New story, new rules. Instead of making a bunch of vignettes which flow around the existing plot, as it was in Book 1, in Book 2, the stories replace the plot. Therefore, each chapter will be significantly longer, hold a significantly larger amount of stuff in them, and hopefully, be significantly better. The same rules which applied last time also apply here. This is not quite the world that Aang and company went through. Some things have changed, and they're having steadily progressing ramifications as the story goes forward. One of these repercussions was that Ty Lee spent almost two years stranded on Kyoshi Island. Another is that for the rest of the series, Zuko has a beard. I know, you could never have seen that coming, could you?
There are things which weren't part of 'canon' A:TLA which are in this. First amongst these are languages. Water Tribesmen speak Yqanuac, which is derived from Mongolian and Saami roots. East Continent (aka, Earth Kingdoms) people usually speak Tianxia. It is the lingua franca of the setting, the trade language. It's the second language of just about everybody, and has roots in the many dialects of Chinese, with a distinct Arabic flavor. Huojian, the language of the Fire Nation, is primarily Japanese, but with a large dose of Spanish, as well. Other languages come up, but are often less used. There's Ackbiihu, the sandbender tongue, and mostly derives from Farsi. There's Whalesh, which, as the name might indicate, belongs to the people of Great Whales, and obviously enough, is more or less Welsh.
Any other changes will be mentioned in their respective chapters. Now, without further ado, let's get this trainwreck moving.
The calling of wild puffins, so much like discontented moans, buffeted Iroh as he leaned against the back of his seat. The attendant, a lovely young lady with hands like silk worked the file over his battered, weary feet, and he could not restrain a contented sigh. "This is what I've been missing," he said. Zuko did not comment. "Who would have thought that a fortnight on a boat I didn't know how to sail, with no food or water, and falcon sharks waiting to rise up and eat our legs would make a person so tense?"
Zuko just shot Iroh a glance under the broad hat. Iroh sighed. "Please, nephew. Finish your meal. We don't know how long we're going to stay here. We might as well enjoy it."
"We've already been here too long," Zuko said bitterly. Iroh frowned, then it dawned on him.
"I see. It's the anniversary, isn't it?" Iroh said quietly.
"Four years. It's been four years since I lost everything," he whispered.
"You haven't lost everything," Iroh reminded him, but Zuko's golden eyes snapped up at him.
"And what haven't I lost?" he shouted. The attendant recoiled a bit, but Iroh steadied her with a hand before she bolted. She gave Iroh a glance, but then went back to working on his feet. "I was Crown Prince! I would have been Fire Lord! Now I have nothing... But if I get the Avatar... if I can restore my honor, maybe my father will finally accept me. Maybe he'll stop thinking I'm worthless."
"Your father doesn't think you're worthless. Why would he banish you if he didn't care?" Iroh asked. Then he realized how that would sound to somebody who didn't have his external view of things. He cringed a bit. "That came out wrong, didn't it?"
Zuko moved to loom over Iroh. Ever since the assassination attempt, he stopped shaving his face and scalp. While he had pulled the longest part of his hair back into its customary tail, he now looked almost more Earth Kingdom than Fire Nation. "I want the Avatar," Zuko said. "I want my honor back. I want my throne."
"You might yet have it," a woman's voice said from the door. Iroh's eyes went wide. It couldn't be. It was impossible. There was no way she could have come to Bakemano Island. He shooed away the attendant and got to his feet, and his worst fears were confirmed. He entered into a deep bow.
"You surprise and grace us with your presence, Princess Azula," Iroh said politely. He glanced over to Zuko, who just stared at his younger sister, an odd fire in his eyes.
"Of course I do," she said. "And, in my country, we exchange a pleasant hello when greeting family," she smirked in that way only Azula could. "Hello, brother."
"Azula, what are you doing here?" Zuko asked. Iroh rolled his eyes.
"I see that your time amongst the savages has damaged your tact. Have you become uncivilized so quickly, Zuzu?" she asked. Iroh could practically see the vein popping out of Zuko's forehead.
"Don't call me that!" Zuko shouted. Azula's smirk didn't alter one whit. Iroh rose and stepped in front of his nephew.
"To what do we owe this honor?" he asked the Crown Princess, a pleasant smile on his face.
"Such directness," Azula said. She glanced at her older brother. "However sometimes it comes with poise and proper delivery. I wonder how that trait managed to avoid you so completely, Zuzu?" She took a more relaxed stance, but Iroh knew a woman expecting a fight when he saw one. "Father's priorities have shifted. With the crushing defeat at the North Pole, and the loss of so many men and ships, he fears that there will be more political unrest in the Azul provinces, and open revolts in Ember. With the increases in tensions, he understands that family are the only ones he can trust," her tone softened a bit, and she shrugged. "He regrets your banishment, and wants you to return home."
