It was a considerable distance from the walls of Ba Sing Se to the western coast. But Princess Azula's tank ate away at it steadily. In the strictest terms, it was not an uncomfortable journey. Yue had slept worse places, and the low measured grinding of the tank's motion was, in some ways, not unlike the sound of the sea.
But a lack of discomfort could not be said to equal comfort—not in Princess Azula's presence.
Her sharp eyes seemed to be everywhere at once, watching, assessing, disdaining; she never missed any opportunity given to her to mock her uncle cruelly for his failures, his losses, and as best Yue could tell it was hardly even done out of anger. It was not that Princess Azula had a temper and failed to leash it. It was simply that she—that she felt General Iroh ought not to be allowed to forget those things or to move beyond them, perhaps; or that she wished, clear-eyed, to hurt him, and knew how best to accomplish it. Or both, Yue supposed.
She could not do the same thing to Yue with any real effectiveness. She did not know Yue as she knew her uncle, and could not cause her true pain. Expressing disdain for Yue's bending ability, asking her what exactly she thought she was doing standing up and fighting for the Avatar, did not seem to occur to her as a point to attack—and why would it? Her father had no doubt insisted she be trained in bending, had sent her to track down and defeat her brother and her uncle.
She was everything Master Pakku might well have envisioned when he'd refused to train the Avatar. And if the Avatar had been Princess Azula, he might have been right, though still for the wrong reasons—but, oh, Yue would almost have loved to have seen that argument. The look Princess Azula would have given him—!
But there were still easy targets: the Water Tribes, the fate so nearly inflicted on one and soon to be inflicted on the other, how Yue's friends and family would suffer.
Yue had begun to think that unkindness was a sort of habit, to the princess, and that she knew no other way to be—and then, like opening a door that had been closed, Azula would smile at Mai, would say something flat and droll to Samnang; would close her eyes as Ty Lee carefully brushed her hair, and for a moment lose all but the barest echo of the sharp fierce tension that usually animated her face.
But those moments were rare, and often interrupted—by Azula herself, more times than not. This time, Yue could not even guess what it was that made her stop and look away from Mai.
"Excellent," she murmured, and stood. "We are nearly there," and only then did Yue realize that the tank had begun to slow.
It was enough to make her think for a moment that she had gone mad or lost time—that somehow many more days had passed within the rumbling box of the tank's insides than she had understood. But Azula opened the outer hatch and shoved them out, and there was no port, no harbor, no ocean. They had not yet reached the coast after all.
There was only the river. The Lei, wasn't it? The one that flowed north from the Yellow Seas.
Their machine had come to a stop upon the eastern bank; it was late morning, the sun bright but the air crisp with lingering winter, and the sound of the water flowing past them was like music after nothing but mechanical clanking for so long.
Yue only had a moment to breathe it all in before Azula shoved her closer to where the bank dropped away. "Go on, princess," Azula said, sharp, mocking, and then tilted her chin toward the river. "Freeze it."
Yue blinked, and then looked at Azula, at General Iroh. What was the purpose—?
"Freeze it," Azula repeated. "Make the ice wide enough for the tank to cross."
Of course, some part of Yue thought distantly. Of course: why bother to find a bridge? What was the point, when you could as easily use your prisoner for it? It was so much more efficient to cross at the princess's convenience, and at the same time for her to turn Yue into nothing more than a tool, to force Yue to acknowledge her will and bend to it—
The rest of her, she was surprised to discover, had only one thing to say.
"Oh, how charming: a show of defiance." Azula leaned in and smiled, looking girlishly pleased. "Usually," she added, tone almost confiding, "I really would indulge you—but we both have places to be. Freeze it," she said again, and then almost in a single motion she took General Iroh by the arm with one hand and drew a knife from her waist with the other.
No one else moved. Ty Lee and Mai, behind Azula, were silent; Mai looked bored. Yue wondered whether in fact she was—whether Azula had done this, or something like this, so many times that Mai could be bored with it.
Yue swallowed. Azula was bending a little bit, too; almost theatrically, just enough for a thin curl of smoke to begin wending its way up from General Iroh's sleeve where Azula's hand was touching it. Nicely threatening, Yue thought. But unnecessary. She did not need to be convinced. She had no doubt that Azula was entirely capable of shoving that blade into her uncle's throat.
She looked at the river, and back at Azula; and then, belatedly, at General Iroh. He hadn't made any attempt to defend himself, though surely he could have. He was simply standing there, patient, calm. Perhaps he only wanted to avoid harming his niece. But his life was at least partly in Yue's hands, and whatever the reason, he was allowing it to remain there. Trusting her with it—and so perhaps she could trust him in return.
But that didn't matter right now. What mattered right now was the knife, and Azula, and the river.
Yue could not bring herself to say it. She couldn't even bear to nod an acknowledgment. But she drew in a breath and then lifted her hands, and she could see how Azula's face changed, something that was almost glee spreading across it.
She didn't have to freeze the river solid. The ice only needed to be thick enough to bear the tank's weight for a moment, wide enough to be braced against the banks so the water beneath would not sweep it away.
"Oh, well done, princess," Azula said warmly—as though Yue were a student she had the right to be proud of. The idea made Yue feel almost sick; and she closed her eyes and lowered her hands and listened to the sound of the river.
It took only a moment for the tank to grind back into motion, once they were all inside again, but by now Yue had the trick of walking inside the thing while it was moving. She returned to her place, sat—and, if nothing else, she could be grateful Azula hadn't bothered to keep them chained—and then turned and found Azula a half-step away.
"Yes?" Yue said, as chilly as she could with her heart thumping in surprise.
"You're beginning to understand, I hope," Azula told her in a conversational tone. "My will is my father's will, is my nation's will, and you serve it—even now, even as you still insist you'll fight us." Her eyes narrowed. "Something in you knows we are your rightful masters. It's only a matter of time before you acknowledge it."
"If it pleases you to think so," Yue said, but it was difficult not to shiver. Azula sounded so certain—
"You are powerless," Azula murmured, and her gaze on Yue's face was cool, assessing. "It would be best if you didn't forget that."
"You are the one who forgets," General Iroh said.
Azula went still. She was still facing Yue, but her gaze had moved, slid sideways, and all her attention had shifted, the relentless pressure of it suddenly lifting away from Yue entirely.
She said nothing, though; and so General Iroh was given the chance to repeat, gentle, "You are the one who forgets. It was not you who froze the water, my niece."
"Be silent," Princess Azula said, very quietly. "You're a coward and a traitor. You've turned away from your family and your nation and no longer belong to either, and I won't be addressed in that manner by you."
"You took her to the river because she had power you did not," General Iroh said. "And you took me to the river because otherwise she would not have used it. She would perhaps have died before doing as you asked of her, and you knew it.
"Your power depends on ours. As your father's depends on yours, and on the power of every other person who follows him; which means it does not belong to him at all. It is a gift, lent—it is dependence. And," and General Iroh's voice grew heavy, some weight of context Yue did not understand, "dependence is weakness. Isn't it, my—"
Azula's expression had grown steadily more thunderous, and now, belated, the lightning came: something sharp and fierce and ugly flashed across her face. She turned in a rush and spat, "Do not call me that," and then crossed the tank's bay in four long strides and struck General Iroh so hard his head hit the side of the tank.
Yue flinched at the sound it made, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Ty Lee do the same. Some part of Yue was almost sorry that Samnang was still up front in the navigation room where Azula had left him, that Mai had gone to join him; she would have liked to see what they did, too.
"You have power over nothing. You're my prisoner, and the only reason you aren't dead is because if I kill you here only four people will see it." Azula's lip curled into a sneer. "The Dragon of the West deserves better. Father deserves better—he deserves to be able to watch your last breath leave you and smile."
The blow had left General Iroh facing the length of seat beside him, and he had not looked up; but now he did. His lip was bleeding, Yue saw, but he did not look angry or afraid, or even pained. He looked sad.
"You still do not understand," he murmured. "Know that I do not hold it against you—that I never will. Oh, Azula," he added, very low. "I am so sorry."
"For the wrong things," Azula said sharply, "as always," and then she turned on her heel and stalked away.
It had been a very, very strange week.
The Lin Wei was an old, deep river, certainly deep enough to allow a small scouting vessel like this one to travel its length. Its banks were still mostly held by Earth forces from one kingdom or another, and after the first time the Avatar had had to defend them from boulders hurled by an Earth Kingdom fort, they had strung lengths of blue and green cloth along the ship's rails and sides. False colors—or true, depending on how you looked at it; and thinking that made Zuko uncomfortably aware of his own green shirts and trousers, as he had never been in Ba Sing Se. There, he hadn't thought of it as anything but a deception. Now—
Now he was helping the Avatar. The Avatar, who hated him and took no pains to hide it, and that was the strangest part of all.
Zuko hadn't had enough time in Ba Sing Se to grow used to—to being liked, he supposed, if that was what it had been; Wan Liu, Qingying, had as good as said so aloud, and Zuko had not disagreed with either of them at the time. He was much more familiar with being disliked, and he'd never previously had the opportunity to discover that there were ways to be disliked other than by Azula. He'd assumed all dislike was probably about the same.
He'd been wrong.
Azula's dislike had been capricious, unleashed at whim. Some days she had been almost pleasant, insults delivered teasingly, no one shoved in any fountains and no one's brand-new clothes burned; and other days she had been icy, cruel, had hurt him and known it and laughed. Zuko had never known which sort of day it would be in advance, and had never been able to affect the course of things once it had begun.
Father had been different, granted, but that was—Zuko had failed him. His ire had been earned, and Zuko had bowed low in the face of it and sworn to do better.
For all the good it had done him.
But the Avatar and her friends—Zuko was struggling with that. Cruelty for cruelty's own sake, he'd learned how to bear; and Father's anger and disappointment had been understandable: Zuko, too, wished he were sharper, quicker, stronger, more able.
But the Avatar and her friends disliked Zuko because of the things he'd succeeded at. He had successfully assaulted Suki's village, after all, even if he had not captured the Avatar by it; and he had successfully tracked the Avatar all the way to the north, even if he hadn't had the chance to drag her senseless body away from the spirit pool. There was Pohuai—but they still didn't know that had been him, and probably wouldn't believe that it had been if he tried to tell them so now.
It had never been difficult to apologize to Father. He and Zuko had fully agreed on where the fault lay. And to acknowledge the shame of error was an entirely different thing from agreeing that what he had done—what he had meant to do, clear-eyed and with intent—had been somehow ... wrong anyway. Not because he'd still failed at it in the end, not because the Avatar thought he should have done it more skillfully or simply wanted to make him feel small. Because she thought he had been wrong to do it at all, and hated him for trying.
