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There wasn’t very much to Taonan. It was one of many port cities that dotted the coastline of the largest landmass in the Fire Nation, and a small one at that. A tally taker could even denounce it as a city, so few people lived there. Those who did, though, would always call themselves a city, no matter what label may have come to their home.

The only remarkable thing to Taonan’s name was that it had been the first city to be taken in the Fire Nation’s name when the Hundred Years War began. After so long, with patrols and troops passing through day by day, year in and out, the people had all but ceased to remember they were occupied by and lived side by side with those who were called enemies. When the war finally ended, there was no thought given to what could happen to the city. Resistance to the Fire Nation was tiny, and died within weeks. Taonan, first occupied, became the first city to submit officially with barely any struggle.

Kailas Arav, when not answering letters sent from the Eastern and Western Capitols, often sat at the fountain in the center of the city with a book or two in her hands. If she sat watching everything from the people to the sky, those who caught themselves in her gaze would pause and bow to her, and she would nod in return. If she sat reading, eyes resolutely on the pages, no one said a word. While she never snapped at children who tugged at the hem of her pants and asked what she was reading, it was generally thought wiser not to bother the woman who had been established as the city’s governor. It was considered the wisdom of a sage to know not to bother the captain of Fire Lord Azula’s Phoenix Battalion.

At a glance, Kailas’s rule of the city seemed a neglectful one. She spoke so rarely outside of meetings with the city’s militia-turned-guards and so quietly at all times that most people jumped if she happened to address them in the street. Even when she first began officiating the city’s changeover, alone and without guard or ally amongst the militia, she was quiet, and seemingly unmoved by any threat that came with the resistance. Beyond the duty she was assigned, she was unconnected to the city and seemed as though she could have vanished from within its borders just as easily as she had arrived.

In the weeks that first followed her arrival, with just enough rebellion in the nearby towns to warrant constant patrols from the newly sanctioned guards, Kailas was wont to roaming about as much as the patrols. She struck an imposing figure, several inches taller than most everyone in the city and slim in a way that spoke of no fat and all heavily toned muscle. However, no matter where she went, she always took something to read. She weaved through the streets, along the shoreline, and over footpaths through the forest to the east. She always went alone, always reading and never tripping or running into someone.

For the most part, nothing happened. No one spoke to her unless they were part of the militia. Though reports came into Taonan about altercations nearby, nothing at all came up in the city for weeks. In the last days of opposition, tense and full of more violence than usual, Kailas went out from the house built for her late in the afternoon, a slim book in her hands. She headed to a path on the outer edge of the city facing the forest, reading with her footfalls silent.

When she heard the angry barks of a young raccoon-dog to her left, nearer to the city, she slowed down and lifted her head. Nearby, three men were clustered in front of a young woman with long, braided brown hair, who stood before them with her arms crossed and a scowl on her face. The raccoon-dog stood behind the woman’s legs, looking out to bark at the men. Kailas stopped nearby, putting the book in her cloth belt at her back, and watched with half closed eyes.

“I don’t know how many times I have to tell you guys that I’m not interested in getting drinks with you!” the woman said. “Get out of my way so I can take him to get food!”

The raccoon-dog barked for emphasis, tail puffing up.

“Come on, little miss,” one man said. “We just love seeing you at the teahouse every day—we want to get to know you more!”

“That’s my job,” the woman said. “I don’t want to get to know you, and that’s that. I’m serious, so get out of our way.” She went to walk around them, but the man she tried to pass grabbed her by her shoulders and pulled her back. The raccoon-dog snarled and sprang forward, biting the man’s leg. He shouted, letting the woman go to focus on shaking the raccoon-dog off.

“Fai, let go!” the woman said as the third man grabbed her left arm.

“Shitty little mutt!” the first man said, pulling his leg back for a kick.

Kailas was already moving and rushed in. She hooked her foot around the man’s ankle, keeping him off-balance long enough that his arms pinwheeled in the air. She caught his wrists, lifted her leg to make him tilt, and followed him in his fall to guide his face directly into the ground.

The crack of the man’s nose made the raccoon-dog jump back with a yelp, rushing to hide behind the woman. Kailas stood up, crossing her arms behind her back and regarding the two men. The woman took the opportunity of the man holding her being stupefied, drew her right arm back, and punched him squarely in the mouth. He let her go with a strangled snarl, tooth knocked loose and blood running from his mouth. Kailas spotted a ragged cut on the woman’s hand before she hid it behind her back.

“Would you men like to explain what you meant to do?” Kailas asked.

The men gaped at her, staring at her black hair, gold eyes, and excessive height. The man with a bloody mouth spat onto the ground, scowling.

“Would you look at that?” he said. “It’s the little Fire Nation bitch.”

Kailas raised a brow, the chill in her eyes enough to make the men flinch. “Not quite as little as men who resort to threatening women and attacking small animals.”

The other man stepped forward, scowling. “You think you can just come here and get made queen, or something? Think you can tell us what to do?”

Kailas let her eyes drift to the woman before going back to the men. “Given that I’ve read all of the laws that govern this city, both Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation, yes, I can tell you what to do. And this happens to be…frowned upon, shall we say.”

The man with a bloody mouth sneered at her. “Yeah? What’re you going to do about it?”

“I could drive your faces into the ground like I did your friend,” Kailas replied. “Though I wouldn’t be as gentle this time around. Would you like to chance it?”

The other man snarled and tried to rush her. Kailas turned to meet him, barely stretching to crack her knee against his chin. As his knees buckled, eyes spinning, she slipped her foot beneath his chin and forced him onto his back, stepping down lightly to make him choke.

She looked at the last man. “And you? It would be less painful to go speak to Lieutenant Tai-Yang. I would recommend it. And tell him where your friends are, while you’re at it.”

The man gaped at her, blood still dribbling from his mouth. He took a few steps backward before turning and hurrying away. The raccoon-dog barked at him for good measure.

“Bastard,” the woman muttered, bringing her hand around to examine it. She winced at the torn flesh before looking up at the sky. The sinking sun made her frown and sigh quietly. “The doctor’s clinic is closed by now.”

“I can help you clean that,” Kailas said. “Wounds from teeth should be cleaned and treated quickly.”

“I’d appreciate it,” the woman said.

Kailas bowed to her, gesturing for her to follow. She shortened her stride to let the woman and the raccoon-dog keep pace, holding out a hand. The woman offered her wounded hand, grimacing when her fingers flexed.

“That was a decent punch,” Kailas said. “This looks sizable.”

“That’ll make my life easier tomorrow,” the woman grumbled, taking her hand back when Kailas let go.

“Do you work with your hands?”

“I work at the teahouse at the shore.”

“Ah,” said Kailas. “No wonder I don’t recognize you. I’ve never stopped there.”

The woman looked at her closely, her eyes a deep shade of green. “Aren’t you…our new governor?”

“I am. Kailas Arav.”

“Hova,” she said. “The pup down there is Fai.”

Fai barked a greeting.

“A good guard, though a bit small.”

“If the terrifying Captain Arav is nearby, I think he’s fine as he is,” Hova said, smiling.

“Are you not frightened of me?”

“You came to help me. I feel like that means I shouldn’t be scared.”

Kailas hummed softly, turning when the footpath forked. She led Hova to the house, opening the door and stepping to one side to let her go inside first. Hova stood back, staring at the house with raised brows.

“What’s wrong?” Kailas asked.

“Are you sure you want me to be bleeding all over the floor? If it’s as nice inside as it is outside, I—”

“It’s all right,” Kailas said, smiling slightly. “Don’t worry about a few little drops.”

Hesitant, biting the inside of her cheek, Hova went inside. The floorboards past the entryway were as dark and gleaming as the veranda around the house, and the beams, walls, and rafters were much the same. There were no trinkets in sight once they had taken off their shoes and gone further inside, no ink paintings or carvings to catch the eye. A few bookcases were about, but their shelves were not yet full.

Fai looked at the floor, his nails clicking on the wood. When he saw a reflection of himself, he barked and bounced on his front paws. Hova looked down.

“Wow,” she said, brows rising. “We don’t even keep the teahouse floor this polished. Who cleans for you?”

Kailas looked at her blankly. “I clean.”

Hova looked back, brows up and eyes lost. “But—you’re the governor. And a named noble. Why don’t you have any staff?”

“I don’t require it,” Kailas said. “And I keep things the way I like.” She crooked her fingers, leading Hova into a bathroom. Hova looked about, eyes widening again at the room’s warmth and the size of the bath itself. Fai padded to the covered bath, sniffing about and sneezing quietly.

“Here,” Kailas said, drawing her hands out of a deep basin of water. “It’ll be hot now.”

Hova began to say, “Thank—” Her eyes fell on Kailas’s arms, long sleeves now rolled up to the elbow. Hova’s face paled; she looked up at Kailas slowly. Kailas looked back without expression before lifting her arms and turning them.

“These?” she asked, pointing to the scars rent scattershot along her skin.

She nodded once, still pale, and asked, “Wh-what happened?”

Kailas looked at her right arm, inhaling as she thought. “Most of these were from skirmishes along the road to Ba Sing Se, if I remember correctly. Please—there’s soap by the basin. As clean as you can get it.”

Hova stared, mouth opening, as Kailas stepped out of the bathroom. With nothing else to do, she went to the basin and washed her hand as best as she could stand for the soap’s sting. Fai sat at her feet, looking at the open door with his bushy tail wrapped around one ankle. He barked when Kailas reappeared with a towel and a medical kit.

Kailas paused in the doorway, blinking at him. She continued inside and went to Hova’s right side. Setting the kit aside for the moment, she held out the towel in both hands. She waited through Hova’s hesitance, gently drying her hand and dabbing at the wound.

“Good,” she said when she checked her hand. “It was just the time it spent bleeding. This shouldn’t require stitches, but it should stay wrapped for a while.”

“Are you the battalion’s medic, too?” Hova asked.

Kailas exhaled hollow laughter. “No, I’m our medic’s least favorite person. Or at least I am when I’m coming off a spar with the Fire Lord.” She looked up when Hova’s hand shuddered, seeing her go bone-white. She raised a brow.

“Y-you spar with Fire Lord Azula?” Hova whispered.

“Less often now that I’m here and she’s in the Eastern Capitol,” Kailas said, “but yes.” She held the towel down over the wound for a time, keeping steady pressure on it. This done, she set the towel on the counter and opened the kit. She took from it a jar, unscrewing its top. With her fingers curled, she tapped the underside of Hova’s wrist.

“I can tell you’re very curious,” she said as Hova lifted her arm. “You can ask.”

“Are you okay?”

Kailas went still. She looked up from examining Hova’s hand. “Excuse me?”

“She’s the Fire Lord,” Hova said. Her voice softened when she said, “Are you okay? Even though you spar with her?”

A few seconds of stillness kept hold of her before she smiled with a small warmth. “I’m all right. I’ve gotten much better, honestly. Please spread your fingers a little.”

She did so, holding down a wince when it pulled at the cut. Kailas tapped the side of her index finger to make her stop where she was, gathering salve from the jar on her fingertips. She spread it evenly over the cut, but added extra where the skin split sharply. The cloth pad she took from the kit was used to wipe her fingers dry before she set it on top of the wound. The binding was done in seconds, a neat knot tied on the back of her hand.

“Does it feel all right?” Kailas asked.

“It does,” Hova said. She flexed her fingers to see where pain began, but smiled nonetheless. “Thank you.”

Fai whimpered, standing on his back legs to paw at Kailas’s shin.

“Were you kicked?” Kailas asked, kneeling down. She pressed lightly on his sides, but his bark was only impatient. “What’s wrong?”

“We were going to go into the forest for him to hunt,” Hova said. “I can’t give him food from the teahouse.” She laughed, shrugging. “I’m not even supposed to have him. Pets aren’t allowed for staff who live at the teahouse.”

“I see.” She considered Fai, and he considered her. He yipped, standing up and bracing himself on her knee to lick her nose. Her brows rose.

“Sorry,” Hova said, kneeling down to pull Fai back. “He’s still really a pup, so he gets excited with new people.”

“You know that people generally don’t take raccoon-dogs in as pets, correct?”

“I do. But look at his goofy face! Tell me that you wouldn’t keep him as a pet if he wandered into town and looked at you like he loved you from the second he saw you!”

Kailas looked at his face. He looked back, tongue sticking out from the end of his mouth, and wagged his tail. She smiled again.

“Does he eat cooked meat?” she asked.

Hova went red to her ears. “He does, but you don’t have to do that.”

“I don’t see why I can’t,” Kailas said. “Besides, it’ll be too dark to hunt soon, even for a raccoon-dog.” She stood up, starting for the door. “I’ll make something for us as well.”

Hova stared at her back for a few seconds before letting Fai go, standing up, and following her.


The veranda outside the main room on the first floor faced west, looking out at the sunset and the sea. They ate there, listening to cicada-moths as they woke in the cooling air. Fai sat between them, tail wagging as he ate from a plate. Every so often, he looked up at Hova while licking his chops, eyes bright with cheer.

Hova paused in eating to rub one of his ears, balancing her bowl and chopsticks on one leg. She looked at Kailas and said, “I’m sort of surprised that you can cook this well, too.”

“I was the one who cooked when it was just Azula, Ty Lee, Mai, and myself.” She looked at her bowl with a smile more bitter than Hova had seen. “Azula said I was the only reasonable choice to cook for them.”

Hova went quiet. She looked at Kailas more closely. She had changed before cooking, exchanging her longer clothes for a sleeveless red shirt and black trousers that fell to her knees. The number of scars on her bare skin was startling, and the severity of some of them was enough to make Hova’s stomach twist. A large burn on her left shoulder was glaring, even in the fading light, and Hova bit her lip because she did not have to ask where it had come from.

Kailas took a long breath, the sound of it deep despite the slight rise of her shoulders. “I apologize. I don’t mean to make your meal unpleasant.”

“No, it’s all right,” Hova said. “This is nice.” She smiled. “Nicer than dinner with the rest of the live-in staff. It gets cramped in our rooms.”

Kailas turned to look at her. “You can’t use other rooms in the teahouse?”

“It’s easier to clean just once in the evening.”

“I see.” She looked at her bowl. “I would need to get used to that.”

“Don’t soldiers all eat together?”

“Yes, but eating in camps still lets us spread out from each other.” She ate a mouthful of rice and meat, taking her time in chewing. “Although it is nice to have someone here as a guest for a change.”

“It’s nice to be a guest.” She laughed quietly, hiding it in her hand. “You’re really nothing like the gossip I’ve heard.”

“All terrible, I assume?”

“Well…a bit. Everyone is very scared of you.” She thought. “Actually, not Lieutenant Tai-Yang. He just rolls his eyes when he hears people say that you’re a vicious brute.”

One corner of her mouth rose. “That’s a rather polite phrase.”

“It’s not even true!”

“You wouldn’t call what I did to those men ‘vicious’?”

“I knocked one guy’s teeth loose.”

The other corner of her mouth rose. “Fair.” She looked down when Fai fell against her hip, pressing his back against her thigh as he lay down.

“He’s very grateful for the meal,” Hova giggled. “I am, too.”

“Then I’m glad,” Kailas said. She touched Fai’s side, chuckling when he yapped.

Hova smiled at them and finished her food, setting the bowl aside as quietly as she could. She watched Kailas from the corner of her eye, noting how her spine never curled as she sat there. When she had finished and set her bowl down, she continued to sit very still and very tall, hands resting on her knees. Her eyes, half-closed, looked out toward the sea, but there was a lack of focus.

“What are you thinking about?” Hova asked.

Kailas blinked and looked at her. “What?”

“You look like you’re thinking.”

“Ah.” She looked at the sea again. “I am.”

“About what?”

“Something foolish.”

Hova boggled at her. “Like?”

“Asking you something.”

“Are you going to make me ask what that is?”

Kailas went quiet. She looked at Hova again. “Do you like your current job?”

Her mouth opened. A few seconds later, she asked, “I’m sorry, what?”

“Are you happy where you work?”

“Uh,” Hova said, the sound dragging with her confusion. “I guess. It pays fine and I have a place to live. Why?”

“I would like to offer you a different job.”

She laughed, unsure if she should. “If it’s to clean your house or something, I don’t think I’d do a good enough job for you.”

“I would like for you to be my assistant.”

Her brows rose. “I’m sorry, what?”

“If you’re concerned about pay or lodging—”

Hova held up her hands, saying, “No, no—why would you hire me? Why wouldn’t you ask Tai-Yang? He was governor!”

“He heads the militia now,” Kailas said. “I can’t ask him to do both. And he’s not what I need in an assistant.”

“But I am?”

“You’re not frightened of me.”

She went silent, brows still up.

Kailas exhaled through her nose. “How old do you think I am?”

She looked her up and down. “Twenty-five?” She squinted. “Probably older.”

“I’m eighteen.”

“You’re—but—” She closed her mouth to gather words. “But I’m sixteen. Why do you want someone younger than you for an assistant?”

“Because I need someone to not be scared of me who is close to my age. People believe that adults who follow my orders do it because I’m too dangerous to disobey.”

Her brows came together. “You need someone to make everyone trust you.”

“Yes,” Kailas said. “And you’re the only person I’ve met here who’s seemed right.” When Hova said nothing, she sighed. “I understand if you refuse. I’m not demanding this of you.”

Hova blinked, looked down, looked up, and turned to face Kailas properly. She pulled her legs up, holding them loosely with her arms beneath her knees. “What would I be doing?”

She lifted one brow. “I don’t particularly understand civilians. I don’t know how my decisions would affect their day-to-day lives here. I need another person’s input to make balanced decisions—someone completely outside the military. You would help me go through my paperwork detailing trade between Taonan and other cities, the stationing of militiamen, and communications between myself and other officials.”

“You’d need to teach me some of the more complex characters for business or military papers.”

Her other brow rose on its own. “That’s fine. I don’t expect everyone to know those.”

“Is there anything else I’d be doing?” Hova asked.

“Let me talk to you,” Kailas said, “if that’d be all right.”

Hova gave her a look, head slightly tilted. After a moment, she smiled. “I get it. You want a friend.”

“If that’s what it’d be called,” Kailas said.

Her shoulders hitched, eyes widening. Her brows came together, mouth twisting in a frown.

Kailas saw it. One corner of her mouth lifted. “You pity me, don’t you.”

“You can’t possibly tell me that you don’t have any friends.”

“I consider the men in my battalion to be good allies and soldiers, but they are not my friends and I am not theirs. I am their commanding officer and whatever kindness I show them does not confer friendship. I haven’t had any time to make what civilians consider to be friends.”

“You were a child at some point,” Hova shot back. “You never made any childhood friends in the Fire Nation?”

Kailas sat very still, seeming to stop breathing. After a moment, she moved back from Fai and turned to face Hova. She created fire on her fingertips, flicking it into hanging lantern above them. Hova blinked at the light, but soon stared with her eyes widening once more. Kailas undid the ties on her shirt, pushing it open to expose her chest and the burn scar that had been hidden there. It was glaringly red, pocked and raised and horrible in its breadth, and went from her right collarbone, under her breast bindings, and down to the left side of her stomach. While there were many more scars to see, Hova could not take her eyes from the burn.

“This happened when I was twelve,” Kailas said. “I was tutored privately up until then. After that, I did not have any chances to meet normal children.”


A smile came to her face that was hollow, edging toward brittle. “Azula decided that if I didn’t die from this, I was the only person worthy of being her sparring partner. She kept me in the palace most of the time until she sent me into the military.”

Hova finally looked up, face ashen and tinged with nausea. “She did that to you.”

“Yes,” Kailas said as she began to tie up her shirt. “And many others.” She adjusted her high collar, managing to put some humor in her smile. “So you must forgive me if I’m not very adept at speaking to civilians. I haven’t had many ‘friends’ to practice with.”

“You do fine,” Hova said. She swallowed slowly. “Does…do any of those hurt?”

“Usually only in the winter,” Kailas said. “And not much.” She gave Hova a curious look. “People usually don’t look as concerned as you when they see all this.”

What?” Hova asked. “What would they look like?”

“Horrified,” Kailas said. “Or like I deserved these for daring to spar with the Fire Lord.”

“She ordered you to spar with her!” Hova snapped, her voice loud enough to make Fai jump. “You didn’t deserve that kind of treatment, and it’s awful that anyone allowed it!”

Kailas’s brows rose again. After a moment, she said, “I would suggest you not shout that kind of sentiment around any soldiers.”

Her fury fell with a flinch. “Would they punish you?”

“Possibly. It’s more likely that Azula would punish you for questioning her decisions.” When Hova shrank down with fear, she smiled as gently as she knew how. “I would not let her do that. I promise.”

A few more moments were spent in looking lost and startled before she smiled shyly. “Even though we just met today?”

“Even if you did not accept my offer.” She chuckled. “You’re too kind for me to let people hurt you.”

Hova set her chin on her knees, smiling more. “You’re really nothing like the gossip.”

“I would hope not, if it’s as awful as you’re making it out to be.”

Hova laughed. “I hope you can get me out of my work bond so I can work for you, then.”

“What would it require?”

“Money to cover the wages they gave me for the month.”

“That’s fine.”


“I have never once worried about money, and neither will you.”

Hova looked at her for a few seconds. “Oh. Well…all right.”

“We’ll speak to your employer in the morning. It should go well.”


The two women that worked to open the teahouse the next morning were visibly relieved when they spotted Hova coming up the road, Fai trotting beside her. When they noticed Kailas on her other side, the relief faded. Kailas bowed to them so politely that they bowed automatically in return.

“Is the owner here?” she asked. “I would like to speak with her about Hova’s employment.”

“Y-yes, she is,” one woman said. “Please, follow us.”

Kailas bowed again, following the woman inside.

The second woman hung back to walk with Hova, and she hissed whispers at her. “We were panicking about where you were last night. We thought you were out with some man—you know how the mistress hates that!”

“That obviously wasn’t the case, so calm down,” Hova whispered back. “She offered me a different job.”

“What, to be her consort?”

“Just my assistant,” Kailas said mildly.

Both of them jumped, but Hova hid her smile behind her hand while the woman blushed crimson. The woman next to Kailas hurried forward to kneel down at a closed door and knocked.

“Mistress, there’s an important guest here to see you,” she said. “May I let her in?”

“Yes, that’s fine,” a woman called back, voice irritable with the early hour.

The woman nodded to Kailas and Hova, sliding the door open. A woman with graying brown hair sat at a low table, a cup of tea at hand while she read through a few letters. After a moment, she said, “Who’s asking for me so early in the morning?”

“Someone with a proposition,” Kailas said, stepping inside and kneeling at the table. She bowed to the woman when she looked up, and Hova did the same when she knelt to one side behind Kailas.

The woman frowned at Hova. “Aren’t those the same clothes you had when you left yesterday?”

Kailas smiled. “I assure you that I did nothing impolite with her.”

“And who’re you to—” She saw the gold phoenix embroidery on Kailas’s coat and went pale. She turned away from the table to bow even lower than Hova. “I’m so sorry for my rudeness. Thank you for gracing our establishment, ma’am. Please, how may I help you?”

“I would like to hire Hova as my assistant,” Kailas said. “But I understand that she has a work bond with you.”

“Well,” she said, “that’s true.”

“May I buy the rest of the bond from you? I would not like to cause any undue financial stress with my selfishness.”

“Of—of course, yes. It’s, er, it would be forty-six silver to match the bond.”

Kailas hummed, reaching into an inner pocket in her coat. She set a gold coin on the table. “Will this be all right? It should exchange for fifty-five silver, if my memory serves.”

Her jaw dropped. She looked at the gold coin and then at Kailas. “Yes, this will be more than all right.”

“Very good, then,” Kailas said. “If you will permit us a moment more to gather Hova’s belongings, we’ll be out of the way for your teahouse to open.”

“B-by all means,” she said, bowing once more.

“Thank you,” Kailas said, bowing in turn. She and Hova stood up, and she tipped her head to Hova as she stopped to wait. Hova hurried up the stairs to the workers’ rooms on the second floor, slipping into the room she and three other woman used. Though she had hoped to get in and out without waking anyone, two other women were already awake and preparing for the day. They gasped when she stepped inside, and the other woman woke from her drowsing.

“Where the hell were you?” one woman demanded. “We were scared that those men had gotten after you again!”

“They did,” Hova said, hurrying to the cabinets they shared. “But Kailas scared them off.” She rummaged through her clothes and the few books she owned, finding her small kitbag.

“Who’s Kailas?” the third woman asked, eyes and voice bleary.

The oldest of them stared at Hova’s back. “Kailas…Arav? Our governor?”

“That’d be her,” Hova said, packing quickly.

“Wha—is that where you were last night?”

“Yes, but not for the reason everyone’s jumping to. She offered me a job as her assistant and I said yes.” The three of them went silent, gaping at her. She finished packing and stood up. She smiled as she went back to the door, saying, “I’ll visit. I think she’d like to come here.”

Hova rushed off before they could ask further questions, managing to keep her steps light on the stairs. Kailas still heard and turned to look at her as she came near. She saw a number of woman peering at them from the top of the stairs, and she smiled and tipped her head.

“Thank you for keeping Hova in such good care,” she said. Hova bowed politely to the owner, staring out from her office, and she followed Kailas outside. Fai barked when they appeared, tail high and wagging as they started back out on the road. For a long while, they did not speak. When Hova broke the quiet, she moved closer to keep her voice low.

“That coin exchanges for eighty-five silver,” she said.

“Does it?” Kailas murmured. “It seems my memory did not serve me.” She looked at Hova with a sly smile.

Hova looked at her, lips parted, before she started to snicker. “You’re a brat.”

Kailas chuckled. “So it seems.”


Not a soul in Taonan did not look shocked when they first saw Hova accompanying Kailas through the city. From small children to the militiamen, her appearance was sudden and her casual manner toward Kailas baffling. The only person that seemed relieved was Tai-Yang, and he smiled on meeting her for the first time when delivering a stack of reports to Kailas.

Within two weeks, Hova felt confident in saying she had figured out a few things. She knew Kailas went through firebending forms for two hours every morning, more impressive than any bender she had seen before, and another hour near sunset to wear herself out. There was nothing she could not read and her patience in teaching obscure and complicated characters was limitless. Her patience with Fai’s high energy was just as limitless, and she never forgot to make something for him when cooking.

The most noticeable thing was how differently Kailas behaved when they were in public. Her back was always straight, arms and legs covered completely, and her smile was only ever polite. No real cheer showed in her face, and no one ever noticed it but Hova. She knew she wouldn’t have either were it not for knowing how Kailas’s smile really looked.

“Why do you smile like that at other people?” Hova asked one afternoon.

“Like what?” Kailas asked, going through a report on taxes collected over the winter.

“Like you’re lying.” She felt Kailas look at her and stopped arranging the newest box of books Kailas had purchased to turn around. “You’re just putting on a smile for them. It’s not like how you smile with only me and Fai around.”

“Ah,” Kailas said. She shrugged one shoulder and looked at the report again. “It’s the politeness of nobles and officers. I’m not comfortable showing the general populace when I’m relaxed.”

“Are you saying you feel safe with me?” Hova asked, smiling to tease.

She paused, considering, and soon chuckled. “That would be the correct word.”

Her smile faltered as her throat began to ache. She turned around quickly to return to her work. The words kept her up that night, sitting in the guest room made hers with Fai asleep on her feet on top of the light blanket. She stared at the wall between their rooms, rubbing the back of her neck. Listening did nothing but let her hear the cicada-moths’ faint singing far below her open window. When the sliver of light from the crescent moon threatened to disappear from her room, she stood up and crept as quietly as she could into the hallway.

A small light shone through the paper panels in Kailas’s door. There was no sound that she could pick up, neither of breathing nor of paper rustling. Hova stood still for a time, bit her lip, and bent her knee to go to the door. She turned before she could take a step and went back to her own room to do her best to sleep. Waking took too long and left her groggy with a splitting headache. She looked out the window to consider the time. On realizing it was nearly midday on a mail day, she scrambled to dress.

“Sorry!” she shouted as she rushed down the stairs. “I’ll go to the port now!” She did not wait for a reply, running out the door as soon as she had shoes on her feet. Fai sprinted with her, stronger and larger with good food, and he kept pace all the way to the port. The man at the post office struggled not to laugh when she hurried inside, cheeks flushed and sweat on her neck.

“Here,” he chuckled, “Captain Arav’s newest letters from the Western Capitol.” He offered her a small stack of letters, neatly tied with twine.

“Still nothing from the Eastern Capitol?” Hova asked when she’d caught her breath.

“No,” he admitted. “That makes…what, a month now? She got something from Ba Sing Se almost every week when she first arrived.”

She sighed. “I hope messenger hawks aren’t getting shot down. If the Fire Lord is sending her mail and she’s not replying…I don’t really want to think about it.” She rubbed her eyes, said, “Thanks. I’ll be back next week,” and left with the letters in hand. She untied the twine to look at the names and ranks of the people on the letters, taking more time in walking back. Fai yapped at her a few times as she sorted the letters from lowest rank to highest but did not try to trip her to play.

They arrived in due time, her head pounding even more. Fai spotted a bearded cat prowling nearby and rushed off to chase it. Hova went inside without paying him any mind, taking off her shoes and sighing.

“Kailas?” she called. She headed for the main room, intent on going through it to get to Kailas’s office to put the letters away. “I’m sorry I overslept.” She curled her fingers around the edge of the partially opened door and started to slide it further. “I have letters from—”

Kailas was abruptly in front of her, back to her and arms and legs spread to block the entire doorway. Hova crashed into her, dropping the letters. Too stunned to even ask, Hova blinked and stepped back. For a heartbeat, she was able to see a girl in rich crimson clothing and black armor, shorter even than herself. Her right hand was extended, first two fingers touching Kailas’s chest. There was a smirk on her face, her gold eyes narrow. Her black hair was pulled up into a topknot, and in that topknot was a five-pointed, golden crown of fire. In an instant, Hova knew she was looking at Fire Lord Azula.

She drew her hand away, sighing and crossing her arms. “Honestly, Captain, I was only trying to keep you safe. What if that had been an assassin? You would’ve had a knife in your back.”

Kailas said nothing. Still, when Azula waved a hand, she stepped aside slowly. Hova felt her tongue freeze to the roof of her mouth when Azula stared at her, hand at her chin. She tilted her head from side to side, the motion exaggerated. Sighing again, frowning, she crooked a finger to beckon. Hova stared at her fingernails, long and sharpened to points.

“Was that a gesture you’re not familiar with?” Azula asked with a tongue of acid. “It means come here.”

“Hova,” Kailas whispered.

She walked into the room. She saw two other girls, one in darker reds and blacks who looked intensely bored and the other in pink who watched Azula with rapt attention. Not at all wanting to, Hova looked back to Azula. She bit her tongue as Azula began to circle around her, looking her up and down and narrowing her eyes.

“You have an entire militia at your command,” Azula said to Kailas, “and any number of soldiers from the battalion willing to join you here. But you pick a peasant girl to be your assistant.” She scoffed. “She doesn’t even look that much older than I am. How old are you?”

“Sixteen, your majesty,” she managed to say.

She laughed. “Well, older than Mai!” She looked at Kailas. “So why this one?”

“I needed an assistant with a more direct line of contact with civilians, Princess,” Kailas replied. “The militia is too far removed when I have no appreciable experience in a leadership position over civilians and my men would be a worse choice.”

Azula raised a brow. “What kind of difference do you think there is between commanding soldiers and commanding peasants that you would pick a peasant to be your assistant?”

“I would prefer to not make enemies by ruling poorly.”

“It seems like you’re doing all right,” the girl in pink said, smiling. “This place is livelier than I thought it’d be.”

“Don’t encourage bad behavior, Ty Lee,” Azula said. “A peasant is still a poor choice.” She glanced at Hova before aiming another smirk at Kailas. “Then again, given your preferences, she’s the most obvious choice.”

Kailas said nothing and let no expression cross her face.

Azula laughed. “Oh, Captain. So sensitive about that. Well, she doesn’t look any more sullied than other peasants, so I guess you’re being polite.”

“I try to be,” Kailas replied.

Azula hummed; Hova marveled at how scornful it sounded. This done, Azula took a letter from the inside of her armor and flicked it at Kailas. Kailas caught it without fumbling, but only tucked it into her belt.

“Sozin’s Comet is going to arrive at the end of the summer,” Azula said, “and the eclipse will come before that. That’s a summons to come home two months from now. I expect you to be there early.”

Kailas bowed low at the waist. “You have my word, Princess.”

Azula gestured to Mai and Ty Lee, going toward the door. Hova stepped aside quickly, but Azula paused to look at her.

“You can come with her, I suppose,” Azula said. “If she hasn’t had her fill of you by then.” She left the room, Mai and Ty Lee following suit. Kailas slipped between Hova and the door, back still to her and hand on the doorframe. Azula paused in the entryway as Mai and Ty Lee went outside.

“Kailas,” Azula said quietly.

“Yes, Princess?”

She turned to look at Kailas from the corner of her eye, brows low. “Don’t make me question why I made you my captain. You know I expect nothing but the best.”

Hova saw the way the muscles in Kailas’s back grew taut beneath her shirt, but Kailas bowed low at the waist and quietly said, “I will not disappoint you, Princess.”

Azula nodded once before leaving. Kailas waited ten seconds before going to the door, closing it gently, and locking it. She took long steps back to the main room, brows rising when she did not see Hova.

“Hova?” she asked, walking into the room.

“Down here,” Hova said weakly from her spot sitting against the wall out of sight.

Kailas turned and went to her, kneeling down. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know she would be coming here—I would have warned you ahead of time.”

“She’s younger than you,” Hova whispered, staring at the floor.


She looked up, brows dropping. “How much younger?”

“Four years. We share a birthday.”

“And she burned your chest when you were twelve.”


“So she was eight,” Hova spat.

Kailas blinked at her. “Yes.”

Hova stared at her blank expression before pulling her legs up and starting to cry into her knees.

Kailas flinched at the sound of her hitching breath, reaching out with a hesitant hand to touch Hova’s shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

“I thought Azula was an adult!” Hova said through tears. “I thought she was some horrible adult that got her kicks torturing children! How is she younger than both of us and able to torture you? Why didn’t anyone stop that?” She looked up and shouted, “Why didn’t her parents stop her? Why did your parents let her take you back?”

Kailas went still. She eventually drew her hand back. “Ozai has never had a reason to stop her, and her mother was no longer in the palace by then. My grandmother sent me back because it was an honor for the Arav house to have me be her sparring partner.”

“What about your mother and father? Why didn’t they fight her?”

“My father passed away in service to the military when I was four, and my grandmother answered for my mother while she was taking care of me. By the time my mother realized what she’d done, it was too late to go back on the agreement.” She went silent at the fury in Hova’s eyes. “Hova, I’m—I’m fine. I can handle dealing with her now.”

“After she nearly killed you when she was eight,” Hova spat. She looked down, shoulders starting to shake. “How can you stand being polite to her?”

Kailas said nothing.

“Why did she even do that to you?” Hova asked, sniffing hard. “She really could’ve killed you with a burn that big.”

Kailas looked at her. She slowly moved off of her knees to sit with her legs crossed. “Azula was looking for a firebender to be her sparring partner. The condition was that the firebender had to be older than her, but no more than five years older. I was the only person in the Fire Nation that matched that description at the time, and when I was brought to the palace I was told that Azula would put me to a test to see if I could handle being her partner.”

“So her best idea was to burn you?” Hova asked.

Her brow furrowed. “Her intent was to see if I would recuperate and still be able to firebend. If I could do that, then I would be the best suited to handle sparring with her.” She looked down. “Once it was clear that I would survive and still be able to firebend, Ozai sent the order to my family’s house and my grandmother agreed behind my mother’s back.”

Hova stared at the floor, silent and shaking still. She gripped her own arms, knuckles white. “And you can’t even look like you hate any of them.”

“No.” She inhaled slowly. “It’s all right.”

Hova’s shoulders jerked in a laugh she did not let out. “Yeah right. She wouldn’t let you be happy in private. She even mocked you about loving women. It’s not like she would let you be with anyone anyway.”

Kailas looked up. “You knew what she meant?”

“Kailas, you never actually correct people when they act like you hired me because you’re attracted to me. You only ever tell them that you hired me as your assistant, not as your consort.”

“That’s not why I hired you,” Kailas murmured.

“I know,” Hova said, sniffing again. “I never thought that.”

“It doesn’t bother you at all?”

“Why would it?” She looked at Kailas, seeing the faint twist in her mouth. She sighed and rubbed her face. “Never mind. I forgot who we were talking about a second ago.” She lifted her head again to look at the letter. “She said two months, right? Two months before you have to go to the Fire Nation.”

“Yes, but you don’t have to—”

“Do you want me to go with you?”

She hesitated. She stayed quiet.

“Just ask me,” Hova said.

“Would…you accompany me to the Fire Nation?”

“I will.” She smiled slightly and said, “Even if I wasn’t your assistant.”

Kailas’s shoulders relaxed. She said, “Thank you, Hova,” and her smile made Hova’s chest ache.

Chapter Text

“I take back my offer of going with you,” Hova mumbled, eyes shut even with Kailas’s hand over them. “Take us back home.”

Kailas smiled at her, and at Fai when he looked at her from his spot against her other leg. “Unfortunately, we’re already too far across the sea. It’ll be faster to get to the Fire Nation than to go back to Taonan.”

Hova could not muster the energy for a scowl. “Can you at least make the ship stop rocking so much?”

“I would in a heartbeat if I was able to, but I’m only a firebender.” She turned to her other side, picking up the pot of ginger tea the galley staff had brewed on her request. She held it in the palm of her hand, waiting until she saw steam rise from the spout.

“Can you sit up for a while?” she asked.

“I really don’t want to.”

She chuckled. “My men are growing concerned about how unhappy you look. The tea should help.”

Hova groaned, but gingerly pushed herself upright. She kept close to Kailas’s side as she went, eyes on her knees, and held onto her own legs when she was up. She took the mug of tea Kailas offered her, sipping at it and looking morose.

“Have you ever gotten seasick?” Hova asked.

“No,” Kailas said. “The soldiers I first sailed with were impressed that I could stand on deck reading a book without stumbling.”

“Please don’t be a brat at me right now,” Hova muttered. She sighed, setting the mug down when it was empty. She looked across the deck, focusing on the sky because it did not sway so much. “Captain in the military, obnoxiously rich, way too strong for how you look…did you ever even get sick as a kid?”

“As a child, yes. Colds and the like. But not after I started sparring with Azula. It’s usually only been fevers from infections since then.”

She gave Kailas a sour look. “Didn’t I say to not be a brat right now?”

Kailas smiled. “It’s only the truth.” She put her hand on Hova’s back, rubbing up and down slowly. “You sound better after that. How’s your stomach?”

“Okay, I guess,” she said. She leaned more heavily against Kailas, reaching to rub Fai’s head. “How much longer are we going to be out here?”

“About another day if the weather stays this calm. We should arrive late in the morning tomorrow.”

She sighed again. “All right. Can we go straight to your family’s house so I can lie down and die?”

Chuckling, she made her hand grow warmer. “I can try to slip you past my grandmother so you can sleep in my room for a while.”

Her eyes pinched shut, brows coming together. “Right. Grandmother. Great.”

“The only thing she’s going to be concerned with is how polite you are to her. She won’t even notice Fai if he sits quietly like you’ve trained him to.”

Fai’s tail rose when he heard his name, grinning as he wagged.

Hova smiled, rubbing his head again. “Anything else I need to worry about when I meet her?”

“Not particularly,” Kailas said. She put her hand high on Hova’s back, fingers on the nape of her neck. “The clothes we brought will keep her from thinking you’re working above your place, and you’re very good at not reacting when it’s inappropriate. She just wants to remind me that the Arav house isn’t mine yet.”

Hova puffed false laughter between her lips. “Uh huh. As long as she stays in a different part of the house like you said she will, I’ll be fine.”

“It should just be us, my mother, and the servants. Don’t worry.”

She hummed flatly, closing her eyes to relax against Kailas’s warmth. After a few minutes of quiet and a calm stomach, she asked, “Why are we staying for so long?”

“I’m not certain. It has to do with the eclipse and Sozin’s Comet, but it’s a military order. I can’t disobey.”

“And what are those?”

“The eclipse will take our firebending away for a brief period, but Sozin’s Comet will give us a massive increase in power. I would guess that Azula wants us to come up with a way to exploit the comet’s power and keep officers safe when our firebending is gone.”

Hova opened her eyes. “The war is over. What does she need to use the comet for?”

“Something horrible,” Kailas said casually, shrugging her shoulder. “I assume this about everything she does with our forces.”

“So…you said you’re going to attend an officer’s council, right?”

“At least one.” She felt Hova cringe and turned to her to ask, “What’s wrong?”

“Does that involve the Phoenix King and the Fire Lord?”

“It will, yes. You don’t have to accompany me for those.”

Hova sighed. “Azula’s going to mock you if I don’t show up. It’ll be okay. I’ll just be really quiet.”

Kailas looked at her, silent and still. For a moment, her hand started to move toward Hova’s shoulder. She stopped herself to rub Hova’s back once more. “Thank you.”

Hova laughed through her nose and settled her head on Kailas’s shoulder. “Thank you for taking care of me through this.”

She only smiled, holding Hova steady until she drifted off to sleep.


The port was already filling up with ships bearing the marks of the the navy; a number of officers were directing their soldiers to one task or another. Kailas had, when land was sighted, asked for the ship’s captain to bring them to dock as far to the western side of the port as possible. They managed to secure the last port on that side, unloading soldiers and gear with such efficiency that other officers looked on in envy.

A cart led by an ostrich-horse was fetched in short order and the pair of trunks and two kitbags Kailas and Hova had brought were loaded onto it. The two soldiers tasked with this helped both Hova and Fai up onto the cart as well, saluting Kailas when they were done.

“Thank you,” Kailas said. “Go with the others to the barracks on the eastern side of the capitol. I’ll send word to Lieutenant Jai if you’re needed.”

“You don’t want us to accompany you, Captain?” one of the two women asked.

“It’s all right,” Kailas replied. “My family’s house isn’t far and it’s not at all dangerous.”

The other woman snickered. “Not for you, ma’am.” They saluted again before heading off to join their compatriots. Kailas moved to the ostrich-horse’s side, taking its lead in hand.

“Are you all right to go?” she asked, turning about.

“I’m fine,” Hova said. “I’m not queasy now that we’re on land.” Fai barked cheerfully, finding his balance on the trunk next to Hova before Kailas led the ostrich-horse forward. Every street was busy with soldiers and officers, and anyone that took the time to notice Kailas passing by saluted her. Hova did not speak as they did this, trying to pick out their ranks by their age and garb. She made mental notes of the older men that saluted with due diligence and of the younger men that looked perturbed when Kailas was not looking.

The further from the docks, the fewer soldiers there were. Kailas turned them down a smaller road, the high walls of noble residences on their left side. Fai lifted his head, ears perking up, at the sound of animals beyond those walls. Hova touched his nose to keep him from barking, but he thumped his tail on the trunk all the same. Kailas heard the noise and looked over her shoulder as she walked.

“This must be very strange for him,” she said. “Nobles here keep pets that aren’t kept on the mainland of the Earth Kingdom.”

“Like what?” Hova asked.

“My mother keeps turtle-ducks. They’re very cute, but I haven’t seen anyone keeping them anywhere else.”

“He’ll be good,” Hova said, rubbing his back.

Kailas chuckled. “I have no doubt.” She paused on seeing a particular gate, stopping the ostrich-horse and going to the cart. “Do you think you’re all right to walk now? It would make a better impression if my grandmother did not see you riding in a cart.”

Hova rolled her eyes, but smiled as she said, “I’m fine.” She got down, holding Kailas’s hand to be steady. Fai hopped into her arms to be set on the ground, and he followed them both while hiding behind Hova’s legs. They went to the gate, met there by a pair of servants, a girl and an older man. They bowed low at the waist to Kailas, speaking in unison to say, “Welcome home, Captain Arav.”

“Thank you,” Kailas said. She waited until the man had straightened before offering the lead to him. “Please have the luggage put in my room, Kovit. The cart should be returned to the port.”

“At once, ma’am,” he said, bowing again. He smiled at her before he went, and the girl smiled even more brightly.

“Hello, Lady Kailas!” she said. “It’s wonderful to have you home again! Lady Jaya is so excited to see you!”

“And my grandmother?” Kailas asked with a small smile.

The girl’s smile weakened. “Lady Neha is…um…proud that you have been summoned to the military council.”

“You’re getting better at lying for her, Sana,” Kailas said, chuckling. “Thank you for the warm welcome.”

Sana nodded, grinning, and smiled at Hova. She bowed, saying, “Welcome to you, Miss Hova. Lady Jaya is also very excited to meet you.”

“Thank you,” Hova said, smiling despite her struggle to not stammer.

Sana gestured to the open door in the gate, waiting until they had all gone inside before following and closing the door. Fai stuck close to Hova and Hova did the same with Kailas. While Fai was at peace with all the new scents and sights before him, Hova could not quite manage her shock at seeing the opulence of the well-kept grounds and the sprawling building that stretched her definition of a house. She looked up when Kailas touched her arm.

“It’ll be fine,” Kailas murmured, smiling.

Hova swallowed, said, “Right,” and both of them followed Sana along. Fai kept silent, even his paws making little noise on the stone pathway to the nearest building. Though his tail puffed when a door was loudly rolled open, he rushed to Hova and sat behind her legs to hide. Hova’s shoulders rose for a moment when she saw a woman with dark silver hair and a politely severe frown on her face come through the doorway. She saw Sana bow at the waist and followed her lead.

Kailas bowed as well, but less steeply. She stood straight soon after and said, “Grandmother. You honor me by greeting us.”

Neha looked at her with a raised brow. She turned to look at Hova. She looked back. “And this is the assistant you wrote to your mother about?”

“She is, Grandmother.”

Neha hummed flatly. “I suppose it’s fitting to have someone closer to your age be your assistant.” She sighed, crossing her arms to drum her fingers on her elbows. “Did it have to be someone so low outside the military? It’s like your mother picking that man all ove—”

“She is the most qualified,” Kailas said with a sharp voice. “The circumstances of her birth do not concern you.”

Neha looked at her again, brows low. Kailas met her gaze evenly, face without expression and eyes half-closed. After a long silence, Neha sighed.

“If the captain of the Phoenix Battalion is so set on her choice,” she said.

“I am.”

“Very well.” She waved a hand, starting off along the veranda. “Your mother is in the eastern section of the house. You’ll be well kept.”

Kailas said nothing and did not bow to her retreating back. She took a slow, deep breath and touched Hova’s arm. Keeping her voice quiet, she said, “Sana, if you could take us to my mother now.”

“At once,” Sana replied, and she went up the stairs to go along the other side of the veranda. Fai hurried after her in the attempt to get away, and Hova considered matching his pace. The twist of anger in Kailas’s brow made her stay at her side.

“What was she talking about?” she asked in a whisper.

Kailas took another deep breath. “My father was neither a noble nor a ranked officer in the military. My mother loved him, but my grandmother is…steadfast about keeping the Arav bloodline as noble as possible. She despised him, and she doesn’t care for me given my father’s lineage.”

“When can you get rid of her?”

She smiled slightly. “It’s not my place. My mother is head of the house until she passes it to me—they fight with each other over everything. It’s all right.”

Hova frowned at her, but looked down to mutter, “You’re such a bad liar when you’re lying to me.”

Kailas could only look at her, brows up. She turned away when Sana stopped at a door and knelt down. Fai sat with her, tail wagging on the floor, and grew eager when she knocked on the doorframe.

“Milady?” Sana called. “Your daughter has arrived. May I show her in?”

She was not given the chance to open the door, as it was rolled open from the inside. A woman who looked nearly identical to Kailas save for the age in her face and the length of her hair stood there. Though her crimson robes were just as finely made and cut as Neha’s had been, the expression on her face was the opposite. She smiled at Kailas with such joy that it drove the frown from Hova’s face just to see it. She hurried to hug Kailas, having to hide her face in her chest for the height disparity between them.

“Welcome home!” she said.

Kailas hugged her as well, smiling. “Hello, Mother.”

Jaya chuckled as she stepped back, holding Kailas’s face still to look at her closely. “Goodness, my girl, I think you’ve gotten a little taller again. You take after Bao so much.” She tugged Kailas down to kiss her cheek before spotting Hova out of the corner of her eye. She smiled just as brightly. “You’re Hova, yes? I was so glad to hear Kailas had finally taken on an assistant. Thank you for coming with her.”

Fai barked quietly.

Jaya turned to look at him. She stared, and then laughed. “Ah, and this is Fai the raccoon-dog you asked me to not tell Mother about. He’s a handsome little thing.”

Fai wagged his tail and went to stand at Hova’s side.

“Here, please come inside and sit while Sana makes tea,” Jaya said. “It’s been months since you’ve come home, Kailas—you have to tell me how things are coming along.”

Kailas nodded, letting her, Hova, and Fai go inside first and closing the door behind them. She took a spot at the low table in the middle of the room, keeping her back away from any doors. Hova sat on her left side, and Jaya on her right. Fai settled between Kailas and Hova, looking about with great curiosity.

“How did you come into Kailas’s employ?” Jaya asked. “She only said that you two met about three months ago.”

“Uh,” Hova said. She glanced at Kailas, sighing when Kailas smirked. “She helped me when a few men from the teahouse I used to work at started bothering me. She—hired me after that.”

“I hired you after you punched one of the men in the mouth and I took care of the reverse bite,” Kailas said.

Jaya hid her laugh in her sleeve. “Well, now I’m not at all surprised. It takes a forceful person to make an impression on my girl. Has the work been easy for the both of you?”

“Much easier now,” Kailas said. “I’m lucky to have found someone who can help me lead civilians as well as Hova does.”

“I’m just glad Kailas always tells me when I’ve got a character wrong,” Hova said. “I nearly addressed an envelope going to a general like it was going to an admiral.”

Jaya waved a hand gently. “There are too many characters to use when writing about our forces. I only bother remembering the ones for Kailas.” She sighed. “Much to Mother’s dismay.”

“Please tell me she’s not trying to bring a matchmaker here again,” Kailas said, brows low.

“She tries every year. She can’t force me to meet them.” She scoffed. “I think she’s starting to use you as incentive for men to court me.”

Kailas stared, but Hova choked on laughter she tried to stifle. She looked at Hova, one brow raised. “Why is that amusing?”

“Well,” Hova said, giggling, “who’re they trying to get in good with? The captain of the Phoenix Battalion, or the house of Arav? Doesn’t it seem ridiculous?”

“She has a good point,” Jaya said. “It worries me that people think they could make themselves look better to the Fire Lord through us.”

“It would make Azula laugh,” Kailas said. “Which is worrisome on its own.”

Hova saw the way her eyes narrowed, and looking at Jaya showed that Jaya had caught it as well. They shared a glance before Hova reached down to gently poke Fai’s flank. He bounced onto his feet and shook his head to make his ears flap. This done, he looked up at Kailas and barked.

“It’s quite a ways to bring a pup all the way across the ocean,” Jaya said. “How did he fare on the trip?”

“Better than I did,” Hova said. “Kailas had to deal with me being seasick the entire time.”

“You weren’t a difficult patient,” Kailas replied. “Although you tried your best to be.” She looked at Jaya and added, “She asked me seven times to take us back home.” She thought. “And there was one moment on the second night when she talked in her sleep and told me to firebend at the sea until it stopped making her sick.”

Hova felt her face grow red. “No I didn’t!”

“Didn’t you know that you talk in your sleep?” Kailas asked, starting to chuckle. “I’ve heard it when I can’t sleep at night. Admittedly, almost nothing makes sense, but you were quite clear on the ship.”

She opened her mouth, but the blush on her face made it impossible to speak. When Jaya started to laugh, though, she hid her face to smother her own laughter.


Summer storms, as Hova knew them in Taonan, were passing: light rains swept away by strong winds from the sea. At the heart of the Fire Nation, with mountains holding clouds in place until they had let loose all the water they carried in from across the ocean, the storms lasted. Rain overflowed ponds, turned streets into rivers, and made the wanting dry dirt of gardens turn deep, deep brown. No one resented the long storms, whether they lasted a few short days of blinding downpour or weeks of soft, steady showers.

The rain began the day they arrived and lasted for eight full days beyond that. Heavy as it was, its sound helped to soothe the twinges of homesickness that caught Hova unaware in the night. She lay awake for hours, staring at the ceiling while Fai snuffled in his sleep between her sleeping mat and Kailas’s. Part of her was unsurprised by Kailas’s easy slumber that first night. Another part was jealous, and yet another nervous.

A small lantern was left alight for her, in foreign surroundings as she was. It left her able to see Kailas’s face as she slept. In the dark, she wondered if Kailas was ever as comfortable asleep as she was that first night. Were she honest with herself, some of the time Hova spent awake was time spent smiling at how Kailas was resting so well. By the time she fell asleep, she had decided not to be honest. Her excuse of missing her room in Taonan was accepted for why she looked so weary. Kailas made no mention of how she fell asleep in the middle of their going through correspondence, only having tea ready when she woke.

Neha, to Kailas’s visible happiness, did not send for them or join them at mealtimes. There were servants and supplies enough for the different parts of the estate that they did not need to interact. For the most part, time was spent reading scrolls and letters that were delivered daily by soaked couriers. Most of the messages were updates on who had arrived, when they had landed, and where they were staying for the duration. The letters that came from the palace were not summons, only speculation on when councils would be held once the rain had stopped pouring.

On the ninth day, Hova found herself waking without knowing where the sun was in the sky. She lifted her head, sitting up on her knees. The rain had been the background noise for so long that she barely took notice of it. Kailas’s absence was immediately noticed, made more stark with how the letters from the previous day were piled haphazardly on the desk to one side of the room. Sighing, she stood up and made her way from the room to head for the courtyard at the back of the estate.

Jaya was already there, sitting on a cushion with a standing platter beside her. She looked up from taking a sip of hot tea and smiled at her. Wordlessly, she gestured to the cushion on the platter’s other side, pouring a cup of tea as Hova sat down.

“It’s a bit early to be awake, don’t you think?” Jaya asked.

“Kailas wasn’t there and I was confused,” Hova said. She put a hand over her mouth as she yawned, closing her eyes tight. “Then I remembered she hasn’t practiced firebending for over a week.”

“You know my girl quite well,” Jaya chuckled. “She’s out there.” She gestured briefly with one hand, and Hova turned. The veranda’s doors, paper-covered and glass, were all drawn aside. The broad, wide stone courtyard was before them. She peered out and through the rain, sighing when she spotted Kailas. She sat in the center of the courtyard, clothed only in a sleeveless black shirt and black knee-long pants, rain pouring down on her head.

“Of course she’s out in the rain,” she muttered. She took the cup of tea to drink.

“Have you caught her out in the rain in Taonan?”

“Once,” Hova said. “I told her she shouldn’t because she could catch a cold like that.”

Jaya laughed into her sleeve. “My girl doesn’t catch colds from a little bit of rain. She gets too pent up at sunrise to sit still. It’s very much the old adage of ‘firebenders rise with the sun’ with Kailas.”

Hova smiled without thinking twice about it. “She’s ridiculous if you’re not part of the military.”

“She’s managed to stay ridiculous around people she’s comfortable with,” Jaya said gently. “Thank you for giving her that peace of mind.”

She did not reply, putting her tongue between her teeth to hold it silent. She brought her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her knees. In the rain, Kailas sat with her back straight and her legs crossed. She sat without moving, the rise and fall of her shoulders as she breathed barely visible. Hova wasn’t sure of how long any of them sat there, how long Kailas had really been sitting out in the rain. She tried not to count out seconds, somehow falling instead into an attempt to count the drops that fell into one particular puddle. As it always was, she caught motion in the corner of her eye and refocused in time to watch.

Kailas rolled forward suddenly, her palms landing flat on the stones. Her legs straightened even as her torso swung up. Within a heartbeat, she was vertical and upside down, arms bent at the elbow. Hova’s head rose from her knees as Kailas’s arms pushed off from the ground. Kailas flipped forward, landing solidly on her feet with one hand before her body and her other arm tucked behind her back. As if she were falling, she tilted forward, coming off of her feet. Her hand came down again, and she twisted in the air to kick at the rain with both heels.

The spin of her body already begun, Kailas twisted again as she pushed off with her hand, bringing her body close to upright when her feet came back to the earth. She fell again with her momentum, backward now, her spine bending to bring her hands to the ground as her feet came up. Her toes snapped into the air and she finished the flip standing, rooted to the ground. Unlike before, her hands had risen to the fore and back positions Hova had seen in firebenders. But unlike those firebenders before, Kailas spun on her heels, sinking down and stepping back with her leading left foot. When the step was finished, she stepped back forward with her right, turning still more, and thrust out her hands, fingers folded to let the palms and heels form the heart of the strike.

Her right foot dragged along the ground as she drew back, her arms coming in to her center. As soon as her feet tapped one another, she slid out with the right, falling into a deep horse stance with her arms at her sides and her open hands parallel with her thighs. Her left arm came forward, circling in front of her entire torso and face before drawing back. As she turned, her right arm came out in a hard straight punch. With the withdrawal of her right arm, her entire body came to turn, rooted at her left foot as her right foot came back and up. So quickly Hova wasn’t sure if she could see more than a blur, Kailas whirled about, right foot rising over her head and slashing down in a diagonally arced kick.

When her foot returned again to the ground, she stopped entirely. Even with the rain, Hova could see her draw in a breath as she brought her hands up. Kailas’s arms circled, palms enclosing her body until they came before her eyes. She pressed down on the air slowly then, letting the breath out slowly. For a time, she stood there, body still and hands at her stomach.

“How long have you been there?”

Hova met Kailas’s eyes when she turned about. “Just a little while.” She watched Kailas come closer, speaking when she was under the cover of the slanted roof. “You didn’t actually firebend.”

“The rain is still too heavy,” Kailas replied. “Maybe if it clears up tomorrow.”

Hova nodded but could not think of anything to say. She looked at Kailas as Kailas looked at her, both silent and both with uncertainty clear in their faces.

Jaya took pity and said, “Go and take a bath now, my girl. There’s no sense in having the rain clean you.” Kailas lingered a moment longer before walking away under the cover of the slanted roof. She did not look back at Hova.

Hova watched her go, chin returning to its place on her knees. “There it was again.”

“What was?” Jaya asked.

“Nothing,” Hova murmured.

Jaya studied the way Hova still looked toward where Kailas had left the courtyard. She smiled and said, “Your ‘nothing’ happens to look very similar to ‘affection.’ Have you mentioned your ‘nothing’ to Kailas?”

She sighed through her nose. “I don’t think that’s the best idea.”

“You realize that Kailas was looking at you the same way.”

“I still…I still don’t think it’s a good idea for me to tell her.”

“Why would that be?”

Hova looked down and remained silent.

“Ah,” said Jaya. “Does this have something to do with the fact that you’re not of noble birth?”

She remained silent.

It took the smile from Jaya’s face. She watched Hova closely, waiting for any movement. When it did not come, she took another sip of her tea and considered her next words. “I’m sure you’re aware of how little my mother’s opinion has an effect on Kailas’s decisions. If it’s not fear of my mother’s opinion that makes you so anxious…would this have anything to do with our Fire Lord?”

She gripped her sleeves and did not look up. “It might.”

“Are you worried she’ll do you harm?”

“That’s a big part of it,” Hova said. “And I’m worried that she’ll try to hurt Kailas through me.”

“I see,” Jaya murmured. She sighed, tipping her head to one side. “I must admit that I don’t know if that’s why Kailas has never made any sort of meaningful relationship outside the battalion. She won’t admit it, of course.”

“She told me that she doesn’t have friends like civilians do.”

“She wasn’t lying,” Jaya said, staring at the rain. “She’s never really had that chance.” Her mouth twisted. “I didn’t help by having private tutors come here, and Mother helped less with how hard she pushed Kailas in her firebending training.”

Hova smiled slightly. “She’s getting better in Taonan. People aren’t so scared of her lately.”

“Now that you’ve shown them all that Kailas isn’t that fearsome?” Jaya asked, smiling in turn.

“A little, yeah. Kids are always the least scared—they’re way more interested in making her show them firebending tricks.” She giggled. “She makes them get permission from their parents first.”

She laughed. “Always a better idea. Kailas has picked up a number of tricks that shouldn’t be passed along to small children.”

Still smiling, Hova looked back outside to where Kailas had been before. “She’s really talented.”

“She’s quite strong,” Jaya said, nodding. She looked at Hova. “Which is why I feel you should talk to her about your ‘nothing.’”

Her smile slipped; she looked at the puddles on the ground. After a long while of silence, she said, “I don’t know.”

Jaya hummed quietly and said, “You should keep in mind that nothing happens if you don’t speak up.”

“I know,” Hova said.

“Good,” Jaya replied, and she set her cup down to stand. She touched Hova’s back gently. “I’ll have the servants make something for breakfast. Kailas should be along soon enough.”

Hova nodded without looking at her, standing to go inside. She ran into Fai along the way as he fumbled along in grogginess. He sat on his back legs, waving his front paws and whining to beg. She rolled her eyes and picked him up to carry inside.

“What are you, a bearded cat?” she muttered. He licked her cheek, snuggling against her chest until she sat at the table in the main room. He accepted being settled next to her, propping his chin on her knee. Sitting alone save for Fai, Hova waited with her elbows on the table to let her lean forward. Eyes unfocused, she kept her thoughts empty until she heard footsteps. Looking up brought her eyes to Kailas, standing with dry clothes, damp hair, and an open scroll in her hands. The weary frown on her face was telling.

“That’s about Azula,” Hova said.

“It is,” Kailas said. “Her ship should be docking by the end of the day. She’s the last to arrive, so if the rain stops today, the first council should be tomorrow.”

“Does it say what you’re all going to be talking about?”

“No, but I already know what the first council will be focused on.” She rolled the scroll back up, setting it to one side as she sat down. “Azula and Ozai want our plans for how to use the comet.”

“Do you have one?” Hova asked. “I assume you do, but you haven’t talk about it with me so far.”

“I have a plan,” Kailas said. “I would prefer not to discuss it outside of the meeting.”

“Oh,” Hova said quietly, and she did not press. Over the course of the day, she helped sort through another wave of messages, ferried along by soaked couriers that tended to look more panicked as the day went on. The sound of the rain lessened at midday, and by the afternoon the sun was seeping through thinned clouds. Not a cloud was to be seen when the sun vanished behind the western mountains. Fai took the opportunity to hop down into the courtyard after dinner and investigate the puddles that had left the ground a mirror. He wandered, sniffing, as Hova and Kailas sat by on the veranda.

“Aren’t you nervous at all?” Hova asked.

Kailas hummed a question, turning away from Fai.

“Aren’t you nervous about all these meetings?”

“Ah.” She turned back. “No. Councils and meetings aren’t that intimidating. Azula always has me sit at her right side. It’s a position that commands a good deal of respect, so other officers rarely bother me.” She looked at Hova. “Are you nervous about this?”

“Am I nervous about having to see Azula again, and her dad on top of that?” Hova asked. She laughed. “Why would I be nervous?”

She smiled. “Neither of them will do anything to you.”

Hova laughed again. “Azula seems pretty determined to do that. I don’t know which of us she dislikes more.”

“She doesn’t dislike you,” Kailas said. “I don’t think she considers you with any sort of emotion.”

“Then how does she feel about you?”

Kailas thought. “Possibly like how she feels about mutt dogs.” A thought made her go still before chuckling without humor. “That’s accurate, now that I think of it. She liked to call me her wolvog on a leash while we were traveling to Ba Sing Se.”

Hova stared at her, starting to frown. She sighed and looked away.

Her small smile faded. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Hova muttered. “I’m just thinking about how much I hate her.”


“Wha—why? You’re really going to ask me why I hate her?”

“Yes. She has no reason to bother you beyond the same level of scorn she has for everyone.”

She frowned. “You know why.”

Kailas looked at her for a long time. Quietly, she said, “You don’t need to worry. I would not ask that of you.”

Hova finally turned back to her. “What?”

“I don’t ask for things in my personal life,” Kailas said, “especially when it inconveniences others. I would not ask you to be with me.” Because Hova only stared at her, frown gone with shock, she exhaled slowly and stood up. “The council will be early tomorrow, so we should sleep soon.”

She went on ahead, arms crossed behind her back and spine straight. She heard Fai’s hurried footsteps coming up behind her, but not Hova’s familiar footfalls. It nearly made her sigh, but she forced the sound back down her throat. Alone, she settled in her room after lighting the standing lantern. The letters on her desk were her concern, and she meant to reread the last ten received.

“Just ask me.”

She looked up, turning to see Hova kneel next to her. “What?”

“Just ask me.”

She frowned. “I’m not going to be selfish.”

“I want you to ask me!” Hova shot back.


“Because the answer would be yes, you brat!”

Kailas, for the first time in Hova’s memory, went red to her ears with embarrassment. She was stone still, mouth frozen with her lips parted. When she managed to move, she closed her mouth and leaned closer. She hesitated when she saw Hova’s cheeks turn red. Swallowing, she leaned in further and touched her lips to Hova’s. When she drew back, Hova followed to kiss her harder.

They looked at each other when Hova sat back on her heels, neither breathing and both unsure who looked more nervous. Kailas swallowed and reached out to pull Hova closer, wrapping her arm around Hova’s waist when she leaned against her side. Though she tried to speak, her voice failed when Hova set her head on her shoulder and held the back of her shirt loosely.

“We’ll be fine,” Kailas eventually said. Hova trusted her without question.


Hova was uncertain what made the throne room so incredibly warm. There were a vast number of people in the room, high-ranked officers and generals kneeling along the long, wide map of the world on the floor. Behind each of them were at least two other people, assistants or other officers under their command. Hova was joined behind Kailas by Lieutenant Jai, a man older than either of them by ten years, both of them ready to take notes or move at Kailas’s request respectively.

The likeliest culprits of the heat were the man-high flames that ran the width of the room toward one side. Hova was still thankful for the long sleeves on her undermost black shirt and the heavy crimson tunic that was folded over her chest and hung down over her thighs. The loose cloth of her black pants were tucked under her legs as padding while she knelt behind Kailas, but she kept her hands free for her pad of paper, brush, and ink. Jai knelt next to her on her right, sitting tall to keep her out of sight from the throne.

An ornate gold throne was behind the flames, casting a shadow on the man that sat there. Another throne, one without a pillared roof above it but just as lavishly carved, sat to the right of it and below its raised steps. Azula’s face was visible past the flames, her hands folded in her lap and her legs crossed at the knee. Beside her were Ty Lee and Mai, kneeling on cushions and dressed in robes of pink and black respectively.

The officers kneeling at the map’s sides showed their station through their garb. All around the room, foot soldiers in full armor and masks stood as guards, silent and still. Furthest from the throne, the clusters of officers wore armor adorned with the Fire Nation’s stylized flame spreading up from their bellies. Drawing closer to the thrones, armor became more ceremonial and ornate, but lighter in build. Some of the closest admirals and generals wore the lightest sets of armor over rich robes.

Kailas sat nearest to the thrones at one side of the map, directly before Azula. A gold phoenix was embroidered on her long coat over her left breast. Hova and Jai sat a step’s distance behind her, both of them with their heads up to listen and look about discreetly. Every so often, Jai would tap a finger between them, aimed toward one thing or another for Hova to make a note of. Kailas remained utterly still, eyes on the map. She only looked up when Azula took to her feet. Her dutiful expression made every person near her fall quiet and give Azula their undivided attention. Soon, the room was silent.

“We have called you, the leaders of our nation’s great forces, to discuss a matter of importance,” Azula said, her voice carrying over the dull crackle of the flames. “Sozin’s Comet will be coming at the end of the summer, in a short six weeks’ time. When the comet arrives, we firebenders will be endowed with more power than any nation would have been able to withstand.” She smiled. “What shall we do with this great power?”

For a few minutes, there were hasty, furious whispers among groups of officers. When their hissing was done, they waited for the next group to grow quiet. This went around the room until stillness filled everyone. This was broken by a man close to the front of the map standing up. Wearing a general’s robes and light armor, he bowed deeply to the thrones.

“Your majesty,” he said, “the ground troops you have graciously stationed outside of the Eastern Capitol have brought up the idea of using the comet’s power to completely destroy the walls of Ba Sing Se. This would be an act of unification between what was the last stronghold of Earth Kingdom power and the rest of the world under your command.”

Azula looked at him appraisingly, one hand to her chin as she thought. “And what of the rest of our forces?”

The man faltered. “I…we—we had not discussed what to do outside our own troops, your majesty.” He bowed again. “You have my humblest apologies.”

Azula waved a hand lazily. “Let’s hear more.”

The general on Kailas’s left side stood up, bowing just as deeply. “My men had a similar idea, your majesty, within the scope of our immediate control toward the center of the continent. An in-depth scouring of the earth could be used to reshape our maps, as well as start to build tracks on which tanks and vehicles could travel more easily.”

“Hmm,” Azula said. She looked around the room. “Tell me, are there any ideas that do not revolve around mere reshaping of the countryside? Any ideas to quell these weeds of rebellion that keep cropping up?” While her eyes were headed toward Kailas, she stopped when a man on the opposite side of the map as Kailas took to his feet and bowed to her.

“If it pleases our Phoenix King and Fire Lord,” the man said, “I have thought of how to put the comet to great use.”

“You may speak, Zhao,” Azula said, waving one hand.

Zhao bowed even lower before straightening up. He held one arm behind his back, and gestured to the north and south edges of the map. “The poles. Home to the Water Tribes. While the Southern Raiders did very well to eliminate the waterbenders from the south, the people there survive. Furthermore, the North Pole has been left virtually untouched by the war. Whatever ships we send northward have been stopped well before seeing the city. The waterbenders there flourish. I propose that we lay siege to the north.”

“You know why our ventures into the north have failed, Admiral?” the man sitting next to Kailas asked. “They are well protected by the sea. The nights last long there—the moon is always their ally.”

“With the comet’s power, it won’t matter,” Zhao said. “If we gather the greatest of our forces, the north will not stand. We’ll even be able to eliminate the Southern Tribe with a small number of soldiers, as there are no waterbenders left to defend their little icebergs.” He turned toward Azula, bowing at the waist. “I would requisition the use of your Phoenix Battalion in particular, your majesty. The reports of the battalion’s skill have reached my men in the navy, and they are willing to work closely with your men.”

Azula continued to smile, her eyes barely open. She looked to Kailas. “As the captain of our battalion, what do you say to this?”

“But—your majesty, I was making the request to you, as the mistress of the battalion,” Zhao said.

“And as the captain of our battalion, we would hear Captain Arav’s thoughts on how to best use our men,” Azula said. “Given what we have already discussed about this very topic, what do you say to this, Captain?”

Hova turned her head in the silence that followed. Kailas was still, her shoulders straight and her head up. From the growing and darkening frown on Zhao’s face, she could only guess that Kailas was looking him in the eye with a half-lidded gaze.

“I have no doubts regarding the power that will be given to us by the comet,” Kailas said. “But I must ask why you are certain the waterbenders and the territory will have so little effect on our troops. I have been on expeditions to the North Pole, Admiral, and our casualties and fatalities are always astronomical. With the war officially declared won, I agree with what Fire Lord Azula has told me. There is no sense in sending our troops to resume hostilities with benders who have the territorial advantage in the fight.”

“You shouldn’t think of it as resuming hostilities,” Zhao said. “Think of it as cleansing. We are the superior element in this world. We shouldn’t have to fear a pack of weaklings who can only hide away in their ice caves.”

“My men and I have a healthy respect for the waterbenders’ ability to defend their territory, not fear,” Kailas said. “I asked why you are certain they will have so little effect.”

Zhao sighed, rolling his eyes at Kailas. When he spoke again, a cruel, smug smile had taken up a place on his face. “If you’re really that curious, Captain. You’re aware that waterbenders draw their strength from the moon, as we do from the sun. When I found information about the eclipse, I also discovered that the spirit of the moon is no longer a spirit. It has taken the form of a fish, which is hidden away in an oasis at the North Pole. I kill the moon spirit and the waterbenders’ power dies. With Sozin’s Comet’s power aiding me, my success is assured.”

Kailas raised a brow very slowly as a frown pulled at her mouth. “You would risk the lives of my men to kill a fish?”

“I would risk my own life to end the waterbenders,” Zhao said.

“But you yourself said that we shouldn’t have to fear the waterbenders,” Kailas said. “Are you saying now that you do fear them enough to risk resuming the war when our Fire Lord is correct? We still have pockets of resistance throughout the continent—we should not waste the power the comet grants us by potentially throwing the world out of balance.” She did not rise, her voice did not grow louder, and she did not move, but Zhao’s scowl returned and deepened.

“If we want to put the comet’s power to our greatest benefit, I don’t believe that we should send our battalions out fishing. We must show that we don’t want to start the war again—we just won’t accept rebellion against us. Find whatever resistance exists still in the time we have before the comet arrives and destroy it when the opportunity comes. Show the world that we are the superior element and the superior people. I am in agreement with Fire Lord Azula. I will not grant you the use of the Phoenix Battalion.”

Zhao’s lips had parted to reveal his gritted, grinding teeth. His body twitched as if he would take a step forward, but he stopped when Azula turned to look at the Phoenix King. The flames grew brighter, revealing Ozai’s high-boned face. He looked at Kailas, face smooth but for his faint, faint smile.

“Our Fire Lord has chosen a very capable captain, it seems,” he said. “A wise choice, not to dredge up the war that our fathers and forefathers fought—and that we have finally won. And how appropriate that the captain would nearly echo her Fire Lord’s entire plan.” He turned to Azula, nodding once.

Azula looked at Zhao until he sat. She walked through the flames, a path opening before her as she went. Her boots came to a halt on the map, on the sea between the Fire Nation and the landmasses to the east. “Captain Arav did indeed give part of our plan already. We will order our men still on the continent to hunt down all the rebellion left there and make public examples of them when the comet comes. What our captain did not elaborate on were the other examples that will be made. We will remove old buildings that would only make people cling to old ways—make them think too much of their useless past and not enough on our glorious future.”

She tapped her toe on one island near the South Pole. “This is the Southern Air Temple, one of the temples where the soldiers of the Air Nation once lived. It, and all the other Air Temples, will be burned when the comet arrives. We have already decided how these burnings will be handled. The Northern and Eastern Temples will have Ladies Mai and Ty Lee leading the soldiers, and the Western Temple will be a self-led squadron alongside the earthbenders we will recruit to reach the temple. Captain Arav and ourselves will be taking the Southern Temple personally. Battalions not assigned to these burnings will be working to find and eliminate rebels in the continent territories.”

Azula turned to Zhao and smiled. “Fishing wouldn’t be productive at all.” She ignored the way the man’s neck tightened, how his glare turned to Kailas. “Are there any further questions?” No one spoke. “Good. As written in your summons, you will remain in the Fire Nation until it is time to move out for the comet. The eclipse will be coming in a week’s time, and word has already been sent to everyone on the continent to be wary of combat. Dismissed.”

She turned away as the men rose to their feet and began talking quietly to one another. A few men laughed as they left the war room, clapping each other on the back as they went. Jai stood first, giving Hova his hand to help her stand on numb, sleeping legs. Kailas stood after that, watching Zhao sulk away with narrowed eyes. She turned when he had gone, nodding to Jai for his help. She let Hova hang onto her hand until she could move without her legs threatening to buckle. Kailas started to open her mouth.


Her mouth slammed shut again. Kailas turned and bowed to Azula as she approached. Jai and Hova did the same, even more deeply than Kailas. They remained that way while Kailas stood straight.

“Yes, Princess?” Kailas asked.

“The sun is finally shining, Captain,” Azula said. “I’m a little rusty from the trip, so I would like to have a sparring match with you.”

“Immediately, Princess?” Kailas asked.

“I will give your pet time to fetch you a change of clothes appropriate for a match,” Azula said. She chuckled. “Congratulations are in order for you finding a woman willing to work for you for this long. I suppose the wolvog can be somewhat…endearing to others.” She flicked her fingers at Hova. “Go on, go fetch.”

“Lieutenant, please accompany Hova to my home,” Kailas said. “As quick as you can.”

“Look for her in the guest quarters,” Azula said. “She can rest there until then.”

Jai saluted her before touching Hova’s shoulder. They went off together, moving quickly. Hova glanced over her shoulder, turning back with haste when she realized Azula had caught her looking. Kailas met Azula’s gaze when she looked at her with a smirk.

“Is she that sweet on you?” Azula asked.

Kailas said nothing.

Azula chuckled, waving her hand at Mai and Ty Lee. They bowed and departed, leaving Azula to lead Kailas away.

“It is remarkable,” Azula said, “that you chose to bed your own assistant.” She chuckled again, shrugging one shoulder. “You’re not the first, of course. Most officers break that protocol.” She looked over her shoulder with a smirk. “Right around your rank, if my reports are correct.”

“I am not bedding her,” Kailas said quietly.

“Come now, Captain,” Azula said. “No need to give me the sordid details, but you know how I feel about lying.”

“It’s not a lie, Princess. I am not bedding her. That is not why I took her on as my assistant.”

Azula sighed. “Oh, all right. You and your ridiculous privacy. It’s not like I haven’t seen you at your worst. Remember Ba Sing Se?”


“You should,” Azula said. “I expect you not to let any sort of frivolous personal affairs affect your work. You have a terrible habit of letting pity get the better of you.”

Kailas grit her teeth before answering. “It will not affect my work, Princess.”

“Because you know what will happen if it does,” Azula murmured, “don’t you.”

“I do.”

Azula stopped and turned about. “Actually, I don’t think you do at this point in time. I’m going to make this absolutely clear, Captain.”

Kailas stood at attention, arms crossed behind her back. “Yes Princess?”

“If I suspect that your pet is distracting you—in any way—I will ensure that it stops,” Azula said. “Immediately. Permanently. You are my captain. You are not allowed to be distracted from your work for me. Do you understand?”

“I understand, Princess.”

Azula looked closely at her face, waiting for the faintest flicker of an expression. It never came. She smiled slightly. “Let’s make a bargain, Captain.”

Kailas raised a brow.

“We haven’t had an opportunity to have a full spar in…what is it, four months?”

“Five months and eighteen days,” Kailas replied.

“Yes, that,” Azula said. “We’re both a bit rusty given the time and our travels. This will be a three-down spar to get us back in shape.” She tilted her head. “If you can down me even once today, I will leave your pet be for the rest of our stay in the Fire Nation.”

Kailas said nothing.

Azula laughed. “I’ll sweeten the deal. Down me at least once in every match we have until we leave in five weeks, and I’ll give you a gift when we reach the Southern Air Temple.”

Her brows rose minutely.

“Shall we, Captain?” Azula asked. “At least one down in every match over the next five weeks.”

“Will we have a match during the eclipse?” Kailas asked quietly.

“A single down match, yes,” Azula said. “Given how short the eclipse will be.”

For ten seconds, Kailas was silent. She then said, “I agree, Princess.”

“Good.” She stepped past Kailas, waggling her hand over her shoulder. “Go on and warm up. We’ll have our match in the usual place.” She started away, calling back, “With the usual onlookers, of course.”

Kailas watched her go, brows dropping. She went to one of the guest rooms, pinching her brow as she paced in the hall. She waited, counting her steps as she went back and forth. When she reached fifty, she began to roll her shoulders. She thought through forms she had memorized and those she had seen. Her inhales and exhales grew deeper as she fed greater heat into her limbs. It relaxed her muscles until each step was fluid and every breath deep.

“Captain,” said a voice behind her.

She turned, seeing Hova and Jai coming up the hall with a change of clothes. Jai saluted her before taking up a guard’s position outside one room. Hova followed Kailas into the room, offering the clothes when they were inside and the door was closed.

“Are you going to be all right?” Hova asked.

“It’ll be fine,” Kailas replied. She took off her coat and shirt, folding them neatly and setting them on the back of a chair. She pulled on the shirt Hova had brought, black and sleeveless. Her boots were taken off next, followed by her formal trousers. The black trousers she put on next were light and close fitting. Without putting her boots back on, she bundled her clothes up beneath one arm and headed out. Jai and Hova followed her, keeping pace with her long steps to somewhere they did not know.

Within two minutes, they had arrived at a large tile square, surrounded by a roof held by tall pillars. Kailas’s brows dropped at the sight of officers and palace staff milling about in the sections blocked off by waist-high walls around the square. Azula was in the square, wearing clothes similar to Kailas’s, and she stretched lazily as she paced one end of the square.

“Lieutenant,” Kailas said, “please stay with Hova. This will be a three down match and should be over soon.”

“Captain,” Jai said, bowing his head. He took Kailas’s clothes and led Hova to one side. He saw Hova’s confusion as Kailas stepped into the square and leaned down to whisper to her. “A standard sparring match operates differently than an agni kai. An agni kai only ends with one firebender submitting or being incapacitated. Downs in matches are full-body downs—shoulders and hips on the ground. Three times down, the match is over.”

“Have you ever seen Kailas sparring with the Fire Lord?” Hova whispered back.

“No ma’am,” he said. “But I’ve heard it’s something of a spectacle.”

Hova swallowed and turned to look into the square. Kailas and Azula took up spots at opposite ends of the square. Murmuring rose in the onlookers; Hova heard a few nearby officers whisper bets to each other. The larger bets were made on how quickly Azula would get the first down. Hova bit her tongue and waited. Azula watched Kailas with a smile on her face before settling in a stance, feet and hands staggered and palms down.

Kailas did much the same, but her hands were upright and shoulders forward. Looking at her legs showed tension in her feet, toes pressing down hard on the smooth tile stone. Everything in her showed a patient unwillingness to move. Not a soul jeered. Azula sneered a grin and stepped in hard. She thrust her right hand out, first two fingers forward. Blue flames rushed from her fingertips, the fireball swift enough to make Hova startle. Kailas deflected it by building fire over her left elbow and knocking it up into the air.

Stepping to one side, Azula slashed at the air with her heel and kicked a wheel of flame at an angle. Kailas stepped in to meet it, fire along her right wrist as she struck the wheel to shatter it. She carried through with her body’s momentum, punching hard with her right. The blow angled down at Azula’s feet, forcing her to skip backward. Kailas followed her, striking with punches, heel blows, and slashes of her hands to keep Azula retreating.

Despite it, Azula’s footing was never broken completely. She skipped along on her toes, lashing back with whirling kicks that forced Kailas to duck down so far her fingers touched the ground. Kailas kept low after a kick that left her smelling singed hair, spinning on her hands to bathe the ground in fire from her feet. For a split second, surprise showed on Azula’s face. She had to dive forward over the flames, springing back off of her hands to keep her body from the ground.

Kailas shot forward, aiming a blow at Azula’s chin with the heel of her hand. When Azula rocked back to avoid it, she kicked Azula’s legs out from beneath her. In turn, Azula twisted over to plant her hands on the ground and kicked up with fire on her toes. Kailas grit her teeth and wrenched her head to one side. The heat was sharp enough to feel deep in her ear, but it did not burn. She kept her ground while Azula flipped twice more to put space between them.

Bouncing on her toes, Azula considered Kailas with a smile. Kailas was steady where she stood, eyes bright and open. Her shoulders were high with tension, sparks along her knuckles. Azula rocked down onto her heels and lifted her hands to beckon.

“Don’t do it,” Hova whispered. “Please don’t charge.”

Kailas’s eyes narrowed. She rolled her shoulders. Exhaling slowly, she resumed her stance. She crooked the first finger on her left hand. A hiss went through the crowd of onlookers. Hova felt her spine grow cold, even as Jai whispered, “Dammit.”

Azula scowled. She took a hard step before springing into the air. Fire propelled her in a somersault in the air, spinning three times with the fire growing more massive on each spin. She kicked hard with both legs to launch the fire at Kailas’s chest. Kailas crossed her arms, fire in her hands and along her forearms, and caught the strike. It knocked her off of her feet completely. Azula looked gleeful when her feet touched the ground, but only until she saw that Kailas was not falling. She had used the force from the fire to add to her own kick, flinging a massive fireball off of both feet.

It was fast and large enough that Azula could not raise a perfect guard. She was thrown off her feet when the fire struck her arms, landing hard on her back with shoulders and hips on the stone. Kailas landed smoothly on her feet, letting embers fall from her arms. Not a few officers swore under their breath and passed silver pieces amongst themselves. Azula sighed as she stood up. She dusted off her arms and her shirt before looking at Kailas with a raised brow.

“All right,” Azula said slowly. “One-nothing.” She resumed her stance. “Try and repeat that, Captain.”

Kailas’s brows lowered. She dug her toes in again, waiting and waiting. There was no movement in Azula. She let her left heel shift outward, right heel following. As she took a step to the side, Azula mirrored her in the opposite direction. Still, Kailas waited. She let her limbs grow loose and relaxed. Her hands curved, palms slightly outward, as she continued to circle with Azula.

“There it is,” Jai whispered to Hova.

“There’s what?” Hova asked.

“See how her stance changed?”

“I’ve seen her do that a hundred times when she practices at home. What about it?”

“That’s not a firebending stance anymore,” Jai whispered. “It’s too loose—too fluid. She took that from waterbenders she’s fought against. She’s on defense now that she’s made the Fire Lord mad.”

Hova grimaced, but kept her eyes forward. Azula pressed in with an offensive, swift punches to create bursts of blue flame. Kailas swayed, feet dragging on the ground as she dodged. When Azula added kicks, snaps of her legs mixed with long sweeps aimed at Kailas’s head, she ducked down, fingers dragging. Her fingers created sparks, the fluid motion of her body aiding to build the heat and size of the waves she sent along the ground to break Azula’s footing.

It only served to make Azula’s eyes narrow and her mouth twist. She punched downward into the waves Kailas sent at her, breaking their lines before they could break her balance. Her goal then became to drive Kailas down before she could stand again. Instead of breaking the waves of flame, she leapt over them to slash over and over with her legs. Her fire grew more forceful with each rotation of her body, and Kailas soon was forced to abandon offense to dodge and block.

One solid punch was what was needed to throw Kailas off balance. Hova heard more than one person around them snigger with glee at the sight of Kailas stumbling. She grit her teeth when a kick seared Kailas’s upper left arm, knocking her more off balance. Her brows rose when Kailas grimaced, kept her footing off kilter, and lifted her arms to block the next kick. It slammed into her guard and drove her onto her back, winding her badly.

A wave of cheers went up from the crowd, derisive laughter mixed in as Kailas pushed herself back onto her feet. She flexed her arms; beads of blood welled up from the burns left behind. Once more, she took a deep breath and stood straight. Azula smiled at her, circling her arms to resume her stance. Kailas did the same, firebending as Hova knew it. Her shoulders tipped forward.

“Don’t charge,” Hova whispered. “Don’t, don’t, don’t.”

Kailas moved first, snapping off small fireballs from the first two fingers on each hand. They were followed by strikes with her knees and elbows. Every move was compact and powerful, but Azula matched them all with the same ferocity. Her motions were wider, but had to be to gain the strength Kailas had with her body and age. Fire smashed against fire, exploding into sparks with cracks that made ears ring. Scorches were left on the tile. For a few brief seconds, it seemed as though Kailas had upset Azula’s balance and was threatening to knock her down once more.

Grinning, Azula dodged a fire blast aimed for her chest by dropping down on her palms, body flat barely more than a few inches above the ground. She heaved herself up and her legs through the gap her arms provided. She kicked hard, forcing Kailas to leap to avoid the fireball coming toward her knees. In the seconds she was in the air, Azula rushed onto one knee to punch with both fists. The flames hit Kailas full in the chest, throwing her to the ground and making her tumble over and over. She sat up quickly to snuff the embers in her shirt.

“Two-one,” Azula said, out of breath but smiling, “Captain.”

She sighed through her nose as she stood up. Looking closely, she saw there were burned spots on Azula’s clothing, light scorches on her arms. Kailas forced her breathing to even out and deepen. Raising her hands in a firebender’s guard, she closed her hands into fists. Her stance deepened, toes digging in once more. Azula took the opposite stance, utterly balanced but moving lightly on her feet. She circled around Kailas, her smile and the sway of her shoulders speaking of how Kailas was prey, not an opponent.

Kailas waited without turning her body, her eyes the only thing following Azula as she paced. Her breathing grew deeper, the muscles in her arms growing visibly taut from shoulders down. Once more, no one jeered. Hova found herself leaning in, gripping the waist-high wall as she chewed on her lip. Jai leaned in as well, fist on the wall next to her hands.

“Come on, Captain,” he whispered. “You’ve got two more downs in you, come on.”

Azula lunged forward, bringing her right arm up in a long swing. The fireball that came from her fist was compact and swift and headed directly for Kailas’s head. Kailas ducked down, stepping back with her leading left foot to dodge further. Her hands opened as she went, fingers curled out and palms revealed to show the fire that had been building within them. She turned on her heels faster than Azula lowered her arm. Teeth grit, she stepped out with her right foot and thrust her hands forward, their heels together. The rush of flames was even faster than Azula’s last fireball, and though Azula raised a guard of arms and fire alike, the force threw her off her feet once more.

Landing flat on her back made the air rush out of Azula’s lungs. Despite it, she rolled back and over immediately to get to her feet. Scowling, she charged at Kailas without hesitation. She dove forward and planted her hands on the ground to flip forward. Her legs swung over, fire massive and roaring on her heels, and she kicked down hard as she completed her flip. Again, her aim was Kailas’s head. Kailas ducked, lifting her arms, but it was clear on her face that it would not be enough. The fire struck her hard enough to slam her down to the ground; her face was spared burns by the guard she had managed.

“Three-two,” Azula said, smiling with sweat shining on her brow. “That was close this time, Captain.”

Kailas said nothing. Laughter rose in the crowd as she pushed herself off the ground. She stood up and put her hands together to bow. “Thank you for the match, your majesty.”

Azula hummed, brushing off a few ashes clinging to her own wrists. “Clean yourself up and make sure you’re ready for another match on the day of the eclipse. That’s six days from now, so it should be long enough for those burns to heal.”

Kailas looked up without raising her head. She spoke low enough that only Azula heard. “And our bargain, Princess?”

Azula smirked at her. She glanced toward Hova and back again. Keeping her voice low as well, she said, “You did manage to down me. I’ll leave your pet alone.”

She bowed further. “Then I will return in six days for our next match.”

“Three days,” Azula said. “There’s going to be another council for the work to be done on the continent.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

Azula flicked her fingers. “You’re dismissed. Feel free to visit the palace doctors before you leave.”

Kailas nodded, maintaining her bow while she turned away. She went straight for the first opening in the walls, catching Jai and Hova’s eyes as she went. They followed in the wake she created, officers hurrying to get out of her way when they saw how her eyes were narrowed and her brows were low. Once they had gone inside a proper hallway, Kailas stopped and held out a hand to Jai. He offered her boots first and her long-sleeved undershirt second.

“Thank you for staying with Hova during this, Lieutenant,” Kailas said as she carefully rolled her sleeves up past the burns. She glanced at Hova before looking down. “I’m sorry for letting that go on for so long.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Hova said. “Are you okay?”

“These are light burns,” Kailas said. “They’re worth it.”

Hova stared at her. “Worth what?”

“Never mind,” Kailas murmured. “Let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

There were seven more sparring matches that Kailas and Azula took part in before they set out for the Southern Air Temple. The only match that stuck in Hova’s memories and the memories of Phoenix Battalion soldiers that witnessed it was the match that took place in the eight minutes when the moon blocked the sun and stole all firebending. Like the match before it and all matches after, the sparring square was surrounded by onlookers making bets. Azula, as always, was cheerful and limber that day, waiting patiently for their firebending to vanish.

Kailas waited, hands at her side, while Azula snapped her fingers to create small flames. Once she was no longer able to, she looked at Kailas with a tilt to her head. Kailas matched the expression by lifting her fisted hands. When Azula sprinted at her, she easily blocked every punch, elbow, knee, and kick. The massive height difference between them gave her more than enough time and reach to push Azula back and keep her off balance with each successive block.

As Azula attempted to beat her out in speed, aiming for her chest and head, Kailas moved even faster. Her body swayed and contorted without any indication that it was difficult to avoid Azula’s sharp fingernails or her sweeping kicks. Hova heard the Phoenix Battalion solders whisper their approval, cheering Kailas on as quietly as they could.

Five minutes in, Kailas swayed far back, keeping her balance on deeply staggered feet, to avoid Azula jabbing at her face with her fingers extended. Before Azula could pull her arm back, Kailas grabbed her wrist with one hand and low on her shirt with the other. She twisted hard to wrench Azula off of her her feet and slam her to the ground.

Hova barely managed to keep from cheering, reveling in the tiny bursts of glee she heard from the soldiers around her. Kailas stepped away from Azula as she coughed to regain her breath. The other officers were mostly quiet, but Hova could see a few gold pieces change hands. After a few moments, Azula stood up and brushed off her trousers. She looked at Kailas with narrowed eyes, but said nothing and waved a hand to dismiss her.

Only another four weeks on and only when they were on a ship far from Azula’s ears did the soldiers cheerfully debate how Kailas’s victory had been achieved. Those soldiers that had watched the last six matches swore up and down that there was a simple explanation for Kailas definitively winning that bout and only that bout: Kailas was physically stronger and faster than Azula. Kailas said nothing while this was debated during the voyage, although she did look somewhat amused.

“Are they right?” Hova asked on the fifth evening of the journey.

Kailas looked at her over the top of her bowl of hot noodles. “What?”

Hova looked at the soldiers chatting over their food some distance away on the deck. “Are they right about how you beat Azula during the eclipse?”

“Oh, that,” Kailas murmured. She politely ate a mouthful of noodles. “Yes, they drew the correct conclusion. Azula knows perfectly well that I currently have more power when firebending isn’t involved.”

Her shoulders slumped. “She really has that much of an advantage because of her firebending?”

Kailas chuckled. “Azula’s firebending reaches a much higher temperature than any other firebender’s, and I’ve found it creates an exponentially more powerful explosive force and greater speed. Our sparring matches are focused on making her physical capabilities match mine.” She ate another mouthful. “She keeps forgetting that my strength isn’t static. Five months between matches made her underestimate me when our bending was removed from the equation.”

“But you downed her at least twice in every other match,” Hova said. “Doesn’t that mean anything?”

“That I’m getting better at training on my own,” Kailas said. “It’s still a struggle to fight her.”

“You were amazing at it, though.” She smiled, bumping her knee against Kailas’s. “Everything’s healed, right?”

“Perfectly. Whatever Azula plans on having me do at the temple, I’ll be fine.”

She looked at Kailas’s hands, seeing how their knuckles were bleaching while she held her bowl and chopsticks. “Kailas.”


“Don’t lie to me. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” Kailas whispered.

Her brows dropped. She moved closer until their hips were touching. “What d’you mean?”

“This feels wrong,” Kailas said, staring at the lantern at their feet. “I felt like this when we acted on our plan to take Ba Sing Se. There is nothing I regret more than taking part in that, and the notion of burning these buildings feels even worse.”

Hova looked at her before looking toward the horizon, lit by a half-full moon. “There’s no way to get out of this?”

“I would prefer to keep living, Hova.” She looked up at her. “I would much prefer that you not be killed because I disobeyed Azula.”

Her stomach clenched. She could not open her mouth, much less think of words to say. With nothing else to do, she leaned against Kailas until the both of them could finish their meal. Early the next morning, they spotted land. Azula’s sloop had already made landfall, two mongoose-lizards being prepped for riding when they dropped the prow of their ship.

“The comet should arrive midday tomorrow,” Kailas said to the crew on deck. “Your orders are to ensure that no one follows me or the Fire Lord up the mountain, regardless of who or what it is. Under no circumstances are you to firebend into the mountain when the comet is present. Am I understood?”

Each and every one of the soldiers saluted her, chorusing, “Understood, Captain!”

She nodded to them and went below deck. Hova stood at the prow, holding the sling bag Kailas had packed and staring at the mongoose-lizards. She frowned at Azula directing servants, but turned when Kailas touched her shoulder.

“Please be careful,” Hova said, offering the bag.

“It should be all right,” Kailas replied. She pulled the bag on and looked up to the mountain. Softly, she said, “It’s just burning down old buildings of dead enemies. That’s all.”

Hova saw her pallor, checked to see where Azula was, and pulled Kailas back a few paces. She tugged Kailas down to kiss her. “Just be careful and come back. I’ll be right here.”

She managed to smile, kissing her in turn. “I’ll be careful.” She held Hova’s hand tightly for a moment. Before she let go, she whispered, “Thank you.” She headed down the prow, strides steady from ship to land. Without looking about, she went straight to Azula and the mongoose-lizards. Azula took a sling bag for herself before dismissing the servants.

“Records say it takes about three hours to scale the mountains with healthy mounts,” Azula said. “Ready for that?”

“Easier than climbing on our own, Princess,” Kailas replied.

Azula chuckled. “Easier than trying to find any of those bison beasts airbenders had. Come on, let’s get up there and find a spot to make camp.”

Kailas bowed slightly before climbing onto the saddle of one lizard. Azula climbed onto the other, snapping the reins. The mongoose-lizards squawked and sped toward the mountain. Kailas kept her hands wrapped around the reins and her feet firmly in the stirrups when the lizard reared up and gripped the mountainside to climb. They went where the lizards chose, never trying to turn them from one path or another.

More than once, Kailas had to hang on to the saddle itself, the muscles in her back and stomach straining for balance. More than once, she saw Azula do the same. While the lizards never looked uncertain when they made small leaps from a narrow outcropping to broader flats, Kailas made sure to hold her breath. Even if she tried to keep her breathing even, the wind around the mountain was vicious. Only through concentrating on her own body heat did Kailas stay warm. It made her ears ache and ring all at once; climbing through the clouds two hours on did everything to make it worse.

The sunlight above the clouds was not enough to dry their sodden clothes, but they dried nonetheless. Two more windstorms fought them before the lizards finally crested the mountaintop past midday. They came to a stop on a lone platform connected by a manmade bridge of blue and white stone. Kailas dismounted first, rubbing her legs before going to Azula to help her down.

“Well,” Azula muttered, stretching, “that was an interesting exercise.” She walked slowly, crouching every so often to work her stiff muscles. She looked about and crossed her arms. Kailas followed her gaze briefly before returning to the lizards and fetching their feedbags from the cases attached to their saddles. She hooked them over their heads, listening as their tongues gathered food and their jaws crunched it down.

“Any thoughts, Captain?” Azula asked.

“For our camp, Princess?”


Kailas turned about. The temple lay beyond the bridge to the platform, its main tower standing proud from the mountain itself. Smaller towers, pathways, and buildings were carved more into the mountain, tucked away and overgrown with vegetation. She moved to stand next to Azula, attempting to peer closer. A trio of relatively small towers was closer to their height. From where she stood, she could not see doors blocking their entrances.

“Those look large enough to house the lizards in one of them,” Kailas said, pointing. “We can use either of the other ones for the night.”

Azula looked at the other structures before nodding. “Bring them along.” She went first, not bothering to wait for Kailas to store the feedbags and guide the weary lizards forward. Kailas watched her from behind, brows low at the way she flicked blue flames at weeds and the tenacious flowers that had survived. They trudged through overgrown grass toward the three buildings, but Azula stopped suddenly with a laugh. She went to a spot against a hill that was covered with weeds, crouched down, and picked up a cracked and rusted Fire Nation helmet.

