It was not as difficult as might be supposed, to follow the Grand Secretary through the palace at the pace he favored and yet keep a respectful distance, and make sure one's head remained lowered appropriately. Of course, Joo Dee had had a great deal of practice with it. The trick was simply to keep the Grand Secretary's heels in view, just barely within the upper periphery of vision.
Normally, easy enough. Today it was a little harder: directing her gaze upward so sharply in the necessary way was making Joo Dee's head ache. It had been too long since she had slept, and she was beginning to pay for it. But the city was at last secured, and soon she would finally be able to rest. Or—lie in her quarters with her eyes closed, at least. Whether it would bring her rest remained to be seen.
Doors were opened, somewhere ahead of the Grand Secretary. Not to the true throne room, where stood the great gilt throne that had held no one but kings of Ba Sing Se in five thousand years—that, Long Feng had ordered to be sealed off, so that it might remain the one thing in this place outside Princess Azula's reach. No doubt the princess would soon notice the discrepancy in the alignment of the interior walls, but by then there would have been time enough to remove the throne—to lower it through the floor, perhaps, and there bury it until the king returned. No other could be permitted to sit in it, and in this the Dai Li would not bend, not even for Fire princesses.
The princess had been shown instead to the largest and finest of the king's audience chambers, to a throne nearly as gilded but far less sacrosanct. The kingdom had fallen and yet was preserved, in more ways than one; the Dai Li surrendered and prevailed with the same action.
And perhaps one day they would even be forgiven for it.
Long Feng's heels stopped halfway up the length of the hall, and Joo Dee with them. The princess, ahead of them, was addressing one of her generals, and they had only just come near enough to hear her clearly: "—remaining battalions to the lower districts," she was saying, and the general moved—bowing, Joo Dee guessed, by the shuffling sound of it, and then the noise changed to footsteps, moving away.
"Your Highness," said the Grand Secretary; Joo Dee said nothing, it was not her place, but she waited a beat and then bowed, and when she straightened up again she let herself lift her head at last.
Princess Azula was looking at her. It lasted only a moment, the princess's gaze sharp and assessing; and then the princess looked at Long Feng, tilted her head, and smiled. "Grand Secretary—excellent," she said. "We'll be able to sort this problem out very quickly."
"Problem, Highness?" Long Feng said.
"Oh, yes," Princess Azula said, leaning forward in her throne. "The problem—it has to do with you, you see. You have done very well, Grand Secretary—"
"Thank you, Highness," Long Feng murmured.
"—and I am pleased with your service," Azula went on. "But now I find myself faced with one small issue that must be resolved: you simply cannot be trusted."
Her tone was faintly regretful, but held no doubt, no uncertainty—Joo Dee could imagine sounding the same way upon finding that a cup of water had been spilled across two weeks' worth of reports, upon telling a junior agent they would need to be recopied.
The room was silent. Joo Dee dared to aim a glance sideways at the Grand Secretary: Long Feng was not so ill-trained as to let himself look wrong-footed, but Joo Dee could see it nevertheless in the way he blinked twice, in the frown that wrinkled his brow ever so briefly before he smoothed it away and cleared his throat and said, "Your Highness—"
Princess Azula did not let him finish. "If you'd been bribed, that would be one thing," she said, conversational now—making a show of it, Joo Dee thought, so that no one else in this room would ever forget how easily it had been done, how little effort it had taken. "You're not a fool, Long Feng; you and I both know that I could double any price offered to you. If you'd hoped to secure greater power for yourself, even—you could have been my father's right hand in this city, and no one could ever have risen higher. But of all the things to turn you against your sovereign, in the end, you did it for—principle?" She shook her head, sighing, and sat back. "Principle simply can't be depended upon. You dethroned your king because you decided that he threatened something greater; how can I be sure you won't decide the same of me? No—I'm afraid it can't be risked." Princess Azula looked at Long Feng a moment longer, that sharp yellow gaze almost pitying, and then glanced at Joo Dee. "Kill him."
Long Feng had been staring up at Azula with studied incredulity, eyes narrowed—and that disbelief was its own sort of show, Joo Dee knew, the kind of reaction Long Feng had often been able to use to sway the king in the past.
But Princess Azula was not the king. Princess Azula did not depend on Long Feng's credence, would not pause and look at him more carefully and say, Oh—unless there is some reason that it would be unwise to do so? Long Feng had no doubt realized it, too, for at this last he turned to Joo Dee. His expression was carefully blank—to be horrified would be to acknowledge that the princess's command had some chance of being carried out, and that Long Feng would not do. But nevertheless there was some uncertainty in the way he looked at her, in the tension around his eyes, and in his voice when he said to her hurriedly, "I am your Grand Secretary, you cannot—"
"You are," Joo Dee agreed, and bowed to him—low, as low as all his years of impressive and dedicated service demanded. "The city above all, Grand Secretary," she added, as quietly as she could, and waited, still bowing.
He was Grand Secretary for a reason, and Princess Azula had spoken truth: he was not a fool. He had done well by the city, unimaginably well, to turn the Dai Li themselves into the instrument of Princess Azula's victory—they had been permitted to retain all their power, to be allowed to make use of all their knowledge, so that they might guide Ba Sing Se through this new future with the devotion and precision that was required. And Princess Azula needed them, for now; there were not enough Fire Nation soldiers in the city to defeat the Dai Li, not nearly, and the people accepted the authority of the Dai Li with far less resistance than they would have offered to any conquering army. Oh, many had fled in those early hours, before the city had been secured as it should have been. But many, many more remained, and yet there had been no riots, no uprisings—isolated spots of trouble in the Lower and Middle Rings, but no worse.
But Princess Azula had ordered Long Feng's death; and if they denied it to her, she would not forget it. They could, perhaps, afford to refuse her in this moment—she could not kill all of them herself, and had to know she would not fare well if they withdrew their support from her so early. But all that meant was that she would revenge herself upon them some other day when they could not afford it, when the balance was not in their favor; and then the city would pay the price.
Princess Azula needed to consider the Dai Li her own, needed to value them and all that they were able to do for her—but it would not happen if they disobeyed her now. Long Feng was a great and dutiful man, and conducted himself with thoughtfulness, righteousness, clear-eyed consciousness of his place in the universe; but his was but a single life, and the city was the city.
There was a moment's silence—and then a shushing of cloth. Long Feng, Joo Dee thought, tucking his hands into his sleeves; and she straightened and met his gaze.
There was horror there now, but it was overtaken even as she looked at him by a terrible kind of certainty. He did not want to die, it was stark upon his face, but he had heard what Joo Dee had said and he had understood it. He looked back at her with something that was nearly calm, and swallowed once; and then he glanced at Princess Azula and inclined his head. "The city above all," he murmured to Joo Dee, and closed his eyes.
Joo Dee bowed again, and as she bowed she took up the stone gloves from her sash, and took a deep slow breath. Best to make it quick, she thought; and then she stood straight, hurled the gloves outward, and bent.
"Neatly done, I suppose," Princess Azula said, once what remained had been taken away. She did not look entirely satisfied—another small victory, perhaps, to have done it cleanly and quietly where the princess would have preferred Long Feng pleading and weeping, Joo Dee herself reluctant and distressed.
All Joo Dee's victories would no doubt be very small ones, for a time. She supposed she should get used to it. Of course there would be a price for this—there always was, nothing could be accomplished without it, and Joo Dee even knew what form it would take. She would dream of it: this room, the throne, the princess watching; the way his face had reddened and then purpled, the sound his neck had made. She would wake afterward and her hands would shake.
She had paid like that for killing Princess Azula's own cousin. Time had given her the perspective she needed to see that it was not so steep a price, to save a city; and she was Dai Li. The city, above all.
"Thank you, Your Highness," Joo Dee said, and bowed again, and when she looked up at the princess afterward her face felt like it was not hers, like it was stone.
"High General Bujing and General Haiza have military matters well in hand," Princess Azula said, "but there will surely be a need for a civilian authority while I am traveling to the Fire Nation—one the city will accept, one who is familiar and experienced. One who will do what needs to be done. And not a Grand Secretary," the princess added. "I am sure the Dai Li have ways of sorting that out for themselves, and I think we can do better. Wouldn't you agree, Supreme Bureaucratic Administrator?"
Ah—no wonder the princess found herself dissatisfied. Joo Dee could see, now, how it would have been better if the execution had been worse: if Joo Dee had been hesitant, upset, but had killed a man who begged to live and had horrified herself by it. And then had been given this title, this authority, as reward—and what could she ever have refused to do for Azula afterward, having given in and done one thing so terrible already?
"As you command, Your Highness," Joo Dee said. "The Dai Li will humbly accept any opportunity to serve Your Highness as best Your Highness sees fit."
The princess narrowed her eyes, gaze turning sharp—she had wanted Joo Dee's acceptance, Joo Dee's alone, to bind Joo Dee to her as an individual. She was pleased with the Dai Li, she liked them and liked to make use of them; but she still did not understand them, not truly.
"If there is anything else—?"
"No, no," Princess Azula said, waving a dismissive hand. "I am certain there are a few newly pressing matters demanding your attention, Supreme Bureaucratic Administrator. I will send someone for you later so that we may discuss your new title in more detail."
"As you command, Your Highness," Joo Dee said, and backed out of the room.
Yin should have slept. Perhaps that would have made it easier—to fall asleep still lit up with the sheer joy of unexpectedly remaining alive, and then to wake to a new day, the delineation clean and sharp. No dark quiet hours watching the sky change; no need to wait, aware every moment, through the feeling of that joy retreating, like a long slow tide going out.
As it was, she could see herself in the expression of every single sailor who'd had the night's watch as they came to the bridge to be relieved of duty. Their faces were blank, almost, the jubilation drained away and a hollowness left behind where it had been—but with a flicker here and there of bewilderment, uncertainty. To survive a thing you'd thought would kill you was dizzying—which meant, stripping the giddiness and gladness away, that you were lurching, off-balance. Yin could read the question in their eyes because it was the same question she had spent all night asking herself: what now?
The Serpent's Pass was closed again behind them, so they were in no immediate danger from the fleet. Even less than they might have been otherwise—perhaps it was Yin's imagination, but the silhouette of the Pass against the early-morning sky seemed larger than it had been, more solid. Perhaps the fleeing Earthbenders had done more to it than just open and shut a gap out of gratitude.
So they had survived, and were alive, and would stay that way today. It only remained to be seen whether they would be able to say the same tomorrow; the day after; in a week, a month, a year—
"Have you been here all night?"
Yin turned in her chair and raised an eyebrow.
"Sir," Kishen added, ducking his head apologetically—and then smiling at her, which ruined the effect somewhat.
Yin couldn't quite find the right words to tell him to stop. "We must keep to our ranks," she said instead, half to herself. "We must keep ourselves in order. We did this to preserve our honor and standing as sailors of the Imperial Navy—"
"Even if the Imperial Navy disagrees, and will no longer have us," Kishen murmured, sounding amused.