Zuko's grip tightened on the rail in front of him. Whether what he did was right wasn't a question that had crossed his mind much while he'd actually been doing it—Father had wished it, and so Zuko had needed to do it in order to be restored to his place, and right and wrong had been irrelevant, even nonsensical, next to those truths. Uncle had tried to make it cross his mind, he could see that now, but had mostly failed. But given that he was now planning to break into a prison alongside the Avatar for Uncle's sake, even though that was not at all what Father would want—
It still tripped him up each time he thought that and didn't spontaneously catch fire. But he was slowly starting to get used to it, and to that end he thought it again, deliberately: he was doing something Father did not want. Azula was doing what Father wanted, and Zuko was not, and—and Father couldn't do anything about it. Father couldn't stop him, couldn't shame him; Father didn't even know yet. Father was far away and had no idea and couldn't tell Zuko he was wrong or make him change his mind. And even if he had known, and disdained Zuko for it—Uncle wouldn't. Uncle would be glad.
Did that matter more? Should it? Zuko squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his teeth. How could anyone ever tell? How did anyone make order out of this confusion?
And yet it had to be possible, didn't it? Because in his own way there was no one more orderly than Uncle—who was always so calm and so certain, who never rushed or misspoke. And he had stopped doing as Father willed years ago. He had followed Zuko into exile when he had a thousand reasons not to, because—
Because, perhaps, he'd thought it was right.
So Zuko stared out at the riverbank and considered. What Father wanted had sometimes been the right thing to do, Zuko felt sure, but perhaps sometimes it hadn't been; and without Father's will as a guideline, there had to be some other way to decide. The smartest thing to do could also be the right thing to do, but sometimes that wasn't it either—he himself had thought Wan Liu an idiot for letting him live with her family, but it was quite possibly the only reason he and Uncle were still alive, and—and he couldn't bring himself to call her wrong for that.
Maybe it would become a little clearer if he better understood what it was that had even happened in the catacombs: why the Avatar had helped him get out, and what she had lost by doing it.
Except she would never tell him. Her brother might answer but probably wouldn't be truthful—would make a stupid joke and smile at Zuko, unforgiving, eyes hard. And Suki? Better not to ask anything of Suki.
Which left only one person to try.
The Bei Fong girl—Toph, Zuko reminded himself, he should probably try to call her Toph—liked to sit up at the prow of the ship. And "sit" was maybe a little generous: "sprawl" might be a more accurate word. It still felt revoltingly cold to Zuko, but Toph didn't seem to mind; she was sheltered a little from the wind by the way the prow reared up toward the sky, and it was sunny. But the way she was lolling about still seemed excessive.
She propped herself up on one elbow as he came nearer, and then tilted her head up and said, "Yeah?"
She was looking a little past him, the sun streaming down into her face—he expected her to squint, and then remembered why she wasn't and grimaced at his own stupidity.
"What?" she prompted, not unkindly.
"There's—something I'd like to ask you," Zuko said cautiously.
He'd only thought that she was the least likely to ignore him or walk away without answering if he tried to talk to her; he was surprised when she smiled at him, even if it was just a little quirk of the mouth.
"Well, hey," she said. "As long as you're okay with maybe not liking the answer, knock yourself out."
"You don't seem to hate me very much," Zuko blurted out, and he felt his face heat—but at least Toph couldn't see it.
"What, like the rest of them?" Toph shrugged. "Well, they all mostly remember you as the guy who was trying really hard to make their lives really difficult," she said. "They told me about it, obviously, but that's not exactly the same as being there. And I—I mostly remember you from the tea shop."
"You were that guy in the doorway," Toph elaborated. "That guy I bumped into on my way out, the afternoon I was having tea with your uncle. I knew there was something familiar about the way you felt, it just took me a while to figure out where from. I mean," she added confidingly, "now I know I was having tea with the Fire Lord's brother and then almost knocked down the crown prince. But I didn't know it then.
"And you—" She shrugged again. "You bowed to me when I apologized to you, and you held the door for me after. Maybe you are awful; but maybe you aren't. Anyway, what did you want to ask me?"
She said it easily, conversationally. But Zuko felt oddly thrown, wrong-footed, and it took him a moment to answer. "The—the girl," he said, "Yue, that you left behind to help me."
Toph went still. And then after a moment she sat up—all the way, straight—and turned to face the far rail. "Yeah?" she said slowly.
"I—what was she like?"
Zuko knew a little already: he'd recognized her right away with that hair, he remembered fighting her in the north. She'd caught him coming to attack the Avatar and she'd beaten him. But she hadn't killed him, hadn't hurt him. Maybe it was because she'd been interrupted—but maybe not. He wasn't certain anymore. She hadn't seemed angry with him when they'd met again in the catacombs. She'd seemed—kind.
Toph didn't move, and for a long moment it was as though she hadn't heard him at all. But then at last she sighed and turned back toward him. "You know how Sokka likes to say we got the bad end of the deal, leaving her behind to help you?"
Zuko grimaced. "Yes."
"Well, she wouldn't have thought so," Toph said, matter-of-fact. "If she'd been there in the tea shop, if she'd heard the whole story from your uncle and everything—she'd have wanted us to help you, even if it meant she got left. That's what she was like."
Zuko stared down at his hands without seeing them. A Water Tribe princess; uncivilized, barbarian, beast, his mind supplied, but he took a breath and set that aside. Whatever else could be said about her or her people, there was a kind of honor in what she'd done, wasn't there? To be committed to a thing, to see it accomplished regardless of the cost to yourself because you had vowed that it would be. That was honor, and courage too; and Zuko had been stripped of both for a long time. If that was the standard he measured by— "So you did get the bad end of the deal," he allowed himself to say, quiet. Who would this girl tell? The Avatar hated him; Uncle was in prison; Wan Liu was on the other end of a river, the other side of a sea. And Father—
Father, in this moment, did not matter.
"She wouldn't have thought so," Toph said again. "She would have thought you were worth it." She nudged him with an elbow, and waited until he looked at her—he didn't know how she could even tell, but she could.
"I'm not," Zuko heard himself say. "I'm—I'm not."
Toph tilted her head. "Maybe you should try to be," she said.
So simple, and yet so incredibly unhelpful. Zuko huffed. "You sound like my uncle."
Toph grinned at him. "Sweet," she said. "Your uncle's awesome."
Zuko stared at her, baffled, and then nearly leapt out of his boots when a hand came down on his shoulder.
"Hey, Ukara," Toph said comfortably.
So Zuko was easier to sneak up on than a blind girl. Azula would have loved to see that.
"Toph," Ukara said, lowering her head in acknowledgment; and then she looked at Zuko and squeezed his shoulder, just a little, before she moved her hand away. "We are nearing the mouth of the river—we will be in Fire Nation waters by day's end, or perhaps tomorrow morning. Our colors need to be taken down. And," she added, eyeing them both up and down, "you need to change your clothes."
"Are you sure this is a good idea, sir?"
Yin turned her head. For once, it wasn't Kishen.
It probably wouldn't be again for quite a while.
"Oh, I'm fairly certain it's a bad idea, Commander. But it is our best option."
Yin allowed her tone to turn wry, but Nusha wasn't Arun; she did not smile. She did not look angry, either, or disdainful. She didn't look much of anything. As a rule, the woman seemed to have a damned opaque face.
Then again, "not angry" was about as generous a response as Yin could have hoped for. It was a mad idea, going to an Earth queen to ask for help—Yin thought so herself, and she had actual reason to believe it might work. Her commanders had only her word, her word and the vague string of logic she'd fed them: that they constituted a naval force any Earth kingdom should be grateful to have, that Jansung in particular might be persuaded to make use of them if Jindao were ever to be retaken, that Queen Yujun was known to employ soldiers and spies of Fire Nation ancestry already.
She'd nearly begun to laugh, trying to tell them that straight-faced with Kishen standing by the door behind her. She had managed to imply that this knowledge came from imperial intelligence forces; she hadn't looked to see how Kishen had reacted to the misdirection.
For the sake of the fleet. That was the most important thing. She was responsible for everyone who had followed her out of the South Yellow Sea, and this was not a good idea but was the best option.
The rest of it didn't matter.
Nusha was still watching her. "Unless there's something I'm missing," Yin said, raising an eyebrow.
"Implying that you don't know what you're doing would be disrespectful, sir," Nusha said evenly, "and I respect you very much. Even though you don't know what you're doing."
Yin snorted—she couldn't help it—and shook her head. "Well, I will try to make sure very few of us pay for it, if that is any comfort." Unlike the Tai San, the Lei was not held by Fire Nation forces; the river level was not controlled. Battleships could not sail it—at least not without help from Earth- or Waterbenders, which they would not have until after Yujun agreed to take them on.
If Yujun agreed to take them on. But Yin hadn't lied; Kishen hadn't lied, not about this: there was nothing else to try. So she would try it, with a few sampans heading up the river, and if she failed the fleet would still be here.
"I will take them down the Lin Wei," Nusha said.
Yin looked at her.
"If you do not come back, sir," Nusha clarified, not unkindly. "I will take the rest of the sampans and we will go down the Lin Wei to the sea. And then south, I think, to the Air Temple there. West would be much more dangerous."
It should have been upsetting, Yin thought, listening to someone outline their plans in the event of her death. But Nusha said it so calmly, so steadily. And Yin had said it to herself just a moment ago—if she failed the fleet would still be here. Someone needed to know what to do next.
"Agreed, Commander," Yin said quietly. "South will be safest," and then she looked down at her hands on the rail and let herself add, "Thank you."
"Of course, sir," Nusha said, equally quietly, and saluted before she stepped away.
Kishen might no longer come up to Yin on deck to speak casually; but that didn't mean it was possible to avoid him. He had been her second-in-command in every way that mattered. She'd assigned him additional duties—as admiral of the fleet, she'd also served nominally as captain of the flagship, but in practice some of that work had gone to him. And he did it well, always had. She had no excuse to take it back from him, or at least none she could give aloud. And in any case, Kishen would be coming with her—had to, if they were going to get anywhere near the queen. She couldn't strip him of responsibility and then hand-pick him to accompany her for a thing like this without provoking questions.
But she also couldn't quite manage to look happy to see him waiting for her outside the bridge.
"Sir," he said as she approached.
She wanted an excuse to ignore him, but he refused to give her one: he kept his gaze respectfully lowered, his hands at his chest in a salute, a model sailor in every respect.
Every respect except the part where he was an Earth Kingdom spy who'd been lying to her for months.
"Lieutenant," she said, and passed him for the hatch without looking at him.
He took this for the tacit permission it was, and followed her into the bridge. "You wish to depart tomorrow, sir?"
"And—if I may ask, sir—who will you take with you?"
He said it so carefully; and perhaps it was only politeness, that he refrained from making assumptions by saying who else—or perhaps he wanted to force her to say it, to wring out an acknowledgment that she needed him.
She couldn't tell anymore. And she couldn't stop second-guessing herself, either: if she leaned toward the former, was it because it was true or because some small stupid part of her still thought too kindly of him? If she leaned toward the latter, was it because it was more likely or because she was so angry she could hardly speak to him?
