Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
"Invictus" by William Ernest Henley
"Honestly, Akira, what the hell was that about?" Councilman Jio Huang spat after a prolonged silence, as he reclined in the back of the rickety Satomobile. Akira sat motionless on the other side of the car, gazing out the clouded window, as the numerous squat grey buildings and rundown shops passed by. "Are you trying to make me look bad?"
Akira still sat unresponsive, biting her lip to keep from lashing out at her father. Of all the things he'd done, all of those scandalous acts, this was by far the worst. Soliciting money from the poor and telling her that she made him look bad? She scoffed at the thought.
"If your mother were here, at least she'd keep you in line."
She turned her head and glared into her father's devoid eyes. He gazed back at her, returning her anger in a similar fashion. She spoke without breaking eye contact.
"Don't speak of Mother like that. Ever again." Her throat tightened as her father sat stolidly in his place.
"If your mother was here, I wouldn't have to drag you around everywhere, I'd be able to get places without unexpected hold-ups..." He trailed off in thought.
"He's always like this," she thought in her mind, "Cold and heartless. And the pride of the Fire Nation. Suiting, to say the least."
"You know," Akira started, with a sarcastic halfhearted chuckle, "you're really something else. I would give everything I've ever loved to get Mom back. Just go back to the Fire Nation. Get together with those empty-minded friends of yours and talk about how much money you make and how much crap you deal out. Just forget about the love of your life and the child she left you." Her heart began to pound rapidly as adrenaline coursed through her veins. Her eyes began to boil, tears pooling in them as the emotions wrapped around her heart.
"Hmph," Akira's father grunted annoyingly, "everything you own, I've provided. You aren't anything without me to be honest. Just like your mother, you rely on someone else to keep you afloat. The only things your mother gave you are your firebending and that damned bracelet. And one of those is gone now. Get over it."
That did it. She snapped; last time, she was angry, now, she was furious. She glared at her father and shot her hand to the guard driving the vehicle, and the temperature on the surface of her palm rocketed to scorching heights. Akira never broke line of sight with her father as the guard began to writhe in pain; he slammed the brakes, and she flung open the door with her free arm. She took her hand off the guard's arm, revealing a deep burn. She turned and stepped out of the car, slamming the door to a close, singeing the fine leather interior in the process.
Akira began to walk in the direction that looked the most familiar, as her father called after her.
"Get in the damn car this instant!" he bellowed as she blatantly ignored him. She drowned out his explicit remarks with dreams of meeting her mother, trying to imagine what her voice sounded like; what her beautiful face looked like, and how it would feel to be able to hug her for the first time. She really hated not being able to hug her mom.
"If you don't get in this car this second, I'll-" her father yelled, but was cut off by his daughter.
"You'll what? Disown me? Sure, I'm positive that will reflect on your political image swimmingly."
His face soured instantly, and called out to the guards chauffeuring him. "Carry on- we're leaving."
She turned her back to her father once more, and headed off in the direction of the park. From there, she could stop by her home and pick up a few essentials. Her father wouldn't be there for a while anyway.
Her house wasn't too far from Republic City park, but in the midst of the shrilly autumn winds, Mother Nature nipped at her skin and chilled her to the bone. Rarely, a beam of sunshine would shine upon her body, warming it for just a moment.
She carried on, step after step, until she neared the exit that would set her on a straight shot to her home. Although, with just her father living there, it wasn't much of a home. He wasn't even much of a father either. They were just a rest-stop and a semi-functional guardian, respectively. Both of which sucked.
As she kept on thinking various thoughts, her feet carried her in the correct direction, and she neared her house — which was more of a quaint palace. To her though, she would trade it in a heartbeat for a shack with a happy family. Not that it mattered. She was stuck with what she had.
Around a corner and another, across the street and down a wide alley, about a busy intersection, and at last, her feet halted. Her mind stopped sending off a fluctuation of thoughts, and she turned and stared at her home. Around here were other rich houses with a number of fancy trimmings, hers being the only one of Fire Nation influence on this street. It was a large building, with a typical Fire Nation façade; it had red walls and golden trimmings on the roof and its shingles. A small set of grey-stone stairs led up to the grand doors, which were crafted out of a dark colored wood and emblazoned with Ran and Shaw; the two ancient dragons who mastered firebending in the pre-bending times.
She clambered up the steps and knocked on the thick doors; nothing. No one was home - not that she expected someone to answer - which meant no one would see her do what she was planning. Quickly, she hunched over in front of the deadbolt lock while producing a small burst of a crimson red flame from the tip of her right index finger. In slow, practical movements, she melted the rusted metal protrusion, as she pushed the door open and slipped inside, closing it with a quiet thud.
