Chapter Ten: The Fortuneteller

"I can't believe we're here in the house of nonsense."

"Try to keep an open mind, Sokka. There are things in this world that just can't be explained. Wouldn't it be nice to have some insight into your future?"

Sokka and Katara- The Fortuneteller

Week 3

Today promises to be a very good day.

There's nothing truly out of the ordinary that makes me feel so sure about it, but I have a theory that yesterday's events have made us all notice the little things even more... especially Katara, who had her near death experience and our three new friends, who haven't had the freedom to enjoy simple pleasures like a bath in goodness knows how long. (I'm glad they all got a bath, Smellerbee stank like a chickengoat pen, and was about as dirty as one.)

Even if no one else had a near death experiance recently (and Avatar Aang is already dead), we all seem to be much happier. Even Sokka and I, who have been on uneasy terms since we've met, have smoothed out our differences last night when everyone else went to bed, and Katara was deep in a meditative trance. She seemed to need some things clarified and sorted out about the nature of the Avatar Spirit, and she was gone for over an hour, giving me plenty of time to swallow my pride and apologize to Sokka.

The fresh spring breeze teased Suki's hair as she sat in the very back of the saddle, her quill moving steadily on the paper as they flew northwest, currently crossing over a smaller mountain range that marked the boarder between the southernmost colonial territories and the Earth Kingdom. Everyone was in high spirits, and it seemed that nothing could ruin the good mood. Katara spoke with Aang at Appa's head, her words too soft for Suki to catch even if Smellerbee wasn't chattering on about the wonder that was a ten ton wingless bison that could fly. Sokka was doing his best to educate Longshot what a 'real' throwing weapon was, and the silent boy was studying the boomerang in great interest. For her part, Suki was finding herself studying Sokka more and more. It seemed that yesterday was a day of changes for everyone- and for herself, it was a day of revaluation of her attitude toward the water tribe boy. She glanced back down at the journal, continuing her entry.

Sokka was... amazing during the fight to free the slaves! I've never really given him much thought whenever he said that he was a warrior (back at home, he was the first to fall down when we ambushed them), and now that I've seen him in action, I can see just how wrong I was about him... not to mention that I really didn't have him pegged like I thought I did. When he apologized for being a snot-head to me (as I had wrote in the last entry), I realized that I was holding him to a standard that was unfair. He's a boy. He's going to be stupid sometimes, and he's my age, so of course we're going to fight and bicker sometimes. I guess I thought that he only had that one quality about him, and I've been ignoring all the good things that he's been showing more and more. I think he just about had a heart attack when I sat him down and I apologized to him. I told him that now that we have more people in our group, I can't afford to be childish anymore, and neither can he. It took a lot of effort to say that I was wrong about him, but once I did, it felt like something changed between us... like there's some kind of wall that's been knocked over or something. I can definitely say that I like the clear air between us, and I've agreed to have a few sparring matches with him so we can figure out how to work together better if we ever get into a hairy situation again. We're a team now, and it's time to start acting like one!

Come to think of it, Katara had said something similar when she rejoined them late last night. She stroked her quill under her chin thoughtfully, glancing again at the young Avatar. The water tribe girl had mentioned that things had changed a little between herself and Aang, and that they had figured out how they could work together even better than ever before. Judging by how earnestly Katara was speaking with the previous Avatar, Suki guessed that their friendship had entered a new phase as well.

During the morning we've been given lots of new surprises. Smellerbee, during our bathing, seemed really reluctant to get in the water, so I ended up pushing her in. She shouted and swore like a sailor, and finally Katara asked her what her problem was, since it was shallow water and it wasn't that cold. That's when Smellerbee seemed to wilt, and she finally undressed properly, admitting that there was a reason she looks so gender neutral. It's weird to say it, but apparently it's possible to have... ugh, it's so weird I can't even write it! How is it possible to have the parts that make you a guy or a girl be mushed together until you truly can't tell which gender you are? I was so floored by it that I couldn't say anything, but Katara recovered really well. She surprised both me and Smellerbee by saying that there was nothing wrong with that, and that it didn't change the fact that Smellerbee was still a girl, even with... um, really strange looking parts. "I think that if you're confidant about yourself, it shouldn't matter what others might think of you." She said, "I've been realizing that for myself."

Smellerbee followed Katara around like a lost catdog from the start, but now she seems to positively worship her since this morning. It's kind of cute to watch, and Katara seems to be taking it in stride pretty well, all things considered. I'm not sure I'll tell Sokka about Smellerbee's secret, and I wonder if Longshot knows... it seems like he's the only other one that Smellerbee actively talks to and even likes. I think she's warming up to me slowly, once I apologized for pushing her in the river. I've managed to convince her to try out the face paint that she's been eying, and right now she's wearing two red stripes across each cheek, and she's got some black lining her eyes, grinning widely and looking like the catowl who got the cream.

