Chapter 30: Advancing Acknowledgement
"The soul is healed by being with children." –Fyodor Dostoyevsky
"My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations." –Michael J. Fox
"Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it."-Ann Landers
I should not be crying over the color of my son's eyes, but I could not help myself as I did. The tears that sprung forth out of me now, like a river at last melted from the winter's grasp, was a combination of joy and grief. Which feeling was stronger than the other I did not know, and a part of me did not desire to know which. My son was at long last held in my arms after a painful delivery and months of waiting. I looked up from the crying infant to see Katsu rushing into the room, the apprehension disappearing from his face as he saw me holding our son. He strode towards me hurriedly, his hand touching my face as if in a gesture of thanks. Katus's eyes met my own, searching to see if I was alright and I gave him a weak smile as I continued to cry, for he probably believed my tears only to be of relief and happiness. He made a choking sound as his eyes drifted from my own and down towards the squalling bundle in my arms. One hand still held my face, while so slowly, as if the crying babe would disappear before, his other hand reached out to touch his son's head.
"I never thought…." Katsu started in half-awe and disbelief, "Thank you, Rana." He looked up from our son's face, the term still shocked me in my mind, with what I believed to be held back tears. Katsu was almost crying? Even though I was in a state of shock myself, I could not seem quite to grasp the fact that this man, a soldier of the Fire Nation, a man whom I had once believed to the epitome of evil….was trying not to cry.
…Of course, many years ago he had lost his only beloved wife and daughter…I think he had never thought to have a wife or children again, people whom he…..he could love…
Katsu removed his hand from our yowling son and cupped my face between his hands as he kissed my forehead with such reverence and care. I could only gaze up at him speechless as his next selfless words astounded me, almost more than the time he had given me permission to practice my bending. "I think….he will have to have a proper Fire Nation name officially," Katsu said softly, his gaze flickering between me and the crying babe. "Kazuo, it's an old family name. But he can have another name, a name we can call him privately, that you can give him if you want…?"
The name came forth from my lips, responding to his surprising request. A name I had chosen months ago if our child was a son, a name I had always planned to call him secretly in my heart, but now shockingly had permission to give and use. Where was the Katsu, the temperamental and demanding man that I was used too? "Kokai," I responded breathlessly, for my sobs had subsided and the tears had ceased.
Katsu's gaze drifted to our crying son, Kazou….Kokai… "I thought you would choose a Water Tribe name," He mused softly. "What does it mean?"
I frowned, wondering if I should tell him, but decided to do so anyway. "To sail across the sea," I informed him with an unpreventable bitter smile. A shadow flickered across his face momentarily, before it was pushed away with a cynical smile.
"Of course," He commented dryly. "May I hold him?" Gently I passed over Kokai, who was crying louder than a newborn seal-penguin, but not as cute I will admit due to his blotchy redness that would dissipate within a week or so, which was natural for a newborn. Katsu held his tiny son, which was a sight to see such a powerfully built man to be holding such a tiny human being. The look on his face was one of complete and utter devotion, but with a hint of fear haunting his gaze…As if he remembered another child he had lost long ago…He held Kokai with a tenderness as if he was terrified that he might break him, but at the same moment with a practiced confidence of one who had been a father before. "Hello, Kazou," He murmured softly, each syllable seemingly almost too endearing to be coming from him. "Hello, Kokai….my son."
Akane, Ran, and Ira had all done their oohs and aahs over Kokai for me, while I received a several days' bed rest, upon Ira's command. Katsu had tried to convince me of the propriety of having a nurse maid, which I had never even heard of before, while I was still pregnant. It was one of the arguments I had won easily, which seemed to have become a growing trend of late. Other than when I fed our son during that several day period, he was in the hands of Ira, Akane, or Ran if she had the time outside of household duties, and of course his over attentive father as I heard from them as well. Every time I held Kokai in my arms, I was overwhelmed by a sense of warmth that chased away the ache in my chest, yet that same ache sometimes pounded whenever I looked at his golden eyes, the same as his father's. I scolded myself mentally, for even though he had their eyes, it did mean he would necessarily be a fire bender. Though I had never heard of any Water Tribe half-breed being a waterbender with golden eyes, so the least I could hope for was him to be non-bender. This was the least I could hope for within me, even though I knew it to be somewhat inherently selfish from my part. Someday I would escape, and he would come with me, I thought. Yet if he were a firebender, like his father….I pushed the thought away, for I was not even able to face it as this time.
