Alright. Third book, total time elapsed, fourty writing days. That was remarkably fast for me. Anyway.
First of all: Links to the previous stories in the same continuity. Just put www dot fanfiction before the below to jump to 'em.
Book 1- .net/s/6194328/1/Avatar_Book_1_Children_of_Water
Book 2- .net/s/6210945/1/Avatar_Book_2_Children_of_Earth
This is an Avatar: the Last Airbender story, based in a slight (for the time being) AU, wherein four major changes occurred. First, Jeong Jeong never defected from the Fire Nation, and instead opted to rise through the ranks, becoming one of the most powerful firebenders and influencial pedagogues to the Royal Family. Second, Suki was aged up from sixteen to twenty six, in no small part because I think she would sound badass if voiced by Jennifer Hale. Third: Due to a freak accident, Ty Lee spent almost two years stranded on Kyoshi Island, and met the Gaang during what would have been Season 1, long before she ever knew she was going to have to antagonise them. Fourth: When Aang gets out of the iceburg, the summer of Sozin's Comet is three years away, instead of 9 months. Why? I felt like it. Well, that's not true, but I had my reasons.
A notable addition to the Avatar world 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. Even within nations, there are dialects and languages, but the characters are worldly enough that they can communicate with each other in some manner. It only gets pointed out when it's relevant.
This is the home stretch. Canon is now just a suggestion. The kid gloves (and the chastity belts) come off. People are going to die. Other people are going to get horizontal in other, more entertaining ways. Ty Lee is a good guy. Azula has a chance at redemption. Zuko's destiny is in question. Mai wants a fruit tart. Ty Lokka, for purists who despise such things. Maiko, Kataang, and an appropriately screwed up sort of Ozulai for the rest.
Let's see if I can do this without bollucksing it up.
For a long time, there was nothing but the void. How long? It couldn't be known. There were things before, but they were gone, now. Like it was. What was it? It had a name. It had a purpose. But they were gone. But something remained. Something like fear, but sweeter, finer, an exquisite agony, a chilling warmth. It had a name, in the void. It had a name, and it had love.
Pain. It remembered pain. It was the last thing it remembered, besides love. The pain was back. Surging through it. Sculpting it. Giving it dimension. The cycle ought have been broken. But it remained. Pain, and love. It had a name, in the void. And in the void, there was light. Specks, light against the darkness. The void was no longer, for it had light.
Light. White and round and hanging against the rich, dark blue above. That had a name also. It knew that name was Yue, the moon. The moon was full, staring down pristine and white. It had pain, coursing through its body, through its arms and its legs. It had arms... it had legs... But the greatest of pains was in its chest, for it had a chest. The void was no longer, and it had a form. This form fell backward, under no power of its own. It felt air enter its mouth, rushing to fill its emptied lungs. It had a name, and it was breathing.
Eyes stared down at him. Bright and blue and radiant. Full of hope. Full of love. It knew that name. That was Katara, staring down at it. She was crying. She was smiling. Hope shined in those eyes. Love shined in them. She had a name, and so did he. Her skin grew pale against the moonlight, and she plummeted out of view. He closed the eyes he knew he had, and let the darkness that was not the void wash over him.
"...but it's not good enough! What if he never wakes up! I don't know if I can..."
"...You have to have some faith. The world is waiting for him. And when he awakens, it must be ready for him..."
"...getting the right words into the right place, at the right time, can make all the difference in the world..."
"Aang... please... wake up. Don't leave me alone."
The voices drifted Aang's ears, crashing together in a flurry of noise as his eyes snapped open. Pain coursed through him, tightening his chest and quickening his breath. It was hard to breathe. He tensed his eyes shut, trying to figure out which was worse, the pain in his head, or the pain in his chest. He decided it was a draw. Aang groaned, and slowly tipped his legs to the side, pulling the covers off of them. The hit the floor oddly, and he accidentally levered himself straight to the floor. He grunted in pain, then pushed himself back up to the edge of the bed.
He felt strange. He looked down at his chest, finding it a nest of bandages, most affixed so they could span his back. He tried to crane around to see what they were covering, but doing so made the pain swell higher. He shook his head. There was time for that later. When he found a mirror. He shook some of that slogginess out of his head, then tried to take a step. He let out a clipped yelp, dropping back to the his seat. He pulled up his left foot. There was a reddened bandage around it. He peeked through, and saw a burn on his sole.
"What happened to me?" a young man asked. Aang looked around in the darkness, panic in his eyes. "Who said that!" it dawned on him suddenly. "I said that? What happened to my voice?"
Aang rubbed hard at his forehead, trying to quell the pain in his brain. It was dark. He could barely see anything. He focused on his hand, feeling the heat in his fingertips, concentrating it until a tiny ball of flame appeared, hovering above his hand. He looked around. The room was all made of metal, and rugs of blacks and reds covered the floor. The room wasn't large, and the door looked secure. His stomach dropped. This was a prison cell. His eyes went to the object beside the door. He frowned. "If I'm in prison, why'd they leave me my staff?" Aang asked, still not used to his new, deeper voice. He felt like hammered hell. What had happened to him?
