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Book 4: Harmony

Chapter Text

Year 0, Late Summer (Coronation Day). The Fire Nation Palace.

In which Zuko’s stoicism outdoes him and Katara nearly despairs of healing him,
while Iroh wrangles peace and the Team is dispatched.


 

“…with the Avatar's help, we can get it back on the right path, and begin a new era of love and peace.” The Zuko that Mai had always imagined was at last standing before his people—before the whole world. Good, strong, and finally free. He was the true phoenix.

“All hail Fire Lord Zuko!” As the Fire Sage placed the golden diadem into Zuko’s topknot, the crowd below roared. Fire Lord Zuko. Mai’s protective shell split with an exquisite pain and something golden that she could only assume was hope began to seep through.

After a final wave, Zuko and Aang turned and made their stately return through the curtains to the antechamber where Mai was waiting. Zuko made three steady steps into the room, then crumpled. One of the Fire Sages darted to his side, and with Aang on the other, they kept him from collapsing on the floor. Mai ran to him, hands darting over his chest, purposeless. “Zuko! What’s wrong?”

“A litter!” the sage ordered. Aang gestured for a guard to hold Zuko up, saying “I’ll go get Katara!” He made a dash for the platform, presumably to fly straight down to the plaza, but the Fire Sage, exhibiting impressive reflexes, snagged Aang’s robe to stop him. “No. No one must know of the Fire Lord’s weakness.” He turned to another guard: “Fetch Master Katara discreetly and bring her to the Fire Lord’s chambers. Do not reveal his condition.”

“Not Ozai’s rooms!” Mai’s voice cracked. “Take him to his own.”

Zuko was carried from the room on a litter, barely conscious, servants clearing the corridors of witnesses ahead of him. Mai’s shell snapped shut again.

 


 

Katara stood beside the enormous, canopied bed, hands bathed in a blue glow that turned the red curtains black, as if she were casting shadows instead of light. She probed Zuko’s bare torso. His eyes were closed, but his grimace of pain suggested that he was all too conscious.

“Why did you say you felt better, Zuko? You shouldn’t have been out of bed, much less giving speeches to thousands. What is wrong with you?”

“I’m no healer,” he forced out, “but I think it’s probably the lightning strike.”

“Was that a joke? Are you joking about this? Hold still!” He had winced in response to something she did, and in truth she wasn’t quite sure what. She was out of her depth. She had been overwhelmed when Azula had struck Aang, too, but at least she’d had the Spirit Oasis water. And she’d been calmer. That didn’t make sense—Aang had literally died for a moment. Aang was the Avatar, arguably the most important person in the world, and certainly one of the most important people in her world. She had been worried and exhausted, tending to him around the clock in the midst of their frantic escape from Ba Sing Se.

But Zuko’s wound seemed to have knocked her off her bearings. She didn’t know what she was doing, very nearly panicking, and she was lashing out at whoever was there—namely, Zuko. But it wasn’t his fault. It was Katara’s. He had thrown his life away to save her.

“I had to, Katara.” (Not for me, you didn't!) “I had to claim it, the throne, to end the war.” (Oh, right, the coronation.) “Before there was any doubt.”

“It’s no good becoming Fire Lord if you die the next day.” She was curt. “What is there to doubt, anyway?”

As she took a centering breath and closed her eyes, she barely heard him say on a strangled exhale, “I didn’t take her down.”

Her eyes popped open. “Zuko! Please. She cheated. Now shut up.”

She brought her focus back to his injuries. He had succeeded in partially redirecting the lightning, and in keeping it clear of his heart, which was why he was alive at all, but it had burned deeply into his organs, primarily his stomach. She had begun to reconstruct it from tatters, but damage had also been done to his intestines, pancreas, spleen, and even a bit of his lung. She did not have the medical knowledge to do this methodically and was following the flow of his qi purely on instinct, trusting it to restitch its former paths and hoping for the best.

She wanted to bloodbend Azula into the depths of the sea.

 


 

Iroh debriefed them over breakfast every day. They saw him rarely the rest of the time, as he presided over the transition, dismantling Ozai’s regime and initiating the peace process. He was everywhere, commanding more respect than they would have imagined, no longer an avuncular tea sage but the Fire Lord Iroh that would have been.

Over a delectable spread of rice, noodles, various smoked fishes, and a colorful array of tropical fruits each morning, they discussed the next steps.

“The hawks have been sent, with the order to all Fire Nation troops to stand down,” Iroh was saying. “They should be received within the next couple of days. But we must be prepared for the likelihood that the order will not reach all forces immediately, that some may be forced to continue fighting in self-defense, and that some may even actively disobey. 

“Then we need to get out there and stop them as quickly as possible.” Aang looked as if he might bound out the door that very moment to get started.

“Indeed, Avatar Aang, I had hoped you would see the need for that.”

“And it needs to be you, Aang,” Katara leaned towards him earnestly. “Backing the order with the Avatar’s authority.”

“I thought Fire Nation soldiers were taught to hate the Avatar,” Sokka said through a mouthful of mango.

“Yes, and for that reason, we will have a Fire Sage or two accompany Aang to demonstrate our newly united purpose.”

“That sounds like a great idea, Uncle Iroh,” Aang said with a firm nod. “I’ll leave tomorrow.”

Iroh’s eyes crinkled at the corners, though he did not quite smile. “Let’s give the hawks time to reach their targets and our commanders time to respond. I believe your bison might outpace them.” He turned to Katara, grave once more. “How is my nephew faring today? 

“Better. Every day’s a little better.” She tried to sound cheerfully confident, but she wasn’t. It had been a week, and Zuko was still entirely bedridden and rarely conscious. She twisted her hands in knots beneath the table.

“Still can’t believe that idiot was walking around giving speeches with soup for guts.” Toph’s concern was written on her face, if not in her words.

“He had to,” said Sokka grimly. “It’s where he was needed.”

“I can’t do it.” The words erupted before she could stop them, but she dammed the tears welling in her eyes—“tearbending.” She would not be the soppy Katara of that stupid play. She could not keep her voice from quavering, though. “I’m trying so hard, I’m doing everything I can think of, using all my power. But I don’t know what to do! He’s so damaged, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to fix him!”

Suki reached over and put her arm around Katara, holding her till she she stopped shaking with the sobs she wouldn’t release.

“He can’t die! But I’m not strong enough. I wish Yugoda were here.”

“Who’s Yugoda?” asked Toph.

“Just the best waterbending healer in the world. Katara’s teacher. Sort of,” Sokka answered, watching his sister with concern. “Wait, why can’t she be here?”

“We must ask her.” Iroh made no effort to hide his own worry. “It is not strength that you lack, Master Katara. You are among the mightiest benders I have ever known. A waterbender who bested Azula under the power of the comet! But you are correct that in healing, there is no substitute for wisdom born of long experience.”

“I can go get her on Appa!”

“Do you think she’d come? To save the Fire Lord?” There was such a disconnect in Katara’s own mind between that title and the friend she tended all day, but the rest of the world was not even aware yet that there was a distinction.

“I’ll just explain how it is. I’m the Avatar, she’ll believe me. Better not take a Fire Sage on that trip, though.”

“Yes, please do go, Aang. The Palace will spare no expense to bring Master Yugoda here. Impress that upon her.”

“Of course, Uncle Iroh!”

“Ok. That would be great.” Katara sniffled her dignity back. “Thank you. And I’m sorry.”

“Oh, Katara, you are not only blameless, the Fire Nation holds you in its debt. Zuko is still alive.” She was a little comforted by the sincerity in Iroh’s eyes. “But meanwhile, we have still other crises to attend to. We cannot ignore the home threat of those still loyal to Ozai and Azula. It may take months for Toph and me to work our way through the entire palace staff, government officials, and members of the court to screen them for the sincerity of their allegiance to Zuko. The guards have already taken out one would-be assassin.”

“Let us help,” Suki offered. “My warriors can protect Zuko, too. They need work after all those months in prison.”

“We would be honored by your service, Suki. The martial skills of Kiyoshi Island are legendary, particularly in hand-to-hand combat and stealth, which is exactly what is required here. I will see to it that you have the training facilities you require, and we will set up a meeting with the other heads of palace security forces to coordinate.” Iroh penciled a note on the roll of paper he was carrying everywhere now, scribbled with cryptic reminders 

“I should go with Aang. He needs someone to watch his back.”

“No.” Katara cut off her brother. “You will stay here and stay off that knee until it is fully healed!” He had shattered it in the airship battle and fractured his leg. “If you want to have full use of it the rest of your life, that is. My healing only goes so far. The rest of it is rest.” 

“Yes, Mom,” Sokka groaned. She glowered back.

“Have you had a chance to explore the Palace libraries yet, Sokka? Perhaps you would enjoy spending some time there as you recuperate. You may find some quite fascinating treatises on the engineering and architecture of the Four Nations. Not to mention a most excellent collection of maps. I imagine the information might be useful in rebuilding the South Pole.”

Sokka’s eyes lit up. “You know, a year ago, I never would have imagined that a piece of paradise could be found in the Fire Nation.”

Iroh did smile then, and collected himself to go. “I believe that covers our business for now. Master Toph, do I have you with me again today?”

“Of course, Uncle. Let’s catch those liars at their game.” Toph gave a wicked little smile.

 


 

Two days later, when Katara brought in Zuko’s breakfast, as usual (she had been preparing all his meals personally, by consensus of the group—and to the ire of the palace cook—to guard against assassination by poison until the staff was entirely screened), she found him sitting up in bed in a fresh tunic, alert. Someone had opened the window to the garden and a floral breeze passed through as she entered the room. 

“You must be feeling better!” The weight on her heart began to ease, cautiously.

“Thanks to you.” He smiled fully, such a rare thing that it struck her as beautiful.

Katara smiled back and brandished the tray. “I have a surprise for you.” She lifted the cover with a flourish. “Solid food!”

He peered into the bowl. “It’s congee.” 

“Well, it’s got rice in it, so it’s solid. And there’s a banana, too!” She held it up proudly.

He took up the spoon and began to eat, slowly and with care. “So how do you like the palace, now that you’ve learned your way around?”

She laughed. “I wouldn’t say I have. I’ve only seen your room, our rooms, the kitchen, and the infirmary. And an awful lot of endless red corridors.”

“Then the first thing I’ll do when I’m back on my feet is give you a tour. Of my home.” He rolled the word around in his mouth, as if it were a new concept.

“If Iroh and your advisors don’t get to you first. Or Mai.” She shook her head doubtfully. “What would you show me?”

“Oh, I don’t know. The galleries—do you want to see gigantic portraits of all the Fire Lords? The treasure chambers—our spoils of war? Maybe not. The gardens. There are secret passages, but I don't know many of them. I only lived here for three years, you know, before—. But I’ll show you what I know. I’d like to,” he added shyly.

That was the most Zuko had spoken since the coronation. “All right. I’d love to see it all.” She fell silent, watching him eat, each bite a reassurance.

“Today might be the last day I’ll be in charge of your care,” she announced softly. He looked up with surprise, and she thought she saw a flash of disappointment in his eyes. “Aang should return from the North Pole with Yugoda today, assuming he managed to convince her that the new Fire Lord was worth saving. She knows far, far more than I do and can make sure my stupid patchwork will hold.”

“That’s…good, then.” A pause. “But you’ll still be here, won’t you?”

She looked down, realizing just then how much she would miss him. “Aang needs to fly to all the hotspots where there’s still fighting to personally enforce the peace. And I’ll go with him, to watch his back. He needs me. I don’t know how long that will take, but I’ll come back.”

“I see.” Katara saw the old, familiar tension creep back into Zuko’s jaw and he frowned into his empty bowl.

“Your uncle seems to think it’s best if we don’t linger too long here. Something about too many foreigners around delegitimizing you in the eyes of, uh, ‘xenophobic sycophants whom we nevertheless need,’ I think he said. And we do need to go back to our own homes. To rebuild.”

“Right. Of course you do. And I need to prove my Fire Nation credibility after all this exile. We are all needed somewhere.” His scowl deepened.

Impulsively, he seized her hand and held it tightly in his, looking her straight in the eye. “I—thank you, Katara. For my life. For my throne. I hope I am worthy.”

“Zuko, I owe you my life. Thank you.”

“You owe me nothing. Maybe it is balanced out between us.”

Katara looked down at their clasped hands, pale and dark, yin and yang.

Chapter Text

“I can’t take this!” Zuko exploded, swiping a pile of half-rolled scrolls to the floor with a shower of sparks.

“Hey! Careful with those!” Sokka sat up from where he’d been lounging on a couch engrossed in a technical description of the Ba Sing Se monorail system. “I haven’t even looked at that pile yet.”

“I thought I was done with studying! If becoming Fire Lord doesn’t get you out of it, what will?”

“I don’t know. Becoming a pirate? Frontline soldier? Rhino dung shoveler? I don’t think this is the kind of job that’s gonna let you off easy, Zuko.”

Zuko slumped back to his desk, outburst spent. “No. Nothing is ever easy.”

“Wellll, I wouldn’t say that! Palace life isn’t all headaches and paper cuts. Getting fed the finest fine dining money can by? Pretty easy. Luxuriating in scented mineral baths until your skin is as soft as a seal whelp’s belly? I didn’t even know about baths like that.” Sokka sank back down into the cushions with a dreamy sigh. “And the attention of our lovely ladies?” He waggled his eyebrows at Zuko, who studiously ignored the innuendo.

Then, turning serious, “And access to information? Yeah, you have no idea how hard it was for us to find even one map of the Fire Nation before that miserable failure of an invasion. And here’s a whole pile of them! Plus every inch of the Earth Kingdom! Floor plans of the Air Temples! A little spotty on the Northern Water Tribe, though, and your Southern Water Tribe info’s just … not accurate any more.” His voice trailed off a little sadly.

“Fine, you made your point.” Zuko shrugged off the usual stab of guilt at Sokka’s reference to his people’s near decimation—he was suffering several dozen stabs a day now and could afford to let a few slide. “I’m sure this exhaustive history of the Earth Kingdom is going to be invaluable next time the Ba Sing Se Trade Minister drops in. I’ll just make casual reference to several hundred years of his kingdom’s political infighting, and ask after some of the minor kings and warlords, with a little small talk on their tangled genealogies. That should put him right at ease.”

“Hey, if Iroh thought it was important, it’s probably important.”

“He’s just got some kind of personal obsession with the Earth Kingdom,” Zuko grumbled, digging around on the floor to find the scroll he’d been reading, and spreading it out on his desk again, trying to smooth out the crumples.

A soft knock came at the door.

“Enter.” He released a little of his tension when he saw who it was. “Mai! Come in.”

“Are you busy?”

“No, it’s an excellent time for a break.” He stood up again and crossed over to her to grasp the hands she offered.

“Welp. Speaking of the finest fine food, definitely feels like a Sokka snack time. I’ll just pop down to the kitchen. Maybe Suki’s ready to take a break, too. Or maybe she’s not and I can watch her train.” His eyes lit up at the prospect. “Keep it together over the Earth Kingdom stuff, ok?” Sokka limped out the door.

Zuko was glad none of his new friends felt the need to bow, or treat him like royalty at all. He hoped they never got the hang of it. He was grateful for Sokka’s common tact, though.

Mai slid in under Zuko’s arms and lifted her face for a kiss. Palace life did indeed come with some perks.

“Finally. I catch you alone.” Mai’s husky voice lent itself well to sultriness.

“Mm,” was all Zuko could get out before their lips were slipping together, silk robes sliding between them.

“Has it been that bad?” he asked, when they broke the kiss.

She gave a little sigh. “I guess I’m just bored. Ty Lee’s busy with her new lesbian warrior friends. I just don’t think I’m going to hit it off with your little Avatar clique. And Azula—“

“’Clique?’ You make it sound like they’re some snobbish crew of schoolkids, like…well, like you three.” He made a face.

“Gang, team, bunch, whatever.”

“So, what have you been up to?

“Oh, you know. The spa, blade drills, fruit tarts. All the things I couldn’t do in prison.”

“Mai, thank you. Again. For saving my life and my friends at Boiling Rock.”

She waved his thanks aside with an impatient eye roll and continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “And seeing the parents.” He was not sure if the rolled eyes were meant for him or her parents. Or maybe both.

Zuko grimaced sympathetically. “They’re probably not too happy with you?”

“The treachery and prison sentence didn’t exactly fill them with pride and joy. I think they were actually preparing to be exiled, or worse, when Azula was about to take the throne. So, in a way, they’re grateful to you. Even though they kind of fundamentally disagree with everything you’re doing and everything you stand for.”

“Yeah. Figured. They seem happy enough to be here for the celebrations, though.” The parties in the Capital were still going strong, one month later. Whatever their political leanings, the end of the fighting was a relief to all, and for the elites in Caldera City, a social order had to be renegotiated from scratch, built up around the new Fire Lord and his uncle (who would act as regent until Zuko’s twentieth birthday).

She chuckled humorlessly. “Well, you did get King Bumi to release them.”

“That was really Aang.”

“And they wouldn’t have missed this scene for all the coin of Ba Sing Se. Everyone who’s anybody and all that.”

“They must be thrilled that you’re back with me.”

“Yeah, they are.”

“Seriously?” He seriously couldn’t tell from her tone.

“Don’t get your hopes up. Dad’ll embrace peace and love when the Boiling Lake freezes over. But their daughter snuggling up to the Fire Lord? That’s something they can use.” Mai’s voice got flatter than Zuko had thought possible.

He sighed. “Even my girlfriends are political now.” Why had he used the plural? He flushed slightly, hoping she hadn’t noticed.

“Tea? Tea.” He yanked a silk bell-pull to summon a servant. “Definitely let’s have tea.”

 


 

Waiting for the tea service, Mai stepped out into the sticky, jasmine-scented heat of the courtyard while Zuko straightened up his mess. He had always been tidy and meticulous, in contrast (or maybe in consequence) to his reckless temper.

She had been drawn to him since they were kids. He was cute, and a prince, of course, but the fascination stuck because, in their war-driven world where no one ever spoke of good or evil, only power, he cared about doing the right thing. Of course, she’d never told him that—one didn’t. She’d pushed him out of her mind after the Agni Kai with his father and did what she was told: never show weakness, bind your loyalties to power, fight for your nation, serve and serve and serve. Always dutiful, always controlled, and always furious at the world for making her this way.

When Azula had called on that loyalty to hunt down her old crush, well, that’s just how it went sometimes. A girl had to get her kicks, and she was dying in Omashu. And it’s not like she could have said no to Azula, realistically.

But when he’d come back (on his own, thank goodness), and they were no longer children, it turned out to be such a simple thing—astonishingly easy—to seduce him. It wasn’t even quite her goal—she just wanted to be close to him, to feel that sense that there was a right and wrong somewhere in the world and that maybe, just sometimes, this place was in the wrong. And (as always) she was bored.

So she’d kissed him, one evening in Ba Sing Se under the new moon, when he was lonely and needed a friend. He didn’t say no.

Once they had opened that gate, they let their natural desires run their course, under the approving eyes of everyone around them. She knew Azula simply wanted Zuko tethered, with Mai as the hitching post; Mai’s mother wrote with pride and scheming (and sent mortifying love tips along with special perfumes and oils). It didn’t hurt—at all—that the crown prince had grown up to be hot as blazes.

Of course petty jealousy, vanity, manipulations, and all the irritations that normally went along with dating showed up on cue. It’s just what happened with these things, you had to put up with it. Maybe she carried a little responsibility there, a few too many jabs and dismissive remarks. She’d seen the hurt in his eyes when he’d curled away from her, armoring himself the way they all did. She thought maybe she could be better than that.

It had culminated that night before the war meeting, when Zuko spent the night at her house. She tried to distract him from the pique of self-pity he’d fallen into, to show him he was needed. There was no reason not too, so they followed their lust, pressing into each other for more. It hurt, their first time. But Mai was a master of self-control, and she eased herself through the moment of blinding pain to ensure his pleasure. When he groped awkwardly to give it back to her, she let him, nonplussed. When he figured it out, when she figured it out, when it was an explosion of pleasure this time that blinded her and blasted her control away, she’d thought she could never let him go.

And then he left her.

Now, in retrospect, through the forgiving lens of victory, she understood. Now that she, too, had dared to sacrifice her honor, she saw that there had been a greater mission all along. Who could argue with world peace?

 


 

Zuko collected the tea tray, dismissing the servant who delivered it, and paused before bringing it out to Mai, who seemed lost in thought. Her floor-length scarlet robe rippled in the breeze like the flaming willow that grew outside his bedroom window, yet she never had a hair out of place, just like Azula or his mother. Or his father, for that matter. Maybe that was why he had gravitated to her so easily in Ba Sing Se as he was preparing to return to the palace. Then, the desire that had burned in his heart above all others was for home.

Family, Fire Nation, forgiveness.

And there was Mai, a vision of home. But without the humiliation and pain that were forever enmeshed with his feelings for Ozai and Azula. And without the terrifying fire. Steel blades had always felt safer to him, more comprehensible.

The surprise was her offer to be more than just a vision. In his shame and anger, it had never occurred to Zuko that anyone—much less a girl—might be able to overlook the scar, to see him as something other than a monstrosity, and (for those who knew) an object lesson on the perils of disrespect. Before the Agni Kai, his looks, at least, had never been faulted, and Mai still seemed to see his old face. Whether out of tact or denial, she had never mentioned the scar directly or touched it. In their relationship, it didn’t exist.

For this, he had been grateful. It had given him just enough confidence to step back into his role of crown prince with an appropriate air of entitlement. And if what she wanted in return was a boyfriend, he would strive to be the perfect boyfriend. Though he ended up doing a miserable job of it.

Mai was obviously beautiful. And soft, with intriguingly sharp edges, and smelled very nice. And was exceedingly good with her hands (and other parts). He marveled at her ability to contain her passions, and almost envied it. She’d found a way to glide through the pain, to armor herself against the burns and shivs of the royal court. But it also drove him crazy that she never expressed anything directly without at the same time cutting it down with sarcasm. The closer he got to her, the more he wanted to see her, feel her, know what made her blood burn.

It turned out the key was not really that complicated. Was it boredom that allowed her to let him in? Or was it the passion she wouldn’t admit to? All he knew was that when he’d reached inside her—literally—he’d found out how to make her explode.

He’d had her, he’d turned her away, he’d effectively used her, though that had never been his intent. He’d betrayed her twice. And now she had come back, against all reason—and in total contradiction to her professed detachment—into his new life, offering herself and her loyalty again. He was not worthy of her devotion. Zuko promised himself he would never betray her again.

Zuko sat down at the stone tea table in the courtyard and gestured for her to join him. She poured the tea for both of them, tapping his cup to her forehead before offering it to him, as was customary when serving royalty. They sipped in silence.

“Zuko.” Mai’s voice sounded hesitant, and, improbably, vulnerable. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? For what? I owe you.”

“I’m sorry for not listening. For not being a better friend. For being kind of a brat. I didn’t want you to be in pain, so I thought if we could just pretend it wasn’t there and brush it off, that we could ride it out. It was stupid.”

Zuko took her hand in both of his. “Mai, you were a good friend. You are a good friend. You were the only one who stood by my side then, after my exile. I’ll always be grateful to you for that. We, uh, we shared something. Didn’t we?” He felt a smile creep over his face, one thing they had rarely shared, and watched her return the favor.

He saw the light in her eyes glow deeper, so reached out to cup her chin and drew her into tender kiss. The kiss went long, tea forgotten.

“Has that Water Tribe healer set you free yet?”

“Hm? Katara’s gone.”

“No, the old woman. Has she given you leave to, you know, start moving your own qi around?” Mai wriggled closer suggestively.

“Yugoda has been very impressed with my progress. She says I can try anything now, as long as I stop if it hurts.”

“Anything, huh?” Mai ran her fingernails delicately up his jawline and into his hair; the arrow-stilettos in her wrist cuff grazed dangerously along the curve of his good ear, sending a little sizzle down his spine. She leaned in and whispered, “I promise not to hurt you.”

He murmured back, “Tonight. I’ll come to you.”

Chapter Text

Toph climbed the broad steps to the terrace overlooking all of Ba Sing Se. Not that she could see the view, but the broad sweep of open space above the tangled labyrinth of streets and stone, pounded ceaselessly by millions of feet—she could feel that through all her bones. She hated the city.

After a moment at the railing, unobserved, to breathe the clean air winging in off the plains, Toph turned around and burst open the double doors of the teahouse, with a brash jangle of the tasteful ceramic chimes.

“TOPH!” First Aang, then Sokka flung themselves at her in a double bear hug (well, one bear and one pygmy air-bear). Katara was there next, giving her a heartfelt embrace. Then Zuko, less demonstrative with a gentle squeeze of her shoulder, but no less sincere. And finally, Suki gave her a kiss on the cheek. (Now that was a little mean.) Mai, of course, held back. Mai was not into Toph. And Uncle Iroh just shouted a friendly hello, since she’d been with him all along. She handed him the bag of rice cakes she’d gone out to get.

“It’s only been a couple of weeks, guys! Except for Twinkletoes and Sweetness. But I missed all of you, too.” It wasn’t a lie. Less than a year ago, she’d thought freedom meant cutting ties and digging her own tunnel, because all she knew about love was smothering captivity. But after six months on the road eating, sleeping, breathing, and fighting with a team of friends who had each others backs, and another two months in the palace sussing out enemies and allies, well, she understood a lot more now. Yeah, she had missed them.

She and Uncle Iroh had left the Fire Nation come to Ba Sing Se ahead of Zuko, Mai, Suki, and Sokka to revive the teahouse for a while and network among old and potential allies in the city. Toph, a networker. Who would’ve thought? She was damn good at it, though.

Uncle had insisted on making a stop in Gaoling on the way over, since technically, she was a runaway. Technically, her parents didn’t know where she was (of course they knew. Everybody knew. Well, what she’d done, if not specifically where she was, like, on a map). And he’d thought he should be the grownup or something.

The Beifongs had been horrible (Iroh agreed), obsequious to him and (as always) condescending to her. They’d thought he was bringing her back, and now that she was famous, blabbed plans to marry her off for some kind of family advantage. That brought out the dragon in Iroh—the wily kind—and before her parents knew what was happening, he and Toph were leaving port with signed papers of child emancipation.

Sweetness and Twinkletoes had just flown in that morning from putting out fires around the Earth Kingdom. “We're making headway," they announced. "It's dying down everywhere. And where we do encounter fighting, people are listening to us much more quickly than before."

“People believe the Avatar,” added Katara.

“Peace—it’s kind of my thing.” Humility, not so much.

“Once they accept it, they just crumple in relief. Some people cry and even embrace us. But other people just stare or walk away, like the world has stopped making sense.”

"I expected everyone to be happy, but a lot of people just collapse in grief. Then again, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference." Twinkletoes was not twinkling. "They seem...broken.”

Iroh made a rumble of understanding in his throat. “In war, every victory is a funeral.* Sometimes for the soul as much as the body. But this is a happy reunion! There will be more than enough opportunity for somber deliberations tomorrow. Let us forget the world’s sorrows tonight.” He settled his tsungi horn over his shoulder and began with something bittersweet for Aang’s moment of melancholy, then picked it up with a livelier tune.

Sparky brought around a tray of tea—must be a novelty to him, serving other people—while Snoozles worked on some sort of painting that everyone else complained about.

Toph sat down by the window, a little apart from everyone else, smiling at the harmony of the group, the unusual lack of panic and anxiety in everyone’s biorhythms. When Katara joined Aang on the terrace behind her, she tried only briefly not to eavesdrop on them.

The kiss surprised her, she had to admit. She hadn’t really thought Sugar Queen was into Aang in that way (not least because of how the girl practically vibrated whenever Sparky was near). But there was a tremor of something from her—though not as much as from Twinkletoes, of course. Toph was afraid he might airbend himself right over the railing in ecstatic joy. She was impressed with his self-control, actually.

So everyone had a love bunny now. Aang and Katara. Sokka and Suki. Zuko and Mai. And Toph on her own—which was fine. And Uncle Iroh, of course—maybe he needed a lady friend, too. She’d look into that.

 


 

“Shhh. They’re starting to settle down.” Toph stood perfectly still, feet planted on the stone floor, leaning forward to press her hands and ear to the wall that separated the council room from its antechambers, where they, the non-world-leaders, had been relegated. Sokka, Katara, and Suki clustered around, eyes riveted on her.

“There’s Twinkletoes and Sparky—sitting next to each other on the left side of the room. They’re nervous, fidgeting, not talking. Iroh’s sitting next to Zuko—he’s acting completely mellow, of course, but I almost think he's a little nervous, too. He's drinking tea.... Ok, that’s King Kuei, pacing by the windows. I’ll bet he’s wishing for his bear.”

“No bears in treaty negotiations,” Suki said firmly.

“And somebody military is standing near him perfectly still—General How, probably. There’s two others like that across the room from him—older, very dignified, but less rigid. Water Tribe?”

“Karluk, chief of the Southern Water Tribe,” Sokka whispered. “The other one is Chief Arnook of the North.”

“Yeah, right. And that’s definitely King Bumi on the right side of the circle, he’s crystal clear. Listening and waiting. There’s only one woman, between Bumi and Arnook—“

“That’s our governor, Eita,” Suki said.

“—and another person next to Bumi, no idea who that is. And here comes one more guy, shouldering past Arnook—no love lost there—and pushing in right next to How. Really restless, feels like an earthbender, though.”  

“You should call the meeting to order, Your Majesty,” General How muttered under his breath.

“Me? Oh, surely it should be the Avatar,” King Kuei demurred.

“He’s only a child. I believe it would be you, by seniority and status, and as host.”

“Oh, um, all right.” He cleared his throat. “Everyone? Good morning everyone! I believe it’s time to get started now.” No one seemed to hear him, although the conversation in the room was not loud.

Chief Arnook was coolly watchful, as the King floundered. He spoke out in a voice loud enough for even Suki, Sokka, and Katara to hear through the wall, “To order! Let these talks begin.”

“All right, Arnook taking charge. Now King Kuei is welcoming everyone to Ba Sing Se…. Ok, he’s still welcoming them…. He’s going on and on about the weather…. Lots of fidgeting. Chief Arnook again, telling everyone why we’re here. Negotiate the terms of peace at the end of the Hundred Years War, blah blah blah. Thanks to the Avatar for defeating Ozai—“ All four could hear thunderous applause and stomping feet— “And to Fire Lord Zuko for declaring a ceasefire.”

“And to their heroic companions! What about their heroic companions?” Sokka objected.

“Shh! Now he’s introducing everyone.”

“Who, Arnook? Why Chief Arnook?” Katara asked, frowning.

“No one else stepped up, I guess. Iroh, Regent to the Fire Lord and liberator of Ba Sing Se (he left out that whole ‘Dragon of the West’ thing)… Karluk—he’s calling him ‘chieftain,’ not ‘chief’ of the Southern Water Tribe. Governor Eita, of the charming island of Kyoshi—that was kind of patronizing—Oh! That person next to Bumi?—that’s the Chameleon King, ruler of Chameleon Bay and the Si Wong Desert—mysterious, weird rumors. And then the Duke of Yei from the Northern Earth Kingdom, the rude earthbender.

“General How, representing the Council of Five, we know that… Ok, now he’s introducing King Kuei, really laying it on thick.... Awkward silence…. How elbowed the King, who’s now introducing Arnook—defender of the last bastion against the Fire Nation, victor in the Seige of the North…”

“That was Aang, not him!” Katara interrupted.

“And to represent the Air Nomads—may they abide with the Spirits—Avatar Aang. Zuko’s standing up. He’s a little nervous, but he’s got this. He’s bowing low to Aang—don’t know if that’s an apology for the Air Nomads, or just because he’s the Avatar."

“Thank you, leaders of the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes, for welcoming my lord regent Iroh and me to your table. After a hundred years of war and enmity, we respect the act of courage it has taken you—all of us—to overcome our mistrust and gather here today in the interest of peace. For this, we have the guidance and extraordinary courage of the Avatar to thank.

“As you know, my first act upon ascending the throne of the Fire Nation was to declare an immediate end to all aggression against your nations and to begin the withdrawal of our troops from all arenas of combat. This was entirely an act of goodwill, not forced upon us by defeat. And yet we know that this is merely the first step on a long road to peace.

“Here in Ba Sing Se, we have all come together to bring the nations back into harmony with one another. To that end, the Fire Nation proposes the following measures.

“One: The Fire Nation proposes that all prisoners of war and political prisoners of any nation are to be released.

“Two: The Fire Nation proposes to convert a significant proportion of our military personnel, ships, and facilities to trade and industrial pursuits, which will potentially benefit all nations.

“Three: The Fire Nation proposes to withdraw all military forces from its colonies and bases in Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe territories and return governance to local authorities. Fire Nation civilians of the colonies are to be offered all reasonable aid in resettling in the homeland.

“In return, the Fire Nation requests that the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes cease all aggression against our troops and civilians; enforce peace in the colonial areas and any and all sites of conflict with Fire Nation subjects; ally with the Fire Nation to combat lawlessness in neutral waters and former Air Nomad territories; and continue to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Fire Nation proper.

“We extend our profound regret to all citizens of the world over the past century of warfare and destruction. We now offer the hand of peace.”

“Well said, Fire Lord Zuko!” King Kuei began to applaud, then petered out, as he was the only one to do so.

“Cool reception all around, nodding and throat clearing. Oh, but—‘profound regret?’ says How. ‘That’s it?’ And the Duke of Yei says, 'how can you say you weren’t defeated? The Avatar slew your dad and stopped the invasion of the Earth Kingdom.' Aang says there was no slewing. Slaying. Just stripped him of his bending. Not everyone knew that—there’s gasping, muttering—maybe awe.”  

Aang stood up and insisted, “I definitely defeated him. Ozai’s down. But I didn’t defeat Zuko. He’s our friend now and he helped us!”

“If I may clarify,” Iroh interjected. “Zuko claimed the throne by Agni Kai from his sister Azula, just before she was coronated Fire Lord. My brother had meanwhile taken up a grander title of his own invention, Phoenix Emperor, a title he held for all of one day. Aang overcame Ozai and Zuko bested Azula (with the invaluable assistance of Master Katara). Both are securely incarcerated now. And meanwhile, coordinated attacks by two teams of special operatives thwarted the invasion fleet and liberated Ba Sing Se.”

“Special operatives—I like it!” Sokka slapped Toph on the shoulder. 

“The Fire Nation suffered multiple defeats that day, but did not, as a nation, surrender to anyone. Were he in the mold of his father, Fire Lord Zuko could have opted to devise new strategies of conquest to continue the war. As in fact our forefathers have done in the wake of many defeats over the past century. In his wisdom and compassion, my young nephew has instead ended our nation’s aggression, and since then, our soldiers have been fighting only in self-defense as they retreat. The ceasefire was entirely voluntary."

“'When will Ozai and Azula be executed?' That’s the Chameleon King. Another awkward silence. Zuko says they weren’t technically traitors—they would have had to betray their own orders, which of course they didn’t. So no execution. And if you don’t kill the loser of the Agni Kai in the Agni Kai, it’s too late, you can’t do it later. 'The Fire Nation’s not as ruthless as you imagine.'—'Imagination has nothing to do with it,' says the Duke of Yei. No kidding, Sparky.” 

Our concern is not with your internal politics,” General How declared. “The Earth Kingdom demands that all Fire Nation subjects be removed from our territories, not just by choice, and not just the military forces. We are of one mind in this.” He gestured to the other Earth Kingdom representatives. “Earth Kingdom for the earthbenders.”

“Absolutely. Of one mind,” King Kuei echoed his general, then turned to him and spoke under his breath. “What about the nonbenders?”

“Earth Kingdom for the Earth people!” the Duke of Yei trumpeted.

“Hear, hear,” agreed Governor Eita.

Aang stood again. “Of course. The Four Nations must return to their proper lands and the balance must be restored.”

“Returning everyone will be quite an undertaking,” Zuko spoke with consideration. “There are—how many did we estimate, Uncle? Half a million?—of my civilian subjects living on this continent. Not to mention their property. We’re talking about engaging fleets of passenger and cargo ships to ferry them back and forth—for months, maybe years.”

“Who said anything about repatriating their property?” objected Yei. “It was all stolen from us to begin with!”

Iroh spoke up again. “Gentlemen—and lady—I beg you to keep in mind that absorbing a full quarter of our population back into the Fire Nation archipelago (that’s the colonists plus the overseas military) will be a potentially devastating blow to our economy. These people have been productively employed around the world and, yes, bringing wealth to the homeland. Adding all of their hungry mouths to our land all at once, while subtracting the benefit they have been providing the nation, not to mention their own means of self-support, will drain our resources dangerously. Our nation as a whole will suffer. If they furthermore arrive penniless and destitute, it may devastate the Fire Nation economy.

“Huh, they didn’t take that too well. How’s tense as a bowstring, and Yei almost earthbent the floor.” 

“Perhaps your ancestors should have taken that into account decades ago. This seems to be a problem entirely of your own making,” Eita offered, not without bitterness.

“I believe your plea for sympathy falls on unreceptive ears, Lord Regent Iroh,” Arnook said.

“While no one could wish retribution upon the Fire Nation more justifiably than the Southern Water Tribe,” said Karluk in a less belligerent tone, “I would like to point out that, if they are truly committed to peace, a stable and prosperous Fire Nation has much to offer the rest of the world in trade and development. Perhaps they would be willing to share some of that impressive war technology—perhaps we could collaborate to find productive and peaceful uses for it.”

“Zuko’s nodding vigorously.”

Sokka nudged Katara. “Yes! Common sense from the South!”

“Excellent point, Chief Karluk!” King Kuei burbled.

Aang bounced up again. “Right—if the Fire Nation falls, where’s the balance? We need to return the Four Nations to equal footing. Equal. No one nation should be stronger than the others.”

The Chameleon King leaned forward intensely. “Our lands and populations are not equal; how can our strength be equal? The Fire Nation has had its turn at the top. It can fall to the bottom now, and well deserved.”

“Oh, there are quite significant differences, are there not?” King Kuei agreed again.

Karluk stood again to clarify. “I believe the Lord Regent means to warn of something else we may wish to consider. A weakened and desperate Fire Nation is no help to any of us, and it could harm us all, if fear and anger allow a new despot to arise. With no disrespect to your reign and continued good health, Fire Lord Zuko. And forgive me if I misjudge, but your position at home is surely not completely secure, given the, uh, means by which you claimed the throne.”

“Indeed, my brother’s supporters have not simply disappeared. The new Fire Lord will win the hearts of his people most completely if his reign brings peace and prosperity at home, as Chief Karluk points out. Otherwise, opposition may build, and Ozai’s sympathizers would not hesitate to harness such resentment.”

“Again, Fire Nation politics are not our concern,” the Duke of Yei said. “The whole point is that we no longer want them to be our concern.”

“We are all interconnected, Duke Yei. Wherever our boundaries may fall, they always have two sides,” Iroh intoned.

“Earth Kingdom politics appear to remain very much our concern, however,” Zuko pointed out. “It is in the Northern Earth Kingdom that we are facing some of our greatest difficulties, actually. Despite the Earth King’s ceasefire decree, our troops are still being hounded by bands of guerillas under the Freedom Fighters' banner—even as we retreat. And not only our troops. I am led to understand that they victimize innocent Fire Nation civilians as well.”

“Innocent, Lord Zuko? Forgive my skepticism. But fear not. If the Fire Nation commits to withdrawing its colonies peacefully and swiftly, you will find no more trouble from them.”

“So you are admitting that they are under your command!” Zuko erupted.

“I admit nothing. But they are in my domain. What sort of ruler would I be if I could not quell insurrection within my own lands?”

“Burned again, Sparky.”

“That was low,” Katara said.

“Makes sense the Freedom Fighters would be his,” Sokka added grimly.

“My friends,” Aang stood up with a conciliatory wave of his arms. “Let’s remember that this is all about finding peace and harmony. And to do it in the world, we will need to find it first at this table. We’re all going to have to learn a little more about each other’s problems, aren’t we? Now that we don’t need to keep war secrets any more?”

“Of course, Aang. No more secrets.” King Bumi gave an incongruously impish little cackle. “In that spirit, let’s all admit that we’ve drafted an excellent agreement. All Fire Nation subjects will return to their homeland, such exodus funded by the sale of national or royal assets in the Earth Kingdom, the land itself all returned to the Earth Kingdom for redistribution as our regional authorities see fit, and individually owned portable and cash assets to be retained by the colonists to ease the impact of their return. What goodies are you offering us for lunch, Kuei?”

“Oh, it’s really delightful. We’ve prepared a selection of dishes from each of your—“

“Excuse me—?” Governor Eita burst out. “I don’t recall taking a vote on this.”

“Sale of national assets? When was this discussed?” Zuko’s voice rose in consternation.

“Apologies, my dear Governor, if you were under the misapprehension that this is a democracy. It is not.” Once again, Arnook took the helm. “However, I don’t recall the appointment of King Bumi as sovereign of us all.”

King Kuei clapped his hands sharply. “Lunch will be served in ten minutes. Let us table this discussion until our bellies are full.”

“Apparently King Kuei can be decisive about something. Bet he gets along great with Iroh. Ok, guys, let’s get lunch.”

“Thank Agni. That was interminable.” Everyone had forgotten Mai was even there.

 


 

Later that evening, after eavesdropping on a long and tedious afternoon session on the question of decolonization, the Gaang (minus Mai, who complained of a headache) gathered to discuss the day’s negotiations, climbing up to a rooftop viewing platform above the palace that Katara had discovered during her time being ignored by the Council of Five that spring.

“But who are the Fire Nation subjects?”

“How is that even a question, Katara? I don’t remember ever having any trouble telling the difference before. Golden eyes? Feiry fists? Pissy attitudes?”

“Right, Sokka. Firebenders, of course,” said Aang.

“Not everyone’s a bender,” Suki reminded him.

“Anyone loyal to the Fire Nation?” Zuko suggested. 

Sokka shot back, “So not traitors, then? They stay behind?”

“That’s just what we need: firebending bandits who answer to no one roaming the Earth Kingdom at will.” One to Toph for statement of the obvious.

“Not all traitors are outlaws!” Zuko growled. “Not all traitors are even traitors. So, ok, point taken. It is hard to assess loyalty. To the people? To the royal family? To the law of fire? What measure would we use?”

“I can’t go around personally lie-detecting every colonist in the Earth Kingdom.” Toph was awesome, but not that awesome.

“Someone from the Fire Nation, of Fire Nation blood.” Aang tried again.

“But what if those are not the same thing?” Katara mused. “If a family’s been in the Earth Kingdom for three generations, are they still ‘from’ the Fire Nation? What if they’ve married someone from the Earth Kingdom? What blood do their kids have?”

“Oh, that can’t be too many people, Katara. Everyone we met on our travels knew who they were, right? I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Twinkletoes had this enviable ability not to condescend and make you feel like he was lifting you up, even when he was actually cutting down your ideas.

“Oh! But if it’s Earth Kingdom for the Earth people, then what about the Foggy Swamp waterbenders? Should they leave?” Snoozles, always honing in on the tricky parts.

“Uh…That’s completely different! Nobody even cares that they’re there. They didn’t take over someone else’s territory…did they?” While Twinkletoes liked to streamline it to some ideal. “Look, you’re confusing the issue here. All of this is why we need to clear things up. We need to get the Fire Nation out of the Earth Kingdom and restore everything back to the way it was before.”

"I'm worried it's not quite that simple," Sokka muttered.

“Anyway, it seems like you basically have an agreement now, pretty much what King Bumi proposed. Is that right?” Katara turned to Zuko.

“I guess so. There are a lot of details that still need to be hammered out, but the basic outline is there, and it seems like we’re all in agreement on that. Barring any surprises tomorrow.” Which there probably would be.

“It’s the right thing to do, Zuko.” Aang gave him a reassuring pat on the arm. “So what shall we call it? The people out there need to know what we’re talking about, something easy to understand. ‘The Return to the Fire Nation’? ‘The Everyone-Go-Back-Home Movement’?" 

“‘Four Elements, Four Nations’? ‘Restoring Peace?” Katara suggested.

“Closer…. Harmony! It’s about harmony. ‘The World Harmony Movement!’”

“That’s maybe overshooting a little bit.” Sokka was working it out. Bring it on home, Captain Boomerang.... “Like you said, it’s just about getting it back to the way it was—yeah, ‘restoring,’ what Katara said. Restoring harmony… I know! ‘The Harmony Restoration Movement!’”

“Excellent.” Zuko nodded thoughtfully. “But it isn’t really a movement, is it? It’s coming top-down from the rulers. More of a decree….”

“But that’s not going to get everyone on board. I think people have had enough of heavy-handed monarchs,” Katara pointed out.

“Something more neutral then, something that reminds everyone that all the nations worked on it together. An Agreement?”

“No—an Accord! ’The Harmony Restoration Accord.’ That’s it!” Sokka snapped his fingers. “It sounds good—obviously on the side of good—and official. It’s a little poetic and ‘accord’—that’s very harmonious. Bring it to the table tomorrow, you two. And make sure to tell them I thought of it.” He jabbed his thumb at his own chest with a grin.

“Let Sokka’s awesomeness never be overlooked,” Suki teased. She kissed him on the cheek and he gave her a hug back.

A chorus of assent relaxed the group and they distributed themselves around the platform, watching the sun set and the stars come out. Snoozles sprawled out on the stone roof next to Toph, looking up to the night sky. “Harmony Restoration. Yeah.” 

 


 

“Aang, we need to talk.” Katara tugged him into an alcove, letting the rest of the group go on ahead.

Once again, Toph briefly flirted with the idea of not eavesdropping, then rejected it. This could be good. She was a few steps behind them around a corner of the corridor and stayed where she was.

“Yeah, uh, how about after dinner Katara? I’m really hungry—“

“No, now is a good time." 

“Ok, what is it? It’s about…about the kiss, isn’t it?” He sounded like an abashed kid, not at all the confident romancer Toph had heard the other night.

“Yes, it is. Aang, you can’t just kiss people without asking. You can’t kiss me without asking. We’ve been over this before.” And there was Sugar-Mom.

“But—!" His voice softened. "You're my girl, Katara! You make me so happy." 

Toph sensed her pulling back.

Aang's voice rose again in response. "And anyway, you liked it! Didn’t you? You kissed me back this time!”

“I did.” She caved. “Because I do love you. Because I was happy, too. Because we all were. Because you were, and wanted to share it.”

“So? That’s what a kiss is, right? Sharing love!” Twinkletoes seized her in some way—her arms?—and said earnestly, “Because I love you, too, Katara.”

“Aang, I know. I’ve always known that. But not all love has to lead to kissing. Or, at least, not right away.”

“I’m too young for you." 

“The point is, if you love someone, you listen first. You find out what they want. That’s why I kissed you. I knew you wanted it so badly, and I wanted to give you that. But you didn’t ask what I wanted.”

The kid was silent, except for the scuffing of one of his feet on the floor. “So…what do you want, Katara?”

“I—“ Now Sweetness was silent, her heart pounding a little louder. “I think I could be your girl.”

Aang’s heart started to flutter and he caught his breath.

“Someday. But not now, not like you mean. You're thirteen, I’m fifteen. We are too young for this. But I love you so much, Aang. I would do anything for you. So maybe when we’re older. Maybe yes.”

They embraced and held each other for a while, calming down.

“May I kiss you, Katara?” There was a stutter of disappointment from her. “On the cheek, I mean?” And her tension released.

“Of course, Aang.”

There was a chaste little smack, and then the pair turned to go to the Great Hall for the feast, arm in arm.

Chapter Text

Hakoda sailed his new ship to the Fire Nation to bring his son home. He had spent all summer building it with his men, despite the nearly infinite list of tasks for them to attend to after three years away. Men were not men without a ship—to say nothing of the Southern Water Tribe’s admiral.

They arrived back at Kotan Village on the first sundown of the waning year. Six weeks of midnight sun had come to an end. They paddled to shore during the long twilight, leaving the ship anchored in the bay, since Kotan was too small to have a harbor. A lone figure stood on the ice to greet them. Sokka almost upset the canoe jumping to his feet.

“Gran Gran!” He threw his long arms around her and nearly bowled her over. Kanna held her ground and held him tight. Hakoda saw the tears well up in her eyes, but she didn’t let them fall. He felt his own eyes blur.

When she had composed herself, Kanna released him and reached up to pat his cheek. “My little Sokka. You’ve come home a man.” Her creased face split into a grin.

Kanna had harnessed two of the six-legged polar dogs to the sled; they loaded up and headed home.

The village was at its summer site, on the leeward side of a rocky peak a couple of miles inland from the ice shelf where they lived during the winter. Hakoda and the men had not abandoned the village to their shipbuilding fever. Each had taken care of their own family's immediate needs first. For his part, Hakoda had reclaimed and repaired the round stone house in the center of the village that served as the village meeting place and the headman’s home. The chinks were carefully packed with moss, the roof of hide stretched over whale bone ribs was regular and snug to keep out the often freezing rains of summer. Inside, it was warm as the Fire Nation.

Despite the late hour, they stayed up talking until after dawn. Which, admittedly, was only an hour or so after sundown. Then Kanna rolled out clean furs for her grandson and he crawled gratefully into them. He grasped her hand briefly like the boy he had been, and she watched over him as he drifted off to sleep, love and loss mingling in her eyes.

Hakoda sat by the fire watching his mother-in-law. Through all the departures and deaths, she had been the central pillar of his village, holding it up, binding it together and leading it through the fear and grief and the dark of winter, year after year, fighting to see another summer.

 


 

Sokka woke up late. Gran Gran had left a pot of arctic chicken and kelp stew simmering on the fire and set out a bowl for him to fill. He scarfed down a bowl of the familiar and utterly bland stuff and thought it might be one of the best meals of his life. Then he stepped out, momentarily blinded by the bright sunlight.

The round house was surrounded by a dozen or so large, hide tents and the whole of it hemmed in by a low, stone wall. The earth was hard packed and strewn with rocks and gravel and little else, still dusted with hard frost and windblown snow in the shade. But it was above the level of the ice shelf, the edge of a gigantic glacier that spilled into the sea, and so the villagers took advantage of the low snowfall of summer to feel the earth beneath their feet. Living there also made it easier for them to hunt game on land and gather food from the brief explosion of plant life before it was all swallowed up again by drifts of winter snow.

The villagers, young and old, were occupied in every kind of food-related task: setting out with baskets to gather berries, smoking a rack of squid around an open fire, butchering a buffalo yak for preservation, tanning hides, chopping and drying whale blubber, weaving baskets, sharpening hunting weapons. A thrill ran through Sokka’s bones to witness the mundane survival of his people.

The Southern Water Tribe lived.

 

He hadn’t gone five steps before he was attacked and knocked to the ground.

“You’re back!!!” And half a dozen half-sized warriors buried him in a puppy pile. “Sokka!” “We missed you so much!” “Tell us all about the Avatar!” “And the Fire Lord—is it true he’s good now?” “And he’s your friend?” “Did you fly?”

“Slow down, slow down!” Sokka forced himself to straighten his face and towered sternly over them. “What’s happened to my Kotan warriors? At the ready, men!”

A pall of self-consciousness fell over the boys as they drew themselves up with dignity. “We’ve been training, Sokka. We’re ready to fight.” Rakko stepped forward as their leader.

“And hunt!” Miksa blurted out, then controlled himself. “Since maybe we won’t need to fight so much any more.”

Sokka couldn’t keep it together and busted up laughing. “I missed you guys! Only you’re about twice as big as you were when I left. Have you let your sisters get any of the whale blubber or did you boys eat it all?”

“Oh yes, they got plenty.” Miksa nodded earnestly. “They’re even bigger than we are.”

“Ok, warriors. Show me what you’ve got.” He led them to the edge of the village and they spent the rest of the morning sparring and practicing boomerang throws and collapsing into undisciplined tussles. Sokka showed them some new Kyoshi moves and worked on centering their stance—something he’d had little idea of before—and heard about all the victories and defeats in the world of Kotan boys over the past year and a half.

After the midday meal, which the boys and Sokka simply helped themselves to from various cooking pots around the village, he left them to play and wandered the perimeter greeting the adults as they worked.

“Sokka!” An apple-cheeked girl dropped her a basket of dried herring and flung herself at him, open parka flapping.

Sokka laughed and gave her a bear hug right back. “Mina!”

She pulled back to look at him and the twinkle in her eye said she was about to crack one of her jokes, but instead she turned strangely shy all of a sudden and her cheeks got a little darker. He wasn’t going to pinch those cheeks after all—irresistibly appley as they still were.

She looked him up and down, then crinkled her nose. “By the spring tides, Sokka, did you skin a family of drowned rat-squirrels? What in the Moon Spirit’s name are you wearing?”

“Oh, uh, I lost my Water Tribe parka. A long time ago.” Sokka was still wearing the long, black, weasel-fox coat trimmed in gold cord that Zuko had scrounged up a in a royal storeroom, left over from some long-ago diplomatic mission to one of the Poles. It was hideous. Sokka hadn’t needed protection from the cold since the North Pole a year ago. Odd to think that less than a year before that he had scarcely ever experienced a day without ice.

“Imagine not needing a parka.” She shook her head skeptically, eyeing the thing sideways.

“Yeah, all you need in the Fire Nation is a coat of sweat!" He slapped his leg—and to his delight, instead of rolling her eyes like Katara, Mina laughed at his awesome pun! "But what are you doing here? Have you come back from Kivallit City?”

“Well, who do you think was going to do the mending and wipe the runny noses while you and Katara ran around with the Avatar? And who was going to do the hunting and train the boys? Uncle and I returned to Kotan about a year ago.” Mina had been Katara’s best friend growing up. But after her dad was killed in the same raid where Sokka and Katara had lost their mother, and her mother died in childbirth less than a year later, Mina had gone to live with her mother’s uncle in the South Pole’s capital city (just an extra-large village now, but they still called it a city).

“I’ll have you know we were saving the world! But thank you. I know they needed you here.”

“They needed you more.” A flash of yearning passed over her face, almost too quick to catch.

“Well I’m back!” Today was not going to be a soppy day weeping over the past. Today was his homecoming. “Come on, Mina! Catch me up on all the gossip!”

“I have been saving it up for you, Sokka! Follow me while I take care of these fish. You’ll never believe what Kuma did to Oki last week, with her husband right there watching….”

They wandered off to the storage caves to add her basket of fish to the stash for winter, Mina chattering all the while about the petty little transgressions that made for village drama. She avoided the actual pathos, of course—as you did. Everyone knew real tragedy, and tears of passion had been shed over the men who had returned from war as much as for those who never would. No need to amplify it.

“Sokka!” Gran Gran intercepted them with an armful of furs on their way back. “I need your measurements. And I need to burn that one.” She fixed his foreign coat with a baleful eye.

 


 

“And that’s what gave me the idea: airship slice!” Sokka paused for dramatic effect. The drummer continued softly pounding a steady, ominous beat. “I took the controls of the airship we’d just hijacked” —he leaned forward to pantomime for his audience— “and flew it up, up above the fleet and banked left to slice” —he slashed the air— “across the top of the entire row of ships, sending them to their doom!” 

A drum roll swelled through his last words and a resonant whack of the stick punctuated “doom.” Everybody jumped as one. The entire village was packed into the round house after dinner, seated around the seal oil lamp that lit the room and kept them warm—too warm, really. Parkas had been shed, children sat on laps, brothers draped their arms over each others’ shoulders—sweaty, fish-scented humans, pressed together and smelling of home.

When the drummer took up the beat again, Sokka continued. “We leapt from ship to ship as each one crumbled and fell to the sea. Firebenders attacked, but I held them off with my boomerang and my Space Sword, protecting the little earthbender, who was like another sister to me. At last, she and I were stranded and about to fall to our deaths when, like the ever-returning boomerang of Amarok the Spirit Hunter, the Kyoshi Warrior Suki appeared, flying her own captured airship like a catamaran of the heavens. And we were saved!”

“Aaah!” In unison, the village gasped in amazement and satisfaction. The drummer added figures to his steady pulse and shifted into a swinging pattern, which the storysinger took up on her one-stringed albatross-bone fiddle in a steady ostinato. She began humming a short melodic figure and then added words: “Airship slice, airship sliiice. Airship slice of doom!”

Sokka felt tears spring to his eyes. She was composing an epic song about them right before his eyes. He was a hero to his people.

He caught Mina gazing at him with a glow of admiration in her eyes. He smiled back, his heart full.

 


 

Hakoda lay back in the stern of the canoe, hands behind his head, soaking in the last warm rays of sun before the equinox, after which the light would dwindle quickly into winter. Sokka knelt on one knee at the bow, harpoon poised and eyes fixed on the water. He’d learned patience. Hakoda found it harder to adjust to the indisputable fact that his son had become a man here at home than it had been out in the world, facing battle and revolution.

Here, he would turn his head expecting to look down and need to crank his eyes upwards to find Sokka’s level with his. And while both he and Sokka occasionally needed some gentle nudging from the women to correctly prioritize all the their tasks as they prepared for winter—they’d fallen out of step with the natural rhythms of daily life after so much time away—he would realize he’d been ready to chastise Sokka for playing when there was work to be done, only to find that Sokka was already doing the same to the younger boys.

The boys obviously respected Sokka. They were in awe of him as a war hero, but of course they couldn’t sustain that attitude in everyday life, and they were as ready as any Water Tribe kids to tease and test a mentor—up to and not beyond a certain line. But it was clear that it was Sokka and not Hakoda who held that role for them. Sokka had done what was needed and taken charge in the men’s absence.

Sokka’s harpoon plunged into the water. “Ha!” He pulled back with a good sized toothfish impaled on the end of his weapon. He displayed it to his father, then dispatched it into the canoe with a good thwack to its head to keep it from flopping around. They had half a dozen now.

“What do you think, Dad? Should we keep going, or are we good?” 

Hakoda exhaled slowly. “I think we should sit back and take in as much sun as we can. We won’t have much more of it.”

Sokka laughed. “Good call. You don’t get to do that much, Headman Hakoda. Slack off out here where no one can see you.” He mirrored his father and slipped down into the bow, feet propped up.

“So what do you think about my plan for a Kotan marina? Carve a new floating dock out of the ice shelf every spring big enough for small ships? We could get trade with the other villages flowing again, maybe even with Kyoshi, Gaoling, and the southern Fire Nation islands.

“Sure, Sokka. That would be a great idea.” It was nice letting someone else get fired up about building the community’s future.

“We could probably get that done with the first thaw next spring. It'd take GranPakku about ten minutes, max, when he gets back from the North Pole.”

“Don’t call him that, Sokka.”

“Man, I hope we get some new waterbenders in the next generation. Just think of what we could do….” Sokka got that dreamy look on his face. Hakoda could barely remember feeling that way when he was younger than Sokka, imagining a future full of amazing possibilities. But the Fire Nation was relentless in those days and dreaming was an indulgence.

“After that, I was thinking I’d spend some time in Kivallit City.”

Hakoda popped an eye open.

“Kotan doesn’t need that much from me, once the igloos are built. Any of the guys can hunt. But I’m really excited to get involved in the planning GranPakku’s been doing with Karluk and the Council on building Kivallit back into a proper city. I have some great ideas I’d like to present to them. The kinds of things the Fire Nation has been able to do with steam power—just think what we could do with that technology, with GranPakku’s bending. The Southern Water Tribe could build factories—we could actually have industry! And I’m wondering if there are architectural techniques we could borrow from earthbending—you know, icebending!”

“That’s great, Sokka. I’m glad you’re thinking big. But don’t be so sure Kotan doesn’t need you.”

“Do you see Kotan becoming a secondary South Pole city? ‘Cause that’s an interesting idea. I’ve been wondering about that. If we could improve access to the bay and build a harbor—“

“That’s pretty far down the line, Sokka. I think the first thing we’d need is people.”

“But one or two waterbenders can do the work of a whole village and the Northern Water Tribe has already said it’s amenable to an exchange program of some kind.”

“No, I mean population. People to live in these glorious ice cities of your dreams.”

“Well, that’ll happen, won’t it? Now that we’re not been picked off by the Fire Nation any more. And prosperity will mean better health, too. More trade, less starvation!”

