Chapter 1: Home is where the heart is
Sokka makes plans to help his Tribe become strong again, and to bring down the Fire Nation.
Hakoda is confused, Katara is angry but fond and only getting stronger.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Hakoda doesn't want to leave. But they have to do something to stop this war, and they can't do anything but slowly die if they stay here.
It's a gambit, a dangerous gambit but if the spirits are with them, it will save their tribe.
A small hand grabs the map of the Earth Kingdom coast he was looking at.
"Sokka?", he says, "What are you doing still up? It's long past your bedtime."
"What are you doing?" his son asks.
"What am I doing?", he echos. Sokka sounds different.
"I mean", he says, "What are you going to do? What's your plan? You're leaving, and I want to know why." He sounds so hurt, so young, and yet.
Hakoda blinks away the wetness gathering in his eyes.
"That's... fair, I suppose. You'll have to take on more responsibility after we leave. Both of you will."
Sokka nods, holding his eyes with a serious expression.
"We'll go scout, at first. Then, we'll do our best to disrupt Fire Nation supply lines, destroy their fleet one by one." He expects Sokka to be excited, to demand to go with him on this glorious adventure - it's not, but he's a child. Saying he's surprised when Sokka drops the map and starts shouting is an understatement.
"That's all?" Sokka screams, "That's what you're leaving us for? We're gonna struggle and freeze and starve here, and that's all you're doing?"
Hakoda isn't sure how to breathe anymore.
"What do you mean, 'that's all'? That's a lot! You don't understand -"
"What good does that do?" Sokka continues as if he hadn't said anything. "That's not gonna hurt the Fire Nation much, that's gonna hurt us worse then them!"
"So what do you suggest? Should we just stay and do nothing?"
He shouldn't get angry at Sokka. He's just a child, he doesn't want his father to leave. He doesn't know any better.
"That would be better than your plan!"
"That's enough, Sokka! I think you should go -"
"Shouldn't you know more about warfare?"
"You can't bring down the Fire Nation alone! That's like going after a polar bear dog alone! While your tribe needs you there!"
Hakoda is outright speechless. Is Sokka criticizing their plan? He thought he just wanted them to stay.
"So what would you suggest?" he asks quietly.
Sokka's eyes flash with quiet triumph.
"I'd focus on building a network before I started attacking. Go to the un-colonized Earth Kingdom cities, try to trade with them first. Bring the trade back here. After there's mutual trust, start making regular trade lines from there to here. Build us up, to have a secure basis before starting to go on the offensive."
"Find secure havens and locations in the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. Build infrastructure, recruit people also fighting against the Fire Nation, recruit people who have reasons to want to help. Spies, healers, fighters. Try to help refugees, maybe, if you can afford to. Encourage traitors in the Fire Nation. Recruit them. They can't all want this war, look for the old, the disabled, the parents, the children. People that got hurt by the war. Convience them that you're working towards ending the war, and that helping you will help them, will bring their children back home. Everyone wants that."
Hakoda is frozen, mind swirling with the possibilities Sokka is painting. Working and trading with the Earth Kingdom? He didn't consider that. They are Water Tribe, they don't fight like that. They have everything they need within the tribe. But Sokka doesn't seem to care. He acts like they are all one tribe, estranged, but still - family.
"You want us to work with the Fire Nation?"
"No, I want you to work with the people of the Fire Nation. They're not like us, dad, they don't have a say when it comes to the decisions their rulers are making. They can't go up to the Fire Lord and say what they're thinking, like others can do with you here. The Fire Lord doesn't listen to his people, so he can't speak for all of them."
That's - That's - How does Sokka know that?
"And, also", Sokka continues, "You should try to get in contact with the Foggy Swamp."
"The Foggy Swamp!" Sokka says, picking up the map and pointing to a big forest in the middle of the Earth Kingdom.
"There. Somewhere", he ammends as Hakoda looks at him, "What? There's legends about them! They're Water Tribe."
Hakoda knows his staring has to be unconfortable by now. He can't get himself to stop, though. The Foggy Swamp?
Sokka blushes. "Anyways", he clears his throath, "you should also try to get back into contact with the Northern Water Tribe. They might not want to help with the war, but try to convience them to start trading with us again."
Hakoda suddenly feels like he missed his son growing up, even though he's been with him this whole time.
"Thank you", he says, feeling his voice give out halfway through.
"Thank you, Sokka", he tries again, "These are valuable suggestions. I'll discuss them with the others tomorrow, so what do you say the two of us go to sleep now?"
Sokka nods, and smiles, sadly, as if he knew what Hakoda was thinking.
She watches her father and the other men get on the last big Water Tribe ship they have and it makes her heart hurt. She's not gonna cry though. Her family needs her now.
Sokka's been quiet. She expected him to be rash, to demand being taken with them, to boldly proclaim to be the new ruler now. Instead he hugged their dad, then stepped back. He's clinging to her hand now, as they watch the ship disappear between the ice.
"We should go back", Sokka speaks up as the ship glides out of sight, tugging on her hand.
"C'mon", he says insistently as she doesn't move, "there's work to be done."
She follows him, silently begging the spirits for the strenght to deal with whatever plan Sokka has come up with now.
"I've been making plans ever since Dad said they were leaving, because it's gonna be difficult without him and the other men. I asked him to leave someone behind, but he said he needs all of them, especially for this first trip, so we're gonna have to deal.
I talked with Gran-Gran about it too, obviously -"
Katara trips, because since when does Sokka ask Gran-Gran for permission or advice or anything?
"and she agreed. With the men gone we still need to be able to feed and defend ourselves, so the women - and I and you - need to take over hunting, that's the most important thing. I know some things about that, but Gran-Gran knows more, even though she's never been on a hunt. She'll start teaching how to do it later in the evening, which is great, but -"
"Sokka, what are you talking about?"
"Huh?", he says, like this is anything like his regular behaviour, "What do you mean?"
"What do I - Sokka, what do you mean? You've laughed about the idea of how stupid it would be to let women go on a hunt!"
"Well", he fumbles, "That was just - I meant, I mean - It's -"
That's more like the brother she knows. He'll start claiming some outragous thing and she'll yell at him and everything will be normal -
"I'm sorry", Sokka says, "That was stupid of me and I'm sorry."
Katara gapes, stares with her mouth wide open and can't get a single word out.
"I - uhh, talked with Dad?", Sokka says, "And, I realized that he was really leaving, and that he wasn't gonna be here anymore to do the men's job - and", he looks around as if he's ashamed of himself, "I guess I realized that we couldn't afford to half our working force anymore and that it doesn't make sense to keep someone from being a warrior or a hunter just because they're a girl."
"Sokka!" Katara says, jumping up to him and hugging him. She can't believe it! Her brother grew up a little!
"Katara, get off me!" he screams, flailing.
They tumble into the snow.
Gran-Gran shakes her head at them when they return, but she smiles.
Sokka behaved himself really well during Gran-Gran's demonstration. They won't be able to rely on the hunts, so they'll need to eat more fish from now on, but a bit of meat is better than none and they can afford to spend more energy on training because they need to feed fewer mouths.
Sokka had some good tips, actually, and some good ideas about traps and different weapons and formations.
She was surprised, and she thought that was the end of it, but -
She comes home the next day, to find Sokka sitting next to Gran-Gran, trying to sew up a hole in his pants.
"Hello, Katara", Gran-Gran says as Sokka sticks the tip of his tounge out of his mouth in concentration, "Sokka wanted to learn how to do a woman's job, now that we're all learning how to do the men's work."
Sokka blushes, but keeps working. Katara pinches herself. That can't be happening. Is she dreaming? No, it hurts. This is happening. How?
And Sokka doesn't stop there. As they're eating the meal he and Gran-Gran cooked, he points at Katara.
"I have a job for you!"
She raises an eyebrow. "Do you?"
"Yes!", he says, whole face lighting up as he thinks of his plan, "We need you to do your water magic!"
"It's not magic, it's bending", she snaps before processing his words fully, "Wait, you want me to bend?"
"Yeah", he mumbles around the sea prune in his mouth, "You have to practice more, obviously, but you can bend the snow and ice to make us better houses and walls, and towers."
She gapes. She has been doing that too much, lately.
"If you can manage enough control, you can pull the salt from the water, too - that would be really helpful if Dad manages to secure us those trade deals. Salt is valuable."
"And how am I suppose to learn that?", she says, softer than she would before Sokka changed like that, "There's no one here to teach me."
"I'm not the one with the weird water magic", he says flippently, "Just go stare at the moon or something. You'll figure it out."
'Go stare at the moon', Katara mouths, looking incrediously at Gran-Gran, who shrugs.
"It's how the first waterbenders learnt", she says, "by watching the ocean and the moon interact. Maybe you will too."
Taking Sokka's advice grates, but - it's not like she has made progress on her own, and what does she have to lose except her time?
She goes and stares at the moon.
It's not a magical solution. It's easier to manipulate the water with it, but she doesn't feel like she's learning anything.
"How's it going?" Sokka asks from behind her, munching on some seal jerky.
"Horrible! I don't get it!", she snaps, turning away from the ocean. "I don't understand what I'm supposed to learn from the moon!" She makes an aborted gesture that sends a wave crashing to the shore. She winces.
"Looks good to me!" Sokka says cheerfully.
When she stares angrily at him, he smiles ruefully and says, "Hey, I don't understand all that stupid magic amymore than you. Less than you, probably! But it's the moon making waves, right? Why don't you try doing that? Pretend you're the moon and just - push and pull the ocean for a while."
She hates him for how helpful his advice is lately. It's like he's suddenly grown up when she wasn't looking. She's grateful and it does help, but she hates him for it.
He often comes out with her, when she's training. He doesn't really talk all that much, just spends time cleaning the weapons the men left, or sewing, or preparing food for preservation.
Sometimes he draws in the snow for hours, symbols and places she can never recognize because he hides them when anyone comes near.
When she is especially frustrated he calls her over, to train with one weapon or another, to decompress.
They have all started training each other to fight, in whatever way they can. Sokka is very good with the boomerang and decent with the club. He's turning out to be a decent teacher too. Not as good as Dad or Bato, but decent.
He learned to be a decent student too, somehow. He listens when someone corrects him, even when it's her.
Fighting, Katara has realized, is fun. She's good at it, good at knowing where her opponent is gonna be, how to trip them up, how to hit where it hurts.
'The flow of the fight', Sokka calls it. He said the same thing could help with waterbending. She should look at where the water wants to be - and she really hates how good his advice has gotten.
She is improving by leaps and bounds, these days.
They go fishing together often. Sokka has her try to "feel" where the fishes are. It takes her a week, before she can feel anything. A month, before she can reliably point them out.
When she has perfected that technique, he asks her to search for algae. That's frustrating and hard, but she makes it work.
Then he asks her to look for the salt in the water and she wants to murder him. It's the worst thing she ever tried to do. How are you supposed to feel salt in water? It's horrible. Horrible!
Seeing Katara chase after Sokka with a club, hellbent on revenge is a common occurence these days.
But, she can't do it. No matter how hard she tries. She can't manage it.
"Of course you can!" Sokka says, "You're the best waterbender in the w- whole south pole! If you can't do it, no one can!"
"I'm the only waterbender in the South Pole! So maybe no one can do it, then!"
Sokka looks at her in a serious way, nods once and disappears for a few hours. When he comes back, he tells her, begs her, to try once more.
She hesitates, but she does and - it works. She can feel the salt and she pulls the water away from it, until she has a globe of fresh water hovering infront of her and a small pile of pure white salt on the ground.
As she runs back to her house, the moon shines bright over her head.
They have a celebration over it. Salt is valuable and needed, and now they have nearly unlimited access.
Gran-Gran tells stories about the old days, before the raids, when their waterbenders would bring them riches through their salt.
Katara nearly glows with pride.
When she realizes how tedious salt making truly is, she almost wishes she hadn't managed it. She spends her days at the coast, slowly raising her arms and pulling the water away from the salt until ger back hurts, then keeps going until her head hurts too.
Sokka smiles apologetically. He goes out fishing every day, now that they have enough salt to preserve the fishes. She can't do this every day.
When she tells Gran-Gran so, the woman apologizes and she reduces her production to a few hours a day. She's getting better at it every day, so she also makes more salt every day.
Sokka and her have just started building better protections for their village, that he designed and she bends into existence, when a ship draws near.
A year has passed without her even realizing, and her father has returned.
"Dad!", she shouts, hears Sokka echo it as they run towards him.
"Katara! Sokka!" he says, hugging them. "Look at how much you two grew!
"You're back!" Sokka says, tears in his eyes. "I missed you!"
"I missed you too, both of you", Dad says and grins, "Did I miss anything?"
"You bet you did!" Sokka pipes up, "Katara made salt! And we're building a wall!" He waves to indicate the half finished construct behind them.
Bato whistles as he hops out of the ship. "Impressive. Did you build that with waterbending?"
"Yes!", she says, then shoves Sokka, "but he planned it. He and Gran-Gran came up with tons of traps and defenses we can build with waterbending."
"How did it go?", Sokka asks, "Did everything go fine?Do we have trading partners now? We have more things we can trade now!"
He's hanging off Dad's arm, while Katara clings to his other hand.
"Did the Fire Nation cause you trouble?" she asks, quiet against Sokka's joy.
Dad shakes his head. "We barely went into Fire Nation territories. The furthest we got was some colonies, and they didn't object to our wares. And yes, Sokka, we did get some trading partners. We even managed to make contact with Earth Kingdom fighters. It went very well, all in all. We didn't find your 'Foggy Swamp', though."
He turns to watch his warriors reunite with the rest of the tribe. Some of them are greeting their children for the first time.
"Sokka, I should thank you", Dad says quietly, "If we had gone through with the original plan, we wouldn't have been able to return for a long time."
"It's fine", comes Sokka's muffled voice from where he's burried his head in Dad's side, "I just want what's best for us."
"That just makes it more important that I thank you", Dad says.
"We returned in time for the hunting season", Dad explains later, while the others are sorting through the new wares the warriors brought back.
"We thought we'd go on a few hunts, pack what new wares we have and then go back to sea in one or two months. I suppose we have to take you on your first hunt too, now, Sokka!"
"Great!" Sokka says smiling wildly, "But you also have to take some of the others on hunts, too."
"The others?" Dad says, "I wasn't planning on going alone with you."
"No", Sokka shakes his head, "you have to take the women. Katara too, she's our only waterbender, she could make the hunts way easier!"
"Sokka, women don't go on hunts", Dad argues.
"We will have to", Katara says, "You're leaving again and we need to feed ourselves."
"We already started training for it as much as we're able to", Sokka backs her up, "You're here now, but if something happens - if - if you - if you're stuck in the Earth Kingdom for more than one year, we need to be autonomous. If we can't hunt for multiple years, we won't have enough food, especially if traders start coming here."
Both of them glare at him, Katara full of indigniant anger, Sokka full of determination.
"They're right, Hakoda", Gran-Gran says, "With you gone, we need to pull the men's weight and while Sokka tries, he can't replace you all."
"Alright", Dad says, sounding tired. "I'll talk to the others, and we'll make some plans."
Hey! This is my first fic, please be nice! I hope you'll like it. Tags will update to reflect changes in the coming chapters.
Chapter 2: I let you push me past the breaking point
"Oh, Prince Zuko, look, there's a letter for you, from the palace!"
Zuko inhales sharply. "Father! He replied, finally!"
He rips the letter out of Uncle's hand, tearing it open straight away. Finally, finally, finally.
He wrote so many letters to his father, and none of them ever got any response - but his father's busy, he's the Fire Lord, and he wants Zuko to prove himself, so of course he wouldn't give him help.
But he's replied, finally! He can't wait to hear from him! His eyes devour the first line of the letter, hungrily -
"Hey, Zuzu!", it reads in big slanted characters. Something in him crumbles. He reads on while his heart falls.
"Azula and I stole your last letter from the Fire Lord, before he could burn it (she says I shouldn't write 'stole', but that's what we did).
Sorry for hurting your privatsphere like that! Well, I am, Azula says she's not.
She's helping me write this letter! Sorry, ignore that, she says it's not true!
Anyways, we can't change the allowance you get, but we included some valuable jewelry you can sell! That should be enough for those repairs you mentioned!
You can write to us directly, when you need help, by the way, I don't think the Fire Lord reads your letters.
I think it's sweet that you're still trying, though! Azula just called you pathetic for it, but I'm sure somewhere deep down she"
The rest of the letter is burned off.
"So, Prince Zuko, what did your father write?"
"Nothing!", he snaps, setting the paper on fire and stalking away.
