It had snowed within a week of their arrival. It had continued to snow on and off for the entirety of a month. After that, the weather warmed up slightly, allowing the sun to shine.
Wolf had taken full advantage of the rays. He lay on a blanket covering the bench in the courtyard, with an added fur blanket around his shoulders. He had decided he hated snow far more than he ever hated rain. Rain could actually be warm. Snow was just cold and numbing cold. He had been cold ever since they entered the Water Tribe’s land and hated it.
Wolf had finally remembered the way the figures for his chess game looked, and had started drawing them out on spare pieces of hide or the loose-leaf paper he found. He was almost done when he heard a loud shriek. Wolf sat and looked up, wondering what was going on.
A few minutes later, Jin slid around the corner of one of the houses and scrambled to hide behind Wolf. “Hide me!” she hissed.
Wolf looked over his shoulder at Jin and looked up in time to catch sight of Zuko coming around the corner. “I’m not getting in the middle of this. I’d keep running if I were you,” Wolf advised, grabbing his stick in preparation to stand.
“That’s mean,” Jin muttered before taking off. She ran around the corner of another house and disappeared from sight.
Zuko walked up to where Wolf was sitting.
“Just what are you two doing this early in the morning?” Wolf asked.
Zuko smiled slightly and showed Wolf a snowball. “We’re enjoying the snow.”
“All right. Play nice.”
Zuko trotted off in the direction Jin had gone. Wolf shook his head. Things seemed weird with Zuko smiling like that. A moment later, there was a quiet splat noise, and a loud “that’s cold!”
Wolf stood to go see what was going on, almost curious. Zuko ran around the corner he had disappeared around before the out cry, laughing. Jin followed shortly after, a large, molting snowball in one hand. Zuko stopped behind Wolf.
“What are you doing? Why’s every one using me as a shield today?”
“I’m trying not to get hit. How good do you think her aim is?”
Jin threw the snowball. Wolf closed his eyes, hoping Jin’s aim was good. He felt a few splats of wet snow on the side of his face. Cautiously, Wolf opened his eyes and discovered that Jin’s aim was good, she had hit Zuko right in the face. Wolf sighed in relief.
Zuko recovered from the shock of the cold snow. “I’m going to get you now!”
Jin meeped and stood where she was.
“Excuse me, I hope I’m not intruding on anything,” a man’s voice called pleasantly.
The three turned their attention to a middle aged man making his way towards them. He was out of breath, and his blue eyes were bright with the exertion. He looked like typical Water Tribe member.
“No, you’re not. Make yourself at home,” Wolf invited.
“Oh, I just wanted to speak with you. Privately.”
Wolf glanced at Zuko and Jin, who both looked like they were going to leave. Wolf frowned slightly. “We’re a pack. There’s nothing that you can’t say to just one of us that you can’t say to all of us.”
“It’s all right, Wolf,” Jin spoke up. “We were just going to leave. Right, Zuko?” under her breath, she muttered, “Sounds like a boring talk, anyway.”
“Yeah. We’ll let you two talk privately,” Zuko agreed.
Jin and Zuko stepped towards each other. Jin grabbed Zuko’s hand and the two went inside.
Wolf sat back down on the bench. “So, what do you want?” Wolf asked, a little colder than he had been before. His instincts were telling him that the man was being sneaky.
“Well, I am Tiko. I study the different cultures of the world, so that if peace finally comes, we will encounter fewer difficulties in dealing with other people. I was down on the lower level when you came, and I saw that mark on your shoulder. It’s from the Fire Nation, isn’t it? Call me a traitor, but the Fire Nation is so fascinating. It’s so different from our own culture, but I just can’t get enough of it. But, I guess I’m just like that with all of the cultures I find that I can learn about at the time.”
Wolf sighed and rolled his eyes. Another nut case. “Could you hurry up and get to the point. I just remembered I’m quite busy.”