“What a fascinating relic,” Azula said. “I didn’t know helmets from a century ago were designed like this. It must have been quite intimidating to the Air Nation warriors.” Smirking, she tossed the helmet back into the weeds and went onward. When she came to the closed door of the nearest building, she crossed her arms and turned to Kailas. Kailas tried the latch, but its rotten handle snapped off in her hand.

Azula hid her laugh in her hand. “Try again.”

Kailas held back a sigh before shifting her weight and driving her foot into the door. The old wood buckled and broke under her kick, the circular door swinging inward. The lizards went into the empty building and eagerly lay down to rest. Kailas went onto the next building, taking more care with the latch. It opened without breaking. Within, the walls blocked the wind completely and left everything quiet. Azula strode inside and stretched her arms over her head. Kailas followed, holding up a hand filled with fire to survey the empty room and the stairway to one side.

“It’s certainly not home,” Azula said, “but it’ll do for one night.” She took off her sling bag, rummaging in it for a ration of food. Laughing through her nose, she looked at Kailas from the corner of her eye. “Does this remind you of how we went to Ba Sing Se, Captain?”

“More for what I did, Princess,” Kailas replied. She turned and headed for the door.

“And where are you going?”

“To look around. I don’t know anything about the Air Nation.”

Azula rolled her eyes. “You and your curiosity.” She waved a hand. “Fine, go on your quest for knowledge. Just remember to keep from falling off the mountain. I still have to make good on our bargain.”

Kailas paused to glance back. She murmured, “Yes, Princess,” and walked away. She headed up the winding path near the buildings. The stones that lined the path were loose with the wild grass beneath them. A few places were ashy black from burns subjected to wind, rain, and snow. She took a detour when she saw a patch of flat land occupied by odd wooden pillars. Her interest was marred by how rotten the wood was and how many pillars were broken from flame.

Still, the sight of Fire Nation helmets and bits of armor made her cautiously slide down the slope into the field. She peered at everything, picking up a helmet here and there to look at the cracks in the faceplates. Considering them, she returned the helmets to the position they had been. Each time she did, she found that the faceplates had cracked against the ground from a great force. It was difficult to tell if it had been from high falls or from blows.

Cautious as ever, she climbed back out of the field and up along a cliff to reach a new path. On level ground, she sat down to let her body rest. The vantage let her see the clouds far below. A rough estimate put the clouds more than three hundred feet below their elevation. An even rougher estimate of the lizard’s rate of ascent against the time put the temple somewhere between one to two and a half miles high. Kailas leaned forward, setting her elbows on her knees. Her chest ached at the thought of Hova so far below.

Tiny fingers on strong hands pulled at her sling bag. Kailas gasped aloud, pitching herself backward to keep from falling forward. A young animal squawked with indignation and fright. Kailas turned her head, propped on her elbows, and found a white and brown-furred creature with massive ears and equally large green eyes. She stared at it, and it stared at her. It crept forward and pulled at her bag.

“Stop that,” she said, sitting up quickly. “That’s all the food I have for the next forty hours.” She looked at it more closely. “I don’t think you even eat meat.”

It trilled at her, ears drooping. Kailas’s brows came together, but she pushed herself back and away from the ledge to face the creature properly. Exhaling a short breath, she offered the creature the back of her hand to sniff. It did so eagerly for only a few seconds before crawling up her arm and curling around her shoulders to purr in her ear. Kailas sat perfectly still for a moment, mouth open and brows low over wide eyes.

“What—the,” she muttered. She turned her head to look at the creature as best she could. “What are you doing?”

It continued to purr, wrapping its long, ringed tail around her neck.

She closed her eyes tight. “Fine. You smell Fai on me and you think I’m a pleasant human being.” She stood slowly to keep from jostling the creature. Starting to walk, she grumbled, “You’re a poor judge of character.”

The creature yapped at her.

Kailas sighed again. “I’m going to assume you’re a winged lemur. That’s the only creature aside from flying bison that was mentioned in the reports from Fire Nation survivors of the raids. And because you remind me of how cheeky Fai is, I’m going to assume that you’re an adolescent male who is trying to get attention for affection and food. Does that seem fair?”

He trilled cheerfully.

Kailas stopped walking to put a hand to her brow. “I’m going to stop talking to an animal now.”

He thumped his tail against her chin, but she did not reply. She went into the nearest building when the wind picked up again, wandering around with no real aim. The tile work on the walls was faded, dirty from dust blown through broken doors and open windows. More helmets were about, but far more bones halfway through crumbling into dust were in the halls and rooms. Tapestries were torn and lay in moldy piles. Pai Sho tables were in pieces.

In a room deep in the heart of one building, Kailas found a quartet of rosaries made of wooden beads that had once been polished and blue-stained pendants marked with the three whorls of the Air Nation. They made her stop short and kneel down. When she tried to pick one up, the cloth band that had been holding it together broke from its age. The beads clattered on the floor, bouncing a few times before rolling away. The clicks they made when hitting far walls felt like nails tapping her spine.

Still on her knees, Kailas looked at the room more closely. The roof was not made of stone, but of the branches and vines of a tree growing through one wall. Five raised platforms of stone were covered by orange and yellow diamonds of disintegrating fabric. She looked under her legs. The stone tiles were precisely set, even if the rug of orange and yellow was not. Nothing in the room spoke of war councils or meetings for politics as the reports had said.

When Kailas looked up, all she could think of was the palace’s hall of meditation that she had frequented in her youth. It nestled a stone of nausea in her stomach. She stood quickly and left the room without looking at the rosaries. The wind burned her ears as she went to another building. Something like relief filled her when she found living spaces with their doors broken down. She pushed aside one door half off its hinges, but froze where she stood.

The room could only have housed children. There were small gliders that were burned in a state of being half open. A few toys were half-buried under moldering sleeping mats and sitting cushions. Her throat tightened; her shoulders rose enough that the lemur chirruped in confusion.

“This isn’t right,” she whispered. “The reports—the reports said the temples were strictly for airbender soldiers. Children shouldn’t have been here.” She took a step back on a shaking leg. “What’s going on?”

The lemur pulled at the high collar of her shirt. Kailas turned with desperation in her spine. She strode to another room with its door still intact and closed. The latch had rusted shut, but she grit her teeth and kicked the door open. The lemur screeched at being unsettled, hitting her head when he landed on her shoulders again.

“Stop it,” she hissed. She looked around, heart still pounding because the room was as simple and unadorned as any housing for a sage in the Fire Nation. There were books and scrolls on shelves, but they crumbled away under her fingers when she tried to pick them up. Her throat closed up as she put her head on the wall next to the shelves.

“I need something,” she said. She hit the wall with a snarl. The sound her fist made was off. She lifted her head and rapped on the wall with her knuckles. The sound was still off, not of a hollow wall but not of anything solid. She kept her ear to the wall, rapping on it with one hand and dragging her other palm along it. Her fingers soon felt a small seam in the wall. She tapped at the wall near the seam, listening closely. The sound was dull, as if the air beyond the wall was frozen.

Kailas considered it. She kept her hand on the wall, pressing at it for a moment. Shifting on her knees, she put her back to the wall and drove her elbow into the seam. It gave immediately, the tile popping outward as air rushed past her elbow. The lemur squealed in fright, hiding his face in her collar. Kailas knelt down, minding the stone fragments, and peered into the hole. Nothing was immediately present, and so she began to break more pieces out of the wall. After a number of minutes and a slow rise upward, she uncovered a wooden box surrounded by stone and tile. Gingerly, waiting for the wood to be rotten and give under her hands, Kailas worked the box out from the wall.

It was preserved thanks to the sealed tile and dry stone, and she blew gently to push dust from the carved lid. It was stained blue and white, the carved whorls white clouds in the blue panel of a sky. She slid the lid open, eyes widening at the box’s contents. Within were untouched scrolls and books, still robust and capable of being handled. She sank to the floor, turning to sit against the wall with the box in her lap.

The first thing that she took from it was a scroll, lengthy and wide to allow for detailed drawings of airbending forms. Even studying the unmoving scroll, she could see that the forms were not designed for direct combat. The robes of the airbenders were monastic in nature; not a soul among them moved as though they were attacking. Her heart sank when she reached the end of the scroll and found a child, tattooed as any other adult, moving through a form to create a sphere of air beneath him.

“There were children at the temples,” she said to no one. She inhaled slowly and rolled the scroll back up. In putting it away, she touched the largest of the books in the box. She went still, feeling the cover under her fingertips. After a long time, she took the book from the box and opened it to read. It was not a book of fiction or poetry, but a single monk’s journal. While she had to think through characters that were no longer in common use, the monk’s name was clear and easy to read: Gyatso.

Kailas read the life he had written down, from his childhood friendship with Avatar Roku through his growth as a monk. In the dozens of pages she skimmed through, she saw no reference to warriors, soldiers, or armies. Even an attempt to misread a sentence or two gave her no opportunity to lie to herself about the airbenders. Gyatso’s grief over Roku’s passing made her hesitate in reading further. Unable to swallow, she turned the page with an unsteady hand.

Gyatso soon began to write of a very young boy named Aang. There was pride in his words for Aang’s growth, even as there was worry over rumblings from the Fire Nation. Kailas found herself shaking her head with each page turned, thinking of the boy on the form scroll. She choked, hand rising to her mouth, when she read how Gyatso grieved to tell Aang that he was the Avatar when he was only twelve years old. However much she did not want to read on, she turned the last page.

The very last entry was dated more than one hundred years ago. It wrote that Aang had run away in a storm, and that there was no time to go looking for him because Fire Nation ships had been sighted. Gyatso’s final words were, “Be well, Aang.” Kailas closed the book gently and returned it to the box. Breath shallow with the sickness in her chest, she stood up. She began to circle the room with slow steps.

The thought that pervaded her mind was, “They lied to us.” She looked around the room as she went, able to imagine how it had once looked when airbenders lived there. It was just as simple to see how it would burn in the near future. She stopped and looked back to the box on the floor. She hurried to it, pulling off her sling bag to hide it there. The lemur screeched at her again when the sling bag knocked him off his perch, waiting until she had pulled it back on before springing onto her shoulders.

“I need you to listen to me,” Kailas said quietly. She headed out of the room, climbing on top of the building to survey. When she spotted the tips of the three towers in the distance, she jumped back down to the pathway and hurried in the opposite direction. The lemur chittered at her as she sprinted across the mountaintop, squealing in fright when she slid to a stop at a sheer cliff face. She began to climb down the cliff, fingers white with her grip on the stones. The lemur held on to her shirt, trilling in her ear when the wind slammed against her.

“Just wait,” Kailas said. She looked around when the cloud layer drew closer, exhaling when she saw a flat outcropping of stone before a small cavern. Minding the stones that had grown smooth from moisture, she climbed down to the outcropping and knelt down to rest her legs. She took the lemur from her shoulders and set him down, pointing to the cavern.

“You have to stay here,” she said.

The lemur looked at her blankly before crooning.

“You have to stay here,” she repeated. “You cannot be anywhere near the temple when the comet arrives.” Because he continued to look at her blankly, she sighed. She held out her hand for him to sniff. “Listen to me. You’re the only living thing left of the Air Nomad culture. You have to stay here and you have to stay hidden. Please.”

He trilled again. He held one of her fingers in his hand and tugged.

She could not smile. “I can’t hide with you. I have to do something horrible very, very soon. That’s why you need to stay here. Do you understand?”

His crooning turned faint as his ears drooped. He let go of her finger and went into the cavern to sit quietly. Kailas bowed to him on her knees before climbing back up the mountainside. The wind that hit her made her cling more desperately to the stones, but she made it back to level ground with her heart in her throat. Hands shaking, she looked back over the cliff one more time. With a hard exhale, Kailas set out to scout the temple further.

She spent the rest of the daylight investigating where fires could be set to look wild and destructive without doing irreparable damage to the buildings. The wind died down as the sun vanished below the clouds, leaving a silent chill that made her aware of every crunch of stone and dry grass under her boots. Carrying fire as a lantern, she made her way back to the three towers for the night. She stopped at the mongoose-lizards first, giving them another meal before going to the other tower.

Azula was still awake, sitting on her sleeping mat with her legs crossed and her spine straight. Two piles of sticks and grass were nearby, burning brightly in the dark. She looked at Kailas with a rise in her brow.

“Did you actually look around the entire mountain?” she asked.

“Essentially,” Kailas said. She took off her sling bag, taking out her own sleeping mat. “It was more useful to find where structural weaknesses are than to do research about the airbenders.”

Azula leaned forward slightly, putting an elbow on one knee and her chin in her hand. Chuckling, she said, “I can’t really believe that you didn’t find something to read for the night. I was hoping you’d bring back some paper for a better fire.”

“Everything is too old, Princess. Anything I touched or picked up broke right away.” She sighed, taking a ration of dried meat from her bag. “Everything but old armor. That’s lasted.”

“The airbenders put up a decent fight, it seems.” Azula examined her fingernails in the flickering light. “But are you really surprised that we defeated them?”

Kailas said, “Not at all, Princess,” before taking a bite of her ration. They said nothing more for the night, nor for the following morning. Kailas did not look down toward the clouds when they brought the mongoose-lizards back to the single peak. All she did was take care when they set their sling bags down, keeping the wooden box from hitting the ground.

“Now,” Azula said as she started back toward the temple, “do you remember our bargain?”

Kailas followed her with a pace between them. “If I managed to down you in each of our sparring matches, you would give me a gift.”

Azula smiled over her shoulder. “Correct.”

“And I assume that I am not at liberty to make a request of any sort.”

“Also correct.”

Kailas exhaled slowly. “Then what are you planning on giving me?”

“A wonderful opportunity, Captain,” Azula said. She made them stop, looking into the sky.

Kailas felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up as the sky darkened and turned deep crimson. She looked at Azula. “Is this the comet?”

“It’s almost here,” Azula murmured. She chuckled. “Here’s my gift, Captain.” She turned and pointed toward the temple. “You get to have the honor of destroying this place.”

What?” Kailas said.

“You think I haven’t noticed?” Azula asked. “You can’t create fire like mine, but your firebending has become quite powerful in the last year. Powerful enough to break bone on impact, now. With the boost the comet will give you, it’s easy to imagine that you’ll finally get it right and be able to crack stone as well.” She smiled. “With that in mind, I thought it would be an excellent gift.”

“How is it a gift?” Kailas asked, clenching her hands behind her back to keep her voice steady.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Azula asked in turn. “Not only do you get to have yet another resounding success in your career under my direction, but you get to impress me. You never really have a chance to do that, given how damaged you get in a fight.” She laughed. “It’s pathetic, Captain. You should be jumping at this chance to show me just how good you are.”

Kailas stared at her. She blinked and looked at the temple. In the distance, she heard a great fire roaring in the thin air of the atmosphere. Her nerves felt aflame; each breath could’ve kindled a bonfire. She looked to Azula.

“Am I to do this alone?” she asked.

“I expect you to.” She moved closer to Kailas, catching the front of her shirt to pull her down. Quietly, she said, “There are still people who choose to question my decision to name you as my captain. I am giving you a chance to prove them wrong and ensure that I never question your abilities and your loyalty to me. That I never have to go find someone else to convince you to obey. Do you understand this gift?”

Kailas could only bow her head and reply, “I understand, Princess.”

She let go of her shirt. “Good.” She gestured toward the temple. “Mind how you destroy the lower levels. A bad shot might send tons of stone falling down the mountainside. Who’s to say if they wouldn’t land on our vessels?”

Kailas closed her eyes and began to roll up her sleeves. “I’ll be careful.” She opened her eyes and started toward the temple. Letting her shoulders fall forward, she broke into a run. Fire erupted off her feet when she jumped, launching her into the air clear over the winding path up. She landed in a crouch, turning toward the three towers. With heat searing the inside of her skin, she flexed her hands and thought of white-hot fireballs manifesting in her palms.

They appeared in an instant, humming as the cores of the flames devoured the air around them. Kailas brought her hands together to combine them, holding the fireball steady, and leapt into the air above the towers. Fire on her feet kept her hovering in the air. After she had found her balance, she brought her hands over her head and thrust them down at the middle tower. The crack of the stone roof shattering would have been earsplitting had the fire not been roaring. The wooden floors burst into flames; the walls splintered from the wildfire heat.

All it took was one burst sustained for thirty seconds. The tower collapsed on itself; embers rose with ash to settle on her skin. Kailas tilted her body to shift in the air and turn her back to the open air. The angle of the next fire blast cut through the bottom of another tower on one side. As everything caught fire in leaps and bounds, the structure tilted and fell into the hill. She did the same to the last tower, hurrying to land because her legs were threatening to buckle over the fire.

Kailas did not take stock of the sweat already running down her brow, her neck, her back. She made her way up the mountain, stalking along every pathway to rip through every wall with more fire. Her heart pounded whenever she held the fire in her hands. Her stomach tried to rebel whenever another building collapsed with a whirl of ash, smoke, and sparks. She had nothing to do but continue on.

The field of odd pillars was decimated. The rooms that had housed airbenders were engulfed in fire hot enough to shatter stone. The room where she had found the rosaries was destroyed and its tree burned too badly to ever grow again. By the time she had reached the last great tower of the temple, Kailas was panting and dripping with sweat. Soot was smeared black on her hands and bare forearms and ash was streaked on her face and neck.

She swallowed with a dry mouth, staring at the building. When she blinked and tears ran down her face, she could not tell if it was to rinse out the ash or not. She grit her teeth to steady her breathing. All her concentration went into how to raze the tower without it falling back over the edge of the mountain. An idea came to her and she leapt into the air with fire pushing her up onto the highest hill around the tower.

Crouched on one knee, she made a set of calculations she doubted were accurate. Part of her prayed they were incorrect enough that the tower would fall toward her too quickly to avoid. The thought of Hova at the base of the mountain made her breath hitch. Kailas grimaced, took aim, and thrust both hands out. The fireball tore through the middle of the highest floor of the tower. It creaked, fire ripping into the roof, and collapsed directly down into the next floor.

Her next shot went through the back of the tower one level lower. Weakened from the weight of everything above, the tower toppled almost immediately into the hill behind it. Kailas stood up to fire again at the middle of the tower another two floors down. The weight was enough to crush everything below it. The fire consumed it, so bright and hot that Kailas could not look at it for long. She leapt away, traversing the paths in three bounds before she hit the ground before Azula. She managed to turn her legs buckling into setting one knee down and bowing her head.

Azula laughed through her nose. “To tell you the truth, I was convinced I’d have to help you finish before the comet left. But you managed it just in time, Captain. Well done.”

“Th-thank you,” Kailas wheezed.

Azula smiled at the sound. “Well, come along. I had the servants pack rope to tie you to your saddle if you were exhausted.”

Kailas did not speak. She pushed herself back onto her feet and followed Azula to the mongoose-lizards. She pulled on her sling bag, feeling the wooden box dig into her back. She barely noticed Azula tying her feet into the stirrups and her legs to the saddle itself. Semi-conscious, she wrapped the reins around her hands. When Azula snapped her own reins, the mongoose-lizards started their climb back down the mountain.

The sound of the lizards’ feet hitting the ground and heading into the sand on the shoreline made Kailas stir. She lifted her head, recognizing some of the people clustered and waiting as soldiers from the Phoenix Battalion. She waited through the servants untying her legs before dismounting. Two steps were all she could take before her legs gave out entirely and she fell to the ground.


She looked up with the eye not pressed against the ground. Hova rushed to her alongside Jai and another soldier, eyes wide with shock.

“What happened?” she asked, turning Kailas onto her side.

“No need to worry,” Azula said casually as she dismounted. “The good captain just overexerted herself. She’s had much worse, trust me.” She stretched before waving a hand. “Our task is done and I’ll make the report myself. You can all return to Taonan.”

Kailas saw Hova force back a reply, a tiny swell of relief and pride in her chest. She let Jai and the other man help her to her feet and brace her as she walked to the ship. Along the way, she saw more than one person look at her with pity painted over with regret. She could not smile to give them relief over her exhaustion, but Jai spoke in her place.

“Bring her to our cabin,” Hova said. “I’ll help her get cleaned up and see if she needs the medic.”

“Yes ma’am,” Jai said. Kailas shuffled with their guidance, aware when they brought her all the way to the cabin’s washroom. She was gently placed on her knees at the wash basin. Hova filled the basin with water while Jai and the other man left.

“Start washing that ash off, okay?” Hova said. “I’ll get you clean clothes.”

Kailas nodded mutely and put her hands in the basin. The water grew hot from her hands when Hova left. She took the soap from its tray next to the basin and set to scrubbing the black and gray mess from her skin. Her face was next, and she did her best by feel alone. Eventually, she looked up to see what was left.

She saw her face in the mirror above the basin. It was still streaked with ash. Despite the redness in the whites around them, her irises were as bright gold as ever. She saw Azula’s darker eyes and her smile. She saw the blistering flames she had left behind in the rubble. Her ears were filled with the sound of stone breaking under roaring fire.

Kailas’s heart thrashed in her chest to compete with the way she began to hyperventilate. Her lips pulled back without thinking as she took to her feet, grabbed the top of the mirror with one hand, and smashed her other fist into the mirror.

Her knuckles broke the mirror and slammed against the wooden frame behind it. The punch had knocked a ragged hole through the mirror, but she could still see her reflection and the flames around it. She pulled her arm back for another, breaking more of the mirror and putting her fist clear through the wooden frame. More of the mirror remained on the other side of the first hole, and she prepared for another punch.

“Kailas, stop!” Hova screamed.

Kailas froze because Hova had grabbed her arm. She became aware of the splinters and shards of glass embedded in her skin and the blood running down her arm from the wounds. Her breathing was too loud, her eyes too wide, her body shaking too much. Her hand trembled violently when she opened it. Unable to support her, her knees gave out and dropped her onto more glass shards. She bowed her head and closed her eyes tight.

Crying, barely managing to keep from sobbing, she said over and over, “I’m so sorry.”


Kailas did not say another word on the seven-day return trip to Taonan. When they arrived, she quietly dismissed the Phoenix Battalion soldiers and ordered them back to their individual posts along the coast and in the Fire Nation. She headed off without waiting for Hova or Fai, eyes on the ground and shoulders slumped. Jai caught Hova’s wrist before she could go after her.

“Please keep an eye on the captain,” he said. “The medic couldn’t tell if she had any injuries other than what she did to herself, so none of us know what triggered this.”

“I will,” Hova said. “Thank you, Lieutenant.” She clicked her tongue at Fai, both of them hurrying after Kailas. The moon was nearly full above, lighting their way home. They caught up to Kailas halfway through Taonan, but Kailas remained silent and did not look at either of them. Even when they went into their house, Kailas said nothing. She sat down to take off her boots, but did not stand back up.

Hova sat down slowly on her right side. “What happened?”

She did not reply. She stood up without looking at Hova, going upstairs with silent footsteps. Hova gestured for Fai not to follow before going upstairs as well.

“Kailas, please—you need to talk to me!” Hova said. “Your soldiers couldn’t tell me what happened! What’s wrong?”

Kailas stopped short in opening the door to her room. She blinked slowly and turned to look at Hova. She took off her sling bag and reached into it. When she found the wooden box, she offered it. Hova took it, looking between it and Kailas.

“What is this?” she asked.

She shook her head and tried to swallow. It made her gag and cough, eyes burning. Somehow, she said, “It’s from the Air Temple. It’s all that’s left.”

“What’re you talking about? I thought you and Azula were just burning the buildings up there.”

Kailas shook her head again, putting her hands over her face to hide a smile she did not understand. She giggled weakly. “We weren’t burning the buildings. I destroyed everything.” She giggled again, pressing her hands down on her eyes. “I destroyed a sacred place.” Her legs tipped back to make her fall against the doorframe. She slid to the floor, still giggling as tears came from her eyes.

“H-Hova,” she said. “My country lied to the entire world.” Her giggles broke as her mouth twisted. “We massacred the airbenders. I desecrated the home of a culture that never even had an army to defend itself.” She clutched her head, fingernails digging into skin. “I’m the lackey of a sociopath who helped brainwash the world! I’m just her little wolvog! All I’m good for is murder! For ruining everything!”

Hova dropped to her knees, all but throwing the box aside, and pulled Kailas’s hands from her head before she could break skin. She opened her mouth. No words came. Kailas stared at her, tears running down her pale, miserable face. She swallowed and looked at the floor.

“You no longer have to work for me,” she said.

“That’s really too bad for you to say,” Hova replied, “because I’m not leaving.”

“I’ve killed dozens of people.”

“I figured that. Soldiers do that in wartime.”


“I’m not leaving. I’m not leaving even if you fire me.” She put her hands on Kailas’s face and forced her to look up. “You’re not a little wolvog. You’re not.”

“Do you understand what I did?” Kailas sobbed. “If the Avatar ever reappears, I’m responsible for destroying his home!”

“Azula would’ve killed you,” Hova replied. “Even if she didn’t threaten you right then, I know she would’ve.” She slid her fingers into Kailas’s hair. “Listen to me. I’m not leaving, and I want you to tell me what I can do to calm you down. I’m scared that you’re going to get sick from how hard you’re crying.” She rubbed Kailas’s head gently, trying to smile. “Breathe a little bit, okay?”

She tried to swallow, coughed, and tried again. She managed it, but closed her eyes and continued to cry. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Hova pulled her closer to let her rest her head on her shoulder. She did not shush her, only holding her while she shook. The angle of the moonlight through the windows had changed drastically before Kailas’s breathing slowed down. She pushed her head harder against Hova’s shoulder when she grew quiet, pulling her close to clutch her shirt.

“I’m sorry,” Kailas said again. “I didn’t—want to do that.”

“I know,” Hova said, and she kissed Kailas’s hair. The sensation of ash and rubble on her lips made her cough. “Come on. I should’ve brought you to the bath first.” She made to lift Kailas’s head, but Kailas held her tighter. Lowering her voice further, she said, “I’m not leaving. I promise. Let me get clean clothes and towels, okay?”

Kailas’s hands shook, but she opened them bit by bit. She lifted her head and looked at Hova. The expression on her face bordered on panic; she flinched when Hova reached for her. Hova stopped, murmured an apology, and moved slower. She wiped away the wet streaks on her face with her thumbs.

“Did you think I was going to hit you?” Hova asked.

She looked ill when she whispered, “A little.”

“I won’t,” she said. “Here, can you get up and go downstairs with me?”

Grimacing, Kailas nodded. She stood up with a white-knuckled grip on the doorframe. While Hova gathered clean things, she waited and stared at the floor. She looked up when Hova took her left hand. Hova led her back downstairs and to the bath, closing the door behind them so Fai could not follow.

“Let me have your other hand,” Hova said after putting everything down. She carefully unwrapped the bandages around her right hand, setting them aside after seeing that the cuts were nearly healed. “Heat the water, okay? It’ll help to be in the bath for a while.”

“All right,” Kailas said. She went to the large barrel that stored their water for bathing, putting her left arm into the water to heat it. She waited until the water steamed before stepping back. As she turned slightly, working at undoing the ties of her shirt, she saw Hova starting to pull her shirt over her head.

Kailas froze. “Wha—what are you doing?”

“I’ve been on a ship for two weeks with no good way to get clean,” Hova said. “Why wouldn’t I take the chance to get in a real bath with a firebender for heat?” She pulled her shirt off, but held it to her chest when she looked at Kailas. Quietly, she added, “And I have a bad feeling that if I leave you alone in here, you’re not going to be alive when I come back.”

Her breathing came to a complete stop. She stared at Hova with her mouth open and her eyes wide. She only managed to say, “I,” before her voice failed.

There was more frightened pity in Hova’s voice than either of them had known when she asked, “Would you have done that?”

“I,” Kailas said. “I don’t—know.” Meekness made her shoulders rise and her voice drop. “I thought about it at the temple.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Because…because I wanted to come back to you more.”

Hova felt her feet freeze to the floor. She fought against it and went to Kailas. Standing on her toes, keeping her shirt between them, she wrapped her arms around Kailas’s neck and held tight. She said, “Thank you for coming back.”

It was natural to wrap her arms around Hova in turn. She bowed her head to bury her face in Hova’s shoulder. All her concentration went to breathing properly. The touch of Hova’s fingers in her hair made her look up again. Hova smiled and ruffled her hair.

“I’ll get your hair clean, so get your clothes off and sit,” she said. She leaned up to kiss her. “Okay?”

“All…all right.” She waited until Hova had gone to fetch hot water from the barrel before undressing. She put her clothes aside and sat down with her legs pulled up to her chest. Fingers came to rest on her back; she flinched at their warmth and gentleness. Exhaustion kept her from trembling any more when Hova slowly set her hand down flat on the broad, ragged scar that marred the center of her back. Hova’s hand moved up and down, side to side, to touch every scar on her skin. The sensation made her remember the shape and size of each, but she pushed aside the memories of how they had come about.

“Let me know if the water hurts on these,” Hova said. “Close your eyes.”

Kailas nodded and obeyed. The water was soothing as it ran over her head, and Hova’s hands rubbing soap through her hair was even more so. Prickles ran over her skin when stone fragments were rinsed out of her hair. Tentatively, Hova’s hands moved to wash her shoulders where ash was still on her skin. She had to bring clean water more than once, but Kailas did not try to stop her.

“Any other spots?” Hova asked.

She shook her head, aware of how clean her skin finally was.

“Okay,” Hova said. She kissed her cheek and said, “Go on and get in the bath. I’ll clean up and get in with you in a bit.”

She swallowed. “All right.” With her eyes averted and praying that Hova was doing the same, she stood up and went to the bath. Though it had been covered when they left, all the heat had vanished from the water. She sat on the edge of the bath with her feet in the water, moving to sit in it when it was steaming. Legs once more pulled to her chest, she waited and listened to the sound of water hitting the tile floor. Mixed with this were small sighs of relief from cleaning. Kailas focused on them and thought of the moments when Hova had fallen asleep in the Fire Nation. She blinked and lifted her head when Hova touched her shoulder.

“Can I get in?” Hova asked, crouched down with one arm covering her breasts.

Her mouth went numb. She fumbled through saying “Y-yes” before looking at her knees. Her shoulders grew stiff when Hova sat down beside her on her left side. The water rose above Hova’s shoulders with both of them in the bath. Hova leaned to rest her head on Kailas’s left shoulder.

“Hey,” Hova murmured.


“Can you feel my head on your shoulder? On the scar?”

“A…little bit. It’s mostly the weight of your head.” She held her shins tighter. “I wish I could feel your skin better.” She jumped when Hova’s hand took hold of her wrist under the water and pulled her arm up.

“Here,” Hova said. She put Kailas’s hand against her cheek and smiled for her. “That’s better, right?”

For a long time, she said nothing. She memorized the softness and smoothness of Hova’s skin under her fingers and how her smile felt. When she leaned in, her intention was to kiss her. Hesitation made her stop; anxiety made her draw back. She did not get far before Hova put a hand on the back of her neck and stopped her.

“Kailas,” Hova murmured. “I still want you to kiss me. I want to be with you. That’s not going to change.” She rubbed Kailas’s neck and smiled again. “Okay? I promise it’s what I want.”

“Now?” Kailas asked.

Her brows rose and her smile faded in confusion. “‘Now’ what?” Her face grew hot when Kailas moved and set her hands down either side of her shoulders. “Kailas?”

“If—if I asked,” Kailas whispered. “If I asked you. Would it be what you want now?” She kept herself from hesitating in asking, “Would you tell me the truth?”

Her brows came together and dropped as she sighed quietly. “Why do you keep thinking I’m going to lie to you?”

There was no reply she could give but a faint broken sound.

Hova took Kailas’s face in hand and pulled her close enough to kiss. “It is what I want. But not right here.”

“In the bath?”

“Yeah. It’s kind of cramped.” She rubbed her thumbs against her cheeks. “I want you to hold me.”

“Oh,” Kailas said. She was still a moment longer before kissing Hova again. She settled next to her, holding her hand under the water with nervous fingers. Hova leaned against her shoulder and rubbed her knuckles with her thumb.

“You’re breathing now,” Hova murmured. “It sounds better.”

“You helped,” she said. “Thank you.”

She smiled and lifted her head enough to kiss Kailas’s shoulder above the scar. “I’m glad I could.” She drew her legs up to lean against Kailas more heavily, lifting her hand to toy with her fingers. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re really, really warm?”

“No one gets this close,” Kailas replied. She smiled slightly. “I don’t let people take baths with me.”

“You’ll have to get used to the company in the winter.”

She exhaled a laugh. “If it’s you, I’d like it.”

“Good.” She brought Kailas’s hand out of the water to kiss her palm. “I think it’d help you relax more.”

“It’s helping now.” She leaned down, hesitated again, but kissed her hair. Staying close, she closed her eyes and set her brow on Hova’s head. She said nothing and kept very still.

Hova listened to her breathe before chuckling. “I think I’d have to tell anyone else not to fall asleep, but that’s not how you sound when you’re tired.”

She shook her head. “I’m not tired. I’m just…here.”


“Yes.” She bowed her head to hide her eyes against Hova’s hair. “Not somewhere else. You keep me here.”

Hova did not ask again. She only brought one hand up to run her fingers over Kailas’s cheek. She hummed a slow tune in time with the movement of her fingers. Kailas leaned into the touch, exhales hot against her wrist. In time, she turned her head to kiss Hova’s wrist, slow but firm. Hova looked at her, relaxing when Kailas put her hands on her face. When Kailas kissed her, she returned it.

“Does that mean you want to get out of the bath now?” Hova asked when she drew back.

Kailas nodded, touching her lips to Hova’s fingers as well. She let Hova stand and get out, but followed soon after. She did not speak while they dried off and dressed, instead trailing her fingers along Hova’s skin whenever she had a chance. A slow drag of her fingers down the length of Hova’s back made both of them tremble. Blushing, Hova pulled her sleeping shirt on and tugged her hair free.

“Do you have to concentrate to keep your hands that warm?” she asked.

“No,” Kailas said. “Does it bother you?”

“I like it.” She smiled. “It means I have someone warm to hold me on cold days.”

Kailas looked at her and swallowed. She took a step closer to her, and then another. Hova meant to turn to look at her properly, but bumped up against the wall. No tension gripped her when Kailas gently set her hands on the wall beside her shoulders. She reached up to hold the loose fabric of Kailas’s shirt over her heart.

“May I?” Kailas asked.

“Yeah,” Hova said quietly. Her smile was smaller with nerves. “If you don’t mind carrying me up to bed, I mean.” The shock of Kailas easily and gently picking her up made her smile vanish. She wrapped her arms around Kailas’s neck and her legs around her waist from surprise alone. “Oh.”

“Weren’t you the one who said I was too strong for how I look?” Kailas asked as she opened the door and took them into the hall.

“Yeah, but—um.” She hung on without needing to, relaxing more with each step Kailas took. Even as Kailas went up the stairs, she never felt the need to tighten her grip for fear. By the time Kailas brought them to her room and closed the door, she had grown unwilling to let go. Kailas did not attempt to put her down, simply holding her up and resting her head on Hova’s shoulder.

“Can you do what you did before?” Hova asked.


“How you touched my back.”

Kailas lifted her head. She turned to kiss Hova’s neck, sliding her hand up the back of her shirt. With her lips close to Hova’s skin, she said, “Hova, I need you to understand something.”

Hova closed her eyes tight at the heat of Kailas’s hand along her spine. “What?”

“I will do anything you ask of me,” Kailas murmured. She kissed her neck again. “No matter what it is.” She pressed harder with her hand, nails digging in slightly to hear Hova’s breath deepen.

“You’re not teasing me, are you?”

“No,” she said, and she kissed her neck again. “All you ever have to do is ask.”

Hova swallowed slowly. She put her hands in Kailas’s damp hair and made her look up. “Kiss me?”

Without hesitation, Kailas brought her down enough to kiss her lips. Hova’s hands closing in her hair made her open one eye long enough to find the closest wall. She brought them to it, holding Hova against it to kiss her harder. Hova let out a shaky exhale when she pulled away.

“Put me down,” she said. “You can’t use both hands when you hold me up.”

She obeyed and made sure Hova was steady before putting both hands up her shirt. Hova put her hands on Kailas’s shoulders for balance, biting her lip to focus on the heat on the small of her back and high on her left side. Kailas leaned down to kiss her cheek before moving to kiss her ear.

“Is this all right?” she asked.

Hova nodded, taking a small breath when Kailas’s hand slid from her side to cup her breast.

“Is this?” Kailas whispered.

“Both hands,” Hova whispered back.

Kailas closed her eyes for a moment, head bowed to touch her lips to Hova’s shoulder. She brought her other hand around, listening for the tiny whimper Hova held back behind closed lips. Kissing her shoulder, she ran her thumbs over Hova’s nipples until they hardened under her touch.


“Wh-what?” Hova asked, hands closing tight in Kailas’s shirt.

“You asked me to carry you to bed. May I?”

She opened her eyes and looked at Kailas. She leaned forward to hide her face in Kailas’s chest as she giggled. “I forgot I asked. Yeah, that’s okay.” She continued to giggle as Kailas picked her back up, holding on with arms and legs while Kailas deftly laid out her sleeping mat with one hand. Even when Kailas sat down with her in her lap, she kept on giggling.

“I didn’t realize I was that amusing,” Kailas said, her smile small and shy.

“You’re actually really funny when you’re a brat,” Hova said, lifting her head at last.

“Your brat,” she replied. She tucked loose hair behind Hova’s ears. “Is that all right?”

Hova nodded, keeping silent to be able to kiss Kailas again. Kailas lifted her shirt slowly, waiting until Hova had drawn back before taking it off entirely. With her hands on Hova’s hips, she made Hova rise up on her knees. She kissed her shoulders, fingers dragging over her back and sides to make her sigh with a shaking voice. Each kiss grew firmer, her lips heated, as she moved down to her chest. Gently, she pulled Hova closer and raised her hips further.

The blush that came to Hova’s face when Kailas closed her lips around one nipple was intense enough that it spread to her ears and down to her chest. Kailas felt the heat of it on her face and drew back.

“How do you handle having a mouth that hot?” Hova asked, voice breaking.

Kailas’s brows rose at the way the blush grew darker. She slowly put a hand on Hova’s side. She brought Hova closer again, looking up at her and going still.

Hova swallowed with a dry throat, the blush making her skin ache. “Keep going.”

There was no rush in how she nuzzled against Hova’s chest, nor in the way she kissed her breasts. She ran her fingers along the rise of Hova’s ribs before laying her hands flat on her skin. Holding her steady but not still, Kailas again closed her lips around one of her nipples. Hova felt her breath stop as she closed her eyes. Her hands clutched Kailas’s shirt when Kailas ran her tongue over her skin. A slow suck made her hide her moan in Kailas’s hair.

She could not hide the next moan when Kailas dragged her nails down her back, too soft to hurt but hard enough to burn with the heat of her fingers. Kailas brought her hand around to cup Hova’s other breast, feeling its weight as she ran her fingers over her nipple. Hova kissed her hair as she did, humming faintly every time Kailas licked her skin. A touch to her chin made her look up. Kailas kissed her; Hova kissed back harder.

It kept all her focus, leaving her startled when Kailas came away and she realized she was on her back. She did not remain startled for long, as Kailas moved to kiss her chest and stomach with the same searing touch as had been on her lips. Whimpering, she caught Kailas’s shirt at her shoulders and pulled her back up to kiss. While she sucked at Kailas’s lower lip, she started to tug Kailas’s shirt up.

“Don’t,” Kailas choked, pulling away.

Hova let go of her shirt. “I’m—I’m sorry, I just wanted…you.”

“Not tonight.” She put a hand on Hova’s cheek. “Tonight needs to be you. Please.”

“Just tonight?”

“Just tonight.” She ran her thumb over Hova’s cheek. “Please.”

“All right.” She wet her lips with her tongue. “Kiss me?”

Kailas nodded before leaning down. She braced herself on one arm, kissing Hova as she slipped a leg between hers. After only a few moments of rocking her leg, Hova grabbed her shirt and pulled away with a faint whine.

Slower, slower,” she hissed.

She stopped completely. Moving much more gently, slow as she could, she put her lips to Hova’s neck and said, “I’m sorry.”

Hova shook her head. “It’s—it’s okay. You just can’t go that fast with me.” She relaxed, exhaling when Kailas kissed her cheek. “Is that—how it’s been for you?”

“I haven’t done this before,” Kailas replied. “I just lead a battalion of solders comprised mostly of men who aren’t shy around me. And I read.” She brought her free hand up to slide her fingers into Hova’s hair and cradle her head. “I’m sorry for being impatient.”

She laughed quietly. “It’s okay. You said you’d do anything I asked.” She stretched to roll her hips, shivering. “It’s really okay. Keep—keep going.” A tiny gasp was all she could take when Kailas pressed her leg firmly against her, grinding with the utmost gentleness. She arched, still clutching Kailas’s shirt. Her blush returned, and with it came moans she muffled with her lips.

Kailas tipped her head down to kiss Hova’s brow. “You’re lovely, Hova. So, so lovely.”

She laughed again, even fainter with how her breath had been stolen. “You’re—you’re not just saying that because you’re touching me right now?”

“Not at all. I’ve thought so since we’d met.” She opened her mouth to say more, but stopped because she knew Hova was not looking. Shifting her weight, she moved the arm that she had used to hold herself up to rest her curled fingers on Hova’s stomach near the top of her trousers.

“May I?” she asked.

Hova nodded, whispering, “Please. Still slow, okay?”

“I promise.” She tugged the knotted drawstring loose and slipped her hand past the waistband. As she kissed Hova’s shoulder over and over, she moved her hand lower. Her fingers ran through the coarse hair made slick between Hova’s legs, stopping when she reached the source of the wetness. She kept her hand still, only curling her fingers to press down lightly. Hova shuddered, biting her lip as her legs flexed.

“Your hand,” she moaned.

Kailas chuckled. “Hot in a good way?”

Please move your fingers.” She squirmed and whimpered. “I can’t—please don’t tease me. Kailas!”

Her face burned. She buried her head in the curve of Hova’s neck and began to rub slow and gentle, back and forth. Immediately, Hova pulled harder on her shirt. Kailas heard her panting, but kept her motions slow until she felt Hova rock against her hand. Hova’s head pressed back against her hand as her fingers rubbed faster, exposing her throat. Kailas kissed it, sucking hard to make Hova moan her name.

“More,” Hova gasped. She rocked to meet Kailas’s fingers as they pressed harder against her. Her hips trembled; she put her arms around Kailas’s neck to hold her close. Kailas’s fingers moved exactly where she needed them, and it left Hova silent as her muscles seized up in orgasm. She rocked in a stuttering rhythm against Kailas’s hand, legs flexing without her command, until the fire in her nerves faded. Her voice returned when she was only able to moan softly, slowly.

“Thank you,” she murmured.

“What?” Kailas asked. “Why ‘thank you’?”

Hova shook her head. “I don’t know. It felt right to say.” She pulled Kailas closer to put her head on her shoulder. “Because it was really, really nice.”

Kailas smiled. “You don’t have to thank me. I should thank you for letting me have you.” She let Hova turn her head for a kiss, closing her eyes to savor it.

“Still,” Hova said against her lips, “thank you for being so sweet.”

“I couldn’t be anything less for you.”

Hova giggled. “I don’t think you learned pillow talk from your soldiers or your books. You’re too good at it.”

“You flatter me.” She kissed Hova’s cheek gently. “Thank you.”

She hummed, pulling Kailas down completely and rolling them onto their sides. When Kailas moved to burrow under her chin, an arm draped over her waist, she smiled and ran her fingers through Kailas’s hair again and again.

“Go to sleep,” she said, voice as soft as her touch. “Tomorrow will be better.”

Kailas made a small noise to agree, holding Hova close. Hova stayed awake for a long while after, waiting for the moment when Kailas’s arm went limp on her waist. She smiled at it, petting Kailas’s hair to relax even more. Kailas shifted once in her sleep, rousing Hova from her drowsiness. Though she did not wake, she mumbled against Hova’s chest.

“Love you,” she said.

Hova went still. She smiled, feeling her cheeks grow warm. With one last kiss to Kailas’s hair, she settled for the night and fell asleep soon after.

Chapter Text

When Hova woke up, she could see the moonlight on the leaves of the trees outside their window. She had her arms wrapped around a pillow she recognized as Kailas’s. Hova sighed when she realized it, sitting up to look around their room. Autumn was settling in early after three weeks, and the blanket that slid down from around her shoulders was heavier. Body weighed down by interrupted sleep, she stood up slowly and wrapped her arms around herself. She could not help her frown when she went down the cold stairs with bare feet.

The paper and glass doors to the main room’s veranda were open in the night, and she walked to the long shadow cast from outside. A steady breeze kept her going slow; she clutched her shirt to bunch the fabric around her fingers. Her feet were quiet enough on the floor that Kailas did not look up from watching Fai chase glow-dragonflies.

“Kailas, how long have you been up?” she asked, words muddled and slurring. As she rubbed at one eye with the heel of her hand, Kailas turned to look at her. Her eyes were exhausted, underscored by darkened skin.

“Not that long,” Kailas said. “I went to sleep.”

“But you didn’t stay asleep.”

Kailas shook her head, turning when Fai barked from the ground. She sighed and got down to pick him up, sitting him down beside her when she had gotten back onto the veranda. He snuggled against her thigh, tail thumping. Hova sat on her other side, leaning against her.

“I’m sorry if I woke you,” Kailas said.

“I woke up because you weren’t there to keep me warm, you know.”

Kailas chuckled wearily. She put one arm around Hova’s shoulders and the other at her hip, turning her and pulling her into her lap. “I’m sorry.”

Hova put her head against Kailas’s shoulder and closed her eyes. “It’s fine. I just want you to stay in bed and sleep. You look like you can’t even get through your firebending forms lately.”

“I’m trying. I swear I am.”

She opened her eyes to kiss Kailas’s cheek. “I’m not angry. I’m worried you’re going to get sick.”

Kailas shook her head, looking into the middle distance toward the ground. “It’ll be all right. They’re only nightmares. I’ll get used to them like I’ve gotten used to every other nightmare.”

There was a strange note of stubbornness in her voice against the weariness that made Hova sit up slightly. “How often do you have nightmares?”

“Every few days. Less if I’m at ease. More if I get stuck thinking about things I’ve done.” She smiled. “You help significantly. It’s a miracle I’ve slept at all this last week.”

“Is it only about the temple?” Hova asked. “You seem upset at all the letters and reports you’re getting lately.”

“The messages aren’t helping. Technically, I shouldn’t be receiving eighty percent of those when I’m still ranked as a captain. The detailed reports about troop locations and their governing of Earth Kingdom cities should only be given to their highest commanding officers. Colonels, generals, and Azula and Ozai.”

Hova boggled at her. “What? Then why are you getting them?”

“Azula is routing them to me. I’ve asked for them for a long time, but now she trusts me enough to grant that request.” She smiled bitterly. “Because I destroyed the temple for her.”

“Kailas,” Hova said. “If you start again you won’t get back to sleep tonight.”

She closed her eyes tight. “I know. I’m sorry.” She sighed and pulled Hova closer. “But the reports are making it worse.”

“What’re they saying?”

“That the plan to burn away rebellion didn’t work at all.” She let out a small, hard laugh. “I don’t know why anyone is surprised. You can’t kill someone without making an enemy of their friends and family, and we did it en masse.”

Her heart sank. “And this is reminding you of the airbenders.”

“Yes, because the opposite is always true,” Kailas said. “Kill the Avatar’s friends and family…and you’ve made an enemy of the Avatar.”

“Are you having nightmares about him attacking you?”

“Yes,” Kailas said. “Or begging me to explain how my people could have destroyed his.” Her voice grew faint as her breathing trailed off. “Or dying in the fires I set.” She clutched Hova, hands shaking. “Or killing you.”

Hova turned to rise up on her knees and pulled Kailas to her. She held her face steady, looking at her eyes. “Kailas, breathe. Those are nightmares. I’m right here and you’re right here with me. Please breathe.” She put her brow to Kailas’s. “Okay? Breathe for me.”

She stared for a few seconds longer before blinking and swallowing. She inhaled deeply, exhaled, and continued to breathe after that.

She smiled, sitting back on Kailas’s legs but keeping her hands on her face. “Thank you.”

Kailas smiled back, even though it was weak. “Thank you for taking care of me.”

“I couldn’t do anything less,” Hova said, and she brought Kailas down for a kiss. She ran her fingers through her hair, eyes dropping and brows coming together as she thought. “Kailas…I know I don’t know how you feel. Not exactly.” She looked up. “But is there anything I can do to help you more?” She ran one thumb very lightly over the dark skin under Kailas’s eye. “I’m really worried you’re going to get sick if you keep going like this.”

Hesitation and thought kept her silent for a time. Eventually, she said, “I don’t know.” She struggled for more words, sighed, and went on with a voice that stopped and started. “I never wanted to go back—to the palace. After I was burned. But once I knew it was out of my hands—I obeyed. Just obeyed. I hoped I’d get out of it…one day. But I didn’t. And I’m no better than Azula now. I destroyed that temple. I won’t—excuse it by calling it something it’s not.”

“But you are better than her,” Hova said. “You’re sorry for what you did.”

“There’s no still no taking it back.”

She let out a soft sigh, looking down again. “I know.” She thought hard, taking her time. Her head rose, eyes going toward where she knew one particular bookcase was. She took a breath, eyes widening. “Wait. Wait, Kailas—that book you said was your father’s—that book of philosophy.”

Kailas blinked, confusion in her face. “What about it?”

“You said it was your philosophy, too,” Hova said. “But you’re not following it right now.”


“‘The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet,’” Hova said, putting her hands on Kailas’s face. “You told me what it means when I read it months ago. Tell me what it means again.”

“It means that you have to start your journey from where you’re standing,” she said, words slow with lingering confusion. “Why?”

“That’s where you are right now,” Hova said. “What you did happened, yes, but it happened. It’s behind you on your path.”

“It’s literally in my past now, yes.”

“And you’re learning from it,” she said, voice low but firm. “Maybe what you need to do is acknowledge that it’s behind you in your path but move forward. Move forward and do whatever you can to not beat yourself up so much for something you can’t go back and change. For something you couldn’t have even helped, since Azula would’ve killed you and destroyed what you managed to save.”

She rubbed her thumbs back and forth on Kailas’s cheeks. “Because you’re still on the right path. Even more now, since you know the truth about what happened to the Air Nomads. You were forced to make a mistake, but you take responsibility for that and you can do something good with the knowledge you have.”

Kailas said nothing for a time. She took Hova’s hands in hers, bringing them down between them to rub her thumbs in Hova’s palms. Halfhearted though it was, she smiled. “I don’t suppose you have any insight on what that good would be?”

“I…no, I don’t.” She looked at their hands. “I wish I did. I’m sorry.”

Kailas kissed her cheek. “You don’t have to apologize. This has helped.” She turned her head to hide a yawn in her shoulder. “It will help even more when I get more sleep.”

“Then we should get to bed,” Hova said. “Tai-Yang is coming early tomorrow.”

Kailas looked at her blankly. “He is?”

“For a trade proposal from another city.” When Kailas continued to stare at her, she sighed and stood up. “Okay, we’re going to bed now. You need to get some sleep or he’s going to be more worried about you than usual.”

Chuckling, Kailas stood as well. “All right. I’ll stay in bed even if I wake up again.”

Hova rocked up on her toes to kiss her cheek. “Good.” She patted her leg to rouse Fai. Once they were all inside, Kailas slid the glass and paper doors closed to keep the growing wind outside.


“Tsukuba?” Kailas asked.

“Yes ma’am. It’s to the east of us by about five miles.” The man across from Kailas straightened from his kneeling bow, sitting back on his heels and looking up with brown eyes. A thin black beard mostly covered his square, strong chin, and his hair was kept in a neat topknot. He wore the dust gold and faded green uniform once indicative of all Earth Kingdom soldiers, but a phoenix embroidered at the right side of his chest spoke of his new position.

“They’d like to establish real trade with us,” he said. “Protected routes and free use of the port.”

Kailas looked at the map between herself, Tai-Yang, and Hova, following the roadways with her eyes. “What are they looking to trade?”

“I apologize, ma’am, but I’m afraid I don’t know,” he replied. “Taonan used to trade food and small goods freely with Tsukuba a century ago, if records are right, but all of our resources were taken by the Fire Nation after the war started and trade died off. Now I don’t know what their products are. They’re trying to get more routes protected from rebels, as well as to be able to use our port to send off their goods to the Fire Nation and down to southern regions.”

“Who is their governor?”

“Colonel Long Fa, ma’am.”

Kailas went still. She looked up, brows lows. “Long Fa?”

“Do you know him?” Hova asked.

“I can’t remember,” Kailas said. “I do know Long Fa is a colonel by family position alone.” She sighed. “But I can’t recall how long he’s been on the continent. Or if he even attended the councils in the summer. He sounds like a peaceful man, since there’s no record of him issuing any orders for more than peacekeeping.”

“Then,” Tai-Yang said, “should I start assigning our troops to the roads?”

Kailas put her hand on the map, index and middle finger tracing over the road between Taonan and Tsukuba. “No. Not yet. I still can’t remember who he is. I’d prefer to see what exactly the colonel wants to trade through our city. Send a message saying that I’ll meet with him.”

“Any particular location, ma’am?”

“I’m still learning about administrative work,” Kailas said. She looked at him without lifting her head. “Where would you meet someone whose trade you wanted to see?”


“You used to be in my position, Tai-Yang. I haven’t been here a full year yet, but you were the de facto governor for ten. I won’t try to be you, but you know what you’re doing.” She smiled slightly, not realizing it with her exhaustion. “I’m not above learning from a man who knows what he’s doing, no matter what his rank may be.”

Tai-Yang hummed as he thought. “Well, if it was a matter of really seeing what they had…if you wanted to know what you were getting into without making any promises?” He paused, looking at her face. She nodded. “Then I’d try to arrange a meeting at the city lines.” He pressed his fingertip to the map. “Here. Call it a courtesy to a superior officer to meet him there. You can ask him about what he wants to trade and if he has any of it with him. Then you can think about the items while you’re debating trade terms. When you arrive in the city, you’ll be able to agree or disagree with more information. Ma’am.”

Kailas looked at the map for a full minute, blinking every so often. “All right. Arrange for the colonel to meet me and Hova at the city lines at the date most convenient for him and to bring whatever personnel he wants.”

“Only you and Miss Hova, ma’am?” Tai-Yang asked.

“Yes. Why?”

“There are rumors floating around, ma’am. About resistance groups.”

“I’ve been receiving the reports,” Kailas said. “And I’ve been reading yours as well.”

“There hasn’t been enough evidence to prove or disprove anything,” Tai-Yang said, “and we haven’t seen any suspicious activity within the city itself. Still, word has it that there are resistance groups in cities past and around Tsukuba, and that they’re targeting Fire Nation officers.”

Kailas smirked, hollow and humorless. “You think they’ll come after a lowly captain like me?”

“You’re the Fire Lord’s captain,” Tai-Yang said, voice dropping low. “There aren’t many people who don’t know who you are. They might not know your face, but the second they learn who you are—ma’am, there have been fatalities.”

“It’ll be all right, Lieutenant,” Kailas said. She put her chin in her hand, eyes falling to the map. “I’ll be acting as guard for Colonel Long Fa, alongside whatever soldiers he might bring. If I’m not good enough to protect one man and Hova, then I’m not going to be a very good governor for our city.” She did not see Tai-Yang’s face go stiff. Her eyes remained on the map, the fingers of her free hand following the roads away from Taonan before she brought her hand away. “Please send out the message and report to me when you have a reply.”

“Yes ma’am,” Tai-Yang said. He bowed low, head near the floor, before standing up. Hova picked up the map and followed him to the door. He lowered his voice to a whisper as Hova rolled the map up tightly. “Is Captain Arav all right? I’ve had a few people ask me where she’s been, since you’re the only one coming into the city lately.”

“She’s been having bad insomnia,” Hova said easily. “I’m helping her find the right way to get to sleep again.”

He let out a sigh of relief. “You have no idea how happy you made every soldier in a fifty mile radius when you accepted her job offer. We all knew she needed an assistant.” He chuckled when she handed him the map. “But I figured she needed someone to be really sweet to her. I’m glad it was you.” Smiling, he put on his boots and bowed to her. “Thanks, Miss Hova. I’ll bring the reply along as soon as I get it.” He left, and Hova smiled as she closed the door behind him.

It was only midday the next day when Tai-Yang returned with a message in hand and a hawk riding on his shoulder. Kailas wrote a reply after reading through the letter, sending the hawk east. It returned just after sunset, bearing an agreement to meet on the city lines in two days. To Tai-Yang’s obvious frustration, Kailas’s persistent exhaustion did not keep her from noticing when he tried to say he and another member of the city guard would be accompanying them.

“Nothing will happen, Lieutenant,” she told him with a smile. “Please station any guards you wish within the first mile along the road, but we won’t require an escort.”

He sighed, but bowed to her. Riding on an ostrich-horse, he followed them to the one mile mark on the main road between Taonan and Tsukuba. He stopped without needing to be told, letting his ostrich-horse pace idly while Kailas and Hova went on ahead. Hova followed his gaze before they parted ways, frowning at the dark clouds coming in from the eastern horizon. The wind that carried them along was cool, and the further along the road they went, the more the sound of thunder could be heard.

Hova winced at a long, loud rumble of thunder along the clouds, unable to tell where the lightning flash had come from. She reached out, putting her hands on Kailas’s elbow and quickening her pace to keep up. When Kailas looked at her, she tightened her grip.

“Sorry,” she said, blushing.

“There were at least ten seconds between the lightning and the thunder,” Kailas said. “The storm is still a ways off. I’ll try to get us back before it breaks.”

“That’s not it,” Hova said, blush spreading up to her ears.

Kailas stopped, leaning down to kiss Hova’s cheek. She drew back, smiling at the heat she had felt. “I hate lightning, too, if that makes you feel less embarrassed.”

Hova looked at the ground, tugging at Kailas’s arm to resume walking. “I like thunderstorms. I just get nervous when I’m outside when I hear thunder.”

“Lightning is dangerous,” Kailas said, voice quiet. “It’s not strange to be afraid of it.” She looked about. The trees were growing more numerous, the road more and more shadowed from the leaves and the dim sky. “We’re just about to the city lines. Colonel Long Fa should be there when we arrive. Then we can start heading home.”

“Why are you so worried about what his city wants to trade?” Hova asked.

“I don’t know what it is,” Kailas said. She continued to look about. The dark sky made the shadows of the forest that much deeper. “I can’t remember if I know who he is. What I do know at the moment is that Taonan is my city now and that it’s been peaceful for years despite the war. Whatever Long Fa wants to bring through my city, it has to keep that peace.”

Hova looked up at her. Walking at her side, she could see Kailas’s eyes clearly. Even with every shade of weariness in them, there was sharp focus to be found. She smiled. “When did you start being so concerned about the city?”

“I’ve been its governor since I came here,” Kailas said, voice and face matching in confusion.

“Not quite.” Hova chuckled, squeezing Kailas’s arm. “You’re much more attentive than when we met.”

Kailas was quiet for a time, eyes to the trees. She looked down, but turned to smile at Hova. “This is home now. I won’t let anything destroy that.”

Hova continued walking with her in silence, leaning against her arm along the way. When the trees were at their thickest, so dense that there was no seeing beyond the rows nearest the roadway, they came to a small hill. Kailas stopped, looking up. The sky flashed white again, thunder cracking long after. The hill was deserted.

“What’s wrong?” Hova asked.

“Tai-Yang said this is the meeting point,” Kailas said.

She frowned, looking around as well. “But no one’s here.” She looked at the sky, wincing again when more lightning flashed in the distance. “Do you think something happened?”

Kailas was silent. Her hands closed into tight fists. She looked from the corners of her eyes at the trees around them. The leaves hissed against one another when the wind blew, heavy branches creaking in protest at being moved. It was another long while before the thunder rolled over the hill. Hova jumped not at the thunder, but at the sound of footsteps that followed in the quiet.

“Hello there! Very sorry for the delay!”

Two men came over the crest of the hill. One was sitting atop an ostrich-horse, the other striding alongside the creature. The man atop the ostrich-horse was small and dressed in a red shirt tied down from the shoulder and black trousers. His short, top-knotted hair and long mustache were turning gray from black and his eyes were dark brown. A satchel was on his shoulder, crossed over his chest. The other man was not quite as tall as Kailas, though his clean-shaven face, bright green eyes, and long, tailed black hair made him seem barely as old as her. He carried a staff and wore a dark green tunic that hung down to his ankles, covering his brown trousers.

“You weren’t waiting long, were you?” the old man asked, speaking again. “Terribly sorry! This blasted beast is skittish about the thunder!” The ostrich-horse trotted down the hill, the young man beside it. When it was close, the man reined the creature in to stand still. It tossed its head, snorting from its beak.

“We only just arrived,” Kailas said. She bowed at the waist, one fisted hand at the bottom of the other. “Welcome to Taonan, Colonel Long Fa.”

“And a welcome to Tsukuba to you too, Captain Arav,” Long Fa said, smiling broadly. “I suppose that’s the proper sort of greeting, what with us standing right between our homes.” He looked at Hova, eyebrows rising. “And is this the assistant that you mentioned in your message?”

Hova bowed, hands mimicking the positions Kailas’s had taken before. “I am, sir. My name is Hova.”

“Very good,” Long Fa said, smiling all the more. He nodded at the young man. “This is my assistant as well. His name is Katsuro. A very reliable fellow, if I do say so myself.”

Katsuro bowed at the waist, his hands at his sides, but said nothing. When he straightened, his gaze went to Kailas. The thin line his lips made pressed against one another curved downward so suddenly that Hova could only stare at him. Long Fa, though, had also turned to Kailas, and saw nothing.

“Well then, this storm isn’t going to be a good one unless we’re all inside to watch it,” he said. “Let’s get a move on!”

“At once, sir,” Kailas said. She turned without hesitating, ignoring the hard glare on her back, and gestured to the road. Long Fa clicked his tongue, gently tapping the ostrich-horse’s sides with his heels, and went ahead of her. Hova, still staring when the others began to move, found herself walking beside Katsuro, the two of them at the rear of the group. Katsuro gave her none of his attention, his narrowed eyes on Kailas’s back. It was in a stern, awkward silence only broken by lightning and thunder that they made their way down the road and out of the forest.

When the trees thinned and finally disappeared to the wide, grassed plains that were around Taonan, Kailas moved to walk beside the ostrich-horse. Katsuro scowled, baring his teeth.

“So, where would you recommend?” Long Fa asked.

“To discuss trade agreements, sir?” Kailas asked.

“No, no,” Long Fa said. “To have lunch.” He looked at her with a grin. “It’s not that long of a trip, but old men like me need our comforts.”

For her part, Kailas managed only to raise an eyebrow. “There’s…a teahouse by the shoreline.”

“Wonderful!” Long Fa said with a laugh. “Just the place to watch the storm break in all its glory!”

Kailas was silent for a full minute. “Sir, may I ask something?”

“Something else, you mean? Of course, Captain.”

“What exactly is Tsukuba looking to trade?”

Long Fa looked at her, eyebrows rising toward his hairline. “You’re very direct.” He sighed, putting a hand to his chin and stroking his mustache with thumb and forefinger. “I suppose you picked up the manner from so many years with our Fire Lord.”

“I apologize if I’m being too forward,” Kailas said. “But I would like to know. For the sake of my city.”

Katsuro snorted. “Your city.”

“Katsuro,” Long Fa said softly.

Kailas stopped walking.

“It’s not like it’s really her city, sir,” Katsuro said. “It was just given to her. She probably doesn’t even live there. You really shouldn’t believe that it’s hers.”

He passed by Kailas, slamming his shoulder against hers. She did not stumble, but Hova stopped walking completely at the sight of it. The muscles in her shoulders went taut and she dashed past Kailas to grab Katsuro’s arm.

“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded

All motion stopped. Long Fa looked back, the ostrich-horse rocking from foot to foot before growing still. Katsuro turned slowly to look at Hova, the toothy scowl softening slightly to a dark frown. Despite it and despite the way her shoulders were shaking and her throat was tight, Hova did not let go of Katsuro’s arm.

“Who are you to say anything about her?” she asked. “You don’t know her at all!”

“Who wouldn’t know the Fire Lord’s captain?” Katsuro snapped. “You’re just being brainwashed!”

“Katsuro!” Long Fa said. “That’s enough!”

Katsuro paid him no heed, wrenching his arm out of Hova’s grasp. “If you have any pride as a citizen of the Earth Kingdom, you wouldn’t be sucking up to this murderer!”

“How are you any better?” Hova demanded. “If you’re really a soldier, who’s to say you haven’t killed someone? And besides, you’re playing assistant to a Fire Nation noble! Where’s your pride?”

“Hova,” Kailas said, voice tense and low.

“No!” Hova said. “I’m not going to let someone who hasn’t even met you before insult you!”

Katsuro opened his mouth again, but Long Fa cut him off. “That’s enough! Both of you! Katsuro, I expect greater things of you than petty arguments and insulting a superior officer! And you, young lady, should know better than to argue with your captain!” He sighed, reining the ostrich-horse back into stillness from its sudden fidgeting. When the creature calmed, save for tossing its head, Long Fa looked at Kailas. She stood some distance back, looking from side to side.

“Captain,” Long Fa said, “may I ask what you’re doing?”

“Get down.”

Long Fa stared at her. “I beg your pardon?”

Kailas did not answer with words. She dashed suddenly forward, tackling Katsuro and Hova to the ground. She leapt up then to tackle Long Fa off of the ostrich-horse. They hit the dirt, Long Fa’s breath leaving him in a rush, and Kailas rolled them to the side. She let go of Long Fa when he lay beside Katsuro, snatching Katsuro’s staff out of his limp hands. The ostrich-horse was squawking wildly, stamping its feet and throwing its head about. Kailas stood and ran to it, jamming the staff into the ground to tie the reins to it.

“What the hell are you doing?” Katsuro bellowed, sitting up.

“I said, get down!” Kailas snapped in turn. She darted back, leaping up and turning in midair. She caught hold of Katsuro’s chin in one hand and brought his head back down to the dirt, holding him there when she landed in a crouch.

“Captain, explain yourself!” Long Fa said, lifting his head. He yelped when Kailas grabbed his shirt and pulled him even further forward to twist onto his front. In the instant Kailas let him go, he saw two things. The first was the rip in Kailas’s right sleeve at her upper arm, and the bright blood of the gash beneath it. The second were the arrows stuck in the ground, all at angles he could see were meant to pierce their chests. There was an arrow embedded in the ground where his head had been seconds before.

Bowstrings whipped in the air; the arrows whistled in from the tall grass on both sides of the road. Kailas aimed a wide punch at one side of the road and a sweeping kick at the other. The three arrows to the right of her were broken by the wave of fire that came from her fist, falling to the ground to burn far from anyone. The two arrows from the left were snapped in half by the band of flame, the pieces spiraling off and burying themselves in the dirt beside the road. Lightning flashed in the distance, but the thunder rolled over the trees after only seven seconds.

In those seven seconds, two more volleys from each side were fired. The left side fired first, sending out another four arrows, both volleys in quick succession. Kailas stepped in quickly, slashing at the air with the flat of her hand. The wave of flame from her hand broke the two leading arrows, and a quick punch knocked the remaining arrows from the air.

The right sent their first volley, three arrows, when Kailas’s back was turned. She leaned forward for a moment to balance her legs, kicking backward with her right leg. Each short kick struck an arrow from the air, and she stepped into the last kick to sprint toward the other side of the road. The next volley was made of five arrows, fired in quick succession while thunder rolled. Kailas slid to a stop, snapping off small blasts from her first two fingers. The final arrow spiraled by her face after it had broken, cutting high on her left cheek.

Kailas kept her hands up, looking about and waiting for the sound of bowstrings. When no more arrows came, Long Fa, Katsuro, and Hova sat up slowly.

“Enough of this!” Kailas called out. “Either come forward or waste more arrows trying to murder Earth Kingdom civilians!”

“There’s no quarrel with any civilians, Captain!”

“You’re just putting yourself in the line of fire!”

Kailas smiled without humor, her eyes narrow. “Is it really only you two men? Whoever sent you isn’t giving you very good odds.”

“Not two.” A man in a patched green vest and brown trousers stood ahead on the road, his arm crossed over his chest. His head was shaved clean, a scar curling in a crescent over his left cheek. The crescent was bent, though, by the scowl on his face. “Four.”

Kailas turned her head to find another man coming out of the forest, and two advancing from the tall grass. They all wore the same patched clothing, scars dotting their bare skin. They were all muscle-bound, the men on the road noticeably more so with their darker skin. The archers threw their bows and quivers aside when they were beside the road. Each had the same scowl as the man who stood before Kailas with his arms over his chest.

Long Fa cleared his throat, standing up and dusting off his trousers. “You men said you have no fight with civilians?”

“Don’t try to get out of this, old man!” one man spat. He pulled a knife from the sheath on his belt, pointing it at Long Fa. “You’re no damned civilian!”

“Oh no,” Long Fa said, holding up his hands. “I’m not saying that at all. I do believe Captain Arav wouldn’t say that either. What I am saying, sir, is that these young people are civilians who have no part in the army. They’re Earth Kingdom, born and raised. It seems rather rude to involve them in all this.”

The man with the shaved head laughed, throwing back his head. “Looking to make a plea bargain, old man?”

“Not a bargain,” Long Fa said. “Just making the remark.” He turned to Kailas with a smile. “Wouldn’t you agree, Captain?”

“I would,” she said, wiping at the blood running down her cheek. “Would it be such a problem to let them go?”

“It would,” another man said, cracking his neck. He grinned and ran a hand through his close-cut black hair. “You’ll just send them to get reinforcements.”

“Come now,” Long Fa said. “You mean to tell me that you four men are so worried they’ll reach help and return before you kill us?”

“Capture,” the shorn, scarred man said. “The kill goes to our leader.”

“But we’d sure like to have the kill,” the first man said, laughing.

“And would you like to have a civilian’s death on your hands?” Kailas asked. “A promising young man and an innocent woman dead because of you?”

“We’ll be real careful,” the second archer said. “We’re not gonna kill them.”

“No, you won’t,” Long Fa said. “Katsuro, if you would be so kind?”

Katsuro, already on his knees, put his arms under Hova’s legs and behind her back. Too quickly for the four men to react, he launched into a run, carrying Hova to the tethered ostrich-horse. He jumped up and into the saddle, pulling the staff from the ground and kicking the creature’s sides. It squawked and bolted, running straight at the scarred man. He stepped to the side, lifting his hands, but Katsuro whipped the staff about. The wood made a sharp crack against the man’s head, and he fell to the ground bleeding at the temple.

Hova twisted in Katsuro’s arms to look back. She wanted to protest, to make Katsuro let her go, to shout to Kailas. When she saw the small smile on Kailas face, growing smaller as the ostrich-horse ran, her mouth went numb. She sat in silence, eyes wide and brows low.

The man on the ground pushed himself up. He groaned and spat blood. “Little bastard. I’ll kill him.” A line of fire hit the ground beside his hand. He turned his head and scowled.

“Let’s not forget where we are,” Kailas said, bringing her hand back. While the man struggled to his feet, she took hold of the torn sleeve of her shirt. With a hard tug, she pulled it off, the gash in her flesh coming to the air.

“Trying to scare us?” the scarred man asked.

“No,” Kailas said. She wiped the blood from her arm with the torn cloth and tossed it aside. “Just stopping the bleeding.” She pinched one end of the wound shut, pressing her thumb and forefinger hard against her skin. The scent of burning flesh filled the air as she brought her fingers across the wound. Her skin was scorched, shining vivid, angry red and white as the opened veins and skin were burned and sealed shut. She let out a breath, somewhere between breathing and sighing as her skin smoked.

The first man, his knife threatening to fall from a limp hand, stared at her. “You’re a damn freak.”

Kailas hummed, head tilting to one side. “Colonel? May I ask how close I have to stay to you?”

Long Fa chuckled. “Don’t worry, Captain. I’m not a lazy old man.”

“Good,” Kailas said. She stepped backward as Long Fa turned, their backs touching as the four men came closer. “I hope I won’t have to worry too much.”


For all their prowess as mounts, ostrich-horses could seem impossibly slow at the worst of times. The same could be true of any creature, any pair of legs, any ship when the goal was in sight and too much time for comfort had passed. Hova finally saw enough the wall surrounding Taonan and started to struggle.

“Let go of me!” she snarled.

“No!” Katsuro said. “You can’t run any faster than an ostrich-horse! That’s the city—just wait a little longer!”

“I said let go!” she said. “City guards are stationed one mile away to meet us! That’s right here!”

Katsuro heaved backward on the reins, forcing the ostrich-horse to skid to a complete stop. “Then we wait here.”

What?” Hova shouted. “No, either you let me down so I can get Tai-Yang or you keep going until we reach him!” She tried to push his arm away to get down, but he held her where she was in the saddle. “What the hell are you doing? Kailas and Long Fa need us to get help!”

Katsuro looked at her for a long moment. “Why rush?”

Her shoulders rose. “What, you mean other than the fact that there are four men trying to capture Kailas and Long Fa and then kill them?”

“Colonel Long Fa’s not going to be a threat to them. They just might have to kill your captain to ‘capture’ her.”

Hova wrenched around in the saddle to smash her fist into Katsuro’s mouth. He let out a strangled noise somewhere between a startled yelp and a pained curse as he pitched out of the saddle entirely. Hova managed to stay upright by clutching the front of the saddle, but she dismounted as soon as she could. Before she could take even five running steps, she saw Tai-Yang riding up along the road.

“What the hell is going on?” he demanded as his ostrich-horse came to a stop. “Where’s Captain Arav?”

“We were ambushed on the road!” Hova said, pointing along the way. “Kailas and Long Fa stayed behind to make sure we got away!”

Katsuro snorted as he stood up, holding a hand to his split lip. “Long Fa did, but—”

“Enough, boy!” Tai-Yang said. He spurred his ostrich-horse on, going to Hova and offering a hand. “Where are they, and how many attacked you?”

She took his hand, letting him pull her up to his saddle. “There were four men. They came out of the grass after we got out of the forest. A couple of miles away from the city lines.”

Tai-Yang sighed. “I’m never letting her go without an escort after this.” He looked at her right hand and raised a brow. “Did you get that from him?”

She looked at her hand, finding that her knuckles were shredded and bloody. “Yes, but—no, why are you being so calm about this? We have to go help them!”

“Oh, we’re going to,” Tai-Yang said, smiling. He turned about slightly, putting two fingers in his mouth and whistling loudly. Ten men, all on armored ostrich-horses with phoenixes embroidered on their tunics, rode up and stopped five wide and two deep on the road behind Tai-Yang. “All of us.”


Inside two minutes of Hova and Katsuro’s escape, one man was stretched out on the ground, at least three teeth dislodged by a kick to his face and blood dripping from his open mouth. Another was occupied with Long Fa, trying to clamp his skinny arms around his shoulders. Long Fa, for however old he was, was remarkably adept at turning aside every hand that reached to grab him and every leg that meant to knock his feet out from under him. He looked perfectly cheerful as he shifted and swayed to evade capture.

The two remaining men had spent ten solid minutes attempting to stop Kailas from moving. At first, their focus was giving their fury an outlet. They tried to stop her through severe injury, aiming boulders of various sizes at her head. She did not bother to strike back with firebending, instead sidestepping every stone.

Their attacks dropped down toward her chest when they understood she was dodging without effort. Still, nothing touched her at all. Kailas crouched and leapt out of the way, never needing to deflect a stone. The men grew anxious when they realized the futility of it, and they did their best to push in and reduce the distance that their attacks had to travel. However, the second they came within her long reach, Kailas drove her fists and knees into them to drive them back.

She sighed as she easily dodged a stone that shot by her hip. “Have you come to realize how pointless this all is?”

The men froze. The leader stared at her, face flushing out of rage. He snarled, “What?”

She gestured to her face. “I have slept less than twenty hours in the last week, but you two still haven’t landed a single hit.” She frowned, lifting her hand with her fingers spread. “You two are fodder. Why did you ever think you could capture me?”

She could almost feel the ground rumbling beneath her feet before anything happened. One man wanted to fling her in the air, make her land off balance. The other of them had tried it before, just as many other earthbenders had. She bent her knees, letting the muscles in her legs slacken. The rock seemed to explode beneath her, and she let it propel her up, leaping even higher when the stones froze in an unnatural pillar. Kailas turned in the air, landing gently on the ground away from the two men.

It left one man utterly baffled, deeply frightened. His fear marked him as a civilian and Kailas saw the leader realize she knew. She sighed again, feeling the urge to roll her eyes the same way she was used to seeing on Azula. She wondered if Hova had managed to reach the city by then.

The men started to move. Kailas stopped thinking and moved faster than they did. As she ran, they took up earthbending stances she had seen dozens of times before in the field. Almost instantly, they fell into a rhythm that Kailas easily outpaced. The leader would stamp down his foot and punch the rock that was launched up, and the other man would do the same moments later. Kailas leapt from side to side, bounding forward even as she dodged each stone in turn.

The leader shouted. She didn’t care what he said. The civilian on the right was the one she aimed for. His eyes went wide as she drew near. He took a hurried step sideways, both arms straightening and fists coming out. Two columns of rock ruptured the ground, rushing toward Kailas from the side. She jumped again to put one foot against the low column and one hand on the high. There was enough force to make her spin about, legs lifting, but she kept enough of a grip on the top stone to keep from flying away.

She rose up over the man’s head, turning as she went until her hands were before the man’s face and her body almost completely behind him. Her hands took hold of the man’s chin and she dragged him back and down as her feet returned to the earth. The moment her toes touched down, she pulled fiercely and smashed the man’s head down to the dirt. He went limp, unconsciousness coming swiftly. Kailas stood up and looked at the leader.

“I’ve had enough of this,” she muttered. Her face was smooth, even with the frown that turned down her lips and the way her brows were low, her eyes narrow. She raised her voice as she said, “I have no fight with whatever city you hail from and I’ve chosen to avoid harming you and your men. However.” She slid one foot back, lifting her arms fore and back with her hands open. “If you do not surrender and leave immediately, I’m not going to hold back any longer. I don’t think you want to have that happen.”

The man stared at her, teeth grinding together as his breath came too quickly. His hands shook, and his eyes were wide. “You’re a damn monster.”

“Why do you think I care what you think of me?”

He opened his mouth to speak, but stopped when he heard a shocked cry. He turned in time to see that Long Fa had swept the legs of his last compatriot out from under him. It was only a heartbeat more before Long Fa mimicked Kailas, bringing the man’s head to the ground fast and hard enough to relieve him of conscious thought. Now alone, he looked back to Kailas.

“I’m not giving in to monsters,” he hissed. “I’ll be dead before I give up to an old man and a murderer like you!” He roared as he charged forward, fist lifted high over his head. Kailas let herself sigh again, the muscles in her arms going tense. The man took another step, and she felt the rush of heat from her wrist to her fingertips as she willed fire into the world.

A boulder slammed into the man from the side, knocking him to the ground before either he or Kailas could strike. He bounced once, skidding and sliding in the dirt. When he came to a stop, more rocks jutted up around him, locking him facedown with his hands and feet bound by arches of stone.

“All right! Get the rest of them bound up before they regain consciousness! I don’t want any more of this nonsense going on!”

Kailas turned to find Tai-Yang striding forward, and a dozen ostrich-horses stamping about on the road leading from Taonan. Soldiers leapt down from the creatures, jogging after the lieutenant with shackles in hand. She only blinked when a hand patted her sleeved arm, and looked at Long Fa.

“At last, the rescue arrives,” he said, smiling. “Always when you don’t need it, isn’t it?” He did not wait for an answer, instead walking ahead and waving a hand over his head. “Katsuro! Good work, lad!”

The vibrancy of battle was starting to fade. Kailas couldn’t see the world in frozen moments anymore, couldn’t concentrate enough to know where each man would go with each step. There was throbbing inside her skull and all she wanted was to sit down. She blinked again and knew it was a lie. All she really wanted was to find Hova.


She lifted her head and saw, amidst the ostrich-horses, the only one with a rider still atop it. Her feet were carrying her at a jog before she realized what they were doing. She was beside the ostrich-horse in a moment. Hova got down when she came near.

“Are you okay?” Hova asked.

“I’m fine.” She blinked when she brought her hands to Hova’s, looking down. “Why is your hand bleeding?”

Hova looked at her hand with a flat expression. She looked up and said, “I punched Katsuro in the mouth.”

Kailas stared. Slowly, she asked, “Why?”

“Can I tell you later?” she asked in turn. “Are you really okay?”

Before Kailas could reply, another hand took hold of Hova’s wrist. Long Fa smiled at the wound. “Ah, I see we have a customer for our wares. Here, young lady, I’ll take care of that.”

Hova waited while he lifted the satchel from his shoulder. As Kailas watched and Katsuro and Tai-Yang drew near, he opened the satchel and rummaged around inside it. Bandages and cloth were what he handed to Kailas first, and he took out clear glass bottle filled with water and a dark jar after that.

“It’s not a terrible cut,” he said. “It just needs some cleaning before we apply the salve and bandages. The best luck in the world that these glasses didn’t break during all the commotion.” He uncorked the bottle, bringing Hova’s hand toward him and tipping the glass up. The water dripped pink onto the dirt after it ran over the cut and her hand.

“There we are,” he said. “A decent cut, but no trouble at all.” He gestured to Kailas and wiped the streaks of watery blood off of Hova’s hand with the cloth pad she handed him.

“You’re a doctor?” Kailas asked.

“That I am,” Long Fa said, chuckling again. He unscrewed the jar’s top, dipping his fingers into the pale gray salve within. “Tsukuba’s natural resources make it that much easier, I do admit.” He smoothed the salve over the wound on Hova’s hand, careful around its edges.

“What natural resources?” Tai-Yang asked.

“When I first arrived in Tsukuba years ago, I discovered a plethora of herbs and plants suited for medicinal purposes,” Long Fa said. “Ever since the war ended, I’ve been developing new ointments, salves, pain-relievers, and medicines.” He smiled. “This is one of my favorites. Is it helping with the pain, lass?”

Hova stared at her hand. It was tingling, the pain growing duller with every moment. “Yeah. Thank you.”

“Very good.” He picked up another cloth pad, wiping the last of the salve from his fingers before laying it over the wound. While he wrapped bandages around her hand, he looked at Kailas. “And you, Captain?”

She raised a brow. “What about me?”

He pointed to her arm and her face one after the other. “Would you like more of my care with these new injuries of yours?”


Kailas,” he said, sounding distressed. “Don’t you remember me at all?”

Her brows lowered. When he smiled and tapped his chest, her eyes widened. “Doctor Long Fa?”

Long Fa smiled and laughed, lifting both hands. “Finally! I was wondering when you’d remember! Then again, given how bad your fevers were, I’m not too surprised.”

“Remember what?” Hova asked.

“Long Fa is the doctor who my mother summoned when Azula injured me,” Kailas said. “He’s the reason I can move as well as I do.” She looked at Long Fa with her brows rising. “Then you want to trade medicines between our cities?”

“Medicines, the ingredients to make them, and a few other things,” Long Fa said. “I’ve made a few personal donations to reinvigorate Tsukuba’s artisans. I discovered that a master from Tsukuba before the war began is the one who did the ink painting that’s been in my family for years, and I’ve wanted to help ink makers and painters return to what they were for a very long time.”

“There aren’t many nobles willing to fund Earth Kingdom artists, sir,” Kailas said.

Long Fa sighed, smiling slightly. “I know, Captain, I know.” He looked up at her. “But isn’t it time that our country finally helped to give the world the peace and prosperity we’ve always said it would? Look what remaining focused on the war has done just today and what the people of Tsukuba have helped just me to do to resolve it. And with Taonan’s help, perhaps we can really start to make a difference in that peace finally arriving.”

He smiled and laughed. “With your help, at least, there’ll be more of a difference made! I can see why you’re the captain of the Phoenix Battalion! You fight like a dragon!”

“A dragon?” Tai-Yang asked. He looked at the sky for a moment before laughing and slapping his hand on Kailas’s back. “I like that! Makes me wish I could have seen it myself!”

“It was impressive, indeed,” Long Fa said. “Not surprising, given your experiences. But that’s quite enough for one day.” He rubbed at his back, grimacing. “I’m much too old for this.”

“Yes sir,” Tai-Yang said. “We’ll escort you back to the city and get you and your assistant settled at our finest inn.”

“Very good.” Long Fa moved to return the satchel to his shoulder, but paused. “You’ll probably need this, now that I think of it.” He reached into the satchel, taking out the jar again. “It works quite well on burns.”

Hova watched as Kailas took the jar in hand, looking at her bare arm. The sight of the burn, fresh and still ringed with dried blood, made her stomach churn. She looked down, but took Kailas’s free hand in hers. As Long Fa climbed up into a saddle, she squeezed Kailas’s hand. Lightning flashed, still in the distance, but a rush of wind accompanied the thunder and the hard patter of the first drops of rain. Tai-Yang and the soldiers heaved the unconscious men onto ostrich-horses amidst the rain, and they all started down the road back to the city.


“I don’t see how it can take three days to make a simple trade agreement.”

“I don’t see how you can keep complaining about it like this.”

Katsuro sneered at Hova, but she blatantly ignored him to look out at the sea. The storm had long since passed and the sky had been cloudless for two days. Now, in the dimming afternoon, the sea below and the sky above were turning deep orange. They sat on the veranda of Taonan’s teahouse, near the closed doors of the room that Kailas, Tai-Yang, and Long Fa had commandeered for the last three days. A tray lay between them, the tea cold and the small sweet cakes untouched and stale.

“Honestly, Long Fa wouldn’t need three full days to make a decision as simple as allowing the cities to trade,” Katsuro said. He looked from the corner of his eye. “Is the murderer an idiot, too?”

Hova looked at him with a frown. “Why do you keep insulting her?”

“I didn’t know facts had suddenly become insults,” Katsuro said. He crossed his arms over his chest. “I know she’s killed people. Hasn’t she ever told you about the coup of Ba Sing Se? Or when she led the battalion on her own and took Ehime?”

“No.” Hova sighed, bending her right leg at the knee and putting her arms around it. She rested her chin on her knee, closing her eyes. “I haven’t asked about Ba Sing Se. And I don’t even know where Ehime is. She doesn’t like to talk about her military career.”

“Why would she?” Katsuro said, voice dropping into a hiss. “Ehime was always a barrier city! It was the last city outside of Ba Sing Se that had a militia large enough to fight off invaders. It was her that led the Phoenix Battalion against the entire city and she killed her fair share of people. Don’t act like she doesn’t have any blood on her hands!”

“I’m not. I know she’s killed people.” She opened her eyes partway. “She’s called herself a murderer.”

Katsuro stared at her, mouth hanging open. After a moment, he shut his mouth, frowning again. “You really are brainwashed. She calls herself that and you still defend her?”

Hova turned her head away. “You’re acting like no one deserves to die.”

“And you’re acting like people have the right to kill each other!”

“I bet you’re really popular with all the soldiers in Tsukuba. The Earth Kingdom army’s killed people from the Fire Nation, too. Do you call everyone who’s killed someone a murderer? Or do you just hate everyone from the Fire Nation no matter who they are?”

“The soldiers were fighting for their lives and their homes. She murdered people to conquer lands that weren’t hers to begin with.”

“So what would you call the men who were going to kill Kailas and Long Fa?” Hova asked. She looked at him. “Kailas isn’t fighting anyone anymore. She’s trying to keep Taonan safe now, especially because the war is over. They were trying to take her city, and it wasn’t theirs to start with either. If those men killed them, would you call them murderers?”

Katsuro sneered at her. “If they killed her, I’d call them heroes. She—”

“Deserves it?”

Katsuro looked away.

“Do you think Kailas likes killing people?” Hova asked. “Do you think she ever wanted to be made Azula’s captain? She has night terrors over the things she’s had to do. And I’ve been awake to see what happens to her at least once.”

Katsuro did not look at her. “What, she cries a little in her sleep?”

“She does. She did recently.” Hova rubbed her hands together, feeling through the bandages where the wound on her knuckles was healing. “I woke up in the middle of the night a week ago, and she was…she had gotten over to the wall and she had her back against it. She was curled up in this tight little ball. I thought she wasn’t breathing.”

Letting out a sigh, she closed her eyes again. “I don’t know how long she was having the night terror…it just took so long for her to wake up after I did.”

“Having nightmares makes everything bad you do disappear now, huh?” Katsuro asked.

“No,” Hova said quietly. “She knows what she’s done. So do I. We both know that it won’t just go away.” She opened her eyes enough to see her bandaged hand. “But you shouldn’t call her a murderer. You don’t even really know her.”

Katsuro did not reply and they lapsed into a new silence. The evening was threatening to settle in and the doors to the room had not opened once for hours. Over the sea, their shadows reflecting amidst the broken diamonds of sunlight in waves, pigeon-gulls cried and honked to each other. Even in the quiet, neither Hova nor Katsuro could hear anything from the room, no matter how closely they listened in hopes of knowing when their silence and company would end.

A tiny hand closed on Hova’s right foot. She jumped, lifting her head. A very small girl with long, ponytail-bound brown hair and brown eyes was standing as tall as she could, holding on to Hova’s foot and the edge of the veranda to keep her balance. Hova blinked, lowering her leg to lean forward and lift the girl up from the ground.

“Mitsuko?” she asked. “What are you doing here? It’ll be night pretty soon.”

The girl crawled into Hova’s lap despite the way she had been sat down beside the woman. “Mama wan’ed me to bring Papa home. An’ she made somethin’ for—” The girl paused, her mouth working over words she wasn’t sure of how to say. “For…Kai-Cap!”

Hova bit her tongue to stop her laughter. “For Captain Kailas?”

Mitsuko nodded once, the force of it rocking her body back and forth. She reached into the pocket of her long green dress’s sleeve, rummaging for a time before pulling out a folded piece of cloth. Hova took it when Mitsuko held it up, and unfolded it. The cloth was a square of crimson with black thread in the center, and Hova couldn’t see why Tai-Yang’s wife, Mariko, would have bothered with it. When she turned it over, though, she saw the black thread more clearly, and held the cloth in both hands to look at it completely.

A black dragon, coiling around itself near its plumed tail and reaching out with its five-clawed hands at its head, was embroidered in the cloth, done with the same artistic flair as any of the phoenix designs already on Kailas’s clothes. Hova draped the cloth over one hand, the dragon resting in her palm, and touched the small horns coming from the angular head and the wings from its back. She folded it carefully and tucked it into her cloth belt.

“Papa said Kai-Cap was like a dragon, so Mama made this,” Mitsuko said. She leaned back against Hova’s chest and reached up her hand to pat the dragon’s tail. “Will Kai-Cap like it?”

“It’s beautiful,” Hova said. “Whatever Kailas says, tell your mother I really like it.”

Mitsuko smiled, showing as many teeth as she could. “Good! But Kai-Cap better like it, too!” She squirmed about, draping herself over Hova’s leg to stare at the closed doors. “When’re Papa and Kai-Cap gonna be done? It’ll be dinnertime soon.”

Hova rubbed Mitsuko’s back. “Before long, hopefully. We don’t want to miss dinnertime, either.”

“Can you and Kai-Cap come over for dinner?” Mitsuko asked. “It’d be okay with Mama—and Naoki and Rikuto heard Papa say Kai-Cap got hurt, so they wanna see her.”

“Why would they do that?” Katsuro asked.

Hova frowned, but Mitsuko rolled over and sat up to look at him. She tilted her head slightly, blinking at him. “We like Kai-Cap. An’ Hova.”


Mitsuko blinked again and looked at the floor. She was quiet for a long while, rolling the fabric of Hova’s pants in her hands. “We like playing with Kai-Cap an’ Hova. An’ Kai-Cap’s teaching them how to fight a little too, ‘cause Papa asked.”

Katsuro stared at the little girl. “Why would other people like her?”

Mitsuko shrugged. “Iunno. She’s just nice to people.” She looked up at him. “She’s not mean. Why wouldn’t they?”

Katsuro said nothing in return. He turned away again, but his head spun back around at the sound of the doors sliding open. Tai-Yang emerged first, stretching his arms over his head as he yawned. When he opened his eyes, he blinked at the sight of Mitsuko. She scrambled off of Hova’s lap and ran to Tai-Yang, squealing when he lifted her up.

“What’re you doing here, baby?” he asked. “It’s getting dark already.”

“Mama wanted me to come get you!” she said, hugging him round the neck. “An’ she finished Kai-Cap’s dragon thing!”

“Captain Kailas, baby,” Tai-Yang said mildly. He had already stepped to one side, turning to look at Long Fa and Kailas as they walked out of the room. Awkwardly with Mitsuko clinging to him, he bowed to Long Fa. “Thank you, sir. I’ll see to it that my men set up new patrols for the roads between here and Tsukuba.”

Long Fa smiled, eyes shut. “Very good, very good.” He reached up to pat Kailas’s shoulder. “I’m quite glad we agree on so many things, Captain. I look forward to working more with you in the future.”

Kailas put her fisted hand at the bottom of her palm and bowed low to both men. “Thank you for your advice and your cooperation. I’ll be in touch.”

Long Fa nodded, still smiling, and looked at Katsuro. “Come, lad—one more night at the inn and then it’s home first thing in the morning with an escort.”

Katsuro opened his mouth, looking at Kailas. She met his gaze with no expression on her face, and he simply stared for a full minute. His face was smooth, eyebrows raised slightly. When Long Fa strode past him and patted his arm, he blinked and turned away. They stepped down from the veranda, retrieving their shoes, and walked off without another look back. Mitsuko squirmed in Tai-Yang’s arms, patting at his shoulders until he looked at her.

“Can Hova and Kai-Cap come have dinner with us?” she asked. “Please?”

“That depends,” he said. He looked at Kailas, but she shook her head.

“I’m sorry, Mitsuko,” Kailas said. “Hova and I have some things to do. Another night, perhaps.”

Mitsuko pouted for a moment, but nodded. She put her head in the crook of Tai-Yang’s neck, snuggling there as Tai-Yang bowed again and left the same way Long Fa and Katsuro had. Hova watched them go as Kailas sat down beside her to pull on her boots.

“What do we have to do?” Hova asked.

“Nothing,” Kailas said. She sat up, leaning to put her head on Hova’s shoulder for a moment. “I just want to go home.”

Hova lifted her hand, combing her fingers through Kailas’s hair. “Always sneaking around, aren’t you?”

Kailas hummed, moving to stand in front of Hova and offering a hand. Hova reached out and took it for balance as she slid off the veranda. Hand in hand, they started to make their way home.

No one looked askance at them, especially after three days of trips through town always holding each other’s hand. Hova dwelled on the ache that lingered in her knuckles. The only thing that distracted her was the burn on Kailas’s arm. She wondered how many of the burns she had seen on Kailas’s body had been made by her own hand.

By the time they returned home, the sun had almost vanished beneath the horizon, barely more than a crescent left to give the world light. Fai barked at them when Kailas opened the front door, running around her legs while Hova came inside. Fai scrabbled up onto the floor proper when they sat down, shoving his head against Hova’s side until she scratched under his chin.

“I’m sorry that took so long,” Kailas said. She tugged at a boot, sighing as it came off. “It must have been troublesome to sit with Katsuro for all that time.”

“It’s okay,” Hova said. “He just doesn’t know when he should shut up.”

Kailas paused, holding her other boot in her hands, and chuckled when she set it down. Patting Fai to keep him from whining, she helped Hova up off the floor, guiding her through the dark hallways and into the main room with fire in her palm. When they arrived, she went to the nearest lamp and took the wick between thumb and forefinger to light it with a spark. As Hova sat down at the low table, Kailas went not to another lamp, but to a small box in one corner of the room. With it in hand, she returned to Hova and sat down beside her.

“I forgot again,” Kailas said slowly. She took Hova’s hand, unwrapping the bandages and looking at the pad that had covered the wound. There was little blood on the cloth, and the wound was healing cleanly. Kailas smiled slightly, opening the box to retrieve a clean cloth pad and the dark jar of salve. She uncapped the jar, dipping her fingers in the salve and spreading a new, thin layer over the wound.

“You forgot what?” Hova asked.

“Oh,” Kailas said. “I keep forgetting to teach you how to throw a punch without getting yourself hurt.”


Kailas began to rewrap Hova’s hand. “Reverse bites are very prone to infection, given how filthy the human mouth tends to be. I need to teach you how to punch someone so you don’t cut your knuckles every time.” She smiled and tapped Hova’s chin. “The chin is usually a better target.”

“You’re not angry that I hit him?”

“Have I ever been angry about you hitting someone?”

“No,” Hova admitted. “But he’s the assistant of a superior officer.”

She chuckled. “Long Fa told me that he’s not upset. His exact words were, ‘Katsuro needed a good hit for how he’s been behaving. Tell Hova not to worry.’” She put her curled fingers under Hova’s chin. “Why did you hit him?”

“He tried to keep me from going to get Tai-Yang,” she muttered. “He wanted to take too long so you could get killed.” She shrugged. “So I punched him to get down from the ostrich-horse.”

Kailas looked at her for a few seconds before putting a hand over her mouth to hide laughter. “You know you can’t hit everyone who wishes me harm, don’t you? You’d have a very long list to deal with, and that’s not counting the even longer list of people who mean to do me harm.”

“I know.” She took Kailas’s free hand to hold in both of hers. “I just couldn’t stand dealing with him when you were in danger. I was terrified that they would hurt you.”

She lowered her hand to show her smile. “They never would’ve been able to. It’s all right.” She closed her hand to hold Hova’s fingers to her palm. “Yours was the most significant injury of the whole affair, and that’s already healing well.”

“You took three days to make an agreement,” Hova said. “It’s not surprising.” She sighed, rubbing Kailas’s palm. “Do trade agreements really take so long? Katsuro wouldn’t stop complaining about it today.”

“No,” Kailas said. “They don’t. Not usually.”

“Was something wrong?”

Kailas was quiet for a time, holding Hova’s fingers loosely. “No, not with the trade agreements. We agreed on those two days ago.”

Her brows rose. “Then what were you talking about for the last two days?”

“Would you believe me if I said we were just drinking the entire time?”

Hova tried to hold back a laugh and failed. “No! I’ve never even seen you drinking!”

Kailas hummed softly, running her thumb over the bandages on Hova’s hand. “That’s a good point. It wouldn’t be a very good lie.”

“What would you need to lie for?”

The silence in the room was only broken by the faint whisper of the candle flame. Kailas had gone completely still, her eyes hidden by the way her face was tilted down. She took her hand away to lay both on her knees, sitting up straight. “Do you remember what we discussed about what good I could do now with everything I know?”

“Yeah. What does lying have to do with it?”

Kailas was quiet for a time, head still tilted so Hova could not see her eyes. When she finally looked up, her eyes were lit clearly by the candlelight, bright gold above the dark skin. “How do you feel about the people trying to depose the Phoenix King and Fire Lord?”

Hova blinked. “The rebels?”

“Yes,” Kailas murmured. “Do you feel they’re in the wrong for trying to overthrow Azula and Ozai?”

