Before You Read and Disclaimer: This chapter of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book 4: Air, will be from the third-person point of view of Sokka and Katara respectively. A line through the page will indicate a POV change. When you see this: 8-8, this means that we are still in the same POV, so don't be confused! I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender – it belongs solely to Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, and Nickelodeon.
It was times like this where he missed Aang's and Toph's distractions.
The moon was nothing but a small grinning crescent in the sky. The new moon was a few nights ago, when they were leaving the port at Omashu. Katara threw a fit on nights like those, for her waterbending powers diminished ever-so-slightly. Sokka didn't notice it really; she was still able to water-whip someone with astonishing strength and accuracy (he could contest to that). What he didn't tell Katara was that he secretly liked new moon days. The absence of the moon usually meant the absence of his guilt. Now, seeing the moon smiling down at him from the night sky brought back the jumbled mix of emotions that he could not kick aside. As he stared upward, it wasn't the moon's light he saw, but Yue's face smiling down at him. He closed his eyes and shook his head. Yue's face disappeared, only to be replaced by a winking and grinning Suki. He missed her so much – he wondered if she was doing okay at Kyoshi Island. When would he see her again? Would he ever?
Ugh! Where was Toph to smack him in the head when he needed it?
Sokka grimaced, slouching over the railing of the wooden Southern Water Tribe ship. He was in no mood for such heavy thoughts. He was an ambassador now; he was going to help his father rebuild his home back to… its former glory. But, come to think of it, Sokka had no idea what the Southern Water Tribe's "former glory" even was. Was it like the Northern Water Tribe at one point? Or was its style different? What was it like to have Waterbenders, besides Katara, back home? Sokka shook his head unsure. It was going to be different – everything was going to change. But it was still home, and he would do his best to keep it that way.
Sokka pulled his old Water Tribe winter cloak around him tighter. They were nearing the arctic pole now. Already, he could see small icebergs under the water and his breath began to frost in front of his face. The cold would, normally, not affect him, but leaving the hot summer weather of Ba Sing Se made the crisp air around him seem abnormally frigid. He shivered and turned to the side. His mouth dropped.
"Hawky! Oh man," Sokka cried, dropping to his knees.
The messenger hawk had hopped to Sokka's side, shivering all over. His eyes seemed ten times too big and the tips of his wings were frosted over. Tiny icicles protruded from his beak.
Sokka grabbed Hawky around his back, opened his cloak, and stuffed him inside. Sokka could feel Hawky nuzzle against his bare chest and ruffle his feathers so that he could warm up. Suddenly, Sokka was clutching his fists at his side and bouncing up and down, his face contorted into a mix between a lopsided grin and a grimace, his eyebrows shot up into his forehead, and his eyes squinting and watering. Not only was Hawky really cold, but his feathers tickled him all over and it was taking all off his strength not to laugh and throw Hawky from his cloak.
"Sokka, what are you doing?"
Sokka jumped and turned, trying to keep his face flat, but he couldn't keep his mouth from twitching. Hawky had moved in alarm inside his cloak when Sokka jumped, increasing the tickling to a frequency that Sokka was finding hard to control.
"Heh – chiitt – Nothing – heee – Katara," Sokka managed between suppressed snorts and giggles when he saw Katara frowning at him.
Katara cocked her head and eyed Sokka's bulging chest. "What's that?"
"Heeee – Nothing! Hehe, I swear! Eerrrr, heeee, What do you need Katara?"
"I just wanted to tell you that the Captain told me that we should be home by tomorrow morning. Normally, we'd get there by late tonight, but these underwater icebergs are becoming a nuisance. Luckily, he told me he's good at maneuvering his way around them," Katara explained, not taking her eyes off of Sokka's chest.
Sokka put one arm back to lean nonchalantly against the railing of the ship, but Hawky began to move again and Sokka did his best to suppress the tears coming out of the corners of his eyes. "Pffft – that's good, right?"
"Sokka, what's under your coat?"
"It's nothing! Hehe… nothing!" Sokka looked at his surroundings. "Haaaaa – Can't wait to get home – eeee – can you?"
Katara didn't answer. Instead, she thrust out her hand and attacked Sokka's coat.
"What are you doing?!" Sokka yelled, shielding his cloak with his hands and doing his best to keep Katara from getting in. Hawky moved again, the tips of his feathers tinkling every inch of bare skin. His claws scrapped Sokka's belly as Hawky tried to balance inside Sokka's cloak. Sokka faltered and Katara's quick hands peeled back the opening of his coat to expose Hawky's harried-looking head.
"Sokka!" Katara chastised. "Take Hawky out of your coat!"
"He was cold! What was I supposed to do?" Sokka asked.
"You should of done what I asked you to do before we left Ba Sing Se: send Hawky back to Toph's parents in Gaoling!"
"No! He's not going back there! Hawky's my best friend!"
"And what is Aang? Chopped possum-chicken?!" Katara screamed, raising her arms and pushing her frenzied face in front of Sokka's. Sokka's eyes widened as her face came within a few inches of his nose, a face that he hadn't bothered to really look at since they left Omashu. Dark lines outlined her eyes and her eyes themselves were red at the corners. Pieces of hair escaped her carefully woven braid in the back and her hair loopies. Her lips were rigid and chapped. Sokka realized then that, perhaps it was not just the night of the new moon that irked Katara… perhaps it had been this whole trip home. And he was so caught up in his own ponderings that he barely paid attention to his sister's.
"I never said anything about Aang," Sokka said. He twitched again as Hawky readjusted himself inside his coat, so that it looked like Hawky was watching him from below, before continuing. "What's wrong with you? You look horrible and you water-whipped me the other day for borrowing your water scrolls."
"You never asked me!" she accused.
"I was studying them to improve my swordsmanship! Plus, knowing about them might help me understand more about our people Katara. I'm going to be helping dad out, after all. Anyway, even if I didn't ask, I don't think that calls for you to water-whip me! Look!" Sokka bent over and pulled down his pants to reveal part of his left butt-cheek. It was bright red. Sokka stared at it with big, regretful eyes. "Now I can't sit right anymore!"
"It's not that bad," Katara said, glancing at the red mark with a mix of guilt and revulsion. "And pull your pants up!"
Sokka did so, glaring at her.
"Okay, so maybe it's a little bad," Katara relented. "But you could've asked. And take that bird out of your coat before he chokes!"
"He's not choking! He's warming up!" But when Sokka looked down, he saw Hawky's tongue lolling out of his beak and his eyes, once again, bigger than normal.
"Stop squeezing your coat together at the side – that's what's making him do that," Katara pointed out.
Sokka released his jacket between his clenched fists and watched Hawky breathe again and rustle inside his jacket. Sokka laughed as his feathers once again tickled his skin.
"Sokka, what are we going to do with him? He's a Fire Nation bird. This cold weather isn't good for him. And you don't take care of him either! You almost forgot him at Omashu! If he didn't come flying back to you after Zuko's ship left…"
"I take good care of him! Right Hawky?"
Hawky turned his head up to Sokka and then pecked lightly at Sokka's chest.
"Ow!" Sokka said, flinching. "That was just a one time thing!"
"Seriously Sokka, I think it's best that we let Hawky go back to Gaoling. You can always visit him or maybe even send for Hawky when you need him, right?"
"But how would I send for him if I don't have a messenger hawk?" Sokka protested.
Katara gave him an irritated look. Sokka sighed and looked down to see Hawky gazing up at him with his luminous gold eyes. Sokka's bottom lip quavered and Katara put a hand on his shoulder. "It's time to let him go."
"But I feel like he only just came back to me. When will I see him again?" Sokka whined, his eyes big and tearing.
Katara smiled sorrowfully. "You'll see him again, I promise. Hawky won't forget you."
Sokka sighed again and peeled open the folds of his jacket. Hawky jumped out and landed on Sokka's outstretched arm, puffing up and fluffing his tousled feathers.
"Bye Hawky. I promise I'll come visit you as often as I can… whenever I'm in warmer areas…" Sokka sniffed and scratched behind Hawky's neck. "Now you should go back to Toph's house, okay? Go back there and say hi to her for us."
Hawky cocked his head.
"Just go Hawky!" Sokka said forcefully, bottom lip quivering. "I know you don't want to, but you have to. I love you man."
Hawky seemed to nod his head. Sokka raised his arm up to the sky and Hawky flew up into the chilly air. There, he caught a gust of air and glided north. In only a minute's time, he was swallowed up by the night.
Sokka watched him go regretfully. He hated himself for it, but Katara was right. The South Pole was no place for a bird of summer. In fact, to Sokka's dismay, Katara had this annoying habit of almost always being right.
Sokka turned his head to look at his sister. He saw her profile, still looking up into the sky after Hawky. There was a slight haggard look to her now, as if she had been wrestling with some problem.
"So, what's up with you and Aang?" Sokka asked, eyeing his sister.
Katara flushed and wheeled so quickly to face Sokka that he almost missed the movement.
"What do you mean?" she asked guardedly.
Sokka was surprised by the reaction and confused why she was asking him "what he meant". Wasn't it obvious? She had just thrown his name into the conversation out of nowhere. But why?
"I mean, you know Aang's one of my best friends, right? You don't have to get all defensive about it and all."
Katara's natural color returned to her face and she seemed to exhale somewhat. Sokka noted the curious act, but, out of a stroke of ingenuity, Sokka realized the truth. Girls could be so tricky sometimes, but Sokka prided himself on being pretty good at reading them, especially after living with his sister for so long.
"Ah ha! I get it!" Sokka said, sticking his index finger up into the air triumphantly. Katara's eyes widened somewhat and she took a step back. "You miss him! I mean, he was like your second brother, right? Part of the family?"
Katara's mouth dropped and her eyebrows furrowed. Sokka figured it was because she was shocked at how well he was able to deduce her emotions. Mentally, he dusted himself off as a job well done.
"Yeah," Katara said as she nodded slowly and strode past Sokka to rest her arms on the ship railing. She sighed and stared out into the sparkling moonlit ocean. "He was part of the family, and I miss him a lot. I mean, a real lot."
Katara paused, then added quickly, "Of course, I miss Toph a lot too. And Zuko, I guess. They were all our family. But, I mean, Aang was with us from the beginning, so, oh, I don't know. I'm just worried he'll mess up on his first job as a true 'Avatar' when we're not there. He's still pretty young."
Sokka went over to lean on the railing next to her. "You know, he's done a lot of growing up. He's a really smart kid. Weird at times, but smart. And, on the whole age thing, he's already defeated a crazy Fire Master… I'm sure he can deal with this city's problems. For him, I'm sure it'll be a relief and a piece of cake!"
Katara smiled. "Thanks Sokka. I worry too much." Katara twisted her head so that she was looking at Sokka sidelong. "I know you miss Suki. I see you staring at the moon far too often now and that means you're thinking about two people in particular."
"Yeah," Sokka said. "But it's not like we can go visit them now… we have a job to do."
Katara nodded. "What do you think it'll be like? Returning home after all this time?"
Sokka shrugged. "Cold… and white, I'd imagine."
"You know what I meant."
Sokka sighed. "I don't know. Different and the same. Dad, Gran Gran, and Pakku will be there, so that's something to look forward to. We won't be alone."
"I'm… afraid," Katara admitted, looking down. "Afraid everything will be totally different and that I won't recognize anything anymore. What if I'm not good enough for this job as… ambassador?"
"If you're not good at it, then I'm in trouble," Sokka said sarcastically. "Look, Katara, you've always been good at almost anything. Except, I still think your cooking is a bit… iffy."
Katara gave him a sour look.
"But, you're focused and dedicated, that's why you do well. Both of our jobs are going to be new to us, but if you put that same focus and dedication into your work as you do with other things, you don't need to worry because you'll do great. I know it."
Katara turned, smiled, and hugged Sokka. "Thanks, I really appreciate that," she whispered to him.
"Oh and," Katara said, as she withdrew. "Don't put yourself down so much. You're also good at many things too, Sokka. You're the most creative person ever. You and dad are going to rebuild our home into something fantastic."
"I know," Sokka said, grinning, as Katara slapped him half-heartedly in the shoulder.
The sun rose the following day, and with it, about a dozen ships.
Sokka had seen huge port cities before, back in the days when they had lived day-by-day off of Appa's back. But this many ships, at the Southern Water tribe? It was unheard of.
Now, at the coast of the icy tundra, a port city was emerging. Docking stations had been erected out of the snow for the ships while smaller boats traveled in the waters carrying crates and other items between the ships and the coast. In front of the coast and the ship port, a partway completed icy wall emerged from the waters, much like the wall bordering the Northern Water Tribe. Staring back toward shore, Sokka saw hordes of people running about between the old tents of the Southern Water Tribe and the new circular-like houses built from the snow around them. Others were clearing out a canal parting down the middle of the village. And still more stood atop the high walls on either side of Sokka and Katara's approaching ship, adding more and more ice and snow.
Sokka could barely recognize his home. It was nothing like the little village that he grew up in. It was gone, replaced with people he didn't know and places and things he had never seen before. His heart pounded as the boat neared a docking station. Suddenly, a hand clasped his and he saw his sister appear by his side, staring forward at this new place before them. He grinned and squeezed her hand. They were both nervous, but they would get through it together.
A tiny boat appeared in front of their ship, one man waving and directing his arms to the appropriate place to dock while another man, a Waterbender, directed the currents and waves beneath the boat, both powering and steering it. After guiding them to the correct spot, crew members from the ship began hastily making preparations – gathering up the crates of Sokka's and Katara's things and other supplies, putting away the ship's mast, and then lowering the plank to the dock.
Crew members descended the plank as Sokka and Katara remained frozen at the top. When the crowd disappeared and the two of them could see down to the dock, familiar faces, along with some new ones, stared up at them.
"Gran Gran!" Katara shouted, sprinting down the plank with her arms outstretched.
"Katara!" Gran Gran said, catching Katara in her arms and brushing back her hair with her fingers. "Oh, I've missed you so."
"Dad!" Sokka bellowed excitedly, as he, too, ran down the plank and hugged his father.
"Sokka - it hasn't been that long, has it?" his father joked, patting him on the back.
"Guess not, but it's still good to see you," Sokka said, releasing his father and staring around at their welcome party. Katara had also withdrawn from Gran Gran and was talking animatedly to Pakku beside her. But, besides the three of them, two others that Sokka did not recognize stood somewhat to the side of the party, watching Katara and him with curious eyes.
Hakoda made a forced cough-like sound and Katara and Sokka turned to look at him. Kanna and Pakku also turned, smiling.
"Sokka, Katara, thank you for coming so quickly once you received your message. We've been waiting for you," Hakoda said.
"You have?" Katara asked.
"Of course. It is in you, the younger generation, that we put the hope for the restoration of the Southern Water Tribe in. You two are more important than you think."
Sokka felt his insides roll as he and Katara exchanged hesitant glances.
"We'll do our best, dad," Sokka said.
Hakoda grinned and laid a giant hand on Sokka's shoulder. Sokka did his best not to stumble over.
"That's what I like to hear. From this point forward, you two will be the Southern Water Tribe's Junior Ambassadors!"
Sokka and Katara's jaws dropped. Sokka was the first to recover and said, "Whaaaat?"
Hakoda smiled sympathetically and looked over at Pakku, who smirked. Katara's eyes narrowed at him. "The message said that Sokka and I would be Ambassadors, not Junior Ambassadors."
Pakku grinned. "Katara, think of this as another test of your waterbending prowess. And I am well aware of what Chief Arnook's letter said, for he sent me something similar explaining the plans he has in store for your brother and you. However, after talking with your father, I think that the title of 'Ambassador' must be earned not given."
"And what makes you think we haven't earned it?" Sokka asked defensively.
Pakku inclined his head toward Sokka. "True, you have watched after the Avatar and helped him on his quest and, true, you've been, abstractly, a part of some major political decisions. However, I don't think that exactly qualifies you to be full Southern Water Tribe Ambassadors, do you?"
Sokka gritted his teeth and seethed. Katara, on the other hand, seemed to lose it.
"How could you?!" Katara shouted, walking up to Pakku and thrusting her arms in his face. "Sokka's nearly sixteen and I think I've been even more of an adult than him sometimes!"
Sokka turned to look at her, his face drooping. "Hey!" She ignored him.
"Already, both of us have seen things that would make even you squirm! What gives you the right to go against Chief Arnook's orders?"
"Katara!" Gran Gran said, aghast, but Pakku raised a hand to silence her. "Actually…" he said, turning to Hakoda.
Slowly, Sokka and Katara moved to face their father. He wore a bashful face, as he rubbed his head nervously, saying, "Well, Pakku convinced me…"
"But you made the decision," Sokka said in disbelief.
Hakoda sighed and said, "Look, kids, he's right. You need some training before you become full ambassadors. Like Pakku said, think of this as a test. If you succeed, you'll be full Southern Water Tribe Ambassadors in about a year or so…"
"A year?" Sokka said, shocked. "But dad… don't you trust us?"
"More than anything, Sokka, but…"
Pakku interrupted. "You need training. And here's how you'll get it. Chief Hakoda, if you please."
Hakoda nodded and gestured to indicate the two men who had been standing silently off to the side the whole time. Sokka had nearly forgotten about them.