She closed her eyes and flattened her hands against the table in front of her, and managed to make it come out credibly level: "Besides you, Lieutenant? I do not think it can be any of our squadron or division commanders. If we fail to return, it's best that the fleet's command structure remain as intact as possible." She thought for a moment, running through names in her mind, and then added, "Feizin, perhaps. And Bai Wen. Four sampans is enough, I think—too few and accident could sink us all, but too many and we may appear less than sincere."
"Agreed, sir," Kishen said quietly.
He'd begun leaving without waiting to be dismissed—another thing she couldn't make up her mind about, grateful for it on the days when she didn't want to look at him and resentful of it on the days when everything he did felt presumptuous. But apparently she wouldn't get to find out which category today belonged to: he wasn't moving.
"Is there something else, Lieutenant?" Level, level, level. She was a commander talking to a subordinate, and that was all.
"No, sir," he said, and then, oddly gentle, "but I wish there were."
And at that she had to turn, had to look. He was still keeping his eyes trained on the floor, but that didn't mean he couldn't tell she'd moved; and he waited a moment afterward and then spoke again.
"I wish I could apologize to you, sir. But I find I can't. I don't regret it."
She let her voice get wry, light—as though she were amused. As though it didn't bother her. "Is that so?"
"Yes, sir," he said, unwavering. "If I'd told you the truth before you ever came to me at the gate—you'd have turned me in, sir, and then I wouldn't have been here. If I'd told you the truth too soon after, you'd still have done the same; too long after, and you'd still have felt your trust had been breached. You might have transferred me away, demoted me—given me a chance to die with honor, if you were generous, and I might well have taken it.
"And if I'd never had to lie at all, if I'd always been who you thought I was, then I—I couldn't have helped you, sir. I couldn't have helped you then, and I couldn't help you now. We'd be trapped here and I wouldn't be able to do anything about it; and I can't be sorry it's not like that. I'd rather you had a way to survive this and never trusted me again than the other way around, sir, and if I had to do it over I'd do it the same way."
He fell silent after, still not meeting her eyes; and she looked at him and thought distantly that she almost did understand. Somewhere far away from herself, she could see what he meant, could believe that he meant it—could even empathize. There was no one standing in this bridge right now who hadn't lied to a superior officer repeatedly to further their own aims, after all.
But the anger and the hurt were much closer by, easier to reach, and in the end when she opened her mouth what came out was, "Then I suppose you are right, Lieutenant: there is nothing else to discuss."
"Of course, sir," Kishen said, and saluted, and then turned neatly on his heel and went out.
It felt like it should have taken a lot longer to get anywhere near the Fire Nation, even the easternmost islands—like how far away it was, how hard it was to get to, was supposed to match how strange it was to think about being there. And how utterly wrong it was about everything, how—how bad it was.
Which, going by that, Katara thought, it should have been on the other side of the world. But the map said it all: the nearest Fire Nation island wasn't much further from the end of the Lin Wei than Shinsotsu was from Omashu. Hardly any distance, really, compared to how far they'd gone already.
And yet still somehow further than Katara wanted to go.
It had gotten warmer as they crossed the sea, warmer and muggier, and when Mikama finally spotted the island, it was through a soft gray haze of rain.
Katara tried to listen to the patter of it against the deck, the hull, instead of paying too much attention to what she was doing: she'd stayed belowdecks rather than change her clothes while they passed Jindao and the blockade, but she couldn't avoid it any longer. Jindao was where they'd bought their Fire Nation clothes—she'd kept hers stuffed into the bottom of her pack where she could ignore them, where she didn't have to look at them. They were from before anything had really gone wrong, and it had seemed like a good idea to have them, then. But now, after the plaza, after Zhao, after Ba Sing Se—putting them on made her skin crawl.
But she had to do it anyway. So she closed her eyes and listened to the rain and tried not to think about it.
She'd just about figured out how to get the skirt tucked in over the pants when Sokka found her. "There you are," he said, and then paused, tilting his head. "Man, your hair looks so weird like that."
All of me looks weird like this, Katara wanted to say, except dwelling on it wasn't going to help. Finding Yue probably wouldn't be easy. Who knew how long they were going to be stuck in the Fire Nation? Katara had to get used to this—to looking like this, to having people see her and think she was ... well, probably not true Fire Nation. A colonial, more likely. Which was better anyway, since the clothes were from the colonies in the first place.
"Well, your face looks weird all the time," she said instead, prim, and Sokka grinned.
He looked weird, too, in red—but he hadn't had to change his hair as much, pulling it back in a Fire Nation knot instead of the usual leather tie. And his expressions were the same; the slouchy way he liked to stand, the easy line of his shoulders, the faint pale scarring that still rippled over his arm where he'd been burned. It made her feel better to look at him, seeing all the ways he was still the same.
After all, they were just clothes.
"Yeah, yeah, same to you," Sokka was saying, shaking his head, and then he paused and looked away, scratching at the back of his neck. "So, listen, I get that you mostly want to do this for Yue—which is great, I'm totally on board for that. And on the one hand we should probably have a plan in case there is a Day of Black Sun, even if there's also a chance the—" He waved a hand. "—celestial sky dragon or whatever wandered off after the dragons got wiped out. But on the other hand we still have a month or two, so I'm sure we can figure that out."
"But," Katara prompted, when he paused again.
"But—" He bit his lip, and then sighed and said it, all in a rush, like that would stop her from disagreeing: "But you aren't ever going to get a better chance to find a Firebender—"
As if there were anything she wanted to think about less than that.
"I'm not going to ask Zuko—"
"No, hey," Sokka said, raising his hands, "that's fine. I remember those Earthbenders in the city, I get that you want to find the right person. I—also remember that you didn't like Toph all that much to start with either," he added, and then glanced at her face and said quickly, "But I'm sure what's happening here is totally different! Anyway, the point is—you are going to need a teacher."
Katara looked away. He wasn't wrong—Roku had said she needed to master all the elements before the comet came, and he hadn't thrown in anything like "unless you really, really don't want to". She couldn't just skip fire, or ignore it. She had to at least try to figure out how to bend it.
Even if she really, really didn't want to.
"We're not just going for Yue," she offered, halfhearted. "If General Iroh is still with her, then maybe—maybe he can do it." It wouldn't be so bad with him, would it? He'd done as many awful things as anybody else from the Fire Nation, but at least he knew it. At least he agreed with her that he'd been wrong.
"Maybe," Sokka agreed. "But what if he's not? Yue's a princess, yeah, but she's probably not the first Water Tribe prisoner of war ever. The Fire Lord's got a way more personal problem with General Iroh—"
"So we'll figure it out then!" Katara snapped. "What do you want from me, anyway?"
Sokka's eyes narrowed. "I want you to actually think about it," he said. "You know not everybody from the Fire Nation is Prince Zuko—you know it. Zhao's lieutenant lady helped us, those fire sage people helped us. Roku helped us, too. You're the one who told us Aang had a Fire Nation friend one time. Uh, sorry to bring that up again, buddy," he added, glancing up and then sideways, left and then right.
"He's up on deck somewhere," Katara said sharply. Sokka wasn't wrong, except that he was: it was—it was different. He wasn't thinking about it the right way. "And that has nothing to do with this. The war hadn't even started yet when Aang was alive. Zhao's lieutenant stopped him because he was about to kill the moon. And those three sages? Helped us because the other forty of them were trying to murder us—and they probably only did it because I'm the Avatar, anyway. If we'd just been a couple Water Tribe kids and a Kyoshi warrior, do you think they would have done anything for us?"
"Maybe," Sokka said. "Maybe not. We don't know! And we won't know whether any of them might help you learn how to Firebend, either, if we don't ask some of them."
Katara shut her eyes for a second. He was still wrong, but he'd made a better point than he might even have realized, with the sages—if they'd helped her because she was the Avatar, maybe someone else might, too. Maybe they'd make an exception.
And that burned to think about; that was Master Pakku all over again in its own way. First she hadn't really been a girl, or she had been but it could be ignored—and now maybe she wasn't really Water Tribe, could hold on to the thought that it might not be held against her, as if that were anything to be glad about. As if she should be grateful for that forbearance.
But she had to master the elements before the comet came. And there might not be any other way to do it.
"I'll keep it in mind," she managed to say, and then bent down to grab her pack so she wouldn't have to look Sokka in the face. "You should get your stuff together, we're nearly there," and then she stepped around him and left before he could say anything else.
The rain only got heavier as they drew closer to the island. Like the spirits were trying to warn them off, Katara couldn't help thinking, trying to tell them this was a bad idea. Which it was. It was just that they had to do it anyway. There wasn't anybody else who could help Yue—and it was Katara's fault that Yue had left her home at all. They had to.
Aang went off ahead of them, a soft blue spirit-light gleaming in the fog, and came back with the news that there was an inlet a little way south along the shore. "And I didn't see anybody," he added, and glanced up—the rain, of course, was falling through him. "I guess it's not great weather for catching the Avatar sneaking around."
And suddenly it felt like no time at all before they were—they were done. They didn't need to borrow any of the scout ship's sampans; even when the water was as warm as this, Katara could still hold a floe together long enough to carry everybody who needed carrying to shore.
Once the anchor had dropped, she stayed at the rail for a moment and just looked. She almost wanted to tell Father to turn around, to take them back, and this was just about the last moment she could. She didn't want him to go. She didn't want to be left here, with nothing but a map and Prince Zuko's word to help her find her way—not that she was alone, with Sokka and Suki, Toph, Aang. But she was the Avatar. They were trusting her. And she wanted to yell, But I don't know what I'm doing!—to shake them until they understood. But she couldn't.
Yue needed them, and they had to go.
Once they were all assembled in the belly of the ship, it was Toph who looked the most out of place: she hadn't been with them in Jindao, and of course she didn't want to hear anybody say it, but none of them had anything that was even remotely small enough to fit her. Father and his warriors had been dressed up in Fire Nation armor ever since they'd left the river, and Prince Zuko—
Prince Zuko, Katara thought, almost managed to look like he belonged among them.
His hair had changed; it was short now, he couldn't keep it tied back the way he once had. And the clothes he was wearing weren't the same as the armor he'd had on in Suki's village, or through the spyglass in Shinsotsu—they weren't even the bland lightweight gear he'd worn when he'd found them in Kanjusuk.
But he looked the same in them. Surrounded by helmeted Fire Nation soldiers, standing in the middle of a navy vessel, in red: he looked the same as he ever had. He looked like an enemy.
Until Mikama made a grumpy noise and then reached up and popped her helmet off, anyway. "If we are alone here," she said, shaking out her hair in relief, "then I refuse to keep this pot on my head any longer than I must."
"If it were a pot," Cousin Ukara murmured, "it would not have a hole for your face."
