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This War of Ours: Year Two

Chapter Text

"There it is!" Sokka crowed, his fur-lined hood falling back as he hung over the railing of the ship. He squinted his eyes against the snowflakes that clouded his view. "Is it me, or is the village bigger than I remember?"

"It is!" Katara gasped, pointing to one side of the settlement in the distance. "There's more watchtowers, Sokka, look!"

Their father chuckled behind them while his first mate, Bato, took over the steering. 

"We had to add more along the walls, with the traffic we get from foreign merchants," he said, laying a hand on both his children's shoulders. "The one you used to man with Amaruk is still intact, though, don't you worry."

"The port's bigger!" exclaimed Katara excitedly, but she shrank back towards her father as they neared their home. "Dad… are those…?"

Sokka blinked, too.

"Why do we have Fire Nation ships on our port?" he asked, his voice cracking slightly. Their father sighed.

"They are necessary in maintaining peace in the Southern Water Tribe," he recited stonily, and both his children knew this wasn't a welcome change. 

To Hakoda, widower and father of two, Fire Nation ships moored on their shores spelled nothing but doom to his family. Soldiers now manned the ports and disrupted the carefree life in the South, a curfew had been set and violators were publicly whipped with fire, and the constant presence of black snow from the steamers forced him and his comrades to relive the worst days of their lives.

As the chief of the Southern Water Tribe, though, it was a necessity. The thaw in the cold war between his country and the Regime of Fire reintroduced trading and opened communication lines between them and other countries once more; Fire Nation troops in the area worked alongside his own warriors to keep track of whoever goes in and out of the village walls; most importantly, there were no more starving children. No more hollow cheeks or deadened eyes. In Hakoda's book, having the life back in the eyes of his people trumped anything the tribe would have to give up.

He acknowledged his children's concerned looks with a nod of resignation, and walked back to Bato to check up on their progress at sea. Sokka and Katara, however, exchanged glum looks with each other.

"It can't be that bad…" began Sokka. "There's some Earth Kingdom ships over there, too— look. Besides, Dad wrote last winter that less people died 'cause we didn't have to hunt as much and we finally had healing creams and fever brews from the Earth Kingdom."

Katara scrunched up her face and turned away from the ocean with her arms crossed.

"I still don't like it. Haru said the Fire Nation soldiers at their village were thugs who stole from the people. How could these soldiers be any different?"

Sokka just shrugged and pulled up his hood.

"I don't really know, sis." He heaved a huge sigh and continued to watch as their village grew on the horizon. "I guess we'll just have to see."

 


 

Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at the Northern Water Tribe palace.

Chief Arnook had been woken in the early hours of the morning by a solemn guard escorting his daughter back to the royal wing, after yet another night of disruptive combative waterbending that left a bridge collapsed over the main canal.

"Third time this week!" cried Arnook, pacing the length of the royal family's private dining room. "I have turned a blind eye to your blatant disregard of our traditions, my daughter, but enough is enough!"

Yue tried, yet again, to explain.

"The moon calls to me, Father," she pleaded. "Even Sifu Pakku agreed— if you would just allow me to use the main plaza at night—"

"I do not know what possessed that man to teach you something as unforthcoming for a princess as combat training, but I put my foot down at any public spectacle of your new… hobby," her father spat, still pacing, still red-faced in his indignation. "This will not do, Yue. You are to be wed in a fortnight. Who knows what your in-laws would say if they found out you are anything other than a healer? Who knows what your betrothed will say, my daughter?" 

They shouldn't give a viper rat's butt, said a voice in Yue's head that sounded remarkably like Katara, but Katara was simply the chief's daughter in her tribe, not a princess, and princesses like Yue didn't have the power to speak their minds.

She looked down at her hands, curled into fists in her lap, and slowly unclenched them as she let out a heavy breath.

"I understand, Father," she said, as tears threatened to fall from her eyes. She blinked rapidly and swallowed against the lump forming in her throat.  "I do not wish to bring dishonor to our family."

"Good." Arnook sat down at his usual chair at the head of the table and ran a hand down his face. "I am glad you understand, Yue."

Her mother, who had been silent during the whole exchange, gently laid a hand on Yue's shoulder.

"You must also understand, my dear, that it would greatly shame your husband if you are better than him at waterbending," she said, as though it was the most sensible thing in the world. "It is the job of the wife to support her husband and keep him happy."

What of my own happiness? thought Yue sadly, but she nodded at her mother's words. She was the princess of the Northern Water Tribe; her own happiness came last. Her duty was to the people, and if marrying a man she didn't know or love made her people feel safe and secure, then she would gladly give up any semblance of happiness.

"Now that's settled," her mother cast a furtive glance in Arnook's direction, "It's time to plan your wedding, my dear. Now, the chief of our sister tribe—"

"Chief Hakoda will attend my wedding?" Yue blurted out, heart hammering in her chest. "Will his— will others arrive with him?"

Her mother's lips pressed into a hard line at her interjection, and Yue bowed her head in apology.

"I was saying, daughter," her mother continued pointedly, "The chief of our sister tribe will hopefully depart with his retinue to arrive about two or three days before your wedding. Our delegation is getting ready to set out for the South Pole as we speak, and will arrive there in about five days, should Tui and La allow."

"Hadn't invitations been sent out, Mother?" she asked timidly. "May I ask why we are sending a delegation to accompany the Southerners here?"

It was her father who answered, however.

"Our sister tribe may not be as well-versed in politics as we are, my daughter," he began. "But it will obviously be in poor taste if we do not extend a personal invitation to them, especially now that they've signed the same pact we did with the Regime of Fire."

"Who among them are expected to attend my wedding, Father?" Yue asked lightly, as though she were truly excited about having more people attend the event, but her heart was in her throat and she couldn't decide which was better— to see Sokka one last time, or to not see him at all. 

"That is for them to decide, Yue," explained her father sternly. "No matter who they send, we will give them a gracious welcome. Understood?"

"Of course, Father." 

Her mother chose this moment to get back to planning the wedding.

"Now, I have called in the seamstress to alter the ceremonial robes you will be wearing… goodness, you have gotten so much thinner, my dear, you'll have to bulk up, otherwise they'll think you couldn't bear sons..."

Yue nodded along and tried her best to look remotely interested, but her mind was already far away.

 


 

The Southern Water Tribe had changed— that much was certain. 

After three days of wandering around the village, Katara decided that it wasn’t as drastic as she imagined— or feared, really. The change was, however, palpable in the air and in the way people held themselves a little straighter, their heads a little higher against the cold. 

The marketplace was thriving. Just a year ago, the little square held little to no goods, but with the influx of Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation merchants, stalls of hide had been erected in a loose circle around the open meeting place where the village elders usually congregated to settle matters within the tribe. Hawkers from the ships moored on the makeshift port now stayed a little longer and traded a little better. Bolts of silk and stacks of ceramic wares had made their way to the South. Children held colorful fruits and spiced candies as they ran through the tundra. 

Katara didn’t know what to make of all the changes. She couldn’t remember a time when life here had been this carefree. 

She told herself she would get used to it all, but it still terrified her. 

Last year, their tribe was starving; more people died at each season’s turn, and they couldn’t afford luxuries like dyed clothes or healing ointments. But they were also on their own, cut off from intrusive foreigners, blissfully pretending that the war wouldn’t come knocking on their shores. 

Katara shivered. Fire Nation streamers were always the stuff of her nightmares, and now they bobbed on their shores like it was an everyday occurrence (although it probably was, since the Fire Lord opened trade lines again). Soot caught on the fur of her parka, and she shook it off, still trying to convince herself that black snow didn’t mean death. 

“Oh hey, Katara,” Amaruk, one of Bato’s seven sons, caught up to her with a woven basket filled with fish strapped to his back. “See you’re back from school. You learn anything good up there?”

She shook herself and grinned at the older boy.

“You tell me,” she bent snow into water and transformed it into a whip, before letting it fly gracefully in the air and freezing it back into fine powdery snow. Amaruk watched in undisguised amazement and Katara beamed, despite the guilt churning in her stomach. Amaruk was older than her by about four years— he could’ve been old enough to go to the Academy before she and Sokka did, had the circumstances allowed him. 

He would have been a great warrior, and Katara felt her anger swell at the unfairness of leaving the rest of their tribe behind. 

But if he’d gone to the Academy, he now would have been old enough to die keeping the Regime of Fire’s peace, Katara thought bitterly. He wouldn’t be here, helping Bato and Dad and the rest of the village. 

“Something on your mind, turtle seal?”

Katara blinked, only to realize that she was trailing a few paces behind Amaruk. She sighed in resignation— there was no escaping her thoughts.

"I guess I'm still not used to…" she gestured vaguely at the bustling marketplace, "...to all of this."

Amaruk paused in his tracks and smiled dryly at a couple of children passing a wicker ball back and forth. 

"I know what you mean," he agreed, voice low. "Only the elders remember what it was like when our tribe flourished. It's been awhile, but all of this… it still seems fake, somehow." 

Katara nodded, clutching her mother's necklace at her throat.

"Like it could all be taken away at the snap of the Fire Lord's fingers," she said, just as quietly, looking warily at the pair of Fire Nation soldiers standing at attention nearby.

"Dad feels the same way," muttered Amaruk, also surveying the soldiers from the corner of his eye. He raised his voice and laughed freely. "Of course, my mother says it's just his paranoia talking— and you know her, she's always right about these things."

He motioned for Katara to walk alongside him, and casually slung an arm around her shoulders. Katara opened her mouth to protest, but Amaruk leaned in and whispered conspiratorially.

"We need to get word to your father, turtle seal," he murmured urgently. "We couldn't send reports to him when he and Dad went to the Fire Nation and left us in charge— our letters are being monitored, and so are the council meetings. But we got word from our merchant friends that the Fire Nation is amassing troops and they're increasing their presence in the North Pole. They said Chief Arnook is sending his warriors to recruit men from our tribe."

A shiver ran down Katara's spine.

"What does that mean?" she hissed. "They want us to go to war again, just when things are finally settling down between us and the Fire Nation?"

Amaruk curiously looked down at her.

"I thought you agreed that giving up our independence to the Regime of Fire wasn't the right decision."

"I didn't say it was! I didn't say it wasn't either!" Katara wrung her hands and glanced around agitatedly before continuing. "Dad sent Sokka and me to the Academy so they'll leave us alone, Amaruk. I didn't understand at first, but— our tribe was dying. It was the only way to save what's left of the Southern Water Tribe. If we go to war against the Fire Nation again— this time with the North, who, let me tell you, don't really see eye to eye with us— it'll be a thousand times worse than the Siege of the South!"

"Okay! Okay. Calm down, turtle seal," Amaruk laid a hand appeasingly on her shoulder, and Katara crosses her arms with a huff. "You still need to tell your dad, though. He needs to know, so he can decide what we could do."

Katara's posture slumped forward as she sighed.

"Yeah, I'll tell him."

Amaruk grinned at her and tugged her braid.

"Hey, cheer up. What were you in the market for, anyway?" he asked, adjusting the straps of his woven basket on his shoulders.

"Oh, right!" exclaimed Katara. She walked back to the center of the village. "I was looking for water skins."

Amaruk chuckled at that.

"What, all this snow isn't enough for you?" 

"No," Katara answered with a roll of her eyes. "I'm giving them as gifts to one of my friends from the Academy."

A sly smirk appeared on Amaruk's face.

"Ooooh, you got yourself a waterbending boyfriend, turtle seal? Do Sokka and Uncle Hakoda know?"

"It's not like that!" Katara laughed as she strode towards a stall. "I'm buying them as a wedding gift for my friend because she is getting married."

