trip, and it was there she’d heard about the bounties. The Fire Nation was paying silver for confirmed Airbender kills. Gold if they had tattoos.
The man just looked confused. “Wait - I’m where?”
“Ba Sing Se,” she repeated. “Well, the Agrarian Zone at least. How the heck didja miss the wall when you flew over it?”
“It was dark,” he muttered, eyes narrow. Like he hadn’t made up his mind yet whether he believed her or not. “There wasn’t a moon.”
There’d been a new moon four nights ago. Welp, that fit the timeline for when her cherries had started disappearing. “Look, my nearest neighbors are a day’s hike away. It’s two days to the nearest town. And there’s a whole-ass wall and half the Earth Army between here and the nearest Fire Nation base. Whatever they’re paying for you, it ain’t worth the trek or dealin’ with the military.”
He stared at her.
“Ye’re on Bloomcloud Mountain,” Wendi-Lin continued. “Which’s one of the Fu Shi Mountains. Which’re on the western side of Ba Sing Se’s Agrarian Zone. You can see the Inner Wall from my house.”
“Look, I’m sorry I shot at you,” she added. “I thought you were a bandit or somethin’. But it turns out ye’re just people in need of some help, and I’d really rather just give it to you than have you stealin’ from us. We got food back at the house, and space for visitors, and my Gran’s a right terror with the medicine, I tell you what. So how about you come on back, and we’ll see what we can do for yer friend there?”
He was silent for a long moment as he gazed down at the woman - who really probably wasn’t going to last much longer without proper help, and Wendi-Lin could tell he knew it. After a moment he closed his eyes and bowed his head. “Okay,” he said quietly, and it sounded like a surrender. Like he didn’t care if she was tricking him or not anymore. “Okay.”
Wendi-Lin stepped forward, picked up her crossbow, and tossed it back up over the cliffedge before the Airbender could panic. The rucksack followed after, and then she turned back to him. “Help me get her up there, yeah?”
Together they got the woman out of the cave and up over the cliff, where Rusty was waiting patiently. The cassowary-mule looked miffed at first, but Wendi-Lin made it clear that the Airbenders were friends now. She had the man get on Rusty’s back first, and lifted the woman up after so he could gently hold her against his chest, still wrapped in the blanket. Wendi-Lin tied the rucksack to Rusty’s saddle, slung her crossbow over one shoulder, picked up Rusty’s reins, and started walking.
“I’m Wendi-Lin Ying, by the way,” she said as she led them back home. “Of the Bloomcloud Mountain Yings.”
He didn’t say anything. She chanced a glance back and found him staring down at his friend, one hand very gently cupping the unburned side of her face. Wendi-Lin decided the lack of manners and proper introductions could be forgiven just this once, and she turned back around to let them have their privacy.
But then, a few minutes into the forest, he asked, “Why’s it called Bloomcloud Mountain?”
“Cuz of the flowers, in the spring,” she said. So he didn’t want to hand his name out, that was fine. She could chatter on about her home territory for hours, name or no name. “We got fruit orchards all up and down this mountain. Come springtime they’re so fulla flowers they look like a bunch of pink clouds what never float away.”
“Must be lovely,” he said quietly.
“Sure is,” she nodded. “Flowers’re done for the year, though you did get to enjoy the cherries!” she shot him a cheeky grin, hoping to make him realize she really wasn’t that upset about the cherries anymore.
He just looked pensive. “They were good cherries.”
“Finest ones this side of the Outer Wall!” she boasted. “Though you’ve been eatin’ ‘em before they’re ripe. You’ll have to try ‘em again in a few days, then they’ll be really good.”
“I believe it. Your trees have a good leaf-to-fruit ratio.”
She gaped. “You know ‘bout six leaves per fruit?”
“I know fruit trees,” he said, and then he turned his attention back to his friend and didn’t say anything else.
Halfway back to the cherry orchard, they finally ran into Pa and Ma and Uncle Po, who drew their ostrich-horses up short and stared as Wendi-Lin approached them.
“What in tarnation?” Pa said, staring at the Airbenders on Rusty’s back.
“Found our thief,” Wendi-Lin informed them brightly. “‘Cept he had good reason for thievin’, turns out.”
Uncle Po ran on back to tell Gran to get the medicine ready, and with Ma and Pa’s help Wendi-Lin had the Airbenders bundled into the house in half-less than no time. Her thief refused to leave his friend’s side while Gran and Aunt Su cleaned the woman’s wounds, and they’d allowed his presence so long as he did as he was told and otherwise stayed out of they way while they worked. For a while the house was all a-bustle with medical supplies and relatives pestering Wendi-Lin for details and somewhere in the middle of it all she had to banish Shu and Lu-An to the courtyard so they’d stop being nuisances.
