In the vast expanse of the windswept ocean, the swells beat mercilessly at the hull of the Galestorm. Overhead the bloated corona of the lunar eclipse cast a bleak shadow onto the water as waves of undead clawed their way free of the artic ice. On the deck two majors stood back to back, protecting the soldiers escaping from the boarding bridge before it collapsed from the invasion. The rumble of earth and the flash of fire beat a small circle of safety in the onslaught.
A disc of rock hit a ragged grey monstrosity squarely in the chest with the impact of an explosion at point blank range. The waterlogged creature rolled back several feet and without a sound it stood again, inexorably moving forward.
The color drained from Jian's face and his voice was unusually high pitched. "How do I kill these things?" He pushed another disc of rock at the same spectre with the same effect, having the chilling realization that he would grow tired far quicker than the hungry ghosts.
"They're already dead!" Iroh had come to terms with this, though it left him with an uneasy feeling of dread. Narrowing his eyes and flicking his hands out, he focused a precise blast of bright orange flame right where the creature's heart would be if it still had one.
It rolled to the floor with a wet squelch, the flames dying on impact. Jian ground his teeth together, watching the failed attack and deadpanned, "then how do we kill them a second time?"
"I'm not sure yet." The monster across from them pulled itself up to its knees with a nauseating groan. Before it could get to its feet Iroh pinned it backwards with a whip-line of fire. The firebender's face locked in intense concentration, focusing the flames into the spirit's chest. It writhed; clawed hands ripping at the deck for several long seconds before it finally caught fire and lay down in quiet acceptance as it burned. Sweat poured down Iroh's brow as he panted for breath. "They don't burn easily, either."
The sodden monsters hedged away from their burning companion, still advancing. Blank faces showed neither fear nor concern, surging endlessly towards anything that would sate their all-consuming hunger. Jian pummeled the ghostly line, stone after stone; desperately searching for a weak spot. Earth cracked as it beat them to their knees and smashed them to the deck, but they kept getting up again and again.
The non-bending sword masters were having better luck than he was, steel cutting through the undead flesh with relative ease. As he hit the front most ghost with a disc of rock square in the face he wished – for not the first time – that he was a metalbender. Another disc to the knees dropped the thing long enough to send a few others careening towards the ground, giving him a moment to cast a gaze towards Iroh. Exhausted and green eyes ablaze, his voice was dark. "I bet I know what those shrapnel cannons are for."
"Clever." Iroh replied, hating to admit that if he were in the Le San pirate's place he would probably have turned to the same desperate measures. Sinking his stance down he focused on whips of fire to beat back the advance.
"To the left side, look out!" Jian's elbow dug into Iroh's side, forcing the younger man's head to snap around.
When Iroh turned, all he could see were fangs and claws leaping towards his face. Without conscious thought, he dropped down to one knee and brought his hands up. His vision went blurry as the world around him roared in fire, covering and protecting both benders. He clenched his teeth and commanded the flames hotter until all he could see was a yellow-white corona.
The usually soundless ghost gave a high-pitched shriek that faded to a gentle murmur before the entire thing crumbled to ash upon the deck. The flames died down to leave the firebender on the deck, wide eyed and shaking from the exertion. As his vision returned to normal, his composure snapped back to regimented focus, and before Jian could offer a hand he was on his feet.
"That worked…" the earthbender called over his shoulder, a shield of rock battering back an oncoming claw swipe.
Retaking his fighting stance, Iroh shook his head. "We'd burn ourselves out before we cut through a quarter of them. We need something that is more widespread." He snapped his hand as if he was shaking water off his palm and clenched, a blade of fire forming in his fist.
As a second fiend leapt to latch on to Jian's back, two more were crawling across the deck. Iroh caught the first in midair, swinging the searing fire-blade straight through the dead flesh. He felt a wave of relief wash over him when he realized that the creature was neither knitting its wound nor moving. At his back Jian brought a crumbled mess of small stones together to form a massive rock that pummeled the onslaught back over the rail of the ship. "There's too many of them! We can't keep this up!"
"I think we should start talking to the experts in fighting these things." Iroh's golden gaze was locked on the pirate deck where the fight had spread to all quarters.
"You can't be serious!" Jian's face reflected shock and worry. "They'll stab you in the back!"
Iroh locked his jaw, bringing up a shield of fire to fend off the nearest ghosts. "I have a feeling they might agree to an alliance considering the enemy and the odds."
