take my love, take my land, take me where i cannot stand
i don't care, i'm still free,
you can't take the sky from me.
strangers in a strange land
"Hi!" she said, beaming as well as she could. The slightly sweaty man simply looked at her, so she barreled on. "I'm Katara. My friends and I... Well, we're kind of lost. Could you tell me where I am... and... how to... Or you could just walk away," she grumbled, watching the creep's retreating form. It was just as well - he seemed the sort to demand payment for any information, and she was not prepared to pay anything to anyone in this place.
It claimed to be docks, but she saw neither harbor nor ship, just a bunch of giant metal hulls gleaming in the harsh sunlight. Mostly, it seemed like a giant excuse for people to gather - here was a man selling some kind of grilled thing, there was a woman in a too-short skirt hawking a ware Katara didn't want to think about.
She didn't exactly understand what they were doing here, anyhow. She had been minding her own business, cleaning up the Eastern Air Temple, when things got hazy and strange, and Aang was there, and so was Toph and - Zuko, which had confused her. She vaguely remembered Sokka and Suki being involved for some reason, and then they were all sitting in a rocky desert, heads throbbing and minds swirling, and no clue how any of this fitted together or why they weren't at the Eastern Air Temple anymore.
Also, their bending was all messed up - Zuko's was overwhelmingly weak, hers overwhelmingly strong, and Aang had found he could only bend air for some reason. Toph's didn't seem overly affected, but she did seem to be having more trouble than usual. It was all frightening, worrying, and incredibly confusing at once.
"Hi," she said, trying again with a vendor in a lurid yukata. "My name's Katara. I was - "
"D'you wanna buy somethin' or sell me your life story, kid?" the vendor replied coldly. She opened and closed her mouth several times.
"I'm not looking to buy anything, I was just wondering - "
"I don' sell information. Get outta the way, you're holdin' up traffic."
She glared and shuffled off to find someone else to interrogate about their whereabouts. The others were around, doing the same thing, but she had a sneaking suspicion that they weren't having any more luck than she was. Frustration, exhaustion, and thirst were all begging for attention, and she still hadn't found out even where they were.
"Hi," she said firmly, to another, slightly kinder-looking vendor. "I was wondering if you could tell me - "
The woman glared at her so fiercely that she thought her eyebrows might catch on fire. "Shoo!" the woman croaked, and batted a hand at her like she was a stray cat. Katara almost snapped right there and froze the lady's head off, but they had all discussed this before entering the docks, and had decided to keep bending displays to a minimum, until they knew more.
It was terribly, terribly tempting, though.
"You need help?" a sweet voice said from behind her. Katara turned to see a pretty, dark-haired woman with thick coveralls and a smudge of something on her face, carrying a box of strange metal parts.
"Yes," she cried, "I'm - I don't know where I am!"
The woman nodded. "Yeah, Persephone is pretty easy to get lost in. Come on, I'll get you a map." She nodded gratefully and decided not to ask what Persephone was, preferring to simply follow for now and work out the details later. The woman led her over to one of the giant metal monstrosities, which was gaping open, and where a little folding chair with an umbrella was set up. She set the box down and rubbed her hands on her coveralls. "I'm Kaylee, by the way. And this here's Serenity."
Katara looked up at the thing, and wondered what, precisely, that meant. "I'm Katara. I - My friends and my brother are here with me. We split up to find information."
Kaylee smiled. "Well, I can get ya the information you're looking for. Where're ya trying to get to?"
"Um... Home?" she answered, a little desperately. "I don't really know. I'm kind of... well, completely lost. I don't even know what this place is."
Kaylee gave her a slightly worried look. "Are you okay?"
"Sort of?" she replied, rubbing the back of her head. "I mean, I'm not hurt, I just... don't know where I am."
"Amnesia?" Kaylee asked, but went on before Katara could answer. "I'll talk to our doctor about it. He might be able to help you, but, um. Well." She didn't appear eager to explain the caveat to that, and just shrugged. "Anyway, you're on Persephone, at the Eavesdown Docks. If someone wanted to get rid of you, they picked a good place. Here, lemme get that map." She then rushed into Serenity and disappeared into the darkness. Katara peered in after her - the room inside was expansive, and all metal.