His father burns his letters? That can't be true, that has to be one of Azula's lies. He wouldn't - His father cares about him! He wants what's best for his son and heir, that's all! This - This is just one of Azula's lies!
Because Azula always lies!
"Prince Zuko! You forgot your new necklace! And earrings? Do you have a sweetheart you didn't tell me about?"
"Uncle, no!", he yells, mortified.
It's not long after Dad leaves again that Sokka starts getting antsy.
She doesn't understand why, but he complains about not getting anywhere. She feels like she's getting somewhere. Her bending progresses everyday, she's started fishing and hunting with it.
She even learned how to quickly dry the herbs her father brought them by pulling just the right amount of water out of them! She builds the village to be better every day.
But Sokka wants something else, something bigger.
He asks Gran-Gran if he can take a canoe to Kyoshi Island exactly two months after Dad's left again.
"They're great warriors! They can teach us to fight better! And they're close to use, so trading with them just makes sense!"
"Why didn't you tell your father to visit them, then?"
"I - Well, because - you know - umm... They're neutral in the war? So they wouldn't really want to talk to warriors?"
"If they're neutral, why would they help us?"
"I can convince them! I know I can!"
"You know that, huh?" Sokka freezes with his mouth half open and his eyes wide. "Uhhh -"
"I suppose you have to go there then", Gran-Gran smiles.
"Thank you!" Sokka says.
"I'm coming with you", Katara says, "Who knows what kind of problems you would cause if you went alone." She turns her nose up with a contempt she doesn't really feel.
Sokka laughs. "Yeah, of course! I need you to do the talking, anyways!"
"This is ridiculous", Katara murmers as she moves the water to propel them forward, "How am I supposed to negotiate with people like that? It's never gonna work."
"Of course it's gonna work!" Sokka says, lounging like he doesn't have a care in the world. "You're gonna do great, I promise."
He hums happily and dips his hand in the water. His eyes slide shut for a moment and he smiles.
"You can't promise that", she says, "What if I offend them?"
"You worry to much! Just wing it and - Hey!"
"Upps", she says unapologetically as Sokka sputters and rings the water she splashed him with out of his hair.
As they approach the island, Sokka gets on his knees and pulls their white flag - an old cloth really - out of his pack. He stands up and starts waving it.
Katara stops the boat before the water gets shallow enough to stand. And then they wait, while her heart beats in her throat.
She had suggested they go on shore to wait for the welcome committee, but Sokka had shuddered and said that the warriors treat the whole island like their village, and just barging in would end in tears. Your tears, Katara had said and Sokka had coughed.
When she asked him how he knew that, he hit himself in the face with his fishing hook. She knows he did that on purpose, but he denies it. She's gonna get her answers one day!
The sun starts setting, and Katara is just about ready to turn back home. They waited for so long, and nothing's happened. Maybe Sokka just invented the warriors, after all.
She opens her mouth to tell Sokka that she's had enough, when suddenly the bushes rustle and the warriors of Kyoshi take position on the beach.
A lone figure slowly walks towards them. "What is your business on Kyoshi Island?"
Katara swallows, looks around nervously, then raises her chin and meets the woman's eyes.
"I am Katara, daughter of Chief Hakoda of the Southern Watertribe." Her voice rings out over the beach. "Our people used to trade frequently. My brother and I have come to offer you a renewal of our old agreements."
For a horrible moment, the woman doesn't react, just looks her up and down, Katara tenses, reaches for the ocean, to defend them against an attack - then the woman nods curtly and the warriors drop out of their fighting stances.
"Follow me then, so we can talk."
The woman's name is Jaya and she is the leader of the warriors of Kyoshi.
She appoints a girl their age to give Sokka a tour and show him where they can sleep during their stay. She wants to protest - she thought she'd have Sokka with her during the talks! - but Sokka gives her a thumps up and follows the girl easily.
"Hi! I'm Sokka, what's your name? I can't believe how green your island is!"
Katara closes her eyes for a moment before following Jaya into a big wodden house. She tries not to stare at everything, like Sokka does, but she's not sure she manages it. There is so much green here! They even build their houses with wood. Wood!
"Sit down, please", Jaya says, "Some tea?" "
Ah, yes, thank you", she replies, sitting down infront of the small table, opposite of Jaya.
One of the warriors brings a tablet with two cups of tea, setting one down infront of her, handing the other one to Jaya. They have different colours.
Katara tries to feel if there is poison or something like that in her tea. It feels... good? She's not skilled enough at this. But they don't have a reason to poison her, do they? It should be safe.
She takes a sip. It's hot.
"So, Katara of the Southern Watertribe, tell me why I should risk the lifes of my people by making an alliance with you."
Her head snaps up. "What?"
Jaya purses her lips. "I understand that you are young, but surely you cannot have missed the danger that associating with you would bring to us. Or is your father not sailing along the coast of the Earth Kingdom right now, inciting rebellion against the Fire Nation?"
Katara tightens her grip around her cup, letting the vibration in the water follow the rhythm of her heartbeat.
"So what if he is?", she says, trying to keep calm, "We just want to trade with you. That has nothing to do with rebellion."
Sokka had pulled a face when she talked about their father starting a rebellion. 'They don't own us yet', he'd said, 'so we're not rebelling, we're resisting.'
"The Fire Nation will not look kindly upon us doing even that with you."
"The Fire Nation does not look kindly upon your existence!" Katara snaps, forcing herself to stay seated.
"They have left us alone because we are neutral in this war. You want us to become involved, and therefore a target."
Neutral? How dare they?
"Neutral?" Katara's cup clatters on the ground, the hot water swirling up to form ribbons around her body.
"We were neutral, too! We were isolated, and we were neutral, because this war did not concern us!"
Jaya snaps open her fans. The doors slam open and warrior stream in. She doesn't care. How dare she imply they caused their own suffering!
"When they came for us, they took us by surprise! They choose to involve us in their war, we had no choice!"
She's yelling, and the water in the air around her flows towards her, mixing with the tea, spinning, dancing with her heartbeat.
"We were neutral, until they stood at our village and burned us down! We didn't come to help the Air Nomands, or the Earth Kingdom! It didn't concern us, and the Fire Nation didn't care!"
One of the younger warriors takes a step towards her, and Katara throws her against a wall and keeps her there.
"Calm down", Jaya says, "before we are forced to take action against you."
"Oh", she laughs, "Will you tell that to the Fire Nation too, when they come to kill your warriors and your children?"
Fast footsteps sound behind her, and she can hear some low thuds.
"Katara!", Sokka yells, bursting through the door and landing on the floor with two warriors on top of him.
"Do you think the Air Nomad's told the Fire Nation to back off too? Told them to calm down, before they had to 'take action'?"
"You will leave this island, and you won't return", Jaya grits out.
"I bet the they said that too! But sure", she turns around, throwing the warriors off Sokka with a wave of her hand and a hose of water, "we're leaving. Don't expect us to come running to help you if the Fire Nation decides they want you all dead too."
She pulls Sokka up, and walks away, water still swirling around her.
"That went well", Sokka murmers, rubbing at the already smeared make-up on his face.
"How dare they?!", Katara curses, "These arrogant, pretentious pricks!" She releases the water around her, leaving deep gourges in the trees surrounding them.
"What were you doing anyways?" she asks, looking at Sokka's naked legs, half painted face and what appears to be a Kyoshi Island undershirt.
"I was making friends with the girl, Suki! She said she'd wipe the floor with me, she's great!" He sighs. "I really thought this would go better."
"I told you so", she says, "I shouldn't have led the negotiations."
"No, I don't think it's your fault", Sokka argues, "Things might have gone worse had I tried to talk to them."
"How exactly could they have gone worse?"
"They could've... imprisoned us? Yeah, they could have done that."
She rolls her eyes. "Just get in the canoe, Sokka. And get dressed."
"Sure", Sokka says, climbing into the canoe and promptly falling on his ass as she jumps into it and propels them forward.
The way back takes them only half as long as the way there.
Gran-Gran pats her on the back and hugs Sokka. "Not everything can go your way", she says.
"It should",Sokka says, "things would be so much better."
"Ugh", she says. A world where Sokka is always right?
They go to sleep, exhausted by their journey.
She barely gets three hours of sleep when Sokka wakes her up by tripping over a pot.
"Sokka!" she hisses, "What are you doing, go back to sleep!"
He doesn't answer, doesn't even look at her, just keeps walking out of their house.
"Sokka, come on!" She untangles herself from her furs, cursing, and follows her idiot brother into the open.
"Sokka!" she calls after him, to no avail. She runs to catch up with him, grabbing his hand. Even that gets no reaction, he just keeps walking and pulls her along.
"What are you doing?", she snaps, "This isn't funny!"
She gets in front of him, planning to give him a piece of her mind, when she realizes that he hasn't opened his eyes.
"Are you sleep walking? Really? Wake up!" she yells.
Sokka just steps around her, continuing on his path, that leads him - directly to the sea. Spirits.
She follows him, determined to keep him from drowning over a bad dream.
He walks up to a canoe, picking up a rope and tying it to the boat, then around his waist.
"Sokka!" she yells again, dousing him water. Still, no reaction. He gives the canoe a soft push to get it moving, then jumps into the water.
"No!" she shouts, trying to feel him in the water, bending him out of there, but she can't grab him, he's moving as if propelled.
She curses, closes her eyes, prays - and slides over the water and into the canoe. Whatever's going on, she can't let Sokka go through it alone.
Chapter 3: I am so much more than royal
Zei stares at the letter, if you could even call it that, laying on his desk. He has been doing that for quite some time now.
It really is barely a letter, it's only a dirty piece of paper that's been folded and brought to him through a chain of servants.
There's not much written on it, and the characters are sloppy, unpracticed, and just throughouly weird: There's a slant to this letter that's characteristic of the language of the Water Tribes, but the other characters! Such variety! And the wording, too!
But the letters themselves aren't the most curious thing, hard as that is to believe: The message they form! As if the Spirits had heard his prayers and chosen to answer!
Who, he wonders, will this person be, who claims to know where the library of Wan Shi Tong is! Who wants to share this knowledge with him!
How could he ignore the proposed meeting with this mysterious person!
"Hello, Professor", a high voice greets him and he turns to look at a girl who cannot be older than fifteen.
"Hello", he says, surprised. Is she the one who wrote the letter?
"I see you got my message, then."
She is! How extraordinary! How curious!
"I have! But, forgive me, young lady, how do you know where library of Wan Shi Tong is?"
The girl smiles. "I have a friend who's been there. He told me where to find him. A lot of people travel through the lower ring."
"Truly, they do!" Zei laughs, "And you wish to share your knowledge with me?"
"For a price", the girl says, "But don't worry, it's nothing you can't afford."
"Of course", Zei nods, "I don't have that much money, though."
"Oh, I don't want money", the girl steps closer, raising her head, "My name is Jin. I was born in the lower ring. If nothing changes, I will never be more than a peasant."
Zei raises his eyebrows.
"I want you take me as an assistent. I can read, and write, I'll show you where Wan Shi Tong's library is and I'll help you make a good impression."
"I think you overestimate my level of influence", he says, "I am not always the favorite person of - you know who."
The girl nods. "I know, and it doesn't matter. I have my reasons for coming to you with this."
Jin has truly proven to be an asset since that first meeting. She is diligent, hard-working, polite and charming. She's making friends with some of his rich students, the ones from the Upper ring, all without coming off as just another person desperate to use them.
He doesn't understand how she can give off that impression, when "using them" is exactly what she wants to do.
She seems to know more than she should, too. Not even just when it comes to the forbidden knowledge about the Fire Nation they started compiling to bring to Wan Shi Tong.
She won't explain why she wants this, surely Wan Shi Tong already knows all this? It's a lot, but much of it is basic information, not state secrets, though he's sure there are some in her scrolls.
But no, she knows something about almost every topic he can think of, and that's not even touching her detailed knowledge on niche topics.
When he asked her if she was a scholar in a past life she had laughed and said she'd always been just a peasant.
"How do you - Are you implying you remember your past lifes?"
"Maybe so, Professor!"
"Professor?" Jin calls.
"Yes, over here!"
Zei looks up as Jin makes her way around the stacks of books surrounding his desk.
"Ilesh has invited me to come with him to a party the Earth King is throwing in his palace."
"Oh? That's amazing! Do you want to take the evening off then?"
She shakes her head and places two scrolls on his desk. "I got what I wanted out of you", she explains, "This is the location of Wan Shi Tong's library. Please give him this letter when you meet him. Tell him it's an apology."
"So this is good-bye, then." Zei smiles, feeling surprisingly put out by the thought of not seeing this girl again. But, he unrolls the map and stares at the cross that marks his life's goal. But, he will go to the greatest library in the world. All the knowledge he could possibly want.
He gets up and hugs Jin, causing her to laugh gently.
He can't wait to see Wan Shi Tong's library!
Kuei is enjoying his party, as much as he ever enjoys these functions. He's been having some nice, but shallow conversations with the people invited, talking about their daily business.
One man, a merchant told a very funny story about his young son trying to help and accidentally buying over a thousand cabbages.
The merchant sells clothes!
A very funny man, indeed.
Now, he's wandering around, looking for either interesting people or Bosco. Hmm, he hasn't seen Bosco in a while actually! Normally the bear causes a bit of a ruckus at these parties - not that he means anything by it, of course, he just wants to play and the guests love it!
But today it's been quiet, almost suspiciously so - oh, there he is! He's playing with one of the guests! She's petting him, and keeping him from eating the whole buffet, all while chatting with other guests around her.
What a nice girl!
"Bosco!" he calls out, getting a low purr in response, "Are you enjoying yourself?"
He pets the bear's head and smiles at the girl.
Her eyes are wide as she drops into a low bow. "King Kuei!"
"Oh", he laughs, "Don't bow, please, any friend of Bosco's is a friend of mine!"
"Um, thank you, my king", the girl says.
"You get along so well with him! Do you have animals at home too?"
"No? No, I don't. My king." She seems nervous now.
"Oh, why not? You're really good at this!"
"Thank you, your Grace, but uhh, I work at the university and animals aren't allowed in there so any pet of mine would have to stay at home, alone, all day."
Oh, that makes sense. What a shame!
"That's a shame! But, if you work at the library", the solution occurs to him, "could I interest you in a new job, as a caretaker for my dear Bosco?"
Her eyes go even wider and she bows deeply again. "It would be an honor, your Grace!"
"Great!" He claps her on the back.
"Did you hear that, Bosco? The nice girl is staying with you now!"
Bosco claps happily.
Zei is so happy he could cry. He's standing right in front of the great library of Wan Shi Tong!
He thanks and pays the sandbenders that brought him here, when they finish lowering the crate full of scrolls Jin and he collected - and wrote, for some of them!
Then, he takes a deep breath and lets himself slide down the rope and into the library.
He could really cry. So many books, so many scrolls!
He can't stop looking around, even as he comes down to stand on the floor. He breathes in. It even smells like the greatest library!
He hears movement behind him and turns, coming face to face with a spirit. Wan Shi Tong, he thinks.
"Hello", he introduces himself, "I am Professor Zei, head of anthropology at Ba Sing Se University."
"You should leave the way you came", the spirits says, looking to the side, at three stuffed animal heads. "Unless you want to become a stuffed head of anthropology."
"Oh!" Zei says weakly, "I would prefer not to. May I ask what has promted this change of policy? I heard that all who search for knowledge are welcome here."
"All who search for knowledge, yes, but humans only bother learning things to get the edge on other humans. Like that firebender who came to this place a few years ago, looking to destroy his enemy. Or the little brats who lied to me. So... who are you trying to destroy?"
A firebender? Little brats who lied to him? Does he mean Jin? She did talk about an apology...
"With all due respect, Great Spirit, but I am a scholar. I am here to learn, for knowledge's sake."
Wan Shi Tong cocks his head. "I can tell that you are truthful. Hm, very well. I'll let you peruse my vast collection on one condition. To prove your worth as a scholar, you have to contribute some worthwhile knowledge."
"Of course", Zei says, pulling one of his books from his backpack and walking up to the spirit, "Please accept this tome as a donation to your library."
"First edition, very nice", he says, "You may go on then."
"Thank you", Zei bows, pulling out Jin's letter, "I also bring you this letter and the texts in the crate, in the name of a dear friend of mine, as an apology."
"An apology?" Wan Shi Tong swipes the letter up, and reads it quickly. "Oh, did the brats remember their crimes? Hm, how unexpected. You brought me all you could find about the Fire Nation?"
"Yes", Zei says, "My friend wouldn't tell me the reason, but we collected all scrolls and books we could, together with first-hand accounts of life in and with the Fire Nation, that have never before been written down."