"What a waste," she said in a normal voice, which echoed in the atrium-like halls and main room. With a few scattered side tables with cultural plants and large detailed designs hanging from the walls, the house was quite emptied. The only noticeable features on the inside were the giant wooden pillars spanning the height of the entire structure, all four of them working to keep its center of gravity in working order.
Brushing off the cold that clung to her skin and tying her jet black hair back, she sprinted up the stairs and into her bedroom. Gathering a select few of her belongings, those of which were actually hers to begin with. She tossed them into a knapsack of sorts, which was a dark navy color with black drawstrings. One by one, she placed them inside; a photo of her mother when she, herself, was only a newborn, a pair of training gloves for firebending practice, which she thoroughly loved to do, as well as a necklace she loved to wear that she found in a antique shop on a backstreet, and her bracel—no, she wouldn't be bringing her bracelet. That ass stole it.
She tossed in an extra pair of clothes and stuck in a wad of yuans from her father's stash and her savings in the bag as well. She looked over her room to make sure she didn't leave anything important behind and left. She didn't leave a note, or even lock the doors, which was partially because she broke the lock getting in.
"Where was I going again...?" she mumbled, walking down a bustling street after getting away from her home, passing faces of all kinds of cultures, colors, and ethnicity.
As she looked into their faces, she began to regain her focus of detail. After she had reprimanded her father, everything had been a blur in time. She started to remember the things she was trying to forget, and forgetting the things she was trying to remember. She noticed a small, frail woman standing near a bench parallel to the sidewalk and sifted her way through the moving crowd of people, reaching the wiser lady.
"Excuse me, ma'am," Akira said, startling the woman slightly, "What time is it?" The older lady simply looked up and smiled with her broken lips, and held up her watch; it was 12:30 on the dot. "Thank you," Akira breathed, giving the woman a weak handshake and re-joining the mass of moving people.
She knew where she could go to get her mind together, so she set out for that location. Instinctively commanded by her subconscious, she rushed across the nearby street, leaving the moving crowd of people behind, and running towards the local tea shop where she frequented when she left her father to get away for a while. Repetitively walking across intersections, she neared the shop, smelling the sweet concoctions emanating from the back of the building. From her memory she recalled its appearance: a two story building of semi-poor condition, held together by a faded tan brick and cement mix. Once in sight, Akira sprinted towards the curtain doors hanging from its badly made entryway; she was desperate to take in what was happening in its extent.
Flinging the curtains back and taking a deep breath, Akira was happy to see a familiar face: Cho, a brawny man of about thirty years or so, tan skin and a five o'clock shadow. The vague memories surfaced in her mind, reminding her of the times she had spent in the dilapidated place.
"Why hello there, Lady Akira! Wadda I do ya for today?" Cho bellowed in his raspy voice. It was comforting to see a friend when you had very few.
"The regular if you don't mind; a cup of jasmine. And I told you, I'm not a 'Lady'!" she voiced, laying up against the wall behind her as she took a seat next to the closest window; the seat was the closest to the entrance, too. A sliver of a breeze drafted in and cooled her head.
"I know," he laughed, "I just like messin' with ya." He twisted his arms to the side and grabbed a tin kettle and a baggy of sorts with leaves inside. A familiar aroma filled the air, as Akira inhaled. She absolutely loved jasmine tea. It was her favorite.
"Thank you," she called out, "I really need it." She made a mental note of what had happened. "Left my father, got my stuff from the house, and..." Her mind drew a blank. She realized she had absolutely no idea what to do next. Whatsoever.
"It'll be a bit longer than normal," Cho stated, refocusing Akira's attention (which she lost quite often), "my worker quit yes'erday, just left a note, cleared up his apartment upstairs and disappeared. I ain't ever seen nothin' like it in my years of ownin' this place." Two words made her instantly ask out a concise question.
"Your workers... live here?"
"Worker. I ain't got enuff fundin' to be hirin' two at once. And yes'am, hell, why's ya think we have a second story?"
Akira seized the opportunity that had just miraculously intervened into her life.
"I'll gladly take your open position, and stay here and everything. Pay me jack-shit if you wish, I just need a place to stay for a while." Cho rose an eyebrow at first, but quickly changed his look and flashed a smile.
"Now how'ya think I could say no to my best customer with that ther' premise?" He laughed to himself a little, and then waved for Akira to follow him. "Them stairs are back here."