Aang carefully got to his feet, limping to his staff. He hefted it, finding it scuffed and beaten, but still intact. He leaned against the door, and almost fell over as it swung open. "Who throws somebody in prison and then forgets to lock the door?" Aang asked. He hobbled out, using his staff as a crutch. He moved through the hallway, until he came to a room which overlooked whatever it was he was in. He turned, peering through the morning sun, to the complex below. His blood ran cold.
He was on Whale Tail Island, in the Pohuai Stronghold. The last time he was here, he was Admiral Zhao's prisoner. And this time, he was almost certain that Zuko wasn't going to be showing up to rescue him. Aang glanced down, looking at the concentric rings of the fortress that ran out into the bay. How could he hope to cross that expanse this time, without backup, and in his depleted state? The walls were replete with men in red armor, waiting for him to try something.
But why, then, had he just walked out of his cell? And why wasn't he bound hand and foot, like last time? A smirk came to his face. "And why did they leave me my glider?" Aang asked. He turned and swung the staff at the glass, smashing it out and raining it down the massive drop of the tower. Somebody on the wall pointed up, shouting. The words were lost in the distance. Aang hauled himself up, snapped open his glider, and began to fly.
Or rather, he tried to. For some reason, he just couldn't seem to keep the wind under him. It was so elementary that he'd started gliding when he was seven, four years before others tended to. But today, the only winds holding him aloft were the ones which blew in from the sea. Needless to say, he was losing altitude, and losing it fast. He cleared the first wall, but not the second. Rather than smash headlong, and face first – in a rather Ty Lee like fashion – into a wall, he pulled the glider aside, shooting along the ground at head level. Soldiers cried out and ducked as he barreled inevitably to the ground.
The last person to dive out of his way was actually Ty Lee. She stared up at him in shock as she bent backward almost like a hinge. Aang made it only a few more paces before his glider tipped, caught on the ground, and spat him sliding across the wide, smooth stone floor. Aang rolled, gasping in pain. Above, a firebender just finished a motion, emitting a small blast of fire. The soldier turned toward Aang, and then, in alarm, tore off its helmet. It was Sokka.
"Aang! You're awake!" Sokka shouted.
Aang shook his head, unable to believe his eyes. This had to be some sort of nightmare. Or at the best, a dream. He tried to scramble away, but Ty Lee slid next to him, giving him a hug which pressed his face against her breasts. Yup. Definitely a dream. But if this was a dream, then where was...
"Katara?" Aang mumbled against Ty Lee's bosom. She looked down at him, confusion on her face, then she smiled.
"Don't worry, everything's gonna be alright," she beamed, letting him drop back to the floor. She ran off, practically skipping, but still maintaining an impressive speed. Sokka then gathered Aang up into a very similar hug, albeit one without a bosom.
"Aang! What are you doing up?" Sokka asked.
"Why're you a firebender?" Aang asked. He felt very faint.
"Oh, great, Twinkletoes' head got cracked," a voice came. It didn't sound exactly like Toph, but there wasn't anybody else on Earth who called him Twinkletoes. He looked over, and there she was. And yet wasn't. She didn't look the same. She had the same milky green eyes, the same black hair, but now it was worn up in a beehive, and hung in front of her face. Her clothes were all Fire Nation red and black, long sleeved and short legged. She was taller than she was before. More developed. What was going on?
"I don't feel so good," Aang said. His eyes began to roll. Pushing through the crowd, he saw those eyes. Those glorious eyes. She moved closer. Katara had always been so beautiful. He didn't understand how he could have missed it before. But now... it was like she'd ripened. "Better now..."
"Aang!" she said. But he was done. The shock finally working its way up his neck and into his head, he finally fell back into that blissful unconsciousness, where next his dreams would have him perhaps in Katara's bosom instead of the acrobat's. If he was lucky.
"You know, you're picking this up faster than I thought possible," Ty Lee said to him. Sokka shrugged. "I'm surprised your sister's having such a hard time of it."
Sokka shook his head. "I had a head start," he said. "She's just starting to learn. It's not easy picking up another language, you know?"
"Yeah, but you're already onto reading in Whalesh, and she can barely..."
"We've all got our strengths and weaknesses. You can paralyze anybody just by lookin' at them funny. Toph can bend metal. I can read anything with words. My sister can bring people back from the dead. Let me keep my specialty."
Ty Lee shook her head, but it was with a smile and an eye roll. "Fine. But you're going to need to come up with an alias."
"What? Sokka's not going to do?"
"If you can get them to believe you're a colonial, maybe, but with eyes like that, and the way you comically over-pronounce everything you say, people are going to immediately peg you as an Azuli," Ty Lee pointed out. Sokka scratched at his imaginary beard. He raised a finger.
"FIRE!" he declared.
"Fire?" she asked, confused.
Sokka looked down at Aang, then sighed, stepping away so his sister could fuss over him. Ty Lee was back at his side quickly, looking down at them. All of the soldiers seemed confused by the scene. "What happened to Aang?" Ty Lee asked.
"He's just in shock," Katara said, exhaling her fears. She looked up at Sokka. "Help me get him inside. It's going to rain soon, and I don't want him out here in that."