Wan Shi Tong opens the crate and looks over the contents. "The last person who stepped into this library was a Firebender, who stole from me and destroyed my collection on the Fire Nation", he explains, causing Zei to make a pained sound.
"I suppose this is an acceptable payment for the bridge's forgiveness. Enjoy the library."
He jumps in the air and sails down into the lower levels of the library.
"The bridge?" Zei whispers. What does the Avatar have to do with it? Is Jin - No, that's impossible, she's not a bender. But she did say she remembered her last lives.
Well, maybe he can ask her one day. For now, he has a library to read through. He could stay here forever!
Hiring Jin was the best idea Kuei ever had! That girl is amazing! Not only does she get along amazingly well with Bosco, no, she gave him fashion advice, right after having an amazing conversation about the intrecacies of picking the right kind of tea for important meetings.
She knows a lot of official protocol, for the different nations even, but she also has some fresh ideas about it. She's great.
"I worked in a tea shop for a while", she tells him, "It was really fun. The owner was an old man, he was really passionate and kind. I hope I can work there again someday."
He doesn't think Long Feng likes her, though, which is strange, because Long Feng usually likes everyone Kuei interacts with. Jin's never been anything but polite to him too. Maybe he thinks she's getting to familair with Kuei?
But she's such a sweet girl, and a good friend too.
General How likes her too! They spend a lot of time talking together. If he didn't know better, he'd say they're flirting. But Jin wouldn't do that, she just always looks like that. Unless she's flirting with Bosco, which is ridiculous. Maybe Long Feng thinks she flirting with him and doesn't like that?
He should tell him that's not true! They already talked about romance, once, and Jin said she's not interested in it, and would only like to have a bit of fun with people her age.
And Long Feng is definitivly not her age!
She really seems to fit in here, at the palace.
"King Kuei?" she asks one evening, nervously stepping from foot to foot, "I need to show you something. A secret, and you can't tell Long Feng about it."
"A secret from Long Feng? I don't know, Jin, I shouldn't do that. He's my trusted advisor."
"Yes, but -" She bites her lips, "It's really important, and you won't believe me if I only tell you. General How's coming too, so you'd be really safe?"
"Alright", Kuei agrees, "Where is that secret? When are going?"
"It's under the city, and right now, if you can. Promise me you'll be quiet until we come back, regardless of what you see?"
"Sure, Jin. You're my friend, and I trust you."
How can't believe this. A whole secret Dai Li facility right under their noses! And he didn't notice it!
Jin leads them through it on sure foot, sneaking them from dark corner to dark corner as Dai Li agents patrol around them. She seems to know her way around her well. Too well. But he looked into her background and there's no way she was - or is - Dai Li.
King Kuei had looked interested at the start, but he's growing more and more concerned.
How is so angry.
"Here", Jin whispers, "Can you hear it?"
How can hear screams, and a calm voice repeating, "There is no war in Ba Sing Se."
What in the world is Long Feng doing?
Kuei is getting paler and paler every second.
"He's mindbending them", Jin says, "To make them obey him."
"Why?" Kuei asks.
"They broke the law, or said something Long Feng doesn't like, or had a party get to loud where it bothered someone, or, in this case, they talked about the war."
"What war?" Kuei whispers, "There is no war in..." he trails off, clutching at his head.
Jin nods. "That's what I feared. Can you support him while we go back?"
"Of course", How says. Long Feng wouldn't dare. He wouldn't dare.
The King looses conciousness shortly after that.
"He wouldn't dare", How growls as they tuck him into bed, "He wouldn't dare!"
"I think he did", Jin whispers, "I didn't - I knew he wasn't up to any good, but I heard - a servant, a boy, talking with Kuei, about the war, and the next day, the boy was gone and Kuei couldn't remember the conversation."
She closes her eyes, twists her hands together." How often must he have done this? We have to get rid of Long Feng. Immediatly."
"I'll get the other generals", How says, "Long Feng commited treason."
"I'll make sure no one touches Kuei", Jin says, pulling a long whip from her back.
"Good", How says, "I'll send you trusted guards to help you. Keep him calm when he wakes up."
She nods, large brown eyes serious.
Kuei wakes up three hours later.
"Long Feng", he murmers.
"He's not here, your Grace", Jin says, "And he won't be back again, either."
"Who? Jin? My head hurts... What happened?"
Another two hours pass before he is well enough to face other people. They meet with the generals, and Kuei holds a speech for his soldiers. The first one he ever gave, to make sure they know these are his orders.
Jin doesn't leave his side. She has her whip in one hand, a knife in the other. Four Dai Li have fallen at her hands already.
Bosco crowds close to him, as if he knows what's wrong. He's clawed one Dai Li agent to pieces.
It ends not two days after it started, with General How dragging Long Feng's head behind him into the throne room.
"You killed him?" Kuei asks, voice wavering.
"He was a traitor, my King, and a danger to you. We found - we found some women he had mindbent beyond recognition. He might have done something to you, something subconcious so he could control you. We couldn't risk that."
Kuei puts his head in his hands, and weeps.
Long Feng had been his companion, his adviser, his friend, his replacement father.
Jin steps close to him, not touching him, but - close enough to feel, steady.
"You have to decide what you are going to do now", she says, "You are the King, of Ba Sing Se and the Earth Kingdom. You can change the course of the war - or choose not to. Your people will follow you, whatever you choose."
"Hey, Mai!" A cheerful voice calls, and Mai looks up, seeing the person it belongs to swing in through her window.
"Ty Lee", she says, voice not showing her surprise, "What are you doing here? I thought you ran off to join the circus."
"I did!" Ty Lee says, hopping over to hug her, "But I came back! You should return to the palace too!"
"My parents want me here", she says instead of the reflexive no laying on her tounge.
"I'm sure they'd let you go if we asked nicely! Well", she amends, "if Azula asks nicely. Or asks at all."
"Why would she?" She didn't want them with her anymore. Never saw them as anything but toys.
"Of course she would! She misses you!"
Mai blinks very slowly. Azula. Missing her? She raises her eyebrows.
Ty Lee squirms a little. "She really does. She's just bad at showing it."
"Why did you come back?"
"I - Well", Ty Lee's face grows serious, "I didn't plan to, I like the circus, but - Azula, she's", she bites her lip, "she's having a difficult time, with Zuko gone and her father and all -"
"Her father adores her", Mai interrupts. What's gotten into Ty Lee? Azula doesn't have difficult times. She's the perfect little princess.
"No!" Ty Lee declares, "He loves her power, not her! And she knows it. She's really not doing well, I - I think she might be sick."
"Sick?" Mai... can't remember Azula ever being sick, not even as a smal child.
"Yes", Ty Lee whispers, "and I think it's getting worse too. She's good at hiding it, but I've noticed, and - Mai, she needs us, she needs people she can trust, and that's only the two of us."
"Are you sure?" She whispers back, heart swelling with a warm feeling. Azula trusts her? Misses her? She - She missed being her friend. If they can go back, be real friends again - "Alright", she says, before Ty Lee can respond, "It's not like I'm doing anything but get bored to death here anyways."
Chapter 4: Carried away by a moonlight shadow
Yue dreams. She has always had unusual dreams, dreams filled with moonlight and the ocean, but lately they have gotten stranger.
They feel disjointed, too - except today it's clearer than ever before.
She's standing in an icy landscape that's entirely unfamiliar and empty. The moon is high in the sky, brighter than she has ever seen.
In his light, she can see two figures. A man, standing stockstil with his eyes closed, and a person who can't be a reguar human, with bright white skin that glistens as if wet, wide open eyes that seem like two moons and white hair, except for a spot right on top of their head, where deep black hair grows.
Tui, she realizes, falling to her knees in the snow she can't feel. Is the man La, then? No, that can't be. He's too ordinary.
He opens his eyes. He blinks, and touches his face. "My beard!" he says. "I missed you!"
He proceeds to pat himself down.
"My muscles! I missed you even more!"
She gapes. He's standing the great spirit of the moon, and he's talking about his looks?
"Oh", he says, sounding put out, "It's you. I guess she wouldn't be here yet, would she?"
"Wouldn't she?" Tui replies. Neither of them seem to notice her.
"So what do you want?" So respectless! How does he still live? Tui must really like him, to allow such a disrespect.
"It's time", they say, "Follow me."
"Sure", he says, "not like I have anything better to do, like you know, actually getting restful sleep."
They walk to the edge of the sea, where Tui starts floating over the water. The man takes a step forward, before loosing balance and falling into the water.
"Hey!" he yells, "Can't you make me be floaty too? Or let me take a boat, at least?"
"No." Tui says.
Yue doesn't move, but she follows them regardless. As the man dips underwater completely, she does too and then they move - quicker than even Master Pakku manages. There are spirits playing in the water around them, greeting them, dancing with them.
They break to the surface again, before a glowing iceberg. She can see a boy in there, and a big animal. They are completely encased. How are they alive? They aren't spirits, she can feel that - no, the boy is - and isn't?
The avatar, Tui's voice whispers in her ear. She looks around, realizing that they have started to float away from the ground, back into the sky, looking more like the moon every second.
"Aang", the man says, laying a hand on the ice.
"Hey, Tui", he yells after them, "Tell them I found him!"
His eyes close and Yue sits up in her bed, breathing hard.
Her hand's clench, and she gets up, steps outside on her balcony. She looks up at the moon.
Who was that man? Did he really find the Avatar? Is she supposed to go looking for them?
"Oh, Tui", she whispers, "why did you show me that?"
The Avatar, she thinks. Is she supposed to search for him?
"Tell them I found him", she breathes. Does that mean her? She turns. She has to talk to her father.
"Sokka!" Katara yells, yet again. This time, she finally gets a response.
"Ah!" Sokka stumbles, falls, screams: "Cold!" and jerks up again.
"Huh?" He looks around, "Katara?" He pats his face and deflates.
"Sokka what happened?" Katara asks, "You were sleepwalking, and then you just jumped in the ocean and it looked like you got pulled by someone!"
He opens his mouth, then pauses and looks behind him. "Oh you absolute - I thought it was just a dream!" He takes three steps, stumbles as the rope pulls thight.
"I thought they just wanted to show me - not that we'd actually end up here right now! Ugh!"
"Who wanted to show you what?" Katara asks. She hasn't felt this confused since - since Sokka started acting weirdly, over a year ago.
"Yu - I mean, you didn't see them?" As she shakes her head, Sokka pales. "Oh no, that was - oh no."
"Tui. That was Tui. Wow."
"Tui?! You met Tui?" That - That has to be a lie. That can't be. He's not even a bender.
"Oh no", he says again. "They wanted me to find this iceberg. There's someone in there."
"What?" Katara looks at it. It seems normal.
"Yeah! They glowed. We have to get them out of there. Break it, water magician!"
"It's not magic, it's - how can you call it magic when you've literally met Tui?!"
"Whatever!" Sokka says brightly, "I'm cold! Let's hurry! Do what the magic moon la - lad says!"
"Magic moon lad", Katara whispers, "Tui, forgive him, he's a moron."
Still, she breathes in, reaches for the ice and with a crack, a small split appears in the iceberg.
"Great!" Sokka calls, "Do it again!"
She does and the crack widens. She pulls again, and again and then - a blue light begins shining through the opening.
She takes a startled breath - Sokka was right! - as the iceberg breaks in two.
Sokka cheers as the water splashes around them.
"There's really someone in there!" Katara yells, staring the boy who's glowing in the sphere that has risen to the surface.
"Break it open!" Sokka says, jumping up and down in excitement.
So she does and a colum of light shoots up to the sky as the boy steps towards them - and closes his eyes and falls. She runs to him, catching him before he hits the ground.
He groans and slowly opens his eyes.
"Hey", he says, voice rusty with disuse, "I have to ask you something really important."
"Yes?" she asks, eyes wide.
"Come closer", he whispers. Sokka makes a soft sound behind them.
"What is it?"
"Will you go penguin sleding with me?" The boy asks, suddenly cheerful as he pulls himself up on his feet in one fluid movement.
"Oh! Uh, sure!"
Sokka laughs, the traitor.
"I'm Katara, this is my brother Sokka. What's your name?"
"I'm A - a - ah -Atcho!" He sneezes, propelling himself into the air. She gapes, and Sokka giggles.
"Hi", Sokka says, smiling.
"How did you do that?" Katara says.
"Oh, I'm an airbender!" Aang says.
Sokka stops smiling. Katara stares. Aang grins at them.
"Ah", Sokka says, "Really?"
"Yes! Oh!" He runs back into the iceberg, and she can hear him yell: "Appa! Wake up!"
She exchanges a look with Sokka and they move after him.
"Father", Yue says urgently, "Wake up! It's important!"
"Yue?", her father replies, groggy, "What are you doing? It's the middle of the night."
"Father, I had a dream! A vision, from Tui!"
"I saw them! They were somewhere full of ice and snow, but not here - the South Pole! They were at the south pole and then they showed me the Avatar!"
Her father finally sits up fully, and blinks away. "The Avatar? He's at the southpole?"
"Yes! I have to go find him!" She is sure if this, can feel it in her bones. She has to go to the South, has to find the Avatar - Tui wants her to do it, and she owes them her life so she will do as they say. It's her duty.
"Guards!" Her father yells, "Go wake up Master Pakku and our best warriors! Have them meet me in the hall immediatly!"
"I can't believe this", Sokka says, voice filled with disgust, "I just can't believe this! Why me?"
He tugs on his hair, which has been turned into a spiky mess by the frozen snodder covering it. "I dodged!"
"You dodged right into the path of Appa's sneeze!" Aang says brightly.
"Oh, really?" Sokka drawls, "I didn't even notice that!"
"Yeah, we saw that", Katara giggles, stretching out on Appa's back as he swims through the water. A real bender! She's never met another bender! Sure, she's gotten good at bending over the last year, and Sokka's suggestions helped, but - a real bender! Who had training!
He can teach her a lot of things, she's sure!
This is great! Who cares about those arrogant Kyoshi warriors, she has an airbender now. A bender buddy, as Sokka might say. She giggles again.
"Stop laughing at me, you traitor!" Sokka complains, "I am covered in snot!"
"It comes off with water", Aang says, "You just have to take a dip!"
"Or I could hose you down", Katara suggest, "I can heat water!"
"You can turn water into steam! Excuse me if I don't want to get boiled alive!"
She and Aang break into laughter. After a moment, Sokka looses his offended expression and he starts smiling too.
"Thank you for coming to meet me at this time", her father says, "I have great news!"
"I hope they are worth it", Master Pakku grouses, "I don't appreciate being woken at a time like this."
"My daughter was granted a vision by the Great Moon Spirit himself!" He proclaims, motioning her forward.
She nods, and says: "I saw them at the South Pole, standing infront of a glowing iceberg", she recounts, "There was someone frozen in there - The Avatar, they told me."
"The Avatar?" Hahn says, "That's certainly great news."
"It is! We must immediatly send envoys to the South. This is why I have called you here. Master Pakku, you are our greatest Waterbender. You must find the Avatar and support and protect him, while you bring him to the North Pole."
The master nods, serious. "Of course. It will be an honor to fight with the Avatar."
"Hahn!" Her father continues. "Young as you may be, you are one of our greatest and most promising warriors. I want you to take some of our men and accompany Master Pakku on this trip."
"Of course!" Hahn says, "I'll protect the Avatar! I'll pick my men and we'll start preparing immediatly."
As the men leave, her father turns to her. "Good job, Yue! With your vision, we have a real chance to find the Avatar and protect ourselves against the Fire Nation."
"Yes, father", she says, smiling proudly. "I will go pack as well, then."
"Pack?" He says, "Why would you need to pack?"
Oh no, she thinks. "But father, I have to go with them! I know it!"
"No, you don't!" he snaps, "You are my only daughter, and fourteen years old, too! You will stay here, with me, where you are safe."
"Hahn is only a year older than me", she argues, keeping her voice even, "And I have to go, father, please, I know it, I can feel it! Tui wants me to!"
"No! And that is my last word. You have a duty to your people, and that duty lays here."
She nods, even as tears sting in her eyes.
"Yue, I'm sorry", her father says, gently touching her shoulder, "I know this is important to you, but I need you here. We need you here. Master Pakku and Hahn will fulfill Tui's wishes."
She nods again, and let's her father pull her into a hug.
"I only want what's best for you, and our tribe", he whispers, "I love you, Yue."
She smiles. "I know, father. I love you too."
"Gran-Gran!" Katara yells exictedly.
Aang looks up as Appa pulls himself out of the water. He can see an old woman, looking grim - and a wall made out of snow? It goes high up into the sky, looking almost naturally grown, but when he looks closer, he can see a woman, standing on top of it, watching the water - and them.
