The looming facade of the central library hulked over the busy campus of the University of Republic City. It was a familiar sight to the young woman staring up at it — far too familiar lately, if you asked her — but for once, its ornate glass doors were not where Rinchen was headed. Her heart raced as she crossed the courtyard and slipped into the archway behind the library, continuing towards the three-storey red brick building which housed the Humanities departments. The building was recently erected, yet it had the earthy air of a complex that had been in place for decades.
Rinchen gripped the book tight as she waited for the elevator. This was definitely a deviation from her thoroughly constructed — and thoroughly ignored — thesis schedule, but unlike all the other deviations, it could yet prove to be an extremely illuminating one. In any case, she would hardly be able to concentrate until she had someone with a little more expertise look it over. Though her research interest was in tracing the early political history of the United Republic and its purported world-changing cosmopolitanism, she could concede she had more than a passing personal interest in the lives of its founders.
Rinchen blamed the long list of period dramas she had consumed since childhood. Why did they always have to make Fire Lord Zuko so handsome?
After a few more impatient seconds waiting for the elevator, she rushed up the staircase, the book clutched in her sweaty hand, and almost smacked into the door that was her intended destination. A brief glance at the tiny characters scribbled on the front — every one of these office doors looked the same — and she knocked hard, once.
"Come in," called a voice, slightly strained with age but alert.
Rinchen entered. "Professor," she panted, before becoming aware of herself and shrinking back, her back straightening. She glanced around the office — books and scrolls lined every shelf, and Rinchen almost gasped when she suddenly noticed the shimmering spirit vines crawling up the casings and in the cracks between each neatly stacked shelf. One sapling had managed to twirl itself along the telephone cord that was attached to the wall next to Rinchen's shoulder.
"How can I help you?" The professor's air was composed, but still kind and open.
Rinchen scratched her arm self-consciously. "Um, you don't know me, but uh—I'm from the history department. I was wondering if I could talk to you about... well, about your family."
The professor stared at Rinchen over her glasses, unimpressed. "Do you know how many kids I get in here asking me about all that?"
Rinchen grimaced. For a moment, she considered retreating, leaving with the book she had brought unopened and keeping its strange contents to herself. Why, indeed, would renowned Spiritologist and Professor, Nyima of the Air Nation, daughter of the late and legendary Jinora, be interested in entertaining some student's prying hunch about her famous circle of ancestors? "I—I'm sure, Professor. It's just that — I'm studying UR history and... well..."
Nyima sighed knowingly and let her glasses fall to hang around her neck, rubbing an eye with a brightly coloured fingernail. "As long as you're not here to ask me what Korra's favourite colour was—"
"It's about your great-grandparents."
The old professor didn't miss a beat, "— or Aang's favourite food—"
"It's… well…" Rinchen scrunched her face and tried to word her question as diplomatically as possible. Beating around the bush would only make her seem phonier. "Was anyone on Air Temple Island having an affair with Fire Lord Zuko?"
Nyima's head cocked, her eyes wide. Rinchen cringed and thrust the book into her hand.
Dearest Fieryest Zuko,
I meant what I said in my last letter. Seriously, do not come to the island! Construction is a mess right now, and I can't even guarantee we'll be able to see each other with all this stuff I have to oversee at the temple, not to mention little baby Bumi. Can you believe they want to make the statue even bigger now? I guess [ — indecipherable, ink smudged — ] give the people what they want… I promise I'll meet you in the city — be in the apartment tomorrow night. (Or I'll send one of Toph's minions after you).
I miss you like crazy. I can't believe it's been almost six months.
Yours forever your majesty Sifu Hot Lord, [—writing scratched out—] Probably shouldn't sign in case our friends from the Herald catch a hold of this haha. Just be there!
Nyima gawked. There was no mistaking the Air Temple Island letterhead — the one her grandfather had loved, insisted that all correspondence, even the silly notes she sent to her friends while she was staying at home — had to be stamped with. There was no mistaking the parchment, either — yellowing with a century of age, but the exact texture, the exact thickness, of those stacks in the library at home, the ones Grandma always scrawled her recipes on and Grandpa ordered spare reams of by the crate, just to be safe.