"You're going to get yourself killed." Jian's brows were drawn, casting Iroh the same paternal expression he used with Keran.
The young firebender shook his head. "If we don't do something we might all get killed. At least we can try to reason with the Le-San, which is something I'm sure we can't do with the dead. I'll take that chance, however slim."
Bumi leapt out the door and skied down the stair railing connecting the upper and lower deck. He skied in precisely the same way his parents once told him not to slide down the railing in his home on Air Temple Island. With the salty wind in his hair, he felt like he was flying. Sometimes, he thought to himself, it paid to disobey the rules.
Seeing the carnage on the deck, he wasn't so sure this was one of those times.
Building on the extra momentum from his sliding stunt, he jumped over one of the specters, bringing his sword down in the curve between the neck and shoulder, and pressed his body weight into the strike. Shearing the creature through the chest, he skidded back as foul dark water poured from the wounds. It did not rise, and Bumi moved on.
His crew was holding their own, concentrating on pushing the rising waves of water and undead away from the ship. His two containment vessels were pulling away under his orders, signaling they were ready to provide containment fire. Bumi's eyes flickered towards the Galestorm. Even in the darkness he could see the raging fight silhouetted against flashes of red orange fire. The damaged pirate ship before him was swaying dangerously, threatening to capsize. As the Spirit of Omashu shifted its focus from the Le San to the hungry dead, the pirate's sister ship swung in closer. From the panicked cries that echoed over the water, Bumi guessed the Le San were evacuating the vessel.
Bumi advanced, pressing between two young lieutenants. His sword flickered, slicing through the water logged flesh of another specter before it could hit the officers from behind. They breathed a relieved thank you, instinctively falling behind their commander. Bumi seemed to radiate safety to the men on the deck; his dark sword was the point of the formation focused on battering back the creatures crawling onto the ship.
Just as his arm raised to pound back the next enemy, Bumi froze, listening to the telltale crack of canon fire hitting the air. Every solider on his ship seemed to stop breathing as a collective, the entire deck of eyes turned towards the pirates. He felt his legs tense, ready to run from an attack that never came.
The damaged ship rocked against the blackened sky like a dead leaf blown from a bare branch. A second later its sails billowed up with a dark red flame and the hull shuddered. Behind it, the second ship fled into the black waters of the coast. White smoke as thick as tar billowed from the burning deck and Bumi's nose caught a familiar sulfuric tang. Blasting jelly.
"Take cover, that ship's going to blow!" he shouted to his soldiers on deck while pointing, even pushing them towards shelter. A high-pitched whine filled the cold, making the hair on the back of Bumi's neck stand at attention. He grabbed a limping private around the waist and dragged the kid behind a defensive stone wall as the whine turned into a sickly, piercing whistle. Hunkering down, he pulled the soldiers around him to the deck with him. "Keep your head down!"
The pirate ship ripped itself apart with an angry roar and a furious roll of fire. The sea lit up in a great red flare, shielding the retreat of the second pirate ship. At the water level, the hungry ghosts stopped in their tracks, turning towards the fire as an instinctive mass. They were drawn to the flames, consumed by the wave of white-orange heat. On the deck of the Spirit of Omashu, the ghosts relented, falling away from the ship and back towards the wreckage floating on the waves.
Bumi sprang to his feet as the rain of burning debris waned to a sprinkle. His bright eyes scanned his ship, calling orders to the firebenders under his command. He sent them out to scour the ship and burn away the remaining ghosts, paired with swordsmen to cut down any stragglers.
"Will we pursue the pirates?" his navigator asked, squinting through the scattered fires at the fading silhouette of the pirate's sails.
The commander gave a short shake of his head. "No, let them go. At the moment our priority is getting our crew out of this safely." He moved forward, pulling a pair of binoculars from his belt and peering through them.
"But our mission, Sir…"
Noting the discomfort painted over his navigator's face, he added "I don't think that's the last of the evil spirits in this ocean. Galestorm is still overrun, and they're still facing down the third Le San ship. Set course back to them and signal our containment vessels to clear a path back towards the capital's harbor."
"Yes, Sir." The navigator gave an even nod, rushing off to change the course.
Orders were barked in such panicked tones that the sounds on the deck blurred into gibberish. As the explosion spread flame across the waters in the distance, the crew of the Galestorm scrambled to preserve boarding bridges as a fresh wave of undead hung on to the underside, pulling them off their hooks and towards the dark waters below. Wounded were pulled into cover; as lines of fire were laid down to batter the ghostly advance back.
