Chapter 31: The Conclusive Choice
"There must be a few times in live when you stand at a precipice of a decision. When you know there will be forever a Before and an After...I knew there would be no turning back if I designated this moment as my own Prime Meridian from which everything else would be measured." -Justin Chen, North of Beautiful
"Some choices we will love not only once but a thousand times over, remembering them for the rest of our lives." -Richard Bach
"Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others-past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future." -Cloud Atlas
"What must be done must be done, whatever the price, the cost, the pain. One day we all must walk through fire." -David Hewson, Macbeth
My mind was still frozen in place, like an iceberg before it falls away into the sea, or as they say the calm before the storm. I was trying to wrap my mind around the fact, the reality, that he was here and this was no dream or figment of my imagination. Hotaka only existed in my increasingly rarer dreams of home, the occasional nightmare, and in turn he was my memory of a young child or gangly teenager. Not the young warrior before me. The gangly teenager had filled out into a warrior's frame, though he was of a wiry build, and shorter than Katsu. I noticed that he was dressed as a Fire Nation commoner and had his dark brown hair in their traditional top-knots with the emblem of their nation in it, something I had always refused to do even to this day. It is hard to compare anyone to Katsu's height though for that man is strikingly tall. We had been childhood friends, and after the raids had begun, he had been one of my only friends near my age. It had been three years since I had last seen him. The day I had been stolen from our home. A part of me had never thought to see him or any of our people again for the dream of escape had started to become a far-off fantasy with every passing moon.
The pause with no breathe was at last broken once more, after I had said his name, which had hung between us like a bait for fish, but without Hotaka responding to the bait. He seemed to be processing his own thoughts and shock, as if he could believe that I stood before him alive either. "How…?" I started to ask thickly, for my throat felt tighter than a taut rope. A one-worded question brought Hotaka out of his silent and bewildered state.
"Is it safe to speak here?" He demanded urgently as he evaluated whether he could trust my word or not. Katsu should not be back for some time...and any of the guards were patrolling the walls or position at the gates. I could only nod in response. Hotaka rapidly brushed past me to close the door to the study and made a grunt of annoyance as he could find no lock on the door. A slight smirk formed momentarily on my face in understanding cynicism. Katsu had me sure in the beginning to only have doors that could lock me in and not the other way around. Though now he might consider…
Hotaka turned around and leaned against the door with folded arms for reassurance that no one would immediately open the door. He need not worry though for anyone else except for Katsu would knock first. Our eyes met once more and I took note of the silent awe, relief, and grief in his staring eyes. Yet his face was otherwise calm. Perhaps the lingering shock was affecting both of our stilled facial expressions. "I can't believe it's you," Hotaka murmured almost as if it was more to himself. "Even though I knew…"
I had not left my rooted spot, which was only several steps away from Hotaka. The biggest question raging through my mind was how? Followed by a tidal wave of many other questions naturally. "Right back at you," I somehow wrangled out dryly, despite my stupefaction. "But I don't understand how this is possible…"
"It's good to see you have kept your wit," Hotaka replied with a hint of a fond smile, before it vanished as a dark shadow overtook him. "I feared that they might have crushed your spirit," Hotaka intoned pessimistically and with a very familiar acidic enmity emphasized on the word they. The thought, however brief, occurred to me that I had the exact thinking once about they as Hotaka did. Now though….not all of them were..
"I-how-?" I stumbled out. My inability to be loquacious at the moment was poor timing I fumed inwardly.
"Everyone thought you were dead, that it was a hopeless quest," Hotaka answered me with a harsh look and sour tone. His eyes were far off, caught up in the memory. "But I knew you were alive. You had to be like all the others they stole away. They could have just killed you all. Why waste all that effort to capture you otherwise?"
His words gave me pause. Before I had been taken, I had assumed like others that our kidnapped waterbenders were probably tortured then killed. Hotaka's point was logical and I was marginally annoyed that I had not reached the same conclusion in retrospect. Even in my astonishment and absinthal thinking, my ego on top of it all did not like to be slighted. "How did you find me?" I inquired, wondering how in the names of the Ocean and Moon Spirits he had pulled off what I thought to be impossible feat. Even more so, Why? Why had he left home to come find me?