And there was certainly no mistaking the scrawl. It was looser here, loopier and definitely having trouble keeping within the margins, but it was without a doubt the very same handwriting she had pored over for hours and days, the scrolls she had coveted sitting with her mother and studying pages of journals and notes. The casual intimacy and breathtaking history juxtaposed in that one evasive figure. A memory of a memory.
She put the note down, dazed, and picked up the book again. Ethnogenesis in the Fire Nation Archipelago. It was dated 121 A.G., certainly an import from the Royal Library of the land in question. She picked up the note again and observed that it was trisected with two neat, vertical folds in the middle. Someone had been using it as a bookmark. No guesses as to who.
She rubbed her eyes again.
The poor girl in front of her looked expectant, wide-eyed, yet also like she was expecting some kind of blow, probably for insinuating anything untoward about Nyima's ancestors. Nyima smiled as serenely as she could in the moment, pushing down the unexpected spark of nostalgia for her childhood, her grandparents and their beloved home. It was a wonder to see the construction of that very place discussed so casually. A part of her had felt that Air Temple Island had always been there, an eternal sanctuary on Yue Bay since the beginning of time, though intellectually, she knew that couldn't be true.
"Sit down, sit down, please," she said, gesturing to the chair in front of her. The girl sat hesitantly, and Nyima hid a smile as she gingerly brushed away a flowering vine before lowering herself carefully onto her seat.
Nyima racked her brains the best as she could with this sudden information. If her mother had known anything about this, she hadn't told her. Her grandfather, well — Nyima winced a little, albeit fondly, at the mere thought of him broaching such a subject. Who else could have known? She was sure that if Great-Uncle Bumi knew he would have blurted it to them in his senile old age. She'd be a little dismayed if Great-Aunt Kya had known and hadn't told her or her mother. According to Nyima's mother, Kya never treated any topic like it was beyond her nieces and nephews' comprehension. These kinds of dalliances were certainly not uncommon, as far as great figures in history went.
Nyima's heart sank as her thought finally travelled to Katara, but the point stood. She would refrain from making any assumptions.
The lives of all those involved in the Hundred Year War had been studied in detail. And yet — she was plenty familiar with the idea that you could read something to death and still not have an inkling of actual knowledge about it. Certain contemporary Spiritologists came to mind.
"What's your name again, dear?"
"Rinchen," Nyima said amiably. It was curious and rather heartening how traditional Air Nomad names had come into fashion since the old epics had been discovered and published. "I think we're going to have to do some archival research. Don't let a word of this get out to anyone until we have a clearer picture of what we're dealing with, all right?"
The girl raised her brows in expectation, the perfect picture of youthful curiosity.
Weeks passed and Professor Nyima's office somehow became an even more familiar sight than the library to Rinchen. She wasn't complaining; it was much more comfortable in here, the air conditioning actually worked — though she had to wonder if the occasional Spirit mist that dusted the room didn't have anything to do with that — and she had gotten used to the vines quicker than she might have imagined. They kept things interesting, at least, sneaking around into new nooks every time she came in, so that she never entered the same office twice.
Archives aside, Rinchen's own curiosity was only growing. She had to admit that she wanted something to come of all this. It was just last week that she'd heard someone say the most dismissive thing about the new Team Avatar drama serial. Period pieces about Avatar Aang and his friends weren't scarce in any medium, and they had never been afraid to take artistic liberties, but rumour had it that this show was going to be the first to explore some sensual overtones to Zuko and Aang's relationship. Already, Rinchen felt intensely defensive of it. It was the (granted, fictionalised) tales of the heroes of the Hundred Year War that had gotten her interested in the study of politics and history, and she'd be lying if she said they didn't contribute to that interest still. She had spent longer daydreaming about the potentials of Aang and Zuko's friendship than she would like to admit, and to see the prospect of it derided by people who didn't know the first thing about Zuko's reforms or Air Nomad philosophies added fresh fuel to her fantasies of being vindicated by history.
