Special thanks to Lady Isaiah and ZeldaChao19 for beta reading this fanfiction.
- the siege of the south -
The first thing Aang sees when he opens his eyes is a girl -- and not just any girl! She's... beautiful. Much later he'll reflect on how this is the first time he looks at any girl and sees her as, well, a girl. But for now there's just a funny feeling in Aang's chest that he can't explain.
The moment quickly passes; there are more important matters at hand for a twelve year old boy. It's only after he extracts a promise of penguin sledding from her, wakes up a bit more, and prods Appa to get moving that he remembers to introduce himself.
"I'm Aang!" he says, grinning.
The fifteen year-old girl doesn't so much smile at him as quirk her lips. Aang's heart flutters a little at that restrained expression of delight, causing him to worry if he's maybe coming down with a cold or something from his nap in the ice.
"Hi, Aang," she says. "I'm Hama."
The Southern Water Tribe's Great City is like nothing Aang has ever seen. It doesn't have all the cool slides of Omashu or the crazy towers of the Southern Air Temple, and there's no colorful Fire Days festival (with fireworks!) going on like the time he met Kuzon, but they have houses made of snow. Aang is blown away by the genius of it.
"We also build things out of ice," Hama says.
From a hill overlooking it, Aang sees the Great City is surrounded by a high, thick, circular wall of blue ice. There were two main avenues to the city, set perpendicular to each other. At the crossroads where they meet is a huge igloo. Hama explains its called the Great Roundhouse and that her people hold their town halls there, as well as yearly conclaves when the villagers from outlying towns pole-wide gather in the Great City for a summer solstice festival.
Aang cocks an eyebrow. "Great City. Great Roundhouse. Is anything else about your home 'great'?"
"I like to think everything is," says Hama, straightening her posture.
When a still-lethargic Appa trudges up to the city's main gate, the guards act all weird and surprised. The Southern Air Temple does some trading with the South Pole, and, even if Monk Gyatso and the other elders won't let him join the monthly flights to the Great City because he is 'too young', Aang's pretty certain these people must have seen a sky-bison at some point.
The city guard makes him and Appa wait outside the gate. A crowd gathers but they just watch from afar, kept back by the guards. Like the guards, the people in the crowd act strange. The few that aren't whispering are staring at him in dead silence. Several adults drag off their children when they wave at Aang or try to run towards Appa.
It's all a bit creepy, and Aang wonders if maybe, while he was asleep, the monks somehow figured out where he was going and sent word ahead. That thought makes him anxious.
Soon the crowd parts and a line of grey-haired adults approach.
"Aang," says Hama, sitting next to him atop Appa, gesturing towards the lady at the head of the newcomers, "this is Chief Atka. She's the leader of the Council of Chieftains."
The grey-haired old woman stares up at him with wide eyes. No, he realizes after a moment; she's gawking at Appa.
"A sky-bison," breathes Chief Atka, wonderstruck. "Impossible. I haven't seen one since..."
"Last month?" volunteers Aang.
The elderly chieftain looks up at him with icy blue eyes, as if seeing him for the first time. Despite his monkly training giving him the mental fortitude to endure the cold temperatures of the South Pole wearing only his thin robes, a chill runs through Aang.
Hama clears her throat. "I, uh, think you were frozen in that iceberg for a little more than a month, Aang."
"Oh," says Aang. "So... two months?"
Before he can get any answers, Chief Atka insists they gather inside the Great Roundhouse. Aang asks Hama to stick by him and, after gaining the permission of the elders, she does. While only the Council of Chieftains sits inside the huge domed ice building, Aang can still hear the large crowd milling outside. It sounds like the whole of the city has turned out.
"That's impossible!" Aang says, voice reverberating around the huge domed room. "If it's been thirty-five years, then I'd be -- " he does a quick, silent count on his fingers " -- forty-seven years old! Do I look like I'm forty-seven? I'd be ANCIENT."
"Yes," Atka replies dryly, brushing a long grey hair out of her wrinkled eyes, "forty-seven is positively decrepit."
"Consider this fact, Aang. The War is over three decades old," says Chief Atka, voice booming from her kneeling position on a raised dias at the center of the empty roundhouse. As an airbender, Aang appreciates the good acoustics, even if the old lady is talking crazy talk. "An entire generation of children has been born into and grown up in a world that has known nothing but murder and terror at the hands of the Fire Nation. You do not know about it because, somehow, you were encased in that iceberg the whole time." Atka eyes him curiously. "How did you end up in that iceberg, I wonder? You are an airbender, not a waterbender."
Aang chuckles nervously. "Y-your guess is good as mine. I mean, the last thing I remember was being caught in that storm. Then I woke up in Hama's arms in the middle of a shattered iceberg."
One of the council members, a bald, one-eyed old man with terrible burn scars on his face, points a gnarled finger at Hama. "And YOU, young lady, why exactly were you wandering around blowing up icebergs?
"To see if I could," Hama replies easily. Flinching under the reproving scowl cast her way, she quickly backtracks, "Um, I mean, I saw a funny glow inside one when I just happened to be passing by on a peaceful walk and, uh, decided to see what it was. Yeah. Totally."
Aang leans over and stage-whispers to her, "Do you blow up stuff a lot?"
"Not that often," she whispers back.
"Your student's experimentations aside," says Chief Atka loudly to the one-eyed man, bringing them all back on track, "the matter remains that you, Aang, are the last airbender. The Fire Nation won't rest until it finds you and completes their genocide of your race."
Silence falls over the Great Roundhouse.
In a quiet, flat voice, Aang asks, "Excuse me, I'm what?"
"AANG!" screams Hama after him. "WAIT! COME BACK, AANG!"
Aang doesn't stop running. Instead, he unfurls his staff glider and takes to the air. The crowd milling about the entrance to the Great Roundhouse "ooos" and "ahhhs" at his display of airbending, but for once Aang can't take pride in showing off his cool moves. They shouldn't be impressed by airbending. It shouldn't be something novel. The monks come -- NOT came -- here every month to trade pots of dye for permafrost tubers and seaweed.
Airbending and sky-bisons are nothing special. He is nothing special. It all had to be a stupid joke; a mistake.
Appa is waiting for him at the city gates when he lands. The sky-bison is lying on his back, sunning himself.
"C'mon, boy! Wake up!" When Appa doesn't respond, Aang pulls open one eyelid. Appa just squints at him, as if to say, You're seriously going to make me get up from my comfy spot?
Aang is still trying to rouse his slothful sky-bison when the ground attacks him.
The snow twists up like knots of writhing snakes, snaring him by his feet. Aang tries blasting them off with airbending, but they've already frozen over. He's still whacking at them with the butt of his staff when Hama catches up with him.
"Aang!" she says, cheeks rosy after her sprint.
Appa is on his six feet now, growling menacingly at the city guards and waterbenders mystified at the scene before them. "Easy, boy!" Aang begs, not wanting the sky-bison to hurt anyone. "It's all right."
Reluctantly, Appa eases off.
"Aang," says Hama again, sublimating his ice bindings with a hand wave, "I'm sorry. Chief Atka was totally out of line to talk to you that way. She... she could have broken the news better."
