A/N: As the summary says, this is AU. One of the biggest differences is Aang is not 112 years old but rather a more comparable age to the others. Everyone else's age has been raised five years-Katara 19, Toph and Aang 17, etc. I'm not going to do a ton of spoilers. There will be gore. There may be strong language. There will be violence. I will keep it within the set rating. Thank you very much for reading and please leave a review, fav or follow if you are interested in this story continuing.
Water. In the North, walls of ice and snow separates the Water Tribe from the rest of the world. In the South, separate but cooperative tribes scatter the deadly glaciers, each ruled by a Chief. Women are ruled by men, not allowed political or even domestic rule. Their job is to train the next generation of women for their lives of servitude. Women are not educated and most have no idea that other nations even exist outside of their homeland. Female benders are not trained and are usually frowned upon.
Earth. The massive Earth Kingdon boasts technology and machinery the likes of which no other nation possesses. They are a race of thoughtful, ambitious workers and artisans. Earth benders hold every title from noble to stonemason. To police the borders especially skilled benders volunteer to join the Blind Bandits, trading eyesight for heightened bending skills and a chance to serve their Kingdom as peacekeepers and guardians. Equality abounds and the Earth King rules his kingdom as a single unit.
Fire. The Fire Nation is a den of deceit, intrigue, temptation and abandon. Under Fire Lord Ozai, the Firebenders do what they want when they want and there is no such thing as consequence. Fire Lords are frequently succeeded by their assassins and survive purely through fear, paranoia and appeasement. Women are little more than currency, bought, sold and traded for political clout and reputation.
Air. The Air Nomads were once a race of travelers and missionaries that spread out over the entire world. Now that the nations fear and revile one another, the nomads are limited to their four temples where they meditate and study in peace. The more spiritual nomads take a vow of chastity, pacifism and poverty, tending the temples and operating as the Air Nomads' thinking class. The more powerful Airbenders are taught combat and serve as sentries, protecting the temples from outside dangers.
The Avatar, born once a generation and possessing the ability to bend all four elements is considered a pariah, driven from his homeland and forced to wander, many Avatars are killed for sport or commit suicide in the face of such a bleak existence. Those who survive travel in search of anyone willing to house such a danger to the traditional and segregated world.
The white was blinding as the snow pelted him, icy wind biting into his skin between the weaving of his tattered robes. He did the best he could to bend the sharper gusts away but his Bison was losing altitude at an alarming rate. One large paw dipped into the frigid waters, and then another. Aang cried out as Appa sank into the ocean deep enough that the airbender was ankle deep on water that stung his skin like a hive of scorpionbees. The bison struggled to raise his head above water before running violently aground and throwing Aang, unconscious, out onto the snow. The white powder accumulated slowly on the pale body of the Avatar.
As the people of Chief Hakoda's tribe braced for an approaching storm, a handful of women were preparing traps and weapons on the top of the tribe's protective ice wall. Seventeen blue eyes followed the movements of Chief Hakoda's son as he rushed through them looking for one particular young woman, "Katara!"
Katara looked up from her boots, tying what was left of the rotted leather laces, "Sokka."
The prince came to a stop before her, "Where are you going?"
"I've been given hunting duty for the next two days."
"With this blizzard coming? That's suicide," Sokka protested.
Katara straightened and pulled her worn coat closer around her. It had been patched so many times with whatever scraps Katara could find that it was hardly the same coat she'd started with five years prior. It was also growing tighter with time's passing, "It is my duty to our people."
"You should be at home. Father could be convinced," Sokka said, "He isn't unreasonable."
"A woman who has wronged a man is less than human and belongs to no tribe, so say the-"
"Don't," Sokka interrupted, "Just don't."
Katara was quiet for a moment, "I don't mind the storms."
"Because of your waterbending," Sokka said, reaching out and taking Katara's hand, "At least try to have some faith in me."