They walked a few steps and opened a door that appeared to be a closet, but instead unveiled a set of slim stairs, which led to a slender hallway with two doors. The plant in the opposite corner was wilted and the painting crooked, but it didn't affect Akira at all. She actually enjoyed the effect it had on the building.
"Now here's my room there," he said, pointing to the first door, "and yer room's..." He reached his arm out and pointed to the other door. "Yers' is there."
She walked down and opened the loose doorknob and let the creaky door fall into the dent where it had hit the wall a multitude of times. The walls were a plain grey with cracks in the paint everywhere, topped by a dirty white roof. There was a bed with severely dated sheets of faint flowers, and a night stand with a dingy, basic lamp accompanied by a standard radio. The floor boards were old wooden planks that would soon need a redoing. And to finish out the extremely plain room, a clouded window that overlooked the street was placed right next to a dilapidated lounge chair. And she loved it.
"Away from my father, and it even has a view," she whispered and smiled to herself. She tossed her bag of items into the chair and stepped back out into the hallway.
"Akira! Tea's ready!" she heard Cho yell from the base floor. She scaled the stairs and landed in the main room. Cho was standing with a two glasses of jasmine tea. Naturally, she smiled and grasped one of the cheap porcelain cups and took a sip, and it was as lovely as ever.
"Great as always, Cho!" she complemented, as Cho laughed in response. Sip by sip, she worked her way to the bottom of the cup and placed it on the counter that had the rest of the dirty dishes on it, which she guessed she would be washing after closing hour.
"I'm not meanin' to bother ye but..." Cho started, before burying his mouth in the crook of his elbow and coughing violently - most likely caused by his years of smoking. "I need you to run a quick take out order across the street - sort of like a first real work kinda thin'." Akira nodded and snatched up the sack of bagged tea mixes. "Bring it over to the consignment shop, it's run by one of my lady friends who loves her tea during 'er lunch break."
Akira put her hand over her mouth to muffle her laughter. She knew exactly what he meant by lady friend.
"Got it, Cho," she responded, only after her cackle subsided.
She grabbed a small bag within the sack; it had separate baggies of various leaves and powders inside of it that were releasing a marvelous smell. She rolled up the bleach white bag, crinkling as it formed a much smaller version of its unrolled counterpart. Akira walked out side into the warming sunlight, scanning the road, looking for a sign that matched the name scrawly written on the bag.
Crossing the seemingly desolate street, Akira noticed a consignment shop that matched, what appeared to be, the title written across the base of the bag. Knocking on the door she stepped inside, with a chirp of bells echoing above her when the door rang a set of chimes.
"There's my order!" a wiser woman chuckled, putting her olden hands together in a fit of happiness. "Cho sure likes to keep a woman waiting." Before laughing at herself, the woman noticed Akira, who wasn't the normal man bringing her orders.
Seeing the woman develop a look of confused, Akira instantly introduced herself.
"Oh! I—uh, I'm Akira, Cho's new... worker."
"I see, Cho's already putting you to work, is he?" she laughed, peering into the bag as Akira stepped near the counter and handed it over. She smiled and looked at Akira, thanking her. Turning to leave, Akira checked out the small consignment shop. It wasn't longer than twenty feet in either width, length, or height, and it had a few racks of old and worn clothes on about five stands. And there was little to no décor, which was all the more reason to head out.
On the way out of the shop, a poster was plastered to the door. A large 'WANTED' was written across the top, and a picture of a fierce woman centered the page, in which she had unkempt black hair and a tattoo resembling a flame on her neck. It was old and dingy, almost as if it was put up months ago. But it didn't hold her interest very long.
"Jia Buzu..." Akira muttered, closing the door behind her. "Don't know her."
She moseyed her way back to Cho's, told him that the delivery was a success, and relaxed onto her bed after clambering up the stairs. She stared into the ceiling for a few minutes, resting up for a bit. Eventually, she sat up and gazed out of the squat window positioned above her bed, allowing her to cross her legs and stare at the vacant street that was empty as if on a reoccurring loop. She saw a frail woman and man, seemingly of about fifty-five or so, holding hands and walking towards the tea shop with gentle smiles on their faces.
Instinctively, she hopped up from her poorly-made bed and hurriedly made her way to the stairs and scaled down them. Just as Cho turned to look at Akira landing on the main floor, the elderly couple pulled back the curtains and ducked inside. Cho flashed Akira a quick wink, as if he was applauding her effort.
"Ello there," Cho said, attempting to act elegant but only making himself obviously unkempt. "What'll I do ya fer?"
