Chapter Title Inspiration: "The Sea", by Haevn
So sorry for the late update, guys, I was having some anxiety issues and overall life issues (nothing serious, don't worry, just your usual 24-year-old "WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE" struggles) and my muse was dead where this story was concerned.
I struggled to write this chapter, mostly because of lack of muse, but I think it came out okay...a bit short, I know, but I'm trying really hard here. If there are any mistakes, know that I've been writing this for 5 hours straight and its 1:30am where I am. I just was so eager to get SOMETHING out to you guys, because you're so goddamn patient with me and my sporadic updates.
I hope to get the next chapter out as soon as possible!
Lots of love, always!
If you want to send your author some much needed encouragement/constructive criticism…
Chapter 2: Hold Steady, Hold Steady
Aang felt like a piece of driftwood that was aimlessly floating on the surface of the ocean. Instead of seawater below him, however, there was something of a much more ominous nature. He felt pain from his wound, sure, but oddly enough he still felt like himself—still felt whole. Even with that, the endless nothingness beneath still called to him, quietly assuring him that all the worry and pain would go away if he just let himself sink down—
A cool hand closed around his wrist and pulled him beyond the darkness' reach.
"You're safe, Aang," Yue said gently—was she still Yue, or was she the Moon Spirit?—as their bodies materialized on a beach with powder-white sand. The Spirit World's sky was ever changing and the air felt charged with energy. Yue herself glowed from within; brightly enough that it almost hurt to look at her.
The memories came back, then.
"Katara!" Aang cried, sitting up so suddenly that spots should have swam before his eyes but didn't—his spirit body didn't react the same as his physical one did.
Yue's hands on his shoulders forced him to remain seated. "She's fine; they're all fine. Zuko's lightning only left a flesh wound, nothing more."
Aang frowned. "He tried to kill me!"
"If Zuko hadn't, who would have stepped in, I wonder?" the former princess asked, her tone making it clear that she already knew the answer. Her hands tightened meaningfully around his arms and he could feel the realization sinking into his gut.
"Azula," Aang breathed, his anger fading as he recalled the unsettling satisfaction in the female Firebender's eyes whenever she caused someone pain. Zuko had never looked at him like that. Even when the scarred Firebender was still actively trying to capture the Avatar, even when he was angry and reckless, his gaze had never given Aang the uneasy feeling that Azula's did.
Yue nodded. "Intention is a powerful thing—especially with something as fickle as lightning," she explained as she released his arms and moved to sit back down beside him.
Aang's shoulders slumped. "But why did he do it? Katara told me that they talked, that Zuko was going to help us…"
The Airbender trailed off, hugging his knees tight to his chest in an attempt to ward off the sudden chill he felt deep in his chest. He could only imagine what would have happened if Azula had been the one to shoot that final blow—would he already be in the eerie darkness, cut off from everything he knew and loved?
Yue didn't respond, pensively staring out into the Spirit World waters—the emotion shone through her eyes rather than any human expression, deep and murky like the ocean after a terrible storm. The silence was tense; the former human girl was clearly holding something back but Aang didn't think to pry. One of the first lessons young Airbenders were taught was that everyone was entitled to their secrets.
"The path ahead won't be easy—for any of you," Yue finally whispered, voice thick with sadness. "I wish I could help, but too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I have so much power and yet I still have to stand by and let the bad things happen."
Aang leaned in closer to her, trying to read behind the glow of her new Spirit features. She caught him examining her face and smiled ruefully at the look of intense concentration.
"This must be so strange to you, talking to someone you watched turn into the Moon Spirit," she said, seeming happy to change the subject. Her teasing tone eased Aang's worry, even if it was only a little, and he shrugged in response.
"Eh, I've seen weirder. I'm just..." He paused, trying to collect his thoughts before replying. "You're harder to read than before. I'm usually pretty good at figuring out what people are feeling, especially people who are good at hiding it, but now…"
Yue's expression didn't change so much as her eyes did. Once again, the blue-silver irises seemed to overflow with the depth of her feelings—melancholy instead of contemplativeness, this time.
