the prequel scene to the Mononoke Hime au from a while back (I’d put links but, yanno, tumblr. Find it on ao3 as The Spirit’s Waterbender, or here on my blog under my fics tag)
There he is! Ooh, Lan Yi was right—he is handsome.”
“Quiet out there! We lost some good men today bringing you this rice you’re eating.” The man, whose name Zuko thought might have been Shenzu, snapped beside him.
The women crowded in the doorway laughed and made faces at the man speaking. The one who called Zuko handsome just then spoke again. “And who makes the steel that pays for all that rice, hm? We’re pumping bellows all night while you sleep off all this food.”
Zuko twisted a little and gave the women a ghost of a smile. “Actually, I would like to see where you all work, if it’s not a problem.” A large tatara bloomery dominated one side of the village, and Zuko could see a continuous plume of smoke drifting up from it. He’d learned that the woman leading this town, Aunt Wu, was a firebender, and he was curious to see how she’d set up an operation to make steel blooms in a town with no other firebenders to keep the furnace fueled long enough.
Several of the women blushed even as they laughed, and a few began talking all at once.
“You can come right over, whenever you like!”
“Don’t be a stranger—we’ll be looking for you!”
“We’ll have to wear our best kimono tonight ladies!”
“Don’t forget us, now! And don’t listen too much to the moans and groans of these old men—we’ll be waiting!”
A bell rang from another side of town, and the women waved at him as they dispersed from the doorway, laughing and talking amongst themselves.
“Don’t pay them any mind,” Shenzu said, drawing Zuko’s attention back to the table and the group of men he sat with. “Aunt Wu spoils them, that’s why they’re like that.
Zuko shrugged and picked up a bowl of rice and his set of chopsticks. “Happy women make for a happy village.”
That sent a ripple of laughter through the men immediately gathered around him. “Yeah—these women sure are happy enough now!”
“What do you mean?”
“They were all brothel workers. Aunt Wu bought the contracts of every woman working in a brothel that she could get her hands on, and brought them all with her when she settled here,” Shenzu explained.
“Them and the others,” another man to Zuko’s right said.
Someone beside him cuffed the back of that man’s head. “Don’t talk about them like that. Aunt Wu’s given them a chance that no one else wanted to.”
Zuko rested his rice bowl against his thigh. “Gave a chance to who?”
Again, Shenzu spoke up, his voice even and subdued. “Warriors who got very badly burned. Every inch of them is wrapped up in bandages, the burns are so bad. A lot of people got caught up in some nasty battles, and Aunt Wu’s got a soft heart. She helped when everyone else turned their backs on them.”
The scar on Zuko’s face suddenly became a point which every man in the room avoided looking at directly.
“It’s from an angry spirit,” Zuko told them without anyone needing to ask about it. “It touched me before I drove it away. I’ve been following it to try and stop it once and for all.” His gaze dropped to the half-empty rice bowl in his hands. “Before anyone else can get cursed like me.”
A low murmur went through the room. One man came over to sit beside Zuko. “You should talk to Aunt Wu about it,” he said with a mouthful of rice. “She may have a soft heart for people, but spirits don’t shake her at all. You should have seen the way she dealt with Ozai!”
“Yeah—to think we were giving it gifts all these years! Who knew we just needed to shoot it?”
“Well, we couldn’t have done that even if we’d’ve known. Not before Aunt Wu showed up.”
“Who’s Ozai?” Zuko interrupted, feeling a sharp sliver of dread form in the pit of his chest.
“Who’s Ozai?” the man echoed, incredulous. “Only the spirit of the volcano! We used to go up to the rim every year and take offerings to it to keep it from blowing up and destroying our whole village. But then Aunt Wu showed up with her warriors and rifles.”
“Rifles?” The word tasted strange on Zuko’s tongue, acrid and sharp. It made him think of the smell of his face after the spirit had touched him. He didn’t like it.
“A weapon that lets us nonbenders fight back with iron and fire.” The man holding the rice bowl beside him gesticulated sharply with his chopsticks, sending a few grains flying. “Some of us are earthbenders, but we never stood a chance against spirits like that before. We’re real lucky Aunt Wu decided to come to town.”
The dread in his chest grew until it felt like there were shards of it pressing against his lungs. “Why did she come here?” Zuko distantly heard himself asking.
“She heard about the iron in the ground beneath this town, but we’d mined all that out years ago. She thought there was more further up the sides of the volcano, but fear of Ozai making the volcano erupt had always stopped us from clearing the forest and finding out,” Shenzu continued. His voice wavered and Zuko wondered what he’d seen.
