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Imagine The Ocean - Book One

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"You're doing it again," Sokka said, in a long-suffering tone.

Katara blinked. "What?" she said.

Sokka gave her a flat look and pointed to the midday sun. They should have been going essentially right toward it, keeping it a little to the left and letting it fall away further left as it set in the west; but for the fourth time that day, Katara had let her mind wander, and the sun was now on her right. "I know Gran-Gran's map is pretty old," Sokka said, "but I'm pretty sure the Earth Kingdoms haven't relocated to the middle of the ocean."

Katara grimaced in acknowledgement, and let the canoe slow a little, dragging the water under the bow back to the east with a gesture. Sokka was right; there was a little land to the west of them, but it was just the empty islands the Air Nomads had once inhabited—no reason to go there, except the faint outline of mountains on the western horizon kept drawing her eye.

"You're doing it again," Sokka said, exasperated, but Katara interrupted him before he could go on.

"I think we should go to the Southern Air Temple," she said. She wasn't sure why she was saying it, but she was certain nonetheless that it was the truth.

"Oh, definitely," Sokka said, throwing his hands in the air. "The abandoned site of a bloody massacre a century ago—nothing creepy about that. It's the perfect place to do a little sightseeing; especially in the middle of a war that you're presumably supposed to be stopping."

Katara felt herself flush a little, but the strange certainty hadn't left her. "Not for sightseeing—just because we should," she said. "I just feel ... drawn there. I think—I think maybe it's an Avatar thing."

"You realize you can't just say that any time you want to do something weird," Sokka said, but he didn't argue any more; so Katara turned until the sun was off to the right, and kept it there.

She didn't even need the map—well, she wouldn't have anyway, with the peaks of the Air Nomads' islands already visible from where they were, but she felt like she could have steered her way there in the middle of a winter storm. She hardly even had to do anything; it felt like toward the mountains was downhill, and every other direction was just that little bit harder to go in.

Katara pulled on the water a little harder—she figured she might as well, since it was so oddly easy to bend the canoe toward the islands; and in the end, it took them barely an hour and change to reach the island of the Southern Air Temple. The temple was visible from the water, mostly just because its shape was so regular compared to the other peaks; the stone it was built from was the same color as the mountain, and they were too far away to see any actual details.

"Are you sure this is the right one?" Sokka said, squinting up at the temple after they hauled the canoe up onto the dirt. "Because I don't see any paths up."

"I ... don't think there are any," Katara said. "It was an Air Nomad temple; they all had sky bison, remember?"

"Oh, great," Sokka said.


*


They reached the temple before sunset, though not by a lot; the last few hundred feet were especially rocky, and Katara was glad to pull herself over the last rise of stone and find herself looking at the wide flat floor of a balcony.

"That actually wasn't too bad," Sokka admitted, hauling himself up behind her as she climbed over the balcony railing. "Not that I'm looking forward to climbing back down, you understand." He pulled himself up with a hand on the rail, and blinked. "Wow."

Katara had to agree. They had climbed up onto the edge of one of the lower, smaller parts of the temple complex, and it alone was extraordinary. The temple might have been made out of rock, but it was still an Airbender temple; the beauty of it was not in the stones, but in the spaces around and between them. The balcony led up to a wide, shallow-stepped staircase; the large room at the top of the stairs had a soaring arched ceiling that was nothing like the low practical dome of an igloo, and the flare of the roof seemed to defy gravity. The entrance to the room was arched, too, and so were the enormous windows—it barely seemed right to call it a room at all, when it was so open to the air.

It was absolutely lovely; and the beauty of it was even more obvious because it was so sharply contrasted with the lingering signs of past violence that still marked the place. Katara stepped onto the first stair without looking at it, and ending up leaving a smudge of cleanliness where her foot had lifted away some of the sticky layer of soot that covered it—there was a long, fat streak that slashed across several stairs. The walls of the little temple building were smeared with ugly scorch marks. The big room was round, so it didn't really have corners; but there were mounds of ash still piled in spots around the edge where wall met floor, protected from blowing or washing away even after a century.