“You do know where babies come from in the first place, don’t you?”

“Yeah, yeah. What people do under their furs is their business—and I'm pretty sure Kotan people know their business, if you know what I mean." He kicked Hakoda's foot with a wink.

“Sure they do." Hakoda chuckled. "But I wasn’t talking about other people, Sokka.”

Sokka looked at him blankly. Was he going to have to spell this out? He knew for a fact his son was not a virgin. (Toph had let that out making a ribald crack in Hakoda’s presence.)

“Has it occurred to you that you might have a role to play there? A pretty significant one?” There was the lamp wick flaring behind Sokka’s eyes. “Do a head count, Sokka. In our village, there’s only you, Katara, and Mina in your age group—plus Hapo, who was married just before the men left for war—she has a son now, at least, and with any luck, another one on the way. After Katara, assuming we can get her back at all, it will be another six or seven years before the next child is old enough to marry. Not to mention that the two Kotan men we lost in the eclipse invasion made two more widows of childbearing age.”

“Ohhhh.” Clearly, this was a new concept. “I…don’t think I’m ready for that. I don’t think Suki is, either. She’s got a pretty serious commitment to working for Zuko and that will last at least a couple more years."

“Hm.” So he was still serious about the Kyoshi warrior. That complicated matters. Hakoda would have to tread carefully. “Just keep an open mind, son. What your people need most right now is more people.” He closed his eyes again. “And by all means, visit Kivallit City.” There were more young women there.

 


 

Sokka is surrounded by warmth. The air, her body, his body—all 98 degrees, no distinction, blending into one another. That’s the least remarkable sensation he is experiencing, however, in the Fire Nation heat. Top of the list would be Suki, all around him—all around him—breathless, hazel eyes unfocused—sweat-sticky skin sliding against his—rocking over him, relentless, and going to win. Not if he can help it. He flips her over without warning and she gasps at the new, harder pressure. He drives, she grinds, he’s falling into her eyes, her breath in his mouth, his in hers. They’re climbing together, rushing to the top—

A loud clatter jolted Sokka awake, in a sweat (that was the only source of wetness, thank the tides), floundering in a jumble of furs. He sat up, disoriented, and a gust of cold air through open the door brought him back to the South Pole.

“Ice rot!” Gran Gran had dropped an armload of empty cooking pots.

“Gran Gran, let me help you!” Sokka clambered out of bed.

“I don’t know how I could have dropped those. I’ve carried loads like that a thousand times.” Gran Gran stood over the mess frowning in frustration.

“Don’t worry about it, Gran Gran.” He laid a hand on her shoulder. “I’m up now. What’s next?”

Today was the day they moved back out onto the ice shelf for the winter. The ground would be covered in ten feet of snow before long and then, the closer they were to the ocean, the closer they were to food. But Sokka wondered if maybe the reason they were so attached to living on the ice had more to do with waterbending, going back to the time when every village had had at least a couple of waterbenders.

Gran Gran and Sokka worked side by side all morning, packing up the sled. They lent a hand to their neighbors as needed—Gran Gran with advice, Sokka with muscle. Hakoda was already out at the winter site directing the resettlement. He and Sokka had built their igloo there together over the past week.

When the round house was empty and even the hide roof removed, Kanna and Sokka sat on top of the loaded sled for a cold lunch before heading out, tossing scraps to the polar dogs and looking out at the clear, blue horizon. To the south, clean-shouldered glaciers carved out the blue-white mountains stretching infinitely east and west from the flawless azure sky. And in the other direction, white-blue icebergs punched through the deep cerulean sea—splintered glaciers floating north to the Air Nomad lands. Sokka wished he could show share this part of his heart with Suki.

“So when are you going to get married, Sokka?”

“What?!” Great ice balls, Gran Gran always could read minds! “I, uh, I haven’t been thinking about it. I’ve had a lot of other stuff going on, you know!” He was somehow afraid to bring up his hopes for Suki with Gran Gran. She held the village together—that would be the only priority she would understand. Except—she’d run away from her people once, and from marriage, hadn’t she?

“That is not strictly true, is it Sokka? Or did you take that Earth Kingdom girl to bed without intentions?”

“Gran Gran!” Sokka choked, burning with embarrassment. After his coughing subsided, he acknowledged, “Ok, fine, I have intentions with Suki. But we haven’t talked about them.”

“Then they don’t count.”

“It’s different! It’s different with her. She’s independent—she has warrior’s work to do. I don’t know if she wants to get tied down to me or not, but definitely not for a while. She’s not like Water Tribe girls, even Southern Water Tribe girls. I mean, she’s worlds away from Yue, who had her future decided for her by everyone else….”

“Yes, I heard about the Princess, too, but I understand your behavior with her was at least honorable.” Kanna’s face softened for a moment. “And I am truly sorry for what happened to her.”

Sokka sighed. “Maybe she’s better off. Being the moon has got to be better than marrying that jerk she was betrothed to.”

“I wasn’t speaking only of how she departed this world, no.”

“At least she’s free now.”

“There are many kinds of freedom, Sokka. Freedom from the will of others, freedom of choice. Freedom from pain, freedom to love. Freedom from obligations, freedom from loneliness. Freedom from debt. Freedom from war. Freedom to be Water Tribe. What kind of freedom is it that you’re seeking, Sokka?” 

“I’m not sure yet, Gran Gran. That’s why I’m not ready.”

They didn’t speak on the ride to the winter site. It was a cold day for the season. The white glare of the new snow burned into his brain and the Antarctic wind whipped his face and forced the blood to pump through his limbs as he ran with the dogs, keeping them on course (not that they were likely to get lost) while Kanna rode on the sled. Nothing made you feel more alive than the threat of death from the very air around you. That was home, all right!

It was what Sokka loved about Suki, too. There was no thrill like the embrace of a woman who could kill you before you twitched. It made a little extra heat rush through him just thinking about it now. Yeah, she’d like it here at the South Pole. Every day a fight for survival and all that mattered was skill and loyalty. No courtly rhino shit like the Fire Nation or Ba Sing Se—no fancy codes for honor and intrigue—just get the job done and celebrate each victory with the people who’ve got your back.

But it wasn’t everything she might want. He wasn’t sure it was even everything he could want, not any more. He sort of missed trees. Birdsong. Swimming without hypothermia. His friends, above all. He was home, his homesickness cured—only to find that he now had even more to be homesick for. 

He missed Katara most, of course, Katara who had been with him almost every day of his life until the end of the war. Katara who now belonged more to the world than the Southern Water Tribe, and who had said nothing firm about coming back here permanently, just that she would be with Aang as long as he needed her (which was gonna be forever, if she left it to Aang). Missing Katara was a cold hollow in his heart, where there had only and always been warmth before.

He wasn’t the only one here who missed her, of course. And apparently, she was missed for more than just her Katara-self. Sokka was more than a little freaked out to think of his little sister as a baby-maker—way more than he was thinking of himself and Suki that way. 

Not that he was comfortable with it for any of them, with the way his people apparently thought of them now—or had it always been this way?—as if their very bodies were owned by the tribe (not Suki’s, of course…not yet). He supposed it would be possible for him—he’d been there, done that (the Deed, at least), he was a man, he could provide, even if he didn’t feel ready. When had the universe ever checked with him first before shoving him into the next terrifying challenge?

But Katara—Katara wasn’t about to start activities, was she? WAS SHE? No way, Aang’s voice hadn’t even broken yet. And who else was there? Jet was pretty clearly dead, Haru had the sex appeal of a block of tofu (he was pretty sure), and, what, Prince Pouty? Yeah, right. Aang would keep any other competition away. As long as she kept clear of the South Pole, Katara was probably free a while longer. So he should warn her.

 


 

The nights grew longer and the weather got colder. Snow began to fall regularly. And then it was the equinox, the tipping point before the darkness began to take over.

The village held a feast. The eating and drinking went on long into the evening, with music, dancing, and storytelling. Sokka was called upon again to tell of his adventures with the Avatar. This time, he told them about Wan Shi Tong’s library and how they’d survived the desert. He was trying to avoid the Day of Black Sun, but realized halfway through the story that he’d set himself up and there would be no avoiding it now.

He stepped outside to get some air and clear his head. As he walked along the newly polished ice wall surrounding the village, he heard footsteps crunch behind him. He turned to see a girl, hair beads shining in the moonlight. Katara was his first thought.

“Mina?”

“Hi, Sokka. Mind if I join you?”

“Sure. Kinda stuffy in there, huh?”

“Yeah, like usual.” She shrugged. “I loved your story. I love all of your stories.”

“Thanks. They’re fun to tell. A lot more fun to tell than they were to live, actually.”

“Are they really true? Did you and Katara really do all those things?”

“Of course! You calling me a liar, Mina?” He meant it to be teasing, but he thought he might have sounded defensive. It was hard to think of his tales as anything more than wild fantasies, here in the village.

“To have seen all those marvels, and then to come back here. We must seem so boring to you.”

Sokka stopped and turned to face her.

“No, Mina. You are my people! This is my home. You have no idea how much I missed the South Pole. Where people don’t think I’m a peasant or a savage. Where I can be a leader and a warrior even if I’m not a bender. Where we eat meat every single day!”

She laughed. “I can’t believe you spent a year with a vegetarian! What would we feed the Avatar if he ever came here?”

“Whenever he does, I’ll tell him to bring his own snacks.” 

Mina giggled. “I wish I’d met him when he was here before.”

“Yeah, we missed you a lot when you were gone.” 

“You can’t have missed me as much as I missed you.” She was lovely in the moonlight, looking up at him with impossibly large eyes, not laughing any more. She reached up, laid her hands on his biceps, then rose on her toes and gave him a kiss, right on the lips. It was quick, as if she were afraid of losing her nerve, but her intent was clear.

Sokka pulled back a bit in surprise. “—Mina. I—I’m sorry.” He shook his head gently. “I have a girlfriend. You got that, right?”

“But she’s not Water Tribe, is she?” Mina peered up at him seriously. “She can’t provide for you. A home, a family, love.”

“Earth people want all those things, too, Mina!”

She gave him a kindly, reproachful look. “But not at the South Pole. Who would live here but a Water Tribe woman? Your Suki is a hero, but do you see her drying seal jerky out here while she laces a new pair of leather trousers for you, nursing a child inside her parka? Sitting patiently in your igloo through the Long Night, listening to everyone tell the same stories over and over, waiting for spring?”

He didn’t answer. It was kind of hard to imagine.

“I’m sixteen now, Sokka. It’s time for me to be getting married. If you’d have me, I’d have you in a heartbeat. Eighteen is young for a man to be marrying, but you’ve more than proven yourself. Everyone sees you as a grown man now.”

“That’s not it Mina. There’s just so much I still want to do—apprentice at the North Pole, do more research in the Fire Nation, find Wan Shi Tong’s library again if it kills me, help the Avatar whenever he needs me, be there for Zuko, for Toph—before I can settle down here. There’s a whole world out there I’m a part of.” Even as he said this, his father’s words from long ago echoed in his ears: A man knows where he’s needed. “And more importantly, I’m in love with Suki.”

Mina dropped her eyes and listened quietly. “I don’t know as much as you do about the world, Sokka. But the way I understand it, love means family, and family means Water Tribe.” She raised her eyes to him. “I could love you Sokka, and build the Southern Water Tribe with you. For me, it’s always been you. Could you—“ she swallowed hard. “Could you ever love me?”

Sokka did love her. As part of his life, his history, his village, his tribe—as part of everything he held dearest in the world (almost everything). Was it a stretch to love her as part of his family? Of course he wanted children. He’d never imagined a future for himself without a pile of squirming little warriors wrestling in the furs of his igloo. But that picture didn’t seem to reconcile with his new life as a citizen of the world.

“It’s a complicated question, Mina.”

She held his eyes a moment longer, searching for an answer, then sighed and grasped his fingers briefly before turning back to the village. Only then did he remember that the fall and spring equinoxes were the most auspicious days for courting, the two days of the year in perfect balance.

Chapter Text

Zuko didn’t know how long he’d been frozen outside the prison tower where Ozai was held, unable to enter, unable to turn back. The guards were trying not to notice his paralysis.

A gentle hand on his shoulder released him. He turned to see Uncle Iroh. “It’s the anniversary,” Uncle acknowledged softly.

Zuko could only nod.

“You don’t have to be here. Come home.”

“Yes.” He rested his hands on his uncle’s shoulders and closed his eyes for a steadying breath. “I finally came home, didn’t I?” He raised his head to look into Iroh’s eyes and tried to smile. “This soldier boy came marching home.”

“You were never a soldier, Zuko. You were always a warrior.”

Chapter Text

Aang swooped through the clouds spinning like a maple seed. A wild child, a holy man, a demi-god.

“Watch this, Katara!” He flipped his glider over a few times like a corkscrew, then, to her momentary horror, jumped up on top of it, arms extended for balance, the way she would surf on a wave. Momo zigged and zagged in over and under him. He laughed at her astonishment, bubbling with irrepressible fun. “I learned that from Roku!”

Katara’s heart leapt to join him, to fly on the wings of her love. She had never loved so powerfully. She loved her family not any less deeply than she loved Aang. But what she felt for Sokka, Hakoda, Gran Gran, and her lost mother was simply part of herself, the foundation of who she was.

Her love for Aang was something greater, beyond just herself. Like loving the sky, something eternal. She had loved the Avatar before she’d ever found Aang, after all. That love would carry her through anything, would let her be whatever he needed her to be. So her heart soared, but her feet stayed on the ground (or Appa’s back, at least), anchoring him to what he needed to be, and shielding him from what he did not.

That didn’t mean she wanted to kiss him, though. In a sexy kind of way. Not that she wanted not to kiss him. Necessarily. But at this time, still no. He was basically a child, after all. And she wasn’t, hadn't been for a long time. She felt guilty, as if asking him to stop had been selfish. But if it was going to be just the two of them for a while, they needed boundaries, not to mention a certain propriety. She’d had to be clear (although “clear” was probably the worst description for how she felt, on that score).

It was like being betrothed, she thought, waiting for the love that would someday be theirs. Waiting on destiny.

Aang had vanished—she couldn’t see him anywhere. Then she noticed a funnel descending from the cloud directly above Appa and her. It snipped itself off from the cloud as it came lower, a boy-sized chrysalis, and landed delicately in the center of Appa’s saddle. Now it opened from the top, a bud breaking into fluffy petals, to reveal Aang inside balanced on one toe.

With a few intricate gestures from his right hand, he gathered vapor into a spinning top on the palm of his left. He drew it in on itself, solidifying it into ice, and as it slowed, revealed an exquisite creation of ice and air crisscrossed in an intricately filigree, a glittering ornament finer than any jewel. Aang presented it to her with an elegant bow, and the self-assured smile of the artist who knows he has charmed. 

“Oh, Aang,” she breathed, and reached out to accept the gift. She held it suspended above her palm, afraid to touch it. “It won’t last, you know.”

“It’s not meant to, Katara.”

 


 

Since Ba Sing Se, they had continued their peacekeeping mission around the Earth Kingdom, increasingly focused on the colonies and promotion of the Harmony Restoration Initiative. Aang was the most iconic of many diplomatic go-betweens in the negotiations amongst Zuko, the Earth Kingdom monarchs, and various local authorities on both sides over the details of transfer of power and property. He and Katara always talked with the colonists they met, too, helping them figure out where they would go and what they would do back home, and connecting them with others who could help.

They had developed something of a routine for colony visits. Aang would make an entrance (when did he not?) and give an inspirational speech in the town square about peace and harmony and the balance of the elements, punctuated with some impressive bending displays, just to keep the crowd interested. Sometimes Katara also would be part of the show, but performing didn’t give her the same thrill.

They would check in with the local leadership on arrangements, timetables, and compliance, to report back to Zuko and King Kuei. Meanwhile, Katara would unobtrusively move through the community watching and listening to gauge the climate, alert to specific issues where among the people. As much as she could, she handled local problems herself, since Aang had enough to deal with—persuading an elder who refused to leave her house that the move was for the best; mediating between the families of young lovers about to be pulled apart to different ends of the Fire Nation; or simply comforting many colonists' grief over leaving the only home they’d ever known.

Outside colony walls, Earth Kingdom communities were mostly optimistic about taking over the buildings and lands of the colonists, of course, but that generated its own share of disputes and conflicting claims, so complicated that Katara and Aang often got completely lost in arcane local histories and had to leave it to professional bureaucrats. 

The youngest colonies, established within living memory of most of their inhabitants, were scheduled to be evacuated first; it was assumed their citizens would assimilate back into the Fire Nation most easily, and that the Earth Kingdom would readily reabsorb what was left. The oldest were scheduled near the end of the Harmony Restoration Initiative’s three-year period, under the assumption that their transitions would be the most complex.

Aang and Katara had visited most of the youngest colonies, which were well into their evacuations, and were now starting to work with the middle period colonies.

 


 

Appa landed with an uncharacteristic thud. A cloud of red dust blew up around his head and into Aang’s face. Aang bent it away with a puff of air. “You ok, buddy?” Appa moaned about heat exhaustion. “All right, I get it. We’re here now. You can rest.”

He looked around at the treeless, sun-baked clay, dotted with greyish scrub, flat in all directions, until it rose to the southeast in low, barren hills. Everything was the color of rust, unbroken even by the horizon; the air seemed to absorb the color of the earth, fading gradually upwards to a washed-out, white glare overhead. From Appa’s back, Katara coughed on the dust. “Where is he going to rest, Aang? And where’s here, anyway? I don’t see the colony.”

“We should be there.” Aang climbed up into Appa’s saddle and rummaged around for the map. They put their heads together, tracing the outline of the southernmost peninsula in the Earth Kingdom.

“No, look, Aang. Palgan is on the water. It’s a port. A major shipyard. What are we doing in a desert?”

“I saw the mouth of the river as we were landing, when we were above the haze. Where did it go?”

They squinted into the distance. “I think the land actually drops off over there.” Katara pointed to the north.

In fact, what had looked like horizon through the haze was actually the edge of a broad plateau they were standing on, dropping precipitously to form the southern wall of a wide river canyon. Below them, a steep road cut a jagged scar into the side of the cliff, dodging boulders and odd rock formations. At the base of the plateau, a little to the west, they could see a fortress town built around a substantial shipyard, which was populated by the unmistakable iron hulls of Fire Nation vessels. Beyond that, the mouth of the river opened out into the southern seas.

“See? I was right!” Aang popped his glider with a grin and was about to leap off the plateau to explore when he caught sight of someone running up the road. It was a child, two or three years younger than himself, waving her arms frantically to get their attention.

“What is it, what’s the matter?” Katara caught the girl as she nearly collided with them.

“The Avatar! Are you the Avatar? I saw your bison in the sky!” 

“Yeah, I’m the Avatar. Are you in trouble?”

“Please. You’ve got to come quickly. They’re going to kill them!” The girl grabbed his hand and tried to tug him back down the road.

“Appa’s faster. Did you run all the way up from Palgan?” Aang lifted her up to Appa’s back in one airbent bound, as Katara swiftly climbed back into the saddle.

“No, just the village around the bend.” The girl pointed down and to the east to a switchback up against a natural rock wall. As Appa descended, they saw that a track branched off of the road here to skirt the wall and duck through an archway. On the other side of the wall, a village was built right into the cliff face, narrow stairways and ladders connecting the multi-level dwellings to one another.

In front of the houses, on a flat plaza earthbent out of the cliffs long ago, a gigantic pyre was heaped around three people who were bound hand and foot to a stone post. An angry mob surrounded them, shouting obscenities and curses and hurling something soft and sticky at them. Several waved torches dangerously near the firewood, and flames were just beginning to lick the base of the pyre.

“WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?” Aang felt the fury run through him like a lit fuse, and the familiar searing in its wake, as his eyes and tattoos flared. He made a shockwave through air and earth simultaneously, knocking most of the people off their feet.

The crowd fell still in astonishment. He felt his rage building as he fought to rein it in. Part of him wanted to let it fly and let it consume the evil before him. His feet left the ground. He was dimly aware of Katara at his side, and her indecision between pulling him down and rushing to save the prisoners. He fought a little harder, and a gentle tug from Katara was enough to ground him again.

Katara rushed past him to the pyre. A dash of water bent from the plaza’s open cistern quelled the flames, and she clambered onto the firewood where she made quick work of the prisoners’ bonds with razors of water. As they hauled themselves back to their feet, the villagers shifted indecisively, as if wanting to stop her as she helped the freed captives down, but held in place by the Avatar’s wrath. He was still glowing.

She brought them to Aang. Judging by the colors of their disheveled clothing, they appeared to be two Fire Nation colonials, a man and a woman, and one Earth Kingdom woman.

“Answer me!” Though he was not properly in the Avatar state and knew he still sounded like some version of Aang, he felt the voices of the past in his throat lending force to his words.

“They wanted to kill these people. As revenge against the Fire Nation.” It was the girl who had brought them there.

This seemed to release the villagers and all at once everyone found their voice. “It is our due—“ “—starved us—“ This is our last chance!” “—exploiting us for years—“ “Burn them with their own fire!” “Justice!”

“STOP.” Silence descended. “It’s been a year already. Why now?”

A middle-aged man with the bearing of authority shoved himself forward, hard-hewn lines carved in his long face by a life of hardship. He trembled slightly in fear, but his voice was dry and sharp.

“Your…Avatarship.” He bowed stiffly. “I am Ying, head of this village. We have suffered a long time under the Fire Lord, under the ‘protection’ of Palgan Fortress. They have used us for our labor, and worse. They kept us dependent on them for our food and all our necessities. Did you see the plateau?” He pointed upwards. “We can’t grow anything here, not any more. Not since they shut down our irrigation systems years ago. They need us hungry. There were once many prosperous villages and towns here. Now only a handful of us are left, clinging to the cliffs. We survived by slaving for the Fire Nation.

“But it only got worse when the war ended. Palgan feared us, afraid of our anger, so they locked the gates. Nobody in, nobody out. No food, no supplies. They can get what they need, by ship. But we have to travel two days east to the nearest village. The closest city is Gaoling and that’s nearly a hundred miles by land.”

“That’s terrible!” Katara burst out, tears welling in her eyes. “You have suffered so much. But why have you captured these people? What will that solve?”

Ying’s eyes narrowed. “They were trying to escape Palgan. They will pay for the crimes of their people. We will have our justice. And the bastards hiding behind in those walls will see the flames.”

“Not justice, revenge.” Aang looked over at Katara. She’d chased revenge once, and he’d misplayed it so badly. He knew that—he’d lost her to Zuko that time—but had not yet figured out what he should have said instead. He needed to find new words. “Revenge will poison you just as surely as it takes down your enemy. It’s like a two-headed rat-viper.” So much for new words. It was still true, though; revenge was wrong. “And it starts a cycle that can be endless. Like a two-headed rat-viper biting its tail.”

“That’s what I told them!” the girl crowed, vindicated.

“Really? Even the two-headed rat-viper part?”

“No. I said it was a vampire scorpion.”

“Ok, that works too. Anyway, we need to stop the cycle before it starts.”

“Before it starts?” A woman jabbed an angry finger at Aang. “This started long before you were born, kid. My babies died before you were born. You want to restore the balance, you let us do to the ash monsters what they did to us, to our families and our people!” 

Ying whirled and pointed to Katara, arm extended. “You should hate them at least as much as we do. Maybe more.” At Katara’s blank look, he said, “Don’t you know? I know who you are. This was the home port for the Southern Raiders. Those murdering soul-scorchers came from here.”

Katara stood perfectly still, blue eyes hard as marbles, looking down at Palgan. Aang noticed in trepidation that the water in the plaza’s open cistern was vibrating ominously, shooting agitated droplets into the air like sparks. She never lost control like this any more. 

“Katara…? Let’s take this one step at a time. We’ll stop this conflict first, ok?” It was disorienting to be soothing her instead of the other way around. But an exploding Katara would be negligibly less terrifying for these villagers than an Avatar-state Aang, he thought. She closed her eyes and slowly inhaled and exhaled—using the basic meditation practice he’d been teaching her, which was good. Then she opened her eyes and gave him a grim nod. 

He turned back to the villagers and declared with conviction: “I’m here to restore balance to the world. Ending the war was just the first step, I understand that. The suffering must end, and you must play your part in ending it. There will be no revenge today.” Aang gestured to the would-be victims. “Come on. We’ll take you back to Palgan. We’re here to help with the Harmony Restoration evacuations.” He turned back to the villagers, conciliatory. “Don’t worry. They’ll all be gone soon. Palgan will be yours again. Rebuild it as a place of peace.”

“And the burden falls on us once more,” Ying murmured bitterly. Neither he nor any of the villagers moved to stop them from leaving, though a charge still hung in the air.

Katara paused as she passed the girl who had brought them here. “What’s your name?”

“Segida.”

“You were brave and strong today, Segida. And pretty wise, too. Take care of your people. And keep speaking up.”

They passed through the arch onto the main road, Appa following overhead. Aang realized he was still trembling with the aftershocks of anger, waves of hatred still reverberating in his skull. 

Behind him, he heard Katara ask the victims, “What is that they were throwing at you?”

He turned and saw that dark brown globs clung to them, tugging heavily at their clothes.

The Fire Nation woman answered. “It’s pitch. To make us more flammable.” 

Before he knew what he was doing, Aang was doubled over, retching at the side of the road. He felt Katara’s comforting hand on his back, making it easier to breathe as his convulsions subsided.

“How could they,” he spat out.

“How could we?” the woman said distantly. “Everything they said was true. Vengeance is theirs by right.”

“How can you say that, Ginna? How can you still apologize for them after this?” the Fire Nation man excoriated her. “They are dirt. They have no honor! Earth people are dung at our feet.” He kicked viciously at the dust, his face red and contorted. Aang was glad that he was apparently not a firebender.

“Ravsan.” Ginna sadly turned her head away from them, though whether she was chastised or disappointed in him, it was hard to say.

The Earth Kingdom woman, whose face was already grey from shock, sat down suddenly, staring at Ravsan with a look of naked hurt and betrayal.

The man caught himself up and looked a little ashamed. “Not you, Nendo, of course.” He extended an apologetic hand in her direction, then dropped it. “You’re better than that. You’re one of us.”

Nendo did not look reassured. If anything, she looked more horrified.

Ginna collected herself first. “Avatar. Master Katara. Thank you. We owe you our lives.”

“I’m the Avatar. It’s just what I do. You don’t owe me anything.” Aang was still kneeling in the dry weeds, hands on his knees, leaning over his own vomit. He turned to the third captive. “You’re Earth Kingdom. Why are you with them? Why did the villagers go after you, too?”

“I live in Palgan. My family’s been there since the beginning—bricklayers and masons. I work for the colonial government now. It’s not going to be safe for us after the Fire Nation leaves. Outside, they hate us just as much, maybe even more than the Fire Nation colonists. They call us ‘collaborators.’ Ginna and her brother were helping me sneak out to find place for my family to start over, where no one knows where we came from.”

“Well…wouldn't your family be useful once Palgan is returned to the Earth Kingdom? Since you know how the city is built?” Katara asked.

“Of course we would. But they see us as traitors to the Earth Kingdom because our work supported the Fire Nation. When all we wanted was to make a living and get through hard times, same as everybody.”

“And Palgan is not being returned,” grumbled Ravsan. “It was never theirs in the first place. We built it.”

Aang pulled himself to his feet and walked ahead without a word, trusting them to follow. This was so much more complicated than he’d ever imagined it would be. He’d thought that when the war was over, everyone would find happiness again—maybe not right away, but that you’d see progress day by day.

Instead, they were still entrenched in war, one side versus another. Earth and Fire. Perpetrators and victims. Traitors and patriots. Right and wrong. Harmony and revenge. But none of those pairs seemed to line up quite right with any of the others, and everyone’s perspective was off.

He wanted to fly away. Appa gave a concerned grunt overhead and Momo landed on his shoulder, curling his tail around Aang’s neck. But he had a responsibility. A leaden weight settled in his heart and he felt gravity pulling on each step as they trudged downwards. Maybe this was how Earth people felt all the time.

 


 

Palgan was dry and utilitarian, built of plain, red-clay blocks arrayed in a predictable street plan of concentric circles, but it was orderly and industrious. Although ships were no longer being repaired here, the town’s efforts were now efficiently organized around the task of evacuation. Bundles of belongings, public and private, were stacked in warehouses along the waterfront, neatly labeled in block characters and ready for transport.

An air of excitement greeted their arrival, as it usually did, but no crowd gathered—everyone seemed to be busy and on their way somewhere. Curious and alarmed stares greeted the return of Ravsan, Ginna, and Nendo, and they were soon whisked away by family or friends.

Katara eyed Aang with concern as they found their way to the town hall. “Aren’t you going to do your thing?” 

“Maybe later, Katara. I don’t think I can bring the joy today.”

Aang and Katara went first to the authorities and found that Governor Shuang had everything well in hand; each Fire Nation family knew its destination and had made contacts there to ease their arrival. The bulk of the Palgan community would be moving en masse to an under-populated fishing port on the southern coast of the Fire Nation, a community that had sent too of its many young men to the front lines, and the Palganites hoped to re-establish their shipyard there.

They congratulated Shuang on taking such good care of his people, then asked about the town’s Earth Kingdom residents. He shrugged. “Not our problem.”

“Aren’t you concerned about their safety?” Katara prodded. “The Earth people outside these walls apparently regard them as traitors.”

“Well, fair enough. Still not our problem. Fire Nation for the Fire Nation. Isn’t that the message here? Get our greedy hands out of the fireflakes jar and back where they belong. Let the crumbs fall where they may.”

Aang frowned at that, but Shuang was following the Harmony Restoration Accord to the letter, so maybe it was best to just let him get out as smoothly as possible and deal with the Earth Kingdom separately.

 


 

They retired to their room on the top floor of the Palgan Inn. A spartan arrangement, its only indulgence an expansive view to the west, out to sea. He and Katara leaned on the windowsill next to each other, watching the sun set. It was no longer comfortable for Aang to lay his head on her shoulder, now that he was as tall as she was, so they each draped an arm around the other’s shoulders. He held her tightly against him, needing her to hold him together more than ever tonight.

“Love you Aang. You did well today.” She gave him a comforting squeeze and sank back into her own thoughts.

The sunset was muted by the haze of red dust. The sun sank to the horizon, a glowing coal banking the day’s hatred, to be stoked again tomorrow. It melted into the sea, and its last rays broke free of the dust clouds, illuminating them from beneath, flaring into a brilliant brocade canopy of vermillion and gold extending all the way back to Palgan. The exquisite display lasted less than a minute before fading into twilight.

“There is immanent beauty in all things,” Aang remembered Gyatso saying. He had not been paying much attention to his teacher, trying to finish his chores as quickly as possible—and in fairness, his teacher had not seemed to be paying much attention to him, either, but was staring absently into the middle distance.

Aang had been cleaning out an unused storage room, filled with decades of grime and dust, with a little broomwork and a lot of airbending. The dust swirled and danced out the open door, and in the distant corner of his mind that was listening, Aang noticed that the dust was indeed beautiful, sparkling in the midday sun. But mostly, he was thinking of the new bending tricks he would bring to the airball game that afternoon.

“All people, too. It is for us to learn to understand them, and when we understand, we love.” And Aang was out the door to find the other young monks. 

But he couldn’t understand hate like he had witnessed today, could he? He understood the facts of the situation well enough, and how the people had come to feel such hatred. But accepting it, forgiving it, then loving them, that was a lot to ask. He did not understand, but he was the Avatar, and he had to figure it out.

When Appa was stolen, he would have blown those sandbenders to hell if Katara hadn’t held him back. He’d hated them, all of them—and most of them were blameless. Guru Pathik’s voice echoed in his ears (he avoided thinking about that disastrous chakra episode as much as he could, but the Guru had staked out a corner of his brain). “Hate is but the dark side of love, two sides of the same coin. Both are passion and attachment. Fire and ice both burn."

But how did that work, if love was opening your heart to forgiveness and understanding? How could the same word describe completely different feelings?

 


 

The next morning, Aang landed Appa in the central plaza. This was usually enough to draw a crowd. Aang and Katara began to greet the curious as they assembled, asking them to spread the word that the Avatar would speak and bend. Ginna and Ravsan arrived, and soon Nendo, too, on her own. 

Katara asked after them, and they assured her they were physically fine. Aang put his hand on Nendo’s arm. “Let us help you find a safe place for your family. Katara and I talked about it, and we’ll take you on Appa wherever in the Earth Kingdom you want to go. And we’ll make sure there’s an Earth Kingdom security force here to protect anyone else left behind—maybe a few Kyoshi Warriors.”

“Thank you, Avatar Aang.” She glanced at Ginna out of the corner of her eye. “I’m not really sure where to go,” she admitted. “I was raised in a Fire Nation colony and I don’t know the Earth Kingdom very well.”

“I’m sure we can easily find a supportive community in need of a family of masons,” Katara reassured her. “The entire continent is rebuilding, and your craft should be in high demand.”

“But I’m not a mason, not personally. I am a building inspector. I can cite you chapter and verse of Fire Nation building codes, but I’m not sure how useful that will be.” She hesitated. “To be honest, I’m concerned that there may not be any place in the Earth Kingdom that would hire a woman to do professional work. I’m not married, and my father is old and cannot cut stone well any more.”

“Come with us.” Ravsan spontaneously grabbed her hand. She pulled away, subtlely. “I mean it, Nendo. Marry me and come to the Fire Nation.”

“Ravsan….” She turned to Katara, eyes pleading for backup. “The Fire Nation would not accept my family, even if it would take me as a colonial bride. I can’t go.” She turned back to the man still holding onto her hand. “I’m sorry, Ravsan.”

“Nendo, we will find a place for you. Aang and I will make sure that you and your family are safe and cared for. That’s what we do.”

Just then, Katara caught sight of a familiar figure unobtrusively wriggling through the growing crowd. “Segida?”

Caught, the girl froze like prey. Then, seeing it was Katara, relaxed and walked over to her.

“What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to see the Avatar speak.” 

“But—how did you even get in?”

Segida gave her nothing but a secretive smile.

“Fine. Stay and watch with me.” Katara looked down into her eyes anxiously. “Are you all right, after yesterday? Were you punished for bringing us to your village?”

Again, Segida seemed reluctant to answer, this time out of some sort of shame —Katara knew she was certainly not the reticent type. She took a breath and stuck her chin out. “Well…let’s just say it seemed like a good day to go exploring.”

“There’s something I’ve been wondering about, Segida, something that’s been bothering me. Headman Ying said that your people have hardly any resources at all, and I certainly didn’t see any trees at all as we flew in, not for miles. So where did that enormous pile of firewood and pitch come from?”

“Oh. That’s from our justice stash,” Segida said casually. 

“Your what?”

“There’s a cave below the village where they keep all the stuff they need for hunting and killing colonists and collaborators. We’re not allowed to touch it for everyday jobs. We have to use dried dung for fuel most of the time.” Segida wrinkled her nose.

“You mean they’ve done this before?” 

“I thought you knew! That’s why I was so excited to see you and the Avatar. It’s really gotta stop! They’ve been doing it since the end of the war.”

“Tui and La,” Katara gasped. “No wonder Palgan locked the gates.” She squinted towards the cliffs where she could just make out the village through the morning haze and felt the anger boil inside of her. To think she had sympathized with their plight!

But their plight was genuine. They were attacking the Fire Nation for the ones they loved, the ones that could no longer fight for themselves, in the only way they knew. It was evil and wrong, but Katara understood it completely, that fury that burned into your bones and filled you with hatred.

As horrified as she was with the villagers’ barbaric revenge, it was nothing compared with the lifetime of anger she carried against Sozin’s Fire Nation, and those who fought his war. The people of Palgan had exploited the villagers, for decades. Even the ones who hadn’t personally laid a hand on any Earth Kingdom villager lived off their misery and fed their own labor into the Fire Nation war machine. They had destroyed families, communities, even the land itself. They had sent the ships that had destroyed Katara’s own people and killed her mother.

And for the love of what? The Fire Lord? He sure as hell hadn’t loved them back. (Though the new one might.) For the love of the Fire Nation, she supposed. And love of power.

They had done it in the name of their nation, so the villagers were trying to destroy them as a nation—even if they had to do it one colonist at a time. All anyone here could see was Earth versus Fire, and now she and Aang were pulling them apart for peace, Earth versus Fire. Was that really the path to harmony?

Aang was still talking to Ginna and Ravsan and had not noticed Segida. “And Fire Lord Zuko is our personal friend. Please call on Katara and me if you need any help—just send a hawk. The birds can always find me.”

“Thank you, Avatar.” Ginna gave him a Fire Nation bow, hand on fist, and Ravsan followed. “But may I ask you something?”

“Of course, Ginna.”

“After everything we’ve done, both Fire and Earth, why are you helping us?”

“Because I love you.”

And Aang leapt into the middle of the plaza on an arc of wind to begin the show.

Chapter Text

Dearest Sokka,

I’m always so happy to get a letter from you. Even when they are mostly discourses on architectural engineering. I admit I had never given much thought to the challenges of snow in such quantities. I can’t imagine snow deep enough to bury an entire building—much less for nine months at a time! No wonder the Southern Water Tribe rebuilds all its igloos constantly. I’m sure your ideas for more permanent structures will be well received in Kivallit City.

To be honest, it’s hard to even remember what snow feels like, after a year and a half in the Fire Nation. Every day is nearly the same here: hot. I miss seasons. Ty Lee would argue that there’s a rainy season and a dry season. True, but both are hot.

Sometimes I am amazed at where life has taken me. Here I am engaged in the elite services of our greatest enemy, defending the Fire Lord himself (the same guy who burnt down my village), and becoming close friends with Ty Lee, one of the few warriors I’ve ever fought who actually scared me. Fate is weird. But then I remember the mission—peace and justice for all, right Sokka?—and it makes a marvelous sort of sense.

You asked what my life here is like. Well, it's pretty regulated and, as you might imagine, all revolves around Lord Zuko. We—that's the united Palace security forces and Zuko—have fallen into a clear routine now. He rises at dawn, of course, meditates and trains for an hour, breakfasts, and then proceeds to the throne room to hold court.

He’s escorted around the palace by the regular guard, and in the throne room by the more impressive-looking Special Forces. (You know that Chit Sang has officially joined them? Apparently, they were willing to overlook his criminal record because of his personal loyalty to the Fire Lord—not to mention his obvious suitability for the job. He’s like a brick wall that shoots fire.) They no longer wear those creepy skull-faced helmets. I recommended against them because of the anonymity factor—anyone could be behind those masks. Zuko agreed easily (apparently he pulled that stunt himself once).

Zuko’s also moved the fire wall to surround the throne room, instead of being between him and his subjects. You’d think this would make him more approachable (I think that’s why his uncle suggested it?) but actually, it just makes it easier to see how scary he himself can be, when he wants to. And usually he wants to, there. (He’s come up with this frightening way of looming over people he doesn’t like and glaring at them out of his scarred eye.) As Lord Regent, Iroh is always present, but rarely speaks.

After lunch, he trains again, then retires to his office to write and meet one-on-one with various advisors and guests. Usually, the regular guard is enough then—depending on the guest. Dinner is often formal, with members of the court in attendance (Mai on his left, Iroh on his right). Very stuffy. Honestly, none of the three of them ever seems to be enjoying it much. Guards on duty all around the room, watching like puma-hawks.

He sits privately with his uncle most evenings, going over the day, before retiring. Sometimes, there’s a “secret” assignation with Mai (everybody knows about the nature relationship, of course, if not the specifics), and then one of us accompanies discreetly. Very discreetly. Not even sure Mai knows we’re there.

And where are the Kyoshi Warriors all the rest of the day? Everywhere. Everywhere Lord Zuko is, strategic locations around the palace, in the kitchen guarding access, watching all the palace’s points of entrance and egress, testing protocols. And of course, training intensively in shifts. Sometimes, we accompany him on travel outside the capital. (Though if Mai is with him, he scarcely needs any other protection. She’s an entire security force in one body—as long as she’s paying attention.)

But we rarely escort him openly. We’re not in hiding, our presence is clear if you’re at all observant, but Iroh and Zuko feel that having Earth Kingdom warriors obviously flanking the Fire Lord gives the wrong message. Too much foreign influence. We’ve even changed to new black uniforms with only subtle green and gold accents.

The idea now is that we’ll eventually train an all-native women’s guard to replace us, and then we’ll go home to Kyoshi Island. We’ve begun to recruit Fire Nation women. Ty Lee is amazing, of course—could be a little more disciplined, but she more than makes up for it with the qi blocking. Total game changer. We’ve just brought on Ming (especially recommended by the Lord Regent), Bemki, and Sang. They each have their own combat specialties to share with us.

As for me, I am in charge of training the women—originals and new recruits—and scheduling their shifts, and coping with all the interpersonal stuff that always comes up (a little more complicated now, with two cultures, and that pesky century of war behind us), in addition to doing the same work everyone else does.

It’s just as well I’m busy around the clock. It gives me very little time to worry about you freezing your ass off in the Antarctic. Can’t even lie awake pining for you because I’m unconscious before my head hits the pillow. I refuse to wallow in it. Because if I did, I think it would suck me under.

I miss you so much Sokka. You’ve made a hole in my heart that nothing else can fill. I miss your stupid puns and your ridiculous grin and your insane ideas. And my hands all over your delicious body. (Keep training—don’t go soft, with all your science and your scrolls, sitting in an igloo all winter.) I’m sorry I can’t be as flowery as you—I’m no poet. But you know I love you no matter what. I hope that’s enough.

Yours and only yours,

Suki

 


 

Dear Zuko,

Happy Moon Festival! (You do celebrate it in the Fire Nation, don't you?) We’re at the South Pole for a few weeks, visiting Sokka, Hakoda, Gran Gran and the rest of Kotan village. For once, we have no schedule, it’s not a crisis, and we’re relaxing a little, so Katara says I owe you a letter. I suppose it has been a while.

I started this letter a couple days ago. Sorry! Got distracted. I had to get in some penguin-otter sledding! When I was here two years ago, I didn’t know how to waterbend—turns out the South Pole is like a waterbending playground! I just invented a new game—it’s Air Ball but with giant snowballs instead—way more fun to hit people with. The goalie can use water whips. And since the field is made of ice, waterbenders can use earthbending strategies, too. I can’t think of a name for it, though. “Snow Ball” and “Flying Snow Ball” just sound like regular nonbending games. And since there are no benders here besides Katara, it’s not

That was yesterday. Now I’m writing by lamplight in the family’s igloo and Katara is sitting next to me to make sure I finish this.

She’s been busy with her South Pole work—she says it’s almost like she never left—and has Sokka and Mina to catch up with, so I’ve been mostly off with the younger kids, who follow me everywhere. I’m not much help with the everyday chores here anyway.

But, time to be the Avatar again.

Thank you for the offer of the Palace Library’s Air Nomad scrolls. We’re still trying to figure out a safe place to keep them and any other treasures we find. At first I thought the Southern Air Temple would be the place, since that was my home (as much as a nomad has a home), but Katara pointed out that with no one living there, they wouldn’t be safe. And that’s the same for the other air temples, except for the Northern one, but they’ve already shown they can’t be trusted with our heritage. Plus, Sokka doesn’t think the Western Air Temple is structurally sound any more. (Maybe we should think about repairing it some day. I feel bad about that.)

Any ideas? Anyhow, hang on to them until we can come get them.

And of course we’re always looking out for traces of the Air Nomads. Teachings, things they made, flying lemurs, and maybe, maybe, someday, a flying bison, or someone who could be a descendant of an Air Nomad. You agreed with me, some might have escaped, right? Even the Fire Nation couldn’t have hunted down every single one. I couldn’t have been the only one to hide. We were nomads, never all in the same place.

Katara and I have begun posting notices everywhere we go, but no responses yet. Have you put the word out through the Fire Nation?

Other than that, just Restoring Harmony, you know. It’s going to need a lot of restoring. I’m sure Katara wrote you all about what happened at Palgan. It bothers me to think that even after the Fire Nation leaves, they may not find peace. But we will be there to help them. They’ll all be Earth Kingdom then, they’ll have to get along.

We came through Kivallit City on our way here and paid a visit to Chief Karluk. Nice guy—kind of what I imagine Hakoda will be like when he’s old. I noticed some golden-eyed Water Tribe people there, living on the outskirts. Don’t really know what to make of that. Katara and Sokka won’t talk about it—they get that look like I’m too young. We’ve seen it in the colonies—where Earth and Fire live together, after all—but no one in the Water Tribes would want to marry a firebender, would they?

It’s good that Katara and Sokka are at least back to being a team (even if it’s to exclude me!)—when we first got here, Sokka seemed kind of upset to see us—Katara, anyway. They had a fight (no, a “heated disagreement,” Katara says), and they wouldn’t share the details, only that it was Kotan business. Katara agreed to leave after the equinox and everything’s been very peaceful between them since then. Hakoda and Kanna seemed a little disappointed, though—no wonder.

Anyway, this is now a very long letter. I hope you are doing well, tell Uncle Iroh we miss him, give our best to Mai, and to Afi and Nuna and Amanu and all the other Palace staff. And of course Suki! Tell her I'm bringing her a surprise (it's Sokka)! Don’t forget us!

Your friend,

Aang

 


  

Dear Aang,

It was a pleasure and an honor to host you and Master Katara, however briefly, to commemorate the first anniversary of the signing of the Harmony Restoration Accord. Your forbearance with the Fire Nation's enthusiasm and perhaps overindulgence in ritual and ceremony elevated the respect with which you are already held among my loyal subjects. (I cannot speak for the rest.) May I extend my deepest apologies for the extended delay in resuming our communications since that occasion. My days seem wholly occupied with unending correspondence—excepting, of course, the hours spent in attitude regal and terrifying, granting audiences with various subjects and dignitaries. I beg your forgiveness, then, if I have lacked the patience for more personal epistolary enterprises in my limited hours of leisure.

I do think you’ll forgive me for dropping this formal style I’m supposed to use in all my writings (or else posterity will think I was an idiot, I guess). I’m not allowed to let the pose fail for a moment—not that this is new to me, exactly. But it is that much worse as Fire Lord. I think exile spoiled me.

So I should write to you all the more—every one of you. To keep me sane and keep me humble. To remind me that this is all just a big act, a show I put on, just like the Ember Island Players (only far more professional and persuasive, let’s be honest)—and nothing to do with real people or the real me. I wish that we'd had more time to talk while you were here. But I understand—the Avatar is always in demand. Even more than the Fire Lord—though the legacy you inherit is at least one you can embrace.

I worry that the role I play will consume me someday, that power will become the only thing that matters. I have nightmares about it. I wake up alone in the dark, sweating and shaking and no one here to tell me it hasn’t happened, I haven’t changed.

If you would accept one more responsibility, I would charge you, Aang, with the task of standing between me and that fate, of making sure that I never become what I fear the most. Be for me what Roku could not be for Sozin.

Still no news to share about Air Nomads. As we discussed, you may rest assured that the scrolls are in safe keeping here until you need them. And you can count on the Royal Family to fund the restoration of the Western Air Temple—most of the damage was our fault.

You see that I at least think of you often, all of you. Please keep writing, even if I don’t reply. And know that I wait impatiently for your next visit. I have no idea where you might be at the moment, but I trust this hawk will find you. The animals always seem to be in tune with you.

I am and will always be your friend,

Zuko

 


 

Sokka:

I’m coming for you. We’re going to find Space Sword. Be ready.

Toph

 

Chapter Text

“Thank you, Aunt Wu. You’ve given me a lot to think about.” Katara stepped out of the fortuneteller’s handsome, round gate into the Makapu town square, where the weekly market was now in full force. 

“Katara, it is always a pleasure. Remember: everything has its time and its time will come again. In your life more than most.”

Katara was moving to give her an impulsive hug when a familiar voice with a distinctive rasp caught her ear.

“So, just how much rice do you think two women can eat in a year?”

The words spoken and the voice speaking them made no sense together, but there could be no doubt.

“Zuko?" 

A young man in green, face shaded by broad-brimmed hat, whirled around. 

“Katara?” Quick as thought, he darted to her side with a finger to his lips and his other hand extended to hers. “Shhh! It’s just ‘Lee’ here.”

“But what are you doing here? Are you in disguise? It’s so good to see you!” Katara dodged his hand and flung her arms around him.

He stiffened in surprise, but after a moment, brought his arms up gently to return the embrace.

“So sweet! The reunion of young…friends.” She glanced meaningfully from one to the other.

“Oh, have you already met, um, ‘Lee,’ Aunt Wu?”

“I believe I have, traveling with your rather dashing uncle, were you not? And seeking a certain young lady?”

Zuko turned red and cleared his throat. “Yes, we did meet, briefly. But a lot has changed since then. Including me. I should apologize for my rudeness that day.” He bowed respectfully, hand in fist in the Earth Kingdom manner.

“Think nothing of it.” She made a dismissive noise in her throat. “You’re hardly the first abrasive young man on an obsessive quest to cross my path. Apology accepted.” Aunt Wu waved them inside. “Please, come in—” she leaned in conspiratorially “—Your Majesty. Have some tea and get reacquainted with each other. My home is yours.” She led them to her parlor, then excused herself, supposedly to see another client (though there was no evidence of one).

“But what are you doing here, Zuko? Did you come to see Aunt Wu? Were you shopping for rice?

“It’s uh…a pretty long story. Though perhaps I could use your help.” His face brightened at the possibility. “Tell me yours first. Where’s Aang, anyway?” 

“Oh, that’s not much of a story. Aang had some airbender stuff to do up at the Northern Air Temple. Research. It sounded pretty academic, and like I wouldn’t be much help. He gets so crabby when he’s trying to be a scholar. I’d been wanting to pay Aunt Wu a visit, so I had Aang and Appa drop me off here. We’re going to meet up in Yu Dao in a week or so, since it’s an important colony we haven’t seen yet. Toph says she’s more or less based there now so we thought we’d drop in on her.” 

“You’re on your own then?” 

“And you? Are you alone?”

“Yes. Getting away was rather complicated, but worth it. There were some loose ends I had to take care of over here in the Earth Kingdom. Privately.” 

They spent the better part of an hour comparing notes on the past year—including of course a review of Zuko’s health, which he swore was perfect, aside from a new and inconvenient intolerance for spicy food—while Aunt Wu’s assistant Meng served them tea and snacks (doing a very poor job at not eavesdropping).

“So what is it I could help you with? I’ve got plenty of time before I need to be in Yu Dao.” 

“It’s actually an incredible coincidence that I’ve run into you today. This, uh, girl I know, Song, her mother is sick and I promised her I would find a waterbender to heal her. She didn’t believe I could.” Zuko laughed aloud. There was an ease to him that she’d hadn’t seen before. Either being Fire Lord was doing him good, or (more likely) escaping and being Lee again was.

Katara’s eyes crinkled with her smile. “I would be delighted to go see her.”

“And…” he rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Do you think you could help me with some shopping?”

“Lead the way.” 

Apparently, Zuko intended to assemble a year’s worth of supplies for the mother and daughter, owing them some sort of debt. Zuko had gotten as far as rice. With Katara’s insight, they added an equal amount of potatoes, a selection of dried foods (noodles, fish, seaweed, mushrooms, spices, and a few strings of komodo sausage), ropes of onions and garlic, and an assortment of useful medicines. They also packed up a week’s worth of fresh produce. They added three live, laying hens and one rooster, all trussed up by their feet (Katara discouraged Zuko’s impulse to purchase a hippo cow), as well a couple bolts of fabric, two pairs of shoes, and two pairs of rubber boots. And finally, Zuko added a roast duck. 

The ostrich horse was now too heavily laden to take a rider, so they led the animal at an easy pace, warm in their winter cloaks. Zuko began to tell her how he had returned to make amends to Song and her mother for some wrongdoing the year before, then realized he had to back up and explain how he’d met them in the first place, and then about Iroh’s life-threatening botanical mishap, which was because of how impossibly ignorant they had been about surviving on their own (Katara tried not to laugh, but not that hard), which led him to the story of Azula’s deception at the river spa. He glossed over the pain of betrayal there, but she could read it in his terseness.

Katara had known generally that Zuko and Iroh had gone through some lean and desperate times between the North Pole and Ba Sing Se, but this was the first time he had given her any kind of a detailed account.

Before he could circle back to explain the reason for his return visit to Song and her mother, they realized that the light was already beginning to fade. At their slower pace, they would not reach the village by nightfall and so made camp by the road, under the arms of an old oak tree.

There was a rustle in the dry leaves overhead. Before Katara could even locate the source of the sound, Zuko had reached down to his boot and flung something upward in one motion. There was a fleshy thunk, then a soft thud, and a fat pigeon-squirrel lay before them with a knife in its chest, four legs in the air and one of its wings twitching feebly.

She blinked at it. “Well. Dinner, I guess.”

Later, as they sat eating grilled pigeon-squirrel, rice cakes, and pickled radish by their campfire, she said, by way of asking, “That was some unusual hunting there. You killed this thing on reflex the instant you heard it.”

Zuko seemed slightly embarrassed. “I’ve always been good with a blade. When we were traveling through here last year, we had no hunting weapons, and nothing to eat. Eventually I taught myself to hunt with what I had.”

“That bad, huh?” Katara raised an eyebrow.

“We had nothing.” He repeated, shrugging. “And we’d floated on a raft for three weeks with no food, scavenging wreckage not long before that. So, yeah, every mouthful mattered. I guess being here brought those instincts back.”

Zuko stopped eating and brooded into the fire for a moment, then squared himself. “But after a while we had plenty. I started stealing. From townspeople, farmers, travelers, merchants. Anyone who looked like they could afford it. Not that I was any judge of that, apparently. I terrorized them as the Blue Spirit and took whatever I wanted.”

“I guess that explains all the posters.” She frowned. This didn’t sound like the Zuko she knew—any of the Zukos she knew. Even the angry prince who’d hounded them all the way to the North Pole had principles. Twisted, backwards principles, but principles. “But you came back.”

“Yeah. I had to. For my honor.”

That again. But she stifled her groan. Because this time he was right.

“I paid my debts to all the people I just stole stuff from last week. But Song was my first crime and the one I’m most ashamed of. They were so kind to us, they opened their home to us, even though they didn’t have much. And then I stole her ostrich horse, just to make our lives easier. And because I hated them."

"Why would you hate them?"

He made a noise of disgust—at himself, presumably. “For being kind and wise and not stupid and not deserving of what the Fire Nation had done to them. I hated Song for trusting me, for showing me her scar, for being like me. I hated them for hating us—ignoring the fact that they didn’t hate us when they didn’t know we were Fire Nation. I was a really angry guy back then. And kind of stupid.”

“You’re telling me?” They exchanged a glance, then burst into laughter

“At least I never shot fire at Song or tied her to a tree. Have I said I’m sorry about that?”

“A few times. You can keep saying it, though.”

“It feels good to tell you all this.”

They sat side by side, breathing steam into the cold air and looking up at the night sky scattered with stars like tiny ice crystals.

“I’ve missed you,” Katara said.

“Me, too.” Zuko agreed. “I mean, I’ve missed you.” He paused. “And I’ve missed me, too.”

“Being the Fire Lord doesn’t feel like you yet?”

He shook his head.

“Good. I hope it never does.” She could not keep the old bitterness out of her voice.

 


 

Song and her mother Cham were overwhelmed by the wealth of goods Zuko brought back, but also impressed with their practicality. And, embarrassingly for Katara, they seemed nearly in awe of her, which was ridiculous. Katara cut short the repeating loops of embarrassed thanks and repentant apologies between the women and Zuko, and of admiration and deprecation between them and herself before it all got out of hand.

The two girls set into motion, starting rice and broth in the kitchen while sorting and storing the supplies. Zuko could contribute little to their efforts, so sat with Cham making awkward conversation. Two hours later, they had a small feast laid, including a restorative ginseng duck soup for Song’s mother. 

The next morning, Katara examined Cham, apologizing for her limited knowledge and experience. There were no surprises, however: Song’s mother was suffering from an assortment of common ailments, exacerbated by age and malnutrition. Of course, both she and her daughter already knew this.

“I can cure the infection in her lungs, heal her stomach ulcer, and mend her tooth decay easily. The cataracts I think I can also clear, though I’m a little nervous, since I haven’t done eyes before. I can ease the arthritis temporarily, but I don’t know of a way to cure it. It seems to have gotten pretty bad. And I don’t know what to do about her brittle bones.”

“That’s incredible, Master Katara!” Song had observed the exam with keen interest. “Our herbal medicines are much more limited, and take so much more time. As soon as we improve one of Ma’s ailments, another one overtakes it.”

Cham spoke up. “Brittle bones will be improved a little with better nutrition—thanks to you and the Fire Lord—but the best treatment will be simply to be up and working again. It strengthens the bones.”

“That’s good to know. I’m worried about you falling, though, and breaking a bone.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll look out for her. And from now on, I will do all of the midwife calls—don’t argue with me, Ma. I’m young and I’m strong.”

“You are, and skilled, too, but you have not yet encountered enough of the complications of childbirth to know what to do in all cases. You’re only sixteen and I must still go out with you a while longer. With our new ostrich horse, we’ll manage.” 

Katara spent the next couple of hours working through Cham’s body; Song did not take her eyes off of them for an instant.

“How does it work? Do you see the inside of my mother’s body?"

“Not see, exactly. I feel her qi, through the water, and somehow I’m able to read it, and then manipulate it, as well as move some of the fluids inside of her. The water, the fluids, the qi are somehow all related, but I really don’t understand how. It’s mostly intuition for me, I’m afraid. You’re so lucky, Song, to have a mother who can teach you healing.”

“Who taught you, Master Katara?”

“Well…hardly anyone. Back home at the South Pole, you know, I was the only waterbender left. I studied a few days with Master Yugoda at the North Pole, but I was so focused on fighting then—“ Katara glanced self-consciously in Zuko’s direction out in the yard— “that I was in too much of a hurry to pay close attention to her. And the war and the Avatar’s mission took me away from there pretty quickly. So I taught myself, by trial and error, along with whatever anatomy scrolls I could get hold of in Ba Sing Se and the Fire Nation Palace.”

“I marvel at your skill and resourcefulness, then,” Cham said gently, pressing her dry hand on Katara’s. “I do hope you can find the time to pursue your calling more diligently, now that we are at peace.” She, too, glanced toward Zuko, who was chopping firewood with fervor, gratified to find a household task for which he had applicable skills. “He is a good man, the Fire Lord. And I certainly never thought I would hear those words from my own lips! You’ll do well with him, my dear.” 

“What?” Katara was flustered. “Oh, I’m not—we’re not—“

“Ma! Lee said she was traveling with the Avatar, remember?”

“That is what she is doing now.” Cham turned to Katara. “Your life will be rich with choices, of that I am sure. Make them as wisely as you can. But learn to love your mistakes, too. Just think—if His Majesty and his uncle had not made their terrible mistakes last year, we would not have met.” And she smiled and winked at the girls. “Now I must rest. That was a strange sensation, and rather draining.”

 


 

In the morning, Zuko and Katara set out, after warm farewells and promises that they would meet again—particularly between Katara and Song—well stocked with fresh provisions and a selection of herbal medicines for Katara to try in her healing practice.  Cham also pressed a packet of ginseng into Zuko’s hand, roots they had gathered themselves on the mountain slopes nearby. “I seem to recall your uncle had a particular fondness for my ginseng tea,” she said, her face softening a little.

Zuko had offered to accompany Katara back to Yu Dao, which was on the other side of the small mountain range in which Mount Makapu stood, since it would be a convenient port from which to find passage back to the Fire Nation. He also thought it would be a good idea to visit and observe the colony incognito. He was very insistent on his anonymity—apparently, not only to protect his privacy, but also as a matter of safety. There were still any number of people in the Earth Kingdom who wouldn’t think twice before taking out the Fire Lord, given the chance.

They retraced their steps along the narrow but well-traveled track through a mixed forest of conifers and bare trees. The weather was cold but fair, and the leafless trees allowed sunlight to filter through and warm their faces, for a few hours of the day, at least. They passed the fork where the route to Makapu Town branched off to the left; they kept to the right, climbing to the mountain pass.