Hotaka lingered in silence as he gave thought to his next words and I knew not to interupt of I wanted a thorough explanation. Plus I was not being extremely talkative in said situation. "It was several months before an Earth Kingdom vessel came for trade and I was able to offer my services in exchange for passage to the Earth Kingdom," He informed me as he gauged my every reaction. "I eventually found my way to the Fire Nation colonies and managed to get a false identity after working for...well," He stopped and gave a careless shrug. "For some unsavory people, but I formed the connections I needed and came to the Fire Nation about two years ago. It's not common knowledge about our imprisoned waterbenders. I joined a prison guard and combed the registry trying to find you."
Hotaka's face became burdened with a terrible grief that almost made me gasp and he shut his eyes momentarily at his next sentence. "I wanted to save our people...there was no way though...it would take an army to free everyone. Too free one person is one thing, but…" Hotaka opened his eyes as his voice cracked. There was a fierce determination and a whirlwind of misery and something else in his misty-ocean eyes. "It was reported you were dead. I almost gave up hope then, yet I found it very strange that the commander of the Southern Raiders transferred from his new post after the raid you supposedly died in."
"And then you heard of his new, foreign wife?" I supplied for him bitterly. My ability to speak full sentences had returned as some of the shock slipped away.
Hotaka nodded. "It was easy to piece together after that. As soon as I heard your name…" He took in a deep breathe and let it out. "I bid my time, learning about this place and who kept you prisoner here, before I could come for you safely."
That made me raise an eyebrow. "So you have something coventiatly to do with Iwao's 'business' trip?"
Hotaka smirked. "I have made...connections in my pursuit to find you," He supplied, leaving his answer vague. I gaped at him openly now. Why? Why would he leave home, risk everything, and spend the last three years trying to find me?
"Why are you here?" I asked him quietly. I did not even notice it as my right hand nervously played with the necklace. The one Katsu had given me. Hotaka's eyes narrowed at the sight of my necklace. Hastily I stopped and put my necklace back underneath my robe in its usual hiding place.
"To rescue you," He answered as if I had asked a most obvious and asinine question.
"But why? You're risked everything, left everything-"
"Because I love you," Hotaka cut me off as he took a step towards me to fill the gap between us, which was not much. "I always loved you. I wanted to marry you someday and they-they stole you from our home. Our people." Hotaka took my shaking hands into his. I stared at him wide-eyed, trying to absorb his confession. We had been childhood friends. I never knew that…
"We can return home," He promised me, holding my much smaller hands in his. My eyes drifted towards his similiar shaded hands. They were warrior hands, like Katsu's, but Hotaka's were much smaller nor the shade of Katsu's….I pulled my hands out of his, taking a step back as I attempted to believe that this was actually occuring.
….I could go home…
Here was a true opportnity to leave the Fire Nation, to return home, to my people…
Hotaka frowned at me. "Why aren't you saying anything?" He asked impatiently.
I looked straight into his eyes. "I have a son," I told him bluntly and with no shame. "Kokai...he looks like his father." Hotaka's eyes widened and he flinched for a only second before recovered.
"I heard as such," He admitted morbidly. "We'll...we'll take him with us. I'll raise him as my own." Even though he was sincere with his promise, I knew it was impossible as we looked at one another. He might try, yet Kokai looked like his father. Perhaps if he looked more like me, but no...he would never belong with our people. Besides having his father's eyes, his skin shade was very light, a bare touch of sun kissed skin, that was passable within the Fire Nation. Within my own people, his eyes and lighter skin would automatically mark him as a half-breed. Just as my little brother had been, even though his skin shade had been much darker...if Kohaku had been blue-eyed, then perhaps he might have passed. This was not possible for Kokai. I had known this since the day he was born, though I had been in partial denial. Katsu would never let his son go besides and would I be cruel enough to take another child away from him? Many such thoughts and ponderings in this vein had been mine since Kokai's birth.
Hotaka appeared anxious about my silence as he offered up another option. "Or...or we could go somewhere in the Earth Kingdom." He must have realized as I did that my son could never belong back home, hence his second offer.
"Katsu would never let him go," I stated chokingly. The clog in my throat had intensified. What was I going to do? I could not possibly…
"Then leave him behind," Hotaka murmured. "Since he is Fire Nation...we'll have more someday."
