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deep in the mountains, under empty skies

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Sokka had been wanting to take a turn at flying for a while, and Aang had no problem handing the reins over to him for the short flight back down the mountain. Aang settled himself at the back of Appa’s saddle, leaning against the packs of supplies as he watched the Southern Air Temple grow smaller and smaller behind them. It was so...quiet, and not in a good way. It wasn’t peaceful, it was lifeless. There should be gliders and bison and lemurs flitting around the towers and the surrounding cliffs, but instead it was just empty. Aang had never seen the sky around an air temple so empty.

He tried to imagine the other temples like that. His people were gone, nothing left behind but ruins filled with bones. They were gone, and he was all alone.

He let the grief fill him for a moment, let himself experience the emotion, and then breathed out - a simple exercise that Monk Gyatso had guided him through whenever he got upset, ever since he was a little kid. He was going to be doing it a lot now, he thought.

He hadn’t wanted to spend the night at the temple. Katara and Sokka had understood completely, hadn’t bothered asking if he was sure or pointing out that it’d be more practical. They’d just packed up Appa and made plans to find somewhere else to camp for the night. Aang’s people might be gone, but he wasn’t alone. Katara and Sokka had claimed him as family. Everyone knew if a Water Tribesperson adopted you, they meant it. He had them to help him through this strange new world he wasn’t sure he liked very much, and he still had Appa, and now he had Momo, too.

“Surrender to what is,” Monk Gyatso had told him once. “Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be.”

The Southern Air Temple faded away behind dusk’s purple clouds, but Aang kept staring at the spot where it’d disappeared until that disappeared behind a mountain, too.

There was a bit of yelping from Sokka as they approached the valley floor, but Appa was generous with new riders and knew how to make a landing gentle. Aang looked around as the bison settled on the ground - they were in a forest clearing split by a stream, the mountains towering high above them, dark shadows against the purple sky. The first stars were twinkling into view.

Aang went through the familiar motions of unpacking, tossing sleeping bags down to Katara and getting the saddle off of Appa. It was amazing that his bison didn’t have a century’s worth of saddle sores, but no more amazing than the fact that Aang didn’t look his age, he supposed.

Appa meandered off to chow down on some grass. Sokka started working on a campfire, and Katara took a jar towards the stream to get drinking water. Aang watched her lift wavering balls of water and carefully, clumsily drop them into the jar, her brow furrowed in concentration. At her age, she shouldn’t be so unsure of her own bending - but Katara had said she was the only Waterbender left in the South Pole. After seeing his old home, Aang was starting to understand the implications.

Sokka got the fire going and Katara brought the water over, and they mutually agreed not to bother with cooking now that night had fallen, so dinner was the leftover dried berries and seaweed and moss from what Gran-Gran had packed for them.

“No meat,” Sokka sighed. Momo chittered, and Sokka scowled. “You know, just because I’ve promised not to eat you, it doesn’t mean you have to rub it in!”

“I think I saw some fish in the stream,” Katara said, handing her brother a bowl of berries. “You could catch some for breakfast tomorrow.”

Sokka immediately brightened. “Fish breakfast it is! No, Momo, these are mine,” he added, lifting his bowl away from the lemur. “Go get your own food!”

“We need to stock up on supplies soon, though,” Katara said. “Aang, is there anywhere we can get more food nearby?”

Aang nibbled thoughtfully on some moss. “Probably not anymore,” he said. “The only people who lived in these mountains were Airbenders.”

Katara nodded. “Alright. So we’ll keep foraging until we find a village. We’ll hit one eventually if we just keep heading north, right?”

“Yeah,” Aang said, thinking. “Be right back.” He put down his food and walked over to the bison saddle he’d placed at the edge of their camp. They’d only gotten out the essentials for tonight; there were still a lot of things packed away.

Behind him, he heard Sokka yelp. “Momo, where did you get that fruit?! Hey! Share!” Katara was laughing.

Aang rummaged through his bags. His one-hundred-year-old bags, filled with one-hundred-year-old things. When he finally found what he was looking for, he paused, considering it. How many of these were even left in the world? Was there anyone besides him who’d know how to read it?

Breathe in. Feel. Breathe out. Let go.

“Whoa!” Sokka shouted. “There’s more fruit here!”

Aang looked up to see Sokka inspecting the trees at the edge of the clearing, plucking peaches from the branches. Momo helped him snatch the ones that were harder to reach. They weren’t very good-looking peaches - uncared-for, a little on the small side, but Sokka didn’t exactly have a lot to compare them to.

