It was foolish, she realized. To think that her home wasn’t having trouble. She hadn't heard any problems from her father.
When she saw her old friends at the factory, she had been given the cold shoulder and it took being stuck in a collapsing mine for them to tell her that home wasn’t doing very well.
“I can take you for visit,” the Avatar had offered after she had brought up her worries to him.
“No,” she had shaken her head and told him that he shouldn’t leave. He was still needed and wouldn’t be much help so far in the south.
Nevertheless, her and her brother both agreed that they should pay the Southern Water Tribe a visit. Of course a boat-ride to the South Pole wasn’t the cheapest thing in the world bur fortunately for them, a certain monarch was a bit of a pushover. With a few nudges and maybe a shove from her brother, they had managed to be gifted a warship from him. He had insisted that there wasn’t too much use for it. The war was over.
She had realized letting her brother bring uncooked meat was a terrible idea a few days too late and attempted to talk him into throwing it off the side. He had objected and said that he would be able to cook it before it went bad.
He had wondered aloud if the kitchen was still intact as he examined the aging blueprints.
She had rolled her eyes, saying, “Is food really all you think about?”
“When we’re going to be stuck on a ship for over two months, it is.” He had responded with a shrug then walked off, presumably to locate the kitchen, leaving his sister with the blueprints.
She had examined them but found she couldn’t look at them for too long. What warship they were on was probably a valuable one back in its day. It had its own prison and torture chamber.
Her brother had come back looking rather sick, saying that they shouldn’t investigate the belly.
The couple of months on the boat, she had realized, reminded her of before the war ended and it was just her and her brother trying desperately to survive another winter. They used their old tactics from both the Southern Water Tribe and on the back of a bison to keep themselves occupied.
Her brother had tried to draw something in the dust on some cabinets so they could take turns guessing what it was.
It had ended with both of them sneezing their heads off after she accidentally pulled down a heavy curtain.
“We should probably clean this place up,” her brother suggested after he’d been able to stop his sneezing fit.
They had nearly reached the Southern Water Tribe when she realized her brother had brought his pet hawk. She had called him by name, tapping her foot impatiently while glaring daggers at the bird who had found their platypus-bear meat and looked like he was enjoying it quite a bit.
“Well I couldn’t just leave him!” He said defensively. “You know how squeamish Mr. I-Took-Down-The-Fire-Lord gets around meat.”
It took an hour of negotiating on her brother’s part to convince her the bird could stay. Should the bird be able to supply food for itself, she wouldn't have (many) objections.
As if the hawk understood them, he frowned in the only way a bird could, left the platypus-bear meat he had gotten into, and returned to his owner’s shoulder. It was to her brother’s delight at the idea of being’s something’s master.
She had smiled and rolled her eyes. It was nice for her to see him to be so giddy. Even if the reason was a bit moronic.
It turned out, she realized, that the boat they had been lent was over a century old and was one of the first ships used to conquer Yu Dao. Her brother had theorized that it was supposed to be a priceless artifact but the fire lord didn’t want it but couldn't figure out what to do with it. It made a bit of sense if the monarch didn’t mind dealing with the ruffled feathers of some historians.
“What do you think is wrong back at home?” Her brother had asked when they were merely a day away from the Southern Water Tribe.
She hadn’t been able to answer. If she were honest with herself, she hadn’t even thought about it. She had always assumed it had to do with the war. She hadn’t considered if the northerners who went back to the South Pole would be a problem. Or the process or rebuilding. Perhaps it was something else entirely. She hoped it wasn’t too serious but the fact stood that some of the natives had to go to the Earth Kingdom because there were problems back home. It couldn’t have been something relatively minor.
“I'm not sure.” She said.
When they finally arrived in the Southern Water Tribe, she had realized that neither of them had ever thought about what they were going to see. They knew it was being rebuilt but weren’t prepared for what they saw.
“Well,” her brother had said lightly, trying to make a joke about something in attempt to relieve the silence. “I don’t think we’ll be able to go penguin sledding any time soon. The walls kinda-sorta isolate the entire place and even if we could get to a place where we could sled, there aren’t any penguins around.”