"Yes, and you'd prefer that, wouldn't you?" Mikama said with a laugh, and then joyfully elbowed Cousin Ukara in the ribs.
It was a little easier to breathe, after that—and then harder again, once Father stepped forward to wrap one arm around Sokka and the other around Katara. "Whatever happens now," he murmured into Katara's hair, "please know that I am so proud of you both, and I will be counting the days until we see one another again."
Katara couldn't find the words to answer; but she squeezed back really really hard, and she was pretty sure he would know what she meant.
Once she and Sokka had stepped back again, Prince Zuko moved. Katara almost hit him for it, reflexive—but he wasn't doing anything wrong. At least not right that second. He looked at Cousin Ukara for a moment, and then at Father, and then he brought his hands together, one a fist and one flat, and bowed a little. "Thank you," he said.
He was so stiff about it, so unrelentingly awkward. It had to grate on him, Katara thought grimly, prince that he was—bowing to Father, to some Water Tribe chieftain he couldn't possibly have any actual respect for.
But Father—Father was polite, maybe, or kind, or both. Father just looked at him and waited for him to straighten up again, and then inclined his own head for a moment in acknowledgment. "You have your own reasons, I know," Father said, "but you have still chosen to help my daughter, when no one asked or even thought to expect it of you. So I hope you will find you can believe me when I say: you are welcome."
Kinder than Prince Zuko had any right to expect. Katara hoped meanly that he realized it, but if he did it was hard to tell—he stared at Father silently for a long moment, swallowing, and then looked away and didn't say anything.
The hull-ramp was already lowering, anyway. They'd go, and Father would leave; they'd find somewhere to stay the night—somewhere where Toph and Katara could punch a nice big overhang into place to keep the rain at bay—and then they'd start looking for people in the morning, a village where Toph could get some clothes that wouldn't fall off her. There wasn't any point wasting time. Katara hitched her pack a little higher on her shoulders and walked down the ramp, and then knelt down and put her hand in the water and watched the ice begin to form.
It was honestly impressive, how far the colonies had come.
Of course, even after a hundred years there was nothing on the western coast to rival even Saifuhan or Bopai—which could generously be described as "charmingly provincial"—let alone Da Su-Lien itself. And a certain purity could be said to be lacking: looking around the port authority building, Azula could see a squatness to the lines of the place, a bulky solidity, that was Earth Kingdom all over. The eaves were barely even flared.
But that was no doubt a consequence of using Earth labor to help build the place, which was only reasonable. Any and every resource needed to be exploited to maintain a foothold over the course of a war like this one. And when you used whatever was in front of you, when you needed things done more than you needed them done right, well. A little ideological rot creeping in around the edges was simply to be expected—and when the war was finally won, it would be easy enough to burn away.
When the war was finally won. And that surely couldn't be far away now, could it? She didn't want to be smiling when the harbormaster returned, he might get the impression that it had been acceptable to make her wait; but oh, it was so difficult not to. Ba Sing Se, fallen—by her hand, using the tools the Earth kingdoms' own beloved Kyoshi had left poised for her use. Where Uncle himself had failed, and then failed again in letting her capture him. She couldn't have planned it better if she'd been trying: sharing the news with Father in one breath and presenting him with Uncle in the next could do nothing but highlight the magnitude of the achievement.
Yes, it was better this way. She could certainly still have killed Uncle—but Father would understand why she hadn't. It would be almost as advantageous for him in its own way, after all. He could share the news of their great victory with the people, and then celebrate with the public execution of the traitor who had kept that victory from them for so long. It was thematically appropriate in a way Father would appreciate. He'd understand why she'd done all this the way she had. He'd approve.
And they had made such good time reaching the coast. If the sailing went equally smoothly, she might well be the first confirmation Father received. Of course, it was typhoon season—but then she had a Waterbender, didn't she? A Waterbender who could be made to do as Azula ordered, whatever Uncle said.
Ah, there—footsteps. Azula chose an expression of mild boredom; enough to make it clear she was displeased, and yet of course she couldn't seem angry. As if the harbormaster were important enough for a crown princess to lose her composure over! Ridiculous.
"Your Highness—so sorry, my deepest apologies—"
"Yes, yes," Azula said, with a dismissive flick of the hand. "You've wasted enough of my time already, don't force me to listen to your excuses."
"Of course not, Highness," the harbormaster said quickly—and she supposed it was to his credit that he bowed low after and did in fact shut his mouth. The urge to explain yourself was a difficult one to conquer, and he certainly had plenty of explanations to reach for. It was so early the sun had barely risen. It was entirely possible that his assistant had had to wake him outright to get him here.
"I require a ship," Azula told him. "The fastest in your harbor, and its crew. Bring me the captain—and a brush and ink. I do not have time to meet with whatever admiral or sub-admiral is in charge here, but I am sure my seal will suffice." And if the admiral's unhappy about it, that will be your problem, since I'll already be gone.
The harbormaster had to realize it—but it wasn't as though he could object. He could only say, "Of course, Highness," and bow again, and then do exactly as she'd asked.
It should have been hard to fall asleep there, in enemy territory; but the rain was actually kind of soothing once it wasn't getting on them anymore, and beyond it Katara thought she could maybe still hear the ocean. It had been such a long time since she'd fallen asleep to the sound of it—she hadn't even realized how much she'd missed it. The smell, too: different, when it wasn't coming to her carried on the crisp bright air over the ice fields, but still familiar.
So in the end she'd been able to let it drag her down without too much trouble. It was warm and close and dark beneath the shelter she and Toph had made, and then it was warm and close and dark behind her eyelids, and then she slid away and was gone.
It was so easy, in fact, that she was vaguely surprised to wake.
She actually thought for a long moment that she hadn't, that she was just dreaming about lying down. It was still so dark it didn't quite seem real, and she found herself almost—waiting for something, a funny quality to the stillness like something had happened, just a moment before she woke, that she couldn't remember having felt or heard.
And that was weird in a dream kind of way, except that an instant later something did happen.
She wasn't even sure how to categorize it: a tremor in the earth, maybe, or a noise so low and distant she hadn't actually quite heard it. She blinked and pressed a hand to the ground, because if it was a tremor, maybe she could feel it—
Yes, there it was again, a little bigger, a little louder.
Toph had rolled over, bleary, and her hand landed almost on top of Katara's—her face was basically invisible, but Katara could imagine the way she'd be wrinkling her nose, the sleepy confusion.
"I don't know," Katara whispered. "Can you tell?" The Fire Nation had things—earthquakes, volcanoes; the books Sokka had found in the library at the university had gone into a fair amount of detail. If this was something like that—
"Mmph," Toph said, and shifted around so she could flatten her palm properly against the ground.
Somebody else moved—Sokka, Katara was pretty sure.
"Cut that out," Toph muttered, and Sokka promptly moved again, yawning.
"Whatsit?" he said, through the tail end of the yawn.
"Don't know," Toph said, and then yawned herself. "'S coming from the ground, yeah, but—mm. Doesn't feel like a landslide. Too regular."
"Soldiers?" Katara said, suddenly much more awake, but Toph didn't seem fazed.
"Don't think so," she said. "Not regular enough. But if it is, they're pretty far away anyhow."
"If it's not about to kill us," Sokka murmured, "then I say we go back to sleep," and then he promptly followed his own advice. It was impressive, really, how fast he started snoring.
Katara waited a little longer—long enough to be sure Toph was right. But she was. If it was soldiers, they weren't getting any closer; and if it was something else, it didn't seem to be coming for them. It didn't seem to have anything to do with them at all.
And that was a really, really nice thought to fall back asleep to.
Whatever the sound had been, it was gone by morning. If it had gotten any louder, then Katara had slept through it just fine—which was good, because they hadn't managed to find a road yet and the underbrush was really impressive around here.
Aang couldn't be any help, unfortunately; he'd never been here while he was alive. Katara had only had about half a minute to ask him about it before Zuko'd woken up, and then she couldn't look at him anymore, couldn't reply to him. The last thing she wanted was the prince of the Fire Nation knowing she had an invisible, intangible former Avatar helping her.
But it was pretty hard to not make faces at him when he could just float through everything untouched.
"Man, this is almost as bad as that swamp," Sokka said, shoving forward ahead of her, and then he yelped and lurched back, sputtering, when a broad wet leaf smacked him in the face. "Wasn't it just winter? Is there winter here? Or is it just like this all the t—"
"Are you lost?"
They all jerked at once and looked up the slope: they'd been trying to find a good place to start scaling it, but maybe they should have just gone for it, because up at the top of the ridge, someone was peering down at them through all the greenery.
"Or stuck or something?" the person offered, after a moment. "Did you fall down?"
Katara glanced at Prince Zuko, but apparently there was no secret Fire-Nation-specific answer to that question, no code involved. He stared back at her blankly, and he didn't do anything to stop Sokka from saying cheerfully, "Nah, we just have no idea what we're doing. Is there a road up there or something?"
"Awesome," Sokka said.
The person—a boy—hadn't lied: there was a road. But that was strange, too, Katara thought, because even the dirt here was the wrong color, the wrong texture. Just another thing to add to the list.
Of course Aang couldn't help them climb, even though he could get up the hill faster than any of them. But once they'd gotten far enough up the slope, the boy reached down through the leaves to offer Sokka a hand up and over the edge of the roadway. And then he saw Zuko coming toward him next—and took a deliberate step away.
Did he know? Was he about to bow? Or, worse, would he shout for someone, run off and find some soldiers and tell them who he'd seen? Zuko was still technically exiled, as far as Katara knew, and breaking the law just by setting foot on Fire Nation soil. It seemed somehow unfair that having the prince on their side, however temporarily, could get them in just as much trouble as being who they were—
But the boy didn't run. He just looked at Zuko, at his clothes and his face and his hair, with a long hard stare. And then he said, odd and sharp, "Enjoying your stay, mainlander?"
"He's not," Katara said, way too fast, which was exactly the wrong way to try to fix this. "I mean, he is, but we aren't. We're from the colonies. He's—" and oh, she couldn't grit her teeth, had to smile instead, and she hoped it didn't look as uncomfortable as it felt. "He's our friend."
"He's showing us around," Sokka added.
Which was a stroke of brilliance, because it made the boy snort. "Oh, okay," he said, and then, wry, "Then I guess I get why you were crashing around in the woods."
He kept his gaze on Zuko while he said it, but Zuko was pretty restrained: he didn't set the kid on fire for it.
"Yeah," Sokka said blandly, "he's not too good with directions."
And that made Zuko's jaw tighten; but still, still, no flames burst from his fingertips. It was almost disappointing—Katara wouldn't have minded having an excuse to fight with him.
Except it would be better not to. They were colonials, and he was their mainland friend who was traveling with them, and friends didn't shove friends into Earthbent holes in the ground and leave them there.
As hard as it was to remember that whenever she looked at Zuko's stupid face.
