War, Love and Friendship
Night had fallen, and all the neighbourhood kids were gone. Michelle and Vanessa, who were sleeping over, were sitting on the swing set, talking quietly, staring at Nalani's retreating form. The latter came to sit next to Kuzon and Kiran, out of the girl's earshot.
'Okay, I asked them to give us a minute,' she said quickly.
They looked back at the two girls who were giggling loudly in between whispered conversations.
'So, I guess you told them?' Kuzon asked Nalani, avoiding her eyes.
'What?' Nalani said hesitantly, 'No, they jus- Nevermind that, it's not what I'm here to talk about.'
She glanced quickly at her friends, who were alternating between snickers and innocent smiles directed her way. Nalani rolled her eyes and turned back towards Kuzon.
'What's been happening? Why were you held up? Were you followed?' she continued, her tone alarmed.
'We suspected we might be, so we took a detour to be safe,' Kuzon answered quickly. 'By the time we got in the country, we were certain that if anyone had been following us, we had lost them in South America.'
Nalani's entire body relaxed as she leant on the wall behind her, 'Oh, thank Raava.'
'That's getting really annoying,' Kuzon hissed, glaring at the girls on the swing set.
'Well, they're sleeping over, so at least you get to escape the awkwardness,' Nalani sighed, exasperated.
Kuzon shook his head, putting a sympathetic hand on Nalani's shoulder. Before Michelle and Vanessa could react, Nalani waved them over.
Later that night, when the girls were in bed, Michelle turned on her flashlight and pointed it at Nalani.
'Gah!' the latter covered her face with her arm. 'What are you doing?'
'I think I speak for Michelle and myself when I say that we consider ourselves your best pals.'
Nalani squinted in the light and waved her arm at Vanessa. 'Yeah, shut that thing. I consider you guys my best friends too. Is this about you missing me again?'
'This,' Michelle hissed, 'is about Kuzon.'
'Wuh...?' Nalani froze.
'Oh, come on.' Vanessa pressed, finally shutting her flashlight. 'Spill!'
'Dah... e- buh...' was all that came out of Nalani's mouth.
'Nala, we may have known you for only a few months,' Michelle said, 'but in all this time, "shy" was never an adjective we would've considered using to describe you.'
'So, the only reason you've got to be shy around Kuzon, is because you fancy him,' Vanessa concluded.
'Well- I-I mean... sort of? Maybe? I don't know...' Nalani babbled, trying to hide under her covers.
'What do you mean you don't know?' Michelle gasped, pulling the sheets away from Nalani's face.
'You either fancy him or you don't,' Vanessa said simply.
'It's complicated,' Nalani whined, 'I guess I don't know yet? I mean he's nice, and we get along pretty good...I'm just not sure yet if I like him... you know... that way.'
Nalani desperately wanted to change the subject but knew her friends wouldn't let it go. She also knew telling them the truth would leave them with more questions than it answered... questions she couldn't answer. Not legally anyway. She sighed and gestured for Michelle to turn off the flashlight. The latter complied and the girls made themselves comfortable in Nalani's large bed.
'Look, you guys already know that my country still has a lot of... old fashion traditions, right?' Nalani started, carefully choosing her words.
The girls nodded, so she continued 'Well...' Nalani hesitated, reformulating the following sentence multiple times in her mind, 'arranged marriages is one of those, mostly in older families, a bit lik-'
'Wait, are you saying that you're some kind of nobility in your country?' Vanessa giggled excitedly.
'Oh you don't need to be nobility for your parents to match you with someone,' Nalani said quickly, 'Anyway it's rarely ever enforced anymore. Most people go on to marry someone they fall in love with. Some might marry their betrothed out of sheer laziness and others genuinely fall in love, from being around one another so much.'
'So why bother with it at all then?' Michelle asked.
'There are a few reasons,' Nalani said, settling a little deeper into her pillow, 'Often it's about trust. Best friends will match their children with the idea that they'll have to be good people because of their parents. Other times, parents will choose a spouse for their kids if they're unable to make friends, for one reason or another.' And sometimes it's all of that and then some politics, Nalani thought about her mother and father's union.
He was originally meant to marry one of Huhana's cousin, Jemeca. Jemeca and Huhana were always together, so when Yue Qi went to spend a year in the Northen Water Tribe, the three of them grew very close. Yue Qi was rather quiet, a bit of a bookworm as well. Jemeca and Huhana were troublemakers. Jemeca especially. As the eldest of the trio, she often acted as leader, dragging the other two in her shenanigans. Yue Qi followed in near timid obedience while Huhana relished in the delinquency. Of course, they never told Nalani what sort of trouble they got into, it was, as they told her: stories for when she was older. Over the course of a few months, Yue Qi and Huhana developed feelings for each other, and Yue Qi couldn't bring himself to tell Jemeca. When he finally did, however, the older girl admitted she also had struggled to tell him she wasn't interested. She'd been seeing an older surfer girl for almost a year now and had hoped she and Yue Qi would hate each other upon meeting, so she could tell her parents to forget the engagement.