The trail followed a small river upstream as it tumbled over rocks and boulders. They stopped for lunch by a series of shallow pools carved into solid rock above a short waterfall. Katara began to idly swirl patterns in the nearest pool as she finished up her rice roll. Her bending got more dramatic with both hands free and spirals of water began to tower above the pools. Without warning, a bolt of flame shot through them, shattering them into spray and steam. 

“Hey!” She whirled around and was surprised to see not angry, destructive Prince Zuko from their fighting days, but some new kind of Zuko wearing an impish grin and clearly inviting her to play. Astonished, she pulled water around her in a shield just in time to fend off a double-fisted fireball attack as he bounded across the shallow pools.   

“Feeling mortal?” she challenged him, bringing a wall of water up behind her to hurl at him with sweep of her arms. He dodged it easily in a surprising move that brought him under the arc of water and towards her, to her left instead of right as she’d expected. He shot fire at her unprotected side, which she barely evaded by skidding away on an ice slick. She slid down to the ice in a crouch, freezing an ice chute under his feet as she swerved around behind him.

He simply adapted as quickly as she had and used the ice to his advantage, skating in a curve mirroring hers, and melted her ice track with a sheet of flame she had to jump onto a boulder to avoid. This gave him a moment to form a fire whip, which she blocked crudely as she dropped behind the boulder to grab her own water whip before he could follow her there. 

Now on the opposite bank, they taunted each other with double whips for several volleys, in an echo of the Ba Sing Se caverns. Suddenly, she yanked the mud out from under his feet like a rug, sending him crashing onto his ass.

“Did you just earthbend?”

She burst into laughter at the sight of Zuko dumbfounded and splay-legged in the mud. “Yep, just channeling the Avatar here!” She leaned against the boulder, doubled over in giggles. “Mud is half water, you idiot!”

“That’s cheating!” But instead of a scowl, his face split into a lopsided grin and started up a throaty chuckle, escalating to join her in a full-force laughing fit.

Eventually, they collected themselves and got back onto the trail. Katara appraised him thoughtfully as they walked. She and Zuko had sparred occasionally while they were training Aang, but it had always been with a sense of purpose, keeping their skills sharp for impending battles. Bending for fun, goofing around, infectious laughter? She’d never seen this side of Zuko.

 


 

At the end of the day, they made camp in a small clearing, where a fire pit suggested many travelers had camped before. As they were cleaning up their simple dinner under the stars, Katara decided it was time to satisfy her curiosity.

“So, can I see it?” Katara glanced down his body as she spoke.

“Can you see what?” He bristled like a boarcupine—if boarcupines could blush. 

“Your burn, of course. The lightning.” He instantly deflated in relief. What had he thought she meant? “I want to see what Yugoda did.” 

“Oh. Sure! Of course. Yes.”

He just stood there.

“Well?” She gestured towards the blanket roll he’d pulled out for the night.

“Oh.” He sort of gulped. “You can’t just look while I’m standing up?”

“Not really.”

“Right. Ok.” He laid himself down gingerly in front of her and opened his tunic.

She needed to keep a clinical detachment—this was a check-up and a learning opportunity. She did not want to think about how the wound had happened, or her responsibility for it. Not right now. Still, she couldn’t help but reach out to touch his new scar, running a finger along the unnaturally smooth welts, arrayed in a bizarrely beautiful branching pattern, like a tree in winter, or a print of the lightning bolt itself, which she supposed it was. She heard him inhale sharply and felt a shiver run along his skin.

“I’m sorry. It’s cold tonight. I’ll make this quick.”

She laid water on him and began to investigate, prodding gently through once-familiar terrain. It was lush and robust in there, like new growth over the ruins of a forest fire. She followed the lines of Yugoda’s work. “Ohhh. So that’s how that connects…. Interesting…. I wonder how she persuaded your body to grow that bit back…. Nice….”

Glancing at Zuko’s face, she noticed that he wore a grimace of concentration, staring up at the sky, not entirely unlike how he had looked when he was actually wounded.

“Are you all right? Am I hurting you?”

“What? No. I’m fine. Just—thinking. Continue.”

She looked back down at her work, and couldn’t help observing how well the outside of his body was doing, too. He’d obviously been training, very toned abs. Very toned. His pectoral muscles had fleshed out again, too, and his ribs were no longer visible, back on a steady diet of good food. Good chest. She realized she was staring and jerked her concentration back to his insides. She checked a few more minor spots where she’d run into trouble before, then released him. Zuko sprang back up to a sitting position, quick as a meerdog on the alert.

“You’ve healed really well. And thanks for letting me peek at Yugoda’s work—it was inspiring. I have so much to learn.”

“No problem.” Zuko hastily refastened his tunic, as Katara watched with a wisp of regret. “You could go back to the North Pole to study more with her, couldn’t you?”

“That’s what Cham suggested. I don’t know when I’d have the time, what with Aang's work.”

“What about the South Pole?”

“You know there’s no one to train me there.”

“I mean, don’t you want to go home?”

She considered her words. “You know, all that time after we left, what kept me going—other than Aang—was the thought that at the end, Sokka and I would go back. Defeat Ozai, then peace, then home. And that’s what Sokka did. But of course Aang can’t do that. He’s the Avatar and the world is his home. Not to mention he’s an Air Nomad. I’m not even sure he understands what it is to be tied to a single place, to feel its seasons in your bones and its water in your blood.”

“No, Aang’s never really going to land. But you don’t have to follow him everywhere. You’re not bound to him.”

“Not formally. But he needs me and I never let down someone who needs me. Especially not someone I love. Dad and Gran Gran have Sokka now.” 

“But what about you? What do you need?” 

“I miss Kotan Village with all my heart. Our visit last fall was so short. But it was…I wanted to share my world with them, all the marvelous and dreadful things I’ve seen and done. But I couldn’t figure out how, not in just a couple of weeks, anyway. I told them random things. Where do I start, to tell them anything that matters? How can my life make sense to them now? My friends—and some of the moms—have never even seen a tree!”

Zuko looked shocked. “Wow. I never thought of that.”

“I want a home, but the South Pole isn’t enough any more. I feel bad saying that. Plus, if I move back, they’ll just push me to marry. The tribe needs more babies.”

“Already? Azula is your age and they hadn’t even started talking about a husband for her. She wouldn’t hear of it.”

“Well, she’s Azula .”

“And you’re Katara .” 

She laughed at that. She was hardly a Fire Nation princess. But she was sort of flattered that Zuko thought her worthy of the comparison. “Anyway, if my life’s going to be spent doing someone’s cooking and washing, I’d rather it be the Avatar’s.”

“You’re worth a hell of a lot more than that, Katara.” Zuko sounded almost angry. “The South Pole is rebuilding. Sokka wants Kivallit to become a real city again. There will be opportunities—maybe even new waterbenders to train.”

She gave a little snort. “Yeah, they want me to give birth to them.”

“You can do so much—you yourself, not just through Aang or for your tribe. You’re an incredible wom—uh—bending master.”

“Maybe. But I think I need what Aang can give me now. I need to be out helping the world.” She tucked these thoughts away for another day, though.

 


 

The next day, they continued upward following the road on its meandering climb to the Yu Dao pass, encountering no other travelers. At midday, they crossed the highest point, a saddleback between the Makapu volcano to their left and the jagged ridge of snow-topped peaks extending to the north.

They descended through pine forest carpeted with bronze needles and pinecones for a peaceful few hours. As the afternoon light was turning gold, they were jolted to attention by the unmistakable sound of combat earthbending. They exchanged a look of alarm, then hurried along the road, packs thumping on their backs. Before they rounded the next bend, Zuko grabbed Katara’s arm to stop her from charging in and they peered cautiously around the shoulder of the hill.

Stones and clods of earth were flying in all directions. A barrel-chested man in green was holding off three others, while a woman with an infant on her back and a child in her arms hurried into the trees behind him. The dust obscured any more detail, but the choice was clear.

Katara whipped open her water skin and shot a bolt of ice-cold water at the face of the nearest attacker, who was standing somewhat behind the other two not yet attacking yet, and half drowned him. She was going to need more water to take down two more. She had begun pulling the life from a tree, when she saw Zuko take out the second attacker barehanded, breaking the man’s stance, bringing him down with a swipe of his leg, and pinning him on the ground. The third caught a rock in the stomach, hurled by the man in green, and doubled over with the wind knocked out of him. It was all over in a matter of moments.

Katara quickly pulled a length of rope from her pack, and the three victors tied the semi-conscious bandits or bullies or whatever they were to a nearby tree—which Katara was grateful she hadn’t had to kill. 

“Well met, fellow travelers!” boomed the man they had just rescued. He had a tan, squarish face, sun-beaten and surprisingly jovial, under the circumstances.

The woman re-emerged from the forest, and fell into his arms, children and all. He embraced them tightly, then turned to Zuko and Katara. “You may have saved our lives. Thank you.” He bowed, fists clasped at his heart. “I am Shoroon, and this is my wife Guang."

“We weren’t gonna kill ‘em,” growled the man Zuko had neutralized. “We were only gonna rough ‘em up, teach ‘em a lesson.”

“You were going to ‘rough up’ a two-year-old?” Katara whirled on him in righteous rage.

“They’re kiln critters. Only thing worse than a ash eater is a bastard crossbreed ash eater. The kings are already cleaning house, the Freedom Fighters are just lending a helping hand,” he said with a mocking smile. “Smother the flames and sweep the hearth. Following orders.”

Guang shoved her child into his father’s arms and marched over to him with her hand raised as if to slap his face, but even before Katara noticed the telltale glow in her palm, Zuko had the young mother’s wrist in his grip. “Stop!” He turned her to look him full in the face. She flinched to see the consequences of what she’d been about to do.

“What happened here?” Zuko demanded, looking an awful lot like the Fire Lord. 

“They ambushed us when we came around the bend!” Guang said, still breathing fast and hard. Her husband laid a steadying hand on her shoulder and her breathing slowed. “They passed us on the road earlier today and threw us some insults and threats—typical Freedom Fighter shit—and we thought that’d be the end of it. But these mud slugs were lying in wait for us.”

“That’s despicable.” Katara hadn’t realized there was a particular brand of hatred reserved just for the children of mixed families.

“Earth Kingdom for the Earth People!” Shoroon’s victim had recovered his breath, if not his wit. The third man was still coughing and spluttering.

“What should we do with them?”

“They need to face justice,” Zuko declared firmly.

“They’re Freedom Fighters. Duke Yei’s justice doesn’t apply to them. Or maybe they are Yei’s justice.”

“We’ll take them to Yu Dao,” Katara suggested.

“It’s still under Fire Nation authority. The Fire Nation can’t prosecute Earth Kingdom subjects.” 

“No, I suppose not.” She chewed on her lip. “But we can’t just let them go. And we’re not going to murder them, either, if that’s what you’re thinking.”  Though if they’d been at the South Pole, they’d probably be taken for a long stroll off a short ice floe. But so would a lot of people she’d met in the past year.

“I was not thinking that!” Zuko took offense. She’d actually been aiming that comment at Guang.

“We’ll just leave them,” said Guang. “They’ll have a cold, uncomfortable night and someone will come along tomorrow. They can beg for mercy.”

“More likely another gang just like them will set them free. It’s not like there’s a shortage in these hills.” Shoroon shrugged. “Let’s move on.”

Zuko was not satisfied, but acquiesced. After checking to make sure the one man had cleared the water from his lungs and the other had sustained no internal injuries, they continued down the road together. As they left, they heard Katara’s victim regain his voice and excoriate his companions. “You fucking idiots. Learn to keep your geyser shut! And you can thank your blessed crotchrocks those firebenders didn’t roast you on the spot. You're a disgrace to the true cause of Freedom.” His words faded as they made their way down the mountain.

“Who do we owe our thanks to, anyway?” asked Shoroon.

“I’m K—“

“Kara, and I’m Lee. It’s very nice to meet you.” Katara glared at Zuko. She would have caught herself in time.

“And are you also going to Yu Dao?” 

“We are, actually,” Katara volunteered, irritating Zuko. “To meet up with friends. So you’re moving the family there?”

“Yes, leaving our home in Minji,” Guang explained.

“Oh, Minji—I’ve been there!” Katara exclaimed, but then realized that everything she had to say about the town where they’d attended the Fire Festival the year before was too revealing.

“It won’t be a Fire Nation colony much longer, you know, so you we had to leave, for our own safety.”

“I’m sure you two’d understand.” Shoroon gave them an exaggerated wink. “Like knows like.”

Guang gave him an exasperated look, then resigned herself to speaking frankly. “We could see it right away.” 

“How do you mean?” Katara glanced at Zuko, but he seemed as confused as she was.

You know. Steam?”

“Oh, can there be any doubt? Have you ever seen steamier?” Shoroon laughed heartily at his own joke, which landed like a bad Sokka pun, except that it didn’t make any actual sense. 

“I’m sorry. We’re a little lost here?” Katara smiled hopefully.

Guang looked at her with motherly concern. “You must learn the slang, my dear. You need to know what people are saying, even the slurs. Among us, it’s all in fun, of course.” Katara shook her head, even more bewildered. Guang continued with little sigh, “Steam: Fire and Water, of course. And we’re—“ she nudged Shoroon affectionately “—lava. On a good day, anyway.”

“Oh.” Well, that explained that. Katara glanced at Zuko and saw that he’d got that stoic look of discomfort, while turning steadily pinker. But he didn’t deny it, interestingly. So they were going with it?

Katara quickly changed the subject. They talked about the weather, the state of the roads, and how adorable Shoroon and Guang’s children were. Katara made faces at the baby and hoped she’d be able to steal a cuddle later. Zuko, to her surprise, quickly befriended the shy two-year-old, Tobul, conjuring tiny, colorful flowers of flame in the palm of his hand, and soon had him perched on his shoulders.

By then, it was dusk and necessary to make camp. And therefore, impossible to avoid to making camp all together. Zuko threw Katara a look that read, “Do we really have to?” to which Katara’s said, “Of course, for their own safety!”

She understood Zuko’s uneasiness—the longer their association, the greater the likelihood of these travelers guessing who they really were. At least he didn’t have to hide his firebending with them any more. Shoroon erected earthen walls to pitch their tents against, just as Toph used to do (though a little more laboriously), while Guang set up the campfire. After Zuko and Katara swiftly set up their part of the camp, Zuko offered to catch some fish for dinner and Katara excused herself to trot after him.

“So they think we’re a couple.” She caught up to him at the water’s edge. “Why did you let them?”

“I, uh, it just took me by surprise I guess. Figured it would be easiest to let them think what they want. Unobtrusive. Why did you?”

“Oh, same I guess.” Actually, she’d been preoccupied with wondering why he hadn’t corrected them. And wondering why it didn’t make her more uncomfortable. “This is the third time this week.”

“Third time what?” 

“That someone has thought we were a couple. Aunt Wu, Cham, Guang and Shoroon.”  

“What? Why—? It’s not anything we’re— doing! ” He was starting to tangle the fishing line in his consternation, so Katara put out a hand and he passed it to her without pausing. “It’s not like we’re…snuggly? Or anything. I mean, we’re just colleagues, comrades. Friends. Right?” He rubbed the back of his neck to think. “Maybe it’s just because we’re traveling together, alone. I mean, without a – a chaperone.”

Katara made a dismissive snort as she cast the line into the water. “Is the Earth Kingdom really that sexist?” 

“Uh, hello? You’ve spent more time here than I have. In a word, yes. When have you ever seen women traveling alone, without a man? Or with a man they’re not related to? Unless it’s someone, um, questionable , like June.”

“Never, I guess. Ugh. You’re right.” She flushed self-consciously—she really hadn’t thought through the implications of traveling with Zuko, considering him just another member of her makeshift war family. She traveled with Aang like this all the time. (Were people drawing conclusions about that relationship, too?) She felt a nibble on the line turn into a bite and yanked in the first trout—a small one, just the right size for Tobul.

Later, Katara grilled the half dozen fish she’d caught while Shoroon boiled a pot of potatoes. Zuko produced the jar of pickled radishes and a few apples and, once the babies were fed and settled in their blankets by the fire, Guang passed around a bottle of potato wine. It was earthy and sweet and surprisingly potent. Katara found her tongue loosening as she relaxed into the other couple’s gregarious company.

“Minji seemed like a nice town. We attended the Fire Festival there last year. Incredible fireworks! Better if we hadn’t run into quite so many Fire Nation soldiers, though. We had to leave in a hurry.” Zuko stiffened beside her. “Guess that won’t be so much of a problem now.”

Shoroon leaned in with a wink. “Got on the wrong side of the law, you two? Oh, we’ve been there, Guang and me. Manage to keep our heads low, most of the time, don’t we, Sparkles?”

“Sparkles?” Zuko mouthed silently to Katara, eyebrow raised. She shrugged.

“We were kind of surprised today—shocked, really—to see how bad the hate against mixed families is.” 

Guang looked at her incredulously. “Please. Have you been living under a rock?”

“Oh, well, um… We’ve just lived in a very supportive community. Up north.” Zuko twitched, but didn’t argue. He was probably as curious as she was to learn more.

“Oh! ‘Kara’—of course. You must be from that Northern Water Tribe village on the coast up there. And they welcomed a firebender?” She crinkled her forehead in confusion.

“What can I say? We were sheltered.” Katara shrugged innocently.

Shoroon leaned back a bit to expound. “Well, in these parts, as long as you stayed in the Fire Nation colonies, you were safe. Not liked, not equal, but you wouldn’t get beaten up or anything, usually. It’s against the law everywhere, of course, but in the colonies, they’ll generally turn a blind eye, as long as you don’t make trouble and mind your own business.”

“If the husband’s Fire, though,” Guang interjected, leaning in close to Katara, “the wife’s got a real struggle to prove her respectability. I’m sorry, but you should know this. It’s very dangerous to be traveling like this between the colonies. You can see what the assumption would be.” She raised her eyebrows expectantly, but Katara shook her head. Guang gentled her tone. “People look at a couple like that—like you—and can’t see anything but the shame of the Earth Kingdom parading around in front of them. You know?” She set her jaw. “Fucked by the Fire Nation? Sorry to be blunt.” 

Katara froze. That’s what they saw? When people imagined she was Zuko’s? She had a distorted vision of herself as others would see her, a Fire Nation whore. But that’s not me , she screamed inside. That’s not us! The fact that she was Water Tribe probably didn’t change anything, just made Earth people take it less personally. Spirits defend against running into anyone from Northern Water Tribe with Zuko—they’d probably kill her!

She felt Zuko blazing like a furnace beside her and wondered that he didn’t spontaneously combust. They didn’t dare look at each other. But she laid a hand on his arm to cool him. He spluttered, “How can they—It’s not her fault—It’s not fair to either one! How can they project the crimes of nations—of rulers on their thrones—onto the lives of innocent people, who just want to love each other and get by?”

“Don’t all the crimes of war land on the heads of innocent people?” Shoroon looked him in the eye shrewdly.

Guang sighed. “Anyway, now that the colonies going back, nowhere will be safe. Yu Dao’s our last hope. We’re told the lines aren’t drawn so sharply there, that the peoples mix peacefully. And there’s talk that Yu Dao may be able to keep it that way, even if it does go back to the Earth Kingdom.”

“Even if? I was under the impression that the Fire Lord and the Earth King had settled the matter. Is there…doubt on this score?” An edge of authority was creeping back into Zuko’s voice. Katara bumped his shoulder in warning.

Shoroon leaned in conspiratorially. “The royals may have settled it. But like I said about the crimes of war--or in this case, peace. Sometimes the innocents fight back.”

 


 

The next day, they reached Yu Dao. The pine forest turned to lush bamboo groves and the air got a bit warmer and more humid as they approached sea level. Scrambling onto a rocky outcropping gave them a view over the fluffy tops of the bamboo and they had their first glimpse of the city.

Yu Dao sat on the rocky coast of the Mu Ce Sea at the western edge of a semi-circular valley surrounded by mountains on three sides. The Yu River tumbled down the granite cliffs of the mountains to the northeast before cutting through the river plain, shaping the city’s southern border, and flowing out to the sea. Though its name meant “Jade Island,” it wasn’t quite; a narrow spit of land north of the river held its small shipping port and connected it to the mainland.

The fertile flatlands around the city were a pretty patchwork of rice and vegetable fields, all shapes and sizes, pieced together in an intricate pattern and threaded with footpaths. Although the fields were mostly brown and empty at this time of year, the snug farming villages dotted amongst them looked well fed and homey, trails of smoke issuing from the chimneys.

Yu Dao itself was a handsome, walled city in pleasing shades of taupe and jade, surrounded by a sturdy wall higher than its tallest buildings. Amidst the green-tiled roofs within, Katara could make out a central square before a large, important looking building—the town hall, presumably—and behind that, the temple pagoda. The northern section of the city appeared to be taken up with factories, all productive, to judge from the smokestacks.

By evening, the travelers were crossing the city drawbridge and entering its massive wooden gates just as they were about to be closed for the night. Katara wondered out loud how many trees it must have taken to construct them.

“There were forests made up of ironwood trees the width of houses in the mountains to the north,” Zuko replied. “The Fire Nation harvested them all for defensive construction. Wood is more effective against earthbenders than stone.”

“Of course.” Katara blew out a bitter puff of steam into the cold night air. Yet one more atrocity.

Their entry was not challenged—a far cry from Palgan’s besieged attitude—and they secured rooms in a cozy inn near the gates.

 


 

Aang was not there yet. And the boardinghouse where Toph claimed she was “hanging out” these days proved Tophless. So Katara and Zuko decided to brave any judgment about their supposed relationship and set out to explore the city together.

Yu Dao was clearly thriving. Most colonies Katara had visited had been prosperous (though some had faltered or worse since the end of the war). But Yu Dao seemed almost independent of the fortunes of the Fire Nation. Everything seemed in good repair, and even the humblest shop welcomed customers. 

It did not, in fact, feel quite like a Fire Nation colony at all, or like anywhere else she’d seen before. The usual banners and insignia were displayed here and there, and many Fire Nation homes and businesses were done up in the expected red, but the architecture was in earth tones with tiled roofs in shades jade, and Earth people openly displayed their own colors everywhere. It was hard to tell if Fire or Earth people were more numerous; often it was hard to tell at all which nation a person belonged to. Class divisions were clear: Fire was privileged. But compared to the subjugation Katara had witnessed elsewhere, it seemed relatively benign. 

The main industry of Yu Dao was metal. Forging, casting, welding—anything that applied fire to mined minerals. No wonder Toph liked it here! A stroll through the industrial district on the north side of the city suggested that factories here had already made the transition away from war production to tools, machinery parts, even jewelry. One alley was devoted to Si Wong-style glass blowing, employing a few transplanted sandbenders from the desert. Everything seemed to be of very high quality.

On impulse, Zuko bought Katara a small medical kit in a handsome silver case engraved with a diagram illustrating the meridians and chakras of the human body. She thought most of the tools unlikely to be of use to a waterbender, but was touched by the gesture. There was such warmth in his eyes when he gave it to her, she felt a flip in her belly, like a little fish. That was new.

They headed back toward the center of town and as they approached the main plaza, they heard some sort of commotion. At first it sounded like a musical event, with a drum and rhythmic chanting. But as they drew closer, a speaker’s voice rang out, and it became clear the intent was not entertainment.

There were not many active protesters, maybe a couple dozen, carrying signs and noisemakers and clustered around a man standing on a stone bench, who was wrapping up a speech. “...and so we demand that Governor Fosek represent our city honorably, stand up for Yu Dao, and insist on our rights!”

A crowd of more passive onlookers had gathered around them—supportive, judging by the nods of approval here and there. Many others just walked by the protest without seeming to notice it. Both protesters and supporters were a mixture of Fire and Earth people, but the hue leaned red. A chant began:

“Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation
Friends, Family, Relations”

Katara smiled at Zuko. This was an encouraging sentiment. A colony fighting against hatred for once. She started clapping along. The protesters’ signs read “Fire and Earth — Peace and Prosperity” and “Yu Dao — Crucible for Peace!” A couple of signs simply said “Yu Dao is Our Home.”

Then a young woman in red raised her voice and her fist and started a new chant, the drummers falling in with a more aggressive rhythm:

“Resist the Fire Lord!
No Harmony Accord!
Tell off King Kuei!
Yu Dao does it our way!”

Uh-oh. Zuko’s face blanched. Katara noticed someone vigorously start to wave another sign that said: “Harmony PRESERVATION, Not Restoration!”

Ok, this was a new perspective. But after the last couple of days, it did make sense. Zuko looked torn between anxiety and anger. Katara grabbed his arm to remind him not to charge into the crowd.

After a few minutes, a squad of Fire Nation soldiers appeared. Here it comes, thought Katara. But they treated the protest as merely routine, breaking it up by marching through it and shutting it down with a few shouts. The protesters dispersed, shouldering their signs and heading out of the plaza. This must happen regularly, and it must not upset the governor much.

Katara pulled Zuko down an alleyway. He slumped against a wall and clutched at his mop of hair. “This is bad.”

Katara nodded. “It does add a new wrinkle, that’s for sure. But it’s coming from a good place. The people of Yu Dao are actually happy. Do you have any idea how rare that is?”

“I’ve been reading your reports. And Governor Fosek has been petitioning me to give Yu Dao some kind of special status for months. But so do a lot of the colonial governments. I’ve held firm in every case. But here—I get it! They are happy. But not with me. What can we do? We can’t make Yu Dao the exception to the whole policy!”

“Can’t you?”

Zuko gave her an incredulous look. “It would break the treaty. And you know what that means. Peace for Yu Dao means war for everyone else.”

Chapter Text

On the longest day of the year, when the sun circled the horizon at the South Pole but never set, a small, Earth Kingdom merchant ship docked at Kotan Village’s new marina.

Sokka crouched head to head with Bato at the top of the stairs carved into the edge of the ice shelf, leading down to the floating ice docks. They were trying to work out what had caused a mooring winch to jam. A long shadow moved over their work.

“Excuse me, could you maybe…” he waved his hand vaguely to the side without looking up.

“Nice to see you, too, Snoozles.”

“TOPH!” Sokka sprang to his feet and threw his arms around her, yanking her away from the tall sailor at her side. “You made it!”

“Yeah, and now we’re leaving.”

“You only just got here! Come on, let me show you around, I want you to everything we’ve been working on. And you need to say hi to Dad and meet Gran Gran!”

“Sokka, I’m stone cold blind here. And stone cold. I hate this place. Load up and let’s head out.”

Sokka noticed for the first time how tightly Toph was gripping the sailor’s elbow. His eyes travelled down to her feet, wrapped securely in fur-lined boots, and below that, solid ice, half a mile thick. Riiiight.

“Ok, I get you. Come with me.” He nodded at the sailor—the seriously jacked sailor, stripped down to his tunic in the midday sun. “Thanks, man. I’ll take it from here.” He didn’t miss Toph’s wink and finger wave goodbye. “Really, Toph?”

Sokka tucked her hand over his arm and led her along the main path across the ice shelf, around the outer wall of the winter village, igloos now standing empty. “Look—or, listen. Hear that dripping sound? That’s the sound of summer. It usually only rises above freezing a few days a year, but we’ve had a couple weeks of it this time. I’m just hoping the village walls don’t melt down. That’ll be a project.”

“I didn’t realize your village was literally made of ice.  I feel like I’m suspended in a void.” He detected a tremor of actual fear under her bravado—rare, but he’d learned to hear it.

“I’ll show you something you’ll like better.”

He led her southwest and landward. After about a mile and a half, they turned off onto a side path leading steeply upwards through crusty, old snow that soon thinned to bare stone and pebbly scrabble. Toph fell to her knees and planted her hands on the ground in relief.

“You do have earth here!”

“Of course! What, you think the South Pole is just a giant iceberg?” Above them towered a pile of enormous stones, like a cairn, though no one was sure if it was natural or a creation of the ancients. Sokka climbed laboriously up the rocks, letting Toph follow on her own. He hauled himself onto the very top of the seaward side and was unsurprised to find Toph somehow already there.

“Better?” He grinned at the girl, now reclining on a windswept boulder as if it were a pallet of the finest koala-otter furs.

She sighed deeply. “I can see where I am now. This is a high cliff, or would be without that glacier. It cuts down below us under the ice and into the sea. That slab of ice you built your village on actually extends far out into the bay, doesn’t it?

“Yeah, pretty far, even in the summer. In the winter, the ice shelf covers the entire inlet."

“So weird.” Toph shook her head at Water Tribe insanity.

“Good news, though.” Sokka took her hand again and led her around to the leeward side of the rocks. “The summer village.”

Like the year before, and all the years before that, the seal hide tents were arranged around the round house, and the whole of it protected by the stone wall. “See, it’s not all ice. That house is ours, since my dad is head of the village, so you’ll get to sleep in a stone room.”

“Fine, I’ll stay.” She gave an exasperated sigh, which he suspected hid one of relief. “But just long enough for you to pack yourself up and say your goodbyes. We have business to take care of.”

 


 

Forty-eight hours later, Sokka was standing with the little earthbender on the deck of the Bei Fong’s ship, the Fa Ji, a breeze in his hair and a fair wind in their sails. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze.

“Admit it, you missed me!” Sokka was a little disconcerted to see her fair cheeks blush. Apparently she still had a thing for him. Huh.

“So what’s new in Tophland? Got any new gentlemen suitors?”

“Ugh. Don’t remind me. I had to make an appearance in Gaoling to get the loan of this ship out of them—and the price was steep, Sokka. Not only did I need to be a little lady at home, and at my grandparents’, I had to come out.”

“Uh, sorry?” Sokka’s point of reference for that expression seemed unlikely in this context.

“You know, a ball. So that I might be displayed, in the full flower of my maidenhood, for all potential suitors of note. Drowning in about ten yards of taffeta.”

Sokka guffawed. “Was it pink? Please tell me it was pink.” *

“No idea. It was taffeta.” Toph waved an irritated hand in front of her eyes. “But I was a perfect little peony. I don’t know who my parents thought we were fooling—everybody knows who I am now. Still, I only did the kind of sneaky earthbending nobody notices—kept the hot guys close and the losers tripping over their own feet. Reeled in some pretty stunning girls, too.”

Sokka raised an eyebrow. Maybe he wasn’t so far off the mark after all. “So you had a good time, then!”

“Never again, Sokka. Never again. I did this for you, ya big oaf.” And she punched him in the arm. Hard.

 


 

They sailed due north, gradually shedding layers of clothing as the equator approached, until they were passing peacefully into Fire Nation waters under a blazing tropical sun. The weather cooled again as they passed through the northern islands. They skirted the volcanic crater where the Fire Nation invasion forces had mustered the year before, and wordlessly watched it slip astern. They had avoided speaking of their destination and now, sunk in their own dark memories, didn’t speak at all.

 


 

Sokka hung over the void, nothing beneath him, nothing before him, and nothing else around but raging fire, clutching at nothing but a thin tongue of metal. One firebender—Boomerang. Second firebender—Space Sword. Nothing left but Sokka. But there was supposed to be—where was Toph? He’d lost hold of her impossibly strong little hand—

He jolted awake with a sob ripping through him, in total darkness. But not the void. Gradually, the rocking of the ship brought him back to the present. Then he realized that there had been a scream.

He shot across the hall and into Toph’s cabin. She sat bolt upright, just as he had been, breathing fast and shallow, reaching out and grasping at the empty air. “Sokka!” she screamed again.

He grabbed her hands. “I’m here.” And she crumpled with relief against his chest. They sat clinging to each other until they could find words again.

“You’re never here when I have that dream,” she said in a kind of wonderment.

“And I can never tell if it was only in the dream that you fell. Or if the dream was hanging onto you.”

 


 

The next day, they reached the westernmost reaches of the Earth Kingdom. They anchored in the shallow bay before Wulong Forest and surveyed the trackless estuary that extended to the wall of stone fingers, marching off like soldiers to the distant foothills. Although no longer illuminated by the eerie red glow of the comet, the landscape looked hellish even in the mild afternoon sun of mid-winter.

They rowed a skiff upriver and got out at a random point about halfway to the stones. Their feet crunched in charcoal, which carpeted the ground as far as Sokka could see. Every living tree had burnt to ash; only the stone forest still stood. Well, most of it still stood.

“So where is it?” he wondered.

Shuffling her feet in the detritus to get her bearings, Toph slowly turned around. “You don’t know?”

“Well, I had a lot going on at the time.”

“And I was completely blind. I figured you would have thought about this, have a plan.”

“Ok, right.” He exhaled. He should have had a plan. He was the plan man. But he was also the guy who couldn’t think about that day—about what it was really like, not the hero myth he’d spun—without his heart racing and his breath coming short and—he just couldn’t think about it. Yet here they were. “Right. A plan.”

He began to pace the shore, eyeballing landmarks, gauging distances, then returned to the ship to collect its navigational equipment: astrolabe, quadrant, compass.

He spent the next day seeking out what landmarks he could remember from his vantage on the Fire Nation airship and, applying surveying skills from the South Pole, managed to triangulate a handful of likely spots. They spent two days stomping through the charcoal and ashes and wading through wetlands, but no Space Sword. It would have taken much longer if Toph’s feet weren’t able to scan a wide area all at once for the telltale hum of meteor metal. If she waded a few feet into the river, she could even feel as far as the river bottom. Still no Space Sword.

Their tempers began to wear thin.

“Where the hell is it? Are you sure this is where you dropped it?”

“No, of course I’m not sure! I thought it was our last moment alive! My life was flashing before my eyes, along with two angry firebenders, and you were dangling from my fingertips, and over there, the entire world was hanging in the balance in an apocalyptic showdown between Emperor Evil Pants and Aang-Turned-Elemental-Whirlyball-of-Doom. I was distracted!”

“All right, fine! I’m just asking!”

Sokka kicked at the ground in frustration and coughed on the cloud of charcoal dust that billowed in his face. He forced himself to calm down. “Ok, maybe it got washed out to sea. Remember after it was all over, how Aang flooded this whole area to put out the fires? That would have had the force of a spring tide, at a hundred times the speed. Definitely enough to carry a sword.”

“Once again, Sokka, I did not see any of this.” She sighed. “Back to the ship, I guess.”

They called it a day and ate dinner.

“Now what?” Sokka asked Toph, leaning over the ship railing to peer uselessly into the water.

“Well, I was hoping we could make do with some earthbending, but looks like we’ll have to bring in the cavalry. We need someone who can get us to the bottom of the ocean.” She went below decks and returned with a hooded bird on her arm. It blinked in confusion in the daylight, feathers sticking out in all the wrong directions, like Zuko in the morning.

“Hawky?!”

“Remember when we sent him back to my parents? They actually took pretty good care of him. Which is weird, because they could have just sent me a reply. But whatever. Hawky’s gonna get us help.”

Two days later, they woke to an enormous splash and climbed on deck to see Aang, Momo, and Appa floating alongside the ship, as Hawky landed heavily on Toph’s wrist.

 


 

Aang sprang from Appa’s saddle onto the ship “Sokka! Toph!”—his voice cracked—“It’s so good to see you guys!”

“Can’t say the same, Twinkletoes. Nice to hear your heartbeat, but what the hell happened to your voice?”

“Aww, Aang’s going through the change."

Aang flushed and glowered. It wasn’t funny. At least, not in front of Toph.

“Sorry, man. Bound to happen eventually.” He gave Aang a gentle punch on the arm.

“Look at the bright side. Now you can’t be played by a girl on stage.” Toph gave him a punch on his other arm that wasn’t remotely gentle.

“Ow! I know, I know—that’s how you show affection. Love ya too, Toph.” Aang noticed that he was now a lot taller than her, even though she seemed to have grown, too. He thought he might have caught up to Sokka’s eyebrows by now. But was not going to act like a kid and run over and check.

“Where’s my sister, Aang?”

Just then, the boatswain (who doubled as the ship’s cook) brought up breakfast. It was a small ship, and the galley was too cramped to be comfortable, so they ate on deck in good weather. The three of them sat down cross-legged to eat their porridge and Momo settled in next to them, expectantly.

“Aang—Katara?”

“Oh, right. I dropped her off in Makapu to visit Aunt Wu while I went up to the Northern Air Temple. The Mechanist found an old stash of scrolls and called me up there this time—instead of just using them for fire starters. I was pretty excited, but it turns out they were only old provisions inventories and bakery invoices.” Aang didn’t know what he’d been hoping to find. Clues, instructions for how to be the last airbender. Which didn’t exist, of course. But he couldn’t stop searching. “So I was pretty happy to see Hawky fly in!”

“You two still visiting all the colonies?”

“Yep. Just helping Fire Nation folks find their way home. Bringing on the Harmony. How about you, Toph?”

“Oh, you know, cruising the Earth Kingdom, going after the bad guys.”

Sokka frowned, the concerned big brother look he gave Katara sometimes—and for that matter, Aang. “What bad guys?”

“All comers. Bad guys who do evil things and hurt people. I stop them. So Twinkletoes, we’ve got this mission for you.” Aang saw Sokka’s frown deepen, but he didn’t interrupt.

“Yeah, you said! What’s up? What are you doing here, of all places?” For the first time, Aang looked over to the stone forest, black fingers against the morning sun. A sickening terror began to build in his belly and his knees. He quickly turned back to his friends. “I never thought you’d want to be here again.”

“We didn’t, Aang, we really didn’t.” Sokka shook his head emphatically. “But we came to find Space Sword. It’s the only thing left to do here.”

Aang glanced back at the barren land and remembered the exodus of panicked birds from the forest as it surrendered to the inferno. “Not the only thing.”

Sokka followed his eyes and said, “Well, the only thing we can do right now. Nature takes more time.”

Aang jumped to his feet, ready to be moving. “So where is it?

 


 

“Still impressing me with your ideas, Sokka,” said Aang, as he watched Sokka carefully drop a phosphorescent crystal into the water over each of the three most likely landing spots for Space Sword. “You, too, Toph, for thinking to bring these. Have you had them since the Ba Sing Se caverns?”

“I get around, Aang. I know my minerals markets.”

When the last one was placed, Aang reminded the others, “Don’t forget to hang on tight to me. Otherwise you’ll sink too fast and right out the bottom of the bubble. Not to mention the pain in your ears.”

Together, they climbed down the anchor chain. As they sank beneath the water, Aang double-bent a sphere big enough for all three of them—an air bubble like the kind he and Appa had survived in inside a waterbent bubble that Katara had taught him to do—double bending for double safety, he figured. Sokka wrapped his arms around Aang’s waist, and Toph clung to his shoulders, piggyback style—this wasn’t awkward at all—and Aang released the chain, hovering in the center of the bubble as he slowly lowered it to the seabed.

Their feet touched the soft, silty floor and they slowly moved as one over to the first crystal, which cast a sickly, green glow, even creepier in the murky water than in the caves. Toph stood still, listening with her feet.

“This is hard. It’s worse than the desert—everything’s shifty and out of focus. And slippery and slithery. Wait—what’s that?” She pointed to her right and they moved a few feet that way until a shadowy shape become clear. A rusty harpoon. “Never mind.”

They returned to the crystal and got their bearings again.

“That way.” Sokka pointed straight ahead, and they began walking. After a while, Aang thought he could dimly make out a greenish flicker. It took them a good fifteen minutes to walk that far, though it had seemed like nothing on the ship. Aang hoped the air wouldn’t run out. Curious fish gathered around the crystal, trying to work out what sort of delectable creature it might be, and were taken by surprise by the sudden disappearance of their element, flopping frantically on the wet muck until Aang picked them up and tossed them back out of the bubble.

Sokka gave a small noise of disappointment. “That was a free dinner!”

Toph listened again. “Oh, wow, there’s a lot here. Wreckage. This must be where one of the airships went down. I need to really concentrate.” To Aang’s surprise, she flung herself down spread-eagled on the ocean floor. He quickly readjusted the bubble around her.

“Ok, it’s mostly steel and iron here. Mangled scraps, the boiler over there maybe.” She grasped the meteor bracelet Sokka had given her and closed her eyes. After a very long time, she shook her head. “I can’t feel it here.”

Sokka pointed to their left, and they marched on. Aang pushed them a bit this time. They didn’t have much time left.

“Where’s the crystal? We should have hit it by now.” Sokka stopped and turned around in a full circle, then took a breath and stuck his head out into the water for a better look. He pulled back in. “I can’t see it.”

“We’re going to need to go back up and try again,” Aang said, preparing to lift them both.

“No, wait.” Toph settled her feet deeper into the ocean floor and concentrated. “We need to try that direction.”

They followed her finger, then when she paused again, corrected course as she directed. Her stops and adjustments got closer together until she fell to her hands and knees, digging her fingers into the silt. “There.”

About six feet away in the direction she was pointing something was sticking up at an angle. Aang caught Sokka’s belt as he almost dashed right out of their bubble. A few more steps brought them there.

Space Sword. Slimy with algae, draped with tendrils of seaweed, but unmistakably Space Sword. With a cry, Sokka pulled it from the earth with both hands, and before he could get emotional about it, Aang grabbed his arm and hooked it around his waist, yelled for Toph, and up they went.

There was not enough air left to support a bubble of this size, much less to support the airbending that would suspend all three of them in the middle of it. Sokka had explained that they would need to take it slowly, stopping every few feet, to avoid getting the bends. But the air was almost gone, so Aang had to make three individual air helmets and maintain them all separately, something that took a great deal of concentration. There was no way to stop them from floating continuously upward.

When they finally surfaced, he made them an ice float and sent up a flare with a firebending punch, then collapsed. Momo came swooping down to perch on Aang’s chest and scolded the others with a chatter. They sat there wet and shivering in the cold sun waiting for the ship to pick them up. Sokka cradled his sword like a long-lost child. He sighed. “Space Sword.”

 


 

Aang and Appa flew ahead like Toph had asked. A few miles down the coast, he sighted a likely spot, a small cove with a beach and a rocky overhang for shelter, and circled back to the ship.

“Found it!” he called down. “Do you want to sail or fly?”

Toph was leaning over the railing looking green. “I don’t fucking care—I just want ground under my feet as soon as possible.”

“Flying it is.” Aang had been working on a new air lasso. He wrapped one around her and flung her up into Appa’s saddle. Her gurgling scream was followed by an arc of vomit. Oops.

“Easy there!” Sokka called up. Aang lifted him much more gently and Sokka kept his lunch down, though his face was nearly as green as Toph’s.

In a few minutes, Appa was skidding to a stop on the gravel beach and they were all gratefully tumbling to the ground.

“What’s wrong with you guys? You were never seasick before. You’re Water Tribe , Sokka!”

“The bends. I warned you, Aang. We came up too fast.”

Toph was sprawled on the beach, sort of hugging the gravel.

“Right…ok. What would Katara do? Well, if the problem was the pressure and the lack of air, why don’t I try this?” And he wrapped them up in another ball of air, this time packing it with a lot more pressure than the surrounding atmosphere.

“Bend away the bends? How could it not work?” Sokka and Toph lay down on the gravel in Aang’s bubble while Aang gathered driftwood and started a fire with a quick punch of his fist.

 


 

After a few hours in the high-pressure bubble and some restorative soup and steamed buns delivered by the boatswain (once the Fa Ji had caught up and anchored off shore), Sokka and Toph were feeling much better. A little too good, maybe.

Maybe it was enjoying being back with friends, elated with the success of their mission. Sokka felt a giggle bubbling up in him. It bounced contagiously first to Toph, then to Aang. Nope, definitely not normal if Aang was the last to catch it. Maybe it was the bends.

Sokka stood up and held Space Sword, drippy seaweed and all, over his head in a cartoonishly heroic pose. “Victory to Team Avatar!” He swooshed it around in a sloppy rendition of a form Master Piandao had taught him. As he kept going, though, the moves came back to him, and soon he had recaptured much of the flow and precision he’d developed in the months before the Comet.

He struck an opening pose and raised his eyebrows invitingly at Aang.

“Seriously, Sokka?” Aang hesitated, looking at him like he might not be right in the head, then shrugged. “Right, you’re on!”

Aang sprang to his feet and blasted a bolt of air at him. Sokka spun out of the way, only to immediately leap over a chunk of rock that popped up suddenly out of the ground. Swordsman vs. Avatar—ok, so he hadn’t really thought this through. He slid in close, trying to get in under Aang’s defenses (well, offenses) and within a sword’s length, but had to skid awkwardly to the side on one foot to avoid being roasted by a gout of flame. Predictably, he lost his balance and fell before the spout of water Aang summoned from the bay could reach him. Instead, it hit Toph full in the face and drenched her, head to toe, eliciting a shriek.

Toph knocked Aang off his feet with a quick flick of her fingers, then stood up and made the gravel beach vibrate beneath her feet to shake the water off her body. Various parts of her jiggled in intriguing ways that Sokka was a little uncomfortable to notice. Aang had no such inhibitions, and his eyes bugged out at the new earthbending possibilities that were obviously coming to mind. She smirked. Sometimes it was unnerving how she could read their bodies.

Winded, Sokka flopped down by the campfire.

Aang settling back down easily with a wistful grin, showing no sign of exertion at all. “I wish Katara were here,”

“Yeah,” Sokka agreed. “She's the missing piece. It’s been way too long.”

“Well, not for me, I guess. But it’s weird to be without her.”

“It’s good for you to get out on your own sometimes, Aang,” Toph said with a tone that could be interpreted as a little judgey. “And I bet she appreciates the breathing room, too.”

“I need her, Toph.”

“But you didn’t need her—we needed you this time. ”

Sokka thought he could see where Aang was coming from. “People need you all the time, though, don’t they?”

Aang nodded. “I think that’s why I can’t let her go--people ask so much from me, I need the extra...strength. I mean not that she wants to go. I mean, not that I mind you guys sending for me! This trip was awesome! Like a terrifying little vacation.”

“Team Avatar knows no other kind!” Sokka trumpeted.

Toph shook her head, almost to herself. “You’re plenty strong, Aang.”

The spar with Aang had flung a good deal of the gunk off of Space Sword. Sokka began to wipe the rest with his fingers, with a gentleness that came close to a caress. He would sharpen and polish it properly as soon as he could. “I need to go see Suki.”

“Gosh, what made you think of her right now, Snoozles.” How she could hear him stroking his sword, he’d never know.

“Shut up, Toph. Maybe I miss her strength, too.” Toph sniggered; he ignored her. “Either of you feel like making a detour to the Fire Nation?”

“Sorry, gotta get this ship back to Gaoling before my parents think up a late penalty,” Toph declined with a small shudder of dread.

“Sure, Sokka, I’ll take you. Katara and I need to get back to Palgan to make sure nobody’s massacring anyone or anything, but I think we have enough time to swing by Caldera City, check in on Zuko. We’ll pick Katara up in Yu Dao first.”

“I just don’t think I made it clear enough to Suki last time how much she means to me.” 

“Uh, I don’t know, you two seemed pretty busy back in October. We weren’t in any doubt.”

“Love and sex aren’t the same thing.”

“No, I guess not.”

Neither were love and loyalty. Mina had still been pleading her case before he left—with her eyes if nothing else—but with Space Sword back, it felt like his world again. He knew that was ridiculous—it was only a strip of metal. But somehow his path seemed clearer now.

Chapter Text

Mai writhed, arching upwards, threatening to launch her body off the bed. Zuko held her down with one arm while his mouth drove her higher. His tongue bore down in a relentless rhythm, fingers of his other hand slid in and out of her. Her breath was coming faster, nearly hyperventilating, her thighs began to tremble. With a guttural cry, she came, convulsing and thrashing.

He crawled up her panting body as she recovered and planted a sloppy kiss on her open mouth. “Good?”

She rolled to face him. “Agni, Zuko. I’m never leaving you.”

He trailed the back of his hand along her slender waist and over the gentle curve of her hips. Fire Nation perfection. No, what reason would she have to leave?

Without warning, she flipped him onto his back. “We’re not done.”

 


 

Before dawn, he slipped back into his simple black tunic and pants, kissed her cheek and received a sleepy murmur in reply, then crept quietly out of the house. They had taken to meeting in various vacant properties he owned scattered throughout Caldera City, intended for honored guests who were not quite honored enough to warrant rooms within the palace.

The intimacy of their relationship was an open secret, and nothing to be ashamed of, but he felt awkward holding liaisons in her parents’ house, all the more so because they were so accommodating. As if they were serving their daughter up to him as a tribute for royal favors. And he was not ready to bring her to his own chambers in the palace. That would be crossing a line. What he did in the palace he did on behalf of the Nation, not just as Zuko. If indeed there was anything he could still do just as Zuko.

So they met in other people’s bedrooms. If Mai was offended by this, she didn’t say so. And Mai generally did not shield him from her displeasure.

Of course, he made sure she was comfortable, with full access to all the luxuries of the palace. But he could never spend enough time with her, not what she wanted or deserved. She understood perfectly, she said, that he was the Fire Lord, that the duties were oppressive. And yet.

There was the time he’d been quite late to a lunch date with her, which had nonetheless gone pleasantly enough—he’d thought she was being unusually affectionate when she leaned over to kiss his cheek in the middle of their meal—only to discover when he made to rush off to his next appointment that she had pinned his trousers to the floor with several tiny daggers. She’d held him there, holding his fine silk hostage, for the full 30 minutes he had missed, arms folded, amber eyes glinting, conversation over. Well, fair enough.

He didn’t deserve all of her retributions, backhanded sniping, and occasional humiliations, though. Like the time she’d flung a knife straight through his topknot and pinned him to the door he’d just come through, hours late for a nighttime liaison. He’d been furious. He had roared and she had hissed and they'd almost come to blows—but Mai’s strikes drew blood, not like fighting with Katara. So instead they’d burned it out in a fury of lust.

Sex was where the sluices opened, where they threw themselves against each other, anger and devotion, ecstasy and comfort. They had sex down to an art. Unrelenting commitment to mastery—they had that in common. And if he hadn’t had her to turn to, he would have long ago burned down the palace in an explosion of frustration and loneliness.

He hoped he did the same for her. But he couldn’t be sure. Even after all this time, he didn’t really know what she wanted—from him, or from life.

Distracted by thoughts of Mai, Zuko dodged the arrow by only a hair’s breadth. Not again! Suki was there before he could summon a flame, pelting down an alley after the shadowy figure. He caught up with her just as she made her move: a smooth tackle and pin and the would-be assassin lay helpless on the ground.

“Flip him over.”

It was actually a girl, younger than himself. Quick, but no professional, judging by the warning hum her arrow had made through the air (they could be fletched for near silence). And no match for Zuko and Suki’s battle-honed reflexes.

“Destroyer of the Fire Nation empire! Death to the Betrayer!” The kid ranted and thrashed on the ground. Zuko thought she looked a little familiar.

“To the prison tower?”

“As usual. I’ll be by after breakfast to observe the questioning. Let her stew till then.” He would enjoy a leisurely breakfast. Well, not enjoy —he’d use the time to catch up on paperwork.

 


 

“Another elemental nationalist?” Iroh asked after Zuko returned from the prison.

“Yes. Well, sort of. Not one of Ozai’s champions, I think. Apparently from the colonies. She wouldn’t talk—nothing concrete about herself or who sent her. A martyr type. I feel like I’ve seen her somewhere before, though.”

Many of the assassination attempts had come from cells funded by the political opposition in and around the capital, alienated nobility and ex-military devoted to the imperialist ideals of Sozin and Azulon and still loyal to Ozai. Keeping them down was like putting out brush fires—another one was always flaring up—but they kept at it.

“So the colonists are now resorting to violence? That is troubling.”

“Yes. She was more than willing to spout the usual crap about the supremacy of the Fire Nation and how I’ve smothered the flame and all that. But she was specifically anti-Harmony Restoration. The colonies are rightfully Fire Nation, we built them. Don’t leave them to ‘the feudal oppression of the Earth Kingdom,’ I think she said.”

“Oh, now, that’s a little harsh.”

Zuko shot his uncle a look of disbelief. “Because she was the very picture of restraint when she was shouting about me!” He shook his head. “Anyway, the one original bit was a complaint about leaving ‘our people’ at the mercy of the Earth King. I challenged her on that since the whole point of Harmony Restoration is to extract our people first. But she said—what were her words? ‘You think the fire must be seen, but true fire is in the heart. You are abandoning true hearts of fire.’”

“Meaning...fire that is not apparent from the outside. From appearances.”

“Aha—that’s it! Yu Dao! I saw her in Yu Dao. She was in that street demonstration protesting the Accord.”

A knock came at the door. “Enter!”

Mai glided in. “Good afternoon, Zuko.”

“Mai.” He rose and kissed her cheek.

“I was hoping to tempt you away….”

“Sorry, Mai. I’m booked almost straight through dinner.”

“Almost?”

“Well….” He shuffled the papers on his desk. “I might have twenty minutes after my next meeting."

“Sounds perfect. Mind if I—?” She gestured at the divan at the side of the room.

“You are more than welcome to sit in, of course. But I’m afraid we’ll bore you. It’s Tapaya, on the Harmony Restoration Accord.”

Mai sighed, long suffering. “I’ll wait.”

 


 

Mai, draped languidly along the divan, stared at the ceiling of Zuko’s study. The entire room was paneled in ebony, inlaid with vermillion mother-of-pearl and silver. It was exquisitely oppressive. Zuko’s foreign minister Tapaya was droning on about something colonial.

She was bored. As usual. She spent some of her time, as she was supposed to, doing lady things at court. Stultifying. Lurking at the fringes of Zuko’s world was marginally better (at least they occasionally discussed matters of substance, though rarely matters of interest). Her parents’ house was impossible when they and her shrieking little brother were in residence, empty and echoey when they were not.

Even Ty Lee was gone, sent to Kyoshi Island for intensive training with some of the other Fire Nation recruits for a few months. And she’d just as soon electrocute herself as go visit Azula, and save the princess the trouble.

The only thing that kept her moving, mind and body, was training. But there were only so many hours a day you could spend throwing knives at things. She had worked out some truly astonishing feats of accuracy (if she did say so), having nothing better to do than test variations in trajectory, velocity, force, resistance. Maybe she should write a treatise on knives. Or go on the road with Ty Lee’s old circus.

That wasn’t the only thing that kept her going, actually. Sex with Zuko was still worth waiting for. It was hard to imagine getting bored with that. So, sex and knives: the essence of Mai’s life. Better than before, she supposed, when it had just been knives.

At least Azula had shown her the world. Zuko was stuck at the Palace. It was supposed to have been better than this. When the war ended, Mai had dared to hope that things would change. And, outside of the Caldera and its volcanic walls, maybe they had. She’d been on short trips around the Fire Nation, she could see some of it. But Zuko and Iroh had tried to keep the rituals of royalty as consistent with the past as they could, for stability, since the deeper transformations they were trying for were so profound.

Zuko himself had changed. He was Fire Lord now, not some bumbling prince, subject to his father’s whims (make that abuse). He was in charge, and learning to act like it. So that was good. But work consumed him, and Mai knew she was an outlet, not a passion. She knew better than to resent it—he was the Fire Lord, and what was she? Blade genius and a good lay. But she did resent it. She couldn’t help it. Sometimes the barbs slipped through her words with as little warning as darts from her hidden gauntlets, and as much by reflex. So they snapped more and spent less and less time together out of bed.

So why hadn’t Mai changed? What was it that people around her had, that pushed them to achieve, to affect the world, that kept them involved? Was she fated always to slouch in their shadows? Did she even have her own spark?

“I believe this is distracting us from the central issue here, Your Majesty,” Tapaya was saying.

“The question of mixed families has been in the back of my mind for a while now, Tapaya, and I’m beginning to think it’s far more central than we originally thought. We won’t have peace until the colonies are taken care of, and I’m worried that these mixed nationality families might be the spark in the blasting jelly.”

“But they are such a small minority. What makes you think their concerns are influential? The evacuations are going well overall.”

“Are they so small in number, though? They are apparently quite visible in Yu Dao, and more are arriving as refugees from other colonies every day. Katara’s been sending reports of them from each colony she’s visited, now that she knows to look.”

“If we keep our focus on the bigger picture, Nephew, the return to harmonious balance, then the rest will fall into place, over time.”

“But they are enough to upset the balance. Both with the evacuations and the resettlement, problems on both ends. They are a part of the big picture.”

“Well, perhaps we can set up a few special programs for them—to help Earth Kingdom wives adapt to the Fire Nation, and ask King Kuei to consider the same, for the opposite situation?”

“Uncle, I don’t think you fully comprehend the nature of the problem. It is far more than a few war brides. And why would you assume the wives are following their husbands? What if it’s the other way around?”

“Oh, for the love of Agni. Have you counted them?” Mai flopped off the couch in irritation and out the open door into the courtyard. Which was full of the same flowers it always was.

An unusual silence followed her exit. She felt their eyes on her back. Mai turned. “Is something wrong?”

“Um, Tapaya, have we counted them? Did the last census record people of mixed heritage?”

“Well, of course it recorded them. Every name went in the ledger, I’m sure. But how they were categorized, I wouldn’t know.”

“That would be the Bureau of Taxation, right? Please have a meeting arranged for me with the tax minister tomorrow. We’ll continue this discussion after I have spoken with him. I believe we are done for today?” He gave her a nod of dismissal, and she departed. “Mai, would you care to have tea with us?”

“Of course, Zuko. Tea is just what I’ve been waiting for.”

 


 

Later that day, Mai sat by the turtleduck pond, trailing her fingers in the water. Tea notwithstanding, Zuko had declined to take a more satisfying break.

“I couldn’t help overhearing.”

Mai started. Suki was standing at her shoulder, a black shadow in the sunlight.

“Can you ever?” Spirits, those women creeped her out. They were so still you forgot they were there at all, until they sprang into action. Or spoke. Kind of like the Dai Li, actually. What was it with these Earth Kingdom special forces?

Suki ignored her comment and smiled. It might have been a friendly smile, but her makeup made it slightly ferocious. “Your conversation with Zuko and Iroh after the meeting. It’s just—you looked…. I had an idea. May I sit down?”

Mai nodded, but mentally inventoried her hidden blades. A reflex.

“This is a beautiful place. Zuko says it was his mother’s favorite.”

Again, Mai nodded, giving Suki a sidelong look. She hadn’t realized Suki and Zuko had a friendship close enough for that kind of confidence.

“Do you think she was happy? Zuko’s mother.”

“No.” Mai gave a refined snort of derision. “She was married to Ozai.”

“Good point. Do you remember her well?”

“Pretty well. She was very kind, and thoughtful. She actually loved her kids—well, Zuko anyway. She didn’t fit in here at all. It’s a wonder she survived as long as she did.”

“But you survive.”

Why was Suki comparing her to Ursa? “Who’s going to take me down? I’m not kind.”

“Is that what you see for yourself? Staying here by this turtleduck pond? Surviving?”

Oh, that’s why. Mai didn’t answer.

“It’s just that you seem bored.”

“And fire is hot.”

“You had some good points today, about how Zuko and Iroh need to get better data on the mixed families in the colonies. You were looking at it in a way they hadn’t thought to.”

“They would have got there.”

“Not necessarily. They’re not that good at…calculation. That’s part of what Iroh means when he says Zuko doesn’t think things through. He’s smart, but his strength is that he leads with his heart. He often doesn’t have the patience to draw up a detailed map of all his possible moves and their possible effects. Iroh does—he’s a strategist—but he bases his strategies on what he knows of human minds and desires. He’s not a scientist.”

“A scientist? What do you mean?”

“Someone like Sokka. He’s a strategist like Iroh, but he doesn’t plan based on what he thinks will happen. Partly because he doesn’t have as much experience to draw on, I suppose. He sits down with a piece of paper and tests the numbers. You know, what will be the trajectory of this boomerang if I chuck it this way, with this much force? What if I change the angle by this many degrees? What if I made one with a different shape, or weight? He can do it in his head, in battle—just like you. But he does a better job if he has time and some paper. Even better if he can experiment, too.