Traditionally in the Fire Nation, a celebration will be held for any child's birth, especially if that child is a son or the heir. A month after his birth, a private celebration was held at the estate with many of Katsu's noble friends and our noble neighbors in attendance. I heard from Ira and Ran that there were celebrations held amongst the commoners on the island as well to celebrate the birth of Katsu's heir and a child many thought he would never come to have. Katsu tried to convince me to let him hire a servant to help with taking care of Kokai, but the same as with the idea of a nursemaid, I found the whole idea ridiculous. I would be raising our son, not some stranger, even if it is a stupid Fire Nation custom. Again with surprising ease, I seemed to win that conversation as well. In fact, our whole relationship seemed to have become easier and more placated, though we still had our fights and I had not lost my spirit in driving him crazy whenever possible. Ira had recommended that we not….errrrr…resume physical activities until at least a month or so after giving birth. When we did resume such activities, it was with a lot of enthusiasm, and some trepidation on my part I will confess. The idea of getting pregnant again so soon, and even Ira's prediction haunted me, though I refused to believe it…Well, I did not want it to happen to say the least. It was with some hesitation and embarrassment, along with irritation, that I explained my hesitations to Katsu. He had handled it with a knowing smirk and told me there was ways to avoid getting me pregnant, much to my relief….though it did make me smack him in the shoulder. Why had he not done that the first time around? Even though now that I had Kokai, I knew I would not trade him for anything. Even with his father's eyes, he was still my son….a beautiful, innocent child whom I loved even more with every passing day if such a thing is possible.
Life continued, though it was a lot busier with a growing baby on our hands. Katsu tried to be there when he could during the day, juggling the business of the estate, and the occasional tour over the first year of Kokai's life. He never did a long tour again if he could avoid it. Constantly he was there, hovering in the background, as if he feared we might disappear on him in an instant. I think he was terrified, though he would never admit it, that he could lose us for he had lost his first wife and child. It was there, unspoken, but I could feel his terror sometimes. Would I be so cruel as to take his only child from him? Sometimes that evil thought entered my mind, for if I were to escape, how could I not take Kokai with me? Not that such a feat would have been possible with a crying baby and the ever present Iwao. He treated Kokai with a reserved distance and the one time I had gotten him to hold him he had held him as if any moment Kokai would explode like their terrifying fireworks. At least it had made me laugh at the memory and Iwao would have a barely recognizable look of irritation in his dark eyes if I ever teased him about it.
Akane visited as often as she could, often bring Masato or Ichirou with her if they were free to come, but they both seemed to vanish after the first day or so. I guess taking care of a young baby is considered a woman's role here, much as it as back home, though Katsu was a devoted father. Masato even commented that it was a little unusual how much time he spent with Kokai or taking over childcare when I needed a break. I still visited Ran's home with her children and Ira's home, constantly seeking their advice and support. In Teruko and Satoru's absence, the two of them had filled that missing gap for me. Naturally Akane once commented on the "impropriety" of my befriending them to this degree, for a little contact was natural, but not for them to be completely treated as my equals as she put it. It had been with a casual smile and shrug that I told her she could blame it on my upbringing, hiding my dislike and irritation for the whole Fire Nation class system.
When Kokai reached his first year of age, it was with some dread on my part as I realized I now been in a prisoner in the Fire Nation for over three years. Ever since his birth a year before, I had not tried any escape attempts. I could blame it on the exhaustion and the hectic life style of raising an infant, but a part of me knew that…I would immediately vanquish such treacherous thoughts. Sometimes the dream of escape haunted me, and yet other times when I looked into Kokai's innocent eyes, the idea of escape seemed to mock me in them. Kokai was generally a happy baby, quick to smile, and did not cry too easily. One of my favorite things was when he started to make incoherent babbling noises. One evening, he sat next to me in the dining hall, pounding a bowl against the floor with an excited "Da! Da! Da!"
Suddenly he ceased in his excited squeal and looked up at me solemnly with a child's love. When I smiled at him, I saw that pure child's joy at being loved explode like the sun in his golden eyes. "Ma…ma…" He began to babble, dropping his bowl, and holding his arms out to be picked up. I granted his request, pulling him up into my arms as his little fists began to play with the necklace that Katsu had given me that was around my neck. "Mama," He said again. My heart stopped as I realized he had said his first word. I gazed down into my son's shining golden eyes, so like his father's, as he repeated the word again with even more enthusiasm.
…Could this be enough?...I wondered…Would it be possible for me too…?
"My Lady," Ran greeted me, entering the dining hall with the usual bow. Her entrance distracted my mind away from sinful thoughts. "I have a letter for you."
"Thank you, Ran," I responded with a small smile. "Please set it on the table. Kokai just said his first word!"
Ran smiled in response. "What is that word, My Lady?"
"Mama!" Kokai screeched loudly again in my arms.
Ran chuckled slightly. "It would seem I win my wager then."
"What wager?" I asked curiously.
"Ah, His Lordship and I had a wager on whether he would say mama or dada first," Ran informed me with smirking twinkle in her eye. "I'm pleased to inform you that I have won."
