On a Cold Day

It was cold. The snow had slowed, but the chill in the air left no doubts that the high banks of white powder through which we trudged would be amassing for quite some time. High Winter clouds streaked across the brilliant blue sky, their feathery tendrils obscured by the soaring stones of the dozens of tall buildings that made up Republic City's growing skyline. I pulled my thin coat tightly around myself, bracing against the frigid gusts that swirled snowflakes all around my ankles and into the tops of my boots; my teeth chattering inside my skull. Clasping ungloved hands before my chapped lips, I blew against my pale fingers and hoped that my breath would combat the numbness that had set in. This time of year always made me wish I had been born in the Fire Nation.

"Quit dawdling." He called back over his shoulder, the condensation of his hot breath ghosting into the air as wisps of fog. His hands were in his pockets, but he wore no coat and yet seemed hardly to notice that it was cold enough to freeze piss before it could hit the ground. It was a firebender thing, no doubt; though such techniques were still far beyond my own modest abilities. My mother had been a patient teacher, but she wasn't around anymore and trying to learn anything from him was about as painful as pulling teeth. Not that he didn't try—in fact, when my abilities had first manifested he had taken a special interest in my training—but it soon became apparent that I would be a "late bloomer" (as mother had so gently put it), and our sessions always ended in mutual frustration. He was never cruel to me, but I think perhaps whoever trained him as a boy never showed him much leniency.

"Do we have to do this today?" I asked, careful to keep any trace of a whine out of my voice. He had no patience for such childishness. "It's already getting late, anyway. Maybe it would be better to wait until tomorrow when the snow stops."

"No." He shook his head, the short tail of dark hair tied at the nape of his neck swishing against his shoulders. It was streaked with gray now, especially at his temples. He would sometimes look in the mirror when he thought no one was watching and frown as he picked at the silvery strands, so I knew it must have bothered him. Not that he would ever admit it.

I heaved a quiet sigh. There wasn't really any point in arguing with him; not about this. Instead, I bit my tongue and focused upon putting one foot in front of the other. The angry squawk of an ostrich-horse startled me from the exhausting monotony and I looked up to see a cart with its wheels stuck in a high snowdrift. The animal stomped impatiently, while its driver uselessly snapped the reigns again and again. I grimaced and tossed a sympathetic glance at it as I passed. We both knew it wasn't going to move until it was good and ready. Perhaps I'd been thinking on that too hard, because I didn't realize that we had stopped to cross a street until I shuffled full force into his back. I backpedaled and lost my footing, slipping on the slick ice covered cobblestones and landing firmly on my rear.

His golden gaze met my own, and from the ever so slight twitch at the corner of his mouth I could tell he was resisting the urge to say something. Mother had always insisted that if he didn't have anything nice to say, he should say nothing at all. Sometimes I resented her for that, especially after she died, because it oftentimes meant that he and I would go days with hardly a word between us. When he held out his hand to me I wasted no time taking it; relishing the warmth of his skin against the prickling numbness of my own as he pulled me to my feet. It was all too fleeting.

"Are we almost there?" I ventured, glancing around at the frost covered windows and decorative awnings of the buildings around us. We were near Central Station, clear on the other side of town from the tiny apartment we shared in the residential borough of Dragon Flats. He worked long hours at the plant in neighboring White Falls, heating great cauldrons of water to steam to generate electricity for the city's power grid. Most days he would be gone for his first shift before I even awoke in the mornings, and would not arrive home until it was nearly time for bed again. Still, with so many skilled firebenders from the old imperial army having flooded the workforce after the war ended, jobs were scarce and the pay was scarcer. His grueling labor barely earned him enough to keep us clothed, fed, and sheltered. When mother had been well enough to find work in the factories it hadn't been so bad. We'd had enough to keep our bellies full back in those days. As I looked around at the rows of newly constructed shops and town homes; their decorative stone facades finer than the fanciest tenement in the richest neighborhood back home in Dragon Flats, I couldn't help but wonder why the spirits blessed some people with such means, and others with nothing. "I'm freezing..." It wasn't a lie.

I heard him sigh, and after a moment he slowed his pace. The door to a shop swung open half a block ahead of us, and two women dressed in Earth Kingdom greens stepped out into the cold. Their arms were laden with furs and bolts of fabric; the silks and koala-wools dyed in a dozen shades of azure, emerald, and scarlet. We approached as they began loading the goods into the back of a large metal ostrich-horseless steam carriage. They were a relatively new sight around the city. I eyed the contraption curiously—it was probably the closest I had ever been to one.