"Here they are!" Professor Nyima yanked out a stack of what looked like old-fashioned ledgers from a high shelf, their yellowing pages stuck together between stiff cloth coverings. "I should really get all of this stored away properly and just keep the copies." She picked one out from the pile, distinguishing them despite their identical covers, and ran a finger dubiously along one edge of a leaf. The paper sounded dangerously crisp. Rinchen leaned forward eagerly when Nyima made to hand it to her.
The Annals of the Avatar - southeastern Earth Kingdom.
"Korra had them for a while — my mother said she wanted to study them — and then my grandfather took them back for his archives. Most of which is currently relocated to this office, by the way. He reckoned that they weren't official records or anything like that. Just Aang's journals from all the places he visited for his Avatar duties."
Rinchen swallowed and traced her finger over the cover gingerly. She didn't think she'd ever get used to the name of Avatar Korra being dropped so casually, but she tried not to let it show. Professor Nyima seemed to treat her as a very sensible and studious co-researcher, though who knew what she really thought. She hadn't missed the way she had arched a curious brow at the Team Avatar comic sticking out of Rinchen's backpack the other day.
The first note Rinchen came upon was a dog-eared page, by Korra herself, according to Nyima, whose mother apparently made a lot of good-natured complaints about her friend's lack of reverence for historical documents or any such like. Her eyes followed the text slowly, savouring every word. These clearly were not official; there was an informality to the tone that caught Rinchen off guard. She knew that just because people were dead or important or both didn't mean they had talked like they were giving an official speech in their day to day lives, but seeing the original text of the journal of Avatar Aang in front of her left her awestruck with the realisation.
Absently, she wondered what any of the writers of all those period novels and dramas would do for access to something like this. This was the sort of intel that could probably quell some of the incessant bickering that went on amongst fans of the various Team Avatar stories and interpretations. From the way Professor Nyima talked, much the same could be said for the academic community.
Rinchen ran her fingertips along the page. The handwriting was the same as the note she had discovered, but smaller and less scrawling, deliberately neat. Despite the mention of Fire Lord Zuko, this one didn't seem particularly important to their inquiry. She looked up at Nyima, who was already dividing the stack of notebooks in two.
"All right, you start with that one," she muttered absently. "I think I'll get us some tea."
Some notes of my tours. (105AG to 149AG)
I first visited Daoshu after the earthquake caused by the namazu (big catfish spirit, don't recommend meeting)... It was a grave disaster but, you know, we all learned a lot… I can't say enough about the resilience of the people of Daoshu and especially Bakai. Returned ASAP year after that to follow up on the recovery. Precious memories despite it all. Access to the mountains is pretty limited but very worth it… I actually left a glider here the last time. Beautiful summer festival. Met a lot of cute little Avatars the first time around though I must say I enjoyed my second visit better, i.e. the one with significantly less earthquakes and spirit coma and more mango ice. Crunchy lentils are definitely the highlight no matter what Zuko says. They probably have the best tea in the EK... Not a lot of vegetarian options. I hear the fish is killer though (haha!)
After two more days of careful study, Nyima had to conclude that The Annals of the Avatar, true to their archival moniker, didn't reveal many personal details. Despite their carefree tone, most of Aang's musings were about the places themselves — what his business was there, but also the food, the cultural activities and the day to day lives of the people. Nyima wasn't blind to his intent. There was a careful consideration to capturing the finer details in these records; what she'd even call, with the best of decades of Aang-adjacent study, an uncharacteristic patience for prose, for the taste of the local street cuisine or the smell of the air in the evening. She sighed and found herself in harmony with her great grandfather in a way that made the reeling years of existence between them insignificant.
If only someone had done the same for the Air Nomads.
On the topic of her research, however, there were some hints. None of this was any incriminating evidence, even Aang's note was not, not on its own at least. Nyima kept a tally. The Earth Republic — Kingdom, back then — owing to its size, had the most records, taking up three of the slim notebooks. The Fire Nation had only one.
