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Author Topic: Traitor's Face [AU Adventure, rated T]  (Read 23212 times)
Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 31687


I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #100 on: Mar 14, 2016 06:06 pm »

Don't kill Zhao. Sad

I really like the guy, though it looks like his cue to exit the stage is coming up. It's my hope that this assassination attempt fails, and Ozai finds himself in a messy situation.

How messy can situations get? Zhao is about to find out. Cheesy




Deals and Demons

Cadet Zhao's first Firebending lesson with Admiral Jeong-Jeong was nothing like he expected.

Zhao had recently begun his formal apprenticeship under the admiral, serving as Jeong-Jeong's personal aide aboard the command ship Dominance. His only two official duties were to perform whatever errands the admiral had for him and gratefully accept any lessons offered, which for the first few days had left Zhao standing by and occasionally retrieving tools or passing messages to the ship's crew. Finally, late on the third night of the apprenticeship, Zhao returned to Jeong-Jeong's shadowy cabin after passing on some orders to find the admiral kneeling at a desk and squinting at some reports in the low light of a single lamp.

Jeong-Jeong looked up. "Cadet Zhao, it is time to begin your training."

Zhao immediately stood straighter. "Sir! It is my honor."

"Yes. Come forward, and stand right there."

Zhao did as directed, taking a position in the center of the cabin.

"Good. Now, take a horse stance."

Zhao did so, lowering into the wide-legged squatting position. He had already learned the basics of Firebending at the Academy, and made sure to keep his legs far apart to show how well he had taken the lessons.

Jeong-Jeong's eyes fell back to his reports. "Wider."

Straining, Zhao shifted his legs a bit further apart.

"Good. Summon the Flame in your hands."

Zhao brought his hands together, and with a single exhalation, brought an instance of light and heat into the world. The flame easily outshone the cabin's cloudy gas lamp, a proper testament to the power that Zhao had within him.

Jeong-Jeong continued reading his reports.

Zhao held his stance and frowned. Perhaps the admiral's eyes were failing, and he didn't realize that anything had happened? Zhao began taking heavier breathes, putting more power into the flame in his hands, making the cabin shine with light.

Jeong-Jeong never looked up.

Zhao waited, straining in his stance, trying to focus on keeping his breathing steady. The flame in his hands danced and roiled, supple with energy and longing to be released. It would be easier to control at a smaller size, but Zhao refused to show weakness in front of his new master. He gritted his teeth, ignoring the sweat slowly traveling down his neck and into his armor, trying to keep his legs from trembling even as the flame in his hands flickered with ambition.

Zhao made it another two minutes before he collapsed in a heap and the flame died.

Only then, with Zhao panting on the floor, did Admiral Jeong-Jeong look up. "I didn't tell you to stop."

Zhao scrambled back to his feet, the lack of dignity hurting more than his legs. "You were ignoring me!"

"I was reading."

"Exactly!"

Jeong-Jeong's expression never changed. "Why do you think I asked you to create a light? I have another hour of reports to go through, here, and in this low light I'd quickly get a headache."

"You-" Zhao tried to swallow his fury. The admiral was highly respected, and known as one of the greatest Firebenders alive, but to be treated like a- like a utility lamp- "You said you would train me!"

Jeong-Jeong snapped to his feet so fast that Zhao never even saw the transition. "How dare you question my honor!" His formerly placid face was twisted in a scowl that made the thin scars across his right eye disappear in the folds of skin. "Do you think yourself so important that you can dictate what you will learn?" He stepped over the desk and approached Zhao with slow, deliberate steps.

Zhao was beginning to fear that he was about to get a beating. "No, sifu, I-"

"Shut your mouth."

Zhao shut it.

Jeong-Jeong sighed, and turned away. "I asked you to create a flame. I did not tell you for how long. If you had not been so eager to receive praise, you would have realized that and produced a flame over which you could maintain precise, ongoing control. Instead, you pushed yourself too far. Success in this lesson would have been to keep the flame going long enough for me to finish my reading. Success also would have been to last as long as your gong fu would have allowed, demonstrating the limits of your technique. You suffered failure because you didn't listen to directions, you over-reached, and then you lashed out in a vain attempt to deny our own failings."

