Operational Risk Management
Author's note: The title is a phrase and concept from my years in the military. The story idea is from a PM'd conversation between myself and fellow fanficcer Metella, after a comment in a review left on my story 'Promises to Keep.' I looked at a dozen different screenshots on the Avatar Spirit .Net website and a map on the Avatar Wiki website to confirm a few facts—Water Tribe symbols used in the show, where SWT warriors were seen in the series, etc.—and then I started writing.
This ficlet just could not be trimmed down enough to fit into my 'Avatar Drabbles: Missing Moments' series, since those drabbles are all restricted to 100 words each. (100 words by the word-count tool in MS Word 2003; darned if I know why FFnet's word count always gets it wrong.) Anyway, this 'missing moment' is from a point two years before the series actually begins, though Katara mentions it in the voice-over prologue of the first episode:
Ambassador Tso had been the latest in a long string of Earth Kingdom diplomats to approach the Northern Water Tribe with requests for their aid against the Fire Nation. The Earth Kingdom's armies were powerful, but their naval forces were a poor joke compared to the Fire Nation Navy, and had been crushed almost to oblivion. With the Fire Nation's armies backed by their naval forces covering their supply lines and providing offshore bombardment, many of the Earth Kingdom's coastal and riverfront cities had already been overrun.
The only great cities still holding their own against the Fire Nation's combined attacks were Omashu and Ba Sing Se itself, Omashu because Bumi's mad genius always came up with ways to thwart their advances and Ba Sing Se because nothing could get past those walls; even the legendary Dragon of the West had been broken, battering his armies against them. But Bumi couldn't live forever, and besides, it wasn't enough to merely hold onto those two cities; they needed to drive the Fire Nation back, and for that they needed warriors who could win sea battles.
But Ambassador Tso's repeated attempts to persuade the Northern Water Tribe to send warships and waterbenders to their aid were rebuffed. After reporting his latest failure to General Hung in Ba Sing Se, he asked in desperation, "What about the Southern Water Tribe? I know they're clear on the other side of the world, but has anyone ever asked them if they could help us?"
General Hung shook his head. "There's no point," he said grimly. "We've known of their status for decades. They've always been a smaller tribe, less populated and less developed than the Northern Water Tribe, so the Fire Nation never bothered with a full-scale invasion of their territory; instead, they conducted raids. With each raid, they captured more and more of the tribe's waterbenders, until the last bender was captured over forty years ago. They're virtually helpless down there; probably the only reason they still exist at all is because they've got nothing the Fire Nation wants, and the poles are too cursed cold for anyone sane to want to inhabit."
But Ambassador Tso was either optimistic enough, desperate enough or just crazy enough—probably all three—to ignore Hung's words and contact the Southern Water Tribe in a plea for aid against the Fire Nation. A month later, Tso requested another meeting; he told Hung excitedly, "The Southern Water Tribe is coming here to help us!"
Hung blinked at him, asked him if he'd misspoken—surely he meant the Northern Water Tribe?—and when Tso repeated himself, he snorted in disbelief, "Someone's been drinking cactus juice, and it isn't me. How would their warships even get here? The whole damned Fire Nation is between their territory and here!"
"They're coming up along our eastern coast; past the ruins of the Eastern Air Temple, through the Sea of Mists."
"Through what? No ship that's gone that far east has ever come back!"
Tso showed him the message he'd received, and it looked real enough, but Hung still thought someone had been at the cactus juice—or whatever the people at the poles used to get the same effect. But desperate men will grasp at the slimmest of straws, so Hung showed up at the unpopulated inlet that had been recommended for a rendezvous point, two days in advance of the estimated time of arrival as per the message.
When a fleet of wooden ships with blue sails came sailing into the inlet three days later, Hung was heard by his aide to comment in awe, "Well, pound me into dust… They really came!" And when the ships came closer, a suspicious, "Wait a minute, those banners… A crescent shape next to waving lines?"
Hung pulled out the message Tso had given him, and looked at the sigil on the bottom. Curlicues representing rough seas, high waves curling back over themselves; that was the insignia for the Southern Water Tribe, or so Hung had been taught in school decades ago. The shape of a crescent moon over relatively calm seas was the insignia for the Northern Water Tribe. Had the northerners been shamed by their southern brothers into finally showing up for the war?
The lead ship cruised close to shore; Hung stomped a few times to earthbend a crude dock for them, then stepped out onto it to greet the ship gracefully pulling alongside, and the stocky blue-clad warrior who leaped easily from his ship's railing onto the dock. He cordially greeted them all in the name of the Earth King, then said awkwardly, "Pardon me, but I know others will ask this… For over thirty years we've repeatedly asked the Northern Water Tribe for aid, and been turned down each time. We're grateful for any help you can give us, but what made you change your mind?"
"They didn't. I am Chief Hakoda, of the Southern Water Tribe," the man said with a bow and a smile that was decidedly sardonic.
"Southern…? Pardon my error, and my ignorance," as Hung bowed again and deeper than before, fighting back a blush. "I had thought the insignia on your ships' banners was from the Northern Water Tribe."
Hakoda shook his head as he said, "No pardon is necessary, for you are correct; it is the insignia of the northern tribe. We switched out our ships' banners as soon as we were clear of our own territory, and we've put that insignia on all our tents as well; anything that a Fire Nation sailor or soldier might see through a telescope. And we would have been here sooner, but two weeks ago we had to make a wide detour around a Fire Nation patrol before they spotted us. General, whatever plans you may have for enlisting our aid, understand this; we will engage no ships in battle south of the equator."
Hung was now completely bewildered. "But… why?"
Hakoda gestured over his shoulder at the fleet of ships floating nearby. "Every last warrior of my tribe is on those ships, General. We knew we'd need every man and ship we have in order to be of any real help to you at all. But in coming here, we're leaving our own villages virtually defenseless. So far, the Fire Nation hasn't been interested in attacking us so long as they believe all our waterbenders captured or dead. But I can not and will not risk the children, mothers and elders of my tribe with the assumption that the Fire Nation won't raid them out of sheer revenge; revenge for the damage we intend to inflict on them now. The Fire Nation ships must believe that they're being attacked by the Northern Water Tribe, not the Southern."
Hung nodded slowly. "I see… And the possibility of Fire Nation retaliatory raids in Northern Water Tribe territory?"
Hakoda's smile was as hard and cold as glacial ice. "You said you'd been asking them for help for the last thirty years. When the raids on our people started nearly sixty years ago, my tribe begged our brothers to the north to come to our aid, to send ships and waterbending warriors… and they did nothing to help us. They were safe behind their ice walls, and would not risk themselves. We begged and bargained and pleaded for over three decades, and they did nothing; we finally stopped asking, even before I became chief. Then five years ago, I sent a message asking them to send just one waterbender down to us to train another one, just one… and we got a Fire Nation raid instead."
Hung sucked in air in an appalled hiss. "You think they…"
"I don't know… but at this point, I really don't care. If the Fire Nation raids them in retaliation for the damage we intend to do, their oh-so-magnificent ice walls can probably take the damage without a problem. And if raids into their territory can finally convince those northerners that they can't hide from the war forever, that it's finally time for them to go on the offensive, then that's all the better for the rest of the world."
Hung gave him a grim smile. "General Fong would love to meet you. And you probably will meet him, if you and your men take any missions on our northwestern shores. But in the meantime, let's talk about missions closer to where we are now. I've got a map in my tent; let me show you what I have in mind…"