She rocked back slightly, face twisted with confusion. “Kailas, what kind of question is that? Of course I don’t think that. Azula and Ozai should be thrown into a prison for the rest of their lives at least.”

“Even if it’s legally treason to remove them from power?”

“Yes. It’s the right thing to do.”

Kailas’s face, so blank and serious, broke suddenly into a smile. She chuckled. “Well, I didn’t really think that you would do it, but it’s rather reassuring to know that you won’t report us for treason.”

Hova stared at her. “What?”

“You were wondering why it was taking so long. Proper treason takes a long time to plan.”

If her heart had actually stopped at that moment, Hova wouldn’t have been surprised. “You were planning treason?”

“Long Fa said that the Fire Nation should do what it always said it would,” Kailas said. “That we should give the world peace and prosperity. But as long as Azula and Ozai are the ones in power and leading the world, they’ll never be peaceful rulers. No one will follow them enough to bring peace. The sheer amount of rebels tells us that. After everything that’s happened and all that I’ve done, I can’t just sit on my hands and let them keep ruining the world. Now is the perfect time to start.”


“After an attack like this on my life and after opening trade with Tsukuba, no one will think twice about me going to cities under the pretense of trade alliances and working to stop rebel attacks. And after my destroying the Air Temple, Azula has no doubts about my loyalty. She’s done me a favor by making sure I receive all of the military information I’d ever need.”

Hova stared at her, mouth open. “You’re actually going to try and take over?”

“No,” Kailas said, “not me. If I do that or if any soldier takes power from the royal family, it’ll be seen as a coup. The fallout from that would be even worse if we left Azula and Ozai in power. It could cause a civil war between Fire Nation officers, as well as the Earth Kingdom forces that would take advantage of it. Part of this plan is to find the banished royals when we have enough allies. Prince Zuko or General Iroh have to be the ones who lead the Fire Nation out of this.”

Hova said nothing, eyes open wide. She stared, and then asked, “Are you absolutely serious?”

“I…yes, I am.” Her voice dropped when Hova continued to stare at her. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you all of this before I asked if you were still willing to stay.”

“What do you mean by ‘willing?’”

“I know what they do to traitors in the Fire Nation,” Kailas murmured. “And I know you don’t want to hear this from me, but I’m not afraid of death. I’ve never been. What I’m afraid of is you being killed. Of losing you because I failed. And now that you know I’m planning treason, you could be executed if you don’t report us. I’m sorry.”

“Why aren’t you scared to die?”

“I don’t know.” She laughed softly. “I’ve thought about death so often. I’ve thought I would die so many times that it’s just stopped frightening me. But I don’t want you to die. I shouldn’t have told you this without asking you what you wanted.”

“So you want me to leave?”

“No. I really don’t. But I won’t stop you.”

Hova caught her face in her hands and forced her to look up. When Kailas was looking at her, she pulled her forward to kiss her. She let Kailas go and sighed, frowning slightly. “Even when you’re planning treason you’re a brat.” She reached down to her belt to retrieve the crimson piece of cloth. Taking Kailas’s hand, she draped the cloth open over her palm, pressing the black dragon down gently.

“Mariko made this for you,” she said. She smiled. “I think it fits. I heard that dragons went extinct because firebenders hunted them down.”

“Fire Lord Sozin made it a tradition. Even though they were the ones who taught us firebending.”

“And now you’re trying to make the Fire Nation what it should be,” Hova said. “You and everyone else you get to help you. It’s like you’re bringing the dragons back, too. It fits.” She caught the front of Kailas’s shirt to pull her into another kiss. When she ended the kiss, she put her forehead to Kailas’s.

“I’m not leaving,” she said. “There’s no way I’m leaving you. You need someone here who loves you.”

Kailas went red. “What did you say?”

“You talk in your sleep, too.” She sat back to smile at her. “You say you love me like you’re praying.”

Her blush darkened and crept up her ears. She opened her mouth, but had no words to use.

Laughing quietly, Hova put her hands on Kailas’s cheeks. “I love you. So I’m not going to up and leave you right when you need me the most.”

She closed her mouth. She cleared her throat quietly and looked down. “Thank you, Hova.” She glanced up, taking Hova’s hands from her face to hold. Looking truly shy, she smiled and said, “I do love you.”

“I know.” She moved to lean against Kailas’s shoulder. Kailas put an arm around her, holding her close and relaxing for the first time in weeks.

Chapter Text

Hova had no idea how to tie a knot. Not an effective one, and nothing that would be difficult to undo. In the near dark, it was essentially a lost cause. She knew Kailas could tie any number of knots, light or dark. Still, she couldn’t ask Kailas for advice, asleep as she was. It also made little sense, given it was Kailas’s hands she happened to be binding.

It wasn’t how the night had started. Knots had been the furthest thing from her mind, even when Kailas had been unwinding the long ribbon that had been in her braid that day. After Kailas’s lips found her neck, real thought had left Hova alone. One had invaded and pervaded no matter how Kailas made her moan and whimper. She had not been able to take any piece of Kailas’s clothing off, just as every night before.

Kailas, in a rare moment, fell asleep before her, leaving a single candle in the hanging lamps above burning in the deepening autumn night. She had gathered Hova to her and drawn the blanket over them both. Hova remained awake, watching Kailas’s chest rise and fall in its slight, nearly invisible way. As cautiously as she could, she slid one hand up Kailas’s shirt and set her palm on her stomach.

She could feel the edge of the scar on Kailas’s chest under her fingers where it ended at the top of her stomach. She could feel the lean muscle under her hand, so similar to the curves of her shoulders. With the candle still lit, she could imagine the color of the scar with sharp clarity. She kept watching Kailas breathe, unable to sleep.

When or where she had gotten the idea of tying Kailas’s hands, she was unsure. It seemed simplistic, especially when she had the ribbon in hand and Kailas’s arms had slipped behind her back in her sleep. With her arms in the sleeves of her open shirt, the rest of her bare where the shirt did not cover, she knelt behind Kailas and brought her hands together. She wrapped the ribbon round her wrists, slow and steady and careful not to jostle her hands overmuch.

She wound the cloth around Kailas’s wrists twice, looping it between them once, and discovered that she did not know any useful knots to hold a person’s arms. Everything she had learned was meant to bind bundles of things as tightly as possible. Her aim was neither pain nor real restraint. She only wanted the kind of knot would keep Kailas’s hands occupied long enough. Because she did not know what long enough was, she tied a single bowed knot away from Kailas’s fingers.

Kailas’s voice was dull, drawling and slow when she said, “You’re very bad at that.”

Hova startled, taking hold of Kailas’s fingers. “How long have you been awake?”

“From when you started wrapping up my wrists,” Kailas mumbled, “I think.” She pressed her lips together, stretching where she lay until her muscles trembled, but she made no move to untie the ribbon.

“You’re not mad at me?” Hova asked.

Kailas rolled onto her back, sitting up slowly. Her eyes were almost completely shut, her hair mussed from the sleep she’d had. She yawned, mouth opening wide. “No.”

Hova felt her cheeks turning red. “Why not?”

Kailas smiled, crookedly with drowsiness. “If I really thought you were going to do something to me, I wouldn’t have let you finish.”

The blush grew hotter in her face, darker on her skin. “What makes you think I’m not going to do anything to you?”

Kailas turned her face to her shoulder, trying to rub at one eye. “You’d probably have done something at least two weeks ago if you were going to turn me in for treason. And somehow, I don’t think you’re trying to kill me.” She blinked when Hova took hold of her shoulders and shoved her back down to the floor, her head hitting the pillow with a quiet thump.

Hova knelt over Kailas’s stomach, the slight frown at odds with the intense blush. “What if you’re wrong? What if I am going to do something to you?”

Another blink let Kailas’s eyes clear and open more. The dark marks beneath them were diminished from the last few days and her smile was brighter for it. “Then I’m very curious to see what that might be.”

Hova sighed, her frown and blush remaining in place even as her eyes closed partway. She leaned down, moving her hands to hold Kailas’s face. “I can’t believe you’re being such a brat when your hands are tied behind your back.”

“I’m afraid I can’t help that.”

Hova said nothing in return, instead rolling her eyes with a smile. She lifted Kailas’s head enough to press her lips to Kailas’s. At first, the gentle warmth of Hova’s lips was enough to make all of Kailas relax, shoulders falling and fingers curling limply.

It was always too soon when Hova’s lips left hers; she felt the urge to whimper when Hova drew back. She turned one hand to put her palm down, pushing herself up to try to find the kiss again. Her shoulders had barely left the mat before Hova’s hand closed her wrist and pulled her hand away from the floor. Kailas fell back again, staring at the ceiling.

“Don’t start.” Hova’s hands had parted, one holding tight to Kailas’s wrist and the other in her hair. She tucked her head under Kailas’s chin, her lips above her shoulder.

“What?” Kailas meant to turn her head to look at Hova. The sensation of Hova’s teeth closing on her skin where the shoulder curved and became the neck made her muscles ripple from toes to ears. When Hova sat up, she stared at her, suddenly able to feel her heartbeat inside her chest.

“Don’t,” Hova said. She curled her fingers to rub at the back of Kailas’s neck. “Please.”

A long, slow scratch left Kailas with her eyes closed and her cheeks a faint rose. “Don’t what?”

At first, Hova did not answer. She let go of the bindings to lay her fingers on Kailas’s cheek. She laughed, softly, at the heat she felt. “I forget that you can blush.”

The blush darkened and Kailas turned her head away. She opened her eyes, staring into the dark. Even when Hova laid her hand fully on her cheek and made her turn back, her eyes remained away. A moment passed and she sighed, sitting up faster than Hova could react. Hova fell back, gasping and closing her eyes tight for the fall she thought would come. Her back came against Kailas’s bent legs, and she found herself caught there when Kailas sat forward. The blush had gone, her face smooth.

Hova shrank back, shoulders drooping and eyes falling. “You’re mad.”

Kailas was quiet for a long while, eventually sighing. “No, I’m just very confused. What is this about? Why did you need to bind my hands?”

Hova frowned slightly, blushing bright red. “Because you don’t know how to keep them to yourself.”


“Well, it’s true.” She pushed at Kailas’s stomach with her knuckles. “Even in bed, you’re a brat.”

Kailas’s brows came together, head tilting to one side. “Have I been doing something wrong?”

Hova shook her head once. “No…yes. No. I just…I don’t know.” She sighed, putting her forehead on Kailas’s shoulder. “Why don’t you ever let me touch you?”

For a moment, Kailas only blinked. She opened her mouth, but paused another long moment before speaking. “You mean why don’t I let you have me.”

Hova put her arms around Kailas’s waist, but did not lift her head. “Yeah.”

“And you wanted me to keep my hands to myself so you could touch me without me stopping you, even if I didn’t mean to.”


Kailas sighed again, putting her cheek against Hova’s hair. “How long have you been bothered by this?”

“I don’t know. A while.” She put her hands on Kailas’s back, now unwilling to slid them beneath her shirt. “I’m sorry. Give me your hands. I’ll untie them.” She reached back, but her hands closed on air. Under her forehead, she could feel Kailas’s shoulder shifting. When lifted her head, she saw that Kailas had moved her hands back and away. “What are you doing?”

“I’m not angry,” Kailas said. “You don’t have to apologize.”

“But isn’t this…a little strange?”

Kailas shrugged, surprisingly elegant for having her hands bound. “Maybe a little. You could have asked, you know.”

“You would have let me tie your hands behind your back?”

“Well—perhaps. I mean that you could have asked me to keep my hands to myself. I would have, even if it happened to be that you would have to bind my hands to make me keep them to myself.” She smiled, leaning back so Hova could see. “If it’s what you want…then I’m not going to refuse.”

Hova looked at her, eyebrows raised. “You’re really not mad?”

Kailas smiled wider. “No. I’ll always do what you ask.” She chuckled, cheeks turning faint red. “But I didn’t really expect anything like this.”

“Like what?”

Kailas looked down. “No one ever likes to see scars. Much less how many I have. It always surprises me when you touch any of them.”

Hova blinked before laughing behind her hand. “What? Why? I’ve seen a lot of them in the bath by now. None of them scare me.” She smiled, reaching down to lay her hand on the center of Kailas’s chest. “This doesn’t scare me.”

“You don’t know how most of them were made.”

“You’ve never told me.”

“You never ask.”

Would you tell me?”

Kailas opened her mouth. She closed it. She looked down and away and Hova could see her swallow. “If…you asked.”

The anxiety that showed in the rise in Kailas’s shoulders made Hova’s throat close up. She brought both hands up to hold Kailas’s face steady. “Will you tell me why me seeing your scars bothers you so much?”

For a long while, Kailas said nothing. She breathed, stopped to swallow, and started again. “Because I still have trouble believing that they don’t disgust you like they do with everyone else. Or that you don’t laugh.”

Hova frowned. She kissed Kailas hard, letting the frown fade when she heard the faint, muffled sound of surprise she made. When she leaned back, she combed her fingers through Kailas’s hair with one hand and lay the other full over the scar even where it lay hidden.

“They scared me a little when we first met,” she said. “It made me wonder how many fights you’d been in and how bad they had been.” She moved her hand from Kailas’s hair to her right arm and the new white burn under her sleeve. “And I’ve been wondering if you did some of them to yourself.

“But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to touch you,” she said softly. She smiled, blushing and laughing. “I guess some people think that’s strange, too.” Her thumb rubbed back and forth over Kailas’s arm. “But I still really do. I’ve wanted to for weeks. I wanted to tonight.” She tipped her head forward briefly, brushing her lips against Kailas’s. “Will you let me? Please?”

Kailas looked away, but there was a small smile on her face. She sighed, and said, “You know how to use my weak points so well. It isn’t very fair, if you think about it.”

Hova smiled, the blush growing darker. “Well, it’s never very fair for me when you know where all my weak points are. You’re too good at distracting me.”

“And you’re too good at knowing that I can’t tell you ‘no,’” Kailas said.

Hova’s smile changed, somehow. Kailas didn’t know if it was how the blush managed to fade, if it was how Hova’s eyes had closed halfway, or if it was all of that combined with how the open shirt slipped on Hova’s shoulders to bare more of her skin to the light. What she knew was that her stomach clenched and her mouth went dry. She tried to reach forward and looked down at her arm when it would not come about.

Hova laughed. “And now we know that you do need to have your hands behind your back.” She undid the tie to Kailas’s shirt and pushed it down her arms when it was open. The blush on Kailas’s face darkened; Hova kissed her cheeks and lingered to feel the heat in her skin. She reached behind Kailas, bringing her arms through the space between her sides and arms to press her hands to her shoulders.

As she brought Kailas close, she sat up on her knees, rising above Kailas in height for a moment. In that moment and the kiss within it, Kailas found that she was the one looking up, that she was forgetting to breathe, and that caring about either of those things was the least important thing in the world.

Hova’s hand came away from her back slowly, pushing at her knees. She settled back on Kailas’s thighs when her legs straightened, returning her hand to Kailas’s back. The kiss ended only for her to bring her head beneath Kailas’s chin and nip at the other woman’s shoulder. Her right hand found a trio of scars running parallel to Kailas’s hip below her shoulder blades and spaced wider than the gaps between her fingers. She lifted her head.

“Where are these from?” she asked. She pressed her fingers down gently, running them along the raised lines. “These.”

Kailas didn’t answer at first. The way Hova’s fingers were rubbing at the small of her back was too distracting to think. When Hova brought herself closer, so close that Kailas could feel the bare skin of her belly against her own and the swell of Hova’s breasts under hers, she swallowed hard and closed her eyes. “Ehime.”

Hova kissed the rise of Kailas’s collarbone. “How did it happen?”

“A man using claw weapons was attacking one of my soldiers,” Kailas said. She drew in a deep breath as Hova’s lips moved along the top of her chest. “I was getting her out of the way and I was cut.”

Hova put her lips to the pocked skin of Kailas’s left shoulder, tracing the grooves and edges with the tip of her tongue. “This?”

“Sparring.” Her hands closed into fists when one of Hova’s hands came to her stomach, scratching lightly upward. “I didn’t—move fast enough.” She flinched at the feel of that same hand coming to her breast, cheeks growing even hotter.

Another quiet noise of surprise left her when Hova rose up again on her knees, her other hand threading itself in Kailas’s hair to tilt her head back for another kiss. She had to put a hand to the floor to keep from falling back, hand closing anew in the loose fabric of the mat because Hova did not end the kiss or move her hand for a long while. Hova’s hands moved well before she ended the kiss, coming away from her body entirely.

Hova put her forehead against Kailas’s, kissing the other woman’s nose before murmuring, “You’re shaking.”

Kailas did not reply, save for closing her eyes.

Hova’s chest tightened and she lay a kiss on one of Kailas’s closed eyes. “What’s wrong? If you really don’t want to be touched—” She stopped because in the midst of reaching for the ribbon, Kailas’s arms had come inward, pinning her own arms where they were.

“That’s not what it means,” Kailas said, voice low. She opened her eyes, but continued to look away. “I just…no one touches me.”

“Do you not like it?”

Kailas shook her head, and it fell forward when she stopped. “I’m not used to it.” She swallowed to dislodge her tongue from the roof of her mouth. “Is this always what it’s like when I touch you?”

Hova smiled. “I don’t know. I really hope it is.”

The blush on Kailas’s face darkened to a shade of red that nearly matched the scar on her chest. “Oh.”

The sight of the blush was enough to make Hova laugh aloud. She put her forehead against Kailas’s and said, “You have no idea how cute you are when you’re nervous like this.”

Kailas managed to smile, as nervous as Hova had just said. “I don’t know how you avoid it.”

“By not thinking about it,” Hova said. She kissed Kailas’s cheek, her hands resting on her sides while the shaking slowed. “It’s better to think about something else.”

When her shaking had stopped, Kailas looked down. Despite how her throat had closed upon itself, she asked, “Like what?”

Hova put her fingers under Kailas’s chin, lifting her face up until she met Hova’s eyes. “How about me?” She smiled again at the way Kailas’s mouth had fallen open and closed it by putting her lips to hers. Her hands moved in the quiet, finding places on Kailas’s stomach and the center of her chest.

Without looking, without even opening her eyes from the kiss, Hova felt the scar where it was greatest. Nothing had changed from the little she had touched before. It was still the same strange smoothness of an old, hardened burn scar. All that was different was how much scarring there really was. She could place her finger down completely and it would barely manage to span the width of the scar. Such width continued for most of the scar’s length, tapering only where the two ends had been visible outside of the bindings.

She pulled away from the kiss, letting her eyes fall to where her hands were. A smattering of deeper red lay at the very center of Kailas’s chest where the scar lay over the point of bone beneath flesh. Hova put her fingertips there first, feeling the skin and the heartbeat that made it shudder under her hand. On either side of her fingers, Kailas’s breasts rose and fell with her shallow breaths, moving more, it seemed, with the force of her pulse than with her breath.

Hova lifted her other hand, pressing her fingers over Kailas’s lips because she had heard the sharper breath that came before speech. Without looking up, she shook her head, but did not speak. Her lips found the scar to be as smooth as her fingers had told her. She breathed against it, feeling the warmth of her breath and the heat of Kailas’s skin at the same time.

Kailas let out a wavering sigh and another when Hova lifted her head and her hands. It was with something close to idle thought that Hova noticed that Kailas’s breasts were smaller than her own, the color of her skin paler in almost every respect. She brushed the back of her fingers over one breast, uncurling her hand to lay it over Kailas’s side. More scars covered the skin there, crisscrossing over her ribs and down toward her hips.

“How did this happen?” Hova asked. She pressed her thumb to a long, thin line that went from the center of Kailas’s ribs to the top of her trousers, tracing up and down its length. Before Kailas could answer, she tipped her head in again, lips returning to the scar on Kailas’s chest. She kissed around its edge, lips brushing the sides of Kailas’s breasts.

“A m-man using a spear when we took Omashu,” Kailas said. She bit her lip, but couldn’t keep back a groan when Hova’s free hand cupped a breast. “My commanding officer—pulled me away late.”

Hova hummed quietly, the sound and sensation reverberating into Kailas’s skin. She put a hand under Kailas’s chin again, pushing gently up to be able to lap at the other woman’s throat with her tongue. The whimper she heard seemed to come from a distance, so quiet it was, but it was still enough to make her smile.

Both of her hands came to Kailas’s chest, one slipping down the side of her neck and the other trailing up from her ribs. The flinch that came from their approach was one Hova waited through, sucking at Kailas’s neck while her hands moved that much more slowly. The scar was left for the time being, acknowledged for an instant with a brush of her thumbs to the lines between scar and skin, for the soft flesh beside it.

Another whimper, longer than the first and breaking abruptly, was what she received for cupping her breasts in her hands and stroking them with little thought. Amidst the curves and cords of muscle that she found everywhere, Hova found their supple weight even more appealing. With every breath and every heartbeat she could feel in her palms, it seemed all the more correct that there would be such softness on Kailas’s body.

She took her lips from Kailas’s throat, looking down to her hands and stopping their movement. Though she knew it was her imagination, she liked to think that, for a moment, the scars she could see were made gentler by seeing them alongside the unmarked, flushed skin of Kailas’s breasts.


Hova looked up, blinking, to find that Kailas’s face was a mixture of confusion and worry. She could see the small tremors of her shoulders, and feel the breaths that pushed Kailas’s chest into her hands grow shallow again. In the moment before Kailas opened her mouth to speak, she smiled, and the smile grew broader when Kailas’s eyes widened.

“You’re amazing,” she said, voice quiet.

“What?” The question was without any trace of fear, Kailas’s voice only tinged with confusion.

Hova laughed, sitting up briefly to touch Kailas’s lips with her own. “I know you won’t believe me at all, but you’re really beautiful. All of you.” She squeezed the flesh in her hands, smiling at the way Kailas’s eyes shut tight. “I like seeing you. I like seeing that you’re mine.” She rolled her shoulders, the shirt slipping to hang bunched at her elbows, and tilted her head toward a red mark on her shoulder she knew had been left by Kailas’s teeth earlier in the night. “Probably like how you like seeing I’m yours.”

The dim light of the single candle overhead made their skin seem that much brighter. Once Kailas opened her eyes, she couldn’t help but stare at the woman sitting so comfortably on her legs. It had always been a sight she preferred, Hova half in and out of clothes, and it left her without thought then as it had done every time before.

Returning the smile Hova gave her wasn’t a conscious decision, but subconscious want. When Hova reached behind her suddenly, the most coherent thought in her head was that her chest was cold, and she barely noticed the tug at the binding around her wrists.

“Lie down,” Hova said. She pushed at Kailas’s shoulder with one hand, the other pulling at the ribbon. Kailas complied with no hesitation, only blinking once when Hova tucked the pillow beneath her shoulders. Her head remained lifted to watch Hova slip her arms from the shirt, set it aside, and put her hands on the floor on either side of her head.

Her hair, unbound as it was, hung down and brushed Kailas’s cheek. The sight made Hova gather a choice few strands between her fingers and sweep the ends against Kailas’s nose, and she smiled at the laughter Kailas let out.

She let go of her hair and put her palms against Kailas’s cheeks. “I want you to relax. Don’t think about anything but what I’m doing.”

Kailas smiled at her, still blushing. “Is that an order?”

Giggling, Hova brushed aside the hair that had fallen on Kailas’s forehead and kissed it. “That’s the brat I know.” She moved herself down, stretching her legs out between Kailas’s and lying with her stomach at Kailas’s waist. For a moment, she traced the edges of the crimson scar with her fingertips with one hand, the other making idle circles on the other woman’s belly.

It wasn’t long before her tracing led her hand to return to a breast, gathering the flesh in her palm. She made a path down from Kailas’s neck with her lips, leaving soft, lingering kisses in her wake. The topmost point of the scar, and a patch of the red skin itself were the last places to be touched by her lips before she moved to Kailas’s breast.

The first touch of warm lips to a hard, flushed red nipple elected a moan. The second touch was more than a soft kiss: it was the start of equally gentle sucking, and it brought about a cry. Hova stroked at the stomach beneath her with the palm of her hand, feeling a few more lines and another patch of speckled skin she had no desire to ask about.

The breathing she heard was deep, at some place just before ragged. Tension was what she felt in the muscles under her hand, jumping when she changed to lapping at the hard skin and back again. With a last kiss, she moved her attention to her other breast, earning a cry of her name for her choice. It was more than enough to make her own stomach clench, and to make her hand take up where her lips had so recently been.

Neither was precisely certain of when Hova had managed to undo the knot of the drawstring in Kailas’s trousers. Neither particularly cared. Hova only minded the warmth of Kailas’s hip under her hand, and Kailas only the heat of Hova’s hand in turn. When Hova began to move away from her chest, she whimpered, shoulders jerking as if she would sit up.

Hova shushed her, kissing a new path toward her stomach. Her hands hooked in the fabric of her trousers, tugging and shifting them down over her hips until she could pull them easily from her legs. They too found a new home, dropped unceremoniously to one side while Hova brought her hands to Kailas’s legs.

What scars there were on Kailas’s thighs, always kept hidden, were nothing that Hova hadn’t felt and seen before. More gatherings of lines, faded and more recent and another few places she could name as burns were what she put her hands to. Kailas sighed at the stroke of fingertips to the inside of one knee, the leg twitching. Hova smiled and kissed her knee, holding her leg with one hand. Balancing herself by putting a hand beside Kailas’s hips, she leaned up to kiss her.

It wasn’t surprise that made Hova’s heart leap in her chest when she put her hand between Kailas’s legs and felt the wet heat there. It was such immense pride that she couldn’t stop herself from smiling and laughing gently at the new, desperate whimper of her name when she slipped two of her fingers in. She watched Kailas’s face for what felt like the longest time, aware of every shudder and flinch and sob that wracked Kailas from head to toe with each rock in and out of her fingers. Her back felt painfully hot, and she knew that sweat was beading on her shoulders as surely as she saw it gather along Kailas’s.

A notion she remembered from stories at the teahouse started to whisper in her mind. Hova swallowed and did exactly as the notion played out behind her eyes. She brought her body back, sinking low to lie with her shoulders below Kailas’s thighs. Soft kisses were doled to the pale, soft, tense flesh of her legs, angling ever inward. Vaguely, with no thought given to it, Hova heard a questioning whisper of her name. It was only the sharp gasp she truly listened to when she pressed her tongue to the slick skin that was tight around her fingers.

Everything seemed to seize then in Kailas: her muscles, her breathing, her thought. She moaned, unable to think of anything much less to open her eyes, at the pairing of moving fingers and lapping tongue. Hova had no desire to end anything. It wasn’t in her mind to do anything but make Kailas keep moaning and saying her name over and over endlessly. She only wanted to feel Kailas’s hips move against her hand and her mouth, to have herself overwhelmed at the taste and scent and feel that Kailas gave her.

The press of her tongue to one place, one hard knot of flesh, wasn’t where she wanted things to stop. It was only because she felt Kailas tighten around her fingers, a strangled, high moan coming from her, that she did. She sat up, unwilling to draw her hand back yet, to find Kailas with her back arched, her head back against the floor. When the tightness faded, Kailas falling back to the mat as she panted, Hova brought her hand away and moved to lay over her.

“Kailas?” she asked, whispering. She put her hands on Kailas’s shoulders, looking at her face with her chest growing unexpectedly tight. “Are you all right?”

Kailas lifted her head and put her cheek to the curve of Hova’s wrist. She breathed against Hova’s skin for a long while, pants slowly fading to deep, quiet breaths. “Hova.”

Hova swallowed, unsure of why her throat was so dry. “Was—was that okay?”

Kailas put her head back, eyes opening and blinking slowly a number of times. She grinned and laughed.

It was then that Hova realized that there was a pair of hands on her hips. She looked down to see Kailas’s hands there, wrists faintly red from where the ribbon had been. Before she could speak, she was rolled over, head coming to rest on the pillow while Kailas knelt over her. A blush made her cheeks burn; it worsened when Kailas bent down to nip at her neck.

The hands and fingers that splayed all across her seemed even hotter than before. She looked at her shoulder after it had been touched, trying to see the red marks of burns she was certain were left behind. Nothing remained and she was quickly distracted by the continuing touches. She had felt tight well before Kailas even came to kiss and suck at her breasts, and there was no keeping back the groans that came from her throat.

Her hands buried themselves in Kailas’s hair, wanting to hold her mouth wherever it happened to be. There was no keeping her still, though, and she left behind red marks with her lips and indentations with her teeth all along Hova’s breasts and stomach.

It felt like nothing more than a few seconds had passed between Kailas flipping their places and her mouth finding the aching wetness between Hova’s legs. She curled her hands around Hova’s legs, holding them apart and Hova’s body where it was while she swept her tongue everywhere Hova’s had been on her own body. Despite how her muscles were quickly losing all solidity, Hova sat up, leaning on one arm to be able to keep her other hand in Kailas’s hair. It seemed so important to do, to nearly sob Kailas’s name while she bathed her with her tongue.

When her body convulsed, Kailas’s name leaving her in a cry, she wasn’t sure if it had happened quickly or slowly. She lay with her body shaking, heartbeat fierce against lungs needful of air. Kailas rose up, eyes half-shut and lips curled in a smile. Hova put her arms around Kailas’s waist, bringing her down to lay on the mat. Amidst her own deep breaths, she could hear that Kailas’s breathing remained heavy, and she could see her chest rising and falling.

She laughed because she needed to, tucking her head under Kailas’s chin. “When did you get your hands free?”

“Just before I got you under me,” Kailas said. She chuckled, running her hand up and down Hova’s back. “Where did you get the idea to do that?”

Hova shrugged, kissing the hollow of Kailas’s throat. “Dirty stories from other women at the teahouse. Why’d you do it to me?”

“If it makes you make sounds like that, I’m not going to not have you like that.”

Hova laughed, draping an arm over Kailas’s side and pulling herself close. She felt at the three lines on Kailas’s back for a time, smile fading as she did. “Was that all right? It wasn’t bad?”

Kailas put her hand under Hova’s chin and tilted her face up, letting Hova see her smile before kissing her nose. “No, it wasn’t bad.”

“Then—can I touch you more from now on?” She pushed at Kailas’s shoulder, ignoring how her own muscles protested, and moved to sit on Kailas’s stomach once again. “Like this?”

Kailas propped herself up on her elbow, laying her other hand on Hova’s stomach and rubbing her thumb against her skin. “You can. You may have to tell me to stop, but I’ll listen.”

Hova smiled, leaning down to kiss beside Kailas’s ear. “I’ll just tie your hands behind your back again,” she whispered. “That worked wonderfully.”

Chapter Text

There was one time of the year that Tai-Yang loved more than any other: when spring began to give way to summer. The chill winds from the ocean died off, and the clouds parted enough to let in the sun’s warmth. Early patrols weren’t the unpleasantly frigid things they were throughout the winter and early spring, and the midday hours weren’t yet stifling. It was always perfect weather; he often found himself dawdling to breathe in the scent of all the things that were blooming.

It was because the gem-cherry trees were in the last days of their bloom, silver-pink petals fluttering in clouds at the slightest breeze, that Tai-Yang nearly didn’t notice the rather sizable group walking in through the main gates of the city. Sitting atop an ostrich-horse gave him the vantage to see each person in the group of five. He took advantage of their pausing just inside the gates to look closely before they could notice him.

A tall, dark-skinned man headed the group, stubble speckled on his chin and some of his shaggy dark brown hair tied up in a loose wolf-tail at the top of his head. He walked with his thumbs hooked in the white cloth belt on his waist, near the back of his hips and close to the club at his back. Beside him was a woman, only somewhat shorter, but much lighter of skin. She wore no weapons, but simple clothes instead. A topknot, almost identical to the man’s wolf-tail, tied up some of her lighter brown hair.

Two women were in the middle of the small squadron. The first was shorter and pale-skinned. Her arms were corded muscle from bare shoulder to dirt-covered hands. The short black hair on her head was messily cut, falling over her ears and face alike. No shoes were on her feet, but she walked without worry on her face.

The woman beside her was as dark as the man at the group’s fore and nearly as tall. Her clothes were similar to his as well, dark blue and trimmed with white. A water pouch hung at her hip from the belt, and her dark brown hair ended in a braid that stopped at her shoulders, aside from the loops that curled around behind her ears to tuck into the start of the braid.

The last of the group was a boy barely into growing if his gangly, awkward gait could be trusted. His hands were tucked almost completely into the cloth belt at his waist, his shoulders curved forward. A long-sleeved, skin-fitting shirt covered almost all of his hands. For the coming summer heat, the sleeveless, high-collared black shirt over it seemed excessive. His loose trousers, still tucked into boots of the same color, didn’t seem any better.

The dark gray headband covering his entire forehead did not help his expression seem anything but heavy. His eyebrows were low with weariness, visible even through the shaggy, spiky mess of his black-brown hair. A white and brown-furred creature with ears bigger than its own head rode on his shoulders, tail wrapped loosely around his neck.

“Sokka, this is the third city we’ve been to this month,” the dark-skinned woman said. “How do you know anyone here will know something?”

“C’mon, Katara,” he replied. “Keep your chin up! We’re going to get lucky eventually! This could be the right place!”

The black-haired woman put her hand on Katara’s shoulder. “He’s right, Sugar Queen. Quit being so grumpy all the time.” She grinned crookedly and pinched her cheek. “Come on—smile.”

Katara pushed her hand away, frowning even more. “Stop it, Toph. I’m being serious. We don’t have an endless amount of money and our supplies are running low again. We’re all exhausted.”

The other pale-skinned woman shrugged her shoulders. “Then we’ll get jobs here and work for a while before we leave. It’s not the end of the world.”

Sokka laughed, throwing his arms around her and nuzzling his face against her hair. “Suki, have I told you today how great you are?”

Suki smirked, pushing at his cheek. “Once or twice.”

Katara sighed, looking at the boy. “Aang, what do you think?”

Aang only shrugged, the creature on his shoulders chirruping at the movement.

Tai-Yang, smiling and shaking his head, tapped his heels against the ostrich-horse’s sides. It squawked, but trotted as Tai-Yang guided it. The group looked up at the sound of the creature’s clawed feet. Tai-Yang smiled when they looked up at him after that.

“Is there anything I can help you with?” he asked.

Sokka stepped forward, lifting a hand into the air. “Yes sir! What city is this?”


“And where’s your market?”

Tai-Yang turned in the saddle, pointing down the street that led straight from the gates. “Down this way. The big circle with the fountain in the center.”

“Great!” Sokka said, clapping his hands together. He turned to look at the others, grinning toothily. “Let’s go get some meat!” He let out a yelp when Toph reached up and slapped the back of his head.

“Hey, Scruffy, let’s actually do what we came for before Katara goes nuts.” She turned bodily toward Tai-Yang, her head never tilting up. The sight of her milky green eyes was enough for Tai-Yang to know she was blind, but the suddenness and accuracy of her pointing a finger at him made him jump.

“We’ve been looking for someone for a while now,” she said. “You know anyone that knows a lot of people?”

Tai-Yang blinked. He scratched the back of his head. “Can you be any more specific?”

Toph crossed her arms over her chest. “Nope.” She didn’t flinch when Katara backhanded her shoulder.

“What she means,” Suki said, “is that…well, we’re trying to be discreet. It’s a little strange who we’re trying to find.”

Tai-Yang scratched at his chin, smiling slightly. “If that’s the case, then our governor ought to be able to help. She’s very good at being quiet.” He tugged at the reins, turning the ostrich-horse. “She should be at home now. I’ll take you there.”

Aang smiled and bowed to him, hands pressed palm to palm. “Thank you.”


Over the last seven years, Fai had discovered that there was no greater luxury or pleasure in the world than to have his belly scratched in bright, warm sunlight. He lay on his back with his front paws curled up, back legs stretched out, and his tail limp on the floor. It was Hova who rubbed and scratched at his stomach that day, hand moving idly. He had watched her for a time while she sat at the edge of the veranda, book beside her on her right and an angled, portable desk over her lap.

Barred from his favorite spot, Fai sat grumpily for a minute or so. He stared at Hova, watching her look back and forth between the book and the papers and ink on the stand—but not at him. When she paused, reaching to tuck loose strands of hair behind her ears, Fai whined, pawing at her leg. His whining was rewarded with Hova laughing, pushing him over, and starting to rub his belly. He didn’t care that she continued on with whatever she was doing. He snored from his head being tilted back and upside down and wagged his tail every so often.

At the next breeze, Fai sneezed at the scent of flowers. Hova ignored him, barely feeling the wind past her short-sleeved shirt. She flipped the book’s pages back to where they had been before, sliding her fingers along the lines until she found where she’d left off. She resumed her copying of the book, carefully writing onto the clean pages.

“Is that her?”

“No, that’s Miss Hova, her assistant.”

“Hi, Tai-Yang,” Hova said without looking up. “One second, please.” She looked up only when the sentence was finished, holding the brush away from the paper. The sight of Tai-Yang atop an ostrich-horse and the five people with him made her stare blankly.

Tai-Yang laughed at her expression. “This is Sokka, Katara, Toph, Suki, and Aang,” he said, pointing to each in turn. “They have some business with Captain Arav, but I need to get back to my patrols. Would you mind?”

Hova shook her head, laying the brush in the groove at the top of the desk. “No, go ahead. Thank you, Lieutenant.”

He nodded to her, turning the ostrich-horse about and leaving them in silence. It was an awkward quiet, each side staring at the other. Fai opened his eyes because Hova’s hand had gone still. Snuffling and shaking his head, he rolled over and sat up. He stared up at her and barked when she didn’t look at him.

She jumped, nearly upsetting the ink. Sighing, she rubbed at her forehead and reached to scratch at Fai’s ears. When she looked at the others, she smiled. “I’m sorry. I’ve been working on this all morning. I’m a little out of it.”

“If I had to stare at something all day, I’d be out of it, too,” Toph said.

Aang, standing behind the others, leaned around Toph. His face, at first flat, turned bright. He grinned, jogging to the veranda and looking at Fai. “Is that a raccoon-dog?”

Hova’s brows rose, but she smiled at him. “It is. His name’s Fai.”

“I haven’t seen many pet raccoon-dogs!” Aang said. “They usually just steal food and run, don’t they?”

“Yeah, but he decided to invade the house and stay instead,” Hova said. As Aang reached to pet Fai, she drew her hand back and looked at the others. “Can I ask what you need to talk to Kailas about?”

Sokka opened his mouth, but Toph spoke before him to say, “Kailas? Kailas Arav?”

“That’s Kailas’s name, yes,” Hova said.

Toph and Sokka both opened their mouths, but they were cut off by the sound of barking and screeching. Fai was on his feet, snarling and yapping with his fur puffed out. The creature on Aang’s shoulder, too, was on its feet, screaming while the short fur on its back rose.

“Momo, knock it off!” Aang shouted. “Stop it, boy!”

The creature paid no attention to him and Fai was moving before Hova could grab him. He leapt off the veranda, reaching his paws out for the creature. Momo jumped from Aang’s shoulders, landing gently on the ground. Fai passed over Aang’s shoulder, tumbling when he hit the dirt. He scrabbled to regain his footing and charged back with even greater barking. Momo shrieked again, jumping up and flapping his arms. Thin membranes spread from his arms and caught the air. He flew off with Fai following behind him, barking and snapping all the way.

Momo went around the house, unable to think but for the terror that made his heart thump in his small chest. He looked back once to find only Fai behind him, and continued on flying. When he turned back around, he saw something that surprised him. He was absolutely certain that he knew the woman going through forms without bending. With Fai still baying at his heels, Momo flapped his wings as hard as he could and slammed himself into the woman’s head.

Kailas was knocked completely off balance, stumbling enough to drop to one knee. Before she had time to open her eyes, she heard Fai’s barking and felt him trying to jump onto her bent knee.

“Fai, sit.”

He sat.

She opened her eyes, raising a brow at how he snorted, snarled, and beat his tail against the ground. “What in the world are you so angry about?”

She heard a trilling sound and felt a tail wrap around her neck. For a moment, she couldn’t bring herself to breathe. Her chest ached when small, strong hands tugged at her ears. Kailas reached up and behind her head to pick up the lemur that was standing on her shoulders, sitting down heavily.

She stared at the lemur and the lemur stared at her. He pressed on her nose with a fingertip, large ears caped behind his head and green eyes massive. His head tilted slightly and he stood up on her legs to tug at her hair. It was longer than when they had last seen each other, falling closer to her jaw. Kailas stared at him with wide eyes, holding him under his arms.

“It’s been seven years,” she whispered. “How are you here?” The lemur trilled, tail wagging from side to side.



The duo looked about, Fai barking once. Kailas continued to stare at Momo, only looking up when the lemur turned and chirped at whoever made the shadow that fell over them both. The boy standing there smiled, leaning with his hands on his knees.

“Hi,” he said. “Um…sorry that Momo made Fai so upset. He does that sometimes.”

“Fai acts crazy sometimes,” Hova said. She walked to Fai and picked him up, rubbing his head hard. “Sorry he chased your…whatever he is.”

“A lemur,” Kailas said softly. Hova looked at her, eyes going wide as she watched Kailas scratch gently behind Momo’s ears.

“Yep, he’s a flying lemur!” the boy said. “Not a lot of people know what he is!”

“I’ve—read about them.”

“You read anything about the Fire Nation royal family?”

Kailas turned, looking to find four other people behind Hova. She blinked once, taking in their disparate appearances and matching them inside her head. Her hand did not pause when she looked at the blind woman who had spoken.

“May I ask who you all are and what business you have here?”

“Hey, I asked a question first!” she said, pointing her thumb at her chest.

“Toph, calm down,” the other woman with lighter skin said, patting her on the shoulder. She stepped forward, putting a hand to her chest. “I’m sorry if we’re butting in on something, but we’ve been traveling for a long time and we’re trying to find some people.”

Kailas smiled faintly and continued on with petting Momo. “I can’t help anyone if they aren’t more specific.”

“Well, it’s a little odd who we’re trying to find,” the woman said.

“We don’t want a lot of people to know,” the man added.

Kailas hummed laughter, pressing her thumb to Momo’s nose. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t want the Fire Lord or the Phoenix King learning that you’re searching for Prince Zuko or General Iroh.” The way each of them jumped, bodies jerking in some way or another, made her smile more.

“Wha—we’re not looking for any stupid banished fire people or anything!” the man said. “No way!”

“You do realize that any sort of inquiry about Prince Zuko and General Iroh makes heads turn,” Kailas said. She stood up and saw the man’s neck cord when he saw that she was taller than him. “With how you’ve been bumbling along and getting yourselves mentioned in reports, you’re liable to make anyone looking for rebels think that you’re trying to cause trouble.”

“And if we are trying to make trouble?” Toph asked.

“Then you’re going to be in trouble very soon.”

The dark-skinned woman frowned, walking near and taking hold of the boy’s wrist. “Aang, come on. We’re not going to get any help here.”

Hova jumped, Fai whining when her arms tightened around him. Kailas stared, watching Aang stare back at her with Momo still in her arms. She stepped forward as he stopped.

“If you’re going to leave,” Kailas said quietly, “then you should remember to take your pet along.” She came near. Aang took his arm from the woman’s grip to hold out his hands for Momo. He smiled when Momo was given to him, but his heart jumped in his chest when he realized that he could feel the wind on his bare forehead.

Kailas, holding Aang’s headband, smiled at the blue arrow tattoo on the boy’s forehead. “And you should remember to not let someone take off your headband, Master Avatar.”

“He—he’s not the Avatar!” The dark-skinned woman snatched the headband from Kailas’s hand, her brows knitted.

“And you’re not from the Water Tribe,” Kailas said. She nodded at Toph. “And she’s not Toph Bei Fong, the Blind Bandit.” She raised an eyebrow. “You are very, very bad at being discreet. Have you thought about taking fake names?” She looked at Aang, who held a hand over his forehead while frowning. “Or growing your hair more?”

The man was almost snarling, teeth bared and hand reaching behind his back. The woman near him touched his arm and looked at Kailas, brows low. She asked, “How do you know all of this?”

“Reports have said that two Water Tribe citizens and two Earth Kingdom citizens are asking strange questions about Price Zuko and General Iroh,” Kailas said. “And the Blind Bandit was described in a report as being literally blind, with her real name being Toph Bei Fong.”

“But how do you know about Aang? You didn’t see his arrow. You heard his name first and then took off his headband.”

Kailas’s face went smooth. “Because I know the Avatar’s name is Aang. And I know that lemurs are from the temples. It wasn’t a massive leap in logic to make.”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Toph snapped. “Who’d you get a report from about me?”

“From the Fire Lord’s right hand, Ty Lee.”

Toph’s feet started to spread apart, her hands curling into fists. “And where’d you get all those other reports you’re talking about?”

“They’re routed to me because of my position in the military.” Her eyes narrowed. “Why wouldn’t I get military reports if I’m in the military?”

“You’re in the military?” the man asked. “The Fire Nation army?”

“Yes. Why?”

Toph’s teeth were bared, arms up in a stance Kailas had not seen before. “Dammit, I knew I knew your name! You’re the captain of the Phoenix Battalion!”

Kailas watched as all but Aang and Hova fell into fighting stances. She could not name what Toph used, but recognized the man and the woman near him as fighters, not benders. The dark-skinned woman, though, had reached to the water skin on her belt, and held water in the air between her hands. Kailas stood with her arms at her sides, watching them as they glared openly at her.

“If you attack me,” she said, “or if anything happens to me, the city guard will have no choice but to report it. When that report reaches either the Eastern or Western Capitol, all your secrets will be out. However discreet you want to be, the Fire Nation will know that the Avatar is actually alive and trying to find the banished royals for whatever reason. You will be hunted until you’re dead.”

“So then what?” Toph demanded. “We’re supposed to let you go? What happens if we take you hostage?”

She chuckled. “I doubt very much that you can.”

The man pointed at Hova with his club. “Then what if we take her hostage?”

Kailas smiled, so slow and so vicious that the man shuddered visibly. “If you so much as try to touch her, I will kill you.”

“Then what are we supposed to do?” the dark-skinned woman asked. “How can we trust you not to make a report after we leave anyway?”

Kailas did not answer for a moment. She turned to look at Aang, who stared back at her with a scowl on his face. When she turned bodily toward him, he lifted his hands, fingers outstretched and palms flat. When she knelt down on one knee, bowing her head, his fingers went limp, his shoulders falling.

“Uh…what are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m not going to fight any one of you,” Kailas said. “Certainly not the Avatar.”

“Then what are you going to do?”

Kailas looked up at him, smiling gently. “Give you all the help I can.”


Hova could see the red light of the dying sunset in the cup of tea in her hands. Fai whined quietly beside her, unable to sleep for how long the talking had gone on. The voices would not stay at an even enough level for him to ignore and drift off to sleep. He continued to stare at Momo, who was munching perpetually on the food laid out before them all.

Kailas sighed, pouring another cup of tea for herself and refilling Hova’s cup. “Tell me if I have this straight. Katara, Sokka, and Suki have traveled together for six years, but Toph only joined you four years ago.” She took a long, slow drink of tea. “And you all found Aang two years ago in…an iceberg?”

Aang grinned. “That’s me, boy in the iceberg.”

“But how did you live for over a hundred years in an iceberg?” Hova asked.

He shrugged, holding up his hands.

“We call that sort of thing ‘Avatar stuff,’” Sokka said. He slurped up a mouthful of noodles, swallowing so much that his throat bulged for a moment. “We don’t try to make sense of it. It gives us headaches.”

“And the reason you’re trying to find the banished royals is so they can teach you firebending,” Kailas said.

“I’ve been training in waterbending and earthbending for these last two years,” Aang said. “But we haven’t been able to find any firebenders that wouldn’t turn us in to the Fire Nation. So when we heard that there were a couple of people that had been banished from the Fire Nation, we thought maybe they could help us.”

Kailas said nothing. The others, eating as though they hadn’t had proper meals in months, watched her. She sat looking at the refracting light of the nearly gone sun, she and Hova sitting on the veranda and the others within the house’s main room itself. She turned the cup in her fingers, the light bright in her eyes. It was a long while before she took another drink.

“Prince Zuko was given a task when he was banished,” she said. “He was to find the Avatar and capture him or he would never be allowed to return to our home country.” She took another small drink. “I don’t think he would want to train you. Not without a reason, now.”

“What about the other guy you talked about?” Toph asked. “General Iroh?”

“He might,” Kailas said. “I don’t know him well enough to say.”

“But can you help us find them?” Suki asked. She peeled off part of a small roll and handed it to Momo, who stuffed it in his mouth. When Fai snuffed, she gave the rest to him.

“I can try, but my efforts so far haven’t turned up much,” Kailas said. “General Iroh is called the Dragon of the West. I can’t remember much of him personally, but I’ve heard and read of him. He’s too smart, too wise. He’s gone into hiding with Zuko. Unless we get very lucky, or he wants us to find them, we won’t.”

“Who’s ‘we?’” Katara asked.

Kailas closed her eyes, but did not take another drink. “My allies. Me.”

Katara stared at her, eyes narrow. “And why are you trying to find them?”

“Because they need to be found.”

For a moment, there was silence. Toph snorted with laughter. “That is some cryptic crap. I always heard the Phoenix Battalion’s captain was supposed to be some sort of big master fighter. Are you seriously some sorta wimpy sage?”

Heat flashed at the end of her nose for an instant. Those who could see were able to watch Kailas lift her free hand and flick her wrist. They saw the fire that swept through the air and stopped just before Toph’s face. Aang’s eyes went massively wide, his mouth falling open.

“And I’ve heard that the Blind Bandit was supposed to be a master earthbender,” Kailas said, “that didn’t need her eyes to see enemies attacking.”

Toph smirked at her. “That was a cheap shot.” She laughed aloud as Kailas chuckled.

“You’re a firebender?” Aang asked.

“Yes,” said Kailas

“Then you can teach me!”

Sokka looked at Aang with noodles hanging out of his mouth. “What?”

“We never decided it had to be the royals! I just need someone to teach me how to firebend, right?”

Sokka frowned and looked to the side. “I still don’t think you really should need to learn it at all.”

“But I do!” Aang said. “And now we finally found someone who can teach me!”

“Aang, we don’t even know if she will,” Katara whispered behind her hand.

“I’ll teach him,” Kailas said.

Katara looked at her with wide eyes. “What? You’re not even going to think about it?”

“That’s not what I need to think about now,” Kailas said. She set down her empty cup, putting her hands on her knees. “There are plenty of things, yes, but I’ll teach the Avatar firebending. You don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

“Then what do we worry about?” Katara asked.

“Resting. Cleaning up. You’ve done enough worrying until now, if I understand what you tell me.” She unfolded her legs, rising up to her feet. “I’ll be back.” She brushed her fingers against Hova’s cheek. “Would you mind helping them with whatever they need?”

Hova nodded, smiling, and Kailas strode away. Unsure of what else to do, the others stared after her. It was only when she stepped down from the veranda, walking off toward the front of the house, that they looked back to Hova. For her part, she was picking up empty dishes and bowls, barely aware of the staring faces. After a moment, Suki stood up and began to help, stacking dishes along her arms and plucking the finally emptied bowl from Sokka’s hands.

“The bath is down this center hallway behind you—the second door on the left,” Hova said. “It might be a little cold, though.” She smiled. “Kailas usually heats it herself.”

Sokka frowned, but stood up. He opened his mouth to speak, closed it, and strode away without a word. Suki watched him go, holding back a sigh. Toph fell back to lean on her hands, tilting her head from side to side. Pops rang out, making Fai jump to his feet. He stood looking around, fur puffing up so much his body appeared to double in size. Toph snickered, standing up and hooking her thumbs in her belt.

“Aang, Katara, let’s go get our stuff,” she said. “We can bring Appa some food while we’re at it.” She turned her head slightly, ear aimed toward Suki. “You okay staying here, Fan-girl?”

“Go ahead, Badger-mole,” Suki said. She smiled when Toph laughed and ambled away, following after Hova as Aang and Katara gathered up the leftover food and followed Toph out of the house.

“Do you all call each other names?” Hova asked.

Suki shook her head, still smiling. “No, that’s something Toph does. I like to keep going with the joke.” As she stacked the dishes carefully on the wooden counter beside the sink where Hova stood, she sighed, looking up at the ceiling. “It makes me wonder what she’ll start calling you two.”

Hova chuckled, taking up a rag from a basin of water and holding out a hand. “If she wants to get a reaction out of Kailas, she’s going to be sad. Kailas is really used to name-calling.

Suki paused in handing over a dish, looking over her shoulder toward the hallway. She turned back and said, “I’m sorry for this afternoon.”


“We all just assumed she’d attack us,” Suki said. She put a bowl in Hova’s hand when she reached out again, staring at the counter. “We shouldn’t have acted like we were going to fight her. Or kidnap you.”

Hova laughed, setting down the clean bowl on the counter on the other side of the sink. “You’re the only people who haven’t actually tried. It’s fine.”

Suki blinked, brows coming together. “We didn’t try?”

“A lot of the rebels that come to Taonan try to kill Kailas. They’ve tried kidnapping me at least eight times over the last five or six years.”

“Aren’t you just her assistant?” Suki asked.

Hova looked up, smiling brightly. “Tai-Yang only introduces me like that because he has to. He says he’d rather call me Kailas’s wife.”

Suki looked at Hova for a moment, head tilted down to look at her face. She blinked again. “So you’re like Toph and Katara without all the banter?”


Suki smiled, holding out another bowl. “They’re together, but they like to argue for fun. But just from what I saw today, you two aren’t like that at all.” She put her hands on her hips and sighed, looking at the dishes. “But I’m surprised she makes you act like a wife and do things like clean. It’s a little like how Sokka used to be.”

Hova smirked back at her. “Kailas is the one who cleans. I’m just doing it for her tonight.”

The attempt Suki made to hold back her laughter failed; her head fell forward as she laughed into her hands. “You’ve got her wrapped around your little finger!”

“She tells me that all the time,” Hova said, “but that’s not why she cleans. She likes to. And I’m doing it tonight because she needs to think.”

“She couldn’t think here?”

Hova took another two dishes and washed them before answering. “She thinks better when she’s moving. And I think she’s trying to find a place for you all to live for a while.”

“Why? We’re used to camping out.”

Hova shook her head, taking the next bowl. “It’ll look strange. I don’t know how long it takes for people to learn how to bend, but it’d make people ask questions about why you’re all camping out so long. Having a place for you to live in will make it seem normal.” She pushed at a stuck grain of rice with her thumb. “She’s probably thinking of jobs for you, too.”

Suki watched her, handing over another plate when prompted. “You know a lot about hiding in plain sight.”

Hova laughed without pleasure, shaking her head. “No, I just know it from Kailas. She’s very good at lying.”

“Then how are we supposed to trust her not to turn us in?”

The suddenness of Sokka’s question made Hova jump, a plate slipping out of her hands. Suki caught it before it fell far, turning to frown at the man standing in the doorway.

“Sokka, I didn’t teach you how to be quiet so you could scare people,” she said.

He grunted, walking forward with his arms crossed over his chest and his hair loose and wet from the bath. He leaned down to stare at Hova’s face and eyes. She closed her hands into fists, frowning, but neither looked away nor stepped back.

“You’re Earth Kingdom, aren’t you?” he asked, face still so close Hova felt his breath on her cheeks.


“Why do you trust her?”

Hova’s lips twitched into a smile made sarcastic by how her eyebrows dropped down. “I generally trust the person I love.”

“And you really think she loves you?”

Her hands closed, nails digging into her palms. “Sokka, I’ve hit a lot of people for saying stupid things like that. Don’t make me hit you, too.”

“She’s Fire Nation,” he spat.


“Have you looked at the world lately?” he demanded, flinging one arm in a wide arc. “Do you know what the Fire Nation did?”


“Do you know what she’s done?”

“Of course I know what Kailas has done,” Hova said, voice tight because the muscles throughout her body were going taut. “I’ve been with her for seven years. She doesn’t lie to me.”

“Then why are you with her?” Sokka asked, nearly shouting.

“Because I love her! What business of yours is it if I’m with her?”

“It’s my business because I’m not going to let Aang be indebted to her! And I’m not going to have anything to do with burn-the-world Fire Nation captains who have killed dozens of people and helped conquer at least ten cities!”

Hova let her breath out through her nose, eyes narrowing. “So you think she really wanted to do all of that?”

“She’s Fire Nation, isn’t she?”

She looked at him up and down. “And you’re from the Water Tribe. I’m sure all you want is to get the most food and make everyone listen to you.” His mouth opened, muscles in his neck cording and bulging, but she cut him off. “You probably don’t even know anyone from the Fire Nation at all, do you?”


“So you don’t know or care that there are more than enough people from the Fire Nation who hate what’s happened as much as you do. You’re running around acting like you have every right to blame people who know what they’ve done is wrong and are trying to fix it just because you found the Avatar! What do you think Kailas would have done if she was the one who found Aang?”

“I think the only reason she would have been anywhere near the South Pole is because she was going to attack there, too!” Sokka shouted.

“Then you think like an idiot!”

Sokka’s fist was up and back before Hova had finished speaking. Suki, though, had her hand on his wrist before he could move further. He winced when she wrenched his arm down and around behind his back, turning to stare at her. As he looked about, he saw Katara, Toph, and Aang standing in the doorway and staring at them all with varying levels of confusion in their faces.

“We’re going outside,” Suki said.

“I’m talking to her!”

Suki let go of Sokka’s arm to cross hers over her chest. She frowned at him, eyes narrowing. “We’re going. All of us. We need to talk.” When she looked at the trio in the doorway, they turned right about. Sokka did not do as she said, instead scowling at Hova. “Sokka. Out.”

He turned and stomped as he walked. Hova stared after him, shoulders shaking and face red. She shrugged Suki’s hand away when the other woman touched her shoulder, turning to look only at the dishes. As Suki stood neither speaking nor moving, Hova put both hands over her eyes and sighed loudly.

“I’m sorry,” Suki said quietly. “He—his family was really hurt by the raids on the South Pole and the war.”

Hova shook her head, wrapping her arms around herself because Kailas was not there. “Then you should tell him he should be thanking Kailas.”


“Ask him if he remembers the day when the comet came,” Hova said. “Tell him that there was an admiral who wanted to use the comet’s power to kill everyone in the north and the south. And then tell him that Kailas was the one who argued against it.”

“Why would she do that?”

Hova looked at her, frowning. “Because she doesn’t want to kill people.”

Suki sighed, eyebrows rising up. “I’m not saying I don’t believe you…but I don’t think Sokka will.”

“I don’t care,” Hova said. “It’s the truth.”


Kailas wouldn’t have been surprised by Fai falling off the veranda and dashing toward her when she came out of the trees. He did it so often when she returned late that she knew to gesture to him to keep him from barking. What surprised her was that Fai only lifted his head when she stepped from the lines of shadows and into the moonlight. That surprise was outdone by the sight of Hova sitting on the veranda with her knees against her chest and one hand on Fai’s back.

“You’re up late,” Kailas said, a plain speaking voice more than enough to carry across the silence. She smiled when Hova’s eyes rose to meet hers. She reached the veranda and lifted herself onto it, untying her boots. When a weight came against her back and arms around her shoulders, she put her boots to the side.

“Tell me they’re not staying here,” Hova said.

“Of course not,” Kailas said. She put her hands over Hova’s, trying to look at her. “It’d raise too many questions. I’ve found them somewhere to stay.”

Hova closed her hands in Kailas’s shirt. “Good.”

Kailas finally managed to turn her shoulders enough to see Hova’s eyes and how weary they were. She opened Hova’s hands gently, turning completely around to bring her close. Hova sighed and put her face against Kailas’s shoulder.

“What happened?” Kailas asked.

“I think I screwed this up.”

“What would you have done?”

“Sokka and I nearly punched each other.”

Kailas let out a slow sigh, reaching up to press her fingers against the bare skin of Hova’s neck. She rubbed back and forth in a soft rhythm and asked, “What happened?”

“Can we get married?”

Kailas was still for a few seconds before she looked at Hova’s face. “That’s not exactly an answer.”

“It is,” Hova said. “He kept asking me why I was with you.” Her hands tightened until they shook. “Just like everyone else does.”

“May I ask what us getting married has to do with that?”

“No matter what you do, everyone just accuses you of being a monster,” Hova said. “No one believes me when I say that you’re not a murderer, or you’re not just keeping me here for my body.”

Her eyes narrowed. Voice low and dark, she asked, “Did he say that to you?”

“No, not Sokka. No one’s actually said that again since we were in Dazu two years ago. Sokka just thinks you can’t love anything.” She grit her teeth, trying not to shout when she said, “I hate hearing that all the time.”

Kailas sighed, holding Hova close because she could feel her shoulders begin to tremble. “I’m sorry.”

“And I hate that you’re the one apologizing all the time!” Fai lifted his head, ears flicking back and forth at the sharpness of Hova’s voice. “You’re the one who’s been working to get rid of Azula and Ozai for all these years! You! You’ve got more people following you now than I can even keep track of, and no one knows it because you have to lie and act like you’re still under everyone!”

“That can’t be changed yet,” Kailas said, “and I’m sorry.”

Hova kept her eyes closed because they burned and ached, pressing her face against Kailas’s shoulder that much harder. “I know. I’m just so sick of hearing things like that.”

“And us getting married will make it stop?”

“Probably not everything,” Hova said, voice going soft and hoarse. “But at least I can tell people that I asked to get married and that you said yes. I’d feel better when people keep asking me why we’re together.” The tension in her hands loosened until she was able to uncurl her fingers and press her palms to Kailas’s back. “I’d be able to say we love each other as much as anyone else.”

Kailas leaned back slowly, bringing her hands up to touch Hova’s arms. Hova looked up, trying not to lift her head and show Kailas the wet trails she felt on her cheeks. Kailas brought Hova’s hands away from her back, gathering her fingers in one hand. When Kailas’s free hand came to her chin, Hova brought her head up.

“I know you hate when I say it,” Kailas murmured, “but I’m sorry.” She wiped away the tears with slow passes of her thumbs. “This has been too long, hasn’t it?”


“Have you wanted me to propose for a long time?”

Hova blushed. “I didn’t mean that you should’ve. I’ve thought I’m your wife for years.”

“And I’ve thought I was yours for just as long,” Kailas said. She smiled, curling her hand around one of Hova’s ears. “But you’re smarter than I am about people. I wish you’d told me sooner. I would have asked properly.”

“I’m not smarter than you,” Hova said.

“I don’t know enough to have not proposed to you for seven years,” Kailas said. “All I know is how to act as a captain with a country’s worth of secrets. So…I wish you’d have told me sooner.” She chuckled, tilting her head until her forehead was against Hova’s. “You are my wife. I’d never refuse to give you that title in any way.”

Hova managed to smile. “That’s a yes?”

“That’s me speaking before I ask properly.” She brought her head back, moving to kneel with both legs beneath her. Her hand came away from Hova’s face, sliding along the length of Hova’s arm until she held both of Hova’s hands in hers. As Hova blushed, Kailas bowed her head and lifted Hova’s hands above it. Their hands mirrored each other, Kailas’s fingers spread across Hova’s palms and Hova’s fingers resting in Kailas’s palms.

“I love you,” Kailas said, voice soft. “There’s nothing more I want than to have you become my wife, and for me to become yours. Will you give me that honor and pleasure?”

For a moment, Hova didn’t speak. She couldn’t breathe enough to make a sound. When she was able to draw breath into her chest again, she laughed quietly and gripped Kailas’s hands. “You know that I will.”

Kailas looked up, still keeping her head down. “And will you forgive me when I tell you that I can’t tell you when we’ll be able to be married?”


“Why forgive me or why can’t I tell you?”

“Why can’t you tell me, and why would I need to forgive you for not knowing something?”

Kailas’s eyes fell again. “I can’t tell you because I don’t know when it’ll be safe. And I’m sorry because I can’t make things safe enough now.”

“What do you mean by safe?”

“I don’t want anyone to notice Taonan right now,” Kailas said. “I can’t guarantee that my plan will work if someone not allied with us discovers that there are suspicious people here. I can’t even be sure that our allies will be able to keep Aang’s identity a secret. If we were married now, there would be an official report of an event involving me.”

“And if that happens, Azula will come to the city,” Hova said. “No matter how you write the report, she’ll get curious about what you’re doing.” She sighed. “I didn’t think I could hate her any more than I do, but she keeps finding ways of making it worse.”

“I’m sorry.”

Hova looked at Kailas’s bowed head and smiled. She put her hands on Kailas’s cheeks, lifting her head. “You don’t have to say that. I can wait.”

Kailas curled her fingers around Hova’s hands, pressing their tips to Hova’s palms. “I just wish I could make it that you didn’t have to wait. I don’t want it to bother you anymore.”

“If you want to make me feel better, you can get the group that’s asleep in there out of our house.”

“I can do that.” She looked toward the closed paper doors Hova had nodded at, eyes narrowing slightly as she brought Hova’s hands away from her face. “How do I act with them?”

“What?” Hova asked. “You mean for what they said?”

“I know how to react to that,” Kailas said. “I mean generally.”

Hova gave her a look. “Why are you asking me?”

“You’re smarter than I am about people. Aang looks nearly as young as Azula was when we took Ba Sing Se, but he’s nothing like her. And the only people I’ve met who’re the same age as the others are like me—soldiers and officers. I don’t think they’ve even been in major battles before. I don’t know how to even start speaking with them.”

“I think,” Hova said. She trailed off, eyes falling to the floor. “I think…we have to tell them the truth as much as we can. I don’t know about some of them, but I know Sokka doesn’t trust us, you especially. And I didn’t help by saying you were good at lying.”

“That’s all right,” Kailas said. When Hova looked up, she saw that Kailas was staring at the floor. “I’ll give the truth a try.”


“Did you really have to get us this place?”

Kailas looked at Sokka from the corner of her narrowed eye. Against her clean, crisp crimson sleeveless shirt with its phoenix embroidery, long black pants, and unsullied black boots, his worn, patched, and dirty clothes seemed shabby, and he felt it. He turned away first and she was satisfied for the moment.

“This is the best location for all of you to live without people asking prying questions,” she said. “It’s large enough to house all of you comfortably and there’s a cove nearby for Aang to practice waterbending and earthbending out of sight.”

“Why did it have to be the one broken-down house in the city?” Sokka asked, arms crossed over his chest as he glared. The roof looked to be in shambles, a number of its layered tiles cracked or broken. Some places were bare to the roof itself, though they were few and far between. Whatever paint or hard coating had been on the walls was half gone, showing more dirty stone than anything.

There had been paper coverings in the windows at one point, but even the wooden frames were splintered and shattered, littering the ground inside and outside the house at the sills. The front door was out of its groove, hanging halfheartedly limp somewhere between open, closed, and on the ground.

“Quit your whining, Scruffy,” Toph said. She walked to the house and slapped her palm against the nearest wall. “The house itself is fine. The walls are good and I can’t feel any problems near the wood things.” She turned her head slightly, ear toward Kailas. “It just needs a cleanup, right?”

“A restoration and necessities.”

Toph’s head fell to the side, and she reached into her ear with her pinky finger. She dug about, flicking off the wax that gathered under her nail when she was done. “Plain language, Lady Stony-face.”

“A cleanup and what we need, Toph,” Suki said. “Where should we start?”

“The roof,” Sokka said, speaking quickly as Kailas opened her mouth. He smirked at her, jerking his head toward the house. “If we do all the work up top, we can clean out everything that might fall inside when we clean everything else.”

Kailas nodded. She went to the nearest point of the roof, leaping up and grabbing hold of a stable edge. With Sokka’s mouth hanging open as he watched, she heaved herself straight up with enough force to make her fingers leave the stone. She landed lightly on the roof, stood, and turned about. She looked at Sokka.

“There’s a ladder over there if you need help getting up here,” she said with a tiny smile.

Veins bulging on his forehead, Sokka stomped to stand under an edge of the roof. He jumped, hands catching the tiles. For a moment, he tried to pull himself up with the same power. He could not match it, but hauled himself up smoothly nonetheless. He scowled at Kailas again, but she had turned away already.

She crouched down, took hold of a loose, undamaged tile, and pulled it free. She tossed it down to Suki, but looked at Toph. “Can you make more of these with your earthbending?”

Toph held out her hand and, once Suki had given it to her, handled the tile slowly. She ran her fingers along its edges and the smooth bulged curve at one side. Grinning crookedly, she kicked her heel against the ground and a piece of stone in the identical shape and size of the tile popped free. She caught it and pitched both pieces up toward the roof. When she heard the smack of stone against skin, her grin grew broader.

“How’s that?” she asked.

“Perfect,” Kailas said. She turned to where the tile had come from. An empty place had been beside it before she took it away, and the new stone fit snugly and levelly with the tile when she put them both down. The brown stone against the dark blue-green was unsightly, but she looked away toward the rest of the roof.

“Toph, make about eighty more of those!” Sokka said, leaning carefully over the roof’s edge. “That ought to cover the broken ones and the holes we have up here!” He looked back to Kailas, pointing suddenly toward the area of the roof where the most holes were. “You work over there.” He jabbed his finger at the other half of the roof. “I’ll take here.”

“All right,” Kailas said. She turned to the others on the ground. “Toph, please don’t throw the tiles. Suki, would you get on the ladder and pass them up to us?”

“I can make some and bring them up!” Aang said. “Let me see what they look like!” His shoulders started to twist, knees bending.

“No,” Kailas said, voice sharp. Aang stumbled, looking up to find a smooth face directed toward him. “You, Hova, and Katara start cleaning inside the house and see what you’ll need to buy later. There should be a broom inside.”

“But I—”

“Aang, come on,” Katara said. She smiled and took hold of his hand. “This is fine.”

He looked up at Kailas for a moment longer before sighing and following Katara through the doorway. Hova followed after them, though she looked up toward the roof as she went. Sokka, whenever he came back to the center of the roof for more tiles, sent dark glares at Kailas, but she never looked at him. Her face was smooth as she laid the plain stone tiles where they were needed, making no comment as she worked.

The broken tiles were tossed off the roof, cracking further when they hit the dirt. Every so often, when there were small stacks sitting in wait, Toph would walk to the fragments. The gouges she kicked out of the ground to create the tiles were filled in partially with the broken green-blue stone and she kicked dirt back into the rest.

Within the house, Aang was running about and leaping over debris while he laughed. He turned on the balls of his feet, tilting his head back far enough that his hair fell away from his face. The ceiling was intact, even where the tiles on the roof were gone.

“This is so great!” he said. He sprinted away down a long, branching hallway. At one end of the split, down another short hall, was a bath, the tub and basin deep and wide if utterly dry. Along the other side of the split and down a longer hallway, two rooms faced each other. The rooms mirrored one another in size and emptiness, with bare windows in walls that faced out toward the sea. Aang laughed, running back up the main hall and into the large room where Hova and Katara still stood.

“This place is perfect!” he said as he ran past them. A corridor began at the rear side of the room, furthest away from the front door, and he nearly ran along the wall to make the corner that led down a final hallway. Two doors along the same wall opened to another empty room, and yet another with bookcases lining the walls with a few shredded pieces of paper on the floor. Still grinning, he ran back to the main room.

“Aang, come on, we need to get started on this,” Katara said.

“But it’s so amazing!” Aang veered away from her, leaping cleanly out of a large, open window and into the courtyard beyond the house. He stared, wide-eyed and teeth showing in his smile, at the mountain that rose in the distance, and at the sound of the waves against the small cliff nearby.

“Aang, really, come here and help us,” Katara said. “We need to get everything cleaned up.”

Aang turned about slowly, eyes still toward everything but the broken bits of wood and streaks of dusty dirt on the floor. He climbed back halfway through the window, sitting on the sill with his legs hanging in and out of the house. “I can’t believe she found us this place.”

“She wouldn’t leave you to camp out for all this time,” Hova said. She was gathering broken bits of wood in her hands, but paused and looked at Aang. “How long does it usually take to learn bending?”

He shrugged and leaned into the house to pick up wood on the floor near his hanging feet. “It doesn’t take long to start bending, but I still haven’t totally mastered earthbending like I have airbending or waterbending, and I’ve been working on that for nearly a year.”

Katara, having found the broom, paused in sweeping piles of dust toward the back door. “Toph says you’re doing really well. You’re definitely better than most of the earthbenders we’ve met.”

For a moment, all Aang did was spin the pieces of wood between his fingers. “I’m still not a master. I don’t know if I’ll be any good at firebending.”

“Aang, I promise you’re doing fine,” Katara said, sighing out her words. She pushed the broken door open more with her foot, sweeping out the dirt she had gathered with the broom. “Earthbending is your opposite element, so it takes longer. Think of it as a chance to be excited about learning something new again.”

He hummed quietly. He almost dropped the wood back onto the floor, but blinked and closed his hands around them in a proper grip. His smile returned as he pushed himself off of the windowsill and into the house, but it was weaker with anxiety. “So, um, is…is Kailas good at teaching?”

“I have no idea,” Hova said. She looked about, hands full of wood shrapnel, before walking to where Aang stood by the window. She tossed the bits out the window, holding out a hand for the pieces Aang carried. “I haven’t seen her teach anyone. And I know she wasn’t teaching anyone before I met her.”

“Oh,” Aang said. He looked at his hands and gave Hova the wood bits. He watched as she tossed them to where the other pieces had landed.

“But I’ve seen her fight,” Hova said. She looked at Aang and smiled. “She knows how to firebend. She’ll be able to teach you.” She laughed, walking toward the long, straight corridor Aang had first explored. “She’s stayed alive being Azula’s sparring partner for over ten years now. She knows what she’s doing.”

Aang stared at her for a moment, never seeing Katara’s wide eyes and open mouth, and followed her down the hall. “She’s fought the Fire Lord?”

“In sparring matches, yes,” Hova said. She went to one room, heading for the broken wood frame and paper pieces near the window.

“Did—did she win?”

“She’s won a few matches that I know of, but that doesn’t happen too often,” Hova said. “But she didn’t get beaten too badly after a few years of it.” She paused with a bundle of the wood in her hands. “She stopped getting hurt enough to scar about seven years ago, actually.”

Aang winced. He put his arms behind his back and his eyes on the floor. As Hova gathered the shreds of paper, he dug at the floorboards with the toe of one boot. “I’m…sorry.”

Hova looked at him, blinking. “What?”

“I’m sorry she’s been hurt like that,” he said quietly.

Hova stood up straight, the floor clean. “You’re not the one who did that to her.”

“Yeah, but…I don’t know.” He lifted one hand to rub at his head. For a moment, the headband slipped and left his tattoo exposed. He righted it without thinking. “If I hadn’t been in the iceberg, the war wouldn’t have lasted so long. The Fire Nation wouldn’t have won.”

“No,” Hova said. She walked from the room and into the other. “Those things might not have happened. If you had woken up on the wrong day before the war ended, you might have been killed, and then they still would have won. And we’d be worse off because we’d have to wait for the next Avatar to be born. We wouldn’t even know if they’d have lived long enough to be able to fight.”

She crouched, starting to gather the broken frame, and said, “Either way, it’s never going to be your fault that Kailas has scars. Besides, she made some of them herself.”

“But I—”

“Is everyone in this family you have so negative?”


“Kailas went through this when she was younger. I know you probably won’t believe me—Sokka won’t—but she knows what she’s done. She felt so badly about…it that there was a time where she didn’t speak for days. She didn’t sleep much, either.”

Aang said nothing, staring at the floor again.

“What do you think would have happened if she stayed focused on all the terrible things she’s had to do? Or if she blamed herself for the Fire Nation doing what it’s done?”

Aang’s lips twisted down, brows coming together. “But it’s not the same! I’m the Avatar! I should have been here!”

“How do you know that?”

“Because the Avatar isn’t supposed to run away!”

“What about a little boy who would have been killed if he hadn’t?”

He let out a hard breath through his nose. “I shouldn’t have run away.”

Hova shrugged, gathering the last bits of wood. “You shouldn’t think about the past so much.”

“Then what?” he asked. “I’m just supposed to forget it all?”

“No,” Hova said. “You should remember it. But you should remember to be here, too. Concentrate on what you’re going to do now. Like learn how to firebend.”

He sighed again, closing his eyes tight while Hova walked past him. He followed her, though, before the sound of her footsteps faded. The main room was swept clean, the floorboards gleaming gold-brown with the sunlight coming through the bare windows. Katara was nowhere to be found, the broom propped near the front door. Hova tossed the last pieces of wood out the back window and onto the small pile. She went through the doorway with Aang close behind.

Toph continued to kick tiles from the ground, but at a slower rate. Suki leaned on the roof’s edge with her elbows, watching Kailas and Sokka replace and remove tiles while never looking at each other. In the uncomfortable silence, Aang came to stand at Katara’s left, Hova on her right, and they all watched the duo make short work of the remaining empty spaces and cracked pieces.

“Have you thought about what you’ll need to buy?” Kailas asked as she stood straight.

Katara flinched when Kailas’s eyes fell upon her. “Well. I guess? Um, food. Some bedding. New windows. A table, maybe.”

Kailas’s head tilted slightly, down and to the right. “That sounds correct.” With her fingers tucked in the cloth of her black belt, she walked to the edge of the roof and straight off, landing in a crouch before rising up.

Sokka scowled at her and moved to the edge of the roof as well. He steadied himself, holding his arms out to the side, and jumped. As Kailas had, he landed in a crouch, but his momentum kept him off balance. He had to catch himself from falling by putting his hands down on the ground. Face red, he stood up quickly, looking at Kailas as if waiting for her to laugh. Only Aang and Toph were snickering, Suki shaking her head with a smile.

“I’ve things to do myself,” Kailas said, “but I’ll give you enough money to get what you need.”

“Good,” Sokka said. He held out a hand, shaking it up and down.

She looked at his hand, raising an eyebrow. “What are you doing?”

“Waiting for you to give me the money.”

“Who said I would be giving you the money?”

Sokka’s neck corded. “You just did!”

“Cumulative ‘you,’” Kailas said. “I’m giving the money to Hova. She knows where everything is in the market. And she needs to go with you as Toph’s guide.”

Toph raised a hand, thumb of her free hand hitched in her cloth belt. “I don’t know if you noticed, but I don’t need a guide. Earthbending lets me see just fine.”

“I noticed,” Kailas said softly. “I don’t want anyone else to do the same.”

Suki slid down the ladder, looking at Kailas as she walked to Sokka’s side. “Why not?”

“Would you like it if news of the Blind Bandit living here reached the Fire Lord?” Kailas asked.

Katara’s eyes narrowed. “Is that a threat?”

“No,” Kailas said. “It’s just a rule. One of the rules you need to follow.”

“Wait a minute,” Toph said. “Rules? We have to follow rules?”

“To live here safely, yes.” Kailas looked at them one by one, seeing the scowls, frowns, and confusion directed toward her. “I thought about it for most of the night. You need to keep your identities more secret than you have been. That means you have to behave as I tell you in the city, and when there are people around that aren’t Hova or me.”

“You’re going to control the way we behave?” Sokka demanded, brows low.

Kailas closed her eyes for a moment, letting out her breath slowly. “No. I am simply asking you to follow the rules. I don’t want you to be found, and these are the best things I could think of to keep you hidden.”

In the silence and amidst the glares, Aang stepped forward. He looked up at Kailas, eyes bright with eager focus. “What did you think of?” He looked at the others significantly before bringing his eyes back to Kailas. “We’re listening.”

“A number of things,” Kailas said. “First was that Toph has to actually appear blind. There can be no chance of someone making the connection between you and the Blind Bandit. A rumor like that would spread faster through the country than I could have my allies discount it.”

She looked at Sokka, Katara, and Suki. “Second was that I cannot provide you with all of your money. It would draw attention to us all. People would ask why I’m being so generous for so long. You three need to take jobs.”

“What kind of jobs?” Katara asked.

“What are you best at?”

Suki looked between Sokka and Katara, speaking up when they would not. “Sokka’s pretty good with weaponry. If there’s anything for that here, he can do it. And Katara can heal with her waterbending.”

“And you?”

“I can…I could be part of the city guards.”

Kailas was quiet for a time, looking at the sky. “Our forge master has been looking for a shop assistant. Our doctor would like any help he can get. Tai-Yang is always looking for able hands.” She sighed, head tilting forward. “It can work. I can make the recommendations.”

“What about me?” Toph asked.

“You have to stay here,” Kailas said, “for the most part. You’ll need to have someone with you when you go out to keep people from wondering. Hova can do this. It’ll be a good enough reason as to why we’ll be here so often.”

“What do I do?” Aang asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“Pretend to be a firebender and only a firebender.”

“I can’t practice my other bending?”

“Not anywhere others can see. We can go to the cove I told you about when we take a break from firebending. But you can’t airbend. Not unless I’m with you and I feel that it’s safe.”

“Your feelings are really that good?” Sokka asked.

“They have been,” Kailas said. She went to Hova. The knot that tied a pouch to her belt was undone, the pouch opened. She scooped out a number of coins, gold glinting in the light before she closed her hand tightly around them.

“This should be more than enough for everything.” She smiled slightly and put the pouch in Hova’s hands. “Try to bring some back.”

As Kailas turned and started away, Sokka followed her with his eyes. “Where are you going?”

“I told you,” Kailas said. “I’ve things to do. I’ll meet you all back here at sunset.” She walked away, leaving the group in stillness and silence. Aang eventually cleared his throat and smiled at them all. His smile turned to a grin, and he took hold of Hova’s wrist, tugging her toward the same path Kailas had gone down.

“Let’s go!”


The group split and reformed multiple times throughout the day with Sokka and Hova at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Toph, with Hova’s hand needlessly at her arm, was the only person that did not float back and forth. She took pleasure in this, as she did not have to participate in the conversations Sokka held behind Hova’s back.

“There are so many people who know them,” Katara said.

“Kailas is the governor,” Aang said. “Why wouldn’t they know her?”

“I said ‘them,’ Aang. All of them know Hova, too. They’re really happy to see her.”

“And they keep asking for news about her,” Sokka said.

“Sokka, her name is Kailas,” Suki said.

“I know that,” he said. “But why do they keep asking about her?”

Aang did not answer, hurrying forward when he saw Hova stop at a storefront and look over her shoulder at him. Katara followed, seeing fabrics and bedding and murmuring under her breath. Sokka and Suki stopped, Sokka standing with arms over his chest and Suki with her hands held behind her back.

“They probably like her,” Suki said. “I can tell the guards all respect her at the very least.”

“And you really want to be part of this little cult she’s got going?”

“Just because they like her or respect her doesn’t mean she’s made a cult,” Suki said. “I think she’s really trying to do something for this city. For the people.”

“That doesn’t change anything,” Sokka said. “You heard the stories Toph told us about the Phoenix Battalion.”

“But what if they’re not all true?” Suki asked. “What if some of those stories are just people trying to blame her for everything? She has done good things, Sokka. The comet—”

“Don’t,” he hissed. “That’s a lie.”

She opened her mouth for a moment but closed it almost immediately. As Aang returned, clutching a number of pillows to his chest, she left and went to Katara, who stood waving her nearer. Sokka continued to scowl, eyes narrow.

“Sokka, look at this!” Aang said. “Brand new pillows! And they gave us a discount!”

“It’s not our money anyway,” Sokka said in return. “It doesn’t matter.”

Aang looked at the man, blinking over the pillows. “Sure it does.” He adjusted his grip, grinning at the fluffiness in his arms. “They’re welcoming us to the city.”

“It’s still not our money they’re taking,” Sokka said. “They’re just not taking her money because she tells them not to.”

“What?” Aang asked. “No, Katara just asked why all the shops keep giving us discounts. The owner said it’s because we’re with Hova. He said she and Kailas help people who are coming to the city get what they need. The shops just decided that they’d give discounts when Kailas helps people settle in because she does it all the time.”

He laughed. “He said she’d find a way to give all her money to people who come to Taonan if they didn’t stop her.”

Sokka’s glare was enough to make Aang’s eyes fall and his head drop. They continued on in that silence even as Katara returned, sleeping mats folded thick over her arms. Suki remained with Toph and Hova and followed them to another storefront, leaving the other trio where they were.

Katara sighed, smiling at the mats. “It’s been so long since we’ve been able to get new things. It’s almost like getting a home again.”

“A house,” Sokka said. “It’s just a house we’re going to live in.”

Katara shrugged. “Either way. I’m just glad to settle down for a while. It’ll be nice to not have to run from town to town.”

He looked at her, frown still on his face. “Are you saying you trust her?”

“Who, Hova?” Katara asked. “I guess. We just met her, but she seems perfectly nice.”

“I meant the other one.”

“Kailas?” She thought a long while before letting out an equally long sigh. “I don’t know, Sokka.”

“How can you not know?” he asked. “She’s Fire Nation.”

She shrugged. “I know she’s from the Fire Nation. I know she’s a firebender. And I know I shouldn’t even want to trust her. But…she just doesn’t sound like all the stories. All we ever heard from the stories was that she’s a really good military leader. Nothing ever talked about how she is when she’s at home.”


“So?” Katara asked in turn. “Sokka, Dad was a warrior after he was our dad and the tribe’s chief. Kailas might be the same way.” She smiled slightly, looking at Toph after glancing at Hova. “From what Suki said, she’s probably Hova’s wife before anything else.”

Sokka said nothing, looking away with the frown still deep on his face. Neither Katara nor Aang tried to start up a conversation with him, instead watching Suki, Hova, and Toph while they went from a final storefront toward the shops that sold food.

For the first time, Toph carried something, taking a quartet of rice bags in her arms because she grew bored with Suki and Hova attempting to split the bags between themselves. She left the shopkeeper staring after her as Hova pushed her toward another shop, grinning smugly enough that Suki slapped her shoulder.

Through everything, Sokka continued to stand and stare at the ground. The space where shoulders and neck met ached from the tension he’d carried since the morning before. His jaw stung from how hard he clenched his teeth together. His eyes burned from the poor sleep he’d had. His head throbbed

Small children, some bigger and older but all still barely reaching his waist, darted by shrieking as they raced after each other. They barely spared a moment to pause and look at the unknown group amidst the known ranks of the marketplace, instead waving and smiling when the mood seemed to strike. They were happy and unconcerned, and it made Sokka wish all the more that he could leave Taonan.

“Sokka!” Suki shouted. “Come here!”

He looked up, blinking, to find Suki waving at him from a butcher’s storefront. Dragging his feet, he went to where she, Hova, and Toph stood. He grunted when he came to a stop, crossing his arms tight over his chest.

“What?” he asked.

“You should pick out what you want to eat,” Hova said.

He looked at her, eyes narrow. “So I get the most food?”

She returned his gaze with nothing more than a raised brow. “No. I’m not the one who’s going to eat all this. Suki said you like meat the most, so you should get what you want.”

He wanted to say something in return, something sniping and petty that would cut her legs out from under her and make her as angry as he felt. For all his want, his tongue wouldn’t obey. He was unsure if it was from how much he felt the same as Katara for finding somewhere to stay for some amount of time, or a lack of restful sleep on his part, but he kept quiet for a long while.

When he finally spoke, he had turned to the butcher and was pointing toward the cuts that made his stomach rumble. Whatever else he had to say through the remainder of the afternoon was never to Hova. He never met her eyes.


The sun was far below the horizon before Kailas returned. Sitting within the house, with the candles and lanterns they had purchased lit and bright, none of them would have noticed until she had knocked at a doorway. Toph, though, turned one ear toward the windows at the rear of the house suddenly, eyes still forward. She laughed, grabbing a soft roll from the table and tearing a bite from it.

“Those fur-balls make more noise than she does,” she said with a snicker.

“What?” Katara asked.

“Momo and that raccoon-dog,” Toph said. “It’s hard enough hearing anything with Momo squeaking all the time, but that mutt walks harder than her.” She took another bite. “Just like you, Twinkle-toes.”

Hova, standing near the back door, sighed with relief and went outside. Out of the trees lining the hills first was Fai, bounding from side to side in the way he only did when Kailas walked with him. Kailas was next, one hand tossing pieces of dried meat to Fai and the other holding a kitbag over one shoulder. Momo sat on the other shoulder, tail wrapped gently around her neck, chattering endlessly into her ear. Within a few moments, Hova had jogged to Kailas and had her arms around her neck. Momo rumbled at being shoved aside, but settled on the ground with Fai sitting next to him.

“You said sunset,” Hova said quietly.

“I know,” Kailas said. “I’m sorry.” She stepped back, bringing the kitbag around her shoulder to rummage inside it. “This took longer than I expected.”

Hova watched Kailas’s hands. “What did?”

“This,” Kailas said. She brought her hand out of the bag and uncurled her fingers. In her palm was a strong bracelet of gold, its links a fine wheat chain. A ruby was set halfway between the open clasps, cut six-sided and large as her thumbnail. She took Hova’s left hand, drawing it near enough to put the bracelet around her wrist.

“I remembered…my mother told me my father gave her a necklace when he asked her to marry him,” Kailas said. “I thought I should give you something, and I liked this best.” She smoothed the chain, holding the ruby against the bottom of Hova’s wrist where her pulse was strongest. “Is it all right?”

“You,” Hova said. It was all she could say because it was all she could think. She closed her hands over Kailas’s, smiling and shaking her head slowly. “Yes. It’s all right.” She brought Kailas’s hand to her lips, kissing her fingers. “Thank you.”

“Aw, just go home and get into bed already!” Toph said.

There was no helping the blush that came to Hova’s face when she turned to find the others leaning from the window or standing near the door. Kailas, though, did little more than blink. She put the kitbag back over her shoulder. She went forward, standing a number of paces away when she stopped.

“You found everything you needed?” she asked.

“Yep,” Aang said. He put his hands in the bare windowsill, vaulting out into the courtyard. “But we decided not to get new windows. It’s not chilly in the summer, right?”

Kailas hummed in assent. In the quiet that followed, Hova saw something that made her stare. The grip Kailas had on the kitbag’s strap was tight enough to have made her knuckles gone white; there was a tremor in her hand.

“So you can go home for the night,” Sokka said. He meant to glance at her, but did not look away when he saw that her eyes were on the ground. “Did you hear me?”

“I did,” Kailas said. She exhaled slowly and lifted her head. “There are two things I want to say before I go.”

“What is it?” Suki asked.

Kailas’s eyes fell. Her back bent in a bow soon after. “I ask that you leave Hova out of whatever you quarrel you have with me.”

“What are you talking about?” Katara asked.

“None of this is new to me,” Kailas said. “I know how each of you feel toward me. I know all of you hate me.”

Suki stepped forward. “We never said—”

Kailas straightened, looking at them with her face blank and her eyes half shut. “I know what you’ve said of me. I know what you’ve heard. And I am accustomed to it. But there is nothing that Hova has done or could do to warrant anything you have said to her.” Her eyes found Sokka’s. He looked away.

“Again,” said Kailas, “I ask you to leave her be. Speak and act as you will to me, but leave her be. Please.”

Sokka exhaled hard through his nose. “Whatever. You said you had two things. Say what it is and go home.”

“Very well.” She turned to look at Aang and took a step toward him. “Did you wonder why Momo came to me yesterday when Fai was chasing him?”

Aang shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe you smelled like food?”

Kailas shook her head and took another step. “It’s because he and I met a long time ago. Long before you woke up.”

“But he was at—he lived in the mountains when we found him,” Aang said. “You couldn’t have gotten up there to meet him.”

“I did.” She took another step and squared her feet. “The monks said that only flying bison, lemurs, or airbenders could reach the temples. They didn’t have the time to write about how mongoose-lizards are able to bring soldiers up.”

Aang’s brows knitted and he took a step back without knowing. “What are you talking about? What do you mean about them not writing it?”

Kailas brought the kitbag around from behind her back, opening it and taking from within it a box, painted blue and white on the carved whorls and spirals on its sides and the sliding cover. Hova started, her face going white. Kailas held it out to Aang, her eyes narrow.

“This is yours,” she whispered. “Take it.”

“This is—Gyatso’s,” Aang said. His eyes were wide under his lowered brows. He snatched the box from her hands. “Monk Gyatso made this box and kept all the writing he liked best in it!” He looked up at her, his neck growing taut. “The temples were all burned! Why do you have this? How can you have this?”

“I told you,” Kailas said, voice so soft it was difficult to hear. “Mongoose-lizards are able to bring soldiers up to where the temples were. I met the lemur and found that box before the temples were burned.”

“Kailas, wait,” Hova said quickly, reaching out a hand.

Kailas swallowed visibly, head dropping. “Before…before I destroyed the Southern Air Temple.”

Katara’s eyes went wide. “You—what?”

Slowly, Kailas sank down on her knees in front of Aang. She put her hands on the ground and bowed her head. “I know you’ve wondered who destroyed your home. The other temples were burned by other firebenders when Sozin’s Comet came, but I was the one who destroyed the Southern Air Temple, and I alone.”

“Kailas, stop!” Hova said.

“You destroyed the temple by yourself?” Sokka shouted.

Kailas did not move, her head against her fingers. “I did. I may have been ordered to, but I was the one who destroyed it. All I could do beside that was hide these writings and make Momo hide away from the temple. But that means nothing compared to what I took from you.”

Her voice grew strained, her fingers curling in the dust. “And I know that whatever apology I give you can mean nothing—but I can’t tell you how sorry I am for what I’ve done. I’m not asking you to forgive me, Aang. I’m just so sorry.”

The box slipped from his limp fingers and clattered against the ground. He fell to his knees, and none could see his eyes for how his hair fell over them. The only thing that broke the silence was his ragged breathing. For a long time, it was the only sound anyone heard.

The crack that rang out next was so sudden, so loud, and so piercing that no one, not even Kailas, noticed that she was thrown onto her back with her nose broken and pouring blood.

A pillar of rock had erupted from the ground, spattered red at its peak. Aang’s fist was deep in the ground. Bright light came from his hand where the sleeve had slid up over the tattoo. His eyes were closed, but the glow bled through cloth over hands and forehead alike. Kailas gaped, breathing through her mouth and tasting blood when it ran over her lips.

“Kailas, run!” Suki shouted.

Aang’s body was lifted from the ground by a burst of air, his feet finding firm standing. His eyes opened. They were filled with light so bright that Kailas did not know where he looked. Tears dripped from them, even as his lips pulled back and his teeth were bared.

Run, you stupid woman!” Kailas looked to see Sokka with his face pale, pointing toward the mountain. “Just run!”

Her body moved before she could think to roll backward and dodge a much sharper pillar of earth. She landed on her feet, balancing herself with her hands. Slowly, she reached up and closed both hands over her nose, twisting it hard back into proper place. Aang’s fists both came forward, more stone breaking free in pillars that struck for her chest and belly.

“Kailas, go!” Hova shouted.

Kailas twisted, leaping and rolling over her shoulders to dodge. Her feet slid before the boot soles found purchase. She was away in a second, running as fast as her body and the earth would allow. She did not look back, body flushing from head to foot with the cold that she had felt a thousand times before. Her heart hammered in her chest, but she heard nothing of it. Each footfall grated in her ears with how stones ground against each other, and she could hear the rumble of earth moving unnaturally.

Stones cracked under her heels, each step another near miss by the pillars Aang called with each punch and hard stomp of his feet. There were times that she was thrown into the air, the pillars finding the center of her feet, but she simply twisted herself in the air and continued to land back on steady footing.

Because it failed, Aang’s white eyes turned toward the sea. With the moon half full overhead, it was little more than a token gesture to whip his arm about in an arc and rip water from the ocean. The water, tall as Kailas and twice as wide as her shoulders, roared as it moved, breaking and spraying into whiteness.

Kailas heard it. She had heard Aang howl as he brought his arm around and she looked to see what he did even as she ran. The water drew near, its roar shaking her head. Before it could touch her, she turned away and bunched the muscles in her legs. A jump would have done nothing, but the fire that swelled under her feet pushed her high and away. The water slammed against the ground she had once stood on, missing her completely.

The hill was falling away now, she found. Somehow it had been climbed and now it was so far below. The cove was below her, holding even more water for him to command. She hit the ground and rolled because there was no other way. As soon as her toes touched the earth, she started her dash again.

Downhill was lighter work and would have let her go faster. She ran along the curve of the cove, trying to keep away from the water as much as she could. Because it was too innocuous, she did not think to take account of the air itself. As solid as a beam of wood and as painful, the wind crashed against her ribs and threw her down the hills. She hit the dirt and rolled over rock and stone, feeling the scrapes they left in clothes and skin alike.

Her back hit more stone and she was stopped so swiftly that her head cracked against it as well. She lay stunned for an instant, but it was long enough. Aang’s knees slammed down on her shoulders, pinning her body and her arms. His hands clamped around on her throat. Eyes still glowing, still streaming with tears, he squeezed so tight with his hands that his fingers came together at the back of her neck. Kailas choked.

She knew it was not what he wanted. His thumbs weren’t pressing in at the front of her throat to cut off her breath. His hands were only squeezing, tightening so much that his nails dug in through her skin. She heard her bones creaking under the strain, felt her jaw pressed shut because of his grip. The edges of her vision started to flicker and grew blurred.

With the blood still flowing from her nose, there was almost no breath to be had. Her hands were starting to go numb. There was no chance of lifting them to reach for his arms. She closed her eyes because they hurt terribly. There was no reason to keep them open any longer.

Toph was the first to catch up. She ran hard, forcing the ground to ferry her faster. She grabbed Aang by the chest from behind, heaving with everything she had.

“Dammit, Twinkle-toes!” she said. “Let go! You’re gonna break her neck!”

Sokka arrived next, catching one of Aang’s arms and pulling at his shoulder. “Aang, stop it! Let her go now!”

Katara slid to a stop on Aang’s other side to pull at his arm. She did not speak, only pulling. Suki joined Toph in trying to heave Aang away at his waist.

Hova dropped to her knees, desperately working to pry his fingers away from Kailas’s throat. Her efforts failed when his fingers proved strong as a vice. She grit her teeth and tried again.

“Let her go!” she shouted. She looked at Aang and shouted even louder. “Damn you, let her go!”

He did not seem to hear her. She felt something in her chest snap. She got to her feet and grabbed Aang’s shirt.

Let her go!” she screamed at him, drawing her arm back and closing her hand into a fist.

Aang gasped as the glow in his eyes vanished. He opened his hands; he looked up. Hova punched him squarely in the face regardless, knocking him into the others. They fell back as Hova dropped to her knees once more to hold Kailas’s face steady.

“Kailas, can you hear me?” she asked. She patted her cheeks gently. “Come on, please open your eyes!” She bore down on the sob that rose in her chest. “Kailas, please, please, please!”

Kailas’s shoulders jerked and she coughed, wheezing as she started to breathe again. Her eyes opened, unfocused and open unevenly. Bruises were already forming around her throat from Aang’s hands and around her eyes from the broken nose. She coughed again, but her eyes closed and her arms remained on the ground.


She looked up at her name to find Katara reaching out. Bending over Kailas to guard her was automatic, but it didn’t stop her shoulders from shaking or her pulse from jumping.

Katara winced, drawing her hand back. “That’s not—I’m not going to attack her.”

“How am I supposed to trust that?” Hova demanded.

“Hova, I can heal her!”

“All you want is for her to die!” she shouted. “It’s all you’ve wanted since you got here! It’s all anyone wants from her even when she’s trying to explain how she’s sorry for what she’s done! And Aang nearly did kill her!”

“Hova, please, we’re not trying to hurt her,” Suki said.