"This is Northern Water Tribe's Anyu, former local advisor to Chief Arnook. At only seventeen, he's already a Waterbending Master and has solved major issues in the Kantu community of the Northern Water Tribe. Katara, he will be your advisor."
Sokka watched as one of the two men stepped forward. His stomach dropped. He was the better-looking of the two by far – clean shaven, his brown hair swept across his forehead with two beaded strands one either side of his face near his ears. His eyes were a bright blue that watched Katara with interest. Already, Sokka disliked him. When he turned to measure Katara's reaction, she looked taken-aback.
"It's an honor to meet you Katara," Anyu said, bowing. "Pakku has told me amazing stories about your waterbending skills. A master at only fourteen? Something I thought I'd have to see to believe. But, watching you just now, I don't have to see you waterbend to know that you are not a foe to be reckoned with."
"Um…" Katara hesitated, then said, "Thank you. It'll be my pleasure to work with you."
Sokka's mouth dropped. Traitor! Was she just going to admit defeat in front of an, admittedly, handsome guy? Sokka frowned and looked at Anyu, who was flashing Katara a stunning grin that made Sokka sick.
"And this is Northern Water Tribe's Chu, Chief Arnook's steward."
Sokka turned and tried not to gape or make an aghast face, but it was hard not to. The man who stepped forward was so lanky that his knees seemed unable to support the rest of him. He wobbled to Sokka, hunched forward and sniffing in snot. His face was pockmarked and red from previous scars, even though he was definitely older than twenty-two. When he smiled at Sokka and flipped the tangled brown locks of hair from his face, Sokka noticed he was missing a tooth and that many teeth were crooked.
"Chu has been at Chief Arnook's beck-and-call everyday for the past ten years. He has seen and been a part of some major political decisions and is a… um, self-proclaimed penguin whisperer. Sokka, he will be your advisor."
"Pleasure to meet you Sokka," Chu said in a choking, nasally voice.
Sokka gave a forced grin and talked through his teeth, "Likewise."
"Tonight, we'll be honoring the two of you and your new advisors at a small banquet. Right now, Gran Gran, Pakku, and I will show you to our new homes. Follow me."
Sokka stood still and watched as Pakku, Gran Gran, and his father turned and made their way off the dock and to their new "home". Katara walked on behind them, closely followed by Anyu, who was still smiling and giving her looks.
"I have a headache," Sokka said to no one in particular.
"Oh! I think I have something for that in here… Chief Arnook used to get them all the time… let's see," Chu replied as he rummaged through his coat and started to pull out an assortment of items, including leaves, herbs, papers, scrolls, bound books, tea cups, jars with bark, water jugs, and handkerchiefs. Then he sneezed and used one of the handkerchiefs he was holding in his hand to wipe off the snot.
"Seems I forgot the remedy to that, I'm afraid," he said woefully. "But you could borrow this." He held out the handkerchief to Sokka.
Sokka smacked his forehead. It just made his headache worse.
It was nothing like the extravagance of the Northern Water Tribe's celebrations, but it was still amazing in its own right.
The party was anything but "small." Everyone seemed to want to attend the "Welcome Home Junior Ambassador Party!" (true, the name still grated Katara, but she promised to prove herself sooner rather than later). The best part was that many of the people who were attending were people she spent her childhood with: Kavan, her father's old friend, to the right of her father at the end of the long banquet table, was screeching at the top of his lungs about the time he saved them all from a huge whale while they were on a mission to infiltrate a Fire Nation port in the southernmost area of the Earth Kingdom. His scruffy beard dripped with a bluish liquid that could only be the Northern Water Tribe's special concoction, simply known as "Water Wine." Katara knew Kavan would lose more than his voice later in the night at the rate he was going. At the other end of the table sat her grandmother, Pakku, and other old friends, including Rarool, Koda, and Narda. They sat talking animatedly among each other, Gran Gran often at the center of the conversation. The great thing about the banquet was not only the fact that anyone could join in and leave when they wanted to, but that everyone contributed something. Some served, others cooked, while still others cleaned. Even her father joined in the cooking. Everyone but Katara and Sokka offered something, for they were the guests of honor. It made Katara smile thinking about how different the attitudes of the Southern Water Tribe were from the Northern Water Tribe; everyone here was treated equally.
However, many unfamiliar faces roamed the party as well, most of them emigrants from the Northern Water Tribe. Across the table from Katara, girls about the same age as her giggled and laughed together over a flurry of topics that Katara could not keep up with. It irritated her that due to the long poverty of the Southern Water Tribe and her journey with Aang, she missed a lot of what consisted of "typical" teenage girl experiences. And of course, the highlight of their conversation was boys. Most of the time they were looking at the guy Anyu sitting to her right, whispering comments and eyeing him, but never asking him anything directly. Instead, they focused on inquiring Sokka, sitting to Katara's left, about everything that had to do with the Southern Water Tribe.
"So what did you guys do for fun here? I mean, you all lived in tents didn't you? How did you survive?" asked Kira, a girl with squinty eyes and a pinched nose, her hair pinned up in a bob behind her head.
"Yeah - what did you guys do for fun?" mirrored Kira's twin, Mira.
"Fish," Sokka answered immediately, eyeing the girls.
"Fish? That's it? What kind of hobby is that?" said another girl, Lyanna, who constantly twirled her many braids in one hand while bringing different braids to her mouth to chew on with the other.
"But have you ever seen the size of the fish we have here?" Sokka asked, throwing his thumb over his shoulder to point down the table toward their father.
Indeed it was a mighty sight. Katara had been to some fancy feasts in her time, but this was unlike anything the Southern Water tribe had ever prepared. There were giant pots of sizzling stew with crisp onions, seaweed, and sea crab, sea prunes layered with lemon juice and pickled radishes, roasted fish, shaved-ice lime-juice, seaweed wrapped gull, and flamed arctic hen, battered in layers of herbs, spices, and sea cow cream - so juicy, the skin simply fell off. But the main course, the one Sokka was pointing to, was a mammoth-size trout-seal, a usually huge gold and blue-speckled fish, but this one was so charred it was a toasty brown color that left the fish already three-fourths devoured; nothing left but a carcass of bone.
"You caught that?" Lyanna asked, unconvinced.
"Well, not that one," Sokka said, frowning. "But I often caught ones that size in my day… and they're no easy thing to catch. It sometimes takes the whole day to catch just one of those babies." Sokka leaned back in his chair and gave the girls a knowing look, while they looked at each other and nodded in approval.
Katara snorted and rolled her eyes. "Oh please Sokka. The best thing you've ever caught in your day was a guppy, if even that. I was the one who did most of the fishing."
"Katara," Sokka breathed through the corner of his mouth, before turning back to the girls. "Yeah, Katara did a lot of fishing, but she caught the small stuff with her waterbending. The real fish comes from the skills of a master fisherman! Only the real pros can catch a fish like that!"
At that moment, a tall, stocky man with an unruly beard and beady eyes stomped into the banquet pavilion from an open air hallway that led to the kitchens. Slung over his shoulder was another enormous trout-seal, the same size or even bigger than the one on the table.
"Eh, Hakoda! Want 'nother for the party? Found 'is one beached o'er by the cold water spring. All I 'ad to do was hit 'em with this 'ere hammer and 'is all 'eady to go!" he exclaimed, smiling so broadly, his chins became two.
"Er, no thanks Barook. We're probably good for the rest of the night. Good ahead and freeze that one for later and come out to enjoy the festivities!" Hakoda replied, waving his arm over, signaling him to join them.
"Sounds great!" Barook said, bounding back toward the kitchen, the trout-seal thumping against his back.
Sokka turned slowly back to the girls, grinning sheepishly, while the girls returned a look that can only be described as the face of a mother's disapproval.
Lyanna turned to Katara then, smoothing out her braids in her fingers. "You went fishing? Girls don't fish."
Katara's eyes widened as she stared at her, dumbfounded for a brief moment, before remembering the rather sexist culture of the Northern Water Tribe. Taking a deep breath to settle her nerves and telling herself that these girls did not know any better, she said, "Here, girls do anything boys do. We fish, hunt, and fight together."
Lyanna's eyes were as huge as marbles and her teeth sunk into her braid. Kira obtained a rather bemused look and said, "Fish are so… sticky and gross. Girl's shouldn't touch such things."
Katara's patience was running thin. These kinds of conversations were not her forte. She hated it whenever people told her what she could and could not do.
"I catch fish. I also can gut and skin them with a knife. I used to pinch off their eyes and rip out their bones and then cook its flesh over a fire for food while we were on the road. And you know what else I can do?" Katara's voice rose and became shrill as she bent across the table toward the girls. "I can waterbend and send someone ten times bigger than me reeling fifty feet away. I can swim and skate on water - I can help women birth babies - I can use my own sweat to waterbend!"
"Katara," Sokka warned under his breath.
Katara ignored him, too worked-up to care. "And you know what else? I can even blood-"
"Okaaaaaaay!" Sokka interrupted, patting Katara on the shoulder and pulling her back into her seat. "I think they get it."
Katara blinked and noticed that the three girls were staring at her, mouths wide in shock. Lyanna's braid fell from her mouth.
Aw man. I overdid it, Katara thought, trying to figure out a way to remedy the situation, for it was not only the girls who were looking strangely at her. Others, at both ends of the table, had stopped their conversations to take a look.
"You waterbended your own sweat?"
Katara turned to see Anyu staring at her with his luminous blue eyes that seemed to reflect the light off of every blue-flamed torch around the pavilion back at her. They were ice that seemed to freeze her gaze in place. Distantly, she realized that this was the first time Anyu had actually left his other conversations to turn and address them.
Katara blinked and looked past his eyes to one of the flickering torches behind Anyu. Somehow the torch fire seemed to melt the ice of his gaze away and she could feel the air waft around her again.
"Yes, actually," Katara finally said. "My friend and I were stuck in a jail cell -"
"You were in jail?" Mira remarked.
Katara continued as if she heard nothing, "- made of wood. Neither of us could use our bending skills in a wooden prison - or so we thought. I just utilized the resources we had."
Anyu nodded. "Quite resourceful. I'm impressed. Although a lady would never have gotten herself imprisoned in the first place," he said raising an eyebrow.
Katara wasn't sure if he was being serious or playful. As a matter of fact, it was difficult to read Anyu's intentions one way or the other. In the whole eight-something hours Katara had had to get to know Anyu, she couldn't figure out whether Anyu was constantly complimenting her or mocking her. That and the way he looked at her made her uneasy, but she didn't show it. He was supposed to be her advisor after all.
"It was kind of hard to stay out of jail when the whole Fire Nation was looking for us," Katara retorted.
"Well, weren't you wearing disguises? And, why would the Avatar want to travel anywhere near a Fire Nation village? That's just unwise."
"Well excuse me if we were hungry and needed to risk getting caught for food!" Katara snapped.
"Never foraged for food before?"
"Plenty of times! What do you think Sokka and I did here for most of our lives? Every day was spent looking for food!"
"Why risk a village then?"
Katara frowned and clenched her teeth to keep from shouting. She didn't want to tell him that it was her idea to get throw in jail in the first place; a scheme she created to prove to Toph that she could be just as much fun at making up scams as Sokka and Aang were. How was she to know that she, too, would get thrown in jail and that the jail would be made of wood instead of the metal that Toph could bend?
Instead of answering the question, Katara stood up and said, "You know, it's been a great dinner, but I think I've had too many greasy things for one night. Now I'm sick to my stomach." She eyed Anyu to see if he got her meaning.
Anyu didn't reply. Instead, like a trained polar bear dog, Sokka's pock-faced advisor popped his head around Sokka's shoulder and said, "I have something for that! Let me just find it here…"
He opened his coat and out spilled a ton of jars filled with herbs, spices, remedies, handkerchiefs, papers, ink, and who knows what else. For one brief moment, Katara wondered how he was able to fit all those things inside his robes. One of the jars smacked against the hard, icy floor and cracked. Two seconds later, a wood frog was hopping around the table amidst shouts of alarm from Kira, Mira, and Lyanna. Sokka didn't react, until Chu ran across the banquet table after the wood frog, only to trip and knock into the chair of a stocky woman Katara did not know, knocking her completely over into the snow. Sokka squeezed his eyes shut then and smacked his face into the empty plate before him.
That was the last image Katara saw before running out of the banquet hall - leaving the aroma of food, the sound of the commotion, and the feeling of awkwardness and not-belonging behind her. It was quieter outside, the moon almost halfway full, lighting up the snow around her like a sea of scattered crystals. Still, it wasn't secluded enough, and Katara felt strange. Piles of snow were littered here and there among tents and solid houses made of ice and snow. Tools were left helter-skelter among the piles: spades, brushes, trowels, rakes, and sculpting tools left half-buried in patches of ice. Katara frowned, watching her step as she ran past the outskirts of the city, running farther and farther south until the city was no bigger than the width of her little finger. From this distance, the city looked foreign to her. She could see lights gleaming from the banquet hall and other houses and cooking fires sending streams of smoke messages up into the polar sky. The beginnings of the enormous outer wall could be seen too - a huge divider separating the new sprawling city from the boundless ocean that had been the city's lifeblood for as long as she could remember. The wall itself was the biggest indicator of how much things had changed. Why did Katara think it would be any different? Why did she feel such a gnawing sensation in the pit of her stomach that spoke of this scene being somehow intimately wrong?
Katara turned back south. Innumerable icebergs floated among the cracks in the ice, the more distant ones looking like little sailboats drifting along the horizon. Not far to her left was a small dock with no more than five canoes attached. Katara recognized the tipped over canoe on the end as belonging to her family, the unmistakable crack in the bottom a result of one of Sokka's "better" fishing expeditions. It was hard to believe that the last time she had been in that canoe was a little less than a year ago, when Sokka and her had found Aang in that iceberg…
Katara turned then to her right, looking past huge snow drifts, among which hobbled hordes of otter-penguins, to a small speck in the distance which she knew was the old, abandoned Fire Navy ship. She remembered how many times she was told never to enter the ship as a child and how wary she had been when Aang wanted to explore it. Nowadays, the thought of entering the ship barely made her flinch. It was only one ship of a fleet very far away from here.
In fact, come to think of it, Katara suddenly wanted to see the ship up close again. Some strange compulsion propelled her forward, plodding through the snow bit by bit while creating bridges of ice to link snow banks separated by water to one another. She was almost halfway there when a splash to her left caught her attention.
As had become habit, Katara whirled about, her hands outstretched in front of her, prepared to waterbend if need be. But there was no one. Instead, a stinging, icy northern wind met her face, whipping her hair behind her. Katara relaxed her stance. It was probably an otter-penguin diving into the water nearby; the war was over - nobody would we be out this far to kill her.
Turning around, Katara continued moving toward the ship, only to be met by another splash, this one closer. Wheeling again, Katara eyed the endless desert of white behind her. That's when she saw it: ripples spreading from a single point in a small, relatively circular pool to her right. Curious, Katara edged over to the pool and glanced over the rim just as the last of the ripples faded into oblivion. The pool was flat and still, like a sheet of glass. Katara tried her best to stare into its depths, but couldn't seem to look past its almost perfect reflection of her and the night sky above. It was like staring at a giant mirror in the Earth. Oddly enough, Katara was reminded of the oasis in the Northern Water Tribe with the koi fish locked in their eternal twisting dance, although the appearance of this pool was completely different than the oasis. Perhaps it was the feeling of the place; peaceful, serene. The pool was so perfect that Katara felt the need to touch it just to make sure it was real.
But before her outstretched hand touched the water, a point above Katara's reflection seemed to shimmer away in a stream of imaginary ripples. The night sky disappeared to reveal the watery pits below. Captivated, Katara leaned closer to the water to watch as a single, large, luminous blue eye came into focus from the water's depths. It stared at Katara and Katara stared back. The eye was not unlike Anyu's eyes, Katara thought suddenly; it had that same piercing intensity, as if it was pinning you in place. But unlike Anyu, this eye seemed knowing, wise. It had seen much in the world and had much to share. Just as Katara was leaning even closer to the pool, her face a mere inch from touching the water, the eye looked past Katara, to something behind her. Katara watched too as a dark figure approached her reflection in the water from behind. As quick as a jackalope, Katara righted herself and spun on her toes, outstretching her arms on either side of her, then pulling them together and lifting them over her head. In the direction of her movement, a pillar of ice erupted from the ground beneath her, encasing the intruder in a stone-like vise.
"What the heck Katara?!"
Sokka struggled futilely against his icy encasement, his wildly flapping hands reminding Katara very much of a pigeon.
"Sokka? What are you doing here?" Katara asked.
Sokka frowned at her and said, "You know Katara, I sort of came out here to ask you the same question. Now, get me out of here!"
Frowning, Katara brought her hands up above her again and then lowered them slowly, melting the ice to a small pool of water around Sokka. As soon as the last of the ice melted away, Sokka plopped onto his butt in the snow.
"Ow." Sokka got to his knees and rubbed his rump with a sour look. "First it was the water whip, and now this. What's gotten into you Katara?"
Katara narrowed her eyes at him. "I thought you were someone else."
"Like who? Who's going to hurt you here? You're back home," Sokka said, getting to his feet.
