Characters: Jee, Nima (OC), Captain Sadao (OC), Zhia (OC), assorted nameless Fire Nation extras
Word Count: 3600+ words
Summary: Some fifteen years before the series, Nima follows Jee to sea on a voyage and finds she is the only one not enthralled by the singing coming from the sea.
Four years ago, Jee heard a woman singing in the middle of the wild woods. A sea chantey, of all the strange things. His partner had figured it for a spirit, and Jee still wasn't entirely convinced the man had been wrong.
That was back when he'd been Army; right before he'd stopped being Army, in fact. He and his partner curved off their patrol route to investigate the singing. They found a woman dressed in yellows and oranges half-ripped to rags from walking through the woods. Her skin was as dark as someone from the eastern islands, and her hair was a rough seal brown. Her skin had been cool to the touch, but both Jee and his partner were firebenders. Everyone was cooler to the touch than them.
Jee had asked her where she was from, and she finished her song and opened her mouth to answer him. But though her lips shaped words, no sound came out.
He saw the panic ignite in her eyes, watched her touch her throat with careful fingertips. Watched her try to speak. He'd offered her a drink to soothe her throat, but even after a gulp of water, she couldn't even croak.
Her hands flapped, the torn sleeves of her traveling clothes fluttering like bird wings. She tried and tried to say something, and then she burst into tears.
Even her crying was silent.
That was four years ago.
"You're not actually supposed to be down here, you know." Jee fed a steady stream of fire into the boilers of the ship, providing the heat to turn water into steam. Black gang work was some of the more unpleasant shipboard work for a firebender, but orders were orders.
Nima smiled brightly and twirled, her red skirt floating. Good Fire Nation reds suited her. He'd never forget the first time he came back to port and saw her dressed in local fashions. It nearly extinguished him. Especially with the way the cut of her clothes emphasized the curve of her hips. They still did, and he knew he wasn't the only crewmember who looked.
Fortunately, the captain wasn't a jealous man. He didn't mind people taking a good look at his 'special guest'. In fact, he even seemed to enjoy it.
If Jee were honest with himself, the captain was a jackass about it. He couldn't legally sleep with a subordinate, and those kind of affairs went tits up often enough to make them dangerous, but there was nothing in the regulations about bringing a civilian along as your mistress. Why Nima went along with it, Jee had no idea, but asking her would do no good.
Nima was as mute as a nightingale. Exactly as mute, in fact; she could sing. She had a voice that invited spirits to sing with her when they thought she was alone.
(It wasn't wrong of him to follow her down to the river one time and let her take his breath away with her singing. Just like it wasn't wrong to look. But he had some suspicions about what kept her from speaking, and he wasn't going to add to that pain.)
"I take it that means you're not leaving," he said as she swept her skirt forward and perched on the metal bench welded to the wall.
She nodded, smiling.
"There are more boring things to do than watch someone feed a boiler, you know." Jee flashed her a grin. "I bet if you go find the bosun, he can find some of them for you."
Nima made a shooing gesture at him, her cheeks dimpled with her grin.
Jee concentrated on his firebending for the next two hours, and Nima sang a few songs to amuse herself. Finally, though, his relief arrived. Zhia took her sweet time stripping down to her breastband. Given that she'd be stuck down here alone for hours with nothing but the sweltering heat, he couldn't entirely blame her.
"Captain's sending us through You Ling Strait," she commented as she folded up her sailor's tunic.
His fire stuttered momentarily, and Nima lifted her head to look at the two of them curiously.
"What the hell for?" Jee snapped.
Zhia shrugged. "Messenger-hawk came in, I hear. Other than that, well, officers don't exactly tell you and me what kind of hipposhit reasons make their orders make sense."
He nodded at the truth in that, then shifted to make the changeover in firebenders. It went off without shorting the ship of a moment's heat; the two of them long-practiced in black gang work. There was a reason they pulled most of the shifts, besides the ones most of the crew thought.
"Toss me my tunic, will you?" He asked Nima as he poured a dipperful of water over his head.
It struck him squarely in the chest, and Nima smiled, then darted out the door of the boiler room ahead of him.
Zhia chuckled. "Don't let the captain catch you flirting with her so much."
"We're not flirting," Jee muttered as he put his tunic back on.