A guard? She has a club, he realizes.
"Gran-Gran, look! This is Aang! He's a real airbender!"
"You ran off in the middle of the night to... find a strange airbender?"
"Well -" Sokka says.
"Sokka saw Tui!" Katara blurts out.
"What?" The old woman says.
"Who's Tui?" Aang asks.
"Ugh", Sokka says, "The big guy in the sky, dude."
"Sokka!" Katara chides, "Be more respectful! Tui is the spirit of the moon", she explains, "Together with La, the spirit of the ocean, he grants us Waterbending."
"Wow! And you saw him? That's so cool!"
"Is that true, Sokka?"
"Uhh, I guess?" He tries to slide his hand through his hair, then makes a face when he touches the mess on his head. "I mean, sh - th - he did float up and turn into the moon, so yeah?"
"That's - I can't believe it", Katara whispers, "Wait! Is that where you got your tips from? For waterbending? From Tui, visiting you in your dreams?"
Sokka stares for a moment, opens and closes his mouth a few times: "Maaaayyybe? Yeah, I mean, yeah, that's it. Obviously."
"That's why you wanted to go to Kyoshi Island, too! Spirits, Sokka, why didn't you say so from the start?"
Sokka blushes. "Because, I, I don't like it? Yeah, I don't like having spirits talk to me. I don't like them. They suck."
Aang's pretty sure they keep arguing, but he can't focus on them anymore. He's tired and in a new place! He starts wandering around.
Just a little! He might spot an otter-penguin!
He trips over something, hidden in the snow, and then he falls.
Her father thinks she went back to bed. Instead, she's sitting here, hiding under a bridge in the middle of the night, crying her eyes out.
"Yue?" A sleepy voice calls, "Are you okay? What's going on?"
"Miki", she says, turning to her friend, "I don't know what to do." She wipes her eyes on her jacket.
"Oh, oh no", Miki says, plopping down at her side and pulling her in a tight hug, "What's wrong?"
"I - I had a vision, of Tui and - and they showed me that the Avatar is at the South Pole and that I - I have to go find him, but when I told my father, he would - wouldn't let me go. He's sending Hahn, and Master Pakku with some warriors, but I have to go, I know it!"
She burries her face in Miki's shoulder and sobs.
"I heard that female Waterbenders at the South Pole are allowed to learn how to fight", Miki says.
She takes a deep breath.
"Well, if you have to go, you have to go!" she declares, pulling Yue up with her.
"But my father -"
"Who says you need his approval? You need to go there, because the Great Moon spirit told you to, and I need to come with you to keep an eye on you!"
"Miki, what are you suggesting?"
"Yue", Miki says seriously, "You need to get to the South Pole. And if your father won't let you, you have to go behind his back. Since there's no way I'm letting you do this alone, let's sneak on the ship."
Yue stares at her friend. They absolutely cannot do this. Going behind her father - the Chief's! - back like that borders on treason. It's impossible.
"The ship leaves at sunrise, the day after tomorrow", she says, "Let's meet three hours before that."
"You can't be here", Azula tells the window. Mai freezes, then quickly and quietly steps fully into the room and closes the door.
Who is she talking to? There's no one there.
"No! No", Azula responds to nothing, "Go away! Why don't you bother him for a change?"
Her voice is rough, and snaps. Is she angry? Mai can't tell. "Azula?"
She flinches, just slightly, but it knocks the air out of Mai. Azula doesn't flinch.
"Mai?" she says, eyes fliting from the window to her, and back again as she turns. Mai has never seen her show such weakness. "What are you doing here?"
"I... came to see you", Mai responds, looking out of the window too. There's no one there, not even a plant Azula could have been annoyed with. "Ty Lee says you're sick. Who were you talking to?"
Her expression twists furiously. "There's nothing wrong with me!"
"Azula", Mai dares to say, putting her hand on her arm, "I'm on your side, I want to help you. You can trust me. Who were you talking too?"
Azula is tense, and Mai thinks, for a moment that she will lash out. She forces herself to stay calm, stay relaxed. Azula slowly releases a breath and turns into her touch.
"I can, can't I?" She says quietly.
They stand together.
"Sometimes", Azula says, startling Mai after the long silence, "Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I don't see my reflection, I see my mother. And she never stops talking."
Mai tightens her hold, lets Azula cling to her. How long has she experienced this already? How long has she been alone with it? Not anymore, Mai vows. She won't let her face this on her own.
Chapter 5: And I would have stayed up with you all night
Had Mai known that returning to Azula's side would entail this much mingling with nobles, she would have thought twice about coming back.
It's not that she can't do it, or that she's not good at it. She can smile, and be demure and polite, thank you very much.
The problem is how dreadfully boring it all is.
She smiles the same way at all of them, hears the same compliments, deflects them and demurs in the exact same manner. Boring.
She asks Azula in a whisper, "Why are we doing this again?"
"Because", Azula laughs as if she had told a joke, "the heir has to socialize with their high-born subject and since dear Zuzu isn't in a position to do so, we have to."
"I don't", Mai complains.
"You wouldn't dare leave me to face them alone."
Mai looks over at Ty Lee, who seems to have fun talking to a noble woman about her dress' embroidery.
"You'd have Ty Lee", she says. Ty Lee is good at this.
"Ty Lee actually cares about these people's pathetic lives", Azula says, "Doing this with just her is worse than doing it alone."
"Princess Azula! Lady Mai!"
Azula smiles gently at the man bowing before her.
Mai can't remember his name. Azula knows, because she memorized her lessons perfectly. She bets Ty Lee knows his favorite color.
"It's such a pleasure to meet you here", the man says, "I saw your performance at the festival last month, and it was out if this world. Your prowess in fire bending is so impressive! Watching it feels like Agni Himself has come down to bless this earth. Your fatber must be so proud of you!"
Azula keeps smiling, but Mai can tell it's becoming strained as the man keeps going on. Well. Time to gamble before someone gets set on fire.
"You have a child too, if I remember correctly, my Lord?" Mai interrupts.
"Oh, yes!" The man says, "I have three lovely children! Sadly, I have not been blessed with a bender, unlike our great Firelord."
"A shame", Azula takes over again, brushing Mai's sleeve in a way that seems unintentional, "Your eldest, he's old enough to join with our troops, is he not?"
"Yes", the man sighs, "And he certainly has the talent for it! But, I'm afraid he lacks conviction. I've been trying to get him to take up a position as a commander, but he's refused - he's such a soft and caring soul, gets it from my father, bless his heart - He doesn't want to loose friends in the war."
Azula's smile sharpens. Mai would feel bad for the man's kid, but it seems like such a bother right now.
She helped Azula out, that's enough good deeds for today.
"That's a waste of talent, don't you think?" Azula smiles brightly, "I could talk to your son, convience him to reconsider his stance."
"Oh", the man swallows nervously, "I'm not sure that's such a good idea -" He starts sweating under Azula's stare, fidgeting with his shirt.
"Oh, I insist", she says, danger practically oozing from every word, "We really can't have someone as talented as you claim your son to be sitting the war out because he's scared."
"Scared? My son? I assure you, he's not a coward!"
"I'll talk to him then. I'm glad we agree on how important it is to spread the Fire Lord's glory to the rest of the world."
"Of course, your Highness", the man mumbles, bowing and retreating quicker than proper.
Mai sighs, snatching a drink from a passing servant. With Azula this self-satisfyed already, they're going to be here for way to long.
Oh, who is she kidding. Even one minute was too long already. But, she thinks as she follows Azula through the crowd, she can't just leave, can she?
Mai is pretty sure Ty Lee sleeps in Azula's room. Not... officially of course, but - her room is empty at night and she's always with Azula already when Mai turns up in the morning.
"Do you accompany her on the toilet too?" she asks Ty Lee one day, while Azula is talking with her father, alone for once.
"What?" Ty Lee responds, blinking innocently. It would be less annoying if it were an act, Mai thinks.
"You're with her every second of the day - and the night, too. Do you do anything but play nanny?"
"I'm not with her the whole time, and I'm not her nanny. I'm her friend!" Ty Lee crosses her hands behind her head and adds, "Besides, if she didn't want me around she would've said so."
That's fair. It's not like anyone can push Azula around.
They go to meet the man's (Hye) son (Katsu) a few weeks later.
"Father!" Mai hears him scream, seemingly unaware that they can hear him, "Why is the princess here? I don't want to talk to her!"
"Poor guy", Ty Lee comments, "He seems scared!"
As they walk into the manson, Katsu scrambles while Hye greets them. Azula starts a conversation with him, and Mai and Ty Lee corner his son.
"Hi!" Ty Lee greets, "Great to meet you!"
As he stares at them, Mai sighs. "Why don't you offer us some tea, while she talks to your father?"
"Sure", he whispers, scared out of his mind.
The tea is too bitter. Ty Lee chats amiably over everything with the guy, who seems to relax slowly. Rookie mistake.
After a while, she interupts Ty Lee's chatter. "Your father said you don't want to fight because you're too scared of loosing friends."
Katsu blinks, taken aback, then says: "No?"
"Oh?" Ty Lee says, "I wouldn't want to see my friends die!"
"Yes, but - I mean, I don't want that either, but that's not the reason I won't join the army." He crosses his arms, "My father knows that, too."
"So Azula was right", Mai says, "You're just a coward."
"No!", he springs up, "I'm not!"
Mai raises her eyebrow at him, throughouly unimpressed.
"Alright, fine", he snaps, "I don't agree with the war!"
"Are you criticizing the Fire Lord's judgement?"
Katsu jerks around, staring in shock at Azula, as walks over to them.
"Why don't you tell me why you think my father is mistaken, Katsu." She leans towards him, smiling.
If he doesn't start breathing again soon he's gonna pass out, Mai muses as she watches his pale face.
He takes a deep breath, visibly steeling himself.
"This war wasn't started for a just reason. The Air Nomads didn't attack us, it wasn't self-defense and killing them all wasn't proportionate."
When Azula doesn't say anything, he continues, faster.
"The Water Tribes never were a danger to us, either, and while our progessive technology and knowledge would surely benefit them, a war is no way to do that! The war has cost to many lives to be justified, even if we only look at our losses against the Earth Kingdom. We lost generations! Starting the war was immoral, deeply so! Continuing it now is, is madness!"
Something sharp and dangerous sparks in Azula's eyes, like shards of broken glass.
Katsu seems to remember who he's talking too, and all his fire leaves him as he stumbles backward, falling to his knees. Azula looms over him, staring at him with a dark expression. She reaches out, almost gently putting her hand on his cheek.
"What a passionate speech", she says calmly, "You are very certain of my family's failings, aren't you?"
Katsu opens his mouth, then shuts it with an audible click as Mai and Ty Lee position themselves behind him.
"Did you realize", Azula says, looking up at the sky, "that my cousin was your age when he died?"
"Ah, Prince Lu Ten? I don't -"
Her hand tightens on his face, and he shuts up again.
"My Uncle was heartbroken. So heartbroken, that he couldn't ascend the throne. So heartbroken, that he came to regret the war, in a similar way to you. My father", she looks down with burning eyes, so cold that Mai feels a shiver go down her back and Ty Lee shifts slightly, "My father always look down on him for that. He will never back down from the war. But -", she kneels so that they are on the same level.
"My father will not be the Fire Lord forever."
"Are you - Will you, when you're -"
Azula gets up, walking away from him. Mai reaches for his shoulder, pushing down when he tries to follow.
"When my brother was my age", she says, "he knelt like this before my father. He didn't know he was gonna fight him", she smiles as she turns back around, leaning against the table, "He had, after all, told General Bujing that his plan was immoral, not my father. He knelt just like this, trembeling when he realized", Azula's voice has dropped to a whisper, "and he begged my father to forgive him. 'Please', he cried, 'Forgive me! I'll do anything!' It was pathetic to watch. My father thought so too, and he walked towards Zuko just like this, put his hand on his face, just like this -"
Katsu flinches violently as Azula's fingers graze his face.
"- and then he burned him, and banished him for being disrespectful."
Mai hadn't been in the palace when Zuko got banished. The picture Azula is painting, is - Agni.
Azula sighs, turning back to the table and sitting down.
"Come on", she waves, "sit down, all of you."
Katsu shakes as he slowly gets up. Mai has to support him as he starts walking. She wants to shake too. She understands why Ty Lee doesn't move from Azula's side now, in a way she hadn't before.
"Your highness", Katsu says, voice coming surprisingly steady, "May I ask - What plan did your brother, I mean Prince Zuko, protest?"
"Oh? It was about using new recruits as bait, in a trap that would surely kill them", Azula says lightly. "If only we had high ranking officers who wouldn't consider something like that. Who'd follow a kind Fire Lord, who cares more about his people than about his pride or glory."
"Prince Zuko's travelling with Prince Iroh right now, isn't he?" Ty Lee says cheerfully, taking a biscuit."
They were always very close. I'm sure he's learning a lot about being a good leader from him."
Katsu looks around between them, then huffs put a rough, breathy laugh.
"Alright, you've convinced me", he says, "I'll join the army, and when the time comes, you'll know where my loyalities lie."
"Does Zuko know you're planning a coup in his name?" Mai asks later, when they're back in Azula's room.
Azula chuckles, letting Ty Lee undo her top knot.
"Ty Lee insits on writing him about it."
"Hey! You enjoy the letters from him too!"
"You have letters from Zuko?" Mai feels her heart jump.
"Yeah!" Ty Lee says, "Some of them are a little burned, either because Zuko got angry writing them, or Azula didn't like what he wrote, but I kept them all!"
"Can I see them?"
Azula groans. "What is it with you and Zuko? He keeps asking how you are in every second letter."
"Well", Mai says, trying to figure out how to say this without offending Azula, "we are good friends."
That was the wrong way, she realizes immediatly, and Azula gives her a look that makes her blood freeze.
She braces herself, just in case, but Azula only snaps: "Great!" and storms out of the room.
"Azula! Wait!" Ty Lee yells, hopping up to go after her, "Come on, Mai, we have to go after her!"
"I'll apologize later", Mai shakes her head, "I need to talk to you. Alone."
Ty Lee throws an uncertain look after Azula, bites her lip, but finally nods.
"What the hell is going on?" Mai hisses, "And don't look at me like you don't understand what I mean. You can't tell me that Azula just suddenly decided Zuko - Zuko! - would make a better Fire Lord than her or her father! And all this talk about ending the war, Ty Lee, stop acting like this is normal!"
Ty Lee stares at her. Mai stares back. Ty Lee sighs, flopping down on Azula's bed.
"Yeah, you're right. It's not normal. The thing is - I, I can't tell you any details, but -"
She hesitates, rolling on her side to look at Mai. "The Fire Nation isn't gonna win this war", she says, voice utterly certain, "And it might be worse if we did, in the end."
"How can you know that?" Mai whispers. This is nonesense. Of course the Fire Nation is gonna win this war! Is it?
"I can't tell you, I - I promised, but it's true, I swear. There's... something going on in the Spirit World. Something bad. We'll need the Avatar to deal with it, and if the war keeps going on, if we keep on tearing the world apart, we won't have them."
"The Avatar." Mai says sarcastically. Ty Lee smiles apologetically.
"They're alive, and they'll be back in time. But we have to prepare the world, so that they can learn what they need."
"And Azula really believes that?"
"I don't believe you", Mai says, "Azula would never give up her dreams because of some vague stories about the Avatar and Spirits."
She turns to leave, even though she has no idea what to do. Collaborating with the Avatar, trying to keep the Fire Nation from winning the war, that's treason.
She should go tell the Fire Lord about it, remove Azula from Ty Lee's influence. By all rights, she should, but - Ty Lee would die for this, and Azula would never forgive her. Zuko wouldn't either, if he learned about it.
Ty Lee doesn't try to stop her from leaving. Mai thought she would.
She finds Azula sitting at the pond in the garden, with her head burried in her arms while distressed turtleducks shatter around her. The water in the pond is steaming slightly.
"Stay away", Azula says.
"Azula", Mai starts, not knowing what she wants to say next.
"You're a liar!" Azula shouts, sprining up and facing her. "You're a liar, just like her!"
"I didn't lie to you."
"That's a lie, too! You said I could trust you, that you were on my side, but you lied, you love him more than me, just like *her*!"
Mai stares in shock as Azula throws a flame at the pond, causing steam to rise again and water to splash. Is this because she was excited about Zuko's letters? Like her? Like -
"Like your mother?"
"She keeps saying she loves me, but she doesn't! She never has! She's always prefered Zuko, just like you! She thought I was a monster, just like you do!"
Oh Azula, she thinks, heart clenching.
