Chapter Notes: And the conclusion. Enjoy - and the art will remain available through my profile for as long as I can manage (I will update links as necessary), so no worries there!
Chapter Thirteen: The Ocean Awakened (Part 2)
Katara had worked out that it had something to do with the Spirit Oasis almost the moment she'd stepped out of Koh's lair and let Yangchen drift out of her - but she didn't figure out that it was the fish until she stepped out from behind the bamboo and saw the half-scalded koi on the grass, and Zhao still gasping and reaching toward it, with blood soaking down the front of his uniform. She remembered smiling at the pair of koi, thinking how nice it was, how fitting, to have such a spiritual place be full of life; she kind of wanted to kick herself, now.
The water was pleasantly warm and came up to her hip, and for a moment she could think of nothing but the last time she'd stood in a deep pool - that arrow sliding into her shoulder, and Sokka shouting.
"Hurry!" Aang said behind her, and she remembered herself and took another step through the water.
The black koi was still there, swimming in frenzied circles - except it wasn't quite all black, there was a white spot on its head. A glowing white spot; with a blue tinge, blue like the water, because the water was glowing, too. Everything was, so brightly Katara couldn't see a thing.
YOU, said La, somewhere closer than her ears - because that was who it was, she knew it. YOU HAVE THE HEALING GIFT, AVATAR. YOU CAN CHOOSE WHAT WILL BE. CHOOSE WITH ME.
She closed her eyes against the light, and took a deep breath. There could be only one answer. She lifted her arms. YES, she said, and became the ocean.
Light filled the pool, and rippled across the water like foam, so bright that it almost hurt Suki's eyes to look at it; and then a moment later the pool went dark, though the water around the island was still blazing.
"Katara-" Sokka said, starting forward, and she caught his arm.
"She's not there anymore," she said.
And Katara wasn't - the pool was empty, even though they had all seen her step into it just a moment ago.
The light was flowing away behind them, building, water piling up like someone was bending it, except Kilurak's hands were still, hanging at his sides as he stared; and Suki was fairly certain Yue wasn't doing it. The water billowed up above them, so high they couldn't see the chief's palace past it, and even under the angry red light of the injured moon, it was fiercely blue.
It made a shape - to call it fish-like made it sound smaller, lesser than it was; and more mundane than it could ever be, considering it was a spirit walking the earth in a body made of water and light. In the center of its chest, the light formed a great sphere. And in the middle of the sphere, Katara floated, eyes burning blue and braid drifting around her shoulders.
TUI, La said, and the tone of its voice was not so much a sound as it was simply the feeling of grief rippling through the air. Suki didn't think she could have moved if her life depended on it; but she felt certain that if she had been able to touch her cheeks, her hands would have come away wet.
Katara spread her arms wide, hands open, and the light gathered beneath her fingers like she had called it by name. The pool water drew up into an arm, and curled gently around the twitching koi on the bank, lifting it into the air; and Katara turned her palms toward it, the light following the motion.
"She's fixing it," Sokka murmured, hushed. "Fixing it - like she healed my arms, before."
It was true; the water around the koi was glowing, and then the koi itself, scales pearl-smooth and glistening like Zhao had never laid a finger on them. Behind them, the moon blazed back to white; La tipped its head back, and the laugh it let out was like every wonderful thing that had ever happened to Suki in her life, all bound up in an instant.
And then it let Tui slide back into the pool and gazed down at them, and Suki felt her throat go dry.
"I am so glad I'm not Fire Nation right now," Sokka said.
The wall of water swept toward them, and past them, as the spirit of the ocean moved by; in a moment, the three armed soldiers Yin had been facing were gone, only empty air and wet grass left where they had been. Zhao was gone, too, even the blood washed away from the edge of the pool by the great rush of water.
Yin stared, and then, belatedly, lowered her sword. The friends of the Avatar were untouched, but that, she had expected. General Iroh remained also, gazing after the spirit with awe clear on his face; and Prince Zuko, evidently alive, was still pinned to the wall by the ice.
"We cannot stay to marvel," General Iroh said, sounding half as though he were trying to convince himself. He turned to her, and touched her elbow. "There are many soldiers in the city, and many ships still on the water - we must go, and quickly, if we are to have any of them survive."
