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Imagine The Ocean - Book One

Chapter Text

Hakoda found the boy in the ice eight days before Kya went into labor. There was an animal with the boy, too, a sky bison; it looked just like the ones in the wild herds that still flew over the Pole sometimes, except for the part where it had a saddle. It was already dead when Hakoda found them, but the boy was still alive.

He was an Air Nomad; Hakoda could have told that much even without the bison, just seeing the arrow tattoos on his face and hands. But how he ended up frozen in the ice of the South Pole nearly a hundred years after all the other Nomads were massacred was a mystery. And one that would never be solved, since the boy never woke up before slipping away from them in the middle of the night.

Hakoda hoped he didn't mind being given to the sea, Airbender that he was.


*


Their daughter was born six days after the boy died. Kya named her Katara; Kanna had already carved the little ivory tiger seal that would make her a good hunter, and she tucked it under the baby's tongue while she asked the spirits for blessings.

Katara was so quiet under Kanna's hands that Hakoda thought she must have fallen asleep; but when he looked, her eyes were wide open, and she was looking back at him with a sudden awareness that made his arms prickle. She smiled at him, slow and calm and infinitely old—and then blinked, and was suddenly a tiny fussy baby again.

Hakoda swallowed, uncertain, but when Kya looked up at him, he couldn't help but smile. "She's beautiful," he said, and it was true.

Chapter Text

Zuko was practicing his kicks on the main deck when the pair of Fire Navy ships was spotted, coming in on their starboard side and heading for the South Pole.

"Hey!" the lookout hallooed, when one of the other ships was close enough. "Your mission?"

Technically, she wasn't supposed to ask, and the other ship certainly wasn't supposed to answer, given Zuko's status as an exile; but in practice, this far from the Fire Nation, nobody cared.

"The Southern Water Tribe," somebody called back from the closer ship. "Word has it there's still a few benders left; we're taking care of it. Orders from Lord Ozai," and then the ships were pulling past and away, toward the piles of ice in the distance.

Zuko watched them go, and tried not to hate them.




"It's not getting away from me this time. Watch and learn, Katara. This is how you catch a fish."

Katara rolled her eyes, and tightened her grip on the globe of water she was bending. "I know how to fish the normal way," she said, "I just want to try—"

"The freak way," Sokka generously filled in for her, smirking at her over his shoulder.

Katara huffed out an irritated breath in reply, and almost missed the whisper-slick brush of a fish against the globe. Another moment, and the fish curved back around and swam right in; Katara yanked on the water around the edge of the globe so that it sped up, flowing suddenly faster around the sphere, and trapping the fish in the stiller water in the middle.

She grinned, triumphant, and lifted the globe out of the water, the fish still inside. "Yeah, well, the freak way works," she said, and slowed the water enough to let the fish flop out into the canoe.

"Cold!" Sokka yelped, as the fish slapped wetly against his ankle, and swung his fishing spear around, sliding the end of the haft under the gasping fish so that he could flick it out of the boat.

"Hey! That was my fish—" Katara started indignantly, and then stopped: either Sokka had flicked the fish at some kind of invisible ice, or something very peculiar had happened, because the fish had just landed in the water with a distinct crunching sound.

"... Did you hear that?" Sokka said, wide-eyed.

Katara nodded, and let the water-globe slip down into the sea in favor of picking up her paddle.

They'd been fishing in a broad space of water between a couple of loose ice floes; the crunch hadn't sounded quite like the collision of ice, it hadn't been loud enough, but if they let shifting ice catch them unawares, they could easily be crushed. Better to know it was nothing than to assume it was and be disastrously wrong.

They paddled toward where the fish had landed, in the general direction of the crunch, and came to rest on the low edge of the nearest floe, behind a little hillock of ice. Sokka was closest, and scrambled up onto the floe, his club clutched in one hand as he peered over the hillock. He went still as soon as he saw whatever it was, and his fingers went tight around his club—probably not just ice shifting, then.

Katara's heart started to pound; she groped around in the bottom of the canoe until she found the handle of her own club, and it was obscurely reassuring to feel the solid weight of it against her fingers. "Sokka?" she whispered, when the silence stretched long.

"Shh," he hissed back, eyes still fixed on the far end of the floe. "It's the Fire Nation."

Katara sucked in a startled breath. The Fire Nation had been raiding their village off and on for decades, but it had been nearly a year since the last time, and the whole tribe had been hoping that meant it was over.

She gripped her club and climbed up onto the floe next to Sokka so that she could see for herself, just in case Sokka was wrong.

But Sokka was right: there were two ships, one still back a ways in the distance and one that had come to a stop against the opposite edge of the floe; and they were both flying Fire Nation flags. Even if they hadn't been, of course, the ships were clearly Fire Nation design, all sharp lines and hard edges. The nearer ship's metal boarding ramp landing on the snow had to have been the source of the crunch. There were soldiers standing in a clump perhaps thirty feet from the ramp, conferring over something and turning to point occasionally—trying to orient themselves, Katara thought, so that they could find the village, and her stomach went tight with fear and dread.

"They're leaving," she murmured, because they were; a few more sharp, declarative arm motions, and the soldiers started filing back toward the ramp.

Sokka's mouth went tight, and he shifted his grip on his club. "Go back," he said; "I'll delay them."

"You'll what?" Katara said.

"Go back and warn them, get everybody out," Sokka said, which wasn't an answer.

"Sokka—"

Sokka turned and looked at her, and his stupid goofy face was actually serious, for once. "You're our only bender," he said. "You need to live."

Katara stared at him. "No," she said—but not fast enough, Sokka was already darting around the side of the hillock and charging across the long flat space of the ice floe, yelling wordlessly. "Sokka!"

The soldiers turned almost as a unit, but only one stepped up to meet Sokka, a lopsided, derisive sort of smile on his face. "What have we here," he said, calm, and sidestepped Sokka's first swing with almost ridiculous ease.

Sokka was probably right, at least in a general sense—the village did need to be warned. But Katara could never leave him to do this alone, and he should have known better than to ask her to.

She darted around the ice formation and started running toward Sokka, who was busy shouting something stupid and brave into the soldier's face. The Fire Nation soldier laughed in reply, and swung his spear at Sokka; Sokka dodged the blow, and got in a pretty good jab with the club, but then the soldier smashed the edge of the spear blade into the side of Sokka's head, and he dropped to the ice, blood spattered down his cheek.

"No!" Katara shouted, stretching out her free hand like she could yank the spear away just by wanting to. She was suddenly blindingly angry, so much so that it made something give somewhere in her chest, and she stopped running, thinking vaguely that she must need to catch her breath. Her club slipped from her fingers, but she didn't grab after it; she knew abruptly, in an odd, distant kind of way, that she didn't need it anymore. She wasn't sure what happened next, except that she felt strange and far away, and there was a lot of light and wind and a sound so loud she could feel it in her bones. And when she came back to herself, the Fire Nation ship had capsized, and the soldiers had been flung back twenty feet across the ice, onto the wrong side of a rapidly widening crack.

Sokka was on the right side, fortunately; his eyes didn't seem willing to stay all the way open, and he had a hand to his head, which was still bleeding copiously. It only took a minute for Katara to half-carry him back to the canoe.

He was almost unconscious when they got there, but Katara splashed a little seawater up to wash some of the blood away, and he startled back to awareness at the sudden cold sting. "You," he said blurrily.

"Shut up," Katara snapped, dashing a little more water over the injury. She wanted to check it over more closely, but he shook her hands away.

"No, you," he said again. "How did you do that? You went all - your eyes, with the glowing, and then you floated-"



"Shush," Katara said, because she couldn't think of anything else. She couldn't deny it when she didn't know what had happened, except that it had felt a little like standing in the middle of a storm; but it was an unsettling new level of freak that she had reached, if Sokka were telling the truth and she had just broken a huge ice floe in half with her mind. Useful, admittedly, given that she had also just sunk an entire Fire Navy ship by herself; but unsettling.

Sokka obediently stopped talking this time, though it was probably more thanks to the head wound than because he had suddenly started listening to Katara. She made him press his hand down tight against the gash, and started paddling them slowly toward home, leaving the capsized ship and the stranded soldiers behind.


*


The sun was still fairly high when they reached the village; they hadn't been expected back until sunset, so Katara wasn't surprised to see Mother running out to meet them.

"What happened?" she cried, catching sight of Sokka's head—he'd kept his hand over it, and that plus the cold had slowed the bleeding, but it still looked awful.

"Fire Nation soldiers," Katara told her, and Mother's face went still and serious. She helped Sokka stay upright with one hand, and took one end of the canoe with the other; and she didn't ask any more questions until they were back inside the village walls.

Gran-Gran was waiting there, and led Sokka away, shaking her head and clucking her tongue, to the healing tent. Katara started to unload the few fish they'd managed to catch before she'd decided to practice her bending and everything had suddenly gone wrong; but Mother caught her arm, and said, "It's all right, we'll get it later. Tell me what happened."

It was only then, looking at Mother's calm, concerned face, that Katara realized her hands were shaking; and suddenly she couldn't go another moment without throwing her arms around her mother's neck, and breathing out harsh and shuddery into her shoulder.

"Tell me what happened," Mother said again, and Katara did.


*


Mother was still for a moment, when Katara was done telling her everything she could remember, and then she suddenly brought her hand to her mouth. "I don't believe it," she said.

Katara blinked. "I don't remember parts," she said a little hesitantly, "but I know it happened, whatever it was—"

Mother laughed, a little breathlessly. "No, no," she said, and suddenly curved her hands around Katara's head and pulled her in, dropping a kiss onto her hair. "It might just be possible—but we should worry about that later," and Mother shook her head as if to clear it. "You said there were two ships?"

Katara nodded.

"Then I think you'll need to bend just a little more, if you aren't worn out," Mother said. "If we're going to be raided by the Fire Nation today, we could stand to have the walls a little higher. The rest can wait."

Whatever it was, it didn't seem to be bad, judging by the smile on Mother's face; Katara felt suddenly about a thousand times better, and when she said, "I can do it," it wasn't the lie she'd feared it might be.


*


Katara pushed the walls higher and thicker—only a foot or two, she wasn't that good a bender yet, but it was enough to satisfy Mother. Then they gathered in the shared igloo, the largest in the village, and all the able-bodied women put on their war-paint. Sokka was supposed to be resting, but he ducked through the door when Mother was halfway through applying Katara's black chin-darts, with the bandage still on his head; and Mother only smiled and handed him the nearest pot of grey paint.

When they were done, all the children were herded in, with Gran-Gran to watch over them, and the women—and Sokka—arranged themselves around the walls. Sokka fitted himself in next to Katara, with Aunt Mitika on the other side, and Katara felt suddenly and fiercely glad they were there.

But the ship didn't come. Cousin Shotora saw a few distant gleams with the brassy sheen that came of sun on metal, instead of on ice or water; but nothing came near the village.

Mother kept them on the walls until sundown, just in case the soldiers were out there waiting for them to let their guard down. But the ship never came, and supper around the fire that night had a hint of cautious celebration to it.

Katara was as glad as anyone that they had evidently escaped the Fire Lord's raiders, at least for the moment. But without the constant low-grade tension of waiting on the walls with club in hand, whatever it was Mother hadn't told her was starting to nag at her. And Mother seemed to realize it, because as soon as they were done eating, she drew Katara aside, away from the fire.

"I know what you did earlier today frightened you a little," Mother began. "But I think—I think it could be the best thing that's happened in my life—in any of our lives." She paused, and then shook her head, like she couldn't quite believe what she was about to say. "I think you are the Avatar—the Avatar returned."



Katara stared at her. Mother certainly seemed to mean it—but how could she? It was ridiculous, to the point of insanity. "But that's—how is that even possible?" she said. "There hasn't been an Avatar in a hundred years, why would it suddenly be me?"

"Actually, there has been—there was," Mother said. "A week before you were born, your father found a boy half-melted out of the ice—an Airbender."

"An Airbender?" Katara said, thrown. She had never heard this story before. "But they were all killed—"

"Except one, at least," Mother said. "I think he was the Avatar; he must have frozen himself trying to stay free of the Fire Lord, and the Fire Lord wiped out the Airbenders in retaliation. But something went wrong; that's when Hakoda found him, and he died." She paused for a moment, and a quick flicker of sadness crossed over her face. "It might have been for the best. He couldn't have been more than fourteen, and his entire nation—dead a hundred years. That would be a terrible thing to wake up to."

Katara would have agreed, but she was too busy sinking down to sit in the snow, mind awhirl. She had been listening to stories of the Avatar all her life, but in her head, the Avatar had always been a strong, wise, competent adult—never a boy who had frozen himself into the sea and could have woken lost and alone; and definitely never herself.

Mother knelt in front of her, and took her hands. "I'm sorry to dump all of this on you at once, but I never thought—I never suspected, until now. Hakoda and I both thought the boy might have been the Avatar, but the reincarnation could just as easily have been in the Northern Tribe; there was no way for anyone to know until today."

"You really think—?" Katara whispered.

Mother tilted her head. "You don't?" she said.

Katara let out a slow breath, and thought about what she could remember—the light, and the wind; the sound of the ice, cracking just because she had wanted it to; and there had been a feeling, too, that she could only touch the edge of in retrospect: a feeling that she could have cracked the rest of the world along with the ice, in that moment, if she had tried.

"... I think I might," she said.




Katara was ready to concede that her being the Avatar was at least conceivable by the time she crawled into their family igloo and lay down on her tiger seal skins to go to sleep; but it was still a strange idea, uncomfortable in its presumptuousness and daunting in the assumption of responsibility that went along with it.

So when Sokka came in, flopped down on his own sleeping platform next to hers, and said, "So, what were you and Mother talking about, anyway?" Katara was only too glad to unload some of the confusion on him.

"... Wow," he said, when she was finished. "I would mock you right now, except I saw you do it, and I have to say, I think she's right."

Katara couldn't help but laugh.

"What?" Sokka said.

"I can't believe it," Katara told him, "but you taking this seriously is almost the most convincing thing that's happened today."

"Almost?" Sokka said, voice shrill with mock outrage.

"Well, the part where I broke the iceberg was a big one, too," Katara said.


*


She fell asleep smiling, and feeling calmer than she had all day; but that didn't last for very long. Her thoughts wandered off not into normal dreams, but into an oddly still, grey-toned space that seemed to have been waiting for her—it felt like it had already been there and she had traveled to it, not like her mind had made it up. It was a very odd feeling, and Katara wondered nervously whether cracking the ice had somehow loosened her spirit, and now she was wandering and would never wake up.

Before she could follow that unsettling train of thought much further, though, the space changed from featureless to distinctly misty, and Katara glanced down to find that she now had a visible dream-self, which she thought was a good sign. When she looked up again, there was someone else there, coming toward her out of the fog. Three someones, she realized, as they came closer: a man, a woman, and a boy only a few years younger than Katara herself.

The boy was the one who caught Katara's eye right away, because of the tattoos on his head and hands—Airbender tattoos, she knew, and he was about the same age as the frozen boy Mother had described to her. The man was dressed in Fire Nation robes, red as sunset; and the woman was wearing green along with her white and red face-paint, which had to mean she was from one of the Earth Kingdoms. The last three reincarnations of the Avatar, Katara thought, and as soon as she did, the woman smiled at her.

"That's right," she said, and her voice was cool and soothing. "I am Kyoshi; I was the Avatar four hundred years before you were born."

"I am Roku," the man said, equally calm, when she was done.

Katara thought he might have been about to go on, but then the boy, apparently unable to hold still any longer, bounced forward a step and bowed a little. "And I'm Aang," he said, and then grinned. "Hi!"

Katara couldn't help but smile back. "I guess you already know who I am," she said.

Avatar Kyoshi smiled at her again; this time, it looked sympathetic. "You are the next Avatar," she said.

"I thought you might say that," Katara said. She was surprised at how much of a relief it was to actually know, instead of guessing or assuming.

"We're here to tell you what that means," Aang said confidingly, "since there's nobody to do that for you. Well, nobody who's alive, anyway."

"I do know the stories," Katara offered.

"Then you know the Avatar is the master of all four elements," Avatar Kyoshi said. "You are a relatively strong Waterbender already, but you have not mastered water yet; and you cannot, not as long as you do not have a teacher. You must find someone who can teach you Waterbending, before you can begin studying any other element."

Katara swallowed. "But I'm the only one," she said. "I'm the only bender here."

Avatar Kyoshi gave her a knowing look. "Then you know what you must do," she said.

Katara stared back at her, and wished she could say that she didn't know what Kyoshi meant; but she did, and if she lied, she was pretty sure Kyoshi would know it. "I have to leave."

Kyoshi nodded. "I'm sorry for the necessity of it, but you must master the elements," she said, "and this is the only way."

"No, I'd—I'd have to go anyway, to master the rest," Katara said; which was true, not that it made her feel all that much better. She glanced at Avatar Roku, who was looking solemn but kind of remote, and then at Aang, who looked—well, vaguely ill, to be honest. It was especially odd considering how widely he'd been smiling just a few moments ago, and Katara made an inquiring face at him; but he just shook his head, and then looked away.

"We cannot stay much longer," Avatar Kyoshi said. "But you should know—you are not alone. You are the Avatar; we are always with you."

Katara looked back at her, and felt suddenly able to smile again, if only a little. "Thank you," she said, humbled and grateful at the same time; then suddenly all three Avatars were fading back into the mist, and the last thing Katara saw before she woke was Aang, shooting her one last slightly wobbly smile.




The sound was loud and sharp and seemed to come out of nowhere, though that last wasn't especially unusual; the gaps between icebergs tended to channel sound oddly, make it echo and reverberate, and it had happened before that a distant crunch of ice had sounded like it had happened barely a hundred feet away. Zuko turned from where he had been leaning on the rail, thinking—not brooding, no matter what Uncle Iroh said—and looked in the general direction of the sound in time to see the glow of light. His father must have sent at least one blue Firebender along with the ships. Zuko felt a little ten-year-old part of himself quail at the thought that it might be Azula—but, no, or she would have been on deck to taunt him when the ships had passed.

Whatever the explanation for the light, one thing was obvious: they'd found something, whether it was the last Waterbender in the south or just a village they felt like destroying. Long after the light faded away, Zuko kept looking, waiting for a sign of the ships returning.

But it didn't come, not until the next morning. "Ship ahoy!" the lookout shouted, just as Uncle Iroh was pouring their morning tea, and she pointed off into the light morning mist. "Only the one," she added, sounding a little puzzled.

Zuko left his tea, ignoring Uncle Iroh's disapproving click of the tongue, and went to the rail: the ship was out of the mist now, and unless the other was unusually far behind, it was indeed alone.

The deck seemed markedly crowded, and a vague suspicion was starting to form in Zuko's mind even before one of the other ship's officers shouted, "Spare some supplies?"

Zuko glanced at Uncle Iroh.

"Whatever decision you make, I'm sure it will be the right one, Prince Zuko," Uncle Iroh said.

"Of course it will," Zuko snarled, rolling his eyes. Stupid old man. Zuko deliberated for a moment, and then shouted back, "For a price—tell me everything that happened."

"All right," came the response, a moment later.

It was only reasonable, Zuko thought; they would never find out, otherwise. There was no reason for Uncle Iroh to be beaming at him like that.


*


The ship went on its way an hour later, loaded with whatever Zuko's quartermaster had calculated they could spare. Little wonder the officer had agreed to commit the moderately treasonous act of talking to Zuko; sailing back from the South Pole was unpleasant enough without having to keep nearly two ships' worth of soldiers appropriately rationed with one ship's worth of supplies. Lucky for them it had stormed not long ago, and Zuko had plenty of drinking water saved up from the rain barrels.

The officer was Captain Gao; Captain Chang, from the second ship, had gone down with it when it had capsized. Most of the other men and women on it had been rescued, though, and brought under the command of Captain Gao.

Zuko was hard-pressed to contain his glee when Captain Gao told him they had failed to capture the Waterbender, who definitely did exist. True, it wasn't the Avatar, but it was something his father wanted—maybe it would be enough.

"I don't know," Uncle Iroh said, when Captain Gao and her ship were shrinking away in the distance. "I don't think she was telling us everything. Why did they leave, instead of chasing the bender down, when she flipped the other ship?"

"Because they're fools," Zuko said. "Or ashamed of themselves. She must have taken them by surprise, maybe even prepared an ambush, to capsize an entire ship by herself. But if we go in fast enough, she won't have time to set up anything like that again."

"Perhaps," Uncle Iroh said, but he was frowning speculatively as he sipped his tea.

Zuko shook his head; they had no time for Uncle's groundless worrying. They had a bender to find.




Mother put Katara and Sokka on the wall for the day, to keep an eye out for the ship in case the raiders changed their minds, and to watch the children while the women went hunting. Katara suspected it was also partly for Sokka's sake; his head was healing up relatively well, with no signs of infection in the wound, but he was still having moments of wooziness. At least if he fell off the wall, he wouldn't drown.

Katara was trying to use the time to patch up a few old tents; but her mind kept wandering off to Kyoshi, and the task of finding a bending teacher, and Aang's suddenly pained face.

The fifth time her hands went still in her lap, Sokka said, "Okay, seriously, what is wrong with you?"

Katara jumped, though thankfully not enough to tip herself off the wall's broad top, and looked up to find Sokka looking back with narrowed eyes. "I, uh," she said thoughtfully. "What?"

"Usually, you can't get enough of a day on the wall," Sokka said. "'Oh, Sokka, I'll get so much done!' 'Oh, Sokka, I've been meaning to finish this for ages!' 'Oh, Sokka, stop shoving me off the wall!' What's going on?" He paused, and squinted at her. "Are you still freaking out about the Avatar thing? Because, really, if you think about it, it's pretty awesome—"

"I have to leave," Katara blurted out, staring down at her needle. "I need to learn how to do everything—I need to go find a Waterbending teacher."

"-and it means we get to go to the North Pole, too, apparently," Sokka said. "Even better."

"We?" Katara said, startled.

Sokka gave her a look. "Like I'd let you have all your crazy Avatar adventures alone. Please. If you leave, I'm going with you."

Katara stared at him, and then found herself laughing; she should have known, she thought, Sokka hated it when important things happened without him around. "You don't have to," she offered belatedly, but she didn't really mean it, and judging by the sideways glance Sokka shot her, he knew it.

"Yeah, whatever," he said. "You know you want me to come," and he leaned over to jog her companionably with one elbow.

Katara thought about letting it stay the half-joke it was, but it didn't seem right. "I do," she admitted, and elbowed him back. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Sokka said, briefly serious; and then he grinned. "You're such a sap."

"Oh, shut up," Katara said, giggling, and shoved him off the wall.


*


When the hunting party came back, Katara told Mother everything: the dream, what Kyoshi had said; that she knew now she would have to leave, and that Sokka would be going with her.

Mother listened silently, and as she began to wrap it up, Katara worried that perhaps she was angry. But when Katara was done, she blinked a couple of times, and then said, very softly, "I think you're right—you must go," and Katara realized abruptly that she wasn't angry—only sad.

"Oh, Mother," Katara said, and wished, irrationally, that she had never said anything.

But Mother put on a smile, and pulled Katara close enough to kiss her forehead. "It's all right," she said, "I knew you would have to. I just hoped it wouldn't be this soon, that's all." She turned and motioned to Aunt Mitika and Aunt Tarosha, each of whom, Katara noticed belatedly, had one side of a travois that was heavily loaded. "We brought down a tiger seal today—it should make a fine farewell feast for you."

"Thank you, Mother," Katara said, and hugged her as tightly as she could.




They were ready to set out almost first thing the next morning. They couldn't have taken one of the large boats by themselves, even if there had been any left after the men and the women without young children had gone to fight in the Hundred-Year War; but they did get one of the nicer canoes, with space for everything Mother could think to give them.

With everyone helping, it didn't take long at all to pack, and before she was entirely ready for it, Katara was one hug from Mother away from getting in the canoe and leaving her home behind.

Mother drew her in tight, cradling her head in that way that meant Mother was on the edge of crying. "You are the Avatar," Mother murmured into her hair. "I know you don't quite believe it yet, but you will. Take care of your brother, all right?"

"Don't worry, Mother, we'll do our best not to get killed," Sokka said, very reassuringly, and Mother started chuckling too hard to cry properly.


*


The true strangeness of it didn't hit Katara until they were nearly out of the loose ice and close to open water—it was further than either of them had ever gone to fish, even on the days the fish had been at their most elusive.

It was quickest for Katara to bend the water under them and carry the canoe along that way; Sokka had promised to paddle if she got tired, but considering that he was now snoring lightly in the bow, Katara had some doubts about his sincerity.

She was just considering how best to wake him—a wave all over would be the most satisfying, but might get their things wet; a splash in the face would probably be better—when the first fireball roared overhead and crashed, steaming, into the water ahead of them.

Katara ducked reflexively and yanked on the water, pulling the canoe suddenly to the left; the jerking motion woke Sokka, who yelped.

"Hey! What are you—" He cut himself off abruptly, and his eyes went wide. "Katara," he said slowly, "why is there a Fire Nation ship behind us?"

"That'll show you for falling asleep when you ought to be the lookout," Katara shot back. Another fireball came down behind them, close enough for Katara to feel the heat on her back, and she had to turn around to catch the wave of suddenly warmer water before it could swamp the canoe. "Time for you to paddle," she said over her shoulder, and then swung her hands up, pulling the wave higher, into a shield.

It was a Fire Nation ship; Katara couldn't be sure, looking at its blurry, distorted outline through the wall of water, but she thought it was smaller than either of the ships from two days ago. Which was good, in a sense, if the raiders were gone and this ship was only after her, not after the village. On the other hand, she thought wryly, it also meant that she had only been the Avatar for two days, and the Fire Nation was already trying to kill her.

Sokka kept them moving to the left, and a moment later, they rounded the edge of the nearest iceberg. The ship was—at least temporarily—blocked from view, and Katara let the wave-shield tumble back into the sea with a splash.

"So, uh, I don't suppose you feel like glowing and flipping this ship over?" Sokka said, still paddling.

"I don't suppose you feel like getting hit over the head again?" Katara said.

"Well, not really," Sokka conceded, "but if it's that or, you know, death—"

"Maybe we don't have to pick," Katara said thoughtfully, eyeing the water ahead of them. Her first panicked tug had given them a fair amount of momentum, and Sokka had paddled pretty hard; they had nearly rounded half the iceberg, and they were facing back toward the ice field now, not out toward open water. "If we go back in and draw them into a narrow spot, I could pull the ice down—"

"And freeze the water under them, too, freeze them in," Sokka finished, nodding. "It won't hold them forever, but it'll give us time to get away."

The ship was starting to come around the iceberg, so Katara drew another wall of water up—just in time to catch the next fireball, which bounced off and down to fizzle out in the water behind them. Sokka kept paddling, and a few dozen yards further on, they were between two middling-sized cliffs of ice, both taller than the Fire Nation ship, with the ship itself bearing down rapidly on them.

Katara abruptly let the water-wall go, and the ship was close enough now for her to see individual faces on the deck: the focused look on the woman who was lighting the next fireball in the cradle; the hard-faced man who was adjusting the angle of the catapult, on the orders of the shouting boy with the scarred eye. She took a deep breath, and reached out to the top of one iceberg.

"... You're going to pull it down soon, right?" Sokka said.

"I'm working on it," Katara gritted out, straining. It had been warm and sunny the past few days, which she had been counting on, and the ice was soft and loose; but it was more, and further away, than she usually tried to do anything with.

"I'm just saying," Sokka said. "They're almost done with the catapult."

Katara pulled on the ice as hard as she could, forcing her hands sideways against the weight that was resisting her bending, and it gave with a creak and a low rumble of sound, tumbling down over the deck of the ship in a sudden avalanche. A symmetrical movement in the other direction, and the other side gave, too, sliding down into a heap right on top of the catapult.

"Ha-hah!" Sokka shouted, punching one fist into the air, and Katara tried not to feel too pleased—she hadn't even finished yet, she reminded herself.

It was easier to freeze the water around the ship than it had been to bring the ice down, because she didn't have to move it anywhere, only concentrate on it. She was rewarded after a moment by a light crackling sound, as ice formed and thickened around the hull of the ship; and then they were paddling off around the iceberg again, away from the trapped ship, and out onto the open ocean.


***


Zuko put his palms against the heavy fall of ice chunks and loose snow that was pinning him to the deck, and melted it away with a surge of anger. Idiot bender—she had only made things worse for herself in the end—

"A clever trick," Uncle Iroh said, with noticeable admiration; he'd freed himself already, and was now heating the last of the dampness out of his sleeves in a blast of steam. "And good technique, too—kept her elbows up, very nice."

Zuko struggled to his feet and stared over the rail: the canoe was shrinking away into the distance, undoubtedly sped along by the girl's bending—the wake was far more than you'd expect, for a canoe that size. "We have to track her down," he snapped. "Who cares about her technique?"

"You should," Uncle Iroh said, very mildly. "She's not a master—at least, not yet. But she's very powerful. When you underestimate your opponent, only one of you suffers for it; and it is usually not your opponent."

Zuko grimaced, but said nothing. It didn't matter how skilled or powerful a bender the Water Tribe girl was—Zuko would track her down and kill her, and be one step closer to ending his exile.

Chapter Text

"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.

Chapter Text

The day they spotted the island was the third in a row that Katara had had to take off her parka before noon—a nuisance, but another sign that they were heading north.

Sokka, in the bow, was the first to see it, and let out a whoop of delight. "See, I told you there had to be some islands coming up," he said. "The map does not lie."

"Luckily for you," Katara said, "or there wouldn't have been any breakfast tomorrow, and you'd have starved before we could even get a fish to bite." Katara hadn't expected to find herself actively appreciating the fact that Aang couldn't eat, but Sokka had gone through their supplies like a rampaging tiger seal. It was just luck that Mother had saved the otherwise useless currency Gran-Gran had gotten the last time the village had traded with an Earth Kingdom ship. Katara only hoped Earth money hadn't changed much: theirs was at least forty years old.

Katara turned the canoe and bent the water a little harder, and the island began to grow steadily larger; by noon, they were sailing across a small bay and in toward the shoreline.

"Have you ever been here before?" Katara asked Aang, shifting the end of the canoe that she was carrying until she could hold up a quelling finger in Sokka's direction. They'd agreed on that as a signal two days ago, when Katara had gotten tired of getting two simultaneous answers to all her questions. "It was too small to get a name on the map."

"Nope," Aang said. "I used to ride elephant koi in the ocean near here, but that was about as close as I ever got."

They finished stowing the canoe away, and covered it up a little with extra brush, just to be safe.

There was a clear path up the slope from the shore, presumably to a village; the first ten minutes of walking were pleasant, if a little too warm for Katara's taste, but then Sokka started to get twitchy.

"... Are you really that bored already?" Katara said, raising her eyebrows.

Sokka rubbed at the back of his neck, glancing around at the trees nearby with an odd look on his face. "Not—bored," he said shortly.

Katara gave him a closer look; saw the uneasy clenching of his free hand, and the way his eyes kept darting, never settling, and began to feel faintly edgy herself. She liked trees—or what she'd seen of them so far, at least—but right now they seemed dangerously obscuring, and she would have given a lot for the broad flat openness of ice. "Fire Nation, do you think?" she murmured, and wished fervently that they hadn't optimistically left both of their clubs and all their fishing knives in the canoe.

"I doubt it," Sokka said, "I don't hear any clanking."

"I could go look," Aang offered, from Katara's other side. "There's no way they'll hear me," and he bounded off into the trees—right through them, even.

Katara had just lost sight of the last glimmer of blue when she heard Sokka yelp; before she could even turn around, there was a sudden sharp pain at the back of her head, and everything went dark.


*


When Katara came back to herself, the first thing she heard was Aang's voice—"Katara, Katara—come on, wake up," he was saying, low and worried.

Her head was pounding, so she didn't open her eyes right away, knowing that the light would only make it worse. She was in a sitting position, feet tucked under herself, and she could tell without looking that she was tied to something—wood, she thought, feeling the texture against her hands; that was why she had been upright even while she was unconscious.

After a moment, the pounding receded, and Katara blinked a few times to clear her eyes, only to find Aang staring her in the face. Through his head, she could see a group of people, all dressed in green, standing in a clump perhaps twenty or thirty feet away and apparently discussing something amongst themselves. The pole Katara was tied to was in the middle of a large cleared space, and the slope beyond the group of green-clothed people was covered with two rows of houses, leading up to a larger building—a village hall, Katara thought, like the central igloo back home.

"Oh, good," Aang said, and the tight, worried lines of his face relaxed into relief. "I thought maybe they'd hit you too hard. I'm so sorry—I couldn't do anything, I tried but I can't touch them—"

"It's okay," Katara risked whispering. She didn't want to catch the attention of the people who'd captured them just yet, but Aang didn't need any more guilt to pile on himself.

Almost as soon as she'd said it, though, her caution turned worthless, because she heard a loud groan behind her—Sokka, she thought, tied to the other side of the pole; he must have come awake.

One of the people in green turned around—a girl, Katara noticed, and then looked more carefully. They were all girls, everyone in the group, and their faces were painted with the same dramatic red and white paint that Kyoshi had been wearing in Katara's dream.

"Looks like our guests are ready to join us," the first girl said, with a tiny smile; and it could have been frightening, but she didn't say it meanly—just wryly, and a little warily.

"What?" Sokka said grumpily, and then groaned again. "Oh, my head."

Katara craned her head around as far as she could, and caught the barest glimpse of Sokka's ear. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, you've given me worse practicing with our clubs," Sokka said, and then the girl stopped a few feet away and crouched down to look Katara in the eye, and there was no more time to talk.

"So," the girl said, and reached out to touch the white edge of Katara's blue shirt where it curved over her shoulder. "Water Tribe. It's been a long time since any of you have been here."

"Long enough that we're on opposite sides of the war now?" Katara asked. If the alliance against the Fire Nation had fallen apart in the years since Father had sailed away with the other warriors to aid the northern Earth Kingdoms, that was very, very bad news.

But the girl smiled, a little ruefully. "We're only one little island," she said, "we're not really in the war at all. But the Fire Nation doesn't seem inclined to let us stay out of it, recently; and it's been long enough that we can't be sure whether you're really Water Tribe, or Fire Nation prisoners who've turned spy, or actual Fire Nation citizens who've somehow found a way to turn their eyes blue."

"If I can have one hand free, I can settle your worries as far as that last goes," Katara tried, but before she was even done saying it, the girl was shaking her head.

"And then you could turn out to be Option Two, and freeze us to death, or drown us," she said. "No thanks."

"Well, you're not really giving us a lot of other choices," Sokka said from the other side of the pole, sounding exasperated.

The girl grinned, and then, incongruously, pulled out a fan from her sash, and flared it open—no, not incongruously, Katara realized, seeing the way the outer spokes of the fan glinted. It was iron, with bladed tips—a weapon. "I'm sorry," the girl said, "but I can't put my people in danger just because being tied to a pole is uncomfortable for you."

"Oh, for—look, she's the Avatar, okay?" Sokka said. "Now untie us already."

"Sokka!" Katara hissed, but it was too late—the girl's eyes had already gone wide with sudden interest.

"She's only doing this to us because she thinks we might be Fire Nation," Sokka said, in a tone that Katara knew meant he was rolling his eyes. "She's not going to turn around and sell us out to them."

"A bit of a leap," the girl said, "but true, in this case." She focused her gaze on Katara. "Are you?"

Katara thought about saying she still wasn't sure, but it wouldn't have been accurate; she still didn't feel like the Avatar, but she knew that she was anyway. "Yes," she said.

The girl narrowed her eyes. "Prove it," she said.

"Yeah, that's ... maybe not a great idea," Sokka said.

The girl fluttered her iron fan dismissively. "I don't need a natural disaster," she said. "Just a little proof. You can't be more than sixteen, but it's been a hundred years since anybody saw the Avatar, and he was an Airbender. What happened?"

Katara darted a glance at Aang, who was standing there with his face shuttered; there was no way for the girl to hear him, but it felt strange, and even cruel, to tell such a painful story herself when he was right there. "How about this," she said instead. "You look just like Avatar Kyoshi; she painted her face like that, and the fan—she fought with fans just like that one, too. She—" Katara broke off, startled. There was an end to that sentence, and sentences that came after it, all lined up in Katara's head; nothing she had ever learned before, or heard from anyone, but she knew they were true. "She made this island. I mean, everybody knows that, she made all the islands in the south; but this was where it started, wasn't it? She was here."

It was like being in the Air Temple again, that quick flash of vision back into the way things had been—suddenly Katara was looking at the village with someone else's eyes, and it wasn't just a village on an island she had happened across, it was hers, her house on the top left next to the old hall, her sister across the way and her brother to the right, her childhood friend two more houses down, her daughter playing in the dust—

"She—she lived here," Katara heard herself say, and suddenly she was back, looking the girl in the face again next to a village of strangers. "This was her home, and they would never have given in; Chin would have razed it to the ground, killed them all—definitely Matasuri, and even Koko—"

The girl had been giving her an odd look, and now her eyes went suddenly wide again. "What?"

My daughter, Katara almost said, and caught herself only just in time. "Her daughter—Kyoshi's. And her husband."

"That wasn't in any of the stories Gran-Gran told us," Sokka said, almost accusingly, from the other side of the pole. "How do you know that?"

Katara kept her eyes on the girl, and let her mouth quirk up a little. "I'm the Avatar," she said.

"So you are," the girl agreed, a tinge of awe in her face, and sliced the ropes with a swing of her fan.


*


The girl's name turned out to be Suki, and the village's, Manamota; and by the time Katara and Sokka had shaken the ropes away, introduced themselves, and dusted themselves off, several dozen people had come out of their houses, and murmurs—that included the word "Avatar"—were rippling through the crowd.

"This is my second-in-command, Mikari," Suki said, indicating a girl to her left with a green headdress bound into her black hair; "and this," she continued, turning and raising her voice for the crowd, "is the Avatar herself."

The murmurs turned into outright exclamations, and Katara felt herself flush. Yes, she was the Avatar; but so far, she hadn't done anything but break an ice floe and sink a ship, which didn't seem like a deserving foundation for awe.

"Ayuko, quick, go and get Oyaji—" Suki told another girl, but before she'd even finished saying it, Ayuko had turned to glance over her shoulder.

"I think he's already noticed," she said wryly.

And, sure enough, the crowd was parting for an older man with a fine fur cloak draped over his shoulders. "Chief Oyaji," Suki said, and bowed her head for a moment.

"When you left this morning because a boat had been sighted coming in, I didn't expect you to come back with the Avatar," Oyaji said, and laughed, deep and booming. "And—who are you?"

"Oh, nobody," Sokka said, "just her brother."

Oyaji smiled. "Well, any companion of the Avatar is welcome here. Come," and he began to usher them through the crowd and up the hill, toward the village hall. "Kyoshi's house has been kept, untouched, since the day of her death; you may stay there," he said, and Katara turned her head to glance unthinkingly at the house she knew had been Kyoshi's.

When she looked back, Oyaji was smiling at her. "I see you remember it, Avatar," he said.


*


"That's seriously kind of spooky," Sokka told her, when they had gone inside and she led him back to the sleeping room without even thinking about it.

She glared at him.

"But helpful," he added quickly, lifting his hands defensively.

Suki and Mikari walked down to the bay shore with them to retrieve the canoe—no point to keeping their things in the bushes when they were staying for a few days, and had a house to themselves to do it in.

"So are you all girls?" Katara asked, on the way down. "I mean, all of you—you know, your group, with the paint and the fans—"

"The Warriors of Kyoshi," Suki supplied. "There are orders of us on all of the islands Kyoshi split from the mainland, but this one is the oldest. This is called Kyoshi Island, because she lived here; and our village has the only order on the island. And yes, all Warriors of Kyoshi are women."

"But you're all sort of ... young, aren't you?" Katara said—awkwardly, but she was curious and there didn't seem to be a better way to ask. "I mean, not that I mind, obviously."

"There was a Fire Nation raid when I was little," Suki said a little flatly, and Katara immediately wished she had kept her mouth shut; no explanation that started that way ever ended well. And, indeed, Suki's next words made Katara flinch: "My father was killed, and my mother almost was; and now I'm the oldest Warrior of Kyoshi on the island."

Katara glanced at her; Suki was older than she was, but not by much, and Mikari might even have been a little younger. "I'm sorry," she said, and tried not to grimace at the inadequacy of it. She felt almost as stupid saying it to Suki as she had saying it to Aang, and glanced over at him to find him looking back with a sympathetic little smile, obviously remembering the same moment.

Suki didn't seem bothered by it, though; she said, "Thank you," and dipped her head a little in acknowledgement. "It was a long time ago—it's a bad memory, but that's all it is, now," she added, as though Katara were the one who deserved comforting.

It took them only a minute to find the canoe and clear the camouflaging branches off of it; they were checking it over to make sure that everything was still in place when Sokka suddenly frowned. "Wait a minute—so we got jumped by a bunch of girls?" he said.

"Thoughtfully put, Sokka," Katara muttered, mostly to herself, and leaned over to make sure her parka had been tucked away securely before she lifted her end of the canoe.

"Yup," Suki said cheerfully, and took the other end before Sokka could, beaming at him as she lifted her half of the canoe one-handed. "I hit you on the head myself."




Sokka was still grumbling under his breath about girls and fans and unfair advantages the next morning, even after a delicious feast in the common hall, a truly impressive selection of sweet-cakes for dessert, and a good night's sleep.

"I've beaten you up before, you know," Katara told him over their breakfast—a few leftover sweet-cakes. Aang couldn't eat, but he'd come with them anyway, and was sitting in the middle of the table, idly dipping his fingers through the wooden surface.

"Well, yeah, but I've always gotten the chance to beat you up back," he said. "Besides, you're not a girl, you're my sister. You don't count."

Aang laughed; Katara sighed, and licked a few lingering crumbs off her fingers. "So go find her and ask if you can beat her up to make yourself feel better, then," she said.


*


The training hall of the Warriors of Kyoshi was off behind the village hall, a clean little building with walls of sliding paneling—they were open, today, to let in the pleasant spring air.

Suki and another girl—not Mikari or Ayuko, but Katara did recognize her from the day before—were sparring, fans flaring and clacking against each other; but they slowed to a stop when Katara and Sokka approached.

"This is going to be good," Aang said.

Katara couldn't reply in front of everybody without looking crazy; but she figured she could get away with shooting a small smile at empty air, and did.

"Sorry about yesterday," the girl who wasn't Suki blurted out, shifting her weight anxiously. "We didn't know you were the Avatar."

"Oh, it's fine, don't worry," Katara said, trying to be reassuring. "You wouldn't happen to have a bowl in here, would you?"

"What for?" Sokka said.

"Holding bending water in," she told him. "Might as well get some practice in while you're busy embarrassing yourself."

"Oh, ha ha, that's just hilarious—"

"Embarrassing yourself?" Suki said brightly. "Can I watch?"

"Oh, better than that," Katara said, very dry. Mikari came up with a bowl for her; she took it with a nod of thanks, and settled down in the corner of the room. She'd meant it, about the practice, but she suspected she might end up just sitting there and watching.

"I'm sorry about yesterday, too, if that's why you're here," Suki started off, clearly trying to be diplomatic. "I didn't mean to hurt you—"

"Hurt me?" Sokka said. "You didn't hurt me—"

"Oh, of course not," Suki said, sardonic, "my mistake; I must have been fooled by how you fell unconscious," and she gave Sokka a look of mock apology, diplomacy pushed away by Sokka's annoyance.

"You ambushed us, you had the element of surprise," Sokka snapped.

"All right," Suki said agreeably, and snapped the fan she was holding shut. "You aren't surprised now, right?"

"No!"

She smiled. "So hit me," she said.

"Oh, boy," Aang murmured, from his seat next to Katara.

"Yeah," Katara whispered, and abandoned any pretense of bending, propping her elbows on her knees and her face on her hands, and settling in to watch.

The first punch, Katara could tell Sokka hadn't put much effort into, and Suki could probably tell, too. She put only a little more effort into blocking it, snapping her closed fan against Sokka's shoulder so that the blow went wide.

Sokka staggered back a little, thrown off by the unexpected miss and the impact of the fan, and then pulled his arm back, rolling the struck shoulder a few times. "Lucky," he said, half accusing and half as though to reassure himself.

Suki smiled.

Sokka took a second to arrange himself into the beginnings of an actual stance, and then threw a kick, a little more carefully—but Suki had begun to duck almost the moment his foot had left the floor, and bent low to plant her shoulder against his other leg, shoving him back and using her arm to knock his leg out from under him in a single motion.

Sokka landed hard, and Katara couldn't help but wince a little, even as Aang cheered next to her; but, to his credit, he came up right away with another punch. The first one landed on Suki's shoulder—but the second, Suki let fly past her, and Sokka's momentum carried him right onto the knee she lifted into his stomach.


*


Katara shoved yet another spiky branch out of her way, and wished for the tenth time that she were intangible, too.

"Here, he's right this way!" Aang called from ahead of her, and sped through another bramble bush without so much as slowing down.

"Yeah, thanks," Katara muttered.

Fortunately, the alternate route she found was relatively quick, and a moment later she saw Sokka sitting with his arms around his knees, with Aang hovering, anxious and glowy, a few inches in front of his face.

"What is wrong with you?" Katara demanded. Sokka had gone haring off into the trees behind the training hall as soon as Suki had finished with him, ignoring the hand up that Suki had offered after the last time she'd knocked him down. Katara had followed him readily, but she'd gotten hit in the face with branches, stabbed in the foot with rocks, and scratched everywhere in between with thorns; now that she'd finally caught up to him, she wasn't in an especially understanding mood. Forests were pretty from the outside, but Katara was finding that she didn't much care for walking through them without a path.

Sokka didn't say anything, though—only hunched his shoulders a little higher.

Katara looked at him, and then sighed, and picked her way forward until she could sink down next to him. "Aang's here, by the way," she said.

Sokka shrugged one shoulder.

"You remember everybody who went off with Father—Aunt Pasira, and Tanna, and everyone else. You didn't get weird about that."

"That was different," Sokka insisted. "They were—"

"Warriors?" Katara filled in. "So is Suki." She paused for a moment, but Sokka had gone quiet again.

"Are you sure that's really what he's upset about?" Aang said uncertainly. Katara glanced at him, and he shrugged. "I mean, maybe it's the girl thing, a little; but when you beat him up, it was just practice. This could have been real, if they'd been Fire Nation, and he couldn't do anything about it."

Katara remembered the way Sokka had gone charging out at the soldiers the day she'd broken the iceberg, the way he always turned serious when it came to their village's defense, and realized Aang might well have a point. "She beat me up, too," she said to Sokka after a moment, tingeing her voice with chagrin. "And I'm the Avatar."

Sokka snorted a little; it came out sounding sort of dismissive, but when Katara looked at him, he was smiling. It was squished down into one corner of his mouth, like he didn't really want it to be there, but it was definitely a smile. "Yeah, I suppose she did," he agreed grudgingly.

"Actually, it must have been one of the others," Katara said, "since she hit you."

"Yeah, lucky me; the whack that soldier gave me just barely scabbed over, and now I have a whole new lump," Sokka said, throwing up his hands. But he laughed after, so Katara knew he was all right.




Suki liked to get up early, especially in the spring and summer; it was cool and relatively quiet, even once the birds woke up, but still usually light enough to practice without having to worry about stabbing herself in the arm by mistake.

So she was dressed and painted, and had been in the training hall for a couple of hours already when somebody slid one of the wall panels open.



She turned and raised her fans reflexively before she realized it was the Avatar's brother, and quickly lowered them again; she didn't want to fight with him, not if it was just going to make him angry when she won.

But he didn't charge at her, or start throwing punches; or crack a joke, which Suki had figured was the other most likely option. He looked oddly serious—serious, but not upset, and when she raised her eyebrows inquisitively, he went down on his knees on the floor, palms to his thighs, and bowed his head a little. "I apologize for my behavior yesterday," he said quietly, "and I would be honored if you would teach me."

Suki stared at him, startled. The best possibility she'd been imagining was that he would pretend nothing had happened and leave her alone; this was way beyond her expectations. "We don't usually teach boys," she said after a long moment, testing.

"Please consider making an exception," he said, head still bowed, and then broke the formal pose to peek up at her. "Besides, after yesterday, I'm already sort of your student, right?"

She supposed he had a point. "We are the Warriors of Kyoshi—if you want to train with us, you'll have to follow the traditions passed down to us from Kyoshi."

"Of course," Sokka agreed immediately.

Suki grinned.


*


The clothes went on first; Suki figured the risk of getting paint on them was higher with Sokka trying to get them on after than it was with her applying the paint while they were already on. She'd been putting her own war-paint on for years; she hadn't had to worry about accidental drips since she was twelve.

Sokka looked so disgruntled, when they had finally gotten him into the only battle dress that would fit him, that Suki almost laughed. "You're the only boy who's ever had the honor of wearing Kyoshi Warrior dress, you know," she said, pushing on his shoulders until he sat. "You should consider it a privilege."

He only scowled in reply, but Suki thought perhaps he looked less peeved after that.

They had the paints in the training hall, along with the oil undercoat that went underneath and the powder that went over top. Suki knelt, to get the right angle, and then tipped Sokka's chin up with the side of her finger. He swallowed, right then, and her knuckles brushed the skin of his throat, the feeling oddly distracting; she was abruptly glad that she had her own face-paint on, because she could feel a blush rising.

The Avatar came in when she was almost done applying the second dart of red down the side of Sokka's nose. "Looks good," she said, smiling but not mocking. Sokka rolled his eyes without moving his head, but Suki was pretty sure he was secretly pleased.


*


Suki shook her head. "You have the form almost right, but you need to be faster. And plant your foot more evenly, too—putting all your weight to the outside like that is part of what's slowing you down."

Sokka got up and went back into stance, as uncomplaining now as he had been upset the day before; and Suki felt suddenly proud of him. Which was completely irrational, she hadn't even been teaching him for a full day yet, but she couldn't help it.

She knocked him down again, of course; she'd been fighting with iron fans since she was eight. But this time his foot landed well, and the corner of one fan tore Suki's sleeve before he tumbled to the floor.

"Much better," she said, showing him the tear, and then offered him a hand up. "Again."

"You're worse than my mother," he said, almost admiringly, and took it.

The Avatar came in again to tell them there was supper ready; Suki was startled to realize that it had gotten dark, and that at some point, someone had come in and lit the hall lamps without either of them noticing.

"You guys didn't even break for lunch," the Avatar said. "Having too much fun getting beat up, huh?" she added, and laughed when Sokka elbowed her.

"He's doing much better now," Suki said, magnanimous. "A year and change, and he'll be about where I was when I was thirteen."

"... I think that was meant to be a compliment," Sokka said, "so I'm going to say thank you."

"Good idea," the Avatar said, smiling, and then paused, like she'd just thought of something but wasn't sure how to go about saying it.

"What?" Suki prodded, after a moment of silence had gone by.

"Well, you could—you could keep teaching him," the Avatar said—almost timidly, except that was ridiculous, she was the Avatar. "If you came with us."

Suki stared at her, so startled that she stopped walking without entirely intending it. It had been astonishing enough to have the Avatar reappear, after a hundred-year absence, on the shore of her island; to be asked to actually accompany her was more than Suki had ever even daydreamed about. "I—well, I," she stumbled, and then took a breath and made herself get a grip. "Of course, I'm honored to be asked, Avatar—I don't—"

The Avatar laughed. "We'll be here for a couple more days, at least," she said, and reached up to squeeze Suki's shoulder. "There's no hurry; just think about it. And call me Katara, will you?"


*


It took some work to get any proper amount of water back to the house, so Suki had some time to think without much interruption, hauling buckets back and forth from the brook until she had enough to wash her face, and a little extra for the next morning. Mother was cooking, and humming to herself; she had shot Suki a smile the first time she came in the door, but had said nothing.

Of course, why would she, Suki reminded herself, when she had no idea anything interesting had happened today.

She had all her arguments for and against sorted out by the time the basin in the house was full, and was nearly done with her face by the time Mother stopped humming and said, "Had a good day?"

Suki washed the last smears of paint from her chin, and sat back. "The Avatar asked me to go with her."

"Oh," Mother said, startled, and nearly dropped the bowl of rice she was carrying to their low dining table, catching it against her waist at the last second. "Goodness. What did you say?"

"I said I'd be honored, but—well, she gave me some time to think about it," Suki said.

Mother set down the rice, the better to give her an annoyingly knowing look. "You want to go, don't you?"

"Well, of course I'm tempted," Suki said, because she really was. "It would be—extraordinary, to go with her; to see all the things she's going to see, to fight alongside her. But I can't."

"You can't," Mother repeated, in a leading sort of way.

"I have duties, I have responsibilities," Suki said; it came out a little bit more exasperated than she had intended, but she felt silly explaining—surely Mother knew this already. "I'm head of the order, I can't just leave—"

"Mikari's older now than you were when you took charge," Mother pointed out gently. "Granted, the circumstances are a little less dire; but you won't be leaving the Warriors in incompetent hands."

"Well, no—no, of course, Mikari's more than capable," Suki said. She did feel something of a pang when she thought about handing over the First's headdress to Mikari; but she knew herself well enough to be able to tell that that was about losing a place that had been hers for years, not being afraid that Mikari couldn't handle the position.

"And the Avatar—the Avatar's going to stop the war; she's going to save the world. How better can you serve the Warriors, and the rest of us, than by helping her?" Mother shook her head a little. "There is no higher duty than that."

Suki had to admit that this was true; and the dissolution of her reasoning under the assault of Mother's careful logic set off a spike of something a bit like panic in her. "But what about you?" she blurted.

"Oh, Suki," Mother said, fond, and curved her hand over Suki's hair. "I'm glad you worry for me; and if you go, of course I'll miss you. But I'll manage—I did when you were a little girl, and I will again." She gave Suki a look, half stern and half understanding. "If you decide to stay, don't make me the reason."

Suki gazed back at her, and was overwhelmed suddenly with fondness, enough that she had to pinch her eyes shut for a second to keep from bursting into tears or sobbing like a baby or something else ridiculous. "All right," she said, when her throat loosened.

Mother raised her eyebrows inquiringly. "Is that 'all right' as in 'all right, I've perceived your wisdom and I'm going to think about it', or 'all right' as in 'all right, I've perceived your wisdom and I'm going'?"

"All right, I'm going," Suki said, "no wisdom involved," and laughed when Mother narrowed her eyes.


***


Zuko hated leaving his ship—not so much because he felt proprietary over as because it was always so uncomfortable. They had a selection of green-dyed things for when they had to travel in the Earth Kingdoms; it made his face hot with shame to put them on, imagining what his father would say to see him dressing up as an Earth Kingdom peasant—and what Azula would say didn't even bear thinking about.

"Oh, tea," Uncle Iroh said, gazing unabashedly at the tea shop they were passing. "I'll be back later, my love," he told it; "fish first, or the cooks will cry."

Zuko rolled his eyes. "Hurry up, Uncle."

"It never hurt anyone to cultivate a healthy appreciation for tea, you know," Uncle Iroh told him in a patient tone, and then paused in front of a fish vendor's cart. "Ah, look—Zhen and Lao would accept some of these, don't you think?"

"They're fresh from this afternoon's catch," the vendor said coaxingly. "And good timing, too; there won't be any fishing tomorrow."

"No?" Uncle Iroh said absently, examining one of the larger fish. "Why not?"

"Why, everybody'll be off to see the Avatar," the vendor said cheerily.

Zuko had been letting his mind wander, deeply uninterested by the process of buying fish for the cooks; but at this, he snapped back to attention. "The Avatar? The Avatar's on this island?" He fixed the fish vendor with an intense glare. "Where?" he demanded.

The vendor didn't have time to do more than blink at him, startled, before Uncle Iroh suddenly stepped between them—planting one heel squarely on Zuko's toes as he did. "You must forgive my nephew," he said to the vendor cheerily. "He has always admired the Avatar; to have a chance to see the Avatar in person thrills him beyond the telling of it—and beyond the bounds of politeness, unfortunately."

The vendor laughed; Zuko very carefully did not pound her head in. "Ah, of course, of course," she said. "Well, the word is that the Avatar has come to the village of Manamota—on the other side of the island, near the Great Bay? We're told she'll be there for at least a few more days; plenty of time to make the trip." Her expression was suddenly touched with a tinge of awe that made Zuko want to sneer. "Imagine it—to see the Avatar with our own eyes, after a hundred years."

"A wonder indeed," Uncle Iroh said, oddly quiet, and then dipped his head. "The thirty largest of these, then, and the best of luck on your journey," and he motioned to the servants who had come with them from the ship to start gathering up the fish.




A few people had come into Manamota the night before, staying in the village hall and watching Katara with huge eyes; but Katara hadn't thought much of it, assuming they were friends or relatives of some of the villagers who happened to be passing through. The next morning, though, there were dozens more, gathered in the cleared space that held the post Katara and Sokka had been tied to, and when Katara stepped out of the village hall after eating breakfast, they all went quiet and watched her expectantly.

"What is going on?" Katara muttered—mostly to herself, since Sokka was still busy stuffing his face in the hall, but she knew Aang could hear her.

Aang shrugged, and his mouth was halfway open before Suki said, "They're here to see the Avatar," and walked right through him.

It took a moment for Suki's words to register, partly because Aang was making a really hilarious face, and partly because Suki wasn't alone; there was a woman walking next to her, kind-faced and looking faintly amused, and one of her sleeves was empty.

"This is my mother," Suki said, and Katara remembered what she had said the day they'd arrived: my father was killed, and my mother almost was. If she had thought to doubt it, now she knew better. She had only ever seen one other person lose a limb; Aunt Maziya had succumbed to infection so completely that the Fire Nation raiders might as well have stabbed her, but it had taken several highly unpleasant days for her to die.

"Izumi," the woman said, and bowed. "It is an honor, Avatar."

"Oh—no, really, just call me Katara," Katara said awkwardly. "And—wait, really? All those people—" She turned to look down the hill at the crowd again, and felt her face start to flush.

Suki laughed unhelpfully. "Sometimes you're pretty bad at remembering how important you are," she said. "Imagine—if the Avatar had shown up in your village after a hundred years, how would you feel?"

"Well, actually, the Avatar did show up in our village after a hundred years, if you think about it," Sokka said. "But point taken."

Katara knew what Suki meant. She'd have been stuck somewhere between awestruck and delighted, and she'd probably have followed the Avatar around all day just imagining the possibilities—the Fire Lord, dead; the war, ended; her father and uncles and aunts and friends, all home at last. But despite everything that had happened—her dreams, and Aang showing up, and that funny half-vision that had shown her Manamota through Kyoshi's eyes—some part of Katara still didn't feel like the Avatar. And she really wasn't yet, in a certain sense; she hadn't even mastered Waterbending, let alone the other elements. It felt almost like lying, to present herself to this crowd like she could already save them.

"They only want to see you," Izumi said quietly; when Katara turned to look at her, her expression was assessing, but not unsympathetic. "To know that you exist, that their hopes are no longer unfounded."

But they are unfounded, Katara wanted to say, if those people are expecting a fifteen-year-old who can't even Waterbend properly to end the Hundred-Year War. Except it wasn't really true: they weren't expecting her to do it, they were expecting the person she was trying to become to do it; and the person she was trying to become would be able to.

She took a deep breath; and then Sokka reached out and gripped her shoulder. "Come on," he said. "Time to meet your adoring fans."


*


Katara had touched at least fifty heads, and it was getting hard to keep the continuous murmur of "An honor, Avatar" from blurring into a meaningless buzz. She was pretty sure there were at least twice as many people now as there had been when she'd started going through the crowd, and more were trickling in every few minutes.

"By the time this is over, you're going to be best friends with half the island," Sokka muttered under his breath, and then went still so suddenly that Katara turned toward him with a frown.

"What—" she got out, and then she saw it, too: a great dark smear of smoke rising in the east, the kind that had always meant it was time to put on battle-paint and get on the wall, at home. The kind that came from Fire Nation warships.

"The ship," Sokka said, suddenly breathless, "that last ship, the one we froze—it must have followed us here."

"The one I froze," Katara corrected automatically, and then the first rush of fear passed, and her brain started working again. "We have to get these people out of here, or they're all going to get killed."

The nearest clump of people had all turned and seen the smoke, and there was a growing murmur rising, sharp with an undertone of panic. "Suki," Sokka said; "where's Suki—the Warriors, they can help us move everyone out—", and then the first red-armored figure clanked out from beneath the trees.


***


Suki had gone back to the training hall to practice—that was why she had suited up in the first place. Much as she would have loved to watch Katara stumble through her first real attempt to act like the Avatar, she only had a few more days left with her girls, and she hadn't even told Mikari she was leaving yet.

Besides, she had put all her paint on; it would be a shame to let that go to waste.

She let herself get lost temporarily in the pure pleasure of the exercise. Fighting had always been one of her favorite things to do, mostly because it was just so viscerally enjoyable to know she had the training and the strength to do just about anything she asked of herself.

But eventually it was time to take Mikari aside, and start untying the thongs that held the First Warrior's headdress in place.

"What are you doing?" Mikari said, slow and calm, like she thought Suki might have gone mad.

"The Avatar asked me to go with her, and I—well, I haven't told her yet, but I'm going to." Suki held out the headdress, ignoring the little twinge she felt at giving it up. "I can't be First when I'm not even here."

"Oh, yes you can," Mikari said, backing away and shaking her head. "Keep it, Suki. I'll run the patrols and order everybody around when you're gone, but that's it. You're the First now, and you will be when you get back; you might as well be for all the time in between, too."

"Mikari," Suki said, ready to argue; but that was as far as she could get before the screaming started.


*


At first glance, it was almost impossible to tell what was happening; it could have been pirates, or bandits from the inner hills, or even signs of a tsunami about to come in to the bay. But after a moment Suki caught a glimpse of sunlight on red metal, especially noticeable when the crowd was mostly robed in blue.

She rushed the closest Fire Nation soldier with both fans out and a snarl on her face that probably looked stupid, taking advantage of a temporary gap between clumps of fleeing people to catch him by surprise. Fire Nation armor was good, but not perfect; she jabbed a fan into the gap by his armpit, which probably cracked a couple of ribs, and then ducked down and swiped the other into the back of his knee, knocking him to the ground before he'd even recovered enough to take a swing at her. When he was down, she smashed a fan into his other side, and definitely broke something; he probably wouldn't die, but he wasn't going to feel like getting up for a while, either.

