Chapter 5

Sokka held himself stiff as the tribesmen loaded their skin boats. Their excitement tingled over his skin, but the boy also sensed their underlying fear and regret – for leaving their wives and children, their village, all alone with no one but Sokka to guard them. Sokka could understand their misgivings – they only knew that him as a boy; the chief's son, but a mere boy and a skinny one at that. How would he defend the tribe if the Fire Nation returned by some twist of fate? They didn't know of the man that lurked beneath the surface, watching them with eyes that had seen it all before. Sokka knew the atrocities of war and what it felt like not to fit in one's own skin, and he remembered the sensation of pain when he tripped because he half-expected his legs to be a bit longer… He knew the anguish of losing family better than any of those men, including his own father. Sokka wouldn't let his tribe feel that agony this time – he would defend them all to the death, even if he had to go to the end of the world to do so. For these reasons and more, Sokka didn't beg Dad to take him along.

That night Sokka stared over still water, allowing Katara to gravitate to him for comfort as lamp-lit prows drifted over a dark horizon.

Sokka fell into the role of the tribe leader far more quickly than he last time, but that came as little surprise. His body passed the bridge to manhood with no father and no rite of passage to mark it. Even with the majority of his time spent hunting, the village had few resources to spare for the celebration which normally accompanied a coming-of-age birthday. Sokka received the hugs of the women and children with a small smile, grateful for their well-wishes. Katara presented him with a single, semi-circular bone earring and a smirk.

A year flew by. Sokka broke an unspoken law and took Katara out to hunt. Screw tradition; he had a hard enough time providing for everyone by himself! He'd witnessed the warrior that Katara had become without the Water Tribe's inherent codes of gender to hinder her.

Sokka's face still burned with shame when he recalled the ignorance of his last life, humiliated both by the comments he'd made to Katara and the Kyoshi warriors on the general weakness of women. Sometimes he couldn't believe how quickly Katara, Suki, and Toph's combined efforts had set him straight. (He didn't include Ty Lee, Azula, and Mai because the very thought of those three crazy women made him shudder.) The women of the tribe, including Gran-Gran, gave no more protest than raised eyebrows. They knew how hard he worked to keep food in their bellies, and did not begrudge him the help of his head-strong sister.

Katara took to her new task quickly. She cringed and winced at the thought of killing any poor animal at first, but Sokka's point stood strong: "We're not killing for us, but for our families." The ice plains offered a sparse menu, and soon even Katara could separate her compassion from the exhilaration of eating turtle-seal instead of sea prunes for supper.

On the day-long fishing excursions, Sokka soon made excuses to teach Katara what little he knew of waterbending. Of course he wasn't really teaching her, but he never had to wait long before his sister grew bored and started playing with her "magic water."

"You're doing a lot of pushing, Katara. Maybe you could try pulling? Let it flow to you like - uh - water. Try moving your wrists more…"

It never ceased to amaze him when she actually listened. Or when his advice worked.

Kanna watched with some sadness as Sokka paced the perimeter of the village walls. He never failed to check them for cracks and make sure they stood strong. He was always like that - checking and double-checking to make sure everything was in its place and he was always aware.

The elderly woman's gaze passed over him, taking in her grandson at a glance. He had changed greatly in the seven years following his mother's death; the boy was still in an awkward teen stage, all long gangly limbs and stretched bones. Yet despite his frame, Sokka moved with fluidity she'd never seen in a young man – he took warrior's steps on the snow, silent with an underlying and barely-perceptible tension.

Kanna frowned as Sokka twisted a piece of driftwood around at his feet, jamming the end into the ground before packing snow at its base in a rather random spot near the north wall. He then paced towards the wall, taking measured steps until he met the snow barrier. He nodded jerkily, moving away and leaving the mound and stick to lie in the open, where any passing villager could trip over it if they weren't careful. She shook her head – no matter how long she'd known the child, she would never know what Sokka was thinking. Kaya's boy was a strange one.

"Dare you to break down that iceberg!"