Though Smellerbee seems to be the most transformed in mood, the colonial lady (who had finally introduced herself as 'Ursa' during breakfast) seems to be the most transformed outwardly by having a bath and a fresh change of clothes. She chose a pink and brown ruqun and a matching brown banbi yesterday at the market, (she admitted that old habits died hard, and she really wasn't comfortable in greens and blues) and she pulled up half of her hair into a top knot, looking so Fire Nation that it was startling. I finally worked up the courage to ask Ursa just how much fire nation blood she has in her, and if she was still loyal to the Fire Lord. She said that yes, she's full blooded fire nation, but she's no longer loyal to the Fire Lord. She wouldn't say anything more about it, but she seemed sincere, so I trust that she won't betray Katara.

For Katara's sake, I hope my instincts are right.

As Suki continued writing, Katara herself sat apart from everyone else except Aang, seated on Appa's head with the reins in her hands while marveling over her unexpected insight into the nature of the Avatar Spirit itself. She spoke with her friend in quieter tones, mindful of the others and not wanting to share what she had just learned quite yet. "It really feels like everything is different today, doesn't it?"

"Yeah," He agreed, his glance flicking back to regard the others before returning to her, his eyes soft, "It's a new day. Everyone is starting fresh- you can tell that those three haven't been free and happy in ages, and I'm guessing Sokka and Suki sorted everything out between them last night while waiting up for us. And with us..."

Katara nodded happily, breathing in the wonderful scent of the flowers growing in the valley fields below. She scooted closer to Aang's side, her smile bright as she remembered her trip into the cosmic energies. She grasped his hand, giving it a squeeze. "Yeah. Last night was... amazing! I can't believe that after all those years of trying to teach me how to meditate, it finally worked when I really needed it to!"

Sokka peered over the saddle lip at her, wriggling his brows at her. "Oooh, 'last night was amazing'? You better be careful, or people are gonna think you and Aang were doin' something else other than -" He used air quotes, his voice laden with joking sarcasm, "Meditation."

It was always strange to see Aang blush, because his surrounding blue glow distorted his true coloring and made what was supposed to be hues of pink or red fall somewhere in the purple range; and the darker the blush, the darker the purple appeared. Katara blushed too, a little scandalized at the notion of... well, doing that with someone she had known her entire life! She hastily dropped Aang's translucent hand and glared up at her brother. "Don't you have some jokes to tell or something?"

He grinned, wider now that he realized there was some fun to be had. "No no, I've run out. You and invisiboy here are giving me lots of inspiration for new ones, though."

Aang uttered a choked noise that got caught somewhere in his throat, and Katara (with nothing nearby to conveniently chuck at her brother's head) clamped her hands over her ears. "I can't believe you! Why are you always making fun of me and Aang? He is not my boyfriend!"

Her shout caught the attention of the others, who all perked up. "I'm sorry, I think I'm missing out on somethin'," Smellerbee scratched at her hair, her brows furrowing together. "But did he just say your boyfriend is invisible?"

Aang groaned, looking a little desperate. "Oh no... Katara, you gotta tell them different, before they get the wrong idea!"

She wilted, feeling the weight of three curious stares boring into her. She wondered faintly if she would have to keep explaining Aang to strangers for the rest of her life, and if the awkwardness was ever going to go away. Clearing her throat, she began what she suspected was going to be a rather awkward introduction. "Aang's the previous Avatar, so he's invisible to everyone except me-"

Sokka coughed, rolling his eyes. "And apparently crazy old people."

She rolled her eyes too, but soldiered on anyway. "He isn't my boyfriend, though." She glanced at the spirit boy fondly, "He's simply my best friend, and he's the best person I know. I've known him all my life- it would be kind of weird if... uh, the guy who's seen me as a baby became the guy who I'd want to get married to and have babies of my own with... right?"

Sokka's face twisted at that unpleasant image, and Aang was now the color of stewed sea prunes; both boys missing the hint of confusion that tinged her words. Ursa kindly swallowed a laugh at the whole situation, while Smellerbee traded a look with Longshot, both clearly a little disturbed. "No offense Katara, but that's freakin' creepy to think about. You sound like you like being stalked by a dead guy."

Thankfully, Suki overheard that last bit, and she piped up the instant she saw Katara pale with rage. "Of course she wouldn't think of having kids with him! Avatar Aang is dead. That makes the whole idea kind of impossible. Besides," She propped her journal open once more, grimacing at the thought, "it would probably be like some kind of weird spiritual incest, and a sin to think of such a thing. It'd be like wanting to sleep with yourself or maybe your unc-"

"Ok, that's all I need to hear!" Katara yelled, mortified. "I don't need to look at my friend and think of 'spiritual incest', ok? I'm not doing anything like that with him anyway, so let's just forget about it." She hunched her shoulders and stared resolutely on ahead, unseeing as she fought down waves of confusion and embarrassment, not daring to look at Aang and see what he felt about it all.

Lately, more and more to her mortification, she had started to feel... feelings that were somehow deeper than what she had felt before in regards to her friend; though they felt related to the fondness and friendship that had always been there. She had wrote it off as a deepening of her friendship with Aang, and truthfully, that was probably all it was. However, she had no idea if a deepening love for a friend was the same as the beginnings of romantic love. Was there a difference? What if...