The next soldier was a woman, and Suki didn't get the chance to ambush her, so it took a little bit longer to take her down, and there were actual blows exchanged. Eventually, though, Suki managed to strike her wrist hard enough to make her drop her sword with a curse, and it was all over after that; Suki was just turning to pick out a good number three when she realized the village was on fire.

Sokka wasn't far away from the closest of the two burning houses, and Suki saw with a brief glow of pride that he had a pair of fans in his hands and had just given a resounding thwack to the knee of a young Fire Nation soldier with a wide scar over one eye. Katara was a few steps away, trying to hold off a Firebender with bending water that was rapidly steaming away in the relentless heat. Sokka shouted something Suki couldn't hear, and then Ayuko came around the house and rushed the bender from behind, leaving a long slash from her fan tips along part of his back.

It was fast, so fast Suki couldn't do a thing about it: the Firebender whirled around and sent a whip of flame curling around Ayuko, who raised her fans to shield her eyes and couldn't do anything but scream when the fire flared along her shoulder and neck.

Suki cursed and started running toward her, and almost as quickly skidded to a halt: Sokka was backing away, darting around the Firebender to yank a sobbing Ayuko along with him, and Katara's eyes were glowing blue-white, ridiculously bright even under the sunshine and next to the blazing fire.

"What is she—" Suki got out, as Sokka came sprinting toward her, and then he grabbed her elbow and started pulling her along, too.

"Come on, come on," he was saying, "she's doing her thing, all we have to do is get out of the way," and then he tugged both of them down behind an untouched house on the other side of the village center.

Ayuko had gotten past the initial shock of pain, and her sobs had turned into the slow breaths that would help her keep calm until her wounds could be taken care of. That meant it wasn't serious enough for her to need help right away; so Suki didn't feel guilty about peering back around the corner instead.

Katara wasn't even touching the ground anymore, and there was a localized curl of wind not quite tight enough to be called a globe that was lifting her long braid up behind her; her eyes were still blanked out with blue-white light. The fire had spread to another two houses, and Katara spread out her arms as though to catch the roaring flames up in her hands. Then she suddenly clenched her hands into fists, and the blaze—the entire five-house inferno—was extinguished all at once, with an almost anticlimactic hiss.

The Firebender in front of her was smart enough to be backing away, but not smart enough to run; he drew back an arm, instead, and punched a flame at Katara.

Or he tried, at least—she pulled the same trick on the fire blooming around his fist that she had on the houses, and it fizzled out before he even finished the move. Then she started a move of her own, something graceful and long-lined that had a general feel of pull to it.

For a moment after, nothing happened, and the Firebender stepped forward with renewed confidence on his face. But then the trees began to rustle—the trees between Katara and the bay, Suki realized suddenly, and a moment later a huge stream of water came gushing through the leaves.

It wasn't just a random flood; it was contained, caught into a long whiplike shape by the continued movements of Katara's hands, and it curled around the Firebender and knocked his arms out of form.

"She can't stop us all!" shouted the young soldier with the eye-scar, with a look of such avaricious singlemindedness on his face that Suki grimaced. "Get her!"

But he had barely taken a step in Katara's direction when there was a whole series of those rustling splashes, and more water burst through the trees, loops and loops of it. It all merged with the whip Katara was already bending, and with a whirl of her arms, the water—at least a pond's worth, now—curled up into the air behind her. She was still floating, her eyes still glowing, and that close little wind was still whipping her hair and clothes around her; with the huge blade of water curving over her head and her arms poised, ready to drive it forward, she looked distinctly intimidating.

Suki was used to thinking of Katara as good-natured, friendly, maybe a little awkward under all her responsibility; but looking at her now, Suki felt herself shiver. She had always had faith that the Avatar would be able to end the war, but it was somehow different to know that this girl right in front of her was the one who could do it.

There was a still moment, and then Katara brought her arms down, curling them around each other in a motion reminiscent of a cyclone.

"Oh boy," Suki said, and couldn't resist the urge to clap her hands together gleefully.


*


The Fire Nation soldiers fled before the spinning wall of water that Katara sent whirling back toward the bay—and Suki couldn't blame them for it, it was really the only sensible thing to do.

"Go," Ayuko said.

Suki turned to look at her. "Are you sure?" she said.

"It's just my neck, it's not that bad," Ayuko said—a blatant lie, Suki could see how nasty the blistering was; but Ayuko saw her looking, and glared. "It's not good, but it's not like I can't walk myself to the healer's. You should go after her."

Suki wavered, and then gave in. "All right. If—if we don't come back—no, don't give me that look, I don't mean it like that. If we end up leaving now, tell my mother—" She paused, mind suddenly full of half-formed messages. "Tell her I'm sorry to go without saying goodbye," Suki decided at last. "She knows everything else."




The bay wasn't far, and Suki and Sokka got to the shore not long after the soldiers—quickly enough that quite a few of them were still boarding their ship, arms raised defensively against the water Katara sent whipping around them.

The Avatar was certainly thorough; she pulled the bay up after the ship like she was shaking out a rug, and the ship barely made it out into the open ocean in time to avoid the worst of the wave. Once the ship was out of sight, though, Katara went down like a sack of potatoes, and Suki was only just quick enough to keep her head from hitting the rock it had been headed for.

"Well," Suki said, staring down at Katara's placid face where it rested against her forearm. "Do that a lot, does she?"

"She is starting to make sort of a habit out of it," Sokka admitted. "Better not push our luck, though; we should get out of here before that ship comes back."

Suki glanced involuntarily at the path that led back home. "But—if they attack the village again—"

She turned to look at Sokka only to see that he was regarding her with a sort of narrow-eyed, assessing expression. "Look, there's a couple things I should probably tell you," he said. "This isn't the first time we've seen this ship—you saw the guy with the scar over his eye, right? It's pretty distinctive, I remember him from last time. He attacked us when we first started sailing north, and Katara froze his ship in the ice so that we could get away. But he's obviously still following us." He paused and gave the far side of the bay a long stare. "Somehow I'm pretty sure he'll be watching for us, and he's not going to bother with Manamota if he knows we've left."

"Good," Suki said decisively; that was a pretty big weight off her mind. "You said a couple of things—what's the other one?"

Sokka grimaced. "Well, there's—there's somebody that we, uh, aren't supposed to leave without."

"Then let's go get—whoever it is," Suki said, quite reasonably. Katara was starting to stir a little, which was good, because she was also starting to get a bit heavy.

"I—can't tell where he is," Sokka said, which made no sense at all, but then Katara made a face and pressed the heel of one hand against her temple, and Suki decided to let it go for the moment.

"It happened again, didn't it," she murmured; Suki nodded, even though it hadn't sounded at all like a question. Katara opened her eyes, peering up at Suki and then flicking over to Sokka, and then, oddly, over to the blank air on Suki's other side. "Are we on the water already, or is that just me?"

"... I think it's just you," Sokka said. "If you're going to throw up, aim away from me, okay?"

"No, no, I'm okay," Katara insisted, and struggled up to a sitting position. "Just a little dizzy."

"Can you bend?" Suki asked, because if she couldn't, that was going to seriously lower their odds of escaping from a steamship—but Katara stretched out a hand and pulled a small ripple of water into a brief globe before letting it splash back into the bay.

"I'm not going to do it all night or anything," she said, "but I'll manage for a while."

Together, they pulled the canoe out from the underbrush where it had been stowed. Suki paused for a moment before she got in. She could swim quite well, but she'd never really been on a boat before; her father had been a farmer, not a fisherman, and even the fishing boats hardly ever left the bay.

"Come on," Sokka said, already settled in the bow, and waved her in.

Suki stepped off the island and into the boat, keeping a hand out to help the Avatar climb in behind her, and wondered how her life had gotten so absurd so quickly.


***


Zuko paced back and forth in the bridge, so angry his hands were starting to smoke. So close—so close. The complexity of the trick the world had played on him almost defied belief: that one idiot Waterbender, the key to his desperate effort to please his father in the Avatar's persistent absence, had turned out to be the Avatar, and this truth had been revealed to him just in time for his troops to flee back to the ship before the Avatar could kill them all. He was still empty-handed, still chasing the same bender; but now he truly understood just how important it was to catch her. He wished for the dozenth time that they had all five boilers running—it was the worst possible time to be stuck limping along on just two.

Uncle Iroh was there, too, with his habitual tea, doing that thing where he conspicuously said nothing and just watched Zuko pace over the top of his cup, eyes knowing. Zuko hated it when he did that.

"A complete waste of time," Zuko spat, after he could no longer take the eyes.

"I wouldn't say that," Uncle Iroh said calmly, contrary as always. "We now know a great deal more than we did."

"Oh, yes, a great deal more about the Avatar who escaped us," Zuko ground out, throwing his hands in the air with small puffs of flame.

"Do not underestimate the power of knowledge, Prince Zuko," Uncle Iroh said maddeningly. "The previous Avatar must have died; we no longer search for an old man with Airbender tattoos, we merely follow the Waterbender we were already tracking. A much simpler task! I would think you would be pleased."

"Pleased? Pleased, that she evaded us again," Zuko shouted. "Yes, of course, I'm overjoyed."

Uncle Iroh gave him a skeptical look. "I would not have guessed that," he said.

Zuko had to stop pacing for a minute, so that he could concentrate fully on resisting the urge to claw his own eyes out. He heard the rustling sound of clothes shifting, and the soft footfalls, so it didn't catch him by surprise when Uncle Iroh's hand landed on his shoulder.

"Always so hard on yourself," Uncle Iroh said, and it sounded oddly sad to Zuko. "Before, we did not know; we were not prepared, and she escaped. Now, we know, and we will be prepared. The power of knowledge, nephew."

Zuko sighed, and pressed his hands against the wall; his palms were cooling now, enough that he could feel the chill of the metal. "Yes, Uncle. Next time, she won't get away," he said, and hoped it was true.

Chapter Text

They sped out of the bay like they were flying, and the steamship, which had nearly vanished around the island in the hurry to get away from Katara's cyclone, was nowhere near catching up; it had fallen back to the far horizon by the time the sun set. But the Avatar State had taken its toll, and Katara slept until Suki shook her awake the next morning.

It took Katara a moment to pry her eyes open enough to see Suki leaning over her, still in her green battle dress, but with her face wiped clean of paint, and wearing an apologetic expression. "I figured it was best not to try to give you a watch last night," she said, sympathetic, "but you've been sleeping for a pretty long time, and—well, the ship's catching up again. The current's been pretty good so far, but us paddling just isn't going to cut it."

Katara felt wretched, groggy and cramped; there was enough space in the canoe for two people to sleep while one sat watch, but only just barely, and it was pure luck that their fourth passenger was intangible, and didn't need to be inside the canoe to keep up with it. But when she looked over her shoulder, past the stern, she could see that Suki was right: the Fire Nation ship was inching closer, the sky to the southwest smudged with coal smoke.

It felt like she bent for weeks, though it was only a few days; she took short breaks to sleep, but Suki and Sokka paddling just wasn't fast enough to keep them away from the ship. To make matters worse, on the fourth day out from Kyoshi Island, they discovered that Sokka had finished off the last of their food when he'd eaten at the beginning of his watch.

"I was hungry," he protested. "I'm a growing boy, okay? Look, here's me, ready and willing to replace it," and he dug his fishing spear out from where it had settled at the bottom of the canoe.

Suki was sitting in the middle, which was good, because otherwise Katara might have thrown herself across the canoe and strangled him. "Somehow I think we probably shouldn't take the time to stop and fish," Suki said, dry. She had evidently taken over map duties from Sokka while Katara had been sleeping, and now she was peering down at the southern continent, eyes flicking from city to city. "Besides, docking in an Earth Kingdom harbor will keep that ship off our backs for a while—they won't dare follow us in, not when they're all by themselves."

Katara felt like she'd spent the past three days looking over her shoulder, but she couldn't help but look again, and thought for a moment that she might cry just from exhaustion and frustration. She had been bending the canoe forward as fast as she could, and for longer than she had ever bent anything before, and it still wasn't enough; the steamship had always crept just a little bit closer every time she checked, and, true to form, it was closer this time, too.

She turned back around at the touch of Suki's hand on her shoulder, and found Suki giving her a understanding, almost fond look. "Even Avatars get tired," Suki said quietly, and then smiled. "Besides, if you could do everything by yourself, there wouldn't have been any reason to ask me to come along." She glanced down at the map again, and said, "Shinsotsu's our best bet, I think—east," and she pointed off to the right, along the faint thin blur of land in the distance. "We've been following the edge of this peninsula for days; we should be able to get to the city by tonight."

They did get to the harbor soon after nightfall, and a good thing it was, too; the Fire Nation ship kept on pulling steadily closer as the sun sank. The early evening was very clear, and they could see Shinsotsu from miles away. The lighthouse was visible first, as a small spot of light low against the darkening sky, and it probably saved their lives; the ship was undoubtedly within catapult range by then, but didn't attack, evidently trying to avoid catching the attention of Shinsotsu's navy.

The wind picked up as the sky darkened, and it would have been a relief to get inside the arms of the harbor even if the steamship hadn't been following them, just to escape the choppy water.

"Ha-ha," Sokka said, punching a fist into the air.

Katara let her arms drop with a sigh, feeling the water slide out of her grip and, for once, not sorry to let it go. "Yeah, you win. Now start paddling."


*


They decided to avoid the actual docks, partly because none of them knew how to dock a boat; Manamota had not had any docks, Aang had never had to land anything but a sky bison, and the ice shelves near the village were the closest Katara and Sokka had ever come. Katara also figured it couldn't hurt to avoid attention as much as possible: another crowd of people eager to meet the Avatar might give the Fire Nation soldiers following them a chance to sneak into the city.

Shinsotsu and its harbor were surrounded by forests, which was good; Suki steered them off to one side of the docks, and they carried the canoe up over the rocky shore and under the trees.

It didn't occur to Katara that there could be other good reasons to keep a low profile until they packed up and started heading for the city. But barely ten minutes into the walk, Suki, in the front, came to a sudden stop, throwing a hand out to keep Sokka from walking blithely on past. "Quiet," she whispered sharply, and sank down into a crouch, yanking Sokka down beside her. Katara blinked, and then dropped; she hadn't noticed anything amiss, but then she'd just finished thoroughly tiring herself out for four days straight.

Suki led them forward, staying low to the ground the whole way. It must have rained not long ago: the ground was soft, which was a nice stroke of luck. Katara was too exhausted to keep track of where she was putting her feet, but the twigs she kept stepping on just sank into the dirt instead of cracking.

"There," Suki murmured, after another minute or two of stealth, and reached back to pull Katara forward until she was looking through the same gap in the undergrowth that Suki was.

Fire Nation soldiers—there was no mistaking it. A whole battalion, unless Katara was seeing double; for a moment, she was half-ready to cry again, thinking the ship had somehow, impossibly, beaten them here even after those four horrible days, but then logic reasserted itself. The ship had fallen back before they'd gotten anywhere near the harbor. This had to be a whole new set of soldiers.

Sokka was frowning through the branches, looking startled and dismayed; but Suki seemed far less surprised.

"I'd hoped they hadn't gotten this far," she muttered, but she sounded more resigned than anything.

"This far?" Sokka hissed. "How have they gotten anywhere near here? The map—"

"Is old," Suki reminded him gently. "The cities are all in about the right place, but—when did you get that thing, anyway? It's only got the three oldest Fire Nation colonies on it. The front's moved just a bit since then," and Suki lifted a hand to convey the purported smallness of the change with thumb and forefinger, voice gone dry and amused.

Katara glanced at Sokka, who was looking back at her with wide eyes. She'd known, of course, that things had changed since the map had been made—had probably changed even in the relatively few years since Father and the other Southern Water Tribe warriors had sailed away. And she'd known she wasn't going to be able to avoid the war, not when she was the one who was supposed to end it. But she had imagined a few peaceful, studious years learning to be the Avatar first; and, more importantly, a relatively straightforward trip to the places she'd have to go to do it. And now it was becoming abundantly clear that "straightforward" was not going to be the right word for this journey.

They managed to skirt around the battalion successfully, though there was one tense moment when Katara's braid got snagged on a branch; she managed not to shout at the sudden harsh yank, but the jerk of motion caught one soldier's eye, and she had to freeze in place for a long moment, hair still caught, before the soldier decided she'd been imagining things.

"Okay, go," Sokka whispered behind her when he had unhooked her hair from the twig, and they crept past the battalion and out onto the road to Shinsotsu with no further close calls.

"We'll be safe when we get to Shinsotsu," Suki assured them. "The Fire Nation does patrols, reconnaissance, that sort of thing, but they haven't actually captured much territory in this area—at least, not that I've heard."

"... How much do you hear, in Manamota?" Sokka asked, skeptical.

Suki pursed her lips and gave him a flat look. "Enough," she said. "There are Warriors of Kyoshi on all the islands, not just Kyoshi Island; and the fishing trade brings us a fair amount of news, too."

Sokka raised his hands defensively. "Okay, okay, just checking. I mean, no matter how little you know, you know more than we do."

"Very true," Suki said equably, and set off down the road.


*


Shinsotsu was walled, and rather impressively so; it was relatively easy to get good walls when you had Earthbenders around to build them, and the Earth Kingdoms were famous for their walled cities. The most famous was Ba Sing Se—Shinsotsu had nothing like that kind of scale, of course, but it was certainly better than anything Katara had managed to put up by herself with ice at home.

They had to pass a guard to get through the gate, and Katara worried briefly that he would demand a reason why they were entering the city; somehow she suspected that "hiding from a Fire Nation warship that's probably lurking just outside the harbor" wouldn't go over very well. She was trying to compose a decent-sounding lie about visiting relatives that would also explain the obviously Water Tribe clothes when they got to the front of the line, and the guard took one look at Suki and grinned.

"A Warrior of Kyoshi, aren't you?" he said. "Don't often see you people without the paint."

"Well, I'm not planning to kill anybody today," Suki said, tone matter-of-fact.

The guard chuckled. "Name's Ryo," he said. "I've got a second cousin down in Namiya; one of her aunts on the other side of the family is in the order down there."

"Well, the next time you get in touch, give her my greetings from Kyoshi Island," Suki said.

"The island itself," Ryo said, sounding moderately awed.

"The village itself," Suki admitted. "I pass her house every day on the way to the training hall."

Ryo shook his head, evidently temporarily speechless; Katara couldn't help but wonder what he'd do if he knew another Avatar was standing right in front of him. "Well, by all means, go on in," he said at last, motioning toward the open gate. "You and your friends—and enjoy your stay."

"I'm sure we will," Suki said, beaming beatifically.




"Now this is the life," Sokka said happily, cramming another couple hunks of rice into his mouth as soon as the last word was out of the way.

Suki laughed, but had to admit that he was at least a little bit right. Before they'd gotten here, the closest Suki had ever come to a proper city was occasional visits to other islands; Kyoshi Island was ruled by the mayor of Kyotsu, on the eastern side of the island, and that was really more of a town.

But Shinsotsu was a genuine city. The market alone had probably been the size of the whole of Kyotsu, and they had wandered it for hours. Suki now had several new sets of clothes—"Now I'll have something to wear when I'm washing my battle robes," she had said, satisfied, when they'd gotten them, and Sokka had just about choked—and Katara and Sokka each had a few green things, and a few blue things brought up from the islands that lacked the white accents of Water Tribe clothes. Katara had paid for most of it, insisting that Suki wouldn't have to be buying anything at all if they hadn't left in such a rush; luckily for her, the Earth Kingdoms had to constantly adjust to changing currencies between the lot of them, and the proprietors were willing to take her money even though it was old and odd-shaped.

And now they were sitting on a roof in the business district, eating hot rice and soup and watching the sun set over the ocean. There was nobody in the building now, of course—they were close enough to the city wall to be able to look over it, and the businesses that were open after sundown were bound to be closer to the middle of the city.



Katara set her bowl down and sighed, and then glanced over to the empty air on the side of her where Suki wasn't. "You've been awfully quiet," she said to it, holding up one finger back in Suki's direction.

Suki blinked, and then, truly desperate, turned to Sokka for guidance.

He was grimacing a little, and leaned over to murmur in her ear, "Remember that second thing I never got a chance to tell you?"

"If it was that the new Avatar is crazy," Suki said doubtfully, "I think you probably should have made a bigger effort to squeeze it in somewhere."

Sokka sighed, and glanced past Suki to where Katara was gently saying, "It is?" to nothing at all. "I—don't know what to tell you. She says the last Avatar's following her around—helping her out, teaching her things. And she ... talks to him sometimes, and then tells me things—" Sokka made a small gesture of confusion with both hands. "They sound true; I don't know, I've got no way to check."

"Oh," Katara was saying, looking at the air sympathetically.

Suki took a deep breath, and made herself think about it for a moment. She'd seen Katara touch some part of Kyoshi, back at home; was another Avatar speaking to her really all that ridiculous?

"He's been here before," Katara said, and it took Suki a second to realize she was talking to them again. "Aang, I mean," she clarified, obviously having noticed Suki's confusion. "The last Avatar; he says it's changed a lot."

"Well, it's been at least a hundred years since the last time he saw it," Sokka said, "so I can't say I'm surprised."

"... It has?" Suki said. "I thought you said he was the last Avatar—he must have been an Airbender. If he died in the massacre, then why has it taken so long for another Avatar—" She stopped: Katara was grimacing and shaking her head, ever so minutely. "Oh—uh, he can see me, right?" Suki asked. "And hear me?"

Katara nodded.

Suki followed her glance into the seemingly empty air next to her, and said, "I'm sorry," as sincerely as she could given that she was talking to—well, what looked to her, at least, like nothingness. "That was—thoughtless of me."

"Oh, great; now you're going to start doing it, too," Sokka grumbled, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Suki shot him a look, and then glanced back to where this Avatar Aang was purportedly sitting—and then past it, to a sudden motion beyond the wall. Light from the setting sun, she told herself, except there was nothing in the forest for it to reflect off like that—or there shouldn't have been, at least. She reached out to touch Katara's elbow, and pointed. "Look."


***


Katara looked, and at first, she saw nothing, still reeling a little bit from the sudden zig-zag in conversation. Aang had been quiet all day, and Katara had been too tired to think much of it; now, though, when she finally had a chance to sit back and relax, belly full, knowing she'd sleep somewhere more comfortable than a canoe tonight, she had asked him about it, and stumbled yet again into sensitive territory. She kept forgetting that Aang had spent relatively little time aware during the hundred years it had been since he'd gone out of the world, especially since some of that time had been in the spirit world; to him, it had to feel like it had been only a few years, relatively speaking, since the last time he'd seen Shinsotsu, and yet it had changed enormously.

She had also forgotten that they had never told Suki about Aang. He had been unobtrusive during their flight from Kyoshi Island, and Katara had been concentrating so hard on speeding up the canoe that she probably wouldn't have paid much attention even if he had tried to talk to her, so it hadn't come up.

And now they hadn't even gotten to finish that conversation, because there was something in the trees outside the city wall that Suki evidently found interesting.

Katara let her gaze go uncentered, relaxed, taking in as much area as possible; she knew any sudden movement would catch her eye, and a moment later, it did.

"That?" Katara said.

Suki nodded. "Somebody in the woods, I'd say," she said, and then shifted her arm, pointing further along the wall. "And there's more of them—there, and there, at the very least."

"Man, we have the worst luck ever," Sokka said. "I'll bet you anything it's that battalion from this morning."

Suki looked troubled. "If they're not just patrolling—if they're scouting the walls to plan an attack—" She paused speculatively. "I'd hate to be disrespectful of the—uh, other Avatar, but could he get down there?"

"Wait, really?" Sokka said, eyebrows practically up to his hairline. "Seriously? Our plan is to send Katara's invisible dead friend to check it out for us?"

"Well, if he's not real, then we really don't have to worry about him being seen," Katara snapped, a little bit stung. She knew she'd been asking him to believe a lot of stuff he couldn't be sure of, but she'd thought he was starting to get used to Aang; evidently, she'd been wrong.

"Hey, come on, I didn't mean it like that," Sokka said, and made a big show of looking in approximately Aang's direction. "I believe in you, invisible guy."

"Thanks," Aang said wryly, from Katara's other side.

"He says thanks," Katara passed along, and then looked at Aang. He'd lost the worst of the somber look he'd been wearing when he'd told her about Shinsotsu, though he wasn't quite smiling yet. "What do you think?"

"Looking around for a minute? I think I can handle it," Aang said, and there was the smile. "Back in no time," and he drifted off the roof, over the next two buildings, and through the wall.


*


It took about two minutes for Aang to get back; Katara couldn't help but fill them by imagining all the terrible things the Fire Nation soldiers could be doing right that moment, which made it a bit anticlimactic when Aang floated back through the wall and shouted, "Suki's right, they're scouting the wall." He drifted closer, close enough for Katara to see the troubled look on his face clearly. "They're planning an assault for tomorrow morning—I heard two of them talking about it."

Suki looked at her questioningly, evidently having noticed her sudden turn to the side, and Katara nodded in response. "You were right," she said. "We've got to do something." Sokka was making a face, and she frowned at him. "We have to—I know we were trying to avoid attention, but we can't let this place get attacked because of it."

"No, no, I know," Sokka sighed. "Just—why is it always us?"

"Because we're lucky that way," Suki said, smiling.


*


Shinsotsu was the capital city of the Shinchi Kingdom; like almost all the other capital cities in the Earth Kingdoms, there was a walled palace near the city center. A walled palace with lots of guards.

"Now might be a good time to bust out the Avatar thing," Sokka suggested, but Katara shook her head.

"How?" she said. "I can't just do the glowing bit on command—and I think it might be a bad idea to do that inside, anyway. And I don't think I'll be able to impress them with my knowledge of past Avatars; this isn't Kyoshi Island, it's been a long time since there was an Avatar from around here." At least a couple thousand years, in point of fact: when Katara let her thoughts wander, she started looking at the city through the eyes of a young man in green who called himself Gaoshun and was bewildered by the lack of open plains where they were standing.

"Fine, fine," Sokka said, "we can be nobodies."

The palace was enormous; the tallest towers were at least as tall as the city lighthouse, curving rooftips dark against the sunset sky, and the courtyards and gardens were clearly huge, since the closest hall was quite a ways away. There were guards stationed all around the wall, and at least a dozen at the main gate.

"We need to speak to the king and queen," Suki said, authoritative, before the guards even had a chance to demand anything. Katara had never been so glad that she had thought to ask Suki to join them as she was at that moment; she and Sokka had never been to a city before, let alone a palace, and neither of them would ever have dared be so insistent.

"Petitioning hours are over," the closest guard said dismissively. "Come back some other time."

"It's urgent," Suki said. "Can't we just—"

The guard gave her a flat look from underneath his helmet. "Recklessly assume whatever's on your mind is more important than anything bothering everybody else who has to wait until tomorrow? You can, but I wouldn't advise it."

Katara grimaced. It was more important, but she was starting to suspect that it wouldn't help to tell him so now; people had probably made up far more impressive lies than "the Fire Nation's going to attack tomorrow" in an attempt to get an audience. "Please," she said.

Clearly, something of her desperation must have come across; the guard stared at her, and then pursed his lips. "There are petitioners' rooms in the palace complex," he said after a moment. "For people who have to travel from the outskirts of the kingdom. If you were willing to wait to speak to them, you could stay there, and you'd get one of the first slots tomorrow morning."

Katara glanced at Suki, and saw the same dismay she was sure was on her own face mirrored on Suki's. The first slot tomorrow morning might be early enough; but then again, it might not, and the city guard would need some time, once they'd been warned, to get into position.

"Okay," Sokka said brightly.

Katara whipped her head around to stare at him. "Sokka—"

He grinned. "The petitioners' rooms will be just fine," he continued, and then bowed to the guard. "Thank you so much for helping us."

The guard's name turned out to be Yutan; he led them through the gate and across the enormous stone courtyard to a set of small buildings off to the side. "Petitioners' quarters," he said. "Someone will come get you tomorrow morning."

Katara waited until they had gotten inside and closed the door to turn to Sokka. "What was that?"

"I would be happy to explain," Sokka said, beaming. "Where are the king and queen? Inside the palace. Where were we, before I executed my genius move? Outside the palace. Where are we now, post-genius move?"

"Inside the palace," Katara admitted, unable to help smiling a little. "All right, fine, it worked. Now what do we do?"

"... I hadn't really gotten that far yet," Sokka said.




"You do realize that you'll have to admit that he exists, if this works," Suki whispered to Sokka.

They had changed into their new Earth Kingdom clothes—or, in Suki's case, had traded Kyoshi-style battle robes for more casual dress—so as to blend in a little better, and now they were outside the petitioners' quarters, pressed against the wall and waiting for a whistling guard to pass. Katara was a few feet down, and waiting for the invisible Avatar Aang to tell her when the way was clear.

It had been Katara's idea to use Aang as a lookout to sneak into the actual palace, and Sokka had been unable to argue with the logic of using an undetectable person as their scout. Or, at least, he'd been unable to argue with it without sounding like he thought Aang didn't exist, which wouldn't have gone over well—not ever, and especially not after he'd insisted the opposite just that afternoon.

Sokka sighed. "Yeah, yeah," he murmured back, rolling his eyes. He hesitated afterward, and Suki saw the telltale signs that he was about to say something serious in the tightness around his eyes and the nervous slant of his mouth. "It's not that I think she's lying," he said slowly, "it's—just so hard to believe, you know? I keep forgetting that it's—" and Suki could tell he was fighting not to stick supposedly in there anywhere, "—true."

"Well, after this, you won't have to believe," Suki said practically. "You'll know, one way or the other."

Sokka looked at her, expression unreadable; but then Katara waved them forward, so Suki had no chance to ask what he was thinking.

They crept around the rest of the petitioners' rooms, and then sprinted across a small gap to the cover of a little stand of trees while the nearest guard had her head turned away so that she could scratch her neck. Sokka gave Suki a flat look over his shoulder; she nobly resisted the urge to smirk at him. One point to Aang.

They inched closer to the main palace building, and then had to wait for a while behind the corner of another wall while Aang went to figure out what entrance would be best. Katara had to be getting sick of relaying his every movement back to the two of them, but she did it anyway. Then they all hushed up; there must have been a shift change or something, because several groups of guards went by in as many minutes, in both directions.

Aang must have come back at some point, because the moment the last guard was out of earshot, Katara turned to them and whispered, "Servants' entrance—around the corner, past the big peach tree."

Katara yanked them down once, a moment before a guard turned his head and yelled to someone across the courtyard, and Suki couldn't resist darting a quick glance at Sokka: he was looking at Katara, who was herself watching the guard, with an expression somewhere between rue and awe on his face.

They made it to the servants' entrance without incident, and slipped in and down the nearest hall—and nearly into the arms of a servant who was balancing multiple trays of food. "Oh, good," he said, and shoved the trays in their direction; Katara and Sokka, who were closest to him, had to catch them in self-defense, just to keep them from spilling hot rice everywhere. "They were supposed to send somebody down to get these—just take them to the upper hall, you know the one."

"Indeed we do," Sokka lied, recovering, as he passed one tray back to Suki. "We'll just—go do that now."

"Glad to hear it," the servant said, laughing, and clapped him on the shoulder before turning around to go back the way he had come.

"So, what's Aang got to say about that?" Sokka said, once the servant was gone.

Katara glared at him. "He was behind us, making sure none of the guards outside noticed us coming in," she said. "It's not like he can be in two places at once."

"Oh, yeah, no, of course," Sokka said, "dead and invisible's fine, but in two places at once is totally ridiculous."

Katara's mouth went pinched, but Suki stepped in before she could say anything. "Okay, okay," Suki said, nudging Sokka in the elbow with her tray. "The point is, it all worked out fine, and now we look like we have a reason to be walking around in here, which is a good thing."

"I don't know," Katara said. "I mean, we are supposed to know where we're going—if we accidentally wander off to, oh, the dungeons or something, somebody's probably going to notice we're not supposed to be there."

"Then we'll pick a room, and wait there; you can send Aang out to look for the king and queen's chambers—if that's all right, Avatar Aang," and this Suki directed to the room in general, since she had no idea where he was standing. "Then, when he knows where it is, he can come back and we can go right there."

"He's over here," Katara said, gesturing to the air next to her, "and yeah, that sounds good."

They meandered down the hall a little way, until they found a plain-looking door; Sokka shoved it open with his shoulder, and then went suddenly still. "Oh," he said. "Uh. Beg pardon, Your Majesties?"


***


Mei looked up from a truly excellent dumpling to see a confused-looking servant boy at the door with a large tray of rice and vegetables, and two serving girls next to him, peering over his shoulders. She was about to excuse him and go on eating, and then she looked a little more closely. His hair was unusual—shaved close on the sides, with the top tied back into a tail—and his eyes distinctly blue; not suspicious in and of themselves, but combined with the fact that his clothes, while the right shade of green, were not the same style as the palace servants' uniforms—

Mei twitched her fingers in toward her palm, and the guard by the door obediently grabbed the boy's upper arm and yanked him into the room.

"Hey," he cried, "what are you doing?" and he tried to push himself back, a handful of rice spilling from his tray.

The short-haired girl behind him was more direct: she dumped the contents of her tray into the hall, and then reversed the motion and slammed the short edge of the tray into the guard's side. She grunted and turned toward the girl in response, just in time to get the flat of the tray across the head.

"Wait - Suki!" cried the long-haired girl, and grabbed the short-haired girl's arm before she could bring the tray down again. "Stop, stop!"

Suki did, albeit reluctantly—a bit of an unusual move for an assassin, Mei thought, which meant she and Goro probably ought to talk to them, instead of just arresting them. The guard on the other side of the door was not on quite the same page, though, and the moment Suki lowered her tray, he took the opening and jabbed his sword in.

Suki let go of the tray and whipped something—a fan?—out of the cloth at her waist, smacking the sword aside like it was an insect.

"Stop!" the long-haired girl shouted again, raising her arms, and then did a move. A bending move, it looked like, but definitely not Earthbending; water flew in a sudden arc from the hand basin by the wall, and splashed the guard full in the face. He stumbled back, spitting, and Suki lowered her fan as soon as he moved away.

Mei glanced at Goro; he was looking back at her, eyebrows raised. A Waterbender—there hadn't been a Waterbender in Shinsotsu for years, not even just passing through. There hadn't been anybody from either Water Tribe at all, for that matter. They had heard about the fleet of ships that had sailed up to the northern front a few years ago, but that fleet had gone around the Shinchi peninsula—they hadn't come anywhere near Shinsotsu. And that Suki girl had an iron fan; she might not have had the face-paint, but an iron fan meant a Warrior of Kyoshi, more often than not.

"All right, stand down," Goro said, and the other guards stationed around the room, most of whom had started raising their swords, reluctantly relaxed.

"Quite a welcoming committee," the boy snorted, yanking his arm out of the first guard's grip.

"I hope you'll forgive our caution," Mei said, letting her voice go a little dry. "Enough assassination attempts create habits that are hard to break."

"Assassination attempts?" said the girl, exchanging a concerned glance with the boy.

"I did tell you the Fire Nation's been pushing south," Suki said. She had tucked her fan away again, and was watching the guard she'd hit with the tray with a measuring sort of look on her face.

"Well, we're not here to assassinate you," the girl said.

Mei eyed her. "Then why are you here? And, if it's not too much to ask: who are you?"

"Katara," the long-haired girl said. "And this is my brother, Sokka, and our friend, Suki. And we're here to warn you."




Katara told them as much as she could without dragging the whole Avatar thing into it; the queen and king were already so suspicious that it didn't seem like a great time to start making claims she wasn't sure how to prove. Fortunately, she could cobble together decent motivation to travel out of Father being on the northern front and herself needing a Waterbending teacher.

When she was done, the king and queen just looked at her for a moment. The queen tapped her chopsticks thoughtfully against the rim of her bowl, and then shook her head, and Katara's heart sank. "We have no way to be certain that you're telling the truth—for all we know, this entire thing is a distraction designed to draw our attention to the northeast wall."

"But I'm a Waterbender," Katara said. "Why would I be helping the Fire Nation?"

"Who better to convince us than a Water Tribe prisoner?" the king said. "Perhaps everything is as you say; or perhaps you're a traitor, or they've paid you, or they have your family and have promised to set them free if you help them trick us."

Katara threw up her hands, and narrowly resisted the urge to scream. "Fleeing from the Fire Nation is why we came to this city in the first place," she cried. "That stupid ship following us—"

"A Fire Nation ship?" the queen said, sitting forward. "Do you know where it is now?"

Katara blinked. "Probably still outside the harbor," she said. "They've been following us since we left the South Pole; I doubt they've given up and sailed away already just because we've been hiding in here for a few hours."

The queen set her chopsticks down, and gave the king a sideways glance. "Possibly another trap," she said, "but much easier to investigate with fewer people than the first one."

The king chuckled, to Katara's surprise; their expressions had been fairly somber, up until this point. "And a short, safe trip, to the city lighthouse," he said. "You want to go see for yourself."

"It's only logical," said the queen, and smiled.


***


Mei did take some precautions: she took three guards with her, and changed out of her formal dinner robes and into a spare guard uniform. It wasn't far at all to the lighthouse, which was out on one of the arms of the natural harbor that made Shinsotsu such a convenient port; all she had to do was show her face to the old keeper, and he let them up.

There were a few hundred stairs at the very least—Mei had never counted them. The boy—Sakka? Sokka?—grumbled under his breath most of the way up, until his sister told him to shut up. Mei grinned to herself, and said nothing.

The lighthouse keeper did have a spyglass at the top, propped up next to the basin that held the great flame. Mei turned away from the fire to let her eyes adjust to the dark as best they could, and she didn't have to scan the sea for long to catch sight of a faint glimmer that wasn't moonlight on the waves, and the dark shape that held it.

"There," Suki said at almost the same moment, pointing out over the water. "Lights—from a cabin, maybe, or the bridge."

Mei took the spyglass from where it rested against the stone, and opened it up. The light was indeed from the bridge, and the angle was perfect; Mei couldn't have asked for better. The spyglass was a good one, too—hardly any warping or bubbling in the glass. Mei could see every face in the ship's bridge almost perfectly.

She looked at them all for a long moment, first checking and double-checking, and then simply staring. By the time she set the spyglass down, she was almost laughing aloud.

"Well?" said the boy impatiently, only to get an elbow in the ribs from his sister.

Mei did let out a laugh then. "Out of all the Fire Navy ships in the world, this is the only one that could have convinced me without a doubt," she said. "Extraordinary." She glanced back at them; she had to shield her eyes from the flame to see their bewildered expressions clearly. "And you didn't even know it," she said, and had to laugh again. "Of course not."

"Why?" said the sister—Katara, if Mei was remembering correctly. "What ship is it?"

"Crown Prince Zuko's ship," Mei said. "Or—well, perhaps not. I don't know what his title is anymore. But that's him; the scar is unmistakable. And General Iroh with him, if I'm not mistaken. I don't know why the Fire Lord would let the Dragon of the West go, but then perhaps it wasn't really up to him."

"And the crown prince's ship convinces you why?" Suki said. "Not that we want you to change your mind."

"Because he's not the crown prince anymore," Mei told them. "His father banished him, four years ago." She watched the beginnings of realization start to dawn across their faces. "No amount of coordination with the Fire Nation could ever get that ship to appear anywhere." She shook her head, and couldn't help but grin. "Congratulations. I believe you."




Katara let herself flop back onto the mattress, and stared up at the ceiling. If anyone had told her this morning that by evening, she would be sleeping in a palace after arguing a queen into spying on a prince from the closest lighthouse, she would have laughed herself sick. But here she was.

The moment they had gotten back inside the palace gate, the queen had pulled her borrowed helmet off and snagged a passing guardsman. "Get the captain of the city guard in the front hall," she had ordered him, "as soon as you can."

Katara hadn't been sure what to expect—whether the queen would want them to stay, to tell everything to the captain of the guard, or whether she'd want to keep them out of the way. She'd been trying to decide how hard to push for them to be included, and then the queen had turned around and smiled at her.

"I don't want to put you in any danger you'd rather avoid," she had said, "but I can't help thinking that a Waterbender would be a valuable asset, if there are any Firebenders in that battalion—"

"If you're going to ask her to fight," Suki had interrupted—very calmly, for someone who was overriding a queen, "you'll have to let us, too."

The queen had narrowed her eyes. "You're only—"

"A Warrior of Kyoshi?" Suki had said, yanking one of her fans out of her waistband.

"And your friend?" the queen had said skeptically, glancing at Sokka.

"He's a Warrior of Kyoshi, too," Suki had said.

The queen had looked doubtful. "He is?"

Suki hadn't wavered. "In training."

The queen had agreed eventually, but only on the condition that they allow a servant to show them to some rooms; she had remembered Katara's tale of their extended flight from Zuko, and insisted that if they were going to fight, they be well-rested. To be honest, Katara's eyelids had been drooping a little by that point, so it hadn't been much of a wrench to agree.

And now here she was, a guest in a palace, lying on the biggest bed she had ever seen in her life, looking up at an impressively intricate ceiling.

"So, a prince," Sokka said, from somewhere behind Katara's head. "Suddenly I feel so much more important."

Katara tipped her head back until she could see him, leaning on the doorway of the next room over; the servants had kindly given them an interconnected set of rooms. "A banished one," she said. She couldn't remember most of what had happened during the battle in Manamota, but she remembered the scar-eyed boy—or, at least, she remembered thinking that he looked familiar, and realizing he was the same boy who'd been yelling orders back when they'd frozen the ship into the ice. "Almost makes you feel sorry for him."

"Sorry for him?" Sokka said.

"I said almost," Katara said, rolling her eyes. "He's still Fire Nation, and he's still chasing us; I'm not an idiot. Just—you remember what the queen said."

"About his banishment," Suki filled in from the opposite doorway, when Sokka looked blank. "That it was his father who did it."

"Well, his father's the Fire Lord, he'd have to be the one to issue the order," Sokka argued, but he did look a little discomfited by the thought.

Father had technically had the authority to banish people at home, before he'd left for the northern front; but he'd never used it, as far as Katara knew, and she was having serious trouble imagining the kind of circumstances that would make him use it on her, or on Sokka.

"I guess he could have done something really awful," Katara said, but Suki started shaking her head before the sentence was even out of her mouth.

"The queen said it was at least four years ago," Suki said. "He couldn't have been more than, what, twelve? Thirteen?"

"Maybe he set somebody on fire or something," Sokka suggested. "Although you'd think that would be an afternoon's entertainment, in the Fire Nation."

"I've got a friend in the Fire Nation," Aang said. He was sitting at the foot of the bed, head propped up on his hands; he glanced at Katara when he spoke, and then suddenly grimaced. "Or I—I did, I had one. Kuzon. He must be dead by now."

Katara winced sympathetically, and sat up, holding out the now-habitual first finger to Sokka. "You grew up in the Air Temple, didn't you?" she said. "How'd you meet him?"

"They took me around to visit places," Aang said. "So I'd be familiar with all the nations—I mean, nobody told me that then, but I think that must be why. We'd swap dumplings; he didn't like the vegetable ones, and I don't—didn't—eat meat." He shrugged, a little awkwardly. "I don't know anything about Prince Zuko, I just—he might not be so bad. You never know. That's all."

Katara wished for at least the twentieth time that she could touch him, even if it was only for long enough to pat him on the shoulder.

"What's he say?" Sokka said.

"Just—not to make assumptions," Katara told him, and then made shooing motions with her hands. "Now come on, get out. We need to go to sleep, or we're not going to be any use to anybody tomorrow."

"Okay, okay, fine," Sokka said, and then looked vaguely into the air to Katara's right. "Good night, invisible dead guy. Enjoy creepily watching us sleep."

"He says he doesn't like watching you; you drool," Katara lied, without remorse; it was worth it, to watch Sokka sputter and Aang laugh.




They were out on the city wall before the sun came up; Sokka grumbled a little when a servant came to wake them, but it turned out to be for the best. The sky was barely starting to warm from purple to gold when the Fire Nation battalion burst from the trees.

Suki had to admire the guard captain's strategy—Captain Arato was his name, and he had gone the simple, practical route. There were the usual number of guards spaced out along the wall-top, standing at attention; but dozens and dozens more, probably even hundreds, were crammed below the line of the parapet, crunched into sitting positions with their weapons carefully lowered out of sight. Unless the Fire Nation could see through walls, they were unlikely to expect it—Suki guessed that even their worst-case scenario would mostly involve reinforcements being close by, since there just hadn't been enough time for the Fire Nation soldiers to realize their plan had been discovered.

And it really had been a good plan, before Aang had set its doom into motion. The battalion had clearly practiced it, or at least reviewed it, repeatedly; all the Fire Nation soldiers knew exactly where they were supposed to go, and went without hesitation. And the battalion was not alone: there were odd metal contraptions on wheels, gleaming faintly in the low light, with the insignia of the Fire Nation emblazoned on their sides. Not the usual Fire Nation tanks—Suki knew what those looked like, and these weren't the same thing.

"What are those?" Sokka whispered, peering over the bottom of the nearest crenellation as they got closer.

Suki yanked him back down. "I don't know. Probably something to help them get over the wall—but I doubt it matters. The faster they get up here, the faster we beat them."

The function of the machines became abruptly clear when they reached the foot of the city wall. The soldiers of Shinsotsu had started shouting the alarm and running along the wall, keeping up the pretense of being outnumbered, so Suki couldn't hear the machines. But she could feel the way they made the wall shake when they came up against the base, and the series of smaller vibrations that followed, a moment before a metal hook at least twice the size of her head came swinging into the battlement and caught against the stone.

"Well," Sokka said, staring at her through the broad loops of metal. "That answers that—I guess you were right."

"I guess I was," Suki agreed, and then darted up to catch the red-armored woman clambering over the hook in the throat with the side of one fan.

It was almost like a signal—all around her, the soldiers of Shinsotsu burst up from behind the parapet, and the tenor of the yelling changed from a vague approximation of panic to something closer to bloodthirsty.

With the trap sprung, they could stand, and Suki could get a proper look at the machines for the first time. They weren't especially exceptional in concept—in the most basic sense, they were ladders. But they were incredibly well-designed: by the look of things, the tops of the machines had opened to let the ladders unfold from inside, which they had done automatically. At every point where the ladders jointed, there were two collapsible hooks, and as the ladder had extended itself against the wall, those hooks had launched themselves into the stone and then unfolded—the smaller knocks Suki had felt echoing up through the wall. Even if they managed to unhook the anchors at the tops of the ladders, they'd never be able to tip the ladders off the wall. It was very clever, and probably would have caused serious problems if the Fire Nation troops hadn't been so severely outnumbered.

But they were. Captain Arato's relatively simple ploy had been very effective, and the first wave of Fire Nation soldiers was visibly surprised to see them. The woman Suki had jabbed in the throat tumbled forward over the parapet and onto the wall-top, coughing, and Sokka graciously slammed one of his own fans into the back of her head so that Suki could concentrate on the next soldier coming up the ladder. She could see Katara, beyond him, using a whip of water to yank on ankles and wrestle swords out of soldiers' hands.

In the end, they only really fought for about half an hour; the sun had only just risen, the sky blazing with red and gold, when somebody on the ground below began shouting for a retreat, and the ladders started to disengage from the wall. Hooks re-collapsed into joints even as the ladders folded themselves down, back into their wheeled bases, and a moment later their lids clicked shut over them, and they were hauled back into the forest by the fleeing Fire Nation soldiers.

"Man," Sokka said, shaking his head. "We have got to get us some of those."

Suki grinned at him, and then the soldier next to her yelled wordlessly in triumph, lifting her sword into the air, and a moment later they were caught up helplessly in the impromptu celebrations of the city guard.




"I can't tell you how grateful I am," the queen said, sounding gracious and regal once again. Katara wouldn't have quite believed she was the same woman who had been pounding an armored fist against the parapet and waving her bloody glaive in the air just that morning, if she hadn't seen it herself. She was back in her royal robes now, hair elegantly pinned, looking like she had never gutted anybody in her life.



"How grateful we both are," the king added, equally composed; like he hadn't been right next to her, knocking all the soldiers who tried to sneak up on her from behind off the wall with a flick of his stave.

"If you ever return here, the guards at the gate will know to admit you," the queen went on. "And if there's anything else we can do for you-"

Katara bit her lip. Her first impulse had been to thank them and say no, but when she gave the matter a moment's thought, there actually was something that came to mind. "Only if it isn't too much trouble," she said.


***


Zuko glared at the horizon. It had been hazy all morning—a contributing factor in Uncle Iroh's endless and irritating comments about the beauty of the sunrise—and the city of Shinsotsu was visible only as a vague, lumpy outline against the sky. But he knew where it was, and he couldn't help narrowing his eyes at it as he paced the deck.

He should have guessed what was happening when the canoe had changed course, but they had been so close to catching up, since the engineer had finally gotten them up to three boilers, instead of two. He supposed he had been hoping they'd corner the boat before it could get to Shinsotsu's harbor. But they hadn't, and now they were stuck sitting out here, waiting for that stupid little canoe to come out again. It was more frustrating than ever; the Avatar herself had been so close, so nearly within his grasp. But his ship alone couldn't take on the entire royal navy of an Earth Kingdom, no matter how much he might wish otherwise. Earth Kingdoms' ships were not exactly high quality, but there would be dozens to Zuko's one—not good odds, no matter how poor the Shinsotsu ships' construction. So they waited.

When the cry went up from the lookout, Zuko whirled on his heel, chest momentarily gone light with relief. But the shape that was crossing the sea toward them from Shinsotsu was not a canoe, nor even a single ship, which might have been given to the Avatar as a replacement.

It was a fleet. At least half a dozen ships, and there were bound to be more behind them, if the Avatar had mobilized the city against him.

"I think it would be inadvisable to remain here, Prince Zuko," Uncle Iroh said, ludicrously calm, eyeing the approaching fleet assessingly.

"Insightful as always, Uncle," Zuko ground out.

Mizan emerged from the bridge, glanced at the ships, and then raised her eyebrows at Zuko. "I feel the urgency of our situation invites candor, sir," she said. "I'm going to have to think very hard about following any order except 'run like hell' right now."

Zuko looked at the fleet; at Shinsotsu, still barely visible in the distance, where the Avatar, the solution to every problem that currently plagued him, no doubt sat laughing at this very moment; at Uncle Iroh, who, for once, said nothing, and simply looked at him sympathetically. He clenched his fists, and resisted the urge to punch flame at everything in sight. "Evasive maneuvers, Mizan," he forced out, trying to keep his voice reasonably even, and partially succeeding.

"A wise choice, sir," said Mizan, and ducked back into the bridge.


***


"You didn't have to send so many," Katara said apologetically, but the queen waved a hand dismissively.

"Nonsense, it was only fifteen," she said. "It wouldn't even have been that many, but I wanted to be sure he'd be out of your way. They've got orders to keep chasing him until they get to the end of the peninsula; if you head northwest, you'll be well on your way by the time he can start following you again."

"Seriously," Sokka said. "We appreciate this so much."

Katara laughed. "Well, you won't in a minute," she told him. "Now that Zuko's ship isn't on our tail anymore, I get to rest—and you get to paddle."

"... I should have known there'd be a catch," Sokka said.

Chapter Text

Katara sighed and leaned back in the canoe. It had been days since Shinsotsu, without a single sign of Zuko's ship, and the difference it made was extraordinary. They were still going to have to stop for supplies in another day or two, but only because the collection of fruit and vegetables they'd gotten in Shinsotsu was running low—they had plenty of fish, and they'd have been able to stop whenever they wanted to hunt for more.

Honestly, Katara and Sokka by themselves probably would've kept going on fish alone for a while longer, but Suki was insistent, and Katara couldn't say she minded. The fruit was all Earth Kingdom stuff—no sea prunes, which was a shame; but it was pretty good anyway.

They were still sailing steadily north, and it was getting hotter and hotter; Katara found herself extremely grateful for the new clothes they'd bought in Shinsotsu, because some of the shirts were blissfully sleeveless.

Suki mocked her readily for it, of course. "It's not even really summer yet, you know," she said, more than once. "It can get so much hotter than this—you really have no idea, do you?"

Katara had a hard time imagining anything hotter than the weather was already; she felt like she was wearing a parka all the time, even when she only had one of her sleeveless shirts on. She was just glad they were out on the water, so that she could dunk her feet whenever she wanted.

They turned the canoe in toward shore, and kept an eye out for a village—that was the only reason they noticed the smoke as soon as they did.

Katara saw it first, since Sokka and Suki were busy paddling, and kept her eyes on it while she reached for Suki's shoulder. "A Fire Nation ship?" she said, heart starting to speed up. She wasn't looking forward to running again; it had been bad enough the first time.

"I could go look at it," Aang offered. He was bobbing beside the canoe, as he had been all morning, effortless and intangible as always.

But Suki—though, of course, she hadn't heard him—was shaking her head. "I don't think so," she said. "Look at it: it's not moving. Well, I suppose it could be coming straight toward us," she amended, "but I doubt it."

"Perfect," Sokka said. "Looks like we know where we're going."

Katara whipped her head around to stare at him. "Nothing puts out smoke like that but Fire Nation machines, even if it's not a ship. And you want to go toward it?"

Sokka shrugged. "It's not on shore, whatever it is," he said. "Just look at it, it's out in the water. Which means there probably is something else on shore—a town, a supply point, whatever. It wouldn't be there if there weren't something around. I mean, weren't we keeping an eye out for signs of a place to stop not thirty seconds ago?"

Katara glanced at Suki, who had paused in her paddling and was looking thoughtful. "That is a good point," she admitted. "And we've all got Earth Kingdom clothes now—as long as we're careful, and you don't Waterbend anything where people can see you, I don't see why we couldn't stop by long enough to buy a few non-fish things." Katara's nervousness must have been showing on her face, because Suki looked at her carefully and then put a hand on her wrist. "Look, we're stuck traveling up the war front, unless you really think now is the time to sail back and go around the entire continent instead. We're not going to be able to avoid the Fire Nation all the time, especially since Zuko's probably going to catch up to us eventually."

"And if we have to pick a place to run into them, this really isn't that bad," Katara finished for her, nodding reluctantly. "If they're keeping something right off the shore, then there probably won't be too many soldiers on land, and we're not planning to be here for very long."

"There you go," Sokka said, and grinned. "What could go wrong?"

Suki glanced at Katara, expression full of mock worry. "Suddenly I've changed my mind," she said, and neatly dodged the paddle end that Sokka aimed at her in joking retaliation.


*


They decided to leave the canoe a fair distance away—it was clearly of Water Tribe design, so it wouldn't really help them blend in if anyone spotted it. They carried it up the shore and into the forest, a task which was considerably easier with three, and Sokka carved a little curving Southern Tribe mark into the nearest tree to help them find it again later.

Being on the water wasn't bad; no obstructions meant the breeze was pretty good, and the water itself hadn't warmed up as much as the weather had. But being under trees again, in the shade, was even better. They still made her feel a little too closed in for true comfort, but Katara was starting to understand why people kept the things around, instead of just making them all into ships.

It was quiet in the forest, aside from the occasional chirping of birds—quiet enough that when the faint thumping started somewhere off ahead of them, it was perfectly audible.

"It's too regular to be a rockslide," Suki said, frowning at the trees in front of them like she was expecting them to agree with her.

"Then it must be something else," Sokka said reasonably.

"Here," Aang said, and sped off into the forest. "Sounds like it's this way!"

It was something else, as it turned out. They crept through the trees, pausing occasionally to put an ear to the ground and make sure they were still going in the right direction, and eventually climbed a small rise next to what looked like a seasonal streambed. It was late enough in the spring for it to be dry now, but the water had left a lot of bare rock exposed before it had dried up, and clustered on the space of rock and earth were at least a dozen people, arranged in a vague half-circle.

"Like this," said the girl standing apart from the half-circle, and slammed her foot down against the stone; a hunk of rock burst out of the ground as if in response. She had both arms tucked close, hands curled into fists, and she punched one out away from her before the rock could drop back to earth. The chunk of stone flew out and away from the half-circle, the same direction as her fist, until she relaxed her stance a moment later and let it drop. "Make sure you plant your foot evenly, just like you're raising a boulder normally. You have to be fast, too—it works the best if you can keep the boulder in the air."

"Earthbenders," Suki murmured, as the people in the streambed nodded and spread out. "I wonder why they're practicing out here—"

"Well, let's ask," Sokka said, not bothering to keep his voice low, and then stood and shouted, "Hey!"

It was almost eerie—every single face below them turned toward them at once, and they all wore the same expression of startlement and fear. "Quick—run!" cried the girl who had been issuing the instructions, and they all began sprinting up the streambed.

"No—hey, wait," Sokka tried, but it was too late; they were gone, the girl and a long-haired boy who had been standing near her bringing up the rear.

Sokka grabbed Katara's arm and started skidding down the bank into the streambed, Suki following after. But the girl clearly heard them do it; she glanced over her shoulder at them, and then paused just long enough to shove one palm out to her right. The bank near her trembled and then collapsed into the streambed, filling it with rubble, and the girl disappeared from view.

Sokka thumped to a stop on the bare rock at the bottom of the streambed, frowning. "Well. That was weird. We didn't all go colorblind and then accidentally dress in red, right?"

"If we had, how could we tell?" Suki asked dryly, coming to a stop a few steps away. She gazed down the streambed at the collapsed bank, and then shook her head. "Well, if they're from the same village we're trying to find, then I bet we'll find out why they ran sooner or later; and if they aren't, we won't, and there's nothing we can do about it."

"How can you stand being so practical?" Sokka said.

"It makes you sad inside," Suki said promptly, "and that brings me joy." She grinned. "Now let's go."


*


There was indeed a village by the coast. It was a town called Lingsao that belonged to the Earth Kingdom of Lannang, which Katara gleaned from a combination of eavesdropping and a quick examination of the map—Lingsao wasn't labeled, but there was a tiny dot in about the right place, and the borders of the Kingdom of Lannang had apparently been creeping out toward it sixty or seventy years ago. It wasn't quite on the shore, and they couldn't see the ocean from the major road that went through it, but the haze of smoke Katara had noticed that morning was clearly visible in the sky to the south.

"Maybe there aren't any Fire Nation soldiers at all," Suki said, sounding a little bewildered; there were no red-armored figures visible anywhere in Lingsao's generous marketplace, and they definitely hadn't passed any coming in.

"Or maybe they're only on the coast," Sokka suggested. "If this place is neutral, and the Fire Nation keeps a war camp by the shore, maybe they only come here to trade."

It certainly did seem plausible, though the effects, if that's what they were, were a little unsettling. The market was oddly quiet, considering its size, and there was a certain tight wariness to everyone's expressions; no one was crying their wares, and Katara could see very few smiles. Aang wore a discomfited expression on his blue-tinged face, and Katara could understand why. But there was a fine selection of food on display, so Katara resolved not to worry about it.

That resolution lasted for about thirty seconds: Katara glanced up from a tray of bamboo shoots to see a distinctly familiar girl closing in from the side. A moment later, and the four of them were surrounded by girls and boys Katara recognized as the Earthbenders from the forest, and practically herded off the main road and into a cramped little space between two nearby houses.

"Hey," Sokka started indignantly, but a shove from behind got him into the little alley before he could finish kicking up a fuss. Katara would have hushed him, if it hadn't; clearly the Earthbenders from the forest lived here, and Katara doubted anybody in Lingsao would take the side of a few random strangers against a dozen of their own people.

The girl who'd been instructing everyone earlier was behind them, and she yanked Sokka around by his shirt and glared at him. The crowd had, obviously, passed right through Aang, but he had followed them in, and was anxiously wringing his hands, clearly upset that he could do nothing to help. Suki, who had no such restrictions, whirled, clearly trying to decide whether to take a fan to her or just punch her, and Katara caught her arm before she could do either.

The girl ignored them, using the fistful she had of his shirt to shake Sokka a little. "Listen," she hissed into his face, "I don't know who you think you are, but I promise you, if you breathe one word about what we were doing—"

"What?" Suki said, blinking, the look of carefully-calculated retribution turning into a look of confusion. "You mean the Earthbe—"

"Shut up," the girl snapped, rounding on Suki, and the two boys closest to the main road turned to scan the street nervously. "I'm serious, I will crush you like a date-plum. You know I could do it."

"Okay, hold on," Sokka said. "Everybody just take a deep breath." He peeled the girl's hand off of his shirt with one hand, holding the other hand out in a conciliatory gesture. "We saw you guys earlier. You clearly don't want anybody to know—"

"The brilliance of your insight is blinding me," the girl said acidly.

"So, okay, we promise not to tell," Sokka went on. "Satisfied?"

"Yeah, right—how are we supposed to be sure you won't run off to the garrison the second we let you go?" the girl said.

"The garrison?" Katara said, with a sinking feeling. She'd been hoping the simple answer—a war camp and occasional trading—would turn out to be the true one; clearly, it was not to be.

The girl turned to her, eyes narrowed in suspicion. "The Fire Nation as good as owns this village," she said. "Not officially; they don't want to draw the queen's armies out of Sennang. But the garrison's about two steps away, and they patrol up and down the main road whenever they want—including the part that runs through Lingsao."

"Okay," Sokka said slowly. "But what does that have to do with the—uh." He glanced in the direction of the main road, and cleared his throat. "Rockpunching?"

The girl stared at them all for a moment. "You're not from around here, I take it," she said after a minute.

"Not really, no," Suki admitted.

The girl looked them over again, and then sighed. "All right," she said. "You had better come with us."

"Right, of course," Sokka said, rolling his eyes. "After all, you've been so friendly and welcoming so far. Why not?"

The girl crossed her arms. "I'm Nayu, this is Lingsao, and we should probably get out of here before a patrol comes by," she said.

"... Can we at least finish buying food first?" Suki said plaintively.


*


Nayu grudgingly let them head back toward the main road, though she sent four of the other benders ahead of them—two in each direction along the road, as lookouts. "You wouldn't go tell them about us of your own free will," she said, "but if you get snatched, well. I wouldn't blame you for choosing to get a bunch of strangers in trouble rather than get chucked in prison."

Katara wanted to protest—she honestly didn't know whether she'd choose prison over exposing the group of benders, but she'd definitely choose having to figure out how to break out of prison over exposing the group of benders—but she suspected that Nayu wouldn't believe her.

They went back to the market stands and loaded themselves up with just enough fruit and vegetables to keep Suki happy. Despite Sokka's earlier irritation, they were actually lucky she was so practical; it was still only spring, so the selection was unimpressive and there were no dried foods available, which meant they had to keep an eye on the weight of the stuff.

