Part One: The Capture
Captain Shi Liang winced. He hated that hissing sound – the one that sizzled into the air at the Fire Nation soldiers' every footstep in this icy tundra. He'd been hearing a lot of it lately, and it bothered him more with every village he and his men would raid.
He surveyed the landscape around him – mostly flat plains and iced-over water, except for a few hills infested with penguins, to the east. All of it was completely covered in snow, up to two feet in some places, and yet it still fell thick and fast all around them.
Liang sighed. It all felt so dreary compared to the beauty of his Fire Nation home in the Palace City. The predawn light only contributed to the dull effect.
"I hate this snow," he muttered.
"Who doesn't?" his assistant, some young noble from an Earth Kingdom colony, replied.
The heavy snowfall lightened somewhat, allowing Liang to survey his troops more carefully. The snow muffled the sound of their incessant marching, but the distance of 45,000 feet would be covered quickly. If the sound didn't alert the villagers, the cloud of rising steam would. He hated that part, too – the distinct sound that belonged to the moment a village realizes that it is doomed.
"They're so stupid," said his assistant, who had apparently focused elsewhere.
Liang turned his gaze away from the ranks to his compatriot. "How so?" he asked, more for distraction than out of curiosity.
"Their defenses," the soldier said. "What is everything here made of? Ice. To guard against what enemy? Fire. As if ice has any power to hold out against fire. It's just bad strategy."
"Mm," Liang grunted in response, focusing on the tiny village they drew ever nearer to. Any second now, he thought. Any closer and we'd practically be banging down their doors…they'll have to notice some time…
At just that moment, he heard a strangled yell. Five hundred heads snapped to attention, to see a teenaged boy drop his empty pail, frozen outside his ice shelter. There was heartbeat of silence. Then –
"Charge!" Captain Shi and his men rushed the remaining distance to the village, which no longer lay silent.
"Remember," he shouted over the din, "capture every bender you find!" If we find even one left, I'll char my sideburns, he snorted internally.
Everyone knew the Southern Water Tribe was almost desolate of waterbenders. If this village had any, it was probably the last. The Fire Nation Navy had done its work well, he reflected, with mixed satisfaction and strain.
Shrugging off these thoughts, Captain Shi Liang dropped himself into the rush of men running towards the village. Already, he could see an orange glow in the distance, accented by steam. And as always, he could still hear that hissing.
The Tribe Chief shot straight up out of his bed, causing his wife to let out a muffled gasp.
"Sorry, Kya," he mumbled as she clutched her heart, gasping slightly in the dark. "What is it?"
She didn't answer, but the smooth brow above her dark blue eyes curved upwards in the middle, wearing that desperate look of resignation; tired fear. He didn't even need to see the orange light playing across those eyes, or to hear the screams outside their small home, to realize what was happening.
"Fire Nation." He clenched his jaw and his fists, leaping out of bed. Stumbling into his boots, the Tribe Chief didn't even bother with armor as he shouted, "Ky! Take Sokka and Katara – carry Sokka if he refuses to wake up – just go, get out of the village!"
"Hakoda – " The fear in her voice had an edge of panic, now. "Hakoda, what if you don't come – "
"I will come back," he told her, sweeping to her and crushing her gently in his arms. He brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "I don't know how not to."
He kissed her quickly but passionately. Then, before her lips had cooled, he had slipped out the door.
Kya didn't wait for the snow to settle behind her husband. She pulled out a bag, stuffing it quickly with extra coats, blankets, and seal blubber jerky, shouting as she did so, "Sokka! Sokka, get up! We have to run, now!"
A loud snore from the next room told her that her four-year-old son still had not woken. Some kind of collision just outside their hut shook the earth, and blocks of ice shuddered from the ceiling, crashing down just between her and her two-year old daughter's crib.
"Sokka!" she screeched, pulling little Katara unceremoniously from her bed. The toddler started wailing, only adding to the pandemonium of voices and sounds just outside their hut.
Kya burst through the open archway to her son's room. Only Sokka, she thought with exasperation as she saw that despite the screams and commotion, he still slept soundly, mohawk-cut straggling over the face he pressed into the soft tick, with his behind stuck straight up in the air.