"I only want to serve the tribe," she said, hurrying away through lines of huntresses and benders, down the wall and out into the wilderness.
Sokka marched into Hakoda's tent, his father smiling, bemused at the young man's cross expression, "Sokka, what has you troubled?"
"My sister," Sokka said, "Your daughter."
Hakoda folded his arms, ready for yet another battle, "I have no daughters, only one son."
Sokka grit his teeth, "She looks just like Mother. Doesn't that mean anything? She slaves to feed the tribe, works to heal the sick and injured, mends clothes and fixes igloos and all you can do is deny her existence? She doesn't even have a home!"
"Katara stole what is your right as a man. Because of this, she is exiled. She should fall at your feet and beg forgiveness, so say the elders."
"I was never a Waterbender! I was born first!" Sokka argued.
Hakoda cleared his throat patiently, "That is the word of the elders. It is our tradition."
Sokka threw his hands up, "What do you care about tradition! We're at war! Let her help the warriors or at least send her to another tribe where she can find a better life."
"What good would it do us to curse another tribe? Your mother birthed Katara. She is my burden, just as her treachery is her own. Enough now, Sokka. You're twenty winters old, far too old to be speaking out of turn like a child. Go find something to pass the time besides fighting with your chief."
Ba Sing Se was buzzing with its usual afternoon foot traffic up and down the grand streets of shops and businesses. A young woman in formal dress walked along a path of old, dark shops, her feet bare beneath the concealing hem of her long silk skirt. She said not a word as she walked, her green eyes taking in every sight on both sides like an overwhelmed tourist. Finally, at the end of the street, she turned down an alley and stopped at a small dark door, opening it and stepping inside. Instantly she removed her dress, changing into the green leather armor that hung waiting for her; she removed the elaborate comb from her short hair and replaced it with a bandana to keep her bangs out of her face. Her hands shook as she walked further into the shadowy building, passing through rooms until she came to stand in a large stadium with a rugged stone floor.
Rows of seated men and women of many ages filled most of the massive room, none of them looking up as she entered. She crossed onto a stage where a middle-aged woman waited with a grim smile, flanked by two young men dressed in the uniforms of soldiers.
Toph went to her side and turned to face the crowd, "Toph Bei Fong, you are here because you have trained in the way of the Order, and you wish to join our ranks. Is this your word?"
"It is," Toph answered, "I pledge myself to the Order, to protect the Earth Kingdom by becoming one with the stone."
"Then show your loyalty and surrender to the stone," the woman said.
Toph exhaled and brought up a circular section of the stone floor to wrap around herself, restraining her arms and legs, "I yield."
The two young men stepped forward. With two simple motions they lifted two burning coals from the pyre that lit the arena. The coals advanced slow and steady until Toph could feel their heat on her face. Her legs began to tremble beneath the rock but she steadied herself. The coals touched her eyes and the heat spread behind her face and into her mind, filling her up. Toph let out a cry, burning tears flowing down her cheeks. Seconds later, the coals were gone and she collapsed, the stone around her dropping back into place.
Hands on her shoulders, pleased murmurs from the crowd as the woman spoke again, "Your eyes are sightless because you chose honor. Never mistake that for blindness, Sister Bei Fong. Yours is the only true sight."
Toph stood with help, drinking when a cup was placed at her lips. As the strong smelling tea hit her stomach, the medicine did its work and Toph collapsed again, carried out by the two benders who had blinded her.
Cold and wet leeched into her boots but Katara ignored it, turning the snow into a slick path of ice to spare herself having to wade through drifts. The wind was picking up and the otter penguins were nowhere to be found. Through the near silence, a sound unlike anything she'd heard before echoed against the glaciers on either side of her. Katara's heart thudded loudly in her chest as she rushed toward the sound, hoping that a rare herd of Yak might be migrating through. As she reached the edge where the water met the snowy shore, she saw it, a mass of white fur, larger than anything she'd ever seen.