It didn't take long for Suki to declare herself satisfied, and Katara was just about to let herself be pleased with how well everything had worked out when the lookout ahead and to the left, a girl named Tashi, yelled, "Let go of me!"

Katara was about to drop her armload of food and race up to help her when the long-haired boy from earlier, who had introduced himself as Haru, grabbed her elbow. When she looked back at him questioningly, he shook his head. "Don't," he said, "it'll only provoke them. They don't like it when a crowd gathers—even when it's people they think aren't benders. They probably won't bother arresting anybody when it's just Tashi alone. Just wait."

Katara reminded herself that this was Haru's village, he'd know better than she would; so she pressed her lips together tightly and made herself wait.

Tashi wasn't far away, and Katara could see her clearly from where she was standing. This obviously wasn't the first time something like this had happened, because Tashi clearly knew better than to expect anyone to come for her. She didn't even look in their direction—or that of the other lookout on that end of the road, for that matter, a boy who had assumed a pose of sullen disinterest.

There was a small group of Fire Nation soldiers—perhaps a dozen, but they surveyed the street arrogantly, as though there were a hundred of them. One of them had Tashi by the wrist, and was looking down at her smugly.

"Watch where you're going next time, girl," the soldier said, smirking a little, and let go of her arm—right before he swung his spear around and knocked Tashi's legs out from under her.

Tashi tumbled to the ground, landing on her side, and for a moment, her face was turned toward Katara: in that instant, she lost the frightened and unhappy expression she had assumed, and instead looked vividly, murderously angry. But she shuttered the look away again, and started scrambling to her feet, saying breathlessly, "Sorry—sorry, please—"

"All right, all right, get out of here," the soldier said, already turning away. "But you'll be arrested if you interfere with a patrol again."

Tashi didn't bother answering; she just darted away, and Nayu turned to give Katara a look that said they would soon be doing the same. "Come on," she muttered, "before they come our way," and headed off into an alley.


*


She led them back away from the main road, their path weaving between houses until they reached a small, wooded hill on the edge of Lingsao. "The Fire Nation's been here for three years," she explained over her shoulder as they stepped into the shade. "They never really attacked Lingsao—just killed most of the people they found on their first patrol, which happened to be right in the middle of the village." She paused for a second, and her expression went cool. "That's when my father died."

Katara was loath to drag out yet another inadequate "I'm sorry", but she had no idea what else to say; Suki, though, just reached forward and let her hand rest on Nayu's shoulder for a moment. "My father died that way, too," she said—not self-pitying, just matter-of-fact; sharing a hurt.

Nayu gave her a small nod of acknowledgement, eyes serious, and then sighed. "Ever since then, it's been unsafe to—rockpunch," she said, with a wry look at Sokka as she used his epithet. "It's as good as banned, even if they can't technically make the laws around here; they just say that anybody who bends where Fire Nation soldiers can see them was attacking without provocation." Nayu shook her head, expression disgusted. "That's the reasoning they used to imprison everybody who resisted when they first showed up."

"Imprison?" Katara said, glancing back down at the village—and the haze of smoke beyond.

When she looked forward again, Nayu and Haru were both nodding; Haru was the one who spoke this time. "That's where they keep them," he said. "It's a prison ship. They keep it moving all the time, so it's never anywhere long enough for us to get them out."

"And that's if there were enough of us left to try," Tashi cut in, shaking her head. "They've taken all of the best benders that we had."

"We're just about all that's left," Nayu said. "Except for the ones who have too much to lose to risk practicing in the forest."

"You don't have too much to lose?" Katara said.

Nayu smiled, thin and strained. "They killed my father," she said, "but my mother was one of the best benders in Lingsao; she was one of the first people they put on that prison ship."




There was a small house in a clearing part of the way up the hill—where Nayu's family had once lived, Nayu revealed, which meant that it was now essentially hers alone. Katara couldn't imagine what it would be like to live completely alone, and clearly Nayu hadn't enjoyed it very much, because she had started sharing it with other kids whose parents had been arrested or killed; at least half of the other Earthbenders in the group lived there with her. "I got lucky," Nayu explained; "a lot of the houses in the middle of the village have gotten set on fire when the patrols come through." Haru was one of the ones who didn't live there: his father had been arrested for bending, but his mother wasn't a bender, and hadn't been arrested or killed.

"Yet," Tashi added, cynical. "Mine were both benders—both arrested." She paused, and then said, "Along with my little sister," in such an offhand tone that Katara knew right away that that was the thought that still pained her the most.

"So," Nayu said, once they were all gathered in the main room of the house. "If you're not from around here, and you didn't know what was going on, why are you here?"

"Just resupplying," Katara said, because that was the truth.

Nayu crossed her arms, eyes narrowing. "Okay, fine. Where are you going, then, if you're not from around here but it was the best place for you to buy supplies?"

Katara paused—she knew it would probably make whatever she said sound like a lie, but she needed a second to think. She wasn't afraid that any of the Earthbenders would go to the Fire Nation over her; the part where they'd threatened her to keep her from going to the Fire Nation over them had pretty much settled her worries on that score. But she wasn't sure how readily they would believe her, and things could get very uncomfortable if they didn't. "We're going north," she said at last. "Me and my brother, we're from the Southern Water Tribe. I'm the only Waterbender in my village, so I'm going to the North Pole to find a Waterbending master who can teach me all the things I can't figure out by myself." So that I can become a fully-realized Avatar and end the War by defeating the Fire Lord, she chose not to add.

"And her?" Nayu prodded, tilting her head toward Suki.

"A friend," Katara said. "We visited her when we passed Kyoshi Island, and she decided to tag along."

Nayu watched her closely for a moment, and Katara made sure to keep her face blank and guileless. Finally, Nayu huffed out a breath. "Fine," she said, "keep your secret. You're not going to report us; that's all I really care about. If you really are a Waterbender, you shouldn't stay long." She let one corner of her mouth quirk up. "I don't think they'll be much happier about streamkicking than they are about rockpunching."


*


They stayed the night; the sun had been sinking steadily while they had followed Nayu up the hill, and it was close enough to evening that nobody wanted to start the long walk back through the forest to the canoe. Night among the trees on the hillside was pleasantly cool, and Katara fell asleep feeling reasonably comfortable for the first time all day.

The next morning, Katara could see that Haru had been right about the prison ship. It must have moved the day before, but by the time the smoke rose high enough to see, it had dispersed too much to be any use in pinpointing the ship's location; over the course of a few hours, it was impossible to tell whether the ship had moved, or to where. But the haze of smoke had been smearing the sky to the southwest at sunset the day before, and by morning, it had shifted over to the southeast.

Sokka woke late, and spent a good portion of breakfast bemoaning the lack of sea prunes, which was part of the reason they were still there when Haru came sprinting in and said breathlessly, "Tashi's been arrested."

Nayu sprang up from where she had been sitting on the floor, and said, "What? Where?"

"I told her not to do it," Haru said, "that it might be a trap; but she wouldn't listen to me—"

"Stop," Nayu said firmly, and put her hands on his shoulders. "Tell me exactly what happened."


***


Tashi resisted the urge to punch a boulder into each Fire Nation soldier's stupid smug face, and stepped into the boat. She hated boats, hated leaving comfortable rock and earth behind; but she wasn't going to let these idiots know it, so she kept her face blank and smooth.

She'd known Haru was probably right as soon as he'd said it was a trap—rockslides happened, of course, but they weren't all that common, not even in the rocky foothills around Lingsao. But just because it had been a trap, that didn't mean the old man pinned under the stones hadn't really been pinned. The Fire Nation had pulled tricks like this before, and they tended not to be terribly concerned with what happened to their bait; they had been as likely as not to just leave him there to die, if Tashi hadn't gone for it.

So she had; she'd Earthbent the rocks up and away from him, and let the soldiers who just happened to be patrolling in the area right then take her away for it.



It could be worse, she thought, as the Fire Nation boat began pulling away from shore. At least now she might have a chance to figure out whether Mother, Father, and Shanmi were still alive, which was more than she'd had when she had been safely on shore. And if they weren't, well. She wouldn't have to resist the urge to crush people's faces in anymore. That would be a relief.


***


"And they took her away," Haru finished. "They must be down to the sea by now; they've probably loaded her on the boat already. We're never going to be able to get her out of there."

"We might," Nayu said, but she was frowning unhappily, and Katara had the impression that she wasn't sure she was telling the truth.

"How?" said another girl sitting nearby. "It's always moving, we're never going to be able to find it. And there'll be so many soldiers on it. There's only eleven—well, ten of us, now."

Katara glanced at Suki, who had put down her rice, and then over at Aang, who was floating by the window with a distinctly serious expression on his translucent face. "Fourteen," Katara said. "I think we can help you."

"Fourt—" Sokka began, frowning at her, and then got a peculiar expression on his face. "Oh. Uh, Katara, are you—sure about this?"

"He can help," Katara said, "and you know he can, unless you've already forgotten last time—"

"Okay, wait," Nayu said, holding her hands up palm out. "Fourteen? He? What am I missing, here?"

Sokka glared at Katara halfheartedly for a moment, and then gave up, shaking his head. "Okay, fine, bring on the dead kid talk."


*


Nayu stared at her, brow furrowed. "So he was the Avatar before you, and now he ... follows you from the spirit world, and no one else can see him?"

Katara nodded, but it was Suki who said, unexpectedly, "Exactly."

Nayu turned to look at her. "You believe this?" she said.

"No," Suki said, very calm, "I don't have to. I know that it's true. Not quite the same thing." Nayu quirked an eyebrow at her, but Suki went on, undaunted. "I know she's the Avatar; she saved my entire village from the Fire Nation, she stopped all the fires at once just by closing her hands. And I know Aang is there, because he helped us save Shinsotsu last week. He spied on the Fire Nation for us, and everything he told us was true."

Nayu blinked. "You three—four—have had a pretty interesting time of it, haven't you?" she observed.

"You could say that, yeah," Sokka said, tone heavy with the weight of the understatement.

"So he's here right now?" Nayu said, eyes darting around the room.

"Over there," Katara said, pointing to the window. The conversation might get a little old, but there was a small, gleeful part of her that she suspected would never get tired of introducing people to Aang, just for the looks they got on their faces.

Nayu gazed at what must have looked to her like empty space for nearly a full minute, and then finally sighed. "Well, I want to get Tashi back more than I want to not believe you; but I can't make anyone else break into a prison on the say-so of an invisible person if they're not willing to risk it," she said.

Haru bit his lip, clearly at least a little uncertain; but then he sucked in a breath, and said, "I will," very firmly.

"Okay," Nayu said, "that makes—um, six. Time to ask everybody else."




It actually went quite well, Katara thought; the final tally was twelve, and the two who refused only did so because they had younger siblings they didn't want to leave behind if it all went badly. "To be honest, I'd rather go with you," one of them, a boy, said, sighing. "The first time we ever hatch a plan to break into a prison, and I've got to stay behind."

"Yeah, well, next time we'll make sure you get to go," Nayu said, very dry.

There were plenty of fishermen living in Lingsao—or there had been, at least, before the Fire Nation had taken up residence right off the shore. So there were, correspondingly, plenty of boats tied up along the shoreline, though many of them probably hadn't been used in months, if not years.

"We'll take three," Nayu said authoritatively; "that way, if one of them gets sunk, the others will still have a chance," and then, as though she hadn't just said something deeply discomfiting, "and you'll have to go in front, so that we can follow wherever Aang tells you to go."

Aang's expression was serious, but his eyes were alight—because, Katara guessed, this was something he could do that would make a difference. It would be frustrating to anyone, not being able to touch anything or anybody, having only one person in the world who could see or hear you; it had to be even worse for Aang, who wanted so badly to help people, to make things better.

He drifted ahead of them, toward the smoke. The boats followed along behind, Katara's in front; Suki and Sokka were along with her, and Haru, too. Katara sped all three boats along as much as she could without making too much noise.

They stopped when they got closer to the smoky haze, and Aang floated on ahead to look for the prison ship, the blue glow of him slowly overwhelmed by grey as he headed off into the smoke.

The wait reminded Katara of being back in Shinsotsu, except it took a good half-hour this time, and Katara couldn't help but jump at every little splash, thinking each one meant the vast bulk of the prison ship was about to come up behind them. Finally, though, Aang came back, almost breathless—out of pure excitement, since he didn't really need to breathe.

"I found it," he shouted, since he didn't have to worry about attracting attention. "I found it, come on, this way."

They followed him through the smoke; it was like hunting in heavy fog, except it was inching toward midday, and whenever they were not beneath a thick plume, the sun shone down brilliantly.

Aang brought them up toward the stern of the ship, starboard side, having already ascertained that there was a single bored guard in the stern who liked to stare off over the port-side rail. "Here, hang on a second," he told Katara, who made the water under the boats still with a backwards sweep of her arms, and then he flew up the side of the ship and over the rail.

The ship itself was immense—Katara had expected it to be, given that it had to be holding all the prisoners the Fire Nation had taken from Lingsao over three years' time plus enough soldiers to keep that many people under guard, but it was still impressive. It was far larger than Zuko's ship, but also correspondingly less streamlined, and probably quite a bit slower. Still, that didn't make the height of the sides any less daunting; Katara stared up at the imposing wall of iron stretching above her head and couldn't help but swallow nervously.

Aang's translucent head appeared over the rail a moment later. "All right," he shouted down, "it's clear for now. Go ahead and lift somebody up, there's a stack of crates right here to hide behind."

Katara glanced back over her shoulder at Suki, who grinned back. "I take it that means it's time," she said, and shuffled over to the side of the boat on her knees. "Let's do it."

Katara took a deep breath, and concentrated: it was much, much harder to freeze the water here, where it was so warm, but she'd been using her bending so much recently that the effort wasn't nearly as draining as it might have been back at home. Suki stepped out onto the little iceberg, testing it carefully with one foot before she put her full weight on it, and then turned and nodded; Katara sucked in another full breath, and put her whole body into the flowing upward stroke that lifted the ice—and Suki—up the side of the ship.

The tower of ice held perfectly, and above their heads, Suki darted from the top of the ice to the deck of the ship, as easily as she might step across a narrow stream. Katara drew the ice back down carefully, so that there was barely a splash, and allowed herself a small sigh of relief; she'd had brief visions of cracking ice, of Suki's feet sliding out from under her, of any number of other small disasters, in the moments the ice had been rising.

Sokka went next, and then Haru, and then Nayu's boat drew up nearby, and the third behind it. Katara lifted them all, one after the other; there were brief pauses when Aang called for them, so that guards could pass by without having their attention drawn over, but all in all, it didn't take long before Katara was freezing the empty boats together and then stepping out and lifting herself on the ice.

There were indeed crates by the rail, and a line of barrels nearby that had provided an extra hiding place—they wouldn't for long, of course, but then they weren't going to need long.

"That's the bridge, right over there," Aang said, pointing to the nearby wall, which, along with the rail, created a corridor toward the bow. Katara had to resist the urge to try to yank him down behind the crates; sometimes it was still hard for her to remember that no one else could see him. "The ship's really wide—more of a barge than anything else. The main deck is on the other side of the bridge, in the bow; that's where most of the prisoners are." Aang turned and glanced at her.

"What?" Katara whispered.

"There's smoke and coal dust everywhere, it gets on everything," Aang said, eyeing the clean green cloth of her shirt. "They're going to spot you in a second, you guys are way too clean."

Katara almost laughed; here they were breaking into a floating Fire Nation prison, and after finding the thing and bending their way on board, it was their cleanliness that might have doomed them. But she could see that he was right. The metal around them was streaked with soot, the wooden barrels and crates gone vaguely gray with grime above and beyond the usual crusting of salt, and the armor of the guard who was still loitering around on the port side of the stern was dull with dirt.

The base of the rail had accumulated a little pile of coal dust, probably the result of a wind just strong enough to blow it off the middle of the deck, but not strong enough to actually carry it up past the foot of the rail; Katara touched Sokka's shoulder to catch his attention, and then caught up a handful of soot and tossed it at him. She tried to aim carefully—she didn't want him to give them away by coughing, after all—but there was a fair breeze going, and the soot was very light; a little puff of black burst over the cheek he turned to shield his eyes, and when he turned back around, he was glaring vengefully.

"Aang says we have to blend in," Katara protested in a hiss, holding up her hands.

Sokka nodded, as though he accepted her reasoning, and then snagged a double handful of coal dust. "Then let me help you," he said, bland and disingenuous.

He did give Katara enough time to turn her face away before he threw it, in the end, so she was merciful in her retaliation.

Moderately, anyway.


*


After about five minutes of a near-silent but furious soot-fight, the eleven of them who were tangible looked like they had been rolling around in a coal mine, and Aang declared them suitable. Katara passed this on to Sokka, who reluctantly let his newest handful of coal dust go instead of grinding it into her hair the way he had clearly been planning to do.

Aang drifted away for about half a minute, giving the area between them and the prisoners' space on the main deck another look, and then came back, sliding right through a crate to shake his head worriedly. "I don't know about this, Katara," he said. "There's a lot of guards around the prison deck; I don't know how you're going to get in there without getting caught."

Katara gave it a moment's thought, and then nearly laughed. "Well, we're dirty enough now, right?" she said. "We look like the other prisoners?"

"Yeah," Aang said uncertainly.

Katara grinned at him. "So let's get caught."

"Whoa, hey, hang on a second," Sokka hissed from behind her. "I don't like the sound of this plan you're hatching with the dead kid."

"It makes perfect sense," Katara argued. "We're on the ship already—how would we have gotten here? Why would we have come? Twelve—eleven kids, all by themselves? Clearly, we're prisoners who were trying to escape the ship. We get caught, and they'll just toss us in with everybody else, which is exactly what we want anyway."

"No reason to sneak in when we can get them to let us in," Nayu agreed in a murmur from behind Sokka's shoulder.

"I feel like their idea of letting us in is going to be kind of uncomfortable," Sokka observed, but he didn't protest any more after that.


*


They darted from behind the crates and barrels to the rear of the bridge, and let themselves get caught by the bored guard on the port side. Katara was pretty sure that their logic was sound, and nobody was going to bother looking around for boats, but if they'd let themselves get spotted at starboard, it wouldn't have taken much for somebody to glance over the side and see the three fishing boats that were still frozen to the ship.

It was actually almost fun; they plastered themselves to the rear wall of the bridge, like they were trying to be stealthy, and crept along in a line. The guard was leaning on the rail, staring out at the water and the mountains beyond, which were faintly visible through the smoke, and humming to himself.

Sokka started to creep out toward him, until Katara caught his arm. "I'm lending our escape attempt some authenticity," he whispered, shaking his elbow free. "If we were really trying to break out of here, we would totally whack that guy."

Katara had to admit that this was probably true, and it also guaranteed that he would notice them, which hadn't been as foregone a conclusion as she had initially been expecting; Sokka ended up having to actually hit him, because he didn't turn around before Sokka made it the entire thirty feet that there were between the rear wall of the bridge and the stern rail. Sokka was gentle about it, since actually succeeding in knocking him out would have sort of defeated the purpose of the whole thing, and the guard hunched under the blow and shouted wordlessly.

"Prisoner escape!" cried the next guard down, and Katara had to be very stern with herself to keep from smiling when a mob of guards came running.


*


It wasn't hard to avoid smiling when the guards actually tackled them to the deck; the one who grabbed Katara wasn't very delicate about it, and getting somebody's knee to the spleen didn't exactly make Katara want to laugh. They fought a little, of course, and Suki couldn't seem to help taking the first guard that rushed her down to the deck with a couple jabs, but then she visibly remembered that they needed to lose for their plan to work, and reluctantly left an opening for another guard to knock her feet out from under her.

Finally, they had all let themselves be subdued—except for Aang, of course, who watched, grinning, from halfway through the wall of the bridge—and the guards dragged them toward the bow, and down the steps from the stern deck into the prisoners' enclosure. "No meals for these rats for three days," said a woman at the top of the stairs, who, judging by her armor, was at least a lieutenant; she had a very impressive sneer. "And a whipping if you're caught outside the prison bay or the boiler rooms again. That should teach you a lesson."

The guards shoved them down the stairs, but they weren't nearly as rough as they could have been; there were only a couple of stumbles, and no one fell over. Katara made her expression dispirited and vaguely resentful, instead of triumphant, and was just about to turn and ask Nayu whether they should split up to look for Tashi when someone shouted, "Nayu!"


***


Shira couldn't believe it; her own daughter was one of the last people she had ever expected to see in here. But there she was, brushing herself off perfunctorily after the guards pushed her in. "Nayu," she said again, hurrying forward, and caught her daughter by the shoulders as she turned to see who had shouted.

"Mother," Nayu said, and grinned at her, as though she hadn't just been arrested and thrown onto the same prison ship Shira had been stuck on for the past three years.

Shira shook her a little; Nayu waited it out with a patient expression that said very clearly that she was humoring her ridiculousness. "What are you doing here? How did they catch you? What were you thinking? Were you thinking?"

"I've missed you, too, Mother," Nayu said, very dry.

"I would rather keep missing you than see you stuck in here," Shira shot back, although she had to admit there was a part of her that was just a little grateful—Nayu had gotten distinctly taller, in three years; her hair was longer, and her face thinner; she didn't look like a child anymore, and it was pleasant to have a chance to see the difference even as it pained her to have missed seeing it happen.

"It's all right, Mother," Nayu said, blithe, "it's all part of our plan. They didn't catch us," and only then did Shira remember there were nearly a dozen of them standing there, not just Nayu. Eight of them, she recognized from the village—and Tyro was going to be so glad to know Haru was still alive, when he came back up from the boilers—but three of them, two girls and a boy, were complete strangers. "We came on purpose," Nayu went on, and Shira put her curiosity on hold so that she could stare at her daughter with the incredulousness that statement deserved.

"They haven't—captured Lingsao, or declared war on the queen, have they?" Shira said, trying to think of any other reason why a prison ship might be preferable to living in the village. It had to be a strain, of course—never bending anything, never even practicing, constantly having to keep your head down in your own village—but a strain wasn't the same thing as prison. The village had food, clean water, no coal shovels, no whippings; no boilers to burn you, no smoke in your lungs; no coal grime to creep into your blisters and strike you with fever. It was nothing like prison at all.

"No, no," Nayu said, shaking her head. "We came to get Tashi—and as many other people as we can, while we're here."

Tashi—yes, of course, Shanmi's older sister, Yunan and Mingti's daughter. They'd dumped her in just this morning. "But how?" Shira said.

Nayu beamed, as though she had almost been hoping Shira would ask. "Mother, I would like to introduce you to the Avatar," she said.


***


Katara felt her face get hot, but obligingly tried to keep her expression appropriately Avatar-serene as Nayu's mother stared at her.

"And you're sure about this," she said slowly.

Nayu nodded. "Absolutely," she said. "I'm sure."

Her mother's gaze flickered back and forth between the two of them for a moment, and Katara braced herself for more disbelief, and maybe an argument—she even glanced to the side to make sure Aang was still with them, just in case Nayu's mother asked for some kind of demonstration—but after a moment, Nayu's mother started nodding. "All right," she said. "You're sure, and you obviously got on here somehow; that's good enough for me."

Nayu grinned at her, brief and bright, and said, "I thought it might be."

But Nayu's mother had started frowning ever so faintly. "But you're going to have quite a time getting Tashi out," she said. "They like to send new arrests to the boilers—to get them in line, show them how things work here, that kind of thing. She's still below, shoveling."

Katara glanced at Aang, who was smiling already. "Time to do a little more sneaking."




The prison ship was enormous, and much more complicated than any boat Nayu had ever been on before; if she had maybe been harboring a few doubts about Katara's status as the Avatar before, she certainly wasn't now, because Katara was clearly doing something mysterious to find her way around, whether it was following the instructions of a dead Avatar's spirit or not.

Of course, she couldn't do everything herself. Mother started a fight with Tashi's father, both of them careful to open their hands with every blow and land kicks in non-essential places, and Tashi's mother obligingly clutched Shanmi and screamed bloody murder. The sneering lieutenant shouted for the guards to intervene, and after a few moments there was nobody watching the stairs that led belowdecks.

They nearly got caught partway down by more guards rushing up to the main deck—apparently Mother's little fight had blossomed into a proper brawl—but a moment before the tromp of boots got loud enough to serve as a warning, Katara looked up and nodded at nothing, and yanked them all forward and around a corner into a side hall.

It wasn't hard to find the boiler room, in the end; it was nearly all the way to stern, and the heat coming from it, even from the corridor, was incredible. Nayu stared at the immense boilers, and couldn't help thinking that the openings for the coal looked like gaping mouths—like the whole ship was some kind of awful spirit monster, bound to carry them as long as they fed it.

Fortunately for them, aside from the hot red light spilling from the boilers, there wasn't much illumination, and they could flatten themselves against the rear wall, near the piles of coal waiting to be shoveled, without attracting any attention. There were only a few guards left, presumably since so many had gone running up to help subdue everyone who'd gotten drawn into Mother's brawl, and even though Nayu couldn't see their faces clearly, their stances screamed of boredom.

She saw why a moment later, when she took a closer look at a nearby prisoner; the prisoners were chained together, heavy shackles around their ankles so as to keep their hands free for the long-handled coal shovels.

It wasn't hard to spot Tashi; she was one of the younger prisoners, and even after shoveling coal for hours, still distinctly cleaner than most. Unfortunately, she was also a few coal piles away from them, off to the left. There was no way they were going to be able to get to her without attracting attention—at least, not by staying on the floor.

"Can't let a little more dirt stop us now," Suki murmured, and led the way up the nearest hill of coal, staying close to the rear wall of the boiler room.

Nayu agreed with the sentiment, but it was more than just a little more dirt; by the time they had wobbled their way up the first pile, her hands were probably never going to be clean again, and she could practically taste the coal through her fingertips. The chunks of coal shifted under their hands and feet, and there were several close calls when a small coalslide nearly made someone lose their footing. The Fire Nation actually kept the ship's coal in some other bay somewhere, and had mechanized the process of dumping it from there to where the shovelers could reach it, which they discovered halfway up the second pile when a creak of metal from somewhere above them was followed by Suki, Sokka, and Haru abruptly vanishing under a hail of coal.

Nayu only barely managed to keep from yelping in surprise, and quickly knelt down to help the others dig them out. "I am going to be tasting coal all day," Sokka griped when they got him loose.

Suki was calmly practical. "At least now we blend in even better," she said, glancing down at her blackened clothes.

The small valley between that coal pile and the next one over was a perfect spot to stop—fairly close to Tashi, but the coal piles hid them from anybody further off to the side. Nayu crept out toward the boilers as far as she dared, and then took a small piece of coal and tossed it very gently in Tashi's direction.

It rolled to a stop near Tashi's heel, and the next time she stepped back to swing her shovel away from the boiler, she stepped on it. Nayu could see her frown, side-lit by the red-orange blaze of the boiler; she picked it up and turned to throw it back onto a pile, and that was when she spotted them.

She just stared at them for a second, frozen, and then the break in the steady motion of shoveling must have caught someone's attention. "Hey!" shouted a guard Nayu couldn't see, somewhere to their right. "What are you doing?"

"Just—checking my shovel," Tashi lied, tossing the coal chunk away. "I thought the blade might be coming loose."

For a moment it seemed like that would be it, but then Katara, who was behind Nayu, reached forward and grabbed her wrist. "He's coming to check," she hissed, though Nayu couldn't hear any footsteps over the constant shuffle of metal shovels against coal, and the clanking and whooshing of the boilers. The ghost Avatar, she reminded herself.

There was no way they were going to be able to climb away over the coal without getting anybody's attention—not fast enough to get out of there before the guard came near. All they could do was hope that he would stop far enough away that he wouldn't be able to see them; and that hope went out the window the moment he stepped into view, saying, "Nice try—you won't get a break that way, you stupid—"

He must've caught sight of them out of the corner of his eye in the middle of the word; he turned, brows drawing down into a puzzled frown, a moment before Tashi swung her shovel into the back of his head.

He dropped like a sack of potatoes—but not without prompting a lot of shouts and yells from the other guards, and this time, Nayu didn't need the Avatar and her ghost to tell her the soldiers were coming for them.

It only happened because Nayu wasn't thinking straight; they were trapped in the middle of a metal prison with ocean all around them, and so she had absolutely no reason to assume that the foot-stamp and follow-up punch that she aimed at the first guard who came into view would do anything at all. And at first, she didn't even realize that it had. She thought to herself that she was an idiot even as she threw the punch—at nothing but air, of course, because the guard was still a few yards away at best—and she had several moments to wonder sort of absentmindedly why the guard's eyes were widening before the guard threw up her arm and a dozen coal chunks struck it.

Nayu stared at the guard, who had stumbled back a step under the sudden onslaught of flying coal, and then at her hands, smeared with coal dust and looking highly ordinary, as though they hadn't just done something that Nayu would have sworn five minutes ago was completely impossible.

"Well," said the man shackled to Tashi's left, who had been watching with a look of vague resignation before—the resignation was gone now, replaced by a small, speculative smile. "That was interesting."




Before the guards broke and ran for the deck, the Earthbenders downed six more of them with coal, and one of them had the keys to the shackles. In ten minutes, they went from crouching nervously behind a coal pile hoping nobody would see them to charging back up the corridor to the prison deck, a veritable wall of coal in front of them and a whole mob of freed prisoners behind them. Katara could see that the fight Nayu's mother had started was still going, though it was now between the prisoners and the guards who were trying to subdue them.

The sudden addition of a crowd of angry benders who finally had something to bend turned the tide in the prisoners' favor almost immediately, and in the end, Katara barely had to do anything. Nayu led the charge forward, and the guards were pummeled with coal before they even had a chance to figure out what was going on. Firebending mostly just set the coal aflame, which essentially meant that the Earthbenders could send fireballs right back at the soldiers. Suki plunged right into the thick of things, and somehow managed to track down the guard she'd had to lose to before, dropping him to the deck with one kick to the head and a satisfied look on her face.

Katara managed to shove her way back to the stairs to the upper deck, and from there, she was able to see everything. She used long, flowing sideways moves to pull water up from the ocean and drop it onto Firebender soldiers who were about to launch flames; usually the sudden drenching was enough to put out whatever fire they'd started to bend, and served to distract them besides.

Nayu's mother and Tashi's parents were fighting their way toward the upper deck, too. Katara graciously helped clear the way, slinging a long whip of water around behind the ankles of the soldiers who rushed them at the same moment that the Earthbenders shot handfuls of coal into their faces; the soldiers could have recovered from one or the other, but both at once was too much, and they all tumbled to the deck. Nayu's mother, Katara noticed with a guilty sort of delight, was not especially careful where she put her feet as she maneuvered over them.

She reached the bridge successfully, Tashi's parents fending off most of the soldiers who came at her with hunks of flying coal; Katara noticed that her hand looked odd, sharp-angled and black, a moment before she sent a punch flying at the metal door to the bridge and left a dent behind. Coal - she had bent it around her hand and her wrist; and another three or four punches with her coal-reinforced hand warped the bridge door far enough that she could open it.

After that, it was all over. The commander of the ship surrendered the bridge almost immediately; Katara guessed by the unsettled look on his face that he had been hoping to remain safely in the bridge and let his soldiers deal with everything, and had not at all been expecting Nayu's mother to break the door down.

Nayu's mother shoved him aside and went for the wheel, and a moment later the great ship began to swing around, smoke and sky and water spinning past the bow until at last they were headed back toward the shore. There were still pockets of guards down on the prisoners' deck who were fighting, but they all seemed to pause at once when the ship began to turn; and a great cry went up from every grimy green-robed Earthbender, a hundred fists bending a hundred celebratory chunks of coal into the air at once.


*


"Thank you for coming for me," Tashi told them all, once they were back on shore and safe, with the former prison ship anchored in the bay behind them. She had kept her little sister close the whole way back to Lingsao; Shanmi was bearing it with a layer of exasperated good humor that Katara suspected was covering up quite a bit of relief. "And you," Tashi went on, giving Katara a particularly blinding smile. "They never could have managed it without you."

Katara felt her face heat up a little, and grinned back. "You're welcome," she said, shooting Aang a sideways glance that she hoped communicated that she wasn't trying to take the credit for herself; it just didn't seem like the right moment for—well, for the dead kid talk, as Sokka had so delicately phrased it.

But she shouldn't have worried. Aang smiled, and it was the broad one that looked like it might split a less experienced smiler's cheeks in half; he'd been floating a little further off the ground than usual since they'd left the ship, like the chance to help them make a real difference had literally made him lighter.

"Hey," Sokka said, "credit where credit is due. I got us caught by that one guy."

"Yes, you were indispensable," Suki agreed, a smirk faintly visible around the corners of her mouth. "No one else could possibly have hit him on the head."

"Let's just say it all worked out and we're grateful," Nayu said, laughing. "With all the Earthbenders free, we'll have that garrison out of here in a week." She turned to Katara. "If there's ever anything you need from us, Avatar, just ask, and it will be our pleasure to provide."

Katara reached out to grip her shoulder, and smiled. "I'll let you know."

Chapter Text

It took nearly three days for the fleet from Shinsotsu to slow and begin to drop away behind them, and a fourth for Zuko to be sure that it would not reappear the moment they turned their course northward again. Such a waste of time, with the Avatar still somewhere out there—but there was nothing to be done about it.

But then, at last, they were free, and Mizan followed Zuko's orders to turn the ship toward the north, with all the speed they could wrench from their three working boilers, without even a doubtful look.

Of course, there were no signs of the canoe's passage, and Zuko didn't expect to sight it from the ship—no, their best odds of catching the Avatar now were to let her reach land and then track her there. On the water, she was as good as invisible; but on land, she would either slow herself down in her attempts to avoid attention, or leave a trail of rumors a mile wide.

So they sped through the White Sea, north and slightly west, and, finally, two weeks after the Earth Kingdom ships let them be, they drew close to the city of Jindao.

"She'll disembark there—she'll have to," Zuko said, staring down at the chart spread over the table in the bridge. "She's headed for the north, for Kanjusuk," and here he stabbed a finger down at the faintly blue-tinged dot that marked the Water Tribe city's location, "and there's no way she'll take the time to go around all of Gungduan when she could just continue north on land. If she stops to the south, she'll have to go through the mountains and cross the Lin Wei; and the coast to the north is covered in Fire Nation colonies. Better to get off on the northern bank and pass through Jindao—an Earth Kingdom capital, after all, even if it is occupied by the Fire Nation."

"Very logical," said Uncle Iroh, his approval audible, and Zuko did his best not to look visibly pleased by it.

"And the blockade, sir?" Mizan said. "If our information is correct, Captain Zhao is the officer in command, and as I recall, he's not especially fond of you."

Zuko grimaced, turning back to the map. Zhao had been there, the day—the day it had happened. He was one of the ones who hadn't been sorry to see Zuko exiled; and once he'd made it up, Zhao never changed his mind. "We'll go around," he said. "Twenty soldiers with me and Uncle, on land—we can wait until dark, and take a few sampans. The blockade ships probably won't even notice us. And if they do, we can say we're—" and Zuko felt his mouth twist a little, "peasants from Jindao, fishing."

When he glanced up again, Mizan looked unaccountably amused. "And the ship?" she said.

"You take it," Zuko said, as though she didn't already know—as if he'd ever seriously consider leaving anyone but Mizan in command.

"The area just north of Port Tsao is neutral ground," Uncle Iroh added. "We will be able to meet you there without interference."

"And if you don't come?" Mizan said.

Zuko made a dismissive gesture. "You know what to do—just—"

"Siege Jindao and come rescue us," Uncle Iroh said.

"—wait as long as you can," Zuko finished, giving Uncle a flat look.

"Understood, sir," Mizan said, the barest hint of a grin passing over her face.

Zuko considered demanding to know which one of them she was talking to; but in the end, he suspected, it wouldn't matter. Mizan gave their theoretical authority over her as much respect as it deserved—if sieging Jindao ended up looking like the better option to her, she'd do it, blockade and fleet and Captain Zhao be damned.

Uncle was beaming at her; clearly, Zuko thought, his real mistake had been ever letting them talk to each other. "Wonderful," he said. "Join me for some tea?"




"Well," Sokka said, "looks like this is where we get off."

Suki glanced at Katara, who was staring down at the map with a distinctly discontented look on her face. What Sokka had said was true—the thick arm of land that was the lowlands of Gungduan stretched out so far to the west it was practically part of the Fire Nation. Trying to sail around it wouldn't just triple the distance they'd have to go—or maybe even quadruple it, Suki thought, taking a moment to gauge the route again. It would also dump them right into the middle of the Smoking Sea, which was undoubtedly swarming with Fire Nation ships. Going that way was as good as suicide; Suki had said as much not five minutes ago as she looked the map over herself, which was why they were having this conversation at all.

Going overland was by far the better route, even if they were going to have to walk. Suki was quite possibly looking forward to Sokka's inevitable grumbling about how much they were going to have to carry a little more than she should have been.

But Katara was sighing like they had all just agreed to tie rocks to their feet and not eat until they hit the northern coast. "Katara," Suki said.

"No, no, you're right," Katara said, as though they'd been trying to talk her into it instead of sitting there waiting for her to snap out of it. Suki's first thought was that maybe she'd been talking to Aang, but when she looked up, she looked at Suki, not empty air off to one side of the canoe. "You're right, there's no other way. If we're going to get to the north as fast as possible without getting killed, we have to."

Suki gave Sokka a look, but he just glanced at Katara—who was still frowning faintly at the map—and shrugged his shoulders very slightly. She talks to dead kids; she's a weirdo, Suki could practically hear him say.

The city of Jindao and the outlying towns and villages that surrounded it sat on a rather narrow neck of land, with the Gulf of Gungduan to the west and the Lin Wei River to the south and southeast—and a small, mostly unoccupied chunk of coastline to the southwest, the corner that was left between the sea and the mouth of the Lin Wei. That chunk of coastline had been growing steadily larger all day, the water beneath them gone cloudy from the soil dragged down from the mountains by the Lin Wei; and finally, just as the sun began to tip from overhead to distinctly westerly, the canoe came up against the shore with a scrape.

"We never come up on a nice, sandy beach," Sokka said, standing and stepping gingerly over the side. "It's always rocks."

They decided they might as well eat lunch before they set off on foot. They were going to have to pack everything up before they left the canoe, and the less fresh—and therefore heavy—food they had to carry, the better. It was late spring at home, Suki thought, and felt a sudden tiny pang: late spring, that would soon be heating into early summer; growing season for the early crops, planting for others, and Mother would be hoeing, alone—

But they were in the north now, and it was edging into fall here. Not that you could really tell—Jindao was pretty close to the middle of the map, which meant that it would probably have felt like summer to Suki even if they'd arrived here in midwinter. She'd never traveled so far in her life; the transition from south to north was a little disorienting.

The meal was distinctly quieter than usual. Sokka talked, of course, but it was limited to the occasional random observation. Katara was the one who usually turned his ramblings into an actual conversation, and she spent the entire time sitting on a flat rock with her feet dipped in the ocean, staring pensively out over the water.


***


"Well, I guess that's everything," Sokka said, tightening one last makeshift strap around his pack before sitting back on his heels with a sigh. "You were a good canoe, Canoe."

Katara stared down into the body of the canoe, at the seat in the stern that had been hers for weeks now—had it only been weeks? It felt like it had been much longer since they had left home; much longer, and much further. Everything was so different: so much hotter, so much leafier; there were so many cities, so many soldiers; so many more people than she was used to, but fewer of them on her side. She thought longingly that she would give anything to go back and spend one long, exhausting day hunting on the summer ice, with the cold seeping into her fingers and the glare of a never-setting sun blinding in her eyes.

Selfish as it felt to think about it, she couldn't help wanting it. And even though she'd never have done it, not in a thousand years—if nothing else, there was the equally selfish motivation of Father coming home to keep her going—the option had always been there, before.

Before now.

Now the canoe was sitting in front of her, empty, and Suki was standing with her foot on the bow, watching Katara's face for a signal that it was all right to shove it back into the ocean. They could never take it with them, Katara knew that; carrying a fifteen-foot Water Tribe canoe through a city occupied by the Fire Nation wasn't a very good way to stay unnoticed, and their walk north was going to be hard enough without portaging the entire way. But pushing the canoe back out to sea felt like an ending, like closing a door. They couldn't go back, now.

"It'll be all right," Aang said suddenly, from where he was waiting, one foot hovering over water and the other, over rock. She glanced at him, and he smiled—not his usual wide grin, something a little more restrained. "You'll get home again someday; I know it."

Katara crouched down and ran her fingers slowly along the canoe's side, indulging herself for a moment in the full depth and breadth of her homesickness. And then she looked out at the ocean, took a deep breath of the salty air, and stood up. "All right," she said. "Let's go," and Suki pushed; Katara didn't watch the canoe drift away.


*


The wait to get through the gates of Jindao was unbelievably long—which was annoying, but it did mean that they could sit down without losing their place in the line. The afternoon heat was incredible, especially since there was no shade: the Fire Nation, probably sick of surprise attacks coming out of the forests near the city, had burned a wide clear zone around the city walls.

Their Earth Kingdom clothes had been useful before, but Katara was pretty sure they would be invaluable here; they'd never have been let through the gate wearing Water Tribe blue and white, but three refugee kids from an outlying village were unexceptional in this crowd. A little too unexceptional for comfort, in truth: everyone around them was oddly quiet, most of them noticeably thin in clothes that had undoubtedly been theirs for years, and children Katara would've expected to be running around making nuisances of themselves just stood or sat by their parents' feet, looking tired and dirty and huge-eyed.

Suki wandered off a few times—Katara suspected it was an impulse from her warrior training, to survey her immediate surroundings regularly. She spoke to a few people during her rounds, and came back to them once with a faintly bitter expression on her face. "This area's been occupied for a long time," she murmured, when she was close enough. "The front's gone back and forth around here dozens of times; the city being taken is just another kick in the head for most of the people who live here."

Aang just drifted around nearby, gazing pensively at the empty ground around the city. It wasn't quite the same situation, but Katara figured the idea of Fire Nation troops invading had to cut close to the bone for him.

The sun had dropped low by the time they were close enough to see the gate itself, and not just the walls. It went violently red long before Katara was expecting it; but it didn't take her long to realize that the cause was a combination of dust and smoke—dust, from that broad span of earth the Fire Nation had burned bare, and smoke, from Fire Nation ships. Another of Suki's trips had brought the report that Jindao's port on the Gulf of Gungduan was subject to a blockade.

They were a few families down the line when the first lamps by the gate were lit, and then, somewhere inside the city, a series of gongs were rung. "A curfew warning," Suki explained. "The lady three behind us with the donkey cow told me about it earlier. Another hour, and Earth Kingdom citizens aren't allowed to be out in the streets until sunrise."

"That's ... actually kind of handy," Sokka said, and then threw up his hands when Katara glared at him. "I mean, obviously it's not good for, you know, the people who live here, and it might make it hard to get out of here in a hurry. But at least nobody's going to be asking us why we're trying to stay off the street and avoid the guards tonight."

In the end, they didn't even have to come up with a reason to go through the gate; the family in front of them was a large one, and they stood as close to them as they dared and then moved along with them when the guards waved them through. Aang couldn't resist the urge to float up to one guard's face, and wave one transparent hand about an inch from the end of his nose—Katara nearly laughed aloud and ruined the whole thing.

A small handful of Katara's remaining old coins, and they had a single room in an inn—a little tight, but they had packed up their sleeping mats with everything else, and there was just enough space on the floor for two, with one on the sleeping platform and one hovering around near the ceiling.

"For our first time sneaking into occupied territory," Sokka said, when they were all settled, "that actually went pretty well."

"Yeah, say that part about sneaking again, I don't think the people downstairs heard you," Suki murmured, sounding amused; and that was the last thing Katara heard before she fell asleep.




Even if she hadn't gotten explicit agreement from Zuko about the necessity of avoiding Zhao, Mizan wasn't an idiot. When Zuko was in the mood to give orders, she did her best to convince him to give the right ones; but sometimes Zuko was oblivious to even the clearest of hints, and in the end, when you came right down to it, this was her ship. She'd be damned if she'd let Zhao get his hands on it.

She hadn't gotten the chance to get her hands on a copy of Zhao's orders, but she'd been in the Imperial Navy for a while before she'd gotten shunted off onto the prince's exile ship, and she had a pretty good idea of the kind of range a normal close blockade ought to have. She'd plotted it out on the charts very carefully, and plotted her own course accordingly.

So it was something of a surprise to be called up on deck by a lookout shouting that four Navy ships were coming up fast.

They'd hardly get anywhere if they tried to run, Mizan knew; better to take the more dignified route, and not try. The lead ship was Zhao's, as Mizan had suspected it might be—she knew because she recognized the insignia on the banner draped over the wall of the bridge, but, she thought, it was possible she'd have been able to tell even without that. Zhao's egomania was so rampant you could practically taste it in the air.

Mizan had learned the hard way not to put too much stock in appearances, but Zhao never learned anything, and certainly not the hard way; so she made sure that she was ready when he boarded. She seated herself in the fine—and rarely-used—chair bolted into the bridge, with her charts spread out in front of her and her helmet to the side, and though she obviously heard the bridge door swing open, she kept looking at her charts, until Zhao was forced to clear his throat.

She took her time looking up; Zhao was the sort of man who let himself be bothered by that kind of thing. "Captain Zhao," she said, inclining her head the barest minimum, and then, more pointedly: "This is a surprise."

"An unpleasant one, for you," Zhao snapped; "or, at least, it soon will be."

"Yes, the displeasure is clearly mine," Mizan agreed. "I was under the impression that you were charged with holding Jindao, and keeping a blockade on the port to stop the rebellion's supply lines; yet here you are, more than ten miles further from the city than you ought to be. Mindboggling." Unless, of course, you're the kind of ass who would violate orders just to find and gloat over a former prince whose life you watched get ruined, she did not say.

Zhao glared like maybe he'd heard it anyway, and slammed an armored fist down on the table. "Enough," he said. "Where is he? Why are you here?"

"I don't answer to you, Zhao," Mizan said, keeping her tone light and pleasant.

"I am a captain—"

"You can't outrank someone who's no longer in the Navy," Mizan said. "The prince—"

"The exile," Zhao snarled; "he has no other title left."

"The prince," Mizan repeated, giving it no other particular emphasis, "is not on board, and even if he were, he would not have broken the terms of his exile; we are not in Fire Nation territory. Your claim to these waters does not extend beyond the blockade. If you would like the officers who outrank you to know that you appear to have intentionally sought out an exile—perhaps even with the intention of conveying him into Fire Nation territory—I would be happy to oblige you."

Zhao scowled, and was clearly about to say something else when the bridge door, still ajar from his entrance, swung open fast enough that it rebounded off the wall with a clang. One of Zhao's soldiers had pushed it, and another was behind him, with an arm around the waist—and a sword to the neck—of one of the ship's cooks.

Mizan grimaced, closing her eyes for a moment. None of their soldiers would ever have spilled a word about Prince Zuko's mission; those who had not learned some loyalty to him over the past three years at least had sufficient respect for either Mizan herself or the Dragon of the West to keep their mouths shut. But neither of the cooks were soldiers—this one was just an unfortunate ship's boy who had annoyed the wrong person enough to get chucked onto the exile ship. A pleasant boy, Zhen; good-natured, and Mizan had mostly forgiven him for the year of burned meals before he'd gotten the hang of the ship's ovens. It was her mistake: she should have thought of him the moment Zhao's ships had come into view, and had somebody barricade the door to the galley.

"Captain," said the soldier with the sword to Zhen's throat, "Captain, listen to this."

Zhao kept his eyes on Mizan, who met them, keeping her face perfectly opaque, even as her heart sank. "I'm all ears, gentlemen," he said.


*


"I'm sorry," Zhen said, "I'm so sorry—they knocked Lao out, I thought they were going to kill me—"

"It's all right," Mizan said, watching the lights of Zhao's four ships grow small with distance. She turned to give Zhen a small smile. "Better that they know than that we all starve without you."

Zhen didn't look entirely convinced. "And it'll—be all right?" he said.

"I should think so," Mizan said. "Obviously, it would have been better for him never to find out; but what's done is done."

"Right, sure," Zhen said. "The prince can handle it."

Mizan managed to shutter the laugh that tried to escape down into a grin. "General Iroh can handle it," she corrected. "And suddenly I'm almost looking forward to it."




From the shelter of the forest, Zuko stared out across the barren land that separated them from the city walls, and cursed Captain Zhao a dozen times over. They could almost certainly cross it without coming to any harm; this was Fire Nation land now, and they were wearing Fire Nation clothing. But they would never get through the gate: Zuko's dishonor was well known, as was the scar that signified it, and Uncle's face was even more famous, though through far better circumstances. Zuko had been hoping they could use some kind of cover to get close enough to sneak over the wall; but there was no chance of that now.

Uncle was, as always, ludicrously calm. "Well," he said. "Chance does not appear to be on our side today."

"Has it ever been?" Zuko muttered, glaring down at the dirt.

"Fortunately for us," Uncle Iroh went on, blithe, "chance alone does not determine success."

"No," Zuko agreed; "our faces do."

Uncle Iroh shook his head. "You give up so easily, nephew," he said. "Surely you cannot think we are the only people disliked by the Fire Nation who have ever wanted to enter Jindao."


*


Zuko had no idea Uncle Iroh had ever been to this part of the Earth Kingdoms before; the Dragon of the West was famous for the action he'd engaged in on the eastern coast of the Earth Kingdoms, not the western.

But he seemed to know this little village south of Jindao like the back of his hand, and he wove between houses so easily Zuko thought he might have been able to do it blindfolded.

There were hardly any Fire Nation soldiers here, and the few who were appeared to be buying supplies—obviously, Zhao hadn't bothered to actually occupy this territory, but Jindao and the battalions that filled it were close enough that Fire Nation soldiers could come and go here as they pleased.

Most of them were on the main road, though, and Zuko and Uncle left that behind almost immediately. The house Uncle Iroh finally turned toward was out on the outskirts of the village, far enough that you could faintly see the mountains on the south side of the Lin Wei over the roof; but Uncle didn't stop there. He bypassed the house entirely, and went straight for the barn.

Zuko eyed it skeptically. "Uncle," he said, rather halfheartedly—protests so rarely had any effect on Uncle Iroh.

"Nephew," Uncle Iroh said, tone pleasant. "Appearances—"

"-aren't everything," Zuko finished, trying not to roll his eyes. "You've told me."

Uncle Iroh beamed. "So I have," he said. "That it is a barn is not what matters; that what we need is inside it does."

Somebody had cut themselves a makeshift peephole in the barn door—Zuko could tell because, besides peepholes not being a standard feature of the admittedly few barns Zuko had seen in his life, the edges were somewhat unevenly cut, and the corners were not quite square with the rest of the building.

Uncle Iroh knocked twice, and a moment later it flipped open, revealing about half of a face, with a very suspicious expression on it. Uncle Iroh flashed—his palm? No, there was something in his hand, though Zuko wasn't quite sure what; it looked like it might be about the size of a small seashell, or a Pai Sho piece—and the peephole closed again, a moment before the door swung open.


*


"So this was your plan all along?" Zuko hissed, trying not to breathe in too deeply; there was only a couple inches' clearance between his face and the straw bale above him. It was unpleasant enough in the back of the cart without adding inhaling hay to an already extensive list of complaints.

"To get ourselves and twenty soldiers safely into the city?" Uncle Iroh murmured. "Yes, that was my plan. You are not in favor, Prince Zuko?"

Zuko couldn't help but glare a little. Uncle Iroh should by all rights be just as uncomfortable as he was, crammed into the dusty, dimly-lit gap left by the strategic removal of straw bales from the cart; but you wouldn't know it, looking at him. He'd closed his eyes and cushioned his head by linking his hands behind it, and Zuko suspected that if he asked, the only thing Uncle would want to improve the conditions would be a cup of jasmine tea.

Infuriating.

"By somehow goading or—or bribing a bunch of Earth Kingdom rebels—"

"Ah, so you are not in favor," Uncle Iroh observed; "you wish us to be caught, and that is why you have raised your voice so indiscriminately."

Zuko pinched his lips together, and forced himself to say nothing in reply. The cart, which had been mostly still—apparently the wait to enter Jindao was long even at sunrise—suddenly began to move again, and for a long moment, there was no sound but the squeaking of old wheels and the whisper of hay shifting.

"People are like barns, nephew," Uncle Iroh murmured, when the cart settled to a halt again. "That they are rebels, farmers, peasants, does not matter."

"That they can do this for us does?" Zuko said.

There was quiet again, and Zuko risked the chance of hay falling to turn his head. Uncle Iroh had opened his eyes, and was looking back at him, with that funny pensive stare, that look that always made Zuko feel like he'd done something wrong, even when he hadn't.

"That they are willing to risk their lives to help us," Uncle said at last. "That does."

There was no practical difference, Zuko thought to himself; but if he said it, he suspected, Uncle Iroh would stare at him some more. So he turned back to gazing at the straw above his head, and said nothing.




They left the inn as early as they could manage it without leaving Sokka behind; as long as they were here, Katara reasoned, they ought to make sure they had everything they might need for their long walk north. At the top of Katara's list were sets of Fire Nation clothes for each of them; their Earth Kingdom clothes had already come in handy more than once, and given how close they were going to be to Fire Nation territory, an even more appropriate disguise couldn't hurt.

But almost the moment they stepped outside, it was clear they were going to have to be careful. Even when they'd been hurrying down the street the night before, searching for an inn only minutes before the curfew gong was bound to ring, there had only been a guard about every street or so—a lot, but not an excessive number, considering that they were enforcing an occupation of enemy territory. If anything, Katara had been expecting fewer in the morning, since the end of curfew meant no need for constant street patrols.

But instead, there were at least four or five times as many. There appeared to be a Fire Nation soldier every few buildings, now, and all of them were surveying the streets carefully.

"Wow," Sokka said, hushed. "And we haven't even done anything yet."

"It must have been somebody else," Suki said, glancing down the street in each direction. "Maybe something happened last night—a bunch of people violated curfew, or the local rebellion tried something. It can't be about us, that doesn't make any sense. So we'll just keep our heads down, and everything will be fine."


***


"Report, Lieutenant," Zhao said, gazing speculatively at the map of the Jindao area that was spread out in front of him.

Yin sighed. The captain had not been expecting such events, she knew, when he had set out that morning to board the ship that had been spotted passing well out of range of the blockade; the chance to humiliate the exiled prince, perhaps, and little more. But that idle impulse had yielded fruit beyond the captain's wildest expectations, and his triumph had been etched all over his face all morning. The Avatar—the Avatar, evidently reborn, and definitely alive. The prince-in-exile had chased her right into the captain's hands, and now all he had to do, he had insisted twice already, was close his fists.

Yin understood his ambition, in an abstract sort of way. It certainly would be an impressive feat, to capture the Avatar after all others had failed for a hundred years, and the temptation to try was logical. But Captain Zhao spoke to Yin as though the Avatar were a prize he had already won by being in the right place at the right time. The part where she was the sole incarnation of elemental power and balance in this world, and not likely to be inclined to go quietly, seemed to have slipped his mind.

"Nothing yet, sir," Yin said dutifully, and then tried, for at least the third time, to work a little common sense into the captain's master plan. "Sir, with all due respect, she could be anywhere in the city—"

"Then be everywhere in the city," Captain Zhao snapped. "She is here somewhere, and I will be the one to catch her." His face twisted in disgust—he was thinking of the exiled prince, Yin surmised. He always got that expresson on his face when he did.

"Sir," Yin said, but got no further before Captain Zhao waved her to silence. His eyes had acquired a speculative sort of squint, and somehow, Yin didn't think it was because he had changed his mind.

"If you cannot corner her," he said slowly, "then we will set a trap for her. We cannot get to her, so she will come to us." He began to nod his head, the idea clearly picking up speed in his mind. "Yes, yes, perfect. She is the Avatar, is she not? No doubt a dutiful and selfless girl."

Yin did her best not to make a face. Their last dutiful and selfless girl had been Avatar Kyoshi—dutiful and selfless, certainly, but that description downplayed the part where she'd cracked off the southern coast of a continent and beaten the stuffing out of Chin the Conqueror just a little bit. "Sir—"

"No doubt," Captain Zhao repeated. "And bound to serve the greater good. Allowing me to kill, oh, a dozen civilians in the central plaza—that wouldn't be to the greater good."

"No, sir," Yin agreed, because that, at least, was true.

"Though perhaps to our good," the captain mused. "Either she hands herself over; or she lets herself be made responsible for the deaths of many, and she will find no friends among the people of Jindao. Both serve our purpose."

Yin let her eyes fall shut for a second. She had imagined many possibilities, when she had enlisted in the Imperial Army of the Fire Lord; none of this had been among them. Zhao was her commanding officer, and she would honor that arrangement as far as she could bear; but if he told her to slit an innocent civilian's throat in the middle of the city square so that he could advance this sudden, irrational crusade another step, she would throw her helmet in his face and take the dishonorable discharge.

"Get a battalion together," Captain Zhao said, "and take them to the plaza. I'll take it from there."

"Yes, sir," Yin said, quiet, fist to her palm, and hoped she could still get out of this without having to take it back.




***


Katara folded her sleeping mat down over the roll of red clothes, and tightened the straps around it again with a satisfied sigh. Given the way this journey seemed determined to go, she was betting they would need them sooner rather than later, and it was a relief to have them in hand. They had had to go all the way to Jindao's vast central market plaza to get a hold of them; the plaza was the Fire Nation's stronghold in the middle of a city that was still not entirely under control.

It was like magic—no sooner had the thought crossed her mind than the screaming started.

"That," Sokka said decisively, "is not a good sound. I think we should get out of here."

Katara shook her head. People had started to flee from the plaza, sprinting for one of the dozen streets that intersected the plaza like wheel spokes. The people of Jindao, beaten down as some of them might be, were still Earth Kingdom citizens; Katara doubted they'd run if the local rebellion had managed to move against the Fire Nation. Which meant it was probably the Fire Nation itself causing the trouble, and if that were true, Katara might be able to do something to stop them. "Let's see what it is," she shouted, over the pounding feet and the cries. "No one'll notice us, it's too chaotic."

A moment later she wished she hadn't said anything so bloodlessly calculating: the crowd between them and the center of the plaza thinned rapidly, and it didn't take long for Katara to spot the first body. Truthfully, Aang saw it first; he had moved into the plaza a little, unhindered by the crush of people as he was, and then he suddenly stopped short, said, "Oh, no," and turned a blue-tinged look of anguish to Katara.

She looked where he had been looking, and a moment later, she saw what he had seen. "Oh," she cried, without entirely intending it, and began to lunge forward; the woman was still on the ground, but too far away for Katara to tell whether she was still breathing, so she might well have been alive.

But Suki caught her arm, and yanked her back toward the vendor's stall they'd been standing next to. "Too late," she said, grim, and only then did Katara notice the blood pooling around the woman's head and shoulders. "They cut her throat."

The fewer the people who remained in the plaza, the easier it was to see what was happening: there were Fire Nation soldiers, at least a battalion, and about half of them had people—Earth Kingdom civilians—in restraining holds; half again of those were holding blades of one kind or another to faces, throats, and bellies. The others were snagging people even as they ran, grabbing arms and clothes and hair. The woman Katara had darted toward was one of at least six on the ground; only one of these was still gasping in harsh breaths through the blood bubbling over his lips.

"What are they doing?" Sokka said, breathlessly horrified.

"Blocking off the streets," Suki said, and, indeed, a new cry of distress had gone up; there were suddenly Fire Nation soldiers at every exit from the plaza, barring the way.

"Enough!" someone shouted over the din, and Katara felt a brief surge of hope, even though the man who'd shouted wore red armor. "People of Jindao, listen to me!"

The cries had already begun to die away; after a moment, all that was left was the sound of a few people sobbing.

The man's expression shifted to one of satisfaction, and Katara felt her insides go suddenly cold.

"Oh, this is bad," Sokka was muttering, "this is bad, this is so bad."

"I have good reason," the man shouted, "to believe that the Avatar is somewhere in this city," and Katara went lightheaded for a moment—six people, six people, dead and dying on the ground in their own city, and it was somehow because of her; she could have screamed, but she didn't have the breath for it, and the man was still talking. "If you can hear me, Avatar," and the disdain in his voice turned the title Katara barely deserved into an insult, "turn yourself in. Hand yourself over, and no more will die. If anyone else here has been aiding her, hiding her, tell me where she is, and no more will die."

"Katara," Suki hissed, "he knows—"

But the man was still speaking. "If you do not?" he said, tone vaguely scolding, and then—no, no—he threw a glance behind him and made a careless motion with one hand, and the soldier he had looked at gripped the shoulders of the man she was holding still more tightly, and readied her sword.

"No," Katara said.


***


Yin set her blade against the man's throat. He wasn't crying, just breathing, fast and shallow and terrified; that actually made it worse. Yin closed her eyes, just for a moment, and prayed for intervention, for something to stop her from spilling his life. She had the desire to throw her sword into Zhao's back and run—did she ever; a helmet to the face, she had decided, was much too good for him—but not quite enough will. And she had to choose now.

But when she opened her eyes again, one slow blink later, everything had changed.

The sea of horrified faces had split, in front of Yin and a little to her left, and nearly all the way back at the building wall that formed part of the plaza's side, a girl was standing, almost unearthly in her calm.

Also, Yin thought dazedly, somewhat unearthly in her ability to float.

Because that was, in fact, what she was doing. Her eyes were blazing blue-white, and there was a breeze rising, lifting the girl's skirts around her shins and her braid around her shoulders. She was dressed in Earth Kingdom green, but her hair—her hair was done in a Water Tribe style, a loop on either side of her face curving back into the braid. The Avatar.

"Let them go," Yin ordered the soldiers to either side of her, over the rising rush of wind; she'd dropped her hand away from the man in front of her and let him run almost as soon as she'd opened her eyes. "No reason to hold them now, she's here." They did it; she was still a lieutenant, at least for the moment. "And this isn't an order, just advice: get out of the way."

The plaza had a central fountain, as many plazas in the city did; the Avatar made a sort of beckoning motion toward it, and the water leapt up and flowed toward her hands, like it had just been waiting for her to ask. There was quite a lot of it, and some of it had nearly reached the Avatar before the last of it had lifted out of the fountain bed.

Zhao laughed, because apparently he still didn't understand, and the Avatar turned her hands outward and swept them toward him, the long, thick whip of water following easily. It struck Zhao from the side, a heavy blow that sent him briefly into the air before he tumbled to the paving stones and skidded to a stop.

