*Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender.
*NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I'm back for 2017. This chapter is dedicated to the wonderful, beautiful reviewers who lit the match to the slow burning fire under my rear until this story took off running (again); thank you. You all are beautiful, beautiful souls; this chapter, like all the rest, is because of YOU. Bless. For those unsigned reviewers who I can't PM, lots of love to you.
Special dedication to: hernobleness, Arns, and Talon3, for PMing me into inspiration/action. I love you guys.
Advisement: listen to Taylor Swift ft. Ed Sheeran's "Everything Has Changed" while reading…(seriously).
ARC II: SEASONS OF CHANGE—AUTUMN'S CHILL
I just wanna know you, know you, know you
Lightning, white, antlers across the sky: a creature more than light, locking horns with ocean and shore. Kaya watches this, and it frightens her. She sees this light, she sees its power, and it is all encompassing—there is a fog pressing into her skin, her self, thick as turtleseal fur, and watching this Kaya loses what is Kaya, what is K-a-y-a, and she forgets husband and child and child and even this churning white sea is a stranger to her.
Yet this should be home.
Kaya is back, finally back, in the South Pole, with rugs of otterpenguin skins and snow falling in sheets and the chill in the air matching the blue of her veins. This is her home, home of her mother and her mother's mother and waves of mother's mothers. Home of her babies. Sokka, Katara.
Sokka, boomerang-fisted, at the docks—
Where is he now?
Kaya fingers the pelt beneath her. It's foreign to the South Pole, something spotted and bright—where is she? With foreign furs and cold and ice? Kaya knows she is in an ice-house, and through the open door she can see bolts of lightning strike across the otherwise dark horizon.
Who left the door open? Kaya is grateful to them; the fire is too oppressive here. It spits in its hearth in great coughs of heat.
She sweats into the pelt, feels her heart constrict at each thundering strike. Though she thinks it's the light, not the noise, which frightens her.
She doesn't understand. Where is she? Whose house is this? This isn't Hakoda's—
Hakoda. She hasn't seen him. Where is he?
The lightning flashes again, but this time the white seems almost green, a glare that is almost earthy in its tones, crystal-like, green, green, green—
Kaya flinches back. Lightning isn't green. What is this? Where is she?
Hakoda. She fastens onto Hakoda. Onto his hands. She loves those hands. Hakoda has rough hands, fingers calcified with callouses, from building houses and fishing into the night and building snug cradles for the baby—
The baby. What happened to the baby? Kaya's hand instinctively flexes down to her abdomen, to its flat planes. Did she already have the baby? Was it a girl? She hopes it was a girl. Why can't she remember?
The fire's going out. It's cold. Who left the door open?
Why can't she remember?
She needs to shut the door, the lightning will frighten Katara—
Katara her baby her baby her baby where is she?
She stumbles to the door but there are shouts outside, hisses of fire against water, and shadows of soldiers filter through her brain, soldiers looking for waterbenders, and every fiber of Kaya screams Katara! Katara! into the night—
And Kaya runs and searches and pushes aside, colliding bodily, wind flaying her skin and eyes with streams of snow, and nowhere does she find her blue-eyed girl, and the lightning prongs across the whole horizon, greener and greener, northeast, across Air temple lands surely, even to the Fire Nation—the light ices over, green crystals sugaring the sky, a path, glowing green, green, green, saying follow, follow—
Kaya slams into something, hard as ice.
She blinks the snow and green away from her eyes and discovers she is in the midst of a storm, a child wrapped around her middle. She settles her hand on the child's hair—brown, pulled back into a wolf tail—and knows this is Sokka, her darling, her oldest, her sweetheart boy: she locks herself around him.
He is bigger than before; he comes up to her waist.
"Sokka?" she gasps. "Sokka, K-Katara—where is she?"
Sokka crumbles into her tighter, like an avalanche settling into place. "She's gone, Mom. She's gone."
And over his shoulder, the figure of a black-haired man, pale as glacier, whose eyes swim before her as gold than green than gold again, and a whisper of a name in the back of her mind: "Sh—"
Then Sokka's whisper vibrating through her flat stomach: "The Fire Nation took you both."
The man catches up them, snow settling heavily in his hair. He's handsome, she realizes abstractly, distantly, and Sokka clenches onto her so hard she wonders if her waist can pulverize.
How darkly her child looks at this man.
How darkly this man looks back.
"Kaya," the man says. "It's a storm—you shouldn't be out, how did you get out? Sokka. Sokka, you did this."
There doesn't seem to be a question.
