A bit before I would have otherwise put this up, but it's not fair to leave folk hanging on a two-parter, especially when that two parter starts the story.
Aang's tongue stuck out 'twixt his teeth as he furiously twisted the stick between his hands. Appa was looking a bit more sprightly this morning than he had last night, but then, Appa never was one to showcase its emotions. Aang put a lot of his connection with the great beast to lucky guesswork and empathy. It was for that reason only that they managed to plod a short way to the north with the relatively warm winds at their backs. It had been much colder yesterday. It had also been storming. He let himself pause for a moment of that stick-twisting, trying to figure out what had happened. One moment, he was going lower, Appa so tired he could barely stay aloft. Then, he remembered hitting the water... but after that, the only thing he could recall was meeting his unknown companion, who had slipped even further into her fever and chills. Managing to be burning up while suffering hypothermia was a neat trick.
"Man, what I wouldn't give to have a firebender right now," Aang said, before setting to twist the sticks once more. Of course, since he hadn't planned on staying in the South Pole, he had neglected to take anything useful for the out-of-doors, like his flint and tinder. He'd had to make due with a stick, some of Appa's fuzzy inner hair, and some of the seal jerky that had been foist upon him as he was leaving. While he was understandably grossed out by it, at least now it could serve some purpose, if he could get it lit.
Letting out a growl of frustration, he let the stick drop, and turned to the girl in the dark red cloak. She was actually quite pretty, and probably would be more so if she wasn't pale as a sheet and sweating ice. She muttered now, as she did from time to time, in a language that Aang couldn't interpret, and that made it a rare language indeed. He knew dozens. Every major language on this Earth, in point of fact, and quite a few minor ones. He got a smile on his face.
"You know, you look like you're from the Fire Nation, so I'll just use that one," he said, slipping instantly into her language. "I bet you've never seen one of the Air Temples before. Not many outsiders do. We keep them hidden away, so that we won't be bothered or interrupted. They're really beautiful. I think you'd like them."
The girl's answer was babble. Her eyes slid open for a moment, but they didn't focus on anything, and she let out a sound which called to mind an angry growl, but since that didn't make a lick of sense, Aang just chalked it up to his imagination. "I've been to all of them," Aang continued, sitting next to her. Firestarting was a task which was direly necessary, but for the moment out of his hands. As well bend the water around him into an igloo. Aang let out a laugh. "What am I saying? If you're the Avatar, then you must have seen the Air Temples. So I'm just wasting my breath. But you know what? I bet you wouldn't mind going back."
Aang frowned for a moment. "Wait a minute," he pondered. "You must have just... Oh, I get it. You haven't trained in the other elements yet, have you?" the girl muttered something. "Don't worry, I'll bring you to the Air Nomads. The Elders will know what to do, and then you can help me with those pirates I found south of my home. They must be scaring the locals to death!"
Aang glanced around. "Come to think of it, how did I get so far south?" he asked her, or the universe, or whatever. He shook his head, kipping to his feet. When he did, he could feel something pulling him back to earth. Her eyes were open, now, but their gaze was bleary. Her hand had caught his wrist in a death grip, and she was sweating even more profusely now, somehow managing to beat the cold wind and keep it liquid. A helpful smile came to his face. "What is it?"
"I... have you now," the girl said, but then her face screwed up in a rictus of pain, and she doubled on herself, coughing up even more of that froth and mucus. He patted her hand, and then pried it off and rebundled her.
"Yeah, I'm going to make sure you're alright," Aang said. His grin returned. "You know what? When you're better, we should come back here and go penguin sledding!"
He was answered by more coughing.
Aang returned to his duty, of setting a fire alight. He already had a blister on one hand from this, but since he lacked any other means, it was his option. He kept spinning it, grinding friction into heat, heat into sparks. Perchance, sparks into flames. But more likely than not, his sweat, dripping down that stick, kept snuffing it, or else he was just doing it wrong, because nothing would catch. He let out another frustrated growl.
"Come on! I've done this before!" he said. "Can't I just start a fire right now?"
He ground even harder, even faster, his eyes wide, focused, on that point right at the bottom of the stick where it met the portion of his saddle he'd pulled off. Harder. Faster. A curl of smoke began, and Aang finally felt hope. Faster than he even expected, that smoke turned into cinders, which he piled his makeshift tinder onto. He glanced over his shoulder at Appa and the girl. "See? I told you I'd take care of you."
The girl had lapsed back into uneasy sleep, but Appa seemed enthused. Aang began throwing the jerky onto the fire, which finally began to swell to something which would cut the chill. He began humming a happy song as he basked in the warmth. He had made fire.
He just didn't realize exactly how he had.
The Old War
The sand died down to a billowing around his ankles as the lights of Misty Palms began to wink on, one by one, as the sun finally vanished and night took hold. It was farther than Sharif had ever walked in his entire life, but oddly, he felt invigorated. It also felt a lot shorter a time than he could understand. As far as he knew, Misty Palms was days away. And he'd only been walking for a few hours. Still, he wasn't the kind of person to worry and fuss over those sorts of things, so he simply took the good fortune at face value and walked past the gates, which stood wedged open by the sand which poured through them. The Ice Oasis glimmered faintly, catching the last of the crimson sun and the manifold points of torches and sending it at random. As Sharif walked past it, he ran a hand along it, feeling the song of its spirit.
"You're a long way from home," he noted. The spirit of the cold let out a single chime, something which was lonely but settled, comfortable. He licked the water off of his hand, to parch his thirst. His inability to ration whatsoever had meant that he ran out of water almost immediately, so it was a welcome sensation to not have a mouth which tasted like sand.
"Hey, stop there, boy," one of the guards said. Sharif turned to him, looking up at the gap-toothed sandbender who towered over him. "You're not from around here, are you?"
"No. Just heading south," Sharif answered. The sandbender didn't look impressed.
"We don't take kindly to strangers in these parts," he said.
"That's sad," Sharif noted. "The Oasis would like to see more people."
"The what?" the sandbender asked. When he turned away, Sharif put him out of his mind and walked away. He made it about five steps before the sandbender let out an angry shout and rushed back in front of the wandering youth. "Don't you walk away from me!"
"I've got a long way to go," Sharif said, looking past the sandbender, far to the south. Over the horizon to Dakong, the Big Empty. Most likely far beyond that, too. "You keep standing in my way."
"You're disrespecting me."
"How?" Sharif asked, genuinely confused. "You keep standing in my way. I would already be gone by now."
"I don't like your tone."
"It's the one I have to use," Sharif offered. Really, this was just getting annoying. "Are you going to stand there glaring at me? Or are you going to let me go on."
The sandbender scowled to himself, then shook his head. "Freak," he muttered. Sharif shrugged, and started walking once more. It wasn't until he'd actually passed the threshold, that he remembered that he was out of water. He didn't like the look of his chances without water.
With a sigh offered to his own absent-mindedness, he turned and went back into the village. There were quite a few Si Wongi around, but these ones all had the comparatively pale flesh of people who had been interbreeding with the people of Dakong and other more southerly cultures for quite a few generations. A lot of people from the Sentinel Rock would have spat in disgust at this miscegenation. Since Sharif didn't even know the meaning of the word, he didn't even bat an eye at it. He ducked into the public house, an act which drew a raised eyebrow from the doorman, who stood just inside with a wooden mallet at his belt. Probably to give troublemakers a drubbing before they were pitched into the grit. Heedless of the dark and wary eyes on him, he strode up to the bar.