I merely laughed as Ran exited the room, imagining the look on Katsu's face when he would find out about his lost bet and with the slight satisfaction I felt at being acknowledged by our son first. I set Kokai back down on the ground as he resumed playing with the bowl he had found so fascinating earlier. The only letters I would usually get were from Katsu when he was gone, Akane, and sometimes Kuro, but more often than not his letters were usually for Katsu. The ache in my chest expanded and seized up as I recognized the elegant scrawl on the letter that was addressed to me. It was Satoru's handwriting!
My hands trembled slightly as I opened the scroll. I had not heard a word from them since their departure almost a year and half before, nor had Teruko's family ever found where she went or heard from her either. Frantically, I read the letter over and several times more, as the ache within me deflated a little and a balm to my worry for them over the months was assuaged.
My Lady Rana,
Teruko and I would first like to extend our congratulations about your son. I still have some friends back on the island, so we have received news of you on occasion. Teruko and I both feel terrible for not getting to you earlier, but I thought it best it best to wait until things had settled down and for there to be no suspicion upon you. Things were also rough for a while until we had properly settled down and I found a more permanent position to support us in the long run, and not just on the money that I had saved up.
We are both well and residing outside of the Fire Nation as we planned. I will not tell you where exactly in case this letter falls into the wrong hands. I have found work befitting one of my skills and Teruko has become an apprentice to an artisan. She has a skill for painting that neither you or I knew existed. Teruko misses her family obviously, and we both miss your presence. Otherwise I would say we are happy. We are married and free to be together. There were some adjustments for Teruko going from being a noble lady to a commoner, but she tells me every time when I expressed concern that we were worth it. I am a lucky man to have her.
We hope you are happy and will write to you again soon. I think I will find a way for you to send us letters back where they cannot be traced, just to be on the safe side for everyone.
May Agni guide you, My Lady.
I felt the familiar prickle in my eyes as I finished reading the letter for a third time. Before I might have scoffed at someone wishing Agni to guide me as well-meant wished, but I did not even think twice about it as I had read the letter. What should have been a sigh came out as a half-strangled choking noise. They were alright…they were safe and happy. I had almost forgotten how much I missed them as I felt the ache within me tighten. Feelings twirled within me…happiness for them, relief, the weight of my worry going away, a yearning to see them, and a tiny fraction of envy for them seemed to be entirely happy in their new lives. They had left me behind, while I…I…
Kokai banged the bowl loudly against the wooden floor, startling me out my reverie. I shook my head and rolled up the letter, looking at it with indecision. It would not be wise to keep it, so it was with some regret that I held it up to one of the candles lighting the table, letting it burn as I dropped it into an empty bowl. It was an automatic reaction when I flinched as I watched the flames eat it up hungrily. To this day I was still terrified of fire when Katsu or anyone firebended near me, or when I saw the flames eat up something so close to me as I did now.
A week passed and I did not receive another letter from Satoru or Teruko. Spring was starting to hint itself in the weather as winter was drawing to a close, not that there was much of a winter here compared too…
I had just put Kokai down for his afternoon nap in the nursery as I walked down the sunlight hall. For once Iwao was not hovering behind me as always. It had been a slight surprise to find out he had been called away on what he had tersely described as "personal business." I figured it was probably something to do with the Society, the group of bodyguards Akane told me about, for he was still part of that group for Katsu paid them for his services, or that is what I presumed at least. Katsu was off somewhere on the island, attending to matters of the estate. I entered into the study, thinking to get some reading done while Kokai slept. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye that made me start to turn startled, before I was yanked against someone's chest, with one arm holding me as another hand roughly covered my mouth to keep down my startled scream. I could tell that it was a man by the strength in his arms and the deep breathing of his chest behind me, but it was not Katsu playing some stupid joke. This was a stranger. Instinctively I squired and thrashed my legs about, trying to kick my captor in a vain effort for he was much stronger than me.
"Rana, please stop struggling," The man said quietly with a touch of a plea. It was a young man's voice, perhaps around my age from what I could tell, a tenor that sounded somewhat…I managed to stamp my foot down on the man's foot as he released me with a startled grunt of pain. Swiftly I turned around, ready to run and scream for help when I ceased my movement, frozen to the spot like an ice sickle.
He had grown up, from an overgrown seaweed into a tall, well-built young man before me. The last of the baby fat had disappeared from what I remembered, giving away to a strong face with ocean-misty eyes I recognized immediately.
…It was impossible…How?...How was he here?...
He towered over me in height now as I breathed heavily from our scuffle. His almost forgotten misty-ocean eyes looked me as if he could hardly believe his own eyes that I stood before him. I could only gape back in shock as my mind pulled a huge blank, for I still could not process that he, of all people and least expected, was here before me in Fire Nation, three years after I had been taken from our home.
My throat tightened as if it were in a vice and I could feel the tears murmuring to be brought forth. I managed to choke out one word after a long moment of the most terrible joy and distressing acknowledgement.