Without pausing, the Avatar pulled the whip back around, and Yin threw herself back a step just in time to avoid the sweep that knocked most of the other soldiers to the ground. One of the others who hadn't fallen raised a knife and hurled it at the Avatar; but she brought the whip curling back on itself into a giant whirling sphere of water with one hand, and thrust the other hand up in a sharp punch.

The paving stones in front of the Avatar shot upward with equal sharpness, and the knife struck them with a clang and clattered to the ground. Another quick motion, and the stone by the soldier's feet had lifted to encase him in rock up to his knees; the Avatar shoved outward, and the stone dragged the soldier back across the entire plaza until he struck one of the far walls with a cry. She followed up with a jabbing downward strike, and the very earth broke beneath her hand, a crack darting across the plaza like lightning and growing in moments to the width of a long stride.

The soldiers who had been barring the streets closest to where the Avatar was standing had frozen briefly in surprise—as had just about everyone else in the plaza, Yin thought—but now they seemed to have recovered their equanimity: the smarter half of them had begun to flee, and a half-dozen of the rest seemed to be trying to sneak up on the Avatar from behind.

They were met, though, by a girl expertly wielding a pair of iron fans, and a boy with a club. And in the end, Yin suspected their attempts at stealth would have proven useless. Even as she cracked more massive paving stones and sent them flying at the soldiers in front of her, the Avatar—without even looking—shoved one splayed hand behind her and twisted it, and a cone of wind knocked down a soldier who had been about to stab the girl with the fans in the back.

Yin had reflexively crouched low after dodging the water, and now she hurried over to where Zhao was crumpled on the ground, keeping her head down. He was out, but not dead, so she curbed the urge to run. She might have fought with herself over turning on him before, but she had asked the spirits for an intervention, and they'd given her one. She wouldn't stoop so low as to knife a man already on the ground; but somebody was going to have to help keep him from getting his hands on the Avatar again, and she decided it was going to be her.


***


Zuko pressed himself back into the alcove, and tried to catch his breath. He and Uncle had been halfway across the plaza when the soldiers had started to arrive, and three-quarters of the way when everything had suddenly gone mad. The twenty soldiers who had come with them, he had ordered to spread out across the city, so that they could find the Avatar as soon as possible; he hadn't been expecting her to not end up needing to be found.

Another chunk of stone flew past them and struck the next building over with a crunch, and Zuko flattened himself a little further against the wall. Uncle Iroh was a little less cautious, and was peering around the corner. "Well," he said. "She doesn't seem very happy with Captain Zhao."

"No," Zuko agreed. He thought he had managed to make her angry back in that little village on the island; but that seemed like nothing compared to this. It had been nothing, really—his soldiers had burned a girl's neck in front of her, not killed six people just to draw her out.

He knew he probably ought to be admiring Zhao's technique, but he was weak: he just felt a little sick inside. He had never liked Zhao much, and, almost involuntarily, he found that he liked him even less now.




Suki jabbed the soldier in the belly, and slashed the tips of her other fan at his head when he bent over the strike. The slicing blow didn't catch him across the throat, only along the cheek and into his hair, but Suki couldn't say with any certainty that she would have regretted it if it had. She'd killed people before, pirates and bandits and the like—not a lot of them, but enough. But she nearly always regretted whatever circumstances had made it necessary.

This time, not so much.

She took the soldier behind him down with a vicious blow to the kneecap that made something pop and sent her to the ground, groaning with pain behind clenched teeth, and then realized that was the last of them, and turned around.

The plaza looked like an earthquake had come through, which was actually nearly the truth: giant paving stones had been yanked from their places and were scattered, most of them broken, like so much chaff; all the nearby stalls and carts were at the very least tilted, and at the most overturned, thanks to the tight cone of wind Katara had called up; and the crack she'd put in the ground crossed the plaza from end to end, breaking the fountain's empty basin in two and sending water from the channels that had filled it spewing out at a drunken angle.

No one was up and facing Katara anymore, so, at almost the exact moment Suki looked at her, that odd, opaque light went out of her eyes, and she drifted down out of the air and settled onto a conveniently raised and slanted paving stone.

"Katara," Sokka said from beside her, and let his club slide out of his hands so that he could run to check on her unimpeded.

Suki hung back a moment, but everyone still conscious who was huddled around the edges of the plaza was just staring at them, wide-eyed; and everyone else was dead, unconscious, or too busy bleeding to stand up.

"Mmmwha," Katara murmured as Sokka hauled her up to a sitting position, grimacing a little.

"I'm sorry," Sokka said, "I'm so sorry, I know you're tired; but we seriously need to get out of here."

"That you do," someone said; Suki spun around and flung an arm out reflexively, and about half a second after the last word was out, she had her fan-tips at the throat of a woman in red armor. The woman seemed to have been expecting this, and she already had her arms out, hands loose and open and palm-up in front of her. "I'll help you," she said.

"Oh, yes, you'll help us, right into prison," Suki said, not moving an inch.

Tellingly, the woman didn't try to make her, didn't move away or strike at her arm. She just stood, leaving her neck against the fan. "I'll help you get out," she said. "You'll need it, to leave the city after this. You can tell yourself you're making me, if it'll make you feel more comfortable; you do have a weapon on me, after all."

Katara stood, somewhere in Suki's peripheral vision, and stabbed an accusing finger at the woman. "I remember you," she said, a little raspily; Suki had never heard her sound so unfriendly. "You're that last one, who was about to kill that man—"

"I wasn't going to," the woman said, and then grimaced a little, like she wasn't sure that was the truth. "I wasn't—I wouldn't have wanted to," she amended. "You made it so that I didn't have to. You need my help; are you going to take it or not?"

Suki glanced back at Katara and Sokka; Katara had a distinctly hostile look on her face, but then she shifted her gaze to Suki, and tilted her mouth resignedly. Sokka didn't look any happier about it, but he shrugged the shoulder that wasn't holding Katara up. "I hate to say it," he said, "but I think maybe she's right. I don't think we're going to get out the same way we got in."

Suki folded her fan up neatly, and took a moment to tap it against the woman's collarbone. "If you're tricking us, I'll kill you," she said, meaning it.

"I know," the woman said.

"So," Sokka said, and cleared his throat. "How are you going to help us?"

The woman smiled. "I am Yin," she said. "Lieutenant Yin."


***


"What is she doing?" Zuko hissed under his breath, stepping away from the wall. The woman was an officer, he could tell that by her armor; but there she was, not four feet from the Avatar, saying something Zuko couldn't quite make out in a very calm tone. Granted, it could be some kind of extended ploy, a trick that would help her take them down by herself—but Zuko had seen her not a minute ago, checking Zhao's pulse and then deliberately sheathing her sword. A traitor, even though she had been following orders, same as anyone, before the Avatar had started tearing the place apart? It didn't seem possible.

He turned to see whether Uncle Iroh felt the same confusion and disdain he did, only to find that Uncle was looking not at the woman, but at him, with that stupid calmly measuring look he so favored at seemingly random moments. "What she thinks is right," he said at last.

"What she thinks is right," Zuko repeated, "right? Leaving her commanding officer injured on the ground, and wandering off to chat with wanted fugitives from the Fire Lord? How can that possibly be right?"

"A fine question," Uncle Iroh said, gentle. "And one with more answers than you may think." Before Zuko could unravel that particularly ridiculous statement, Uncle Iroh glanced out at the plaza, and then said, "But I think now is not the best time to speculate. There are four of them, and two of us; better that they escape Zhao's grasp now, and give us the chance to catch them later, when we are better prepared."

"And better that we get out of here while Zhao is still unconscious," Zuko said.

Uncle Iroh grinned. "Yes; that, too."


***


Lieutenant Yin escorted them, bold as brass, right up to the city gate; Katara was too bleary to really argue. She was still a little stuck on the part where they were willingly following the woman who had outright admitted she was the same one who had been about to murder that man right in front of them; but Suki had agreed, if only after making death threats, so Katara had to assume it was all right.

She leaned on Sokka, and tried to reassure a both literally and metaphorically hovering Aang that she was all right without actually saying anything to him that Yin might hear. She recognized the sensations enough to know what had happened, though she still couldn't remember much—just that same feeling of light and power, except she had been so much angrier this time.

"They gave us valuable information regarding rebel movements," Yin told the guard at the gate, looking exceptionally bored. The guard looked sort of unsettled—probably he had at least heard all that rock crashing around, even if he hadn't known exactly what was happening—and Yin's attitude seemed to reassure him considerably. "They're to be let out of the city, and allowed to go as they please."

"Unusual orders," the guard observed, but he was moving out of their way, leading them through the gate.

Yin shrugged. "The captain is grateful."

The guard, startlingly, laughed, and Katara nearly panicked for a second; but then Yin cracked a tiny smile, which had to mean she'd intended that to happen. "Good one," the guard said, still chuckling a little as he shook his head, and then he waved them the rest of the way through, and they were out.

Yin went with them, about ten steps; and then leaned in close. "I can't believe I'm saying this," she murmured, "but good luck to you, Avatar," and then she whirled and strode back to the gate, looking for all the world like she hadn't just contradicted a whole handful of orders and betrayed her commanding officer, at the very least, and her entire country, at most.

Suki watched her go with an almost speculative look on her face, and then smiled, just a little. "I'm glad I didn't have to kill her," she said.

"Well, gosh, yeah, so am I," Sokka said, hefting Katara a little higher on his shoulder; Katara did her best to help, but she still wasn't totally certain where the ground was. "Now let's get away from here before anything else terrible happens."

"I like that plan," Katara said, and it must have come out a little wobbly, because Suki laughed and came around to her other side, pulling Katara's free arm over her shoulders.

"I bet you do," she said, fond. Aang, who had finally lost most of the pinched, worried look he'd been wearing since the plaza, positioned himself in front of them to watch for any soldiers ahead; and the four of them set off down the road together.

Chapter Text

"But how did they get out of the city?" Zhao shouted, slamming a smoking fist down onto the table.

Yin kept her face perfectly still, maintaining a look of vague professional interest. "Perhaps the local rebels helped sneak them out," she said, carefully avoiding a more direct lie.

She'd known Captain Zhao wouldn't let this go easily, but all the same, she'd been hoping to avoid a truly intense investigation. She'd made her choice, and she'd make it the same way again if she had to; but, she thought ruefully, perhaps she should have taken more than thirty seconds to consider her course of action. She didn't quite regret getting the Avatar and her friends out of Jindao, but doing it had constituted a commitment of somewhat terrifying magnitude. If Zhao found out, he was going to kill her himself.

So she would have to make sure he didn't find out.

She cleared her throat. "If I may, sir: perhaps one of the guards at the city gates saw something."

Zhao forced out a breath through gritted teeth, and then, with a visible effort, unclenched his hands. "Yes," he said, "yes," and stood. "Have them questioned, Lieutenant." He paused, giving her a searching look. "No; better yet, do it yourself."

Yin forced herself to grimace faintly in dismay. "Sir, I have other duties—"

Zhao dismissed this objection with a careless wave of the hand. "None as important as this," he said. "I must know who is responsible, and you will find out for me."

Yin pressed her fist to her palm in acknowledgement, and backed out of the room; the moment she was free and clear in the hallway, her knees nearly buckled in relief. The protest had been a good touch, and she was glad she'd thought to do it; Zhao was never obliging if he could possibly help it, and nothing could ever be as important to him as whatever he wanted at any given moment.

Now, she only had to find that guard, and figure out a way to guarantee his silence. Money, she thought, would be ideal; after that day in the plaza, Yin found that she had lost her taste for the sword somewhat.


*


Kishen was the thirty-seventh guard led into the temporary holding cells, and Yin recognized him at once. She had known his face vaguely before, from meals with the enlisted soldiers; known he would appreciate her mild humor from the great belly laughs he habitually let out at such meals; but she hadn't known his name.

"Kishen," Yin repeated, and made a minor show out of tapping her brush thoughtfully before she added his name to the list. It had helped make a couple of the others nervous, having the reminder that she was an officer, educated and powerful; truthfully, she hadn't learned to read or write until after she had gotten her commission, but none of them knew that.

"Lieutenant," he said, dipping his head a little and saluting with a brief press of knuckles to opposite palm.

She leaned back a little, and gave him a long, measuring look. "You were on the east gate yesterday, when the Avatar escaped us; is that right?"

He frowned, very faintly, and said, "Yes, sir," slow and leading, like he wanted to ask her what was going on but wasn't sure it was allowed. He glanced at the door, which was ajar, and then said, "But I'm sure you already knew that, sir."

So he did remember. At least he'd been circumspect enough to give Yin some maneuvering room. "If you hadn't been on the gate rotation, you wouldn't be here," she said blandly, "but we like to double-check these things."

"Of course, sir," he said.

She took a moment and sucked in a slow breath. If she didn't do this right, they were both probably going to die. "The captain is very, very displeased by the Avatar's escape," she said. "He is understandably eager to find out how the girl and her companions managed to leave the city." Not quite as specific as she'd like to be, but given that he remembered her, it ought to be enough.

And—there, yes; Kishen's eyebrows rose just a touch, eyes gone wide beneath. "The girl?" he repeated, a little less cautiously.

"Yes," Yin said, and didn't look away as she reached down to pick up the bag of coins sitting by her ankle. "I feel certain there will be a terrible punishment for silence," and she let the bag drop to the table, from just high enough to make it clink a little, "and a fine reward for useful information." She gave Kishen a moment to look at the bag, and when his gaze came back to her face, she gave him a tiny, hard-edged smile. "You know how kind the captain is."

Kishen's gaze flickered back and forth between the money and her face one more time, and Yin forced herself not to tap her fingers. "I do," he said at last, and then, "My admiration for the captain is equal to your own."

Yin nearly sighed in relief, but then he hesitated for a moment, and she felt a brief, sudden surge of panic—maybe he hadn't understood any of it, maybe he had missed her point completely. After another moment, though, he gave the coins a wry sort of look, and spoke again.

"I'm certain that the captain," and here he tilted his head meaningfully toward her, "would give a fine reward indeed; but a truly loyal soldier would refuse to take it."

Yin stared at him, uncomfortably confused. Was he refusing her offer? He'd already acknowledged that he didn't much care for Zhao; surely he had to know that telling the captain what he knew wouldn't end well for him, even if loyalty demanded he do it.

Kishen watched her for a moment, looking faintly amused, and then said, "May I speak frankly, Lieutenant?"

"Within reason," Yin said, hoping he'd hear it as the warning she intended it to be.

"I respect you, sir," he said, and, yes, that was definitely a smile creeping onto his mouth. "I hear good things about you. Battalions under your command fare well, I am given to understand. I'm sure there's nothing you could ask of me that I would not happily do; especially if I were lucky enough to be transferred to one such," and he gave her another meaningful look. He waited a beat, tossed a quick glance at the door, and then said, "But I'm afraid I don't know anything about the Avatar's departure from the city."

"A shame," Yin said automatically, and rose to escort him to the door. A transfer to one of her units? That was what he wanted? And he'd already half-fulfilled his side of the bargain, too—granted, he could still go to Zhao later if she failed to come through, but having to change an already-established story would reduce his credibility somewhat.

She glanced at Kishen as they reached the door, to find that he was still watching her. "I'm sorry I couldn't be more helpful, sir," he said, pressing fist to palm again.

"So am I," she said. "Heading back to your barracks?"

"I may report to my commanding officer first," he said. "Lieutenant Hako, that is."

"Very good," Yin said, dismissive, and made a mental note to speak to Hako as soon as possible.




They walked as quickly as they dared. Running would draw attention they probably ought to be avoiding, and besides, Katara hadn't yet recovered her balance entirely—she was still leaning heavily on Suki's shoulder.

The main road took them east and a bit north, following the course of the Lin Wei; none of this had gone right, but north was where they were trying to go and east was away from Fire Nation territory, so in the absence of a plan, Suki figured, it was as good a route as any.

They walked longer than was pleasant—probably good practice for the long trek to the northern coast that lay ahead of them, but not very much fun. They took brief breaks to rest, but all of them wanted to leave Jindao as far behind as possible before they let themselves really sleep. Suki didn't complain, and, startlingly, neither did Sokka; Katara was too tired to. But by the time they reached the outskirts of the village on the second day, the sun already gone behind them, Suki's feet felt like blocks of wood.

Pian-Lu was small, but even after sundown, the streets were well-lit, and the center of the town was packed noticeably tightly, like a lot of buildings had gone up in a relatively short span of time.

"There's an inn up there," Sokka said, "but much as I would love to sleep under a roof, I think maybe we shouldn't."

"It would leave more of a trail for the Fire Nation to follow than if we just set up our own camp outside of town," Suki agreed.

"Sounds good," Katara said, though Suki suspected she wasn't entirely sure what she was agreeing to; her head had tipped to the side a little, and her eyes were mostly shut. The trip had been hardest on her—Suki remembered how deeply she had slept after her show of force back home, and this time, she had done a lot more. She'd walked by herself for part of the day, but now they were both supporting her again.

Suki grinned over Katara's ear at Sokka, who rolled his eyes. "Okay, but that means you're going to have to stand up by yourself for a minute, you manifestation of elemental power on earth," he said.

"... Why not the inn, again?" Katara said plaintively, and then smiled a little. "That's sweet, but somehow I don't think you could hold me up."

"Aang," Sokka surmised, and then squinted around at the air nearby. "You have no idea how much I wish you were tangible, dead guy."

They manhandled Katara out past the closest houses, and off into a little copse of trees not far from the river—a perfect spot, as Sokka noted happily, because they could lean Katara against a tree instead of just dropping her on the ground.

"You're a considerate soul," Suki told him, letting him take Katara's weight, and started unrolling her pack.


***


Katara fell into a jumbled and unpleasant sleep almost the moment Sokka helped her lie down on her mat; her dreams were full of screaming and sobbing and blood pooling on paving stones. Somewhere around the middle of the night, she turned away from yet another gleeful soldier with a sword only to find herself face to face with Aang, who gave her a somber blue-tinged look.

"Aang," she said, still hazy with dreaming.

"Don't do this," Aang said. "Remember what you told me, back at the temple? About blaming myself?"

She did; though here, in the dream, her memory was vague. But this wasn't the same—this wasn't the same at all, she thought angrily, he just didn't understand—

Aang shook his head. "Stop," he said, and drifted closer, lifting one hand toward her forehead. "Just sleep, all right? Just sleep," and the rest of the night, she didn't dream anything at all.


*


Even with Aang's help, she still woke feeling tense and guilty, though physically, she was much improved. Aang was sitting next to her sleeping mat, and quite possibly had been all night; she gave him one long look, and then dropped her gaze and avoided his eyes for the rest of the morning.

She remembered him coming into her dream—it was like that first dream she'd had, of Kyoshi and Roku and Aang together; it had been somehow more real, and she remembered it correspondingly better.

She'd been right, a little, but so had he: it wasn't the same, even if you ignored the question of magnitude, but it wasn't so dissimilar that her own words suddenly didn't apply. She knew she'd been right to say what she had at the temple, and she knew it was still true; but now she was on the other side of it, and she also knew why Aang had looked at her so doubtfully. At the time, she'd thought he was especially sensitive—and little wonder, given that all of his people were dead; but he hadn't killed them, and she'd been sure that was the important point.

Now she suspected it was the lingering feeling of helplessness that mattered. She couldn't stop thinking that there must have been something she could have done differently, done better, to keep those people from dying; and she went over it in her head again and again until she was seeing the plaza of Jindao on the backs of her eyelids.

"Well, you're feeling talkative this morning," Sokka observed.

Katara looked up to see him, and Suki next to him, gazing at her. Sokka looked mostly curious; Suki just looked concerned. "Just—thinking," she told them, a little belatedly. Her bowl was still mostly full; the rice in it had gone cool, but she made herself eat a few bites anyway.

Suki and Sokka shared a quick glance, and then Sokka shrugged and let it go.

"We should go into the village today," Suki said, and because she was Suki, she actually managed to pull off the change of subject without it sounding like it had been deliberate. "We've got a long walk ahead of us; if there's anything else we need, we should get it now."


*


Katara and Sokka's supply of Earth Kingdom coins was nearly gone, but they had enough left for a few more things—might as well get some extra food, or a good pair of shoes.

Pian-Lu didn't have much of an open-air market, but most of the new-looking buildings in the middle of the village turned out to be shops.

"I don't understand," Suki said, glancing around the shelves inside one of them. "There are practically more shops than there are people living here."

"Not quite," the shopkeeper said wryly. He was a pleasant-looking man with a touch of grey in his hair, and though they'd been poking around without buying anything for several minutes, he hadn't bothered them; just started sweeping behind the counter and humming to himself. Now he set his broom back down and gave Suki a small smile. "But you're not far wrong. I wouldn't wish the Fire Nation on anybody, but we've found there's business to be had, this side of a Fire Nation border." He made an expansive gesture toward the shelves. "Half this stuff, they'd seize, if you tried to sell it in Jindao—Water Tribe jewelry, incense from Ba Sing Se, the little stuff. And they'd throw you in jail for the other half."

"I bet," Sokka said, picking up a belt buckle. "Can't think they'd be too happy about people hawking buckles with the seal of the queen of Jansung on them."

"Exactly," the shopkeeper said. "But people still want them. So we make a living selling things the Fire Nation doesn't want you to have."

Katara, wandering along the far wall, lost the thread of the conversation abruptly; she'd been looking at a shelf of the supposedly Water Tribe jewelry and feeling vaguely amused, but then she had spotted the shelf below it.

A scroll lay upon it: generally nondescript, but the caps on the roller ends were inscribed with a Southern Tribe sign that meant it was probably genuine, unlike the jewelry. She glanced over her shoulder to see that the shopkeeper was still talking to Suki, who appeared to be considering the belt buckle Sokka had been looking at.

"What are you doing?" Aang hissed from behind her, drifting down from where he'd been poking around near the ceiling.

"I just want to look at it," Katara said a little defensively, keeping her voice low, and she pushed one of the rollers along the shelf just far enough to see about a handspan of the scroll.

She didn't know what she'd been expecting—maps, maybe, or a clan lineage somebody had decided to set down on paper once—but this was miles better. There wasn't any writing on the part she could see, but that didn't matter; she knew right away from the illustrations, two across the width of the scroll, of a woman in blue in a bending stance. Her hands were in a starting position in one, and in the next, her right hand had shifted forward, the watery blue daubed alongside her following the implied motion.

A Waterbending scroll. Incredible. Scrolls of instruction in any bending art had been rare, and Waterbending in particular even rarer—and that had been before the Fire Nation had started burning every one it could get its hands on.

Katara stared at it. She still needed to go north, no question about it; but until she found a master to teach her, there was undoubtedly quite a lot she could learn from this scroll. Quite a lot, she thought, that it could help her do better the next time that—the next time.

"Ooo, nice," Sokka said admiringly from over her shoulder, and Katara nearly jumped in surprise. "Probably really expensive, though," he added, a little wistful. "Too bad—that would be a big help, huh?"

"Yeah," Katara said, trying to keep her voice even. "Yeah, it would be a good thing to have."

"Katara," Aang said warily from behind her. "Katara, what are you going to do?"

Katara kept her eyes on Sokka's back as he returned to the other side of the shop, and for the first time since Aang had shown up at the Southern Air Temple, she didn't answer him.


***


"So you'll have to go back to the west a ways," Jong Han told her, gesturing. "You must've passed the crossroads with the north road coming in, if you came from Jindao."

"It's quite possible," Suki said, "but—" we were carrying the Avatar after she broke a plaza in half, so I wasn't really looking. "—we were traveling at night most of the way."

Jong Han smiled. "Well, in daylight, you can't miss it," he said. "Now, are you going to buy that buckle, or not?"


*


Suki did buy the buckle, in the end; she didn't need it, but it was quite lovely, and she was already in about as much trouble with the Fire Nation as it was possible to get, so there were no worries on that score.

It was a pleasant day, and their easy pace down the road out of Pian-Lu was about as different from their hasty and uncomfortable flight yesterday as it could be. Suki was used to crises, but not to having to get away afterward; and she was starting to feel distinctly grateful for the increasingly few moments they weren't spending trying to escape from immediate danger.

Which was why she sighed a little when the sound of marching feet came to them after barely an hour. Still, a little exhaustion was a small price to pay to serve the Avatar. And getting to know Katara and Sokka wasn't half bad either, she thought, letting herself smile just a little.

All three of them slowed to a stop; Suki couldn't help listening again, just in case she'd been wrong, but, no, that was definitely troops. "That sounds like a lot of people who probably don't like us, coming this way," Sokka said, giving the road ahead of them a resentful sort of look, like it had chosen to lead soldiers toward them just to ruin his afternoon.

"Which means it's time for us to get off the road, I think," Katara said.

Since it led to Jindao, the road was reasonably well-maintained, and there were generous ditches on either side. Fortunately, they weren't so wide that they couldn't be crossed without stepping in the muck pooled at the bottom, and they made it over the ditch and back into the trees barely a moment before the first soldier, riding an ostrich horse, came into view around the bend.

The man from the plaza, who'd yelled; Suki recognized him instantly, and Katara obviously did, too, judging by the half-ill expression that soured her face. The officers he had with him were riding, too, alongside and a little behind, and they were followed by dozens of soldiers.

One of the officers, she saw as they came closer, was that woman who'd gotten them out, the no-nonsense lieutenant, and Suki instantly felt a little cold. It had seemed like an unbelievable stroke of luck at the time, having exactly the right person to get them out choose to do so at that exact moment; but she had kept her word, and Suki had thought that would be the end of it. But if she had let them go only to turn around and tell the captain exactly where they had gone, well, it only made sense; if she had let them go without giving them up, surely the captain would have had her killed, or at least imprisoned, for a betrayal of that magnitude.

Well, there wasn't anything they could do about it now if she had, Suki reminded herself, and they stayed still behind the trees until the battalions had passed.




Yin fought the urge to sigh. She had gotten to Kishen, who was going to get a transfer order from Hako tomorrow; but she had forgotten about the information that had given Zhao this obsession in the first place. Little wonder, really; it felt like weeks since he had cornered the former prince's ship and returned with the Avatar in his sights.

From the prince's crew, he had learned that the Avatar had been traveling north; knowing her final destination made the knowledge of which gate she had left by somewhat less important than it might have been otherwise.

But he was not satisfied yet: the main road north was a likely route, if the Avatar had elected for speed over discretion, but she might also have chosen to keep to the foothills, or to cross the Lei and take the road on the east bank up to Hansing, and Zhao insisted they find out which was the truth.

Yin suspected his desire for greater certainty was at least partly due to fear of another humiliation like the plaza. That was how he thought of it: as a humiliation the Avatar had laughingly inflicted on him, rather than the devastating misjudgment it had actually been. Whatever you chose to name it, though, it had certainly been a blow to him, and to an extent that gave Yin highly unprofessional feelings of glee. The people of Jindao had been horrified by the deaths at the city plaza; but in their moment of need, the Avatar, after a hundred-year absence, had appeared to protect them, and then escaped the city even despite the heavy street patrols Zhao had instituted that evening. It was like a tale from legend, and the ground they had been handed by the Avatar's long absence had vanished like so much smoke. There were no dispirited faces in Jindao anymore, except those on Fire Nation soldiers.

They rode past the crossroads, and toward the small town beyond; Yin couldn't help casting a glance up the north road, and hoping that wherever the Avatar was, it wasn't here.

The village didn't fall inside Fire Nation territory; but one of the numerous treaties that was currently keeping Queen Yujun from flattening Jindao on top of them also gave Zhao the authority to pursue fugitives through all of the territory belonging to the kingdom of Jansung. He had been granted no other powers, however, and so, much as he scowled at the generous displays of Water Tribe trinkets and artifacts brought down from the Northern Air Temple, he couldn't punish anyone for them.

The first dozen shopkeepers couldn't tell them anything specific, though Yin was fairly certain some of them wouldn't have even if they could have, judging by the uncooperative looks on their faces.

Finally, though, one man looked up when Yin described the Avatar's general appearance and hairstyle to him, and snorted. "Did she steal from you, too?"

Yin blinked. "Steal?"

The man nodded. "Right off my shelf; had her friends distract me, buying a buckle a tenth the value and asking me for directions, and walked right out with one of my scrolls."

"What scroll?" Zhao demanded.

The man pointed to an empty shelf over on the left side of the store. "A Waterbending scroll," he said, and Yin's heart sank.

Zhao smiled.


***


Suki decided it was best for them to stay off the road for a while: as far as they knew, the captain was still in charge of holding Jindao, which meant whenever he was done searching for them to the east, he would undoubtedly be back this way again.

"You mean we have to keep tromping around in here, even though there's a perfectly good road right over there?" Sokka said, giving her a look of mingled disbelief and mock betrayal.

Katara, though, said nothing; she'd been odd and subdued ever since they'd left Pian-Lu. Suki might have worried that she was still dwelling on Jindao, but her silence had a different tenor, not the same grim pensiveness from breakfast. At least twice, Suki had glanced at her to see a quick flicker of something—annoyance? guilt?—flashing across her face, for no good reason Suki could think of; but surely if she were fighting with Aang, they'd have heard at least half of the argument.

With no clear idea what to do about it, Suki settled for turning back to Sokka, and saying, "Yes, we do. Although if you really want to walk on the road, I suppose you could."

Sokka gave her a suspicious look. "You're trying to trick me."

Suki shrugged, half-hiding her smile. "It's up to you. The captain probably won't take too long to kill you, but it might give us some time to get away."

"Yeah, all right, fine," Sokka said. "Poky underbrush it is."

And two hours later, it was clear she'd been right to insist—the line of ostrich horses and their Fire Nation riders came back from the east, dust rising in their wake now that the afternoon sun had dried out the road.

It wasn't only soldiers this time, though, and Suki was chilled all over again to see none other than Jong Han, the shopkeeper, being yanked along by two soldiers in the front row of the first battalion.

They crouched down in the woods as the soldiers passed. Even though they'd probably never have been able to hear over the sound of their own pounding feet, Sokka waited until they were much further down the road before muttering, "Well, that's not good."

And Katara—Katara was staring at Jong Han's receding back with a really awful look on her face; more dreadful, Suki thought, than was warranted even by the unhappy possibility that the captain was very soon going to know where they were even more exactly than the lieutenant could have told him. She crouched, frozen, for a moment, and then whipped her head to the side, and hissed, "Oh, it wasn't because I took it, but that doesn't mean it wasn't because of me—you know it was."

Aang, Suki was sure; but the rest of it made even less sense than usual.

"Took what?" Sokka said.

Katara turned to look at them, and Suki saw with startlement that her expression was one of fear—like she was afraid of them, which was utterly ridiculous. "I know," she said quietly, "I know I do," undoubtedly talking to Aang again.

The soldiers were gone, the only sign of them an increasingly distant thumping further down the road, so Katara didn't bother to move slowly when she swung her pack down off her back. She unwrapped the straps that held it together, and flipped the end of her sleeping mat off the top.

"You took that?" Sokka yelped, staring down at the scroll like it was going to leap up and call the Fire Nation soldiers back.

"What is it?" Suki said.

"A Waterbending scroll, she was looking at it in the shop," he said. "I can't believe you stole it!"

"I didn't!" Katara said, looking so uncertain as she did that Suki suspected she was still trying to convince herself. "I mean—I took it, but I wasn't going to keep it, not forever. I just—we've still got so far to go before we find anyone who can teach me anything, and I need—I need to be good at this, I need to be better."

By the time the last word burst out, she wasn't looking at them anymore, and she looked so miserable that Suki's initial urge to shout at her was starting to evaporate despite itself.

Suki looked at the scroll and remembered the first thing Katara had said, and she knew she could fill in Aang's side of the conversation pretty well, now. The captain didn't care that Jong Han had had something stolen from him; that wasn't the kind of person he was. But that Katara had been in Jong Han's shop, and that he had given Suki directions—that was definitely information the captain wanted. And Jong Han might not have been inclined to let on about it, if Katara hadn't taken his scroll.

But then again, he might have, and there were other people in Pian-Lu who had seen them pass by, so if it hadn't been him, it would almost certainly have been someone else. Not that Katara would be thinking of it that way, Suki thought ruefully; not so soon after Jindao.

"I get it," Sokka said, breaking the silence abruptly. "I mean, don't get me wrong: it was still a really terrible idea. But—" He paused for a second. "I understand. Although I wouldn't mind if you decided to let us know before you make us fugitives from any more kingdoms."

Katara gave him a tiny smile that was gone almost as soon as it had appeared, and then shifted her gaze to Suki, still with that odd touch of fear to her expression.

Suki felt a hunch come to her, and ran with it. "I'm not going anywhere," she said.

"I know that," Katara said, but Suki ignored it.

"I said I'd go with you, and I will," she went on. "Even if you make a mistake. Eighty mistakes. The entire reason that you made this one was because you wanted to make things better, and you thought this would help you—as reasons to steal stuff go, that's one of the better ones I've heard."

Katara looked for a second like Suki had lifted some of the weight from her shoulders, but then she glanced out at the road. "But that man—"

"Jong Han," Suki filled in quietly.

"There must be something we can do," Katara said, an edge of desperation to her voice. "We can't let anybody else—" die, obviously, except she clearly didn't want to say it. And Suki understood, she did; but the war was killing hundreds, thousands, all the time, and there was no way Katara would ever be able to stop it if she got herself caught by that captain because she was trying to get one man free.

"He probably won't," Suki said. "He knows which direction we're going, and he's got no reason not to tell them that; and that's all they want, anyway."

"Right," Katara said, but Suki was pretty sure she didn't believe it; and Suki couldn't blame her, when she wasn't sure she believed it herself.




Zuko prodded the edge of the fire pit idly with a stick. Uncle Iroh had insisted on starting it without Firebending, in case there were unfriendly eyes on them—a mortifying thing, to Zuko's mind. But Uncle's eccentricities were apparently endless; he had flint, steel, and charred cloth for tinder with him already, though there was no conceivable reason for it, and coaxed a small pile of kindling into a decent-sized fire with not even the slightest tinge of impatience or resentment.

Incomprehensible. Zuko couldn't decide whether to flinch or laugh, imagining the look that would be on Azula's face if anyone ever ordered her to start a fire with flint.

"We should continue north," Uncle Iroh said, cradling his tea reverently; the first thing he had done when the fire was blazing had been to set up a pot of water to heat. "It seems clear that that is the Avatar's ultimate destination; and undoubtedly she will leave more signs of her passage behind to guide us, in time."

Zuko had to admit that this was probably true—despite whatever efforts she might have been making, the Avatar had not managed to travel unobtrusively thus far; but before he could say so, there was a rustle from the trees, and the six nearest soldiers all drew their swords at once.

"Just Isani reporting back, sir," and Zuko let himself relax at the sound of the familiar voice. Isani was one of the four scouts sent out to assess the area around their camp; the other three had come back nearly half an hour ago.

"You took quite a long time," Uncle Iroh observed.

"I did," Isani agreed, "but not without reason. There's something you should hear, sir."


*


"That way," Isani said, pointing a little bit east of south. "Probably at least two miles; I wouldn't have noticed it, but it's getting dark, and they've ringed their camp with fire pits."

"Captain Zhao has never cared much for unobtrusiveness," Uncle Iroh murmured.

"He doesn't have the Avatar," Zuko said sharply; he couldn't bear to say it like a question, for fear of the answer.

But Isani shook her head. "He has someone else, though," she said. "No one I recognized, but he was dressed like a farmer, maybe a shopkeeper. Nobody important."

"People are like barns," Zuko muttered absently, and then flushed at Isani's skeptical look, and deliberately avoided looking at Uncle, who had almost undoubtedly heard him. "If Zhao has him, he must be important," he snapped. "And whatever it is Zhao wants from him, he must not get it."


***


Having the possibility of information in his grasp seemed to have made Zhao steadier, somehow; the light of obsession in his face had not disappeared, but it had dimmed, and when Lieutenant Hako had dared to observe that it was rapidly growing dark and Jindao was still miles away, Zhao had chosen to make camp, rather than push through the night.

Of course, Yin had done her best to push the balance toward setting up a camp. For the third time in as many days, she was uncomfortably without a plan; since the Avatar, she thought wryly, she couldn't seem to stop making incredibly important choices on a moment's notice. If she was going to help this man escape—a ridiculous thought, a week ago it would never have crossed her mind, but here she was—she had better do it before they got back inside the walls of Jindao.

Then again, Zhao's idea of a camp was huge and well-lit, which didn't work in Yin's favor. They had no tents, nothing like that, since they had not been planning on a stop when they'd left the city that morning; but Zhao had a large circle stamped flat in a field next to a stand of trees, and he'd made them dig at least a dozen shallow fire pits in a ring around it, and stationed benders to keep the flames high. The prisoner was right in the middle of it all, bound at the wrists.

If worst came to worst, Yin supposed, she could take her ostrich horse, throw him over the animal's back, and make a break for it. Kiri was small, for an ostrich horse, but she had solid, strong legs, and she could run like the wind. Yin was still hoping it wouldn't come down to that, but her options were a bit limited.




Katara leaned back against the tree and sighed a little. She'd only managed to eat about half of her fish; Sokka had given her a wary look and asked if there was anything else she'd stolen, but that wasn't why she couldn't choke down any more.

She'd hardly ever been so frightened in her life as she had been that morning, when Sokka had turned to her and asked what she'd taken. She had seen how it might unfold, as clear as though it were a carving sitting in front of her: how angry they would both be, when they learned what she had done; how poor her reasoning would seem, laid out in the light of day; how disappointed they would feel. Disappointed—the word didn't really convey the kind of magnitude Katara had been imagining, the sort of betrayal it could have been to find out that the Avatar they'd agreed to follow was a thief and a liar.

Of course, Sokka was her brother; he would never have left her, not the way Suki so easily could. But, really, that might almost have made it worse, to continue on and be faced with his lingering disappointment every single day, the faint touch of disdain he wouldn't quite be able to hide.

But it hadn't happened, somehow. Sokka had forgiven her almost right away, and Suki miraculously didn't seem to care how many mistakes Katara made.

Which was lucky for Katara, because since they had left the canoe behind, she couldn't seem to stop doing things wrong. Maybe that was it; maybe she never should have left the water—or left home at all, for that matter. But she had, and she was still afraid now, because she was starting to think that before she could make anything right, she was going to have to leave.

She stood up, leaving her bowl and chopsticks behind on the ground. "I'm going to—take a walk," she said, and was wound tight for a breathless moment, waiting to see what they would do.

But all Suki said was, "Don't go too far, all right?", and she shot Sokka a quelling sort of glance; she thought Katara just needed to go off and be by herself for a while, Katara realized, and was almost grateful for her own unhappy mood that morning.

She knew Aang was following her as she wandered away, she could see the faint blue shine of him out of the corner of her eye. He'd been fighting with her all afternoon—as much as you could fight with someone who was refusing to acknowledge your existence, and that had been another cruelty Katara disliked herself for in retrospect, given that she was the only one who was able to acknowledge his existence in the first place. But he'd been quiet after she'd revealed the scroll, and quieter still through dinner, and he definitely didn't look angry anymore.

"You're not going to go back, are you?" he said.

Katara glanced back over her shoulder; but they were a ridge and quite a lot of trees away from the faint glow of their little campfire, and there was no chance Suki or Sokka would hear her. "I—I don't think so," she said. "I know it doesn't really make any sense; I know stopping the war is more important than Jong Han. But—" She paused, and tried to get her thoughts into some kind of order. "I can't ignore people getting hurt now just because I'm going to save a lot of people later on. I'm the Avatar today—every day, not just the day I master all the elements, or the day I face the Fire Lord." It was odd; she still didn't feel very much like the Avatar, but she was starting to think that was because her idea of what it meant to feel like the Avatar was all wrong. She'd been picturing it like she was just going to wake up one day and be wise, know exactly what she was supposed to do, be certain. But she should have known—she should have known the moment she'd looked at the statues in the Air Temple, at Kuruk's tired, unhappy face, at that little girl; the moment Aang had told her what had happened to him. That wasn't what it was like at all. "I have to go for him," she said. "I have to."

Aang was giving her a wide-eyed, serious look, and when she finished speaking, he pursed his lips for a second. "Well, you don't have to do it alone," he said. "I'll go with you."

Katara couldn't help smiling; she hadn't really been looking forward to walking up to the captain who killed so easily by herself. "You will?"

Aang shrugged one shoulder, grinning back. "You're the only person who can see or hear me—no reason to stay here without you."

"... Thanks, that means a lot," Katara said.

Aang laughed. "Besides, you're going to need help finding him," he said, "and who better to help than me?"


***


"I don't know," Jong Han said, for at least the fifth time; it was clear that he was becoming at least as weary of saying it as Zhao obviously was of hearing it. "I told you—I gave the other girl directions, but who knows whether she followed them? It could all just have been a trick to give the one you think is the Avatar a chance to steal my scroll. That's all that happened."

Zhao had leaned in close, one hand tight on the back of Jong Han's neck, and he gave the man a sharp shake. "I know she is the Avatar," he spat, "and I will find her, your dedication to deception notwithstanding."

Yin could see by the look that swept across Jong Han's face that he had realized his protests wouldn't help him; and this time, he didn't bother replying, just closed his eyes and let his head tip forward.

"Sir," she said, stepping up to Zhao's shoulder. "A moment?"

Zhao grimaced, but took two steps away, and said, low enough that Jong Han wouldn't hear clearly, "Yes, Lieutenant?"

His tone was not pleasant, but Yin didn't let herself look rattled. "Perhaps a break, sir," she said, equally low. "Keep pushing him, and his resolve may strengthen; but let him stand there, guarded, with our soldiers eating and talking and sleeping comfortably around him, and he may change his mind."

Zhao stared at her; she kept her face calm and attentive, and after a moment, he tossed a glance back at Jong Han. "He had better do it soon," he hissed, but stepped away as though to head toward one of the fires and get some rice himself.

It was in the moment of relief that followed that Yin noticed the Avatar.

She was standing in amongst the tall grasses that surrounded them—most of the soldiers nearby had been watching Zhao and Jong Han, and even with their fire pits, she would have been nearly invisible in the dark for most of the way, anyway. She was still dressed in green, still with those telltale loops curving past her cheeks, and her chin was high, resolve like stone clear on her face.

"Sir," someone said. For a moment, Yin thought she had let it slip out, and could have kicked herself; but it had been one of the soldiers sitting nearby, identifiable by the way her eyes were still fixed on the Avatar.

Zhao swung around, in a mood to shout after being interrupted, and then went still.

"I assume you've been looking for me," the Avatar said, with only the barest shake in her voice.

"That I have," Zhao said after a moment, in a tone Yin would have run from if it had been directed at her.

"If you have me," the Avatar continued, "you won't need him anymore," and she had to be kidding, couldn't possibly be serious—she was trying to turn herself in? Was she an idiot?

"I won't," Zhao agreed, but it was clear as day that it meant nothing—just because Zhao didn't need him anymore, that didn't mean he wasn't going to hang onto him. Jindao had gotten out of hand; Zhao was going to want to make a statement, now, find a way to bend the city back into his control, but the Fire Lord wanted the Avatar alive. A serious problem. Unless, of course, he could find her friends, the boy and the girl who had fought with her. They could die bloodily, where everyone would see, without disrupting the Fire Lord's plans; and for that, he still believed Jong Han would be useful.

But Yin couldn't tell the girl any of it, not without Zhao seeing her do it—and unless she thought fast, the time she had bought herself had just about run out.


***


Suki prodded the ground with the toe of one shoe.

"She's been gone a really long time," Sokka said.

Suki glanced up at him; he had a nervous sort of look on his face, and he'd been fidgeting with a handful of pebbles for at least twenty minutes now. "She had a lot to think about," Suki offered, but it probably sounded about as weak to him as it had to her.

And, indeed, Sokka gave her a doubtful look. "She's been gone a really long time," he said.

"Let's wait another few minutes," Suki said. "I'm sure she's fine."


***


Katara tried not to let herself swallow nervously. The heat coming from the fires around the camp was ridiculous, especially when it was already so warm—that was how Aang had found the place, from the glow of them.

The captain was staring at her with uncomfortable intensity. Behind him and a little to the side was the lieutenant, Yin, who must have given them up; but she didn't look happy to see Katara there, and even as Katara watched, she started taking a long, slow step back, away from the captain.

"So let him go," Katara said, sounding far more certain than she felt. "Untie him."

"I won't give you something for nothing, Avatar," the captain said. "If I untie him, you must give yourself up."

"Don't," Aang murmured from where he floated at her shoulder. "Untying him isn't the same thing as letting him walk out of the camp—if you're going to do this, you've got to make sure he gets out."

It made sense; and, more than that, Katara felt stronger for the reminder that she was not alone. She'd let her chin drop, unnerved by the captain and the fires—she lifted it again, just a little. "Not something for nothing, but not quite a fair exchange, Captain," she said. "Untie him, and I'll—I'll take a step, up to the edge of your camp. Then we can trade steps; he starts in the middle, I start at the edge, and by the time we've switched places, we'll be even."

"Make the soldiers back up," Aang said.

"But only if you keep your soldiers back," Katara added.

"Of course," said the captain, voice tight and unpleasant like he didn't really mean it; but he made a little waving gesture at the nearest soldiers, and they backed up, leaving a wide clear space between Katara and the captain.

Lieutenant Yin was not among them, Katara couldn't help but notice; and then the captain spoke again. "A step, Avatar," he said.

"The ropes, Captain," she said.

He pressed his lips together, stare heavy on her face, but then he drew a knife from his belt, and sawed the ropes from Jong Han's wrists without looking away from her. "Now," he said, when Jong Han was free.

Katara took the step that brought her even with the two nearest fire pits—and then stumbled back again, just in time to avoid the squawking ostrich horse that thundered past an inch from her nose.


***


Yin slapped the fourth ostrich horse on the haunch, hard enough to make her hand sting, and it took off with a loud screech, following the third right into the middle of the camp—and overturning one of the cooking pots, still three-quarters full of hot rice, as it did.

It would have been much quicker, but she couldn't cut their reins without handing Zhao evidence that someone was sabotaging him, even if it wouldn't point directly to her. So she was stuck picking knots apart. Luckily for her, not everyone tied their ostrich horses up with as much care as they ought.

Two more ostrich horses out, and it almost didn't matter that she was forced to go slowly; the chaos six panicked ostrich horses could start when they stampeded through a military camp couldn't really be overestimated. She was half-shielded from view by the stand of trees the ostrich horses had been settled under, and all the nearest soldiers were too occupied with the hot rice spilling over their laps, the ostrich horse feet trampling their legs, and the wings buffeting their heads to worry about how they'd gotten free in the first place. At least for the moment—and a few more moments were all she was going to need.

Picking at the knot holding a seventh ostrich horse to a tree, she winced a little in sympathy as one of the free ones kicked Lieutenant Hako in the thigh, and then nearly jumped out of her boots when someone behind her said, "Need some help?"

Kishen—she knew it before she turned around. If only she hadn't already given the transfer orders to Hako; she didn't have anything left to bargain with now, unless he was willing to take her money this time.

But he didn't look self-satisfied, or triumphant, or anything else that would have made sense. He had an expression of polite inquiry on his face, and seemed to take her silence as a "yes", because he reached over to the nearest ostrich horse, which was already shifting nervously, and started untying it.




Zuko pressed himself a little lower in the grass, and tried not to laugh. It wasn't exactly a funny situation—Zhao had, after all, been inches from having the Avatar hand herself to him for no obvious reason, and Zuko still didn't understand why that officer kept planting herself so firmly between Zhao and success.

But the look on Zhao's face right before the third loose ostrich horse had bowled him over had been truly priceless.

"Shall we perhaps make ourselves useful, Prince Zuko?" Uncle murmured. He was flattened against the same side of the small rise as Zuko, watching the flailing in the camp nearby with no small amount of satisfaction clear on his face.

Zuko stared at him, startled, and then glanced back at the camp. It seemed so clearly wrong, to help the traitorous officer when she had obviously turned her back on her nation; but then, Zuko thought, in the eyes of Fire Nation law, if in no other sense, he was the same as she was. She evidently wanted to keep the Avatar away from Zhao—he wanted the same thing, though probably for different reasons. And, after all, he could hardly be exiled again.

They couldn't take the Avatar; not with only the three of them, including Isani, and not right in front of Zhao. But they could help her get away. A strange thought; but the circumstances demanded it, Zuko supposed.


***


Katara got a grip on her startlement, and crouched down before she could get knocked over. A brief clear space was all she needed; as soon as one appeared, she darted forward.

Jong Han had thrown himself backwards, and managed to avoid the ostrich horse that had knocked the captain on his back, for the most part. But one of the ostrich horse's wings—strong and heavy, if useless for flight—had struck Jong Han a glancing blow to the head.

Katara grabbed at his shoulder, trying not to shake him too much. "Jong Han? Can you stand up?"

"You really are the Avatar, aren't you?" he said, glancing up at her incredulously with a hand pressed to his temple. "I didn't believe it before, but the way he was staring at you—"

He was cut off by a sudden roaring whoosh, as a large patch of grass on the northwest side of the camp suddenly caught fire—and then another, to the east. Coals kicked by the ostrich horses, maybe; it didn't matter what had caused it, but the sounds of shouting and general confusion got louder, and suddenly there was a lot more running.

"I didn't set those ostrich horses free so you could sit around talking," and Katara suddenly found her own shoulder in the grip of none other than Lieutenant Yin.

"Set them free—" Katara began, and then cut herself off—the lieutenant had a point, this really wasn't the time, no matter how confused she was.

"Get him up," Lieutenant Yin said; "I don't care how you do it. And then attack me."

"What?" Katara said, pulling on Jong Han's arm until he wobbled to his feet.

"Attack me," Lieutenant Yin repeated, "or Zhao will know I helped you. Come on, hurry up," and then she molded her face into a look somewhere between anger and determination, quick as sculpting damp snow.

"We can't let her get in trouble—that's what this whole trip was about," Aang said—he was hovering to her left, looking as though he'd like nothing better than to be able to help her hold Jong Han up.

Katara didn't have the time or enough free hands to open up her bending pouch and let a little water out; but there was a pot by her foot, mostly empty of rice after having tipped and rolled to its current position. "I hope this doesn't hurt too much," she said, and then tipped the handle up with her foot, gripped it like it was her club, and swung it at Lieutenant Yin.


***


The Avatar was good with a pot—either Yin was lucky beyond belief, or the girl had fought with some kind of bludgeon before, because the speed and weight of the blow were nicely moderated. It struck Yin hard enough to leave a good solid bruise, hard enough to look like a violent strike; but not so hard that when she tumbled to the ground, it wasn't because she had chosen to.

She watched the Avatar pull Jong Han out of the camp through half-closed eyes, and smiled to herself, even as her head throbbed. That had gone quite well.




Suki passed the last of the trees, and peered out across the field. That was definitely where all the yelling was coming from, and all the light.

She and Sokka had been searching for Katara in an admittedly haphazard sort of way, until a sudden jumping light from the southwest had caught their attention. It could certainly have been something else—but what were the odds, with Katara out there somewhere, that she hadn't ended up in the middle of it somehow? There was a time when Suki might have thought they'd be low; but not anymore.

And, sure enough, the jumping light turned out to be a large brush fire that had broken out by the camp of none other than the captain from Jindao—Suki couldn't see him anywhere, but they were Fire Nation soldiers, camped out by the same road the captain had been traveling down, and there were at least a dozen loose ostrich horses tearing around.

Even more importantly, there were two figures hurrying toward them; it was impossible to see their faces, with all that brightness behind them, but Suki felt fairly certain they were Katara and Jong Han.

A few of the ostrich horses had left the boundary marked out by the fires, and gone on to panic further afield; one was charging in their general direction, slowing a little as it got closer now that it was away from the yelling and the flames, and Suki caught Sokka's eye and nodded toward it.

"Nice giant angry birdy," Sokka muttered in what was probably meant to be a soothing tone, as it came to an uncertain stop a few feet away. "Wow, you guys have huge beaks. Please don't kill me," and he inched closer.

Sokka was in front of it, and holding its attention, at least for the moment; so Suki was free to edge in toward its side, and after a careful minute of freezing every time it swung its head, she darted out an arm and grabbed its reins.

She sent it back toward the captain's camp with a tug of the reins and a gentle slap—it was so nervous already that it didn't take any more than that to send it off again at a run. Hopefully anyone who had happened to catch sight of Katara and Jong Han would now think it had just been the ostrich horse; or, at the very least, anyone who had started out after them would now get an ostrich horse to the face before they could get far.

As the ostrich horse sprinted away, Katara and Jong Han came closer—and, yes, now Suki was absolutely sure it was them. They were moving more quickly now, Jong Han stumbling less than he had been, and Suki and Sokka only had to hurry a few steps through the tall grass to reach them.

Suki shook her head before Katara could do much more than open her mouth. "You can tell us what you were thinking later," she said. "Right now, it's time for us to get out of here."


***


They went with Jong Han as far as the crossroads, letting themselves slow down more the further they got from Captain Zhao's camp; but when they reached the place where the north road split away, Jong Han stopped and turned to them.

He still had a reddened mark on his forehead from the ostrich horse's wing, but he'd mostly recovered from the blow a while back, and he hadn't needed help to walk after they'd rushed out of that first field.

He shook his head at them now. "All right," he said, "that's far enough. It'll take you well out of your way to walk me all the way back, and I don't need it. I've walked this road stinking drunk; I think I can make it after a little bump on the head."

Katara felt shame well up in her again, making her face go hot, but she didn't let it stop her from saying, "But the scroll—it's with all the rest of our things—"

"And there it'll stay," Jong Han said, letting one corner of his mouth curl up a little. "You stole from me; but you came to trade yourself for me, too. I might not have needed saving at all if I hadn't been stupid enough to tell that officer about you; but I might not have wanted to if you hadn't taken that scroll. All in all, I think perhaps we're even, Avatar."

Katara couldn't quite look him in the eye for a second, but then she made herself; it was the least she could do. "Thank you." Maybe one day, she thought wryly, she'd stop ending up in situations where the most appropriate thing to say was so hopelessly inadequate.

The little quirk in his mouth bloomed suddenly into a full smile. "I hope you find it worth all this," he said, not unkindly, and then dipped his head in a little farewell, and started walking away to the east.




Apparently Zhao could be pushed past the point of table-pounding anger and into a darkly brooding silence. Yin had never seen it happen before, but then the Avatar had never slipped out of Zhao's grasp twice in a row before, either.

The walk back to Jindao had been silent and hurried, Zhao prodding his ostrich horse into a trot fast enough to force the soldiers on foot to jog or else fall behind. When they had finally reached the city again, Yin had seen plenty of soldiers exchanging wary glances with one another, clearly expecting an outburst.

But Zhao had passed on murmured orders to resume a heavy patrol schedule, and shut himself up in the outer office of his quarters with his lieutenants.

He was sitting now, across the table from them, tapping his chin thoughtfully and giving the middle distance a narrow stare; he had been for at least half an hour, but no one wanted to be the one to disturb him.

And in the end, luckily, no one had to. Yin spent perhaps ten more minutes admiring the calligraphy prominently displayed on the wall behind Zhao—exceptional work, to her admittedly amateur eyes—and then was yanked from her contemplations when he suddenly stood.

"Yes, excellent," he murmured to himself, nodding, and then turned his attention to them at last. "There is a promotion coming to me, from the Fire Lord himself—send it on, Lieutenant Hako, when it comes."

"Sir?" Hako said cautiously.

"You'll stay here," Zhao said. "I am provisionally granting you the authority of a captain—a position that could become permanent, if you acquit yourself well."

It sounded almost like a threat, coming from Zhao; but Hako gave no sign that he heard it as anything but a promise, and lifted fist to palm like he was genuinely grateful. "Understood, sir," he said, and bowed his head just the right amount.

"Lieutenants Yin, Chu Lai, Anshi," Zhao went on, giving a sharp look to each of them in turn. "You'll come with me."

"If I may, sir," Yin said, deferential. "Where to?"

Zhao eyed her for a moment, but deigned to answer. "Pohuai Fort."


*


Yin left the military complex that filled most of the old palace grounds, and wandered the streets, under the guise of doing rounds to check on the units patrolling the city.

She prodded the bruising around her cheekbone thoughtfully as she passed through the gate. She'd been hoping that a second failure to take the Avatar would make Zhao give up on the endeavor entirely; the Avatar was a fine prize, more than a fine prize, to Zhao's eyes, but she'd thought perhaps he would realize soon that she was simply too powerful to be taken by the kind of troops he could muster without losing his grip on Jindao.

But if a promotion was headed for him, that shed new light on the matter. Of course Zhao had known about it—promotions were the kind of secret-that-wasn't that everybody knew about. And it meant that he could not easily afford to let go of this chase; to acknowledge that he could not capture the Avatar, despite the fact that she had crossed directly through the territory under his command, would be an unpleasant first action to take as Commander Zhao. Success, by contrast, would provide immediate and powerful proof of ability to the Fire Lord, and might even guarantee another promotion.

And Pohuai—Pohuai was where the Yu Yan Archers were stationed. Yin only believed perhaps the most-plausible third of the legends regarding the Yu Yan Archers; but even that most-plausible third was full of dauntingly impressive feats. If Zhao took command of the Archers and used them to track down the Avatar—well. Yin had been lucky so far, but not lucky enough that she could take on legions of Yu Yan Archers alone and come out the other side anything but dead.

Then again, alone might not be quite accurate, she thought, and when she returned to the compound for the evening meal, she was careful to make sure she ended up across from Kishen.


*


It wasn't as difficult as it might have been, to get to the same table he sat at; she wasn't the first lieutenant to forgo the officers' table temporarily to sit with the common soldiers instead. And not the only one to do it tonight, either, with Zhao at the head of the room glowering stormily into his bowl, clearly chafing at the thought of the single night's wait that lay between him and the journey to Pohuai.

"Lieutenant," he said with a faint smile, as soon as she sat. "What an unexpected honor."

She might as well get right to the point. "But not an unwarranted one," she said. "You've done me two favors, and I've only repaid one; and I do hate to build up a debt."

He gave her a brief nod of acknowledgement—he'd have gotten the transfer from Hako as soon as they'd reached the city—and then just looked at her for a moment, faintly assessing, before letting half his mouth creep up into a smile. "Do they truly qualify as favors, sir, when they serve my interests just as well as your own?"

Yin picked up a chunk of sticky rice casually, and chewed on it while she tried to figure out what that meant. She was invested in the Avatar's well-being due to a series of mistakes and a generous helping of peculiar luck; but why was he? If he thought the initial incident had put them both in the same boat, he was an idiot—the blame for that rested squarely on her, and it would be ridiculously easy for him to argue that he had simply been doing as a superior officer had asked. And he didn't seem like an idiot, though Yin admittedly hadn't known him very long.

There had to be something else, something she just wasn't seeing yet; but then she'd been off the edge of the metaphorical map for days now. She'd have to get used to not knowing what might happen next.

"Sir," Kishen said, and Yin looked up, still only partway through her clump of rice. "I can't assure you that our interests will always remain aligned; but as long as they do, I'll gladly act to further them for both our sakes. And if they don't ..." He shrugged. "I'll just as gladly stay out of your way."

Oddly reassuring, for something that had started out sounding rather like a threat; Yin would definitely take staying out of the way, especially when it could so easily have been turning her in instead. She tapped her chopsticks against the rim of her bowl, and allowed herself a quiet sigh of satisfaction. "And you'll let me know if there's anything I can do for you—within reason, of course." He'd been quite generous; it was nothing more than fair for her to be generous in return. And if he ever had to make a choice, it could only help tip the balance in her favor.

"Of course," he said, grin spreading to the other side of his mouth; and then he laughed his ridiculous laugh, and they ate the rest of their dinner in a comfortable silence.

Chapter Text

Their fire had mostly gone out, but there were still enough coals burning by the time they got back to mark the location of their little camp—not that Suki needed that in order to find her way back.

They'd walked in silence most of the way, aside from Sokka grumbling to himself occasionally; but the moment they were back inside the small clearing, Katara immediately turned to them, and said, "I'm sorry—I know that must have seemed like a terrible idea."

"Um, yeah," Sokka said; Suki couldn't see his face well enough to tell what expression he was wearing, but his tone of voice was enough for her to make a pretty good guess. "Seriously, what was that? Did the dead guy not try to talk you out of it at all?"

"No, he—he knew," Katara said, and then shook her head, hair catching the faint light from the coals as it swung. "He knew that I had to; I'm sorry it put you in danger, I'm sorry for how badly it could have gone, but I'm not sorry that I did it."

Sokka's silence had a distinct feeling of bafflement to it. "Is this another one of those wacky Avatar things?" he said after a moment.

"I don't know," Katara admitted, less sharply than Suki might have expected. "I know I can't stop the war if Zhao gets a hold of me; but I don't think I can stop it if I hate myself, either."

Sokka let out a resigned sort of sigh, and then turned his back and headed over to his mat, briefly blocking the coals from Suki's view.

She was pretty sure she knew what he was thinking, but she was also pretty sure she had at least a general idea what Katara was talking about. Suki knew that if she'd started feeling like she'd failed in her responsibilities to even the youngest of the girls, she'd never have wanted to wear the first's headdress again—and the Avatar was so much more than just head of an order of warriors. If Katara couldn't depend on herself to do her duty by one person, how could she ever be sure she could do her duty by the world?

Suki wasn't going to make Sokka stay up to argue about it, not when they were all so tired already; but she pushed her mat over a little, so that when she and Katara both lay down, their heads were right next to each other. "Zhao?" she muttered, quietly enough that Sokka wouldn't hear.

"That's what Lieutenant Yin called the captain," Katara whispered back.

"She was there?"

Katara made a small affirmative sound, and then hesitated. "I don't think she told him anything," she said. "She told me she was the one who let the ostrich horses loose. And then she made me hit her."

Suki blinked. "Hit her?"

"With a pot," Katara said, and something about the bewildered tone of her voice and the incongruity of the detail made Suki snort half a laugh into her own shoulder. A beat, and she could hear a near-voiceless little giggle coming from Katara; a sudden surge of fondness welled up in her, and she reached up over her head until she could squeeze Katara's shoulder.

"For what it's worth," she murmured into the dark, "it was incredibly stupid; but I'd rather have an Avatar who'd risk herself to save one person than an Avatar who wouldn't."

"It's worth a lot," Katara said, low and grateful, curling a hand around Suki's wrist for a second; and they fell asleep with their heads still next to each other, the rush of wind overhead sounding almost like they were still whispering together, and the coals going dim beside them.


*


Sokka still seemed a little bit on edge the next morning; but when he finished his rice, he tackled Katara into the underbrush and tried to force the food-streaked bowl onto her head, so odds were he was okay.