"What stupid news?" he snaps, then inwardly reprimands himself for his anger. Gyatso would be disappointed if he could see me. I'll ask him to meditate with me when I get back home. "I'm sorry. That was rude of me, Hama."
"Aang, what are you going to do now?"
"I'm going home to see for myself." He smiles. "I know it's been... a couple of years, but things can't have changed that much." How could they be? The Fire Nation attacking the Air Nomads -- crazy! "Just because no one has seen an airbender in a little while doesn't mean the Fire Nation killed anybody."
Hama looks dubious. "Aang, I know you want to believe that, but--"
"Come with me," he says.
"Come with me," he repeats, hopping up onto Appa's saddle and lending her a hand up. "I'll show you the Southern Air Temple. I'm sure it's not as bad as you think."
His home is a graveyard.
Everybody is dead. Everybody.
Monk Gyatso is dead.
All because he ran away.
Hama is at his side, tugging hard on one arm. She's trying to say something to him -- or is she screaming? -- but it's all so far away. Aang only feels the anger and hate welling up in his throat, choking him. Some of it is directed at the Fire Nation for the horrific things they've done to his people, but a lot of it is directed inward.
They're dead because of me, Aang tells himself as the whirlwind angrily tears apart everything around him. The skeletal smile of his mentor is proof of Aang's failure. I should have been here. I could have stopped it, saved Gyatso's life. I'm the Avatar. I let them all down. I should have stayed. I could have saved--
There is a flash of pain and, then, blissful darkness.
Aang wakes up with the worst headache ever.
He's lying on a cot in a candlelit temple cell that's not his own; he doesn't remember scorch marks on his ceiling, after all. Odd. It takes him several minutes to fully rouse from his heavy slumber, and gradually he becomes aware of the mustiness of the blankets he's lying on and the utter stillness of the temple.
Aang sits up. To his shock, a girl is sitting in his cell. It takes three seconds for him to remember why an outsider has been allowed into the temple -- because there was no one to stop him from bringing her inside.
Hurt pangs Aang's soul, but it's not as wild and raw as before.
Hama, who looks to have been nodding off, lifts her head up. Her eyes widen. She gasps. "You're awake! Are -- are you still angry?" Aang shakes his head. She lets go of a breath she had been holding. "Good. You were scary before."
'Sorry' is what he tries to say, but can't. His mouth hurts and won't open. Belatedly, Aang realizes that there are bandages wrapped around his head.
In a fit of panic, he reaches up to tear them off. Hama's hands dart forward and grab hold of his wrists. Looking him square in the eye, Hama says, "I can heal you, but don't try talking. I broke your jaw." She pauses, and then adds sheepishly, "Sorry."
"Maah hhaw?!" he shouts in surprise through the bandages, then winces.
"I hit you with something we call a 'Southern Special'. I froze water around my fist and punched you." As she talks, Hama demonstrates by waterbending an ice gauntlet around a clenched fist. After a few seconds of letting him study it, she liquefies the ice and returns it to the waterskin at her side. "Did I mention how sorry I am?"
"Because I'm so sorry, Aang. But you... you were going crazy! You wouldn't listen to me! I begged you to stop! I thought you were going to destroy the whole mountain with your airbending." Hama casts her eyes down to the ground. She sniffles loudly, and when she speaks again her voice is throaty, "So I knocked you out. I'm sorry I hurt you, but I couldn't think of any other way of stopping you."
Unable to tell her that he accepts her apology and to make one of his own, Aang settles for the nonverbal approach. He leans forward, wraps his arms around the fifteen year-old Water Tribe girl, and pulls Hama into a hug.
After tensing for a moment, Hama returns the gesture.
Later, after she's removed his bandages, Hama heals his broken jaw with her waterbending. She tells Aang that she's 'not a very good healer' and that he'll need to be checked out by the experts back in the Great City, but after a few hours and several healing session Aang can speak again. The right side of his face is still covered in ghastly bruises and he nearly cries out in agony after trying to chew on a Leechi Nut, but he doesn't let Hama see his discomfort. Aang doesn't want his friend to feel needless guilt.
Hama declares that she's done all she can for him at about dawn. They both get some sleep after that, waking up at mid-day.
While Hama checks on Appa, Aang goes hunting.
Monk Gyatso's personal tea set, with its white lotus motif, is still preserved in his private cell. Aang finds it in the cabinet next to the window, covered in thick dust but otherwise looking like Gyatso just put it away five minutes ago. He leaves it alone. Instead, he takes a pot and two cups from the ruins of the communal kitchen, doing his best not to stare at the overturned tables and the soot stains.
Aang makes tea because he can't eat and because whenever he had a lot on his mind and there wasn't a pie to throw, Gyatso would sit him down for a talk with some hot tea.
Aang needs to talk with Hama. Hot tea seems the thing to do.
"Sweet and Sour Tea," he says, pouring her a cup just the way Gyatso would do for him. "It's... it was a favorite of a friend of mine. The leaves are a little old but, um, that just gives it more character!"
"Thanks." Hama picks up her hot cup and cradles it in her palms. She breathes in the fragrant steam but doesn't drink.
"So," he starts off, glancing nervously around the rubble-strewn courtyard, "um, about yesterday. When I kinda almost sorta destroyed the whole mountain."
Hama sets down her teacup. "Yes?"
"Well, that's... not something most airbenders can do. Could do."
Aang takes a deep breath and, on the exhale, says, "I'm the Avatar."
"Yeah," she says, lifting her teacup again, "I kinda figured."
Aang is taken aback. "You did?! How?"
Hama sips her tea. Her lips pucker and she nearly gags.
"Oh," he says, sheepishly, "I just remembered, but I meant to tell you that I couldn't find the sugar, so it's less like Sweet and Sour Tea and more like just Sour Tea. Sorry."
She pours out half the cup and streams fresh water into it. When she samples the tea again, she doesn't wince. "It's... not terrible."
"How did you know I was the Avatar?"
"The glowing eyes and tattoos yesterday were a pretty big clue. Well, that and the beam of light that shot out of your exploding iceberg the other day."
"Oh." He pauses. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner."
"I'm sure you had your reasons." Teacup at her lips, Hama levels an appraising look at him. "You sure apologize a lot."
"I'm s--" He laughs. "Yeah, I guess I do."
As Aang drinks the terrible tea he's brewed, he surveys the ruins of the Southern Air Temple. While it's eerie for a place that he's always known to be filled with the hustle and bustle of people (monks are noisy in their own way) to be so silent, Aang can't help but find a peacefulness in the atmosphere. He tries to hold onto that feeling above the rawness of his pain.
"I never wanted to be the Avatar," he confesses, breaking the silence between them. "I wasn't even supposed to know until I turned sixteen, but the Abbot said... he said there was a war coming. After they told me, they made me practice my airbending all the time. I didn't understand why, then." Aang gestures to his forehead. "I mean, I had already earned my master's tattoo. What was the point?"
Hama says, "So that's why you were flying Appa to the South Pole? You were looking for a waterbending master?"
