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Beneath the Raptor's Wings

Chapter Text

“In dreams begin responsibility.”

-William Butler Yeats (June 13, 1865-January 28, 1939), Irish poet,

 

Chapter One

 

August 1, 2155

Beta Canum Venaticorum (Chara)

G0V main-sequence star

27.58 light-years from Sol

 

The Avatar slept.

The wind rustled through the dry, yellow grass as Aang stood in the clearing, staring transfixed at the scene before him. The enormous, dome-shaped mountain jutted out of the white clouds. The sun setting in the west bathed the entire mountain, the beautiful cap of ice at it’s summit, and the clouds in orange and yellow to look like the entire mountain was afire as it dominated the landscape. It’s beautiful, he thought. I need to show my friends this. He reached out to grab his staff, to extend its wings, and take off into that glorious sunset back towards…where?

His eyes widened as it hit him that he actually had no idea where he was. He wheeled about, looking all around him for the staff that he had carried at his side for a hundred years. There was nothing about him but the yellow grass, and the strange spindly trees that dotted the plain as far as the eye could see off towards the mountain.

Where’s my staff?

More importantly, where am I?

He took in a sharp breath as something from the part of him that had lived again and again for forty thousand years whispered in his soul. He was staring at something no Avatar had ever seen. Yet there was something familiar about it, as though he had come home.

“You have,” a voice said from next to him. He turned to see a dark-skinned girl with curly hair about his age, wearing a thick pelt of dark yellow fur. He stared at her, almost as surprised by her appearance as where he was. He’d never seen someone with skin so dark. Her skin was darker than Katara’s, darker even than Guru Pathik.

“Who are you?” He asked softly. “Where am I?

She merely smiled and reached out to touch him on the shoulder. Something about this girl told him that she didn’t mean him any harm.

“My son,” this girl, who looked like she was barely old enough to bear children, said.

Aang woke up, staring up at the ceiling of his room in the Fire Nation palace. He breathed a sigh, as his brain remembered where he was and how he’d gotten here. Five months ago, he had defeated Ozai’s final mad play for global dominance. Zuko and Katara had defeated Azula. The war that had wracked the human race for a hundred years was finally over.

The fighting was over, but there was still a mess to clean up. Fire Nation colonies that were older than he would have been had he not gotten himself frozen were still in the Earth Kingdom. They considered themselves loyal citizens of the Fire Nation and would certainly resist any attempt to either turn them over to the Earth Kingdom or pull them back to a land that wasn’t even certain it had the space for them. The archipelagos that had once been considered his long-dead people’s sovereign territory had likewise been heavily settled by the Fire Nation. And stretching from the colonies’ eastern border all the way to the borders of Ba Sing Se, Omashu, and other major Earth Kingdom states on the eastern part of the continent were occupation forces and forward bases. Forward bases that couldn’t just be withdrawn without some arrangement in place to hand them over to the Earth Kingdom It was only in the last few weeks that King Kuei’s government had reorganized enough to even begin to explore those problems. A summit at the Northern Water Tribe was due to be convened for that purpose next month.

A summit he was expected to mediate.

Maybe it was a dream, he thought, a way for me to escape the ball of stress I’m inevitably going to be going through in a few weeks. He had been fervently hoping it would go smoothly and they could go on to their long planned visit to Ba Sing Se and the Jasmine Dragon even though he knew deep down it was going to be a mess.

For a moment, he wanted nothing more than to throw his thick red and black comforter off, go to Katara’s room across the hall, and tell her everything that just happened.

 Even as he thought it, he knew it would backfire. Great, he thought, as he fell back onto the bed with a groan. Something else that will make Katara see me as barely more than a kid. Bursting into her room at night, going on out about a dream? She’s a young, beautiful woman. Why would she be interested in me?

He wasn’t an idiot. Sokka and Suki shared a room next door, and he heard the noises that came from that room at night. And he knew in broad strokes, what he and Suki were doing. His body was almost disrespectfully aware of what was going on, as a matter of fact. She’s going to want to be with someone she can do that with. That isn’t me. Not yet.

No, I’m not going to bother her for something that for all I know really is just a vivid stress dream.

Even as he said it, he knew it wasn’t true. The Avatar was supposed to be the bridge between the human world and the world of the spirits. If anything counted as a vision from those spirits, it was that. And, like most visions the spirits sent, it was almost infuriatingly cryptic.

Which meant in addition with having to address the thorny ball of problems facing humanity, and his own love life, such as it was it, he had a mystery.


 

“The Katara of a year ago would probably gut me like a fish and push me off the Western Air Temple if she heard me say it,” Katara said idly, nursing her goblet of rice wine as she sat in the dark red upholstered chair facing Zuko. “But I’m going to miss the Fire Nation. You have a beautiful country, Zuko.” Katara still couldn’t quite believe it. She was halfway through her fifteenth year. She had grown her entire life in the shadow of unending war. A war that had taken away her mother, than separated her from her father, and then finally almost came for her.

And she and her brother of all people, had worked with friends they and the Avatar had made throughout the world to finally end the fighting that had wracked the human race for a hundred years.

One of those friends, though she wouldn’t have believed it possible only a year ago, was sitting across from her.

“The Katara of a year ago would probably have gutted me like a fish and shoved me out of the Western Air Temple,” The fair-skinned man pointed out before sipping his own goblet of rice wine. “I just hope the faith you and the Avatar have shown me pays off and this summit works out.”

“It will,” Katara said reassuringly. Zuko, Aang, Mai, and herself, had been in chambers with Zuko’s privy council all day working out some form of policy position for the Fire Nation to start the negotiations from.  Aang and Mai had been tired out by everything and had elected to go to bed early, and Zuko, the man who surprisingly had grown into her closest friend after Aang, had decided to invite her to have a quick drink with him before turning in herself. “Our four nations have been at war for a hundred years. They’re tired of it Zuko, they want it to end.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Zuko grimaced. “There are more than a few people in Ba Sing Se and Omashu calling King Kuei to conscript every man and woman of military age in Ba Sing Se and go on the offensive, to ‘drive the murdering bastards into the sea’ no matter what the Avatar wants.”

“I understand that reaction,” Katara said guardedly. I wanted to wipe this place off the map a year ago myself, she thought with no small amount of shame. “But I doubt there are enough of them to cause a problem.”

“They don’t have to be in the majority, Katara,” Zuko pointed out. “They don’t even have to be a sizeable minority. There just have to be enough of them in the right positions to risk undoing everything Aang’s worked for. That’s just the Earth Kngdom. I have my own hardliners to deal with. Men and women who feel that anything short of the Fire Nation flag flying over Ba Sing Se means that hundreds of thousands of Fire Natiom servicemen and women died for nothing, including the forty thousand men and women who perished when Aang and the Moon Spirit destroyed our fleet before the North. And I can’t say I don’t understand where they’re coming from either. I’ve served in that military since I was eleven years old, so did Azula. For that matter, my mother was in uniform when she met my father.  I was trained to achieve decision whenever possible, because anything less usually means I let men and women I’m responsible for die in vain.”

“Aang will put a stop to any rogue agents threatening the peace process. From any quarter.”

"But, as my sister gave us dramatic proof of last year, being the Avatar doesn’t make you immortal,” Zuko shot back, leaning back in his chair. “All it would take is one lucky shot to condemn us to another generation of war.”

“And if he dies in the Avatar state we’ll be on our own for good,” Katara continued, unwilling to think about the possibility of her best friend dying in her arms. Again. “No wonder you wanted to drink with me.”

“If Kuei’s hardliners seize power,” Zuko began, grimacing in distaste. “I have three options. Option one, I can let Aang go in and attempt to bring them down. That’s the Avatar’s proper function, and the one I would most like to let happen. He’ll go all Avatar State on them, the Order of the White Lotus will reassume control of Ba Sing Se, and we’ll try this again after they put Kuei back or find his legal heir.”

“And if he fails…or dies?” Katara asked, taking a hard swig of rice wine to wash the lump out of her throat

“Then there’s option two,” Zuko said, anxiety starting to creep into his voice, despite the effects of the spirits in his cup. “I can use my forces to support the Order of the White Lotus in retaking Ba Sing Se, again, and reestablishing a provisional government, again. Then we try the diplomatic route again as I just mentioned.”

“That would be the best of the remaining two,” Katara pointed out. “Actually, not having to do this at all would be ideal. Option three?” Even as she said it, she knew what option three would be. The option if Aang was killed and the White Lotus was either taken out by the hardliners beforehand or failed to resolve the situation

“The…unilateral option. I resume operations in the Earth Kingdom. I’d like to have Water Tribe and Omashu support if that were to happen but I’m willing to go it alone if I must. I force the hardliners surrender, hand control of Ba Sing Se over to Bumi, assuming the hardliners didn’t manage to kill him…but I’ll have no choice but to leave significant amount of forces beyond the colonies for the foreseeable future.”

Katara leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. We’re all fervently hoping none of that is necessary. She shook off the images of Aang in her arms in the catacombs under Ba Sing Se.

“Speaking of the colonies, many of the hardliners in the Earth Kingdom are not going to be satisfied with anything less than you handing all of them over.”

“The people of those colonies have known no other life than being provinces of the Fire Nation,” Zuko said, more than a trace of vehemence in his voice.  “They consider themselves my subjects. I cannot and will not just hand them over to the Earth Kingdom without so much as consulting the people who actually live there on the subject. The resentment from that from everyone involved will only fester, and in twenty years or so when everyone’s recovered enough, we may have an even worse war on our hands.”

“And Kyoshi?”

Kyoshi, they both knew, was a special case. Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors homeland had been a quiet backwater for generations even before the war, ever since Avatar Kyoshi had divided it from the Earth Kingdom mainland to protect her home from Chin the Conqueror. Due to it’s proximity to the Air Nomad temples and the Fire Nation it had culturally more in common with them than the Earth Kingdom mainland. More than a few Kyoshi Islanders had Fire Nation ancestry. In fact, the Fire Nation military prior to the war had been the main anti-piracy force in the region, clashing regularly with raiders from the lawless areas from the Southern Earth Kingdom. Zuko’s raid on Kyoshi while in pursuit of the Avatar had bought their island to the Fire Nation’s attention earlier than it might have been, but they hadn’t been so foolish as to think they’d be ignored (as much by their own government than by the Fire Nation) forever.

Indeed, only a few weeks after Zuko has returned home in triumph from Ba Sing Se, Ozai had formally signed off on the occupation of Kyoshi. However, Ozai didn’t consider it any great priority in the grand scheme of things, focused as he was on ingesting the mainland. As a result, he left the annexation to the Southern Command, which by that point was mainly a reserve force that didn’t have any great proportion of supremacist hardliners. By the time Ozai had been deposed, he hadn’t even gotten around to appointing a civilian governor to run it. Zuko, tasked with finding somewhere to begin to help the world recover, and feeling guilty for his actions there during the war, had appointed a provisional governor and carried out a concerted effort to help rebuild the village he’d destroyed. As well as improve the island’s infrastructure more broadly. He’d intended it to be a gesture of peace and was planning on handing the island back to Ba Sing Se, to show everyone how the Fire Nation could benefit the rest of the world with her engineers and scientists, not her soldiers.

The locals however were used to being neglected by the government in Ba Sing Se, but without the resources to make standing on their own a viable option. As such they had responded positively to a central government that took their concerns seriously.  As opposed to Ba Sing Se’s practice of only paying attention to them long enough to appoint some incompetent governor who was too well-connected to just fire before leaving them alone until the time came to appoint another incompetent layabout to replace the previous one. This being opposed to Zuko’s plans to help rebuild the Earth Kingdom and end the second-class status of the colonies, including Kyoshi. Where Kyoshi was going to end up had never been in doubt.

“As for Kyoshi,” Zuko said, nodding, “they will almost certainly sign off on transferring sovereignty over the island. They never had the resources to support it when there wasn’t a war, and it’ll reduce their strategic burden. I just hope that-”

A loud sound of…something whistled through the air, three times in rapid succession, followed immediately by a scream of pain from right outside the door.

Zuko and Katara bolted to their feet and ran towards the door, bursting through it, to find the body of one of the Kyoshi Warriors sprawled out on the hallway floor. Her lacquered green armor had been melted into slag by some terrific heat, her face was a burnt red, and she stared back at her with lifeless brown eyes.

“Katara!”

Zuko’s warning caused her to jerk her eyes up from the burned corpse of the Kyoshi Warrior. She yanked herself out of the way, right as a woman dressed head to toe in black, and wearing a black mask, pointed a strange looking weapon at her. It was curved, with a stock unlike any crossbow she’d ever seen resting against her shoulder. She pulled the trigger, and a blue burst of light smashed into the doorframe where she’d been standing only seconds before. Instinct took over, and Katara slid into a waterbender’s stance, freezing the water in the skin into an icicle. Zuko’s instincts were in top form as well and he sent blasts of fire down the corridor to cover her. Their assailant scrambled back down the corridor and into the corner. From her new position she fired back, more blue lights coming down range at them. Katara ducked around the corner back into the room, as more shots dug themselves into the wall. Zuko, having taken cover in the empty bedroom down the corridor, fired back at her.

Katara bit out a frustrated curse. She couldn’t range on her opponent without exposing herself to whatever that weapon was. Zuko was the only on at an angle on which he could fire at her from cover. Behind her, she heard the sounds of someone running down the stairs. She looked behind her to see Mai. Her knives, curved and weighted for throwing, were in her hands as she ran down the stairs. She pressed herself against the wall on the other side of the doorframe to avoid exposing herself to the enemy.

“What’s going on?” She asked as blue and orange blasts continued to crisscross down the corridor.