Yin looked away.
"Sir?" Kishen said, more carefully now.
"We did not do this to—to break free of anything, to forsake our duty, to set aside the oaths that bind us. They'll say we have, they'll think we have, but we haven't. And we must hold to that, or none of it will mean a damn thing."
Kishen was silent for a moment, and then snorted, half a laugh huffed through his nose—that made Yin look at him again, incredulous, and when she did he laughed outright. "If you mean to chastise me, sir," he said, "then I—I apologize for making light, because I don't like to think I've displeased you. But if you think I was making light of you and what you've done, you're wrong. There is—" and here his mouth twisted for a moment, faintly bitter. "There is something worth mockery here, but it isn't you. That you take your duty more to heart than those who charged you with it, and that they'll call you traitor for it—that they'd execute you for it if they could only lay hands on you—I'll laugh at them for that if I please, sir."
"They'd execute you, too," Yin said; and it came out warmer than she'd expected it to, something in her chest now eased.
"Oh, I don't doubt it, sir," Kishen murmured, very wry. "Now, if I may ask—do you intend to sleep at all today, sir?"
Yin sighed and leaned back in her chair. "No," she said, "I do not think so. There is too much that needs doing."
Kishen raised his eyebrows, eloquent.
"We must have the squadron commanders back again, I think, and one must be appointed to the ships that lack one—those divisions that joined us from Paozun's fleet, especially, if there is no squadron flagship among them. And we must have reports from every ship's quartermaster."
Yin did not even have to interrupt him—he closed his own mouth, and she angled a glance up at him and felt grim satisfaction. That, at last, had wiped the smile off entirely. "Every ship," she repeated, firm, even though the look on his face made it clear that he now understood why she'd said it. "We must know exactly what we have, and how much of it there is. Perhaps if we start rationing immediately, we'll be all right for a little while; but it will get very bad soon enough. We did not do it to break free of anything, but nevertheless we have broken free—there will be no more supply convoys, no more cargo shipments." She shook her head. "We are on our own."
Mikama woke at the cry and groaned, feeling groggy and resentful until the meaning of the words struck her—and then she lurched up from the deck, grabbing for the rail, and tried to work out who had said it. Pakura or Bato, who were at the stern and bow respectively, or Takka, at the far rail, or—
A hand closed on Mikama's arm—Ukara, who yanked Mikama the rest of the way to her feet and said, "There."
She was pointing in a direction Mikama hadn't been expecting: toward the shore, which hadn't been there when Mikama had fallen asleep, rather than toward the open water where a good hundred Fire Nation battleships were presumably still lurking. Perhaps the mutinous commander they'd saved had figured out what had happened, or perhaps not—Hakoda hadn't been especially eager to test the limits of Fire Nation gratitude. Their little scouting vessel had slunk away from the rest of the escaped fleet in the night, with several large chunks of rock broken off the Serpent's Pass to defend themselves with if any of the other ships should come after them.
But: Ukara was not pointing toward a ship. Mikama squinted along the line of her arm for a moment without seeing anything, and then caught sight of something glinting—metallic, then—and moving. Undoubtedly Fire Nation, though it was still too far away to see any insignia clearly without the use of a glass.
And, Mikama realized, they would surely be suspicious. Even if whoever it was in that metal device had not heard about the mutinous commander, they would be suspicious of a ship that appeared to be Fire Nation but sailed in the North Yellow Sea.
The ship was small; there was morning mist rising off the water; perhaps they had not yet noticed. But they would soon, there could be no doubt of it, and it would be best if they had no chance to act on what they saw. Even now, Mikama thought, even now the glinting thing was slowing, angling nearer to the water.
"Quickly," Ukara said, and even as she said it and tugged at Mikama's arm, Mikama looked up toward the bow and saw one of the boulders on the main deck swing up into the air.
"I still say we keep it," Sokka said.
Katara rolled her eyes. "I know you like driving," she said, "but it's just a little bit conspicuous, don't you think?" And it's Fire Nation, she wanted to add, but bit her lip before the words made it out. She didn't want to say them with—with Prince Zuko right there, listening. Not because it would hurt him, she didn't care about that, but because maybe he'd object, maybe he'd argue, and then she'd have to argue back, and she wanted to talk to him even less than she wanted to dig her teeth into her own lip to keep her mouth shut.
She'd honestly half-expected him to just be gone when morning got there, frost melted off with the sun—but he hadn't been. She'd fallen asleep with her back to him, unthinking, and then woken up and turned around and actually felt herself be surprised to see him still there: sitting in the furthest corner of the tank's insides, back straight, silent, like he hadn't slept at all and wasn't planning to. Like they were the ones who couldn't be trusted.
It didn't matter. They were almost to the shore of the North Yellow Sea, now—they'd leave the tank behind, bury it or shove it in the water. And then they'd go their way, and Prince Zuko would go his, and they wouldn't have to look at him or talk to him or even think about him, ever again.
"Besides," Suki said, "we're nearly out of coal-bricks as it is. How would we ever keep it running?"
"I'm sure we could come up with something!" Sokka insisted. "Maybe we don't even need the coal—maybe Katara could just bend the water into steam in there—"
"Sure," Toph said, tilting her head. "And then we can just ride a tank with a giant Fire Nation seal on it through the Earth Kingdoms. I bet nobody'll have a problem with that."
Sokka sighed and did something with a couple levers and a pedal, and the tank began to slow. "We could paint over it," he grumbled, peering out the front window. "Or scrape it off or something. Honestly, you guys just have absolutely no imagination—"
Katara thought at first that he'd hit something. That was what it sounded like, a sharp metallic bang reverberating through the tank, and that was what it felt like: the whole thing shuddered, and Sokka yelped and yanked the wheel sideways so that the tank jerked left, sending Katara sliding into the nearest wall.
"What was that?" Toph said—Katara pushed herself upright and turned to see that Toph had her palms flat against the tank's side. Prince Zuko, past her, had almost toppled over; he caught himself and then his head came up, eyes wide, and Katara looked away before he could try to say something to her.
"Maybe somebody with a problem," Suki murmured.
Sokka eased another lever down, and the tank came shuddering to a halt. He was still staring out the front of the tank, leaning sideways and squinting. "No," he said, "no way, that's—that ship is totally Fire Nation."
"And you stopped?" Katara said.
Sokka wasn't listening. "Except they can't be. They couldn't know it was us—and why would a Fire Nation ship be throwing rocks at us?" He ducked down and grabbed for the handle of the nearest hatch, twisting it and then kicking the hatch open with a clang, and before Katara could stop him or grab him or tell him he was an idiot, he'd dropped through.
"No, he's right," Aang said, from where he'd been hovering near the ceiling. "That really doesn't make any sense."
Whatever the answer was, somebody was throwing boulders around, and Sokka wasn't going to be able to keep them from crushing him without Katara's help—she was leaning down and reaching for the hatch, and it was just luck that when Sokka's head popped back up through it, he didn't give her a bloody nose with his forehead. "It isn't," he said, "it isn't—"
"Sokka, what are you—"
The ship cracked open just like any one of the raiding vessels that had come to the south, the bow splitting like the long heavy jaw of a moose whale. But no raiders came out of it, no Fire Nation soldiers. It was like something out of a dream, disconcerting, to look up at that shape—which had always meant fear, destruction, death—and see Father stepping forward.
But it wasn't a dream: he was there, he was there. Katara had meant to start with Suki and Toph, to introduce them and explain, to tell him about Yue and Ba Sing Se and the king—but somehow she was running up the ramp instead, throwing her arms around Father and squeezing her eyes shut in case that would help make them stop stinging.
It was Sokka who ended up introducing the Water Tribe warriors. Most of them went by in a blur of unfamiliar but friendly faces—except for Bato, who must have recognized Suki right back, judging by the way he smiled. Friendly faces, and even more than that, trusted faces, which was so unusual at this point that Suki didn't quite know what to do. Even in Kanjusuk, they'd had to prove themselves, but there wasn't any opposition here, nothing they had to brace themselves against or take sides over. It was weird.
"—and this, obviously, is our dad," Sokka was saying, and then he added, belated, "Hakoda."
He probably meant it was obvious because of the way Katara was still wrapped halfway around the man, one arm squeezing tight around his back—and maybe also because of the way she was crying, not angry or unhappy but relieved, smiling even as she wiped tears off her face with her free hand.
But Suki thought maybe it would have been obvious anyway. Usually you talked about how people had pieces of their parents in them, but Suki had met Katara and Sokka first, and she couldn't help making the comparison the other way around: Hakoda had Katara's eyes and brow; Sokka's chin and jawline; something familiar in the general look of the nose, but not a perfect match to either one of them.
"The Warrior of Kyoshi," Hakoda said, nodding in acknowledgment. "Bato told us about you—Suki, is that right?"
"That's right," Suki said, and bowed—not as low as she could have, he didn't seem like he was somebody who stood on ceremony, but he was still the chief of the Southern Water Tribe.
"And that's Toph," Katara added, pointing; her voice creaked like a bad hinge, but the tears had mostly stopped, and she was still smiling. "She's been teaching me to Earthbend," and then, in a confiding sort of tone: "She's awful."
"Oh, please," Toph said, crossing her arms. "You're just as annoying as I am, sugar queen."
Katara scoffed, and Hakoda tried to hide a smile and mostly failed—it was so good, so easy, Suki could feel the tension she'd been carrying around since Ba Sing Se just sliding right out of her shoulders. And then—
"And," Katara said, and then froze and went silent. The smile was gone like someone had slapped it off, so fast it made Suki blink; blink, and then wince, once she'd figured it out.
The Water Tribe warriors were all glancing at each other uncertainly, and Hakoda looked from Sokka to Katara and back again.
"There was," Sokka tried, and then grimaced and looked away—Suki reached out and caught his hand.
"It's a long story," she said, quiet, and let herself think about it—losing Yue; getting her back, finding her in that cavern with Sokka, the rush of relief; losing her again—just long enough to give Hakoda a chance to see it in her face.
And Hakoda—Hakoda was a warrior, Hakoda had lost people. Hakoda knew what "long story" meant when you said it like that. He looked at Suki a moment longer and then down at Katara, and moved his hand from Katara's shoulder to her hair, gentle. "Well, as it happens," he murmured, "we have a long story of our own to tell you."
"Yeah, apparently," Sokka said, glancing past Hakoda. The Water Tribe warriors were nearly all to Hakoda's right; but to his left there were five more, all men, and they were dressed in a familiar shade of green. More Water Tribe warriors, just disguised—or at least that was what Suki had assumed, except Sokka waved a hand at them and added, "Because I have no idea who those guys are."