"I said now!" she cried, grabbing his collar pulling him straight out of bed to lay across her free shoulder. "Wha - ?" His little voice sounded just behind her ear, speech still slurred with sleep.
The young mother didn't even bother answering, just vaulted herself and her two children through their back doorway. She didn't even see the thick metal bar; she only felt it bruise her ankles as she tripped to the ground. Sokka flew out of her grasp and landed with a heavy thud, and Katara clung to her shoulders ever harder.
Kya groaned simultaneously with her son. She jerked up to see her four-year-old lying unconscious, having knocked his head hard against the village's wall. Katara positively screamed, both frightened of all the noise and sudden motion, and furious at having fallen into the snow.
A chuckle sounded above her. "Well, well," a correspondingly deep voice said. "Let's see what I've found."
Kya rolled onto her back, hands in fighting position. Above her stood four Fire Nation soldiers. The one smiling arrogantly wielded fire knives. With barely a twitch, it seemed, he had one of the hot knives searingly close to her throat. She swallowed, eyes burning hotter than the flames.
Katara, tripping over her parka, failed in her attempt to stand and fell over her mother.
"Oh look, a brat to match!" The soldier grinned in sheer glee. He grabbed the toddler with his left hand, clutching her to his chest while maintaining the knife's closeness to Katoka's throat. Katara shrieked, hammering her fists against her captor's thick armor.
"Don't you dare –" Kya growled ferociously at his attempt on her baby. She used her feet to twist around her attacker's ankles, bringing him crashing into the heavy snow. Another soldier grabbed her long, unbound hair, yanking her to her feet and pinning both her arms with his left arm. Kya heard her daughter scream again, this time in anger.
"Listen, ice rat," this soldier snarled contemptuously, as the one she'd knocked down groaned wordlessly.
"Uh, Chang..?" One of the soldiers who had been laughing said to his companion, sounding concerned. "I think we found a waterbender."
"What are you talking about?" The one called Chang, who had the fire knives before, stood and brushed the snow off his uniform. "He has her pinned, she couldn't possibly be–"
The soldier shook his head, pointing to the child on the ground. Katara's arms and legs flailed wildly as she rolled in the snow, screaming for her mother. Bits of the snow and ice around her arms flailed right along with her, creating a small whirlwind of ice above her head.
"I see," Chang said, running his hand over his masked helmet. "We have found a waterbender after all…."
Kya's eyes widened in fear. No….
"Run, Katara!" she shrieked, her voice growing so hoarse that the cold air seemed to shoot daggers down her throat.
Kya caught one glimpse of her daughter's wide-eyed face before Katara scrambled to her feet, pumping her legs as fast as she could to follow her mother's order.
"Get her!" Chang shouted. "Get her and bring her to me!"
The two who had been laughing set off at a run, quickly tackling the toddler to the ground.
"No!" Kya shouted, tears spilling over her eyelids and freezing to her cheeks.
"And as for you…" Chang turned to her again, scowling. "You're far too much trouble to keep alive."
He ignited his hands once more. "I suppose I'll do the honors?"
Kya tried to turn her head, to see her children one more time. The man grasping her hair pulled her around to stare her killer in the face. Please, she prayed. Don't let them see….
A burst of flame, and the area glowed a bright orange as another soul slipped out of its charred body.
A horribly torn, high-pitch shriek rent the air.
Sokka groaned again, aware only of a huge pain in his head and screams all around him. Something felt…urgent…. Why?
"Mama! Thokka!" A little girl's voice…it sounded hysterical.
Sokka pushed himself up from the ground quickly, nearly passing out again with the pain in his head.
The four-year-old jumped to his chubby feet, regardless of the pain. The scene around him focused itself to reveal his little sister, struggling fiercely against two big men, little shards of ice swirling around and seeming to attack them at random.
"Ouch! You little –"
The big man slapped her across the face. Katara gasped, blood trickling from her mouth.
Sokka rushed at the big man who had punched her, attempting to jump onto his back and beat into his head.
"Argh! What – is – with – these – children?" the man bellowed, ripping Sokka from his skull and tossing the boy away. The man approached the kid, hand raised to flame.
"Forget the boy, just grab the waterbender!"
Obediently, the men abandoned Sokka and wrestled Katara down. One flung her over his shoulder, and the both of them ran.
"Katara!" Sokka shouted, disoriented and feeling blood in his nose.