"Home?" Zuko asked. There was a hunger in his eyes. A desperation that bordered on mania. "My exile forgiven?"
"Gone like smoke in the wind," Azula said. Iroh grabbed his nephew's shoulder and hauled him aside for a moment.
"Uncle, what's wrong? It thought you'd be happy for me! We're going home!" he said. Iroh scowled.
In Yqanuac, a language he was fairly sure Azula had little to no proficiency in, he quickly whispered. "Your father has never regretted anything he's done in his entire life."
"But..." Zuko said, and Iroh tried to silence him with a glance, but his homesickness had poisoned him. He shook his head, and turned away from Iroh. "When do we leave?"
"Presently," she said. She vigorously brushed a spot on her shoulder where it had brushed the door frame. "I have no intention of remaining in this... dust pit... any longer than I absolutely have to." That was truth. She turned and walked away. "Don't be late, Zuzu. I can't wait forever."
Zuko took a step to follow his sister, but Iroh forcibly stopped him. Zuko looked back, a burning anger in his eyes. "What is it?" he said, his voice trembling.
"Don't do this. I don't like how this feels," Iroh said.
"How it feels? HOW IT FEELS? Uncle, I've done everything the way you said I should. And what has it got me?" he asked. "Nothing! No Avatar, no honor, Agni's blood I haven't even had a bed to sleep on in a month that didn't stink of somebody else's flatulence!"
"Zuko, please," he said. "I have a condition."
"No! If you want to wile away your life on this rock, be my guest. I'm going home," he said. There was a catch in the last word as Zuko said it. Iroh shook his head. Home was more than a place to the boy. And Iroh had forgotten that. He sighed, then nodded.
"Then I will come with you. It will be good to see my house again. I wonder if Lo remembered to water my bansai tree?" Iroh said. Zuko put on a smirk of relief, a wholly different beast from the one Azula so frequently wore.
The walk down the hills to the dock was a quiet one, on Iroh's part. Zuko, on the other hand, couldn't be silent about his idealized home for a moment, gushing in a highly atypical fashion. Iroh began to wonder if Zuko ran as hot-and-cold as Iroh's great grandfather? It was an unpleasant thought.
As the Royal Dreadnought ca me into view, Zuko paused for a moment. "I can't believe I'm going home. It's unbelievable."
"It is unbelievable," Iroh said. He hadn't lied. Ozai never regretted anything. "There is something Azula is not telling us. Or is telling us, that isn't true."
"You're just being paranoid," Zuko accused. "Father's changed his mind. He wants me back."
"I fear, if he wants you back, it's not for the reasons either of us hope," Iroh pointed out.
"What could you possibly know about that?" Zuko shouted. "You don't know what my father feels about me! You don't know anything!"
Iroh made a placating gesture. "I'm just saying that in this family, things are seldom as they appear. I know this from having many years lived in it. Don't forget I've lived three of your lifetimes."
"To a certain definition of living," Zuko said as he started walking again. Iroh sighed, long-suffering as always, and followed his nephew. The two men left the stairs and walked along the pier. It was lined with firebenders in their heavy armor. A sudden fear snuck into Iroh's brain. They were all Negatives. In the firebending corps, there were two primary divisions, based off of the primary jins. Negatives, usually men and trained for resilience and stamina, were given heavy armor because they were expected to withstand the brunt of assaults. Positives, often women and trained for speed and power, often wore little armor at all. Every soldier here was a Negative.
They were expecting a fight, and one they knew would not end quickly. They were prepared for a battle of attrition and action economy against somebody who was powerful, and would need to be worn down. Even as Zuko moved up the gangway, the wheels turned furiously in Iroh's head. Then, at the ship's edge, he saw Azula. On her face was that smirk. He finally pegged where he'd seen a smirk of just that quality; on the face of Admiral Zhao, right before he tried to destroy the world.
Iroh lashed forward, grabbing Zuko's shoulder and hauling him to a stop. His eyes went wide. "What is it, Uncle?" he asked.
"This is a trap," Iroh said.
"You always thought you were so clever, traitor," Azula said. "You're an old fool."
"Perhaps," Iroh said. "But at least I can look at myself in the mirror." Azula's smirk vanished, and her face twitched. Hit the nail on the head. Then, in a viper-fast move, she struck, sending forth a gout of pure blue flames which uncle and nephew barely got out of the way of. And behind them, the firebenders turned and advanced. The firebenders, lesser fighters than Azula, let fly their red and yellow flames. But Iroh had a lot of practice; he'd been a warrior as long as many of these people had been alive.