“Point? Oh, yes. My point. I was hoping you would allow me to interview you and, perhaps, allow me to input the mark into my research.”
“Please, I’ll do whatever I can. There must be something you want. Money…clothes…food…a good time…something.”
Wolf stood again and limped over to where the man was standing. He looked down at Tiko. “How about this?” Wolf held out the piece of paper he had been working on.
“What is this?”
“My project. I’ve been trying to figure out how I could make these game pieces, and this seems about right.”
The man’s eyebrows furrowed. He pouted slightly in confusion. “You want game pieces?”
“There’s a lot of them. Thirty-two, to be exact. Sixteen in black, sixteen in white. Think you can handle it?”
“Of course. Are you saying that you will do this if I get you those pieces?”
The man made a weird noise, something between a bird twitter and a laugh. His eyes widened slightly and he covered his mouth, apparently embarrassed.
Wolf looked at him strangely. “What was that?”
“I’m sorry. I just never thought I’d talk to a man of your caliber.”
“I have a caliber now?”
“Yes. Everyone has one; it’s just hidden. Oh, but that’s a different topic. I’ll come by tomorrow with the game pieces. You want them to look exactly like this?”
“More or less.”
“Oh, brilliant. Well, I really must be off. A day is such a short time. I’ll get on to it right away. Well, that’s all for now. Until tomorrow.” The man bowed and left.
“What have I gotten myself into?” Wolf asked himself. “Is it really worth those pieces?”
The next morning dawned bright and early. However, for Wolf, it was more early than bright.
“Wake up Wolf.”
Wolf heard the voice and opened one eye to see who it was. Realizing it wasn’t Iroh, Wolf sat up quickly, ready to attack. Then he realized that it was the man who had seen him the day before and he relaxed slightly. I could have killed him, Wolf thought.
“Good morning. I came today, just like I said I would. I’ve come to collect.”
Maybe I should have killed him.
“This early in the morning?” Wolf asked.
“I thought I’d get started as soon as the pieces were done. They were done just a while ago, so I had them brought here. So when do you think we should get started?”
Yeah. Definitely should have killed him. “I want to get a look at the pieces first.”
“All right,” Tiko nodded, smiling eagerly.
“Could you excuse me so that I can get ready?”
“Oh. Right. Sure.” He started backing out of the room.
“If you want, you can ask Iroh to make tea if he’s up. If not, help yourself to the kitchen.”
“You’d let me do that?”
“On second thought, just wait.” It’d be hard to explain how a person from the Water Tribe burnt down our kitchen.
Tiko left. Wolf sighed as he started getting ready. “I should have killed him,” Wolf muttered to himself.
Wolf was ready fairly quick for something he didn’t want to do. He walked out of his room and into the living room, where he found Tiko playing around with something on the table. So, of course, being Wolf, he had to ask. “What are you doing?”
The man turned abruptly, knocking something on the floor. He bent to retrieve it and set it back on the table. “I was just looking at the craftsmanship of the items that you wanted. They are very nice, high quality, just like we were hoping for.”
Wolf nodded and walked up to the table. He was amazed to find not thirty-six pieces like he had been expecting, but twice as many. The looked like ice, perfectly clear and shiny. Wolf picked up one of the ones nearest to him, a normally shaped pawn. It was cold and slick, like ice. “They’re made of ice. Won’t they melt?”
“They were originally made with ice. They still are, mostly, but we covered them with a material that will keep form. When the ice melts, there will still be a figure. It’s like glass, the material. But, glass shatters if it gets cold. This stuff, no shattering, no melting, it will keep under any circumstance. It’s an excellent…”
Wolf tuned out most of the long speech the man was giving, opting for examining the figures closer instead. Half of them were close to his drawings. The lines and curves were smoother, which set them apart. It was the average chess set from what he gathered. Around the top were little strings in black and white. The other set was a different story. They looked like animals. Half of the animals set were little koala otters. The king and queen looked like deformed monster koi. There were four seal turtles, four penguins and, oddly enough, there were even four wolves. Wolf picked one up to get a better look at it.