"I don't think that", she says, sitting down next to her.
"You do", Azula says, "You're only here because you're scared of me."
"I don't", she looks at Azula, whose chest is having as she stares into the water. She has never seemed so young, so painfully young.
"I guess I am scared of you", she admits, pretending not to notice the temperature going up, "But you did that on purpose, didn't you? It's what a Fire Lord is supposed to do, what your Grandfather did, and your Father. Keep people at a distance, obedient through fear."
Azula collapses. Mai carefully doesn't react.
"You don't have to keep doing it."
Chapter 6: When I close my eyes (I know where I am)
"Woah!" Aang yelps, "Why's there a trap here? That might have really hurt if I wasn't an airbender!"
"Yes", Sokka says, "That's kinda the point. It's a trap. For people attacking our village."
"Who'd want to attack your village?", he asks, honestly curious. As far as he knows the only thing the Water Tribe needs to fight are polar bear dogs! And tiger seals! He wants to ride both of those one day, that would be so fun!
"Uhh - The Fire Nation?" Sokka says, as if it should be obvious.
"The Fire Nation? Why would they want to do that?" The Fire Nation wouldn't do that! His friend Kuzon lives there, and he's really cool, and they have amazing festivals where they dance and celebrate and the food there is amazing too! It's so spicy, it's really no wonder they're all firebenders!
The first time he ate some fire flakes, he felt like he would start firebending any moment - waaaaiit, he's the - ohhh.
The others are watching him with strange expressions.
"Aang", Katara says, concernd, "We've been at war with the Fire Nation for a hundred years."
"What? That can't be! I would've heard of that! I have friends in every nation, including the Fire Nation!"
That's not a funny joke. The Fire Nation wouldn't - The monks were worried about a war starting, yes, but - A hundred years? That's laughable.
The sibling exchange a look. "Aang", Katara starts again, still with that soft tone of voice, "How long do you think you were frozen for?"
Not for a hundred years! "A few days, not more, why?"
They can't suggest - That's ridiculous!
"I think it was closer to a hundred years."
"No", he says, "that's not possible."
It isn't. He's not over a hundred years old! How could he have survived that? He's no older than twelve!
How could he survive for a few days without air, enclosed in ice? He's the - It's impossible, even for him. It can't be true. They must be mistaken.
Sokka clears his throat. "Look, buddy, why don't we all go to sleep for the rest of the night? I'm sure it won't look as gloomy tomorrow. And you can go penguin sledding with Katara?"
"Yeah", Aang says, "Yeah, sure!" He doesn't think he'll be able to sleep, at all.
When he wakes up the next morning to Katara shaking him awake, he does feel better, surprisingly. There's something bitter in his stomach, but he pushes it away as he gets up and turns to face the village.
There aren't many people here. It's mostly old women, younger women and - children! Small children! How precious!
"Hello!" He says brightly. "I'm Aang!"
They regard him with suspicion. A woman pulls her child closer.
"Aang's a real airbender!" Katara says. The suspicion doesn't lessen.
"You have to forgive us", the old woman from yesterday says - Gran-Gran, that's what Katara called her - "We haven't seen an airbender in a hundred years."
"Woah, really? But we travel everywhere!"
Katara's face twists. His face falls.
"It's because of the war, isn't it?"
"Yes", she says, "I'm so sorry Aang, but -"
"Hey, Aang, you're up!" Sokka interrupts, "Great! Here!" He presses a basket full of dirty clothes in Aang's hands.
"Why don't we three go outside to wash these while we talk about history? I bet you can use your bending to air dry them!"
He starts pushing Katara and him out to the gate - made out of ice, how cool! - of the village.
"Sokka, what are you doing?" Katara asks, sounding annoyed. He doesn't get why. This sounds fun!
"We don't really have to tell him that while everyone's watching", Sokka says.
"Huh? Why not?" Aang asks.
Sokka doesn't respond until they're a good distance from the village. He pushes Aang into the snow, then says: "The kids don't need to hear that right now."
Aang gets a bad feeling in his tummy. "What happened?"
"The Fire Nation -" Sokka starts, then stops.
"A hundred years ago, when they started the war, they -"
"They attacked the Air Nomads first", Katara takes over, "I'm so sorry, Aang, but - there aren't any left. The Fire Nation killed them all."
What? No, that's not - Is that because he left them?
"No", he shakes his head, "that can't be true, I'm sure there are lots of them still around, and you just haven't heard."
They exchange a look, then Katara smiles sadly. "Maybe."
She doesn't believe it. But he'll prove her wrong. "I'll go back to the Air Temple, and I'll take you with me and then you'll see!"
There's a silence so awkward even he feels it, before Sokka says: "Well, that's... a plan? But this laundry isn't gonna do itself, so why don't we get started."
Doing the laundry isn't as fun as Aang thought, not with that thought in the back of his mind, but it's still pretty fun, especially when Katara gets annoyed with Sokka and throws water at him.
"You're a waterbender? That's so cool!"
Katara blushes. "Oh, right! Aang, can you teach me?"
"Uh, sure! But I'm an airbender, not a waterbender. Can't you ask another waterbender?"
"I'm afraid not", Katara says, "I'm the last waterbender of the South Pole. I taught myself as much as I could, but learning from someone who had formal training would be amazing."
"Yeah, I'm sure you two can share some tricks. Some things have to apply to all bending, right?"
"Well, we can try!"
"Thank you, Aang!"
The rest of the day passes in an exciting blurry of new things and new people. Katara and Sokka show him all the things they have to do each day, which includes doing the laundry (both), repairing broken tools (Sokka), repairing broken houses and the wall (Katara), training as warriors (both), preparing food (Sokka), fixing clothes (Sokka), watching the children (Sokka and him too! He loves children and they love him! And Appa!), making salt (Katara), and more that they didn't do today, or don't do every day.
"We have to get food, of course, and sometimes help other people solve their fights."
"That sounds fun! Can I help with that?"
"I don't know, if you say please, we might let you watch."
"Don't be mean, Sokka! Sure you can help, Aang."
When they eat, Sokka hands him a smelly bowl of soup with something slimy and dark in it.
"That's sea prunes", Sokka explaines, "Not what you're used to, huh?"
"Not really", Aang says, poking at them with his spoon, "What are they roasting over the fire there?"
"Oh, that's the fish the others caught today. They'll be done soon."
"Fish?" He makes a face, "I can't eat that, I'm a vegetarian."
Sokka blinks at him. "Yeah, I - I mean, I hope you like sea prunes then. We also have sea weed and some vegetables that Dad brought from the Earth Kingdom, but there's not much growing here."
"That's fine!" Aang says, "I'm sure your cooking's really good!"
"Ha!" Katara sits down next to him, "You're the only one who thinks that!"
"Hey! I think it tastes good!"
"Sure, Sokka", she laughs.
Aang bites into a sea prune and spits it out again. So salty!
"So what are you doing this late in the evening?" Aang asks.
"It's not as late as you think, probably", Katara says, "The sun sets soon right now. But usually, we try to do new things with waterbending, or we spar, or I practice while Sokka is being weird."
"Hey, I heard that!"
"I know!" She grins. "Want to watch me bend and give some advice?"
Katara pulls in a deep breath, widening her stance. Her feet are flat on the ground as she faces the ocean. She raises herself on her toes, then rolls back on her heels. She repeats this, until she's swaying with the waves lapping at the shore.
They get stronger, and stronger as she keeps going, until she raises her arms and the snow around her rises with them.
"Woah!" Aang says, at the sight of the snow swirling as if a storm was raging.
Katara sends the snow away from her, letting it gather a short distance away from them. Then, she flicks her hand and the snow turns to steam with an audible crack.
As the steam rises in the air, Katara stamps with one foot, causing a crack to appear in the ice. She closes it again with a swish of her hand, then pulls a hose of water from the water, aiming it at the air over the crack.
Then she takes another breath, raises her hands over her head, and then snaps them down, sending small pricks of ice raining down infront of her.
"Wow! That was really cool!" Aang applauds.
"Thank you!" Katara blushes.
"What you did with the snow was amazing! And you turned it into steam! I didn't know waterbenders could do that! Did you really come up with this all on your own?"
"Well, Sokka suggested some things, but overall? Yes, I did." She sounds proud, as she should! That was the coolest waterbending he's ever seen!
"Can you still move the steam?" Aang asks brightly. "I could show you have to do some airbending moves with it!"
"Really? That's great!"
This is so much fun!
Katara was right though. Sokka is weird sometimes. Aang watches him burn a piece of paper, leaning over the fire and closing his eyes, before getting yelled at by Katara for burning valueable paper.
"I wasn't thinking -"
"That's right, you weren't!"
They quickly settle into a routine. He helps with some of the chores, mostly watching the children, and gets taught how to cook Watertribe food! Which tastes way better when you cook it yourself! (He adds less salt.)
He and Katara spend a lot of time practicing together, with Sokka sitting at the side, cleaning weapons or sewing clothes, or doing something else with his hands, and occasionally yelling advice that's sometimes nonsense and sometimes helpful. Sometimes both.
"Don't you have to pay attention to the push and pull in the air too?"
"Sokka, the air doesn't have waves!"
"What push and pull?"
"In the water. It's really important, when you're waterbending. It comes from the moon -"
Aang is having a great time. He and Katara go penguin sledding together too! It's even better than he imagined!
Then they stumble upon an old Fire Nation warship and he realizes that the war really must have happened. Then they accidentally set of a flare. Which isn't good, if they're really at war.
"Let's get out of here", Katara says, "Take this." She presses three different weapons in his hands.
"Huh? What are you doing?"
"I'm taking some of their weapons with us, so we can at least get something useful out of this mess. Sokka is big on salvaged old things", she explains, and then they return to the village to get yelled at.
"What were you thinking? That ship's forbidden for a reason! It's dangerous!"
"It was my fault", Aang says, "I talked her into it. I'm sorry."
"Don't do it again!" Sokka shouts, "And take your glider, or your bison and go check if there are Fire Nation ships around!"
He nods, grabbing his glider and taking to the air. He didn't mean to cause trouble. He just didn't want there to really have been a war. He didn't want to get caught up in any of this.
"You're being to hard on him", Katara snaps, "He didn't mean any harm!"
"I'm really not", Sokka says, "But we need to know if there's an immediate threat around. Get in a watchtower."
She does, feeling guilt churn in her stomach, and watches out of the corner of her eyes as Sokka tells the kids they're gonna go on an adventure as he ushers them on Appa, together with half the women.
They don't take off yet, but if the black snow starts to fall they will leave immediatly.
Instead, after the most tense waiting time Katara's experienced since her m- for a long time, Aang returns and tells them they're in the clear.
She nearly sags in relief, and runs over to hug Aang as the others all start to leave their posts and slide of Appa.
Sokka curses quietly, as he walks over to them before grabbing Aang. "Aang, please think about your actions before you bring us in danger like that, I'm begging you."
As if on cue, one of the children starts crying in the background, and then they all wail.
"Please", Sokka repeats. "You don't have to stop having fun, but please take five seconds to consider the consequences before you act."
"Yeah", Aang says, looking at the children uncomfortably, "sure."
Bending together with Aang is really fun. He's cheerful, and he moves faster, lighter, more jerkily - but it's easy to find similarities, too.
They both direct their element, don't force it to obey. It wants to move, to flow. Well, unless it's ice. Ice wants to stay where it is, mostly, and not change all that much.
But it's very clear to see how they are the same and different when she tries to bend steam. She can, it's water, but it's - weird. Different. Water - Fluid water, normal water - wants to move, but in a direction. It wants to flow, move together, get somewhere. It has a purpose, a point, a natural path it wants to take. Bending it feels like convincing it that your cause is worthy, that what you want is the best thing to do. You can't force it, you have to let it follow you.
Steam is - chaotic. It doesn't want to go anywhere, it just wants to move. It feels like trying to herd the children to do what she wants. It's impossible. They never listen - and the steam doesn't either.
Aang says she has to practice listening to the air - or steam, in her case, he guesses. They meditate together. It's kind of unsettling to see Aang so still and calm.
Meditating is hard. Aang tells her to be calm, quiet her mind, listen to the air - she tries, but after hours of fruitless efforts, she springs up.
"This is worse than making salt!"
"Huh? Katara, wait!"
She storms out of the village, towards the sea. She makes the waves go high, rages with the sea.
"Uhm", Aang says carefully, "Katara? Are you okay?"
His only answer is a scream of inarticulate rage.
"Wow", Sokka stage whispers at Aang, "What did you do?" He's munching on Ashuna's seal jerky. When did he start eating that voluntarily?
"Nothing!" Aang says, "We just tried to meditate!"
"What why? To feel the air!"
"Aang", Sokka says seriously, "I'm really sorry to tell you this. I don't know how to say it, and I regret it deeply, but Katara is a waterbender. That means she bends water. If she were an airbender, she -"
"Oh, shut up!" Katara sends a hose of water at Sokka without looking, smiling when she hears his offended yelp.
"We're trying to figure out steam bending!" Aang explains.
"Steam bending? I thought you could do that already."
"Ow! Don't hit me! Why not?"
"I can only make and unmake it! I can't do anything with it!"
"What do you want to do with it?"
"Are you drunk? I want to control it!"
"You shouldn't try to do that, you should work with it!"
"Both of you are useless!"
Katara wakes up in the middle of the night. She doesn't know what woke her until she sees that Aang's missing.
"Sokka", she hisses, trying to wake her brother.
"Oh, that's hot", he mumbles, turning around and burrowing deeper into his bed.
"Ew", she says and goes without him.
She finds Aang out by the sea, making the waves stronger and trying to guide the water to form a hose, just like she does every day.
At her gasp, he flinches, water splashing to the ground around him.
"Katara!" He jumps, "It's not what it looks like!"
"You're the Avatar!"
"I - That's -"
"You just waterbended!"
"I asked you if - if you knew what happened to the Avatar and you - you said you didn't know! You lied!"
"I can explain", Aang says, strangly subdued.
"I am the Avatar, yes, but - I don't want to be."
"You don't want to be?"
"No. The monks revealed that I was the Avatar when I turned twelve and - I didn't change, but everyone else started acting like I had, treating me differently, expecting different things, and I didn't like it. I didn't want you or Sokka to treat me like that."
"Oh", Katara says, sitting down next to Aang and pulling him into a hug, "I understand. When I started waterbending, a lot of people started treating me differently too."
"Mhm. I was the first waterbender born in a long time, and the Fire Nation had done their best to erraticate us. A lot of people were scared, or disbelieving - Sokka called it 'weird magic' and didn't want me to use it. He came around when Dad left, though, so it's all good. He even apologized!" Katara smiles fondly.
"I'm sure he won't be weird about you being the Avatar. Well", she ammends, "not weirder than usual, at least. And you don't have to practice in secret anymore! We can work on waterbending together!"
As Aang cheers, she looks out over the ocean, feeling a wave of confidence wash over her. They can end this war, together!
"Let's start practicing right now!"
Chapter 7: If You're Sick Of It
So as it turns out I'm not dead and this isn't abandoned either. Happy new year!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"That was a great fight!" The girl says, bouncing on her toes.
Toph doesn't turn around to look at her. The girl's not allowed to be here, technically, but she didn't even sneak in, really. She just walked right through the guards into the backstage area, like she belongs here.
"I know it was", Toph says, "After all, I fought in it."
"I've never seen an Earthbender as great as you", the girl continues. She feels... strange, to Toph's senses. She's not an Earthbender, doesn't move like one at least, but she feels - steady. Routed, in a way she recognizes from her teachers.
"If you're here to get an autograph, you're going to be disappointed."
"Oh no", the girl laughs, "I have an offer for you!"
Who does she think she is? Toph turns and points: "That's a lie!"
The girl freezes, then laughs again. "I was gonna say it's not, but that's fair actually. Let me start over, please? Hi! I'm Jin, and I need your help."
"So let me get this straight", Toph says later, "The Earth King wants me to help him win the war. By training a bunch of Earth Benders to fight for him."
"Essentially! He doesn't only want you to train people for him, obviously, that would be a waste of your talent, but it would be a part of it."
"And how exactly did the Earth King, who has never left Ba Sing Se learn of my existence?"
"Ah, he didn't?" Truth.
"But well, the Blind Bandit has made quite the name for herself! I heard so many amazing stories about you, that I just had to meet you!" Truth - no, there's something - no, it's the truth.
"So, I brought you up to him, and he agreed that it would be great to have you on board."
Truth. Is she spinning a story? But everything she said was true. A half-truth?
But it doesn't matter. She can't just run off like that.
"Sorry", she says, "but you'll have to find someone else."