"Wow, getting married, huh?" Amaruk scratched his chin thoughtfully. "What are Northern women like?"

"Ugh, you wouldn't want to know most of them," grumbled Katara, her thoughts landing on how the other Northern Water Tribe girls treated her before she remembered Yue and Gumi. "But they're not all bad. They're just raised differently from us."

 


 

"Girls! Breakfast!"

Gumi groaned against her pillow. Her older sister, Vanya, was already puttering about in their shared room, humming happily to herself despite the early hour. The polar bear dogs were barking up a storm outside— their father was most likely unloading the sleds from his pre-dawn hunt, and that meant Gumi and her little sister, Popo, would be on meat curing and smoking duty until lunchtime. 

"Gumi, get up," Vanya said, tapping her lightly on the shoulder. When Gumi burrowed deeper into her pelts in response, her sister sighed and yanked off her blanket forcefully.

"Cold!" yelped Gumi, scrambling to get her blanket back. Her sister held it out of reach and smirked at her.

"What, did you dream your were back in the Fire Nation where chores didn't exist?" Vanya asked dryly, hands on her hips. "Come on, you big baby. You're feeding the dogs after breakfast; Mom needs me at the healing huts."

"When will I be needed at the healing huts?" mumbled Gumi, shoving her hair out of her face with a frown. 

Ever since she arrived back home and told her family about her first year in the Academy, her mother had been acting… rather distant. She used to call Gumi her "little healer in training" whenever she brought her to the healing huts— something she never did with her big sister, but now it was always Vanya accompanying their mother, always Vanya doing the chores that Mom used to entrust Gumi with.

It didn't help that Vanya, who was just a year older, had gotten engaged a few months back. Their mother had done nothing but dote on her eldest all summer.

Gumi's next words were coated in bitterness. 

"You're not even a waterbender— why does Mom even want you down there?"

Her sister pursed her lips and busied herself with the blanket in her hands.

"Well, she's just having a hard time, you know," said Vanya, handing Gumi back her now-folded blanket and sitting down on the bed beside her. "You were gone for some time. She'll warm up to you again after a while."

Gumi pouted at her rumpled bedclothes. 

"Yeah, when I finally agree to go to the matchmaker and stop using waterbending for anything besides healing," she grumbled, plaiting her messy hair into a braid. "Dad doesn't seem to mind the stuff I do."

Vanya snorted at that. 

"That's because Dad's always wanted a son and now you're acting like one," she said haughtily, and Gumi stuck her tongue out at her as she shrugged her parka on. Her sister crossed her arms and continued in her Big Sister Voice. "Seriously, though. How long do you think you can keep this up, Gumi?"

"Keep what up?" she asked, genuinely confused.

"This," Vanya pointed at her, as though it explained everything. "Putting off going to the matchmaker, starting fights with the boys from your class, practicing your oh-so-special waterbending by doing menial stuff like filling kettles and cleaning pots— This is not you, Gumi."

"Did Mom put you up to this?" Gumi said suspiciously, but Vanya ignored her.

"How do you expect to get married, huh?" she pressed on. "Do you think boys care if you can do that octopus form thing when you can't even cook a simple stew?" 

"Not everything's about marriage, Vanya!" cried Gumi with a stomp of her foot. "What if the war picks up again, do you think anyone would care if I couldn't cook a freezing stew?"

"The war can't pick up again— the Fire Nation's already won," Vanya replied hotly. "What's more important is settling down and helping out Mom and Dad by not freeloading here until you're too old for a match."

With that, she sauntered off. Gumi scowled at Vanya's retreating back and contemplated on covering her sister's bed with frost or encasing her favorite hair beads in a block of ice.

Instead, she laced up her boots, tucked her hair into her hood, and marched to the communal space where their family ate. She grabbed some seal jerky and ladled some soup into her bowl, munching and slurping in a pointedly unladylike behavior— maybe when they see her acting like this, no one would want to marry her even if her mother managed to drag her to the matchmaker.

It wasn’t like Gumi didn’t want to find a good match, though; just a year back, she was as boy-crazy as Yuka and Yura, and she gushed every time Baya showed her the letters that her match sent her. But then she stood up to Sifu Pakku— and everything changed.

“Who would even like those stupid chicken pig-headed boys, anyway?" she mumbled to herself, chewing vigorously on a hefty chunk of seal jerky. She gulped down her soup straight from the bowl— something her mother would definitely not approve of— then bent a bit of water from a pot to wash it. 

She shook her cold fingers and tugged on her mittens, pulling up her hood as she made her way to the door of their house. She paused at the threshold when she heard voices outside; it seemed her father was still with his hunting buddies, chatting away as they cleaned and gutted their kills.

"The royal guard said it was the princess's fault; apparently she was trying to have it all, practicing waterbending to fight, could you believe it?" said one of the younger warriors.

"It's just teenage rebellion, mark my words," replied another. "My daughter almost eloped at sixteen before I beat some sense into her."

"Word is, the old master taught her to fight, back in the Academy." There was disbelief evident in the younger one's voice, and Gumi rolled her eyes.

“Education is wasted on the women,” scoffed the older hunter.

It was only at this moment that she heard her father's voice.

“My daughter is studying how to fight," he said, in that gruff way of his, "She’s a girl, but that’s not a problem.”

There was a pause, before the younger voice replied laughingly, "Are you sure your daughter's not just… an oyster shucker?"

Gumi's jaw dropped at the insinuation. Sure, she didn't want to find a match just yet, but she didn't like girls that way! 

"Wouldn't care if she was," came her father's answer. "'S long as she's happy."

Gumi shook her head, thinking she must have misheard him. Girls who liked other girls were the butts of jokes in their tribe, along with boys who liked other boys. It never occurred to Gumi that they could be happy the way her mother and father were happy, especially with the way "oyster shuckers" and "icicle lickers" were treated. 

Apparently, her father's comrades felt the same. The older one let out a loud, rumbling laugh, and the younger one scoffed.

"You won't be happy when she ends up living in your tent in disgrace, Nukilik," warned the older one. "Tui and La do not look kindly on those who defy nature."

"Those freezing fish don't care what we do, Tamilok," grumbled her father. "If they did, they'd have ended the war long ago."

"There now, careful what you say," reproached Tamilok. "Your lack of faith might cost you."

 


 

In one of the many shadowed alcoves of the too-empty Academy, Fire Prince Zuko examined the missive he stole from his uncle's desk, his brows furrowed with displeasure.

The Fire Nation was known for its blazing summer afternoons, but the stifling weather was not the reason for the tightness in Zuko's chest.

It's only been a year, he thought bitterly, the corners of the parchment in his hands smoldering as he barely kept his anger in check. How can I be expected to fulfill my destiny in just a year? 

A pounding headache began to mount behind his scar, and he closed his eyes and his fists, crumpling the letter he was reading.

It has been a year, and Prince Zuko still sometimes wished his father had actually banished him. 

There was an odd sort of freedom to that. Banishment was the extreme, short of death. He would be removed from the line of succession, he would be reduced to a nobody… but he would be free to make his own destiny. 

Had the Fire Lord banished him, he wouldn’t have to hold onto the hope that someday his father would look at him with pride. Had his father so easily dismissed him, he would have known where he stood— albeit the pain of knowing he would never be enough for his father and his king. He wouldn’t have to second-guess if there was a chance his father would ever love him. 

But this…

Our most-esteemed Fire Lord has also enquired upon Fire Prince Zuko's progress in the mission he was tasked to complete. If, in a fortnight, the Fire Prince fails, the hunt for the Avatar would be given prime importance. All information regarding the Avatar must be reported directly to Admiral Zhao.

"So that's how it is," Zuko muttered to himself, finally opening his eyes, the fire within him spreading resolutely. He clenched his jaw and set aflame the piece of paper in his fist until it was nothing but ashes. He leapt off the alcove and made his way to his chambers.

"If that's what you want, Father," he declared darkly, "Then so be it."

Chapter Text

There was a party.

There was always a party in their estate. It was how her parents asserted their position over all the other nobles. 

"Feed her quickly!" She heard her mother trill. "The guests will be here soon!"

Servants crowded around her like hordes of komodo rhinos; a few shoved spoonfuls of rich, thick porridge into her mouth before she heard the ceramic bowl being whisked away on its saucer, the utensils clattering to the ground in the servants' haste. She smiled to herself and grabbed a fallen spoon with her bare toes.

"Upstairs! Hurry!" 

She almost didn't have time to sneak the spoon into her sleeve before her mother ushered her into her bedroom and the rumble of dragon donkey-led carriages could be heard in front of their house. Her mother stood at the threshold for one uncertain moment.

"Remember, Toph," she told her, nerves all aflutter, "Not one word, alright? This is your future on the line."

The bedroom door clicked close, and with that, Toph was alone again. 

Well, as alone as she could ever be. She snorted derisively as she felt the two guards shift restlessly outside her door— a few minutes more, and their defenses would be loosened enough by antsiness. All Toph had to do was wait.

In the meantime, she would examine the spoon she stole. She barely used them— of course servants were assigned on rotation to feed her, the poor helpless little blind girl. But there was something in the utensils that called to her like her element did, albeit a little muted and a little fuzzier, but it was still there. 

Before she could get a decent analysis of the spoon, however, she felt more vibrations just outside her door. She shifted her stance and listened intently— two other servants, one hiding a jug of wine in his clothes, the other shaking a bag of Pai Sho tiles in her guards' faces. 

Toph smirked to herself. She knew it was only a matter of time before she could escape.

 


 

The night was dark with the scent of summer rain blowing in from the west, and there was no moonlight to guide him, but Zuko did not mind. It made his plans easier.

He stood for a moment atop the sloping grounds on the far end of the island where the Academy stood, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness. There wasn't a single light in any of the windows of the looming building behind him, no indication that his uncle was awake to stop him. He took a deep breath and nodded grimly to himself before setting out towards the boathouse near the Academy's docks, his footsteps barely a whisper on the fine sand, the rushing sound of the waves covering his ragged breathing. 

He arrived at the tall glass and wood structure, the water lapping at his feet. He paused for a moment and let flames blossom over his palm. He sized up the rowing boats stored on the wooden shelves, heart jumping in his throat. He knew next to nothing about sea vessels and sailing— after all, he'd grown up at the Caldera, serviced by palanquins, and his trips to the Academy had been made on the royal cruiser, back when he couldn't be bothered to learn how to steer or navigate. Back when his honor didn't depend on it.

He gritted his teeth and chose at random— it didn't matter, he argued to himself, he just needed one to get away from the Academy and back into the Capital City port, where he could sneak into one of Zhao's steamers. 

"If Zhao thought he could get away with capturing the Avatar and taking all the glory for himself," Zuko muttered, heaving the slender boat into the water, "He thought wrong."

Lightning illuminated the boathouse for a split second, followed by rumbling thunder that shook Zuko to his bones. Any other person would take the inclement weather as a sign to quit, but they weren't Zuko; Zuko never gave up.

He plucked two oars from a nearby shelf, slung his bag over his shoulder, careful not to jostle his sheathed swords, and leapt carefully onto the boat, balancing as he set the oars into position. There was another round of lightning and thunder, and belatedly he realized he didn't even leave his uncle a note; he would wake up and find him gone, with no idea where to look. Zuko closed his eyes. 

It's better this way. He thought to himself. I'm sorry, Uncle.

He pushed his boat out into the open sea, the dark silhouette of the Academy growing slowly yet steadily smaller as he rowed into the horizon.

 


 

"Princess Yue! To what do I owe the pleasure, my dear?" 