"If you can call this place 'home'," Katara said quietly to herself before replying, "Ugh - I don't know Sokka. I guess it's just a reflex. You scared me."
Sokka snorted and got to his feet. "I heard what you said. You and I may not like it Katara, but this is still our home. And it's up to us to see it rebuilt."
"You mean it's up to our 'advisors'," Katara corrected bitterly.
"Katara, since when did you let others push you around? You're your own person. We're our own persons. Forget our advisors. We'll show them we're way tougher than any whale blubber they've ever chewed!"
At that, the corners of Katara's mouth upturned slightly. "Thanks Sokka. I guess I needed a little reminding about who I really am. Is that why you came out here, to see if I was okay?"
Sokka's face flashed an unreadable expression before he nodded, saying, "Yeah, well, when you ran away from all the 'fun' we were having at the feast, I could tell something was wrong. When Chu finally got his frog under control, I left too to find you already outside the city outskirts. I knew something was up, a time for big brother intervention, and followed you here."
For some reason, Katara felt that Sokka was keeping something from her; as if that wasn't the only reason he decided to follow her. She could always tell when Sokka wasn't being entirely truthful with her just by the way he seemed to over exaggerate the way he said things. And somehow, he never quite learned how to keep a completely straight face.
Before Katara could say anything though, Sokka asked, "Why did you decide to come here in the first place? And what were you looking at over there anyway?"
Katara had almost forgotten but turned around immediately and ran back to the edge of the pool. She stared at it for almost a minute, studying every point on its flat surface, but was not surprised to be met with her own harried reflection. Whatever was in the water was long gone.
"It was just, I thought I saw - oh, never mind," Katara finished lamely, hunching somewhat as she got back to her feet. "I was going over to see the Fire Nation ship."
Sokka cocked his head, confusion plain on his features. "Why?"
Katara shrugged. She couldn't even remember why she wanted to go to the ship in the first place anyway. She just felt like walking… in this direction. She shook her head.
Maybe Sokka's right, Katara thought. What has gotten into me?
Resigned, Sokka laid a hand on Katara's shoulder and nodded. "Look, let's just head back now. We have a huge day tomorrow and we should probably get some rest."
"I guess you're right," Katara consented, turning back one last time to gaze at the pool-mirror. "You know," Katara started, facing forward now, back toward the city, "Have I ever told you that you're the best big brother I could ever ask for?"
Sokka cocked an eyebrow, a sly expression on his face. "I have been given that impression, yes."
"Well, it's true."
Sokka laughed and Katara grinned as they made their way back toward the city in the distance. Katara watched as the houses one-by-one doused their lights until no light but the moon lit the city in an eerie monochrome of gray.
When they were no more than a few yards into their journey back home, Katara thought she heard another splash behind her.
"What she doing?"
"No, I mean, like, what is she working on?"
"Oh, like in the rebuilding project you mean?"
"Of course I mean in the rebuilding project! What else do you think I mean? Her sewing?"
"Well, she's certainly not sewing as most young ladies back home do…"
With that, Sokka almost pried the spyglass from Chu's stick-like fingers. Instead he snorted and said in a rough whisper, "Of course not. She's an ambassador; she's helping out on the project! Now, tell me what she's doing!"
"Prince Sokka, won't you like to take the spyglass and see for yourself?" Chu offered, looking down at Sokka from the top of the snow ditch Sokka had dug.
"For the thousandth time, it's just Sokka, not Prince anything. And, again, I don't want to be seen staring - I just have to know for sure."
Chu sighed, but leaned up against the snow wall all the same and squinted through the silver spyglass that glinted in the noon sun.
Sokka crossed his arms and peeked over the rim of his little snow ditch. Most of the villagers had stopped working for the time being to grab a midday meal, tossing their tools aside like pieces of trash. Despite the fact that Katara and Sokka had argued that leaving their tools around was a huge safety risk, nobody listened, seeming to prefer the idea that putting their tools away was too much of a hassle if they were just going to get them back out again in a few hours. However, more people started to pay attention when his father's friend, Kavan, had unknowingly walked onto a shovel covered in snow which promptly snapped up from the pressure of his foot to hit him in the head. Kavan was knocked unconscious, and people started storing the longer and heavier tools away.
Still, it's not enough, Sokka thought, annoyed. Next time it'll be a kid who gets hurt trying to throw a trowel for fun. They still treat Katara and me like kids, like they don't know what we're talking about.
It had been a week since Katara and he had attended the welcome feast for the "Junior Ambassadors," and although some progress had been made on the reconstruction effort, it was not going as fast as Sokka would have liked. Every morning, Katara and Sokka attended the hour and a half long "Morning Meeting," a sort-of meeting-of-the-minds-like event held every day to discuss the day's tasks, people's responsibilities, and suggestions for new strategies and ideas for the rebuilding effort. Katara and Sokka had had plenty of thoughts, but every time their voices had ringed out, they were met with disapproval and dismay. Pakku was often the biggest dissenter, preferring to stick to many of the older customs, style-wise, of the Northern Water Tribe.
"That's fine, for the Northern Water Tribe," Sokka had contended. "But the Southern Water Tribe is different. We have our own way of doing things, and I don't think that wall is one of them."
Pakku shot him an icy glare, before turning to Sokka's father at the end of the table. "The wall of my people has kept us safe for generations, much more so that the Southern Water Tribe's defenses of the past. Even during the Siege of the North the wall served us well. It is an essential part of this city's rebirth."
Sokka didn't reply, just stared hard at his father across the table. Hakoda obtained a rather apologetic look to his face and extended his arms in a placating manner. "I'm sorry Sokka, but Pakku's right. We'll need that wall sometime in our future, I'm sure. Having it there will be a major part of our defenses."
Sokka was sure his father was imagining the time long ago when their lack of such a wall allowed the entrance of Fire Navy ships within their borders, the result ending in the death of his wife, Sokka's mother. Sighing, Sokka let it pass without arguing further. What was the point when nobody would listen? Sokka couldn't help but think that his father was a wonderful leader on the battlefield, but in these types of situations, he was easily swayed.
Since their first "Morning Meeting," Katara and him had been split up with their advisors to supervise certain projects occurring around town. Today, Sokka and Chu were watching, directing, and helping the crew working on the canal that was planned to run through the center of the city on its four compass points. Sokka and Chu made sure that those wheeling the ice picks directed their blows correctly so that they didn't split the city completely in two, destined to float away on two separate planks of ice. To Sokka, it was stupid, almost pointless work, but he gritted his teeth, telling himself it would get better. Besides, he could look forward to these parts of the day when he had a break and the city became quieter… where he could attend to more important matters of business.
"I think she's working with the building crew today. She's there with Anyu and some others, smoothing the walls for the main hall. She, ah, seems a little exasperated I guess."
"Well, her face is all smushed up and she's frowning. Now it looks like she's shouting something and they're all nodding - no wait, now Anyu's laughing. It looks like he's saying something… and they're all leaving. All the workers are leaving. Now it's just her and Anyu."
"What are they doing - what are they doing?" Sokka asked urgently.
"Nothing - no, well, Anyu's talking and she's nodding, but… no, now she's walking away. Now she's going to the canal path, now she's coming over - oh!"
"Chu, what are you doing?"
Sokka sunk low into his ditch, holding his breath. He hoped he was deep enough so he wouldn't be seen. He also hoped Chu was smart enough not to screw this up.
"Why, Princess Katara, how n-nice to see you. I'm just - I'm just looking through this spyglass here, that's all."
"It's just Katara, Chu. And I can see you're looking through the spyglass, but I'm wondering why?"
"I'm p-penguin watching," Chu stammered.
"By looking at the building construction…?"
Sokka could feel Chu tense beside him, and under all his layers of fur coating, it wasn't hard to imagine him sweating.
"Yes, well, sometimes, otter-penguins, you know how they can be. They're fidgety little things - they can be right there in front of you one moment and then whoosh, behind you the next!"
"Uh-huh," Katara said, clearly not convinced, but said anyway, "Hey, have you seen Sokka anywhere? Isn't he supposed to be with you?"
"Sokka is, ah, unavailable at the moment," was all Chu could muster.
There was a pause, and Sokka heard Katara say, "Outside of the meetings, Sokka has been avoiding me, and I kind of want to know what his problem is. When you see him next, can you just tell him that I'd like to see him, ASAP?"
"Yes, yes, Miss Katara. I'll let him know."
"Katara. Just Katara, Chu."
Sokka allowed himself a few very tense minutes before he stood and popped his head up beside a very red and sweaty-faced Chu. Sokka clapped a hand on his shoulder.
"You did good Chu. Not as well as I would've hoped, but," and Sokka shrugged, "no one's perfect."
Chu took a moment to compose himself and finally said, "I - well, Sokka, do you think it's right to go behind your sister's back like this? Shouldn't you just tell her what you heard? She'll probably understand if you just talk to her. And, I don't think this is exactly the kind of job I was appointed to when Chief Arnook sent me here."
Sokka shook his head. "You don't understand my sister, Chu. She'll hear what I have to say and she won't believe me. She's in the mindset of giving people the benefit of the doubt. So, I need irrefutable proof before I talk to her."
"And you'll get this proof by spying on her whenever you get the chance?"
"No, not her." Sokka grabbed the spyglass out of Chu's hand. It was an old family antique that his great-great grandmother had bought when she was visiting the Earth Kingdom he had been told. The silver was mostly tarnished, but the glass worked well enough. "Anyu."
"And you think spying on him is going to get you the proof you need?"
Sokka leaned against the snow bank around his ditch and shrugged. "I didn't say it was the best plan. I'll figure out something better."
"All this because you think you heard Anyu talking to someone at the banquet about marrying your sister?"
"I know what I heard."
"Sokka, I don't see what's so wrong about that. Your sister is almost of age, and Anyu has quite a reputation himself. Maybe this is a good thing."
"No. Anyu is just interested in Katara because she's my dad's daughter and she, too, has a big reputation. He's just thinking about advancing himself. He doesn't care about my sister at all," Sokka said, gritting his teeth. At least, that was partly true. Sokka just didn't like the way Anyu carried himself, as if he was above everyone else, and he had a personality that seemed to match. And what scared him even more was Katara's almost complete indifference to it all. Sure, there was that minor outburst at the banquet, but besides that, she seemed relatively okay with it all. And when Sokka heard about Anyu's real intentions while talking to a friend of his from the Northern Water Tribe during the sudden commotion at the feast with Chu's frog, he decided to find Katara right away and tell her. But something stopped him then. He remembered when he first approached Katara with his objections about Jet, one of her brief crushes, and her refusal to believe anything he had to say. He hoped that Katara had changed, but, what if she hadn't?
Moreover, what if Sokka was just being selfish? What if Katara was perfectly content with Anyu - what right did he have to split that kind of relationship up? What if he was just being overprotective for nothing and Katara was just fine making her decisions on her own? In fact, would he be fine with it all if the situation was somehow reversed, and Katara interfered in his relationships?
Still, something was wrong with this Anyu, and Sokka was going to figure it out. He was going to get the proof somehow and he was going to show it to Katara before she could make her judgment one way or the other about him.
"Okay, Pri-, er, Sokka. If you think that's true, fine. I'm only your advisor."
Sokka peered through the spyglass to get a close look at Anyu as he leaned against the half-completed main hall that would serve as a place of festivities and where Hakoda's council would meet. Anyu turned his head and Sokka moved the glass to follow his gaze to Katara, coming from the side, holding two bowls of steaming stew. She stopped, said a few words to Anyu and handed him the second bowl. She left, walking lithely around the scattered tools and building supports, toward the banquet hall, which had become the base of operations for the reconstruction effort. As Katara continued to move in that direction, Sokka quickly flicked his spyglass back on Anyu, only to find Anyu watching Katara's departure with a pleased smile tugging the corners of his mouth and his eyes alight.
Sokka took his eyes off the glass and stood straight; staring off into the distance where he knew Anyu was standing.
"You know Chu, spying is harmless. But I have a feeling this is all going to turn personal, fast."
Katara sighed. She wished Aang was here.
True, he was younger than her, but he was always so much wiser than his years suggested. Whenever she was in a rut, she had come to count on Aang to drag her out. But now he was a fully realized Avatar, off saving the world, righting wrongs, bringing justice, and doing whatever else Avatars do. She knew that whatever he was doing now, he was doing fine - probably even great. He's probably forgotten all about her and made a bunch of new friends to replace the ones he had lost. He was in a world where she could not follow.
And then there was Sokka. He was her rock, her one constant that she could always depend on. Now he was acting peculiar - avoiding her and seeming to be off with his advisor Chu way more often than he should be. Maybe he was making new friends too and she was just way behind. At least, he was getting along fine with his advisor. That was way more than she could say about her own.
Anyu. Now he was an entirely different problem. Katara still didn't know quite what to make of him. One moment he is disregarding her ideas and suggestions, while in the same sentence, praising her eyes, her outfit, or her "spunk." For example, Katara thought it best to forge the buildings out of ice-made supports (instead of hard-packed snow) and then reinforce the ice with snow. Making the snow shine and sculpting it would be much easier too. But no. It had to be snow then ice, he said. It was better that way, and easier to build. When Katara pointed out that such construction would make the building weaker, Anyu just looked at her and said, "Katara, your face glows when you're angry, did you know that? It's quite beautiful," and then, "Are you sure you're a Waterbender and not a Firebender?"
She was so taken aback, she was sure that her mouth had opened and closed a few times before she finally found her voice. Turning to the workers, she said, "Continue working. You half will sculpt this side of the hall out of ice then snow, while the other half will follow Anyu's instructions. Okay?" Smirking, she turned back to Anyu. "We'll see whose side lasts the longest."
At that, Anyu let out a bark of laughter. Still grinning, his teeth as white as the snow around him, he said, "No. You will make the building as I instructed. And, no need to finish the work now. Everyone, go. It's lunchtime anyway."
The group dropped their tools and dashed away. One of them, a boy younger than the rest, his hair pulled into a ponytail, much like Sokka's was at that age, stopped and gave Katara a rather sympathetic look before running off to catch up with the others.
They won't listen. What's wrong with me?
"Katara, why don't you go grab us some lunch? We can eat outside today."
Katara nodded - barely listening. She had seen Chu then, with her family's spyglass. Maybe Sokka was with him.
He wasn't. She supposed she shouldn't have been surprised. So, she brought Anyu his lunch.
"Anyu," she said as she handed him the sea prune stew that was a favorite among the Water Tribe, "You are my advisor. But I am the ambassador. Next time you disregard my orders, I'll show you just how far I can fling someone two times my size."
Anyu raised an eyebrow, a sly grin creeping across his features. "Hmm, I might just take you up on that offer, Katara. I'd love to see how far you can fling a man."
Katara could feel the flush rise up from the bottom of her neck to the bottom of her ears. She spun then and walked determinedly away, hoping he didn't see her face… hoping he wouldn't follow.
So, she sat in the banquet hall. The long table had been removed and replaced with three rows of ice-wrought benches that Katara was certain were made by Northern Water Tribe craftsmen. She sat toward the end of one of the benches, focusing more on stirring her stew than eating it, her mind abuzz.
He was flirting with me, she thought. He was definitely flirting with me. Maybe this whole time, and I was just too dense to see it.
No, another part of her mind said. He's your advisor. He can't do that. He's just getting you distracted so he can make all the decisions instead of you.
If that was true, he was doing a good job of it.
I'm just like those three Northern Water Tribe girls at the banquet, giggling over Anyu while he wasn't looking. I'm just as bad, just as shallow, Katara realized, despising herself. Maybe I should just go throw myself in a ditch - it'll be easier than facing him again.
Katara's spoon spun faster in the bowl, some of the broth sloshing out the sides.
Speaking of ditches, that canal building could go so much faster if they just brought all the Waterbenders down from that stupid wall to break the ice. But no, the wall comes first. And because I'm an ambassador, I "shouldn't" help with my waterbending, Katara thought seething. This is all wrong - this whole construction effort is completely wrong. Sokka and I are supposed to help, but no one will listen. Somehow we got to prove ourselves.
Suddenly, Katara realized that being an ambassador meant so much more than just sitting and telling people what to do. She would leave the Southern Water Tribe to travel, making sure that the Water Tribe's voice could be heard worldwide. It dawned on her that she was already sick of home. She had spent fourteen years of her life here, and when she finally had a taste of the wider world, she was no longer sure if she wanted to be home any longer.
The world is a big place, and I still have much to see… I need to become a full ambassador.
How she had taken all those days living off of Appa's back for granted…
"Katara are you okay?"
"Huh - what?" Katara said, raising her head off of the hand she was leaning on, and turned around.
"Your stew - it's all over the place," said the woman. Katara recognized her as Darra, one of the older ladies that had stayed behind with Sokka and Katara when all the able-bodied men had left the tribe for the war. Back then, she was a tough woman, always bringing the tribe together whenever times were difficult. Now her chestnut hair was streaked with gray and her marine eyes looked concerned. "Are you not feeling well?"
Katara looked down. It was true; her lunch was all over the place. She had been spinning her spoon so hard the broth had all but left the bowl. Most of it had landed on the table, but some of it had fallen onto her jacket. Her spoon had only been scraping the bowl and any sea prunes left inside.