Her gaze was drawn against her will to Aang, who was studying her thoughtfully. She blushed furiously, feeling like her head was going to explode as she quickly looked away. No! No no no, I can't start questioning where I stand with Aang. I've only just gotten this whole identity crisis thing sorted out, I don't need to question something that's been the best thing in my life!

After giving herself a few moments to simmer down to where she could think clearly and not get all emotionally panicked, she realized she was most likely making a big deal out of nothing. It was just friendship. It had always been friendship, and somehow she had been surprised by the fact that her friendship had deepened with the bonds of the recent trials they've undertaken together. Why should she be surprised that it had grown stronger? Had she really thought that her friendship with Aang couldn't get better with time?

With that little realization she relaxed and started to feel even better than she had before the conversation started. She made sure that the others weren't paying attention anymore before she turned to Aang apologetically, offering a small, reassuring smile. "Well, all that aside, I meant what I said. You really are my best friend, even if no one else but King Bumi can see you. You know that, right?"

He nodded, though his blush had yet to fully fade away. "Of course I do. You've been the best thing that's happened to me since even before I died- and that's a long time ago! I'm glad we're friends."

"Me too. And even if it's always like this between us, I'm glad that-"

A cry of fright (or maybe awe) came from the fields below, and everyone looked down and spotted an elderly Earth Kingdom man dressed in an official's blue and white robes (and a funky hat with side wings poking out from the back) staring up at Appa in shock. Aang grimaced, patting the bison. "Let's land and reassure the guy we're friendly. I didn't think we were that close to a town already."

Sokka flagged down the man as Katara steered Appa down to the ground, and the man skipped away from the giant beast as he landed with a whoosh before setting down. "It's ok, don't run off! We're friendly, I promise!" Sokka called, stalling the man.

The man's jaw seemed to be permanently disconnected as he gaped in awe, darting forward after a moment of frozen shock. He flitted here and there with an energy that was surprising for his age as he inspected Appa, his eyes wide and his smile even wider. "Incredible! Most unusual!" He cried, "You are Air Nomads?"

Aang swallowed roughly at the wonderment in the man's tone, and Katara laid a hand on his knee in reassurance. "No, we're not. But Appa is our flying bison. We're just passing through the area-"

"Of course you are!" The man cried, a delighted gleam lighting up his eyes, "I know who you are now!"

Katara blinked in surprise as everyone traded confused looks. "You do?" Suki asked warily, a hand unconsciously resting on her fans as her journal was set aside.

"Of course!" The man looked like he was ready to dance in excitement as he pointed to Katara, "You must be the Avatar! Who else would own such a rare animal but the rarest person, am I right?"

Katara's mood soured. Hopefully this wasn't going to be a repeat of Kyoshi Island...

She supposed that her annoyance at the mention of her title must have shown on her face, for Ursa took one look at her before standing and beating Sokka to the punch in speaking up. "And who are you, to make such a bold assumption?" The normally gentle woman asked frostily, allowing her hands to disappear into her spacious sleeves as she peered down at the man suspiciously. "What gives you the idea that a flying bison would be connected to the Avatar?"

The man seemed to be utterly unfazed by her questioning, smiling his stupid gap toothed grin. "Why, Aunt Wu told us that we'd have a special visitor today. Who's more special than the Avatar?"

"Your powers of deduction are astonishing." Sokka coughed, rolling his eyes. "Maybe it's a good thing we found you when we did..."

"No no, I'm not the one who foresaw your arrival!" The man babbled on, oblivious, "I'm just the mayor! Aunt Wu said that she was expecting some very important visitors, and here you are! The most important visitors on earth!"

Smellerbee propped her chin on a fist, leaning over the saddle's edge as far as she could and pinning him with a dubious glare. "Listen bub, I don't know who your aunt is, but lookin' at you, I'd guess she's already six feet under and you're crazy if you think she was tellin' you things. Unless today is the day that everyone is suddenly talking to dead people."

Fury bubbled up like lava within Katara's gut when Aang flinched at the callous words, and she rounded on a startled Smellerbee, her fists clenched. "If you say another word against Aang, I swear I'll-!"

Alarmed, Aang tugged on her arm and hissed a warning for her to calm down, but the mayor raised a brow of amusement as everything completely went over his head. "My aunt? No no, Aunt Wu is our village's fortuneteller! She saw you coming, little missy;... why else would she foresee a mere child if it wasn't someone of great importance?"

Katara blinked down at him, curiosity softening her temper. A woman saw her coming? She glanced at Aang, wondering what she should say or do about this new development. "Why would she want to see me? And where did you hear about me as the Avatar?"

The man smiled brightly, offering a cheerful half bow. "Why, everyone had been speaking of you in the neighboring villages since yesterday! Aunt Wu had spoken of your arrival over a week ago, but then gossip started to arrive as well! It's only the confirmation we need to have you actually arrive in person! I must go back and tell everyone!"

Katara called after the mayor in alarm, but it was too late. With a spring in his step, the elderly man dashed off down the path, leaving the stunned Avatar and her companions behind. Appa huffed a rather derisive snort, clearly of the mind that the old man was a few apples short of a fruit pie, and Aang muttered his agreement as he watched the man go. "What should we do? The guy is going to go and blurt out that you're the Avatar to his village!"