“Aren’t we supposed to be stayin’ inside cuz it ain’t safe?” Shu complained, for once in his life completely ignoring the fact that he was happier outside than in, because the inside currently had interesting things like Airbenders and bloody wounds.
“That was when we thought there were bandits,” Wendi-Lin said primly. “Now that we know there ain’t any, make yerselves useful and go milk the pig-cow. I think our guests could use it.”
Things had calmed down by the afternoon. The woman still wasn’t doing too good, but she was clean and comfortable, all wrapped up in nice blankets and laid out in a real bed. It was too early to tell if she’d make it - even if she pulled through, Wendi-Lin would be shocked if she kept the eye - but she wasn’t outright dying anymore, and she had a higher chance of not-dying here than she did out in some cave on the edge of a cliff.
Wendi-Lin waited until Gran and Aunt Su were finally done with the woman, and then she’d let herself into the guest room, bringing a cup of milk and a bowl of rice with pickled vegetables and a hard-boiled egg with her. The woman’s bed was positioned very near the wall, and the thief was curled in the window frame, his staff leaning against the sill in easy reaching distance. He looked up when Wendi-Lin entered.
“Figured you might want some lunch,” she said. “Though you should probably take it slow, if you haven’t been eatin’ much, so the milk’s probably best to start with.”
He drank it slowly, and when his stomach was still fine a few minutes later, she handed over the rice. He took the bowl and chopsticks gingerly, staring at the vegetables. She wondered when the last time he’d eaten like a civilized human being had been.
“I figured the egg was alright,” she said, “since you ate ‘em before.”
“Eggs that haven’t hatched aren’t alive yet,” he said.
“Thought it might be somethin’ like that,” she nodded. “I wanted to get you some pig-chicken broth, cuz you look like you could use it, but then I remembered ye’re probably vegetarian.”
“I don’t know what I am anymore,” he muttered, and started on the rice.
Wendi-Lin had nothing to say to that.
They sat in silence for a while, watching the woman’s chest rise and fall in a mostly-steady rhythm. She still looked like death warmed over, Wendi-Lin thought, but at least she didn’t look like she was on death’s doorstep anymore, so that was probably a good thing.
The man’s attention eventually drifted away from his friend, back towards the view out the window. The guest room was on the eastern side of the house, and the window overlooked the cliffside and the miles and miles of farmland sprawled out beneath Bloomcloud Mountain in neat, orderly fields. It was a haze-free day, and off in the distance Ba Sing Se’s Inner Wall was visible, stretching along the horizon.
“You weren’t lying about Ba Sing Se,” the man said eventually, “were you?”
“Lyin’s not in my nature,” Wendi-Lin said.
His eyes slid sideways towards her. “So you were really going to shoot me?”
“Not fatally,” she shrugged. “Thought you were a bandit!”
He snorted. “Might as well be,” he muttered.
“Naw,” she said. “You don’t know farmland bandits. They tend to be organized, mean, and travel in packs. You ain’t any of those.”
He looked back at his friend. “We had a group,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if anyone else - ” He dropped the words abruptly, let them hang in the air as he turned to look back out the window.
“Oh,” she said. He didn’t say anything else, and she added, “I’m sorry.”
The silence stretched between them, and then, suddenly, voice quiet, he said. “Thank you. For...everything. This. I…”
“Ye’re welcome,” Wendi-Lin said primly.
“I’m...sorry I stole your stuff.”
“Eh, you had good reason to be leary of just askin’ for it,” she shrugged. “Honestly I’m just glad you weren’t an actual bandit.” She thought about it. “Also I’m glad you weren’t found by actual bandits.”
He shuddered. “Thank you,” he said again. “I don’t know how I can…”
“If you really wanna thank me, you can help with the harvest in a few days,” she said cheekily. “The cherries’ll be ripe for the pickin’, an’ even with what you took we still got a lotta trees to pick clean.”
She’d meant it as a joke, but to her surprise he looked thoughtful. “I think,” he said slowly, “that I’d like that.”
“Yeah. It’d...be nice to work in an orchard again. I mean, if you’re sure I wouldn’t be a bother…”
“You wouldn’t be,” she said. “We can always use an extra set of hands.”
He took a deep breath and looked at her. “I’m Jungney,” he said. “That’s Boshay. My sister.”
“Nice to meet you, Jungney,” Wendi-Lin said, committing the names to memory. “I’m sure it’ll be nice to meet Boshay too, once she wakes up.” She refused to entertain the notion that Boshay might not wake up, not now, not in front of her brother who’d already had a rough time of it and didn’t need to be thinking any more than he already was about how close his sister was to dying.
“I can,” Jungney started, gesturing a bit with his hands, “I can help with your harvest, and...I don’t know, whatever else you need help with. I’m good with animals. Whatever you need, I can - I can do it for you.”