Sokka obliged, scooping up the young man. Aang weighed a lot more than he did the first time Sokka hauled him up from the ground, three years and not so many leagues ago. Of course, puberty did tend to do that; it hit Aang like a dead whale out of a catapult in the last few months. He moved the stricken Avatar to a guard tower near the gate, setting him on a cot. Ty Lee was standing next to him, holding his hand in hers, about an instant later.
"Is he alright?" Ty Lee asked. Katara glanced her way, coolly. Despite all this time, Katara was still mistrustful of Ty Lee. He could see her perspective. Anybody who kept going back to Azula couldn't be entirely sane. But then again, anybody who fought against people like Azula with nothing but a soapstone club and a boomerang wasn't exactly properly mentally balanced, either.
"He's coming around," Katara said, pulling out her water and laying healing hands on temples, through the black hair which had grown once everybody stopped bothering to cut it. Aang's eyes slid open, and he looked around the room. "Aang..." Katara said, as though unsure what to say. "How do you feel?"
"Where am I?" Aang asked. His voice had deepened since last he spoke. Of course, the last time he'd spoken was around half a year ago.
"You're in Pohuai Stronghold, on Whale Tail Island," Sokka explained. Aang's eyes went wide.
"Are you all prisoners, too?" he asked, trying to get up, but he fell back with a wince, clutching at his lower back. It was probably the only place he could reach without disturbing the massive burn on his spine. Aang's eyes opened again. "This is a dream. I'm still dreaming. Ty Lee's here, Toph's different and Sokka's a firebender."
"Yeah... about that," Sokka said. He rolled up his sleeve, to show the system of tubes running along his arms. "Firebending for the non-firebender. I figured, people outside wouldn't believe the charade if we didn't have somebody firebending in eyeshot of the shore."
"Charade?" Aang asked, baffled.
Ty Lee looked around, then nodded. "Yeah... The Whalesh have taken over Pohuai Stronghold. I helped!"
"We all helped," Katara said. "And we managed to take it without anybody noticing, which was a miracle in and of itself. There probably isn't any less likely place for us to show up than in their most secure fortress outside of the homeland."
"My plan, of course," Sokka said, with a bow. Aang just looked bleary-eyed at the people. "Well, mine and Dad's. And Jee's too, but he had to leave a few weeks ago."
"Jee, from the swamp?" Aang asked. Sokka sighed. Come to think of it, there was a lot that happened in the last half-year. Aang's eyes went wide with panic. "Did I miss the eclipse?"
"No, it's not summer yet," Sokka reassured. "We have plenty of time to prepare for the invasion. But it won't be like we thought it would be. We don't have the armies of Ba Sing Se to depend on. It'll just be us and a rag-tag group of our friends and allies..."
"And some Whalesh," Ty Lee added.
"And some Whalesh," Sokka included, "moving to a rendezvous point deep inside the Fire Nation, storming through the Gates of Azulon and taking the fight to the enemy on the Day of Black Sun," Sokka's face dropped a bit. "The problem is, we still don't know what day it's going to be. Which is why we need to leave for the Fire Nation, soon."
Aang looked at Sokka, then Katara. "What happened in Ba Sing Se?" he asked. Sokka felt his stomach turn. Of course. Aang couldn't have known. "Why can't they help us?"
"The Earth Kingdoms have fallen," Ty Lee said quietly. "Long Feng assassinated Earth King Kuei, and then he was cast down by Azula. She left a Joo Dee in charge. I'm sorry, Aang, but the Fire Nation pretty much rules the world at this point." Aang cradled his head, wincing. Definitely from pain, but from what source, emotional or physical, Sokka couldn't say. Ty Lee tried to mount a smile. "I like your hair," she said, gamely.
"I have hair?" Aang said, patting over his head, feeling the long black locks which now covered his scalp, mostly obscuring his arrow. "Great. My voice, now my head. What else has changed?"
"Well, we're all wanted fugitives," Katara said.
"Except me!" Ty Lee enthusiastically declared.
"And you're dead," Sokka finished. Aang wilted at that. "That'll work to our advantage. While people might be looking for us, they won't give you a second glance, because as far as they're concerned, Prince Zuko killed you in Ba Sing Se."
"Wait... It wasn't Zuko," Aang shook his head. "And what do you mean I'm dead?"
"Yeah, isn't that great?" Sokka asked.
"Great?" Aang shouted. "It's terrible! I can't be dead! I'm the Avatar! Ugh, why can't things ever work out well? I need time to think."
"Well, if you want to..."
"Alone," Aang said. Everybody exchanged glances amongst themselves, then nodded. If Aang wanted to think this thing through, then they had to let him. He was two seasons behind the ball as it was. Sokka was the first to leave, Ty Lee right behind him. When the cleared the threshold and vanished around a corner, Ty Lee surged forward with a hug.
"Yeah, I know. He's gonna be alright," Sokka said. Ty Lee shook her head against his chest.
"I don't think so. I think he's lost more than we can ever know," she said. Sokka sighed, pulling the former acrobat tight against him. He didn't know what she meant, but knew she really did mean it. It fell on Katara to get the Avatar back on his feet.
"Are you sure you want to be alone?" Katara asked after her brother and his little doxie left. Thinking about that circus freak, all the things that she'd done both for and against them, set her blood to a boil. And that her brother seemed to trust her so completely set her on edge. For all they all knew, she could be spying for Azula. But then again, if that were the case, why hadn't Azula swooped in to snuff out Aang the first chance she'd gotten?