By the last word, Zhao was standing hunched and defeated. This was nothing like he had expected. Surely, the admiral would dismiss him from service now, declaring the favor owed to Zhao's father repaid but unsuccessful.

Jeong-Jeong apparently saw that his wisdom had been accepted, and gave a half-nod that almost looked satisfied. "I can see I have much to teach you."

Teach? He still-

Cadet Zhao snapped back to attention and bowed. "Thank you, sifu!"

Jeong-Jeong glanced back out of the side of his scarred eye. "Thank me by learning, and letting me save you from your flaws."



Decades later, Zhao once again stood before his sifu in a posture of defeat.

Zhao's office in the Central Command building was much more comfortable than Jeong-Jeong's sparsely appointed cabin on the Dominance, and was properly illuminated with several well-cleaned lamps, but he nevertheless felt like he lacked any advantage. The audience with the Fire Lord, where that traitor Zuko would have been presented as evidence of Prince Ozai's treasonous conspiracy, had already been requested. The rest of High Command was depending on him. He had pushed them all to make a play against the Royal Family, and now-

-now Zuko was either dead or escaped, and someone had to be sacrificed. Zhao was under no illusions that his superiors would offer him any protection. This was definitely the end of his career, and possibly the end of his life.

And now Jeong-Jeong stood before him once again, his hair whiter, but nothing about him any softer.

Zhao clenched his fists. "What help can you possibly give me now?" Perhaps his old sifu intended to take the blame?

Jeong-Jeong showed no sign of the drunkenness he had displayed when Zhao first came to Capital Island. His gaze was as steady as ever, and there wasn't even the slightest tremor in his hands as they clasped together. "I will get you off the island tonight. I will get you out of the Fire Nation, beyond the reach of any political enemies, including the Fire Lord. I will give you a new career, and the chance to once again rise to power."

Zhao didn't feel any better. "And what would you be getting in return?"

Jeong-Jeong's eyebrows rose, but he said nothing.

Zhao shook his head. "I don't believe you are doing this out of kindness. You want something from me, or your allies want something. You traded favors with my father, once upon a time, and now you're trying to trade favors with me."

Jeong-Jeong gave a single, crisp nod. "You're right, of course. There will be a trade of services. And I am honoring my original promise to save you from yourself."

Zhao didn't want to hear it. "What are your terms?"

Jeong-Jeong shook his head. "They don't matter."

"No?"

"No. You agree to them, because you have no other choice. I will explain them when you need to know, but until then that knowledge will just be a distraction."

Zhao wanted to argue. He couldn't be treated this way! But Jeong-Jeong wasn't wrong. Zhao briefly considered what kind of duties would be too terrible, too odious for him to perform in exchange for his life-

-and could think of nothing. "Very well, Master. I do accept. So what do we do now?"

Jeong-Jeong gave that same half-nod he always did whenever Zhao finally absorbed one of his lessons. "Now, we begin. Spies have been tracking your movements, and some may even be watching his building right now."

Zhao blinked. "In Lower Harbor City? But the Navy has every street under guard here, and-"

"And are you confident that those guards would keep your enemies out? Zhao, that wire about the prison attack came this morning."

Zhao's stomach lurched. The sun was setting on the capital now, and soon Admiral Chan's dinner party would be starting. Did he know-

Of course he did. It was possible that Chan was even attempting to set Zhao up, although knowing the admiral, it was just as likely that keeping the party was to give the impression that everything was fine. Either way, Jeong-Jeong was right. Zhao could rely on nothing at this point. "We need to leave discreetly, then."

"Yes. I doubt the Navy is spying on you, for now, so we can move freely in this building, at least." Jeong-Jeong motioned to the door. "I have a disguise waiting in my own office, the armor and helmet of a duty guard. I'll give you identification and a packet of orders to carry to my ship in the harbor, and meet you there later."

Zhao nodded. So long as the paperwork was good- and Jeong-Jeong had always been meticulous with his paperwork- then it would be both a simple and effect ruse. He followed his old master into the corridors that would lead to the office, using the walk as an opportunity to try to make sense of his new world.