But the locations within were very off balance. According to the journals, Ember Island, the Fire Nation royal family's official holiday home, had twice as many visits as Aang's second favourite remote location. That fact wasn't necessarily meaningful in itself. But it certainly meant something — the heroes of the Hundred Year War were all lifelong friends, with Zuko and Aang's friendship particularly being the stuff of legends, according to old stories, papers, and family members.
But something didn't sit right. She soon discovered why, after rifling through Republic City's school and hospital records. At least a third of those Fire Nation visits occurred when Katara was working here in town. The thought of her great grandmother itched at Nyima's conscience. She would get to the bottom of this for her, if not for the prying public.
She took another sip of her tea. It was cold by now, and she regretted ushering it along with her airbending in those first few minutes before the records pushed all other thought from her mind.
Nyima pressed her palm into her forehead.
What timing for all this, too. She hadn't told Rinchen, but before the girl's appearance, Nyima had been neck deep in the preparations to publicly release all these family documents, her mother's private archives — hers now, technically. Her grandfather had been more hesitant about the idea, but Nyima had known since she first became her mother's protégé that it had always been Jinora's plan to make the records public one day. Nyima, as their new legal custodian, was all too aware that it was an occasion long awaited in the academic community. The archives were probably going to birth as many new journals and fuel as many conferences as the rediscovery of the sacred scrolls and epics at the air temples had a few decades ago. Nyima herself had ridden that wave all the way to a prolific career, even if she did change track into Spiritology along the way. And she had never forgotten her mother saying that the greatest thrill those discoveries had brought her was her daughter's enthusiastic interest in their ancient culture.
Rinchen had been here in the morning, but she left some hours ago. She'd brought Nyima notes on some newspaper articles she had found in the library archives. Nyima took one glance at the insinuations and dismissed them out of hand. Even if these tabloids did somehow veer close to the truth, it would have been purely by accident. A lifetime of mingling in her parents' famous circles had proven to her that the last thing these papers operated on was evidence. One particularly egregious report once had pulled her own parents into the fray, claiming Master Jinora's husband had given into his old 'scoundrel ways' and was having an affair with — of all people — Aunt Opal. It made Nyima cackle to this day.
Still, she picked up one of the large sheets Rinchen had left. It was a black and white rendition of a 115 A.G. copy of the now-defunct Harmony Herald, courtesy of the library's shiny new photocopiers. A murky photograph of a young Master Katara graced the cover, and Nyima was struck by just how much she looked like Great Aunt Kya once did. A little softer in the expression, maybe, and surprisingly slight in figure, though she figured that would have been the norm in those days. Next to her stood the unmistakable figure of Fire Lord Zuko, shoulders heaped with layers of dark fabric in the ostentatious, pointed style of old Fire Nation regalia. Even the graininess of the image — being a photocopy of an early sepia photograph — couldn't hide the ease with which they stood together. Katara's arm was tucked into his and a gently curious expression adorned his face as he turned to presumably listen to something she said.
Nyima recalled her mother saying that she had met Lord Zuko exactly thrice. First, at her tattoo ceremony, as a gaunt and clearly nostalgic figure sitting next to her grandmother. The second time, they had actually talked, and Jinora had recounted vividly how odd her thirteen-year-old self had thought it — why someone still so spry would give up being the ruler of a nation only to become an ambassador behind the scenes. The final time had been a more intimate setting at Katara's home in the South Pole, mere months before the passing of both elders.
Nyima looked at the picture again. Was it possible that Katara had known about whatever it was that had transpired between her husband and the Fire Lord?
The man looked up from where he had been carefully studying something on his computer screen. After a moment, recognition sparked in his eye and he stood up, ushering them inside. "Yes, yes! Welcome, Master Nyima."
Rinchen quirked an eyebrow at Nyima, who looked a little chuffed. "I go more by Professor these days," she said, grinning and shaking the hand of the councillor.
