Epilogue: Part One
"No matter what you say or do, there's no getting over someone who is meant the world for you." -Kaceem Aviero
"Letting go means to come to the realization that some people are a part of your history, but not a part of your destiny." -Steve Maraboli
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." -Maya Angelou
-Five Years Later-
He sat in his meditation pose in the rock garden that housed the Honor Stone. A tall, ebony pillar with names written on its four sides with a large empty space waiting to be filled on its lower half. The Honor Stone towered over all the other boulders in the rock garden. It was carved with the names of the greatest of the Society and it was a rare honor for a name to be written upon it. Iwao sat on top one of the larger rocks, which was one of the many varied size of rocks and color. Small pebbles of different shades were grouped by color and weaved different patterns in the garden, except for the two paths that intersected at the Honor Stone, cutting through the whole scene in an x-shape. Thankfully the sun had not yet quite risen for the day was going to be a sweltering one. It was the hottest part of the summer, though it was nearing its end, but Iwao made it a habit to do his exercises and meditation before the sun was completely over-head. The sky was edged pink and above a deep purple, which was what Katsu glimpsed for he was housed by the high walls of the Center, the secret home of the Society. He kept his mind calm and blank, just like the unwritten part of the Honor Stone, until he neared the end of his meditation.
This place was his favorite place to meditate at the Center and he was relieved to be back for a period. Ever since his dismissal by Lord Katsu, it had been one short assignment to the next over the last eight years. That assignment had been one of his longest ever and one of the most….memorable. Yes, he thought to himself, that was the word to describe it without treading into dangerous waters. His last assignment had finished and he now awaited his next assignment, but perhaps soon he would be staying at the Center permanently as a teacher or some other suitable task. He was not getting any younger, a fact which did not have him leaping with joy.
Iwao's eyes opened to look up at the deep purple sky that was starting to show tinges of blue. Like her eyes, he thought to himself absentmindedly. True, he recalled now that today was that day, the day when he had received the news five years ago…that she had died...and in childbirth of all things. Iwao remembered the birth of her first child and Lord Katsu's fear of losing her, so perhaps it had not been so misplaced in the end. Though he did not bid it come forth, the emotion that he had felt that day danced within his withered heart. He had felt….empty….
To know that she was gone. Forever. She would not be there torment Lord Katsu, to raise her children, to struggle like she did so well, to laugh, to live…
Yes, he had been somewhat surprised by the emotions that he had felt at the news of her tragic fate. Iwao would never admit this to anyone and barely acknowledged it himself, but he had been relieved at the time when he had left that assignment the first time around. The Society teaches its followers from a very young age to repress their emotions and to never show them. The less one felt, the better in the end. Iwao had always followed this code quite willingly, but that had been before he had met her.
Iwao gazed at the sky which increasingly was becoming like the color of her eyes by the minutes. No, he had not loved her….he did not love anyone and could not remember doing so. Perhaps before the Society, but not in his living memory. No, she had done something much worse than that...she had made him feel. After months of watching her try to escape and struggling every day, he had pitied her. Admired her efforts even. The blank area within his chest had become a small flame inside a withered heart. She had made him care. For the first time in his life, he had come to care about another human being, outside of annoyance and hatred, or respect and admiration. Unlike his hatred for that idiotic Satoru. That stupid commoner would have only brought her trouble and did not have the means to protect her as Lord Katsu did. The idiot had only proved himself by moving on to the next available thing, just like many stupid men, Iwao recalled irritated. Yet Iwao had true, genuine, in one's face caring about her well-being. Quite soon after that he had let her escape so he could be free of this caring and save himself. It was quite easier in his profession to not feel much versus the opposite. Yet when Lord Katsu had called for him to return, he had been tempted and could not refuse. In the time he had been away, he had managed to stave off that flickering flame. Against his better judgement he wanted it to become larger, perhaps more like a small fire….or even a bonfire maybe. So, in the end, he had returned to her until the day came when he was truly no longer needed. The flame within his chest did not disappear as he had feared it would when he had left. It remained still.