Hova opened her mouth to reply, but only let out a yelp when Sokka wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her away from Kailas. She glared at him, eyes wide. He ignored her and nodded at Katara. She sighed, but knelt down beside Kailas and uncorked the water skin at her hip. The water came to glove her hands and began to glow clear white.

“This won’t hurt,” she said, both to Kailas and to Hova. She brought her hands to Kailas’s throat, but her fingers did not touch skin. Katara closed her eyes and her world was honed down to the energy she could see with her hands and the water.

There were cluttered, swollen spaces of blue light where the energy of Kailas’s body was bound up, most vivid at her throat and her nose. Breathing slowly and easily, Katara let her pulse match Kailas’s.

To the others, the bruises started to fade from sight. To Katara, the bound energy was simply breaking away and settling back into the flow it had always followed. It took some guidance and gentle pressure where Aang’s hands had threatened to fracture the bones, but it went without struggle. When there were no other spots that the energy clung to unnaturally, she moved one hand to Kailas’s nose, leaving one hand to continue healing and managing the pain.

The break had already been realigned; all that was left for Katara was its healing. It was as easy as before, the blood coming to a stop shortly. The bone healed with no trouble and she meant to keep her hand there to reverse the bruising that had appeared. The bond snapped and she pulled her hands away at the slap of sensation that followed the break. She opened her eyes, finding Kailas starting to sit up. Kailas, eyes closed, coughed into her elbow to catch the blood splatter on her sleeve.

Hova wrenched herself free of Sokka’s grasp and returned to Kailas’s side. “Kailas! Are you all right?”

“I’m sorry.”

Kailas looked away from Hova toward Aang. His voice had been quiet, but there was no doubt it was him. He sat staring at the ground, knees up to his chest and eyes wide. “I’m sorry.”

For a moment, Kailas opened her mouth. She closed it again, watching him and how his shoulders shook. Eventually, she closed her eyes and sighed, standing up carefully. She rubbed at the blood on her face with the back of one hand, holding the other out to Hova. As Hova stood up, Kailas looked back at Aang.

“I’ll be here tomorrow morning,” she said.

Aang started, his head rising. “But—”

“You have firebending to learn,” Kailas said. “And you have things to explain, as well.”

“You’re not going to try and kick us out of the city?” Toph asked.

Kailas frowned, eyes narrowing, and those who could see it winced. “I just said I’ll be here tomorrow morning.” She turned away, Hova following because she would not let go of Kailas’s hand. “Go to sleep. We’ll be busy tomorrow.”

They watched the two women go, meeting with Fai as he struggled over the hilltop. Momo chattered, moving to poke at Aang’s face when the trio vanished beyond the hill. No one answered what he was asking.

Chapter Text

“Didn’t I tell you to go to sleep?”

Aang did not answer. In the half-light of a cloudy day, the bruising on his face nearly matched Kailas’s. He looked at the ground, fidgeting.

Kailas looked at the others, finding their eyes to be exhausted and averted. “Is there a reason why you all didn’t sleep?”

None of them answered.

Kailas sighed. “I told you that I would be here now and that you should sleep. Do you still think I’m going to have you arrested?”

“There could be a whole squad out in the front yard for all we know,” Suki said quietly.

“Toph would notice,” Kailas said. “And she would notice any soldiers coming from the city early enough that you could run.”

No one moved or spoke. No one would meet Kailas’s eyes aside from Hova. Momo, though, hopped into the window that faced the courtyard and the group to look about. He squealed at the sight of Kailas, leaping into the air and flapping his wings enough to carry him to her shoulders. He settled there and chattered at her, continuing when she turned to face him. The purple color around her eyes was something he was unfamiliar with. Purring, he poked at it.

“Momo, don’t!” Sokka said.

The lemur looked at the man with a questioning trill, but kept pushing at Kailas’s face. She sighed again, taking a careful hold of his paw and pushing it away.

“Answer me this,” Kailas said. “Did all of you stay up the entire night?”

“Yeah,” Toph admitted.

Another sigh left Kailas’s throat, even louder. She pointed toward the house. “All right. You’re not going to be of any use to people today. Go inside and rest.” She caught the back of Aang’s high collar when he tried to slink away. “Not you. We have things to talk about.”

“But I didn’t sleep either,” Aang said.

“That was your choice,” Kailas said. “You owe me a number of detailed explanations.” She turned her eyes to the others and nodded toward the house. “The rest of you go.” She looked over her shoulder at Hova. “You too, please. I know you didn’t sleep.”

Slowly, hesitantly, they started to move. Sokka, Hova, and Suki turned to look back as they entered the house. Katara and Toph did not, and Toph slid the door shut behind her when all were inside. Aang did not lift his head, standing with a lump in his throat and his eyes on his feet. When his collar was released, he turned about with timid legs.

Kailas sank to the ground, crossing her legs and putting her hands on her knees. “Sit.”

He sat, nearly falling over in his haste. He kept himself out of arm’s reach and pulled his legs up to his chest, looking everywhere but Kailas’s face.

“Shouldn’t—shouldn’t we go inside?” he asked. “It might start raining.”

“It will. You can smell it very well this close to the sea.”

Aang opened his mouth but closed it with a sigh as he shut his eyes. “I’m sorry.”


“Yesterday. I’m sorry I got so angry.”

“You’re not.”

“What?” he asked, head rising. “Yes I am!”

“You’re not,” Kailas said. “And you shouldn’t apologize if you don’t mean what you say.”

“But I’m sorry!” he said. His eyes pinched tight, but tears still managed to find their way onto his cheeks. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to get that mad! I don’t want to hurt people!”

“You are not sorry for what you felt,” Kailas said. “And you shouldn’t be.”

“I shouldn’t be sorry for nearly choking you to death?”

“You weren’t trying to choke me,” Kailas said. “You were trying to break my neck. And that’s some of what you regret, but your anger isn’t what you’re sorry for.” She blinked, slowly. “And you shouldn’t be. I destroyed your home, Aang. You can’t be sorry for being hurt by that.”

“But I shouldn’t have attacked you! I shouldn’t have lost control like that!”

“That’s what you really feel sorry for,” Kailas said. Her eyes narrowed. “Take your headband off.”


“Take your headband off.”

He swallowed hard, reaching up to untie the cloth. The point of the arrow tattoo was uncovered, baring the light blue ink to Kailas’s eyes.

She looked at it closely, blinking when her eyes demanded it. “Show me your hands.”

He pushed his sleeves up enough to reveal the tattoos on the backs of his hands, the blue ink the same as on his head.

Kailas let out a slow breath, putting her elbow on her knee and her chin in her palm. “So it wasn’t just the bleeding or the pain.”


“I thought I might have imagined seeing your tattoos glowing last night,” Kailas said. “You hit me in the face hard enough to make me dizzy, and I couldn’t breathe when you were choking me. With how your hair is, and how you wear your clothes, I thought it could have been a hallucination. But it wasn’t, was it.”

“No,” Aang said.

“What exactly happened?” Kailas asked. “Sokka mentioned something about Avatar…stuff…when Hova asked about you surviving in the iceberg.” She blinked because the stinging had returned. “I’ve seen many people with tattoos, but none of them have glowed. No one’s eyes glow, either. What happened?”

Aang took in a breath and let it out again. “It’s called the Avatar State. I don’t—I don’t really know what it is, though. It’s only happened once before, when we went to the—where the Southern Air Temple was. I was just so mad. I don’t even know what happened, but the others told me my tattoos started glowing and I started floating in the air.”

“With airbending.”

“Yeah. But they calmed me down, and then I came out of it.”

“Did the same thing happen last night?”

Aang shook his head. “I could sort of see what was happening. But I wasn’t controlling me—it was like every other Avatar ever was angry, too. I can’t waterbend or earthbend like that yet. Not on my own. And I’m not that fast or strong. I can’t do what I did unless I’m in the Avatar State.”

“Can you control it?”

He shook his head again. “I don’t even know what it is. Sokka said it’d be a snap to just glow it up and beat up the Phoenix King and Fire Lord, but I don’t know how to get in or out of it.”

Kailas blinked. “‘Glow it up?’”

“Never mind.”

Kailas hummed softly, looking past Aang toward the ocean. With the clouds overhead, it was gray. The faint winds brought few ripples or waves. “I would imagine it’s a defensive measure, at least in some ways.”


“You’ve avoided battles, haven’t you?”

“Yeah,” he said. “We were worried that something might make me go into the Avatar State—or I’d airbend.”

“And so far you’ve only gone into this state when you’re enraged. I would guess that it would also be triggered if you or the people you care about were in danger.” She closed her eyes for a time. “But it’s too much of a risk. We can’t rely on this in any way unless there’s a way to learn to control it.”

She chuckled as she opened her eyes. “I certainly don’t know what that is. I’m ashamed to say I never read much about Avatar Roku when I had regular access to the palace library.”

“So what do we do?”

“As we planned originally,” Kailas said. “I teach you firebending. And I alter the plans I already have.”


“I’ll explain when I can,” Kailas said. She sat up straight, arching her back and her neck to stretch. “For now, we’ll focus on firebending.”

“But…what about what happened?”

“What about it?”

“I nearly killed you,” he said, voice soft.

“You’re not the first. You won’t be the last.”


“It’s all right.” Her eyes opened, and her gaze was made strangely gentle by the way her brows rose. “You’ve apologized for losing control. Given what you just explained, I understand why it happened. I’m used to people trying to kill me.”

“That doesn’t make it okay!” he said.

“Whether or not it’s ‘okay’ doesn’t matter,” Kailas said in turn. “People have decided that my life doesn’t matter at this point. I’ve accepted that.”

“Hova thinks your life matters,” Aang said. “And so do a lot of the people in the city. They like you.”

She smiled slightly. “They’re why I keep fighting.”

“But…you didn’t try to fight me.”

Her smile faded. She sighed. “I won’t fight you, Aang. My life isn’t worth as much as the Avatar’s, no matter what you say. Please leave it alone.”

He nodded, but slowly. “So…where do we start?” He flinched at the first heavy drop of rain on his head. Groaning, he hung his head as the rain started in earnest.

“Meditating,” Kailas replied with a chuckle.


They looked up when the rain started, eyes turning toward the door. When it was clear that it would not be opened, they settled more comfortably. Within minutes, the pouring rain drowned out all other sound past the walls.

Sokka lay stretched out on his back, arms tucked behind his head and nestled on a sitting cushion. His head was turned, eyes on Hova. She was sitting nearest the doorway, legs drawn up loosely to her chest. Fai lay beside her, tail sweeping the floor slowly. Her eyes were blackened by little sleep and her shoulders twitched from weariness.

“Hey,” Sokka said quietly. Suki looked up from her spot near Hova, but he shook his head. “Hey, Hova.”

She jerked, eyes rising. “What?”

“Listen, I’m sorry I grabbed you like that last night,” he said. “But Katara needed to heal…her.”

Hova’s eyes narrowed. “Her name is Kailas.”

He looked away only a moment, frowning at himself before turning back. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“You know what?” Hova muttered. “I really doubt that.”

“He’s telling the truth, Lover-pants,” Toph said.

Hova blinked. “What?”

Toph, sprawled on her stomach near Katara with her arms tucked under her chin, picked at her ear with her pinky finger. “I can tell when people are lying. And Sokka’s really bad at lying, anyway, so he’s usually telling the truth.”

“No, what did you just call me?”


Katara, sitting with her hand in Toph’s hair, looked at her with her brows raised. “Lover…pants?”

Toph grumbled, rolling over onto her back and taking Katara’s hand. “So it’s not as good as Lady Stony-face. I’m tired.”

“I seriously mean it,” Sokka said. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t keep calling—Kailas ‘her.’ I know her name.”

“Fine,” Hova said. She moved her feet, pulling her legs closer to put her cheek on her knees. She scratched Fai’s head. “I get it already.”

Sokka pursed his lips, looking up at Suki. She shrugged and shook her head. He sighed through his nose and sat up, crossing his legs and putting his elbows on his knees.

“Hey,” he said, “why did, um, Kailas do that?”

Hova neither looked up nor lifted her head. “Do what?”

“It didn’t look like she was fighting Aang at all,” he said. “You know, when we caught up to them. It looked like she was just letting him…um. Choke her.”

“She didn’t want to hurt him,” Hova said. “And she didn’t know how to stop him without doing that.”

Sokka scratched at the back of his head. “Yeah. It’s pretty hard stopping him when he’s in the Avatar State.”

“The what?”

“The Avatar State,” Suki said. “It’s what we call it when his eyes and tattoos start glowing like that. He can bend a lot better than he can on his own…but it’s terrifying because he goes out of control.”

“But Kailas is supposed to be a really great fighter, right?” Sokka asked. “And I’ve heard she’s a strategist, too.”

“What’s your point?” Hova asked.

“She could’ve thought up a way to stop Aang,” he said. “Right?”

“I just said she didn’t know how,” Hova said. “She tried to think of a way, but she couldn’t.” She closed her eyes. “Besides, she told me a long time ago that if she met anyone who used to live at the Air Temples—if she met the Avatar—she wouldn’t fight him. Even if he attacked her.”

A deep weight settled on the room. Those who could see looked at each other, Katara with wide eyes, Suki with raised brows, and Sokka with a frown on his face. Toph, for her part, drummed her fingers in Katara’s palm, eyes aimed at the ceiling and listening for anything. When the silence persisted, she sighed, bending one leg up and kicking the other high up to lay calf against knee.

“What made her decide to do a stupid thing like that?” she asked.

“Toph!” Katara hissed.

“Hey, it’s an honest question,” Toph said. She lifted her free hand, tilting it backward until she could point one finger at Hova. “Why’d she decide to let someone kick her ass?”

“Because she feels ridiculously guilty,” Hova said, voice softer than before. “And since no one ever lets her apologize, she just tries to get through everyone being angry at her.”

“She doesn’t get angry back?” Toph asked.

“She does,” Hova said. She shifted, settling into a more comfortable position where her muscles were not pulled. “But she can’t react.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sokka asked.

“Letting people see you feel something is a weakness to her. She says it’s how people learn what to attack.”

“You mean like weak points on your body?” Katara asked.

Hova sighed, shifting again. “No. If she gets angry about something, then you know that it’s something important to her. You can attack that to make her more upset or to attack her from behind when she’s trying to protect it. She has more than one scar from protecting me.”

“So she doesn’t let herself feel anything?” Toph asked. She sneered at the ceiling. “That’s pretty stupid.”

“Toph, stop it!” Katara said.

What?” Toph asked. “I can say my opinion if I want to!”

“That’s no reason to be rude like that!”

“I’m not being rude!”

“Calling someone stupid is pretty rude, Toph.”

“I’m not calling Kailas stupid! I’m saying what she’s doing is stupid!”

Sokka and Suki both groaned, Sokka falling back to the floor, and both put hands over their faces. Momo let out a low whimper, ears drooping. Suki was the first to move her hand to her forehead, looking at Katara and Toph with her brows knit.

“Can you please not turn this into a real argument?” she asked.

“We’re not arguing, Suki,” Katara said.

Toph sighed and rolled over onto her side, taking her hand from Katara’s. “Yeah we are, Sugar Queen.”

“We’re not!” Katara protested.

“We’re yelling,” Toph said. “We’re arguing. I sure don’t get why, though. I was just saying what I thought.”

“You’re not wrong,” Hova said. Momo’s ears perked up and he went to her, squeaking at her quietly. She opened her eyes, lifting her head and picking him up. He settled in her lap when she crossed her legs, purring as she scratched behind his ears.

“It’s stupid she has to act like she doesn’t feel anything,” she said. “I hate it that she does and I know she hates it too.” She touched Fai’s nose when he started sniffing Momo’s side, but he did not try to bark or bite.

“So why does she act like that?” Sokka asked.

“Because she has to lie,” Hova said. She smiled because Momo sniffed Fai’s nose very politely. “If she didn’t, then she might get killed for what she’s doing.”

Suki’s eyebrows dropped. “What is she doing?”

“Training Aang.”

“Is that really all she’s doing?” Suki asked.

“No, but the rest is enough to make us all be in danger,” Hova said. “For Kailas…if Azula knew what she’s been doing for all these years, I don’t think Kailas could die enough.”

“Seriously, what’s she been doing?” Sokka asked.

Hova shook her head. “I can’t tell you.”

“Don’t trust us?” Toph asked.

“That’s not it. No one knows everything Kailas has been doing except her. Even I don’t know. And it needs to be that way until…things are right.”

“You guys really like to spout off cryptic crap. What’s that supposed to mean?”

Hova finally lifted her eyes, letting Fai brace himself on her leg to sniff Momo more thoroughly. “Are you going to keep asking me questions about this?”

Sokka smiled at her, shrugging though he remained on his back. “That’s how we do things.”

“All right, fine.” She sat up straighter, leaning against the wall. “Have you heard of the Dragons?”

“The big winged, fire-breathing lizards?” Sokka asked, flapping his hands. “Yeah, we’ve heard of them.”

“Sokka, I’m pretty sure she meant the rebel group,” Suki said.

Hova nodded. “Have you?”

“Sort of,” Katara said. “We’ve heard that there are people who’re part of the Dragons everywhere. They’re…trying to get rid of Ozai and Azula, right?”


“Oh, oh!” Sokka said. He sat up, holding his hands together as if a sword’s hilt was between his fingers and waving his arms about. “Wait, I know something, too! The Black Dragon is the one who’s guiding all the rebels, right? All the attacks on the Fire Nation military are planned out and ordered by them!”

Hova smiled. “Right.”

“So what about them?” Toph asked.

“Kailas is part of the Dragons,” Hova said.

“Seriously?” Suki asked.

“Does she know who the Black Dragon is?” Sokka asked.

Hova shook her head, looking at the ground. “I can’t tell you. All I can say is that she’s with the Dragons, and I really shouldn’t have.” Her eyes rose. “You can’t say anything about this to anyone other than me and Kailas. No one in the city knows about this except Lieutenant Tai-Yang, and that’s because he’s part of it too.”

Sokka’s hands had dropped onto his legs and he stared at Hova. “She’s part of the Dragons.”


His head tilted down, brows lowering. “That’s a death sentence, isn’t it? We’ve seen posters saying that anyone in the Dragons will be killed for treason against the Fire Nation.”

“That’s what I meant when I said Kailas couldn’t die enough if Azula found out,” Hova said. “There have been a few groups of people who just said they were part of the Dragons, and they were executed the second they were caught. Kailas…found out who some of them were and had them arrested so they wouldn’t make any problems for the real Dragons, but she didn’t mean for them to get killed. Azula hates the Dragons, especially the Black Dragon.”

For a moment, Sokka was utterly silent. He barely moved, shoulders still because his breathing grew shallow. When he lifted his head again, his face had paled. “Why’s she doing it?”

Hova smiled again. “Because she knows what she’s done and what she needs to do.”


Aang’s teeth chattered no matter how hard he clenched his jaw. He rubbed at his upper arms, rain falling hard enough to slap through his soaked hair onto his scalp and the tops of his ears. He stared, brows low enough that they appeared from beneath the headband, at Kailas.

She sat with her back straight, her head up, her eyes closed, and her hands laid with their palms up on her knees. There was no movement he could see, whatever rise or fall in her shoulders from breathing invisible in the rain and the splashes they made off her body.

“H-how l-long do we have to s-sit out here?” he asked.

“Are you cold?”

“It’s been raining on us for hours!”

“Forty minutes,” Kailas said.

Aang shook his head furiously, flinging water everywhere and receiving only the continuing dousing from the rain above. When he stopped, he stared, eyes wide and watery. “Just forty minutes?”

She opened one eye and smirked at him. “Are you cold?”

“How are you not?” he asked.

“I’ve never been cold,” Kailas said. She lifted one hand, tipping the water from her palm. One breath was taken in; her exhale carried fire. It circled like a coiling snake around her palm before settling in a sphere that snapped and popped from the rain falling upon it.

The dim light of the clouded sky was beaten out on her face by the light of the fire, her skin painted bright, flickering orange-red. When she opened her eyes, the gold of her irises was made that much brighter. Aang’s mouth hung open as he stared.

“Wow,” he whispered.

“Were you cold in the iceberg?” Kailas asked. “Or the South Pole?”

Aang stared at the fire as Kailas brought both hands to her lap to hold the flame. “I don’t know how the iceberg felt, but the South Pole was cold.”

“I see.” She moved one hand to hover over the fire, so close that the tendrils threatened to lick her skin and burn the palm. It stopped before her skin, spreading through the gaps in her fingers. She lifted her hand slowly, the fire stretching into a small pillar before it split into two spheres. Her hands returned to her knees, palms up and filled with flame.

“Why were you cold?” she asked

“What?” He blinked but could not take his eyes from the fire. It remained whole and unaffected by the rain, hissing quietly and softly. “It’s—it’s the South Pole. It’s always cold.”

“I’ve gone as far south and north as is possible without reaching the real poles,” Kailas said. “I’ve been on icepacks and snow banks and glaciers. Yet I’ve never been cold.”

“You’re a firebender,” Aang said.

“I am,” Kailas said. “And so are you.”

“But I’m—”

“The Avatar. You were born the Avatar. Which country you were born in matters very little, save for where your home is.”

“But I can’t firebend,” he said.

“Yet,” she replied. She offered him one hand, rolling her fingers to bring the fire onto their tips.

He leaned far back, hands up. “No, no, I’m good.”

She drew her hand back. Brow raised, she asked, “Why are you afraid of the fire?”

“It could burn me!” Aang said. “Why wouldn’t I be scared?”

“Are you afraid of water? Or the earth? What about the air?”

“What?” he asked. “No, those can’t hurt me.”

She chuckled. “That’s a blatant lie. Of course they can hurt you. The only difference is that you have no hesitation when it comes to using the other elements. Fire is exactly the same. It’s our gift to use.”

He looked at her bare arms, blinking away the rain that clung to his eyelashes, and pointed at the slim white scar on her arm. “But you’ve gotten burned.”

“Do you think I’m scared of fire because of that?” Kailas asked. “That’s only one of the burn scars I have, and it’s one of the ones I made myself.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Fire is not automatically death,” Kailas said. “It can be life just as easily.”

“How does burning yourself make it life?”

“There’s been more than one time where I might have bled to death if I hadn’t burned the wound and stopped the bleeding,” Kailas said. “And I’ve heard many stories of firebenders surviving being lost at the poles or in blizzards because of their firebending. It’s something that can be used, not something to be feared.”

A smile came to Aang’s face. “Okay, no fear. I control the fire. So when do we start chucking fireballs?”

Kailas’s hands closed, the fire vanishing. “When you learn the difference between fear of a weapon and respect for a gift.”


“You respect the air, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” Aang said. “It’s the air. We need it to breathe.”

“And the earth and the water. You respect them.”


“Then you need to learn to respect fire. It’s a gift as much as any other element we can create. You can control it, but it’s not something that comes instantly or even naturally.”

“But we’re firebenders,” Aang said. “We’re born able to control it.”

“Yes, we can create it,” Kailas said. “And we can guide it after we create it. There are many firebenders who have no control over what they create.”

“I don’t get it.”

Kailas smiled. “Say I create a fire blast. I then guide the fire blast to strike at someone. However, I don’t take into account that he’s standing very close to a wooden house. When he dodges, the house catches on fire. It’s possible to put out small fires—snuffing candles, putting out fire on your clothes—but once the fire reaches a certain size, a certain distance from you, or your concentration breaks, it’s no longer in your power.

“It can and will burn anything it touches, and you have no say over that,” said Kailas. “That is why you have to respect the gift of fire before you can be a good firebender. Just like any other element.”

“Oh,” Aang said quietly.

“And you need to know how to make fire in the first place.”

“How do we do that?”

“Do you know where the power for firebending comes from?”

“The sun, right?”

“Correct,” Kailas said. “If the sun is blocked during an eclipse, we can’t firebend. Then why is it that we can firebend when there are clouds or at night?”

Aang shrugged, holding up his hands. Kailas brought the fingers of her right hand together, touching the tips of each finger and her thumb to the center of her chest.

“I was taught that the body has fire,” she murmured. “People must have fire in themselves to live. For a firebender, we must be more aware of this, because to tap into firebending is to tap into that.”

“We just have to know that our bodies are hot?” Aang asked.

She shook her head. “The fire is not limited to physical heat. Fire is what makes you live. It’s why.” She brought her hand from her chest, parting her fingers from the thumb. Sparks snapped and gathered, a small sphere of fire forming in the air between her fingers.

“The reason a firebender can create even this small of a flame is because they know two things. They know what it is to respect fire, and they know what makes the fire inside of themselves.” She opened her hand, the fire moving to sit in her palm and growing larger.

“What makes the fire in your heart?” she asked. “What drives you? What are you willing to fight for?”

Aang looked at his hands and the rain that splattered in his palms. He flexed his fingers, looking up at the fire in Kailas’s hand. Slowly, he brought his eyes to hers.

“You said that you’re used to people trying to kill you…but that you fight because of Hova,” he said. “Is she what makes your fire?”

“She is,” Kailas said, closing her hand. She looked at Aang’s eyes for many moments before sighing. “But it’s also made by the fact that I don’t want to fight at all.”

“What?” He blinked, and threw his hands into the air, beginning to shout. “What? That doesn’t make any sense! How can you be such a great firebender if you don’t want to fight?”

“Would you prefer it if I wanted the war to break back out into full-blown battles?”

“No, but how can you even firebend if you don’t want to fight?”

“Because I have so many things to fight for.”

He frowned at her. “Can you actually say what you mean or do I have to guess everything?”

Kailas looked toward the house from the corner of her eye. “I hate fighting. I hate that there’s a need to fight, and I hate when the fighting goes on as long as it does. I’ve been part of the Fire Nation military for more than half my life, Aang, ever since Azula ordered that I be her sparring partner. And everything that’s come from that is awful.

“I’ve seen dozens of people die, I’ve killed just as many at this point, I’ve destroyed sacred things, and I’ve been hurt or nearly died so often that I can’t remember all those times clearly anymore. Hova has been kidnapped and hurt. I can’t help but hate fighting.”

“Then what’re you fighting for other than Hova? Why fight at all?”

She smiled. “Because I want to fight for Hova. I want to fight to always come back to her. I want to fight to return my country’s honor and to fix what we’ve done. I want to keep living, and I know I need to fight to do that—and I know that I can. It’s why I train as much as I do, and it’s why I’m able to firebend as well as I can.”

Aang looked at both hands. “Then…how do I know what’s my fire?”

“Thinking,” Kailas said. “Meditating. Knowing why you want or need to fight.”

He sighed softly and his hands fell onto his crossed ankles. He opened his mouth, but his stomach let out such a massive rumble that Kailas could hear it past the rain. Blushing and putting his hands over his stomach, he looked up at her to find a raised eyebrow.

“You didn’t eat anything, either?” she asked.

“Um…can we take a break?” he asked in turn.

Kailas put her hands on the ground, balancing herself as she uncrossed her legs and rose to her feet. “Let’s be quiet when we go in. And try not to drip on anyone.”

Aang nodded, all but bouncing up onto his feet. He reached the door first, opening it carefully to keep its rolling rustle quiet. When he looked about, though, he stopped in the doorway. Hova sat cross-legged nearest the door, a blanket tucked around her shoulders with Momo and Fai curled in her lap. Sokka lay on his side, arm draped over Suki, who lay on her back with a sitting cushion under her head and a blanket over both of them.

Katara sat against the far wall, near one of the front windows with her legs stretched out straight. Toph lay on her stomach alongside Katara’s legs, and a blanket was spread over Katara’s lap and Toph’s back. Each of them was completely asleep, the room perfectly silent beside the rush of the rain.

He smiled as he went inside, stepping lightly to keep the vibrations and sound low. Kailas followed him, watching as he went to the house’s kitchen and rummaged about in the food they had bought the day before. She stood between the two rooms, arms crossed behind her back, and watched the sleepers spread throughout the room. Just as Aang did, she smiled at the sight. It made the weariness in her body and the pain that lingered in her face seem that much more distant. She smiled at all of them.

Aang’s hand closed on the low hem of her shirt and tugged. He whispered, “Hey, can we go feed Appa?”


“Oh, we didn’t get to introduce you to him!” Aang said, still whispering. “He’s my bison!”

“A flying bison?”

“Yeah!” he said, nodding. “Come on, we should go feed him! He’ll be hungry!” He grinned because he couldn’t laugh aloud. “He’s got five stomachs!”

He turned and hurried back into the kitchen, dashing about and gathering up food. All of the food was packed away into a satchel, and he slung it over his shoulder with the grin still on his face. Silently, he returned outside, gesturing for Kailas to follow. He stood rocking from heel to toe as she did so, almost starting off before Kailas had even closed the door.

“Where are you hiding a flying bison?” Kailas asked.

Aang skipped out into the rain, pointing toward the mountain. He continued to point even as Kailas joined him and they started out toward the foothills. “Toph made a big enough cave at the top of the mountain when we came in a couple days ago. We thought it’d be safe, since it didn’t look like anyone went up that high.”

“It was a good choice,” Kailas said. “The people here are much too afraid to climb it without an earthbender guide.”

Aang laughed aloud once, but they continued on in silence. Kailas walked with her arms behind her back, holding her elbows in her hands, and looked up at the mountain face. Aang chewed upon an apple he fished out of the satchel, the crack of the skin breaking under his teeth washed out by the droning rain. Once or twice as they walked and climbed the hills and rocky pathways, Aang’s feet slipped in the mud. Each time, Kailas’s hand shot out from behind her back to snatch his collar and keep him upright. He smiled at her sheepishly when she did, but she only nodded.

Near to the peak of the mountain, turned toward the sea and the northern coast, was the cave. A small ledge only wide enough for one person to walk along lined the cave’s mouth. Aang hopped up to the ledge first, jogging inside and shaking his head to fling the rainwater off his hair.

“Appa!” he called. “Appa, buddy, come here! I’ve got food for you! And someone to meet, too!”

Kailas put one foot on the ledge, looking out. The thick, wild forests that populated the northern coastline were empty aside from nests of raccoon-dogs, hog-monkeys, and wolvogs. The next city was a small fishing town over thirty miles out to the north. She brought her other foot onto the ledge and started into the cave, watching how the faint light fell in with the rain. A deep, lowing rumble made her head swing about.

“Appa, meet Kailas Arav,” Aang said. He patted at what Kailas could only guess was the elbow joint of one of six tree-thick legs, holding out his other hand in a gesture toward her. He brought his hand back, waving toward a white and gray furry face that was as large as a house wall in height and width. “Kailas, this is Appa.”

In the shadows of the cave, the gray arrow on the bison’s forehead almost seemed to fade away, but when he stepped forward, the lines became defined. So too, did his horns with the three steps he took toward the cave entrance and Kailas. He peered at Kailas with immense brown eyes, blinking and shaking his shaggy head. After a moment, he snorted quietly.

Aang smiled, moving forward and reaching up to rub behind one of Appa’s ears. “Appa’s been with me ever since I was a little kid. He was with me with the iceberg, too.” He laughed. “You know what Sokka called him when they woke us up from the iceberg? Appa sneezed on him and Sokka called him a fluffy snot-monster for a month!”

Kailas said nothing. Aang turned to look, and saw that she had gone ramrod straight, shoulders flat and stiff and hands curled into fists at her sides. Though her face was smooth, he could see that her eyes were wide and her lips were thin with how hard she had pressed them together. He blinked, looking between her and Appa.

“Are…you scared of Appa?” he asked.

Before Kailas could answer, Appa opened his mouth and let out what amounted to a quiet roar. The sight of enormous teeth, wide as a hand and half as thick, made Kailas’s eyes widen even more. Appa walked forward suddenly and swiftly and knocked Kailas off her feet with a hard nudge of his nose to her chest. She hit the ground, breath leaving her in a rush when Appa put a foot on top of her.

When Kailas spoke, Aang wasn’t sure if it was the lack of breath that made her speak so quickly or if it was only from what she said. “Yes I’m frightened of the bison please get him off of me.”

Appa licked her from neck to forehead.

Aang slapped his hands over his mouth to keep his laughter back, his shoulders shaking with silent giggles. “Appa—Appa, come on. Get—get off.”

Appa stepped back, head tilting. Kailas sat up slowly, eyes shut. When she was upright, she wiped at her face with her arm and shuddered violently.

“Sorry,” Aang said. “You don’t have to be scared.”

Kailas opened her eyes and flinched when she saw that Appa was still in front of her, his eyes level with her head. He sniffed at her face, nudging her forehead with his nose far more gently than his first shove. Her eyes clamped shut again, another shudder firing up her spine when he licked her face again.

“Why does he keep licking me?” she asked, voice breaking.

Aang choked on his giggles. “Maybe you taste good? But he only does that to people he likes.” He walked to Appa’s face, patting the bison’s nose and pushing him away from Kailas. “Why are you scared of him?”

Kailas wiped her face again, but put her hand over her eyes. “The—there’s almost no history of the Air Nomads left except for what I brought back from the Southern Air Temple. Most of the writing and art from the Fire Nation makes the sky bison look like monsters to make people less sympathetic to the Air Nomads.”

“Aw,” Aang said, hugging Appa’s head and looking at Kailas with his eyes wide and filled with false tears. “But he’s just a big fluffy snot-monster who wants to be friends!”

“And I can see that,” Kailas said. “But—animals that are much larger than I am scare me very badly.”

Aang bit his lip hard. “Really?”

“Yes, really.”

The laughter was impossible to hold back any longer. He fell onto his rear, the cave ringing with his cackles and guffaws. “You? You’re scared of big animals? That’s great! Does Hova know that?”

Kailas moved her hand to her forehead, looking at the boy who sat kicking his legs and holding his stomach. She stared, but he did not stop laughing. Eventually, she smiled. “She does. It’s something she can tease me about.”

Aang’s head fell back with more laughter. Appa made a small, sad grunt, looking at Kailas and blinking his massive eyes. She cleared her throat, reaching up slowly to tap her fingertips against his nose. He licked her hand. She managed to keep from jerking away despite the shudder that wracked her shoulders. Aang continued to laugh loud and long enough that tears dripped from his eyes. Outside the rain poured on, but the echoes of Aang’s laughter and Appa’s cheerier grunts and soft roars finally beat down the sound.


In the midst of her ninth day of training and partnered patrols through the city, Suki tried not to grimace at the way Tai-Yang approached her with a dark expression on his face. He pulled her away from her partner and smiled when he noticed her anxiety.

“You’re not in trouble,” he said. He held up a sealed scroll and said, “I’m looking for Captain Arav. She’s been with your group most recently, so do you know where she might be?”

“Oh,” she said quietly. “Yes, she’s training Aang where we live.” She glanced at the scroll and asked, “Is that another document for the house? I thought what she gave Sokka last week was the deed.”

“It was,” Tai-Yang said. “This is something different.” He nodded to her, saying, “Thanks for the info. Go ahead and keep on your patrol.” He headed off then, moving quickly with the scroll feeling heavy in his hand.

Sokka was in the front yard, painting the walls with a new coat of white. He jumped at Tai-Yang’s greeting, nearly upsetting the bucket at his feet.

“I really don’t mean to keep scaring all of you,” Tai-Yang said, smiling. “I’m just looking for Captain Arav. Suki said she’d be here training that boy with you.”

“Yep,” Sokka said. He pointed upward, finger curled. “She’s in the back with him right now.”

“Thanks,” said Tai-Yang, and he headed around the house entirely. When he rounded the final corner, he stopped to watch.

“Do we have to keep doing horse stances?” Aang asked.

Kailas, circling around him with her feet bare, looked at him with a critical eye. “Yes, because I keep having to tell you to widen your stance.”

Toph, lounging in the shade of the overhanging roof with her back on the ground and her feet on the nearest wall, laughed. “He’s really bad at getting into a good horse stance.”

Beside her, back against the wall, Hova smiled, chuckled, and shook her head.

Tai-Yang cleared his throat gently, stepping closer. “Excuse my interruption, Captain.”

“It’s all right, Lieutenant,” Kailas said. “We’ve hardly gotten anywhere.” She stopped to stretch in the sunlight, hands on the back of her neck. The rain had been beaten back by a warm, bright sun, and she wore trousers the color of dark dust and a sleeveless red shirt to soak in the heat.

Tai-Yang stared briefly at Aang, still wearing his long sleeves and full trousers. “Well—there’s been a messenger from Tsukuba, ma’am.”

Kailas nudged Aang’s boot-clad feet further apart with her own. She made to turn away, but stopped after looking at him again. Putting her hand on his head, she lifted one leg and tapped his back with her knee, making him straighten his spine.

“You have the authority to open a message from Colonel Long Fa,” she said. “It might well be to wish a happy birthday to your daughter.”

“It has the royal seal on it.”

Hova, in loose, light green trousers that fell to her ankles and a white sleeveless shirt that closed on her shoulder, looked up quickly. Toph did not react, save for running her fingers through her hair. Aang, though, tried to turn to look at Tai-Yang.

Kailas tightened her grip on Aang’s head, keeping him facing forward. “And the messenger said he was from Tsukuba?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Blinking once, Kailas strode to Tai-Yang and took the scroll he held out to her. A quick, smooth swipe of her fingertips broke the wax seal, cracking the stylized flame and releasing the rolled paper. She opened it, eyes half-closed as she read the short message. When she had finished, she sighed and rolled the scroll back shut.

“I have to leave immediately,” she said.

“Wait, what?” Aang stood up out of his stance, stumbling from the ache that had settled in his legs. “But we haven’t even started using fire yet! You can’t leave just like that!”

“When there’s a tank at Tsukuba waiting to take myself and a superior officer to the Eastern Capitol, I can,” Kailas said. She tapped the top of his head with the scroll. “Did I say you could get out of your stance?”

“Why is there a tank?” Toph asked.

“The Fire Lord doesn’t like to wait,” Tai-Yang said. “Tanks are the fastest way to get across the country.”

“But why do you have to go?” Aang asked.

“The message says that the Fire Lord is looking for any new information on the Dragons,” Kailas said. “Thank you, Lieutenant. I’ll prepare to leave and be at the main gates in twenty minutes.”

Tai-Yang bowed at the waist. “I’ll be your escort to Tsukuba, ma’am.” He turned, waving a hand over his head as he went. “I’ll meet you there.”

Hova let out a slow sigh as Tai-Yang disappeared, lips curling in a smile. When Aang looked at her, the smile grew. “She does this every few months. It’s nothing strange.”

“But it’s the whole country!” Aang said, voice pitching high to border on a whine. “It’ll take forever to get across it!”

“I’ll be gone two weeks at the most,” Kailas said. She tucked the scroll in her belt. “Your training won’t be too delayed.”


Kailas sighed, turned about, and took both of Aang’s hands in her own. A sphere of fire formed between both of their hands, hovering and flaring between Aang’s palms. He stared, feeling the heat flowing from his fingertips all the way to his elbows. Kailas’s hands came away slowly, but the fire remained in Aang’s hands. He reached his hands forward briefly, trying to follow her, but soon brought his hands back. His mouth fell open in a grin.

“This is what it should feel like,” Kailas said. “By the time I return, I expect you to be able to create and sustain a fire of this exact size—and absolutely nothing else.”


“No,” Kailas said, voice hard. “You’ve been unable to make a spark on your own for these last ten days. You’re still too nervous. You don’t respect fire yet. I haven’t had any time to decide where to start in forms, and I don’t want to worry about coming back and finding that you’ve burned down my city by accident.”

She looked at Toph. “You have my permission to put him in a stone tomb if he tries to do anything other than what I’ve just said.”

Toph lifted one thumb. “Can do.”

Kailas sighed, moving toward the back door of the house to pull on her boots. “I need to leave immediately. Keep going about your jobs and don’t act like anything is out of the ordinary. Hova will still come here every day. If you absolutely need to contact me, she’ll know how to write your message.”

Toph lifted her thumb again. “Got it.”

Without looking back at Aang and never glancing at Sokka when she emerged through the front door, Kailas left. Without missing a step, Hova followed. The return to their house was one carried out in silence and swift paces, Hova having to jog to keep up in some places. It was only when they were inside the house, Kailas snatching up a kitbag to pack, that Hova was able to slow.

“Kailas, what’s wrong?” she asked. “Azula made you go to Ba Sing Se last month, three months before that, and three months before that. It’s nothing new.”

“This is,” Kailas said quietly. She folded a clean pair of black trousers over her arm before packing them into the satchel. “Each summons has come after three months. Always three. Azula is obsessive about the Dragons, but she’s too exact. This is too soon to be another meeting only about the Dragons.”

Hova felt a chill rush down her spine. “Do you think she knows something about Aang?”

“I don’t know,” Kailas said. “The timing could be right for messenger hawks to have been sent from here to her and for her to have sent the summons. But—I don’t know.”

She put her hand on her forehead. “There’s no one in the city that would have been anywhere near the coast when Aang was in the Avatar State. Anyone who was would have asked me or Tai-Yang what was happening. They’ve always done that when there’s something strange…for all the time I’ve been governor.”

“Do you think there’s someone who knows about you?”

“Only you, Tai-Yang, and Long Fa know,” Kailas murmured. “I just—there’s something wrong with this.” She looked at Hova. The faint traces of the bruising that remained around her eyes seemed darker with how her brows had come together. “Azula knows something. Whether it’s about Aang or it’s about the Dragons, she knows something.”

Hova’s mouth went dry; no matter how many times she swallowed, her tongue did not want to come away from the roof of her mouth. “Then—what are you going to do?”

“Go,” Kailas said, “and lie like I always do.” She tied the kitbag closed, putting it over her shoulder. “But I’ll like it even less than usual.”

Letting out a quiet sigh was the first thing Hova did. The second was walking close to Kailas and closing her left hand in the fabric of Kailas’s shirt. She leaned her head against Kailas’s chest, putting her other arm around Kailas’s waist. Only when Kailas put her free arm around her shoulders did she close her eyes and speak.

“Promise me you’ll be careful,” she murmured.

Kailas put her cheek against Hova’s hair and whispered, “I will be.”

“Good.” She lifted her head, smiling when she could see Kailas’s eyes. “We still have to get married.” She grinned when a smile appeared on Kailas’s face.

“I know,” Kailas chuckled. “I’ll be careful, I promise.” She lifted Hova’s chin, tipping her own head down to kiss her. It was a long while before she parted from Hova, simply because the prospect of staying there in their quiet house with Hova’s lips against hers was so much warmer and brighter than the journey and meeting that lay ahead. The demand of duty took the smile from her face when she pulled away. She sighed, caressing Hova’s cheek with the backs of her fingers.

“I’ll be back soon,” she said quietly. “Please keep them out of trouble.”

Hova smiled, combing her fingers once through Kailas’s hair. “I will. Don’t worry about anything here.”

“Thank you, Hova.” She kissed her again, briefly, lightly. She adjusted the kitbag on her shoulder, starting toward the front door with Hova following behind her. She stopped at the door and touched her fingers to Hova’s cheek. “I’ll be back.”

“I know.” She watched Kailas walk through the door they had left open and down toward the city. She watched her go until she could not see her in the distance. It was still many minutes before she left their house and closed the door behind her.


“You know, Captain, I still wonder what it is that made you grow so tall. I can’t quite recall how tall Bao was when last I saw him.”

“I have no idea, sir. Perhaps it’s a side effect from being wounded so many times in my life.”

Long Fa laughed, letting his head fall back. The years found him with a spine that was still as straight as Kailas’s, but stiffness closing in on his right knee. Walking alongside Kailas, limping even with the cane as aid, the height difference would have been utterly laughable. His gray-haired head was barely higher than the elbows of Kailas’s arms. None of the soldiers lining the massive pathways to what had been the Earth King’s Royal Shrine even blinked, all too aware of their ranks.

“Ah, Captain,” he sighed. “Tell me if this is me simply being an old man, but it seems that we were only just here.”

“No sir,” Kailas said. “We were summoned last month.”

Doorways were opened as they came near. Each hallway was one Kailas recognized. She could remember how they had appeared when the coup was underway and she had helped Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee infiltrate the Shrine. The walls had been brilliant, verdant green, laced with rich, bright gold designs of the most ornate fashion. Every year of Azula’s dominion over the palace found the walls slightly changed. The earliest months had found the walls little changed, save for the banners of the Fire Nation draped over each great space of green.

More and more, though, the banners were replaced. As the walls were painted over with deep, dark red, the banners were taken down. The golden designs were left, but made more flowing from the square-edged style of the Earth Kingdom to be more akin to flames. Each new design and all the old were outlined in pure black and the hallways became darker and more closed in. The green of deep, healthy fields had felt grand to Kailas, sweeping to such high ceilings that her shoulders wanted to follow to walk tall. The red of fire and blood made weight rest upon her back, but she walked with her head up nonetheless.

“That’s a bit strange, isn’t it?” Long Fa said, stroking at his beard and looking toward the black-painted ceilings. “Usually the Fire Lord calls these meetings about that Dragon group every three months.”

“She may have found information before us,” Kailas said. “Something about the Black Dragon, even.”

Long Fa hummed cheerfully. “We’ll have to listen to our Fire Lord very well, if that’s the case. We mustn’t make her do all the hard work in this fight of ours.”

“No sir.” They went silent, continuing to the throne room.

The throne room was as changed as the hallways. Modeled closely after the war room in the Western Capitol in the Fire Nation, a deep trench had been carved in the floor. It was filled with blue flames flaring as tall as most men. The pillars around the room had been painted black, the walls the same shade of blood as the walls outside. The stone badger-mole throne had been broken and torn away, replaced with a wide, high-backed wooden throne.

Rubies and emeralds dotted the gold-leafed throne, caught in the mouths and held in the claws of carved dragons and phoenixes. At its zenith, a black steel metalwork of a dragon, coiled back and forth over the back’s width, sat with an offshoot of painted blue flame. The flame reached over where the throne’s occupant sat on soft, opulent cushions made from silk and stuffed with turtle-duck feathers, supported by part of the pelt of a badger-mole.

Other officers sat on cushions lined neatly along a world map. Long Fa went to one space left open near to the flames, sitting cross-legged and laying his cane before him. Kailas walked more slowly to the last open space at the very fore of the map: nearest the flames at Azula’s right hand side. Ty Lee and Mai stood to the left of the throne and Kailas looked at them and the throne’s occupant from the corner of half-closed eyes.

Ty Lee and Mai were almost unchanged from their youth in terms of height, build, and demeanor. Mai was still taller than Ty Lee, but there were only a spare few inches between them anymore. There was more definition in Ty Lee’s bare arms than Mai’s, though not by much. What remained consistent were their expressions: Ty Lee smiled brightly and waved at Kailas when she noticed her; Mai nodded with a bored look on her face.

Azula sat in her throne, legs crossed at the knee and elbows propped on the chair’s arms. It was almost three years since she had started wearing her hair mostly down, only what was needed for a topknot gathered up while the rest was let loose. Her clothing was strict military garb, light armor on her shoulders and high stiff collar closed at all times.

When she stood, it did not matter that she was still the same height as when she was fourteen. As she walked through the fire, stepping lightly over the trench, all conversation stopped. Every eye was on her when the flames closed behind her silently.

“I understand that this must seem strange to some of you,” she said. She began to walk behind the seated officers, her feet slow and silent. “I summoned you here only a month ago.”

No one spoke in assent. No one nodded.

“It is an ongoing struggle of ours to stamp out these…Dragons,” she said. She chuckled, smiling. “An arrogant title to take. Even more so the Black Dragon. Wouldn’t you all agree?”

Most officers murmured their agreements, looking eager to do so. Kailas and Long Fa nodded without speaking.

“I have reason to believe that the Dragons will become more active soon,” Azula said. She slowed down when she was halfway along the first side of the map. “Especially the Black Dragon, whatever fool that happens to be.” She paused and looked back toward Ty Lee.

“Why’s that?” she asked, eyes bright.

“Approximately two years ago, I received a notice from the Fire Sages,” Azula said. She pulled a folded, faded, and slightly torn piece of paper with a Fire Nation seal at the bottom of the page from her cloth belt. “The sages said that there was a very strange reaction from the statue of Avatar Roku. Its eyes were glowing.”

She crumpled the paper and tossed it onto the map, where it settled in the sea between the Fire Nation and the continent. She began to walk again.

“I inquired what significance this had,” she said. “The Sages were adamant that the Avatar had returned.”

She paused again. All eyes were upon her still, confusion on all faces. Kailas’s brows had dropped and come together, eyes following Azula as she started walking again.

“If that’s true,” she said, “then there should have been a reaction from statues at other Avatar shrines. Was that the case, your majesty?”

Azula chuckled. “Always knowing what I’m about to say. It should have been, yes. I found the Earth Kingdom shrines and demanded to know if such reactions had taken place.” She shrugged her shoulders, eyes closing a moment.

“Imagine my surprise when they said that there had been no alert sages at the time,” she said with a weary sigh. “Those sages were removed from their shrines and I ordered for others to stand watch over the statues at all times.”

She stopped at the end of the map opposite the throne. Again she reached into her belt and brought out a piece of paper. This page was undamaged save for a few creases, and sealed at the bottom with the Fire Nation emblem.

“Three weeks ago,” Azula murmured, “another notice was sent from the Fire Sages. There had been another reaction from the statue of Roku.” The paper was crumpled and tossed. One by one, she drew five more pages from her belt, crumpling and tossing each into the growing small pile.

“Each shrine that had watchers at their statues reported reactions on the same day at the same hour,” she said, crossing her arms behind her back. “The sixth of this month, two hours after sunset.”

“What are we to take from this, your majesty?” the man nearest Azula asked.

“Exactly what the Sages said two years ago,” she replied. “We must assume that the Avatar is alive and on the move.”

The fervor was instant and intense. A few officers nearly rose to their feet, settling for leaving one knee on the floor and putting the other on the edge of the map while they tried to shout over one another. Long Fa’s eyes had widened, mouth falling open. Though Kailas’s mouth remained closed, her eyes were wide as she stared at Azula.

“How can the Avatar still be alive?” one man demanded. “He can’t have escaped from the first raid on the temples and he can’t have been hiding out in the temples seven years ago!”

“Who cares where he was hiding?” another man snapped. “He must be well over a hundred and twenty years old by now! How can he be of any threat to us if he’s a miserable old wretch?”

“What stupid things are you going on about?” a third asked. “This is the Avatar! He could be hiding himself and controlling his aging with spirit magic! He could be amongst us right now!”

The second man shot to his feet entirely, jabbing a finger at the third. “Are you implying that there are traitors here? Look at yourself, first, if you want to find some pathetic little mongrel to hide the Avatar behind! You’ve only just been allowed in these chambers, you damn pup!”

Long Fa lifted his hands, patting the air. “Calm down, calm down. No one here is calling anyone else a traitor.”

“And how would you know, old man?” The man struck his chest with his fist. “I’ve been with the navy ever since I was a boy! My family has served the Fire Nation for generations! You only reached your position because of your family’s riches! You wouldn’t know the first thing about loyalty!”

“Now hold on!” the first man said. “There’s no need for that!”

“I’m not going to stand by and let any old men or little whelps say there are traitors here!”

“That is enough.”

The room went silent. Kailas had taken to her feet and crossed her arms behind her back. The man glared at her with his teeth bared. Kailas, standing a full head taller than him, did not waver. Her eyes remained half-closed, filled with a hard edge that made a cold sweat prickle on the back of his neck.

“What Colonel Long Fa said is true,” she said. “No one is accusing anyone of treason. Calm down, Captain Kiri.”

He stood as tall as he could, tilting back his head to look down his nose at her. “Don’t you dare presume that you can order me around. Our ranks are only equal in words. I’m just as highly ranked as the old man.”

“And yet you presume to speak back to my captain,” Azula murmured. When the man’s head spun about to look at her, she smiled. He swallowed and started to tremble.

“But, your majesty—”

“Why not challenge her to an agni kai if you feel you’ve been wronged?” Azula asked. “You certainly have the right as a captain of the navy.” Her voice brightened. “Go ahead, Captain Kiri. Challenge Captain Arav to an agni kai.” The smile disappeared, and the brightness in her voice turned black. “If you’re not going to, sit down and keep your mouth shut.”

He dropped back onto his knees, his face pasty white.

“Good work, Captain Arav,” Azula said. “Everyone, return to your places and calm down.”

The room was filled with quiet murmuring, but it faded as the officers returned to their places. By the time Kailas knelt down, nodding once to Azula, the room was silent again. Azula’s smile returned as a faint smirk, and she started up in her slow walk once more.

“There are a great many things I want answered,” she said. “Some questions you’ve asked just now. How did the Avatar survive for all these years? What does he plan to do now? Does he have any allies, and is he in contact with the Dragons or the Black Dragon?”

“We’re to add the hunt for the Avatar to our search for the Dragons, your majesty?” Long Fa asked.

“In a manner of speaking,” Azula said. “I believe that if the Avatar is truly the wise man he’s been in legend—even the slightest bit like Avatar Roku—then he’ll be looking for the Dragons on his own.” She pointed the first two fingers of her right hand, blue flames flashing to ignite the crumpled paper.

“They all want to infuriate me,” she murmured. “They all need to die.”

“Shall we put out word that we’re looking for any information on the Avatar?” Kailas asked.

Azula shook her head. She passed behind Kailas, moving toward the throne. “The Dragons are already a thorn in my side. They give people hope that things will change. False hope of change and misinformation about my rule—it’s all they offer. If news of the Avatar being alive reached the world at large, it would be pandemonium. People would be flocking to the Dragons. Even one more person joining them is too many.”

She sat down heavily, crossing her legs at the knees and lacing her fingers together before her chin. “Keep the Avatar’s being alive and active a secret. It will not leave this room. Continue your search for key members of the Dragons—especially the Black Dragon—but look discreetly for information on the Avatar. We must not let this get away from us.”

Every person, from Mai to the chagrined, still pale Captain Kiri, bowed. Those kneeling brought their heads near to the floor, Ty Lee and Mai bowing at the waist. When they spoke, it was in a low, perfect chorus. “As you wish, Fire Lord.”

She waved a hand. “Dismissed. Get back to your posts and find these traitors. Seven years is too long to keep this nonsense going.”

There was no more murmuring. The officers rose to their feet and departed in silence, Kiri more hastily than the others. Long Fa sighed softly as he put his cane to the ground. Kailas was up and around the map by the time he was struggling to stand, and she offered him her hand.

“Colonel Long Fa, you may go on ahead,” Azula said, “but I need to speak privately with Captain Arav.”

“As you wish, your majesty,” he said with a bow. He reached up and patted Kailas’s back after she turned toward the flames and the throne. “Hurry along, Captain. I’d rather get home to my own bed sooner than later.”

“Yes sir.”

The doors closed behind him with a solid, echoing clang. Kailas stood facing Azula, arms behind her back and her feet spaced shoulder-width apart.

Azula looked at her, slowly tapping her lips with her two pointer fingers. She eventually sighed, bringing down her hands. “Have you heard anything?”

“No, Princess,” Kailas said. “This is the first time I’ve heard of a reaction from Avatar shrines. I didn’t realize that such things signaled the Avatar being alive.”

“It’s not just the Avatar being alive,” Azula said. “The sages said that it came from a particular action of the Avatar’s. It signals the triggering something called the Avatar State, which, as they tell me, is an unleashing of incredible and awesome power.” She sat forward in the throne.

“Someone must have heard or seen something,” she murmured. “You know people. I know that you do. You’re the one who discovered the locations and identities of the five men we’ve executed as Dragon members. I need you to find out where the Avatar is. And I need you to find out who the Black Dragon is.” Her eyes narrowed, the lines beneath them becoming obvious.

“You’re my captain,” she said. “You’re the only one other than me who can get that much information.”

Kailas brought her hands before her, fisted left hand at the bottom of her right palm, and bowed low. “I understand, Princess. I’ll report all the information I find.”

Azula nodded. “Good. Dismissed, Captain.”

Kailas remained bowed a moment longer before straightening and heading for the doors. Azula watched her go, foot tapping in the air until the doors had closed again. She put her feet on the floor, gripping the chair’s arms, and looked at Ty Lee.

Well?” she asked.

“I can’t ever tell if she’s lying anyway,” Ty Lee said, putting a finger on her chin, “but she didn’t seem like she was hiding anything this time either.” She looked at the ceiling for a moment. “Actually, her aura jumped when you started talking about the shrines and stuff. That only happens to people when they’re surprised.” She laughed. “It’s always really hard to tell with Kailas. She’s worse than Mai!”

“But was it fear that made her surprised?” Azula asked. “Is she not telling me something?”

Ty Lee looked toward the doorway, drumming her fingers on her chin. Eventually, she shook her head. “I don’t think so. I know she’s good at lying, but she’s always nervous when she’s here. You can see it in her aura really clearly. She wouldn’t lie to you, Azula. She knows what would happen.”

Azula let out her breath, looking down into the fire. “Good.”

Chapter Text

The afternoon was half gone when Kailas rounded the last corner and stepped into the courtyard. With the kitbag still over her shoulder, her footsteps were slow, boots loud on the dirt. Aang was the first to turn with a massive grin.

“You’re back!” he said. He leapt up from his horse stance, turning in midair with a hard twist of his hips. “You have to check this out!”

“What happened?” Suki asked.

Kailas did not look at him. Hova had stood up the moment Aang first spoke and had put her arms around Kailas’s shoulders well before Suki spoke. Kailas, for her part, put her cheek against Hova’s hair and her free arm around Hova’s waist. She stood with her eyes closed, ignoring every sound but Hova’s breathing.

Suki, leaning against a wall with Toph and Katara sitting beside her, rocked onto solid footing. “Kailas, what happened?”

“Nothing,” Kailas murmured. “Fortunately.”

“What does that mean?” Katara asked.

“Azula knows the Avatar is alive.”

“What?” Hova asked. “How does she know that?”

Kailas lifted her head, looking at Aang. “Did you know that the eyes of statues of past Avatars would start to glow when you go into the Avatar State?”

He blinked, brows rising. “No.”

She closed her eyes, taking her arm from Hova and turning away. “That’s how. The first time you triggered it two years ago when you were at the temple, the statues reacted. When you triggered it when I told you about the temples, the statues reacted again and the watchmen Azula stationed around them sent notice. She assumes now that you’re alive and on the move.”

She took the kitbag from her shoulder, throwing it against the wall firmly enough that the leather sounded off a crack. Hova flinched.

“But—she doesn’t know where I am, does she?” Aang asked.

“No,” Kailas said. She went to one of the beams that held up the overhanging roof, leaning against it. She kept her eyes closed and put a hand to her forehead. “Ironically, she’s convinced that you’re going to seek out members of the Dragons, particularly the Black Dragon.”

Aang blinked again and scratched his head. “Well…I can’t. Even you don’t know who the Black Dragon is.”

“Either way. One of the officers suggested that you were controlling your aging through spirit magic. It’s safe to say that Azula will be suspicious of any person of any age.” She paused, opening her eyes and looking at the ground with her hand still on her forehead. “I want you to keep what things you’ll need prepared.”

“Need?” Katara asked.

“Keep what supplies and items you need to leave ready,” Kailas said. “You need to be able to leave at any notice Hova or I give you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Toph asked. “Are you saying you’re going to kick us out of the city after all?”

“I’m saying that you need to be prepared to run. Now that Azula is looking for the Avatar, you’re always going to need to be ready.” She sighed. “I would also appreciate it if you kept a bag here for Hova and I.”

“But what about training Aang?” Katara asked.

Kailas opened her mouth, but stopped when Aang leapt before her. He held up his hands and bounced on the balls of his feet.

“You have to check this out!” he said. He skipped backward, coming to stand in a proper horse stance when he was in the courtyard’s center. In the quiet that came, he looked down at his hands, holding them out before his body. They were in the same place, the same position, even the same angle that they had been the day Kailas put flames between them.

He closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath. Between his hands, sparks popped back and forth, bathing his skin in red and orange flashes. More deep, controlled breaths were taken; each release made more sparks snap. Soon, though, the sparks were gathering, forming a sphere of flame no larger than the smallest joint of his pinky fingers. He opened his eyes, grinning even more broadly. A brief grimace of concentration made the sphere swell to the same size it had been those days ago. He laughed when he looked up at Kailas.

“See?” he asked. “See? I did it! I made it on my own!”

Kailas smiled slightly. “That’s good, Aang.”

He pushed the fire into the palm of one hand, raising the other to be near the flickering tail. “I figured it out a week after you left! I’ve been making sure I can keep it going—I can for an hour now!”

“That’s good. Now—”

“Wait, wait!” Aang said. “There’s a trick I want to try! I saw it at a festival, and since you’re back, I can try it!”

She went pale. “Aang—don’t—”

He continued to grin and stopped listening. He brought his hands back together, pushing in hard on the sphere. Beneath him, his feet turned and his knees bent. As his fingers turned, bringing his palms inside the sphere and splitting it in two, Kailas started to move.

The fire swelled, spiraling out to ring around Aang’s body in a band that was as tall as his forearms. The turn of his body pushed the fire outward, making it grow more by letting it devour the air. As he spun back to where he had started, he saw through the fire the widening eyes and rising hands. Distantly, he heard Katara shout.

Kailas’s right hand stabbed into the fire, splitting it and breaking the line. Aang winced, feeling heat being stripped away from his skin as she rushed around him with the fire in her grasp. It followed her, reforming into a massive sphere when she was behind him. Teeth grit, she brought her other hand up to the flames, pressing in until they shrank into embers that quickly faded away.

Aang, pale as bone, started to turn around to face her. She grabbed his shirt with her left hand, lifting him off the ground entirely as she moved. She slammed him against a wall, holding him off his feet with her forearm on his chest.

“I told you,” she hissed, “to do nothing more than create the fire. I told you that you did not respect the fire and you’ve proven that you don’t.” She opened her right hand, revealing the blisters and reddened flesh, and held it close to his face. “Do you understand me? Do you understand this? If this wasn’t my hand, it would be the faces of your family. It would be Hova’s face.”

“Kailas, stop it!” Katara shouted. She started to rise, but Toph took hold of her wrist and held her there.

“I’m sorry!” Aang gasped. He wriggled, feet scraping on the wall, but he did not try to push her back. He only twisted his head away from the burn, eyes shut tight. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do that!”

“And yet you disobeyed my order,” Kailas said. “You meant to disobey. Did you pause to think? Did you even hear what I said before? Azula is hunting you actively. You have to learn how to firebend properly if you want to stand a chance of continuing to live if you meet her.”

She pressed down harder with her arm, holding her hand closer to his face. “Acting like a wild brat does nothing but teach you what pain is. I will not allow you to be this foolish in my city as my pupil.” Frowning, she stepped back and dropped him onto his feet.

He stood staring at the ground, head bowed and shoulders hunched. “I’m sorry. I won’t—I won’t do that again.” His hands closed into tight fists. “I won’t firebend again.”

Kailas flicked his ear as hard as she could. “You won’t firebend like that again.”

He looked at her, one hand clamped down over his ear. “But—”

“There is no ‘but’ about it,” Kailas said. “If you stopped doing whatever it was you lost control in, you’d have to stop being the Avatar, as well. This was a mistake and you’ll learn.”

He stared, swallowed, and nodded.

She nodded in turn before looking at her hand. She turned to Katara and said, “I must be some sort of record for you as a healer. I just keep getting hurt.” She held up her hand. “May I ask you to heal me again?”

Katara sighed heavily and stood up fully, Toph releasing her wrist. She uncorked the water skin on her hip, bending the water to glove one hand. The fingers of her bare hand curled around Kailas’s wrist, holding her arm still as the water came to the burns.

The patterns of energy overlaid themselves in her natural sight, showing the binding of energy in the blisters and the patchy shattered lines of the burned flesh. It took mere moments to settle the blisters and reverse the burn. She took her hands away when the energy flowed normally and Kailas’s skin was as pale as it ever was.

“You didn’t have to be that harsh,” she said softly.

“Yes,” Kailas replied, “I did.”


There was a particular balance that had to be struck between all of their jobs. Kailas could not spend every day with Aang for training, nor could Katara. There were some days where Aang had no company at all, as Toph would wander off into the city with someone else to placate her own boredom. Those days were the most difficult to deal with, as he was routinely so exhausted from training that he could not remember where anyone worked.

A month onward as the summer deepened, Aang remembered where the city’s forge was and headed there before midday. At the southern point of the city, some distance away from any other buildings, the forge was easy to locate when close enough thanks to its smoking chimneys. Aang jogged along the road, flinching only for a moment at the sound of a hammer on hot metal. He went in through the open door, looking about and finding an older man working on an order log.

“Hi, Master Gen!” Aang said, lifting a hand. “Is Sokka around?”

“Hey, Aang,” the man replied. “Sokka’s in back doing hot work, so don’t spook him.” He waved a hand, muttering, “Last thing I need is the kid throwing a hot bolt into a crate.”

Aang grinned and went off, going careful to keep from knocking over boxes or stacks of metal. On top of the great heat of the day, the heat of the forge was stifling. He only allowed himself to undo the first three ties on his shirt, making certain his sleeves were over his hands. He looked around and found Sokka at the nearest worktable, eyes on a piece of red hot metal.

“Sokka?” Aang said.

Sokka’s shoulders rose sharply, but he did not move his arms. He looked up and smiled. “Hey, Aang! Get bored at the house?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I think Toph went with Katara this morning, since I woke up alone. I went through all my firebending forms.”

Sokka shrugged. “Hey, you don’t have to make an excuse with me. You can dodge bending practice here.” He waved his hand slightly, waiting until Aang had backed away before taking a hammer to the metal. He worked on it for a long while, Aang standing by with his fingers in his ears. It was only when Sokka had plunged the metal into a nearby barrel of water that Aang unplugged his ears and moved closer.

“What’re you making?” he asked. He stood on his toes to look over Sokka’s shoulder as the metal was lifted. He recognized the shape, straight and slim. “Wow, are you making a sword? That’s looking really good!”

“Thanks,” Sokka said with a grin. “Gen’s letting me have this one.”

“Wait, you’re making a sword for yourself?”

“Yeah,” he said, bringing the metal back to the table for further work. “Suki said there’s a lady in the guards who’d be willing to train me on swordplay, so I thought I’d take the chance while we’re in a safe place for a while.”

Aang smiled behind Sokka’s back. “Not worried about soldiers coming for us anymore?”

“Nah, not really. We’ve always got Toph as a warning system. And you, since you’re finally figuring out the seeing-through-the-earth thing, too. But we’re pretty darn safe here. I don’t think Kailas would let an unknown solider past Tsukuba.”

His smile became a grin. “I don’t think so, either.” He went quiet to watch Sokka continue working, but the heat made him drowsy. He leaned against a wall, managing to nod off while remaining on his feet. When Sokka shook his shoulder, he woke immediately.

“Come on,” Sokka chuckled. “Lunch time.” He led Aang outside, stretching his arms as they went. Their aim was one of the food stalls near the forge, favored by all because they offered takeaway lunch boxes without meat. When Sokka spotted Suki and another guard waiting in line, he squealed with glee and hurried over to catch her in a hug.

“Hi!” Suki laughed. “I was hoping I’d catch you here!”

“Do you really feel good enough for lunch?” Sokka asked, letting her go. “You got really sick off of breakfast.”

“I’m fine.” She waved as Aang came up behind Sokka. “Skipping practice?”

“I came to visit Sokka for a while,” he replied. “The sword he’s making is pretty nice.”

“Good, because I’ve been talking you up to Utari and she expects you to be a fast learner.”

“I am a fast learner!” Sokka said, crossing his arms. “It runs in the family with me and Katara!”

Suki laughed and reached up to pinch his cheek. “I know, I know. I know so well, in fact, that I told her to stop by the forge this afternoon to introduce herself so you can get started.”

Sokka went starry-eyed as he smiled. He put his hands on her cheeks. “You are the best lady ever!” He gave her a kiss, ignoring Aang’s noisy giggles.


Another month on, the summer heat was at its peak. Laid out flat on his back by his feet being kicked out from beneath him, Aang groaned. He lay rubbing his forehead because the buzzing ache there was more intense than the few stabs of pain in his back. When he opened his eyes, Kailas was holding out a hand to him. He took it, and let her pull him back onto his feet. Sighing, he began to settle back into a fighting stance.

“No,” Kailas murmured. “You’re getting overheated. Let’s take a break at the cove.” She looked at Toph and Hova, sitting in the cooler shadows below the roof. “All of us.”

“Oh, sweet!” Toph said. “I was getting sick of watching you kicking his ass over and over!” She got to her feet, said, “Race you!” and sprinted off before anyone could think to reply.

“I don’t know why she thinks I’d ever try racing her,” Hova said as she stood up. “I’m not anywhere near a bender’s league.”

“She’s just—bored lately,” Aang wheezed in reply. He looked at Kailas pleadingly.

“Go ahead,” she said.

He groaned as he rolled up his sleeves and pulled off his boots. He shuffled on ahead, shivering when the sea breeze touched his skin. Kailas sighed, mouth twisting, and offered Hova her hand before they followed. The moment they were over the crest of the hill around the cove, Aang sprinted toward the water with the wind pushing him onward.

By the time they had taken ten steps down the hill, Aang had pulled off his shirt and thrown himself into the water and cocooned himself in ice. He floated on his back, making faint noises of relief even when Toph splashed water at him.

“I’m sorry,” Kailas said when they arrived. “I didn’t realize you were getting that exhausted from the heat.”

“It’s okay,” he said, wiggling his head because his hands were frozen. “I get why we’re doing things this way.” He smiled as his ice block turned toward them on a current. “Thanks for the break, though.”

“I didn’t think it would be this hot on a northern coast town,” Toph remarked. She patted the ground beside her to check her surroundings, punching the stone soon after. The ground sank beneath her, giving her a space to sit with water up to her chest. “Is this normal here?”

“This summer is pretty hot,” Hova said. She sat down at the edge of the water, pulling off her shoes and rolling up her trousers. “At least no one needs Kailas for anything today.” She put her feet in the water, smiling because the chill from the ice had spread.

“You’ve done well today,” Kailas said, sitting next to Hova. She took off her boots and set them aside, pulling up her trousers. “Honestly, you’ve made even better progress than I’d hoped you would.”

His brows rose, smile becoming a toothy grin. “Really?”

“Yes, really,” she said as she put her feet in the water. “Mastery of any bending form takes time, but you’re doing extremely well for two months of hard work.” She chuckled. “You’re well past intermediate forms at this point. I’m willing to teach you more difficult techniques.”

“That thing you did when you came back from Ba Sing Se!” he said.

She stared. “The—the what?”

“That thing you did that stole my firebending!” he said. He broke the ice around him, reforming it into a stable platform to sit on. “When you grabbed the fire and took it from me! It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever felt in bending but it was also really amazing! Teach me that!”

She continued to stare. “I can’t.”

His face fell. “What? Why not?”

“I haven’t perfected it. It’s not something I can teach.”

His brows vanished under his sodden headband as they rose. “You made that up?”

“I’ve been working on it for the last few years. It’s something I’ve been trying to perfect for whenever I face Azula as a traitor.”

“You’re planning on that?” Toph asked.

“It’s inevitable, given what I’ve been doing.” She sighed and looked at her hands. “The technique is meant to redirect firebending with more than complete efficiency. Standard redirection relies on making the opponent’s firebending match your own strength, but I want to maintain the energy I take and multiply it by my own.

“If I’m able to do that,” she said quietly, “I could redirect Azula’s firebending and turn it back on her with an even greater force.” She closed her hands. “That’s critical to my chances of defeating her.”

“So why can’t you do it?” Aang asked.

“She doesn’t have any firebenders to practice it with, for one,” Hova said. She took one of Kailas’s hands. “And she keeps getting burned, for another.” She smiled, waiting until Kailas opened her hand and lacing their fingers together. “You can’t get a handle on the energy without actually grabbing it, right?”

“Unfortunately,” Kailas said.

Aang sat on the ice, arms crossed with one hand on his chin. He stared at the water, one brow up as he thought. He looked up at Kailas and asked, “What if you’re being too aggressive about it?”


He unfolded his legs to make the small leap back to solid ground, sitting down on Kailas’s other side. “One of the main principles of waterbending is redirecting an opponent’s energy, like what you’re trying to do. The only point you should be aggressive is when you’ve fully grasped the attack, not when you’re starting to do that.”

He looked down to consider his words. “I think…maybe the reason you’re getting burned on the first step is because you’re too focused on the next step and how you’re going to use it on an opponent.” He smiled. “You’re being a firebender too strongly.”

Kailas stared at him. “You realize that you’re the only person I’ve ever met who’s said something like that to me, yes?”

“I know,” he replied, “but you’re the only firebender I’ve met who’s trying to master a technique that’s more like waterbending.” He sat up straight, crossing his legs and putting his fisted hands together at the knuckles. “Meditate with me. I have an idea.”

Toph groaned, letting her head fall back against the ground. “Great, the patented Twinkle-toes guru treatment. Excuse me while I take a nap.”

Aang stuck his tongue out at her while Kailas turned to face him properly. She crossed her legs, setting her hands on her knees with her palms up. She closed her eyes as he did. They took a breath in unison before going completely still.

The whisper of the wind over the sea and the small splashes against the ground was ideal white noise. Aang resisted the urge to hold his breath as he waited patiently for the flutter outside of his body. It came soon enough, bringing with it the sensation of knowing another spirit was present. Inside his mind, he opened his eyes.

He was unsurprised by Kailas’s spirit, smoldering below the visible surface with heat to match the summer around them. His heart sank when he understood the fury that made her chest burn bright. Gentle, cautious, he let his spirit reach out to hers. She flinched once but sank back into stillness easily after that.

In his spirit, he sent what he had learned of waterbending. He let it linger between them, dwelling on redirection and patience. It was easy to sense how she examined the information deeply before drawing it into herself. He kept the sense of patience between them for a long while, happy to wait until her fury was not so present.

When he thought to draw back, he looked through her spirit toward her body. A flash of images took him, too disjointed to make sense of. The last image he saw was one he did not comprehend, but it made him gasp real air and reel backward in his body.

Kailas opened her eyes, looking startled and dizzy. She sat forward, putting her face in her hands. Between her fingers, she asked, “What was that?”

Aang did not answer.

Toph sat up slightly. “Twinkle-toes, what’s wrong? Your heart’s going nuts.”

“N-nothing,” he said. “Just—I saw something weird. I don’t even know what it was.”

“Was it something bad?” Hova asked, leaning around Kailas to look at him.

He did not look at her because the notion made him terrified and ill for a reason he did not understand. “I don’t know.” He looked at Kailas, wincing when he saw how she had lowered her hands to look at him. He did not open his mouth and did not make a sound.

Kailas watched him. She exhaled slowly when she saw he would not speak. “Have you cooled down?”

He nodded.

“Let’s get back to training, then.”

Aang nodded again. He did not speak for the rest of the day, even when Kailas and Hova had gone.


If there was an opportunity to sneak out of the house to tag along with someone other than Hova, Toph always took it immediately. No one begrudged her for this, especially when it was clear her boredom was reaching a peak. While she enjoyed going with Sokka to the forge, he refused to bring her with any longer when he realized she was stealing bits of scrap metal.

She had pouted for a solid three days after that, busying herself with the scrap metal while drilling Aang on earthbending techniques. Once Katara was home on the first of her two break days from the clinic, Toph pinned her down by lying across her lap on her stomach. She continued to toy with the metal, even as Katara boggled at her.

“Is this about Sokka banning you from the forge?” Katara asked.

“I’m just trying to get this right and I need more metal than this!” Toph said. “What’s so bad about letting me steal some scrap that no one’s gonna use?”

“Because it’s still stealing, Toph,” Katara said, gently knocking on her head.

Toph stuck out her tongue. “I’m on the verge of a breakthrough. If he wants to try and tell me it’s impossible again, I’m putting him in a fissure in a canyon and leaving him to a sabertooth moose-lion.”

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do that to my brother.”

“Your brother’s a jerk,” Toph muttered.

You’re a jerk,” Katara replied.

“I am the world’s greatest earthbender and I am damn sure going to be the world’s first metalbender, so all of you just need to shut it.”

Katara stared for a moment before hiding her laughter in her hand. “I know you are, you little brute, calm down.” She settled more comfortably, watching Toph flick and tap the metal. “Are you able to see anything in the metal?”

“Nah,” Toph sighed, “not yet. That’s why I wanted to get more. A big piece would be a lot better, since I’d get a better shot at seeing the impurities in there.” She grumbled and pushed the metal aside to lay limp. “Maybe it’d be different if I had to figure it out really fast. I’ve had a lot of time to work.”

Katara hummed to agree, petting Toph’s hair. “Two and a half months and we haven’t even had a scare about a fight. That’s an all-time record for us.”

“No kidding. I’m getting soft.”

“I think if you manage to start metalbending before we have to leave again, that’s the opposite of getting soft.”

“Point.” She turned her head to aim her ear more toward Katara. “How’s clinic work going? You’re always wiped out by the time your break days come.”

“It’s good,” she replied. “There’s always a demand for a waterbending healer, so Doctor Saburo says he hates to give me time off.”

“You’re using waterbending to heal people every day? Geez, are the people here really clumsy?”

“There’s just a lot of people. Kids are clumsy. There’s one kid a day, usually with a sprain or a small fracture.” She chuckled. “Plenty of earthbending accidents out in the fields.”

“Bunch of wimps,” Toph muttered. She smirked when Katara tweaked her ear. “Is it making your healing better if you’re getting in this much practice?”

“I think,” Katara said. She reached up to fiddle with the leather cord around her neck, eventually pulling on it to retrieve a vial capped with a crescent moon stopper. She ran her thumb over it, sensing the water inside it. “I’m trying to make sure that I won’t need to use this unless absolutely necessary.”

“The special water from the North Pole?”

“Yeah.” She ran her thumb over it one more time before slipping it beneath her shirt. Her brows rose with a thought. “What if you ask Kailas to get you a bigger piece of metal to work on? She’d be able to buy one without Sokka complaining about it.”

“Man, I don’t want to have Lady Stony-face get on my case about metalbending being impossible.”

“I think she’d really want to help you figure it out. It’d be a big advantage for the Dragons.”

Toph blinked, brows rising. “Oh. That’s a good point.” She rolled off of Katara’s lap and sat up to face her. “Is tomorrow a firebending day for Aang?”

“I think so.”

She grinned. “Then I’m asking for a favor.” She leaned in to give Katara a quick kiss. “You’re the best, Sugar Queen.”

“I know,” Katara said with a smile.


Despite the remarkably poor start to their relationship, it only took Fai and Momo a short time to become lifelong friends. They would wander through the city together, keeping an eye out for each other. Fai would run through his usual begging routines at friendly food stalls and share with Momo. Momo, in turn, would pick the fruits Fai could never reach in the forest. By the end of three months, they were more than happy to split the last sweet cake from dessert.

On the last night of summer, Fai lay quietly on his belly, tail wagging from side to side, and Momo sat beside him, small warm hand on Fai’s head between his ears. They sat amidst the people that kept them safe and full, watching flashes of fire made by the boy in the courtyard.

“Faster,” Kailas said.

Aang obeyed. His speed increased as he twisted his hips, spinning about and slashing the air with flattened hands. Lines of fire lashed from his fingertips, snapping and curling back before they touched the cobbled stones or the tiles of the house’s roof. His hands returned to him, arms bending as he leapt up and kicked hard enough for his entire body to turn. The fireball that came from his heel pushed him faster, but he stumbled slightly when his feet hit the ground.

“Mind your balance,” Kailas said.

Aang found firmer footing, resuming his horse stance. He blinked when Kailas moved to stand in front of him, but only because his eyes needed the moment closed. When he opened them again, he started to spin his arms. The slowest starting spins let off mere flickers of sparks from his hands, but as the spinning gained speed, the height and heat of the fire grew.

Wheeling blades of flame curled up from the ground at his command, rushing toward Kailas. Her hands moved in rhythm with Aang’s arms, pushing the angle the blades came toward her just enough that they turned away and did not leave burns on her. There was fire in her palms, though, to push the blades Aang made, and she frowned at it.

“More,” she said.

The spin in his arms was brought back to his body, allowing him to whirl about and spin on his heels. His fists came out from his chest, letting out twin fireballs. Kailas put one foot out, striking the lower fireball with her booted heel and reducing it to sparks. One hand reached for the upper, fingertips digging into the flame too briefly for burns to be left. In that moment where her flesh knew heat and pain, she turned, hurling the fireball into the ground. Her fingertips steamed in the dark, lit only by the nearly full moon above and the fire in the standing torches they’d set up.

“Come on, Aang!” Sokka shouted. “Knock her firebender head!” He grinned when Aang glanced at him, holding up his thumbs.

Kailas was beside Aang when he turned back, hands up and held fore and back. “Keep moving.”

It was tandem from then; a form played through. A guarding left arm swept up as it was held parallel to the ground, blocking and pushing back an invisible strike. The right hand, fingers clawed and turning as it went, came forward, fire swelling in the palm and trailing through the empty spaces between the fingers. A turn came next, the right hand continuing to claw, flaming, through the air as it was brought about to the right. The right foot came up and about, fire rushing from the heel into the air. It reached out for a full yard, burning bright and crackling loud.

Their feet came down and pillars of flame erupted from the ground before them with that hard stomp. As the fire continued to burn, they both straightened, leaning in near to the fire and breathing deep. The exhale was hard, their mouths open wide, and the fire from the ground died off as the fire from their mouths rushed forward. It ended when Aang’s breath ran out. He coughed, staring at where the fire had been before him. Kailas stopped as well, looking at the boy with a brow raised. He looked back at her, eyes going wide.

“I did it,” he said.

“You did,” she said with a smile. “Good work.”

Aang’s face split in a grin, and he turned toward the others with his arms held high. “I did it! I finally did it! I breathed fire!”

“Go Twinkle-toes!” Toph said.

Aang leapt in the air with a shout. He looked at Kailas, bouncing on the balls of his feet. She sighed, looking about, and nodded. He gave another shout and started to spiral his hands about. One could almost see the air gathering in his hands, swirling in all directions. When he rolled it onto the ground and leapt upon it, balancing on the toes of one foot, the dust was blasted away from the cobblestones.

“I breathed fire!” he said loudly, laughing. The air scooter carried him around the courtyard as he laughed and everyone gathered smiled. Momo squeaked and Fai let out a bark, but they were excited and cheery.

Kailas let out a small chuckle, watching Aang rush about and moving out of the courtyard’s center as she did. “All right, that’s enough. We can be more excited when you can sustain the fire beyond your own breath.”

“But I finally did it on my own!” Aang said. “It’s so great! I really feel like a firebender!” He continued on in his laughing, barely watching where he went.

Kailas opened her mouth, but a sharp, loud sound cut off any words she could have said. The sound was a carefully crafted clap, and the slow applause continued in the silence that fell. Kailas closed her eyes slowly, a grimace pulling at her mouth.

The air scooter dissipated from beneath Aang, leaving him standing on his own. Sokka rose from the ground, turning toward the half-open door leading back inside.

Azula stood in the doorway, clapping her hands and smiling broadly. She stopped clapping, head tilting to one side though the smile remained. “I don’t know if you should feel like a real firebender if you’re using stolen techniques, Avatar.”

Sokka reached for the club on his belt. Suki moved faster and held his arm still, staring at Azula. Toph had gone pale, face slack with shock, and she gaped toward the house.

“But,” she choked, “how—why didn’t—I didn’t feel you coming.”

Azula chuckled, lifting her hands as she shrugged. “Well, when the captain’s favorite lieutenant mentioned that there was a woman named Toph living here, I just so happened to remember that amusing little report Ty Lee made on the Blind Bandit. I decided to walk as lightly and as slowly as I could. My efforts were rewarded, of course.”

She smiled as she came out of the house. “You should imagine my surprise. I’ve been on the hunt looking for information on the Avatar, and I came here and ask my captain if she’d heard any more useful news on the Dragons in the meantime.”

She chuckled, shrugging once more. “Imagine my surprise to find the Avatar here and a pack of mongrel rebels. Not only that, she's training the boy!”

“Wait—you came here to get info from her?” Sokka asked. He twisted his head about to stare at Kailas. His mouth opened and closed, his eyes wide below his furrowed brows. She would not look at him. His face went red.

“After all that stuff you said about how you wouldn’t—you told her about us?” His teeth ground together, lips pulling back as the muscles in his neck corded. “You Fire Nation bitch! No matter what you promise, you're nothing but a country of liars and traitors!”

“Sokka, no!” Hova said. “She didn't! We didn't know Azula was coming here!”

Azula laughed. “How quick to judge! Really, how would you feel if we called all of you peasants liars?”

“Calling all of us peasants is just as bad, dammit!” Sokka shouted, wrenching the club from his belt. He nearly dashed forward, but was stopped by Suki grabbing him around the waist. His foot hung in the air, just over the blue flames that slammed into the ground. Snarling, he stepped quickly back, standing before the others with his legs and arms spread wide. He left Hova entirely unguarded, but Katara stood up to provide that guard.

Azula drew her hand back, her faint frown and raised eyebrow all the more fuel to Sokka's growling. “You shouting doesn't change the fact that you're only peasants and rebels. And in the world I rule, that's more than enough of a reason to kill all of you.”

“Princess,” Kailas said quietly. “When did you get here?”

Hova turned to stare at Kailas. “What?”

Azula’s eyebrow remained raised as she moved further into the courtyard. “Earlier this evening. I went to your house to find you or your pet.” Her eyes flicked to Hova and her smile returned, but Kailas took a step forward.

“And you went to Lieutenant Tai-Yang when I wasn’t there to greet you?”

“Correct,” Azula said. “He said you’d been training a boy here for most of the summer and housing these vagabonds. Ever since before you came to the meeting when I asked if you knew anything about the Avatar or his whereabouts.” She paused, eyes narrowing. “You lied to me, Kailas.”

Kailas smiled bleakly. “I learned from the best, Princess.”

“Ah, well,” Azula said, sighing. “We’ll have to discuss this later. For now, I have business.” She turned toward Aang, smiling again with her teeth hidden behind her lips.

She began to raise her hands. Aang started to do the same. He stopped short, eyes turned away from Azula as his mouth fell open. Azula spared a glance in the direction he looked, but turned completely from shock. Kailas, smiling in the most hateful way any of them had seen in their lives, pulled her right arm back and punched Azula in the face hard enough to send her crashing to the ground and rolling away.

“Run!” Kailas shouted over her shoulder. She spun on her heel, slashing with her fingers to create a wall of flames between herself, Azula, and the others.

“What’re you doing?” Aang said. “We can—”

Kailas aimed a fire blast at his head, making him yelp as he ducked. “I said, run! I told them to expect you, so get out of here and don’t turn back!” She did not wait for him to argue, walking to where Azula lay stunned with a bloody mouth. She grabbed Azula’s shirt and lifted her off the ground entirely. With a massive heave, she threw Azula away from the house and toward the cove. Azula scrambled to recover in the air, but Kailas threw a fireball at her to fling her back even farther.

Sokka bolted for the house. He grabbed every kitbag and pack they had stored away, managing to get them all hanging on his sword before running back outside. Barely breaking stride, he grabbed Hova’s arm and pulled her to her feet, dragging her along.

“Come on!” he shouted. “We need to get to Appa!”

What?” Hova snapped. She tried to break out of his grasp, saying, “We need to go help her! Azula’s going to kill her for this!”

“You heard what she said!” Sokka replied. “We gotta go!”

She tried to protest further, but stopped short when Aang shoved Fai and Momo into her arms before sprinting on ahead. She looked back, but could not see any details with the flames between them. Panicked, she held Fai tight as Momo held onto her shoulders, running as hard as she could.

Azula lay on her back, staring at the sky and tasting blood. She marveled at how unpleasant it was, and how unpleasant it was to have such a sharp level of pain in her face. She sat up slowly, feeling something hard in her mouth. She spat into her hand, reeling at the sight of a broken molar in her palm. The sound of footsteps made her turn.

“Get up,” Kailas snarled.

“You hit me,” Azula replied.

“I’m going to do a lot more than that, I promise you. Now get up.”

Azula stared at her. “You’re betraying me?”

Kailas scowled and threw a wide punch. Azula rolled to dodge, getting to her feet quickly. She did not look back at the house, eyes locked on Kailas. When Kailas started to go to her right, Azula circled in the opposite direction.

“You amaze me, Captain,” Azula murmured, spitting blood between them. “All these years of loyalty.” Her brows dropped. “Everything wasted on a whim.” She bared her teeth. “You had my favor and you threw it away like it was worthless.”

“In what way did you ever think I wanted your favor, Princess?” Kailas asked. She stopped moving when she faced the forest between the house and Appa’s mountain, keeping Azula’s back to it. She spread her arms and smirked. “I have never been happier to see my plans start to work.”

Azula snarled as she threw a punch. The fireball that rushed from her fist was compact, its roar vicious. Kailas inhaled deeply, bringing her arms in. She waited, only reaching physically at first. She felt the energy in her fingertips but waited until she felt it through her wrists. She caught the fireball, the blue flashing to red in an instant. She grinned as Azula gaped, feeding her own energy into the fire before throwing it straight back.

A kick broke the fireball apart, but Azula had to dive away to dodge the trio of fireballs created by three quick elbow strikes. Undaunted, she got her feet beneath her and charged at Kailas with fire in her hands. She swiped with her sharp nails, managing to catch Kailas’s shirt more than once. Kailas swayed until she spotted a chance.

Teeth grit, she caught Azula by the wrists to lock her arms, meaning to flip her over. Azula took the momentum of the flip to make her kick to Kailas’s back that much harder. They both hit the ground, but Kailas recovered first. She twisted with her shoulders on the ground, her legs flinging flame at Azula. Though Azula dodged by springing up from her hands and knees, her right sleeve caught fire.

She retreated to snuff the flames, soon tearing the sleeve away. Kailas rushed in before she could raise a guard, hooking one foot around Azula’s left ankle and wrenching her off balance. Azula fell back, but aimed a punch at Kailas’s chest as she went. The force threw both of them away from each other, Kailas coughing as she slapped the embers in her shirt and Azula panting as she stood back up.

“You miserable little mutt!” Azula shouted. “All you ever had to do was obey me!”

Kailas’s reply was to sprint up the small hill. Azula followed immediately, stopping only when she was at the top and Kailas was rushing away toward the water. She aimed blow after blow at Kailas’s back, from finger strikes to punches to kicks. Kailas dodged for a time, spinning about when a fireball struck her shoulder. Though she kept from tumbling then, she could not find stable footing.

Sneering, Azula took careful aim before punching with both hands. The fire that rushed down the hill was large and wild, its blue flare bright on the dark water. Kailas grit her teeth, dropping down on one knee to reach out a hand. The energy struck her hand all at once, but she could not stop the force of it. She was thrown back as the fire flashed to red, tumbling away as the fire continued on to the other side of the cove.

Even as she rolled, Kailas could hear Azula running down the hill after her. She twisted in the roll, throwing herself into the water in a rough dive. The water above her boiled as Azula punched fire into it. Scrapes stinging from the saltwater, Kailas held her breath and swam out of the cove to reach flat land. With Azula’s focus still on the pool, Kailas climbed out of the water without being noticed. She smiled as she advanced, feeling steam rise from her clothes.

On the mountain’s foothills, hidden by the forest, Hova was struggling to run back. Sokka held her arm hard enough to bruise, trying to pull her up into Appa’s saddle.

“Come on!” he said. “We have to go!”

“I’m not leaving without Kailas!” Hova shouted. “Azula is going to kill her unless we go back and help!”

“She told us to run!” Aang said. “You have to tell us who we’re supposed to go to!”

She finally pulled her arm free of Sokka’s hand. “There’s nobody, dammit! She hasn’t told anyone about you and there’s nowhere that we can go without her to make people take us in!”

Sokka stared at her. “What?”

“She was lying in front of Azula!” Hova said, voice breaking as tears welled over in her eyes. “There’s nowhere that she planned on sending you! We have to go back and help her escape before she gets killed!”

Aang jumped off of Appa’s head. He grabbed Sokka and Hova around the waist, leaping with the air to lift them all. He jumped back to the ground.

“You guys bring Appa!” he said. “I’ll go help her drive Azula back enough to escape!” He ran as hard as he could, outpacing Appa’s low rumbling roar by pushing himself with the wind.

Kailas did not bother keeping her boots quiet on the stone, savoring the surprise that took hold of Azula’s face when she turned. She was ready for the heel strike that came next, reaching out with one hand. The energy of the long rush of fire was caught with ease, and she spun on her heel to return it to Azula with both hands. It knocked Azula off her feet, sending her tumbling head over heel. When she rose from the ground, there was a cut on her brow from a stone. Her legs wobbled.

It happened because her patience wore out in the face of opportunity. Kailas rushed in, aiming another punch at Azula’s face. Azula’s wobbling legs stopped wobbling as she crouched down to avoid her fist. She returned with a punch of her own, knuckles awash in fire. Kailas could not twist away. The punch landed on her right side, the flames crashing against her to deeply burn flesh and break two ribs.

Kailas choked, stumbling before falling to her knees. She put her left hand on the burn, feeling its size and severity in how she could not breathe. Grimacing, she looked at Azula’s approaching boots from the corner of her eye.

“Tell me where you sent them,” Azula said, “and I’ll see about letting you live.” She lifted a hand and filled it with flames. “I suggest not trying your luck.”

Kailas coughed. She coughed again and started to laugh quietly. “Y-you won’t kill me.”


Kailas shook her head. “I know you, Azula. You won’t kill me.” She felt Azula’s foot hit the side of her head, knocking her to the ground with cuts in her mouth. She laughed again regardless, her breath stirring up dust.

“You dare to assume you know me?” Azula said. She crouched down to grab the front of Kailas’s shirt and heaved her back onto her knees. “You think I won’t kill a traitor?”

Kailas smiled at her, showing bloody teeth. “I know you won’t kill the only person who knows where the Avatar is.” She leaned in closer and lowered her voice to say, “I know you won’t kill the only person who knows where the Black Dragon is.”

Azula went pale.

“So all of your threats?” Kailas said. “They amount to nothing. I know you won’t kill me, which means that one day?” She chuckled. “One day, I’ll escape from wherever you put me. I will escape, and I will find you. Because believe me, Azula—I am going to kill you. No matter what.”

Azula sneered at her, raising a hand to aim her fingers for Kailas’s eyes. A pillar of stone rose up between them, striking Azula’s arm and forcing her to release Kailas. When she stepped back, the wind slammed against her and threw her back several feet into the hill toward the other side of the cove. Kailas felt a chill rush through her spine as she turned to the top of the hill.

“Kailas, come on!” Aang said.

“I told you to run!” Kailas shouted, eyes widening. “Get out of here now!”

“Better late than never with your death, boy!” Azula screamed as she shot to her feet.

Kailas did not bother turning to look. She got to her feet and started to run up the hill. When her body threatened to buckle, she pushed herself harder with fire on her heels. Distantly, very distantly, she heard a crackle of something she did not want to count as familiar. She saw Aang’s panicked gaze directed down the hill for a moment before she slammed into him to throw him out of the way. She turned, bringing up her hands to aim fire downhill.

For a moment, Kailas and Azula’s eyes met over the massive bolt of lightning Azula had created. Kailas saw Azula’s abject shock. Azula saw no change in the hatred in Kailas’s eyes before the lightning struck her palms.

Appa roared in panic when the thunder cracked off mere yards away from where Sokka had made him land. The light was blinding, but it did not keep Toph from running for the cove. She stopped short when she felt something hit the ground nearby. It did not move afterward. When she took another step, she felt bile rise in her throat because she recognized what was there.

Katara!” she screamed.

Aang, scrambling to the top of the hill, watched as the others rushed off Appa’s back. He looked at the blasted, scorched spot on the top of the hill where Kailas had been standing. His eyes went straight from the spot until he saw the single boot left smoking halfway between the hill and Kailas’s body. She was immobile. He could not tell if she was breathing.

Hova was the first person to reach Kailas, dropping to her knees. Kailas lay steaming on her left side, blood running from her ears. Her palms were burned from wrist to fingertip, bleeding badly. An open burn was on her right shoulder, and another was on her left thigh. One more was on the ball of her right foot, left bare without her boot.

“Kailas?” Hova whispered. She flinched when Katara dropped down on Kailas’s other side and pulled her to lay flat on her back. Throat closing up, she could only watch while Katara put her hand flat on Kailas’s chest. Her eyes burned when Katara frantically moved her hand to Kailas’s throat, trying to find a pulse.

Only finding still flesh, Katara said, “Oh no.”

Aang turned at the sound of boots crunching on the hillside, seeing Azula reach the top of the hill some distance away. She ignored him to stare at Kailas. Her eyes were wide, her mouth open. She grew pale.

“You did that,” Aang said quietly.

Azula turned to look at him.

You did that,” he said. He looked at Kailas again. The sight of Hova putting her hands over her mouth to muffle her sobbing pushed his shock into rage. He wheeled around to face Azula again, his eyes and tattoos alight. Azula did not have time to react before Aang had stomped one foot down. She was sent hurtling through the air toward the sea, the ground moving beneath her.

He gestured; the wind slammed into her. He lifted one hand before dropping it down; the sea grabbed her and dragged her into the water. Breathing in deeply, Aang swept both arms down and in. The waves themselves stopped moving forward, instead rising as he lifted his arms.

As he curled his hands into fists, hot wind began to spiral through the tops of the waves, cutting it into mist. He held the waves for a full fifteen seconds before letting them fall back into the sea. He caught the mist and brought it to cover the whole of Taonan, thick and impenetrable. When the city was invisible, he exhaled and ran for the others.

Sokka saw him coming and started to push everyone back to Appa. Hova would not move until Aang had arrived and lifted Kailas onto Appa’s saddle with airbending. They climbed back up, Sokka taking the reins to fly out of the moonlight’s reach. Still in the Avatar State, Aang pulled his staff to him with a gust of wind, standing at the back of the saddle to watch their retreat.

Katara pulled her necklace off. She tugged Kailas’s shirt open enough to show the skin of her chest before opening the vial. She took its water, slowing her breathing to concentrate. The water hovered over her palm and began to circle on itself. She focused to bring healing into the water and carefully brought it to Kailas’s chest.

The glow of the water made Kailas’s face seem peaceful before Katara guided it past her skin and to her heart. Katara held her hand to her chest, eyes closed. She kept her pleading silent, but did not plead for long. Kailas’s heart started to beat again, slow and stable.

“I got her!” she said, looking up. “Her heart’s beating!”

Toph scooted over to hug Katara fiercely. “You’re seriously the best!”

Katara managed to laugh for her before squirming. “Let me get started on the other wounds. I need two people to hold her hands open so they don’t heal curled up.”

Hova nodded, reaching down to hold Kailas’s right hand. Suki did the same on her left, neither of them reacting to the heat of the blood. Katara set to work on the burn along Kailas’s right side, coaxing her ribs back into alignment.

“Okay, super happy that Katara is the world’s most amazing healer ever!” Sokka called over his shoulder. “But we need somewhere to go! There’s no way we can deal with all the stuff that’s wrong with Kailas right now!”

“What about Colonel Long Fa?” Katara asked. “Doctor Saburo said Long Fa knows more about medicine than he ever could hope to study.”

“We can’t go anywhere near Long Fa or Tai-Yang now,” Hova said. She swallowed hard, bowing her head against a gale of wind. She looked at Kailas’s face, biting her lip. She whispered, “Come on, where can I take us? Where’s safe?”