“What do you think is going on?!” Katara shouted back. “We’re under attack and I can’t get to her without exposing myself to whatever she’s shooting at us!”

“The entrance to the servant’s passage is on the other side of the room. If you two keep her distracted I can-,”

She never finished the thought. The unmistakable sound of onrushing air told everyone that Aang had entered the field. The surprised yelp told Katara that Aang had pushed whoever their assailant was out of her cover. Sensing her chance, Katara broke cover to see her standing, out of cover, firing back down the corridor towards what was presumably Aang.

Her eyes widened as the memory of Azula shooting Aang in the back flashed in front of his eyes and she slid her water back out of its skin, freezing it into an icicle and sending it unerringly under her shoulder.

Their assailant’s weapon clattered to the floor out of her suddenly weak hands as she made to staunch the thick flow of sticky arterial blood. She heard Aang running up the corridor right as she fell to the ground. Aang stopped in front of her, feeling for her pulse on her neck. When he couldn't find it, he looked up at Katara, shock all over his face.

“You killed her,” he said, as if he couldn’t quite believe it.

“It was either her or you, Aang,” Katara responded as she walked over to her. She leaned down and looked at the strange weapon. It was vaguely similar to a crossbow, but aside from the fact it was meant to be fired by a nonbending soldier that was the similarities ended. It was made out of some sort of black metal, there was a hole in the end, and the stock was two widely separated pieces of the same material that made the rest of it.

“What is it?” Aang asked.

Katara picked it up gingerly, unable to take her eyes off it. “I have no idea,” she responded softly.

Chapter Text

“Again the shadow moveth o'er
The dial-plate of time.”

 -John Greenleaf Whittier, (17 December 1807 – 7 September 1892). American poet and abolitionist

 

Chapter Two 

Captain Ty Lee watched the red-gold orb of the sun rising over the horizon as she stood at the top of Prince Sakomo’s Tower, the imposing red and gold tower that stood at the heart of the Fire Nation Royal Palace. She watched as the black and red airship slowed down as she made to moor to the tower where she was standing. The passenger airship, a luxury yacht for important persons like the person she was waiting to meet, was escorted at a watchful distance by two armored black Naval airships. This was in addition to the four other airships in the palace defense perimeter, upgraded from two since the attack.

For a moment she let herself forget what had happened last night. Of the burned body of one of her Kyoshi Warriors, her Kyoshi Warriors, who had been with her at the Rock. Of that godawful smell of burnt fliesh. Instead she tasted the crisp clean air, free of the usual industrial smells, but flavored, as ever, with the salt smell of the sea.

The light in front of her eyelids abruptly darkened, and she opened her eyes to find herself in the looming shadow of the airship, watching as the airship’s captain deftly guided her nosecone into the docking mechanism on the tower’s golden cap. Once she was bought to a stop, the red canvas covered gangplank extended out of the crew area and touched down on the gray stone platform. Ty Lee smiled warmly at the tall young woman who walked down it to stand on the docking platform.

At five foot ten, First Lieutenant Michiko was eighteen, two years her senior, her normally shoulder-length black hair was tied up in a bun. She, like Ty Lee herself, was wearing the new undress uniform Suki had instituted in the months since the war, (or at least major combat operations), had ended: the green double-breasted tunic and gold trousers with black boots with her sword buckled around her waist.

The older woman stopped and rose her right fist to her left shoulder sharply in a regulation salute. Ty Lee returned it with equal sharpness.

“Morning, Michi,” she said, using the diminutive form of her executive officer’s name. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Good to see you too, sir,” her executive officer shot back gamely. She looked around at the airships in the defense perimeter, and the soldiers lined up in parade-ground formation in the courtyard below. “If I may ask, what’s going on?”

“Quite a bit since last night. I’ll brief you and Miss Beifong on the way down.” She peeked behind her first officer’s shoulder, “where is she, anyway?”

Michiko gave a smirk. “Taking it easy getting to the gangplank. You know how she hates air travel.”

Ty Lee winced in pained sympathy. Air travel and Lee didn’t exactly sit well with each other either. “How was the trip?”

“It was pretty good,” Michiko nodded. “Her parents were as respectful and well-behaved as one would expect.”

Ty Lee snorted derisively. “I would be if two full squads of Kyoshi Warriors were scattered throughout the house,” Ty Lee said. Kyoshi Warriors who were there to ensure that she was allowed to actually leave and come back.

“I like you guys, I really do,” a sharp soprano said from behind Michi. A short dark-haired girl well into her thirteenth year stepped gingerly down the gangplank, holding on to the handrails more tightly than she probably would want to let anyone else see. “But I still don’t get why Zuko insisted on me having Kyoshi Warrior bodyguards the entire time. If my parents had tried to stop me, I would have just fought my way out.”

“Yes, because a daughter of one of the Earth Kingdom’s oldest noble families fighting her way out of her family home so she can return to the Fire Nation is totally going to go over well during the summit,” Ty Lee pointed out dryly. “The summit, by the way, which you have been specifically not invited too for that exact reason,”.

“I can be diplomatic,” Toph pouted.

Ty Lee and Michiko both gave quelling stares at her and she had at least the grace to blush. “Sometimes,” she muttered darkly.

“At any rate,” she said louder, “I want to know what’s going on, one of your courier ships flashed a message at her and everyone’ heartrates shot up, an haven’t seemed to go back down.”

 “Follow me,” Ty Lee said, turning and heading back to the door. “I’ll explain on the way down.”

Ty Lee spoke in a rapid clip as they walked inside and crossed the short distance to the elevator, filling them in as it descended towards the first floor.

“Gods,” Michiko’s pain and horror at the death of someone who had stood with them shoulder to shoulder in the Rock clear on her voice.  “And the bitch killed Aiko?”

 “Wasn’t she one of the Warriors who was with you on the Rock?” Toph asked from behind her

“Yes,” Ty Lee said, her voice hardening as the elevator opened. “When Azula remanded us there, she replaced Colonel Chang with one of her Lightning Sword officers, a Colonel Medora. She’s a sadistic bitch with a taste for cruelty and none of Azula’s former impulse control.  Azula then transferred in the Kyoshi Warriors and I joined them as a training officer. When Medora slaughtered our people, some of the other female prisoners joined us. We wouldn’t have had the strength to try to oust her ourselves towards the end if they hadn’t.” And what did Aiko get for her bravery? She died like a dog without even a chance to defend herself. “Aiko deserved better than the half-burned corpse I saw when I finally arrived on-scene.”

“I’d like to see this weapon, sir,” Michiko said from behind her.

“That’s our first stop, actually.” Ty Lee bought the group to a stop in front of the wide double doors to the archery range. She put her hands on the plain brass door handles and pushed it open.

On the green grass of the range, bathed in the early morning light creeping over the walls, was a wooden table set up near the back wall. Standing behind it was Sokka and what appeared to be a corporal in the Yuyan Archers, gesturing as they discussed the curved black object on the table.

As she got closer, she caught the corporal’s eye and the woman, around Michiko’s age, stood abruptly to attention. Sokka looked at the woman, clearly taken aback by the change in her posture and turned to see what had caused it. His face immediately broke out in a large smile as soon as she saw who it was.

“Hey guys,” he said warmly, with anxiety written all over his face she was unaccustomed to seeing there. “I wish you’d been able to come back under better circumstances. And I’m sorry for your loss, Ty Lee. I know how close you are to the Warriors who were trapped with you on the Rock.

“She died doing her duty. For a Daughter of Kyoshi there is no higher honor,” Ty Lee responded aggressively, projecting for all the world the unflappable image of everything the Fire Nation School for Girls taught her a company commander should be. “Suki ordered me to come to you, so we could see the weapon before we moved on to our assignment.”

Our assignment?” Toph said as she moved over to stand with Sokka, her arms crossed over her chest.

“Voluntary in your case, but I doubt you’re going to turn it down.”

“Which is?” Michiko cut in, curious.

“Which is something I’ll tell you in a minute,” Ty Lee said pointedly. “For now, I want to see just how this weapon could do what it did to Aiko and nearly did to Zuko.”

“Of course,” Sokka said louder turning back to the table, picking up a curved black object and offering it to her. “This is the weapon. Zuko wants me to find out all I can about it.”

Ty Lee takes it gingerly, surprised at its shape. Why does something like this seem familiar? The rifle was surprisingly heavy at just over two pounds and just over two feet long. It had a long black and gray oval barrel, curved towards a hole at the front that she guessed was where whatever it discharged came out. The stock was designed to rest against the shoulder while firing it. There were two handholds, one towards the front and one towards the back to hold while firing.

All at once she remembered where she’d seen something like this before.  She’d snuck in to the War Ministry’s demonstrations for Firelord Ozai when she was home on leave from school once, curious as to the strange explosions she’d kept hearing from this exact archery range. “We were developing weapons to this at one point, in the broadest possible strokes at least. However, those were longer, thinner, and fired metal slugs.”

“So Zuko informed me last night when he was asking me to look into this,” Sokka said, nodding.

“This doesn’t however, sir,” the Yuyan Archer said for the first time, her accent having the cadences of the Southern Islands. “This weapon fires blue bursts of energy, and while the experimental weapons only fired a dozen or so rounds before needing reloading, we’re not sure how many shots this one has in it.” She reached out her hand to touch it. “If I may, sir?”

Ty Lee nodded her assent as the Yuyan Archer pressed a tiny lever on the side of the weapon, only to nearly drop it in shock as a panel on the top slid aside and a black scope popped out.

“Stare through down at the target on the range, sir,” the young corporal responded.

Ty Lee gave her a quizzical look. “You’re being theatrically mysterious, Corporal,” she said slowly before putting one gray eye towards the scope. Her eyes widened in shock at what she saw.

A green circle with four lines spaced equidistantly around it centered on one of the downrange target dummies, a bale of hay with black lacquered armor on it. In the lower left-hand corner, another circle appeared as if by magic with a grid showing four dots. Her breath caught in her throat as she realized what she was looking at: the positions, relative to hers, of Michiko, Sokka, Toph, and the Yuyan corporal sharing the range with her. She swallowed impulsively. The potential of what I’m looking at…

In the lower right-hand corner was some sort of red and white sliding scale that may have indicated the range to the target, if she could read what she guessed were numbers on it. Strange symbols like “1” and “9.” She didn’t like the implications of her not being able to read them. At all. It only confirmed what had been in the back of her mind ever since she received the report to mobilize the rest of her company.

No one on her world could have made weapons like this. Which meant they had to come from somewhere else. Some other world.

“That’s not the only thing disturbing about all this,” Sokka said from behind her, holding his hands out for the weapon. “If I may?”

Ty Lee handed it back to Sokka who handed it back to the Yuyan Corporal as she made to stand behind the table

 “Thank you, sir,” the Yuyan Archer said as Sokka ran back to join them.

The corporal turned it over and moved a knob on the side with a loud chirping sound before turning it back up and pointing it at the target dummy downrange. She pulled the trigger.

With a loud explosion, a long blue light shot out the hole in the front and connected with the target dummy in less time than it would have taken for her to blink had she dared close her eyes.

The dummy exploded outward from where the beam hit it, burning strands of hay and slagged armor covering the ground in a wide circle around where it had used to be.

For a long moment everyone stared at the smoldering wreckage littering the range, clearly caused by a higher setting of some sort, for as badly burned as Aiko had been, at least her body had been more or less intact. Ty Lee shook her head, banishing images of the burned bodies and wrecked vehicles something like this could inflict and pulled her right hand from the hilt of her sword where it had strayed almost without thinking.

“Well, we’re screwed,” Michiko said after a moment, her mouth visibly trembling. “Benders would be the only ones capable of meeting a force armed with these weapons in the field and, unless they can somehow deflect those shots, they’d take horrendous casualties doing it. We have to find out where they’re coming from.”

Ty Lee nodded her assent, even as she couldn’t see any way to actually do that. If they’re coming from another world, not even the Avatar is going to be able to get to them, let alone stop them. As for what we can do…

 “As a matter of fact, we have orders relating to just that,” she said aloud. “The assassin who attempted to murder Zuko was a Lightning Sword, a member of the Fire Nation secret police force. Specifically, a certain Corporal Izani we’re both too familiar with.” She swallowed, as she remembered being forces shamefully to her knees with her hands bound behind her back in front of an equally bound Kyoshi Warrior. Captain Shiga had to have known in that moment that she was going to die, but even then, she had showed no fear in her brown eyes even as her hair had been pulled back and a knife ran across her throat by the very woman Katara had killed the night before.

“I owe Katara for ending that miserable life,” Ty heard Michiko mutter behind her, as she was no doubt subconsciously rubbing the spot on her shoulder where Shiga’s blood had splashed as the blood pressure in her brain had dropped to zero. She had the same reaction sometimes when she thought about what had happened.

“We all do,” Ty Lee said, her voice hard like flint. “But since it was a Lightning Sword from the Rock, Suki and Zuko have ordered us and Miss Beifong to talk to Azula.”

“Me? But What can I do?” Toph said, anxiety touching even her voice. The younger girl may have not been able to see the explosion itself with her damaged eyes, but she had certainly been able to hear and feel it in the ground. “I can’t tell when Azula’s lying. I found that out during the invasion.”

“Azula’s a lot less stable now than she was then,” Ty Lee said, turning back to face her friend. In no small part thanks to Mai and I. “You might be able to detect something. Failing that, your primary job is to keep her from trying to kill us. You up for it?”

Toph closed her eyes and took a deep breath, clearly trying to calm her nerves. “If it will prevent anyone from having to face that in the field. Then yes.”