"I… I'm not hungry," Katara said, and without another glance at Darra, she stood, grabbed the bowl off the table, gave it to a person collecting dirty dishes, and left.
Outside, the sun blazed down on the city from overhead, but that did not make it any less cold. Katara pulled her fur-lined jacket tighter across herself, and guessed that it had only been about fifteen minutes since she had last seen Anyu. Lunch was usually an hour or more, but Katara did not have any place else to be. Stepping lightly over the tools on the ground, Katara walked. She wasn't quite sure where - just any place but here.
Ten minutes later, she was past the boundary of the city. After another ten, she had passed the canoes – almost all of them were gone, fishing most likely. After all, the Southern Water Tribe suddenly had many more mouths to feed. The otter-penguin hills came closer, and so did the abandoned ship in the distance. But that was not where her feet were taking her. The snow crunched under her feet as she moved on and the squawking amongst the penguins became ever louder as she neared them.
Wanna go penguin sledding with me? she heard Aang say as if in a dream. Briefly, Katara smiled as the penguins drew closer. But then her feet turned. The next thing she knew, her feet were edging to the rim of a gigantic mirror in the ground.
Katara stared at herself in the pool-mirror. It was easier to see everything in the daytime. She noticed she looked much older than she remembered. Maybe it was the hard line of her mouth, the furrow of her eyebrows, her darker eyes, the braid behind her neck slightly undone, the loose strands falling down her shoulders. Why was she here? Did she think that something in this water would answer the questions ringing in her head?
Katara snorted. There's nothing in this water. I should probably go back to work.
Straightening herself, she was about to turn away when the water above her shifted again in those strange false-ripples. When the ripples disappeared, in their place was that same gleaming blue eye.
Katara leaned down over the pool, extending her torso as far as she could to get a better look at it. What was this thing?
But then suddenly her world was twisting all about her.
Everything was an icy blackness. A numbing cold seemed to grip her body all over and she couldn't tell which way was up or down in the dark. Her arms felt like they were made of heavy iron beams, and her body was a bag of sand, pulling her down, down, down.
And as most of her mind screamed at her to find a way out of this, a small part wondered how exactly she got into this situation. I was leaning too far over the water and I fell in, Katara thought. Or, was I pulled in?
It mattered little now how she got in the water. Her lungs ached like they had been probed by a knife, screaming for the air she would never have again. Aang, she thought desperately, but she knew there was no one to save her now. Her arms and legs were too numb and heavy to waterbend, as they were dragged down by her weighty coat. Despite everything, Katara almost laughed in a bit of hysteria, about to release the last of the air from her lungs. The irony was just too good: a master Waterbender, died by drowning.
Just as she was about to give in, to stop struggling, to open her mouth, suck the death-water into her lungs, and give herself over to the coldness around her, Katara felt the tiniest of pressures against her cheek, like the touch of a feather. Suddenly, the water disappeared from her face and she could feel something like warm breath around her. Against her will, her mouth opened to suck in the desperately-needed air from this waterless environment. Coughing, Katara blinked back the moisture in her eyes, and attempted to move her useless limbs. She could feel her fingers and toes flex, her toes freezing in her sodden boots, and her arms heavy in her soaked jacket. Turning her head, Katara could see her arms outstretched on either side of her body. She realized she was lying down on something, but she was too weak and cold to look down and see exactly what it was. Shivering, Katara felt oddly peaceful. She was cold, but it was quiet here and she wasn't drowning anymore. Maybe I'll just sleep a bit…
Katara's eyes were closing shut when she saw something sparkling in front of her. Using what felt like the last of her strength to pry her heavy eyelids open, her eyes focused on a single shining drop of water on her drenched coat. Abruptly, the droplet rose into the air on its own accord. Katara's eyes widened. Suspended in midair, the droplet looked like a tiny diamond, filtering the light from the sun overhead into a million different directions.
As if following the lead of that drop, the water began to seep out of Katara's coat and float into midair. She could feel the water being sucked out of her shoes, her shirt, skirt, and pair of pants underneath. She felt her hair lighten as the water was pulled from its strands. Stunned, Katara watched the water rise into the air off her cheeks and even her eyelashes. When she felt the last of the water evaporate away from her body, Katara felt almost dry. I don't understand, Katara thought wildly. I'm not waterbending - this isn't me. What's going on? And as the last of the water disappeared around her, Katara could feel her strength return. Pushing herself to her feet, her boots making a clanking sound on the hard floor, Katara rubbed her eyes and looked around.
For a moment, Katara had the strangest dizzying sensation and feared that she might fall backwards as she gazed dumbstruck at her surroundings. She was underwater, but at the same time, not. Below her feet, Katara was standing on what appeared to be a tall, circular-shaped pillar made of ice that Katara assumed descended all the way down to the ocean floor, but if so, she couldn't tell; near the rim of the pillar, all Katara could see was its blue-white frame disappearing into the dark depths below. But it was not the column she was standing on that amazed her, but what was above her.
All around her, from the edges of her circular ice platform to its zenith, Katara was surrounded by a dome shaped bubble. The bubble shifted and writhed around her like a living thing as the sea crashed and moved about it, but it did not break. Through this clear barrier, Katara could see the hole in the ice above her, the pool where she had fallen through, and the rays of sunlight streaming through to illuminate the world around her into many iridescent shades of blue. Spinning about, Katara caught sight of the last of the water droplets that had slid off her ascending to the top of her dome like bubbles in water… now droplets in a bubble. When they reached the rim of the barrier, they fused with the bubble and all but dissolved, becoming one once again with the sea around her.
Cautiously, Katara moved toward the center of the dome, realizing that despite how beautiful this place beneath the sea was, whatever brought her here in the first place may not be exactly her friend. Moving her feet apart slightly, Katara adopted her fighting stance, preparing herself for whatever dangers might ensue.
Katara's eyes scanned the sea around her and even the ice below her feet for a trap door that may lead underground. But everything seemed smooth and calm. There was nothing.
"Hello?" Katara said to the emptiness around her, wary. "Is anyone here? Hello?"
Something to her left caught her attention. Wheeling, Katara saw a dark shape moving through the water. At first she thought that maybe it was a fish, but at second glance, she realized the thing was bigger - much bigger. The thing, whatever it was, glided through the water, twisting and turning about, as if it were an acrobat in a circus. As the shape came closer, Katara could finally distinguish the thing's outline. It wasn't whale, or seal, or penguin shaped. In fact, as it turned in the water, almost lazy-like, the thing looked less like it was swimming, and more like it was soaring, flying, like, like a giant…
"Bird," Katara whispered, awestruck. "It looks a like bird."
But, as Katara examined closer, that wasn't entirely true either. The creature's forelimbs looked like enormous wings, but as Katara watched, the wings pushed and pulled the water in much the same way as the fins of a fish. And the long, dancing tail that looked like the tail feathers of a bird, actually moved like the tail fins of a tiger seal. Eventually the creature stopped at the edge of Katara's dome so she could see its entirety. Katara dropped to her knees, gaping in awe.
The memory came back vividly, like it had happened only yesterday. Katara remembered asking her mother once, when she was no more than five or six, about the original Waterbenders.
"We learned how to waterbend from the push-and-pull of the moon on the tides. The moon and the sea are our teachers sweetie, because they are always changing," Kya told her.
"I know that," Katara said impatiently. "They always say that. But Darra told me all the other benders learned their elements from animals."
Kya nodded. "Yes, that's true. If I remember correctly, the Air Nomads learned to Airbend from their great sky bison - huge animals with six legs and a big paddle-like tail that could push the air around them and allow them to fly. However, as far as I know, there are no more of these Flying Bison left. They all died when the Fire Nation killed the Airbenders almost a hundred years ago.
"Now, the Earthbenders learned their element from the badgermoles - creatures who created deep, elaborate caves and tunnels out of the dirt. And, of course, you know about the Fire Nation dragons?"
Katara shivered. "They're so big and scary!"
Kya pinched her nose. "Oh, they were big all right, but they're gone too, just like the sky bison. It used to be a great sport to kill a dragon, but people did not know what they lost until the last dragon was finally slain."
"But mommy, why aren't there any waterbending animals?" Katara asked. "There must have been an animal who learned to bend the water like we did, by watching the moon."
Kya shrugged. "If there ever was such an animal, I've never heard or seen them before. Maybe they once existed long ago, but disappeared just like the sky bison and the dragons. And the knowledge of their existence was forgotten over time."
Katara grew sad then. "What about the badgermoles? Are they still here?"
"I'm sure they are, but I know for sure that there are not as many of them as there used to be. Humanity's conquest of the world has taken a toll on all living creatures."
"Why would we do that? It's so… so…" Katara struggled on the word.
"'Horrible'?" her mother offered. "Yes, it was a very bad thing what we did. I do not understand half of the things we do, but there's no changing the past. The only thing to do is live in the present, learn from our mistakes, and hope to change the future."
Katara tried to hold back tears then. "I hope they went away, the animal Waterbenders, and hid someplace! I hope they're safe someplace away from us so we don't do anything bad to them!" she yelled, clenching her fists together and shaking them in the air.
Kya smiled. "Maybe you're right Katara. Maybe they did go and hide someplace. Maybe there under our feet this very moment, beneath the ice, deep in the water… maybe they're there bending the water around them into fantastical shapes, just like the badgermoles. Maybe they still live, even today."
Katara's lip trembled and she nodded. "Yes! They are still alive! The first Waterbenders - and I'm gonna find them someday!"
"I bet you will. Now, go get your father and Sokka. Dinner's almost ready. Kavan and Dorrik brought back fruits from the Earth Kingdom. Tonight we're having papaya!"
Katara's nose wrinkled, and she frowned. "I hate papaya."
"You haven't even tried it."
Katara waved a hand and shook her head, trying to look very much like a noble lady. "I already know I don't like it," she said before skipping out of her family's tent into the sunshine outside.
The memory faded with the sound of her mother's bell-like laughter echoing throughout the corners of her mind.
It was strange. Despite the fact that she horded memories of her mother like precious gemstones, Katara had never once revisited that particular memory and had all but forgotten it. But now that she remembered it, the conversation repeated in her mind over and over again, because it was that simple memory that explained to her the enormity of what was happening right now.
So she was right. They had hid. Below the water. This whole time.
Katara stared at the creature before her, drinking in its features like it was the only thing left in the world. Her initial impression was right: this creature was part bird and part sea creature, perhaps a whale-cow. Its body was slender and smooth, the legs pressed tight to its body were long and thin and ivory-colored. However, unlike most bird-types, this creature's toes were not taloned but webbed like a turtle-duck. Feathers covered the length of the creature, but as Katara stared longer, she was not even sure if they were feathers at all. They were smooth like silk, and pressed to the creature's body like they were painted there. And the colors… all shades of blue that intertwined in magnificent patterns of swirls and circles. The tips of the creature's wings were a series of curves and ovals that almost looked like eyes. Finally, its head was like that of a phoenix, with a slightly curved ivory beak, and plumes of feathers that decorated its head like an elaborate headdress. And the eyes that stared back at her were the same bright blue as the eye she had seen in the mirror above.
Katara was at a loss of what to do. The creature waited, seeming to sway in front of her beyond the bubble barrier in the ocean's currents. Katara broke eye contact briefly to look behind her, wondering if there was someone else the creature was waiting for. But there was no one. It was just her. Hesitantly, Katara looked back at the creature, who was still watching her with those knowing eyes… waiting…
Tentatively, Katara raised her hand and gave a shaky wave. "Uh, hello."
The creature opened its mouth. Katara covered her ears as the creature made a shrieking, whine-like sound, like the moan or hum that whale-cows sometimes made. The creature's huge colorful wings extended on either side of its body and flapped together in a wide, sweep like motion that Katara was sure would pop her air bubble. Instead, the bubble moved and rippled around her as water came rushing past on either side, threatening to break the bubble. But when the powerful currents stopped, her barrier was still intact and the bird-whale was gazing at her expectantly.
Carefully, Katara got to her feet and suddenly seemed to know what to do. Somehow her legs began to move and her arms outstretched on either side of her. Her heart was hammering in her chest as she danced fluidly through the steps she had learned in her waterbending training: the Maelstrom, the Lark Ascending, the Ice Pillar, the Frost Dance, the Gliding Spear, the Water Whip, the Frozen Shield, the Icemaker's Revenge… each step became easier than the last and soon she lost herself in the movements, her arms moving around her, her powerful legs shifting and straining as she balanced her weight on the balls of her feet, guiding her chi throughout her body. Her breathing became ragged, but she ignored it, doing her best to keep it steady and even, her focus entirely on being as fluid as a river, as solid as ice, and as powerful as the waves. Eventually, she felt herself reach into that place inside her where that strange power she had slept. Soon she wasn't only making the motions, but performing the full moves. The water shifted around her as she pulled it from outside her barrier in and with it began creating huge columns, swirling whirlpools, misting breath, crashing waves, flying disks, and so on. And as she manipulated the water, she noticed her barrier move in and out, pulsing as if it were a heart. Outside, the creature was moving with her, pushing and pulling huge streams of water together to create in turn massive spinning tornadoes, giant bubbles that danced and shone like crystals in the light, and huge monoliths of ice that made Katara feel like she was in the middle of a gigantic underwater throne room. Then Katara noticed the creature finishing her moves for her, and Katara, in turn, added to the moves of the creature. Together they were sharing the water between them, removing and adding to their dance so it was as if they were one. Katara couldn't help but hear Pakku in the back of her mind: The Waterbenders' main technique is to let their defense become their offense. She realized then, as she moved in time with the creature before her, that that Waterbender technique did not originate from years of battling amongst one another, but from sharing the water, their life force, as one.
Abruptly, their dance ended, as Katara realized that the two of them had made a complete circuit about her enormous ice platform. Katara stopped with her feet slightly apart and her arms back at her sides, sweating and her breathing heavy. Swallowing, she gazed back up as the creature, who had ended with its wings outstretched and its luminous eyes trained on Katara.
Again, somehow Katara knew to move to the middle of her platform. Once there, she looked back at the creature, who looked back at Katara. Slowly, it nodded and closed its eyes. Katara nodded too and together they lifted their forearms up over their heads and clapped them together.
With a loud swoosh and crash, Katara's bubble barrier broke around her, the water rushing in on either side of her. But this time, Katara was ready for the icy impact. Twirling, her arms spinning about her from her hips slowly up to her head, the water swirled and encased her in a whirling water barrier. The ice below her dropped beneath her feet and soon she hung suspended in the middle of this underwater world. With another quick twirl of her arms, the water beneath Katara's barrier began to compress and twist, becoming much like an underwater tornado. And like she did when she saved Aang after Azula hit him with her lightning bolt, she forced the tornado to lift her up and up and up…
… Until she broke the surface.
Katara shot upwards like a jet of water from the blow-hole of a whale-cow. She caught a quick breath before manipulating her water-tornado to change course and drop her safely by the edge of the pool-mirror. When she felt the snow crunch beneath her feet again, she lifted her arms above her and brought them slowly back down, pushing the spinning water back into the pool.
Katara shook back her dripping hair and watched the last of the ripples in the pool fade again into nothing. She was faced again with her own reflection. As she was about to straighten, the water shifted once again to reveal the blue eye. Katara blinked and watched as a single drop of water off of her nose floated toward the pool. Before long, Katara felt herself lighten as the excess water was stripped off her again, spilling itself into the pool. When the last drop disappeared into the water, Katara saw that the eye was still there, watching.
"Thank you," Katara whispered, smiling. "You reminded me who I am. I will never forget that…" Katara considered for a moment, as she examined the creature's eye, before adding, "Blue. Thank you, Blue."
The eye seemed to lighten somewhat before it blinked and disappeared from existence in another series of strange ripples. Katara saw her own face staring back at her again. Extending her arm, meaning to touch the glass-like water, she was met by a solid smooth sheet. Taken aback, Katara ran her fingers along the solid ice, where the pool had once been. A sharp gust of wind blew in drifts of freshly laid soft snow to sting Katara's eyes and fall lightly over the surface of the pool-mirror. Soon Katara could not tell this particular area from the next. The giant mirror in the world was gone.
Katara stood and gazed up at the sky. It was well past midday now and she was sure people were wondering where she had gone. She was needed… or perhaps not. They had Anyu after all.
But not for long.
Breathing in, Katara thought, Thank you Blue. I know what I have to do now.
And with that, Katara turned and set off for home.
Sokka paced back and forth down the makeshift street, lined on one side with the vague beginnings of shops, an inn, and even a café of sorts. Most of the buildings now were just heaps of snow, barely having any shape to them at all, but the inn was almost done, a solid, two-story rectangular structure with a flat roof and plain round columns by the front entrance for support. Square holes had been punched around the inn that would eventually be windows, but they still lacked the clear sheen of ice that would be the glass. To Sokka's left was a relatively flat plain of snow with a wide, circular pool in the middle, supposedly marking the center point of the city. In front of the pool was a long, smooth structure with steps leading up to it. It was the main hall that Katara had been working on earlier that day with Anyu. They seemed to have gotten pretty far in its construction. The pool wasn't there this morning, but Sokka knew they had been planning it for awhile. Crude axe markings in the snow indicated the pathways of the future canals that would branch off the pool into the four compass points. Sokka ground his teeth, quietly seething that Chu and his group had not gotten farther in their work on the canals today. But perhaps that was partly Chu's and his fault…
And Katara's fault too. She just disappeared for hours after he had last seen her talking to Anyu around lunch time. When he had returned to his secluded ditch after grabbing a bite to eat with Chu, most of the workers in Katara and Anyu's charge had returned, but neither of them was there. At first, Sokka was sure Anyu had gotten Katara alone and it was too late for him to intervene, but soon Anyu came striding in. After a momentary pause where Anyu and the workers wondered where Katara was, Anyu just shrugged and continued shouting orders on Katara's behalf. Katara did not return for the rest of the work session.