"My boy," Kaya says, struggling upright against Sokka and the wind and the flashes of green lightning ringing in her skull.
"Yes," the man says.
"My girl?" Kaya cannot bring herself to pry her fingers from Sokka's hood.
The man—Lu Ten, Prince—her mind softly supplies, like the tide finally coming ashore. And as she sees the man's face thin, her self and memories shift into the place.
She is Kaya. This man is Lu Ten, firebender. Sokka is holding onto her hip and she is holding onto him. She saw Kanna this morning. Hakoda is gone. Katara is gone.
A fury builds within her—it's not a new fury, she realizes now, with memories of Katara and Fire Nation and sleeping draughts rising above the fog. It's an old fury, carefully layered, compressed, dense with time and memory. It's something that will rise to the surface once forgotten, something that will wait to be reclaimed.
Basking in this fury, Kaya thinks of icebergs, those silent killers—they lie in frozen, majestic wait: floating freely, beautifully at the surface, the unsuspecting gouge of glacier deadly beneath. Katara—Kaya's fury will be this iceberg.
Clenching Sokka's hood until her fingers turn bloodless, she follows the firebender into the finely-furnished ice house. It swims in red-and-black flags.
That night, she dreams of Katara amid green crystals.
The air is perfumed with jasmine and orange blossoms, and if Katara was not so anxious she would be overcome by their salivating smell. But today she waterbends with a Master, so she notices but is not distracted by the following: her palms feel too clammy; the ties of her robe are too tight; it is too bright out here, too hot, too perfumed, and too wide—half of the restored garden has been converted to a training center with carved vases and fountains and wide-plateau arenas. Everything is too too—she has kittenmoths eating holes in her stomach: for her first lesson, the court of the Fire Lord watches.
The Fire Lord—Gandpapa, she called him this morning in her giddiness, and he spilled his whole cup of tea: but see, Azulon doesn't fit and Fire Lord and Grandfather neither, and Grandpapa sounds like what she would call Gran-Gran (she's never had a Grandpapa, they all died before she was born, and she ignores the uncomfortable knowledge that they died at the hands of the Fire Nation, because Grandpapa Azulon face sparked up like a lightning bug and he's been smiling ever since)—smiles at her. He waves off his fanning attendants, adjusts himself on his settee. Katara tinkles her fingers at him.
Katara stands before him and the court, remembering to keep her posture firm, blinking against the harsh light. Prince Ozai is not attending, to her immense relief, nor his children. But Katara wishes desperately that Zuko were here. Katara would even take Azula and her puffed-up hippocow face if it meant Zuko could be here. But children do not attend court functions, even royal children.
To Grandpapa's left, twin elderly women, gray-haired and droopy-lobed, sit with matching grim expressions. They look as if they delight in misery. Li and Lo, Grandpapa had told her at breakfast—they would be assigned to every training to make sure her waterbending tutor was as exacting as required.
Katara remembers Grandpapa's promise of mastery and she cannot stop herself from twitching in excitement.
Li, or maybe Lo, Katara couldn't tell which, murmurs a sharp, "Hold still, Little Bird…"
Then the other finishes, "The worm awaits."
The court titters. Katara flushes, hears the clink of ice in glass, and feels the drip of sweat and the condensation on glasses. She focuses on these rather on the pointed tigerseal smiles.
The guards come first into the arena—two rows of guards, and when they part, Katara sees the slight, gray-haired woman, chained from wrist to ankle, and Katara is so surprised she loses her rigid footing. The shackles come off and Grandpapa says something to Hama so quiet it is lost in the shackle's clang.
Grandpapa holds a hand aloft: "Your instructor, Hama," he introduces. There is no Sifu at the beginning of her title; another jolt of surprise. "You may begin."
Katara bows to her new teacher—Hama, not Sifu Hama.
A waterbender. A living, breathing waterbender. Katara's heard of living waterbenders in the North Pole, but Katara's never seen one. She studies this waterbender: white hair, dark skin, gray eyes—she looks like she could be a South Pole waterbender, though Katara has never seen a North Pole waterbender, so she supposes her teacher could look like them, too.
Hama limps over to Katara, stretches out her arm muscles gracefully.
Katara struggles to not steady this woman. Her instructor looks as old as Gran-Gran, and moves twice as slow. Up close, Katara sees the mass of wrinkles and age. An old woman, yet there are pink rings of chafed skin below the cuffs of her robe, like she is a threat. Katara's throat thickens and she swallows against it.
Katara bows straight from the waist; Hama turns away.