"I would imagine you don't," Hakoda agreed. "But before we each tell our long stories, there seems to be one more person you have yet to introduce?"
"What?" Sokka said.
Hakoda raised his eyebrows, and looked pointedly behind them—back toward the long gleaming bulk of the tank, where Prince Zuko stood, still in green himself, awkwardly framed from the shoulders up by the stark black curve of the tank's insignia.
"Oh," Sokka said. "Right. That guy."
Sokka sucked in a breath, as though preparing to explain—and then let it back out again, staring at Prince Zuko with a bewildered sort of look. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "I'm not even really sure where to start."
"It doesn't matter," Katara said.
It came out loud, heavy, hard—like throwing a boulder, Katara thought; but then she was an Earthbender now, after all.
Sokka turned to her, startled, and even Suki's eyes were a little wide. "Katara," Suki said.
"It doesn't matter," Katara repeated, and let go of Father so she could step forward. She'd been yanked so quickly from fear to relief, she was still so tired—her cheeks were still damp, cold, from the tears that were drying on them, but she wasn't crying anymore. She didn't know how she felt, or whether she was feeling anything at all, except certain. "He's leaving."
Prince Zuko didn't seem to agree, judging by the way he wasn't moving. He swallowed twice and then said, "Avatar," very low. The sound of his voice alone made Katara want to punch him in the face, but she settled for ignoring him, keeping her gaze on Sokka as though Prince Zuko hadn't spoken at all.
"We're done with him," she told Sokka. "He threw fireballs at us, he attacked Suki's village, and he would've taken me and dragged me back to his father without a second thought if Yue hadn't stopped him in the north. We made a promise and we kept it, we got him out. We're done."
"That girl," Prince Zuko said. "Your—friend. You want her back, don't you?"
Katara didn't answer, didn't so much as let herself glance at him; but she couldn't do anything about Sokka.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, we do."
"Sokka," Katara hissed.
"And I—my uncle," Prince Zuko said. "Azula has them both—"
Suki huffed out half a laugh, even though nothing about any of this was funny. "You and your uncle think the same way," she said, shaking her head, and then, when Prince Zuko said nothing—did he look angry? Surprised? Confused? Katara didn't allow herself to check—she clarified: "He said the same thing to convince us to help him find you."
"But I have to tell you," Sokka added, "you're out of your mind if you think we're going back into Ba Sing Se."
"You won't have to," Prince Zuko said. "Azula won't leave them there. She'll take them back to the Fire Nation—"
That, finally, was enough to justify it: Katara rounded on him, all pretense that he didn't exist set aside, and crossed the space between them, half a dozen quick steps. She wanted to grab him, shake him, except she didn't want to touch him; she settled for shoving him instead, the briefest possible contact a fair price to pay for the satisfaction of watching him stumble backward into the side of the tank. "Where?"
"Katara!" Aang said, sharp and unhappy, but Katara didn't answer, didn't look at him. He didn't understand—his people had died, but they'd done it while he was sleeping in the ice. He hadn't had to watch it happen. He didn't understand anything.
Zuko had flung out an arm fast enough to keep himself from actually falling to the ground, but even once he had his balance back under him, he didn't move. He stayed where he was, twisted half away from her, shoulders pressed against the metal behind him, and the look on his face was uncertain, wary, even as he tilted his chin up. One day, Katara thought distantly. One day the whole Fire Nation was going to know who she was and what she could do, was going to look at her exactly like that, and when it did—when it did, oh, she was going to enjoy it—
"You're not going without me."
"Tell me where," Katara said, reaching out again. She didn't know what she meant to do—slap him or shove him again, push him into the ground with her bending and leave him there—so maybe it was for the best that somebody caught her by the wrist before she could do it.
"Whoa, whoa, hang on," Toph said, and squeezed once, warningly, before she let Katara go. Sugar queen suddenly didn't seem like the right nickname anymore, she thought. Then again, Katara probably wasn't concentrating real hard on the earth this particular second. Maybe when all you were doing was looking at him, it was hard to tell that the guy's heart was going like a rabbit dove's. "I get it, okay, you don't like him—but if he's right about where Yue will be—"
"—then we need him to tell us—"
"Hey, if you want to try to beat it out of him on your own time," Toph said, "that's your business. As it is, you're half right: we need him. Unless you were planning on finding somebody else who knows their way around the Fire Nation and has a really good reason to help us get there?"
Katara was silent. Except possibly for the noise of her teeth grinding.
"And, look, I told you that you were done with Earthbending," Toph added, "which means you need somebody to start teaching you Fire—"
"Not him," Katara snapped.
Toph threw up her hands. Sometimes Katara had a little too much stone in her. "Come on, Katara, he's right here. Where else are we going to get—"
"No, hey, okay," Sokka said, before Katara could start righteously lecturing Toph the way she obviously wanted to do. "Okay, fine. Nobody said it had to be him. But maybe he knows someone else who could do it."
Katara huffed out a disbelieving breath. "As if any of them would," she said.
"I'm sorry, are we forgetting about that lady who stabbed Zhao in the back for us?" Sokka said, tapping a fingertip against his chin and wrinkling up his brow in a parody of thought. "Or the thing where yesterday the Dragon of the West helped you break me out of an Earth Kingdom prison?"
Katara had gone quiet again; nothing about the way she was holding her head, her shoulders, suggested that she'd given in, but she eased back half a step from the guy—who stayed back against the tank, but straightened up.
"Anyway," Sokka said, breezy, as though there hadn't been a pause—for somebody as loud and pushy as he could be, he was awfully nice sometimes, Toph thought. "Maybe he can help us find somebody—or, hey, maybe the books in the university library were right, and you could learn it from a dragon, if there are any left. Either way, we could use him."
Katara sighed, sharp and irritated, through her nose—but when she spoke again, she sounded half as angry. Twice as annoyed, hard and sour and unhappy; but half as angry. "You were the one who wanted to leave him behind, in the city."
"Well, sure," Sokka conceded. "That was when I thought he was dead weight who was totally going to get us caught. We hadn't even stolen Tanky yet, we were still like three-quarters doomed. But we made it, and now—look, you have to admit that he knows more about getting around in the Fire Nation than anybody else who's willing to take our side, even if he's only doing it so he can save his uncle. And if we're seriously going to go charging into the Fire Nation to get Yue back, we could use all the help we can get."
"We can do it without him," Katara insisted.
"We could, yeah, maybe. We could also slap ourselves in the face all day, but that doesn't mean we should. Come on, Katara—"
"We don't have to decide right now," Suki said, before Katara could reply. She still had one hand tangled up with Sokka's—she reached out with the other and set it, steady, against the ridge of Katara's shoulder; and Katara didn't soften, but she didn't shrug the hand off, either. "Let's get our things and figure out what to do with the tank—"
"Tanky," Sokka murmured, insistent.
"—with Tanky," Suki agreed, and her tone was still sober, calm, but Toph was pretty sure she'd started smiling, just a little. "And then we can talk it over some more and figure out what to do next. All right?"
Katara let out a long slow breath. "All right," she said, and then turned away from the guy without so much as a backward glance and ducked down under the tank's side.
There was a moment's silence, broken only by the sound of Katara fumbling with the hatch—Toph turned toward the Water Tribe crew, and wondered idly just how weird that conversation had sounded to everybody who wasn't them.
"... So, you have a very, very long story to tell us," Chief Hakoda said.
In the end, they let Sokka bid a heartfelt farewell to Tanky, and then Toph and Katara used some of the stone underneath the machine to move it over until they could push it into the sea. They'd escaped from Ba Sing Se and Azula knew it, but she didn't know how or which way they'd gone, and it was definitely for the best if it stayed that way.
But knowing that didn't prevent Sokka from making a deeply tragic face as he watched Tanky sink. Suki bit her lip to keep herself from smiling and reached out for his hand again—it had to be at least the fourth time today that she'd done it, and she felt foolish and obvious, but she couldn't seem to stop—and she stood with him and waited until the last of the bubbles had surfaced.
"I'll come back for you someday, buddy," Sokka told the water mournfully, and then sighed.
Suki gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder; and he turned and looked at her, expression thoughtful and a little wry for just a moment before his eyes narrowed.
"You want to laugh at me, don't you?" he said.
"A little," Suki agreed, and let the smile show at last—and then, impulsive, leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Come on," she said, and tugged on his hand. "There's a couple of long stories waiting for us."
In terms of the time it took, in the end it was almost a perfect trade. Hakoda told them everything the Water Tribe warriors had been doing, from the moment they'd left Bato behind in the west to saving the day in Bokjeo, plus their trip to the South Yellow Sea, which had meant leaving the rest of the tribe behind in the southeast—"and no doubt they are very curious as to where we are and what has happened to us," Hakoda said, looking rueful, "for I am sure they have neither seen nor heard anything of us since we sailed up the river."
All the way to the almost ridiculous situation they'd found themselves in when they were given custody of Kuei's messengers—and then Katara had interrupted with a gasp, saying, "You—you were the ones who were sent to Shuming Wo," and then it was her turn to give the whole ridiculous eclipse explanation yet again, except two or three times as long as usual with everything that had happened to them in Ba Sing Se hitched onto the back end.
"Well," one of the messengers said, when Katara was finally finished. "That clarifies a great deal." He exchanged quick glances with the other four. "I suppose that is as worthy a task as any to undertake next, if we cannot return to Ba Sing Se."
"What task?" Toph said.
"The original message we were intended to share said nothing of this." The man shrugged. "We were only to request that a delegation be sent to Ba Sing Se to discuss a matter of grave military importance—I assume this was the matter in question?"
"Yes," Katara said.
"At that time, I can only guess it was judged better to be vague than to risk the Fire Nation learning what we knew. But now—" The man angled a glance over his shoulder, in the direction of the distant smoke still rising. "Now there is no one left but us to explain the situation. Perhaps the remaining free kingdoms will still be able to make use of the knowledge, one way or another."
"Well!" Hakoda said, and slapped his hands against his thighs. "If we must bid you farewell, then we had better do it properly."
Between the supplies on the Fire Nation ship and what was still in their packs, there was more than enough food to make a midday feast—and, better still, an endless well of fond chatter, teasing, and laughter. When the food was nearly all gone, one of the Water Tribe women started asking Suki questions about her fans, and it became clear that it would be easier to show than tell: Suki hauled Sokka to his feet and then tossed him a fan, and grinned at him when he caught it neatly by the handle.
They were maybe halfway through a quick set of paired exercises when Suki noticed. The Water Tribe warriors were seated, all in a circle, hooting at and cheering for Sokka; Katara was next to her father, Toph not far away and blithely making blind jokes with the Earth Kingdom messengers; but where was Prince Zuko?