The kid laughed again, not as sharp this time, and afterward he was still smiling—so maybe he did believe them. Or at least he didn't disbelieve them enough for it to be a problem. "I'm Naram," he said.
Katara thought about lying, but only for a second. It would just make everything harder; if she had trouble answering to the name she'd given him, that would make him more suspicious, not less. And how was this kid going to know the difference between a Southern Water Tribe name and some new colonial trend? So—"Katara," she told him. "That's my brother, Sokka, and that's Suki. And our friend over there is—"
"Li," Prince Zuko said, before she could finish. "I am Li."
He couldn't be the only person in the whole Fire Nation named Zuko; but then again maybe it wasn't common—maybe the royal family chose special names nobody else could use, or something. Katara had no idea. Naram gave Zuko another narrow-eyed look, but didn't push, so "Li" must have been an okay Fire Nation name. And she wasn't worried about remembering it. She wasn't planning to talk to Zuko directly at all, if she could help it.
"And you want to get to town, huh?" Naram said.
"Yep," Sokka said. "We're—um, planning to meet up with another friend of ours, and we—wanted to get her a present? New clothes. Is there a place we could get something like that?"
There was, as it turned out. The village that Naram brought them to was big enough that it could have impressed Katara with its size once—if she hadn't been through a dozen cities since, if she weren't coming to it straight from Ba Sing Se itself.
"My house is that way," Naram said, pointing. "This is—"
He stopped and bit the inside of his cheek; his eyes flicked over to Zuko, and for a second his face looked suddenly weird: angry, hard-edged, in a way that didn't make sense on a kid that young. He wasn't any taller than Toph—and with cheeks like Aang's, made for smiling. He shouldn't have been looking at anybody that way.
But he did. And then he tilted his chin up and said, "Khmao Sreng."
Sokka and Zuko, hilariously, frowned at nearly the same time. "That—doesn't sound like any of the names that were on the map," Sokka said.
"Ma-Yu-Sung," Zuko said, and Sokka's face cleared.
"Oh, okay," he said, and then, breezy, "Anything we need to know?"
Naram didn't answer. He was still looking at Zuko.
"Many famous court dancers once came from this island," Zuko said, in the flat slow way people said things they'd memorized a long time ago.
"Once?" Suki prompted.
Zuko glanced at her, and then, oddly, back at Naram, like he thought the kid might speak up. But Naram looked away and stayed silent, and so it was Zuko who said, "Dancing is against the law in Ma-Yu-Sung. And on this entire island."
"I'm sorry, what?" Sokka said, blinking. "Against the law?"
He looked bewildered. They all did; even the Avatar had stopped glaring at Zuko, the better to frown at him in confusion.
"Yes," Zuko said.
"Dancing?" Suki said. "Why?"
Zuko waited a moment, but the islander boy didn't leap in to fill the gap. He just stood there with his arms crossed, looking away, face blank. And there was no reason why any of the rest of them should know the details, Zuko supposed.
"There was a dancer in—" and then Zuko caught himself before he could say my grandfather. "In Fire Lord Azulon's court. She came from Ma-Yu-Sung, not long after the third rebellion."
The Avatar and her friends didn't seem to feel like this clarified anything. "... And?" the Avatar said.
"And there was a fourth rebellion," Zuko said slowly. He'd—he'd realized they might not recall the specifics, but a court dancer and the fourth rebellion—the fourth rebellion bringing with it General Ishama's name, of course, because the two were inextricably linked—
Or at least they always had been by Zuko's tutors. Common knowledge, and more than that: fact, unquestionable, understood. But what would the Water Tribes know about any of it? And if they had known, if the Avatar and her brother had filed into some icy little schoolroom for lessons on Fire Nation history, would a Water Tribe tutor have explained it all the same way Zuko's had?
"It was suppressed," he explained, glancing at each of them in turn, watching their faces. He felt almost—nervous, or—he could not say what the feeling was, only that it made his heart trip fast in his chest. "There was a banquet held for General Ishama, whose victory it was, so the Fire Lord could honor her personally. The dancer was to perform during the festivities, a traditional dance from this island."
"And she did it?" Suki asked quietly.
"She—began," Zuko said. "She altered the steps. Drew close enough to the dais to kill General Ishama, and then killed herself. So the Fire Lord outlawed dancing here."
"Oh, okay," Sokka said, falsely bright, "I get it now. Not only are you awful to everybody else, you're awful to yourselves, too!"
It had always been told to Zuko like a parable, a fable with a lesson: this was how foolish people would be, if you let them. This was what you did to save them from themselves, to bring order and piety, consciousness of place, where it had not previously existed. And it had always sounded—true.
"Her actions undermined our nation," Zuko said, and for once he was not repeating the tutors when he said it, echoing rotely. For once, he was saying it, feeling the words in his mouth and understanding what he was saying when he used them; and watching what happened to the Avatar's face as she heard them. "The unity of our people is—"
"—not worth that," the Avatar said, very low, and turned away from him.
All at once Zuko remembered that the boy was still there. But he didn't seem suspicious. He was looking at the Avatar carefully, and then he said, "Different in the colonies, I guess."
The Avatar blinked, swallowing, and then said, "Yeah. Yes. Different."
Naram took them to—it wasn't quite a tailor's shop, at least not the way Katara had started to think of tailors' shops after seeing them in Ba Sing Se. But there was fabric and there were clothes, and the smiling woman who ran the place said she might have something that would fit, a rejected set that had been made for someone else. "Awful man," she told them cheerily. "Sorry his daughter never got to wear them, but not sorry to lose his business."
"Thanks," Sokka said, already digging around for some money.
The woman turned away, humming, and Katara took the opportunity to catch Sokka's elbow and say, "I'll be outside."
"What? Yeah, okay. Just don't get lost."
"Ha ha," Katara said, rolling her eyes, and ducked back out the door.
She let the expression slide off the way it wanted to, once she was outside; she crossed her arms and tucked her hands tight, tight, against her ribs, looking up at the flat gray sky.
"Katara?" Aang said, catching up to her, and she turned away because she couldn't figure out how to answer—she couldn't figure out how she felt.
There was a dark aimless anger that had been following her like a shadow since they'd stepped off the ship. Or, no, earlier: since she'd taken these clothes out of her pack, knowing she'd have to put them on. Knowing everyone here would look at her and think she was one of them, and she couldn't tell them they were wrong.
The unity of our people. Zuko had said it like there was such a thing; and Katara would have believed it, any other time except right after that story he'd told. That had always been how it had seemed to her, after all. In her head the Fire Nation was one vast prowling machine, a single huge battleship billowing smoke and cracking its way inexorably through the ice. Fire Nation sailors and raiders all wore the same uniform, and if the one for soldiers was different, it wasn't different enough for it to matter. They were a faceless helmeted mass, the enemy; they were Fire Nation and Katara hated them—
Lieutenant Yin. It had been so long ago it almost felt like it had happened to someone else, but—but she hadn't been wearing a helmet, that day she'd helped Katara and Jong Han escape. Katara could only just remember something of the look of her face, her sober eyes as she'd ordered Katara to hit her and run away. And the sages—
Exceptions. Or Katara was the exception, whichever. But apparently there was a whole island of exceptions, smiling helpful tailor-women and kids who liked to glare at Zuko just as much as Katara did, even if they didn't know who he was. A whole island of people who'd fought the Fire Nation and lost, and that they were Fire Nation didn't seem to have made a difference.
How could it not? The Fire Nation was everything Katara had spent her whole life fighting against—how could it not matter? How could she be feeling sorry for these people—just because they couldn't dance, of all things—
She looked down. There were tattoos on her upper arms, winding sak yant; it was right and wrong at the same time, for them to be there and for her to know those words. And she was wearing—her favorite dress, a festival dress. She'd done half the embroidery herself, red and black and gold, and she was pleased and proud to wear it. That was why she had come home: she was the Avatar, she had duties elsewhere, but even the Avatar could go home for festival days, sometimes.
She looked up and laughed, spun once in place just to feel the weight of the jewelry at her wrists and ankles. There would be one of the formal traditional dances later, with costumes, headdresses, an entire story-song; but until then the whole village plaza was a whirl of color and motion, drums and bells and someone in the distance with a tro sau—
"Hey," Sokka said, sharp, and Katara blinked and saw him, felt his hands where they were wrapped tight around her shoulders, even though they hadn't been there a second ago.
"You were, uh." Sokka cleared his throat and then raised an eyebrow, and let go of one of her shoulders to motion vaguely toward his eyes. "Doing that thing. Lighting up? Of all the places to have one of your little demonstrations, this is a really, really bad one—"
"No," Katara said, "I wasn't going to do anything," and then, hardly knowing where the words were coming from, "It was Kunnarya. She was—she loved to dance."
"O-kay," Sokka said, and then exchanged a quick glance with Suki and patted Katara on the shoulder. It was just lucky he couldn't see Aang, who was giving Katara a similarly concerned stare from right over Sokka's shoulder. "Let's just take these back to Toph, all right? She'll be super excited about her present."
Which, if you thought of the present as "not having to wait around for them in hiding anymore", instead of "new clothes", was absolutely true. "Yeah," Katara said, and straightened up, shaking herself a little. No past Avatars had shown up in a while, that was all. She was fine. "Yeah, all right."
"Great! Seriously, I can't leave you alone for five minutes." Sokka shook his head. "Thanks, buddy," he added over his shoulder to Naram, waving, and then, a little more quietly, "Come on, let's get out of here before you set off an earthquake again."
Toph wasn't waiting for them quietly, of course. She'd kicked a few boulders out of the ground in the forest and was smashing them into each other, apparently to find out which one would crack first—and she didn't seem to care what a terrible idea it was to wander around Earthbending in Fire Nation territory.
"Whatever," she said, shrugging, when Katara hissed precisely this at her. "There's nobody around! I would have felt it if there were—sure felt you coming, you guys are like a herd of elephant buffalo. Did you get the clothes or what?"
Sokka obediently handed them over; and Toph inspected them carefully, running her hands along the seams and hems and embroidery, squinting absently up at the sky, and then declared them "fine, I guess" and wandered off to punch herself a changing space.
"Okay!" Sokka said, clapping his hands. "So. Where are we headed, Li?"
Zuko looked at him impassively. He'd been like that all morning, expressionless: through Naram's glaring and sharp remarks, telling them that horrible story, all of it. Rebellion by itself was a weird enough concept to try to grasp, Katara thought—when people disagreed with Father, they just ... disagreed. Argued, sometimes, and were talked down by Gran-Gran. People did as Father said, most of the time, because he was chief and because they trusted him; but if they hadn't, he'd—he'd have talked to them, explained why he needed them to do what he needed them to do. They wouldn't have attacked him. And he—he wouldn't have killed them for it.