And for that matter, neither did Sokka and Chu. Sokka and Chu returned at the end of the day to their canal project in the midst of chaos. The workers had been breaking the ice in the wrong direction. After some shouting, in which Sokka was too stubborn to admit that the fault was his for not being there, Sokka grabbed an exhausted and haggard looking Waterbender returning from working on the Wall that day, who grudgingly connected the broken ice. When Sokka asked him to break the ice leading along the southern compass point, the canal project's original plan for the day, however, the Waterbender threw up his hands in aggravation, shouting, "This isn't my job! You were supposed to do it right the first time! And anyway, I could break the ice the wrong way and the whole city could split apart!"
"Yes, but couldn't you just connect them again before they drift away too far?"
In reply to that, the Waterbender stalked off. Still, it got Sokka thinking: if a Waterbender could mend the ice that quickly, imagine how fast a team of Waterbenders could make the canal if they worked together? The whole project would be done in less than a day. Katara was right; the Waterbenders' power was squandered on this useless Wall project. Not that Sokka could do anything about it… countless meetings about this have already established the need for said wall.
Sokka continued his frenzied pacing, his patience running thin. Chu should have been here by now; it was almost time; that is, if what Chu told him was true. Sokka paused, reflecting on the memory. Sokka had worried about his sister's whereabouts when she did not show up for work at all that afternoon. He was even more panicked when she was not there for dinner. Anyu, on the other hand, seemed less than concerned. Sokka left dinner early, feeling worried about his sister and even more irritated at her advisor. Chu had stayed behind though, near Anyu and his friends where Sokka had told him to hide behind a pillar. Not fifteen minutes later did Chu come panting back to Sokka, sweating through his floppy robes.
"He-he-he-Ka-t-t-ta-raaaaa…. saw her - going to-to-to-night," Chu stammered, breathing hard. "Has-has-necklace-will-will-ask…"
It wasn't until Sokka got Chu to calm down did he get the whole story. Chu had heard Anyu talk of his plans to his friends, between sips of the odd, bluish Water Wine. Apparently, Katara had come to Anyu earlier wanting to talk. Sokka's first thought was relief that Katara was okay. The second was dread. After people were wondering where she was the whole day, why would Katara show herself first to Anyu, of all people? Moreover, what could she possibly want to talk to him about?
Chu finished the tale explaining how, although Katara wanted to talk then, Anyu switched the time and location to in front of the main hall at an hour after sundown that night. Katara agreed and left. Then Anyu revealed that tonight he was going to ask Katara to marry him, when she came of age. In fact, he boasted to his friends, he already got a betrothal necklace made special for her, so sure of her answer. His friends all pounded him approvingly on his shoulder while raising their glasses to his good fortune.
When Chu had finished his tale, Sokka thought he was going to explode. His first instinct was to go directly to Anyu and sock him one in his handsome face, but with Chu hanging desperately from his fur coat, dragging face down in the snow, he realized that maybe he should come up with another plan. It hit him again that maybe Katara actually did like Anyu. Why else would she go see Anyu first after disappearing for most of the day? No, he decided. He needed to be sure and he needed to be discreet. It was time to come up with a plan that would not be conspicuous… a plan that would depend upon Katara. In the end, Sokka resorted to a plan that included watching and waiting, and coming to Katara's aid if necessary.
But of course, he needed Chu to be his eyes and ears for him. If Katara was to spot him spying on her, she would never let Sokka live it down. Sokka's hands flew to his head, feeling as though he might tear his hair out, his pacing taking the form of a strange one-man race from here to there. Suddenly, Sokka heard the telltale crunch that snow makes beneath the soles of one's boots. His head popped up and he spun toward the sound, expecting Chu. Instead, the silence of this deserted part of town carried the sound of approaching footsteps from across the square like a canyon carries an echo; he heard the steps as if they were right next to him. To Sokka's dismay, it was Anyu walking in that arrogant way of his to the steps of the main hall. He was staring at something that he held dangling in front of his face. He grinned at for a moment and then stuffed it into the pocket of his thick snow pants.
Sokka did his best to refrain from making a disgusted noise, only to have a strange, half-choked sound escape his mouth. Before Anyu had a chance to turn toward the sound, Sokka ducked behind a shop, stuffing a fist in his mouth to avoid making any more sound.
A betrothal necklace! He was grinning at that stupid marriage necklace! Sokka thought, barely able to keep his anger under control. Chu was right. He's coming here to ask her…
Sokka was about to peek his head from around the corner of the shop and out into the square when a finger tapped his shoulder. Sokka whirled, throwing up his hands in surprise, only to find a penitent Chu kneeling by Sokka's legs.
"Where have you been?" Sokka hissed, trying to keep his voice as low as possible. If he could hear Anyu's footsteps in the square, who knew what Anyu could hear? "I've been waiting forever for you!"
"I'm sooo sorry Prince Sokka. I-I-I was preparing for… tonight. I-I-I was…" Chu said, much too moany-like and much too loud.
"Sshhhh!" Sokka clasped his hand around Chu's mouth. His heart hammered in his chest, sure that Anyu had heard them. When no one approached, he dropped his hand and said, "You have to be quiet! And what were you preparing for anyway? All you had to do was come meet me here!"
"Yes, well, you said that, but, ah… I, ah, thought that maybe, I could help you tonight by, ah, looking at, what I mean to say is making sure…"
Chu blathered on about helping Sokka tonight in case things got bad by doing one stupid thing after another, but Sokka only half-paid attention. Instead, his focus drifted to the sound of a second pair of footsteps approaching across the square. Sokka grabbed Chu by the arm, cutting him off mid-sentence and pulled him toward the edge of the shop.
"Chu, I want you to look and see if it's Katara coming. You gotta tell me word-for-word what's happening as it happens." Sokka reached his hand around the corner of the shop and pushed some snow into a pile so that it resembled a small, quite pathetic, snow drift. "I'll start piling some more snow around you while you watch. We just can't be seen until the time is right - do you understand?"
"Ye-yes, Prince Sokka. I mean Sokka," Chu said, nodding so vigorously that his chin hit his chest.
"Then what are you waiting for? Go!" Sokka pushed Chu so that he was positioned crouched behind the snow drift.
It was silent for only a moment as Chu moved to peek his head above the snow. Then there was a gasp.
Sokka did his best not to bolt straight up. He covered his mouth, then said between his fingers, in a voice full of dread, "What? What is it?"
"It-It's Katara," Chu said quietly. "But, she-she's different… She's…"
Chu was stuttering too much for Sokka's taste. He decided one quick look shouldn't blow his cover. Sokka elbowed Chu over and moved so that only his eyes were above the snow. At first, all he saw was the empty square with the still pool in the middle and Anyu sitting on the steps leading to the hall. Suddenly, Anyu got to his feet, his eyes wide and his mouth slightly agape. Sokka followed his line of sight until he saw her.
He did his best not to gasp.
Katara was walking lightly from around the corner of the square toward Anyu on the steps to the main hall, diagonal to where Sokka and Chu lay hidden. But she did not look like she had this morning when Sokka saw her last. The usual long jacket over baggy snow pants and boots was gone. Instead, she wore a long-sleeved sky-blue dress that flowed down to her ankles. Her normal brown boots were replaced with a bright-white pair that seemed to go up higher than her ankles, disappearing into the folds of her dress, with laces that began near her toes and criss-crossed up the entire length. What was more was that the boots looked like they had heels on them. Sokka could not remember a time that Katara ever wore heels. The dress itself was heavy, almost a jacket in itself, lined with white seal fur and embroidered in dark blue thread with what looked like swirls… or maybe they were waves? Something about the pattern, though, seemed familiar to Sokka. Katara's face was covered with the hood of the dress, but when she was halfway across the square, she reached up with her white-gloved hands and pushed back the hood. Sokka's mouth dropped. Katara had unbraided her hair, letting it fall in waves down past her shoulders. Only her hair-loopies remained, connecting behind her head to form one long strand. And finally, her face had been painted… her lips a dark red, her cheeks bright, and her eyelashes darkened and lengthened so that her eyes seemed to shine like two huge blue gemstones.
"Prince Sokka?! I mean Sokka. What are you doing?" Chu said anxiously, pulling Sokka below the snow pile. Sokka hadn't realized that he had popped his head completely above the snow bank. Chu peered over the snow and said, "Katara's approaching Anyu now. Prince Sokka… uh, Sokka, is this bad? Katara being like this?"
Sokka put his head in his hands. He thought Katara was better than that. But now all his worst fears had been realized.
"No Chu. This is way worse."
She despised these shoes.
Katara could not remember the last time she wore heels, or if she ever wore heels. But as soon as she slipped them on she hated them. It had taken her nearly an hour to get used to walking in them without falling over, and even then she needed to learn to walk in a way that gave herself a certain… presence. Even though she hated the blisters she was getting on her feet because of the shoes, she could not leave them behind. She needed her mother's boots as much as she needed her mother's dress. She needed them both for Anyu's sake.
Her mother's dress was another matter. Katara was pleased to learn that she shared the same shape as her mother, but even so the dress was still too long and too big around the bosom. Wearing the dress's hood not only protected her ears, face, and bare shoulders from the cold, but helped to support the dress from slipping down. But in order for Anyu to get the full effect, she knew she had to remove the cowl. When she did, the blast of icy air on the exposed area of her chest, bare except for her mother's necklace from where the dress stopped above her breasts to where the sleeves began at the extreme edge of her shoulders, was enough to weaken her resolve. But she gritted her teeth and bore it, knowing that all of this was for Anyu. When she caught the expression on his face across the square, she was not disappointed. She continued to walk as lithely as she could across the square, praying that the old pair of gloves she used to stuff the bosom area was enough to keep the dress upright and secure.
She stopped at the bottom of the steps leading up to the main hall, which was almost finished but for the rougher edges of the right side. From what she could tell, the builders had taken Anyu's advice: everything was made of hard-packed snow, with a thin layer of ice on top. Katara tried not to let that irk her. Breathing deeply through her nose, Katara rose her head and gazed up at Anyu with as much adoration in her eyes as possible.
"Anyu, so nice to see you," she said.
"Katara, you look…" Anyu said, for once at a loss for words.
"Oh, this old thing? I just threw it on." Not true, Katara thought. Took me nearly an hour to find this and then three hours to get this look together, not that he needs to know that. "I hope you like it."
"Like it? Katara, you look absolutely stunning, as you should. A person of your… rank should wear clothing appropriate to their status."
"Oh?" Katara said, feigning genuine curiosity as Anyu lent his hand to lead her up the steps.
"Katara, I've always known you were beautiful - the light in your eyes, your smile, your flush, the curl of your hair…" he said, taking a lock of her hair and twirling it in his fingers. Katara did her best to stay placid. "But based on the way you dressed, just like the commoners, you couldn't tell just how important you are."
"In the Southern Water Tribe, we dress to keep ourselves warm. How is it different from the Northern Water Tribe?" Katara asked, keeping her voice even.
Anyu drew her down with him so that they were both sitting, facing each other on the top step to the main hall. "Well, for a start," Anyu explained, in a tone that suggested he was talking to a five-year-old, "We wear clothing that befits our station. See you and I are wearing clothing now that classifies us as one of the 'very important.' However, when I usually see you, you wear clothes that are rather ordinary, as if you are trying to downgrade yourself. Do you want to dress like that all the time?"
Katara looked at Anyu; actually looked at him. Come to think of it, if he were part of the Southern Water Tribe, his dress would be considered a little outlandish, but she supposed it might not have been such a big concern in the Northern Water Tribe. He wore a long jacket, decorated around the collar with silver embroidery thread in the shape of points. A similar design decorated the cuffs of his sleeves and the edge of his snow pants that met his boots. He wore a necklace with the tooth of some animal dangling from it, perhaps a snow bear or a polar bear dog. His brown boots, contrary to Katara's regular boots, seemed almost new; they gleamed in the moon's light. At that point, several thoughts ran through Katara's mind at once: I wear what is appropriate to each situation. The clothes that I was wearing earlier kept me much warmer than this dress is now. And the clothes are Southern Water Tribe; I am not from the Northern Water Tribe, who are so focused on their strange customs and traditions. It's not like I don't enjoy dressing up on occasion. Katara gave a small smile. He should have seen what I was wearing in the Fire Nation, where the heat was almost unbearable. If he had, I wonder if he would be complaining about my dress now.
"Why are you smiling?" Anyu asked.
"Oh, I guess I realized you're right. How silly of me to dress below my station," Katara said. "Anyway, what is it that you wanted to talk to me about?"
"Actually, Katara, it was you who came to me first. What is it you want to talk about?"
"Oh, no, please. My concerns are not as important as yours. Please, you go first." After all, ladies first.
Anyu paused, staring at Katara's face. Then his hand reached out and took a hold of Katara's necklace. He stared at it curiously, moving it around in his hand, until finally he asked, "Where did you get this?"
Confused, Katara said, "Um, this was my mother's necklace."
"Did your father give it to her?" Anyu asked.
No - actually Pakku made this for my grandma, Kanna, as a betrothal necklace long ago, but you don't need to know that either. "I'm not sure."
Anyu nodded, releasing the necklace, so that it fell back to the hollow beneath Katara's neck. "You know what that is, right?"
"Well, in the Northern Water Tribe, it is a betrothal necklace," Katara answered.
"A betrothal necklace," Anyu said, as if he didn't hear the beginning of Katara's sentence. "And are you betrothed to anyone, Katara?"
"No, but -" Katara began.
"Then take it off," Anyu said. Before Katara could react, Anyu reached around and untied the necklace from Katara's neck so that it fell in her lap, its pattern of crashing waves facing up at her. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard someone whisper, The Water Tribe is about change. Like the changing of the tides, of the states of water, of the waves that reach the shore…
Things will have to change for them to get better, Katara thought, as she picked up the necklace with her fingers.
Still dazed, Katara listened distantly as Anyu said, "Things here need some desperate change. We are only at the beginning stages of making it right. But, the way I see it, you and I can change everything for good. Together we can unite the Northern and Southern Water Tribes once and for all."
"'You and I'?" Katara repeated faintly.
"Yes." Anyu stared at Katara with those blue, ice-like eyes of his again, that held Katara in place so that all she could do was stare back. Anyu reached into the pocket of his pants and drew out a necklace to hold in front of Katara. For a brief moment, she looked at it. It was like her mother's, but the pendant on it was designed in the fashion of a leaping fish of some sort. She didn't understand as Anyu leaned forward and tied the necklace around her neck, his face mere inches from hers. She could feel the mist of his breath on her cheek. He drew away from her and again held her in place with his eyes.
"With us betrothed, we can change everything about this place. We'll be the king and queen, Katara. Wouldn't you like that?"
Katara wasn't sure what she would like. Somehow all her senses were fuzzy and Anyu was the only thing clear. Handsome Anyu, with his shoulder-length hair and the braids, his angular face and intensely blue eyes. Anyu who was staring at her, waiting for something, but Katara did not know exactly what.
Instead, Anyu said softly, "Katara, you are so beautiful. I would love to be married to you."
And suddenly his face was in front of her, his lips tugging gently on hers. Somehow her lips parted and she was kissing back. Someone far off gasped, or perhaps it was her imagination, she wasn't sure. She decided his kissing reminded her very much of a fish out of water who kept opening and closing its mouth in order to breathe.
He gave me a fish betrothal necklace.
Something seemed to switch back on in her head. Her eyes burst opened (she hadn't realized she had closed them). Her senses cleared and it wasn't Anyu she saw in front of her anymore, but a boy with large gray eyes and a smile that would spread from ear to ear. This was not supposed to be happening.
And she remembered what she had come here for in the first place.
He was still kissing her. He hadn't realized.
That's fine, Katara thought. I'll wake him up.
Closing her eyes she breathed out, her breath misting and then freezing on Anyu's lips. His eyes snapped open and for a brief moment, there was the most beautiful surprised expression on Anyu's face that she had ever seen. Before he could react though, Katara moved her hands and two streams of ice erupted from the ground to wrap around Anyu's hands at his sides. Pure unconcealed anger flashed across Anyu's face, only to be replaced quickly with one of gentle confusion.
"Katara, what is the meaning of this?" Anyu asked.
Katara eyed him once over shrewdly, then stood up, holding her mother's necklace in one hand. With the other, she undid Anyu's betrothal necklace from around her neck and then threw it at his feet.
"I am no fish," she said. "I do not follow meekly when others tell me to do something. I am of the Southern Water Tribe, and the only change that needs to happen here is you."
"I don't understand."