-------------------------------------------

San Francisco Fleet Yards. In orbit over Earth 

Captain Jonathan Archer stood alone in Spacedock Two’s empty viewing gallery, looking at his ship, at the changes that had been wrought to her ever since he had last taken her out to fight the Terra Prime extremists on Mars. She had put in from the damage that she had taken when the extremists fired the hijacked Verteron beam at Enterprise. While in repairs Starfleet decided to field-test the experimental upgrades that had been in the work ever since the Xindi crisis, incorporating the latest advances from both Starfleet R&D and the scientific and technical data gleaned from the previous four years.

The ship resting in vacuum below him, enclosed partially by the frames of the Spacedock, now had a secondary hull, fatter to the front under the saucer-shaped primary hull, and thinning towards the back where the warp nacelles were now attached. In that primary hull was a new powerful warp drive capable of reaching warp six, thanks to the new government’s desire to make up for decades of treating the newborn Earth like a client state in need of coddling. And about fifty kilometers away, was the spacedock where Columbia had undergone the same rebuild.

Archer wouldn’t have believed any of it was possible not that long ago. He would have blamed the Vulcan’s superior attitude for…well anything. But Ambassador Soval had told him the last thing he and his old friend Admiral Forrest had discussed before he was murdered in the embassy bombing last year. That Earth had taken a fraction of the time Vulcan did to rebuild their world after their equivalent of the Third World War and within a hundred years had established half-a-dozen major off-world colonies and a dozen smaller ones. Something the Vulcans took eight hundred years to achieve. The fears that if given unfettered access to their technology, Vulcan would suddenly have found itself a thrall to some sort of aggressive Terran Empire that strided the stars like a colossus weren’t exactly unfounded. Indeed, the “client state turns aggressive and overpowers their former overlord” was not exactly an unknown phenomenon in human history.

At least the Vulcans finally think we can be let out of the house without terrorizing the playground.

“She’s a beautiful sight, ain’t she?” A voice, heavy with the Deep South accent of Alabama, Georgia, and the Florida Panhandle where it’s owner had grown up. “

A playful smile emerged on Archer’s face. “You know, Captain Hernandez’s new chief engineer has challenged us to a race,” Captain Archer said, turning to face Commander Charles Tucker. The thirty-four-year-old Chief Engineer, with fair skin and blonde hair was, like him, in civilian clothes, in this case a polo and blue jeans. “She thinks that she and Kelby can beat even you.”

“I taught Commander Kelby everything I know,” Tucker said, no small amount of pride on his voice. “He’ll make a fine chief engineer once he’s with a Captain who won’t constantly compare him to me,” he said with just a hint of edge.

Archer’s face flushed. He hadn’t exactly taken Tucker’s departure in an effort to get away from his relationship with T’Pol well. It was one of the reasons he had lobbied for him to go over to Columbia to take over her Engineering department. He deserved a fresh start, especially after his incident with the Orions.

“I agree he’ll be fine,” he said. “And I’m sure you’ll be able to edge him out just a little.”

Tucker nodded with a self-confident smirk before looking out the window. “It wouldn’t have been possible without the Vulcan’s giving us the warp six technology.”

“True,” Archer responded. Though I can’t help but wonder…” His voice trailed off, as what he had been thinking about before Trip walked in reasserted itself.

“Remember what?”

“Just something I was thinking about before you walked in., Trip. I can’t help but wonder,” Archer said with a heavy sigh. “If we’re not destined to repeat the Vulcan’s mistakes. We’ve done worse, far worse, on our own world. And we seem to be well on our way, what with Terra Nova and all.”

“That’s different,” Tucker pointed out, “the Novans asked to return to the fold, for lack of a better term, and appearances aside they’re as human as we are. Legally and morally we couldn’t refuse them.”

Archer nodded. Terra Nova had been the earliest human deep space colony, founded in 2078, after deep space observation platforms in the asteroid belt had detected an Earth-sized planet with the signature of liquid water and free oxygen in orbit of Eta Cassiopeiae . The hindsight of nearly a hundred years had suggested it had been foolish to establish a colony that far away when the very same Kepler Two mission had detected an oxygen-bearing world in the Alpha Centauri trinary system, equally uninhabited and equally unclaimed by the other regional powers. Most historians now accepted that the reason Terra Nova had been targeted as the site of humanity’s first extrasolar colony was because it was strategically located along the long trade route between Trill and Earth. A valid reason to establish a presence in the area, but not until after they gained the experience necessary closer to home by colonizing their nearest neighbor. Which was also strategically positioned in relation to Vulcan.

All had gone well with the groundbreaking, but when Earth was readying the next colony ship, the locals had rallied around a man named Mark Logan to resist it. Which was, on the face of it, ridiculously shortsighted. The two hundred people of the original colony ship was not enough of a gene pool to establish a long-term society. They only compounded the insanity when the asteroid strike that had felled the original colony finally came, sending everyone under the age of fifteen into the caves while everyone else readied to fight the invasion force they thought was coming. Which had meant that all they had really managed to accomplish was get everyone over the age of fifteen killed. The society that had formed by the time he and the Enterprise had arrived in the area to investigate the fate of the Terra Nova colony had regressed in two generations to a primitive society of humans in underground caves, affected by both the effects of inbreeding and the contaminated water. After initial hostilities had been settled, they had recommended to the Novans that they relocate to the caves in the southern hemisphere, until the radiation levels in the northern hemisphere finished returning to normal.

Which didn’t notably solve the inbreeding depression problem. When Captain Erika Hernandez and the Columbia arrived three years later, the Novans, having been convinced by the surviving member of the original colony before she died of old age of the need for change (helped along, no doubt, by the historical and science files in the data they’d left for them) had swallowed their pride and requested the help that they’d needed, even if it meant giving up their independence. The only way to do that was to complete the relocation and start shuttling in new colonists to increase the local gene pool. A process that was well underway.

“And we’re planning a deep range mission to that world in the Expanse,” Tucker pointed out. “Which we’ve already intervened on during the Xindi mission.”

“Just because we intervened in a couple of cases involving members of our own species doesn’t change the fact that we shouldn’t just do it willy nilly,” Archer muttered. In their exploration of the Expanse in search of the Xindi weapon, they had encountered a planet of humans who had been kidnapped from Earth and used as slaves by a race known as the Skagarans in building new colonies. The human slaves, mostly from his home country’s western states, rallied around a man named Cooper Smith, overthrew their overlords and reduced them to second-class citizens. However, what may have been justifiable at the time as self-defense rapidly became institutionalized racism. The humans in the village they’d been at justified it as preventing them from getting their hands back on advanced weapons and overthrowing them in turn, but the infrastructure that had allowed them to produce those weapons had long been destroyed. Also, the Skagarans who had interbred with the humans on the planet had had no desire to return to those days. It had taken a firefight with the local bigots to get the wheels of change moving but he hoped that that village’s example would become the law planetwide. Starfleet was planning an expedition back to that world to either voluntarily relocate them, human and Skagaran alike, back to Earth or use it as a base to locate any other human populations that may have been abandoned out there by the Skagarans. As well as finding the Skagarans themselves.

“My point is, however well-intentioned, these things have a funny way of backfiring when and where you least expect them too.”

“Everything we do can have unexpected consequences,” Tucker pointed out. “Someone other than the Klingons we pissed off during our previous voyages could come back to bite us in the ass five, ten years down the line. Does that mean we stay home?”

“No,” Archer said, “and I’m not saying we-,”

He was interrupted when the intercom in the viewing gallery chirped up.

Dock command to Captain Archer,” a female voice said from the intercom.

He walked over and pressed the comm panel. “Go ahead.

I’m sorry to bother you, sir,” the young petty officer in Dock Command said, “but we’ve received a priority signal from Admiral Gardner. He wants you in Starfleet Command for an emergency meeting immediately.

“On my way,” Archer said, “On my authority contact everyone assigned to the Enterprise and either cancel their shore leaves or tell them to be ready to report aboard as soon as possible.”

Yes, sir,” the petty officer said.

In addition to the new secondary hull, one of the other problems with the Enterprise  that had become abundantly clear was that even when she didn’t have a secondary hull it was undermanned, hampering their ability to take damage in any kind of sustained engagement, even with the addition of the MACO detachment. The MACO detachment was still there but the flight crew had been brought up to two hundred and forty. Though with the new systems, there were one or two holes that still needed to be filled.

He had a sinking feeling that he was going have to expedite that search.

----------------------------------------------

Starfleet Headquarters, Marin County, California, United Earth

Captain Archer, freshly changed into his uniform, walked briskly down the brightly lit corridor at Starfleet Command when he caught sight of a woman only a few years his junior, coming down the adjacent hallway to meet him. Like him she was in the new uniform: a deliberate departure from the one-piece jumpsuit he’d worn since he was twenty-one. The new uniform was a solid blue jacket with a name patch on the left side and the four pips of a captain on the right and black trousers, with the division color being represented on the name patch and on the turtleneck, in both their cases a solid gold.

 “Erika,” he said greeting his friend and opposite number on the Columbia, Captain Erika Hernandez. “You were summoned too?”

“Yes,” she said quickly as they fell in next to each other. “And right when I was having dinner with the rest of my family in Old Mesilla. My last chance to be with them before I have to ship back out tomorrow.”

“I was in Spacedock,” Archer responded, “I was a little restless sitting around in Buffalo.”

“I can’t wait to be back in the saddle myself,” Hernandez said softly as they moved at a brisk pace down the corridor, “though I have a feeling that I’m not going to like the reasons we’re going back a day early.”

Archer sighed. “Me neither, Erika. Me neither.”

As the two old friends, and occasional lovers walked down the corridor, the two enlisted security guards flanking Admiral Gardner’s office (the enlisted personnel and NCOs retained the original jumpsuit, though the turtleneck was replaced by a division colored one as well, in this case red) stood too attention. He noted that they no longer carried the small arms Starfleet had used previously, instead they had switched over to the same curved black rifles and pistols the MACOs used. It was a change that was long overdue, and it saved the quartermasters from having to stock two different types of rifle.

But at the same time, it had made abundantly clear that, whatever officers like Erika, (and even she had eventually acceded to the need for a M ACO detachment after that first fight with the Klingons) had wanted to think, Starfleet with all its responsibilities, was just as much a branch of the Earth military as the MACOs.

Which he had a feeling this briefing they were about to enter was going to make even more abundantly clear as the two of them stepped into Admiral Gardner’s office.The spacious room with its blue carpeted floor was illuminated with the red-orange light of the sun setting behind San Francisco Bay as they both stopped, staring at the Admiral and his guest.

The fair-skinned senior officer whose blonde hair had long ago gone white was not the only officer in the room. A shorter, blonde Andorian in the leather uniform of the Andorian Imperial Guard was sitting across the wide oak desk from him in front of the window.

“Shran,” Archer said, pleasantly surprised by the presence of his old friend. “This is a surprise. What brings you to Earth?”

“It’s not the weather, pinkskin,” the Andorian officer groused, “I feel like I’ve lost a quarter of my body weight and I’ve only been here a day.”

“He’s here at the request of his government,” Gardner offered. “He’s been on their equivalent of extended leave ever since he lost his ship and his superiors thought his assignment here could ‘rehabilitate’ him.”

“‘Rehabilitate?’” It had always bugged him that the Andorians had benched Shran after the Drone Crisis, blaming him for the loss of his ship, the Kumari. “Sir, the Romulans attacked him with a new and unexpected weapon, no reasonable person could be blamed for what happened.”

“As the board of inquiry back home agreed,” Shran said.

“Then why are you still on the bench?”

His Andorian friend looked at him quizzically, confused by the unfamiliar metaphor.

“Why haven’t you been given another ship?”

“They say it’s because they don’t have a ship to give me at the moment, for one,” Shran said, a trace of bitterness in his voice. “And,” he sighed, “alongside Talas, several of my officers who didn't make it also came from wealthy, well-connected families. Enough of them think I missed something I shouldn’t have to keep my superiors from going out of their way to assign me another one. However, I still have friends who don’t want me ‘on the bench’ as you put it until I reached retirement age so they ‘loaned’ me to your Starfleet.”

“Congratulations, Captain,” Admiral Gardner said somewhat cheekily. “Meet your new Operations officer.”

Archer, stunned, looked from Shran to Gardner. “Excuse me, sir?”

“You were still looking for one, weren’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Archer began, “But-,”

“Then I’ve saved you another week’s worth of searching, Captain,” Admiral Gardner said airily. “Say thank you.” Gardner’s voice was like hardened agate as he glared at him.

Archer, caught in a corner by military protocol, said the only thing he could in response. “Thank you, sir.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Captain Hernandez broke in from his left, “this can’t be the only reason you called us down here.”

“No, it’s not, Captain,” Gardner said, before hitting a touchpad on his screen. Immediately, the sound of hydraulic motivators whirred to life and a metal sliding door, closed over the window, blocking the picturesque scene of San Francisco Bay. Fluorescent lights in the ceiling and on the walls sprung to life even as a Faraday screen descended into place in front of the now armored window. He heard the doors behind him lock as Archer immediately realized what was happening.

“We are now in SCIF mode,” Gardner said, “I must point out to all of you that this briefing is classified. Do you all understand?”

“Yes, sir,” all three of them said in rapid succession.

He picked up a handheld remote and pointed it at the large viewscreen on the far wall, which showing a star map of the sector encompassing Terra Nova.

“Six hours ago, the Trill cargo vessel Ma’kala picked up a subspace distress beacon from an Earth Cargo Service J2-class freighter, the Makati City. They were having trouble with their subspace antenna and by the time they fixed it, all they could do was relay the signal to a Vulcan science vessel near Terra Nova who forwarded it to us. He gave a pained grimace. “The distress signal was coming from an uninhabited red giant star system with no life-bearing planets, which means the odds of their being any survivors is effectively nil. It was broadcasting a code Seven-R.”