But Zuko and his blank face talked like that was normal. The fourth rebellion, he'd said, and that had been a couple Fire Lords ago—what number were they up to now? Maybe he didn't even realize it didn't have to be that way, Katara thought. Maybe he didn't know you could just not kill people who didn't like you.
Then again, he had to know Katara didn't like him, and he hadn't done anything to her. At least not yet.
"We keep heading toward the mainland," Zuko was telling Sokka. "We aren't close enough for you to need to know any more than that."
"Aw, come on, can't you give me a hint?" Sokka had pulled out the map, and flailed it irritatedly at Zuko. "General direction—"
"No," Zuko said. And the worst part was, Katara couldn't even claim he was being stupid. If he told them where this fancy Fire Nation prison was—why shouldn't they leave him behind? Why wouldn't they?
"What if we get separated? If you get kidnapped by rebels or something—"
"—then he'd probably rather we had a good reason to rescue him," Toph said, coming out from between the trees behind Sokka.
The clothes were pretty nice, and Toph looked weirdly comfortable in them—but then they had to be far from the fanciest thing she'd ever worn in her life.
She struck a little pose, as if to give them a chance to admire her even though she couldn't possibly see their expressions, and then added, "Look, how to get there isn't the problem. He's not going to take us the wrong way or anything, not when his uncle needs our help just as much as Yue does."
Sokka sighed, but rolled up the map again and said, "Yeah, I get it: the actual problem's going to be getting inside it without dying. And finding Yue and what's-his-face. And getting back out again. At least we can scope the place out without anybody knowing—"
"How?" Zuko said.
Katara went still, and couldn't stop herself from flicking a glance sideways at Aang. Not that it mattered; even if Zuko noticed her doing it, he'd never guess what was actually going on.
She would probably have to tell Zuko sooner or later. If nothing else, the odds that she'd make a mistake the way she had with Toph and talk to Aang without thinking got bigger the longer Zuko was with them. But until then, she didn't want to. And if Aang wanted her to be honest about it, he was at least kind enough not to say so: he just looked back at her and nodded once, grave and glowing.
"Uh, just—a freaky Avatar powers thing," Sokka said, waving a hand. "Not important. And speaking of which," and he turned to Katara, "I don't think this breaking into prison thing is going to be easy no matter what happens. But it might be easier with as many freaky Avatar powers on our side as possible."
Katara glared at him, but couldn't muster any real anger. She should have known he wasn't going to leave it alone, after he'd brought it up on the ship. He was almost as stubborn about this kind of thing as she was.
"We can—keep an eye out," she said shortly, and didn't look at Zuko. There had to be plenty of other Firebenders out there. Firebenders who weren't members of the royal family; who'd never joined the army or anything; who'd never hurt anyone on purpose.
At least, like, one. Maybe two, if she was lucky.
"Think of it this way," Suki said, and then didn't elaborate until Katara actually looked at her. She'd been watching them all talk, standing silently with her arms crossed, face almost as carefully blank as Prince Zuko's. But now she deliberately met Katara's eyes and smiled, just a little. "Worst comes to worst, we'll have Zuko call you names. Maybe insult your hair."
"As long as the rest of you are at a safe distance," Katara said wryly. But—she had used fire in the courtyard in Changmei, or at least she was pretty sure she had. She almost remembered it happening, a sudden blaze of heat and light, the startled cries of the soldiers who'd been closest.
Even if she couldn't find a teacher, she could Firebend anyway. Maybe that would be good enough.
Joo Dee had not taken over the Grand Secretary's office.
She could have. No one would have objected. It was not clear to any of the Dai Li precisely how Princess Azula had intended the position of Supreme Bureaucratic Administrator to fit into their existing structure; for the moment, they were erring on the side of treating Joo Dee as equivalent to the Grand Secretary, and potentially more highly-ranked still.
She had needed new robes—no longer senior third rank, after all, and the embroidery that identified her to her colleagues was therefore incorrect. Princess Azula had instructed that the circled squares of the Dai Li be replaced with phoenixes. Joo Dee was not sure why this was more appropriate than a Fire Nation flame, but nevertheless, Princess Azula's instructions were to be followed.
The princess would no doubt have been delighted if Joo Dee had claimed the Grand Secretary's office as her own. But she had not left instructions on that matter, and so Joo Dee was free to do what seemed most appropriate; and that was to leave the office precisely as it was, prepared for and available to the next Grand Secretary.
It served as a meaningful sign to the rest of the Dai Li: Joo Dee, Supreme Bureaucratic Administrator, expected that there would be a next Grand Secretary—that the Dai Li would be neither reshaped nor dismantled, that security and stability remained within reach. And—
And Joo Dee did not want it.
Foolish. She had not killed Long Feng within it; it was pristine, in perfect order, as though he'd stepped out of it for a moment and had yet to return. No blood had touched it.
But she did not want it, and was glad to have a clear rationale for choosing not to take it.
So the uniform was not a problem; and her own office would perhaps require refurbishing, but at the moment, lengths of green silk embroidered with the princess's favored phoenixes, pinned at either side of the door, would suffice. Reports that would normally have been compiled for the Grand Secretary were redirected to her—but that would only last as long as the emptiness in the Grand Secretary's office. That was not a cause for concern.
There was, in fact, only one thing that was a cause for concern; and Joo Dee sat in her office, behind her silk-edged door, and stared at it where it lay on her desk.
The order was not complicated. It had taken only one sheet of rice paper to write out, only a few lines of characters over the princess's personal seal.
And Joo Dee could not claim to be surprised that the princess wanted the king found. The former king, as the orders put it, and Joo Dee would be sure to say it that way when she spoke to Princess Azula aloud; but—she did not have to think it.
The king remained the king. His throne was his, and his alone. All this had been done in order to save him, as a part of the unbroken line of kings whom the Dai Li did their utmost to support and to preserve—such was the logic Long Feng must surely have employed.
But Long Feng had not thought Princess Azula would have him executed, and had been wrong. If Long Feng had also thought the princess would allow the king to remain, a figurehead—what was there to say he had not been wrong again?
Joo Dee had been almost as displeased as the princess, to learn that His Majesty had escaped from the palace; the failure had belonged to the Dai Li, and at that time Joo Dee had thought it paramount that the Dai Li fail as rarely as possible. But—
But she found herself almost glad, looking down at the single page on her desk, that she did not know where the king was, and that Princess Azula was gone—that Joo Dee had time to decide where to begin the search.
And time to decide whether or not she wanted it to succeed.
Wan Liu pressed her ear against the door and tried not to breathe too loudly.
There had not been any real trouble yet, at least not for them. Some arrests had been made here and there in this section of the Lower Ring—mostly people who openly caused trouble, spitting on Fire Nation soldiers or turning their backs. Sometimes it had not gone as far as arrest; a beating was deemed sufficient disincentive. But there had not been riots. Too many people cowed, or comforted, or something in between, by the green-robed Dai Li who accompanied the Fire Nation patrols through each district.
And so far, searches had been confined to people who were out on the streets at the wrong hours, or who wished to pass between districts, let alone between Rings. The patrols were shows of force; they had not begun entering houses or shops, had not begun turning over stones.
But Wan Liu knew that at any moment they might, because she knew what they would be looking for when they did.
At last the clank of armored footsteps grew fainter. Wan Liu stayed where she was long enough to decide it did not sound like they meant to stop or turn around, and then she leaned away from the door with a sigh and said, "It's all right now."
And the king of Ba Sing Se stuck his head out from under the bed and said, "Oh, excellent. It's a bit dusty down here, you know."
"Well, in that case," said his sister, and held out the hand-broom to him.
Li Chen had been very gracious indeed about the clothing Wan Liu had lent to her, even though it did not fit her well; and she had also been insistent that with it, she was unremarkable enough that she did not need to hide as thoroughly as her brother, whose face was better-known. Wan Liu thought this was probably true. And it was probably also true that if this place were searched by soldiers, Li Chen could cause enough of a distraction through her own capture to give the king a chance to get away.
Wan Liu had not expected to play host to a king. She could not blame Mushi; his plan for the king might have worked very well if the timing had been right. But as it was, the king and his sister and the children had only just reached safety before a line of Fire Nation soldiers had taken up positions in the street. That first awful evening, there had been no patrols—only that constant presence, shouts of Citizen! Halt! ringing out now and then, and otherwise a strange and pervasive silence, but for the crackle of flames. That was what Wan Liu remembered most clearly: the quiet of it. The city had fallen, and yet there had been so little fighting—the Fire Nation had not made war against Ba Sing Se, it had just ... appeared within it, so suddenly and in such numbers that there had been nothing to fight, that the battle had been lost before it had even begun.
And Wan Liu—Wan Liu was an old woman, with nieces and nephews to look after. There was a world where no king had come to her door and she had kept her head down anyway, had done as she was told, because there was no victory in sight except the tacit victory of survival.
But here there was a king; and she kept her head down and did not have to be ashamed of herself for it. That was the best way to keep him safe.
"Ooh, ooh, let me," said Jin, and wriggled away from Qingying to dive under the bed with the king. It had been easy enough to convince him that staying very quiet and still while the soldiers passed by was a game—it was just not a game he was always interested in. But he liked the king, who took everything he said quite seriously and was therefore an excellent person to talk to about the perilous adventures undertaken by Earth trains; and he also liked getting to roll around under the bed.
Lan was old enough to understand that the game was not really a game, and also could be relied upon to look after Yanhong, which Qingying could not always do when she was busy trying to entertain Jin. And Zhiyang—Zhiyang still did not speak, and Wan Liu felt guilty every time she caught herself considering that a blessing.
She sighed and pressed a knuckle to the bridge of her nose, and for a moment allowed herself to close her eyes. This was not anything she'd expected, when she'd chosen to let an old man and his nephew do a few chores for her one evening in exchange for their supper. And if she had known, if she'd seen all this coming—would she have turned them away? Or not?
The weight of a hand on her shoulder startled her out of her thoughts.
"A thousand apologies," Li Chen said, dipping her head in the smallest possible bow.
Wan Liu almost wanted to tell her they were not accepted, not a single one of the thousand: the warmth of a friendly touch was anchoring, steadying, and if there were anything Wan Liu needed more, she could not think of it at the moment.
But there was no way to say it that did not sound overdramatic; she settled for, "No need, no need," and a smile, which she hoped was not wavering too badly.
Li Chen hesitated, and then said, "You may find yourself wanting them in a moment. I fear this will sound strange, and also impolite, but—"
"But?" Wan Liu prompted, when Li Chen did not continue.
"But," Li Chen said slowly, "your guests. Mushi and his nephew. Did they—leave anything behind? Anything at all."
Ah. Yes, certainly impolite, to ask to be allowed to search a person's belongings in their absence. But also perfectly understandable, if Li Chen knew Mushi had been carrying around a queen's seal. Such a thing would not help Li Chen and the king anymore, in a Fire Nation city; but who knew what else Mushi might have had with him? And he had no need of it anymore, not if he was with the Avatar—and whether he was or wasn't, it seemed clear that he had left the city. Besides, he had sent Li Chen and the king here so that they might be helped. If he'd remained and could have been asked for his permission, Wan Liu suspected he would have granted it.
