attackfish: Jet and Zuko fighting in the teashop, text "Obviously this is the place to come if you want to get murdered by lunatics" (Jet Juko TDL quote)
[personal profile] attackfish
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: the Last Airbender. If I did, there would be no dead mothers.

Summary: Ursa lets her secrets slip to Kya one by one, until the trickle becomes a flood.

Author's Note: Someday I will be able to fill a drabble request from avatarsymbolism.


Meltwater

“Did you have children?” Kya asked. “Before?”

Ursa turned to her, dragging her eyes away from Sokka and Katara as they turned an argument over who was going to wash Sokka's socks into a snowball war. There was that hunger to her gaze, a hunger that spoke of loss, and bitter memories, and Kya knew Ursa's answer before she gave it. “Yes,” she said at last. “A boy and a girl.” She paused for a long time, until Kya thought she had said all she was going to say. When she spoke again, something that wasn’t quite a smile pulled at her lips. “Almost exactly the same age as Sokka and Katara.”

o0O0o

Snow was falling outside. Kya could hear the shh shh sound of it against the tent. She kissed Ursa's shoulder and burrowed closer into her. “Am I your first woman?”

“Mmm,” Ursa murmured. She didn't open her eyes. “I had a lover before my husband, but he was a man. I miss him sometimes. We grew up together.”

“Do you miss your husband?” Kya missed hers. Oh how she did.

“No.” Ursa laughed mirthlessly. “There are many things I miss, but he has never been one of them.”

“Oh,” Kya whispered.

Ursa turned around against Kya's body, lifting one and up to run it over her hair, her thumb grazing over her cheek, tender and soft. “I don't want to talk about him when I'm here like this with you. He doesn't get that from me.”

o0O0o

Kya watched Ursa's hands slit open the fish with swift, practiced cuts. She remembered this. She remembered the way Hakoda seemed to capture her eyes and draw them to him, and the way the most mundane things, things she had done every day became bewitching when it was Hakoda doing them. The way she used to watch his hands move and imagine them on her.

A part of her, one that she was beginning to realize was never going to leave her, wished she could tell him, wished she could say to him, Look my love, look at what I have found!

She liked to imagine that he would have been happy, that the woman he had loved had someone to love her again, but late at night, when she was lying next to Kya and missing him most, she wished that there was some universe in which she could have had them both.

“What are you thinking about?” Ursa asked, scraping entrails into a skin bag to bury in the snow and save for bait. She glanced up at Kya with a small, sweet smile.

“Your hands were so soft when you first came,” Kya blurted.

Ursa snorted. “Not anymore!”

“No,” Kya said quietly. “Not anymore.”

o0O0o

“What's it like out there?” Katara asked, Ten years old and not yet too big to let Ursa braid her hair.

“It's like many things,” Ursa told her, weaving the strands of her hair together. “There are many different places, and they are all different, and you're going to have to be more specific.”

Katara rocked back on her heels until she almost fell over, and Ursa had to stop braiding to help her balance. “Okay, what's it like where there's no snow then?”

“There are some places where it's so hot and dry that skin cracks and bleeds just like it does here, only with the heat, instead of the cold, and there are other paces that are so hot and wet, the steam rises off the ground just like it does off the soup pot.” She closed her eyes. “The air there smells like green things, and flowers and fruit instead of like ice and cold.”

“No way,” Sokka scoffed. “If it were that hot, people's blood would boil out of their bodies.”

“Oh I've lived where it's that hot, and nobody's blood really boils,” Ursa laughed, braiding up the last little bit of Katara's hair and tying it off. “It just feels like it will sometimes. “And sometimes walking across the room with the windows closed feels like swimming in hot soup. The air is so thick and heavy with water, you feel like you need gills like a fish to breathe it.”

“Why would anybody live there?” Katara asked, face scrunching with distaste.

“I'm sure it has its perks,” Kya broke in with a smile.

Ursa's answering smile made the room feel as warm as a soup pot to Kya, and for a moment, the air smelled like flowers, and all of Ursa's green and growing things.

o0O0o

“I see them when I'm asleep,” Ursa told her, staring into the fire. “My children.”

Kya tensed beside her. “Oh?”

“Sometimes they look the way they did when I left, just the way I remember them.” Ursa kept her eyes on the wavering, shifting fire instead of looking at her, and Kya wondered if that made it easier to talk about, when she could pretend she was telling only the empty air. “Sometimes they look the way my mind tells me they must look by now. My daughter turned twelve today. I wish I could see how big she must have grown.”

Kya let out a breath of quietly concealed relief. So Ursa's children were alive. She had... She had wondered if the grief at the back of her eyes was this. She had feared it.

“I am so afraid that I will never see them again,” Ursa whispered. “And I think I probably won't ever get to. If I did, it would take a miracle from the spirits themselves.”