"Where's Shang?" Iroh spun around; narrowing his eyes as soldiers struggled to pull the last bridge away from the pirate ship.
Pushing a specter overboard with a flying hunk of rock, Jian panted for breath. "Last I saw him; he was still over on the enemy vessel."
With a small window of opportunity in the fight, both majors scanned the deck of the pirate vessel, finally finding Colonel Shang's form gathered close with a small circle of soldiers and fending off an overwhelming onslaught of hungry dead. Behind them, the pirates had broken free and armed themselves, more concerned with the ghosts than the soldiers – for the time being.
"He'll be trapped there if the bridges collapse! I'm heading over there." Iroh yelled, breaking away from Jian. "Cover me!"
Shock poured into the older man. Confidence was one thing, desperate gambles were another. "You can't! Not if the escape route goes down!"
Jian took in the harsh golden stare, and clearly heard 'I will.' He felt his expression tighten. "Even if you can, I can't back you up over there. You'll be cut off." He watched as Iroh's brows drew together, getting the sinking feeling that the young major was not used to accepting help. "One firebender against an army of undead and a ship full of pirates is suicide. I don't care how good you are."
The surprise that registered in Iroh's gaze was quite curious to him. Not quite the arrogant reaction to a slap in the face he had expected, but rather a dawning shock that Jian had even thought to offer. 'Spirits, what sort of upbringing makes this kid plan to do everything alone?' He brushed the thought aside; there was no time to dwell on that now.
Iroh's mouth twisted slowly downwards. "Shang needs backup, and he needs it now. Once I get over there I'll try to bring the pirate ship close enough to the Galestorm to allow access." He paused and looked up with a faint plea, "If you can, send Lieutenant Sakia. She's a waterbender and knows these people better than I do. And I think we'll need a healer."
"It's a war zone over there." Jian intoned, bringing up another barrage of rocks to batter back the clawed hands trying to climb over the railing.
"And she's a healer that carries a sword. I can't think of anyone better suited to take a team over there."
Jian gave a grim chuckle. "I have been waiting for her to prove she can handle that blade for a year now." The older man gave a curt nod. "But I'll leave the final decision up to her." He pulled a mass of rock together into a makeshift shield and gestured towards the pirate vessel. "You better go before they pull away too far. Get to the other end of the ship and you might be able to swing over."
"Not enough time." Iroh waved the suggestion off and broke away from the battle. He ran forward, leaping up on top of the railing and flinging his body overboard. Jian's jaw dropped, ready to start screaming obscenities and denouncements on how the young major had lost his mind when two orange contrails of fire lit and the kid lifted off, sailing in a graceful arc between the two vessels.
Jian barely got his jaw back in place in time to slam the next onrushing specter back into water, muttering under his breath "dear spirits, have mercy, that kid can fly with firebending!"
His feet didn't even hit the deck. He landed on a slick wet mass and slid into a clump of undead packed so thickly that they were rending one another trying to get towards fresh flesh. Terrified screams rose in a jarring cadence around him as Iroh took in a breath. He felt all too calm as he watched a circle of rotting faces turn towards him, and released his breath. A roaring billow of bright orange flame rolled out of his mouth and he grabbed it with his chi, wrapping it around his body like a cloak before infusing it with heat until he could no longer bear it. He pushed the flames out from his body; searing the ghosts who were close by and pushing the farthest ones back towards the water.
With a bit of room to breathe, he searched the deck for Colonel Shang, as well as the captain of the pirate vessel. His eyes followed a trail of severed, decayed body parts to where Shang was standing, two lashes of sharpened metal still hacking away at whatever came into range. His face was ghastly pale, drawn back like a stretched mask and his knees were shaking every time he took a step.
Pushing off from the deck, Iroh blazed his trail across the pirate ship with a steady flow of fire. The remaining officers huddled around the colonel were flagging, leaning against one another before their knees buckled. It filled Iroh with a sick sense of urgency as he kept running past the bloodstains and the ghastly gnawed limbs that littered the deck. As the dead made another surge the firebender felt a raw panic flash through his gut. He wasn't going to make it in time.
With a sickeningly wet splash, one of the undead flung itself onto the colonel's back, digging into his flesh with its claws and hanging on. Shang gave a strangled cry, clenching his teeth together as dark blood rolled between his lips.