"Oooh," Sharif said, finally noticing all of the many things, be they fruity or alcoholic, hanging on the back wall. "That looks tasty."
The barkeeper followed the boy's finger back to something which rested on a shelf. "I don't sell that to kids. Barrel Peyote is an adult beverage. If that," the bartender answered. Sharif wondered briefly what he should order, but then remembered why he'd come in here in the first place.
"Right. I need water," he said. A glance to the barkeep, and to the spirits which wafted around him, was comforting. Greed, yes, but nothing worse. Sharif pulled out that heavy box and slid open the lid, pulling out a few silver coins and letting them fall onto the surface. It was far, far more than the water was worth, but the barkeep took them, giving the youth a significant nod, which Sharif completely overlooked. He had just unknowingly bought the man's silence, which was handy. He slid the box back into his robes, and took the skin, now refilled back. He also picked up the jug offered him, and gave a nod to the barkeep, before moving toward the door.
"Should you really be wandering the sands at night?" the barkeep asked.
"Oh, right, it's night now," Sharif said.
"You... aren't very bright, are you?" the barkeep asked.
"I wonder where I'm going to sleep," he muttered to himself. "I've always had my own room, my own bed. That'll be different."
The barkeep sighed, running a hand down the jaw-hugging beard which left his upper lip bare, and nodded to one side. "Look, you've already payed enough for a room. It's around back."
"What f... Oh. Oh, I see," Sharif said. "That's very kind of you. I'll try not to make a mess of the place."
Sharif let his feet carry him through the narrow corridors to where strangers bedded down under a strange roof. As he did, he felt just a tinge, a spike from the south. He glanced that direction, for a moment considering just setting off south again, but this time, he managed to put that notion aside as a bad one. It was night, he was tired, and Dakong was still a long way away, let alone however far he still had to walk. He opened his door, and found it already inhabited by a Si Wongi mother and child, who were curled up on the mattress that lay on the floor. Sharif shrugged, set down his things, and plopped himself down on the other side of that mattress. There wasn't much else in the room. He thought about what he was going to do when he found that... thing... he was looking for. His ideas didn't get very far, and even shorter, because he slipped into sleep.
Keeping his anger at a low boil was actually easier now. With a task at hand and a path under his feet, he could focus and direct himself to an end, rather than lash out idiotically at everything around him. Zuko realized it even as he was doing it that he was being childish and impatient, but control was not something which came easily to the children of Ozai and Ursa. And without a doubt, Zuko had it far easier than his sister. There were days, precious days when he was a big brother the likes of which she deserved. He could see it in her eyes. Not cutting and hateful or confused, not like they had become. And then...
"Why did you have to run off down here?" he muttered to himself, an angry edge to his voice, despite his attempts to temper it.
"Did you say something?" the girl asked him. Come to think of it, she was staying quite close to him.
"No, nothing," Zuko lied, shifting uncomfortably. It wasn't that he was uncomfortable lying; it was a personal taboo that he'd had to excise from himself for the greater good long ago. No, he was uneasy because if she heard him say the wrong thing, or more importantly, anything at all in the wrong language, then he would find their help come to an abrupt and unhelpful end. "I didn't see many villages down here when I sailed in."
"Our villages don't get very big anymore," she said with a sad sigh. "Ever since the Fire Nation broke us, our numbers have dwindled."
"That's unfortunate," Zuko said neutrally.
"Sometimes I wonder if I'm ever going to find a waterbending master," she shook her head. "Dad talked to all of the other tribes out on the ice, but it looks like there's nobody left in the entire South Pole who could teach me."
"Waterbender?" Zuko asked. "I thought they'd been wiped out like the Air Nomads."
"Would you to cut the chatter? I'm trying to listen to the wind here!" the boy snapped from his place, with his ear pressed to the handle of his knife into a wall of ice. Zuko raised a brow at the odd behavior, but hey, they were barbarians. Some of the things they did were bound to be odd.
"It feels like we've been wandering in circles," Zuko muttered.
"Don't you start with that," the boy snapped, his blue eyes flashing. "I know where I'm going. I'm the..."
"Best hunter in the tribe, can we please move this along?" Zuko asked. Sokka didn't look too pleased, but went back to his task. He gave a shrug to Katara, who looked on the edge of giving some sharp words of her own. "What? I'm worried we're taking too much time."
"It's nice to know that somebody out there still cares about family values," Katara said, her voice pitched just so to inflict a barb at her older brother.
Zuko sighed, though, his eyes drifting toward the ice under his boots. "I just want her to be alright."
It hadn't been the first time that Azula had run off. Sometimes, it had been to do something which Zuko couldn't understand, like leaving a barrel of waxed-up blasting jelly in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes, even she didn't know what she was doing by the time she reached her destination, and he had to gently bring her back to Uncle's ship, while she kept asking him where she was. What she was doing. It was enough to break his heart. She had fallen so far.
"So what's she like?" Katara asked when Sokka had finally announced that he heard nothing, and opted to move on to the next bit of high ground.
Zuko considered an alternative, but a version of the truth sufficed best. "She's an artist. Ever since she was a child, she's been writing and painting with incredible skill and zeal," he shook his head. "She's not built for this kind of living, but it's the best I can do for her. She needs some place with stability, with certainty. Not all of this moving around."
"What do you do anyway?" Sokka asked.
"I work on Uncle's boat," Zuko answered. A truth calculated to deceive. "We travel around, picking up things, sometimes selling them. It's not much, but it keeps us afloat."
"So you're treasure hunters, are you?" Sokka asked, brightening. Zuko groaned and palmed his forehead. "I hear there's a big one buried inside Chimney Mountain. Did you come here to steal our treasure right out from under us?"
Sokka said that with a spear leveled at Zuko's chest. A flare of outrage, of unbelievable power roared through him. How dare he? How dare this peasant, this nobody, this nothing, level weapons at his royal person? He wanted so badly to just let his fists fly with a grunt of angry effort, to let the fire sear. But he shoved that impulse down, right into his stomach, which was starting to ache from all of the repression he was undertaking for the sake of his sister's safety. He hated being somebody else. But there were more important things at stake than his authenticity.
Zuko lightly batted the spear away. "I'm only here because Azula left the ship in the night and wandered out onto the ice. Nothing else. Is that clear?"
"IS THAT CLEAR!" Zuko shouted. Both siblings flinched back at that.
"Yeah, yeah, it's clear," Sokka said.
"Hey, what makes you think you can talk to us like that?" Katara demanded, crossing her arms as a dark look came to her already dark face.
Zuko sighed, and shook his head. "I'm just... worried."
That seemed to be exactly the right thing to say, because he felt a hand touch lightly on his shoulder. Katara's look had softened greatly. "It's alright. We all know what it's like to lose family. Maybe we can get yours back, though."
Zuko nodded. "That'd be nice."
As they were talking, Sokka had clambered up to the top of a pillar of ice, which jutted at an angle from what passed for the ground in this frozen hell-hole. It was beyond Zuko's comprehension how people could live here. "We're not that far from home," Sokka said, panning across the horizon. But Zuko was losing patience.
"Stay here for a moment," Zuko said, peeling the hand from his shoulder, and beginning to run up the ice, with much greater grace and alacrity than had the Tribesman. Being quick of foot and deed was useful. Especially when dark times fell, and he needed to put Zuko aside, and become somebody capable of doing what Zuko could not. In a matter of a few moments, Zuko was standing at the Tribesman's side. Sokka turned, and let out a clipped yelp and started away at finding himself no longer alone.
