• 'What on Earth am I doing?'

      The heat was sweltering, the stifling air not yet washed away by the coming rains. General Ulan could feel the sweat drip down the nape of his neck and it irritated him. It wasn't the fact that the oppressing sun turned his armor into a sauna that soaked his skin, though that was certainly annoying and uncomfortable. It was the concern that swept through his usually stoic and stern self for the small bundle in his arms. It clutched tightly to his firm armor, small, rasping breaths coming from its little mouth. General Ulan held it close, meeting the wandering eyes of his troops when they dared cast a disgusted glare at his fragile cargo. A whimper came from the lightly-covered bundle and immediately, the man looked down at it.

      He was more than shocked to see two wide blue eyes peeping up at him from a brown little face. The two stared at one another for a short period of time, both filled with a mix of curiosity and cautious apprehension. General Ulan found, while studying the child, that its ocean-blue eyes reminded him just a tad bit of his own children when they had been about this age. Whatever age that was.

      'What on Earth am I doing?'

      The thought rang through his head again, a serious question that had to be considered. Taking home a child from a village he and his men had conquered? Who had ever heard of such an absurd thing? One thing that was always beaten into the Imperial Fire Nation Army was to be merciless and thorough when going into battle. General Ulan knew this and he had done what he had always done when he had gone through what he was instructed. But, this time... This time, he couldn't strike down the little child in its bed, no matter the fact that its father had been the village's chief. Panic had seized his heart just as he was sure it had seized the terrified child's. The majority of the village had been decimated by the flames of his army and he could vividly see the scene that had played out as if in some book his wife read, with himself standing over the child that lay asleep in the ashes of its home, clutching the stuffed penguin that it still hadn't released from a tight grip.

      For the first time, General Ulan found himself pondering another question. Was this child male or female? Its hair fell to about chin-length, but the child was young enough to have that stand for either sex. The lithe form was still covered in baby fat and, while he wasn't sure if the child was yet toilet trained, he was most definitely not going to have anything to do with its undergarments. His wife would just have to take care of that.

      Another whimper came from the little thing and the man wondered just what was the problem. Surely the child was old enough to voice whatever happened to be its displeasure? Apparently not. He didn't know what to do; his wife was the one that had done most of the child raising. He'd participated as the disciplinarian, but now his children were old enough to behave without much input from him.

      Slowly, General Ulan pulled back the blanket that the child was wrapped in, looking over it to see what the source of its problem was. He noticed that it was a little on the thin side and noted that he'd have to have his wife feed it a good meal when they arrived at his estate. The pale brown skin stood out against his lighter complexion and he stared at the difference for a short period before continuing his observation. He saw the little fingers clinging to the penguin toy and realized that the child wore nearly nothing. Just a fur-lined undergarment and a shift of some sort. Despite that, the child was obviously sweating all the liquid from its body. Perhaps that was the issue?

      About two hundred meters ahead, the general spotted an area of grass, surrounded by the cover of trees except for the side facing the path they traveled on. He let out a high-pitched whistle and then pointed to the area, indicating to his men that they would rest there. There were a few sighs of relief from behind him and the man couldn't help but feel the same way. The horse he rode on needed a rest, as did he. Reaching the clearing, he looked about with a judging glance and then nodded, deeming the area safe and acceptable for dismount.

      General Ulan slipped from the back of his horse, the steps provided by a foot-soldier making it simple to make his way to the ground without jostling the package he carried. He could feel the eyes on his back, studying him, but he didn't heed them any attention at all as he headed towards the sound of a brook nearby. Nature was helping him with keeping the child calm, he thought quietly. No storms had brewed in the days since he'd obtained this delicate cargo, no hardship had been experienced on the trail towards home. The soil became soft and fertile as Ulan approached the brook's bank and he was glad. Covered by the foliage around him, he pulled his feet free of the confining boots he wore. Nobody but this mute child would see him.

      The man made sure he was alone before he knelt beside the water, finally unwrapping his arms from around the little Water Nation child, setting him or her down before him. The child stood on shaky legs, looking at the water with recognition and longing. Ulan was surprised to see any other emotion than fear or tiredness on the child's face and he found himself feeling just a bit relieved at the fact that it didn't appear to be in shock any longer. Now to get to the task at hand.

      "Child," he began in a firm voice, the voice he'd always taken with his children when they were about this age. The little boy or girl flinched, large blue eyes looking shyly up at him. General Ulan was surprised at the reaction and swallowed, adjusting his approach slightly.

      "Child," he started again, his tone gentler and a good deal softer. "I am going to give you a washing. You need to cool down." The child didn't answer him, merely continued her wide-eyed stare and the man sighed a little. "Well, alright then."

      Kneeling down before the child, he slipped the somewhat oily shift over its head and reached for the penguin toy it held. With a shriek of indignation, the child yanked it away from his grasp, backing away a good three feet. Shock spread over the general's face, but he quickly regained his composure.

      "Now, look here. You cannot bathe with that... toy in your hand, now can you? Hand it to me; I will not misplace it." Despite his words, the Water Nation child refused to comply, frowning deeply. The two had a small face off before the man relented. "Fine," he scoffed. "Let it get wet."

      He lifted the child by the armpits, not bothering to remove its undergarment, and plopped it into the brook before him, where the water came up to his or her knees. The child's eyes widened once more and Ulan was surprised once more to see a minuscule smile slip across its face as the cool water flowed past.

      'Good,' he thought. He stayed relatively dry as he took the drinking flask from his side and opened it. This brook was fresh water, so he could risk the water inside. He poured the cool contents of his flask over the child's head, watching as it squeezed its eyes closed and licked at the liquid that trailed in rivulets down its little browned face. Ulan did this repeatedly until the child settled itself with playing in the water with the surprisingly water-resistant penguin. The man watched for a bit and then glanced back towards where he could hear his men conversing a ways away.

      'About time to get back on the road,' he realized and then went back to the task at him. He removed his hand towel from his pack on the back of his horse and motioned for the child to come to him. It hesitated before getting to its feet from the brook. General Ulan turned to tend to his horse, brushing the animal down and combing his fingers through its mane. Behind him, there was a sudden wet plop.

      Confused, the young man turned and his golden eyes widened. Before him stood the little child, the fur-lined diaper floating down the brook at a good speed. Ulan found himself with an urge to press his palm against his forehead in frustration. With a heavy sigh, he advanced towards the child.

      "Well, at least I now know that you are a little girl," he murmured, watching as the soggy lump of a diaper floated out of sight. Now what would he use to diaper this child? The man glanced around, eyes settling on his pack of clothing on the pack of his horse. He rifled through it for a short bit and pulled out a vest that he hoped would fit the child and a scarf. Nodding determinedly, General Ulan went back to the little girl, drying off the rest of her before he pulled the vest over her head and buttoned it up. He tied the scarf securely about her chubby waist and then stood back to admire his handiwork. The little girl, name still unknown, looked owlishly up at him, confused, before fingering her new tunic with interest.

      "There. That ought to last another three hours," he said to himself, a bit proud of his quick-thinking. The two of them would arrive at his home within two to three more hours, where the real task remained undone: telling Eila, his wife, about all this.

      (c) Anzu W.