Title: Dances and Disguises Author: devilinthedetails Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender TV show and comics. Genres: Romance; Drama. Characters: Kori; Sneers; Kori's Father. Summary: Sneers, Kori, and the brilliant dances and disguises of their love. Author's Note: This story was written for @amidalachick's awesome Bruce Springsteen Song Challenge as part of the Mini-Games event. My assigned song was "Brilliant Disguise." Lines in my story that appear in parenthesis and italic are taken from that song and are not my own creation. Thank you to @amidalachick for the wonderful challenge that inspired this story and to Bruce Springsteen for the song and lyrics that provided the framework for this story's structure. Kori, her relationship with Sneers, her family, and the city of Yu Dao are all borrowed from the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics. Dances and Disguises (I hold you in my arms as the band plays. What are those words whispered, baby, just as you turn away?) Never in his life had Sneers’s feet felt so strange. Simultaneously light as a lost soul rising, no longer weighted by grief and sorrow, to the Spirit Realm, and heavy as stone unmoved by any Earthbender. Graceful as the swelling notes of music filling the Yu Dao square and clumsy as a first, fumbling kiss in the dark. Maybe a kiss was the wrong thing to think about as he held Kori close to him amidst the couples whirling and weaving in time to the music in the air. Close enough to smell the peachblossom perfume dabbed on her wrists and sprinkled into the soft curve of her neck. Her arms were draped gently as a mother-knitted shawl around his shoulders, and his were wrapped around her waist. Drawing her to him so he could feel her body, strong as the welded iron of a Fire Nation battleship, but also supple as the archedWeeping Willows that mourned over a thousand Earth Kingdom rivers. They were dancing to Earth Kingdom songs played on Earth Kingdom instruments. The ancient guzheng with its history stretching back thousands of years to the dawn and discovery of music. The pipa with its ripe, pear-shaped body. The guqin with its seven strings favored by the scholars and the sages since time and music had begun. The fluting, bambo-carved dizi accompanied by the mellow hulusi. Dancing to Earth Kingdom songs played on Earth Kingdom instruments but wearing the bright, exaggeratedly expressive masks associated with Fire Nation revelry. In Yu Dao, Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation citizens danced together on the street, but that was not how it was in most Fire Nation Colonies. Sneers was still trying to explain that to Kori. Trying to make her believe and bleed it as he did. In most Fire Nation Colonies, the sundown curfews imposed on Earth Kingdom people were strict and severe. To be caught out after sunset in most Fire Nation Colonies was to risk a hundred blows with the heavy rod. A hundred blows with a heavy rod could kill a man. It was different in Yu Dao, in this thriving, bustling port city that would rather party, work, and trade, seeking that elusive perfect happiness and trade, than sleep. Here Earth Kingdom tradition seemed to blend with Fire Nation culture so seamlessly that it was sometimes hard to remember where one ended and the other began. Here it almost became possible to breathe that ultimate illusion that Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation could live together in harmony. Here the consequences of coloniation seemed more beautiful and less ugly so it felt oddly disconnected from the evil and the horror of what the Fire Nation had done to so much of the Earth Kingdom. Yet, it wasn’t separate at all. The joy and beauty in Yu Dao had come at the expense of long, bitter suffering in other places the people of Yu Dao almost universally did not know or care about. Yu Dao was a glittering glory of the world but it was built on bloodshed and tears, tainting it with something salty and sour. “That’s some mask you’re wearing.” Sneers stared into Kori’s eyes--the only part of her face he could see beneath her crimson painted mask--and saw the swirling reflections of the hundred red and green lanterns strung over the square. “It’s impossible to tell who you are underneath it. You must tell me if it’s you beneath it or just a brilliant disguise.” “I mustn’t.” Kori laughed, a sound that he would recognize any time he heard it. A sound that betrayed her and her brilliant disguise, after all. “I can’t reveal who I am beneath my mask. That’d defeat the purpose of wearing a mask in the first place.” He opened his mouth to tease her back about how she had already revealed her identity to him in the way she danced, laughed, and touched him. Before he could do so, however, her fingers drifted from his shoulders to his chest, brushing briefly against him