"So what," he said softly to Jeong-Jeong, "was that display back when I first arrived? I never took you for a thespian, Master, never mind so capable as to fake inebriation."

"That was not theater," came the soft reply. Jeong-Jeong's face betrayed no shame or embarrassment. "When I have no honorable service to perform, I fill the hours as I am inclined. Liquor is most effective in helping me to forget the horrors of the war."

"And spiriting me away from accusations of treason is honorable service?"

"Serving my new lord is honorable. The Fire Lord- the Fire Nation- has no honor."

"New lord?" Zhao didn't like the sound of that. "Who is your new lord?"

A trace of a smile was almost twisting Jeong-Jeong's lip. "That is one of the details which will only distract you now."



Piandao knew something was wrong when it was only an hour to Admiral Chan's dinner party and Zhao still hadn't left Central Command.

"You're sure you haven't seen him pass through the gate," he said, hidden from view by both the shadows of the alleyway and a stylish hood. There was no question in his words.

The old woman- a cook who sold fried foods out of cart to the Navy personnel and did some spying in Lower Harbor City as a sideline- nodded. "He always makes a fuss, that one, even when he's on business."

Piandao had to agree with that. Zhao couldn't blow his nose without putting on a show for anyone who happened to be watching; he was probably his own best audience, but the psychology of the man was hardly important compared to his habits. Zhao should have left for the party by now, which would have let Piandao conveniently murder him on a lonely street somewhere, but he had broken his habits, which meant he was trying to evade detection. Had he received word of Zuko's rescue already? The news had forced Piandao himself to finally execute Ozai's assassination orders this night.

It wasn't hard to guess what it might force Zhao to do.

"Thank you," Piandao said to the old woman, and tossed her a coin that glinted even in the dim light of the crescent moon. Piandao quickly made his way back through Lower Harbor City, staying off the main lanes and always keeping his hood up. Even so, when he reached the gate to the Capital Harbor, he tossed the guard there two coins of the kind he had given his street spy.

Even with the sun nothing more than a mere orange glow on the horizon, there was activity on the docks. The cities of the Capital- especially the Caldera- had ‘special’ needs when it came to resources, and so there was always cargo of some kind being unloaded. Piandao kept his hood up and found a dockworker who had proved reliable in the past, and started a conversation by holding up a coin. "I want to know if any ship- any ship- intends to set sail tonight. Use the regular dead drop."

The burly man took the coin and made it disappear into his vest with a quickness and grace that any martial artist would have envied. "I'll ask around."

"Discreetly," Piandao said.

"Discreetly. Yes, sir."

"Good man." Satisfied, Piandao began to hunt down a rickshaw that could take him back up the hill to Caldera City. He had a dinner party to attend.

Admiral Chan was said to host such wonderful gatherings, although tonight's was likely to have problems.



Zhao couldn't help but let out a relieved breath when he boarded Jeong-Jeong's ship, still wearing his anonymous guard armor. The craft was a standard destroyer docked close to the Royal Plaza, the kind of floating fortress that had allowed the Fire Nation to dominate the seas for decades. Zhao didn't know what role the ship was serving currently, but most of the crew carefully paid him no attention as he walked up the boarding plank. Before Zhao could even get his helmet off, the captain walked over and said, "I believe you have orders for me."

Zhao handed over the scroll provided by Jeong-Jeong.

The captain accepted it without bothering to look at it. "All right, then, go wait for the admiral in his cabin. Don't talk to any of the crew."

Zhao didn't like this. He pondered the situation as he made his way into the depths of the ship. He had been thinking that Jeong-Jeong's new lord was a noble working to get his or her claws into some Navy assets, but those kinds of agreements were never shared with a crew right in the Capital Harbor. It was just a short rickshaw ride to the Central Command building, where the whole thing could be reported by someone with an overdeveloped sense of honor. That suggested this crew thought they were operating under legitimate orders, but knew Zhao's presence to be a secret.

What was his old master dragging him into?