Katara crept forward, never taking her eyes off of the great fallen beast. When she was mere yards away, a hand from the snow grabbed her ankle and she screamed, falling forward. When she realized that there was someone beneath the snow, she took the hand that held her, cold and weak, and began uncovering the body it belonged to.
She slowly revealed a pale boy dressed in strangely colored robes, blue tattoos on his hands and head that nearly matched the blue of his lips. Instantly Katara moved closer, opening her flask of warm water and bending it out of the bottle, into the frozen boy's mouth and through his body to warm him.
When he began to sputter and choke, she withdrew the water, gently rolling him onto his side as he recovered, studying his strange clothes, his pale skin, his giant monster companion. To Katara, it was all like a dream, things she'd never even heard of in stories, a boy who looked nothing like Water Tribe, nothing like anyone she'd ever seen. When he spoke, she recoiled, jumping to her feet, "Who are you?"
"Air," he muttered.
Katara was only more puzzled, but she lifted him out of the snow and carried him until she found an outcropping of rock large enough to sit under. She cleared the snow away and set the boy down, busying herself with starting a fire. After a good bit of effort fighting the wind, the fire was lit and the bit of wood she'd carried with her brought it to it's full strength. When the wind died down the same bone-rattling cry echoed much closer and Katara turned to see the monster, a large Yak with six legs, standing at the entrance of the shelter, it's massive chocolate eyes staring into her, "Stay back," she said, waving it away, "Get away!"
Katara looked over her shoulder to see the strange boy was awake, smiling at the animal, "What is it?" Katara asked.
"He's my sky bison."
Katara moved away from Appa, sitting beside the boy instead, "What kind of Water Tribe uses sky bisons? Where is your tribe?"
Aang realized slowly that this girl had no idea what an Airbender was, and decided to keep it that way, knowing the danger he was in, "Um... far away from here."
She nodded, "There is no hunting here to speak of. Even the otter penguins are moving on."
Aang nodded, "Maybe you could lead me to your village and I can go from there. Do you have an extra coat or a blanket or-"
Without word, she removed her coat and gave it to him.
"Oh, no you don't have to."
"Any man's need is woman's obligation, regardless of tribe, so say the elders," the young woman said.
Aang pulled coat on and flipped the hood up to hide his tattoo, standing, "I won't keep it long. I'll look for one of my own when we get there. Appa, stay."
The bison crawled under the stone awning and settled on the dry stone, rumbling contentedly. Aang patted him and turned to the woman, "I'm Aang. What's your name?"
"Katara," she said, leading him out into the snow.
The Fire Prince looked up, wincing to see one of his father's men approaching with someone in tow, almost invisible in the low red light of the room, "Zhao," he greeted sullenly.
"What, not so happy to see your Uncle Zhao?"
Zuko's hands curled into fists, "You are not my Uncle!"
Zhao laughed, "Fine, be that way. I brought you a gift, Prince of Heathens. I hope I'm not interrupting your time with your friends."
Zuko was sitting with several other young men on a large plush couch. Most of them were ignoring each other, simply sitting next to one another for the political power it might afford. Zuko most of all looked miserable. His eyes met the older man's in suspicion, "What is this?"
Zhao's eyes gleamed with sadistic glee as he pulled forward the figure behind him. The young woman, around Zuko's age, looked at the prince with dead eyes, only making the softest of sounds when Zhao shoved her forward, "My treat."
Zuko met the girl's eyes then looked away, "I'm not interested."
"Surprise surprise," Zhao purred, "Your father wants to see you. Now."
The man turned on his heels and left. Zuko stood, motioning for the girl to follow him. She did so wordlessly, leaving the dark room and stepping out onto a high balcony behind the prince, "What is your name?" Zuko asked.
The girl was surprised-and a bit frightened-by the inquiry. She hesitated for a moment before speaking, "Mai."
"Go home, Mai."
"What?" she asked.