The blood rose to my face in a sudden fury. He dared to suggest what I could barely just think myself? Or that I could abandon my child and that he could so easily be replaced?! Hotaka had been a dear friend, but i had never thought of him in the way that he clearly felt about me. If I had not been taken...the future he had imagined for us would probably have happened. I might have loved him in that way and a part of me acknowledged that if I did leave with him...I probably could. Yet...do not get me wrong, I was grateful and amazed at what he had done for me, what he was offering to do for me. But...I could not leave my son behind...and a part me wondered how far Katsu would come after me, even if it was just me to flee.
...I hated to acknowledge it, Kokai belonged here...And I…
Here I knew peace with my child. Here...they were people too as I had learned with difficulty. There were people here I had come to care about and here...I knew peace and was not constantly afraid anymore. Kokai would grow up relatively untouched by the war compared to elsewhere and would be safe, happy. If I were even to return home, would it even be possible for me to be safe there? To slip away somewhere on the southern pole amongst our scattered people, outside of what remained of our city? The war was everywhere, even in large parts of the Earth Kingdom, and how far would Katsu go to reclaim me? A decision laid before me, and once it was made, there would be no turning back…
"Hotaka," I whispered painfully, taking in a deep breath, and felt the ache within my chest cry in fragmented horror and lamentation. The words that were to come out of my luis died as the door to study opened. Hotaka and I looked over at the doorway in muted alarm. Katsu's intimidating frame appeared in the doorway.
Spirits...I had not thought he would back for several hours...The universe just loves proving me wrong*...
Katsu's eyes flashed at the sight of Hotaka, who instantly took a defensive stance and challenged Katsu's gaze with one of the utmost loathing. "You…" Hotaka hissed as he pulled out his blade that he had strapped to his back. It was a standard long blade sword used by Fire Nation soldiers, nevertheless Hotaka looked trained to wield it. "Get behind me, Rana," He ordered me gruffly as he tried to keep the panic from his voice that did not show on his face. My feet did not move as I looked back towards Katsu. His attention flickered towards me intensely as he waited to see what I would do. After a second of me not reacting to Hotaka's command, I saw the ghost of a smug expression on his face before his attention went back to Hotaka. His glare became stony at what was for him an unknown intruder into his home. Instead of slipping into a combative stance, he remained where he was, though his posture was rigid.
"So, tell me Rana, who's your little guest?" He interrogated in an overly pleasant, calm voice. It was impossible to avoid his burning glare that demanded an answer and gave light to the animosity he was truly feeling.
"He's...he's…" I stuttered out, wishing desperately that I prevent the panic from coming to my face and voice. To be completely honest, I was entirely terrified. Not of Katsu, but of what was about to go down in this scene.
...Oh sweet spirits, if any of you exist, nowwould be an exceedingly perfect time for some intervention!...
"Hotaka." A simple and defiant supplied retort came from Hotaka. "The man who's about to kill you."
..No...no...I do not want anyone to die!...
Katsu's attention went back to him and he gave him a once-over. To both our surprises, he chuckled deeply for Hotaka's eyes widened and I jumped at the sound of it. "A little Water Tribe boy, I take it," He said with cheerless amusement, but there was danger in every word. "A pity you came all this was merely to fail."
Hotaka bristled at Katsu's scoffing dismissal. "You're going to pay for what you did to her!" Hotaka claimed with open revilement and revulsion. His face had twisted into something I recognized from these emotions...it was a mirror of what mine had been once. He raised his blade, preparing to step forward and attack! Katsu appeared ready to step into a firebending stance.
My frozen tongue and feet left me at the sight of them preparing to fight. I knew how this would end. Katu was older, more experienced, and a powerful bender. Though I am sure Hotaka was skilled, I could not allow…
"NO!" I shouted desperately, putting myself in the path between them. Katsu and Hotaka looked at me dumbfoundedly, though I saw the knowing dismay on Katsu's face.
"Move out of the way, Rana!" Katsu snapped at me, daring me to disobey him with a withering gaze.
"No," I repeated more calmly. "Hotaka was only trying to help me."
"By stealing you away from me?" Katsu mocked with a derisive snort. "As if I would allow that."
"You're the one who stole her away!" Hotaka interjected with a spat, his misty-ocean eyes shooting arrows of malice at Katsu.
...Spirits...How could I possibly have this end with no blood-shed?...
"Katsu," I plead softly as I looked towards him, letting the plea show on my face. Part of me detested myself for begging like this. "Let him go. Let him return home! I haven't left or tried to escape!"