Aang looked at her, and hung his head. "I don't know what to believe," he said. "The last thing I remember, I was in the Royal Palace. We were fighting the Dai Li, Azula and Zuko. Then..." he shook his head, running his hand through his hair. "I failed again," he said.
"Aang, don't say that."
"It's true!" Aang pressed. "It seems like that's all I'm capable of. I run away from the Southern Air Temple, and my people get wiped out. I try to defend the North Pole, to protect your people, but I can't save Tui or La, and the love of Sokka's life has to die so the world doesn't end. I try to save the Earth Kingdoms, and the Earth King dies, and the last truly safe place from the Fire Nation in the world falls into the hands of the enemy! Is there nothing I don't corrupt by my touch?"
Katara turned down her eyes. Aang was beyond upset. She was surprised he wasn't moving into the Avatar State, the way he was going on. She reached over and placed her hands on his shoulders. "You did the best you could. If it wasn't for you, Azula would have killed me, too," Aang looked away. "Come on. I think it's time I tried to heal that burn on your back."
Katara moved behind Aang, winding the bandages away. Some of them clung and had to be pulled, ripping away and bringing a groan to Aang's throat. She looked upon that burn, still fresh as the day he'd gotten it, right in the center of his back, cutting the blue tattoos in half. She bent the water from her flask into her hands and began to work it over the injury. "It really hurts," Aang said quietly.
"I'm sorry. Where does it hurt the most?" she asked. She worked her healing, and finally, the flesh seemed to knit together. All of the other times she'd attempted it, she might as well have been trying to firebend.
"A little lower," he said. She moved her hands downward, right to the core of the burn. He let out a long groan, his face a tight rictus of pain. She healed him, and as she did, she leaned forward, just to feel that warmth rising from him, smell his sweat. To be close to him. In a way, she couldn't be much closer. A part of her was inside him, now.
"Does that feel better? I think I can feel a lot of bound up energy right there..." she asked. Aang continued to wince. She pushed that healing power deeper, trying to reach the nadir of the wound, but Aang pulled away, arching his back. A gasp issued from his throat, but he had the look on his face like he was trying desperately to scream. She stopped at once, and he slumped forward. "Aang, I'm so sorry..."
"Yeah, I think you've found the right spot," he said, looking up at her with pain in those grey eyes. He stared away for a moment. "I wasn't just hurt, was I?"
"What do you mean?" Katara asked. Aang turned.
"I remember. Guru Pathik said that if I wanted to enter the Avatar State, I had to give up the people that I loved. I had to give up you," he said. Katara's heart rose into her throat. "And when I knew I couldn't save you from them... I did it. I became Avatar Aang."
Katara's heart crashed. He'd given her up. "I..."
"So much power. So much skill and knowledge," Aang said. He looked up at her again, his eyes stormy. "And when I saw Azula was going to strike you down, I didn't hesitate. I chose attachment. I locked the chakra... I can't go into the Avatar State at all anymore."
Katara just stared, dumbfounded. On one hand, she felt conflicted that he would give up his strongest weapon, his best defense against the Fire Nation. On the other... he'd chosen her. He looked away, and hung his head. "I wasn't just hurt was I?" he asked again. "When I got hit... I wasn't hurt. I was gone. I mean... I was dead, wasn't I? Azula struck me down while I was in the Avatar State. Even if I could go into the Avatar State... there probably wouldn't be anything there when I did. I was dead..." he looked up at her. "So why am I breathing?"
"Because I wasn't ready to let you go," Katara said, pulling him close. He just let her hold him, his eyes distant. She stayed there, with him, until his eyes finally slid closed, and he fell asleep, free from his pain, from his fears. From the failures he saw in himself. Katara quietly slipped away. She wished she could heal it all away. But she didn't have that kind of power. With one last glance to the Avatar, that 'powerful bender' she had been told years before she would eventually fall in love with, she closed the door and walked out into the rain.
"Do you see it, Son?" Hakoda asked. Sokka peered through the spy glass and nodded. "They just keep coming, don't they?"
"As far as the world knows, this place is still a Fire Nation garrison," Sokka said. "Let's not give them any reason to assume otherwise."
Sokka jumped down from the wall, pulling his helmet onto his head. It wasn't the big ugly piece of kit that most firebenders wore; this one didn't have a face plate. But the armor fit him well enough, and he was the most proficient speaker of Huojian who wasn't an acrobat or a blind girl. That made him the voice of Pohuai. The ship steamed up to the wharf and extended its gangplank. Sokka turned to one side, watching as Toph quietly got into position. Katara was on the docks, looking busy. Three men walked down toward him, two of them firebenders.
"You there, where is Commander Shinu?" the leader asked.
"Shinu left me in command," Sokka lied. Shinu was actually enjoying the accouterments of his own prison cells. "What is your business in Pohuai?"
"Resupply and refit," the captain said. Sokka looked pensive for a moment, then checked a board and shook his head.
"Sorry, there's not much in the way of parts," Sokka lied. There was enough crap lying around to make two warships from scratch. "We've had a bad run recently, a lot of people coming through for repairs. You'd be better off getting a refit over at Colony 12."