The flame had brought its own curse, making him rethink about his own lot in life and to his partial horror he had found it wanting. He had protected many over the years and had glimpsed all walks of life before, but after watching her life with those she loved when he now had a flame….it had made him wonder what his own life could have been like outside of the Society. Could he have had a wife? Children? Dare he think it….could he have been happy? Iwao had seen her growth and acceptance, had seen her go from the lowest of depression and anguish to true happiness. He had wanted that...just a small bit of him did. No, he did not want her, he wanted that feeling she had. But as it always was with his kind, it was not his to have, unless one was entirely happy with being a bodyguard. Iwao knew what it was to be accepting and that he did, with some bitterness at least. Though he had that small flame now, thanks to her.
Maybe one day he would see her again when he eventually would go to the Pure Lands. The idea pleased him, although he did feel sorry that she had left her little ones behind. Iwao could not think of anyone who would want to meet him there, but knowing her...she would be happy to greet him and pester him once more. No, he did not love her, he mused thoughtfully. She had made him feel and in turn he had come to care about her. Nothing more. Nothing less. His role in life was as one of the Society and he would follow that to the end of his life. But she had brought him some joy, a dash of color, in an otherwise bleak and unfeeling world. The flame within him kept him going and enabled him to feel human.
For that he would always remember her, how she made him feel, and hoped that wherever she was...that she had found that peace that alluded her even in her happiness.
Teruko hurried along one of the many streets of Yu Dao, eager to get home to her family after an afternoon at the art studio. She had been apprenticed there for five years before she had become a full fledged professional in her own right, taking into account though that she had taken a year off after the birth of her first child. Painting had become a vital part of her life and one of her main loves, outside of her family naturally. Of all the Fire Nation colonies for her and Satoru to settle in, she was quite glad that they had chosen Yu Dao, which was a colony located in the former Western Earth Kingdom. It was one of the oldest Fire Nation colonies for it was founded over ninety years ago and one of the few that even treated Earthbenders with some equality. The structure of city itself was an interesting blend of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom styles with mainly low-structured buildings in the city. Yu Dao was located in wide, flat valley that was surrounded by rocky hills and a large wall with one main gate protected the city. A prominent city famous for its metal works and thriving culture. The day was getting late for the sun was dipping down in the sky overhead, lessening the nearing summer's heat. It was not as warm in the Fire Nation, which Teruko missed at times.
Her home was located in a less wealthy area of the city, but still well to do and they lived on the second floor of a three story building. It was a comfortable enough flat with plenty enough rooms for all who lived there. Not as opulent as she had once known, yet comfortable and cozy. Teruko now lived the life of a commoner, as did her children. They would never life as nobles, nor probably be as wealthy as Teruko had once been, even though the noble blood of her family ran in their veins. Yet this was her home with her husband and children and it was a good life. Teruko would not trade it for the world. She pranced up the stairs to her home, eager to be greeted and to check in all on all her dear ones. She strolled into the main living area of the flat, slightly surprised to see that Satoru was in their kitchen cooking. He did not often cook, although she was not going to complain about him doing it tonight. "I love it when you cook," Teruko greeted him with a thankful smile.
Satoru kept cooking and smirked in response. His hands were busy, so Teruko gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. She let out small sound of surprise as Satoru's attention turned from the cooking dish and his hands pulled her in for a proper kiss. As quickly as he had pulled her into his arms he released her to turn back to dinner. Teruko saw the mischief in his eyes and appreciated that after years of marriage he did not cease in surprising her. "How was your day?" She asked, walking further into the kitchen to inspect the mess he had made in his pursuit to cook.
"I don't think Rana likes me being her literary teacher," Satoru mused sardonically. Teruko repressed an unlady like need to snort. Their nine-year old daughter, their first-born, was attending the public school that Satoru had started to teach at after the birth of their son. He taught courses about Fire Nation literature and writing skills, so naturally Rana was not enthused about having her father as a teacher.