Suki spun, ducked, and then on her next spin, a slower one, deliberately looked away from her own outstretched hand and let her eyes sweep over the ground around them. Plains, all plains—the ground rolled a little, but not high enough or low enough to hide Zuko unless he were crawling, and he couldn't possibly expect to escape Katara by getting into the water—
A shadow. Suki waited until she had the chance to turn around again and check: it was him. He'd tucked himself away by the bow of the ship, but the shade it cast wasn't quite enough to hide him with noon so barely past. And he was just standing there, silent, awkward—had he even bothered getting any food?
It took her another turn, past Sokka and around, to realize that he was moving; she almost stopped and shouted a warning, except he wasn't actually moving very much. His hands twitched, now and then—they were in loose fists, twisting one way or another for a moment before relaxing again—and he had one foot just a bit in front of the other, his weight shifting forward and then back, forward again, no obvious pattern.
Except, Suki saw after another couple minutes, there was a pattern: Sokka. The way Zuko was moving matched up almost exactly to Sokka, a beat behind and sometimes a little more aggressive, and all at once Suki knew what he was doing and why. She'd seen her girls doing it, back at home—impatient, bouncing on the balls of their feet while they waited for a sparring match to finish, and sometimes half fighting it themselves while they stood there. And Zuko—Zuko had those paired swords he liked so much. Or did he? Even if he'd had weapons with him when the Dai Li came for him, Suki thought, they would never have let him keep them.
She flared her fan and whipped it toward Sokka, snapping it closed just long enough to swing it past his outstretched arm without hurting him before letting the fan's own weight pull it open again—and he did nearly the same thing just above her knee, in a move that would have sliced her thigh open if he'd timed it wrong. But he didn't time it wrong: he was perfect, they were perfect, and she didn't realize until she'd stopped moving that she was grinning at him fiercely, teeth showing.
The Water Tribe warriors didn't know how hard it had been, how far they'd come. They hadn't been there in the training hall on that quiet spring morning when he'd knelt to her, or watched her put Kyoshi's paint on him for the first time; they hadn't seen any of the long slow hours she'd spent showing him how to move his wrists to make the heavy fans work for him instead of against him. But they cheered anyway, loud, and Suki beamed at Sokka helplessly and then turned away before she could give in to the urge to tackle him to the ground and kiss him all over his stupid face.
She swung her fan shut and accepted a half-dozen quick congratulations, pats on the back and friendly admiration, and then they let her through—the Water Tribe warriors were kind to her, but Sokka was the one who was theirs. Which was fine, because this way she could probably talk to Zuko for at least a minute or two without anybody interrupting.
He saw her coming and looked away, as if to ignore her before she could ignore him first—but she didn't stride past him, didn't veer away to head up the ramp into the ship, and when she came to a stop a few feet from him and cleared her throat, he grudgingly looked up again.
"You use swords, right?" she said.
"Two of them," Suki prodded.
Zuko's jaw worked for a moment, but he was smart, or maybe scared; he didn't glare. "Yes."
"I'm guessing the Dai Li didn't give you a chance to use them."
"No," Zuko agreed. "No, they're with my—"
He cut himself off so quickly Suki couldn't even begin to guess what word it was he didn't want to say—not even the first sound had made it out.
"Well," Suki said after a moment, when Zuko didn't seem likely to continue. "This ship they stole might be a scouting vessel, but it probably still has an armory. You should take a look and see if there are any decent blades in there."
That, at last, put an expression on his face that wasn't wariness, distaste, or frustration: just sheer surprise.
"What?" Suki said.
"You—why would you tell me that? I'm the last person you should want taking my pick of a Fire Navy armory."
Ah, Suki thought. He'd misunderstood.
She took her time, because if there was anything that leading the Kyoshi Warriors had taught her, it was to not do anything in haste unless you had to. Quickly, sure; in haste, no. She looked out over the water, squinting against the midday sun, and took one deep breath, and then, slow, a second. She let herself feel the weight of the fan that was still in her hand, let herself think about all the things she could do with it when all she was up against was one unarmed boy; and then she stopped thinking about those things, and carefully turned the fan in her hand so that her grip was holding it shut.
"I think there's something I should clear up," she said, meeting his gaze again. "I'm not on your side, and you should never make the mistake of thinking that I am. You want something and you think helping Katara will let you get it; and I'm on Katara's side. As long as you're with her, I want you armed and armored and everything in between—I want you to have fifty swords, I want you setting people on fire with a flick of your fingers." She paused and leaned in a little, so that he would try to lean back—try and then run up against the side of the ship, which he did, and she could see in his face how abruptly conscious he was that there was nowhere for him to go. "But when you attacked my village, you hurt a lot of people that I care about. You hurt them and you didn't even care—you weren't even trying to. You weren't thinking about them at all, except as something that was in your way. I'm not going to forget that."
He said nothing.
"Do you understand?" Suki said, very calmly.
He opened his mouth—closed it—opened it again. "Yes," he said at last, low, and then looked away.
"Good," Suki told him, nodding once, and then she turned and walked off, unhurried, one deliberate step at a time.
"If you tell me we are going to keep sitting here lazing about, I will be forced to do something drastic."
Itara pursed her lips and did not let herself smile.
"Scream," Akkama elaborated after a moment, gesturing in a gleaming sweep with her extremely large knife. "Vomit. Cry."
"You have never cried in your life," Itara said, very calm. "You do not know how to cry."
"I could learn," Akkama muttered, and then flipped the knife in her hand so the blade spun, flashed, fell—a leaping fish. Akkama was very good at throwing knives.
And, truthfully, she was not the only one whose impatience was getting the best of them, though she was perhaps the loudest about it. It had been weeks, nearly a month, since Hakoda had left them behind to sail off up the Tai San after what had looked like at least half of the Fire Navy, and there had been no sign yet of his return. There was no reason to assume that he was dead, either; but whether he had fallen in battle or had been captured, or had simply decided to wander about the Earth Kingdoms on foot for a while, something had prevented him from coming back to them.
And it was not as some of the Earth Kingdom soldiers liked to say: Hakoda was not the firewood beneath their pot or the head to their snake, or whatever other overcomplicated idiom Min Kyung might murmur behind his sleeve. But he was their chief, and their leader, and their friend; and even Akkama, impatient as she was, did not like to think of leaving him behind. Or those who had gone with him—sisters, brothers, cousins, all.
But the kingdom of Bongye was as secure now as it could hope to be while still at war with the Fire Nation. And, as a rule, the people of the Southern Water Tribe were not a people much used to inaction.
"Nothing remains for us to do here," Akkama said, as though she'd sensed the direction of Itara's thoughts and sought to press the advantage. "The Fire Nation has turned its attention elsewhere—the evidence we have seen of that is why Hakoda left as he did in the first place."
"And if he and those who went with him have been captured," Itara said, "or discovered—if they have been injured in battle, or separated, and each should fight their way free and come here—"
"Then they will be tended to!" Akkama threw up her hands. "Bongye owes us a debt and will not forget it. They will be tended to, Min Kyung will tell them where we have gone; we will leave them a trail as wide and clear as that of a bloodied tiger seal."
"And are you truly so eager to rush to battle?" Itara said, allowing her tone to turn a little chiding. They had suffered losses already, greater ones than any of them liked to think about—and would suffer more, if they left the safety of Bokjeo's walls and went out to find themselves a new fight.
But, of course, Akkama was no weedy youth to be talked into second-guessing herself. She gave Itara a flat look and leveled the knife at her. "That we are here at all is because Hakoda saw a need and offered us up to fill it. We would never have come were we not already agreed that there are things worth defending that have no defenders except us, or too few of them. There are many people who need our help—it is only that none of them are in Bokjeo any longer."
"Akkama," Itara said, and was grateful when Unaya came skidding in to interrupt, because she did not know what words she meant to put after.
"Akkama, Itara," Unaya said, bright-eyed—she, too, was glad to have something to do, Itara thought, even if it was only to run and fetch them from wherever she'd come from. "There are ships—ships in the bay."
"Hakoda?" Akkama said, with sudden close attention, but Unaya shook her head.
"We do not think so," Unaya said, and then hesitated. "That is—well. Kozuda thinks you had better come and look for yourselves."
The harbor of Bokjeo was walled—it very nearly hadn't been, when they'd first arrived, but given a little breathing room, a few legions of Bongye's best Earthbenders had repaired the walls with ease. There were hardly any scorch marks on them these days.
Kozuda was perched on the walltop, because of course he was: he had spent more time on the walltop than not since Hakoda's departure. Akkama had more than once compared him—not unfavorably—to a polar bear dog, left behind while others ventured out on a hunt. And Itara could not deny that it was easy enough to imagine him still there even after the war was over, after his hair had gone as gray as Akkama's, waiting patiently for Hakoda to return and tell him he could move.
Itara had looked up from the inner wall or the shore many times and seen him there, a borrowed spyglass held to his eye, with an easy patient stance that said he intended to remain so for hours if allowed. But now that was all gone—the spyglass was still there, of course, but Kozuda was leaning out over the walltop, frowning fiercely, the line of his shoulders bunched up tight.
And when they drew nearer, it was easy to see why. There were ships in the bay—more than one, which meant it was not Hakoda, or it was but he had been followed, and that could not be a good thing—
"A Fire Nation fleet?" Akkama said, with poorly-disguised interest.
Kozuda must have heard her, but he remained as he was, the glass to his eye, for a long moment—and that meant the answer must be no, Itara thought, for surely if the fleet were Fire Nation he would have spoken up with urgency.
But if the fleet were Earth Kingdom, why would he have asked Unaya to fetch them, and why would he still be frowning so thunderously?
"See for yourself," he said at last, and handed Akkama the spyglass.
She looked, sweeping the end back and forth so as to survey the whole bay, and then she also frowned. "Huh," she said.
"What is it?" Itara said.
"There are Fire Nation ships," Akkama said, "but I do not think it is a Fire Nation fleet."
"Perhaps they have been captured," Kozuda said.
"If they have," Akkama said, leaning a little further over the walltop, "then their crews have also been bribed, or tortured, or otherwise bent to service. I see more than one Firebender—and they are not all on Earth ships, but neither are they all on Fire ships. They are—they are shared, I think," and her tone was wholly disbelieving.
And for good reason: there were exceptions now and then, but most Fire Nation soldiers and sailors were not willing to be captured or ransomed. The Fire Lord's explicit policy, Itara suspected. Some of the soldiers who had been defeated at Bokjeo had killed each other rather than be taken, when they had found their line of retreat cut off.
"Perhaps it is an Earth kingdom that has been captured, then," Itara said, though she knew even as she said it that it made only a little bit more sense. Perhaps—perhaps—if they truly felt themselves in direst need, a victorious Fire Nation fleet might repair and make use of Earth ships they had damaged, instead of scuttling them or leaving them to burn. But the Fire Nation's contempt for Earth Kingdom vessels was well known; it was not likely. And Itara had seen with her own eyes the great fleet whose movements Hakoda had left them to assess. There had been no other fleet since—so what victory could there have been for the Fire Lord on the west side of the bay? What attack could have been launched, powerful enough to conquer Cheolla or Yeolhae and yet subtle enough for Kozuda and his spyglass to have somehow missed any sign of it?