They packed up their things and set off along the north road, and by midafternoon, Suki was rapidly coming to the conclusion that she didn't much care for walking. She'd often rounded half the island while scouting, at home, sometimes without even trying particularly hard; but since Jindao, they had walked the length of Kyoshi Island tip-to-tip at least half a dozen times, and they still hadn't gotten anywhere near where they were going. It was almost enough to make her miss being folded up into the canoe—at least then Katara had been able to speed them along with her bending. There must have been unpleasant things about some of those long afternoons, speeding over the water with the wind rushing by, splashing Sokka in the face every time he started to drift off; but right now, hot and dusty and aching everywhere below her waist, Suki couldn't remember any of them.

She reminded herself often that it was good for her. It took a different kind of strength to walk than it did to fight; she had plenty of one, and now she was getting the chance to learn the other, unhappy as her feet might be about it.

It was good for all of them, really. Sokka's complaints dropped off sharply by the third day; he put on a show of griping occasionally, but Suki suspected that was more for the smiles it put on Katara's face than because he really meant it. He'd admitted to her one afternoon that he'd been more worried than anything else.

"It's not because it was stupid," he'd said.

"I didn't think so," Suki had told him. "You do stupid things all the time."

Sokka had given her a mock glare, and then, unable to stop himself, grinned. "Exactly," he had admitted, before sobering a little. "It was just—she walked right into it, without even telling us. If that lieutenant hadn't saved her, and we hadn't seen that fire, we'd never have been able to find her." He had shrugged a little. "We promised Mother we'd take care of each other."

"And you are—you both are," Suki had said, briefly serious, before punching him lightly on the shoulder. "After all, neither one of you is dead yet." He'd laughed, and tried to trip her on the way up the next rise.

And Katara—Katara was much better, more like herself than she'd been since the city. Saving Jong Han had eased the worst of it, which made Suki even more glad that she had done it, even as she simultaneously hoped Katara never had to do anything like it again. They always camped as close to water as possible, so that she could practice with the scroll every day. And she was definitely improving—enough so that even Suki, who knew next to nothing about bending, could tell. Still, Suki couldn't say she'd mind if Katara started missing a day or two here and there; lingering guilt and shame might not have her turning herself in to the Fire Nation anymore, but that didn't mean they were gone entirely.




They arrived at Pohuai days before Zhao's promotion orders, which meant that despite his foreknowledge of his new status, he was still only a captain—a situation that brought out every ounce of Zhao's charm and patience.

But Colonel Shinu held firm, despite Zhao's bluster, and even if he hadn't, it was obvious Zhao wouldn't have gotten anywhere.

The captain of the Yu Yan Archers was a woman named Ming-Li. She was unimpressive in every immediately visible respect, which made her impassive self-assurance incomprehensible to Zhao. She was relatively short, and not especially fair of face, but she moved and spoke with calm economy, humble without abasing herself, imperturbable but not disrespectful. She made Yin think of the old volcano on the island where she'd grown up; and Zhao, like winter rains, might howl around her, but would never move her.

"All due respect to the colonel," said Ming-Li, bowing politely toward Shinu, "but it is I who must accept your authority in the end, Captain."

"The orders are on their way," Zhao snapped.

"I do not doubt it," Ming-Li said, placid. "But you remain a captain until they arrive."

Zhao could not deny it, much as he hated it; all he could do was glare. The sight of him glowering down at the stalwart captain was incredibly funny, and Yin could barely resist the urge to stifle a laugh against her own shoulder.


***


The soldiers had been coming by more and more often. Tracking down a fugitive—more like a hundred, Ai Shing thought, letting one corner of her mouth creep up, but they couldn't be certain of that. So: little wonder, really, that they'd chosen to pay her a visit today.

"What is that face doing on the side of your shop?" the captain said.

Ai Shing blinked, and set her tray down on the counter. "There's a face on my shop?"

The captain's eyes went narrow. "The painting," he clarified. "About eight feet tall, looks suspiciously like a certain wanted criminal's mask."

"Oh, that face," Ai Shing said, and adopted as disapproving an expression as she could manage. "Vandalism! A terrible thing—and by the spirits themselves, no less. Perhaps that is why it proves so difficult for my daughter to paint over."

The captain looked unimpressed. "That—thing is not a spirit; a man, or a dozen, with too much time on his hands."

"And yet the whitewashing goes so slowly," Ai Shing mused. "Does it not?"—and this she said a little more loudly, so that Yi Lun would know to speak.

And yes, there; her daughter, clever as always, popped her head up over the windowsill, between the open shutters. "It does, Mama," she said. "I have part of the corner now, but it will take another coat—maybe two. The spirit paint is so much better than our whitewash," and she gave her head a mournful shake.



The captain snorted. "Spirit paint," he repeated.

"You say it is not a spirit," Ai Shing said, "yet you call it so yourselves," and she nodded toward the notice they had put up the last time they had come through.

The captain waved a hand. "The Blue Spirit is only a name; we must have something to identify him by. Until we catch him, that is," he added, a little belated.

Ai Shing smiled, and turned her face down to hide it, busying herself with taking the empty teacups from her tray. "Perhaps you have turned him into a spirit," she said, "by calling him so," and then took up her tea shuffle. "There are customers to serve, Captain, if you will excuse me?"


***


Zuko watched the officer send his soldiers up to search the second floor, and wondered why the tea woman wasn't more upset. Granted, he probably should have been keeping his face turned away, but they were tucked away in a relatively dim corner; and anything was better than being stuck watching Uncle coo at his cup.

"Another round, sir?" the tea woman asked.

"Alas, I am still savoring the first," Uncle admitted, finally breaking the intense rapport he'd been building with his tea in order to smile at her.

She smiled back. "Then I will save it for you."

"Not in the teapot?" Uncle hastened to ask.

The tea woman laughed, and flapped a hand. "I would never let your ginseng go overbrewed," she said reassuringly.

Zuko refrained from rolling his eyes, though the temptation was enormous. "So the Blue Spirit has been sighted here," he said, trying to sound like he had known about it already.

They had followed Zhao north from Jindao; he had left his post so abruptly, Zuko was certain he had either information regarding the Avatar's movements or a new plan to capture her, and whichever it was, Zuko could not afford to lose track of him. But they couldn't just walk into Pohuai after him—so here they were, stuck in their stupid Earth Kingdom clothes again, trying to pretend they belonged.

The tea woman grinned. "Oh, yes," she said. "Many times. It often chooses to appear as a person dressed in black, wearing a blue mask—sometimes more than one at once. And in dozens of places, particularly since the news about the Avatar came up from the city."

"The news?" Zuko said, struggling to keep his face locked into an expression of vague curiosity.

"Have you not heard?" She leaned down, propping an elbow on the table, and gave them a conspiratorial sort of look. "The Avatar has returned!"

It was all Zuko could do to force his eyebrows to rise and simultaneously keep from setting the table on fire; so it was Uncle who leaned forward in his seat and said, "Really?"

The woman nodded. "Oh, the story has been everywhere. She destroyed the plaza in the old capital and left the place half-flooded, and then escaped from the city, right under the Fire Nation's nose. The Blue Spirit has been visiting us here for a very long time; but not so often as during this past week, not in twenty years."

"She's an idiot," Zuko said, when she had left them alone again and Uncle was back to humming at his tea. "It's not a spirit."

Uncle Iroh gave him a calm look over the rim of the cup he was holding up to his nose. "There are many kinds of spirits, nephew," he said.

Zuko leaned back against the wall and waved a hand irritably. "It doesn't matter, anyway," he said. "What we need isn't a spirit, it's a way to find out what Zhao is up to."

"Indeed," Uncle said, and took a sip of his tea.


***


Yin suspected that Captain Ming-Li was not precisely patient so much as she was someone who simply did not understand impatience—events happened when they happened, and could not be hurried through anger or harsh words. So it was a delight to watch her interact with Zhao, especially the day the messenger hawk from Hako finally came.

Zhao's expectations of righteous triumph were writ large over his face the moment he heard the bird shriek as it soared over the fortress wall; no doubt, Yin thought, he was picturing Ming-Li's face gone bitter with defeat, or tight with resentment.

But when he finally had the rice paper in his hands, marked with the royal seal of the Fire Lord, Captain Ming-Li put fist to palm and bowed to him, her equanimity wholly undisturbed. "Congratulations on your promotion, Commander Zhao," she said, as placidly as she had refused him before.

Zhao stared at her, utterly nonplused for just a moment, and then tilted his chin up, dismissing what he did not understand with his usual disdain. "Get your archers ready, Captain," he said. "And you, Lieutenant—call the other officers together. We depart in the morning to search the north road."




Katara stepped into the water and then turned, squinting back at the scroll she had left on a convenient rock.

"Want me to hold it up for you?" Sokka said, only half sarcastic.

Katara stuck her tongue out at him.

"Seriously," he said, "why do you do that?"

"Do what?" she said.

"Stand in it," he clarified. "Couldn't you bend just as well from over here?" He was lounging on the bank of the little pool, leaning on a tree. He'd washed the supper dishes yesterday, so today it was Suki's turn; she was somewhere upstream, and Katara fancied she could hear a faint splash every now and then.

The two of them had been taking turns watching her practice, which would have been incredibly annoying except Katara was pretty sure they weren't doing it on purpose—they didn't want to leave her alone just because they didn't want to leave her alone, not because they were consciously planning to stop her if she ever tried to take a walk by herself again. Not that they didn't talk about it sometimes; Sokka had joked that morning that Aang clearly couldn't be trusted to mind her anymore, since he kept going along with her "weird 'Avatar things'".

"It helps," she said, dipping a hand into the water. They were still far enough south for it to be reasonably warm—especially in a pool like this, where the water lay calm under the sun all day. "I can feel the way it flows better. The way the water flows, and the way the sequences flow, too." She stared down into the pool, at the dim watery landscape of her knees, and shifted her weight, feeling the water shift in response. "It makes me pay attention, having to move through it, and it makes it harder for me to forget what my feet are doing."

"... Do you forget what your feet are doing a lot?" Sokka said.

She knew that he knew what she meant, because the same thing could happen when you fought with a club; put too much focus on what your hands were doing, and you'd stop minding how you were using your feet. So she gave him a mock sour look, and said nothing, raising her arms into position instead.

She'd known perhaps the first third of the moves illustrated in the Waterbending scroll, but she liked to start out by doing a few of them anyway—it was a good way to get herself moving. Standing in the water did help, but there was only so much it could do; and the scroll couldn't correct her stance if she let it slip, or tell her she needed to keep her elbows out. It was a little reassuring, in a weird way. If she had dragged Sokka and Suki north for something she could have learned from the right sheet of paper ... but she hadn't. And she had the rest of their walk north to learn from the scroll, so that when they got to the North Pole, she'd at least be a competent student, if not a master.

She let out a breath, and bent a double handful of water up out of the pool. They weren't anywhere near the north coast yet; she had plenty of time to practice.


***


It was an excellent position: moderately high on the slope overlooking the pool, far enough back and to the side that neither the Avatar nor her companion were likely to see her, yet with few enough intervening branches for Ming-Li's view to be nearly uninterrupted.

It was definitely the right girl—with long dark hair in a Southern Tribe style, traveling with a boy around her own age, and able to Waterbend. There was no second girl, not that Ming-Li could see, but she might easily be somewhere nearby.

It had been inevitable that they would find her. Commander Zhao had ordered them to sweep out west all the way to the Great Divide, and east to the mountains, and not to stop for rest until it was absolutely necessary. Excessive, to Ming-Li's mind; but she was not the commander.

She peered through the trees to the rise on the opposite side of the pool, and waited a moment—and yes, there, a flash of red paint and brown jacket: Su Yao. She gave the signal, a quick chop of the hand, knowing Su Yao would pass it along.

The girl was still bending, coaxing a plump rope of water into curving up over her head; there was an odd still moment like an indrawn breath, and then the first wave of arrows leapt from the forest.

The hiss of thirty-nine arrows in flight was not an inconsiderable sound, and the boy swung his head around, yelped, and tumbled sideways past the tree trunk he had been leaning on. The Avatar's bending sequence went from smooth and easy to a startled yank-and-shove, and a sudden wall of water caught most of the arrows mid-flight and then collapsed sideways, pulling the arrows down with it.

Most of the archers fired again; Ming-Li drew an arrow from her quiver, nocked it, and then drew until the knuckles of her drawing hand were nearly brushing her cheekbone, and waited. Restraint, restraint was the key. Restraint, and deference to circumstance. Waterbending was like any other defense: it must inevitably leave gaps, and Ming-Li would only need one.

She sighted carefully, aiming for the heart, and then remembered. They must take her alive, Commander Zhao had been insistent on that point. Orders were orders, to be accepted with grace; but it was a pleasure to follow this one, and retrain her arrow to the girl's shoulder. Ming-Li killed often, but thoughtfully, carefully, always with restraint—whatever the orders, to fatally ambush a girl and her brother with a detachment of forty archers did not sit well in her mind.

She took a breath, tracked the movement of the girl's arm as she Waterbent a shield between her side and another twelve arrows, and then let fly.


***


At first, Katara couldn't tell quite what had happened—it felt like someone had hit her shoulder with a club, somewhere between the joint and her breastbone. She stumbled back a step, breath going out of her with a whoosh. The water she had been bending upward quivered uncertainly, and then tumbled back into the pool with a splash.

Then, suddenly, it began to hurt, a bright agony so sharp she couldn't feel her left hand past it, and she tipped her head down to find herself nose-to-shaft with the giant arrow sticking out of her shoulder.

"Oh," she said, dazed, and dropped to her knees involuntarily; the only reason she even knew she had done it was because she was still in the pool, and the water suddenly surged up over her elbows.

It burned, burned—it was getting worse instead of better, all the sensation that had been missing at first rushing in, and she could feel the blood seeping out around the head of the arrow, plastering her shirt to her skin and trickling down her side until it hit the water.

"Katara!" somebody yelled—no, two people, and one of them was Sokka, charging right into the water like an idiot even though the archers were still out there. And the other one; Katara tipped her head back to confirm it, even though the motion pulled at her shoulder. The other one was Aang, back from drifting around in the treetops and staring down at her with a horrified look on his face.


***


Suki was scrubbing dried bits of rice out of the largest of their pots when she heard the first noise. It was kind of a crackle, like a foot on a branching twig, and she stilled for a second to listen before shaking her head. Plenty of things made noises like that—even deer foxes couldn't place their feet right all the time. She let it go, and kept scrubbing.

The second noise was a shout, from somewhere downstream—which was where Katara had gone to practice. Suki set the pot down on a rock and stared down the brook, hesitating. It had sounded like Sokka—but it wouldn't be the first time he'd yelled at Katara during her Waterbending time. She liked to hurl water at him when he was being particularly annoying.

As she stood there debating, a sudden fierce wind rose, whipping the water into little wavelets against her thighs; the trees began to bend overhead, swaying like it was the middle of a storm.

"What the—" she said, shoving her hair back out of her face; that was as far as she got before the stick hit her.

She caught it reflexively when it bounced off her shoulder, almost dropping the scrap of rag she'd been using to scrub the pot, and stared at it for a second, before a thought occurred to her. "Aang?" she said. "Is that you?"

The wind couldn't answer, but it swirled faster, tighter, and Suki could see that the trees beyond the clearing she was standing in were perfectly still.

She dropped the rag and the stick, and leapt from the water onto the bank, hurling herself downstream as fast as her legs could carry her. If she had had any lingering doubts, the way the wind followed her would have erased them: the branches of the trees bent as she passed them, the leaves rustling, and for a moment, it felt almost like her own running was causing it.

She hit the pool at a sprint, feet skidding a little on the rocks. This was it, she was sure; they had passed it looking for a good spot to camp, and Katara had pointed it out—and yes, there, tumbled face-down on the stones along the bank, was the Waterbending scroll. Spotting it gave Suki a little chill—after everything she had done to get it, Katara would never have left it behind like that if she could help it.

But the worst thing was the arrows. Dozens of them, at least ten jutting out of one tree alone; they were scattered on the bank, drifting in the water, a little trail of them floating downstream.

Suki yanked one out of the nearest tree with a jerk. The feathers it was fletched with were dyed a deep rusty red—and, as if that weren't enough of a clue, the simple crest painted on the shaft consisted of a band of brown with a band of red on either side.

The wind had died away now; Aang had calmed down a little, Suki guessed, but she'd bet he was still there. "Fire Nation," she said, for his benefit, and then shoved the arrow through the belt at her waist. She crouched down and carefully turned the scroll over, and began rolling it up. Somebody had to know where around here you could find Fire Nation archers stationed, and whoever it was, they were going to tell her.




"You have captured the Avatar."

Ming-Li turned at the sound of the voice, to see one of Commander Zhao's lieutenants; an intelligent woman, Ming-Li suspected, though they had not spoken extensively. Not, perhaps, the best at hiding her amusement—but then Commander Zhao was not the best at seeing it.

They had returned with the Avatar in tow to no particular fanfare, though if the expression on Commander Zhao's face could have blown a celebratory horn, they would all have been deafened. The girl had collapsed, so it had not been difficult to take her; her brother's concern for her had overpowered all else temporarily, and by the time he had tried to swing out at them, it had been far too late.

Zhao had made a triumphant speech disclosing the capture not an hour ago; Ming-Li had done her best to be attentive, but he had been very longwinded. And now the Avatar and her brother were likely chained up somewhere in the fort, and Ming-Li was here, at the northwest wall, staring out at the distant canyon—or had been, until the lieutenant had come.

The lieutenant smiled a little when Ming-Li looked at her, and said, "Congratulations."

"When many archers take up their bows and aim at a single target," Ming-Li quoted, "then of course that target will be hit."

"Meizao Lin," the lieutenant said, nodding. "I have only recently become familiar with her works." She leaned against the parapet and looked out across the parade grounds. "An interesting philosophy; at times she seems almost to disagree with herself. The third book lays out a fine discussion of the importance of inner power, and the ability to accept things as they are."

"A fine trait," Ming-Li said.

"Oh, to be sure," the lieutenant said. "The commander has taught me to appreciate it intensely."

Ming-Li glanced at her. Innocuous words, if you looked only at the surface; but something about the woman's tone of voice, and the expression on her face, made Ming-Li think that her primary meaning could not be found there.

"But that chapter," the lieutenant continued, "even that very line—I always read it as arguing exactly the opposite. Determined people may achieve a common goal with ease; even, perhaps, in defiance of circumstance." The lieutenant's eyes were still fixed on the parade grounds, oddly distant, like she was talking more to herself than she was to Ming-Li.

"Perhaps," Ming-Li said, gently prodding.

"After all, people may shape situations just as much as chance does," the lieutenant said. "More, at times," and she let a little wry grin escape that spoke to Ming-Li of experience.

Undoubtedly true; Ming-Li remembered her own tiny adjustment of aim, a moment's decision that had preserved the Avatar from death.

"But enough," the lieutenant said, shaking her head. "Forgive me, I have interrupted your duties." She saluted politely, dipping her head a little further than she had to, and strode away around the wall.

A peculiar conversation, Ming-Li thought; but she was glad the lieutenant had chosen to have it with herself somewhere where Ming-Li could hear. It was worth consideration.


***


Yin closed the door of the office temporarily assigned to her, and let out a little sigh. She'd only meant to congratulate Captain Ming-Li—a tiny thing, but it might help allay suspicion, no matter what she decided to do. Should she leave things as they were, congratulating the woman who had shot the Avatar at least served as a reasonable followup to the Avatar smashing her in the head with a pot. And should she lose her mind once again, it was one more link in a chain that would allow her to claim particular interest in the Avatar, which might be enough of an excuse to get her into the cell they were keeping her in.

A ludicrous thought—even more so than had become usual recently. She would never be able to get the Avatar out without exposing herself for what she was, not this time. The stampeding ostrich horses had been a spur-of-the-moment plan; but she'd take it, over no plan at all.




Sokka tried to roll out the aches the chains were putting in his shoulders. It was tough, thanks to the way they'd been set up; the chains were anchored to the posts pretty far over their heads, and there was barely enough slack for him to bend his elbows. Which was really too bad, because he could totally feel an itch coming on, right at the end of his nose.

Katara had a lot more slack—she needed it, because she was still out cold. They'd given her something to keep her asleep while they'd cleaned out her shoulder and bandaged it up, and she hadn't woken up yet, though they'd been dumped in here hours ago. One of the soldiers had started hanging her up like Sokka, but another had told him to let her stay on the floor, unless he wanted to explain to Captain Zhao why the Avatar had lost the use of her arms. Sokka grimaced just thinking about what it might have done to her shoulder; even with her able to lie on the floor, he could see a dark blot where blood had already soaked through the bandage.

It felt like at least another hour before she began to stir, though there was really no way to tell—there were no windows, and their cell-dungeon-thing was so unbelievably boring that it might just as easily have been ten minutes.

Honestly, Sokka didn't notice at first; he was too busy staring grumpily at the ceiling and wishing he could scratch his nose. That is, until Katara said, "Oh, ow," and was sick all over the floor.

Luckily, she threw up away from Sokka, so he could say, "Hey, take it easy—are you all right?" and mean it. Not that he wouldn't have meant it anyway; but he suspected being covered in vomit would have made him mean it a little less, maybe.

Katara was hanging onto the chains that held her and gasping shallowly, her whole face screwed up tight, and Sokka wished again that he could move further, this time so that he could help her sit up. But all he could do was hang there and wait until her breathing evened out and she could pull herself up. "Dizzy," she said at last, tightly, leaning heavily against one post with her good shoulder, "and it hurts."

"Well, you did get yourself shot in the shoulder," Sokka said—gently, because he was an exemplary big brother.

Katara coughed and then spat to one side, making a face Sokka could just see the edge of if he leaned forward far enough. "Yeah, I did," she said. "But you have no excuse."

Mocking him already—clearly, Sokka thought, they hadn't shot her hard enough. "Come on, I couldn't take thirty of them and carry you, too," he said, and then, more helpfully, "You know what Gran-Gran would say: deep breaths."

"Deep breaths hurt, too," Katara said, voice still thin with pain; but she did it, and it seemed to help her head clear a little, because she sucked in one last good breath and then used the post to haul herself to her feet. "How long?"

"Well, it was afternoon when they shot you, and it took a while for them to get us back here and clean you up," Sokka said. "And then you were asleep. So it's probably tomorrow—" by now, he'd been about to say, except at that exact moment the door to their prison swung wide.


***


Katara's shoulder was still burning with the sharp pain of an unhealed wound, though she was starting to feel a deeper ache beneath that, too, which was nearly as painful; it was the ache that had made her sick, the ache and the dizziness.

But the dizziness had started to fade again, after resurfacing when she'd hauled herself to her feet, and the more the hurt concentrated itself in her shoulder, the less shaky the rest of her felt.

So she had pushed herself off the post, and was standing on her own two feet when the warrior in the blue mask burst in.

At first, she thought she had to be hallucinating—that whatever care the Fire Nation soldiers had given her hadn't been enough to keep fever away. But when she glanced over at Sokka, ready to ask him, he was staring at the door, too, with one eyebrow raised skeptically.

So the blue-masked warrior really was there, striding toward Katara with swords drawn.

Excellently-made swords, as it turned out. When the warrior raised them overhead and then swung them down, Katara just waited; if whoever it was wanted to kill her, there wasn't much she could do about it, chained to a pair of posts with a hole in her shoulder, and if not, then there was nothing to worry about. So she was still standing there when they came down on the chains to either side of her.

One struck at just the right angle, and the chain broke entirely, rusty link sheared in half by the warrior's sword. The other sword didn't fare quite as well, but an open link was better than a closed one, and even with only one usable arm, it was the work of a moment to get the piece of chain still cuffed to her wrist to come loose.

She had her mouth half-open, ready to thank the blue-masked warrior, when the warrior sheathed one sword, grabbed the wrist of her good arm, and started to pull; and the thanks she'd been intending came out as a "Hey!"

The warrior didn't stop, just kept tugging her across the floor, and Katara took a second to evaluate. The warrior had a firm grip on her good arm, and she couldn't throw a punch with the free one, not when every motion of her hand made her shoulder catch fire all over again.

So she put all her weight into a sudden tug backwards, and the moment the warrior went off-balance, she kicked out hard and yanked her hand free at the same time.

A muffled sound, mingled pain and irritation, came from behind the mask, and the warrior rounded on her, remaining sword high.

"You cut him loose, too," Katara said, using her good arm to indicate Sokka. "I'm not going anywhere without him."

It was bizarre, talking to a mask; the warrior was looking right at her, but she had no idea what was getting through.

"I'm not," she repeated; "do you understand? He's my brother. I won't leave without him."


***


Zuko stared at the Avatar, utterly thrown.

Theoretically, it wasn't an incomprehensible sentiment; but there was something about the way she said it, like these things, brothers and loyalty, were completely inextricable. Like she had never for a moment considered leaving the boy behind—like she truly, genuinely wouldn't, even though Zuko was handing her a clear path to freedom.

It was ridiculous.

She took advantage of his pause and darted to the side, sliding his other sword half out of its sheath before he could so much as turn. "Just let me," she said, and, because he had evidently gone mad, he did.

Using only the one arm, and tired as she was, she had to swing more than once to crack her brother's chains open, and Zuko grimaced to think what it was doing to the sword's edge. But he didn't stop her, and soon enough, they were both standing before him, chains still trailing from their cuffs like ribbons tied around a child's wrists.

"Okay, so," the boy said. "What now?"

To be perfectly honest, Zuko wasn't sure. This whole plan had come to him in the time between Uncle realizing he'd walked away with one of the teahouse's teacups and Uncle returning, the cup safe again with the tea woman; Zuko had stared at that giant blue face on the shop side, with the tea woman's daughter still lazily whitewashing over the very bottom corner, and the seeds of an idea had occurred to him. Granted, it probably wouldn't have gone anywhere, except then the rumors had started yesterday that the Avatar had been captured. Zuko had already found a discarded mask, probably dumped when the last Blue Spirit to use it had been fleeing a patrol, and it had felt like the spirits were handing him a chance to make up for all his previous failures.

But he wasn't going to tell the Avatar's brother any of that. He remembered the route he had taken to get in here reasonably well; parts of it would have been tough with two, and would be tougher with three, but he would get them out.

He had to.




Suki clung to the fortress wall, and waited for the sounds of booted feet to pass by overhead. She'd found the perfect spot to climb up, tucked into the corner created by one of the towers on the outer wall, with just enough chinks and cracks in the rock to give her handholds; now she was just waiting on the middle of the shift change to cross the wall.

"Just a little longer," she murmured to herself, quietly enough that none of the soldiers above her would be able to hear it. She'd gotten into the habit of thinking aloud, just in case Aang was around—he might have found Katara already, but he'd been with her when the archers had taken Katara away, so he might know as little about her whereabouts as Suki did. And if he didn't know where Katara was, then the past day had to have been incredibly lonely for him. Even with her talking aloud as often as she remembered to, she couldn't hear any of his replies, or even be sure she was looking in the right direction.

Finally, the footsteps faded away, and Suki scaled the last ten feet in a silent rush and hurled herself over the parapet, as low as she could manage. She dropped down to the walltop as soon as she was over it, and waited, but no shouts came; so she let herself look up.

The soldiers who'd been closest had all filed into the walltower, and their replacements were just a little late—not a dire situation at all, unless a single person happened to have climbed the wall at that exact spot. The nearest guards were almost all the way over at the next tower along the wall; they'd see her, but only if she did something exceptionally noticeable.

Like try to break the Avatar out of a fortress alone, Suki thought, making a face at herself.

She crossed the walltop to the inner parapet, and she had just jumped up onto it, one hand braced against the tower, and started planning out her way down when she saw them.

Katara, and Sokka—she could tell even from this far away. There was someone else with them, too, someone who was dressed all in black, and wearing a blue mask. The masked person had swords; two of them, and even as Suki watched, the masked warrior yanked Katara away from the inner wall, and crossed the blades against her throat.

A cry went up from the soldiers on the wall at almost the same moment, and Suki dropped low to the parapet again. Nothing would bring that captain—Zhao—out faster than somebody yelling, "The Avatar! The Avatar's escaping!"

And, sure enough, it took mere seconds for Captain Zhao to appear on the top of the inner wall. He was closer to Suki than Sokka and Katara were; she could see the look of outrage that twisted his face, clear as day.

Suki reined in the urge to scramble down the wall and tackle the masked warrior to the ground, and forced herself to think, instead. Zhao didn't look pleased, which meant that despite all appearances to the contrary, the masked warrior wasn't helping him by holding Katara's throat to a sword.

No—no, of course he wasn't. Zhao wanted Katara for a prisoner, a captive, so that he could turn her in to the Fire Lord; she was valuable alive, because she was the Avatar. If the masked warrior killed her, Zhao would have nothing to show for his efforts except the knowledge that in a few days, the Avatar would be a baby somewhere in one of the Earth Kingdoms.

A difficult move to pull off, Suki thought; the masked warrior had to be desperate, whoever it was.


*


Ming-Li gazed down at the space between the inner and outer walls, and listened to the sound of Commander Zhao's teeth grinding.

It had been several weeks since the Blue Spirit had last visited Pohuai. This Blue Spirit, Ming-Li noted, was a little bit shorter than the last one, and quite a bit more audacious. An impressive feat; you had to be careful, careful and quiet, to get all the way to the far side of the inner wall without being spotted once. And an inevitable result—there was no way to cross the ground between the inner gate of Pohuai and the outer without being seen, no matter how careful or quiet you were.

Soldiers from the wall had hurried down the towers, ready to rush the Blue Spirit at a word from Commander Zhao. But Ming-Li suspected that the captain would refrain, given the threat to the Avatar's current incarnation; and, indeed, a moment later, he shouted, "Hold!"

The soldiers below looked up the wall for confirmation. Understandable, Ming-Li thought; this was a highly unusual situation.

Commander Zhao lifted a hand, looking like he wished he could throw lightning from it. "Hold, you hear me?" he yelled. "The Avatar must be captured alive!"

The Blue Spirit edged backwards, the Avatar stumbling along with him, with her brother barely a step behind; they were about halfway to the main gate, now.

"Unbar the gates," Commander Zhao snapped at the nearest lieutenant—the woman, Ming-Li realized.

"Unbar the gates," the lieutenant cried obediently at the soldiers nearest the gatehouse, and then hesitated for a moment. "Sir, you aren't—going to let them go?"

"A situation like this requires ... precision," Commander Zhao bit out, and then nodded to Ming-Li.

Ming-Li reached into her quiver and selected an arrow. A situation like this, he had said. Highly unusual; she had thought it herself mere moments ago. The product of chance, in some respects, and yet none of them would be here, in this moment, if not for the Blue Spirit. Ming-Li thought of Meizao Lin. The Blue Spirit, indeed—a single archer, who was about to hit the target alone.

Now we are two, Ming-Li thought, bending her bow, and thoughtfully, carefully, with very great restraint, she missed.


***


Suki couldn't have asked for a better distraction, really. She had run along the outer walltop with not a single soldier the wiser, every eye but hers fixed intently on Katara, Sokka, and the masked warrior.

Except, of course, for the two soldiers still in the gatehouse; but that was understandable, since they were busy staring at the sharpened fan tips she was holding about an inch from their faces.

"Open the gates," she said, nodding toward the machinery that moved the outer gates.

"Now just a minute—" one of them said.

She jabbed the appropriate fan a little closer. "Or I can kill you, and try to figure out how to do it myself. I don't care which, but I'm betting you do."

"I do," said the second one, glaring over at the first; she tipped her head a little, granting him tacit permission to move, and he went right for the controls.




The archer with the red facepaint suddenly loosed a shot, and Katara winced reflexively, waiting for another gaping wound to open in her other shoulder; but the arrow hissed past her arm, and landed with a thud in the dirt.

The masked warrior flinched, hard—it had grazed the warrior on its way past, Katara realized—and the blade of the rightmost sword dug sharp for an instant into her throat, blood trickling down her neck. But the warrior recovered in an instant, and pulled her back another step toward the gate.

They only had about five steps left to go, and Katara began suddenly to worry about how the three of them were ever going to get the great gateway open. Even unbarred, the gates had to be immensely heavy, and the masked warrior didn't exactly have both hands free.

But another step, and the gates suddenly groaned and began to swing open; and a moment later, a faint blue figure burst through the wall of the gatehouse and soared down in front of them.

"You're okay!" Aang said, practically twirling in a circle. "I mean, aside from your shoulder. And your neck. Anyway, I know you can't really say anything right now, but you don't have to worry about the gates. Suki's got it handled."

He grinned, and Katara couldn't help but smile back, even though her shoulder was killing her and a masked stranger who'd just cut her across the throat was still hauling her backwards out of a Fire Nation fortress. When they were done getting out of this, she was going to carry Suki the rest of the way to the north coast. After she slept for about three days.

It took only a moment for them to edge through the gap in the gates; Katara could hear Zhao yelling at the rest of the archers, and a dozen arrows pounded into the wood behind them just a little too late. The door between the gatehouse and the walltop burst open with a bang a second later, and Suki swung herself out over the parapet with enough speed that Katara was briefly afraid she was about to lose her grip and fall right on their heads.

But she arced down and caught herself against the wall with her feet, and then evidently found two gaps in the wall for her bare toes. By the time a handful of soldiers had managed to gather at the parapet above her, Suki was almost halfway down the wall, and she didn't even bother climbing the last ten feet—she just dropped herself off the wall and rolled into a run.


*


They left the road up to the fort immediately, and after a minute, they were far enough into the trees to stop for breath.

"Let's never do that again," Sokka puffed, leaning his hands on his knees.

"You're telling me," Katara said, slumping against a treetrunk. The combination of terror and sudden exercise had managed to put her shoulder briefly out of her mind; but it was back with a vengeance now that she was still again, and it hadn't appreciated the pounding motion of running one bit. The old blood on the bandage had gone dark and dry, but there was fresh scarlet creeping out around the edges of the previous blotch—and the blood trailing down from the cut on her neck wasn't helping, either. "I am never going to get the stains out of this shirt," she said absently, waiting for her heart to slow down.

Sokka turned to stare at her. "Are you serious?" he said. "We just escaped from the middle of a Fire Nation fortress, and you're busy thinking about how hard the giant arrow wound in your shoulder is going to make your laundry?"

"Well, I'm not," she said weakly, picking at her neckline. "I mean, look at this," and then she couldn't get any further without bursting into laughter. It made her shoulder a whole fresh agony, but it was worth it.

When they had all caught their breath again, and the giggles had died away, Suki wiped her eyes, and then said, "So, who was your friend in the mask?"

Katara glanced around; Sokka and Aang both looked just as startled as she felt to realize that the masked warrior wasn't in the little clearing with them. "I—don't know," Katara said hesitantly.

"Well, that was probably the point," Sokka said, "with the mask and all. Really, I'd have been more surprised if we had had a round of introductions."

"I suppose," Katara said. "Still, I wish we'd found out who it was."


***


Zuko stared down at the blue mask, feeling oddly reluctant to leave it on the ground. Weakness, he told himself, but he couldn't quite make himself drop it like that.

The impulse came out of nowhere, and he had no idea why he went along with it; but he did, and it turned out to not be hard at all to sneak along the alley behind the tea shop, and leave the mask on one of the back windowsills. It was still a foolish risk to take, when he'd already seen for himself that Fire Nation patrols came through here all the time—but, he thought, not the most foolish one he'd taken today.

He met Uncle inside, as he had promised he would, and the rest of the soldiers who'd come with them from the ship were there, too. Yesterday's rumors had prompted them to split up even further than they already had, to give them a better chance to determine whether the rumors were true; and Uncle, of course, had picked the tea shop as the place to reunite.

He already had a cup in his hand—jasmine this time, judging by the smell. Zuko took a moment to lament the fact that he had apparently learned to tell Uncle's teas apart by smell, and then sat down across from him.

"Ah, nephew," Uncle Iroh said, perhaps a bit less jovially than he usually would. "By all accounts, yesterday's unfortunate news is indeed fact."

"Is that so," Zuko said, as noncommittally as he could manage.

Uncle stopped halfway through lifting the cup for another sip, and eyed him carefully. "I take it you have heard something to the contrary?"

"No one's told me anything like that," Zuko said truthfully. "But perhaps they will soon. The Avatar escaped Zhao once, after all; maybe she will again."

Uncle's eyes narrowed, but he completed the interrupted sip before setting his cup back on the table.

And a good thing it was, too, because he might well have dropped it at the sound of the cry that came from the back of the shop. "The Spirit!" the tea woman said, rushing in from the back room with a laugh—and the mask Zuko had left held tight in her hands. "The Avatar won't be a prisoner long now."

The room erupted in shouts and cheers, a few customers crowding up to the counter for a look at the mask. The sudden boisterous noise didn't move Uncle an inch; his gaze was fixed on Zuko's face like it had been nailed there. "I see," he said, with a tiny smile, and took another sip of his tea.




Zhao wasn't one to linger over the site of a failure. Over the failure itself, certainly; particularly if it could be pinned on someone else, though if Yin had had any say in the matter, she would have suggested to Zhao that he choose someone other than Captain Ming-Li.

He was still picking at her even as the troops prepared to move out at dawn, but by the look on her face, you'd never have known it.

"My most sincere wishes for your future good fortune, Commander," she said, when they were at the gates, and bowed. It was funny, Yin thought, how much taller than Zhao the captain could seem, even when he was mounted on an ostrich horse and she was in the middle of a bow. "I hope you will one day accept my abject apologies. Even the best of us cannot see a crossbreeze."



Zhao snarled something halfway polite, and yanked his ostrich horse toward the gate. "Move out!"

"A moment, Lieutenant Yin," Captain Ming-Li said, and Yin lowered the reins she had been about to snap. "Le Hoa Duan," and she slid a thin volume out of her sleeve. "If I may?"

"Of course," Yin said automatically, and watched the captain flip open one of her saddlebags and slide the book in.

"A great philosopher, from the southeast," Captain Ming-Li said, and, startlingly, cracked a smile. "I think you will enjoy it."


***


By the time they left the village the next morning, they'd been told the story at least a dozen times; someone's brother-in-law's niece's daughter had been in charge of delivering the fort's usual order of fish, and seen the whole thing.

"You were right, nephew," Uncle said, as they headed out down the road. "And such a pleasant thing to be right about!"

"Mm," Zuko agreed.

"A very selfless deed," Uncle Iroh prodded, "don't you think? To free the Avatar, without even recognition to gain from it!"

"Somehow, I don't think the Spirit walked away entirely empty-handed," Zuko said.

He hadn't been idle, during their last morning in the village. Much as he rationalized it to himself—weight of numbers, particularly when the Warrior of Kyoshi had joined them again, had been very much against him—he had, in the end, let the Avatar go, and he could not pardon himself for that. What he could do was make sure it had not entirely been a waste.


***


June slammed the third hand in a row to the table with a quick jerk of her arm, and threw back another drink, ignoring both the cheers and the groans equally.

"Can't you lose just once?" Deng demanded from behind the counter. "You're killing me, here, June."

"You want somebody to lose for you," June said, "I'm the wrong person to ask." She shot him a quick smirk. He might grumble about it, but she knew he liked it when she stopped by; plenty of people came around to see her armwrestle, and he got much more from the drinks they bought than he lost playing long odds by betting against her.

Her shirshu let out a whining snort outside—hard to hear, over the bustle inside the tavern, but June always kept an ear open for signs of trouble from Nyla. "Take a minute to recover, boys," she said, "and have another round on me," and then she flipped a few coins onto the table and headed for the door.

Nyla was still outside, exactly where June had left her, hitched up to the post. But she wasn't alone; there were about twenty people standing in a clump off to the side, and two more, an old man and a boy, standing right next to Nyla's head.

None of them were wearing uniforms, but June knew they were military; something about the way they stood gave it away. Military, and trying to hide it—spies, maybe, or a secret Fire Nation patrol. Interesting.

"Can I help you gentlemen with something?" June said, unhitching her whip from her belt and letting it uncoil.

"You're a bounty hunter, aren't you?" the boy said.

June crossed her arms, whip snaking down over her forearm, and eyed him. "Maybe I am. What's it to you?"

"I need you to find someone."

"Well, sure thing, kid, let me get right on that," June snorted, and turned back toward the tavern.

"You—"

June swung around again, but the boy had already cut himself off—maybe because of the hand the old man had put on his shoulder. "Yes?" she said.

The boy swallowed, visibly reining himself in. "I'll pay you," he said.

"That's a little more like it," June said. "You have something for Nyla to follow? She'll follow a scent for miles, but she needs something to start from."

The boy had two swords sheathed at his sides; he pulled the rightmost from its scabbard, and held it out for her inspection.

June peered down at the red-brown stain smearing the edge of it. "Blood," she judged, and smiled. "Sure, that'll do just fine."

Chapter Text

Yin watched Zhao pace, and wondered whether he might have forgotten she was there. If he had, perhaps she could sneak out without him noticing. She had only managed to get about half a chapter into Le Hoa Duan.

Of course, if he hadn't, then even the slightest movement toward the tent flap would probably draw his ire, and she'd rather avoid that if at all possible. Even before they'd camped, he had still been muttering unkind things about Captain Ming-Li under his breath, and it was serving as an excellent distraction from the previous misfortunes that had been plaguing him. If she kept being careful, he probably wouldn't even think to investigate the mysterious escape of the ostrich horses.

They were camped along the edge of the north road; they had traveled straight west to the road from Pohuai, and Yin knew Zhao was trying to decide whether to continue pursuing the Avatar north, or return to Jindao. It was a calculation he would never have had to make under normal circumstances—it was not Zhao's habit to include the possibility of failure in his determinations, and yet he could not ignore the way things had fallen out so far. He was feeling what were probably the first twinges of indecision he had ever experienced in his life, and having some difficulty hiding it.

Yin might almost have felt sorry for him, except she could still remember the feeling of that man in Jindao trembling under her sword.


*


He paced for half the afternoon, barking out orders to the men who interrupted him and occasionally snapping curt questions at Yin, who answered them with as much deference as possible; it was a relief to hear the creel of a messenger hawk outside, and duck through the tent flap with a murmured, "I'll see to it, sir."

The hawk was still circling when Yin stepped outside. She lifted an arm for it, reasonably certain her gauntlet would bear up against the talons, and it landed with a screech. She was braced for it; messenger hawks were always heavier than they looked. "There's a bird," she said, soothing nonsense, and worked the cap on the scroll-case open with careful fingers.

The letter was for Zhao, so, tempted as she might have been, she didn't break the seal. She held her forearm close against the hawk perch set up outside Zhao's tent, and the bird obligingly hopped over to the wood, burbling a little in its throat.

"I'll get somebody to bring you something," Yin told it, smoothing the pad of one finger over its head. "Still bloody all over; you'll like that."

If only Zhao were as easy to please, she thought wryly, and carried the letter scroll inside.


*


"Admiral Shalah," Zhao said, dropping the opened letter on the table set up in his tent in favor of rubbing two fingers along the bridge of his nose. "We're to head for Port Tsao, as soon as these orders reach us."

"Certainly simplifies things, sir," Yin murmured.

Zhao shot her a sour look, and beneath his fingers, the surface of the letter began to blacken.

"Sir, if I may," Yin said quickly, and drew the paper toward her before it could burst into flames. "This need not mean the end of your pursuit of the Avatar unless you wish it to."

"How so, Lieutenant?" Zhao stood and strode around the end of the table, every motion sharp with anger. "Tell me, please. Should I choose to evade the admiral's orders, I will need the Avatar just to buy my way back into the Navy's good graces; not an efficient choice."

"Not at all," Yin agreed. "Wisdom precludes such a course, in any event—Admiral Shalah, I hear, does not much care for having her orders ignored. You cannot pursue the Avatar personally, sir. But that does not mean you cannot have her pursued." Unkind, perhaps, and Yin spared a moment to think an apology to the Avatar, wherever she was; but this was the best way she could think of to convince Zhao to leave off chasing the girl himself and still keep him on an even keel. As long as he still thought he might have a chance to capture the Avatar, he wouldn't be tempted to do anything extra ridiculous.

Zhao paused, still a few steps away. "I will not hand the Avatar to a provincial governor in the colonies," he said.

"Of course not, sir," Yin said. "But the Avatar has not exposed her existence there. If news of her incarnation has spread from the Earth Kingdoms into our territory, it has likely been slow, and not especially accurate. Who are the governors of the colonies, that they would know the Avatar from a Water Tribe spy wanted by Commander Zhao?"

Zhao's eyes went distant as he turned this thought over a few times. "Yes," he said slowly, "yes, perhaps." He paused a moment longer, and then visibly came to a decision, slapping a hand down against the table. "Have the colonies informed—a girl, likely braided hair, and blue eyes. A spy from the north. None of them ever served with the southern raiding forces; they won't know Southern Tribe from Northern."

"Yes, sir," Yin said, and bowed.




Katara inched back around the slope of the hill; she didn't dare go any faster, when the wrong person might look up and spot them at any moment.

But no one did, and she collapsed back onto the grass next to Sokka the moment it was safe, letting out a sigh of relief. The motion jarred her still-healing shoulder, but she was getting used to the persistent sharp ache—as used to it as she could, anyway.

"That is the third time this week we've almost walked into a Fire Nation colony we didn't know was there," Sokka said. "Seriously, we need a new map."

"And here I thought you were happy with it, Mr. The-Map-Does-Not-Lie," Katara hissed.

"The map does not lie about land masses, okay," Sokka said, throwing up his hands. "This isn't the same thing."

Katara hauled herself into a sitting position, annoyed. "So how exactly are we supposed to get our hands on an accurate map of Fire Nation territory?"

"... Can we fight about this somewhere a little further away?" Suki suggested.


*


The nearby forest came up to the far end of the hill—it was the trees, Katara thought a little resentfully, that had blocked their view of the Fire Nation village on the other side in the first place. Even Aang hadn't known it was there; he could've passed through them easily enough, but there hadn't been any reason to send him to look.

Once they were back under the cover of the branches, Sokka whirled around and crossed his arms. "Look, you have to agree that we need a new map if we're going to make it to the coast without getting killed, right?"

Katara sighed, glancing down at Gran-Gran's faithful old map. It was true, they could use a new one. Even if Gran-Gran's map had been new, it probably wouldn't have been enough—it got more and more vague the further north they went. Suki's knowledge of the Earth Kingdoms had been a decent supplement when they were further south, but this far north, she didn't know much more than they did. "I'm not going to try to argue that it wouldn't help, but how are we supposed to get one?"

Sokka frowned, but then Suki nudged him with an elbow. "It is a good point," she said. "I mean, the Earth Kingdoms do their best, but mapping enemy territory is always hit-or-miss; and it's not as though we'll be able to just walk right into a Fire Nation village and buy one."

"We could," Sokka protested. "It just ... wouldn't be a good idea."

"Your favorite," Suki murmured, and then dodged the half-hearted punch he aimed at her shoulder.


***


Truthfully, Sokka was right, Suki thought; but there was no practical way to pull it off, at least not yet. And there was only one of Aang—he couldn't look in every direction at once. They were just going to have to be careful.

And really, in the end, that was why they saw the notice board at all. They could easily have walked right by it, except they were all keeping an eye out for more buildings; it had narrow tiled eaves that looked something like a roof, and Suki had already slowed to double-check when she saw the papers pinned to it.

It wasn't just out in the middle of nowhere; there was a small crossroads where a path that ran roughly west-to-east crossed the north road, and the notice board sat at the juncture. They'd been trying to keep off the road, in case Zhao should come looking for them again, but the board, Suki decided, was worth taking a look at. She took Sokka and Katara's elbows, careful to make sure she had Katara's good arm, and pulled them out of the forest and onto the path.

"Well, look at that," Sokka said admiringly, and pulled one notice down to hold it out proudly to Katara.

"I'm wanted by the Fire Nation," Katara said, tone flat. "This is news to me."

"And you've led a thrilling life of crime, too." Sokka scanned the notice quickly, eyebrows rising. "You're a spy for the Northern Water Tribe? How come you never told me that?"

"... Now that is news to me."

"It must be Zhao," Suki said; there really wasn't any other explanation. "He wants you caught, but he doesn't want anybody else getting the glory for capturing the Avatar."

Katara slid the notice from Sokka's fingers. "What, has he given up on chasing me himself?" she said, thumbing the neat lines of characters with a frown.

"Can you really say you mind," Sokka said, "given that last time, he got you shot?"

Katara glanced up with a sharp look, and Suki decided it might be a good moment to intervene; Katara's shoulder was paining her less and less as time went on, but the wound still made her snappish sometimes. Suki knew what it was like—she'd nearly bitten Mikari's head off a dozen times when one bandit had managed a good slice across her leg. There was nothing that wore you down quite the same way as pain you couldn't make go away. "Speaking of which," she said, carefully unhurried. "I think I see another friend of ours."

Katara's wasn't the only wanted notice on the board; above a white-haired man with a somewhat craggy face, there was a poster with a familiar blue mask.

"Wonder what mischief the Blue Spirit's been causing around here," Sokka said.

Suki glanced over to see that he was grinning; but Katara wasn't looking at the Blue Spirit's poster at all. She was looking at another notice, further down, with a great red and orange dragon curling across the top corners.

"What's it say?" Suki asked.

"A festival," Katara said, slowly and more thoughtfully than Suki would have expected, and then she glanced off at the air next to her in a way that meant she was looking at Aang. "I think you're right," she told the air after a moment, and she pulled the notice from the board and brandished it at them. "Look at this—the Fire Days festival, it says."

"... It sounds nice?" Sokka offered.

Katara rolled her eyes. "A village festival, Sokka—we couldn't ask for a better way to get inside a Fire Nation colony. There'll be plenty of people, buying all kinds of things; and if it's anything like the festivals Aang went to with Kuzon, there'll be masks for everybody. We can go in with masks on and buy a new map and nobody will ever notice."

"With Kuzon?" Sokka said doubtfully. "Doesn't that mean it was a hundred years ago?"

"We know where the village is this time," Suki said, pointing to the paper Katara was still holding out; "there's directions on the flyer. We can send him in—that is, we can ask, begging your pardon, Avatar Aang—to look around first this time."

Sokka crossed his arms, and put on a considering sort of expression. "Will there be sweet-cakes?"

"Almost undoubtedly," Suki said, laughing.

"All right, you've convinced me; I'm in." Sokka rubbed his hands together briskly. "So! Where is this village, anyway?"


*


In the end, they didn't even have to send Aang to investigate. The village was barely a smudge against the green of the plains that surrounded it when they reached the first booth along the path that was covered in masks. The woman beside it was wearing red, and they nearly turned back the way they'd come out of sheer jitters, but she saw them and waved them closer, and her smile was so friendly Katara could hardly believe she was Fire Nation.

"Come on, take your pick," she said, gesturing to the brightly painted masks that surrounded her. "No charge; it's a festival day, they're free to all."

"And nobody will mind that we're, uh ..." Sokka made a vague gesture toward their green clothes.

"Earth Kingdom?" The woman made a face that suggested Sokka was being foolish. "This isn't the western coast; we're a bit more flexible here, my dear. We can't afford not to be, when the battalions who pass us are as likely to be yours as ours."

She had masks in dozens of colors, and they took their time looking. Suki couldn't help gravitating toward one in particular—pale, the face moon-round, with curving darts of red, and green accents. It was probably stupid, but she thought it might feel a little like being able to put on her paint again, and when they left the booth behind, she had it clutched tight in her hands.

Sokka had chosen a mask of vibrant blue, the face frozen in a huge smile, and Katara had picked out a red-and-yellow one. "Aang liked it," she explained, when Suki asked; "it's almost Air Nomad colors."




With the mask on, Katara felt suddenly safe. Her face on that notice board could easily have made this impossible; but now she was shielded, anonymous, just one more festival-goer. They were the only masked travelers on the path east for about ten minutes, but as they passed more and more mask displays, they were joined by more and more people. Soon enough, they were only a few drops in a great river of a crowd, surrounded by mask-muffled laughter and swirling colors. Katara could see that the woman had told them the truth, too—they were far from the only green-clothed people on the path.

The village looked almost otherworldly, covered in banners and bright colors, and filled to bursting with masked revelers—like spirits, Katara thought, remembering the Blue Spirit, and laughed aloud. They'd had feast days at home during the month of midnight sun when she was younger, before the Fire Nation raids had gotten bad again; but nothing like this.

She didn't quite let herself forget that they were there for a reason; but her shoulder's aching had eased, there was so much to look at, and, after all, they had promised Sokka sweet-cakes.

They were working their way across the village plaza, following a vague smell of baking that was coming from somewhere on the other side, when someone shouted, "You there! In the red and yellow!"

Katara turned without thinking, already grabbing at Suki's elbow with her good arm, and ready to run—but Aang drifted up to her shoulder and said, "No, Katara, it's okay, look." And sure enough, when she glanced back, it was to see one of the performers on a nearby raised stage beckoning to her.

"Yes, you," he said, interpreting her look as interrogative, and gestured to someone else a few steps away—a young man, Katara thought, though she couldn't be entirely sure, with a cloak wrapped around him and a long braid that trailed down almost to his knees. "And you, there, if you please. Come on, step up!"

Katara hesitated, but then Suki nudged her good shoulder encouragingly, and Katara could see her eyes crinkling up in a smile through the eyeholes of her mask. "Go on," she said, and Katara did.


***


Po-Yu put on a grin as the two volunteers climbed the stairs, even though the whole thing seemed foolish to him. He could understand the village magistrate's reasoning, to some degree; if there were ever a day when a Water Tribe spy might choose to gather information, it would be today. Langshasu was one of the larger colonies in the area, and according to the commander who had passed the information along, the spy had been headed in their direction when she had last been seen.

But he had been calling up people with long hair all day, as had every performer in the square, peering in through the eyeholes of their masks whenever he got a chance, and he felt increasingly stupid doing it. If the magistrate weren't so eager to prove herself, they probably wouldn't be doing this at all—it was quite a lot of effort to go to, to catch a single spy.

He waved them both toward the chairs set at opposite ends of the stage, and pulled the lengths of cloth that would bind them in out of his sleeve. He would tie them gently; it was only a show, after all.

The first, up close, was a little tall for a young girl, and when Po-Yu leaned over to wrap the cloth around the back of the chair, he saw dark brown eyes—and smelled alcohol, which seemed like an unlikely choice of beverage for a spy who was presumably trying to keep a low profile.

Po-Yu finished off the loose knot with a flourish, narrating with the same showman's spiel he used every time, and crossed the stage.

Honestly, he might well not have noticed, if she hadn't turned her head. The raised braziers he used for his act burned orange, and the light from them turned her pale eyes an indistinct color; Po-Yu was tired of this nonsense, and wouldn't have bothered to look more carefully. But she did turn her head, glancing back out at the crowd like she was looking for reassurance, and Po-Yu stared in through the eyeholes of her mask at a pair of distinctly blue eyes, shaded for a moment from the firelight and lit perfectly by the sunlight over the plaza.

"There we are, now," he said, voice jolly, "just a little tighter," and he bound the Water Tribe spy lightly into her chair.

His act wasn't anything particularly special, though he would never confess as much to anyone out loud; he was nothing more than a reasonably talented Firebender, and the only special skill he had was the ability to disguise the motions of bending a little, so as to make it seem like the fire was moving on its own. But half the crowd was green-robed, and to Earth Kingdom citizens, Po-Yu figured, any non-martial Firebending was a novelty.

He went through the whole sequence, appropriately theatrical, as though he weren't sharing the stage with a secret enemy operative. He called the flames up out of the braziers, drew them together into one roaring loop and whipped it around for a moment, and then broke the loop into two vaguely dragonesque comets. They threatened both volunteers with fiery death, and then at the last moment he made them burst apart into showers of sparks. He'd been ordered to report the girl, he told himself, not immolate her in the middle of a festival; she was a spy, not an assassin who'd been sent after a mediocre festival performer.

But his heart wouldn't stop pounding. It was lucky that he'd done this routine so many times; he could get through it even with his hands shaking like leaves. He forced himself to memorize the girl's mask, and when the act was complete and he ushered them both off the stage, he knew exactly what to tell the soldier at the edge of the plaza.




June watched Nyla's face carefully, and ignored the fidgety shuffling behind her. The kid had told her a name—Lao, or Lu, or something like that—but she didn't think it was actually his; and being called "kid" annoyed him, so June stuck with that. It was a good thing for everybody, she thought, that he had contracted with her instead of trying to follow the trail himself. He had no patience.

The old man had plenty, but he also had a peculiar sense of humor, and an odd obsession with tea. When June had told him not to fix any, so as not to distract Nyla from the already-faint scent, he'd nearly cried.

They had had to leave the rest of their companions behind—the fewer people to bother Nyla, the better, and they wouldn't have been able to keep up on foot anyway. June was starting to regret the necessity. Perhaps, she thought, if the kid and the old man were combined into a single person, they would be reasonably bearable.

But they were paying well; and, more importantly, this chase was going to be a good one. June had known it the moment they'd set out. Nyla had tested the air with particular care after June had shown her the sword, every line of her body taut with interest. She loved faint scents, and loved a challenge even more—and this had been both, following a days-old trail near a highly-traveled road.

And, sure enough, today they had almost lost it. Whoever it was the kid wanted to find had been traveling off the road for some time, which had made things a little easier; brushing against grasses and trees left a better trail than setting your shoes on dirt. But they'd been indecisive recently, winding back and forth around a hill and then curving over toward the road, and Nyla needed a minute to catch the scent again.

The kid muttered something that sounded distinctly ungracious, and June rolled her eyes—she would have even if she hadn't had her back to him. But then Nyla edged toward the path that led west, and let out a throaty little whine.

"You can quit your grumbling, kid," June said, catching a hand on the edge of Nyla's saddle and swinging up with ease. "She's got it again." The kid clambered up awkwardly behind her, the old man only slightly more graceful; and then June leaned down to murmur into Nyla's ear: "Go."




They left the village behind giggling madly behind their masks, and when they sprinted the distance from the road to the edge of the forest where they had left their things, it was just for the sake of running, not because they were being chased.

Suki beat them both to the trees, and then slid down to sit back against one of the trunks, breathing hard, and fumbling to pull the mask from her sweaty face. It had been good to wear it—and it would have been stupid to go into the village without it—but it was unlike her war-paint in one way: it didn't breathe at all.

Sokka slumped down beside her and shoved his mask up until the chin of it barely obscured his eyebrows. "Mission accomplished!" he said, and unrolled the map across his lap.

The act Katara had gotten roped into hadn't taken long, and when it was over, they'd bought themselves enough sweet-cakes to keep even Sokka happy, and tracked down the map they'd come for besides.

A bizarre map, Suki thought. She hadn't gotten a particularly good look at it before this.

"That's ... not right," Katara said, peering at it upside down.

"When did the Fire Nation become bigger than the Earth Kingdoms?" Sokka said, eyebrows high.

Never, Suki was pretty sure; but on the map, it was. The Earth Kingdoms looked about right, everything in the appropriate spot relative to everything else, except for the northwest; there, the Fire Nation colonies suddenly took up about three times as much space as they were supposed to, the coast ballooning out. And across the Smoking Sea, the Fire Nation was a great curling continent, at least twice the size it had been on their other map.

"Well, all the geographical features are about right, even if they're too big," Suki said, which was true; the rivers were in about the same places they'd been in on the other map, and so were the mountains.

"Perfect," Sokka said. "We've got one map with accurate shapes, and another with accurate cities. Put them together, and there's one decent map between them."

Katara laughed; and then the sound cut off so suddenly that at first Suki thought there was something wrong with her ears. But Katara had whipped her head around to look at the trees, and the fields behind them. "Aang says someone's coming," she hissed.

Sokka rolled the map up immediately, and they hurried to collect their packs—but not quite fast enough. The man stepped out from between the trees just as Suki was swinging her pack up onto her back, and she flared a fan and kicked out a leg at the same time.

"Wait!" Sokka shouted.

The man had already fallen, feet kicked out from under him; but Suki refrained from smashing the fan down on his head. "What?" she said over her shoulder, keeping a wary eye on the man on the ground.

"Bato?" Katara said.

The man squinted up past Suki, and it was only then that she noticed he was wearing blue. "Is that you, Katara?"


***


Katara almost couldn't believe it; it was the next best thing to seeing Father again, having Bato there in front of them.

Suki let him up a little grudgingly, but he didn't seem to take offense, and the moment he was on his feet again, he pulled both Katara and Sokka into a hug. "You're both so tall now," he said, laughing, and ruffled their hair.

"But I don't understand," Katara said.

"Me neither," Suki and Aang said at almost exactly the same time—luckily, Katara thought, or she'd have looked ridiculous explaining to someone Bato couldn't see. They had practically identical expressions of confusion on their faces, though Aang's was, of course, translucent.

"This is Bato, he's an old friend of our father's," Katara said. "But he should be with the rest of the soldiers we sent north—what are you doing out here by yourself?"

"I was injured, in a battle in the west," Bato said, looking a little bit sheepish. "We fought the Fire Nation away from the walls of Shengtian, and they withdrew across the gulf—so we weren't needed in the west anymore. Your father took the rest of our troops east, and I stayed behind to heal." He paused, giving them both a considering look. "I'm traveling east to find them, now; you're welcome to come with me, if you wish." He smiled. "I know your father would be pleased to see both of you."

A sudden rush of wistfulness made Katara's chest tighten for a moment; but only for a moment. There was no way she could go, not when they were still racing their way to the north, and never knew when Zhao—or the exiled prince, for that matter—might pop up again.

But Sokka, she thought; Sokka could go. He didn't need a Waterbending teacher, and it wasn't his task to save the world. He'd agreed to come, but that didn't mean he had to stay, not if he didn't want to.

She turned to look at him with a creeping heaviness accumulating in her gut. Dread, she thought, and felt a little ashamed. If he wanted to go, he should be able to. She was the Avatar, and the duty that went along with that was hers alone; if Sokka chose not to keep tangling himself up in it, that was only fair. More than fair.

And, sure enough, there was a look of transparent longing on his face. It had been hard for him, Katara knew, being the oldest of the boys who were too young to go to war, and seeing Father leave without him.

Bato must have seen it, too, because his expression went soft, and he said, "You don't have to answer now. But you must tell me one thing: what are you doing out here by yourselves? You should be almost halfway around the world from here."

"Oh," Sokka said. "Uh. That's—sort of a long story."

Bato smiled. "I've got time."