Iroh felt his breath strain through his teeth in a sharp hiss. He body-checked his nearest assailant, slamming his shoulder forward with an accompanying burst of orange flame, and turned, forcing himself to be calm for a few seconds. The fight faded to a blurry din as his mind focused on separating yin from yang. Time stopped for a second as the chi in his body parted and then slammed back together.
Brilliant blue lightening coursed across the deck, skipping from corpse to corpse, carried by the waterlogged spirits in a glowing spider web. It lit up the deck of the ship, casting eerie shadows against the blood spattered walls and fallen crew. The smell of fetid burning fish filled the air, and Iroh ignored all of it. With a clear path he surged forward, covering his hands in the bright glow of fire before he grabbed the specter from Colonel Shang's back, ripping its head from its body with a burst of flame.
The claws unhooked, and the spectral body slipped to the deck, leaving deep jagged rends across Shang's back. Iroh closed his hands to douse the flames before he rushed forward and caught the colonel's limp body before it hit the deck.
The feeling of warm blood mingled with ice cold water drained across Iroh's hands. He could feel Shang shudder and gasp for breath. "What the hell are you doing here?" he rasped, fighting for consciousness.
"You crew takes care of you, too." The major returned, calmly lowering his commanding officer to the ground as the remaining soldiers circled around them to form a protective barrier. If Shang had a protest he didn't offer it, deciding to lean into the warmth of the firebender's hands to fend off the deathly cold that was creeping through his body.
Around them the pirates were busy mounting their own attack against the specters, retaking their weapons and gathering in defensive formations. The ship rocked in the bloody waves as it fought to move away from the Galestorm, veering like a drunken sailor coming back from a night at port.
Working makeshift bandages from torn cloth around Shang's bleeding torso intermingled with the frequent stopping to raise another protective line of fire. The next few minutes were a haze of blood, ice and screams. Iroh almost cried in relief when he made out the silhouettes of Lieutenant Sakia and a small boarding party that was swinging over from the aft of the ship.
"How bad is it?" she asked a minute or so later, kneeling down and wiping blackened seawater from her blade.
Iroh's expression was grim as he pulled his bloodstained hands back from Shang's wilted form. "I tore one of those things from his back after it sunk its claws in." He skirted to the side, allowing her to come front and center as the extra soldiers spread out to assist their exhausted comrades.
She took in a whistling breath, a dagger appearing in her hands to cut away the fabric from Shang's back. "Not good. Not good at all." For a second she looked up, locking eyes with the major. "There's another mass of these ghosts just below the waves. Le San have armed themselves and are manning their ship stations. They're probably preparing to run. And if they do – if I can't get Shang back to the Galestorm sickbay – he certainly won't make it and I don't count our chances as being too good, either."
Taking a step back and drawing himself to his full height, Iroh calculated a path towards the pirate's front lines. "Then I guess somebody had better go talk some sense into them."
Sakia grimaced at the thought, but gave a thin nod. "Whatever you do, don't lie to them. They'll slit your throat in an instant if they think you're trying to double-cross them"
"Noted." He gave her a grim smile, perhaps a tiny bit of reassurance, before he broke away from the tiny sanctuary of soldiers. The pirates had beaten back the majority of the first wave of undead, but the bodies littering the ground spoke of a painfully high price. Even with quick estimates it was clear that the Le San didn't have enough people to fend off a second attack without help.
Still, the tense postures and raised spears told him that this wasn't going to be easy. Even through the haze of battle against the remaining specters, several of the pirates broke away to raise a guard against the lone firebender. "Don't come any closer."
"I'm here to talk truce. Neither one of our ships are getting out of this unless we can work together." Iroh put his hands up, wary of both the pirates and the stirring forms of the undead.
The biggest of the group gave an ugly chuckle. "Us work with you? After you attacked us twice? Don't make me laugh."
"Seeing as we have a common enemy bigger than both of us, truce is hardly a joke." The young firebender waited to see how they would react. From the calcified frowns staring back at him, he was assuming that they weren't buying it. He was just about to press the issue when a startled cry came from the back of the group.
With a wet squelch of water and a bloody cry the pirates fanned out as the last of the on-deck specters made their final push to consume warm flesh. Spears flashed and knives connected with rotten limbs. Iroh felt something wet and slimy grab for his leg. He spun, pushing it backwards with a burst of fire. The ghosts still with enough life to move seemed to be rising up from the pile of bodies in one final burst before the eclipse gave up its hold upon the moon.