“What’s with these ones?”
“Those? Well, we were having a little bit of fun after the first set was finished, so we made another set using the animals that we know. I explained the situation to them, and they thought it would be very fitting if we put a wolf in there. Do you like it?”
“The whole animal thing is a bit…strange. You can’t tell the pieces apart. They’re well sculpted, but I don’t think I could use them. But…do you think I could keep just this one?”
“Of course. Go right ahead. You like them, right?”
“Considering what you were going off of, I think they work.”
“Great. Now, can we go?”
“One minute. I’m hungry.”
“You can eat when we get to my place.”
Wolf thought about it for a moment. “No, I’ll eat here.” There were to many things that could go wrong. Wolf didn’t know this person very well. For all he knew, Tiko might try to drug him with a truth serum or something even more unpleasant.
Tiko sighed, but he let Wolf shuffle around the kitchen until he found a little something to eat. Wolf ate it quickly under the harsh persuasions of the other man. Wolf wrote a note telling his companions that he was heading out and didn’t know when he would be back. Then, they left.
Wolf found the walk to be a little taxing. Between the snowstorms and Iroh’s orders, Wolf hadn’t been up and about to often in the past month. The fact that walking down the stairs had become tiring irritated Wolf to no end.
“What did you do to your leg?” Tiko asked, starting the conversation. The only thing that made Wolf feel slightly better was that the other man was also out of breath.
“I messed it up in a fight. It happens.”
“Did it occur to you that you could have a healer look at it?”
“Why haven’t you?”
“If every time someone got hurt and they ran directly to a healer, do you think that they’d learn anything?”
“They would just learn to rely on healers.”
“Exactly. Healers aren’t something someone like me finds very easily. So why would I want to do something like that?”
“Because you’ve suffered so much already. You know enough already, don’t you? So, just this once, you can relieve yourself of the pain, forgive yourself, and move on.”
“Well, pain’s good for you, so I figure. It lets you know that you’re alive.”
“So you need pain to know you are alive?”
“It’s better than being dead.”
“To some extent.”
Wolf growled slightly. He had a bad feeling that this was going to be a long walk, and an even longer day.
An hour and a half later, Tiko was ready to start the interview. He had led Wolf to a small house. It was cluttered and impossible to walk through without running into anything. The guy ushered Wolf through the house into a backroom. The room smelled funny to Wolf, but he didn’t want a long explanation and really didn’t want to know, so he didn’t ask what it was.
“I’m really sorry everything is so messy. I didn’t have the time to clean up, with the deadline so early. I really need to find a wife to do that for me.”
Wolf thought it better not to mention that it was the guy’s fault that the deadline was early. He certainly hadn’t expected it to be so soon. “It’s almost like one of my homes. What do you want me to do?”
Tiko had just resurfaced from behind a ledge, towing a large book up as he stood. “I want to document that symbol on your shoulder. So, if you would please take off your shirt, we can get started.”
“I’m not taking my shirt off. It’s cold,” Wolf objected.
“True,” the man sighed and turned around to flip through the pages of the book. Wolf thought he caught a disappointed expression, which creeped him out. “Just enough then, so that I can see it. Oh, and you can lie down over there. It makes life easier for the both of us. That is essential, isn’t it?”
Wolf had absorbed himself in the simple task of unbuttoning his shirt, and just mumbled his agreement. Satisfied that it was down far enough, Wolf plodded over and did as the man had suggested, making sure that only the brand showed. Things were annoying enough as it was without the major details. “All right. I’m ready.” Now Wolf was eager to get things over with. The place he was lying on was cold.
Tiko hauled the large book around so that he could go back and fourth easily. “Great. First things first, your real name is…”
“What makes you think I wasn’t originally named Wolf?”