Sifu Yugoda smiled at her in her warm, matronly kind of way, eyes crinkling at the corners. She set aside the book she was reading and motioned her to sit beside her, adding more kindling to the fire in the pit at the center of her home as she did so. It was such a familiar sight that Yue found herself sighing in relief as she settled by the fire, her shoulders lowering from where they were hunched to her ears for what seemed like the past four days.

"Oh, it's nothing, Sifu Yugoda. I just needed a break from wedding preparations," Yue said delicately, clutching her fur-lined shawl tighter around her as she watched Yugoda summon water into the kettle that hung over the fire. Her sifu smiled knowingly at her.

"It's just a few hours after dawn, Princess," Yugoda said wryly. "What could possibly require your attention when the day has barely started, hm?"

Yue averted her gaze and spoke to the flames.

"Hahn's family is arriving later. It just… it seems all too real, now." she replied quietly. She looked up from the flames and chuckled mirthlessly. "Isn't it ironic, Sifu? I've heard it's mostly the men that have cold feet before their wedding."

Yugoda was silent as she stood up and gathered her chipped tea service. She remained silent until she handed Yue her cup, the scent of moon peaches filling her small home.

"There is more to this visit than thawing out cold feet," Yugoda declared, her gaze penetrating. The princess took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her breath steaming before her.

"Do you have any news of Sifu Pakku's return from the South?" she blurted out. She bit her lip and set aside her tea with shaking fingers. "I know it's impertinent of me to ask, Sifu Yugoda, but there's no one else I could turn to for answers. Why would father send a waterbending master to the South Pole? I do not believe it's just about my wedding. Father's planning something, and I—"

I don't want Sokka to get hurt.

She blinked back the tears that suddenly blurred her vision.

"I just don't understand," she finished lamely. She took a deep, steadying breath. "I have seen the invitations. Father has extended his hospitality to all the warriors in the South. It troubles me."

Yue wrung her hands as her sifu sipped her tea. Finally, the older woman closed her eyes and sighed.

"I'm afraid I have no answers for you, Princess Yue," she said, and Yue deflated. Yugoda opened her eyes and looked at her apologetically. "You are right, however; it is indeed suspicious to invite the warriors alone, especially with our correspondence being monitored by the Fire Nation. And I think I know why."

"How?" Yue asked, but the older woman just smiled mysteriously.

"It is always surprising how many secrets a woman can learn by simply being 'insignificant' to the eyes of men," Yugoda replied, before taking both her hands and looking at her solemnly. "Dark and difficult times lie ahead, Princess Yue.”

"What do you mean, Sifu?"

"There have been reports that the Regime of Fire is gathering troops to send to the Water Tribes." Yugoda gripped her hands tightly. "In search of the Avatar."

Yue's brows wrinkled in confusion.

"But the Avatar is simply a lost legend now, Sifu Yugoda," she murmured, as though whispering would somehow lessen the implications behind her sifu's words. "Fire Lord Sozin killed Avatar Roku; everybody knows that. And there are no Air Nomads anymore."

Yugoda smiled at her thinly, letting the situation sink in. Yue shook her head and yanked her hands out of the older woman's grasp.

"No," she breathed, still shaking her head. "They cannot plan on attacking us simply because they think the Avatar has been reincarnated as a waterbender! There have been treaties— pacts that Grandfather signed with the Fire Lord—"

Her eyes widened as another realization struck her. She stood up and placed her hands over her mouth in horror.

"The Southerners! Father can't possibly take all their warriors away! They'll be defenseless! What if the Fire Nation attacks them, too?"

What if Sokka goes with the warriors? What if Katara gets left behind?

"I'm afraid that is the part where I have no answers for you, my dear," Yugoda said, guiding her back down and massaging her knuckles soothingly. "I do not know what Chief Arnook is thinking, but I'm sure that the Southern Water Tribe chief would not agree if it would put his people in danger."

Sokka and Katara's father, Yue thought, trying to calm her heart. Of course. Chief Hakoda wouldn't agree to anything that would endanger his children.

 


 

"You sit with your back hunched like that and you'll look older than me in ten years," his mother said dryly as she plucked feathers from an arctic hen just outside their hut. 

Hakoda grimaced and sat as straight as he could on the rock he was perched on. He fidgeted with the fur on his mantle and took a deep breath.

"Mother—"

"Oh, just come out and say what you have to say, Hakoda," Kanna said with a roll of her eyes.

Hakoda pouted at his mother— maybe this was why Sokka often wore the expression— and sighed.

"After the Northern delegation arrives… I will be taking Sokka and Katara… to the Academy," he said slowly, hesitantly. His mother stiffened for a moment and resumed plucking feathers with more vigor a displeased frown on her lips. He let the silence reign for a second; he knew how much his mother doted on his children, even before Kya passed, and the separation when they started school in the Fire Nation had not been easy on Kanna's part, though she never said it out loud.

"You better have a good reason for taking my grandchildren away from me earlier than necessary," his mother finally said, looking at him with a level gaze, which Hakoda met with one of his own.

"You know what the Fire Nation is planning, Mother," he said in a low voice. "I'm doing this to protect them, so they will not be caught in the crosshairs when… when the time comes."

"They should be here, with their family," Kanna replied sternly. "There is no safer place."

"There's no safer place, except perhaps the Academy," countered Hakoda. "They will be safer under Headmaster Iroh's protection, Mother. Even you cannot deny that."

The expression in his mother's eyes was as brittle as newly-formed ice.

"And what of the tribe, my son?" she asked gravely, the way she had asked him six years ago. "Wolves are strongest with their pack. You will leave your pack here, without protection from these Fire Nation soldiers who have a predilection for abusing their power?"

"The tribe will not be left defenseless, Mother," he answered wearily. "Bato's men will stay here to protect you. It will not be like the last time."

"You stubborn walrus yak," Kanna clicked her tongue and shook her head. "The Regime of Fire will brand you a traitor if you show allegiance to any other nation. Bato's men will not be able to protect the tribe then."

"We are not violating any pact by visiting the North Pole," Hakoda replied firmly. "And by doing so, we are leading the Fire Nation's troops away from the South."

"You are bait," his mother said simply, lips twisted into a dissatisfied grimace. "You have let the North convince you that you are fighting alongside them, but mark my words— you are just a pawn in their games."

"We are not. I am perfectly aware of all the possible consequences of the actions that we will take, Mother. Believe me," Hakoda retorted through gritted teeth. "This is the only way."

"No, it is not, Hakoda," his mother said sharply, wiping her hands on her dress. "You can leave the North to fend for themselves, as they have done to us during your father's time."

"Do you have any idea what will happen to the tribe if I do not agree to this?" he hissed, eyes darting around them to make sure no one would overhear. "The Fire Nation thinks we are harboring the Avatar, Mother. If I stay here, it will bolster their belief that the waterbending Avatar has been born in the South! Need I remind you what happened the last time the Fire Nation raided our village?"

Kanna's eyes softened at that, but the displeased look remained. She pursed her lips and exhaled.

"And so you think that by putting your life on the line, you are saving your tribe?" she asked wryly, a hint of mourning in her voice. "I do not understand you, my son."

"Joining the Northern Water Tribe in fighting the Regime of Fire is for the greater good," Hakoda said, even though there was a niggling feeling deep in his heart.

"The greater good," Kanna snorted and turned back to her arctic hen. "So many people die because of the greater good."

Hakoda had no reply to that. He watched his mother work silently, the biting air seemingly more bitter now against his snow-weathered skin.

"Your children will grow with or without you, you know," Kanna said quietly. "Sooner or later, they will go where you cannot protect them. And if they are anything like you, my son, you will not be able to make them stay."

 


 

"Separate the yin and the yang,” said Li.

“Create the imbalance,” said Lo.

“And release,” they said in unison.

Azula rolled her eyes and easily shot a bolt of lightning out of one hand, smirking as it hit its mark. The wooden target dummy’s chest smoldered in the distance, and Azula straightened up from her stance.

“Excellent work, Princess Azula,” intoned Lo.

“You are truly a prodigy,” agreed Li.

“Oh, I know,” said Azula, dusting her hands off. She surveyed the line of practice targets that have sustained burn marks in several key areas in satisfaction. “I think that is enough practice for today.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” said the elderly twins, bowing at her as she passed by them on her way out of the bending arena. 

She walked purposefully to the war room, hands behind her back and head held high. The Fire Nation palace was often a desolate, deadly silent place, but Azula had always enjoyed the sound of her footsteps echoing in the cavernous halls— there was power in owning every measured step, every deliberate stride that brought her from one spacious room to another. 

And oh, how she loved surprising unwary ministers and council members, huddled in the shadows of her expansive home, thinking they could get away with all their plotting and politicking by merely hiding away in empty corners, totally oblivious to the way their voices carried down the corridors. 

"...tired of the Fire Lord playing favoritism with Zhao; he doesn't deserve the position! I'm telling you, Minister, my battalion has a better chance of flushing out the Avatar from the Northern Air Temple. We just need the right resources. "

"While I agree that Zhao is a self-absorbed fool, I still maintain that the Fire Lord has no reason to believe General Iroh's information on the 'air walkers' in the Northern Air Temple. We all know the old man has lost his touch. I'd much rather funnel our funds towards Zhao's fleet."

"Good morning, Finance Minister Chen, Lieutenant Colonel Hsiang," Azula greeted, and both men jumped apart as though she bent lightning right in between them.

"Princess Azula," Minister Chen greeted with a stiff bow, and Lieutenant Hsiang followed suit a split-second later. Azula raised her brows imperiously at the two grown men, both almost twice her height, but still very much inferior to her.

"What an interesting conversation you were having, gentlemen," she said, inclining her head. Hsiang swallowed audibly as he straightened up, while Chen pressed his lips into a thin line and held his head high, his pointed beard quivering.

"I was simply explaining how the treasury could not afford Lieutenant Hsiang's request for more battleships, Your Highness," he said smoothly, though Azula noted the tremor in his hands as he clutched them into fists beneath his flowing sleeves.

"Why, yes, of course, Minister," she replied primly, studying her painted nails, "However, I do seem to recall that my father has ordered a thorough search of the Air Temples in the last war meeting, with no expenses to be spared. Am I not correct?"

She caught the triumphant look that Hsiang gave Chen before the minister bowed deeply once more.

"You are correct, Princess," he muttered to the floor.

"Lieutenant Hsiang," she said, and the military man snapped to attention. "In the same war meeting, didn't my father explicitly tell the council that Admiral Zhao was to lead the expedition to the Water Tribes, and to hinder such an important mission was tantamount to treason?"

It was Hsiang's turn to bow deeply.

"I do recall, Your Highness," he said, eyes skittering and sweat forming on his brows.

"It would be bold of me to assume this, gentlemen, but with what little I've heard of your conversation, it seems both of you are not truly honoring your Fire Lord's orders. Now, I wonder: what would my father say when he hears about this?" She walked right past them as she spoke, knowing they would still listen to every word she said. "Would he banish you, or simply strip you of your ranks?"

There was a clamor behind her, but she continued walking resolutely down the hallway, away from their stumbling apologies and excuses. She smiled to herself, wondering what her father would have to say of her accomplishment.

 


 

"Sokka! Where are you?" 

Katara frowned, walking along the reinforced walls of their tribe— this used to be the shore; when did we start needing more walls? She wove in and out of Earth Kingdom merchants carrying their wares back to their ships, wondering where on earth her brother was, and why on earth he was making them late for dinner, which was definitely a first.