"Well!" Akkama said, tossing the spyglass back to Kozuda with sudden energy. "Perhaps we had better sail out there and ask."
"And if they sink us for it?" Kozuda said, severe, shaking his head—but this was a fight Akkama would win, Itara thought, because now she had a reason beyond her own impatience. And she had not been wrong, before: surely they could leave word for Hakoda, surely he would have no trouble finding them. Bato had done it, traveling three-quarters of a continent alone.
They were here because Hakoda had wished to make a difference. If they continued to do so without him—oh, it was a crime in the Earth Kingdoms, in the Fire Nation, to act without orders, but Hakoda was not a general and they were not his soldiers. They were here to defend what was defenseless, and Bokjeo was not defenseless any longer.
"If they sink us for it, we will have earned it," Itara said, and watched Akkama's smile turn fierce.
Hakoda let his head drop back against the hull of the ship and closed his eyes.
The rest of himself, he kept very still, or at least he tried to. Katara had stayed by him all day, had told him a very great deal about Suki—happily—and then about Toph—loudly—and then, very low and a little bit halting, about Princess Yue; and then she had fallen asleep against his side, and he wouldn't wake her now for the world.
While she had been awake, he had made an effort to listen with the kind of calm she seemed to need from him, to smile at the right times and look grave and sorry when it was warranted—but now that she wasn't looking at him anymore, he could admit to himself that he had no idea how to feel about it all. There was a strangeness to it even when the story of her travels was set aside; to have Katara, his Katara, here in the Earth Kingdoms, and not even fighting at his side but simply crossing his path on a quest all her own. She was so much taller than he remembered.
And then everything she had had to tell him—it was a miracle his head was even able to hold it. Just hearing her talk about the North at all was a wonder, when there had been no word from them since nearly the beginning of the war, since Mother had made her way south; and then Katara had, between yawns, finished that part of the story by explaining that she had traveled to the spirit world, healed the moon, and become the ocean. Legends rose up in the wake of every Avatar, of course, but that—that was a story that would last, that would be told the way Mother already told the stories of Clever Tukula, of Itim the Hunter, of Hakira paddling out into the ancient spirit-ocean to save the new-made stars from drowning. And thinking of some great-grandchild of his, gray-haired and wise, leaning over the fire at night to tell sleepy children the story of Katara—it made Hakoda feel like he needed to catch his breath and couldn't. And there was so much more still left undone, undone and Katara's responsibility to do; and Katara had never, ever liked to leave a thing unfinished—
"How many people do you think ever get to say the Avatar fell asleep on them?"
Hakoda smiled even before he turned his head—Sokka had kept his voice low, but it still wasn't hard to tell that it was he who'd spoken. "Whatever the breadth of their ranks," Hakoda murmured, as solemnly as he was able, "I am honored to be numbered among them."
Sokka grinned, bright, and lowered himself to the deck. It wasn't quite evening, but still late enough that the light had changed, and left Sokka's face washed half in shadow; it was easy for a moment to look at him and pretend that two years hadn't passed, that he was no older, no different, and had never gone anywhere Hakoda hadn't.
It was a good moment. But, Hakoda thought, it wasn't fair to Sokka to hold onto it, and when it passed, Hakoda let it go. They still had not gone ice-dodging, and probably wouldn't have the opportunity to do it properly for at least another year, at best. That didn't mean Sokka was a child.
So Hakoda should not talk to him as though he were one. "She would answer me as honestly as she could, I know," Hakoda said, "and yet she still might not be able to tell me the truth, so I will ask you. Is she all right?"
Sokka looked at him, and then away; the amusement had drained out of his face and left it strange, sharp-edged, fierce and weary at the same time. "I think so," he said slowly, and then sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. "It's been hard sometimes, and I won't pretend it hasn't. A lot of things have gone wrong. But we've done the best we knew how, and we're—we aren't going to stop. She isn't going to stop, and we're going to help her, and she knows that. So I think she's all right."
Hakoda watched him for a moment, and then said, careful, "And you? Are you all right?"
That, at last, drew Sokka's gaze out of the middle distance and back to Hakoda. He blinked, and then his brow furrowed. He looked as though he were surprised—as though, Hakoda thought, that were not a question he had expected would be asked.
"Yeah," he said, "yeah, I'm—sure. I'm fine." He glanced, deliberate, at Katara's sleeping face, and then his mouth quirked confidingly. "I'm not the one everybody's expecting to save the world."
"No," Hakoda agreed, but he did not look away; Sokka had answered, and fairly enough, but there was something about it that had the feeling of a dodge, a deflection, and Hakoda was not satisfied with it. "I have missed you a great deal," he tried, after a moment's pause.
Sokka groaned—quietly, Hakoda thought, still so mindful of his sister even in the midst of his dramatics—and threw a hand over his eyes, embarrassed. "Father."
"I have not seen you in years," Hakoda said firmly. "I am allowed."
Sokka huffed as though to disagree, but said nothing.
Hakoda hesitated—but it was down to nothing but luck, such luck, that they had all found one another here at all, and who knew when they would see each other again? Or whether they would. Hakoda did not like to think it, but he was not a fool; surely Sokka would be all right, with the Avatar and a healer and his sister at his side, all in one, but Hakoda might not be so lucky. No, he had to say it, and he had to say it now. "I have missed you a great deal. And you should know—you should know that I have imagined, more times than I can tell you, what it would have been like if you had come with me.
"I could, perhaps, have set aside tradition. You were so nearly old enough, and we had too few warriors as it was. We keep the old ways for good reason, but I could have insisted. I chose not to, but there were many days when I wished that I had, many days when I wondered whether I had chosen rightly." And other days when he had been sure that he had—that the choice had been hidebound, and, worse than that, selfish; but that Hakoda would rather be hidebound and selfish than have to watch Sokka's gut be opened by a Fire Nation blade—
But Sokka should not hear that. Hakoda cleared his throat, and said, "But I can tell you now, in all honesty, that I am glad to have chosen as I did."
He'd lowered his gaze to the deck while he spoke, but he raised it now to Sokka's face and could not decide what he saw there: relief? Uncertainty? Wariness? All three, in a flickered progression so rapid Hakoda could not quite pull them apart?
"Glad," Sokka echoed, and then paused and wet his lips. "Because—because you—"
He trailed off, and Hakoda took the opportunity to finish the thought for him. "Because I am so grateful to think you were able to be there for your sister," Hakoda said, "and because I cannot bear to think how much harder all this would have been for her if you had not."
Sokka looked at him and then off toward the rail, blinking—three times, four, five, though perhaps it was only because the dying light of the sun was now shining fully into his eyes. He laughed a little, barely more than a stuttered breath, and ran a hand over his hair. "Funny you should say that," he said finally. "Sometimes I felt like—" He stopped, shook his head, and then started again. "I mean, Katara, she's—she had her know-it-all dead guy, right, and two master benders, and a Kyoshi warrior. And herself, let's not forget, which is like having four more benders plus somebody who's really handy with a club. Sometimes it just didn't seem like there was all that much that I—you know, that I added—"
Hakoda had been listening patiently, struggling to figure out where Sokka intended to go with this, but all at once it was clear to him. He said instantly, "Nonsense—"
Somewhat more loudly than he should have, he thought, but then it turned out not to matter, because he was almost immediately drowned out by Katara's "What?", nearly a shout, from about the level of his elbow.
"What—you—you were supposed to be asleep!"
"Well, I'm not," Katara said, sitting up and crossing her arms, looking downright thunderous. "Are you serious?"
Sokka opened his mouth again and then closed it, shrugging one shoulder with a stiff, clumsy motion.
"Oh, please," Katara said, and shuffled forward onto her knees so she could catch Sokka's wrists in her hands. "Sokka, if I want benders or soldiers or—or spirits, whatever, they're all over the place." Her tone was wry, but she shook him by her grip on his arms after she said it, emphatic. "We can hardly go anywhere without tripping over them."
Sokka snorted an amused breath out his nose, and met her gaze.
Katara shook him again, more gently, and then let go—or, no, just loosened her hold enough to shift until she was holding his hands instead. "But there's only one of you," she said. "And maybe I could've done this without you, or maybe I couldn't have—it doesn't matter, because I wouldn't want to. It would've been so much worse—" and then she seemed to suddenly run out of words, and instead of trying to keep talking, she lurched forward and threw her arms around his neck.
She couldn't see the way he squeezed his eyes shut as his arms came up to hug her back—but Hakoda could, and he watched, chest aching, until Sokka eased them open again, blinked twice, and then said into Katara's hair, shakily, "Right? You probably would have forgotten how to have any fun at all."
Katara laughed helplessly into his shoulder, and then drew back far enough to punch him in the arm.
"Now, now, children," Hakoda said, mock-stern, as he might have when—when they were children still, he thought, throat tight, and then he caught each of them by the hand and squeezed, and when they smiled at him, he smiled back.
After the Kyoshi warrior had walked away from him, no one else had come near him; no one else had so much as looked at him, and Zuko could not say he was sorry for it.
He did not—he did not know what to think, what to say, what to do. He was not even entirely sure how he felt. Everything about this day had almost the quality of a dream, as though if Zuko moved too quickly or thought too hard about how little sense it all made, he would come to understand that it could not possibly be real, and wake. It reminded him of standing in the street with Qingying, the way he had half-expected Father to know and somehow appear—to punish him, to inflict reality upon him, to tell him that what was happening was too ridiculous to be permitted to happen and would therefore stop. And yet—
And yet here he was. He still did not know whether he would have said yes to Azula, whether he would have gone with her; but now it did not matter. That choice had been taken from him by the Avatar. The Avatar, whom he had hunted from one end of the earth to the other and who had, weeks after he had as good as given up on ever finding her again, walked up to him of her own free will and seized him by the wrist. He had escaped Ba Sing Se with her and been brought out to the middle of nowhere by her, and now he was sitting next to a Fire Nation ship full of Water Tribe soldiers, just waiting for her to refuse to help him find Uncle. Half of his mind was still shouting at him to chain her up, to hold a sword to her throat again and make the rest of them sail him back to the Fire Nation. That was the sort of thing Azula would do; and it would work if she tried it, Zuko thought, but he, as ever, was not Azula.
Perhaps you should try being who you are, instead.
Zuko closed his eyes and let his head tip back. Was this what he was condemned to, until he found Uncle again? Repeating Uncle's useless, cryptic admonitions to himself, because Uncle was not there to invent new ones? What was next—was he going to start drinking tea by the potful?
