Chapter 33: Future-Fate-Finality
"Mika: Were you happy?
Hiro: I was so happy."
-Ibuki Haneda, Koizora, Vol. 3
"Not even need and love can defeat fate…" -Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia
"Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there." -Jalal Ad-Din Rumi
* is a haiku poem by the Japanese poet Seiju.
The passage of time has a terrible habit of going by quickly when one is happy and then dragging into a listless lull when one is not. The next several months after Kokai's first steps had been somewhat on the slow side, before rapidly gaining speed as my happiness grew. Kokai's wobbly steps soon became a steady run after six months. His limited vernacular grew during this period and to my amusement and annoyance at times, his new favorite word immediately became "No!" Other words quickly followed, such as "mine, hi, bye-bye, yes, and more," and yet he did not learn the one word that Katsu was getting anxious to hear by this point. Kokai was now a year and half and in the last month I had started to take lessons again after I had asked Katsu to find me another teacher. Since the birth of Kokai, my studies and practicing my waterbending had fallen behind. I was now determined to keep them up and my bending could only go so far without proper instruction, I avowed to practice and keep pushing myself with the usage of the waterbending scroll Katsu had given me and to search for more in the future. Though I read often, there was much I had to learn in my studies, and not just about Fire Nation culture and customs. By this point I considered myself something of an expert on that. I wanted to continue studying, even learning to play the erhu, and it was easier to accomplish when one has a teacher with lessons to make sure you do the work and to have someone to discuss and guide you with what you are learning. As it turned out, nobles will often house or finance musicians or scholars in their pursuits, and Katsu had not patroned anyone since Satoru's departure.
I had been somewhat surprised to learn that my new teacher was a woman, middle-aged and primarily a musician, whom had happily taken the new post. Fumiko was a much sterner instructor then Satoru had been and put his musical abilities to shame. She was educated enough to guide me in the rest of my studies, but music is where her true focus lay. Underneath the sternness, there was a quiet and passionate artist and composer. For the first time in my life I appreciated learning to play the erhu and began to find an enjoyment in music because of her. She was originally from this island and had taken the post to return home after working for different nobles, even going to the Fire Nation colonies for a time. Fumiko resided with relatives outside of the estate, so I only saw her for my lessons, and did not spend time with her outside of them. I planned on changing that eventually with time for my limited social group needed some expanding. I valued my friendships and time spent with Ira and Ran at their homes or on ventures around the island, but I was wanting to branch out a little. Akane saw me when she could and with the absences of Teruko, Satoru, and even Iwao….my already tiny circle appeared even more miniscule. Satoru, Teruko, and Akane exchanged letters with me, yet that cannot replace having a friend with you there in person. As for Iwao...I had not heard a word and I did not expect too ever again. I understood why he had left then for Katsu had dismissed him, however I found myself bitter with how he had left.
Akane's recent visit with Masato and Ichirou in tow had helped to alleviate my loneliness. On this visit I spent more time with Masato and Ichirou, whom was now becoming a young man in appearance and in my eyes. Ichirou had at long last gotten over his shyness with me and I had discovered him to be a sharp and forthright individual, much like his uncle. Masato had always been more subdued than Katsu, which could be viewed as a positive trait, considering that Katsu was oft described as being arrogant. Hopefully Ichirou would not pick up too much from Katsu, an observation that had been an amusement between Masato and I. My bonding to them increased greatly and they became a more intricate part of my web of those that I care about. Ira's and Ran's children likewise became a more active part of my life and Kokai's. Sadly for Kokai, only Ira's youngest was even close enough to Kokai's age to be a playmate. Four year old Natsuo currently preferred to trail after his three older siblings and ignore Kokai, whom now followed Natsuo as he did his brother and sisters. It would be some time until Kokai was older that he would be a more interesting playmate for Natsuo. My close friendships with Ran and Ira, while unusual because of the class system here, were tolerated because they are both women. Becoming associated with their husbands outside of polite passing would not have been, so the two often talked about husbands of Ira and Ran, I only dealt with in passing. Even though I could tell you random things about them, such as Ira's husband having an obsession with sweets or Ran's husband's love of the stars. Personally, that made me worried they might know random details about me, but then again we engaged in what Katsu called "women talk."
I came to know the household by name and each individual if not well, at the very least their temperament and if they lived off of the estate. The irony of it did not escape me that I had at long last entirely filled in the role of a Fire Nation noble's wife, attending to her family and running the household, something that several years ago would have sent me screaming and running in the other direction. True, I had always hoped to have a family some day, but I would not have imagined it thusly. As for love….well I...the void seemed to disappear with each passing month. There were times I felt its echo and I do not entirely believe it would disappear, despite that I thought someday it might. Just maybe.