Even as the first blast moved toward him, he moved into a stance quite unlike any firebending form that was taught in the Fire Nation. In fact, it wasn't a firebending form at all; it was a waterbending form. A twist of his wrists, and a proper direction of chi, and the blast twisted around him, fueled but no longer directed by its creator. He bent it into another of the firebenders, who was sent flying off of the wharf. Iroh moved with a speed he knew he would regret tomorrow, his old body shifting between forms old and new, domestic and foreign. Waterbending forms to use his enemies against each other. Firebending forms to capitalize on mistakes. In moments, only, the dock was cleared, and firebenders were struggling to keep above the surface of the water. If they had been Positives, Iroh might have held back; he didn't like hurting his own countrymen.
Up on deck, though, things were dire. Rather than flee, as Iroh had hoped, Zuko was engaged in an all-out duel with Azula. One he couldn't hope to win. Iroh rushed up the ramp. "Prince Zuko!" he shouted, but his nephew was too busy trying to get a telling hit in on his sister. She was vastly more powerful than he was, though; there was no way he could get out of being on the defensive. Then, she did something Iroh didn't expect. Instead of a fire blast, her stance shifted just a minute amount, and a percussion sounded, knocking Zuko the deck of the ship.
"You lied to me," Zuko said, pulling himself back up. Azula smirked.
"Like I've never done that before," she laughed. Zuko's face contorted with rage as he ran forward. Iroh prepared a nasty surprise of his own, but Azula was fast. No firebending, no tricks, just a lightning-fast kick in the chest, Zuko's barely-healed chest, and the boy was reeling back to the deck. She smirked, and she began to bend once more. Iroh knew the stance she was taking. He abandoned his own attack and ran forward, clapping hers fingers in his vice-like grip at the last possible instant. A tremendous surge traveled down his body, and into his stomach. Such energy, such power. He didn't know Azula was capable of so much. Not so young. Azulon was right. She was a firebender the likes of which the world might never see again. He directed the energy back up to his other hand, which he cast down at the deck. The lightning she had almost thrown at Zuko smashed down into the heart of the ship, tearing apart its engines with its fury.
"How did you...?" Azula asked, the utter gobsmacked look on her face something Iroh had never seen in his long life. He answered her by pivoting on his hip and heaving her over the railing of the ship. A quite satisfying splash sounded below, and Iroh moved to his gasping nephew.
"Are you alright?" Iroh asked. Zuko looked up at the small pagoda which rested at the midline of the ship. He looked down at the hole Iroh had blasted in it, and his face tightened.
Iroh helped his nephew to his feet, and they moved back off of the ship. As they reached the docks, one of the firebenders had almost gotten himself back up. Iroh made a fighting stance, and the firebender looked at him, then let go and dropped back into the water. Good for him.
"Where will we go?" Zuko asked. There was despair in his voice. "We can't go to the East Continent. If we're found in the Earth Kingdoms, they'll kill us."
"If we're found in the Fire Nation, they'll give us to Azula," Iroh said. The two exiles shared a moment of common consideration, then looked at each other.
"Earth Kingdoms it is."
A few hours and some fast talking later, they were on the waves, heading to the southeast. Iroh opened the furl of paper he had grabbed as he ran. It was a wanted poster, signed and sealed by Ozai himself, demanding the arrest of Iroh and Zuko. He hadn't even given them a chance. It was just like his brother to do something like this. Damn his blackened soul. He turned to Zuko, who was still breathing carefully for his wounded ribs. He showed Zuko the poster. As he did, he pulled out the top-knot on his head, letting his hair fall down his back. Zuko looked at Iroh and understood. They could never be those people in the poster ever again. Zuko's burgeoning beard was already helping, but Zuko reached back and took his own top-knot, and with a small knife, severed it. He held it in his hands, staring at it for a long moment, before his eyes pulled shut, his fist clenched, and the stink of burning hair filled the cabin. They were fugitives.
She hated to see Aang this miserable. Ever since the end of the Siege of the North, when everything had settled and the last of the prisoners was brought into the city, she thought he would be elated. Instead, he drifted into a quite unusual funk. It didn't help that Sokka was taking Yue's death especially hard. That she understood. Yue and Sokka had been extremely close. Probably as close as they could be, considering the circumstances. She still couldn't for the life of her figure out why Yue developed an attraction for Sokka, of all people, but that wasn't Katara's place to speculate.
