Far on the outskirts, where the grey trees hiss and rattle dead leaves, a dragonbeetle is disturbed from its log.
It quickly finds another perch, untouched and pearlescent green.
Between gusts, sticks snap. There’s a shuddering breath.
The boy is gripping his knife with white knuckles, held low by his side. The blade glints in the afternoon sun, flickering. His other hand is curled loosely in his robes, pressed onto his chest. His chin is ducked, but his shorn head cannot hide the blistering black and red mar over his left eye. It’s almost unbearable. It’s undressed, untreated; the type you see on corpses. Hao’s stomach turns. He makes himself look.
Hao barely notices the crowd retreating from the square. He just watches as the boy approaches, steps small, barely disturbing the dirt beneath him.
“E- uh- Excuse me?”
The boy stops, blinking.
“I’m right here,” Hao says, voice calm despite really feeling otherwise. “We need to get you to a healer.”
A golden eye looks through him.
“Okay– It’s okay. It’s not far.”
Hao just breathes, waits, as the unseeing gaze drifts up to his own. A bead of sweat tickles his forehead, and he is still. He doesn’t dare budge as the boy resumes his stilted approach.
He stops few feet away, and Hao’s heart drops, throat tightens. There’s only enough time to think ‘Oma and Shu, he’s young’ before there’s a trembling body kneeling at his feet.
Heart pounding in his ears, he kneels as well, hand hovering over the boy’s shoulder. His body radiates heat like an open flame. His breaths are ragged, choking around incomprehensible pleas.
“You’re safe. You’re safe,” Hao murmurs, because that’s all he can do. “You’re safe here.”
Sha-Li is furious. Her hands are steady but something horrible is boiling through her veins. The medicine had pulled him to sleep, but not before he wheezed a desperate, ‘please.’
The dead skin is gone. The ointment and bandages are in place. The boy is still asleep, flushed and mumbling, and Sha-Li feels fury so deep it burns like grief. Curse her damn heart. Her mother had always told her she was too soft for this line of work. She was right. That bitter old woman was always right.
She stands from the stool by his cot, closing her eyes on the growing stain on the green fabric. It will barely dry before more tears replace it. She knows.
Kiyi’s big brown eyes appear from behind the partition, looking warily at their new guest.
“It’s time to eat,” Sha-Li says, voice steady. “Prep the vegetables with me?”
Kiyi only pauses a moment before meeting her gaze.
Cooking goes hand-in-hand with healing. It’s rhythmic and sequential, flexible and accommodating– you can never abandon thought, but you know where to go. She never liked it growing up, but what kid does? She wanted to play hopscotch with her friends, not attend to her three brothers.
Kiyi silently chops the carrots into perfect discs.
“Hao found him wandering through town.”
“But he looks so…” she trails off, cutting the top off of the next carrot.
Sha-Li nods, opening a sachet of spices. “I don’t know how he made it. Spirits know how far he walked.”
Kiyi pulls two out of the sack.
“Three this time.”
She nods, obliging. Eyes flick toward the cot.
“He doesn’t look like a soldier.”
Sha-Li sighs. The grief she’d set aside blooms once again, like a recalcitrant weed.
“That has never mattered in their eyes.” She says, even though they both already know.
The water simmers quietly, hissing as Sha-Li’s handfuls are dropped in. Kiyi’s knife hits wood again and again. This peace only lasts a minute.
“Omma,” she begins carefully, eyebrows furrowed at her work, “I want to help.”
The onion stings in her nose. She ignores it.
“Please?” Kiyi interrupts, voice jumping in pitch. “I know I can.”
“I know you can too, but–”
“Kiyi,” she scolds, she begs, “you are twelve. You are not leaving this house until you are at least sixteen.” You are not allowed to leave me.
The soup bubbles, its gurgling the only sound between them. She stirs, evening her breath. Inhaling– exhaling– in time with her spoon.
“I’m sorry, baby, but the war isn’t allowed to take you yet. Not while I’m around.”
Sha-Li looks back into the pot, letting the aromatic steam surround her. She can pretend for a moment, in that cloud, that her brothers are waiting with bowls in hand, that their stomachs can still feel empty, that her Omma is snapping at them to back up, and that the tiny arms wrapped around her waist will never see any more violence, ever again.
Patients come and go. Fever and coughs soothed by tea, scrapes wrapped, turned stomachs calmed, again and again. Words of gratitude, meager coin slipped into her pouch, Hao stopping by, deflating as his eyes land on the boy, like his heart breaks every day he refuses to wake.