Rinchen glanced around the chilly room — compared to Republic City summers, which were unbearable without air conditioning, or for those so able, airbending, the South Pole was pleasantly cool. This particular room, she later learned, was temperature controlled for the maintenance of its century-old archives. The strong sealskin rugs covering the floor were thus a welcome touch. "We received your notice only yesterday," Councillor Anik was saying, You're here for an early batch of census records, if I'm correct?"
"If you please," Nyima said. She gestured to Rinchen. "I'm digging into some family history with my assistant here. Please let her peruse anything you'd show to me." She inclined her head politely.
"You're not staying?" Rinchen was so alarmed she was momentarily distracted from the tantalising thought of access to a century's worth of Water Tribe records.
Nyima shook her head, hauling the thick, fur-lined hood of her orange parka over her head. "I'll be back tomorrow! It's just that I can't come to the South without seeing my cousins. They'd be mad if they knew I was here and hadn't visited them - this is a matter of self-preservation."
And with that, she was out of the door. Rinchen saw her trudge through the snowy tundra from the small window inside the building towards her wind bison, Michi. She turned to the Councillor with barely contained excitement, and the Councillor indulged her.
"You know it was Master Nyima's great-granduncle, Chief Sokka, who started the first census here. He wanted to know just how well the tribe was recovering after the Great War, and it was a point of pride for his whole life that it did, marvellously."
Rinchen nodded, transfixed, as the Councillor led her to a darkened backroom. He rifled through a great big file of papers as he continued, "Not only the way the population slowly recovered, but the number of waterbenders, too. And the burst of new villages and even cities that came to be soon after. There were new members, too — you probably already know that Avatar Aang lived here for a few years right after the War. Ah— here we are!" He pulled out a thick stack of creamy parchment, tied together with a rubber band.
Out in the main room, Rinchen examined the cover sheet. SOUTHERN WATER TRIBE CENSUS, it read in bold characters. Underneath, in a smaller print, it said, RETURN SUMMARIES, FORMS. Finally, there was the date, in what looked like a stamp series rather than free ink. 135 A.G.–165 A.G. That sounded about right. She put on her glasses and began to search for the evidence that would potentially make or break Professor Nyima's current hypothesis. In spite of the chill, Rinchen felt herself begin to sweat. If Nyima's hunch was right, then it was almost certain there had been something going on more the opposite of what Rinchen had imagined when she first found the note tucked inside that book. She couldn't help but deflate at the idea that Aang wasn't involved – these types of historical dalliances were a dime a dozen, and it was nothing exciting to think her heroes had been implicated in one such instance.
SOUTHERN WATER TRIBE CENSUS
Please include in this list all families residing in this dwelling -indecipherable–- any lodgers.
Location Harbour City
No. of families 1
No. of members 2
Birth 85 A.G.
Place of origin Southern Water Tribe
Bender status Bender
Occupation Waterbending master
Birth 83 A.G.
Place of origin Fire Nation
Bender status Bender
The stacks of old records was being whittled down, slowly but surely, between the two of them. It was looking likelier now that Aang had nothing to do with this whole affair, but despite — or because of — whatever feelings she had about that fact, Nyima couldn't stop reading the writings he had left behind. If Aang had known about Katara and Zuko's relations, whatever he made of them, that would put her mind at ease. She wasn't sure why, but she had to know - to make sure she had given all the sources at her disposal their due attention - both as a scholar and a great-granddaughter.
It was another late night. The thought of her mother crept into her mind as it often did when she let the hours get away. Jinora had organised Aang's writings for keeping at the library on Air Temple Island; filing through them now, Nyima saw the labels made by her spidery hand, and imagined what her mother had made of all these. She still couldn't escape the feeling that she wouldn't find anything her mother hadn't.
Sighing, Nyima set down the last of the Annals, not feeling the sense of accomplishment she had anticipated, and pushed it into a pile she had set aside to be copied and Spirit-grammed to the White Lotus. Avatar Lian was currently in training in the Northern Water Tribe. She would probably be interested in Aang's musings on the world, or at least, Nyima thought she should be.
