The Fire Lady watches her husband and learns things that she wishes she never knew.
He Stares At the Water
I love my husband. I always have. Ever since we were children and even during those years when we were on opposing sides of the war, I never stopped thinking of him differently. He is a good man, a strong leader, and a loving father. A woman can't ask for more than that.
My husband is not an overly demonstrative man. The kisses we've shared as a married couple are few and far between; we shared none before we were married. He holds me, late at night, but I can almost hear his mental countdown before he can return to his own bed. My bed is cold and lonely without him, but I cannot ask him to stay the night with me-I'm afraid of his answer. Yet, this same man can greet our young son with the same enthusiasm the boy greets him and he can sit for hours with our daughter on his lap as she tells him stories about her day. He looks at them with a tenderness on his face that softens the often harsh lines of his mouth. It's wrong for a mother to be jealous of her children, but I'm a woman of many faults and I'll just have to count that as yet another.
I know he doesn't love me. He never has. He respects me, he cares about me as a man would the mother of his children, but he doesn't love me. A part of me aches at the thought and some days, it is difficult to look into his eyes and not see my own feelings mirrored there, but I understand that such romantic notions don't belong in the palace of the Fire Lord. Marriages are arranged in the top tiers of our society so that no clans become more powerful or less powerful and the balance is kept. My husband is even more fastidious about this than his forefathers and with good reason; we know what could happen if someone tips the balance. His reign is young yet and he knows he must step carefully in order to keep his throne. By marrying me, he protected his birthright and now our son's as well.
The constant maneuvering and double-dealing is as common in our world as breathing. I am no stranger to it but I had never experienced it from this position and I can tell that he sometimes becomes overwhelmed by it. Once or twice, I've tried to comfort him and offer his advice, but he listens with a deaf ear. There are few people my husband listens to and even when he does, he picks and chooses what he needs from them. More often than not, he goes outside to the gardens and sits underneath an ancient tree by the turtle-duck pond. He sits like a child, in his robes and finery, with his legs crossed and an elbow resting on his knee so he can cup his chin in his hand. Feeding the ducks, his thoughts far from his duties and this place. He doesn't look like himself when he sits there and if I didn't know better, I would describe him as dreamy. Those amber eyes that usually studies faces with fiery intensity turn hazy and the mouth that can shoot off orders and painful words at the drop of a hat curves into something of a half-smile as he sits by the water, staring at the sun's reflection on its surface. I watch him sometimes and I used to think that he liked to sit there because it was something he did with his mother, all those years ago. However, I've been convinced that the reason is now something completely different.
Yes, I hurt. I never realized how much until the day the Ambassador of the Water Tribes came to visit the Fire Nation. It was the Fire Nation's turn to host the peace talks which meant we had many leaders coming to visit a country that had once sought to destroy their own. Needless to say, we were all driven to distraction to ensure that everything would go off with few problems. The Ambassador of the Water Tribes came early to help with the preparations as she was an old hand at this.
I knew her from our shared past, the peasant girl who became a Waterbending Master, who taught the Avatar and fought beside him, then held him when he passed. It had been nearly ten years since she and her brother left us to rebuild our nation and in that time, she had become even more beautiful and gained the poise appropriate to her position. Besides letters, my husband had little contact with her as travel outside of either of their duties was out of the question and their paths had not had a chance to cross. I was aware there were a great many letters but thought little of it. I had heard some news of her, of her work to unite the Northern Water Tribe and Southern Water Tribe. Her reputation as a skilled negotiator was as great as her reputation as a Waterbender. She was an accomplished woman now and very different from the broken girl who left all those years ago.
When she entered the throne room, in her simple gown, styled in the way of her people and the same blue as her eyes, she held her head high and looked around before her gaze fell on my husband. Her dark hair was wound into a simple knot in the base of her neck and she wore little jewelry, only the same blue carving around her neck that she'd always worn. She clasped her hands loosely in front of her as she walked up between the pillars to the edge of the fire that separated my husband from his audience. Her face was neutral at first, but then she began to smile and the expression lit up her face until it was something to behold. Her eyes shone with joy as she looked up at the Fire Lord and she didn't hide her feelings; she was truly happy to see her old friend. I didn't have to look at my husband to know that he was staring back at her, but his sharp intake of breath was like a dagger to my heart. I was afraid to look at him but then I couldn't stop myself from lifting my head and looking up at him on the dais.