The wind blew, and where it was caught by the temple buildings and channeled past the windows and spires, it made a low singing hum against the stone. Sokka shivered a little. "Creepy," he proclaimed. "I told you it would be creepy."

"And you were right," Katara said, a little absently—not that it wasn't true, but she was distracted; something that wasn't quite a headache was gathering behind her eyes. For a second, she was gripped by the sudden fear that something was seriously wrong, because her vision went abruptly grey. But it cleared just as fast, and when it did, everything was different.

There were people everywhere, dressed in yellow and orange: monks, calm and smiling, with blue arrows like the ones she'd seen on Aang tattooed on heads and hands; and boys, un-tattooed students, shouting to each other and calling breezes into their hands. The sun was high, the room full of light and noise, sky bison and boys with gliders flying past the windows, and the stones were clean and unscarred by fire.

Katara blinked, and the vision was gone: Sokka was staring at her warily, hands wrapped around her arms, as she had evidently started lurching toward the floor. "If you're going to start glowing and breaking stuff again, tell me," he said, "so that I can get out of the way."

"No, it wasn't that," Katara forced out, straightening her half-folded legs. She felt choked, half-suffocated, but in a completely mundane way, and her eyes were starting to prickle at the corners.

Sokka looked, if possible, even more alarmed. "Uh, Katara?"

She squeezed her damp eyes shut, and tried to make herself take deep breaths. "They were just—there were so many," she whispered, when her throat had loosened. "So many people here; children—and they killed them all—"

Sokka's face had gone serious, when Katara opened her eyes again. "Well, it won't happen again," he said firmly.

Katara thought of their lone little village, all that was left where Mother had told them a city used to be, and of just how long it had been since they'd seen any other clans traveling the ice fields. "Why not?"

"Because of you," Sokka said, the tone of his voice implying that this ludicrous statement was obvious. "That's why you're here."

Katara stared at him, and then shook her head. "How can I—this was Aang's home, and he couldn't save it—"

"Aang? You mean the frozen kid?" Sokka said. "He was stuck in a block of ice at the time. Unless you're planning to get stuck in a block of ice, I think we'll be okay."

Katara couldn't help it; she giggled. It came out a little soggy, but Sokka either didn't notice or didn't care, and just smiled back at her. "Also," he said, still smiling, "I am not climbing back down in the dark, so we're sleeping here, even if it makes you cry."

"You're a terrible brother," Katara said, wiping her eyes, and punched him in the arm.




They laid out their sleeping mats in the big round room. It actually wasn't as bad as Katara had thought it might be, to be there in the dark; the lack of light meant that the scorch marks and soot were invisible against the more general darkness of the stone.

But her dreams were initially unpleasant, all about a hive of air and rock—like the temple, but larger—and Katara had to find someone inside. She wasn't sure who, since it seemed to change: for part of the dream it was Mother, and for another part, Father; but whoever it was, they weren't there. No one was there, except for Katara's dream-self, and she rushed from empty room to empty room, anxiety winding ever tighter in her gut.

But then her dream-self hurried into a room that turned out not to be a room, but rather a familiar grey flatness; and Aang was there waiting. This wasn't the comfort it probably ought to have been, as all Katara could later remember thinking was that this was a violation of dream-rules—there wasn't supposed to be anyone there, that was what the whole nightmare was about.

"I knew you'd get here," Aang said, blithely uncaring about the dream-rules he was breaking, and then paused and tapped a finger against his chin. "But I think this'll work better if you wake up."

Katara did, suddenly, and found herself blinking groggily into the darkness, frowning a little. That had been weird even for her dreams, which had admittedly been increasingly odd lately, with all the visitation from dead Avatars.

She blinked again. There was a funny blue light in the room, obviously there but at the same time strangely failing to actually provide illumination. Katara turned her head to look at it, and found herself staring into Aang's face, glowing and blue, two inches from her nose.

"Hi!" Aang said, waving a transparent blue hand.

Katara screamed, and hurled herself away reflexively, rolling from her mat onto the cold stone floor.