Iroh found himself fighting side by side the very pirates who were debating whether or not to dump him overboard. Edging sideways, infinitely wary, Iroh tried his best to keep an eye on both parties. But the mindless husks of rotting flesh and razor sharp teeth had the bulk of his attention. He shifted his stance, calling fire from his hands to push two specters split from neck to shoulder by the spears into a burst of fire. The burly pirate standing beside him dropped his jaw slightly. Suspicion and curiosity dawned in the rough sailor. "Not a joke, eh?"
He faced the man for a second, his words even and sincere. "Not a joke. I came here to talk."
The handle of a spear slammed into the small of his back and Iroh felt the air leave his lungs for a second as the fire about him died. He was about to call a protest when a bone-bladed knife pressed against his throat and killed his words in his chest.
Rough hands grabbed his collar. "Fine. You want to talk, Fire Nation? You talk on our terms." Dragged towards the stern of the ship, Iroh felt the knife shift from the point to the flat of the blade against his neck. Just enough to allow him room to speak. The small entourage slowed down in front of the tall waterbender who was the first to cast his weapon down. The spear handle returned, and with a flare of pain, he felt his knees buckle under an enforced blow. Coming to an awkward kneel before the leader's steely gaze, the knife returned to force his chin upwards, facing the group. "Fire Nation wants to talk," his captor said with grim amusement.
"After they lead us to our death, now they want to talk?" The man's tanned face creased into a dark frown. "How very convenient. Talk fast, Fire Nation. When the dead come again, we're throwing you to them."
He was met with a hard expression, missing the fear he expected to see. Iroh's voice was calm and clear. "I came to speak truce. To see if both ships can fend off these ghosts together."
The pirate captain looked as if he had swallowed a rotten fish. "You attack us and now want to talk peace? What? To capture us at port? What a fine military lie."
The pirates tensed and the firebender felt the knife at his throat press closer, enough to leave a thin pink line under his jaw. "Not a lie. We were caught off guard by the specters. Your fellow ships have left you behind. Working together could ensure the survival of both ships."
"Survival in what? Prison?" the older man scoffed. "You ordered our attack!"
"I did not. We were following orders until our commanding officer fell. Now, as acting commander, I am offering a different solution."
The pirates leaned forward, smelling blood. "Your commanding officer fell, hm? And you offer your throat to us? Stupid decision." His eyes washed over the deck. "Where is your commanding officer now?"
Iroh clenched his jaw, silent as his expression hardened. Unwilling to give away Shang's position and equally determined not to lie, he decided on a stony silence that would have made any earthbender proud. The pirate captain leaned down, judging the young firebender with a canny stare and giving a nod to his crew. Iroh felt the knife shift and slowly press harder against his skin, until a small line of blood was drawn. He gave no response. The knife shifted upwards, the point pressing under his chin until a drop of blood dripped down the blade. Still no response. Finally the captain put up a hand. The knife backed away fractionally. "So, loyal to your commander, even under duress? Interesting. Why did you come here?"
Without moving anything more than his eyes, Iroh stared the captain down in a way that made the man flinch. "We didn't come here on our own. We were called here by your government, the Northern Water Tribe, to investigate the death of Chief Norruk. They were the ones who claimed the Le San pirates were responsible for his death."
The water tribesman's fists clenched and he gave a guttural growl of anger. "We had no part of Chief Norruk's death! That is a filthy lie!"
The firebender did not seem surprised by this is in the least. "That means the United Forces were acting on a false claim. Now that we know the claim is wrong, we cannot follow the previous orders. Our mission has turned from one of capture to one of investigation." He paused, letting that sink in before going on. "It also means the United Forces needs to know what is actually going on before we can offer any aid to anyone. Seeing as the Le San are the only ones able to present evidence against the Northern Water Tribe's statement, it is in our best interest to keep you alive." Before the captain could speak he added, "Seeing the number of families and children you have on board this ship, it is also in your best interest. Working together we might just pull it off."
The grey haired man's jaw dropped a bit, working the offer through his brain. "Release him." The pirates drew back, dropping the young major to the deck. Iroh sucked in a shaky breath and took his feet to meet the captain's eyes once again. The pirate eyed him warily. "What happens when we get to a safe port?"
"Until there are concrete charges against the Le San, you are not prisoners. If you want to leave once we hit open water, so be it. But if you can shed some light on the Northern Water Tribe's accusations, our ship will defend your rights." The fierce gold eyes coupled with the thin line of blood running from his jaw gave the firebender an imperious countenance. The pirate captain visibly shivered as a moment of silence fell between the two men.
"I have injured crew." The pirate finally spoke.