"Your brother's up in the main watchtower." One of the biggest warriors in their tribe, Dakkel, clambered down awkwardly from the wall. A huge chunk of snow came down with him and he groaned, slapping a mittened hand on his forehead. "Tui and La, I just finished fixing that."

"Here, let me," Katara said, bending the snow back up and solidifying it into ice. "You said Sokka was in the main watchtower?"

"Yes, the original one. Amaruk said he left him there after hunting— said we were expecting visitors soon," Dakkel replied, shaking clumps of gray snow from the hood of his parka— the snow in their village was mostly gray now, as though it had gotten used to the soot and had accepted its fate. Dakkel looked at the setting sun and nodded at Katara. "You better hurry. It's nearing curfew."

Katara thanked him before she sprinted to the other side of the village. She was not looking forward to Gran-Gran's lectures about staying out too late— or, spirits forbid, being taken into custody of the Fire Nation soldiers for violating curfew.

"Sokka!" she called, even before she entered the tower. "It's time to go, come on. Gran-Gran roasted the arctic hen you caught!"

"Really?" Her brother's head poked through the window of the watchtower, a gleeful smile on his face. "Oh man, that's awesome! But wait, Katara, I need your help with something. Come up here for a sec."

Curious, Katara made her way into the small room atop the tower, where her brother was peering through a rusty, battered telescope that belonged to their father.

"What's going on?"

"Look at those ships," he said, passing her the telescope. She reluctantly placed the scope close to her eyes— she wasn't comfortable knowing that her father and his men probably got the device from one of the ships they assailed— and squinted at where Sokka was pointing.

She couldn't locate the ships at first— the sun was getting low on the horizon, and its glare reflected harshly on the tundra and the sea— but then she was met with silhouettes of the vessels.

"Whose are they?" Katara said in wonder.

The ships didn’t look like the Fire Nation's steamers— no soot announcing their arrival, no unnatural churns in the water, no imposing structure in the middle. Nor did they look like Earth Kingdom trading galleons— no, these were smaller, more streamlined somehow, more similar to their own sailers.

"I couldn't see the sails; they were too far away," Sokka said, gathering his things and standing up. Katara handed him the telescope and stood as well. A grim look passed between the siblings.

"Do you think they're the Northern warriors that Amaruk was talking about?" Katara asked, hand instinctively reaching for her water skin.

"They were due to arrive, but I didn't think they'd send that many ships," Sokka scratched his head with his boomerang and fidgeted with his parka. "I was at the council meeting when Dad read the letter Chief Arnook sent. It just said they were sending an 'emissary' to accompany Dad and his 'retinue' back to the North." He laughed nervously and tugged on his wolf tail. "It was so funny, how formal it was, y'know? They treated Dad like he was a king or something. I didn't even really know what retinue meant—"

Katara narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously.

"You're not telling me something."

Sokka deflated and scuffed his boots on the floor, eyes downcast.

"Arnook's letter was an invitation to Yue's wedding," he admitted quietly. 

"Oh, Sokka," Katara said, moving to hug him, but he just shrugged her off with a weak laugh.

"Eh, it's okay. I'm trying to move on, y'know?" He swallowed and grinned too widely that it mildly horrified Katara. "See? Just— just smiling through the pain!"

Katara crossed her arms and looked at him pitifully, and he scowled and puffed his chest up.

"Anyway," he said pointedly, "I'm pretty sure Amaruk was right; the wedding invitation was probably just an excuse for them to come and recruit our warriors. I don't really know why they'd send what looks like a whole fleet of ships, though. Do they think we're such big threats?"

"Knowing those snobby Northerners, they probably just thought we didn't have enough ships," Katara huffed and rolled her eyes. She jerked her thumb at the specks growing on the horizon. "Either way, whoever those are, you have to do your job and let the tribe know that they're arriving."

"Right!" Sokka stepped around her and unhooked the buffalo yak horn from the wall. "Ready?"

Katara plugged her ears with her mittened fingers just as her brother leaned out the window and blew the horn twice. She watched as lanterns flared in the other watchtowers— another difference she had to get used to, now that they were using wax candles from the Fire Nation instead of seal blubber— and joined her brother as he ran down to their father, who was waiting with his men at the foot of the tower.

"Northern sails!" confirmed one of the warriors atop the wall. Hakoda nodded grimly and strode toward the single archway in the wall that led to the port. The men of the tribe followed close behind, forming a line that obstructed the others from view. The Fire Nation soldiers stationed nearby moved to flank the group, an odd fringe of red and metal attached to the blue and fur.

The tribe held its breath as the ships loomed closer— Katara counted three of them in the dimming twilight, not as many as they'd thought, just larger than what they were used to. As the Northerners docked, a column of water shot up from the sea and a slim figure rode it to descend onto the snowy shore.

Katara gasped and elbowed her way through the wall of warriors. There was no mistaking the dour face that greeted her.

"Sifu Pakku?!"

Chapter Text

Rain pelted down furiously on the pebbly shore. Zuko coughed and heaved, seawater burning its way up his nose and stinging his eyes. He dragged himself away from the choppy waves, his clothes clinging heavily to his body. What remained of his rowing boat washed up beside him, the splintered wood serving as another reminder of his long list of failures.

Needless to say, things had not gone according to plan.

Zuko gritted his teeth at the memory. It stung more than the scratches and bruises that he was bound to have. 

It had all been going smoothly— well, as smoothly as things had ever done for Zuko. He had gone quite a ways away from the Academy, the mountains already obscuring the large building from his view. He continued west, keeping the curved edges of the island in sight, checking his map constantly to make sure that he didn't stray too far from the gulf that would eventually lead to the Great Gates of Azulon. It was good progress; for someone who hadn't truly struck out on his own before, he had gone leaps and bounds beyond what he'd known his whole life.

And then the rains started.

Zuko wasn't a stranger to the Fire Nation's summer rains. They came heavy and they came swift, with lightning and thunder accompanying them every few seconds. The first bout passed without any incident, other than the fact that his map got reduced to a useless pile of mush because of the sudden downpour. He'd barely gotten his bearings and steamed himself dry with his firebending before the second round of rains began.

It had lasted longer than Zuko thought it would. The torrential rainfall blurred what little land he could see in the horizon and the turbulent waves threw him and his tiny boat up and down and who knows where else. It took all his willpower to hold onto his bag and his swords— which would probably be rusted through if he didn't clean them soon— and he'd hung on instinctively to one of his oars in order to float as the waves threw him overboard. 

Zuko didn't know how he had survived, given what luck he had, but he wasn't about to look a gift ostrich horse in the beak. The weather was slightly calmer now, the rain letting up just enough for him to take stock of his predicament.

He was definitely far from the Academy now, although he wasn't sure if he had somehow ended up on the mainland or in one of the island villages that surrounded the Academy. Up ahead of him, he could see that the beach led to a sparse woodland, and beyond that was the hazy outline of a small village. 

Zuko sighed and ran a hand over his face. He wrung his phoenix tail dry before tugging his cloak from his sodden bag and slinging it over his dripping clothes as best as he could— he couldn't be too careful; wherever he was, whatever his father might have thought of him, he was still the prince of the Fire Nation, and there were still some groups in the colonies that would love to send him piece by piece to the Fire Lord. 

He stumbled into the woods as best as he could in the rain, but what little movement he made seemed to aggravate the lungfuls of seawater he had inhaled, and soon he found himself doubled over and retching all over his boots.

"Oh, you poor dear," said a voice behind him, and Zuko jumped right into his puddle of sick. He turned to see an elderly woman, hunched and wrinkled and only slightly older than his uncle, smiling at him from underneath an umbrella and carrying an empty wicker basket. Her tone was kind, but there was something in her rheumy eyes and her gap-toothed smile that made Zuko tremble.

"We don't get many travelers like you around here," the old woman continued, and he reflexively hunched in on himself, trying to hide his scar. "Did the storm throw you off course?"

"I'm just passing through," he said, trying to edge away, but she took a step forward for every step backwards he made. "Ah, where— could you tell me—"

"This is the village of Sayuri," the woman said, gesturing towards the direction of the settlement. "My name is Hama; I run the inn here. You're welcome to stay for a night or two— it is incredibly dangerous out here, all on your own."

"I can handle myself," said Zuko defensively, but Hama just smiled thinly at him.

"I'm sure you can, sonny, but there have been quite a few mysterious disappearances in our town," she said, and the chill that Zuko felt seeped right into his bones. "You're lucky you 'passed through' on a new moon, but it's always best to sleep with a shelter above your head."

"Wh-what happens if it's not a new moon?" he asked, already regretting his own question. This old lady was giving him the creeps, and the sooner he finds a boat to the mainland, the better.

"Oh, nothing to worry yourself about, dear," said Hama with a dismissive wave of his hand. She held up her empty basket and gave Zuko a shrewd look. "Now, why don't you accompany me to the market? I assume you'll also be looking to restock your supplies, hm?"

"Oh, I think, uh, I'm good on the supplies," Zuko said, not wanting to get roped into shopping with this stranger. "Actually, I— I might not stay the night. Are there any boats here that I could hire, or—"

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Hama, latching onto his arm with a surprisingly strong grip. "This storm will last through the night; no one will sail in this weather."

"How do you know it will last through the night?" asked Zuko suspiciously, trying to tug himself from her grasp. "It's summer! This will all clear up in a few hours!"

"I can smell it in the air, my dear," Hama said, her clouded eyes glinting with something like glee. Sweat broke on Zuko's brow and he swallowed down the bile rising in his throat. He hoped his fear didn't show on his face— why was he so afraid of a frail old woman? 

She released her grip on him and deftly handed him her umbrella and basket. She turned slightly and beckoned him to follow with a veiny, claw-like hand.

"Now, come along. You have to tell me what you want for dinner."

Zuko sighed in frustration and hurried to her side, wondering how im Agni's name he was going to get out of this mess.

 


 

The Southern Water Tribe was less impressive than Pakku thought, and he'd already thought so little of it in the first place.

It was small, its walls woefully lacking the reinforcements that his tribe had, and their warriors seemed too undisciplined, what with the way they stood, their stances unprepared. He could tell just by looking at them that they relied merely on brute force rather than strategy. 

"Honored delegates," said the man at the forefront, and Pakku assumed this was Chief Hakoda— he hadn't been a sifu during the chief's time in the Academy, so he wouldn't know the man, but Pakku would be lying if he said he wasn't intrigued by him.

Hakoda was, after all, Kanna's son.

"Chief Hakoda," Pakku stepped forward and inclined his head ever so slightly. He heard his fellow Northern tribesmen disembark onto the measly port. The captain of his ship, Nanook, lumbered beside him, grasping the chief's proffered forearm in greeting.

"It seems the winds have favored your travels," Hakoda commented, nodding at the other Northern warriors as they stepped up behind Pakku. 

"Travel is easier with our skilled waterbenders on board," said another captain, Aput, leading his men forward. Pakku did not miss the grim look that passed over Hakoda's face.

"Ah, yes, I suppose it is," the chief said, before turning to the man beside him. "Bato, why don't you and Dakkel show our guests to the longhouse? I'm sure they will want to rest before the feast."

Bato nodded at the group before waving for them to follow. Pakku frowned at the lack of warmth in the gesture— were the Southerners simply distrusting of foreigners, or was this wariness borne of their history with the North?

No matter. Diplomacy was Pakku's job here, and his job was what he would do, no matter how inhospitable the Southerners act.

"Sifu Pakku!"

A young girl came rushing toward him, a thin boy armed with a boomerang on her heels. They both skidded to a stop before him, and in his mind, Pakku tried to place how he knew these two children— until the torchlight of a passing Fire Nation soldier illuminated the necklace on the girl's throat.