"What," Sokka said, coming suddenly awake; he didn't say it like it was a question, more like it was simply the word he'd found in his mouth when he'd been abruptly returned to consciousness, and it had slipped out without his intending it. Katara couldn't see him, but there was a sound like someone fumbling around. "Katara?"

"Aang!" Katara blurted, still wrestling with her startlement. He was still there, blue and shiny and completely see-through.

"The frozen kid?" Sokka said confusedly. "What about him?"

Katara stared at Aang, who showed no signs of fading away, and was looking expectantly back at her. "He—can't see you?" she said, a little faintly.

"Who can't see me?" Sokka said. "If Aang can't see me, that's okay, Katara; he's dead."

"He can't see me," Aang confirmed.

"Seriously," Sokka said, "are you talking in your sleep, or what?"

Katara could see Sokka's face a little, now—the sky was just barely starting to lighten, and her eyes had needed a moment to adjust. He was squinting over at her like he couldn't decide whether he wanted more to figure out what was wrong with her or to go back to sleep.

"Aang's here," she said, after a moment. She could've lied, but she had a feeling that Aang would be around for a while; they might as well have the awkward conversation about whether she'd lost her mind now, instead of later.

Sokka's eyebrows shot up toward his hairline. "I'm sorry, I must have something in my ear," he said slowly. "Could you say that again?"

"Aang's here," Katara dutifully repeated.

"Ah, yes, I did have something in my ear," Sokka said; "it was a piece of crazy. Are you really trying to tell me the Airbender kid who died before you were even born is here right now, talking to you?"

Katara turned back to Aang. "Is there anything you can do to convince him?"

"To convince who?" Sokka said, before Aang could even open his mouth. "Oh—no, I get it, you're talking to him now, right?"

"Yes," Katara said, "I am, so shut up."

"... Yeah, I don't think so," Aang said. "I mean, maybe if I got angry, there'd be a little wind or something."

"Great," Katara said, rubbing her eyes.

"Okay, that's seriously weird," Sokka said. "You really aren't kidding, are you? You genuinely think you're talking to him."

"Because I am," Katara snapped.

"Okay, fine. So why is he here, then?" Sokka asked. He was sitting up now, evidently having given up on sleeping in order to stare at her skeptically.

Katara thought about what she would do if Sokka suddenly started talking to thin air and acting like he was hearing replies, and reminded herself to be patient. She looked back at Aang. "You can hear him, right?" she said, because it seemed only reasonable to check.

"Oh, definitely," Aang said, nodding. "As for why—I'm here to help you."

"To help us?" Katara repeated.

Aang nodded again. "I mean, obviously you'd need me eventually," he said. "You'll have to master Airbending sometime, and you'll need a teacher." Aang's face, normally so sunny, closed down a little; Katara felt the slightest touch of breeze, and remembered what he'd said about getting angry—being upset would probably do it, too, she thought. "I'm—well, the closest thing there is to the only one left, I guess."

"I'm sorry," Katara said, which was ridiculous in the face of the death of Aang's entire people; but it made Aang look a little less pained anyway.

"But there's other things, too," Aang said, pushing past the subject determinedly. "There were a lot of people to help me, when I was the Avatar—tell me things about being the Avatar, and all that. You're a Waterbender, so you have to learn air last; that kind of stuff." He jumped to his intangible feet, and bowed. "I'm here to be your guide."

Katara voiced the suspicion that had been forming in her mind while Aang had been talking. "You drew me here, didn't you?"

"Well, kind of," Aang admitted. "I mean, it wasn't just me—you were supposed to come here."

"So now you're blaming your invisible friend for your inability to stay on course," Sokka said.

"It was him," Katara told him. "I told you it was an Avatar thing."

Sokka sighed. "You're going to be unbearable after this, aren't you?"

Katara grinned at him, and said nothing.

"Here, come on," Aang said, gesturing for her to get up. "There's something you should see, and it might help convince him."


*


Aang led them out and up another length of stairs, toward the rest of the temple complex. Or, well, he led Katara, at least, and she dragged Sokka along behind, despite his grumbling.