in what he sensed even before she said anything was a farewell before she turned away from him and allowed herself to be swallowed in the masks of the crowd. In the heartbeat before she faded from him, when he longed to grab her wrists and tug her to him so she couldn’t escape, she whispered, her words almost drowned by the music, “While we were still dancing, grief came upon us.” Her words made no sense, he thought as she vanished into the masks and swirling couples. They sounded like poetry stripped of any rhymes and context or lyrics to a song with a long-forgotten tune. He must have misheard her because of the music. Because of the fact she was already withdrawing from him. Walking away from him into the enfolding night that now held her as he should have. (I saw you last night out on the edge of town. I want to read your mind to know just what I’ve got in this new thing I’ve found. So tell me what I see when I look in your eyes. Is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?) Sneers retreated from the Earth Kingdom music and the Fire Nation masks. From the dancing. From the square lit by red and green paper lanterns. Searching the strange shapes and shadows of Yu Dao for Kori. Trying to find her wherever she had fled. At last, he discovered her standing on the city ramparts, gazing out at the ocean they could hear more than see in the darkness. “What did you whisper to me as you turned away?” he asked, leaning against the wall beside her. Hoping the old stones wouldn’t fall through and bring him plummeting to the unforgiving earth so far below. “I whispered that while we were still dancing, the grief came upon us.” She faced him, and he could see that she had removed her crimson mask, but somehow the removal of the mask only made her expression even more unreadable to him. She was an inscrutable cipher to him. Her emotions, moods, and thoughts so often as unfathomable to him as the depths of the ocean he had never seen before he came to Yu Dao. “I thought you would understand the reference without me needing to explain it--references like jokes are destroyed when they need to be explained--but I forgot you were an ignorant country bumpkin barely arrived in the city.” Sneers rolled his eyes. Certain that if he spent the remainder of his days in Yu Dao there would still be those eager to mock him as an ignorant country bumpkin because he hadn’t been born in the city. “And what is the reference?” “It is a line from one of your great Earth Kingdom poets,” she said. Phrasing it that way. As if the Earth Kingdom poets only belonged to him and not to her even though half the blood that flowed in her veins was Earth Kingdom. An inheritance from her mother as surely as her earthbending itself. “He wrote it in the years after the collapse of the Earth Kingdom’s Sixth Dynasty, lamenting the beauty and glory that burned to ash when revolt and civil war overtook the land. It was an elegy to everything that was lost when that dynasty fell.” “Oh.” Sneers felt as if he were drowning in the depths of a conversation he didn’t understand. “But what do the words of a long dead poet have to do with us, Kori?” “The glory. The grief. The music. The dancing before disaster.” Her cheeks were tear streaked and stained. He could see that in the silver moon and starlight. “It’s all the same from age to age, isn’t it? It doesn’t change with time, does it?” “I still don’t know what you mean.” Sneers couldn’t keep a tinge of impatience from coloring his tone. “The Fire Lord wrote my father a letter.” Kori’s lip quivered. “He is ordering all the Fire Nation citizens out of Yu Dao so the city can be surrendered to the Earth Kingdom. He wants all the Fire Nation citizens living in the Fire Nation.” Sneers felt his heart tearing and his throat tightening. He loved Kori--or thought he might love her at least, and in fickle teenage terms that was the same thing--and didn’t want her leaving, but at the same time, he didn’t think the Fire Nation citizens being asked to return to their homeland was the crime Kori believed it to be. Nor did he think it was some terrible injustice that the land the Fire Nation had stolen from the Earth Kingdom over a century ago should finally be given back to it. “The Fire Lord wants his people to return home.” Sneers struggled to find words that wouldn’t offend Kori but would express the truth in his heart. “Is that so wrong?” “The Fire Nation isn’t our home,” snapped Kori, her passion and temper flaring hot enough to burn them both to smoke and ash. “Yu Dao is. We were born and bred here. We built Yu Dao from the sweat of our brows as much as the Earth Kingdom people did. When we first arrived here, this was a sparsely populated backwater, not a vibrant port. A proud and glistening jade city. We belong here as much as any Earth Kingdom citizen!” “It’s not Fire Nation land, though.” Sneers