Katara looked to her brother. "Sokka, what do you think we should do? I knew that when I freed everyone yesterday that people would start talking, but I didn't know that it would spread so fast! Do you think it's ok for this village to know? We're right on the border of a fire colony."

Groaning, Sokka rubbed his forehead as a mild headache started to manifest. "I don't know what we should do... I wasn't planning on stopping so soon. If we go, I have the feeling that it's going to be like Omashu all over again, and I'm not in the mood to deal with crazy people today!"

Smellerbee didn't dare offer her opinion for fear of having Katara shoot it down, and Longshot waited patiently for an agreement to be made, one way or the other. Suki sighed. "I think we need to go after him just to make sure that everyone in the village is friendly, and to see what on earth he was talking about with this fortuneteller. Do you think this lady really saw us coming?"

Ursa sat back, looking troubled. "I'm just amazed that the news is spreading so fast. If the news reaches the Fire Lord where you are at you'll have a bounty placed on your head, and our trip near the colonies will be cut off."

The dire warning sobered everyone. They were only just entering the southernmost territories that bordered the colonies, and Katara had no idea if the people here would be friendly to the Avatar or not. Looking down the path, she nibbled on her lower lip before coming to a decision. "Let's go and find him. Maybe we can go to his village and see what everyone is like there, and see just how much they've heard. That way we'll know what we're coming up against later on when we really do get into the colonies."

The farther north they sailed, the more inhospitable and chilly it became.

Zuko hated it. He hated the cold anyway, being a firebender, but the cold affected his face far more than it seemed to affect Uncle, or the crew (though the whole sniveling lot of them didn't seem to go on deck very often). Just this morning, the wrappings that had covered half of his face for weeks had finally been removed for the last time, though Zuko had yet to face himself in a mirror. He wanted to know how his eye was affected first, before he could concern himself with how badly his face was now deformed.

Thankfully, it seemed like his eye was going to be fully functional, even if the skin that had once been his eyelids was now twisted and marred into a permanent slit that wouldn't open very far. He resisted the urge to touch the freshly healed tissue, opting only to turn that side of his face away from the prevailing west wind as he made his way up on deck.

The wind blew in uneasy gusts, and the sun seemed to have little warmth to it, even though there wasn't a cloud in sight. "Blast this cold," he growled, punching out a fire blast for the sheer heat value, "The sooner we get out of this Agni forsaken region, the better!"

He breathed in another breath, letting the chill nip him on the way down before feeling it heat up within his gut, fueling the next jet of flames from his fist. There was nothing to see up here, but he couldn't bring himself to spend much more time in his room. The letter and it's news had been on his mind since he had received it last week, and he felt a sense of restlessness, now that he knew that his mission was actually attainable. I will capture the Avatar. I'll be able to go home, and have Father restore my honor. I'll prove to everyone that I'm the rightful heir to the throne!

It was a line of thinking that seemed to race around and around in circles once he knew he could go home. It was like a fever, growing hotter and higher and muddling any logic that Uncle tried to throw at him. He would return home! No amount of nay saying from the old retired general was going to deter him from his mission, and no talk of being cursed by the spirits was ever going to get him to change his mind. Spirits weren't real. The Avatar was just an anomaly of nature, and an enemy that was in the way of the Fire Nation. As the Prince, it was his duty to lead his nation someday, and he wasn't going to be able to do that with the Avatar still running around, right?

Besides, his honor and his name were as marred as his face. There was no way he was going to cower away and hide like a dog, not when there was a chance of getting it restored to the proper glory befitting a prince of the Fire Nation!

Hearing the heavy metallic steps of Uncle approaching from behind, Zuko braced himself. Had Uncle seen what his face looked like, now that it was irreparable scar tissue? A hand reached up and shielded his tender scar momentarily, the motion catching his uncle's eye. "Prince Zuko, I've heard from the medic that you no longer need bandages!" His tone was cheery, even happy sounding. "We should stop at the nearest port of call and get some things and have a celebration!"

Of all the ridiculous things... "Why would I want to celebrate?" He asked, turning fully and taking his hand off the scar, the heat leaving the tissue and the cold setting in with tiny prickles once it was exposed to the open air. "Look at me! I must look like a monster."

"If anyone is a monster, it most certainly would not be you." Uncle stated mildly, though a touch of frost was present. He softened, patting the teenager's stiff shoulder. "You've pulled through an intense experience that many older and wiser men would not have survived at all! Why shouldn't we celebrate the gift of good health when it's given to us?"

Shrugging, Zuko looked away uncomfortably. Sometimes Uncle sounded far too much like his mother than what an esteemed General ought to sound like. It was embarrassing. "I see it differently. I was weak, and I should only feel shame that I was ever weak at all. Besides, all I care about is finding the Avatar. Celebrating can wait until then, when there's something actually worth celebrating."

The older man only offered a thoughtful "Hmn," in reply, his gaze casting about the open ocean. Ice was present in tiny formations, nothing more than a sliver of it at a time, but it was enough to let him know that they had entered the waters bordering the polar regions after much prompting from the young prince to hurry, hurry, hurry. "I would like to see the navigator anyway. We're going to need some new supplies, and I'm thinking of proposing the idea of music night to the crew! We'll need something to keep up the moral of the crew, and I forgot my tsungi horn in the middle of all the hullabaloo back at home- and we'll need one for you too!"