Katsu and I had our fights and would continue to do so. Even when one is happy in their life, it has its messes and problems that are a necessary and sometimes beautiful part of it. How can one come to enjoy it otherwise? After all the struggles and pain I have been through, the issues and small arguments of how Kokai would be dressed that day or if Katsu's new facial hair was stupid looking, however irritating, were events that I almost basked in the everyday normality of it all. On a side note, Katsu had asked Ran for the truth about his facial hair and afterwards he had shaved. Katsu was not handsome in the traditional sense, he looked much better without the facial hair. It is a common style here in the Fire Nation that I do not find attractive.
One afternoon after one of my bi-weekly lessons with Fumiko, I sat out in the inner courtyard practicing on my erhu. Kokai was under my watchful eye as he tottered by the edge of the fountain, playfully splashing his hands into the water or pushing one of his several toy boats in it. He had developed a fondness for climbing of late, so I was ready to spring into action at a second's notice to keep the rascal from taking an unwarranted bath. Summer had set in with a shining sun overhead. The building's shadow protected us with its shade at this time of the day and there was a hint of a teasing breeze. The song I was playing had become of my favorites and one of the few I was actually quite good at playing now. Satoru had not been the best of instructors on the erhu, or compared to Fumiko at least.
A flash of familiar clothing across the courtyard under the eaves caught my attention. I kept playing my song for I was near the end of it as Katsu stopped at the edge of the raised wooden platform that circled the inner courtyard, which dark eaves hung over from the roof, supported by dark red pillars. He took the several steps into the red bricked courtyard, passing the few flowers that were planted in the courtyard along its edge. Katsu was dressed in matching black pants and a long-sleeves shirt with a black overrobe, lined with a golden color, on his outer robe. The black color of his outfit made his golden eyes more prominent and was one of his favorites to wear when he was relaxing at the estate. The outfit itself was on the simple side and not meant for formal affairs. He must be finished with his affairs for the day, I thought absentmindedly. The song I was playing was nearing the end when Katsu walked past the fountain, his attention focused on me. He had that look in his eyes he would often get, that warm light….the one I had seen in the portrait of him with his first wife Masuzu and their daughter Katsue….and one that I had come to enjoy creating in his eyes….even before Kokai's birth. Sometimes that look was accompanied with an edge of a hunger that would cause my insides to tremble. His face had that look now and with his lips curling up into the beginning of a soft smile one would not expect to see on his stern looking face.
Kokai had stopped playing with his toy and was casting an irritated look in our direction. He did not like that he was being ignored for he let go of his toy and walked with confidant little strides over to Katsu. Katsu paused in his approach to me and looked down at our bossy little son with an amused grin. I kept playing my song, almost reaching the last lines of the melody, and let my own bemused smile come forth.
"Up!" Kokai demanded, his small arms outstretched towards Katsu. He was every bit his father's son in times like these. He glared at Katsu impatiently. "Up!" He called out loudly again, trying to be louder then my instrument. Katsu glanced over at me with a resigned look, as if his plans that somehow involved me had just been ruined, which I was quite positive that they had been. His soft sigh only confirmed my suspicion. "Daddy, up!" Kokai ordered again with increasing volume, putting his small foot down on the issue. I stopped playing my instrument, leaving the song unfinished, as both Katsu and I looked down at Kokai moved. Kokai had not called Katsu anything yet, except for the one time he had made the sound "Da" when Katsu had picked him up, which Katsu had insisted referred to him. Yet that had been what Kokai had been in love with that sound. Everyone and everything had been "Da"! or "DaDaDa!" during that period.
Katsu bended down obligingly and swung Kokai up into his arms, who giggled excited. He loved it when Katsu tossed him up into the air or picked him up in general. That child had no fear in him and found everything dangerous to be fun. I could foresee this causing many headaches and heart attacks on my part in the future. "Can you say it again?" Katsu asked Kokai eagerly. "Can you tell me who I am?"
Kokai sniffled at him and gave him a look that expressed his question was stupid in general. "Mama!" He whined out to me, his arms pushing Katsu's away as he started to squirm in his arms. Katsu's expression was miffed as I stood up, setting the erhu aside to take Kokai into my arms. Kastu handed him over sullenly, causing me to laugh at his expense. He had the same expression that Kokai did when he did not get his way or when it was naptime.