"Of course," Yin said, automatic. There would be time to appreciate the wonder of it later; but right now, they had to get back to the ship.
Shida faltered; the light had changed again, from sickly red back to white, and her eyes were having trouble adjusting after the warm dimness.
A most peculiar thing - she knew how the moon could sometimes shine copper, how it could redden in the smoke of wildfires, but this had been something else altogether. Still, in the moment, it had seemed like good fortune: she had been facing a pair of Waterbenders, and when the moon had dulled, the wave they'd been aiming at her had tumbled from their grasp. And Shida did not argue with good fortune.
But the moon was back, now; and the remaining Waterbender, the one she hadn't stabbed yet, drew a slab of ice from the ground with renewed vigor.
She sheathed her sword and met the ice with a bloom of fire from both palms, melting a gap in it before the Waterbender could strike her with it. He moved as though to shove the ice aside and pull up a new wave from the canal - and then they both staggered as the ground shook.
"What was that?" the Waterbender said, almost conversational in the grip of the unity provided by confusion; and they both turned toward the palace at the same time.
There was a great creature made of light, tall enough for its head to tower over the great palace. Something about the shape of it made Shida think of a fish, but it was not quite so neatly formed; its limbs fell somewhere between arms and fins in appearance, and it had neither legs nor tail - it simply flowed over the palace wall, unending, the water before it chased with light. The city flooded everywhere it went, water rising and spilling over like every canal had become a fresh spring.
It was beautiful. Shida simply stared at it for a long moment; and then there was a sound, low and long and rumbling as thunder, and she realized abruptly that the flooding was drawing nearer.
She had followed the two Waterbenders up to the end of one of the ice bridges over a canal, and she had an excellent view of the nearest city plaza, tanks grinding across it and at least a full battalion of Fire Nation soldiers holding it. It had been captured while the moon was dull, and though the Waterbenders had now turned back, their power returned, they had not yet managed to retake it.
The water swept across it like a tidal wave as the great creature came nearer. An oddly selective tidal wave: Fire Nation tanks were lifted like children's playthings, hurled into the air by the first impact of the flood before they fell into the water and disappeared from view; red-armored soldiers screamed and cowered before the wave came upon them and dragged them away; and yet the Waterbenders stood untouched. A faint pale light curved around them, like a crescent moon; and the water bent to either side and let them be.
It was an awe-inspiring sight; Shida had traveled many places during her time in the navy, and had never seen the like.
"Surrender," said the Waterbender - Shida had almost forgotten he was there. "Surrender now, before it comes for you."
Shida eyed the cresting waves in the plaza, the bubbling water rising at the end of the canal. She wanted to serve the Fire Lord - but she could not do it if she drowned.
Her sword was already sheathed, but she let her fists drop to her sides, let the heat that had been building in her hands slide away; and the water foamed high beneath her, scored with light, but did not pull her down.
Yue blinked, and sat up.
"Yue," Sokka said, relieved. "Are you all right?"
Yue's fingers ached as she straightened them - she remembered falling, remembered sticking her hands out to what she'd thought was the side and having her palms hit grass. It had seemed like the only strength left in her was in her fingers, and she had hung on with dedication; with her eyes closed and her legs numb, the grass against her hands had been the only thing left in the world.
The pain had been astounding. She had fallen in the winter ocean once when she was a child, and the cold of the water had been so fierce it had felt almost like her skin was burning - this had been exactly like that, except worse, because her mother could not fish her out of this and wrap her in blankets after.
But it was gone now, like it had never been, and she felt strangely invigorated - renewed.
"I'm fine," she said. "Better than fine." She glanced around: she was still behind the bamboo in the Oasis, but something had clearly happened in between. There was blood on the edges of Suki's fans, and Kilurak's shirt was torn. "What happened?"
"Well, let's see," Sokka said. "Zhao came to kill the moon, but this woman we know in the Fire Nation who helps us out sometimes stabbed him in the back - literally - and then Katara woke up and the ocean grabbed her and turned into a giant angry fish, and now they're out there beating Zhao's fleet like a rug." He turned to Suki. "Did I leave anything out?"