A man who was clearly a water tribesman emerged from the machine a moment later, a string of curses falling from his lips as he slammed a mittened fist onto the hood and kicked the panel of one of the doors. "Piece of tiger-seal shit...Damned starter light went out again." The two women seemed dismayed.

"I'll light it for you." I offered, smiling despite the pain it caused my cracking lips. The younger of the two women returned the gesture; her cheeks flushing prettily as she leaned over and whispered something in her companion's ear. When the man waved me over I quickly picked my way through the snow to them, being careful not to lose my footing again. He opened one of the panels on the front of the carriage and pointed to a small wick that lie deep within. I reached my hand inside and touched my fingertip against it, willing my chi to bring a flame forth. It would not come. What color there was quickly drained from my face, and I could hear the soft giggles of the two women behind me. I tried again...and failed. "Maybe the wick got wet..."

"Step back." I heard him say, and with shame in my eyes I obeyed. He took my place, reaching his long arm into the machine and easily sparking flame to life upon the wick. I heard the water tribesman grunt his approval and a moment later he was sitting in the driver's compartment. The engine roared to life. My heart sank, and I felt the back of my throat begin to sting.

"However can we thank you?" the older of the two women asked. She batted her eyelashes and glanced back and forth between him and the younger girl.

"Sell me a length of wool." He nodded toward the colorful array of fabric in the back of the vehicle, and the woman quickly waved him over. I glanced at the younger of the pair again and felt heat rise in my cheeks as I realized she was looking at me, too. Her eyes were a shade of green that would make the most brilliant crystal in all of the Earth King's court seem like some dull rock in comparison, and I thought that in that moment I could stare into them forever. When I felt his hand on my shoulder I was startled back into my senses and lowered my gaze sheepishly. "Sometimes the cold can make it difficult." He said under his breath, "Don't be ashamed." Suddenly there was a feeling of warmth, and the glide of something soft and fluffy against the skin of my neck.

"What's this?" I asked as I ran my hands along the deep crimson scarf he had wrapped around my collar. The garment was tightly knit from thin fibers of koala-wool, not silk, but it was finer than anything else that either one of us owned. "We can't afford this..."

"You said you were cold." He replied simply, and gave me a look that suggested I not argue further. I pressed my lips together and watched as the older woman pocketed the handful of yuans that he had traded for the red scarf. It was easily half a week's rent. When I realized that he was already walking again, it was all I could do to glance back at the girl with the pretty eyes and her companions as I reluctantly followed.

It was several moments before I caught up to him, and by then we had turned down one of the main avenues. This was a part of Republic City that we rarely visited—it was far from our home and the shops here catered primarily to the growing middle class of the United Republic. I had come here with my mother the Summer before she fell ill. She'd gone to the Justice Building and applied to join the new Republic City police academy; but when the Chief of Police, Toph Bei Fong herself, had walked in to the room to conduct her interview my mother must have changed her mind. I don't know what the legendary Metalbender said to her, but she wept the whole walk home. By then I was used to seeing her cry, though. She loved me dearly and told me so every day of my life, but at times I wondered why she stayed with us. They fought mostly when they thought I was asleep, but I would often lie awake and listen to the harsh words they exchanged. If they ever had love for one another at all, there was none left by the time I was old enough to remember it. "Is it much farther?"

"Over there." He answered, nodding toward the station entrance. I had to quicken my pace to keep up with him, but once he rounded the corner ahead of me he came to a halt. Both of our eyes were drawn to the magnificent statue in the center court; a towering likeness of Fire Lord Zuko that stood vigil over the station like some bronze sentinel out of a children's tale. Piles of flowers and sticks of faintly smoking incense lay piled around the base of the imposing figure; most covered in a thin layer of freshly fallen snow. A cone of flame burned steadily in the statue's upraised hand, and even from where I stood I could feel the heat radiating from it. For an instant I forgot the biting cold and my aching feet, and could do nothing but bask in the glory of all the statue was meant to represent—The brave prince who had become a savior to his nation and the world when he helped Avatar Aang to end the Hundred Year War; who had gone on to co-found the United Republic and the city itself. Fifteen years had passed since Sozin's Comet, and in that time the world had found peace and balance once again. The Fire Lord was a living legend.