"Where are the children?" Teruko asked. She had wondered why they had not been creating chaos in the general living area. Their nine-year old daughter had a tendency to break things while playing, which only added with their seven-year old son's quick temper and firebending. She swore that someday Zhao was going to set the building on fire during one of his temper tantrums or fights with his sister. He was the only firebender in their little family, but thankfully Teruko had dealt with an unruly firebender before-her little brother Ichiro. It tugged at her heartstrings sometimes how much Zhao reminded her of her little brother and her father even for he took after them.
"They are playing with Ming downstairs," Satoru told her with his attention still on his cooking as he did various small tasks around the kitchen. Ming was the daughter of the downstairs neighbor and their children were often playing together. They were close with most of their neighbors and often visited each other with their children in tow.
"Maro?" Teruko queried next. The newest addition to their family was their six-month old son. A beautiful boy with her shade of brown hair and the only one to have Satoru's grey eyes. It was too early to tell, but Teruko would put her money on Maro looking the most like Satoru. Their first-born son was starting to resemble her father more than Teruko and had inherited his temper as well, for neither of them had one like it. Little Rana had features from both of them, with her eyes, Satoru's hair coloring and gentle looks. If anything Rana resembled Satoru more than she did Teruko, yet Satoru's looks suited their daughter. Like her namesake though, she was stubborn beyond redemption and very intelligent. Satoru had told Teruko once that Rana's namesake had been one of his cleverest students and a quick learner, so their daughter took after her smarts in spirit from her namesake and from her scholar of a father.
"He's asleep in our bedroom," Satoru answered her. Teruko acknowledged his response with a tilt of her head before she wandered into the common area to look out the window. Satoru started to hum as he kept cooking in the kitchen. She gazed out the window to a skyline of rooftops, a somewhat empty street below, and a dipping sun with its rays casting a warm glow onto the rooftops. The thought of her daughter's namesake gave Teruko a flash of sadness. Sometimes she thought of her and she wondered how often Satoru did. He had loved their friend before he had loved her. One might think Teruko to be jealous of the idea, but she never really had been. Satoru had left the Fire Nation and had chosen to be with her, and once their friend had helped them be together. That was why they had named their daughter after her and especially after they had received word from Ira when….
...When she had died…
Rana had died in childbirth, only months before Teruko herself gave birth, which only increased their own fear about childbirth. While Teruko had only known her for a short fraction, they had been close, and so had Satoru been in his own way. At first, she had felt guilty for leaving Rana behind in the Fire Nation, but after Rana's first child was born and they had started writing to one another it had decreased. She had sounded happy at last. Before, though Rana had tried to hide it….she had been in much pain, and it was only when Teruko was leaving that she had found out the reason for it. Perhaps it was wrong of her to not care that Rana had been from the Water Tribe, but she did not regret finding out the truth.
Teruko missed her family, her home island, and living in the Fire Nation itself at times. She was happy here though and did not regret that. Her life was good and she felt blessed in life...and hoped that Katsu and his children would be alright without Rana…and that wherever Rana was….Teruko hoped she was at peace...and that she knew that they missed and remembered her.