'So you and Kuzon, that's what it is?' Vanessa's voice brought Nalani back from the brink of slumber.
'Yeah, for now anyway... till we figure it out, maybe,' Nalani mumbled. She liked Kuzon, she definitely liked him a lot, but "marriage" had nothing to do with love in her world. It was a contract. It was about politics. Her mother had told her already that they were both much too young to really give it any thought. Outside the Territories, marriage was so final, so irreversible, so entrapping. In the Territories, all the laws surrounding marriage, and bloodlines had changed dramatically since Avatar Korra's wedding. Everything was more flexible. It was one of the reasons arranged marriages had regained so much popularity in the past century. Now, more than ever before, marriage really was nothing more than a contract between families. Nalani hated lying to people she cared about. In the past few years, she had had to say goodbye to many friends, and welcome new ones in her life. She hadn't had many friends in her younger years, especially under the custody of Manish, so she welcomed new friends with open arms, even if it meant she would say goodbye very soon. This, however, was the first time she was forced to hide so many details about her personal life. It was as if she was forced to hide part of herself from her friends and she hated it.
The rest of the summer went by quickly and without incidents. They had another party for Kiran at the end of August. This time taking the younger children to the pool since it had been a hot week.
Nalani had started looking at some of her school books. After spending a day with Snape, she was worried what the other teachers would be like. Better safe than sorry, she thought. She'd always been a good student, she put effort into her studies and was generally rewarded with good results. She had good technique, excellent memory and applied herself with care. She was, however, very aware of her bad temper. She'd never been one to get in trouble for incomplete homework, but she'd been in trouble for fighting, talking back to authority figures and even for throwing tantrums.
The idea of being in a boarding school, away from her parents, in a strange world that seemed stuck in the 17th century, worried her more than she was willing to admit. As the beginning of the school term was approaching, she started having recurring panic attacks, which worried her parents, but the big day finally arrived and Nalani was off to Hogwarts. She packed and unpacked her trunk ten times before she was sure she had everything she needed. As they got out of their house, they saw that half the neighbourhood was on their doorstep. There seemed to be a lot of shouting in the McGill household.
'What's going on?' Yue Qi asked Mrs Atwater, who was standing in her front yard watching the McGill's house.
Through the living room window, Mr and Mrs McGill could be seen having a heated argument.
'Didn't you hear? Oh, but I suppose you were busy preparing, of course. Mr McGill found out Mrs McGill had been having an affair with Mr Concordia. He caught them at the Square Victoria Restaurant,' Mrs Atwater said excitedly. That woman loved gossiping more than anything. Huhana shook her head with a sigh and gave a little wave to Mrs Atwater before getting in the car with the rest of her family.
'See you later, Bridget.' Yue Qi said through his car window before driving away. 'We're not going to hear the end of that one.'
When they arrived at King's Cross station, on platform 9 3/4, Huhana hugged her daughter so tightly Nalani thought her lungs would collapse. She tapped on her mother's shoulder frantically. 'Mother… air… MOM,' Nalani gasped.
'Your hair looks perfect Honey,' her mother said, without loosening her grip.
'No, Love, I think she needs air… to breathe!' Yue Qi said with a chuckle, gently pulling his wife away from his asphyxiated daughter.
'Mother… I know… you're… worried—' Nalani started, panting through her words.
'And scared, don't forget scared!' Kiran interrupted.
'But I'll be fine, really,' Nalani continued, ignoring her brother.
'It's true, Love. She'll be absolutely safe,' Yue Qi said, squeezing Huhana's shoulder reassuringly.
'Write every day!' Huhana burst.
'Every week,' Yue Qi corrected, giving a warm hug to his little princess as well.
'Be polite,' Huhana continued, 'at all times and with everyone. Don't start fights, listen to your Masters and please, please stay out of trouble.'
'Mother, I would never, ever get in trouble or misbehave, you know that,' Nalani said, putting on her sweetest, most angelic smile.
A look of panic crossed Huhana's widened eyes and she turned to her husband, 'Is it too late to change our minds?' she asked.
Yue Qi gestured to let him handle it and looked sternly at Nalani.
'We're serious Nalani. Don't let your temper get the best of you,' he warned.
'I won't,' Nalani said, trying not to roll her eyes.
'Anyway,' she continued, 'I should go before the train leaves… Mother would be too happy if it left without me.' Nalani started walking away before her parents could reply. 'Bye, see you in winter!' she called, waving them goodbye.
From outside the train, all the compartments looked full. Many students hadn't finished their goodbyes before boarding. While scanning for a compartment, Nalani spotted the raven-haired boy named Harry near the end of the train. He was desperately trying to get his cart on board. She jogged towards him. 'Having trouble?' she asked.
'Oh, hi! Yeah, it's pretty heavy,' he answered before the trunk dropped onto his foot. Nalani looked at her own trunk with a sigh. She should have asked her parents to come and help her get it on the train. She had been in such a hurry to get away from their worried advice and lectures. If only she was an Earthbender and could make a ramp up to the train...
'Okay, I'll handle this,' she told Harry with a wink.