“Please, people of the Fire Nation don’t normally know what a wolf is, for starters. Wolves are most well known by the Water Tribes, and some Earth Kingdoms have encounters with them. Wolves are nocturnal and only appear at night. Firebenders loose potency at night. So if your Fire Nation parents named you that, you would already be dead. So, your original name…”
Wolf hesitated. How much would this guy know about him with his real name? “Moltov.”
“Moltov? Very flame-ish and fiery. Now that sounds Fire Nation, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I changed it.”
“To such a peculiar name as Wolf?”
“Yeah, got a problem with that?”
“No, no. Don’t mind me. I was just wondering if there was another reason for it, that’s all. On to the next part. I’m going to draw it out, so hold still.”
Wolf hadn’t moved much, so the last bit was unnecessary. Tiko looked at Wolf’s mark, and started drawing it onto the paper. He drew the square outline and turned to look again. He brushed his hand over the brand.
Wolf flinched away. “Don’t touch it. I agreed to let you draw it, not touch it. You’re fingers are cold,” Wolf hissed.
“Sorry. Six petals on the flower?”
“What does it look like? It’s always been six.”
The man was silent for a while, looking from his paper to the reference. His brow furrowed slightly. “What’s this?” He touched the small corner of the brand where a small scar had crossed into the box.
“I told you to stop touching,” Wolf growled.
“Sorry. Is that part of it?”
“It looks like it came after the mark. What happened?”
“You just wanted to document the mark. No one needs to know my history as well.”
“I’m just curious. It looks like it was made by a whip. Are you into that kind of thing?”
Wolf growled again. “If you get caught by enemies, they’ll use different methods of making you talk. I just got on the wrong side.”
“I see.” Tiki turned back to his work, finishing it quickly. “You can sit up now. I’ve finished.”
Wolf sat up and slipped his shirt back onto his shoulder.
“This flower, what does it mean?”
“It’s an aconite. It’s a flower that can live is some parts of the Fire Nation. It’s poisonous to animals, and has several other names, including Wolf’s Bane. In the Fire Nation, it is used to brand the most dangerous traitors. It tells others that the bearer would be best left alone, unless you want to die, anyway. The true meaning that the aconite has been given is ‘beware, a deadly foe is near.’ I’d write that one down, it’s the true meaning for…Fire Nation people.” Wolf avoided saying anything like my people, even ignoring himself in the matter. The meaning was for the Fire Nation and the Fire Nation alone. And he didn’t like having a connection with the Fire Nation
“Thank you. Now, why did you get marked with it?”
“I betrayed the great Fire Lord Ozai,” Wolf replied sarcastically, rolling his eyes. “I said to much that went against what Ozai wanted, and wham, next night…he got me.”
“Were you close to the Fire Lord, or did you just speak out? Were you a high ranking general or something?”
“No, I was just there. I knew Ozai, yes. That was why I wasn’t a high ranking general in his army. I don’t like the way Ozai took control, how he runs everyone’s lives, just the things he does. And I told him so.”
“That’s so brave of you.”
“Bravery to some is stupidity to others.”
“No, that’s brave. To talk out against such a dangerous person.”
“Whatever it is, doesn’t change the fact that it happened, and I’m here now.”
“What was it like to have your life changed so quickly?”
“It’s like getting pushed overboard in a storm with rocks tied to your ankles. You sink, and you sink quickly. But, it could have been worse.”
There was a loud commotion outside. It seemed something exciting was happening outside. Both men started up at the sound of cheering.
“I wonder what’s going on,” Tiko mused.
“Yeah, me too.”
“Well, that was all that I really wanted to know. Thank you for your time. I hope you enjoy your game. Maybe we can talk again?”
“Maybe.” Mentally, Wolf was saying no, but he didn’t feel like completely dashing the man’s hopes against sharp jagged rocks.
The shouting started to grow louder and branch out. The two stood and headed out of the room. They passed through the house. When they got to the exit, a young woman burst into the room. Her hair was white and looped in an elegant way. Her silver eyes were alight with excitement.