"No, I think you got everything," Suki said, amused. "Are you sure you're all right, Yue?"
"Yes," Yue said, and stood up to prove it.
She could see that Sokka had been telling the truth as soon as she rounded the bamboo; the great figure of La towered over the city, glowing brilliantly under the full moon, and at its heart there was a bright round light - Katara, undoubtedly. The prince she had frozen to the wall was gone; obviously melted free, judging by the twisted ice that remained where he had been. But unless he had become several hundred feet tall, Katara was safely out of his reach.
From the steps of the chief's palace, they could see much more clearly. The Fire Nation had advanced far into the city, but not for long; the water that surged around La had dumped tanks onto roofs and into canals, and the Waterbenders who had fallen back when the moon had dimmed were alive with power now.
La raised its arms, and a wave rose in answer from the sea, taller than the walls, taller even than the ice cliffs, so high that it dwarfed the great ships of the Fire Nation. It crashed upon the fleet like the tide on a toy boat, capsizing dozens and sending the rest skimming out to sea, and Yue could hear a ripple of sound cross the city, the cacophony of victorious cheers.
La curled in upon itself, then, outlines dissolving, and Yue's heart leapt into her throat. But a long arm of water came curving in a great arc over the city, all the way to the avenue below them; and when it fell apart, water splattering down and winding away into the canals, it left Katara behind.
"Hurry!" Yin shouted, motioning desperately to the man in the bridge even as she vaulted over the rail.
They were already moving away from the wall as quickly as they could; she had been one of the last to make it on before the ship had pulled away. She'd done the best she could - they'd had to sprint through the streets to make it to the wall in time, but Yin had shouted orders as she went. Zhao valued - had valued - their equipment intensely, but it was sheer foolishness to try to save the tanks. They were maneuverable, but not particularly fast, and she had screamed at least six times at different groups of soldiers to leave them behind and run for the wall.
They had not all made it; even now, as they pulled further out to sea, she could hear the pleading shouts behind her. But she could not afford to go back for them - she probably wouldn't even be able to, now, with the hump of a wave rising in front of the wall.
Just as she had thought. You could not anger the ocean and expect to sail away on a placid sea.
The great figure of the spirit was raising its arms, now, concentrating every bit of its considerable power on the task before it, and the wave was rising in answer, no longer a hump but a mountain.
And the ship - the ship was turning, the city swinging from bow toward port before her eyes. She turned and sprinted for the bridge. "Give me that," she said, and when the man gripping the wheel made as though to protest, she punched him as hard as she could and took the wheel when he stumbled back.
He was clearly an idiot. The chance that they would survive might be miniscule no matter what; but it was no chance at all if the wave struck them side-on, they would capsize in a moment. That their bow still pointed toward Kanjusuk meant nothing - if they lived, they would have all the time in the world to turn around. He had been a fool to try to correct it now.
She swung the wheel back, and was rewarded with a groan of metal; she could not see the city anymore, only the towering breadth of the wave, but there was no time left to do anything but hope the turn had been about right. She was halfway through the door, hurrying back to order the deck clear, when the wave finally curled over them and came down.
For a moment, she thought someone had taken away the moon again, and then she realized the wave had blocked it out. The ship tipped beneath her, climbing the wave's foot, and there was a moment of perfect stillness: she knelt, half on the wall, and looked above her at the deck as it stretched toward the sky; and then the water struck her like a hammer.
She was lucky; she did not break her back against the corner of the wall, and the doorframe gave her something to cling to. The water was searingly cold, and it seemed like barely a moment before she could not feel her hands, but she forced herself to keep her mouth closed and hang on.
For a long minute, she had no idea what might be happening to the ship - she could discern no up or down, only the direction the water was trying to rip her toward, and her lungs were starting to burn. But then the current changed, the flood pulling at her instead of pushing, and a moment later her head broke the surface as the worst of the water retreated.
Her fingers failed her, then, and she let them; the water towed her out onto the deck before it slid away over the side, and she coughed twice and then sucked in the best lungful of air she had ever breathed.
The wave had carried them quite some distance - when she tipped her head up, the city was tiny in the distance, and the water between was scattered with iron keels pointing toward the sky, and wide metal hulls bobbing helplessly on their sides.