Nima padded out onto the deck of the ship, dodging around the sailors and marines. A few called out greetings to her, and she gave them a smile and a wave as she passed by. Most ignored her, which made the air around her less heavy and still. She did not have to be afraid among the Firefolk as long as not too many of them bothered with her.
Ahead in the distance, she could pick out a change in the color of the water. Biting her lip, she bent air between her fingers to enhance her ability to see. The water was lighter out ahead, except for a channel of deep blue. You Ling Strait, the only safe passage through reefs hard and shallow enough to tear out the bottoms of ships. Safe enough with the right maps or keen eyes watching the ocean.
You Ling Strait wasn't called that on Fire Nation maps, she knew. But every sailor she'd ever heard called it that, and the sea maps her father had sketched for her named it that.
Ships disappeared in the You Ling Strait.
It was a long passage, taking a few days to travel the entire length. Easy enough to founder if your maps were bad or you drifted during the night. Most captains preferred to go around it, though that added a week to the voyage.
She let the bending fall apart and frowned out at the ocean. Captain Sadao liked his command too much to risk it unnecessarily. Orders, then.
A wind blew in from the sea, salt and something else in it. It curled around her shoulders and plucked at her hair, and it was so cold for a southerly wind.
Nima wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly regretting her impetuousness in following Jee to sea.
Sadao found his woman already in bed, wrapped in as many blankets she could find and several of the wall-hangings.
"It's not that cold, nightingale," he said with some amusement, stroking her hair.
She batted at him irritably and drew the blankets over her head.
"We're not that deep into winter yet, either." He went to his desk and set up a fresh candle clock. He stuck a nail through it at the six-hour mark, then mounted it on a tin holder and lit it. The nail would clatter loudly when six hours had passed, and he could face the sunset and night with a clear mind.
He stretched out on the bed and pulled her close to his side. "Water Tribe has Admiral Yaren pinned. We'll be out to break him loose and feed the savages to the sharks in a few days. A little excitement ought to get you excited, mm?"
She blinked her dark eyes at him and quirked her mouth in a smile, and he almost forgot he needed sleep more than he needed a woman.
The candle-flame flickered and went out, and he twisted to scowl at it. A flick of his fingers sent a small stream of fire to relight it, and he lay back on the bed to get some rest.
A clatter of metal woke Nima, and she felt Captain Sadao roll out of the bed. She slitted her eyes to watch him straighten his uniform and leave, then drifted asleep again.
It was the singing that woke her the second time.
She raised her head to listen, blankets sliding off her shoulders. Song, liquid and lovely, floated in the air. There were no words, just voices interweaving in a joy of music. Many, many voices, too many and too skilled to separate them all. The singing went on without any sense of reaching conclusion, flowing from a languid softness to something rapid and staccato before turning back again.
The winds inside her head howled, whirling and twisting, and Nima knew much of the singing was broken on the teeth of the winds. Lost. Translated. Devoured. One or the other or all.
She sat up slowly and pressed gentle fingers to her throat. The winds had settled into a murmur after Jee and his partner took her out of the woods. Most days, they were easily ignored.
Never forgotten. Nothing from that terrible city could be forgotten.
The engine wasn't turning.
She blinked and looked around sharply, as if anything in the captain's cabin could tell her why the engine had gone silent.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as the singing rose in a high ululation. Her hands itched for a weapon, but she had no training with anything. The war had been far away at home and she'd had her bending. In the Fire colonies, a woman her age was expected to know how to fight already, and she did not want to be seen as strange by making it known she couldn't.
She blew out a breath and wrapped air around her forearms. If she needed anything more dangerous than air, then she was dead already.
The ship was very still. She crept through the corridors towards the deck, stopping several times to just stand there and listen. All she could hear was the singing and the lap of waves against the ship. No engines, no crew-bustle, no chatter.
Nima hugged herself tightly and thought of going back to Captain Sadao's cabin until he came to get her and tell her it was all right. Or Jee. Jee could come and hold her and tell her he had taken care of it.
She gave one sharp shake of her head and crept towards the open door leading onto deck. Through it, she could see tendrils of fog creeping over the ship and a haze of grey all around. The prow was obscured as she watched, fog sweeping in heavy and thick.
Sailors stood on deck, heads cocked to listen to the singing. A woman was close enough to the door to touch, and Nima shivered at her expression. The sailor looked rapturous but her golden eyes showed whites all around.