"Ever since I arrived, you have taken every step to disregard my orders. You think you know so much, but that's not true. You have not left your glacier in the North, except to venture here. I have traveled the globe and know more about what is needed here than you will ever know. Moreover, I am of the Southern Water Tribe… and what you and every other Northern Water Tribe member seem to forget is that here, things are different. Here, you are on my turf and we do things our way."
Anyu stared at her for a long moment, before sniffing the air contemptuously. "You know nothing, Katara. You need us more than you know - you need me more than you know."
Katara smiled. "The only thing I need you for is waterbending practice. You'll make for a good warm up, for I haven't been in an intense battle for over a month." Katara's grin widened as she took her fighting stance. "Tell me, in the end, how it feels to be beaten by a girl… no less, a girl in a dress."
Anyu's gaze darkened. "Katara, I warn you, stop this. You do not want to face me."
"Then say you will relinquish your command and recommend that Sokka and I become full ambassadors, not just the lackeys of you and Chu."
Anyu frowned. "No."
Katara continued to smile. "Well, you can't say that I didn't try to reason with you. Now I have no choice but to whip your butt."
Faster than Katara expected, Anyu broke from his restraints in the snow and was on his feet, flying at Katara while throwing flattened disks of ice her way.
Katara flipped backwards, springing off her fingers so that she flew into the air and landed at the bottom of the main hall's steps on her heels. However, the snow was looser here, and unlike her normal boots, her heels did not give her as much traction on the ground as she would have liked. She slipped on her landing, leaning forward, just as an ice disk flew over her head where she was not moments ago. Katara spun as Anyu landed smoothly in front of her.
"Katara, be reasonable," Anyu said.
"Too late - reasonable Katara has left the square."
Katara clapped her hands above her, meaning to trap Anyu between two pillars of ice, but Anyu ducked out of the way, only to send one of her pillars on at an angle right toward her. Katara danced out of the way, and drew water from the pool in the middle of the square and set it rushing toward Anyu. When Anyu hit the stream, Katara froze it, so that he was trapped. Grinning, she stepped back to admire her work, but not two seconds later, the ice broke into a million different shards that went blasting straight toward her. Quickly, she flung up her arms and the shards halted mere centimeters from her face. Anyu stared at her as she stretched out her fingers and flung out her arms to either side of her. The shards about her seemed to rattle, then explode into tiny droplets of mist that she blew into Anyu's face. He waved his hands in front of him, as if to clear the mist, but Katara took her momentary concealment to draw more water from the pool to wrap around her arms. The water was now an extension of her arms.
Not too soon either. The mist had completely dissipated from around Anyu's face, only to be wrapped around as ice on his fists, like large gauntlets. With a twist of his arm, he shot one ice gauntlet at Katara. Katara lifted one water arm up to block it, but the gauntlet was not deterred. Like the rock hands of the Dai Li, the gauntlet grabbed onto Katara's right wrist. Startled, Katara stared at her trapped hand. Anyu wasted no time. A pillar of ice rose from the ground to hold her entire arm in place. Katara struck back with her left hand, whipping the water at Anyu's feet so that it threw him off balance. He staggered to the ground, while Katara meant to use the brief respite to destroy the pillar holding her right arm in place. Instead, Anyu quickly jerked his right arm while on the ground so that ice enclosed around Katara's heeled feet. Katara lost balance then, slumping in her fetters as her left arm dropped to her side, the water falling into the snow.
Just then, there was a shout behind her. Anyu staggered to his feet to stare, an expression of extreme bewilderment on his face. Katara did her best to turn as well, only to see Sokka standing behind her at the edge of the square with Chu standing right beside him. Sokka's hand went to his belt and he brandished his boomerang, screaming, "You let go of my sister!" Chu nodded vigorously, then raised a pointed finger at Anyu, shouting, "Penguins, ATTACK!"
The moment that followed this was one of the most bizarre of Katara's life. From around every newly made building and shop surrounding the square, rows and rows of black and white otter-penguins emerged. They appeared on the roofs, in unfinished windows, around unlit torches, both in front of and behind Anyu and Katara. The sound they were making was a strange dim hum, unlike their usual squawking among the snow banks. Sokka jumped when one appeared between his legs. From the look on his face, he was expecting this as much as Anyu and Katara were.
Katara took Anyu's distraction and reformed the water around her left hand. She slashed at Anyu with her water-whip arm, sending him reeling backwards. As he fell on his butt, Katara broke the restraints around her feet and the pillar of water holding her right hand with her water-whip.
The otter-penguins seemed to take Katara's action as a sign. Almost as one, the horde of them dived toward Anyu, sliding across the ice on their bellies, and bumping into Anyu's body in the snow like angry stuffed animals. Anyu struggled against them, turning and punching them away, trying to stand.
"Get off me, get off me!" he shouted.
Katara turned to see Sokka and Chu walking toward her.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded of Sokka, when he was close enough to see the expression on her face.
"Uh… Let's just say for a second I wasn't spying on you…" he began.
Katara rolled her eyes. "Okay, later we're going to have a talk but right now -" A stream of water was heading toward the three of them. Katara raised her hands so the water swirled around her and redirected itself back at Anyu, who had somehow gotten back to his feet and was being trailed by a mob of irritated otter-penguins as he ran straight for her. "- I'm in the middle of a fight."
"Let me help you!" Sokka entreated, raising his boomerang once more. "This guy is bad news Katara - wait until I tell you what - ACK!"
Anyu had redirected Katara's water stream so that it hit Sokka directly in the chest. He flung backwards, landing on his bottom ten feet away.
That works, Katara thought as she slid her hand forward in a motion that sent a dumbfounded Chu standing next to her skidding back toward Sokka as the ground shifted beneath him. "This is my fight guys! Stay out of it!" she shouted, spinning around to focus her attention back on Anyu.
And just in time. Another blast of water missed Katara's shoulder by an inch as she dashed quickly out of the way. She retaliated by drawing water from the pool again and sending streams of water toward Anyu's extremities, hoping to hold him in place like Anyu had done to her. Anyu reacted by stopping the water in place, and then having it congeal around both his arms, from elbow to fingertips, so that it froze into two swords protruding from his arms. With that, he rushed at Katara, his arms swinging in front of him, like some machine, his eyes alight and somewhat disturbing in their intensity.
When he was within range, he slashed at Katara, one upwards toward her face, another by her arms, and another near her thighs, his swings so fast and smooth that Katara found it difficult to dodge them. Katara edged backwards as she continued to skirt away from his swings, noticing that she was coming closer and closer to the pool in the middle of the square. Midway through one of his flurries, Katara realized that this fight wasn't just about one of them establishing dominance over the other… in fact, as Anyu's attacks continued to become more furious and aggressive, Katara understood that he desperately wanted to hurt her. And if it were any other Waterbender besides her, he probably would have succeeded much earlier.
The thought made her in equal parts uneasy and angry. As she swept down against the ground to avoid an upward slash across her chest, she grabbed a fistful of snow and tossed it upward. Katara froze it in midair then sent it crashing against Anyu's right ice-blade as it came swooping toward her face. The frozen snowball halted the blade and cracked it before falling apart itself. Bemused, Anyu paused just long enough for Katara to draw more clumps of snow into the air and freeze them. When Anyu finally returned his attention to Katara, an army of frozen cannonballs were stationed in midair behind her outstretched arms.
Anyu did not have enough time to react before the first ice-ball hit him in the shoulder. Anyu's right ice-sword broke away from his arm into shards like shattered glass, as the balls pelted his outstretched arm. The ice-balls continued to crash into him, his chest, shoulders, face, and legs, until he lost his balance and fell to one knee, panting. The otter-penguins took Anyu's weakened stance as a sign to step back into the fight. They formed a ring around him, squawking victory.
Katara stayed the remaining of her snowballs. She leaned over Anyu, whose head drooped so that he was staring at the ground.
"Do you yield?" Katara asked, smirking. "Do you admit defeat and in turn, allow Sokka and me to take on our full responsibilities as ambassadors?"
Anyu mumbled something that Katara couldn't catch. The otter-penguins, seeming to understand Katara's irritation, quieted their squawking until it was nothing more than a mere humming.
"What was that?" Katara asked, cupping a hand behind her ear in order to hear better. "I didn't quite get that."
"I said," Anyu said quietly, "Never!"
At once, Anyu swooped upward with his ice-sword, still frozen around his left arm. Katara could barely react as the blade kissed her cheek and swept upward toward her forehead. Katara felt something warm trickle down her cheek and was briefly at ease, the warmth welcome on her numb face. But before she could reach her next thought, she felt a hard object slam into her abdomen; forcing the air out of her lungs and making her lose her footing. As she struggled to breathe, she felt herself reel backwards, watching as the world spun from rightside up, to sideways, to upside down. Colors blurred together and she could hear a cacophony of screeches, screams, curses, crunches, and then finally one large splash. And as soon as it had begun, the dizzying array of sensations was over, to be replaced by darkness and cold, cold, cold.
It had happened so fast. In one moment, he was filled with relief as Katara rose triumphant over her battered opponent, the otter-penguins waddling around Anyu in a tight, protective barrier, and in the next, Katara was bleeding across her face and staggering backwards, until finally, with one powerful kick to her torso, Katara fell headfirst into the pool in the center of the square. Chu screamed, "Princess Katara!" while the otter-penguins screeched and began swatting and pecking at Anyu's legs. Sokka did not know how to react; for a moment he stared, dumbstruck, at the pool until every one of its ripples disappeared from the surface. And then something in him snapped.
"You stupid idiot!" Sokka yelled, drawing his boomerang from his belt and throwing it at Anyu. Anyu jerked to the side, just as Sokka had expected, throwing up his left hand with its ice sword, the tip red with Katara's blood. The boomerang smashed into the sword, shattering the blade, before rotating backwards to return back into Sokka's hand. "That was my sister - the daughter of Hakoda, the Southern Water Tribe Chief. What do you think he'll do if he learned you-you -," Sokka couldn't get out the word.
Anyu narrowed his eyes at him, his usual bravado long gone, only to be replaced by something… cold. "Oh relax," he said to Sokka. "I didn't kill her. She's just a little wounded. She's probably done there healing her wounds right now. Ow!"
Anyu kicked at an otter-penguin who snapped at his ankle, sending it flying across the square. The shrieks of response from the rest of the horde of penguins was grating. Anyu gritted his teeth and waved his hands across the width of his body, covering the penguins with snow. Some only had their heads sticking out, others were flipped completely over so only the tips of their black, webbed feet could be seen twisting out of the top of the snow.
"Or she could be drowning in there you moron! Help her!" Sokka shouted.
"She's a Waterbender - she can help herself."
Sokka was past caring about staying out of the fight. He could feel his face growing red and wished that he had brought his sword with him tonight. Instead, he waved his boomerang above his head and charged toward a stunned Anyu, screaming at the top of his lungs. He could hear the crunch of Chu's steps behind him, following in his wake.
When Sokka was not three yards away from Anyu, his boomerang raised high with Anyu facing him sideways in a rather unconcerned stance, as if Sokka wasn't worth his time, the world exploded. Sokka felt himself lifted from the ground and pushed backwards, landing on his back in a patch of snow about two feet deep. The ground beneath him was still shaking as he worked himself up onto his elbows. The left side of his body felt tender, probably bruised when he landed and skidded across the ground. Swallowing the melted snow that had somehow made it into his mouth and wiping snow from his hair and from his clothes, he struggled into a sitting position and turned around.
Chu was lying facedown in the snow not far away from him. Scattered about him were jars, leaves, and papers of all shapes and sizes - some of the jars had broken, including one jar that held lattice-wing fly crickets that had taken to the sky and were buzzing all about Chu. Another jar that had held a suspicious greenish-liquid had cracked open so that the substance had begun leaking out. Where the substance hit the snow, it melted, forming a hole that went straight through the ice and to the water beneath it. Chu's hands twitched at his sides as he lifted himself shakily up on his hands. He looked over at Sokka and said, "What happened?"
Sokka was about to ask him the same question when the ground began to shake again. Sokka turned again to see Anyu about thirty yards away, lying on his back, seemingly knocked out. But, as if by an invisible hand, Anyu was up and standing again; Sokka knew that Anyu being knocked out was too good to be true. Sokka watched as Anyu turned about and froze, staring with wide eyes at the center of the square. Sokka followed his stare and gaped.
The pool in the middle of the square was gone, only to be replaced by a gigantic ice pillar that rose twenty feet into the air. It was nearly as wide as the pool once was, if not wider. Its width obscured what lay at the top, so that when Sokka looked up, all he could see was the pillar's smooth edge.
Sokka was still staring when Chu was suddenly at his side, tugging at the sleeve of his jacket with one hand, and trying desperately to hold on to several of his wayward jars with the other. He was surrounded by a bunch of shrieking otter-penguins, some holding onto his pants-legs with their mouths, others riding on his lopsided robe that was trailing on the ground, all of them seeming genuinely alarmed. Chu's face obtained a frenzied look, thin wisps of his hair flying about his face much like the fly-crickets were earlier.
"Sokka, it's-it's… it's supposed to be extinct! I saw it - only in legends, most thought they weren't true… but I saw it! It's up there, at the top! We got to run and warn the others - and your sister… your sister…"
Chu continued to babble, looking half-mad when a jet of frozen water shot from the top of the pillar and made its way directly at Anyu. Quick as the crack of a whip, Anyu darted away from the stream and sent his own series of ice daggers up at the invisible enemy at the top of the pillar. The daggers did not even reach the top, only coming as far as three-quarters before burying themselves into the side of the monolith. The enemy at the top responded by sending a fan-shaped stream of water from an unseen source toward Anyu. Anyu thrust his arms in front of him, parting the stream so that it did not hit his body. Unbeknownst to him, however, the water that he split into two about him, rotated back around his body so that the two streams merged together again and created a rotating ring of water about his waist. Anyu stared at it, confused, and did something strange with his hands that Sokka supposed was meant to move the water from him, but nothing happened. The water continued to flow about him, like the dust rings of distant planets. Before Anyu could do anything about it, another jet of water shot from the top of the pillar toward Anyu. Anyu dodged away from the stream, but then something strange happened. Instead of the water continuing on its planned trajectory, hitting the snow where Anyu was not moments ago, the water turned so that it was coming straight toward Anyu again. Anyu moved away from the water, but again the water moved so that it was following Anyu. Anyu looked briefly at the ring of water still rotating around his waist and understanding hit Anyu and Sokka at the same time. Anyu visibly paled as he evaded the stream of water for the third time.
"I've never seen water follow an opponent like that before," Chu said, his voice shaking. "How is it doing that?"
"I think…" Sokka said slowly. "I think that ring of water around Anyu is a… targeting scope… and the water is following it. As long as it is around Anyu, I think any waterbending sent his way will follow him."
Chu swallowed. "Sokka, we have to leave. I know what's up there. This isn't good."
"But, my sister…"
Anyu dodged the water and with a burst of intuition, redirected the water stream toward the pillar. The water froze partway toward the pillar into a large ice-spear. But before it hit the pillar, it turned and rotated completely around the pillar so that it came around the other side, heading straight toward Anyu. Anyu twisted away from the spear, so that it hit into the ground. The spear jutted out from the ground, shaking from invisible vibrations, trying desperately to pry itself from the snow. Anyu smiled and moved his arms about his sides so that snow rose on either side of him. Two huge clumps of snow hovered beneath his fingertips that he froze into two giant cannonballs. With that, he thrust the two balls repeatedly into the pillar, so that huge chunks of ice were launched clear off the sides. Once the cannonballs had dwindled away to nothing, Anyu dropped his arms to his sides, panting, and waited for the next move from the enemy at the top.
The pillar was left pockmarked by Anyu's cannonballs, but for a time nothing happened. Taking a breath, Anyu drew more snow from around him and prepared for his second assault on the pillar, when a peculiar ringing sound drew both his and Sokka's attention. Turning toward the sound, Sokka saw the spear thrust into the ground shaking at an unbelievable frequency. And when the ringing reached an intolerable pitch, the spear exploded.
Shards of ice scattered everywhere, but instead of hitting the ground, they floated in midair. There, the ice shards seem to reshape themselves into a thousand tiny spears, only to redirect themselves back at Anyu. When every shard was aimed at Anyu, they rushed him all at once. Anyu was barely able to get his arms up to shield his face when…
"Yield!" said a sharp, clear voice from the top of the pillar.
The shards of ice floated all around Anyu, every single piece of ice only mere centimeters from someplace on Anyu's body. Carefully Anyu dropped his arms, so as not to hit the pieces, to look up toward the voice. Sokka did not need to look however; he knew who it was as soon as she had raised her voice.
"Yield!" Katara screamed again, from her place on the edge of the pillar, looking out over Anyu. Her hair had escaped its clasp in the back so that it flew about her face in wild, wavy strands. A bright whitish scar ran from the bottom of her right cheek up to her temple where only minutes ago she had been bleeding. And, oddly enough, Sokka realized she was completely dry.
"Katara!" Sokka shouted at her as he ran toward the pillar, Chu clutching at his arm. "Katara, are you okay?"
Katara ignored him, continuing to stare straight at Anyu, her eyes like shards of ice themselves. Sokka had only seen that expression on Katara once before, when Zuko had joined their group and Katara was sure he meant to harm Aang. Sokka could only imagine what it felt like to have the weight of those two eyes on you.