It hadn’t helped her feel any better. She and her brother used to watch the penguins play from their ice hut on sick days. They continued to do so after their mother was killed. They liked to pretend that nothing was wrong and didn’t have another day of survival ahead of them. It was one of her favorite memories with him.
When she finally saw her father again, she had realized how much she missed him. The years after the war had kept her busy and she hadn’t been able to think about home very often.
Her brother had asked their father what was wrong at dinner.
Their father had paused and responded, “I’ll tell you later.”
She had wanted to protest. That was the reason she and her brother had come back, after all.
Her grandmother briskly changed the subject as to how the rebuilding helped the tribe.
She found herself agreeing even though she didn’t know if all the changes were worth it.
She had talked to her brother about it before falling asleep in the familiar comforts of the furs she had slept on before she left with the Avatar. “It’s just sentimental, nostalgic stuff,” he had said with a flippant wave of his hand. “You’ll get used to it.”
“Do you need to get used to it?” She had asked.
“Nah. The changes are great for the tribe. You’ll see.”
She knew him well enough to know he was lying.
In the conversations with some of the people, she had found that she couldn’t get through a conversation without mentioning one of her traveling companions.
“You’ve changed,” someone had told her. “You never would have talked so positively about the nation that had us in a century-long war.” He had continued bitterly. He’d been a prisoner for twelve long years. She couldn’t and wouldn’t be angry at him for hating the people who imprisoned him. She’d never been in his position before.
It was hard. To humanize the people you hadn’t considered anything but monsters. Seeing them as nothing but bloodthirsty killers was easier, but much less rewarding.
She and her brother were different, she realized. She wasn’t unhappy that her years with the Avatar had changed her for the better. She just wished that everyone else had changed and grew with her too.
Old prejudices were hard to dispel.
Politics were irritating, she had realized. She didn't know why she hadn’t been so irked by them before since she had been in the middle of a political scandal that nearly resulted in another war.
One of the main problems in the Water Tribe had been, of course, politics. Both her and her brother had tried helping their father. Her brother had quickly concluded that their father was better at leading armies than nations. Politics weren’t really his forte.
“Knowing all the political stuff we had to deal with in Yu Dao, we should be experts.” She’d joked.
It turned out they were both better with handling the idiosyncrasies than their father, much to his chagrin.
Her brother’s hawk, she had realized, didn’t like the cold of the South Pole. She shouldn’t have been surprised. Her brother was pretty disappointed when he had to take it north. She assumed it was because he liked showing off one of the only things he managed to buy (and keep) from their wild adventures around the world.
She was a little disappointed herself. It was one of the things that the toddlers could play with. It turned out that the bird was the only living animal they had ever touched that wouldn’t bite their heads off. Petting and feeding him was completely alien to them but they really enjoyed it. Her brother’s pet bird gave them an experience they wouldn’t have had until they were deemed old enough to go past the wall. The shelter the wall provided reminded her of Ba Sing Se.
As much as she had realized the changes to the Southern Water Tribe had annoyed and touched on a few sore spots, she had realized that she missed her home quite a bit.
Despite her better judgement, she had told her brother that she missed it but wanted to get back to their life on the back of a flying bison. To her surprise, her brother, ever the wisecrack, didn’t make a sarcastic comment at that. Instead, he had just traced some of the chips in his boomerang and shrugged. “Well home isn’t really a place, if you think about it,” he had replied, not looking up at her. “But the people. What would make a house a home if it didn’t have your loved ones in it?”
“Wow,” said she. “That was really wise coming from you.”
He shot her a grin. “I have my moments.”
“Though they’re few and far between.”
She had thought quite a bit about what her brother had told her and she had realized that in her case, home was everywhere.
“How am I supposed to go home if everyone that makes home is scattered across the world?” She had asked him, in hopes that he would be able to show another one of his rare bouts of wisdom. She had doubted it but it usually didn't hurt to ask.