"May I come in?" Aang's voice perked her right up. She shouted he could, and he cracked the door a bit. He always did that before he came in. She wasn't sure why. It was almost as if he was afraid of what he might see when he did. He entered, and plunked himself down on the rug next to the bed. His head, usually freshly shaved each morning, was beginning to show black stubble.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"I can't do it," Aang said quietly. He looked up at her with those dark eyes and he seemed a child again. Not some all-powerful creature out of legend and myth, not an air and waterbender of monumental skill, just a lost child.
"You can't do what?" she asked.
"General Fong had a plan," Aang explained. His voice was oddly flat. "He wanted me to go into the Avatar State, and cut a path through the Gates of Azulon, storming Sozin City."
"Wasn't that your plan all along?" she asked.
"He wants me to do it now!" Aang protested. "But I don't know how to get into the Avatar State. And when I'm there... I just don't even know if I ever want to do that again. The last time I did..." he glanced up at her. "I don't like what happened to me the last time I was in the Avatar State."
"It's alright," she said, soothingly. He leaned with his back against the bed she sat on. "It's not like you always pick things up right away. You just need some practice and you'll be able to use the Avatar State whenever you need to."
"But that's just it!" Aang said, not facing her. "I always do pick up things fast. I picked up waterbending faster than you did," she scowled at that memory, "and if I'd found a firebending teacher, I would have picked that up, too. I know it."
"But that's not the way it's supposed to go, isn't it?" she asked.
"Water, earth, fire," he nodded. "But what if that's not enough? What if the Fire Lord is too powerful?"
She frowned a moment. "What is wrong, Aang? Usually, you're the one chafing at the bit to get moving, to see something new and exciting. What happened?" It wasn't usually her place to try to lift Aang's morale. That was... right. It was Sokka's job, and Sokka was not good company right now.
"Can we just not talk about this?" Aang said, suddenly quite irritated. "I mean, the world just keeps pointing out, over and over, that people keep dying because of me. Because I ran away, because I can't control myself; what kind of Avatar am I?"
"I never knew this was bothering you so much," Katara said. "What do you want to do?"
"I... I don't know!" he shouted, and blast of wind pressed her hard against the wall. Everything loose in the room either fell over or smashed. He looked around, and his eyes began to well. "I can't do anything right."
"Aang, you're doing fine," she said. She moved to him and gave him an obviously much-needed hug. "You've already saved the world once. I know you can do it again."
Aang pulled himself away, and stared at her a moment. "I think I've been running away too long," he moved to the door. "I'm going to tell General Fong that I'll be his Avatar. Whatever it takes."
Azula dragged her brush through her long hair. The nerve. The audacity. The gall. How dare they lay hands upon her royal person? How day they humiliate her in front of the common soldiery? How dare they think they could escape her? Already, in her mind, the wheel was spinning. Threads coalesced and formed skeins, skeins became patterns. She set down her brush for a moment and stared out the window. The ship would probably not sail again any time soon, so she would have to arrange other transport. However, that had suddenly become quite feasible.
The soldiers her father had loaned her turned out to be spectacularly useless. Those red armored fools spent more time and effort trying to keep themselves from drowning in the harbor than they ever did trying to restrain and subdue their targets. No, the Imperial firebenders were dead weight. She would need to be fast and cunning to capture that traitor Iroh and her failure of a brother. But she couldn't do it alone. There were skills she would need to aid her. She couldn't do everything.
She couldn't do anything.
She twitched as the thought went through her mind. As fast as it appeared, she banished it. She was capable of anything. There was a reason why Father gave her this responsibility, why he named her the Crown Princess; she got things done. She had talents that almost nobody else on the globe could match. She was a firebending prodigy, a master at the age most people only begin to manifest their gifts. And she knew how to use people, another gift she developed at an age where most girls were still playing with dolls. But these alone wouldn't be enough. She needed somebody who knew the East Continent. She knew from the Whalesh that they were headed to the Earth Kingdoms, and her practical knowledge of those lands was limited. She needed somebody who could spot the tiny details, those things in the background. Azula was spectacular at reading intentions, but she didn't have an assassin's eye for traps.
Nobody will help you.
She almost shivered, despite the heat. These thoughts were plaguing her more often, now. She pushed it away as completely as she had the one before it. And it was patently wrong, besides. She had people who could help her. Two names came to mind instantly, two people whom owed her favors, whom she had influence. People who would follow her. She took up her brush, and got back to work on her hair. It wouldn't do to be untidy. She finally finished, arranging her hair just so. She looked in the mirror. Ursa watched her from the back of the room.
"What is it, Mother?" Azula asked. "You can't stand to see me on my own, can you? You don't think I'm ready for this monumental task? Well I am. I am more than ready. I've been waiting for an opportunity like this for years. Father has made me ready."