The couple, who were adorned in typical middle-class clothing, smiled and approached the bar where orders were typically placed—unless you were a regular like Akira.
"A cup of Jasmine, if you don't mind." The old man rubbed his mouth after he ordered, looking over to his, most likely, wife.
"And I would enjoy a cup of Jasmine tea as well," she said politely, smiling widely at both Akira and Cho. Akira grabbed the glasses for the tea, accompanied by their under plates. Cho busily brewed the tea, as the wiser couple took a seat at the middle table to the left of the front entrance.
"I find it quite bizarre that the Central Tea Shop was closed today, I've never seen it close like that in all my years..."
Akira, who was fiddling with various glassware as Cho brewed, began to unintentionally eavesdrop on the two.
"But was more bizarre was that figure eating a pork sandwich and wearing... that, and walking around the streets. Made for a shady person if you ask me."
The man furrowed his brow as Akira glanced up, making sure that they didn't notice her listening.
"He did give me the chills - shouldn't he be in the ghettos or something? Certainly he couldn't afford a place even in the mid-wealth part of town."
After that spill of information, the rest of their conversation consisted of were random happenings, the weather, even the woman's knitting group. But that didn't break Akira's focus. She kept thinking about the shady figure from their bit of conversing.
Eventually, the couple was served their tea by Cho, quickly finished it, and rose to leave. After they pulled the curtains back, Akira waited multiple minutes before stepping outside.
On the street now, her back to Cho's shop, a twisted blur of pedestrian voices drifted about the crowded streets in the distances. Feeling the need for a break, she drifted down the sidewalk, towards the visible movement of various people going various places. Akira slowed and studied the crowd around her as their conversations grew louder, closer. The pressure from earlier today must have just started to take effect; she was about to sprint toward her new home for silence, as the noise send her head into a pounding fit—when suddenly she caught a glance at something across the street; rather, it was a someone. It was a figure, just another ordinary person, walking towards the park, but there was something familiar about this one, it was as if she had seen him before. She merely stared in concentration as the figure vanished within the flow of traffic and as soon as she took her eyes off of the far-off appearance, it clicked in her mind.
It was the man who stole her mother's bracelet.
A wave of anger flowed through her, and she took off, shoving other people out of her path as she paced to catch up with the thieving low life. She could nearly feel flames shooting from her feet and fists as she trailed him at a distance, watching carefully so that she did not lose him—although, he didn't exactly fit into the crowd. Akira could see his patched up attire from one-hundred fifty feet back. She slowed to a normal trot as to not attract to much attention from passerby's eyes as soon as she set foot in the park. From a bit away, she saw him walk over to a patch of grass and crash on one of the benches by the sidewalk. He sat motionless, just staring up into the clouds. That, she thought, was definitely not expected.
Akira debated on an ambush from behind or to have him arrested—but if she called the cops then they would take her back to her father, and if she attacked him in broad daylight, someone would most definitely call for the metalbenders. She needed to think this one through a little.
Still, the boy sat motionless for the longest time, never moving, just looking up into the gray clouds. He wasn't really doing anything wrong—well as of now—he was just kind of sitting, daydreaming...
"Probably thinking a lot," she whispered to herself. She knew that look all to well. After all, she had a habit of doing it too much herself. Randomly after about five more minutes of his trance, the boy sat up and lost his thinker's expression. Instead, he developed a wicked grin, and eyed a noblewoman walking her petite dog. He stood up and took a step forward rapidly, and Akira took off in an angry dash towards him, set on preventing theft from another unsuspecting woman.
"Not this time!" she roared, grinding her teeth.
But, as if she stepped on a switch, the ground began to rumble. As if the earth itself was breaking in two, sending Akira to her knees. She quickly stood up and redressesed herself. From there, it escalated into a quaking like rapture, as Akira planted her feet firmly to prevent losing balance again. Screams poured out from people in the crowds, as eyes looked to the skies to see the rising plumes of smoke in the distance, and the slightly visible flames peering over the towers in the direction of the wealthy district and the council building. Akira couldn't really process what was happening. Sure, she had felt earthquakes before, but this was different. The air was different. The smoke wasn't from a ceremony in the distance. She had no honest idea what was occurring, but she knew one thing was definite:
Republic City was under attack.
The explosions became more distanced as people fled every which way, sending the city into all out chaos, instantly. As the explosions drowned out, and the townspeople left her vicinity, all Akira could hear was an eerie silence with a muffled scream in the background of the ringing in her ears.
Not only the people of Republic City and the city itself, but even the atmosphere, were in a devastating—horrific—vulnerable state of complete panic.