"You shouldn't sneak up on me," Sokka said petulantly. "I might mistake you for a tiger seal, or for a Fire Nation spy," he took up what he obviously thought was a fighting stance. "And trust me, you wouldn't want that."
"What do you see?" Zuko said flatly.
Sokka turned back to the plains of jutting, cracking, shifting ice. He pointed to one solid landmark, a mountain that rose from the ice. Zuko could barely see some smoke rising past its slopes. "Our village is over there, so if she can get around the mountain, she'll see it," Sokka said. He paused, rubbing his chin. "Are you sure she was coming this way?"
Zuko nodded, impatient. "This was the way her bootprints went until we lost the trail."
Partially true, partially a lie. Her path had not been left by boots, but by the drawings on her walls, like landmarks left in advance upon paper. He'd gotten close to her, a few days ago, but then that damned snowstorm blew up and sent the boat against the ice. It was already moving at half-speed because of the damage. And he could only hope that his guide knew enough to find her again. Sokka pointed to something in the distance, an exultant grin coming to his face. "There!"
"Where? Do you see her?" Zuko said, shielding his eyes and peering into the distance. The grunting and muttering of Katara as she slowly made her way to the top was almost lost to him, despite his still very keep hearing.
"No!" Sokka looked way to pleased with that word. "I see a trail, something big! Big and made of meat!"
Zuko stared at the Tribesman for a moment. "Are you really thinking about food at a time like this?"
"Of course I am!" he said, and with that, he bounded down and began to sprint through the ice. Zuko and the Tribesman's sister shared a glance, full of the exact same exasperation, before they both slid down and followed. They caught up to him at the spot that the Tribesman had pointed to, not far from that peak above the confounding ice. There was yet more, crowding out his vision, but now, they stood amongst tracks, the likes of which Zuko had never seen. The largest he had ever seen belonged to some particularly hearty specimens of Rhino, or else, badgermoles, but badgermoles never came to the poles, because there was no earth, and these were far larger and of different aspect than Komodo Rhino prints. Bison maybe? But what would sky bison be doing this far south?
"What are we..."
"Alright, the gait is weird, but if I was a massive meat-creature, that footprint would mean I was going..." Sokka made as though to point one direction, then immediately spun to the other. "That way! It's going that way!"
"Yeah, but what about Azula?"
"She can wait!" Sokka said, running past, his spear in hand, leaving Zuko to stare agape, that surge of anger rising ever higher. Gritting his teeth, and forcing his fists not to clench and have fire begin to flare from them, he set after the Tribesman at a run. When he finally caught up, he grabbed Sokka by the shoulder and turned him to Zuko's face.
"What are you doing, you dumb peasant?" Zuko roared. "Azula is out here some..."
Zuko trailed off when he looked past the Tribesman, and his eyes fell upon what lay at the end of the trail. Sokka let out some angry responses of his own, but at the moment, they fell on deaf ear. Zuko took a step past the Tribesman, and beheld something which had come out of a dream. It had been her first. When first her sickness came in strength, before the bleakness which was to come, he remembered it. How even she didn't know what it meant, but she knew its name. That, she knew as though it were the sole incontrovertible fact in the universe. And as surreal as her painting had been, it didn't do justice.
It was a sphere of pale blue ice, its surface wavy and swirling, translucent and of a whole other sort than the unimpressive and ordinary white ice around it. A great cleft ran down its center, from its peak straight down its back. Unlike the rendition, a portion at the front had collapsed out onto the flow, leaving chunks of blue, and exposing a hollow within. In her portrait, it was at the heart of a blinding pillar of light. He asked her then what it was called, and the look on her face when she answered chilled his blood.
"What is it?" Sokka asked.
"I don't know," Zuko responded. "But whatever it is, you can't eat it, so get back on the job and find my sister!"
Sokka set his jaw, obviously intending to be obtuse about this. "Whatever caused these tracks must have headed in the other direction. I'm still getting my dinner."
"Sokka, you have to be realistic..." Katara said, but Sokka was already at a run again. She reached toward him, and Zuko shook his head.
"I'll find her on my own."
"Just give him some time. He never was good at thinking with his brain," Katara said with a chuckle.
As she walked away, Zuko cast one last glance at that thing behind him. He didn't like it. He felt now, as he did then, when he asked her what it was called. Azula had called that portrait 'The Avatar Awakens'. He shook his head, casting the memory aside, and crossing the broken, obscuring ice.
The sand and heat pressed in on Nila, first forcing her to sweat, then caking it with grit. Every few steps, she had to scrape a layer of it off of her head and face. If there was one small mercy to the artificial twilight in the Grit Ocean, at least it wasn't bright, so she could let her hood down, and radiate her heat off of her entire head instead of stifling inside her clothes. The walk was interminable, and she knew that she still had days of it before she even reached the edge of the Ocean and reached civilization, even if it was the mongrel folk of Misty Palms. With the sheer distance ahead of her, she once again considered sitting down and sulking, railing against Mother's decision to send her out here, to exile her from her home. But the rational part of her mind kicked in and reminded her that if she did it out here, she'd be dead by sunrise tomorrow.
She had no intention of dying out here.
"So many things I could be doing right now," Nila muttered darkly, regardless. Of course, it was threw clenched teeth, so that the grit wouldn't fly down her gullet and choke her. "Could be reading. Could be doing... I don't know... Science. Not walking around god knows where looking for my idiot of a brother. Slogging through sand when I could be sitting in comfort. But no. Sharif has to go and run off, and Mom has to kick me out the door."
Nila shook her head, spitting onto the sand in anger. With a shout, she kicked a rock hard enough to send it out of her sphere of vision, which admittedly was not large. "Just not fair!" she roared. But with that vented from her system, after a purging breath, she continued stomping along the sand.
She was so angry, so irritated, that she almost missed the shift in the winds. When it did come to desert climes, very very few could match a Si Wongi. Maybe a fraction of Fire Nationals, but only that. So when the wind eddied out of her face for a moment, she stopped dead, her gaze flicking around in the obscuring sand, before she began to paw at her waist under her robes. Her hands flit across no few pots and vials, until she found the tube she needed. Mother had said no money, but there was no mention of things which were as good as cash. Pity she wouldn't be able to get the silver out of this, but being alive to earn diminished returns was well worth the loss that this one fire work would fetch.
She pointed it straight up, since she couldn't tell which direction the eddy had come from. She didn't doubt that Mother, or Ashan or quite a few others from the Sentinel Rock could have known in an instant, but she focused her learning on things that mattered. Namely, everything but sand. It came as no great surprise that she never became a sandbender. She pulled the tab which ran down into the tube, which rubbed against the rough phosphorous within. The sparks instantly ignited the powdered blasting jelly within, sending the projectile soaring into the air with an ear-splitting shriek, audible even over the wind and rat-a-tat of the grit. Then, she dropped the spent tube, and waited.
For a long moment, there was nothing.
Then, she heard something. A heavy object, sliding across sand. A smirk came to her face as the sand glider began to loom out of the darkness, exactly as she had hoped. To say she would have been embarrassed if her hunch proved inaccurate was not the word. She would have been... well, dead in the morning, obviously. It only slowed, not stop, so her eyes went wide and she let out a humiliating squeak of terror, before diving to the ground so that the front platform of the catamaran craft slid over her head. Even still, the clearance was measured in hairsbreadths, which made it fortunate she didn't have any.