Sokka couldn't find it in himself to be disturbed at how easy it was to goad Katara. He'd known his little sister for two lifetimes; more than long enough to pick out the things which made her tick. Much like himself, if there was one thing Katara couldn't resist, it was a challenge.

The boy sat back in the canoe with slight dread. He'd planned endlessly for this day, and this was the best option he could formulate. As he stared at the iceberg whose destruction would bring the Avatar back to the world, Sokka couldn't help but feel that this was the first day of the rest of his life.

I will save them.

"I bet you a week's worth of snowberries that I can!" Katara said, dragging him from his thoughts. Sokka smirked.

"Done!" It sucked that he'd lose, but he could give up his favorite treat if meant saving the world. His stomach vehemently disagreed. "Shut up, you," he scolded his growling midsection, thereby not paying nearly enough attention when the canoe was suddenly rocked by a giant wave. Sokka yelled as his world tilted sideways, pulling Katara into his arms a moment before the boat slammed into an ice floe, sending them sprawling across the frozen surface. Sokka struggled to his feet after a long minute when the floe finally stopped rocking, taking in the pieces of his shattered canoe. "Oh maaan, I can't believe this!"

The punch Katara delivered to his arm sent him face-first into the ice, and nearly into the water. "Katara! What are you-"

"This is your fault, not mine! Just so you know," she huffed, crossing her arms.

"Hey, I just dared you-" All protest died when she shot him the patented you-are-this-close-to-severe-harm look. He shut up.

Then the water started to glow and neither of them cared about arguing anymore.

Sokka knew he shouldn't be disappointed. He'd told himself a thousand times that there was hardly a chance – barely any chance that Aang would remember anything – but hope had still grown. Why would the Spirits send him back and not the Avatar? What was so special about little old him? Sokka hadn't even been a bender in the past until his freaky emotion powers showed up. Certainly the Avatar, master of all four elements and bridge between the worlds, would have been a better option.

He'd held on to the tenuous dream, a slim hope that he was not alone in his responsibility to change what was to come as Katara leaned over the prone boy dressed in garish orange. Then Aang's clear gray eyes popped open.

"Want to go penguin sledding with me?"

That was not the first question asked by an Avatar who'd died by the Fire Lord's hand.

Sokka wanted to cry and hug his friend at the same time as his hopes were smothered. Instead he hung back, saying little as the exuberant airbender leapt over the ice ridge to wake Appa. As happy as he was to see the boy and his furry white monster, he'd try to avoid getting covered in bison snot this time.

He's been trapped in an iceberg for 100 years…He's been trapped in an iceberg for 100 years… Sokka repeated the mantra over and over in his head, desperately trying to block out the loud whoops Aang was releasing as he entertained Katara and the small children with his airbending. In the intervening years between his rebirth and now, Sokka's memories of just how annoying Aang was at this point must have faded. He had a vague recollection of snapping at the little kids; something about warrior training which had seemed all-important at the time.

It was not so now, when Sokka had seen enough of the horrors of true war to dismiss even play-training out of hand. No "training" would prepare children for bloodshed.

His mind was wrenched back to Aang as the boy slammed into a snow structure, crumbling Sokka's watchtower into nothing more than a drift. The boy laughed loudly – it was so achingly familiar, and so light. He doesn't have the weight of the world on his shoulders yet... He's still in denial about being the Avatar. Those thoughts were enough to make him a little bit sad. With a huff and a shake to dismiss the feeling, Sokka elbowed his sister.

In response to her glare, he hissed, "Can you get him out of here before he destroys any walls?" He said it with a smile to lighten the mood, and in turn Katara stuck her tongue out at him before turning to Aang.

"Hey Aang, want to learn how to catch a penguin?"

"Do I?" was the answer, and before he knew it the pair had disappeared beyond the walls. The kids let out disappointed groans, but eventually returned to their games. Sokka took it all in that moment – the children and women milling around, kids laughing – a warm atmosphere despite the chilly air.