"I've wondered the same. I'm still…me...but I'm also La. She and I are different and yet the same. I have bits of her memories, a piece of her spirit, but the rest of her died in the Spirit Oasis," Yue whispered, as if afraid to speak too loudly, and Aang finally saw a flash of pain shift the human curves of her face.
She turned to Aang, then. "Is it strange that I wish I could have given her more? I gave my life, I gave up everything, and yet it wasn't enough. She's still gone, and I'm just a tiny part of her."
Yue looked down at her shimmering hands. "It makes me wonder if I was ever more than a piece of La, if 'Yue' even existed apart from that bit of life she gave me."
Aang could hear the bitterness in her voice and moved to put an arm around her shoulders. She was taller than him, so his arm was more around her upper arms than shoulders, but she still appreciated the gesture if the relaxing of her posture was any indication.
The boy cast his gaze downward. "I thought the same thing when I found out that I was the Avatar. I was so scared that I wasn't allowed to be me—that I was going to have to give up all that I was—that I ran. Maybe if I hadn't, I could have saved them. If I hadn't been so selfish…"
He felt his eyes stinging with tears but didn't try to stop them from falling. Yue put her arm around him in return, her own tears—iridescent and otherworldly tears but still very clearly tears—dripping down her cheeks.
Yue leaned her head against his. "Whenever I would get frustrated by the mistakes I made in my lessons, my teacher would always say: 'Failure only becomes permanent if we choose to make it so. The beauty—and tragedy—of being human is the freedom to define ourselves, to choose if we learn from our failures."
Aang let out a shaky breath and rubbed at his face to rid it of the tears. The Spirit World sky was beginning to shift, to fold into itself almost. Yue gestured for Aang to join her as she rose to her feet.
"It's time to go back, Aang."
Aang reached out to hold her hands. "Thank you for helping me."
"I wish I could do more," Yue said softly. "I wish…I wish that I could prevent what's coming, but sacrifice is necessary. The traveler is the key—"
Before he had time to ask what was coming and who the 'traveler' was, the world swirled into nothingness and the last thing he saw were the tears still glimmering in her silvery eyes—
—and then Aang woke up to find himself in his physical body.
His view of a curved metal ceiling was quickly obstructed by the intrusion of a familiar face. Even through the ache of his body and the pain between his shoulder blades, he found it in him to smile at the anxious Waterbender hovering over him.
"Hey, Katara," he managed to rasp through a throat that was gritty from disuse. The sensation made him wonder how long he had been asleep for—quite a while, based on how relieved his friend looked.
Katara smiled back, her blue eyes—shining with unshed tears—reflecting almost silver in the light of the nearby lamp.
Dakota hid in her rooms when the boats returned from the trading posts the next morning, locking the doors and using her shoulder to shove a heavy cabinet in front of the door for good measure. Her wrists burned and throbbed but she ignored the pain as she curled up on her blankets and stared out the glass window right next to the bed.
You're a coward, her shadowy reflection's gaze seemed to say. It wasn't a sentiment Dakota could (or wanted to) disagree with, but even with that she wasn't going to change her mind.
She wasn't going to accept treatment from Tali or Luka.
Tali had been gone before Dakota awoke from her feverish, drug-induced slumber. Maya's suspicious silence on her mother's reasons for leaving so suddenly said all that Dakota needed to know—the older woman was avoiding her. And why wouldn't she?
Dakota had chosen to join the enemy, after all. No amount of good intentions—what with helping to push out the gypsy escape boats—could erase the fact that she was a Firebender.
She didn't deserve their kindness. She hadn't deserved it back when they found her, when they accepted her into the Lelino Clan and trusted her, and she sure as hell didn't deserve it now.
Dakota deserved to feel this pain—Aang was dead because she was too weak to leave Zuko and Iroh, too scared to be on her own even if it would allow the story to play out as it should have.