Aang doesn't lie. He just doesn't correct her. "The monks told me I have to first master water, then earth, and then fire. Only after all that would I become a fully-realized Avatar. Can you teach me?"
Hama sits up a little straighter. "I'm... goodness, Aang. I'm not a waterbending master. I'm good, don't get me wrong, but I'm only fifteen!"
"And I'm forty-seven," he says, stabbing a finger at the Master's arrow on his forehead. "Monk Gyatso once told me, when I was having trouble coming up with my own airbending technique, that the only limits on what we can do are the limits we set on ourselves."
"I -- I can teach you a little, Aang," she says, shaking her head, "but you'd be better off learning from someone like Master Kassuq or Master Noatak. I don't have the patience to be a good sifu. But... I can study with you. Okay?"
"Okay," he says, trying not to sigh.
The journey back to the South Pole is a quiet one. Aang tells Hama he needs some time to think about 'Avatar stuff', but all he can really think about is they're all dead and it's all my fault for running away and I'm sorry, Gyatso. Hama tries to draw him out with casual conversation several times, but Aang finds he can't keep up his cheerfulness for more than a few minutes before thinking something like wait until Monk Gyatso hears about this!
Two days outbound from the Southern Air Temple, however, Hama breaks through the silence blanketing them with an "AANG!"
Hama points. "DOWN THERE!"
Far below, looking like a little toy from their current height, an Earth Kingdom ship is listing dangerously to one side. He motions Appa to take them down to the ship and so they fall into in a steep, corkscrew spiral.
As they get closer to the vessel, Aang sees more detail. Half of it is already underwater. An orange and black-striped tiger-shark the size of Appa is attacking the sinking ship, its huge toothy mouth chomping at the ship itself. There's also someone standing on what dry space there's left of the deck, dressed in a blue parka. In that person's hands is -- (Aang squints) -- a pot?
A pot that's on fire.
The gigantic tiger-shark, Aang suddenly realizes in horror, is trying to eat the sailor. Icy terror shoots through Aang. His mind races to come up with a plan to save the helpless soul.
He doesn't have to bother.
"SMILE, YOU SON OF A BITCH!" the sailor screams, hurling the clay pot into the tiger-shark's open maw.
The flaming pot strikes the tiger-shark.
The tiger-shark explodes.
So does the sinking boat.
The shockwave is strong enough to ruffle Appa's fur a few hundred feet away. It picks up the sailor and tosses him across the ocean surface like a skipping stone. When he finally comes to a rest, he simply bobs up and down in the ocean like a cork, his head barely poking above the waves.
"There's no way anyone could have survived that!" Hama shouts.
"APPA!" he cries. "Yip yip!"
Amazingly -- miraculously -- the sailor is still breathing when they fish him -- or, rather, her -- out of the water. She's even awake. Hama bends the seawater off of her and then starts to heal her scrapes and bruises, which, Hama tells Aang, are fairly minor. He wraps the quaking sailor with a blanket.
A quick search of the wreck reveals a few bodies among the destroyed ship's flotsam but no other survivors.
"What was that?" Aang asks a few minutes later, once some color has returned to the sailor's face. She's dark-skinned, like Hama, and dressed like a member of the Water Tribe. Her hair is short, though; trimmed in a short, shaggy bob. Around her neck she wears a pretty choker.
"M-monster," the girl says, body still shaking -- from the cold seawater or from lingering shock, Aang doesn't know. "T-t-tried t-to... e-eat us... a-all. G-got them. N-nearly g-got... me."
Aang has guessed that much. "No, I meant, what did you throw at the tiger-shark? What was in that pot?"
"B-b-blasting j-jelly," she stammers.
Aang's jaw drops open. Hama picks up the conversation with her usual good cheer. "Are you stupid?! You -- you actually brought an open flame near a container of blasting jelly?!"
"But how did you light it on fire without igniting the stuff inside?" Aang asks. "Unless... you smeared some of the jelly on top of the lid as a starter? But," Aang chuckles at the absurdity of the thought, "that'd be -- heh -- really dangerous. You didn't do that, right? Right?"
The shivering girl grins with pride.
Hama gasps, "You idiot!"
"It w-worked, didn't it?"
"You could have just as easily blown yourself up! Blasting jelly is dangerous! People get killed all the time using that stuff! You need training just to handle it! We're you TRYING to kill yourself?!"
"T-tiger-shark would have k-killed me."
"That's so COOL!" Aang leaps over and scoops her up in a hug. "You're awesome!"
He sits backs, serious again. "But, um, what were you going to do after you blew up the tiger-shark? You kind of sank your ship too."
Aang's question causes her to pause. When she speaks again, the chattering of teeth is absent from her voice and her tone is firmer. "Built a r-raft from the wreckage, I guess."
"You're insane," Hama declares.
"You're awesome," he counters. "I'm Aang. This is Hama. And the big guy is Appa. He's a sky-bison. Do you want to be friends? What's your name?"
Sitting on crossed legs, she nods in lieu of a bow. "Kanna."
After Hama treats her for a possible concussion, Kanna shares her story with them... to a point. Aang knows there's a name and a history to the Northern Water Tribe man that gave Kanna her betrothal necklace but he doesn't press her. He lets her tale stand on the idea that her ex-fiancé "talked too much" and that she wanted to make her own choices.
Aang knows what it's like to want to run away from a life decided for you by others.
Upon their return to the Great City, Hama introduces Kanna to her new home while Aang meets with Council of Chieftains. He tells them who he really is and they agree to provide him with a waterbending master. With news of a living airbender and his sky-bison having already spread around the city, the council sees little point in keeping his identity a secret. The Southern Water Tribe does little trade with outsiders, so word will be slow to make it back to the Fire Nation. Around the Great City, gossip travels faster. By the end of his first day it's like being back home at the Southern Air Temple. No one treats him like a kid anymore; he's the Avatar.
Maybe it's because he met them both under strange circumstances but, after the word gets out that he's the Avatar, Hama and Kanna are the only ones who treat him like a real person. They make an odd trio -- a forty-seven year old airbender, a fifteen year old waterbender, and a seventeen year old globetrotter -- but Aang's more grateful for their friendship than he can even tell them.
Kanna hangs out with him a lot. Aang figures that it's because she's lonely and she doesn't fit in well. Like for him, the ways of the Southern Water Tribe are strange to Kanna. She and he talk a lot over meals, trading stories about what real food tastes like. Kanna's eaten in places all across the Earth Kingdom during her year-long walk across the world. She fell in love with roasted turkey-duck and genemite.
As the weeks go by, Aang never gets used to the people passing him on the street, smiling at him with tears in their eyes, or the soldiers and sailors who cheer him on with cries of "Death to Fire Lord Azulon, and his brat Iroh too!"
Sometimes he thinks about hopping onto Appa and getting away for a while, but then he remembers finding Monk Gyatso's bones and the look of terror on Hama's face when he lost control of himself, and he puts his sight-seeing maps away. For now.
He'll have plenty of time to see the world. The Fire Nation doesn't know he's back yet and it'll be years before he'll be ready to defeat Fire Lord Azulon.