To think that he had thought once that he would never be happy was a foolish notion in hindsight. Something he judged now as being a foolish and ego bruised youth, albeit he had been quite heartbroken and bitter at the time, understandably so. Life moves forward and so it had with him long ago it seemed. It was peculiar for him to think back on it now, but perhaps it was due to the recent raid by those Fire Nation demons. Hotaka concentrated on the fishnet that he was repairing, having been torn in a recent storm. It would have been completely burned if it had been destroyed in the last raid he thought in dark amusement. Due to the summer weather, the sun was out almost all of the time these days and it was warm enough to not need a thick outer parka on. He sat out in front of his igloo home on a low bench, the home and bench made with his own two hands, and watched the sun as it slinked below a frozen landscape. The sounds of the village were audible in the distance and the occasional passerby with a brief acknowledgement. Outside of the somewhat decreasing raids, life was peaceful and even on the bland side some might say. There were no known waterbenders in their village, so that could be reason for the decrease in raids. There probably were waterbenders out there hiding in small villages across the southern pole or a child here who had yet to show their ability or hide it well. For Hotaka, it was almost paradise after the travels and adventures he had had in his youth. Some of it had been fun, even inspiring, but much of it had been difficult, painful, and disturbing sometimes. The thing was he did not regret the course he had chosen before, for it had made him the man he was today and had led him back home, and eventually to his wife.
"Hotaka, dinner is ready." His wife called from inside the igloo. He looked up to see wife pulling aside the animal-skinned curtain to walk outside with their two-year old son attached to her hip. When he had first returned home it had taken some time to recover and slowly, ever so slowly, to start to look elsewhere. Choices were limited somewhat, but his gaze had fallen upon her for she too understood and carried a quiet hurt. Yet she also had hope for the future, something he had learned through her. Even though she was older, and had lines on her face he had not earned yet, the Spirits had blessed him with her love after he had pursued her for several years. She was certainly more experienced between the two of them, so he often heeded her words and guidance, even though she did so gently.
Hotaka stood up, setting the now forgotten net aside on the bench. Their toddler beamed at him from his wife's arms and began to squirm as he wanted to now be held by Hotaka. He had his mother's eyes, but the promise of his looks someday. Their son was their treasure and pride, and Hotaka felt an overwhelming need to keep him safe as any parent would, yet for them it was even more so. He was the only child they would ever have for his wife it had been a difficult birth, furthered by her age. "Give him to me," Hotaka bid her, taking said squirming package into his arms. His son let out a shriek as he tossed him into the air and back into his solid hold. Hotaka looked over to see his wife's amused smile. Moon and Ocean Spirits, he thought to himself, he was a lucky man and loved her more then anything. He had promised Rana long ago that he would return home and live his life, and if not for her choice to stay in the Fire Nation, he never would have married Kanna or had their son Hakoda. In many ways, he loved her still, or maybe it was the memory of her. She had been his childhood love after all. He had told Kanna the truth about her for she had been close to her once, but the rest of the village thought her to be dead.
Sometimes he wondered how she fared in the Fire Nation with her half-breed child. She had been right in many ways he had realized later on, but initially he had been angry and resentful towards her. It had seemed to him she had stayed for more reasons than just her son. She had appeared to be, just as he had been when he had left her there, torn between what was right and wrong. Maybe it was beyond right and wrong, Hotaka had thought once, maybe it was about happiness. Now he had a good life and was happy with where her choice had led him. Hotaka hoped that she was happy with her choice and lived a good life, even if it was among those demons. Maybe she regretted it, but at the end it had been her choice and there was no going back from it. Moon Spirit and Ocean Spirit, Bless Rana and hers', he thought to himself as he followed Kanna into their home. This was the last prayer he ever bid her and one of the last times he thought of her with sadness. Hotaka had a good life to live and that was exactly what he did.
Akane kept a watchful eye as her youngest son played with the head servant Yori's youngest child. He dashed around on the hillside outside of the estate, playing tag, while Akane sat by herself on a blanket with her embroidery. Tamotsu, named for his father's brother who had died young, though they had suspected that he had been taken by the Society. Her son was an energetic four-year old whom resembled his father in many ways. He had inherited their family's light shade of golden eyes, unlike Akane's hazel eyes, and also had his father's firebending as well. It would serve him well in the future, as it did for their oldest son Ichirou, whom now served in the Fire Nation's army. He was stationed away in the Earth Kingdom and Akane had not seen him now in three years. Tamotsu had only been a year old when Ichirou had met him and left right afterwards after a quick visit. He would return home soon hopefully and in a few years be properly married, after his fiancee from his arranged marriage was of the proper age. Akane was proud, as her husband was, for their oldest son's service to their great nation.