shook his head, marveling at how much his girlfriend sometimes couldn’t see. “It was Earth Kingdom territory once and should be again.” “So you want to be ruled by a foolish king who didn’t even notice that a hundred year long war was waging outside his city walls?” Kori’s demand echoed shrilly against his eardrums. “Whose most honored and trusted advisor is his bear?” The Earth Kingdom was a figure of scorn among the citizens of Yu Dao whether they were of Earth Kingdom descent or Fire Nation ancestry. Mocked as the embodiment and culmination of an ineffectual, ignorant dynasty that allowed its land to be conquered and stolen. To the eternally productive citizens of Yu Dao, there was no greater crime than incompetence. Not that the Fire Lord Zuko was much more beloved on the teeming streets of Yu Dao. The Fire Nation citizens grumbled that he was a traitor to his country who had failed to advocate and defend his people. Who had betrayed them by cozying up to the Avatar who was an enemy to the Fire Nation since Sozin’s reign. Who was so weak his father had exiled him and apparently even the notoriously blundering King Kuei could best him in negotiations if his forsaking Yu Dao was any indication. “And you?” retorted Sneers, repeating all the muttering and mumbling he had heard from Fire Nation citizens in the streets and at the market stalls. “Do you want to be ruled by someone you see as a traitor and a weakling?” “I want Yu Dao to be free!” Kori stamped her foot against the stones beneath them, and he felt the ground trembling in a twisted mirror of her wrath. Benders of all stripes were truly terrifying when their rages consumed them, Sneers thought on those city walls by the ocean at night. “I want Yu Dao to be ruled by the people of Yu Dao, and nobody else! I want us all to be able to live here side-by-side forever!” “You can want that all you like.” Sneers sighed, and, looking at her, saw only a stranger whose political beliefs and perspective might never be compatible with his own because the Fire Nation had never made her suffer the way it had made him suffer. She was the daughter of the conqueror as much as she was a child of the conquered. Half Fire Nation and half Earth Kingdom, her loyalty and pride divided between the two. Casting two shadows wherever she went. “Neither the Fire Lord nor the Earth King will ever allow you to have what you want. Nor will they ever care what you want.” “I’ll make them care.” Kori’s chin lifted and her eyes blazed. “They underestimate and ignore me at their own peril.” “Calm down.” Sneers seized her hands between his own before she could clench them in her fury. Tenderly, he stroked her palms, feeling the lines crisscrossing them. Lines where her future and her heart could be read according to ancient Earth Kingdom belief and lore. Even though his hands were wrapped around hers, she felt so distant and out of reach to him. So beyond his comprehension. As if he could never know the real here. As if something inside of her, some deep and true part of her, would always be elusive to him. Giving voice to this feeling, he murmured, as his skin brushed against hers, “I wish that I could read your mysterious mind as easily as I do your open palm.” “You can’t read my palm.” Unexpectedly, Kori leaned forward and pressed her mouth against his. He could taste sweet plum on her lips. “Only the Earth Kingdom fortune-tellers can do that, and you are many things, but not a fortune-teller.” “I can’t read you at all then.” Blood pounding in his ears and racing through the valves of his heart, Sneers deepened the kiss there on the walls, high above the rest of Yu Dao. “Is that what you’re saying?” “I’m saying let’s not talk at all.” Kori glanced impishly at him. “I’m saying let’s just kiss and forget everything else.” (I heard somebody call your name from underneath our willow.) Sneers and Kori had their own willow in Jade Park. Sprawled beneath the shade of its drooping branches, they had kissed and carved their names into the peeling bark of its trunk. The characters of their names intertwining as if tangled in an embrace or an act of love. He had thought it was their willow, anyway, before he heard from a distance--out of sight behind a flowering magnolia--her calling somebody else’s name from beneath their willow. The name of a boy who appeared to be about their age. Who hurried across the pebbled path to join Kori. Who leaned close to her, talking and laughing casually and comfortably. As if he had known her all his life. And she looked just as unguarded around him. Her face soft and eyes sparkling as Sneers liked to imagine they only did for him. She was with someone else that she loved, and that idea--that she could meet somebody else she loved under their willow--made him so blood boilingly angry that he confronted her about her treachery the next