The man nodded to himself. One firebender whispered something to him. "It couldn't hurt to hand over a few provisions, though," he said. Toph walked up to the pier, shaking her head lightly. Something was wrong. Sokka put on his winningest smile.
"I'll see if there's anything I can do for you," he said. He turned, and Toph fell in beside him. "What?" he asked. She nodded toward them.
"'Shinu was supposed to rotate out a month ago, but there's been no word of him'," she repeated. "'Colony 12 got renamed Hokai back in spring'. Sokka, they know."
"Crud," Sokka said. He turned, the smile back on his face. "One more thing. I could use a signature for those supplies."
"Of course," the captain said. As he left the plank, Toph reached down, and pounded her fist into it. A streak of twisted metal shot up the gangplank, then down the hull of the ship. Toph tore, and everything metal parted like a wound.
"They're impostors! Send out the alert!" voices came from the ship. Sokka grabbed the helmet of the captain, and leapt up, kneeing him in the face. With the captain dealt with for the moment, Toph turned, and shouted.
"Load me up!" she cried. From the gates up into the stronghold, a catapult fired, but this rock, unlike so many that the Fire Nation employed, was not afire. Toph thrust out her hands toward it in the air, and wrenched. The stone altered in its flight, smashing into the highest point of the ship, destroying the helm.
That was when Katara made her grand entrance. Standing at the head of the pier, she pulled toward her, and a great surge of water shot up from the sea, welling before her, before she thrust out, and a wave, every bit as tall as the ship moored at the end, rolled out. The ship, already torn open by Toph's metalbending, was instantly swamped and began to list helplessly. She pulled back and around, and a great torrent of seawater pulled itself up out of the surf, smashing against the deck, throwing the soldiers into the unforgiving waves. Toph began to move again, slamming her foot down into the metal pier, and kicking to a side. A boat which was fastened to the far end shot forward, powered by her bending, and smashed into the listing boat, capsizing it.
All in a few seconds. Katara jumped down and ran to the pier. "Did any hawks get out?" she asked. Sokka shook his head. He'd been watching for them, boomerang in hand. No word. "Good. I don't think we're going to be keeping this place a secret much longer. Too many people are coming by."
"And that's a bigger problem than you know," Hakoda said, approaching his children. "Since they've captured Omashu and the Earth Kingdoms are nominally under their rule, that means they only have one target. The South Pole. They must think the Avatar is being reborn there even as we speak."
"And instead, they'll find Master Pakku and dozens of trained waterbenders," Katara said grimly. "I almost pity them. Almost."
Sokka turned back, and his gaze caught a black haired figure standing on the ramparts above. Aang was watching as the Whalesh waterbenders, newly returned from Misty Swamp, set about taking prisoners and salvaging the sinking Fire Nation ship. Aang looked down at Sokka, his expression unreadable at this distance, but Sokka had a fairly good idea what was going through the young Avatar's mind.
Sokka pulled off the armor which chafed him, not in body but in spirit, every time he donned it. Sooner or later one of the others was going to have to speak the language. He wasn't a public speaker, not by any stretch, but everybody else either didn't speak Huojian, or had an obvious accent. Sokka moved into the gatehouse, intending to talk to Aang, but he was waylaid when a flash of pink came to a stop in front of him. Ty Lee glanced about, holding a long stick. "What did I miss?"
"Almost got invaded," Sokka said casually. Ty Lee frowned. Sokka grinned. "Were you asleep?"
"No," she said. She glanced away. "Fine, yes. I was excited, with Aang back up. I thought we'd be leaving soon, so I figured I should get some rest."
"I can't fault the reasoning," Sokka admitted. He kicked off his boots and sat on a bench by the wall. She instantly moved to sit beside him. "Something about Aang isn't in, though. Like he's... scared. Or something."
"He just woke up to find that we've all grown without him. He has to catch up," Ty Lee said, resting her head on his shoulder. "It can't be easy."
"I guess not," Sokka said. He leaned his cheek into her hair. "We should probably get back out there. With Aang up, it can't be long now."
"Yeah," she acceded. She bounded up and skipped away. Sokka shook his head with a smile. There was pretty much nothing which got Ty Lee down for more than a few minutes, then she was up and smiling again. He could do well to emulate her. But at the moment, he had preparations to make. Food, money, a schedule. And he needed a tent. A big, private one.
Aang turned away from the scene before him. Everybody just worked together so well, like they'd become this well oiled machine. And where was Aang? Outside. Watching. He turned and walked away, still smarting every time his left foot hit the floor. It would likely take a long while to heal that. And he didn't have time. Not anymore. Before, he thought he'd have all the time in the world. But then, all of this happened, and now time was working against him. Two months till the eclipse, four until Sozin's Comet.
He was lost in his ponderances, and was startled back to reality when a man with a Tribesman's haircut and a short beard approached. "I must say, it is an honor to finally meet you in person," he said. His voice was deep, used to being in authority. But he looked a lot like Sokka. Was this their father?
Aang shrugged. "Not much of an honor, the way things have been going," he admitted. The man shrugged.
"You are the Avatar. We still have faith that you can end this war, even if the rest of the world doesn't even know you're alive," he said.