Zuko's eyes snapped open, and his hands came up defensively. He was sitting in the corner created by the ship's bow ramp intersecting with the forward hull—he had chosen the spot specifically to make it difficult for anyone to sneak up on him, though of course no strategic positioning could help him if he kept shutting his eyes. Azula would have laughed herself sick.
The Water Tribe soldier who was looking at him, though, was not laughing. She was above him, perched on the edge of the bow ramp over his head, a black silhouette against the increasingly dark sky—and she reared back even as Zuko was looking, which he realized after a moment was to protect the bowl she had been lowering toward him from the sudden wild motion of his arms.
She steadied herself, and they stared at each other in silence for what felt like an excruciatingly long time.
"If I wanted to kill you," she said eventually, "I would not use a bowl of rice."
Zuko said nothing.
She looked at him a moment longer and sighed, one long breath through her nose; and then all at once she moved again, leaping over him and down to the ground. She landed in a neat crouch, without stumbling—she couldn't have afforded to, because now Zuko could see that she was holding a bowl in her other hand, too.
Now that he was not looking at her upside down and backwards, it was easier to decipher the expression on her face: her gaze was sharp, maybe a little grudging, but she didn't look angry and she didn't look cruel. "Soldier" was perhaps not the right word, Zuko thought, because she had no more of a uniform than anyone else in the Water Tribe seemed to, but her stance and her shoulders, the way she held herself, all said she didn't particularly fear that Zuko would outmaneuver or overpower her.
"Here," she said, and held out one bowl again.
Zuko eyed her for a moment and then took it. It was foolish and he shouldn't trust her, but he did not know what she was doing or why—perhaps this was traditional in the Water Tribe. Perhaps if he rejected the bowl, he also rejected their hospitality, and for all he knew she would then consider herself within her rights to kill him. Or perhaps the bowl, the rice, was already poisoned, and she only meant to trick him into eating it.
She looked at him and her eyes narrowed. She sighed again and reached out, and Zuko would have struck her hand away except the bowl prevented it; so instead he ended up holding it for her, while she grasped the chopsticks that were leaning against the side and used them to stir the rice. After a few rounds, she raised her eyebrows—ah, she meant to prove it safe, and had stirred to keep him from claiming she had knowingly taken an untainted bite.
Zuko glanced down at it and then nodded to her; it looked like she had mixed it all together well enough. She took a hunk of rice and ate it, her eyebrows still raised, and then she handed the chopsticks back to him.
"If I wanted to kill you," she repeated, "I would not use a bowl of rice," but she sounded flat and a little amused, not hateful.
Zuko stared down into the bowl, fiddling with the chopsticks. It was only rice, some vegetables, what might be a little dried meat on the side—but, truth be told, he was hungry.
He looked up in time to catch her fishing a piece of radish out of her own bowl; she had chopsticks, too, and was ungraceful but not inexpert. "I didn't think you—"
He stopped and bit his lip, but she had heard enough to guess what he'd been about to say. "We don't," she said, "not always—and not like these," and she lifted her chopsticks up and clacked them together. "We use bone, not wood. And they are not very much good for skinning a tiger seal." She bared her teeth at him, not precisely a smile. "Knives are better."
Zuko swallowed. She didn't seem to like him much better than the Kyoshi warrior did; and not understanding motives was dangerous. "Why did you bring me this?"
She did not answer right away. She stared at him for a moment, and then down at her bowl, and then off toward the water; and then her gaze returned to him and she tapped one chopstick against the side of her bowl. "A week ago, I would not have," she said.
"But," Zuko prompted, when she seemed disinclined to continue.
Her face went still, unreadable. "But it is not a week ago," she said slowly, "and yesterday I was very thoroughly reminded that it is possible for even people you hate to surprise you."
Zuko was not sure what expression that put on his face, but whatever it was, it made her mouth quirk.
"Oh," she said, "and a week ago you thought you would be eating supper with the Southern Water Tribe?"
"No," Zuko conceded. He hesitated a moment, and then pressed on, because at this point it could do no harm: "The Kyoshi warrior said that the ship's armory might have swords I could use."
"It does," the woman said, and then lifted another chunk of rice to her mouth. "I will show you." She swallowed, and added, "Suki."
"Suki. That is her name. If you are going to travel with Katara, you should probably learn to use it."
Zuko pinched off a bit of meat and slid it into his mouth. Tough, stringy, a bit saltier than he'd like—but not bad. He had eaten worse, since his exile. "I don't think it will matter," he admitted, very low. It was foolish to say it aloud, but what would this Water Tribe woman do to him for showing weakness? Hate him more?
The woman shrugged, easy. "Katara is angry," she said, "but not foolish, and right now you are useful. I do not think we will leave here without you."
Zuko looked at her, wide-eyed—he couldn't stop himself. The Avatar agreeing to let him come with her, to help him, was even more ridiculous and impossible than everything else that had come to pass today; which, he supposed, meant there was still a chance that it would happen. What had she said, only a moment ago? It is possible for even people you hate to surprise you.
It sounded like something Uncle might say.
"But you will be more useful with swords," the woman added. "So: eat, and then we can find you some."
Being held captive by Princess Azula was probably not usually as pleasant as this, Yue suspected; but having them moved to a suitably uncomfortable location would surely only have given General Iroh an opportunity to act—which would clearly have been unwise—and it was not as though the king's palace were short of rooms.
As it was, the only thing that was unpleasant about the large, comfortable set of chambers they had been sealed into was that the doors and windows had been removed—or, more accurately, walled over, stone shoved securely into place across them by the Dai Li, so that the rooms were lit only by the green glow of crystal lanterns. Yue had woken, blinked, stretched, and then realized she had absolutely no way to determine whether it was midnight or morning.
Yue glanced over her shoulder. She hadn't precisely forgotten that she shared her lovely cell with the Fire Lord's older brother; it was only that it was so—ludicrous, so incredibly unlikely, that even when she was looking right at him it still almost felt untrue.
The Dragon of the West inclined his head to her, gracious, and then glanced up at the blank stone where one window of this room had once been. "At least I think it is day," he added. "I woke earlier and there was no sound from the corridor—but since then I have heard some people passing and talking."
Yue nodded—it made sense—and then looked at him thoughtfully. They had not really had much time to talk, before; it had already been growing late by the time Azula had had them brought here, and they had both been more than usually fatigued, with all the bending they had had to do down in the catacombs. They had talked a bit about tea but had quickly been told to shut up, and then they had been brought to these chambers and Iroh had advised rest. "We will want it," he had said, "and may not be able to get it later, depending on what my niece intends."
And he had been right. But now—now there was nothing in the way; and if she were to have any hope of trusting him, as she had agreed to try to do, there were a few things she needed to understand.
"Your niece," she said, "and your brother. You used to be—more like them." Would he agree or disagree? Did he think of himself as changed, better—superior, even, and thereby entitled to a certain degree of self-righteousness? Or did he regard his past actions as still part of him, still a thing within him that he must always guard against? And if he did: was he right, and did Yue need to guard against that in him for herself?
General Iroh gazed at her for a moment, and then smiled—a quiet smile, rueful, not especially amused. "I used to be much worse," he said. "I paid my niece little mind; she was my younger brother's younger child, it seemed unlikely she would ever rule, and to the man that I was then, that meant she did not matter. I do not expect she has forgiven me for that. And my brother—" He fell silent briefly, and then shook his head. "I took the throne for granted. It was my birthright; I had been told as much since before I understood the words that were used to tell me so. But Ozai wanted it. It meant something to him, and there was much he wished to do with it if it were by some chance to become his.
"In that sense, at least, he may perhaps be a better Fire Lord than I would ever have been. He cares very deeply for his nation, and for the things he is able to do for it as its king. The man I was could not have said as much."
"The man you were," Yue murmured.
General Iroh closed his eyes. "I do not seek to excuse myself, Princess," he said, very low, and then he opened his eyes again and looked at her. "But tell me: are you the same girl you were when the Avatar first visited your city?"
Yue tipped her head back against the wall and let herself think about it. "No," she agreed slowly. "No, I suppose I am not," and she did not mean to say it but found herself continuing anyway, almost confidingly: "I should be the last to tell anyone they cannot change their path by learning a new thing, or by doing what no one had expected of them."
General Iroh smiled, then, and this time it was a true smile. "Ah, yes," he said, and then tilted his head—confiding right back at her, his tone warm and quiet. "I would not have expected to see a princess of the Northern Water Tribe teaching Waterbending to the Avatar. But I am glad to be surprised."
Yue beamed at him, delighted—and, oh, how strange it was, how very far away she was from her old self, that she should have lost Master Pakku's approval and gained a Fire Nation general's, and feel pleased about both!
But she shouldn't allow herself to be distracted. "Your niece—what will she do with us?"
General Iroh's expression turned sober, and he looked away, his brow furrowing. "To be honest with you, it had been my understanding that she planned upon my death—I can think of no other reason why my brother should have sent her after me and my nephew. That she told us outright that she did not mean to kill us is something of a surprise." He hesitated. "I would like to hope that, whatever it was she first intended to do when she found me, she has—she has chosen not to do it, because somewhere in her heart, some part of her could not bear it. But that may be an old man's self-indulgence," he added, shaking his head wearily. "She deserves the opportunity to discover a new way of being, as much as I ever deserved it; but I do not know whether she will choose to seize it when it comes."
"She spoke as though she meant for you to be placed within the Fire Lord's grasp," Yue said, remembering the way Princess Azula had phrased it, the easy tone she'd used: Father can lop your head off himself. Surely burning would be a more appropriate way for the Fire Lord to kill someone who'd displeased him—but then perhaps in the Fire Nation, burning was an honorable death. Yue was not sure.
"Yes," General Iroh agreed. "And I have no doubt that he will come here as soon as he is able. But Azula will wish to deliver the news of this victory herself, and she will not leave me behind in this city." His voice turned wry. "I have no doubt that Ba Sing Se remembers me. If nothing else, she would not be pleased if it became known that I were held here, and ten thousand people stormed the palace to take my head for themselves."
As though to illustrate his words, the sound of footsteps came from the hall—many of them, overlapping. Not ten thousand citizens' worth, but still, a small crowd at least. Yue glanced at the wall and then back at General Iroh.
"Ah," he said, looking at the wall himself. "That will be the answer to your question now, I think."
Even knowing what was on the other side, Azula still felt a rush of satisfaction to have the Dai Li bend away the wall and reveal Uncle and the northern princess. In her hands, at last—of course, Zuzu had gotten away, but surely that could be remedied soon enough. Father would be very pleased to have Uncle secured, and, too, with whatever information he could share about the Avatar. And the princess would also undoubtedly prove useful in that regard.
"You both slept well, I hope?" Azula inquired delicately, once the scrape and rumble of shifting stone had died away.
"Oh, indeed," Uncle said, inclining his head. Always so polite, Uncle. "I imagine this room was quite lovely, when it had windows."