Aang’s head lifted. He turned slowly and looked at Kailas with glowing eyes. There was an echo of other voices in his own when he said, “She’s not here.”

Hova turned to look at him. “What?”

“She’s not here now,” Aang said. He set his staff down and strode to the front of the saddle. He sat down at Kailas’s head, crossing his legs and lifting her head onto them.

“What’re you saying?” Hova asked.

“Her spirit is wandering outside of her body,” he replied, brushing his fingers over Kailas’s forehead. His head tilted. The echo in his voice grew stronger as he murmured, “She will die if she doesn’t come back.”

Hova went completely still. She opened her mouth. Her voice failed for a long time. Once she had inhaled, she whispered, “Can you bring her back?”

Aang lifted his head, but Hova could not tell where he was looking. He closed his eyes and said, “Send us somewhere safe. I will guide her back.”

Hova nodded. As Aang settled with one hand on Kailas’s brow and the other over her heart, she turned to Sokka and said, “Take us southeast! There’s a safe place we can go in Obihiro that Azula would never think of!”

“Got it!” Sokka replied, pulling on the reins. Aang kept steady, exhaling slowly to sink out of his body.


There were crossbeams above her. There was daylight around her, in her eyes. There was a sitting cushion under her head. None of it made sense and Kailas stared up into the crossbeams for a long while before sitting up.

A scroll hung on the wall before her. It was one she recognized. Its title was “Autumn Landscape,” and it was an ink painting by one of the masters of the Fire Nation. She remembered looking at it as a child, forbidden to touch no matter how her once tiny hands had demanded to see if the pine trees upon the hillside had been as rough and coarse as they looked.

The castle in the distant hills reminded her then of the grandeur of the royal palace, and the small house in the foreground surrounded by trees of the homes of the peasantry she had only seen once. Now, she stared again. She reached out a hand, but stopped when she saw red smeared from palm to fingertip.

“Thank you. It’s my favorite, you know. Well, actually, you might not. I don’t think Neha would have told you anything positive about me.”

She recognized and forgot the voice all at once. It was male, deep in timbre but light in tone. The back of her mind insisted that the voice was known, as did her heart. She could not name it. Slowly, she turned and looked across the table that she knew sat safe and whole in her family house in the Fire Nation.

A man sat with one elbow on the table, his stubble-covered chin in his hand. His black hair was identical to her own, curving to the right in its part despite its short length. Gold eyes looked at her, and the face they were in had a smile upon it.

“There’s my girl’s face,” the man said. His smile grew broader. “I haven’t seen it for myself for more than twenty years.”

Kailas stared at him. “Who are you?”

The man sighed, taking up a mug from the table. A moment passed before the mug’s contents began to steam. “You were just a little girl. I shouldn’t be surprised you forgot what I look like. Or sound like, now that I think about it.”

There was no anger at being unanswered. Kailas turned, putting her hands on the table. As the man sipped at his drink, she saw the smearing handprints of red she left behind on the table’s polished black surface.

“Who are you?” she asked again.

“Let’s see,” the man said. He rubbed at his chin, looking around the room. His eyes fell on the ink painting. He grinned. “Oh, here! Did your mother ever tell you whose favorite painting that was? Jaya would have told you that much!”

“She…she said it was my—father’s.”

The man’s grin widened. “There you go. Do you remember my face now, my girl?”

Kailas thought she should be surprised. She thought she should protest and deny everything the man said. All she could do, though, was remember the man’s laugh and the feel of his stubble against her face when she had been too young to remember anything but sound and feel and few faces. Her voice broke, shattering when she tried to speak.

He chuckled.

“Bao?” she asked, her voice soft and weak. “Father?”

“That’s right,” he said. “I’m surprised Neha let Jaya say my name after I died.”

“Am…am I dead?”

Bao let out a small sigh, looking at her hands. “Well…spirits don’t bleed like that, my girl. You’re not dead.”

“But how can I be here?” she asked.

“Your commander betrayed you,” Bao said. “You’re wandering out of your body because you were nearly killed.”

“My…my commander?” She nearly put her hand to her forehead, turning over her hand at the last moment to keep the red from her face. “But…I…she betrayed me?”

“What else would you say she’s done?” Bao asked. “Crazy thing, doing that to an amazing and loyal soldier like you.”

“But…I’ve been…no.” Kailas shook her head, aware of tightness in her ears and head. Her chest was too tight to breathe with. “I’m the one—”

“Who’s been working to restore our country’s honor, I know,” Bao said. He took another drink. “You’ve done a brilliant job so far. I’m not nearly smart enough to keep track of everything you do.” He put the mug down, looking at her eyes.

“Listen, Kailas,” he murmured. “I know that your body is in too much pain for you to understand much right now, but there’s one thing you need to remember when you wake up. You’re not the traitor. You never have been. And you must not give in.”


“I mean it, my girl,” he said. “You cannot give in.”

“To what?”

“You’ll have to understand on your own,” Bao said. “I can’t see your future. I just know you can’t give in.” He sighed, standing and walking to where Kailas sat. In the moments he stood, Kailas knew the answer to Long Fa’s question. Bao was taller than she was.

He knelt beside her and put a hand on her shoulder. The weight was something she could feel, as she could feel the warmth of his hand. With his face so close, she could remember patting at the faint dusting of coarse hair on his face that never seemed to disappear. Her hands had been so small.

“I’m proud of you, Kailas,” he said. “I am. I wish you could stay longer.”

She found her arms around him, her face buried in his chest. “Why can’t you come back with me? Why do I have to go so soon?”

He chuckled, patting her back. “You know the answers.” He tilted his head down, kissing her hair. “I wish I could go back. I miss you and your mother so much you’ll never know. And you have to go because you can’t abandon your wife-to-be when you’re still alive. You don’t know how sad she would be.”

There were tears on her face. “But why so soon?”

“Because the Avatar is nearly here and he made a promise to Hova,” Bao said. “He has to bring you back.” He patted her back again, making her lift her head. “Listen. You can hear him now.”

“Kailas! Kailas! Come on, please answer me!”

“Dry your eyes, my girl,” Bao whispered. He brushed his hands against her cheeks, wiping away the wet streaks. “I don’t think you want your disciple or the Avatar seeing you crying.”


“It’s all right.” He sat neatly beside her, gripping her hand tight under the table. “I’ll hold your hand until you go. Just like you held my hand until I left the house the last time.” He continued to smile, and turned toward the veranda that opened into mist and dark trees. “In here, Master Avatar! She’s in here!”

Aang dashed into view, nearly tripping over his feet as he tried to stop and leap onto the veranda all at once. He ran into the house and stopped to nod at Bao.

“Please, Avatar, sit,” Bao said, gesturing toward the side of the table to his left. “I think we’re going to have another visitor as soon as you do.”

Aang hesitated, but did as he was told. He glanced toward the other side of the table when he was settled but did not notice the figure that had appeared with his sitting for a moment. At Bao’s low bow and Kailas’s wide eyes, he turned again and saw a face he thought was his own. The long, neatly trimmed gray beard and hair tied in a topknot made him stare. The man in crimson robes bowed where he sat, smiling when he straightened.

“Hello, Aang,” he said. “It’s good to see you awake.”

“Avatar Roku,” Kailas said, voice reverent.

“Indeed,” Roku said. “And you are Kailas of the Arav house. It is good to see that Aang has come to bring you back to your body.” He lifted an arm, twitching his wrist to make his wide, long sleeve swing away from his hand. “But before you go back, you must know where you’re going. I am here to guide you both.”

His hand traced a large circle in the table’s surface and the black wood vanished amidst flowing light. A house, its complex as grand and rich as any of the noble houses in the Fire Nation, came into view. The walls and roof were colored in the clean white and dark green of the Earth Kingdom’s affluent.

Within the high, thick walls, Aang and Kailas could see two people. The first was a stout, smaller man with a mane of gray hair for his beard and long hair. He swept the pathway from the front door of the inner houses to the main gate and sighed with a smile on his face. The other was a younger man, considerably taller than his counterpart with black hair that grew long and hung shaggy from a topknot. A scar marred the left side of his face, forcing his eye to narrow and adding disdain to the scowl on his lips as he stared up at the sky.

“These are the people you’ve been looking for all these years, Kailas,” Roku said. “General Iroh and Prince Zuko. Aang, you must lead your family to where the General is hiding himself. He will give you aid.” He looked at Kailas. “You will need it.”

“But we don’t know where they are,” Aang said. “I don’t know how to get them there.”

“You will know when you return to your bodies,” Roku said. “If I have the knowledge, so do you.”

“Can’t I ask you other Avatar questions before we go back? Like, how do I really control the—”

“Now is not the time for long discussions between us, Aang. You have things to attend to. There is a life here that you must save.” He rose to his feet, waving his hand in the air over the table. It was restored to its clean black normalcy, and he strode to the corner of the table between Aang and Kailas. He put his hands on both of their heads.

“You must go quickly,” he said. “Time can’t be wasted.”

Aang closed his eyes, bowing his head slightly to the man. “Thank you, Roku.”

Roku smiled. “You are welcome, Aang. When you travel to find Iroh and Zuko, be silent about it all. Disguise yourselves well. You have been discovered—it can’t happen again. Not now.” His hand lifted and Aang’s tattoos were alight.

He lifted his hand from Kailas’s head; her body was outlined faintly in blue-white. “Goodbye, Aang. Until we have the time to talk.” Roku disappeared and Aang began to fade. He reached across the table to take hold of Kailas’s arm. He would not let go even though she would not look at him.

“Tell your mother I love her,” Bao said. He squeezed her hand tight. “And I love you, too, my girl. I’m so proud of you.”

Kailas opened her mouth, but Aang tugged on her arm.


The world she could see was black. The world she could hear was filled with faint, dull ringing. She opened her eyes and instantly wished she hadn’t. Her body had been replaced by pure white pain. Even her eyes were touched by it, the edges of her blurry sight flickering with white. She tried to breathe and wheezed for her efforts.

A hand touched her face. She turned toward the touch and saw Hova. She saw the tears on Hova’s face, how white her skin had turned. It might have been the moonlight any other night. Then, she wasn’t sure what made her so pale. She saw Hova’s lips move, but there was no sound in her ears beyond the dull ringing.

“Can’t…hear you.” Speaking was more difficult than breathing. She forced her arm up, demanding movement of numb and stupid muscles, and put her hand on Hova’s cheek. Red was left behind, but Hova held her hand to her cheek fiercely.

She saw Hova’s lips move again, but her eyes were directed elsewhere as she spoke. A gentle touch came to the other side of her head near her ear. A new dagger of white stabbed into her head from there. She grimaced, turning her head away from the touch. Hova’s face went paler, her lips moving faster and her eyes growing wider.

“Hova,” she whispered. She managed to curl her fingers against Hova’s cheek, smiling when Hova looked at her. “Hova…I—” She coughed weakly, right side seizing. She forced the smile to stay where it was. She forced her hand to remain still despite the tremor she felt growing in her shoulder. “Hova…I love…you.”

She closed her eyes and let the painless dark take her again.

Chapter Text

Tai-Yang was the first person to learn of the fire. It was a difficult thing to avoid when the sound of the flames ripped through the mist. He sprinted through the streets, heart in his throat because he recognized where the light was located. He struggled to to stop before he ran squarely into Azula, standing outside the blaze that had once been Kailas and Hova’s home.

“You were wrong, Lieutenant,” Azula had said, wiping at the blood and sweat on her face. “There was a battle already going on at the house you directed me to. By the time I arrived, it was too late. They lured our captain back here and set fire to the house. She’s dead, along with her assistant.”

Tai-Yang gaped at her as long as he could stand before looking at the fire. It burned too hot, too fast to try to bring water and put it out. The house and anything or anyone inside was gone before the sun fully rose and the mist had burned away. Almost the entire city gathered near the smoldering timbers after the Fire Lord had left.

The sun had risen and the embers cooled to ash before Tai-Yang even thought of moving. He stood with his mouth open, breathing between his lips because his nose was stuffed. Tears coated his face, and sweat the back of his neck. The men, women, and children that came to investigate did little speaking amongst themselves. There were questions whispered between the adults and cried by a few children. Tai-Yang, though, could answer nothing.

Even when his wife and children arrived shortly after dawn, he said nothing. His eldest son, Rikuto, stood silently staring at the ashes with a hand over his mouth and his brow furrowed. The middle boy, Naoki, shouted and raged, slamming his sandaled feet against charred timbers and gathering black ash on his clothes. Mitsuko only cried, hugging Tai-Yang around the waist and hiding her face against his stomach. She was unable to look at the burnt ground or the embers that still glowed red.


He looked up, blinking and sending more tears down his face. His wife, Mariko, put a hand on his shoulder. There were lines beneath her eyes and ash on her clothes. It blurred together in his sight from the tears in his eyes. She took a deep breath, her face hard and the gray streaks in her brown hair showing in the early light.

“We should go home,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do.”


Please. I can’t stand seeing this.”

Seeing tears in her eyes was enough for Tai-Yang. He scrubbed at his face, feeling soot come away with tears, and sniffed one more time. Gently, he picked up Mitsuko and went to Naoki, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, son. That’s enough.”

“But Dad!” Naoki said. He shook his head furiously, gesturing at the burnt wood. “This isn’t right!”

“No, son,” Tai-Yang said. The boy was growing tall with the years, his head already near Tai-Yang’s chin despite his fourteen years. It was easy to keep a hand on his shoulder and hold up Mitsuko with the other arm. “It’s not.”

“But we don’t know that they’re—they’re gone! We should look for them!”

“No, son,” Tai-Yang said again. “The Fire Lord said she’s dead.”

“But—no! Dad, come on!”

“Naoki,” Tai-Yang said. “We have to listen to her. She’s the Fire Lord. If she says Kailas and Hova are dead, then that’s what they’re going to be. It’ll be reported and recorded. They’re going to be dead.”

The mask of rage cracked and tears started to well over in Naoki’s eyes. “But I don’t want them to be dead.”

Tai-Yang moved his hand to Naoki’s head, rubbing his hair. “Neither do I.”

Rikuto strode away from Mariko’s side, moving to put an arm around Naoki’s shoulders. At eighteen, he was as tall as Tai-Yang, though much slimmer. Gently, he said, “Come on, little brother. We can’t stay here all day.”

“Then what do we do?”

Rikuto looked to Tai-Yang. “Father? What do we do now?”

Tai-Yang adjusted Mitsuko in his arms, lifting her higher to put both arms beneath her. “We go home. We get some rest. And then we tell the city what happened to our governor.”

Naoki shook his head, biting his lip hard with his eyes closed. He followed Rikuto’s guidance when he turned him away from the ashes and char, shuffling his feet as he walked. Mariko followed her sons, Tai-Yang and Mitsuko walking close behind. At the sight of Tai-Yang departing, the rest of the people gathered began to leave, still whispering and murmuring.

A few children cried in protest, demanding answers in shrill voices tinged by the thickness of tears. Tai-Yang narrowed his eyes, trying to block out the questions. He barely registered anything, not the walk home to the house near the coast, nor putting his hurt and red-eyed children to bed. Rikuto stayed awake, sitting cross-legged on his sleeping mat and staring into the dark corners of the room.

For a moment, Tai-Yang lingered, standing in the doorway and watching his son stare and breathe. He turned, though, and walked away. The next thing he understood was that he was sitting on the veranda, watching the sun rise higher and higher, with a cup of rice wine in his hand and a bottle beside him.

Mariko was sitting next to him. “I never thought the rebels would actually…win.” She rubbed at her forehead. “The attacks were starting to stop, weren’t they? When did they start sending spies like those children into cities?”

Tai-Yang tipped the shallow cup and swallowed the last drops of the wine. He poured more into the cup, but did not drink. “They weren’t spies.”

“You don’t think they were the ones that killed Kailas and Hova?”

“They weren’t.”

“How can you tell?”

Tai-Yang looked at the shine of the sun in the clear wine, narrowing his eyes against the pain in them. “If Kailas trusted them, they weren’t spies. She had too hard a life to trust people without a reason.”

“But—they’re gone,” Mariko said. “They ran.”

“They had Kailas’s trust,” Tai-Yang said. “They have mine, no matter what happened.” He drained the cup, but swallowing was hard. “I just…I just wish I hadn’t said anything.”

Mariko put a hand on his shoulder. “What do you mean?”

“She—the Fire Lord said she knew Toph,” Tai-Yang said. “I said her name. And…last night I heard thunder. But I don’t know where lightning would’ve come from when the thunder was that loud.” He lowered the cup, letting his hand rest on his thigh, and put his free hand on his forehead.

“Something happened,” he muttered. “Something happened and it was my fault. I knew what’s going on—I knew how much danger Kailas always put herself in! I swore to keep my stupid mouth shut and I fucked up!” He grit his teeth, moving his hand lower to cover his eyes.

“But you couldn’t have known,” Mariko said.

“I should have known!” Tai-Yang hissed. “Kailas was the smartest person I’ve ever known—she would have known not to say someone’s real name to the Fire Lord!”

“You’re not Kailas, though.”

“But I was the one she trusted! I shouldn’t have—I should have—I’m just a stupid peasant. If I wasn’t an earthbender, I never would have joined the militia in the first place. I would have been—I would have been happy as a farmer.”

Behind his hand, his face had grown pale. “This is my fault. They wouldn’t have gotten killed if I wasn’t such an idiot.”

“You are not,” Mariko said. She took Tai-Yang’s hand from his face, holding his large callused fingers in her hands. “You were elected as our governor years before Kailas even arrived. You were elected at the same age she was when she was posted here. Even if we would have had just as good a life as farmers or merchants, this isn’t your fault.”

“Then whose is it? Two women are dead for some reason! I need to know why!”

Mariko let out a slow, patient breath. She stroked his hand and took the cup from him. “You are no fool. Kailas trusted you for a reason.” She squeezed his hand. “Whatever it was that she trusted you with…maybe there’s something you can keep doing for her.”

Tai-Yang sighed. He looked up at the sky and the clouds that were beginning to gather and move swiftly in from the sea. “I can’t believe they’re dead.”

Mariko looked at the sea and moved closer. “I can’t either. Those girls were always so nice.” She sniffed, laying her head on Tai-Yang’s shoulder. “Did you see the bracelet that Hova started wearing? It looked like Kailas had proposed to her. After all those years together…I would have liked to see them get married.”

“I would have, too,” Tai-Yang said. He blinked, bringing his eyes back to the ground. Slowly, he stood up, keeping Mariko upright when she threatened to lean too far. He stepped up onto the veranda, walking into the house but for a moment. When he returned, he was fiddling with a lengthy piece of black cloth, trying to tie it around his right arm.

Mariko stood up and tied it for him. She smoothed the cloth when it was tied, staring at it. “Where are you going?”

“I want to look at their houses before I make an official announcement,” Tai-Yang said.

“Their houses?”

“Kailas and Hova’s,” Tai-Yang said, “and that group’s. The Fire Lord said that there was a struggle. I want to see if there’s anything left.”

Mariko did not ask. She wrapped her arms around Tai-Yang lightly, but only let go when he hugged her in return. She watched him go, sitting down and letting her eyes close when he disappeared in the distance.

He went first to the house Kailas had bought for the small group. Everything was abandoned. The sleeping mats and blankets were stored away neatly. No clothes could be found, but there was food left behind. An orange rind was left on the table, its scent filling the room. A book had slipped from the table, sitting comfortably on a cushion. A warped piece of metal was sitting near the table, but nothing else remained.

The courtyard was where his chest started to grow tight. There was a pattern to be found in the scorches on the ground. He saw the wall of fire that had been put up between the courtyard and the house, and he soon spotted the burns further away near the hill. He started toward them, but froze when he saw something else.

Tai-Yang rushed toward the boot left on its own, but skid to a halt because he saw the bloodstains on the ground. He looked back and forth between them before snatching the boot and returning to the blood. The boot was charred, its toe ripped at the seam. The sole was burned through completely in one spot.

How?” he said. He knelt down, putting his hand down beside the blood. Squinting, he guessed at its origin. Slowly, he stood up and backed away. His head tilted before he took another step back. When he saw how the blood splatters were spaced out, he estimated how tall a person would have to be.

His stomach churned. He turned about and looked at the hill. At its crest, he saw a spot that was pitch black, the ground itself deformed as though it had been blasted by something. He went to it slowly, going up the hill with the boot still in hand. When he arrived, he saw more scorch marks down below near the water.

Tai-Yang ignored them for the moment to examine the blasted ground. There were two patches where the char was lighter, staggered forward and back. One patch had a solid black spot in it. Swallowing hard, Tai-Yang crouched down and set the boot on the patch. When he lifted it, he could see how the burned spot in the boot matched the black spot on the ground.

He shook his head, whispering, “No. How could that be right?” He set the boot down and lifted it again. “How would it burn like that?”

For a few seconds more, his mind refused to let him remember the sound of thunder. When it gave in and replayed the sound in his ears, his hand went limp and let the boot slip out of his grasp. He looked back down the hill. He ran down the hill to get a different angle. Once he found it, his jaw dropped.

Shaking his head, he ran back up the hill, grabbing the boot as he went. He ran all the way to the burned remains of the house, finally remembering that the dampness on Azula’s clothing could not have been sweat. Her clothes had been soaked through, her hair dripping. He remembered that she smelled of salt.

He remembered that she was clutching a wadded up piece of red cloth, but a long sleeve had been hanging down from her hand. He had recognized the sleeve and its dark cuff. It was Kailas’s. Panting, he sprinted the last few yards to reach the ash and timbers.

No one was nearby to see him leap over a fallen timber and into the ash. He looked about, counting his steps and remembering where the hallways and rooms had been. He climbed over another few broken support beams and heaved another away. Dropping down to his knees, he scooped away ash and soot until he could feel earth beneath his hands. He dug his fingers in deep and pulled, commanding the earth to lift away.

A sealed scroll lay neatly atop one of three crates buried deep in the earth. He remembered the crates from the request Kailas had made of him seven years ago. It had been soon after their first lengthy planning session with Colonel Long Fa. He did not ask why, only helping to create the cavern and open it three times to bury each of crates.

He grabbed the scroll. The wax seal was not Fire Nation’s military seal, but the mark of the coiled, circular dragon Kailas had made years ago. He scratched the wax completely off to destroy the mark as he always did. Breath catching behind his tongue, he unrolled the scroll.

To Lieutenant Tai-Yang,

Something has happened to me if you’re reading this message. I apologize for the subterfuge, but I couldn’t stand to make you worry. The group of people you introduced to us was not a group of drifters as it may have seemed. The boy, Aang, is the Avatar—the last airbender. It’s too complicated to explain in this letter, but I am undertaking the task of training him in firebending.

Due to the danger involved in this, I have ordered the group to keep their essentials together to run at first notice. They are most likely far from Taonan by now. I am most likely dead. I only hope that the Avatar and Hova have escaped with their lives.

Azula has grown increasingly paranoid. If anyone has discovered us, it will be her. She has greater skills in firebending than I know how to defend against. If I am dead, it will be because of her.

Do not defy her openly. I won’t have you die because I failed. All I ask is that you do not give up. We have done so much. Follow the plans we’ve made and wait for the right moment. The Avatar is no coward. He will help the world more than I ever could. You must live, Tai-Yang. You cannot abandon your family.

If I am still alive, I will come back to our city. I promise. Please, take up the governor’s seat until I do. If I do.

-Kailas Arav

Tai-Yang fell back against the nearest timber. He let the scroll drop to rest in his lap and put a hand to his face. He could feel a smile curling his lips and tears on his cheeks. He laughed aloud at finally understanding her focus on Aang and the others.

The laughter dissolved into coughs as he buried his face in his hands. He could not bear the words written on the scroll. For minutes on end he sat and wept, praying to every spirit that Kailas had been wrong in her predictions.


There was no sense waiting to harvest the last bits of the season’s crops when a rainstorm came along. Daichi knew it after decades of work. Nevertheless, his right leg grew more disdainful of the long hours the more years that passed by. Every morning, he dwelled on the broken ankle from six years prior. When his knees joined in with stiffness a year before, he scowled regularly when the weather changed.

He had risen with the dawn and the first crack of thunder that day. Limping to the main room of the house and sitting heavily at his place at the table, he stared at the nearest window and the rain beyond. Naomi joined him soon enough and followed his gaze out the window. Dressed for working the fields, they stared for many minutes.

“Damn storms,” Daichi grumbled. He scratched at his chin through his thick beard, black shot through with gray at the corner of his lips. Sighing, he smoothed the mustache that curved and connected with the beard. He reached up to his close shorn graying hair to scratch his head. Pain came in new waves through his legs at the strengthening of the rain. He groaned, rubbing his knees and closing his green eyes.

“We really should get the last of the rice and radishes in before long,” Naomi sighed. Her brown hair, long and held back in a braid, was also growing gray. The lines under her green eyes were made deeper when she glared at the raindrops. “If we don’t, you’re not going to like getting everything from the mud.”

“You’re right,” Daichi said. He sighed, nearly growling. “Damn mud.”

Naomi laughed. “It’s ‘damn’ everything with you this time of year, honey.”

Daichi grunted, rising up to his feet while balancing himself with the table. He went toward the front door, limping as he walked. Stepping down into the entryway was a struggle, legs nearly giving out beneath him, but he held onto the doorframe to stay upright.

Pushing his feet into his sandals, he grumbled and muttered under his breath at the thought of the wet numbness that would overtake his toes within the hour. He slid open the door with a hard pull and froze at the sight of a completely drenched boy with his hand up about to knock.

The boy stared up at him, tall and broad as the doorway. Daichi could see his face grow pale. The boy’s mouth fell open and he squeaked, “Oh…shoot.”

Daichi stared at him.


Daichi looked up. Hova stepped forward, shivering from the rain. Daichi grinned, teeth showing through his beard. He reached out and lifted Hova off her feet, pulling her into a hug and not caring about how soaked she was. Hova hugged him back, letting out a long sigh. When Naomi stepped into view behind Daichi, Hova smiled slightly and waved over his shoulder.

Hova?” Naomi said. She smiled, hurrying over and standing on the high ledge of the entryway to reach for Hova’s hand. Holding her fingers, she spoke again. “What made you decide to surprise us like this, sweetheart? You usually send a letter if you and Kailas are going to visit!”

Hova’s eyes fell to the floor and narrowed. Daichi put her down and Naomi stepped down into the entryway to keep hold of Hova’s hand. Hova turned, gesturing for the boy to come inside. He did so, staring up warily at Daichi as he moved.

“Mom, Dad,” Hova said, voice breaking, “we really need your help.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” Naomi asked. She stepped closer, noticing the pallor of Hova’s face and the dark marks under her eyes. “Hova, what on earth is wrong?”

Hova’s mouth opened a moment, but she closed it and shook her head. She wrapped her arms around Naomi and started to weep on her shoulder. Naomi made a soft crooning sound, running her hands over Hova’s hair and rocking her back and forth. Daichi turned toward the boy, eyes narrowing in a glare.

“No!” the boy said. “No—no, I didn’t do it!” He winced at Daichi’s continued glare. Pointing at his face, he said, “My—my name is Aang! I’m Hova’s friend!”

“He didn’t do anything, Dad,” Hova said, voice weak. She stepped away from Naomi, rubbing her hands against her eyes. “It’s Kailas. She needs help.”

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” Naomi asked.

“She’s in your barn,” Aang said.

“You broke into my barn?” Daichi asked, voice dropping into a growl.

Aang went white, and his voice broke when he whimpered, “No.”

Dad,” Hova said. “I let them in. It was the only place big enough to hide Appa and everyone else. Please—we’ve been flying with the rain for two days.”

Naomi shook her head, blinking. “Flying? Did you say you’ve been flying?”

“Yep!” Aang said. “On a flying bison!” He quailed at Daichi’s next hard glare.

“Kailas is hurt,” Hova said. “Badly. We haven’t been able to treat her or bandage her wounds. Please—we need to help her.”

Daichi, brows reaching for his hairline, turned and walked away quickly. Aang gaped and turned to Hova. She sighed and stood still, putting her face in her hands. Naomi rubbed her shoulders but said nothing. For minutes they stood in silence, Aang looking back and forth between the doorway Daichi left through and the floor.

When Daichi reappeared, Aang jumped, nearly tripping over his own feet. Daichi carried a brown, well-worn satchel over his shoulder and stepped down into the entryway again. He put a hand gently on Hova’s back.

“Come on,” he said. “We’ve got our other girl to look after.”

Hova wrapped her arms around his massive stomach and back as best she could. He patted her on the head before wagging a finger at Naomi and Aang. They left the house, hurrying through the rain to the enormous barn halfway between the house and the fields.

Aang arrived first, running quickly to push at the large doors. His feet threatened to slip in the mud. He moved quickly, hands striking in the air first with his palms and then with the backs of his hands. The ground solidified to let him resume his shoving. The doors creaked as they opened slowly, and then louder when Daichi arrived behind Aang and pushed them open easily.

In the faint light of dawn dimmed by rain, Daichi and Naomi could see an immense shape within the barn and three people standing around it. Aang hurried inside, aiming a punch toward a brazier filled with tinder and wood. Fire sparked off his knuckles and lit the tinder. He repeated the lighting with other nearby braziers. Naomi gasped at the creature that was revealed, but Daichi did not blink. It was easily the size of a small shack, white and gray fur dripping all over the floor. It lay on its belly and grunted when the braziers were lit.

“Um, that’s Appa,” Aang said, pointing. “He’s my flying bison. He won’t do anything bad in here, promise.”

“Hova?” A woman, dark of skin and wearing blue clothing made nearly black by rainwater, stood up in the saddle on Appa’s back. She walked to Appa’s head, swinging down to the ground while holding onto his horn. “Please tell me you have medicine or bandages. I can’t keep the wounds from getting infected forever.”

Daichi walked forward, lifting the satchel from his shoulder and holding it out to her. She stared at him, but took the satchel. “Um…thank you.”

“Katara, this is my dad, Daichi,” Hova said, “and my mom, Naomi.” She turned to her parents and pointed to each person in turn. “Mom, Dad, this is Katara, Toph, Sokka, and Suki.”

Sokka, sitting on a crate with Suki beside him, waved. It was the most greeting Daichi and Naomi received. In the warm, flickering light, they could see the dark bags under every person’s eyes save Sokka and Toph’s. Toph was asleep, back against one of Appa’s bent legs, but fitfully, twitching and muttering. She jerked awake at Katara’s touch, head turning in every direction until she reached out a hand and laid her fingers on Katara’s face.

“Did we get help?” she asked.

“We did,” Katara said, sighing even as she smiled. She looked about the barn, straightening up. “Sokka, can you and Toph push a few crates together? Appa’s had his saddle on too long, but I need to have Kailas lying down to do this.”

“Can do, little sister,” Sokka said. He waited for Toph to rise to her feet. They started to push a trio of large crates into a long, straight line.

“I’ll get a couple of mats and blankets for her,” Aang said. He hopped up onto Appa’s head, walking into the saddle. “Sokka, can you come get her down after that?”

“I’ll come up,” Daichi said.

Aang flinched, but said, “O-okay. Appa, lift up your tail so he doesn’t have to climb.”

Appa let out a grunt, doing as he was ordered. Aang rummaged in their bags, finding the sleeping mats and blanket, kept dry in their gear by being buried beneath everything else. When he looked up, the rolls in his arms, he flinched again.

Ignoring him, Daichi limped into the saddle from Appa’s tail, walking to where Kailas lay, unmoving. Fai and Momo, wet and weary near her head, barely blinked. Daichi looked at Kailas for a long while. She was drier than the rest of the group, but still wet from the rain. Her eyes were closed, chest barely rising with her breathing.

The only reason Daichi knew she still breathed was because she wheezed with each inhale and exhale. There were traces of blood around her pooled on the saddle. The hand that lay limply on her stomach was spreading a patch of red on her shirt. He knelt down, holding onto the side of the saddle for balance.

“Dammit, little dragon,” he murmured. He brushed her damp hair away from her face with such tenderness that it made Aang stare. “What’d you do to yourself?”

“Dad, please be careful when you bring her down!” Hova said. “Two of her ribs are still cracked!”

“Right,” he replied. Very slowly, he lifted Kailas up, bracing her spine with his massive forearms until he rose to his feet. Even slower than before, he let her spine curve to carry her steadily. Her head tipped onto his arm. Daichi returned to Appa’s tail to be lowered to the ground. He went to the crates and waited until Aang got down and spread the sleeping mats and blankets over them.

Naomi drew close, staring as Daichi gently lay Kailas on the makeshift cot. She took the hand that did not rest on Kailas’s stomach, lifting it and looking at the bloody palm and fingers.

“Oh, Hova,” she whispered. “What in the world happened to her?”

“She was struck by lightning,” Hova said. “Lightning the Fire Lord made.”

“What?” Naomi asked. “How could she do that?”

“We don’t know,” Katara said, moving to stand beside Naomi. She fiddled with the knot of the satchel, undoing it and laying the opened bag on the free space near Kailas’s side. “We didn’t know firebenders could make lightning.” She jumped at the touch of wood behind her legs, turning to find that Daichi had put a stool behind her. “Oh…thank you.”

Daichi nodded. “Thanks for taking care of her.”

“How long has she been like this?” Naomi asked.

“Three days,” Sokka said. He paused, rubbing at his forehead. “Is it three?” He started to count on his fingers. “She got hit that night…then we were flying for two days and two nights. This is the start of the third day, right?”

“Yes, Sokka,” Suki said. “The third day.”

Katara unscrewed the top of a jar, but paused. She looked at how bloody Kailas’s hands were and sighed. “Dammit. Is—is there water in here anywhere? I need to wash the wounds first.” She groaned, rubbing her eyes. “I need to wash all of them. Dammit.”

Naomi put her hands on Katara’s shoulders. “That’s enough now. You and your friends get a little rest. I can clean and bind the wounds.”

“But it’s really serious,” Katara said. “And…she should get cleaned up anyway.”

“It’s women’s work in here, then,” Naomi said. She turned to Daichi. “Honey, you go get started on harvesting.” Her eyes went to Sokka. “Are you all right to help him?”

Though his face was as pale as any other, Sokka smiled and flexed his arms. “I’m good. I snuck in a couple naps.”

Naomi nodded. “Good. And you, Aang.” She paused, putting a hand to her chin. “Can you do any cooking?”

“Huh?” He blinked. “Uh, yeah. Not meat, but yeah.”

“Good,” Naomi said again. “Make the simplest soup you can. We need to get some food in this girl and soup is the only thing I can think of to feed someone unconscious like this. You can use our kitchen. And you can bring in more blankets while it’s cooking, but knock before you come in. There’s no need for you to see Kailas indecent.”

“Yes ma’am,” Aang said, smiling. He jogged out of the barn and Daichi and Sokka followed soon after him.

“Mom, you don’t have to do all this,” Hova said. “Katara is a healer—Suki and I can help.”

“You all can help,” Naomi said. “Better to have more hands, even if you’re all exhausted.” She went to the water pump, moving a large jar to the spigot. The pump started slowly, creaking because it had not been used since the day before, but soon water flowed smooth and clean into the jar.

“But you have to harvest, don’t you?” Hova asked. “You just sent Dad to.”

Naomi sighed as she put the jar down beside the crates. “Hova, sweetheart, close your mouth and sit down for a minute.”

Hova almost fell to her rear to obey, back bumping against a beam.

Chuckling, Naomi smiled. “There, see? You’re so tired that you did exactly what you were told. None of you would be able to do all of this alone. I’ve lived through a lot of troubled years, sweetheart. I know how to help the wounded.”


“No buts,” Naomi said. “She’s your lover and you’re too worried right now. Just sit for a little while and calm down.” She turned to Suki and Katara. “You two get her undressed. We’ll have her cleaned and bandaged up in no time.”

She looked at Toph, who wavered on her feet, and the blind eyes in her face. “You go back to sleep, dear.”

Toph waved a lifted thumb and fell back against Appa. She was gone in moments and Katara smiled at the sight. “She hates flying too much to sleep, but she was so worried whenever we were on the ground that she couldn’t.”

“The sooner we get this done, the sooner you all can rest,” Naomi said. “Come on.” She moved to Kailas’s other side, undoing the ties on her damp shirt. When the shirt was open, she carefully withdrew Kailas’s arms from the sleeves, tugging the shirt out from beneath her back. “You said you were flying with the rain?”

“Yeah,” Hova said. She watched Kailas’s limp body being undressed for only a moment, empty stomach turning too much to keep her eyes open. “We left Taonan two days ago and got unlucky.”

“Have you been keeping her dry?” Naomi asked.

“As much as we can,” Suki said. She worked at the drawstring of Kailas’s trousers. “But it’s been hard. Aang can’t waterbend forever and he can’t heal. Katara’s been fighting infection for most of the time we’ve been moving.”

“That’s not good,” Naomi said. With Katara propping Kailas’s shoulders up, she undid the knot of the woman’s breast bindings. “You can’t let her get sick.”

“She only gets sick from infections,” Hova said, voice dim.

“Then we shouldn’t tempt fate any more than this,” Naomi said. She paused at the sight of the scar on Kailas’s bare chest, frowning at it and the blood she felt oozing from the burn on Kailas’s right shoulder. “For pity’s sake. Here—I’ll get a few rags.”

As she strode away, Suki managed to peel Kailas’s trousers off her legs and grimaced at the large bloody wound on her left thigh and the bottom of her right foot.

“Why are there so many burns?” she asked. “Why are they so bad?”

“Do you know anyone that’s lived from being struck by lightning?” Katara asked, voice clipped. “She’s lucky to have gotten this far.” She dipped her hands into the jar, drawing them out coated in white glowing water. Gently, she lay her hands on Kailas’s right side, closing her eyes.

“Her ribs still haven’t fully healed,” she muttered. “They’re not taking to the healing very well, and that damn burn is worse. I can’t even tell how deep it went.” She sighed, reaching to Kailas’s thigh to see what she could do for the wound there. “It’s lucky these other ones aren’t quite as bad.”

“Didn’t I just say not to tempt fate?” Naomi asked. “Here.” She handed Katara a stack of rags, moving to dip the one she kept into the jar. “After we clean her up, we’ll bind up her hands. They look like they need the most attention.”

Suki took a wet rag when it was passed to her, gently wiping at the bleeding wound on Kailas’s foot. “How do you know all this?”

“Aside from all the injuries I see on our farmhands?” Naomi said. “Daichi had a bad break in his ankle a few years back. You learn by watching, and I watched a lot of doctors work when we were getting it treated.”

“Hova, do you want to get a rag?” Katara asked. When she received no answer, she turned and found Hova asleep, leaning against the beam.

“Let her sleep,” Naomi said gently. She cleaned Kailas’s face with smooth, swift wipes, moving down her neck. “I’ll wager my daughter was awake this entire time.”

“You’d win a gold piece,” Suki said. “I’m glad she’s asleep.” She started to move up Kailas’s leg, but paused. “Does anyone else feel that this is really strange?”

Katara nodded, but did not pause in her soft scrubbing of Kailas’s stomach. “Don’t ever tell Hova I said this, but it feels like bathing a dead body.” She swallowed hard. “I thought she was gone when her heart stopped.”

“She’s breathing,” Naomi said softly. “That’s what matters.”

“How on earth can you be so calm about this?” Suki asked.

Naomi hummed a question.

“We just showed up in the middle of your barn with a woman who’s been unconscious for days,” Suki said. “Even if Hova is your daughter and you know Kailas, this is really odd.”

“You can’t get far in life by being befuddled by everything,” Naomi said. “To tell you the truth—this terrifies me.” She dipped her rag into the jar again, moving to clean Kailas’s arms. “I’ve never known Kailas has been wounded so many times.”

She smiled weakly. “I’m trying hard not to be sick after seeing her side.”

“But how can you be so calm?” Katara asked.

“I’m getting old,” Naomi said, her smile gaining strength. “You stop getting excited when you’re old.” She lifted Kailas’s shoulder to dab at the wound. Kailas’s face tightened, teeth clenching and brows dropping. They all froze. When she was settled back into a straight position, her face smoothed, breathing ragged for a moment.

Suki sighed. “We always get so excited…and it’s always just because she’s hurting.” She put a hand to her forehead, shoulders shaking. “I hate this.”

“It’ll be all right,” Naomi murmured. “Don’t give up on her yet.” She took up one of Kailas’s hands, laying the rag in her palm very gently. The blood soaked into the rag immediately, but the bleeding continued. She sighed. “Here—pass me some bandages and the salve. I’ll have to do this fast. Watch so you know how to rewrap her hands.”

She wiped the last of the new blood away, switching quickly to the jar of salve. She spread a generous layer over Kailas’s entire hand, from wrist to fingertips. The bleeding slowed, the faint shaking in her hand stopping.

A pad of cloth was placed in Kailas’s palm and the bandages were wound around her palm to start. Soon, pads of cloth were each wrapped around her fingers and thumb, and the bandages bound them down. The process was repeated on her other hand and Kailas let out a faint, almost inaudible grunt.

“I think she likes it,” Naomi said, chuckling.

“Then let’s get the other ones wrapped up,” Suki said. “Here, pass me everything.” She started to work on Kailas’s foot and leg, carefully cleaning away the blood before salving and binding the wounds.

“Katara, you help me get her shoulder,” Naomi said. “Lift her up a little.”

“Okay,” Katara said. “Okay.” She hesitated, reaching for Kailas’s uninjured shoulder. “I don’t—I don’t want to hurt her.”

“She’s already in pain,” Naomi said. “She can deal with a little more to make sure it doesn’t get worse later. Just lift her a bit.”

Katara winced, biting her lip, but carefully put one hand under Kailas’s left shoulder and the other under her right arm away from both burns. Kailas’s face grew tight again, a whimper passing through her teeth. Naomi ignored the sound, moving quickly to lay cloth pads over the burn. Another whimper came when Naomi bound the wound by looping bandages under and around her arm, tying it across her chest to keep it from slipping. Naomi hushed her as Katara set her down gently.

“Sorry, dear,” she whispered. She took up her rag again, dabbing at Kailas’s forehead and the sweat that had risen there. “You did just fine.” She sighed, and swiped her wrist over her own forehead. “All right. That’s everything, isn’t it? Let’s get her dressed again. Does she have extra clothes?”

“I think,” Suki said. “Hova made a pack for her and Kailas. Hang on.” She went to Appa, climbing up into his saddle.

As she did, Katara sighed and put her head in her hands. “I hate this.”

“Suki said that already.”

“I can’t believe I learned all this stuff about healing and I can’t even get her to wake up,” Katara hissed. “I can’t even get these other burns to heal.”

“Why is that?”

Katara sighed again. “There’s a limit to what the body can accept from waterbending healing. And from what it can accept from normal water.” She gripped her hair tightly. “Maybe if I had more water from the spirit oasis in the North Pole I could do it, but she needed that to get her heart beating again.

“I have to wait,” she muttered. “I hate waiting for something like this.”

“You get more patient when you’re older, too,” Naomi said. “You have to believe it’ll be okay.” She looked at Hova. “If just for Hova’s sake.”

“Here,” Suki said. “I’ve got some dry clothes for her.” She held out a black short-sleeved shirt, and worked to get the knee-length trousers on Kailas’s legs. Soon, she was clothed again, and her breathing had settled. The wheezing had lessened. Just as Naomi folded her shirt closed, a knock rang out from the barn doors.

“Come on in, Aang,” Katara called. “It’s okay.”

The boy pushed the door open, running in from the rain. In one hand he carried a rolled blanket and a bowl of soup in the other. All he carried was dry and he grinned as he came near. “I love waterbending.”

“You’re the Avatar, aren’t you?” Naomi asked.

Aang paused, turning white. “Oh, shoot. I did more than one bending in front of you.”

“Yes,” Naomi said. She took the blanket first, flipping it open over Kailas. When her legs were covered, she took the bowl.

“It’s all right,” she said with a smile. “Daichi and I aren’t going to tell anyone. We need to let you get away and not have anyone know, right?” She sat when Katara moved from the stool, slipping her arm beneath Kailas’s shoulders and lifting her almost upright.

“How did you know we’re going to leave?” Katara asked.

“You can’t have been on the move for two days just to stay here,” Naomi said. “We’re probably the only place you could think of to get supplies safely.” She chuckled. “I’m glad.”

She tilted Kailas’s head forward, opening her mouth and slowly pouring some of the soup past her lips. Quickly, she set the bowl down and rubbed at Kailas’s throat. She swallowed and did not choke. Naomi sighed. “Good girl. That’s it. Suki—come here. You get her to swallow. This is probably safer to do with two people.”

Aang had turned about and crouched down, watching Hova sleep. “I didn’t think she’d fall asleep like that.” He smiled slightly, yawning. “Lucky.”

“Where are you taking my daughter, Avatar?” Naomi asked.

“I know where General Iroh of the Fire Nation is,” he said, standing straight. “We’re going there to hide. To get help and let Kailas get better.” He looked at Kailas, smile fading. “She needs to be safe.”

“We’ll give you a few tarps before you go.”

“Tarps?” Katara asked.

“You can keep yourselves dry if it keeps raining. None of you should be in the rain so much. Even if Kailas doesn’t get sick, it’s not a good idea for all of you to get sick.”

Katara sighed, sinking down beside Toph. “How can we pay you back for this?”

Naomi paused, looking at her. She laughed aloud, setting the bowl down to keep from spilling it. “What makes you think you have to pay us back?”

“If Azula figures out Kailas is still alive—if anyone knows and it gets out to people—they might find out you helped us,” Katara said. “We’re putting you in a lot of danger.”

“How is that any different from day to day life?” Naomi asked. “The Fire Lord is a lunatic. She’s had people killed just for breaking small laws. We’ll be all right.”

“But you just said—”

“We’ll be all right,” Naomi said. “We’re just farmers. Soldiers don’t even pay attention to us. Hova’s been in more danger in Taonan than here. We know how to keep our mouths shut. We’ll be fine.” She tipped another mouthful of soup past Kailas’s lips. “All I’m worried about is getting you all ready to leave again and making sure Kailas gets well. I’m glad I can help with that.”

Aang turned to face Naomi and put his palms flat together before he bowed. “Thank you. We’ll tell Kailas everything you did for her.”

Naomi smiled at him. “Good. Then I can tease her about it later.”


Turtle-ducks were adorable, to make a grave understatement. On a sunny day, they would quack and swim lazily on the surface of the pond, looking up expectantly every so often for pieces of bread. On rainy days, they hid under the veranda, huddled against each other though the water did not affect them. Jaya adored the littlest ones, taking careful aim in the mornings to toss most of the bread she took to the pond to them.

On one of the first mornings in autumn, bright and clear and with the last warmth of the summer still coming through the shade of the leaves, she sat with a small, warm loaf beside her. Smiling, she thought of the pond and how it had not been home to anything but the occasional patches of leaves before Kailas had been born.

Afterward, though, she and Bao had taken a small, quiet, constantly smiling three-year-old girl into the market with them. A family of turtle-ducks had made their way across the broad road before them, quacking and nodding their heads seemingly in gratitude when vendors and children and women tossed pieces of bread and other food to them.

Kailas, sitting comfortably on Jaya’s hip, had noticed the smile on Jaya’s face and asked why it was there. The simple answer of how she found the turtle-ducks cute—though not as much as Kailas—was given, and Kailas returned to her typical quiet, watching the creatures as they vanished down an alleyway. Jaya gave it little thought after that. It hadn’t seemed important. Kailas asked questions more often than she said full sentences at that age, and it was only one in the series of the day.

The next day, though, when she had been reading under the tree beside the pond, she looked up to see Bao and Kailas walking across the grass with their arms full. Bao carried a pair of turtle-ducks, a mother and father, and Kailas a nest full of eggs. She stared at the nest, walking slowly, and stopped when Bao set the turtle-ducks in the water.

It had all been Kailas’s idea, Bao explained to a wide-eyed Jaya. They had returned to the market early to find the turtle-ducks being sold for pets and had managed to bring the freshly laid eggs into the bargain.

Jaya laughed at the memory of how Kailas had smiled and giggled at the praise and hugs she had received for her efforts. She kept that image in the forefront of her mind, playing a game of remembering all the ways Kailas could smile. It was easier when she thought of when Hova accompanied Kailas.

Smiling, sighing deeply, Jaya settled back against the tree to watch the turtle-ducks. She could no longer count how many more times Kailas had smiled when she and Hova visited every year. It was always the best part of the summer. She closed her eyes, feeling the start of the cooler autumn breezes. She hoped they would be able to follow through on Kailas’s last letter and visit before the winter solstice.

“Excuse me, milady?”

She opened her eyes to find Sana standing nearby. She was growing smoothly into a young woman: there was no gawkiness in her gait, nor awkwardness in how she held herself in a bow at the waist. There was a man beside her, wearing the dirty gold and brown-red colors of a messenger. Sana straightened, hands folded inside the long sleeves of her simple dark red dress.

“This man says he has a message to deliver to the lady of Arav,” Sana said. She smiled, glancing briefly over her shoulder. “I thought it would be more appropriate to bring him to you this time.”

“Thank you, my dear,” Jaya said. She rose to her feet, walking to the man. “And thank you. Where did this message come from?”

“I don’t know precisely, ma’am,” the man said, bowing at the waist. “It’s just one of the ones I have to deliver today.” He held out two items: a small bundle wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine, and a scroll placed atop it. He nodded toward the bag on his shoulder. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but I do have a lot of things.”

“It’s all right,” Jaya said. She took the scroll first, leaving Sana to take the package. “You can go.”

The man bowed at the waist briefly before turning and jogging away. Sana laughed after him, holding the bundle to her chest. She looked back in time to see the wax seal on the paper before Jaya cracked it with a brush of her fingers.

“Oh,” Sana said. “Isn’t that the seal that Lady Kailas uses?”

“She does,” Jaya replied. She sighed as she unrolled the scroll. “I wish she’d make one of her own instead of using the military seal.”

“I wonder what she would have sent,” Sana said, holding up the bundle. “Maybe some sort of fabric from a city she trades with? It feels like that.” She tilted the package, looking for the knot in the twine. “She’s done that before, hasn’t she? Asking you to make something for Miss Hova?”

Quietly, she laughed. “I envy her sometimes, Miss Hova. She makes Lady Kailas very happy! I’m so glad someone could make her—”

She was interrupted by the tearing of paper. Sana looked up to see that Jaya’s knuckles had gone white, a few fingers tearing through the scroll. Her eyes were narrow, her lips pressed tightly together, and her shoulders stiff.

So quickly that Sana had no time to react, Jaya swapped their items, shoving the scroll into Sana’s hands and yanking the bundle away from her. She ripped at the brown paper and twine, cheeks turning pasty. Sana mouthed a question, eyes widening, but came to look down at the slightly torn scroll and the words written there.

To the honorable Lady Jaya of the house of Arav:

Our Fire Lord Azula’s Phoenix Battalion regrets to inform you of the death of your daughter, Captain Kailas of the house of Arav. It will be known in the history of our country that your daughter was a bold strategist and a brave warrior, and that her enemies only saw fit to attack her in the night when she was unable to defend herself. Let it soothe you to know that the cowardly enemies of our country were discovered and struck down swiftly.

Unfortunately, as your daughter lost her life to a fire that also claimed her home and her assistant, one woman named Hova, we cannot offer the traditional funeral of our country. As is tradition, she has been promoted posthumously two ranks to the rank of colonel. We also offer you the coat that officers of your daughter’s rank would be cremated in to show our honoring her passing. The ranks of our nation are made less by Kailas’s death.

Sana could barely see through the tears in her eyes when she looked up. Jaya stood holding white cloth to her face, shoulders trembling. The cloth made the long official coat of an officer, sleeveless and hanging open to display whatever clothing a family decided to display the body in before its ceremonial burning. On the broad back, Sana could see the gold stitching that made the embroidery of a full phoenix, wings spread upward across the shoulders and beak open in a cry. She tried to speak and choked, putting a hand over her mouth to keep from sobbing.

“What nonsense is this? Stop that weeping—you’re not a child.”

A manicured hand snatched the scroll from her hands. Neha stood there between her and Jaya, looking at Jaya with a brow raised. A brief glance at the scroll made her scoff, both brows rising as she looked again at the white coat in Jaya’s hands.

“So she was killed,” she said. She rolled the scroll up neatly. “You can’t have expected much more from the daughter of that man. He was a pathetic firebender, a worse soldier, and the most terrible husband. I still don’t see why you married him. Introducing such inglorious and disgusting blood into our house. At least now you have no ties to that line.”

“Lady Neha!” Sana said, gasping. “Master Bao was a good man! Even if I never met him—my father told me stories about him! And how can you insult Lady Kailas’s memory when she’s just been killed?”

“Oh, hold your tongue,” Neha said. “You’re no better. The only reason I’ve let you stay here is because you amuse my daughter. If that man hadn’t been friends with your family, you’d never have been brought to our house.”

She let out a breath through her nose, looking up at the clear blue sky. “I’ll have to make arrangements for a new marriage. A proper one this time. The matchmaker won’t be too busy at this time of the year. At least you won’t have that mutt of a child to weigh down your prospects.”

There was a blazing flash of white in her eyes before she began to taste blood. She saw Jaya standing before her, one hand clenched at her side in the fabric of the coat and the other still outstretched from the slap that had knocked one of Neha’s teeth loose. There were no tears on her face or in her eyes, and her cheeks were vivid red.

Get out!” Jaya shouted.

“How—how dare—”

Dare?” Jaya said. “How dare I? You stand before me and insult my daughter when I’ve just learned of her murder, and you say how dare I? You, Mother, sent her into the house of a demon when she was only a child to try and make our house’s name stand out!”

“You act as if she lost some part of her life!” Neha said. “In service to our country she—”

Died!” Jaya spat. “She died, like Bao! And you dare call her a ‘mutt’ when she did nothing but what you ordered her? I knew there was nothing that could appease you when I married Bao, but how dare you speak to me about Kailas this way now?” She pointed toward the front of the house and the street beyond it. “Get out.”

“You can’t just send me away!”

“I can, and I am,” Jaya said. “You are to leave this house by noon and return to the branch house in the country. You are to have no power in any decisions our family makes from here forth. I will send a letter to my aunt and brother. They will be the only ones who have sway in where the main house goes. You will go back and you will die with no more say in this house.”

When Neha opened her mouth, Jaya shook her head. “I just said you have no more say. Do not make me summon soldiers to escort you. Get out.”

Neha’s mouth closed. Cords stood out on her neck and her cheeks flushed crimson. She threw the scroll to the ground and stormed away in silence, arms swinging and fists appearing from within her sleeves. Sana watched her go, blinking only when Jaya bent down to pick up the scroll. She tried to swallow and failed, the tears forced away from her eyes by surprise returning with what felt like a blow to the throat.

“Lady Jaya,” she said, voice breaking. “I’m—please, you have to understand how sorry I am.” She managed to swallow, but felt her stomach roil at the sensation and sobbed. She put one arm over her eyes, the hand of the other arm at her chest to push against the growing hollow there.

“I can’t—how could she be killed?” she asked. “I can’t believe she’s dead.”

“She’s not.”

Sana looked up.

Jaya stood staring up at the sky, knuckles white in the coat and around the scroll. Her face was drawn, pale again with her lips pressed together. “Kailas was a better firebender than—she would not have been killed in any fire. She wouldn’t have let Hova die.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes. “They are not dead.”

“But…why would this be sent?”

“I don’t know,” Jaya said. She took another deep breath with a hard sniff. “I don’t know and I don’t care. The army is lying. Azula is a liar—I learned that from every story Kailas told me of her. I will not accept that my daughter is dead. It is not true.” She sniffed again. Her shoulders started to shake. “I can’t believe it is.”

“Milady…what do we do?”

Jaya shook her head. Her head fell forward and she moved back to lean against the tree. She pressed the coat to her face again, muffling a sob in the heavy fabric. For a time, she stood there, weeping into the coat, shoulders wracked with each shuddering breath. Soon, though, she lifted her head and looked at the scroll still clutched in her hand. Her eyes narrowed. She tightened her grip so much that her hand began to tremble.

“This is because of the military,” she whispered. “Because of the royals. If she’s truly gone or if they’re trying to make her disappear—it’s because of them. I can’t take that anymore. They’ve taken all of the family I love because it was convenient. I can’t let them.”


The scroll caught fire. Jaya let it fall from her hand, watching it burn. “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. But I know there’s something I can.”


“Uncle, I just got a letter from…what in the world are you doing?”

Pouting was the best way to describe exactly what Iroh was doing. He sat staring out at the rain, bearded chin propped in one hand and lower lip jutting out.

He sighed, gesturing to the rain. “Look at this, Nephew. This is the sixth day of rain in a row.”

Zuko raised his eyebrow, the hand he held the scroll in dropping to his side. “What’s your point, Uncle?”

“No one will be able to get to the Jasmine Dragon in this rain!” Iroh said, pouting even more. “The roads will be nothing but mud by now!”

He sighed, lips curling in a frown. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“We’ll lose business! Not to mention I’m missing out on Pai Sho games!”

He sighed again, shaking his head. “Listen, Uncle. I just got a letter from Mai.”

“How is the young lady doing?” Iroh asked. “It is kind of her to keep in contact with you.”

“Mai’s fine,” Zuko said. “But she said something strange. She said Azula’s captain—that Kailas Arav woman was killed a few days ago. That she and her assistant died in a fire caused by rebels.”

Iroh froze and turned away from the window. He looked at Zuko with wide eyes. “Are you certain?”

“What?” Zuko asked. “How would I know? It’s not like I’ve seen her in the last few days. If Mai says she’s dead, she probably is.”

“But by a fire?” Iroh asked. He shook his head. “That can’t be right. She was a very skilled firebender. I do not think she would have died that way.” He put a hand to his chin, stroking at his beard. “May I see the letter?”

Zuko turned his head at the sound of a knock from the house’s main door. “Fine. Take it. It doesn’t matter to me if she’s dead. It’s not like she’s important.” He put the scroll in Iroh’s hands, walking toward the door.

“I would not say that, Prince Zuko,” Iroh said quietly. He looked through the scroll, skipping past the questions about Zuko’s well-being and the sarcastic remarks about boredom. The reporting was brief, alluding only to the official military report. He frowned, reading through it again and again and trying to see what was between the lines.

“I told you not to call me that, Uncle,” Zuko said. “I’m not a prince anymore.”

“You will always be the crown prince of the Fire Nation,” Iroh said, following Zuko without looking up from the letter. “You know this.”

Zuko scowled at the floor. “Drop it, Uncle! I don’t want to talk about it!” Still frowning, he opened the door and snapped, “What do you want?”

“Nephew!” Iroh said. “Do not be so rude to guests!”

“Are you Prince Zuko?”

“My name is Lee!” Zuko shouted, spinning about and jabbing a thumb in his chest. He stared, though, at the two people on the doorstep. The shorter of the duo, a boy with a headband, grinned and shook his head.

“Nuh-uh,” he said. “Your name is Zuko. I know it is.”

“My name is Lee,” Zuko said, growling out his words. “And we’re not hosting any guests today. Go home and get out of the rain.” He started to slide the door closed, but a hand pressed against the frame and held it open

“Wait, please!”

He turned back, blinking at the woman’s pale and exhausted face. “Why?”

“We know you’re Prince Zuko,” she said. “And we know that General Iroh is here, too. We’ve been trying to find you. Please—let us at least come in and talk with you. We need to get in out of the rain.”

“Why should I let you in my house?” Zuko asked, eyes narrowing.

Iroh, eyes still on the scroll, strode into the hall. He looked up, eyes widening again when he saw the woman’s face. He came near quickly, pushing Zuko gently to one side. “Nephew, mind your manners. Please, come inside. We can discuss things.”

“Wait,” the woman said. “We…we need to bring more people inside. Please.”

“How many more?” Zuko asked.

“A few,” the boy said, putting his hands behind his head and looking away.

Iroh stroked at his chin, but soon pointed at the woman. “Excuse me, young lady—but is your name Hova?”

“How did you know that?”

Iroh smiled. “I’ve heard of you—and how you look.” He took a breath, putting his hands in his cloth belt. “I have a feeling you have someone hurt with you. Would it happen to be the late captain?”

“Late?” Hova asked. “What?”

“I will explain,” Iroh said. “For now, it’s best if everyone comes inside. If there’s anything that shouldn’t be left out in the open, please feel free to move it to the courtyard.” He paused, putting his hand on his chin again. “Zuko, please open the door to the courtyard. I’ll put on a pot or two of jasmine tea.” He strode away, humming a tune quietly.

Zuko glared after him. When he turned back to Hova and the boy, he continued to scowl. “The courtyard is past the main wall to the left of the house. There’s a door there to get in.”

“That’s okay!” the boy said, skipping backward out the door. “We got over the wall easy!” He grinned as he jogged away, leaving them in an awkward silence.

Zuko sighed noisily and turned. “Follow me.” He did not pause to see if Hova did as she was told, walking with his hands fisted at his sides and his face still pulled in a scowl. Almost stomping as he walked, he wound his way through the hallways, reaching the closed door and flinging it open. He would have turned away and retreated to his room, but the sight that greeted him was enough to make him freeze with his hand on the door.

A man with dark skin stood under the hanging roof, dripping from the rain and carrying a woman taller than himself on his back. Beyond him, in the courtyard itself, a huge creature with gray and white fur sank down on the ground with a long groan, three women beside him. The boy from before leapt clean over the wall, landing lightly in the mud before jumping the many feet in the air to reach the creature’s horned head.

“Hey, Suki, Katara, catch Appa’s saddle!” he called down. He spun about on the creature’s head, the saddle lifting up and off its back and floating slowly down to two of the women. The creature let out another groan, head falling and eyes closing.

“What is that?” Zuko asked.

“That’s Appa,” the man at the door said. “Can we come in? She needs to lie down again.”

“She?” Zuko asked.

“Yeah, the sleepy lady I’m carrying,” the man said. “Seriously—she’s not super-light here.”

Zuko opened his mouth, but could not speak. A pair of creatures slinked in around his feet, sopping wet. He looked down, recognizing the raccoon-dog despite its haggard, drowned appearance, but he could not name the lanky white-furred creature that stood beside it. “What…the—what are these things?”

“That’s Fai,” the man said, pointing a toe at the raccoon-dog. “And the other one is Momo. Really seriously this time, man, can we come in?”

Iroh rounded a corner, carrying a platter with two pots and a number of cups. “Let them in, Zuko.”

“But—there’s a giant—thing—in our courtyard!” Zuko said, pointing out toward Appa. “Who are these people? Why should we let them into our house?”

“Because if I remember correctly,” Iroh said, moving close and looking up at the woman’s face, “that is the woman whom Mai claimed was dead.” He stepped aside. “Come inside, young man. I will take you to a guest room that you can put her in.”

“Great,” the man said. He walked past Zuko to follow Iroh. Zuko stood with his face twisted in confusion, scarred eye narrower than usual and lips contorted. The boy and the women from the courtyard passed by him, and Fai and Momo trotted after them. Soon, he was alone with Hova, and he looked at her with his face still twisted.

“What the hell just happened?” he asked.

“I’m sorry,” Hova said. “Come on, let’s go with them. We’ll explain, I promise.”

Zuko looked at her a moment longer before they started down the hallway after the others. It was easy enough to follow the sound of voices to what Zuko recognized as one of the larger guest rooms in the estate. By the time they had arrived, the woman was already laid out on a sleeping mat in the center of the room and Iroh was drawing a blanket over her.

“So my niece has mastered lightning,” he said softly.

“Wait, you can master it?” the boy asked. “Is that a normal thing for firebending?”

“No, not normal,” Iroh said. “It is a special skill that only a few firebenders have mastered. It takes a great deal of work and practice. I am not surprised Azula knows how.” He sighed, sitting back and reaching for the platter beside him. “Please, sit down. I can tell you’re all in need of rest.”

Everyone but Zuko sat, taking places around the woman. Zuko leaned against the doorframe, crossing his arms over his chest. “Uncle, what’s going on here?”

“Ah, of course—introductions,” Iroh said. He poured cups of tea and passed them around, gesturing for the boy to take one cup to Zuko. “These people are on the run from your sister, Prince Zuko. Their names are Sokka, Katara, Toph, Suki, and Aang. The injured young woman is the late Captain Kailas Arav.”

Zuko stared, barely holding onto the cup of tea. “What?”

“Let me explain,” Aang said. “So—we’ve been looking for you and your uncle for a long time, and then we met Kailas and Hova in Taonan on the west coast of the Earth Kingdom about four months ago. Kailas started to teach me how to firebend, but then Azula showed up a week ago in Taonan and saw me airbending. She tried to shoot me with lightning but Kailas got in her way and nearly died. Then I went into the spirit world to get Kailas’s spirit back, talked with my past life Avatar Roku, and we’ve been traveling for six days to find you and your uncle and get your help.”

He took a deep breath and grinned. “And now we’re here and everything is going to be okay!”

Zuko blinked slowly. “Did you say that Azula saw you airbending?”


“And that you talked with your past life, Avatar Roku?”


Zuko’s eyes narrowed. “Then that makes you the Avatar.”


Two cups hit the floor almost at the same time. Aang’s back hit a wall and his feet dangled in the air, hands gripping the front of his shirt. Zuko’s scowl had returned, more teeth bared than before. “Tell me why I shouldn’t just snap your neck, boy.”

“Zuko!” Iroh said.

“It’s your fault we’re stuck in this place!” Zuko shouted. “If you hadn’t just disappeared, I could have had a chance to regain my honor and return home! I should be the one on the throne, not Azula! I should have been the one my father crowned Fire Lord!”

“But that’s what we’re trying to do!” Aang said, voice rough with the pressure on his chest. “Kailas is working with the Dragons! The ones who’ve been trying to overthrow Ozai and Azula!”

“You think I want to be indebted to some woman who’s been obeying my sister for more than ten years? If I bring you back dead, I’ll have done something my sister couldn’t. I’ll be named a hero and be allowed back into the Fire Nation.” He tightened his grip on Aang’s shirt, pressing up against his throat. “That seems like a good reason to snap your neck.”

“Enough, Prince Zuko!” Iroh was on his feet, twisting Zuko’s hands away from Aang and pulling his arms behind his back. All the struggling Zuko did amounted to nothing, save for making Iroh twist his wrists enough to hurt. “I have told you before that your father’s way is not the right path for you to follow!”

Zuko snarled, wrenching out of Iroh’s grasp and walking to the door. “I’m not going to listen to this garbage. Tell me when they get out.” He vanished through the door. For a moment there was silence.

Iroh sighed, patting Aang on the shoulder. “I apologize for my nephew. His life has been hard. He still doesn’t fully understand what this war has cost our country.” He started back to where he had been sitting, gesturing for Aang to do the same. “He believes the Dragons are traitors. I have tried to tell him that our family is taking the wrong path…but he still thinks only about his banishment.”

“Kailas said he wouldn’t really like me,” Aang said, trying to smile as he rubbed at his throat. “Sorry about the trouble.”

“Not at all,” Iroh said. “He is not a fool. Give him time and he will come to understand.” He poured another cup of tea, sending it to Aang before refilling his own cup. “Now…how long has the young captain been like this?”

“Almost ever since Azula shot her full of lightning,” Toph said. “She only woke up one time, and she hasn’t even looked like she will for this whole time.”

Iroh sighed, taking a small drink. “I see. Has anything else happened since then?”

“No,” Sokka said. “We got lucky flying out here except for the rain falling on us this whole damn time thing.”

Iroh made a soft hum, but said nothing more. He took another drink, looking at Kailas.

Hova, only turning the cup in her hands, sighed when she looked up at Iroh. “Sir? What did you mean when you said that Kailas was late?”

“She has been declared dead,” Iroh said. “Murdered by rebels, to be exact.”

“What?” Hova asked. “But she’s not dead! And the only one that tried to kill her was Azula!”

“I understand that,” Iroh said. “But we have to consider ourselves lucky.”

“How’s Kailas being declared dead lucky?” Suki asked.

“No, I get it!” Sokka said. “Azula must’ve thought she was dead before Aang threw her into the ocean! No one’s going to look for her if they think she’s dead! It’s the best thing that could have happened—it’ll give her time to heal without us having to run anymore!”

“Exactly,” Iroh said. He set down his cup, looking at Kailas’s face. “Though we will still have to be very careful. I would like to bring a doctor here to examine her. I’m concerned over her having been unconscious this entire time.”

“Doesn’t having a doctor come here sort of ruin Kailas secretly being dead?” Toph asked.

“The man I have in mind is my friend,” Iroh said. “We can trust him.”

“But Katara can heal with waterbending,” Aang said. “Kailas is okay.”

Iroh shook his head, setting a hand on Kailas’s brow. “She’s wheezing, and I think she’s starting to run a fever.”

Hova set her cup aside quickly and put her hand on Kailas’s neck. She frowned, shoulders slumping. “She is. Dammit.”

“It’s that burn on her side,” Katara said quietly. “It’s still not healing well.”

“That was easy enough to settle,” Iroh said. He stood up with a groan, rubbing at his back. “I will send a letter to the man I know. Hopefully he’ll be able to come quickly without there being a problem. For now, feel free to rest. There’s not going to be much to do.”

“Do you have any food around here?” Sokka asked.

Iroh paused halfway to the door and chuckled. “Yes. I’ll send my letter after I make up a meal for everyone.”

“You’re the person who cooks?” Sokka asked. “You have such a huge house. Why don’t you have any servants?”

Iroh smiled. “All the better to hide if you don’t have any servants.”

“I’ll help,” Suki said, rising to her feet and moving to stand by Iroh. “I know what everyone likes.”

“Thank you,” Iroh said. He started to leave the room, but stopped and turned back. He could see that Hova had gone pale, her hands resting on one of Kailas’s arms where the bandages on her hand stopped.

“Do not worry,” he said. “I will tell my friend to hurry. He’s a very good doctor.”


The rain continued for another six days. In that time, a system was created without discussion. Kailas was almost never left without someone in the room with her. Every person aside from Zuko took turns watching over her. Sometimes Aang would stay for hours, meditating at her side until someone came to get him for a meal. Other times found Katara coming to redress wounds and do what she could to manage the fever. Toph would fetch her when it had been too long between her meals.

Hova was the one who usually was being relieved. She would read, both to herself and to Kailas, and passed by the room often even when she had gone to rest. Fai, though, was the most constant of the watchmen, sitting or lying at Kailas’s shoulder most hours in the day. He always stayed with Kailas when the others went to eat or sleep, refusing to leave.

When he rested, sleeping with his back against the speckled skin of her left shoulder, there was little concern in whoever sat nearby. They would sit in silence if alone, or in quiet conversation if in pairs or more. Occasionally, they would talk to Kailas, but she did not react to the sound.

Fai rarely slept soundly, though. More often than not he was awake, tail thumping steadily on the floor. He knew when her fever was spiking before any signs became visible, and pawed at the legs of whoever was sitting in the room, whimpering loudly until he was understood. Iroh praised his vigilance, calling him the most outstanding of raccoon-dogs. Fai only looked up a moment to receive whatever pets and scratches accompanied such praise before looking back at Kailas and whining.

By the sixth night, it was becoming easy to see that the hours the sun stayed in the sky were growing fewer. The hanging lamp in the room had to be lit sooner; the rain clouds made the night come fast. Fai paced back and forth above Kailas’s head, tail low and eyes constantly on his paws. Hova watched him, eyes half-closed from the length of her day and the fitfulness of her sleep. When a knock came at the open door’s frame, Hova looked up. Fai sat down heavily before sinking onto his stomach with a whimper.

“Hey,” Sokka said quietly. “Tired yet?”

“I’m fine,” Hova murmured.

“Toph said she could feel you rolling around a lot this afternoon when she was in here,” Sokka said. “You can go to sleep. I just had a nap, so I’m good for hours.”

“Sokka, I just came in,” Hova said.

“But you look exhausted.”

“That sort of happens when you have nightmares about seeing Kailas get shot with lightning,” Hova muttered.

Sokka walked into the room and knelt down beside Hova, putting a hand on her shoulder. “All the more reason to try to get some more sleep. We can be in here more, you know. You don’t always have to watch her.”

“I’m trying not to,” Hova said.


“I know I can’t just sit here all the time,” Hova said. “I know that. I know Kailas wouldn’t want me fussing over her and not—not doing anything. But I can’t help worrying. I can’t help wanting to be here when she wakes up.”

“I understand,” Sokka said quietly. He settled back against the wall beside Hova, looking at Kailas. “I think all of us understand.” He paused, drumming his fingers on his knees. “I wish she was awake so I could tell her I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Hova asked. “You’re the one who’s been carrying her around this whole time other than Appa.”

“For what I said when Azula showed up,” Sokka said. “For what I called her. She nearly died to protect Aang—us. And I called her a…lot of bad things. I’m sorry I did.”

Hova smiled. “I think she’d be happy to hear that.” She moved to brush her fingers against Kailas’s cheek, and stood up slowly. “You win. I’ll go to bed. Just come get me if anything happens.”

“I think Fai would freak out and get you before I ever noticed anything,” Sokka said, smirking, “but okay.”

“Thanks, Sokka.” She left the room, walking into the dark hall. The other guest rooms lined the long hallway and continued down around a corner. All the doors, though, were mostly closed. With Sokka awake and unable to snore, only the constant downpour of rain made any sound. Hova started toward her room, but paused.

The rain did not make the echoing snaps she heard suddenly. She knew that Pai Sho tiles did, however, and she thought of the table in the large room near the entrance. Iroh had offered friendly matches to everyone, but as Aang had forgotten the finer points of the game and Kailas had only started teaching Hova how to play that summer, he was always the victor.

Padding along on her bare feet, Hova went to the front room, following the light that was faintly coming down the hallways. She stopped at the end of the hall, hiding behind the wall because she could not see the faces of the two people Iroh sat across from. Both wore hooded cloaks, though the larger of the duo stood beside the seated smaller.

From where she stood, she could see Iroh and his opponent laying out tiles with a speed she could not think reasonable. Kailas had never snapped the tiles against the table with such speed, nor with such certainty. Within moments of her arrival, there was a shape she recognized formed by the tiles: a blooming lotus.

Iroh smiled, bowing slightly and spreading his arms over the table. “Welcome, brother. The White Lotus opens wide to those who know its secrets.” He chuckled, straightening and grinning. “My apologies for the test, but I had to make sure.”

His opponent laughed as well. Hova’s jaw dropped at the sound.

“Of course,” the man in the cloak said. ‘We can’t have our captain’s life be risked again. I hope you paid attention, lad. It takes some time to memorize exactly how to lay out the White Lotus.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hova’s heart jumped into her throat. She stepped around the corner and into the light. “Long Fa? Katsuro?”

Iroh looked up and the cloaked figures turned. The man on the floor lowered his hood first, Long Fa smiling broadly. He lifted a hand in greeting before rising carefully to his feet. He groaned when he put weight on his right leg, but smiled again when he looked at her.

“Hello, my dear!” he said. “I have to say it’s wonderful to see that you’re not dead like the reports would have us believe.”

She ran to him, hugging him hard. “I can’t believe you’re here!” She stepped back, holding Long Fa at arm’s length. “Why didn’t you ever tell Kailas you knew where General Iroh was?”

“Because I didn’t,” Long Fa said, chuckling. “It was very much a surprise receiving a notice from a grandmaster of the Order of the White Lotus telling me my skills were needed here.”

“The order of what?”

“The White Lotus,” Katsuro said, lowering the hood of his cloak. “Long Fa was part of it a long time ago. I was only inducted when I became his assistant.” He looked toward the hallway Hova came from. “Is it really true? The Avatar being alive…and that she nearly died?”

“What I’m more concerned with is Kailas’s health at the moment,” Long Fa said. He turned to Iroh, bending over to pick up the cane and satchel he had laid beside himself. “You say she’s been unconscious for how long?”

“Twelve days now,” Iroh said, “if I’m counting correctly. And feverish for the last six days.”

Long Fa sighed, stroking his mustache. “Waterbending healer or not, it sounds like she caught an infection on one of her injuries. I’m glad we were traveling near here when you sent your hawk to find me, Grandmaster. I don’t want this to become any more serious.”

“Is she going to be okay?” Hova asked.

“She should be all right,” Long Fa said, “but she need to wake up before I can make any solid diagnoses.” He tapped his chin as he thought. “Here, show me where she is so I can start to get a picture of what we’re dealing with.”

Hova nodded, but hugged him again. She whispered, “Thank you so much for coming to help.”

He hugged her in turn. “I wouldn’t do anything else. Come on, lass.” He followed her through the halls, sighing when they arrived at Kailas’s room. Fai looked up when Hova returned, but bounced onto his paws when he saw Long Fa. He rushed to Long Fa, barking as he danced on his back paws.

“Yes, hello,” Long Fa laughed. “What a good fellow you are, keeping watch over Kailas. Here, let me by.”

Fai skipped backward, sitting down next to Sokka and wagging his tail hard. Long Fa went to Kailas’ right side, sitting down gingerly. With immense casualness, he pulled the light blanket away and untied Kailas’s shirt. He examined the bandaging on her shoulder, side, hands, and foot.

“Are there any other injuries that I’m not seeing?” he asked.

“One’s on her left leg,” Sokka said.

“Like the one on her shoulder?”


Long Fa hummed softly, head tilted as he looked at the bandaging on her side. He reached into his satchel to retrieve a small pair of scissors. He cut the bandages and peeled them off carefully. Humming again, he peered at the burn. Shifting, he turned his right hand and held out his fist over the center of the burn. He frowned.

“She hit you that hard,” he murmured. He straightened up. “How many ribs were broken?”

“Um,” Sokka said, “Katara said two. How did you know that?”

“Azula punched her incredibly hard using fire,” Long Fa replied. “The burn went nearly as deep as the one on her chest. My highest regards to your healer that she brought this around as well as she has. Keep at it and Kailas should retain full mobility along her right side.”

“What can we do about the infection?” Hova asked.

“I’ll make up a dose of medication to work against it,” he said. “Capable of being delivered in soup or a cup of tea.” He sighed, tapping his chin. “My suggestion for the duration is to keep her as cool as you can. You need to keep her fever down. My other suggestion is to move her around every so often.”

“Why move her?” Sokka asked. “Wouldn’t it be better to let her rest?”

“Keeping completely still could make her lungs fill with fluid, and that’s a worse prospect. If you sit her upright for a little bit every few hours, it’ll help prevent it. Her hands should be manipulated as well to prevent stiff healing.”

“We can do that,” Hova said. “We’ll just keep her sitting up when we get her to swallow something.”

Long Fa chuckled. “You are a marvelous woman to be so diligent at the drop of a hat.” He waved his hand at Iroh, Sokka, and Katsuro, saying, “Let me redress her other wounds. Close the door behind you, if you could.”

Sokka rushed to leave the room, Iroh sliding the door closed when the three of them were outside. Smiling, Long Fa began to cut away the bandages. Hova helped him clean and bind the injuries, rearranging Kailas’s clothes when they were finished. She sat still, watching Kailas’s flushed face.

“She’s going to be all right,” Long Fa murmured. He waited until Hova looked at him before continuing. “I’ve known Kailas since she was a little girl, and she is the most resilient person I’ve ever treated as a doctor. She came back stronger after her first bout with Azula—she’ll come back stronger from this.”

Despite all her weariness, despite the way her chest still ached, Hova nodded. She put a hand on Kailas’s arm and said, “I know she will.”

Chapter Text

Azula prided herself on having no dreams. Everything of her pride lay in reality because she knew there was nothing beyond her power. Everything could be changed; everyone could be coerced and controlled. Dreams were meaningless fluff. One with the divine right to rule had no reason to believe in pure chance. Azula had no dreams in life because she did not need them. She never expected to have any in sleep, or none that would be remembered.

The journey away from Taonan netted her no sleep. She sat in the compartment towed by the tank, light and air flooding in from the window slats high in the decorated metal box. She sat on the raised bed, feet on the floor and feeling the vibrations of the tank’s movement. In her hands, she held Kailas’s shirt. She stared at it, feeling the soft cloth with her thumbs. She did not want to sleep and did not lie down to make the attempt.

She remembered when she commissioned the design of the phoenix emblem on the shirt’s chest. It had been nearly eleven years ago that Ozai had listened to her request and allowed her to form the Phoenix Battalion. She wanted the best of the Fire Nation troops at her disposal to create the flame that would decimate any enemies. The symbol of the small-scale army was one that she had deliberated on for a full ten days. Mai had ignored the chance to suggest designs; Ty Lee’s contribution was to ask if she would still be allowed to wear her own clothes.

In the end, Kailas had been the one to suggest the phoenix. In the quiet voice she always used, she spoke of the honor they would deliver to Phoenix King Ozai by bearing his namesake into battle. The world would know the power of both rulers through Azula’s leadership of the troops and Ozai’s sanction. The name of the Phoenix Battalion came to be known throughout the world, envied by all other nameless factions in the Fire Nation’s troops. It had worked perfectly, just as Azula knew it would.

The third day of her journey back to the Eastern Capitol found Azula sneering at the embroidery. It was a mark she could add to Kailas’s growing list of treachery. She hadn’t truly been bowing her head to please Azula, even then. She realized that even before they had conquered Ba Sing Se, Kailas had never been aiming to happily obey. Everything had been a lie.

It was not because her eyes were aching from being almost perpetually open for the last fifty-five hours that she closed them. Her body did not want sleep because she did not want rest. She closed her eyes only to facilitate thought and memory. The sight of the crimson cloth was too insistent in her sight. It made her unable to think of anything other than how the shirt had fit on Kailas’s shoulders. The living woman was not what she wanted to think about.

Each time she had conducted lightning was one she remembered in perfect detail. She remembered commanding the energy into the void to create the imbalance and the resurgence of the energy, a thousand times more powerful. She remembered guiding the lightning, aiming for the Avatar. She could still see the hatred in Kailas’s eyes. She saw Kailas’s body on the ground. That was what she watched in her mind over and over.

Kailas was dead. She hadn’t been breathing. She hadn’t moved at all. Azula recognized the way Kailas’s body had kept completely still, so indicative of death. She had seen it multiple times before. She had seen the horror on the face of Kailas’s pet multiple times before. Kailas was dead; Azula was certain of it. She played the details over and over behind her eyelids, the other figures in the memory fading away until she only saw Kailas.

Again, Kailas was still. Again, her blood was splattered on the ground. Minutes passed while Azula stared at the body. She waited for the scene to restart, demanding it from her mind. For what she thought might be the second time in her life, she was not obeyed. Kailas did not stay still.

It was her hands that twitched. Azula watched Kailas’s fingers curl slowly in the dirt. Her breath caught behind her tongue. Just as slowly, Kailas’s fingers trembled and uncurled. She was completely still. Azula let out her breath and put a hand to her forehead. After more than two days without sleep, she struggled to remember if Kailas had actually been completely still. She looked back to where Kailas lay and found there was no body.

A hand closed on her throat. Another hand dug into her shoulder, turning her about so quickly her spine popped at the jerk. She was forced to bend back, the hand on her throat squeezing hard. Kailas stood there, eyes wide and bright and her bloody teeth bared in a grin.

Kailas chuckled, tightening her grip so much that Azula felt her skin tearing. “You shouldn’t have taken your eyes off of me, Princess.”

Azula opened her eyes. She was awake, still upright on the bed. She dropped the shirt and reached for her throat. There were no marks, no blood smeared on her skin. It had not been real. She had fallen asleep and dreamt. A dream was all she had seen. There was no memory. She knew the difference between dreams and reality. She told herself she knew over and over. It still took a full minute before she could breathe again.


“Hey, wake up.”

Kailas opened her eyes. Hova was standing above her, haloed by bright sunlight. She was smiling, though Kailas could see sweat beaded on her neck. All at once, the heat of the day made itself known, pressing in on her body.

“I didn’t think you’d actually fall asleep out here,” Hova said. “It’s so hot in the sun.”

Kailas smiled at her, arms and legs stretched out and limp on the ground. Her red sleeveless shirt was tied loosely; her black trousers were short. Her brows twitched up. “I don’t mind heat.”

“I know you don’t,” Hova said, pushing at Kailas’s shoulder with one hand. She lifted the other to cover her mouth as she yawned.

“You couldn’t sleep last night?” Kailas asked.

Hova smiled again when she stopped yawning. “No. And don’t rub it in that you could. I really hope this heat dies down soon. It’s so stupid how all you want to do is sleep when it’s this hot, but you can’t.”

Kailas chuckled, lifting one arm to cover her eyes. “You can’t.”

“Hey, I just said not to rub it in.”

Again, Kailas chuckled. She could hear cicada-butterflies humming in the distance and the heat. It was such a lulling sound that she barely wanted to move when Hova tugged at her shirt.

“Let’s get in the shade. I feel like I’m going to catch on fire out here.”

“All right, all right.” She sat up slowly, brushing at the back of her head to clear her hair of any dirt or dust. Hova was on her feet already, but waited until Kailas was up before taking her hand and walking to the veranda and the shade from the roof.

Fai lay there, tongue lolling out from his mouth as he slept on his back. Hova lifted herself up, sitting against a beam that let her dangle her legs over the veranda’s edge. Sighing, Kailas rolled onto the veranda, scooting along the wood until she could lay her head in Hova’s lap and close her eyes.

Hova laughed softly, combing her fingers through Kailas’s hair. “You are so lazy in the summer.”

Kailas smirked, raising her eyebrows. “This coming from the woman who had to teach me how to relax in my spare time?”

“Don’t blame me for you being lazy.”

“That was me thanking you.”

Hova laughed again, settling back against the beam. She continued on combing Kailas’s hair for a time before simply petting her head. Kailas sighed at the feeling, breathing the warm air in slowly. The cicada-butterflies kept on in their humming, rhythmic as breathing and heartbeat. She let her breathing match the pace of the world beyond her closed eyes.

After a moment she opened her eyes again, looking up at Hova. Her eyes were closed, but the way her hand never faltered in its petting told Kailas she was awake.



“Is your back all right?”

“What? It’s fine. Why would anything be wrong with it?”

Kailas blinked, head suddenly aching. “It—it hurts if you don’t sleep well. You said so the summer after Dazu.”

“I’ve never been to Dazu,” Hova said. She laughed without opening her mouth. “I’m not the traveler you are. It seems like you’ve been to every city in the world sometimes.”

“You haven’t been to Dazu?” Kailas asked. “But we were there two years ago, weren’t we?”

“Kailas, what are you talking about? It hasn’t even been two years since we met.”

She looked at Hova again. There was little age in her face. She blinked hard and repeatedly.

Hova smiled at her, ruffling her hair gently. “Is the heat actually getting to you?”

“I…I suppose so,” Kailas said. She sighed, settling back and closing her eyes against the headache that was spreading from behind them. It was easier to try to let it flow away with Hova’s hand smoothing her hair and petting her head. She felt dizzy.

“Can I ask you something?” Hova asked


“What would you do if you weren’t in the military? I mean, what would you really want to do if you weren’t?”

Kailas opened her eyes. Her shoulders twitched because she felt as though she had been asked the question before, years ago, in a summer full of heat just as the day was filled now. “I don’t…know.”

“I think I’d like to keep working as an assistant,” Hova said. “It’s a lot nicer than I thought it’d be.” She smiled, tilting her head back against the beam. “Copying all of your books takes up a lot of time, though. And then there’s going with you on your ‘trade’ journeys.” She took a deep breath and sighed. “I should be more grateful for days like this. We never get time to relax lately.”

“I…would like to be a librarian.”

Hova laughed. “Like you’re not already? You have so many books I’m worried this idea of yours to copy all of them will take me ten years. Why are we doing it, anyway?”

“I’m worried about losing them,” Kailas murmured. “About them being burned.”

“That’s why you had Tai-Yang make that little cave under the house?”

“Yes. I explained why we were doing this…didn’t I?” She blinked. Her vision blurred for a moment before she blinked again to clear it. “I could have sworn I did.”

“Did you?” Hova asked, voice mild. “I must have forgotten.” She hummed a tune briefly, massaging Kailas’s scalp with her fingers.

Kailas groaned, the tension that had gathered unrecognized in her body beginning to unravel. “Thank you. I have such a terrible headache.”

“I know.”

Kailas tried to open her eyes and found that it was impossible to keep them so. Her breathing was deepening, no matter how she fought it. “But…I didn’t say anything.”

“It’s all right,” Hova whispered. She bent down to kiss Kailas’s forehead. “I know you’re hurting.”

“But how?”

“Because I do. Go to sleep.”


“Shh. Go to sleep.”

Her eyes closed completely.


“Azula—I just got the report before you got here!”

Azula walked past Ty Lee, arms crossed behind her back. Ty Lee followed her down the long hallways in the Royal Shrine, ignoring the guards they passed. She carried the scroll in her hands, walking sideways to look at Azula’s face as they moved.

“Oh, Azula, your face,” she said in a soft moan, looking at the bruise that sat ugly on Azula’s cheek. “You were the one who killed the guys who killed Kailas and that woman she lived with, weren’t you?”


“How could they ever sneak up on her like that? She always seemed to notice everything! She really died in an ambush?”


“But now who’s going to run the Phoenix Battalion?” She paused for a moment, putting a finger to her chin. “Wait. If she gets promoted to colonel even though she’s dead, does that mean she still officially runs the battalion?”

“Ty Lee, be quiet.”

She was. She hurried after Azula to catch up, falling into line one pace behind her. It had taken training to stop herself from looking down at Azula’s head, taller as she had grown. She focused on feeling lucky to be able to follow Azula at all. It made it easier to forget about the report in her hand.

Azula gestured for the doors to her chambers to be opened. The guards pulled the heavy doors aside and Azula twitched her head for Ty Lee to follow her. Before the doors could be closed, she looked at the guards.

“Leave us,” she muttered.

The men nodded and their footsteps faded in the distance after they had closed the door. Ty Lee started to turn away from the door. Her feet were knocked out from beneath her. She was shoved back against the door even as she fell, head cracking on the wood as a hand closed on her throat. She choked and looked up.

Azula’s eyes were narrow, the dark marks below them all the more pronounced. “You lied to me.”

“W-what?” She gagged when Azula’s grip tightened.

“You lied!” Azula hissed. “You said she never lied to me! You were in on it!”

Ty Lee managed to dig her fingers between Azula’s hand and her throat, prying her fingers apart enough to breathe. “Azula, wait! Please wait! I don’t know what you’re talking about! What was I in on?”

“She lied all the time!” Azula said. “She betrayed me! You’re the one who should have known! You can read auras! I ordered you to tell me if she was lying and you always told me she wasn’t! You lied to me, just like she did!”

“Azula, wait!” Ty Lee said. “Please! I didn’t know! I really thought she wasn’t lying! I thought she was telling the truth, I did!”

“Are you saying you were wrong?” Azula asked, snarling.

Yes! I’d never lie to you, Azula, I promise!”

“And she promised to serve me!” Azula snapped. “How do I know you won’t betray me like her? That you haven’t?”

“Azula, we’ve known each other since we were little kids,” Ty Lee said. She reached out slowly with one hand as if she would put her hand Azula’s face. Eventually, she put her hand on Azula’s shoulder, patting gently. “I would never ever betray you. You can trust me.”

Azula stared at her, teeth bared in a grimace. Her eyes flicked down for an instant, but she looked up when Ty Lee’s hand touched her chin. Slowly, she opened her hand.

Ty Lee took a deep breath, rubbing at her throat. “What on earth happened?”

“She lied to me,” Azula said. She tucked both legs beneath her, sinking into a proper kneeling position. Her hands curled into fists on her thighs and she scowled at the floor. “She’s a traitor.”

“What?” Ty Lee asked. “How?”

“The Avatar is alive. I found her training him.”

Ty Lee sat up and away from the door, eyes widening. “He’s really alive? Was he an old man?”

“No,” Azula said. “A boy. I don’t know or care how, but he’s just a boy.”

“Then we have to tell people!” Ty Lee said. “We have to tell them to catch him!” She started to rise, but Azula caught her wrist.

“No,” she snapped. “We can’t reveal this.”


“No! We can’t let these disgusting peasants know that the Avatar is alive. I already said it. If they learn he’s back, the first thing that will happen is that they’ll start believing he can do something against us. Against me.”

“Against you?”

“My father is older than I am. People might consider him an easy target because of his age, but they’ll see me as weakened by her death.”

“But she’s a traitor! If they learn that—”

No! No one can know that!”

“Why not?”

“If anyone learns that she betrayed me like this, they’ll think I’m easily deceived. That I’m not smart enough to be Fire Lord.” She looked up, eyes narrow.

“Do you understand me, Ty Lee?” she said. “She died because of the rebels. The troops will be rallied by her death. They’ll want revenge. I can use that to hunt down more of the Dragons. I will make her death work for me. It’ll be the only good thing I’ll have from her.”

Ty Lee nodded slowly, but said, “Azula? Can I ask you something?”

Azula sighed, looking away. “What?”

“Did you kill Kailas?”

Azula’s eyes swiveled about, her lips parting to bare her teeth again. She rose up on one foot, putting two fingers under Ty Lee’s chin. “You are never to say her name again in my presence! Never, do you hear me? She is nothing but a mutt wolvog with a noble’s name! A filthy little traitor who didn’t know better! I will not hear her name again!”

“Okay, okay!” Ty Lee said, holding up her hands. “I promise never to say K—her name again! But—but did really you kill her?”

Azula stood up, eyes narrowing. “I did.” She turned about, starting to walk further into her chambers. As she walked, Ty Lee could see the sleeve of a shirt hanging down from within the cloth belt around Azula’s waist. It was a shirt in shades of crimson she recognized. “Get out. I need to think.”

Ty Lee stood up slowly, watching the sleeve sway with Azula’s gait. She bowed just as slowly, hands in position before her. “As you wish, Fire Lord Azula.”


The plan had gone perfectly. No one was surprised, given it had been crafted by Azula and Kailas.

It was easy work to set up anything in Ba Sing Se when the people of the lower ring were so desperate for money. They did not look into the backgrounds of the people that bought their services. Gold pieces from someone in a cloak were just as valuable as ones from a banker.

They gladly attacked whoever they were ordered to kill, whether it was a fellow peasant or a noble traveling through the lower ring. They simply had not been told that their services were a cover. They were never told to expect an attack in return.

Nobles in the Earth Kingdom were too soft. One vicious attack by beggars left them sobbing in the streets. Nobles in Ba Sing Se were too trusting. One swift, skilled rescue by a refugee wielding callused knuckles was enough to make them hire the refugee. All the in the name of charity, of course.

The winter had been long and difficult. The woman, barely into adulthood, was thin, clad in rags and bearing recognizable burn scars. Hiring her as a bodyguard was the kind thing to do. She was grateful, though not very talkative. Moving into the upper ring was a great step up for her.

The nobleman thought he was doing her another favor by taking her to a party the Earth King threw for his pet bear. After such trauma from war and injury, being allowed to attend such a grand party would be a highlight, even if it was as an acting bodyguard. He was happy to explain his charity to others, patting the woman on the shoulder whenever he retold the tale of her heroics and skills.

He had not expected that his continuing charity would become a stroke of luck for the gathered nobles. One scream began a long wave of howls. A man lay dead, his throat slit by a filthy-faced man wearing servant’s robes. The man, panting as he stood amidst the screaming crowd, turned toward the bear and the veiled palanquin that had just entered the room. Screaming as all the women around him did, he dashed forward waving his long bladed knife before him.

The palace guards were too far off to catch the man. They were in too crowded of a place to use earthbending effectively. The woman, though, was able to move, darting around people without touching them. Before the man had taken three steps into the open space between the people and the palanquin, the woman had tackled him.

An instant was all it took for her to grab the man’s knife arm and twist it hard enough behind his back to snap his wrist. He screamed again, the knife clattering against the floor. The guards took him away as the takedown was met with a round of applause and the Earth King requesting the woman be allowed to join the palace guards.

The Earth King was too trusting. He believed his bear had sharp instincts. If it were true, the bear never would have greeted Kailas by demanding pets. The bear and the King had been the only two variables in the plan. They were so rarely seen that there was no information that could be bought about them.

Everyone else, from the nobles to the Dai Li agents that came to her in the night a week later, were ones she had been able to find at least some information on. Kailas had no worries in her mind when the Dai Li took her before Long Feng. She knew him. He, too, was all part of the plan.

Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee followed the two Dai Li agents who escorted Kailas through the city and into the catacombs beneath the palace. Kailas had made sure they would be able to. The system she had devised with Azula specifically for the plan let the trio follow her with no clues being left obviously.

Every so often, she would scorch the ground lightly with one foot, leaving behind marks that Azula knew how to read and follow without the agents taking notice. Long Feng was visibly surprised when the girls came in minutes after his men. It was his first mistake, and his worst.

Paranoia ran deep in Long Feng. Even with no one questioning him before the Earth King, the war was too close. He had heard of the conquering of Ehime done only a month before. There were too many new refugees to keep the inflow of information about the war controlled. The skilled bodyguard who he only knew as Kimiko and the three women known then as the blades of the Fire Lord were ones he believed he could use to his ends. It would be all too easy to double-cross them.

The plan knew of the double-cross months before it came into Long Feng’s mind. It wanted the double-cross and relied on its presence. The coup of Ba Sing Se took a week of planning from Long Feng’s side. The schedules of the Council of Five were already well known by the Dai Li agents, and all that remained was the timing. In that week, Kailas spent her time memorizing the layout of the Royal Shrine. No one questioned her actions because she always appeared to be following the Earth King and his bear, Bosco. The reality was that Bosco followed Kailas, and the Earth King went where the bear went.

Kailas wished the bear wouldn’t follow her. She wished the Earth King wasn’t as naïve as he was. The plan to take the city would not change in any regard just because the King, Kuei, behaved like a five-year-old boy who had just made his first friend. He talked to her incessantly, asking about the world outside the walls. Kailas was his first source of information of life beyond his place on a puppet’s throne. She wished he wasn’t always so happy to see her. A week was enough time to make someone as lonely as Kuei believe that Kailas was really his friend.

The coup began in the late hours of the day, just before the sun went down. The Council of Five found themselves chained and imprisoned by Dai Li agents across the palace grounds. Kuei knew nothing of the coup, sitting inside the Royal Shrine with Bosco because of the heavy rain that came at the very end of the winter and the start of spring. Kailas knew, counting down minutes by watching the low level of light change in the sky. She waited. The plan had gone perfectly thus far. There was no reason to believe it wouldn’t from then out.

She couldn’t help but feel strange. The world felt liquid, her body slow. She could see her hands, look at them and make them move. But she felt detached from her head, standing back and viewing everything at a distance. As Long Feng, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee entered the room, she thought she was only watching things play out.

Kuei acted like any hurt child. He stared at Kailas, brows low and eyes watery. While Azula and Long Feng deliberated over who would win in the double-crossing game, Kuei and Kailas watched each other. Bosco sat looking back and forth between all the factions, grumbling and growling more and more as the minutes passed.

“You miscalculated your advantages, princess,” Long Feng said. “You only brought along people who are unable to bend. I’m more than a match for a single firebender girl and her cohorts.” He slid his feet apart, lifting his hands in a traditional earthbending stance.

Azula smiled, arms crossed behind her back. “I’m afraid you’re the one who’s miscalculated. You shouldn’t have let my friend so readily into your stronghold.”