Ignoring the growl from Zuko, Iroh retreated into the watch tower. Mission or no mission, there was going to be a celebration of some kind tonight. The boy had lived, and he was determined to make sure that Ozai's cruel mark wouldn't leave more than a physical scar.

In the end, it was a good thing that they followed the man, for more reasons than just finding out if the village was friendly. The moment they flew into the quaint little village, people began to point up at them in awe and wonderment, some shouting and gathering under the passing shadow that Appa cast as Katara guided him towards the open town square. Curious, Aang looked around at the crowds that could not see him, studying them in great interest.

The people back at the trading port were roughneck and seemed to be a shady mix of every nationality under the sun, and even here it was apparent that diversity was present within the bloodlines as well. They were all considerably more prim and proper than the traders (thank the spirits), and curiously many wore shades of pinks and purples or pale minty greens. It was the trim on their clothing, as well as their faces that really caught Aang's attention, however. There was a strong running link between many of the people in that they had cloud motifs on their clothing, and some little girls had clouds stitched in yellow on their shoes.

However, it was their eyes and facial features- clear shades of gray and softer browns, and high, gently rounded cheekbones- that had first caught his attention, and it continued to captivate him even as it made his heart ache. They looked so much like his people... and even though he knew that they were not really airbenders, seeing them made him wonder. Not all of his people were gathered at the four temples- most were true nomads who constantly roamed the skies, as his birth family once had. Had a few of the wandering nomads escaped the purge after all? Perhaps they had settled in quiet little pockets of the world and hid themselves in plain sight, pretending to be common earth kingdom folk. Maybe they had assimilated so well, they somehow forgot who they were and ceased being airbenders altogether.

The possibilities chased each other around and around in his mind, distracting him for a good portion of the next few hours as the people fawned over their new Avatar and shouted in excitement that Aunt Wu's predictions came true yet again. He did his best to pay attention and be by Katara's side as she was invited to have lunch with the cooky old man from earlier (who actually turned out to be the mayor after all) and have a tour of the town; the only remarkable thing about it being the people and the nearby dormant volcano called Mount Macapu. He was mildly amused when one cute little girl (with unruly chickenpig tails that stuck out from either side of her head) comically mistook Smellerbee as a boy and glued herself to the older girl's side, proclaiming that surely this was the big eared lover she had been told she'd end up marrying. The thoughts of his people continued to distract the spirit boy, however; and it wasn't until later in the afternoon when they were shown to the building that housed the mysterious and famed Aunt Wu that the idea that nomads had settled here and hid became much stronger.

The place was filled with the spicy sweet scent of an incense that was only made and used by the nuns of the Eastern Air Temple, and the lump in his throat tightened a little when he spotted a few subtly placed things that came from his culture- no one else on earth had the kind of candle arrangements that the Air Nomads had (three white and one yellow in every group, arranged from shortest to highest), and no one else had the tiny stone pots filled with the prized blue powder that would become the ink for tattooing a master airbender's arrows. He even spotted a subtle painting of one of the temples on the delicate silk screen panels that had kneeling pillows set before it. Aang sat by Katara's side, his fists bunching up the fabric of his pants as he fought to control his excitement and the sudden strong wave of homesickness as one last thing caught his attention in the far corner of the room- a tiny fixed sand mandala, somehow mounted on a frame and tucked into a far corner where it was easily overlooked by most.

The picture triggered a tidal wave of memories that engulfed him, with the most prominent memory of all being an exercise that Monk Gyatso and Abbot Pasang had organized for all the boys soon after Aang had turned eleven. The two monks had every boy in the temple gathered into one large room with a wooden platform that had an intricate geometric drawing on it, and there were bags and bags of different colored sands. "What's the sand for?" They had all clamored, curiosity eating them up from head to toe when they were told to sit in a large ring around the platform.

"Today we will start on the biggest, most beautiful sand painting the temple has ever seen," The Abbot had intoned, giving each pair of boys three sacks of sand and a metal chak-pur funnel and rod. "We will construct a mandala, and add all of the most important things within our culture into it."

They had opened the ceremony (for it was a kind of ceremony, in hindsight) with chants, music, and prayers. Starting from the center of the drawing first, each pair of boys would work together; one carefully pouring a tiny stream of sand into the funnel, while the other with the steadier hand would rhythmically scrape the rod back and forth over the tiny ridges on the funnel itself to pour out the sand like water into the prescribed area. It was painstaking work, and it was hard to concentrate for long periods at a time, but it paid off. After two long weeks it was finally done, and it had been the most beautiful work of art that Aang had ever seen- like a giant multicolored flower, with hundreds of tiny little pictures and symbols blending together. It was while all the boys marveled over their handiwork that Gyatso and Pasang had done the most shocking thing: in tandem they both airbent at the mandala, sucking the sand painting away into a large jar. All the boys shouted in horror, and Aang had turned to Gyatso in stupefied shock, asking why they would ruin such a beautiful thing. "Ruin?" Gyatso echoed, smiling secretively as he wrapped the jar in silk, "Aang, the mandala was a symbol of the beauty and intricacy of our culture, and of life itself. We each have contributed to our nation like the grains of sand, and each of us individually are like the mandala as a whole. But life doesn't last forever, and in the end, we will be as this jar: just a memory of what was. This sand will be taken to the river and we will release it back into nature, where eventually I'm sure sand will be gathered to make another mandala. This is the cycle of life, my son."

