The spring sun was certainly warm today. And that was a good thing. Good for the potted herbs and the seedling pepper plants. Good for the skin.
Lan Yi did not bother to glance around before unhooking the toggles of her outer shirt and shrugging out of the rough garment, leaving her in just a stained silk undershirt. She was alone in the courtyard she shared with the other widows and, while modesty had always been an unspoken law among them, she knew none of the other ladies would be offended. They all understood this kind of passing madness.
Lan Yi folded her shirt into a tidy square and left it on the stoop of the door that led to her kitchen, then turned back to the tidy rows of plants that she and the other ladies had been cultivating together for years now. At first, the garden had only appealed to her thrifty nature, but she had quickly found the work was also a welcome relief from fretting over her son. Her brave soldier.
She abruptly crouched to examine the fattening basil leaves and that little breath came out of her again, raw and hollow. What a nuisance. It didn't do to be so frail. A woman should know better than to be shaken when fate was cruel to her. Especially a widow. A widow should never be so frail.
But losing Chau all those years ago had been different. She'd had her boy, then. Her entire broken heart had gone into loving her boy, her little prince.
Lan Yi tipped her head back and let the sun spill on her throat. She pinched her eyes shut against the sky and tried to think of anything else.
The actual prince was returning at last, but that only felt like more of fate's cruelty. That news had come in just days after Lan Yi received... the other news. Word of the Avatar's capture had traveled halfway around the world by relay messenger hawk in less than two weeks and reached Lan Yi the day she had finally made herself go to market. She had walked home with an empty basket, fighting tears and rage.
Prince Zuko had been banished as a boy, seemingly forever, and now he had done the impossible; he and Princess Azula had captured the Avatar, and they were coming home. The banished prince would return in just a few more weeks.
And Lan Yi's son never would.
Lan Yi sat down right there on the swept flagstones and pressed her face into her hands. It had been a form letter, delivered to her personally by some young officer with slightly glazed eyes. They must have had hundreds of them written out after the first defeat at the rebel base. Miaoyin, the girl who sold spiced melon chunks at her own booth at market now, had gotten one just like it about her husband. There were others Lan Yi knew as well. She had them all written down somewhere. It didn't do to forget such things, and she was in no state to remember.
It was all she could do to rise each day and do her work. She was an agent for a laundry service and walked the business district all day securing new clients and confirming orders. It was tiring work, and it involved a great deal of arguing and haggling over prices, which Lan Yi usually quite enjoyed. Now, though, it was difficult to find any pleasure in the things she had loved before.
The sun, though. That was a good thing. It soaked into the back of her neck and shoulders. It warmed her shirt against her skin and her dark brown hair in its tidy bun. Lan Yi lowered her hands to her knees and just let the sun fall on her for a while.
She heard Mitsuki's door open but did not bother opening her eyes. She didn't care if her neighbor saw her this way, not now. There was a rap like a walking stick on the stone, and a heavy step, then another rap. Then, the courtyard was quiet. Lan Yi might have thought that rap was strange if she had been thinking about it, because Mitsuki had never used a cane. But Lan Yi was not thinking about that, so it shocked her when she heard his voice.
"Mom?" His voice, that voice she had thought she would never hear again. "Aren't you cold?"
Lan Yi was afraid to open her eyes. She was afraid he would not be there and her heart would break all over again. But at last she drew a breath and raised her chin and looked.
He had lost weight, quite a bit of it, and not all just from marching and subsisting on those military rations he'd complained about in his letters. There were hollows in his cheeks and new lines in his young skin. His eyes looked out at her, strange and skittish. He leaned hard on a long crutch, and it was doing terrible things to his posture.
And part of his leg was gone. Just gone.
But he was there, watching her the way he always had when he thought she was acting like a real crazy lady. He stuck his thumb over his shoulder toward where Mitsuki was peeking her tearful face around the door, watching. "Mrs. Shin let me come through because you weren't answering your door."
Lan Yi scrambled to her feet and ran to him, arms already raised, hands shaking to reach him. "Tyno! My Tyno! Oh, my- oh!"
He caught her with his free arm and wobbled a little even though she was so much smaller than him, but Lan Yi hardly noticed. What Lan Yi noticed was that she really had been cold, sitting on the stone in just her undershirt, but Tyno was so warm. Her little firebender, her son had always given such toasty hugs.
"They told me you had died," she managed, not noticing her tears as they spotted the front of his worn uniform.
Tyno sighed and set his cheek against the top of her head and thought. He very nearly had died. But that was one of the many things he didn't want to tell her, things he didn't want to think about now, maybe ever. He wanted to focus on this, hugging his mom again, because everything else was just part of the broken world he'd left behind.
"I lost my name tags," he finally said, and swallowed, hoping to produce a little saliva in his dry mouth. "Nobody knew who I was until I woke up and told them. And then I learned that nurses in isolated recovery hospitals do not like going back and adjusting paperwork. What they like is giving injections. And they mostly like to stick them in a butt cheek."
Lan Yi laughed and pulled back to look at him again, squeezing his arms through his sleeves. "It's a wonder they didn't hit bone even then, as skinny as you've gotten! Come inside and eat before you collapse!"
She began shooing him toward her door and Tyno went ahead. His new stride felt awkward and slow, more hopping than stepping, so he talked to distract them both. "Oh, I hope you have fire flakes. Or char chilies. Even rabbotter - I had this stew one night and it's not as bad as I thought when I was a kid-" He pulled up short in the doorway and turned to look down at her. "Did you get my letter? About Prince Zuko?"
Lan Yi blinked up at him. "Did you just send it? Because you know it takes them weeks to sort through all that mail, Tyno."
"No, Mom, I didn't just send it, but never mind the letter." He grinned at her, savoring the moment. "I met him. The actual crown prince."
Lan Yi's face lit up and she gripped his elbow, urging him to go on. "Prince Zuko? Ooh! Who's taller?"
"I am," Tyno said with only a slight note of superiority. "A bit."
His mother gave him an adoring smile and laid her palm against his cheek. She was a humble woman and would never speak against royalty, but the gesture was as good as saying of course you are. "I'll make you some dumplings," she said, pressing him through the door and into the kitchen. She stepped on her folded shirt and didn't even notice. "You tell me all about it."
AN: Woo! Thanks for reading my story and, if you reviewed, for reviewing! I've really enjoyed writing this one and I've already started working on Book 2 - The King's Pet or The King. If you liked Call Me Katto, I think you'll like it, too. :)