The other man next to Zuko laughed, half-eaten rice sticking to the sides of his mouth. “Well, she was right. Soon as she got rid of that spirit we were able to get at a whole lot more iron.”
A warmth grew within the scar on his face, making the ruined skin feel tight and painful. Zuko clenched his teeth. His face began to burn as it had when the angry spirit—Ozai—had touched him, and he recalled exactly how large the swath of burned forest around his home was. Fury began boiling deep within him, like a fire in his belly that he did not ignite, and he had to take a few deep breaths to calm his flame before it erupted from his fingertips. Before he could stop himself, he lifted his hand and pressed fingers against the outer edge of the scar, willing it to stop throbbing.
“What’s the matter?” Zuko recognized Shenzu’s voice out of the angry red haze that had settled over his senses. “Does your… face still hurt?”
With a controlled release of breath, Zuko lowered his hand from his face and held it tightly against his lap. “I was just thinking how angry the spirit must have been, wounded and driven from its home. How full of hate for humans it must have become.”
Silence hung in the air after he spoke, thick and unsettling, like too much grease in the stomach from roast duck.
“Aunt Wu’s ready for you,” a young woman announced from the doorway, her voice cutting through the stillness. Everyone in the room knew who she was talking to—there was no need for her to name him. Zuko put his unfinished dinner down and stood, giving the men in the room a mild bow of thanks before following her out.
The woman, who introduced herself as Meng, led Zuko down a dirt path through the center of the village. “You’ve caused quite a stir here,” Meng told him as they walked, and Zuko could not tell if she was amused or irritated by him.
“I didn’t mean to,” he said, looking around the village with interest. It was different from the one he grew up in, and the presence of the massive tatara made the architecture have unusual additions he’d never seen anywhere else, a strange combination of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom. “I just followed the spirit’s trail. It led me here.”
Meng sent him an unwavering look, but said nothing more. Zuko contented himself with the silence, though he wondered how they saw his arrival. He hadn’t outed himself as a firebender yet, so he wasn’t sure how warm their reception would remain if that became known. As they neared the other end of the village, the growing sound of singing filled the air. A great slash of light and shifting shadows stretched out across the path not too far ahead of them. When they reached the light, Zuko stopped and stared at its source—the inside of the tatara bellows. A shift of women were steadily working them, their plain hippari short and allowing them to move without hindrance. They sang in a rhythm to help them all move in time—and, Zuko supposed, to pass the long shift they worked with some form of entertainment.
Slowing to a stop before the open door, Zuko watched the women move and sing. When Meng cleared her throat to get his attention, he didn’t move his gaze at first, then slowly turned and rejoined her.
She led him up a small incline to a wooden house with actual shōji, unlike the cloth-covered open frames most of the other buildings they’d passed along the way had. Aunt Wu was inside, scrawling notes on a scroll. When he entered, she set her brush aside and smiled at him.
“Good evening, stranger,” she said. Though it was a polite enough, innocuous greeting, there was something about it that struck him as sharply astute. It reminded him of his uncle in a way, wherever he was now.
Aunt Wu nodded to Meng, who took this as a signal and left them alone in the room, the fusuma clacking quietly as she closed it on her way out. Once she left, the older woman turned her gaze back to him. “Now. To what do I owe the pleasure of someone from the homeland coming here? Surely you’re not here to steal my rifle design—a firebender doesn’t need it when he has the real thing.”
His eyes widened. “You know I’m a firebender?”
Laughter filled the room, bright and thoroughly amused. Zuko kept his face as impassive as he could, though he could feel his traitorous eyebrow trying to inch its way up his forehead.
“Like knows like, my dear boy.” Aunt Wu rested one hand on the writing desk that held a lattice for scrolls and her writing brushes. “Don’t worry, I won’t give your secret away. The people here have come to accept me as one, but they’re still Earth Kingdom. They still fear the power of destruction we wield.” She watched him as he shifted a little uncomfortably under her gaze. “Now, tell me what brings you here.”
Zuko lifted a hand to the left side of his face, his fingertips touching the skin just below his scar. “This.”
With no immediate further explanation from him, Aunt Wu’s eyes narrowed just slightly. A slender line of silence stretched between them, and he made himself remain steady and unwavering beneath her gaze, his hand falling back to his side.
“You’ve been spirit-touched,” she said at last.
