VI

Channeling the Phoenix was not like entering the Avatar State. Words failed Aang, although sensations—transitions fast or slow, hot or cold, virulent or serene—passed through him quickly like gusts in a snowstorm.

But no—the Phoenix was not as mutable as any spirit Aang had ever met before. In its fully manifested state, it demanded the presence of no metaphors save fire.

All forge-claws and flame-breath and smolder-eyes it billowed through him. Ironic, he thought, that Zuko and I would both be here, to unify fire-magic and Avatar-magic and truly stop the war—

Except that it wasn't Ozai the war-bringer they needed to fight now—it was Koh, who had snaked his way back into the shadows. Aang felt his consciousness tear free of the Phoenix's, and he saw the bird-spirit stand up (it was built like an ostrich, as stable on the ground as the massive, graceful wingspan proved it to be in the air) and stalk a few paces, its eyes ( wreathed in orange flame) darting about as it stared into the dark, vine-decked forest. Aang backtracked, suddenly feeling the wash of hot air on his face.

He retreated to within a hand's breadth of Katara. He saw Zuko standing stunned in the middle of the clearing, looking down at Ozai's limp form (the prison robes pooled around him as if the confinement had melted away any powerful poise he had once). But a moment later, Zuko joined the Avatar. His eyes were dark and deep, and Aang could see the shock that seeing Ursa had been reflected in them, burned there as if from the flash of a camera.

The phoenix picked its way through the trees, staring about, and a moment later Aang saw Koh appear, a pile of tangles, darting up toward the phoenix's face like a snake underfoot. His face was the white players' mask, and its deadly gaze seemed to sweep the phoenix—

But the phoenix had no eyes, only differentiated pools of fire.

It snapped at Koh, and for a moment the scene exactly replicated one from nature, a bird plucking a snake from the ground, if only the bird had been burning and taller than three men standing on each other's shoulders, and the snake had screamed with ten human voices—

Koh crashed to the ground. Katara, Zuko, and Aang took shelter around and on the roots of a giant-gray barked tree as the phoenix dipped its titanic beak to pin Koh down—

A blur out of the corner of his eye, and Aang saw Zuko dart forward. The airbender threw out his hand and caught Zuko on the shoulder, but realized only then how much more muscular the older boy was. Zuko easily got his arm out of Aang's grip, but turned to face him, balanced on two wave-shaped roots.

Aang's "Wait!" died on his lips.

"It killed my parents. It's distracted—" Zuko reached up to pluck a scimitar from its sheath, tension visible in the whitening sinews of his hands.

"Don't kill a spirit out of revenge. It's part of our world. Killing spirits is no good thing—"

"Even ones like Koh?"

Katara said, "I don't think we're going to have to worry about it."

The Face-Stealer slithered around slashing talons and darting beak. The vicious-looking curl of fire-licked horn struck the ground with a dull thoc just behind Koh's fleeing form. Koh was swallowed up in the gray-green darkness, and the phoenix stalked after it, a sentinel rather than a soldier now. Katara breathed a sigh of relief, and Aang felt a muscle in his chest slacken, one that had been holding his breathing tight to him like an embrace—but then he realized what direction the creatures had gone in.

"Oh no—Appa!" Immediately he leapt from root to root down to the ground, Zuko scrambling after him on the heels of his former momentum. Aang rushed through the trees and soggy water to the white form of Appa, floating like a cloud in the mist—

Unharmed, with the phoenix standing beside him like a living watchtower. Koh was nowhere to be seen. As the trio approached Appa, who appeared surprisingly calm in the presence of the great bird, the phoenix looked over its shoulder. A glare seemed to run from the dramatic ridges of its brown through its conflagrating eyespots to the promise of death by its beak. But then an almost amused expression came over its severe visage, and then it faded away into nothingness, replaced gradually by the uneven ranks of trees.

They stood there for a moment in reverence, the three of them, even the almost-woman of water in this land of fire and putrescence, then climbed Appa's sides and flew away.

Koh was not dead. The Phoenix had known, as Aang did, how essential even angry, bitter spirits were.

The Face-Stealer lay in a cave—not his clean and pleasant throne-room-tree, but a soggy one, with cold seeping into his stomach. He would bide his time here for a moment, for an eyeblink of time. It might be years for humans, but time was a different thing to spirits.

And within the vast conglomeration of faces and minds that made up most of what Koh was, that allowed him in his own way to understand the workings of time and the minds of humans, a change like a bird's cry through the forest made itself known.

A whisper of Ozai still remained.

Content for now, because the essence of Ursa surrounded him. But he felt in the elasticity of time that he would come to know that he had only a shadow of her, as he was only a shadow of himself, that Koh had taken from him more than ever he could retrieve, and yet that any anger he kindled would only serve his host/home/captor further…

Embraces and tea, lots of hot-and-sweet tea delivered by Iroh's hands, were passed around to the three when they returned to the land of men. Conversation and friendship warmed Aang, even though glimmers of unease still rose like marshlights in his thoughts. He had not seen the end of Koh, of that he was certain. But now was not the time for that. Now was the time for enjoying himself—and so he lost himself in pleasantries.

Sokka would have usually been the loudest one at the party, but he was oddly quiet, doodling in the corner.

Finally Katara called over to him from the table where the others sat. "Sokka! What are you doing?"

He sauntered over to the table with a scroll rolled up in one hand and a smile on his face, as proud of himself as a cat with a mouse. "Nothing really," he drawled. "Just illustrating. I overheard Aang's story about the phoenix, and decided to set it down on paper." He began to unfold the scroll. "Just so we can remember its awesomeness for future generations."

Far too dramatically, he unfolded the scroll, revealing a stick-figure-and-daub work of surprising fluorescence, which Aang vaguely recognized as portraying the Phoenix shooting gouts of fire at a cowering Koh.

Fin.