time they met beneath their willow to enjoy a picnic of dim sum and chrysanthemum tea. This space they had once shared seemed so tainted by her betrayal that he couldn’t remain silent, he thought. “Willows are symbols of separation and sorrow in the Earth Kingdom.” Sneers snatched up a fallen willow twig from the ground, remembering his mother teaching him that before the Fire Nation soldiers killed her. “Oh?” Kori sipped at her tea. “Friends and lovers break them together when they separate.” Sneers smashed the willow twig beneath his boot. A harsh, cracking sound like a shattering porcelain teacup. “Each of them holds onto half the willow twig as a remembrance. It’s a parting ritual.” “Is there a reason you’re telling me this?” Kori arched an eyebrow. “A reason you look as if I spit in your tea?” “I heard you call someone else’s name from beneath this willow. Our willow!” Sneers vented all his spleen at her. “I saw you talking and laughing with a boy right here. In our special spot!” “Boys are so jealous and possessive.” Kori’s chopsticks flashed as she plopped a dumpling into her mouth. She emanated an air of supreme indifference even as Sneers confronted her for her betrayal. “This willow isn’t ours. It belongs to this park. To everyone in Yu Dao.” “Are you like this willow then?” Sneers glared at her, spearing a dumpling he had no intention of eating with his chopsticks because it seemed an acceptable target for his fury. “Do you belong to everyone in Yu Dao, not just me?” “I belong to no one!” Kori looked as if she were tempted to hurl her tea in Sneers’ face. Probably disfiguring him for life if she did. “And, for your information, you saw me talking to my cousin, because I had a family that I loved long before you entered my life. Long before you entered Yu Dao with the sole purpose of irritating me!” “Oh.” Sneers felt his face flaming. “Well, how was I supposed to know that was your cousin and not a paramour you were trysting with in secret, huh?” “By asking,” Kori hurled back. “That’s what I’m doing, aren’t I?” shouted Sneers, hating how she could make him lose control like nobody else in the world. “Asking? And you’re the one getting all huffy.” “I’m getting all huffy because you aren’t asking.” Kori rose, dim sum and tea forgotten. “You’re accusing without any grounds and acting like a jealous idiot.” “I was jealous.” Sneers tried to reach out for her hand but she pulled away from him. Making it clear to the entire park full of staring people that she had no interest in sitting beside him. “But only because I love you.” “You don’t love me.” Kori spun on her heel and marched off, nose in the air. Over her shoulder, she called loudly enough to be heard on the other side of the Earth Kingdom,“If you loved me, you would trust me. Not doubt me. Not yell at me for daring to talk to another boy who happened to be my cousin.” As she disappeared from him in a towering temper, Sneers dropped his head in his hands. Massaging his temples, he muttered to himself, “How was I supposed to know that was her cousin? Her cousins should have to walk around with name tags on them so I don’t get jealous…” Right now, with him feeling like a fool who had offended his girlfriend for what had turned out to be no reason, this did not seem like a ridiculous proposition to him at all. Anything that saved him from future embarrassment seemed a very feasible and acceptable notion. (I saw something tucked in shame underneath your pillow) It was a challenge for Sneers to focus on anything that came out of Kori’s mouth. His attention, which should have been on her and what she was saying, was instead riveted on a furled white scroll hidden in the green silk sleeve of her pillowcase. Words tucked away--as if in shame--in this secret, secure spot. Curiosity and jealousy blazed through him as he wondered what contents could possibly be in the letter beneath her pillow. Was it a love letter from someone else? Somebody she had dated before him? An old flame that hadn’t burned out after all? Or, worse still, was it a letter from someone she was seeing right now? Was that person the one she had been meeting under their willow? Was the story about that person being her cousin a lie? She had so many cousins, it was impossible to keep track of them. To not have them blur together at family functions… His chance to investigate what mystery Kori had tucked beneath her pillow occurred when Kori’s mother called for her, and Kori darted out of her room to discover what her mother needed. Taking advantage of her absence, Sneers leaned forward and slid the scroll out of the silken sleeve of her pillowcase, marveling at how expensive and exquisite everything her family owned was. The perfection and luxury with which she was surrounded made it even more unfathomable to him how she, the only daughter of Yu Dao’s mayor, could be