She kipped to her feet quickly enough, and then immediately had to throw herself with absolutely no dignity up the side of the craft, because directly past the front platform was the sand devil that sandbenders used to propel the craft. As she inelegantly heaved herself up onto the pontoon, she turned and cast a finger out at the sandbender who was still working his craft, albeit slower and more cautiously.
"Are you trying to kill me?" Nila demanded.
The man's swirling arms halted, and the sand devil dropped away, as the ship lurched to a halt. The sudden deceleration pulled Nila off of her feet with a squawk. She picked herself up for the third time in thirty seconds, as the bender made his way down the pontoon.
"You're a long way out in the middle of nowhere, boy," the sandbender said, grabbing Nila's arm and dragging her down the pontoon.
"Boy? Do I sound like a boy to you?"
"You look like one," the sandbender noted.
Nila scowled for all she was worth, making a point of not rubbing a hand over her shaven pate. "What are you doing out in a sandstorm?" she demanded.
"I'm the one asking questions here," the captain of this ship countered.
"On what grounds?" Nila cross-countered. "Any sane sandbender knows by rote not to pilot during the brown-outs, because it'd get in the way of his bending, blind him, and make it likely he'd drive the glider into an errant rock, or off a dune and into a long plummet. That means you're somebody who's either desperate, or doing something illegal. And since I can see no sign of somebody injured, ill, or giving birth, I must assume it is the latter."
"You've got a smart mouth, boy."
"Girl, you idiot!" Nila shouted, balling her fists.
"Sit down!" the man shouted. "Maybe this little side-track will earn me some coin after all."
"Threats to sell me on the slave market are not helping your position."
"You're one little boy," girl, you idiot, she thought, "in the middle of the Grit Ocean, and I don't see your daddy to protect you."
Nila smirked at that. "I don't need my daddy, which is fitting, because I've never met him. I've got somebody much more helpful at my side," she reached under her robes and extracted a different tube. "He's called Trinitrotoluene. I pull this tab, three seconds later, this goes boom, and we're both walking home. I'm guessing you've got a much harsher greeting waiting for you than I do," she said.
"You're bluffing," he said.
She cocked an eyebrow. "Am I?"
The man seemed to be weighing his option, so she reached for the tab. "Alright alright!" he said, his hands out before him. "I'm a smuggler, alright? I'm not dying out here for somebody else's contraband."
"Smart man," Nila said. She nodded away. "I'm heading south. By my logic, as of this moment, so are you."
The man glared at her through the smoked lenses intended to ward off desert blindness. "I'm not going to forget this, child."
"I should hope not," Nila said snarkily. "It might encourage you to take up an alternate occupation."
Angrily but with impotence, the sandbender set about his bending, and the sand devil swelled up once more, pressing at the sail that flapped aimlessly over the frame of the sand glider, and giving motion once more. This would take days off of her travel time. And it would keep her from becoming dead, so doubly a bonus. And she got to do it by making a man look like an idiot. Triple bonus.
For the first time since she was kicked out of Mother's house, Nila got a grin on her face. A grin she immediately regretted, when she started to feel the grit cake into her teeth.
Appa's grumbling continued, growing louder and louder until Aang finally conceded and let the great bison rest. The storm had exhausted Appa far more than Aang liked to think about. Even after more than a day, they were both still sluggish. But Aang didn't want to stop, didn't want to leave, because of the girl who had finally stopped squirming upon the bison's brow, and now stared blankly at nothing, as her breath grew weaker. Aang had always wondered why those foreign stories of war and hardship included such a concept as a 'death rattle'. He always thought it was some sort of morbid or martial instrument. The girl sitting next to him was giving an education on the death rattle's true meaning.
Aang didn't like what he was feeling.
Do you want to help her?
"Of course I do!" Aang said. "But what can I do? I'm not a healer. I don't know medicine... so wh..."
It is all inside you. Look back.
Aang should well have been disturbed by the words that seemed to surge up from the unknown places, trickling into his perception like spiders crawling across a pane of glass. They weren't new; he'd heard them most of his life, but now, they were getting louder. More insistent. More clear. Some would have called it madness, but Aang payed them no mind. So what if his brain was sometimes host to queer thoughts? Wasn't everybody's? As Appa lowered itself to lie on the floor, Aang winced as he heard a groan of discomfort coming from the girl beside him. He looked up at the sky, at the sun which was drifting, low in the sky, toward the western horizon. Actually, Aang was a bit surprised that it was still up. Winter in the south made for some quite short days. And come to think of it, it was way warmer than it should have been for the season.
With a moan of dismay, he gently set the girl into the crook of Appa's neck, and snapped open his glider. He hated leaving her, but he was disorientated, and needed an overhead view. He hopped off of Appa's head, turning back to the girl. "Don't worry, I'm coming back."
Aang turned, and his dismay turned to an airy grin as he beheld somebody skidding along the ice, wearing the pale blue of the Water Tribesmen. He raced toward him, a spear in hand, and when he got close, a war cry sprang from him, and the spear rose. Aang's eyes widened... and then the Tribesman trailed off, slowing down, the spear lowering, until he came to a halt about a dozen paces away, staring at Aang. No, past Aang. The dark complected Tribesman was only a youth, teenager at best, and his bright blue eyes were locked on Appa, pulling his mobile mug into an expression of utter bafflement.
"Um... Katara? I don't think I can kill that," the Tribesman shouted over his shoulder. Aang looked past him, and saw two others following. One of them looked much like this one, and was close on the first's trail. The other was much darker garbed, and seemed to be hanging back.
The Tribesman shook his head slowly, his eyes locked on Appa. "Wh... what is that thing?"
"That?" Aang asked, looking at the great beast which was grumbling lightly on the ground. "That's Appa. He's my flying Bison!"
The Tribesman stared flatly for a moment, before pointing to his side with his spear, indicating the girl with him. "Yeah, and this is Katara. She's my flying sister."
"Sokka!" Katara said. "You'll have to forgive my idiot brother. I'm just amazed he didn't instantly accuse you of being a Fire Nation spy."
"He might be," Sokka seemed to set himself stubbornly. Of course, Appa chose that exact moment to let out a gargantuan sneeze, which rebounded off of the unconscious protective bubble that Aang was using to keep the cold away, but struck Sokka with such power as to knock him back a step. His face pulled into a rictus of utter disgust and horror, before emitting a series of embarrassingly high-pitched 'ew-ew-ew's and trying to wipe the mucous off.
"Don't worry, it'll wash right out," Aang said brightly. "Does anybody know if there's a healer around..."
"AZULA!" the other shouted, shoving both siblings aside and running past Aang. Without a thought of caution or concern, he bounded up onto Appa's head and leaned stooped over the girl. He turned quickly, the hood of his cloak falling away from his long, black hair and angry golden eyes. "What did you do to her!"
"I..." Aang began.
"Did you hurt her?" he screamed, eyes flashing. Aang backed a step away.
"I found her out on the ice. She just pitched over and started shaking," Aang said, his hands up before him. "I think she's sick. Really sick."
The golden eyed boy seemed to quiver for a moment, before he clenched his fists, closing his eyes, and heaving a great breath. "Then I... owe you thanks. You probably saved her life."
"That's Zuko," Katara said. "And you never told me your name."
"Aang," he answered. "Where am I? For a while, there, I thought I knew where I was, but," he shrugged.
"She needs a healer," Zuko pressed, fire in his voice.
"We can bring her back to Gran Gran!" Katara said. "She'll know what to do!"