Two soldiers bring out a low table, a teapot, and one cup, emblazoned with red phoenixes. They're Grandpapa's own, from this morning's breakfast.
Katara picks up a teacup, as Hama dumps herself at the table unceremoniously, no bow to Katara. The court laughs. It's beyond insulting—it speaks of no knowledge of etiquette. Perhaps Hama doesn't know, Katara thinks, but then Hama turns to her and Katara can see how her eyes gleam; Hama knows, Katara realizes, but Katara doesn't know what this mean.
"Today's lesson," says Hama with a flourish of the teapot, "is to focus on the water in a teacup."
Hama plucks the phoenix emblazoned teacup from Katara; both student and teacher miss how the Fire Lord's fingers leave clenching, smoking trails in his armrest.
Katara looks at her new teacher doubtfully. "A cup?" Katara doesn't add that in her anger, she's sliced pipelines and shattered tree trunks; in her fear, she's convulsed whole ships. A cup is nothing. "It's a handful of water, a mouthful," she protests.
"Exactly!" Hama's eyes positively glitter as they pour from teapot to cup. The water streams then halts, pearl by pearling drop before it glides from the pot. Each drop twirls, dances, careens, before forming a string of beads along the cup's rim, colored amber by the reflecting light.
"Form an orb," orders Hama. "Then hold it."
"Hold it? How long?" stutters Katara. She's never done such a controlled task and now the teacup seems all the more daunting.
Hama hums. "Wrong question. Wrong lesson. This is about control. You should be asking how to do it properly." But when Katara opens her mouth to ask, Hama cuts her off: "Begin."
Grandpapa leans forward.
Katara closes her eyes, panting shallowly, and shapes her hands into bowlike motion. A plopful of water rises from the cup, globularly spins, a bubble-like sphere—perfect, for a moment.
Then Katara shakes with the water—it trembles, water glancing off the side of the orb. Her arms tense and tendons flex and jump, spasming, and water shelves off half of the orb.
Calm down, Katara tries to tell herself. Breathe deep. Think of—
Ember Island, and shells, and Grandpapa and Birdy Jee—Mama and Father and Sokka, Sokka, Sokka—
The orb shatters, upends the teacup, splashes over Katara's lap.
It's an utter failure of control and there is silence in the court. She can feel tears form hotly, and she is so ashamed, afraid to even look up and see the court hiding their smug delight behind their fans and sweet drinks. There is no air coming to her lungs, none at all—and Grandpapa, she cannot even look at Grandpapa, but she can feel the heat coming off him from here—
There's a cough behind her, to the left, a cough that sounds suspiciously like three syllables, like Ka-tar-a, and Katara blinks away her tears to turn behind her and see on the far edge of the arena, a fern, and there, peeking through a fern, she spots a flash of golden flame in a black topknot, and there is Zuko, spitting out green fronds. A guard spots him at the same time she does, and Zuko is able to scramble out of the fern before he is respectfully gripped by both elbows.
He is halfway cleared away before he roars, "Breathe, you idiot! Breathe!"
And Katara is summoned to that day in burnished sun and sky and liquid silver surf, where she first heard those words, where she braved both the ocean blue and a fire prince, the day that she was honest and found her voice, and while the court is aghast and a-babble at the insult to the Fire Lord's favorite, Katara laughs clear and cold.
Zuko relaxes against the guards, smiles.
And Grandpapa, on the periphery of Katara's vision, is a haze of fever and shadow.
Katara flings her hands up, and up comes the stain from Katara's lap, up comes the water in the training vases, up comes the stream from the fountain, fierce and agitated; Katara's hands splay wide and the heat disappears in a vacuum of fog and ice, as snowflakes, soft and wide as eyelashes, drop from the tropical sky.
The court quiets again before bursting into delight. Katara sprints to Zuko and pulls him free from the guard's loose grip, and they circle and catch snowflakes on hands and tongue, and spinning, Katara is made aware of two things very quickly: Grandpapa is enchanted, though his eyes follow Zuko worringly; and Hama, her only teacher, is furious.
Grandpapa's red phoenix cup lies splintered in the snow-covered dust, and Katara knows that even in her frenzy, the cup was intact.
Hama's doing then, the cup splintered into hair-thin fragments, almost pulverized to a red dust. Katara's gaze stutters to Hama, Hama stares back, and Hama finally bows.
Each night, Kaya becomes more Kaya. She sees old fishing nets in the village and remembers when they were first knotted. She feels the cold and the chill and the churning seas and remembers the births of her children. She sees Lu Ten's metal ships and remembers Katara and sugared papaya and foul-fog inducing teas.