"Why? I mean, I know you're twelve, but -"
"Eleven", Toph interrupts. Jin's heart stutters for a moment.
"Right, eleven", she murmurs. "But we can smooth things over with your parents."
"No", she says again.
Yue opens her eyes as the first rays of sunlight come shining through their hiding place. A vision, again? She frowns, trying to recall what she saw. It's getting fuzzier already, but - that man was there. He was the same one that she saw with the Avatar, but he looked years younger. There were other people with him, too.
Miki is asleep next to her. They were up nearly the whole night, to lower the risk of being found sneaking around on the ship.
Yue smiles. Miki is so excited to go to the South. She keeps talking - whispering, they can't risk anyone hearing them - about the great warriors of the South, how much she's gonna enjoy to learn to fight.
If Master Pakku doesn't drown them both for sneaking on his ship like that. Spirits, he will be so angry when they come out. But she has to do this, she knows she has to.
Miki decided it was worth to risk anything a long time ago. Master Pakku had taught her for a while, but well - women can't learn how to fight, so he stopped. Miki was so angry with him, and he with her - misplaced betrayal, Yue thinks.
Miki's parents tried very hard to make a respectable woman out of her, bemoaning the lost time in her childhood they could've used to teach her manners.
She wonders what they'd do, now that her most respectable friend has smuggled her on a voyage to the South.
Marry her off, probably, as fast as possible. To keep her in line. As if that would ever work.
God, her father must be so worried about her.
Miki complains about it being too boring often. She's right - they're not doing much but sitting around and talking.
It is dreadfully boring, except for the short moments when they are close to being discovered or have to leave their hiding place.
"Five more minutes, Mom", Miki murmurs sleepily, covering her eyes with her hand.
Yue laughs, trying to smother it behind her hand.
"Oh", Miki says, blinking and sitting up slowly. "Oh! Hi, Yue."
"Good morning", Yue whispers, giggling.
"Shut up", Miki says, lightly hitting her on the shoulder, "Yue! Stop laughing, that's mean!"
"Sorry", Yue says, still smiling. "Did you sleep well?"
"Fine", Miki says, "What about you?"
"I had a dream", Yue says, frowning at her lap, "Or - or a vision, I suppose."
"Oh", Miki says, gasping, "Did you see Tui again?"
"No", Yue says, "But that man was there."
"The same guy as the last time?"
"Yes. It's hard to remember, but it was him. He wasn't alone, I think, and he looked - strange."
"He looked younger", Yue laughs, "He had a horribly uneven beard. You could see that he really tried to grow it out, but just couldn't. The person with him was -"
Yue hesitates, cheerful feeling fading as she recalls the woman. How could she describe the feeling she had? "Something horrible happened. Shortly before this vision. Like someone had ripped her soul out of her, left her an empty husk. The guy started teaching her how to use a sword, I think."
Miki shivers, caught in the same chill that Yue remembers from her dream.
Their fears about being caught turn out to be unfounded in the end. They don't get caught. They reveal themselves when they run into a Fire Nation ship who's captain doesn't want to play nice with the Water Tribe. But then, neither Hahn or Master Pakku are feeling very forgiving towards the Fire Nation and so they would have ended up in a battle anyways.
She exchanges a look with Miki. There are no other waterbending healers on this trip. Miki's eyes go hard, and together they step out of their hiding place and onto the deck. She turns to face Master Pakku and Hahn as Miki runs to the first fallen warrior.
For a moment Master Pakku's face is open with surprise, then it hardens into careful indifference.
"Princess Yue. I wasn't aware your father had changed his mind about letting you come on this journey."
"Master Pakku", she replies, "As you are well aware, my father didn't allow me to come. I have -"
"What are you doing here?" Hahn interrupts, indignant and angry.
"I have to go to the South", she explains, "regardless of what my father says."
"Going against the Chief's explicit orders is treason", Master Pakku says, "I should lock you up for endangering your tribe like this."
"If going against my father endangers my tribe, what would happen if I went against the spirits? Tui -"
"The spirits -"
"Tui", she continues, letting the calm sense of power she had in her dream wash over her, "gave me part of their life, and I have a duty to them."
Master Pakku gives her a disappointed look. "You have a duty to your tribe, girl. Stay under deck and don't cause any trouble."
As he turns back to the battle, Hahn makes a choked noise. He seems angrier than she has ever seen before.
"I would suggest you join your fellow warriors again", she says mildly. Her father wants her to marry Hahn, she knows, and she would, for her tribe she would, but as he bristles and fumes, she thinks that it won't happen now.
It would not have happened regardless , a voice in the back of her mind whispers, Now you'll live to see it through.
Miki collapses next to her after the battle is over.
"I won!", she says weakly.
"Did we?" Yue asks, amused despite Master Pakku's glare as he stomps towards them.
"We managed to wound them enough that they can't pursue us", he growls, "And we barely managed that."
He's angry, Yue thinks, but not at me, or even Miki for once. Does he blame Hahn? Or - himself?
"No one died, so I won", Miki says, "You twat."
"You", Master Pakku says, "I suppose you've come to entertain your ridiculous notions of learning to fight in the South."
"So what if I have?" Miki snaps back.
Master Pakku draws himself up, sneering impressively: "You could have been a warrior, but you made your choice! I will not allow you to go back on it."
"This has nothing to do with that! Women should be allowed to fight!" She draws herself up, wobbling dangerously.
"Miki", Yue says.
"You can't stop me anyways!"
"Miki", Yue repeats, "you're gonna pass out."
As her friend flops back down, Yue looks at Master Pakku. "Miki just saved the lives of plenty of your warriors. Is threatening her really the best way to show your appreciation?"
He turns his nose up at them. "Don't think I am done with you", he snaps, turning around and walking away, barking out orders as he goes.
"Do you think he'll cause us trouble?" Yue whispers.
"What's he gonna do? You're the Chief's daughter, he can't seriously hurt you. Me, maybe, but - he's not gonna like, throw me overboard or anything. So we'll still arrive in the South, and I bet they'll understand."
"What if they don't, though?"
"Then you'll find the Avatar and pull me out of whatever ice hole he threw me in, of course."
"There's a ship!" the watchwoman calls, causing all activity in the village to freeze to a stop.
"Oh oh", Sokka says, then shouts: "Everyone on position! Collect the children and - Aang! Where the hell is Appa?!"
"He's not here", Aang says apologetically.
"What do you mean he's not here?! Where did he go?"
"Well, Appa's big, you know! He has to eat!" Aang defends himself, "He's on the nearest green island, he'll be back in the evening!"
Sokka opens his mouth, and releases a sound remarkably like a tiger-seal. Then he shakes himself from head to toe, and stomps away angrily.
Katara gives Aang a compassionate look before following her brother up the wall.
He's looking through binoculars as she steps next to him.
"Doesn't look Fire Nation", he murmurs, "and there's no black snow falling either. Maybe it's - Suki!"
He jumps, grinning broadly. "It's Suki! Katara, look!"
"Really?" Katara raises the binoculars to her eyes, trying to find the ship, but - "Sokka, stop shaking me! I can't see anything like that!"
"Sorry", Sokka says, not sounding sorry at all. "But it's Suki!"
Katara sighs, focusing on the ship again, and sure enough, she can see the painted faces of the Kyoshi Warriors. "What do they want here?", she asks, "I thought associating with us was 'too dangerous' and 'would bring the wrath of the Fire Nation upon us'".
Sokka isn't listening to her, she realizes and sighs again. He's calling off the women, apparently completely relaxed now, but she's not.
They made it very clear that they didn't want to work with them, why would they come here now? Sokka may think the best of them, but she'll stay cautious.
As the warriors step out of their boat the village forms a loose circle around them. Sokka's standing the middle and she steps next to him, nervously fingering the machete she started carrying with her.
She prefers fighting with her waterbending, yes, but she's - well. Sokka can beat her if she fights without a weapon, so she's obviously not good enough. Yet.
"Suki!" Sokka greets cheerfully.
"Sokka", the girl responds, "I've taken over as the leader of the warriors of Kyoshi."
"You have?", Katara asks, "What happened to Jaya?"
Suki smiles at her. "She was sick for a long time already. It was inevitable that she would become too sick to lead one day, and she trained me to be her successor."
"So why are you here?" she asks, still suspicious.
"We want to help", Suki says, "It wasn't right to just stand by and do nothing. It kept us safe, yes, but it cost us dearly, too."
"Suki!" Sokka yells. Is he seriously tearing up? He met this girl once, for less than a day.
"And besides", she continues, "shortly after you visited, we got a message from Ba Sing Se. They're joining the war again, and they want an alliance with us - and with you."
Suki and Sokka have spent the last hour hashing out the details of their new alliance. Katara left a while ago to go help with unloading the boat and making the first trades. Aang wanted to go too, but Sokka had grabbed his robe and pulled him back down.
"If you're the Avatar you need to learn these things", he'd said.
Aang hasn't listened to a word that's been said. He wants to! Really, he does! It's just so boring, and he's pretty sure there's something, someone around Sokka?
Like, not really, but he can see something moving out of the corner of his eyes when he looks past Sokka.
It looks like a person, sometimes, or a coyote-fox, or a fire-ferret, or an eagle-hawk, or a toucan-puffin, or - well. Lots of things. But it seems to flicker between them, always in motion, errantic. He can't see what it actually is.
He stretches his neck a little, leans back, trying to get a better look -
"Aang, what are you doing? You were supposed to be listening to us."
"There's this thing", Aang explains, "It keeps jumping around you, but I can't see it clearly."
Sokka stares at him for a moment, then hits himself on the forehead, cursing quietly.
"What thing?" Suki asks, "I can't see anything."
"I know what he's talking about", Sokka groans, "Just ignore it. It's just A- an annoying spirit."
Sokka shrugs. "I guess... Hey!" He grabs Aang and pulls him in a headlock, "What are you doing, trying to sneak away while I'm distracted?!"
Aang eeps, struggling to get free. "But it's so boring!"
"Are you the Avatar or not?"
"I never asked to be!" Sokka's grip goes slack and Aang pulls himself away, suppressed anger and guilt bubbling in his chest.
Stupid Sokka. Stupid Avatar, stupid monks, stupid spirits!
"When I was a kid", Sokka says quietly, sitting down in the snow next to him, "I wanted to be just like my dad. A good warrior, and a great chief. It's what I'm supposed to be, you know? What a good water tribe boy does."
He hesitates, resting his head on his knees.
"I could have been that", he says, "I was - I would have been good at it. You would have made a good monk too, if you'd been given the chance."
Aang watches him, seeing the loss reflected in his eyes.
"We both would have been great at it, and yet, here we are." He sighs, falling on his back. "The Chief's supposed to put his tribe first, you know, before all else. I never really managed that, and now - I'm spirit touched, now. You can't get rid of that. I'm never gonna be just the Chief. And you're never gonna be just a monk. Sorry."
"It's not fair", Aang says, blinking away the wetness in his eyes, "I never wanted this."
"Yeah", Sokka agrees, "Me neither."
They sit together in silence. Aang stops trying to hold back his tears when he notices that Sokka's cheeks are wet and glistening.
Sokka barks out a dry laugh.
"Hey Aang", he says, "Do you think that if you'd lived and died without getting frozen, that Katara would've been the next Avatar? It fits the time-sheme!"
"She'd be great at it", Aang says, "Can you imagine, she'd just yell at all the nations until they do what she wants -"
They're still laughing by the time Katara comes to drag them off to bed.
"Sokka?" Aang says quietly in the middle of the night.
"Yeah?" Sokka replies.
"I'm glad we're in this together, even if neither of us wanted it."
"I wouldn't want to do this with anyone else either", Sokka says, voice getting choked.
"Sokka?" Aang whispers again, "Can we go otter penguin sledding tomorrow?"
"There's no time slot for that in the schedule", Sokka says.
"I'm sure we can make one", Katara chimes in, "Maybe you can take Suki with you."
"Oh, yeah, great idea Katara, thanks! I'm sure she'd love that."
"You are such an idiot, Sokka!" Katara snipes.
"Huh?" Sokka says, and Aang bursts out laughing as he recognizes her tone of voice as that of every annoyed younger sibling he's ever met.
"And you know what he does with that student of his."
"The blonde one, right? Disgusting, really."
Toph pokes at her food as her parents share the newest gossip about one of the earth bending masters in town. She can't get the girl - Jin - out of her head.
"Mother", she says quietly.
"Yes, darling?" Her mother says immediately, voice going all sweet, "Is everything all right?"
"I talked to a girl today", Toph says, "When we went to the market."
"That's great, sweetie. Was she nice to you?"
Toph tries hard to stop herself from grinding her teeth. She cares, she tells herself, they both care, they just see you as a helpless little girl and you've let them.
"She said she was from Ba Sing Se", she continues, "I showed her my earthbending and -"
"Out in the market?" Her father exclaims, "It's a good thing nothing happened, Toph, you shouldn't be bending without supervision!"
"I'm a good bender!" Toph says, slapping the table hard enough to shake it.
"Toph!" Her mother scolds, then softens her voice fakely, "Of course you are, darling. Your father was only concerned."
"Of course", Toph says, bowing her head. "I'm sorry."
"Don't upset her like that!" Her mother hisses at her father like she's deaf as well as blind and not sitting right there.
"Imagine if something had happened!" Her father says back and as her parents start arguing over her head, Toph hates them bitterly and intently.
Then she sighs. They're her parents. Why can't they just see her?
"May I go to my room?" she asks quietly.
"Sure, darling", her mother says distractedly, "I'll call Seng to come guide you in a second."
I have a better sense of orientation than either of you, Toph thinks.
In Ba Sing Se I'd be the one telling people what to do, she thinks.
I wouldn't need to get guided by some idiot servant who gets lost more often than not all the time, she thinks, and I wouldn't have to ask to go to my room.
Writing tiny baby Toph with her parents is very hard for me. The last paragraph took me about half a year to write.
"Ugh", Zuko says, burying his head in his arms melodramatically. "I hate her."
"Your sister again?" Iroh says, looking fondly at his nephew. He doesn't know why she changed, but he supposes it has something to do with the girl, Ty Lee. She writes the letters, after all. And maybe Azula has finally started to realize how to care for another person.
Unrealistic, maybe, but an old man can hope.
"I think it's very nice of her to write to you so often!" Iroh says brightly, "She must miss you very much. When I was younger, your father wrote to me too, sometimes -"
"Shut up", Zuko grumbles angrily. If he wasn't so cute, Iroh might be mad at him for his impolite behaviour.
"Ah, youth", Iroh sighs, purely to annoy his dear darling nephew and is rewarded with a disgusted growl.
"I bet Father didn't give you stupid pop quizzes!"
"Oh?" Iroh says, genuinely delighted. "Is she worried about your education?"
"Knowing what nobel had what scandal this week isn't going to help me find the Avatar!" Zuko screams, waving his fist and some fire around.
Iroh looks at him and sighs. He's been hoping for his nephew to calm down during their journey, but the opposite has happened.
Was I too lenient, he wonders, when he was dealing with his banishment at first? But he hurt so much. Iroh couldn't bring himself to keep pushing at the open wound his father left in the poor boy's heart.
And now he worries that the time for his nephew to change his mind about his father has passed.
"Sorry, Uncle", Zuko mutters. "It just seems so hopeless."
"I know", Iroh says, "I know. May I see your sister's letter?"
"What?" Zuko says, "Oh, sure." He shoves the letter at Iroh roughly. "Maybe you can figure out what she's up to."
Iroh smiles wisely, and keeps his agreement hidden. That is just what he wants to do, not that his hotheaded nephew is realizing that.
Zuzu, the letter starts and Iroh smiles. Azula has always been serious and cruel. It makes it easy to forget just how young she is.
Maybe she truly misses her brother. Iroh reads on, and finds himself unable to keep his eyebrows from rising.
"See?!" Zuko yells, "She's being weird!"
"Hmm", Iroh says noncommittally. The only weird thing he sees about this is her motive, he thinks but doesn't say.
"I think I'll brew us a new pot of tea", he declares, "Do heat some water for me nephew. And watch your temperature better this time!"
"You're just using training as an excuse to treat me like a servant", Zuko grumbles, which he must never find out is true, "Heating water isn't real firebending!"
"That is not true", Iroh says, "It requires a lot of control and precision, which is fundamental for all firebending."
Zuko groans and Iroh smiles. He loves his nephew so much he cannot even begin to describe it. If only he learned to appreciate tea more.
Azula, however, Iroh thinks and frowns down at the letter in his hands. She's always been a sore spot for him. He doesn't know much about young girls, and has never really gotten to know her before he went away to the front.