“And now that he’s working with Chief Karluk and the Southern Water Tribe on rebuilding Kivallit City, it’s demographics and engineering. How big does a town hall have to be to accommodate a village population of 500? But with the population is growing rapidly in peacetime—at what rate?—how big will it need to be to still be useful in ten years? How much body heat will that many people give off, and how will that determine the shape of the room or the thickness of the ice? How strong does it need to be to hold up under ten years of snowfall? A lot of stuff I don’t understand, honestly—Water Tribe architecture is really complicated and you wouldn’t believe how much snow they get. It’s astoundingly heavy.”

“I’ve never actually seen snow. Up close, anyway.”

“Really? You need to get out more.”

This was making her feel so much better. Still, the science stuff was a little intriguing. “Your point?”

“You think like Sokka. To a point. You limit yourself, you don’t have big dreams. But what if you did?”

“I wouldn’t know how to follow a ‘big dream’ even if I had one.”

“So start small. Offer to help Zuko solve the colonies problem. Help him make a sensible, useful breakdown of colonial family origins so he can make decisions with better information.”

Mai didn’t do that sort of thing—this bordered on politics. But she knew enough about the issues from hanging around, and playing with numbers actually sounded…fun. She hadn’t ever thought much about what her particular aptitudes could accomplish in the world, practically speaking. Other than kill people, of course. She’d have to work with bureaucrats, and that would be a drag, but they’d be more interesting than waterfowl. Probably.

“I’ll think about it.”

Suki smiled again, and Mai found it less worrying this time. “Good. I’ll leave you to your turtleducks today, then.”

 


 

“Minister Banyak, Lady Mai, please report.” Fire Lord Zuko presided over the throne room (though he was sitting at the council table with everyone else), feeling odd and hoping it didn’t show. This was an official meeting on the mixed family question, with Iroh and Tapaya also in attendance, as well as Special Officer for Evacuation, Captain Jee* and other interested officials. And the first time he had conducted formal business with someone he had had sex with. That shouldn’t matter. But it was Mai (the only person he’d ever had sex with, admittedly). Mai didn’t do business. It was weird.

“Your Majesty, thank you for the opportunity to deliver our report,” the Minister of Census and Taxation began, sitting stiff-backed and serious, a bland-faced man with lines that nonetheless suggested he might have laughed at some point. “We have prepared an analysis of the most recent census of all present and former Fire Nation colonies, taken in the fourth year of Fire Lord Ozai’s reign, a little over three years ago. There is an addendum with estimates for the present year, based on evacuation records and informal reports of intra-colonial migration.” He handed Zuko a scroll with a bow, very properly using two hands.

“Thank you. Please summarize your analysis. And speak colloquially.”

“Very well. You had requested that we account for all colonial families who might be of Fire Nation lineage, even if registered as Earth households, including mixed couples without children. As well as those registered as Earth suspected of Fire Nation descent. As you know, the census did not identify mixed heritage, by individual or family. Each household was listed as either Fire or Earth, unambiguously, with a very small number of Water Tribe households (mostly sailors and traders). So we had to be somewhat inventive in our methods. We are grateful for the assistance of Lady Mai, who was most resourceful in this regard.”

“I am glad to hear it.” He gave Mai what he hoped was a professional nod of approval. “Banyak, if you could, speak a little more plainly.”

“Very well. In order to accomplish this, we researched three generations of census reports (thanks to the invaluable assistance of our Bureau of Taxation staff), to ascertain whether suspected households were indeed elementally mixed, beginning with a survey of names that seemed to suggest, ahem, cross-fertilization. We also perused legal records for cases pertaining to miscegenation and—“

Zuko held up a hand to stop him. “It’s not that I can’t follow you, Banyak. But it’s been a long day. Could you please speak frankly and to the point. I would like to stay awake all the way to the thrilling conclusion.”

“Of course, Fire Lord Zuko,” Mai spoke for the first time. “We believe that all together, across all the former colonies, the colonists were as much as 25% mixed heritage.”

Zuko raised his eyebrow in surprise. Then slammed a hand on the table. “Ha! I told you!” He shot a look of vindication at Iroh and Tapaya. “Significant! Continue.”

With a small smile of satisfaction, Mai went on. “Of course this population—about 125,000 individuals—is now scattered and hard to account for. But using the Harmony Restoration evacuation records, we estimate that about 50,000 of them have either returned to the Fire Nation already or are booked for evacuation.”

“But that is quite a bit more than we were aware of!” In his surprise, Captain Jee spoke out of turn. But Zuko was on the whole quite lenient with him—he owed Jee a great deal of indulgence in return for enduring years of his own petulant outbursts on his ship. “Should we adjust our resettlement programs in some way to account for them?”

“Perhaps.” Zuko gave a curt nod. “For now, please continue, Lady Mai.”

“Our best estimate is that there may now be as many as another 50,000 in Yu Dao alone. Apparently, that’s been the destination of choice for mixed families. Master Katara reports that they feel safer there than in the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, or any other colony—not that that’s a high bar.”

“Yes.” Not news to him. But he had never actually told Mai about his travels with Katara at the New Year. Hardly the time to bring it up. “And the remaining 25,000?”

“Unaccounted for, but presumably in the Earth Kingdom, most likely still in the former colonies.”

Banyak interjected, apparently unperturbed to have been superseded by Mai, though his manner was so proper, it was impossible to tell. “We should point out that there may be even more miscegenated families who have been living outside of the colonies in Fire Nation controlled areas, or in areas that the Fire Nation previously controlled and later abandoned. And those are just the proper families. Then there are the products of—“ he glanced self-consciously at Mai, then forged on— “rape. Who could be scattered literally anywhere our soldiers have ventured. We have no way of counting any of these without the Earth Kingdom’s cooperation.”

“Yes, of course. For the moment, we are not concerned with them. Just those affected by the Harmony Restoration Accord.”

Mai raised her head with the frown she used when aiming for a particularly tricky target. “We discovered one other interesting fact, about benders. The census records all household members who are benders, of course, and since this is mostly for military recruitment, it also notes whether they are fire- or earthbenders. Since apparently it would be an anathema for the Fire Nation army to employ earthbenders.” Mai gave the quick blink that was her polite-company code for rolled eyes. “This was a key method we used to identify mixed families, of course.

“What’s interesting is that fewer benders are born in the colonies, and those that are, are disproportionately earthbenders. In the Fire Nation, we calculate that firebenders are about 35% of population. It’s less in the Earth Kingdom, around 20%.”

“Yes, it’s common knowledge that there are more nonbenders in the Earth Kingdom.”

“So you would expect that with one Fire parent and one Earth parent, 27-28% would be benders, split equally between the elements, right?”

“Uh, sure.”

“But in fact, less than 20% of colony-born children—of any heritage—are benders, and in mixed families, around 12% of those children are earthbenders and only 6 or 7% bend fire. That is, half as many firebenders as you would expect from a Fire-Earth family. That would be another reason why we’ve underestimated Fire Nation heritage in the colonies.”

“Interesting indeed.” Uncle Iroh was going to take a spiritual angle on this, Zuko could tell. “It is said that bending ability derives not only from the blood of the parents and from some impalpable spiritual essence of the bender himself, but also from the land in which he is raised. Or possibly born, or possibly conceived—no one is really sure how it takes effect. But I have heard the theory that the Air Nomads were all airbenders at least partly because they were raised in such a rarified environment, so much more pure than anything we in the lowlands experience. That does not explain, however, why there would be fewer benders overall in the colonies.” Iroh stroked his beard thoughtfully.

And there you go. “Thank you, Uncle. Most enlightening. And thank you, Banyak and Mai. I am very pleased with your work. It will be most helpful, and I will read your report at my leisure.” What a euphemism. He had no leisure.

 


 

Zuko sat up in bed, reading the report by lamplight, Mai curled up against his naked chest.

“This is really very good work, you know.”

“Mmm.”

“How did you do with Banyak?”

“He’s nice.”

“’Nice’?”

Mai dragged herself to sit upright. “You know, you have a funny idea of pillow talk,” she groused.

“At least you’re on my pillow! I could be doing this in my study, you know.”

She sighed an implicit apology. “Patient. He was very patient with me. He took the time to show me some methods and let me be the one to formulate the questions, but then helped me hone them. He’s a good teacher. I guess I haven’t had a lot of those in my life. Or really, any.”

“And did you like it? The work?”

“Well, it was hard. But in the way that blade training is hard work. Trying to get it just right pulls you in until you forget about everything else. I think I enjoyed learning something new.”

Zuko smiled and leaned over to give her a kiss. A good one, with lots of tongue.

She pulled back almost shyly. Then her lips curled into a wicked little smile. “So statistics turn you on, too?”

“No. You do.”

He snuffed the lamp and pressed her down into the pillows.

Chapter Text

My brilliant, sexy, undefeatable warrior woman,

Enjoying the last blaze of summer here—which really just means that we’re starting to have night again. Your Fire Nation friends would be blue from the chill, but you know us. Blue already. It also means winter's coming, and soon.

Last winter nearly killed me, crammed in those igloos for months of darkness, trying to keep the boys from pounding holes in the walls or killing each other, fending off Mina, listening to everyone tell the same stories and jokes again and again. How did I once think this was ok? Or was I going just as crazy then, but didn’t know any better? That the sun was still shining on other lands?

I certainly didn’t have you to obsess over before. You haunted my mind last winter (ok, more than just my mind). Waaay too much time spent in bed in the South Pole winter. Thinking about what could be happening in my bed. Being all too aware of what’s going on in other beds around us. If I was a waterbender, I probably would have melted the igloo in frustration.

So this year, I’m sliding off this ice shelf, wind in my periwinkle sails—well, someone’s sails. I’ll crew on one of the trading vessels, of course—Southern or Northern Water Tribe, doesn’t matter—whoever is going my way. 

This year, I’m spending my winter in the summertime! GranPakku is lining up an apprenticeship for me at the North Pole—I’ll let you know when I know. Then let’s make a plan! I'll come see you on Kyoshi or in the Fire Nation, as you wish. Maybe you’d like to come see the legendary ice city of Sirmiq for yourself??

Your one, your only: boomerang man, meteor master, and hungry wolf under the sheets,

Sokka

 


 

Dear Master Yugoda,

Many blessings to you on the return of the sun. I am writing from the North Coast of the Earth Kingdom, which brings to mind the last time I was here, just before arriving at the North Pole two years ago. I have been thinking of you a lot lately.

Avatar Aang and I have been assisting with the Fire Nation evacuation of the colony of Minji, which was a little draining (it is never pleasant to rip families from the only home they have ever known, but nor can we ignore that that home was stolen). We're taking a short break at a lovely spa here, at the Fire Lord's own recommendation—though it, too, has been returned to the Earth Kingdom now.

And in a couple of days we will proceed to the Northern Air Temple, to discuss the restoration of various works of art and history that the Mechanist’s clan of inventors have damaged. Aang gets a little emotional about that, understandably, so I am there to smooth things over, something I’ve gotten better at over the years. Aang has enough on his shoulders—any way I can lessen the pressure and ease his heart is my honor to do.

This is our life. We spend most of our time helping with the Harmony Restoration Accord and also helping anyone who needs us along the way. Everything from settling village disputes to kissing babies to dedicating a town hall. It is truly inspiring to watch the Earth Kingdom rebuild—literally, with stone and mortar, but families and communities, too. From time to time, we do need to fight, though nothing like it was during the war, of course. 

And there’s always healing. Almost everywhere I go, I am called upon to heal someone. Usually simple injuries that are no challenge for me, but sometimes I have to do a lot of guessing and hoping for luck. And sometimes I can’t do anything at all.  

I had the chance to examine the Fire Lord again recently and was amazed to see the work you did. It was humbling. I was so overwhelmed by his injuries, but now he is as strong and healthy as he ever was. Once again, I cannot thank you enough for coming to care for him, when the war had only been over a few days. It must have seemed like a huge risk at the time.

I deeply regret that I did not take the time to learn more from you at the North Pole or at the Fire Nation Palace. I am afraid you must have been insulted by how quickly I disappeared both times. I can’t say I regret my work with Master Pakku, as it helped us win the war, and there are few benders in the world I would not be able to stand up to now. (I hope that’s not bragging.) And of course, Aang and I were urgently needed around the world in the first few weeks of peace.

But now, I wonder if there’s any possibility you would take me back for an apprenticeship in healing. Aang is growing up and needs less of my attention than he used to and we don’t anticipate any major issues in world peace in the next few months (though you never know). My brother Sokka has already arranged for an apprenticeship at the North Pole in ice engineering this summer and I was thinking I might accompany him.   

Please let me know if you would be willing to teach me again.

Your humble student,

Katara

 


 

Sokka mine,

No time to write at the moment—just one question. What do you mean, “fending off Mina?” And more importantly, how did you not mention her before?

Your beloved and loyal Suki

 


 

Dear Toph,

I keep thinking about our conversation on the beach. I heard what you said, that I’m “strong enough.” Do you think I’m too dependent on her? Maybe even that I smother her? Or vice versa? You obviously think there’s something off about us. I know I shouldn’t have to justify myself. But you’re important to me, and I want you to understand. I need you to understand.

Katara and I were meant to be together. I don’t say that casually. I truly believe that she is my destiny and I am hers. She is simply perfect for me.

Her face was the first one I saw when I emerged from the iceberg—she was the one to break me out after a hundred years in stasis. I loved her from that moment. And she’s been with me every step of the way since then, taking care of me, letting me lean on her when I need her, shoring me up when I falter, making sure I don’t get into too much trouble or get too full of myself.

And she’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, before or since. Trust me when I tell you she looks as amazing as she sounds. Her eyes are the color of the sky, or the light that shines through the wind-sculpted ice at the South Pole. She’s not the first girl I ever met, of course, and hardly the last, but I cannot imagine ever loving any other like this.

I know everyone thinks I take her for granted, but I don’t, I really don’t. I wouldn’t be here doing what I’m doing if not for her—none of us would, probably. I would have either died, or killed a lot of people, or both—certainly, I would have failed—if she hadn’t been taking care me, for all of us. 

Don’t get me wrong—I couldn’t have done it without you or Sokka, either. Sokka kept us on the mission, made the plans, read the maps. You kept our heads clear, kept us grounded. And all of you have saved my life more times than I could count (I’ve saved yours, too, but you wouldn’t have needed saving if you hadn’t been with me).

But Katara takes care of my heart

Always your friend,

Aang

 


 

To His Esteemed Majesty, King Kuei,

Cordial greetings from Caldera City. The rains have just begun here, beating back the dust of our long, hot dry season, and therefore most welcome. I fondly remember the gardens of Ba Sing Se at this time of year, abloom in pinks and yellows in anticipation of a verdant summer.

As you know, we are very pleased with how smoothly the Harmony Restoration evacuations and leadership transitions have been effected so far, and how gracefully the Earth Kingdom authorities have cooperated with Fire Nation officials in these matters, with the invaluable mediation of the Avatar and Master Katara. I foresee ongoing success with most of the remaining colonies. 

No doubt you have perused all of Master Katara’s reports on their visits to the colonies. I wish to draw your attention to one in particular, on the Colony of Yu Dao, and take the liberty of adding relevant information for your consideration. You have likely concluded, as did I, that Yu Dao may present some distinctive challenges. As the oldest Fire Nation colony on the Eastern Continent, and one of the most prosperous, it has been for a considerable number of years, perhaps generations, a remarkable exception to the internal conflicts experienced in most of the other colonies.

Inevitably, the prejudices between Fire and Earth people, born of the pain of warfare, have built tensions into the social life of the colonies, as you have read in the particular instances brought to life in Master Katara’s vivid reports. We have learned of exceptional bias against families of mixed Earth and Fire parentage, and particularly against their offspring—sometimes erupting in vigilante violence in territories surrounding the colonies. I was intrigued to learn that in Yu Dao, however, such families are accepted and woven into the fabric of society in a way found nowhere else in the world.

I charged our statisticians with the task of determining precisely how significant an issue mixed elemental families present to the Harmony Restoration Accord, and how significant an aberration Yu Dao represents. In short, very. I enclose their report.

It would be regrettable to destroy such a unique haven for peace in this war-scarred world. I believe that if we can tailor our approach to Yu Dao, the world stands to benefit. Although the Avatar has yet to weigh in himself on this matter, an agreement between our two nations should suffice.

Would Your Majesty be amenable to considering alternative arrangements for the governance of Yu Dao, allowing it to retain its current population and way of life? Our Minister of Foreign Affairs is prepared to make the journey to Ba Sing Se for an audience with Your Majesty to discuss these matters, at your convenience.

Your committed ally in peace,

Zuko, Lord of the Fire Nation

(enclosure)

 


 

Aang:

That’s how people talk about their mothers.

Toph

 

 

Chapter Text

It had taken him a while, with one thing and another, but Aang was finally giving Yu Dao a proper visit.

Katara had told him all about the run-in she and Zuko had had with the Freedom Fighters outside of Yu Dao, and about the protests inside the city walls, and Zuko had done some frowning and brooding over the matter (but there wasn’t much he didn’t frown and brood about). Aang had been here himself once before, when he and Sokka had picked up Katara after the Space Sword scuba mission, but Sokka had been impatient to get to the Fire Nation, so they hadn’t done more than shake Governor Fosek’s hand and say “hi” to Katara’s new friends before flying off.

Zuko had already left by ship at that point (which was just as well, because Aang had selfishly wanted Katara to himself again—Sokka didn't count), but Appa still beat him to the Fire Nation capital by a few days. They’d hung out with Suki and Ty Lee for a while, had tea with Uncle Iroh, and Mai was around somewhere, but by the time Zuko arrived, Aang was ready to whisk Katara away again. So there had only been time for one meeting to catch up on Harmony Restoration business, and then it was back to Palgan for a follow-up visit.

This time, Aang came alone. Katara was off with Yugoda at the North Pole, healing up a storm—which, he supposed, really was a good idea, even though he'd miss her like a piece of his heart. But her healing skills always did come in handy.   

Arriving in Yu Dao at the end of a warm, midsummer day, he left Appa to graze outside the city walls, with Momo for company, and wandered the narrow streets of the southwestern quarter of town, looking for Toph’s boarding house. Squinting to read the poor signage, he saw the woman only out of the corner of his eye, hurrying across the intersection at the end of the street.

An Air Nomad woman. Yellow robes, half shaved head, long brown hair flying.

Aang raced to the cross street at airbender speed, but when he rounded the corner, she was already gone, leaving a maze of crisscrossing lanes and alleys empty but for a couple of tired workers shuffling home. He bounded to the rooftops on a column of air, then leapt from roof to roof, scanning the streets below, but she must have gone inside one of the houses. Or she’d never been there at all.

Frustrated, he returned to his much simpler search for the boarding house, and was welcomed by Toph with her customary punch to the arm.

“Long day, huh?” she said when he told her what he thought he’d seen. She shook her head and made him a pallet on the floor, near hers.

 


 

Toph lived in a single room on the ground floor of a boardinghouse for young women. The floor was paved with flagstones—Aang bet that would have been at the top of Toph’s list of required amenities. Maybe her only requirement. A plain, wooden chest and a simple pallet in the corner were the only furnishings; a small fireplace and a window with no view completed the room. The color scheme was unrelentingly beige and grey, and the light dim, but presumably Toph didn’t mind.

“You’re up? Let’s go out and get breakfast.”

“You don’t eat with the other boarders?”

“Nah. Not really a joiner, you know. The market is where it’s happening.”

Toph led him unerringly through the warren of narrow, winding streets. The houses were two, three, even four stories high, and the morning light only reached the upper floors, so they walked through cool shadows. The city was alive, however. Neighbors hollered greetings, sweeping their doorsteps, shooing their children out to school. Craftsmen in leather aprons made their way to the industrial district.

“This is basically an Earth Kingdom neighborhood. There are more Fire Nation people than you would think here, but they’re mostly part of Earth households in one way or another. There’s a little market plaza over there for just this neighborhood, but I’ll take you to the big one.”

Aang caught a glimpse of a calmly bustling market, of the sort he’d seen in towns all over the Earth Kingdom: an assortment of stalls under green awnings, selling groceries, snacks and other necessities. Housewives bargained tenaciously with merchants; neighbors gossiped in clusters.

They turned onto a larger thoroughfare, wide enough for two-wheeled ostrich horse carts, but only barely big enough for the wagon full of melons they squeezed past. Here, the storefronts were for more specialized goods and services: stationery and brushes; dressmakers; earthenware.

This brought them into the southeastern quadrant of the city, where Fire Nation colors were dominant. More of the residents—but by no means all—were clearly Fire Nation. The homes were more spacious and better decorated and the streets were quieter. They passed a business that would send messenger hawks for you, another offering incense sticks in every shape and fragrance, and another full of hundreds of different spices. The vibrant aromas made Aang’s head spin.

They rounded a corner and walked—or squeezed, more like—into a raucous crowd filling a large square—an open space that probably would have felt expansive had it not been packed shoulder-to-shoulder with shoppers, merchants, and suppliers of every kind, along with a noisy assortment of livestock.

“Ok, Earth vendors on this side, Fire on that side, a handful of Water Tribe traders in that corner. In the middle it’s a free-for-all. Which is where the good food is, obviously.” Toph oriented Aang with broad gestures, completely ignoring the passersby who had to dodge her pointing fingers. “What’re you in the mood for?”

She led him down the central aisle. Aang saw—and smelled, tantalizingly: potatoes baked in a clay oven on a cart, with every imaginable topping and condiment, from ground komodo sausage to pickled cabbage; strips of fried dough iced with a sugary bean paste; steaming bowls of green noodles from the Water Tribes, to be topped with either fish flakes and whale blubber, spicy chili paste, or spring onions and ginger.

All the foods seemed to be rooted in a recognizable food tradition from one of the four nations, but none escaped the taste preferences of the other nations. Aang thought he would at least see Fire Nation people choosing the spicy toppings, but individuals seemed to make wilder choices even than the menus, piling one flavor on top of another. It was all mixed up—delicious, but at the same time, unsettling.

He had just got himself a warm cup of freshly made soymilk (universally enjoyed across the nations), when he heard an astonished gasp and a little shriek from a stall just ahead.  “It’s Avatar Aang!”

A brown-haired girl was fluttering her hands around her flushed face in consternation, grasping blindly at the yellow sleeves of two girls in the stall with her. They spun around, ignoring their customers to gape and squeal. “It’s him! It’s really him!” One of them seemed about ready to collapse with excitement, gripping the countertop with white knuckles.

“Uh, hi! Yeah, it’s me.” Aang gave them a friendly smile. It wasn’t that he didn’t encounter this kind of enthusiasm regularly. It was just usually less…breathless. “Wow! Your clothes are exactly like what young Air Nomads used to wear!”

The girls were dressed in yellow trousers and belted tunics, sleeves bound at the wrists and elbows, with short, orange capes draped around their shoulders—the same kind of clothes he had worn before upgrading himself to monk’s robes after the war.  Two of them had shaved their hairlines back to reveal blue arrows painted on their foreheads. They looked like young nuns of the Western Air Temple and Aang’s heart went out to them immediately, automatically—his earliest memories were among such women.

“Oh, thank you! We worked so hard at it! We pride ourselves on authenticity!” gushed the first girl, who wore her hair in a high ponytail to the side, tied with some kind of festive puffball—which, to be honest, was not actually how a tattooed airbender would have worn her hair, but it was pretty and Aang was sure it was practical for selling pies.

“Yes, we found as many illustrations in old scrolls as we could find—“ “We even visited the Northern Air Temple! Well, I did, and I copied down the frescos onto paper—what I could see of them—“ The other two spoke over each other—a very pretty, fluttery girl whose hair hung down over her face, and a more serious girl, almost a woman, who could have walked through the Western Air Temple of Aang’s childhood without raising an eyebrow.

“That’s…great! But why?”

Silence fell. The girls exchanged glances, a mixture of confusion and embarrassment. “Well, we’re your fan club. The Official Avatar Aang Fan Club.”

“I have my own fan club? Cool!”

Their smiles returned one by one, hopeful and sparkling. The eldest stepped forward and bowed formally, fists pressed together in the Air Nomad fashion. “Greetings, Avatar Aang! The Yu Dao Chapter of the Avatar Aang Fan Club has been eagerly hoping to meet you! I am Xing Ying, the club president, and this is Hei Won”—she gestured to the girl with the ponytail— “and Yee Li”—the girl without an arrow.

“I’m honored to meet you! Are there other chapters, too?”

“Of course! I mean, there will be. They’re organizing one in Ba Sing Se, and we know someone in Omashu.”

“And you sell fruit pies, just like real Air Nomads!”

They blushed and giggled again. “We found an old recipe, and we worked on it for weeks until we could get it right.”

“Did we get it right? Please, Avatar Aang.” Yee Li held one out to him with both hands, bowing her head.

“Thank you!” He took a bite. “Mmm! Delicious!” It was wolfberry jelly topped with something like a meringue—anyway, white, sugary, and whipped. It wasn't quite an Air Nomad pie—how could they get it right without airbending?—but it was very good.

Another cascade of giggles followed, interrupted by a loud clearing of the throat. Toph was standing behind him and off to the side, drumming her toes and rattling the cobblestones with her impatience.

“Oh! This is Toph. Toph, my fan club!”

“Yeah, I gathered.”

“Toph is my earthbending master.”

“Ooooh.” All three girls gave her low Air Nomad bows, in unison. “We are honored, Master Toph.”

“Yeah, whatever. Aang, you wanna see more of Yu Dao, or hang out with girls?”

“Oh, Avatar Aang! We would love to show you our clubhouse!”

“That would be great! Toph, this is so awesome. Come with us?”

“Nah, that’s cool. Jade Mountain Forge has been wanting me to consult on something. I’ll catch you later.” And Toph stomped off. Aang stared after her as she left, puzzled, then shrugged.

The girls packed up their pie stall in a flurry of excitement and escorted him out of the market square into the warren of streets and alleys, heading back to the southwest corner of town.

“It must have been one of you I saw last night! I thought I was losing my mind when I saw an Air Nomad run through the streets. And Toph definitely thought I was crazy.”

“Couldn’t have been anyone else! We had a meeting. And we’ve only just had these new costumes made. Great timing, huh?”

Costumes? Aang supposed they could seem that way to them, a hundred years out of date and out of sight. To him they were just clothes, and deeply symbolic to him only now that their wearers were gone. It felt weird to think of them as dress-up.

They rounded a corner into a tiny but tidy dead-end alley and Xing Ying opened a gate and gestured Aang into the courtyard. It was a small, square, ordinary house, painted white and fronted by a rock garden that framed a circular patio. On one side, there was with an ornamental arched bridge over a small, murky pond. The tile roof—originally green, like all of Yu Dao's—had been painted a bright, cobalt blue, and yellow trim had been carefully added under the bracket-supported eaves. An Air Nomadish spiral crowned the doorway and small, multi-colored flags hung here and there, fluttering in the breeze.

“What do you think? Do you recognize it?” Yee Li leaned eagerly on his arm.

Recognize it? Aang squinted and racked his brain. “Oh! It’s like the, uh, the Eastern Air Temple! …Right?”

“Yes!” She clapped her hands.

“The Western Air Temple would have made more sense for this part of the world. But we couldn’t figure out how to make this look like it was upside down,” Xing Ying apologized. Yee Li added, “It would have just looked stupid.”

Aang laughed. “Well, it’s lovely.”

Another girl appeared at the door just then—a young woman, really—less willowy than the pie sellers (who all had the Air Nomad build), again with the half-shaven head and the blue arrow. Her eyes, which widened in amazement when she saw him, were round pools of grey like Aang’s own.

“Balam! Guess who we found?”

“I don’t think I have to guess!” Balam pressed a hand to her heart and then bowed low, fists together. “Avatar Aang. We are honored and humbled.”

She invited him in. The main room of the clubhouse was a simple affair, with a large, empty seating area in the middle, carpeted in yellow and scattered with orange cushions, and various shelves and tables arranged around the perimeter. There was a reading corner, with a selection of scrolls arranged next to a desk; a rack of yellow robes; a meditation alcove under a blue arrow painted on the wall; and a few practical items. These included a writing desk, a chalkboard, and an easel pinned with a large sheet of paper. They’d obviously used this for a recent brainstorming session: 

 

 

      Some better names for our club:     

The Avatar Society

      Association for Air Nomad Admiration/Glorification AANA/AANG?

Air Nomad Revival Association/Society ANRA?

  Air Nomad Revival Guild ANRG?

      Air Nomad Admiration Guild ANAG?

            Admiration of Air Nomads Guild AANG?

Appreciation for Air Nomads Guild AANG

  • Aspiring Air Nomad Guild AANG

 

Aang grinned. Pretty clever. “I’d go for that one,” he said, pointed to the second-to-last “AANG.”

Balam brought out a tray of snacks—nothing out of the ordinary for this corner of the Earth Kingdom, just vegetarian. They made awkward small talk as they munched.

“So what Air Nomad food do you miss the most?”

“Um, well, Air Nomads are pretty flexible about eating all the nations’ food—except for meat, of course. Since we travel all over the place. And I’ve been traveling even more than usual these past couple years, so plenty of variety! Hm. Well, one thing you just can’t get anywhere any more at all is bison cheese.”

The girls exchanged quizzical looks. “What’s that?”

“It’s made from sky bison milk.” Their faces shifted to surprise. The Earth Kingdom didn’t really do animal milks. “They add some stuff to it—I’m not really sure what—and then they age it in a cave until it turns into a solid cake.” Now their expressions read alarm. “It’s a little smelly, but it tastes great.” Hei Won and Yee Li wrinkled their noses, while the other two politely kept their composure. “You can’t make it any more, of course, since the sky bison are gone.”

“Can’t you milk Appa?” Balam asked, apparently in all seriousness.

Now it was Aang’s turn to look at her in horror. “Appa’s a boy!”

Balam turned beet red and Yee Li rolled on the floor in gales of laughter. Soon everyone was giggling.

“You know, I’m really flattered that you guys are so into Air Nomad culture. It means a lot to me, to know that we’re not just forgotten.”

“You’re the Avatar! How could we forget?”

“Many of us were interested in the legends of the Air Nomads before, but after you reappeared—well, then we realized we could make it real. We’ve dreamed of the day when we might get to meet you.”

“And we feel horrible about the Air Nomads, and we felt like someone needed make sure that they weren’t forgotten. All of them, not just you.”

“That means a lot to me. Please let me help you any way I can—in fact, you could probably even help me! I’ve been doing research myself. You don’t realize how much you don’t know until suddenly there’s no one to ask any more.”

“We would be honored. How long are you planning to stay in Yu Dao?”

“Now that I know you’re here, I think I’ll take my time. Katara’s left me for the summer and the colonies are quiet for a few weeks, so no hurry.”

“Oh, please come by as often as you can!” Hei Won seemed only just able to keep herself from clapping her hands with glee.

“In fact, we would love to write down your recollections for our library,” Balam added. “If you would be willing.” She bowed quickly in his direction.

“Sure, why not! So how many of you are there, anyway?”

“Oh, anywhere from ten to twenty come to our meetings,” Xing Ying answered. “But only Balam, Hei Won and I have qualified for our arrows. Yee Li is almost there, though.” She smiled encouragingly at her friend.

“Huh. What do you do to qualify?”

“All our members enroll in a rigorous study program. We devote as many hours to studying Air Nomad philosophy as you did when you were training. We’ve studied and mastered every Air Nomad-related text in our library.” She gestured through an open door, where he could see a number of shelves stacked high with old scrolls. “We each make a pilgrimage to an Air Nomad sacred site—a shrine or even one of the temples. And we learn and follow the spiritual regimens and as many of the daily customs as we can. The four of us live here, wear Air Nomad clothing all the time, and promote the culture out in Yu Dao.”

“Wow. That’s an incredible commitment! And those arrows you’ve painted on your foreheads look almost exactly like real airbender tattoos. How did you do that?”

“Oh, these aren’t paint. They’re real tattoos! We use the same ink you—“

“Wait, what?! But Air Nomad tattoos have to be earned through years and years of airbending practice! They’re not—"

“Oh, we know, Avatar Aang. For a fan club member to receive her tattoos, she must master hundreds of airbender-like forms!”

'Airbender-like’?! Those tattoos are sacred to my people! They describe who we are. You have no right to tattoo yourselves like that!”

“I assure you that our members—"

“How could you study Air Nomad philosophy at all and still do something like this? My culture isn’t some game of make-believe!” Aang was on his feet, and a wind was swirling through the room, stirring up stacks of paper, rattling prayer beads, and unrolling stacked scrolls. This was not going to end well. He turned and left without another word before he lost control.

 


 

“Yu Dao is a—is a blight on our efforts to restore harmony. Everything is mixed up here! The people, the food, the customs—even the bending! And then you have people trying to actually be people they’re not—and can never be! The nations are meant to be separate and distinct!

“Whoa. Slow down there Twinkletoes. You’re starting a cyclone in here!”

“Sorry, Toph.” Aang had burst into her room, launching his tirade without preamble. Now he flopped onto the floor in front of her and she could hear him trying to control his breathing, head down, calming himself.

“Didn’t go so well with the airheads, huh? What the hell happened?”

“It was really cool at first—everything they’ve done to preserve Air Nomad culture. I thought it was a little weird that they were so committed to pretending to live it themselves—you know, playing house, but taking themselves too seriously. It was fun, though. And they’re cute. But then it turns out—those tattoos? They’re real. They actually tattooed themselves like airbending masters. I was so furious I had to leave.”

“So you were flattered that they were pretending to recreate your culture, up until they really recreated your culture, and now you’re offended?”

Aang spluttered, “Well—yeah! No! They're not airbending masters.I mean, it’s one thing to respect us by learning all about us and, and embracing our philosophy—all life is sacred, fruit pies, meditation, even yellow and orange! The stuff we can share . But it’s entirely different to take on what’s only ours—to think they can be us. No one can be an airbender except an airbender! And to wear those tattoos for achieving anything less than airbending —it makes the whole thing a joke! Tattoos are part of your body. They’re not something you can put on and take off. You can’t put them on a non-airbender body.”  

“But Aang.” Toph spoke softly. “There aren’t any more airbender bodies. Besides yours.” She paused carefully. “Does it really matter any more?”

“Yes! Yes, it does.” She felt his body quiver and realized she had never heard him weep for his people. Had he even had time to yet? His breathing began to hitch, and she reached over to touch him. He was crying.

“I’m so sorry, Aang.” He leaned in to her and she wrapped her arms around him and let him sob. There really wasn’t anything else to say.

After a long time, he quieted, pulled himself up, and sniffled, “Thanks, Toph.”

She went out and got a basket of steamed baozi for dinner and they ate on the floor of her room.

“Maybe there should be more.”

“More baozi?”

“No, no. Thanks, Toph, these are great.” He squeezed her arm. “Maybe there should be more airbender bodies. I mean, I’m still looking for descendants of escapees—I’m going to find one someday. But maybe I should be looking to the future, not the past.”

“What are you saying, exactly?”

They were sitting close enough that she could feel his skin heat slightly as he blushed. “If I were still—if they were still here, I would be considered old enough. Ready.”

“Really?” She didn’t even try to suppress an incredulous snort. “Aang, you’re fifteen! You’re not ready to be a dad.”

“No. But if there were still other Air Nomads, if there was an Air Nomad culture, I wouldn’t have to be a dad just to make a child.”

“Ok, you’re gonna have to spell this one out for me.”

“I’d probably never even know that I had a child! Or maybe there was some formal way you’d let a man know. They didn’t explain these things to twelve-year-olds. But the woman would have the baby at one of the nuns’ temples and they’d all raise it there. All together. The men weren’t involved until the boys were old enough to join them at their temples, for education.”

Toph was struck literally dumb, which just didn’t happen. After an empty moment, she snapped her jaw shut and asked, “Are you saying you don’t have parents? You didn’t have a mother?”

Well, no wonder. That explained pretty much everything.

 


 

The next day, Aang decided to push the fan club girls out of his mind and visit the Governor’s Palace. When he opened Toph’s door to step out into the street, however, he nearly tripped over the four of them, kneeling in a row on the doorstep, lowered heads bound with wide headbands.

“Avatar Aang. Please forgive us our unintentional disrespect. We have covered our tattoos in deference to the true airbenders. In deference to you. Now we, the Yu Dao Chapter of the Avatar Aang Fan Club, place ourselves at your service. We will support the Air Nation in whatever way you feel is best.”

“How about you just go home? I have enough to deal with.” And he leapt over them and sped down the street, propelled by a miniature gale of righteous anger.

Governor Fosek greeted him formally in the Council Chamber, flanked by council members. Unlike the other colonies, the Governor of Yu Dao shared his responsibilities with a democratically elected city council, and Aang saw that Earth people were well represented. He had never seen Earth and Fire govern together. So it looked like even restoring the governance of Yu Dao to the Earth Kingdom would be a delicate surgery.

Aang was hearing Governor Fosek’s report on evacuation preparations and trying not to look out the window too obviously. It was a beautiful day—limpid blue skies dotted with popcorn clouds. He imagined soaring through them, escaping this mess, floating above the slate-blue waves….

“...so you see the problem there, Avatar Aang?”

“Hm? Yes, of course, the problem. The problem with the…?”

“With determining who should be required to evacuate.”

“Fire Nation subjects, of course. Who else?”

Fosek did not quite manage to suppress a hiss of exasperation. He continued with exaggerated patience, as if speaking to a child. Which, Aang realized, he might think he was. “We are all Fire Nation subjects, in the sense that we have spent our entire lives under Fire Nation rule, pledging loyalty to the Fire Lord, and so forth. By order of the Harmony Restoration Accord, however, only some of us are required to return to the Homeland, while others will remain here. Many of us know clearly enough what is in our hearts, but we remain unsure of how the Fire Lord, the Earth King, and you, the Avatar, define our differences, and what consequences we may face if we guess wrong.”

Oh yes, the Yu Dao conundrum Zuko kept writing him about. “Governor Fosek, council members, I believe that if we blow away the smoke and fog of war and look to our roots, we will see clearly the original essence of our peoples. It has not been rubbed out or corrupted. We are still who we were. We will only see our world at peace when the Four Nations have returned to their rightful places in the balance.”

“With all due respect, Avatar Aang, I believe we all comprehend the philosophical basis for the Accord. It is the practical implementation that is in question.”

“Yes, I can see that. With all due respect to you , Governor Fosek, I have been working through the practical implementation of evacuations across the Earth Kingdom for a year and a half now. It is not merely an abstraction to me. In other colonies, however, the lines were maintained more strictly. I do see that in Yu Dao it’s a lot...messier. People here don’t seem to know who they are any more….” Aang drifted off, thinking of his fan club. Perhaps their overblown enthusiasm for Air Nomad ways was a symptom of feeling unmoored, unconnected to their own cultures. He realized he didn’t even know if the girls were Earth Kingdom or Fire Nation, or both.

“What would you say to some sort of an education program, Governor? Reaching out to Yu Dao citizens who’ve lost connection to their roots and tutoring them in the ways of their home nation?”

“Well...that is something we could discuss. It does seem an appropriate project to be sponsored by the Avatar.”

A commotion outside the Council Chamber doors interrupted this more productive direction. The double doors flung open and a girl not much younger than Aang charged in. A tremor in the flagstones suggested a young earthbender, and an angry one. “Father! Tell him. Speak up for Yu Dao!”

“Lahar!” Fosek’s face blanched with horror. “Leave at once! This meeting does not involve you.” He turned to Aang and knelt and bowed his head embarrassingly low. “Avatar. I beg you to forgive my daughter. She is young and foolish and perhaps the blood of the Fire Nation runs too hot in her veins.”

“But she’s an earthbender….” Could this place get any more confusing?

“Yes! I am! But I am Fire Nation to the bone! Yu Dao belongs to the Fire Nation and I belong to Yu Dao!

“Her mother is an earthbender.” Fosek’s words were muffled, still on one knee, head bowed in shame.

“Not that the current Fire Lord understands that," Lahar continued her rant. "The Fire Lord has imprisoned my friend just for insisting on Fire Nation unity!”

Now Fosek stood up and roared, forgetting Aang’s presence all together. “He imprisoned her for attempting to assassinate him!” He closed his eyes for a moment, regaining composure, then coldly ordered the soldier standing guard outside, “Remove her.”

The soldier pinned her elbows behind her back and hauled her away, squirming and kicking. “Yu Dao for Yu Dao! No Harmony Accord!”

Fosek bowed again. “Avatar Aang. I am mortified at my daughter’s behavior. I have allowed her to be overly influenced by a group of insurgents—clearly I have been far too indulgent. She will be confined to the Governor’s Palace henceforth.”

Aang waved a conciliatory hand at Fosek. “Don’t worry about it. She didn’t do anything. I’m a little concerned if they’re trying to assassinate Zuko, though!”

 


 

As he was leaving the Governor’s Palace, Aang came up behind a woman in a holding a clipboard and speaking earnestly with a construction foreman (judging from his dress and his toolbelt), making intricate gestures with her pencil. Her voice sounded familiar.

“Is that—Nendo?”

She spun around. “Avatar Aang!” The building inspector from Palgan that he and Katara had helped resettle the year before broke into an astonished smile.

“But didn’t we drop you off in Omashu?”

She made a dismissive gesture, but her smile didn’t fade. “That didn’t last long. As I suspected, they had no use for my skills. It’s all earthbending there—they scarcely even have building codes. Everything’s based on some sort of magical intuition. To be frank, I don’t get it. I heard Yu Dao might work out, for someone who lives in both worlds like me, and here I am!”

“So you’re a building inspector again?”

“A lot more than that!” the foreman leaned around her to talk to Aang. “Your honor, sir. Nendo is the Interim Planning Commissioner of Yu Dao. And—” he leaned over in a mock whisper— “turns out we don’t miss the old one—he went back to the Fire Nation. She’s looking at it in a whole new way, learning about what the community needs as much as what the beams and plaster will support. She’s a regular gift to this city.”

Aang gave Nendo a warm hug. “Congratulations, Nendo. That’s wonderful. I’m so glad that Yu Dao will still be in good hands when it is returned to the Earth Kingdom, building for the future.”

There was a pause and he thought he saw Nendo and the foreman exchange a nervous glance, but it was gone when Nendo said, “Thanks to you Avatar Aang. My parents and I have settled in the southwestern quarter in a nice two-bedroom and yes, we are looking forward to a long future here. We’ve found our new home.”

 


 

Education. That’s what they needed. The war had destroyed traditions, the shared memories that string a people together over generations, and give the child the same understanding of the world as his great-grandfather, even if they never meet. Those ties had been burnt away, leaving people clinging only to what they knew of the here and now.

He had left Fosek with the seed of the idea and trusted him to develop some sensible programs around it. He seemed highly competent, and what did Aang know about educating Earth and Fire people about their own heritage? Which brought him back to his own heritage. And the only people he knew who were trying to preserve it at all.

His feet led him to the modest white house with the blue roof. Xing Ying opened the gate. Aang bowed, airbender style.

“Please allow me to apologize for my anger. You offered me your service. Let me offer you mine. Let us learn together about my people. And you can help me find them.”


  

“This is Momo, everyone!”

Momo flicked his ears back in alarm at the chorus of squee that surrounded him.

“Can we touch him?” “Does he bite?” “What does he eat?” “Can he really fly?” 

Aang had been hanging out at the Air Clubhouse for several days now, getting to know the girls better, learning to respect each other.

“It’s ok Momo, they’re friends.” Aang gave the lemur a reassuring nose touch. To the girls, he said, “His favorite food is fruit, but he eats almost anything. So he’s pretty easy to win over. And of course he can fly! He’s one of ours!”

A fruit basket later, Momo had Yee Li, Hei Won, Xing Ying, and Balam wrapped around his little finger--or was it the other way around? Momo obligingly flew loop-the-loops for the girls, then accepted tummy rubs while he lay sprawled on a floor cushion.

“Was Momo trapped in the iceberg with you?” Hei Won asked.

“Oh no, I found him later, at the Southern Air Temple.”

“So he’s from our time,” Balam confirmed.

“Then there must be more flying lemurs where he came from!” Hei Won really did clap her hands in delight this time.

“Well, yeah, I don’t see how he could have been the only one in the Southern Islands.” Aang wondered why he hadn’t given this more thought before now.

“So a part of the Air Nomad world survives.” Xing Ying nodded in satisfaction.

“It does. It sure does!” Aang laughed with pure joy. For the first time he felt a little flowering of genuine hope about his people, a beating heart instead of a desperate fantasy. The lemurs wouldn’t bring them back, but somehow it mattered, hugely, that they had kept going, had maybe even thrived.

And these friends had brought him this flower, just with their enthusiasm. It still wasn’t theirs, the Air Nomad culture. It still wasn’t real to them. But they gave him the headspace for it, asked him to focus long enough to remember.

“So is it true that Air Nomads didn’t get married?”  

Aang wasn’t sure how Balam’s train of thought had got her there. “Uh, yep. Monks and nuns, you know!”

“But they had sex,” Balam clarified. “So it was all just hookups?”

“I…guess? Gyatso hadn’t exactly gotten to that part of my education.” Aang blushed. “Our new thing was pai sho.”

“I hope this isn’t too personal a question, Avatar Aang, but…”

“You can ask me anything. What is it?”

“Do you remember your parents?”

He shouldn’t have been surprised. He should have been surprised that it hadn’t come up a lot more before now.

Katara had asked once, when it was just the two of them, one quiet night early on when Sokka was asleep, and he’d explained how it was. She had enveloped him in her arms, which he’d loved, out of sympathy and probably pity, which he hadn’t. Until then, it had never occurred to him that his lack of blood relatives might sadden his friends (in the old days, everyone just knew that about Air Nomads). Since it upset her so much, he hadn’t brought it up again, but assumed that she’d told everyone else. Apparently not.

Telling Toph the other day was the only other time he’d discussed it. Both times, reading his friends’ reactions, it gave him a sudden sense of vertigo, flipping him from one of the gang to something alien. The only boy in the world who never had parents.

“No. Air Nomads usually don’t, you know.”

“That’s what the texts said.” Xing Ying turned sympathetic eyes on him—not unlike Katara’s. “We weren’t sure whether to believe them. I mean, whether it might have been an exaggeration, or an idealization. We couldn’t…. Well, don’t take this the wrong way. We don’t mean to judge. But we couldn’t imagine how it would be possible for a child not to know his own mother.”

Aang shrugged. “I remember the women of the Western Air Temple. I remember being cared for and loved. And just playing all day. And comforted when I cry. Which is what mothers do, right? I just don’t know which one of them actually gave me life.”

“That seems sad.” Balam shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to seem insensitive. I know I’m just imposing our values on your experience. But don’t you ever feel lonely when you see families here?”

“Maybe. Sometimes. But before I…left, I had a family. The boys and monks at the Southern Air Temple. Gyatso was my mentor. Which is not that different from a father. I don’t think he was my father, though, biologically. And after the iceberg—well, I was really lucky that Katara and Sokka found me, and they made me part of their family almost right away. I’ve never really been alone, you know. Even this summer, Katara wanted to leave and I’m apart from her for maybe the longest period so far, but I’m with Toph. And now I’ve met you.” He smiled gratefully at them, and for once, they didn’t giggle, but returned his warmth unselfconsciously. He realized he hadn't actually thought about Katara for days now, which gave him a momentary jolt.

“You mean you can’t be absolutely sure Gyatso wasn’t your father?” Balam pursued.

“He was pretty old, so I doubt it! Guess he could have been my grandfather….” Aang considered the happy possibility.

“So…this may sound kind of weird, but.” Hei Won cleared her throat and blushed a little. “If no one knows who their parents are, or, I guess, their brothers and sisters, how did you avoid, you know, incest?”

“Huh! Good question! I never really thought about it. I mean, I was only twelve.”

“Ooh, I remember this!” All eyes turned to Balam. “You know, Xing Ying—that nun’s journal I found in the Minji antiques market? According to her, when an Air Nomad turned fifteen, they were told who their mother and father were, as well as any siblings, and they memorized the names, even if they didn’t recognize them. It turned out, she did remember her mother, she just hadn’t known that was who had given birth to her, and had met her father once, and one of her best friends turned out to be her sister. Imagine not knowing! Anyway, even though they weren’t expected to necessarily have any kind of special relationship with these people, they had to remember the names so that they wouldn’t, well, accidentally have sex with them some day.”

“Wow. Awkward.”

“So, if they were going to…” Yee Li delicately cleared her throat. “get it on with someone? They needed to share family trees first?”

“Basically, yeah.”

Aang laughed nervously. “Well, that clears that up! Aaaand I’m fifteen now. But since anyone I’m related to is dead now, guess it doesn’t really matter!” That killed the room.

 


 

Later that evening, as the girls were cleaning up and Aang was preparing to go, Balam sat down next to him with her eyes lowered.

“Avatar Aang, I wanted to talk to you about something. Something personal”

“What is it Balam?” She was usually so forthright—blunt, even.

“My family. It’s just a family legend, I’m sure. I don’t want to make any claims. But I have these eyes, you see.” She raised them and looked into his. Round and grey, like his. He’d noticed them before, but hadn’t reached the conclusion she was clearly about to suggest. He held his breath.

“They say—some of them say—that my grandfather—” her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper— “was an airbender.”

Even though he’d anticipated the reveal, Aang felt the bottom drop out of his world. Like when Appa rose too quickly off the ground without warning. This. This is what he’d been waiting for.

He could not even summon his own voice and answered in a whisper. “Who was he? Where? Where are you from? Where is your family now?”

She smiled, as if relieved at his reaction. (How could it be anything else?) “I’ll take you there.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Yugoda stood patiently on the dais, as Chief Arnook gave a formal, intricately worded welcome to the Avatar’s Southern Water Tribe companions, Admiral Hakoda’s children. Kanna’s grandchildren. She stood to his left, and on his right, his heir Savik stood earnestly at attention. On their right, Master Iri, the architectural bender, fidgeted visibly. She suppressed a sigh. A lifetime of meaningless ceremonies like this and the only thing to improve was her skill at feigning dignified interest.

Katara, she noted, was doing remarkably well at the same, sitting straight in her seat of honor, bright eyes eager to learn. Maybe it wasn’t feigned. This was only her second time to the North Pole—maybe it still sparkled for her. Her brother was apparently more skeptical, his mask of polite engagement rather blatantly pasted on.

“…Master Yugoda.” Arnook called her forth, and, on her cue, she graciously declined her head in acknowledgement, hand on heart. She had no idea what he’d just said.

“And Master Iri.” He did the same, a bit awkwardly.

At last, the ceremony was over and they stepped down to the banquet tables. She’d heard it said that blue light did nothing for the appeal of food, but it hadn’t made much sense to her until her sojourn in the Fire Nation. Despite the fact that the sadistic levels of spice prevented her from getting half the delicacies past the tip of her tongue, she’d wanted them all, a rainbow of seafood and tropical fruits, punctuated by chili sauces in a spectrum of reds, bathed in the warm golds of the equatorial sun—lust might not be too strong a word. But if you closed your eyes, the Northern Water Tribe could lay a good table.

“Thank you for having me, Master Yugoda.” Katara ducked her head respectfully, sitting to her left. “I’m truly ready to learn this time!” The optimism illuminating her face struck Yugoda as remarkable, considering the war she’d lived through—personally fought her way through. It was difficult to remember that this pretty girl was a hardened warrior and practically a world leader. What a strange world it had become.

“My pleasure, Master Katara. I may well have much to learn from you, too, you know.”

Katara widened her eyes in surprise. “Hardly! I’ve been making it up as I go along.”

“And that is experience of singular value. After all, no one else has made it up exactly the same way you have.”

To Katara’s left, Yugoda overheard a very different dynamic playing out. Master Iri was celebrated for the innovation and precision of his designs—a genius, according to some. But in every other respect, he was an ordinary young man of the Northern Water Tribe, a non-warrior who had rarely traveled beyond their hidden harbor, she assumed.

Sokka, though almost ten years younger and not a bender, was a seasoned weapons master and strategist, a hero of the war’s end and right-hand man of the Avatar’s, now shaping a career for himself as the leading intellect of his generation in the Southern Water Tribe—or so Master Pakku would have it—and apparently playing an instrumental role in its rebuilding. Iri was intimidated.

Sokka was pelting him with questions about engineering and city planning and the politics of elder councils and Iri was nodding earnestly while stuffing his mouth with reindeer and polar prawn en brochette, possibly to keep from having to answer.

“—so what do you think?” Sokka waited expectantly.

Hastily chewing and swallowing a large mouthful, Iri said, “That’s…a lot of questions! Maybe we should take them one at a time starting tomorrow. But let me say, Sokka, it is truly an honor to be working with you. What you've done—I hardly know where to being. Is it true that you took down the Fire Nation invasion fleet?“ He raised his eyebrows for confirmation. He got it in a cocky grin which he couldn’t help but return. “I hope you’ll tell me the tale. And, of course, that I have some of the answers you’re looking for.” 

“GranP—I mean, Master Pakku recommended you as the brightest engineering mind at the North Pole. The youngest architectural bending master in Water Tribe history! I heard you invented of a new steam-powered sewage system that works in ice-based plumbing? That’s incredible!  Me, I don’t know the first thing about how this city is constructed. So I think you’ll have some answers, yeah.”

Now Iri’s confident smile—with just enough self-deprecation to be polite—confirmed his own prowess. He turned to Katara, who had also been eavesdropping on the men’s conversation. “Master Katara, I would love to hear about your work with the Avatar as well.”

“Oh, sure!” Their eyes met, and Yugoda thought they might have had a moment. She couldn’t see Katara’s face, but there was definitely a flash of keen interest in Iri’s eyes. He did have a bit of a reputation there, she remembered. “Just clearing the Fire Nation out of the Earth Kingdom these days. As peacefully as possible.”

“Just that!” Iri shook his head. “I have enough trouble clearing Master Alornerk’s apprentices out of my studio!” The three laughed, and Yugoda nodded in satisfaction. This could be a fruitful friendship.

Over a dessert of potato flour cake smothered in a warm berry sauce (the North Pole now had a healthy trade going with the northern Earth Kingdom, with the postwar reopening of sea routes), Katara leaned over to Yugoda with her eyes fixed on the head of the table and asked quietly, “Is Chief Arnook well?”

Yugoda was impressed. The Chief had been putting on a pretty good act tonight. “You do have the eye of a healer. In truth, he’s never really recovered from his daughter’s death. The challenges at the end of the war gave him enough of a mission at first, but now, his health seems to fade a little each moon. I have him on a treatment regimen, but I have not found the key to turning his trajectory.” She shook her head gravely. “Likely, it’s not mine to turn.”

“And that young man with him—that’s his heir now?”

“Savik, yes. A second cousin to Arnook. After Yue and Hahn passed there was a…contest. Savik is now next in line for the chiefdom.”

Surely even Katara would recognize the euphemism. It’s not as though the Water Tribes had a formal tradition like the Agni Kai they could call upon. It had been devious, vicious, and stopped short of bloodshed only by the grace of Yue (perhaps literally—Yugoda had suspected the new spirit of taking an active hand in human affairs more than once). And by the fact that violence by waterbending often did not need to actually spill blood to be devastatingly effective. Three members of the chief’s lineage were now completely recovered from their maladies and living in exile as a result.

This was not the time for that conversation, however. “Chief Arnook will be due for another treatment later this week. You will of course have the opportunity to observe. And we can discuss his prognosis in detail afterwards.”

 


 

After the banquet, Sokka and Katara were escorted to the two-bedroom house they’d been given for the summer. It swayed alarmingly as Sokka passed through the doorway. The ice wine had flowed copiously tonight. In extravagant, swirly rivers—waterbenders, you know. Katara caught his elbow, but Sokka managed to steady himself, examining the elegant ornamental detail that shaped the actually quite stable doorframe, trying to disguise the effort it took. They knew how to do it in style here at the North Pole.

Katara grinned up at him. Was she shorter? “Thank you, Sokka.”

No, that didn’t make sense. He must be taller. Cuz girls finish growing before boys, right? “Thank you , Katara. Wait, what are these thank-yous for?” Focus, man.

Katara giggled and couldn’t stop. So, it wasn’t like she was unaffected. “For bringing me here.”

“You brought yourself! Or, Aang did. But I mean, it was your doing!”

“It was your idea. A good one. I hope. I’m sure.” She leaned her head against his arm. “And it’s so good to be with you again.”

He put his arm around her and pulled her close. “You wouldn’t believe how much I missed you, Katara.”

“Oh, I might.” And she hugged him back.

The next morning, after a balanced breakfast prepared by their own cook and housekeeper (getting the VIP treatment!), Sokka strolled through the pristine streets, willing the ice cold morning air to sharpen his mind and soothe the dull pounding in his head. It was cold enough to keep away the thaw, but not so cold your nostril hairs froze. The Arctic summer.

Sokka marveled at the smooth pavement, clear as glass. After a quick check left and right for witnesses, he gave in to the urge to run and slide—only it didn’t work. The slickness was an illusion and the surface of the road actually carried a respectable amount of traction. How’d they do that?

When Iri came looking for him, he found Sokka crouched on the street, cheek pressed against the pavement, trying to discern the mechanism for the deception. Sokka jumped to his feet when he noticed the sealskin boots out of the corner of his eye.

“Master Iri! Good morning!” How embarrassing.

Iri looked both bemused and amused, one eyebrow raised, lips tightly suppressing a grin. “Find anything?”

“What’s the secret? Why isn’t it slippery?” Sokka figured he sounded too earnest for his foolish face, one cheek bright red from the ice, because Iri stopped even trying to keep from laughing.

“All will be revealed. Let’s get started.” He gestured towards his studio, still grinning. “After you.”

The Academy was built up against the glacial walls that hemmed the city in, not far from the entrance to the Spirit Oasis. Sokka expected some kind of a campus behind the handsome edifice—classrooms, students, libraries—but it seemed to be just a series of architectural studios arranged around a courtyard. Architects and craftsmen circulated peacefully, exchanging muted greetings, while a few boys darted here and there—apprentices, presumably.

“Since we have only this summer to cover a great deal of material, I cannot teach you in the traditional manner of master and apprentice, where you would simply shadow me and learn by doing. Not to mention the additional anomalies that you are not a waterbender, not a child, and not of the Northern Water Tribe—you didn’t grow up with the structures and systems we take for granted. So I have taken the liberty of drawing up a sort of a handbook, or maybe more of a syllabus.”

Iri opened a scroll out on his desk with both arms in a smooth gesture. Meticulous, tiny characters marched across it in orderly columns, detailing topics, principia, equations, and a few precise illustrations and diagrams. They spent the next hour going over Iri’s plan for the summer.

Sokka was impressed that not only had Iri thought through the most rational and effective way to present all of the key concepts Sokka would need in order to understand North Pole engineering, he’d also taken into consideration Sokka’s barrage of questions from the banquet the night before and worked them into his existing framework. Which meant he must have been up half the night rewriting the entire scroll. Sokka relaxed. He was in good hands. But he felt guilty for getting a good night’s sleep.

 


 

Katara felt the waning quarter moon rise above the horizon. Finally. One thing she hated about summer at the Poles was never seeing the full moon; it was always below the horizon. Only the quarter and new moons were ever visible, and the new moon would stay up for a week at a time without setting. A moon was a moon, and it was better, of course, that during the sunless winter, it was the full moon that stayed up instead. Still, seeing the full moon every month, year round, was one of the many pleasures Katara had discovered in the middle latitudes of the planet—and gotten quite used to.

The tingly pulse of energy from the summer moonrise was enough to break her morning meditation. She lifted her chin and opened her eyes to see Yugoda regarding her with a twinkle of amusement. “Is something funny?”

Yugoda caught herself. “No, no, not at all.” She began to stretch her limbs out of her meditation posture, slowly and painstakingly loosening old joints, and said lightly, “I feel the same thing, of course, when the moon rises. But I enjoy seeing it mirrored on a young face.” She paused to ease the tension out of a shoulder. “Your meditation is improving. Your qi feels more centered.”

“You can feel it from there?”

“Well, not literally. But I can read it in the lines of your body. How does it feel to you?”

“Peaceful, of course. Meditating is always peaceful.”

“Mm-hm.” Yugoda assessed her critically. “But you do not go in very deep. Still. Why is that? What do you fear at the source of your power?” Her gaze threatened to penetrate Katara’s secrets.