"You're lucky to have the opportunity to get used to the view," Azula told him. "I doubt Boiling Rock will have any more impressive vistas to offer."
The princess didn't know what that meant, it was easy enough to see that on her face, but Uncle did; still, he conducted himself well, absorbing the news of where Azula intended to take them without flinching. "I'm sure you are right," he said.
"Oh, I am," Azula assured him, easy. Perhaps she was indulging herself a little too much—it was just that it was so satisfying, to have finally caught him. To have finally beaten him: Uncle, Uncle himself, who even now was regarded by a misguided few as Father's equal, or even superior. "And I would tell you that the Avatar will be joining you there soon except that she probably won't. Not that we won't find her—but I expect Father will have her executed in very short order. And you along with her, if you haven't died already."
"Oh, we will have," the princess from the north said.
Very calmly, Azula thought, for someone speaking of her own death, and she could not help but raise a curious eyebrow.
"Have you forgotten already?" the princess murmured, blue gaze placid. "It is as I have told you: you will have to have killed me before you will ever lay hands on Katara."
Ah, yes—she had said so before, hadn't she? Along with some nonsense about having told Azula but not told Azula, cryptic riddles. She and Uncle would probably get along very well indeed. "Why?" Azula said, stepping forward as though she were genuinely interested in the answer. As though it mattered what this odd mad girl said. "Why place so much faith in the Avatar? She can't do anything for you—surely you must see that. She ran away and left you here, in my hands. I will take you to my father; and my father will learn whatever it is you know and then he will kill you. And he will kill your father," Azula added thoughtfully, "and he will kill your mother. He will kill everyone you ever knew, everyone who ever mattered to you—including the Avatar. And you won't be able to stop him."
The princess was silent for a moment—and rightly so, for the thought had to be frightening to her. The Northern Water Tribe had not yet seen true war; but they would very soon, with the south so close to defeat. It was about time some of them learned what that would mean.
"Do you want that to happen?"
Azula felt herself making two mistakes in the same instant: she blinked, which must surely have given away her startlement just as clearly as the way she said, "What?"
The princess from the north probably wanted to smirk at that, to gloat over having surprised so basic a response out of Azula—but she didn't. She looked at Azula carefully and then said again, "Do you want that to happen?"
Princess Azula narrowed her eyes, and then smiled at Yue; and the smile was as Yue might have expected, slow and even and confident, but what she said was, "It is the Fire Lord's will. That's the only thing that matters."
Which, however threatening it sounded, was not truly an answer. And why should she choose not to answer? What could she possibly fear to say? Not "yes"—that would only have been expected. And not "no"—Yue could not imagine that it would ever even cross Princess Azula's mind to say such a thing aloud, let alone to think it at all. Which left—
Which left, perhaps, I don't know.
Azula did not spend any more time talking to them after that; she gestured sharply to the Dai Li instead, and within moments they had opened a slanting path downward through the floor. At the other end was a much more carefully-made tunnel, and a Fire Nation machine—not stamped and shining, as Yue might have expected, but instead entirely bare of any Fire Nation insignia, and painted the drab colors of dirt and tall grass.
And beside the machine were three distinctly familiar people.
Yue couldn't exactly say she was glad to see Ty Lee—nor the quiet girl with the knives and the boy with the glaive. But it was nonetheless something of a relief to think she would not be trapped inside that machine with no one but Princess Azula and the Dragon of the West. However much Yue wished to trust General Iroh, he was still the Fire Lord's brother; and perhaps Azula still intended to kill them both or perhaps she did not, but traveling to the Fire Nation in a confined space with her was not how Yue would like to discover which it was.
And Ty Lee was Azula's friend, and would probably also kill Yue if Azula asked her to—but at least she might be quick about it, Yue thought. At least she probably would not be cruel.
There were a thousand things to do before the Fire Navy ship Father had stolen could be launched again, and Katara tried to make sure she ended up doing several hundred of them, because that meant she could put off doing the one that really mattered.
She'd slept—slept like a rock, slept like she hadn't quite managed to sleep since they'd left Kanjusuk. It wasn't like they were safe here, obviously, but there was still some part of her bone-certain that with Father around nothing truly bad could happen; so she'd slept, and it had felt amazing. And now everything seemed a lot more—well, no, not possible, exactly. But maybe less impossible.
And with her mind a little clearer, and the fear and the frustration and the helpless anger all a little further away, it was a lot easier to admit that Toph and Sokka and Suki were right. It was just that Katara didn't want to say so, because—
"You're making the face again," Aang observed, from halfway through the wall of the ship.
Katara sighed and set down the coil of rope she'd been moving. The way Aang could float through things was really useful, but also really annoying: there was nowhere you could turn to face, not a wall or a closed door or even the side of a mountain, where Aang couldn't look you in the eye if he really wanted to.
"The Prince Zuko face," Aang clarified, and then narrowed his eyes assessingly, holding out his arms so he could frame Katara's expression with blazing blue fingers. "It's—it's kind of like a grimace, but sort of extra disgusted, with your mouth all twisted around. Like you ate a moldy sea prune. But also a little bit guilty, because—"
"I know," Katara said, and she couldn't even say it very sharply, because she did know. "I know he could be useful, I know it would be stupid not to let him help us. Even if all he does is get us to the—dungeon, or wherever it is his sister's taking Yue. I just—"
—don't want to. I don't want to travel with him, I don't want to talk to him or eat with him or—or look at him—
Aang lowered his hands and looked at her for a moment, and then one side of his glimmering mouth started to curl up. "Yeah," he said, agreeing, "I get it," and then he glanced around thoughtfully. "You think maybe those crates should be over on this side of the hold instead of on that side?"
Katara grinned at him, grateful, and then made a show of looking for herself. "Yeah, I do," she said, and then paused. "Although maybe I shouldn't let the person who doesn't have to do any of the lifting decide—"
Of course, even with Aang's help, Katara couldn't keep herself busy forever. There were only so many tasks that could be invented—and when she got to the point where she was considering moving the crates back to the side of the hold they'd come from, she knew she had to stop. Besides, doing all this just to avoid dealing with Prince Zuko—in its own way, it made him important. It was like she was letting him tell her what to do; and that was the absolute last thing she wanted.
He was still on shore somewhere, Katara knew. He hadn't set foot on the ship all morning, and whether he was trying to silently acknowledge that his presence on board wasn't his decision, or it was just that he was looking forward to joining them exactly as much as she was looking forward to it—whatever the reason, she was grateful for it.
When she finally reached the ship's ramp, it was like they'd all been waiting for her. Of course the messengers from Ba Sing Se were already gone, but almost everybody else was there, either inside on the main deck or standing on the shore. Father was next to Toph, discussing—how best to launch the ship, Katara thought, judging by the snatches of words she could hear and the way Toph was gesturing to the shoreline. Sokka and Suki were holding hands, speaking together in low murmurs and looking out at the ship, or possibly across the water. And Prince Zuko—
Katara would have expected him to be alone, but he wasn't. Cousin Ukara was saying something to him, looking at him dourly—or at least she looked dour, unimpressed, unless you knew her well enough to see the amusement hiding in the slant of her mouth. She clapped Prince Zuko on the shoulder, firmly enough to make him stagger a little, and then stepped away.
And then it was as though they all noticed Katara at once, except it wasn't quite at once: Toph was first, of course, not even needing her eyes to tell that Katara was coming, and she broke off mid-sentence and turned an ear toward Katara; and then Father looked to see why she'd done it, and the movement of his head caught Sokka's attention, and so on, until after a moment they were all looking, and had all gone quiet.
"Come on," Aang said gently, drifting down at her side like he wanted to take her hand. "You can do this. It's just like everything else you've done that you didn't want to do," he added, grinning, and then the grin eased down into a small smile. "It's to help people."
Katara didn't nod at him, didn't reply—Prince Zuko didn't know about him yet, after all, and it was better that way. But she took a deep breath in, slow, and then let it out, and then she walked to the corner of the ship's ramp that was closest to Zuko.
She just stared at him for a moment; and at first he looked right back at her, jaw clenched, but then he lowered his eyes. She had her friends, her family, at her back. He was alone, and he knew it.
"Your sister's going to take Yue back to the Fire Nation."
"Yes," he said.
"And—and you know where they're going."
"And your uncle will be imprisoned there, too."
"Yes," he agreed, very low.
Katara looked away from him and made herself drag in another long breath. Her hands were balled up at her sides, and she couldn't convince herself to relax them, but—but she wasn't going to hit him. She wasn't. They needed him: needed him to get through the Fire Nation without getting arrested or executed, needed him to find Yue.
It's to help people.
"Okay," she made herself say. "All right."
Zuko's head snapped up—he could not stop it, though he had been doing his best to be deferent, to keep from making the Avatar angry.
It didn't seem to have worked, for she was glaring at him fiercely; but it also didn't seem to be stopping her from, impossibly, saying it again: "All right."
The Avatar scowled at him a moment longer and then raised her fist, but it was only so she could stab a finger accusingly into his face. "But I don't like you," she snapped—as though Zuko had been in any danger of believing otherwise!—"and I don't trust you, and if you do anything I don't like I'm going to throw you overboard."
She evidently did not require him to actually agree to these terms, as before he could so much as open his mouth, she had already turned around and begun to stride back up the ramp toward the ship.
He stood there and stared after her for a moment, and then one of the other girls caught his eye—Suki, he reminded himself. Suki. And he must use her name, because if he didn't then it was all too likely the Avatar would kill him and dump his body in the sea. Suki didn't say anything, but she did raise her eyebrows at him; and he recalled their conversation from the day before and nodded at her, lifting his hands with deliberate obviousness to touch the hilts of the borrowed swords belted to his waist. She nodded back coolly, and then went without another glance to follow the Avatar.
The boy, the Avatar's brother, was the next to pass Zuko, and he also paused. "So I argued for you the other day," he said, "and I meant it, okay, because I think we need you. But between you and me? Losing Yue and getting you was not a fair trade, and as far as I'm concerned, once we've got her back I'll help Katara throw you overboard."
Zuko hesitated—how was he intended to reply to such a thing?—and then simply allowed himself to nod again.
"Awesome," the boy said, and smacked him on the shoulder, the impact too hard and the smile on the boy's face too false to be any sort of friendly. "Good talk, buddy."
The other girl, the short one, stepped toward him next; and there was something about the way she tilted her head that struck Zuko as familiar, though he couldn't imagine where he might have seen her before. "I was going to say something mean, too," she said to him in a confiding tone, "but I think they pretty much have that covered. So, hey," she added, and punched him in the arm. "Welcome to the team. Until we kick you off it again, at least."