“Will he?” He asks.
“Of course,” she says, like there’s no point in believing otherwise.
Kiyi has started sitting next to him during meals, telling him stories. Sha-Li assumed this was private, a confidant that isn’t her own mother, but the third time or-so she’d done it, she’d grabbed her hand and pulled.
“Do you think he can hear me?” Kiyi asks, abruptly, in the middle of the Snowfly and the Peach.
Sha-Li pets her hair, “I hope so.”
Hao hasn’t stopped by in days, and the boy sleeps, none the wiser. The cloth over his brow drips cold water down the bridge of his nose. Sha-Li purses her lips. She’ll have to replace his bandages.
Gently, she reaches for the compress, floor creaking as she leans over him.
She flinches, retracting her hand when she sees a wide eye staring back.
Frozen, she watches as the boy’s gaze flits over his surroundings, moving too fast to really be seeing anything. She jumps into action, however, when she sees him push against the cot, trying to sit up. To get up, or run.
“No, no, sweet.” She says, pressing softly at his chest. “Lie still.”
At the contact he shrinks, out of fear or ease, she can’t tell.
Regardless, she scooches her stool back, giving him space.
He just watches her with that wide eye, disbelieving, confused, and achingly young.
“My name is Sha-Li. I’m a healer. I only want to help you.”
“I suspect you’re hungry. I will grab you some soup.”
Slowly, she stands and makes her way to the kitchen, where Kiyi has suddenly appeared from the bedroom. She must have heard.
Sha-Li relights the fire under the pot as her daughter approaches, tiptoeing.
“No staring.” She says quietly, not looking up as she stirs.
Kiyi mumbles a quick ‘sorry.’
“Three bowls, please.”
Calmly, she ladles three portions, keeping an eye on the boy in case he rises again. He’s watching, completely still. She snuffs the flame and hands Kiyi two bowls, grabbing the other herself.
“This is my daughter, Kiyi,” she says, before kneeling down by the cot.
Kiyi smiles tentatively.
Sha-Li sets the soup down. “I’m going to help you sit up so you can eat, okay?”
Finally, the boy reacts. A small nod.
Relief soothes anticipation as she places her hand under his shoulder, sliding to support his back as he lifts upward. He breathes deeply, squeezes his eye shut.
“Lean against the wall, hon,” she whispers when he squirms to get comfortable.
Once he’s settled, she pulls her hands away and grabs the bowl by her knees, holding it out.
He takes it with tremulous hands and promptly bows his head.
She smiles, “You’re very welcome.”
Sha-Li turns back to Kiyi, who’s sitting patiently, and joins her.
“What’s your name?” She asks, once they’ve finished.
He curls his fingers around the bowl, fingernails scratching at the wood, and shakes his head.
She sighs, “Okay, hon.”
Sha-Li has taken to calling him Ryu. His inherited golden eyes reveal the savagery of the Fire Nation*, but the stubborn turn of his mouth is pure Earth. Those soldiers have no shame, no honor, they just take and ruin, but this boy survived. He lived despite it all.
“Today?” He asks, as he asks every morning.
He lives, and he lives stubborn.
“Maybe after breakfast.”
“I feel better today,” he says, as he says every morning.
She sighs. “I have to do your bandages. We need to eat breakfast. You need to eat breakfast. Then you can try walking around.”
He frowns, but still turns his bandaged side toward her.
It took several days of flinching out of her reach, squeezing his eyes shut with ragged breaths every time the wrappings stuck, to get to this point. He still breathes careful and slow, hands fisted into the blanket, but at least he trusts her this much.
Conscious of her expression, she notes his milky left-eye and shriveled left-ear. Poor dear will have a time of adjusting. She applies a salve with her fingers, dabbing and smoothing, ignoring the unnatural texture of his skin.
With every touch, his fingers twitch, but he bears it silently. A brave little dragon.
“All right,” she sighs, wiping her hands with a rag, “we’re going to let it breathe, but no touching, okay?”
He looks at her and bows his head.
She turns away before she can see, but she smiles. He always does.
Kiyi collects the empty plates after breakfast, but before she can take Ryu’s, Sha-Li interrupts.
“Baby, why don’t you show him how to clean the dishes?”
Both Kiyi and Ryu brighten.
Sha-Li glances up from her stitches to watch as Kiyi directs Ryu to the soap, pointing with the hand not holding a pail of water. He nods curtly, as if responding to a superior officer. It’s all she can do not to laugh as he ambles to the cabinet, brow furrowed in concentration.