"Girl," he greeted, because honestly, it was nearly impossible to keep track of his students' names after a decade or so of teaching. "So, this is the fearsome tribe you were blathering on about?"

The girl bristled, but held her chin high. Her sibling scowled and tensed beside her, twirling his weapon in what seemed to be a vaguely threatening manner.

"Yes, it is," his student replied, back straight, feet firmly planted on the snow. In spite of himself, Pakku felt proud— this was how a trained warrior looked like, whatever gender they may be: grounded and fiery, ready to adapt to whatever circumstance thrown at them.

"What a charming little village," he commented dryly, striding past her. He eyed his surroundings disdainfully. "Now, why don't you show me around, that I may see what makes the South so preferable over the North, hm?"

The girl narrowed her eyes at him, and once again Pakku was struck by how much she acted like Kanna back in the day— so fueled by the need to prove herself to the world, to show that she was so much more than what others thought of her. He folded his hands into his sleeves and looked at her critically, testing if his lessons on controlling her emotional bending bore fruit.

When she didn't sigh anything but a puff of air (and he had seen her freeze a classmate with her breath), Pakku nodded to himself. The girl was a talented bender, to say the least. He had been right to take her under his tutelage.

"We could show you to the longhouse, where the rest of the Northerners are," her sibling cut in, his voice cracking from false cheerfulness. Pakku pursed his lips.

"That won't be necessary," he replied, gesturing towards the building in the distance. "I can quite clearly see where it is."

"Wow, his crankiness doesn't let up even when school's out of session, huh?" he heard the boy mutter to his sister, who tried to muffle her laughter with her hand. Pakku rolled his eyes exasperatedly as he made his way to the longhouse, following the trail his fellow tribesmen left.

He had barely reached the building when another young man caught up to him, kicking up a flurry of snow in his wake.

"The tribal elders are in the lodge, waiting to welcome you," said the young man, panting as he bowed. Pakku appraised him with a sharp eye— he was old enough to have been at the Academy during the Southern Revolt. His frown deepened. It was a shame that the Southern Water Tribe warriors were sent home during that particular stand-off; this young man needed to be whipped into shape.

"Very well. Lead me to them."

"Uh, however—" the young man stuttered, still deep in his bow, "I had been asked by one of the matriarchs to… um, 'hold you off for a bit.'"

"Matriarch?" The word was unfamiliar on Pakku's tongue.

The young man didn't seem to realize. He just nodded and finally stood straight. 

"She mentioned 'having words' with you, sir," he shrugged uneasily before glancing behind Pakku and nodding. "That's my cue to leave."

Pakku scowled— were the Southerners really this mannerless? He had expected a cold reception from his student, but this— no proper etiquette in dealing with foreigners, no manners when talking to visiting dignitaries—

"Pakku, there you are, you dour old coot."

Pakku whipped around at the voice. It was ancient, gravelly with age, but he would know that voice anywhere.

"Kanna?"

She smiled wryly at him— the same way she smiled at him years and years ago, and he was surprised at how young his heart felt again, beating hard and fast in his chest.

"You look like you've seen a ghost and not an old friend," she commented, approaching slowly. "I am no ghost, Pakku."

"Could have fooled me, with the way you disappeared," croaked out Pakku. 

Kanna snorted in the most unladylike manner.

"Come now," she chided. "When I heard you were with the Northern delegation, I had hoped you'd let the past stay as such. We have very little future left, with our age; I suggest we look ahead, hm?"

"And yet you stayed the same, Kanna." Her words seemed to thaw him out of his shock. "How do you propose to 'look ahead' when you are still who you once were?"

Kanna drew herself up as much as her age would let her, and the look she gave Pakku was one of a warrior's, not a woman's.

"You confuse foresight with stagnation, Pakku," she said, flint in her eyes. "Who I am at my core has not changed, and I suggest you remember that, if you are so bent on remembering the past."

Pakku bowed deeply in what he hoped was a dry mimicry of respect.

"Well then. Why don't you show me where your foresight brought you, matriarch?"

"It has brought me peace and respect, old man," Kanna said, waving him toward the communal lodge. "Don't pretend you have either of those for me; my eyes are old, but I can see the difference between sincerity and mockery." 

"Allow me to be candid, then, Kanna," he said, a hint of bitterness in his voice, "Was this—" he gestured at her small, nondescript village, in all its bleakness and modesty— "Was all of this worth it?"

Kanna chuckled, and in her eyes he could clearly see that they were not looking at the same village; she saw value and significance where he could not, and had that not been the reason why he loved her, all those years ago?

"Oh, the families we choose for ourselves are worth more than you'll ever know, Pakku," she said, before tucking her hand into the crook of his arm and ducking into the entryway of the lodge.

 


 

"Yi-kai, that katana is not a toy," warned Suki dangerously, and the younger Kyoshi Warrior straightened up and sheathed her weapon guiltily. Suki nodded in approval. "Get your forms down first before waving that around; we don't need you or anyone else getting wounded, you hear me?"

"Oh, ease up on her, Suki," Jia piped up reproachfully from her left side. "She passed the Academy's exam; she knows how to handle her sword."

"Fine," exhaled Suki, snapping her own fans closed. She mustered a smile at the other warriors. "I think we've had enough training for today, anyway. Good job, girls!"

The noise of fans and swords being sheathed followed her words, and the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors filed out of the dojo, chatting amongst themselves. Suki hung up her own katana on the racks, preparing to follow them, but Jia's hand on her shoulder stopped her in her tracks.

"Look, Suki…" the younger warrior looked hesitant, but she forged on. "I know you're worried about being the captain after Minh, but you're gonna do great. You don't have to be so tough on the new recruits."

"I know, I know," Suki said, abashed. She tucked her hair behind her ear and sighed wearily. "I'm just worried, y'know? We haven't heard from Minh and her tour of duty's been done for over a year now. She and the other girls should've been back home before we even left the Academy this summer."

"I'm sure they're fine," Jia assured her, but there was an underlying note of anxiety in her voice as well. "They're a tough bunch, and they won't leave anyone behind."

"That's why I'm so worried!" Suki exclaimed, throwing her hands up. "What if something went wrong and they had to stay longer in General Fong's base because someone got hurt?"

"Then we must take comfort in the fact that they're all together," said Ling's unmistakable reedy voice from the entrance. She leaned against the door frame and crossed her arms. "C'mon, Suki. You can't think like this. You know that."

"Easier said than done," Suki replied, slumping against the wooden wall of the dojo. "Maybe I'm just not cut out for this. Remind me again why you turned down Oyaji when he asked you to be captain?"

"Are you kidding?" The older girl shrugged her thin shoulders and smirked. "Who wants to take on such a big responsibility?"

Suki groaned and Jia tried to hide her smile behind her hand. She patted her captain's back comfortingly.

"You know what would cheer you up?" said Jia, without waiting for an answer, "Wuqing went to the hawkery earlier and some of them are back! You can finally send your letters to Katara!"

Suki perked up at that.

"Oh, finally!" She pushed off the wall and rummaged excitedly through one of the drawers of the table situated in her corner of the dojo. She tossed out bits and pieces of clutter in her search for her rolled and bound letter. "I've been meaning to send this for ages; they don't really keep any messenger hawks in the South, so I had to be the first one to write her."

Jia and Ling exchanged sly glances behind her back.

"Are you only writing to her?" asked Jia teasingly. "'Cause, y'know, it might be weird if you didn't write a letter to her brother, too."

Suki started and accidentally pricked her index finger on something sharp inside the drawer. She sucked on her finger and turned back to her friends, narrowing her eyes at them and blushing furiously. 

Jia and Ling grinned unabashedly.

"I am not writing to Sokka," Suki said fiercely.

"Oh, why?" asked Ling with a smirk. "Are you too scared he won't write back?"

"Oh, please, I don't even know if he could write," said Suki, rolling her eyes and continuing her search. "He can be really stupid sometimes, y'know?"

"Uh-huh, right," nodded Jia, popping up beside her and poking her in the ribs. "Isn't it kinda cute, though, when boys are stupid in an endearing kind of way?"

Suki stopped her rummaging long enough to remember Sokka tripping over nothing during their late night training sessions with Katara— he always tried to cover up his awkward fall with an even awkwarder gesture and explanation. The memory made her want to both smile and slap a hand to her forehead.

"Yeah, I guess he could be kinda cute," she mused absently, unaware of the twin smiles on her friends' faces. "He's really clumsy and says the weirdest things, but yeah, it's kinda really cute when he does that."

"He's really funny, too," added Ling, exchanging a glance with Jia.

"Oh, definitely," agreed Suki, peering into the recesses of the near-empty drawer. "Some of his jokes annoy Katara, but I think it's part of his charm. He's really good at cheering up people, and he's not down for very long, you know?"

"Plus, he's a good warrior, right?" Jia said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

"Of course he is," Suki replied, extracting her scroll from where it was wedged in the far end of the drawer. "I really enjoy our spars; his boomerang is a lot similar to our fans. I actually learn a lot just by training with him. I kinda miss it, actually."

"Do you miss it, or do you miss him?" Jia squeals giddily, making Suki redden to the roots of her hair.

"Jia!" she gasped, affronted. On her other side, Ling snorted and threw one arm around her shoulders.

"If you have so much to say about him," the older girl said dryly, "Why don't you tell him all of it in a letter?"

"It's—" Suki's mouth twisted into a bitter frown, "It's complicated, you guys. He doesn't like me that way, okay? He'll probably never like me that way. I'm just not his type."

"Oh, how could you say that!" Jia exclaimed, grasping her hand and looking up at her with huge green eyes. "Of course he'll like you! You're a really awesome person, and he already spends a lot of time with you!"

"Look, it's not that big a deal!" Suki laughed, prying her hands from her friend. "But, fine, if you think it's weird that I don't write him, too, then I'll add something to my letter to Katara, okay?"

She picked up one of the bamboo quills that had rolled onto the floor when she was searching for her letter, and Jia excitedly unscrewed a pot of ink and set it carefully on the table. She and Ling peered over Suki's shoulder as the girl hunched over the parchment, the former lightly jumping from one foot to another. Suki chewed at the end of her quill before finally scratching out a postscript.

"'P.S. Say hi to Sokka for me, hope he's not eating all your seal jerky,'" read Ling over her shoulder. She scowled in dismay. "That sucks, Suki!"

"What? He really does eat a lot of seal jerky! And egg custards! Have you seen him at lunch? He eats like a hibernating platypus bear!" Suki exclaimed. Ling raised an eyebrow at her and folded her arms over her chest.

"I've never seen you this awkward with a guy you like," she pointed out. "You're usually really upfront about these kinds of things. What's the big hold-up?" 

"He has a thing with the Northern Water Tribe princess!" Suki burst out, nearly crushing the pen in her hand. She sighed despondently and gently laid down the quill on the table. "I can't really be forward with him; he's still sad about her getting married and stuff. Besides, she's a princess, you guys— how am I supposed to compete with that?"

Ling and Jia briefly looked at each other before they both engulfed Suki in a hug. Suki laughed ruefully.

"Thanks, guys," she said, patting their backs. "Let's just go to the hawkery and send this, okay?"

The three of them walked out of the dojo arm in arm, heading for the steeple-roofed structure across their village's small plaza. It was getting quite late; the merchants that had set up their stalls in the market were already packing up their wares, and the lone tavern in the corner was steadily getting fuller. Children waved at the Kyoshi Warriors as their parents ushered them into their houses, and Jia giggled as some of the boys their age winked as they passed. 