"But this is ridiculous," he kept saying, and, once: "If you wanted to take a walk, you could have just told me, you know. You didn't have to invent a creepy invisible ghost friend."

Katara spent a lot of the walk reminding herself to be patient repeatedly, and the rest looking around at each new part of the temple as they passed through it. She hadn't realized just how large the Air Temples were. They had been told the story of Sozin's Massacre many times, of course, but Katara's imagination had always tended toward legions of Fire Nation thugs beating up a handful of monks in a low room that was ... well, suspiciously igloo-sized, when Katara remembered it now. The Southern Air Temple was more like a small city.

The round towers of the temple buildings were interspersed with spaces: plazas, and terraces that might once have held gardens, though they were so overgrown—when they weren't scarred with fire—that it was hard to know for sure. The paths between the different sections of the temple were really more like avenues, they were so wide; wide enough for a fully grown sky bison to pass, it occurred to Katara after a few minutes.

"Airball court," Aang said suddenly, pointing off toward a field made up of uneven blocks and posts, all different sizes and heights. His face went wistful, and Katara was abruptly more sorry, for his sake, than she could stand.

"Tell me about it," she said. "How do you play?"

Unfortunately, she got lost in the explanation almost immediately, though whether that was because the rules were complicated or because Aang's description had more enthusiasm than clarity was anybody's guess.

Sokka didn't bother asking what she was talking about anymore; he turned automatically whenever she spoke, and then rolled his eyes and muttered irritated things under his breath. But it wasn't actually that bad to have the reminder, because it was weirdly hard for Katara to remember that Sokka couldn't see or hear Aang. He was so very plainly there, to her, even if he was also blue and didn't always touch the ground when he walked.

The eastern sky was warming toward gold when they finally reached the door that Aang had evidently been aiming for. "Here it is," Aang said, pleased, and then walked right through the wood and vanished.

Katara stared for a second, and then backed up to look at the door. It wasn't just an ordinary door, she suspected; it was huge, and had a knot of curving metal piping that was probably bigger than she was attached to it. The pipes opened out into a pair of horns at the bottom—and really, Katara thought, it would only make sense for an Air Nomad temple to have locks that could only be opened with Airbending.

She glanced back at Sokka to find him watching her with raised eyebrows. "Your invisible dead friend wanted to show us a door?" he said. "If I'd known that was all, I might have gone back to sleep—"

"Just—hang on a second," Katara said, and a moment later, Aang's head popped back through the door.

"Well?" his floating head said. "Come on!"

"Uh, we can't walk through the door, Aang," Katara reminded him gently. "And I can't—well, I guess I could, but I don't know any Airbending yet. Is there another way in?"

There was, thankfully; a hundred years of weather and perhaps the occasional earthquake without anyone to repair the stone had left a few cracks and gaps in the wall, and one of them was large enough for Katara and Sokka to squeeze through, if they lay on their sides and inched their way in. The main door could be opened from the inside without any bending at all, which Katara did, once she felt her way through the dark and found it; but it was still too early for the weak light to really help much.

Katara waited for her eyes to adjust, and for a moment she thought it was taking even longer than it actually was, because her eyes were expecting to see a back wall not too far away. Then the true dimensions of the room suddenly snapped into place, and she realized it wasn't that her eyes were slow—it was that the room was enormous.

"Is it all just statues?" Sokka said, peering over her shoulder. "What are they of?"

"I don't know," Katara said—which was technically true, but she did have a hunch. The statues were arranged in what looked like a perfect spiral, far enough away from their neighbors on either side for someone to wander between the winding loops easily. Katara stepped up to the closest loop, where the spiral pattern came to an end, and right before the empty space began, there was a familiar face.

"Avatar Roku," Katara said, staring up at him. "And, look, here's Kyoshi." The Earth Kingdom woman was the next statue down. She looked sterner as a statue than she had in Katara's dream; but the headdress and the robes were almost exactly the same, and there were the faintest of lines etched into the stone to mark out the patterns of her face-paint.