Sometimes the fact that her son and husband were in the military, involved in the war made her wince. Akane had known someone once who had made her question the righteousness of the war and if people from other nations were truly what she had been taught to believe. Rana had been such an angry young women when Akane had met her, damaged by the war, and hating all that was Fire Nation. She had been so...human….unlike what Akane would have thought someone from the barbaric Water Tribe to be like. Akane had watched Rana heal over the years and come to embrace her life in the Fire Nation, but she had never ceased in being critical of the war and all its wrongdoing. While Akane had come to agree with her in many ways, it was not within her power to cease a war that had been going for the better part of almost sixty years now. It was expected of her son and husband to serve, and so they did what they must do. In fact, her brother-in-law Katsu had given up several promotions and higher ranking posts while Rana had been alive to please her and stay out of the war as much as possible.
Today marked the day of her death. Five years ago exactly and the day of the twins' birthday as well. Akane hoped Katsu was giving them a proper birthday party, but knew that it had probably fallen to Ran, Katsu's head servant to arrange it. He was probably there at the festivities no doubt, but most likely sullen and withdrawn. She would have been there if she could, but business at the estate came first since Masato was gone on a six-month tour and had left her to run the estate. Tamotsu was only several months younger than the twins' and the three of them had a strong friendship as playmates and cousins. Akane thought of Rana often, especially whenever the oldest twin looked up at her with her mother's eyes. Rana's death had devastated the family, but it had truly destroyed Katsu in many ways. The death of his first wife and child had caused him to withdraw from the family and throw himself into his military career. The loss of Rana had caused him to withdraw inwards and focus on his military career, but he was involved with his children and the rest of the family in a limited way. He was there physically, but he had become emotionally withdrawn, and the only affection he did show was to his children and that was also reserved at best.
Akane had lost a friend, a sister, when Rana had passed. It had caused her to fear for her own soon-to-be born child. Yet Ira had not predicted her death, so she had breathed easier, and had feared for Rana before she had given birth. It had hurt Ira greatly to become Rana's friend, outside of it being improper, yet the woman had done so anyways knowing of Rana's fate. Agni, Akane had feared for her and believed in Ira's prediction. She still visited Ira whenever she returned to Katsu's estate and Ira was involved with Rana's children. Rana's death and living children had sealed a close friendship and understanding between the two of them that before Akane never would have allowed because of its impropriety.
Agni help her, though she loved the twins, little Rana and Mari, she hoped that one of them was taken. Not her beloved son Tamotsu. The twins' fifth birthday was today and in several months it would be her son's fifth birthday. Three years ago a second Royal prince had been born to Fire Lady Ilah, shocking everyone because of her older age. Soon Prince Ozai would need his bodyguard to be chosen by the Society and raised as one of their own, just as they had done to her son Renzo many years ago. Tamotsu had replaced their second son that had been taken from her long ago and Agni forgive her….but it was either him or one of the twins who would be taken.
Akane gazed at her playing son as he chased his friend with a wild laugh. They could not take her son away from her. Not again. It had destroyed a part of her once and if it happened again….No, surely they would take one of the twins for they were older. Mari was a firebender as well, though little Rana was not. They were both suitable….Agni forgive me, Rana forgive me...Akane pleaded inside, saying the same prayer that had come to her often since Prince Ozai's birth...Let them take one of your's, and not mine, Not again….not again….not my son….