The summer season ended and before I knew it the Winter Solstice was upon us, where Kokai would celebrate his second birthday only weeks afterwards. The whole family, including Akane, Masato, and Ichirou went with us to visit Kuro at the Capital. Akane and her family had been without us the past several years. I had only been once and that had been before Kokai's birth, so I was excited to go. It was a bit nerve wracking since we had never taken Kokai outside of the island before, but he had found the whole trip to be an exciting adventure. Kokai was a bold and energetic child, therefore meeting strangers was not difficult for him. Kuro got a great kick out of Kokai and vice versa. Kuro himself had not changed since I had last seen him and it was good to see the man again. After some conversation I was able to convince him to come in the future to visit us more often and I think all of us looked forward to the prospect of it. Now that Kokai was getting older it would be much easier for us to bring him here if we so desired. The Capital, while beautiful, only served as a reminder of things, so the talks consisted of Kuro visiting us or us all going to Ember Island together. This time period was my brightest and most happiest that I could remember being, except when I was a young child before the raids began. For a time after Hotaka's appearance I had been troubled, but overall since Kokai''s entrance into my life….things have only gotten better.
I was truly happy.
I remember once how Akane told me I could be happy if I just let myself be. Was it right for me to enjoy my life here, amongst the people of the Fire Nation? My own people were dying at their hands, and here I was finding peace and joy with them. The cruel irony of it did not escape me. Yet….yet….some things are beyond one person's power. The war had started before both our births as Katsu had once pointed out, so it was not our fault that things are they way they are. It did not make it right at the time though. All I knew was that I did not care anymore about my life here being in the wrong or the right. Once I had struggled over it all and now that I had found peace, happiness, and even love...I am not going to burden myself anymore. I was happy. And I did not want to give that up. Ever.
Two years passed, time weaving its loom without end or ceasing in its pattern. Kokai was now four years old and finally a worthwhile playmate from Ira's youngest child's point of view. Kokai worshipped the eight-year old and trailed after him as quickly as his short legs could carry him. During this time Katsu retired from the Navy and instead joined the homeland forces that only serve in the Fire Nation and sometimes the colonies. They are domestic defense force, consisting of a large number of firebenders and females even. Katsu was able to serve as a captain at a nearby base on another island and do daily patrols only. This meant he did not have to leave for tours anymore. When I had asked him why he had changed his assignment, for this was an even lower posting then his last one, and not doing his military career any favors. That warm had glowed in his eyes and he had simply said, "You know why."
I am sure he did it to be here more often and to be around Kokai, but there was another reason. Just as he had changed posts from being in the Southern Raiders years before. He did it for me. While he might not agree with the war entirely and acknowledged its wrong, this was his own way of respecting me and where I am from. He could not end the war, but he could stop being an active part of it. Serving in the domestic forces was a way to serve his nation and to not be serving in the war as well. Once I would have scoffed at this and now...now...I had merely smiled at him in response.
During the last two years Kokai grew by bounds and leaps as his speech, mobility, and personality grew. Satoru and Teruko still exchanged letters with me, Kuro visited us multiple times, and there were many visits from Akane and her family or us to their home. My friendships with Ira and Ran were a constant and my friendship with my teacher Fumiko slowly grew. Sometimes I thought of Iwao. Hotaka. Kanna. My people too. I wondered what they were doing...if they were alright. I hoped they were, though I knew that might not be true for anyone in the Southern Water Tribe. The guilt occasionally crept in on me, but I would comfort myself with the truth that they would want me to be happy and safe. One time in my pursuit of poetry I found a poem by a famous Fire Nation poet that perfectly describes how time ebbed and flowed for me in those days…
Not even for a moment
do things stand still: witness
color in the trees. *
It was in the early spring, only several months after Kokai's fourth birthday, that I found myself for a usual visit at Ira's home. Except this was not entirely for normal reasons. Kokai was under the watchful eye of Ira's oldest child as they all played outside of the house. The day was warm and windy for an early spring with only a few clouds in sight. Ira and I both sat at our usual places at the low table in her kitchen with the children in view from the door that led outside, which Ira had left open. Ira had finished making my favorite tea that I now held in my tense hands, trying to seek comfort from its warmth for I felt cold. Ira's nonsensical face was serious and I could see a shadow in her eyes. As if she knew something I did not. "How could this happen?" I asked shocked.
Katsu and I had taken measures to ensure this would not happen. Katsu had seemed fine with it and had not spoken to me about having more children. He accepted my reasons at the time after Kokai's birth for not wanting more children right away. While that had been true, there was another reason, though it was not true, but yet it lingered in the back of my mind. Ira's prediction that I would die in childbirth, no matter where I was, and that this was a fate I could not escape. Yet I did not believe in the Spirits anymore, so why would I believe in a fortune? I had come to know Ira and knew that she believed in her predictions, and I had yet to see her be wrong. She had been right about Kokai being a boy, but that could have been a lucky guess on her part!