"He would only return," Katsu asserted morbidly convinced. "Clearly he spent some time trying to find you. He's not just going to give up."
"Not if it's my choice to say," I answered hurriedly, while somewhere in the ache in my chest cringed at my words. I glanced over at Hotaka to see his horrified expression.
"Rana, what are you saying?" He cried out in disgust and disbelief. "I came here to save you!"
A shuddered breath left me. "I know," I told him imploringly. "And I thank you...but I can't go back. Not now."...No!..no...Spirits… "My place is here," I said to him, keeping my silent cries within. "The girl you loved died on her way to the Fire Nation." I wanted my last statement to be an utter lie, somehow I knew that it was not completely false. I had changed.
Hotaka's sword came down a fraction. "You're lying!" He exclaimed fiercely in denial. "Why...you can't…"
"You heard her, boy." Katsu interrupted triumphantly, reigning in Hotaka's perilous breakdown. Hotaka looked at me pleadingly, in disbelief, and yet my face must have given the answer I now claimed, hiding any other contradictory thoughts or feelings.
"But…Rana...I love you..." He uttered weakly, as if he were that gangly teenager I remembered so well. He probably shoould not have said that, for not even in a blink of an eye, Katsu's firebended a fire whip! It wrapped around Hotaka's blade and was yanked across the room into Katsu's waiting hand. I gasped dramatically in terror for the the sight of Katsu firebending terrified me. Even in the face of my fear, I still made a move to completely put myself in front of Hotaka. Katsu pushed my small frame out of the way with ease as he strode across the room. He held the blade up to Hotaka's throat, the point of the blade pinpricked at Hotaka's throat. Do not judge Hotaka for he had almost no time to react either and had also been taken by surprise, not to mention his only weapon had been taken from him.
Hotaka did not flinch at the blade held to his throat and met Katsu's furious gaze head on. "Do it," He urged. "Make her hate you for killing me, for if she doesn't now..." He seemed appalled by that acknowledgement in his own speech."She certainly will after this." I moved forwards to try to grab the blade from Katsu's hand, but he saw me move out of the corner of his eye. His gaze did not move from Hotaka.
"Don't even try it, Rana," He growled under his breath. "I'm not in the mood for your stupidity."
Well, so much for that…
"Don't kill him," I begged, again hating myself for coming off so weak. Some water would have been extremely useful right now. I held my breath. Terrified of what would transpire next.
"You're right," Katsu informed Hotaka with an annoyed grimace. "Which is why I'm not." Without further ado, he whacked Hotaka with the hilt of the blade, sending Hotaka into an unconscious heap.
With the sword still in his hand, Katsu grabbed my upper right arm and quite literally dragged me out of the study as I struggled. What was he going to do to Hotaka if he was not going to kill him? "Katsu, stop it!" I protested with a shriek that made him cringe. I struggled against his iron-clad grip to no avail as he pulled me out into the hall, ignoring my attempts to thwart his hold. He barked for the guards and two came barging down the hallway within a minute. I almost had to admire their response time until it made me recall their response time to my old escape attempts. Of course I recognized them, but I had never cared to remember their names, again a sign of my previous enmity for their roles in keeping me here. They bowed to Katsu.
"Search the man in the study, bind him, and lock him up in one of the storage rooms," He ordered them tersely with a thin layer of calm. "Confiscate any weapons or items, and bring them to the dining room. I want one guard to be posted outside of the storage room you dump him in." Katsu's eyes narrowed at his last sentence. "And I will be speaking to all of you about how this intruder snuck in."
The two guards had the wisdom not to speak, lest they raise Katsu's ire further. The younger guard accepted the sword as Katsu shoved it towards him and both bowed again as Katsu proceeded to storm down the hallway without another word. He held my upper forearm still. "Katsu, wait!" I yelped, but I did not struggle to be free of his hold anymore. "What are you going to do to him?"
Katsu's face was set in stone and he did not speak until we had reached our bedroom. He pushed me in gently, which I noted with some surprise, ahead of him and slammed the door shut with an ominous bang. I glared at him and stood my ground as he towered in front of me with clenched hands. "Tell me you've nothing to do with him coming here," He said in a low, even tone that even put me more on edge then if he had been yelling or cursing at me. "Tell me that this wasn't your plan, that you didn't tell him to come-"
"I didn't!" I interjected quickly with my voice rising almost to a high shriek. I was not worried for myself, but for Hotaka. "I was as surprised as you were!"