"Yes, yes, they did," she said aloud, "and if there is anything there that might be useful to you and your brother, then I am sure he would like you to make use of it. I—the swords are Li's, but—"
She did not have to clarify. Li Chen and the king had been trapped here for days, which had been more than enough time for them to notice that Qingying kept a pair of sheathed swords with her all the time. Leaning against the wall, or the floor, or tucked securely beneath her bent knee as she sat—and she did not have a belt for them, but had been working away on weaving herself one, knotting together scraps and rags, every moment she was not looking after Jin or Yanhong.
"I am sure we will have no need of them," Li Chen said, low, and then smiled, wry and a little flat. "If Fire Nation soldiers discover us here, I do not think two swords will make the difference, however finely honed they are. But there is a chance that Mushi has left behind something else that will, and if he has then I would like to find it."
Even after Sokka quit nagging Zuko about the prison's location, they wasted enough time arguing over the map that it started to get dark. And, more importantly, Toph's stomach started to growl. No matter where they were going, she didn't want to be hungry when they got there. She slammed her foot into the ground, shoving the rough shape of a firepit up out of it, and proclaimed it dinnertime.
The fire was okay because they weren't super obviously dragging around an Earth Kingdom citizen anymore, and everybody was eager for hot food. Sokka started it without even asking Zuko for help; but then again, Toph supposed, Katara probably wouldn't have let Zuko do her a favor like that even if both her arms were broken. She was so weird about that stuff.
But Sokka got the fire going without too much trouble, in the end. They were comfortable, it wasn't raining, and the food was good. Katara didn't even get in any arguments with anybody. And Zuko didn't quite sit with them, but he also didn't sit on the opposite side of the clearing like he didn't even know them. So, overall, Toph figured it had been a success.
Or at least that was what she was thinking, right before the ground started to shake.
"Shake" maybe was overstating it—it wasn't a lot of movement, it was just really strange. It was coming from beneath them, sort of, and for an instant Toph couldn't help thinking it felt like those things in Ba Sing Se, the tanks; but this was further away, and not moving closer.
And Katara might be distracted and grumpy, but she wasn't totally useless at Earthbending anymore. Toph could feel the thump of her palm coming down against the ground, and then she turned to Toph and said, "What is that?"
"What?" Sokka said.
"There's something—rumbling somewhere," Toph said.
"Fire Nation?" Suki said, shifting—putting a hand to one of her fans, Toph guessed.
"Well, I mean, yeah," Toph said, waving around at the Fire Nation they were currently in. "But it's not a tank or anything. It's not really moving, it's just rumbling. There's—maybe some shouting?"
"Definitely not thunder this time," Sokka observed. He tilted his head back, and then added, "Landslide?"
"Still too regular," Toph said. "And—again?"
They all thought about the odds of that for a second; and then Katara said, "If it is soldiers, we need to know. We might have to get past them in the morning."
"I liked it better when the answer was, 'whatever, let's go back to sleep'," Sokka said, but he was already levering himself up off the ground.
Following the rumble in the ground took them back toward the coast—which was fine, Toph figured, because they'd been about to leave the island anyway.
It got more distinct as they got closer, not just a rumble but a rumble with a beat. Drums, Toph was pretty sure. Drums, and footfalls, and a frothy rush of—of voices, shouting, spilling up over the low steady pounding like a wave.
The coastline dropped down and evened out, rocks giving way to sand, but that didn't throw Toph off the way it might have once. She'd had practice with sand, in the desert. So she dug her toes in and felt for it, and realized after a second why it felt a little strange.
"It's a cave! It's people in a cave, that's why it's all piled up like that—"
"They're dancing," Katara said.
There was something funny going on with her heartbeat when she said it—impossible to miss, when Toph was paying attention. And also impossible to miss was—
"You there! Don't move!"
"And they've got lookouts," Toph observed, wiggling her toes. "Smart."
"I'm sorry, I really am, I should have been paying attention—"
"It's okay," Katara hissed, as quietly as she could. "It's okay, Aang, that's the point of lookouts. It'll be fine." Which she profoundly hoped was not a lie.
Judging by Aang's expression, she hadn't managed to convince him it wasn't; but he went quiet and drifted up toward the cave roof anyway with a solemn little nod.
"We're not interested in getting anyone in trouble," Sokka was saying.
He'd lifted his hands defensively, sword and fan conspicuously still at his waist, and he was using his friendliest tone; but Katara looked around the circle of villagers and saw no easing of tension.
"Seriously," Sokka added. "We're on our way off this island, okay. I can guarantee you that we weren't planning to wander around in the forest to find a battalion to report you to—"
There was a shift in the sea of unfriendly faces, and it was—it was the woman from the tailor-shop, Katara realized, stepping forward to speak. Not humming anymore, her broad cheerful face drawn down into serious lines. "You said as much to me before," she agreed slowly. "But you must see it's a lot to ask, for us to take your word as mainlanders."
"They aren't mainlanders!" someone else said, and there was a murmur and a bustle and then Naram popped out from behind somebody's elbow and said it again: "They aren't mainlanders. Or, well, he is," and Naram pointed out Zuko, mouth briefly pinched. "But they're colonials, and—and he's their friend."
"If they give us away—"
"Anybody could give us away," Naram said, "that's why we have the rule. Make them follow the rule." And boy, did that sound ominous; but then he swung around to face Katara and explained, "The rule is that everyone dances."
"In the hope that it might pose a problem," the tailor-woman said dryly, "to report another for dancing when they could as easily report you for dancing yourself." She looked at Sokka, and then at Katara—and then, very long and very carefully, at Zuko. "Of course we could claim you'd danced here even if you hadn't. But—"
"—it would make a nice gesture, sure," Sokka said, nodding. "We can do gestures. We do great gestures."
"No problem," Toph agreed. "Colonial dances okay?"
"I suppose," the tailor-woman said.
"Awesome," Toph said, and then shook her head. "Man, who would ever have thought those stupid formal dance lessons were going to come in handy?"
The tailor-woman had already turned away to speak to someone else, and around them the air had changed: no one trusted them yet, but no one was glaring daggers at them anymore either. After a moment, the drumming started up again, further back in the cave than Katara could see through the crowd of people.
Sokka and Suki leaned in together for a moment to confer, hands comfortable on each other's shoulders, and then started doing something that looked like one of the fan exercises they'd practiced—but without the fans it was as good as a dance. Toph was mincing her way half-heartedly through something graceful and slow that didn't look like her at all. At least until she noticed Zuko hadn't moved, at which point she sighed and said, "The point is that we all dance, you dolt," and then bent the ground sideways under him so he had to move his feet or else fall over. And—
And Aang was dancing, too.
Up above the rest of them, glowing feet touching nothing but air, eyes closed and arms held out and a shining blue smile on his face.
It wasn't a dance Katara knew, except that wasn't true. For a moment she thought it was that Fire Avatar again, Kunnarya, rising up in her; but she kept watching Aang and found herself remembering how it went, how she'd seen a dance like that and learned it—
How Yangchen had, Katara thought, and closed her eyes before they could start glowing in front of everyone. She didn't need to have them open anymore anyway: Yangchen knew this dance like breathing, could dance it with Katara's feet and never stumble. And Katara had thought of Yangchen, since the spirit world, as—as an endless, ageless calm, but that wasn't right. Yangchen had been a girl once.
Yangchen had been a girl in a circle of initiates, being taught this dance by older nuns more graceful and wiser than Yangchen felt she would ever be. They'd gotten themselves in trouble, teasing each other for getting dizzy with spinning; and then they'd reformed the circle correctly, laughing, brilliant in shades of yellow and orange, turning together like leaves in the wind—
But there was no dancing in the Western Air Temple anymore. There wasn't—there couldn't be. And there might never be again.
Katara opened her eyes and couldn't see through the tears; it was all caught up together, Yangchen's memory and everything it meant, and Katara's own anger—and underneath that, the dark cold fear that lived in her heart, that Mother was even at this moment choking on some southern raider's blade in her throat; Father burning and the ship with him, caught out by some coastal patrol. Dying, while Katara danced in Fire Nation clothes.
And for one fierce terrible moment, she hated every single Fire Nation villager in that cave so much she wanted to set them all on fire. Yangchen was gone—it was just Katara, and she could do it, she could—her vision was half blue light already, and like this she knew so much more than herself, she'd already spent a thousand years learning how to burn things down—
"Katara," Aang said, and touched her hands. How could he touch her hands?
"They killed them," Katara whispered, because nothing any louder felt like it would fit through her throat. "They killed all of them, how can you just—how can I—"
"It wasn't them," Aang said. "Katara—they weren't even born yet. It wasn't them." And then, carefully, with a brief tight squeeze to her fingers, "They just want to dance."
Katara blinked once and then again, again, until Aang's face was his face again instead of just some glowy blob; and at the same time the pressure to her hands faded away, even though when she looked down Aang's fingers were still right there. They were just—going through the back of her hand now.
"That's gross," she said to him unsteadily.
"Being dead is weird," he agreed, low, his expression serious. And then he drifted back a little and lifted his hands, the way you held them to dance old Air Temple dances. "Come on. They aren't here, but you are. Come on."
Katara looked at him. It felt like a stupid, useless thing to do, and for a moment she wanted to tell him so—but it wasn't any more useless than killing people who hadn't even done anything, was it? No matter what Katara did or didn't do to anyone in this cave, the Air Nomads were gone. Gone forever, except—
Except that the Avatar remembered them. The Avatar had been them, the Avatar knew them; and as long as there was still an Avatar, they'd still be there, just a little bit. There would still be someone who knew how to dance the way they had.
So she closed her eyes again and lifted her hands—and she was the one moving her feet this time, not Yangchen, but somehow she was doing it right, even without looking. She lifted her hands, and she listened to the drums, and she turned, like a leaf falling.
Yin had lied.
She hadn't meant to, hadn't known she was doing it; but she had.
Kishen should have been right: if he could offer no apologies, and she could offer him no opportunity for restitution—because what was there that could make up for such a thing? Sometimes she wasn't even sure what needed making up for; he had helped her, had helped and was still helping, and no matter where his loyalties lay, he had still risked a great deal by it. Did that matter more or less than the lying? Was it foolish to say it mattered more, or selfish to say it mattered less?
She almost wished she could go back to the earliest moments, that very first shock and anger. That had been so much clearer.
Kishen should have been right. There should not have been anything left to discuss. And yet—
And yet Yin could not shake the feeling that there was an answer she did not have and needed, an answer she might be able to get from him if she could only work out what question to ask. This very day, they would leave the fleet—soon they would be trapped on sampans in the river, with a handful of other sailors around them every moment and no other deck to go to or door to close.