Aang hadn't realized that tears had started to well up until one escaped, catching Katara's attention. "Aang?" She whispered in alarm, laying a hand on his back, "Are you ok? What's the matter?"

The panel door slid open, and Aang's answer died in his throat when an older woman came into the room. She was not an Airbender- he knew she wasn't, because he himself was the last- but he was absolutely certain now that he was looking at the very last fragments of his lost culture within her. Her gold colored robes stood out from everyone else in the town, even if they were of the same cut and style, with the ever present cloud motif still gracing her sleeves and hem. Her face and bearing was an odd mix of earth and air, and Aang blinked back the rest of his tears as he realized, at long last, the meaning of the sand mandala. Life had started over, and a new sand painting of life was being constructed with remnants of the old within this town. Aang froze when her gaze landed on him, and he realized with a start that she saw him- her stately expression faltered just a hair, and her eyes grew wondering and sad at once.

The woman paused, and she studied them all with a small smile, clearing her throat. "Ah, you must be here for a reading." She said, her momentary surprise at seeing Aang covered up just in time. "Who wants to go first? Don't be shy!"

Sokka muttered about being in the 'house of nonsense', and Smellerbee (to Longshot's everlasting amusement) sulked childishly, still annoyed with being mistaken for a boy. Katara seemed nervous at the idea of a reading, and she nudged Suki. "How about you go first?"

Suki smiled, her curiosity catching up with her. "Well, why not? It would be nice to know our futures, right?"

Katara coughed a little, wilting slightly. "Right. Our future.."

Suki hurried after the fortuneteller, and Katara's gentle touch startled Aang from his somber thoughts. "Are you alright?" she repeated softly, clearly worried by now. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," He murmured with a slight rasp, feeling more lonely than ever as he glanced at the mandala again. "The people here remind me of my own is all. I'll.. I'll be fine."

The dim salon that the fortuneteller led Suki into was lit up by various candles placed in different settings, and the incense was stronger in here than in the waiting room. Suki couldn't help the little flash of excitement at the idea of having her future be told to her- if this woman foresaw Katara's arrival, than she must be legitimately touched by the spirits! Plus, it wouldn't hurt to know if she would survive the war, and what her destiny would turn out to be.

She followed Aunt Wu past the central fire pit and the basin of bones (bones?), stopping when the woman instructed her to sit on one of the two kneeling pillows. "Come, let's sit here. Shall we begin?"

"Yes, please!" Suki obediently knelt down, and the woman took a good, long look at her before taking up her palm. "You are a good, strong girl with a head on your shoulders." She commented, sounding pleased, "The Avatar is lucky to have you as an ally."

Suki blushed a little at the praise. "Thanks. So... what do you see for the future? Do... do I survive the war? Do we win? What will happen afterward? Will Katara-"

"Settle down, dear," Aunt Wu chuckled patiently, tracing the lines on Suki's hand while humming thoughtfully to herself. "Fortunetelling doesn't work that way. I'm able to read the clouds for a broader sight of the future, but my clearest gifting is to foresee an individual's future. It's all one really needs to know, am I right?"

Suki nodded, seeing the sense in that. Enemies may want to change a fortune given about the future as a whole, and that would be disastrous. "I see. What about me, then?"

"Ah...poor child." Aunt Wu seemed both intrigued and highly amused, "You'll need to work on your patience. Your future husband will require it from you if you are to have any amount of peace and harmony in your home."

Husband? Suki blinked, startled. "I get married? Does that mean... well, I guess that would mean that I won't stay a Kyoshi Warrior forever then, huh?"

Aunt Wu arched a brow. "You have a warrior's heart, my dear. Who ever said that you must give up being a peacekeeper once you are married?"

Suki was about to protest, to tell her that a Kyoshi Warrior was unmarried, but she stopped herself. Maybe being a 'peacekeeper' didn't mean that she would stop being a warrior. At least, Aunt Wu didn't say anything to the contrary... "So, I guess that means that life is going to go well for me?"

The woman released her hand, nodding once as she motioned for her to stand, signalling that the reading was over. "It will only be that way if you work towards your own happiness. The future is always in motion, and though I may see some things that are certain, you must work hard to attain your own destiny. People come and go, the tides of life constantly bring new things and clear out some old. Keep that in mind, and life will be far more rewarding than the simple knowledge of whether or not you will get married and have a long life."

The wait in between the time Suki left to the time she reappeared with Aunt Wu wasn't very long, but to Katara, it seemed like a small eternity. What was being discussed? Was the woman really able to see the future? What... what would she see in her future, if she went in for a reading? I'm the Avatar. Will that make a reading different, since I'm so different from everyone else? What if I'm destined to lose the war? She swallowed roughly. If she was destined to die in the war... well, was it better not knowing? Was it better to know, so that you could possibly change it? Could it be changed?