Ursa just watched her sadly.
"Well? Aren't you going to say something?" Azula's eyes narrowed as she pinned her hair in place. "You never believed in me. Not for one moment. I don't know why Father ever married you. You... murderer, you demon. What do you want? Well? What do you want?"
She turned, and her two preceptors and pedagogues, Lo and Li were standing in the door. Both were women beyond ancient, as old as Azulon when he died. They looked surprised. She didn't care. She rose and walked toward them. "I asked you a question."
"The captain wants you to know,"
"The ship won't be repaired for several days," Lo and Li said. They frequently finished each others sentences, and as identical as they were, it made it an exercise in futility to tell who was saying what.
"It's just as well, what I need now is a small, elite team," she said, walking out the doors onto the deck of the ship. The sky was grey and leaden. She smirked. She was going to give it something to be leaden about. The people still milled about the Royal Dreadnought as she took a deep breath. It bothered her. What Iroh had done to her lightning. It shouldn't have been possible. She emptied herself of everything, and felt the energy pull itself apart. As it came crashing down, she thrust out one hand, and a twisting arc of blue lightning seared over the length of the ship, and crashed into the stony cliff-face.
"But one hair out of place," Lo and Li said.
Azula's gaze tightened on one lock of hair which had slipped out of her style. She felt a heat rising through her in a great wave. The fire began to lick at her very soul. "Almost perfect is not GOOD ENOUGH!" she shouted, instantly snapping another blast of lightning out of her fingertips, sending the cliff face into a full-scale collapse. Hundreds of tonnes of rock slid into the bay below it. She breathed a few times, feeling that heat ebb. She quietly gathered that hair back into place, and turned to her teachers. "I will be leaving at once. I will go on my own, and I will not be communicating until my objectives are complete."
"But where will you be going?"
"And what will we tell your father?" Lo and Li asked.
Azula smirked. "Tell him that I am fulfilling my responsibility to the Fire Lord. And I am going where I need to."
Without waiting for another word from the old women, she turned and walked down the plank to the docks. She knew she would need a fast ship, and a ship unable to sail wouldn't do at all. The local craft were all sailed vessels, beholden to wind and tide, and thus useless to her. But she knew that Iroh and Zuzu had gotten off of this island somehow. She walked to the other shore, a very short hike considering the island was basically a knife's edge of cliffs with some beach running along each side. On the other side, right where she had expected, was the low, metal hulls she was looking for.
She had little good to say about the Whalesh. They were crude, unnecessarily large, had strange hair, their language was utterly incomprehensible, and they had the most bizarre names – what sort of name was Nai Jel, anyway? – but when it came to ships, they were almost a match for the Fire Nation, ship for ship. The only reason the Fire Lord hadn't cracked down on the Whalesh was because, amongst other reasons, they were so many fewer than the Fire Nation. She moved down the rocky coast on the lee of the island, away from what civilization claimed to exist.
One Whaleshman, a hulking fellow with that bizarre, copper-colored hair on his head and bare chest, smiled down at her as she approached the vessel. "Oi!" he called. "Wha's th' luvvy lass doin' 'n a place o' this?" She had to think a second to figure out what he said, even though he was speaking a language she understood, albeit a broken, slurring Huojian. She put on a false, but innocent smile.
"I'm just looking for some transport. Could I please speak to your captain?" she asked. The man leapt down to her with a splash, and ran a thick finger down her cheek. She tried very hard to not kill him where he stood.
"Wha's a matter' a' his wi' you?" he said. She forced the smile to stay on her face, even though a part of her wanted to vomit. She reached up, and ran her own fingers along his hair, behind his ear. When it was there, she dug in hard, twisting and tearing into his flesh with her long, sharp nails. He let out a cry of surprise and pain, which quickly brought others to the deck of the ship. She looked up patiently at them.
"I assume that this one is not the captain of this vessel, so I want to know who is." Azula said. All eyes moved from her, to each other. Then, all fingers pointed at one man in particular, who was unique in that he was wearing a shirt. Oh, this would be an onerous journey. Her innocent smile transformed into a smirk. "Good. Off you go."
She released the sailor, who fell into the surf, clutching at his aching, bleeding ear. She ran toward the ship, and with a powerful leap, vaulted the rail, causing several of the sailors to fall back, or else be leapt through. She hopped onto the deck, and brushed her bangs aside. "This is a smuggling vessel, correct?" she asked. She knew it was. She just wanted to see if he would give her a reason. He took a measure of her, up and down. Unlike most, he didn't pause in any place that would get his eyes burned out.