And from what I saw on his face, I knew then why he never loved me.
For a month, she worked closely with my husband. For a month, I watched them from a distance as they argued, discussed, laughed, and took walks. For a month, I saw my husband smile more often in a day than he had in a week. They spent almost every waking moment together and I wished for the first time in years that I still had my needles. For all intents and purposes, they looked to be old friends, enjoying each other's company and working towards a common and important goal. She met our children, gave them gifts made from the artisans of the Water Tribe. I received a beautiful carved necklace that I would never wear. She gifted my husband with a sculpture of a jagged ice formation that had him bursting out with laughter.
I rarely make him laugh like that.
Together, they planned the talks, working tirelessly side by side in his study or in what had once been his father's war room. I was kept out of it. It was not my place.
When the talks finally began, my husband represented his nation well and she was there whenever things began to get too heated, when emotions began to run too high. They worked like a team and I often heard the other delegates marvel at how well they got along, especially considering they were natural opposites-and were powerful benders of their respective elements. The formal events after the talks were stilted affairs but a step in the right direction. It was she who stood next to him at these events and not me, she who lightened the mood and brought people together. Slowly, the world was finding a balance again even though I had lost mine.
I knew he would not be the same when she left. The last night of her stay, they went outside to the gardens after dinner. I followed closely, on silent feet that had not forgotten my training even though I no longer had use for stealth. I was afraid of what I might see that night but I couldn't make myself leave them. They stopped by the turtle-duck pond but didn't sit. She began to bend the water idly, making shapes in the air as she spoke and he listened even as he watched. Hiding in the trees, I couldn't hear what they were saying but I could see my husband's face in the moonlight. His eyes were fixed on her face, hazy and soft, as he smiled. He didn't touch her, but his look was like a caress. Her back was to me but I didn't have to see her face to know that she was looking at him the same way.
I held back my tears, not wanting to give them that much of me when he had already taken more than he deserved. I held them back even when he took her hand in his and lifted it to his lips, pressing a kiss to the back of her fingers. With that same hand, she reached up and stroked the side of his face. He smiled a smile like a burst of sunlight through the clouds.
I love you. I always have.
I turned around, pressed a hand to my mouth to keep from crying out loud. I didn't see them go back into the palace and into his rooms, but I heard their footsteps with my heart.
She left a few days after. My husband went about his duties but I saw the strain on his face, the sadness in his eyes. I had seen it too often on my own. He spent a lot of time alone in his study or outside by the pond. I didn't want to see him or talk to him and he seemed to sense that I knew. He could barely look at me. Some days, our paths would cross in the garden but we each pretended we didn't see the other. We interacted through our children and were never alone.
One day, an envoy from the Water Tribes came with a message for my husband. He locked himself in his study and didn't come out until long past sunset. Everyday after then, he locked himself away and though no one dared ask, we all wanted to know what had affected him. When his duties called him away to one of the coastal towns far from the palace, I went into his study. I knew where to look to find what I wanted.
It took less than a minute to unlock the hidden compartment behind his bookshelves. It took less than a minute for me to recognize her necklace tied around a single piece of parchment. My hands trembled as I pulled the lace ribbon free and unrolled the message that had unhinged my husband.
A face framed by thick dark hair stared back at me. A face that held echoes of another that I knew too well. There was no color on the portrait except for the eyes. Amber gold. The message written to one side was simple.
Her name is Nozomi. She's ours.
I set the parchment back where I found it.
I love my husband. I love him even when he has no room in his heart for me. All I can do is watch him with the eyes of my soul and guard our children against the truths that he was now having to hide. For him, I'll keep the secret. For our nation, I'll put on a brave face and stand next to him so our people will have a strong leader they can believe in. For myself, I lock the doors to my rooms at night so no visitor can enter and my heart breaks night after night when no one tries.
To others, my husband has not changed and his behavior after the message has long been forgotten. But not by me. At night, I see him through the windows of my rooms, sitting by the pond. He has one hand on his knee and another in the pocket of his robes. He doesn't dare bring out the necklace or the portrait but I know he holds them in his hand. He takes deep breaths as if readying himself for the long night ahead and his eyes become hazy as he stares at the moon's reflection in the water. It's as if he's waiting for when they can be together again and dreams of a time when they no longer have to hide. Even when it rains, he sits out there longer and doesn't seem to mind that his robes are getting soaked under the downpour. His thoughts are with her as they always were and probably always had been.
And he stares at the water.