“You shouldn’t seriously think too hard about that,” he had said dismissively. “I just made that up off the top of my head. Nothing to write home about.” He had said. “Not that it has anything to do with home.” He added quickly.
The Southern Water Tribe, she realized, was boring. The political drama and the various problems that the tribe was facing kept her on her toes, of course, but she missed the fighting that involved traveling with the Avatar. The adrenaline rush. The excitement in the Southern Water Tribe wasn’t something that would hold her interest. Her brother never said anything, but she could tell he was bored too.
She wanted to continue to help her father so she stuck with it.
To her surprise, her brother had suggested leaving first. She realized that he had the same feeling that she did. He didn’t feel especially needed and wanted to travel again.
“It’s not like I don’t want to settle down,” he had assured her. “I want to in the future. But...you know, in the future.”
“I feel the same way,” she had replied. “Except we really are helping here. It’s definitely better than a few months ago.”
“The Southern Water Tribe will always be our home but I don’t feel like we belong here. Well, no, I feel like we belong here. Kind of... Uhm...I don’t really think we're where we’re supposed to be. You know what I mean?” He had rambled on and no one except his sister would have been able to understand him.
She had agreed. But they couldn’t make up their minds on whether to stay for a few more months or go with their gut feeling and leave. They agreed to stay a little while longer until they figured out what to do. They knew they were doing something to help and weren't useless. There was still work to be done.
The months they stayed there were long and the nudging feeling that they should leave had gotten to the point of a demanding voice in her head. She realized that whether it was her instinct or divine intervention, she and her brother needed to leave.
They’d drawn straws on who would tell their father but decided to give one another support only a sibling could give and tell him together. She realized that the main reason they hadn’t left wasn’t because they were being helpful, but because they wanted to please their father.
She didn’t know how she thought he would react but how he did didn’t much surprise her. He loved just told them that he loved them both very much, and that he wished they would come back to visit more often. That they had been a big help and that he wanted them to be happy even if it wasn’t in the Southern Water Tribe. Of course he hadn’t needed to tell them out loud but it was always good to hear.
“If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.” He brother had said, almost to himself as they watched the Southern Water Tribe’s new walls slowly fade from view.
She had looked at him curiously. “Where did that come from?” She asked.
“I’m not sure,” he had admitted. “I just thought it was kind of fitting, don’t you think? I mean, we’re definitely going to visit Dad more often and...you know.” He waved his hand in the air as if he assumed his sister would get the message.
“No, I don’t know.”
“Well Dad loves us and he let us go because he loves us and wants the best for us. And we’re going to come back to see him which...” he had drifted off, rubbing the back of his neck.
“I get it,” she had said quietly as the pieces clicked into place. “How about every year we stay for a while?” She had suggested after a few minutes of silence.
“That sounds nice.” He agreed.
Her brother’s bird, she realized, was much more devoted than she had given it credit for. It had stayed exactly where he had left it and had expressed how much it had missed its owner by immediately flying to his shoulder and wouldn’t leave him for the next few days. Her brother had gone on and on about how his hawk may have been his spirit animal in another life which was why it was so attached to him.
She just thought that it was because he had given it the best kind of meat. But for whatever reason, the hawk legitimately liked her brother. She had to remind herself that birds weren’t as dumb as she had been told. A truly dumb animal wouldn’t have acted so devoted.
It was a little odd, she had thought several days after the hawk had rejoined their duo again. The idea that her brother’s spirit animal was a Fire Nation messenger hawk. After so long with such weird occurrences with such things, she decided to stop questioning the spirit world. After the Avatar had tried explaining it to her, she found herself more confused than she was in the first place.
The Avatar was happy to see them back after their time away and had given them his jubilant smile. “Welcome home!”
It was then she realized that home really was everywhere. Perhaps she would be able to have that reunion that everyone needed. Under circumstances that didn't involve death or near-death experiences. Finding a place and time for all of her loved ones in the same place at the same time sounded like an intimidating task but she would manage it one way or another.
Then that would be home.