"Lieutenant," someone said - Kishen, she realized, a moment before he came into view overhead and helped her sit up. He must have been somewhere higher than she was; his uniform was dripping, but his face and hair looked dry.
"Is the formality really necessary, under the circumstances?" she said, shaking out her sleeves.
"I would say more so than usual, sir," he said. "Your orders?"
She blinked, and tilted her head back so she could stare at him properly.
"Perhaps you have not been told, sir," he said. "Sub-Admiral Zhao is nowhere to be found - lost in the city, perhaps." He had a nicely speculative tone, for someone who had been standing right behind her when she ran a sword through Zhao's back. "At the moment, you are certainly the highest-ranked officer on deck, and, after that wave, perhaps on the entire ship. Your orders?"
Yin forced her mouth to close. He was right.
If she truly was in command of what was left of the fleet, it was time she stood up, instead of lolling on the deck like a newborn turtle duck; so she made her legs support her, and shoved her wet hair out of her face. They had to start the pumps, of course; it was entirely possible that soldiers belowdecks were drowning even now, simply because the water had nowhere to go. "The pumps," she said. "Pass along the order - anyone who can stand is to start working the pumps. Send someone to check the damage; I doubt all the boiler bays were sealed properly, there wasn't enough time."
He saluted, and turned sharply - but he only made it a step before she caught at his arm.
"Get some soldiers who Firebend up to the deck, too," she said. "If General Iroh's ship made it through that, I want to know about it."
For a moment, Katara couldn't remember how to move; she lay on the ice and gazed up at the night sky, and wondered vaguely how she had gotten so short. It wasn't that she hadn't been herself - she had been herself and La at the same time, awareness encompassing both the Water Tribe girl and the vastness of the ocean. And somewhere in there, she'd gotten used to being two hundred feet tall.
She watched the stars twinkle - until they suddenly weren't anymore, because Sokka's face was in the way, Aang hovering anxiously next to him.
"Katara!" Sokka said, and she realized belatedly that it was at least the fourth time. When La had spoken to her, she hadn't heard it with her ears; it was strange to use them again.
"Sokka," she said, and he yanked her up off the ice and wrapped his arms around her shoulders.
"You were just lying there, it looked like you were dead," he said; it was muffled by her neck, but he sounded almost angry.
"Well, I'm not," Katara said, patting him a little floppily. Having joints was so peculiar - how had she never noticed before?
Someone came up behind her and squeezed her shoulder - Suki, Katara thought. "We're glad to hear it," Suki said gently.
They both helped her stand up. Really, she thought, she was doing very well: she wasn't even damp, despite the fact that she had technically been suspended in a lake's worth of walking water, and her legs were functional, if a little wobbly.
Yue had been waiting behind them a respectful distance, hands over her mouth; but as soon as Katara was up and had turned around, she rushed forward, relieved and smiling, to grip Katara's hands. "You saved the city," she said, "it was incredible." She laughed. "I'm going to feel so presumptuous, teaching Waterbending to someone who was the ocean."
"I'm not the ocean anymore," Katara said, "I'm still going to need the help."
"I'm afraid I don't understand," Master Pakku said, sounding anything but afraid. "She and the spirit of the ocean saved us? How did she know?"
"We may guard our secret from our own people," Yue said, "but we cannot guard it from the spirits themselves. She traveled to the spirit world, and was told where to find Tui and La; when she came back, she healed Tui, and rose with La to drive the ships away."
They had moved inside the chief's palace - Chief Arnook had sent away the small crowd that had begun to gather, ordering them to begin some basic repairs to the walls, and his wife had ushered them all back up the steps.
Katara admired Yue's ability to keep her tone patient; Katara would probably have started yelling five minutes ago.
"We owe her a debt of gratitude, then," Ukalah said, a little pointedly. "Without her aid, the moon would now be dead, and our city fallen."
"I'm not sure-"
Sokka rolled his eyes and elbowed her. "Come on, it's totally true."
"No, but - they don't owe me anything," Katara said. "I'm - I'm the Avatar." It had never sounded truer to her than it did right now. "It's my duty, my entire purpose, to protect people, to preserve the balance. It would be like thanking Suki for being a Warrior of Kyoshi, or Yue for being a Waterbender, or - or you, for being annoying."