Before he had time to ask, open his mouth, or even breathe, flames burst over his back. The force and heat of the fire knocked him from his feet, and he lay facedown unable to think. Hands twitching from the pain, Long Feng managed to twist himself about far enough to look behind him. He saw Kailas with her hands outstretched, traces of smoke rising from her palms. There was no expression on her face as she stepped back out of her stance.

Distantly, she could hear Azula’s praise. Just as distantly, she could hear Bosco’s roaring, knowing it was caused by the sudden firebending. She turned to see Bosco charging at her, claws reaching. More than before, she felt she was watching and not acting. It felt like a memory.

The bear’s claws gouged lines in her stomach. She fell back to the floor, pain flaring not from the lines, but somewhere on her right side. Eyes widening, she looked up at the bear. It was slavering, eyes wild and enraged. Her hands came up, but it was wrong. She knew that she didn’t strike at Bosco. She hadn’t wanted to firebend toward him. She knew that Bosco’s fur had caught fire from blue flames, not the red flames that came from her fist.

It was the first time she had heard an animal scream in pain while it died. Bosco stumbled about, slapping his paws against his face and the flames that were coming to his eyes. He fell near Long Feng, the two of them dying within moments of the other. Kuei howled at the bear’s death and ran toward the bear’s killer. He should have run at Azula. He should have died at her hand. He ran at Kailas as she was struggling to her feet. He ran at her screaming. Her hands came up again.

His nose snapped under a swift, hard punch. It spewed blood over her hand and his head jerked back. Her fist uncurled. In the moment before she struck, she could see that her normally short, blunt fingernails were the same sharp daggers Azula made her own. The skin of Kuei’s throat split, the sharpness of her nails augmented by her strike and the flames she fed behind it. She was sprayed with blood, the sticky heat splattering on her face.

It was wrong. She stood panting, clean hand over the bloody wounds on her stomach. It was completely wrong. She remembered that Azula killed Kuei by slicing open his throat. She remembered watching Bosco burn to death with blue flames burrowing through his fur to his muscles and bones.

The only thing she had done in Ba Sing Se to finish the plan was kill Long Feng. She knew that. She had not done the rest. She lifted her blood-covered hand. Her fingernails were the same as always, but when she turned over her hand to look at her palm, it was covered in blood from wrist to fingertip.

A door’s hinges creaked. She looked away from her hand. Hova, as young as the day they’d first met, stood in the barely open doorway, eyes wide and face pale.

“Hova?” Kailas whispered.

Azula turned and went to the doorway too quickly for Hova to get away. She struggled against Azula’s grip on her wrist, trying to pry open her fingers. However much smaller Azula was, Hova could not break away.

“We have an audience, ladies,” Azula said.

“No,” Kailas said. “Let her go.”

Azula looked at Kailas, brow raised while her lips curled up. “My, my. What an odd reaction from our captain. Why should I let this little servant go free?”

“She has nothing to do with this,” Kailas said. She tried to step forward, falling to one knee because her side felt as though it was ripping apart. She grit her teeth, growling out her next words because she could not breathe. “Let her go.”

“How would you know if she’s got nothing to do with this?” Azula asked. “You’ve never seen her before in your life.”

“Let go!” Hova said. Azula scowled, pulling Hova’s arm hard enough that she stumbled into the backhand Azula delivered to her face. She fell to her knees, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth.

“Stop it,” Kailas said through her teeth. She ignored the pain and forced herself back onto her feet. “She’s not supposed to be here.”

“Oh, really?” Azula asked. “Were you going to meet her in the city later tonight? Have a little private victory celebration?” She chuckled, letting go of Hova’s wrist. “If you want her that much, take her.” Crossing her arms over her chest, she put one foot on Hova’s back and shoved her forward. She stepped back as Kailas drew near.

“Hova,” Kailas said. She tried to crouch down, but her muscles seized and kept her upright. She could only hold out her hand. “Hova—give me your hand. I’ll get you out of here.”

Hova slapped her hand away, getting to her feet and hurrying backward. “Don’t touch me!”

Kailas stared. “Hova?”

“You’re a monster! You just killed all of them! You killed the Earth King! Do you know what you just did?”

Her eyes widened, stomach churning. “Hova—no, I didn’t—it wasn’t me.”

“You have their blood all over you!”

Kailas shook her head, slower and slower. “It wasn’t me. Azula killed the Earth King. Please—Hova, I swear I didn’t kill them.”

“What’s she talking about, Mai?” Ty Lee asked. “That was the plan, wasn’t it? Kailas was supposed to kill all of them, right?”

“Yeah,” Mai said. “She’s the one who volunteered to do it.”

Kailas opened her mouth, but her left leg buckled as her thigh went stiff. She tried to stay upright, but fell to her knees because her right foot could no longer bear weight. She put her right hand on the floor, left hand on her right side. Everything was bloody; her body twitched as she grew overheated.

“Hova…I mean it,” she rasped. “They’re lying—I never killed the Earth King. Please!”

Hova put her hands over her ears, shaking her head. “Stop it! Stop it—stop saying my name! You don’t know me! You’re just a monster from the Fire Nation! You’re ruining the world!”

No,” Kailas said. “Hova, no—you know me. I love you. We’re supposed to be married.”

There had never been a look of horror on Hova’s face before like the one that appeared then. She put her hands over her mouth, stepping back slowly.

Azula laughed. “How cute. I didn’t know you were the kind to get married, Captain. But how on earth will you pull that off with the sages back home? I don’t think they cater to mass murderers like you.” She looked at Hova and smirked at the way her eyes were wide. “And I don’t think your pet really wants such a commitment so soon.”

“Hova, you were the one that asked me if we could get married,” Kailas said. She swallowed, trying to breathe properly. “Please—I’d never do anything you wouldn’t want of me.”

“Then why did you conquer Ba Sing Se?” Hova shouted. “Why did you help Azula and Ozai conquer and ruin the world?”

“I didn’t want any part of it,” Kailas said, groaning. “You have to believe me—I don’t want any part of this.”

“Then you should have just died!” Hova said. “Died somewhere before all of this happened! It’s your fault the world is like this! You should have just died!”

Azula rolled her eyes and stepped forward. She swept her foot low, knocking Hova’s feet out from under her. “Enough of this nonsense, you filthy peasant. There’s no reason for you to live any longer.” She put her foot on Hova’s throat, pressing down to keep her still, and lifted the first two fingers on each hand.

“No!” Kailas shouted. “Azula, no! Don’t touch her!” She tried to stand up, failing because her right foot felt as if it was tearing in half when she set it on the ground. She pitched forward onto her front and reached for Hova. “Stop it!”

“Oh, stop being silly, Captain,” Azula said. “You knew she was just a pet toy anyway.” Sparks gathered on her fingertips, blue flames growing.

Stop it!” Kailas bellowed. She reached for Hova, seeing both women moving slowly away from her. She dug in the fingers of her other hand, trying to pull herself forward even as her vision blurred. “I’ll kill you if you touch her!”

“You’re trying to stop the inevitable,” Azula said, voice distant. “She’s going to die and it’s your fault.”

No!” Kailas screamed. “Get away from her!”

Azula smiled at her. She was beside Kailas, shrugging and holding up her hands. “But I’m not doing anything. See? You’re the one who’s killing her.”

Kailas turned and, vision becoming crystal clear, saw herself standing with her foot on Hova’s throat. She watched the flames come from her hands and wash over Hova’s terrified face. The screaming she heard was not Hova’s. It was her own, and it was all she heard. Hova’s body burning was all she saw before her sight went dark and her world went black.


Ehime was burning. Azula watched, sitting perched atop one of the tanks in formation. Her arm was bound in a sling, a break in her collarbone keeping her out of the battle. She was content to sit and watch that round, smiling at the leaping flames and screaming. It was all exactly as she had ordered. She had expected nothing less from her captain.

It was just before dawn when the troops returned. Their numbers had hardly dwindled, a scant ten soldiers killed from four hundred. She smiled, sitting with her back straight and her unbound hand neatly resting in her lap. Kailas led the troops. Like many of the other soldiers, her uniform was splattered with red.

Kailas bowed low at the waist when she drew near. “The siege went exactly as planned, your majesty.”

Azula smiled. She stood and leapt down lightly from the tank, landing without pain. With her free hand, she reached out and took hold of the black leather collar around Kailas’s neck. She lifted; Kailas straightened at the slightest touch. Azula’s smile broadened. “Come with me.”

“As you wish, your majesty.”

Mai and Ty Lee had their own towed compartment. Azula had Kailas travel in hers. There was no question of why or raised eyebrows. Each order was followed implicitly and immediately. Kailas followed exactly one pace behind her at all times, head bowed. It made it easier when there was a chain on the collar to keep hold of.

Such a chain was snapped into place when they entered the compartment. It was a strong steel chain, clinking rather cheerfully whenever Azula tugged on it. She sat down on her raised sleeping mat, crossing her legs at the knee. She tapped at the air with her hanging foot, tugging the chain. “Remove my boots.”

“As you wish, your majesty.” The knots in the laces, ones Kailas had tied that morning, were undone. She loosened the boots until it took no effort to slide them from Azula’s feet. Neatly they were set aside, lined up next to each other at the foot of the bed with the laces tucked inside.

“Now look up. I want a good look at you.”

“As you wish, your majesty.”

Azula’s smile changed, growing visibly more satisfied. There was blood everywhere on Kailas. It would stain her uniform, but it was not a new occurrence. It made Azula smile every time. A vivid splash of dark red crossed the bridge of her nose and most of her right eye. A faint diluted trail was on her cheek.

“My, my,” she murmured. “Crying over a battle, Captain?”

“No, your majesty. I had blood in my eye.”

Azula laughed. “You should watch out for those sudden spurts, you know.”

Kailas nodded, dull yellow eyes made dark by the blood around them. “Yes, your majesty.”

“Good.” She tugged hard on the chain. “Hold still.”

She was obeyed immediately. There was no question of what she meant and no need to clarify. Kailas stayed still as Azula leaned closer.

“I can smell the blood on you,” Azula chuckled. “It’s like a perfume.” She ran her thumb through the diluted trail on Kailas’s cheek, stopping at the corner of her mouth. “How did it taste, Captain?”

Kailas blinked slowly. When she opened her eyes, they were bright with focus and hate. She grinned, showing bloody teeth.

“You know what blood tastes like,” Kailas hissed. She grabbed Azula’s face, pressing hard enough with her thumb to snap a molar. “Don’t you?”

Azula wrenched away, eyes burning at the pain. She choked as Kailas grabbed her by the throat and forced her onto her back on the bed. Kailas chuckled, her eyes even brighter in the shadow of her hair falling forward.

“What on earth were you planning on doing just then, Princess?” she asked. She took the collar in hand and ripped it off with the easiest of tugs. “Don’t tell me you were going to kiss me with that disgusting mouth of yours.” She laughed and threw the collar and chain aside. “The most high and exalted Fire Lord daring to kiss me? The woman you murdered?”

Azula struggled to breathe, clawing at Kailas’s wrist. When her effort failed, she pulled her legs up between them and smashed her heels into Kailas’s chest. The fire she managed to create was enough to knock Kailas back and across the compartment, hitting the wall with a bang. Kailas laughed as she fell to the floor, slapping out the embers in her shirt.

“Oh, you little monster!” Kailas laughed. “Revel in sending me to do all of your dirty work and then try to claim every part of me!” She laughed even louder, head falling back.

Azula got off the bed, punching with both hands. Kailas dodged the fireballs by flipping up and over in a way that could not have been human, settling cross-legged on the ceiling. When Azula punched again, she caught the fireball easily. The blue flashed to red before Kailas clapped her hands and snuffed the flame. She continued to clap, slow and mocking with her hands dripping blood onto the floor.

“And the princess realizes that she’s not injured,” Kailas said. “And here I was wondering if you’d continue on and claim a handicap.”

“Stop calling me ‘princess’!” Azula snapped. “I am your Fire Lord, and I always have been! Every part of you belongs to me, just like the rest of the world!”

Kailas laughed again. “You have never once owned me, Princess. Everything that I am belongs to Hova.” She grinned, the blood from her mouth running up her face toward her eyes. “You know Hova. You called her my pet.”

“She is nothing more than a mud child of peasants!” Azula shot back. “She has no right to claim you!”

Her laughter was even louder, its sound echoing in the compartment as her teeth sharpened. She fell from the ceiling, twisting to land on her feet. “I gave myself to her, Princess. But what would you know of giving yourself through love? You are a monster, after all.”

She began to advance slowly, snickering as she went. “A monster with a broken mind. How apropos, given your father.”

Fury made her voice rise further when she said, “Don’t insult my father!”

Her smile grew sharper. “Oh, but I’m not, Princess. I’m saying I understand your upbringing. I know exactly why you turned out the way you did. You never had a chance, daughter of a demon.”

“Better the daughter of a great man with power than the mutt brat of a useless peasant!”

Kailas paused for a moment, smile gone as her brows rose. Her brows lowered; she seemed to grow taller. She loomed over Azula, a shadow from nowhere darkening her skin. When she smiled again, all her teeth were sharp. The skin of her face split to widen her smile.

“You shouldn’t slander my father, Azula,” Kailas murmured. “He was a better man than Ozai could ever pretend to be.”

She was suddenly in front of Azula, leaning in so close that Azula could see that her eyes were far too bright. She slammed her hands down on the wall either side of Azula’s shoulders, deforming the metal.

“Small princess with a broken mind,” Kailas whispered. “Liar and lunatic all at once. How proud you must be of yourself.”

“I’m not a lunatic!” Azula shouted. “You’re the one who’s insane! You betrayed me for no good reason! You had a good life under my control!”

Kailas laughed softly, sparks building in the air before her open mouth. “A good life? You think I had a good life?” She took Azula’s face in hand, leaving thick smears of blood on her skin. “Look at me now, Princess. Look at the death you gave me. Me, your most favored soldier. You murdered me so easily.”

“I’m glad I killed you!”

Kailas pulled her forward, cracking her head against Azula’s. Azula stood dazed for a moment in her grasp. Kailas barked laughter in her face and threw her straight up into the ceiling. The metal warped and sheared, the jagged edges slicing through Azula’s skin as she flew up into the black outside. She hit the top of the compartment beside the hole, coughing at the pain that radiated from her back.

Kailas’s bare feet landed without a sound on the compartment’s top, but Azula could feel the vibrations. She crouched down above Azula, tapping her bloody fingers on the reddened skin on Azula’s forehead. Her fingers had very pronounced, very sharp claws.

“Are you sure?” Kailas asked in a dark, deep rumble.

“I’m always sure,” Azula hissed.

“I don’t doubt you’re glad you killed me. I’m asking if you’re sure you really did.”

Azula did not answer. She did not want to blink and lose sight of the horrible fanged smile near her face, but she did it without thinking.

A dragon with black scales and a long red scar coiling along its chest opened its mouth in a roar, swooping down from its place in the sky. She brought up her arms, but the dragon roared again and flames flowed from its mouth. Her vision went completely white as the flames engulfed her; she closed her eyes.

She could not see past the whiteness for a time, swiping her hands through her sheets at it. Eventually, her eyes adjusted to the early, clear light of dawn. Azula panted for breath and looked down. The sleeve of Kailas’s shirt was near her face, as if the arm that had once occupied it was reaching to touch her. Eyes wide and teeth bared, she shoved her hand under the pillow and yanked the shirt from the place she had put it since returning to the capitol.

She ripped a dagger out of its hanging sheath below the bed when she rolled off the mattress. Knuckles white on the dagger’s hilt and in the fabric of the shirt, she went to the furthest wall from her bed. Slamming the shirt against the wall near the door, she spread the phoenix emblem smooth. It had always laid over Kailas’s heart, and Azula grinned as she stabbed the dagger into the thread and deep into the wall. The shirt hung limp, sleeves fluttering a moment when she pulled her hands away. She could almost see Kailas’s body pinned, killed again and displayed for her.

“You must know that won’t do you any good.”

Azula spun about. Kailas sat on her bed, legs crossed and an elbow on the uppermost knee. She wore the same burned and bloody clothing as the last time Azula saw her, down to the way her right boot was missing. Blood trailed down her arms from her hands and smeared on her chin. She smiled broadly, bloody teeth bared, and her eyes were wide and bright.

“Poor little princess,” Kailas chuckled, “so lost without her captain.”

Azula spun again to wrench the knife from the wall. She threw it without aiming, flinging it as fast as her arm would whip about. The knife flew across the room, stabbing through pillow and mattress to dig into the wooden headboard. Kailas was not there.

She clapped her hands over her ears, staring at the floor as her teeth ground together. She could hear Kailas laughing. Slowly, she slumped back against the wall and slid to sit on the floor. Even as her eyes burned from staying open so long, she pressed her hands harder and harder over her ears until her head throbbed. She sat there, waiting for Kailas to stop laughing at her.


Azula rarely to never came to New Ozai, which meant that Ty Lee visited just as infrequently. Mai was never one to leap up out of her chair and away from whatever she was doing like Ty Lee or even make a formal greeting like Azula, but it didn’t mean she was unhappy to see either of them. When Ty Lee was announced, she turned away from the window she was staring out of, stilling the knife she had been flipping over in her hand. It had been so many months since Mai had seen either of them that she did not mind the hard and immediate hug Ty Lee gave her.

Mai smiled slightly, but blinked at the loud sigh she heard. “You know, usually you’re telling me what new plans Azula has or how pink your aura’s been feeling before you start sighing.”

Ty Lee sighed again and let go of Mai. She started to pace back and forth in a small track of space on the rug in Mai’s chambers. Her hands twisted about. The skin of her face was pasty.

Mai crossed her arms, frowning. “Is this about Kailas getting killed? Are you worried about Azula making you her punching bag again?”

Ty Lee jumped visibly, turning to face Mai. “What? No, Mai, th-that never happened.”

Mai’s withering looks came often and easy, and it was a time that Ty Lee winced at receiving one. “Look, Azula and Kailas might not have noticed it at the time, but you looked like you could’ve cried when Azula picked her as a sparring partner and stopped pushing you down all the time.”

She stared, lips parted.

“If you’re looking for a place to hide until Azula finds a new person to torture, I can get some pink stuff added to a room.”

“I—that’s—that’s not why I came here. I came to get your advice.”

“About what?”

“Something’s wrong with Azula.”

“Ty Lee, she shoots off lightning for fun.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that!”

Mai sighed, shaking her head and waving one hand. “Whatever. What is it?”

“She’s really, really nervous. She keeps thinking about Kailas.”

“She’s obsessing over a dead woman?”

“Mai, come on,” Ty Lee said. “This is important, so please don’t get sarcastic.” She sighed as Mai held up her hands. “I know Azula doesn’t think I notice, but she’s not sleeping. I hear her talking out loud, like I’ll come up from somewhere and I’ll hear her. Or I can hear her when she thinks she’s alone.”

Mai raised an eyebrow. “You mean she’s talking to herself?”

“Well…I don’t really know.” She flipped over onto her hands, walking a slow circle around the room as she thought. She rolled down along her back before springing back to her feet. “It’s like she’s talking to someone. Someone I can’t see.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Someone like Kailas?”

She stopped pacing to twist her fingers around each other. Very quietly, she said, “Someone like Kailas, yeah.” She glanced at the door before moving closer and lowering her voice further. “Mai, she’s been banishing people from the capitol and I don’t know why.”

“Then what’re you asking for advice about?”

“Do…do you still write letters to Zuko?”

“No,” Mai said. “What makes you think I would?”

“Well, you really liked him,” Ty Lee said, shrugging slightly. “I just thought…maybe you still did.”

“Why would it matter?”

“I thought maybe Kailas would try to find Zuko and his uncle.”

“Ty Lee. She’s dead. That’s Azula’s official report. Why would you care about who she ever tried to find before she died?”

She looked at the ground. “Because I don’t think Azula thinks Kailas is dead. When she’s talking to that—thing or whatever it is, it’s like she’s trying to convince herself that she really—that Kailas is gone.”

“I thought she was using Kailas being dead to inspire the battalion to hunt down more stupid rebels. Why would she need convincing?”

“I don’t—Mai, I don’t know! It’s just how she’s acting and it’s making me really nervous!” She began to twist her fingers together. “You don’t know how weird it is to see her walking around looking this angry all the time!”

Mai looked at her with narrowed eyes. “Then you need to convince her Kailas is dead before she starts taking that out on you.” She shrugged. “Either that or move here for good.”

She went pale. “I can’t leave permanently! Azula’s my best friend!”

“Ty Lee,” Mai sighed, “Azula’s best friend was probably Kailas, and that’s because her ‘best friend’ is the person she gets to kick around as violently as possible. You have to stop wanting that—Azula isn’t your master like she was Kailas’s.”

“I have to keep her safe! It’s not fair that she’s so scared like this! She doesn’t deserve that and I really need your help. Please?”

Mai sighed, rolling her eyes again. “Fine. What do you need?”

“Do you know anyone that can track people?”

She sighed again. “Why do all of you think I bother to remember any of this crap? I don’t scheme like Azula or Kailas.”

“Because your family’s big and important enough to know things and tell you! Come on, pretty please?”

Mai put a hand on her face to muffle her next sigh. She kept it there as she thought. “I’ve read about a woman up north from one of the reports I get. She’s got this…thing called a shirshu. Apparently it can track anything by smell.”

“Do you think it can track dead people?”

She shrugged, holding up both hands. “How should I know? All I’ve heard is that she’s the best bounty hunter on the continent. Or the best one that’s still in business nowadays.” She looked at Ty Lee. “Didn’t the report say Kailas died in a fire?”


“So shouldn’t she have burned up?”

“Mai, please tell me.”

“Okay, fine. If you and Azula don’t want to tell anyone, I don’t care. The bounty hunter’s name is Jun. The last report I saw said that she more or less lives out of a tavern in Tajimi. It’s about forty miles northeast of Taonan.”

Ty Lee smiled, moving to wrap her arms again around Mai. “Thanks.”

Mai patted at Ty Lee’s back with the tips of her fingers, a trace of a frown on her lips. She smoothed out the twitch in her muscles when Ty Lee pulled away from the hug. Before she could leave, Mai took her elbow in hand.

“My offer about putting some pink in a room around here stands,” she said. “If you need a room.”

Her pallor returned. She looked down, whispered, “Thanks,” and hurried off. Mai watched her go, her frown returning, before returning to her place at the window. She looked at the clear skies as she started to play with her knife again. Idly, she wondered how Zuko would react to the reports she’d mentioned in her letter the week before.


It was deceptively difficult to sleep with someone on top of you. Kailas didn’t always enjoy the sudden waking, but it always made her smile in the end. Hova was more demanding of warmth in the winter, often wiggling her way to lie on top of Kailas in the middle of the night without waking. Kailas opened her eyes to the sound of heavy rain and hail and the sensation of a head nuzzling under her chin. Tilting her head very slightly let her see Hova’s sleeping face, smooth and calm, turned to the side and resting on her chest.

Their blanket had moved off to the side somewhere and Hova was mumbling in her sleep, shoulders starting to shake. Kailas, smiling, patted her hands slowly away from her sides until she felt the edges of the blanket. Still moving slowly, she brought the blanket back over them both, managing to catch the lower edge with her toes to pull it fully over Hova’s feet. Hova let out a sigh, arms drawing in to rest alongside Kailas’s chest in a drowsy hug.

As slowly and gently as she had done everything else, Kailas put her hands beneath the blanket to rub Hova’s back. Hova’s sleeping shirt and pants were too long for her; she had stolen them with permission to keep as warm as possible.

Kailas smiled and let her hands grow warmer. Hova mumbled quietly, hands twitching at particular places on Kailas’s sides. A jolt made one of Kailas’s legs stiffen and she clamped her jaw to keep from laughing. Her chest still shuddered.

Hova sat up slightly and Kailas could see her blinking in the dark. When she spoke, her voice was muddled. “Kailas?”

“Sorry,” Kailas murmured. “It’s nothing. Go back to sleep.”

Hova continued to blink, fingers curling and moving against Kailas’s sides as she shifted about. She stopped moving completely when she heard Kailas let out one brief giggle. However dark it was, Kailas could see the grin that appeared on Hova’s face.

“Is there any way I can convince you not to do that and go back to sleep?” Kailas asked.

Hova continued to grin. “No.”

Hands were on her sides before she could roll over and scramble away, fingers skittering and scratching gently. Kailas coughed once, starting to laugh with her eyes shut tight. She struggled to keep her legs straight even after Hova sat up over her hips, laughing too hard to try and catch Hova’s hands.

Soon, though, she was running out of breath, coughing as much as laughing. There was one brief moment where Hova, laughing herself, lifted her hands in a pause. Kailas quickly took hold of her wrists and rolled them over, kneeling over Hova and holding her hands down while she caught her breath.

Hova, cheeks flushed, kept giggling. “It’s so cute that you’re ticklish.”

Kailas, lungs full again, chuckled. “And you call me a brat. First you wake me up by crawling on top of me, and then you make sure I won’t fall asleep any time soon by doing all that.”

Laughter slowing, Hova smiled. She curled her fingers to stroke Kailas’s hands. “You say that like you have something in mind.” She stretched and hummed laughter. “Like you ever don’t.”

“You woke me up because you were cold, didn’t you?” Kailas asked. She tipped her head down, nipping Hova’s neck once before kissing her skin properly. “I can make you warm.”

“You’re still too good at pillow talk to have learned from books,” Hova said. She let out a sigh when a kiss was placed beneath her ear.

“You’re very receptive to letting me practice,” Kailas murmured. She exhaled slowly, eyes closing. For a moment, she was still. She felt light, wondering if the scent at Hova’s neck was making her heady. Slowly, she trailed the fingers of one hand along the length of Hova’s arm, drawing the long sleeve up as she went to expose and caress bare skin. She could see Hova tremble at her touch.

Her hands came to the ties down the center of Hova’s shirt. Catching Hova’s lips with her own, she set to undoing the frog ties and laid her palms on Hova’s stomach when it was bared. Hova moaned in the kiss, back arching to the touch. Kailas ran the fingers of one hand up Hova’s belly to the smooth skin between her breasts.

A twinge settled in the back of Kailas’s neck. More than ever she felt outside of herself, hands hollow and slowing in their touch. Hova’s voice seemed to echo when she let out a soft sound of frustration at her stilling hands. Kailas frowned inwardly, unable to form the expression with her lips. It was wrong. She knew she had done this once before on this night with the rain deafening outside. She wanted to do it again.

She knew what came next. Demanding it of her hands, she slid the shirt from Hova’s shoulders and down her arms, taking Hova’s hips in hand when the shirt was gone. She helped Hova roll to her stomach, moving her fingers to Hova’s back. All she wanted was to call warmth to her hands and run them all along Hova’s back. Her eyes fell on the long, thin scar that curved from the back of Hova’s left shoulder to her hip. Kailas touched the scar gently and stopped.

“Don’t,” Hova whispered. “Don’t think about it.”

Kailas barely heard her. The rain and hail were overtaking all sound and the memory of Dazu was pressing itself forward in her mind. She knew that she was supposed to bless the scar and lay kisses along its length and let the memory pass by. That was how the night was meant to be spent. The scar was not supposed to start bleeding.

She felt rain on the back of her neck. Her body was drenched, clothes sticking to her. Hova lay in the grass before her, sobbing and clutching her shoulder and the slashed and bloody clothes on it. Kailas’s fingers were next to the wound, twitching.

“How’s your whore now, you Fire Nation bitch?”

Kailas hated Dazu. She hated it with every fiber of her being. She hated the trio of men that had kidnapped Hova when trade meetings were occurring. She hated not noticing that Hova was not near until the meeting had ended and demands had been left outside the room she and the city’s governor had been in. She hated the man who had held a sword to Hova’s throat in the half-light of the rain-filled day.

“She’s just your little pet toy, isn’t she?” the man had asked. “Just a pet for you to use and leave, isn’t she? A traitor whore like her is just good for sex! All anyone ever needs from her is her body—especially you! You’re just a monster who needs to let out some stress by fucking a traitor to the Earth Kingdom!”

Hova had tried to protest. She had tried to escape, to hurt the man enough to make him let her go and run. She had gotten as far as grinding her heel down on his instep and taking three steps. Kailas had tried to intercept the attack. She had tried to firebend fast enough to make the man leap back before he swung his sword. She had gotten as far as whipping her arm around and making the flames swing around Hova as she ran.

The man had howled when his hands were engulfed in the flames, but not before he had sliced a line in Hova’s back from shoulder to hip. The trio had scurried away from the fire, which burned for only a moment while Hova fell and Kailas ran to her.

It all replayed in Kailas’s eyes while Hova lay before her, bleeding and weeping. Her chest was tight, her teeth grinding together. She hated everything but Hova in that instant, especially herself. She put a hand to her chest, trying to breathe. She could not. The urge to kill filled her, built of her own rage and bolstered by the need to mutilate flesh.

She knew she was supposed to only bring the men down, only allow herself to break their arms or ribs. She no longer cared. Her heart was in her ears, her head burning and her chest aching. Behind her, Kailas could hear a roar and fast approaching footsteps. She turned much, much faster.

The swordsman was charging her. She spun in the wet grass, never fully standing before charging out in return and tackling him. Ear near his chest, she heard loud cracking when her shoulder rammed full strength and speed against him. He gagged, falling back and releasing the sword as he went. Kailas put a foot out, sliding in the slick grass on foot and knee and catching the sword. The man’s eyes widened as Kailas, her eyes wild and face twisted in a sneer, spun the sword in her hand.

Blood splattered on her face when she drove the sword into the man’s neck. The blade stabbed into the mud before the man’s shoulder struck the grass. She grabbed the blade with both hands and yanked it from the ground, finding her feet despite the mud and wet grass. The two men remaining were screaming. She could tell only by their faces. She could hear nothing but her heartbeat. She ran at the nearest man.

Her knees hit his back as she leapt onto him and he slid when he hit the ground. Kailas did not fall or slip from him, screaming as she drove the sword into his back again and again. She did not feel the edge cutting into the grooves of her palms or take notice of the blood that spread across her hands. All that mattered was how many times she could stab the man until his shirt was completely soaked through with red.

The sword was abandoned for the last man. He was further away, but not by much. Kailas could see him slipping in the rain. She did not. She ran with one fist drawn back and leapt at him to throw her punch. Her fist went clean through his skull, his head splattering and flying away as if it were water. She fell to the ground and straight through its surface.

Everything was black beneath her. Everything was liquid. She began to sink, fighting to turn around in the thickness. Distantly, as if through clear ice, she could see Hova, still shaking and sobbing on the ground. Clawing at the black, Kailas tried to pull herself back up to the surface. She came so close, fingertips of one hand breaking through again to the rain. The black dragged her down deeper and deeper.

The black festered at her right side, burning and bubbling down through her skin and past her ribs. She tried to pull away, but there was nothing to hold onto to gain leverage. She felt the black gather along her body at her right shoulder, left thigh, and the bottom of her right foot. It seared and burned and ate through flesh.

Kailas writhed and began to scream from the pain. Her heart screamed as well, beating faster and harder. It hurt more than anything; she screamed until tears ran down her face.

In an instant, the black pulled away from her body. Before she could fall, it stabbed clear through her heart. Kailas froze, unable to scream because she could no longer breathe. The angle of the spike made her slide down it. She scrambled without knowing how she could, grabbing the spike with both hands. She could see her hands leaving smears of red all over the spike before they stuck fast to it.

Sobbing, she tried to pull her hands free. Her flesh stuck to the surface as if it were ice, tearing when she wrenched her hands away. She pounded both fists against the spike and sent cracks rushing down it. The cracks in the spike started to mend immediately. She pulled her hands free, screaming as her skin ripped, and struck the spike once more.

It shattered; she fell. Her body twisted and tumbled in nothingness, wind howling in her ears. She hit something solid, head cracking against it and leaving her stunned but still crying. She could not move, could not lift her hands to feel at the wound in her chest. She could not feel her legs.

“What a pathetic captain.”

Kailas saw Azula appear out of the nothing, standing nearby with her arms crossed. Azula smiled, laughing quietly.

“So pathetic,” she said. “You can’t even overcome a pack of mongrels to save the peasant you’re supposed to marry.”

Kailas could say nothing. Her body reoriented, leaving her on shaking legs.

“I don’t even know why I should marry you.”

A surge of tears came and cleared, and Azula was Hova. Hova shook her head, dripping wet from the rain and clothes turning red with blood.

“You couldn’t even protect me against three rebels,” she said.

“I tried,” Kailas whispered. She reached out a hand, finding something in her to drive the muscles. “Please.”

“Trying isn’t good enough,” Hova said. “You failed. You failed to keep me safe, and you failed to help the world. You failed at keeping yourself alive.” She undid the clasp of the bracelet on her wrist, starting to cry. “And you failed at keeping me.”

“No,” Kailas whimpered. “Hova, don’t do this. Don’t—I love you so much, please!”

Hova threw the bracelet at her. Kailas caught it on instinct, staring at the gold chain as blood covered it. When she looked up, Hova was gone. She was alone.

“No,” she whispered. “Hova—please—please come back.” Her eyes filled again with tears, and she gripped the bracelet until it dug into her skin. “Hova! Please! Come back!”

A clatter sounded from at her feet. She looked down. A wooden mask lay at her feet. Curling horns came from its forehead and fin-like ears from its sides. Bright gold surrounded the openings for eyes. Two different shades of black constituted its face, darker for the brows and the wide, flat nose. A space was cut out for a mouth below the nose, bracketed on either side by a grin made of fangs and two silver-gray lines comprising long whiskers.

Kailas fell to her knees, taking up the mask in her free hand. Her sight started to fail. The mask and her hands were blurring, edges of pale flesh and bright blood seeping into black and gray and gold. The dark that awaited her, she knew, was painless. She closed her eyes and gave in.


Earth Kingdom taverns were the most crowded, busiest, and noisiest places in the world. The tavern in Tajimi, Ty Lee found two weeks later, was especially rowdy. The windows were bare, dissonant music blaring through them. As she walked toward the building, she understood why. At least two small, skinny men and one muscle-bound man were ejected through the windows in the few minutes she could see the tavern from the road leading to it.

Another man, dressed in white trousers and a shirt with torn-off sleeves, slammed against the floor at her feet when she slid the front door open. A cheer went up even as the man groaned, rubbing his forehead and the red headband around it. Ty Lee stepped over him, looking around the enormous main room.

Coins, singular and in sacks, were tossed onto a table near a woman with long black hair. She laughed, holding up a mug in salute toward the man, and said, “Another round on me!”

Another cheer made Ty Lee feel as if something in her ears were rattling. She pulled at the neck of her cloak, making the hood on her head draw in around her ears to mute the sound. As the cheering died, laughter and loud speech filled the void. There was no quiet moment in the place, and Ty Lee had to keep herself from simply putting her hands over her ears.

She went toward the woman, who stood dressed in a long, sleeveless, slit to the hip black dress and skintight trousers. A server drew near to the woman first, holding out a tray full of froth-topped mugs. The woman grabbed the mugs and slammed them onto the table, splashing froth and beer onto the wood top. A surge forward of the men in the tavern left only one mug on the table. The woman picked it up when Ty Lee came near.

“Sorry, girlie,” the woman said. “You’re not part of the usual crowd. You’ll have to buy your own beers.”

“I’m not here for a drink,” Ty Lee said.

“Then say what you want or get lost. I don’t like fighting little girls.”

Ty Lee’s hand snapped out, knuckles digging into the tattooed flesh on the woman’s shoulder. Instantly, her curled arm went limp, hand swinging down. The woman looked at her arm, one eye hidden by the drape of her long hair. She shrugged her mobile shoulder, bringing up her mug and taking a long swig.

“Try that again and I’ll call Nyla,” she said. “You’ll love what she can do.”

“Are you Jun?” Ty Lee asked.

“Who’s asking?”

Ty Lee undid the knot of a heavy sack hanging from her belt. She lay the sack on the table, pushing open the top to show gold pieces. “I want you to find someone.”

“Boyfriend leave you, sweetie?” Jun asked. “I can understand. You probably got your rich daddy to give you the money for my fee.” She put down the mug, sitting on the table and pulling the sack into her lap. She dug through the metal pieces briefly, finding all of them to be gold. “Don’t worry. Nyla and I can bring him back alive.”

“It’s not a guy,” Ty Lee said quietly. “And she’s not supposed to be alive.”

Jun blinked, visible brow rising. “Huh. Did someone kidnap your girlfriend for the money or something?”

Ty Lee reeled. “She’s—she’s not my girlfriend.”

“Hey, whatever floats your boat,” Jun said.

“She’s not.” Ty Lee sighed through her nose. “That’s not what’s important. You know Kailas Arav?”

“The noble captain?” Jun asked. “Yeah. Lucky I’m not in the Dragons. Her troops are pretty pissed off about her being dead.”

“I need to know that she is,” Ty Lee said.

Jun paused in rifling through the pieces to look at her. “I heard she burned up in a fire. You didn’t find any bones left?”

“It wasn’t all in the reports,” Ty Lee said. She frowned, trying to make her voice smooth and cold as she knew Azula’s could be. “She had allies. I think they got her away from Taonan, and I want you to find her.”

Jun closed her eyes, turning away. “Nyla needs a scent to track anyone.”

Ty Lee took a shred of cloth from inside her belt and put it on the table. It was colored crimson, something hemmed torn from a larger piece. “Can you use this?”

“If it was hers, sure,” Jun said. “How long is this paralysis of yours going to last?”

“Twenty minutes, maybe.”

“Good. I don’t like waiting to start on a hunt.” She closed up the sack of gold, looking idly at the cloth. “So. You want her back if she’s alive?”

She swallowed and refused to let anxiety show in her voice. “No.”

Jun chuckled. “That’s going to be this whole sack, you know.”

“I don’t care,” Ty Lee said, feeling sick. “If Kailas is still alive somewhere and you find her…kill her.”

Chapter Text

White. Kailas recognized it as light against her eyelids. It took effort to open her eyes, her teeth grit and her brows together. The light was too bright at first; she blinked repeatedly to clear her vision. The ceiling above her was made of much lighter wood than it should’ve been, and the walls were painted white instead of soft gray.

Her vision was lost again when she focused on the wall, taken up by the sight of Hova looking terrified and holding a bloody hand to her face. Kailas gasped.

Hova!” she said through a dry throat. She meant to bolt upright, but every muscle in her body refused to obey. Confusion led easily to panic when she could not curl her hands closed. Heart pounding, she pushed desperately with her left elbow and heel to roll onto her side. Now shivering, she struggled to push straight up with her right arm.

Her hand could not support her weight, pain lancing straight through her palm and down her fingers. She crashed back down once more, nearly screaming at the pain of her side hitting the floor. With her eyes closed, she saw Azula’s sneering, bloody face as she smashed a fist covered in flames against her right side.

Kailas grimaced, trying not to remember the sensation of festering flames burrowing through her skin. Sweat on her brow, she clenched her teeth and tried again with her elbow on the floor. She got halfway up and fell once more.

Dammit,” she coughed. She rolled onto her back to breathe more easily, looking around.

The room she was in was none she had seen before. The door was mostly closed. Kailas gauged the distance to the nearest wall before squirming toward it. She kept her teeth clenched to keep them from chattering, distantly wondering why her breath was invisible despite the freezing air. When she stared at the wall too long, she saw herself standing over Hova, bathing her in flames.

She put one forearm flat on the wall to brace herself, but stopped and stared at the bandages wrapped around her hand from wrist to fingertips. She saw herself reaching up toward the ground, toward Hova as she lay wounded and crying. Kailas felt her heart splinter and put her other forearm on the floor.

Panting, sweat rolling down her neck, she braced herself and pushed up as hard as her muscles could manage. She grunted as she moved her hips back to lift her torso properly. When she was finally upright, she slumped against the wall, breath only lukewarm when it came back against her face.

The door rattled as it was rolled open, and its sudden stop was matched with a gasp and the breaking of ceramic. Kailas turned to look, seeing a stout old man standing in the door with panic on his bearded face. A tea mug lay shattered at his feet She glared at him.

“Where’s—Hova?” she demanded.

The old man gaped.

Where is she?” Kailas snarled. She tried to pull her legs beneath her to stand up. The shivering grew violent, but she could not call heat into her body. Her left leg barely bent at all.

“What did you do to me?” she snapped. “Why can’t I move? Why can’t I get warm?”

“Y-you’re awake,” the man said, faint with shock.

“Tell me where Hova is!” Kailas said. “Now!” She froze when she heard a bark. She looked down in time to see Fai rushing in past the man’s legs, barking loudly with glee. She let one arm fall to reach for him, unable to feel his fuzzy ears past the bandages.

“Fai,” she whispered. He barked again, bouncing back and forth. He stood on his back paws, forepaws on her chest, and licked her face. His tongue was hot, his nose cold. Kailas stared at him before looking at the man. He smiled gently, hands up for peace.

“You must excuse my reaction,” he said. “It’s been a long time since you woke up, based on what the Avatar told us. I’m amazed you could move all the way over there and sit up.”

“The—Avatar? Aang?”

“Yes. He and his friends brought you here to be safe. Hova is here as well.”

“Where is she?” she asked.

Fai barked, bouncing on his feet, and sprinted away. The man let him go by, kneeling to gather the broken pieces of the mug. He stepped into the room, setting the pieces on a low table in one corner before moving to her.

“There’s no need to worry,” he said. “What you need to focus on is resting. You should lie back down.” He tried to set his hands on her shoulders.

Kailas wrenched out of his reach, grimacing as her shoulders hit the wall. She started to slip down, but caught herself on her left arm.

“Who are you?” she coughed out. “Why am I safe here?”

He stared, brows up with surprise. He chuckled. “From what the Avatar said, you’ve been looking for me and my nephew for a very long time. My home is quite safe.”

She stared back. She looked at him properly, seeing his thick mane of a gray beard and cheerful eyes. “General…Iroh?”

He bowed to her. “Retired, but yes.”

She swallowed. Her skin ached from the cold. When she closed her eyes, she saw Hova throwing her bracelet back at her, tears running down her face. She looked at him with pleading in her eyes and said, “I just want to see Hova. Please. I need to know I didn’t—”

Fai’s barks came through the door again, growing louder as he came near.

“Fai, shh. It’s barely dawn. I’ll let you out.”

Kailas felt her throat close up. She looked at the doorway as Fai trotted through it, tail high and wagging fast. Her eyes widened.

“Fai, wait, what’re—you…doing.”

Hova stood in the doorway, hair loose and mussed from sleep. Her clothes were rumpled and wrinkled, but her left sleeve had bunched enough that Kailas could see the bracelet on her wrist. Her eyes were massively wide, mouth falling open.

“Hova?” Kailas whispered, eyes burning.

Hova was beside her in an instant, pulling her close. She shuddered, but it was with the disbelieving laughter she buried in Kailas’s hair. “You’re awake!”

Kailas stared past Hova’s shoulder, not seeing Iroh slipping out of the room. She put her arms around Hova and held her, unable to close her hands or hold her tight. She closed her eyes as her mouth twisted, bowing her head to cry against Hova’s shoulder.

“Are you all right?” she asked, muffled by Hova’s shirt.

“Oh, Kailas, I’m okay!” Hova said. “I’m fine, I promise!” She dropped back on her knees, holding Kailas’s thin face. She brushed aside her hair and laughed again as tears ran down her face. “You’re finally awake!”

Kailas stared. Jaw shaking from the cold, she asked, “F-finally?”

“You’ve,” Hova started, but she saw Kailas shivering. She hurried to grab the comforter Kailas had left behind, pulling it around her shoulders after sitting her up against the wall. She sat down next to her, putting a hand on her cheek. “You’ve been unconscious for a month. Do you remember what happened?”

“Azula hit my side,” Kailas said at length. “Did something else happen?”

Hova sat still, mouth slightly open. She closed her mouth but could not swallow. Gently, she took hold of Kailas’s hands under the comforter. Eyes down, she said, “She shot you with lightning.”

“Oh,” Kailas said faintly. “I didn’t think I ever would’ve survived her doing that to me.”

“Your heart did stop, but—wait, what?”

“My heart stopped?”

“You knew Azula could do that?” Hova asked, eyes wide and face pale.

Kailas nodded, but her head reeled back. “I was—yes, I was there when she first mastered it.”

“And you jumped in front of Aang even though you knew she could do that?”

“I did?”

She hesitated, choosing to put a hand back on Kailas’s face. “I’m sorry. I’m confusing you with all of this when you just woke up.”

Neither shaking nor nodding her head, Kailas quietly asked, “Are you really all right?”

Hova smiled, making Kailas tilt her head down so she could set their foreheads together. “I am. I promise I’m okay.” She laughed and nuzzled her nose against Kailas’s. “I’m better than okay now that you’re awake.”

“But I saw—you were hurt.”

She lifted her head, making Kailas do the same to look at her eyes. “What did you see?”

Her mouth failed. She tried and failed for nearly a minute before she whispered, “Your back.”

“My back?” She ran her thumb over Kailas’s cheek. “You mean Dazu?”

Her mind failed next. Nothing of what she had seen before could be recalled. She struggled to remember the man’s name. Panic began to creep back into her veins. “I don’t—Hova, I don’t—can’t remember, I can’t—”

“It’s okay,” Hova said quickly, putting a hand in her hair to steady her. “It’s okay. Long Fa said you could get really confused when you woke up, but I promise it’s okay. Breathe for me.”

She tried. “L-Long Fa?”

She nodded, running her fingers through her hair over and over. “Iroh brought him here to tell us how to take care of you. They’re part of another organization called the Order of the White Lotus. He said that this might happen, so we just need to remind you of things when you forget.” She smiled. “So it’s really okay. I didn’t get hurt that night and I haven’t gotten hurt since.”

Kailas nodded hesitantly. She swallowed and tried to lift a hand to Hova’s face. Her arm would not move more than a few shaky inches before it dropped back down. “Why can’t I move?”

“Long Fa said that could happen, too. Since you were unconscious for so long, all your muscles weakened.” She chuckled. “It was kind of Iroh to help you sit up.”

“He didn’t,” Kailas blurted. “I—I was—worried. About you. So I—I tried and I sat.” She looked down. “I fell a lot.”

“Are you okay? We’ve got medicine for pain.”

Her right side seized when she tried to nod; she could not stop from hissing “Ow.”

The smile she gave Kailas was shaky. “That’s an easy answer.” She looked to Fai. “Go find Iroh and bring him back.”

Fai barked, bouncing on his paws before rushing out the door. Hova kissed Kailas’s cheek, looking around for a moment. She stopped when she spotted a folded comforter in the corner nearest them.

“Let me grab that,” she said. “I want to put it on your legs so you’re not shaking so much.”

Kailas nodded, waiting for her to return. The shivering grew worse in those seconds, her side starting to burn as though covered in ice. Hova brought the comforter back, settling it over Kailas’s legs and tucking it around her. When she sat down, she pressed the underside of her wrist against Kailas’s neck.

“You’re still running a fever,” she said quietly. She looked at the comforters, biting her lip. “You need to keep cool.” The bite hardened at the misery on Kailas’s face. “We’ve got medicine for fevers, too, so…this is okay.”

“S-s-sorry,” Kailas whispered.

“Shh, shh.” She kissed her cheek again. “It’s okay. What matters is getting you better. It’ll be easier now that you’re awake.”

Fai’s barks became audible, louder as he came closer to the door. He sprang over the door’s track when he arrived, turning about to face the door while backing up. Iroh came in after him, carrying a tray with a teapot, three mugs, two glass bottles, and a small loaf of bread.

“I thought it would be prudent to make this while you were talking,” Iroh said with a smile. He sat down on Kailas’s other side, pouring tea for all of them. Two mugs were passed to Hova, followed by the bottles and the bread last. Fai went to Kailas immediately, laying down on her right side and setting his chin lightly on her leg.

“You have the most remarkable pet,” Iroh chuckled. “He was just as worried as Hova.”

Fai yipped, tail wagging. Kailas smiled and managed to move her arm enough to put her hand on Fai’s side. He grinned at her, nuzzling against her hand to receive a pet. She looked up when Hova touched her chin. Her gaze was blank with confusion when she saw the two small pills in Hova’s hand.

“For pain and a fever,” Hova said, smiling. “Open your mouth and please don’t swallow them dry.”

Kailas had no desire to argue, and so opened her mouth dutifully. There was too much exhaustion in her to feel foolish when Hova tipped a small mouthful of tea past her lips to swallow the pills. She coughed weakly, stomach turning over.

“I’m so glad we can get you to eat real food again,” Hova sighed. “It’ll help you get better a lot sooner.” She tore off a small piece of the bread, putting it in Kailas’s mouth without hesitation. She paused when she saw Iroh trying not to chuckle.

“Please don’t be offended,” he said, holding up his hands again. “It’s just very sweet to see you taking care of her like this. It reminds me of my wife when I came home wounded.”

There was pride in Hova’s smile and voice when she said, “Kailas is going to be my wife, so it makes sense to me.”

Fai barked to agree, still wagging his tail. He jumped when he heard loud, stomping footsteps coming down the hall, rushing to hide under the comforter around Kailas’s shoulders.

With the stomping came a low, grumbling voice that muttered, “Stupid rise-with-the-sun jerks…knock some heads…dumb dog mutt up at dawn.” Yawning, one hand rubbing his eyes and the other scratching at his stomach, Sokka stopped in the doorway and slumped against the frame.

“Whoever’s already in here, you’re supposed to let the stupid mutt out,” he grumbled. “Don’t let him bark like that at dawn.”

“Fai has a perfectly good reason to be barking,” Iroh said. He winked at Hova. Hova grinned, putting a finger to Kailas’s lips for silence before giving her another piece of bread to eat.

Sokka grunted, moving his arm to pick at the inner corners of his closed eyes. Still scratching his stomach, he said, “Raccoon-dogs don’t have any good reasons for being noisy. Suki made me come tell you to make him be quiet.”

“Sokka,” Hova laughed, “he’s happy. Let him bark.”

“And I’m happy when we sleep the whole night,” Sokka said. Keeping his eyes closed with intense diligence, he moved his scratching to his chin and the stubble there. “So make him shh.”

Hova continued to laugh. “Open your eyes already.”

“Why?” He did as he was told, though, blinking against the light in the room that blinded him. When the flickering spots in his vision faded and he saw Kailas sitting upright with her eyes open, he stopped scratching his chin. As though he were drunk, he spun about, slamming his shoulder against the wall as he tried to turn and run back down the hall in the same instant.

“Wake up!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “Guys, wake up!”

Kailas boggled at the door while Fai peeked out cautiously. “Why is he acting like that?”

Smiling gently, Hova gave her another piece of bread to eat. “You’ve been unconscious for a month. We’ve all been in here waiting for you to wake up, so everyone’s going to be really excited to see you.”

“Oh,” Kailas said when she had swallowed. She did not have time to think of more words before she heard running footsteps in the hall. Fai ducked back under the comforter.

The first person to the door was Toph. She shoved the door completely open, hair spiked up after interrupted sleep, and stared straight ahead. After a moment, she grinned crookedly and laughed.

“I thought Sokka was trying to screw with us!” she said. “I can’t believe you’re sitting up, Lady Stony-face!”

One by one, they all came into the room and settled around Kailas. Fai emerged from under the comforter in time to bark at Momo, who had been trying to crawl into Kailas’s lap. Momo chattered in protest, but moved to sit beside Kailas’s leg. Fai joined him and gave his ear a lick.

“How’re you feeling?” Katara asked.

“I can’t really move,” Kailas replied.

“We’ll start working on getting your muscles back up to speed, don’t worry.”

“It’s so weird hearing your voice!” Toph laughed, digging in one ear. “You sound like you swallowed a bunch of sand!”

Kailas looked at her. She looked at the others. “Have…have I really been unconscious for a month?”

Sokka snickered and pointed at his own hair. “You got pretty shaggy after four weeks.”

She turned her head, seeing that her hair was past her chin. “Oh.” She looked back toward him, but stopped when she saw Suki and the slight swell to her stomach. She stared. “Were you pregnant before?”

“Since about the time we got to Taonan,” Suki said, shrugging and blushing. “I just didn’t want to tell anyone too early.”

“You should have seen Sokka when she did tell us!” Katara said. “He just stood there for a minute and then he actually jumped out a window! We thought he was going to go steal Appa and run away!”

“And then it turned out he was running around screaming about being a dad,” Toph said. “It was really funny ‘cause he came back inside and kept screaming about it.”

“Hey, I can be proud that I’m going to be a dad!” Sokka said.

“Never said you couldn’t,” Toph said, shrugging.

Kailas blinked once, brows drawing together. “This—has all been happening while I was unconscious? What happened to me?”

“Azula attacked you,” Hova said patiently. “She shot you with lightning.”

“Um,” said Aang, “about that. Kailas, Sokka and I have been waiting to say something to you.” He looked at Sokka. Sokka nodded, and the both of them moved onto their knees to bow deeply to her.

“If you hadn’t gotten in Azula’s way,” Aang said, “I might have died. I want to thank you for protecting me.”

Kailas looked at him blankly.

“And I want to apologize for what I said to you when she got there,” Sokka said. “I called you a traitor and a liar and…a bitch. You didn’t do anything except help us and try to earn our trust, but I was just waiting for an opportunity to say you screwed up. You never did, and I’m really sorry that I doubted you like that.”

She looked at him just as blankly. After a moment, she asked, “All of that happened?”

Sokka sat up, blinking. “Um. Y-yeah. You saved Aang’s life. You probably saved all of us by distracting Azula long enough for us to run.”

“How did I do that?”

“You punched her really hard in the face.”

“I punched her in the face and I don’t remember it?”

He smiled brightly. “Give it a little time! That’s too good a memory to lose completely!”

“Oh,” she murmured. She looked at her legs, blinking slowly.

“But we really are sorry,” Aang said. “I didn’t mean for that to happen to you—I just wanted to come help you get away.”

“It’s all right,” Kailas said. “I’m not upset.”

“And you’re not pissed at me for what I said?” Sokka asked.

She looked at him. “Did you say something that night?”

He opened his mouth, stopped to think, and said, “I called you a lot of bad things that I shouldn’t have.”

“Oh.” She shook her head slightly. “That’s all right. I’m not upset about that either.”

“Oh. Well—great! I’m gonna hold you to that, so you hold me to being sorry!” He smiled, clapping his hands together. “Okay, so we have great news! Guess what?”


“We found General Iroh and Prince Zuko!” he said, pointing at Iroh.

Kailas looked at Iroh, staring because she had forgotten how he looked for a moment. “Prince Zuko is here?”

“Yeah!” Sokka said. “They’re letting us stay here! And guess what else?”

She winced at his loudness; Hova frowned at Sokka when Kailas wasn’t looking. “What?”

“Guess why we’ve been able to stay here without any problems?” he asked, keeping quiet. “There haven’t been any reports about us after the first one about you! No one’s looking for us! You’re dead!”

“Sokka!” Hova, Katara, and Suki hissed.

Kailas froze. She stared, going pale “I’m what?”

“The official military reports all say that you’re dead!” Sokka said. “Killed in a house fire with Hova!”

Sokka!” Hova repeated.

“I’m dead?”

“Yep! We’re totally safe!”

“What about my mother?”

Sokka frowned slightly. “I don’t know. She’s probably safe. What about her?”

“Who told her I’m dead?” Kailas asked.

Sokka opened his mouth, but the scowl on Hova’s face made him slam it back shut.

“I told you not to say it like that,” she muttered. She set the bread aside, putting her hands on Kailas’s face. “You’re not actually dead, okay? Azula thought you were, so that’s what’s been put in all the reports. But you’re okay.”

“What about my mother?”

“I don’t know yet,” Hova murmured. She sighed, running her hand through Kailas’s hair. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t think of how to get a message to her on my own.”

“Oh, I know!” Aang said. “You’re in the Dragons, right? Just send a message to the Black Dragon and tell them you need to let your mom know that you’re both okay!”

Kailas looked at him. “Aang.”


“I am the Black Dragon.”

For a moment, there was silence. Then, Sokka laughed nervously. “You’re, uh, you’re kidding, right? This is you being confused.”

“Sokka, she is,” Hova said.

He went pale, eyes widening. “Really? You started the whole thing against Azula and did it right under her nose?”

“Yes,” Kailas said flatly. “What else would I do with all the information I get from the military?”

He gaped, flapping his hands for a moment before closing his mouth and putting a hand over it. He lifted his fingers to mutter, “I can’t tell if you’re insane or a daredevil genius.”

“Then can’t you just do what Aang said and send a message?” Suki asked.

“Kailas’s mother doesn’t know about the Dragons,” Hova said. “And Tai-Yang might be watched right now for what happened in Taonan. I don’t know how to tell them or if it’s even safe to. I don’t think we can even send a message to Long Fa telling him to contact them for us. If he’s being watched after Iroh brought him here, then it’d put him at risk.”

Kailas realized that no one was looking at Hova. They stared at her with great focus. She looked at them in silence because she did not know why they stared.

“Well?” Suki asked. “You’re the Black Dragon, and you’re you.”

“What?” Kailas asked.

“You’re the one who makes up the plans,” Toph said.

She faltered. “I—I don’t—”

Hova put a hand on her arm, squeezing gently. To the others, she said, “All right, you have to stop. She only just woke up and she’s having trouble focusing. Don’t make her more confused with this.”

“You’re right,” Katara said, giving the others a severe look. “We’re sorry.” She clapped her hands lightly once. “Everyone but me and Hova get out. I need to work on her wounds.”

There was a rush to follow her order, even Momo and Fai hurrying from the room. Sokka stepped out of the room last, meaning to close the door behind him, but Hova caught up to him and grabbed his shirt at his chest. She pulled him down to her eye level.

“If you ever tell Kailas that she’s dead again,” she whispered, “I will break your nose at least. I told you not to say it like that.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” he whispered back. “It just came out stupid! I didn’t mean to freak her out, I swear!”

“Then make sure not to do it again,” she said, and she let him go before shutting the door. She went back to Katara and Kailas, sitting down with a sigh.

“Are you all right?” Kailas asked.

“I’m fine. I just had to tell Sokka something.”

“Can you unwrap her other hand?” Katara asked. “We should be able to bandage them less now.”

Hova nodded, taking Kailas’s right hand to undo the bandages. Kailas watched her work, brows low.

“Did,” she said slowly, “did this…happen from the lightning?”

“It did,” Katara said, nodding. “Aang said that your hands were nearest to Azula, so the lightning hit you in your palms. The burns went up to your fingertips. You’ve got other burns we’ll deal with in a minute.”

“How did I survive that?”

“Your heart stopped, but I got it going again.”

Kailas stared at her. “You restarted my heart?”

“I did,” Katara replied, her smile smug.

“Thank you,” Kailas said.

The faint awe in her voice made Katara’s face flush. “You’re welcome. I’m glad I could.” She took care in unwinding the bandages from around Kailas’s fingers. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. Before I do any healing, we’re going to check to see how sensitive your hands are. The scabbing up your fingers came off a few days ago, but we’ll take it slow.”

“All right.” She waited as patiently as she could, weariness pooling in her bones. She escaped a headache only through the medicine. When she started to slump against the wall, Hova touched her chin.

“A little longer, okay?” she said. “Then you can get some more sleep.” She smiled when Kailas nodded, unwrapping the last of the bandages and setting everything aside. She bent her legs and set Kailas’s hand on her knees, palm up.

“Tell me if you can feel this,” she murmured. She touched Kailas’s thumb with hers, pressing lightly. Kailas’s thumb twitched; Hova drew her hand back. “Did that hurt?”

“No,” Kailas said, “but—that’s…my hand?”

Katara went still. She looked at Kailas’s other hand as she set aside the bandaging. The scarring was heavy on her fingers, the scabs on her palms still thick. She quietly said, “It is. I’m sorry I couldn’t reduce the scarring.”

Kailas said nothing, putting her teeth together to concentrate. She worked through curling each of her fingers. When she managed to curl all of them to turn her hands into loose fists, her brows rose.

“I can move my hands,” she whispered. She looked at Katara. “My hands were burned with lightning?”

“They—they were, yeah.”

“But I can move them.” She stared at her hands for a moment before looking at Katara again. “How did you do that?”

She opened her mouth. Words failed. She smiled helplessly and eventually said, “Waterbending.”

Kailas looked at her hand on Hova’s knees. She put her teeth together again, managing to turn her arm over to lay her hand on one knee. Her brows rose as she flexed her fingers.

“I can feel fabric,” she said. She looked at Hova, smiling through confusion. “I can feel with my fingers.”

Hova smiled back. Gently, she took Kailas’s hand in both of hers. “Can you feel my hands?”

She flexed her fingers to touch Hova’s palm. Her smile grew broader despite the confusion in her face. “I can.” She laughed weakly and looked at Katara. “Thank you.”

Face even hotter than before, Katara said, “You’re welcome. But you can thank me more when we’ve got that damn burn on your side fully healed. It’s why you keep running a fever.”

“Thank you,” Kailas said again. She sat patiently while her other wounds were treated, smiling with disbelief because her fingers were not bandaged again. By then, she was nodding off where she sat.

Hova kept her awake long enough to get through half of the loaf before letting her lay back down to sleep. Fai slipped back into the room when Katara left, curling up against Kailas’s left shoulder while Hova stroked her hair with one hand. The other hand she used to keep herself quiet as she cried with a smile on her face.


It took a full week before Kailas could stand mostly under her own power again. Much as they had done in watching her while she was unconscious, most everyone took turns in making sure she did not fall. While Hova was still her most constant aid, Sokka and Toph helped the most of all. Sokka was close enough in height that it was easy enough to catch her if she wobbled too much, and Toph was able to raise stone for her to grab or fall onto without getting hurt.

Once or twice, Kailas saw a man watching with a frown on his face. She thought she recognized the scar over his eye, understanding why when she asked about him. She did not seek Zuko’s company and he did not seek hers. He seemed content to stand by and watch as she did her best and failed repeatedly.

Her confusion and forgetfulness faded as the days passed, as did the infection on her side. On the morning of the tenth day, she very slowly and very shakily got out of the bed she and Hova used. Both legs shook, but she stood up on her own and managed to walk to the door without stumbling. Though she had to sink down to the floor to rest, Hova knelt down beside her with a smile full of pride for her.

Effort was given in the hope that distraction would take her. Kailas felt the cold hanging in the air longer and longer as the autumn grow older. It made the scar along her chest ache through the night; the newer burns kept her awake for hours. No matter how she concentrated and meditated, she could not bring heat back into her body to combat it.

No one expected her to firebend when it was too difficult to hold her arms up for more than ten seconds. No one expected her to bring it up. More and more often, she saw Zuko staring at her when he came to meals to take food and eat on his own. She could not recall if she had seen him practice firebending forms.

Thoughts came to her, half-formed, as she remembered the sight of Hova crying in pain, Hova dying under her feet, Hova throwing the bracelet at her. She thought of the dead she had left behind and how their bodies had been pasty and cold. She dwelled on what she had been told, unable to determine what was correct for days on end.

Kailas grew quiet as she thought it all through. She stayed awake for days at a time, even when Hova asked her over and over to sleep. The daze she was left in made perfect sense for what she had finally determined. It simply was not a relief.


“I should thank you, my dear,” Iroh said. “I play Pai Sho every day at my teashop, but I rarely get to teach a willing student.” Hova smiled, but Iroh could see the weakness in it. He smiled in turn, laying down his first piece: a lotus tile in the center of the table.

Hova looked at the tile for a long moment. When she glanced up at Iroh, he nodded. She looked at the stacked tiles beside her, running her fingers over the carefully engraved patterns and details on the top tiles. She picked up another flower tile: a lily with an arrow lying in its curves. For a moment, she turned the tile between thumb and forefinger, watching the arrow turn as if it were a compass. When Iroh cleared his throat quietly, she jumped, nearly dropping the tile.

“I feel there’s more you want to talk about than just Pai Sho,” he said. “Is something wrong?”

“I think so,” Hova said, “but I don’t know if I can explain it.” She set the lily in place, stretching her arm to lay it on the cross-point furthest to her right in the circle. By the time she had looked up, Iroh had set another lily at his right, mirroring what she had just placed. She looked at the stacks again, thinking on the engravings.

“Is it about Kailas?” Iroh asked.

Her mouth twisted. “Yeah.” She picked up a tile with the character of wind engraved and painted in blue.

“Red,” Iroh murmured when she set it on the table. “West wind. North comes next.”

“Right, sorry.” She changed the pieces, laying them out in their respective places in the small red slices of the table nearest to her, red to her left and blue to her right.

“If you’d like to talk about it, I’m happy to listen,” he said. “It’s been nearly a month since she woke up, but you both have grown…distressed.”

“I know,” Hova said softly. She had set the green east wind and yellow south wind in their places, three cross-points down from the center lotus on the line between center white and far gold on left and right. “She’s having a really hard time sleeping.” She went quiet, staring at the lotus.

“Is she in pain at all?”

She shook her head. “Not that I know of. Katara said the only thing that’s still healing is the burn on her side. The other burns aren’t even scabbed over now.”

“I’ve noticed she’s become very quiet in the last few days,” he said. He tapped a new tile on the table when Hova did not move: a richly colored plum blossom. She took two plum tiles, setting them below and in from the lilies at the far right and left. “I remember her from when I still lived in the Fire Nation. She was never one for long conversations, but she wouldn’t go out of her way to avoid them.”

“I know,” she said. “I just—no one can get her to talk about anything. I can’t get her to talk about anything.”

He sighed, brows coming together as he frowned. “She was so insistent about seeing you when she first woke up.” He watched as she laid out the next three tiles without hint or hesitation. The first was the white hundred, set in the cross-point nearest to her. The second and third were the autumn red leaf and the winter snowflake, set left and right respectively on the cross-points three aside from the center lotus and on the line that cut the center red from the near gold.

“Very good,” he murmured.

“Thank you,” she said. She hesitated, running her fingers over the nearest stack of tiles. After a time, she picked up the next tile, spring cherry blossom, and stared at it in her palm. She looked up and asked, “What did she say when she woke up?”

Slow with thinking, he said, “She said…she needed to see you to make sure she didn’t—something. Fai started barking just then, so I don’t know what she meant to say after that.”

Hova stared at him, eyes wide. “But—she didn’t what?” She sighed heavily before shaking her head and reaching to set the tile down. Iroh cleared his throat again when she made to set the tile in and below the right plum blossom. His pinky fingers slipped from the sleeves of his robe to touch the cross-points further in—below and out from yellow south wind and from green east wind.

She set the tiles there. “What does she think she could’ve done? I never got hurt, and nobody else even got a scratch that night.”

Iroh looked at her closely. “What if she’s not thinking about that night?”

Hova sighed again, rubbing the back of her neck. “I don’t know what she’d be thinking about. It’s all I can think about lately from my nightmares.”

She reached for more tiles. The next four were placed correctly, laid down with sharp, hard snaps: a green thousand and summer sun to her left, coming in toward her from red west wind, and a blue one and gold five to her right coming in from blue north wind. She went still with her fingers on the last tile.

“Wait,” she said. “She said she saw that my back was hurt. The only time my back has ever been hurt is when we were in Dazu.” She looked up at Iroh. “Do you think she’s still getting confused about when she’s awake?

“I think’s it’s very possible,” he replied. “I don’t know many people who have gone through what she did in these last two months. I doubt it’s a simple recovery.”

For a moment, Hova smiled with relief. The relief faded as she looked down. “How do I convince her that she’s really awake now?”

Iroh did not open his mouth. He looked down as well, stroking his beard slowly while he thought. They sat in silence for minutes on end. Iroh looked up first, smiling as he set out more tiles.

“She might come more to her senses if she has something from outside of our little enclave,” he said. “Something comforting.”

Hova looked at the table, seeing where he had placed the tiles. She smiled slightly. “Something comforting like a letter from her relieved mother?”

He chuckled. “I think it would be pleasant.”

“Do you think the note I came up with will work as a code?”

“It’s perfect,” he said. He spread his arms to gesture to the table. “I would expect nothing less from someone who would try to learn the setting of the white lotus so quickly.”

“I just want to be able to send a message to Kailas’s mother without using the Dragons’ network. You’re the one who said the Order of the White Lotus could help.”

“Yes, but you are more than worthy to take on this task,” Iroh said. “The Order seeks beauty and truth, and I know of very few greater beauties or truths than what we do for real love.”

Again, Hova smiled. She reached for the next tiles in the pattern. Below and in from the bamboo tiles, she set red sevens. Above the red west wind and blue north wind, she placed red fading lotuses. In the final two sets, angling up and out from the white hundred nearest to her, she placed wheel tiles closest to the white hundred. The final tiles were the orchids, blooming white and black, and she smiled at the last quiet snap of the tiles.

“Welcome, sister,” Iroh said, opening his arms and turning his palms up. “The White Lotus opens wide to those who know its secrets.” He smiled gently at her. “Shall we send that letter to Lady Jaya?”

Nodding, Hova rubbed her aching eyes. “Thank you.”


“Unpleasant war meeting, Princess?”

Azula sneered. Kailas smiled with sharp, blood-smeared teeth, chuckling through them as they walked down the hall.

“I can only imagine how unpleasant things are becoming for you,” Kailas said. “The Dragons are just so well hidden and my soldiers don’t seem to like you commanding them.” She snickered. “At all.”

“They’re not your soldiers,” Azula said under her breath.

“Oh really?” Kailas asked. She moved in front of Azula, walking backward with her arms folded behind her back. “I was the one who commanded them directly for almost ten years, Princess. I don’t think you ever issued an order to them.” Her smile ratcheted up into a grin. “And why are you whispering?”

“The Phoenix Battalion is my army,” Azula hissed. “You were never the one truly in command of the situation.”

Wasn’t I?” Kailas asked. “I was under the impression that it my plan that netted us Ba Sing Se and the final victory in the war.”

“You weren’t the one who came up with the majority of that plan!” She stopped when Kailas looked to one side. When Azula turned, she could see a servant girl near the wall, staring at her and the sharp bark of a sentence she had made. Her sneer increased to a scowl.

“Get out!” she snapped. “You’re banished from the Eastern Capitol! Get out!”

The woman hurried away as quickly as etiquette would allow. Kailas laughed, head falling forward as she crossed her arms over her chest.

“Well done, Princess!” she said. “That’s the second banished servant this week alone! You’re going to clear out every ring of Ba Sing Se if you keep this up!” She brought her head up, gesturing behind Azula. “Whoever will you get to clean this mess?”

There was a trail of blood on the rug, smudged and indistinct prints by a right foot and drips set shoulders’ distance apart. Azula spun around to face Kailas, who held up her bloody hands and foot with an even broader smile.

“Stop calling me ‘princess!’” Azula shouted. “Stop ruining everything!”

“But you’re usually so at home with blood,” Kailas said, putting her foot back on the ground. She chuckled, taking a step back when Azula’s hands closed into fists. “Why not try to take a royal nap, Princess? A good bit of sleep can do wonders for those frayed nerves of yours.”

She was gone. The blood on the carpet was gone. Azula was alone. She stood with her teeth clenched and grinding together. Hands still clenched tight, she started to her bedchambers. She could feel the ache under her eyes, knives slicing tender, thin layers of flesh away. As she walked, she closed her eyes.

The servants in her chambers were dismissed, the door bolted shut. She sat heavily on the mattress, looking at her booted feet. Noise echoed inside her ears, comprised of the arguing voices from the meeting and laughter she could not remember hearing in her life. However much she wanted to be distracted from the voices and their petty bickering, she did not want it to be through Kailas’s laughter.

Shaking her head with a sigh, Azula leaned forward to undo the laces of her boots. She lay back when her feet were bare, turning onto her side. Her face was on the other side of the bed that she slept on, and so she was able to see one sleeve of Kailas’s shirt, peeking out from its place folded beneath the other side of the long pillow. For a moment, as she closed her eyes, she thought of drawing out the sleeve and examining it.

“If you’re hoping to flatter me by keeping this strange little memento for so long, it’s not working.”

A hand was on her head. “Stop touching me, peasant.”

Kailas chuckled. “You really should decide what it is that you want, Princess. Sometimes you seem to want nothing more than for me to coddle you. Like some pathetic child.”

“Leave me alone,” Azula said. “You’re the one who suggested coming here to sleep.”

“Did I?” Kailas asked. She snickered. “I certainly don’t remember that.”

“You did,” Azula hissed. She slapped Kailas’s hand away, sitting up and opening her eyes. Kailas sat cross-legged behind her, blood from her foot seeping into the sheets. “Leave. You’re not real.”

For an instant, Kailas’s lips came together, her smile no longer bloody. She set an elbow on one knee, putting her chin in her hand.

“How do you know that, Princess?” she asked. “You can certainly feel me, can’t you?” She reached out her free hand, touching Azula’s forehead. “Especially here. I’m always with you. Always in you and real as anything you know.”

“You’re dead. You’re not real.”

She laughed. “Who said the dead aren’t real?” She brought her hand back, touching her own forehead and leaving smears of red. “You left so much of the killing to me, Princess. How long do you think I’ve seen the dead?”

“Don’t try to play for sympathy,” she muttered, rubbing her own forehead though she could not feel anything smeared there. “You’re not going to get any.”

“No, no,” Kailas chuckled. “I never expect to have sympathy from you, Princess. I’m only trying to teach you that you can’t talk what’s real away. You’ll never be rid of me. You can’t be rid of the people you kill. Not really.” She grinned, revealing her bloody mouth again.

“It’s just too bad,” she crooned. “I had Hova to help me keep the dead placated. But you?” She laughed. “You’ll never have someone to help you.”

“I don’t need anyone!” Azula snarled, eyes narrowing. “I’d have been happier alone! An only child, just my father and I!”

“Do you miss your mother?” Kailas asked. Her head tilted, eyes narrowing as she smiled even more. “I wonder, do you ever think of how much you hurt my mother? Killing her only child as brutally as you did…I’m sure she’s so heartbroken. Yet another mother who knows how much of a monster you are.”

“That’s not fair to say. I love my daughter.”

Azula turned. A tall woman, hair bound in the regal fashion and wearing clothes befitting the princess wedded to the second-born prince stood beside the bed. She held out one hand, fingernails kept smooth, gleaming clean, and sharp as daggers.

Scowling, Azula looked away and moved back against the headboard. She drew her legs up to her chest. “Get out of my palace. You have no place here. You don’t have a place anywhere in the Fire Nation.”

“But Azula,” the woman said, “I’m your mother. Surely you have some place for me.”

“Be quiet!” Azula hissed, clapping her hands over her ears. “I’m not going to hear this!”

“It’s not like you can’t,” Kailas hissed between fangs.

“Azula, my love—come now, stop that.” A hand took gentle hold of one wrist, bringing her hand away from her ear. “How many times do I have to say something before you listen to me?”

“It’s a lost cause at this point,” Kailas said, eyes growing brighter.

“Even so,” Ursa said. “Azula, come here.” She sat on the mattress, pulling Azula near enough to hold her head to her chest. “Listen to me. You must know that I love you.”

“No,” Azula said, pushing in vain at Ursa’s stomach to try to escape. “No you didn’t! You loved Zuko! You called me a monster!”

“Never,” Ursa murmured, petting Azula’s hair. “I never would call my darling a monster. You just never would listen. You would do such cruel things, my love. Why didn’t you listen?”

“None of you would listen to me!” Azula said. “You listened to Zuko—you only listened to him!” Her eyes flicked to Kailas, her scowl growing. “You never listened! You would listen more to that mutt woman you chose over me! Neither of you ever cared for me!”

Kailas laughed outright, but there was blistering fury in her voice as she brought her bloody hands forward and snarled, “You never gave me any reason to care, Princess!”

“Azula, I do love you,” Ursa said. “You have to know that.”

Shut up!” Her fists came out, blue flames pouring from her knuckles. Ursa and Kailas were pierced through, vanishing as Azula opened her eyes. The headboard and pillow before her face were ablaze, blue heat fading to red-orange. The shirt under her pillow was in danger of catching fire. She opened her hands and clamped them shut, killing the flames before they could eat through anything.

Panting, Azula stood up to move away from the charred spots. She pulled the shirt from under the pillow, taking it with her while she paced around the room. As her breathing settled, she felt at the shirt for char and ember. Neither of those were what she found, and for a few seconds she felt relief. Her fingers then came to raw, broken thread and a ruined hemline.

She spun the shirt about, laying it flat on the mattress. Its front was undamaged, but the back had a strip torn from it, rising from the center of the hemline up a few inches. Azula stared, tracing her fingers along the rip. Heart pounding, she pulled the shirt off the bed and set it on fire. She let it fall to the floor to burn, sitting down to watch it. It did not make Kailas’s laughter stop, and so she did not get back into bed to sleep.


Amongst the thorns in the Fire Nation’s side, the Blue Spirit was well known but mostly disregarded. It was a lone masked rebel, only destroying supplies in Fire Nation garrisons and sabotaging equipment. The Dragons’ missions to do the same were executed so much more often and on such a larger scale that the Blue Spirit’s endeavors were considered copycat works.

The far end of the main courtyard of Iroh’s estate was typically hidden in black shadows in the night, the moonlight blocked by tall, thick trees. It made it easy for the Blue Spirit to climb silently up to the top of the wall. Wearing the form-fitting black suit and fanged, horned blue mask that was so recognizable, he balanced on the tiles for a few seconds to look around. Appa lifted his head a moment, looking toward the shadows as the Blue Spirit dropped into the courtyard.

Zuko pulled the mask from his face as he walked into the moonlight. He turned his hand, hiding the mask’s front against his side. Dual swords barely clinking against each other as he moved, he started toward the doorway that led into the main house.

“I would say I’m surprised by this, but I’m not.”

He spun on his heels, pulling one sword from the scabbard on his back. Kailas stood on Appa’s other side, idly toying with his ear. Even at a distance, the exhaustion that clung to her was obvious. She looked at him with a slight arch to her brow.

“I wasn’t aware invalids were allowed out after dark,” Zuko remarked. He returned the sword to the scabbard and started for the door again.

“You’re just like me,” Kailas said.

He stopped and frowned at her. “What’re you talking about?”

She flicked one finger at the mask in his hand. “I reasoned that you were the Blue Spirit years ago. It’s interesting that you’re so blatant about it when you’re here.”

“How am I just like you?” he asked.

Both brows rose as she rubbed Appa’s ear. “Did you take some pity on your uncle? Is that why you stopped wandering around? He seems happy to have his tea shop, and he waved away you going missing about two weeks ago. You must’ve been doing this for…possibly six years now.”

“Shut up about Uncle and tell me how I’m supposed to be like you,” he snapped.

“It was a good idea to travel long distances to launch your attacks,” Kailas said, waving one hand to dismiss him. “It was one of the reasons I was never able to find you when I first started looking. It certainly helped keep him safe while you commit treason.”

Zuko scoffed. “Like you’re one to talk. Who’s the complete idiot who decided she would train the Avatar and head the Dragons? You’re lucky you managed to survive.”

She looked at him for a moment before chuckling and looking down. “You really think so?”

“It’s not something you have to think that hard about. You are a traitor. You really think you’re doing good by sabotaging our troops?”

“And yet,” Kailas said, letting out a sigh, “you’re doing the same thing.” She looked up slowly, searching for the moon. “We really are so much alike.” When she found it, she watched it for a time. The smile that came to her was empty and unpleasant. “Dreaming dead.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You’re behaving like a child,” Kailas said. “Do you honestly think that attacking your troops will do any good if you don’t have a plan for later?” She looked at him with the same ugly smile on her face. “What were you trying to do as the Blue Spirit?”

“Stop jumping around! What did you mean by ‘dreaming dead?’”

“You’re going nowhere,” she said. “You’ve abandoned everything you want and you’re behaving aggressively without actually thinking. It’s as if you’re a dead man dreaming that you can do something without any planning.”

“What about you?” Zuko asked.

“I am dead,” she replied frankly.

He stared at her. Mouth working on reflex, he said, “You’re alive, you idiot.”

She looked at him. She chuckled. “Here. Here I’m alive. This is only a dream I’m having in hell.”

He raised his eyebrow. “Were you already a complete idiot, or did getting hit by lightning make you this stupid?”

The next smile she gave him was enough to make him shudder. “This is the punishment for everything I’ve done, Prince Zuko. My home is gone. Everyone I care about knows the truth about my death. For whatever I tried to do when I was alive, it’s all come to nothing. There’s nothing I can do to fix it.”

“That doesn’t mean you’re dead or dreaming,” he said, scowling. “And it doesn’t mean we’re anything alike. Don’t be stupid.” He shook his head as she turned back to Appa, and made to head for the doorway. “Do whatever you want. I’m not going to listen to some idiot traitor tell me I’m like her.”

She laughed very quietly as he passed her. “You can’t firebend anymore either, can you.”

He lunged at her, shoving her against Appa. “You shut your mouth!”

“It’s how I know I’m dead,” she said, smile shaking. She held up her hands, palms outward to show the dense scarring in her palms. “There’s no warmth in my hands anymore. All I feel anymore is cold.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me!” he snarled. “Don’t compare me to you!”

“And there’s nothing either of us can do to change it,” she said weakly.

“I’m working on it,” he spat. “Why can’t you change anything?”

“I can’t make myself come back to life. And there’s nothing here in my nightmares to be happy about. Nothing is real.” She lowered her hands, looking at the ground. “I can’t believe anything I see or hear. Not even from her. Hova isn’t real.”

It was the sound of the softest broken gasp in the still night air that made both of them look up. Iroh was at the doorway, having slid it open silently. Hova was closer, standing with her arms hanging limp at her sides and a blanket at her feet. She stared at Kailas, eyes wide and brows down.

“How could you say that?” she asked, voice breaking.

“Uncle?” Zuko asked. He put his arm behind his back to hide the mask, but Iroh shook his head.

“We can discuss your doings privately,” he said. “For now, we’re intruding. Come inside, Nephew.” He gestured to the open doorway, frowning while Zuko passed by him. Quietly, he slid the door shut, and Hova and Kailas were left alone.

“How could you say something like that?” Hova asked. “I’ve told you so many times that I love you! That’s never ever going to change!”

“You’ve said it,” Kailas said.

“Said what?”

“You were right. I’ve failed at so many things. Even if this dream goes on, I have no right to stay with you. You have no reason to stay.”

“You heard that in a dream!” Hova shouted. “I’m real! I’m the real person standing right in front of you! I’ve never thought about leaving you, and I’m not going to just because you got hurt trying to help someone! You try, Kailas! That’s what matters to me!”

“You were the one who said trying wasn’t good enough.” Kailas lifted her hands again, face twisting back into a smile. “Even if you forget for a moment that I’ve failed, how could you ever want a wraith with hands like these holding you again?”

Hova clenched her teeth to fight back the heat in her eyes. “Stop it.”

“A pathetic captain,” she said lightly. She shrugged and laughed. “A ruined failure.”

“I said stop it!”

“You must know that a dead person isn’t worth your while.”

“Kailas, stop it!”

She continued to smile. “I can see you leaving now. It’s only right for you to do.”

Hova opened her mouth to speak, but stopped short. She stared, throat tightening. “Kailas? Are you—are you trying to get me angry?”

She said nothing.

Tears filled her eyes. “You are. You’re doing the same thing to me that you do to every person you try to make fight you!”

She said nothing.

“Are you trying to get me mad enough to hit you?”

She flinched.

Hova felt the tears well over. “Kailas…how could you try to do that to me? I’d never ever hit you—you know that.”

She bowed her head. Hova heard her choke before she said, “I have to make this dream stop. I can’t take waiting for it to end anymore.” Her shoulders hitched. “If I make you angry, I’ll wake up and it—”

She grabbed her around the middle, burying her face in Kailas’s chest to weep there. “Stop it! Please stop! I’m not a dream! This isn’t a dream! I swear it isn’t!” She clutched Kailas’s shirt with shaking hands. “Don’t try to make me mad at you. I just want to help. I want you here with me again.”

For a long time, Kailas was still and silent. The next breath she took was a shuddering one, and her voice was thick when she spoke again. “What do I do? All I’ve done is fail.”

“But you haven’t,” Hova said. She let go of Kailas’s shirt, looking up as she took Kailas’s face in hand. “You’re still here. You’re still getting better!”

Kailas’s eyes closed tightly as she said, “I just want to stop! I don’t want to fight anymore! The dead don’t have to fight!”

Hova froze. Kailas froze. They looked at each other. Kailas began to cry. Her legs buckled, sending her to the ground faster than Hova could brace her. She sat with her legs drawn up and her face hidden in her knees, crying hard enough that her body shook. Hova sat down with her immediately, taking one of Kailas’s hands.

“What d-do I do?” Kailas sobbed.

Hova waited for her throat to open before she tried to speak. “Do you still want to come home to me more than dying?”

Kailas nodded desperately, unable to speak.

She swallowed and held Kailas’s hand tighter. “Will you help me try to figure out what to do?”

Her shoulders hitched. “I don’t know what that is.”

“I don’t know either,” Hova said, curling up against her side. “But we’d both be trying.” She kissed Kailas’s cheek. “Can we try?”

She nodded once, sobbing again.

Hova put her free arm around Kailas’s back, pulling her close. “Let’s go back to bed. It’s getting a lot colder.” She started to move onto her knees to stand, but Kailas clutched her hand.

“Hova,” she whispered, “I can’t—firebend anymore.”

She was still for a moment before pulling Kailas close again. “It’ll be okay. We always figure something out.” She kissed Kailas’s hair before getting onto her knees. She stood up, but stayed bent over to help Kailas onto her feet.

They returned to their room after Hova had draped the blanket around Kailas’s shoulders. Though they went to bed, they sat side by side with their backs to the wall. Hova leaned against Kailas on her left side, one hand on Kailas’s bent knee. With hesitance, Kailas put an arm around Hova’s shoulders to wrap the blanket around them both.

The night was spent awake and in silence. Hova turned her head at one point to listen to Kailas’s heartbeat, but she said nothing. By the time the sky grew lighter with the dawn, Hova was starting to drift off. She jumped when someone knocked softly on their door.

“Come in,” she said.

Iroh opened the door, stepped inside, and closed it behind him. He smiled gently at them. “You both look like you haven’t slept tonight.”

They did not reply.

His smile remained in place as he went closer. “Kailas, Zuko told me what you talked about last night. I have a proposition.”

“For what?” she asked, voice raw.

“A chance to regain what you both have lost.”

Hova sat up. “You know how to recover her firebending?”

“I only know of a chance,” he said. “It involves going to an island to the north of the mainland in the Fire Nation, northeast of where we are now.”

She went pale, gripping Kailas’s knee. “You want to send her into the Fire Nation when she can’t bend?”

“Aang has volunteered to go with them,” Iroh said. “He said that it should be a few days’ flight.”

“Where would I be going?” Kailas asked.

“The city of the Sun Warriors.”

She turned to look at him properly. Her eyes went wide. “What?”

“Again, this is only a chance,” he said. “But if you and Zuko have both truly lost your firebending, my best idea is to send you to where firebending originated.”

Kailas stared at him for a long time. When she spoke, it was not in a whisper. Clearly, voice still rough, she said, “I’ll go.”

Hova looked at her, brows reaching toward her hair. “You will?”

“I have no other options. I’m willing to go.”

Iroh chuckled. “That’s a relief. Zuko needs to learn something on this journey, and I’m certain you can make him understand.”

“Are Aang and Zuko ready to go?” Hova asked.

“They are.”

She bit her lip. She looked at Kailas. There was greater focus in her eyes than there had been for weeks. Hova sighed. She brought her hands to her lap, opening the clasp on her bracelet. She took Kailas’s left hand, bringing it over to put the bracelet on her wrist.

“You have to bring this back to me,” she said. “Okay?”

Kailas looked at the bracelet and touched the ruby. She looked at Hova and said, “I will.”

“Then come on.” She got out of bed first, Iroh leaving the room as Kailas stood up. Kailas dressed in black trousers and a sleeveless undershirt of the same color. A dark red coat went over it, and her boots were last. The steps taken with her right foot were still cautious, still limping at times. Hova went with her to the courtyard, holding her left hand.

Appa was awake, on his feet and shaking his head when Iroh closed the door behind them. His saddle was on his back. Zuko was sitting at the furthest point back within it, his arms crossed over his chest and his dual swords on his back. Aang, tightening the reins around Appa’s horns, stopped and waved.

Stomach tightening, Hova made Kailas stop walking. She looked up, but words died on her tongue. Shaking her head, she wrapped her arms around Kailas and hid her face in her chest. Kailas pulled her closer.

“I will do whatever you ask of me,” Kailas whispered. “Even if that’s finding a way out of hell to come back to you.”

“Please be careful,” Hova said.

“I promise I will.”

She nodded, but held on for a while longer. When she let go, she pulled Kailas down to kiss her. Kailas returned the kiss, touching her lips to Hova’s hair once she had drawn back. With one last touch of her curled fingers to Hova’s cheek, she turned about and went to Appa’s tail. She climbed up and went past Zuko to sit at the front of the saddle. Aang leapt onto Appa’s head and sat in the natural curve of the bison’s neck.

He snapped the reins. “Yip yip, buddy.”

Appa grunted and struck the ground with his tail. He rose into the air without jumping, flying out of the courtyard and into the lightening dark. Iroh watched until they had disappeared in the distance and the dim light, turning to Hova. She was still looking into the sky, holding her left wrist.

“I apologize,” he said, voice soft. “This is all very sudden.”

“Do you think this’ll work?” she asked.

“I think if there’s any chance of either of them coming back to their senses,” he said, “it will be through them going through this together and finally talking to each other.” He smiled slightly. “I made him promise not to hit her.”

She sighed. “As long as she comes back safe.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t that Aang disliked silence. He enjoyed quiet for meditation, and he could stand being alone on a flight with Appa. The quiet helped him think. Even when there were other people with him on Appa, silence wasn’t unbearable. Conversations had gaps. He knew that, and he wasn’t bothered by it.

Nevertheless, some silence had a noticeable edge, and that was the kind of silence that settled in the air with Zuko and Kailas in Appa’s saddle. The fact that it had lasted the full two days that they had been flying over the continent made him squirm when they started out on the third day and headed over the ocean.

Aang looked back at them. Kailas, sitting at the front of the saddle, was looking down at the ocean far beneath them. He could see her toying with the bracelet on her wrist, the marks under her eyes nearly black with how she had not slept. Zuko had his arms crossed and his legs bent, scowling out at the clouds.

Frowning, Aang scratched at Appa’s head, patting the mussed places smooth before rising to his feet. He leapt lightly, letting the wind carry him into the center of the saddle. As he crossed his legs, he looked at Kailas and Zuko quickly. Neither of them turned to look at him.

“So,” he said slowly. “You guys are both Fire Nation nobles?” He drummed his fingers on his chin. “Have you ever met each other before a month ago?”

“I’ve met my sister’s wolvog before,” Zuko said. “She’s probably too good to remember it, though.”

“‘Wolvog’?” Aang asked.

“He’s referring to the nickname Azula gave me,” Kailas said. “Most people know it at this point. But I remember you, Prince Zuko.” She turned to look at him. “You weren’t nearly as angry when you lived at the palace. Impetuous, but not angry.”

“What do you care if I’m angry or not?” Zuko asked.

“You’d make a better candidate for Fire Lord if you were more composed.”

“What, like you?” Zuko looked away from the clouds, eyes fixed on Kailas. “Yeah, I’m sure I want to be just like you—completely unfeeling and quiet all the time. You’re worse than Mai. You were in the palace for years to spar with my sister, and I know I never saw you smile. I don’t think I ever heard you say anything.”

“I spoke when I attended war meetings,” Kailas said.

“So? I was never allowed into the war meetings to hear that. You weren’t even officially in the military when Azula started taking you along. I was the crown prince, and you got to go along with my perfect little sister because you were her perfect little wolvog on a leash.”

He snorted, looking at the clouds again. “You’re just like Azula.”

Kailas scowled, eyes narrowing. “I’m not.”

“Yeah,” Zuko said without looking at her, “you are.”

Aang lifted his hands, patting at the air as he grimaced. “Guys, come on. We’re supposed to be getting along.”

“I only promised my uncle I wouldn’t hit her,” Zuko said. “I didn’t say anything about not telling the truth.” He looked at Kailas from the corner of his unscarred eye. “You’re really just like my sister. You’re so perfect. You’re always in perfect control of everything you do.”

He turned to face her properly. “But then you decided that perfect wasn’t good enough. You thought you were better than our country. What, did following the orders of your superiors bother you or something? Get sick of following my sister to get your fresh meat?”

Kailas said nothing. Her hands had closed to fists; her knuckles were going white.

“You’ll do whatever it takes to get ahead. You sabotage our troops and you’re training the Avatar. All you care about are your ambitions and making yourself perfect. You and Azula were perfect together. I don’t know why you’d give up everything that you had.”

For a moment longer, her scowl was maintained. It broke and became a black smile, matched with cold, quiet laughter. “Prince Zuko, you shouldn’t assume that anyone wants to be under Azula’s boot.”


“I swore to kill her,” she said. “I promised her that I would, no matter what happened to me. I will keep that promise someday.”

Aang and Zuko both turned completely to look at her, their eyes wide.

Kailas looked at her hands. In the bright, cold sunlight, she could see the scarring in fine detail. “If I’m dead, then she’s the one that killed me. She’s the one whose orders I’ve had to follow. I can never deny that I’m the one who’s done the terrible things I have, but I’ve never been the one who wanted those things to happen.

“She’s ruined the name of my country and threatened the people I love,” she said. “There’s no way I couldn’t hate her. There’s no way I won’t kill her.”

“I know it’s hard to keep from feeling hurt, but…you can’t really want to kill her,” Aang said, “can you?” He shook his head, running a hand through his hair. “Kailas, I know you. You know how awful it is to destroy a life. Why would you ever make a promise like that?”

“Don’t act like such a goodie-goodie,” Zuko said. He looked at Kailas, his sneer less than before. “So you do feel something. At least I know you’re human. Doesn’t mean you’re not still a traitor, though.”

Kailas said nothing. The conversation died with Zuko looking away. Aang, sighing, leapt again to take his place near Appa’s reins. He looked up to the sun, relying on it for guidance. It was higher in the sky, some hours having passed since dawn. The sun was still just to the left of Appa’s head, keeping them on their heading just to the north on a nearly straight eastern path.

He settled back in the curve of Appa’s neck, sighing again. It would be at least another two hours on top of the three that had already passed. He was certain he hadn’t had any more solid sleep than that the night before. Reins coiled round his wrists, he closed his eyes.

He jumped when Appa let out a long groan. At first Aang thought it was because the clouds had dissipated and there was no more cover between them and the world below. Before he could jerk the reins to one side or another to regain the clouds, he looked further down. There was a trace of land far in the distance to what he knew was the south. Almost directly below them was an island covered almost entirely by green. The stone city, though, could not be ignored no matter how many vines crawled up the walls of its buildings.

Aang scrambled back up over Appa’s first set of shoulders, grabbing the side of the saddle and pointing. “Look at that!”

“The city of the Sun Warriors,” Kailas murmured.

Zuko moved to one side of the saddle, holding the edge with both hands and looking down. “The ruins, you mean. I still don’t get the point of coming to an abandoned city.”

“Maybe we can pick something up!” Aang said. He went back to Appa’s head, catching the fluttering reins and steering him to land. “They could have left stuff behind!”

“The Sun Warrior civilization existed thousands of years ago,” Zuko said. “What do you think we’re going to get by just standing around with a bunch of rocks?”

“Your uncle thinks there’s something important here,” Aang said. “We should trust him.”

“I trust my uncle,” Zuko said. “I just don’t think there’s anything left down there.”

“General Iroh thinks there’s something left in the both of us,” Kailas said. “Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for a while.”

The city was silent when Appa landed in a wide, long street. He grunted, lying on his stomach and closing his eyes while the trio climbed down from his saddle. When they were on their feet, standing still, the only sound they could hear was the distant chirping of birds and the wind noise in the streets.

“Where should we start?” Aang asked.

Zuko, arms again crossed over his chest, sighed through his nose. He jerked his head toward the large building in the city’s center. “If there are any texts or form scrolls left in this place, there’s probably where they’ll be.”

“Okay,” Aang said. He started to jog off, but before he could finish three steps, Kailas had snatched his high collar and pulled him back. He stumbled, saved only from falling because she kept her hold on his shirt. “What was that for?”

“I used to tell you not to be so impatient, didn’t I?” Kailas asked. When Aang stared at her, she nodded toward the ground. A thin black rope was stretched out taut along the width of the street. She hooked the tip of her left boot under the rope and pulled. The ground before them fell away when the rope snapped, revealing a number of sharp stone spikes. Aang yelped and leapt back to hide behind her.

“What the hell?” Zuko muttered. He crouched down, picking up the rope. It was smooth and undamaged save for where it had broken from the pull; there was no sign of age on it. “There’s nothing special about this rope. How can a booby-trap be so well preserved?”

“Maybe we should ride on Appa up there,” Aang said. As he turned about, Kailas walked forward. She dashed up onto one of the walls near the spike pit. She crossed over the pit, jumping when her feet started to slip on the wall. Her heels hit the ground and she straightened, holding her right side.

“We’ll be fine from here out,” she said. “Just watch where you put your feet.”

Aang smiled sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head. He jumped, spinning and calling the wind up beneath him to carry him across the spikes. He landed next to her, smiling again.

“That was a pretty stupid move,” Zuko said. He made a dash of his own, running along the opposite wall to land smoothly beside them. “I saw the size of that burn on your side. What makes you think you’re okay to do things like that when you can’t even run right now?”

“May I ask why you care?”

“Because I don’t want to have to go back to my uncle’s house and get yelled at by your woman because you hurt yourself.”

She turned to him. Her eyes were cold and her voice was even colder. “Don’t call her that.”

“Then don’t do stupid things,” Zuko said.

“Guys, please,” Aang said. “Can you not fight?”

“It’s all right, Aang,” Kailas said. “You don’t have to protect me.”

“Quit being such a suck-up and get moving,” Zuko said. “I want to leave before nightfall.” He reached out toward Aang to shove him along, but Kailas’s hand closed on his wrist.

“Leave him alone,” she said, brows low.

“Why should I listen to you?”

Kailas said nothing. She let go of his wrist and walked away. Aang followed after her, looking at Zuko over his shoulder until he started to walk. They made their way carefully through the streets, uninhabited save for the few birds that flew overhead. With booby-traps littered everywhere, it was a long while before they came near the city’s center. Aang looked up at everything as he went and stopped completely when he came up the last step of a broad, tall stairway.

“What’s this?” he asked.

A carving covered the large wall they had come to, and Zuko was nearly around the corner by the time Aang had spoken. He stopped, turning about to look up at the wall. The stone was cracked in places, but there was no damage to the carving. A man in a tall headdress, loincloth, and knee-length trousers with fire in his hands stood engulfed by flames. Twin dragons coiled below him, clawed hands entwined as they breathed the enwreathing fire.

“A mural of the dragons,” Kailas said. “And a Sun Warrior, I suppose.”

“But weren’t the Sun Warriors friends with the dragons?” Aang asked. “Or allies, at least?”

“The dragons probably aren’t too happy with them after what’s happened,” Zuko said.

Aang’s head fell forward, eyes closing partway. “You mean the hunting. Kailas told me about it.” He sighed, looking at Zuko. “Why did your uncle take part in something like that?”