"I said go home," Zuko said, dropping a pouch into her hand. It jingled heavily as she caught it, "Go home to your family. Stay there."
Mai quickly wrapped her hand around the coins and disappeared, rushing through darkness as silently as she'd arrived. Zuko stared out at Capital City, his golden eyes finding his father's bright, bawdy palace silhouetted by the fires that surrounded it.
Ozai managed to look pleased to see his son when Zuko opened the door, "I don't know why you have to look so sour every minute of every day."
"Father, Zhao said you wanted to see me," Zuko said, ignoring his father's words.
"Always business, never pleasure," Ozai remarked with a disappointed sigh, "Zhao said you haven't accepted my last three gifts. Why is that? Were they not three of the most beautiful women in the Fire Nation?"
"Father I am not interested in playing games," the prince said, "I am not you and I am not Azula."
Ozai smiled, "Azula you aren't," he agreed, "I looked over your request. Not everything is life or death, Zuko."
"There are a dozen assassination attempts on you every year, father," Zuko countered, "I could form a guard, a company of men to protect you. I could train them. They would be loyal to you."
"There is a flame in everyone, Zuko. Those who choose to stoke it are Fire Nation. Passion, fury, desire, righteousness, they all burn. There is no place for loyalty in a world on fire."
Zuko bowed his head, defeated, "Please don't send anymore gifts," he said quietly.
"Is it the gifts you don't like or is it all women?"
Zuko's heart jumped at his father's dangerous accusation. He bit his tongue but his expression shouted the truth.
Ozai waved him out, "Stop by and see your sister. She misses you."
The Water Tribe village was quiet, battened down and closed up in preparation for the blizzard. The only figure outside stood on the high ice wall surrounding the village's homes, "That's Sokka," Katara said, "He's the Chief's son."
Aang looked up at the man watching them and couldn't help but shudder, intimidated, "Is he waiting for the storm?"
"He's waiting for me," Katara said, "Come on, stay in my tent tonight. You won't be able to do any trading until the storm passes. It'll hit us any minute."
Aang stumbled behind her, glancing behind them every once in a while to see if they were being followed, "So Katara, why's that guy waiting for you? Are you supposed to meet him?"
Katara stopped at a small, tattered tent and opened the flap, waving Aang inside, "He's my older brother."
"Wait so you're the chief's daughter? Why don't you live with him? Why here?" he asked as he surveyed the close, dingy surroundings.
"I told you, I'm tribeless," Katara said, lighting the turtleseal oil lamp.
"What's that mean?"
Katara was surprised by his ignorance, "You must be from really far away. It means I'm banished. I don't belong to any family, any tribe. I'm an outsider who is allowed to live here as payment for my services."
Aang took off the borrowed coat and handed it back to her, "What kind of services?"
"Hunting, gathering, mending and healing," Katara said, "I help deliver babies with Sokka'a grandmother."
"Are you a Waterbender?" he asked.
Katara lowered her head, "I am. It's my curse, why I'm tribeless. It's what I stole from Sokka."
"Stole? What do you mean?"
"Sokka isn't a Waterbender," Katara said.
Aang decided not to push his luck, "Okay. So you're a healer? I've heard that isn't easy to learn."
"I don't know anyone else in my tribe who knows how," Katara said, "I didn't really learn it. One day I just did it."
Aang leaned forward, listening eagerly, "Wow. Could you teach someone waterbending? If they had the ability?"
Katara smiled, "Nobody wants to learn from a tribeless woman. We teach ourselves and no one else. We should rest. Do you want my furs or should I go out and find more?"
Aang shook his head, "No thanks. I'll just use the coat."
Katara hesitated but blew out the lantern and crawled into her small pile of furs in the corner of her tent, "Goodnight Aang."
"Goodnight," Aang muttered. Sleep came easy on the first night for Aang despite being a long way from home in very dangerous territory. Katara's presence was somehow comforting and Aang had no idea about her very protective brother already breathing down his neck.