What he knows about her comes from that short year he spent in the palace after his spirit journey and before Zuko's banishment, and from her mother's worried complaints and her father's praise.
The servants whispered about her being just like her father, but when Iroh looked at her he was only able to see himself, before his beloved Lu Ten was born and killed. Before he learned.
He felt raw when he saw her command her friends and tease her brother cruelly, when he saw her excel. Like all his flaws were dragged before him to taunt him with all the innocent lives lost because of him.
This letter is familiar too, but in a different way.
When Iroh was the crown prince, his father used to send him letters, keeping him updated on the happenings and politics of the nobles.
This letter could have been written by him, except for the childish complaints squeezed in, the little pictures doodled on the side and the scratched out parts where it looks like multiple people fought over the quill.
And the pop quiz at the end, of course.
Iroh laughs. It could not be farther from one of Azulon letters.
"What?" Zuko scowls at him. "It's not funny, Uncle!"
"Oh, Prince Zuko", Iroh says fondly. Maybe he misjudged her. "These are all things the crown prince is expected to know."
Zuko's face goes slack with surprise and Iroh tries not to let his wince show. The poor boy.
"It looks like she wants to make sure you aren't behind in your studies when you return", he says gently, sorting his thoughts on all the letters he's sneaked a look at. It paints a picture he would have never expected. If he's right - If he's right, he may have another chance with Zuko.
And he may owe his niece a few birthday presents.
"She sends these because she wants me to come home?" Zuko says quietly.
"I believe so, yes", Iroh says, "When I was on the front, your grandfather used to send me similar letters, so I would not be surprised by the politics of the capitol upon my return."
Zuko stares at the table, quiet for once. Iroh wishes he'd be louder. He busies himself with the tea.
By the time Zuko speaks, they both have a cup of steaming tea in front of them.
"My father never sent me a letter like that", he says, still quiet, but getting louder. "It's just because he wants me to figure things out on my own, right? What Azula writes about him, it's lies, right? He wants me to come home! Uncle! He wants me to come home!"
Iroh's old heart breaks all over again. If I was your father, I would have never let anyone hurt you like that, he thinks.
"Prince Zuko", he says, reaching for his balled fists, "My dear nephew, I don't know what my brother is thinking or feeling. But there's no way to figure this out for yourself."
Just like there's no way for you to find the Avatar, he doesn't say, but for once Zuko seems to be able to read between the lines as the boy springs up.
"No!", he shouts, "That's a lie, you're a liar, just like her, I hate you! He loves me!"
He storms out, slamming all the doors he can find, and the last time Iroh felt this old, he watched his son be buried.
"Prince Iroh?" Iziza asks, sticking her head through the door carefully. "Is everything alright?"
"Yes, yes", Iroh says, smiling tiredly at the soldier. "A small disagreement. You know how teenagers are. I'll talk to him once he's cooled off a little. Why don't you join me for tea, soldier?"
The woman nods skeptically and takes off her helmet as she sits down in front of him.
Iroh likes her. She's a very polite young woman.
"Have you gotten news from your family lately?" he asks and she nods.
Iroh smiles as she tells him about her elderly father and her brothers, and all the troubles they have with their turtle crab farm.
Zuko doesn't do well with being pressured when he's distressed. Iroh has learned to be patient. He'll wait to talk to him until he's finished with his tea.
Uncle, Zuko writes, I'm sorry. Then he hesitates. There's many things he wants to write, but -
Meet me in Harbour Town. I need to be alone for a while. I'll be fine, I promise.
He puts the paper on his desk, shoves his swords into the bag he's packed and marches on deck.
"Captain Jee", he commanders, "ready a rowboat for me."
"Uhh", the captain says, "Just for you? Sir? Despite the storm coming up?"
"That's what I just said!" Zuko yells, "Hurry up!"
"Yes", the captain says, managing to sound disrespectful even while perfectly polite, "Sir. Or course."
Zuko rows away from the ship, towards the coast. The waves and wind keep driving him off course but - he has to - he can't be around his uncle and his stupid tea and kind eyes. He's a liar, like Azula, he has to be, because his father loves him and wants him to succeed and prove himself and he'll get his honor back and then his father will be proud of him.
But Azula wants him home and Uncle loves him.
Zuko cannot breathe. His head hurts.
Father burns my letters, he thinks, Azula and Ty Lee had to steal one of them to read it, because Father doesn't even look at them.
I'm the crown prince, but Father has Azula take lessons and learn things that Uncle remembers from his time as crown prince while I'm stuck at sea with an impossible quest.
No! I will find the Avatar, Father believes in me.
Father hasn't mentioned me in nearly a year, Ty Lee wrote, and Azula didn't contradict her.
Zuko cannot breath and his vision goes grey. He rings for breath, but all he can smell is burned flesh as his own screams echo in his ears.
"NO!" He screams, a flame following his voice up in the sky. He feels rain on his face. He looks up to the dark sky.
"Have you forsaken me too, Agni? My father is your voice on earth! He didn't see your spark in me, was that a sign from you, even back then?!"
Lightning flashes in the sky, as if in reply to his words.
"STRIKE ME DOWN THEN!" Zuko screams over the roaring thunder. "FINISH WHAT HE'S BEGUN IF YOU WANT ME GONE!"
Zuko stands in his ship and heaves, and Agni replies.
Lightning strikes his ship, and Zuko screams as it shudders and catches fire. He grabs his bag, pulling it away from the flames, steadying himself on the wall.
He stares in horror. So it's true. Agni wants him gone. He has to - the boat rocks as another wave hits, and Zuko falls. He swallows water, kicks his legs and gasps for air.
The water roars in his ears, he can barely see anything and the waves keep crashing down. He gets pulled under again, and he struggles and struggles, lungs burning, muscles hurting and eyes stinging, until the darkness swallows him whole.
He feels warm, and safe. He remembers feeling this safe and warm, after his sister had just been born. His mother had let him hold her first, and then she'd hugged them both.
It had been a perfect moment and one of his first memories. His sister had been so small and so light. He just wanted to protect her from everything evil and bad in the world. She fell asleep in his arms, and it changed him forever.
Sister? a voice he more feels than hears murmurs, and he feels a curiosity not his own.
Who? he thinks, wondering if he should be scared, but here in this warm darkness, he cannot be.
The being moves around him and through him, and it feels like the best hug he has ever gotten. He cannot move but he tries to hug back and he can feel the beings joy as it feels him.
Brother, the voice says.
Yes, he thinks back, Yes.
He would be content to stay here forever, but after a second, or a month, or a minute, or a year, the being - his brother pulls back.
Wait!, he thinks, Don't go!
He feels his brother's sadness and regret.
Come find me, he says, I am Druk.
I will, he thinks, I promise.
Zuko wakes up. He gasps for air, shivering under the thick covers he's under.
"Oh! You're awake!" A young voice says, "Ajala! He's awake! Come quick!"
"Yes, yes, I heard you", a woman says, "You can stop shouting, Haru."
"What", Zuko croaks out as someone sits down next to him, and he sees an old woman leaning over him.
"You nearly died", the woman says, holding something up to his lips. "Drink, slowly."
Zuko starts gulping down the water greedily and instinctively. He didn't realize how parched he was until it touched his lips.
The woman - Ajala, the boy called her - moves the bowl away and he coughs, breathing in deeply.
"What happened?" he asks again.
"We're not quite sure ourselves", Ajala says, "Haru here -"
"I pulled you out of the ocean!" Haru interrupts, "We thought you were a goner for sure!"
"Oh", Zuko says drowsily, "Right. The storm."
Where he dared Agni to strike him down, and he responded by setting his boat on fire. Zuko feels dizzy.
"It's a wonder you're alive", Ajala says, "You were very lucky Haru found you and brought you here."
"Lucky, yes", Zuko says disdainfully.
Ajala pulls up an eyebrow. "Haru, why don't you go see if your mother needs some help? I'm sure she'll be glad to hear the boy has woken up."
"But he's just woken up", Haru grumbles, "Alright, alright, I'm going. Just send me away, I get it."
The old woman looks after him until he's out of the door, then she turns back to Zuko.
"Now, boy, I understand that you've had a trying time, but that wasn't very polite of you."
Zuko bristles. "What do you know!" he tries to shout, before coughing.
"More than you, child", she scolds, then sighs. "I am healer, trust me when I say I've seen everything before. I won't judge you for your answer, alright?"
Zuko frowns at her, confused.
"Did you try to drown yourself in that storm on purpose?" she asks gently.
"No!" Zuko shouts, "No - I, I wouldn't - why would you even think that?!"
"Because you don't seem very happy to be alive right now. Most people would thank the person who saved their live, you know?"
"Well I was supposed to die!" Zuko shouts, clenching his fists.
"But you didn't try to?"
"No, Agni decided that all on his own!" Zuko glares at her. Who does she think she is? "I told him to strike me down if he wanted me gone, and he responded by striking my boat with lightning! I was supposed to die!"
He's crying, he realises dimly, as the woman wraps her arms around him.
"My father would have been happy about my death", he whispers, and then he sobs into her arms like he hasn't cried since his banishment.
"Hush, dear", she says, "You're here now. The Earth will not swallow you. We can figure things out. Hush my dear, hush now."
He dimly hears her start to sing but he falls asleep before he can comment on it.
The next time he wakes up, Haru is back and Ajala drags him out of bed to eat something.
Zuko sits at the healer's table, feeling very uncomfortable as she recounts the recent history of her village.
"And then they've declared that all earthbending is an act of rebellion and therefore illegal."
"But Benders can't just stop being benders", Zuko says, horrified.
"That's right!" Haru says, "But they want us all to go to prison, because they're evil."
Zuko bristles, wanting to defend his country.
Ajala hits her hand on the table. He jerks around to look at her.
"Is what they're doing right?" she asks intently, "Is it just?"
No, Zuko thinks, "But they're carrying out the Fire Lord's will!"
"What?" Haru says.
"So?" Ajala says.
"So it has to be just! The Fire Lord is Agni's vessel on earth, his voice is Agni's voice!"
"No, boy", Ajala says sadly, "The Fire Lord is just a man like any other."
"Hold on!" Haru shouts, "You're Fire Nation! I've saved a Fire Nation guy! And you knew and you've been helping him!"
"Sit down, boy", Ajala snaps, "Don't start a fight in my house, with my patients!"
"But he's the enemy!"
"He's a child who nearly died", Ajala says.
"I'm not a child!" Zuko says, offended.
Haru looks at him and deflates. "My mother says only children sulk over being called children."
"I'm not sulking!" Zuko shouts.
"No shouting in my house!" Ajala shouts. "Haru saved your life, boy. He deserves to know the truth about you."
"Stop calling me boy", Zuko says, not sulking. "And I'm not telling him anything."
"You haven't told me your name", Ajala says, "And I will call you what I like. Now, why will you not tell Haru?"
"It's none of his business", Zuko says.
"Hey, dragging you out of the water wasn't easy! I think I deserve to know what happened! Are you working on the prison ship or what?"
"No", Zuko sneers, "I was miles up north when I asked Agni to strike me down and he obliged."
"What?" Haru says, surprised. Zuko's face burns and he looks away. Why is he so stupid? This would have never happened to Azula.
"He was out in the storm on a small boat", Ajala says, "And shouted at the heavens over some family troubles, from what I understand. He hasn't got a clue how he ended up here either."
"Oh", Haru says, "Are you a soldier?"
"No", Zuko snaps, shoving up from the table. "I'm going back to my room."
"His room, he says", he hears Ajala saying as he stomps away, "His room!"
Haru doesn't know what to do. He hates the Fire Nation. They took his father!
But Zuko's just a teenager. And if he's not a soldier...
"This is confusing", Haru says. "I thought the Fire Nation was all evil."
"There's good and bad in everyone of every Nation", Ajala says, hitting herself on the chest, "Including me! And you. Now help me clear off the table."
Haru slides off his chair and starts picking up bowls.
"He's the great spirit of the sun", Ajala explains, "The Fire Nation prays to him as what grants them bending and life."
"Oh", Haru says, "So nearly dying after you told him to kill you is not good."
"No", Ajala agrees, "It's not."
"I should probably go apologize for prying", Haru says, feeling awkward. "Even though he's Fire Nation."
He puts the bowls down in the kitchen and nods to Ajala before turning around and walking towards the patient room. He takes a deep breath, bracing himself, before stepping inside and -
"What are you doing?" Haru shouts, running forward to keep the boy from climbing out of the window.
"Don't touch me!" the boy shouts, "Let go of me!"
"You can't just run off! OW! Don't kick me!"
"If you don't let go I'll kick you somewhere it'll really hurt!"
"I turn my back for five minutes", Ajala says. "Boys!"
Haru feels the boy freeze and turns to look at the Healer sheepishly. She frowns at them.
"He was climbing out of the window", Haru says defensively. "And he's cut his hair off!"
"You can't keep me here!" the boy insists. "And the hair is important!"
"You ransacked the room", Ajala says, aghast. "I - You - How dare you!"
"I -" the boy says, turning red bashfully.
"You stole her stuff!" Haru says, "She saved your life!"
"I know", the boy mumbles.
"And that's how you repay her!"
"I know", the boy snaps, shoving him away.
"Why would you do that?!"
"Because it doesn't matter!" the boy shouts, springing to his feet. "I don't have any honor left anyways, what's losing a bit more to me?!"
"It matters quite a lot to me!" Ajala snaps, "Do you think money grows on trees? I need these things! Hand them over, right now, young man, or you'll learn the true meaning of suffering!"
The boy stares at her, paling. Then he shrugs of the Healer's bag he's got slung over his shoulders and hands it over to her.
"You even took money!" Ajala exclaims, "Heavens help you boy, not everything is about you or your honor."
"I -" the boy says, looking stricken.
"Get out of my house."
"No buts. Get out of my house right now."
Haru watches carefully as the Healer shoves his old clothes at the boy, feeling something strange in his chest as his face falls upon seeing the dirty rags.
"I don't have anywhere to go", the boy mumbles.
And Haru frowns, because he shouldn't have stolen then, should he? But he looks so devastated.
"Out." Ajala commands, and the boy slinks out of the door.
"I", Haru says, throwing a careful look at Ajala, to see a very complicated look on her face. "I should get home to my mother."
Haru's mom is quiet when he tells her what happened.
"I shouldn't feel bad for him", Haru says, "He's the enemy, and he stole from Ajala."
"You have a big heart, Haru", his mom says, "That should be a matter of pride for you."
She stands and looks out the window thoughtfully. "Did I ever tell you how your father and I met?"
"No?" Haru says, confused.
"He caught me stealing from him", she says with a fond smile on her face.
"What?" Haru says. "You - What?"
His mother laughs at him. "My parents were small time criminals, and they introduced me to the family business early."
Haru gapes at her. Her face goes serious.
"Your father gave me a chance, instead of turning me in. It came back to bite him a few times, but it was the kindest thing he could have done for me. The boy might be Fire Nation and a thief, but I can't help but feel for him, too."
She shakes her head, and sighs. "I'll put together some food. Will you go find him and ask him to spend the night, or at least take some bread with him? No one should have to go hungry."
Haru nods, still trying to wrap his head around his mother as a young criminal stealing from his young father.
"Hey!" A voice behind him shouts, and Zuko whirls around, throwing a flaming kick in his direction.
Of course, just like all his other attempts at firebending, only a weak puff of smoke emerges, because Agni and his father have forsaken him.
"Did you just try to firebend at me?" Haru says.
"What are you doing here?" Zuko snaps.
"I was looking for you", Haru says, regarding him warily.
"Gonna lecture me on my evil ways?" Zuko spits out, a confusing mass of roiling feelings in his stomach.
"No", the other boy says, "My mom send me to ask if you'd like to stay the night."
"What", Zuko says, "Is that a joke?"
"No", Haru says again, "If you don't want to come, she's put together some food for you to take with you. She doesn't want anyone to go hungry."
"I don't need your charity!"
"Oh, so you'd rather steal?" Haru snaps, "Stop being so proud and take it!"
Zuko bristles and opens his mouth to argue. But his stomach reminds him that hasn't really eaten at the Healer's and he's already lost his honor and his nation, so why not turn into a beggar and a charity case?
"Fine", he says quietly.
Haru stares at him like he didn't expect him to agree.
"Okay", he says, "Come along then."
"Isn't your mother scared I'll rob her?" Zuko says, trying to hold onto his anger.
"I don't think so", Haru says. "I told her what happened, and she said - and I still cannot believe it - that she used to be a criminal when she was young. She said my father got her to stop by being kind to her..."
He trails off and scoffs his feet on the ground.