“My uncle’s history is complicated.”

“A noticeable family trait,” Kailas murmured.

Zuko turned further to glare at her. “Talking about my sister?”

“No,” she said. She blinked and started to walk toward where Zuko stood. “You.” She passed by him without looking at him. “Can I ask you why you’re acting as the Blue Spirit?”

Zuko followed her, Aang close behind him. His frown deepened. “Why are you the Black Dragon?”

“Because I know exactly what our country has been doing,” she replied, “and I know that it’s not the right path. Not for me, not for the Fire Nation, not for the world.” She paused, looking back over her shoulder at him. “I remember you clearly, Prince Zuko. I was at the war meeting that netted you that scar. I remember exactly what you said to have your father burn you.”

Zuko stared at her, but she started to walk again.

“You knew that our troops shouldn’t be sacrificed,” she said. “In all your time acting as the Blue Spirit, you’ve never significantly wounded or killed any Fire Nation soldiers. And you’ve done far better than I have. I don’t think you’ve killed any Earth Kingdom soldiers, either.”

She came to another stairway, pausing when she put her foot on the first step and massaging her side. “Have you learned anything about life being in exile, Prince Zuko?”

“Why do you keep calling me that?” he asked.

“It’s your rightful title,” Kailas said. “The fact that you tried to protect our troops and paid a price for it means that I will always use it.” She began to climb the stairs, wincing until her right side grew used to the mild strain.

“I’d call you Fire Lord, but you haven’t been crowned yet,” she added. “I also worry you might take offense and think that I’m trying to mock you. Have you learned from the people of the Earth Kingdom?”

Zuko said nothing. The stairs were climbed at last, and they stared at where they had arrived. A massive building was ahead, its great stone door closed tight. A tall pillar capped by a gleaming, translucent red stone stood in the center of a circle carved in the ground. At the edges of the circle were carved characters. Refracted light from the stone in the pillar sat on one character to the side.

“What’s this thing?” Aang asked, looking at the pillar. “What’s with this writing?”

“It’s a celestial calendar,” Zuko and Kailas replied in unison. Zuko glared at Kailas, who turned away and went toward the door in the building’s front. He crouched, touching the light on the ground.

“The Fire Sages use celestial calendars in their temples,” he said. “But this isn’t like any of them I’ve seen before. I don’t get what the light’s for.”

“Possibly a key to a lock,” Kailas said. She gestured to the top of the door, where a red stone identical to the stone set in the pillar. “Having the light shine on this might open the door.” She looked back at the circle, tilting her head to read the upside down character nearest to the door. “But it looks like it would be only on the summer solstice.”

Aang groaned, head falling back. “That’s more than half a year from now!”

Zuko rolled his eyes and reached over his shoulder to his swords. He drew one to put the blade into the light. Brow furrowed in concentration, he tilted and turned the sword to aim the reflection. The stone above the door was soon suffused with light, and they waited and watched. When the stone shifted, grinding and rumbling against itself, Aang jumped. Zuko and Kailas continued to watch. The door opened completely, and as Zuko rose to his to his feet and sheathed the sword, Kailas walked inside.

“Do you see anything?” Zuko asked. Aang dashed in after her, but gaped at the room. The high ceiling and broad, distant walls sucked away the light coming in from the doorway and the single grate in the center of the ceiling. Still, the statues within and all their features were perfectly clear.

They, like the carving, wore tall headdresses, loincloths, and knee-length trousers. They were set in a circle, identical statues placed in mirroring positions and stances until they met in the rear of the room, leaning at the waist with the knuckles of their fists touching high above.

“Fascinating,” Kailas said. She looked at a carving in the stone ledge by one of the nearest statues. “This is documenting something called ‘The Dancing Dragon.’”

Aang, wincing at the broad teeth and massive, glaring eyes of the statues, started to walk around the room. He went around the outside of the circle of statues, looking at the different positions they were in. As he went, Zuko came into the room. Aang paused a moment, watching Zuko move. Kailas had stopped behind the statue with the carved plaque, looking up at it. Zuko, without looking at her, came to stand behind the other statue, arms crossed yet again over his chest.

Scratching his head, Aang looked from them to the statues and back again. He hopped over the curving ledge the statues were set on, landing lightly. For a moment, his foot sank.

He lifted his foot quickly, looking at the ground. A tile rose back up, grinding quietly against the floor as it did. He looked up, and saw the statue in front of him. Turning a slow circle, he stared at the floor and saw the tiles set in place before the statues. When he looked at where Kailas and Zuko stood, he saw their left and right feet respectively resting on tiles.

“Guys!” he said. “Start dancing together!”

They turned to look at him, Zuko with a glare and Kailas with a raised brow.

“No, no!” Aang said. “What Kailas said—they’re doing the Dancing Dragon! It has to be a firebending form you can learn from the statues!” He crouched a moment, pushing at the tile his foot had been on. “And look! If you go through it right, I think something’ll happen!”

He sighed at the looks he continued to receive. “Guys, please. Just try it. What do you have to lose?”

“My dignity,” Zuko grumbled.

“At least it’s not your honor,” Kailas murmured.

Zuko glared first at her and then at Aang when he let out a snort of laughter. Growling, he shook his head. After a moment, he looked up at the statue. He lifted his arms, elbows bent and palms upturned, and brought up his left leg. The weight of his body balanced on his right foot made the tile beneath it sink down with a scraping sound. The sound was overlaid with an echo of itself, and he looked to see Kailas in a mirrored position to himself.

“That’s it!” Aang said, smiling. “Teamwork!”

They ignored him. Their left and right legs went out, corresponding arms stretching out parallel to it, and their hips sank. Another tile went down. They brought in their opposing legs to take another shuffling step forward with the left to the next tile, straightening and thrusting out their left and right arms in hard punches. Their hips turned to bring their legs about, fists striking straight out as their feet came down hard on the next tile. They rose on the balls of their feet to spin round again, formerly leading fists swinging down at an angle and rear foot sinking the tile.

A retreating step was taken with the rear leg to the next tile, arms snapping up in another strike. Arms came up from their place at their sides with the next rounding step with their left leg, extended fingers slicing up through the air. As their legs came forward in a hard stomp, one arm bent across their chests, the other hand cutting in a fingers-out strike like its twin. They bent low to the ground as their legs came about again in a sweeping kick to the next tile, balancing with both hands. Finally, their bodies came up as their feet shuffled and stepped out, and the knuckles of their fists came together as they bent at the waist.

Kailas was the first to break out of the final stance, frowning as she rubbed at her side. So close to her, Zuko could see how she was balancing on her left foot, her right lifted from the ground. He chewed on his tongue and started toward her.

The sound of stone grinding against itself made all of them turn. A pillar topped with an enormous golden stone rose in the center of the room and stopped when the stone was at waist height.

“Hurray!” Aang said, throwing his arms in the air. “Teamwork worked!” He paused, arms falling back down. “Wait, what did we do?”

“We did something,” Zuko said, walking slowly to the pillar and the stone. He reached for it, but Kailas spoke.

“Don’t touch it,” she said, voice weary.

“Why do you keep telling me what to do?”

“There are traps in place all over the city,” Kailas said. “There’s probably something about this that makes it a trap if the form is done on any day other than the summer solstice. Besides, there’s nothing we need from a gold stone. We shouldn’t touch it.”

“Oh please,” Zuko said, rolling his eyes. “We did everything right to make it come out.”

Kailas looked at Aang. “Get out of here.”


“If it’s not a trap, then it won’t matter. If it is, it won’t make any sense for all of us to be in here.”

Aang blinked at her, frowning slightly, but he went outside to watch from past the door. Zuko, rolling his eyes again, picked up the stone. It was heavy and warm, and he would have sworn that he felt a throb under his fingertips despite it being made of metal. Before he could say anything to that effect, the door slammed shut and something slammed into his chest.

Liquid, viscous and slimy, gushed out in a geyser and smashed him against the grate in the ceiling. He hung there with his back against the grate, the stone swinging from a strand dangling off his arm. Gritting his teeth, he tried to pull his arms away from the grate. Without a hint of leverage, he did not move in the slightest.

“I can’t get loose!” he said.

Kailas looked from him to the pillar. It was gone, covered by the nearly black green that was spewing from where the stone had sat. Scrambling to keep her feet from being caught, she climbed onto the ledge and up the statue. The room was starting to fill and she was barely on top of the statue’s headdress before it was up to the statue’s waist. She jumped before her feet were glued down, managing to grab one of the bars of the grate near Zuko.

Her shoulder and hand began to burn immediately, but she swung her legs up and planted her shins on the sticky bars. She grabbed his closer shoulder and pulled as hard as she could. The liquid gave before her muscles did, and she rolled him over, forearm sticking to his back. She hung, muscles twitching from exertion.

“What did you do that for?” Zuko snapped.

Kailas said nothing, feeling the liquid at her back. It pushed hard enough for her body to be pressed flat against the ceiling. It continued to push until their faces were in the grate and they both grimaced from their ribs being compressed.

When the pushing stopped, Kailas sighed and said, “To make sure you could breathe.”

“Oh. Um. Thanks.”

“Guys!” Aang’s feet came into view first, and then his face when he dropped to his knees. “Guys, are you okay?”

“We can breathe, Aang,” Kailas said. “Calm down and don’t touch whatever this is. You won’t get free.”

“But what should I do?”

“Go get your bison,” Zuko said. “Maybe he can pull out the grate and get us free.”

“Okay,” Aang said. “Okay—I’ll go get help.” He got to his feet and turned away. He turned back. “I’ll be right back, so don’t worry!”

“Aang, go,” Kailas said.

He went with the wind.

The silence returned. They could see the side of the other’s face if they turned their heads slightly, but they did not take the opportunity for a long while. Even when Zuko spoke again, he stared steadfastly up at the clear sky.


“For what?”

“You were right,” he mumbled. “I shouldn’t have touched the stone.”

“It’s all right.”

“Why do you keep saying that?”

“I’m not angry with you,” Kailas said.

“You weren’t exactly happy with me for the stuff I said before. I’d be pretty pissed off if someone got me stuck to the ceiling of some ancient ruins because they did something I told them not to.”

“I’m not angry.” She sighed. “I try not to get angry.”

“You mean you don’t let yourself.”

“And you let your anger get the better of you.” She sighed, eyes closing almost completely. “What would you prefer? That I berate you for a mistake anyone could have made out of curiosity?”

“No, I’d prefer it if you just admitted you were at least a little annoyed at being stuck here. I am.”

“I got upset with Aang once for disobeying me,” Kailas said. She blinked, eyes losing focus. “He was just starting his lessons. I had come back from Ba Sing Se and a war meeting where I learned Azula knew the Avatar was alive and active. I was worried. I didn’t know she had any means of knowing he was alive.”

She sighed, brows rising. “She knew and I couldn’t tell what she was going to do. I was worried when I came back, and Aang disobeyed me because he wanted to try a firebending trick.”


“He nearly set their house on fire. He nearly burned his family. He nearly burned Hova. I was…upset. I slammed him against a wall.”

“That sounds like more than just ‘upset,’ you know.”

She closed her eyes. “I don’t like to yell. It makes people scared. It makes them think I’m going to do something horrible to them.”

Zuko glanced at her. “Like Azula.”


He sighed when she did not look at him. “You don’t like being compared to her.”

“Would you?”

Zuko looked down, seeing the stone ground and the liquid that had oozed up over his chin. “No. I wouldn’t like being compared to her. Or my father.”



“I’ve told you why I’m the Black Dragon. Why are you the Blue Spirit?”

He frowned and let the silence resume for many more minutes before he said anything. “I don’t know.” He closed his eyes. “I’m not stupid. If I didn’t see what our country was doing to these people I would be, but I’m not.”

“I never said you were.”

“But what was I supposed to do?” Zuko asked. “It’s not like I had any allies. It’s not like I do.” He frowned. “I always wanted my father to let me come home, but after a while I didn’t know why. I didn’t know why I’d want to go back to being the prince if it meant I had to keep making all this go on.”

Kailas blinked, but found it hard to keep her eyes open. “You’re being rather talkative suddenly.”

“We’re stuck in a pit full of glue in an abandoned city. What else am I supposed to do?”

“Mock me?”

His frown deepened. “I don’t want to be like that! It’s what Azula does! I’m sick of feeling this way all the time!”

“What way?”

“Angry! Confused! I want to know what the hell I’m supposed to do! I want to know why I can’t firebend anymore!”

She sighed. “That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? I certainly miss it.”

He glanced at her again. “Do you really think you’re dead?”

“I don’t know. It still feels like I am. But…Hova said I’m not.”

“You said you couldn’t believe what you heard from her.”

“It felt different. I want to believe her. I always do. I want to come back to her, and that means there has to be a way to do that. Even if that’s finding a way through hell.”

Zuko turned his head toward her. “You two are a pair of idiots about each other.”

“I know.” She tried to blink, but could not open her eyes again. “Thank you for talking to me.”

“What? Why are you thanking me?”

“Because I don’t want to fall asleep.” She forced her eyes open. “Do you think we’ll actually find anything here?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” He sighed, long and low. “I just want Aang to get back here and help get us out of here.”

Shadows fell across them; they looked up. Aang, contrition and tension in his face, had his arms held behind his back by a broad-shouldered man in vivid red face paint. A larger man stood beside him, the designs on his face far more ornate, a tall headdress atop his head, and a staff in his hand.

He frowned at them. “I hope you can explain yourselves better than him.”


The sun had been below the horizon for an hour before the sloth-anteaters had been brought and slurped off enough of the glue that Kailas and Zuko could stand up. The painted men and women had not introduced themselves, staring in the silence broken by the creatures’ tongues. A thinner man had snatched the gold stone the moment it rolled free of the glue coming from Zuko’s hip, clutching it to his bare chest and stroking it.

“They came here to steal treasures from our city!” he said. “They want to take our Sun Stone!” He held up the stone, looking at the others behind him. “Just look at the guilt on their faces!”

Aang, having been shoved forward to wait as the sloth-anteaters cleaned them, glanced at Kailas and Zuko’s faces. Zuko continued to frown, but he hung slightly closer to Kailas. Kailas watched the sloth-anteaters with mild curiosity.

Swallowing hard, Aang turned to the man at the head of the group. “We didn’t come here to steal anything! Really!”

“Then what were your friends doing to get trapped?” the man asked, brow rising.

“We weren’t trying to take your Sun Stone,” Zuko muttered. “We don’t need any treasures.”

The thin man held the stone close to his chest with one arm, pointing with his free hand. “Liar! If you aren’t here to steal, why would you come here? That’s all anyone tries to do nowadays!”

“We were sent by Iroh of the Fire Nation,” Kailas said, “to learn firebending at its source. He didn’t say anything about treasures or that any people still lived here.”

“And who are you to say that you were sent by someone like that?” the chief asked.

Zuko pushed away the sloth-anteater that was licking at his hand. “I am Zuko, crown prince of the Fire Nation.” He pointed at Kailas and Aang in turn. “She’s Kailas Arav, captain of the Phoenix Battalion, and he’s the Avatar.”

The thin man’s eyes narrowed. “How do we know you’re not lying?”

Aang grinned, lifting his headband to show the arrow tattoo. “See? I’m really the Avatar.”

“You could have just painted that on there!”

“Enough, Ham Ghao!” the chief snapped. The thin man opened his mouth, but shut it again when he saw the scowls directed at him from the others. The chief’s frown softened but did not vanish completely as he looked back to the trio. “So you’re here to learn?”

Kailas and Zuko looked at each other a moment before turning their eyes to the ground. Zuko said, “We’re here to remember how to firebend.”

He looked at them, eyes narrow. “Do you think the masters will accept you?”

Aang blinked. “Why wouldn’t—they?”

Your ancestors are the ones who started the tradition of hunting the dragons,” the chief said to Zuko. He turned to Kailas and said, “And you have played an instrumental part in the last years of the war and bringing the world so out of balance. The masters will know all of you with a single glance. There is nothing in your souls you can hide from them.”

He frowned darkly and said, “If them don’t deem you worthy of learning, you’ll be killed without hesitation.”

Kailas met his eyes. “I’m prepared for that.”

“I’m not running from this,” Zuko said. “We want to learn real firebending. We have to.”

The chief looked from one to the other. After a time, he turned away and looked at them from over his shoulder. “Come. We will allow you to stand before the masters.”

Kailas did what she could to keep pace, but her legs ached fiercely. She limped every so often on her right leg, the scar on the bottom of her foot stinging. Aang kept close at her right side, keeping an eye on her gait. His breath stopped when her left leg wobbled, but Zuko was already there to keep her from stumbling. They both looked at him in surprise, but he did not meet their eyes.

When they felt heat on their faces and saw flickering shadows, Kailas could not remember how they had arrived or how long they had been walking in the night. It was a relief to sit down again; no one spoke against her doing so.

“What do you know of firebending?” the chief asked.

“What?” Zuko asked.

The chief gestured with one arm. “Look.”

Kailas looked up and stared. A towering flame, broader than five men standing shoulder to shoulder, burned in a hearth shaped like an upended droplet of water. It crackled, the low roar almost completely contained by the hearth. The light made her eyes ache, but she did not want to look away. The snapping and crackling made the trembling in her body calm, but the desire to sleep was abating swiftly.

“This is the Eternal Flame,” the chief said. “The first fire given to man by the dragons.”

Zuko’s eyes grew wide. He slowly moved toward the hearth, but stopped some distance back. “I can’t believe it.” He reached out one hand, bending back his fingers to feel the heat on his palm. It swelled and softened in rhythm, waves rising in the flame from the bottom of the hearth.

“If you want to see the masters,” the chief said, “you have to bring a piece of the flame to them. The fire will give them a window into you. It is a requirement to see if you are worthy of learning.” He went to the fire, bringing one hand up. A tongue of flame leapt out of the hearth and into his hand, swirling about his shoulders as he turned before pooling between his palms.

As he parted his hands, the fire splitting into twin spheres, he looked at Zuko and Kailas. “Come forth.”

Zuko went to him and held out his hands. The chief’s left hand moved, the flame coming to rest between Zuko’s palms. For a moment, neither man moved. The chief pulled his hand away so suddenly that Zuko almost reached after him. His eyes fell to the flame and to his fingertips.

More than half a year had passed since he had last created flame. The humming the fire made in his skin was something he thought he had forgotten. Standing there, though, with the fire in his hands was like calling up an old, comfortable memory. His frown faded, a tiny smile taking its place.

The chief looked at Kailas as she rose to her feet. He held out his hand and the flame that hovered in his palm, and she reached out in turn with both hands.

Heat, strong and clear and brilliant, flowed into her hands and up her arms. The aches and exhaustion in her body no longer seemed to exist. The relief was small, the weariness still constantly present throughout and in the back of her mind, but it was relief. She stared into the flame, unaware of the chief drawing back his hand. She could feel warmth in her hands. Even as her head started to ache, she continued to stare at the red-orange fire. She could feel warmth.

“The masters dwell in that mountain,” the chief said. He pointed through the dark into the hills, to a mountain visible in the moonlight. It stood broken down the center, twin spikes rising from a single vast stone structure. “You must carry your flames there yourselves and present them. If you let the fire grow too wild or let it die out before you reach the mountain, you will not be allowed to come before the masters.”

As the men and women began to leave, he turned slightly away, looking at Kailas. “Based on your condition, you might take all night to get there. We’re going ahead.”

He said nothing else. Only Ham Ghao looked back, and only for a moment. Standing in the light of the flames, the trio watched them go. Zuko looked at Kailas, whose eyes had not risen from the fire in her hands. Aang, when he turned to do the same, had tension in his face. He drummed at his chin with his fingers, brows knitted and grimacing.

“Should we go back?” he asked.

Zuko frowned at him. “Why would we do something stupid like that?”

“You guys can firebend again,” he said. “If we do something wrong, they’re going to kill us. And did you see how far away that mountain is? It was bad enough for Kailas to walk here—she might not be able to go all that way.”

“Please don’t speak for me.” She looked up, eyes on the mountain. Light reflected and shone in her eyes, and they were clearer than they had been the entire day. As they watched, she started down the path the Sun Warriors had taken. She no longer limped.

Aang ran in front of her, holding out his arms. “But this is really dangerous! They said the masters could kill you! I can’t let you get hurt again!”

She stopped and stared at him. “This isn’t your decision to make.”

“But why make the decision to go?” Zuko asked. He waited until Kailas looked at him, lifting the fire slightly. “I’m going to go on, but Aang’s right. We can firebend again. You don’t have to do something like this.”

“You’re going on,” Kailas said. “Why would you bother?”

“Because I trust my uncle,” Zuko said, “and because I haven’t had my heart stop in the last two months.”

Kailas shook her head, looking into the fire again. “This is my way back. I can feel it. I have to do this.”

“No, you don’t!” Aang said. “You didn’t have to jump in front of me, and you don’t have to do something crazy just because some guys in face-paint said they know some firebending masters!”

She went still. She looked at him with a small smile. “That was my decision, Aang. I don’t regret it.”

“You didn’t have to do it! Me being the Avatar doesn’t make it okay for people to get hurt protecting me!”

“Aang, I did it to protect my pupil and someone who needed my help. A friend who needed help. I’m doing this because I want to. I can feel something. I have to go.”

As she spoke, Zuko drew near to her. He moved the fire to one hand and gave her shoulder a pat with the other. “Good. Let’s get going.”

Despite the insistence and agreements, it was as the chief had said: night was leaving the world by the time they arrived at the mountains. It was a matter of moving along the miles, Kailas slow on legs unused to movement. Despite it, she never wavered or asked to rest. The heat of the fire was enough to sustain her.

The clear, uncolored light of dawn spilled over the mountain’s jagged peaks, illuminating the design in the stones underfoot. A carving of the sun covered the earth, light and dark shades showing where gold and red would be in flames. Just beyond the sun’s center was a stairway, steep and tall and leading to an equally enormous walkway that stretched from one edge of the carved-back mountain to the other. The Sun Warriors were spread around the sun, and the chief strode forward when they came into the mountain courtyard.

“We were starting to think you’d run away,” he said. He swept his hands through the flames they carried, taking away embers that grew quickly to fire. Another snap of his wrists sent the fire into the waiting hands of two nearby men, and they in turn wheeled their arms until the fire had formed a large circle before them. The fire was passed to every other person, men and women alike, over the heads of those who knelt behind drums.

The chief lifted an arm, pointing to the top of the stairway. “You’ll present your fire to the masters there.” He brought his arm down, gesturing to the flames and drums. “We’ll summon them.” He turned away from them, lifting both arms high. “Sound the call!”

As they began to chant, pounding fists against the drums, Kailas and Zuko began to walk. Aang tried to go after them, but the chief caught him by the back of his collar and held him where he was. He was left to watch them reach the stairs and climb them slowly. He could see Zuko taking stairs in groups, pausing every so often and letting Kailas follow after him.

Silence was what reigned up the stairway. Zuko did not ask how she was handling the climb; Kailas said nothing of it. He gave no encouragement; she asked for no pauses in their climbing. Coming to the peak of the stairway found them blinded by sunlight a moment, but they made their way to the center of the walkway. For a time, they stood back-to-back, shoulders just shy of touching. They looked at each other. Zuko shrugged.

The chanting broke off, and a voice called up with the echoing tinge from a horn, “Those who wish to meet with the masters Ran and Shao will now present their fire!”

Caves, enormous and pitch black in the shadows the mountain provided, stood at either end of the walkway. Glancing at each other once more, Kailas and Zuko turned to the caves, bowed at the waist, and held up the fire in their hands. Below them, the Sun Warriors had dropped to their knees, bowing toward the caves and the walkway. Aang stood there, eyes going back and forth between those who bowed and those who stood bowing.

Minutes passed. Nothing happened. Kailas could feel her hands shaking from how little she’d slept. She fought against the urge to close her eyes. The fire flickered in her palms. Noise like a distant, deep roar rattled from the cave, and a rumble shook the walkway.

Kailas fell to her knees when her right foot jerked away from the rumble and her left thigh seized up. She coughed hard at the shock of her legs slamming on the stone. One hand came to the stone to hold her body up and the other reached immediately to her right side. It was only then that she realized the fire had died.

“What are you doing?” Zuko hissed between clenched teeth. “Get up!”

She grit her teeth and struggled back to her feet. Her hands could still feel the warmth, but she could not summon flame back into the world. She stared at her hands, unable to stop their shaking, before hiding her face in them and screaming in rage.

“What the hell are you doing?” Zuko said. He rushed to pull her hands from her face. “Knock it off!”

Kailas sighed, looking up at the sky. “Fuck.”

He jumped. “I didn’t think you cursed.”

She looked at him, misery in her face. “Why did you let your fire go out?”

“Because I was worried you were going to claw your eyes out! Just shut up and try ag—”

Another rumble shook the walkway, more powerful than the first. Zuko kept Kailas from falling again by grabbing her shoulders, but both looked away from the other to the caves. Gold light shone for an instant, and the faces that erupted from the caves overtook the light.

With roars that shook the mountains, twin dragons flowed from the caves. A blue-scaled dragon came from the cave Kailas faced, and its red mirror image emerged from where Zuko stared. Their wings unfurled and beat the air into a frenzy. Dust instantly stormed around the stairway, the wind blowing from every direction. The dragons spiraled and swooped around the walkway, long whiskers trailing in the sky and sleek scales glinting in the dawn.

In his hands, Zuko could feel a new tremor start in Kailas. He looked at her face, seeing the drawn white expression there. Her eyes were wide to the point of pain, her body shaking as she followed the dragons with her gaze.

“What’s wrong with you?” he whispered.

Kailas did not answer in words. She shook her head slowly, trying to follow both dragons and failing and wincing because of it.

“You’re scared?”

She managed a nod.

Zuko frowned at her before looping his arms through hers. Holding her elbows with his, he braced her back against his and stood them both straight. His voice dropped with forced gruffness.

“I’m right here,” he said. He squeezed her arms with his. “Quit being scared. We’ll figure something out.”

All the while he spoke, she watched the dragons as they flew. Swooping and turning and twisting smooth as silk in a breeze they wound about the stairs and the walkway, scales flashing whenever they caught the light. Kailas could not remember to breathe for a long while, simply staring and switching her gaze from one dragon to another and back again. Soon, though, she found peace of mind enough to swallow.

“Zuko,” she said, voice trembling. “We should do the Dancing Dragon.”

“What the hell makes you think they want us to dance?”

“They—they’re moving in rhythm,” Kailas said. “In tandem. They’re—mirroring each other.”

“So what?” he asked.

“We have to do something.”

He growled out a sigh, looking at her over his shoulder. “Can you get through it without passing out?”

“If we don’t do something, I’m going to pass out from watching them.”

There was no way of knowing if she was making a joke. Still, Zuko bit his tongue to stop his snort of laughter. He took his arms from hers and moved a pace forward. The first stance was taken by both of them, and the dragons flew straight up before them. As they moved, the dragons resumed their mirroring. The strikes and steps were matched by undulations and coiling, wing beats marking time for footsteps.

Alongside Zuko flew the red dragon, and Kailas’s partner was the blue. With each turn of the body, they could see their dragon’s eyes. Brilliant gold intense with the sun rising behind their bodies, the dragons looked back in those brief moments. No fire came from hands or feet, nor did it come from between man-sized fangs.

The form was done in perfect rhythm, perfect time. The dragons looped round the walkway and each other, coming so close their wings could have caught were they any higher or lower. Kailas and Zuko moved in an arc across the walkway’s center, the ten steps of the form leading them back to each other and their knuckles to come together.

Kailas backed up until she ran into Zuko, but he had backed up against her in the same moment. The dragons were staring at them, hanging in the air above the walkway with slow, steady flaps of their wings keeping them aloft. Their fangs were bared, long whiskers trembling with their breathing. As Kailas turned to face the blue dragon, Zuko did the same with the red dragon, their eyes equally wide. Their backs together, they looked into the dragons’ eyes.

In an instant briefer than a heartbeat, the dragons sank down in the air, claws crashing into the stairway to hold them up without flight. Their jaws opened, heads rearing back. The fire came so swift and so loud that Kailas and Zuko wouldn’t have heard their own shouts even if they’d made them. It wrapped around them, burning higher than the peaks of the mountain and filled with every color there was for humans to see. Within the fire, it was silent but for the faint whisper of warm wind around them.

“I told you not to give in, didn’t I?”

Bao rapped gently on her forehead with his knuckles, smiling. Kailas stared.

“Well?” he said. “Didn’t I?”

She continued to stare at him. He chuckled, shaking his head, and lifted her hands.

“I did and you know it, my girl,” he said. “But you’ve done so well to come to understand. You haven’t given up completely.” He smirked. “And before you say anything about it, you’re not dead or in hell.”


“You’re not,” he said. “You just got a little lost—like your firebending.” He brought her hands together, palms flat and touching, and held them between his own. “Here. Remember how your mother and I taught you how to make fire the very first time?”

She looked at her hands. Heat was coiling in her fingers, spreading down into her palms and wrists.

“You can still feel the heat,” he said quietly. “You know you can. It just took a little while for your spirit to really catch up with your body.”

The heat spiraled up her arms into her shoulders and down through her chest, reaching as deep and far as the tips of her toes.

“The dragons are letting me see you again,” Bao said. “They know you’re worthy.” He brought one hand to her forehead, touching her skin lightly with his fingertips. “You already know fire is life, Kailas. They’re just telling you to live now.”

For a moment, she saw neither the flames nor her father. All she could see was the house in Taonan, Hova and Fai sitting on the veranda. She could see herself jogging to the veranda, wrapping her arms around Hova when she drew near. The bracelet was on Hova’s wrist and the scars were on her own palms. Hova was laughing with a broad smile on her face and tears in her eyes. Kailas looked down at her hands. She saw the bracelet and the scarring. Her eyes widened.

Bao put his hands on her shoulders. “Listen to me this time, my girl. You can’t give in and stop trying because it hurts. It’s hurt all this long while, but you’ve gotten through everything because you can see what’s ahead. You know what to do. You always have.” He tapped her chin with his hand, smiling when she looked up. “You can make it. Don’t be afraid to let yourself feel now.”

“I still miss you,” she whispered.

“I know. I miss you, too.” He chuckled. “I told you before.” He rubbed her hair hard, and she stumbled and fell back to the ground. His hand remained on her head. “Now wake up!”

The fire faded. The dragons unhooked their claws from the stairway and swept up into the air. They looped around each other and returned to their respective caves with little more than the rushing sound of air around them. Not a single stone was disturbed.

Zuko stared after the red dragon. He barely breathed.

“What did you see?” Kailas asked, voice low.

He swallowed, eyes still wide. “So…so many colors.” He put a hand to his chest, feeling his rapid pulse. “I—I saw myself being crowned Fire Lord. You were there—almost everyone was. The war was over.” He blinked, looking at the ground. “My mother…my mother was there.” He blinked again, more rapidly. “What did you see?”

Silence answered him. He turned about. Kailas was sitting on the ground, knees drawn up to her chest, looking at the bracelet on her wrist while she turned it with her right hand. He could see that her eyes were narrow and welling over with tears.

“What did you see?” he asked.

Her forehead dropped onto her knees. “I’ve been such an idiot.”

He knelt down and put a hand on her shoulder. He smiled very slightly when she looked up at him, face streaked with tears. “Then let’s go back. We’ve got people waiting for us.”


Kailas slept properly the entire journey back to the estate, never moving during the night. Zuko slept almost as much, and Aang caught them leaning against each other in the saddle, completely at ease and asleep, more than once during the next two days.

On the last day of their return, Aang let Appa steer himself, sitting with his torso draped over the front of the saddle. He watched them, half dozing and smiling as he did. Zuko still sat with his arms crossed, but his face was neither hard nor twisted in a frown as he watched the clouds pass below them. Kailas was curled up on her left side, back to one side of the saddle. She slept easily, hair barely ruffled by the wind.

It was past midday when Appa grunted and let out a faint roar. Aang snapped to attention, gathering up the reins and looking about. Zuko stretched and yawned, rubbing the unscarred side of his face before looking over Appa’s side. The thick clouds in the sky let Appa fly lower than before, but it was only through faint breaks in the cloud cover that they could see that the estate was drawing close.

“We’re back already?” Zuko asked.

“Yep,” Aang said. He scratched Appa’s head with both hands. “Nice flying, buddy. Thanks.”

“Should we wake her up now?”

Aang looked back to find that Kailas had not stirred. “Nah.” He paused, grinning suddenly. “Hey, I have an idea! Let’s be really quiet and get Hova so she can wake Kailas up!”

Zuko shook his head, but he smirked as he did. “Fine. Just keep the bison quiet.”

Aang nodded, rubbing Appa’s head until he stopped grunting. A snap of the reins made Appa dive down and drop quickly. The large courtyard was silent, dim in the gray light that seeped through the clouds. Appa settled and Aang stood up with every intention of hurrying to the doorway into the house.

“Aang, run!” Hova shouted.

In the saddle, Kailas snapped awake. Something struck the side of Aang’s neck, wet and sharp. A brief sting was all he felt before his muscles vanished beneath him and he fell limp onto Appa’s head. Appa rose to his feet with a bellow, but he could not move faster than the creature that had climbed over the courtyard’s high walls. It was almost as large as Appa, dark shaggy fur growing all over its body in a striped pattern and over where eyes should have been.

A saddle was on its back, and a woman with one arm wrapped around Hova’s neck held the reins and a whip. The creature’s nose, broad and with protrusions, sniffed and snorted, and when its mouth opened, its tongue lashed out repeatedly. Appa roared as he was struck by the tongue, but he could no longer move after six whip-fast blows.

“Zuko, go,” Kailas hissed. “Draw whatever it is away from Aang.”

Zuko leapt from the saddle when Appa fell limp, blocking Kailas from sight as she slipped out of the saddle on the other side. Zuko rolled aside when the tongue snapped at him as well; another roll left him crouched with his swords drawn.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

The woman smiled. “Well, she’s Nyla.”

“I asked who you are!” Zuko shouted.

“That doesn’t really matter for you, boy,” she said. “You and your little friends aren’t the ones I care about.”

Zuko looked from the corner of his eyes toward where she nodded her head. The others were stacked neatly in a row against the wall, limp as Aang.

“That thing can paralyze you with its tongue!” Sokka shouted.

“I kind of figured that already!” Zuko said.

“She’s after Kailas!” Hova said. “Get her out of here!” She choked when the woman tightened her hold and squeezed her throat.

“Quiet,” the woman said, voice lilting. She turned back to Zuko, driving the creature fully into the courtyard with hard taps of her heels. “Shirshu venom can last a long time, scar boy. Either you show me the body of the captain or I’ll go over yours to find her.”

Zuko stood straight. He balanced the swords on one arm before sliding them back into the scabbard.

The woman smiled. “Good choice. Now where’s the captain?”

“I never said I was going to tell you,” Zuko said. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“You’re not very bright, are you?” the woman asked. She pulled Hova back by her throat to lift her up. “She already told you I’m here for Captain Arav.”

“That doesn’t tell me who you are.”

The woman rolled her eyes. “My name’s Jun. Happy now?”

“I’m never happy,” Zuko said. He slid one foot back, lifting both arms to create his stance. “Get out of here.”

“You really think you’re in a position to make demands?” Jun tightened her hold on Hova’s throat even further, ignoring how she tugged at her arm. “Surrender, or I snap her neck.”

“Let her go!”

In the time it took Zuko to spin about and look at Appa, Nyla sent out her tongue. He fell to the ground, but he could not see where Kailas was.

Hova’s eyes widened. She pulled Jun’s arm hard enough to let her throat open. “Kailas, run away! You have to get out of here!”

“I would strongly advise that you release her!” Kailas called from behind Appa.

Jun chuckled. “Nyla, find her.”

Hova struggled, pulling Jun’s arm further away. “Kailas, run!” She choked again as Jun pulled her arm free and pressed on the back of her head.

“Kailas, she’s really going to break her neck!” Zuko shouted.

She grit her teeth and pulled off her coat. “I’m behind the bison, if you want me that badly!”

Jun grinned and cracked the whip. Nyla crept forward, snarling wetly. She sniffed furiously before dashing to one side. Kailas’s eyes widened at Nyla’s size, but they filled with fury when she saw Jun’s arm around Hova’s neck. She skipped backward, watching as Nyla lashed out with her tongue. She threw her coat forward before the barbs could touch her, setting the coat ablaze.

Nyla screamed as the burning coat wrapped around the end of her tongue. Kailas scrambled up Appa’s tail as Nyla bucked, leaping from bison to shirshu. She smashed her head against Jun’s nose, forcing her arm up and away to grab Hova. She leapt away holding Hova, but her legs buckled when they hit the ground.

“Run!” she said, pushing Hova away. “I can handle this!” She shut her mouth neatly when Hova grabbed her arms and pulled her back onto her feet. She spun when she heard Nyla snarling, swinging both arms to bathe the shirshu’s nose in fire. When Nyla bucked too fiercely, Jun jumped out of the saddle with whip in hand.

“Who sent you to find me?” Kailas snapped, raising her arms in a guard.

Jun coughed, cracking the whip to make Nyla slink away. She glared at Kailas, blood running down from her nose. “A girl with a braid and a sack of gold asked me to find you and make sure you were really dead.”

Kailas pushed at Hova’s shoulder as she edged backward, but Hova only stepped back to match her. “Ty Lee sent you to do this? How did you track me?”

She smirked and reached into a bag on her hip. She held up a scrap of red cloth. “She brought this along. It was a little slow going at first, but once we found that huge scent pool in Obihiro a month ago, it was easy enough to follow your trail all the way here.”

Kailas went stiff. “Obihiro?”

“Yeah,” Jun chuckled. “That farmer couple tried to cover for you.”

“What did you do to my parents?” Hova shouted.

She shrugged.

Kailas caught Hova before she could run at Jun, forcing her to move back. Jun followed them, toying with the whip.

“What did you do to them?” Kailas asked.

“Nothing,” Jun chuckled. “They wouldn’t even say a word to me when I asked them who had been in their barn. It was charming, so I left them alone.” She smiled as she looked at Hova. “I mainly wanted to see if I could make her run right into my fist.”

Kailas barely managed to keep Hova from lunging forward. She pushed her back again. “I’m the one you’re after. Leave her out of this.”

“Aren’t you noble,” Jun said.

“A noble of the house of Arav, yes.”

Jun stared. She scowled. She flicked the whip slowly. “Fine. Get out of here, girl.”

Hova did not move until Kailas gripped her hand. She backed away slowly, never turning her back on Jun. When she was halfway across the courtyard, Jun whistled a cheery tune. Nyla snarled, rising back onto her feet. She came around Appa, tongue hanging out of her mouth to keep from aggravating the burn. She sniffed and advanced on Hova.

“Uh oh,” Jun said. “Looks like Nyla can’t smell the difference between you two now.”

Kailas punched at Jun’s head, using the moment she ran from the fireball to sprint for Nyla. Nyla looked toward her, but Kailas had already reached her. She caught the reins, pulling hard. She had no strength to try to control the shirshu, and soon found herself thrown clear across the courtyard to slam into a wall. Nyla moved toward her.

“Call that thing off!” Hova shouted.

“Don’t feel like it!” Jun replied.

Kailas pushed herself up on her elbows. She looked past the blinking spots in her sight and got up on one knee. As Nyla opened her mouth, Kailas aimed another fireball at a meatier part of her tongue. She screamed and stumbled away, dropping onto her stomach to slaver and keep from swallowing.

Hova ran to pull her back up, but Kailas shot to her feet and met her halfway. Before Kailas spun them about, tucking Hova’s head safely behind her chest, Hova saw her pale face and wide eyes. She heard the whip crack next, and finally felt Kailas seize up. Kailas, twitching, slowly sank down on her knees. Hova saw the tear in her shirt and the bloody line across her back, fought down the vomit that rose in her throat, and moved to stand in front of Kailas with her arms spread as a guard.

“Sure you want to stand right there, girl?” Jun asked. “I’m liable to get your eyes with this if you don’t move.”

“Fuck you,” Hova replied. “I’m not moving.”

“If you say so.”

Jun barely heard the screeching before fangs sank deep into her arm. She dropped the whip with a shout, staring at Fai hanging on by his fangs. His fur was all up, doubling his size. His eyes were wide, glinting red when the sunlight caught the sheen behind their pupils. He snarled and screamed around her skin, front paws gouging lines in her arm around where his teeth were buried and back legs kicking at her stomach. When she tried to shake or pull him loose, he dug in deeper with everything, whipping his head from side to side to make her scream.

“Get the fuck off me!” she shrieked. Fai did not obey. He ignored her when she struck his nose, ignored the blood that seeped from his nostrils. For only an instant he loosened his bite, and only to clamp down harder in a place that had no deep punctures. She screamed through her teeth and reached for his throat.

A hard squeeze, point of her thumb in the center of his throat, made his jaws open in a gag, and she threw him hard. He crashed against Appa, sliding down as though boneless. Without a pause, he regained his feet and charged back. He skid to a halt in front of Kailas and Hova, barking wildly.

Jun swore in gasps, holding her elbow and looking at the gashes and gouges in her skin. Blood poured along her arm and her teeth were bared when she looked at Hova and Fai. Still panting, still cursing, she snatched the whip from the ground with her unwounded hand, flipping it back behind her. She swung with all her might, jerking her hand back at the last moment to form the crack. Nothing came near to Kailas, Hova, or Fai. The whip felt very light in her hand.

Cold metal pressed up against her chin as a blade’s edge came up against her throat. She turned her eyes to find a dark skinned man standing beside her, holding a gleaming sword to her neck. He looked back at her.

“I think that’s enough now,” he said lightly.

Nyla began to stand back up, but a stone collar and chain rushed from the ground to close around her neck. She was pulled back to the ground as another man cackled loudly.

“Attagirl!” he said. “Stay down and we’ll give you a treat later!”

Hova helped Kailas back to her feet as the man approached, both of them staring at his wrinkled face and his half-lidded, dark green eye. Hova moved to stand between them, but the man leaned over her head to peer at Kailas.

“So you’re the one Iroh wrote to us about,” he said. “I thought I recognized you.”

“What?” Kailas asked.

The dark skinned man turned on his heels, keeping the sword against Jun’s neck but looking at Iroh. “I’m glad we got your letter when we did, Grand Lotus. I don’t want to think about what would have happened if we didn’t get here when we did.”

“So am I,” Iroh said, sighing. “We’ve been stuck like this for hours.” He grimaced, unable to stretch. “I’ve got such an ache in my back.”

The old man laughed again, still leaning uncomfortably close to Kailas. “Bet you’re wondering what’s going on.”

She stared at him, stepping back when Hova pushed her. “Yes.”

“These men are two of grandmasters of the Order of the White Lotus,” Iroh said. “Master Piandao, and Bumi, king of Omashu.”

Bumi grinned, reaching to poke Kailas’s forehead. “I’m still going to take back my city, you know.”

Bumi?” Aang shouted from Appa’s head. “You’re here?”

Bumi turned, smiling brightly. He went to Appa, stomping a foot down to raise himself on a pillar of earth. He picked Aang up beneath his arms, holding him off his feet. His smile grew soft as Aang’s mouth fell open. Very gently, he hugged Aang close.

“Hi, Aang,” he said quietly.

“Hey Bumi,” Aang said, voice hitching.

“Do you have a cure for the venom?” Piandao said to Jun. When an answer did not come promptly, he rocked the sword to cut a shallow line in her skin.

“It wears off,” Jun said. “If you’re going to kill me, get it over with already.”

Kailas watched her face and the lack of expression in it. “I have a proposition for you.”

“I was hired to kill you if you were still alive,” Jun said. “I’m pretty sure whatever you have isn’t very interesting.”

“We’ll heal you and your shirshu,” Kailas said, waving Piandao away, “and let you leave peacefully. In exchange, I want you to report to Ty Lee that all you found of me were ashes from a cremation.”

“What makes you think I care about helping you?”

“Azula wasn’t the one who hired you,” Kailas said. “Ty Lee never said that she was sent by the Fire Lord, did she?”

“No. What’s your point?”

“You know what’s been happening. Azula is incredibly paranoid. One unsavory action that’s acceptable now will become something she decides to execute you for the next day. Bounty hunters and assassins for hire will be people that she decides are too dangerous. She’s going to think that all of you are going to be hired to hunt her down and kill her.”

Jun said nothing, but her eyes turned away.

Kailas saw it. “Then sanctions have already been made against it.” She took a slow step toward Jun, but Hova followed. “The sanctions come first. Conditions about what kinds of bounties you can take—assassinations are banned altogether. Eventually, laws will be made that make everything you do illegal.

“You may have been hired by Ty Lee,” she said, “but Azula will have you killed eventually.”

“And me not killing you, getting my money, and hiding out myself is better…how?”

“I wasn’t able to hide completely, and I was declared dead,” Kailas said. “You won’t be able to disappear so easily.”

Jun sighed. “Fine. What’s your plan?”

“What I said before,” Kailas said. “Report to Ty Lee that all you found were ashes from my body being cremated. After that, I’m going to continue working with the Dragons.”

“You’re going to overthrow the little psycho?” Jun asked. She chuckled. “Well, I guess you’re not all bad. Nuts, but not bad.”

“Then we agree?” Kailas asked.

“Sure. Why not?”

“Good. Once the venom wears off on the others, Katara will heal you and your shirshu.” She took a final step, stopping near Jun. She tilted her head.

Before she could make another move, Hova stepped in from the side and threw a punch that landed solidly on Jun’s chin. Her head snapped up, eyes rolling back, and she dropped to the ground. Kailas stared at Hova, eyes wide. Hova looked back with a raised brow.

“She whipped you,” she said.

Kailas let out a weak laugh. “I’ll be all right.” She stopped with a sudden thought. Careful not to fumble, she took the bracelet from her wrist and put it on Hova’s. She smiled.

“I’m back,” she said quietly.

Hova smiled at her. She put her arms around Kailas’s waist and her head on her chest. “Welcome back.”

Chapter Text

Within another week, two more grandmasters of the White Lotus had arrived at Iroh’s estate: Jeong Jeong of the Fire Nation and Pakku of the Southern Water Tribe. Pakku’s arrival left Katara smiling and speechless until he beckoned her close enough to embrace her. He grunted when Sokka rushed in to hug them both, but smiled nonetheless.

Once Kailas’s wounds were fully healed and Jun had been sent on her way, Iroh explained that he had summoned the other masters both for their counsel in matters of rebellion and to request their aid in teaching Aang. He was passed from one master to another, training with Toph and Bumi one day, Pakku and Katara the next, and Jeong Jeong and Iroh after that.

Sokka continued to learn swordplay under Piandao, Suki sparring with him otherwise. Zuko began his drilling under Iroh’s instruction again, though he was not too proud to work with Aang and Jeong Jeong.

Kailas was not so much fully trained as rehabilitated under Pakku’s guidance. The stories Katara had told of Pakku’s intense training gained new facets, Kailas pushed to the point of exhaustion each day she spent going through waterbending forms.

Hova smiled as she watched Kailas work, remembering how she had seen traces of the forms in Kailas’s daily exercise in Taonan. It was a pleasure to watch the elegance of fire and water being bent in tandem. Despite his grumbling about his new pupil, Pakku did not hide his approval of her progress.

The first week was what Kailas took to fully regain her balance and fluidity, her legs finding their strength. The second and third weeks found her spending time with Toph, going through earthbending forms at a slow speed. It helped to rebuild muscles that had waned, the self-made strain of creating and controlling masses of fire pushing her as hard as Pakku’s training.

The fourth and fifth weeks were devoted to learning the forms Iroh and Jeong Jeong offered up to recoup speed and precision. Her breaks from these lessons were taken up by sparring matches with Sokka, both of them managing to down the other until the fifth week sealed Kailas’s ability to down him time and time again. All the while, she remembered to eat properly, rarely needing to be reminded to stop training.

It was Hova who noticed that she desperately needed to have her hair cut at the end of the fifth week. She kept forgetting, given that Kailas had been tying it back since she had woken up. There was impatience in her hands when she tied her hair back every day, but she did not seem entirely aware of it. Hova noticed, but she hesitated in speaking because Kailas never mentioned it.

Sunset was understood to be when Kailas stopped training, even five weeks later. Though she was no longer too exhausted to stand at the end of the day, it had become ingrained after so long. She could always be found sitting meditating in one of the smaller courtyards in the estate, and that was where she was when Hova sought her out, towel and scissors in hand.

“Hey,” Hova said quietly.

Kailas opened her eyes and looked up. Her hands were open with their palms facing upward on her knees, but she turned them over as Hova came near. She could not meet Hova’s eyes for long before she looked down.

“Hi,” she said just as quietly.

Hova bit the inside of her cheek as tension filled the space between them. She caught Kailas’s glance up at her and the way her shoulders rose minutely. The sigh she felt building in her chest was pushed back down so she could smile.

“You need a haircut, you know,” she said

Kailas looked up again. “I do?”

Hova knelt down next to her, flicking her ponytail gently. “You really do.”

She turned, looking over her shoulder. “Oh.” She looked at Hova and smiled nervously. “I guess I do.”

The anxiety in her smile made Hova stare. She shook her head inwardly before handing Kailas the scissors. She moved behind her, draping the towel around her shoulders and undoing the tie. She smoothed out the strands, letting her fingers dwell on the back of Kailas’s neck. Her hair seemed like ink, utterly black and glinting in the moonlight. It was soft and fine under her hands; she combed her fingers through it gently.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen your hair this long,” she murmured. She could feel its ends in the back reach far past the start of Kailas’s shoulders and how it gathered well below the curve of her jaw in the front.

“I don’t think I’ve let it get this long since I was a child,” Kailas said. She laughed weakly. “It always got in the way of firebending practice, so I’ve kept it short for years.”

“It looks best short,” Hova said, and she leaned in to kiss her head. “Hang on.”

Kailas stiffened at the touch of her lips, but nodded without a word. Hova bit back another sigh and took the scissors when Kailas offered them. She ran her fingers lightly over her hair, remembering how she had cut it the last time. Her fingers dwelled on Kailas’s neck, slowly following the curve of muscle down to her shoulder. The definition there was returning quickly with how her training pushed her. She lingered until she felt Kailas stiffen again, biting her lip as she wiped the scissors on her trouser leg.

With Kailas’s hair still damp from a bath taken after dinner, it barely required real thought or effort to cut her hair. It mostly fell onto the towel, but even her practiced hands could not keep some short pieces from clinging to Kailas’s skin. Every so often, she combed her fingers through Kailas’s hair, catching more bits of hair and wiping them off on the towel.

It was done by the time Kailas’s hair had finished drying. Hova ran her hand lightly down the back of Kailas’s head, checking that it stopped at her neck. She moved in front of Kailas, leaning slightly to see that it was could be tucked back behind her ears and was away from her eyes. She touched Kailas’s chin, waiting until Kailas looked at her.

“Does it feel okay?” she asked. “This should be how it was this summer.”

Kailas lifted one hand, rubbing the back of her neck to feel where her hair stopped. She glanced at Hova, but looked down as she brought her hand back to her lap.

“It’s good,” she said. “Thank you.”

A strange tinge of meekness had entered her voice. Hova stared at her again before taking the towel from around her shoulders. She shook it away from them before setting her hand on Kailas’s knee.

“Go and take a bath, okay?” she said. “We should get to bed.”

Kailas nodded, her eyes still averted as they stood up and went in different directions. Hova went to the guest room where Kailas had first been placed, putting the towel in the pile of things that needed washing. She waited for a moment before heading to their room. Fai was nowhere in sight; the stack of their folded clothes was slightly out of place.

With nothing else to do, Hova picked up one of the books Iroh had loaned to them and sat down on the bed to read by moonlight. She read through a few pages before she had to set the book down. It reminded her too much of Taonan, as it had since they arrived. She leaned back against the wall with a sigh, looking at the far wall and the line of moonlight from the window high above. The light changed as the wind pulled clouds along the sky. The room grew colder as the night dragged on.

As she thought about pulling the blanket back enough to cover her legs, the door opened slowly. When she looked up, Kailas froze halfway through the door. She wore clean clothing; a towel was on her head. Hova saw her left leg flex, toes pressed to the floor as though she would push backward and retreat. Despite it, she stepped inside and closed the door behind her. She started toward the small table and two chairs in one corner, rubbing her hair with the towel.

Hova got out of bed to follow her, feet silent on the floor. Kailas jumped when she asked, “Is your back doing all right?”

“What?” she asked, turning slightly.

“Is your back all right? Where you were whipped?”

Her shoulders rose, growing stiff. “I’m—no, that’s healed completely. You don’t have to worry.”

“Then why are you acting like this?”


She frowned. “You’ve been really nervous around me for nearly a month, but you’re not saying why. Why aren’t you telling me what’s wrong?”

Her lips parted, but she let out no sound. She closed her mouth and hid her face by turning away and rubbing her hair. Without looking at Hova, she said, “Nothing’s wrong. I’m fine.”

“Then why aren’t you talking to me?” Hova demanded, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. She saw tension ratcheting up in Kailas’s back, her words falling gentler when she said, “Kailas, please talk to me. I don’t know what’s wrong when you don’t tell me.”

Kailas went completely still; her hands clutched the towel with white-knuckled fingers. On instinct with Kailas’s arms raised, Hova reached out and set her hand gently on Kailas’s right side. Kailas choked and jerked away from her hand.

For a few seconds, she only stared at the floor. When she realized what she had done and spun about, Hova was already walking back to the bed. She sat on its far end, back to Kailas and legs pulled up to her chest.



Kailas flinched. She slowly went to the bed, sitting down close enough that she could reach out. She lifted a hand to do so, but stopped and put it back down. “Hova, please.”

No,” Hova said, shoulders rising.

“I’m sorry,” Kailas said. “I didn’t—I didn’t mean to react like that.”

“You’re acting like I’m going to hit you,” Hova said, voice breaking. “Why do you ever think I would hit you?”

“I,” Kailas said. Her voice failed as she slumped, putting her elbows on her knees. “I don’t know.” She sighed. “I’m sorry.”

“Are you angry at me?”

She looked at Hova with horror in her eyes. “What? No! No, Hova, I’ve never been mad at you! I just—I—I don’t know.” She sighed again, putting her hands on the back of her neck and leaning further forward. “I don’t know.”

Hova turned slightly. She watched Kailas’s hands, how her fingers twisted around each other on the back of her neck. She turned around completely and stretched out one foot to touch Kailas’s hip.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” she said. “Please.”

She did not lift her head or lower her arms, only looking at Hova from the corner of her eye. She looked down. Very quietly, she said, “I tried to make you hate me. That’s what I was trying to do the night we argued.”

Her eyes ached. “Why?”

“I thought that’s what it would take for the dream to end. It’s how most of my other dreams ended.” She laughed once through her nose. “I was trying so hard to make you hate me and hit me like you’ve hit other people. But you saw through it. You always see through it when I try to lie to you.”

She lowered her arms, looking at Hova with her brows together and tilted up. “I tried to hurt you, Hova. And it sounded like I really succeeded that night. So…I’m waiting for you to be angry.”

“Congratulations,” Hova sighed. “I’ve been angry for two weeks now.”

Kailas smiled weakly. “I know. I’m sorry.” She swallowed. “I really screwed up.”

“Why didn’t you talk to me?” She drew her leg back, but moved closer. “That’s what I’ve been wanting. I didn’t get to hear your voice for a month, and then you weren’t really here for another.” For a moment, she lifted one hand. She put it in her lap and said, “What’s scaring you so much now that you’re not talking to me about me being angry?”

She went still, breath stopping. She swallowed once. Biting her lip, she looked down and slowly offered her left hand with its palm up and her fingers open. Hova looked at it. The scarring from the lightning was born from a point dead center in her palm, glaringly bright red surrounded by a white halo. The twisting white lines traveled from there to cover her fingers and palm with dark brown flesh, stopping at her fingertips and the point where her veins became visible on the underside of her wrist.

Hova looked at Kailas’s face. She looked at her hand. Mouth twisting, eyes burning, she recited, “How could I ever want a wraith with hands like this holding me again.”

Kailas closed her eyes, tears running down her face. “That.” She opened her eyes, still staring at the floor, and smiled a broken smile. “How could you, after all of this? How could I possibly expect you to want me to hold you with these hands?”

She coughed a laugh. “And then—how could I be so horrible to question you? How could I face you when I acted as though you had lied to me? How could I speak to you when I acted as though I could get you to hit me when you’ve sworn you never will?”

She closed her eyes tightly, somehow still smiling. “I’ve never treated you so cruelly. And I’ve been terrified of facing the consequences of it.” She shook her head. “I am so, so sorry, Hova.” Her breath hitched. “I will do whatever it is you ask of me. Even—even if it’s to leave.”

Hova moved to lean against her side. Kailas froze.

“Kailas,” Hova said quietly, “do you still love me?”

Her eyes widened. Without thinking, she reached down to grab hold of the hand Hova had set between them. “I never stopped loving you! That’s—that’s never changed and it never will!” Heart pounding, she dropped down on one knee before Hova, taking her other hand without hesitation.

“I love you with all my heart!” Kailas said. “Nothing could change that, not even my own stupidity!” She held tight to Hova’s hands, bowing her head. “Please believe me. No matter what happens, I love you more than anything. I was so confused about if I was dreaming—I thought making you angry was the only way out of it. I never want to hurt you. I’m so sorry I did.”

She squeezed Kailas’s hands. “Hey.” She waited until Kailas had looked up at her before smiling. Tears running down her face, she said, “Look what your hands are doing.”

She looked down. Her eyes widened at the sight of their hands together, Hova holding just as tight to her hands as she did to Hova’s. She looked back up, face growing hot. Hova smiled all the more, laughing quietly as more tears welled over in her eyes.

“You always sound like you’re praying when you say you love me,” she said. She brought their hands up, holding Kailas’s hands to her chest over her heart. “I was so scared I lost you when your heart stopped. Then I was scared I lost you because I was too angry to actually ask what was wrong until now.”

She shook her head, blinking until she could see Kailas’s face clearly. “I screwed up, too. I shouldn’t have waited to make you talk first after what happened.” She laced their fingers together on one hand. “I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.”

“Do,” Kailas whispered, “do you—still love me, too?”

Hova laughed again. “I never stopped loving you, either. Not even when you made me angry. I want you to stay with me, no matter what. I want to stay with you.”

Her smile was small, but it was finally without anxiety. “Thank you.” She gently took her hands from Hova’s grasp to set them on her face. She wiped away the tears on Hova’s cheeks, chuckling. “I’m sorry I made your eyes so red.”

Hova sniffed and dried Kailas’s face. Still smiling, she said, “You should see yours.” She put her hands under Kailas’s chin, running her thumb over her lips. By reflex, Kailas kissed her thumb. They both went still. Kailas swallowed and slowly ran her thumb over Hova’s lips.

“How—how well can you feel my skin now?” Hova whispered.

Her mouth went dry. She replied, “I can still tell how soft your lips are.” She smiled. “As soft as the first time we kissed.”

“You haven’t kissed me for over a month, you know.”

She stared, brows rising. She put her hand on Hova’s cheek, rubbing her thumb back and forth until she felt heat rise under her hand. “May I?”

“Please,” Hova whispered. She held her breath as Kailas rose off of her knee and set it on the bed beside her hip for balance. Her eyes closed when Kailas took her face in hand. She whimpered when Kailas finally kissed her, reaching out to hold her shirt. She tugged her down, waiting until she felt Kailas’s faint moan against her lips before she drew back.

“Lie down,” she said, putting her hands on Kailas’s hips. She waited patiently for Kailas to do so, moving to sit on her hips when she was on her back. Bracing herself on one hand, she leaned down to run her fingers through Kailas’s hair. She grew still when Kailas slowly ran her hands up her thighs to hold her hips.

“Is this what you want now?” Kailas asked, voice quiet.

She nodded, cheeks flushing. “I kind of forgot how hot your hands get.”

Smiling, she asked, “Where do you want me to put them?”

Hova stared. She dropped down to hide her giggling in Kailas’s chest. Without lifting her head, she asked, “Did you really just ask me that?”

“I thought you might like it.”

She giggled even harder. “We haven’t been touching each other for all this time—and you’re still this good at pillow talk. I can’t believe how much of a brat you are.” Her giggles stopped abruptly when Kailas slid her hands up the back of her shirt and dragged her fingers down the length of her spine.

“Your brat,” Kailas murmured. “Always yours.”

“Kiss me again,” Hova said faintly. She had time enough to breathe before Kailas rolled them over and kissed her. Hands fisted in her shirt, she kept Kailas where she was until they were both out of breath. She bit her lip when Kailas reached up the front of her shirt, long fingers splayed across her stomach and brushing the underside of her breasts. The gentle bite Kailas gave her neck made her whimper again.

Hova reached for the ties on Kailas’s shirt, hesitating briefly. Kailas kissed her neck, breathing against her skin while she undid the ties. Her fingers flexed in the sheets above Hova’s shoulders when Hova lay her hands on her sides.

“Does this hurt at all?” Hova asked, patting her right side gently.

Kailas could not manage so much as a small chuckle. “No, it’s like the scar on my chest now. I just feel a little pressure from your hand being there.” The muscles in her back tightened as Hova’s hands moved from her sides to cup her breasts. She kept her mouth closed, lips pressed to Hova’s neck, to muffle a small whine brought about by warm fingers toying with her nipples until they hardened.

“I’d tell you not to be so quiet,” Hova giggled, “but we’re not alone in our house.”

“Soon,” Kailas whispered.

“‘Soon’ what?” She went still as Kailas lifted her head, setting one hand on her cheek.

“I’ll figure out a way to get us home safely as soon as I can,” she said. “I promise.” She smiled. “I want to hear you, too.”

Giggling again, she sat up slightly to kiss her. Kailas followed her back down, kissing her breathless as she undid the ties to her shirt. The kiss became how Hova muffled her moan, arching up into Kailas’s hands as they came to her breasts. Kailas hid her moans in turn, biting her lip when she had to break away to breathe. Hova lifted one leg to press and rock between hers; she pressed her face against Hova’s shoulder to muffle the way her voice broke.

Gentle and slow, she moved one hand beneath Hova to dig her fingers into her back and drag them down to her waist. Hova’s hands rushed to clutch her shirt, head turning to try and quiet her moan against Kailas’s neck. It missed by a few inches, reaching Kailas’s ear perfectly. Kailas shivered from head to foot, groaning in Hova’s ear as repayment.

“I feel like we’ve barely started,” Kailas whispered. She swallowed, running her hand up and down Hova’s back. “But you’re already starting to sweat.”

Hova smiled and put a hand on Kailas’s neck, pushing aside her shirt to reach her shoulder. “So are you. We haven’t touched each other for months. Are you that surprised?”

“No, but—” Her throat closed up as Hova tilted her leg slightly and rocked harder. She put a hand over her mouth, breathing loudly against her fingers through her nose. Her cheeks were bright red where her hand did not cover. Hova slowed down, putting a hand on Kailas’s wrist but not pulling.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

She nodded, eventually lowering her hand. “I didn’t—expect it to feel like this.”

“In a bad way?”

She smiled, still blushing a brilliant red, and said, “No, not bad. I think ‘more intense than usual’ is correct.” She took Hova’s hand and said, “Please keep going.”

Hova nodded, rocking harder once more. Her face burned when Kailas brought her hand up to her mouth, holding it there to keep herself quiet. She listened to Kailas’s shaking breath as much as feeling it against her hand. Her free hand she put on Kailas’s side beneath her shirt, keeping her steady when she rocked back against her leg.

She could feel when Kailas bit her lip behind her hand, breath coming even hotter against her skin. Kailas’s shoulders rose, head falling as her eyes closed. She could not hold down a moan but pressed Hova’s hand down harder to muffle it. Hova pushed her leg up more firmly to hear it again, to see the way Kailas’s shoulders were wracked with trembling.

A smile came to her. She lifted her hand enough to run her thumb over Kailas’s lips. She murmured, “Look at me?” All patience, she waited and felt Kailas’s panting breath against her hand. When Kailas finally looked at her, anxious and blushing brightly, Hova let her smile widen.

“I love you,” she said, clear and without whispering. “It’s okay.” She set her hand over Kailas’s mouth again. “Let me see you.”

Her eyes widened; she let out a tiny, broken moan. Her body moved without letting her think, rocking on Hova’s leg as her eyes shut tight. Every muscle in her back grew taut when she inhaled; her arms and legs flexed on her exhales.

For both of them, it only seemed like a few seconds had passed before Kailas inhaled sharply, legs shaking. Her head fell so far that Hova’s hand slipped away from her mouth. Blushing to her ears, Hova scrambled to put both hands over Kailas’s mouth. She barely managed to muffle the desperate moan that wrenched itself out of Kailas’s mouth as she came.

It took longer for Kailas to come back down, gasping for air until Hova took her hands away. She continued to pant as she sank down on her arm. Her body shook fiercely. Hova chuckled before she pushed Kailas over to lay close to the wall. She rolled onto her side, putting a hand on Kailas’s cheek.

“Doing all right?” she asked.

Kailas swallowed and nodded. She opened her eyes when Hova brushed her damp hair aside. Swallowing once more, she moved close to kiss Hova hard. She sucked at her lower lip before tilting her head up and putting her mouth on Hova’s neck and biting gently.

“May I?” she asked. “Please?”

Yes,” Hova said, burying her hands in Kailas’s hair. She leaned close because her voice grew faint and shy as she said, “And…and you can go faster tonight.” She drew a quick breath when Kailas rolled them over once more, tugging the blanket out from beneath them as they went. They were settled with pillows beneath their heads, the blanket pulled over them both and bundled between Hova and the wall.

“Tell me if it’s too much,” Kailas murmured, and she tilted Hova’s head back to reach her neck again. She kissed hard, nipped lightly, and hummed soft tunes against her skin. Hova closed her eyes as her face grew hot. Her fingers tangled in Kailas’s hair to hold her close.

The fingers that ran down her sides and up her back were searing. She did her best to keep her whimpering quiet, biting her lip, but she could not muffle her loud, shaking exhale when Kailas brought her hands to her breasts. Kailas lifted her head to kiss her, shushing her with a rush of air between her teeth.

The sensation of Kailas’s thumbs stroking back and forth and up and down over her nipples made Hova duck her head down to hide a moan in Kailas’s shoulder. Her hands dropped to clutch Kailas’s shirt. Back shivering even under the blanket, she nuzzled against Kailas’s shoulder and let soft moans break on her skin. She did not jump when Kailas brought one hand around to her back and pulled her closer. She did not jump when her hand moved to the back of her knee, lifting gently so Kailas could slide one leg between hers.

Kailas,” she moaned. There was no time to think about rocking on Kailas’s leg before Kailas started moving against her. She gasped when Kailas took her hips in hand and pulled her into a faster rhythm. It left her shaking, head bowed to hide her voice and hands closed in Kailas’s shirt to find something resembling balance.

It caught her completely unaware. Her back froze first, shoulders rising as her hands pulled. Legs closing hard around Kailas’s thigh, she pressed her face to Kailas’s shoulder as hard as she could to stay quiet as she came. Each moan was softer than the last, let out in time with her muscles relaxing. When Kailas drew her leg back, Hova let out another small whimper.

“I have another reason to get us back home as soon as possible,” Kailas murmured, kissing her ear gently.

“What?” Hova asked in a mumble.

“Because I seem to have forgotten how you taste,” she said, “but I do remember that you make the most amazing sounds when I make you come with my tongue.” She chuckled. “And I have no desire to let anyone else hear that.”

Hova opened her eyes to stare at Kailas’s shoulder. She leaned back to look at her. Kailas’s smile dropped quickly, cheeks turning red.

“Um,” she said quietly.

Hova started to giggle. She kissed her sweetly. When she leaned back, she whispered, “I knew my brat was really still in there.” She kissed her nose. “My brat who is still very good at pillow talk.”

Kailas smiled back. “Your brat who loves you more than anything.”

“Who knows that we’re both sorry, right?”

She nodded. “And who knows better than to stay quiet when I’ve done something wrong and I’m scared.”

She kissed her lips. “And I know better than to stay quiet when I’m upset.”

Kailas nodded again. She ran her fingers through Hova’s hair. “We’re all right, aren’t we?”

Hova smiled. “We’re better than all right. We’re here with each other again.” She kissed her once more. “I love you. So, so much.”

“I love you, too,” Kailas whispered, putting her forehead to Hova’s. She nuzzled their noses together. “Thank you for waiting for me.”

She laughed quietly. “Thank you for coming back.” She pulled Kailas closer then, keeping an arm around her waist while she settled with her head against Kailas’s chest. Kailas draped an arm over her side in turn, chin resting lightly on her head as she relaxed. Breathing easily for the first time in weeks, they drifted off to sleep. They held each other close through the night.

Chapter Text

Despite the early arrival of winter’s coldness three months after Kailas had woken up, their room in Iroh’s estate was no longer freezing at night. Hova never woke needing to be held closer, the heavy blankets and Kailas’s pervasive warmth more than enough to keep her asleep.

It did not mean she never woke at all. Most nights when she opened her eyes in the deep dark hours, she found Kailas sitting on the floor beside the bed, a lantern alight next to her and a piece of wood in her hands. Carving tools were in her lap; wood shavings were around her legs. Hova rolled over one night to find Kailas awake and steadily working.

“Hey,” she whispered.

Kailas went still before turning to look over her shoulder. “Did I wake you?”

She shook her head against the pillow, reaching up to rub her eyes. “I’m fine.” Keeping the blanket up over her neck, she shifted to look over Kailas’s shoulder. The wood had taken a clear shape over the last two weeks: it was a mask clearly crafted as a dragon’s face.

“Why do you keep working on that in the middle of the night?” Hova asked.

“I keep having dreams about it,” Kailas said. She looked at the mask, making a few etched marks to further define fangs. “I think it’s something I’m remembering from when I was unconscious.” She paused to consider the mask, blowing gently to move wood shavings. “It’s starting to be the only thing I can remember from all those dreams, thank goodness.”

“This is about what Sokka suggested, isn’t it.” She reached out from beneath the blanket to put her fingers in Kailas’s hair. “About a disguise.”

“It is. It’s a brilliant idea. I just don’t know how to put it to good use yet.”

“Why not?”

“The Black Dragon has never made any sort of public appearance or done anything other than issue orders,” Kailas said. “I can’t appear as the Black Dragon for no reason or for something relatively small like a raid on a garrison. No one would believe I was really the Black Dragon.”

“So you’d be either creating or diverting some kind of catastrophe.”

“Possibly both.”

Hova hid her giggles in the blanket. “But nothing’s presenting itself, is it.”

“Not yet.” She sighed, brushing away a long, curled shaving. “But I haven’t gotten replies from Long Fa and Tai-Yang quite yet. Once I hear from them, I should be able to get a better picture of what I can use.”

“Then you can work on that in the morning,” Hova murmured. “Come back to bed and get some more sleep.”

Kailas turned again, smiling. “All right.” She swept the shavings onto a piece of paper before setting it, the tools, and the mask onto a tray. She took the tray and the lantern to the small table, extinguishing the flame before returning to bed. Hova curled up against her, back to her chest. Beneath the covers, Fai squirmed to lay on her feet. They all fell back to sleep within minutes, Kailas pulling Hova closer just before she drifted off.


Her grave was not in Tsukuba. It was further northeast in her hometown of Kimitsu and the foothills of the mountains there. He had met her there first when he studied under another doctor for seven years in his youth. She was endlessly charming, always cheerful. He was not at all surprised with himself when he asked her to return with him to Tsukuba, but he was overjoyed when she accepted.

All told, she had not lived in Tsukuba a long time. Five years were what they had there, long enough to have their son and raise him to be happy. More than once, she told him and their son there was nowhere else she wanted to live for the rest of her life.

It had been her family that called her back to Kimitsu: her elderly mother needed attention while her brother and his wife were away. It was such an unremarkable task that none of them believed she would need any escort other than the two soldiers he sent with her. She refused to let him join her; his clinic was too busy.

A week after she’d gone, one of the soldiers came back with a pale face and panic in her voice. She did what she could to explain, stumbling through words that described how two days before his wife had stumbled suddenly and then fallen to the floor. When she said that his wife could no longer stand or even recognize her own mother, he gathered his medicines and their son and rushed to her side.

He knew it would not have been enough. From the moment he saw her and the slackened muscles along one side of her body, he knew she would not come back to them. He let their son cry until he could no longer speak, holding her hand because she gripped it with everything she had left in her. At the very end, she smiled for the both of them one last time, and she wished them well.

Long Fa smiled as he knelt before his wife’s grave. Even with the strong breeze around him, he felt little pain in his knee. He lay panda lilies before the tablet with her name. With gentleness all through him, he stroked his fingers over the characters that read “Daiyu.”

“Hello, love,” he said quietly. “I can’t believe it’s already been a year since I last came.” He settled back from his knees to sit cross-legged on the cobblestones that made the paths before the graves in the cemetery. “There’s been so much that’s happened.” He chuckled, crossing his arms to tuck his hands inside his sleeves.

“Just in the last four months, even,” he said. “You remember the young lass I’ve told you about before? Kailas, from the Arav house in the Fire Nation. You met her parents once before Kailas was born.” His smile weakened.

“She was murdered,” he murmured. “I couldn’t believe it for the longest time. I don’t think I’ve met another soldier from the Fire Nation with as much loyalty as her. Or who overworked themselves like her.” He chuckled, tilting his head. “It was such a pleasant surprise when I met her again after so many years and saw that she was with someone.”

He stroked at his mustache, smoothing the long hairs that led into his beard. “I think she had gotten engaged just before it happened. I don’t know if Jaya ever knew.” He sighed. “She would have made sure Hova had a lovely dress. Maybe one as beautiful as yours, love.”

A strong breeze rustled the petals on the flowers. He looked up to see clouds coming along from the distance. Chuckling, he shook his head.

“I do miss the Arav family,” he said. He laughed with a sudden thought. “You know, I never beat the Arav house in a game of Pai Sho! Jaya taught Bao the white lotus gambit and they were unstoppable together. I would’ve liked to see her teach Kailas the gambit, but she wound up devising her own strategies. I’m sure Jaya would have taught Hova the gambit, though. That would’ve been a remarkable combination with Kailas’s methods.”

He reached to touch the cool black marble and moved his hand to the black jade sphere below the name carving. “I miss them very much. I even miss their ridiculous raccoon-dog.” He shook his head, chuckling. “I’ve never met anyone who tamed a raccoon-dog as much as they did. But then…they’re both very convincing people.”

He drew his hand back slowly. “I’m sorry, love. I’m blathering away about someone else when I’m sure you want to hear about our son.” He chuckled. “He’s doing very well lately. Lifen is finally pregnant, bless her for being patient with herself for two years. Seven months, based on what she told me on my last visit.”

Long Fa looked down, smile fading. “He finished their home this summer. He was…well, ‘very happy’ is something of an understatement. Part of me is convinced that he wanted to leave our house as soon as possible, but I can’t tell if it’s because the house reminds him of you or because he’s tired of living with someone of Fire Nation descent.”

For a long while, he sat silent in the whistling wind around him. When he spoke again, he looked at the gravestone with his brows together. He asked, “Do you think I’ve been a bad father to him?”

Silence was the only answer that came back to him.

He sighed, rubbing his knee slowly. “I’ve tried my best, love, but he’s never wanted to be known as the son of a Fire Nation noble. I did what I could to avoid going to the Fire Nation—I think the only time I went after your passing was when the Arav house summoned me for Kailas. I’ve never even told anyone that he’s my son.

“I was so happy,” he whispered, “when he agreed to be my assistant. It seemed better than losing him completely, but I don’t know what to do to make it up to him. If there’s a chance to do that anymore. We never seem to talk. I was so relieved when he agreed to accompany me to Kailas’s funeral ceremony in Taonan—I thought he’d refuse outright.”

He reached out to rest his fingers on the jade stone. “I know. I should talk to him myself, not wait. There’s so little use in waiting. Things are only now just starting to get better, and I don’t want something to keep me from talking to him.”

He groaned as he stood up, finding his knee had grown stiff. He took up his cane, leaning heavily on it to bow to the gravestone. “He should visit soon.” He chuckled, smiling. “Winter always makes us think of you.” He put his hand atop the gravestone after he straightened. “I wish you’d have let me come with you, Daiyu.”

Another sigh left him. “I love you. I’ll see you again.”

“Colonel Long Fa?”

He turned. Five soldiers stood on the pathway before him, helmeted and masked. The man at the front of the group stepped forward, arms behind his back.

“I don’t need an escort back to Tsukuba, lads, but thank you nonetheless.” He meant to turn away, but stopped short. “Who sent you here?”

The man brought his arms before him, unwinding the scroll he had hidden behind his back. “In accordance with Fire Lord Azula’s laws, you are hereby arrested and to be taken to the Northern Prison in Abashiri.”

His heart sank. “May I ask why?”

The man rolled the scroll and put it behind his back. “No, you may not. I have to insist that you come quietly and immediately.”

Long Fa swallowed, turning back to look at the gravestone. When he spoke, it was in a whisper. “I waited too long.” He did not turn, but raised his voice to ask, “May I at least send a letter to my son?”

His hands were grabbed, arms wrenched behind his back. His cane clattered on the cobblestones as shackles were closed on his wrist. Without a hint of care being shown for his limp, he was forced along the path with the soldiers’ armor clanking on every step.

“No,” the man said, “you may not.”


Mitsuko was the only person in Taonan that seemed able to go anywhere near where Kailas and Hova’s house had once stood. The ash and timbers had been cleared away, but there had been no kicking dirt back over the blackened soil. No one had the heart to do it. Only the autumn rain had washed away the char, and even then no one could stand to visit.

Tai-Yang had been there when the first few families had attempted it and saw them walk away soon after arriving. There were dark rumblings in their quiet murmurs. He could hear it all around the city. He saw shoulders tensed and eyes narrowed whenever reports arrived from the Eastern Capitol. Not a soul in Taonan was happy.

With new laws enacted week by week, demanding that any possible traitors be reported immediately lest death be doled out to co-conspirators, the city’s mood grew blacker. Having the Fire Lord’s word that their governor’s murderers had been handed justice was not enough. There was something constantly gnawing at the citizens as the winter approached. It made Tai-Yang glad to forget his own worries and watch Mitsuko.

She had been at home when he brought the crates of books and scrolls in. As he came up the pathway with the last crate in hand, she was sitting on the veranda with Naoki, both of them going through one of the crates to look at the many books. While Naoki found a thick novel, Mitsuko took a book of poetry that had been slipped between two stacks of books. He let both of them have the books after they promised to return them to the crate without damage.

However short his deliberating over his terms had been, it was worth it. Naoki took cheer from the book, and Mitsuko hugged him tightly in thanks. Over the course of four months, he heard that she was wandering to the burnt land after school and sitting by herself to read the poems over and over.

For those months, Tai-Yang did not ask why she went there over and over. He did not ask Rikuto, soon to finish his apprenticeship at the forge, why he was so intent on building a house of his own. He did not ask Naoki, training with the city’s earthbenders, why he was out of the house most hours of every day.

It was enough that they were speaking again and smiling more often than not. It took some of the weight out of his belly and made it easier to eat and think and breathe. Tai-Yang only paid more attention when stories were passed on to him about where his children were. Even if he hadn’t been paying as much attention as he was, he would not have ignored being told that a woman in Fire Nation robes had gone to where the house had been while Mitsuko was there.

He tried not to run up the last few yards in the path. The leaves were nearly all down, but he could barely see past the trunks as he jogged. He could hear a voice reciting poetry out loud, familiar in cadence but not in tone. The jogging had taken little out of his lungs, but he could barely swallow as he rounded a last bend and came into the clearing. He stopped breathing altogether, pressing his tongue to the roof of his mouth, when he saw Mitsuko sitting next to a woman wearing the robes of a noble.

“Goodness,” the woman said, and her voice made Tai-Yang’s chest feel punctured. “I haven’t read these poems in years. Where did you get this book, my dear?”

“Papa brought a lot of books home one day,” Mitsuko said. Quietly, she added, “He said they belonged to Captain Kailas and Hova.”

The woman chuckled. “Then I have to thank the both of you. This book was mine, years ago. My husband gave it to me when I was pregnant with Kailas, and I gave it to Hova when she first came to the Fire Nation.”

Mitsuko’s eyes widened, mouth opening. “Really?”

The woman laughed and nodded. Tai-Yang stared. The resemblance was uncanny, from the black of her long hair and the width of her shoulders. Every small gesture seemed taken from Kailas’s habits, the faint curl of fingers and slow, small waves of her hands making him believe he saw a ghost. Her voice only strengthened that disorienting moment with its softness and slight depth. The laugh made his stomach lurch before he walked forward slowly.

Mitsuko noticed him first and hurried to her feet. She brushed at the dust that had gathered on her rear as she went to him, hugging him tight when she could. “Papa! Guess who this is?”

Tai-Yang continued to stare as the woman rose smoothly, hands stroking at the silk to clean it of dust. She bowed at the waist, hands in Fire Nation formality. “I’m glad to finally meet you, Lieutenant Tai-Yang. My daughter mentioned you quite often.”

He blinked and shook his head. “Oh. Oh. You’re Kailas’s mother.” He and bowed more deeply than she had, positioning his hands properly for an Earth Kingdom citizen. “My apologies, milady. I was being very rude.”

She walked forward, putting her fingers on his forehead and pushing him to straighten. The stare he gave her made her laugh. “You don’t have to call me by any titles. My name is Jaya.”

After a moment, his hands dropped and his arms swung at his sides. “Oh.” Another moment passed before he put a hand to his forehead and sighed. “I’m still sorry, ma’am—Jaya. I shouldn’t be this thoughtless.”

Jaya’s head tilted slightly to one side, one brow rising. “How so?”

“I’m acting like I have been for the last few months—and you’re here,” he said. “It was your daughter who was killed. I just lost a commander.”

Her expression was fixed. “Are you apologizing for grieving for Kailas?”

“No!” he said. “Not at all, ma’am! But you’re here and this is where—they lived and I just—I should apologize!”

Jaya looked at him a moment longer before looking over her shoulder at the bare earth. “I should have visited them before this. I’m certain they were proud of their home. And I wish I could have seen Fai one more time.” She turned her eyes back to him. “Why exactly are you apologizing?”

Again, Tai-Yang stared. He reached down to pat Mitsuko’s back. “Go on home, pretty girl. Lady Jaya and I have to talk privately.” Mitsuko pouted a long moment before walking away on the path. When she had gone out of sight, Tai-Yang looked back to Jaya. “Ma’am—”


“Jaya,” he said, sighing. “I’m sorry. Kailas told me to call her by her name all the time, too. So did Hova.”

“You miss them very much.”

His eyes drifted to the ground before he answered, “Yes. I wanted to see them get married.”

Her eyes widened, brows dropping. “What?”

The blood rushed from his face as he looked up. “They—Kailas had proposed during the summer. Did they not send you a letter about it?”

“Kailas only said she had a surprise for when they visited this winter,” Jaya murmured. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and sat down. After smoothing her dress, she patted the ground beside her. “Sit, Lieutenant. You look tired.”

Slowly, he did as he was told. Just as slowly, his head fell forward to hang low. “I really am sorry. Jaya. I shouldn’t be so selfish. I should be comforting you, not the other way around.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Jaya said, “but I think I may be doing better than you.”

He looked at her. “Aren’t you sad?”

“Of course. I miss my daughters terribly. But I’m finding I can’t grieve.” The sea gave up a strong wind; she looked to the overcast sky. “Winter seems to be coming in faster than usual this year.”

“Ma’am—Jaya?” Tai-Yang asked. “What do you mean you can’t grieve?”

“I’m too angry,” Jaya said, shrugging one shoulder very slightly. The hard edge of her voice, though, belied the nonchalance of the gesture. “I wish I could have been the one to find whoever killed them. Even if I have no idea what I would have done.”

“Fire Lord Azula said she killed their attackers herself.”

Jaya went still. She looked at Tai-Yang after a moment. “Lieutenant? May I ask you something? And will you tell me the truth?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Were there any traces of Kailas and Hova’s bodies in their house?”

He stared, feeling his heart starting to pound. “I…why do you ask?”

“Please tell me the truth, Tai-Yang. The letter I received said that there wasn’t enough left of their bodies to even bury them. I need to know.”

“I…don’t know. The fire was too hot for any of us to get near it. They would have burned up.”

“A house fire doesn’t burn hot enough to cremate bodies completely. It would take a cremation done by a firebender to reduce all the bones to ash. There are always traces otherwise.” Her eyes narrowed. “Were there any traces of their bodies?”

He looked away, picking up a pebble and rolling it between thumb and forefinger before crushing it into dust. “No. There weren’t. I looked myself.”

Jaya closed her eyes. “Just as I thought.”




She shook her head and stood up, brushing her hands along her dress. “Nothing, Lieutenant. I found out what I wanted. I need go to New Ozai before the weather turns too much for travel.”

He scrambled to his feet, reaching before he knew he was and wrapping his hand around her wrist. “Wait, wait. What did you think? What does it matter if there were traces of their bodies?”

When she looked at him, her eyes were narrow again. “I know you’re not a stupid man, Lieutenant. The military report said that there were no traces of their bodies whatsoever and you say the same thing. I know that a body can’t disappear like that under normal circumstances. Where did the bodies of my daughters go?”

He let her wrist slip from his fingers. As she turned, his breathing was shallow, heartbeat frantic in his chest. When she started to walk away he took a step forward and swallowed hard. His words came in a quiet rush. “I don’t think they died.”

She stopped.

“Or if they did, it wasn’t here.” He strode closer, keeping his voice low. “Kailas had taken an interest in…a group that came into the city at the start of the summer. When I went to where they had been living the day after the fire, there were signs of a fight. Signs she was involved in it. But there were no signs that either of them were here when the fire happened.”

He swallowed again. “I don’t know if they’re dead or not, but sometimes I really feel like they’re not. It doesn’t seem real that she’d get killed.”

“Kailas is too good of a firebender to die in a house fire.”

“Right,” Tai-Yang murmured. “But…I don’t know. I don’t know where they would have gone. I just wish I had something other than marks on the ground to tell me what happened.”

Jaya looked over her shoulder before turning slowly about. “Marks on the ground?”

“Yes.” He looked from side to side before returning his gaze to her eyes. “There was a blast mark on the ground that didn’t look like it was made from normal fire. I’ve seen something like it before and I heard thunder that night, so I thought maybe—”

“You heard thunder?”

“Yes,” he said again. “It looked like it was made from a lightning strike, and there was blood nearby—like someone had been blasted back by lightning and was bleeding.” He swallowed again, finding a lump had taken residence in his throat.

“And there were also signs of someone earthbending in that fight,” he said. “From what I could tell, it looked like someone might have been thrown into the sea near the marks.” His voice cracked when he said, “And Fire Lord Azula’s clothes were wet when I found her here after the fire started.”

Jaya’s eyes did not grow wide, but they were no longer narrow. She faced him straight on, taking a step to close more of the distance between them.

“You heard thunder the night Kailas and Hova disappeared,” she whispered. “You found that there had been a fight with burns like lightning left over on the ground and someone else had been using earthbending. You saw that the Fire Lord’s clothes were wet. Is all of that true?”


She reeled, eyes widening. A moment passed before she smiled. “I’m sorry, Tai-Yang. I shouldn’t have been so short with you.” She chuckled quietly. “Now I know exactly why Kailas chose you to be her second in command. You’re a brilliant man.”


“You know why,” Jaya said. “You can let yourself think about it now.” She bowed low at the waist. “Thank you.”

He tried to bow lower. “Ma’am, no—you don’t have to thank me!”

“Yes, I do. You told me the truth. That’s more than enough to be thankful for.” She straightened; her smile had faded to a line. “I have to ask you one more thing.”

He stammered and managed to say, “Anything.”

“If you knew where they are right now, would you tell me?”

There was nothing in her voice or face but quiet and strain. He did not look down at her hands, imagining them to be white-knuckle tight because her spine had stiffened in an instant. The color faded from her lips, pressed hard against themselves.

“Yes,” he said firmly. “I would tell you immediately. Before anyone else.”

She stared. When she blinked, her shoulders trembled as if she had been struck. Many more times she blinked, and finally she put a hand to her forehead. “Thank you. Again.” She paused, laughing without taking a breath. “I can’t tell you why, but that makes it all feel…lighter.”

She wrapped her free arm around her waist, other hand still pressed to her forehead. “I’m glad I came here before I went to New Ozai, even if it means I’m caught in storms later for it.”

“Why are you going there?”

“I want to speak with Lady Mai. I hear she just took up the governor’s seat from her father.”

“Is…that the only reason you’re going there?”

She turned, but smiled at him again over her shoulder. “More or less.” As she strode off, she spoke in a clear enough voice that he could hear her. “Thank you again for speaking with me, Lieutenant. Tell that adorable daughter of yours that she can keep the book for a while longer.”

He nodded though she could not see, bowing low at the waist with his arms at his sides. She had been gone a long while before he straightened. Sighing, head hanging low, he started off on his own. He wandered the long way, trailing along the edges of the city between it and the forest of the mountain’s foothills.

It was a long while before he came anywhere near his home, shuffling his feet and stopping to look toward the ocean every so often. Every so often, he heard the cry of messenger hawks and the squawks of pigeon-gulls, but his eyes remained on the dirt. He kicked at stones, sending them to burrow deep into the hills beside him.

The sky was dark gray when he opened the front door and walked into the entryway of his house. He sank down on the edge of the entryway, reaching to undo the laces of his boots.

“Hey Dad!”

Tai-Yang looked up, finding Naoki crouched next to him with a scroll in one hand.

“This just came for you by messenger hawk.”

Even before Naoki handed the scroll over, he could see its military seal. He held back a groan as Naoki hopped down into the entryway and shoved his feet into his boots. The door was closed as he worked his finger through the wax.

A thick sheet of paper fell away from the scroll with the seal broken. Another seal lay beneath it, one with the design of a dragon coiled in a circle. His eyes widened to the point of pain. His hands shook so much so suddenly that he dropped the scroll. He stubbed his fingers scrambling to pick the scroll back up, tearing the paper to remove the seal. A single sentence was written in the center of the scroll.

I asked you to continue to follow the plans we made, didn’t I?

The character for the personal I was the most formal of all, and he stared at the final stroke. For most people, it was a straight slash, barely curving despite its angling outward. The stroke here was one he had seen many times before, distinctive for how it curved back inward to gently underscore the full character. It was how Kailas wrote her I when speaking as the Black Dragon.

His knees collapsed, legs sliding straight out because he was fortunate enough to be sitting down. For a time, he simply sat and stared and breathed. Soon, his breathing began to shake in his chest. His lips pulled up, making his cheeks ache. He spun about, leaping up from the entryway and running full out to his office.

Grinning, laughing loudly, he dropped to his knees before his desk and grabbed for things. A scroll was tossed open on the desk, the ink mixed and a seal found. It was not the same circular dragon seal as the Black Dragon’s, but a dragon arcing in a small wave, known as coming from one level below the Black Dragon. Tai-Yang held his wrist a moment to still his shaking hand. He found himself unable to stop laughing, but dampened it enough that writing was possible.

Relay to all allies: resume all operations as planned by the Black Dragon. Further instructions to follow.

When he had finished, he had to push the scroll away. He was laughing hard again, sitting forward to lean on the desk with his elbows. He covered his eyes with his hands, laughing and coughing and feeling the tears that wetted his palms. His smile did not waver, and his laughing continued. The tears dried quickly as he grabbed another scroll for his reply.


“So—why aren’t you sleeping?”

Kailas looked over her shoulder. Sokka stood in the doorway to the courtyard, bread and dried meat in his arms. A strip of the meat hung out of his mouth, and he continued to mumble around it to speak more.

“Firebenders do that rising with the sun thing, right?” he said. “Sun’s not up yet.”

“And this begs the question as to why you’re awake when you hate dawn.”

Sokka sighed and moved more into the courtyard, leaning back against the nearest support beam for the roof and sliding down to sit. “Hova kick you out of bed, too?”

She stared at him, concern furrowing her brow. “What would make Suki tell you to get out of bed?”

“No, I mean she kicked me out,” he said, lifting one leg for emphasis. “I think the baby made her do it.” He shifted where he sat, wincing. “Kid’s making me lose sleep and it’s not even born yet. But did Hova tell you to get out?”

“No,” Kailas said. “She’s still asleep.”

“Then why are you up? I thought your mask was all done.”

“I needed to think.”

He paused, mouth open to tear another chunk of meat from the strip. “Oh. Um…do you want me to leave?”

“No, you can stay if you like.”

“Okay.” He ripped a massive piece off and started to chew, cheeks bulging. He watched, expecting to see her resume interrupted training. She was completely still after she looked away from him, palms together at her chest. Her feet were together, body relaxed. He could see her eyes were closed, but it was harder to see the rise and fall of her shoulders as she breathed. It took some time before he had chewed the meat enough to swallow it without trouble, and he sighed when his mouth was emptied.

“You know,” Sokka said casually, “how you breathe is really freaky.”


She remained still, and he returned to his quiet chewing. Soon enough, she began to move. Her feet came apart so slowly that he barely noticed at first, but he slowed his chewing to the same pace as he watched. As her feet parted, so did her hands. Her knees began to bend, her arms moving in slow, smooth arcs. The left came down, first two fingers outstretched to scoop through the air, and the right went down and to the side.

His chewing stopped from confusion. Still slowly, still smoothly, her arms moved in specific arcs. Electric sparks snapped at the end of her fingers. When she brought her hands together, the sparks burst briefly and died, her arms shuddering. Kailas opened her eyes and stepped out of the stance with a wheezing gasp. She put her hands to her forehead and sat down with a sigh.

“Can you make lightning?” Sokka asked, starting to rise to his feet.


He dropped back to his rear and shut his mouth for a moment. “Sorry. I just thought maybe you could, since you made sparks and that’s what Azula—”

“Please don’t talk about that.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.” He looked up from the particular cobblestone that had been the center of his gaze. Kailas was sitting forward, elbows on her knees and eyes on the ground. Her breathing was easier to see, shoulders rising and falling shakily. After a moment, he stood up, taking the food with him as he went to sit next to her. He held out a strip of meat.

“You might feel better if you have some breakfast,” he said

She looked at him. She looked at the meat before taking it. She said, “Thank you,” and took a small bite.

“You’re welcome,” he said with a smile. He took a much larger bite of a roll, barely able to push it into his cheeks to talk around it. “Wan’ talk ‘bout it?”

“Not particularly, but I know better than to fight you when you ask questions.”

He watched her, tapping at his chin with the roll before taking another, somewhat smaller bite. “Are you trying to make lightning?”



“Azula can.”

“So? She’s a horrible human being and she makes firebending look bad. And you know that means something coming from me.”

She chuckled. “I do. I still need to know.”

He took another bite. “Why?”

For a long while, Kailas was quiet. She was still, the strip of meat held between her fingers. “I know I’m going to face her again at some point. I have to defeat her, and I’m not a good enough firebender right now to do it when she’s able to create lightning and I can’t.”

Sokka rolled his eyes. “Right. You’re not a good enough firebender. I guess all those crazy stories we heard when we were going around the Earth Kingdom about the Phoenix Battalion’s captain were just crazy. And here I thought you told us that you were the one who destroyed a whole temple on your own.”

She looked at him. “Why are you bringing that up?”

He held up his hands, shrugging. “You’re the one who admitted you did it. Aang took us up there—it’s a big place. You’re telling me now that you didn’t have some sort of big badass skills to destroy it on your own?”

“Sozin’s Comet was there, Sokka,” she said.

“So? Azula wasn’t the one who did it.”

“You do understand that you’re the first person to try and make what I did seem like a positive thing, don’t you?”

He jabbed a finger at her. “Look, it’s been four months, nearly five. I’ve been watching you do all this rehab and training, and I seriously don’t know where you get the idea that you’re not a good firebender. I’ve seen a whole bunch of firebenders. I’ve knocked their heads and I know what most of them can do. Other than that lightning thing, I don’t really see the difference between you and Azula.”

“You’ve never seen her do anything other than create lightning.”

“So?” he asked. “I’ve seen you do what you do. I saw how much better you’ve gotten. If the lightning is what’s bugging you, why don’t you just ask to get taught? We’re both book-lover scholar people. I’d be jumping all over the idea of getting taught something new.”

“The only person I know who can use lightning is the one who shot me with it. I’ve watched her create it at least a dozen times, but I could never understand how it was being done. If you actually know someone who could teach me that doesn’t want me dead, then tell me.”

Sokka thought, mouth full of bread. He swallowed hard to push it down his throat. “What about Iroh? He knew all about it when we told him what happened to you.”

“If he would teach it to anyone, Zuko would be the first person. If he was willing to teach it, I have the feeling he would have offered by now.”

“Actually, I was waiting for you to get a little better.”

Sokka yelped, nearly knocking over the food still in his lap when he spun about. Iroh held up a hand as he drew near, Fai trailing along behind him with his tail wagging slightly.

“I apologize for surprising you,” Iroh said. “Part of the trouble with getting old is that you don’t sleep through the night very much, but at least it lets me talk with you now about this.” He remained standing when he came before them and pointed to the strip of meat in Kailas’s hand. “Finish eating.”

“Wait, you really know how to make lightning?” Sokka asked. “I was making it up to make her feel better.”

Iroh smiled, chuckling. He looked to Kailas, pointing at her hand again. “Please finish eating and I’ll explain.”

Kailas looked at him, baffled, until she saw that the meat was mostly uneaten in her hand. She started to eat properly.

“Thank you.” Iroh stretched, leaning back before beginning to pace. “What do you understand of lightning from watching my niece?”

“Very little,” Kailas said. “I was only there when she practiced, never when she was being taught.”

Iroh hummed, nodding. “What separates lightning from all other firebending is that it requires a powerful mind. Azula is adept at this because she has no conflict in her. For all her cruelty, she is at peace with how she lives her life. She is the image of a master of the ‘cold-blooded’ fire.”

Again, he paused to look at Kailas. She had finished the strip of meat, but readily took the roll Sokka offered to keep eating.

“Physically,” Iroh said, “lightning is generated by an imbalance of energies. The positive and negative energies in your body must be separated to create this imbalance. Because energy naturally seeks to restore order, the energies will come back together violently enough to create lightning.

“You must understand one thing,” he said. “Although you are creating the lightning, you are not its master. You only provide guidance to it. I will demonstrate.”

He strode away from them, patting at the air when Fai tried to follow him. When Fai was sitting at Kailas’s side and he was some distance from all of them, he took up a stance. His arms began to move, spanning wide arcs with the first two fingers on each hand extended.

From the beginning, long tails of crackling, snapping white-blue light trailed from his fingers, lighting both him and the courtyard as a whole. Rumbling grew around him as he went through the form, the tails of light flowing wider and longer with each moment. The lightning that burst off his fingertips when he thrust his left hand forward was immense, reaching into the black clouds high overhead and making thunder echo over the sky.

Sokka’s mouth was hanging open when Iroh turned about, the half-eaten roll having slipped from his fingers into his lap. He pointed from Iroh to the sky and back again a number of times as Iroh walked back toward them.

“That’s nuts,” he said.

Iroh chuckled as he sat down, ignoring Sokka’s gaping to reach out to take a roll for himself. Taking a bite, he turned to Kailas. “I think you have a very good chance of being able to create lightning.”