Before Kaylee had a chance to return, Zuko and Sokka found her. "Please tell me you had some luck," Sokka said, in the voice of one who has lost all hope of retaining his sanity.
"Sort of. I found this girl, Kaylee, and she said she might be able to help. She's getting us a map, at least."
"That's, like, twenty times the luck we've had."
"What is all of this stuff?" Zuko muttered, looking at the box Kaylee had been carrying with confusion. "It looks sort of like some of the things we have in the Fire Navy... But I've never seen this kind of - "
"You like mechanics?" Kaylee asked, sweeping back onto the ramp, startling Zuko. He began to apologize, but she just beamed. "I got all of these on discount, can you believe it?" she said, grinning like this was the best thing in the world. "She's gonna be runnin' like a charm." At this, Kaylee patted the metal wall fondly, as if it were a pet, and then plopped down into her chair, motioning for them to come closer. She laid out a few little blocks, which clicked together and lit up in a miniature image of the docks they were standing in. They all crowded around Kaylee, fascinated. "Okay, so you're here," she said, pointing to a spot near the edge, "right on the docks. There's a bunch of ships around that'll take passengers and get ya wherever you wanna go." She looked up. "Where do you want to go?"
They all looked at each other, and Sokka answered hesitantly, "This is probably too much to ask, but... Do you know where the Eastern Air Temple is?"
Kaylee blinked. "Can't say I've heard of it. You know what planet it's on?"
Several answers immediately presented themselves to Katara, from the snarky ("that other planet where everyone lives, you know the one with the sun?") to the meek ("there's more than one?") to the bluff ("the planet of Ba Sing Se, of course."). Unfortunately, all of them were somewhat... lacking. Sokka and Zuko appeared to be having similar conundrums.
"Um," she answered blankly.
"Well," Zuko replied.
"You see," Sokka said.
They were saved from answering by the sudden appearance of three people: a very large, very terrifying man in a too-tight shirt, a slightly shorter man in a long, brown coat, and a dark woman with masses of curly brown hair (that Katara was suddenly and deeply envious of). "Kaylee?" the shorter man said, in an odd tone, "explain to me what three kids are doing on my ship."
"They're not on the ship, Captain, they're... Okay," Kaylee said, cutting herself off mid-excuse at the apparent Captain's look. "They were lost, so I was just showin' them a map of the docks. They don't seem to know where they're goin'. You ever heard of an Eastern Air Temple?"
"No," he replied shortly. "And I ain't takin' on passengers, so don't even start."
"But they're lost!" Kaylee repeated, like it would change the man's mind. The dark woman snickered, but the burly man gave Katara a look that made her skin crawl.
"At least to Boros. Or Sihnon. We've gotta go that way to pick up Inara and all her stuff, and they'll probably be safer there."
"You forgettin' something about the state of our ship, Kaylee?" the Captain asked dangerously, but Kaylee shrugged.
"It'll be fine, Captain. They need passage. Just them."
"And our three friends," Sokka said in a cough. Kaylee blushed.
"And their three friends."
"Kaylee," the dark woman said, in a rich, amused voice, "we don't have the room for six passengers."
"Sure we do!" she cried. "There's five passenger dorms, and one open bunk. Sure, someone'll have to share a room, but it'll work."
"Kaylee, we are not taking on six random passengers, and that's - " The captain was cut off by a sound from within the metal hull; a slender, barefoot girl glided out and looked at them, turning to the captain.
"We have room," she said in a soft voice, as though that was final.
"Who is the captain on this ruttin' boat?" the man cried, and Kaylee winced.
Aang, Toph, and Suki chose that moment to find them. "There you are!" Aang shouted, drawing attention and causing all of their new friends to react violently. Within seconds of Aang's exclamation, the giant man had him in a headlock, and both the dark woman and the captain had pulled out large, dark cylinders that appeared to be weapons of a sort and pointed them at Suki and Toph.
"Wait!" Katara said, "They're friends, they aren't going to - !"
"The last thing we need is more attention," the captain grumbled, putting up his weapon and sighing. "'Specially not with Badger being..." he trailed off into some other language. The dark woman simply shrugged.