Ira gave me a weak smile. "Sometimes even with using all the measures to keep from getting pregnant doesn't work," She informed me. "Is this not a good thing? You told me once you would like more children."
"Kokai is already enough of a handful," I said defensively. I had said that once, but that had been before I gave birth to Kokai. He was a ball of energy and the idea of having more children with Katsu was...I did want more children. "I don't know if Katsu wants more children," I said instead.
Ira gave me her knowing look for I was good at deflecting conversations away from me when I wanted too. She was also my healer and often my counselor, besides being my friend. "Of course he does," Ira said simply. "He was just waiting for you to be ready for more."
"Ah," I replied thoughtfully, slightly taken aback. Katsu could be so thoughtful and endearing….Wait, did I just think that? "How thoughtful of him," I added sarcastically. Ira shook her head and drank her own tea, leaving me ponder over my own thoughts and perhaps to ponder her own as well.
Much to my annoyance, Ira had been right about Katsu. He was happy about the idea of more children. Do not get me wrong, that fear of losing me returned into his eyes with the realization of the risks that come with pregnancies and childbirthing. Kokai had been less than thrilled on the subject though…
It was right after dinner, so we all sat in the dining hall. Kokai was pulled up into my crossed lap and Katsu sat to my right on other side of the low table. The torches cast shadows across the room in the ever growing twilight. Kokai was playing with my hair, which I only had half way up as I favored doing with my hair. "Kokai," I said softly. He beamed up at me with loving golden eyes and an adorable smile. "Your father and I have something very good and wonderful to tell you!" The excitement lit up in those golden orbs.
"Soon you will have a little brother or sister to play with!" Katsu announced. I frowned at him upon hearing the smugness in his voice. It is not like he was the one who would be pregnant with all its fun symptoms for the next six months.
Kokai's face immediately scrunched up into a similar disapproving frown that mirrored my own. "No!" He pouted wildly. "I don't want!" Unsurprisingly the conversation quickly ended with tears and Kokai's vehement protests that he would not share his favorite fake stuffed stuffed turtle-duck toy or like his future sibling whatsoever. Over the following months though, Kokai become amendable and even excited about the idea of a sibling to play with.
If I had thought my previous pregnancy to be difficult, this one proved me quite wrong. The symptoms were much worse this time and my nauseousness was a constant companion. My waistline expanded much faster, making Katsu think I was carrying another boy who would have "his warrior's build" as he like to claim with that endearing smirk of his. It was also the season of babies for I found out that Teruko was pregnant, though months behind me, and even Akane found out she was with child about five months into my own pregnancy. She visited me several times and not the other way around at all for my pregnancy made travel difficult. Each time there was an unspoken fear between us. Akane was terrified that in the future this child could be taken from her if another Royal Heir, though highly unlikely considering Lady Ilah's age, were to be born. Her son Renzo had been taken from her to be a bodyguard to the Crown Prince Iroh, taken away and raised by the Society, the very same group that Iwao was a part of. Everyone thought her son to be dead, except for Masato, Akane, Katsu, and I who knew otherwise. Once I had seen the Crown Prince and Lady Ilah from a distance at Ember Island and while I had not ever told Akane, wanting to spare her from the pain, I thought I had seen her son besides the Crown Prince. For me there was a different fear, and Akane feared for me because she believed in Ira's prophecies.
We did not tell anyone else. Ira did not speak of it and I will admit I did not desire to breach the subject with her. Katsu had no knowledge of it. Perhaps a part of me wanted to spare him the extra worry or perhaps I feared the possibility he would make me end the pregnancy out of a foolish fear and superstition. Such things I pushed aside to enjoy my life and to think of this child's future. Katsu and I had spent sometime discussing what name the child should have, for he did not seem to care about following Fire Nation custom if the child was a boy. It had been easy for me to think of a name for Kokai and in the end we agreed it would be a Fire Nation name, though we had been unable to pick one yet. We figured inspiration would come when actually faced with our unborn son or daughter.