Archer’s nostrils flared. Code Seven-R was ECS distress code for “We are being boarded by pirates.” It wasn’t one they normally got to send, as the pirates usually overwhelmed the ship before any sort of distress beacon could be launched.

“Leaving aside the loss of life,” Gardner said somberly. “Makati City was carrying a shipment to the MACO garrison setting up shop on one of Terra Nova’s southern islands. Roughly twenty thousand rifles and pistols. And at least three times that in terms of thermobaric grenades. Not to mention manufacturing equipment capable of producing more of them out of local materials.”

“Mother of God,” Erika muttered from next to her, eyes widened in horror, no doubt thinking of the same images he was.  Pirates raiding helpless prewarp civilizations with modern weapons they couldn’t possibly defend themselves against without drowning their attackers in blood first.

“Your orders are,” Gardner said, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers, “to recover any remains of Makati City’s crew, and if possible track down and recover as many of our weapons as you can before they’re used to hurt anyone. I just hope it’s not too late.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh.”

-Gospel of Mark 13:35, King James Version

Chapter Three

“I must insist that you reconsider, Captain,” the young healer standing in front of her said. The brown-haired woman of roughly her height, in her mid-twenties, had a mulish expression on her heart-shaped face as she regarded her levelly, her arms crossed in front of the loose-fitting brown robes. “My patient is unstable enough as it is. She’s not going to be able to stand up to rigorous interrogation.”

“As tempting as the thought is,” Ty Lee said, leaning on the heavy wooden desk bolted to the floor in the meeting/interrogation room in the Hospital Complex’s secure wing, “I’m not going to be beating what I want to know out of her.”

“It’s not just that,” the healer at the Capital Hospital Complex assigned to Azula’s case said, “This is a dangerous woman…and I’m not convinced she’s become any less dangerous since her breakdown after she was deposed.”

“I have a few doubts in that area myself,” Ty Lee said with a sigh, resisting the tingling fear that crawled down her shoulder blades at the thought of being in the same room with Azula again. “But what choice do we have? If anyone we have access to knows anything it’s her.”

“But with all due respect to your position,” the other woman said patiently, “There has to be someone less…emotionally invested in Azula.”

“Who?” Ty Lee asked pointedly, folding her arms under her breasts. “The Avatar? The boy she shot in the back and came within a hairsbreadth of killing last year? Katara? The young woman who cradled that boy in her arms? The Firelord who’s been at the receiving end of Azula’s abuse his entire life?” She shook her head, a short sharp jerk from left to right that brooked no argument. “No, Healer, I’m afraid there’s no ideal interrogator. Not for her.” She reached out and put a reassuring hand on the healer’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. Barring her escaping and trying to kill me or my friends, you will get her back unharmed.”

The healer, whose name escaped her at the moment, breathed out a frustrated huff and bowed formally. “Very well, sir. You’ve made your point,” before turning on her heels and walking out the door.

Ty Lee turned to her executive officer. Michiko and Toph had been standing in a corner, arms crossed as they waited for the go ahead to bring her in.

“You may have her sent in now, Lieutenant,” Ty Lee said simply.

She clicked her heels to attention. “Sir,” she said simply, shifting the heavy leather bag on her shoulder. The bag containing the weapon from the previous evening. She walked to the door that Azula’s healer had just gone through, opened it, and stuck her head out. “Bring her in now, guys.”

She stood out of the way as a man and woman, in the red and black lacquered armor of the Crater City Guard, brought Azula in, the black-haired young woman with brown eyes that shown gold in certain lights. They walked Azula across the floor, arms in vice-like grips on her shoulders, their footsteps echoing loud in her ears as they crossed the stone floor. They sat her in the chair on the side of the table closest to the door, shackled her hands to it, saluted Ty Lee, and walked out.

Azula smirked, her lips curling with a smile that never touched her eyes. “So, I know who I have to thank for interrupting my lunch.” She sat there, looking for all the world like she was still the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation and feared combat commander who’d suborned the Dai Li and took Ba Sing Se from within.

 “You’ll manage,” Ty Lee said dryly, resisting the urge to strangle the young woman sitting across from her. It wouldn’t do for me to be foresworn, after all. “If you cooperate with me, I’ll probably get you back to your lunch before it gets too cold.”

The dark-haired woman leaned back in her chair. “What do you want to know?”

“I assume you’ve heard of the attempt on Zuko’s life last night?”

“I may have heard of a few things here and there, yes,” Azula said idly. “Why? You think I had something to do with this?”

“It was a Lightning Sword behind the attack last night. One of Medora’s noncoms at the Boiling Rock as a matter of fact. The Lightning Swords traditionally reported to the Heir to the Throne. That was you before Zuko had you stripped of your titles. There have been rumors that those of the Lightning Swords or the Dai Li who went underground still report to you through moles in this very building.”

 “Unfortunately, I haven’t had contact with the former Lightning Swords or the Dai Li since I was locked up here or we wouldn’t be having this conversation

Ty Lee smirked derisively. “Oh, I agree,” she said, “But I also think you know more than you let on. Especially because,” and she motioned Michiko forward. Her executive officer set the bag on the table, unclasped it and pulled the weapon out. “Izani was armed with this. It looks like the weapons War Minister Qin was having demonstrated before the Firelord while we were in our final year, but it isn’t.”

“I can see that,” Azula deadpanned, even as she reached her hands out to touch the cool black metal.

“And before you think of trying to use that to kill us and escape,” Ty Lee said pointedly, “Zuko had Sokka discharge it until it died.” A process that vaporized all the water in one of the ponds of the palace garden and still had enough power to take divots out of the dirt at the bottom.

Azula harrumphed. “So Zuzu isn’t as big a dumb-dumb as I’ve always taken him for. Still,” she said, seemingly unable to take her eyes off it. “This is an…escalation.”

Ty Lee’s eyes widened and for the moment she forgot the need not to show weakness against Azula. She can’t mean what I think she means, can she?

“What do you mean ‘an escalation?’” Toph growled from her corner, glaring at her.

“It’s just the Raptor has never helped us openly,” Azula said, still staring at the rifle in her hands.

Ty Lee cocked her head, nonplussed at her reference to the High Spirit of War and Death. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, come on,” Azula said scornfully. “For the woman who got top marks in every tactics and strategy class at the School for Girls Cadet Program, you really haven’t thought about this? There isn’t a man or woman in our officer corps who hasn’t, at least the ones who aren’t incompetent layabouts just trying to use their uniforms to schmooze attractive men and women into their beds. All of those were either dead or out of uniform by the end of the first twenty years, in both militaries. And, contrary to the propaganda that the last three generations of Firelord’s were spewing out, the Earth Kingdom military is neither weak nor foolish. Keeping in mind the Earth Kingdom’s greater population and resources, we should have lost this war long before either of us were born”

“I know,” Ty LEe said, ignoring the shuddering feeling running down her spine. “I think we all knew on some level. They were teaching us how to fight and win wars and do so competently. They had no choice but to teach us the rules of the game, even knowing that under those very rules we should have lost long ago.”

Azula smiled thinly, gesturing at the weapon in her hand.

“We were supposed to lose. Now you know why we didn’t.”


 

Ty Lee stood at parade rest in front of Colonel Suki’s desk, as her commanding officer paced anxiously in front of the window of the officer of the day’s office.

“Are you sure about this, Captain?”

“Any other day I wouldn’t believe her if she told me rain was wet, sir,” Ty Lee said, “but…she’s pointing at something that pretty much everyone competent who’s served in Fire Nation uniform has pondered even if they’d never dare put it into words.”

“And though the me of half a year ago wouldn’t have admitted it,” Suki said, sitting back in her chair, “you’re very competent. Which is a surprise coming from a woman who used to be a circus performer.”

“Why do you think I went along with my parents sending me to the premiere woman’s college in the Fire Nation? I could have joined the circus right out of mandatory schooling.”

Suki raised her hand, conceding the point. “That being said, the fact that mainland forces kept getting their asses handed to them was a cause for concern, especially because offensives that should have driven your people back kept falling apart before they could get anywhere. We managed to inflict some reverses on you, but not as many as we should.”

Ty Lee harrumphed. “The chauvinistic little girl in that expensive private school my parents sent me to before the School for Girls chalked that up to our natural superiority. The Avatar and the Air Nomads had left us, we were told, and Providence had chosen us to take up the mantle of humanity’s shepherd. When my people were settling the Western Air Temple archipelago, the temple complex itself was kept strictly off limits to avoid anyone realizing that they’d been exterminated instead of dying from some plague as proof that Providence had withdrawn its favor. But if some outside force was sabotaging the Earth Kingdom’s efforts….”

“Hence the weapon,” Suki said. “The question is why?”

Ty Lee, who at least until the rest of the regiment from Kyoshi, had to wear the dueling hats of Suki’s only company commander and titular executive officer, sighed. “I have a few ideas as to why. All of them liable to keep me up at night.” And unlike you I don’t have a cute guy to play with whenever I can’t sleep, she groused mentally.

“I know,” Suki said, tapping her fingers on the heavy wooden desk. “I think we both had the same thoughts. The people who could build the ships necessary to cross the blackness of space to deliver weapons into the hands of our hardliners…”

“Wouldn’t need too. I know, sir,” Ty Lee said, finishing the thought. “They have the technology to break the Avatar cycle for all time and conquer us outright. They don’t need to weaken us by fomenting rebellion from within, so why not just rain death from our skies and send in the troops? If I had an insurmountable technological advantage, I’d press it instead of playing games like this. It’s what I was trained to do.”

“I don’t know, Captain,” Suki said with a weary sigh, getting up to look out the window and just for a moment, Ty Lee had to remind herself that the young woman who’s command she was sworn to live or die by was her age. “All I know is that this puts the treaty negotiations into a whole new light.”

Ty Lee sighed, as she thought of what had been lurking in the back of her mind since she got out of the interrogation room with Azula. Should I really say what I’m about to say? If I say this, I could sound like I’m supporting the creation of a new Phoenix King?

“Maybe instead of concluding a peace treaty between warring nations,” Ty Lee began carefully, with the air of someone who knew she was risking the career she’d worked so hard to regain. “We should be laying the groundwork for some sort of new union.”

Suki turned to look at her, eyes widened in surprise. “Come again?”

“Working out a peace treaty and some sort of settlement regarding the colonies was all well and good when we just had ourselves to worry about,” Ty Lee continued. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet for Aang and Zuko just how completely the game has changed. If we stand any chance at all against what’s coming, we need to meet it as one world. Not four nations putting all our faith in the Avatar to keep our world safe. Don’t get me wrong, Aang’s a great guy but he’s not immortal and he’s not all powerful, and if he dies we’ll have at least a decade without an Avatar. And I doubt we have a year, let alone ten or more.”

“But the Avatar’s role is to keep peace between the Four Nations,” Suki pointed out.

“Yes, now, but what about before? It’s not like either of our nations has existed since the days of the First Avatar. For most of the Avatar’s existence, entire countries coalesced and broke apart, with the Avatars mostly acting to contain the damage. Sozin, Azulon, and Ozai were wrong to change that the way they did, but it doesn’t mean we’re fated to remain forever divided by lines on a map. Especially when people never stopped intermarrying across those lines on a map anyway. There are at least two people from the Southern Water Tribe in my family tree from before the war and my own first officer’s great-grandfather was Fire Nation.”

“And I have Water Tribe ancestors in my family tree as well,” Suki pointed out. “But that doesn’t change the fact that, at this point, it’s going to take something truly compelling to make any such union come together and stay together.”


 

Aang stood in the long grass, once again, staring up at the great mountain. A cool breeze rustled past him through the long grass, cooling off the light of the beating sun overhead. There was something off about that sun, he realized, as if it wasn’t as bright or powerful as it usually was.

“My son,the young woman said simply, staring at her with her dark-brown eyes.

“Why do you keep calling me that?” Aang asked. “You’re around my age.”

“Because you are.” She put a hand on his shoulder.

“But how?” Aang asked.

“Return to the place where you began,” she said simply. “And all will become clear.”

Aang awoke. For a second of brief disorientation he didn’t recognize where he was and he grabbed for his staff, before bringing himself up short with a sigh. He was in his chambers in the Fire Nation Palace, and, much to his chagrin, he had apparently fallen asleep while meditating. He levered himself to his feet using his staff.

The place where I began?” Aang thought, “Why does that sound so familiar?

All at once his eyes widened, as he realized what he was . No, he thought. She can’t be talking about that, can she? Aang’s nostrils flared, and he headed for the door, Momo jumping from his place on the nightstand onto his shoulder. “No choice now, I have to talk to Katara.”


 

Katara sat in her brightly lit office in the east wing of the Royal Palace, idly twirling a finger around her long black hair as she sat across from her brother’s girlfriend, wishing she could shed the robes of her office for the far more comfortable sarong and midriff baring top she had in her closet.

I’d love to, but I can’t, Katara thought, If I had been born in the Fire Nation perhaps I could get away with being more casual, but I wasn’t. Here I’ll look like even more like some stupid jumped up girl that Zuko only appointed to the highest office in the Fire Nation in a fit of nepotism. Which is what most of the hardliner rumor mills seem to keep spewing out. That and he only appointed me because we’re sleeping together, and he wants his concubine close to him, she blanched. That one wasn’t even true…anymore. It was extremely unlikely that anyone had known of the one night, during the run-up to the Comet, when driven by fear, and a desire not to have any real regrets, they’d lain together far from the others in a secluded rock shelter. Not even the rest of her own friends knew that. This was just an attempt to make her such a liability that Zuko was forced to remove her before she was ready. It was also a sign that the wartime mentality that had gripped the Fire Nation was starting to fade. As the threat of being executed for sedition and treasonous threatening of the conduct of the war faded, the traditional court politicking was beginning to reassert itself.