"I should tell them," Aang said. "They need me! I'm a symbol to these people!"
He shook his head. He had to be Hakoda. Nobody else fit the description. "Sokka says that would be a bad idea, and I agree with him. Right now, you might be able to bend air, water, earth and fire, but my son's element of choice is the element of surprise. I understand how much it must hurt to feel like you're abandoning the people who depend on you. If you've talked to my children at all, you understand just how much I realize it. But sometimes, you have to do what hurts you, or even hurts them, in order to protect them and the ones that they care about. I made a sacrifice to protect my family and keep the war from arriving on my doorstep. Now, it has, and I'm called away again."
"You get it, then. Why it's so hard for me," Aang said. Hakoda nodded. "I think I need to be alone," he said.
"Despite what you think," Hakoda said as Aang was walking away, "I don't believe you failed. None of us do. We still have faith in you."
"That faith should have died when I did," Aang muttered. He walked to his room, limping against his glider staff. He could feel his bending sense come back to him as he went about his day. His weakness must have been a form of grogginess right inside his soul. He walked, and he watched. In the innermost bailey was the Mechanist and his son, Teo, who messed about with their inventions and toys. There were others there, too. Aang recognized the pair of Pipsqueak and The Duke, big and tiny respectively, helping the eccentrics. They had been part of Jet's freedom fighters, once. Now, they were just refugees. Like everybody else.
Aang went into the tower, and flopped into his room. He was hungry, but he needed to rest. He needed to look inside himself. He didn't even know if he was still Avatar. He punched out, and a blast of flame came off his knuckles. Good, earlier wasn't a fluke; he could still bend something besides air. But that was the barest fraction of what it meant to be the Avatar. He settled down, despite the aching in his body, and closed his eyes, drifting into a meditative state, then letting the world wash away.
When Aang opened his eyes again, it was not in his room. Here, the skies were golden, hazy and cloudy. It was the Spirit World. He looked around. This was familiar. Entirely too familiar. The last time he came to the Spirit World of his own intention, it had been in the North Pole. And here, more than half the world away, it looked almost identical.
"Oooooooohm." a voice said in the air. Aang rolled his eyes, reached over, and took a stick from the ground. He walked up to the monkey, sitting in fine robes, meditating under an ornamental gate. Aang poked it with a stick. It snapped its eye open, then furiously ignored Aang. "OOOOOOHM!" he said.
"Stop that," Aang said, prodding him again.
"Go. Away." the monkey answered.
"No," Aang said. He settled himself down in front of the monkey, his stick across his knees. "I have questions, and I need them answered."
"Follow that thing," the monkey said, pointing to a Will'o'the'Wisp which flitted past. Aang shook his head.
"Not falling for that again," Aang said. The monkey sighed, and opened his eyes.
"I shouldn't have thought it would work more than once. Although the second time, at least you didn't poke me with a stick," he said, before closing his eyes again. Aang frowned. This was the second time he'd come here.
"Um. I've only seen you once before," Aang said.
"Once, three times, five, twenty," the monkey shrugged. "It's all the same, all a matter of time. Time is an illusion, Avatar. And so is death."
"That's my point. I died in the Avatar State," Aang said. "Who can I talk to about that?"
"You should talk to Sun Wukong, the Handsome King, Great Sage Equal to Heaven," the monkey said. Aang brightened for a moment, then hesitated. He pondered what Sokka would do in this situation. And then the answer flopped onto his head like a dead fish.
"That's you, isn't it?" Aang asked.
"I am known by many names," Sun Wukong said. "That is one of them."
"Why did I come here? I wasn't anywhere near the Spirit Oasis at the North Pole."
"The Spirit World obeys different laws, Avatar," the monkey said, becoming annoyed. "Now go away. I wish to achieve perfection before the end of the universe."
"Give me answers, and I'll stop poking you with this stick," Aang said. He didn't like extorting a spirit, but he was fairly sure he couldn't out-wait the Great Sage any other way. When Sun Wukong ignored him, Aang poked him.
"I see you were serious in your threats," the monkey said, annoyance plain. "Very well. I will answer your questions if it makes you LEAVE ME ALONE," he shifted from a meditative stance to a more yogic one. "You died in the Avatar State, but you yet live. That is the power of the Blood Moon. It is a state which women of the water can enter, and inside, makes them capable of feats beyond compare. In times long past, women of the water could bring the people they loved back from beyond the gates of death; however, there was always a dire cost. In order to restore life to the dead, they must sacrifice their own existence."
"Katara almost died to bring me back?" Aang asked, horrified. He ran his hands over his scalp. Here, it was still shaved. "Oh, man. This can't be happening."
"It has happened. It will happen again. It is happening right now," Sun Wukong said. "As to your status as Avatar? You died in the state of communion, and your death was spread to all of them. When you were brought back, they were as well. They are still connected to you. So stop panicking like you have been set on fire. Last time, you were complaining about having to save dragons, and you weren't nearly so annoying."
"Save dragons? I never..."
"One of you did, anyway," the monkey shook his head, closing his eyes. "There are so many, I do not care to keep track. You have your answer. Now: Leave. Me. Alone."
"No. I need more. If Katara was supposed to die to bring me back, why is she still alive?" Aang asked. "Why did I sleep for six damned months! When is the eclipse?"