“Master Tiko. There’s incredible news! Oh, Wolf! I didn’t know you would be here as well. It’s nice to see you again.”
“Pleasure seeing you again, Princess Yue,” Wolf nodded his head in greeting.
“Well, this is great. You can both share in the news. The Avatar has returned! The war is over!”
“Hold on a second. Just because the Avatar is back, doesn’t mean we’ve won already,” Tiko laughed. He was obviously pleased and believed the same.
“No, but it will be! Just think, the Avatar. Wolf, what do you think? We’ll win, won’t we?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll be going now.” Nodding a small nonchalant farewell, Wolf left.
Wolf walked wearily into their house. He was fully intent on getting a small something to eat and going to sleep. Unfortunately for him, the rest of the pack didn’t agree. Wolf had taken five steps into the room, heading for the kitchen area, when Iroh spoke up.
“Where have you been Wolf?”
Jin and Zuko were hanging back, watching quietly. Iroh was in a grumpy mood, so it was best to let him settle things on his own.
“I left you a note saying that I’d be out for a while,” Wolf replied quietly.
“Is that what it said? I couldn’t read it. It’d be nice if you told us where you were going.”
“I went out with an acquaintance, that’s all. We had a little talk, and now I’m back, end of story.”
Iroh sighed. “Welcome back.”
“Yeah, I’m back. I’m hungry too. Jin cook us anything or we still eating that other stuff?”
“We’re still eating what has been provided for us.”
They were all quiet for a moment as Wolf started shuffling through the kitchen.
“I’ll help,” Jin said and hurried to join Wolf in the room.
Zuko was close behind. He knew that if he left Jin to her own devices, she might hurt herself. Not wanting to be left out, Iroh followed. The other two men stayed by the entrance watching.
“It sounds like there’s going to be a small celebration,” Zuko started quietly. “Do you know what the cause is?”
“Water Tribe wants to have a celebration every once in a while. No big deal,” Wolf replied.
Jin looked up from the search, a mildly confused look on her face. “It sounds like this was a little more spontaneous than that. I would think that we would be asked to the celebration, at least.”
“Yeah, this is a little more out there than usual.” Wolf walked past the others, turning his back to them. He stopped in a corner and turned to face them. “The Avatar has returned.”
Jin’s face lit up. “The Avatar! That’s great!”
Zuko looked down, contemplating. “The Avatar, huh?”
“This is great news!” Iroh exclaimed. “It is cause for much celebration.”
Zuko looked up; meeting Wolf’s darkened gaze. “So, what are we going to do?”
“Right now? Nothing,” Wolf stated bluntly.
“Nothing? But, the Avatar, he’s supposed to fight my Father…”
“Ah. Right now we will do nothing,” Iroh cut in. He had a feeling things were going to get really bad, and he was trying to prevent that. “In the winter, Water Tribes like this one are bound in ice. It would be dangerous to try and leave. We’ll wait for the weather to warm up before leaving, is that it?”
“No.” Wolf brushed past them again to the other side of the kitchen, this time keeping his back to his friends. “I have no intention of doing anything. I’ve done enough. Iroh, you said it yourself, I should settle down before I kill myself.”
“I didn’t go that far,” Iroh denied.
Zuko watched Wolf, stunned. Wolf had always been the first to jump up when something was going to happen. It just seemed wrong that he was going to roll over and play dead now.
“Well, I’m going to settle down. I’m stopping here and now. I’m not going to go after Ozai anymore.”
If that’s what you think, I think we need to have a little talk.
Wolf’s eyes widened slightly as he registered the voice and what it meant. His body stiffened. He heard Zuko say something, but he was to distracted by the voice to hear what it was.
“We don’t need to talk,” Wolf whispered quietly.
Apparently, we do. Now, come here.
Wolf felt like he was being pulled inward. The other three rushed forward as Wolf fell forward.
Chapter 15 – END