Suki just rolled her eyes with a sm-ile and entered the hawkery, blinking a few times as her eyes adjusted to the light.

"Cao?" she called as she stepped up to the counter, the screeches and flapping of wings competing with her voice. "Hey, Cao!"

A thin, gangly boy ducked from behind the heavy, dark curtain behind the counter, and he beamed toothily at the three girls as soon as he saw them.

"Well, 'ello there, Ling, Suki, Jia," he greeted warmly. "What can I do fer ya today?"

"I'd like to send a letter to the South Pole," said Suki, sliding her scroll and three yuans onto the counter.

"South Pole, eh? Heard it's mighty cold there," commented Cao, tucking the scroll into a bamboo tube and closing it tightly. "What'cha doin' sendin' letters to the South Pole, Suki?"

"Oh, y'know, made some friends at the Academy," replied Suki with a smirk. "Don't you worry, Cao, your hawk's gonna come back in no time, I promise."

"It better," drawled Cao, "Have ya seen how many hawks Gov'nor Oyaji's been sendin'? Me birds must've had Ba Sing Se memorized by now."

"Ba Sing Se?" Ling interjected. "Who's in Ba Sing Se?"

Cao's brows furrowed in confusion.

"Whaddaya mean, who's in Ba Sing Se? Minh and Chun and Yulo and all them other girls!"

Suki and her companions exchanged shocked looks before they took off for the governor's house, leaving Cao yelling behind them, "'Ey, ya forgot yer change! Ah, well, guess I'm just gonna keep 'em."

 


 

Cheers, calls, and claps from the excited crowd shook the underground arena, reaching a fever pitch as the unmistakable rumble of earthbending thundered over the audience's applause. 

"Welcome to Earth Rumble Six!" Xin Fu roared. "I am your host, Xin Fu!"

"Ya ready to be blasted again by some sissy, Takke?" Toph called out over the noise that filtered backstage. The rotund man, dressed in nothing but a red cape and red pants, laughed heartily.

"Ah, please, The Boulder ain't no sissy," He picked up his prop— a Fire Nation flag— and twirled it around experimentally. "All the kids are bettin' on him." 

"If they think The Boulder could beat me, then they're a bunch of stupid lil pansies like him," Toph snorted, propping her feet up on the stone seat she erected in front of her, and purposefully raising some earth to trip The Hippo, who scowled at her and muttered, "Hippo mad," before skulking to join his friends.

Xin Fu called for Fire Nation Man on stage, and Takke stretched and held his flag aloft.

"Here I go," he said. "See ya in two minutes!"

Toph yawned and tucked her hands behind her head, picking at her toes once in a while as Xin Fu announced rival after rival. Toph didn't mind waiting for her turn, though— it gave her plenty of time to get a read on her opponents, even though she'd been facing the same lot since Earth Rumble III. 

"The Boulder's rocking it tonight," commented Gecko as he slunk into the room, clutching his stomach. He peeled off his bright green mask with a pained hiss. "Gopher, gimme somethin' for the pain, will ya?"

The Gopher took a swig from his flask before handing it to Gecko, who slumped down with a sigh beside Toph. The former turned to the blind girl with a smirk.

"With the rate The Boulder's going, you'll have to say goodbye to your favorite toy," he said, nodding to the Earth Rumble belt that laid on Toph's lap. "Too bad you can't drink away your pain yet, kid."

"'S okay, Baldie, it already cheers me up when I hear you cry for your mommy every time I beat your ass," Toph drawled lazily, getting to her feet at the sound of rocks smashing against the wall just outside. 

As she stepped onto the platform, a hush fell over the anticipating crowd. She held up her prized belt over her head, smirking to herself. All of these dorks were just kidding themselves. No one would get this from her.

"Now, the moment you've all been waiting for…" Xin Fu announced, "The Boulder versus… The Blind Bandit!"

Cheers erupted from the audience, some of them chanting The Boulder's name over the din, but Toph wasn't hearing any of that. She handed off her championship belt to one of the girls that Xin Fu hired.

"Don't you dare get a scratch on that, ya hear me?" Toph commanded. "'Cause I'll know if you did!"

The girl sighed as she stalked off. Toph turned back to her opponent, who was going through his usual spiel.

"The Boulder feels conflicted about fighting a young blind girl," he said, and the crowd roared in agreement, calling for The Blind Bandit's disqualification.

"Ha!" Toph called out, pointing in his direction mockingly. "Sounds to me you're scared, Boulder!"

She didn't need sight to know that he was incensed now. 

"The Boulder," he announced, "is over his conflicted feelings, and now he's ready to bury you in a rockalanche!"

"Whenever you're ready," Toph cackled, planting her feet on the arena, "The Pebble!"

"It's on!" The Boulder yelled, and Toph smirked at his bravado— there was a tremor in his hands as he held them up, his heart rate was faster than usual, and he was quickly losing the energy in his legs from all the fights he'd gone through.

This is gonna be so easy.

The Boulder shouted as he strode forward— she shifted her foot and raised her hands to her waist, anticipating his attack— he still hadn't noticed she was making her move, still hadn't veered away from the trajectory of her strike— she grinned and slammed her foot into the ground, churning up the floor and forcing The Bandit's legs into a wide split.

After that, it was just a matter of pushing stalagmites from the arena and sending her opponent crashing into the wall beneath the stands. The crowd whistled and jeered, and Toph smiled in satisfaction.

"Your winner, and still the champion—"

"FIRE NATION!" yelled Takke from backstage, and Xin Fu shot him a glare.

"We're not declaring you champion, you imbecile!" he hissed. Takke made panicked moves with his hands.

"No! Xin Fu, there are Fire Nation soldiers outside!"

"What?" Xin Fu moved from the spotlight and stomped angrily towards Takke. "Who told those bastards about our hideout?"

The crowd started murmuring anxiously, a couple of people here and there hollering questions at Xin Fu. Takke glanced nervously at Toph and lowered his voice.

"The— the Beifongs are accompanying them," he whispered, but Toph already heard.

"What the hell?" she exclaimed, rushing to Takke's side in a wave of earth. "What are they doing here?" 

Xin Fu made a sound of frustration before coming back onstage and coaxing everyone out of the cave. Toph stood still for a moment, trying to calm her racing heart, before blowing her hair out of her face and making a rockslide leading directly towards Xin Fu's office. 

It was an open secret amongst the professional Earth Rumble fighters that Toph was not just a waif from the streets who stumbled upon their arena and pummelled every single one of them to the ground. It was actually Headhunter who found out first after a particularly nasty battle where he lost all his prize money to The Bandit— on his way trailing the tiny girl home, Toph had encased him in earth and threatened to bury him alive if he so much as breathed around her parents. Naturally, everyone else heard of the warning the very next night.

She didn’t even want to think about what her parents would do if they found out she’d been sneaking out to fight competitively in an illegal bending tournament.

Toph barged into Xin Fu’s office under the cover of the milling crowd. She blasted a hole into the wall and crept in, slamming her foot once to find the spot where Xin Fu had earthbent his money box for safekeeping. She quickly slid apart the stone and tucked the wooden box under her arm, but before she could take another step, she heard the unmistakable click of the lock turning. Toph jumped into the box’s crevice, leaving just a sliver of a gap in the stone so she could hear what’s happening.

“...you’re mistaken!” came Xin Fu’s voice. “There is nothing illegal about a bunch of friends drinking out here in the middle of the night! Curfew is for minors only!”

There was a snort and a thud, followed by a pained grunt. Metallic boots clinked across the floor.

“Give it up, earthbender, we’ve already caught you red-handed,” a gruff voice said as the sounds of more people in heavy metal armor flooded into the room. “You’re running a betting ring on Fire Nation territory!"

"No, no, I swear, it's not a betting ring!" cried Xin Fu desperately. "Al-although, I have some gold pieces saved up— if you and your boys—"

"Enough!" cut in the soldier. "We'll see what the warden has to say about this."

"What about our daughter?" a woman asked piteously. Toph's breath caught in her throat and she huddled in on herself. Mom. "You said you'd help us find her if we led you here!"

"If your little rugrat is seen with these hooligans, ma'am, there's nothing we can do to protect her," answered the soldier sharply. 

"You can't be serious!" she gasped. "She's just a child!"

"No one has seen her in the area yet, Poppy," interjected another male voice. Toph closed her eyes with a muffled groan. Of course her father was here, too. "Maybe those children we asked were wrong, after all."

"Search the room," the Fire Nation soldier commanded. "See if you can find the money that this one—" another thud and another pained yelp from Xin Fu— "scrounged up."

"I-I can show you where it is!" Xin Fu panted. "If— if you lower my charges—"

"It is for evidence, you blathering old fool," said the soldier scathingly. There was a blast of what sounded like flames and Xin Fu screamed. "Get him out of my sight. Make sure he and the other clowns don't get away."

Toph waited until Xin Fu's whimpers faded before stealthily constructing a tunnel out of the place. Thank the spirits the ringleader's office was near the entrance— she only had to crawl a couple of paces before she arrived at a relatively isolated place beyond the Earth Rumble cave.

A couple of footsteps up ahead alerted her that she wasn't as alone as she'd thought. She sunk into the earth again, straining her ears. If these were soldiers, she could easily incapacitate them the minute they stepped over her hiding place—

"How could she even get mixed up in all of this, Lao?" she heard her mother say. "Surely those horrible posters have got it all wrong! Master Yu's been keeping her private lessons to the basics! She's just a blind, helpless little girl!"

Toph scowled at the words and clutched her prize money tighter. She wished she had the chance to grab her championship belt along the way, too. That'll show them.

"We've let her have far too much freedom," her father replied gravely. Toph snorted. Too much freedom? Her father's idea of "too much freedom" was locking her up in her bedroom and letting the servants feed her! She stuck her tongue out distastefully as her father spoke again. "Once we find her, she'll be cared for and guarded twenty-four seven. It will be for her own good, especially now that the Fire Nation is also after her."

Toph's jaw dropped at that. 

"No! No way!" she screamed, hurling a hunk of stone from the ground and into the tunnel she made. Her breath came in harsh pants. She was fine pretending to be the fragile girl they thought she was because before, she still had the Earth Rumble— but now? No fights, no earthbending, and she'll basically be treated like a prisoner every single hour for the rest of her life? 

"I've gotta get outta here," she muttered to herself, wrenching a hefty boulder out of her way and feeling through the earth around her.

If her parents sensed anything amiss underground, she didn't care. She heaved a huge breath and pushed at the earth in front of her with all her might, producing a long, winding tunnel that led to the Gaoling port.

Chapter Text

She was set to be married in a week.

Yue's stomach twisted at the idea. While custom dictated that she and her betrothed— the word still sent bile up her throat— were not to see each other until their wedding day, Yue still couldn't wrap her head around what was supposed to happen afterwards, despite her mother's attempts to assuage her anxiety. Her chambermaids, her etiquette tutor, even her seamstress— they all seemed to have some piece of advice that did nothing to quell the fear in the princess's mind. 

On top of all that, she still had no clue as to her father's plans when the Southern delegation arrived. The Fire Nation soldiers that patrolled their streets gave no indication that something sinister was brewing on the horizon, but she honestly wouldn't put it past them to overturn her father if they found anything remotely treasonous in his actions. Once again, Yue wondered at her father's logic— yes, protecting their home from the Regime of Fire was paramount, especially if there were evidence of transgression on the Fire Lord's part, but to sacrifice their sister tribe as well? Didn't they have enough warriors in the North? Did her father think so little of their brave men? Why include the Southern warriors as well?