"Sir? We taking them or not? Either way, we need to move, and soon."
The captain made a face and turned to them. "Say we take you to Sihnon. What kind of pay you got for that sort of trip?"
Everyone turned to Zuko, who sighed, and rummaged through his pockets, pulling out a handful of gold and platinum coins. "That's all you brought?" Sokka hissed, and Zuko glared at him.
"The hell kinda money is that?" the big man - who still hadn't released Aang - said, peering into Zuko's hands.
"They look fancy," Kaylee muttered.
"It's pure gold and platinum," Zuko said, a little desperate. Katara understood; whoever these people were, they seemed much safer than wandering around the streets, and seemed to have an idea of things, which was more than any of them had at the moment. Much as she would rather solve this without help and get back home before bed time, she wasn't going to pass up what might be the only kindness they'd find in this spirits-forsaken place.
The captain blinked, and then looked from Zuko to the money in his hands, and back.
"That's more than enough to pay for passage to Sihnon," Kaylee said.
"Why are you so intent on bringing them with us?" the captain asked, and Kaylee gave him an odd look.
"They need help. And we can help 'em. That's what we do, ain't it?"
The captain laughed. "I don't who you take me for, but I am not Santa Claus, spreadin' good cheer wherever I go."
"They got money," Kaylee implored. The girl who had wandered in earlier spoke up suddenly, startling all of them.
"They're coming," she whispered, in a way that told Katara that she wasn't talking of them - her voice had taken on a wispy quality, like a draft of wind. She blinked and looked at Katara full in the face. "They'll steal Mother away," she said pointedly, and then turned to the captain. "Can we go?"
The captain growled, but didn't say anything else, just storming onto the ship. They all stood around confusedly for a moment until the dark woman glanced them. "You coming or not?"
"He didn't..." Katara started, and then looked around. "He didn't really say we could come..."
"He took your money, didn't he?" she replied, raising an eyebrow. "That means you're coming with us to Sihnon. Now, get on the ship."
Sokka didn't start to think this was a terrible, terrible idea until the ship started moving. And then he had to curb his fierce desire to scream like a little girl and crawl underneath the table because oh holy shit they were moving up and really really fast and there were other ships coming into land and oh no -
Suki, however, found the entire thing absolutely fascinating, if completely alien, and suggested that they go talk to the pilot, which was sure to calm Sokka's nerves.
And for once in his life, something actually went his way. The pilot turned out to be an affable, good-natured man who went by the name Wash because "my parents secretly hated me" and seemed genuinely interested in talking to them. They also discovered that he was married to the terrifying dark woman, which instantly earned Sokka's undying respect.
"So, uh, how does this thing work?" Sokka asked, absently playing with one of Wash's toys. He quite liked the spiny dinosaur - it had character. "I mean, I kind of get the whole engine business, but how do you control it all from here if the engines are way down that way?"
Wash shrugged. "It's all hooked up. I need to be able to see where I'm going, and the engine lets off so much backdraft, if we keep it anywhere but the way back, we'd all die. I can teach you how to fly a ship, if you'd like."
"Sure," he replied, and smiled. "We'll start with one of the shuttles when we make our first stop. They're easier to handle and less expensive to fix."
"So," Suki interrupted, "what do we need to know to survive on this ship?"
"Don't piss Mal off, mostly," Wash said, shrugging. "Or Jayne, but he'll forgive just about anything if you're pretty enough. Do your part, stay out of the way if and when things get hairy, the general stuff. We won't eat you alive, I promise." He smiled, and for the first time since waking up in this awful place, Sokka actually felt like they might not all die screaming, horrible deaths.
"Um, I missed the introductions..." Suki muttered, and Wash glanced at her.
"Mal's the captain. Zoe's my wife, she's second-in-command. Jayne's the beast with the arms," he continued, miming giant biceps. "Kaylee's the mechanic, you met her on Persephone. Ah... Oh, Simon's the doctor, and River's his sister. She's the one with the, um, dress," he said, a touch lamely, as though there was something else he had really wanted to say but thought the better of it at the last minute. "And Inara's... Well, you haven't met her yet, but I'm sure you will."