with him, an orphan and former outlaw dependent on his uncle’s begrudging charity. He expected this letter to furnish further proof that they couldn’t be together. That the divide between them was too vast to ever be breached. That she didn’t even really want to cross that great divide. That she loved someone else, not him. When he unrolled the scroll, however, he discovered that it wasn’t a passionate love letter. Or at least not the sort of love letter he had imagined a teenage girl like Kori concealing beneath her pillow. Sleeping on it at night. Dreaming of the hand that had written it in careful characters, lavishing love into every brushstroke. No, the hand the letter was written in belonged to Kori. Sneers knew that because he could have recognized Kori’s handwriting anywhere. He had spent so much time admiring it. The grace and confidence of it. How it both flowed and asserted itself. How it could convey strength and beauty in a way his own clumsy, ill-formed characters never could. More than that, it wasn’t addressed to any former or present paramour, including himself. It was instead written to her parents and was marked by sad but determined phrases. Phrases that were crossed out as she labored to refine them. To make them more clear and concise. Phrases that had a haunting quality to them. Almost as if they were being created as a lasting tribute to herself. A final will and testament. But people only bothered to compose a final will and testament when they expected to die soon, and why would someone as young as Kori expect to die soon? It didn’t make any sense at all. Numb and befuddled, Sneers stared down at the words, hoping that they would coalesce into something that felt logical and less ominous. Words that didn’t thank her parents for the love they had shown her over the years. Didn’t express the hope that they would move on when she was gone. Words that didn’t plead for forgiveness for what she has to do to preserve her home and protect her family. Words that didn’t confess she knew what she was doing wasn’t right but still believed in her bones was necessary as breathing. In the doorway, there was a rustle behind him as Kori entered. He had been so caught up in reading the letter that he hadn’t heard her conversation with her mother end or her footsteps as she walked down the hallway, returning to her bedroom. “What are you doing?” she snapped, surging forward to seize the scroll from his now limp grip. He knew he was in the wrong. That he had violated the bonds of anything that could be considered appropriate or courteous behavior by reading a personal document stowed away in a private place while she was out of her room. By snooping when she expected and trusted him not to do so. However, he was still worried about her. Afraid of what wild stunt she had planned. What might motivate her to write such a letter to her parents. That was why he retorted rather than apologized. “What are you doing? Why did you write this to your parents? Why does it read like a last letter? Why does it sound like you’re leaving them forever?” “None of your business. You shouldn’t read letters that aren’t addressed to you. It’s rude.” She folded her arms and turned her back on him. She seemed to be made of impenetrable stone, and he wasn’t an earthbender. Couldn’t break through her stubbornness and pride. Her prickliness and secretiveness. “Now leave before I have my father’s guards escort you out.” He didn’t need to see her face to know that she was unshakeably serious, and he couldn’t bear the humiliation of being marched out of her house by her father’s guards on top of the ear-burning shame of being caught red-handed nosing through the letter underneath her pillow. To preserve what remained of his pride, he hurried out of the room and then out of the house before she could make good on her threat to have her father’s guards remove him. He didn’t apologize to her before he left even though he was tempted to do so. Nor did he declare how much he loved her and was concerned for her safety although he was even more tempted to do that. His tongue was too numb to shape the words, and his mouth was too dust-dry to speak. (Well, I’ve tried so hard, but I just can’t see What a woman like you is doing with me) Kori looked stunning at sunset as they walked along the Yu Dao wharf, smelling salt and hearing the shouts of sailors colored by their dialects from around the world. The setting sun reflected golden in her eyes and made her dark hair glow as if lit by candles beyond counting. Pinpricks of light that made Sneers want to stroke his fingers through her hair, exploring the softness of the strands brushing beneath his skin. “You’re so beautiful.” Sneers gazed at Kori, wishing he could paint the image of her at sunset into his memory. So he could hold onto it and her forever after she realized that