"What? We're just going to trust the weirdo with the big white fluffy monster?" Sokka asked. When Katara didn't look to be backing down, he sighed, throwing his hands in the air. "Fine. Just fine. Next we'll find the Avatar inside a wheel of cheese and have dinner with the Fire Lord. This is obviously Arctic Madness. I've lost my mind. I'm going some place where my life makes sense."
Katara cuffed him in the shoulder. "Stop being so... you!" she said with a grunt of dismay. "Our village isn't far from here. We can show you the way. Can that thing walk?"
"Yeah," Aang said. "Ordinarily, he'd be flying, but he's still tuckered out from the storm we flew through the day before yesterday."
Zuko rose a brow at that. "The last storm I saw was almost a week ago."
"And the weather's been fine out here. How long have you been out here anyway?" Katara asked.
"A day or so, I guess," Aang said. "Come on, buddy! The Tribesmen know the way."
Appa shook its head, almost dislodging the brother and sister atop it, before letting out a groan and casually walking toward the mucus covered Tribesman. It gave him a healthy sniff, then tilted its head, waiting. "Well, Sokka? Let's see this village of yours!"
"Aren't you the enthusiastic one?" Sokka said with a grumble under his breath. But they were moving again, and that meant that Aang would be back home soon enough, that this girl, Azula, would be alright. And that was just great. He found himself smiling at her as he walked.
Zuko must have noticed that, because he glared down at the airbender. "What are you smiling at?" he demanded.
"Oh, nothing," Aang said, turning away. Boy, did that Zuko ever have a chip on his shoulder.
Udu couldn't believe his luck. Yeah, having to match wits with a mental-defective and still somehow coming up short was humiliating to no end, but he was a cunning one. When the scatter-brained child bedded down for the night, Udu went to work. Sandbending was of limited use in most places; in fact, outside of the desert, his kind were vanishingly rare. Not surprising. But still, he was adept at taking what he had, and using it to its best. So when he sent out his feelers, through the sand that ran along the ground of that back room, he had been quite pleasantly surprised when he felt the gold, the silver, in that box.
He wasn't the kind of person to consider himself a thief, but if a brain-dead freak was going to leave out money like that, then he was a fool not to take it. Besides, he was a stranger. Nobody was going to help him when he awoke to find himself impoverished. So Udu crept into the room, ignoring his snoring, and the sleeping mumbles of the woman bedded opposite him. His eyes, keen for the dark, spotted the boy's things immediately. He didn't have much time. If he had been more astute, he would have tried this hours ago, but the notion had only just come to see what recompense he could exact from the outsider. Who would know it would be so... lucrative. He opened the back, and his hand fell upon the heavy box, with its sliding lid.
There was a snort, and Udu paused. He turned, and the boy was turning away. No longer snoring, but still asleep. Good enough. Udu pulled the box from the bag, dislodging two chunks of different cheeses, which he hastily shoved back into place. Udu grinned behind his dust veil, backing out of the room. Just as he passed by the door, he heard a yawn from within. The boy's no doubt. Udu felt a surge of glee as he forced himself to calmly walk out into the den, and took a seat in one corner. A few scant minutes were all it took before the vague-eyed boy sauntered out. He looked to the bar, and gave a 'thank you for the hospitality' to the keeper, before making for the exit, without once checking the integrity of his things.
Udu had gotten away with it.
Then the boy stopped.
Then the boy turned.
Then the boy waved.
Udu felt himself growing pale as an Easterner behind his veil, as the boy's eyes were locked onto his. They seemed to stare into him, and they didn't like what they saw. But if the boy had anything to say, he didn't say it. He simply turned, and left. But that made Udu concerned. So he pulled the box up that he had been secreting under the table. It was panels of wood so thickly treated with oils that they were practically black. It was quite heavy in his hand, and the lid slid out only with resistance. Finally, he opened it, and was confused. The bottom of the thing was a lead weight, and sitting atop that, was an oddly discolored lemon.
"What the f..."
Then the lemon exploded, sending a payload of curry powder into Udu's eyes.
"I'll admit it, you were right," Sharif said as he passed the ice spring. The spirit within it let out a chime, which was both an acknowledgment and a sort of un-human laugh. "Lucky thing I accidentally grabbed one of Nila's lemons. Luckier that I didn't try to eat it."
The spirit let out another chime, before starting to buzz. Sharif turned his head.
"What do you mean?"
It continued to buzz, its pitch rising and lowering.
"Do the others know that?" Sharif asked.
The buzzing halted. Sharif turned to the south once again. Then, it let out a sound, like chips of ice falling from a rooftop and landing on more ice. It was a sound he held in his mind, only because it provided it to him. Sharif's eyes widened.
"How could they have not told him?" Sharif asked. There was a moment of silence, the spiritual equivalent of a shrug. "Wow. That's bad. That's really bad. Do you know where he is now?"
There was a sound of ice melting.
"Okay, that doesn't help me very much," Sharif said flatly. He sighed. "But it'll have to do. Good luck."
The spirit of cold, encased in ice so very very far from home, let out one last chirp, before falling silent. Sharif nodded for a moment, before turning to the south once again. "I guess it's time to go."
Sharif walked to the south, as the sun rose in the east, and the spirits walked with him.
The beast landed on its belly with a thud and a groan, but the rest of the village stared at it like they had never seen its like. Appropriate, since they hadn't. As it was, Katara was still a bit baffled by the whole situation. First the stranger looking for his sister, then the odd youth in the orange and yellow kavi, and the blue arrow tattooes; the day had shaped up strange from the jump. She'd almost completely forgotten about the row she'd had with Sokka. Almost.
"Why are they all staring at me like that?" Aang asked. "Did Appa sneeze on me?"
Gran Gran stepped forward from the crowd of women, young and old, who were shepherding the youngest children in close. Even the youngest of those women was over thirty, though. Everybody between that age and little Benell's was gone. "Nobody has seen an airbender in over a hundred years," she said succinctly, her lined face vacant of expression. "Most people just think they're extinct."
"Aang, this is the entire village, entire village, this is Aang," Sokka said hurriedly, cutting off what was obviously a question from Aang.
"Gran Gran, we need Seni here right now," Katara spoke over him. The woman perked up a bit. Having no children of her own, she was wrangling the younger of Sedna's two children instead. "There's a girl who's very sick. She sounds like she has wet lung."
"Pneumonia," Seni corrected. "Bring her here."
Zuko carefully brought his sister down to the ground, where Seni gave her a looking over. Zuko grew more impatient with every passing moment. Sokka, though, scoffed loudly. "Man, we wouldn't be having this problem if the real healer was around."
"Now is not the time, Sokka," Katara said.
"I mean, he really knew his stuff. Like that time I got hypothermia and almost lost my toes. Or the time Bato got kicked by an elk and had to get trepanned. He knows his stuff," Sokka said. He crossed his arms. "What can I say? Education is a man's world."
"Sokka, shut it! I swear I'll..."
"Take her inside," Seni cut both bickering siblings off. Zuko was moving almost as soon as the apprentice to the tribe's medicine man spoke, bringing the girl into the cut-ice hut which Sokka, Katara, and Gran Gran all shared. Aang finally seemed to have a moment to get a word in, and he took a step toward Katara. Sokka got in his way, snatching the staff from his hand.
"What is this thing? What use is a spear without a tip? You can't stab anything with this," He pointed out. A gesture saw the stave fly back into Aang's hand.
"It's not a weapon. It's a tool for airbending," Aang said, giving the stave a twirl. With a loud clack, a pair of broad wings, one far larger than the other and spanned with red fabric, opened from the staff.