So Aang studies and waits, and dreams of flying away.
Master Kassuq is the one-eyed old man from the Council that talked with him when he first arrived in the Great City. Kassuq is totally unlike any of the monks who taught Aang, and not just because of his black eyepatch or his disfiguring burn scars. He's a relentless taskmaster who treats bending like it's just another weapon for a warrior to master, like a club or a sword. There's no philosophy to waterbending for Master Kassuq, just kill or be killed. Aang always feels exhausted after his classes.
"What are you doing with your wrist?" he asks Aang one morning when they're practicing disarming techniques. His tone makes clear that he is displeased with Aang deviating from the assigned drill. "That's not the way I demonstrated to you on how to perform a water whip."
"I thought I'd give it a little flair," Aang explains.
"Flair," he says flatly.
"Yeah! See, if I twist my wrist like so -- " Aang snaps a water whip at the target liquid saber and coils the rope of water around it " -- and give it a little tug, then I don't just freeze his sword in a block of ice. I also shoot it through with dozens of little spikes and -- " the ice-encrusted weapon shatters into a dozen pieces " -- ta da!"
Master Kassuq inclines his chin upwards. "Intriguing. I've never seen anyone do that before."
Aang smiles with pride. "Thanks!"
"If you were to wrap that... 'thorn whip' around the sword arm instead, you would be able permanently cripple an enemy soldier and leave him as a burden for his comrades and the Fire Nation." Kassuq grins wickedly. "Yes. A masterful idea, Avatar!"
"That's... that's not what I--"
Kassuq either isn't hearing him or is ignoring him. "Tonight I'd like you to teach this thorn whip technique to my instructors. With proper drilling, we can bring our young men and women up to speed within the week!"
"You'll have to forgive Master Kassuq," Hama reassures him at lunch that day. The three of them are eating on the snowy plains outside the Great City. It's the only way to avoid a crowd outside of their waterbending classes. "He's just trying to keep us all safe."
Aang picks at his seaweed rolls. The cuisine of the Southern Water Tribe is lacking at the best of times, and with its heavy emphasis on meats and fish there's not much for a vegetarian to turn to. "I was trying to save lives, but he just looked at it as a way to hurt people."
"I know it's not what you wanted but time's running out for us," Hama says. "The Fire Nation's getting bolder and bolder in their raids on our shipping. They've even started pillaging our outlying villages. We've held them off until now, but..."
Aang isn't blind. He's seen Master Kassuq's face.
Hama glances aside at Kanna. "Bet you'd have thought twice about coming down here if you knew about the threat of invasion."
"No," Kanna replies, tucking her legs under her body. "I'd have come anyway. Better to live free and die than to be a slave to any man."
Hama chuckles. "Speaking of, I heard from a certain someone that you and the tailor's son have been spending a lot of time together as of late."
Kanna glares at Aang. "You ratfink snitch! We pinkie-swore!"
Aang sputters, "I didn't say anything!"
"Then who did?!"
"You did," Hama says to her.
Kanna curses under her breath, then adds, "What Sokka and I do in our free time is none of your business. And for your information, I'm helping him with his needlework. That's all."
"Needlework, huh?" Aang says.
Hama arches an eyebrow. She deadpans, "Is that what they call it in the Northern Water Tribe?"
"Oh, shut up! I need the money, okay?" She glowers at them. "And a little tutoring is a perfectly respectable side job until the militia gets its head out of its butt and hires me on."
Aang is surprised. "You want to fight too?"
"I walked from one end of the world to the other," Kanna shoots back, indignant. "I'm not a delicate little flower. I know how to take care of myself." She scowls, obviously irritated at the mere suggestion. "Of course, since I'm a foreigner apparently I can't be trusted with a sword."
"Just give them time," Hama says, reaching over and patting the older girl on the knee. "They'll see you're worth it. Trust me."
"Yeah!" says Aang. "If they could have seen how you took out that tiger-shark, they'd have signed you up in a heartbeat!" Hama punches him not-so-softly on the shoulder. "Ow!"
"Hey," says Hama, smirking, "does someone have a wittle cwush?"
Aang blushes. "N-no! Of course not! We're totally just friends. Right, Kanna?"
The shaggy-haired girl taps one ragged fingernail on her lower-lip. "I dunno, Avatar. You sing my praises a lot."
Hama rolls her eyes. "Blow up one tiger-shark and suddenly you're a goddess."
"You're cool too, Hama," he says earnestly.
She quickly looks away from him and mumbles, "Thanks."
Spring is filled with waterbending lessons day in and day out. In the mornings, Master Kassuq makes Aang practice the boring basics of manipulating water, ice and vapor long after he can perform such moves blindfolded and with one hand tied behind his back -- which Kassuq often makes him do, among worse things.
"Th-this is s-s-stupid," Aang chatters one day after being frozen in a block of ice up to his neck. "I th-thought you said w-we were g-going to do the a-a-advanced s-stuff today!"
It would be wrong to say that Master Kassuq scowls at him for complaining, because that would imply there was a time when Master Kassuq wasn't scowling at anyone. "Talent is no excuse for intellectual laziness, especially from someone as talented as you, Avatar. Only once you've mastered the very basics of waterbending and you are able to perform them under any circumstance will the advanced techniques make sense."
"I've ALREADY s-s-spent thirty-five years d-doing my b-b-best impersonation of an i-ice cube, th-thanks." He wiggles futilely. "How am I even s-supposed to w-waterbend if I can't m-m-move my arms and h-hands?!"
Arms crossed, Master Kassuq wildly wiggles one eyebrow. It's such an odd expression coming from the normally sour elder that Aang almost doesn't even notice the snowball forming on top of his icy prison to his left, just inside his field of vision. Aang's eyes dart from the condensing snowball to Kassuq's wiggling eyebrow and back again. At last the scarred waterbending master levitates the snowball off Aang's ice prison and over to himself without moving his hands.
"H-how did you do that?!"
Kassuq plucks the snowball from the air and idly tosses it with one hand. "For your information, Avatar, I..."
"Master Kassuq's teaching you facebending?" Hama exclaims. "That's SO not fair! I'm completely jealous!"
"Don't be. I couldn't do it." Aang tugs tighter the three layers of furs wrapped around him. Fighting off another shiver, he yells back across the empty snowfield, "And at least YOU weren't trapped in a block of ice all morning!"
Hama laughs. "Well, there is that!" She pitches a snowball at him. Aang 'catches' it with his waterbending. While it spins in the air before him, he adds a second snowball beside it and then pitches the pair back at Hama. She receives it, adds a third, and then throws it back at him.
The snowball toss is a waterbending training technique for increasing multi-object control that, between the two of them, they've developed into a kind of game. It's not airball, but at least Aang can play it with Hama.
He's the only one left who can airbend, after all.
They throw the snowballs back and forth at each other with increasing speed, giving one another less time to rest. By the time he's throwing twenty snowballs back at Hama, Aang is already bending his next snowball. When its fifty-odd snowballs flying back and forth between them, they stop adding to the mass. It now becomes a race to see who can last the longest.