A dinner party was no place to wear a hood, so instead Piandao wrapped a scar around his head that left only his eyes visible. He approached Admiral Chan's house openly, and carried his sheathed sword at the ready.

The guards at the mansion's gate visibly blanched when they saw him coming.

Piandao was not in a good mood, considering the difficulties with Zhao, but that was no excuse for a lack of professionalism. The guards were not his designated targets, so when they drew swords against him, he made sure to merely disarm them, and then smashed their faces with the butt of his weapon.

He walked on without slowing.

This was the Caldera, the center of all Fire Nation culture, and so there were no other guards to hinder Piandao as he proceeded across the courtyard and into the mansion itself. Servants scattered at the sight of him stalking through the halls, and Piandao could hear the echoing chatter of Admiral Chan's dinner guests.

Piandao headed deeper into the mansion. The guest of honor had not yet arrived, after all, so Chan himself would not have made his own appearance.

He found the admiral pacing in his bedroom, dressed in a fashionable set of orange robes that looked new. Chan turned with an expression of annoyance at Piandao's arrival, but then his eyes went wide and his face went white.

Before Chan could move, Piandao had crossed the distance and raised his jian sword so that the point hovered- unwavering in the air- just shy of the admiral's throat.

Chan said, "What-"

"I want Zhao."

Chan gave as much of a shake of his head as he could without touching the blade. "I don't know!"

Piandao looked in the other man's eyes, and nodded. "No, you don't." His blade whistled in the air, and Chan's body dropped to the ground. Piandao flicked the blade to get the blood off of it before returning it to its sheath. If Zhao was not found, at least his commanding officer and co-conspirator would carry the message of Ozai's wrath.

On the way out, Piandao was confronted by a young man- he couldn't have been older than Prince Zuko- with well-muscled arms and a dimness in his eyes. "Who are you? Where's my dad?"

Piandao brushed past the boy without slowing.

Chan the Younger's cries for his father echoed as Piandao walked out into the night. This time, the guards made no attempt to challenge him.
Logged

Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #101 on: Mar 14, 2016 06:07 pm »



Zuko had slept through most of the day, exhausted from the effort of escaping the Navy's island prison, lost in dreams of dark spirits. Goblins, fanged and snarling, dragged him through forest paths that led nowhere, leading him along so quickly that he stumbled over rocks and roots. They laughed at his tripping with voices like thorns covered in honey, and taunted him to burn them for their disrespect. Yet when he tried to attack them, to show them what his rage could do, they turned to smoke and flew away on the wind.

He woke with a start to find Azula watching him from the other side of their ship's small cabin. "What do you want?"

"Are you rested? There's planning to be done, but I wouldn't want to push you too hard." She smiled sharply in the light of the lamp. "You're not used to this kind of excitement, after all."

Zuko sat up on the cot. "I'm ready for anything."

Azula rolled her eyes and moved to the cabin's door. She opened it, leaned out, and called, "Get in here. It's time."

When Azula stepped back into the cabin, Suki followed her. "Now," she said, looking back over to Zuko, "our first order of business is to determine why I shouldn't kill your little girlfriend and throw her body into the sea."

Zuko stood up, startled at the threat, but Suki didn't seem concerned. She bowed to Azula and said, "That's a fair question. I know that Zuko has been banished from your homeland, and that he's chasing the Avatar. Well, I used to be a double agent hidden amongst the rebels of Kyoshi Island, and I lived and worked with the Avatar for almost a month."

Zuko already knew this, and so looked over to see Azula's reaction, but of course his sister's face betrayed nothing. She could be as inscrutable as Mai, sometimes.

Suki continued, "Zhao murdered my handler and framed me for it, then arrested me and kept me on his ship so that he could use my knowledge to hunt the Avatar. Except he lost the trail completely after Crescent Island, so he stowed me and Zuko in that prison and went off to chase something else. I don't have much knowledge of Zhao, but I know the Avatar and his companions. I can help you."

Azula looked over to Zuko. "And you trust her?"

Zuko lowered his eye to the floor. "I trusted her enough to free her. She was imprisoned unjustly by a traitor." He remembered something Azula had said earlier, and added, "And we're not dating. I would have done the same for anyone."