***


Suki listened to Sokka's rambling explanation of the current identity of the Avatar and their journey so far with perhaps a quarter of her attention, and kept the rest on the forest around them. She couldn't help it; her heart was still pounding from Bato's sudden appearance, and it was second nature for her to keep an eye out and a fan drawn just in case.

Which was lucky, or she might not have heard the crackle of twigs.

She might have let it pass, but then she remembered the last time she'd dismissed a crackling of twigs as nothing, and elbowed Sokka, who was closest. "Somebody's coming," she said, "somebody else," and she had just pulled her other fan from her waist when the first soldier burst out of the forest.

There were at least a dozen of them. Suki jammed a fan forward into the stomach of one and used the other fan to slam the sword out of the hands of a second, and hoped the warning had been enough. By the sound of things, it had been; she was too busy to turn and look, but she heard the splash of Katara's bending water, and out of the corner of her eye, she could see Sokka's club swinging.

But there were only four of them, and they could only handle so many; Suki had barely started in on her third when there was a great flare of yellow light, and Sokka screamed.

Suki lost all caution at the sound, darting within reach of her opponent's sword so that she could smash a fan into the man's temple and give herself the chance to turn around.

Sokka had been facing a Firebender, and Suki took a moment to wish she had taken more time to train him with the fans—they were more use against Firebending than his club could ever be. He'd raised the club defensively, and it had done him some good; his face and eyes were untouched. But his shirt had burned off one shoulder and most of the opposite arm, flakes of charred cloth still drifting to the ground, and the skin beneath was raw and blistered, bleeding in places. He'd dropped his club, which was still smoking, from the pain of it, and a faint sizzling sound lingered in the air.

He was still groaning, though it was now through clenched teeth, and his legs were faltering under him; Suki rushed forward and caught him before he could fall, trying not to touch any of the burns. "Katara!" she shouted, before Katara's eyes could film with blue—it might get rid of the soldiers, but Suki flinched to think of what might happen to Sokka's burns if Katara called up a heavy wind and started throwing rocks around. "A shield—we've got to get out of here!"

Katara took half a step toward them, a hint of unearthly light already pooling at the corners of her eyes; but then she squeezed them shut and shook her head, and brought her hands up in a wide, flowing stroke, and the water she was bending formed as broad a wall as it could between them and the soldiers.

Bato hurried up and caught Sokka's knees, and together they lifted him easily. Katara pulled the water down into a long whip and used it to fling the four nearest soldiers back at the rest, and while the soldiers were busy trying to untangle themselves, they ran.


*


They couldn't get far before they had to stop; Sokka's breathing was so labored it hurt Suki to listen to it, and though they did their best to move with care, they couldn't keep the occasional outstretched branch from striking him.

"We've got to clean them," Suki said, "we have to keep them clean; burns get infected in no time at all—"

Bato's hands were clenched tight around Sokka's knees, and he was clearly just as worried; but his eyes were flicking from tree to tree nervously. "We don't have time," he said. "We've got to get away from here. They'll be after us again any moment."

"Just let me," Katara said, half a sob. She'd retrieved her bending water with a motion of her arms after knocking the soldiers back with it, and now she pulled it from the pouch again and made it curl over Sokka's arm. "Just one minute," she said, and then her hands began to flare with light.


***


She wasn't precisely unused to the idea that she glowed blue sometimes by this point, but it had never happened to her hands before; so Katara stared down at them blankly for a moment, and then started to lift them up, planning to inspect them more closely.

But Bato dropped Sokka's knees and caught her by the wrists, the jerking motion making her injured shoulder throb, and kept her hands where they were. "Don't," he said, "don't, keep going."

"Keep going at what?" Katara said, utterly lost; and only then did she see the way Sokka's skin was knitting closed again beneath her fingers. She wasn't quite touching him, the water hovering between her hands and the burns, and now that she was paying attention, she could feel an odd shifting energy there. It was different from regular Waterbending; she wasn't making the water move, only using it to correct what had gone awry.

"You didn't know you had the healing gift?" Bato said.

Katara shook her head, watching the light chase the dirt from Sokka's burns, skin sealing up after it like ice closing over water. "This isn't—an Avatar thing?" she said.

"I never did anything like that," Aang said, from where he was peering over her shoulder. "But then I never really did any Waterbending at all."

Bato just shook his head. "I don't think so."

The light flared again, and then faded, and Katara was left with water pooled obediently against her palms and Sokka's arm—whole again, though distinctly reddened, and riddled with scarring—still draped over her lap.

"Quick, his other shoulder," Suki said, practical as ever even though her hands were tight in what was left of Sokka's shirt.

"Right, okay," Katara said, and stretched out her hands.




Shao Ya stared at the ground in consternation. She had seen the boy go down; Zulai had gone a bit overboard with the fireball, perhaps, but it was results that mattered, and the spies could not get far with someone wounded so badly. She had been so pleased, too—their timing had been excellent. The spy they had been sent to catch couldn't have managed to report much to her blue-robed superior before the soldiers had reached them.

Granted, the girl had knocked them down; Shao Ya had been a little surprised by just how hard she'd been able to shove them with the water, but when she thought about it, it made a certain kind of sense. Shao Ya had been raised on the western coast—she knew how even a small wave could knock you under without warning.

But it had seemed like a small enough thing, to catch her and her companions again. The boy's burns had been moderately severe, and they had left a trail of broken branches and even some blood in their wake; they could not carry him long, and they should have had to stop.

And yet. The spies had clearly been here—there were impressions from bodies in the leaf litter, blood and water smeared on the ground. But they had left, and without leaving any obvious signs behind them.

It made no sense, Shao Ya thought. Their options had been limited: stop to care for the boy; leave him behind, and escape themselves; or hurry him toward death—and leave a blatant trail—by continuing to carry him through the woods. Yet they seemed to have chosen none of these, and to have vanished besides.

"Your orders?" Weimin asked.

Shao Ya gave the woods around them a considering look, and sighed. Better to be thorough; it would minimize the magistrate's wrath. "Spread out," she told him. "Search the area. If any of you find them, don't attack—return to this location and report back. We may still have a chance of catching them." Not a very good one, given that they apparently had the ability to disappear into thin air; but a chance nonetheless.




The sun was beginning to sink by the time they left the trees behind; being out on an open plain made Katara vaguely uncomfortable, but they hadn't seen a single sign of the village soldiers for hours, and north was north.

Sokka had woken only a moment before Katara had finished fixing his other shoulder, early enough to see what she was doing, and she'd explained briefly in a harsh whisper as they had hurried on through the trees. They had paused to catch their breath and drink some water a little later on, and Katara had demonstrated her newfound ability on her own shoulder; even she had been surprised by how well it had worked. The arrow wound still hurt her, but it was the faint, stretchy pain of an old injury that would soon fade entirely, not the pounding ache it had been before.

The Lei River was a low shadow in the distance when Bato slowed and turned to look at them. "This is about as far north as I should go," he said; "the bridge across the Lei is somewhere east of here." He gave Katara a sympathetic look. "I know you can't go with me, Katara, but I'll tell Hakoda you're well—" He broke off and laughed. "And the Avatar reborn, at that. He's never going to believe me."

Katara couldn't help but snort, imagining what Father would think when Bato strolled up and informed him his daughter had become the Avatar in his absence. But then Bato turned his gaze to Sokka, and Katara felt the smile drop from her face.

Bato said nothing, only looked at him interrogatively, and Sokka's mouth was half-open when Katara blurted out, "I think you should go with him."

Sokka blinked, and then his eyebrows drew down, like that was the last thing he'd wanted to hear. "Uh, I don't think so. I mean, not that I wouldn't be glad to, Bato," and Bato nodded a little, acknowledging it hadn't been meant as a slight. "But I offered to go with you to the North; I'm not going to take it back."

Katara tried not to grimace. He did want to go, and the only reason he wasn't was because he thought he had to keep his word; it was just the way she'd thought, and she was more ashamed of herself than ever. "You don't have to stay," she said, and then, because maybe it would help, "I'll be okay without you."

For the briefest moment, Sokka looked like she had hit him with a club to the gut, and then he crossed his newly-healed arms and glared at her. "Well, tell me how you really feel, why don't you," he snapped.

Katara frowned. "Look, I'm just saying—you don't have to come if you don't want to—"

"Yeah, right," Sokka said, "I mean, it's not like you need me or anything—"

"I don't!" Katara said, frustration abruptly boiling over, and she whirled without another word and stomped off into the grass to the north.


*


It was like watching a Pai Sho game between two novices, Suki thought, except a lot less fun: a haphazard flurry of moves, and suddenly half the pieces were captured and neither player was happy about it.

"I'm sure she didn't mean it like that," Suki said, when Katara was a little further away.

Sokka had swung his pack down to readjust a few things, and now he tightened the ties that formed the straps with sharp, angry motions. "Then how did she mean it?" he snapped. It sounded like a question, but Suki wasn't fooled; he was looking for a way to keep being angry, not an answer.

"Not like that," Suki muttered anyway, but it didn't matter. Sokka wasn't listening—he was busy yanking his pack back onto his shoulders. Bato was standing by awkwardly, leaning on his club like it was a walking stick and looking like he wished he'd never said anything in the first place.

"You're going with her, huh?" Sokka said, glaring.

"She's the Avatar," Suki said. "I promised that I would, no matter how many mistakes she made. Remember?"

Sokka shifted and looked faintly uncomfortable for a split second; but then his expression went dark and he looked away. "Fine," he spat.

Suki hesitated for a moment—clearly, they both needed to have some sense talked into them. But Katara was getting further and further away, alone except for an intangible former Avatar, and Sokka at least had Bato with him. "You get yourself killed," she said, "and you are in deep trouble," and then she hurried away over the field.


***


Sokka stomped along for several minutes, thinking dark thoughts and kicking at the grass moodily with every step. But his—completely righteous, he thought grumpily—anger burned off quick, and he was left with a heavy pack and a pair of fans stuck through his belt that felt like they were made of lead.

Bato had dropped behind a little, going at a steadier walking pace instead of tromping the grass punishingly; but then Sokka slowed without really meaning to, staring down at his belt and touching one fan with uncertain fingers, and suddenly Bato had caught up.

"Sokka," he said, in that careful tone people used when they were talking to somebody they thought might still be angry.

Sokka sighed, and didn't answer; but he did glance over, and Bato was there, looking at him with a calm, understanding expression on his face. It was the same kind of look Mother had sometimes, usually right before she told him that she did, in fact, remember what it was like to be sixteen. Adults could be so annoying.

"Your sister only wanted you not to feel obligated—"

Sokka grimaced. "Yeah, right," he said. "You were hearing the same stuff I was hearing, weren't you?" He scrubbed a hand over the side of his scalp—it was getting long, he'd have to shave it again soon—and kicked a little at the dirt. "I screwed up; three times now, letting that Firebender fry me, and getting her shot—"

"... I think you left some parts out of that long story you were telling me," Bato said.




It took Suki a little while to catch up to Katara again; Katara was expecting her to just follow, but once she had, she caught the side of Katara's pack with one hand and yanked, so Katara had to spin or else wrench her spine. "What was that about?" Suki demanded.

"Nothing!" Katara said, but she could hear her tone turn defensive, giving the lie away.

Suki gave her a look, crossing her arms.

Katara blew out a breath and looked away. "I said exactly what I meant," she said. "He doesn't have to come, and if he wants to go see Father, then he should."

"Okay," Suki said, "except that's not what you said—you said he didn't have to come, and that you didn't need him."

Katara opened her mouth, ready to object, and then Aang—who had followed her away with a pinched expression—said, "Oh, oh, you did. Oh, Katara, don't you remember?"

She stared at him, confused.

"Back at Kyoshi Island," Aang said, "when we were in the forest? That was why he was so angry with Suki, because he felt useless—"

Katara shook her head, stomach sinking. "But that's not how I meant it!" she protested.

"What's he saying?" Suki said.

Katara looked at her, reluctant, and bit her lip. "Sokka, he—he takes some things really seriously," she said. "Oh, and I teased him about it at the fort, how he couldn't do anything to help me," and she abruptly wanted to kick herself for not thinking of it sooner.

"And today," Suki filled in, catching up quickly, "he got hurt, and the only reason they didn't catch us all because of it was because you could fix him."

"I didn't mean it that way," Katara said again, helplessly, and let her head fall forward for a moment, staring at her feet with a sharp little sting building in the corners of her eyes.

There was a pause, and then she felt Suki's hand on her shoulder, and a moment later Suki's other arm came up around her neck. "He'll forgive you," Suki said, hugging her tight for a moment; and then she stepped away again, and slapped Katara's pack. "Now, come on, we still have a lot of walking to do."


*


"And now she tells me it's okay to go like it's a coincidence," Sokka was saying angrily, and Bato's mouth was opening to say something mature and calm and utterly unhelpful; except he didn't get to say it, because there was a shout and they both dropped low reflexively.

They'd been angling along the side of a mild rise—they had passed it heading north and a bit west before, and now they were rounding the northern end, the river stretching out ahead of them. The shout had come from the other side of the rise, and with a quick glance to confirm that they were both on the same page, they crept up the slope on hands and knees and peered over the crest of it.

The first thing Sokka noticed was the giant mole-beast; he'd never seen anything like it, those weird face-tendrils would freeze off in a second back home, and it took him a minute to pay attention to anything else.

But it wasn't just some random wild mole-beast. It had a saddle on its back with a great high pommel, and there was a woman sitting astride it, easy and graceful, with swirling tattoos on her shoulders and sharp dark eyes.



And behind her was an old man who looked vaguely familiar—and the banished prince with the scarred eye.

The shout had evidently been the woman calling for a halt; the mole-thing had been twisting frantically, searching, but as they looked it went still. "The sword," the woman said, holding out a hand without even looking. The prince's expression went sour, but the old man gave him a guileless, expectant look, and he drew a sword from one of the sheaths at his waist and handed it over.

He didn't do it very carefully, and the blade was what landed in the woman's palm; but she curled her hand sideways so that her fingers were around the dull edge, and took it as readily as though he'd given her the hilt.

She leapt from the saddle and tossed the sword up at the same time, for long enough that Sokka could see the dark stain that had dried along the sharp edge of the blade, and landed with both feet on the ground and the sword's hilt in her hand. "Here, Nyla," she murmured, very gently for someone with a blood-encrusted sword in her hand, and she let the mole-thing take a good long sniff of the dried blood.

Sokka stared at it, something about it niggling at his memory, and then glanced up at the exiled prince and bit his lip. The prince—Shuko? Something like that?—was after Katara, he had been for months; what were the odds he was up here with some kind of mole-beast tracker looking for somebody else?

"Bato," Sokka murmured, "that guy—he's been chasing us for ages. He was the one with the ship, when we were on Kyoshi Island."

"Then he is here for Katara," Bato said.

Sokka nodded.

Bato watched the woman and the mole-thing for a moment more, and then looked at him. "Your father misses you both terribly," he said. "He did when we were fighting at Shengtian, and I have no doubt that he still does now. But I think he would be prouder to know you were there for your sister when she needed you than he would be to see you in front of him again. Don't you?"

Sokka let out a long breath. "Yeah, that does sound like the kind of thing he'd say," he admitted, hitching his pack a little higher. "You'll—tell him we miss him, too, won't you?"

"I will," Bato said, certain as a promise, and Sokka shuffled back down the slope and hit the field running.


***


Katara was lost so deep in thought that at first, she figured she was imagining the faint shouts; but then Suki ground to a halt, jerked her head around, and said, "Hey—is that Sokka?"

Katara blinked and lifted her head, turning. It certainly looked like Sokka, though he was moving a little faster than usual—sprinting, even, from the southeast, and yelling at the same time.

"Hey! It's that crazy prince guy again, and he's got some kind of mole-beast! Run!"

"... Are you hearing something about a mole-beast?" Katara said.

"I am," Suki said, looking about as bemused as Katara felt.

Katara glanced back at Aang, and didn't even need to ask; he dipped his head with a wry grin, and drifted up into the air over their heads, high enough that he could probably see the whole plain. Katara couldn't see his expression, but he darted back down quickly enough that Sokka had to be telling the truth—and, yes, when he was close enough, he shouted, too. "A shirshu," he cried, "it's a bounty hunter! Go!"

Katara grabbed Suki's wrist, and pulled. "A mole-beast it is," she said. "We'd better get out of here."




June loved a difficult trail; but she knew it was the final chase that sealed a job, one way or the other. All the long days of careful tracking were a lead-up to this, and the moment the quarry knew June was there, it came down to speed and luck and little else.

They rounded the edge of the sloping rise that had been blocking their view of the north and west, and abruptly their stop to give Nyla the scent again became redundant. June knew right away that her quarry had been warned somehow: the three tiny figures in the distance were already sprinting, the river a dark snaking ribbon beyond them.

This, then, would be a tough one. The river made things complicated; whoever managed to cross it first would almost certainly have the upper hand, but having to swim its width would leave them weakened first.

She nudged Nyla into a gallop. Nyla went readily, but she'd been running for most of the day already, barbed tongue lolling, and June made a mental note to keep an eye on her as they charged out into the field. The old man kept his seat decently enough, but the kid clutched at his shoulders awkwardly and yelped as Nyla took off, and June couldn't help but smirk into the wind.

They had a good head start, but it didn't take Nyla long to pull close—close enough for June to see that they were kids, too, maybe even a little younger than the boy who'd contracted with her. She wondered what they'd done, that the kid had ended up with blood from one of them on his sword and was still trying to track them down. Not her business, of course; her business was catching people and getting paid. Judging the people she caught was somebody else's job.

So they raced each other to the banks of the Lei. It was close, closer even than June might have expected; but the girl with the long braid reached the river first, splashing right in up to mid-thigh, and did something quick with her hands that made a giant lump of water freeze solid right in front of her. "Hurry!" June heard her shout, her companions already stumbling into the water, and they crowded onto the iceberg, clutching at each other for balance and wincing at the chill of the ice against their hands and feet.

The girl with the long braid looked up, and locked eyes with June for just a second, and June dipped her head a little. Well-played; not many people escaped when Nyla had their scent. Lucky for the girl that the kid had been too stupid to keep June informed—if she'd known their quarry included a Waterbender, she'd have been more careful about the angle she'd approached the river from. And then the girl threw her arms out to one side, and the iceberg sped away downstream, wake frothing along behind it.

June reined Nyla in gently, watching them go. Unfortunate end to the job, but it had been a good chase, and the deal she'd struck with the kid meant she'd still get paid for the effort.

"What are you doing?" the kid cried from the back of the saddle. "She's right there—go after her!"

"I'm pretty, not stupid," June said scathingly. "I'm not racing a Waterbender down a river. Nyla's been working this trail for days, and galloping for hours, with three times—" She paused, and shot a measuring glance over her shoulder at the old man. "Four times the weight she's used to carrying. You couldn't pay me half what it would take for me to push her that hard. Forget it."

"No, listen," the kid said, desperate, "you'd be amply rewarded—the Fire Lord himself-"

"You're the one who's not listening, kid," June said. "I wouldn't care if the Fire Lord and the king of Ba Sing Se were going to get together and build me a palace made of jade. That still wouldn't be half what it would take." She'd had Nyla since she was seven years old, and they'd barely spent a minute apart since; chasing a Waterbender downstream could run just about anything to death, and Nyla's sides were already heaving. June would do a lot of things for money, but there were some lines she didn't cross.

The kid's eyebrows drew together, like he was planning to gripe June to death right there, and her hand tightened a little on her whip; what she wouldn't give to turn Nyla's tongue on him and watch him fall on his face in the dirt. But the old man nudged an elbow back hard into the kid's gut, and smiled. "Our thanks for your service. We would be willing to pay an additional charge for a ride back to where we left our companions—whatever you would consider reasonable."

June sighed, and let go of the whip with only a little reluctance. "Happy to oblige, old man," she said, dry as dust, and slapped Nyla's neck. "Come on, girl."


***


Zuko spent the long ride sullen and aching and thinking dark thoughts. He was willing to concede, at least to himself, that it might have been a mistake to tell June so little; but Zhao was already on the Avatar's trail, and who knew how many others. She was his only chance to earn back his place—he couldn't afford to tip anybody else off about her whereabouts.

And he hadn't ridden in months. This saddle was killing him.

Uncle was, as always, infuriatingly impervious to the raging disappointment he ought to have been feeling—perhaps especially because he now had permission to brew tea again. He flirted with June relentlessly, and she laughed and called him "old man" and cracked her whip at him; the whole thing made Zuko feel vaguely ill.

"It's not so bad," he said to Zuko on the third night, over a hot bowl of rice.

Zuko snorted, and did not reply.

"It has been almost a month, nephew," Uncle Iroh said. "Mizan has undoubtedly reached Port Tsao by now, and we do, after all, have a fairly good guess as to the Avatar's ultimate goal. Once we reach the port, we will have a ship and a place to point it; what more could you ask for?"

The Avatar in chains, Zuko didn't say, and let out a sigh. "You are right, Uncle," he said. No matter the number of their failures, truth remained: he must capture the Avatar. There was no other choice but to keep trying.

"Of course I am," Uncle said with a laugh, and popped another hunk of rice into his mouth.

Chapter Text

Shalah liked things simple. It wasn't that she couldn't handle complexity; she had commanded fleets of hundreds of ships, even thousands. And it wasn't that she had no interest in politics, in the hidden meanings that could be expressed through a careful choice of words; after all, she had managed to become an admiral.

But frankness appealed to her, and, even better, it was sometimes the best possible choice. When faced with a battleship's worth of rank-and-file soldiers, plain speech was ideal.

It was also ideal, Shalah thought, when faced with a mad idiot.

She had never met Captain Zhao—Commander, now, and soon to be a sub-admiral—in person before; but she had heard of him, vague rumors coming up from the southeast that he had left the blockade he commanded in the hands of a subordinate and gone haring off to the north. After a band of Water Tribe spies, some said; Earth Kingdom agents working for Queen Yujun, others said; and, of course, the ever-present murmurs of the Avatar's return always took whatever foothold they could get. Inconvenient. After a hundred years, you'd think hope might finally die.

She'd summoned him to Port Tsao as ordered with a secret feeling of satisfaction; it was pleasant to think she would get to be the one to rein the man in. She had a reputation for stern orderliness for a reason.

But she had told him his assignment, and now he was smiling.

"You understand, Sub-Admiral," she said, "this command is a gift. The Fire Lord is generous and forgiving; though you have acted erratically and without care, he has granted you a final chance to prove yourself. If you should waste it chasing spies, or ghosts, or—whatever rumors of the Avatar—"

"Not rumors," he interrupted. Impolite, bordering on insubordinate, and Shalah raised one slow eyebrow at him; but it took him a moment to notice, for his gaze went briefly far away, and the expression on his face turned stormy. "Apologies, Admiral," he added, grudgingly, when he looked at her again. "But they are not rumors; I saw her myself. She attacked the city of Jindao, though it was under the august protection of the Fire Lord."

Shalah had to fight to keep her expression neutral. That was not good news—not good news at all. The war had dragged on a century already, and that was without the Avatar's intervention; the Fire Lord was not going to be pleased to hear that the Avatar had somehow finally managed to reappear. "Then you have failed to report that to the capital," she said, voice even as polished stone, "and abandoned your post only to let not a ghost, but the Avatar herself slip through your fingers. I remain somewhat less than impressed, Commander."

He narrowed his eyes; but his gaze did not quite manage to sharpen itself into a glare before he remembered himself and dipped his head, so Shalah let it go.

"The defeat of Kanjusuk is a far more urgent matter," she said, though she wasn't entirely sure it was the truth. "The Southern Tribe is nearly crushed, and the loss of Kanjusuk would be a heavy blow to the Northern Tribe. Our victory is almost complete. Even the Avatar cannot bring back the dead." Probably, she did not add.

And at that, the funny little smile he'd been wearing before resurfaced. The gravity of the situation seemed to escape him entirely; the thought that he might well face an execution if he could not bring down a city that had survived every siege they'd thrown at it for a hundred years apparently refused to cross his mind.

Shalah wanted to shake her head, but resisted the urge. In the end, she decided, it didn't matter. If he succeeded, then all was well; and if he failed, then his thoughtlessness would no longer be an issue.


***


"Commander," Yin said, and bowed.

Chu Lai and Anshi hurriedly followed suit; they hadn't been sure how long Zhao's audience with the admiral would take, so they had been waiting on the parade ground with their backs to the building, and he had caught them by surprise.

"Sub-Admiral," Zhao corrected, chin high, and Yin suddenly had cause to be glad that she was bowing, because she knew she was making a face. Perhaps if he had actually managed to retrieve the Avatar and escort her to Da Su-Lien, the promotion would make sense—though Yin would have expected admiralty, in that case. But he had done nothing of any particular note since, and it was not the way of the Fire Lord to dispense favors for no reason. In reality, he was lucky he had not been dismissed from the Navy entirely.

By the time she stood straight again, she had managed to wipe her expression clear. "Congratulations, sir," she said.

He tipped his head at her, brief and dismissive. "And we have our orders," he said. "We are to take a fleet from the Gulf of Gungduan, and assault the city of Kanjusuk."

That lent the situation a little clarity. Far less ridiculous, to remove him from an assignment he had left without much explanation and throw him at a new problem, to see whether he would sink or prove able to swim. And the promotion—obviously necessary before he could command a full invasion fleet.

But he did not look like a man facing a test, not even like a man facing a test he was sure he would pass. He looked self-satisfied, even outright pleased. It was unsettling.

"A fleet?" Yin said.

"Admiral Shalah has assigned as many ships as she feels able to spare," Zhao clarified, "and I am given authority to press ships in the area, if their assignments are not urgent."

"Good," Yin said; "I expect we're going to need them. Sir—"

"Relax, Lieutenant," Zhao said, and then laughed aloud. "I will prevail, have no doubt of it," and then, more softly, as though mostly to himself: "I knew our mission could not go poorly forever."

Yin stared at him for a moment, uncertain. Either the stress had broken him, or he knew something she did not—but whatever it was, if it could put such a light in Zhao's eyes, Yin wasn't sure she wanted to know it.


*


They returned to the docks only to hear yet more news that pleased Zhao: though they had been inland for quite some time, his orders to report sightings of Zuko's ship had not been forgotten, and it had been spotted while they were gone. Not directly, but by second- or third-hand report, it was almost certainly headed for the port.

If he had been a child, Zhao would have been clapping his hands together and dancing with glee; but as it was, he just smiled. Whatever feeling he had had that the universe was making up to him for its earlier cruelty, Yin thought, this, to Zhao, was a sign that such a feeling was indeed valid. If he had ever been on the brink of acknowledging his own capacity for error, he was safely away from that particular cliff's edge now. And there were the words Yin had been searching for to describe his expression: not like a man facing a test; like a man who felt the world owed him, and was now finally beginning to pay out.




They rode the iceberg as long as they could stand it, but shifting position could only help so much when what you were sitting on was a giant block of ice. Suki called a halt when she couldn't feel her feet anymore, and Katara guided the iceberg over to the bank and held it still long enough for them to climb off without hurting themselves. Granted, she couldn't get it all the way over; but the water felt as warm as a fire when Suki stepped into it, compared to the penetrating cold of the ice.

"Wimp," Sokka said teasingly, and poked her in the side; but he was shivering, too.

For once, Suki was genuinely glad to start walking. She took off her wet shoes, and everything felt blissfully warm against her feet, grass and dirt and even the faint breeze.

Of course, that only lasted for a little while. But even over the next few days, she found herself resenting it less—she wasn't nearly as sore anymore, and while she was still bone-tired every time they rested, it got easier to get up after. She didn't have to keep reminding herself that it was good for her in order to make herself keep going.

It got cooler as they went further, which had Sokka and Katara both practically dancing with joy. Suki was mostly just disoriented—it felt like a year had gone by in two months, with the first stirrings of spring at home followed so quickly by the heat of the middle kingdoms, and now the growing chill of approaching winter in the north.

The Lei curved to the northwest, so they had gotten off on the more northerly bank, and were following the water toward the northern straits of the ocean. They could have gone straight north, but both of their maps said there were mountains there, and Suki was just barely getting the hang of walking for days over flat ground; she'd rather avoid hills as long as possible.

It was a relief to see the walls of Hansing rising out of the plains in front of them. The city was marked in a poisonous, angry sort of green on the Fire Nation map, but to Suki, it was the most reassuring color she'd ever seen. It was going to be wonderful to be safe in an Earth Kingdom city again—not a captured one, not a village with a Fire Nation prison offshore, but a true Earth Kingdom city.

Hansing wasn't quite on the coast of the Black Sea, but Suki bet you'd be able to see the shore from the walltop, and there was a great, wide, well-traveled avenue covering the miles between the city proper and the port on the true coast. The crisp air held a hint of salt, and Suki didn't know just how much she'd been missing the smell of the sea until she could breathe it deep again.

The gates were wide open, the guards only there to watch for any signs of Fire Nation soldiers on the horizon, and Suki could tell all three of them were relishing the feeling of walking right in without having to compose some kind of cover story or worry about curfew gongs.

The first plaza they came to had a fountain, just like the one in Jindao; but Katara's face only went shadowed for a second.

"Okay," Sokka said, flopping down with a sigh onto the steps that led up to the fountain pool. "So. Yay us, we made it. Now how do we get a boat?"

There was no way that what remained of their money would get them a ship, but then that wasn't really what they needed. True, it would be nice if they could get a boat that was sturdy and well-equipped; Suki wasn't exactly dancing at the thought of sailing to the North Pole in someone's cast-off fishing boat. But someone's cast-off fishing boat might be the best they could do, unless whoever they found at the docks happened to be feeling exceptionally generous.

They stared down at their little handful of coins, and Katara sighed. "Maybe we could get jobs, or something," she said. "Just for a day or two, carrying messages or cleaning. Then maybe we'd have enough for a boat."

"A boat?" someone said, and they all whirled around at once.

It was a boy, maybe a little older than Sokka, with a pleasant, expectant sort of expression on his face. "You need a boat?" he repeated. "I could help you find a good one, if you want. I know everybody at the docks by now, my mother's been working so hard on the submersible."

"... The what?" Katara said. "Who's your mother?"

The boy laughed. "Oh," he said, "so you're really new in town. My mother is the engineer."


***


Dai Kun—that was his name—led them to the east end of the city. "The noble district," he explained, flashing a little seal to the guard at the district gate. "Or it used to be, anyway. It's about two years ago now, but the Fire Nation almost got a pretty good grip around here; they killed the city governor and her family." He flashed them a half-rueful, half-proud smile over his shoulder as he led them over the bridge and through the gate. "Now my mother's pretty much the closest thing we've got to a governor."

Katara tried not to let herself grimace visibly. "Has that happened a lot?" she asked, dreading the answer. She'd hoped they'd finally found a place where they would be able to relax, take some time to breathe; but if the Fire Nation attacked Hansing all the time—

But Dai Kun shook his head. "No," he said, "no, not since then. We've barely seen a sign of the Fire Lord's armies in ages."

Katara glanced at Suki and Sokka, who both looked faintly puzzled, and Aang, who twitched his shoulders in a tiny shrug. That didn't sound much like the Fire Nation to her, managing to successfully murder a city governor and then backing off. "Really?"

Dai Kun shrugged. "I know what it sounds like," he said, "but I don't think it was only luck. After all, it was only a week before Queen Yujun established the new capital in Zhanlo and started fighting back—they probably just didn't care so much about us anymore."

Even this sounded a little too optimistic to Katara—if anything, she thought, Queen Yujun's resurgence ought to have made the Fire Nation tighten its fists around its best prospects for defeat, not let them go. But Dai Kun would know, she told herself; she didn't know how anything worked this far north, where the walls were high and made of stone, and you could walk through a whole city without seeing a single person you were related to.

They walked past houses of increasing wealth and complexity, and Katara was starting to wonder just how ostentatious this engineer's home would be; but when Dai Kun finally slowed in front of another gate, it was one that was set into a low garden wall around a yard stacked with chunks of metal.

"Nice sculptures?" Sokka said, a bit doubtfully, and Dai Kun laughed.

"I'm not sure Mother's junk piles count as art," he said.

The house was actually not especially large; it looked like most of the effort had been put into a huge building around the back, a great blocky thing with large heavy doors, smoke belching out the top, and a loud steady pounding sound coming from inside.

Dai Kun glanced back at them, and grinned. "It's okay," he said, and picked up a middling-size bar of metal. He banged it against the door a few times, and the pounding stopped. "Mother!" he said. "I've brought you some guests."

There was a pause, and then a new round of clanging; Katara backed up a step, a little nervously, as the sounds came closer to the door.

But when the door opened, it didn't reveal the forty armored soldiers it had sounded like - it was one woman, only a little taller than Katara, with some kind of hammer in her hand and her shoulders bulky with muscle. Her clothes and skin were streaked with soot, and she rubbed the worst of it off her face with one arm, and then bowed to them.

"Welcome," she said, gracious and formal. "I am Shu Sen, the engineer of Hansing."




Mizan wasn't going to say it, but it was something of a relief to have everyone back on board again. They had sailed into Port Tsao bold as brass, and she was still confident that the neutrality of the port probably wouldn't be violated; but there were Fire Nation ships everywhere, banners with a curling red flame hanging from rails and observation decks, and she couldn't quite shake the gut feeling they'd be arrested any moment.

She helped Isani over the rail, and then bowed to Zuko, appropriately low, fist to her palm. "Sir," she said. After all, she did want him to know she was at least a little bit glad.

The time away apparently had not increased Zuko's store of patience, and it took not even ten minutes for him to resettle himself in the bridge with their charts spread out in front of him and his gaze fixed on the pale lines that marked the ice of the north.

"Clearly we'll have to go around Gungduan," he said, half to himself, as he glared down at the map. "Even if we could get the ship all the way up the Lin Wei and down the Lei, we'd never get past Pingsu."

"Quite right," General Iroh said; but, Mizan noticed, he wasn't looking at the map. He was looking out through the bridge windows, over the observation deck outside.

She followed his gaze: a massive warship was creaking past them, Fire Nation emblem prominently displayed. "They aren't headed for us," she said.

General Iroh turned, expression inquisitive.

"They've been sailing by for a few days now," she explained. "It's been much busier than it was when we first arrived. There must be a fleet gathering near here - the Fire Nation could never launch one from Tsao without violating its neutrality."

"See, Uncle?" Zuko said. "Nothing to do with us."

"Mm," General Iroh said, noncommittal, and kept his eyes on the warship until it disappeared from view.




Shu Sen's workshop was full of hot air and the smell of metal, and for a moment, all Katara could think of was the prison ship by Lingsao, and the great gaping mouths of its boilers.

But Shu Sen shoveled her coal herself, and she took them around back to show them how she had dammed up the wide stream that passed through the noble district, and set up a waterwheel to pump her bellows for her. "Much easier to run a decent furnace that way," she said, and laughed.

"Engineering humor," Aang surmised in a whisper, and Katara nearly laughed herself.

Inside, there were more stacks of metal, though these at least looked like actual pieces of something, and not just scraps. Off to the side, there was a great curving shape, and Shu Sen patted it fondly as she led them past it. "The submersible prototype," she explained. "It is only a frame, but I will have the sheets to plate it soon enough, and then Dai Kun will take it for a test."

"Just a prototype?" Suki said, tipping her head back, and Katara could see what she meant: even unfinished, the thing looked huge, and she couldn't imagine putting so much work into something that would only be a test model in the end.

But Shu Sen smiled and nodded. "Despite all my calculations," she said, "flaws are inevitable; even extensive mathematics cannot account for all eventualities."

"Don't worry, though," Dai Kun said. "I'm a great swimmer."

Shu Sen made her own molds, the water-powered furnace evidently hot enough that she could simply melt her metal down and pour it right in. Little wonder she was so pleased about the water wheel, Katara thought; she'd probably never have been able to experiment with things like the submersible if she had to wait for other people to make the parts for her.

"Mother's done amazing things for Hansing," Dai Kun said. "The city gates are all automated—a baby could close the Great North Gate, and five hundred soldiers couldn't pry it open again."

"Gears and pulleys," Shu Sen said modestly, waving a hand. "Simple work," but she gave her son a fond smile, and ruffled his hair as she passed.

Shu Sen insisted she wouldn't hear of them staying anywhere else for the night, and gave them excellent rooms—perhaps, Katara thought, to make up for the glow from the workshop chimney and the incessant banging. Still, they were on the far side of the courtyard from it, and once she piled the blanket over her head, it was quiet enough. She was almost—almost—grateful for all the walking; she might not have been tired enough to fall asleep without it.


***


Sokka woke to a loud bang, and instantly regretted it; if he'd had the sense to keep his eyes shut, like Katara, maybe he'd have been able to get away with grunting, rolling over, and letting it go at that. But now that he was paying attention, there were a dozen small things bothering him—the irritating lightness to the sky outside, and some flock of stupid birds that wouldn't quit chirping at each other, not to mention the clanging—

Actually, the clanging had stopped. He frowned, and sat up. There was still a fair amount of smoke belching from Shu Sen's workshop—the shutters were ajar, and he could see it over the roof of the rest of the house. But there wasn't any noise coming from it anymore.

The windows were low; he pushed the shutter further open, and slipped over the sill before he could talk himself out of it. The air was crisp, but at home it would be nearly summer and still quite a bit colder than this, so it didn't really matter that his arms were bare. At least, not in any sense except that he still wasn't used to all the burn scars yet. He rubbed a thumb over the shiny new skin Katara had given him, and shook his head. Like the wacky Avatar things weren't enough, now there were wacky non-Avatar things, too.

He rounded the corner of the house, and almost as quickly stepped back; there was a figure there, leaving around the back of the workshop. Shu Sen, Sokka guessed, and something about her posture was niggling at him—it wasn't quite furtive, there was only a faint suggestion of unease, but he couldn't convince himself to leave it be.

He hesitated, pressing a little closer to the wall. Pretty good odds it wouldn't work, given that Sokka had no idea whether he was even here; but if he wanted somebody to follow Shu Sen, somebody who wouldn't get noticed, he did know exactly who to ask.

"Aang?" he murmured. "I hope you can hear me, dead guy."


***


It was dark, inside the cave; but Shu Sen did not need a light to find the lever handle that would open the door. "Exalted War Minister," she said, and bowed, though she knew Qin was probably still blinking helplessly into the darkness.

Petty, perhaps, but she had few enough satisfactions, these days. She would take those offered to her.

"You have made us so many fine machines," Qin said, annoyed, "and yet you cannot remember to light a lantern?"

She smiled at him, her eyes now adjusted to the dim morning light that had followed him through the door, and said nothing.

Two years, now, since she had traded her honor for the city. Some would argue it had not been a worthy trade, but to Shu Sen, it smacked of presumption, to treasure personal honor more highly than forty thousand lives. She still didn't know where they got the designs for the machines they had her build for them, but in the end, it didn't matter; she hired workers in the city to help her cast the parts, and after that, all she had to do was put them together. She had some idea how many extra soldiers she was killing, handing these things over to the Fire Nation, but they had already put themselves in the line of fire, and it could never equal the disaster of a city destroyed.

She had done the math.

Qin sighed, and pulled a roll of papers from one sleeve. "More plans," he said. "Our other ... assistant has been most fruitful," and he tossed them at her; she let them land at her feet. She would not bend down to pick them up until he was gone. "When will you have the rest of the airships prepared?"

"It will be only a few days, War Minister," Shu Sen said, and wished it were a lie.




Katara rolled over, and then squinted helplessly into the sun that was streaming through the open shutters. Someone was saying her name, over and over and over, with increasing impatience.

"Mmph?" she said, letting her eyes drift shut again.

"Katara!" Aang repeated, one final time; and when she reluctantly cracked an eye open, there was a translucent blue nose about an inch away.

But it was Sokka who said, "Finally, you're awake!" and bounded off his bed to slap her shoulder. "Come on, come on, sit up, and tell me if Aang's here."

"What are you talking about?" Katara said, yawning. "And if you wanted me awake so much, why didn't you just roll me off the bed like you usually do?"

Sokka looked briefly sheepish. "Well, it was really early, and I needed to give Aang some time to come back, and—well, and then I fell asleep again."

Katara blinked, and then frowned. Something about what he'd just said was weird, but it was taking her a second to figure out what. "Aang?" she said at last. "For Aang to come back? From where? I thought you didn't—"

"I do, I do, I believe in the dead guy," Sokka said, "I really do. Is he here?"

"... Yes," Katara said.

Sokka punched the air in triumph. "Did he follow her?" he said, nonsensically. "What did she do?"

"Yeah, I did," Aang said, grinning; and then the smile fell suddenly from his face. "And, uh, you're not going to like this."


*


"Meeting with a Fire Nation war minister?" Sokka said. "Are you serious?"

"Aang is," Katara said. "I'm a little stuck on the part where you actually sent him out to follow somebody."

"But why would she do that?" Suki said, frowning. "She seemed so—"

"—nice, I know," Sokka said. "I mean, sure, she spends all her time tending a thousand-degree furnace, so I guess if she were Fire Nation, it wouldn't be the most ridiculous thing ever."

"She's not," Aang said, and Katara held up a hand to quiet Sokka and looked at him. He had that strange, grave expression he got when he was thinking about the Air Temples, his lips pressed together tight like he'd never smiled in his life. "She wasn't—pleased to see him, and they weren't nice to each other." He hesitated. "I think he must be making her do it, somehow, and I don't think she's the only one. They get the designs for the machines from somebody else, and then she makes them work."

"Okay, well, even if she's not," Sokka said, when Katara had relayed the gist of this, "she's still helping them. We've got to do something—"

Katara had her mouth half-open to reply when there was a sudden clatter, and the door swung abruptly ajar, a thin stream of rice porridge seeping over the floor. She jumped up and pulled the door the rest of the way open, and had to leap a pile of overturned dishes to reach the corridor. "Dai Kun!" she shouted, because it was his back that was vanishing around the corner ahead of her, and ran.


*


She was fast, but he had a head start, and he knew the house and grounds better than she did; so by the time she reached the workshop door, Suki and Sokka a half-step behind, he was already inside, pulling a lever that brought the bellows to a halt.

"Dai Kun," Shu Sen said, vaguely scolding, without so much as setting down her hammer. But she had to turn toward him to reach the lever again, and when she saw his face, she went still.

"Is it true?" Dai Kun said, low and choked. "Are you helping the Fire Nation?"

"I am," said Shu Sen. Her tone was very calm, but Katara recognized the look on her face—she was pretty sure it was the same one she herself had been wearing when she'd flipped the top of her pack open, knowing the Waterbending scroll had been inside and Sokka and Suki were about to see it.

Katara couldn't see the expression on Dai Kun's face, but she saw the way he shook his head, sharp and disbelieving.

"They murdered the governor and her family, and their armies were camped in the foothills, waiting to strike." Shu Sen turned away to set her hammer down, and sighed. "And then Queen Yujun reappeared and declared Zhanlo her new capital, and began to drive the southern armies back; so they came to me, and offered a deal. For reasons I was not to know, they had designs, and sometimes prototypes, for many great machines of war. But they needed someone who could understand the schematics, and build more—quickly, and without needing transports back and forth through the Smoking Sea."

"And, what, you offered?" Dai Kun said, almost scornfully.

Shu Sen pinched her eyes closed, muscles shifting in her shoulders as she leaned forward over her anvil. "Nothing so simple," she said. "The city. That was their deal. The safety of the city for their war machines." She turned her head, and looked at her son with somber eyes. "Many lives rely on me; I could not do anything with such a responsibility but shoulder it." She looked past him for a moment, and met Katara's eyes—not for any particular reason, Katara thought, because she hadn't said anything to them about being the Avatar, but she felt a sudden well of fellow-feeling anyway. And then Shu Sen looked back at Dai Kun, and said, "Would you have had me throw them all away?"

"Hey, whoa, hang on," Sokka said from the doorway, lifting his hands. "You're acting like there are only two choices here: build the war thingies, or let the whole city get burned alive."

Shu Sen raised her eyebrows at him.

"How about, um, fighting?" he said. "You know when the war minister's going to be coming back to collect whatever you're making for them, and I'm guessing he's going to have some soldiers with him; and you're the genius who built the things. Are you seriously telling me you can't prepare a way to fight them off?"

Shu Sen hesitated, rubbing a thumb along her hammer and gazing down at it speculatively.

"Mother, please," Dai Kun said, and reached out to touch her elbow gently. "I understand, I do; I'm sorry. But don't you see you can't keep doing this? If they win the war with your machines, nothing you can give them will buy our safety then."

Shu Sen stroked the hammer's handle for a moment longer, and then caught it up suddenly in her fist, swinging her wrist so that the heavy head whirled in a circle. "All right," she said. "When Qin returns, I will tell him he cannot have the airships."

"Airships?" Aang said, glowing ears almost visibly perked, and Katara grinned.




Mother spent the next three days leaning over diagrams and shouting, describing the weak points of Fire Nation machinery to the benders and soldiers of the city guard; or taking the benders out to test the ground around the city walls. She was not precisely transparent, not even to Dai Kun, but he could see, now, the guilt that came over her sometimes. On the second day, Sokka came up to her and said, "I know, you're the one who built those unfolding siege ladders, aren't you?" and Mother's jaw went tight.

Of course, Sokka hadn't meant anything by it; he went away snapping his fingers and saying, "I knew it." But it still meant something to Mother, that was easy enough to see, and Dai Kun wished for the dozenth time that he'd kept a better hold on himself. He should have known Mother wouldn't do such a thing without a good reason—he had just been too surprised, too angry to think it through.

The evening of the third day, Mother told them she would go to meet War Minister Qin in the caves of the foothills, east of the city, and Dai Kun barely let himself think about it for a moment before he said, "I'll go with you."

"We all will," Katara added, almost as suddenly.

Mother shook her head. "He can't see you there—"

"He won't," Dai Kun said. "We'll hide in the caves." He was still unused to thinking of his mother as a person, someone who could feel uncertain or unhappy; but he was sure, right now, that she thought of going alone as something of an act of penance. Another responsibility to shoulder, after they had all let her shoulder the first alone, not even thinking to wonder why the Fire Nation should spare them beyond a combination of luck and chance.

"You must be silent when he comes," Mother warned them after a moment, and Dai Kun let himself smile.


*


The caves were intimidatingly huge and empty; Mother had had the airships she had already finished moved back to the city, since they might not have time to do it after War Minister Qin was gone. It was safe enough—he wouldn't notice their absence until he was already inside the caves, and by then it wouldn't matter.

Dai Kun was an Earthbender. Not a master, but good enough to raise a small outcropping of rock where there had been none before, so that he and the other three would have somewhere to hide that was close by.

They didn't have to wait long before there was a bang—on the small door, not the big hidden one that opened when there were machines to move—and Mother pulled the appropriate lever.

"Engineer," the war minister said, rather coolly, and then stopped; Dai Kun could see just far enough around the rock to watch him go still. "Where are the airships? What do you mean by this? Where have you put them?"

"Somewhere you cannot get them," Mother said. "The terms of our arrangement are no longer acceptable, Exalted War Minister. I will keep the airships; you will depart empty-handed; and the city of Hansing will defend itself by other means. Thank you for your service."

"My service?" Qin said. "You are the servant here, Shu Sen, and it is your paltry offerings that have kept the fist of the Fire Lord away from your home. You will not get away with this; there are many legions across the river, and it will not take them long to come. Be sensible."

"You are too kind, Minister," Mother said, "but you are also too late. I would barter every last inch of myself for a guarantee that lives might be spared, but you cannot give that to me. You can only delay what will one day be inevitable if we do not take our fate into our own hands. The city is agreed. Go now, and do not come back."

Dai Kun grinned into the shadow of the outcropping, and felt his heart might burst. Mother had often been honored before for the improvements she made to the city with her skills, standing in the city square at the governor's right hand with crowds cheering; but here, in a dank cave in the mountains, watching her face down a single man, Dai Kun thought he had never been so proud to be his mother's son.




The Fire Nation troops came up from the southwest, from the colonies, across the river—although they'd probably used a bridge, not an iceberg, Katara thought. Shu Sen had predicted as much, and the city was prepared as well as it could be.

The hinges and gate mechanisms weren't the only adjustments Shu Sen had made to the defenses of Hansing. There were catapults by every gate, that could be launched with the pull of a lever and rewound themselves into position immediately after; the only thing they couldn't do was load themselves, but that was easy enough for Earthbenders.

And, more importantly, they had not only catapults, but a plan, which was a great comfort when there were several dozen Fire Nation tanks rolling toward them over the plain.

They were stationed in front of the city, with hundreds of benders and soldiers, the wall looming high behind them, and Katara's newly-refilled pouch of bending water was heavy and fat against her hip. "Remember," Shu Sen cried from the top of the wall, her blacksmith's lungs carrying her voice easily out into the still morning air, and then raised her fist. The hammer in it looked tiny from below, but it glinted in the sun like a beacon, and she brought it down against the parapet with a deep clang Katara imagined she could feel in her feet.

That was the signal; and Katara fought the reflexive urge to duck as a dozen rocks as long across as a person went spinning out into the air overhead.


***


"They've loosed the catapults," Tai Ma reported, and Luzung braced himself.

They'd been angled well, and from the top of the tank, Luzung could see their long, low trajectory, the way they would skim close over the ground. The far left and right flanks were bound to lose some soldiers, at the very least.

He ordered the flanks to draw in close, but half of his shout was drowned out by the pounding impacts, and one tank off to his right flipped entirely over, a catapult stone having crumpled its right side like a child's fist around rice paper. "Close in!" he repeated, and then Tai Ma clutched at his arm, and pointed.

"Yes—sir, look, look," she said.

He aimed his gaze along the length of her arm: the catapults were rewound, and Earthbenders were even at that moment punching a new set of great boulders into place, but not a single catapult had turned. They were all facing straight forward, out across the wall.

"Looks like they can't aim them," Tai Ma said, "at least not quickly, or you'd think at least one of them would have turned toward the center of our line."

Luzung let half a grin break onto his face, and turned to shout from the top of their tank. "Toward the center of the line! As close as you can get!"


***


"It's working," Suki said, and Katara could see that she was right. The catapults had wrought a fair amount of devastation along the edges of the Fire Nation army's formation, and in response, the block of soldiers was thickening into a tightly centered box, tanks close around the edges.

"But they aren't close enough yet," Dai Kun said, eyeing the distance that remained critically; and a moment later, the captain of the guard let out a shout and waved his signal flag.

There were at least a hundred Earthbenders arrayed outside the gate; not bad, but it probably looked like a relatively paltry force to the Fire Nation, who didn't know about the spare half-thousand who were still waiting inside the walls. Katara did know, and it still felt a little paltry to her, facing down at least a thousand Fire Nation troops. But she sucked in a fortifying breath, put a hand to the cap of her bending pouch, and leaned into the wind when the ground beneath her lurched forward. They'd practiced this part once or twice on a smaller scale, so she managed to keep her balance, riding the Earthbent dirt; something about it reminded her of the feeling of coaxing a canoe over the crest of a sudden wave.

Two tanks had gone down under the catapults, one twisted by a partial strike and one simply crushed; the Earthbenders took down four more with carefully placed hits. Shu Sen had explained the blueprints to everyone, the inner workings of the treads that made the tanks so maneuverable, and the Earthbenders knew now that two pinching juts of stone in exactly the right place could crush the gears almost irreparably.

But that left the soldiers inside alive, and they were sweeping forward like a wall—the rocks that were struck straight forward into their lines were met with blazing shields of flame that deflected most of them away, or slowed them down so much that they dropped harmlessly to the ground.

"Okay, here we go," Sokka said next to her, fans flaring in his hands; and there was one breathless moment of stillness before the Fire Nation soldiers hit them.


*


Katara had fought raiders at home before, and the soldiers who had tried to invade Shinsotsu. But the raiders came in groups that hardly ever topped forty, and the Fire Nation lines had been thinned at Shinsotsu, coming up the ladders one at a time.

This was nothing like that at all.

She let her bending water loose a second before Aang shouted "Left!" from over her shoulder, and she pushed her arms out to the left before she even knew what she was trying to hit. She was grateful, suddenly, for all that practice she'd done with the scroll on the way up; her hands and feet were doing what she wanted them to without her even having to think about it, and without the edge of panicked anger that meant she was about to get all blue and shiny.

The water looped around the neck of the soldier who had been coming up on the left, and Katara yanked her sideways into the guy whose sword Sokka had just knocked aside with the edge of one of his fans. They both tumbled away to the right, in time to slam into the side of the spur of rock Dai Kun had just used to hurl the soldier facing him into the air.

It was like that every moment, six things happening at once, so quickly she barely had time to notice each one before they all changed again. Aang helped as best he could, but he could only warn her—he couldn't make her move any faster than she already was. By the time the shout came to retreat back to the city wall, she'd been cut in a dozen places, and there was a nasty slice on the side of her thigh.

She'd almost forgotten the plan entirely, and the call for retreat made her look back in confusion, until Sokka caught her elbow and said, "Come on, come on, we have to get them to follow us back, remember?"

They retreated toward Hansing, and, as they had been hoping, the Fire Nation army followed them eagerly—Katara spotted a couple of the unfolding siege ladders being rolled forward, clearly ordered ahead in anticipation.

At last, the rear flank of the army must have crossed the small rise Shu Sen had had the Earthbenders construct as a marker; Katara couldn't see that far from where she was standing, but there was a great roar from the soldiers on the wall, and the vast west gate swung open like a fan.

Five hundred Earthbenders pressed their bare feet to the ground, lined up their hands, and shoved at once; and the earth beneath the Fire Nation army slid away with a rumble that made Katara's knees shake. Stone shuffled and groaned, and at the far side of the Fire Nation army, Katara could see the plains crumpling up like a bundled sleeping mat, all that shifting earth pressed for somewhere to go. Shu Sen had been so precise, so methodical, testing the boundaries of the rock beneath the fields that surrounded the city, and it had clearly been worth it: what good were maneuverable treads when the tank they were attached to was twenty feet deep in a pit?

"Awesome," Sokka said.


*


It hadn't been exactly perfect; Shu Sen could calculate a lot of things, but not how soldiers would flee when the ground beneath their feet got yanked away, and perhaps a battalion's worth of Fire Nation troops around the army's fringes managed to scramble to a safe edge. But they clearly weren't planning to invade Hansing on their own, and even before Shu Sen could call for surrender, most of them had dropped their swords.

As soon as it was safe to, Katara sat down and drew a little water over the wound on her thigh—it was starting to throb noticeably, now that the fighting was done. Or it had been, at least, until the cool blue light in her hands smoothed it away into a new red scar.

"I bet there's a couple other people who could use a little healy-hands," Sokka said, helping her up, and, sure enough, when they got back inside the city wall, the wounded were being lined up just inside the gate.

She healed until her head was spinning, and she probably would have kept on through the evening if Suki hadn't come by and yanked her away by the elbow. "You got all the worst ones," she said firmly; "there's nobody left who's hurt so badly that they'll die if you take five minutes to eat something."

She installed Katara on some steps by a fountain—maybe the same ones they'd been sitting on when Dai Kun had overheard them, Katara thought—and shoved a bowl of rice into her hands; Katara was so tired that it took her a minute to realize Suki was gone again, and she was alone on the steps, except for Aang.

She had gotten through about three bites when Aang drifted a little closer, and said, "You killed some of them."

Katara stared down at her bowl, prodding absently at a lump of rice. "Yes," she said. "I did."

She turned her head and looked at Aang: he was looking back at her, eyes huge and faintly troubled. "Doesn't that—bother you?" he said, very quiet.

She thought about it for a moment. "Well, they've been trying to kill me and everybody I know for as long as I can remember," she said, "so, no, not a lot."

"At the Temple," Aang said, "they always taught us to preserve life. I'm sorry," he added hurriedly, "I'm not trying to make you feel bad. I just—" He trailed off, and shrugged his translucent shoulders helplessly. "You weren't really in the middle of it, in Shinsotsu, but this was different." He sighed and slumped forward, like a heavy weight had just landed on his shoulders. "Then again, I guess we all know how far preserving life got the Temples."

Katara grimaced at the bitterness in his voice, and wished again, as she so often did, that she could at least put her arm around his shoulders. "It wasn't their fault," she said. "You shouldn't have to defend against something like that. Killing other people shouldn't be the only way to avoid getting killed yourself."

"But it is right now," Aang said.

"We're in the middle of a war," Katara said, as gently as she could. "It won't always be that way."

Aang forced a tiny smile. "At least, not if you do your job right," he said, tone deliberately light.

"You say that like you doubt my Avatar skills," Katara said. "For your information, I am excellent at glowing."




Shu Sen was more than happy to make sure they were given a boat, and Dai Kun carried them down to the port himself on a wave of moving earth. It definitely wasn't Suki's favorite sensation in the world, feeling the very ground under her feet pitch and shift like that; but it was certainly faster than walking.

"I know I wouldn't want to be them right now," Dai Kun was saying as they drew close to the harbor, a grin wide on his face. "Must've been a pretty unpleasant night, down in that pit, with winter coming on. There was even a little frost this morning," and he beamed like he had never heard anything so pleasant as he made the ground beneath them slow.

Suki grimaced a little at the thought of frosty ground and no sleeping mat, and leapt from the little ridge Dai Kun was bending before he could stop it entirely—the worst parts were the beginning and the end of the ride.

"But we'll let them out eventually," Dai Kun finished, making the ridge sink back into the ground with a flourish. "Anyway, she'll be there," and he motioned broadly toward the harbor. "On the docks, all the way to the end—she should fit the three of you nicely. Mother wanted to give you a submersible," he confided, "but they're still not done yet. Oh, and before I forget—" He drew a rolled-up sheaf of papers from the tie at his waist, and handed them to Katara. "Designs. Something big, that was supposed to be in one of the next couple shipments. Mother said you should have them, just in case they find somebody else to build it. You might need them."

"Thank you," Katara said, and tucked them away in her pack. "I wish there was something else we could do for you—"

"Besides helping my mother stop the Fire Nation from blackmailing her, and helping us fight them off when they came to kill us for it, and healing just about everybody you could find afterward?" Dai Kun said, laughing. "I'm not sure there's anything left for us to need help with."

"Well, still," Katara said; but she looked pleased, almost shyly so, and Suki couldn't help but squeeze her shoulder as they turned toward the docks.




Yin was leaning on the flagship's rail, staring out over the water, and she didn't notice Kishen was there until he spoke.

"Something's going on," he said; it wasn't quite a question, but it still somehow sounded like he was expecting a reply.

"Yes," she said, tapping a knuckle against the rail. It was true—something was going on, and, worse, she wasn't sure what it was. Zhao had gathered a few soldiers together, murmured their orders and clapped their shoulders and sent them off the ship and onto the docks, and he'd been smiling ever since in a frankly unsettling fashion. They were still in the harbor, Zhao sending every battleship that entered the port off to the gathering point for his burgeoning fleet; and the enforced lack of activity wasn't exactly helping Yin feel at ease.

At least Kishen wasn't enjoying it, either. When she glanced over at him, he was gripping the rail like he expected somebody to try to throw him over it, and the expression that crossed his face looked more like a muscle tic in his cheek than the polite smile she thought it had been intended as.

"He's got some kind of a plan," Kishen said, "and, unless I'm entirely wrong about why you're out here, I take it your moderating influence was not exerted on this one."

"On the contrary," Yin said, wry, "you are entirely right. It must be something to do with the fleet—it's all he can think about, since we went to see the admiral. But I don't know—"

The sound didn't come from especially close by, but that didn't matter; it was painfully loud, and Yin had flinched back from the rail and put a hand to her sword before she even had time to realize the breadth of the distance.

Kishen had dropped back, too, and they twisted around at the same time to scan the massive harbor. Huge as it was, it wasn't exactly difficult to spot the great fist of smoke that was billowing up from somewhere to the west. A ship, almost undoubtedly, because there was no question in Yin's mind that this had been what Zhao was orchestrating; but evidently a small one, because she couldn't see it from here.

"I take it back," she said. "I do know."

"But what is it?" Kishen said. "What would Zhao send soldiers to blow up, in a neutral port?"


***


Mizan came to with every muscle protesting, an irritating amount of blood gumming up one eye, and a door on her back. Lucky, probably—by the look of it, it had been blown off its hinges and hit the wall above her, and then fallen down just in time to shield her from the worst of the fire. But she could tell already that it had left a thick line of bruising on her side, and she shoved it off with a grumbled curse.

There had been very little warning; otherwise, she thought darkly, she'd have made sure she was further away. She scrubbed the blood from her eye, her hand already covered in it from a deep scrape along her thumb, and forced herself to sit up.

She'd been on her way in, away from the bridge, when it had exploded, and she couldn't have been unconscious for long; her ears were still ringing. She could remember only a little of it—she'd come in off the deck, passed the door, and started off down the corridor, and then there had been a flood of light and heat and something had hit her in the head.

Most of the bridge was still alight, so Mizan resisted the urge to rush in herself; she snagged the three closest Firebenders out on the deck, and sent them back to douse the flames. It would have taken them a while alone—the fire was roaring, smoke billowing out over the observation deck—but the lower decks had evidently felt the blast, too, and more soldiers came hurrying up from below.

She should've known, the minute she'd seen the first Fire Nation battleship float by, and gotten them out of there. No good could come of a fleet amassing nearby, not for them, and she probably could have argued Zuko out of hanging around, with General Iroh's help.

If either of them were hurt, she was going to kill Zhao herself.

Chapter Text

"A boat! A boat on the Black Sea!"

Yue turned at the sound of the shout, and watched her father's face go tense.

"Fire Nation?" Father said.

The lookout shook his head, still gasping—he must have run all the way from the outer wall, if the message had been brought in from the lookouts on the ice cliffs. "Doesn't look it," he managed. "Not metal—and it's small. Not much of a warship."

Father considered briefly; but Kanjusuk had not lasted through a hundred years of war by being incautious, and Yue could see the decision as clearly as though it were written on his face, even before he spoke. "Send a war party, enough men to handle a boat twice the size," he said.

Hahn volunteered immediately, as Yue had suspected he might. He was brave, but he was also the kind of person who liked the feeling of being chosen to accomplish things—and, perhaps, the feeling of gloating to those who were not chosen alongside him. It was not his only flaw, but it was one of the ones that grated on her the most; the moment Yue had been told she would marry him, she had begun to maintain a careful list, and this one was near the top.

She did not keep the list because she had any particular plans to try to change him. That was up to him, if he chose to undertake the task. The list was simply the best way she could think of to remind herself to be patient, to forgive, to keep her temper. The things he did most often, she reasoned, were those things which were most a part of himself—those he did least knowingly, and therefore those which yelling at him would help the least.