Not for the first time, she wondered if Zuko had made a mistake. Perhaps Zuko should have appointed a Fire Nation First Councilor, instead of making me the first First Councilor in two hundred years who was born a citizen of another nation, and the youngest First Councilor in Fire Nation history to boot.

“Well, Suki,” Katara said aloud, “it certainly explains a lot about how we kept losing.” Not referring to Suki by her rank. Unprofessional or not, this was Suki and she would be damned if she was going to let the hecklers who kept trying to oust her from a position that was supposed to be temporary tell her how to behave behind the closed doors of her own office. “I just wish I knew what to do about it.”

“Other than the surveillance efforts on known and suspected Lightning Sword sympathizers and their families, I’m not sure. Maybe we’ll get lucky. It’s not like they can completely drop off society’s notice; they have to buy or steal  food from someone at the very least,” Suki pointed out.

“What if the enemy is supplying them food along with the weapons?” Katara asked pointedly.

“They’d have to find somewhere to put that food,” Suki pointed out. “No matter how you look at it, no army of partisans hiding out in the hills and the forests can simply disengage from society entirely.  They need to recruit, they need places to train, they need places to store weapons and supplies. It’s impossible.”

“Which is the only thing in our favor right now. Our best bet,” Katara began, “is to locate some of those clandestine supply depots before they’re ready to put these weapons into full-scale use.” Katara shook her head. “They took a risk when they made their move against Zuko last night and let us know that they had these weapons. Now it’s possible that, if they’d succeeded, it wouldn’t matter, but they didn’t. And given that they haven’t seized control of the capital yet, it’s also reasonable to presume that they don’t have enough people trained in the use of these weapons. Or enough weapons.”

“Which means if we can get those weapons out of their hands and into ours we might be able to nip this current threat in the bud and it will even the odds…for down the road.”

When the people who gave them these weapons in the first place inevitably put in an appearance, went unsaid.

“But the window of opportunity is closing even as we speak,” Suki pointed out. “If we don’t find these weapons in time…”

“I know,” Katara said with a sigh, “it means everything we’ve worked for will end.”

“Not if I can help it,” a male voice said. Katara jolted in surprise and looked up to see Aang standing in the room, Momo, as ever, on his shoulder. There was a determined glint in his gray eyes.

Katara breathed out a sigh of relief. “Aang don’t scare me like that!”

He had the grace to blush. “Sorry,” he said, after a moment. “Katara there’s something I need to talk to you about.”

Suki got up out of her seat. “I’ll let you two talk,” she said quickly.

Aang held up his hand, forestalling Suki leaving. “No,” he said firmly, “stay. She’s going to have to tell you anyway. Better to get it out of the way now.”

Katara stood up in her chair in a rush and crossed around her desk. “What’s wrong, Aang?”

Her best friend sighed, averting the gaze of his gray eyes to the floor. “Last night, just before the attack? I…think I had a vision.”

“A vision?” Suki asked.

Aang nodded. “You see,” he began.

Katara’s eyebrows rose as he described the vision of the mountain, and the young woman barely more than Aang’s age who described him as her son.

“Aang,” she said after a moment, sitting on the edge of her desk. “Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?”

Aang spread his hands in a gesture of confusion. “I don’t know? We had just been attacked? The Kyoshi Warriors and the Foot Guards hadn’t finished securing the palace and I was more concerned with keeping anybody else off you and Zuko’s back. Besides,” and his face flushed again. “I didn’t see how it was relevant.”

Katara’s nostrils flared. Really? After everything we’ve been through? “Monkeyfeathers, Aang,” Katara said, her irritation surging. “Of course, it’s connected! When have there ever been two strange events going on at the same time!”

Aang, again, had the grace to blush. “Never,” he muttered.

“This girl said, ‘return to the place where you began,’” Suki cut in. “What do you think she meant by that?”

Aang sighed, and Momo climbed up on his head as he moved his shoulders. “When I was growing up at the Southern Air Temple there were rumors that part of the training for Avatars was exposure to something in a strange box hidden deep in the Inner Sanctum of the temple. I think we should go there and look around.”

Katara’s nostrils flared, resisting the urge to leap up, get dressed and get ready to go right then and there, but she stopped herself. After what had happened under Ba Sing Se, the thought of sending him away without her stuck in her craw. But what choice did she have? Things were…tense right now, to save the very least. As much as she desperately wanted to go with him, to put the most obscenely comfortable dress she’d ever worn back on, to get out of this dusty office, she didn’t see how she could fulfill her duty to one best friend without turning her back on her duty to the other.

Zuko had appointed her to the position of First Councilor within five minutes of his sister going down. In that moment, he’d absolutely needed someone with proven leadership ability that he implicitly trusted watching his back and ensuring the palace had been cleared of everyone who’d been loyal to his father or Azula, that Azula hadn’t already banished in her increasing instability. A task she’d seen to with gusto. The last thing either of them had needed was a knife to the back. The irony hadn’t been lost on either of them, especially because only a few weeks before she would have happily volunteered to put that knife in his back and not lost any sleep over it.

“Look, Aang,” Katara began pleadingly. “If the situation were any different I’d go with you in a heartbeat, but if what happened last night is any indication our world is about to change forever in ways not even we thought were possible. As much as this has to be connected we cannot all go off and investigate.” As much as I hate to say it. However good at her job she was, she was too young to spend the next decade or two behind a desk, sending other people out to have the adventures and change the world. At least I can take some comfort from the fact that, however bored I’ve been lately, Zuko is even more so. He commanded his own ship for three years, making the transition from that to sitting on a throne far from where the action is has been…difficult at best.

Aang’s shoulders sagged, disappointment all over his face as he realized his dream of being able to travel with Sokka and Katara like the good old days faded.

“Not,” Katara continued, “that I’m letting you go anywhere alone. Sokka and Toph will go with you. So will Suki.”

“Me?” Suki asked, blanching

“Yes, you,” Katara said pointedly, “Apart from you, there’s only one company of Kyoshi Warriors in the metropolitan Fire Nation and that’s commanded by Ty Lee. Until the rest of the regiment arrives from Kyoshi, your presence here is superfluous.” Suki was supposed to have rotated out with the rest of the regiment, leaving Captain Ty Lee and her Third Company behind as the contribution to the Palace Guard and taking Sokka to introduce to her parents. Right before they were due to leave, however, both of them had come down with a rather severe case of the Kissing Disease. The disease had left both of them too ill to travel for several weeks and rather than hold everyone else up, she’d just sent them on ahead.

“The rest of the regiment will be here soon enough,” Suki admitted. “I suppose they can spare me. We should be back in more than enough time to leave for the Conference. I’ll tell Sokka and Toph to pack up to leave.”

As Aang and Suki walked out her office door, Aang stopped, looked back at her, and with a sympathetic look said, “Don’t worry Katara. Something tells me we’re going to need you back in the field before all this is over, one way or another.”

Katara nodded. She got that feeling herself, though she didn’t know whether or not it was wishful thinking.  I don’t know whether to be hopeful or scared.

Chapter Text

A/N: A note on planetary calendars before I move forward. Beta Canum Venaticorum is a star G0V that is hotter and brighter than Sol. As such it's year, within a margin of error, 1.122 times longer than our own world's. As they have no frame of reference for any other planets in other star systems at this point, the years they give are their local years. For instance, Katara roughly halfway through her fifteenth year in her frame of reference, which means she's firmly seventeen in ours. To translate between planetary calendars, give any given characters stated year in canon and multiply it by 1.122. I'm mostly doing this to account for the artistic age trope that had them being drawn as looking older than their stated ages. They are older, in our years at least.

 

“The awful shadow of some unseen Power 
Floats though unseen among us; visiting 
This various world with as inconstant wing 
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower; 
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower, 
It visits with inconstant glance 
Each human heart and countenance; 
Like hues and harmonies of evening, 
Like clouds in starlight widely spread, 
Like memory of music fled, 
Like aught that for its grace may be 
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.”

-Percy Bysshe Shelly (August 4, 1792-July 8, 1822), English poet “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”

 

Chapter Four

 

Isha ir’Chula t’Neral sat in her office, staring out over the wine-dark waters of the Apnex Sea as chi’Rihan’s primary rose over the horizon, dimming the view of  her homeworld’s moon of ch’Havran. The chairman of the Tal Shiar had spent another sleepless night trying to process the recent series of reverses that romulan intelligence policies had received in the last year. The unexpected debacles that had consumed the two most successful Tal Shiar operations in the history of the Romulan Empire had played a large part in the totally accidental death of her predecessor and the elevation of Isha to the chairmanship of the Tal Shiar and membership on the Continuing Committee.

The first debacle had been admittedly the fault of their own deep cover agent on Vulcan. V’las and his handler had dramatically overestimated the threat to their plans from a small dissident movement well outside the mainstream and had decided to bomb the human embassy and frame the Syrranites as an excuse to eliminate them. It had ended with V’las’s government falling, the abortion of the invasion of Andoria, and the rebirth of the original teachings of Surak they’d worked so hard to corrupt when those very same Syrranites took control of the government.

The second plan was more recent but it had been initiated with the goal of complementing the original plan. A Romulan scout mission had detected the planet forty years ago in what the humans on Earth referred to as the Chara system, surprised to discover a population of humans that had apparently been planted there early in their prehistory by unknown aliens for unknown reasons. The Tal Shiar’s Predictive Analytics division had long known of Earth and felt that their rise to a regional power on par with the Vulcan Confederation or the Andorian Empire was long inevitable, whatever V’las and other Romulan agents did to prevent it. A plan was put in motion to use the local population to fatally weaken Earth’s ability to defend herself. Phase one involved sabotaging the Earth Kingdom’s efforts to use its greater population and resources to fend off the Fire Nation. It had worked beautifully, and they had manipulated the situation to ensure that Prince Iroh, who would have taken Sozin’s vision of a new human union seriously, was disinherited. Prince Ozai, who had the psychopathy and egomania necessary for the plan to work, then ensured he was put in his place.

The way her predecessors had planned it, Firelord Ozai was to finally complete the conquest his great-grandfather had started. Given his egomaniacal, psychopathic personality he’d immediately tear apart Sozin’s original dream by reducing the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes to worse than second-class citizens under a brutal, genocidal dictatorship. They would then ensure that an Earth vessel would discover the situation, banking the atrocities on the planet coupled with Ozai being the type of personality to think he could actually bully an interstellar power would be enough to guarantee an intervention. Such an invasion would divert Earth’s existing fleet and ground forces and place them on the end of a long supply line, deployed to support conventional and counterinsurgency operations on a planetary surface instead of arrayed to stand off a large-scale conventional engagement in space.

A fleet that would be less able to maneuver while in the gravity well of a planet and would be crushed, leaving the entirety of human space open to them.  This was supposed to be timed to coincide with a successful Vulcan invasion of Andoria. The Romulans on Earth would then “reveal” the truth of their heritage and V’las would “voluntarily” agree to unification. With a minimum of Romulan blood, the Empire would have gained control of the homeworlds and colonies of United Earth, the Vulcan Confederacy, and the Andorian Empire. And, most importantly of all, finally achieving the Great Charge, the founder of the Romulan Star Empire had laid before them a millennium ago, to return to their original homeworld and rescue it from the delusional rantings of an emotionally stunted savant that had driven them all the way out here.

And then it had all come apart, seemingly. The Avatar, who had somehow put himself in some sort of cryonic stasis, had reemerged, and over the course of the next year, managed to end the war and help Ozai’s banished Prince son to reclaim his throne and birthright. As a romulan she couldn’t help but be impressed. No romulan would have put up with the dishonor inflicted upon him by his own father and sister, she thought. Not that I won’t kill him if that’s what it takes for our plans to succeed.

Not even a year after that, V’las had been overthrown on Vulcan by the very dissident movement would have remained a marginal force in Vulcan politics if he’d just left them alone.

The failure of the Raptor Initiative, the code name for the unified plan to conquer Sol, Chara, and Vulcan had led to Admiral Valdore’s Long-Range Destabilization Initiative, also with Tal Shiar backing, also a failure. Consequently, her predecessor had died in an…accident and she had ascended to his position, determined to salvage something from the wreckage of the Initiative.

After weeks of analysis, she and her officers and analysts predicted that if they could get the war in the Chara system restarted, the mutual defense provisions of the newborn Coalition could draw all the Coalition militaries into the trap. It would require a larger deployment of ships and forces than initially planned to crush the multinational intervention forces in Chara, but they had the ships to make it work. To guarantee the intervention by Earth that would draw all the others in, they had made the decision to hijack a weapons shipment from Earth in order to hand over to the locals as a “gift from their spirits.”

A lot of things could still go wrong, but this constituted the best chance of success without having to slog their way forward through enemies prepared and waiting for them.

The companel on her desk beeped, and she sighed and walked over. “Yes?”

Her secretary’s voice filtered through. “I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but Major Dhael is here to see you. She has news about the Initiative.”

“Send her in,” she said, quickly taking her seat behind her desk.

Yes, sir,” her secretary said

The door slid open to reveal a dark haired woman with green eyes, her lithe body in the brown nondescript tunic and trousers preferred by Tal Shiar department heads.

“Chairman,” she said without preamble. “I have news of the Initiative.”

Isha gestured for her to continue.

