title: The Avatar
characters: Korra, Noatak, and Tarrlok; this chapter, Aang, Gyatso, and Korra
rating: PG/T or so; character death
stuff that happens: The Avatar in the iceberg is Korra, and the siblings who discover her are Noatak and Tarrlok; inspired by this, originally started back in July, at ficbending (I’ll go back to updating after finals end this week).
Aang curled up on his bed. He felt very alone, and frightened, and exhausted, and soon he drifted off to strange dreams. He was holding a baby who hiccupped fire; he was staring down an earthbender, feeling at once angry and supremely unconcerned.
In the distance, a door creaked open. The earthbender fell far, far, down, his scream trailing behind him. Aang opened his eyes. Monk Gyatso stood in the doorway.
“I am glad to see you awake, Aang,” he said, closing the door behind him.
Aang sat up. “They haven’t changed their minds, have they?”
“Not as such, no,” said Gyatso, but he smiled. “Don’t worry, Aang. I won’t let them take you from me. I will bring you to the Eastern Air Temple myself, and ask the sisters’ permission to stay and guide you.”
“Really?” Aang’s face lit up. “And you think they’ll let you stay?”
Gyatso bowed his head. “They are kindly folk, and I have many friends there. I believe they will.”
He was still Aang’s guardian, and free unto himself. The monks could make no objection to his sudden compliance, nor his determination to see Aang safely to the Eastern Temple. In a few days’ time, both Aang and Gyatso whirled onto Appa’s back, and flew away.
“Maybe it is better this way,” Aang said. “Nobody would play with me any more. They’d hardly talk to me. I didn’t really have anyone left but you and Appa. Do you think the girls at the Eastern Air Temple will talk to me?”
Gyatso’s mouth twitched. “Very probably.”
In fact, the children at the Eastern Air Temple were very friendly; they’d never known Aang as anyone other than the Avatar, they wanted to learn his airball technique, and Aang, of course, rarely had any difficulty making friends. Within a few days, even the shyer girls, at first awed by the Avatar, laughed and shouted with him.
The sisters even agreed to let Gyatso stay. They might have been less accommodating for a different child, they admitted, but Aang could never be merely an Air Nomad. He was the Avatar. Attachment would always be part of his life. Too, the years ahead looked hard and dangerous, and Aang tended to the flighty; he could use a steadying influence right now.
Everything had gone as smoothly as either Aang or Gyatso could have wished. They should have been relieved. Yet after eight days, the old monk and the young Avatar remained anxious and uneasy. That evening, they sat together at the northern ledge of the temple, their shoulders stiff as they stared down into the reddening sky.
“Why’s it that colour?”
“A comet,” said Gyatso. “That one comes near to the earth every hundred years. It is at its closest, tonight.”
Aang’s eyes widened. “Is it going to hit us?”
“No, there’s no danger,” Gyatso said, then frowned as a small, flickering light caught his eye. Aang seemed to have seen it, too. They both peered downwards.
More lights joined the first, gleaming in the dim reddish light. It looked strangely beautiful, as if hundreds of golden stars were rising to the heavens.
“What are all those fires?” asked Aang, just as gongs went off all through the temple. They both recognized the signal: the Air Temple was under attack.
The sisters and Gyatso intended for Aang to go with the other children, though they knew that neither he nor they were likely to survive. It was nearly impossible to reach an Air Temple, and nearly impossible to escape one.
“I won’t leave you!” Aang screamed at Gyatso. Before anyone could respond, his eyes and arrows began to glow. He rose on a whirlwind, catching the first few blasts of fire in his hands and slinging them back, the gesture exactly Roku’s.
The Avatar State. No, no; this was worse than the loss of the temple, the loss of every Air Nomad on the face of the globe. Gyatso raced after his enraged, terrified protégé, alternately fighting firebenders and shouting at Aang, begging him to come back. Aang seemed oblivious to everything but the attacking firebenders, who after initially reeling back, were now focusing all their comet-enhanced power on the Avatar.
They didn’t even comprehend the victory they so nearly had in their grasp. Aang was simply the greatest obstacle in their path, and one they had not expected. Gyatso and the other airbenders defended him as well as they could, and desperately ignored the girls creeping their way down the mountain. Aang had managed to distract them from the other children, at least.