"Oooh! Magic trick!" the younger of Sedna's children shouted.
"Not magic, airbending," Aang said, but then he twirled it back shut and turned to Katara. "What do you mean, you haven't seen an airbender in a hundred years? I mean, you must have seen me flying over to Chimney Mountain City a few days ago," he said.
"Chimney Mountain City?" Katara asked. She turned to Gran Gran, who sighed.
"This village is built on the bones of our lost glory," she said. "When I was young, there was a city here. And when I was young, it fell."
"What are you saying?" Aang asked, looking more and more uncomfortable.
"There hasn't been a Chimney Mountain City for almost sixty years," Gran Gran said.
"Yeah, and everybody says that the Air Nomads vanished a century ago," Sokka pointed out, somewhat needlessly, and a bit unkindly.
"That can't be right," Aang said. "Sixty years? I was at a party there – here! – the day before yesterday! And the Air Nomads... I mean, they must have just... I mean, they'd need to train the next Avatar at some point."
Katara brightened at that word. It was something Gran Gran used to talk about, a story of happier more hopeful times. The Avatar, the sole bender of the four elements. The bridge between worlds. The protector of the balance, force for good and liberator of the oppressed. "If you're an Air Nomad, that must mean you must have heard something about the Avatar," she posited.
Aang looked a bit uncomfortable. "I don't know," he said. "I mean, when I was a kid, they tested everybody, but after that, there wasn't anything said about it. Everybody kept watching Malu, though, since she was pretty much the best airbender sense... ever, I guess," he paused. "Wait... The girl said something about the Avatar. Maybe she knows more!"
"Aang, what happened to you?" Katara asked carefully.
"I mean, that storm was really bad," Aang said, rubbing the back of his bald head. "But if I was really asleep for sixty years, wouldn't I be old and wrinkly?"
"I don't know what to say. The South is a spiritually awakened place. Maybe they... What are you looking at, Aang?" Katara trailed off when she saw the youth was brightening with every passing moment, a huge grin growing onto his face. His answer came in the form of an ear-drum rupturing cry of glee, which sounded something to the tune of:
And then he was off like a shot, kicking up a bow wave of snow as he raced toward the horizon at a speed which Katara couldn't comprehend. The four flippered creature casually tipped itself into the water, causing the airbender to stop short. But then he turned back.
"THERE'S MORE OF THEM!" he shouted, his voice easily crossing the distance. Another flash amongst the snow, and he was gone.
"That kid's weird," Sokka said. He turned to the village still assembled nearby. "Alright, nothing to see here. Everybody get back to work."
Katara rolled her eyes and walked away from her domineering and overbearing brother, and ducked into their home. Unlike the outside, it was quite warm within, which was good for those dwelling inside, because one of them looked on death's doorstep. Seni had never been accounted an attractive Tribeswoman. By Dad's opinion, that would make her a more-attractive-than-average specimen somewhere else in the world, but here, her big nose and pocked complexion were enough to keep her single. Luckily for those around her, it also made her focused and careful.
"Her breathing is very wet," Seni said. Katara could hear that.
"Is there anything you can do?" Zuko asked.
"The water in her lungs is drowning her. I could give her medicine which would keep more from manifesting, but it would not remove the water already there," she said. She gave a glance to Katara. Katara flinched a bit at that.
Zuko caught the glance. "What is this?" he demanded, an edge coming to his voice. "What aren't you telling me?"
"I... I mean, there's a chance I could... pull the water out," Katara said. "I'm a waterbender. The last in the South Water Tribe. But I've never done anything like this before. I can barely bend water I can see, but to pull water out of somebody else's body? That's..."
"Are you willing to try?" Seni asked.
"Will it save her?"
"She will be able to breathe. That is the most important thing at this point."
"Then do it," Zuko ordered.
"You don't get to order me."
"My sister's life is at stake here!" he shouted, fire coming to his golden eyes. He faltered and flinched, almost looking ashamed. "I promised I'd keep her safe. Please. Help Azula."
Katara still had doubt wormed into her brain, but she could see that he was begging, and she wasn't cruel. She sighed, pulling off her mittens, and holding a hand above this Azula's chest. She closed her eyes, and tried to feel water. Instantly, she could feel the water under the ice shelf, and even the ice of the house itself. She shook her head, and tried to focus. It was like trying to separate one atom of sand from the ocean.
"I'm sorry, I don't think I can do it," Katara said. He felt the stranger's hand close onto hers. His eyes were desperate.
She let out a groan, before pressing her hand directly onto the skin of the sick girl. Close water. Almost close enough to touch. So close, she could almost taste it. Diseased water. Foul water. Water where it didn't belong. She didn't even realize that her hand was moving up, but there was a different sound to the breathing, now. It had gone from labored to outright impossible. Azula was gasping, but nothing was getting in. Her lips were turning blue. No, don't get distracted, Katara thought. Focus. Keep going. She pulled that water, as the moon pulls the tides, until it was at Azula's throat, then she opened her eyes, and made a more familiar gesture, streaming water.
A sickly green and fetid yellow, stinking stream of mucus came out of her maw, all in one great mass. It floated above Azula for a moment, slowly pulling into an orb. Azula, though, started to breathe again. Evenly, strongly. Seni nodded, then moved to the girl's mouth. Zuko caught her hand before she forced something down it. "It is a mass of lichen mold in lard for ease of swallowing. It helps fight pneumonia."
Zuko frowned at that. "How?"
"Not sure," Seni admitted. "It just does."
"She's going to be alright?" Katara asked.
"She stands a much better chance now. We'll see by tomorrow. If her fever breaks, then she will be alright."
Katara smiled, then noticed that she was still maintaining an orb of liquid illness that she had pulled from Azula's lungs. "Ew," she said, before directing that orb out of the door and into something with a loud splat.
"Ew ew ew ew! That's disgusting!" Sokka shouted. "KATARA!"
Even Zuko, who was clutching his sister's hand with a relieved look on his face, chuckled at that one.
Aang crawled out of the toilet with a grin on his face. While his attempts at penguin sledding had been a monumental failure, the fun of running around with an entire creche of penguins more than made up for the lack of companionship and Aang's inability to rope in one of the rodent-faced birds. He had a natural way with animals, so even his flopping about trying to mount and sled atop one didn't do much more than momentarily raise the feathers of even the sourest one. In all, it was an hour well wasted. With all of the stress he'd had to endure since that storm, which might well have been sixty years ago, he needed the release.
"Wow, everything freezes in there," Aang said, pointing over his shoulder. The children gathered outside let out a peal of laughter at that.
"Do the magic trick again!" Benell shouted. She looked white different from the others of the tribe; much paler of complexion was she, and her eyes were a Fire Nation amber rather than a chocolate brown or bright blue. Aang smiled, pulling his staff toward him on a puff of breeze.
"Is this really the time for more crazy weirdness?" Sokka said petulantly. "For all we know, the Fire Nation is waiting just over the horizon at this very moment."
"What do you have against the Fire Nation anyway?" Aang asked, slowly twirling his staff in one hand as the other patted the odd girl in the thick Water Tribe parka.
"They've been attacking us for almost eighty years," Sokka said pointedly, and no small bit bitterly. "Because of them... my family got torn in half."
"Where is everybody?" Aang followed up. "I mean, I see a lot of mothers, but where are the fathers? And all of the teenagers?"