Looking at Aang, she reminded herself of the words she had spoken to him, so long ago. Death isn't the end. If I'm supposed to die... well, I guess I'll have to try to make sure I win before it happens. I can't be so worried about this. I have a job to do! I can't do my Avatar duties if I'm constantly worried about myself... right?

Thankfully, the sliding door opened, and Suki reappeared with a thoughtful smile, seemingly pleased with her predictions. More than ready to get a move on, Sokka huffed a sigh and stood once Aunt Wu reappeared. "Ok, let's get this over with."

The woman smiled at him, her eyes narrowing just enough that it was more of a smirk than anything. "Your future is full of struggle and anguish." She proclaimed, "Most of it self inflicted."

Sokka balked, blinking in shock. "But... you didn't read my palms or anything!"

"I don't need to." She said flatly, her eyes snapping with amusement. "It's written all over your face."

Smellerbee snickered under her breath, and Longshot tipped his hat just enough to hide his own smirk. Ursa smiled kindly, patting his shoulder and resolving to talk to him later about it. Aunt Wu glanced at Smellerbee and Longshot. "Your futures are connected, and your fortunes are straightforward and simple- much like your respective personalities. Do you care to hear it in private, or shall I tell you now?"

Smellerbee shrugged and looked to her friend, still not quite buying into all this hokey pokey mumbo jumbo. "I'm game if you are, Longshot." She conceded after getting a nod from her companion, "What do you see?"

"You two shall be side by side in every season of your life, and you two will die together. Choose your friends wisely, and you will live a long life. If you don't..." She trailed off ominously, shaking her head slightly. Smellerbee felt a line of goosebumps race along her arms at the implications, and she unconsciously scooted over to Longshot's side, looking to see if he believed the prediction. His expressive eyes told her that he was somberly mulling it over. At last, he tilted his head in a nod, accepting the words.

Katara fidgeted, her nerves growing. Aang had pulled himself together enough to pick up on her fear it seemed, for she was startled when his fingers curled around her's in reassurance. "You don't need to know if you don't want to." He said somberly, "I think Avatars are different from normal people when it comes to fortunes anyway."

She gave him a grateful smile, and she nodded at Ursa, hoping to have a minute more to decide. "Do you want a reading Ursa?"

The colonial woman paused, thinking it over. At last she stood, and offered a polite bow to the fortuneteller. "I'm sorry, but I think I will pass this opportunity up. I have many questions about my children and their happiness and safety, but I don't care to know much about myself. I'd rather keep it a surprise."

"Are you sure?" The fortuneteller wheedled, "It's a pleasant surprise, should you want to know."

Ursa smiled mildly. "I will keep that in mind. If it's pleasant, than it should be a pleasure in finding out when the time comes."

Aunt Wu nodded, relenting. "Surprising secrets for a surprising, secretive woman." She commented, ignoring the flash of shock on her face. She turned to Katara. "You two, come with me."

Katara jerked in surprise, unaware that Aunt Wu could see Aang until now. She swallowed nervously, getting up and following the woman into the same salon that Suki had been in. Aunt Wu bowed the moment the panel door slid shut, reverence touching her tone. "Avatar, it's a great honor for you to come to our village, and it honors me to be in your presence!"

Katara raised her hands, grimacing. "No, you don't need to bow to us, Aunt Wu! We're just-"

"The Avatar present and Avatar past. It's my pleasure to serve you, not just my duty."

It was an odd thing still, to be treated as the Avatar, no matter how often in the last few weeks she had heard the awe and wonderment bound up within her title. Shrugging, Katara glanced at the basin of bones and then at the fire, curiosity warring with unease over t]he matter of her fate. "Well... if you could tell me just one thing, then I'd be fine with it." She admitted after a long moment. After all, if Aunt Wu could really see into the future...

Aunt Wu smiled kindly. "Anything you would like to know, I will do my best to divine it for you."

Swallowing around the tightness in her throat, Katara worked up the nerve to ask the questions that had been plaguing her most of the afternoon. "Do... do I succeed? Do I bring balance in the end? What happens if I fail?"

The woman stared at her- into her, really-, and Katara's hair prickled at the nape of her neck. It felt as if the lady was scrutinizing her soul, and truthfully, it was rather uncomfortable. At last the old woman nodded to herself, and Katara found herself letting out the breath that she had been holding. "Let's try the bones." The woman decided, waving a ringed hand toward the strange basin. "It's the most reliable way to foretell the future, and it's best to keep palm reading and surface reading for the more general things one would want to know. Pick one, and throw it into the fire. I will read the cracks that appear."

Her curiosity heightened by the idea that bones could somehow know about one's future, Katara hesitantly picked one, pausing for a moment before the fire. Alright, here it goes- bracing herself for whatever may be told before tossing it in. The bone began to crack, and then split in several fractures that nearly broke it in places. The fortuneteller paled. "I've never seen this happen before-"

They all gasped when the bone unexpectedly exploded within a rush of flames, showering the entire room with splintered shards. The fortuneteller's words began tumbling over themselves in a rush as soon as the fire died down to it's proper size, her eyes darting about at the shards in shock. "Your future- oh, this is incredible!- you will be involved in a great battle! An awesome conflict between the forces of good and evil; one that will determine the fate of the whole world!"