"How honorable of you." Azula snorted. "And our little double agent thinks her help is worth the risk of letting her live with the knowledge that I assaulted a Fire Navy outpost?"

"Ha," Suki scoffed. "Who would believe me? I'm a filthy foreign spy who obviously would sell out to anyone with two coppers to rub together, and I'm probably just trying to seduce Zuko to get to the Royal Family's riches, anyway. Someone as capable as you isn't really risking anything with me."

"No?" Azula's voice was tinged with amusement, and Zuko wondered if it was safe to bait his sister this way.

"No." Suki crossed her arms over her chest. "That's why you still owe me for my help. I want you to get my sister to safety, and in exchange I'll do everything in my power to get you the Avatar."

Zuko blinked. He remembered what Suki had told him about her sister, and so explain, "An Earthbender serving under Zhao's command in the Navy. You want us to- what, kidnap her?"

Suki shrugged. "That would work, but I'll leave the details up to you. Your sister obviously has connections."

Azula nodded. "Obviously. So we get your sister out of harm's way, set her up somewhere beyond Zhao's reach- not that I expect him to be long for the world- and win the services of the world's only free-agent Avatar Expert?" She tapped her chin. "I'm not sure how much you really know about the Avatar, but you're capable, scrappy, and intelligent. And you know how to flatter. Very well, we're agreed. I'll send a wire to my Father to recover your sister as soon as we land."

Suki's own eyes were narrowed. "And how do I know I can trust you?"

"You don't," Azula said simply. "But Zuzu is a man of honor, and he'd get cranky if I went back on my word. Right?"

Zuko decided to say nothing. His sister had apparantly noticed his inability to challenge her worst tendencies.

Azula waved it way. "Well, we want the Avatar as quickly as possible, and I'm not delaying until you have proof of your sister's safety. Your best guarantee is to make yourself a useful tool, so that I'll have incentive to reward you and cultivate your eager and happy service. I expect much from my allies, but I am more than happy to reward loyalty and high standards. Your first advance payment will be your life. Is that sufficient?"

Zuko noticed that Azula wasn't making any threats against Suki's sister. If Father made the arrangements Azula described, then his forces would obviously always know Suki's sister's whereabouts and hold full responsibility for her protection.

He doubted that Suki had missed that angle, either.

Nevertheless, she fell to her knees and bowed to Azula, pressing her forehead against the floor.

Azula herself was grinning. "Excellent. You may rise. Now, we just need to make our plans. We have the staff, and once we reach the Earth Kingdom and I wire Father, I can ask him to arrange another meeting with June."

At Suki's questioning glance, Zuko said, "June is a bounty hunter. She has a shirshu- a big hairy thing that can hunt by scent, even across a continent. She'll track down the Avatar for us. The problem is when we get close. The Avatar is powerful and wily, and he has people protecting him."

Azula nodded. "The Waterbenders and Water Tribe rebels. Also, those Blue Spirit warriors- yes, Zuzu, I didn't come up with the mask on my own; I'm curious as to who will respond when reports of a Blue Spirit attacking the prison are circulated. And the Avatar is most likely building a coalition of Earth Kingdom rebels as well."

"And Mai," Zuko added. He couldn't keep his voice from darkening at the memory of her betrayal.

Azula blinked. "Mai?"

"She sided with the Avatar at Crescent Island." Zuko felt Fire flare within his heart, but it was not a good fire, not a clean fire. It seared his Qi-lines and made his stomach hurt. "That's why I couldn't capture him. I had him in my hands-"

"What?" Azula's shriek echoed off the cabin's metal walls.

Zuko took a step back from his sister. "I never saw Mai after the volcano erupted, but if the Avatar survived then-"

"<I>I thought she was dead!" Azula's fists were clenched, and smoke was pouring from between her fingers. Her gaze lost focus and she meandered through the small cabin. "She betrayed me! Me! I don't- Why-" She whirled on Zuko. "Are you positive? This makes no sense! You make no sense!"

Zuko held up his hands in a weak defense. "She said it to me, directly, before pinning me to a column." He left out that Mai had also offered for Azula to lick ash.