"We have healers." Iroh returned.
The older man mused on this and stared at the firebender, as if he was making a deal with the face stealer himself. "You promise me your healers will tend to my wounded and we'll follow you to dock. You assure me no prisons, I'll take no hostages. If, for a second, it looks like you'll stab us in the back for trusting you, Fire Nation, I'll make sure you are fed to the hungry ghosts piece by piece. Slowly."
"I promise on my honor, and by the laws of the United Forces you will be treated justly, and your wounded will be tended to without retribution." He spoke slowly, clearly.
The pirate captain pulled off his mitten and spat in his hand, offering it to Iroh.
As the shadow slowly faded from Tui's glow, the waterbenders on the bridge of the pirate ship stood up, casting massive waves against the hulls of both ships. They pulled the hungry ghosts back into the sea, freezing the waves into a protective seal.
On deck, Iroh sent up a flare to Jian and Bumi, sending the message of the temporary alliance before sweeping the deck of the remaining spirits. Coming back to the edge of the ship, he hovered over Shang and the medical team.
"Spiritual wounds are never good news." Sakia intoned, her face drawn downwards. "But if I can keep him breathing through the night we should be in the clear."
"Do what you have to." The Major replied turning his focus back to the Le San as the ship pulled away from the frozen mass of dead.
The Le San ship pulled away, herded northeast by the Spirit of Omashu. They sailed silently through the bitter winds, finally pulling into the harbor of the capital city as Agni was threatening to break the horizon.
Daybreak was a relief, not only for the light that seemed to chase away the horror of the night, but for the reassurance of being in familiar – and safe – waters. Commander Bumi sat in his office, slowly filling out the last of the reports on his desk, patently ignoring his own exhaustion.
The knock on the door was firm and polite. Bumi had been expecting it and dreading it all at the same time. He closed his eyes, calmed his expression and swallowed the last of his tea before he offered an even "come in."
Relief was the first thing that flooded his mind. Reports on the casualties were slow in coming; at the very least the sight of an old family friend alive and well was comforting. The look in his eyes was not.
Bumi was expecting anger and frustration. Maybe even pain or fear resulting from his sudden advancement to acting leadership following Colonel Shang's injury. But the gold eyes gripped him with a deep-seated haunted expression that put a hitch in Bumi's breath.
"Major, you wanted to talk?"
"Why attack on the eclipse?" Iroh's voice was plaintive and soft.
Creases formed at the edges of Bumi's eyes. He tried to keep his voice as professional as possible, but a deep undercurrent of apology snuck in. "Tactically, from the evidence gathered on other battles during eclipses, it was a sound choice. The pirates should have been incapacitated for the eclipse."
"They were incapacitated during the eclipse. Along with every other waterbender in the North Pole." The firebender wavered, smoothing a crease on his uniform coat where Colonel Shang's blood had soaked in. "Too bad the spirits weren't in on the plan."
A hint of anger colored Bumi's neck and his next words, "That's a very unfair blame to heap upon me, Major. I made this choice to save lives, in the hopes that the eclipse incapacitating the Le San would mean we could take them into custody without catastrophic losses. I didn't expect a spiritual uprising." He regretted the phrasing as soon as it left his lips, more so when he watched the young officer snap to attention.
Silence settled between the two men, and Bumi watched as Iroh pulled himself stock-straight, enforcing the walls between them. Walls of both of the firebender's own taciturn personality and the cold professional detachment their ranks offered. Just before the silence became unbearable, he finally turned to Bumi, his gaze so sharp the commander felt naked under its burning attention. "I want to know why the son of Avatar Aang never counted this possibility into his tactical planning. In fact you laughed it off when I first mentioned it to you."
Bumi felt his expression sag, as if his face was being weighed down. "I didn't know. I thought you were being slightly obsessive." He paused, noting the scowl that flickered across the younger man's face, adding "your family does tend towards it." He spoke without malice, with a bluntness that was becoming his trademark.
If that opinion offended the firebender he didn't show it. Perhaps the shock, slowly dawning over his face, had pushed all other thoughts aside. "Didn't know? Where would a fleet of ships go after being defeated by an enraged spirit?"
Bumi gave an honest shrug. While he had studied history, certain things had always been glossed over by both the official records and his parents. So, while he could retell in startling detail how his mother convinced Master Pakku to train her as a combative waterbender, or the noble sacrifice Yue made to revive Tui, his parents had never actually said what happened to the fleet other than 'we won, they went away.' "I never really asked. We always assumed they turned around and went home."