The adrenalin and frantic energy of the competition warms Aang up. He drops his furs to the ground, the lingering chill from his time in Master Kassuq's ice cube forgotten.
When he finally sees his friend buried under a veritable avalanche of snow, Aang rides an Air Scooter around Hama in a victory lap. "Woo-hoo!"
"Hey," Hama says back at him, digging herself out of the mound, "how about this time every other snowball is a razor-sharp icicle instead?"
It's a wildly stupid idea.
They're sitting alone together on the edge of a cliff that overlooks the sea. In the distance, one of the last sunsets of the early summer season is painting shades of yellow and orange across the horizon. They're colors Aang knows well. In a few minutes the light will fade to the red of blood and fire. After that, peaceful purple and blue and, at last, the starry black of night.
"Do you ever miss your home?"
Kanna keeps staring at the western horizon, her face expressionless. The stone betrothal necklace around her neck shines with the light of the fading day. "No," she says. "I really don't."
"No one? Not even your parents?"
She brushes the long bangs out of her eyes. Though she's grown out her boyish haircut since he fished her out of the sea, it's only been a two and a half months. The outgrowth and untrimmed appearance of it makes her look even more raggedy than ever. "I think about them, sometimes. Like now."
"When it's quiet."
Kanna hums in affirmation. "I don't think they'd like what I've become. They didn't really like who I was then." As if anticipating his next question, she glances aside at him and smiles. It's not like Hama's smile, which is rare and something the waterbender tends to slip into only when she thinks no one's looking. Kanna's smiles always make Aang feel a little sad inside. "I'm happy now."
Aang can't answer.
They sit in silence and watch the stars come out, then they hop on Appa and go back to the Great City.
"It's Midnight Sun Madness," declares Sokka, the tailor's wispy son, in that nasal tone of his. "The Avatar has obviously not adjusted well to the lack of nighttime at summer's apex."
"It's not Midnight Sun Madness," says Hama. "And who asked you for your opinion anyway?"
"Don't insult him!" shouts Kanna. "He's just trying to help!"
"He's a tailor. I'm a trained healer. Who are you going to trust, the boyfriend with the needle and thread or the friend with the magical powers?"
"I'm telling you guys," says Aang, enunciating each word carefully, "that there is a dragon RIGHT OVER THERE." He sweeps his arms towards the scaly serpent coiled atop the Great Roundhouse. As if on cue, the dragon roars wickedly. "ARE YOU ALL BLIND OR SOMETHING?!"
His outburst draws the attention of all the partygoers around them. A bubble of silence forms, the only noise coming from the rest of the festivities filling the Great City. There are people from the farthest flung Southern Water Tribe villages gathering here today. Aang knows he should be putting on a better display for all these visitors to his adopted home, but come on already and open your eyes, people!
"Aang," Hama says, resting a hand on each of his shoulders, "we don't see any 'dragons'. Now be honest. I know we're celebrating the solstice, but did you drink anything unusual today? Anything that tasted funny?"
Aang brushes off her hands. "I'm not drunk. I'm just seeing a phantom dragon that apparently no one else can perceive."
"Oh," says Kanna, "is that all?"
Aang pops open his staff glider. "I'm going to go check it out."
"Don't drink and fly!" Hama shouts after him.
Seeing Avatar Roku isn't like seeing an old friend for the first time in ages. It's like someone reminding you of a cherished memory you'd somehow forgotten.
The elderly Fire Nation man says, "It's good to see you, Aang."
He bows in respect. "You too, Avatar Roku."
Even seeing it in a memory, Aang knows the temple is still home. The winds carries the smell of moon peach blossoms, of baking pies, and of wood burning stoves.
"Air-surfing," marvels Aang. "I can't believe I never thought of that! I can't believe you were friends with Monk Gyatso just like I was."
"Some friendships are so strong, they can even transcend lifetimes."
Aang turns away from his past self.
"I'm sorry," he says, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.
"Aang." Roku touches the small of his back, grounding him just like Monk Gyatso used to. He almost loses it then and there. "What happened was not your fault."
Aang shakes his head. "No. I know. I just..." There are a lot of ways he can end that sentence. Too many.
"The blame for that day lies with others, myself included, as you will see. If you had stayed, you would have fought and died alongside Gyatso. Our friend wouldn't have wanted that. He would want you to live and be happy."
"I know," he whispers. "And...." He swallows. In a low, low voice, he says, "I might be."
The elderly Avatar keeps the palm of his hand pressed against Aang's back, anchoring him. "We have much to see yet, and little time left to talk," Roku says as his dragon Fang swoops down before them. "Come. I think you'll be quite impressed by my waterbending..."
The festival has wound down by the time Aang returns to his body atop the Great Roundhouse's dome. Hama, Master Kassug, and several dozen other residents of the Great City mill about on the ground at the Roundhouse's foot. Even Sokka looks relieved to see him awake and walking around.
Kanna, of course, wanders unconcerned down the north avenue several minutes later, sipping from a frothy mug. "Oh," she says, "you're up. I kept trying to find the stall that sold you the brew you were drinking but no one was selling it. This stuff's not bad though."
Later, after he's made his apologies for ruining everyone's solstice, he retreats with Hama and Kanna to his guest house that the city government gave him when he announced he was the Avatar. It's nothing special, just one tiny igloo among many. The walls are bare, which his girl friends gave him a lot of flak for, but Aang's a monk so minimalism is par for the course. Plus he only uses the place to sleep, so what's the point of hanging art or buying furniture?
"Huh," says Hama, after he's told his tale. "So Sozin and Avatar Roku were friends."
"What an SOB," says Kanna. "He let his friend die even after showing him mercy. Not that I'm surprised."
Hama nods in agreement. "Some people are just born villains."
"No," Aang says, "that's not what I think Roku was trying to tell me. See, both Sozin and R--"
The frantic ringing of the door bell that hands outside his igloo cuts him off. Before any of them decide who's going to answer it, there is a thundering of boots and Kanna's boyfriend bursts into the room. "GUYS! YOU HAVE TO COME OUTSIDE RIGHT NOW!"
Hama frowns. "Wh--"
Mystified, they follow Sokka outside.
"Black snow?" asks Aang, looking up into the sky. "Weird. Does this usually happen on the solstice?"
"This isn't snow," Hama says, closing her eyes. "It's soot."
The war horn sounds and the Great City erupts in frenzied running and shouting as people are awoken from their beds to fend off the 'nighttime' attack. Aang and his friends hop on Appa (who was sleeping out back behind Aang's house) and rush to the Great Roundhouse.
Flying up gives them a good vantage point. They can't miss the fleet of metal warships that dominate the seascape. Fifty vessels the likes of which Aang has never before seen. The sight takes Aang's breath away. This world is so different, he thinks, not for the first or last time.
"Those monsters waited until practically the whole Souther Water Tribe was gathered here for the conclave, off our guard, full and drunk from the solstice festival." Kanna begrudgingly admits, "It's a good plan."
"And with the midnight sun," adds Hama, "their firebending will be fully powered but our waterbending will be weak."