“Cursed,” he corrected, and the curt edge to his tone made her eyes focus on his again. “An angry spirit attacked my village, and burned the entire surrounding land in the process. I drove it away and then chased after it, hoping to stop it before it could curse anyone else like it did me.” As hard as he tried, as much as he hoped, Zuko knew he had not succeeded in that. He’d seen too many burns being tended in the villages he passed through on his way here, too many patches of scorched earth.
Aunt Wu’s eyebrows both went up, though her expression remained carefully neutral. “And so you came here.”
Abruptly, she stood, her long haori skimming the ground. She folded her hands inside her sleeves. “Will you walk with me, stranger? I have something to show you.”
Unsure but curious, Zuko nodded.
She led him through a few corridors of her home before walking out a doorway in the very back of it. A few wooden steps off the engawa took them down into a lush garden, full of all kinds of herbs, vegetables, and flowers. Zuko even recognized a small section of tall, awned wheat spikes that bobbed gently in the air.
“My private garden,” Aunt Wu said as she continued through, leaving him to trail a few steps behind. “I’ve tried to get fire lilies to grow here, but they just won’t last. Only a few have even made it past sprouting.”
“Must be the climate,” Zuko said, feeling awkward and off-put at so mediocre a conversation as gardening. He’d been waiting for her to make the connection that he knew she had set the spirit here on a rampage by driving it out, but instead she was taking him on a tour. He frowned.
Passing through the garden, she followed a dirt path that ended in a stream with a small, flat bridge overtop it, and just beyond that was a smaller house that butted up against a wooden wall within the outer wall that surrounded the entire village. Aunt Wu led him there.
It was a simple wooden house, about a third of the size of Aunt Wu’s machiya, with no engawa surrounding it. Unlike the rest of the village buildings, and even the machiya, it had a hinged door. Aunt Wu opened it and went inside first, clearly expecting him to continue following her. Zuko lagged behind for a moment, then stepped in.
Whatever he had been expecting, it wasn’t the sight that greeted him.
About a dozen people were in the house, some working at a low table on long pieces of wood and metal that formed an instrument Zuko didn’t recognize, some lying down on woven tatami mats. They were all wrapped nearly head to toe in bandages. Despite himself, Zuko’s eyes widened. These were the burned warriors that Shenzu talked about.
“Hello, Aunt Wu,” one of them said. She smiled at them and went over.
“How are you all doing this evening? Do you need anything?”
The concern in her words was genuine, Zuko noted. All at once he felt even more an interloper onto something private for which he shouldn’t be present.
“We’re all right,” a woman said, her head tilted up toward Aunt Wu. Zuko could see parts of her face beneath her bandages, and the shadows of burn scars there. “We’ve finished with the next prototype you asked for.”
“Excellent. I can show off your wonderful work to my guest.” Aunt Wu didn’t motion toward him, but all the eyes in the room turned his way. He felt exposed in a room where other burn victims were covered in bandages. Zuko wondered if theirs still burned hot as well.
“A guest, hm?” The bandaged woman who’d spoken before turned her head carefully to look at Zuko. Only one eye peered out at him, the other completely covered. “Not another addition to your special forces?”
A ripple of quiet laughter spread through the room, including Aunt Wu in its wake. “No,” she said. “He saved some of our people earlier, and brought them back to us alive.” She bent and picked up one of the wooden and metal instruments off the table and hefted it, testing its weight. “This is better, but I think it’s still a bit too heavy,” she told the bandaged woman, who laughed.
“I’m not sure we can make it any lighter. It won’t be able to fire as well if we do.”
Aunt Wu smiled, a bright motion. “I know that you can, without losing any firepower. I need something that won’t be too heavy for the girls.”
Looking back to him from the nodding woman, Aunt Wu’s smile faded to a more schooled expression. “Follow me.”
She crossed the room through the seated people to a ladder that extended up through a hole in the roof. For holding something in one hand and being a woman of greater years, Aunt Wu climbed the ladder with familiar ease. Zuko wove his way through the room and followed her up. Once they stood on the roof, Zuko saw the cleared land beyond the wooden wall that surrounded the village, and the darkness of the forest beyond that. Beneath his feet, there were little soot marks dotting the roof itself, but they didn’t look as if they were from firebending.
“Look.” Aunt Wu broke his thoughts, and he did as she instructed, lifting his gaze from the soot marks. She now stood with the long wooden and metal instrument on one shoulder, its open end pointed out toward the forest.