"They died, Bumi." His voice was dark, his stare unblinking. "I'm not defending what they did; Zhao was a monster and an idiot. I am truly ashamed he acted in the name of the Fire Nation. But nobody turned around and went home. A handful of ships were far enough out of range to escape, but by and large they died. Their ships were torn to pieces, their crews drowned in arctic waters." He paused, his gaze finally breaking. "My grandfather said the ocean was littered with debris and corpses. Corpses as far as the eye could see."
Putting a hand to his temples, Bumi felt a wave of nausea pass through his gut. "The Northern Water Tribe told my father that the bodies were at rest. That they were dealt with."
"Dealt with and properly buried are two very different things, Bumi. Water Tribes bury their dead or give them burial at sea. Fire Nation corpses must be burned."
The older man sighed, apologetically. "My father never knew. He asked, he checked, but he didn't go see what actually happened. He trusted the people in charge – honorable adults. Chief Arnook always put the concerns of his citizens first, and he was an ally of the Avatar. Of course my father trusted him, and it should have been worked out." He paused sounding hollow, "why didn't it work out?"
Because the Avatar was only a child. Because it was completely acceptable to hate the Fire Nation. Because they deserved it. Neither one of them spoke the words, but both had heard the excuses and explanations from the world at large too many times to count.
Very slowly, Bumi watched Iroh's shoulders sag. He sounded tired. "I'm not blaming Avatar Aang for anything. I'm saying that somewhere there's been a mistake."
The commander shook his head; his next words were pained and honest. "My father was the bridge between creation and the spirit world. If La remained displeased all these years, yes, he should have fixed it."
"That's the problem, isn't it?" Iroh's voice was low and dangerous. "This wasn't the ocean rising up because his lover left him. No, it was more like a door opened. A door that had been locked for a very long time."
"A door?" Bumi blinked, not sure he was following. "I'm not sure how a lunar eclipse could open a spirit door."
Iroh shook his head as if trying to clear mental cobwebs from his brain. "I'm not talking about an opening to the spirit world. I'm saying those ghosts didn't just appear. They've been here all along, but something about the eclipse made the ocean surrender its hold on them."
The older man leaned forward, watching his friend carefully. "You think something bound up the ghosts from the past? Or are you saying La released this to attack us?"
"NO! If La had attacked us, we'd all be dead!" Iroh shouted with such passion that Bumi jumped backwards in his chair, staying still for several seconds. The younger man stepped forward, gripping the front of Bumi's desk, leaning forward to stare at him. "The difference between then and now is that this time we had a fight. It was maybe not a fair fight but at least we had a chance. No, when La attacked none that stood against him had a chance. Ships were broken in half in the blink of an eye and were sunk without warning. No time to act, no time to run. Barely time to scream."
"Ships that were trying to commit genocide, let's not forget!" Bumi barked. He stopped immediately afterwards, realizing it was the worst thing he could have said.
Iroh stepped back, collapsing into the chair across from him as if someone had sucker punched him without warning. "Don't I know?" His voice was plain and painfully accepting. "I know."
Bumi clenched his fists under the desk, not in anger but in shame, as if the biting sting of his nails against his palm might help his absolution, but it only snapped him into focus. "Iroh, I'm not blaming you. That happened ages ago."
The voice that hit Bumi's ears was apologetic, bare. "Sixty five years matters very little when genocide is concerned. I doubt the Northern Water Tribe has forgotten. I have no right to sweep the crimes of the past under the rug."
A small spark of anger flared in the older man's chest, flushing out through his cheeks. It bit into his next words, tainting them with an unintentional sharpness. "Crimes your generation did not commit, nor should they be expected to repay!"
"Sozin. Azulon. Ozai." Iroh ticked off on his fingers, refusing to look Bumi in the eye. "According to my calculations, yes, my generation is still paying off that debt to creation."
Bumi's face creased into a deep frown. "Iroh, you can't seriously believe you owe penance for something that happened sixty five years ago…?" He gazed at the boy and his blood ran cold. It was clear that Iroh did believe it.
"You want to know what's worse?" Iroh continued on in that same low voice; full of shame and without protest. "Not only do we owe the Northern Water Tribe for the obvious sins, but how many Fire Nation families – families of innocent people who were only doing their duty to feed their children. Who were only a cog in a vast unfathomable machine – how many do we owe? And how do we repay that? Peace? Money? You can't pay off lives. Blood? Sacrifice? I don't know. But the dead haven't forgotten."