A fresh wave of pain pulsed through her wrists, so strongly that a soft cry escaped her throat despite the efforts to keep quiet. What kind of Firebender could she be, now? The thought of never feeling the comforting warmth of her fire between her fingers made her chest clench painfully. It took all of her strength not to let her shoulders shake with her sobs.
Azula had taken more than just her Firebending. She had taken—
"Zuko chose," she hissed into her pillow, swallowing back the lump that always came when she thought of Zuko. Even though it hurt every time she said his name, she forced herself to say it because she refused to be the kind of girl who couldn't even say the name of the person who broke her heart.
Some time later, there was a soft knock at the door.
Dakota ignored it.
The knock came again, a little stronger, and when it was met with stony silence the scrape of a key being inserted into the lock was heard. The door clicked open but didn't open thanks to the cabinet in the way.
"Yeah, she's put something in front of the door. Pretty impressive for someone who can barely move their hands, I'll give her that," Luka muttered begrudgingly. Dakota froze at the sound of the older girl's voice—she hadn't been expecting the Chief's daughter to make a visit.
"Coda, open the door!" Tali unexpectedly called out. The suddenness of the familiar voice made Dakota want to cry all over again. Why was she here? To get a look at the girl who had left with the Fire Nation Prince even after he practically burned down Kyoshi Island? To tell her that they were dropping her off at the nearest port?
Dakota didn't respond; her name wasn't Coda, after all.
"Alright, screw this," Luka snapped.
Dakota sat up at the sound of water being poured onto the floor. It spread sluggishly under the door and under the cabinet until it showed on Dakota's side. Suddenly, the water stopped, slowly creeping up the sides of the cabinet and carefully lifting up.
The girl scrambled to her feet, heart pounding as she watched the cabinet, suspended by a shimmering cage of water, float to the side until it was no longer blocking the door. The water retreated almost too quickly for her eyes to follow and the moment it was gone the door swung open.
Tali stood there, her tall form almost completely filling the space of the doorway.
The woman was dressed in traveling clothes and held a small pouch in one hand. Her dark hair wasn't in braids, as it had been when Dakota first met her, instead falling down her back in thick curls. Dakota reluctantly looked up into brown eyes, inching back until she was pressed against the wall. Tali stepped into the room, glancing over at the cabinet and raising an eyebrow when she saw its size.
"I'm with you, Luka—that was quite a feat!" the woman exclaimed. Luka chuckled before stepping into the room as well. Her long hair was in a single braid that hung almost to her waist. The colorful ribbons woven into the thick plait glimmered in the light coming in from the window.
Dakota looked away from the both of them, slowly walking to the bed and sitting down.
"I should be okay to leave soon," she said, keeping her voice as neutral as possible.
Tali's head jerked slightly, as if struggling to comprehend Dakota's words. Luka scowled and folded her arms across her chest. It was then that Dakota noticed the water bag attached to the belt around the girl's waist. How was it possible that someone not from the North or South Pole was a Waterbender?
"Coda, you're nowhere near healed, yet," Tali said cautiously, stepping forward but freezing in place when Dakota shrunk back. She just wanted to be left alone, not coddled and cared for like she wasn't a traitor—
"You've done enough, more than I deserve," came out of Dakota's mouth before she could think through her words. Luka's eyebrows shot upwards in shock and Tali's eyes softened.
Without a word Tali went and sat beside her on the bed. Dakota tried to move away but before she could, the woman's strong arms came around her and hugged her close. She struggled—as much as she could with her useless wrists—but Tali refused to budge.
"Let it out."
Dakota's eyes shot open and she struggled harder. She wouldn't cry in front of Tali, wouldn't let her see how broken she was. She had let everyone down, had ruined the story, why couldn't they just let her go—
"I don't want any more help!" Dakota found herself shrieking into Tali's shoulder, making the woman jump but not loosen her hold. Luka came to sit on the other side of the bed—Dakota jumped as Luka's hand came to rest lightly on the back of her neck.