“You are alive, and they are alive, my love.” Kya took her hand and squeezed it, imbuing the gesture with every drop of confidence she could muster. “Nothing is impossible while these two things are true.”

o0O0o

“I would give almost anything to know what brought you to me,” Kya confessed. The sun sat unblinking in the middle of the western sky, halfway to the horizon. Perhaps it was midnight sun madness, or the growing sense that the end of summer, the end of warmth and light, and good hunting, was coming soon, that sense of urgency and restlessness. Perhaps it was that which loosened her tongue.

Ursa crouched in the back of the canoe, holding it steady as Kya scanned the water for fish. Her lips pressed together, a familiar crease forming where the bridge of her nose met her forehead. “What does it matter? I am here now, and I’m not going to leave you.”

“Hah!” Kya crowed, thrusting her harpoon down into the water, and deep into the body of a tuna-crab. Carefully, carefully, she lowered herself down into the canoe, and tipped her harpoon up to rest against the walls of the little vessel, sliding it back to Ursa until the fish, which probably weighed almost as much as its killer, sat against the side of the canoe. Together, the women balanced the canoe as they lifted it up over the side and down to rest between them, next to a skin bucket of smaller fish caught earlier. “Probably time to head in.”

“Yeah,” Ursa agreed, looking away, out over the water. Somehow, sitting on her heels behind a dead fish, fretting and unhappy, she still held onto an air of stateliness, even of grandeur, which brought to Kya’s mind the women in stories, who were found dancing on the beach, or singing in the middle of a blizzard, who came home with villagers, and married them, but who warned them not to look to closely at them, not to come inside when they were braiding up their hair, or to open the basket they carried with them. And always in the stories, their warnings went unheeded, their baskets of secrets opened, and their lovers saw too much, or heard to much, and the women would be gone, transformed into seals or seabirds, or whatever else they had once been, vanished into the snow and waves.

For a long time, all that could be heard between them was the sound of their oars dipping into the water. Kya watched Ursa, and Ursa watched something beyond the horizon. At last, unable to bear it any longer, Kya broke the silence. “My love, your eyes are gold. I’ve known you were Fire Nation since the day I met you.”

Ursa started at her words, jerking the oar sharply. Her eyes met Kya’s with a look... She looked hunted, like a creature at bay.

“Ursa,” she tried, her voice gentle. “If that’s what you were afraid I would find out, I already know. It’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid.”

But Ursa didn’t answer. And that hunted stare didn’t leave her eyes. And Kya couldn’t help thinking about other stories, about people who escaped the lairs of spirits, who braved every challenge and almost made it out, but who at the last moment, looked back, and were forever trapped because of it. For the first time, Kya wondered if both stories weren’t about the same woman, from two points of view, a woman who was struggling desperately to keep her eyes forward and her secrets behind her.

o0O0o

Kya slipped alone into their shared bedroll, and lay there, eyes open, weary, but unwilling to close them until Ursa returned. The soft sounds of her children’s sleep-slowed breathing drifted through tent, lulling her into a doze, her eyes fluttering closed without her notice.

When Ursa threw open the tent flap, sending light flooding in, Kya jolted awake, blinking. “Ursa? Where were you?”

“Watching the sun trying to set.”

“You’ll give yourself midnight sun madness that way,” Kya warned, closing her eyes again.

“Probably. If I haven’t already.” She tucked herself in beside Kya, letting her eyes fall shut with a sigh. In the darkness, Sokka and Katara’s sleep snuffles, and the sounds of their own breaths. were the only noise. Kya had just begun to drift back off to sleep when Ursa spoke again. “I have a story for you, my love.”

“Mmm?” Kya murmured, without opening her eyes. “What kind?”

There was something in Ursa’s voice when she spoke, a flatness, underneath which something, something unreadable lurked. “From the Fire Nation.”

Kya’s eyes flew open. “I’m listening.”

“Many years ago, in the place where the sun rises in the west, there lived a girl. Her people had started a war before she was born that they were still fighting, but she grew up far away from the fighting, and the misery the war caused. She wanted to be an actress, and her best friend wanted to be an actor. She and her best friend fell in love. For her, it happened slowly, and she didn’t notice it was happening until her love was there, and for her, it was as if it had always been there. When he asked her to marry him, she said yes.

“Her mother’s father had been born into the nobility, but he had been the Avatar, and when the war began, his family fell into disgrace, and his daughter had married a peasant. The family history might have become nothing more than trivia important to no one but the family itself, except that the Firelord decided that one way to get powerful firebending grandchildren was to marry his son to the granddaughter of the last firebending Avatar. The very day she promised to marry her beloved, he came with his son to demand her hand in marriage.”

Kya felt herself go cold, her skin prickling. What are you saying? she wanted to ask. Just who were you? She tried to take Ursa’s hand, but it was balled into a fist.