she couldn’t be with him. That he wasn’t worthy of her. “It makes me wonder what a beautiful girl like you is doing with me.” “I’m taking a sunset walk along the wharf with you.” Kori pecked him on the cheek. “You know that’s not what I mean.” Sneers shook his head, fumbling for words. “I mean, why would you want to be with me when you could be with anyone else in Yu Dao? When I’m a nobody and you’re the mayor’s daughter?” “I’m not the mayor’s daughter any more,” she reminded him. That was one of the many changes that had rocked Yu Dao and the world this year. After negotiations with the Fire Lord and the Earth King, Yu Dao had been granted its independence. It would no longer be subject to any external authority nor would it be governed by a mayor. Instead, it would be ruled by a council comprised of citizens from both Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation heritage. Sometimes it was hard for Sneers to remember that. To handle how much and how quickly their world had changed. How their city was its own unique place--neither Fire Nation colony nor Earth Kingdom territory--and had to define itself a new way. “Fine.” He accepted the correction that didn’t really alter his essential point and concern. His fear of the class chasm between them. “You’re the daughter of one of the Earth Kingdom representatives on the city council. That’s still a position of importance, especially compared to me, a nobody.” “You aren’t a nobody.” Kori kissed him again. “You’re somebody I love. Somebody I enjoy being around. That’s what I’m doing with you.” He tried to believe her. He wanted to believe her. Yet it was so hard to do that. To believe her. To trust her. Trusting anyone did not come easily after his experience with Jet. His experience with Jet had made him doubt others, and, more insidiously, made him doubt himself. Made him question his ability to recognize when he was being deceived. When he was being manipulated by others. How could he trust his judgment when it had been wrong before, after all? And if he couldn’t trust his judgment, how could he really trust her? It was a troubling answer that he worried would be eternally without answer in the whirlwind of his mind. (So tell me when I look in your eyes, Is that you, baby, or a brilliant disguise?) Yu Dao was famous for the quality of its Earth Kingdom opera. According to the boasts Sneers had heard on the streets of Yu Dao, the only city in the world with a culture of Earth Kingdom opera to rival that on display in Yu Dao was Ba Sing Se. Despite the city being renowned for its Earth Kingdom opera, Sneers hadn’t bothered to watch it until Kori dragged him to his first one. As he gaped at the elaborate facepaints the actors and singers wore, he whispered to Kori, who sat beside him with her hand resting over his, “Why do they wear so much facepaint?” “Because the facepaint reveals something about each of their characters,” Kori explained in an undertone that didn’t announce his ignorance to the entire audience, which he appreciated. He didn’t want to appear the uncultured rustic amidst these sophisticated city folks. “White warns of an evil and treacherous character. Green denotes a violent, impuslive character with no self-restraint…” “A character like you,” teased Sneers. “A character who would sneak into the Fire Lord’s bedroom and attempt to assassinate him.” Kori wrinkled her nose at him but otherwise ignored this jibe, continuing smoothly, “Red represents bravery. Black is a fierce and impartial color. Yellow marks ambition and intelligence. The steadfast wear blue, and pink paint is the sign of sophistication and cool-headedness.” “And what color paint would you wear if you were a character in an opera?” Sneers felt himself becoming more serious and curious. More focused on penetrating through her shell to discover and understand her true self. Her deepest soul that he wanted to touch with his. “Blue,” she replied after a moment’s hesitation. A flicker of indecision. “Or red. I don’t see why a character or a person should have to wear only one color paint. I don’t see why a character or a person couldn’t wear as many colors as they choose.” That was Kori, he thought. Refusing to define herself in any simple way. Transcending any identity that might limit her scope. Might limit her role and personality. She didn’t entirely belong to the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, or even Yu Dao. She was something all her own. Something free, uncontainable, and beyond definition. He admired that about her but also found that quality made her hard to trust because she always seemed to be shifting between identities and allegiances the rest of the world set in stone. (Now you play the loving woman, I’ll play the faithful man) In Jade Park beneath the swaying branches of their willow, Sneers knelt before Kori and