"It's amazing..." I breathed. Today was the anniversary of the Fire Lord's coronation. At only seventeen years old he had taken the crown and officially called an end to his forefather's brutal legacy. "To think that he accomplished so much when he was barely older than I am now." Awestruck, I turned to regard him with a smile. "He saved the world, even after everything terrible that it threw at him...after what his own father did to him..." I glanced back at the statue; gaze drawn to the gruesome scar that marred its upturned visage, and my hand rose instinctively to touch the left side of my face.

A yelp escaped my lips; breath trailing white mist into the cold air around me, as I felt his fingers wrap around my wrist and yank it away. Before I could even react he was pulling me into a tight embrace; his strong arms wrapping around my back and cradling my head against his chest. He was so warm. I huddled closer to him; allowing myself to enjoy his rare display of affection. I knew that long ago my mother had served in the palace of the Fire Lord, and she had told me stories of his kindness that had led me to admire him as much as she obviously did. He had come from the Fire Nation, as well—though he spoke very little of his life before he and mother had made their way to Republic City. I assumed that he must have done something that he wasn't proud of during the war. So many firebenders had back then. It had never occurred to me that he, too, might have idolized Fire Lord Zuko and supported his ascent to the throne. Something about this day seemed to be one of the few things that meant anything to him. "Is this why you brought me here?" I asked after a long spell, when his warmth had returned the feeling to my extremities.

He did not answer me, but I felt his shoulders quake and jaw tremble where it rested atop my head. Even when mother died he had not shed a tear, but I was certain that the droplets of water that fell against my neck were not snow. It was unsettling to me.

"Dad?" I whispered. "Are you okay?"

"Promise me something." he said, some softer quality that was unfamiliar to me having overtaken the usual gruffness of his voice. When I pulled away and looked up to meet his eyes he continued, "Some day, when you have children of your own, you must always keep them safe. Do you hear me? No matter what the cost."

I nodded, my brow furrowed in confusion, and murmured a quiet "Of course...".

For the longest time I wondered why he had said those words, but nevertheless I carried my promise with me. Perhaps knowing that I would need to be strong for someone was the reason, but in the years that followed I came into my own as a firebender. He even taught me to bend lightning—a technique that in the olden days had only been reserved for firebenders of the highest order. When I married that girl; the one with the green eyes, he reminded me of the promise I'd made that day at the station. He lived long enough to see his first grandson born. My wife and I had considered naming him after Fire Lord Zuko, but something about the look in my father's eyes when we told him that made us change our minds.

It was the black lung that took him. Firebenders are prone to it since they spend so much time inhaling the smoke from their flames, and he had spent a lifetime doing it. The night he died I had sat at his bedside mopping the sweat from his brow and the blood from his lips. He turned to me; his golden eyes so, so tired, and made me promise again to keep my children safe no matter what. I was a father, then, and understood completely what I had struggled to comprehend that day as a boy. "Of course, Dad. I would give my life itself. You can rest now."

He did. The fever had touched his mind by that point, and I believe at the end he had forgotten himself. He spoke words not meant for me, but a woman whose name was not my mothers. When he breathed his last, it was with a smile on his face. I cannot help but think that he was ready.

Time passed, and I thought on the promise I had made to him every time I looked at my son...sons, actually, as by then my wife had borne me a second boy; this one with eyes as green as hers. They were my world.

On the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Hundred Year War, we dressed in our warmest coats and set off toward Central Station to celebrate by laying flowers at the statue of Fire Lord Zuko's feet. It was a cold evening, just as it had been all those years ago, and I still wore the red scarf my father had put around my neck that day. My boys were six and eight, and loved one another dearly as brothers should. The younger complained of the cold, so the older one took of his coat and put it around brother's shoulders. I smiled and pulled the scarf from my neck; wrapping it around my firstborn's bare one. "To keep you safe from the cold." I explained, and he grinned before running up ahead to catch up to his sibling.

I remembered the promise I had made to my father so many years ago. And when three men stepped from an alleyway; putting themselves between my children and me, I kept that promise. I paid the highest price.

I do not regret it.

A/N: I think this is written in vague enough terms that it can seamlessly be read as a one-shot within the scope of the Legend of Korra universe...however, if you are curious about the identity of the man, you should know that this is actually part of a revised epilogue for a story I wrote over in the Avatar: The Last Airbender section entitled Conversations with Ozai. If you enjoyed this, then you may also like to give that a read.

Thank you to everyone who took a shot on this fanfic-I would most certainly appreciate any feedback that you might like to provide. Whether you loved it, hated it, or just have some suggestions to share, I would be very happy if you took a moment to fill out a review. Thank you!