She looked around and then made a show of struggling, trying to lift her trunk.
'Want a hand?' It was a tall redheaded boy. He had brown eyes, very fair skin and freckles all over.
'Yes, please,' Harry said.
'That would be nice, thank you so much, ' Nalani added with a happy smile.
The older boy looked over his shoulder, 'Oi, Fred! C'mere and help!' Another boy who looked exactly like the first came to help them get their trunk in the car. Nalani had three cousins who were identical triplets, so her first reflex was to look for tiny details that could help distinguish the two boys. She went with what was easiest in her mind, the freckles. The first one who had spoken to them had a slightly darker patch of freckles between his right eye and nose, while the other one, Fred, had two on his left cheek, near his ear.
'Thanks,' Harry and Nalani said, Nalani adding a small bow.
The unnamed twin looked at Nalani with a confused, raised eyebrow while Fred seemed to find a sudden interest in Harry. He pointed at Harry's forehead asking what it was. Before Harry could answer the two boys spoke again. 'Blimey, are you—?' one said.
'He is. Aren't you?' the other one asked.
Nalani had no idea what was going on. She had noticed the oddly shaped scar on his forehead but hadn't thought anything of it. Apparently, the two boys knew who Harry was because of it. Harry squirmed uncomfortably under the boys' gaze. He looked like he was praying for a hole to swallow him. Nalani had been used to recognition back in the Fire Nation and even outside of it while in disguise. The hardest part about being in hiding in the Earth Kingdom had been to try and avoid eager paparazzi who would recognize them. They had eventually moved into the Air Temples hoping for more anonymity, but it had been too obvious a move and Manish's guards had come in within a few days.
From what she could tell, Harry wasn't used to being recognized. Rather than looking annoyed or pleased, he had looked slightly surprised and then uncomfortable.
The twins stopped gawping at Harry when a woman, who probably was their mother, called for them. Harry sighed in relief, and together they found a nearby open compartment and sat down, Harry slouching a little in his seat as if trying to get swallowed by it. They both listened to the conversation the twins were having with their family. The twins sounded like the mischievous type Kiran and Nalani liked to hang around, to her parents' chagrin.
'So, uh, you're famous?' she asked.
'Yeah, apparently I am,' he said, a slight blush creeping up his cheeks.
'Sweet,' Nalani said matter-of-factly.
Fred and George were being scolded by their mother for telling their sister they'd send her a toilet seat, while their little brother was being told sternly not to ask Harry about his scar. After another minute the train started moving. Harry was watching the little-redheaded girl, Fred and George's little sister, running after the train, saying goodbye to all of her brothers.
'Are you nervous? 'Cause I'm terrified!' she told him.
'Yeah, I'm really nervous,' he said. 'But it can't be worse then what I'm leaving behind,' he added more quietly.
'Why's that?' she asked.
Before he could answer, the door of the compartment slid open and the youngest boy of the redheaded family came in. He had a black mark on his nose and his clothes were too short, or maybe he was too long. They invited him to sit with them, since apparently everywhere else was full. The twins came back only a moment after. They talked about going to see a giant tarantula. Nalani shuddered at the thought.
'Oh, by the way,' the first twin, Fred's brother, said, 'we didn't introduce ourselves, I believe. I'm Fred and he's George Weasley. And this is our brother Ron.' They looked at Nalani expectantly, since she was the only person in the compartment who had yet to be introduced. It seemed Harry's scare had done that for him and he was welcoming the lack of attention from what she could tell.
'Oh, right! I'm Nalani Onenga,' she answered, getting up and bowing to the room in general. They all looked at her like she had just grown a second head. She stood there a few seconds, and then, seeing they wouldn't stop staring until she explained, she sighed. 'Right, I'm from the Fire Nation. That's how we introduce ourselves or else it's considered rude… it's just ingrained in me by now.'
Everyone's eyes went wide, except Harry, who looked as if she had just spoken the old language. Feeling very self-conscious, she sat back down and waited for someone to say something. Harry looked as if he was glad the attention wasn't on him.
'You're a Bender?' the twin named George asked.
'A Firebender?' Fred added.
'A real live Firebender?' their little brother completed.
She turned to Harry, almost expecting him to add something else, but he simply shrugged. He obviously had no idea what a Bender was, let alone a Firebender. After a short moment of silence, Fred spoke.
'So that explains the clothes,' he said.
'And why you have that accent,' George completed.
'Can you show us a trick?' Fred said expectantly.
'Can you light a fire?' George continued.
'Can you set someone on fire?' Fred asked.
'Can you set Ron on fire?' George finished with a grin.
'OI!' Ron protested.
Nalani smiled and thought of something a little fancier than a simple quick flame to impress them. So she did a small ring of fire that she made spin around her fingers, one after the other. Everyone in the compartment was in awe. She smiled proudly, she had only done one of the simplest tricks she knew, but they didn't need to know that.
'That's brilliant,' Ron said with a huge grin.
'You have to show us some more tricks' George said enthusiastically.
'We know someone who'd love to see that,' Fred exclaimed.
The twins dashed out of the compartment.