"What about this guy?" Sokka said, eyeing the next statue in the line: it was a man, clearly Water Tribe, with a solemn, tired-looking face.

Katara glanced at Aang.

"Kuruk," Aang obligingly supplied. "I used to spend days down here, I was supposed to memorize them all." He made a face.

"Kuruk," Katara repeated. "At least, that's what my invisible dead friend says," she added lightly, unable to resist. Sokka stuck his tongue out at her, unrepentant.

"And that's Yangchen," Aang added, indicating the next statue after Kuruk. "She was the last Air Avatar—before me, I mean."

Katara turned her attention to the Air Nomad woman: obviously of a slightly different mold than Aang, as even rendered in stone, her face reflected an ocean-deep calm. "Are they all here?" she asked.

"All the ones we know about," Aang said, nodding, and then suddenly his face underwent some sudden, unpleasant gymnastics.

"What is it?" Katara said.

Aang glanced at her and dredged up a half-smile. "All of them except me," he said, and then huffed out a breath that Katara thought might have been intended to be a laugh. "Not that I did anything," Aang added, looking down at the floor. "Nothing—good, anyway."

"Tell me?" Katara offered quietly.

"What?" Sokka said, glancing away from where he was admiring the winding tattoos of the Fire Nation woman next to Yangchen and giving Katara an inquiring look.

"Shh," she hissed back, and then turned back to Aang.

"I left them," he blurted, as soon as she was looking at him again, and sank to the floor to sit cross-legged, hands linked behind his neck and elbows on his knees. "They were going to—the Avatar's supposed to be neutral, authoritative; not have too many earthly attachments, or else they can be manipulated. But the monk who was responsible for training me—Monk Gyatso, he was—" Aang ground to a halt.

"Like a father?" Katara suggested.

"Well, I don't know; I never knew my father, whoever he was," Aang said quietly, shrugging a little. "But I think so. The Council of Elders said his judgment was clouded because of it—that he couldn't train me anymore." He paused, rubbing a hand over his head. "They were going to send me away."

"So you left," Katara filled in, beginning to see where this was going.

"I left," Aang confirmed. "I was angry, so I left them; there was a storm when I was out over the ocean, and I panicked, I froze myself. And I wasn't there to help them when they needed me; and they all died."

"You can't blame yourself for that," Katara said immediately, because something about the way he said it made it obvious that he was—and quite possibly had been for the majority of the fifteen years it had been since he had died. "You can't blame anyone for that except Sozin: he's the one who had them killed."

Aang shook his head a little. "If I hadn't gone—" he started; but Katara wasn't going to let him keep pursuing that line of thought.

"If you hadn't gone, some of them might have lived," Katara said, "but even the Avatar can't be in a dozen places at once; you could never have saved them all. If Sozin hadn't ordered it, they all would have lived. I think I can tell where the fault lies."

Aang's mouth twisted a little, but he didn't argue; Katara could tell he wasn't convinced, but she was willing to call it a first step, at least.

"Anyway, it'll be fine," she said. "I'll commission one for you."

"What?" Aang said.

"A statue," Katara elaborated. "When I defeat Lord Ozai, I'll commission one for you. Do you want granite? Marble?"

Aang blinked at her for a second, and then began to smile.

"Okay, I only heard half of that supposed conversation," Sokka said. "But did you just talk a ghost through an emotional crisis with bribery?"


*


They kept looking at the Avatar statues for a while, until the sun was fully up; Katara found it oddly comforting. Her whole life, she had been singled out, just a little bit alone, because she had been the only Waterbender in the village—and quite possibly in the whole South Pole. Learning she was the Avatar had set her apart not just from the village but from everybody else in the world. At least when she had only been a Waterbender, she had known there were probably still other Waterbenders in the north.

The dream had helped a little, of course—knowing the previous Avatars were with her all the time, in a certain sense; but with only three of them in front of her, she hadn't realized what a multitude that togetherness encompassed. Now, looking at the vast array of statues, it was obvious.