"Thokka!" This time he could hear her tears in her voice.
"Katara!" He stumbled after the men, stars appearing in front of his eyes.
Her cry was growing fainter, farther away.
Sokka collapsed, heart pumping manically, gulping deep, stinging breaths of icy air.
"Katara! Katara! Katara!"
She was gone.
"Retreat!" Shi Liang roared. "We've done enough here!"
He and the men around him backed up cautiously, hands still flaming as they stepped quickly backwards.
"Full retreat!" he repeated, finally turning his troops around to head to the Fire Navy ship.
I suppose I'll be charring my sideburns tonight, he thought sardonically, glancing back at the man with beaded braids. Waterbenders there certainly had been. They captured some, but the majority of them – and their water ships – remained unharmed.
After putting considerable distance between his troops and the broken village, Shi Liang put his hand up, signaling that they could slow down now.
Not much of a victory today, he thought. He snorted in contempt. As if winning would've been much of a victory, anyway.
Both Captain Shi's pride and his morals kept him from enjoying his duty on these Water Tribe raids. It was embarrassing, to be reduced to shooting flames at peaceful villages.
Beyond that, it was wrong. Women and children … there were women and children hurt every time!
He boarded the ship wearily, sighing. But he had his orders from Fire Lord Azulon, and he could not disobey them. In this, he was absolute. Shi Liang would never be called disloyal.
Liang retired to the candle-lit room that served both as his quarters and his office, collapsing into the leather seat at his desk. His assistant, brush and paper ready, stood nearby.
"How many waterbenders this time?" he asked, pressing his temple.
"We collected nearly five, Captain Shi."
"Nearly?" Liang snapped. "It's either four or five, soldier."
"Well, sir, one of them isn't…an adult."
"What, a teenager?" He gave a pained look. Hardly more than children. "That would be five, soldier."
"No, not a teenager…" the soldier replied embarrassedly. "It's…a toddler, sir."
Shi Liang jumped to his feet, fire shooting from his nostrils.
"Chang and his squadron collected a waterbending child, sir."
"How could – what were they – what?" Captain Shi composed himself – at least, minimally. "I must see Chang at once, soldier."
"Yes, sir. They are depositing her in the cells right now."
Shi Liang fumed, but followed the soldier to the underbelly of the ship. Even throughout the ship's halls, he could hear the sounds now – a child's wearied cries, punctuated with gasps for air. A sharp slap echoed to his ears.
"I said shut up, brat!"
The soldier stood at attention, nearly dropping the girl in the process.
"What is the meaning of this?" Shi Liang's eyes burned cold.
"She's a waterbender, sir. She attacked my men."
Liang glanced at the girl, no more than two, who lay weeping piteously on the floor.
"She's a toddler."
"You felt threatened by a baby?"
"She'll just grow to be more dangerous, sir."
"Do not contradict me!" Liang retorted sharply.
"But, sir, she's a water bender. Child or not -" he sneered - "she deserves it."
"That is it!" Liang's temper flared and his eyes burned cold. "You shame us all. On behalf of my honor and the honor of my troops, I challenge you to an Agni Kai!"
The man seemed to wilt, his eyes widening in fear.
"I shall see you top deck in fifteen minutes, soldier."
Liang threw one last contemptuous look at Chang, who knew he'd face death soon, before exiting the room.
Clouds of frozen breath puffed from Hakoda's mouth as he panted to fill his lungs with oxygen again. He and the other men stood in fighting position 4,000 cheks outside the village, waiting now that the Fire Nation soldiers had begun to retreat. Every single man held his fighting stance as their burgundy-clad enemies sprinted to their ship, refusing to take his eyes off the enemy until the vessel was safely beyond the harbor. A ragged cheer rose from the dozen or so men as they broke formation, shouting and embracing one another.
"Nice work, Chief." Hakoda felt a hand press his shoulder. He turned and saw his closest friend, Bato, who laughed and beat him on the back. Hakoda grinned, shaking the frozen locks of his partially beaded hair out of his sweaty face.
"Another victory, then?" he responded, wincing as the sweat began to freeze to his skin. He wanted to laugh in sheer relief. I did it, Kya, he thought. I'm coming back to you.
"All right, men!" he shouted, raising his arms. The group quieted. "Let's head home!"