She turned to the next folder. This one was thin; she would make short work of it, then turn in for the night. Personal letters - provenance: United Republic read the label that she traced her finger over a few times, before unwinding the string of the closing clasp.
It feels weird to be writing you at Air Temple Island while I'm down here in the SWT, but first time for everything, huh? Please give Kya the most humongous of cuddles from all of us. Bumi's doing pretty good here, you'll be glad to know. Actually, Zuko's showing him how to work the sled as we speak. He's great with the dogs! (Better than Zuko, don't tell him that.)
Speaking of — Zuko broke his bracelet today, which was pretty sad. He wanted me to fix it for him but I'm gonna wait until I can look at yours to make sure I weave the gold back in right — not too confident about my fine metalbending skills yet! I wish I remembered how I made it.
At that point, Nyima stopped reading. She held her breath for a moment, then retrieved her computer and began to type a message to Rinchen.
Zuko and Katara had a pair of matching bracelets — this was old news, a bit of tabloid fodder exhausted decades ago — and until now she would have considered this forgotten piece of information another piece of circumstantial evidence for her no-longer-a-theory about their... complex relationship.
To learn that Aang , if she was interpreting this right, had been the source of this intriguing connection — well, it propelled a most interesting shift in perspective.
Rinchen would be delighted.
This year's Annual Spiritology Conference was to be held in the Fire Nation, and Professor Nyima had extended an invite to Rinchen. Nyima wasn't exactly thrilled about the location - she had plenty on her plate without having to prepare to fly away to the Fire Nation (hardly the spiritological centre of the world, she had muttered goodnaturedly while Rinchen gave a nervous laugh) — but the official policy was that the event would be hosted in turn by each of the Four Nations and the United Republic.
Rinchen, unlike the professor, was positively buzzing. She had never been to the Fire Nation - never been on a plane , at that — and now she was getting a trip with all expenses paid.
"It wasn't so long ago that we made these trips by ship, so at least there's that ," Nyima said, as they walked through the airport that morning. She packed very light, quite the contrast to the overstuffed case Rinchen was dragging along to keep up with the professor's equally light stride. "You know, people used to be pretty surprised that airbender engineers were the ones to develop all that clunky aeronautical tech into viable commercial planes, but it makes perfect sense to me. Who knows what else airbenders might have come up with if they'd had longer than just the time since Harmonic Convergence?"
They had a few days in the Fire Nation. All of them were packed for Nyima, who disappeared to the convention centre almost as soon as they'd checked into the hotel. Rinchen spent a couple days exploring the Capital. She made pretty decent progress on her list of must-sees, including the Hundred Year War Memorial Museum, and a couple of the restaurant recommendations her Fire Nation friends from RCU had rained on her when she mentioned she was accompanying the professor there. The third day, though, was the reason she had come along in the first place.
"The appointment with the Fire Sages is at midday," Nyima told her before going out that morning. "I made sure they knew that you're going in my stead, so don't let them give you any trouble. If our hunch is correct…" She had sighed with a strange mix of emotions, like the little investigation they'd been nurturing between them occupied her more than she'd have liked to admit. "Well, they have most of Fire Lord Zuko's private possessions stored there, at the Dragonbone Catacombs. You may find something interesting. Don't be late!"
The High Temple of the Fire Nation was not open to the public except by special appointment. Rinchen had read all about it — about the Fire Sages who guarded the closely kept historical aretacts of the Fire Nation since time immemorial, as well the tombs of former Fire Lords themselves. In Sozin's time, their knowledge had been cut off from the world, but since the Hundred Year War, the Sages had opened up their spiritual services to the citizens of the Capital again, and their records to scholars and enthusiasts the world over. Rinchen carried a bundle of nerves in her stomach all the way to the Temple. When she arrived, there were tourists thronging around the grounds, admiring the architecture. She walked past them and, unsure where to go, announced her appointment to the stern-looking guard at the closed front doors. He led her through a side entrance, where she waited for a few minutes before startling at the ornate garb of the Fire Sage who came out to greet her. Rinchen returned his deep bow, and introduced herself in kind.