“The Lightning Swords made their first play to assassinate Firelord Zuko,” she said matter-of-factly. “It failed.”

Isha sat in her chair. “How?”

“Someone apparently lost patience and decided they could seize control at their current readiness state if they managed to kill Zuko, causing enough chaos that they could free Azula from confinement and put her back on the throne. The monitoring drone reported picking up weapon’s fire consistent with one Earth phase rifle in the palace, as well as the EM signatures indicative of the powers certain of the locals have. One biosign in the palace became unreadable, and all our scans indicate the rifle is in government hands.”

The Chairman of the Tal Shiar resisted the urge to fling something across the room. “The veruul were supposed to build a force capable of seizing the capital before attempting to restore Princess Azula to the throne. Now they’ve willingly sacrificed the element of surprise and gave the enemy a peek at their capabilities.”

“Sir, the weapons we provided them are far more capable than anything their enemies have. Aside from the bending population no one has the capability to stand against them with anything like even odds. Benders only make up about one to three percent of their population. If it comes to a standup fight they lose.”

“Not if they manage to figure out where the weapons are being held. If they do that and manage to achieve surprise, they stand a good chance of being able to capture those weapons. And if they get the manufacturing equipment as well…”

“There’s more, sir,” Dhael said. “The Orion pirates we hired to seize the weapons didn’t force their prey far enough from the main shipping lanes. They got off a distress call, and a Trill vessel routed it to Starfleet Command. Enterprise and Columbia have been dispatched to investigate. Worse, the star system they’re headed for is only five light-years from Chara.”

Isha groaned in disgust. “Orions. You get what you pay for,” Isha said, even as her mind reeled at yet another setback looming in the future of this operation. They had at most three or four weeks to have a newly reinvigorated Fire Nation full speed into war. But building an army capable of doing that even with modern weapons was unlikely in that amount of time. If Zuko’s government survived, which seemed likely at this point, it was possible that it would become convinced that Earth was responsible for the weapons ending up in their dissident’s hands. Even as she thought it, though, she knew she shouldn’t count on it. The humans displayed a remarkable facility for diplomacy. Given the chance they just might be able to talk fast enough to convince the locals they had a common enemy. And if that happened…

If that happens we may have just handed Earth the largest population of humans off their homeworld. Strategically positioned, with ample stocks of dilithium. Nothing compared to Coridan but enough to significantly reduce their dependence on Coridanite dilithium. Unlike us and our distant brothers they won’t even have to coerce them into reunification, especially if locals realize they’ve been manipulated by unknown enemy aliens for decades.

“We need a new plan.”

“I’ve had a few thoughts in that area myself,” Dhael said, a predatory smile appearing on her face. “Waging wars of liberation and suppressing dissident rebels is not the only thing militaries are used for. In many cases of natural disaster, it’s often the military that has the organizational structure and the resources to intervene efficiently. And with all those third-party freighters and ships we’re going to have moving in and out of the system, it wouldn’t take much for an accident to happen. Accidents involving warp ships in orbit of inhabited planets can be devastating. The planetary magnetic field will deflect and trap most of the radiation, but the wreckage falling on their cities…”

Isha smiled at the thought. The head of her Coalition Affairs Desk had always possessed one of the most devious minds she’d ever encountered. And she was right, a disaster on the scale would be enough to convince Earth and Vulcan to send as many ships as they possibly could to the aid of their brothers and sisters on that world, stripping their defenses on their existing worlds to a minimum and leaving the ships responding exposed and vulnerable.

“I like it, Dhael,” she said. “Make it happen. Jolan’tru.”

Jolan’tru, Chairman” Dhael said before walking out the door.


 

Katara’s attention was drifting as she looked over her report. It had been three days since she’d sent Aang to the Southern Air Temple, and she found herself daydreaming. About the two brief kisses they’d shared. She felt her lips idly. Aang had not been the first guy she’d kissed. Though she was sure Sokka didn’t know it, that honor hadn’t even fallen to Jet. Jet had however been the best kisser she’d ever encountered. At least until she and Zuko had lain together in that rock shelter.

She was infuriatingly unsure how she felt about him. He was cute, but he was clearly…still a boy. There were signs of the man he was growing into, but he hadn’t quite grown into his own feet yet.

“My Lady?” A deep male voice said from the doorway, and she looked up at the young lieutenant who commanded her guard detachment, who had definitely grown into his own feet a long time ago. He was a broad chested, well-muscled young man, with a sharp, well-defined face on a head with brown hair that he kept just slightly longer than regulation technically allowed for

“Yes, Lieutenant Chan?”

The officer held up a stack of scrolls. “More reports ready for your review, My Lady.”

Katara sighed and leaned back in her chair, a richly upholstered chair that used to belong to Ozai that Zuko gave her so at least she could be comfortable while she was chained to a desk helping to run his kingdom. She looked at him levelly. And at least my guard commander’s easier on the eyes than most of the officials I have to deal with.

Second Lieutenant Chan was the son of Admiral Chan, the officer her father had faked orders from allowing them to enter Fire Nation territory; the incident had embarrassed the distinguished Admiral, who’d been on leave badgering his newly commissioned son over the parties he had a tendency to throw in his beach house. Fortunately, as dissolute as he tended to be in his personal life, , he was a model officer on the job. He was also from Ember Island, the title to which Zuko had also granted her by way of recognition of her service.

The position was in part a way of apologizing to Chan for ransacking his beach house. It would help further his career as well as allow him to have sustained contact with a beautiful woman. It also allowed her sustained contact with a handsome man…which may have been Zuko’s way of apologizing to her for the inconvenience of being chained to a desk.

 “The latest intelligence reports ready for your review, milady,” he said formally, bringing her out of her reverie.

Katara smiled as he set the reports down on her desk. “You know, Lieutenant, I have pages for this sort of thing.”

“I know, milady,” he said, cheekily. “But she was passing by my office and I decided to be the soul of nobility and courtesy as an officer should be and take them to you myself. And if that allowed me to spend a moment alone with a beautiful noblewoman then so much the better.”

Katara’s face flushed, and she saw the smug smirk on his face that said, point to me. “You’re cute,” she said smiling, “so I’ll let you get away with that.”

His face flushed, and she openly smirked. Point to me.

He smiled, one of those slow easy smiles that had been making her either want to throw something or tackle him to the ground and kiss him. He turned to leave as she hastily reorganized the pile of documents on her desk

“Stay,” Katara said, suddenly wishing she was in her sarong again. “You might as well escort me to my meeting with the Firelord now.”

“Of course milady First Councilor,” Chan said formally. He gestured magnanimously for the door.

 

Half an hour later Katara was sipping rice wine from her cup as she and Zuko sat across from each other in his far more spacious chambers as they finished going over the latest intelligence reports.

“So nothing new,” Zuko grumbled after a moment, setting the last document down. “At least nothing decisive.”

 Katara sighed. She was getting frustrated with the lack of progress too. Though I’ve had to go longer without any answers before, she thought. Maybe I’m just worried about Aang.

“You’re worried about Aang,” Zuko said, “it’s written all over your face.”

Katara took a bigger swig of her wine. “I should have gone with him.”

“I wish I could have gone with him,” Zuko said. “Come to think of it, Mai’s getting so bored I’m starting to think she would have gone with him. Though, if you’d gone with him I would have had half a dozen of the more ambitious nobles in the government in my office declaring that the Lord of Ember Island abandoned her post and demanding that I appoint a new one even after I explained that I sent her on a mission.”

Katara breathed out a huff, blowing a lock of hair out of her eyes. “Believe me I know. It’s why I didn’t go. And if you think that’s bad, I would have had a civil war on my hands if you’d up and left me to run this whole show on my own. And I’m not even sure I’m joking at this point.”

Zuko grunted, conceding the point but not the issue. “Well there’s no point talking about what we didn’t do. What I’m more concerned about is what’s happening between you and Chan.”

Katara’s face flushed. Damn it, Zuko, not you too.  “There’s nothing between me and Chan.”

Zuko smiled, a broad one that reached his eyes, as he prepared to indulge in what seemed to be his favorite pastime of teasing her. “Then why do the servants have a pool going about when they’re going to find him sneaking out of your chambers before sunrise?”

“Believe me; part of me would like nothing better. But it would give those same critics more ammunition. Plus,” she swallowed her saliva. “There is Aang. I don’t know how I feel about him, and I know I’m not in love with Chan.”

“No one said you have to be,” Zuko said. “You’d hardly be the first noblewoman to work out her sexual frustrations with an attractive young officer.”

Katara’s eyes flashed and she dug her fingernails into her chair. “So what I should order him into my bed like those two-legged animals Azula unleashed onto the Rock? You know, the ones who we just finished executing for the same crimes?”

Those were prisoners,” Zuko pointed out. “Prisoners the local garrison, men and women both, were treating as toys for their amusement. Chan is an officer and he’s in the military chain of command that runs through me, not you.”

I’m in the military chain of command,” Katara pointed out. “I issue directives to the War Minister and the First Lord of Admiralty all the time.”

“They are the civilian heads of the Army and the Navy,” Zuko reminded her. “You issue broad orders to carry out Our policies. They have the authority to issue orders directly to uniformed officers in accordance with those policies, you don’t. If Chan were one of the pages or one of those civilian department heads then I may have a problem. As it stands, I never meant for this position lock you in a straitjacket preventing you from having any sort of personal or romantic relationships with anyone whatsoever.”

Katara sighed, leaning back in her chair as she thought of Zuko’s words. “Maybe so. But Aang-,”

“The choice is yours not Aang’s,” Zuko said. “If you really feel you are ready to commit to being with Aang then do it. If you don’t really want to be with anyone right now than do that. If you just want to tumble a cute young officer who’s clearly into you then do that. Whatever you choose I’ll back you all the way as I have always done.” Zuko’s face softened, and his voice took on a more pleading tone. “Katara, you are forceful and decisive in every other aspect of your life. You kept the tattered remnants of your civilization alive for over a year before my ship first appeared on the horizon. Be that decisive here. Believe me, you’ll be a lot happier, and it will piss off your critics when they realize they’re not putting you on the defensive anymore.”

Katara, face flushed yet again, but with embarrassment this time, finished off her rice wine with a large swig and got up. “You know, Zuko, I hate it when you’re right. That being said, I hope Aang finds something when he gets there in what, seven days?”

“Give or take, yeah,” Zuko said. “Me too.”

Stay safe, Aang, she thought.

 


 

The blue-green spires of the Southern Air Temple jutted up out of the clouds, looming ever closer, as Aang tightened his grip on Appa’s reigns. For a moment, he closed his eyes and let the memories flood over him. Memories of playing with his friends, of being first taught airbending by Monk Gyatso; of the day when, unbeknownst to him, he’d been identified as the Avatar. He’d ran away when he’d first overheard that. Only to end up in the Southern Water Tribe, frozen into sleep by his Avatar State.

Then one day and one hundred years later he found Monk Gyatso’s skeletal remains surrounded by the remains of dozens of Fire Nation soldiers he’d taken with him.

“You okay, Aang?” Sokka’s voice said from his right, jolting him out of his musings.

“Yeah, Sokka,” Aang asked. “It’s just...hard to be back here.”

“I know,” Sokka said. “You’ve been pretty quiet the last week and a half.”

“Sokka,” Suki cut in from behind him, “he’s coming to the place where he learned of the extermination of his people on the basis of strange visions. I wouldn’t want to be here either.”

“No offense Aang,” Toph said from behind her, “but I actually want to be there. If only because I want to feel ground under my feet again.”

“Don’t worry we’ll be landing soon enough,” Aang said, twisting Appa’s reigns to nudge him into a descent.

Suki crawled over to him across Appa’s back, to sit at his left. “Do you think we’ll find whatever it is we’re looking for?” She asked softly after a moment.

“I don’t know, Suki,” he said, "I don’t know.”

 Aang walked across the cool stone floor of the Inner Sanctum, looking around him at the statues of his predecessors, arranged by their place in the Avatar Cycle, all the way up to the vast domed chamber’s ceiling. Momo chirped on his shoulder, and he smiled, remembering how he and Sokka had Momo through the corridor a lifetime ago. He’d chased him a third of the way down the side of the mountain that day…and what he found when he stopped would haunt him until it was his turn to have a statue in this very room.

He looked up at the regal, imposing statue of Avatar Roku, his illustrious Fire Nation predecessor who had died twelve years before Sozin began his war. “What would you do about something like what we’re facing now?”

The statue didn’t answer back of course, and he didn’t exactly have time to go into the Avatar State right now to ask him directly.

“Aang?” Sokka asked, his voice echoing off the cavernous rooms walls? “Everything here looks exactly like it did last year.”

“It is supposed to be hidden,” Suki said.

“Let’s just keep looking and-,”

“Guys!” Toph shouted, her bright, sharp voice echoing through the chamber. “I’ve got something!”

A shiver of excitement ran down Aang’s spine. “Where?!” Aang asked, unable to suppress the eagerness on her voice.

“Center of the room!” She called out.

Aang angled around Roku’s statue and bounded towards where Toph was standing in the center of the room. 

“There’s a chamber,” Toph said, staring straight ahead, “right behind that wall.” She pointed between the statues of an Earth Avatar and a Fire Avatar. “It’s a small chamber. And there’s something in it. A box, from what I can tell. It isn’t a very big box,” she said, putting one hand above her head and one hand below her chest. “About yea big?”

Suki’s lips pursed in a low whistle, impressed. “I really wish I could learn how to do that.”

“I know how awesome I am,” Toph responded, a cheeky smile on her face.

“How do we get in there?” Aang asked.