"That it be," he said. An honest smuggler? Unlikely. Probably, he was just one who knew well enough to fear her properly.
"You will take me to Whale Tail island," she said. "When there, you will sell or otherwise jettison all of your cargo, and I will pick up a few things. Once that is done, you will transport me and my possessions to," she paused a moment, trying to remember. Where had she said she'd gone? Oh, right, "Kyoshi Island, and from from there Four Mile Bay. There will be no deviations from this itinerary."
"And why would I be doing this?" the captain asked. His Huojian was accented, but a far cry better than the others.
"Because I will pay you. And if you don't accept this job, then I will kill you, and then make the same offer to your second in command," she said, with perfect honesty.
Nobody can love you.
"AM I CLEAR?" she shouted. The captain seemed to run the numbers in his head, and nodded. "Very well. We leave at once."
"Yes ma'am," the Captain said. He leaned over the rail and shouted something incomprehensible in that bastard-tongue the Whalesh used to the man on the ground. The wounded man quickly clambered up and went below decks. "I suppose you won't be asking my name, so I won't ask yours."
Azula's opinion of this man rose, just a little bit. "Smart man."
"I try to be," he said. Still staring at her, he shouted. "Men, stoke the engines. We leave now."
Sokka stared up at the sky. Even though it was only early evening and the sun still hung in the air, the moon was already visible, a ghostly phantom near the horizon. He tried to think back to last year, the year before that, to remember if it had ever done that before. To the best of his recollection, it didn't. He pressed his fingers to his lips, and raised them to the sky. "I miss you, Yue," he said quietly, almost silently. Katara didn't notice.
Things were taking longer than he had ever expected. He rolled over and looked at his maps again. The biggest part of Aang's plan was that he had to find an earthbending master, but while the Earth Kingdoms had many masters available, it wasn't like they were conveniently marked on a map. He looked over to his sister, who was doing some sort of bend-y thing with her soup.
"Oh, now you're just showing off," Sokka said.
"Practice is practice," she said. "Besides, bending water without things inside it falling out isn't as easy as it looks," she gave him a glance. "You remember that fish?"
"YES, I remember the fish," Sokka said, rolling out of bed. It was strange to have a bed to roll out of. He'd gotten so used to sleeping bags and piles of yak-horse skins that he'd forgotten how comfortable a feather mattress could be. "At least I don't get wet every time you waterbend, anymore."
"Is that a challenge?" his sister asked. Sokka opened his mouth, but then closed it again. He didn't feel up to sparring right now. She looked at him. "Oh, come on. You're not being yourself."
"Maybe I don't feel like myself right now," Sokka said peevishly. "Maybe I can't be happy all the time."
"You can be sarcastic."
"Well, it is part of my identity," Sokka stroked his imaginary beard. "Who do you think Aang is going to go to so he can learn earthbending?"
"Well, King Bumi's the obvious choice," she said, putting the soup back into her bowl and taking a sip. "Bleagh. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you cooked it."
"Hey, I'm a good cook. As long as you keep it to certain types of foods," he said, digging up his map of the East Continent. His finger ran from where they were now, in the Heel of Rou Ren, across the sea to Omashu in the south. It was not close. "It'll be a bit of a trip."
"And this isn't fit to eat. Even to someone with your palate," she said, pitching the soup out the window.
"Hey, I'm the judge of that!" Sokka said, watching the soup fly away. Food was food.
She shook her head. "I'm not even really hungry. Where's Aang? He's been gone all day?"
"Mastering the Avatar State must be rough," Sokka said, turning regretfully from the lost food, of whatever quality. "He does tend to be a quick study. Hey, you remember Omashu, little sister?"
"How could I forget? Aang acting like a kid, Bumi's insane tasks," she chuckled.
"'My cabbages!'," Sokka laughed. "Oh, I thought that guy was going to kill us."
Katara smiled for a moment, then stood and moved to the door. "I'm going to check on Aang. This just feels strange," he rolled his eyes as she left him alone. He moved back to his bed, and looked out the wide window. Some nights, he just couldn't sleep, looking up at that moon. Other nights, he slept, and the dreams he had... it was almost like she was there with him again. And it hurt. Tui La did it hurt. Even the tiny sadist in him couldn't take pleasure in the fact that by the time she was gone, she was already a widow. He just wanted her back. He wanted somebody who could make him smile again, feel confused but happy.
He sat up. He couldn't keep moping. He wasn't tired enough to sleep, and dinner just flew out the window. He had to do something! So he got up, and went out into the halls, following his nose to the kitchens. He put on a cocky smile as he leaned on the doorframe. "Hey, there ladies, got anything for me?" he asked.