It was also a little unsettling, though: if Aang had had a statue in the room, his wouldn't have been the only one depicting somebody under the age of twenty. Katara found a girl on the left side of the room who couldn't have been more than eight years old—an Earth Kingdom Avatar, Katara thought, though it was only a guess, since there was no color and the style of her clothing was old enough that Katara couldn't place it easily. She wasn't the only one, either, though she looked like she was probably the youngest.



So when they finally stepped back out into the early morning light, Katara was feeling both comforted and almost somber. She looked out across the ocean, toward the sun, with an odd sense of gravity, and felt suddenly old.

Even more oddly, Sokka seemed to feel it, too, though maybe not to the same extent. The view from the temple really was exceptional - especially now, with the edges of the sky still lingeringly gold and the sea glittering with light; and he paused to look at it, too. "It's beautiful," he observed quietly.

She nodded, and they smiled at each other; and then they turned and followed Aang back around the temple, to gather their things and start the long climb down.


*


"So," Sokka huffed, lowering himself down the face of the last large rock next to the island's shore. "How's your invisible dead friend doing?"

Katara, above him, glanced over at Aang, who was grinning widely. "He, uh. He didn't really have to climb to get down." It was true: Aang seemed to pay some attention to where the ground was, he didn't just bobble haphazardly through the air, but he clearly wasn't able to fall the same way they were. He had strolled down slopes that Katara and Sokka had had to skid down sideways to keep their balance, and had never gotten out of breath. Which Katara supposed made sense, given that he had never really been breathing in the first place.

Sokka stared up at her with outrage, halfway through planting one foot on the more level ground below. "That is so not fair."

Katara laughed, and she could hear Aang snickering behind her. "Well, hey," she said, "if you want to not have to climb things anymore, either, just hold still a minute and let me go get my club."

"Oh, ha ha," Sokka said, making a face, and finished lowering himself to the ground, turning to go look for the cluster of brush they'd pulled the canoe behind. "So the figment of your imagination's really coming with us?" he called back over his shoulder.

"Yeah, he is," Katara said, skidding carefully down the rock.

She landed and turned to find that Sokka had stopped, and was staring at her again; this time, with a sort of perplexed look. "You really are serious about this," he said.

"... Didn't we talk about this already?" Katara said. "Yes, I'm serious; he's there. You believed me before—"

"Uh, correction," Sokka interrupted, raising one hand. "I said okay so we could stop arguing about whether you were crazy. I'm—still thinking about it." He paused for a second, looking briefly uncomfortable, and then said, "You have to admit, it's pretty weird, even for you."

"Thinking about it is good enough for me," Katara told him; and firmly squashed the small, childish part of herself that wanted Sokka to just take her word for it, and was hurt that he couldn't. He was right, it was weird, and if it took him some time to believe her, that was only reasonable.

"He won't take up any space in the canoe, will he?" Sokka said. "I mean, he's intangible, right?"

It was an obvious peace offering, talking like he was willing to go along with it, and Katara smiled at him.

"I don't think I will," Aang said, and drifted down until he was facing Sokka. He stuck out a hand; it went through Sokka's shoulder like there was nothing there, the same way Aang had gone through the door of the Avatar room.

"What?" Sokka said. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

Katara realized that her smile had dissolved into a look somewhere between repulsion and fascination, and tried to straighten out her face. "Uh, no reason," she said. "Don't worry, your leg room is safe."

Sokka narrowed his eyes. "He just walked through me or something, didn't he?" he said. "That is so creepy."

Aang laughed.

They lifted the canoe out from the brush, and checked it over; if some kind of animal had decided to try living in it, or, worse, to chew some holes in it, better to know now than when they were out in the middle of the ocean. The food was fine, as expected, having been wrapped up tight and stowed low to keep the scent off the wind.

Ten minutes' work re-stowing the things they'd taken with them on the climb, and then they were back on the water, Katara in the stern, Sokka in the bow, and Aang in the middle, nonchalantly and quite literally sunk to the waist in their supplies.

"Back on course to the Earth Kingdoms, right?" Sokka said. "No more crazy side trips?"