presented her with a golden ring inset with a single, shining-as-a-tear pearl. Pearls were the tears oysters shed when something foreign slipped beneath their shells, irritating and abrading the oyster’s tender flesh. Something sad and beautiful sought for in the singing, crashing depths of the ocean. “Will you play the loving woman if I play the faithful man?” Even in this most humble moment of his proposal, Sneers couldn’t bring himself to ask any more of Kori--any more of either of them--than that they play the roles of faithful, loving partners. Than that they don brilliant disguises, masking any darker emotions or actions that might be concealed below, for the beautiful dance of their love. Perhaps that was the spirit of Yu Dao sunk deep into him, beneath blood and bone, now. So deep that it would be impossible to extract it from his essence. Like incense burned in a temple. Impossible to unburn. “I will.” Kori let him slide the ring over her finger and then pulled him to his feet. Kissing him with all the sweetness of spring and all the heat of summer. Pressing her body against his so that he couldn’t breathe without inhaling her scent, her distinctive perfume. So that there was no space between them. No room for either of them to escape. Even if they had wanted to flee from this shared madness. “And I’ll play the faithful woman if you’ll play the loving man.” “I just got you a pearl ring,” Sneers teased. “Is that not loving enough for you?” “No.” Kori deepened the kiss into something more forceful. More demanding. More hungry and insatiable. “This is loving enough for me.” (But just don’t look too close into the palm of my hand) By unspoken, mutual consent before they married, Kori and Sneers followed the ancient Earth Kingdom custom of consulting one of the many fortune-tellers that made their living forecasting the success or doom of a thousand business ventures and relationships in Yu Dao. The fortune-teller read their tea leaves, insisting that she could see only happiness and harmony written there. She tossed white bones on licking red flames, and when the charred bones split, she proclaimed that the shape of the crackings promised they would be prosperous and their match would produce many children to inherit their wealth. She read their star charts and announced that the heavens had aligned in such a way that their marriage would be auspicious. Then, based on the astrology of their births, she suggested dates for their marriage that would further protect their union from the malign influence of evil spirits. Finally, she traced the lines of their palms with her wrinkled fingers. It was at that moment that Sneers expected the fortune-teller to discover his doubts and fears. To declare that he wasn’t ready to be married to Kori, and that their relationship would be cursed if he did marry her with such doubts and fears growing like weeds in the garden of his heart. Of his love. Instead, she said only that his hands testified to the unshakeable steadiness of his love for Kori. The fortune-teller didn’t detect any treachery or fickleness in Kori either. After reading Kori’s outstretched palms, she pronounced that the lines of Kori’s hands proved that she would forever be a faithful and loving wife who brought joy to her husband. The fortune-teller must be lying. Must be telling them what they wanted to hear because Kori’s family had paid her so much gold to spin beautiful fantasies of love, faithfulness, and good fortune. All the stories people wanted to believe when they married. Not that any of these doubts and lies stopped Sneers from marrying Kori. He couldn’t trust Kori or himself, but he needed to be with her in the same way the earth needed the sun to maintain its life and orbit. He revolved around her brightness. Her energy gave him life. That meant his fear that she would leave him--that she would betray him--was without end as much as it was without substance. It was the dark shadow of his bright-burning love. The midnight doubt that balanced the noon love. (Well, we stood at the altar, the gypsy swore our future was right, But come the wee, wee hours, maybe, baby, the gypsy lied.) Kori--resplendent in red silk robes embroidered with gold phoenixes--had never looked more beautiful to Sneers than when they knelt before her father at the altar of her ancestors. The shrine to her ancestors was an Earth Kingdom traditation, a way of welcoming him into the family, swallowing him into its stomach. The kneeling before her father for his blessing--or his curse--was a Fire Nation custom. They were trapped between two worlds. Like an unburied spirit unable to find peace in the afterlife, doomed to roam the world in woe as a ghost. Unable to be seen except by the Avatar. Unable to be touched. But somehow still able to be felt. To haunt as a memory. Maybe that was all love and marriage