Some of the under-chefs giggled and tittered at him, and in no time flat, he had charmed his way into an odd, Fire Nation snack which recently came across the sea. Fried slices of something called 'potato', covered in spices and salt. He dug into them with a vengeance, thanking the ladies with florid praise and leaving to wander the base. He wasn't sure why, but ever since he came here, he got all of his meals the same way. It was a habit he was going to have to keep up; it beat soup a-la-a-rock-at-the-bottom-of-a-cliff.
Sokka's ears brought him to a large courtyard. The sound of grating stone and shouting voices told him somebody was training, and that was usually an afternoon's entertainment. He got himself seated on a step, and watched as the great stone discs rolled to and fro across the field. He contentedly muched away, until he saw that amongst those discs, there was a figure, trying desperately not to get crushed by them. A figure in yellow and red robes. Sokka almost threw his Fire Flakes aside, but then remembered how delicious they were, and set them aside carefully, before shouting, his mouth full of one last handful, "Aang. I'm coming for you!"
He regretted that. When he said it, an ostrich horse kicked him in the back, sending him tumbling into the edge of the arena. He had to scamper to get out of the way of what was essentially a weaponized millstone. The earthbenders were trying to kill Aang? What happened, had he been transported to an alternate universe where the Earth Nation under the evil Earth Lord Kuei had destroyed the Air Nomads and was waging a war of annihilation against the Avatar?
"EAT BOOMERANG, ALTERNATE REALITY EARTHBENDERS!" he shouted, hurling his weapon at one of the broad, muscular men. Unfortunately, heads didn't tend to have a great deal of protection by muscle, so the boomerang knocked him flat, and his rolling stone tipped and rolled into somebody else's, which set off a chain reaction disabling half the onslaught. He was about to hurl the boomerang again when he saw something fly over him. He looked down, and saw that a loop of rope was rapidly tightening around his feet.
With a jolt, he was yanked down, landing hard on his chest. He twisted and tried to throw it at the person who snared him, but he, an the ostrich horse he rode in on, shot past Sokka and started dragging him. He tried to brain the man with the boomerang as he was dragged by his feet, but it just caromed off his helmet. Sokka frantically yelped every time one of those stones just missed him. He scrambled for something he could use. He couldn't reach his feet to cut the line. And if he threw his machete, he'd have nothing to cut it with. Then he felt something hard in his pocket. He pulled it out; it was a metal fan. How long had that been tucked in there? And where had he gotten a metal fan? It didn't matter. It was heavy. He threw it hard, and with as much precision as he could, so that it goosed the ostrich horse, sending it into a quite useless rear. The pause gave Sokka enough time to free himself from the lasso.
But not enough time to dodge the stone rolling toward his head. He curled, but a ramp of ice appeared, just sending the stone over him. He could feel the grit hit his eyes from where it landed. He got to his feet. Aang was at one end of the courtyard, Sokka at the other, and Katara about half way in between. He looked up, and saw Fong staring down at them, a triumphant look about him.
"What in the arid deserts of Hell was that all about?" Sokka asked.
"If you can't enter the Avatar State except when your friends are in danger, then consider them in danger," Fong said. He stomped his foot, and Katara sank into the stonework. Both Avatar and big brother ran toward her, but Sokka was hitched when a cord looped round his neck, and began to pull tight. He couldn't breathe, and he didn't know where to swing.
"Please! You don't have to do this!" Aang begged. He was weeping as he tried to pull Katara out, before dodging a stone. Another stomp, and she was buried to her head. "Anything but this! I beg you! Don't do this to them!"
"Then give me the Avatar! Become the Avatar!" Fong shouted. He stomped one more time, and Katara disappeared. If Sokka could have screamed, he would.
Aang went silent, his face empty as a mask. He closed his eyes, but when he opened them, they burned with blue light. He began to rise up, his tattoos beginning to glow. "Yes!" Fong shouted. "Yes, you're doing it! Look here!" he said, stomping once more. Katara was vomited from the ground. Sokka felt the noose 'round his neck loosen. "Your friends are safe! And you have all the power you need to defeat the Fire Na–"
That was as far as Fong got, because Aang's gentle, kind features, had transformed into a mask of almost inhuman rage. And now, he stared at Fong.
Aang looked up, and smiled as Roku smiled down to him. "Roku! Wait. What happened?"
"You entered the Avatar State," Roku said.
"No! Katara! Sokka! I've got to save them!"
"They can wait," a woman's voice came. Aang turned. There was an Air Nomad standing behind him. "You have all the time you need, here."