“There’s so many!” Sokka said, bringing an armload of peaches back to the fire. “Here, Katara, try this, it’s amazing. Man, foraging for food out here’s gonna be easy. Do these things really just grow wild?”

“We have a lot of fruit orchards all over these mountains,” Aang said, floating out of the saddle and down to the fireside. He paused, thinking, then sighed. “Well, we had a lot of fruit orchards.” Past tense. That was going to take some getting used to. “I guess they’re all fruit forests, now.”

Katara gave him a comforting smile. Sokka offered him a peach.

“Thanks,” Aang said, biting into it. Moss was okay, but this was way better, even if it was a little on the tart side. It was familiar. Comforting. In this strange new world, Aang would take whatever familiar he could get.

“So do we have a plan for tomorrow?” Sokka asked.

“Not sure,” Aang admitted around a mouthful of peach.

“Good to know our travel guide has no idea what we’re doing next.”

“Oh, hush,” Katara said, nudging Sokka’s shoulder. “Aang knows what he’s doing! He has the whole trip planned out! Didn’t you say something about hopping llamas?”

Aang frowned. “Yeah,” he said. “But...I think I’m gonna change those plans.”

“Oh,” Katara said. “Well...any idea how long it’ll take for us to get to the North Pole, at least?”

It wasn’t the first time she’d asked him that. It was the first time Aang realized why she was so eager to know. He’d kept telling her it wouldn’t be too long, but he hadn’t bothered with an exact time frame yet. Destinations were all well and good, but all Air Nomads knew it was the actual journey that was the most important. They’d have plenty of time to go off and have fun on the way north, and...well, Aang didn’t exactly have friends all over the world anymore he supposed, but he still knew where all the best places to ride wild animals were and…

And he really hadn’t understood the urgency of the situation.

He was starting to understand, now.

“Let me think,” he said. He put the peach to the side and wiped his hand on his pants before opening the parchment he still held. He was going to have to take better care of this one than he had any of the others in the past - no dropping it in a lake while playing sky bison polo, no getting it trampled while attempting to ride the hopping llamas, no getting it set on fire while running from dragons, no letting it get blown over the side of the saddle and Monk Gyatso diving after it…

Breathe in. Feel. Breathe out. Let go.

“What’s that, Aang?” Katara asked, leaning over Sokka for a better look.

“It’s a map.”

“Doesn’t look like any map I’ve ever seen,” Sokka said. “Sure, that’s the world, but what’re all the arrows for?”

“It’s an Air Nomad map,” Aang said. “Those are the winds.”

Katara and Sokka blinked.

“It’s like currents,” Aang added, because that analogy always seemed to help confused Water Tribe folk who’d never heard of windstreams.

It helped. Sokka and Katara’s eyes lit up immediately. “So we travel with the wind current, and we go faster,” Katara surmised.

“Yep! So we’re here,” Aang said, pointing at the Southern Air Temple. “If we go east, we’ll eventually hit a windstream that can take us north. For a little while at least. There aren’t any windstreams that go straight north from here, so we’ll have to make a few switchovers.” He frowned at the map. “And I’m really hoping the wind patterns haven’t changed much in a hundred years.” They shouldn’t have, but you also shouldn’t be able to survive a hundred years in an iceberg. The world was full of surprises.

“So we’ll have to zig-zag our way across the globe,” Sokka said, studying the map.

“Pretty much,” Aang shrugged. “But I’m an Air Nomad! I got this.” He gave them a reassuring grin.

“We’ll trust you to figure out the way, Aang,” Katara smiled back.

Aang looked back down at the map and thought it over. It was a long journey, even for an Air Nomad. Aang had gone on long trips before, but this wasn’t a sojourn through another nation or a pilgrimage to another temple or a bison migration. He didn’t think he’d ever been on a trip where time felt so...important. His travel plans were going to have to get creative, and not in the animal-riding way.

“If we do this right, we could be at the North Pole in…” He traced a path northwest up the coast of the Earth Kingdom, then northeast, then north. He thought it over. “Two months?”

“That’s it?” Sokka yelped.

Aang laughed. “We don’t have to worry about which way the water flows or walking around mountains. You save a lot of time when you just have to fly in a straight line with a good strong wind at your back!”

“That’s…” Katara looked dumbfounded, but then her eyes hardened. It was a determined look. Aang liked it. “Two months,” she said.

“Two more months and we’ll have you a waterbending master,” Aang promised, and Katara gave him a sharp grin.

He looked back down at the map. Two months. It wasn’t a normal trip - the destination was important, they had to keep to a timeframe, and they wouldn’t have time for much exploring or adventure. He was definitely going to have to cut out the hopping llamas, but...maybe he could manage the elephant koi.