Katara stared back, holding back, unsure how to respond. “Fear? I’m not afraid. I’m—I’m very powerful.” Suddenly she was irritated by Yugoda’s questioning. “Others fear me.” She stood and busied herself gathering her medical kit for the day.

Katara spent her days shadowing Yugoda’s every move, joining her in the Healing House just after breakfast, and bidding her goodnight in the endless summer dusk to join Sokka for a late dinner back at their house—though the siblings increasingly dined with their respective masters, grasping at every opportunity to soak in more knowledge.

Yugoda’s days were a patchwork of responsibilities. After meditation, she held a quick, one-on-one tutorial with Katara, reviewing advanced anatomy and qi patterns. Then Yugoda would hold her healing class for young girls. Katara observed her teaching methods and occasionally taught a lesson herself, based on her unique “field experience.” The classes also filled in missing pieces in her own haphazard education.

When the girls were dismissed for lunch—”Why are they all girls, Master Yugoda? Can’t boys learn to heal?” (Yugoda rolled her eyes with a smile of tacit agreement)—they set out on rounds with a pocket full of seal jerky to sustain themselves. Sometimes another of the older students would accompany, as well. Any of these routines could be interrupted by an urgent medical call, or by a less urgent call from someone high in the North Pole hierarchy.

Prenatal visits seemed to be staples of Yugoda’s practice, to Katara’s delight. Her own healing so far had been dominated by the injuries of war—she could heal a burn in her sleep. In midwifery, which she had done so much of back home (a lot if you counted the buffalo-yaks and polar dogs, anyway), she’d had few opportunities.

“There.” Yugoda placed Katara’s hands on the patient’s barely rounded belly. “The heartbeat.”

Katara concentrated and plunged her awareness deep into the young woman’s womb, and smiled when she found the fluttery beat. She would not have been able to hone in on something so tiny without the amniotic fluid, which seemed to amplify her waterbending senses. 

“Now…” Yugoda shifted Katara’s hands just slightly. “Listen from this angle, and what do you find.”

Katara gasped. “Two heartbeats!”

“What?!” The mother-to-be popped up on her elbows.

Yugoda grinned at her. “Congratulations, Malgi. You’re having twins.”

Malgi turned so pale Katara was afraid she might faint, and swooped over to lay her head back on the pillow. “Twins,” Malgi whispered. “That’s...amazing.” Katara was surprised to see a tear slip out of the corner of her eye, and couldn’t read the expression on her face.

Yugoda clasped her hand. “You can do it. Tullik may not have the abilities he once did, but he has more than enough love for the three of you. He will be a devoted father.”

“Yes, he will. He will. But I don’t know if love is enough. How will I care for two all by myself? He can’t even hold them.” She started to cry in earnest.

Yugoda stroked her hair until she composed herself. “I will come see you every four weeks until the babies come. If you cramp or bleed—more than a little spotting—you must call me immediately. Stay off the ice wine, eat good food, and you will be fine. After the birth, I’ll assign my students to attend to you in shifts for the first few weeks. They’ll help out around the house. And then we’ll put together a long-term strategy to support you.”

“We can’t ask those extra services of you, Master Yugoda.”

“It’s not extra. It’s just what’s needed.”

After Malgi left, Yugoda  explained to Katara, “Tullik was a casualty of the Siege. He was burned so severely in the battle that we had to amputate at the knees and elbows.”

Katara raised her hand to her mouth and felt that painful twist in her chest, as she always did. “So tragic,” she murmured. “I’ve seen stories like that across the Earth Kingdom. Families reduced to beggary by such injuries.”

“Not here, never here. Even in the old days, before we had the wealth to care for our even our most compromised veterans, a victim of such profound damage would have been...released. A mercy, over begging.”

“That’s what we would do at the South Pole,” Katara admitted. “You must think us so primitive.”

The sad sympathy in Yugoda’s eyes was a hair shy of pity. “Just practical. What else could you do?” Katara barely heard her as she turned away. “What choice did we leave you?” 

“Will the tribe offer her additional financial support for the twins?”

“One way or another, we’ll make sure they’re cared for. Children are the true wealth of the tribe. As I’m sure the Southern Water Tribe would agree.” 

“Oh, of course. Do you have children, Yugoda?”

Yugoda exhaled softly and raised her head, gazing through the ice window, though it was opaque. The diffuse light erased lines and years on her face, revealing a younger Yugoda, wearing an old woman’s regret.  “No. I never married." 

Somehow this surprised Katara, though of course she had never seen any hint of a husband or family here. “Why not?”

Yugoda smiled at her—her usual mentoring face, masking that moment of honesty. “I couldn’t have lived this life, you know. If I’d had children to care for, and if I’d had the children expected of me—not just one or two, of course, but a whole litter—how could I have devoted myself to my craft? My labor would always be needed at home, caring for my own.”

Katara nodded. Of course that would be so. The work never ended, she knew that as well as any woman. “But you haven’t been...lonely?” She was asking something else, but didn’t know how to phrase it without sounding, well, slutty. Joking with the women at home over the mending was one thing. Everyone at the North Pole seemed so much more refined. 

There must have been a look in her eye, though, because Yugoda winked. “There are privileges that come with the position, my dear. My independence brings certain gifts, and eyes averted from my choices.” 

Intriguing. Katara leaned in, trying not to blush. “But then, how did you avoid the, um, litters?”

“Ah, that I can teach you. Another waterbending perk. Remind me later.” And she winked again.

Katara failed at keeping the heat from her face. Then, as she thought further, felt a furrow collecting at her brow. “Do all—is that usually how it is for master healers? And master benders? Freedom but no family?” 

“Well, not the men, of course. They marry and have kids like everyone else. But for healers...yes. That is a consequence of choosing this path, Katara.” Yugoda let her words settle into the space between them.

This was not a revelation—it was self-evident. But Katara found herself surprised at her own discomfort. What had she thought would happen? That she would birth a litter—or would it be “flock”?—of airbenders and still travel the world rescuing villagers, negotiating peace, healing Fire Lords?

The choices could not be that stark, could they? Children or vocation, South Pole or Aang, helping the world or finding love?

 


 

Master Pakku arrived from the South Pole just in time for the Summer Solstice, as usual. He now split his year between North and South at the Solstices, to maintain a balance of dark and light in his life, even if the timing meant that the transitions were sudden. The sun had been up for weeks already, and on the Solstice itself, a twenty-four-hour celebration would be held, with feasting, music, and of course magnificent displays of waterbending.

“Sokka! Katara!” He gave them each a paternal embrace. “I have plans for you!”

The siblings exchanged a wary glance.

Pakku laughed. “Don’t worry. You’ll love it. And risk to life and limb will be, well, relatively low.”

GranPakku revealed that he wanted to feature them—a non-bender and a woman—in his annual holiday bending exhibition, with Katara as the grand finale. How times had changed.

When the Solstice arrived, after an all-city breakfast feast, the tribespeople began to collect on the central plaza in front of the Chief's palace for the big show. It began with what Sokka decided might be his favorite act: an architectural bending contest. A challenge would be set (such as building a six-foot bridge strong enough to hold a man, using only a bucket of water). If all contestants met the requirements within the time marked by a liquid hourglass, and their bridges held, then aesthetics won the day, by vote of the spectators.

There were a few non-bending demonstrations, too: an orchestra of ice instruments,* a yodeling duel, and, to Sokka’s amazement, an epic singer (accompanied by a drummer and a fiddler, just like at the South Pole), who sang a version of Sokka’s “Airship Slice” song! He rushed onstage afterwards and kissed the singer on the cheek—which apparently made for high comedy to a Northern audience.

As the time for Master Pakku's performance approached, the plaza swelled with people, eager for the main attraction. With a final flourish, the students of Master Imiq (the North Pole’s secondmost prominent waterbender after Pakku) swirled three globes of water above their heads to form the Water Tribes symbol, then then joined them in a long ribbon that snaked high into the air before plunging back into a cistern at the base of the stairs. The men bowed and descended the stairs, stepping in unison.

Behind them, Master Pakku seemed to materialize out of thin air. When the mist shrouding him dissipated, he moved through an advanced waterbending form, moving astonishing amounts of water through the air. On a prearranged cue, Sokka cut through his closing ribbon of water with a dramatic stroke of Space Sword, scattering water droplets that caught the sunlight like splintered glass.

Pakku and Sokka had practiced sparring now and then, here and at the South Pole, and so this duel was not choreographed. Pakku shot a bolt of water at Sokka’s face, which he easily blocked with a spin of his sword (an airbender-like move he’d picked up from Aang). He darted in quickly to strike at Pakku’s offside, but the master evaded fluidly, and suddenly he was behind Sokka. With a quick tuck and roll, Sokka got to keep his head, as blade-sharp discs of ice whistled above him.

He stayed down and spun on his hip, slicing (Zuko-inspired) at Pakku’s feet, which leapt into the air, landing on a curving ice slide that sent him swiftly around Sokka, as he drew a wave of water over his head. Sokka dove to escape the deluge—but upwards and towards his opponent, grappling him around the waist and taking him down off the back side of the ice slide, which melted instantly.

Pakku landed hard on his back with Sokka’s hard skull rammed into his belly. The crowd gasped with horror at this indignity, more barroom brawl than Solstice exhibition. Sokka assumed this would knock the wind out of the old man, but, with a shout of rage worthy of a Southern wolf warrior, Pakku flipped Sokka onto his back with a savage look in his eye, and for a split second, Sokka thought he was getting a roundhouse punch to the jaw.

But the master waterbender recovered his wits and spun himself on a tower of water high above Sokka, still sprawled on the ground, half pinned by the unnatural current. Pakku pulled his arm back for a mighty blow, whose trajectory would slice Sokka in half. The ice-edged blade of water whistled through the air faster than Sokka could move.

At the last minute, an ice shield flashed above him, stilling the blade. Both dissolved into passive water that splashed over Sokka as Katara swooped in on a majestic wave, cresting at Pakku’s eye level.

The crowd gasped again, this time in simultaneous dismay and adulation. Katara’s status in the Northern Water Tribe was utterly unique and there was no consensus on how the tribe should feel about it.

The two master benders circled each other, the water columns they stood on crossing and dodging each other. Without warning, Katara’s column sliced through Pakku’s, cutting his support. She lost hers as well, of course, but was well prepared and slid gracefully to the floor, as she encased her teacher in a layered sphere of ice.

Pakku melted the ice instantly, but retained the globe of water a moment, shimmering and quivering against the tension of his bending, then released it in an explosion that knocked Katara off of her feet. Without a pause, she rolled to her feet, throwing scythes of ice at him, which he blasted from the air, each more flamboyantly than the last.

The match went on and on—a quarter hour, a half hour. The audience (which now included Sokka) looked on in awe and sympathetic exhaustion. How much longer could they keep this up? Neither master could get the better of the other, until at last, at a few whispered words from Yugoda, Master Imiq stepped up and melted every blade and shard of ice on the stage at once, sweeping it out into a gigantic cloud of mist.

Pakku and Katara turned to him in confusion.

“This match is declared a draw!” Imiq boomed.

For a bare second, Pakku looked like he might murder one or both of them, but smoothed his face with practiced grace, and bowed first to Katara, then to Imiq, each of whom returned the gesture.

“It was a true honor, Master Pakku. I am forever your student,” Katara spoke loudly enough for her voice to carry over the crowd.

“The student has very nearly bested the teacher tonight. You are destined to become the world’s most powerful waterbender. And perhaps the only one to achieve mastery of both battle and healing. May these contrary arts resolve themselves in you to lead our Tribes and our world down the path to peace.” And Pakku bowed low to Katara, who seemed to be struggling to suppress an urge to run—out of embarrassment, Sokka assumed. He could never predict when she'd be willing to revel in the role of the hero and when she would duck from it.

At a gesture, the ice orchestra returned and struck up a lively tune, as vendors began pushing food carts amongst the tribespeople.

Katara joined Sokka and they retreated to the balustrade at the back of the vast plaza, looking out over the city. Katara was still trying to catch her breath.

“GranPakku sure can deliver a show.”

“Don’t call him that, Sokka.” Katara hadn’t even been home, and she was scolding him with the exact same words as Hakoda and Kanna. Like they had some magical transglobal message system for Parents and Parental Surrogates of Sokka (PPSS).

“And you. Moon above, that was…” Sokka shook his head, at a loss for words that would work. “Every time I see you bend, it’s more astounding than the last time. That was a show Sirmiq City will remember for a long time.”

She half laughed. “My bending’s good. But I could do without the audience. Master Pakku’s just like Aang—they love the roar of the crowd. They don’t have much else in common, those two.”

“Gr—fine, Master Pakku still can’t stand him, Avatar or not.”

“And Aang still can’t train sensibly. If I force the issue, I can usually get him to focus for two or three sessions a week. Fortunately, he is the Avatar, and he gets by on that. And I have to keep after him to get in the firebending and earthbending practice, too.”

“Not airbending?”

She waved a hand dismissively. “He doesn’t need to practice that any more than he needs to practice breathing. Or being Aang. Too bad more of the rest of his responsibilities don’t flow so naturally from who he is.”

“So he relies on you. To steer him against his own current.”

“I suppose so, yeah.”

“That’s not really you, either, waterbender.”

“I’m what he has, Sokka.” She smiled ruefully at him.

“He has the world, Katara.”

“You know what I mean.” She turned back to the horizon.

Sokka wasn’t convinced, but let it go. He wondered—again—if this partnership of theirs really was as perfect as they painted it for everyone else. After all, it’s not like Katara ever really did force Aang to step outside of his Aangyness.

Yes, she made sure his socks were clean and he kept his appointments and the job got done. But it seemed to him that a lot of the stuff that didn’t come naturally to Aang, Katara just did herself. Like write up the official reports to Zuko and King Kuei. He knew damn well that she also shielded his innocence as much as she could. Like defending him when he couldn’t— wouldn’t —execute Ozai. Ironic, considering everything and everyone already living inside Aang’s head. Ten thousand years of violence, presumably.

“How’s Suki?” Katara asked abruptly after a few minutes’ silence.

Mad at me. “Oh, fine, good. Same as ever. Focused like a Yu Yan archer on Zuko’s safety. Keeping all her warriors disciplined and battle-ready. Polar opposite of Aang, I guess!” Sokka chuckled. And wondered why he and Katara were following such different lovers (or whatever Aang was to Katara). It’s not like they were so different from each other, when you got down to it.

“She’s really devoted to Zuko.” He caught Katara’s eyes flicker sideways at him—fishing for something?

“She’s really devoted to her duty.” Not going to dignify that suggestion. “And her girls. Kyoshi originals or new Fire Nation recruits. She really cares about all them. Almost as much as she cares about professional excellence.” He’d meant for that to be a joke, but it didn’t quite come out sounding like one. “She’ll be done with this gig in another year, when the new Fire Nation Girls Squad is established. And then she—they, the Kyoshi warriors—will have one hell of an international reputation to stand on.”

“She’s really building a career.”

He acknowledged that with a nod, noticing Katara’s perplexed frown. “Does that seem strange to you? I mean, it’s Suki. She’s always been a warrior first.”

“Sure, I know. But it’s not how you’ve always been. I mean, you used to think my highest calling was to mend the holes in your pants.”

“Hey! I was just a kid—I’ve learned a lot since then!” Yeah, he’d been a bonehead. The universe had basically done him a favor, in its brutal way, by hurling him up against the strongest women in the world to teach him a little truth. “You know, cracking a gigantic iceberg in half and releasing the Avatar from a hundred-year deep-freeze is a pretty effective way of shaking a guy up enough to hear your argument!”

Katara laughed, and he realized it had been a while since he’d heard her really let loose. They’d both been drinking the extra daylight like a tonic these last few weeks, working hard and barely sleeping.

“So you’re going to see her after this, right?”

“Yeah, I’m...uh... yeah. Going to see her.” Katara gave him a penetrating look. Of course she would see right through that fumble. “She might be, it’s possible, a little upset with me.” Katara turned and leaned on one elbow, one eyebrow cocked. “Yeah, well, you know about Mina.”

“Did you do something with Mina?”

“No. No! Nothing. Nothing physical, anyway. I mean, I didn’t initiate anything. It’s just that Suki didn’t know. And I didn’t edit one of my letters very well, and now she does know. Even though it’s completely over with Mina. Completely. And it was never anything to begin with. But I kind of didn’t tell Suki at the time.” 

“At the time when there was nothing going on.” 

“....Exactly.”

Katara harrumphed. “Well, good luck with that!”

“Hey, want to come along? You could go see Zuko!”

“Why would I want to see Zuko?” Katara shot back, almost defensively.

“Cuz he’s your friend? Why wouldn’t you want to see him?”

“Oh.” She laughed a little nervously. “Of course I would. But he’s so busy these days, I’d hate to bother him. And he’s got Mai. And I have to be getting back to Aang. We’re going to see King Bumi after this, to see how the reassimilation of colonies into his lands is going, because, you know, he’s got some of the more recent colonies, the ones evacuated first, so they’re sort of test cases for the Harmony Restoration Accord, and we need to see how it’s going.”

She was babbling. Why was she babbling? Sokka eyed her speculatively. “Actually, I get the impression Zuko is kind of lonely. He always makes time whenever I’m there.”

“Oh.” She looked chagrined and a little embarrassed, like she should have known better. Which she should have. “Then we should go. I’ll try to get Aang to fit a visit in later this year. They’d both enjoy that. I think.”

Sokka was distracted when a large sled pulled out onto the plaza, heaped with multi-colored snowballs. With cries of delight, the crowd scooped them up and began a rainbow snowball fight. Sokka dove in, all thought of sticky relationship issues banished from his mind.

 


 

“Two bowls, two beers!” called the noodle shop proprietor, sliding said orders down the bar.  Sokka caught them, careful not to slosh, and passed one of each to Iri, sitting next to him. The green noodles were arranged in a pleasing swirl in a moat of white broth, set off by the cobalt-glazed bowls. Everything here was pretty, even down in this low-rent district by the harbor walls. He did miss the expansive horizons of mountains and sea that you had at the South Pole—the defenses that had kept Sirmiq City safe from the Fire Nation for a century also made Sokka a little claustrophobic (and its inhabitants maybe a little agoraphobic). But the South couldn’t begin to match the North for sheer style

“Thanks, Sokka. You didn’t need to.”

“A bowl of noodles from time to time is the least I can do. I’m taking a lot of your time this summer.”

“It’s been my pleasure. More than pleasure. Your way of looking at things—it’s so unique. You’ve challenged a lot of my assumptions, very usefully. Not to mention the sheer amount of labor you’re putting into my projects! I’m pretty sure I’m coming out ahead here.” Iri grinned at Sokka. 

“Well, in that case, maybe I need to bring you down to the South Pole! See what you can do for us.”  Sokka was joking. Kind of.  

But Iri took him seriously. “I’d be honored. Should I come for your summer? You might be onto something, with this endless polar summer lifestyle.”

They both laughed. “Embrace the midnight sun madness. It’s a short life!” And they lifted their mugs of juniper beer to that.

Just before breaking for supper, they’d been inspecting the grand locks at the entrance to the city. These were operated by waterbenders, of course, but systematically—engineering benders did not improvise creatively the way that combat masters like Pakku or Katara did. There was a strict procedure that was executed precisely the same way every time the waters were raised or lowered. Sokka thought he’d be bored out of his mind, if it were him. But the benders at the locks seemed to take a quiet satisfaction in the certainty of their jobs.

In any case, such a system would never work at the South Pole, with no resident benders, so Sokka and Iri were exploring methods for reimagining a bending-based technology as a mechanical one. It was recurring theme for the summer.

“So we’d obviously need mechanical valves, to drain the locks,” Sokka continued a line they’d been following before ordering the noodles, “but it seems like gravity could do most of the work, lacking any gravity-defying bending magic.” 

“It’s not magic.”  Iri jabbed his chopsticks toward Sokka with mock severity. “But yeah, gravity can do most of the work. You’re not wrong, we do get lazy with design when most flaws can be overcome by some well-organized benders.”

“On a locks system of any size, though, we’ll need some means of opening and closing both the valves and the gates.”

“You don’t think human muscle will be enough? Or animal, for that matter?”

“With some good lever or pulley action, maybe. But wouldn’t hydraulics be more elegant?”

“Oh, now it’s ‘elegance’ we’re striving for, is it?”

“Come on, Iri, you Northerners don’t make a fucking toilet seat without considering the aesthetic balance with the toilet paper roll. What, you think us Southern rubes are too crude for that?”

“No, hey, Sokka, I didn’t mean that. You’re just always so...practical in your considerations. And the South is more...rustic?”

Wrong thing to say, buddy. Iri was just ignorant. Sokka wasn’t ready to draw a weapon over it. But he could hear the ice in his own voice when he asked, rhetorically, “And why do you suppose that is, friend?”

Iri had the decency to look embarrassed. “The Fire Nation, I know. They say the South Pole rivaled the North once, a century ago.”

“Yeah, they do. And by the time I was born, all our waterbenders were long gone and we were down to subsistence living. It wasn’t because we didn’t know better.” A sudden stab of bitterness went through him that wouldn’t be shut up. “But I think we can be a little more generous with the blame here. Sure, the Fire Nation was evil. And we didn’t have the natural defenses you have—that’s topography. But where were our human defenders? The Earth Kingdom never really answered the call, those fuck-ups. Where were our brothers? Where were you?”

Iri’s eyes flared in surprise, defensiveness setting into his jaw automatically. But as Sokka’s accusation sank in, he swallowed visibly and stared at his noodles, then murmured, “Hiding. Up here. In our elegant, impenetrable fortress.”

The bitterness drained from Sokka as quickly as it had come. It would spike without warning, when a hard reality from home would crack against the seductive spell of prosperity and refinement all around him here and the contrast would overwhelm him. But “It’s just not fair” was not the way forward. This was beer and noodles—he needed to lighten up.

“Well, that’s why I’m here! To do a little penetrating! I mean—uh…” Maybe the midnight sun was getting to him. 

“Do tell, Sokka? Have you been entertaining some extracurricular pursuits I should know about?” Iri winked, with a rakish grin, and Sokka could practically feel the relief slough off of his friend at the return to regular guy talk.

“With the workload you’ve given me? I’d never sleep!”

“It’s summer! Who sleeps? Seriously, I could introduce you to some eligible young ladies…”

“We’ve got a surplus of those at home. And I’m already in trouble with the tribe for sticking with my Kiyoshi warrior instead of one of them. Hey, I should be introducing you to our young ladies.” Sokka gave him a once-over. Fit, sharp jawline, bedroom blue eyes, nut brown skin, floppy hair. “Yeah, they’d go for you all right.”

“Haven’t you already?” Sokka gave him a sharp look, but Iri didn’t meet his eyes and kept talking. “So the Southern Water Tribe wants Northern men? Your men would go for that?”

“Only if the Northerners were willing to become Southern men,” Sokka said pointedly. “Kind of defeats the purpose, otherwise. And Southern women decide for themselves anyway. Think that’d be a problem for a Northern man?” That was another rhetorical question. It damn well would be a problem for most of them. 

Iri took it seriously, again. “Depends on the man, doesn’t it? We’re not so provincial up here we can’t learn new ways. The world is changing, right?”

“Right. But does your tribe know that?” 

“Variable.” Iri laughed ruefully. “I certainly do. But I still have a lot to learn.”

Sokka slapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Let’s get you out of here, then. We’ll set something up. You can bring some enlightenment back to the benighted North!”

“‘Benighted?’ Iceberg calling the glacier cold! Else what are you here for?”

Sokka laughed. “Point taken. It’s the separation that’s the problem, right? Why should there be two Water Tribes, anyway?”

“There aren’t two Fire Nations, or two Earth Kingdoms.” 

“Uh, well, actually, there’s a lot more than two Earth Kingdoms. And who knows what the postwar fallout will be for the Fire Nation. Fingers crossed for Zuko’s peace. But think of what the Water Tribe could be if we were a unified force! We knock the conservatism out of you and you help us back to civilization and prosperity. We could rule the ocean between us!”

“A new age of Water Tribe conquest?” Iri looked doubtful.

“Well, not that. Ok, we’ll cooperate the crap out of everyone else and rule the waterways with our superior ships and advantageous trade agreements! That’s a little less snappy, as a call to action.”

“But the better action.”

“Indeed!” And they drained their mugs to that. “Another beer down here for Master Iri! And for me!” 

More drink eventually turned the talk back to women, inevitably. 

“So why are you still single, Iri? The North Pole’s hardly lacking in fine, fair ladies.” Sokka waggled his eyebrows lecherously.

Iri chuckled with a sidelong glance at Sokka—a suggestive glance?—and downed the rest of his beer. He seemed about to answer, then looked more fully at Sokka and sobered suddenly. “I’d forgotten. You’re no stranger to our ladies. You and Princess Yue….”

“Had nothing.” Sokka stiffened. He would defend her honor even in death. Especially in death. “She was betrothed to another. Chief Arnook assigned me to protect her during the siege. And I...well, I failed.” The horror of that winter night when the moon went red came over him in a wave.

“She chose to sacrifice herself.”

Sokka could only nod, unable to dislodge the lump in his throat as the memory rushed through him, of the returning moonlight shining silver on Yue’s limp body in his arms. “She...it all happened so fast, I barely understood what was happening. Who expects the moon to die?” He swallowed the tears that threatened. “She was the bravest woman I’ve ever known.” And that was saying something.

Iri rested a hand on Sokka’s shoulder in sympathy, then gave it a comforting little shake. “Another beer?”

“Definitely.”

 


 

Today was Chief Arnook’s biweekly treatment. Katara had accompanied Yugoda to see him several times now, and despite their care, he continued to decline, slowly but steadily. He greeted them in his sitting room, as always, dignified and fully dressed, before leading them to the spa at the back of his mansion, where he changed into a dressing gown and lay on the massage table that served for examinations.

Yugoda had Katara lay water on him and initiate the treatment with what was little more than a soothing massage, tracing his meridians in a set pattern. Then she began a routine diagnostic procedure, but still found nothing more than inexplicable fatigue. Arnook seemed to be running a rather high temperature today, as well. She stepped aside for Yugoda continue more intensively. Instead of tracing lines of qi, Katara noticed that Yugoda was following his circulatory system today.

“Do you suspect an illness of the blood?” she asked.

“I did so earlier this year, but could find nothing wrong. It’s time to look again. Sometimes a chronic illness can progress over time, to reveal disorder that was undetectable before.”

Both women were quiet as she searched gently, meticulously, through Arnooks veins. 

“Feel this, Katara.” Katara joined her, lining up her fingers with Yugoda’s along an artery. “Do you sense a difference in the energy there, an imbalance?”

Katara closed her eyes and followed the blood, careful only to observe and not to touch. The moon wasn’t full, she probably couldn’t bend it, but this was delicate work on a sick man, and it didn’t need her sneaking in like an accidental assassin. “It...just feels like blood.”

“That’s because you’re skimming over the surface. Reach into it, you’ll see.”

Katara froze for a second. That she would not do. So she faked it. “Ah, no. Sorry, Yugoda, I’m not seeing it.” And she quickly removed her fingers. “What do you think it means?” 

Yugoda gave her an assessing look, bordering on suspicion. But she answered the question. “There are certain diseases where there is an imbalance in the content of the blood. I’ll explain it to you in detail back at the Healing House.” She dropped the water into a bowl at her side and gave Arnook’s shoulders a gentle squeeze. “Chief Arnook, I believe we’re done for today. But I would like to see you again tomorrow, after I have a chance to consult some texts and discuss with Master Katara. I may have discovered something new."

He rose slowly and nodded his consent. Even speech seemed to tire him now. “Tomorrow then. If I could trouble you to see yourselves out.”

“Of course, Chief Arnook.” The two healers bowed respectfully and took their leave.

Back at the Healing House, Yugoda took her time unpacking and tidying up—quite unnecessarily, Katara thought. Finally, she sat down, a crease in her brow. “He has the white blood disease.”

“Ok, what can we do?”

Yugoda looked up and Katara saw the careful mask of the nurturing healer crumple. Grief and resignation clouded her eyes. “Nothing.”

Katara felt her own blood drain from her face. “He will die.”

“Yes. By the end of this year, or early next, would be my guess.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Yugoda.” Katara didn’t know what kind of a personal relationship Yugoda might have with Arnook, if any, but he was the Chief and had been for many, many years. It would affect the entire tribe. She reached over and held her mentor’s hand.

After a minute, Yugoda collected herself back into her teacher personna. “Katara. You did not reach into his blood. Why not?”

“What do you mean?” Katara stood to examine the anatomy chart on the wall with great interest.

“You know I can feel everything you do when my hands are on the same patient. Don’t pretend you can hide this. What is it you fear?”

Katara felt her pulse starting to race, like a cornered animal. Or warrior. But she couldn’t fight here. That was the whole problem. She forced herself to breathe deep into the well of her lungs. Confession. It was always going to come to this. She closed her eyes.

“I don’t want to hurt them. I am a bloodbender.” She said it steadily and without emotion.

“A ‘bloodbender?’ What do you mean?” Yugoda sounded genuinely puzzled.

“You don’t know? I though maybe…. Maybe it’s actually not known here.” Maybe Hama really did invent it. Katara sat down on the floor, where the students sat for their lessons. “It’s something I learned from a woman living in the Fire Nation, a former war prisoner. Hama, the only other Southern waterbender I ever met. She was…a murderer. A terrorist. She terrified me . The Fire Nation had imprisoned her for years in a cage and it broke her soul. Soul-scorchers, I heard someone call them once. That’s the truth.”

“She murdered people with waterbending? Bloodbending? How did she do it?”

“She controlled people with the blood in their veins. Like puppets.” Katara heard Yugoda growl. “She kidnapped villagers, starved them to death. Almost made Sokka run Aang through with his sword. But I was strong enough to break her hold on me. I figured out the trick to it, on the spot. I had to. There was no other way. And—and—“ Katara’s voice went small. “I bloodbent her. Stole her will and controlled her body until the Fire Nation authorities could take her. Take her back.”

Yugoda’s eyes were round like moons. Katara forced herself to complete her confessional.

“This was before the end of the war—this was Ozai’s Fire Nation. I never found out what happened to her.” She took a shaky breath. “I was a collaborator. I sent my only counterpart to—I’m sure it was to her death.” The last words came out in a whisper.

“Oh, Katara.” Yugoda sounded heartbroken. 

“There’s more,” she said quickly. She needed Yugoda to know what she’d done. She needed her to know how powerful she was, and how dangerous, before Yugoda allowed her out of here as a master healer. “I went on a mission with Zuko. Not a mission—not for the war. It was a vendetta. Zuko said he’d help me find my mother’s killer, and I took the offer. He understood my anger—my need. But Aang thought it was wrong and tried to stop me. I didn’t listen. First, we found the wrong man. But before I knew that, to get him to talk, I-I bloodbent him. Crushed him onto the floor like a spider. He was in so much pain. I probably broke his bones. And it was so easy.”

Yugoda was silent. She looked stunned. Katara let the shame wash over her.

“And when you found the right man?”

“I nearly killed him. Not with bloodbending, though. I stopped the rain and froze it into a shower of ice daggers—just regular bending. They would have killed him—he would have bled to death—but I stopped them at the last minute, an inch from his skin. I thought of Hama.” 

“Regular bending.” Yugoda looked a little pale. Katara rose to sit on the bench next to her and rubbed her teacher’s back. Even now, she couldn’t help but care for someone who was hurting. Yugoda took a couple of cleansing breaths and the color returned to her face.

“I’ve shocked you. I’ve horrified you. I’m so sorry to have taken all of your time this summer.” Katara felt the tears pouring down her face. “To find out that this is all I am. A hair’s breadth from a murderer myself. A monster.”

Yugoda put an arm around Katara’s shoulders and held her close. “No, Katara. I am not disappointed in you.” She shook her head emphatically. “It was harder to spare that man than to finish him. Your strength is nothing to be ashamed of. Ever. What an awesome responsibility, to be given power of this magnitude at such a young age, without guidance. You have done extraordinary things, under circumstances that even the oldest and wisest of us would have struggled to navigate.” She gave her shoulders a squeeze. “No wonder you feel a bond with the young Avatar.” 

Was Yugoda comparing her power to that of the Avatar? Katara laughed shakily. “I don’t think you realize what Aang can do. Trust me, I’m not in his league.” 

“Don’t be so sure. There's much more to your strength than the will to violence. More to it than your bending, even." She patted Katara's arm and lightened her voice. "And by the way, that attack you described is not ‘regular bending.’ I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Then Yugoda slipped her hand around Katara's wrist, curled her fingers, and squeezed gently. Katara felt a shimmering surge of warmth swim up her arm. It was a beautiful feeling, reminding her of her mother somehow. She lifted her head to look at the healer. “What was that?”

Yugoda smiled into her eyes. “I suppose you could call it bloodbending.” 

“That was nothing like bloodbending.”

“No, it’s not what you described. I wasn’t trying to control you or hurt you, of course. I simply found your blood and followed it up your arm with a pulse of energy—the healing energy, but applied where there is no injury. That’s how I usually explain it when it comes up in teaching. It can be used to infuse a patient with a sense of well-being and nourishment, for any number of reasons. But in my mind, it’s much simpler than that. It’s love.”

Katara didn’t know why she began to cry, at first. But Yugoda held her tightly and let her sob into her shoulder. She poured out the fear and the self-hatred, emptying herself of the burden she’d carried since the night she fought Hama.

 


  

The sun set on the North Pole, at last, on the day Sokka and Katara left. To see them off, Yugoda and Iri came aboard the merchant ship that would take them away, to the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, the South Pole.

Iri ached to follow them. What was it like to live in a land where the sun set every night, all year long? What did a rose smell like? What did a mocking-thrush sound like? How did a mango taste? Never mind the more obvious wonders of the world: the mighty earthbent cities of Ba Sing Se and Omashu, the now-open Gates of Azulon, the mother tree at the heart of the Foggy Swamp.

All this, Sokka and Katara were simply returning to, after their sojourn in the heart of the glacier. Iri felt like a village boy by comparison.

Yugoda clasped both of Sokka’s hands. “You’re off to the Fire Nation now, yes? Then please give my warm regards to the Fire Lord—and to Lord Regent Iroh.” Was that a flirtatious flick of her hair loops? Well, she did have a bit of a reputation, Iri remembered. "And when you return home, you must give my love to Kanna. And to your father, who is overdue to pay his own visit to the North Pole."

“I will, Master Yugoda.” Sokka bowed respectfully, his hands still in hers. 

When she released him, Iri and Sokka grasped opposite forearms. “Thank you, Master Iri,” Sokka said sincerely.

“Never call me that.” Iri broke into what he hoped was a jocular grin, to hide the sentimental hope he felt. Hope that this friendship would take him places, hope that it would last. “The honor was all mine.” 

"The South Pole. Next Year."

Iri nodded firmly. Somehow or other, it would happen. "Will you also be at the South Pole?" he asked Sokka's sister.

Katara shrugged and looked to the horizon. "It's hard to say. Maybe when the Harmony Restoration Accord comes to an end."

"You must land eventually," Yugoda advised. "And you could do worse than the South Pole." 

Katara sighed forcefully. "I want to go home. I know I'm neglecting my family. But it's so hard to imagine what my life there would be like. Reconciling what they want from me, what I want, what I could really do for them." Iri found himself wishing there had been time to get to know her better, wishing he could decipher her riddle.

“You must grant that you would have more options there than here,” Yugoda prodded her.

"Of course. But there's more to the world than the Water Tribes."

"Indeed," she conceded with a tilt of her head. "And you have given me a new window onto it. For that, thank you, Katara."

"It was entirely the other way around, Master Yugoda, and I’ll be forever grateful to you. You can’t know how much I needed this summer.”

“Perhaps I can’t, not entirely. I know my own good fortune, to have grown up and grown old protected within the arms of the Tribe. So let me give this to you. You always have a home here. And you need never feel that you are walking your path alone." She took her student in her arms. "Be sure to come back and see me soon." 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Brother.”

Ozai lifted his head, lank strands of greasy, black hair clinging to his face. His body was thin and atrophied, bare but for coarse trousers. He slouched on the stone bench at the back of the cell, elbows on his knees, hands dangling down between. A high window let in faint grey light from the overcast day, leaving the lines of his face indistinct and his eyes flat and colorless, focused on nothing. He was scarcely recognizable. A wraith.

Ozai said nothing. 

“I came to see how you were doing.” Which was technically true, though insufficient, and now accomplished. It was always Iroh who came, sparing his nephew. “I have brought tea.”

Ozai dropped his head again. This was how their visits went. The tea was never accepted; the conversation ended here.

But this time, after several minutes, he lifted his head again and replied, for the first time in two years. “The dead do not drink tea, Iroh.”

Iroh concealed his shock. He had learned long ago never to cede his brother the power of surprise. “Ah, but in that I believe you are mistaken. Tea is actually quite popular in the Spirit World.”

“I am not in the Spirit World. The Avatar has cursed me to endure death in this one. Everything tastes of dust to me.”

“Then it should not matter if I bring you tea or water. Please.” Iroh extended a cup between the bars. It was ignored.

“The boy possessed a genius for cruelty. I would not have believed it.”

Iroh gave a small, bitter laugh of agreement. “Nor I. Zuko would remind us never to underestimate Aang.” At the mention of his son, Ozai winced—slowly, as if shifting the muscles of his face caused him pain. Iroh ignored this. “Though I do not believe Aang understood the cruelty of his act. He did it out of mercy. But if the Avatar could do this at thirteen, he will be formidable indeed as a grown man, when the weight of his deeds have fully shaped him.”

Ozai spoke for the last time. “The brightest fire burns fastest.” 

His head dropped once more and Iroh could get no further response from him.

“Till next month, brother.” Iroh set the cups back on his tray and left.

 


 

She was not insane. She was not delusional.

She’d had, yes—“an episode,” they were calling it. That seemed accurate. An episode where reality shattered and all sense drained away, out to sea, in the moment that Zuko’s waterbender released the ice. The iron grating cut into her kneecaps, chains summoned from nowhere bruised her wrists. Soaked, steaming, screaming, sobbing. The noise wouldn't stop. She couldn't make it stop.

But that was long ago. It had stopped long ago. Here, it was quiet.

Sometimes she thought her mind was still out there, swimming, lost in the depths of the ocean, running out of air. She did not know which way was up, which way to push through the blue miasma to find herself again. But she was not insane. There was an up.

Even if her world had disintegrated, there was still a world. Just not hers any more.

So she stayed in the sanitorium (for now). She stayed in a place she could control.

“Princess Azula.” The servant bowed. “Your breakfast.”

“This is a guava.”

“Yes, Princess Azula. It is a guava.”

“Where is my mango?”

“Mangos are out of season, Princess Azula. It is October.”

Azula flicked her fingers and incinerated the incorrect fruit in a flash of white, resolving the situation. Of course the room and all its furnishings, like those of the palace, were made from the highest quality fireproof materials (here, instead of red and black scorching certainty into the retina, they were white and sterile and indeterminate). The table was unaffected and the ash would come clean from the tablecloth. She stood as the servant swept away the disturbance. On a new tablecloth, she ate her rice and soup. 

Mother passed through from time to time, but remained comfortingly incorporeal, as she had always been before the world broke. 

“She’s a monster,” Mother would whisper to the servants when they took her to her sessions. They wouldn’t answer, because they already knew. “How could such a child could be mine? She is all Ozai’s.”

Sting me, Mother, so I’ll know I’m not dreaming. 

Uncle Iroh visited monthly, disconcertingly corporeal. He wore odors—fleshy, human odors of hair and skin and sweat and whatever he’d had for breakfast wafting out of his mouth when he spoke. “I have come to see how you are, Azula. Are they treating you well?”

“They are, Uncle. They obey me precisely.” She was always correct in her comportment, bowing politely to him, sitting at attention. Remembering that he outranked her (for now), however much that itched and blistered. She knew the score and was not insane.

“And do you listen to them, Azula?”

He brought tea, always.

She didn’t mind the tea, actually. It was always perfect.

Her “friends” did not visit her, of course. They feared her, as they should. Iroh brought her news: Ty Lee, a traitor with her Earth Kingdom warriors; Mai, in bed with Zuko again. It did not matter. She would not make that error again. Dependence invited betrayal. 

Zuko did not visit often. Her birthday, random occasions. Erratic and undisciplined. His hair was always coming loose, like a child’s. A willful child who ruled the nation now. Who had destroyed Sozin’s legacy and brought the Fire Nation to its knees, kissing the ground before its enemies, paying tribute. She spit fire when she thought of him. (But nothing here would burn.)

Usurper.

Brother.

Her other half, and everything she was not. Talentless, passionate, loved. Free. Who had left her to limp through the palace one-legged for years. Performing for Father, alone. Every step, every gesture, every word, every flame, exact in shape and amplitude, precisely as Father desired. She could do it on one leg. She was that good.

Good enough to be Fire Lord.

She wanted to see Zuko in their father’s robes. Not just the travel dress he wore here (he grew up at sea. It must be hard for him, to find his palace legs). The red, shimmering, floor-length brocade, with the fire crown gleaming above his half-face. Fire Lord Zuko. She abhorred the thought. She loved the vision.

Sometimes she thought she might be insane.

 

Chapter Text

Toph sat at the bar, feet swinging. She was drinking tea, but it was hardcore tea, brewed strong from a brick of fermented tea leaves. As always, she was listening to the room. Mostly men, mostly travelers, smelling of dust, sweat, and ostrich horse dung (and one individual who smelled much too clean), with unique odors that spoke to their business on the road: rice, coal, paper and ink.

Mostly liars.

A heated conversation in the corner was threatening to turn into a brawl. Two men stinking of dirt whiskey were hurling insults over some kind of deal gone wrong. Toph slid off the barstool to stand on the flagstone floor for a better look. Just as one of them lifted his arm to smash a bottle over the other’s head, and the other man pulled back his fist to hurl a sloppy blow at the first man’s gut, Toph twitched.

The floor directly under their feet gave a sudden shrug, slamming both men backwards. They sat dumbfounded on stinging tailbones till someone had the presence of mind to haul them out of the establishment.

Toph hopped back on her stool with a tiny smile of satisfaction.

 


 

Toph aimed her feet towards Yu Dao. Ten days out of Ba Sing Se, she had a long journey still ahead of her. She could have ridden, taken a carriage, or sailed. If she’d waited around for Aang to show up, she could even have flown. But only walking kept her feet on the earth and the world under her control. Didn’t matter how long it took, she had time.

She’d been at the Earth King’s court at Zuko’s request, accompanying his envoy Tapaya. Toph was not there as a diplomat (not really her strong suit), but as a lie detector. And since everyone already knew what she could do, really just as a safeguard for plain speech.

At least, that’s how it was supposed to work. Kuei and his councilors (headed by General How, as usual) had spoken elegantly and sincerely, never disagreeing on the surface with Zuko’s suggested compromises on the Yu Dao situation, but their words were crust over quicksand. They were not going to do anything. To them, Yu Dao was just a territory, a token on the political gameboard to be claimed and bartered (there was some business about whether or not it would go to the Duke of Yei, who held the northern lands), not as home for a unique community. But what would the Earth Palace know about real people?

Tapaya had read through their dissembling well enough even without Toph’s help and left for the Fire Nation in a turmoil of frustration and anxiety.

While she was there, Toph had also checked on Uncle Iroh’s teashop, which he’d sublet to a formidable lady who was running a pai sho parlor there. She would have to report that the tea the woman served was substandard, though the business was thriving and the clientele was…intriguing.

Toph was going back to Yu Dao because she liked it there. Lots of metal.

As the day drew on, the road began to wind through a forest, cutting the wind but bringing on an early dusk, which Toph could recognize by the deepening chill in the air. Prime hunting grounds for bandits. That is, bandits would stalk their prey and Toph would stalk the bandits.

Toph could hear a traveler ahead of her, slight build, maybe a teenager, walking slower than she was (very refined footwear). And tentatively, as if afraid. Intelligent, then. But not clever. Because, sure enough, he walked straight into an ambush by a disappointingly unimaginative bandit lurking behind a tree. The traveler was seized in a life-threatening grip before he knew what was happening. Knife against the throat, presumably.

“All your gold, if you’d be so kind, sir. I’ll take this velvet coat, too. Fox-chilla trim, is it? It’s lovely soft. Just fundraising, you know. For the cause.”

“The cause?” Velvet choked out. Because now was a great time for small talk.

“For the people. Taking back what you leeches don't need and getting it to those what do need it.”

“Oh. Good to know. That seems fair. So, is this a formal organization?”

Chatty kid. Velvet's voice trembled and his heart was going like a cornered jackalope, but he sounded strangely sincere.

Toph was within range now, but delicacy was called for. She didn’t want to accidentally sever his jugular with a sloppy move. She tapped the ground lightly with her foot and read the bandit’s body position as precisely as she could. Height and weight could be judged by the body’s impact on the ground. The angle of the arm could be extrapolated from the positioning of his feet and legs. Subtle sounds of clothing and breathing fleshed out the details.

The knife was in his right hand, right arm around the kid’s neck in a chokehold, while the left hand groped his pockets. Velvet was leaning back slightly—a weak position, so not a fighter, then. Smelled like wealth—in fact that same expensive soap she’d caught a whiff of in the tavern the day before. Definitely a runaway, out here without a guardian or entourage.

“Hi, guys!” She stepped into view. As the bandit looked up in surprise, she shot a rock at the elbow of his knife arm, knocking it to his left and away from the boy’s throat. Not a fighter, maybe but Velvet was quick. He slipped out from under his attacker’s arm like a greased hog monkey.

“Run, kid! I got this!” He didn’t have to be told twice and vanished into the trees.

A flick of the wrist and the offender was cuffed and shackled to the ground. “Should I leave you here or take you to the nearest constable?”

“Neither. He's ours.” Feet hit the ground behind her. Shit, how had she not heard someone hiding in that tree? Familiar voice, though…. Toph moved to neutralize her. “Longshot has you in his sights.”

Toph froze. Ok, she had no defense for this one. If she so much as twitched, she'd get it. Longshot didn't miss. “Smellerbee. How’ve you been?”

“Busy. Let him go.”

“One of yours, huh? Back with the Freedom Fighters? I thought you’d all be relaxing, putting down roots, planting crops or whatever you do. Now that the Fire Nation’s out.”

“We were always Freedom Fighters, never left. The enemy changes, the fight stays the same.”

“So now I’m the enemy? And that innocent kid? You rob people for justice?”

Smellerbee laughed—actually it was more of a cackle. Toph remembered when you could still see a remnant of the child Smellerbee had been, years ago in Ba Sing Se. She was no older than Toph herself, but life had worn her down to the essentials now, all bones and hard edges. Peacetime had not been kind to her. “You’re not innocent and neither is he.”

“And you are?”

“Never claimed innocence. But you—you and that Ba Sing Se kid and all your kind—come from money, you're fattened on greed. Your dad never worked a day in his life for your rice, did he? The people worked and you ate. We’re just taking the wealth back for the ones who earned it."

“Got it. You have a bigger vision now. Fair enough, you have some valid points. But I don’t live off that money any more. I’ve severed ties.”

“Broke with the Beifongs, maybe. But being besties with the Avatar and the fucking Fire Lord doesn't exactly make you one of the oppressed, Toph.” She heard Smellerbee turn and apparently exchange a look with Longshot, still up in the tree. “Fine," she said with a grumbly noise. "We know you fight for justice in your own way. We just want our man back.”

“He committed a crime. Setting him free would be an in-justice.”

“A crime against the criminal class." Smellerbee shrugged. "That princeling would have recovered with one sweet letter home. Hardly unforgivable.”

“Guess that’s a matter of opinion." Still, it wasn't like Toph had a range of options at the moment. "So I can’t convince you to give up banditry. I’ll let him go if you agree not to pursue that kid. Or any other travelers under my protection.”

“And which travelers would those be?”

“Any I can save.”

Smellerbee laughed, but with more humor than before, as if they were equals in the same game. “Fair enough. We respect your space and you respect ours. Mobile zones of protection.”

Toph let the shackles fall.

 


 

Toph stepped out again the next morning, after a night huddled under a rock shelter (where was Sparky when you needed him). She spared a thought for Velvet and hoped he’d kept warm.

The wind was sharp and dry. Cold had sucked all the moisture from the air and wedged it as microscopic ice crystals into every tiny fissure in the earth, reminding her unpleasantly of the permafrost at the South Pole. It was enough to make you wish for shoes.

After a few miles, she descended a range of low, rocky hills into a river valley. There he was again, along with two other people she’d noticed a couple days back at the tavern—a trader, heavy laden, and a loner smelling of unwashed furs—plus a family with small children. They were gathered together on the riverbank, apparently waiting for the ferry.

“Afternoon,” the trader greeted her. The parents wished her a good Solstice. The guy in furs grunted. Velvet started when he saw who she was and his heart started beating faster. Awe, she assumed. He made a movement—a bow, perhaps. Hadn’t figured out she was blind yet. That wasn’t unusual, of course.

The ferry arrived just then, hull scraping onto the gravelly shore. The ferry passengers tumbled out, pushing Velvet aside before he could put any words together.

An elderly voice with a quaver requested their fares. They boarded and distributed themselves and their things along the wooden railings and plank floor. The ferryman slowly moved the boat out from the shore, propelling and steering it with one long oar at the stern.

They had pulled out to the middle of the broad river when Grunty in Furs suddenly elbowed the ferryman into the water, grasped the oar and brought the boat to a halt. Toph heard the unnatural sound of water bent upwards out of the river and a dozen crackles in midair as bits were frozen near each passenger—ice daggers, presumably.  

“Hand over everything you got,” the waterbender demanded. “Starting with you.” He seized Velvet’s arm. A regular magnet for trouble, that one. She could feel his shiver of fear through the deck.

Great. Toph felt around for something she could bend. On a wooden boat surrounded by water. There was metal here and there, but very little and it was still difficult for her to bend metal from a distance. Gotta work on that.

But there—a terracotta pot. And scattered over the deck was the dirt and grit tracked on by dozens of feet—thankfully Grunty was standing on some of it. She whipped it out from under him like a rug, and as he windmilled his arms to keep his balance, she flung the clay pot towards him, spilling its contents over the passengers as it spun end over end. A good shove got it over his head, blinding him.

He slipped to the deck with a loud thud and the ice daggers fell and shattered. A muffled bellow rang in the pot. Now Toph had no choice but to use her hands. She knocked him flat on his face and sat down hard on his back, bringing one of his arms up as fast as she could. Ugh, why weren’t people actually made of clay, like in the old stories? She really had no idea how to do a proper pin. He yelped with pain as she twisted and pushed. It worked!

But probably not for long, so she bent the pot off his head, transformed it into weak shackles that would hold his wrists for a few minutes at least, and rolled him off the ferry.

“Anyone know how to row this thing?”

The stunned silence of the other passengers, drenched in heady potato wine, broke when the father of the family shuffled forward. “Uh, I can, I guess.”

“Take it away, then.”

The satisfying splashes of Grunty flailing in the water faded in the distance as the ferry came to the opposite shore. “Is the ferryman ok?” Always account for the victims.

“Uh, yeah. He made it to the other bank. He’s...upright, anyway.” The dad sounded a little doubtful.

“Good enough. Well, thanks for the memories. See you around.” She made as if to leave.

“But you saved us!” The mother cried out, right on cue. “How can we thank you?”

“Yes,” her husband said. “We don’t have much, but we must reward you somehow. Please, have our New Year’s rice cakes.” He held out something that smelled of sesame, honey, and bamboo leaf wrappers.

“Absolutely,” the trader agreed. “Another bottle of my wine.” He held out a clay vessel, much smaller than the one she’d spilled on board. A backhanded gift at best.

“It was nothing.” Well, it was a little harder than usual. But not that hard. “I just share my talents where I can.”

“But-but who are you?” Velvet spluttered.

“Don’t you know? I’m Toph, the Greatest Earthbender in the World.” Then she turned heel and left. A good exit is even more important than a good entrance.

But next time she saw Suki, she was getting a few lessons.

 

 

Chapter Text

“An heir? Already?” Zuko heard the blood begin to pound in his ears and felt a familiar tingling in his fingers that signaled either an uncontrolled burst of flame or an utter failure to produce any fire at all—it was never clear in that instant. A small, detached corner of his brain observed that the mere suggestion of fatherhood was bringing on his first panic attack since he had lived with his own father.

“Mother of Dragons, Zuko! What’s the matter?” Uncle Iroh began to simultaneously fan him and ply him with tea.

 Zuko concentrated on his breathing, in and out, feeling the torches in the sconces on the temple walls fall into his rhythm and not caring who noticed. “I’m fine, Uncle.”

The Fire Sages exchanged a glance of concern and waited patiently while he collected himself, though Zuko could never imagine that their regard was free of judgment.

“I’m not even twenty yet,” he objected in a deliberately level voice. “Surely there is plenty of time.”

“It is only a matter of months until your birthday,” Shyu reminded him, not unkindly, “when you will reach majority, the regency ends,” he acknowledged Iroh with a nod, “and you lay full claim to the throne.”

Hisen continued, more sternly, “Considering the ongoing political instability—there was another assassination attempt just last week, was there not?—we feel it is imperative that an heir be in place as soon as possible.”

“But Uncle Iroh is my heir! Aren’t you?”

“Of course I would be obligated, should the unthinkable happen. But I am old and, as you know, also a target for the opposition. Next in line would be Azula, and I don’t have to point out the problems there. The longer the line of succession you can provide, the more secure our reforms.”

“Were both of you removed,” Shyu explained, “may Agni guard against such calamity, and if the Princess does not recover her sanity, the Fire Nation would be thrown into turmoil and most likely civil war, as the lines of succession are muddy beyond Sozin’s direct line—to say the least.”

“No doubt.” Zuko groaned and buried his face in his hands. He would do his duty, for the sake of his people.

 


 

The first step was obvious: marry Mai.

Right. So propose to her.

Would she say yes? Everyone obviously thought so. What else could she possibly want? All of her choices over the past several years pointed to this goal. And yet, Zuko was not at all sure that she did want to be Fire Lady.

She loved him, she’d said so. Not to him, admittedly; to Azula, three years ago (Ty Lee had told him). And in the face of death, rather than in a heart-to-heart confessional. Which was not that strange, for his family, so it counted.

But she seemed to dread even the minor roles she had to play at court now. She had no apparent ambition for political influence. And the idea of Mai with children was…mildly unsettling. Not downright horrifying, like Azula as a mother. But even Ty Lee was more maternal. Nothing at all like the loving warmth he could so easily picture surrounding Katara with a baby in her arms—who was completely irrelevant to this scenario.

Neither Zuko nor Mai had ever brought up the prospect of marriage. It just hung there in the background; they both saw it, of course, but why draw attention to it? Like so many other things they didn’t speak of: the scar on his face, the scar on his chest.

Their relationship balanced on a fulcrum as thin as a blade, alliance and pleasure against the weight of secrets and betrayals. Generations of royal marriages had succeeded on just such terms. There was no reason it couldn’t work.

And of course Zuko cared for Mai. It was just the idea of marriage itself that accounted for the cold weight in his chest.

 


 

The court was abuzz with rumor. The Fire Lord was coming of age. The Fire Lord had been advised to marry as soon as possible. Of course there was little speculation over who it would be, just when and how. What would she wear? What would he wear? What would be his gift to her? Most importantly, who would be invited to each of the ceremonies and celebrations?

Mai sat in the center of the swarm of gossip, apparently unmoved. Some sighed at the lack of glow in her cheeks, but since she was, in fact, Mai, this was not a great disappointment. She was never going to be the most beloved of Fire Ladies, but there had not even been one in the palace for decades. Ozai had ascended the throne alone.

Mai was generally regarded as a suitable match for the Fire Lord. The purity of her Fire Nation bloodline could not be faulted. She was of impeccable breeding and had personally been in the royal family’s inner circle since childhood. Her father was well positioned and a former colonial appointee of Ozai’s. She therefore represented a reassuring bridge between the old regime and the new, in these unsettling times, and to all appearances, seemed to be navigating the shift effectively.

She was not a bender, and that was not in her favor; some held that she therefore could not be Fire Lady, but only Royal Consort, and some further fretted about her ability to produce firebending heirs. There was precedent either way, however, so it was not an insurmountable obstacle. And she had certainly proven herself in combat.

Mai heard every word of this, of course. Gossip was meant to be heard. And her implacable mien hid a turmoil of confusion; the time had come and she was not ready.

Since those world-shattering months in the year of Sozin’s—now Surya’s—Comet she had successfully avoided peering too deeply into her own heart again. It gave her vertigo, when balance was what she prized above all. But, she thought, it would probably be wise to do it once more—while gripping something stable.

She went to see Banyak, on the pretext of a friendly hello. Never mind if she’d never done such a thing before.

“Lady Mai. What an unexpected pleasure.” Surprisingly, Banyak actually did look pleased, if you knew how to read the twitch of his lip and the subtle lift of his eyebrows. His range was rather narrow, but Mai could hardly point a finger.

“Banyak. I hope you are well.”

“I am. And you?” A lifted eyebrow suggested that more than a “yes” was expected.

But Mai did not oblige. “How is the Bureau these days? Any interesting projects?”

“Only routine work. We are compiling our tax reports for last year, rather behind schedule—we were delayed by the colonial census project, you see.”

“Of course.”

“Are you…seeking occupation?”

Again, Mai did not answer his question, but wandered around the room a little, fingering reports and ledgers absently. She decided to just ask. “Banyak, are you happy?”

A flicker of shock enlivened his face for a bare instant before he regained his customary composure. “That is not a question one hears often in the Palace.” He scrutinized her for a moment, as if she were a particularly tricky set of figures. “Yes, it is fair to say that I am happy. Against the odds.”

“And what accounts for your success?”

“The felicitous balance between, on the one hand, work I am passionately interested in and for which I am appreciated and honored, and on the other, love.” A new smile warmed his face, slight, but it changed him utterly.

“Love!” That was the last thing Mai expected. “Where did you find that?”

Banyak actually laughed. “It’s not something you pick up by the roadside. I’ve been married for fifteen years to an incomparable woman. But it has been the sharing of our hearts, day after day, that has built our love.

“Oh.” Would she and Zuko have that? “What do you mean, sharing your hearts? I’m sorry if that’s too personal a question,” she hastened to add.

“Well, we talk, every night, about the day we had, about our work, about our fears and our cares. Together, we love our children, and shoulder the work of raising them. The greatest treasure in my life is knowing there is one person in the world with whom I can be completely honest.”

Honesty—now that was a rarity. How many couples did she know who lived by that principle? She couldn’t think of any. Suki and Sokka, maybe?

“And sex?” What had gotten into her?

That got raised eyebrows. “Where do you think the children came from?” Again, he seemed to be trying to read her, then said gently, “Sex is only the expression of all the rest, though, isn’t it?”

“Uh, yeah.” Time to change the subject. “And the work makes you happy? You love doing all these calculations?”

“It suits my mind. A productive mind is a satisfied mind. Most people think what we do here is unbearably dry—I think I am even pitied by some. But, as I think you understand, I enjoy solving problems, and I’m always learning something new.”

Maybe she did understand. She wouldn’t have thought it.

 


 

“Please present your report, Captain Jee.” Zuko sat in his study, ticking meetings off of his schedule. This was the last of the day, thank Agni.

“It is my pleasure to do so, Your Majesty,” Jee recited the platitude with a bow, sounding as eager to end the day as Zuko. “The evacuation of Minji is now complete. Three thousand twenty Fire Nation citizens repatriated—the last ship arrived in port yesterday evening—and 2,450 residents left behind under the authority of the Earth Kingdom. One hundred of the repatriated families identified themselves as mixed heritage and have been offered additional support in resettling.”

“Excellent.”

“And there is evidence that a number of mixed families had already migrated to Yu Dao.”

“As expected.”

“Unfortunately, I also have bad news from Yu Dao. As you know, the ships for the first evacuation run have arrived there, but they’ve been sabotaged.”

“Sabotaged? How? By whom?”

“Apparently, they were greeted by protests. ‘Yu Dao is our home,’ that sort of thing, with a demand that the ships turn around and return empty."