“She had gone to school and learned all of the stories, and all of the codes of honor. She knew what she was supposed to do. In a choice between and her honor and her duty to her family and her Firelord, or the man she wanted, honor and duty came first. And if she didn’t say yes to the Firelord and his son, it would put her family in terrible danger. So she agreed to marry him.”

In the place where the sun rose in the west, the expression Ursa wore might have been called a smile, but there at the South Pole, it was nothing like one. “It was like something out of a story, not the kind of thing that was supposed to really happen, a handsome prince choosing a worthy peasant girl for his bride, and taking her away to make her a princess. And in the stories, she always came to love her prince.”

Kya teased Ursa’s fingers apart and wrapped that hand up in her own. “Did y-she come to love this prince?”

“The Firelord commanded her to love him. To do otherwise would have been treason.” She pulled her hand away and Kya let her. “I guess it’s true what the sages say, that small treasons beget large ones, because someday, she would commit the largest treason of them all.”

Before Kya could ask just that that was supposed to mean, Ursa started talking again. “On the way out of the village, the man she loved tried to stop them. He must have known she never would have left him if she had a choice, and perhaps it had felt like a story to him too, because he stood out in the middle of the road with noting but theater prop swords, and the soon-to-be princess was forced to plead with the prince and the Firelord to spare him. On their wedding day, the prince forbid her from speaking to her family, or even about her family and her old life ever again. He told her she belonged to him and to the royal family now.”

“Ursa,” Kya breathed, but Ursa kept speaking.

“Every day the walls of the palace closed in tighter around her. The windows grew ever smaller, leaving the princess trapped and suffocating. She gave her husband two children, but even this was not enough to satisfy him or ease his jealousy. He had her beloved murdered. He swung between terrible cruelty and indifferent indulgence to her and to her children, and the only hope she had was that when his brother, the first prince, became Firelord, she could convince him to intercede on her behalf. But it wasn’t to be.”

In the darkness, Kya saw the faint glimmer of Ursa’s eyes as she opened them. Ursa’s voice trembled. “One night, the Firelord ordered his son to kill his young grandson, the first child the prince and princess had made together. And the prince was ready and willing to do it, but the princess found out. To save the life of her child, she made a poison to kill the Firelord. Her husband, although she had put him on the throne, ordered her to leave and never come back, because she had killed one Firelord, why not a second? She left that night. She traveled to her village and her parents' house, but they had died years before. So she sold her finery and bought a boat and supplies. In the islands, children learn to swim and sail as soon as they learn to walk, and the former princess wanted to get as far away from everything she had known before she died.”

“Ursa,” Kya whispered again, urgently. Did you think you were going to die? The question sat on the tip of her tongue. Did you want to die?

But Ursa wasn’t finished. She didn’t stop. “She sailed until the water turned to ice, until a woman from the Water Tribes found her and brought her home to her daughter-in-law and grandchildren.”

“Ursa, that’s...” and suddenly Kya didn’t know what she wanted to say. She didn’t have words for this, though she wanted them, for Ursa.

“I’ve already packed,” Ursa said, her voice harsh in the shadows. “Just give me a boat and enough to get me to Kyoshi Island. You’ll never have to see me again.”

“Why would you go anywhere?” Kya turned to her and wrapped her arms tight around her, as if to hold her in place, to keep her there with her, away from the sudden specter of Ursa alone in the ocean, waiting to die. “Why would you think I want that?”

Ursa didn’t try to break free, but she hunched her shoulders and seemed to shrink down, until Kya couldn’t breathe. “I am the woman who made Ozai Firelord, and he is a worse monster than even his father.”

“I am never,” Kya told her, staring straight into her eyes. “Going to hate you for killing the man who ordered my husband’s death.”

Ursa just closed her eyes and shook her head in response, so Kya hugged her tighter.

“Listen to me,” she murmured. “I think you’ve been afraid for a very long time, and I am telling you that you don’t have to be afraid anymore. You are safe here with me. You are safe. You did what you had to do to save your child, and you are safe.”

“I left my children with him.” Somehow Ursa choked the words out, though Kya had no idea how, as tightly pulled as her body was. “He said they were his collateral, to make sure I never came back.”

“Shh,” Kya soothed, as if it was Katara or Sokka she was holding after a nightmare. “I’m sorry.”

“He was ready to kill our son, and I left my children with him. I will never see them again, and if I did, I wouldn’t recognize the people-” she stopped and swallowed, shaking. “The people he must have made them into.”

“We will get them back,” Kya swore, the words ripped unexpectedly from her. Then, slowly, she said, “Someday I promise you, you will see your children again. It’s going to be okay.”

Until that moment, Kya had never seen Ursa cry. What tears she let fall were always private. Yet there in the dark with her, Ursa buried her head in Kya’s chest and wept. She didn’t know if it was because Ursa let herself or because she couldn’t stop herself, but it didn’t matter. Kya just lay awake and held her until the tears stopped.
 

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