There was a brief lull in the fighting; the firebenders blasted down to call for reinforcements. Many of Gyatso’s fellow Air Nomads lay dead around him.
One of the surviving sisters grabbed Gyatso’s arm. “You must bring him back! If he dies in the Avatar State—”
Gyatso called out to Aang one last time, begging him to return to himself, swearing that he would not be sent away. Any chance for that, they all knew, had passed.
“I will stay with you to the end, Aang,” he promised.
The roar of the whirlwind faded. Aang dropped down, slumped against Gyatso’s side. When he opened his eyes, they were human and grey.
“I’m sorry,” he said, biting his lip.
Gyatso had no words left. He hugged him tightly. Then they both dodged incoming blasts of fire, Aang directing spirals of wind at the firebenders’ weak points, Gyatso sucking the air out of their lungs. The two of them fought for hours more: but finally, inevitably, they died.
Their bodies collapsed to the ground together, and dozens of firebenders lay dead around them.
Far away, in a small village in the South Pole, a young waterbender went into labour.
The baby’s name was Korra. A few months after her birth, her mother went to the aid of a nearby village, and never returned. The Fire Nation, their slaughter of the Air Nomads complete, had turned their attention to the Water Tribe. The Northern Tribe, they heard, still stood fast, but the southern villages were falling one by one. The last healers in their village, including Korra’s father, had been herded away by the time she turned three; her mother’s brother snatched her up in his arms before she could do more than scream, holding her so tightly that her arms and legs went numb.
Korra’s uncle and aunt had some idea of hiding her bending, but it proved impossible. She was an active, healthy girl, not remotely lazy, but she seemed to waterbend as readily as she ate or slept. A few months later, she threw a tantrum outside their tent, and several pebbles soared through the air, perfectly following the trajectory of her arms. Everyone in the vicinity gasped, pointed at her, ran to tell their neighbours what they had seen. The Avatar was here. The Avatar was Korra.
It only took her another six weeks to start shooting small spurts of fire out her fingertips, to the admiration of all the other children. Korra’s uncle and aunt turned, in desperation, to the village elders, and they agreed that it was too dangerous for her to remain. She must be hidden from the Fire Nation until she grew old enough to master all the elements and challenge the Fire Lord. She was taken, with her polar beardog puppy, to the Southern Water Tribe’s Avatar Temple, to live in quiet solitude, far from any potential informants, and free to continue her training.
For several years, she lived in comparative safety with them, isolated and restless. Though several keepers of the temple were waterbenders, none were masters. She had surpassed them all by the time she turned twelve. She needed a waterbending master, and the sages feared that the Fire Nation’s reach would soon extend even to the temple. There was only one place left.
“The Northern Water Tribe,” breathed Korra. “I’m finally going to see it! When do I leave?”
Sage Tekku gave her a quelling glance. “You are ahead of yourself, as usual, Korra. When we have reached a decision, we will inform you, and no sooner.”
Korra heaved a sigh and wandered out to fling herself at Naga’s side.
“How am I supposed to save the world if I haven’t even mastered any of the elements?” she demanded, rebelliously twirling a few pebbles in the air above her fingers. The sages didn’t approve of her earthbending or firebending; they said she should focus all her attention on water instead of wasting her time developing bad habits. She had to master water, then earth, fire, and (somehow) air. She wanted to gag.
Naga gave a sympathetic roar. Korra flung the small rocks away, saddled her friend, climbed on, and rode to the nearest cliff. She liked to look down from up here. It made her feel less powerless, less pointless. She wanted nothing more than to master the elements and show the Fire Lord who was boss; she longed to see the world, to have adventures, not just day after day of nothing. She was the Avatar! She should be doing something. Korra scowled down at the endless sea of white.
The sages wavered over their inevitable decision for weeks. The journey would be a dangerous one, even if the Fire Nation were not raiding their destination. What if Korra got captured? What if Korra got lost in the Earth Kingdom? What if Korra did any of the things Korra was eminently likely to do?
In the end, though, there was no choice. The South Pole was too dangerous, and Korra had to master waterbending. They informed her that she was to go to the Northern Water Tribe, escorted by the temple’s most skilled waterbenders.