Nima took a breath and tasted the salt in the sea air, then stepped out onto deck.
It felt strange to move among so much stillness. Goosebumps rose on her arms, and she instinctively pulled a cold wind around her like a shawl.
Something moved out in the dark at the edge of the ship. Nima turned towards the movement and heard a slip of water- then a creature of nightmare heaved itself on the deck.
Its proportions were female, curving and lithe, but it had no legs, only a long scaled tail that ended in a spined double-fin. Its belly was pale while its sides were dark, and it looked about the deck with a pretty enough face. Its eyes were large and dark, but it had no nose, and there was something wrong with the shape of its mouth. A spiny crest went over the top of its head and down its back, and its arms ended in clawed hands.
A shudder ran through Nima, and the mermaid whipped towards her, spines flaring out on its forearms.
"You moved," it said, voice as lovely as a fine bronze bell.
"She did," another voice agreed. "A little bird puffing up its feathers against the cold."
Nima half-turned as she had seen Jee do so often in dangerous situations and looked at the mermaid across the deck from the first. Their faces were different, and in the fog-muffled light from the ship's lanterns, she thought this one was more green than blue.
"Who are you?" They asked as one.
Nima took a step back, wishing the singing would be silent so she could hear the movement of air and not walk into anyone. "Oh, I'm just a singer from out on the coast, doing concerts wherever they're hiring. But good work's hard to find when your name is maligned; so unkind is the life of a siren."
For the first time in her life, her song sounded discordant. It irritated and scraped in comparison to the other singing, too simple and childish.
She scowled and tangled air about the tip of her tongue. Her song deepened and changed in ways she didn't entirely understand, rang with defiance and uncomplicated beauty.
The mermaids' tails coiled, and they twisted and swayed, regarding her with dark eyes.
"Strange little bird," said the green one.
"Arrogant," hissed the blue one, and it lunged. Fast, so fast for something so large.
Nima jumped back, wind pushing her back with a speed she had never had even as a girl. She heard cloth rip as the mermaid's claws tore her shirt open. Better than her belly, though, and she scrambled back. Air gathered under her feet, speeding her steps, and she felt the shawl of cold wind tighten across her back.
She sucked in a breath and tightened it still further, her hands waving frantically as she wove the wind. The mermaid swiped at her, claws sinking into the air around her forearms and nicking skin.
Blood spilled to the deck, but that blow should have laid her arm open to the bone. The mermaid hesitated, eyes widening, and Nima turned to run flat out for the door into the interior of the ship.
The mermaid screamed, and the winds inside Nima's head tore the music of that scream to shreds, so all she heard of it was the fury. Her knees felt like water, and she stumbled, but the winds gusted and shoved her forward until she could scramble inside the safe walls of Fire Nation steel.
She hurled herself inside, wincing as she heard a heavy slap of flesh against someone. She glanced over her shoulder, saw the sailor who had been by the door sprawled on the deck with the mermaid's tail crushing her throat.
Nima snarled and caught winds on the ends of her fingers.
The mermaid's mouth twisted in a smile, flashing shark's teeth.
Nima wove her arms, twisting and coiling the winds together in a strangling cord. "There was an old couple who lived near Hell," she sang, "If they're not dead, they're living there still."
The mermaid snarled, the sound low and lovely, and surged forward.
Nima turned and ran, still singing. The mermaid plunged after her, claws scrabbling against the cold wind protecting her back. But she'd woven it as hard as Fire Nation armor, and it withstood the mermaid's blows.
She ducked around the first corner she came to. A clamor rang through the halls, painfully loud, as the mermaid's tail slapped against the walls while it twisted to follow her.
Nima stopped, pivoted, smiled. Then she caught her strangling winds around the mermaid's throat.
The green one hunched over a sailor, scooping out handfuls of meat from the man's chest. It tore and swallowed, blood and gobbets of meat falling to the deck. All around, other sailors stood motionless, and the night was filled with the fey song.
Nima bit her lip and huddled in the shadow at the side of the doorway. All she needed to do was go out there and get its attention, then lure it out of sight of the Fire Nation crew to kill it. She couldn't let them see what she could do, couldn't let anyone suspect- Maybe if she had still been in her mother's Earth Kingdom village or sailed with her father's people, she wouldn't have needed to hide her airbending.
But, come hell or high water, she lived in the Fire Nation colonies now.
(Jee was Fire Nation.)