"Dad took them all up north, to fight the Fire Nation," Sokka said, briefly turning toward the young boys behind him. "And that's what you'll all have to do someday, as well. This war has already gone on for a century. As for the teenagers... It's just me and my sister."
"A century? I doubt it," Aang said, forcing himself to be positive. "I think I would have heard if there was a hundred year old war going on."
But there was a niggling doubt in his mind. He couldn't place it. First, the city. Then, everybody becoming derogatory towards the Fire Nation. Sixty years in the ice? How was that even possible? And then, a new thought dawned upon him. What if it was longer? Forcing the unease and doubt from his mind, he moved toward the biggest of the tiny homes, all cut ice blocks covered in snow, and ducked inside. Within, Katara remained with the stranger and his sister Azula. "Is she alright?" Aang immediately asked.
"She is breathing better," Zuko said, his entire frame wilted slightly, not from any loss of hope or focus, but because he finally seemed to be allowing himself to relax. "I think she's going to be alright."
"Why did she wander out onto the ice, anyway?" Katara asked. Zuko sighed, tugging at the hair which hung to his shoulders, as though adjusting how it sat.
"She gets... confused sometimes," Zuko said. He sighed, shaking his head. "Confused isn't the word. She gets focused on things that don't make sense. This is the worst it has ever been. But she's getting better. That's all that matters. As soon as she's able to walk, I'll bring her back to Uncle, and we'll leave this forsaken land behind us... no offense," he said hastily to Katara. And it was probably lucky that he did, because she was just starting to darken at his offhand comment.
"Forsaken land?" she asked.
"I'm used to warmer weather," Zuko said with a shrug.
"Heh, you sound like Kuzon from Azul City. He complained from sun up to sun down when I brought him as far as Great Whales. Some people just can't take the cold. Fire Nation are the worst for that."
Katara's face pulled in, into an expression between anger and bitterness, much like her brother's. "So you knew people from the Fire Nation?"
"I knew people from all over the world. A couple of... decades... ago, I was at a party right here. Well, here-ish. Is it really as bad as that? Is there really a war going on out there?"
Zuko sighed. "Yeah," he said quietly. "A hundred years of it."
"How is that possible?" Aang asked. "The Fire Nation wasn't like that!"
"Maybe a century ago," Zuko answered. "Maybe before Sozin."
Sozin. That name brought a memory directly to mind. The pirates... what if they weren't pirates? The heat had been stifling. Only Fire Nation would spend so much effort to make the inside of a ship that hot. "Why?" Aang asked.
"Nobody knows. All they know is that when the Old War started, it spread into a war of the whole wide world," Katara said. "Dad says that..." she trailed off, and grabbed at Zuko's arm. "Zuko, look!"
Azula's eyes were fluttering, like she was trying to open them. With her steady breath and much improved appearance, Aang was hopeful that this day would end on a grand note. And when they opened, bright and gold like her brother's, and locked on Zuko, a wide and bright grin came to the airbender's face. "She's going to be alright!" Aang exclaimed.
The instant he spoke, her gaze turned from Zuko to him, its aspect darkening very quickly. But then, it flicked over to Katara, and it curdled further. From darkness, to brutal, unspeakable, and violent wrath. Aang's own grey eyes widened as he watched that transformation, from sick, weak girl, to brutal beast. The metamorphosis was not lost on her brother, who grabbed at Katara's shoulder. Azula's hand sprang forward, two fingers leading, just as Zuko hurled Katara aside into one of the ice walls, while a twisting and violent helix of scarlet flame slammed up from the girl on the ground, obliterating and unmaking the shelter where Katara had been kneeling an instant before.
Reacting with a speed which even Aang, an airbender, couldn't believe, she twisted on the ground, sending out a wave of fire which Aang's panicked airbending could only barely snuff before it consumed both he and the Tribeswoman behind him. The rest of it blasted the shelter to bits as she kipped up, her hair falling before her face in wild streamers.
She stared at Aang, and said something which he couldn't for the life of him translate, before ramming forward another two-fingered strike, and fire obeyed her. Aang pulled his stave to hand and twirled it, to much the same effect it had granted on that ship; snuffing the flames before they could overwhelm him. She took a stomping step forward, then twisted, letting out an arc kick from which flame sprang from the heel. Aang could stop the part from hitting him... but the rest of the village?
Aang found his concern well founded, but unnecessary. Zuko darted in front of her, slashing up and away, fire from his own hands cutting into her attack and diverting it above the heads of those gathered. "Azula stop!" he shouted in Huojian, the native tongue of the Fire Nation.
"He's the one!" she shrieked, pointing at Aang. Even in her foreign tongue, Aang could hear an odd accent, one he couldn't quite place. "He's the one who destroyed me! Father will welcome us back!"
"Azula, you're sick and you need to stop!" Zuko stressed. Azula's chest heaved, as she stood, her stance stable and strong, but her chest was heaving entirely too hard, like she had already just about burned up all of her stamina. Zuko could see this. "These people saved your life. You would be dead if it wasn't for them."
"They are barbarians and idiots," she said caustically, as her legs began to wobble. "Find... Bring the Avatar. Father will be so proud of me."
At that, Azula's leg buckled, dropping her to one knee. As though losing her stance was excuse enough, she began to cradle her chest as though even breathing were an act involving great pain. Aang glanced between the fallen firebender and her still standing firebending brother, unsure of what just happened, or why everybody nearby looked terrified out of their minds.
"You're a bad man!" one of the children shouted, throwing a snowball at Zuko. It hit him in the side of the head, drawing a low growl from him, but he studiously ignored the Tribesmen, moving to Azula's side. Aang carefully approached as well.
"I knew it!" Sokka's voice came in from the crowd as he shoved his way to the fore, an accusing finger leveled at Aang. "I knew you couldn't be trusted. You brought firebenders to our village!"
"I did?" Aang asked.
"Don't be an idiot, Sokka," Katara said, taking a moment to shake the stars from her eyes. "Aang didn't..."
"We're leaving," Zuko interrupted. He leaned down and scooped the wheezing girl up off of the snow. "Come on, Azula. We're going back."
"I want to go home," she whispered. The way she said it, the longing of it, melted Aang's heart. What happened to her? But when she opened her eyes, there was a flicker of utter malice in them as she turned them to the airbender. "This isn't over. This has barely even begun."
"It'll be nice to see you again!" Aang said brightly. The girl stared at him like she had no idea what he was.
Zuko gave a nod to him, before walking silently away, the girl folded up in his arms. At the 'gate' of the village, he paused, looking back over his right shoulder, catching his face in profile against the sun. "I didn't mean for this to happen," he said. "I just want her to be safe."
"Get out of here, you devil!" one of the mothers shrieked, pulling her children close. The firebender sighed, then walked on, into the distance.
"Katara, I'm sorry," Aang began, although he wasn't exactly sure what he was apologizing for.
"Apologies aren't going to cut it, buster," Sokka said, puffing himself up. "Because of you, we need to relocate the entire village so the Fire Nation won't be able to track us down! You gave up every tactical advantage that we have!"
"What tactical advantage?" Katara shouted back. "Your 'soldiers' still need to take potty breaks every ten minutes! Besides, what was Aang supposed to do? Leave her to die in the snow?"
"She deserved it. She's a firebender!"
"Well, you had a much higher opinion of them while you were bringing them back!" Katara shouted... then she paled a bit.
Gran Gran looked between the two of them. "Is this true?"
"Well, it wasn't... It didn't exactly happen like..." Gran Gran's expression did not alter one whit, a mask of quiet disapproval. "Yes, Gran Gran."