“Yes!” Korra jumped up and down, pumping her fists.
The Water sages stared at her.
She coughed and bowed. “I mean. I’m glad you think I’m ready to start my training as the Avatar.”
“Well, it’s good that you appreciate the gravity-“
Korra’s mind had already skipped ahead. She beamed. “Fire Lord Sozin won’t know what hit him!”
The Water sages only sighed.
Between one thing and another, it took almost a year to reach the Northern Water Tribe. The sages refused to cross even the smallest stream on Naga, so they had to hire boats for everything—but not the main ferries, that was too noticeable. They travelled at night, both for cover and because they were at their strongest then, took the least-charted roads they could find, and went far out of their way to avoid any Fire Nation soldiers. Or rumours of Fire Nation soldiers. Or chance of Fire Nation soldiers.
“Aren’t they busy hunting waterbenders?” Korra grumbled at Naga. Her hands, though, were gentle as she plucked thorns out of her friend’s paws, and Naga barked agreement, then licked the side of her face. Korra laughed.
She supposed they must have wandered through a good part of the Earth Kingdom, but she hardly saw anything. The few times she tried to slip off with Naga, just to look at the different villages, the sages dragged her back before she’d gone more than a few hundred feet. It was almost as boring as staying in the South Pole.
Well, more boring, probably. If she’d stayed the Fire Nation would have captured her by now.
Korra practiced her waterbending in what spare time she had, sneaking earthbending and firebending when nobody seemed to be looking. They both came so easily—especially fire, which should have been her opposite element. But she didn’t know what to do with them. Even with water, she knew there was so much more she could be doing.
Her thirteenth birthday approached as they wandered the northern coast of the Earth Kingdom, and they didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. Even in the Earth Kingdom clothes Tekku had found for them all, people mostly gave them suspicious looks when they asked about the Northern Water Tribe. The most helpful strangers just laughed when Tekku asked about hiring a boat, and said that the city had been walled off for the last decade or so, since the Fire Nation first attacked.
“Tried to attack,” said an apple merchant, smugly.
Korra felt a thrill of pride. Holding off Fire Nation armies year after year? Now that was waterbending. They were just the people to teach her what she needed to know.
I’m the Avatar, she wanted to say, and I’m here to save the world! Just tell me where to go. But if they knew, they weren’t talking. The best directions Tekku got were “keep heading north, I guess.”
The sages squabbled over exactly how to go about heading north without risking Korra. Any boat small enough for them to manage with waterbending would likely get smashed on the ice. A larger one would need a crew. Only a master waterbender could hope to cross the ice on foot—and slim hope, at that.
By the night before her birthday, Korra had lost all patience with them. It wasn’t that she usually had a whole lot of it, but she had at least accepted that they knew what they were doing and would actually get her there, eventually. But now it looked like they’d rather just sit around and talk about how impossible everything was until Fire Lord Sozin took over the whole world.
“Naga and I—” she began.
“No, Korra,” they said, all together. Korra was half-tempted to slap them down with water whips, shoot fire and then just run away—but they had done a whole lot for her, and were risking their lives for her, and besides, it might not work. She sulked against Naga for a quarter-hour, then tried to think. She couldn’t sneak away. She’d tried that before, and Naga was just too big to hide. Korra was much faster and stronger than any of the men, though; without their waterbending, they’d never catch up with her.
There was no way to take away their bending, though. And really, she wouldn’t even if she could. Bending was who they were. But if there were only some way to stop it just for a little while—
Something tugged at her mind—a vague memory of shouting and crying, desperately wanting to bend, but somehow unable to do it, her hands and feet going numb as she struggled. There’d been something around her wrists and ankles, something almost soft: leather, or some sort of cloth.
Korra looked thoughtfully at the bands wrapped around her arms.
She waited until the sun rose and they made their camp for the night, even kicking off her boots and curling up against Naga. Her heart was pounding, and she had to force herself to calm down enough to hear the sages’ breathing. She waited for it to slow down, deepen, shift into low snores. Then she prodded Naga awake and immediately hushed her. Saddling her as quietly as she could, Korra shot nervous glances over her shoulder; the sages didn’t so much as twitch. Then, still barefoot, she crept over to them. Korra forced her breath to stay calm. This was her only chance; if she ruined it, she’d never have another.