"Who is he?" Katsu bid me forcefully, including the subtext of what he was to me.
"An old friend," I answered truthfully. "We grew up together back at the-"
"How did he find you?" Katsu thundered impatiently, making me wince. Those golden eyes analyzed every facial twitch as I responded to his interrogation.
"On his own," I replied. "He didn't describe it in great detail. Katsu, please tell me what you plan-"
Katsu's hands unclenched and he yanked me by my upper arms into an angry and possessive kiss. He ceased almost as it had seemed to deepen and wrapped his arms around me in a solid embrace as he buried his face into my neck. It felt like an eternity before he spoke again. "You chose me," He murmured in a low tone. "But I wonder what you would chosen if I hadn't intervened."
There was a loud pause before I found myself able to respond. The ache within mourned, and yet approved it just as he embraced me now… "It would still be the same," I confessed in a whisper. "I couldn't...Kokai…" Katsu lifted his head up and took a step back as his hands settled onto my shoulders. Those golden eyes, like sunlight through glass, searched my face.
"You're not lying," He commented with tangible surprise, which was followed by a smug revelation. That made me shrug his hands off and take a step back from him.
"You haven't answered my question," I fumed in accusation.
Katsu gave me a long, hard look. "Obviously I'm going to ask him a few questions first," He informed me in a heated tone. "The I should turn his sorry ass in, but doing so would be a danger to us both if he talked." There was the other possibility, unspoken, but he had just said minutes ago that he would not do that.
"Well?" I inquired impatiently. I was terrified. Hotaka had only wanted to save me, to help me, and here he was….
"I don't know," Katsu admitted with a dark look. He swept past me, once again ignoring my protests as he locked the bedroom door on me, trapping me in the bedroom as he had not done since before Kokai's birth.
Hours passed and no one came to the bedroom. I knew that any yelling or banging on the door would be a futile effort. I paced the room or stared out the window, trying to approximate the hour as the tell-tale sign of the sun started to dip down on the western horizon. So many thoughts and feelings whirled within me like a howling blizzard, where I could not see through the blizzard or its end. I had not lied about my choice, though it pained me greatly. Now I was obsessed with Hotaka's fate. I will admit I cried as I had not for a long time, whether for myself or Hotaka I am not completely sure. Eventually Katsu returned to the room, closing the door behind himself with an unreadable, almost brooding expression.
I sat on the edge of the bed, probably not a pretty sight, and looked at him expectantly. He moved as if to walk towards me and changed his mind, instead leaning against the wall by the door with his hands down at his side. Katsu studied me as I were a difficult puzzle before he spoke in a placid, pained voice? "Tell me truthfully Rana, if you had the chance to leave with him," He said the last word with obvious loathing. "And with no worry of me coming after you or trying to keep you here...would you do it?"
I stared at him. Was this some sort of trick? What would the consequences of my answer bring to myself or Hotaka? "I wouldn't," I said quietly, trying to keep the bitterness out of my words. I was being honest, reaffirming my previous response. "I...I couldn't leave Kokai behind and-"
"And you wouldn't take him from me either," Katsu finished for me appraisingly. "Because you know he belongs here and that I-" His voice caught in his throat, but we knew alike the unsaid reason...If anything Katsu appeared grateful that I would not be that vindictive or vengeful to take Kokai away from him.
"Was this a test? A trick?" I hurled at him with contempt and annoyance. Why would he be cruel enough to mock me thusly? Had I not confirmed what he had wanted earlier? I wanted to know what he had done to Hotaka! Or what was going to happen…
"It's neither," Katsu explained as if the weight of the world were upon his shoulders. His eyes gleamed with a distressed light. "If...if you want to leave with him, I shall let you go."
My jaw dropped down into my heart as it sped up to a bursting speed. The cavity within my chest wept, however it was not entirely in jubilation for his presence had caused its decrease these last two years. I had never imagined this scenario for it was opposite of Katsu and his own selfishness.
...Was I truly hearing this?...
I gaped at Katsu's unmoving face and saw no lies or hidden agendas there. He was being genuine, though he tried to mask his own emotions away. I could leave….if I wanted too with Hotaka…
I let out a wild sob before I gave my answer…