When she didn’t explain further what he was supposed to be looking at, Zuko took the few steps forward to lean his hands on the wall. Something moved in the dark between the village and the trees.
“What is that?” he asked.
“Spirits,” Aunt Wu replied. “They come by night after night, trying to replant the forest.” With a sudden scowl, she snapped her fingers and lit a wick sticking out of the metal part of the instrument on her shoulder. It lit and burned quickly. Zuko watched with wide eyes as she pulled on a trigger and made a hammer-like object the wick was attached to snap down. An instant later, a blast of flame and smoke erupted forth from the open end of what Zuko now understood to be what Shenzu called a rifle. The sound loud and made his ears ring for a moment, and the firing itself made Aunt Wu jerk back from the force. A distant thud followed soon after the ringing faded from his hearing. He looked back to the cleared space of forest ringing the village to see the spirits there had scattered and were headed back toward the thick of the tree line.
Heat rose briefly in Zuko’s scar, but it faded as soon as someone spoke again, though it wasn’t to him. She leaned back to peer down the hatch they’d come up.
“How does it fire?” The bandaged woman’s voice drifted up from the house.
“Smooth as silk,” Aunt Wu called down. “But, still too heavy.”
She looked back up to Zuko, drumming her fingers along the wood of the rifle once. “Would you like to try, stranger?”
Zuko shook his head when she held out the rifle to him. “No,” he told her simply, then turned his gaze back out toward the forest. “You know they’re not going to stop until the forest comes back,” he said. “That’s all they want.”
He didn’t have to look at Aunt Wu to know she was scowling. He could hear it in her voice. “They can want it and try all they like, it’s not going to happen. I helped these people carve a better place for themselves in this land, and a couple of mindless spirits aren’t going to undo all that work.” There was a pause between them. “Why do you defend them? You’ve been cursed by one of them by your own words. Help me drive them away for good. Perhaps then your curse will be lifted.”
Part of him wanted to laugh at the suggestion, but his mouth tugged down into a frown instead. “No,” he repeated. “That wouldn’t solve anything. You have to find a way to live in harmony again with the spirits, or all this will just end badly.” He lifted a hand to skim fingers over the ruined flesh of his cheek. “I know that first hand.”
Instead of any kind of sympathy, Aunt Wu said sharply, “You sound a lot like that damn waterbender.”
Surprised, Zuko turned from the forest back to her, one hand still resting on the wooden wall. “Waterbender?”
“Yes.” Aunt Wu rested the butt of her rifle on the roof and didn’t meet his gaze. Now she was the one looking out toward the forest. “Runs with the spirits almost as if she’s one of them, and attacks her own kind—us—instead. She’s the reason those people you saved earlier were in danger in the first place.”
His frown deepened. Fighting on either side wouldn’t only instigate the other further, but he didn’t know how to stop it. He didn’t know if he could, or even if he was the right person to do so. He’d followed a single angry spirit to try and stop it, and came upon a far more complex situation than he’d anticipated. Zuko longed for the wisdom his uncle could have provided.
“Will you help me?” Aunt Wu cut through his thoughts. “Will you help the people here defend their home and their livelihoods?”
It tore at him. The villagers deserved a chance to make their lives better, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of the spirits of the world. They should all be in this together, not at each other’s throats. He had no answers.
“I will help wherever I can,” he said carefully.
That didn’t seem to wholly satisfy Aunt Wu, who fixed him with another piercing look. “I’ll hold you to that, stranger.”
He climbed back down the ladder, alone, but hadn’t made it halfway to the door out before a weak voice called out.
“Boy,” the voice said. It was difficult to tell through the rasp if the person was a man or woman. Zuko stopped in his tracks and turned toward the source, gaze finding a person in the back corner entirely covered in bandages, including their face. They were also missing an arm and a leg from the knee down.
“Stranger,” they said again. “Aunt Wu took us in when no one else would. They sent us to fight and then condemned us for coming back not whole. She cares for our burns and scars herself, makes sure we’re comfortable as can be.” The person was overtaken by a coughing fit, and a few others nearby shifted as if to try and help them. The coughs subsided.
“This village was like us, scarred and dying. It was under the whim of a reckless spirit that would never care about the people here. Then she came and helped it get on its feet again, helped the people throw off the shadow of the volcano. Now it’s thriving.”
Zuko swallowed, hearing threads of his own conflicted thoughts echoed back at him.
“I won’t let anything happen to the village,” he said, hearing his own voice crack. “But I can’t sit by and let other spirits be driven mad and do to others what one did to me.”