To Sokka's dismay, however, Anyu stared back defiantly at Katara and shouted, "No!"
Katara frowned, but undiscouraged, she turned and nodded to her side. Something seemed to move behind her, something huge, but before Sokka could make out what it was, the ground shifted again beneath his feet. Doing his best to stay standing, Sokka watched as Katara lifted her hands above her and then brought them down in a sharp, crushing-like motion that reminded Sokka less of a move of a Waterbender and more like the harsh, powerful movements of an Earthbender. At once, a huge crack appeared in the pillar that ran nearly the length of its entire height. There was a loud thumping sound that sent shards of ice in all directions, but who or where the sound came from, Sokka was not sure. Katara had straightened herself and stood watching Anyu as the monolith she was standing on began to crumble beneath her. Huge slabs of ice fell from the pillar and landed in the square, some crushing the ground around them so that the water beneath became visible. Sokka backtracked as the pillar crashed about him. Katara, on the other hand, stood as stoic as a slab of ice as the pillar continued to break apart beneath her. Anyu watched her, a mixture of confusion, fear, and defiance in his eyes, the thousand shards of ice evaporating into mist about his body. And just as the ice was about to topple over from beneath Katara's feet, she crouched low and jumped from the pillar…
… only to be caught by a giant fish-bird.
Sokka had no name for it. He stared at it in fascination as it flew - or was it swimming? - around the square, water streaming almost elegantly from its wing-like flippers and feather-like tail. It was about the size of Appa, maybe even bigger, and its body seemed to be painted in many different shades of blue. It had a long neck with a beak and a crown of feathers sprouting from its head. But, unlike a normal bird, its legs seemed to be plastered to its body, the feet itself webbed like those of a turtle-duck's. Chu was shouting something hysterically from behind him, but for the life of him, Sokka had no idea what it was. As the creature twisted and moved about the square, Sokka fell backwards, landing on his rump, his eyes wide and unblinking as he stared up at Katara, who rode on the creature in the small hollow where the creature's neck met its back.
As the creature moved past Anyu, it seemed to screech and dive for him. Anyu covered his face and ducked as a rough, unfinished building at the edge of the square behind him was blasted by a stream of water from one of the creature's wing-flippers. The building dissolved in on itself, crashing in like a house of cards. When Katara and the creature twisted about past the main hall, Sokka watched as Katara stretched out one of her arms to her side and then jerked it up. A geyser shot from the ground below her fingertips and moved toward the main hall… until it sliced right through the middle of it, like a knife through butter. The building collapsed as if it were made of salt. By this point, Anyu was back on his feet and watching the destruction of the buildings in horror.
"What are you doing?!" Anyu shouted. "You're destroying all our work!"
"All of your work," Katara answered back.
Katara and the creature circled back until they were in front of Anyu. They landed in front of him and Katara jumped off the back of the fish-bird. The animal watched Anyu with eyes that seemed to be every shade of blue at once, while Katara marched toward Anyu and stopped in front of him.
"Your snow-then-ice buildings were crudely made and won't last against a rain shower, let alone waterbending attacks."
"They're not supposed to endure waterbending attacks. Who would attack us in times of peace?"
"Exactly what I said when you and the council decided to put up that wall. But, nonetheless, we need buildings that can endure anything."
"They can endure a rain shower!" Anyu countered.
"Are you sure about that?"
Suddenly, rain started to pour all around the square - not rain, a torrent. Sokka did his best to keep his eyes open, but the downpour was so violent that it was difficult to see anything more than a few inches from his face. But one thing was for certain: every building appeared to be dissolving, melting as if they had been blasted with fire instead of water. Sokka gaped and Chu thrashed by his side seeming, to Sokka at least, inconsolable.
"Stop it!" shouted Anyu as he threw a spear of ice toward Katara that was easily deflected with a flick of her wrist.
"Then yield!" Katara said, the rain beginning to lift around them.
Sokka watched as Katara gritted her teeth and took a step toward Anyu.
"Then watch," Katara said. "I am not like you. I would never hurt somebody just because I can. But there are ways I can wound you without touching a hair on your head."
"Yeah, and how's that?" Anyu asked, stepping closer to Katara with a grimace that Sokka noticed completely changed his once handsome face. "You can destroy these buildings, but they can be rebuilt and rebuilt better. You know as well as I."
Katara grinned and stepped back so that she was within reach of the enormous waterbending fish-bird, who was still staring at Anyu.
"Watch then, Anyu, as I wound your pride." And in one swift leap, Katara was on the fish-bird and flying, or, more like floating on streams of water, up into the sky.
While Sokka watched awestruck, Chu continued to babble incoherently as the penguins' squawking reach an almost inaudible frequency.
"The stuff of legend everyone used to tell me - never existed, never would. They thought me crazy with my interests in the intricacies of the Waterbenders' past, but the past always has one or two myths that turn out to be true but - oh dear," Chu cut off abruptly, staring straight ahead.
"What is she doing?" Anyu asked, his voice clipped and slightly rising in pitch.
"Oh dear, I think, I think she's -" Chu started.
"Sokka," Anyu interrupted, not seeming to hear Chu. "What is she doing?"
"How should I know?" Sokka said shrugging, too engrossed in the movements of the fish-bird to care.
"She's your sister!" Anyu shouted. "You've got to stop her! It looks like she's going to -"
"Stop her from wha-," Sokka started and cut of mid-sentence when he finally registered where Katara and the creature were going: straight North to the almost finished wall.
"Oh," Sokka said.
"Yes, 'oh.' You have to stop her! This is the crowning jewel of our rebuilding efforts and who knows what she's going to do to it!"
"Humm, what makes you think I can stop her?"
"You're her brother!"
"You seem to be really obsessed with our familial relationship," Sokka pointed out. "Also, there are a few things wrong your plan: one, Katara's riding a giant waterbending fish-bird-thing that probably wouldn't be very interested in what I have to say, and two, I don't remember the last time Katara listened to me, so the whole Katara and bird-fish/fish-bird thing stopping cause' I said so idea really isn't much of a plan to bank on… And finally," Sokka turned to look at Anyu. "Who says I want to stop Katara?"
Anyu gave Sokka a brief part-incredulous, part-irritated look before he said something under his breath that sounded like "Southern Water Tribers" and then took off sprinting in the direction of the Wall. Sokka was about to follow after him, to prevent Anyu from interfering, when there was a tug on his pants. Sokka paused and turned around to see three otter-penguins holding onto the ends of his snow-pants with their beaks.
"What the -" Sokka said and then looked up to see Chu staring at him with wide eyes from his gaunt face.
"Sokka," he said. Sokka blinked and was immediately rooted to the spot. Chu had never called him just "Sokka" before. "I know you and Katara have been adamant about tearing down this wall, but have you ever wondered about what the people you are serving think?"
"Of course. They agree with us Chu. I mean, come on, we're all Southern -"
"But Sokka, all of the council, besides you two, think this wall is a good idea -"
"Most of the people on the council are from the North -"
"- including your father," continued Chu. "How well do you really think you are serving your people? Have you ever thought of asking them directly, instead of making decisions that you think are best? How does that make you any different from the old ways of the Fire Nation?"
Sokka stared at Chu, aghast. He hadn't stuttered or fumbled once in his speech and he was standing as straight as he had ever seen him. In that one instant, Sokka realized he had seriously underestimated Chu. Then, as quickly as Chu's resolve came, it evaporated in the next instant. Soon Chu was hunched over again with a bashful look on his small face.
"Of-of course, what do I know? I'm, I'm just an advisor right?" he stammered, rubbing his head. Sokka strode up to Chu and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"No, Chu, you're right. Katara and I, no, we really had not thought of what others might think of the wall. I'll get through to Katara - I'll figure out something."
Just then, an earsplitting boom punctured the night air. The ground shook as both Sokka and Chu spun to see a giant crack in the wall. Fissures sprouted from the crack, causing blocks of ice, snow, and mist to rain down on the frozen tundra below. Sokka's mouth dropped as he watched both Katara and the creature slash at the wall with savage streams of water. The whole wall trembled with the force of the water and Sokka could only imagine what the noise was causing in the minds of the sleeping people of the Southern Water Tribe.
Without thinking, Sokka began running with as much force as his legs could carry him. Chu remained behind, hunched forward, mouth agape, and his flock of penguins screeching at his feet. Sokka ran past tented homes, businesses, and wide squares. Already people were running out of their homes and staring at the spectacle taking place at the wall. Some just stood outside, as amazed by the whole situation as Chu; others took one look and began running in the opposite direction for fear of the gigantic water-bird-fish-thing; still others (mostly Waterbenders) started racing straight toward the wall, prepared to fight. And Sokka, as "junior ambassador," had no idea what he was running toward and what exactly he would do when he got there.
I'm running to the wall, he told himself. And I'm going to stop Katara from destroying it. The thought sounded nice, but how to put it into action was a whole other thing.
Three-fourths of the way to the wall, the booming of its collapse still ricocheting off the night air, Sokka ran into Anyu, his knees in the snow, eyes glued to the crumbling wall.
"My wall," he was saying, almost like he was singing a ballad. "My beautiful wall, ruined - nothing can fix it now - my life's work, all gone… all gone…"
"C'mon, your life's barely even begun," Sokka said as he ran past. Anyu merely shook his head and Sokka could see tears around the edges of his eyes.
Wow, Sokka thought. He is self-absorbed.
The wall was now within screaming distance. So Sokka, along with others who had decided to follow him, began shouting.
"Katara! Katara, stop!"
Sokka entered into the wide area between the rows of coastal homes and the foot of the wall. The area, once flat and smooth, was now almost completely filled with an enormous pile of snow. Despite the shouts of Sokka and the people behind him, Katara and the water-bird continued their efforts on the greatly diminished wall. In fact, Sokka couldn't help noticing, their efforts to topple it only seemed to increase.
It's no use, Sokka realized. He was never going to get a hold of Katara like this. She was too focused on what she was doing, and all the shouting was, probably, only intensifying her determination. Sokka turned and examined his surroundings. Minus the giant bird and crumbling wall, there were the homes behind him, the space in front of him, the Waterbender platform to the right, the canal gate to the -
The Waterbender platform! It was a platform made entirely of ice steps that criss-crossed up to the top of the wall, giving the Waterbenders easier access to the top as well as non-benders. If he could get to the top, maybe he could get Katara's attention.
He reached the first step of the stairwell and almost fell face forward, catching himself at the last second.
"Of course, of course," Sokka couldn't help saying aloud. "An ice platform - what could be more practical than that?" Then, to the best of his ability, he ran up the stairwell, two steps at a time, until he was level with the top of the wall, or, rather, what remained of the wall. The sound of the deteriorating wall was deafening, but Sokka did not put his hands to his ears for he was too busy clutching the railing to balance himself on the increasingly unsteady platform. Katara and the creature were methodically making their way toward Sokka's platform, neither of them noticing his presence, despite his shouting. Their ignorance continued, even when the creature began to dismantle the Waterbender platform from the bottom-up and Sokka began to sway backwards with the scaffolding.
"Katara!" Sokka screamed and, in a last-ditch effort, threw his boomerang at Katara on top of the fish-bird. As Sokka began tumbling backwards, the boomerang hit Katara's shoulder and she spun, only to find Sokka falling.
"Sokka!" she screamed, reaching out with a plume of water heading in Sokka's direction. At Katara's outcry, the creature stopped its onslaught on the wall and, in one deft move, caught Sokka in its talon-webbed foot before Katara's stream of water reached him.
When Sokka finally regained his composure, he exhaled and exclaimed, "Well, that took you long enough."
"Sokka, what are you doing here?" Katara said.
"I should be asking you the same question," Sokka replied, and then shook his head. "Well this just seems like déjà vu – didn't we say the same things to each other one night a week ago?"
Katara ignored him. "I think it should be obvious. I'm finally getting rid of this stupid wall," Katara declared.
Sokka gave her a sour look. "Yes, that is obvious."
"Then why are you asking why I'm here? Don't you want to get rid of this wall? I thought that was what we both wanted, but I guess your opinion has changed, considering you've been avoiding me all this time."
"Katara, I haven't been avoiding you - well, not for the reasons you think I was avoiding you, but I'll explain that later. And I do want this wall down, just as much as you do, but Katara, don't you see all those people down there?"
Katara did not so much as take her eyes off of Sokka. "What about them?"
"Have you even considered what they want? Not everyone here is from the Northern Water Tribe. There are probably still plenty of our own tribespeople who might actually want this wall, people who actually want to change. And maybe it's just the two of us who are too stubborn to."
Katara opened her mouth as if to reply, but then seemed to hesitate. Sokka continued, as the creature watched Sokka in its foot with two enormous blue eyes.
"Katara, we've been to all the Morning Meetings, and every time we were the only ones fighting this wall. Perhaps we need to listen to the others; maybe this is for the best and we just can't see it. Maybe we should ask what everyone else wants, here and now, before we make decisions for them, like Fire Lord Ozai."
That struck a chord. Katara's eyes widened and she started, "I would never -" before cutting herself off. She turned away from Sokka, and then said quietly after a few moments, "Lower us down."
Sokka felt his stomach fly up into his chest as the bird-fish lowered its webbed-claw to the ground. When Sokka finally had his two feet planted back on the firm snow, he quickly shook off the adrenaline in his body and watched Katara slide off the creature. At this point, the crowd surrounding the now ravaged wall was uncountable. Faces, some angry, some disbelieving, and some indifferent, stared at the wall; others were distracted by the massive, indescribable creature before them to even care about the wall. One thing above all others, however, was the most conspicuous: the almost complete silence among the crowd, except for the occasional tentative murmurings or whispers - a silence that was uncanny for a group of this size. Everyone seemed to be waiting either for an explanation from someone, or else was too afraid to make a sound in front of the creature. Perhaps it was a mix of both. Eventually the quiet was broken with a slightly choked yet obvious voice of authority from somewhere in the middle of the crowd. Sokka's hair bristled on the back of his neck.
"Sokka, Katara, what's going on here? And what-what is that?"
Hakoda stepped forward, the people parting away from his advance. He deliberately looked at Sokka, his eyes never once moving toward the fish-bird. After what seemed like a long while, Sokka eventually opened his mouth to address his father as well as the crowd, when Katara said, in a voice barely louder than a whisper, "It's my fault."
Hakoda's head turned to look at Katara. "What?"
"It's my fault," Katara said, loud enough so that everyone could hear. After a short pause, Katara seemed to find her resolve and she said to the crowd, her fists clenched at her side, "I'm sorry everyone. It is my fault that this wall, that many of you worked so hard to build, is now, well, pretty much in ruins."
"Well, obviously!" shouted a woman in the back of the crowd, who seemed to have worked up her courage and was now shaking her fist in Katara's direction. "Do you have any idea what you've done? This was to be the wall to protect our city, a city that was almost overtaken by the Fire Nation, and now you, you and that thing, have destroyed what was going to be our great future!"
Katara hung her head and listened patiently to the woman's grievance, and when there were several nods and murmurs of agreement, she took a deep breath and replied, "You're right. You're right that that was going to be our future. Putting up that wall was going to be a sign to the rest of the world that the Southern Water Tribe was now a force to be reckoned with. It was to be a sign of our strength, our defense, but also a sign of our fear. Everyone, putting up this wall only illustrates to others how afraid of the outside world we are and it only enforces our own isolation on the tip of the Southern Hemisphere. The Hundred Years War is over and the Fire Nation is no longer a people to fear or despise - the Avatar assured us of that with the demise of Fire Lord Ozai and the ascent to the throne of one of his closest and most trusted friends, Fire Lord Zuko. So, I ask you, what now must we keep out of the Southern Water Tribe? What now do we have left to fear?"
No one answered, only stared at Katara with wide eyes.
"We are a people of change, for our element, water, is always changing with the moon and the tides. And so when the rest of the world is ready for change, to return once again to a time of peace, we decide to hold onto our wartime anxieties? Moreover, when did we, the Southern Water Tribe, decide that our city should be just as large and defensible as that of our Northern counterpart? The Southern Water Tribe was created years and years ago independently of the North because we had morals, ideas, and traditions outside their scope. And, yes, no matter how the same we all are on the inside, we are also unique. Do we really want to depend on the North for guidance and innovation or are we are own people who can make decisions for themselves?"
Sokka bit his lip. Was this really something Katara should be telling others? Of course Katara and he had talked about everything she was saying, things they had only mentioned when they were alone. But now it was out in the open. Sokka examined the crowd and their faces ranged from indignant and outraged to keen and interested.
"And so," Katara continued. "Because my brother and I were of this mindset, because we thought we knew what the Southern Water Tribe really wanted, knew what kind of people we were, we fought tooth and nail during our council meetings against this wall, despite everyone saying that this was for the best. And because I refused to listen to them, because I thought I knew what was best, I came here to get rid of this wall once and for all. But, as my brother so rightly put it, how does taking matters into my own hands make me any different from the Fire Nation of old? Thinking I was doing what was best and what everyone wanted, I failed to even ask what you actually wanted. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I destroyed everyone's hard work and, most of all, I'm sorry I didn't ask what you wanted. I understand that I have made a horrible mistake and I am willing to make it right based on you all. If you do want this wall, please know I will personally help alongside all the other builders to fix it and even make it better than before. The choice is yours, the people's, and always will be. I'm sorry it took me this long to realize this."