"Who are you?" Aang asked. Before, it had only been Roku. A familiar figure in green armor appeared between Roku and the other woman. Kyoshi.
"That, would be Avatar Yangchen," Kyoshi said, and then she nodded to her the gap between them, where there was suddenly a man in the blue armor of a Water Tribesman. "And the latecomer, as usual, is Kuruk."
"Somebody forgot my invitation," Kuruk said genially.
"Fei hua we forgot your invitation, you lazy bum," Yangchen said.
"Please, what's going on?" Aang asked.
"Aang, it's time you learned about the Avatar State," Roku said.
"When an Avatar needs more power or knowledge which one of his or her previous incarnations held, they can access it by opening themselves to the Avatar State," Kyoshi said.
"It is also the state which allows you to move freely between the physical and spirit worlds," Kuruk added. "Similar to shamans, you have the innate ability to speak Uou, the language of spirits, as you no doubt felt, when you dealt with that... creature, Koh."
"But there is a risk involved with entering the Avatar State," Yangchen said coolly. "If you are killed while you are accessing the combined knowledge of the previous incarnations, or if your body dies while you are in the spirit realm in body, rather than just in soul, as Kuruk discovered..."
"Are you making an issue of that?" Kuruk asked. For an instant, he flickered between a virile young man and a bitter middle aged man who looked like he had aged long before his time.
"...then the cycle of reincarnation will be broken," Yangchen continued. "The Avatar would cease to exist, for all time."
Aang hung his head. "Well, then I'll be safe, because I never intend to enter the Avatar State again."
All four of his previous lives leaned back as one, and as one asked. "Why not?"
"I'm so angry when I do it, and I do things that I don't want to do," Aang said. "I mean... I killed people at the North Pole. I swore that I would never do something like that. It's one of my sacred paths, and when I become the Avatar, it doesn't even register with me. What sort of Air Nomad could I ever claim to be if I kill as easily as Sozin did?"
Yangchen shook her head. "You are not an Air Nomad, child. You are the Avatar. Sadly, your bodhisattva must take lesser priority to the realities of the world."
"Just one minute, there," Kyoshi said. "Aang doesn't want to kill people. So, don't kill people."
"Says the Avatar who killed Chin, and quite a few others in her time," Kuruk pointed out.
"Please," Roku said loudly. The others stopped and turned to him. "You were all born in less idealistic times. Yangchen, your life was marred by endless tragedy and loss, without cease or salvation."
"It made me stronger, and better able to do my duty," she said coldly. Aang goggled at her. She looked like an Air Nomad, but she didn't sound like one.
"Kyoshi was born to an age of war, and grew fell and bitter," Kuruk said.
"But I learned at the end that my anger and hatred were keeping me from having so many of the best things in life. So I learned to live without that hatred and fear," Kyoshi said. "I accepted my past mistakes, and endeavored never to repeat them," Aang already knew Kuruk's story. It was like Kyoshi's but backward.
"Is it really that simple?" Aang asked.
"No. No, you have to really look at yourself. You have to master why it is you felt those fears, made those mistakes," Roku said. "Without that, you are doomed to repeat them without end."
"When you learn to move freely in and out of the Avatar State, you will be in total control," Kyoshi said.
"But if you cannot control the Avatar State, it will control you," Yangchen finished.
Darkness swelled up and covered Aang. When his vision cleared, he was leaning against Katara, and Sokka was shouting something at General Fong, who lay in a heap nearby. Katara's expression brightened when Aang whispered her name. "What happened? Is everyone alright?"
She glanced around. "More or less," she said. She beckoned Sokka over, and her big brother helped steady Aang while he got used to having only one consciousness in his mind. Katara leaned very close to Fong.
"Don't ever do that to Aang again," she said. "Because if you do, you'll learn why in a hundred years, with so many ships, the Fire Nation never defeated us. You don't want to see that, trust me."
"That's my sister," Sokka said proudly.
"We're leaving," Katara said. Sokka laughed uncomfortably. Katara had an unusually fierce look on her face, like she was begging for an excuse to impale something. It wasn't one Aang was used to seeing on her. It scared him a little.
"What about the escort?" Sokka asked.
"If it's from him, we'd be better off without it," she said.
"Then we'd better get going. I want to be somewhere far from here when we make camp," Sokka muttered. "Stupid alternate-reality earthbenders."
"What?" Katara asked. Aang just blew on his Bison Whistle. Appa was soon landing, and the gang got onto its back. With a quiet, almost distracted 'yip yip', they left the ground, and began the long flight south, across the swell of the ocean, to the impenetrable city of Omashu.