She followed the Avatar's brother up into the ship, and Zuko watched her go and then swallowed. The Avatar's father still stood there, and the other Water Tribe warrior, the woman, was beside him. There were two more on the ramp, and—and a dozen more inside, perhaps, each with at least as much reason to kill him as to help him, which meant going into that ship of his own free will was—was idiocy, sheer stupidity—
But Ba Sing Se, Zuko thought, was the worst thing that had ever happened to Uncle; and he had walked right back into that city, without hesitating, because he'd thought he might save Zuko's life by it. Surely Zuko could find it in himself to give at least as much in return.
So Zuko took a deep breath, carefully lifted his hands away from the hilts of his swords, and followed where the Avatar led.
Mizan peered out across the water, and then down again at Lieutenant Cho's maps.
"The eastern base is our primary concern," he was saying, "and yet of course it seems foolish to capture it and leave the rest, and we cannot take the central base without at least one of the others—" and it sounded so excessive, even in Cho's brisk voice, but damned if he wasn't right.
The Fire Nation might have struggled to capture the shores of Chameleon Bay, but had had no difficulty whatsoever establishing naval bases on the islands in the middle. Trying to hold the mouth of the Tai San against a Fire Nation fleet posed a difficult enough task even without a line of Fire Nation military installations at your back—and, of course, the ships from Cheolla would be the closest to them, so it was little wonder that the king and queen were insisting they be dealt with.
And the easternmost was also the northernmost, and therefore posed the most obvious threat to an Earth fleet to the islands' north. But leaving the central and western bases intact while taking the easternmost was simply asking for supply lines to be disrupted. And if you took two successfully—why leave the third buzzing along at your shoulder like a wasp fly? Why not capture the bay entirely and be done with it? At that point it began to seem a little foolish not to settle in and do the thing properly.
Besides, if the ships from Cheolla and the pirates could not manage to work together long enough to capture a few small naval bases, surely it was better to know it before an admiral brought half the navy down upon their heads.
But—of course—Tan Khai had not yet encountered an idea she could not scoff at. "Surely we will be lucky beyond reckoning to take even one of them," she bit out, "given that your glorious navy has never managed it—"
"We have never had the benefit of a former Fire Nation officer's insight," Cho said, without heat.
"Oh, yes," Tan Khai said, throwing up her hands. "I myself have always loved pinning my hopes for success on a madwoman! It makes everything so much more exciting."
"It worked for you at Dou Ying," Mizan observed mildly, and she was already turning to give Tan Khai one of her more annoying smiles when the lookout shouted behind them.
"To stern!" was the loudest cry, though there were others a moment later from the ships nearest—"To port!" "The bow!"—and for a moment Mizan feared that perhaps they had underestimated the commanders of those island bases. But when a shining pale thing flew up over the side and hooked itself securely around the rail, it was not a standard Fire Navy grappling hook.
In point of fact, Mizan was not sure what it was. She took a step nearer, and as though in answer, two more of the things hurtled up to either side of the first—and cord trailed beneath them, so they were grappling hooks, of a sort. They were narrow, white, with subtly varying lines and angles: bone, Mizan thought, and even as she thought it the first blue-and-white figure burst into view and leapt neatly over the rail.
It was a woman, and a woman with a long sharp spear, at that, which she was holding at the ready. But for all that she looked entirely prepared to use it, she made no move to shove it through Mizan's chest; so Mizan returned the favor and held still.
The woman blinked and then narrowed her eyes—at Mizan, in her brown, and then at Tan Khai and Lieutenant Cho in their green. Tan Khai had drawn her sword, but then stayed her hand; uncharacteristic, Mizan would be tempted to say, except of course Tan Khai was Earth Kingdom. Water Tribe meant friendly, to her.
"Interesting," the woman said, and, with an almost experimental air, reached out with the spear to poke Mizan's shoulder with the point. Tan Khai took a step forward and knocked it away with her blade—and the woman looked at her assessingly and then lowered the spear's haft to the deck. "Not what we were expecting," she murmured.
One of her fellows had made it up, another woman, and she tipped herself onto the deck with a solid thud of boots. "I dare say they were not expecting us either," she said, brushing off her hands, and then with casual ease walked past Mizan to look down interestedly at the maps.
"No," Mizan agreed, very dry; and the second woman glanced up at her, amused, and then back over her shoulder at the first.
"Targeting the bases, I think," she said.
The first woman grinned to hear it, all teeth. "Well," she said, sounding pleased, and tilted her head. "Perhaps you would not mind a bit of—extra help?"
With no other standing orders issued for the rest of the crew, the quartermasters had all the extra hands they could possibly ask for, and their reports were stacking up rapidly by mid-afternoon. And it wasn't that the results were especially dismal—considering the number of ships and the sizes of their holds, the numbers were about as good as Yin could have wished. They were just so very finite.
"We'll do all right for a little while," she told Kishen, trying to speak as a sub-admiral ought: calmly, resolutely. "It is only—" and there, there was the doubt, which she should not let him hear but could not seem to keep caged.
"Sir?" he prompted.
"It is only—I see no end to it," she admitted, and even she could hear how tired she sounded. "If we had a destination, there would be something to work out, calculations to be made for how to best make it last. But as it is, there is nowhere for us to go. That is what will kill us. We cannot return to any area controlled by the Fire Nation, but what Earth Kingdom would ever agree to shelter us? Sooner than we would like, we will need food, water, coal for the ships—but is there anyone left in the world who would give these things to us?" She shook her head. "I was—I was grateful, when the Serpent's Pass opened for us; but perhaps it would have been better after all if—"
"Sir," Kishen said, more sharply than was his habit. "Sir, I—I believe there is a place."
Yin looked at him, skeptical. She had not mentioned the Water Tribes because it was so ludicrous an idea as to be laughable; there were some Earth Kingdoms that had not felt the worst of what the Fire Nation had to offer, and even they would not look kindly on a Fire Nation fleet begging favors from them. The Water Tribes—the Water Tribes would drag them off their ships and drown them one by one, barehanded. And that was only if they even lasted long enough to reach either one. And the islands of the Air Nomads were empty; there would be water, fruit, something to hunt, and perhaps that was the best option left after all, even if they would not be able to sail away from them again without coal—
But Kishen was looking back at her with something on his face that was like determination and apprehension at once, something that made her suddenly certain that was not the suggestion he had in mind. "Sir," he said again, more quietly. "There's something I need to tell you."
Whatever it was, the telling of it apparently could not take place on the main deck. Yin led him back amidships to the bridge, and it was only once they were inside, with the navigator and chief quartermaster waved out and the hatch shut, that Kishen finally spoke further.
When he did, he did not begin where Yin might have expected. They seated themselves at the table in the bridge, and Kishen shifted his weight, clenched and unclenched his hands, and then looked at her at last. "I told you once that I'd never seen the mainland," he said after a moment, "and that was true."
"Your great-great-grandparents," Yin said, "they were colonists. I remember. But what does this—"
"Sir," Kishen said. "Please." He was not so tense now that they were alone, with the hatch closed securely behind them, and seated comfortably; but his shoulders were still too high, knotted tight beneath his armor, and the look on his face—
Yin closed her mouth.
"By the time my grandparents were born," Kishen said, "the front had moved back and forth so many times—they'd stopped moving with it. The village was small, tucked away in the hills; hardly anyone bothered with it—"
"There are patrols guarding the colonies," Yin said. "There have been since Fire Lord Sozin established the first."
Kishen was silent for a moment. "It wasn't a colony," he said at last, quiet. "My great-grandparents fled an attack in the wrong—or maybe the right—direction. They probably would have been turned away, but my great-grandmother was about to have my grandfather, and someone—" He bit his lip, shrugged one shoulder. "Someone was kind. My grandparents grew up in that village together—"
Yin blinked. "You—all your great-grandparents ran the same direction?" she said, and then went still.
"No," Kishen said anyway, even though he had to be able to tell that she'd guessed. "Sir—"
"What are you trying to tell me?" Yin said slowly.
Kishen drew a long, deep breath, and then let it out in a rush and said, "I'm trying to tell you—I'm trying to tell you that two of my aunts and three of my uncles are Earthbenders. Half of my cousins have green eyes. I wanted them—I wanted them safe, I wanted them alive. I knew I had to do something, and I could. My uncle, Chao, he—he doesn't look like me. He came with me to the palace in Zhanlo so they wouldn't crush me the moment I walked up to the gate, and I—"
Yin stood abruptly, so quickly her chair toppled over behind her—she couldn't walk out, couldn't pretend she hadn't heard it, but she wanted to, and standing up, turning away, was the closest she could get.
Kishen fell silent. There was light coming into the bridge this late in the day, pouring in gold-orange through the windows, and dust was drifting through it, still swirling away from Yin's sudden motion; Yin watched it move, listened to herself breathe, and then she closed her eyes and lowered her head and set her fists against the glass in front of her.
Forget the part where he was a traitor, the part where he had lied about everything, the part that made her never want to look at him again. What was left? It made sense, she thought distantly. It made a lot of sense. It had always been too easy, hadn't it? She had let it be easy. She had always liked it too much, that feeling of being understood, that feeling of not being alone—so much she had been willing to sit back and be grateful for it, had let it go again and again instead of pressing him for his true reasons. But now it all fit: the way he'd let her get away with all the things she'd done, the way he'd helped her, the way he'd watched her kill their commanding officer and never said a word—because he worked for an Earth kingdom, because there was nothing he wanted more than to sit back and watch Fire Nation officers stab each other in the back. She almost laughed, except there was nothing she wanted to do less than laugh at that moment.
So he worked for an Earth queen, and had all along—but what was the purpose in saying so? He had told her now for a reason, and the last thing she had said to him before he had asked her to come in here had been—
"You would be well within your rights to have me thrown over the side," Kishen said behind her, very low. "But for the sake of the fleet, sir, please—please consider it."
For the sake of the fleet. Yin pressed her knuckles harder against the cool glass, screwed her eyes shut tighter. There was no safe harbor in the world for the fleet, but there might be one for Kishen—if, of course, he had not worked this out with the queen of Jansung beforehand, if the goal of his service had not been to deliver Fire Nation ships to her doorstep—
But what other choice was there? What port would Yin order her ships to sail to, if she turned around now and told Kishen she did not believe him, if she did indeed throw him over the side and leave him to drown?
"Very well," she said to the glass, and then she made herself turn and face him, because there was nothing else to be done. "I will consider it, and one way or another there will be new orders in the morning. Dismissed, Lieutenant."
"Yes, Lieutenant?" Yin said. She looked at him calmly, inquiringly; the expression felt as false and stiff as a mask, but she could muster nothing better. She had been such a fool.
Kishen's gaze flicked back and forth across her face, and he drew in a slow breath, mouth flat with resignation. He straightened, squared his shoulders and his feet, and bowed, drawing his hands together in front of him: one flat, one a fist, a salute more perfect than any he had given her in months. "Nothing, sir," he said, eyes on the floor.
"Dismissed, Lieutenant," Yin said.