Besides all of this and my difficult pregnancy, I was joyful and looking forward to greeting my new son or daughter into the world. I swore off future children because of this pregnancy though. It would be the last one, which Katsu and I both decided on together. The poor man had to suffer my even more terrifying mood swings than last time, so I think that decision was with much relief on his part. Soon the day came that after nine long months of a difficult pregnancy, I welcomed with relief and expectation…
Last time it had started with a dull ache in my lower stomach and that strange release of liquid when Katsu and I had been on the verge of sleep. This time I had been in the inner courtyard, playing with Kokai, when I felt the same sensation as the liquid passed down my legs. Kokai had giggled, thinking his foolish mommy was peeing her clothes. Before it had been a dull ache until the pain intensified as the contractions had come closer. It had been painful before, but this was pure agony. It felt as if someone had taken a knife and stabbed it into my stomach, turning it and twisting over and over. Kokai had stopped laughing when I let out a long scream.
Ran had responded to my cries and took me to the room where I would give birth as before. Ira came quickly as she could and Katsu was sent a message. He was able to come until hours later into the evening because of his duties as a captain, something I did not appreciate currently. The time blurred as Ira arrived and walked me through the paces as before. Walking around did not seem to help this time. I remember Katsu coming into the room to comfort me and yet he had been pushed out of the room by Ira. That was strange, I remember thinking, for Ira had let him be in there last time because of his and mine's insistence that he be there. Though that was somewhat unusual here in the Fire Nation.
I remember being moved to my bed sometime in all the pain and cries. Ira and Ran were there, with two of the other female servants, specifically Naru and Shizuru, rushing in and out of the room, supplying them with what they needed. Vaguely I recall crying out for Katsu and the name of every person I have loved. It is...difficult to remember it all, perhaps I….
Even in my pain, I will always remember when I heard a cry. A baby's first desperate cry as it enters the world. The strange thing was I recollect there being two cries, as if there were two young infants wailing their hearts out in the room. After the excruciating pain vanished, I was in a state of exhaustion that wavered me about in a confused state, which was not a huge change for the pain had made me going in and out of reality for what felt like eternity. All I know is that I was laying in my bed hearing a far off cry of a baby, as if the child were in the very next room. Somehow I was able to open my heavy eyelids that I just wanted to close. Katsu was sitting on his knees next to the bed with my left limp hand in between his own large hands. His eyes were closed with his head bent down as he held my hand close to his cheek. I wanted to reach out, to tighten my hand with his, or to touch his shaking head to comfort him.
It was going to be alright. I wanted to reassure him gently. I had promised I would be alright, had I not? You know….you know now I will not leave you…
Katsu let out a small gasp as he raised his head to look at me, seeing my open eyes. "Rana," He croaked out thickly, as if he had been crying for hours on end. Why was he crying? "Agni….Rana...please," Katsu begged me with terrified eyes. I wanted so badly to touch him, but there was no strength within me. I just need to sleep, I wanted to tell him, then I would have the energy to speak. My thoughts were slow and sluggish and all I could feel was the exhaustion that buried down any other feelings or thoughts. "You can't leave me! You promised...and Kokai needs you, our new girls, I need you!" Katsu went on somehow with the most heartbreak, terror, and pure pleading I had ever heard from him.
….Wait…..It occurred to me then in my struggling mind. If I closed my eyes now, I was not going to wake back up....Ira had been right...
I wanted to touch him then of my own accord. I did not want to leave. My mouth was incapable of opening and all that came out when I tried was a pathetic moan. Our eyes met and Katsu knew that I knew what was going to happen.
"I love you," Katsu beseeched me a half-sob mingled with a desperate moan. "Not again...please don't leave me...I can't…"
I did not want to go!
Iwanted….I want to tell you….something I should have said long ago...and never did because of my own foolish stubbornness!...It is at the end we all wish to say things that sometimes, because of stubbornness or the unrealized notion that we are not fallible, that we would not have said before. If I had been capable of screaming out in denial, to protest to the Spirits, to the heavens, to everything that I wanted to stay, I would have. My own body was a traitor to me as I lay like a limp doll, incapable of speech or even reaching out to Katsu. There were tears in his golden eyes that he shed freely now. Katsu never cries. I had only see him have unshed tears when he held Kokai for the first time. These tears….they were for me….
Slowly, ever so slowly, I tried to keep my eyes open to look at Katsu. I was scared. Even in my feeble and addled condition, I felt the terror whirl within me.
I did not want to leave them, any of them! I wanted to see my children grow up and to enjoy each day with them all. I wanted to live!
...Katsu...I want to tell you…
The battle, however valiantly fought, was a lost one in the end. Around me the world spun into a tunnel of light and shadow with the only unmoving thing being Katsu's anguished golden eyes. I had hated those eyes once, and now...I did not want those eyes to fade away from my sight...
...Yet they were the last thing I saw before my eyes closed forever...