"But the living?" there was a plea in the question, an offer of forgiveness.
Iroh's eyes snapped upwards, fixating on Bumi. "The living forgot about the dead. Until now."
Folding his arms across his chest, the commander leaned back to mull this over. "And they decide to wake up just for us?"
"Do you think it's a coincidence that the dead have raised here, now? This isn't the first trip the United Forces have made to the Northern Water Tribe. This isn't the first lunar eclipse, and it won't be the last." He shook his head, rocking on his feet. "I don't know, Bumi. I think there's something more to this that the Northern Water Tribe isn't telling us. But I also wonder…" He trailed off, hesitant to finish.
"It is possible; Shang also felt they weren't being entirely forthcoming." The older man paused and took a step forward. "What do you wonder?"
"It isn't important." He turned faintly, standing and assuming the posture an officer takes when waiting to be dismissed.
Bumi was not to be deterred. He crossed the gap between them and stood before the Major, his brows drawn together. "You wonder what?" he asked in a way that said 'You're not weaseling out of this.'
Iroh clenched his teeth for a few long moments and finally relented in a low tone, "I wonder what the spirits are trying to say to us? Are they angry that we forgot about the dead, or are they telling us that the Fire Nation deserves what they got? Still deserves what they get."
"Nobody deserves to get ripped apart by a hungry ghost." His voice was stark and filled with finality.
"Something is wrong here and I want to make it right. Have to make it right. I owe that to the world." Iroh gave a light shrug of acceptance; his eyes still dark and slowly headed towards the door.
"Iroh, before you go…" Bumi trailed off, trying to pull the kid back.
The firebender's gaze hardened, brushing the hand away. "I never asked for your pity, Bumi."
The crack of an open palm hitting the backside of the young man's shoulder was an impressive sound. It shocked Iroh into full attention, but the strike had little force behind it. Before the firebender could snap to defensive Bumi grabbed his arm and pulled him around. "Get it through your stubborn head that this isn't pity. Advice, concern, whatever you want to call it you listen to me for a minute!"
He paused, letting go of Iroh's arm, his expression settling into a fond, familiar look of worry. Dropping his posture of rank and protocol, for the moment he was not a commanding officer, just an old family friend. "Look, Iroh, be careful out there. I damn well know people have been telling your family to go piss off and die for generations; and quite frankly that's bunk. I'm asking you. Telling you… don't get yourself hurt."
"I wasn't…" The words came a bit too quickly and Iroh lost his train of thought. His brows knitting and he tried again, "I'm not…"
Bumi gripped the young man's shoulders. "I'm serious."
For the first time the young man's face flushed as the usually firm wall of reticence cracked. "Bumi, you don't have to..." his tone was soft, almost pleading.
"Don't have to what?" The commander's voice was lightly chastising, the timbre mentors take when teaching their charges a lesson. Despite not having children, the tone came easily to Bumi. "Don't have to care or don't have to worry about the safety of an old friend? Because if so, you're wrong on all counts."
Iroh opened his mouth to protest and closed it again, brows knitting together. When he finally spoke, his gold eyes turned downwards. "Thanks Bumi, now you sound like my grandfather."
Impulsive as always, Bumi wrapped an arm about the young man's shoulders, patently ignoring the expected flinch. "Good. Because someone needs to say it and since I used to carry you on my shoulders when you were knee high, it might as well be me."
"Don't remind me…" he groaned, flushed with embarrassment.
"Then listen to me. Taking this whole affair on your shoulders alone, as some crazy atonement for the past, is both stupid and suicidal. I would much rather take you out drinking and carousing when this is all said and done than have to go back to your family and explain what happened should you meet misfortune. I'm serious, Iroh. I need you, and I need you safe. Got it?" Bumi placed a finger square into the firebender's chest to emphasize his point.
Iroh sighed in a small protest, but his posture was growing calm. "Got it." He paused and frowned a little. "What's this about drinking and carousing?"
Bumi released him, stepping back to give the major a wide grin. "Come on, when we're done here, we have earned a night of drinking!" His eyes sparkled with humor, adding, "Besides, it's been a lifelong goal of mine to get a Fire Nation prince completely smashed. What can I say?"
After a wordless and unintentionally comical protest, Iroh shook his head. Despite the absurdity of Bumi's enthusiasm for a bacchanalian binge, the simple humor did wonders to ease Iroh's mind.
He couldn't help but smile… just a little.