"Isn't she the one you're picking up in this Sihnon place?" Sokka asked, watching the stars float by lazily. It was really pretty, being way out here, and being able to see the night sky from, well, the night sky. He could get used to this.
"Yeah, she is, but you'll meet her."
"We will? I thought we were stepping off there."
Wash gave him an odd look, and then stretched. "Well, Serenity's got a way of sticking with you," he replied ominously, and left it at that.
Zuko had discovered a kindred spirit. Aang, on the other hand, most certainly had not.
"I just don't think it's justified!"
"I just don't care," Mal grumbled into his mug of not-water. Zuko was beginning to consider getting himself a mug of not-water, but the prospect of being drunk, on a completely unfamiliar ship, with completely unfamiliar technology, in a completely unfamiliar world just struck him as the worst idea humanly possible, so he made do with a cup of extremely unsatisfying tea.
"Aang, not everyone shares your beliefs," he said, for about the thousandth time. "Captain Reynolds disagrees with you, and while you're on his ship, you'll just have to comply." He wondered vaguely what kind of mixed-up parallel universe they were in that he had become the peacemaker.
"So you think the ends justify the means?" Aang asked, unwilling to let it go. Zuko clutched his forehead, feeling a migraine coming on. This would all be much easier if everyone involved would just shut up.
"No," Mal replied coolly, "I just think that some people need to die."
She was not hiding. She was just worried about the structural stability of the metal ship in space and thought that it would be best to examine the walls and floor from a more... tactile position. At any rate, she was observing the stability of the walls and floor in a position that was very difficult to get into and even harder to spot, so the voice exactly three inches from her right ear unsettled her somewhat.
"I want you to teach me to waterbend," the strange girl said.
Katara's startled shriek reverberated through the ship.
"Okay, so explain to me what happened here," Mal said, in a long-suffering tone.
"She was hiding," River said, matter-of-factly. "I scared her."
"And now she can't get out from where she was hiding. Seems like a bad choice of hiding places, don't it?"
Katara's muffled reply didn't quite reach the assembled crowd, but the gist of it did, and that basically amounted to eat shit and die.
"Geez, Katara, even I'm not scared," Toph said, snickering. Suki punched her lightly on the arm, but bit back a laugh anyway. It was rare that they got to see Katara so... humbled, and the sight was, admittedly, amusing as hell.
"It's different for you," she grumbled, voice taking on an oddly haunting quality from the close proximity of the metal spaceship and the way her whole body was squashed into the position she was in. "I'm... It's different," she finished, lamely.
"Okay," Kaylee trilled, waltzing into a room, ratchet wrench in hand. "This should get the bench off of her, and we can just put it back on when she's out, no harm done."
"From now on," Mal said, face buried in his hand (in precisely the same way that Zuko's was), "you are all going to stay in your rooms. Simon and River are just about moved out of their old rooms, so you'll be able to move in. I figure, the siblings can share?"
Suki raised a hand, "Sokka and I will share."
Mal blinked. "Oh good. More happy couples."
A/N: I caved (and a loyal reader asked me to, so, you know, there's that) and posted this. As you can tell, there are a few things immediately different than either series: One, Wash did not die at the end of Serenity because he didn't, Two, the pairings at the end of Avatar aren't really present here but, Three, it's been like six years, so it's not unreasonable to think that maybe things just fizzled out. I had this idea start floating around a long time ago, but I didn't actually start to write it until Zutara Week came up, and I was originally planning for it to just be a little fun one- or maybe two-shot, ha-ha, no big deal, but then, well, there were still more ideas floating around that were demanding to be written and they were serious ideas like "How would Aang react to finding out about the Academy and Miranda" and "What if Katara's waterbending could help River" and "I want to see Zuko and Sokka take on a bunch of Reavers" so. Yeah.
As I mentioned above, yes, this was started for Zutara Week, so yes, there will be Zutara. However, there will also be, like, every pairing under the sun and several that the sun hides from, so don't let that turn you off. It's mainly an ensemble fic, really, I just decided that it would be lots of fun to play with two separate yet equally awesome ensembles. Tell me what you think!