Katara paled, already knowing that part of her future (how could she not?), but still a little rattled by how big this was gearing up to be. "What about the end?" She insisted, drawing closer to Aang. "Do I live? Do I end the war?"

The woman was dazed, but she managed to pull together some of the things she had seen. "The number three is connected to you, Avatar Katara. Just as you have three family members, you will be surrounded by three friends for the majority of your journey, and you will have three children should you live beyond the war." Momentarily, her gaze landed on Aang before continuing. "Your destinies are intertwined- much like your two scruffy companions in the waiting room. It's up to you to bring balance to the world in ending the war, as well as ensuring the Avatar Cycle can go on. If you fail in either of these tasks, your era will be over, and darkness shall cover the earth."

The shock factor wasn't nearly as bad as the first time she had been told of the comet (nothing would compare to that horror) but Katara's gut still clenched at the thought of how very dire the situation was. Her gaze flicked to the fire, a little bit of anger at the unfairness of the situation bubbling up. "But... I'm not sure how the cycle can go on anymore! Aang says that he was the last Air Nomad to die- shouldn't the Avatar cycle be broken after the next two Avatars are gone?"

The fortuneteller's painted lips tilted up in a secretive smile. "Why are you so sure that your fate will be so absolute? There is a way for the Avatar to continue."

Curious, Katara looked at the astonished expression on Aang's face, feeling a flicker of hope. "Really? How?"

"Your friend, " she gestured at the spirit boy, "Will be allowed a second chance at life here on earth, should you live through the war. Not to save the world directly, but to save his race of airbenders, so that balance between the nations can be restored. However, if you lose and do not bring back balance, then the Avatar cycle will surely be broken."

Silence reigned for well over a minute as Katara absorbed the news. She had known that she would have to end the war- she had known it since the time she had shown herself as the Avatar, and Gran Gran had sat her down and explained what she would have to do someday. But the fact that any possible failure would have such terrible consequences - not just for the Earth Kingdom, but for the whole world, and the Avatar Spirit itself!- was a staggering thing to think about. Looking over at Aang, however, stalled the crushing feeling that threatened to overwhelm her.

There was a bright side to this. If she won the war, Aang could have a second chance at life! No one had ever said that such a thing could happen, and now that it was being offered to someone so deserving of life...Aang deserves to live! Even if I die in the end, it won't matter, because I'm going to end this war before that happens. I'm going to give him a life that he was unable to have before.

A smile blossomed across her face, and she felt her previously established determination from yesterday solidify and become something much more concrete as she bowed and thanked Aunt Wu for her services. Winning the war was such an intangible, abstract goal before; something that seemed impossible to look forward to or attain. But now that the gift of life was being offered to her best friend, that goal was much easier to see in her mind.

She would do this for the world, but now she had the additional drive to do this for her friend.

A/N: Ok, ok, it's been three weeks instead of two, sorry! This one was harder than I anticipated to write, and real life as a young mother and wife takes precedence over writing fanfiction (as it should). As it is, this is by far the longest chapter I've ever written, and there's a lot here for you guys to chew on.

Free virtual cookies to those who correctly guessed Ursa's identity! I wanted her name to be revealed with very little fanfare- after all, only you the reader knows her story, and the kids don't have a clue. I think she would feel it was alright for them to know her true name.

Lots of personal headcanons are featured in this chapter, from Smellerbee having an intersex condition that was once known as being a Hermaphrodite (yes, it's a real condition, with a variety of physical variations), to the citizens of the fortuneteller's village being long lost remnants of airbenders who had tried to escape the purge.

The sand painting/mandala is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It was a perfect symbol for Aang's side of the chapter, and I'm so glad I found out about it in my research. It's also a symbol of Aang's struggle with the concept of life and death, and he'll continue to struggle with it for the duration of the story.

I had a much longer portion added to Suki's journal entry, but it got a little long winded and it meandered along unnecessary bunny trails. Good for a realistic journal, but not so good for an overall story. Those parts will end up in the next chapter.

Her friendship with Sokka will now take off, and we'll see that the dynamics within the core gang will be much stronger and closer to the canon version we all want to see. Plus, Katara's crush on Aang is starting to manifest, which is incredibly fun to write. :)

Aunt Wu's fortunes for Suki and Katara are obviously more significant than the others', but Longshot and Smellerbee's fortune is important too. I always thought that they died with Jet under Lake Laogai ( the 'Promise' and 'Search' trilogy comics are forever on my 'non canon' list), and this fortune is a warning to them to choose their companions wisely. Whether they choose to follow that advice or not will remain to be seen...

Zuko will be featured more and more often as time goes on, and either the next chapter or the one after he will begin to appear very frequently! We'll catch up with Zhao too, so things won't be so quiet for our Gaang for long...

Oh, and Chi Blocking features in the next chapter! No promises on how soon the next one can be churned out, but I will do my best to make sure it will arrive within a few weeks' time.