She refuses all tea and food now. If her daughter was strong enough and wise enough to do so, then she can, too.
She only trusts what Kanna eats, what Sokka eats. And seeing Sokka everyday, seeing his rage stew, how his eyes trace the movements of the man who stole his mother, his father, his sister, this all reinforces what Kaya deems to be essentially Kaya. And in the village she hears whispers—whispers of North Pole rebels and prisoners of war and of a prison called Boiling Rock. And interspersed in these whispers is Hakoda's name. Kaya tries to commit this to memory, commit everything that is concrete in herself to Hakoda, Sokka, Katara. She goes to sleep with the names on her tongue and wakens with their echoes.
Then one night, one rare, clear night, where Kaya is finally almost all Kaya and her sweet, poor son is sleeping in another room of the ice house and the firebender Lu Ten is sleeping next to her, over fur sheets where she is under, Kaya as Kaya realizes that this man loves her. Stupidly so, unreservedly so, dangerously so. He sleeps atop sheets where she sleeps beneath. It speaks of respect, though of an unwanted attention.
And with this knowledge, Kaya also realizes that she was wrong with her metaphor of lying-in-wait icebergs; she is no iceberg. No, Kaya as Kaya (and not whoever the she is behind fog green crystals), is a whirlwind of passion. Hers is a whiteout squall of wrath, and with the chant of her loved ones' names in her ears, she rolls over and hooks a thigh—a childbearing thigh, a working thigh, a muscled, strong thigh—over his ribcage.
He sleeps with a dagger knotted in his tunic, she remembers. She finally remembers.
Carefully, using her thigh as leverage, she unsheaths the blade. It makes a sound like grinding ice in the dark, and Kaya thinks, alright, perhaps she is an iceberg, and this is her devastation: she slides the blade out and squeezes tight with both thighs, and as Lu Ten startles awake, she juts the blade right beneath his morning scruff.
She can feel the palms of her hands blister. She can smell her burning flesh. Her blade stays firm. "Lu Ten, son of Iroh, firebrand and pillager," she hisses, "you have wrought me destruction."
She will bring war and ruin to him, his family, his nation.
Kaya pulls his own blade against his throat, and it must have nicked skin because her fingers get wet in the dark—though perhaps her fingers have blistered and bloodied themselves, she doesn't know.
She could twist the dagger now, end the line of Iroh. But instead she pulls the dagger a fingerwidths back. This is a man who sleeps above the covers when he could sleep beneath and she has a husband imprisoned in Spirits-knows-where and a daughter in the clutches of the Fire Lord himself. She needs him.
She rolls her hips, sitting back on her haunches, blade still and erect. "You want your beloved? Then you save my husband. Save my family."
Unbeknownst to Kaya, beneath her blade, Lu Ten finally identifies in this Kaya-almost-all-Kaya, his Oma. Her hair wild, her eyes crazed, storm and rockfall and avalanche combined, and he remembers the fragmented bits of tale he could find of Oma and Shu: Shu dead, Oma almost destroys her whole world. This is that Oma, a bit of his soul rejoices, the bit that sees green eyes where blue eyes reign. This Oma would destroy the world for her beloveds.
She repeats again, her hair swaying forward like a dark curtain: "You want your beloved? Your Oma?"
A way to his Oma; her way to his Shu. In the night, this feverish dark, he whispers against the blade, and it feels like a vow: "I do. I will."
And he catches her blade-holding hand at his chin and kisses her fingers. She slinks off of him but holds the knife, retreats to her child's room in this ice hut. He can make out her outline in the dark; she looks back at him, once. Her husband and children, as ghosts, fill the void between them.
A bargain struck, an oath made, and the Spirits witness.
Author's note: I'm so pleased to finally get to Kaya's POV. I've had it (and more to come) in my back pocket for a while; thank you to reviewers to commented on her inactivity. Next chapter coming soon, with the sections that couldn't quite fit in this chapter: calligraphy lessons, dueling lessons, the secret guest, and the execution. Thank you to all the reviewers (you help me write).
I promised an in-verse one-shot spotlighting the character of their choice to the 100th reviewer, and that is…(drumroll) SAIGE! Who, unfortunately, I can't PM. So Saige, if you're reading this, send me a message for your character of choice and the mood you want, and I'll write you a one-shot. Same offer for the 250th reviewer.
Fic shout-out: Read "Closet Negotiations" by Rashaka. It's Zutara at it's most freaking hysterical. It's my headcanon.