"Go. Away," Sun Wukong said. Aang stared at it, then hung his head. He'd gotten all he would out of that difficult spirit. He handed over the stick, laying it across the monkey's crossed knees.
"I will leave you to your meditations," Aang said, walking back to the tree which marked his entrance. He knew the feeling of crossing between realms. Heibai had taught him that. As he turned, it was just in time to see Sun Wukong idly chuck the stick away.
"Finally," the monkey said, and Aang let the Spirit World slip away.
Aang opened his eyes, and was surprised when blue eyes stared back at him. Katara was standing over him, concern in her features. Aang couldn't look at her right now. Knowing what she had done. Almost done. What he'd almost given up without realizing it. "Aang, what were you doing?" she asked.
"I was asking a few questions," Aang said. He stood. The pain was lessened. That was good. Because he had something he needed to do. "And I got answers to them."
"Aang, come with us. We should get dinner, you must be starving," Katara said, rising to his side. He looked her in the eye. He still couldn't get over how he was now taller than her. He turned away from her, hefting his staff.
"I know what you did," Aang said. "What could have happened when you brought me back," she looked at him, her face an impenetrable wash of emotion. "I always knew I had to face the Fire Lord. Now, I know I have to face him alone."
"Aang, I'm not leaving you. Not ever," she said. Aang turned to her. No. He wasn't going to lose somebody close to him. Not because of his failures.
"Just go," Aang ordered. She looked hurt. She stepped to the door, and turned back.
"Is there anything you need?" she asked.
"I need to undo every mistake I've made the last two years," Aang said. "I need my honor back."
He watched Katara, the woman he loved, the woman who almost died to save his life, close the door and vanish from view. They'd all lost so much. He couldn't ask them to lose anything else for him. When he said he would have to do this alone, he wasn't lying. No matter how hard, it all came down to him. He waited until her footfalls vanished down the hallway, then Aang started to walk, leaving his room behind.
Sokka marveled at his newest invention; instead of being forever at the mercy of brushes, now, he could deliver ink with pinpoint precision. He wondered what he should call this delightful, mechanical device. He was scratching off notes onto his prospective schedule, Ty Lee by his side, when he heard a cry. He looked up.
"Katara?" Sokka asked. She came flying out of the hall, sticking her head out of the window and glancing desperately at the sky. Sokka went to his sister. "What's wrong?"
She turned to her, tears leaking from her eyes. "He left!" she said. Cried. Wailed, almost. Sokka's expression went dark. "Aang just took his glider and left. He's got some idiotic idea that it's his responsibility to destroy the Fire Nation on his own."
"Why would he do that?" Sokka asked. "I mean, he knows how much better we are when we work together. The only reason he would leave us behind is if he thought..." Sokka trailed off. He glanced at Ty Lee, then back to his sister. "...if he thought he was going to hurt us."
"But he hasn't, and he won't!" Katara said. "I mean, the only thing he said to me before he left was that he knew..." she paused. She looked up at Sokka. "Sokka... when I healed Aang... how bad did it look?"
"I thought you were dying," Sokka said, honestly. "I didn't know what to do."
Katara looked away. "He did this because of me?" she asked. Sokka shook his head.
"It doesn't matter why he did it. He's still a kid in a lot of ways. He thinks this is his way of being brave."
"It's not brave, it's stupid and selfish!" Katara said. "We should be with him! Helping him! Doesn't he know how much he needs us? How much we need him?"
"I think that's why he's doing this," Sokka said. He looked out at the sky, a smirk coming to his face. "But there's nothing stopping us from following him."
"How? How could we possibly follow him?" she asked.
"Appa," Sokka said, pointing down at the massive, white, furry, sky bison which was resting in the inner bailey. "And there's only one Fire Nation island that Aang could reach, even at his speeds, before he passes out from exhaustion. Crescent Island."
"Then we need to hurry. Whether or not Aang wants it, he's getting our help," she said. Ty Lee clapped her hands, with a squeal of delight. Team Avatar rode again.
Zuko walked through the hallways of Ashfall prison. It was a place as bleak and inhospitable as the substance it was named for, hewn from the rock of a cliff. It was grey, cold, and quiet. A prison for those who were dangerous enough to require maximum attention, but also requiring... proximity... to the capital. He walked, trying to think of what he was going to say. It tormented him, tearing at his very sense of self. He was afraid. He was alone, despite all those around him. And there was only one person he could turn to for advice.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" a man with a spear demanded. Zuko grabbed the spear levied against his chest and pulled it past. The guard, unwilling to lose his weapon – a mistake in and of itself – was dragged into Zuko's grasp. Zuko slammed him into the wall.
"I am visiting General Iroh," Zuko said quietly, letting the hood fall from over his features. "And you are going to make sure nobody interrupts me. Are we clear?"
"Yes, Prince Zuko," the guard said. Zuko moved to Iroh's cell, and ducked inside. The metal door slammed behind him, and he looked down at the ratty, sack-cloth rags that Uncle wore. It was a travesty. It was unforgivable. It was entirely Zuko's fault. Zuko knelt next to the bars, pulling out a package he'd smuggled with him, and pushed it through the bars.