Today was all about his sister's and in general Kokai liked to be the center of attention, but since it was their birthday he allowed it. Was it not his responsibility as an older brother to make sure his sisters' were happy and safe? Ran had thrown a little celebration for them that evening with her children present. Ira had been there too with her family, but Kokai wished that Aunt Akane could have made it with Tamotsu. His little cousin was a favorite playmate of his sisters' after all. Too bad she could not make it because of Uncle Masato being on a tour, leaving her to run their estate. The celebration had been informal with lots of good food and tasty desserts that had left his mouth still on fire. Mari had been jealous of little Rana's present though and it had caused Dad to leave the room abruptly. A silver necklace with a small blue stone encased in silver wrappings. Their mother's necklace.
Kokai had a vague memory of playing with it while she had held him in her arms. Ran had given it to little Rana, telling her it was their mother's and her's too have. Mari had tried to take it away and had cried about it, even though Ran had given her a scroll of poems their mother had written. The twins had no memory of their mother, but Kokai did. He also remembered there was a time when their father had laughed more. He had been happy once. Their father did not ignore them, but he was often gone on tours and when he was home he did not show emotion easily. Once he had though for Kokai could recall it and though those memories were few because of his youth….he treasured them, just as he did the vague memories of his mother. He knew that this was the day she had left them, but he did not blame the twin's for her death. Little Rana resembled their mother for seeing her blue eyes made him remember them on a different face. Sometimes Dad would look at her and almost flinch, before turning his hurt look into a small smile for little Rana. His father was the only who ever called him by Kazuo, his legal name, and that was only when he was in trouble. Kokai knew that his mother had named him, chosen his Water Tribe name, and he loved his name for that single reason. The twins had not been named by their mother, so that made his name even more special to him. He wished Mom was here to make Dad smile more and he missed her because he remembered her. Kokai had cried for days and looked around for her after her death before he had finally understood that she was not coming back. He had hated the twins' at first, but his brotherly love had won out in the end.
He sat on the bench in the inner courtyard and the tranquility of the moment was ruined as Mari and little Rana ran into the courtyard. It seemed they had made amends after their fight. "Kokai, play with us!" Mari demanded, stopping in front of the bench to make doe-eyes at him. Mari's skin was light like their father's, unlike himself and little Rana. Though little Rana and Mari were twins, Mari looked more like Kokai then little Rana. They shared the same black hair and their father's eye color, though their eyes had a wider shape then father's more slanted ones. They also were both firebenders, unlike little Rana who was not a bender it seemed. Little Rana had the same eye shape, but her eyes were blue and her hair a dark brown. Mari was the louder of the two and little Rana was a bit on the shy side. Kokai was going to miss them for at the end of the summer he would be attending the Royal Fire Academy for Boys. It was an honor to attend and would be his first year, but it meant he would be living away from home.
"What game?" He asked with a fake sigh of annoyance.
"Hide-and-go-seek?" Little Rana suggested in a quiet voice. It was her favorite game and she was the best hider out of all of them.
"Yes!" Mari agreed enthusiastically.
"Go hide then!" Kokai ordered them smiling. "I'll be the seeker." Kokai covered his eyes with his hands as he started the count-down, hearing their footsteps as they ran away to hide. He wished that the twins could have known their mother or their father as he had been before. Yet he would give them all the brotherly love and affection where it was lacking at times from their father. Ira, Ran, and Aunt Akane when she visited tried to give them the missing motherly love, but it was not the same for Kokai remembered. Maybe it was okay for the twins, but he remembered. Maybe she watched them from the Pure Lands. Kokai hoped that she was proud of him and that she knew he missed her. He remembered her smile and playing with her long hair when she had held him. Wherever she was, she had loved them and would not have left them if given the choice. His father did not speak of her at all, yet Kokai knew he missed her too. Kokai just wished that his father could be happier.
Kokai finished the count-down and went to look for his sisters. He left his serious brooding behind on the bench, returning to his normal ten-year old self. Under the eaves he stepped with a mischievous grin and an internal bet that Mari was hiding in her usual spot in the garden alcove. Little Rana would take longer to hide for she always hide somewhere new and inventive. Kokai went to look for his sisters, forgetting his earlier muses and with all the joy in the world any ten-year old can muster forth.