"Fire Sage Ahura, I'm very pleased to meet you. I'm Professor Nyima's assistant, Rinchen."
Rinchen's nerves soon dissipated as Fire Sage Ahura began to chat cordially as he led her to the centre of the temple, in an obviously practised but nonetheless pleasant rundown of the temple's history. The Dragonbone Catacombs themselves could only be accessed using firebending, and Rinchen stood back and gaped as the circular gate unlocked slowly. Once inside, the talk ceased. The cool, hallowed catacombs, lit by fire that illuminated murals and tapestries at intervals along the winding tunnels, seemed to demand a reverent silence. They walked quietly until they reached a crypt-like chamber. Fire Sage Ahura opened the door, slipped on some silk gloves, and pulled open a massive drawer - one among many that made up the anterior wall of the chamber.
"Here is where Fire Lord Zuko's belongings are kept. Most of his possessions were left in the Palace after his death, for the use of his children and grandchildren as is customary. But upon his abdication, he did leave a small collection of personal belongings to the sages here, as you clearly know. It is our understanding that he wished to, um, pack light, when he moved his primary residence to the South Pole. Please put these gloves on if you wish to handle the items. I'll be waiting outside."
Rinchen nodded politely, but her mind hitched on the sage's words. Was that somehow common knowledge along the Fire Sages - that Zuko had packed up and moved to the South Pole in his old age? It would have been news to her not long ago. She wondered what else the sages knew, and how much they might tell someone like her.
"Any other questions, Miss Rinchen?" Fire Sage Ahura asked.
Rinchen bit her tongue, and the silence stretched. "Yes...er — do you — did... are the catacombs really made of dragonbone?"
Fire Sage Ahura stroked his beard seriously. "No, I don't believe so."
When he shut the door, Rinchen groaned aloud, cringing when it echoed slightly in the cavernous room. Anyway. Her eyes roved across the drawer, unsure what to consider first. There were several items laid out on the velvety bedding. She was suddenly drawn to an instrument that she recognised immediately — Iroh's tsungi horn. She gasped lightly, stroking the curve with tentative fingers, before carrying the excitement to the next few items. One was an old photo of Aang, Katara and Zuko and some other official. She flipped the frame to read Daoshu, 110 A.G. , linking the caption to Aang's annals in her head. There was also a miniature statue of Toph, no doubt carved by Toph herself; Rinchen wondered what inside joke lay behind that one. Then, a fan in the style of the Kyoshi Warriors, though it was still quite shiny, clearly only decorative. That one could have been from any of Zuko's several Kyoshi Warrior friends.
Rinchen's stomach lurched as she moved to the next item. There was a walrus tooth comb, which had to be Katara's. She turned it over delicately, and — yes, there it was, a shallowly engraved initial. With her lips, pressed tightly in anticipation, Rinchen turned her gaze to the remaining pieces. An Air Nomad mala lay near the comb, the wooden beads bumping gently when she lifted the colourful string. There was only one true practitioner of Air Nomad spirituality in Zuko's time. Rinchen knew that it was quite a private object; she had seen Nyima herself store her own in a special container at her desk. Besides that, there was a water pouch — similar to the ones that many waterbenders carried, except this one was sewn in Fire Nation colours, as if to match some local dress. Some of the stitches in the warmly coloured leather were fraying. This had certainly belonged to Katara as well. Her suspicions were immediately confirmed when she turned to the short pile of folded garments in one corner of the drawer. There was a fabric that matched the lining of the pouch. She unfolded it carefully along with — she held her breath as she double checked — the very shirt that Aang was wearing in the Daoshu photo.