He turned to fetch his boomerang and a sharpened knife from his tent.

Step one complete.

An hour later, Sokka was listening to Katara and Aang's worried explanations with only half an ear as Gran-Gran gave them the reaming of their lives. His attention was fixed instead on the slowly-descending flare which lit up part of the sky, leading Zuko's ship right to their village.

Strange, but he'd expected to feel excitement at this moment – a buzz of something beginning, of all his years of preparation coming together. Instead he just felt incredibly tired, like someone who hadn't slept in days watching the sun rise on yet another sleepless morning. So strange.

Guilt was starting to roll off of Aang and Katara, drawing his attention back to them as they cringed under Gran-Gran's stern but quiet reprimands. One thing about Gran-Gran – she never yelled, even when she was feeling murderous…a little bit like now.

"Gran-Gran," he interrupted, setting his hand on her stooped shoulder. He sent her a little surge of calm to soothe her anger and received a glower for his effort, but she quieted. "It's true that what they did was stupid and reckless, but they're just kids and I doubt Aang tripped the booby trap on purpose." Katara started to puff up in protest at the "just kids" comment, but Gran-Gran's glare turned on her with enough force to make even Sokka wince.

He took his hand of her shoulder and crossed his arms, not at all intimidated the scary old woman.

Well, maybe just a bit.

"That does not change the fact that the airbender has endangered our village, Sokka," she grimaced, ignoring Aang's pleas of, "But I didn't mean to!"

"If the Fire Nation is coming, they'll come whether he's here or not. I know you want to banish him-" here Katara gasped, "and I'd say yes, but isn't it better to have him at our side? This way, we've got at least one proper bender to defend the village."

This time Katara's gasp was one of outrage, and Gran-Gran gazed turned her eyes on him for a long moment, consideration warring with wariness in her eyes.

"Very well, he can stay," she conceded after a minute. "But he will be your responsibility, Sokka. Katara has already proven she cannot…watch over him properly." Without another word, the old woman turned, ushering away the mothers and small children who were smiling with joy at their idol being allowed to remain.

Before Sokka could react, he felt a blunt force slam into his arm. He whipped around to face Katara, who was smirking with her fist raised. "That was for the 'kids' comment. Don't forget you're only a year older than me!"

I dread the day she meets Toph.

Then her blue eyes softened, looking back at Aang. "Thank you, though."

Sokka felt a flash of something familiar in his chest. It felt like…protectiveness? Maaaan, she's already making kitten-doe eyes at him? I don't want to have to threaten the kid this early on-

The object of his thoughts nearly knocked him over a second later when Aang launched at him, glomping orange-clad arms around Sokka's neck.

"Woohoo, I get to stay! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!" The boy promptly let go again, turning to prance off after Katara who was walking back into the village. Almost of its own volition Sokka's hand snaked out, catching the Avatar by his collar.

"Hold up, flyboy. You're coming with me!"

Sokka supposed his expression must have been pretty scary, because the frisson of fear that shot through him wasn't his own, and Aang had a terrified face to match it.

Sokka blamed his growing sadistic tendencies entirely on Toph, though the fact that they happened to lean in this direction could be attributed to Katara.

Aang was dressed head to toe in Water Tribe blues – a warrior's outfit, built for flexibility and to wick away sweat to keep one from getting too cold. With the addition of traditional facepaint which served to mostly cover his forehead arrow, he had to admit the boy looked pretty ridiculous.

Aang tugged at his clothes with some uncertainty, sending a wistful look at his orange-hued garments piled in the corner of the tent. "Why do I have to wear these again?" He turned pleading gray eyes on the older boy.

"So when the Fire Nation comes they won't immediately spot you as an Airbender. The blue arrow thing kind of gives it away," Sokka sighed. Aang had dressed in the greens of the Earth Nation and even in a Fire Nation schoolboy's uniform, so why did he have such a problem now?