"Not that I know of," Katara agreed, and bent the water below them forward with a sweep of her hands.




Zuko glared at the horizon, and considered punching a fireball at the wall of the bridge.

It had taken a couple of hours to fully unfreeze the ship and get moving again, and not just because they had fewer Firebenders than most ships their size. Part of the tumble of ice had found its way down the stacks and into the boiler room, and the sudden shock of cold had cracked the metal in a dozen places; they were running on two boilers now, instead of five. The bender's canoe had vanished in the meantime, and ever since, they'd been—following them, Zuko insisted to himself, but he knew it was more like aimless wandering in the general direction the canoe had gone.

A moment later, the door of the bridge swung open; Zuko didn't bother looking over, he knew already that it was Mizan.

Zuko's banishment had been rapidly done, and the ship commandeered to remove him had been a new one, without a captain yet assigned. The crew had been thrown together at the last minute, spares and rejects that no one else had wanted; Mizan had been the highest-ranked of them, and had ended up essentially filling the empty captain's position, in practice. She followed Zuko's orders—and Uncle Iroh's, on the rare occasions that he issued any—but Zuko suspected it was mostly because she chose to. The crew was in awe of the Dragon of the West, and deferential toward the exiled prince; but they listened to Mizan.

And now she was standing in the bridge with her arms crossed, staring at Zuko. "There's no sign of them, Your Highness," she said.

Zuko grimaced a little. Mizan hadn't said it with any particular emphasis, but she reserved "Your Highness" for those occasions when she was displeased; usually, she just called him "sir".

She paused for a second, and then took a step closer. "Frankly, Highness—they're in a canoe. We're in a Fire Navy steamship. Even if we do manage to get anywhere near them by just wandering around like this, they'll see us coming long before we have a chance to spot them; and with that kind of warning in advance, three of our boilers out of commission, and the girl's bending, we'll never be able to catch them."

Zuko whirled around. "It doesn't matter," he said sharply. "We have to keep following them." He couldn't keep waiting for the Avatar to appear; it had been years already, without even a sign. This was the first chance he had had since his exile to win back his honor—he could not bear to let it slip away. "We have to. Stay on course."

Mizan's expression said clearly that she was losing patience with his continued insanity; but she dropped her arms to her sides and executed the bare minimum of a bow. "Yes, Your Highness."



Zuko slammed his way out of the bridge—still angry, but with an uncomfortable sort of desperation starting to rise up beneath. He was almost relieved to see Uncle Iroh standing by the rail, though he was careful to cover it up with a scowl.

"Prince Zuko," Uncle Iroh said, in the gentle tone that meant he was about to tell Zuko something he knew Zuko probably wouldn't want to hear.

"I can't, Uncle," Zuko interrupted. "I won't stop chasing them. I have to kill that Waterbender."

Uncle Iroh gave him a troubled look, at that; a little hypocritical, Zuko thought, for a retired war general, and told him so.

"I have killed men and women in battle, when they were armed," Uncle Iroh said. "I have never hunted down a pair of children to curry favor. Is your place in your father's hall worth someone's life?"

Zuko glared out at the sea, and didn't answer. How could Uncle Iroh ask such a question? Of course it was. It had to be. A life was the price his father had set—the Avatar's, if not this girl's—and his father was never wrong.

He heard Uncle Iroh sigh. "They must be going to the southern Earth Kingdoms," he said, after a long moment. "They would be fools to sail up straight through Fire Nation waters, and I doubt they will spare the time and effort to go around to the east now. Up behind the front lines is their likeliest route, if they intend to keep going north. If we turn now, we may be able to beat them there; if we cannot, at least they will leave a clear trail. It has been a long time since Waterbenders were common in the south."

Zuko turned to look at him. Uncle Iroh's expression looked tired, and perhaps even a little resigned—but Zuko did not have time to unravel whatever knot was troubling him. "Mizan!"

Mizan swung the bridge door open, and looked out at him attentively. "Highness?"

"Change course," Zuko said. "For the southern Earth Kingdoms."

Mizan bowed—a real one, this time. "Aye, sir," she said.