With another round of whistles and victorious cheering, the ragtag band finally turned and walked towards their home.
"How many losses?" Hakoda asked Bato anxiously. He had seen several men fall prey to clever nets and traps the Fire Nation had prepared.
"Four men and women were captured, all waterbenders. But we suffered no deaths."
"That, at least, is a blessing," Hakoda said and sighed. He turned his eyes downward, pensive as the wind died down. All he could hear now was his men's triumphant jesting and the snow squeaking against their boots. Those four people…they would suffer a fate perhaps worse than death.
Hakoda's eyes narrowed. He heard more than just squeaking, now. He raised his head and peered toward the village, letting out an audible gasp. Thick pillars of smoke rose into the overcast sky. The laughter and joking subsided. Now they could hear the wailing.
"Kya," he breathed, and before his mind could process any more he had started at a dead run. Vaguely, he could feel his men around him follow suit, but he paid them no mind. All he could see was the path to his home. All he could hear was his heart beating her name.
"Kya!" he screamed, ignoring the people lying and kneeling in the snow. The others would take care of them.
"Kya!" He ripped their door off its hinges and leapt into the hut. He barely registered the signs of a ransacking – broken dishes, Katara's splintered cradle – but he did register the silence. Wherever she was, she couldn't hear him, or could not respond.
Frantic, Hakoda tore through Sokka's bedroom, also in shambles, and also empty. He wrested the back door open and vaulted through.
Nearly blind with panic, he barely registered a faint whimpering at his feet.
But it wasn't Katara. There was no sign of Katara anywhere. Sokka lay at his father's feet, curled against his mother's arm.
Hakoda's breath caught in his throat. For a moment, he thought he had died. His wife lay still, eyes closed. A charred circle crowned the center of her chest.
"Kya," he breathed.
Sokka's showed his face, frozen with tears, as his father dove to the ground.
"No!" he said, weeping, as he cradled her in his arms. His trembling fingers touched her face, her beautiful face. Raw blisters lined her neck and jaw, and her deep sapphire eyes stared glassily. Empty of all the life that brought them such sparkle. He touched his forehead to hers, gasping for breath as he sobbed.
Another, smaller hand, still gloved, reached towards her face. Sokka scooted closer to his mother, burying his face with one hand, using the other to close her eyes for the last time.
"Sokka," Hakoda gulped as his son's lower lip trembled fiercely. He pulled his son into an embrace, cradling his tiny body as Sokka pressed his gasping mouth into his father's parka. Father and son knelt together, shaking with sobs.
"I – I couldn't – " Hakoda heard Sokka try to speak into his parka.
"Shhh, I'm here," he said, pulling his son's face towards him.
"They took Katara, and I – I couldn't save her –"
"It's all right, Sokka," he soothed. "It'll be okay…."
But Hakoda couldn't hide the crack in his voice, or stop the sudden heave of pain that made his body quake.
They'll pay for this, he vowed. I'll follow them to the end of the earth, but they will pay.
Shi Liang knelt on the hard ground of the ship's makeshift arena, eyes closed, simply waiting. Waiting, and breathing. In, out. In through his nose to fill his diaphragm; out through his mouth to expel the dead air.In, out. He felt the cool silk of the short drape across his shoulders, and felt calm. In, out. He felt the heat from the sun washing through the silk, and drew power from it. In, out. He heard the whispers of footmen surrounding him.
"Why is he taking this so seriously? He knows he'll destroy Chang, and in less than a heartbeat."
"My question is, why does he care so much, anyway? I mean," – Liang heard some shoes scuffing the floor – "it was stupid to take the kid…but it's only a little honor lost. None of us hold it against the Captain…."
He almost snorted. In and out, he reminded himself. In and out. His breathing restored, he continued to wait. And think.
There is no "little" honor. Honor…it is always worth its price.
Sweat trickled down his face. In, out. In, out.
The entire vicinity quieted. Liang stood and turned, the scarlet cloth rippling to the ground. Chang stood opposite him, perhaps twenty cheks away, his legs too close, his roots not firm, and the façade of cockiness failing to conceal the fear emanating from his every pore. Sharp intake, slow release….
He would go down so easily.