Toph cocked her head and tapped her feet lightly on the ground. “That’s what I thought,” she said after a moment before crossing the floor and pressing her foot firmly down on one of the stone blocks. With a loud groan that echoed through the chamber, the entire stone section of wall slid away.

Aang’s eyes widened at what he saw on the stone pedestal sitting in the middle of the small chamber.

“Well that’s…anticlimactic,” Sokka deadpanned.

Sitting on the pedestal in the plain, unadorned chamber was a simple wooden box secured by an equally plain brass buckle. Aang approached and opened the clasp. The box slid open slightly.

A glowing green light flickered in the box. Aang exhaled in shock and stepped back, gripping his staff. His friends tensed behind him, Sokka and Suki’s hands going for their swords, and Toph sliding into an Earthbender’s stance.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know,” Aang said, walking towards the box again. He slid the box open all the way. and stood transfixed by the glowing green hourglass that seemed to be made of living crystal turning on its own inside

“It’s so beau-,”

The hourglass pulsed, filling the room with green light.

Aang found himself staring down a sun-drenched plain of light green grass, gazing at a strange creature. It was enormous, with four long, spindly legs supporting its body. But that wasn’t the strangest thing about it, no; that was the incredibly long neck topped with a small head decorated with two knobby horns that was contentedly chewing on leaves.

He turned to maneuver his glider staff under him so he could take flight only to huff in shock. Instead of the trusty glider staff he’d carried with him his entire life, there was a spear. It was a thick one, with a heavy haft and a thick leaf-shaped blade made of some gray stone.

Then he looked at the hands holding the spear. The skin was dark, so dark as to be just a shade lighter than pitch. Also his center of gravity was off and- Aang wheeled about, dropping his spear, and looked down at the puddle of water he was standing beside, the shock of what he saw bringing him to his knees. The face staring back at him was a man, clearly decades older than he was. He had dark brown eyes, widened in shock, set in a dark-skinned face. His black curls were neither as straight nor as smooth as the hair that had briefly grown on his head for those few months in the run-up to the invasion.

What the-and then Aang was gone.

N’chala rose from where he kneeled and picked up his spear, turning to face the prey.  He raised his spear, ready to throw, to wound it and cause it to run, so he and the rest of his hunting party could chase it down until it collapsed and died. His hand was raised to throw when a shadow covered the ground. And a strange thrumming sound that seemed to emanate from the very bones of the soil itself surrounded him. He looked up to see…something hovering in the sky above him, blotting out the sun.

He felt a tingle down his spine as a burst of light filled his world.

Aang shook himself and stared wildly around the room as his brain caught up to where he was. He heard the ragged breathing of everyone else around him as he grabbed his staff and used it to pull himself up. Sokka staggered to his feet, breathing heavily even as he turned to help Suki.

“What,” Sokka asked breathily. “Was that?”

A groaning sound from behind them caused to turn around to see Toph curled up in a ball on the floor. Her black hair was matted by sweat against her fair skin, her cloudy eyes wide. “Toph,” Aang said anxiously, as the three of them ran over and crouched beside her prostrate form. “Toph it’s okay, it’s over.”

“We need to get her out of here,” Sokka said, in a tone that brooked no argument, even as he cradled Toph in his arms.

Toph groaned and writhed in Sokka’s grip. “Sokka?”

“Toph!” Sokka said happily, visibly grinning even as he sagged in relief. “Are you okay?”

Toph nodded, visibly swallowing. “I…think so. I think I…saw? Like you guys? But what did I see?”

Aang walked over to the box containing the strange, glowing crystal and clasped it shut. He returned to  Sokka, who by that point had let a still unsteady Toph back down, and pushed it into his arms. Sokka took it gingerly, not wanting it to spill open again and cause another vision. “I’m not sure.” But I have an idea, he thought. I don’t think we’re from around here.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Then black despair,
The shadow of a starless night, was thrown
Over the world in which I moved alone.”

-Percy Bysshe Shelly. The Revolt of Islam

Chapter Five

Archer shuddered as he watched the dozens of people moving about in the cargo bay converted into a makeshift morgue, his medical personnel moving among the bodies laid out in neat, white-sheet covered rows on the floor like the ghosts of the slain. For what seemed like the hundredth time tonight, his eyes were drawn to the smaller white sheeted bodies on the floor, the tiny hands of children peeking out from under them. In time, they’d all be transferred to the freezer units being mounted by the engineering personnel working diligently in the walls.

It was all a gruesome reminder that Earth’s merchantmen tended to be generational ships. The low warp speeds tended to make bringing new crewmembers in something that happened only occasionally, when they managed to make it back to Earth or larger human colonies like Proxima or Deneva. Makati City had been one of those freighters refitted with the newest warp drive at Deneva, which had held out the promise of finally knitting Earth and her colonies and her allies closer together. A worthy goal.

Making space travel faster and more routine unfortunately doesn’t make it any safer, Archer thought, resisting the urge to shudder, at much at the human distaste with being around so many dead bodies as the fact that the temperature in the room had been lowered to retard decay now that they were no longer being exposed to vacuum.

He heard the sound of metal footfalls clanging towards him down the catwalk and he turned to look at Captain Hernandez.

“I just heard from my first officer,” Captain Hernandez said, her arms crossed as she watched the macabre scene playing out below them. “We’re beaming over the last dozen spaceborne bodies as we speak. Including three more minors I’m sorry to say.”

“That should account for all of them,” Archer groused, tapping his fingers on the scaffold’s handrail. “What are we up to, about eighty? And we can’t even get them home yet. We still have to track down who murdered them and what they did with the weapons they stole.”

“Both our science divisions are looking for any clue as to where they’re going,” Hernandez said, putting a hand on her friend and senior captain’s shoulder. “We’ll figure it out.”

T’pol to Captain Archer,” the dispassionate voice of Archer’s vulcan first officer and science officer entered the room via the comm panel behind them.

Archer walked over to the comm panel and activated it. “Go ahead.”

We may have found the warp trail of the perpetrator’s ship,” T’Pol said. “Could you report to the bridge?”

Archer looked at Hernandez, her own surprise at the timing of this revelation mirrored on her face. “We’re on our way.”

A few minutes later, Archer and Hernandez stepped out of the turbolift into the brightly lit bridge and walked over to the situation table in a recessed area of the brightly lit bridge module, his senior staff was already assembled around the small, squat, digital display table, including, he noted, staring at the dour andorian thaan staring at the screen on the wall, the newest member of his crew. Yet there was something off. Where is T’po-oh.”

Commander T’Pol was there, looking down at the table and presumably refining an analysis, was not in the modified Vulcan Defense Force uniforms she’d continued to wear even after she was formally commissioned into Starfleet at  the equivalent of her vulcan rank. Instead she had opted to wear the new regulation Starfleet uniform, with the Seal of United Earth on her right shoulder and Enterprise’s mission patch on her left shoulder.

He smiled. He’d hoped she’d finally get comfortable enough to wear the same uniform everyone else wore someday. He had been giving her time to come to that on her own, but if she hadn’t soon, he had been about to try to tactfully press her to.

Hravishran th’Zoarhi, on the other hand, wore his Imperial Guard uniform, as he wasn’t actually in Starfleet, and technically was his liaison to the Andorian Imperial Guard.

“Report,” Archer said as they walked over to them.

“We’ve found the residual warp trail,” T’Pol said. She tapped out a command, and a blinking blue line ran from roughly their location out to the edge of the system and beyond. “It appears to be headed out of the system. It’s very faint, however. It’s doubtful we’ll be able to track it once we leave it.”

“Then we’re back where we started,” Shran groused.

“Maybe not,” Captain Hernandez cut in. “Let’s think about it. How many star systems are within, say ten light-years of this system.”

T’Pol entered a query and a list of star-systems appeared on the screen behind the situation table, organized by distance and showing spectral type.

“Twenty-three,” T’Pol said.

“And how many have been surveyed?”

T’Pol queried the database. “We surveyed 61 Ursae Majoris four years ago,” T’Pol said after a moment. “It has an M-class world but the region we landed in had flowering plants with a type of pollen that has…hallucinogenic effects on human and vulcan brain chemistry.”

“Not one of our better missions,” Tucker remarked dryly.

If you can call it that, considering that you took T’Pol hostage in a hallucinogen-infused rage,” Archer thought.

“Nineteen of the other systems on this list have either no planets or no indications of life, complex or otherwise.”

“Doesn’t mean someone couldn’t have established a base in those systems,” Lieutenant Commander Reed pointed out.

“Yes, but why?” Lieutenant Sato responded. “The orions wouldn’t need our weapons.” Reed had determined the weapons signature of the ship that had assaulted the Makati City within moments of Enterprise and Columbia’s arrival on scene.

“Unless they’ve been hired to acquire weapons by a third party,” Shran pointed out. “But the closest powers are Trill and Denobula, and they’re not facing any sort of serious internal crisis.”

“I think it’s clear that we’re looking for someone that none of the local powers have run into before,” Hernandez said. “There are three G-type stars on that list, I say we go down them one by one, starting with the closest.” She looked at the screen, and her lips curved upward in a pleasantly surprised smile. “Beta Canum Venaticorum. Otherwise known to Earth’s astronomers as Chara.”

“Multiple vulcan and andorian vessels passing by the system on their way to Denobula or Trill have reported indications of a planetary system and possibly a Minshara-class planet,” T’Pol said. “Though no one has to my knowledge actually surveyed the system.”

“Well, at least we have a destination,” Archer said. “Let’s finish up what we’re doing and be on our way.”

“What’s our ETA at warp six for Chara?” Hernandez asked.

“T’pol’s ran her hands over her panel, querying the computer. “At warp six approximately five days.”

“Someone can do a lot of damage in five days,” Tucker muttered.

“Hoshi,” Archer said after a moment. “Contact Denobula. See if a Denobulan or allied vessel is available to rendezvous with us in Chara and take Makati City’s crew home. Travis, set a course for the Chara system, we’ll leave as soon as we’re done here.”

His crew left to carry out his orders, leaving him alone in the situation area on the bridge with Hernandez and Shran.

“What is it, Jonathan?” Erika asked.

Archer tapped his fingers against the edge of the display table. “There’s something about this whole situation that’s rubbed me the wrong way.”

“The dead children we’ve been beaming up all day?” Shran asked.

“No,” Archer began. “Well, yes, but that’s only part of it. Why do this, at all? Hoshi’s right, the Orions or the Nausicaans have comparable enough weapons to ours. If they really wanted to sell weapons to some local faction, they could just sell them their own.”

“You think that they were hired to go after our weapons specifically,” Hernandez said.

“Yes. Someone’s playing a game out here,” Archer continued. “A game that’s already killed over a hundred people that we know of and who knows how many more to get to this point.”

“If that’s true, whoever’s screwing around here may want us to go to Chara,” Hernandez pointed out.

“What choice do we have?” Shran responded. “We don’t know enough about what’s going on yet. No. If someone’s playing a game with us, then we have no choice but to play their game by their rules. At least for now.”


 

Aang sat in the royal airship’s somewhat cramped dining quarters, staring out the large window at the rolling fields of the Earth Kingdom. They were in the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn and the verdant green farmland below had gone brown as it had lay fallow. It still made a remarkable sight as seen from the air, which was why he and Kuzon had loved it so much when they were boys.

I wonder what happened to him, he thought, Probably served in their military when he was old enough. Did he survive to be discharged? Or did he die on some battlefield in the Earth Kingdom? Our world has seen enough of war.

He was interrupted in his musings by Zuko and Katara, who sat next to him at the metal table. Aang smiled wistfully at his two closest friends. The two of them carried plates of spiced sea slug and started cutting into them as they sat there

“Have we crossed the Ba Sing Se defense perimeter?” Aang asked.

“A few minutes ago,” Zuko responded before shoving a bit of slug into his mouth.

“It’s going to feel weird heading back there,” Katara said. “Almost as weird as it is not being First Counselor.”

Katara and Zuko had finally implemented their long-awaited plan of easing her out of the position she’d held in Zuko’s Government since Azula had been taken down. Replacing her was Iloji Sakaar. The First Lord of Admiralty and the civilian head of the Fire Navy. She was one of the relatively few members of Zuko and Katara’s cabinet that had seemed to appreciate Katara’s efforts on her nation’s behalf and she also felt that the Fire Nation should be happy with what it had gained prior to the war starting and leave the rest of the world alone.

Zuko had almost not replaced Katara. There was a new threat, and every instinct in both of them warred against the notion of stepping down on the eve of a crisis. But First Lord, now First Counselor, Iloji was three and a half times Katara’s age, and had served in both the Fire Navy and the Fire Navy’s civilian support structure since she was eleven years old. When she had been Katara’s age, she had been a junior officer on a destroyer, fighting in the last war. Not shepherding a civilian government in a position that she’d only assumed because no one else was available.

Which, despite her worries about the coming crisis, did actually suit his best friend just fine. She’d never felt truly happy chained to that desk.

“Everything will be fine back in the capital,” Zuko said reassuringly. “Besides, Iloji was right about what she told you before we left.”

“Hmm?” Aang asked

 Katara put her hand to her face to hide a grin. “She said, ‘the best thing that a hard-charging young whippersnapper can do for both her nations right now is go out there and fight this new war. Let me keep everything going.”

Aang smirked even as he marveled at the change that had come over his best friend. She was still a citizen of the Water Tribes, as the Northern Government had made clear, but she was also a Fire Nation noble due to being granted the Lordship over Ember Island, which made her legally one of Zuko’s vassals, and by extension a Fire Nation citizen.