It was silent for a long time as the crowd absorbed Katara's words. It was silent so long that Sokka felt himself sweat with the awkwardness of the situation, despite the cold. Katara's eyes scanned the crowd but as the silence lingered, her eyes lowered, followed by her head. And just before Katara was about to walk away, the fish-bird watching her movements with keen blue eyes, there was a clap from someone in the audience. Katara's head bolted upward as the clapping continued and a white-haired individual appeared before them, right next to a slightly gaping Hakoda.
"Well done Katara, and well done Sokka," said Pakku. "You are now full-fledged Southern Water Tribe ambassadors."
"What?" Sokka and Katara said simultaneously.
"You've finally demonstrated to Hakoda and I that both of you are well qualified enough to represent the Water Tribe throughout the world," he said with a satisfied grin.
"I can't believe it," Hakoda finally managed.
"Wait," Katara interjected. "How does any of this prove we are good ambassadors? I almost completely destroyed a wall we all worked so hard to build, and Sokka just sent a ton of otter-penguins loose in the plaza."
"I did not! That was Chu," Sokka said, but both Katara and Pakku ignored him.
"This is true. Both of you demonstrated great leadership and initiative, not only during our council meetings, but outside them as well. Both of you knew what you wanted and knew that you would do anything to get it. But, then again, your father and I always knew you were leaders - what we didn't know was how you would react when you failed, when you made a mistake, and how well you would follow orders."
Sokka and Katara exchanged looks.
"Sokka, you illustrated true forethought and responsibility when you told your sister that you both do not represent your wishes, but the wishes of the entire tribe and that, even when we might disagree with something, oftentimes we are forced to do things that the group decides on. And Katara, in spite of your mistake, instead of continuing on with your original plan, you decided to admit what you had done wrong and promised to fix it. Both of these incidences, more than anything I've seen from you two, are the mark of true leaders, for it is not in the face of victory true leadership is shown, but in the face of failure."
Pakku walked closer to the two of them but maintained a wary distance from the creature. Then, in a voice only they could hear, he said, "Ambassadors will be facing failure every day. Your hardships will no longer be of survival, but of persuasion. As you represent our tribe in the world, you will cross people, perhaps even whole nations, who disagree with you and believe that you are wrong. You may believe totally in one thing while others believe in another. Your jobs are not to shove others aside when you think they are wrong, but to listen to what they have to say, perhaps work to compromise or persuade. And, who knows, maybe you'll realize your initial idea was not as great as you thought. That is the nature of an ambassador: that you represent our nation to the best of your abilities while also adapting to a changing world. I did not see a better test of your abilities to admit failure until today with this wall, and I don't think I'll need a whole year to name you full ambassadors. You have passed the test."
"Wait," Sokka said, finally finding his voice. "Did you know this would happen? I mean, did you know Katara and I would want to destroy this wall from the very beginning but would change our minds about it later?"
"Well, I didn't really think you would come out here with a giant aqua-bird and rip the wall apart one sheet of ice at a time."
"An 'aqua-bird'?" Katara said. "Is that what -"
"What?" Sokka interrupted. "You planned this the whole time?"
Pakku ignored both of them and turned to face the people.
"Sokka and Katara are now your Southern Water Tribe ambassadors!"
At this, a few people clapped, but most continued to stare. Sokka, on the other hand, only continued to sweat.
"And, as Katara pointed out, we have not decided as a people about the construction of this wall. All in favor, raise your hand high please."
To Sokka's dismay, a considerable amount of people raised their hands, but he could not tell if it was less than half of the crowd or more.
"And, all against?" Pakku asked.
"Wait," said a voice in the crowd.
Katara stared at the speaker, eyes wide. "Darra?"
Darra nodded but did not look at her; instead, she addressed Pakku. "I was of the opinion, not moments before, that this wall was a good thing - that with it, we would not be as vulnerable as before. After all, it was because of the absence of such a wall that made us like sitting turtle-ducks for the Fire Nation during the war. I do not want to be reminded of how defenseless we were when, years ago, the Fire Nation walked across our shores and stole every one of our Waterbenders and split up our families… Yet, even then, in the face of all that, the Southern Water Tribe lived on, and lived on long enough to give us people like Sokka and Katara. They have seen the world - how many of us have traveled outside this city, let alone our nation? They know things that we do not, and therefore, I trust in Katara and Sokka that this wall must go, that it was never a part of the Southern Water Tribe and never should be."
We she finished, she raised her hand high as a vote against the wall. And, as if by some non-verbal agreement, Sokka and Katara both nodded toward Darra in wordless thanks for her support.
Then, somewhere else in the crowd, a male voice said, "I second that," and raised his hand. Another called, "And me," and raised his hand as well. Soon, several hands were in the air, perhaps just as much or more than the people for the wall. His spirits lifting, Sokka turned toward Pakku, who was frowning.
"It's a dead tie," Pakku said. "Chief Hakoda, I noticed you did not vote."
Hakoda nodded. "As Chief, I'm not sure if it's right for me to make the final decision."
Pakku snorted. "As Chief, I think it is your every right. Yes, you must do the wishes of your people, just as your children, but you must also lead." Pakku rolled his eyes. "When did I suddenly become this family's counselor?" Sokka wondered this too until he saw a smiling Gran Gran near the front of the group.
Hakoda visibly struggled with this. With a grimace, he said, "It seems that I have no choice."
Sokka and Katara held their breath.
"But given the fact that the wall is already partly demolished, we might as well destroy the rest of it."
"Yay!" Sokka and Katara said at once, giving each other high-fives. The crowd did not seem to share in their exuberance, so they settled down quickly.
Hakoda cleared his throat and said, "Katara, I'm sure your, uh, your -"
"Aqua-bird," Pakku supplied.
"Yes, aqua-bird, could help us with this?"
Katara smiled and, with a nod toward the creature, it spun on its webbed-feet and seemed to cut through the rest of the wall with its feather-like tail. As people coughed and swatted the mist from their eyes, Sokka and Hakoda stared, mouths agape at the emptiness and the vast shoreline where once the wall had stood. Pakku only grinned.
"And you know about these, things?" Hakoda asked Pakku.
"Only what I've heard in legends. They're turning out to be even truer than I thought."
Shaking his head in disbelief, Hakoda turned to Katara. "What are you wearing?"
Katara blinked and looked down at their mother's once beautiful clothes, now torn and bloodied slightly, the heels of her boots gone.
Sokka answered for her. "Uh, mom's clothes."
Katara sighed and said, "It's a long story."
"Well, tell me, starting from where you found, your, uh, friend."
"Blue," Katara said. The large blue eyes of the aqua-bird blinked as it lowered its head to Katara's level and looked on at Sokka, Hakoda, and Pakku. "Her name is Blue."
"Well, nice to meet you, Blue," Hakoda said, smiling.
Blue responded by blinking once.
"My wall!" came a shout in the distance. "My beautiful wall!" The shout was followed by a pathetic sounding wail.
Hakoda and Pakku looked at each other and raised their eyebrows. Sokka turned his head to Katara, who was already smiling at him, and laughed. She laughed too, followed by Hakoda and Pakku, and even the rest of the crowd because, no matter if they were for or against the wall, the sound of Anyu's pitiful sobs was too much for even his mother to not crack a smile.
Katara and Sokka stood side by side on the dock, the ocean's waves lapping at the frozen poles in the water, each holding a small knapsack of belongings by their sides. Neither of them knew what to pack because they didn't know exactly where they were going. Their father had chosen to tell them the day they left so that they wouldn't be distracted during their final week home before they were again traveling abroad. It still hadn't stopped them from guessing.
"Maybe it's to the Fire Nation," Sokka suggested. "Zuko might need our advice while he gets his country back under control. Dad still gets reports of minor outbreaks across the islands - people still don't believe the war is over."
Katara shook her head. She knew better. Handling the riots around the Fire Nation was the job of the Fire Lord and she knew that the advice of Water Tribesmen was not going to be very helpful to Zuko who understood his people better than Sokka and she did.
"No, I don't think so," Katara said. "I think we're going to be going somewhere more remote or unknown - someplace where they need our advice in the rebuilding effort or maybe ask for the help of the Southern Water Tribe in matters of state."
Sokka gave a dramatic sigh. "Ugh, maybe this job isn't what I thought it'd be."
Katara nodded but smiled. "Maybe not, but at least we'll know we're doing something to change the world. We'll be helping it become a better place one day at a time."
Sokka looked thoughtful. "You're right of course. Still doesn't explain why dad wouldn't tell us where we're going, nor why there's no boat waiting for us here."
At this, Katara just shrugged.
After a few more minutes of waiting, the form of their father appeared in the distance, followed by an especially hunched Chu today. Hakoda was nodding while Chu, with pen and pad in hand, was stuttering something to him in his ear. Eventually Hakoda waved his hand, cutting Chu off mid-sentence, when he was within earshot of Katara and Sokka.
"Kids," he said, smiling. "I really can't believe how much you've grown and that again we are going to be separated after only a few weeks."
"It won't be forever Dad," Sokka said. "We'll be home again soon."
Hakoda nodded. "Yes, you're right. It won't be forever, and you're going to be sent where representation of the Southern Water Tribe is needed urgently."
"We're ready to go," Katara said, "But where's our boat?"
Hakoda grinned. "I'm surprised you haven't figured it out yet, given she's been so helpful these past couple days in fixing up the town. Blue will be your guide."
Sokka's mouth dropped. "Blue? But, she needs water - she can't get us anywhere without water!"
Hakoda looked at him. "A boat can't get your anywhere without water. And besides, Blue will be much faster; she literally flies on water, as she showed us earlier this week with Katara. But I don't want anyone questioning her existence right now, so as soon as you get to your destination, Blue should come right back. According to Pakku, aqua-birds are pretty much the stuff of fairytales and myths, thought to be extinct like the dragons and sky bison. Pakku doesn't want anyone knowing about them and putting their lives, if they ever were, in jeopardy once again."
"We understand Dad, but I don't think we can get Blue to do anything she doesn't want to. You have no idea whether she'll even take us to wherever were going in the first place," Katara said.
"Yes, I doubt she'll listen to us. But I'm sure she'll listen to you," Hakoda said, nodding to something behind them.
Katara turned to once again see Blue's giant eyes in front of her face. How long Blue had been floating in the water by the dock watching them, she had no idea. Katara smiled, and then asked Blue directly. "Whaddya say Blue? Would you take us to where we need to go?"
To this, Blue just blinked her eyes.
"I think that's a 'yes,'" Katara said laughing and laying her hand on Blue's beak.
"Then it's settled. You'll be traveling to Asa Aki where you'll assist Captain Kitan in representing the Southern Water Tribe."
Katara and Sokka's eyes lightened.
"Wait, Asa Aki? Isn't that, isn't that where Aang is?" Katara asked.
"Yes. We've just received news that discussions on who owns the territory is getting more heated, and despite orders I've sent Kitan, he is still adamant in trying to keep Asa Aki a Water Tribe port or perhaps even a colony. He thinks that the Water Tribe needs more space, more territory, instead of our 'wasteland,' as he put it, in the south."
"Kitan said this?" Sokka said, stunned.
"War changes people Sokka. He's not the same guy who made jokes at the dinner table when he came to visit before all of us left for the war. He's much more serious, and, I'm afraid, still afraid of a nonexistent war. Your jobs are to convince him that Asa Aki is not in the Southern Water Tribe's best interest. And, between you and me, more importantly, you must help the Avatar make the right decision."
Katara and Sokka exchanged looks. "What do you mean? What's wrong with Aang?" Katara asked.
Hakoda sighed. "Kitan only talked about Aang fleetingly in his update, as if the Avatar was not worth his time in all this debate. From what I could gather, though, Aang seems to be having a difficult time trying to get each representative to see eye-to-eye. Perhaps it's time you helped your friend, for I think Aang's power lies in the aides and in the hearts of his friends."
Both Katara and Sokka nodded, saying, "We'll be there."
"Good. Goodbye Sokka. Goodbye Katara. And good luck," Hakoda said, leaning in to give them one last hug. Immediately, Katara jumped onto the back of Blue's neck, ready to leave, but Sokka hung back, staring. Katara followed his gaze to Chu, who was standing behind and to the side of her father, looking uncomfortable. She couldn't believe she had forgotten about Chu so quickly; he had obviously mastered, during his time in the Northern Water Tribe, the skill of being unheard and unseen. But that did not stop Sokka from walking directly up to Chu and laying a hand on his shoulder.
"Dad, before we go, I do have one last thing to ask you," said Sokka.
Hakoda raised his eyebrows. "And what's that?"
"That Chu be head of the entire rebuilding project in Katara's and my stead."
The expression on Chu's face then was indescribable. Katara watched in fascination as Chu's face seemed to squeeze in on itself, looking like something between a raisin being squished and like someone battling some unseen force attempting to implode your body. Eventually Chu was able to squeak through pinched, shocked lips, "M-m-m-me?"
"Yes, you," Sokka said before turning back to Hakoda. "Chu has given me infallible advice and guidance throughout my return home, and I think, just as it was deserving of Anyu to become one of the work crew, it is deserving of Chu to become the one who runs it. I know he doubts himself greatly, which is probably from him being a scribe and steward for so long, but he shouldn't. He is a leader and knows a ton. He'll definitely be a great addition - his talents are wasted doing what he's doing now."
Chu, at this point, was a complete wreck, his face so scrunched and tearing that he couldn't say a thing, either in protest or thanks. Meanwhile, Hakoda seemed to be thinking it over.
"Well, I did really appreciate his services as my assistant, but if you think that is where he truly belongs…"
"I do," Sokka said.
"Then, Chu, you are hereby head of the rebuilding crew. I'm certain they are in desperate need of your help down in the plaza. You should probably be off there right now."
Eventually, with visible effort, Chu straightened himself, one or two jars of herbs tumbling from his jacket into the snow. He clasped Sokka's hand and shook it.
"Oh, thank you Prince Sokka! Thank you! I will do my upmost - I will do better than that! I will do the best that I can do!" Chu declared.
"You do that Chu," Sokka said. "You should probably go help them out now. They need you."
"Yes, yes they do! And I will get them into shape, I will! I'll make the best looking city you'll ever see!" And with that, Chu gathered his fallen jars, gave a quick and unsteady bow in Hakoda's direction, and ran from the dock back toward the city.
Sokka grinned and jumped up behind Katara onto Blue, shouting, "Yip yip!"
Katara gave Sokka a look. "I don't think that's how Blue works."
Sokka shrugged. "Old habits die hard."
Katara patted the slick yet feathery neck of Blue. "Blue, off to Asa Aki!"
There was a rumble as water swelled over the dock. Hakoda stumbled backward into the snow as the water coalesced beneath Blue, raising her higher and higher into the air. Lifting her wings on either side of her, she gathered the water to her tips and, like their father had said before, she "flew" on it. As she went higher in the air and further toward sea, water seemed to come from unknown places - the ocean, the clouds, the very air - for Blue to flap and glide effortlessly along. Katara could only describe it as riding upon a flying ship.
Katara and Sokka turned to give one last farewell wave to their father who was waving back from shore and quickly becoming a mere dot the further they went. Katara's heart soared when she looked back in front of her at the sea below and the clouds above, the sun offering a dim light in the distance. She was leaving home again, only to be embarking on another adventure, her life once again changing before her eyes.
"So we're going to get Aang outta another sticky situation," Sokka said to Katara, his voice louder in order to be heard over the wind rushing past their faces.
"I guess so," Katara said back.
"Well, it's about time!"
Don't worry Aang, we're coming. We'll be home again with you soon.
Author's Note: Omg it's finally done. *headdesk* I am so sorry for all of you who are actually invested in this story - probably nobody now since I take ages to update. I could go into excuses now, saying how I have school, work, family and friends that keep me occupied and away from writing, which in part is true. But I think the real reason is that I'm a huge procrastinator and only write when I feel "in the mood." This is not a way to live as a writer; these moments come rarely and last only so long. I've really had to force myself to get back to this story and at least finish this chapter. As you can probably tell, I think another reason writing this was so difficult was that I wasn't quite sure entirely what was going to happen in this chapter, and, moreover, I knew it was going to be looong. In fact, I think this is the longest single piece of writing I've ever done – so long that I even considered splitting this up into two episodes, but decided to get the whole story over and done with since it's taken me this long to update anyway. This is not deserving of a medal, however. I'm convinced this could have been shorter, if I'd taken the time to figure out my thoughts more cohesively. What do you guys think? Have any suggestions, or do you like it the way it is?
I'll be perfectly honest now: I'm not sure when I'll be updating in the near future. My outline for the next chapter seems to be way more fun and shorter. However, again, finding the time to work on it is going to be difficult. We'll see how it goes. I hope it won't take me two years to update again though - The Legend of Korra has already come and gone and this was supposed to be entertainment for Avatar's hiatus. Ah well.
Thanks again for taking the time to read this fanfiction. Comments I find encouraging and helpful as an aspiring writer; please, whether good or bad, I appreciate feedback and critiques.
- Kin (myoathkeeper)