"Great", Zuko says. He doesn't care about this random Earth Kingdom's family's trouble.
"Hey, it's weird, ok?" Haru says, "Imagine how you'd feel if your mom told you that she used to rob travellers!"
"My mom is dead", Zuko snaps.
"Oh", Haru says, "I'm sorry."
Zuko scoffs and they walk in silence.
"My father got arrested when the Fire Nation invaded our village", Haru says, "I know it's not the same thing, but it was almost four years ago now and I haven't seen him since. They might have killed him and I would never know."
Zuko bows his head at the pain he hears in the other boy's voice.
"I don't know what happened to my mother either", he confesses quietly. Haru looks at him and he continues, "She came to me one night, and told me that she loved me, and to remember who I am. The next morning, she was gone and my grandfather was dead, and my sister said she killed him."
Zuko shakes his head. "I don't know if she's dead, but she must be, right? She wouldn't have done that and then just left me alone with my father and my sister... But maybe she never cared for me either."
"I'm sure she loved you very much", Haru says. "Come on, our house is that way. You'll feel better after some food and a good night's sleep."
Zuko looks at him sceptically, but nods anyways, feeling a strange sense of comradery with the boy.
It's finally time for Zuko to angst around the world!
Chapter 9: Side by Side
Yue breathes in the warm air, water splashing up at her as the ship dips after riding up on a wave.
In a way, she is glad they were attacked. It means she doesn't have to hide anymore, and Miki's help has been valuable enough that they haven't even gotten into big trouble. Most of the men seem to be glad they're here, even, despite all traditions.
"Princess", Master Pakku says from behind her.
"Master Pakku", she replies politely.
"We're going to reach land soon", Master Pakku says. "It belongs to the Earth Kingdom, but it is being occupied by the Fire Nation. You will stay on the ship while we stock up on supplies."
"I will be careful", Yue replies. "But I cannot promise anything."
"Princess Yue", Master Pakku growls.
"Master Pakku", she replies evenly, suppressing a smirk. She cannot be a perfect princess and daughter anymore anyways. There's nothing stopping her from needling the man now. And he's so easy to poke fun at.
"If the spirits demand I go, I must go", she says, turning to smile gently him. As always, he frowns. She keeps her smile open and friendly as he closes his eyes and mutters a curse under his breath.
"If the spirits ", he spits, "demand that you leave this ship you'll take a guard with you, am I clear?"
"As clear as black ice", Yue says and faces the ocean again, dismissing him.
She holds her breath as he curses again. When he's stomped off, she breaks into giggles. This man, she thinks, and laughs harder at the memory of his face.
Miki saunters next to her. "What's so funny?"
"Pakku!" Yue gasps out, giggling too hard to speak a full sentence.
Miki starts grinning too. "What've you done to him now?"
Yue opens her mouth to reply, remembers his face again, and doubles over laughing. When she can breathe again, she looks at Miki and does her best to mimic his exasperated look.
Miki presses her hand to her mouth as she too breaks into pearls of laughter.
"He's glaring at us!" Miki says, nearly whimpering with laughter.
Yue looks over in the direction she's pointing to see both Master Pakku and Hahn stare angrily at them.
"How intimidating", she says, already laughing again.
In the end, she's on her knees, crying, and it feels like she's flying.
"Princess Yue", a young warrior called Voccarre says, "Hahn told me to guard you while we're docked."
Yue nods. "I'm sure you'll do a very good job."
"Hey, Voccy", Miki says, "How's the leg?"
"Please don't call me that", Voccarre says, "And it only hurts when I run, thanks to you."
"It's my pleasure", Miki says. "So are we going to wait a while before we go explore or should we start right away?"
"Please stay on the ship", Voccarre says defeatedly.
"I thought we should wait until they've started talking to people, just in case", Yue says, "Then we can go. Have you seen those trees?"
"How could I not see them?" Miki laughs, "They're so big! And they have so many leaves! Isn't that right, Voccy?"
Voccarre sighs. "They are certainly impressive."
"I'm gonna touch one", Miki declares, "I bet they feel different from the ones we have."
Voccarre sighs again.
"Should we take a stroll over the market first?" Yue ponders, "They seem to have a lot of things we don't get."
"So you're just going to go shopping and sightsee?" Voccarre asks hopefully, "No plans to get into trouble?"
"Sure, Voccy", Miki says, "No plans to get into trouble at all."
"But you never had any plans to get into trouble when we were kids either", Voccarre says. "This is proof that Hahn hates me and since he can't shove me down an ice crack here he's doing the next best thing: making me responsible for you two."
Yue giggles, and Miki rolls her eyes. "Stop being so melodramatic, we'll be fine."
"That's such a pretty statue", Miki marvels, "What are the eyes made out of?"
Yue looks at what's Miki pointing at, a small glass statue of a dragon. The eyes seem to be made of a gemstone.
"It's emerald, young lady", the merchant replies, "This dragon was made in the Fire Nation. Is a true rarity to get it this far north!"
"Oh", Miki says, pulling her hand back.
"We only have water tribe money anyways", Yue says, smiling at the merchant.
"Well, I'm afraid I don't take that, but Xoh over there, he does more trade with you folks so he goes to get it exchanged every half year. I think he's got some nice stones and jewels right now, but his selection's not as international as mine's!" The man grins proudly.
"Thank you", Yue says, "You seem to know your way around here. Do you know someplace we can try some of this place's food?"
"Yeah, o'course I do! There's a food truck over there, and a sit in place this alley over, the big yellow house, if you got more time."
"Thank you again", Yue says, linking her arm with Miki's. "We'll make sure to tell them you sent us!"
"I can't believe he's trading with the Fire Nation!" Miki hisses, "How can you be so polite to him?"
"Of course he's trading with the Fire Nation", Yue says, "This is occupied land. The only way he could avoid trading with them is by fleeing and he might not be able to. Hello, sir, are you Mister Xoh? We heard you have some jewelry to sell? May we look at it?"
"I'd love to show you what I've got, dear! Looking for anything specific?"
"No, we've just never been so far South, you know, so we wanted to see if you have different wares here." Yue chats with the merchant while Miki mulls their conversation over and Voccarre looks uncomfortable in the background.
"If you're looking for something different, I might have just the thing! A bracelet from the deep Earth Kingdom, made from real lava rock and form with delicate Earth Bending!"
"Oh, that's pretty!" Miki whispers, taking it out of the merchants hands and running her fingers over it. "It has engravings on every bead! And this was done with bending?"
"Yes, my dear, yes, an excellent show of marksmanship!"
"How much is it?" Yue asks.
The merchant smiles, and Yue squares her shoulders, ready to haggle.
"How spicy is spicy?" Voccarre asks sceptically, squinting at the owner of the food truck.
"Spicier than you're used to, I'd say, but pretty mild by our standards", the woman replies.
"We'll take three", Miki says.
"What if I don't want spice?"
"Don't whine so much, Voccy. Here, Yue -"
"Is that Master Pakku?" Yue asks quietly, "Why is he sneaking off like that?"
Miki jerks around, following Yue's look and narrows her eyes. "He looks suspicious", she declares.
"I'm sure he has a reason", Voccarree says.
"Let's follow him", Miki says. Yue nods.
"Why me", Voccarre sighs, following them.
Master Pakku walks out of the town with brisk steps, sticking to small alleys and shadows.
"He's sneaking off, that's so suspicious", Miki whispers as the sneak after him.
Yue nods again. It is so suspicious. If he wasn't doing anything wrong, he wouldn't need to sneak away. He's the leader of the expedition, it's not like anyone can tell him what to do!
They follow Master Pakku into the forest, along a river and into a small clearing.
Then he waits and they squeeze themselves behind a tree. Even Voccarre joins in, slowly starting to look suspicious himself.
Then a man steps out of the woods opposite Master Pakku. He's old, and he looks like he hasn't seen civilization in years.
"He's Fire Nation", Voccarre mutters, "What's he doing?"
They watch the two men bow to each other.
"Master Pakku", the stranger says, "You said you have news?"
"Yes", Master Pakku replies and Yue feels her mouth fall open. "It concerns the Avatar."
"You traitor!" Voccarre shouts, jumping out of their hiding place and pulling his club out of its holster and pointing it at Master Pakku.
Both men startle into battle stances, Master Pakku pulling up a water whip aimed at Voccarre.
"Shit!" Miki says, running forward and deflecting it away from him.
"Oh, are you kidding me!", Master Pakku says. "What are you doing here!"
"What are you doing here?" Miki challenges.
"You have to admit, it's not a very good look", Yue agrees, stepping forward as well.
"You got followed by a bunch of children?" the other man asks, sounding shocked.
"Nothing but trouble", Master Pakku says, "Oh, put that thing down, boy, and stop jumping to assumptions."
"He's Fire Nation", Voccarre says, not lowering his weapon.
"I am a traitor to the Fire Nation", the man says, "My name is Jeong Jeong, but I am also known as the deserter. Now put your weapon down."
"Oh", Voccarre says. "Well, I said, he had a good reason!"
"Oh, I'm sorry", Miki snaps, "Who jumped out of the trees yelling and fighting? Was it me, huh? Was it?"
"So how do you two know each other?" Yue says loudly, over her companions bickering.
Jeong Jeong shakes his head and Master Pakku looks like he's getting a migraine.
"We share the same goal of ending the war", Master Pakku says.
"Let's take this to a more secure locations first", Jeong Jeong says, "I am hunted by the army and who knows how much attention you've all gathered already."
"We didn't notice anyone", Miki says.
"And I'm sure you learned from the best", Jeong Jeong says, giving Master Pakku a side eye.
Yue hides her laugh in her sleeves.
Jeong Jeong leads them to a small cave, hidden deeper in the foliage. There's a bag inside, and a bed roll. A pai sho board is laid out on a flat rock.
"I'd offer you some tea, but I didn't want to drag a tea set with me when I came here", he says, "Feel free to sit."
Yue smiles at him as Miki hisses: "But he brought a pai sho board?"
"Be polite", she whispers back.
"Tell me your news then", Jeong Jeong says to Master Pakku.
"Hey", Miki says, "No news until we know what's going on!"
Both old men frown at them.
"This is your mess", Jeong Jeong says.
"Alright", Master Pakku says. "As I've said, we share the same goal of ending this war and restoring peace to the world. We came into contact through a - a network, of sorts, of like-minded people all over the world, some time after he deserted. We share information to save lives when we can and, most importantly, information regarding the Avatar."
"We believe that the Avatar is necessary for a peaceful and beautiful world", Jeong Jeong says, "And we've all sworn to do everything in our power to help and train them however we can."
"So you want the Fire Nation to lose?" Voccarre asks, still leery.
"I want lasting peace and a world in balance", Jeong Jeong says, glaring at him.
"So Master Pakku", Yue says, "you've told Master Jeong Jeong to meet you here to tell him about the Avatar?"
"Yes", Master Pakku says, "And if you hadn't interrupted, we would have been done by now."
Yue smiles sheepishly. "We're sorry."
"I'm not", Miki mutters, "You were very suspicious."
Master Pakku pinches the bridge of his nose. "I trust that you all understand that this has to be kept secret, even from our own people? Secrecy is vital for our organization's survival."
"Of course", Yue says earnestly, the other two nodding along.
Master Pakku sighs. "Since you're here anyways, Princess Yue, why don't you inform Master Jeong Jeong of your vision."
Yue nods, sitting up straighter. "I saw Tui in my dreams", she starts, "They showed me the Avatar. He's at the South Pole."
"So he was reborn as a Southern waterbender?" Jeong Jeong asks.
"No", Yue says, surprising herself with her vehemence. "He was - I saw him, locked in an iceberg together with a giant animal. I don't think he's a waterbender."
She hesitates, seeing the surprise on the others faces. She hasn't mentioned this yet, has she? And they've assumed - Yue blushes. "His name is Aang."
"How did he get in an iceberg?" Voccarre asks.
Yue shrugs. "It glowed?" she offers, "I really don't know."
"Well then", Jeong Jeong says, "Master Pakku, care to join me for a game of pai sho, when you're here already?"
"Gladly", Master Pakku says.
"He can feel glad?" Yue whispers in Miki's ear, "Surprising."
They laugh, and Master Pakku sighs angrily, causing them to laugh harder.
"Master Pakku, where were you?" Hahn shouts, "We've been looking for you!"
"Guess", Master Pakku snaps, stomping up onto the ship. Yue, Miki and Voccarre trailing behind him.
"You were supposed to watch them!" Hahn accuses, pointing a finger at Voccarre, who shrugs sheepishly.
"I didn't want to let them sneak off alone?"
"We just wanted to see the forest", Miki mutters.
Yue raises her head high, gives Hahn a nod and sweeps past him onto the ship, Miki following quickly.
"Sorry", she hears Voccarre say, and then Hahn lets out an enraged scream.
"He's gonna stay unmarried forever when we're through with him", Miki says. Yue mirrors her smirk.
"Get moving!" Hahn yells, "I want to take off as fast as possible!"
"Master Pakku", Yue says, stepping next to the old man as he frowns over some maps.
"Princess Yue", he replies.
"Are you planning any other stops to meet with your old friends?" she asks, looking down at the maps with him.
"I suppose you, at least, I can trust to not become a problem", Master Pakku grumbles. "Yes, if the chance presents itself. We do have to make some actual stops just to restock too, you are aware."
"Of course", Yue says. "What's your plan?"
"Well, we have some allies in the Fire Nation itself, so I would like to make a stop there, but I fear we won't be able to slip through their defenses unnoticed."
"It is very risky", Yue agrees, "Especially if you can't tell the others why we have to go there at all. You'll never convince Hahn to do it."
"Yes, so I fear. It seems I must trust in Master Jeong Jeong to spread the news."
"Or", Yue says, hesitating as she squints at the map. "You could take one of our canoes to get to the mainland alone, and meet up with us again later. We could even make a stop somewhere else in the meantime, in the Earth Kingdom perhaps, to risk our chance of discovery."
"Good idea", Master Pakku acknowledges in a surprised tone. "But that would still not explain why I have to go."
"Why not lie by telling a half truth?", Yue suggests, "Say you want to gather information on the Fire Nation, since it has been a long time since we engaged with them. And you have to go alone, so you don't attract attention. If Hahn insists that you take someone with you, pick Voccarre. He already knows what's going on."
"I'll keep that in mind, Princess", Master Pakku says, still in an insultingly surprised tone.
Yue nods at him and turns to leave.
"Princess Yue", Master Pakku says hesitantly, "Would you care to join me for a game of pai sho?"
She turns, surprised. "I'd be honored, Master Pakku."
Katara stretches, feeling her bones pop satisfyingly. Another day spent doing good work and training hard.
Aang and her get better at bending and working together everyday, the Kyoshi warriors gave them some lessons and with the promise of trade and friendship, the future of their village looks brighter than it has in a long time.
"Ah!" she shouts happily.
"Hey, Katara!" Aang says, floating over to her.
"Hello Aang!" she says, laughing.
"You seem happy!"
"I am happy!" Katara says, "Look at how great everything looks! The village is richer and better than I ever remember it being!"
"Yeah", Aang agrees.
"What's wrong?" she asks, "You don't seem so happy."
"I am happy!" Aang defends himself, "It's just - I've been here for months already, and - not that it's not great here! You're great, and Sokka's great, and Gran-Gran's the best, but -"
"Yes?" Katara prompts as he hesitates.
"I want to explore!" Aang declares, jumping up and twirling. "The Kyoshi warriors have elephant kois around their island and they're really big, and I want to rid them! And well, when I'm already moving, I thought I should go home, you know, to the Southern Air Temple! You understand, right? I'm sorry to have to say goodbye, but -"
"Aang!" Katara interrupts, "Of course I understand. But you have to realize that the Air Temple has been abandoned, right? No one's heard anything from them in a hundred years."
"I know", Aang says, "I know I might not find anyone there, but maybe there's some clue of where they went, to hide, you know? To guide airbenders their way!"
"Alright", Katara says, heart breaking when she thinks about what they might find there. But Aang needs to see it, and what if he's right? There might be some airbenders who survived and they might have left some clues.
Katara doesn't believe it, but - she understands, the horrible burning hope that keeps him going. After her mother died, she had days when that was the only thing she could allow herself to feel or she would crumble.
She hoped for the Avatar, and she has found him. Aang hopes for his people, and if there's a chance he can find them - well, she has to help him.
"Let's talk to Sokka about it", she says, "He won't be happy we're messing up his schedule, but he can't stop us from leaving!"
"Us?" Aang asks, sounding surprised.
"Of course!" Katara says, "You can't think I'd leave you to do this alone!"
"Yippie!" Aang cheers, and Katara laughs.