“What?” Kailas asked. “Why?”

“From what Aang has told me during training, your approach to firebending has always been very close to its purest forms. You are driven by your will, not by hatred or a desire for power. After all the training you’ve put yourself through under masters of other elements, your control of fire is more precise than I’ve seen in anyone for years. I see no reason why you wouldn’t be able to create lightning. Why don’t you try again?”

Kailas looked to the ground, staring at it for a long while before she held the mostly eaten roll out to Sokka. She ignored how he crammed the last of it into his mouth, rising to her feet and walking away. Her heels came together, palms pressing against one another in front of her chest as she drew in a deep, slow breath.

With her body turned slightly, Sokka and Iroh could see that her eyes were once again closed. Another breath was taken, and she began to follow the form. Her motions were slow and exact, her breathing level. At her fingertips, white-blue sparks began to flicker once more.

Sokka rose up on one knee, eyes widening. Iroh smiled, tucking his hands inside his sleeves. The sparks grew more numerous, lengthening to tails. Still moving slowly, Kailas brought her hands back, touching her fingertips together. Her eyes opened as she thrust her left hand forward, a frown curling her lips.

Instead of lightning, an explosion cracked from her fingertips, flinging her through the air to land hard on her back. Both Iroh and Sokka’s mouths fell open as Kailas sighed, rolling back and over her shoulders to settle heavily on her knees.

“I don’t get it!” Sokka said. He waved his hand at Kailas, looking at Iroh with wide eyes. “She did it just like you did! She even had little lightning bolts coming off her fingers like you!”

“Sokka, stop,” Kailas said. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

“What?” he asked. “Why the hell not?”

“Because this is driven by hatred. I promised I’d kill Azula, and this is how I plan on doing it.”

Iroh’s shoulders slumped, a sigh slipping past his lips. “You’ll never be able to create lightning until you can set that aside.”

Kailas looked away from him, eyes narrow. “I know that.”

Iroh held back another sigh, eyes falling. Sokka looked between them both, face turning more dour with each moved glance. His gaze fixed on Iroh, however, when he lifted his head and said, “There’s something else you can do.”

Kailas did not look at him.

He smiled and spoke in a false whisper. “It’s a technique even Azula doesn’t know.”

Her eyes rose.

“You’ve developed a way to redirect another person’s firebending with multiplied strength,” Iroh said. “I’ve developed a way to redirect the flow of lightning after studying waterbenders. Stand up.”

They stood in tandem, and Iroh walked to her. He lifted both arms, fingers outstretched on both hands. His right he held out straight, the fingers of his left resting in his palm.

“This technique allows you to take the energy lightning creates into your body and create a new path for it to follow,” he said. He traced his hand down his arm, circling over his belly before bringing it out to his other side. “You guide the energy down your arm into your belly and back out through your other arm. Follow me.”

She brought up her arms, mirroring the positioning of his. As he repeated his motions, hands traveling in, down, and up and out again, she followed him.

“Let your energy flow smoothly,” he said. “Make a path the lightning can follow safely through your body. In…down…up…and out. Do you feel it?”

Her eyes had closed, but she still moved in time with him. “Yes.”

“Good, good. Even if you can’t create lightning on your own—yet—you can still turn Azula’s attack back on her.” He chuckled. “She’ll never see it coming.” He stopped, watching as she continued. “You have to always remember to make the path go through your stomach. It can take all of that energy safely.”

He put one finger on her chest over her heart. “Your heart can’t. You know what will happen if you let the lightning pass through your heart again.”

“I do.”

“Good.” Iroh sighed, tilting backward to stretch. “Keep practicing. I’ll bring Zuko and Aang out later today to teach them, as well.” He turned away. “I’ll explain the explosion to anyone who happened to wake up because of it. We’ll call it a training accident.”

“General Iroh.”

He looked over his shoulder, finding Kailas had bowed low at the waist.

“Thank you, sir,” she said.

He smiled. “You’re more than welcome.” He turned back, but stopped where he stood. The door leading into the house was open. Katsuro stood there, face pasty and chest heaving as he panted. His eyes, aimed past Iroh, widened and his teeth clenched together. He charged forward, shoving Iroh aside with a shout.

“You bitch!” he howled, leaping bodily at Kailas. She was too startled to dodge his tackle. She gagged when he landed on her stomach with his knees, eyes forced shut by pain while he slammed his fists against her chest and face over and over.

“This is all your fault!” he shouted. “He was arrested because of you! You fucking bitch!”

Sokka shot to his feet, face going pale. “Katsuro, what the hell? Stop it!” He rushed to them, reaching for Katsuro’s shoulder. Katsuro twisted about, punching Sokka’s jaw and forcing him to stumble away. He turned back, fist rising again, but Kailas moved faster.

She struck him as he had done to Sokka, knuckles letting off a crack against his chin. He fell back enough that she could draw up her legs and kick her heels against his chest. As he hit the ground, she rolled over, rising up on her knees and putting a hand over her left eye. Katsuro’s knuckles had broken the skin, sending blood streaming into her eye.

A hand grabbed her shoulder, wrenching her around into another hard punch to her cheek. Her head crashed against the ground, light flickering behind her eyelids. A moment passed where she was unable to move, but it came and went with only a different voice speaking to break it.

“Get away from her!” Hova shouted.

Vision still blurred, Kailas heard more than saw. A scuffle reached her ears and a loud yell from Katsuro punctuated its end. She sat up slowly, feeling blood trickling out of her mouth from the cut her teeth had made. Her sight finally settled after she closed her left eye, and she could see Hova kneeling on Katsuro’s back, twisting both of his arms hard behind his body.

“Get off me!” Katsuro roared. “This is her fault! She has to die!”

Fire flashed before his face, scorching the ground until he stopped writhing. Iroh drew back his hand, frowning. “Explain yourself.”

“They arrested my father!” Katsuro screamed, tears in his eyes. “This is all because he went along with this stupid treason plan of hers! They’re going to execute him, and it’s her fault!”

Head aching, Kailas said, “I don’t know who your father is, Katsuro.”

Long Fa, you idiot! They arrested Long Fa! He’s going to be put to death in a month because of your damned Dragons idiocy!”

Kailas’s mouth fell open. Body going cold, she asked, “He was arrested?”

“Wait,” Sokka said, “the nice old doctor is your dad?”

Katsuro began to struggle again, pulling free because Hova’s grip had slackened from shock. He bucked her off, spinning about on his knees to strike her jaw. Two seconds after Hova had finished falling back, Kailas had rammed into Katsuro, shoulder hitting his chest hard enough to break a rib. He hit the ground with another shout, going silent when Kailas grabbed the front of his shirt and slammed him against the stones.

Her free hand was up, palm turned toward him and fire crackling in it. Her left eye was still closed, still painted over with blood, and her right was narrow. “Touch her again and I won’t care if Long Fa will be upset I killed his son.” He grimaced and tried to sit up, only to have Kailas lift him enough to slam him down again.

“Listen to me,” she snapped. “I never asked Long Fa to join me in the Dragons. He acted with me under his own will. I never meant for him to be arrested.”

“It’s still your fault!” Katsuro snarled, wheezing to breathe. “He’s going to be killed because of you!”

“What did his arrest notice say?” she asked. “Did they say he was arrested for treason? For being with the Dragons?”

“It didn’t say anything! All it said was that his execution was going to happen at the end of next month at the Northern Prison in Abashiri!”

“Do you understand that by running here to blame me, you may have implicated him and yourself as traitors? Anything that you do now that seems in any way sudden or strange to the military will give them more credit to say Long Fa is a traitor, evidence or not.” She lifted him again, but let him drop when she let his shirt slip from her hands.

“You’ve done something very stupid, Katsuro,” she murmured. “I hope you understand that.”

Sighing, she moved away from him, sitting and putting her hand over her eye once again. “Could someone please get Katara?” She blinked when a hand pulled at her wrist, a hand gloved in glowing water coming to rest on the cut over her eye. Gently, she pushed the hand away and pointed at Katsuro.

“Him first,” she said. As Katara left, Hova came close, kneeling and tilting her face up. She gently dabbed at the blood on Kailas’s face with her sleeve until she could open her eye again, holding the cloth to the broken skin to ward off more bleeding.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Kailas looked at the red mark on Hova’s face, letting out another sigh. “I’ll be fine. Have Katara heal you next.”



“No,” Hova said again. “One little bruise can heal on its own. Don’t make yourself hurt because I got hit once.”

“It’ll be a little while,” Katara said, voice rough from drowsiness. She looked at Kailas, eyes half shut in a withering stare. “Did you really need to break his rib in two places?”

“It made him stop,” Sokka said, crossing his arms and shrugging.

Katara sighed and shook her head. There was a long moment of quiet, only faint shuffling footsteps fending off silence. By then, there was no one who hadn’t come out of the house. Most stood with their eyes open and clear, but Toph and Aang stood with hair disheveled and eyes half closed. Suki was the last to step into the courtyard, walking slow behind Zuko with her hands on her swollen belly. Paling, Sokka hurried to her, speaking to her in a low, anxious voice. Kailas did not try to listen, content with thinking while Hova stroked at her hair.

“What are you going to do?” Bumi asked.

She looked up, finding the members of the White Lotus standing before her. “Rescue him before he’s executed. That should be obvious to everyone here.”

“Long Fa may not be a grandmaster of the Lotus yet,” Piandao said, “but he’s one of our brothers. Let us help.”

“No,” Kailas said, sighing. “I can’t let you all attack the prison.”

“You think you can stop us?” Jeong Jeong asked.

“Not physically,” Kailas said. “But I know the Northern Prison. It’s not susceptible to invasions by large forces.”

She smirked as her thoughts finally came together, and she said, “It will be from an assault from the air.” She looked to Aang. “How long will it take Appa to fly to Abashiri? It’s about fifty miles straight south of the Northern Air Temple.”

“If you’re not making Appa fly too hard?” Aang looked up at the sky, frowning at the clouds. “And giving time for storms? Maybe two weeks at the most.”

Kailas sighed, but smiled. “Then we have enough time to make a plan.” She paused. Her brows rose. She looked toward Sokka and said, “I think we finally have the perfect opportunity to put your disguise plan into motion.”

He looked at her in shock. “Seriously?”

“Completely.” She stood up, looking at Aang. “Would you be willing to shave your head and come with me?”

For a few seconds, he stared blankly at her. When comprehension dawned, his eyes widened as he smiled. “I get to airbend in front of people again?”

She smiled. “There’s no better way to show that you’re the last airbender and the Avatar than to reveal your tattoos. I can’t rescue Long Fa by myself, and I want to send Azula a message that I know will terrify her. The Black Dragon and the Avatar working together is the stuff of nightmares for her.”

Zuko snickered. “Then I’m going with you both. If you get to scare her, then I get to piss her off.”

“Excellent,” Kailas said. “Can you, Aang, and Hova come with me? I want to discuss this plan.” She turned and strode away into the house, too quickly for anyone to protest her leaving. They only followed, almost unable to keep pace with her long-legged gait. When they turned a corner, they all stopped abruptly, finding Kailas had done so and stood facing them.

“Why did we have to come inside?” Hova asked.

“I didn’t want Katsuro to hear this,” Kailas murmured.

Zuko raised a brow. “Hear what?”

“Long Fa’s execution isn’t going to be at the end of next month. At the latest, it will be in two weeks.”

Aang’s mouth fell open. “What? But—but the letter from the prison said a month!”

“Abashiri is one of the places where political prisoners are sent,” Kailas said. “Anyone who is assigned to the Northern Prison is someone who the Fire Nation wants to have disappeared.”

She looked toward the courtyard, mouth twisting. “If Katsuro received notice of Long Fa’s execution, the date written will be much later than when it will actually happen.”

“But why?” Aang asked.

“It’s to undermine rescue attempts,” Kailas said. “People desperate enough to raid prisons will schedule around the later date. They lose morale when they discover they’re too late no matter what they try.”

“Who would make up a plan like that?” Zuko asked.

“I did,” Kailas said.

Aang’s eyes went wide. “You what? Why would you do something like that?”

“Because I also made the requirements for political executions much more stringent at the same time, which meant that very few people wind up being placed in Abashiri. This was when the Dragons had only just been formed. Azula had been giving me more authority after the destruction of the Southern Air Temple, and this was the best way I could assure that fewer prisoners would be killed at that particular prison.

“Azula focused only on deceiving potential rescuers,” Kailas said. “She probably never realized that with those two revisions I made, Abashiri is almost empty and very few political prisoners are executed anymore.”

“That still only leaves us with two weeks before he’s executed,” Zuko said. “There’s no telling if we’d get there in time.”

“No,” Aang said. “It would take two weeks if we didn’t make Appa fly hard. Even if we hit some storms, we should be able to get there in ten days if we go fast. We just need to get going now.”

“But what about a plan?” Hova asked.

“We’ll have ten days,” Kailas said. “We should be able to puzzle something out on the way.”

Zuko smirked. “So we’d be announcing ourselves to the world, breaking your friend out of jail, and messing with Azula. I don’t see a downside.”

“I’m glad to have the help,” Kailas said, bowing to him. “Now get ready as fast as you can—we have to get to Abashiri as soon as possible.” Aang and Zuko nodded, hurrying away to their respective rooms. Kailas went with Hova to their room, gathering what she needed in a kitbag. Hova passed clothes to her, pausing when she picked up the long coat she had worked on for weeks.

“I’d almost forgotten what it’s like when you’re executing one of your plans,” she murmured. She smiled when Kailas turned toward her, mask in hand. “I’ve never been so relieved to see you like this.”

Kailas smiled and put the mask into the kitbag. “I’m trying. That’s what matters, isn’t it?”

She handed Kailas the coat, taking the bag so she could pull it on. She stood on her toes to kiss her, wrapping her arms around her when she rocked back down. Feeling the embroidery under her fingers, Hova said, “That’s what matters.”

Still smiling, Kailas kissed her once more before rushing off.

Chapter Text

If Long Fa hadn’t been told he was slated for execution, he wouldn’t have guessed his fate based on the cell he was placed in. There was a lantern that was left alight, out of his reach but always burning. He was given blankets that were heavy enough to handle the frigid weather in the mountains; his prison uniform was of the same weight. The food he was given was hearty enough, if bland.

No guard spoke to him after the warden told him he would be beheaded soon enough. He did not know if that was better or worse. The hours dragged; he could not track time properly without a window or time out in the prison yard. He sat on his sleeping mat, bundled in his blankets, and stared at the wall under the lantern. Based on his exhaustion, he wagered it had been five days since he arrived.

The sound of a broom scraping along the bricks beyond the metal door woke him from a fitful sleep. He looked at the door blearily for a moment, listening. When the sweeping continued, he swallowed to wet his tongue.

“Are you a guard?” he called.

A sharp gasp came a second before the broom fell to the floor. It was hastily picked back up, and Long Fa saw the shadows of feet at the bottom of the door.

“Are you all right?” a man asked. “This hall is only used to house people who’re going to die. I haven’t seen anyone brought down here in a while. Have they been beating you?”

“My word, no,” Long Fa said.

There was a moment of silence before the man hesitantly asked, “Really? The last man to get the death penalty was roughed up fairly often.”

“They seem to be taking care of me a bit,” he replied. He struggled to his feet, grimacing at the pain that burst in his knee. “I would appreciate having my cane back, though.”

“I would pass you this broom, but I don’t have the keys to the door’s slat.”

“Then you’re not a guard at all?”

“No, no. I’m a prisoner, like you.”

His brows rose. He limped to the door, one blanket around his shoulders. “What’s your name?”


“How long have you been here, Jian?”

He took a long time to answer. “It’ll be nine years this spring.”

Long Fa stared at the door. Shoulders slumping, he placed his hand on the cold metal. “Why on earth would they keep you here for this long?”

“Oh, the usual,” Jian said with a shaking voice. “Abashiri is home to the Fire Nation’s most upsetting criminals. As long as I’m here, they can still force me to make something new for them. If I was allowed to leave, I could tell rebels about weaknesses I built into things or help them build better weapons.”

His brows rose, mouth opening. “I know who you are! You were called the Mechanist in all the reports I received! You invented every generation of tank the military uses!”

Jian’s voice was rueful when he said, “And a few other things, yes.” He sighed, but the scrape of his broom did not start up again. “Who are you?”

“Long Fa,” he replied.

“Why are you here if you were in the military?”

“I couldn’t tell you.” He grimaced, a new surge of pain forcing him to sit down with his back to the door.

“You’ll tell them eventually,” Jian said. His voice had grown soft, barely audible over the renewed rasp of straw over brick. “Everyone always confesses after some time with the special guards. That should be scheduled for you soon.”

Long Fa chuckled. “No, they’ve already told me I’ll die soon, regardless of anything I could say. But I don’t know what it is that actually landed me here. I’ve done nothing wrong, if you frame the circumstances properly.”

Jian’s voice dropped, a bitter edge staining it. “I didn’t do anything wrong either. Maybe we should just go up to the guards and tell them they’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m certain they’ll let us go home to our families if they haven’t been killed by your country’s troops already!”

Long Fa looked over his shoulder. “Who have you lost?”

“My wife,” Jian spat. “And my son—crippled by the same raid that took my wife.”

For a long while, Long Fa sat and massaged his knee. There was little to say in the face of the furious sweeping he could hear beyond the door. Every so often, he heard the faint snap of straw pieces breaking from the force.

“I have a friend,” he said.

The sweeping stopped after a moment. “And?”

“Her father was killed in an ambush.”

“More work from your countrymen?”

“No. Yours.”

Jian had no reply.

“I knew her when she was a little girl, though I doubt she remembers that. She was a very happy child. When he died, she stopped being happy, and her mother was so hurt. I was terrified that this family—these friends of mine—would simply cease to exist because of how their spirits sank.”

He smiled. “But they pulled through with each other. They kept going. Despite everything that’s happened to both of them, they’re still out there, alive and well.”

“And?” Jian asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Long Fa sighed. “I suppose I’m jealous of that, sitting here in a place like this. However nice it is.” He sighed, resuming his work with his knee.

“You and I have something in common, Jian,” he said gently. “We’ve both been taken from our sons.”

There was another long silence. “Does he know you’re here?”

“He might,” he murmured. “I hope he does. It could give us both a chance.”

“A chance? For what?”

“For my friend to rescue us.”

Jian scoffed. “You’ve been in here too long already. You’re delusional.”

“No,” Long Fa said cheerfully. “She’ll be able to rescue us. She knows exactly how these prisons work.”

“No one can break us out of here,” Jian said, voice thick with bitterness. “And you’re an old fool for thinking that someone’s coming for you in the first place.”

“Don’t you think your son would be trying to find you?” Long Fa asked. “You can’t just assume that he’s given up on you, can you?”

“He’s probably heard that I’m dead by now. What does it matter?”

“It matters because you’re alive, and I’m willing to bet he is, too.”

“What difference does that make?”

Long Fa smiled. “You’re the one who’s been stuck in here too long. The world isn’t as bleak as it once was—there are plenty of people to change things.”

“You mean the rebels calling themselves the Dragons?” Jian asked. “I’ve heard the guards talking about them.”

“That’s them,” Long Fa chuckled. “I know they’re out there and working toward their victory. I’m not going to just give up now because I’m at Abashiri. I’m not going to the spirit world before I get to hold my grandchild, and my friend won’t let it happen.”

The broom stopped moving as Jian went silent.

“I know you still have plenty of things you want to do and see before you move on,” Long Fa said. “My friend will come, Jian. When she does, you’re coming with us.”

Jian’s voice was small and soft when he asked, “Is your friend in the Dragons?”

Long Fa smiled and, pride heavy in his voice, replied, “She leads them. Once we’re free, she’ll help you find your son.”

Jian’s inhale, though short, was sharp enough to hear.

“I promise she will. She knows what it’s like to lose a father.” He tapped his knuckles on the door. “Don’t give up hope. We have a chance.”

For a moment, Long Fa thought Jian had gone off without another word. He got back to his feet, intent on going back to his mat.

“I’m going to hold you to your promise,” Jian said quietly, and he retreated quickly. Long Fa smiled as he returned to his mat, some tension leaving him as he watched the lantern burn.


“It’s so nice that Mai gets to be governor of New Ozai, isn’t it, Azula?” Ty Lee asked.

Kailas grinned. “Inherited positions are so useful.”

Ty Lee drummed her fingers together in front of her chin as they walked. “You don’t see her much anymore. She worries about you, you know. She knows it’s a long way, though.”

“You should be mindful of people in power around you,” Kailas said. “You shouldn’t have given me so much of it. Then you might not have needed to kill me.”

“But it’s really, really nice of your dad to come all the way from the Western Capitol!” Ty Lee giggled. “But you’re his favorite daughter. He’d do anything for you.”

“You’re his only daughter,” Kailas hissed. “Just like I was to my mother. She would do anything for me as well. You know that, don’t you?”

“Why’d you ask him to come here, anyway?”

“Yes, Princess, why did you ask him here?”

“Ty Lee,” Azula said wearily.

Ty Lee flinched, pace slowing for a moment before she caught up. “Um…yes?”

“I need you to stop talking for a while.”

“Oh. O-okay.” She smiled slightly. “Sorry, I know better than to chat when you’re tired.”

Kailas’s smirk widened, showing teeth that were always bloody and growing sharper by the day, and she stepped in front of Azula to walk backward before her. “I suppose I can let you have a break for now, Princess. Can’t make you seem unstable in front of your father.”

The servant girl guiding them had never spoken, and never looked back during the conversations. Azula wanted her to, wanted a sign that she was listening in to the whispers and laughs that Kailas was making. Ty Lee did not seem to hear the noise, nor did anyone else.

She knew there were glances being aimed at her, whispers being hissed behind her back. It took all of her focus not to grab servants by the collar and drag their faces through the bloody footprints Kailas left everywhere she went. The only reason she did not follow through on these urges was the fact that Ty Lee was actively driving off servants that lingered too long or looked at her too closely. It left something like gratitude in her mouth.

The servant girl rapped lightly at the door they stopped at. She sank down to her knees, sliding back the door and bowing her head low. “I present Fire Lord Azula and Lady Ty Lee, milord and ladies.”

Azula brought her focus away from Kailas’s chuckling into the room. She had only wanted to see Mai. She had only wanted to discuss the Dragons with her father and her closest remaining allies. Jaya of the house of Arav was not supposed to be sitting drinking tea with Phoenix King Ozai and Mai. She should not have been sitting there with a polite smile, looking so much like her daughter.

Azula managed to keep from cursing by gnawing at the inside of her cheek hard enough to draw blood. The metallic taste on her tongue made her focus. Ignoring Kailas’s renewed chuckling, she walked into the room with Ty Lee beside her.

Ozai stopped short in the middle of lifting his mug of tea, lowering it to smile at her. “We have an unexpected guest, Azula. This is Lady Jaya, the mother of your recently deceased captain.”

Azula nearly gagged as she knelt down on the cushion at her father’s right side. “Yes, Father. My welcomes to her.” She bowed at the waist, feeling bile rising in her throat.

“You should bow lower to the woman whose daughter you slaughtered,” Kailas said, running her fingertips, bloody and cold, along the back of Azula’s neck. “You’ll need to beg for her forgiveness someday.”

“What brought you to New Ozai, Lady Jaya?” Ty Lee asked.

Jaya looked directly at Azula. When Azula blinked, she could see Kailas kneeling there beside her, mother and daughter looking more identical than Azula thought possible. The only thing missing was a hateful, bloody sneer on Jaya’s face.

Still smiling very politely, Jaya took a sip of tea, looking into the mug when she had swallowed. “I was hoping to speak with Lady Mai about the state of the war. It’s just fortune to be able to meet with our Phoenix King and Fire Lord at the same time.”

Ozai lifted a brow. “‘War’? We haven’t been at war for nearly a decade, Lady Arav. Your daughter helped to ensure our victory.”

“My apologies, your majesty,” Jaya said. “I was only using the words I’ve heard recently. It seems that many people here on the continent feel we’re still in the midst of a war.” She took another slow sip of her tea before sighing softly. “I’ve even heard some people in the Fire Nation say it, horrible as it is.”

“Really?” Mai picked up her mug of tea, wiping a small arc of the rim with her sleeve before putting it to her lips. “I think I remember my father mentioning that after returning from a trip recently. Then again, it’s so boring everywhere that I don’t see how anyone can really get worried about a war still going on.”

“There’s still the Dragons to think of,” Jaya said. “I’ve never heard of such a disgraceful use of the name before.”

Ozai hummed, rubbing at his beard. “I have to agree.” As he lifted his mug close to his mouth, he looked at Azula. “Tell me, Azula, have you heard any new information about this despicable little group?”

Azula kept her head down, staring at the mug in her hands. Head still lowered, she looked up. Kailas was on her feet, pacing slowly back and forth between Ozai and Jaya. Her grin was massive, eyes almost glowing in the candlelight in the room. She remained silent, only walking and leaving smears of blood on the rug beneath them.

“I have, Father,” Azula said. She took a small sip to wet her throat and rinse away the sour taste of dried blood. “There’s strong evidence linking my captain’s murder to the Dragons.”

Jaya’s smile faltered as her brows rose. “May I ask what you found, your majesty?”

“I tracked down information on the group of men that set fire to her house,” Azula said. “They had been part of the Dragons. I wasn’t able to find out if her death was by order or by random chance. She may have just been another name in a list of Fire Nation officers slated for execution.”

Jaya sighed, looking down. “I see. I had hoped there was at least some reason that my daughter lost her life.”

“The Dragons don’t have a lot of reason,” Ty Lee said gently, earnest comfort in her voice. “Even their name doesn’t make sense, if you think about it. Why name your group after something that’s extinct?”

“The dragons before Fire Lord Sozin’s era were considered as wise and powerful creatures,” Ozai said. “My grandfather simply revealed their true dangerous animal nature, as my daughter is doing now with these rebels.” One of the servants standing in the room came forward when Ozai held his mug to one side, pouring more tea into it.

“At least they haven’t killed any more of our troops,” Jaya said, sighing.

“Unfortunately, they have,” Azula said. “They just hide their slaughters by blackmailing the troop commanders into saying they were ambushes by other forces. Usually angry, unconnected Earth Kingdom soldiers.”

Kailas’s pacing stopped halfway between Jaya and Ozai. She crouched down with her elbows on her knees. “You really shouldn’t lie in front of your father, Princess. The Dragons have never killed any Fire Nation or Earth Kingdom troops. They never killed me.”

Azula grit her teeth to keep from crushing the mug in her hands. A servant came near to pour more tea for her, but she moved the mug away smoothly and frowned at her darkly enough that she hurried back.

“And you really shouldn’t be so rude to the servants,” Kailas said, chuckling.

Jaya shook her head slowly. “War does make people do such strange things. I wish I wouldn’t have seen my family and friends destroyed by it.”

“Your friends?” Mai asked.

“Yes,” Jaya said with a nod. “I received word that one of my oldest friends, Long Fa, was arrested very recently.”

Ozai looked at her with great curiosity. “Long Fa? The colonel who’s governor of Tsukuba? What has he done to warrant being arrested?”

Azula caught sight of Ty Lee going bone white and looking at the floor. She heard Kailas start to chuckle. Azula sat forward slightly.

“He was caught illegally trading the medicines his city makes,” she said. She took a drink, looking into the tea when she was finished. “Mostly for profit. He was also manufacturing poisons disguised as medications meant for troops.”

“I never would have believed he could do something like that if I hadn’t heard it from you, your majesty,” Jaya said. She sighed, shoulders drooping. “Perhaps it’s best that Kailas never knew of his dealings.”

“She knows you’re lying,” Kailas said. Her grin was turning down, sharp teeth still showing in a sneer. “Not even an idiot could believe a doctor like Long Fa would poison anyone. You’re slipping, Princess. Your lies won’t fool my mother.”

“Perhaps,” Azula murmured. She took a drink, setting down the mug when it was drained and ignoring the servant girl who approached slowly to refill it. “Father, I have a request.”

Ozai looked up, brow rising.

“I’ve not asked you to help in my purging of the Dragons thus far. You have been gracious enough to allow me to craft my own laws and rule the continent as Fire Lord.”

“Of course,” Ozai said. He looked at his mug, waiting until the cool tea had grown warm from his hand again before taking a sip. “I have the utmost faith in your ability to rule.”

Azula bowed at the waist. “You have my unending gratitude for it, Father.”

“What would you ask of me?”

“I want more troops mobilized under my command.”

“You want to increase the size of the Phoenix Battalion during peacetime?” Ozai asked.

“Based on what Lady Mai and Lady—Arav have said,” Azula said, “we’re at risk of slipping back into a period of civil unrest. I want to have more of our main army given to me to help with my hunting of the Dragons and to quell these notions of a continuing war.” She straightened, eyes narrow. “We have to stamp out any embers that still manage to linger.”

“What are your plans for the troops, Azula?” Ozai asked.

“The sages predict that this winter will be dark,” Azula said. “There’s no guarantee that travel will be possible even with our best tanks if there are storms as powerful as they say. What I want is to have troop strength increased at every garrison across the continent with troops from the homeland before the storms fully set in. When the spring comes and travel becomes possible again, I will have a force loyal to me ready to burn out the last of the rebellion.”

“We tried that during Sozin’s Comet,” Mai said in a sigh. “It didn’t work then.”

“I will not rest until the Dragons are destroyed,” Azula said. “I will not let the entire continent rest until that happens.”

Kailas began to chuckle again, a deep rumble rising from within her chest.

Jaya lowered her mug, raising her head. “Do you mean to wipe out the Earth Kingdom citizens, your majesty?”

“No,” Azula replied, “but our countrymen are the only people we can trust. We need to relay that sentiment all through the continent by whatever means necessary.”

Kailas’s chuckling grew louder.

“What about Long Fa?” Jaya asked. “Shouldn’t he be taken as a sign that there may be unrest in our own country, your highness?”

“Our citizens know the price of treachery,” Azula said. “They’ll know not to give in to foolish impulses. I am the Fire Lord and my father is the Phoenix King. We are the ones in power. We are the ones to be obeyed.”

Kailas began to laugh, so loud that Azula could barely hear anything else.

“All of our countrymen should know their place,” Azula said. “I will have the cooperation of all the noble houses, I assume.”

Jaya bowed her head, setting down the mug and putting her hands on her thighs. “I understand, your majesty.”

Mai mimicked her position. “Yes, Fire Lord Azula.”

Ozai smiled. “I see. A new world order to be born from the ashes of the old. A fitting task for the Phoenix Battalion. Very well, Azula. You may have your additional troops. All I ask is that you continue to send my generals all the reports from your officers.”

Azula bowed further. “Of course, Father. I’d never keep things from you.”

Kailas’s laughing shifted to cackling; a glance told Azula she was holding her head in her hands. It was then that she noticed Jaya’s eyes on her. They stared at each other, faces as smooth as the other’s in the long moments that passed. When Azula blinked, Kailas was gone.

A dragon, scales black beside the long winding crimson scar along its chest, sat coiled about Jaya’s shoulders. As the dragon grinned, Kailas’s chuckle bubbling from its throat, Jaya sat up straight. Despite the dragon’s wings beating, no breeze moved her robes. She sat unaware of the dragon.

“Unfortunately, I must take my leave,” Azula said. “It will take some time to return to the Eastern Capitol and I can’t afford to be caught in any storms.”

“Of course,” Ozai said, waving in dismissal. He did not look away from his mug as Azula and Ty Lee rose to their feet, doing little more than blinking when they bowed to him. When they had gone, there was silence. He drained the mug, setting it down with a soft exhale. “Well, Lady Arav, it would be best if we took our leave as well. The seas won’t be pleasant to travel over if we leave any later than this.”

Jaya bowed. “At once, your majesty.”

Ozai paused before taking to his feet, looking at her. “You seem to have picked up some militaristic habits from your family.”

“I’m afraid I can’t help it, your majesty,” Jaya said, standing. “Kailas and Bao were the most important things in my life.” She bowed again, hands held before her. “You’ll have to excuse me, your majesty, but I should return to my own vessel before too long. The crew wants to go home.”

“Ah, yes,” he murmured. “You may take your leave.”

Jaya straightened only to turn to Mai and bow again. “Thank you for your hospitality, Lady Mai. It was wonderful talking with you.”

Mai tipped her head. “I’m glad you came, Lady Arav.”

Jaya strode away through the doorway, swift steps carrying her through hallways. She did not see Azula and Ty Lee standing in the shadows made by wall hangings and drapery, eyes before her. Azula could see the black dragon leaving with her, and the instant Jaya had gone round a corner and out of sight, a cold, wet hand came down on her shoulder.

“Place her under house arrest,” Azula whispered. “Halt any correspondence leaving from or arriving at the Arav house.”

“Okay,” Ty Lee said, “but why?”

“She’s suspicious. She knows—something. I won’t have her stirring up anything. Not when I’m about to make my world perfect again.”

“Your world was never perfect, Princess,” Kailas hummed in her ear, lips brushing against her skin. “And it never will be. You’ve ruined more things than you know, and the world is going to ruin you in turn.”

“Ty Lee.”


She turned to look at Ty Lee. “Did you have Long Fa imprisoned?”

Ty Lee looked back at her, going pale again. “Um. I—I—y-yeah.”

She raised a brow. “Why?”

“Um,” Ty Lee said, even quieter than before. “I just—thought—he was really close to her. I thought maybe he was part of whatever she did to betray you, and I just—” Her voice trailed off as she fidgeted. Eventually, she said, “I was worried he would do something against you.”

Azula took a deep breath as claws dragged lightly down the back of her neck. Whispering, she said, “You realize that you just made me lie in front of my father.”

“I didn’t mean to, I swear!” Ty Lee protested. “I didn’t know her mom was going to be here or that she’d know! But I sent Long Fa to Abashiri with a death sentence! You can make them say it’s because of what you just told your father! It’ll be okay—he’ll never ever know!”

Azula watched her squirm. Words did not come to her.

“What will you do, Princess?” Kailas purred in her ear. She chuckled, exhaling embers against Azula’s neck through fangs that could not be in a human mouth. “She’s trying so hard not to be terrified of your wrath. Then again, she’s loyal to you. Perhaps that should be rewarded.”

She exhaled slowly. “Thank you.”

Ty Lee froze. “What?”

“Thank you,” Azula repeated. She turned slightly. “Let’s go, Ty Lee. I want to get back before any storms break.”

“There’s more than one kind of storm ahead for you,” Kailas murmured, voice in her ear and a coiled weight around her shoulders. “I don’t see how you could prepare enough.”

Ty Lee hurried after her. With the numerous hallways leading out of the palatial estate, they never crossed paths with Jaya or Ozai. They never saw or heard Ozai dictating an order to one of his own servants.

“Station watchmen near my daughter,” he said quietly. “There’s something she’s not informing me of. I want to know what it is before spring.”


When they reached the northern mountains two days ago, Aang passed the reins to Kailas. He and Zuko remained in the saddle, watching dutifully for anything out of the ordinary. Kailas steered Appa with white-knuckled hands, her mask never coming off even when they landed for one last bit of rest. Early on the morning of the third day, the tenth of their journey, she snapped the reins to make Appa rise higher into the clouds gathered along an eastern ridge.

“The prison should be below us very soon,” Kailas called over her shoulder. “We have to do this according to plan if we’re going to get Long Fa out before he’s injured in any way. Aang, are you ready?”

“Ready!” he said, picking up his glider. He moved to join Zuko on the right side of the saddle. They braced themselves as Kailas made Appa bank sharply through the clouds, keeping their cover maintained as they passed by the high wall surrounding the prison yard. The overcast sky gave them perfect visibility without any glare.

“We’ve got a crowd,” Zuko whispered to Aang. “It looks like they’re all in the yard, so I’ll give you cover while you sweep the halls like—”

Aang gasped, clapping a hand over his mouth to hide the sound. He hissed, “Oh no!”

Zuko looked where he pointed as the clouds shifted. A platform was in the middle of the yard, long enough to house a number of people in a row, but only wide enough to allow for a person to be seated on their knees. At the center of the platform was one such man on his knees, head bowed and shoulders tense. Another man was standing at the end of the platform nearest them, arms crossed behind his back. A third man was near the man on his knees, holding a massive sword meant for beheadings.

The man nearest them began to speak in a sonorous voice that echoed in the yard. “For violating medicinal regulations—”

Zuko started to turn toward Kailas.

“For plotting to poison key battalions through their medications—”

His words were shoved back down his mouth as Kailas yanked hard on the reins to force Appa out of the clouds and into an even steeper bank. Aang and Zuko scrambled to keep hold of Appa’s saddle as they were nearly pitched out of it.

“And for plotting to commit treason against the Fire Nation, the prisoner Long Fa is hereby stripped of his rank and his noble title, and will now be beheaded as in accordance with the laws of Fire Lord Azula!”

Kailas leapt back into the saddle, grabbing hold of the high edge and putting both feet onto it. She held herself there, perfectly balanced with her legs bent. Aang and Zuko looked up in time to see the focus in her eyes before Appa roared out of confusion. Exhaling hard, Kailas leapt straight out. The fire that erupted from her feet was focused by the saddle, letting off a crack that drew just as much attention as Appa’s roar.

To the prisoners and guards gathered below, the shock came from the sight of the bison appearing from the clouds like a beast of legend. The panic came from the black and red blur that launched off of the bison’s back, intensified when the blur became a whirling cloud of flame. When the headsman realized that the flames were angling toward him, he moved backward on the platform with a cold sweat on his neck.

The cloud unfolded in a second, a massive fireball flying off of the heels of the masked woman that fell through the sky in a sleeveless officer’s coat. The headsman shouted in fright as he jumped off of the platform. His jump was almost too late as the fireball smashed straight through the platform where he had been standing. It left Long Fa cowering from the flames that caught in the splintered wood, unable to hide his face with his hands bound.

The warden shrieked when the woman landed between him and Long Fa with an earsplitting bang of boot heels on wood. She slowly straightened up. With her back to him, he saw the embroidery on the back of her long crimson coat. It was a dragon of black thread, long tail coiling on itself as it rose. Its wings spread across the woman’s shoulders, clawed hands holding bright yellow flames, and the fanged mouth beneath gold eyes was open in a silent roar. He gaped openly at her coat and all the rest of her long black clothing. When she turned toward him, he stopped breathing at the sight of the rage in her eyes past her black dragon mask.

Before he could think to beg pity, she grabbed his shirt and threw him from the platform with one hand. As he hit the ground, the bison came down from the sky. Two more people leapt from the bison’s back, landing on either side of the woman. One was a boy bearing a staff, a shaved head held high, and vivid blue arrow tattoos under clothes of brown, orange, and gold. The other was a man dressed in regal shades of crimson and gold, the mask of the Blue Spirit hiding his face for only a moment before he pulled it off to show himself.

“I am Zuko!” he shouted to the prisoners and guards. “Crown prince of the Fire Nation! I come to you today with the Avatar and the Black Dragon!”

Long Fa froze. He slowly looked up, stopping short because the flames near him were abruptly extinguished. He continued to look up, eyes widening at the sight of the Black Dragon reaching out a hand to snuff the flames. She smiled very slightly at him before turning to the crowd.

“We have come here to free a man that was imprisoned for unjust reasons!” Aang said. “Colonel Long Fa has only ever been a loyal citizen and a good man, but the Fire Lord ordered him murdered! All because he knew how she and the Phoenix King have thrown the world into chaos!”

Zuko stepped forward, raising his voice once more. “I have lived among the people of the Earth Kingdom! I have acted as the Blue Spirit for years to sabotage my family’s efforts to further spread hate and death across the continent, and I come here now to openly challenge my father and my sister to their rights to the throne!”

“The Black Dragon has worked for years to undermine the wrongs that the Fire Nation has committed!” Aang continued. “More than anyone, she knows the atrocities ordered by Phoenix King Ozai and Fire Lord Azula! She’s been forced, like all the soldiers of the Fire Nation military, to carry out these orders under the threat of death!

“We’re not going to let these awful people throw the world out of balance anymore!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “We won’t let them murder more people like they slaughtered the Air Nomads!”

The prisoners began to speak, whispering and hissing to each other. Their attention snapped back to Zuko when he spoke again.

“Now is the time to stand up and fight back openly against the Phoenix King and Fire Lord!” he said, lifting his right hand and the mask he carried. “We’ve all lost enough our lives to their megalomania!”

He threw the mask to the ground and raised both arms. “I will stand with the Avatar and the Black Dragon to restore balance to the world! Stand with us!”

The warden got to his feet, turning to the guards and screaming, “The entire bounty for the Black Dragon goes to whoever brings her down! Get them!”

The prisoners scattered as the guards resumed their charge. Only Jian remained where he stood near the platform, knees locking at the sight of the men sprinting in his direction. However much he trembled, he could not close his eyes. He only blinked when another shadow passed over him and the Black Dragon landed before him. Her arms came up, rising above her shoulders. With how her fingers spread, he could not keep from staring at the scars in her palms.

Jian felt the cold surrounding him begin to fade. The Black Dragon’s arms flexed, her head tipping forward. A moment passed; the guards drew closer. Jian heard the Black Dragon draw in a deep, fast breath and saw her lift her right leg. As she stomped down, she snapped her arms in, elbows to stomach.

Fire erupted from the ground, raging out and forward at the guards to stop them. Even when the Black Dragon turned away the fire continued to burn, its roar drowning out the sound of the shouting guards beyond it.

“Cut his bonds and get him on Appa!” she said, pointing up to Long Fa.

Jian stared. “You’re the friend he was talking about. You—you actually came here for him.”

The Black Dragon looked at him curiously. “Of course I did.”

Long Fa hobbled to the edge of the platform when Zuko had carefully burned through the ropes around his wrists. “We have to take him with us! I promised him!”

The Black Dragon did not reply. She spun about, both hands wheeling up and over her head before coming down. A guard had leapt through the wall of flames, throwing a punch that sent a fireball rushing at her. Her spin ended with her hands striking the fire, reducing it to a flare of sparks without leaving any burns on her skin.

The guard, broad-shouldered and with short brown hair, stared. The stare died as he snarled and rose up on one foot, jabbing out his leg in a kick. A long wave of fire lashed from his heel, but the Black Dragon moved faster. She brought her hands forward, catching the fire without touching it. She turned on her heels, reversing the fire’s flow and adding to it, sending it back faster and larger at the guard. He yelped at the sight, and again when the flames burst on his hands and chest. As he fell, the wall of flames dissipated.

The dozen guards too frightened to leap through the flames before began their charge again. Aang, grinning, tilted his head back and put two fingers in his mouth. The whistle he made was piercing, and the roar that responded was even louder. The guards’ dash slowed as they looked up.

Appa rose up from behind the platform, moving fast. He landed near the platform, facing away from the guards, and swung his tail down fast. The six men unlucky enough to be in the tail’s wake were thrown across the yard, striking the far wall hard enough to lose consciousness on impact.

“Good job, buddy!” Aang said. He took Long Fa’s arm to brace him, walking him toward Appa. When they were near the edge of the platform, he tucked his hands beneath Long Fa’s arms, leaping up with the wind to bring them both into Appa’s saddle. As he turned, his eyes went wide and he brought his staff up to spin before them. A fireball broke on the spiraling wind he created, the sparks floating away without touching them. The shock on the guard’s face made him laugh.

Still laughing, he leapt out of the saddle, heaving his arms down into the earth as he landed. Pillars of earth slammed against the three men that had drawn close to Appa, tossing them high enough in the air that he had time to dash beneath them. His speed increased as he circled beneath them, body blurring from it and the dust the wind stirred around him.

The men were caught by the air and sent spiraling above Aang’s head, shouting with pain as they crashed together. A swift, short leap up from Aang burst the air, throwing the men up and away. They continued to spin until they hit the ground, and they could not rise from sheer dizziness.

Zuko jumped down from the platform, landing halfway between Aang and the Black Dragon. He beckoned to two guards, smirking because they tried to keep out of reach. He leapt forward, rolling onto his shoulders and swinging his legs about as he twisted his body over the ground. Fire lashed from his feet, reaching high and moving swift. The men reeled back, shouting at the burns that came to their fisted hands.

As quickly as his wheeling about, Zuko flipped back onto his feet and grabbed the shirt of the nearest guard. With a grunt, he lifted the man off his feet, hurling him into the other guard. Both men crumpled, one unconscious from having his head jammed into another man’s belly and the other too winded to rise.

The guards dispatched, Zuko turned and dashed back to Appa. He climbed into the saddle as Aang ran to Jian and the Black Dragon.

“Come on!” Aang said. “We need to go before they get reinforcements!”

“Take him to Appa,” the Black Dragon said, gesturing to Jian. “I’ll be along before you take off.”

Aang caught Jian under his arms, spinning his glider to lift and carry them to the saddle. The last guard of the original dozen stared at them before looking to the Black Dragon. He shook in his stance as he gaped at the mask and the sharp gold eyes behind it.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked, sweat rolling down his back. “What are you doing?”

The Black Dragon said nothing.

“What could our country do to make you turn traitor?” he demanded.

The Black Dragon said nothing. Instead, she dashed to the man. She snatched his wrists as she arrived, spinning on her heels to pull him off his feet and throw him back. He hit the ground, sliding on his rear and looking up when he had stopped.

A dozen more guards had arrived, headed by the warden. The thirteen men had taken a hard step forward, fists striking to let loose fireballs that combined into a single massive blaze. By the time the guard had lifted his head, the Black Dragon had turned to the fire, hands rising.

She thrust her hands forward, fingers down and curled as if she would cradle the fire in her palms. The flames crashed into her, shoving her back on her toes until she slammed her heels down. She pushed the fireball away from her enough to bring her arms up. It took visible effort, arms shaking and shoulders trembling.

With a shout, she shoved her arms and the fire above her head, redirecting it into the air over the guards. As they stared at the fire above them, the Black Dragon shifted in her stance, reversing her feet. She stepped back and her hands clenched into fists, arms snapping down to her sides. The fire burst into sparks and embers, flashing hot toward the guards and the warden. They stumbled back, slapping at flames that caught in their clothes and heat that scorched their faces.

“They would have killed you to get to me,” the Black Dragon said over her shoulder. She left the guard where he sat, starting to walk calmly toward Appa. She brought her hands up to her chest, holding their palms close together.

As she inhaled deeply, a fireball was born between her hands. Her breathing slowed; the fireball began to whirl on itself. The guards put out the fire in their clothes. She turned toward them, curling her fingers. The fireball contracted, the light of the flames twisting faster and growing brighter.

There was no roar or crackle from the fire in her hands, only the soft rush of the air that was sucked into the fire to feed it. The guards started to charge at her, the warden’s face red with fury. She lifted her right hand, bringing the fireball with it. Her fingers curled to lock at the knuckles; the fireball contracted to a sphere of white hot fire laced with red.

Smiling cheerfully, the Black Dragon threw the fireball. The guards ducked needlessly; the sphere went high over their heads. They almost laughed as they turned around to watch it go, but they stared at the far wall it headed for. When the fire struck the wall, the Black Dragon chuckled and closed her hand tight.

In an instant, the fire contracted one last time and exploded, shattering stone and mortar and blasting an enormous hole in the wall. The guards stared, slack-jawed and frozen. They did not see the Black Dragon climb up the platform and jump onto Appa’s head. She gathered the reins in her hands while everyone stared, dumbfounded, at the ruined wall.

“Appa, yip yip!” she shouted.

Appa bellowed, slamming his tail on the ground as he rose into the air. The Black Dragon steered him up and away from the prison, looking back to watch their retreat. She chuckled at what she saw.

“Perfect,” she said. She pointed when no one spoke. “The prisoners are rioting already. They’re taking advantage of the door I made for them.”

“You just blew up a wall!” Zuko asked. “How the hell did you do that?”

“With considerable concentration.” She put Appa on a south-by-southeast heading through clouds before letting go of the reins. She scratched his head gently before moving into the saddle. She walked to the back, crossing her arms behind her back to continue watching for a time.

“Where did you learn to do that?” Aang asked.

“I did something similar during Sozin’s Comet,” she said. “When I tried to make lightning recently, it exploded on me. I’ve been thinking about how to combine the two instances ever since we left.” She chuckled, turning around and sitting down. She reached up to the back of her head to undo the mask’s ties. “I’m surprised I was able to get it as right as I did on the first attempt.”

“You were actually planning on blowing up a prison wall?” Zuko asked. “Not asking Aang to do it with earthbending?”

She pulled the mask away, smiling at him. “I had to make a specific kind of statement as the Black Dragon, Prince Zuko. I think I managed what I was hoping for.”


She looked up at Long Fa’s whispered question. Her smile grew softer. “I’m sorry we didn’t arrive any sooner, sir. There was a storm that kept us longer than I’d hoped.”

His eyes filled with tears. “You actually came.”

Her smile did not falter, but her voice was quiet when she said, “I couldn’t let you be murdered, Long Fa.”

Knees folded beneath him, hands clenched into fists, his shoulders began to shake. His breathing grew louder, hitching with quiet sobs.

“I d-don’t know how I can thank you,” he said, head falling forward. “I’ll be able to see my grandchild because of you. I can see Katsuro again.” He gasped for breath, swiping a forearm over his face to wipe away tears before laying his hand over his eyes. “I owe you my life.”

She moved to his side, putting an arm around his shoulders. “You don’t, sir. I had to save my friend.”

He smiled, reaching to put a hand over hers. “Bao and Jaya raised a good daughter. I know they’re proud of you.”

She chuckled and held him close. “So do I.”


Fear of being tracked or seen was not what made them drive Appa harder than the first flight. Black, rumbling clouds gathered behind them the entire time, and Appa was more than willing to fly his hardest. Even with the brief landings to give him some rest and food, the original ten days were reduced to a week. The sky above Iroh’s estate was as filled with clouds as the rest of the world, the gray slowly darkening even with the full moon’s light.

Because they arrived in the middle of the night, Aang rubbed at Appa’s head and promised mountains of food to keep him quiet. Nevertheless, his groaning and grumbling was heard and his shaggy form seen by the duo standing in the courtyard.

Hova was the first to come out from beneath the hanging roof, wrapping her arms around Kailas the moment she leapt down from Appa. Katsuro came next, face drawn and thinner than last they’d seen him. He hung back, unable to look up at the saddle. Aang led Jian and Long Fa down Appa’s tail, making sure Long Fa did not stumble without his cane. Long Fa opened his mouth to thank him, but went still when he saw Katsuro.

“Katsuro?” he asked with a weak voice.

His head snapped up. He stared, but only for a moment. He all but ran to Long Fa, grabbing him in a tight hug.

“Please say you’re okay, Dad,” Katsuro choked out.

Long Fa stood stupefied. He hugged Katsuro without thinking on it, whispering, “I’m okay, Son.”

“Katsuro came here the minute he got notification of your imprisonment,” Kailas said. “I wouldn’t have known how to help you if he hadn’t come to blame me for his father’s fate.”

Long Fa sputtered with laughter, but hugged Katsuro even tighter. “That’s my son for you.”

Kailas did not chuckle, only smiling at them. Her smile vanished when she noticed Toph come out of the house. Toph twisted her fingers nervously, tapping one foot on the ground. Her head was turned slightly back toward the open door.

“Toph?” Kailas asked. “Are you all right?”

“Me?” Toph asked. “Yeah, I’m fine. But, um, you got Long Fa, right? And he’s not hurt or anything?”

“I’m just fine, lass,” Long Fa said as Katsuro let him go. “I appreciate the concern.”

“Oh, sweet!” Toph said. “That means Katara can focus on Suki!”

“Focus on her for what?” Kailas asked. “She’s not hurt, is she?”

“Nah,” Toph said. “Katara said her water broke right when we started hearing Appa, so I came to make sure no one needed a healer.” She thought. “But if you’re not hurt, I think she’d like the extra help.”

“I’d be honored,” Long Fa chuckled. He crooked a finger to beckon all of them along. “Come along. We have a baby that wants to come into the world now.”

Toph went inside first, followed by Long Fa. Katsuro, Jian, Zuko, and Aang followed immediately after. Hova meant to follow as well, but Kailas remained completely still. Still holding her hand, Hova stopped abruptly. She turned back, finding Kailas looking blankly at her.

“Come on,” Hova said, tugging at her hand and smiling.

Kailas took one tentative step before following Hova without question. Most everyone at the estate was gathered in the hallway outside a room, some pacing back and forth, some standing still, and some sitting with their backs to walls. Hova continued to tug at Kailas’s hand, bringing her into the room.

Suki sat leaning against Sokka, hips covered by a blanket and knees bent. Her face was flushed, skin damp with sweat. As she breathed slowly, brows together and eyes half closed, Sokka held one of her hands, dabbing at her cheeks and forehead with a soft towel with his free hand. Katara was on her other side, rubbing her shoulder.

Long Fa sat down next to Sokka, rubbing his knee. He smiled gently at Suki. “I understand your water broke a little while ago, lass. Have the contractions started?”

“Not really,” Suki said, laughing weakly, “thank goodness.”

He chuckled and patted her knee. “I think of all the women currently giving birth in the world, you’re among the luckiest. You have your family here, the most skilled healer I’ve ever met ready to help, and a doctor on the off-chance that you need someone other than Katara.

“Best of all,” he said, “the father of your child is here with you. In all the years and all the children I’ve seen, there’s nothing better for you than for Sokka to be here.” He lifted his gaze to Sokka, smirking. “You’re doing a fantastic job, by the way.”

Sokka did not answer him. A shudder ran through Suki; he put his lips to her sweat-soaked hair.

“Good man,” Long Fa murmured. He turned to Katara. “Should I feel safe in assuming that you know precisely what you’re doing and the only time my opinion will be required is when you ask for it?”

She nodded, but bit her lip to smother a giggle. “I’m more used to doctors trying to tell me they know best about childbirth.”

He held up his hands, smiling. “My word, what would an old man know that a young woman who’s as talented at healing as you doesn’t? I defer to you, lass.”

Suki laughed until a contraction gripped her. She grit her teeth together and waited it out. Katara patted her shoulder as Sokka held her hand.

“All right,” Katara said, “time to make your call about who you want in here.”

Toph held up her hands. “Hey, no need to make a call on me, Fan-girl. I’m out. I don’t like hearing girls scream from this close, so I’m waiting out in the hall with the old guys.” She rushed out of the room, closing the door clumsily.

Katara stared after her a moment before choking back a laugh. “Possum-chicken.”

“I’ll go wait, too,” Aang said quickly, pointing toward the door. “I don’t want to embarrass you.” He hurried off after Toph before Suki could say anything in reply.

Katara put a hand over her mouth to hold back her laughter again. “Yeah right.”

Hova, smiling, looked up at Kailas. She went still at Kailas’s wide eyes and the curiosity in them.

“Suki?” Kailas asked quietly. “May…may I stay?” She swallowed when Suki looked at her. “I’ve never seen a child being born. It…I would be honored if you would allow me to stay.”

Suki looked at her a long time, brows raised. She grimaced at another contraction, closing her eyes tight. When the moment passed and Sokka was patting at her forehead with the towel once more, she smiled.

“You can stay,” she said.

Hova squeezed Kailas’s hand, smiling at her when she looked down. “Can I stay, too, then?”

Suki laughed, the sound breaking when pain tightened her belly. Nevertheless, she smiled again. “Like anyone could make you leave if Kailas is here. You can stay, too.”

They both bowed, and the room soon grew quiet. Long Fa and Katara both murmured reassurances when Suki let out grunts of pain, Sokka remaining utterly silent. Time passed without signs, the moon blocked out completely by black clouds. There was no wind to rattle the closed windows, but the silence from the world outside pressed in on the room. Minutes passed more slowly than they should have, the night hours dragging.

Kailas settled against a wall facing the group from the side, knees drawn up to her chest and arms wrapped around them. Hova sat beside her, leaning against her shoulder. Once, she lifted her head enough to look at Kailas’s face. There was the faintest tension there, built by concern and a fear of something unknown.

Smiling, Hova slipped her arm under Kailas’s to set her hand on her leg. Kailas looked at her, blinking quickly. Hova only shook her head, still smiling, and set her head on Kailas’s shoulder. When Kailas relaxed, she closed her eyes to doze lightly.

When she opened her eyes again, she was lying on her side, Kailas’s coat folded thick under her head. Lying still, she watched. Sokka and Kailas were on their feet, steadying Suki between them as they walked round the room slowly. For her part, Suki’s skin was still shining in the flickering candlelight with sweat, but her face was considerably less drawn.

“Is that helping with the contractions at all?” Katara asked.

“Yeah,” Suki said. “Thank you both for the suggestion.”

Long Fa waved a hand. “Not at all. We can do this however often you like until the baby finally arrives. But settle back down and rest for a while. You don’t want to wear yourself out.”

Sokka and Kailas brought Suki back to the sleeping mat, Sokka placing himself behind Suki again as Kailas draped the blanket over Suki’s hips. She started to turn away and was stopped suddenly by Suki taking hold of her fingertips.

“Thank you,” she murmured again.

Kailas hesitated, but nodded once. She went back to Hova, sitting and laying her hand lightly on Hova’s cheek. Eyes still open, still watching, she stroked at Hova’s temple with her thumb, the scarring in her skin faintly noticeable with the slowness of her touch. Hova smiled, relaxing into the soft red cloth and closing her eyes again.

The hours that passed from then were ones she drifted in and out of, wakened by the occasional sharp curse from Suki. Even after the late sunrise Hova continued to doze, never fully aware of what time it happened to be or how long the labor had lasted. When Suki’s cry grew loud, long, and tinging toward angry, all sleep was driven from her body and she snapped upright, looking around.

“It’s all right,” Long Fa chuckled.

Suki sighed hard, leaning back against Sokka. “Okay, I get why women yell so much during this.”

“Sorry,” Sokka said quietly.

She laughed in exhales, gently hitting his forehead with the back of her hand. “Just shut up.”

“Okay,” Katara laughed, putting her hands on Suki’s legs. “You can start to push now—just do it whenever you feel like you can. It’ll be just fine.”

As Suki nodded, Sokka brought his hand down to hold one of hers. The touch was ill-timed, as a new contraction bound Suki’s muscles and she squeezed his fingers hard enough to make the joints pop. He made no sound, only grimacing a moment. He rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb, his free hand stroking her back as she grumbled more curses.

He tipped his head down to whisper in her ear too quietly for anyone else to hear. For a moment, her grimace and pallor faded to show a smile.

“Love you, too,” she whispered, just loudly enough that she could be heard. She put her head back on his shoulder, gritting her teeth again as her muscles tightened. In time with it, she pushed, breathing in short gasps until she could not control her muscles anymore. She panted, going nearly limp against Sokka.

Katara lifted her hands, gesturing to pull water from the bowl. She brought both hands, gloved in water, beneath the blanket to rest over Suki’s abdomen. As Suki pushed again, swearing more creatively than even Kailas had heard from other soldiers, she closed her eyes and felt for specific energy. A smile curled her lips as she opened her eyes and brought her hands away.

“You’re doing great, Suki,” she said. “The baby’s coming right along, so just a few more pushes, okay?”

Suki nodded, taking what command she could of her muscles when the next contraction came. It lasted far longer than her own attempts, and tears welled over in her eyes at the pain. She closed her eyes tight, body shaking, but did not swear again.

The pain doubled at the next contraction, but still she did not speak. Before it ended, she bore down again, cheeks flushing at the burn and the effort. Had her eyes been open in that moment, she would have seen Katara pushing the blanket up over her knees and reaching between her legs. As it was, pain still held her firmly when she heard a loud, distinctive cry and the watery wailing that followed it.

“Suki,” Sokka whispered. “Suki—look.”

Another contraction forced her eyes to remain closed for some time, but she soon opened them. Long Fa held the newborn, cradling it in one arm as he wiped away the blood and fluid from its dark skin. It squirmed, legs kicking and arms wiggling, and it cried even as Long Fa wrapped it neatly in a thick, clean towel. He looked up and smiled.

“It’s a girl,” he said

Suki, eyes wide and crying, would have reached for her. Pain worse than before wracked her body, finally making her swear again.

“Keep pushing,” Katara said, patting Suki’s knees.

“No—but—she’s here!” Suki said.

“Her twin isn’t. Just a tiny bit more, Suki—you’re almost there.”

There was no time to try to push. Again her body tightened and pushed on its own, and through the pain she felt Katara’s hands at the inside of her thighs. A moment passed, and another newborn’s wail joined the little girl’s. The pain finally lessened enough that Suki could sit more upright and open her eyes. She watched while Katara cleaned the second child and wrapped it. The second child was quieter, still moving but at a less frantic pace than its sister. Katara smiled, rising on her knees and moving to Suki’s side.

She lay the newborn in Suki’s waiting arms and said, “This is your son.”

Sokka’s eyes widened. “I get to have a daughter and a son?” His head whipped about to Long Fa and he held out his arms, wiggling his fingers as he grinned and laughed. “Let me see her! Let me see!”

Long Fa chuckled as he passed the girl to Sokka, supporting her head until it was nestled against Sokka’s upper arm. Sokka laughed again, voice high as he rested his hand on her chest.

“Hi,” he whispered. “Hi.” The girl’s arm waved, tiny fingers brushing against his. He stopped breathing, tears threatening to spill over from his eyes. He turned to Suki, leaning down to let her look without craning her neck. “Suki, look! It’s our daughter—our little baby girl!”

Suki nodded slowly, smiling as her body relaxed. “And this is our son.” She tilted her head down to brush her lips against the boy’s soft, broad forehead. “He’s going to be smart like his father.”

“Well, she’s going to be a great fighter like her mom,” Sokka said. “Look at her go already!” He looked at the baby, grinning and laughing more as she kicked in his arms. “Baby flying kick-a-pow!”

Suki laughed quietly only because her body demanded rest, leaning to put her head on Sokka’s shoulder. She felt Katara’s hands low on her abdomen, relaxing further because the water on Katara’s hands helped to soothe the pain and draw out the afterbirth easily. It still took some time, but she only heard Sokka giggling and watched him split his attentions between the twins.

He would catch the girl’s tiny hand between thumb and forefinger and let her carry his hand as she moved. The boy received soft caresses to the soft, small swatch of dark brown hair slick on his head and slow brushes of fingertips to his face. They were quiet by the time the last sharp waves of pain had passed and Katara was folding the afterbirth up in a set of heavy towels, breathing easily and making faint coos and murmurs. Suki was certain her heart had stopped at the sight of them, and she laughed because of it.

Beside the newborns, there was no face in the room that didn’t have a smile upon it. Kailas and Hova had sat in utter silence, feeling unable to speak as the others did. Hova held tight to Kailas’s hand, leaning full against her shoulder and looking up every so often to see the face of an awed child. For a moment, she felt as though she would cry and laugh all at once, and so she put her face to Kailas’s shoulder to quell both sounds. Soon, she squeezed Kailas’s hand and looked at the others when Kailas had turned to her.

“Suki?” Hova asked. “Do you want the others to come back in now?”

Suki did not look up, moving to let Sokka hold their son and take their daughter to rock her gently. She smiled and murmured, “Yeah. Please.”

Kailas rose to her feet first, moving to the door and opening it slightly. Aang and Toph, the only two not dozing or completely asleep, snapped to attention. She murmured, “You can come see the twins now.”

“Twins?” Aang asked, eyes widening. He did not wait for an answer, walking past Kailas into the room with a growing smile. Toph rose and stretched, smirking as she strode shuffling her feet. She stopped inside the door, hitching her thumbs in her cloth belt and smiling when Katara turned toward her. More vibrations came up her legs and she turned to grab Kailas and Hova each by a wrist, stopping them before they left the room.

“Where are you two going?” she asked.

They blinked, looking at each other until Kailas spoke. “We…we can leave. This is time for your family, isn’t it?”

Toph snorted. “The hell do you think you guys are? Hired help?”

Sokka looked up, smirking. “You think you’re too good to meet my kids? Get over here with us and say hi.”

Hova’s eyes were wide, and she blinked repeatedly as she tightened her grip on Kailas’s hand. “But—”

“No buts,” Suki said. She lifted her head, still smiling. “You two are family. It’s okay—come on.”

They took another moment before moving, Hova smiling with increasing brightness in her eyes while Kailas’s brows rose. They joined the others sitting around Suki, watching the newborns move and breathe. Aang, closest to Sokka, grinned and waved at the boy even though his eyes were closed.

“What are you going to name them?” he asked.

Suki, stroking at the girl’s cheek, hummed quietly, head tilting in thought. “What do you want to name them, Sokka?”

He thought a moment, lips pursing and eyes rising to the ceiling. His face brightened, teeth showing in his grin. “Ooh, ooh! Can we name him Tetsu? I like Tetsu! A little guy with an iron heart!”

She laughed and nodded, and laughed again when Sokka squealed. She kept her eyes on the girl, rubbing the back of her small hand with her thumb. “What do you think about Shun for her?”

His grin softened. He leaned close to kiss Suki’s damp hair. “I think it’s perfect.” He looked at the girl, smile softening even more. “Hey, little springtime girl of ours. It’s your mom and dad.” He lifted the boy to kiss his brow. “Hi, too, Tetsu. Hi, Son. Son.”

Toph grinned crookedly. “So do we get to hold them, too or do we have to beat you in a fight to get the chance?”

Sokka pouted at her, cradling Tetsu close beneath his chin. The boy’s hand waved then, patting at Sokka’s stubble-covered chin, making his smile return immediately. “Well…okay. You can all hold them—but I’ll make Kailas burn you dead if you don’t hold them right.” He looked at Katara, eyes softening. “Their aunt first.”

She startled, pointing at her face. Sokka nodded, and Katara took Shun when Suki held her out. Mouth slightly open, she drew in an audible breath. She cradled Shun’s head in her elbow, lifting her and tilting down to nuzzle Shun’s nose with her own. “Oh, hello sweetie. Hello.” She straightened, rocking her from side to side.

“Oh, I hope one of you is a waterbender,” she said eagerly. “I can teach you so much.” She turned slightly. “Toph, here—hold out your arms.”

Shun was put in her arms, head positioned carefully by Katara. Though it did nothing, Toph’s eyes widened. She moved her hands carefully, stroking down Shun’s arm to run over her tiny knuckles. Just as gently, she touched Shun’s face and head, feeling her skin and letting out a sigh.

Wow,” she said. “Babies are really, really soft.” She lay her hand on Shun’s chest, laughing quietly. “She’s so healthy! I can feel her heartbeat really easy! Wow!” She took a few moments more to feel her hair, holding her curled hand before Shun’s mouth to feel her steady breaths. Soon enough, she turned toward Hova, never letting Shun go until she was certain a new, steady cradle was made for her from Hova’s arm.

“Suki, she’s so beautiful,” Hova murmured. She smiled, rubbing the girl’s back through the towel for a time. Shun cooed again, waving the hand she had out of the towel. Hova laughed quietly, taking her hand gently between thumb and forefinger. “You have such cute little hands, Shun. You pretty little thing.”

She leaned close, grinning as she said in a false whisper, “You’re going to have everyone looking at you when you grow up. Sokka’s going to chase them off with his sword.” As the others laughed, she shifted to face Kailas. “Hold her just like this, okay? Be careful with her head.” Kailas took the baby gingerly, eyes wider than before.

“Okay, you can start looking at Tetsu now,” Sokka said. He watched as Katara took him, smiling while she murmured nonsense to Tetsu and gently tickled at his sides on the blanket. When he turned toward Kailas and Shun, he froze, eyes going wide.

“Kailas?” he said. “Are you really crying?”

She did not answer. She had extended only one finger, meaning to touch Shun’s hand. She went completely still when Shun’s hand bumped against her finger and reached around it. Shun held onto her finger and did not release it. The tears had started then, and continued on. She did not weep or make any sound, tears only leaving her eyes when she blinked.

Hova put her fingers on the back of Kailas’s neck, leaning close to speak softly in her ear. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m holding a newborn child,” Kailas whispered. She swallowed, blinking and letting more small tears trail down her cheeks. She smiled slightly, nervously. “I’m being allowed to hold something so precious to people who’ve let us join their family.”

When she looked at Hova, her smile was calm, as was her soft chuckle. “It’s one of those things that makes me know all of this is worthwhile.” She looked at Sokka and Suki, still smiling, and bowed her head. “Thank you.”

Sokka stared a moment. “You know I’m always going to make fun of you for crying like a baby over my baby, right?”

Kailas still smiled as she gave Shun to Aang. She rubbed her heels of her hands against her cheeks, wiping away the tears. “I’m fairly certain I can live with that.”

He grinned. “Good. And you’re welcome.” He turned to Aang, waiting while he made happy faces at Shun and mumbled silly words to her. His chest loosened unexpectedly when Shun was returned to his arms. He sighed with a smile as he lay Shun on Suki’s chest and watched the girl breathe. As Suki tugged her shirt open to feed the baby, he looked up again to watch Tetsu’s moving through the circle.

The hours that had passed in tension were finally being felt. Everyone had grown quiet, their holding of Tetsu combined with very soft murmurs of admiration for his healthy appearance. Suki was half-dozing as she fed Shun, rocking slightly and humming while the baby suckled.

Sokka kept an eye on Tetsu, following him from person to person. He smiled at Hova brushing at his sparse hair, and began to smirk when Kailas took careful hold of him. His smirk faded to confused blinks as Kailas drew up her legs and settled Tetsu in the line they made pressed together. His head was put carefully on her knees, her fingertips tucked beneath it in a cradle.

Kailas leaned close to his face, speaking too quietly in his ear for anyone else to hear. For a moment after, she sat holding him, moving her hands to take his between thumb and forefinger. She had never stopped smiling, and let out another soft chuckle when she gave Tetsu to Aang.

“What did you say to him?” Sokka asked.

“I was making him a promise,” Kailas said.

“Hey, if it’s to be the rich noble aunt that spoils the hell out of him and Shun, I already called that back when you were unconscious,” Toph said.

“No,” Kailas said, voice quiet, “it’s something else entirely.” She blinked as if remembering something, and turned to Hova. She took Hova’s left hand in hers, holding the ruby in the bracelet to the underside of her wrist and the strong pulse there.

“I have a promise to make to you as well,” she said, starting to smile even brighter.


“We’re going to be married by the end of summer.”

Aang stared at her, brows coming together. “How are you going to do that? Last time I checked, Azula wanted you dead and getting married would sorta tell her you’re still alive.”

“True,” Kailas said, “but I promised Tetsu something else. We’re going to end all of this by the end of spring.”

Beside Shun and Tetsu, there were no eyes that did not turn to stare at her. Long Fa, having been silent and watchful of mother and children, sat up and away from the wall to speak.

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“Everything is perfect,” Kailas said.

“I know you made plans this far,” he said, “but one winter isn’t going to guarantee that you’re going to be able to fully execute them!”

“This winter will.”

“Okay, wait a sec,” Toph said. “Knowing you, Lady Stony-face, you’re probably fifty steps ahead of everyone else, so come back all that way and explain what the hell you’re talking about. And in simple terms for all of us who don’t speak daredevil genius.”

Kailas’s smile became a smirk. “What I’ve been doing over these years is planning with the generals of the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom how to overthrow Fire Nation rule. I’ve known that a single strike at either the Eastern or Western Capitols wouldn’t be enough to completely remove the influence Ozai or Azula have for all that time.

“The reason I was always traveling was to acquire the cooperation of generals and high ranking officers at garrisons and key cities across the continent for what I have in mind,” she said.

“And that’s what now?” Sokka asked.

“To have every officer join the Dragons and declare at the same time that Azula and Ozai are no longer the commanders of the military,” Long Fa said, “while she and others make the attack on the Fire Lord and Phoenix King.” He scowled, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’re barely five months into recovering from being as good as dead, and there at least a dozen officers who you were never able to convince to join you in key cities!”

He sighed noisily. “This isn’t the time to try to attack anyone! You should take this winter to heal completely and execute your plan later in the year!”

Kailas shook her head. “I know Azula. Even if I haven’t received any reports on military activity from the other Dragons yet, I have no doubt that her paranoia is going to get out of control. The winter is going to be too harsh for troops to move easily from the Fire Nation or across the continent on foot. We have to take advantage of this before Azula decides to do anything.

“I’m more than recovered now,” she said. “None of us can afford to miss this opportunity.”

“But if the winter’s going to be too hard for people to move in, how’re we supposed to use it?” Aang asked.

“We have control of the sky,” Kailas said. “We can use Appa to travel to the officers I still need to convince. If my appearance as the Black Dragon doesn’t convince them, then the Avatar being alive and Prince Zuko challenging his family will make some kind of stir.”

“And what if they don’t care about any of that?” Katara asked.

“Then we’ll take those officers from their positions and assume their command. I don’t doubt that we’ll have to deal with a few officers like that.”

“You keep saying we,” Toph said. “Where do the rest of us come in?”

“Going to Abashiri confirmed something,” Kailas said. “I need every ally I can get. I’ll need your help in dealing with the people that remain and when the time comes to face Azula and Ozai.” She looked up. “I promised Tetsu that his family would make sure the world would be in balance again before he and his sister reached their first year. And I promised Hova that we would finally be married.”

She sighed, looking down a moment before meeting the eyes of each person in the room. “Even if it’s selfish of me, I have to ask for your help in all of this. You have to be there when it all comes together, I know it. Everything is falling into place. All that remains is if you’ll help me.”

For a moment, no one spoke. Long Fa sat with his hand on his forehead, still frowning. The quiet was broken abruptly by Toph and Sokka beginning to laugh, heads falling back and hands moving to stomachs. Sokka was the first to stop laughing, Suki striking his ribs because Shun and Tetsu had started to whimper at the noise.

“You know,” he said, “sometimes you can be really stupid.”

Kailas stared at him.

“How many times do we have to tell you that you and Hova are family now?” Toph asked. “We’d help you out even if it actually was something selfish you were asking for.”

“You’re just asking us to help with what we’re meant to do,” Aang said, smiling broadly. “You know we’ll help keep those kinds of promises.”

After a moment, Kailas let out a long, quiet breath. Her smile returned and she bowed at the waist. “Thank you.”

“You’re not getting off completely free,” Sokka said. He smirked. “You and Hova have to watch Tetsu and Shun for Suki and me whenever we ask.”

“Sokka, everyone’s going to do that,” Suki said.

He pouted. “I didn’t want them to know yet!”

“Yeah, Suki!” Toph said. “We could have made them do all the work!”

As Kailas stared, head tilted and brow raised, Hova put her face to Kailas’s shoulder and laughed. It took some time before she could stop, and she squeezed Kailas’s hand when she looked up to find her befuddled eyes on her.

She leaned close to whisper, “They’re just teasing you. It’s okay.”

Kailas blinked again. “Oh.” She looked at the others from the corner of her eyes, moving close to whisper in turn, “I have to say I prefer your teasing to theirs.”

“Hey, what are you two dorks doing?” Toph asked, grinning crookedly. “Doing the whole whispering sweet nothings thing and being mushy?”

Sokka brought his hands together and pursed his lips, making smacking sounds while he batted his eyes. He yelped when Suki’s knuckles struck his sides again, but soon joined in the laughter that came from the others.

Kailas listened to the sound, watching Hova laugh just as much. After a time, she smiled and laced her fingers with Hova’s. The tension in her shoulders and spine, something she was always aware of, lessened.

Chapter Text

The blizzard that settled on the Eastern Capitol that winter was unlike any snowfall Azula had seen in her life. It arrived the same day as the letter from Abashiri, leaving her stranded with unwelcome news as the snow piled up higher and higher outside. She could not even bring herself to pace through the halls. She stayed in her quarters, staring out into the snow with the letter in hand.

The Black Dragon was sighted at the Northern Prison. She was accompanied by the Avatar and Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.

She read the letter until she was sick of the characters, and then stood outside on the balcony. The wind could not move her, even when it slammed against the door she left open behind her. It left her deaf in the best possible way, unable to hear any of the cruel chuckling that filled the corners of her room.

The servants that remained in the Royal Shrine did their utmost to be courteous, only knocking twice before announcing that they would be happy to deliver a warm meal. Azula did not answer them until the third day of the blizzard, and she muttered an order to have something brought to her.

Ty Lee was the one who brought a tray with steaming hot food to her door, smiling very gently and very anxiously. She asked, “Can I come in?”

Azula sighed as she turned away from the door, but she waved Ty Lee inside. Ty Lee closed the door with one foot, never so much as disturbing the bowl of soup and noodles. She continued to smile, meaning to offer the tray, but Azula was already headed for the open balcony doors.

“Come on,” Ty Lee said, “that’s enough time staring at the snow. Your servants said you haven’t eaten in a couple of days.”

“I wonder why that is,” Kailas’s voice whispered in Azula’s ear. Azula sighed and batted at the air next to her ear.

“I haven’t been all that interested in eating,” she said, “considering I was delivered what amounts to a war declaration.”

Ty Lee’s shoulders rose with tension as her smile vanished. She bit her lip as she thought. When she smiled again, there was an attempt at comfort in it. “But that’s why you should eat. You have to make sure you’re ready for whatever happens.”

“It’s like she cares about what happens to you,” Kailas chuckled.

Azula inhaled and exhaled. She turned around, gesturing toward the low table she used as a desk. Ty Lee delivered the tray to it, hurrying to close the balcony doors while Azula sat down.

“I know you’re a firebender,” Ty Lee said, teeth chattering, “but how can you stand outside in that kind of snow? This is the worst I’ve ever seen it on the continent, let alone in the Fire Nation.”

“It lets me focus on something other than that damn Black Dragon,” Azula muttered, chin in hand. She did not move to take any of the food, only reaching for the teapot and mug. She heated the tea until steam rose from the spout, pouring out a mug. Still, she did not drink.

Ty Lee hesitated at the sight of exhaustion on her face. She looked at the door, bit her lip again, and moved to sit catercorner at the table on Azula’s right side.

“Do you,” she said haltingly, “um, want to talk about that? Maybe bounce an idea off of me like you do with Mai sometimes?”

Something coiled around Azula’s shoulders, weighing almost nothing but digging in claws. Kailas chuckled and whispered, “Why not confess?”

“I didn’t actually mean to kill her,” Azula said.

Ty Lee stared. “What?”

“I meant to incapacitate her,” she said. “Right before the Avatar appeared, she—taunted me. She said I’d never kill her.”

“Why? She betrayed you!”

“Because she said she knew where the Black Dragon was.” She exhaled slowly through her nose. “I only meant to incapacitate her. I needed her for information.” She frowned at the tea and the fanged smile she could see reflected in it. “It was her own stupidity that got her killed.”

Her shoulders rose as her back curved forward. “So she really was working with the Dragons.”

“Yes. It explains exactly how the Dragons have been so effective. Every single attack has been planned around the information I gave her access to for nearly a decade.”

Ty Lee looked at her with a jaw made slack from shock; Kailas hummed laughter in her ear. She murmured, “Well done, Princess. You’ve finally acknowledged your failure in dealing with me. If I cared, I’d almost be proud.”

“Please don’t beat yourself up about this,” Ty Lee said, reaching across the table to hold one of her hands. “It’s not your fault that she betrayed you.” She smiled. “You’re the smartest woman in the whole world. You’ll figure out a way to stop her!”

Azula almost smiled. She put the mug down to stop seeing the reflection, looking at Ty Lee. She said, “I appreciate your confidence in me. Not that it’s misplaced.”

Shock came to her again. After a few seconds, Ty Lee smiled, giggled, and said, “You’re welcome.”

Kailas laughed, breathing flame against Azula’s cheek. “You miserable little wretch. Of course it’s misplaced.”


Tetsu and Shun liked most every person, though for different reasons. They adored their parents first and foremost, giggling and squealing whenever Sokka held them and played the lifting games he invented to entertain them at seven weeks old. Suki they spent the most time with, snuggling against her and smiling most any time they were with her. Katara, Toph, and Aang they loved, never fussing when being held save for when they needed something.

Iroh sang to them, playing a lute and rumbling out songs until they drifted off into naps. Zuko they regarded with the same curious, calm stares as he gave them, holding the fingers he offered. When he smiled, they giggled and smiled back. Fai and Momo were always curious, sniffing very gently at their hands when they happened to be free of the blankets and standing guard regularly.

The members of the White Lotus and Jian were pleasant to them, though foreign enough they sometimes fussed with nervousness. Long Fa they trusted, but Katsuro they shied away from. Hova was a comfort; they enjoyed when she hummed tunes and sang softly to them.

Kailas, most everyone agreed, had the strangest talent for the twins. She was nervous to the point of panic at the beginning, going pale every time she was offered the chance to hold either of them. However, it was clear from all those early moments that they liked her just as much as anyone else, and sometimes more.

In the early weeks of the new year, they whimpered and cried often at the cold. Many times over, they were unable to sleep because of the chill that pervaded night and day. Even when they were swaddled with the best care Suki could give them, they cried if the cold reached them. What everyone soon noticed was that neither Shun nor Tetsu fussed when Kailas held them, and often quickly fell asleep when they were already upset by the cold.

They all guessed at reasons why. Toph said she was a heater they found extremely comfortable. Sokka, grinning, accused her of hypnotizing the twins. Kailas added nothing to the arguments, only relaxing over time enough to willingly take them when they seemed unable to deal with the cold or needed to nap. Eventually, it was not always Hova who offered to hold one of the twins, Kailas growing bold enough to even ask to be allowed to hold them, especially when the deeper night hours came.

“You look cute like that.”

Kailas, Tetsu lying comfortable and sleeping in the line her legs made pressed together, looked up. Hova sat before her, holding Shun in her arms and rocking her to further calm her barely waving arms. Shun was already half-asleep, still moving for no particular reason. She stopped altogether when Hova gently brought her arms back close to her body and tucked them inside the blankets of the same blue shade as Tetsu’s.

“I look cute?” Kailas asked.

“Of course you do,” Hova said, smiling. “I didn’t think you’d ever really relax holding them like this at all.” She chuckled. “It’s cute. It makes me glad you have relaxed a little.”

Kailas smiled in turn, looking at Tetsu’s round cheeks before touching one lightly. “They’re very calming when they’re not crying. And they seem to like me.”

“They do like you. Don’t try to tell yourself they don’t. They nap on you almost as much as on Sokka or Suki.” She yawned, starting to stand carefully to keep Shun from moving. “Why don’t we go let them sleep for the night? We should go to bed, too.”

Kailas’s answer was her taking Tetsu from her legs into her arms and rising just as carefully. The journey to Sokka and Suki’s room was a short one, Tetsu and Shun never stirring even when their parents took them drowsily and thanked Kailas and Hova for the hour of respite and quiet.

From there to their room was slightly longer, but it passed quickly enough that neither of them took much notice. As they changed into other clothes for sleep, Kailas smiled as she simply handed off the clothes she discarded to Hova. She watched a moment as Hova slipped the longer, already warm clothes onto her body before finding her own shirt and trousers for the night.

Hova crawled on top of her the moment she lay down on her back, wrapping her arms around Kailas even as Kailas pulled the blanket over them both. She sighed, snuggling down against Kailas and tucking her head under her chin.

“You just wanted to have me all to yourself,” Kailas said, voice quiet.

Hova hummed, nodding once and earning a chuckle. For a time, she breathed even less deeply than Kailas, holding each inhale briefly to be able to feel the rise of Kailas’s chest. When she was completely still, she could hear Kailas’s heartbeat.

Hands tucked beneath her, she rubbed at her back as much as she could without pressing too hard on her skin. She felt the lines of scars here and there, passing over the wide, jagged line between her shoulder blades.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she murmured.

Kailas did not start, but her muscles still twitched. Her voice was muddled and drowsy when she said, “What?”

Smiling, Hova shook her head. “I’m still the one that helps you read all the letters you get. With how your hands have been with the cold, I’m checking the ones you send to make sure they’re not too hard to read. I know what’s going on, even if you’re not admitting it to the others yet.”

Kailas took a breath, but remained silent.

“It was crazy of Azula to make all those men move so much so suddenly. Tai-Yang says a ship sank because they tried to get through the storms between here and the Fire Nation too late. But there are still more soldiers at every garrison in the Earth Kingdom than there ever have been. It makes me nervous, too.”

“I’m not anxious about it.”

Hova sat up slightly, too little for the blanket to slide down her back but enough that she could see Kailas’s face. “You’ve already had five officers turn you down again at cities that have more soldiers—and not everyone’s even replied yet. You don’t know how many more people you’re going to have to fight just to bring those cities back.”

Kailas sighed, eyes barely open, and put her hands low on Hova’s back. Fingers rubbing idly, she said, “Not very many more.”

“Why are you so sure about that?”

“Moving the troops doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ones who happen to be loyal to Azula and Ozai. All Azula wants is to feel safe with numbers. Many of the unranked soldiers are as unhappy with our rulers as the rest of us, and our grandstanding at Abashiri is making the rest uncomfortable. They’re not going to give us much trouble.”

“And you’re telling me you’re not worried about going back to see officers who did everything but actually spit in your face when you first asked for their help?” Hova asked.

In the dark, Kailas looked away. “Not really, no.”

Hova could see her eyes had moved. She put one hand on her cheek. “Kailas.”

“I’m honestly not.”

Kailas. All five of the cities that refused to help again were ones where you or I have gotten hurt. You can’t tell me you want to go back to any of those places.”

Kailas sighed, closing her eyes completely. “I’m not saying that I want to go at all. I am happy to go back so I can remove those officers from their positions. But my going isn’t what’s bothering me.”

“Then you admit I’m right and you’re worried about something.”

It was small, but Kailas’s lips curled in a smile. “Have I ever managed to prove you wrong about how I feel?”

Hova brushed her thumb over Kailas’s lips. “No.” She sat watching Kailas’s face for a long while, still able to feel the rise and fall of her breathing beneath her. Her free hand moved to Kailas’s chest, fingers following the lines of the scar she could recreate from memory.

So familiar it was, so reassuringly part of Kailas, she did not fully realize what she was doing for some time. Her hand paused as the tip of her middle finger came to rest lightly on the scar’s center and the deeper red she knew was there.

“You’re not worried about going to places as the Black Dragon to make sure they’re on our side.”

Kailas hummed, the sound low in a negative reply.

“So the reason you haven’t been sleeping well and not eating properly is because you’re worried about something else.”

A lighter hum came for an agreement.

Hova kept her hand where it was over Kailas’s chest, but moved her other hand from her cheek to her forehead. “And that something else is Azula.”

She said nothing, but the way her body stiffened was telling enough.

“Aang told me what you said when you were going to the ruins,” Hova murmured. “About how you promised her you would kill her.”

“Are you disappointed?”

“No,” she said. “I’ve told you dozens of times how much I want to kill her, but I know it’s not the same as how you feel.” She combed her fingers through Kailas’s hair over and over, slow and gentle. “But promising to kill her is something different.”

Kailas sighed, closing her eyes tightly. “I’ve already discussed it with Zuko. I won’t be the one to fight Azula at the end. I can’t challenge her.”

“What? Why?”

“Look at what happens to me every time I do.”

“You mean getting injured?”

She opened her eyes to look at her. “Hova, you saw me the night Azula shot me. Have you ever seen me smile like that before?”

She could not keep from wincing. “Well…no.”

“How disgusted were you with me when you saw that?”

“I wasn’t disgusted,” Hova said. “I was scared about what you would do after you hit her.”

“That’s what I mean,” Kailas muttered. “I lose my mind when it comes to fighting Azula outside of a spar. All I can think about is hurting her in every way that she’s hurt me. I’m happy to do that.”

She let out a weak laugh. “I finally remembered how I felt when I got to punch her. It was the most disgusting kind of happiness I’ve ever experienced. I can’t jeopardize everything we’re working for because I’m just as much of a sadist as Azu—”

Hova put a finger over her lips to stop her. “You’re not. Don’t say it.”

Kailas closed her mouth. She sighed and closed her eyes again. “What the hell do I do? All I can do is think about how much I want to keep that promise. I’m dreaming about it.”

“You mean you’re having nightmares,” Hova replied. “I can tell the difference when I wake up and you’re still in the middle of it.” She leaned down to press her lips to Kailas’s for a moment. “How bad has it been?”

“I’m laughing like a maniac,” Kailas said, “and I’m covered in her blood.” She swallowed. “I’ve had them before.”

A soft sigh left Hova, too quiet to be anything but sympathetic.

“I want her to feel every bit of pain she’s ever caused me,” Kailas said. “That she’s caused other people. I want her to see how she failed to kill me, and I want to break her apart and reduce her to ash.” She pulled Hova closer, burying her face in the curve of her neck. “I can’t do this. I can’t see her again—I’ll lose my mind and ruin everything.”

“Shh, shh, shh,” Hova whispered. She tangled her fingers in Kailas’s hair. “It’s all right.”

“How is dreaming of murdering her ‘all right’?” Kailas asked, bitterness muffled by Hova’s shirt.

“Because you’re going to be twenty-seven this summer,” Hova said, “and she’s been in control of your life since you were twelve. I’d be more worried if you didn’t have nightmares about what you want to do to her based on how much you hate her.” She kissed her temple. “I’m not disappointed in you. I promise.”

“I don’t know how to stop thinking about it.”

Hova smiled, brushing the backs of her fingers against Kailas’s cheek. “Why don’t you think about me instead?” The smallest smile at that remark would have been one Hova considered a victory, and she grinned when Kailas finally managed one.

“Thinking about you always makes me happy again,” Kailas said.

“Good.” Hova tipped her head down to kiss her firmly. “Then you should try doing what I’ve been busy with.”

“What’s that?”

“Planning for our wedding. Or at least thinking a lot about what you should wear.”

Kailas stared a moment. Her shoulders started to shake; she turned away enough to hide her smiling face.

Hova giggled, blushing. “What?”

Kailas shook her head, but a snicker escaped her lips.

Hova’s giggles turned to laughter. “What?”

“Nothing,” Kailas said. No matter how much effort she gave, she could not hide her chuckling. She smiled, looking up at Hova. “How can you make me feel so much better just by telling me to think about something as simple as our wedding?”

“You think it’s going to be simple?”

Kailas blinked. “Aren’t weddings simple things?”

Hova put a hand over her mouth, hiding her face against Kailas’s shoulder to hold back her laughter. Her body shook with the force of keeping quiet, but she could not push down all her giggling. “Who—who told you weddings were simple?”

Kailas blinked again. “They’re not?”

Hova’s shaking increased as more giggles slipped past her hand. After many minutes, she began to calm, the tremors fading until she simply chuckled against Kailas’s shoulder.

Oh,” she sighed, “you’re too adorable. I’ll have to tell our mothers what you thought just to make them laugh as hard as this.”

For a time, Kailas chuckled with her, but she quieted far sooner than Hova did. She stroked her back until Hova let out a soft sigh and settled atop her, breath brushing the side of her neck.

“Hova?” she asked.


Are you disappointed?”

Hova crossed her arms over Kailas’s chest to prop herself up and meet her eyes. She drummed her fingers on the top of Kailas’s chest, wrists folded over one another.

“I’m proud of you for admitting how much you hate Azula out loud,” she said. “I’m never going to be disappointed with you for how you feel about her.”

Kailas’s eyes fell. “What if I do something that will make you disappointed with me?”

“You won’t,” Hova said simply She brushed away strands of hair that had fallen over Kailas’s face, tucking them back behind her ears. “We both know you’re going to end up doing what you need to, because that’s who you are.” She tapped the end of Kailas’s nose. “And don’t try to deny it. You know I’m right.”

Kailas smiled. “Well, I can’t very well argue when you’ve told me I can’t.”

For a moment, Hova’s smile was a smirk. “Good.” She tipped her head down, letting the kiss she gave Kailas linger for a long while. Only when she felt all the tension in Kailas’s body drain away, her breath deepening and pulse dipping, did she lift her head again.

“Feel a little better?” she asked.

Kailas hummed, eyes half closed and a smile on her face.

Smiling in turn, Hova slid from atop Kailas to snuggle up against her side. She put her head on Kailas’s shoulder, bringing Kailas’s arm over herself before draping her own arm across Kailas’s stomach. “Promise me you’ll wake me if you wake up from a nightmare.”

Kailas blinked, turning her head to look at Hova. “Why?”

“Because then I can hold you better than this.” Letting out a long, low breath, she snuggled closer. “Promise.”

“All right.” She reached her free hand up to stroke her fingers against Hova’s cheek. “I promise.” Hova’s final reply was another quiet exhale, body relaxing with its release. Kailas closed her eyes, resting her head back against the pillow beneath it. There was no need to meditate to clear out her mind for sleep. The whisper of Hova’s breath over her shoulder was guide enough.


Kailas did not lock herself away while poring over maps, instead bringing them out to the main sitting room in the estate. No one was entirely certain how to behave when she was sitting at the table, head bowed in silence. When Suki came into the room, trying to placate Shun as she cried, Kailas barely reacted to the noise. It took a pitiful wail to make her lift her head, and she looked around in confusion before seeing Suki.

“Sorry,” Suki said in a sigh. “She got fussy and I didn’t want her to wake Tetsu up from his nap, too.”

“It’s all right,” Kailas chuckled. “I can hold her and get her warm again, if you’d like.”

“Thank you,” she replied, and she knelt down to hand Shun to her. She looked at the map while Kailas arranged Shun in her arms, one brow rising. “Is this the first city you’re planning on going to?”

“It is. Muroran is one of the cities closest to our current location and its commanding officer still refused to join us.”

She pulled over a scroll, reading through it. “And you’re going to have thirty soldiers defecting to your command before you arrive?”

“I would like as few casualties as possible at this point in time.” She lifted one hand and pointed over her shoulder. “And Sokka is also free to stop hovering behind us and make a contribution.”

Suki turned to look, finding Sokka standing close to them with Tetsu fast asleep in his arms. He blushed, shoulders rising. He gaped and started to speak. “H-how’d you—”

“Tetsu hiccuped,” Kailas replied. “It’s all right.”

“Sokka likes maps too much,” Suki said. “He’s been curious about the ones you’re receiving.”

Kailas chuckled and moved the map to be more visible. “Well? What are you thinking of?” She patted Shun’s chest gently, waiting as her crying tapered off.

“I’m just kinda wondering what you’re going to do,” Sokka said casually, shrugging carefully to keep Tetsu asleep. “‘Cause, y’know, it’s a city on a hill and that might not be great for Appa to come to if there’s firebenders on watch.”

Kailas paused in wiping Shun’s tears away. She turned around. “What would you suggest?”

He blanched. “Hey, no, I’m not gonna step on your toes! I was just—”

“You’ve dealt with Appa far more than I have. How would you handle it?”

“Well,” he said quietly. “Who’s going with you?”

“Aang and Zuko. They’ll be going most everywhere.”

“What about Katara?” Suki asked.

She raised a brow, looking to her.

“Katara and Aang can give you cloud cover,” Suki said. “A moving cloud cover.”

“And if you hit snowstorms, Katara’s going to be really great!” Sokka added. “And super great if you want to limit casualties like you said! Nothing stops a guy like some ice from waterbending!”

She looked at him closely before pointing to her other side. “Sit.”


“You just told me that you know infinitely more than I do about the strengths your family has,” she replied. “I’ve never been above learning from other people. Both of you sit and help.”

For a few seconds, Sokka looked starstruck and giddy. He dropped down to sit next to her before she could comment on it, and the three of them pored over the map before discussing strategy for a solid hour. The siege was utterly flawless, not a single soldier on either side killed. It solidified Sokka and Suki’s place at Kailas’s side planning the rest of the sieges carried out that winter.

Despite it, Sokka was too hesitant to offer his help on any siege. He always left the final decision on who would go up to Kailas, sitting quietly while she deliberated. Though Suki pushed him privately to volunteer, she never spoke for him. When, on the siege on Dazu, Kailas said he would be joining her and Aang, he stared at her silently for a solid two minutes.

“Why me?” he asked, pointing at his face.

“Major Junjie is an Earth Kingdom soldier,” she replied. “He’s already expressed his hatred of Fire Nation rule. He won’t listen to anything Zuko says, and he knows the sound of my voice too well to be fooled by any false voice. I need you to convey my terms when the siege is won so he doesn’t recognize who I am.”

He went pale. “You want me to—nuh uh, no way, I’m no good at talking to officials! Make Aang do it!”

“Aang is fourteen. I need another adult. I need another adult who has the combat skills to make himself stand out in an enemy’s eyes. While I’m sure Suki would be happy to go, I’m under strict orders from every person in the estate to not allow it while the twins are still so young. That means I need you to be there.”


“Sokka,” Kailas murmured, “I trust you to do this.” She smiled at him. “You’ve stood your ground against me in unarmed combat. You’ll be just fine with your sword.”

He was quiet for a little while longer. Suki held his hand tightly, and he swallowed hard to say, “Okay.”

Dazu was a four day flight to the southwest, thirty miles west of Gaoling. Aang landed Appa in the craggy hills above the city, all of them heading to the rendezvous point to meet their contact in the Dragons in Junjie’s employ. The man who met them at the city’s northern gate, dressed all in black as agreed in correspondence, made Kailas freeze up.

“Winter solitude,” Lieutenant Jai said, “in a world of one color—”

“The sound of wind,” Kailas replied.

Jai stared. His eyes went wide; he shook his head. He put a hand over his mouth.

“Jai, please stay quiet,” Kailas whispered, raising her hands. “I’m not a ghost.” She coughed when he rushed to her and hugged her fiercely.

“We prayed,” he said, voice thick. “All the battalion.” He buried his weak laugh in her shoulder. “You’re the Black Dragon?”

“I am,” she said. After a moment, she hugged back.

“Is Miss Hova all right?”

“She’s safe and well, don’t worry. I’ll bring her your regards.” She chuckled. “I was relieved when I heard you joined the Dragons, but I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Azula scattered most of us before the winter hit. She knows how much we don’t believe her about you.” He let her go, rubbing his forehead. “Junjie is a smug bastard about having me as his underling.”

“That’s going to change tonight.” She turned toward Aang and Sokka, gesturing to them. “I’d like you to meet Avatar Aang and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe. They’ll be leading with you.”

Jai nodded, saluting them both. To Sokka, he offered a hand to shake. Sokka took it after a second, each clasping the other’s forearm.

“Honored to have you, sir,” Jai said. “Shall we get underway?”

“Uh,” Sokka said, “y-yeah. Yeah! Let’s get going!”

Kailas smiled and took a step toward the city. Inhaling deeply, she drew her right arm back and punched at the sky. The fireball that came off her fist rose high in the air, hanging there as she threw a harder punch with her left. The second fireball hit the first to explode into a shower of bright red embers and gleaming sparks.

The crack of the explosion echoed across the city. One by one, more bursts of fire rose all around the city. They faded naturally into embers. Sokka nodded to count five seconds, swallowing on count five.

“Okay,” he said. “Main plan is that Aang acts as defense for our soldiers and makes rounds through the city. Jai, you call the shots nearest Junjie’s house to make sure we don’t get interrupted while we get him to surrender. Backup plan is for you to send a firecracker up if things get hairy. Kailas will step in then.”

“Sir yes sir!” Jai said, snapping another salute. He nodded to Aang, setting off at a run while Aang soared ahead on his glider.

Sokka stared after them. He looked at Kailas. “He didn’t even question me.”

“He has no reason to,” she said. “They’re sound plans.” She adjusted her mask and beckoned for him to follow. “Junjie lives toward the southern edge of the city. Let’s get there as fast as we can.”

“Right,” Sokka said wi