Liang let a fierce cry rip from his throat and thrust his fist forward. A pillar of flames split the air towards Chang, who had barely enough time to slice it with his own bending. Already, he stumbled.
Liang worked his way toward his foe quickly, bending jets of fire towards the soldier with every step. Chang managed to dodge each blow, but he was quickly losing balance.
With a firm, sweeping kick, the captain pulled his opponent's roots from under him. Chang fell clunkily to the rocky ground, gasping for breath and clutching his head. Shi Liang placed his foot gently on the other man's stomach. Eyes wide, Chang began to speak.
"Captain! Please, I – "
Liang's stance shifted sharply, his left fist drawing back and his right punching, aimed directly at Chang's head.
Liang held position, his right fist still smoking. In, out. The weak winter sun still beat on his now-soaking back. In, out. He straightened, turning at last to the men encircling the arena. In, out. He bowed, right fist against his open left palm. Head down, he could feel the crowd follow suit. In, out.
Rising again, he spoke.
"Throw his body overboard, Zhi."
The toddler's crying reached such a volume and pitch that even those on deck could hear it. Shi Liang winced, remembering that she had been left in the cell.
"And you – " he ordered, pointing to a foot soldier. The man jumped. "Take the child – the waterbender in question – to the infirmary. See if anything will calm her down."
He felt a dull thud just behind his right eye.
"I will be down to see her shortly."
He lifted his right hand in dismissal, and the crowd dispersed. Rubbing his forehead and sighing, Liang trudged to his captain's quarters once more for some quiet and a brief respite.
Late into the night, Liang shifted uncomfortably in a bare, steel chair, wondering how he had gotten where he was. Stuck here in this cramped cabin, doing nothing more than babysitting the source of my troubles. He sighed, pulling his feet under the chair again. He knew why; he just didn't understand it.
It had taken hours for the girl to tire of fighting her captors, even the ones merely trying to check her health. She had exerted herself all day in her struggling, shouting such phrases as "Mama," "Thokka, Daddy!" and "Nemme go!"
Finally, hours after Liang had arrived to oversee her check-up, she finally resigned herself to merely panting from exhaustion, and struggling tiredly every few minutes when they pulled her thick parka off, checked her pulse, and other such things.
After the medic finished poking and prodding and pronounced her healthy, the little girl simply fell asleep right on the cushioned patient table she'd been laid upon. Shi Liang and the other men in the room merely glanced at one another as if to ask, what now? They all turned to the sleeping child. She lay on her side, chubby arms clutching herself and legs tucked into her body to keep warm. Something stirred within Liang's breast.
"I'll stay here and watch her tonight," he said. The others turned to him.
"Sir…are you sure? Any of us can – " But he waved the soldier off mid-sentence.
"I'm sure," he said. "It's high time I try my hand at the old guard duty." He made a face jokingly. "However weak a brand of it this one may be."
They had filtered out, all too understanding.
And now, into the early hours of the morning, he still sat awake by the little girl's side. She wore only a simple white shift, now that her parka had been removed. After all, it had been just the end of the night when she must've been awoken…just today, earlier today, when Chang had taken her….
She twitched uncomfortably. He wondered what she dreamed tonight….
She ran and ran through the snow, laughing as she ran after Her Mama and Her Sokka-brother.
"Penguin, penguin!" she shouted, grasping Her Sokka's hand and puffing.
Technically, she was obviously a child. A toddler, at least. She had certainly demonstrated her limited use of both words and mobile skills throughout the day today, so she wasn't a baby anymore. Yet Liang could hardly stop himself from calling her one in his mind.
Her Mama knelt to smile at Katara's level and showed her a soapstone doll. "Here, baby," Her Mama said. "Your Daddy made this for you today."
Liang leaned forward, resting his chin on the heel of his hand. This baby just seemed so foreign, with her brown hair so much lighter than the black he had always been used to. Her skin was also darker – completely in contrast to the almost pasty norm of Fire Nation civilians. Her eyes sat too wide from each other, and though lidded, he knew they were a strange hue – sapphire blue, in fact.
With all these differences…why, oh why, did she remind him so of another child?
But Katara paid Her Mamano mind, since she was running and running after a big, squishy penguin Her Sokka had pointed out to her.