So if there was a discussion to be had, then it should be had promptly. And that, in the end, was what decided her.
A somewhat unusual task to undertake first thing in the morning. But it was easy enough to find him, and easier still to get him to the bridge—these days he followed her every order as quickly and as quietly as possible. She thought perhaps he tensed a little when she closed the hatch behind them, and wondered distantly what he thought he needed to brace himself for.
"I'd rather not keep dragging this back up, Lieutenant," she said after a moment, "and I'm sure you feel the same way."
He didn't ask her to clarify. "Yes, sir," he said.
"And I don't believe it will be necessary to, if you can—clarify a few things for me."
"Of course, sir."
For a moment she wasn't sure where to begin. And then she thought: why not the beginning? She crossed the bridge and sat in the captain's chair, and, after a moment, nodded to the other; and Kishen must have seen the nod but didn't move.
"All right," she said, leaning forward. "All right. Let me tell you what I think, Lieutenant. I think it must have felt like a gift," and she said it as calmly, as evenly as she could. "That day I called you into the holding cells. You must have wondered why—there must have been some part of you that was afraid someone had noticed, that we were bringing you all in because we knew there was a traitor in the ranks, and then—" She shook her head and laughed, and let a smile linger on her mouth; it was very nearly funny, when you thought about it. Very nearly. "And then I gave you a gift. I remember being surprised at you—that you wanted a spot in one of my units, of all things, instead of the money. But now—now I understand. You finally had leverage. You finally had a commanding officer you could force to keep your secret. I imagine you must have been delighted—"
"I was, sir," Kishen said, very low.
He was still standing, steadfastly ignoring the chair that stood across from her; and the look on his face was set, composed, unhappy.
"I was—I was delighted," he repeated, and then he swallowed and looked away. "I don't expect to be forgiven, sir. I only—as long as you're willing to speak to me, sir, and to let me speak to you, I wanted to say: I was delighted.
"When I was a child, I never—I didn't think of myself as Fire Nation. People from the Fire Nation were thieves, beasts, murderers; everyone said so, and I wasn't any of those things. But I knew what I looked like, and I learned what that meant, and then—" He stopped and swallowed again, shaking his head. "Once I thought of going to the queen of Jansung, of working for her, I couldn't let it go. It was—it was how I was going to make up for it, I think, how I was going to make the world forgive me for being what I am. And Zhao was everything I'd ever learned to expect, all the worst of it, and then you—"
"Betrayed him and then tried to buy your silence?" Yin said, conversational.
That hadn't been what he was about to say and she knew it, and he knew that she knew it: he looked at her flatly and then away again, and huffed a breath out through his nose. "I hadn't even realized it," he said, "until just then—when you said the Avatar like that, and then the girl, and suddenly I knew exactly what you meant. I knew you had saved her, you had gotten her out, and I'd helped you without even knowing it. I thought at first that maybe you were like me. But you weren't, and I couldn't understand it. I didn't think it was even possible—to love the Fire Nation and have that love make you better, make you—"
He stopped again, clenching his jaw and looking at the floor, and he was silent long enough that Yin shifted her weight, once, twice, and then said, flat, "Make you what, Lieutenant?"
"Make you worth respecting, sir," he said quietly.
All the things she'd considered, all the possibilities she'd turned over in her mind—and that had never been one of them. She hadn't expected it at all; and it was possible he could tell, considering the way she found herself gaping at him.
She closed her mouth with an effort and tried to figure out what to say, how to—what? Tell him he was wrong? She'd done what she'd done in the South Yellow Sea for exactly that reason, after all: because she couldn't have respected herself if she hadn't. But to hear him say it so baldly—
"I doubt any of my former superiors would agree with your assessment, Lieutenant," she managed at last.
"Their loss, sir," he said, almost gently, and then saluted. "Anything else, sir?"
"No, Lieutenant," she said, and cleared her throat, belatedly standing. "No, that will be all for now."
"As you say, sir," he said, and she could have sworn, in the instant before he turned for the hatch, that he was smiling just a little.
The bases fell, in the end, more easily than Mizan had been expecting.
They were undermanned—and Mizan might never have known it but for the Water Tribe warriors, who had been watching the bay since before the fleet headed for Ba Sing Se had even begun to assemble. The loudest of them, Akkama, was the one who'd mentioned it: soldiers, sailors, had boarded the ships in significant numbers, and hadn't gotten back off them again before the fleet had left going up the river.
They'd been pressed into the fleet's service, of course. Mizan should have considered the possibility earlier—but it wouldn't have paid to be optimistic at Tan Khai without any actual evidence to back it up.
But the Water Tribe warriors had seen it happen. And they were also the best way to get in. A patrol with a Water Tribe prisoner to secure in the fort could gain entry, and had been able to open the gate for the rest of the assault from the inside. Tan Khai had scoffed at the plan's simplicity; but then she was paranoid and stubborn, Mizan thought without heat, and would never have let a fort under her command be taken so easily.
Luckily for them, she was not in command of this one, nor the two that were hopefully even now falling to the same trick. That honor lay with the man who was currently sprinting up the stairs away from Mizan as fast as he could.
Fire Nation military bases were all laid out approximately the same way, no matter where across the front they had been constructed—it eased the process of transferring or reassigning troops, that no one had to learn their way around all over again each time. So the tower this officer was forcing Mizan to scale was most likely the one where the messenger hawks were kept, as it would be in any other fort, and—did it really matter whether she caught him?
She slowed a little, as the stairs went on. If he meant to warn the other forts, it was too late for that and she did not need to worry. But there was a chance he'd hidden something else up here, or intended to dramatically throw himself off the roof rather than surrender—and that would only make any other prisoners they did take less tractable. Damn.
She sighed and forced herself to pick up the pace again.
But when she reached the top, it turned out it had been about the hawks after all. The commander had one in his hands, a scroll already fastened in place; when he heard her shove the door open, he looked over his shoulder, and shot her an appropriately defiant glance before he tossed the hawk up toward one of the openings in the wall.
The hawk didn't seem to appreciate the drama of this gesture: it squawked crossly and wheeled around at the top of the tower, and only then flew out.
"They'll know you're here," the officer said, tilting his chin up—he hadn't quite gone for his sword but was clearly thinking about it. "Whatever it is you're planning, you won't get away with it—"
"Strictly speaking," Mizan said, "we're planning on that fleet returning back down the river and attacking us. But perhaps some bureaucrat back home will give you a promotion for that anyway."
It was almost charming, she thought, how he refused to let her derail him. "Are you going to kill me, then?" he said, one hand finally landing decisively on the hilt at his waist.
"No," Mizan said, and then clarified: "Not unless you do something extremely stupid."
It was easy to take pity on the fellow—he was young, young and round-faced, and had probably been made commander only because everyone older and wiser had been pressed by the fleet. He had also clearly consumed a great deal of propaganda he'd found very convincing. And the fort had already been taken; there was no purpose in killing him, only to have to carry his dead body back down all those stairs.
"But you—you're pirates, aren't you?" the officer said uncertainly. "We've had reports from the west, everyone said it was only a matter of time, and the western pirates don't leave survivors—"
"And perhaps you would be right to be concerned," Mizan said, "if we were. But that is not precisely the case."
She smiled at the officer, genial, and leaned over to clap him on the shoulder—and then used that hand to steer him around, so they could look out together: through the opening the hawk had left by, across the fort's courtyard and wall, across the island harbor, to where the first of Sai Sok Sun's vast nine-masted junks was just easing into view from the bay.
Sokka flung himself past Suki one more time and then swung his arm around; and there wasn't a fan in his hand, but they'd done this particular exercise enough times that that didn't throw him off.
For a second after they were done, they just held still—and then he couldn't help looking up. Suki was looking back at him, grinning, and he broke the pose at last to throw himself at her, laughing.
They hugged for a minute, and then remembered they were in a cave full of really enthusiastic people dancing, and got out of the way. From off to one side of the cave, Sokka took a quick look around: there was Toph, who'd quit whatever classical Earth Kingdom thing she'd started with in favor of stomping in gleeful rhythm with the drums; and there was Zuko, ugh, who'd pressed himself up silently against a wall and seemed to be hoping no one would notice; and—
And there was Katara. A space had opened up around her, but it didn't seem to be because she'd asked for it. She had her eyes closed and was turning steadily with the drums, feet quick and light and precise. Nothing Gran-Gran had ever taught them to dance, Sokka was sure. She was holding one hand out and had the other raised like it was touching someone else's, even though there was nobody there.
Except maybe there was, Sokka thought. You could never really tell with Dead Buddy Aang, could you?
And a little further off behind her, watching her with wide eyes, was Naram.
"Hey, I'll be back in a sec," Sokka told Suki, squeezing her hand and smiling; and then he eeled off to try to work his way over there without anybody elbowing him in the head.
He was mostly successful, in the end—nobody got him in the head, anyway, though he was totally going to have a bruise on his shin right there.
And, even better, Naram hadn't moved away. "Hey," Sokka said, and Naram turned to look at him and then back at Katara, as if he couldn't help it.
Which was sort of perfect.
"So I get the feeling that you get that there's something weird about her," Sokka said.
"I thought I saw it before," Naram said, low enough that Sokka almost didn't catch it. "In the square, when you were—her eyes changed. There was a light."
"Yep, that's the kind of weird I meant," Sokka agreed.
"She had bracelets," Naram went on, "like we wear to dance here; except she didn't. But she did, just for a second. And then a minute ago, there was—there was someone else standing here instead of her. Different hair, different clothes, older. She looked at me," and Naram sounded bewildered, confused, but not the kind of confused that was about to turn into shouting burn the Avatar! Not in a bad way, just awed.
And that was sort of perfect, too.
"Yeah, she's—she's important," Sokka hedged. "And we aren't just visiting our friend from the mainland. We're here for a reason."
Which got Naram to look at him instead of Katara.
"We need to find some dragons. If there are any."
It wasn't a perfect solution. Maybe the ancient Firebenders had learned it from dragons, but who knew whether you still could? But Katara had to figure it out somehow. And if there weren't any dragons to find, then maybe he could talk her around to trying a person. Eventually.
He got why she didn't want to—boy, did he ever. He couldn't help glancing down, quick, at his arm: it was a little less obvious, but the scars still showed, weird and pale and shiny all up and down where he'd been burned. He hadn't told her, hadn't told anybody; but starting the fire for dinner still freaked him out a little sometimes, when the tinder caught all at once and flared up.
But the Avatar had to learn to Firebend, and Katara was the Avatar. And also his sister, which meant if she was being stupid, it was his job to help her get over it.
"I don't know about dragons," Naram said slowly, "but there are stories—people who know things, on other islands. Do you have a map?"
"Oh, do I ever," Sokka said, and fished it out of his sash, grinning.