"But those ships were intended only for voluntary repatriations. We're still hoping for word from the Earth King on a compromise of some kind."

"Of course, Your Majesty. Our sailors simply followed orders and stayed in port, mounting a guard and allowing Governor Fosek to deal with the situation. It was minor sabotage at first—mooring lines cut, sails ripped—they make a fine throwing hatchet in Yu Dao. But when our crews held firm and refused to leave, the guards were overcome under cover of night, and an explosion destroyed one of the ships and another was sunk with a hole punched in the hull. Apparently firebenders and earthbenders working in concert.”

“And our men and women?”

“They had sufficient warning, no casualties. But the ships are lost.”

“Great.” Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose in a fruitless attempt to soothe his growing headache. This was going to take a lot more than a little pressure point treatment. He wished Katara were here. He wished Aang  were there. Dealing with this mess—wasn’t this squarely in the Avatar’s field of responsibility? And yet, not a word from him, not for months, and no visit for longer.

“There’s more, Your Majesty.”

“Continue.”

“The saboteurs scorched something on the wall of the port, in huge characters: ‘Yu Dao Independence — No Fire Nation — No Earth Kingdom.”

“Well. That takes it to the next level, doesn’t it.” Zuko sighed heavily and exchanged a weary look with Iroh, who sat at the side of the room, as usual. “Thank you, Captain Jee. Dismissed.”  

“Nephew, this is—“

“Uncle, could we discuss this tomorrow? I have a crushing headache.”

“I shall return shortly with a medicinal tea.” Iroh disappeared into the corridor. Of course he would never trust a servant to prepare the tea for him.

Suki stood by the door, dutifully silent, as usual.

Apropos of nothing, Zuko asked, “How is Sokka these days? I haven’t seen him in quite a while.”

Suki took the sudden acknowledgement of her presence in stride, as always. “He’s well. Spent his summer at the South Pole again.”

“Still engineering building projects?”

“Of course. He got Toph to go down to Kivallit City this month to install a stone marina for the enlarged port. They’re doing everything they can to drive trade through the South Pole.”

“That’s good. Perhaps we can do more to incentivize our merchants to resupply there." He paused. "Do you miss him?”

“Sokka?” Suki allowed her professional demeanor to slip a little, shoulders relaxing. “Of course! Always. I stopped by on my last trip to Kyoshi, at the Winter Solstice—summer, down there. But it was too short.”

“How do you do it?”

“Which part?”

“How do you stay together, over this distance? Over all this time?”

“Well, we’re not  together, are we?”

“You know what I mean.”

She shrugged, and looked away. If it didn’t seem so un-Suki-like, he’d see that as a tiny admission of doubt. Then, taking a breath of resolve, she said, “We trust each other.”

Zuko assessed her without responding.

“I’m not saying there haven’t been...bumps. Sokka, he—I don’t know what it is about him, but girls just seem to fall for him like maple leaves.” Inexplicably true, yes.

Suki shook her head with a little amused resignation. “But whenever I see him, what he gives me—I can’t doubt him. He loves me. I love him.” Her smile took on a glow before she caught herself and resumed her usual practicality. “And of course we write letters, constantly. We’re never out of touch. Communication. That’s the foundation. No secrets. I mean, except for the confidences I must keep regarding Your Majesty’s security, of course.”

“Of course. This isn’t a performance review, Suki. I’m just asking as a friend. But since you bring it up, the demands I make on your time must make it harder. Along with his—everything that seems to be going on with him.”

“It’s hard, I won’t lie. But focusing on work keeps my mind off of what I don’t have.”

“That  I understand. Will you marry him?”

“Maybe. We’ve talked about it. Now that the Kyoshi Palace Guard has nearly completed the transition to Fire Nation Peace Guard, we’ve been talking plans. But I think we’ll need to spend some time together—seriously together—as I find my feet in my new life before making any decision.”

“It must be nice. Deciding for yourselves.”

She stepped over to him. He met her eyes and saw concern there. “Zuko. You still have a choice. Have you and Mai talked—”

Iroh returned just then. “Wild ginger and lovage root, Zuko. Best thing for your head.”

“Thank you, Uncle.” Zuko accepted it with grace, and Iroh folded his hands over his belly with an air of hard-earned satisfaction. He felt a twist of guilt for having made a simple "thank you" feel like such a prize to him.

“Well?” Uncle Iroh raised his eyebrows.

“It’s, um, spicy.”

“I was referring to Captain Suki’s question. Have  you and Mai talked yet?”

Zuko hid behind his teacup. “Not...directly.”

Iroh regarded him with sympathy but there was that reserve in his eyes that Zuko had begun to realize was carefully veiled disappointment. “Respect is at the foundation of a happy marriage. Do her the honor of an honest discussion.”

 


 

“So are you going to go through with it?”

Mai shifted uncomfortably on the chaise. “Do you think you’ll ever get married, Ty Lee?”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine settling on just one person. It’s such a beautiful world.”

“Yeah, no one needs an heir out of you. You’re free to follow your own path.”

“Sure, my sister Yang Lee’s been popping them out for a few years now. But Mom and Dad gave up on me a long time ago. Didn’t think I was ‘marriageable’ any more after the circus.” Not for the first time, Mai wondered just what sort of thing went on in that circus.

Ty Lee studied her a minute out of her wide, grey eyes, no doubt reading her supposed aura. “You’re free, too, you know.”

Mai gave a short, bitter snort that she had intended as a laugh. “Free as a hippo cow headed to the slaughter.”

Ty Lee raised her pretty eyebrows. “I thought Zuko was better in bed than that!”

“But it’s not just about sex, is it? I mean, yes, fundamentally, I am to be bred with him. Like livestock. Which would obviously work. But what about the rest of it?”

“You mean love?”

“Well, I suppose….”

Ty Lee stared at her, expectant. "Do you love him? Would you still sacrifice everything for him?”

“That was a long time ago. I was idealistic—relatively speaking. I don’t think I understood what ‘everything’ was, and I’m still not sure I do.” She stopped and stared hard at the carpet—red, of course. “I care what happens to him. I want him to be happy. Even though he’s never happy. I regret it every time I hurt him. Is that love? Is that enough?”

“Maybe? But it seems to me that love is also some sort of special link. When my parents look at each other sometimes, you see a spark jump between them. And you know they just shared something we couldn’t hear. I’m sure that’s how they survived seven daughters always at war with each other—they have a world that’s just theirs.”

Mai shared a small corner of comfort with Zuko that they could retreat to. But a world? Zuko had worlds of his own, worlds she could never break into. She never knew what had made him jump in front of Azula’s lightning bolt for that waterbender. Just to pick a random example.

She felt a sudden, heated irritation swelling in her. “How can he ask me to give myself to him, when he wouldn’t do the same? To tie that—my body, my womb—to my entire life! Chaining me to this bowl of rock, surrounded by baby Fire Princes, until I die here. I will die here. It’s killing me already.”

“Wow, Mai. Your aura just burst into flame. I’ve never seen it do that. It was gorgeous! Scary, but gorgeous.”

She waved Ty Lee’s aura nonsense aside. “But what else can I do?”

“Well, if it’s the bowl of rock that’s killing you, get out of it. It’s a beautiful world and you’re a smart woman.”

 


 

Zuko would do the right thing. He invited Mai to the palace for a private dinner—it ought to be done at the Palace, he thought—and made some effort at planning. He requested Mai’s favorite dishes and had the gardeners set up something pretty around the table—like an arbor with viney flowers climbing over it. An ornamental firebender was engaged to arrange it with fairy lights and set lotus lanterns afloat in the pond.

He surveyed the results. She would appreciate it. Not that she was particularly moved by romantic gestures, but she would appreciate the appropriateness. It really was quite lovely.

Of course she would know what this was about. Everyone did—he saw it in the eyes that followed him everywhere that day, the bated breath as he passed by. He had trouble catching his own breath, as if he’d misplaced a lung and no amount of gasping could fill the other one enough.

Unfortunately, his last meeting that afternoon was cancelled (a minister had the flu) and, after returning to his quarters to change out of his formal robes and into something simpler, yet still elegant, he was left with nothing to do. He stood on his balcony, watching servants prepare the garden below.

As dusk fell and the fairy lights began to twinkle through the vines, his thoughts strayed to the stars scattered above the Earth Kingdom, sharp and crisp as the winter chill, warmth at his feet from the crackling fire, warmth at his shoulder from Katara. He thought of the way his heart pounded whenever she was near, how he’d wondered if he could get through a whole week alone with her without jumping out of his skin, when they’d scarcely ever touched. He thought of how Mai had never made his heart thunder like that, despite sharing every kind of touch they could imagine.

He thought of those work-worn, capable hands delicately tracing the scar on his chest (her scar), how he’d dashed the desire from his body by frantically flipping through pictures in his mind: Uncle in his loincloth, Sokka scratching his armpit, a stack of budget reports in bad handwriting.

He remembered the confusing flare of pleasure and dread when he realized that he and Katara were assumed to be a couple, and then the protective fury that had roared through him when he understood what else people thought they saw. And how she’d calmed him with a touch.

But they never were a couple. He rarely even saw Katara any more. So why did he feel a pull at his heart tonight, something tugging at him and binding him (something not Mai)? And why did his chest ache with imagined grief at the thought of loosening that bond and letting it fall away? Tonight was about gaining something, not losing.

It was darker now, he realized. Where was Mai? He descended to the garden and sat down at the table to wait for her, then almost immediately got up again to pace the grounds. Still she did not come. It was very unlike her to miss something important (though she was not above conveniently forgetting lesser obligations). He sent a messenger to look for her.

His thoughts wandered again. Katara seemed determined to haunt him tonight. She was not his and never would be. She was not a player in this drama. Even if she somehow, improbably, did have feelings for him, he would never, ever ask her to enter into this charade. This wasn’t about her.

It was about himself, he supposed. That “real me” again. Was there even a “real me” to matter any more?

“Never forget who you are.” He’d thought, when he was exiled and alone in the Earth Kingdom, that his mother had meant his name and his title. But those were only bestowed upon him by others. He had not yet learned that who he was, like his honor, was not a gift to be granted or a prize to be earned, but was what he made with his own life, with every choice and every promise. She had wanted him to know his own worth despite the weight of destiny, as the ballast to resist it.

It was that flash of insight that had given him the strength to defy Ozai on the Day of Black Sun, but now that Zuko had taken his father’s place, he felt the name and title consuming him again, bit by bit. And now they asked for his heart.

“Never forget who you are.” He was many things, often contradictory, and sometimes he thought they would never come together into one, coherent person. But at root, at the center, there was love.

Zuko loved his mother and his uncle and counted himself immeasurably fortunate that they had given him their love in return. He loved Aang in a singular way, as Avatar and best friend, and (he scarcely dared whisper it to himself) perhaps he loved Katara. His feelings for his sister were too confusing to bear thinking about right now.

But he didn’t love Mai.

The moon had risen, a full moon. Of course it would be a full moon.

Mai was not coming. But it was just as well, because he was about to betray her. Again.

 


He waited up all night. If he slept, he would lose his resolve, and everything would return to normal. The servants said nothing, but whispered anxiously behind him. He spoke to no one, and when the sky began to grey he returned to his chambers, intending to wash before marching over to Mai’s house to finish this.

A small scroll lay on his pillow. (It should not have been possible for her to enter undetected, and yet, being Mai, she had. He would need to have a word with Suki.) His heart split as he read, sinking into the familiar pain of abandonment, even as it flowered with relief. And twisting through it, an ache of sympathy and regret for Mai.

Dear Zuko,

I can’t do it. I am so sorry. Sorry to let you down, sorry to leave you, sorry for everything we left unsaid. And don’t think I miss the irony of doing this in a letter. (It hurts, doesn’t it?) I’m sorry for that, too, really. But I can’t do it in person. If I let you kiss me, I will lose my nerve, and everything will go back to how it has been.

I have to go. Staying here and becoming your wife would be the end of me, and I haven’t yet found my beginning.

You will find someone to share your life with. It will be so easy for someone like you. I’m just lucky to have had you—not everyone gets to live out their childhood dream, so maybe I have had one happy ending already, after all. But I have woken from that dream.

I sail at dawn for Ba Sing Se. Not exactly a paragon of freedom, but it has a university. I have to try.

I don’t hate you, Zuko.
Mai

.

Chapter Text

“What are we looking for, Aang?” Katara cast around skeptically.

Aang let out a lungful of air—it was an exhale, not a sigh of discouragement. “I don’t know.”

Appa moaned a complaint and shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. There had not quite been enough space for him to land and he’d had to crush a few saplings, which were now jabbing at his hindquarters.

“It’s ok, Appa. Go find a better place to rest. We’ll be done...soon?”

Appa levitated, leaving the three of them in a stand of young aspens. The mountain hamlet had been swallowed up by weeds long ago, and was now slowly melting back into the forest. This would have been the central space for villagers to work and play; through the quivering aspen leaves they could make out all around them the crumbling stone houses they’d seen from the air, walls smothered in ivy that threatened to consume even their steeply pitched slate roofs.

“So this is where he came from.” Balam turned around slowly, squinting as if looking for the boy himself.

“Seems like. But there’s nothing here. At least, nothing we can get to without a machete.”

“Katara.” Aang didn’t hide his exasperation. “We’re benders. I think we can clear a few weeds.”

He couldn’t help feeling that Katara was not really committed to the hunt for his people and it...well, it offended him. How could she not understand how important this was? Not just for him, but for the proper balance of the world?  There needed to be Four Nations again.

They set to work, clearing paths to each of the houses and hacking through doorways, tripping over skeletons of livestock scattered here and there. Aang pushed vines aside with blasts of air and earthhbent the stones of the walls themselves to dislodge their roots, while Katara simply withered them, sucking the water from their veins and turning it into blades that sliced them away. Balam cleared debris with her bare hands.

Once inside a house, they still found themselves tripping over roots and creepers as they pried open cupboards and chests. No, Aang didn’t know what they were looking for. Only that he would know it when he saw it.

They had been hunting Balam’s rumored Air Nomad ancestor for a month. (Katara had scheduled Aang with endless colony visits throughout the fall and winter, deaf to his impatience.) This was surely the end of the trail, where they would find an answer.

Balam’s last surviving elder relative lived in the foothills above the Yu Dao valley, so that was where they’d started. Aunt Ranjau was suspicious and close-mouthed and could not be made to see why their ancestry mattered—it was foolish to speak of such things, she said. Let the past be past and be done with it. She’d had nothing good in hers, and wanted only to see her grandchildren fed in the present.

So Aang paid her off (he didn’t like to think of money often, but he did have a cache. People kept giving it to him).

According to Aunt Ranjau, while she and Balam’s mother had been born near Pohuai Stronghold, their father Hiko had named a village in the heart of the vast Borjin Mountain Range as his home, somewhere south of the Northern Air Temple. That was all she knew for a fact. 

Even flying on Appa (which was a revelation to Balam—Aang had never seen such open delight on her face), it was a rough journey, through anarchic territories. Tracking a stony river upstream for several days they found Balgul Village tucked so deeply in a stony valley that the sun barely touched it.

Only the oldest residents, a huddle of cranky elders who spent their days playing pits and stones in a corner of the village square, could recall a man named Hiko, gone these decades in search of better fortunes. Even more tight-lipped than Aunt Ranjau, they would not talk to outsiders. But the rice wine Balam had thoughtfully brought along lubricated them sufficiently for Aang's charm to work its magic (he used it for persuasion often enough now that he recognized it for the tool it was), and a few tales trickled out of them.  

Balam’s grandfather’s heritage had indeed been a known secret. A roofer by trade, and unusually nimble, he was always happiest perched atop someone’s house. He was prone to wander, and one day some twenty years after his mysterious arrival, had set out and never returned.

The story went that he had walked down into Balgul one day as a boy, seemingly from nowhere. He was the sole survivor, he’d said, of a plague that had taken his village. From clues he dropped, the people of Balgul whispered that his unnamed village was the one rumored to be a refuge for escaped airbenders.

No one believed it would still be there.

It was, though—its abandoned bones, at least—perched in a breezy cleft below a granite peak in the shape of a hawk’s head, just as the elders had described it. And so here they were, looking for traces of Hiko and his people.

There was little to go on. The villagers’ possessions were unremarkable—pots and pans, tools and furniture. Nothing to indicate Earth or Air or any other specific heritage. Just people, who lived.

It did not seem to be a particularly literate community, either. There was a granite stele planted in the center of the village, canted oddly to one side, on which the name "Fumoya" was scratched. But there were no scrolls, no brushes, or any other characters carved anywhere. They could not even find any graves—which lit a flicker of hope in Aang, since Air Nomads did not bury their dead, but left their bodies out in high places for the carrion birds, that they might fly away even in death.

They searched until the light began to fade.

“I’m sorry, Aang. That's all I've got for today.” Without another word, Katara climbed up into an empty loft, which they’d cleared of vegetation and dust for themselves, and laid out her blankets.

“Night, Katara.” He could hardly make her out in the gloom of the dusty house. He felt too restless to think of sleep yet. “I’ll check on Appa.”

“Ok if I come with you?” Balam asked. “I need to stretch my legs.”

He held out his hand to her.

 


 

Katara stared at the cobwebby rafters, waiting for sleep. Hacking at harmless but tenacious weeds for hours was somehow far more exhausting than either battle or healing. Possibly because it was so desperately dull, picking through dingy remnants of lives long gone. And yet her eyes remained stubbornly open.

She knew she wasn’t giving Aang what he needed here. She knew how close to his heart this search was, and why it was so vitally important for everyone. Spirits knew how many times she’d wept for the tragedy of the Air Nomads, from the first time she’d heard the story, long before Aang came into her life. And Balam seemed nice enough. Very bright, and very dedicated—to both the Air Nomad cause and to Aang himself. Like Katara, so they were allies, weren't they? Except that Katara wasn't as dedicated to the Air Nomad cause, not as much as she should be, not as much as she worried about the immediate issues between the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation. For Balam, as for Aang, the Air Nomads were the priority—it was family

At least Balam didn't fawn or flirt, like the other fan club girls—some of whom were very pretty indeed, and knew it. And Aang knew it. He was a teenage boy and they were fawning over him, fluttering their eyelashes and tossing their jasmine-scented hair his way—what was he supposed  to do? Of course he’d be into it, into them. Iconic, charming, and cute—the hero of the war and the most powerful bender on earth—Aang was a girl magnet.

Katara stifled a growl in frustration. She couldn’t believe herself. She was jealous of a bunch of fangirls (when she was the one at the Avatar’s side, and always had been—surely they were jealous of her!),  and worse, she was letting it affect their mission. What was more central to restoring world harmony than finding the remnants of the Air Nomads?

She rolled over and thrashed around under her blankets, trying to get comfortable. Katara found her hand creeping downward, to take her mind away from this, to scratch an itch and tease a yearning. She was doing this more and more often, when Aang was away, or even just in another room. Something for herself.

She began to think of men she’d seen in her travels. Really, there was no shortage of beautiful young men in the world. (Though maybe there should have been more, and in possession of more limbs and fewer scars, all told.) Glimpses of sex she’d noticed here and there, through a window, snuggled in a secluded corner: a caress, a passionate embrace, a garment pushed aside, an open-mouthed kiss.

Iri was one of the beautiful men, no denying that. The memory of his blue eyes following her every move, attentive to her every word, sent a little wiggle down her belly. How smooth that velvet-brown skin would feel, the brown of her people, the brown of home—of the men at home...who were virtually all related to her. She frowned and moved on.

She thought of Aang, almost a man now. The square jaw outlining his not-so-baby face, sinewy muscle defining his arms, a scratchiness to his cheek and an intriguing new resonance in his voice. Adoration in his grey eyes, an ice jewel gallantly offered, spun from clouds. Her dashing prince of the air.

But also her responsibility, her every day. She did it for love—the cooking, the laundry, the reassuring hugs—all of it was love. But it wasn’t going to get her where she was going tonight.

As her pleasure mounted, tension building, her imagination went wilder, grasping for thrills to send her over. It summoned a wheat straw in smirking lips, dancing on the edge of danger. A strong arm gripping her waist tightly as the earth dropped out beneath her, sending her to giddy heights. She tried to block the truth behind those images, but they crumbled into disgust, pity, and sorrow. She hadn’t meant to bring in Jet.

Finally, she saw a bare chest, perfect but for a branching scar in the center, a scar that was hers alone—her hand placed upon that scar, mapping it with her fingers, and an answering gasp. Then her heart began to pound harder. Golden eyes locked on hers, in the heat of battle or with the warmth of sympathy. A refined mouth set in perfect jaw. What would those lips feel like on hers? Trailing down her neck? And further? Calloused fingers caressing her breasts, his weight pressing down on her, moving inside of her. Panting, she tipped over the top, tumbling and crashing in private ecstasy.

It was always this last one that she needed most, but she would not say his name.

 


 

Aang and Balam headed up a mountain track at the back of the village. It clung to the rock face, sometimes treacherously narrow. Aang offered a hand whenever Balam’s footing seemed iffy; he never worried about his own.

“How do you know Appa’s up this way?”

“I just know.”

After a few minutes, the track ended at an outcropping wide enough for Appa to sprawl comfortably, and he was doing just that. He perked up with a little “broop?” when Aang’s head appeared over the edge of the shelf.

They were above the treetops here, above the rock walls that flanked the little hamlet, and both Aang and Balam breathed easier.

“I needed the air,” she sighed, looking up at a lone star in the darkening sky.

“You’re quiet about it, but sometimes it’s not hard to believe you’re an airbender’s grandkid,” Aang said with a fond smile.

“I think that, at least, we’ve pretty much established, don’t you?”

“Hiko sure sounds like an airbender brought to ground.” They settled down against Appa’s flank, who lay back down with a soft thump.  “But where do we go from here? This can’t be a dead end, Balam.”

“Well...it could be. Their goal was to disappear. They might have succeeded. Gone underground.”

“Didn’t they think I’d be following? I mean, that other airbenders would be looking for their own kind?”

She shrugged. “You don’t know any airbender secret signs, do you?”

He shook his head. “Air Nomads didn’t hide stuff. We didn’t have to—hardly anyone could get to our temples anyway. And we were at peace. We just lived and loved and prayed and...stuff like that.”

“You did. But you were a kid.”

“Sure, I know the monks had serious concerns. I mean, in hindsight, I can see that they knew Sozin was up to no good. But it really was different then. We were safe. Or thought we were. You wouldn’t know—you couldn’t  know. All you know is war—it’s all any  of you know.” He felt that now-familiar chill at the blood-soaked world his friends were born into and its impossible distance from the home he knew.

Balam gave him a wistful smile. “I wish I could have seen it. You can’t imagine how I’ve wanted to travel back in time to live among the Air Nomads. Even for just one day.” Balam looked back up at the half-clouded sky, as if seeing something else entirely.

Aang wanted to show her—show all of them. To share the peace and love that they all had a right to. “We’ll build it again, though won’t we? You and the girls in the club and Katara and me! We’ll make more airbenders and find the escaped ones and start over. ”

She cleared her throat and shuffled her foot along a curved groove in the stone, apparently blushing. And he realized what he’d just implied. He hadn’t meant that.  Except, well, hadn’t he?

“Yeah, we will. Somehow or other.” So she wasn't offended by the idea, at least.

The moon emerged from behind a cloud, just bright enough to bring an ethereal glow to her round face, eyes alight with their vision of a new life. She looked quite lovely. Until she was overcome by a yawn.

“I think I’d better turn in.”

“I don’t think I can sleep yet. I should be exhausted, but…”

“It’s ok. There’s a lot to think about. I can make it down by myself.”

“Are you sure? Take Momo, at least.”

He watched Balam carefully make her way down the path, Momo circling protectively overhead. They had a good rapport, those two.

And Aang liked her, too. He liked all of them. Three years ago, he’d had eyes only for Katara, the most beautiful girl in the world. Which she still was. But now he saw beautiful girls all around him, in colorful profusion, a garden of flowers all abloom. Had they always been there and it was Aang whose eyes were opened? Or was it the new promise of peace and love that brought a glow to their faces and drew his attention? Because they did have his attention.

What he’d said to Balam—he’d really meant that all of them would work together to build a new Air Nation, which would include  his future children, but how she’d taken it kind of made sense, too. Why would an Air Nomad father children with just one woman? Aang would need lots of children, after all.

So his thoughts wandered, as they so often did these days, to the pretty girl who’d fluttered with excitement to catch sight of him on the street the other day, hiding her eyes behind a veil of chocolate hair. To the other pretty girl who’d winked at him outrageously in the market. To Hei Won who hung on his arm at the slightest excuse, delicate fingers wrapped around his bicep, and who smelled like honey. To lovely Yee Li whose voice had sent chills down his back when she sang that Air Nomad courting song, gazing at him in pure adoration. To Toph, vibrating off the seawater he’d sprayed her with, and smirking his way. Sometimes even to dangerously sexy Ty Lee, flipping and spinning like an airbender. And yes, to Balam’s lovely eyes, grey like home.

Yeah, fathering children would be not be a problem. He leaned back with a dreamy smile. Maybe being the last airbender wasn’t all bad.

Mothering them, on the other hand…. There was still only Katara. Without whom he might float aimlessly across the globe like a dandelion puff, never knowing where he belonged. The one who kept him on course and tethered to the people he loved. The depth of his love for her could never be matched by any other.

The thought of kissing her again (only better than before) and of being kissed back with equal passion gave him a rush. Of his hands dancing over her luscious curves, her breasts, her hips. Of diving between her thighs...and the ecstasy he would find there! It would be like the first time he flew with his glider, and the time he performed that Fire Nation dance with Katara, and the thrill of riding Roku's dragon—all at once. Something like that.

And that was what he wanted. With a sigh, he leaned back on Appa’s soft flank to take that idea for a test run. (Appa wouldn’t mind.) He was almost there, imagining Katara’s caresses and kisses, warm and comforted in her embrace. Cared for and protected against her bosom, knowing that everything would be all right.

Well, shit. He stopped.

Toph was right. He loved Katara like his mother. And he also loved her like a someday-lover. He was screwed up.

 


 

It was a dead end. So they’d returned to the city.

“Aang. I’m sorry.” Katara kept her eyes on the horizon. “That we couldn’t find them.”

The two of them sat side by side, shoulders almost touching, on top of Yu Dao’s outer wall, swinging their legs over the edge and watching the sun sink into the sea—as they liked to, when sun and sea came together.

“It’s ok, Katara. We will, I know it.” He laid a hand on hers with a little caress.

She wouldn’t say there was a charge between them then—she knew what that felt like, when that tension linked two people, taut as a bowstring—but she felt a fire in her belly, a need, and she wondered if Aang felt that, too. She wondered if they could light that kind of a spark between them.

He turned to meet her eyes with warmth and she held his with a little more heat. She felt his breath on her face, stirring a tendril of her hair. Katara flipped her hand around to lace her fingers through his, palm to palm.

“Aang.” Her voice was lower, softer this time.

“Katara?” There was a little innocence, a little “what are you doing?” and a little want all mixed up in that husky question.

She reached up with her other hand to stroke his jaw in answer and gently guided his face toward hers for a kiss. Their lips touched, feather-light, then a little more, testing. Her eyes closed. This felt much more intimate than any of their other kisses, years ago. She felt a little thrill run through her, and it pleased her. The kiss deepened and they leaned into each other, reaching for more.

Suddenly, he pulled away.

“Aang! What is it?” What had she done wrong?

He was already standing up, several feet from her. “I’m sorry Katara. I’m really sorry. I just feel…it’s complicated, and I’m confused. And I don’t think this is the right thing to do right now.”

He popped his glider and was gone.

 

 

Chapter Text

Hakoda and Sokka sandwiched Kanna, each giving her a one-armed shoulder squeeze. Sokka could feel her bones through her parka.

“We’ll return in a week or so, Mother.”

“Be careful," she frowned. "You won’t be the only predators out there desperate for a meal this time of year. Watch each other’s backs.”

“What else would we do, Mother?”

“It takes more than a hungry caribear to take down the Avatar’s warriors!” Sokka softened his boast with a reassuring smile and a kiss on her weathered cheek.

Hakoda released his mother to grasp Bato’s forearm. “Keep them safe.”

“May the spirits guide your hunt,” Bato intoned, before breaking into a smile and pulling Hakoda into a manly hug. “And have fun.” He winked at Sokka.

Hakoda then leaned over to give Noto a gentle kiss. Noto, his new wife. Technically, Sokka’s stepmother. That still didn’t sound right. “We have hungry mouths to feed, and some of them are eating for two,” he said, giving an affectionate rub to her rounded belly, already straining at her parka. Hakoda was doing right by the tribe.

Sokka accidentally caught Mina’s eye—despite making every effort to avoid it. Damn, she was good at getting what she wanted. Which, at this moment, was to spear him with a complex look of bitterness and jealousy, teased with a remnant of hope. And, yeah, he could read her that well. He left her unspoken accusations hanging and gave her a cheerful wave goodbye.

Then Hakoda gave the straps on their sled one last tug and Sokka whistled sharply to the six-legged polar dogs. They leapt forward, heading inland.

In the old days, Sokka dimly remembered, a hunt like this for a large land mammal like a kangabou, an arctic hippo, or even a wild arctic camel (whose meat was a bit pungent, but there was a lot on one animal) would be done by a band of hunters. But even with the men back from the war, the village could still spare only two.

It shouldn’t really have been the headman, but a father-son hunt was years overdue, so Bato was taking charge for the week. That left two more men there (the rest of Hakoda’s sailors and warriors had returned to Kivallit City and other villages at the end of the war), plus Rakko, who was ten now and occasionally useful at man stuff. The rest were women and children—and there weren’t any old men, of course.

Gran Gran was right that it wasn’t ideal conditions for such a hunt—undermanned, before the thaw—but the food was running out early this year. Now, with the equinox approaching, they could at least travel under the sun, and the animals would be more active, for better and worse.

The first night, they camped on the open tundra, on the lee of a gentle rise, mounding snow into a makeshift igloo only large enough for the two of them to curl up with the two dogs, talking quietly, nose to nose, before sleep overtook them.

“I really thought we’d have enough meat to make it through. The snow was red last fall with all the butchering.”

“We knew it would be a hard winter. Bato and I saw the signs. But we didn’t account for how many pregnant and nursing mothers we’d have, and the first peace children now old enough to be eating their own meat. They outnumber us men two to one!”

“The problems of peace.”

“Just so, Sokka. When times were truly hard, it was the children who would die first, if the women could even carry to term. Then, we had enough hunters, but too few mouths to feed.”

Sokka was silent, remembering the babies they’d sent back to the ocean. Remembering his second little sister.

“How come we never talk about her?”

Hakoda didn’t need to ask who he meant. “We agreed, your mother and I. We would look to the future and lay the past to rest.”

“And that’s why you left to fight.”

“To do something about the future.” Hakoda shifted in his furs, and Sokka could barely hear him add, “And to get away from the past.”

“I get that. Now.” Not when he was thirteen, he hadn’t. He’d felt abandoned, betrayed. But even then, he knew better—he knew those weren’t the feelings of a warrior. And he’d figured out how to look to the future, too.

“Why Noto, Dad?”

“Noto is a good woman. It was time. And given how her husband died, I felt responsible for her.”

Sokka cringed. The responsibility for that horrific invasion was his. His idea, based on his hasty research, his deception of the bitchy spirit owl, his careless endorsement of the “Kyoshi warriors” in the Earth Palace.

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

“Sorry?” 

“Sorry you don’t love her.” And for so much else.

Sokka watched Hakoda grope for words. “Of course I love her. Not like your mother. But I never expected to find that again. I love her the way that I love the village and the tribe. And I will love our child.”

Yeah, Sokka did know that feeling.

“It doesn’t have to be a passion that lights the world on fire, son, to be happy. One way or another, passion leads to pain. I’ve had enough pain in my life, I don’t need to be seeking it out.”

And then of course Aunt Wu would come to mind: Your future is full of struggle and anguish, most of it self-inflicted. Because of course his mind would have stored that note verbatim to shout in his ear at helpful intervals.

So far, though, Mina was well ahead of Suki in the pain-to-passion ratio. Excelling, really. Noto seemed a lot gentler. And a good mother to Rakko and Miksa—somehow she’d transformed them from incontinent, attention-deficient polar pups into quasi-humans. And now they were his stepbrothers. He thought of his own mother, wishing she could have seen her humans grow up. Then put aside the ache in his heart and spoke the words his dad needed to hear:

“Ok, then, I’m happy for you. Happy for all of us—one big family. You’re going to need a bigger igloo, though.”

The second day, clear and sunny, they roamed in search of game. Bipedal paw prints and a patch of broken and refrozen ice on the banks of a snow-covered river revealed the recent passage of a small herd of kangabou, which they began to track up into the foothills of the Western Mountains.

They left the dogs and sled in a sheltered spot and went on foot for stealth. They were still tracking as dusk fell—kangabou can move fast, even in the snow—making their way up a narrowing gully and ready to hunt through the night if necessary, when a growl froze them in their tracks. The low, moist, resonant growl of an animal that was both enormous and deeply upset with them. How had they missed the territorial signs of a predator?

Sokka eased his boomerang from its sheath on his back, Hakoda hefted his whale bone saber and they swung into a fighting stance, back to back. The growl stretched on and still they could not see the source. Then it pounced.

Sokka’s first thought was “Appa,” when two tons of furry white beast came hurtling down at them. But Appa never had slavering jaws filled with four-inch, razor-sharp teeth ready to rip out your windpipe. The men rolled in opposite directions and came to their feet facing a wild polar bear dog, its raised hackles standing higher than their heads. Sokka still couldn’t see where it had come from (what was it even doing this far from the water?), but that was hardly the main issue here.

He was just about to hurl his boomerang when the beast landed on his chest, knocking the wind and nearly the consciousness out of him. Hakoda let out a battle cry and threw himself at the polar bear dog, aiming the arc of his saber for the vulnerable flesh behind its front leg, but it dodged just in time, wheeling to snap at Hakoda.

Sokka was ready to launch himself onto the animal’s back when a voice rang out, echoing on the walls of the ravine. “Poro! Freeze!”

The polar bear dog instantly went still. Which was not at all the same thing as backing down. A tall man made his way down the steep side of the gully armed with a heavy, bone club. He stopped several feet above them and regarded them silently. They couldn’t make out his eyes under the fur-lined hood of his parka, just a clean-shaven jaw.

“Is this your, uh, pet?” Sokka was mortified to hear his voice squeak. (He was nineteen, for the love of salt!)

The man was silent and Sokka realized that despite his looming posture, he was hesitating.

Hakoda spoke. “If we have trespassed on your territory, please accept our apologies. We are simply tracking a herd of kangabou.”

“Yes, this is our place. Please leave!” He barked with an intensity hinting at panic. He recalled Poro to his side, where the beast sat obediently, just like a normal-sized dog, if a normal dog could drool on the top of your head.

Hakoda cocked his head to one side, scrutinizing the boy. “Do you live here? Who are your people?” He got no response. “I am Hakoda, head of Kotan, to the north. This is my son Sokka. We were not aware of anyone living in these mountains. We believed them to be uninhabitable….” Hakoda’s tone invited conversation.

The young man glanced at Poro, as if for permission to speak. Poro did not seem to have a strong opinion on the matter. “I am Anik. Son of Apto. We call this place Ippigak.” He stopped, then repeated, with less fire in his words than before, “Please leave.”

“Apto. Apto of Esani?” Hakoda leaned forward in an eagerness Sokka rarely saw in his father.

“Uh, maybe.” The man was now glancing nervously over his shoulder to the ridge above them. “He…we don’t speak of it. We came here a long time ago.”

“Apto and his family disappeared after a Fire Nation raid almost fifteen years ago. We knew they fled inland, but they were never heard from again. We assumed you hadn’t made it.”

Anik pushed back his hood, staring at Hakoda with a penetrating curiosity, barely checked by the last of his wariness. “You knew us?”

A smile creased Hakoda’s face. “Esani was the village closest to ours.” He turned back to Sokka. “Apto is Bato’s brother.”

“Bato has a BROTHER?! Let’s go meet him!” Sokka made to climb up to Anik.

“Stop!” Anik threw up an arm to halt him, remembering his mission. “No one may enter. I’ve told you too much already.” He turned and darted up the side of the gully, Poro on his heels, and vanished.

“Oh, man! That’s not fair. Maybe we can track him!”

“No, son. Let’s rest here. We’ll make camp and hopefully Apto will come find us. We do not want to arrive unwelcome.”

They returned to the dogs and made camp under a rock outcropping, huddling around a small fire while they chewed on whale blubber. Both too wound up to sleep, Hakoda told Sokka Bato’s story.

Sokka had known Bato was not originally from Kotan, but had joined the village as his dad's friend. But Bato never spoke about his past and Hakoda had never let Sokka ask.

Bato was born to the Esani Village, on the opposite side of the bay from Kotan, the distance traversable year-round across the ice shelf. The two tribes were like sisters, aiding each other in hard times, with many marriages between them. Some years they even summered together. In recent generations, Esani had had more waterbenders than Kotan, which would have been a boon, if not for the Fire Nation’s war of attrition. Raid after raid targeted Esani before Kotan and by Bato’s time, not only were all the waterbenders taken, many of the non-bending tribespeople had perished in their defense. Kotan fared well by comparison.

When the final raid came, during the polar night fifteen years ago, Esani had only five families left. To attack when firebenders were at their least powerful, weeks before the next sunrise, was simply a sign of the Fire Nation’s contempt—and indeed, Esani had little resistance left. The raiders tore through the village looking for a rumored waterbender, just as they would a few years later in Kotan. When none was revealed, they began killing indiscriminately, in frustration or revenge or simply battle rage.

Bato was an hour away on foot, scouting for just those Fire Nation raiders, hoping to raise a warning. But tragically, he had gone looking to the west, towards the Fire Nation. They came from the east. Bato’s entire family was killed—his wife, his mother-in-law, and his two children, who were barely old enough to take up arms.

Hakoda and the warriors from Kotan arrived a few hours later to find the village silent and strewn with corpses, Bato standing stock still in the center, blanketed with snow as if he too were one of the dead. They wrapped him in furs and warmed him (he refused to sit near a fire for weeks afterwards), gathered and tended the handful of wounded, and covered the dead.

But two of the families had simply disappeared. A search revealed that they had somehow packed essential supplies for a long journey and taken a large sled and two buffalo yaks—it had to have been planned. They had apparently fled inland, away from the sea, which the Fire Nation commanded as readily as the Water Tribes. But the heavy snowfall had buried their tracks. Bato searched for months, but could never find any trace of his brother's family.

Hakoda took Bato home to join Kotan Village and he had followed Hakoda ever since, finding his revenge in every blow delivered to a Fire Nation soldier and every ship sunk.

Sokka listened, rapt, throughout his father’s story, staring into the heart of the fire. When Hakoda fell silent, Sokka was left with the clang and thud of iron and bone and the roar of firebending echoing in his mind.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me this, Dad?”

“You didn’t need to know that when you were a child,” Hakoda answered firmly, then shrugged a little guiltily. “And then it never really came up. We’ve had the future to think of, and I believed Esani was dead and gone. Bato’s pain is his own.”

Dawn found them nodding off by the embers, leaning against each other and swaddled together in furs.

“Hakoda. My old friend.”

Instantly, Sokka and his dad were awake, looking up at a tall, grizzled man, pale gold in the morning sun.

“Apto.”

The two older men grasped opposite forearms and shoulders, then fell together into an embrace. A tear rolled down his father’s cheek.

“I welcome you to our home.”

They climbed over the ridge by the hidden trail Anik had used, through a narrow cleft in the rock, and Ippigak opened before them. Sokka thought he must be having a cactus juice flashback.

The bowl-shaped valley was green. Every Antarctic plant Sokka knew seemed to be growing here in profusion, along with several he’d never seen before. The ground was carpeted with saxifrage and dotted with its blue-white blooms. Bunches of cottongrass stood here and there and, closer to the stream that wound southward through the bottom of the valley, multi-colored berry bushes and ferns—ferns!—grew. The valley was protected by high cliffs curving inward on all sides, protecting it from the wind and snow. At the head of the valley, a spring gushed from a crack in a vertical rock face on the northern side, and next to it grew an actual tree, a willow, its branches dangling gracefully over the tumbling waters.

The waters—and this was key—were steaming. A hot spring. Could this be the South Pole’s counterpart to the Spirit Oasis in the North?

Apto chuckled, a low rumble, at Sokka and Hakoda’s astonishment. “Now you know how we did it.”

Anik stood by the stream and gave them a tentative wave. His hood was back, and Sokka could see his face fully now, long and angular, like Bato’s, but smooth and unlined, lacking even the chapped cheeks that most everyone had out on the ice, even the youngest. His eyes were a dark blue, deep-set under a prominent brow, but they fixed the visitors with naked curiosity, now that he no longer had to keep them out.

Along the either side of the valley, partly concealed by moss and hardy vines, Sokka noticed four stone shelters. Each had a cooking fire in front of it, a couple with bubbling pots suspended over them, but no other human could be seen. Gradually, cautious and curious faces peered out from the hide-covered doorways, staring at the visitors through round, blue eyes.

One by one, introductions were made. Only sixteen people lived there, from a three-year-old to the eldest couple, who were perhaps fifty.

Then Hakoda stepped forward and spoke with the voice of a chief. “People of Esani and Ippigak, we bring great news. The Avatar has returned! The war is over, a treaty is signed, and the world is at peace. Kotan Village welcomes you home.”

The people reacted as one, with a gasp and a sigh, which dispersed into agitated whispers and murmurs. A great many questions followed, and Sokka and Hakoda were seated and fed as they exchanged stories of the past decade and a half with Apto. He seemed to speak for the whole settlement.

“But I still don’t understand why.” Hakoda said. “Why did you flee? Why didn’t you join us in Kotan? We could have stood together.”

Apto and Anik exchanged a look and Apto gave a very small but decisive nod. Anik stood and walked a few steps to the stream. He lifted his arms and the water followed. He made a peculiar swirling gesture over his head that Sokka had never seen and a whirlpool formed in midair, gently turning and steaming, until he released it to funnel back into the streambed.

“You’re Esani’s waterbender.”

 

Chapter Text

To:   Professor Gyu
        Head of the Department of Numerical Sciences
        Ba Sing Se University

I write to provide Lady Mai of the Fire Nation, daughter of Irori and Ukano, with an endorsement to study with you. She is a woman of sharp intelligence and exacting standards, who has recently discovered an aptitude and passion for mathematical calculation, which we enlisted profitably in a recent demographic project analyzing three years of Fire Nation census reports.

A letter from my Minister of Census and Taxation, who supervised that project, is enclosed, further attesting to Lady Mai’s abilities and potential.

I am not privy to the arrangements she has made with her parents for payment of tuition, but should there ever be any question on the matter of funds, I will personally guarantee her; please do not hesitate to apply to me in the event of any shortfall.

Lady Mai is a credit to the Fire Nation and will likewise bring honor to Ba Sing Se University. We hope that she will return when she has completed her education, but we hold her to no further service.

        Zuko, Lord of the Fire Nation
        Caldera City

(enclosure)

 


 

Dear Sokka,

It’s been a week since we’ve returned to the arms of civilization. I never thought I’d find the noisy street protests with their clanging brass gongs so welcoming, or the smell of toasted chilis and coal so comforting. Here in Yu Dao, there are good neighbors, good laws, and good food. And there are so many people to talk to, some of whom refreshingly have no opinions at all on the fate of the Air Nomads.

It’s been two months since we flew off into the wilds of the northern Earth Kingdom hunting ghosts, and while I won’t say it was eventful, it did yield a good story, eventually. And the story may yet lead to something real for Aang. For all of us.

You know about Balam’s family legend, about her grandfather Hiko being an airbender? Tracking down the truth behind it was tedious and discouraging, and led through some surprisingly chilly people. (I know the war has hurt them, terribly. Would they have been more generous if they’d lived less painful lives ? Was kindness more common before Sozin set the world on fire?)

We were traveling through the Duke of Yei’s lands, and even with low expectations, I was surprised how capricious and brutal his rule actually is. He controls through fear, not law, and his subjects have learned either to duck their heads and make no sudden moves, or else to glom themselves onto the next most powerful man and become his human sword and shield—or clod of earth, maybe I should say. They prove their loyalty by strength of their hatred of outsiders. (Good thing we can’t be taken out by petty thugs.)

Remember that endless sea of granite peaks we flew over, for days, on our way to the Northern Air Temple, during the war? That’s where the trail ultimately led us. Into the very heart of the Borjin Mountains, to an abandoned village that might have been hospitable to a band of escaped Air Nomads (once), but we saw no evidence of them there at all.

So we gave up and flew back. Aang, of course, could have stayed and roamed the mountains indefinitely looking for clues. Balam was sympathetic but practical. And I was just done. We didn’t speak much on the way back.

Toph met us here, a fresh ear, so Aang could talk it all through one more time. She finds the fangirls about as irritating as I do (we roll our eyes together—figuratively speaking, of course), but she stands by him and gives him the friendship that they can’t. You don’t worship your friends.

We were surprised at how closely Toph listened to our story, and how she questioned us on obscure details that we had glossed over. Like the livestock skeletons all over the village, and the graves we couldn’t find. Fortunately, Balam had kept quite meticulous notes in her journal.

We had been looking for words, symbols, specific signs that Air Nomads had lived there. But we should have known they would have been more careful than that. With Toph, we pieced together that there had never been a plague (which was the reason Hiko had given for showing up alone in the valley), because there were no indications of illness or mass death or even a steady decline. Instead, the households were were laid out as if still in use, suggesting a sudden, yet peaceful departure all together.

Toph deduced that the stone set askew in the center of the village could not have been placed there by the same people who built the houses, since their walls were still straight and true as the day they were built. So perhaps the last inhabitants had not been the original ones, or the stone had another meaning, and was not crooked, but in fact pointing somewhere. It did come to a point in the direction it was leaning.

We’d thought that the word on the stone, “Fumoya,” was the name of the village, but Toph pointed out that it could be instructions: “Fu”=“float” and “Moya”=“mist.” So, maybe not "Floating Mist," but “Float into the mist”? Instructions that only an airbender could follow. In fact, we did find the trace of an old footpath heading higher into the mountains in the back corner of the village--right where the stone was pointing. It ended on an exposed ledge on a cliff face.

We may never know why they slaughtered their livestock all at once and left them behind. And we have no idea why Hiko came down to the valley instead of leaving with the others (if that is what they did). We don’t even know for sure that they were Air Nomads (though Hiko surely was), but their hidden, anonymous lifestyle, plus their sudden flight make that seem very likely.

Frankly, it’s all still very vague. But as you can imagine, Aang is more determined than ever to uncover the truth. He can talk of nothing else. If only there really was nothing else he needed to worry about.

More and more, he leaves me with the tedious responsibilities of politics and peace—dragging him to his obligations, making all the preparations and doing the follow-up myself. While I don’t mind the work, I do mind being taken for granted. I understand that his passions are focused elsewhere. But we all have passions we must suppress or postpone, don’t we, Sokka?

The dead can wait when the living are in need.

I miss you terribly. Please give my love to Dad and Gran Gran and the rest of Kotan Village, and my gratitude for their patience. I promise I will come home someday, when there is true peace here.

With Love,
Katara

 


 

Dearest Chugi,

This is it.

The new Fire Nation Palace Guard is in place and I am the last Kyoshi Warrior still here. It feels like there are a thousand things I need to do before I leave, notes to append to everything, wisdom to impart (“wisdom,” anyway). Will Ming remember that Sang does better with morning shifts? That Bemki is allergic to shellfish? That the silken tassels must be ordered from Ba Sing Se because the local dyers can’t match the correct color? That Ty Lee will need a new fan next year and it must be ordered from Kyoshi six months in advance?

Will they keep Zuko from getting killed??

But then I breathe deeply, grateful for the meditation techniques Iroh has taught me, and remember that Ming will do it. That they all will. That we chose them carefully and trained them well, that they are among the finest female weapons warriors in the Fire Nation. That everything will be fine.

I know that’s what you would tell me if you were here. You would sit down across from me, hands on my shoulders, look me in the eye and say, “Suki. Each rock will fall in its own way. Whether you plan out every inch of its trajectory or not.” And I would heave a great sigh and nod and say, “You’re right, Chugi. Of course you’re right.” And then you’d take me out for a drink and we’d reminisce about our Kyoshi childhood and tell all of Master Ogi’s stupid jokes one more time.

When I get back to Kyoshi, I’ll want that drink!

That makes me nervous, too, though. Returning home. Visits are one thing—they pass in a flash, everyone happy to see each other, hugs and kisses, and back to work in Zuko’s palace. But now I have to face the music.

What have I done, Chugi? I know, we talked about this before, way back in the beginning. We agreed that Zuko’s survival was so vital to world peace that it justified us breaking little bits of our vows—just crumbling the edges, we said—to teach our ways to our Fire Nation counterparts. I’ve gone so much farther than we talked about then, invested so much more in my women here. But we couldn’t stay indefinitely, could we? That would be worse. Replacements had to be trained. I could have let them figure it out for themselves, I suppose. The Fire Nation is hardly incompetent at martial innovation. But I did what I did.

Loyalty is a funny thing. Before, back on the island, we all thought loyalty was the simplest principle of all. Just stick to your promises, follow the leader to whom you’ve sworn your love, and your path is paved with certitude.

I’m loyal to Kyoshi, and to the Order of the Kyoshi Warriors. That could never change. The Order—all of you women, individually and together—have made me what I am. You are my first loves. And I love that island like it came from my womb—it's really other way around, I guess, except that, having sworn to protect it with my life, it feels like my child. And yet, it’s not me who’s been protecting it these past years. You have been heading up our troop, you have been training them for Kyoshi’s new role in peacekeeping, ever since you returned from the Fire Nation.

Will they—will you—accept me back? Now that I’ve cracked the armor we forged so carefully around our secrets, and let them spill? Why did I do this?

Because I am loyal to Fire Lord Zuko. My friend, my boss, my charge. Supreme leader of the nation that brutally imprisoned us. We only ever left Kyoshi in the first place because of him—because his attack showed us how far we had to go to protect our home, that our neutrality would not hold. We left to protect Kyoshi from him, only to end up protecting him. The irony is rich. We do laugh about it, he and I. Over a drink, yeah.

And I am loyal to Sokka. More than that: I love him with all my heart. Except for the parts of my heart that are sworn elsewhere (see above). I’m not sure if I was ever completely honest with you (though, knowing you knowing me, you probably got it from the start): Zuko may have forced us out, given us that jolt of true fear, but it was Sokka’s heart—the crazy courage that big dork showed me when we first met—that drew me on, that gave me the heart to lead you all into the unknown.

With him, I am myself. I’m not working to serve anyone. (Ok, I’m working for his pleasure a fair amount of the time, but let me assure you, I am getting ample returns on that investment—pretty sure I’m coming out ahead.) We get out and have a lot of fun together. The Fire Nation capital—I don’t know if it’s some kind of postwar hedonism, or if it was always like this—but that city knows how to party (you only scratched the surface, my friend). And sometimes we just sit quietly, watching the turtleducks. With Sokka, I just am. And he just is. And we’re together. That sounds so stupid. But it’s the most real I ever feel.

I’m torn, you see. If I am truly a Kyoshi Warrior first—and what else can I be? I could never not be a warrior—then I must walk the narrow path that tradition requires, and I cannot marry him. Not without leaving the Order. And Sokka yearns for a wife and family. In an igloo at the South Pole (I have to admit, I’m not quite sold on that last part).

I don’t know what to tell him. He hasn’t asked me outright. But we’ve talked about it openly, in the abstract. What our future could look like. And I love so much that faraway look in his eyes when he dreams big that I can’t tell him, I just go right on in and dream with him. He doesn’t know the vow I’d be breaking, what I’d be asked to give up.

I’ve been such a hypocrite, railing into him for his petty white lies of omission, while keeping this to myself. I keep thinking, first I’ll solve this dilemma, and then I’ll tell him—a flawed strategy, apparently.

So where do I go from here? Each strand of loyalty feels so pure and straightforward, yet put them together and all I see is a tangled mess. Is there some technique I can master for braiding all these loyalties together into a coherent path? Will this new world have a place for me? For the me I’ve been and want to be?

I don’t expect you to have the answers, but thank you for listening, always.

In anxiety and anticipation,
Your Suki

 


 

Dear Katara,

Night is on its way out, making way for summer. We’ve sent it north—our apologies! I assume you are still somewhere in the north. It's hard to keep track sometimes, you are always on the move. It has been far too long since we have seen you, my daughter.

The arrival of one of your letters is an event for the whole village, not just because we miss you so much, but because your adventures, and your insightful observations on them, teach us so much about the world beyond the ice. I once (recently!) considered myself a man of the world, but so much has changed in these short years since I returned home, I would find myself a stranger on the seas now. All to the better, of course! It is best for all if old warriors like myself are now confined to quarters, drawing only the blood of seals. You, our children, will lead us all towards peace.

But Kotan Village is changing fast, too, even since my last letter. You, too, might find yourself a bit disoriented, if you were to return home, though you could never be a stranger.

Change has come even to my own hearth. After all these years, you will finally be an elder sister. Noto will bear my child in December, her third. So, in the space of just a year, my igloo will swell from three to seven hearts! It’s been an adjustment, to say the least.

But we would fling the hides open to welcome home an eighth. Or, if you prefer, you would be entitled to your own igloo, as a master healer who would, of course, run her own practice. I don’t have to tell you what a boon your talents would be for us.

But something even more astounding has happened, something that brings me such joy, I am almost overwhelmed. (If I had opened my letter with this news, you might have wondered what giddy teenager had possessed the soul of your father.)

We have found our cousins from Esani Village!

Mother thought she had told you the story once, of how our sister village was destroyed in a raid like the one that took your mother. Do you remember? Last month, Sokka and I stumbled across the missing families in the Inland Mountains, of all places! They have survived these last fifteen years at the Ramu Spring—the one of legend, the one that I, at least, believed was no more than legend. It is as real as the one at the North Pole, and (I risk gushing) truly a magical place.

Apto (Bato’s brother!) and Osip have returned to Kotan with us, along with Apto’s son Anik, now a man of twenty, to renew our ties and decide on the way forward for our two villages. Bato and I, of course, are pushing heavily for them to return permanently and join us as one community (we could even change the name—Kosani?). But Apto, while he is deeply moved to see us all again, seems reluctant to uproot his people. In a way, I understand—that is a rare place they have claimed as home. But it cannot be good for their children to be so isolated.

Anik in particular. For he is the waterbender that the Fire Nation was hunting! And, obviously, he is completely untrained. He bends with very idiosyncratic forms that seem effective only for limited purposes. More importantly, he seems desperately hungry for knowledge. You will remember the feeling, I’m sure.

Unlike you, he can picture a teacher for himself. Since he learned about you, he has been asking with, I must say, irritating frequency when we think you will return.

In light of our discovery, and the new blood that I feel confident, one way or another, will be blended with ours once again, I’ve decided to give Sokka my blessing to court Suki. I know that’s knotting the harness after the polar dog’s fled, but I think it’s important that he knows I don’t stand in his way. If those two crazy kids still have it after three years apart, well, I guess they should see it through. Maybe it is just as important that we build new bridges to other lands as it is that we rebuild our own foundations.

No light is without its shadow, however. I must also let you know that your Gran Gran’s health is failing. It doesn’t seem to be a specific ailment (though I am hardly qualified to judge—she says not). But she is too thin and her appetite too weak. Her strength in general is waning—sometimes she can’t catch her breath just walking around the village wall. The years fall heavily on her, and she no longer seems able to shoulder their load.

A healer from the North Pole did visit on a field trip from Kivallit City, and fortified Mother a bit, but she’s gone home now, and there’s no one else to treat her here. I worry, but as headman I must always project confidence. Master Pakku, on the other hand, is tripping over his own feet to look after her. He has stayed at the South Pole all year, skipping his usual sojourn in the North.

You have promised to return home when there is “true peace.” The world is a tumultuous place, Katara, even without a war, and I fear you may find that a very long wait. Perhaps one day the needs of your homeland and your need for us will turn the tide away from the Avatar and his duties—he is nearly a man now, isn't he?—at least for a while.

Your very subtle patriarch, who hints but never pleads,

Dad

 


 

Unto His Majesty the Earth King, Supreme Sovereign of the Eastern Continent, Kuei Pao Yü:

Whereas the duty of a ruler, whether lord, duke, sage, or king, is to protect and serve his subjects to the benefit of their collective welfare and to the strength of his nation;

Whereas both highest ethics and common morality agree that death and destruction—that is to say, war—is contrary to the welfare of the people and must therefore be avoided in pursuit of the first duty;

Whereas diplomacy is the tool most honorably wielded in resolution of disagreements between nations, and which requires the considered attention of each party to the concerns of the others;

Whereas a ruler must nonetheless hold firm in defense of his subjects’ rights to peace and well-being, lest he fail in the first duty;

I, Zuko, Lord of the Fire Nation, must therefore act in accordance with the interests of my subjects—who, prior to the completion of the terms of the Harmony Restoration Accord, currently include residents of Fire Nation colonies who might, outside colonial boundaries, be considered subjects of the Earth Kingdom. Believing that many of my colonial subjects, in particular those whose heritage links our two nations, will encounter prejudice and grievous suffering at the hands of their Earth Kingdom neighbors and local authorities—as indeed many already have—I cannot in all good conscience continue to release them to such a fate.

His Majesty the Earth King has repeatedly turned deaf ears to the Fire Nation’s intention to find a mutually beneficial resolution to these issues. Although the Fire Nation has followed the terms of the Harmony Restoration Accord to the letter since the agreement was reached among the Four Nations and the Avatar in Ba Sing Se three years ago this Autumn, and although it will continue to do so for all remaining colonies on the Earth continent excepting Yu Dao, I hereby officially rescind my support for the evacuation of my subjects from Yu Dao and for its transfer of sovereignty to Your Majesty.

The colony of Yu Dao, both people and territory (including the city proper, agricultural lands extending to the western foothills of the Yu Yan Mountains and the northern flank of Makapu Volcano, the shipping port, and territorial waters to the standard 30 li from shore) will remain under the protection of the Fire Nation until such time as a solution can be reached, preferably in concert with the Earth King which allows its self-identified citizens to live together in peace, regardless of national origin, parentage, lineage, cultural practices, or bending element.

If His Majesty the Earth King cannot recognize the value of Yu Dao’s way of life as it is currently conducted by its citizens for their mutual benefit, and its uniqueness as a safe harbor for families of mixed elemental heritage, and insists on measures that will ensure its destruction, I will have no choice but to claim and defend Yu Dao as a territory of the Fire Nation indefinitely.

 

      Zuko, Lord of the Fire Nation and the Territory of Yu Dao

           By the Fire Lord Himself, Signed With His Own Hand

      Countersigned:

      Iroh, Lord Regent and Prince of the Fire Nation, General of the Eastern Forces (Ret.)

      Tapaya, Fire Nation Minister of Foreign Affairs

      Atash, Fire Nation Minister of War and Peacekeeping

 

Cc: Aang, The Avatar

 

 

Chapter Text

A Southern Water Tribe ship, sails catching blue in the morning sun, coasted into the bay. Katara beamed with pride to watch Sokka shouting orders to his crew to furl the sails and drop anchor. She bounced on her toes impatiently as they lowered a dinghy into the water. She couldn’t reasonably be expected to wait for them to row it over, so summoned a small wave to skim them across the water straight to the marina where she stood with Toph and Aang.

Yu Dao’s shipping port was actually two harbors, separated by the narrow spit of land that connected the city with the mainland. Along its southern bank, smaller, local trading and fishing craft docked along the mouth of the Yu River. To the north lay a deeper harbor, where ocean-going ships anchored. Various shacks and shelters were scattered along the spit between them, housing customs officials, shops to resupply the ships, fishing nets, buoys, crab traps, and coal fuel stations for Fire Nation steamers—this constituted the marina.

Sokka’s boat bumped gracelessly into a pier on the northern side and he leapt onto the dock, scooping Katara into his arms.