"Gran Gran, you can't..."
"I'm afraid I have no choice," she said quietly. "You two, even unwittingly, have jeopardized the village. You brought enemies of the whole world into our homes. The airbender is innocent of this. His kind have no side in this conflict, and would take none. But you two?"
The old woman sighed. "You must leave," she said quietly. Katara's eyes welled up, and Sokka just seemed flabbergasted.
"You're... exiling us?" Sokka asked.
Gran Gran pitched her voice lower. "It is not permanent, my little warrior. Give me time, and I can bring them around. But this is a dire thing you two have done."
"But where will we go?" Sokka asked.
Aang felt Katara grab his arm. "You're an airbender," she said. Aang nodded. "So you can teach me to be a waterbender!"
"It doesn't work like that," Aang said gently. "The only airbender who could teach a waterbender to waterbend is the Avatar. You'll need to find a master, which shouldn't be too..." he trailed off when a defeated look started to settle onto her frame. "Right. I'm guessing that Masters Gallu, Apkallu, Asog, and Tiama are all really really old and retired by now."
Sokka turned between a bemused gape to his village, to a more stern look at his sister. He took a breath, like what he was about to say was going against everything he believed in. "Well, if we can't stay here, there's no reason we shouldn't look for one," he said.
"Sokka, are you saying...?"
Sokka nodded. "There's gotta be a waterbender out there to teach you how to be weird and freakish, and it's not like I've got much else to do. I'll get the canoe."
"Why use a canoe?" Aang said. "You can just use my flying bison. I'm sure the monks will understand if I've got to make a trip to the North Temple."
"Kid, you do realize that..."
Katara silenced him with a glare. She turned back to him, a much warmer look on her face. "I can't thank you enough for this."
"It's going to be a long way, especially if we have to ride a giant meat-thing as slow as this," Sokka said, casting a thumb over his shoulder at Appa. The beast, recognizing it had been mentioned, let out a loud but neutral bellow. It was a hopeful sign. It might mean Appa was back to flying trim.
"You've never flown on an air bison before, have you?" Aang asked. Sokka just looked at Aang like he had two heads. "Come on, put your stuff inside and climb on!"
"You're entirely too happy about this," Sokka grumbled, clambering inelegantly into the howdah. The beast rose from its lay and shook slightly. Sokka slid along the howdah, his arms crossed before him, looking extremely unimpressed. "Wee. We're flying majestically through the air like a bird."
"Sokka stop being such a... you!" Katara said. "Come on, Aang."
Aang looked down at the villagers, milling around inside snow cut walls barely taller than Appa. He saw Gran Gran, who was looking up at them sadly. "I'm sorry I brought all of this trouble to your village," Aang said.
"You have nothing to apologize for," the old woman said kindly. "Don't let Katara and Sokka get you into trouble. I'll see to it that you have a warm welcome, whenever you can come back."
Aang smiled at that. It was a weary smile. But the sun was still up, and the breeze was warm for the locale. He took a deep breath. "Appa?" the beast answered with a rising grunt. "Yip-yip."
Appa took three long strides, then a hop, and then rose upon the winds.
"WE'RE FLYING! WE'RE ACTUALLY FL..." Sokka halted when he saw both his sister and the airbender staring back at him. "Yeah, we're flying. Whatever," he attempted with nonchalance. But it didn't keep Aang from laughing.
"Thank you," Katara said, giving his hand a squeeze before carefully pulling herself into the Howdah with her brother. But Aang's mind was on another girl. A different set of eyes.
Azula was muttering to herself, in that language she sometimes spoke. Zuko accounted himself a young man of many tongues, but this one left him stumped. He'd even tried to get an associate in the Academy at Kad Deid to translate it, but only got scraps and tidbits. She wasn't struggling, though. She wasn't trying to get away from him and run back out onto the ice. That either meant she was coming back to her senses, or she was much more sick than he feared.
"She is safe, Prince Zuko," Iroh's voice came from the door. "You don't need to watch her sleep."
"If I'd been paying closer attention, none of this would have happened," Zuko said testily.
"You cannot blame yourself for the things that are out of your control," Iroh said sagely. "That way lies a hard path, harder than one your age should have to walk. You are not a martyr for her, Zuko. You are only her brother."
"I made a promise," Zuko began.
"And you do honor to that promise in the lengths you go to uphold it," Iroh interrupted. He looked at his niece for a long moment. "She actually looks at peace when she sleeps."
Zuko couldn't do anything but nod. He turned, and spotted something on her wall. While the room's construction was identical to any chamber in this ship, all dark iron bulkheads, Azula's room was a stark change, in that it was covered from ceiling to floor with portraiture, all drawn or painted by her hand. A hundred scenes. Some of them, places that they'd been. But others? Zuko couldn't say. He reached up, and pulled one from its place, half buried under others which had been pinned up over it. "Do you remember when she made this?"
"It was her first, wasn't it?" Iroh asked. He looked over the picture, the sphere of ice, bisected by the shaft of light. "I have seen it before."
"So have I. Out there," he said, pointing toward the ice which they moved away from as they steamed north. "It was real. I saw it with my own eyes."
"And the title?"
Zuko nodded. He let the drawing fall, and guided his uncle away from Azula's room. At the door, he looked his uncle in the eye. "The Avatar has returned," he confirmed. "And I believe I know who it is."
Unseen by either of them, Azula, even as barely conscious as she was, began to smirk.
When writing this story, I had two nails that needed to be addressed. One of them happened six or seven years before Aang was born, and the other, three or so years before the Iceberg. After establishing the nails, you need to see how the changes in history butterfly out. Chasing butterflies lead to much of the concept of this story before I put one word to page. For instance: In canon, Ozai had at least one heir after his coronation as Fire Lord which he considered a worthy successor. Therefore, he felt a sense of confidence which let him deal leniently with his political enemies. In 3F, Ozai had no confidence in any of his children, and wanted to put on a show of strength, which altered the political landscape of the Fire Nation in ways which will quickly become obvious, as well as drastically changing the relative situations of both the Earth Kingdoms and the Water Tribes. The early nail had one other result: Nobody ever announced that a new Avatar had been located. Many simply assumed that it never came. So it wasn't a matter of waiting for the Avatar to return. Rather, it will be surprise that there is still such a thing as the Avatar.
Predictions at this juncture were premature. Y'all haven't seen enough to know where I'm going with this. Good effort, though. To answer questions:
The 'din' of 'din Nassar' is an Avatarization, using it as a 'faithful to' rather than, 'of the religion'. In that sense, the Si Wongi name consists of given name, followed by surname - Sharif Badesh - followed by which Si Wongi originator they ascribe descent from - Seema, rather than her husband Ahmoud - followed by the settlement to which they pledged service. Nassar is an interesting case, since Sativa, Nila, and Sharif are the last people who still ascribe to it, because it no longer exists. Also, in Si Wongi, 'I' is always either a short I - ih as in clip - or a long E, like in Japanese. Consider then that Nila's name is pronounced with a long I. Hmmm. Also: Sativa's role in the history of this 'verse will be explored in much further detail. I like to believe that people like her could have been running around even in canon.
The reason for Zuko's unusual wisdom? Azula. Why does she have it? Also will be explored in depth. That's why there's the 'Supernatural' tag. Also, Crack Pairings ahoy! And brace yourself for spirit world shenanigans, because with two of the focus characters as powerful shaman, there will be a much deeper focus on it. Anyway. Enjoy.
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