Rinchen breathed deeply, her excitement rising. These objects… they weren't like the others. They weren't gifts or ornaments, but everyday items, well worn with use. She finally raised her head from where it was bowed over the drawer, trying to process this information for its reasonable implications, when her eye fell on the glider. Aang's glider — obviously, because it could be no one else's — lay in relative darkness along the back of the drawer, the orange canvas pockmarked. It had probably been there for his use whenever he visited the Fire Nation, much like all these items. Which must have been fairly often, all things considered.
Why would Fire Lord Zuko have some of Aang and Katara's most mundane possessions amongst his own personal belongings at the Royal Palace?
To Rinchen, the explanation was clear at this point. No photographs were allowed in the temple, so she slid off her backpack, scrambled for her notebook, and wrote down everything she saw, trying not to bounce on her feet.
There was one last thing, one last missing piece that Nyima wanted before she was willing to let her mind confirm the thought it had harboured for weeks. And after that, there was potentially the task of presenting the fruits of her curiosity to the public, or at least the rest of her family. A media scandal was the last thing Nyima wanted.
But she was getting ahead of herself. She doubted there had ever been any kind of official decree — despite much of Air Nomad culture filtering back into her people's lives in the last hundred years, lifestyles were still unfortunately rather rooted in the other nations' norms. But the picture painted so far of the nature of her great-grandparents' relationship to Fire Lord Zuko was increasingly conclusive. There had to be something bolder, something with little room for interpretation, that even the most skeptical of historians would be hard-pressed to ignore. There had to be something in the numerous letters they wrote one another, spanning decades.
She had to admit, she wanted a sign too.
She was deeply curious about everything surrounding Aang, and to know that the centre of his private, personal world may have had one more person – one extremely important person, historically speaking – was nothing short of a marvel. What did it mean, that even back in those pioneering years after the Hundred Year War, there were relationships like this one? Ones that spanned three nations, no less? That the essence of the ancient Air Nomads, to love bountifully and freely, could be embodied by three of the most outstanding figures of their world, even if in such a clandestine manner?
Everything they knew about the history of her ancestors — of the Hundred Year War and the years thereafter — could be called into question with this new knowledge. Decades of work would be re-examined.
So here she was, in the back of her office with poor, exhausted Rinchen, only days from finishing her dissertation, still looking for clues. She did wonder, still, what Rinchen's stake in all this was. Surely a student of politics had better things to do?
There were some records, odds and ends from Aang's personal archives, that Nyima and her mother had never studied together during her lifetime. Nyima had always intended to go through them, yet distractions and duties kept pushing the task back, and now it was almost three years since Jinora's passing. These were kept in a shallow woven box, the one Aang himself had used, and stored under piles of more official material.
When Rinchen had dug it out – Nyima's own back was not up to the task these days – the two of them sat right there on the floor, sifting as carefully as they could through notes and memos, receipts and letters. Something caught Nyima's eye – a blur of colour amongst the pages of parchment in various stages of yellowing with age. Nyima picked out the sheet. It felt delicate, the texture of the paper more thick and uneven than she would have presumed. Upon closer inspection, she saw that the parchment itself was embedded with dozens of tiny flower petals pressed into the pulp. Nyima recognised the technique from certain records in the Western Air Temple, but she had never seen it applied so vibrantly — wildflowers in yellows, pinks and blues scattered the sheet. This was clearly something ceremonial, if not sacred. Why on earth was it stashed in this box of all places?
She quickly scanned the text, and it took her a moment to recognise the eastern Earth Nation flourish in the calligraphy. It took her even longer to connect the document to the plantbending tribe Aang had described a visit to in his Annals – a visit in the company of both Katara and Zuko.
She took a deep breath and dared to decipher the text. Over her shoulder, Rinchen was already three steps ahead. She gave an astonished gasp and lifted her hand to her mouth, fixing Nyima with an incredulous smile.
This certificate is to confirm the entwining of three hearts, as witnessed by the people of the Blooming Island,
Katara, of the Southern Water Tribe
Aang, of the lost Air Nomads
Zuko, Lord of the Fire Nation
May they be blessed and blossom together in their union, honoured by all on this island and beyond, from this day and forevermore.