“Welcome to Yu Dao, Captain Boomerang,” Toph said, grinning broadly.

Sokka released his sister and hugged Aang and Toph in turn.

“Did you really build that ship yourself?” Aang shot a few feet up in the air for a better look, but politely stayed with the others.

“Not all by myself, of course. Dad advised, and I had help from all the men in the tribe. And from my little brothers—Rakko and Miksa—and the other boys, just like I helped out with shipbuilding when I was a kid.”

Toph punched his arm and sized him up. “You’re…bigger. I mean, taller, heavier. You move like a man.”

To Katara’ surprise, Sokka’s cheeks reddened. “Uh, maybe that’s because I am a man? I’m nearly 20, Toph. Haven’t seen you in, what, two years?”

“You always gotta comment, Toph.” Aang shook his head. With a grin, he threw his arms around Sokka, in something halfway between a manly hug, and just Aang. “It’s been way too long, Sokka.”

Sokka slung his arm over Katara’s shoulders, holding her close to him. “I’m really glad you’re coming home with me, Katara. But you’re sure you’re ready? To be part of the tribe again?”

“Was I ever not part of the tribe?” Katara bristled slightly, then calmed herself. “I do know what you mean, though. If I stay away much longer, I suppose that will be brought into question.” She hooked her arm around his. “But we have to deal with Yu Dao first. Come on, we’ll show you around. You scarcely saw it last time.”

“I did do some great shopping! But yeah, let’s see this temple to tolerance you speak so highly of. And what’s this about Zuko declaring war?”

 


 

Toph led them through the massive city gates and guided them through the streets of what she had to admit had now become her home. Her feet knew every stone, through the market squares and the finer Fire Nation shopping districts, pointing out the shops Sokka should hit later, past the Governor’s Palace and the temple—not to the Avatar, but to the eclectic pantheon of spirits that guarded Yu Dao: Tui, the Ocean Spirit; Bai Long, the Dragon of the Central Seas; Yu Gong, the ancient fisherman; Oroshi who commands the winds; and Dyunsan, the blacksmith of the Spirit World.

Never longwinded, Toph left plenty of space in her tour for the friends to catch up and fill each other in on the current crisis.

“So, what did Zuko do? War—that’s just an exaggeration, right?” Sokka’s voice rose in forced optimism.

“Uh, I don’t know,” Aang answered. “It was a very formal letter. Icy. It was basically, ‘we’ve got it and we’re keeping it, don’t fuck with us.’”

“That is not what Zuko wrote, Aang. Don’t oversimplify!” Katara objected. “He wants the Earth King to show some respect for Yu Dao as it is—a unique blend of cultures, and a refuge for those who don’t fit anywhere else. Which the Earth King—or General How, or whoever’s running the nation—isn’t even remotely interested in doing.”

“Trust me,” Toph agreed. “Ba Sing Se couldn’t care less.”

“Only, being Zuko,” Katara continued bitingly, “he shot a fireball at the problem and now he’s going to get the whole city burned down.”

“Yeah, the Earth Kingdom army is on the march. We saw it when we flew in.”

“Seriously?! Oh man, this is bad.” Sokka gripped his head in his hands.

“And Zuko’s sailing in with a battalion from the Fire Nation, should be here any day now,” Aang added.

“Spend a couple weeks on a boat and you miss the world going up in flames!”

“It’s not in flames yet. That’s why we’re here.” Katara said firmly.

Serious conversation required a serious venue, Toph decided. “I think it’s time for the Tea Brick.”

“We’re gonna throw tea at the Earth King?”

 

The Tea Brick was a handsome, three-story tea house, presiding over a five-point intersection in the heart of a well-to-do, Earth Kingdom neighborhood. Its double doors, handsomely carved with scenes of tea cultivation and processing (Toph always enjoyed a good bas relief illustration), opened directly onto the street corner, and when the friends entered, they found themselves in a dimly lit, wood-paneled room, scattered with teak furniture and smelling of the greatest refinement a humble leaf can achieve. Toph really hoped she had the chance to bring Uncle here one day.

They sat down at a large, stone table in a corner—apparently, judging from her friends’ complaints, Toph had picked the darkest corner—and a waiter appeared by their table. “Fireflakes or sweet buns to start?”

“So, let me get this straight.” Sokka leaned over the table and began mapping it in the air. “Zuko is on Yu Dao’s side, in that he wants it to stay how it is, and the people of Yu Dao want it to stay like it is. They’re, like, the only Fire Nation colony that was actually happy? But since the Harmony Restoration Accord says all Fire Nation subjects have to be repatriated, if he says, ‘Cool, be yourselves,’ then he’s breaking the terms of the treaty. So he just ordered the Earth Kingdom to back down?” 

“No way—he asked nicely first. I was there.” Toph told him about her wasted trip to Ba Sing Se the year before to back up Zuko's foreign minister.

“Ok, so King Kuei and his councilors are being inflexible jerks.” 

“Well, General How, for sure. I’m never really sure if Teddy Bear is thinking anything at all. Not much of a head for politics, that one.” She stroked her chin in mock thoughtfulness. “Sometimes I think he might be in the wrong career.” 

“So Zuko lost his head and threatened war.” 

“Threatened to protect Yu Dao as part of the a Fire Nation,” Katara clarified. 

“Are you sure he lost his head?” Toph asked. “Didn’t you say the letter was co-signed by Uncle Iroh and some ministers?” 

“Sure,” Aang said. “But he’s the Fire Lord. They have to do what he says, don’t they?”

“Not Uncle. He wouldn’t sign onto something stupid.”

“So what’re you saying Toph?” Sokka asked. “There’s some kind of actual strategy here?”

Toph shrugged. “Let’s keep an open mind.” 

“Fair enough,” Sokka agreed. “Is Suki with him?”

“Doesn’t she usually accompany him on official trips?” Katara asked. 

“Yeah, especially now that Mai’s not in the picture any more. Apparently Mai used to be useful in a confrontation—uprisings in the countryside, that sort of thing. But if Suki’s coming for this, it’s her last mission. I was planning on picking her up in the Fire Nation on our way south. Show off my new sails.” Sokka leaned back and puffed out his chest a bit.

“Wait, Mai and Zuko broke up?” Katara leaned in and Toph heard her pulse quicken. Interesting.

“Yeah, early this year. You didn’t hear?”

“It’s not like Zuko and I are pen pals or anything. Our letters are mostly colonial business. I hardly ever get anything personal from him any more.” Katara wasn’t quite lying, but there was more to it than what she was saying. Those letters were important to her.

The door opened with a polite jangle of bells and a man and two women stepped in.

“There you are!” Toph waved them over.

The man turned brightly and strode over; the women followed with more measured steps.

Katara stood up in surprise. “Shoroon! Nendo and Ginna! What a surprise!” She opened her arms and hugged them each in turn. “I’m so glad Toph asked you to join us.”

“I tried to help them out when they got here, like you asked, and we’ve stayed in touch.”

“And we are in your debt, Master Toph.” Nendo placed a hand on her shoulder.

“This is my brother Sokka, just arrived from the South Pole. And of course you know Aang, the Avatar. ”

The three newcomers bowed deeply.

“No need for that.” Aang bounded over to hug Nendo and Ginna. “It’s great to see you again!” He turned to Sokka. “We met them in Palgan, where we rescued them from a”—his face curled in disgust—“well, best not to speak of that, maybe. It’s all behind us now, harmony restored. I think. What are you doing back in the Earth Kingdom, Ginna?”

“I did go back to the Fire Nation for a few months, helped get my brother settled. Ravsan is doing well, by the way, and has found himself a nice Fire Nation girl to marry.” She turned to Nendo gave her arm an affectionate caress. “But I realized I had another commitment that was stronger.”

“Oh, that’s so sweet!” Katara clasped her hands at her heart. “Yu Dao is the perfect place for you—or should be.” She turned towards Aang and the emotion coming off of her was not affection. 

“We’ve put down roots much faster than I would have thought possible. Nendo has even been elected to the City Council—just last month.”

“Congratulations!” Aang hugged her again. 

“Though I may barely warm my seat before it all comes to an end—as it will if the Earth King reclaims this colony,” Nendo warned darkly.

“Aang, you haven’t met Shoroon, have you? Zuko and I helped him and his wife in the mountains near here when they were attacked by those bigoted thugs I told you about. The ones who said they were Freedom Fighters. And where is Guang, Shoroon?”

“She’s tied up with the kids at the moment, but she can’t wait to see you again. Especially now that we know who you really are! I am beyond honored—overwhelmed!—to meet you, Avatar Aang. And in the presence of your legendary companions! It’s like one of those songs come to life. All we need now is Prince Zuko—I mean, the Fire Lord, of course. To think we actually shared a hearth with him! Guang and I could not get over ourselves when we realized—”

“Yes, yes, Shoroon.” Why was Katara always embarrassed by her fame? Toph couldn’t really see the downside. “Zuko will be here soon. Unfortunately. You’ve heard, of course?” 

“We could hardly be unaware, as it affects every aspect of our future,” said Nendo drily.

“It’s keeping us up at nights, honestly.” Shoroon sobered, with a shake of his head. “Where could our family go next, if the Earth Kingdom takes over? Where would our children be accepted as full citizens?”

“I get it,” Aang assured him. “How hard it is to sort out families like yours. Families that never could have even happened, a century ago. But as the Avatar, it’s my job to get the world back into balance, the way it was before this terrible war. Restore the Fire Nation to its original borders, restore the Earth Kingdom its original lands. Over time, the people will blend back in, as they were supposed to be all along.”

“So, wait, Aang.” Sokka frowned. “Are you saying you oppose romance and marriage between the Nations? You’ve had a funny way of showing it!”

“Well, I’m different, aren’t I! Believe me, if I could find another airbender…”

“You’d what?” Katara cut in. Toph swore she could feel ice on her breath.

Ginna’s eyes darted perceptively from one to another. “Moving on. Perhaps we should discuss what might happen in the next few days, instead of generations from now?”

“I think it might be all connected…” Sokka grumbled. “What about Yu Dao just staying with the Fire Nation?”

“My wife was born in the Fire Nation,” Shoroon volunteered. “She thinks it would be fine. The Fire Lord is a good man, a man of peace. And I would certainly agree with her on his personal character. But the war is over and should stay over. If the Fire Nation keeps a foothold on this side of the ocean, well, this certainly won’t be the last confrontation.”

Sokka nodded. “Valid point. But it has to be one or the other, doesn’t it? What other options are there?”

“We already elect our local officials.” Nendo pointed out. “And manage our own local affairs ourselves. Governor Fosek acts as liaison to the Fire Lord, but he listens to us and the neighborhoods we represent. If the Fire Nation were not a factor.…” 

Ginna cleared her throat cautiously. “It is possible to live without monarchs, free of oppression. For the people to govern themselves, as equal citizens.”

Shoroon chuckled uncomfortably. “Now, that’s getting pretty close to the way those Freedom Fighters talk.” 

“The Freedom Fighters are involved, too?” 

“Not much,” Toph clarified. “Not within these walls, anyway.”

“The Freedom Fighters may be a little intolerant—” Ginna hedged.

“A little?!” Katara yelped over her.

“...but from what I understand, their leadership stands for the true equality of all people.” 

“Hmph.” Shoroon was unconvinced. “The part about no monarchs is appealing, I’ll admit.”

“But then what nation would Yu Dao belong to?” Aang sounded genuinely confused.

“Well, those that entertain such a scenario imagine Yu Dao as just Yu Dao,” Nendo explained diplomatically. “Independence is far from an unpopular position here.”

“No way. No way.” Aang was gesturing wildly and Toph felt a breeze swirl around the table. “There are not going to be five nations.”

“You mean four,” Toph corrected him—gently, she hoped. “There are only three now.”

“I’m working on that!”

 


  

“I’m feeling so penned in here. Maybe we could take this out on the marina? The full moon makes me restless.” 

Katara, Toph, and Guang were taking an evening walk through the quiet streets. Guang had been alone with the kids all day and was looking a little wild around the eyes. Tobul and Tao had flung themselves at Shoroon as soon as he walked through the door of their humble quarters not far from Toph’s bedsit and latched on with the persistence of barnacles. Guang was all too happy to hand them over, and Sokka and Aang enthusiastically agreed to stay and play, while the women took some time to catch up.

“The gates are locked and guarded after nightfall, you know,” Guang warned.

Toph brushed her off. “You’ve got me with you tonight.”

They approached the gate to the port, mostly used for loading in merchandise and lacking the grandeur of the main city gates.

“Evening, Jag.”

A smiling young guard saluted the earthbender casually. “Evening, Master Toph.”

“I’m just taking these ladies for a stroll on the marina. Let us slip through?”

“I imagine you can take care of yourself, Master Toph. But keep a sharp lookout. There’ve been Freedom Fighters spotted these last few days.” 

“Will do. Thanks, Jag.”

Katara led the way out onto the marina, flanked by soothing bays of water, and the sky opened out before her.

“Oh, that’s better!” Katara spread her arms to soak up the silver moonlight.

Guang chuckled. “Truly a master bender. To think I thought you were just some Northern Water Tribe girl when we first met—and an incredibly naive one at that!”

Katara laughed, too. “I wasn’t putting you on, though. Zuko and I really didn’t know anything about the conditions for mixed families. If we hadn’t met...well, it might not have come to this. Yu Dao would probably be evacuated by now and all of you would be scattered—not that that would have been better! I’m just saying, it was after meeting you that Zuko became so committed to the cause of mixed colonial families and to Yu Dao as a haven.”

Guang shook her head in wonder. “We had no idea. In retrospect, we should have known from the scar. But you hardly think about a burn scar on anyone old enough to have fought in the war. You and the Fire Lord, though—was that part of the act, too?”

“Oh, of course! It wasn’t even intentional. You made an assumption and we went with it. Mostly to hear what you had to say.”

“Huh. Well, it was very convincing. But the Fire Lord really couldn’t marry a Water Tribe woman, could he?”

It was a rhetorical question, but for some reason, Katara felt a sudden squeeze in her chest, and her words came out softer than she intended. “No, he really couldn’t.” 

“But you are with the Avatar?” 

“Nooo…. Not in that sense. We travel together. But no, there is definitely nothing romantic between us now.”

Katara felt Toph move closer with interest. “Nothing at all? That’s a bit of a shift, isn’t it?” 

Katara groaned in annoyance. “It’s all so embarrassing. And confusing. We held off so long—to get actually involved, romantically, you know?—because Aang was just a kid! I couldn’t get into it. And now he’s not any more, and I’m noticing, but suddenly—well, these past months, anyway—it’s like he’s lost interest in me. Or I make him uncomfortable or something. Maybe it’s those fan club girls. Prettier and easier. I mean—not easy easy. Just not as complicated as me.”

“Nah, it’s not the airheads. I mean, yeah, he’s probably hot for a couple of them. But that’s not the problem. He loves you as much as ever. It’s just that he’s figured out that he’s been looking to you as a mother figure. And even an Air Nomad doesn’t get it on with their mother.”

“Oh, for—! That’s what it is? Why didn’t he just tell me? We could talk it through!”

“That’s men for you,” Guang said sympathetically. “What do you mean, ‘even an Air Nomad’?”

“Well, I know about that part. Aang and his fangirls have been learning about how the Air Nomads used to...conduct their affairs. Very promiscuously, it turns out. No marriage or even families. Which is another problem between us, if he means to follow those traditions. I’m Southern Water Tribe. Family is the beginning and the end.” She sighed. “But no, we haven’t talked through that, either.”

“Shhh.” Toph froze.

“What—?” Katara looked around but saw nothing but vacant, moored ships bobbing in the darkness.

“Shhh,” Toph repeated irritably.

The water slapped against the sides of the ships and lapped at the pilings, surf crashed distantly on the rocky shore beyond the harbor. Nothing new. Then Katara noticed a splashing pattern that didn’t match the others. And another, and another.

“Swimmers?" 

“Out there.” Toph pointed to the center of the harbor, where the larger ships anchored. Where Sokka’s ship was anchored now, with crew aboard. Where Zuko’s ships would anchor tomorrow. “They’re dragging something with them.”

Katara squinted, but couldn’t make anything out. Well, no one should be sneaking around in the dark, that she was sure of. Extending her arms, she bent forward with a circular motion, then drew them in. They were a fair distance out, but within a minute, three bodies lay sprawled on the marina, dripping and gasping, along with the large spheres they’d been towing in rope nets.

“Mines?”

Toph stepped forward to cuff their wrists and ankles, but before she could bend, a voice called from above their heads. “Freeze, Toph. I’ve got you covered. Again.”

“Longshot? Shit.” Toph raised her hands above her head in surrender.

Katara peered upwards and could just make out a still figure in the crow’s nest of a fishing boat docked next to them, arrow cocked and aimed downwards. Before she had time to think of a way to take him out, a fireball shot past her and Longshot loosed his arrow.

The fireball caught the arrow mid-flight and incinerated it. Before Longshot launched his next one, Toph had raised a shield and Katara had a spear of water heading towards him. The second arrow bounced harmlessly off of Toph’s earthen wall as Katara’s water knocked him from the crow’s nest. A second spout of water caught him before he hit the harbor and deposited him in front of her, where she froze him to the spot, pinning the other saboteurs in the same gesture.

“That was insanely good aim, Guang!”

“I was a late bloomer in bending. Trained in archery.”

Where there was Longshot, there was—sure enough, Smellerbee. Older and leaner in the face, but unmistakably her, and giving them the darkest stinkeye a person could manage while shivering in ice up to her neck.

“Why are the Freedom Fighters sabotaging my city?” Toph’s voice rose as she stepped forward.

“Not the city, Toph, the harbor. I don’t know if it’s yours or not, but it shouldn't be the Fire Nation’s any more, should it?” Smellerbee’s voice was more even and measured than Toph’s, despite her predicament.

“Well, technically—” 

“You were going to set mines in the harbor,” Katara interrupted. “While it’s full of non-military ships—including my brother’s, with my people on board? You certainly have embraced Jet’s legacy,” she spat.

To her credit, Smellerbee looked uncomfortable at the mention of Jet. “They’re not powerful enough to sink a ship,” Smellerbee admitted grudgingly. “Probably. Just enough to send a message.” 

“And that is?”

“Yu Dao is Earth! The Fire Nation cannot reclaim it!” shouted another one of the other Freedom Fighters.

“You are supporting the Earth King, then?” Katara asked.

Smellerbee shook her head. “The Earth King is just another tyrant. We owe him nothing. We fight for the Earth people, here on the ground. Heaven is high and Ba Sing Se is far away. As they say.”

“Not that far away,” Toph pointed out. “The army should be here in a day or two.”

Smellerbee gave a shrug—or made an approximation of one through the ice. “They’ll never notice us. Distance is more than just miles. We are invisible as ants to them. But like ants, we're everywhere. And ant by ant, we’re building a movement that will take them down.” 

“Whatever you say, Smellerbee. But remember our agreement: mobile zones of protection. And I claim Yu Dao. Clear out.”

“Not sure it’s yours to claim, Toph.” Smellerbee smirked. “Fine, we’ll leave—the four of us, anyway. But you know how it is with ants. They can get in anywhere. And when ‘your city’ has shed the yoke of the Fire Nation, it'll be wanting us.”

Katara looked to Toph, who still seemed to be listening to something even after Smellerbee stopped talking. Then she nodded to Katara with a quick downward gesture. Katara let them go.

 


 

“Your Majesty, we are in sight of Yu Dao.”

“Thank you, Afi.” Zuko looked out the porthole, but could see nothing but dawn breaking over the mountains of the Earth Kingdom. He would have to start dressing now to be ready in time.

He hated the formal armor. It chafed and was hard to sit down in. He marveled that he hadn’t minded practically living in it back when he was chasing the Avatar—but single-minded obsession had its benefits. The Fire Lord’s get-up was of course even worse than that of a banished prince, but nothing else would do for this mission.

“If you would assist me.”

“Of course, Your Majesty.”

Zuko had left his uncle in charge of the Fire Nation—one last duty for the Lord Regent, though the crown had officially passed to Zuko in full now—and mustered a defense force under the direct command of General Mak, to follow the path he’d laid out to its possibly bloody conclusion.

How had it come to this? He’d gone over it again and again on this journey, examining each step that had brought them here. And yet he could not find any single decision that had sealed this fate. He regretted a few choices, but most he would have made the same way even knowing what he knew now.

Could he have ignored Yu Dao entirely? Not in good conscience, not once he understand what would be destroyed, with nothing to take its place.

Could he have taken a hard line with King Kuei from the beginning? He would have had no justification, not until diplomatic options were exhausted.

Could he have continued to plead his case—perhaps traveling to Ba Sing Se in person? Not without further damaging his credibility in the eyes of his nation. Wheedling favors out of the Earth King, ones that didn’t even directly benefit the Fire Nation as a whole, diminished him even in sympathetic eyes. 

Too many already saw him as author of the Fire Nation’s fall from glory—which he was, of course, if you accepted their definition of glory. Even his supporters sometimes humored his insistence on nonviolence like a lovable eccentricity, while his detractors regarded him as a threat to the very integrity of the nation. Zuko’s intelligence unit worked around the clock disarming insurrectionist plots around the country. So no, it wouldn't do to appear weak.

Could he have forced the Avatar—who frequented Yu Dao and had close friends here yet seemed deaf to Zuko's concerns—to pay attention? It’s not like he hadn’t tried. Maybe he should have hunted him down. There, at least, he had a solid track record of success. But he couldn’t have escaped the demands of his other duties for such an all-consuming mission as that—everything had to be held in balance now.

And so he was cornered, by the encroaching Harmony Restoration deadline, by public opinion at home, into making this stand, to force the issue. And if it was forced too far, the world stood to burn. He was not good at this.

Yet here he was. The Fire Lord.

Zuko was on the bridge when they arrived in Yu Dao Harbor, and dressed for the part, in full, gold-rimmed armor and a war helmet crowned with unwieldy golden flames. A crimson-lined cloak that swirled around his boot tops completed the look. No sooner had they lowered the anchor than a familiar, warm thud hit the deck. Zuko strode out, cape billowing behind him (it was a good effect).

“Avatar Aang.”

“Welcome to the Earth Kingdom, Fire Lord Zuko.”

So it was like that. They exchanged curt, shallow bows. Aang got right to the point.

“I am ready to discuss the situation with you and Governor Fosek at your earliest convenience. Which I hope is now. I can escort you into the city on Appa.” 

Why fuss around, indeed. “Very well. I will bring my bodyguard.”

“Of course.”

Suki came around from behind Appa.

“Good morning, Aang.”

“Suki! You did come! And you’re still in Zuko’s service?” Aang ran over to hug her.

“One last mission.”

The three of them mounted Appa and lifted into the air.

“It’s been awhile.” Zuko could not help it.

“Uh, yeah, guess so. Since last…?”

“It wasn’t last New Year’s.”

“Oh. Two years?”

“If you call that a visit.”

“So, uh, how’ve you been?”

“Well enough.” Two years ago he would have flamed out and buried Aang with in his anger and resentment over being left to flounder through this crisis alone, delivered in an eloquent monologue that he would have prepared over weeks of brooding. He wasn’t sure if taciturn passive aggression was a sign of maturity or of decay into the dysfunction of the Fire Nation court. (Which was precisely the kind of thing he had wanted Aang to help him see!) He still had the monologue ready, though.

They landed on the plaza before the Governor’s Palace, where Governor Fosek, Toph, Sokka, and a few Yu Dao officials waited to greet him. And Katara. She was the first one he noticed.

He dismounted with as much dignity as he could manage, sliding ten feet down the flank of a fuzzy beast whose white hairs would be stuck all over his black regalia the rest of the day. The Governor gave a very low bow, of course, being his subject and direct subordinate, as did his entourage. Sokka and Katara made an awkward attempt to bow politely without making too big a deal out of it. Toph did not, though she smiled. At least, he thought she was smiling at him, eyes fixed somewhere around Appa’s ear. She could have been aiming for Suki.

After introductions, they filed into the Palace (why these colonials seemed to require such ostentatious labels for their residences, he didn’t know). Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sokka dart to Suki’s side, as if to embrace her, but the Kyoshi warrior’s professional demeanor of course did not flicker. Sokka hesitated, but at a wink from Suki, relaxed and winked back. 

“Fire Lord Zuko.” Katara approached him with a warm smile. “It’s good to see you again.”

He returned the greeting, with an appropriately formal distance. “And you, Master Katara. I hope you have been well.”

Her smile flagged infinitesimally and she stopped where she was. “I have. And you?”

"Quite well, thank you."

With all eyes on him, he didn't know what else to say to her, so simply gave her a brusque, Fire Lord nod and followed the Governor. Zuko barely heard Fosek’s solicitous inquiries as to his journey. With his eyes fixed forward, he kept his attention on the woman in blue in his peripheral vision. Two years had made her a woman, and she was more beautiful than ever. The lines of her face were stronger, her bearing more confident. And though he tried, he could not ignore the fullness of her curves and the way her tunic swished around her hips. 

Breakfast was served in the Council Room. This was Zuko’s first official visit to Yu Dao and he was mildly disappointed that he would have no opportunity to witness a meeting of the democratically elected Colony Council—that unique institution intrigued him. But he quizzed the council members present on their electoral and operating procedures.

As the dishes were cleared, Governor Fosek cleared his throat. “If the time has come, I would beg His Majesty’s indulgence to ask, what is it that the Fire Lord intends here?”

Zuko stood and cleared his throat.

“Thank you for your gracious welcome to Yu Dao,” he began. “Know that while I am committed to finding a peaceful solution, I am equally committed to protecting you from becoming nothing more than a territorial pawn of the Earth Kingdom. And I will not leave you victim to close-minded hatred. I would first like to get a clearer understanding of the desires of Yu Dao citizens. To begin: what faction in Yu Dao supports the Earth King’s claim, under the current terms of the Harmony Restoration Accord?” 

Silence. 

“No one?”

“Well, there’s Old Yan…” Nendo offered.

“He just wants to be mayor,” Toph scoffed.

“Hardly likely,” said another Council member. “The Earth King would send a magistrate straight from Ba Sing Se.”

“Or worse, put you under the direct control of the Duke of Yei,” Katara added. 

“Right. So Yu Dao is unified on that point.” That was something of a surprise to him, but a relief.

Nods and assents traveled around the room. 

“In that case—and I must urge you to speak frankly and with no fear of retribution—who nonetheless wishes the Fire Nation to relinquish Yu Dao?” 

A nervous shuffling of papers was his only answer. Unsurprisingly, no one was willing to tell the Fire Lord to his face that they opposed his continuing rule. Either that or no one actually did oppose it, which he thought frankly unlikely at this point.

Toph was the one to speak up—she didn’t fear him. “You’ll find it’s mixed, Zuko. You still have loyalists here, but there’s no consensus. And I think you know perfectly well what the fears would be with the Fire Nation sticking around on this continent.”

“And yet, without the defense of the Fire Nation military, Yu Dao would be at the mercy of the Earth Kingdom, unless the Earth King relinquishes his claim. Which is why Yu Dao independence is destined for failure,” Governor Fosek explained. Zuko was intrigued that he was willing to bring up the independence movement, but perhaps he was just clearing the air. “How, then,” Fosek continued, “shall we best address, and hopefully head off the impending crisis?”

“How do you mean ‘impending,’ Governor?” Aang, Zuko realized, had been fidgetting not with his usual distraction, but with agitation. “The crisis has pretty clearly arrived—with the Fire Nation Army!”

“As you well know, Avatar Aang,” Zuko said shooting him a scowl, “I am simply following through on my promise to defend the interests of Yu Dao, against the apparent ill-will—or at least, total indifference—of the Earth King.”

“So you have declared war.” Aang folded his arms across his chest.

“I have drawn a line, Aang, but it is not war until someone attacks.”

“How is arriving with a fleet of military ships not an act of aggression?”

“To my own colony? This is still Fire Nation territory! The moment the Earth King’s army crosses that pass and descends into this valley, he has declared war!”

“Except that he is within his rights by the terms of the treaty, which you are breaking. You’re acting like your father—using violence as the solution to everything!”

That was it. Restraint was over. “You have no right to accuse me of that! Maybe you would understand more about it if you had taken the time to actually visit the Fire Nation Capital in the last two years. If you really think I’m turning into him, maybe you should accept some of that responsibility yourself. I asked for your help. Fire Lord to Avatar. Friend to friend. 

“But you left me alone in that court of vipers, with no one but Uncle to help me resist the old ways of our family. We’ve fought every day for peace, for our integrity, but where can I turn for an outside perspective? While you have been flitting all over the planet trying to engineer some false ideal of balance that disappeared a century ago.”

Suki stepped forward from her position behind him anxiously. “Lord Zuko—”

At the same time, Katara stood up and moved towards Aang. “That’s not really fair—”

“False ideal?? You signed that treaty, Zuko. And it was kind to the Fire Nation. And now you think you can second guess the whole thing?” Aang’s voice was rising along with a swirling wind whipping tapestries from the walls and pulling everyone’s hair on end. He took a bending stance.

Zuko’s wrapped his fists in flame in unthinking response. “You want to fight me? Here? Now?! Who’s the aggressor again?”

With a cry of frustration, Aang rammed his staff against the ground, earthbending a mini-quake that shook everyone’s balance, then popped his glider and soared out an open window.

A shocked silence settled over everyone as the wind died.

“I apologize for my outburst.” Zuko took a steadying breath. It was beneath him to lose his temper like that, and revealing his personal feelings simply undermined his authority. But he couldn’t admit to those errors out loud. “If I might have a moment.”

Governor Fosek shut his mouth with a snap. “Of course.” He opened the chamber door and everyone left.

Suki and Katara lingered, exchanging a worried look. He saw a question pass between them—who should stay? It surprised him that Katara claimed that place by his side, and something hopeful and scared skittered through his heart.

They both stayed.

“I’m sorry, Zuko.” Katara sat down beside him and laid hand on his shoulder. “It’s my fault. I should have made sure Aang came to see you.”

“You’re not his mother, Katara. Don’t make apologies for him,” he snapped, and her hand was gone. Not how he had wanted their first conversation to go. But she wasn’t completely wrong; she did have that much influence over Aang, and she hadn’t used it here.

“Zuko, I had no idea you were feeling so alone. I was there. You could have turned to me more.”

“Suki, I turned to you every day. You held my life in your hands. How could you have done more?” He rested his forehead in his hands, not wanting to meet the eyes of either woman, yet desperately wanting them not to go. “It’s just that I asked Aang for his friendship, laid my soul bare in a letter. And I’d thought, when you both”—he waved towards at Katara—“came for the first treaty anniversary, that he’d accepted the charge. But he was just a kid. I was foolish. It was too much to ask.”

“It wasn’t foolish," Katara argued, firmly, but not unkindly. "Aang’s not just any kid. He understood, and he worried about you. Early on, anyway. We allowed ourselves to get distracted. And after you and I had our little adventure here, and you started down this path, he started to feel more distance from you.” Katara paused.

Zuko turned to her, meeting her eyes fully for the first time since he’d arrived. He almost wished he hadn’t and kept his eyes sharp to keep from drowning in hers. “You don’t think he was jealous?”

She withdrew her hand. “Of us? Oh, no. That never occurred to him.” She rolled her eyes—at Aang or at everyone who had made that insinuation, he wasn’t sure. Which did she think was more misguided?

“Wait, you two—?” Suki’s eyes darted from one to the other.

“No!” they shouted in unison.

“Never mind,” Katara said, standing up and stepping back, very professional. “We’re here now. Aang will apologize. I’ll make sure of it.”

“My hurt feelings are really not the point here.”

“No,” agreed Suki. “They’re not. If you’ve collected yourself, I think we need to get back to it. And try not to start a war.”

 


  

Well, if she’d ever imagined that Zuko had feelings for her, she stood corrected now. The cold shoulder had been unambiguous. He was all Fire Lord on the surface now, petulant prince beneath. The friend he’d been that week two years ago, and in the final days of the war, the partner who moved in step with her...maybe it was too late for that man now, a path not taken. At least his commitment to justice was remained true—if not his commitment to peace.

While Suki stepped out into the corridor to summon the council back in, Katara wandered over to the windows, irritated that Aang had flown off again. Zuko would never have done that, even at his age. He’d better be back soo—

Without warning, Zuko slammed into her back and knocked her to the ground as the window shattered. A rock landed on the marble floor next to her a split second later with enough force to crack it down the middle. Broken glass rained down on Zuko’s back. His body pressed down upon her, the edges of his armor digging into her flesh, hot breath roaring in her ear.

“What are you doing?!”

“Saving your idiot life! Didn’t you see it?”

She twisted to look at him, meeting the narrow golden eye on the scarred side of his face. Neither moved, their breath coming hard. Katara could feel the heat coming off of his skin. Her heart pounded in her chest, pressed against the flagstones—it must be deafening Toph.

This had happened before. Then, she hadn’t trusted him. This time, she didn’t trust herself.

“Get off of me!”

She threw him off with a loud grunt and rolled to her feet. He did likewise and they faced each other, poised. For a moment she thought he was going to fight her. But instead he turned on his heel with a swirl of his cape and stalked off towards the broken window.

Suki was there first, holding him back. “Lord Zuko, if you please.” She pushed him out of the line of sight and peered out herself.

Katara tried to grasp what had just happened, staring at the rock that had nearly killed her. There was something in the middle of it, and she bent to pick it up. It was just shale, she realized, surely intended to split down the middle, with this scrap of paper shoved or maybe earthbent into a crack.

“Fire Nation Out of the People’s Earth Nation,” she read aloud. “Freedom for the People of Yu Dao! We Will Not Be Oppressed! We Will Be Heard!” 

Suki held out her hand to examine it. “‘The People’s Earth Nation?’ What’s that?” 

“Freedom Fighters.” Toph appeared at her shoulder. “Guess they do have a presence inside the city walls, after all.”

Governor Fosek ran his fingers into his hair, messing up his topknot. “Perfect. Another faction, another threat. This is out of hand!”

The council members were beginning to talk over one another, demanding to see the note, the rock, the window for themselves. And Zuko was shoving himself to the center of the room again to address Fosek, when a high-pitched voice cut through the confusion. 

“Urgent message for the Fire Lord!” A young boy stood in the open doorway, panting.

Zuko stepped forward, and the messenger proclaimed, “The Earth King’s Army has been sighted. They have crossed the pass and are descending into the Valley of Yu Dao!”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Avatar Aang! Please, come in!” Xing Ying held the door open for him. “We heard you were here, of course, but assumed you would be too busy with…”

“With the affairs of nations.” Balam was seated inside, studying a scroll opened on the floor before her. She looked up with a smile. “Welcome back, Aang.”

“Hi, girls,” he said before flopping down on a cushion near her. “Aagh. I had to get away. I just had a huge fight with Zuko—an argument, I mean.”

“With the Fire Lord?” Yee Li clarified, eyes wide.

“I was about to lose my temper and fight him—bending, I mean—and that would have been bad. When did it get like this? I used to be the peacemaker! Not that he’s being one now—he’s the one threatening war. But he kept his temper better. It used to be totally the other way around. He was always throwing fireballs at me.

“You mean...when he was sixteen or so?” Xing Ying.

“Uh, yeah.” Aang made a sheepish face. “Is that what it is?”

The girls exchanged a look he didn’t understand, but Xing Ying shrugged, “I’m sure that’s a good deal of it. It’s a hard age. We’ve all been there.”

“I just don’t know what to do. So I came here. This is like my home in Yu Dao. Right?” Even though they confused and upset him almost as much as everything else in this muddled colony, he felt a sense of comfort among these girls that he couldn’t find with anyone else, a sense of unconditional welcome and support for what he wanted to do. Even if he was acting like a big jerk, they would always make him feel better.

But still, they were Earth and Fire, not Air, no matter how convincing their costumes, or how provocative their family legends might be.

“The nations have to be separate,” he said after a brooding silence, while they got some tea and snacks together. No one answered right away, but he supposed they couldn’t make sense of the non sequitur. “They have to be, because when they come together, the stronger one always consumes the weaker one. That’s why the Avatar must defend the boundaries between them, and keep the lines clear.”

“Didn’t you once say that Guru Pathik taught you that separation is an illusion? That the four nations are really one and the same?”

“But if they’re the same, why have any divisions at all? I don’t want them to be the same, Xing Ying! I love being an Air Nomad! I love our philosophy, our temples, our customs—everything that makes us distinct from the others! And I am the only one left. It’s up to me to preserve our way of life.”

“And us, Aang,” Hei Won reassured him.

“You can help me, sure, but you can’t be Air Nomads. You can’t pass it down—the airbending, or any of it. You can only imitate it.” He took a deep breath and decided to clear the air. “In a way, you’re part of the problem. Powerful nations swallowing up smaller ones for themselves. Corrupting them. That’s why the boundaries have to be there. And why I have to see the Harmony Restoration Accord through to the end.”

Into the shocked silence, he heard a sniffle from Hei Won and noticed tears welling in all their eyes. He cringed. Now he’d screwed up this relationship, too.

Balam was sitting straight up, staring him in the eye. “Aang, you may have a point, and we will meditate further on it. But how are you going to restore the Air Nomads without the involvement of the other nations? And I don’t mean just supporting you and advocating for you, like we’re doing. I mean mixing blood.”

Xing Ying chimed in—clearly they had talked about this already. “Aang, if you’re planning to rebuild the Air Nomads, and not just protect these relics”—she motioned to the scrolls and artifacts scattered around the room—“you’ll be having children. You’ve said that you mean to. And your children are going to be mixed blood. They won’t all be airbenders. What nation will they belong to? How will you protect them? Right now, you’re acting like their enemy.”

Now it was Aang’s turn to be knocked off balance. Of course he knew his kids would be mixed. But he’d only really thought of them as being his and Katara’s, not as “both Air Nomad and Water Tribe.” He hadn’t really even thought of Sokka and Suki’s possible marriage as an issue—not until Sokka had indirectly called him out the day before. In his mind, their little team of war-enders was somehow beyond the politics of division, even though he knew they themselves were all too aware of the pull their nations had on them.  

So that was stupid of him. Every single individual in every nation could be as complicated as his friends. Nations were nothing but vastly complicated groups of complicated individuals. In all his travels, he was always attentive to each person he met and their specific problems. Somehow, he hadn’t linked up those real people with the abstract philosophy it was the Avatar’s duty to uphold. He’d only seen them as exceptions to the greater truth, had failed to consider how those real people might matter in the big picture, might represent something larger than just themselves, and that maybe political policy based on a grand philosophy might mess things up as much or more as it fixed things.

But if he listened to what people thought they wanted today, in their own lives, their own towns, would he be holding to what was true? In the wake of a century of terror and trauma, did they even understand what a peaceful world should look like any more? Or would he just caving to their misguided desires and fears? Would he be acting as the Avatar? Or would he just be a nice guy?

Could the Avatar actually serve the balance of the world without insisting on the principle of four distinct Nations?

This was big stuff.

 


 

Katara had gone back to check the inn where she and Aang were staying. Toph was heading for the Avatar Clubhouse to see if Aang’s fangirls knew where he was. Nendo had sent the gophers from various construction crews she’d worked with to search the city’s hidden nooks (not actual gophers—in the Earth Kingdom, that seemed worth specifying). Fosek’s city guards were on the alert. Even Appa and Momo were soaring over the rooftops to find their human companion.

Zuko was back on his ship making preparations with General Mak. And all the while, the Earth Army marched closer.

As soon as the search was organized, Sokka immediately attached himself to Suki’s team. And to his great relief, her team consisted only of him. Despite the fact that neither of them knew Yu Dao at all.

“Let’s check the markets!” Sokka suggested, since that was the only part of the city he had explored in any depth.

Suki gave him a knowing look. “I very much doubt the Avatar’s gone shopping.”

But she followed him anyway, and they threaded their way through the market squares for each of the city’s quadrants, asking merchants and shoppers around for leads, and ending in the main market square in the southeastern Fire neighborhood. Sure enough, no Aang. Not even a rumored glimpse of him since morning.

Dusk had settled. They stood in the center of the empty market at a loss.

“Don’t know about you, Suki, but I’m hungry.”

Suki, still poised for the hunt, frowned at him disapprovingly, then relented. “I guess now is as good a time as any. We do have to eat.”

They followed the glow of lamplight to a noodle counter at the corner of the square, still serving customers. Suki ate with the same silent focus with which she pursued her duties. Sokka watched her out of the corner of her eye as he slurped up his noodles. Nothing new about navigating the transition between her professional and private personnas, but he was not sure why she hadn’t switched over from the one to the other yet. Beyond that first wink, and a couple of loaded glances, she had not given them a chance to be Suki and Sokka.

After draining his bowl and his beer, he spun around on his stool and leaned back, elbows on the counter behind him. “Much better, much better. You?”

She said nothing until her bowl was empty. “Yep, better.” And that was it. She leaned on her elbows facing the other direction, staring at the cooking fire.

“Sooooo.” Still nothing. “Are you ok, Suki?”

“Huh? Yeah, of course.”

Ok…. “Then why aren’t you talking to me?”

“Sorry,” she said irritably. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Just...stuff. Like normal. Did you see my new ship?”

She blinked. “Oh! That was your ship in the harbor?”

“Whose did you think it was? My dad’s? I’m the only Southern Water Tribe man here, aren’t I? Besides my own crew, I mean.”

“I mean, you built it? It’s yours yours?”

“Yeah, like I wrote you!”

“I’m sorry, Sokka. I’ve been so focused on the situation and on Zuko’s safety. I just catalogued it in the strategic-observations part of my brain. It’s beautiful, Sokka.” And he got a genuine smile out of her, finally, which he returned eagerly.

Whatever tension was keeping keeping her mouth shut, it had let go of her eyes now. She reached out and gave his arm a caress. He hadn’t realized how desperately hungry he’d been for her touch.

“Damn, you’re warm. Is all that time in the Fire Nation turning you into a firebender?”

Wrong thing to say, apparently. She dropped her hand and turned back to the kitchen. “Hardly. Not going back, remember?”

“I didn’t forget. So, you’re thinking of going straight to Kyoshi after this?”

“Let’s get through ‘this’ first. And not die.”

“You think it could come to that?”

“Both armies are here.” She nodded, tightly. “It’s going down.”

Sokka swallowed hard. Suki was always right about this stuff—always had her finger on the pulse.

She sprang from her stool suddenly. “Come on.”

He barely managed to uncross his ankles before she hauled him down a nearby alley. Like most of Yu Dao, it was tidy, recently swept and free of trash. Fortunately, because next thing he knew, his back was against the wall and her tongue was in his mouth.

He didn’t waste another moment and pulled her as close as humanly possible, oblivious to the ridges of her armor. He shifted his feet apart to slide down to her height and pressed her tight between his legs, while their tongues battled for dominance. She pressed her hips against his and he forgot to breath.

Her weapons fell to the ground with a clatter, though he hadn’t noticed letting go of her, and she wriggled out of her breastplate before slamming into him again. His hands were kneading her ass and snaking up under her tunic and hers were ripping his shirt open and heading for his waistband.

“Here?” he gasped when she released his lips. “Now?”

“Here. Now.”

She pulled him free of his pants, and he rucked up her skirt, practiced hands negotiating the yards of fabric, rolling it out of the way. He spun her around to take his place against the wall, fell to his knees, and dove between her thighs. He got only a taste—enough to confirm that her coolness towards him was on the surface only—before she yanked him back up to kiss him roughly and grasped his hardness, guiding it towards her.

“Now.”

He lifted her up against the wall and plunged himself into her as she wrapped her legs tightly around his waist. Their eyes locked as they slid into their rhythm, pleasure jolting through them. He drove faster and harder, answering the encouragement of the hips that ground against him. Panting so fast now he thought she was hyperventilating, she came with a shout, and then he came, and it was over as suddenly as it had begun.

Suki hung on to his neck as she lowered herself back to the ground, eyes never leaving his face, searching it for an answer. He searched hers back, trying to figure out the question. She rose on her toes and kissed him deeply one more time—slow and sensuous and completely different. Then pulled back and said with a note of desperation, “I have to have you, Sokka.”

“You just did.” Still breathless, he tried to refasten his pants with one hand while holding himself up against the wall with the other. He wasn’t confident of his legs, just at this moment. “What the hell was that?”

She was tidying herself up, the moment gone. “Wall sex.”

And for statement of the obvious, the prize goes to…. “ Why?”

“I need a reason? What, you didn’t want to?”

Of course he wanted to. He always wanted to. But she hadn’t really given him a choice. Which, on one level, was really hot. And yet, for all that he was thoroughly drained, he felt strangely unsatisfied. “I...uh, I just mean, what’s going on with you today?”

She didn’t answer, her back to him, but gathered up her armor and weapons and strapped them back on. Re-armed, she straightened up and centered herself. “There’s something I haven’t told you.”

Sokka had known that, he realized. For some time. He waited, tense.

She turned around and faced him. “I’m not allowed to marry you.”

He held steady as the ground shifted and heaved beneath him.

“My allegiance is owed to the Order of Kyoshi Warriors above all else. We can take our pleasure wherever we like. We can even love, to a point. But marriage, family, children—the Warriors take that place in our hearts.”

“You waited this long to tell me.” He was surprised the words found their way out, hoarse though they were. There was something hot eating through his chest.

“I just needed... time. To work this out.”

“Three years. That’s a fair chunk of time.” The sarcasm broke through first, of course. Bitter sarcasm. “Mission accomplished, then?”

She shook her head violently and held her forehead in her palm. He could hear the anguish in her voice, though he didn’t want to, through his rising anger. “Sokka, if I go with you, and we live that dream, I’m kicked out. I’m no longer a Kyoshi Warrior. What if it is just a dream? I don’t know how that works , marriage, babies—igloos. My women, the discipline of the fighting life—that’s all I know. And I never thought I wanted anything different.”

“Just a dream!? That’s all it was to you? Igloos are a problem for you?” Mina was fucking right about her. The shame, the mortification of having defended Suki to his people, at the expense of everything they had asked of him, only to find out she could never be a Southern Water Tribe woman, never even wanted to be. He was a damn fool.

He lashed out before she could continue, fists bunched at his sides. “And you accused me of keeping secrets. I should have just taken what Mina was offering, straight up. At least she was honest.” He added, muttering. “And I would have gotten laid a hell of a lot more often, that’s for sure.” That was low, he knew it.

So did she. Her expression grew livid, amplifying the smeared make-up that overlaid it. “If that’s what’s most important to you, we don’t have a problem, do we?” she hissed. “Somehow, I thought this was about love.”

Sokka unintentionally took a step backwards. So this is what her enemies saw. Self-preservation cooled his blood. “Yeah, it was. I’m just saying, I held out for you, Suki! And it was a lie.”

“It was not! Just listen, Sokka! I need—  I need…” Suki stopped herself, and focused inward with a deep breath. “I need help, Sokka. I can’t figure this out by myself.”

That was new. How strange, he thought, in the emptiness that followed. How strange that she has never asked me for help before. They stared at each other across the alley, dimly lit by lamps in the windows above.

“Ok,” he said at last. “We can figure this out. Together.” He lifted his eyebrows for confirmation.

She looked very small. She didn’t look like Suki. But she nodded with Suki-decisiveness. “Together.”

He held out his hand and she took it. Everything was ok again, he told himself. Right?

They walked aimlessly through the streets of Yu Dao for most of the night, looking for Aang, holding hands, with a caress of a finger here and there to check in. Quietly, Sokka began to ask her about what it meant to be a Kyoshi Warrior. The vows she had taken; her devotion to her teacher, the late Master Ogi, who had been like a mother to her; her friendships with the other warriors; her earliest memories of her birth parents, before she was orphaned and given over to the Order. He knew pieces of this—it’s not like they never talked. But he’d never really shut up and listened.

Towards dawn, they found themselves in the narrow plaza between the Governor’s Palace and the temple behind it.

“There!” Sokka pointed up. A soft blue glow was barely visible, emanating from a shed of some kind perched on one of the temple’s many rooftops.

“Is that...?”

“Aang is in the Spirit World.”

 


 

The night passed restlessly.  The Earth King’s army made camp across the central plain of Yu Dao Valley, trampling the harvested fields.

Back on his own ship for the night, Zuko did not sleep. He stood at the bow scanning the farmlands now flickering with far too many campfires. Uncle Iroh was right. He might be a warrior—a captain, a thief, a lover, a lord sovereign—but he was not a soldier. He had never even fought in a land battle, much less commanded one. And he had never intended to command this one.

Aang had not been seen or heard from since he’d stormed out of the Governor’s Palace the morning before. The irresponsible child! When Zuko had left the city walls for his ship, the Avatar’s friends were still searching for him.

He’d saved Katara’s life—again—and she’d thrown it in his face—again. Like the last three years hadn’t even happened. He might need to keep her at arm’s length, but he’d thought they had something .

Even Suki’s absence left him feeling abandoned. Though he’d ordered her away himself, so could not be angry about it.

The Fire Nation Army began ferrying ashore before dawn—komodo rhino cavalry, infantry, both firebending and armed, artillery. An extravagant production on which he had hoped the curtain would not rise. Only well after his own army was on shore and in formation did the Earth Kingdom Army break camp with much yelling and banging, milling around in massive eddies and eventually sorting itself out into rows and ranks.

Zuko paced through his own ranks on the pretense of doing a meticulous inspection but he knew that discipline was tight and that every officer under him, and most of the soldiers, had more experience than he. Rounding a battalion of cavalry, long cape swishing into the eyes of a stoic rhino, he nearly collided with General Mak.

“Fire Lord Zuko! There you are.”

“Yes, General?”

“We should review our tactical objectives.”

“Fine.”

The general did not speak, merely raised his eyebrows. Of course. Not in front of the ranks. Zuko turned on his heel and stalked off to his battleground tent, erected in the rear near the marina. Inside, he spun around to face Mak. “My objective: No bloodshed.”

“With all due respect, Your Majesty, we are not currently arrayed to maximize the likelihood of that outcome. We are staged for engagement.”

“It’s a posture, Mak! You know that!”

“At this point, we have progressed well beyond the point of a mere bluff.”

Zuko growled in frustration allowing a ball of fire to blaze around his fist for an instant. “I will not have my men die for this.”

General Mak exhaled carefully. “Fire Lord Zuko, that is the cost of military combat. That is what it is. You must be prepared for casualties.” He moved to the table in the center of the tent. “I have delineated the current array of the troops, now that General How has moved into position.”

Zuko examined the quickly sketched diagram. His forces, represented by abstracted red flames, occupied a narrow strip of farmland to the east of the marina, between the deep-water harbor and the Yu River. Green squares lined up in ranks on the opposite bank of the river. “We are outnumbered.”

“Did you doubt it?”

“I was hoping my fears exaggerated my visual assessment.”

“I estimate the ratio at nearly two to one. But we hold the advantageous ground, of course, for defending the city. There are only the two bridges crossing the river, though it is likely possible for their cavalry to ford the river here.” Mak pointed to a spot upriver from the first bridge. “Furthermore, we are on the plains, with no rock formations for miles, a disadvantage to the earthbenders.”

“So we hold our ground. And if they attack?”

“We respond.”

At that moment, a messenger arrived. General How wished a meeting.

This was it. They would speak on the bridge.

The main road from the Yu Dao Pass to the city gates crossed the river over a handsome stone bridge. Broad and smoothly paved, it was supported by a an elegant arch and tastefully accented with ornamental tiles in the requisite jade-colored glaze. It was wide enough for three komodo rhino riders to walk abreast, with elbow room for bending. So not as much as a bottleneck as one might ideally like.

Zuko mounted his komodo rhino and rode it up the slope of the bridge to find General How already waiting just over the peak of the arch, mounted on a proud ostrich horse and flanked by an elite guard, just as Zuko was.

“Fire Lord Zuko!” How shouted. “Stand down and let us reclaim our rightful territory!”

“General How.” Zuko spurred his rhino forward a few more steps. “Did King Kuei not see fit to join us today?”

“His Majesty is not a warrior, as the Fire Lord well knows. Since we have come to the point of blows, it is best that I represent his interests.”

“There was ample opportunity for peaceful negotiation. Which was rejected by King Kuei and you, his Councilors.”

“There was no legitimate basis for negotiation on an agreement already made! Again, as the Fire Lord well knows. We easily saw through your ploy to rekindle the Fire Nation’s imperialist ambitions. If war is what you require, war is what you will have. But this time, you will face a world united under the Avatar!”

“That is not—!” Zuko fumed. “War is the last thing the Fire Nation wants! Civil war and rebellion will erupt right here—is already beginning to!—unless we step in. That is what I have done. That is why I am here. To ensure peace.”

“With an invading military force. Of course.” Sarcasm dripped from How’s voice, even at a bellow. “We will not be deceived by your honeyed lies, as we were by Sozin’s.”

“I am not Sozin.” A puff of flame ejected with these words, and Zuko could feel the fire stoking throughout his body. He rose in his saddle, fists cocked and his rhino began to paw the ground in response.

General How drew himself up and Zuko felt the bridge begin to tremble. Guards on both sides set themselves into bending stances, and he could hear a clatter of weapons on either side of the river as the ranks of cavalry and infantry made ready for the clash of armies.

In the poised moment before the first blows, a woman’s voice cut through like a saber, sending a thrill to Zuko’s core—though one of relief or terror, he could not tell.

“Stand down.”

Katara rose up on a column of water out of the river, spinning across the center of the bridge to hover at his eye level, directly in front of his mount. He was dimly aware that Toph had likewise appeared in front of How, but could not spare any attention their way.

Katara’s eyes spit blue fire at him. If she knocked him down in front of two armies there would not be enough hell she could pay. He fixed her with a fiery glare of his own.

His mount began pawing the ground in agitation. “My rhino hates waterbenders. I cannot be held responsible for his actions.”

“You can’t? What kind of soldier are you?” she spit scornfully.

Her words could freeze him solid as easily as her ice. Holding in the gout of flame that begged for release, he hissed through clenched jaws: “Where. Is. Aang.”

Finally, he saw his meaning penetrate, a flicker of comprehension that this had always been a ploy to force Aang’s hand, now pushed to its final limit. A shadow of doubt and sympathy seeped past her mask of anger. Her eyes darted back towards the city walls. “Sokka and Suki found him hours ago. He should be here by now.”

“Damned right he should be here.”

 

Chapter Text

Aang bounded aimlessly across the rooftops, his mind buzzing with contradictions. He'd fled the Air Nomad clubhouse, hoping to clear his head with some fresh air. Only when he finally stopped moving, poised on the peak of a high gable to gulp the salty air and gaze out across the pewter waves, did he realize that his mind also needed to be filled. He found a sheltered spot under the eaves of a multi-tiered rooftop (maybe a temple, it had that feeling) and ducked under.

Aang settled himself into the lotus position, facing south, towards the center of the world. He closed his eyes and began to meditate.

Roku....Kyoshi….Yangchen….Kuruk….Roku….Kyoshi….Yangchen….

Roku sat before him, in that hazy blue glow spiritty things always had. “Good evening, Avatar Aang.”

“Hi, Avatar Roku. Good to see you!” Best not to beat around the bush, what with the impending crisis. “I’m in trouble again. It’s another one of these huge conundrums I can’t solve, and I think I need you to help me think through it.” He ran through the main points of the Yu Dao situation.

Roku stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I see your dilemma. But I believe I am too close to this one, since I share your biases. Since it was largely my failures that set it in motion in the first place. Perhaps we should go further back.”

His form flickered and shifted, resolving into the image of a Kyoshi warrior—the Kyoshi warrior.

“Avatar Kyoshi.” He bowed respectfully. She always made him a little nervous.

“Avatar Aang.” She inclined her head in acknowledgement. “So you are troubled about the balance of the world? The balance among the nations?”

“Yes. I’m afraid I’m going to screw this up. If I insist on hard and fast lines, to restore the purity of the Four Nations, it’s going to start a war—or, I guess, restart the war. But if I agree to support Yu Dao as a mixed up stew of all the nations, and make that basically a fifth nation, I’m betraying my role as the Avatar!”

“You are speaking of a political balance.”

“More than just politics. It’s people. Cultures, languages, beliefs, ways of life.”

She batted away his words. “Still politics. Negotiations of human affairs.”

“...Yeah...I guess so…”

“And is that the Avatar’s role?”

“To restore balance! Of course.” He scratched his head. “Isn’t it?”

“Balance, yes. But you are not asking the right question. Which balance is it you must maintain? Not the affairs of men and women. There is nothing wrong with taking a stand and using your power to stand for what is right. But no, that is not the Avatar’s primary function.” She stared at him expectantly.

“It’s not?” He looked back, wide-eyed and just as expectant.

She let out a small noise of exasperation. “Talk to Yangchen.”

The form before him shimmered again. With each successive avatar, there was a stretching sensation, as if he were physically reaching farther back. An airbender appeared. Aang was struck by how much she resembled Xing Ying (or vice versa, really). His heart thumped into a higher gear and his lungs expanded, as if he had joined her at a mountain shrine where the oxygen was thin.

“It is good to see you again, Avatar Aang.” She gave him her gentle smile.

“And you, Avatar Yangchen.” He gave her an airbender bow with a grin. It pleased him ridiculously to speak with a real airbender again, even if it was, in a sense, himself.

“I was impressed with your solution to the last crisis. Very creative. A compromise, and likely not a final solution. But you found the path you could hold to, and for that I give you my respect.” She returned his bow.

He beamed. “Thank you, Avatar Yangchen!” He brushed aside her implied warning—he’d think on that another time.

“We have not seen you—or rather, you have not seen us—for quite some time. Why have you neglected your spiritual duties?”

“We just ended a world war! I’ve been pretty wrapped up in dealing with the aftermath. Peace is a lot of work, it turns out!”

“Indeed. So it has always been.”

“And I’m hot on the trail of the surviving Air Nomads—you understand that, don’t you?”

“You cannot imagine how it rent my heart when I learned of the Fire Lord’s genocide, undoing lifetimes of labor and love. I understand, yes, better than anyone else. But the survivors survive, whether or not you find them. I am afraid they are not your primary duty, as Avatar. When was the last time you visited the Spirit World, Aang?”

“Uhhh....well, I guess it was that night that I spoke with all of you last. On the back of the Lion Turtle. Oh—and I popped in briefly at the Winter Solstice last year to say hi to Heibai when I was in the neighborhood.”

“I’m not sure the Spirit World has neighborhoods, exactly.” Yangchen chuckled.  

“Heh, yeah, well, the Human World certainly does. I guess you could say that’s the crux of the problem here. I just don’t know how to get those neighborhoods balanced and back in harmony with one another. I don’t know how to be the Avatar, the way the world is now.”

“Aang. What is the Avatar?”

“The bridge between the human and the spirit worlds,” Aang responded automatically.

“Of course. And therefore, what is the Avatar’s role?”

“To... oh. To maintain the balance between those two worlds. Not in the human world alone.”

“Nor in the Spirit World—I’ll warn you not to meddle in their affairs. That has gone badly for more than a couple of our past lives. The balance between.”

“So, I really could leave the world leaders to sort it out on their own? Even if it creates an entirely new world order?”

“Not quite. The Human and Spirit Worlds are still closely connected, at many junctures in time and space. Disturbance in one will bleed into the other, and this century of human war has indeed done harm to the spirits and tilted their world towards chaos as well.”   

Aang quailed at the thought of yet another complex of problems to cope with. “Am I responsible for healing the Spirit World as well?”

“One thing at a time, young Avatar. Each change affects the balance of the whole. That is all I am saying. For the problem before you now, understand that while the Human World must be balanced in order for the Spirit World to be balanced, and vice versa, there is more than one form that balance may take.”

“All right! Now we’re getting somewhere! What forms can it take? How can I know what will work?” Aang was bouncing a little in his eagerness.

“I think, perhaps, a history lesson is in order.” Aang slumped in disappointment. “We need to go far back in time, ten thousand years. Do you know the story of Raava and Vaatu and the First Avatar?”