"Yes, you do. You just don't think you deserve it. Which is stupid."
Dakota's blood boiled and she lashed out with a foot in Luka's direction. It didn't hit its mark, wasn't even close, and Luka grabbed the leg before she could try again. Dakota continued to fight, managing to clip Luka's hip before the girl shifted into a more secure position.
"Shut up!" Dakota spat, and Tali's grip tightened until it was almost painful.
"Let her be," Tali warned, but Luka kept going, her voice calm even as her words mercilessly cut through Dakota's ears.
"What will refusing our help do, huh? Will it bring the Avatar back? Will it turn back time? Tell me, Dakota, tell me what it is you think will happen by locking yourself up in this room and hiding like a coward—"
"That's enough—" the older gypsy woman tried to interrupt, her voice sharp. Dakota's eyes squeezed shut to fight off tears as Luka continued:
"What will punishing yourself do? Tell me!"
Dakota gasped for air. "I don't know!" she yelled, feeling her face crumple as she began to cry in earnest.
Tali held her through it, held her as she finally stopped struggling and lay limp in the woman's arms. The guilt was so heavy in Dakota's chest that it felt like she couldn't breathe, and her wrists began to hurt so badly that it was all she could do not to start screaming again. Luka's hand never once left her neck, never once let up on the steady, gentle pressure.
"Then let us help you, love," Tali murmured.
"Just let me go," Dakota begged. The older gypsy shook her head; Dakota could feel the movement above her. Luka's hand slowly began to stroke Dakota's hair, not seeming to care that the girl hadn't washed it in several days—she refused to let the nurses touch it anymore, and with her wrists as they were she didn't even try to grip the soap containers.
Luka sighed. "If you want to leave after you're better, that's up to you. But you're not going anywhere until your wrists have healed properly," she declared, reaching for the small bag that Tali had placed onto the bedside table when approaching Dakota. The bag opened and a pungent, vaguely familiar scent filled the room.
The Waterbender smiled apologetically as Dakota's nose wrinkled. "Emberbloom root's got a pretty strong smell. It gets even stronger when you cut them, so get ready for that a little later."
"Emberbloom…isn't that for burns?" Dakota asked, her memory jogged by the name. That was what Azu—Ursa had used to help her stay awake long enough to make it to the gypsy camp. Didn't that grow in the Fire Nation? Iroh had mentioned it once in passing, when discussing various tastes and spices to add to tea, and Dakota was pretty sure he had said it only grew on remote volcanic islands.
Luka's expression sobered. "It's the only medicine strong enough to help your wrists get back to full strength once I heal the surface damage, so Tali and I went to go get some. It'll take some work and some patience, but I think we can get you back to—"
"But Maya said you were on a trading mission," Dakota said, frowning, and Tali chuckled.
"Lying was the only way we were able to get away without raising suspicion. Things in the Fire Nation are dangerous enough that all gypsy chiefs are banning travel into Fire Nation waters. Don't worry, we bought enough goods at a nearby port to sell our story."
"I was hoping to practice my Waterbending with some capsizing of Fire Nation patrol ships, but no such luck," Luka muttered under her breath as she placed the bag of emberbloom roots on the small round table at the foot of the bed.
Dakota frowned. "Why would you…?"
She trailed off, her throat tightening when Luka sent her an exasperated look. The older girl appeared untouched by the journey, but when she turned Dakota saw the slight singing on her shirt and the angry red remnants of a burn on her exposed shoulder.
"You're one of us, love," Tali declared with a gentle squeeze. "I claimed you that day, when I looked overboard to see a strange girl staring up at me from the water. That girl refused to drown, even when facing a vast, ever-changing ocean."
Dakota looked down at the patterned bedspread. "I'm not that girl anymore," she said quietly.
Tali waited until Dakota looked up again to reply. The woman's warm gaze met hers, gentle but resolute.
"Then you'll need to find her again."