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Of Shoes and Ships

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Katara and Suki set the canoe down outside Kyoshi's house; the dust had barely settled again before one of the warriors—Ayuko, maybe—came sprinting down the hill. "It's settled," she said. "There will be a feast for you tonight in the village hall—if it pleases you, Avatar."

"Say yes," Sokka hissed, somewhat less than quietly.

"Of—of course," Katara said, "that would be—thank you."

The girl smiled and bowed, so deeply it made Katara's stomach swoop uncertainly, and turned to head back up the hill.

"Hey," Sokka said, hurrying after her, "hey, wait—feast? What kind of food? Will there be sweet-cakes?"

"Ooo, good question," Aang murmured.

"You can't even eat any of it!" Katara risked whispering.

His face settled into stubborn blue lines. "But I can still look at it," he said, and floated away after Sokka eagerly.

Katara bit back a laugh and shook her head, pulling the nearest pack of supplies from the canoe. She would probably get it done more easily without him, anyway; not that he wouldn't do his best to help, but he wasn't always very organized about unpacking, and Katara liked knowing where everything was. It would save some yelling later for her to do it by herself.

Another pack landed in the dirt by her foot. "I'd be happy to help," Suki said.

Not by herself, then—but Suki agreed, laughing, that she would put everything just where Katara told her to, and nowhere else.

*

Kyoshi's home was dim and cool inside. It did show signs of recent repair to one wall, but it was still easy to tell that no one had lived in it for a very long time—there was something odd and still about the air. It had been kept reasonably clean, dirt floor swept smooth and neat; and though the tables were old, they were in remarkably good condition.

"We are careful to keep them in their places," Suki said, when she caught Katara looking curiously at one with a plank that was clearly a replacement. "They do not often need repairing; but when they do, we mark where they should stand, so they can be put back correctly."

"It seems like an awful lot of work to go to," Katara observed. She didn't mean anything particular by it, except perhaps that it was a little daunting to see exactly how respected Kyoshi was, even now—how high the bar was that Katara would be measured by, how likely that she would be found wanting. But when she glanced back, Suki was looking at her with a peculiar expression. Not angry, quite; closer to puzzled.

"You don't know very much about her, do you?" Suki said.

"No," Katara admitted, because it was entirely true: she knew only as much as Gran-Gran had told her. When all the Earth Kingdoms had bent before the armies of Chin the Conqueror, Kyoshi had stood firm; to save the remaining free people of the south, she had cut the southern islands from the coast with a sweep of her fan, and Chin had tumbled from the cliff she had carved at his feet. But everyone knew that story. Granted, far fewer people had any idea what Kyoshi's voice had sounded like; but Katara wasn't going to bring up the dream she'd had if she could help it.

"You knew about her husband, though," Suki said. "And her daughter."

Katara bit her lip. "Not exactly," she said slowly. "It—wasn't really me who knew that. I mean, I know it now; but I didn't—" She shook her head; she was babbling. "Never mind."

Suki stared at her a moment longer, eyes narrowed curiously, and then she smiled. "Well, if we're done with your things, I think there's something you should see, Avatar."

*

The shrine to Kyoshi was high on the hill, behind the village hall and away up another slope; between the gate and the shrine, the path was paved and edged with stone, carefully maintained.

There was a small, open pavilion to the side, with a stone basin full of water and a wooden dipper. "The temizuya," Suki said, and sluiced some water through her fingers. She cupped a little to her mouth, too, before gesturing to Katara to do the same. "We don't have a priest like the big towns, but we still shouldn't go in completely uncleansed."

They had to pass between two statues—lion dogs, Katara was pretty sure, with a few artistic liberties—before they could climb the steps, and Suki paused halfway up. "I've got a little rice," she said, "but you need something, too—does that tree have any buds on it?"

It did, despite the scattering of snow on the ground—a relatively late snowfall, according to Suki, and the tree must have been budding early. They weren't precisely flowers yet, but Suki assured Katara that Kyoshi wasn't a particularly demanding spirit.

They bowed when they went in, and left their offerings on a low table by the door; when Katara straightened up, the first thing she saw was Kyoshi's headdress, right in the middle of the room.

"Beautiful, isn't it," Suki said, hushed and not quite a question; and all Katara could do was nod. In the most literal sense, it was nothing extraordinary—no more ornate than the headdress Suki was wearing on her own forehead—but there was a weight and age and presence to it that made Katara feel like she ought to be shielding her eyes.

And the headdress wasn't alone: there were easily a dozen relics in the shrine, all carefully placed and faithfully preserved. There was a large vase to the side, glaze crackled with age, and behind it, a table with what had to be Kyoshi's fighting fans, propped up on stands and spread wide. There was a chest and a mat on the other side of the room, and the whole back wall of the place was covered with a massive painting; and at Katara's right hand, Kyoshi's robes hung on the wall, her boots before them.

"... Her feet were huge," Katara said, peering down at them; and Suki laughed.

"They were," she agreed. "She was a very big woman. She had the largest feet any Avatar ever had, many people say; and it is a lucky thing on this island, now, to bear a girl with big feet." She laughed again, and then tugged on Katara's wrist. "Come on, come look."

She led Katara to the back of the room, where the painting hung; and Katara recognized the shrine in the middle immediately. It was the same one they were standing in, though in the painting the roof was thatched rather than tiled, and the path had not yet been laid down in stone.

But it was not the focus of the painting—a crowd of islanders stood in front of the shrine, wearing blue without a hint of white, and Kyoshi stood before them, one hand upraised, a fan spread in the other. Her face, in profile, was calm and knowing and perfect; she looked exactly the way the Avatar ought to look, and something in Katara's chest turned heavy.

"It was done as part of the commemoration, a year after she broke the islands free," Suki said. "They say the painter did it with her eyes closed; she remembered it so vividly that she didn't have to look to guide her brush."

Katara turned to look at her; Suki was gazing at the painting almost rapturously, the war-paint she was still wearing striking in the dim light, and she looked inspired, strong, like she had never felt uncertain for a moment in her life. You'd be a better Avatar than I ever will, Katara thought, and she only realized she'd said it out loud when Suki swung her head around and gave her an incredulous look.

"I think you do yourself a disservice, Avatar," she said after a moment, gentle. "Kyoshi had nothing you do not also have. Yes, she broke a continent and wielded ancient elemental power and lived to be two hundred and thirty. But behind all that, she was just—" Suki gestured a little. "A person. A woman with sharp fans and big feet. She saw what needed to be done, and when no one else would, she did it." She paused and just looked at Katara, painted mouth curving, and her eyes were bright; she curled a warm hand around Katara's shoulder. "I've only known you for half an hour, and I already trust you to do the same thing."

It meant more to Katara than she had expected, to hear Suki say it; it turned the heavy thing in her chest to smoke, and before she could talk herself out of it, she leaned sideways and up and pressed a very tiny kiss to Suki's cheek. The paint was smooth against her mouth, not like skin; but she thought maybe she could feel the warmth of Suki's face, somewhere underneath it.

She probably should have apologized for it, but she couldn't find the words; she kept her eyes on the painting, and a moment later Suki reached over and took her hand.

There, see, she's not angry, Katara told herself, and made herself look: Suki was smiling at her, nothing but pleased, and her fingers were warm against Katara's. "Come on," she said, "a little behind the shrine is my favorite place to look at the ocean," and she tugged Katara away from the painting, out and down the steps, into the sunshine.