But he hasn't really done that yet…

Aang was taking on an all-too-familiar optimistic look. "But maybe the Fire Nation won't show up? I'm getting hooooot," he whined, tugging at his collar to let some cooler air under his clothes. Sokka had no idea how he could possibly be warm in his monk's outfit, but the tentative question made him snort.

"Are you kidding me? The Fire Nation is always patrolling down here, and between the beam when your iceberg broke and that flare, you practically posted a sign over our village that says 'Something is going on here, come check it out!'"

Despite his words, he couldn't fault Aang for his hopeful outlook. This is the boy who refused to accept the genocide of his people until it was shoved in his face, refused to kill anyone, and refused to back down from his own inevitable death. Sometimes he didn't know whether to admire or pity his friend.

Properly chastened for the moment, Aang scuffed at the packed snow with his toes. Feeling a bit weird to see Aang so solemn about something not Avatar-related, Sokka finished tying up his boot and stood.

"Let's go on the look-out."

The waiting, Sokka had long-ago decided, was the worst part of any battle.

The rumbling started, and his heart began to hammer. Aang had been bouncing around for the last half-hour between the marker and the wall, confused as to why Sokka was standing inside the wall by a stick where he couldn't see anything. It'd gotten to the point where Sokka was half-tempted to bend the boy to sleep, but he resisted the urge. Gran-Gran would scold him for even considering the thought.

He might not be a waterbender, but Sokka could feel the ice breaking, sending shockwaves under his feet. Cries of fear started up behind him. "Aang, stand by me. Everyone, get inside the tents and don't come out until I say so! Katara, grab your spear!" he shouted over his shoulder, hoping he'd be heard over the rumbling of ice under their feet. They rushed to follow his words, and even as Katara rescued little Hapa from the rift, she smiled behind her fear.

Aang was beside Sokka again, eyes darting swiftly around. "What's going on?" his voice held more confusion than worry.

"Oh, nothing," Sokka grimaced, "just the Fire Nation deciding to use the back door."

Iroh dreamed of fire. This in itself was not unusual, but the location was three years gone from his mind, desperately buried in the task of trying to keep his nephew alive.

The Throne Room was on fire, wild and uncontrolled. Despite the light, shadows flickered everywhere, and spirits of darkness waited for a single misstep. Iroh did not move. In the shadows cast by flames, figures fought with spears and swords and light. He heard the echoes of the burned and dying, reverberating and familiar. No one was to be seen.

"Why am I here?" he asked aloud. He'd learned long ago that sometimes one needed to confront dreams to divine their meaning, and this was the last place Iroh wanted to be for too long. Rocks exploded, flames roared in his ears.

A name was called, the voice, recognizable but just far enough away that he could not grasp its identity. Red flame morphed into blue and back again, while Iroh stood unable to shield his eyes.

Don't die. Sorry.

"I don't understand." Though he did not say the words, they echoed through the chamber as it grew dark and silent.

Be ready. He's come back to the world.

Iroh woke up unsettled.

His unease did not subside, even when the apparent explanation dropped into his nephew's lap – first in the form of a beam of light, then a beacon fired from an iced Fire Navy ship. Zuko was all but crowing to the icecaps about the return of the Avatar, and Iroh knew, in his bones and spirit-touched soul, that his nephew was right.

Yet the disquiet lingered.

Katara felt like she'd walked out of her normal life and into a spirit tale. First they'd found an Airbender who was stuck in the ice for a hundred years, and now the Fire Nation was again on their doorstep, as if some malicious spirit had led them straight to the village with a trail of blood.

But it was the flare, she had to remind herself. It wasn't Aang's fault, but now Mom's killers are back

But Sokka was calm, collected as the hulking mass of metal cut through the mist, destroying their meticulously-kept walls and sending cracks spidering through the ice. She was frightened; spirits, she was almost too frightened to move, but her brother called out for her, telling her to arm herself. The fear dimmed, suborned by as sense of calm and a small part of elation.

Sokka wants me to fight with him.