"I'm gonna be airsick," moans a green-faced Sokka.
"Suck it up," says Hama.
Chief Atka and the rest of the elders are waiting for them when they arrive. "Avatar," says the grey-haired woman, "our scouts report that the Fire Nation has assembled an armada. We would be hard pressed to fend off five warships, let alone fifty."
"They sent them here for me, didn't they?" Aang isn't asking. He doesn't know a lot about war, but he knows this many ships is overkill. The Southern Water Tribe's Great City is even smaller than one of the city-hills of Omashu. Ten ships would still be overkill. "And they're coming after you because I'm here."
Atka nods. "You... you can't stay, Avatar. The world needs you, and this is our fight. No matter what, we'll survive somehow."
"It's been decided," says Master Kassuq. "I've taught you as much as I can. The time has come for you to begin your earthbending training elsewhere. You mu--"
The scarred master freezes up. "No?"
"No," repeats Aang, clutching Appa's reins with white knuckles. "I wasn't there when the Fire Nation attacked my people. I'm going to make a difference this time. I'm not leaving."
Chief Atka stares at him. "Can you actually make a difference here? Because the world doesn't need a hero. It needs the Avatar."
Aang jumps off Appa. He lands on the ground right before Chief Atka and stares her down.
"...Very well," she says. "Master Kassuq?"
"It's time we made the Fire Nation pay a price in blood for attacking our people."
"Yes, ma'am!" The one-eyed man glances over and up towards Aang. "HAMA! Round up your squad and meet me at the city gate in five minutes."
"Sir!" Hama hops off of Appa's back. "Good luck, Aang!" she shouts back at him, and then she runs off.
"You there!" Chief Atka says, pointing up at Kanna. "You're that Northerner, yes? The one that's been petitioning to join our militia?"
"Y-yes, Chief Atka."
"What are you waiting for? Get down here and pick up a weapon! You're escorting the civilians to the mountain refuge."
Surer this time, Aang's other friend says, "Yes, Chief Atka!" and jumps to the ground.
"What about me?" asks Sokka, clutching his stomach.
Aang hops back up top and passes Appa's reins to him. "Here! You can help fly children and old people out of the city to the mountains. Just say 'yip yip', okay? Appa will take care of the rest. Won't you, buddy?" He pats the sky-bison's furry head.
"Oh spirits..." groans Sokka.
When they're alone, surrounded by streams of people running about preparing to fight off the invasion, Chief Atka turns to Aang and asks, "What's your plan, Avatar?"
"Dunno." He shrugs and snaps open his glider. "Win, I guess."
The Fire Nation opens their invasion with a bombardment of the Great City. What comes is a hail of fire that even Aang, with his airbending genius and glider, is hard-pressed to fend off. For every attack he blocks, three more hit their mark. With a heavy heart, he concentrates on protecting the rear of the city; covering the populace as it flees into the icy wastes for the safety of the mountains. He's still protecting the last stragglers, who Sokka is loading onto Appa, when the Great Roundhouse at the city's center is struck for the final time. In a shower of ice shards and smoke, it collapses in on itself.
Aang hadn't expected watching that to hurt.
"Go," he tells Appa, rubbing the sky-bison reassuringly. "Don't come back. I'll find you, buddy."
Sokka, thinking he is talking to him, says, "R-right."
Aang takes to the skies.
The bombardment stops, its mission accomplished. The Great City has been smashed. Towards the icy shoreline, a dozen ships are unloading streams of troops. The men look like ants swarming out of an anthill.
There are too many soldiers for the city militia to fend off. The waterbenders are being captured in nets and dragged back to the ships. The non-benders... aren't.
Aang sets down at the edge of the battlefield, puts down his staff, and then bursts into an airbending-powered sprint. He moves faster than the eye can follow. His vision blurs. The world shrinks down to swords and spears knocked from hands, nets blasted away mid-throw, and freezing the feet of soldiers to hold them in place. He slips through the perimeter defenders guarding the landing platforms and impales the bow of each ship on a giant spear of ice, blocking more soldiers from easily joining the fray.
All this takes less than a minute.
Aang stops to catch his breath.
The pained noise draws Aang's attention. Over a rise of snow he finds a group of Fire Nation soldiers lying face down on the ground. To his horror, several of them are missing arms. The source of the moaning is a wounded boy clad in Fire Nation armor. Aang rushes to his side.
The boy doesn't look much older than Kanna or Sokka. His helmet is missing and the cuts and pimples -- he still has pimples! -- stand out against his bloodless complexion. His right arm ends in an ice-encrusted stump jutting out from his shoulder.
Aang helps him sit up. "I'm Aang. What's your name?"
The pimple-faced teen stares and stares at Aang before remembering he has a tongue. "Y-you're an airbender! You're him! The Avatar!"
"No duh. Who are you?"
"S-Second Lieutenant Jeong Jeong, Fire Nation Navy." The other boy shakes his head, stunned. "It... they never said it was going to be like this. I never saw what my fire did to a person before."
Aang's never seen what waterbending can do to a person, either. The boy's missing arm is testament to Aang's guilt. "I can't heal you, Jeong Jeong, but I know people who can. I'm... I'm really sorry about your arm." He pauses. "Oh, and I guess you're my prisoner. Is that alright?"
Aang looks up to the top of the snow mound. "Hama! Quick! I need your help!"
Hama, her disheveled, sweat-soaked black hair clinging to her forehead, just stares down at Aang likes he's grown a second head. "What are you, an idiot? Kill him or forget him! They're falling back to regroup and we need to keep pressing our counterattack! Free the waterbenders they've taken aboard their troop transports!"
Jeong Jeong trembles. "Y-you're not going to leave me here," he whispers to Aang, "are you?"
"AANG, HURRY UP!"
"Please," the young firebender says, bowing his head, "just... make it quick."
"NO!" Aang shouts. He jumps to his feet. "Hama, get down here and help me! Jeong Jeong's going to bleed to death once his arm defrosts!"
"Who?" she asks. "You mean him?!"
Hama smirks. "Only after he was disarmed."
At his feet, Jeong Jeong barks a laugh that could pass for a sob.
"That's not funny!" Aang screams back at his friend. "And I'm not going to kill him or leave him in pain! He's a human being!"
"He's FIRE NATION. We're at war!"
"Roku was just as much Fire Nation as Sozin," Aang counters. "Their story proves anyone's capable of great good and great evil. Everyone, even the Fire Lord and the Fire Nation, has to be treated like they're worth giving a chance." At Hama's reluctance, he adds, "They're not monsters! He," Aang gestures to Jeong Jeong, "chose to stop!"
"One man, Aang. ONE." Hama swept one arm out towards the ruined city. "Look what they did! They need to PAY for what they've done!"
"I'll... stop them," he promises, "but revenge is wrong."
Hama takes a half-step back. Her shock lasts only for an instant before transmuting into righteous anger. "THEY MURDERED YOUR PEOPLE!"
He bows her head. "Revenge isn't our way, Hama."
"Your people are dead, Aang!"