Jee was... not out on the deck. Nima breathed a sigh of relief. Jee was safe.
Her hands clenched into fists, fingernails digging into her palms. The wind would speed her. The fog- The fog was so thick about the deck she couldn't see the prow of the ship. She tilted her head slightly, her hands relaxing open. If the fog were thicker, so thick a man couldn't see his hand in front of his face...
Nima crept back out of sight of the door. Fog was a heavy sort of air, difficult to move directly with any sort of subtlety. The trick was not to move the fog but to stir the winds to gather it.
She plucked music from the winds whirling in her head and danced. Winds caught on her arms, her fingers, her mouth, the ends of her hair, every part of her body, and they spun into the shape of the dance.
The fog shifted, thickened, herded by the winds she had spun. Nima ended her dance with a flourish, then strode out onto the deck. The fog was thick and heavy, concealing everything. The sound of the mermaid eating came loud, and the singing fey and strange. Nima paused, then blew lightly, thinning the fog in the direction of the mermaid.
It raised its head as her breeze blew past. It twisted to look all around, as if suddenly noticing the fog. Its tail lashed and someone out of sight crashed to the deck.
Nima wrapped fog around her like a cloak and drifted forward. Her hands wove another strangling cord, this one white and visible in her grip. Solid fog.
"Little bird," the mermaid called, "I have ten thousand times ten thousand sisters. Fly, little bird, for we will devour you as surely as these sailors."
Its voice was lovely, the shreds of it coming through the winds in her head making Nima want to fly away, abandon the ship and its crew to their fate. She didn't even know if she could fly, but she wanted to try, and winds gathered under her feet. Let the Firefolk die, they didn't deserve anything better.
Jee was still on the ship.
Nima gritted her teeth. More terrible beauty than its voice had marked her, and she'd come out of that unbroken. The mermaid might have ten thousand times ten thousand sisters, but there was only the one actually on the ship right now. She picked her steps carefully, walking with the lightness of a starling, circling slowly.
The mermaid twisted and stared into the fog, the crest of spines down its back rippling.
Its tail lashed suddenly, and it was all Nima could do to jerk out of the way. A line of fire opened on her cheek as the tail flicked past, and she gasped at the pain.
The mermaid lunged, and Nima threw her strangling fog at it, watching it tangle around the scaled green throat. She darted back and around, keeping just ahead of the mermaid's claws as it thrashed and strangled and died. She nearly ran into a sailor, heard the impact of the mermaid's tail against others, but this one died more quietly than the other had.
Still, the singing went on.
Nima wrapped her arms around herself and stared at the dead mermaid. The singing went on and on, lovely and sweet, and she had no idea what to do. How could she silence the song and free the sailors? She could sing beautifully, but not so beautifully as that. All she could do was challenge them.
Well. She pressed her lips together. Challenge them she would. Let them know what they faced.
She squared her shoulders and took a breath and sang the opening chords of the desolate song that had come to her four years ago. Instrumental music sounded so strange against the singing, but then Nima sang the opening verse. "You'd never know when Marrow was a glowing place, beautiful before her tarnished heart lost its way, so long, so long..."
It was a long song, a complicated one, instruments and many voices woven together in tragedy and desolation. It was beautiful, because who could forget the beauty of the golden city? It was terrible, because who could forget the terror of its hunger?
The singing of the mermaids faded to silence under the weight of the song.
Sailors stirred on deck, and Nima sang her song to the very end.
Then she fled for the safest place she could think of.
Several hours after- whatever had happened, Jee finally got a chance to get some sleep. Except his bunk was already occupied.
"Hey," he said tiredly as he settled on the edge of the bunk next to Nima. He gently tugged the blankets away from her. "Poor thing. Must have been scary as hell for you."
She nodded and huddled closer to the wall, tugging the blankets back to cover herself with.
He wrapped an arm around her shoulder. "It's all right. They're dead now. Cook's delighted to have so much fresh fish."
Nima gave him a disturbed look but curled close to him, her cheek resting against his shoulder. He reached up and stroked her hair until he drifted off sitting upright.
Author's Notes: The songs Nima sings are Siren Song by Vixy and Tony, The Devil and the Farmer's Wife as performed by Heather Alexander, and City of Marrow by S.J. Tucker. I heartily recommend all of these artists; they're just wonderful musicians. Absolutely enchanting.