"Oh, ha ha," Sokka muttered; but Yue was beaming at her, and Chief Arnook had started to smile.
"You are far too gracious, Avatar," Ukalah said, dipping her head in a tiny bow.
"Indeed," said Master Pakku, voice tinged faintly with sarcasm; but he didn't argue with the title, and a moment later, he dipped his head in a very slight nod.
Zuko glared back over the stern rail at the city, already tiny with distance, and let the metal heat under his hands.
They were safe, true; they had been safer than most, in fact, because before the invasion had even begun, Mizan had sent along orders for Zuko's ship to stay to the side. Out of the line of fire, in case Zhao should use the battle as an opportunity to destroy it once and for all - and, as it had turned out, also mostly out of the way of the giant wave. The deck had been swamped, but only up to Zuko's calves, and there had not been much damage.
"I realize you must feel disheartened, Prince Zuko," Uncle said from behind him.
Sometimes Uncle's powers of perception were just astonishing. The rail, Zuko noticed absently, was starting to glow faintly red where he touched it.
Uncle stepped up beside him and looked at him silently, and Zuko abruptly felt more tired than angry; the rail cooled again, and he let his hands drop to his sides.
"But all is not lost," Uncle said gently. "Sub-Admiral Zhao is gone, and the Avatar safely out of his grasp-"
"And ours," Zuko said.
"We, unlike Zhao, will have many opportunities to determine the course of the future." Uncle touched Zuko's elbow. "All is not lost," he repeated.
"And who is to say that traitorous lieutenant of his will not take up where he left off?" Zuko demanded. "Perhaps that is why she killed him - who would give the glory of capturing the Avatar away when they could instead take it for themselves?"
"You've never talked to her, your highness," Mizan said, a little sharp, and Zuko turned; she was standing a few feet back, arms crossed over her chest, giving him that look that said the only reason he hadn't hit the water was because she might hurt her back heaving him over the rail. "You watched her from around a corner once, and the rest of the time, you were pretending to be dead."
"And you spent hours chatting with her over tea?" Zuko said, dubious.
Mizan pursed her lips, unfazed. "We spoke," she said. "I can promise you, your highness: following in Zhao's footsteps is the last thing she aspires to."
"She is right, nephew," Uncle said. "The lieutenant knew we had hidden something from Sub-Admiral Zhao, but she did not betray us."
"And she wants to talk to us," Mizan added.
Mizan raised her eyebrows, and nodded at something behind them, expression carefully blank.
Zuko turned, and was met with the sight of the great flagship itself, easing gradually closer to their starboard side; there were Firebenders at the bow, and even as he watched, they repeated the signal that must have caught Mizan's attention: a flame rising and falling, the sign for truce. It only took one bender to make - the other two were moving a larger tongue of fire in a circle, calling any other ships who had survived the wave to gather.
"I strongly urge you to accept the offer, your highness," Mizan said. She'd been calling him that through the whole conversation; he knew what that meant.
He glanced at Uncle Iroh.
"You are right to be cautious, Prince Zuko," Uncle said diplomatically, "and perhaps we will find that she means us harm. But from what I have seen of her, she is an honorable woman; she would not call a truce and allow us safe passage to her ship only to ambush us once we set foot on deck."
"Yes, of course; she'll only attack us after," Zuko said skeptically. Uncle had seen her in Jindao, the same way he had - how could he assert that such a woman had honor?
"You never know," Mizan said, placid. "She might give us a head start."
The flagship was coming closer, the Firebenders' faces clearer; if they ran, Zuko knew, there was nothing to stop the woman from aiming her catapults at them and letting fly. "Very well," he said. "We'll wait for them."
"Yes, sir," Mizan said, and bowed.
End of Book One
A couple quick ending notes: yes, there is a Book Two. There's probably going to be a bit of a break between the end of this and the posting of that, but sooner or later it'll show up; so if you liked this, keep an eye out, and if you hated this, you know to avoid that one when it appears. :D And a giant thank you again to everybody who's read and/or reviewed this! Seriously, you've been pretty much awesome.