boiled down to when stripped of all its silk, poetry, and dance in Earth Kingdom or Fire Nation. Perhaps it was all lies, sorrows, and disguises. “I was the first man who loved her.” The penetrating gaze of Kori’s father seared into Sneers. “I was the first man who cared for her and gave her a home. Still, I hope and pray that you will be the man she loves forever and who loves her forever. That you will be the one who cares for her until death parts you. The one with whom she builds a home of everlasting happiness.” “But.” Now, his eyes shifted to his daughter as tears began to cloud them. Sneers suddenly found it hard to breathe as his throat tightened as if squeezed by an angry fist. “If the day comes when you no longer love her, don’t tell her. Tell me. I will bring her home to me.” “Father.” Kori seemed overcome by this declaration of love. This offer of protection. This determination to spare her pain. “You don’t have to protect me. I can be brave. I can be strong. You and Mother taught me how to be that.” This was the moment, Sneers thought, when he was supposed to proclaim his love for her in eloquent terms. When he should promise that she would never need to be strong or brave. Not with him because he would never hurt her. He would always protect and love her. Yet the words dried on his tongue before he could speak them. The weight of the unspoken words seemed to be crushing him. Choking him. In his hammering heart, he could feel the time when he should have declared his love ticking away from him. Slipping away like water flowing through clenched fingers. Elusive and escaping into an ocean that could drown him. Would drown him if he dared to step into it. (Tonight our bed is cold, I’m lost in the darkness of our love. God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of.) It was past midnight when Sneers woke to an emptiness, a void, beside him where there should have been the fullness of another body besides his. Where the sheets should have been warm with at least the memory of Kori’s presence, there was only coldness. She had been gone from him for so long that the bed had gotten cold. Where could she have disappeared to in the dead of night? Was she meeting some lover in the black of night? Suspicion and anger pounded through him in equal measure. When the door did crack open, emitting a sliver of light from the hallway, and she slipped back into bed beside him, he hissed, “Where were you?” “In the garden,” she huffed. “I didn’t know I needed your permission to go there or anywhere else.” “In the garden at this hour?” His eyes were narrow and hard. “Who were you with?” “I was alone.” She turned away from him so all he could feel was her stiff back that seemed to shout her resentment at him. “Who else would I be with?” “Not with me, obviously.” He couldn’t prevent the raw pain from creeping into his voice, undercutting the anger. The jealousy. The mistrust. “You don’t trust me.” Kori shook her head as she released a long, low sigh. “How can I trust you when you sneak out in the middle of the night without telling me where you’re going?” snapped Sneers. “How can I trust you when you don’t have faith in me?” retorted Kori. “When you don’t believe me when I tell you I’ve just been in the garden by myself?” “Maybe it’s not you I don’t trust.” Sneers massaged his aching temples, feeling consumed by his own confusions and doubts. Lost in a swamp of endless uncertainty and despair. “It might be myself I don’t trust because I don’t believe I’m worthy of you and your love.” “Why should I trust you when you don’t even trust yourself?” Kori rolled over in bed. Leaning toward him so her warm body rested over his. Kissing his knotted forehead, she murmured in a softer, gentler tone like a breeze ruffling willow branches torn when lovers parted, “Don’t worry about being worthy of me. Love isn’t about worthiness anyway.” “What is it about then?” He reached up to touch her. Stroking her cheek and then cupping it. “Happiness.” Her hand encircled his. Firm and warm. Alive and present. “Trust.” “Then spirits have mercy on the man who doubts what he is sure of.” Sneers chuckled, shaking his head ruefully. “It’s not the spirits who will have mercy on you.” Kori laughed before lowering his lips to his, her mouth brushing across his as if in blessing. “It’s me, but only if you ask nicely.” “Like this?” Sneers finished his question with a deep kiss of his own. Her only answer was another laugh and a kiss that he was certain would linger on his lips forever. An exquisite midnight memory of the trust they had found in the darkest hour of their love. A mark of when they realized they didn’t have to wear their brilliant disguises around each other any more. When they understood that they could reveal their true faces to one another as husband and wife. The beginning and the end of their dance of love.