Nearly three years ago. He remembered it so clearly. His wife, Maylin, had approached him under the filtered shade of the rock garden with a glow in her eyes and a tender, secret smile. He had forgotten himself completely, lifting her into the air and spinning a circle, then kissing her hard and smiling.
Months later, their joy showed in the swelling of her belly. He had loved to pat it as he walked by, and she would give him that look.
Liang sighed, cradling his face in both hands now.
She shrieked with glee, straddling the penguin as it zoomed down and snowy banks. And at the same time, she sat on Her Mama's lap, chewing on Her Mama's necklace. "Stop that!" Katara heard, but it didn't matter, because she was sliding down the hill, nearly straight into Her Sokka's waiting, open arms.
There had been blood. A lot of blood. And through the openings and closings of the bedroom doors, Liang had caught sight of Maylin's pale, sweating face, almost too still. Almost as if she, too, was gone. Like their baby was gone. A boy, stillborn but perfect, with skin as white like a lily and downy, jet black hair. If he'd ever opened his eyes, they would have been brown, like his mother's.
Their baby, their first and only baby, Tai Yang. He had died before he had been born. For days, and even years later, Maylin would fall asleep against Liang's chest, having soaked his nightshirt through with tears she might not have even known she'd shed. The surgeons said she would never carry a baby to term.
Katara crash-landed into Her Sokka, and they tumbled in the powdery snow, laughing and struggling to stand. "Leggo my wolf tail!" he shouted, laughing and yanking the short strands she'd someday grow out like her mother's loops.
This baby, this child lying on the naval patient's bed, was nothing like the child he'd lost. He just had to remind himself of that, no matter how well he could see Tai Yang in the round, young cheeks and small form, never mind that Tai Yang would have been just her age.
Her giggling turned into shrieks. Her Sokka was gone, and instead there were monsters all around her – red monsters, with skulls for faces and fire in their hands. They grabbed her, heaving her onto their broad shoulders.
"Nemme go! Thokka!"
Her hoarse shouts startled Liang out of his reverie. The girl seemed stuck in a nightmare, one she couldn't wake from. Most likely a nightmare that will still be there when she does.
She thrashed in the bed, crying and shouting and tearing at the cushions. Liang stood and approached her, hesitant. Shaking his head at his stupidity, he reached beneath her arms and held her as he'd always imagined holding Tai Yang.
The baby – girl – kept crying, struggling against his hold. He didn't know any lullabies, and doubted he'd try singing them if he did. For a tedious quarter of an hour, all he could do was step side to side in a swaying pattern, gently bouncing her instinctively.
But then her head began to droop against his chest, and her fists stopped thrashing. She had fallen into a deeper sleep, the kind of sleep that had no dreams. But Liang kept holding her, long after that little storm had passed. He used his right hand to gently rub her back, still swaying in that soft two-step pattern, for yet another hour. When he finally lay the sleeping baby down on her cot once more, he had to pry her rolled fingers from his shirt.
A/N: -EDIT- Combined old chapters 1 and 2 for a bigger chapter one! These two were my most...raw, I guess, least polished chapters, and it makes more sense to have them grouped together. So here goes!
Old ch. 1 notes (ends on Liang asking for an Agni Kai): So, I had this idea, wrote the first chapter and posted it here and at all within a 4 hour time period - most of which was after my bed-time. Deeefinitely tired, I was!
A couple of notes: Shi Liang and Chang are original (not that Chang lasted long,). And, in case I didn't make it clear, "Shi" is the surname, and "Liang" his first name. Hope you enjoyed!
Old ch. 2 notes (starts on Hakoda coming back to the village): a couple of things today! I know that the water tribe men aren't benders in the show. The idea is that, as per episode 308 where the Fire Nation took waterbenders prisoner, the Southern Water Tribe wouldn't have had any benders left by the time Katara was old enough to try to start learning. But in this alternate universe? Who knows?
In a similar vein, any changes in this fic to the world of Avatar as known in the show should logically be as a result of just one change: that Chang took Katara during the raid, and that I set said raid about 4 years earlier than it would've been according to the show. Please leave comments; it helps so much! If there is a serious beta with a lot of knowledge in grammar, narrative flow, and characterizations, I'm interested! Basically, if you read this and think "but it has the potential to be so much better and I know how," then I'd love to have you as a beta. :-)
link: http://wishiwould . deviantart . com