Sometimes she needed to remind herself of this very, very often.

She couldn't go with the war party herself, of course. But she followed them all the way to the outer wall, and she watched them grow small with distance as they Waterbent their boats away to the southeast. The war party would be the first to know who it was who had come to them; but anyone who happened to be on the outer wall would be the second.




Katara leaned back against the stern and grinned up at the sky. They'd been able to take it easy, since Hansing—or at least they'd gotten closer to taking it easy than they had in ages. They hadn't seen Prince Zuko since he'd tried to catch them with the bounty hunter and her shirshu, and even if he was still chasing them, it would be a long time before he'd be able to get his ship around Gungduan. And Zhao—Captain, or maybe Commander, whatever he was now—hadn't gotten near them since the day the Blue Spirit had broken them out of Pohuai.

Which all meant Katara got to make Sokka and Suki row.

"I am definitely getting a blister," Sokka said.

"Row us a couple hundred more miles," Katara said, "and we'll talk," and she couldn't help laughing at his exaggerated glare.

They didn't have even a hundred miles left to go—more like five, or maybe ten at the absolute most. They'd left open ocean behind yesterday, and they were going much more slowly now, weaving their way between ice floes; it was blissfully cold, and Katara had pulled on her parka that morning with a delicious feeling of satisfaction. It wasn't quite like being at home, but it was the closest she'd been in months, and it was wonderful.

She leaned back again and closed her eyes, and by the time Aang said, "Hey, uh, Katara?" she was half asleep.

"What, now Sokka's got two blisters?" she said, reluctantly dragging her head upright; and then the first warrior yelled just as her eyes came open.

The boats must have been behind the two nearest floes, waiting until they'd rowed to just the right spot before they'd swept out and trapped them. They were utterly different from the Earth Kingdom boat, and even from the ships Father and the warriors of the south had taken when they'd sailed to the north: flat-bellied, with almost no draft at all, and the only things that marked bow from stern were prow-like decorations on each side that curved up like waves.

About half of the warriors had pikes, and the rest, Katara saw, were Waterbending, driving the boats forward with the motions of their arms and bodies—she could have just about jumped for joy, except for the part where they were clearly intent on attacking.

The first boat came up abreast of them, and the shouting warrior swung his pike at Suki, who ducked smooth as water and then slammed her oar into his chest; his shout turned into a yelp of pain, and he tumbled back onto the flat boat, grimacing. Sokka moved to swing his oar around at the same moment Katara yanked a broad stream of water up out of the ocean, and somebody cried, "Wait!" a second before she knocked one of the Waterbenders off the boat with it.

The warriors drew back a little at the cry, which had come from the second boat, and Sokka lowered his oar again; Katara let the water fall back into the sea. She wasn't going to let them kill her, but the whole point of this journey had been to find her a Waterbending teacher, not to make an enemy out of every Waterbender in the north.

"They're Water Tribe," said the man who had called for a halt, and pointed at Sokka with his pike. "Aren't you?"

"Southern," Sokka confirmed. He hesitated for a second, glancing at Katara, and she shook her head minutely. They could explain about the Avatar thing later, when nobody had their weaponry out and she could find a way to demonstrate that wouldn't drown anyone by accident.

"This one isn't," another one said, making a prodding motion toward Suki. His pike didn't actually touch her, though—Katara noticed she was still holding her oar like it was a spear, and had to struggle to hide a smile.

"She's our friend," Sokka said immediately. "From the Earth Kingdoms. She's no threat to you—I mean, unless you try to hit her with something again, but that would be a mistake."

The guy Suki had knocked back had struggled up again, sputtering, and now he cried, "They attacked us!"

"Not without some reason," the man who had called for a halt said, and then tapped his pike against the side of the boat for a second, thinking. "They are three people in a boat, two of them Water Tribe—not a likely invasion force, I think. We will take them back to Chief Arnook. It has been a long time since we have seen anyone from the Southern Tribe; he'll want to give you a proper welcome."


*


The warrior hadn't been kidding; once they were inside the massive ice walls of Kanjusuk, almost everyone they encountered wore a smile.

Chief Arnook was a craggy-faced man who didn't look like he made a habit of giving people proper welcomes, but once they had introduced themselves, he clapped Katara and Sokka on the back, and smiled himself. "We had feared that you might all be gone," he explained. "It has been a long time since we have seen or heard any sign of the Southern Tribe. We thought the warriors who came to the aid of the Earth Kingdoms a few years past might have been the last of you."

It was obvious, walking through Kanjusuk, that it was a Water Tribe city, and the home of many Waterbenders; there was water everywhere, in canals that crisscrossed the city and waterfalls that flowed down over the ice. Even the great gathering space where Chief Arnook held their welcoming feast was decorated with a massive fountain, and Katara felt herself breathing easily at last. She had worried so often that she would find no one to teach her—even, occasionally, that Kanjusuk had been captured, melted to nothing, while they were still on their way north. But now that they were here, her worries had dissolved like so much smoke. There was no way she'd be unable to find a master Waterbender here.

They sat next to Chief Arnook, on his left; his wife, Ukalah, sat on his right, along with the warrior who had brought them back, who was named Tuteguk. Katara sat on the end—or at least it was the end until just before the feast drumming began, when a pretty girl with pure white hair knelt down next to her.



"I am Chief Arnook's daughter," she said, "Yue," and flashed Katara a quick smile; but the drums started pounding before Katara could reply.

It was astounding, to be surrounded by such a towering city of ice, rows and rows and rows of people robed in blue and white, with the thunder of drums in the air. Their village must have been like this, once; Mother had told them that it had been a great city before the Fire Nation raiders came, but Katara had never quite been able to picture it before.

At last, the drums rumbled to a halt, and Chief Arnook stood up. "Tonight," he said, "we celebrate the arrival of our brother and sister from the Southern Water Tribe. They have traveled a very long way to visit us; let us make their time here worth the effort!"

Amid the cheering and shouting that followed, Aang drifted a little way into Yue's arm, and hooked a thumb over his shoulder at her. "If anybody knows who can teach you," he said, "it's bound to be her—ask!"

Katara shot him a quelling glance, and then had to yank on a smile when Yue turned to look at her curiously. "Um," she said, articulately, and searched for somewhere to start. "It's—it's not actually only a visit," she tried at last.

Yue grinned, and then laughed outright. "Well, no, we didn't quite think so," she said. "It's a very long way to travel, just to say hello, and it must have been very dangerous."

"It was," Katara said, briefly somber. "We need to find a Waterbending teacher—a master. There's no one like that left in the South; that's why we had to come here."

Yue eyed her, pale eyebrows arching. "You crossed half the world in the middle of a war to find yourselves a teacher?" she said.

"I told you, there aren't any left in the South," Katara said, but even she could tell the words had come out sounding sort of defensive. "And the war's been going on a hundred years already. We couldn't just sit around waiting for it to end—who knows how long that would take?"

"That's not going to do it," Aang murmured in her ear, and, sure enough, Yue's expression was tipping toward a frown. "Tell her you'll explain later."

"You're right," Katara said, "there is another reason; but I can't tell you what it is, not right now. You do have someone who's mastered Waterbending, though, don't you?"

Yue looked at her suspiciously a moment longer, and then nodded. "Yugoda is a master healer," she said, indicating a gray-haired woman with a serene face.

"And what about regular bending?" Katara said.

"You mean for fighting?" Yue gave her a brief, uncertain glance; but then she looked past Katara, to where Sokka was already stuffing his face, and her expression cleared. "There are several," she said, "but Master Pakku is the best of them. You can see for yourself in a moment—Father's arranged for him and some of his best students to perform for us." And, sure enough, the man she had gestured toward was standing up and climbing toward the dais in front of the fountain, three other men coming up alongside him.

Katara had no idea what to expect—she had never done anything like this at home herself, and the last Waterbender before her had been in Gran-Gran's generation, and long gone by the time Katara could remember. But they did more than just a bending sequence: it was a dance, perfectly coordinated, water streaming through the air in loops and spheres with an ebb and flow like the ocean. The benders had clearly practiced it many times, and they handed water off to each other like they were passing a bowl of rice, so simple and smooth it was sometimes hard to tell who was bending what.

It was beautiful; and when it was over, Katara turned to grin at Aang and then laughed aloud, not caring how odd she might look. She'd certainly recognized some of the simpler portions from practicing with the scroll, but there was so much she still had left to learn. She couldn't wait to get started.




Mizan let Zhao board, because there was no way to get out of it, with his flagship looming alongside and his sub-admiral's rank insignia gleaming; but she didn't have to be happy about it, and she let her expression get as unfriendly as it wanted to be.

"Sub-Admiral," she said, when he set foot on the deck, and pressed two knuckles into an only partly-open palm, an insultingly vague approximation of a proper salute.

He let his lip curl up, lazy and smug, and said nothing for a long moment, turning to casually survey the deck of the ship. "Mm, not much," he said, as though to himself, "but I suppose it will do."

"Will do for what?" General Iroh said. He had been near the bridge when the explosion had occurred, but not inside, and had therefore only been a little bit singed around the edges; the side of his arm had been faintly blistered, but it had been a small matter to have it cleaned and wrapped.

"Ah, General," Zhao said, and saluted—quite a bit more politely than Mizan had saluted him, though still not appropriately deferent, Mizan thought. "I see you escaped this unfortunate accident," and he gestured loosely to the still-blackened observation deck, "unscathed. It would have been a terrible shame if your nephew had dragged you down yet further with him." Zhao made a fair show out of glancing around the deck, and Mizan did her very best not to roll her eyes. "I do not see him here."

"You do not," Iroh agreed. "My nephew never had the best luck."

"What an unfortunate loss," Zhao said, eyes gleaming, and then pulled a roll of papers from his belt. "In that case, I claim this vessel on behalf of the Fire Lord, and order you to join my fleet at once. The fleet launches from our outpost on Min Zai Island tomorrow; and then we sail for the great city of the north."




Master Pakku had a vast practice arena, a wide walled space in the northwest of the city, near the great palace where Chief Arnook's family lived. They timed their approach carefully; Katara didn't want to interrupt anything if she could help it. There was a boys' class just letting out as they came down the avenue, and she waited for the last student to scurry out before she slipped inside herself, Sokka and Suki at her heels.

"Master Pakku," she said, and bowed, carefully low. "We've been hoping that you might be able to teach Waterbending—"

"Of course, of course," Master Pakku interrupted, waving a hand imperiously. "I'd be only too glad, boy; no need to make your sister ask for you."

Katara paused, still only partway recovered from the bow, and stared at him: he was smiling down at Sokka in a faintly paternal sort of way, clearly conscious of his own graciousness, and not looking at her at all.

"What?" Sokka said, sounding about as bewildered as Katara felt. "Me? No, I—no, it's her. She's the bendy one. I'm still working on the fans," and he tapped the handle of one, like that explained everything.

"She?" Master Pakku said, frowning, and then glanced at Katara; for the briefest moment, he looked simply unsettled, and then, peculiarly, he started to smile. "Oh—yes, I see, very amusing," he said, and clapped Sokka on the shoulder.

Katara felt something in her gut begin to roil, and straightened the rest of the way up, shoulders back and feet braced, like she was about to swing a club.

"I'm afraid you don't understand," Suki said from Katara's other side, polite but crisp. "Katara is the Waterbender seeking to be taught."

"You speak out of turn, girl," Master Pakku said dismissively, and Katara could see an angry flush rise into Suki's face; she put a hand on one of her fans, and glanced sideways at Katara, almost warningly.

"Master Pakku," Katara said, "you seem to have misunderstood. I am a Waterbender. You didn't let me finish, before. We'd been hoping that you might be able to teach Waterbending—to me."

Master Pakku shifted his weight, unsettled again, and his eyes flicked over their faces, from Sokka's to Katara's to Suki's. Whatever he saw there must have been enough to confirm that they were not, in fact, trying to play a trick on him, and he made a sharp noise with his nose and shook his head once. "Enough of this," he said, "you waste my time. You've come to the wrong place—you are looking for Yugoda."

"I am not," Katara said, frustration rising like a spring tide. "Yue told me, at the feast; Yugoda is a healer. I know she'll also have many things to teach me, but I have to master all kinds of Waterbending."

Master Pakku snorted. "Impossible," he said, cool and sharp and utterly certain. "You can't."

Katara clenched her fists, and forced herself to take a deep breath. "Why not?"

Master Pakku looked ridiculously startled, like he hadn't been expecting her to ask, and then barked out half a laugh. "You're a girl," he said, as though it should have been obvious, "you can't be taught. Women cannot master Waterbending that way, it is impossible, and we do not teach them to try. They are capable of healing, sometimes with very great skill; but that is all."

"The Avatar," Katara began, and Master Pakku's mouth flattened.

"The Avatar is a spirit, reincarnated many times," he said. "It is true that the Avatar is sometimes reborn in a woman's body, but the Avatar is a man equally often—Avatars retain skills from their past lives that other women do not have."

Katara stared at him, utterly unable to reply. She had been planning to tell him who she was, though she hadn't known how she would prove it to him; surely even if he wouldn't teach other girls, he might be convinced to teach her, though learning from him was going to leave a very bad taste in her mouth. But even if he agreed, she could see, he wouldn't be teaching her—in his mind, he would only be reminding some man who had also been the Avatar of things he already knew.

She swallowed. Her responsibility was too great for her to allow herself to balk. She had to try, at the very least. "I am the Avatar," she said.

One side of Master Pakku's mouth curled up. "Oh, are you," he said, patronizing, like he was speaking to a confused child.

"I am," Katara insisted. "The last Avatar was an Air Nomad, a boy named Aang, and he was frozen away in the ice until the week I was born. It was Kyoshi before that, from the southern islands; she fought Chin the Conqueror, and killed him, when she split the islands away from the south coast. Before that—" She racked her brain for a moment, until the name came to her. "Before that, there was an Avatar from here. Kuruk, that was his name. That was back when the Water Tribes still held the great festivals, when we traveled back and forth between the poles, and celebrated together every two years—"

"Enough," Master Pakku said. "I am a master of Waterbending, not of history or legends. If Chief Arnook determines that your claim is valid, and orders me, then I will teach you what I know, even though it may be wasted; but not before. In times of trial and desperation, tradition is what tells us who we are, and I will not throw ours aside because you can recite a list of names to me."

Katara stared at him for a long moment—not even glaring, just looking, and feeling like her face might as well have been carved of ice. She made herself bow to him again, though this time it was a perfunctory tilt of the shoulders; and then she stormed back out of the training arena, eyes watering fiercely, and hoped someday she'd have the chance to punch him in the head.


*


"It's probably for the best," Suki said quietly, when they were climbing the steps of the palace. The angry color had left her face, and she looked pensive, now, instead of upset. "We couldn't have argued him into it right there in five minutes, and if Chief Arnook orders him, he won't be able to get out of it."

Sokka shook his head, expression somewhere between irritation and puzzlement. "I wish he'd been there the day those Fire Nation soldiers cracked my head open," he said. "I'd like to see him break an iceberg by himself."

"It's not true, you know," Aang said, and Katara paused reluctantly in the entrance hall, motioning to Sokka and Suki to be quiet for a moment. "What he said," Aang added, when she made no reply. "That's not how it works. You can tell, can't you, when other Avatars are—are showing up in you? It's not all the time; it's barely any of the time. And they're all different people, too. It's not like some kind of ancient body-hopping spirit replaces everything you are—it's more complicated than that."

"I float," Katara said. "I don't know how to Airbend. I cracked the plaza in Jindao, even though I can't Earthbend so much as a pebble."

"But every Avatar has to learn mastery all over again before they can do any of that on purpose," Aang said, drifting a little closer. "I'd know; I never made it to fully-realized, remember? If it were the way he said it was, then I'd probably have killed Sozin when I was two days old without even breaking a sweat." He shook his head firmly, and then reached out, shimmering blue fingers almost close enough to brush her cheek—if they had been tangible. "That's not how it works," he said again, and this time she believed it.

She sighed, and scrubbed her hands roughly over her face—she hadn't quite started crying, but her eyes were wet with trapped tears of frustration, and her skin felt hot beneath her fingers. "I know," she muttered, and turned toward the wall, pressing her palms against the ice for a moment to cool them before she put them back on her cheeks. "It's just so infuriating."

"What is?" Yue said, somewhere behind her.




Yin watched the Dragon of the West sip his tea, and tried not to look as utterly awed as she felt.

The fleet had gathered at Min Zai Island as ordered, and Zhao was practically floating with the force of his delight; that the ship that had once carried the former prince had appeared as he had demanded had only made his satisfaction sweeter.

Yin had never met the prince before, and it now appeared that she never would. How Zhao had mustered up the gall to blow up the son of the Fire Lord, exile though he might have been, she wasn't sure, but she wished she had known sooner, and found a way to stop it. The rumors concerning the exiled prince had been widely variable, to be sure. But about a third said Prince Zuko had been a reasonably intelligent boy; not unkind, though perhaps obsessively concerned with his father's opinion, even after it must have been clear to him. And even if the less kind remainder had also been the more accurate, no sixteen-year-old boy deserved to be blown up. The workings of Zhao's mind baffled her often; but she was rarely as glad that she couldn't understand him as she had been this week.

"I would be only too pleased to offer you my advice," General Iroh said, after a long slow swallow of his tea.

"Really," Zhao said. "And here I thought you might be inclined to be somewhat less than helpful, given the loss of your charge in that unfortunate explosion."

Yin thought she saw a muscle in the general's face twitch; but then he smiled, and waved a hand forgivingly. "Well, these things happen," he said. "I looked after the boy as well as I could—but it was my brother's wish, not mine. He hoped to keep his options open. After all, a feeble heir is better than none at all. He knew well the dangers of the loss of one's children."

"Ah, yes, of course," Zhao said, nodding. "And so he should, with so clear an example before him. Crushed by Earthbenders during the siege, wasn't he, your boy?"

Yin managed to keep her discomfort from showing as anything more than a slight flinch. Lu Ten's death had been mourned throughout the Fire Nation, and by no one more than his father, with his mother already gone; Zhao was striking an open wound with a blacksmith's hammer.

General Iroh's eyes were grim over the edge of his teacup for the barest moment, but when he lowered it, there were still traces of a smile around his mouth. Clearly battles of arms were not the general's only area of expertise. "Something like that," he said, very light, and poured his companion some tea, topping off her cup a breath below the brim without even looking away from Zhao's face.

His companion, Yin noticed, did not quite have General Iroh's skill in controlling her features. Her face was faintly bruised on one side, and there was an unpleasantly large cut over one eye; she had managed not to look overtly angry, but her expression was clearly tense, her jaw tight. If she had been a Firebender, Yin suspected, the table probably would have been aflame already.

"I must insist, General, that you sail with me on my flagship—I simply cannot leave you on that pathetic little scow." Zhao's mouth curled into a moue of disgust. "And what good is an advisor if he is a fleet away? It will not do, not at all."

"I would be glad to," General Iroh said heartily; if saying so made him a liar, Yin thought, he was an exceptionally good one. "And you will also accommodate a few of my old officers, I hope? Mizan has been with me for years—I might as well leave my head behind, if she cannot accompany me."

"Of course, of course," Zhao said. "Bring your ship alongside, and you will have as much time as you need to move your things."

General Iroh beamed, and lifted his cup—whatever he had wanted to hear, it seemed he had heard it, though Yin wasn't sure what it had been. Mizan looked ... well, not precisely satisfied; but she let out a slow breath, and when General Iroh touched her wrist lightly with his free hand, she grudgingly raised her own tea, and drank a diplomatic mouthful. "It will be our pleasure," General Iroh said.

"And ours," Yin said, before the pause could turn uncomfortable; Zhao was smiling again, with that odd, distant slant to his gaze, his mind somewhere else entirely.




"-and I don't have time for this," Katara said, "I need to learn it—from someone who'll teach me all of it, everything, not someone who's going to need an order from the chief just to consider it."

Yue blinked, and Katara realized abruptly that she had almost been yelling outright, by the end. But before she could even start to apologize, Yue spoke. "You said that before, at the feast—that you needed a teacher. And you traveled halfway around the world to find one; but you still haven't told me why."

Katara bit her lip, and glanced over at Aang. He shrugged his shoulders, looking sheepish. "You told Master Pakku," he said, "and you don't even like him."

"Yeah, but by that point, I think it was also going to bother me less if he thought I was crazy," Katara said aloud, and then, before Yue could ask, held out a hand. "I'm the Avatar. That, right there? That was me talking to the last Avatar. He's a ghost now, he follows me around."

"... I see," Yue said, clearly too polite to let herself sound more than faintly dubious.

Katara sighed, but before she could come up with something else to try, Yue held up her own hand.

"If I'm understanding you correctly," she said, "and you aren't out of your mind, the former Avatar would be able to hear me if I were to, say, walk over there and whisper something to myself?"

"He would," Katara said.

Yue turned and strode further into the chief's palace, across the width of the entry hall and a few steps down the corridor; Aang floated after her like he was attached to her with a leash. He waited next to her for only a moment, head cocked, before he drifted back, smiling. "She said she hopes you really are the Avatar," he reported dutifully, and Katara's heart lifted a little, involuntarily, just to hear the sentiment.

Yue stopped in front of her with a questioning look, and Katara grinned. "You hope I really am the Avatar," she said, and Yue let out a sharp breath and bit her lip.

"And you really are," she said, and let out an almost incredulous laugh. "You really are," she repeated, sobering, and then hesitated. "Then I—have something to show you," she said.




Zuko shuffled as far back against the ship's rib as he could, and sighed.

It was hot down here—he was near the boilers, and a deck above—and very dark. They'd gone over the plan half a dozen times, in the hours after they had found Zhao's explosives on the bridge; Uncle had told him exactly how to get where he was and how unlikely it was that anyone else would come down, and he knew Mizan would come for him as soon as she got a chance. But he still felt startlingly uncertain, and very alone.

But he had to admit that everything had gone well so far. Granted, the explosives had gone off a little sooner than they'd been expecting. But Uncle had managed to bring them close to Zhao's flagship, enough that it had taken only a moment to sneak across the gap when no one was looking. And he might have a large helping of peculiarities, but Uncle's memory was excellent when he wanted it to be—he'd been exactly right about the layout of the massive battleship. Besides, the heat might be uncomfortable, but it was certainly drying Zuko's clothes out quickly.

He was on the edge of sleep when he heard the sound of boots shuffling over metal, and he listened to it for a moment, not understanding, before he realized what it was and jerked fully awake. He pushed himself up into a crouch and drew one sword a few inches out of its sheath; and then a very familiar voice said, "Sir? Is that you?"

Zuko let out the breath he'd been holding and slid his sword home again, and pulled heat up to his palm until a tiny flame popped into being. "Mizan."

"Sir," she said. "Thank you for the light."

"Your face," Zuko said, a little startled. He had been preparing belowdecks when the explosives had gone off, and had stayed there until he'd snuck across to Zhao's ship, just to ensure that no one saw him. He hadn't seen her since before the explosion.

"It happens, sir, when things blow up right next to you," she said, matter-of-fact, fingers drifting up toward the ugly cut over her eye. "You should see my back, it's a very striking shade of purple."

"I'll take your word for it," Zuko said, instead of giving in to the urge to ask whether she was all right—it would be a stupid question, when she was standing right in front of him.

"You ruin all my fun, sir," she said.

Zuko waved this away. "Is everything—working out?"

"For the record," Mizan said, "I still think this is a terrible plan, and no good will come of it; and if either of you end up hurt, I'm leaving you with Zhao and taking the ship. But yes, sir, everything's working out. The general's with Zhao right now, and we should be moving—"

The deck gave a sudden shudder under their feet, and there were a series of clangs from a deck down, like boiler doors swinging open; metal groaned all around them as the ship lurched into motion.

"—any minute now," Mizan finished, and raised her eyebrows at him.




Yue led them further into the palace, up a wide and curving flight of stairs and off to the west, to an open-ended room with a balcony that overlooked the rest of Kanjusuk. She paused for a moment, listening; but Suki couldn't hear anything but their own breathing, and, sure enough, after a moment Yue turned to Katara.

"Show me something you already know," she said.

Katara shot her a curious look, but obediently uncapped her pouch of bending water, and Suki automatically took a step back to give her space.

"Good thinking," Sokka murmured, "it's a little cold for an accidental dousing," and followed her away.

Katara started off with something simple—Suki didn't know the name for it, or even whether there was a name for it, but she recognized it just from watching Katara practice. A long, flowing move, that made the water curl back around Katara's shoulders and then flung it forward.

She was doing it a little more slowly than usual, but it was still going to end with water slung toward Yue. Katara was planning to catch it first, Suki figured, and pull it back—but she never got a chance to worry about it.

The second the water had rounded Katara's far shoulder and started forward, Yue whirled, planted her feet in a bending stance, and drew her hands back and away—she caught the water, guided it around and over her own head with undeniable grace, and sent it swirling back at Katara.

Katara yelped, obviously startled, and dodged out of the way; and the water struck the wall behind her and splashed down to pool on the floor.

"Wait, you bend?" Katara said.

Yue grinned, a little shyly, and shifted her feet again—she pulled the water up from the floor before it could soak Katara's feet, in two separate streams, and curled them both around Katara's waist and back into her bending pouch. "I wouldn't call myself a master," she began hesitantly, and Sokka laughed.

"Yeah, but that's just because you're too polite to," he said. "But how'd you learn to do that, if they don't teach girls?"

"I've always had a talent for it," Yue admitted. "And I did go to Yugoda's classes, until she ran out of things to teach me. My parents say it's because I have the spirit of the moon in me—they gave me my name because the moon spirit saved my life when I was born. That's why my hair is white. And—" She hesitated, looking a little sheepish, and threw a glance over her shoulder at the balcony. "Well, you can see a lot of the city from up here."

Suki turned to the balcony, already calculating—they had left and joined up with the main avenue, and crossed just one canal before they turned to climb the palace stairs—and, sure enough, when she looked over the rail, Master Pakku's practice arena was only a short way away. They couldn't see down into it from here, not quite; but the chief's palace was tall, and a floor or two up, Suki bet you could look right in, and still be close enough to see most of the details.

She laughed, delighted, and when she turned around, Katara was looking at Yue like she was trying to decide whether it would be inappropriate to grab the chief's daughter and swing her around in a circle.


***


Chief Arnook had declared a whole week of feasting in honor of their arrival, so that evening, they were back in the great gathering space with the fountain, kneeling before the long head table. Food had never tasted so good, Katara thought happily, and did her best not to giggle. It was startlingly difficult; at midday, she had been expecting to just about cry herself to sleep, but now she felt almost giddy. Yue had bashfully confessed that she had been spying on Master Pakku's classes for almost six full years, and Katara was willing to bet that she was at the same level as Master Pakku's best students, at the very least, and perhaps even Master Pakku himself. And a willing teacher was worth a dozen years of experience.

By the end of the meal, she was full and happy and very pleased with the world at large—and not at all expecting Master Pakku to stand up.

"Chief Arnook," he said, loudly enough that it echoed a little. "A matter has been brought to my attention, one which I feel you should hear of."

She should have known—Master Pakku was the sort to want to corner her, to make the matter public just so that he could see everyone agree with him. Why should he speak to Chief Arnook alone when he could have an audience? Katara glanced at Yue, a little apprehensive. She shouldn't expose Yue's ability, not this way; it was a terrible repayment for Yue's generosity, to tell half the city something she'd been hiding for years.

But Yue was looking down at her hands, not back at Katara.

"Concerning what?" Chief Arnook said.

"Our visitors from the south," Master Pakku said, bowing the bare minimum in their general direction. "The girl came to me asking for lessons in Waterbending."

Katara was expecting something uncomfortably dramatic—yelling, maybe, or for people to turn their backs, or start throwing food. But there was only a wave of murmurs, a crowd of confused and curious expressions. Katara remembered the look on Master Pakku's face at first, like he thought they were only kidding him, and swallowed.

Chief Arnook turned to her, eyebrows raised. "Is this so?"

Katara made herself stand up, the excellent meal suddenly sitting like a stone in her belly. "It is," she said, voice only wavering a little. "I did ask."

"You are a Waterbender?" said Tuteguk, from Chief Arnook's other side.

"You saw me do it," Katara said, "you must have—I pulled someone off one of your ships with it."

"We thought it was the boy," Tuteguk said to Chief Arnook hurriedly, "he moved at the same time—"

Sokka threw his hands in the air, exasperated. "I was just swinging my oar around; seriously, people, I can't bend—"

"Enough!" Chief Arnook said, bringing a fist down on the high table. "What did she say, Master Pakku?"

Master Pakku waited a long moment, until all eyes were on him. "She said I must," he said at last, scornful, "because she was the Avatar."

More than just murmurs swept the gathering this time; to Katara, it looked like there was approximately an even split between people who were outraged by her presumption and people who simply looked disbelieving.

"Hey," Sokka said, audible over the din only because he was still sitting right next to her feet, and wrapped a hand around her knee. "You are. Bust the place up if you have to. You are."

Katara looked at him for a moment, and then beyond him to Suki, who nodded decisively, and above her, at Aang, who was smiling reassuringly. She turned back to look at Chief Arnook, tipped her chin up, and said, "I am."

Chief Arnook stared at her with narrowed eyes, but he motioned for quiet, and the noise died down. The stillness only lasted a moment before Yue suddenly rose up between them, getting to her feet. "She is," she said, clear-voiced and confident.

Her father looked at her, startled, and then at Master Pakku. "You sound as though you do not believe her," he said neutrally, testing.

"I cannot say," Master Pakku said, but his tone was sharp with disdain. "She spoke to me of things that are long past, of Avatars of legend—impressive enough, I suppose, but I told her it was not for me to determine whether she was truly the one. If she is, and you should wish me to train her, I will abide by your orders; but I will not waste my teachings on a girl without them. That is all."

"And you?" Chief Arnook said to Yue.

"She showed me," Yue said, turning a little; she was still talking to her father, but at this new angle her voice rang out over the gathering like a gong, and the effect was as though she were really speaking to everyone at once. "She speaks to the spirits of past Avatars, and they do as she asks—they tell her things she couldn't know if they were not there. I saw it myself. She is what she says she is." She faced Master Pakku, and, looking at her, Katara was vividly reminded that she was a chief's daughter: she stood tall and imperious, braids like snow draping over her shoulders, her hands tucked in her sleeves. "But no orders are required, Father. She has found another teacher."

"Another teacher?" Master Pakku cried, storming away from his seat and toward the fountain. "Who? Who would agree to do such a thing?"

"I would," Yue said.


***


Master Pakku gaped at her, and Yue had to fight a sudden hysterical urge to smile.

"You would?" Father said incredulously, and over his shoulder, Yue could see Mother staring at her. "What do you mean?"

"The Avatar has asked me to teach her," Yue said, careful to repeat Katara's proper title with the reverence it deserved, "and I have agreed."

"To teach her what?" Master Pakku spat.

Yue looked at him, standing alone and incredulous in front of the fountain, and then over, at all the other startled faces that were turned toward her. Hahn apparently couldn't decide whether he was angry or didn't believe a word of it; Chunyuak and Miktakit were staring at her, open-mouthed, like she had grown a second head; and Tuteguk's jaw was just about in his lap. Yugoda alone only looked resigned, and maybe a little wry, like part of her had been expecting this. And, come to think of it, she had told Yue many times that her talents might lie beyond healing, so perhaps that was not far from the truth.

Yue thought about it for a moment, and decided. If Master Pakku wanted a point to be made here, it would only be polite of her to oblige. So she said nothing; only slid a foot out behind her, dropped her hands into position, and sent a hunk of the ice that formed the high table flying at him. It wasn't quite as smooth as she would have liked—the dishes rattled audibly—but still serviceable.

He was still staring at her, but he lifted his hands reflexively, and the ice sheared in two and skidded past him. By the time one piece had shattered against the lip of the fountain, he had set his feet in a stance, and half the water in the fountain bed was rushing toward her face.

She slid through the gap she had made in the table, and pulled the ice beneath her feet into a snaking path, skimming down it until she reached the base of the slope, on a level with Master Pakku. She coaxed the water he had hurled at her into a controlled curve, and froze it into place just in time—he had used the spare seconds to bend the pieces of her original chunk of ice back at her, and they hit the wall she'd made with a clatter.

When the last of the broken ice was skittering away, she melted her wall again, drawing it effortlessly back into motion—a quick forward curve of her hands, and it leapt at Master Pakku.

He scowled, and thrust his hands up abruptly; the ice beneath his feet pitched and rose, lifting him nearly as high as the spray of water from the fountain, and Yue split her stream in two before she could lose any of it splashing against Master Pakku's impromptu pedestal. Half, she brought curling back into a sphere, for a moment's safekeeping; the other half, she froze into a great boulder of ice, and she flung it at the column Master Pakku had raised with an authoritative sweep of her arm.

The column groaned, cracks splintering through it, and Master Pakku drew up a ramp of ice and leapt to it a moment before pieces of the column began tumbling into the fountain. They were lucky the feasting space was so big, Yue thought, or they would already probably have clipped a few people with the shards of ice flying around. She caught a few of the larger chunks of the column even as they fell, and sent them hurtling toward Master Pakku; he managed to yank the largest of them sideways into a shield, and the others broke against it and showered down like hail.

He was coming down the ramp in a neatly-controlled slide, but she knew better than to let him reach the bottom unimpeded, and she spun her remaining sphere of water out into a wide blade to knock him aside with. But he slid from the end of the ramp just as she swung it toward him, and he froze the end and cracked it apart, sending a dozen long spears of ice back at her.

She braced herself to turn them aside—and then Father shouted, "Stop!", so she leaned back and let them fly overhead instead, to bury themselves, quivering, in the side of the raised path she had bent to take her away from the high table.

It felt like she had just finished a full hour of practice, her heart pounding and her hands tingling with energy; but it must have been less than a minute. All three of their visitors were on their feet, and Father was kneeling with one arm upraised, looking down at her like she was a stranger.

The expression on his face made something in her chest go sickeningly tight; but she tucked her trembling hands back into her sleeves, and bowed to him. "As the chief commands," she said.

"You little—"

"Enough," Father said, and Master Pakku subsided, though he was still glaring at her like he wanted to drown her. Father gazed at her a moment longer, and then turned to Katara. "It is clear that my daughter believes, and by the ways of the Northern Tribe, she is an adult; I cannot presume to know the truth from the little I have seen, but neither can I forbid her from teaching you what she knows if she chooses to do so." He hesitated, and then spoke again. "I understand your reservations, Master Pakku, and I share some of them. You have served Kanjusuk well. But you also cannot stop my daughter from doing as she wishes in this. And even if you could, consider: she seeks to teach the Avatar. If this girl is indeed who she says she is, Yue does the world a great service; and if she is not, then she will gain what skills she can, which does us no harm."

Master Pakku stood without speaking for a long moment, and then, finally, dipped his head. "As the chief commands," he said, and Yue could tell that he meant it, despite the ugly undertone to his voice. He was a man who rarely changed his ways—he would not teach Katara without being ordered to, but he also would not lie to his chief.

Yue let out a quick breath, and the tension behind her ribs eased. She could tell the noise had risen again, people rising from their seats and murmuring incredulously to one another; but she heard it without listening to it, and it sounded about as intelligible to her as the chuckling sound of a stream of water.

"Yue," someone said, low but close by, and took her hand.

It was Mother; she had come down from the high table in the hubbub. Yue looked up into her face, and swallowed.

"I am not pleased that you lied to us," Mother said—but very gently, and the expression on her face was not angry. "And I do not know whether good or ill will come of your skills. But you spoke and acted this evening because you believed, and because what you believed meant it was necessary. That is no small thing, Yue; there are many who cannot say they have done the same. You are a brave girl—a brave woman," Mother corrected herself, and smoothed a fond hand along the fall of Yue's hair. "Whatever comes of these things, I am proud to say that."

"Thank you, Mother," Yue said, and threw her arms around Mother's neck.




Yin glanced across the deck, and frowned. She'd thought that perhaps she hadn't been looking in the right place; but not only was Mizan not next to General Iroh, she was not on deck at all.

"Something wrong, Lieutenant?" Zhao said.

It was a fine day—as far north as they already were, the sun was low even at midday, but the sky ahead of them was clear and blue. He had had a table set up on the main deck of the flagship, and spread out his maps and charts there. He had no up-to-date maps of Kanjusuk—Fire Nation scouts sent out into the North Pole rarely returned alive—but what he did have was better than nothing. He and General Iroh had been poring over them for half the day, discussing options for breaching the great ice walls of the Water Tribe city.

General Iroh's expression did not change a jot, but Yin felt nevertheless that there was a certain intensity to his gaze when he looked at her. It was inconceivable that he could have failed to notice his officer's absence, when he had been so specific in requesting that she be allowed to stay on board. He had to know where she was; and he had not mentioned it to Zhao. Had he—probably rightly—feared that a request for full freedom of movement for her might be denied? Or was he trying to keep Zhao's attention away from her entirely?

Either way, Yin thought, there was no particular reason why she should suddenly start being helpful to Zhao today. "Nothing, sir," she said. "My apologies. My mind was elsewhere."

Zhao smiled; this whole invasion venture was making him almost cheerful. "Of course, of course," he said, "I understand. It is indeed a thrilling prospect, to battle Kanjusuk; I am distracted by it myself."

More like obsessed, Yin thought. "Exactly so, sir," she said.

Zhao turned back to the maps, mouth still faintly upturned; but General Iroh looked at her a moment longer, and then, so barely she might have been imagining it, dipped his chin in a nod.

The Avatar had turned so many things upside down, Yin thought, restraining a sigh. She had done a series of increasingly insane things, and Kishen had not betrayed her for a single one of them, though she still didn't know why; a strange soldier in a spirit mask had saved the Avatar the one time she had been unable to do it herself; and now the Dragon of the West was tacitly thanking her for keeping secrets from her commanding officer—who still technically required her respect, boorish madman though he might be.

"If you will excuse me, sir," she said, "I'll take a moment to survey the deck."

Zhao waved her away, the vast majority of his attention focused on the walls sketched out on the page in front of him, and Yin bowed and stepped away.

As she passed the ship's midsection, Kishen caught her eye; he was standing by the rail, looking across the deck, and when he saw her, he followed her back to the starboard-side stern. He didn't say anything, and neither did she. But it was a comfort to simply have him standing there. Looking back off the stern of the flagship, the view was of dozens of battleships, red banners flapping, and coal-smoke rising in a great dark cloud. Even a legion of ostrich horses could not help her this time; but with Kishen at her shoulder, she felt a little less insignificant in the face of it all—a little less alone.

Chapter Text

"Close," Yue said—but she was using the politely encouraging tone that meant Katara was missing something yet again. Katara sighed and let her arms drop, the water that had been hovering beside her tumbling down to pool on the floor.

"What is it this time?"

"It's only a little—off," Yue said, apologetic.

They had been working together for a week and a half now, and Katara could tell that she was already immensely better than she had been before. But it was just as obvious that she still wasn't a master, and every time she flubbed a move and then had to watch Yue demonstrate it again, graceful and easy, she felt like she might never get there.

"You remember what I told you about jing?" Yue said.

"The potential directions of energy," Katara recited, "and the battle strategies they correspond to. Positive jing is outward motion, advancement, attack; negative jing is inward motion, defense or evasion. Neutral jing is stillness—waiting for the right moment. Waterbending is about ebb and flow, transitioning between positive jing and negative and back again. I remember it, I just can't—" She motioned helplessly.

"Just remembering it isn't everything," Yue said gently, "or everyone would be a master Waterbender in about five minutes." She drew the pool of water up and made it sway beside her, back and forth, with an easy repetitive movement of her hands. "It's like the ocean. Like the legend says—the first Waterbenders learned by watching the moon and the tides, the push and the pull. It won't always be as obvious as this," and Yue let the water slide back to the floor, "but it will always be the guiding principle, the heart of the pattern."

Gran-Gran had told Katara the same legend many times, and she remembered watching Master Pakku and his students perform, remembered seeing the tide-like shift in their motions even before she had any idea there was such a thing as jing. She knew that was what Yue meant; she sighed again, but the swell of frustration had subsided. She still wasn't sure how to pull the same pattern into her own bending, but at least she knew Yue wasn't making things up just to thwart her.

"Time for a rest," Yue said authoritatively, and lifted the water back into her bending pouch. Katara had helped her make it, since there was no way Master Pakku would, and she wore it openly around the city now, the same way the men did. Of course, it seemed perfectly reasonable to Katara, and she might well have forgotten that it was even unusual if it weren't for the way people stared at it when they walked around in the city.

They were practicing in the chief's palace—the same floor Yue had taken them to when she'd first showed them that she could Waterbend—since there was no way they'd be able to work in the same arena where Master Pakku taught. Aang practiced with them sometimes, but he liked to explore the city more. Which wasn't surprising; Katara knew it had to be hard for him, to watch with them and perform the motions alongside them, and move nothing. There was no way it was fun to be constantly reminded that you were technically dead.

Yue sat down, leaning sideways against the balcony rail, and Katara followed suit, glancing over at her thoughtfully. She'd fought Master Pakku so well, and she was always so graceful and composed while they were practicing—Katara sometimes forgot she was Sokka's age. "What does Hahn think?" Yue had mentioned her betrothed a few times, though usually pretty briefly.

"I don't know," Yue admitted. "I haven't spoken to him since."

"In a week and a half?" Katara said.

Yue shot her a look, somewhere between quelling and regretful. "I will marry him," she said, "and without complaint, because it will strengthen our people. His clan only came to shelter in the city last year, because the Fire Nation raided their hunting route; it has been a difficult adjustment for everyone, but a marriage will make our true unity clear." She shrugged one shoulder. "But that doesn't mean we ... talk often." She looked out at the city, and then suddenly smiled. "But my mother is pleased with me."

"She is?"

"I told her what you did—getting the former Avatar to listen to me, and tell you what I said," Yue said. "She believes you are who you say you are now, and she's glad there's someone to teach you, someone who wants to."

"Believe me, so am I," Katara said, grinning, and reached over to squeeze Yue's wrist. "I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't offered."

"Probably cracked an ice floe over Master Pakku's head," Yue said, and giggled. "You looked mad enough to, when you came back to the palace."

"Actually, I feel sort of reassured, now that you bring him up," Katara said. "I mean, if he can master give-and-take, then so can I."

"Of course you can," Yue said, and got to her feet again. "Come on, try again right now, while you're still thinking about it."

Katara made a face, but obediently stood up, and made herself keep thinking about push and pull, moon and ocean—Yue and Hahn, herself and Master Pakku.

She couldn't have pinpointed the difference if her life depended on it, but she could tell it was there as soon as she drew the water from her pouch and started the sequence. There was more sway somehow; she was letting the energy build and fall the way it wanted to, instead of fighting to press it forward all the time, or holding it back.

She lost the rhythm of it partway through, and let the water drop, making a face. But Yue was grinning, and clapped her on the shoulder happily. "That was much better," she said, genuinely encouraging this time. "Now do it again."

Katara raised her arms, took a deep breath, and bent.




"Yes, again," Suki said, and raised her fans.

"But I'm tired," Sokka said mournfully, holding his own pair up like a shield. "Come on, have some pity. I still have all those bruises from yesterday."

"And you earned them, you're getting so much better," Suki said. "You could totally give ten-year-old me a run for her money now."

"... That helps," Sokka said, expression flat, and then, after a long beat, let himself crack a smile. "Come on, it's a nice day and we're on a three-hundred-foot ice wall looking over the ocean. Let's sit back and relax."

Suki made a face at him so he'd know just how reluctant she was, and then shoved her fans into her belt and hurriedly pulled her mittens on. Maybe she'd been working him a little harder than usual, but when they were sparring was just about the only time she felt warm. Yue had lent her a parka, of course, but it was still incredibly cold. She didn't know how a whole city of people could live in a place like this.

Sokka sat down on the parapet easily, even though it was made of ice. If she asked him about it, she bet he'd say it was the tiger sealskin pants, but she had a pair on, too, and she still didn't want to sit on ice.

But there was nowhere else to sit; so she did, and then, on a whim, scooted closer, until they were touching almost all the way from shoulders to knees.

"Uh," Sokka said.

Suki let herself grin a little. "It's really, really cold here," she said.

"Yeah," Sokka said immediately, "it, uh. Yeah."

She chuckled and shook her head at the same time, and let her shoulder relax a little further into Sokka. Maybe she had a bit of an ulterior motive, but he really was pretty warm. "You're so articulate," she said, still smiling, and looked at him; he was staring back at her, wide-eyed. "I like that."

"You do," Sokka repeated cautiously, and shifted his knee over, testing, like he was expecting her to jump up and run away.

Suki beamed at him, and then turned to look back out over the city. "I do," she said.


***


It only took about five minutes after that for Katara and Yue to come strolling along the walltop, and Sokka had to admit he was a little grateful for it—something about being alone with Suki was suddenly making it really difficult for him to form complete sentences.

Suki saw them first, and grinned, waving a hand in greeting. "Aren't you guys supposed to be practicing?" she called out.

"We're taking a break!" Katara said. They came closer, and Sokka waited for Suki to shift away; but she didn't move an inch, and something in his chest turned over unsteadily.

Katara came to a stop a few feet away, Yue only a step behind, and raised her eyebrows at him, one side of her mouth twitching up. But she didn't say anything about it, so he didn't either—he just rubbed a hand over the nape of his neck and cleared his throat. "So," he said instead, "are you a master yet?"

Katara shrugged. "I'm closer than I was last week," she said, a little ruefully, and Yue elbowed her.

"Ignore her, she's doing wonderfully," Yue said. "She was already very good, and she's only getting better."

Katara made a face and shook her head, but there was a tiny pleased smile threatening to break free from the corners of her mouth, and Sokka grinned at her unrepentantly. It had torn at her so much, to feel like she didn't know what she was doing when lives were depending on her—it was a relief to see her looking so happy with herself.

Suki laughed next to him, the vibration thrumming through his shoulder, and then suddenly twitched back. "Oh—I thought it was a bug," she said, and lifted her mittened hand.

"What, some kind of cold-hardy ice bug?" Sokka said, and then went still. It wasn't quite a snowflake that was resting on Suki's palm—it was tinged a deep gray-black. He met Katara's eyes, which had gone suddenly grave, and they both looked out over the ocean, because they knew what that meant.

Really, they were lucky—the wind was blowing just the right direction to give them early warning. There were no ships on the horizon, not yet, but there was a low dark cloud; Sokka had thought before that it only meant a storm, but now it was obvious.

"What is it?" Suki said, her free hand tight on his shoulder.

"Fire Nation ships," Sokka said, "a fleet. This happened at home—the coal-smoke made it snow black."

"They've come for me," Katara said, every trace of a smile wiped from her face; but Yue caught at her arm.

"They've come for us," she said firmly, "and thanks to you, we'll have time to prepare."




Mizan had never been much of a tea drinker, but her ambivalence was rapidly transforming into hatred—General Iroh seemed to pour her a cup every time she turned around, like he thought plying her with it would keep her from yelling at Zhao.

To be fair, it actually sort of had so far; it was distracting, trying to figure out how to get rid of it without being insulting. Still, if she got handed one more brimming cup of ginseng she hadn't asked for, she was going to take the teapot and throw it at Iroh's head.

Well, no, probably she wouldn't. But she might throw it at Zhao's.

There was a reason she had never officially made an especially high rank, even before she'd been shunted onto the vessel designated to ferry Zuko off into exile, and it wasn't because she was a poor fighter or a poor sailor. She didn't see the point in insults so veiled no one could see them, and it was no good being smart enough to notice that people were acting like idiots if you couldn't also tell them so.

And it worked well, on Zuko's ship; after the things they had been through sailing the far reaches of the world for three full years—nearly four, now—formality and diplomacy were something of a lost cause. She was polite to Zuko and Iroh, certainly, but she was also used to letting them know exactly what she thought and why she thought it. Apparently, Mizan thought darkly, exile had been her ideal career path.

"It must bother you," she said aloud.

The lieutenant leaning against the rail an armslength away straightened up, and blinked. "What must bother me?" she said.

"Him," Mizan said, tilting her head to indicate Zhao. He was standing off in front of the bridge, poring over his charts, and occasionally pausing to yell at people.

The lieutenant's eyes flicked from Mizan to Zhao and back. "I couldn't say," she said delicately.

A resounding yes if Mizan had ever heard one. "And you just—put up with it?"

The lieutenant pursed her lips, glancing across the deck again. "Hypothetically speaking," she said, "if I happened to be under the command of an officer with whom I perenially disagreed, I might find there were ways to compensate. Usually," she added, looking back at the lines of ships to stern. "Such an officer's focus might, hypothetically, be quite narrow. He—if the officer were, for the sake of example, a man—might see mostly what he wished to see. 'When you are sad, nothing looks cheerful.'" The lieutenant's mouth quirked. "Hypothetically, I might find myself taking refuge in works of philosophy."

Clearly, she was naturally even-tempered—not a trait to which Mizan could lay claim. Still, Mizan couldn't argue that it hadn't worked for her; she was the one on the flagship of an imperial fleet because she belonged there, not because her ship had been halfway blown up and then pressed into service. "Your hypothetical officer is lucky. You're a more loyal lieutenant than I would be, under the same circumstances."

The lieutenant turned her face away and coughed, an oddly laugh-like sound. "I'm not sure that's the way I'd put it," she said, when she had recovered; and then she slanted a glance at Mizan, and leaned a little closer. "For example, if I had noticed an honored guest's companion went missing a few times a day, I might have forgotten to mention it to him. Hypothetically."

Mizan stared at her. "Hypothetically," she repeated.

The lieutenant smiled, very faintly.

"What's your name again?"

"Yin," the lieutenant said.

"Yin," Mizan echoed. "From the eastern islands, then?"

Lieutenant Yin had opened her mouth to reply when a lookout cried, "The walls!" and they both turned automatically to look out across the water. "The walls of Kanjusuk!" he shouted again. And, sure enough, there was a distinct regularity to the furthest edge of the ice cliffs, if Mizan squinted.

Lieutenant Yin shot her a grim look. "Time for you to go missing again, I'm guessing," she said.

"And you'd be right," Mizan said, turning away. Zuko was going to want to know they were almost there. At least when they got there, she thought, General Iroh might stop trying to drown her in tea.


***


The sound of the great warning drums rolled over the city like thunder, and by the time they had come down from the wall and reached the great public hall of the palace, it was full of people, all murmuring worriedly to each other. It had been a long time since the last attack by the Fire Nation—but not so long that anyone had forgotten the stories.

Father pounded his pike against the ice, and the drums rumbled to a halt, the whole hall going still. "The day we have feared for so long has arrived," he said, face somber as he looked out at them. "The Fire Nation is once again at our doorstep. I will not deceive you: the Fire Nation is a powerful foe, and many lives will be lost in the coming days. I mourn to think that even one of the faces before me now will not grace my eyes again; but those who vanish from our halls will never vanish from our hearts. We will remember." He paused, and, for a moment, the hall was absolutely silent.

Then Mother stepped up beside him. "We call upon the great spirits in our hour of need," she said, and in the quiet of the hall, her voice was clear and audible even though she had barely raised it. "Tui and La, Moon and Ocean, our teachers and companions, be with us."

A moment ago, Yue would've said Father's expression could not have gotten any more grave; but it did. "Among our battle plans, there is a mission whose success might save us all—but only those who volunteer may go. There are many reasons a man might choose to stay on a safer path, and no one need feel ashamed for any of them."

Tuteguk stepped forward immediately; so did Hahn, Yue saw. Mother held the bowl of paint, and Father daubed each of their foreheads in turn with three waving lines.

"I'll go," Sokka said next to her. Katara clutched his arm, mouth open; but at the look on his face, she closed it again, and simply squeezed his elbow. They weren't far from the dais, and it took him only a few steps before he was standing in front of Father.

Yue thought later that she must have somehow known it was coming, because she turned to look at Suki before the girl had even moved at all. But move she did, and before anyone had time to object, she was waiting calmly by Father's elbow.

Father stared at her, and she looked back evenly, not petulant or arrogant, only sure of herself. His fingers were hovering in the air between them, wet with fresh war-paint, and he hesitated for a long moment.

"You can't be serious," Hahn said loudly, and Yue stifled the urge to sigh.

Suki didn't look at him—didn't even acknowledge that he had spoken. She kept her eyes on Father, and waited.

Father glanced at Hahn, but said nothing; he looked again at Suki, and then, startlingly, at Yue. And then he drew in a breath, and set his fingers to Suki's forehead. "We cannot turn away any aid, certainly not when it is so generously offered," he said, sliding his fingers toward the bridge of Suki's nose to form the appropriate lines. When he was finished, Suki moved away, joining the line of volunteers next to Sokka.

The pause grew long, and for a moment Yue thought that perhaps no one else would step up, the perceived shame of volunteering after a woman too great to bear. But Miktakit's oldest brother, Kilurak, bit his lip and climbed to the dais; the skin of his cheeks showed a faint red flush, but he held still for the lines Father marked on his forehead, and then went and stood next to Suki, and left only a handswidth between them.


*


In the end, there were nine volunteers—there might have been more, but Father stopped after Utanut, saying the mission was one of stealth, and more warriors would only hinder it, however skilled they might be. Tuteguk led them toward the palace, and Suki shot Yue and Katara one last smile before they hurried away.

"We also hope to thin their numbers before they reach us," Father said, when it was quiet again and he had wiped his fingers clean of paint. He turned to Yue; she was fairly certain she was the only one aside from Mother who could have detected the faint traces of uncertainty in his face. "Here, also, our need is dire—"

"Do not do this," Master Pakku said, almost a groan. "Is our shame not great enough already?"

Mother took a step forward, anger etched deeply on her face. "Our need is greater," she said, very even. "And there is no shame in accepting the assistance of the Avatar. My daughter is an accomplished bender—surely that has been demonstrated beyond a doubt. And our sister from the south grows more skilled daily." Mother paused, eyes narrowing. "Tell me, Pakku: if you dangled from a cliff's edge, would you refuse a helping hand because I, not my husband, offered it to you?"

Master Pakku's mouth thinned, and he made no answer.

"You heard of the ships from the south, as we all did," Mother said. "You were told of the women who sailed on them—"

"Ah, yes, it has done wonders for the Southern Tribe, having their women fight," Master Pakku spat, and turned his gaze along the dais until he found Katara. "Tell me, then: how many of you are left, now?"

Katara's eyes went hard. "I wouldn't be alive today, if it weren't for my mother's skill with a knife," she said. "She gutted the soldiers who came to kill me when I was a child. Three of whom were women. Tell me, then: have you forgotten that those wonders were done to us by the Fire Nation, whose women are captains and generals?"

"Oh, a fine argument," Master Pakku said, "yes; let us do as the Fire Nation does, we could ask for no better model of righteousness."

"Today is not a day for philosophy," Father said, wry, before Katara could snap back. "If my daughter's defense of her home and people should give me the urge to invade the Earth Kingdoms, you must trust me to suppress it for a time. All our Waterbenders must go to hinder the coming of their fleet—all. I will not devote less than my full strength to the preservation of this city, and neither will my daughter; if you feel you cannot say the same, Master Pakku, tell me so."

Master Pakku stared at him for a long moment, and then, reluctantly, tipped his head the barest degree. "They must follow my orders," he said, "I cannot do with less."

"Their orders must be just," Father countered, but he caught Yue's eye, and she nodded in response. She would do as Master Pakku said, in a battle with the fate of the city at stake; and so would Katara, Yue was certain, even if she wasn't going to like doing it very much.

Master Pakku's lips pinched in distaste, but he bowed. "To the boats, then," he said.




Tuteguk led them around to the side of the palace, into a moderately large room that had clearly been put together with military mission preparations in mind; Suki was intending to take a good look around, but Hahn rounded on her the moment she crossed the threshold.

She'd never spoken to him herself, but Yue had pointed him out a few times—never, Suki had noticed, with an especially warm expression on her face. She suspected she was about to learn why.

"Just what do you think you're playing at?"

"Playing at?" Suki looked a little more carefully at his face. "You—you're that boy I hit with my oar, aren't you? How long did the bruise last?"

Hahn's scowl darkened.

"Probably a while," Sokka said, "if it was anything like the ones I get from you."

"You fight her?" one of the other warriors said, incredulous.

"Yeah, of course I do," Sokka said breezily. "When I've got a club, we're probably about even; but I've won twice with the fans, so far."

"One and a half times," Suki allowed.

Hahn snorted. "Fans?" he said, and gave Sokka a disdainful look. "I'm starting to think we shouldn't let either of them fight."

"Is that so," Suki said, already crouched low; and when he turned to look for her, she swung a leg around in a wide arc and knocked his feet out from under him.

To his credit, he recovered quickly; he didn't flail in surprise, only twisted to catch himself on his forearm, and then sprang back up. She considered pulling out her fans—but he was unarmed, and he'd be angry enough if she beat him as it was.

So she used her hands and feet instead. He was decent at blocking, but slower than Sokka had been, even at the beginning, and he kept forgetting to keep track of her legs—of course, if he was used to fighting with the pike the Northern Tribe seemed to favor, Suki thought, then he didn't usually have to. Still, it was a respectable thirty seconds before she managed to pin him down with a knee on his chest and lay a forearm across his throat.

"Satisfied yet?" she said.

He tried to shove her off, somewhat less than effectively; she waited it out, and then pressed her arm down just a little harder.

"You did better than I did the first time, if that helps," Sokka said from above her, grin wide in the corner of her eye.

Hahn blew out a breath, and grudgingly dropped his hands to the floor. "Enough," he said.

She let go of him and stood up, brushing loose hair out of her face. "Everybody else happy, or do I have to fight the other six of you, too?"

"You could not beat us all," Tuteguk said.

"No, probably not," Suki admitted. "But neither could he," and she nodded to Hahn, who was still picking himself up off the floor. "Probably none of you could beat seven in a row without a rest, so obviously that's not the qualification I'm lacking."

"No qualification is required," Chief Arnook said from the doorway, "except your willingness to help us."

He had an excellent stern glare; Suki almost ducked her head in the face of it, even though he wasn't directing it at her.

"Now, if we are finished with this, I will explain the purpose of your mission," he said.

Chief Arnook kept speaking; but she missed the first part, because Sokka leaned over to murmur in her ear. "Just so you know," he said, "that was totally beautiful," and Suki was hard-pressed not to grin.


***


The mission was simple enough, at least in the abstract: find the flagship, get on it, find the fleet commander, and kill whoever it was. And it made decent sense—somebody had to coordinate the attack, and if that person were suddenly dead, it would be a pretty unpleasant blow.

It was the uniforms Sokka couldn't handle. Although, in retrospect, he should have found a better way to let Chief Arnook know it. Laughing out loud had been kind of impolite.

Chief Arnook raised an eyebrow. "You have a suggestion, perhaps?" he said, very dryly.

Sokka held up his hands defensively, but Suki elbowed him—obviously she'd noticed it, too. "Well, sort of," he said. "It's just that your uniforms are all wrong. And I mean all wrong." He stepped forward and reached out to flick the shoulderpiece of the uniform Chief Arnook was hefting. "Fire Nation uniforms don't have these points on the shoulders anymore. And the buckles are different. The helmet—" He made a face. "Totally off. Where did you even get these?"

"They were captured, in the last great battle in the city," Chief Arnook said. "The northern raiders who plague those clans who still wander the ice wear other uniforms, nothing like the navy—so we have saved these."

"Okay, and when was that?" Sokka said, exceedingly patient.

"When my father was young," Chief Arnook admitted. "At least seventy years' time."

"I knew it," Sokka said. Nobody ever seemed to think about these things but him. "Look, unless the plan is to make them think they're having visions of the spirits of their ancestors, we need to make some serious changes to those."

"How can we know you're telling the truth?" Hahn snapped.

"Um, hello?" Sokka said. "I'm going on this mission, too—if I screw this up, I get just as dead as you do."

Chief Arnook bowed his head in acknowledgement. "A fair point," he said. "Very well. Tell us what to do."




Zuko took a deep breath and stared down at the frothing wake below him.

This part of the plan had been about the same since the beginning—and the part Mizan had disparaged the most, because, as she put it, after Zuko paddled through the choppy arctic water to the edge of the giant ice cliffs, all he had to do was find a way to get inside walls that had kept the Fire Nation out over the course of a full century of war.

And he remembered every point he had made in reply—how else did she expect him to get in, anyway? He had no uniform, and on a flagship in motion, one going missing would likely prompt a thorough search.

It was just that he had been a deck over the boiler for a week and a half, and the water looked awfully cold.

"Your bending can warm you, Prince Zuko," Uncle said, like he had heard Zuko thinking. "It may save your life—do not forget."

"I won't, Uncle," Zuko said.

"And keep low, those clothes will only help you hide once you are on the ice."

"I know, Uncle," Zuko said.

"And be—" Uncle paused, swallowing. "Be careful, Zuko, please. Forgive an old man's self-delusion: I have often thought of you—"

"Uncle, you don't have to—"

"Please," Uncle Iroh said, very low, and Zuko closed his mouth. "I have often thought of you as another son to me. I cannot lose two."

Zuko cleared his throat, closing his eyes. It was terribly distracting when Uncle got maudlin; the annoyance of it was making Zuko's chest clench. "You won't," he said. Weakness, almost certainly, but there was no one to see it but Uncle; so he let himself turn and clasp Uncle's arm above the elbow. "I'll come back. With the Avatar," he added. It would not do to lose sight of his goal, not when he was once again so close.

Uncle helped him lower himself in the little canoe—his own, he had brought it with him to the ship, so its absence would not be noticed—and when it finally settled into the water, he undid the ties. Uncle would haul the ropes back up and return them to their proper places, and, with any luck, no one would know any of this had happened. Not until it was too late.

The chop of the water actually helped him, in a certain sense: it was far harder to paddle than it might have been on a less windy day, but he was not the only small patch of white near the ship, with all the froth. He let the canoe move with the waves, instead of simply paddling straight away from the ship, until he had safely reached the edge of the fleet. It truly was an impressive force, and if he had not known who commanded it, he might have been proud to see such a fine array of Fire Nation ships mustered.

The ice cliffs near Kanjusuk were not uniformly sheer and even. There were nooks and crannies; ice floes that once had been free but had frozen on; slopes that had melted into a slant some sunny day and refrozen that way.

They were, however, uniformly infested with turtle seals, and Zuko had to literally sweep the ice clear to get out of the canoe, shoving honking turtle seals aside with the end of his paddle.

He hauled the canoe up onto the ice with him, and melted part of the nearest cliffside away until he could fit the canoe into it—it would be hidden, there, and unless the turtle seals banded together to throw it into the sea, it would be safe from wind and water until he returned for it.