Her room was growing dark. She was vaguely aware that her relentless pacing had scruffed up the ice floor. Exhausted, mind spinning with the same unanswerable questions, Yue dropped onto her bed and burrowed into her pelts, falling into an uneasy sleep. 

She dreamed that she was encased in an ice cage— no amount of bending could break its translucent walls, and every now and then, people would pass by and ogle at her as she lay powerless on the cold floor. She saw Sokka's face in the crowd, and she shouted out, asking for help, but the boy just looked mournfully at her and vanished. Then Hahn appeared and tapped on the icy wall, leering maliciously as she startled.

"Stop it," Yue muttered as the tapping pounded in her sore head, "Leave me alone… please… I'm trying to sleep—"

She opened her eyes, silver moonlight filtering in from her window. Blearily, she scanned the room, trying to figure out what woke her in the first place. 

The tapping continued, and Yue blinked as she saw a face peering through her window. The face grinned at her cheekily.

"Gumi?"

Her friend pressed a finger to her lips, warily looking over her shoulder. She relaxed after a moment and melted part of Yue's wall— the princess was surprised to see that Gumi was standing on a column of water, much like the one Sifu Pakku taught them. 

"What are you doing here?" whispered Yue, sliding out of her bed. Gumi guided her water column back to the canals without so much as a splash.

"I'm busting you out!" she whispered back giddily. "At least, just for tonight. So you wouldn't have to practice alone."

"How did you know—" began the princess, but Gumi tugged on her hand and led her to the hole she created.

"I heard Dad's friends talking about it," Gumi replied in a low voice. "I don't think it's fair that they think we have no right to use our bending for anything other than healing, especially since Sifu Pakku already started teaching us combative moves. Let's go!"

"Gumi, if my parents find out—" stuttered Yue, gathering her trailing robes and looking down at the three-storey drop before her, "Father would get so angry, and it might jeopardize my union with Hahn—"

"Oh, relax, Princess Yue, we'll be back before dawn," said Gumi, calling up the water once more. "Besides, I know this secluded place where no one would think to look for us— it's where Dad and his buddies smoke their tundra cotton after going on a hunt. They won't be there tonight, they just had a big haul yesterday."

Yue looked back at her room uncertainly. 

She was set to be married in a week, and this was the most freedom she could get before then.

She sighed and nodded at her friend, jumping into the pillar of water that awaited the two of them.

 


 

The old woman was a persistent hag, Zuko decided.

She'd steered him all over the marketplace, asking him insinuating questions that he tried to ignore in favor of sulky silence. When asking relentlessly led her nowhere, she just dug her veiny old claws further into his arm and dragged him to even more stalls, insisting on making him carry the produce she'd plucked from several vendors. It was really annoying and insulting, but even more than that, Zuko still couldn't  shake the creepy feeling he had when she'd come across him.

"Would you care for spiced tea, dear?" Hama commented, perusing a selection of tea leaves in various jars. Zuko hefted her full wicker basket in his arms and shook his head mutely. She clucked her tongue disapprovingly at him before purchasing a bag of leaves, anyway.

Zuko was beginning to wonder when he'd make it back to this inn of hers— he was still a little waterlogged from having crashed on the coast— when a disturbance from the village's plaza gained the attention of everyone nearby, and Hama stepped back with a hiss.

The crowd parted for the newcomer, and Zuko gasped.

"Uncle!"

Iroh was striding towards him, a severe look on his face. Zuko gulped. He'd only ever seen this side of his uncle back in his childhood, when Iroh had still been a general with a fearsome army at his back.

I'm in so much trouble. 

"Uncle, I—" he began, but as his uncle neared, Zuko realized that the stormy expression was not directed at him, but at the old woman who had shrunk in on herself beside him. It seemed all her persistence had evaporated into a picture of frailty.

"Master Hama," began Iroh gravely, his expression still thunderous. Zuko started at his greeting— Uncle knows this hag? Why is he calling her a master?— but his uncle was speaking once more. "It seems we have some accounts to settle. May we speak in the privacy of your inn?"

"Yes, of course, General," sneered the old woman, before sharply turning on her heel and marching in the direction of a decrepit building across the village.

"Uncle, what's going on?" Zuko asked, but his uncle took his elbow and led him towards Hama's Inn in silence. A look around revealed that several Fire Nation soldiers were shooing curious merchants back to their stalls. Those muttering to each other about the Dragon of the West's presence were promptly whipped by the guards. 

Ahead of them, Hama wrenched open the door to her inn, shuttering the windows before they even entered the building. Iroh closed the door tightly behind him and Zuko, and stood imperiously before Hama, who had dropped her frail act and was watching both of them with a disgusted twist on her lips.

"You have plenty to answer for, Hama," Iroh began bluntly. "What is this I hear about you breaking your oath?"

Zuko opened his mouth to ask either of them to explain, but the old woman rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. 

"I am guilty of nothing, Grandmaster," she said, steel in her cold, clouded eyes. "I have found your nephew and kept him safe, just as you asked."

"It is not only my nephew that I have asked protection for," said Iroh, drawing himself up to his full height. "Why have you restarted your meaningless crusade, Hama?"

"You and your wretched Order have done nothing for the balance of this world," she hissed venomously. "I am just righting the wrongs you are too afraid to face."

"They are innocent men and women!" roared Iroh, and Zuko jumped back at his tone, heart hammering in his chest, still ignorant of the gist of the conversation before him.

"They are of the same blood as those who took my brothers and sisters from me!" shrieked the old woman, pushing herself close to Iroh threateningly.

"The Order already took care of those involved in the capture of your people," Iroh responded unflinchingly, staring her down. "Do I need to remind you what else the Order has done for you, Master Hama? Need I remind you whose inn you are tending?"

Hama's nostrils flared and she glared at Iroh with such contempt before backing away and spitting at the floor.

"There are rumors… whispers and murmurs of terrible things about to befall my people, and you are doing nothing," she seethed. Iroh sighed heavily and folded his hands into his sleeves.

"We are all but pieces in the Pai Sho game of life," he replied sagely. "Our place is not to know, but to act when called upon."

"And who calls upon the pieces, Grandmaster?" Hama replied spitefully. "You have spent all these years sitting idly while our enemies gather more forces. What use is your precious Order?"

Iroh's gaze flitted to Zuko, who pressed his lips into a thin line. There were so many things he didn't understand about this whole interaction, and his uncle's reaction— his uncle's distrust— left a bitter taste in his mouth.

"Perhaps this is a conversation for another time," Iroh finally said, and to Zuko's surprise, Hama relented. She started shuffling away, beckoning Zuko with a bony finger, and Zuko shot his uncle a questioning scowl before following the old woman into a small dining room. She gestured for him to set down her basket of food on the table, her movements sharp and agitated.

"What—" started Zuko, clearing his throat. "What was that?"

Hama cackled humorlessly under her breath.

"You watch out for your uncle, boy," she told him mysteriously. "Don't let him spin you into his web of lies."

"Uncle— Uncle is not a liar!" shouted Zuko, heart in his throat. "How dare you suggest—"

"Oh, yes, I dare, Prince Zuko," she replied with a malicious grin. "I dare suggest it, because I know more about the comings and goings of the Dragon of the West."

"Well— well, what about what Uncle said about your— your crusades on innocent men and women?" Zuko retorted hotly, grasping desperately at the conversation that didn't make sense. "Why should I trust your word over my uncle's? You aren't coming off as honorable as he is, you old hag!"

"You firebenders and your precious honor," scoffed the old woman. "Sometimes, one must dirty their hands for the sake of justice."

"Justice for what?" asked Zuko, but the hard lines on Hama's face made him backtrack. "Look, I don't know what's going on here, but if you are harming innocent people for the sake of justice then it's not justice at all!"

Hama raised an eyebrow, frowning in displeasure.

"You truly are your uncle's nephew," she said pensively, before nodding back towards the antechamber where Iroh stood. "Hurry along, Prince Zuko. Tell the general I have much to think about."

Zuko blinked and stumbled back into the other room, where his uncle was gazing out of the now-open windows, looking every bit as placid as he usually was.

"Uncle?" ventured Zuko tentatively, and Iroh turned to him with a soft smile.

"Ah, nephew, you're done helping Master Hama in the kitchen?"

Zuko nodded and fidgeted with his cloak. He glanced back at the other room.

"She told me to tell you that— that she has much to think about," he said haltingly, peering up at his uncle to gauge his reaction. 

"Oh," Iroh said, eyes wide in surprise. He stroked his beard thoughtfully before smiling hugely at his nephew. "Well, it seems you have gotten to her, my boy. I've never known Master Hama to change her mind without much struggle."

Iroh's compliment fell on deaf ears. The lack of knowledge— and the way Iroh was speaking, as though Zuko still had no say in the situation— made his hackles rise.

"Uncle, none of this is making any sense!" hissed Zuko angrily. "I demand to know what this is all about!"

Iroh didn't even look the least bit perturbed at his outburst, and he simply looked at his nephew pointedly until Zuko deflated and muttered a reluctant apology under his breath.

His uncle steered him into a lumpy old couch in the corner of the room.

"Nephew, the lotus only opens to those who know her secrets," Iroh said cryptically, and Zuko groaned in exasperation. His uncle held up a finger sternly. "Some mysteries will only reveal themselves in the proper moment, Prince Zuko. One needs to be patient in order to watch the moon flower bloom."

"What does that even mean, Uncle?" muttered Zuko belligerently. "And it's not just that. How did you even find me?"

 Iroh looked at him sadly.

"Well, there was a rather important missive missing from my desk…" he began lightly, and Zuko dropped his head into his hands. Iroh clucked his tongue at him. "What was your plan, Prince Zuko? You will traipse into the mainland? Disguise yourself as a commoner? And then what?"

"And then I'll find the Avatar before Zhao does!" 

"You seem to be missing a few steps," his uncle commented dryly, shaking his head. "You never think things through, nephew."

"I had to do something!" Zuko almost yelled, his clenched fists smoking from agitation. "I have to regain my honor, Uncle. For Zhao to just swoop in and— and— and take that chance away from me— this is my destiny! How dare he—"

"Is it your own destiny? Or is it a destiny someone else has tried to force on you?" Iroh interrupted gently. "Oh, nephew, how many times do I have to tell you? Your honor was never taken away from you. You are more honorable than Zhao could ever hope to be."

Zuko opened his mouth to argue, but Hama appeared in the doorway and nodded at Iroh.

"Food's on the table. Also made spiced tea," she gritted out, and Zuko scowled suspiciously— was she trying to poison them? Iroh, however, smiled genially at the woman.

"Oh, we don't want to overstay our welcome, Master Hama," he said, and Hama frowned at him, almost petulantly.

"It's your inn, Grandmaster. Stay as long as you want," she replied frostily, shuffling to the exit. "I have business to take care of in the mountains."

"That's good news," muttered Iroh, and Hama shot him another glare before slamming the door shut behind her. 

Iroh stood up with a smile on his face and clapped his hands together.

"Now, then, nephew," he announced, "Why don't we have some of Master Hama's famous spiced tea?" 

 


 

The dap-ay, a circle of rocks in the middle of the village where the tribal leaders usually made important announcements and resolved disputes, was surrounded by people, far more than Katara had seen in her whole life. 

Conflict resolution in her village usually didn't attract too much attention— usually, the council just settled petty offenses and domestic affairs, like that time Kallik, the hide curer, ran off with a younger woman and left his wife and newborn son. 

The only time the dap-ay was this crowded with people was when her father asked the tribe for permission to set sail with all the men to exact revenge on the Fire Nation.