"It's fried lizard," Zuko said. "I know it's not your favorite, but it must beat prison food," he laughed weakly. Iroh resolutely turned away, facing the back wall. Zuko rested his forehead against the bars inside the cell. It was a cage within a cage. Probably the least of what Ozai considered secure for Uncle. "You were right," Zuko said quietly. "I come home, and it's nothing like what I imagined it to be. I wanted so much to be back in these familiar places, with these familiar people. It consumed my every waking thought. My every dream. But now... Uncle, I need your advice," Zuko looked up, grasping the bars. "Please. The more I think about it, the surer I am. I think the Avatar is alive! I know he's still out there, waiting, plotting."
Uncle was silent, staring at the wall. Zuko felt that heat rising in him. "Please! Talk to me! I'm afraid of what will happen. I don't know what to do! Everything I ever wanted... I can't lose it again. I need your help. Please, tell me! What should I do?" Uncle remained motionless. Zuko rose, feeling that rage swelling in him. "Fine! Stay silent for all I care! I'll deal with it on my own, the way I should have in the first place! You're a crazy old man, and if you weren't in here, you'd be sleeping in a gutter. You could have come home a hero! Why did you have to betray Father in Ba Sing Se? Lunatic. Traitor! Stay in here and rot, you old fool."
Zuko turned, just the barest glance over his shoulder before slamming the door behind him. Zuko's glare must have motivated the guard to be somewhere else. Zuko fumed, feeling that heat searing at him. He couldn't stand it. He kicked up the stool the guard had been sitting on, and smashed his fist into it, letting flare a blast of fire so hot it was as blue as any of Azula's. Lately, much of his fire was that electric blue. The stool burst into ashes, and a melted depression formed in the stone of the wall.
Zuko turned, pressing his back against the far wall, staring at his hands. Until Ba Sing Se, he had been utterly incapable of matching Azula's blue fire. Now, it kept reappearing. Father was delighted, in his calculating way, but some part of Zuko could only look at it and quail. "Why am I so bad at being good?" Zuko asked the darkness.
When Zuko slammed the door, he stopped fighting it. Staring at the wall, feeling those hate-filled words stabbing into him. Was everything he'd hoped for coming to naught? Had Ozai reclaimed his son? Iroh's head bowed down, and silent sobs drifted from him. He had lost the last of his family.
The plaintive cries of puffins, so much like discontented moans, drifted to his ears. He felt battered and beaten. More than usual, even. He coughed, and there was sea-water on his breath. He looked over at the hard, black stone which he was lying against. He reached around him, but his glider was gone. A failure and a failure and a failure, Aang. He set his head back, just letting that hopelessness wash over him as the surf lapped at his feet. He felt a stirring, something standing next to him. He turned, and beheld the spectral presence of Roku, staring down at him.
"I've failed," Aang said.
"You have only failed when you have stopped trying," Avatar Roku said sagely. "And they will never let you stop trying. It is not in your nature, nor your blood, nor their faith. Trust in them, Aang. Their faith was not given to you lightly."
"But what if I can't win?"
"Don't ask if you can't," Roku said, his image wafting away. "Ask how you can."
Aang sat up, holding his side. It hurt, but less than he'd thought it would. The puffins cried, and he looked out at the sea. Then, something landed on him. Aang turned, and was face to face with a black and white lemur. "Momo!" Aang shouted, a smile instantly on his face. The lemur seemed quite pleased with himself. He looked past them, as a groan filled the air. The others were here, running down the beach, toward him.
"Aang! You're alright!" Katara said, sliding next to him and cradling her head against her bosom. He pondered for a briefest moment if he might be dreaming, but the pain let him know that this was a happy reality.
"You didn't really think you were gonna get out of training that easily, did ya', Twinkletoes?" Toph asked, her arms crossed in front of her, a smirk on her face.
"You were right, Sokka!" Ty Lee said, smiling brightly. "We just had to follow the lemur!"
Aang looked at his companions, those that he trusted with his life. And Ty Lee. He hung his head. "I'm sorry I ran... I guess it's an old habit that's hard to shake," he looked around. Besides the five teenagers, the island was empty. "What about the Invasion?" he asked.
"Dad and the Whalesh are going to meet us at the rendezvous the day before the eclipse," Sokka said. He sighed. "It's probably safer that way. We're all wanted criminals."
"Not me!" Ty Lee said happily.
"So we'd just attract unwanted attention to the army," Sokka completed, giving Ty Lee a smile. She beamed back. Toph reached into the water and picked something up.
"Hey, I found your... oh," she said. It was his glider, snapped in half and its sail torn to shreds. Aang shook his head, standing and taking it from her.
"It's alright," he said evenly. "Everybody knows Avatar Aang carries this thing. It could give away our identities," he looked down on this, the last real object that tied him to his old home, his old life in the Southern Air Temple. Even his saddle was a slapdash replacement they'd crafted in Ba Sing Se. He shook his head. "It's better... if people think I'm dead."
Aang held the staff away from him, and felt the fire run. It burst through the soaked wood, flashing it into flame despite its every intention to the opposite. He dropped it, letting the fire from his hands bathe over it, until it was a small pile of char and ashes. Aang looked out across the water. They were in the Fire Nation. The Eclipse was coming.