Aang remembers fruit pies and airball games and children laughing as they glided through the sky. "No, they aren't. I'm alive. And as long as I'm alive, the airbenders will survive."
Hama quietly, urgently, says, "I want my people to live too."
"If the initial invasion failed," pipes up Jeong Jeong, "the plan was to level everything on the shore and then send in the next landing of troops. We've already lost too much and too many from the sound of things. You can't stop it, Avatar. My people will carry this through to the end. Just... take your allies and go. Run as far as you can inland!"
"Aang," says Hama, "I'll follow you, whatever you decide. I trust you. And we can't win this without the Avatar's help."
"Enough people have died today!" Jeong Jeong pleads. "Just GO!"
"Hama," Aang says, "we're taking him with us. We're not leaving anyone behind."
The waterbender wipes the sweat from her brow. For an instant she looks like she's going to argue with him but ultimately she says nothing. Hama darts down the mound to Jeong Jeong's side. "I'll make it quick. He just has to be able to walk without bleeding out."
"Y-you're a healer?" asks Jeong Jeong. "I thought waterbending healing was just a myth!"
"Yeah, well," mutters Hama as she lays a glowing hand on Jeong Jeong's bloody shoulder stump, "I think you'll be quite impressed by my waterbending."
"Wait," Aang says. "What did you just say?"
Hama doesn't look up from her work. "I'm making a quick and dirty job of it. He can cauterize his own damn wounds later for all I c--"
"No! After that!"
"What? I said he'll be impressed by my waterbend-- AANG, WAIT! WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!"
Fang brings him and Roku to an arctic destination. In the distance, Aang sees a city of ice far grander than even the Great City. It is, he learns, the Great City of the Northern Water Tribe. Kanna's home. The one she left by choice.
"After my years mastering airbending," Roku tells him, as they watch a memory of a young Roku dueling with his waterbending sifu, "I traveled to the Northern Water Tribe. Waterbending was especially challenging for me."
The duel ends with the most awesome display of waterbending that Aang has ever seen. Roku blasts a sharp, narrow wave of water at his opponent. The blast destroys the glacier his sifu is standing on... and it doesn't stop there. The ripple of bended water shoots across the bay and into the city, rushing uphill until it deposits Roku's instructor on the very top of the Northern Water Tribe's temple, the highest point in the city.
"But in time, I mastered it as well."
The tide of battle is turning. With Aang's speedy assault behind enemy lines, the Southern Water Tribe's warriors are pressing a successful counterattack against a disorganized foe. The Fire Nation soldiers are falling back to the stranded ships but, with their loading prows destroyed, they have to make a stand at the shoreline.
Aang ignores them.
There are forty ships out in the middle of the harbor, all of them flying the Fire Nation's flag. Their smokestacks are pouring soot into the atmosphere, making it rain black snow. If Jeong Jeong is right, they'll soon be raining down more than just soot.
Aang stands on the edge of the ice shelf, the pounding surfing seemingly raging at the cruel mistreatment of its elemental nation.
He closes his eyes.
"Talent is no excuse for intellectual laziness, especially from someone as talented as you, Avatar. Only once you've mastered the very basics of waterbending and you are able to perform them under any circumstance will the advanced techniques make sense."
Aang opens his eyes.
Feet planted firmly on the ground, the Avatar draws back his arms in a smooth replica of the move he witnessed Roku perform in his... their... memory.
Aang recognizes bits and pieces of the drawback; the curling of his fingers, the angle of his bent knees, the way he's supposed to move his body. He can find them in a dozen different waterbending moves -- the water whip, the water bullet, the ice spike, and more still -- all of which he's practiced again and again and again over the past three months. Even his snowball toss game with Hama fits into how it is supposed to work.
By understanding its components and synthesis on every level, he knows how to modify Roku's move to suit his needs.
With utter confidence in his technique, Aang bends the water.
The sea explodes.
The surface of the water bursts into the air like an overstuffed sausage casing, its skin splitting apart and spilling out its innards. A sharp, narrow wave rockets across the harbor.
The lumbering Fire Nation ships have no time to dodge. The wave catches two ships along their broadsides, punching through them with animalistic ferocity. One of the ships cracks in half. The other erupts in a spectacular fireball.
"What have I done?" he whispers to himself.
You've hurt people, a part of him whispers back. Killed people.
(Jeong Jeong's frozen arm stump.)
You protected us, says a voice that sounds like Kanna.
(Kanna and Sokka, watching the battle from the safety of the mountains.)
You kept your promise to stop them, says Hama's voice.
(The Fire Nation invasion force, falling back to their ruined landing craft. The exploding ships in the bay.)
You stayed, says Monk Gyatso. You stood your ground, even as I did, in the end.
(Gyatso's skeleton, surrounded by the skeleton of Fire Nation soldiers.)
(Gyatso as he lived, smiling, throwing pies.)
Somewhere over the horizon, the Southern Air Temple sits empty save for the sound of the wind.
Behind Aang, the ruins of the Great City smolder.
"Right," he says, taking a deep breath. "Two down."
Again, Aang bends the water.
The sea explodes.
Again, Aang bends the water.
The sea explodes.
Again, Aang bends the water...
By the time the Fire Nation ships recover from the confusion of Aang destroying them at will, thirteen total in the first minute alone, they launch a haphazard bombardment of the shore.
He's thrown the Fire Nation off their game. Their ships zig-zag in the middle of the bay, frantically trying to avoid getting hit by his waterbending strikes, and it's making it impossible for them to aim. The fireballs they rain down go wildly off-target, either landing in the empty, devastated city or splashing down short of the shoreline.
Aang keeps on bending the water.
Five minutes later it's all over. The four remaining warships chug away in frantic retreat. Aang even spots one ship flying a white flag in place of the Fire Nation's emblem. A glance down the shore confirms that the battle is over. Aang sees rows of men and women in red armor, kneeling on the ground with their hands above their heads while figures dressed in blue stand stand guard over them.
Aang falls to the ground and empties his stomach. Hama finds him that way; head between his knees, sobbing.
All but one of the Fire Nation ships are hoisted high into the air on giant pillars of ice -- warnings to serve to any future attackers. The last remaining ship is given over to prisoners of war, more of them missing one arm than not. There's talk among the Water Tribe militia of simply killing them all. Aang puts his foot down on that idea.
"I want to thank you," a solemn Jeong Jeong tells him before boarding the prison ship back to his homeland. The scarred flesh of his ruined arm stump burns red under the midnight sun. "You've been more merciful than any of us had the right to expect after what we did here... and to the Air Nation."
"Don't," Aang says. "I'm nothing like that."
"I'm alive," Jeong Jeong replies, "because of you. And I thank you for that."
"What will you do when you get back?"
The pimple-faced teen smiles. "You mean if the Fire Lord doesn't execute us all for being utter failures?" He shakes his head. "The truth is... I don't know. Go home, I guess. Even if the military would want an amputee, I don't think I could go on doing the job."
"I'm sorry," he says.
Jeong Jeong bows. "Goodbye, Avatar."