Katara's heart leapt to her throat. That couldn't be the case, could it? Her father wouldn't leave them again. Not when they had just resuscitated the tribe. Not when she and Sokka were now going to the Academy. 

She felt Sokka sidle up beside her. One sidelong glance at him revealed that his face was grim. He hadn't been allowed into the lodge to witness the Northern delegates' meeting with the village elders, and he'd spent the entire night griping about it. After a summer— well, a week, really— of joining the council sessions, he'd felt robbed when their father ushered him out of the meeting.

"Do you think the elders agreed?" Katara whispered to him as they approached the dap-ay. Several of their tribesmen were also murmuring the same question.

Sokka shrugged.

"Doesn't matter if they agreed or not, right?" he said blithely, scowling as he tucked his mittened hands under his arms. "The tribe gets to vote. I just don't know how they're gonna present the whole situation when we've got all these Fire Nation soldiers listening in on us."

"I think that's why Bato invited most of them for a round of moonshine last night," snickered Katara, looking over her shoulder at a guard who was leaning a little too heavily on his spear. Sokka snorted a laugh as the soldier almost toppled over.

"Brothers and sisters," greeted their father, the ceremonial wolfskin cloak hung around his shoulders, making him appear massive and menacing as he stood atop one of the stones in the dap-ay, "I come before you today to ask for your guidance and your blessing. Our kin in the North have come to our home to invite the men of our tribe to their princess's wedding. The elders have decided that it is a worthy endeavor to reach out to our sister tribe and… offer our felicitation."

"Why only the men?" asked Bato's wife, Sampi, and several of tribeswomen echoed her concern. Bato exchanged a glance with Hakoda before placing a hand on his wife's shoulder and addressing those gathered.

"It is a Northern tradition that we have to respect," he said simply, and Katara heard her grandmother scoff behind them and leave.

"Who will care for the women and children when all the men are gone?" questioned another, and a ripple of disgruntled murmurs broke through the crowd— some recounted the days of starvation during the harsh, dark winters, while some expressed their disapproval of the Northerners' proposition outright; some even went so far as to accuse the North of purposefully weakening the Southern Water Tribe.

"My pack," called Hakoda authoritatively, silencing the crowd. "I assure you— you will not be left unguarded. Only a select number of men will accompany the Northern delegation across the world. We will decide, here and now, who will join our group, should there be no objection to… this endeavor."

No one seemed to find any point of objection. Katara glanced around desperately. Surely the rest of the tribe knew what her father was really asking— for her, it didn't seem enough reassurance that some of the men will stay behind to protect the tribe. They had to know there were politics involved in all of this. They had to know it was more than just Yue's wedding. 

Sokka seemed to be on the same page as her.

"They're just fine with it?" he asked quietly, his voice cracking with incredulity. "Don't they know we're basically going to war again?"

"Maybe they don't," Katara breathed in dismay. Their father probably thought it was better for the tribe to know less about their trip to the North Pole. It could provide them some sort of protection— their tribe would seem less involved, like they were just caught in the crosshairs of whatever turmoil there was between the Fire Nation and the Northern Water Tribe.

It made sense to Katara, yes, but she found herself watching in resentment as several of her father's men strode forward and volunteered to join him on the journey. 

“We’ve come of age together, we’ve shared meals together," a large, burly man called Gilak said as he walked to Hakoda's side. "We will sail together, be it in battle or no!"

The other warriors thumped their chests at his proclamation, and Katara felt sick to her stomach. These were the people who knew what lay in store for them— they were part of her father's inner circle, the ones who survived the Southern Revolt, and despite all that, they were still eager to go back and risk their lives for the North? Why were they so eager to leave their own families, their own homes?

"Sis, you okay?" Sokka nudged her with his elbow, and she belatedly realized that she had formed enough snow at her feet to bury both of them up to the shins. 

"Why are they so eager to leave?" she hissed, blinking away the tears that smarted the corners of her eyes. 

Sokka shrugged helplessly as more men joined their father's side.

"Maybe it's their way of being brave," he replied, but Katara shook her head adamantly.

"It's not brave— it's selfish and stupid!" She angrily wiped her tears away. "They think the North needs them, but don't they know how much we need them, too? How can they just leave us behind?"

Sokka turned to her in surprise.

"Whoa, you're talking about someone else now, aren't you?" he asked without really needing an answer. His face softened as he slung an arm around her shoulders. "Look. I get it. I understand why Dad had to leave us before, but it still— it still hurts. Even now. Especially now, since he's leaving again."

"I know we still have Gran-Gran, and she loves us more than anything, but—" Katara glanced back at their father, who was now assigning which of the warriors would stay behind, "Back then, we were just so… lost without him."

"Well, now we won't be," her brother told her, tightening his grip on her in reassurance. "Amaruk said that Dad told the elders they won't stay in the North Pole for long, because the Fire Nation might think they're up to something if they don't leave after the wedding. Dad thinks they just invited the warriors as a show of force, anyway— just something to scare off the Fire Nation troops in the area." 

"I really hope that's the case," muttered Katara sincerely. Both she and Sokka looked back at their father, who had clambered down from the ritual stone to end the assembly. 

"Sokka, Katara," he called out, waving them over as he made his way to their home. "We still have more to discuss."

The two of them exchanged surprised looks. That was not his Dad Voice— that was the voice of Chief Hakoda, and whatever he had to discuss with them, they knew it was connected to the tribe, as well.

Hakoda held their hut's flap open for them— Gran-Gran was already inside, preparing five flavor soup in one corner. She eyed Hakoda in dry resignation before turning away with pursed lips. Sokka and Katara sat down by the fire pit, sending curious glances between their father and grandmother.

Hakoda settled down across them with a beleaguered sigh, shrugging off his wolfskin cloak and setting it aside. The flames in the middle of the pit lent an even rougher look on his face, the shadows making him appear more rugged than usual. He looked at his children tightly for a few moments before speaking.

"When I leave for the North Pole," he began, "I will be bringing you two—"

"Alright!" crowed Sokka, but Hakoda held up a hand tiredly. 

"I will be bringing you two," he repeated pointedly, "To the Academy."

"What?" cried Katara, at the same time Sokka exclaimed, "Why?"

"Both of you know why I agreed to send you to the Academy," their father said gravely, meeting their eyes with a hard look. "By staying there during our visit to the North, I have ensured with Headmaster Iroh that the pact will not be compromised from either end."

"You'll have us stay at the Academy as collateral?" Sokka gasped incredulously. Katara similarly stared at their father in disbelief.

"The Academy is the safest place you can be," replied Hakoda, the words taking on a practiced tone, grated and scuffed from overuse. "General Iroh is the best headmaster that the Academy has ever seen. He has given his word that he will protect you no matter what."

“What about Gran-Gran and the rest of the tribe?" cried Katara, flinging a hand towards her silent grandmother. "Who’s going to protect them?”

“The Fire Nation will not touch the tribe as long as you two will behave yourselves—" their father began, but Sokka interrupted him.

“Us being in the Academy won’t protect the tribe from getting obliterated if you do what Arnook tells you, Dad!” He threw his hands up agitatedly. “You said that being a man is knowing where you're needed the most. Here is where you're needed the most! Those Northern rubes can take care of themselves! They've been doing it since the beginning of time!"

"And we will not stoop so low as they did," Hakoda said firmly. "We are all children of the ocean. We will not leave our sister tribe defenseless, no matter how lowly they think of us."

"But we just got you back," Katara whispered, hating how her voice broke and how her throat closed up. "We just got the tribe back on its feet. So many things could go wrong— if the Fire Nation even suspects you're working against them—"

"They will have no reason to, once I drop you off at the Academy," said Hakoda with finality. Katara glanced desperately at her brother, but found him looking speculatively into the fire.

"There's something else, isn't there?" he muttered, brows furrowed, one hand stroking his chin. "The Fire Nation won't send troops just because they felt like it. They've already won the war, and the Northern Water Tribe was the first one to surrender to them. They have to have something to pin on Chief Arnook— and for you to agree to help him, instead of just saying no… there must be something we're gaining from this."

Their father was silent for a few, long, excruciating seconds until he closed his eyes with a sigh. 

"You're too smart for your own good, son," he muttered with a dry chuckle. He scrubbed a hand over his face and spoke in a low voice. "Alright. Both of you— promise me you won’t breathe a word of this to anyone else."

"What's going on, Dad?" asked Katara pleadingly, "How bad is it going to be?"

Hakoda sighed again before meeting their eyes seriously.

"The Regime of Fire is looking for the next Avatar— a waterbender," he said.

Katara gasped and clutched her mother's necklace. Beside her, Sokka swiveled his head between her and her father, his jaw slack from surprise— it would have been comical if Katara's heart was not pounding in her throat.

It all makes sense now.

Of course her father would send her to the Academy. She was the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe. The Fire Nation would immediately zero in on her if they thought she was the next Avatar.

And even if she wasn't, handing her over to Headmaster Iroh was the most sensible way to show the Fire Nation that the Southern Water Tribe was still very much willing to cooperate with their demands.

The revelation gave her an odd sense of deja vu— hadn't she felt this way with the warriors earlier? She'd known that it all made sense, yet it still cut her on the most visceral level.

"But— but—" she stammered, her heart still bounding in her chest like a rabaroo, making it hard to think. She managed to sputter out, "I-I'm not the Avatar!"

Sokka snorted beside her.

"Would be pretty easy to know if you were, sis," he told her, crossing his arms, "'Cause if you were, I'm pretty sure you'll firebend when you're angry."

His rather fast recovery from the news that their father had just dropped on them helped thaw Katara out of her shock.

"Well, I'm pretty sure I'll just bury you in a rockalanche whenever you annoy me," she retorted haughtily, folding her arms over her chest. Sokka stuck his tongue out at her and she smiled tremulously before turning back to their father.

"When— when do we leave, Dad?" she asked. How much time do we have with you?

"Tomorrow, after the farewell feast, so you better start packing," replied Hakoda, standing up. He looked back at his mother, who was watching her grandchildren mournfully as she prepared dinner. Hakoda smiled at her tightly before addressing Sokka and Katara. "You kids eat dinner without me. I need to iron out some things with Bato and the crew."

He lumbered out of their home, shrugging on his parka as he did so. His children gazed at his retreating back in silence, and their grandmother huffed behind them.

"I tried to persuade him to let you stay, you know," Kanna said, hefting the pot of soup over the fire. Katara immediately got up to help her slide the other ingredients into the soup base, but Kanna waved her away. "But of course, your father is right. We are still at war, no matter what the Regime of Fire says. And at war, sacrifices have to be made, whether we like it or not."

"Are you gonna be okay here, Gran-Gran?" Sokka asked earnestly, holding out empty bowls as their grandmother stirred the broth. Kanna smiled wryly at him.

"Oh, don't you worry about me, my brave warrior— I have survived a great many things," she said, handing him a full bowl, which he slurped up almost instantly. Kanna tsked at his manners and slapped his hand lightly. "Don't eat like your food is running away."

"I just can't believe Dad's leaving us again. And in the Fire Nation, no less," Katara said, clutching her bowl close to her chest. Gran-Gran's five flavor soup was always comforting and mouthwatering, but right now, she doubted she could stomach any food. She exhaled slowly, watching as steam wafted away from her soup. "When are we gonna be together again as a family?"

"Oh, my little waterbender," her grandmother murmured, shuffling over to embrace her. Katara's lips trembled as she leaned into her touch, and beside her, Sokka scooted closer to wrap an arm around them both. 

"When we meet again is up to destiny," Kanna said, her gravelly voice thick with unshed tears. "Until then, you must keep each other safe. Family is all we have in a world such as ours."