A more complete change from the young woman who had been passionately committed to the destruction of the Fire Nation and all it’s works he’d met in South Pole what seemed a lifetime ago he could not imagine. It wasn’t like she’d forgotten the Fire Nation’s role in the world over the last century or the role it had played in the destruction of her both nation and her mother’s death, but she’d learned that the people of the Fire Nation were just that, people, not a faceless mass of monsters determined to the last man and woman to destroy everything she loved.

She’d seen the hard core of the Fire Nation Aang had known growing up and wanted to see that Fire Nation make its way back from the ash heap Sozin’s dynasty had condemned it to. A Fire Nation that had had a proud military tradition but also had produced some of the most celebrated works of art and literature on the planet. That was the best way to ensure the safety of both her countries.

Now all we have to do is make sure a bunch of people who can’t let go armed with weapons from beyond the stars don’t kill it forever. Either by themselves or forcing the rest of the world to do it for them.

“So, are you excited to see your father again?”

“Of course,” Katara said brightly abruptly averting her gaze to her left, away from Aang on her right and Zuko right across from her. “Though I wonder how he’ll feel about-you know.”

Katara had admitted to them that she was seeing Chan the same night he’d returned with the mysterious device they had taken from the Southern Air Temple. Aang had said with as much genuine sincerity he could muster that he was happy for her. And he was. It didn’t do much to keep this gnawing ache that out of his stomach.

“Do you think he’ll mind his daughter dating one of my officers?”

“I won’t deny it if he asks me,” Katara responded after a few moments of chewing sea slug. “But I won’t go out of his way to tell him. Besides, it’s not like either me or Chan sees us as growing old together.”

Aang let out an anxious breath before he could stop himself, hurt running down his back and his face burning with embarrassment, Aang stood up from his bench. “Excuse me,” he said bowing. “I didn’t get much sleep last night and I want to be somewhat fresh when Iroh greets us in a few hours.” That, at least, had the virtue of being mostly true. He hadn’t gotten much sleep last night, largely because he was thinking of Katara and Chan.

He was walking back towards his quarters, when he heard footsteps behind him. Big, heavy ones clunking on the metal.

“Aang,” Zuko said from behind him. “Aang stop.”

Aang came to a halt and took a deep breath to keep the simmering anger in him under control. “Yes, Zuko?”

 The taller, older man beckoned him to follow him into his quarters on his left.

“Can we talk? In private?”

Aang sighed again and gave a sharp nod and followed Zuko into his private room on the airship.

As soon as he finished closing the door on the spacious (for the space available on an airship) cabin provided to the monarch, Zuko rounded on him. “Aang, you need to stop.”

“Why?” Aang bit back. “Would you ‘just stop’ feeling upset if Mai was in Katara’s shoes?”

“There’s a difference, Aang,” Zuko said, his arms crossed across his chest. “I was in a committed, exclusive relationship with Mai. You most emphatically are not.”

“I know that!” Aang responded, half-shouting. “It’s just…we kissed. Twice. And why shouldn’t I feel jealous. The age difference between me and Katara is not that much greater than you and Mai. You’re eighteen, she just turned sixteen last month.”

Zuko sighed, his face softening with sympathy. “True. And if that were the only consideration that’d be one thing. But it’s not.”

“What other considerations are there?” Aang said pointedly. She clearly feels something for me? What’s stopping her?

“Katara has…blossomed to use the flowery language of court poets,” Zuko said pointedly. “As has Mai. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you still look like a tall ten-year-old.”

Aang flinched as though struck.

“But sometimes that happens. I’ve seen male passed midshipmen at fourteen and fifteen with strapping physiques and full beards, and others who were still skinny as reeds and squeaked like kids. They were still accorded the respect due to them by their juniors, but not even the girls in their cohort paid much attention to them in matters of the heart until they actually did grow into their own feet. No young woman who doesn’t have…issues to rival Azula’s is going to want to have a passionate tryst with someone who still looks like a kid, even if intellectually they know they’re technically old enough.”

“There’s nothing that says we have to go that far together after only a few days you know,” Aang pointed out, even as he realized he was right; Katara was going to want someone she could take to bed if she wanted, and that wasn’t him.

“Yes,” Zuko said. “But if Katara was truly willing to put off exploring that aspect of her sexuality until however long it takes for you to grow into your own feet don’t you think she would have said so by now? Maybe you’re right, maybe she will be willing to look past your physical development, but you have no real right to expect her too. Do you?”

Aang sighed, blinking as he fought to avoid crying. What Zuko said had been whispered in his own mind more than once over the past year. “No,” he said, ashamed at the tremble in his voice. “No, I don’t.”

“And even when you do grow into your own feet,” Zuko continued gently, with the air of someone doing something distasteful he knew had to be done, “There’s no guarantee that either of you will still want the other. I happen to think that you two will end up together someday. I don’t think today is that day. Do you understand me?”

Aang nodded, tears falling openly. “I have been acting like she was ‘supposed’ to be my girlfriend, haven’t I?” I’m an idiot. A big idiot. I can save the world from Ozai but I can’t even figure out why Katara was so awkward. I was so sure it was just she was afraid of admitting her feelings.

 “You, her and Sokka were meant to meet that day in the ice of the South,” Zuko said. “It doesn’t mean that she was destined to marry you one day. Fated meetings are for children’s stories, it gets a little murkier in the real world. History will determine if you and Katara are destined to be together…and history hasn’t rendered it’s decision yet.”


 

Zuko sighed as he tromped back down the corridor to the mess, trying hard not to blink tears out of his eyes himself, the sound of his feet on metal echoing through the empty corridor. He had hated himself every second he was talking but it was a lesson Aang needed to face. Aang was in his room, where he was quite certain he was sobbing out his broken heart. Which made him want to go sit in his room and drink. But they were arriving in Ba Sing Se, and the Fire Nation’s sovereign could not afford to get off the ship falling down drunk.

Your  first love always breaks your heart.

He strode into the mess hall to see Katara, arms crossed across her chest and shooting daggers at him.

“You mind telling me what that was?” Katara bit out. “My relationships are none of your business, Zuko!”

“Not when it affects my ability to do my job,” Zuko grated. “I know you Katara, you would have wanted to try to spare Aang’s feelings, and we both know that wouldn’t have worked here. You would have either waited, hoping for a more appropriate time, while Aang stewed in his own hurt and this irrational feeling that you’re somehow mocking his pain by carrying on with Chan. Or your attempt to reason with Aang would have spiraled into an argument because of his crush on you. Either way, he might have run away on us, again. At least he listened to me this time.”

“You know,” Katara said pointedly, “the first time Aang ran off, it saved him from being killed outright a hundred years ago. The second time he discovered a powerful new energybending technique. Who knows, maybe if he runs away now, he’ll find some new power to blow up stuff across interstellar distances.”

“And thus, our world is saved,” Zuko said dryly. “Though seriously, we got damn lucky the first two times. His luck, and ours, is going to run out. So better Aang sobs his broken heart out on his pillow now, as much as I hate doing it to him.”

“And on that note,” Zuko said, “how are things between you and Chan?”

Katara’s face flushed. “He’s not as arrogant as I was concerned about from your previous interactions with him.”

“Having the Fire Nation Crown Prince ransack your house would do much to deflate anyone’s head, even if I shouldn’t have done it,” Zuko found himself agreeing. “When I was told that Lieutenant Chan had been given to this assignment, I almost countermanded it personally.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Because ever since he’s been commissioned his record’s been spotless. For the supreme commander of the Fire Nation armed forces to take him off an assignment would be seen as reassignment for cause to anyone who looked at his record. If that happens he can pretty much kiss the rest of his career goodbye. It’s not my place to judge him for his record before he signed up. His dad took care of that already, anyway. I could have denied him a commission but I chose to accept giving him another chance.”

“Good,” Katara said, a wan, tired smile on her face. “That’s good. He deserves it.”

“I know I told Aang that he had no business expecting you to wait for him,” Zuko said, “though I’m a little surprised you actually took my advice in the way that you did.”

“It’s not like I’m a prude,” Katara pointed out. “Or did you forget the fact that I had sex with you right before we went off to Crater City.”

“Neither of us was sure we were going to live to see the next day. You wanted to see what it was like, and I never thought I’d see Mai again and you are one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met,” he muttered.  “But that doesn’t explain why you’re doing it now.”

Katara sighed, looking out the window. “I have spent my entire life fighting the good fight. I worked hard day and night to keep my people alive when Hakoda took virtually the entire military age population of the Southern Tribe that weren’t mothers with small children off to fight the Fire Nation. I healed and fought my way across this entire kingdom and the Fire Nation. I have put everyone before myself. I told Sokka once that I would never turn my back on anyone who needs me, and I won’t. But you, Zuko were right about quite a lot of things, I put everyone else before myself to my own detriment…too much. I’m not going to go out tomorrow and become some self-absorbed drunken hedonist, and I won’t let anything interfere with my duties. But that doesn’t mean I should have to go to bed alone. We’re friends and he’s…good with his hands. That should be enough for now.”

“It is enough, Katara,” Zuko said. “It is,” He walked up and stood at her right shoulder, staring out at the sea of brown and green below.

“This doesn’t leave this room,” Zuko began, “but I would like to hear one of your speeches about hope right now.”

Katara sighed. “I’m going to find every copy of that play and burn it. Assuming our new friends don’t get there first.”

“Katara,” Zuko growled.

Katara looked at him, pain in her eyes. Then she sighed. “I told my brother once that I believe Aang can save the world. I meant it then and I meant it now.” She turned to look out the window again.

“I just wish I knew how.”


 

 

Captain’s Starlog, supplemental:

  After five days at high warp we’ve arrived in the Chara system. I just hope this lead pans out. It’s unlikely we’re going to hit pay dirt straight out of the dock, but I can hope. Something about this situation…the more I think about it, the more like it feels like we’re being set up. If this system is inhabited, what are we going to find? Fellow victims? Whoever’s behind all this? Innocent bystanders? Some combination of the three? That’s assuming that there’s anything here, and it isn’t just a waste of time.

“Well?” Captain Archer asked, sitting in his command chair, looking at the yellow-white ball of Chara’s G0V primary filled the viewscreen. Both he and Captain Hernandez had ordered their ships to conduct long-range scans of the entire system as soon they dropped out of warp at the system’s edge.

“I’m not picking up any signs of artificial electromagnetic signatures anywhere in the system, Captain,” T’Pol said.

All subspace and sublight communication frequencies are clear except to the open channel to Columbia, sir,” Hoshi said from communications. “At the moment we’re the only ones out here talking.”

“We’re not reading any warp signatures out here,” Hernandez said over the open channel, her voice filling the bridge.  If someone has been here recently their warp trail’s decayed by now.

“Sir,” the Kerala-accented voice of Lieutenant Commander Asha Naidu, Columbia’s science officer, filled the room. “I’m picking up some odd subspace oscillations…out somewhere in the system’s ice zone.”

“What sort of oscillations,” the Manila-accented voice of Commander Lisa Reyes, Columbia’s first officer responded. Archer nodded at T’Pol who began a new series of subspace scans.

Hard to tell at this range, sir,” Naidu responded. “We’d have to get closer.”

T’Pol’s console beeped. She tapped it out and nodded.

“Erika, we’re reading those oscillations as well,” Archer responded.

I’d like to investigate, sir,” Hernandez said.

“Okay,” Archer said. “You’ll investigate the readings while we take a look at the M-class planet in the system.”

Will do,” Hernandez said. “Let me know if there are any good vacation spots once this mission is over, will you?

“A good beach sounds great right about now,” Archer bantered back. “Stay safe.”

You too, Hernandez out.

The channel cut off with a click. “Channel closed,” Hoshi reported formally.

He looked at his dark-skinned conn officer. “Travis?”

Travis Mayweather immediately began tapping out commands on his console. “Setting course, now, Captain. ETA sixty minutes.”


 

It’s certainly a beautiful planet, Archer thought as the blue-white sphere got larger in his viewscreen.

“T’Pol?” Archer asked.

T’Pol turned and looked through her holographic viewer. “I’m reading one large supercontinent straddling the three out of the planet’s five latitudinal zones, one large continent at each pole, and a series of islands stretching down the Northern Frigid, temperate, and Torrid zones.

“Lifesigns?”

“Standby-,” T’Pol began, but she never finished the sentence as multiple proximity alarms began sounding on every console at once.

“Captain!” Reed shouted from tactical. “A ship just dropped out of warp. Headed directly for the planet!”

“What ship,” Archer demanded.

T’Pol was back at her main console, “I’m reading a Klingon warp signature.”

“You won’t be reading it for long,” Reed responded. “I’m reading fluctuations in their power grid, internal explosions.” An even more insistent alarm peeled from their stations. “And their warp core is losing containment.”

“On screen,” Archer said. T’Pol switched the viewscreen over to seeing a dark-green/gray bulky ship with the look of a Klingon tramp freighter, trailing warp plasma. Explosions rippled along both side of the hull as Klingon escape pods began tearing away from the ship like seeds blowing away from a dandelion.

“Hail the Klingons-,” Archer began, a few moments later.

“It’s too late,” Reed said.

The ship on the screen disappeared in a flash of blinding white light.

“Oh, my God,” Hoshi said, transfixed by the explosion on the screen. “Oh, my God.”

“I’m reading metal fragments and probable escape pods entering the atmosphere,” T’Pol said. “Most of them appeared to be centered in the northeastern quarter of the main continent.” Her console beeped. “This can’t be correct.”

“What?”

“I’m reading human biosigns,” she continued. “All over the planet. The largest population density apparently is in the northern hemisphere of the main continent.”

“Right where the wreckage is raining down,” Travis said in a voice like lead as he stared at the humanitarian disaster suddenly unfolding right before their eyes.