The ruins of the Great City are scavenged for supplies and then abandoned in place. The survivors rebuild in the mountains to the south of their former city. It's hard, cutting themselves off from direct access to the ocean waters, but the vulnerability of the Great City's location to off-shore bombardment has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.
The work of transforming a glacier-choked mountainside into a livable city is hard work, but with its waterbenders (and Aang pitching in) the Southern Water Tribe can rebuild far quicker than if they had lost the battle. In the space of a week the crude outline of a new city, nestled in the side of Mt. Anuun, takes shape.
The city is built like steps on a staircase, with each level running up the side of the mountain. There are even more igloos on the mountainside city than there were in the Great City, which puzzles Aang at first until he learns that outlying villages were sacked while the Fire Nation's main force came after him. After learning that, Aang works himself harder each day to build houses for the displaced refugees. Because everyone needs a home.
"I wonder what we'll call it," Kanna muses one night around the fire, the midnight sun shining. Aang knows that his friend is trying to coax him out of going back to the construction work. Kanna and Hama haven't left his side since the end of the battle, making sure that he remembers to eat and sleep.
"Grah," says Appa, who is curled up behind Aang, providing the Avatar with a backrest.
"Not a bad name," says Sokka, who's sitting next to Kanna. "'Grah' has a nice ring to it." He starts to chuckle, then bursts out laughing.
"You have a strange sense of humor for a tailor," Hama comments.
"If you think that's funny," says Kanna, "you should have heard him before."
Hama smirks in anticipation. "What'd he say?"
"Sokka wants to join the militia."
"My reaction exactly."
"Hey! I'm SO warrior material!"
Aang, staring blank-faced into the fire, blurts, "I'm leaving tomorrow."
Hama whips her head around, the small smile melting off her face. "Excuse me, you're what?"
Aang looks up at her. He repeats himself in a sedate, matter-of-fact tone. "I'm leaving tomorrow. If I stay here, I'm just going to put everyone in danger again."
"What about building more homes?" asks Sokka. "We practically have to sedate you each night to make sure you sleep." Hama and Kanna nod in concurrence.
"Things are still a little overcrowded, but the basic work is pretty much all done," Aang replies. "No one's sleeping in caves or tents anymore. And maybe it'd be better for me to leave so I can take the heat off you guys. If the Fire Nation knows I'm someplace else, they'll chase me and ignore the Water Tribe."
When his friends start to protest again he cuts them off, "I need to learn earthbending, anyway. I can't do that here."
"Where will you go?" asks Kanna, leaning forward. "The Fire Nation has armies all over the western Earth Kingdom. Trust me, they're hard to avoid."
"Omashu," Aang says. "There's an old friend of mine I want to find. He's an earthbender and he's really smart. A mad genius, actually."
Hama looks at him, the firelight casting flickering shadows across her neutral expression. "You're just... going to go? That's it?"
"I don't want to make a big scene. Appa and I will just escape tomorrow at dawn." Aang sits up. Resting his palms on his folded knees, he says, "You've all... been really good friends to me." He looks at each of them in turn: Hama, Kanna, and even Sokka. "I don't think I would have it made it without you guys."
Sokka asks, "Are you going to come back after you've found your earthbender?"
Aang shakes his head. "I still have to master firebending after that. And, eventually, I'll... I'll have to face Fire Lord Azulon. If I have to come back here before the War is over, then it probably won't be a good thing."
Silence falls over them all.
They don't do much more talking for the rest of the night.
The next morning, three hours before 'dawn', Aang gathers his things and slips out the back of his new ice house through a door he bends into existence...
...only to bump into a teed-off Hama.
"You're a lying liar who lies, Avatar Aang! Trying to feed your friends bad information so you can sneak off!"
"H-Hama!" he squeaks.
The young waterbender uncrosses her arms. "I'm coming with you."
He blinks. "What?"
"I'm coming with you," she repeats. Belatedly, he notes the travel pack at her feet and the three waterskins strapped on her back. "You're my friend, Aang. And someone has to watch out for you."
"It'll be dangerous," Aang says solemnly. "You'll be leaving your home, maybe for good. I can't risk y--"
"I think I'm the one who decides that, since I'm the one taking the risk," she counters. "I've decided it's worth it. I'm coming." She steps forward, into his person personal space. "You can try to stop me but I'll just chase after you, even if I have to paddle a canoe to Omashu myself."
Aang sighs, but it's not as exasperated as he tries to make it seem. "Well, if there's no talking you out of it..."
They make it three levels down the mountainous cityside to Appa's stable before they run into another familiar face, this one racing up what's become known as the 'grand staircase'.
"Kanna?" says Aang, surprised.
She's shocked for a moment, but the stunned look on her face quickly transitions into anger. "You jerk!" the seventeen year old says. "You were leaving early, weren't you?"
"Called it," says Hama.
Kanna wrinkles her nose in disgusts. "Great. Now I owe her money."
Aang is aghast. "Y-you made a bet on me?"
"More like a friendly wager," says Kanna. She underhand tosses a small bag of jingling coins to the younger girl. "Hama's usually a sucker."
"Which makes it so much better when I win," the waterbender retorts, pocketing the money.
A grin sneaks across Kanna's lips. "It is a rare occasion to celebrate, I'll give you that."
"Hold up!" shouts Aang. The two Water Tribe girls turn towards him. "I'm already bringing Hama along. Why do you want to come?"
"I don't want to come. I'm coming." Kanna shoulders her satchel. "It's been better than thirty years since you were frozen, Aang. The world has changed. You need someone who knows it, who's walked across it -- well, that's me."
Aang is dubious. "What about your boyfriend?"
"Sokka understands," Kanna replies, then adds with narrowed eyes, "Not that I need to ask a man's permission to do what I please."
"Er--! I didn't mean--!"
"Easy, Aang," says Hama, clapping a comforting hand on his back. "She's just yanking your chain."
They quickly load up Appa after that with all the supplies they'll need to make it to Omashu... and maybe to a few detours along the way, just for, y'know, fun. He'll let the Elephant Koi surfing be a surprise for Hama. She'll be more impressed by his feat that way. And Kanna has to know a few choice sight-seeing spots from her travels. Aang makes a mental note for them to compare notes as soon as possible.
Of course, their departure is delayed somewhat by Sokka showing up with half the city in tow.
Looking at his three friends, Aang bursts, "None of you can keep a secret, can you?!"
Amid all the cheering and waving, the Council of Chieftains gives the three of them ceremonial forehead marks: bravery for Hama, wisdom for Kanna, trust for Aang and, after some subtle prodding from him and a quick search for a large enough broom to use as a brush, Chief Atka anoints Appa's furry forehead with the mark of strength.
It's strange, sneaking off again, but, this time, having everyone cheer you for doing so.
Aang discretely scrubs his forehead clean as he mounts Appa. "You guys ready?" When no immediate reply comes, he glances over his shoulder. "Guys?"
Kanna has already curled up in her bedroll, eye mask on, intent on catching up on her sleep. Hama, meanwhile, is smiling. She says, both to him and their mutual snoring friend, "Omashu, here we come."
It's word enough for Aang. Grinning, he says, "Yip yip!"
And like that, they're flying...