He had to shove more of them out of the way to get a good look along the ice wall at the city in the distance; four were irritated enough to slide grumpily into the ocean, and two more hurried away down a hole in the ice.

A hole in the ice. Zuko turned back around in time to see a third dive. None of them came back up—there had to be another end.

Zuko hesitated. There was a degree of depth that did not frighten him, because he could always melt the ice above him away; but too deep, and he would not be able to rise above the level of the water before his breath was gone. So close, he reminded himself firmly, and inhaled.


***


"As your advisor," General Iroh said, "let me advise you, Sub-Admiral: it would be unwise to continue our advance after sundown."

Yin closed her eyes in relief. Someone had had to say it, and she had been hoping it wouldn't be her; she had been walking a tightrope with Zhao for so long, she hadn't been looking forward to giving herself a good shove.

They had done well today, coming in close to the city with no great mishaps, the largest of the free icebergs carefully avoided. The Northern Tribe's chief had sent Waterbenders out to slow them, and they had, to some degree; but perhaps thirty ships constituted no great loss to a mind like Zhao's, and certainly not when the fleet numbered in the hundreds. But this late in the year, and as far north as they were, the sun was close to down already, and the moon near full—not exactly ideal conditions for an attack on a city full of Waterbenders.

But now that the general had broached the subject, she thought, it would be unbecoming not to tell Zhao that she agreed wholeheartedly. "Sir," she said, "the general is entirely correct—"

"Yes, yes, of course he is," Zhao said, so affably that Yin could feel her eyes widening; and then, even more disturbingly, he laughed. "He is, though he does not yet fully understand why. There is a greater plan at work, General, more than simple battle tactics. As it happens, however, your advice suits both, for the moment."

Yin thought it unlikely that Zhao could have managed to sound more ominous to her ears if he had been trying, though it was possible the man had unplumbed depths. She glanced at General Iroh; it was obvious that he felt a similar sense of foreboding, but then Zhao turned to him and the expression smoothed away like it had never been there, wariness replaced neatly by a look of polite inquiry.

"Perhaps I will tell you the tale tonight," Zhao said, still jovial, "and you'll see just what I mean."




Katara took the hand Sokka offered, and let him pull her off the boat—she had never bent for so long before, except perhaps during their long escape to Shinsotsu, and her arms and legs were having a fair amount of trouble doing what she asked them to. Yue was still too graceful to wobble on her way off; but she did sit down as soon as they were on level ground, and Katara followed suit gratefully, Aang drifting down beside her.

Sokka and Suki looked at them hopefully; Katara glanced at Yue, and saw her own exhaustion mirrored on Yue's face. "We did the best we could," she said quietly, scrubbing a hand across her forehead. And it was true, they had—even Master Pakku had not complained about their progress. But they'd still only made the barest dent. Katara made a face. Calling it a dent might even have been a little bit too generous. "There are just so many of them."

"You mean dozens," Suki said, "or—"

"Hundreds," Yue said. "Perhaps even a thousand—I doubt we could see them all from where we were."

"We got close to the flagship once," Katara said. "It's Zhao."

She closed her eyes after she said it, and tipped her head forward, letting the silence grow. She'd been so stupid, thinking that getting to Kanjusuk would solve all her problems—she should have known it would never be that simple. She wondered grimly how Zhao had done it. Had he told the Fire Lord she was here, or had he just taken the fleet and come for her on his own authority?

Someone's hand came down on her wrist, and she looked up—it was Yue. "Even if he is here because of you," Yue said, "they would have come for us one day. And I, at least, am glad that if they had to come, they did it on a day when the Avatar is with us." She paused, and something in her face came suddenly alight. "Yes—of course," she said, "why didn't I think of it sooner?"

"Of what?" Katara said.

"The spirits," Yue said. "There is a place in the city where they hear our voices most clearly. You are the Avatar, they might hear you best—perhaps you could even pass across the border of worlds, in such a place. You could find them, and bring them here to help us."

Katara started to shake her head, but Aang had jumped up beside her. "I could help you meditate," he said, "the monks trained all of us to do it for hours and hours. It couldn't hurt anything—don't you think we should at least try?"

When he put it like that, Katara thought, it was hard to argue with him. "All right," she said. "Show me where it is."

Sokka and Suki leapt up to follow them, but before they had gone more than a handful of steps, the city drums pounded out three rolling beats. "The mission," Sokka said, looking torn. "It's leaving at first dark."

"Go, go," Katara said, shoving at his shoulder. "No spirit would come to me while you were around anyway, you're so loud."

"For a reincarnation of an ancient symbol of balance, you're really hilarious," Sokka said, and punched her affectionately in the arm. "Don't break the spirit world while we're gone."

He grabbed Suki's hand, and they sprinted off together toward the side of the palace.

"Come on," Yue said, tugging Katara up the steps. "Quickly!"


***


The Fire Nation armor might have been fixed to look appropriately new, but it showed its age in a dozen other small ways, and it was a struggle to get the musty plating to stay in place. It felt odd, too, to go to battle wearing red, and with her face covered by a helmet instead of paint—her forehead felt far too light without her headdress.

It was almost as strange to look at the Fire Nation soldier next to her, and have the faceplate slide away to reveal Sokka. "Seventy-year-old Fire Nation army sweat," he said, making a face. "Fantastic."

Because there were only nine of them, they needed a single boat, and Chief Arnook had had one prepared, stained almost black so that it would blend in with the water, which was dark as pitch now that the sun had set.

It didn't take long to find the fleet's flagship—Suki knew the Fire Nation didn't always see much point in subtlety, but the banners that hung from the bridge were almost twice as wide as usual, and the deck fairly blazed with light.

They came up near the stern, and the four among them who could Waterbend made short work of the sentries on the lower rear deck, without making much more noise than waves against the hull. It was easy enough to pass through the rest of the ship, disguised as they were—it might have helped if they had been able to plan their route beforehand, but even as it was, they only took two or three wrong turns.

They reached the main deck still nine strong, and paused by the bridge to regroup—and it was a lucky thing they did, or they might never have heard Zhao.

"Indeed," he said loudly, and Suki flattened herself against the wall reflexively. But it seemed to be the middle of a shift, everyone on the deck settled at their posts; and Zhao had apparently been going on in this vein for quite some time, because no one so much as looked over. "The library itself. Damned curious thing—I've never been able to find it again, no matter where I look. But then I suppose I found everything I needed the first time through."

"Begging your pardon, sir," said a careful voice, "but what exactly was it you found?"

The sound of it was distinctly familiar—Suki hadn't talked to her as much as Katara had, and had only the faint memory from Jindao to guide her, but she was fairly certain that it was Lieutenant Yin, purported liberator of ostrich horses.

"Nothing less," Zhao said, clearly relishing every syllable, "than the location of the moon and ocean spirits."

They all knew better than to gasp aloud, but Suki's shoulder was pressed up next to Sokka's, and she could feel him draw a sharp breath.

"Both reside in the mortal world," Zhao continued, "but it is the moon spirit which most draws my interest. The ocean does not concern me; but the moon inspires the power of Waterbenders. My search through the library enlightened me as to its form, and with that knowledge in hand, it will be a simple matter to destroy it." He laughed. "Peculiar, is it not, to think that a spirit of such power would choose to chain itself to a body so easy to kill?"

"Illuminating, I think," said a third voice, another man's, very warily. "That the moon and ocean spirits should care so deeply for the mortal world as to become a part of it, despite the risks, speaks of a love that should not be underestimated."

"Love," Zhao said, tone amused. "The greatest weakness of all, if it brings even the spirits low."

"Sir, surely you cannot intend to—to kill the moon?" Lieutenant Yin sounded almost exactly the way Suki felt: like the idea was so anathema she could barely put it into words.

"On the contrary, Lieutenant, you have grasped the idea precisely." Zhao chuckled. "We have withdrawn from our attack, as you both advised—and as the Water Tribe undoubtedly expected. The full moon tonight gives them great strength, and they will not be on their guard until the morning. Of course, when we move into the city, even in the middle of the night it will not take long for them to muster their forces against us, and it will be a difficult battle. But once the moon is dead, their powers will leave them, and the city will be ours."

"What are we waiting for?" Hahn hissed. "Let's kill him and be done with it!"

Sokka dropped low next to Suki, and inched back into the corridor. "We have to tell Chief Arnook," he argued. "There's two other people in there—what if they shout an alarm before we can kill them, too? We're on a flagship in the middle of the fleet; if we all die, who's going to warn the city?"

"If everybody in there dies, that'll be the end of it!" Hahn snapped.

"We do not know that," Tuteguk murmured. "What if he has already given orders to another group of soldiers—made it a secret mission, like ours? We cannot be certain."

"If none of you are going to—"

Suki was already shuffling back, but she had lost him in the dark—she'd needed him to say one more thing before she could aim well enough to crack a fan against the back of his skull. He dropped like a rock; but she'd touched Sokka's shoulder on her way past, and Sokka caught him before his body could thump against the deck.

"Girl, what are you—"

"Look," Suki whispered, before Tuteguk could finish, "I know Chief Arnook ordered us to complete this task. But the situation's different now—we know something he didn't know when he sent us out here. We can split up, take the boat back to warn the city and kill Zhao at the same time; but that means leaving some of us to die on this ship, and I don't like that. We can all go back. Or we can all fight Zhao. What we couldn't have done was let this idiot run in there by himself and get all of us killed."

Her eyes were starting to adjust to the dark, now that she was further from the lit window of the bridge, and she met each warrior's eyes in turn. "So. Time to choose."




Yue took them back behind the palace, about as close to the wild ice as it was possible to get, and showed them a small door set into the wall. "We call it the Spirit Oasis," she said, and pushed the door open.

The air that billowed from behind it was oddly warm—not the blazing heat of a Fire Nation boiler, but more like a gently exhaled breath than the usual chill wind of the north.

Katara edged inside, Aang following through the wall to her left, and almost immediately pulled her parka off; the peculiar warmth of the place was even more obvious on the other side of the wall. There was a lake in front of her, with a circle of grass in the middle that somehow managed not to look out of place. Yue led her along a path of ice, and across one of the two small bridges to the island of green—there was another pool in the middle, this one moon-round, and a gate on the far side of it.

"This is amazing," Katara said, utterly sincere.

Yue smiled. "We are told it is where the spirits live," she said. "This is where my parents took me, when I was a baby. They held me in the water and begged for my life, and after a moment, my hair turned white, and I cried for the first time."

"I can believe it," Katara said, kneeling down and dipping a hand reverently into the water. It was warm to the touch, and seemed different: smoother, perhaps. It was like the essence of water, somehow more watery than water itself. She glanced across the pool, smiling—there were even fish in it. "If there's anywhere I can get to the spirit world, this is it."


*


"Deep breaths. But not too deep. And even—don't hold them or anything, but make them long."

Katara pressed her lips together tightly, so that nothing unkind could escape, and tried to take a not-too-deep, even, long-but-unheld breath.

At first, it had been a pleasure to sit down on the soft grass and close her eyes; but Aang insisted on utter stillness, and the longer she sat there, the more irritations she could feel. Something was poking her in the ankle, and one of the seams of her shirt was itching fiercely. There was something wrong with her hair, too—one of the beads had snared a strand somehow, and it was starting to hurt.

"Aang—"

"Transcend it," Aang intoned over her shoulder.

Katara clenched her teeth.

Aang drifted forward until he was looking her in the eye, and grinned at her, just a touch ruefully. "Monk Gyatso used to tell me that all the time. He made me do this while I was sitting on tree roots, once, and right when I almost had it, he threw a fruit pie at my head." He shook his head at the memory. "I was so angry—I waited a whole week to get him back, and when I did, he just opened his eyes, scooped some of the filling off his face, and ate it."

Katara smiled despite herself.

"I'm sorry," Aang said, a little abashed, "I meant it to help. But you can do it; really, I should stop talking, and you shouldn't try so hard. Just—transcend."

"But how can I if I'm doing it wrong?" Katara said.

"The only way to do it wrong," Aang said, "is not to try."

"Monk Gyatso tell you that, too?" she asked.

Aang beamed.

Katara sighed, and unfolded herself for a minute, scratching her shoulder and readjusting her hair. And then she tucked her legs back together and brought her hands into position, sucked in a breath, closed her eyes, and made herself let go.


*


She had no idea how long it took—probably half the reason it had worked at all, she thought, was because she'd stopped worrying about the passage of time. But when she opened her eyes again, she was sitting on a round wooden platform, beneath a gate that looked just like the one she'd left behind in the Spirit Oasis; and Aang was next to her.

He looked incredibly different when he wasn't blue all over—it was like looking at a stranger, until he turned and grinned at her. His arrow tattoos were actually blue, his skin relatively pale, and his clothes were warm shades of red and yellow; his knees were actually touching the platform, his trousers creasing against the wood instead of just curving through it.

Somehow, she was still surprised when her fingers actually met his shoulder.

"Katara," he said, laughing, and threw his arms around her neck; she remembered every time she'd ever wished she could touch him, and clung back.

"Okay, enough of this, we're here for a reason," she said after a long moment, squeezing his shoulder one more time before she let go.

"Right, right," Aang said, "time to find some spirits."

The platform was in the middle of a swamp—a spirit-swamp, Katara reminded herself, but somehow the fact that it was spirit-water didn't make it any less slimy when she dipped a foot in.

"Watch your step," someone called.

It only took a moment to figure out who; aside from a tall white bird glaring at them with suspicious eyes from a few yards away, the only figure around that wasn't a tree was seated on a little island not far away. Island was a generous word—a hillock, more like, that rose unevenly out of the muck of the swamp.

"It's some kind of monkey," Aang said as they splashed laboriously closer, and indeed it was, brown-skinned and white-furred, and dressed like a monk. Its eyes were closed, and it was seated in a meditative position—but it cracked one eye open as they neared it, peering out, and then hurriedly closed it again.

"Excuse me," Katara said, "but are you the one who said that?"

The monkey cracked an eye open again. "Can't you see I'm trying to concentrate?" it demanded.

"We can," Katara said, "and we won't go away and leave you to it until you answer our questions."

"I was just warning you," the monkey huffed. "Old Manyu gets bored these days, you never know what she might do next."

"Never mind that," Aang said. "Do you know where the moon and the ocean live? We need to find them."

The monkey pursed its lips. "Psh—you've already got all the help you need for that," he said. "Now go away and stop bothering me!"

"All the help we need—" Katara started, annoyed, and then there was a sudden whoosh behind her, and Aang whirled around.

"Appa!" he said.

The sky bison groaned, landing in the swamp with a splash. It was enormous—wild herds still flew over the pole now and then, but Katara had never seen one so close up.

"Hey, buddy," Aang said fondly, scratching around the creature's nose, and then leapt up, a rush of air lifting him over the curve of the bison's head. "Come on, Katara! Appa must know where we need to go."

The bison—Appa—had a saddle on his back, with a wide, low-hanging lip; Katara splashed around his side until she could grab it. He heaved a deep breath, and she almost backed away and told Aang to go without her. But he whuffed it back out without so much as snapping at her, and she pulled herself up without a single mishap. "This is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me," she said.

"The absolute strangest?" Aang said.

"... One of the strangest," Katara amended.

Aang laughed, and stroked the fur over one of the bison's eyes affectionately. "Yip-yip, Appa!" he said, and the bison rumbled somewhere deep in his chest and launched himself into the air.




Yue glanced at the sky. It had been at least an hour since Katara's eyes had suddenly opened and begun to glow blue-white; now her body was still and vacant in the middle of the Spirit Oasis, and the moon was starting to rise higher.

It was quiet, here, and it would have been unsettling to stand alone in the night with Katara's empty body if the Spirit Oasis hadn't been what it was. But the whole place exuded a strange sort of peace. Even the turtle seals bobbing in the water beyond the island seemed to feel it, paddling quietly instead of honking and fighting the way they so often did.

Yue smiled at them. Master Pakku probably would have been horrified to see wild animals swimming freely so near the sacred water; but somehow Yue doubted that the spirits themselves minded the company.

She watched them for a moment, and then frowned. There was an odd glow beneath them, too red to be a reflection of the moon caught in the water—far too red, red like fire.

Yue stood warily; the glow was growing brighter, and now there was something pale in the water, but it was no reflection.


***


Zuko burst up through the surface of the water, gasping. The turtle seals had found an impressive complex of caves beneath the ice, and several times along the way he had been able to walk upright past vast rivers of water. But this last tunnel had been long, and the end too narrow for his shoulders; he had had to melt the ice away with his bending before he could pass through it, and his vision had been flickering at the edges during the last few moments.

But he was alive. He was a decent swimmer—by necessity, or Azula would probably have drowned him a dozen times over by now—but not exceptional; so he didn't bother trying to drift and wipe his face at the same time. He turned and struck out for whatever ice wall behind him the tunnel had come from, and clung to a convenient edge while he rubbed the water from his eyes. He bent, too—only a little, enough to send energy coursing to the tips of his fingers and toes, enough to make his chilly skin steam a little. The cold had been unrelenting, but Uncle had been right: Firebending warmed like nothing else.

He turned, then, and it took him a moment to understand what he was looking at. The grass caught his eye first—incongruous, to see such a thing amidst the ice of the north, and he was still wondering at it when he realized the girl sitting on the grass was none other than the Avatar.

Her eyes were open, shining with that hard pale light he remembered from Kyoshi Island, and the plaza in Jindao; but she wasn't moving, not even a twitch. She was simply sitting there, hands in loose fists with the knuckles lined up, and even though she was clearly still breathing, something about her posture or the blank look on her face spoke of absence.

"Who are you?" someone said, sharp and wary, and the sound made Zuko yank his gaze from the Avatar.

There was another girl on the grass, though this one was standing, and her hair was as white as ice. She was dressed in the blue and white of the Water Tribes, and she was standing in a bending stance by the Avatar's side, eyeing him suspiciously.

"I am here for the Avatar," Zuko snapped. "Stand aside, and there will be no need for me to harm you."


***


Yue stared at him. A single Firebender, alone in the deepest heart of the city late on the night of a full moon, and he was threatening her?

She peered at him a little more closely. Long hair in a tail, but many people wore their hair so; the scar, though, identified him. Katara, Sokka, and Suki had told her at great length of their exhausting journey through the Earth Kingdoms—and of the exiled prince who had chased them. A scar like a flame over his eye, they'd said.

He pulled himself up onto the path of ice that edged the oasis, and before she could even reply, he punched a handful of flame at her face. She yanked at the water without even having to think about it, and the fire fizzled out before it came anywhere near her.

"So you have some skill," the prince sneered, and took the three long strides that brought him to the side of the bridge, throwing another gout of fire with every step.

Yue blocked them all, one after the other, and when he set foot on the first plank of the bridge, she raised a great wave and shoved it toward him, knocking him back against the ice. "Some," she said, as he climbed to his feet again, sputtering.

"You dare—" he began, bringing his arms up again.

She drew a rope of water high before he could finish either the sentence or the move, and knocked his hands aside; he yanked them in toward himself before she could freeze them together, but she was already coiling another pool of water around his feet, and she froze him up to the thigh before he could bring his arms to bear again.

A sharp thrust of her hands, and the ice carried him backwards, skidding, until his shoulders struck the wall. A broad circle of flame burst from his palms, but she pulled another wave up from the lake and doused it before it could grow. It was the work of a moment to tug the ice of the wall forward around him, until the only part of him not encased in ice was his head.

"I will kill you," he snarled, and a red-orange glow began to burn around his hands and feet. But she made the ice-melt freeze around him again, easy as clenching her fist, and here and now, in the Spirit Oasis with the full moon shining, he could not match her power.

"Perhaps you will," she said, "but not tonight." She swayed through the sequence a few more times, thickening the fist of ice that held him, and then risked a glance over her shoulder. But the prince had had no accomplices; Katara was still safe behind her, glowing eyes staring unseeingly at the far wall of the Oasis, as though nothing of interest were happening at all.

She took a step toward the other bridge—if she could only get to the door, she could find someone to take the prince away while she guarded Katara—and almost slipped, ice shuddering faintly under her feet, as a great clang of metal echoed overhead.

No, she thought, and pulled at the ice almost convulsively. She rode the sudden arc of it up and over the prince's head until she passed the slant of the palace roof, and could see the great dark ships at the city wall with her own eyes.

Chapter Text

Traveling through the spirit world was unspeakably strange. The rules were all different—or, perhaps more accurately, there were no rules. Things changed on a whim. The sky went from cloudy to a pure summery blue, and then to a startling grass-green; they left the swamp behind for a forest of jewel-toned trees that glinted like ice, and then flatlands creased with steaming crevasses that glowed faintly, and then a sudden desert of distinctly purple sand.

But Appa seemed to know where he was going, though Katara couldn't tell how. There was a sun—or a light in the sky, at least—but it didn't seem to be traveling in a straight line.

"Do you know where he's taking us?" she said.

Aang shrugged, wholly unconcerned. "No idea," he said, "but it's Appa. He wouldn't take us somewhere dangerous. Well, not unless that was where we had to go, that is."

"That's so reassuring," Katara said.

Aang stuck his tongue out at her; and then suddenly his eyes slid past her, his brow creasing in concentration, which made for a hilarious expression until he pulled his tongue back in and spoke. "Do you see that?"

Katara turned, following his gaze over her shoulder, and squinted. They were over another forest, though this one was of massive leafless trees the height of mountains, and the sky was a murky sea of low, yellow-tinged clouds. There was a particularly large billow of cloud behind her; she certainly could see it, and she was about to turn around and tell Aang so when she realized that there was a face in it.

Or, more accurately, a face forming out of it, chin and brow and cheekbones slowly shaping themselves from the mist. And a familiar face, too, though it took Katara a long moment to place it.

"Yangchen," she said, when the name finally came to her; and the mouth of the cloud-face bent into the barest shadow of a smile.

"Avatar," Yangchen replied, cool and echoing. "You seek the moon and ocean, do you not?"

"Yes," Katara said. "Is that where Appa's taking us—to see the moon and ocean?"

"Moon and Ocean are ancient spirits," Yangchen said, "and they traveled to the mortal world long ago. Your bison is clever: he takes you to the nearest of the spirits old enough to remember such things. But it will not be easy for you to obtain the answers you seek from Koh."

"Koh?" Aang said.

"The face-stealer, he is also called," Yangchen said, and the expression on her cloud-face turned very grave. "This is not the first time the Avatar has met him. Of the youngest of us, Kuruk knows him best; but Kuruk will not venture here." She paused. It was not quite a hesitation, Yangchen was too deliberate for that; but perhaps a moment of consideration. "Koh has done things that should not have been done, but he is not evil. It is his nature, to take faces; he cannot be other than what he is."

"To take faces?" Katara said, exchanging a nervous glance with Aang. That didn't sound good.

"This is what I have come to tell you," Yangchen said. "When you stand before Koh, you must have no expression—no matter what he says, or what face he wears. The tiniest smile, the briefest grimace of discomfort, and he will steal your face."

Katara bit her lip. She could hunt and fight and argue and Waterbend; but expressionlessness wasn't one of her notable skills. Perhaps if she were very, very angry, she would be able to do it. But right now, she was only uncertain, and a little bit afraid. She looked up at Yangchen, who gazed back impassively. "I'm not going to be able to do it," she said, and then paused, not sure how to make the suggestion without sounding presumptuous. "But I think you could. Can you—help me?"

Yangchen looked at her measuringly for a long moment, and then nodded, very slightly. "It would be my honor to assist you, Avatar," she said, and closed her eyes.

The cloud Yangchen's face was shaped from had been the same mud-yellow as all the rest, but as Yangchen concentrated, it began to glimmer with a very familiar shade of blue light. The blue intensified rapidly, and then all at once swirled out and away from the cloud, and Yangchen's features abruptly melted away, the mist that had formed them dissolving like smoke. The blue light dimmed, and then Katara's vision suddenly went blue-white; and when it cleared, the light that had been Yangchen was gone.

"Your eyes did that thing," Aang said, and then, "Hey, are you okay?"

"Yes," Katara said. It was easy to tell that Yangchen was with her, now; she felt different—older, and somehow quieter on the inside. Everything was muted. Or, no, not muted, but tempered, by a sense of deep patience—deep acceptance. Things were as they were. It was their way.

"... Are you sure?" Aang said.

Katara felt herself smile, very slightly. "I am," she said, and that was Yangchen's formal tone in her voice, she could hear it. "We have come to the land where Koh dwells."

They were still among the giant trees; but Appa was angling down toward the massive gnarling roots of one of them, the dull yellow mist twining around them like hands as they dropped lower. He landed with a scrape, six massive feet against bark that had to be at least a few feet thick, and Katara slid from the saddle like she had been riding sky bison all her life. "Easy, clever one," she murmured, stroking Appa's side absently.

There was a hole at the base of the trunk—a cave, Katara might have called it, except it was in a tree instead of a rock face. "That is where he lives," she told Aang, and held up a hand when he moved as though to leap from Appa's neck. "You should stay here."

"Katara," Aang said, sounding confused and unhappy; when she turned to look at him, he was staring at her uncertainly.

"I am still here," she said, and then paused; that hadn't come out right. She tried again. "I—need to let her be me, for a while." She let that deep feeling of Yangchen rise to the surface, and it was more Yangchen than Katara who smiled at him next. "Be at ease, Avatar," she said. "I will be careful. You have been a fine guide, and will be again; and you do our people proud with your care. But it is my time now."

Aang's face clouded briefly, but he nodded, and when she stepped forward into the dark of the treetrunk, he stayed there, waiting, behind her.




The crunch of the ship's prow against the ice reverberated through Yin from her boots to her helmet, and she couldn't help but grimace—no harm in it, after all, because with the helmet on, no one could see it anyway.

It was a ridiculous plan, arrogant and self-serving and oblivious to potential cost; exactly the kind of thing she should be expecting from Zhao by now, she thought grimly. Quite a trick of destiny, that a man like Zhao should be the one to find the legendary library of Wan Shi Tong. A repository of knowledge like no other, filled with vast and wonderful secrets long forgotten—and he stayed only long enough to learn how to murder spirits, and considered the time as well spent as could possibly be wished.

Another volley of fireballs hissed by overhead, the orange glow jarring against the moonlit ice, and landed with a crash in the city. Yin could see them come down; Zhao had a team of Firebenders at the flagship's prow, and they were melting a tunnel through the city wall that grew wider with every passing moment.

"It is enough!" Zhao shouted, and slapped a hand against Yin's shoulder. "Come, Lieutenant. My victory is close at hand."

"And what a victory it will be," Yin said, hand tight on the hilt of her sword. This was not going to be a good night.

She turned and nodded to Kishen, and he called for her soldiers to ready themselves; and then Zhao yelled wordlessly and led them through the wall.


*


The chaos on the other side might have been unbelievable, if Yin hadn't been in battle before—Zhao could not have stood being anywhere but at the center of the wall, and the space they charged into lay between a battalion of Waterbenders and a crowd of warriors with pikes and painted faces. The tanks were already rolling out of the ship behind them, but six Waterbenders at once clenched their fists and stretched their arms toward the sky, and the ice of the wall heaved up and crushed the third tank against the mouth of the tunnel. Lieutenant Anshi's, it must have been, because she turned and shouted for a team of Firebenders, and sent a blast of fire at the ice herself.

Yin swept forward and closed with a pikeman before he could gut her; he blocked her first strike neatly with the haft of his weapon, but he was unprepared for the way she kicked him in the side of the thigh, armored boot swinging heavily, and he dropped to one knee, eyes startled. He swung the pike out, and she had to duck back a step to avoid it—but the moment the blade had whistled past, she darted back in, swung her elbow up, and trapped the haft against her side, shoving her sword up under the man's chin at the same time.

He squared his jaw, preparing himself; but she wasn't going to kill him if she could help it. She ducked her head in close, and hissed, "Where are the spirits?"

"... What?" the man said.

Yin dug her sword in a little further. "The spirits," she said. "They're here—where are they?" She didn't even know what she would do, if he told her—cut Zhao off before he could get there? Find a Water Tribe captain and explain everything?—but at least she might know what to expect.

But the man's face showed only confusion, and she was fairly certain he wasn't pretending. "The legends say they dwell with us," he said, "but not—perhaps you seek the sacred waters?"

"Yes, fine, okay," Yin said, "where are those?"

"The chief's palace," the man said, "the heart of the city—there is a passage back—"

"Great," Yin said, and pulled the sword away so that she could slam the pommel into his head. The chief's palace—that wasn't going to be an easy place to get to; but even as she thought it, she turned, and Zhao was already pushing forward across the nearest canal. "One day," she murmured to herself, "I will know everything ahead of time," and she let the man slide to the ground and hurried after Zhao.




Koh's lair was not as inhospitable as it seemed at first glance; the entrance might be narrow and dark, but it led to a flight of broad stairs. Old ones, for they were no longer level—the stairs at the Western Air Temple had also come to be so, in time—and a tangle of roots had begun to grow across them. Besides, Koh's reasons for easing the way into his home were not reassuring thoughts to ponder. Still, it was simpler than climbing would have been.

There was a rustle overhead, and Katara wanted to startle; but Yangchen did not let her look away from where she was placing her feet. It did not suit the dignity of the Avatar to trip.

Soon enough, they came to level ground, and Katara looked up. "Koh," she said quietly into the dark, and did not so much as twitch when a great pale face appeared out of the gloom.

Someone who had worn a mask, perhaps, or face-paint. A clever attempt; but Koh was a spirit, not a human, and could not be tricked by such things. "Avatar," said a hissing voice from between blood-red lips, and the white cheeks widened in a smile. "It has been some time since I have seen you last. Five hundred years? Eight hundred? Human measures are so inadequate; I can never remember."

"I am not here to kill you, Koh," Katara said, to the mustached man's face that slid into view next. "Not this time."

"Oh?" Koh said. "Not even a little?"

The mustached man vanished with a scowl, and the next face was a girl's—a young woman's, more like, dark-eyed and lovely. Katara found her eyes moving over it like she had looked at it a thousand times, a thousand upon a thousand: there was the scar by the brow, only visible if you were looking for it; and there, the single, uneven dimple, as the young woman's face smiled. Katara had traced that dimple a hundred times, she was certain of it—had mocked it, secretly adored it, kissed it-

Yangchen surely felt the great, drowning grief as clearly as Katara did; but it only lasted for a moment, transmuted by Yangchen into a terrible quiet sadness, and Katara's expression remained blank. "Not even a little," she said, very evenly.

Koh stayed in front of her for a long moment, peering curiously out of the young woman; and then her face slid away, replaced with a stern-eyed owl hawk. "Avatar, my old friend, you have become so dull," he said.

"I am not here to entertain you, either," Katara said. "I seek knowledge of Moon and Ocean—their help is needed to save a people far from here."

"Ah, yes, Tui and La—push and pull, a pretty pair," Koh said. The owl hawk gave way to a plump young boy. "Amusing, that you should ask; they need your help much more than you do theirs."

There was a burst of startlement—Yangchen was just as surprised to hear Koh say that as Katara was, but Katara's face stayed still. Yangchen had faced many things in her time, had negotiated with emperors and generals; to cover surprise and pretend foreknowledge was a trick she had learned early on. "Do they," she said.

"Oh, they do," Koh said, a trickle of glee working its way into his tone, and the plump boy became a monkey, fanged mouth open in a silent laugh. "Someone's going to kill them, if you don't hurry up and go back where you came from."

"How can I save them?"

"Go back where you came from," Koh repeated, a hint of impatience in his voice. "That bison of yours will take you back to the place where you passed through. Go back. Moon and Ocean are there, waiting for you; if you are quick, they will be saved."

Koh did things that should not have been done, but he also told the truth; that, too, was his nature. "Thank you," Katara said, bowing formally.

"No need, Avatar," Koh said, graciousness a thin veneer over the cool menace that filled his voice. The white mask-face slid back into place. "I will see you again someday; perhaps you will repay the favor."




Yue watched another volley of fireballs crash into her home, and then shook herself. The Fire Nation soldiers were moving quickly, pressing forward, as though they hoped a flood of superior numbers might serve to outweigh the power of Waterbenders under a full moon. The sounds of fighting were coming closer every moment, and if they made it all the way here, Katara needed to be kept safe until she could come back from the spirit world.

Yue made the ice lower her back down. The Fire Nation prince was still frozen to the wall, watching her with narrowed eyes; he would not escape, at least not in the next thirty seconds.

She had fought him on the open end of the Oasis island—but Katara's body sat on the other side of the pool, beneath the gate, and behind the gate grew a thick stand of bamboo, impossible to see past.

There was no other choice: she had to keep the Avatar safe as best she could, even if it meant she died herself. Hopefully, Katara could find her body again even if it wasn't in the same place she'd left it.

Yue hurried around the pool and curled her arms around Katara's at the shoulder. The pounding of feet sounded impossibly loud—how could the Fire Nation have come so far already? She pulled; Katara draped back limply in her arms, and her eyes slid shut.

Not a good sign—but Yue thought there was still some blue leaking between her lashes, and there was no time to reconsider. She had managed to tow Katara almost around the end of the bamboo stand when the door was flung open.

She turned and pulled up a wave, without even looking; but Kilurak caught it before it could topple, and smoothed it back down.

"Yue, whoa, it's just us," Sokka said, and then glanced across the Oasis. "Hey, hang on, is that the crazy prince guy? What's been going on back here, anyway?"

"Katara is in the spirit world," Yue said. "The prince came for her, but I fought him. What are you doing here?"

"We—cut our mission short," Tuteguk said, from behind Sokka. "The Fire Nation admiral plans to kill the moon; we have come to stop him."

"Kill the moon?" Yue said. "And he's coming here? I don't understand."

Tuteguk hesitated, looking at her with trepidation. "It is the greatest secret of our tribe," he said. "Only the chief and his top advisors are ever told of it. You and Hahn would have been told, too, when it was time—" He broke off, and glanced over his shoulder: a great gout of fire burst up on the other side of the Oasis wall, far too close for comfort. "Quickly," he said, "we must finish hiding the Avatar; if she does not come back from the spirit world before the Fire Nation admiral arrives, she must be kept away from the fighting."

It was much easier going, with five people to lift Katara instead of just one; and she was safely behind the bamboo grove when Yue heard the door swing open again. "Yes, this will be a proud day indeed for the Fire Nation," someone said, and laughed.


***


"I was very pleased to think that you were dead," Zhao continued, still chuckling a little. "But to find you here—frozen to the wall, no less—in the place where I will fulfill my destiny? Better than I could ever have imagined."

Zuko pressed his mouth flat and said nothing, tipping his chin up defiantly. It was satisfying, in a way—if nothing else, he had managed the ruse successfully for as long as it had been up to him. It did not make up for being defeated by some random Waterbender girl mere feet away from the Avatar; but it seemed to be Zuko's fate, to be humiliated whenever he came near his only goal.

At least he wasn't the only one. Zhao stood not thirty yards from the Avatar and didn't know it, because she had been carefully and thoroughly hidden behind a bush. Zuko fought the urge to laugh. Uncle was there, too, standing behind Zhao with a sober look on his face; he would appreciate the situation, if he knew the true depth of it. And Mizan was beside him—she would rub Zhao's face in it forever, Zuko thought.

"Come now, who was it?" Zhao said. "Your dishonor is already all-encompassing, you cannot shame yourself further."

"Stop this, Zhao," Uncle said—quietly, but there was a touch of iron in it.

Zhao laughed. "You disapprove—of course you do," he said. "I should have known you were lying about him. You always were too fond of the boy."

"Stop all of this," Uncle said. "Turn around, now, and walk out of this place. You must not do this thing."

"Must not?" Zhao said. He rounded on Uncle, as though to threaten him—wasted effort, of course, for Uncle stared up at him impassively and did not move an inch, but Zhao seemed not to care. "The very world is within my grasp. This is everything we have been working toward for a hundred years, and I—I—have the power to bring it to pass. I will not let that slip away from me." He chuckled again. "Is this what happened to you at Ba Sing Se, General? Did you come within seconds of victory, and turn from it like a coward?"

"I came to understand that the victory I sought was not worth the price," Uncle said, almost gently. "The balance of the spirits touches all things—and you would destroy that for the sake of not even a war, but a single battle?"

"Ah, yes, the balance," Zhao said, sneering. "I have heard about your sacred journey to the spirit world—not all of us can be so enlightened, General Iroh. I am no Waterbender; the moon does not govern me, and I owe it no allegiance, no protection." He shook his head. "Sometimes I am sorry that your son is dead, because it seems he took the best of you with him when he went." Zhao turned back around and smirked at Zuko. "You are two of a kind, in your weakness. Watch closely, exile: I will show you true strength. Perhaps this time the lesson will sink in."


***


Zuko looked unimpressed—and even before, Mizan could tell by his expression that he knew something. Something he wasn't telling Zhao, and she wanted to smile at him for it, even though nothing was going the way it was supposed to.

His plan might have been stupid, but up until now, it had also been working. Clearly Zuko had managed to find a way through the part of the plan Mizan had disparaged the most—he was inside the city, after all, even if somebody had found him and wrapped him in ice after.

Perhaps that was the secret he was keeping: if whoever had frozen him in were still around, it might be a bit of a nasty surprise for Zhao.

She glanced behind her, and hoped it had taken a few dozen Waterbenders. Zhao had brought that lieutenant, Yin, and a handful of his better soldiers besides; Yin might not fight for him with all her will, but it was a long way from a few lies of omission to outright betrayal. Mizan had only talked to the woman for five minutes; it might be possible to persuade her, or it might not, but there was no way for Mizan to tell.

Frustrating, but there was nothing she could do about it now.

Zhao grinned at Zuko, and then strode forward. The path along the ice was narrow, but the bridge to the little island of greenery was wide, and Zhao paraded along the middle of it like he was three men abreast, and not one.

"Zhao," General Iroh said, moving as though to catch Zhao's arm—but Zhao stepped away and into the pool.

It was small, circular, and by the height it came to on Zhao's thighs, moderately deep. There were fish in it—koi, Mizan thought. They were large, certainly, and pretty; Mizan could see only two, one black and one white, circling each other playfully. What she could not see was a good reason for Zhao to be staring down at them like they were made out of living gold.

"For the glory of the Fire Nation," he said, hushed and almost reverent, and then he darted a hand into the pool, and drew the white fish out of the water.

In the split second it took for the full moon to dim sharply in the sky behind her, Mizan put it together, and cursed herself for a fool.




Suki was peering out from behind the bamboo and wishing Tuteguk had thought to fill them in a little earlier, and Yue's sudden tumble took her completely by surprise. It was only good luck that she happened to jerk backward, and caught Yue against her shoulder before the other girl could hurt herself—or make a loud sound, which would be almost as bad.

"Help me lay her down," she hissed at Sokka, and, looking as startled as she felt, he complied.

Yue had clearly realized that she needed to stay quiet, even through whatever had suddenly drawn her strength away; her eyes and mouth were squeezed shut, and she was clinging to the grass like she felt she might slide off the earth sideways. Suki reached out to touch her hands, and immediately had to fight the urge to pull back—her fingers felt like ice.

"Yue?" Sokka said, careful to keep his voice low.

"Tui," Yue murmured, and her brow furrowed in what was not quite an expression of pain.

Suki glanced over at the bamboo—she'd moved, from here she couldn't see anything, but she knew what was on the other side. "Now," she said, "now, we have to stop him right now," and she pulled her fans from her belt and threw herself around the bamboo.

Zhao was standing in the pool, and as she rounded the edge of the stand, he held the white koi high and began to laugh. "You see," he said triumphantly, turning to the old man behind him. "They are helpless—would the spirits not have struck me down already, if they could?" He grinned up at the fish, and steam began to rise from his hand—and then a faint crackling sound came to Suki's ears, and the koi's scales began to blister and curl as it thrashed in Zhao's grip.

In the sky, the face of the moon was suddenly flooded with red. Somewhere behind Suki, Yue screamed, breathless with agony; and then Zhao stopped laughing abruptly, and looked down at his chest. The bloody point of a sword was protruding from it—no, through it, Suki realized. Through it, from behind.

"Perhaps they cannot," Lieutenant Yin said, very calm. "But I can."


***


Her hand was shaking a little, which was stupid—she had done it, and there was no undoing it, no point to uncertainty now. Still, it was steady enough; so she made herself grip her sword's hilt a little tighter, and very carefully pulled it back out of Zhao.

She would die for this, almost undoubtedly. She was as good as dead already. But the moment had come, and she had recognized it for what it was. In Jindao, she had asked the spirits to intervene, and they had; now, they required her aid—they could not have asked more clearly if the fish had looked her in the eye and spoken aloud—and she could not have refused to give it.

"You," Zhao said, and faltered back against the lip of the pool. The moon spirit slid from his hand and onto the grass, still shuddering in pain; and Zhao gazed up at her like he had never seen her before in his life.

"Me," Yin agreed quietly.

Kishen was standing at her elbow, and she suspected their interests were aligned, for the moment; but the other twelve soldiers Zhao had brought were staring at her. When the startlement wore off, Yin was fairly certain they would be less than pleased with her.

But perhaps she was not entirely doomed. It was the friends of the Avatar who had burst out from behind the bamboo a moment ago—or two of them, at least. Yin remembered the girl with the iron fans vividly, and one of the boys had a particularly familiar face. She was not precisely expecting them to leap to her defense, but however much they disliked her, surely they had to dislike Zhao's more loyal soldiers more.


***


The lieutenant raised her sword, still stained with Zhao's blood, barely in time to catch the blade one of the other Fire Nation soldiers swung at her. Sokka didn't even think about it before he rushed across the grass and kicked the feet out from under the one who was coming up behind her.

If he had thought about it, he reasoned later, he would have done exactly the same thing. She'd already saved them two or three times now, which was enough that he was willing to forgive her for having held a sword against a guy's throat for thirty seconds that one time; and she'd also just maybe saved the moon, which was worth a lot of points all by itself. Granted, the fish was still scorched and flopping helplessly, but Yue had stopped screaming, and as long as it wasn't dead, there had to be something they could do.

So he stopped the woman who was coming at the lieutenant with a glaive, knocking her back against the wall and leaving a long slice along her arm. Much as he might have complained at the time, he was grateful for all the grueling practice now; he still wasn't as skilled as Suki, but the fans were starting to feel good, natural, like extensions of his arms instead of awkward sharp things he couldn't stop dropping. He flared them at the woman as she came at him again, and almost wished he had some red-and-white warpaint to put on—or maybe some green battle skirts.

Suki was only a moment behind him, knocking down the next guy who tried to rush the lieutenant with a sharp strike to the ribs; and Kilurak reached out with his bending and threw a dozen spears of ice at the rest of them.

The funny blue light almost got Sokka's head chopped off, because he knew that color—that color meant wacky Avatar things—and he turned to stare at it and gave another guy a clear shot at the side of his neck. But he caught the blow against one of his fan handles before it could land, and a second later, Katara burst out from behind the bamboo and plunged into the spirit pool.


*


She'd worked out that it had something to do with the Spirit Oasis almost the moment she'd stepped out of Koh's lair and let Yangchen drift out of her—but she didn't figure out that it was the fish until she stepped out from behind the bamboo and saw the half-scalded koi on the grass, and Zhao still gasping and reaching toward it, with blood soaking down the front of his uniform. She remembered smiling at the pair of koi, thinking how nice it was, how fitting, to have such a spiritual place be full of life; she kind of wanted to kick herself, now.

The water was pleasantly warm and came up to her hip, and for a moment she could think of nothing but the last time she'd stood in a deep pool—that arrow sliding into her shoulder, and Sokka shouting.

"Hurry!" Aang said behind her, and she remembered herself and took another step through the water.

The black koi was still there, swimming in frenzied circles—except it wasn't quite all black, there was a white spot on its head. A glowing white spot; with a blue tinge, blue like the water, because the water was glowing, too. Everything was, so brightly Katara couldn't see a thing.

YOU, said La, somewhere closer than her ears—because that was who it was, she knew it. YOU HAVE THE HEALING GIFT, AVATAR. YOU CAN CHOOSE WHAT WILL BE. CHOOSE WITH ME.

She closed her eyes against the light, and took a deep breath. There could be only one answer. She lifted her arms. YES, she said, and became the ocean.




Light filled the pool, and rippled across the water like foam, so bright that it almost hurt Suki's eyes to look at it; and then a moment later the pool went dark, though the water around the island was still blazing.

"Katara—" Sokka said, starting forward, and she caught his arm.

"She's not there anymore," she said.

And Katara wasn't—the pool was empty, even though they had all seen her step into it just a moment ago.

The light was flowing away behind them, building, water piling up like someone was bending it, except Kilurak's hands were still, hanging at his sides as he stared; and Suki was fairly certain Yue wasn't doing it. The water billowed up above them, so high they couldn't see the chief's palace past it, and even under the angry red light of the injured moon, it was fiercely blue.

It made a shape—to call it fish-like made it sound smaller, lesser than it was; and more mundane than it could ever be, considering it was a spirit walking the earth in a body made of water and light. In the center of its chest, the light formed a great sphere. And in the middle of the sphere, Katara floated, eyes burning blue and braid drifting around her shoulders.

TUI, La said, and the tone of its voice was not so much a sound as it was simply the feeling of grief rippling through the air. Suki didn't think she could have moved if her life depended on it; but she felt certain that if she had been able to touch her cheeks, her hands would have come away wet.

Katara spread her arms wide, hands open, and the light gathered beneath her fingers like she had called it by name. The pool water drew up into an arm, and curled gently around the twitching koi on the bank, lifting it into the air; and Katara turned her palms toward it, the light following the motion.

"She's fixing it," Sokka murmured, hushed. "Fixing it—like she healed my arms, before."

It was true; the water around the koi was glowing, and then the koi itself, scales pearl-smooth and glistening like Zhao had never laid a finger on them. Behind them, the moon blazed back to white; La tipped its head back, and the laugh it let out was like every wonderful thing that had ever happened to Suki in her life, all bound up in an instant.

And then it let Tui slide back into the pool and gazed down at them, and Suki felt her throat go dry.

"I am so glad I'm not Fire Nation right now," Sokka said.


***


The wall of water swept toward them, and past them, as the spirit of the ocean moved by; in a moment, the three armed soldiers Yin had been facing were gone, only empty air and wet grass left where they had been. Zhao was gone, too, even the blood washed away from the edge of the pool by the great rush of water.

Yin stared, and then, belatedly, lowered her sword. The friends of the Avatar were untouched, but that, she had expected. General Iroh remained also, gazing after the spirit with awe clear on his face; and Prince Zuko, evidently alive, was still pinned to the wall by the ice.

"We cannot stay to marvel," General Iroh said, sounding half as though he were trying to convince himself. He turned to her, and touched her elbow. "There are many soldiers in the city, and many ships still on the water—we must go, and quickly, if we are to have any of them survive."

"Of course," Yin said, automatic. There would be time to appreciate the wonder of it later; but right now, they had to get back to the ship.




Shida faltered; the light had changed again, from sickly red back to white, and her eyes were having trouble adjusting after the warm dimness.

A most peculiar thing—she knew how the moon could sometimes shine copper, how it could redden in the smoke of wildfires, but this had been something else altogether. Still, in the moment, it had seemed like good fortune: she had been facing a pair of Waterbenders, and when the moon had dulled, the wave they'd been aiming at her had tumbled from their grasp. And Shida did not argue with good fortune.

But the moon was back, now; and the remaining Waterbender, the one she hadn't stabbed yet, drew a slab of ice from the ground with renewed vigor.

She sheathed her sword and met the ice with a bloom of fire from both palms, melting a gap in it before the Waterbender could strike her with it. He moved as though to shove the ice aside and pull up a new wave from the canal—and then they both staggered as the ground shook.

"What was that?" the Waterbender said, almost conversational in the grip of the unity provided by confusion; and they both turned toward the palace at the same time.

There was a great creature made of light, tall enough for its head to tower over the great palace. Something about the shape of it made Shida think of a fish, but it was not quite so neatly formed; its limbs fell somewhere between arms and fins in appearance, and it had neither legs nor tail—it simply flowed over the palace wall, unending, the water before it chased with light. The city flooded everywhere it went, water rising and spilling over like every canal had become a fresh spring.

It was beautiful. Shida simply stared at it for a long moment; and then there was a sound, low and long and rumbling as thunder, and she realized abruptly that the flooding was drawing nearer.

She had followed the two Waterbenders up to the end of one of the ice bridges over a canal, and she had an excellent view of the nearest city plaza, tanks grinding across it and at least a full battalion of Fire Nation soldiers holding it. It had been captured while the moon was dull, and though the Waterbenders had now turned back, their power returned, they had not yet managed to retake it.

The water swept across it like a tidal wave as the great creature came nearer. An oddly selective tidal wave: Fire Nation tanks were lifted like children's playthings, hurled into the air by the first impact of the flood before they fell into the water and disappeared from view; red-armored soldiers screamed and cowered before the wave came upon them and dragged them away; and yet the Waterbenders stood untouched. A faint pale light curved around them, like a crescent moon; and the water bent to either side and let them be.

It was an awe-inspiring sight; Shida had traveled many places during her time in the navy, and had never seen the like.

"Surrender," said the Waterbender—Shida had almost forgotten he was there. "Surrender now, before it comes for you."

Shida eyed the cresting waves in the plaza, the bubbling water rising at the end of the canal. She wanted to serve the Fire Lord—but she could not do it if she drowned.

Her sword was already sheathed, but she let her fists drop to her sides, let the heat that had been building in her hands slide away; and the water foamed high beneath her, scored with light, but did not pull her down.


***


"Yue? Yue!"

Yue blinked, and sat up.

"Yue," Sokka said, relieved. "Are you all right?"

Yue's fingers ached as she straightened them—she remembered falling, remembered sticking her hands out to what she'd thought was the side and having her palms hit grass. It had seemed like the only strength left in her was in her fingers, and she had hung on with dedication; with her eyes closed and her legs numb, the grass against her hands had been the only thing left in the world.

The pain had been astounding. She had fallen in the winter ocean once when she was a child, and the cold of the water had been so fierce it had felt almost like her skin was burning—this had been exactly like that, except worse, because her mother could not fish her out of this and wrap her in blankets after.

But it was gone now, like it had never been, and she felt strangely invigorated—renewed.

"I'm fine," she said. "Better than fine." She glanced around: she was still behind the bamboo in the Oasis, but something had clearly happened in between. There was blood on the edges of Suki's fans, and Kilurak's shirt was torn. "What happened?"

"Well, let's see," Sokka said. "Zhao came to kill the moon, but this woman we know in the Fire Nation who helps us out sometimes stabbed him in the back—literally—and then Katara woke up and the ocean grabbed her and turned into a giant angry fish, and now they're out there beating Zhao's fleet like a rug." He turned to Suki. "Did I leave anything out?"

"No, I think you got everything," Suki said, amused. "Are you sure you're all right, Yue?"

"Yes," Yue said, and stood up to prove it.

She could see that Sokka had been telling the truth as soon as she rounded the bamboo; the great figure of La towered over the city, glowing brilliantly under the full moon, and at its heart there was a bright round light—Katara, undoubtedly. The prince she had frozen to the wall was gone; obviously melted free, judging by the twisted ice that remained where he had been. But unless he had become several hundred feet tall, Katara was safely out of his reach.


*


From the steps of the chief's palace, they could see much more clearly. The Fire Nation had advanced far into the city, but not for long; the water that surged around La had dumped tanks onto roofs and into canals, and the Waterbenders who had fallen back when the moon had dimmed were alive with power now.

La raised its arms, and a wave rose in answer from the sea, taller than the walls, taller even than the ice cliffs, so high that it dwarfed the great ships of the Fire Nation. It crashed upon the fleet like the tide on a toy boat, capsizing dozens and sending the rest skimming out to sea, and Yue could hear a ripple of sound cross the city, the cacophony of victorious cheers.

La curled in upon itself, then, outlines dissolving, and Yue's heart leapt into her throat. But a long arm of water came curving in a great arc over the city, all the way to the avenue below them; and when it fell apart, water splattering down and winding away into the canals, it left Katara behind.




"Hurry!" Yin shouted, motioning desperately to the man in the bridge even as she vaulted over the rail.

They were already moving away from the wall as quickly as they could; she had been one of the last to make it on before the ship had pulled away. She'd done the best she could—they'd had to sprint through the streets to make it to the wall in time, but Yin had shouted orders as she went. Zhao valued—had valued—their equipment intensely, but it was sheer foolishness to try to save the tanks. They were maneuverable, but not particularly fast, and she had screamed at least six times at different groups of soldiers to leave them behind and run for the wall.

They had not all made it; even now, as they pulled further out to sea, she could hear the pleading shouts behind her. But she could not afford to go back for them—she probably wouldn't even be able to, now, with the hump of a wave rising in front of the wall.

Just as she had thought. You could not anger the ocean and expect to sail away on a placid sea.

The great figure of the spirit was raising its arms, now, concentrating every bit of its considerable power on the task before it, and the wave was rising in answer, no longer a hump but a mountain.

And the ship—the ship was turning, the city swinging from bow toward port before her eyes. She turned and sprinted for the bridge. "Give me that," she said, and when the man gripping the wheel made as though to protest, she punched him as hard as she could and took the wheel when he stumbled back.

He was clearly an idiot. The chance that they would survive might be miniscule no matter what; but it was no chance at all if the wave struck them side-on, they would capsize in a moment. That their bow still pointed toward Kanjusuk meant nothing—if they lived, they would have all the time in the world to turn around. He had been a fool to try to correct it now.

She swung the wheel back, and was rewarded with a groan of metal; she could not see the city anymore, only the towering breadth of the wave, but there was no time left to do anything but hope the turn had been about right. She was halfway through the door, hurrying back to order the deck clear, when the wave finally curled over them and came down.

For a moment, she thought someone had taken away the moon again, and then she realized the wave had blocked it out. The ship tipped beneath her, climbing the wave's foot, and there was a moment of perfect stillness: she knelt, half on the wall, and looked above her at the deck as it stretched toward the sky; and then the water struck her like a hammer.

She was lucky; she did not break her back against the corner of the wall, and the doorframe gave her something to cling to. The water was searingly cold, and it seemed like barely a moment before she could not feel her hands, but she forced herself to keep her mouth closed and hang on.

For a long minute, she had no idea what might be happening to the ship—she could discern no up or down, only the direction the water was trying to rip her toward, and her lungs were starting to burn. But then the current changed, the flood pulling at her instead of pushing, and a moment later her head broke the surface as the worst of the water retreated.

Her fingers failed her, then, and she let them; the water towed her out onto the deck before it slid away over the side, and she coughed twice and then sucked in the best lungful of air she had ever breathed.

The wave had carried them quite some distance—when she tipped her head up, the city was tiny in the distance, and the water between was scattered with iron keels pointing toward the sky, and wide metal hulls bobbing helplessly on their sides.

"Lieutenant," someone said—Kishen, she realized, a moment before he came into view overhead and helped her sit up. He must have been somewhere higher than she was; his uniform was dripping, but his face and hair looked dry.

"Is the formality really necessary, under the circumstances?" she said, shaking out her sleeves.

"I would say more so than usual, sir," he said. "Your orders?"

She blinked, and tilted her head back so she could stare at him properly.

"Perhaps you have not been told, sir," he said. "Sub-Admiral Zhao is nowhere to be found—lost in the city, perhaps." He had a nicely speculative tone, for someone who had been standing right behind her when she ran a sword through Zhao's back. "At the moment, you are certainly the highest-ranked officer on deck, and, after that wave, perhaps on the entire ship. Your orders?"

Yin forced her mouth to close. He was right.

If she truly was in command of what was left of the fleet, it was time she stood up, instead of lolling on the deck like a newborn turtle duck; so she made her legs support her, and shoved her wet hair out of her face. They had to start the pumps, of course; it was entirely possible that soldiers belowdecks were drowning even now, simply because the water had nowhere to go. "The pumps," she said. "Pass along the order—anyone who can stand is to start working the pumps. Send someone to check the damage; I doubt all the boiler bays were sealed properly, there wasn't enough time."

He saluted, and turned sharply—but he only made it a step before she caught at his arm.

"Sir?"

"Get some soldiers who Firebend up to the deck, too," she said. "If General Iroh's ship made it through that, I want to know about it."




For a moment, Katara couldn't remember how to move; she lay on the ice and gazed up at the night sky, and wondered vaguely how she had gotten so short. It wasn't that she hadn't been herself—she had been herself and La at the same time, awareness encompassing both the Water Tribe girl and the vastness of the ocean. And somewhere in there, she'd gotten used to being two hundred feet tall.

She watched the stars twinkle—until they suddenly weren't anymore, because Sokka's face was in the way, Aang hovering anxiously next to him.

"Katara!" Sokka said, and she realized belatedly that it was at least the fourth time. When La had spoken to her, she hadn't heard it with her ears; it was strange to use them again.

"Sokka," she said, and he yanked her up off the ice and wrapped his arms around her shoulders.

"You were just lying there, it looked like you were dead," he said; it was muffled by her neck, but he sounded almost angry.

"Well, I'm not," Katara said, patting him a little floppily. Having joints was so peculiar—how had she never noticed before?

Someone came up behind her and squeezed her shoulder—Suki, Katara thought. "We're glad to hear it," Suki said gently.

They both helped her stand up. Really, she thought, she was doing very well: she wasn't even damp, despite the fact that she had technically been suspended in a lake's worth of walking water, and her legs were functional, if a little wobbly.

Yue had been waiting behind them a respectful distance, hands over her mouth; but as soon as Katara was up and had turned around, she rushed forward, relieved and smiling, to grip Katara's hands. "You saved the city," she said, "it was incredible." She laughed. "I'm going to feel so presumptuous, teaching Waterbending to someone who was the ocean."

"I'm not the ocean anymore," Katara said, "I'm still going to need the help."


*


"I'm afraid I don't understand," Master Pakku said, sounding anything but afraid. "She and the spirit of the ocean saved us? How did she know?"

"We may guard our secret from our own people," Yue said, "but we cannot guard it from the spirits themselves. She traveled to the spirit world, and was told where to find Tui and La; when she came back, she healed Tui, and rose with La to drive the ships away."

They had moved inside the chief's palace—Chief Arnook had sent away the small crowd that had begun to gather, ordering them to begin some basic repairs to the walls, and his wife had ushered them all back up the steps.

Katara admired Yue's ability to keep her tone patient; Katara would probably have started yelling five minutes ago.

"We owe her a debt of gratitude, then," Ukalah said, a little pointedly. "Without her aid, the moon would now be dead, and our city fallen."

"I'm not sure—"

Sokka rolled his eyes and elbowed her. "Come on, it's totally true."

"No, but—they don't owe me anything," Katara said. "I'm—I'm the Avatar." It had never sounded truer to her than it did right now. "It's my duty, my entire purpose, to protect people, to preserve the balance. It would be like thanking Suki for being a Warrior of Kyoshi, or Yue for being a Waterbender, or—or you, for being annoying."

"Oh, ha ha," Sokka muttered; but Yue was beaming at her, and Chief Arnook had started to smile.

"You are far too gracious, Avatar," Ukalah said, dipping her head in a tiny bow.

"Indeed," said Master Pakku, voice tinged faintly with sarcasm; but he didn't argue with the title, and a moment later, he dipped his head in a very slight nod.




Zuko glared back over the stern rail at the city, already tiny with distance, and let the metal heat under his hands.

They were safe, true; they had been safer than most, in fact, because before the invasion had even begun, Mizan had sent along orders for Zuko's ship to stay to the side. Out of the line of fire, in case Zhao should use the battle as an opportunity to destroy it once and for all—and, as it had turned out, also mostly out of the way of the giant wave. The deck had been swamped, but only up to Zuko's calves, and there had not been much damage.

"I realize you must feel disheartened, Prince Zuko," Uncle said from behind him.

Sometimes Uncle's powers of perception were just astonishing. The rail, Zuko noticed absently, was starting to glow faintly red where he touched it.

Uncle stepped up beside him and looked at him silently, and Zuko abruptly felt more tired than angry; the rail cooled again, and he let his hands drop to his sides.

"But all is not lost," Uncle said gently. "Sub-Admiral Zhao is gone, and the Avatar safely out of his grasp—"

"And ours," Zuko said.

"We, unlike Zhao, will have many opportunities to determine the course of the future." Uncle touched Zuko's elbow. "All is not lost," he repeated.

"And who is to say that traitorous lieutenant of his will not take up where he left off?" Zuko demanded. "Perhaps that is why she killed him—who would give the glory of capturing the Avatar away when they could instead take it for themselves?"

"You've never talked to her, Your Highness," Mizan said, a little sharp, and Zuko turned; she was standing a few feet back, arms crossed over her chest, giving him that look that said the only reason he hadn't hit the water was because she might hurt her back heaving him over the rail. "You watched her from around a corner once, and the rest of the time, you were pretending to be dead."

"And you spent hours chatting with her over tea?" Zuko said, dubious.

Mizan pursed her lips, unfazed. "We spoke," she said. "I can promise you, your highness: following in Zhao's footsteps is the last thing she aspires to."

"She is right, nephew," Uncle said. "The lieutenant knew we had hidden something from Sub-Admiral Zhao, but she did not betray us."

"And she wants to talk to us," Mizan added.

"... What?"

Mizan raised her eyebrows, and nodded at something behind them, expression carefully blank.

Zuko turned, and was met with the sight of the great flagship itself, easing gradually closer to their starboard side; there were Firebenders at the bow, and even as he watched, they repeated the signal that must have caught Mizan's attention: a flame rising and falling, the sign for truce. It only took one bender to make—the other two were moving a larger tongue of fire in a circle, calling any other ships who had survived the wave to gather.

"I strongly urge you to accept the offer, Your Highness," Mizan said. She'd been calling him that through the whole conversation; he knew what that meant.

He glanced at Uncle Iroh.

"You are right to be cautious, Prince Zuko," Uncle said diplomatically, "and perhaps we will find that she means us harm. But from what I have seen of her, she is an honorable woman; she would not call a truce and allow us safe passage to her ship only to ambush us once we set foot on deck."

"Yes, of course; she'll only attack us after," Zuko said skeptically. Uncle had seen her in Jindao, the same way he had—how could he assert that such a woman had honor?

"You never know," Mizan said, placid. "She might give us a head start."

The flagship was coming closer, the Firebenders' faces clearer; if they ran, Zuko knew, there was nothing to stop the woman from aiming her catapults at them and letting fly. "Very well," he said. "We'll wait for them."

"Yes, sir," Mizan said, and bowed.