“Yes. Gyatso told me after I learned I was the Avatar. About how Wan was just a regular firebender who wandered into the Spirit World—because you could do that in those days—and broke up the eternal battle between Raava and Vaatu. And that upset the balance, and so he had to rescue Raava from defeat, or else the world would have tipped off its axis—both worlds, I guess?—and fallen into chaos if Vaatu became too strong. Raava joined with Wan to share his strength, and somehow that split the Spirit World from the Human World and made Wan—the Avatar—the bridge between them.”

“Hm. Well, it’s a start. That’s the legend. One version of it, anyway. Many in the Fire and Earth Nations cast it as a struggle between good and evil, but of course it’s not a question of morality, merely light and dark, the Yin and the Yang, like Tui and La, as Air and Water have always understood.”

“Is it possible to reach all the way back to Avatar Wan? To learn the real story?”

“It might be. We could try. But the Avatar who can help you most tonight is Su. The fifth avatar, the one who established the Four Nations. This will be a long journey, and you will need a mount.”

The world around Aang shimmered and Yangchen was gone. A blaze of color invaded all his senses—perhaps he had properly entered the Spirit World—in the sky, and falling rapidly towards the ground, unable to airbend! Before he could panic, he felt a broad, scaly back rise between his legs and lift him upwards.

It was Roku’s dragon Fang, and they tumbled through the air, watching the landscape speed beneath them. No, he rode a badgermole, which dove into a hillside like it was water, tunneling through the earth. A giant bat-eagle, soaring into the clouds. An elephant koi surfing the waves. An eelhound skimming across the prairie. A sabertooth moose-lion galloping through an ancient forest, dodging massive trees. The succession of animal guides tumbled seamlessly over nonsensically disjointed landscapes that flowed into one another by some otherworldly logic.

At last, he was on the back of a mongoose lizard who slowed to a halt. The lizard hovered, neither on land nor in the air and the indistinct silhouette of a man materialized before him, backlit with that blue glow.

Gradually, his features became distinct: a thin, lanky frame dressed in a simple robe, crossed over and tied at the waist. His silvery hair was bound at the nape of his neck—kind of like Katara wore it, but without the braid—beneath a round, flat-topped hat, from which hung shimmery ornaments of some kind. A long, silvery beard and an untrimmed mustache parted in the middle framed a quizzical mouth in a lean, bronze face with an unusually thin nose. He blinked heavily, his head to one side, as if waking from a long slumber.  

“Good morning, young Avatar. Or perhaps it is evening? I don't believe we have met?” His eyes, a mellow brown, held a sad kindness that reminded Aang a little of Iroh, though there was no other resemblance.

Aang bowed in the Fire Nation style (having calculated that if this was the fifth Avatar, he would have been a firebender by birth). “I am Avatar Aang. Many generations your junior. And are you Avatar Su?”

“I am. It has been—I think—a very, very long time since any of you have sought me out. To what do I owe this honor?” he asked with sincerity.

“Avatar Yangchen thought that understanding what happened in your lifetime could help me resolve a problem I’m facing. It’s about the Four Nations.” And Aang explained the whole situation—in some detail, since Su had obviously been completely dormant, whereas he felt like the more recent avatars kept sort of an eye on him. Or had access to his memories or something. Which was kind of creepy, now that he thought of it.

Su pressed the tips of his fingers together, listening carefully. “I see,” he said when Aang was done, and was silent for quite a while. Aang tried not to fidget. He was very old, after all.

“What do you know about how the human world was ordered before the time of the avatars?”

“Monk Gyatso told me that the people lived on the backs of the Lion Turtles, and each Turtle gave the bending of a different element to its people.”

“What?!” Su giggled, a steady “heh - heh - heh” and Aang noticed that although he was thin, he had a little round belly that bounced gently as he laughed. “Why would the Lion Turtles let them do that? Have you ever been on the back of a Lion Turtle?”

“Uh, yes, actually.”

Su blinked. “Really?  I’ve never seen one. The last of them left long before I was born.” He leaned in, eagerly. “What was it like? Could you put a village on one?”

“Sure! It was huge—I thought I was on an island at first. But what was the truth, then? Before the Four Nations and the Avatar?”

“Those are two different questions.” Aang noticed that they were no longer suspended in whiteness, but that a landscape was taking shape around them. Su continued, speaking with measured care, as if he had to concentrate to form the words. “Before the time of the Avatar, this world was like many worlds. Humans lived in small tribes, here and there, each adapted to their place, living by different customs, speaking different languages.”

They were in a circle of round houses with thatched roofs, set in a valley of green hills. Villagers went about their work, wrapped in green sarongs that bared their brown shoulders and chests.

Aang blinked and they were climbing to a mountain shrine in a line of pale-skinned men and women, long black hair braided down their backs. They wore black fur parkas and held small, clay urns, as offerings, presumably. He wondered what was in them.

Then he was on a raft, tethered close to shore near a stand of reeds as tall as trees. A green-eyed boy in a loincloth dived from the raft, spearfishing.

They sat on the hard ground around a fire under a canopy of stars. From the cold air above sun-warmed earth, Aang knew it was a desert. Before him stood a man in brown robes, his skin and hair the same shade of brown. He was gazing through startlingly blue eyes at a young woman who looked like one of the mountain pilgrims, though she was now dressed in black robes. They held out their hands to each other and the others around the fire began to sing. Somehow, Aang understood this was a wedding.

Avatar Su was still speaking. “People travelled, traded, learned each other’s languages, and exchanged knowledge. Sometimes they were at war with each other, and sometimes they were at peace. Sometimes they married into other tribes. As in most worlds.”

The song concluded, and the man and woman each raised one hand above their heads to create two flames that merged into one. The tribespeople touched their heads to the earth in respect.

“And there were those who could bend the elements. Benders held high status in their home tribes, as warriors, leaders, sages, artists, or healers, depending on the local traditions. And some roamed the world seeking wisdom from other lands.

“But the peoples of the world were not divided by elements. One tribe might have a healer who was a waterbender and a warrior who was a firebender. Another might live in complex cities of earth built by an earthbending ancestor, but send their airbending sage off on missions of learning. Benders of the same element would sometimes come together to share knowledge and skills—or to duel each other and prove their prowess. But that was about it.

“Then came Wan. You know about Avatar Wan?”

“Yeah. At least, I think so. I can’t be sure I have the story right.”

“Who can? But you’ve gathered that Wan was young and foolish and made a lot of trouble by interfering with Raava and Vaatu? That all of this—us—was necessary just to fix what he did.”

“You mean there shouldn’t even be an avatar?”

Su gave a lopsided shrug. “Who can say?” His speech was becoming more fluid as he went on. “But because of him, Vaatu became strong and Raava became weak. Even joined with Wan, she was too weak to maintain her part of the dance. The harmony of the human and spirit worlds began to disintegrate. Raava—that is, the Avatar—had to claim the Human World as her—his—our domain, thus shifting the fulcrum from Raava opposing Vaatu to Human World opposing Spirit World. That is how the two became divided: in order to reset the balance.

“For whatever reason—perhaps the closing off of the Spirit World transferred some spiritual power to humans? Perhaps the Spirit World itself links itself to ours through bending? Who knows. But the benders got stronger, and began to gravitate to specific locations. Firebenders to volcanic islands. Earthbenders to the heart of the largest continent. Airbenders to the highest peaks where the air is purest. Waterbenders to the poles where ice is a mile thick, and the ocean that links them. Each locale seemed to call its people.”

Aang watched displays of bending in each of these locales as Su spoke. It began to resemble the world that he knew.

“At first, these were temporary gatherings—guilds, you might call them. But soon, they began to coalesce into communities. But the disharmony caused by Raava and Vaatu’s break continued to spread through the human world, erupting in violence and confusion. The tribes fell apart in civil wars. Bands of outlaws roamed the planet, taking what they pleased. Outlaws became warlords, who pitted their armies against each other, surging over the same territory again and again like the tides. The strongest survived and the weakest hid.

“There was no more peaceful commerce between the different peoples in their different lands. Mistrust divided them. Allegiance to the elements strengthened the separation and prejudice grew.”

The scenes of grand bending battles and petty, everyday cruelty and fear playing out before him looked all too familiar to Aang. His own war had simply brought back an old, old pattern, and for a moment, the despair that only someone who has lived a hundred lives can know settled over him.

“After Avatar Wan died on the battlefield, the chaos only deepened for twenty years, until the Avatar reborn was revealed. I can’t imagine how confusing that must have been for her, to discover an eternal being residing within her, and no one to tell her why. You’re surely not twenty yet yourself, Aang?”

He didn’t feel especially young just then, but he shook his head. “Just sixteen. But I’ve been doing this for a long time. The youngest realized avatar in history, I guess.”

Su raised his shaggy eyebrows. “Tough times, indeed.”

“So what did the Second Avatar do? How do you find peace in a mess like that? It sounds as bad as the Hundred-Year War. Maybe worse.”

“It might have been. Those first few avatars had hard lives. Most people didn’t know who the Avatar was or what he or she was tasked with, and certainly couldn’t offer the kind of respect you take for granted now.” Su seemed to be gradually clueing into more of Aang’s reality. “They had to figure it all out from scratch. It was a mess.

“As you can imagine, in a world where might makes right, benders had all the power. And benders were more powerful in the home territory of their element. By the time I came along, there were concentrations of power around each of the elements, and larger kingdoms were forming. They were unstable—rulers were constantly being overthrown—but the people in each were trying to work out peaceful ways to live with one another. Ironically, the breakdown and scrambling of the old tribes had created a common language among all the peoples—communication was becoming easier, despite the violence. And by then, they recognized the Avatar for what we are.

“I was born on one of the volcanic islands near the center of the world, raised by sages, thinking men, who educated me well in history and philosophy as well as bending and warfare. I travelled the world, learning everything I could about all of the kingdoms, fiefdoms, tribes, and so forth. After many years, I saw a political way to stabilize the world.

“It took a long time, endless negotiations, and yet more fighting. But in the end, we divided the world into the four nations you know: Fire in the west; Earth in the east; Water in the middle, joining the two lands of ice, north and south; Air occupying any land above a certain altitude.

“That left one central territory unclaimed. It seemed no element’s bending was particularly enhanced there, and few benders were born there. We reserved that as a sanctuary for non-benders who did not wish to live under one of the elemental regimes. It wasn’t a nation itself, just a scattering of small communities who kept to themselves—rather like the world had originally been, before the avatars.

“But, alas, it would seem that that idea was not sustainable. The sanctuary became part of the Earth Kingdom within a few centuries, and, it would seem, has been invaded and reclaimed by each of the Four Nations at one time or another. Even the Air Nomads have kept outposts there." Su's eyes were closed, as if looking inward to share memories with the other Avatars, just as Aang was doing with him now—it made his head spin to think of it. "I am speaking of the northwestern corner of the Eastern Continent, of course.”

“But that’s where Yu Dao is! That’s where this whole situation is about to blow up!”

“Then perhaps neither the Fire Nation nor the Earth Nation can keep a firm hold on it because it spiritually belongs to neither.”

"Aaah." Clarity blew through his mind, sweeping out all that muddled frustration and doubt. He felt clean. He knew what to do.

Avatar Su blurred as Aang called out a heartfelt “Thank you!” The mists around him swirled, and he felt a tug at his core pulling him out and through it until Su was nothing but a distant spot, seen through the wrong end of a telescope.

His body was rocking, side to side. There were hands on his shoulders—trying to shake him awake, he realized.

He heard familiar voices distantly. “Aang! Aang, wake up! Aang we need you!” Gradually, he figured out how to operate his eyelids again—and the brown blob in front of him sharpened into Sokka’s face. Suki stood behind him, watching anxiously.

“Finally. Time’s a-wasting, Aang. The war’s going to start any minute.”

 

Chapter Text

No one moved. The calm burbling of the river below them, blending with the whoosh of Katara’s spinning column of water masked the small martial noises: the clanks of shifting armor, the snort of a rhino. Behind Katara, the dust settled around Toph, towering over General How from a pedestal of stone. For a fleeting instant, peace seemed almost possible.

Zuko never found out why, just then, a ball of fire erupted from the ranks far to his left.

“Stop!” Zuko blurted out before he could think of the proper military command. But his shout was lost in the sudden cacophony, as rocks and flames began flying across the river from scattered points within the infantry on both sides. General Mak spurred his mount forward, but Zuko instinctively thrust out an arm to block him—as if stopping him would stop the war.  

How sprang forward in his saddle ready to signal the attack, when on the river bank to How’s right the Earth infantry’s front line parted in a sudden scramble to make way for—

A bear? King Kuei, riding a bear!

“Charge!” hollered the king, one hand grasping the bear’s collar, the other wildly swinging a short saber.

With a roar, his men surged after him into the river, heedless of the depth—which was variable. Some ran across knee-deep shallows easily, while others made easy targets for the firebenders, slogging through waist-deep water. One disappeared under the surface completely, having stepped in a hole, apparently. None could keep up with the bear.

General How stood frozen in his stirrups, slackjawed, watching his king charge unprotected into a line of firebenders, while his own soldiers staggered through the river.

Time seemed to telescope, clusters of life-altering events exploding within each second. Zuko saw How’s arm arc towards the opposing forces, his lips forming the word “Fire!” (though Zuko could not hear him over the din) with a backwards look at his archers.

In the instant he did this, How fell from view, down a trapdoor in the stone bridge that Toph had bent into existence, leaving his guards gaping at his absence until they, too, were dropped. A wall materialized to prevent anyone from climbing the bridge to take their places.

King Kuei swung his saber wildly in the midst of the Fire Nation’s front line, knocking helmets and shoulder guards and nearly severing his own bear’s ear. Meanwhile, the bear—what was his name?—was far more effective, swatting men left and right with his meaty paws, raking murderous claws across their chests and faces.

As Zuko’s men began to fall to Earth Kingdom arrows and maulings, he realized he had not formally ordered them to defend themselves. He dropped his still outstretched arm and nodded sharply to Mak. “Fire!” the general shouted, echoing How’s word and gesture and, like How, was immediately dropped through the bridge. Zuko leapt off of his own rhino just before Toph disposed of it, too.

A barrage of flame arced across the water, cutting down soldiers still in the river and some of the first line on the opposite bank. No sooner had the first flames landed, than an unnatural wall of water coursed down the river and swept everyone in it downstream and out of harm’s way (though possibly drowning). Then, as Katara was parting the river down the middle to draw up her next waves, a shout went up.

“The Avatar!”

Zuko’s field of vision was suddenly filled with sky bison. Aang sprang from Appa’s neck before the animal’s feet touched the bridge and spun down into the suddenly dry riverbed. Katara’s double wave washed back some of the soldiers on both banks, but it was not enough—many swayed and stumbled, but held their ground.

Suki, with one outrageous leap from Appa’s saddle, stood nose to nose with Zuko. “Order a ceasefire,” she commanded. She hadn't raised a weapon, but by her stance, he knew the razored edge of her fan could be at his throat in an instant.

“I can’t! They’ll die!” he snarled. “Who are you to order me?”

“I answer to the Avatar today.”

Sokka had rappelled from the saddle and off the bridge almost as quickly, and Zuko heard the clash of swords from a spot below, where How must have landed.

He could barely hear Aang shouting from the riverbed: “Stop! Ceasefire!” But no one obeyed the Avatar—even had they wanted to, each soldier’s priority was his own life.

Then Aang began to glow. With Suki holding him in place, Zuko had the luxury of observing in detail as the Avatar State began to overcome his friend. He realized that he had not actually seen this happen since Aang had become his friend. Which perhaps explained the ice in his veins.

Aang's tattoos, then eyes blazed white, blanking out the boy that Zuko knew. He could practically feel the power radiating off of him. Aang began to levitate through the center of a growing tornado that whipped at Zuko’s cloak and raised spray from the river water and gravel from the shore. When he had risen above the level of the bridge, the Avatar raised an arm above his head and brought it down like an axe.

With a resonant crack Zuko heard with his bones, Aang split the riverbed down the middle, dividing Earth and Fire. The river, rushing downstream to refill its bed, plunged into the bottomless crevice opening up beneath them, and the bridge began to tremble beneath Zuko's feet. When Suki glanced back over her shoulder with alarm, Zuko threw himself down onto the ramp of the bridge, just before the bridge broke in half. Stone by stone, it began to crumble into the fissure below. Suki spun on a toe and leapt towards the side as the arch beneath her fell.

Zuko was sure she would make it. She was Suki. But the stone she grabbed at fell with her. He caught her eye as she fell, and for the first time, saw genuine fear there.

His heart would have stopped, had the stones he lay sprawled upon not started to shift just then. His scramble to escape only kicked the stones down faster, and then he was the one hanging by his fingertips. He craned his neck back and saw jagged earth walls sheering infinitely down, creaking as they moved farther apart. His helmet clattered into the abyss. The river was altogether gone.

Zuko was losing his grip, when an arm of water appeared, curled gently around his waist, and reeled him in to shore. He fell against Katara and flung his arms around her, his sopping wet cloak slapping against her legs. Relief washed out the barriers and the doubt, he cared only that she was there, her heart beating against his. She squeezed him back without hesitation, their cheeks pressed together. Then they quickly broke apart and turned to help others.

 


 

Sokka dangled over empty space where solid ground had been a few seconds ago, one arm hooked around a bridge piling, the other with a firm grip on Space Sword. Blood dripped from the blade. With a swing and a kick he threw himself up onto the edge of the precipice and lay on his belly on the trembling earth, trying to make sense of the chaos.

He had just killed a man. He thought he should feel something about that. Something major. He would do that later.

Soldiers, rhinos, ostrich horses were slipping, as earth crumbled into the rift, and not all of them were making it. Some were long gone. Above and behind him, Sokka saw Katara coil ropes of water around one Fire Nation soldier after another as they fell while Zuko reached down to the ones scrambling at the edge, pulling them to safety, over and over.

On the opposite riverbank, Toph was in constant motion, bending shelves of earth out of the walls of the chasm to catch falling bodies. An arrow struck her in the head and knocked her flat on her back. She didn’t get up. Toph was down!

In a panic, Sokka cast about for Suki, maybe Suki could reach her. She was nowhere. Heart in his throat, Sokka scooted to the edge and looked down—there she was, far below, hanging onto one of Toph’s shelves with her elbows, head and shoulders above. Just as he caught sight of her, she slipped—now he could see nothing but her white knuckles.

No no no no no. Not Suki too.

Without stopping to plan, he dropped his sword and lowered himself into the chasm, trying to scale the still-shaking walls like a spider. Dimly, he heard Katara scream, “Sokka! No!” He ignored his sister and the tentacle of water waving over his head, which darted away to catch a falling soldier in midair.

Sokka reached the first of Toph’s platforms, and, boosting its occupant up and out, swung himself down beneath it, swinging there until his body was aimed to the next one, diagonally below. He landed on the second shelf, skidding to a stop, flung himself down, and grasped Suki’s forearm, just as her fingers slipped.

Sokka hauled her up and they clung to each other, on their knees, shaking.

Above them, Sokka heard Katara turn her attention to the catalyst of the crisis. “Aang! Stop this! Please! Please, Aang!” She stretched her arms up to him, lit gold by the winter morning sun, looking for all the world like a supplicant pleading with her king, or a worshipper with her god.

The Avatar, in elemental whirly-ball state, seemed deaf to her pleas, and to the screams around him, still pulling the two armies apart.

Katara’s eyes widened in alarm, looking past him. “No, Aang, you’re going to—!” Though it felt like hours, actually just minutes had past since the river had vanished, and now they heard a growing roar from downriver. “The sea is coming in!”

Sokka saw a wall of water heading straight for them. There was no way he and Suki could get out of the way in time. He pressed her tighter to his heart and whispered desperately, “I love you I love you I love you.”

Katara bent over, arms spread wide, and stood with a giant scooping motion, throwing her arms into the air. The water exploded upwards, as if it striking an invisible wall, and froze in a gigantic starburst, a crystal shield the size of a palace.

Aang stopped bending. He hadn’t turned around but seemed to know the sea had been dammed behind him. With an enormous, yet harmless puff of air, he cleared the dust around him so that he could be seen clearly.

“People of Earth and Fire, cease this war. Once and for all.” The voices of a hundred Avatars spoke through Aang’s throat, amplified by the wall of ice behind him, to resound over the battlefield. “I demand it.”

An eerie silence fell.

“Harmony must be restored. All the nations have agreed. And I have led the way. But I was wrong.”

Sokka heard Katara gasp and a muttering of bewilderment spread through the ranks.

“Harmony does not depend on the maintenance of four separate nations.”

“What?!” Zuko exploded.

“There are indeed four elements, and only four, and the division of our world into nations allied with each of these elements has made us stronger, separately and together. In the beginning, however, when the Avatar established these nations, there was a fifth.”

The assembled were now hanging on his every word.

“We are standing on that ground. The Avatar once again proclaims this land free of allegiance to any single element. As it was, so it shall be again. This territory shall belong to the non-benders, to the children of mixed nationality, to the ones who can find no home in the Four Nations.”

And then Aang collapsed. If Katara had not been there to catch him in a cradle of the sea, he would have fallen into the chasm himself.

 

 

Chapter Text

“...so you see, there never were any lion turtle cities.” Aang hovered on a pillow of air above his chair, gesticulating wildly, as if that would help make his case to the skeptical leaders assembled in the Fire Lord’s battle tent.

Katara stood at his side, loyal, but confused. Sokka faced her across the tent, frowning, arms folded, leaning on a doorpost (Space Sword restored to its sheath at his side). Zuko sat at the table with the Earth King and Aang (well, Aang had been sitting), General Mak and Governor Fosek behind him, General Fong (taking the late General How’s place) and Bosco the Bear behind King Kuei. Orderlies stood at the ready and a scribe took notes, squeezed onto a corner of the table. Bosco, licking his paws clean, was being given a wide berth by everyone and had an entire quadrant of the tent to himself.

Toph had been knocked out by the arrow, but in a stroke of luck, it had only hit one of the ornamental discs in her hair and she had come to just in time to hear Aang’s bewildering pronouncement. Katara had sent her back to the city with instructions that she was not to be allowed to fall asleep, and her lack of resistance must have been a sign of how seriously concussed she was. Suki would also survive, but with several broken bones and a concussion of her own, she had also been dispatched to the Governor’s Palace. Though he wanted to go with her, Sokka decided to stay behind to represent the Southern Water Tribe (and Katara brushed it aside, but couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit hurt that he didn’t think she could do so).

And so the leaders and their advisors were assembled at the edge of a chasm, under a truce, to find the way forward. Under the Avatar’s guidance, at last.

“I beg your pardon, Avatar Aang, but I still don’t understand what the lion turtles have to do with any of this,” General Mak objected.

“Nothing! Don’t you see?”

No one really did.

A commotion erupted outside the tent. Sokka ducked out and some kind of altercation started up, escalating quickly into what sounded like a tussle. Aang leapt across the tent in a bound and stuck his head out the door.

“Hey, Smellerbee! Longshot! I heard you were around. Come on in!”

“Aang!” Sokka objected. “They’re Freedom Fighters! You know, terrorists? They can’t have a seat at this table!”

“I must forcefully agree, Avatar Aang!” Fosek strode over to them.

“And how many nonbenders are in this room?” Smellerbee shoved her way into the tent, and folded her arms over her chest, feet planted. “We understand that this is now all about nonbenders’ rights. We have a right to be here.”

“Well, I am barely a bender,” King Kuei offered. “And there's Master Sokka here, but that's it. You make a worthy point.”

“But why should they represent nonbenders?” objected General Fong. “Surely there’s someone more...respectable.”

“We were chosen by our people to represent them. Who here can say that?”

Zuko stiffened and Kuei raised his eyebrows quizzically. The governor pulled his shoulders back confidently—and indeed, Katara realized, he had some degree of mandate from both below and above. The two generals exchanged a glance, eyes flickering to their respective monarchs, telegraphing some sort of sympathy. Aang surveyed the group thoughtfully, then made up his mind.

“I’m convinced.” Aang returned to his place at the table. “What do you say, Zuko?”

Zuko deepened his frown. “Agree with reservations. They do not get a say in the decisions until we understand more about their goals.”

“We’ll take it.” Smellerbee and Longshot elbowed their way in between the generals. “Now, we had fighters posted at vantage points upriver, in the marina, and on the city walls. We saw that fiasco of a battle go down”—now, that was definitely a look of commiseration passing between the two generals—“and we heard enough of what the Avatar said to know we had to be here. So what’s the story?”

Aang obligingly started over, and as he was bringing them up to speed, with Katara interrupting to clarify different points, the tent flap was flung open again, this time to reveal a familiar, haughty face above dark green robes: the Duke of Yei.

“Greetings, Avatar Aang, Your Majesty.” Yei bowed formally to King Kuei. “Fire Lord.” He bowed much less deeply. “Assembled generals and…” he eyed Sokka and Katara dubiously. “....friends.” He did not acknowledge Smellerbee and Longshot aloud, but he looked down his nose at them, like a stern parent, and to Katara’s puzzlement, they looked back at him with something like submission, not their usual defiance.

“Yei! What a delightful surprise!” Kuei cried in apparent sincerity.

Yei’s face transformed into an obsequious smile and he inclined his head graciously. “When I got word of this gathering, I simply had to drop by. I do think I deserve a seat at this table, don’t you? Given that these lands should fall under my domain?”

“You must have been conveniently close by,” Katara observed acidly.

“Yet at a conveniently safe distance,” Sokka added behind him.

King Kuei’s eyes were wide with a host’s concern. “Oh, but of course the Duke of Yei is welcome! Please.” An orderly unfolded a chair for the Duke and arranged a place for him at the table.

Once again, Aang had to tell the story of the Four Nations, plus one, from the top, as he had just learned it from Avatar Su. It was becoming a little bit clearer on each retelling and Katara thought she just about gotten straight the sequence of events and the Avatar-logic.

“Does everyone have it now?” Zuko interjected impatiently when Aang reached the part about the nonbenders for the third time. “Then let us move on to deliberations. What shall we do with this new information?”

“Well, we make Yu Dao the capital of the Fifth Nation.” King Kuei proclaimed, as if it should be obvious to all. At his shoulder, General Fong started and bent over to whisper urgently in his ear. Yei sat bolt upright, shocked, yet surprisingly kept his mouth shut.

Before the Earth Kingdom contingent could sort themselves out, Smellerbee’s high voice rang out: “Then it must be under the people’s leadership. That is the only way to be sure the government will serve the interests of its common, nonbending citizens.”

“Yu Dao will not be co-opted by a rabble of scruffy terrorists!” Fosek burst out, not waiting for his Lord to speak first. The day’s events seemed to have exhausted his diplomacy.

Zuko cleared his throat, and everyone turned to him. Katara was impressed at the authority he could command, even under these circumstances. “In light of everything we have learned today, perhaps the people of Yu Dao should decide for themselves who would best govern them.”

Through the stunned silence that filled the tent, Katara heard the distant clamor and shouting of troops disarming. Smellerbee, at a loss for words for once, looked to Longshot for their next move, but he seemed as gobsmacked as she was. Yei’s eyes went wide, then narrowed shrewdly (which worried Katara). Sokka had a big grin on his face.

“Well, that is novel.” King Kuei stroked his chin thoughtfully.

“Sure, Zuko, that sounds like a great idea. What do you say, everyone?” Aang settled back down into his chair with an air of satisfaction.

“Um, well, that’s...of course that could be done.” Fosek gathered his thoughts, with bemused glances over to the Fire Lord. “We have been electing our city council democratically for years, and so we do have the, ah, institutional apparatus to poll the people on their opinions. And so forth.”

Yei leaned forward. “How would this work, exactly? And who would oversee it, and enforce order?”

“Logistically possible or not, the Earth Kingdom must stand against this!” General Fong stood, red-faced and no longer able to contain himself. “Yu Dao remains rightfully a territory of the Earth Kingdom, under the Earth King himself! And locally, probably under the Duke of Yei, of course,” he added hastily.

“Fong!” Kuei struck a note of authority Katara had never heard in his voice before, and Fong recoiled, looking like a bulldog chastised by a sparrowkeet. “Let’s listen to what the man has to say.”

“Well, I...don’t know what such a nation would look like. I suppose we would begin with the City Council already seated and begin to work out a new, uh, institutional structure from there,” Fosek fumbled, then continued more certainly. “But I can tell you that independence has become a quite vocal position within the city walls. It seems safe to acknowledge that publicly now,” he added in a lower voice, with a glance at Zuko for confirmation.

Zuko gave him a subtle nod. “Then I should hope the advocates for independence will have some concrete ideas on how to proceed. We should consult with them.”

“Your Majesty, this is getting out of hand.” Fong loomed over Kuei. “Might I have a word with you in private. I beg of you.”

Kuei twisted in his seat to look up at his general. “No, Fong, you may not. You and the Council of Five got us into this mess in the first place. By not listening. Listen now.”

Katara and Aang exchanged a look of amazement and Sokka stifled a whoop.

“Maybe we should just reset the pieces,” Aang suggested. “Like pai sho, you know. What role does the Earth King play here, what role does the Fire Nation play, what role do various Earth Kingdom factions play.” He nodded towards the Freedom Fighters and the Duke of Yei. “And in all of this, we should follow the lead of those it most affects: the people of Yu Dao.”

“Just so, Avatar Aang.” King Kuei nodded, smiling with approval. “Just so.”

 


 

Katara and Aang walked back together. Sokka had dashed ahead to find Suki, and the politicians were still hashing out the specifics—even King Kuei. Aang refused to get involved with the pedantic details, as usual.

Aang was walking so slowly, head bowed, that Katara could keep pace comfortably at his side without effort.

“What’s wrong, Aang? I thought you were pleased with how it all worked out?”

“Yeah!” Aang lifted his head and forced a smile. “It did work out! Peace wins again.”

“Thanks to the Avatar.” Katara smiled back, and waited for the rest.

“I…” Aang cleared his throat, then mumbled, waving behind him to the devastated farmlands. “...made a pretty big a mess back there.”

“...Yeah, that’s true. But it’s going to work out ok. And I’m sure you and Toph can do something to close up that new canyon. It’s going to disrupt their farming pretty badly otherwise. And maybe build a new bridge, too? Sokka could design it.” Aang nodded absently. “But Aang...what were you thinking?”

He gave her a guilty look, not meeting her eyes. “Well, it wasn’t so much thinking as…. I had to get their attention somehow--no one was listening! So I just—well, when you get like that, I mean, in the Avatar State…. You know.”

“I don’t, Aang, not really. Not what it feels like. You don’t talk much about it.”

He sighed and looked up at the sky. “Everything seemed so clear. So perfectly obvious. Stop the stupid little war. Break the armies apart. They seem like ants, from up there. You do, I mean. Not that they don’t matter—ants matter. But they’re not...people. That I’m attached to. All those complicated, confusing, painful, wonderful relationships, and—and all their reasons, for doing all that dumb stuff. I see past all that, and just see what must be done. And I have the power to do it. It’s so easy. But then, after, it’s terrifying.”

With a jolt of recognition, Katara’s own confession to Yugoda echoed in her head. Oh, she understood that last part, she realized. But for her, people were always people. It was always attachment that drove her to cruelty and to the heroics of love--detachment was where she found the peace for compassion. 

Aang turned his head towards the horizon, away from her. Then, in a distant voice, he said quietly, “I killed some people, Katara.”

And immediately all her attention returned to Aang. Her instinct was to divert him with more praise for what he’d accomplished, or plans for the future, or even a joke about Bosco, but she bit her tongue this time. He had killed some people. “It’s not the first time, Aang.”

“No. It’s not.” His voice was rough, like he was trying not to cry. Or maybe he was crying.

“Aang, look at me.” He obeyed her, of course, and his cheeks were streaked with tears. She reached up to bend them away, but he caught her hand to stop her.

“It’s not the first time, Katara. I made such a big deal about not killing Ozai—and yeah, he would have been the first person I’d killed face-to-face. On purpose. But the people who’ve fallen, who’ve drowned, who’ve hit their heads and never got up—whose deaths I never had to see or think about. They died, too.”

“Yes, Aang, they did.” Grief for their deaths settled around her, the familiar mantle she’d taken on again and again, as long as she could remember. Carrying it for her people, for the victims of war everywhere she went, and bearing it for Aang, too, when he needed her to. She felt a grim sort of pride that he was stepping up to share the burden this time.

He screwed his face up and she wanted to cradle him in her arms. But instead she just laid an arm around his shoulders. He straightened suddenly and pushed it off. “Why did you shield me from this? Why did you let me lie to myself?” he shouted angrily.

“What?”

“Did you think I was so fragile, such a child, that I couldn’t take the consequences of my own actions? Did you think I wouldn’t care about them?”

“Of course you would care! I knew you would care so much that it would break you. I wanted to spare you the pain.” This was all true. This was her love for him. But there was more that she still wouldn’t tell him: It had been a war and Aang their sole hope for peace. He could not be allowed to break. Not then, not when everything was on the line.

“Katara, it’s not your job to protect me like that. It never was.”

That stung. “You know, you chose to lie to yourself, too. It’s not like I hid the evidence,” she snapped. “You wouldn’t have survived without me protecting you. None of you would have!”

Aang grasped her hands, suddenly contrite. “No, we wouldn’t have! I’m sorry, I don’t mean that. I just mean you don’t protect someone from the truth.”

Katara set her lips firmly. “Then the truth, Aang, is that you have to master the Avatar state. That is on you.” She shook her head regretfully. “We should have done this a long time ago. I should never have let you—”

“No, Katara. It is on me. I’m the Avatar.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Suki woke to warm breath in her ear and gentle fingers stroking her hair. Kisses landed softly on her jaw, beneath her ear, and one by one down her neck to the hollow of her collarbone. Suki lay flat on her back, so she tried to roll towards Sokka, but everything hurt. Well, almost everything. Certain parts were tingling pleasantly.

“Good morning, sweetheart.” Sokka was curled around her right side like a snail shell, carefully avoiding her injuries, his right leg entwined with hers, his face tucked in the curve of her neck.

“Sweetheart? I don’t think we’re at ‘sweetheart’ yet. Not until we’re at least 60.”

“How do you feel?” He propped his head up on his elbow, ignoring her objection.

“A little crumpled. But—” She twisted her torso cautiously and prodded the arm bound up in a sling experimentally “—could be far worse. I thought I’d broken these bones.”

“You did. Don’t you remember? Ulna, three ribs.” Sokka gently touched each as he named them. He frowned. “Maybe your skull, too. Did Katara heal that?” He brushed aside her hair to check.

“Yeah, yeah she did. It’s coming back. Wow, that was weird. I’d never been healed by a waterbender before. It was like...like feeling your bones move by themselves. Not a nice feeling.” Suki grimaced. “Right, they were broken weren’t they?”

“And now they’re set and well on their way to healing. But a waterbender can’t knit bone tissue back together—you’ll still have to take it easy. Katara will be by later this morning to do another treatment. You punctured a lung, too, did you know that? For today, you’re going to rest. Right here.”

“But I have to—”

“I’ll do it.”

Suki opened her mouth to object again, then shut it. It was adorable. He was adorable.

“What are you smiling about?”

“Just...nothing.” She reached up and brushed his cheek with the back of her left hand. Hanging from that ledge as it crumbled under her fingertips, her broken arm giving way, thinking this was the end—she’d thought of her warriors, her mentor. Of Zuko and failing in her duties. But it was Sokka—whose love enveloped her, who loved just her, even when she screwed up—it was Sokka who she couldn’t lose. And she couldn’t let him lose her. She’d coiled her body to use every shred of strength she had to hurl herself up over the ledge, defying all physical reason, when there he was, hauling her up into his arms. “No, everything. You’re my everything. That’s how it should be.”

“It can’t be, though, Suki. You said so yourself. You can’t give up being the warrior you are, just to be the wife I want,” he said earnestly, then flapped a hand in exasperation: “And anyway, who says I don’t want a wife who’s a warrior?”

“Well, do you?”

The way his face lifted, practically glowed, Suki realized she had maybe just proposed. Her heart started thumping louder. This was real. “I can’t imagine any other kind,” he answered, leaning in to kiss her, then stopped. “I can’t imagine any other woman than you, Suki, and everything that you are.”

Her fingers slipped around the back of his neck and she pulled him in for that kiss. It went on, tender and deep. She pushed him back gently.

“So how do we do this?”

“Well, I was thinking you should lie very still” —his eyes slid down over her body— “and I would….” His hand crept lower.

“No, I mean what would that kind of marriage look like?”

“Oh.” He slumped back. “I don’t see any real problems from my side. I know plenty about taking care of older kids. And how hard can it be to change a diaper? I’m there for you. And I know you’re not crazy about the South Pole. Life is hard there, no joke. But that’s ok, too. We’ll winter over on Kyoshi Island. It’s not that far, globally speaking—I have a ship, you have a port.” He stopped to waggle his eyebrows at her when he noticed his own innuendo. Dork. “Or maybe we’ll live on Kyoshi year-round. Whatever it takes, Suki. I can’t fix the other problem, though.”

She chewed on her lip thoughtfully. “I’ve been wondering if maybe I can come to some kind of compromise with the Order of Kyoshi Warriors. The world is changing. Maybe there’s a role for me outside of the traditional vows. Outside the women’s barracks. There are all kinds of new people being invented. Look at the Yu Dao agreement!”

“Then I’ll go with you to Kyoshi Island. I’ll back you up. Confirm your commitment—our commitment to the Order. Have you forgotten? I’m a Kyoshi Warrior, too!”

Suki burst out laughing. “That you are. I love you, Sokka.” She grinned at him like the fool she was. No, really, she was a fool—she frowned and raised her head. “What am I thinking. First we’ll go to the South Pole. You’ve already been to Kyoshi, you’ve sat at our table. I need to see your home now, meet your village, your Gran Gran. I'm overdue. Maybe I actually like igloos, who knows?”

He sighed and she felt the last knot of tension slip away, a knot that had been there a long, long time, she suddenly realized. “I love you, Suki.” He kissed her again.

“Getting back to the business at hand,” he continued, shifting onto his hands and knees. “Lie back—are you comfortable? There.” He fluffed her pillow a bit. “Now, don’t think. About anything.” Sokka lifted her shift and wriggled down between her legs, scattering kisses along her inner thigh. “Which part of me do you want first?”

 


 

Aang had dug the crumpled letter out of the letter pouch where he stuffed all his correspondence. Most of it, he didn’t reread. Katara’s letters, always, close to his heart. Toph’s one-liners, with a smile, reading volumes between each character, as she’d intended. But the rest he read once, rolled, and stored. In the old days, he would have started fires with them, but his frustrating hunt for Air Nomad records made him horde even letters he’d never look at again. Someone might want to, someday.

Zuko’s letter he had reread. Over and over, for a few months. He slipped it out of his pocket now, surreptitiously, tuning out the bureaucratic bustle around him.

...I would charge you, Aang, with the task of standing between me and that fate, of making sure that I never become what I fear the most. Be for me what Roku could not be for Sozin.

He had not quite known how to name the wrenching feeling in his heart each time he read Zuko’s plea. Some echo of Roku inside him ached with regret. While the Aang who was Aang had wanted to grab hold of Zuko and give him a shake and say, “You are not Sozin and never could be! How can you even think that about yourself?” He hadn’t, though. Instead, he’d tried to make Zuko smile, to cheer him up, to chase away the ghosts of the past and show him how little he had to fear. Zuko had not smiled.

And then he’d forgotten. Well, not forgotten. But Zuko seemed to be doing a great job as Fire Lord, and Aang was struggling with his duties—tedious, painful, and confusing. He did his job. That is, he followed instructions. Probably, the Avatar should be the one making the instructions. But the Harmony Restoration Accord seemed like a good agreement, and Katara always knew what to do next. So they did that. And there was always someone in need, someone to help. So they did that. He tried very hard to do what he was supposed to.

But he was supposed to lead an entire world to peace. And the world was balking and hateful and didn’t want to listen. He tried to love everyone anyway, and it drained him dry. He laughed a lot less, and didn’t feel so much like Aang any more.

When peace got messy, he wanted to fly away, faster, farther, higher. But the place he wanted to go was irrevocably, horrifically gone. Gone forever, everyone believed. No one but Aang seemed to think that the Air Nomads could be recovered—or at least, no one was willing to do much about it. Sure, they gave him encouraging words of hope—especially Katara—there must be survivors, escapees, descendants, at least a herd of flying bison, somewhere. But they didn’t need to believe it the way he did.

Then the Air Nomad Club came into his life, a gust of fresh air. Believers. A team who shared his dreams and would follow them. And who still knew how to giggle and have a good time. From then on he couldn’t keep his attention on anything else.

At the table next to him, Zuko signed the last document with a flourish.

“Is that it?” King Kuei peered anxiously at the stack of papers that Fosek’s secretary had been methodically paging through, soliciting the signatures and official stamps of the respective sovereigns of the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation, the Avatar, and the Governor of Yu Dao Colony, now retitled the Interim Governor of the Jointly Administered Territory of Yu Dao until such time as a new Council could settle on the appropriate form of government for the new entity and presumably choose new leadership.

The Freedom Fighters had not managed to obtain an official footing in the governance of the new territory—not even in the nearby villages where they held considerable influence—but were now recognized as a legitimate political and charitable organization and allowed to operate openly within the city walls. In return, they disavowed any terrorist or criminal activities.

The Duke of Yei was also excluded from governance, blocked by Zuko, but while this clearly irritated him, he had accepted it. Aang wanted to think this was because Yei was a more reasonable man than they had believed, but knew that the rest of his old friends suspected him of something underhanded. If that was the case, Aang wondered what Yei really wanted.

“That is the last of it, Your Majesties, Avatar Aang, and Governor Fosek.” The secretary bowed low. “I shall see to the proper filing and ensure that word is delivered to the newspapers and gazetteers of both nations.” He scooped the documents into his arms and backed out of the room deferentially.

Fosek stood and bowed to the remaining three. “I am deeply honored to guide Yu Dao into a new future, and I thank you all for your mercy and vision in charting this new path for us.”

Zuko acknowledged Fosek’s words with a nod. “You have more than earned it, Governor. We will be watching your Council with interest.”

Fosek bowed again and left. Zuko slouched back in his chair and puffed out a sigh of relief. Aang did likewise.

King Kuei started to get up, then turned to the other two. “I haven’t thanked you for finally opening my eyes to this dilemma. Even after my little sojourn outside the walls—at the end of the war, you know?—I still find the world...full of surprises. It’s mostly surprises, actually. Even my Bosco!” The King laughed nervously. “Who would’ve thought, right? Fuzzy old Bosco?” His laugh sagged and his face crumpled into dismay tinged with mortification. “Fire Lord Zuko, would you be so kind as to deliver my sincere apologies and condolences to the families of the soldiers we…um…we....”

“Killed? Yes, King Kuei, if you wish. They were honorable deaths, in battle.”

“Life outside the palace is so inscrutable to me that I’m dependent on my Council, and yet sometimes I’m not convinced that they really have the right priorities. I don’t know how they never brought Yu Dao to my attention—and they scarcely even gave me any notice for this expedition—I had to pack my caravan at the last minute!” He sighed regretfully. “I wonder if I might need an advisory council with more of a, well, a peacetime approach?”

“Great idea, King Kuei! Perhaps I could help out with that,” Aang offered. “You could probably use more perspective from outside Ba Sing Se.”

“Indeed! Will you come see me soon, Avatar Aang? With some recommendations for new councilors? I am quite hopeless on my own.”

“I will do that, Kuei.”

“Well, Bosco has been alone for hours. And who knows what he’ll get up to. I’d best go see to him.” King Kuei waved cheerfully, optimism restored, and left.

“Back down to us.” Aang looked over at Zuko uneasily. “I’m really sorry about that chasm. And you nearly falling to your death and all that. And your soldiers. And their animals.” He filled his lungs for courage. “I killed them. They died.”

Zuko nodded gravely. “That is what war is, Aang.”

“I know. I’m really sorry I let it get to this point. I should have talked to my past lives long before the armies showed up. We won’t let this happen again.”

Zuko bowed his head in agreement. “Never again.” Then he glanced up awkwardly. “Look, Aang, I’m sorry I blew up at you. It wasn’t you, it was me. It wasn’t fair of me to expect so much of you. With your burdens, so much greater than mine.”

“Friendship is never a burden. And being the Avatar...well, that’s just who I am, what I have to do. I ran away, that’s all, like I always do. And it was...childish.”

“And you’re a child. Or you were. I’m sorry for not remembering that.”

Aang shook his head. “My childhood was over when Katara broke me out of the ice. But it took me too long to really understand that. And this world that I woke up into….” One frozen moment, and his peaceful world was torn apart, blood-soaked and weary. It had taken him four years to come to terms with it, if he even had yet.

“It must have been terrifying.”

“All I’d ever known was peace. I’d never seen anyone kill anyone else. I’d never seen anyone threaten to kill anyone else.”

“And the first thing I did was threaten you and everyone around you.”

Aang shrugged. “All you’d ever known was war. None of you had childhoods.”

Zuko frowned with an agitated shake of his head. “Not true. I should have known better. You were a child and Sokka and Katara were...mostly harmless. But I was furious. I’d been honing my body, my mind, every form and every strategy for years, preparing to meet the all-powerful Avatar. And there you were. Barely able to defend yourself. I felt cheated.”

Aang laughed. “Sorry about that! If I hadn’t run away in the first place, and grown up and grown old when I was supposed to, maybe I could’ve given you the ass-kicking you were expecting—with my cane!”

“Oh, you gave me plenty of them! I had underestimated you.”

“I caught on quick. What with the not wanting to die and everything. But I didn’t really understand what war does. I thought that when the killing stopped, the war would be over. I thought that Harmony Restoration would be just that—we would just put the pieces back where they belonged and everyone could be happy again. Sokka knew—he picked a pretty name to cover up how painful it would be—but I didn’t get it. Katara knew. She knew we just had to keep working, every day, taking people by the hand and getting them through to the next day. And I tried, I really did. But all I wanted was to go home.”

Zuko reached out and put a hand on Aang’s shoulder. Aang gave him a small, sad smile. “But I can never go home.” Zuko squeezed his shoulder, and Aang was astonished to see tears welling in his eyes.

“No apology I can give could ever be enough, Aang. But I do apologize, on behalf of the Fire Nation. Over and over and forever.”

“Well, I don’t blame you. Even if you did sort of try to kill me a lot, but not really.”

“I speak for the nation now, Aang.”

“It’s a heavy load, Zuko. That’s not an easy legacy you’ve got there.”

“It’s really, really not. I’m doing my best, but I’m scared that it won’t be enough. Truly afraid. Everyone wants me to be—well, not my father. Nobody actually liked him, it turns out. But Azulon, or Sozin. Bringing glory to the Fire Nation. There’s no room in peace for ‘glory’, the way they see it. And if enough of them think that humility is the same as humiliation, well…my reign could be short.”

“Are they going to hate what you’ve done here?”

“Probably. At least Yu Dao was technically already given up three years ago. I’m not relinquishing anything new. Just in a new way.”

“You know, Katara’s going home, maybe to stay. And I think it’s time for me to steer my own bison anyway. Why don’t I go back with you to the Fire Nation to stay for a while? Let me explain it to your people directly.”

Zuko gave it some thought. “For some, your explanation will not help. It will probably confirm their worst fears about peace and enflame their hatred of the other nations. But for the rest...yes, I would like it very much if you came to the Fire Nation.”

 


 

“Hey, Katara.”

Katara jumped. Aang was behind her, leaning on the doorframe.

“Hi, Aang.” He had an odd look in his eye. Still soft and affectionate, but with a new resolve. “What’s up?”

He shrugged and the gravity slipped away for a moment and he was that boy again, the boy who needed her.

“Come sit down next to me.” She shoved back the sizeable trunk she was packing with Yu Dao treasures and souvenirs for the people back home, the fruits of yesterday’s shopping trip with her brother, and made room for him.

He crossed the room in a light, airbender bound, and perched next to her on the edge of the bed. “What’re you doing?”

“Just packing. For the South Pole.”

“About that, yeah. I told Zuko I’d go back with him to the Fire Nation.”

“Oh!” Katara was surprised he wasn’t joining her, at least for a visit, and then not surprised. Not with how things were between them now. A coil of tension in her gut tightened. But the Fire Nation made sense. “I’m glad you two have reconciled. You do owe him that.”

Aang nodded in agreement, with a painfully sheepish face. “I owe him that, and so much more.” There was an awkward silence, and then he took her hand in his. “I owe you, too. I’m sorry we fought.”

“Me, too.” She gave him a soft smile, a peace offering. “But maybe those were things that needed to be said.”

“Yeah. And I think there’s more to be said, Katara. About the nature of our...relationship.”

“Oh?” She pulled back in astonishment.

Aang laughed. “You didn’t think I’d bring it up first.”

Katara grinned a little guiltily. The coil in her belly began fizzing and roiling and she realized she’d been suppressing this anxiety for a long time, the way she did when there were more urgent crises to be managed (which was always).

“I’ve grown up, Katara. I’m not the same kid who popped out of the iceberg.”

“I know, Aang. I’ve been watching you.”

“No.” Love and gratitude bloomed beatifically on Aang’s face. “You’ve been raising me.”

And there it was. “I was what you needed me to be.”

“And apparently that was a mother. I didn’t even know till Toph pointed it out. And then I couldn’t deny it. I’m so grateful to you Katara. You kept me safe. You kept me loved. Anyone would want you for a mother. You are a phenomenal woman.”

“Oh Aang.” The tears prickled in her eyes and he scooted over to her to pull her into his arms, where she could bury her face in his shoulder, soaking his robe with tears. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, Katara. More than I can say, more than anyone. But I don’t want to be your charge any more. It’s time for me to fly free. Find out who I am and who I’m going to be.”

“I was never going to be able to pin you down, was I? Not me or anybody else. You’re a Nomad in every sense.”

“No, not in every sense. I need a family around me—you taught me that, all of you. So you’ll never be able to cut me loose, not really. I’ll always be back for you.”

Katara lifted her head to look him in the eye. “And what will you be expecting to find?”

“Whatever you’re inspired to give me.” And Aang winked, the flirt.

Katara took a shaky breath. It felt like she was pushing him off a cliff. But that was a stupid metaphor because he was an airbender. He would be fine. “Ok, Aang. I’ll always be there for you, when you need me. But you’re right—you don’t need me to look after you any more. And I shouldn’t do it. Be an adult. Be the Avatar.”

Aang pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Take care, Katara. Of yourself, I mean. Don’t always be looking for someone to need you. Look after your own heart, ok?”

And he turned and left her there alone with her suitcase full of gifts.

 


 

“How is your head?” Katara reached out, but Toph somehow evaded his sister’s hand before she made contact.

“Never better.” Sometimes Sokka wished he had Toph’s sensory ability to get beneath the bluff. Because Toph herself was always bluffing. “You’re one hell of a healer now, Katara.” Well, most of the time—that was sincere.

“She’s a hell of a lot of things.” Sokka gave his sister’s shoulders a squeeze. “We’re lucky to be getting her back. I just hope the South Pole won’t feel too small for you.”

“You all need me. It’s time.”

“Family.” Toph nodded knowingly. Sokka wished she did know.

They were watching the Earth King and his entourage depart Yu Dao, ready to march the army back to Ba Sing Se. King Kuei rode Bosco and waved cheerfully to the crowds gathered atop Yu Dao’s city walls to see him off.

“Now that was a surprise.” Toph nodded in Kuei’s direction. “I didn’t think he had it in him.”

“You should have seen him stick it to General Fong!” Sokka laughed at the memory. “Ahh, I’m gonna keep replaying that one in my head for a long time. Every blow to Fong’s pride is a balm to my soul.”

“The King has certainly made a lot of friends in Yu Dao,” Katara said with a kinder smile.

“But Ba Sing Se will be another story entirely,” Toph warned. “He was still doing all right back there, protected—isolated, really—by that odious Council of his.”

Marvelling at Kuei’s naïve optimism, even now, even after everything, Sokka shook his head soberly in agreement. “Now he’s pissed them all off. More than that, he’s undermined them, and cost the Earth Kingdom a piece of territory.”

“Yup. Territory is power to them.”

"Think he’s going to make it?”

Toph didn’t answer at first. Then she gave a half shrug. “He’s survived this long.”

“Zuko fights assassins off like flies. But he can fight. King Kuei…?”

“He has a bear.”

On cue, Zuko appeared and stepped up next to Katara. “So you two are sailing tomorrow?”

“Yeah, the winds will be fair,” Sokka answered. “The tide goes out at mid-morning.”

“Does that even matter to a waterbender?” Zuko looked over at Katara curiously.

“What matters to a waterbender more than the tides? We work with them, not against them. And anyway, I really don’t know much navigational bending. Sokka’s the captain.”

Zuko was studying Katara with more than normal attention. It made Sokka uneasy.

Toph lifted her head suddenly as if she’d just remembered something—or heard something—and turned to Sokka brightly. “You haven’t shown me your ship yet!”

“What? I thought you didn’t like ships.”

“Wrong. I just hate being on them. But I definitely want to check out this thing you built with your own hands!” she chirped. “And what better time, when it’s safely anchored?”

“Uh, ok.” He glanced back at his sister, who waved him off, and at Zuko with a little frown. Zuko looked back impassively. With a shrug, he led Toph through the crowd and out the city gates.

 


 

When Toph and Sokka were out of earshot (though Spirits only knew how far that would have to be for Toph), Zuko turned back to Katara with an unnervingly intense gaze completely at odds with the coolness he’d shown her up until the battle. As if she truly mattered. But his words were light.

“Walk with me?”

Katara glanced at his guard, standing a few feet behind him—just elite soldiers, now that Suki was out of commission. They were wearing that impersonal expression that refused to see anything, all the while watching everything. She nodded. She did want to talk, after everything, now that they could.

But they didn’t talk, as they strolled through the streets of Yu Dao, the guards following a few steps behind. Katara adjusted to Zuko's presence, falling into step with him, done with fighting. After a few blocks, she realized she was guiding him to the spot overlooking the sea where she and Aang had kissed last summer. She shoved that memory away.

Since the battle, Zuko and Katara had spoken only in the company of others, always guardedly. She wanted privacy now. When they reached the wall, she turned to face him. “I’m sorry, Zuko.”

“For what, Katara?”

She blew out a puff of air. “For...Aang.”

“You can’t apologize for a person. Especially one who’s not you,” he said with a disapproving frown.

Somehow that made her feel worse. “For letting him drift away from you. For letting him avoid the growing crisis here. For him nearly killing you the other day.”

“That was an accident, Katara! What did that have to do with you? Aside from you saving my life! And thank you, by the way. Aang is the one I hold accountable for his own actions, even in the Avatar State.” There was his righteous anger again rising in her defense. Like when she’d said she was grateful to clean the Avatar’s socks, or something (she still didn’t understand why he’d needed to defend her against dirty socks).

“Still.” It was too hard to explain, right now, the way the Avatar’s responsibilities were so tangled up with hers. “All right, but I can apologize for not trusting you myself. For thinking the worst of your intentions.” And, she thought, for holding against you the fact that you don’t love me.

He shrugged indifferently. He calmed down so much more quickly than he used to. “You had every reason to doubt me. I’m frankly amazed—I’ve never stopped being amazed—that any of you trust me at all.”

“Zuko! Don’t be absurd. I trust you with my life.” She reached up towards his chest, then dropped her hand. He pressed his own hand over the lightning scar without seeming to be aware of it. “As much as I trust Sokka or Aang.” Her voice dropped. “Maybe more.”

He said nothing, his eyes searching hers.

“I shouldn’t have left you alone, Zuko. Especially not after—” she gestured meaningfully back at Yu Dao and up at the hills on the southern horizon. 

He smiled ruefully and shook his head gently. “It’s ok. I didn’t expect any more.”

“You could have,” she said softly.

The silence between them swelled with the weight of things they could not say.

Katara was not built for brooding. It was with a sense of purpose, not out of impulse, that she reached for Zuko’s hand and pulled it off of his chest into both of hers. What purpose, she wasn’t quite sure. To reassure him of her friendship, that was it.

His fingers curled comfortingly, automatically around her hand and the sudden, skin-to-skin intimacy flicked on memories of heated, forbidden thoughts. One tug from either of them would pull them into an embrace. She thought he wanted to, the way he was clinging to her hand—as he had when she’d left him to Yugoda, for Aang, three years ago. And if it were any other friend, she wouldn’t have hesitated to fall into a loving hug. But she did hesitate.

He released her with a sharp exhalation and turned toward the sea.

“They wanted me to marry Mai.” His knuckles were white where he gripped the railing.

“Oh.” She didn’t know what to say and wrapped her arms around her belly. It was cold, December now.

“I have to produce an heir for the Fire Nation.”

She let out a sigh of sympathy. “I guess that’s inevitable. Why didn’t you, then? I thought you were—” Not happy. Mai and Zuko never seemed exactly happy. Into each other, at least. She changed the question. “Why did she leave?”

He sighed, a half-groan of frustration. “Well, she wanted to leave. She didn’t want to be Fire Lady. And who would? Someone who wants the power, the prestige, like all those ladies who always…. Not someone I would ever—“ He bit back the word, then seemed to change his mind and spoke more deliberately. “But I’m selfish. Only there. Otherwise, I will serve my nation in every way they ask. I just want to marry someone that I love.” He turned back to her, and now that he’d confessed that, seemed vulnerable.

“You know, I picked the wrong one.”

She felt her heart thud. “Huh?”

“To write that letter to. How could Aang, of all people, be the one to keep me grounded? It should have been you.”

She didn’t know why she’d thought he meant the mistake was Mai. She ducked her head to hide a flush of embarrassment.

“Will you write to me? I mean, to me. Not to the Fire Lord.”

“Yes, Zuko, I’ll write to you.” She looked back up to meet his eyes, trying to show him she meant it.

He stepped closer and took her hand again, more gently, and stroked the back of it with a calloused thumb. A thrill sang through her and the want was unbearable for a moment.

“There is no Yu Dao in the Fire Nation,” she murmured, unwisely.

“No,” he breathed. “Least of all my part of it. The Fire Lord is the nation. That’s what they believe, anyway. And I must follow them and be what they need me to be.”

“So what will you do?”

He gave her a peculiar smile and a helpless shrug. “Keep trying?”

She smiled back, uncertain what message she could send, unsure what he needed from her, or what he could have.

He let her hand drop. She drew it into a fist against the sudden cold.

“Good-bye, Katara. I hope you find your home at the South Pole.”

“Good-bye, Zuko.” Her throat closed and she left it at that.

 


 

“Good-bye Toph!”

“Bye, Toph! Come see us on Kyoshi!”

“Take care, Toph!”

Katara alighted in the dinghy and looked back up at Toph to shout: “And keep an eye on Aang, too, ok?”

“He’s a big boy, Katara!” But of course she would. Aang would still need someone tethering him to the ground when he was fifty. He was going to Zuko’s for a while, but with the airheads here in Yu Dao, he’d always be back, and she’d be here to hold the rope.

On the assumption that they could still see her, Toph waved from the dock as Sokka, Suki, and Katara crossed the harbor and climbed onto Sokka’s ship. She heard Sokka begin to issue commands as soon as his feet hit the deck. Suki was joining the crew already, responding to Sokka’s orders and asking brisk questions of the Water Tribe men. Toph heard the creak of ropes, the loud flumpfing sound of sails being unfurled, and a poof as the wind filled them.

“Weigh the anchor!” Sokka shouted. There wasn’t any teenager left in that voice. He sounded more like Hakoda than the boy she’d crushed on years ago. She still loved him, but he wasn’t hers (not like that) and never would be. And he and Suki—well, that was just meant to be, wasn’t it?

Katara must be keeping quietly out of the way; Toph had lost track of her in the hubbub. Toph wondered if she was at the stern, looking back, or in the bow.

 


 

Zuko stood at the bow of his ship, as it ploughed through waves lit silvery pink by the dawn behind him, heading home.

That had ended rather well.

He let that sink in.

Somehow, the world was not torn asunder by another world war. Somehow, they were still on the path to peace, and the distinction between Fire Lord Zuko and his forefathers had grown a little wider. Somehow, he still had all his friends, and maybe even understood them a little better.

Somehow, maybe, he was going to make a pretty good Fire Lord.