Wendi-Lin raised an eyebrow at him. “We don’t charge fer basic human decency, you know,” she said. “Also, I did try to shoot you. Seems takin’ you in is the best way to make up for it.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “I want to.”
Maybe he just wasn’t one for charity. “Alright then. I’ll tell Pa. Cherries’ll be ripe for the pickin’ in a few days. And the peaches’ll be ready in about a week.”
“Okay,” he nodded. “Thank you.”
Seemed a little weird he was thanking her for a completely unnecessary repayment, but Wendi-Lin decided not to bother pointing it out.
“You know,” Jungney continued, “out of all the people who’ve shot at me in the last year, you’re the only one who’s actually apologized for it.”
“Only because ye’re not a bandit,” Wendi-Lin said. “If you were, I wouldn’t be sorry!”
Jungney laughed. Not much - just a weak chuckle that sounded out of practice - but Wendi-Lin found herself relieved to hear it nontheless. “Really glad I’m not a bandit, then,” he said. “I really don’t like the idea of you turning me into a pincushion.”
She shrugged. “Eh, I missed anyway.”
“Only because I threw your arrows off-course.”
The look in his eyes was timidly mischievous. It went well with his not-quite-a-smile. “Amazing what a little breeze can do.”
“Well knock me down and steal my teeth,” Wendi-Lin said, looking him up and down approvingly. “I’d be mad, but mostly I’m just glad I didn’t hurt you. How’d you learn to do that?”
“Practice,” he shrugged, and she figured that was as fine a place as any to drop that line of questioning.
“I’m glad I didn’t shoot you,” she told him.
“Yeah,” Jungney said, gazing at Boshay. “Me too.”
Neither of them knew it at the time, but they’d be even gladder as the years wore on. Jungney would prove himself a major help around the farm, helping first with the cherries, and then the peaches, and then the apples come autumn, and the whole time he’d chatter with Pa about pruning techniques and leaf-to-fruit ratios and fertilizer. Boshay’s condition would improve, though her recovery was slow, and she never did regain sight in her right eye. She was good at baking, though, and her fruit pies became the family’s standard dessert. Ma started cooking extra veggies with every meal, and when it came time to stock up on stores for winter Uncle Po and Aunt Su made sure to preserve as much fruit as they did meat.
There were ups and downs. It was hard for things to be perfect when your new friends were survivors of the worst attack the world had ever heard of. Neither of them spoke of it much, and Wendi-Lin and her family never pressed for details. Well, Shu did once, but he was quickly shushed. Boshay seemed to handle it better than her brother - she’d been a nun, it turned out. But Jungney hadn’t been a monk, and unlike his sister, he wasn’t too good at letting go.
Their biggest difference was how they handled their new lives. Boshay was content to settle down on the farm - partially because she was frightened of the world after the comet, she told Wendi-Lin, but also because she liked the orchards, and the animals, and the Yings too. Jungney liked them all just as much, but he never did stop looking towards the sky.
He left a few times. Never without telling them first, and never for very long. He always came back, usually with news of the world beyond the Outer Wall, depressing though it was, or trinkets he’d find, or pretty rocks he’d toss at Wendi-Lin that looked nothing like the red stone that made up the Fu Shi Mountains. Sometimes he even came back with people.
He always had reasons to stay, when Wendi-Lin asked why he didn’t just go if he had the wanderlust so bad. Boshay didn’t want to leave, the world was too dangerous to travel in, he’d promised Pa he’d help out with the farm next season, maybe share some Air Nomad orchard secrets…
And then one evening when she spotted him flying back in, she cornered him in the barn to make it clear that she didn’t mind him leaving, even if he never came back, but he had to be careful and take care of himself, dammit, and one thing had led to another and they’d wound up having a roll in the hay.
And, well, that was a good reason too.
They got married three springs after they first met, when the whole orchard was in bloom and the cherry blossoms were floating on the breeze. Over the next few years they had four rambunctious children - three nonbenders and one Earthbender, and Wendi-Lin didn’t think Jungney ever made up his mind whether he was disappointed or relieved by that. Not that it really mattered - the kids were smart as whips and mischievous as spirits and kept their parents on their toes even without being able to fly. They learned how to bake pie from their aunt and how to prune a tree from their father and how to manage a farm from their grandparents, and as the years passed the Bloomcloud Mountain Yings made a name for themselves as the best fruit farmers in the Agrarian Zone.
It didn’t come as a surprise that the story of how it all began became a classic. The kids loved it. The extended family on the other mountains loved it. The tiny group of people who’d followed Jungney back to Ba Sing Se and had settled in with the fruit farmers loved it, too. And for many years, the tale of how Wendi-Lin went riding off one morning and tried to shoot the man who’d one day be her husband was the family’s very favorite.
At least until the day Wendi-Lin tried to shoot the cheeky little yellow-eyed brat who would one day become her son-in-law.