She placed Hapa in his mother's arms as the woman scrambled to her tent, gathering her own weapons in turn. A long hunting knife in her belt and spear at hand, Katara joined her brother at the piece of driftwood just as the Fire Nation ship came to a full stop. The mass creaked, steam hissing through its cracks like hot water dropped on snow. A ramp lowered, and Katara's grip tightened involuntarily as soon as she made out the shape of helmets through the mist.

"Easy," Sokka muttered, "just follow my lead." She took a deep breath and felt a little calmer, but couldn't quite understand why. Her brother might have something other about him, but they both knew he had no real experience in fighting or diplomacy. The way Aang was anxiously shifting around shouldn't have been calming either. This was going to be a disaster.

A small gust of wind blew over the walls; the steps of the descending Fire Nation soldiers were not muffled, the sharp clank of metal on metal screeching though the air. The women and children were hidden, silent, holding their breaths. Katara's eyes were drawn to the man in the middle, striding arrogantly down the ramp with no faceplate, and as he grew closer she saw the scar, burning red as her vision as Katara decided that if he hurt anyone she was going to make him wish he'd never been born-

"Where is he?" the man – no – teen spat in a voice that sounded like it had been put through far too much yelling. She wanted to fire her own questions back: Why are you here? What do you mean? Why can't you just LEAVE US ALONE?

"Where is who?" Aang asked, totally forgetting his role as the stoic, silent warrior. So much for Sokka's orders.

The teen's face darkened. "The Avatar. He'd be ancient, master of all four elements-"

"We harbor no Avatar," Sokka interrupted, and though his posture was tense he made no move to draw his boomerang.

"I know you're hiding him!" the angry teen shouted, fire bursting forth from his hands as the other soldiers moved to encircle them. It was all Katara could do not to scream and attack at the sight of the bending that killed Mom, but Sokka pushed her back before she could start forward.

Sokka's voice was deceptively calm: "You know nothing. You and your soldiers have broken the walls of a helpless village, endangered the lives of women and children, and ensured the ice here is no longer a stable place to live. For a myth that's been gone for one-hundred years. Where is your honor, Fire Nation?"

For one long moment, absolute silence ruled. Then the teen roared, diving at Sokka with fire in his hands. Katara threw herself to the side as her brother ducked, countering with a move that sent both boys sprawling. Her attention went elsewhere as a faceless soldier stepped toward her.

"S-stay back!" she yelled, brandishing the spear at him. He brandished fire in response.

To her right, Aang was backing away the firebenders, saying: "Wait, we don't have to fight!"

What is he thinking? Katara wondered as she stepped back warily, ready to defend the villagers and her brother. He was fighting the angry jerk, dodging all his waves of fire so far. Sokka had managed to gash the teen's right shoulder. But as quickly as she turned her attention back to the soldier, he was on her.

And then a tent was on fire. Its inhabitants screamed and fled.

No! She called up water to douse the fire at the same time as Aang whirled around, propelling her bending in a wave which otherwise might not have been able to defeat the flames.

"Stop!" The airbender's staff came down on the ice with a mighty crack and a wave of wind that sent all parties flying. Sokka scrambled away from the firebending teen as he turned his gaze on Aang.

"You're the Airbender? You're the Avatar?"

Katara choked on icy air. Aang didn't speak. What? How- he lied to me?

No longer did he look like a bouncy airbender; Aang's back was stiff and his eyes hard. "If I go with you, do you promise to leave this village alone?"

Why are you asking that? He's Fire Nation, no way he'll stick-

But the teen nodded, golden eyes gleaming as the soldiers grabbed Aang's shoulders and wrenched away his staff.

"Aang, you don't have to do this!" escaped her involuntarily.

"It'll be okay," he shot back as the clanking soldiers led him up the ramp and she swallowed back tears.

"Set a course for the Fire Nation! I'm going home."

Katara kept her gaze locked with Aang's until she was cut off, too absorbed in her sudden despair to notice the two sets of gold eyes watching her brother.

A/N: Yes, I am continuing. Thanks to my many wonderfully patient (and impatiently jerkish) reviewers. Unbetaed.