Korra took out her armbands, each torn and soaked with water. She looped them around the sages’ wrists and ankles, tying them as loosely as she could. Tekku stirred slightly, muttering to himself.
She held her breath, not daring to move. He drifted back into sleep and Korra slipped back to Naga, shoving her feet into her boots. Then she bent all the water in the bands into ice.
“What?” Tekku jerked awake, then stared down at his frozen wrists. “Korra, what are you doing? Korra!”
The other sages woke up as she clambered onto the waiting Naga.
“Sorry!” she said, and bent low in the saddle. “Naga, go!”
They took off, Naga only too eager to run after days of forced inactivity. Korra only caught a glimpse of an Earth Kingdom village as they thundered through, almost knocking over some people at a vegetable cart. She shouted an apology and they headed straight for the ocean. Korra hesitated only a moment. Glancing back, she saw her mentors running after her.
“Korra!” they shouted. “Come back! You don’t know what you’re doing! You’re—”
“Time for a swim, girl,” Korra whispered to Naga. She braced herself.
Naga leapt into the freezing water. Korra wrapped a ball of water around them, hanging on with her knees. She could breathe; they were free.
Her euphoria lasted for a full twenty minutes. By then the air within the water-bubble had run out and she had to pull Naga up so she could breathe. Even though she bent all the water out of her clothes, she was still bitterly cold, and she had almost no supplies. As night came on, it only grew worse; she had to bury her face against Naga, breathing through her fur, just to avoid feeling as if the air were slicing its way down her throat. Even Naga grew tired; they collapsed on an ice floe and looked around them. Korra saw nothing but an endless icy sea.
She wasn’t prepared to admit, though, that the sages had been right. They hadn’t been right. This might be a harder way than she’d expected, but it was still the only way.
Once Naga had rested, they started again. Korra slept on and off, recovering enough energy to keep the ice from injuring Naga, occasionally catch fish, and warm her face and hands with fire. Beyond that, she could only keep them headed north; she had a good sense of direction, and it was all the direction she had.
Korra was slumped against Naga when a half-familiar sound jerked her awake. A ship—no, several ships, by the sound of them. She sat upright, looking around; she didn’t see any. Some of the snowflakes drifting from the sky, though, were black. The sages had always warned her to keep an eye out for black snow, because it would mean the Fire Nation had finally come for her.
“They’re here!” Korra dug her fingers into Naga’s fur, trying to force her sluggish mind to keep working. If they caught her, everything would be over.
But if they were attacking the Northern Water Tribe, they could lead her straight to them.
Korra urged Naga downwards, holding her arms out to keep the water flowing at a safe distance. For the first time in her memory, it seemed to resist her, the current struggling against her hold. She barely had the strength to keep gripping Naga with her legs, but they had to go on. They made their way forward, Korra half-bending and half-swimming, then they both emerged, gulping for air. Korra struggled to keep her eyelids up and peered into the distance. She could see them, now—a dozen bellowing Fire Nation ships, sailing full-steam for the northeast. Another had crashed against a nearby slab of ice.
The wind was howling and the snow so thick that she could hardly see. That was why the water had fought her; a storm was coming.
Fire Nation soldiers poured out of their sinking ship, onto the ice. Korra, half-numb, wondered if she should try to help. Before she could decide, one of the soldiers pointed at her and shouted something.
Two flames shot right over her head. Korra would have gladly returned returned the fire, but she didn’t know how, not properly—not against real firebenders—and she was very, very tired. She grabbed Naga’s reins and dove back into the water, trying to bend them to safety. Korra managed to propel them a few hundred feet through the water, but no more. The wild current finally escaped her control, sweeping their bodies deeper into the sea. Water filled Korra’s nose and mouth, her grip on Naga’s reins loosened, and her mind began to dim. She was going to die.
Korra’s eyes flew open, glowing white. Her hands tightened again, back into fists; her fists pressed together; her body righted itself in total indifference to the laws of nature. Then the powerful current swirled around her and Naga, and froze into an icy sphere.