After dumping the water in the basin, Kiyi rejoins him to point it out.
“It’s okay. It was hiding,” she says, smiling, when he turns red. “Grab the rags please? They’re by the stove.”
She turns back to her repairs, listening to the clamor with one ear. Her youngest brother’s old clothes should fit Ryu perfectly. Thank the Spirits she kept them. They might be a little loose in the arms, the kid’s still awfully skinny, but perfection is subjective anyway.
She’s interrupted in her musings by a sudden splash and peal of laughter.
Ryu’s entire front is soaking wet, arms held out awkwardly from the mess. Kiyi is nearly doubled over at his wide-eyed expression, bracing herself on the side of the basin and gasping for breath.
Sha-Li is about to intervene, when Ryu loosens his tense posture, lips quirking into a smile at her daughter’s antics.
It’s a small thing, unsure and out of practice, but it’s also impossibly wonderful.
With that aglow in her chest, she crinkles her eyes and turns back to her work.
The sun is high and warm; it’s a perfect day to attend the market. It didn’t take much to get Ryu outside. He’d closed his eyes at the sky and sighed peacefully, like one does after a long, brutal winter. It did, however, take a moment of coaxing to get him to venture into public, citing the need for extra hands.
With Ryu just behind her right side, they approach the first stall.
“Hello, Bina! Beautiful weather today.”
Bina sighs wistfully at the cloudless blue sky. “Indeed. If it was this nice every day I wouldn’t be asking this much for rice.”
Sha-Li bites her lip at the price, pulling out her pouch.
“Now, who’s this?”
She looks from Bina, peering around her side, to Ryu, who’s now completely behind her.
Sha-Li pulls out two coins with a small smile.
“This is Ryu,” she says, and to Ryu, “come on, hon, she won’t bite.”
Like the stubborn boy she knows, he replies, “I know,” and definitely doesn’t pout as he moves into view.
Bina winces. It’s slight, but she can tell Ryu noticed, head lowered.
She places a gentle hand on his shoulder and hands her the money.
“You have a very handsome boy, Sha-Li,” Bina says, eyes soft in apology.
“Thank you,” she says, accepting the compliment and her bag of rice. “It’s always lovely to see you.”
Ryu doesn’t respond to her for the next couple of stalls. Doesn’t even lift his chin. She doesn’t mind, just rubs his shoulder with her thumb.
Hao puts his hand to his chest, staggering from behind his stand.
Sha-Li smiles, stepping slightly to the side, “Hello to you, too. This is Ryu.”
“Hi there, Ryu,” he says, breathlessly, “You probably don’t remember me.”
Like some miracle, the boy looks up at Hao without hesitation. Recognition in the confused furrow of his brow.
Hao’s grin turns goofy with joy, “I’m so happy to see you’re feeling better.”
Ryu’s hesitant expression turns to one of wonder, wide and childlike.
He bows so eagerly, Sha-Li can’t contain the elation in her heart. She presses her knuckles into the wet corners of her eyes and reaches for her coin purse for something to do. A hand stops her.
“Nonsense, Sha-Li. What would you like?”
“I couldn’t–” she protests.
“Please,” Hao urges, eyes wet as well, “it’s only fair.”
She heaves a calming breath and looks to her side. Ryu looks back.
Kiyi chops the carrots into perfect discs to her right, while Ryu peels the potatochokes on her left.
The flame blooms under the pot with a practiced crack of her spark rocks. Beside her, she hears a pause in the din of cutting vegetables. By the time she looks up, though, all noise has resumed.
Kiyi pulls three from the sack.
Ryu begins chopping the potatochokes.
“How big?” He asks after a few slices.
Sha-Li makes a small circle with her fingers.
With Ryu-intensity, he studies her gesture and attacks his task again, jaw set.
It feels like ages since Hao had run to her door, stricken and pleading, with a half-dead body cradled in his arms. The terrified, fever-fogged eye had shaken her to the core. No one had ever looked at her with such pure terror. It’s a blessing from the Spirits above that she was allowed to see this boy to health, to see this bright determination instead of fear.
She wants him to know, but she doesn’t have the words.
“Ryu, hon, would you stir for me please?”
She awakens to the shriek of her name.
Father’s club in hand, she runs out of the room.
Instead of surrounded by Fire Nation soldiers, she finds Kiyi standing in the middle of an empty room, note in hand, tears trailing down her face.