He couldn’t be here any longer, couldn’t stand to hear more. His heart would surely crack listening to how these people had been helped by the woman whose actions resulted in him being cursed. Zuko fled the little house and went back out through the garden. The way through the machiya proper was easy enough to remember, and no one barred his exit. Soon, he was back out on the streets of village, his heart pounding and trying to swallow down the ache in his chest.
It wasn’t until a wave of golden firelight bathed him in heat that Zuko realized his feet had brought him to the tatara forge. He stopped in the wide doorway and watched the women work the bellows, moving together in steady rhythm with one another. The distraction was welcome.
One of the women lounging on the worn tatami against one wall inside the forge recognized him from when he arrived earlier that day. She waved at him and he went over, recalling her name was Lan Yi. “Hey! Look who it is! How do you like Makapu so far?”
“It’s been very welcoming,” came his mild reply, his gaze drifting from her to the women working the bellows. Their attention was divided now between him and their work. “You all must work very hard here,” he said, marveling at all the kinds of strength these women had as well as feeling his heart break a little that it required such hard labor. But, this was the Earth Kingdom, and taking pride in the work they did was in their blood; he would not insult them by suggesting otherwise.
The women around him laughed heartily. “Yeah, it sure is. But we love it. It helps Aunt Wu and it helps the town, so it’s more than worth our effort,” Lan Yi said. Her grin widened into something almost sharp. “The men all think they have the hardest job, lugging all that raw iron and cutting down trees, but they wouldn’t last a single shift here.”
Zuko’s gaze followed the women working, not saying anything for a moment. Then, on a sudden whim, he asked, “May I join in for a little while?”
Lan Yi and the other women exchanged surprised looks, but in the end she just gave him a shrug. “Sure, if you think you’re up to it.”
He undid the ties of his hippari and shed the layer of clothing, stepping up to one of the women on the bellows and giving her a small smile. She glanced at him twice and blushed a bright red at his bared chest, tugging at the front of her own hippari in an attempt at propriety. Zuko barely noticed, being far more focused on stepping in at the right time and picking up the rhythm they had going.
A few of the women on the bellows with him whooped a bit, the hems of their hippari flapping. He was so focused on trying to make sure he wasn’t slacking among them that he’d picked up the pace and stepped deeper than any of them with his longer legs.
Lan Yi laughed somewhere behind his shoulder. He didn’t look back, but kept his concentration on the bellows.
“I’m impressed,” she said, not really sounding all that impressed. “But, you won’t be able to keep up that pace. Our shifts here are four days long.”
“It sure beats working a brothel in the city!” another woman chimed in from his other side. Several laughed.
“You got that right,” Lan Yi said. “We get good square meals here, and the men don’t bother us unless we want them to.”
That sent another wave of laughter through the women. Zuko didn’t join in, now completely set on the bellows. It was hard work, and he respected the women even more for their dedication to it. Sweat quickly formed and rolled down the trough of his spine, but the exertion felt good. Especially after the conversation with Aunt Wu and her rifle makers, which left his heart hurting and his gut twisted. This was honest, simple work, and he threw himself into it for as long as he could.
After some time—longer than Lan Yi had expected, she readily crowed when he surpassed all the bets the ladies had going on how long he’d last—Zuko finally threw a glance over his shoulder. The women there took immediate note of his signal and stepped in while he stepped off.
“Good job, stranger! I haven’t seen a man last that long at anything in my life,” Lan Yi said with a wide grin. She handed him a thick strip of cloth.
He accepted it gratefully and wiped the sweat off his face and neck. “It felt good,” he agreed. “In a really tiring way.”
“Well, you’re more than welcome to come back any time and do that again. We certainly enjoyed ourselves—and the break was nice too!”
Despite himself, Zuko chuckled. Both the bellows and the women who worked them were like a breath of fresh air after everything else earlier in the evening. “If I’m ever back this way again, I’ll be sure to take you up on that offer.”
“You’re leaving already? You just got into town today.” Lan Yi grew serious.
He shook his head. “Thanks, but there’s someone I’ve got to find in the forest.”
A shadow passed over Lan Yi’s expression, and she looked at the woman to her left momentarily. “You must mean that waterbender.”
Before Zuko could ask her what she might know about the waterbender in the forest, a clamor from outside interrupted their conversation. He tugged on his hippari and tied it shut, then jogged to the open doorway to see what the commotion was about.
“The waterbender,” Lan Yi said darkly behind him.
Zuko ran out into the streets.