Azula went very, very still. Zuko was beginning to think that she had hurt herself, but then she said, almost at whisper, "Mai is dead. Mai, and everyone she still cares about."

Zuko couldn't help but shudder at the certainty in that voice. He didn't want anyone to die, he just wanted to go home, but he had the feeling that contradicting his sister now would be physically dangerous. Instead, he decided to go outside for some fresh air. He motioned to Suki as he moved, and she was quick to follow him.

It was much cooler outside on the deck, where Father's mercenaries piloted the ship across the waves. Zuko didn't remember it being that much warmer inside, at least not when he had been alone.

"That was kind of scary," Suki said once they were beyond Azula's hearing.

Zuko could only nod. "Now you know the kind of deal you just made. No one denies Azula what she wants."

The starlight revealed Suki's shudder.



Zhao paced and wondered if he was about to die.

Jeong-Jeong's cabin on this ship was as sparsely decorated as any of his rooms over the years, but Zhao found it overwhelming nonetheless. The metal walls seemed to close in on him, hiding him from the rest of the world but also keeping him from seeing any dangers that might be coming. Zhao had no desire to die, but if he had to, he'd rather it be in close combat, where he could at least leave his enemies a burn to remember him by. Why had he engaged in the skullduggery of politics? Why had Prince Zuko and Lady Mai sought to ruin his path to power? Why had the Spirits reached out and sabotaged the good work Zhao was doing for his nation?

Zhao didn't expect that the explanations would make him feel any better, but having them denied to him was just insulting.

He was startled out of his pacing when the door screeched open and Jeong-Jeong walked in. "There were no problems with the disguise or the journey, I take it?"

Zhao shook his head. "I seem to have successfully deserted from the Navy. You have my considerable thanks for assisting in this last stage of the ruination of my career."

Jeong-Jeong walked over to where his old writing desk waited in the center of the room. As he kneeled, he said, "I have failed you as a teacher. After so many years and lessons, you still assume things that could not be further from the truth."

Zhao kneeled on the other side of the desk. "What are you saying? Now that I'm safe, I want to know what's going on!"

"You are not safe yet. The ship cannot leave its dock until the proper clearances have been filed. But that will take some time, so I might as well indulge your curiosity." Jeong-Jeong produced a scroll from his belt, and he unfurled a stack of papers and laid them out on the desk for Zhao to see. "These are your transfer orders."

Zhao leaned over and read. "I'm being transferred to the Northern Fleet to command a task force under orders from- from Prince Iroh?!" Zhao looked up at his old master. "You're in contact with Iroh?"

Jeong-Jeong gave that single teacherly half-nod. "He is not as disconnected from the world as most think."

Zhao fell into a slump and tried to process this. Prince Admiral Iroh outranked everyone else in the entire Navy, and although he didn't serve as part of High Command, his orders could override theirs. If Jeong-Jeong's paperwork was legitimate, then Zhao was indeed saved from charges of desertion. He had simply been tasked with an emergency secret mission that brought him out of the Capital on short notice. And if Iroh was agreeing to protect him, then that was a power that could indeed rival Prince Ozai. Iroh was still the crown prince, after all, so despite his strange self-exile from the Homeland, he must have enough of the Fire Lord's favor.

Zhao looked up at Jeong-Jeong. "Am I to conclude that Prince Iroh approves of what I was attempting against Prince Ozai?"

Jeong-Jeong closed his eyes. "I doubt he cares. He is no omniscient manipulator. But Zuko's rescue was conducted in such a way as to jeopardize some of Prince Iroh's plans, and so Ozai needs to be opposed before he causes real trouble."

"And what are Prince Iroh's plans?"

Jeong-Jeong opened his eyes again and looked at Zhao with something that was almost a smirk. "That information is need-to-know. I was directed to tell only that Prince Iroh requires the presence of the Avatar, alive and unharmed, at the North Pole. You are to track the Avatar, capture him, and then arrange a rendezvous according to instructions that you will be given when you've taken formal command of your task force."

Zhao blinked. "The Avatar? What does Iroh want with the Avatar?"

"Need-to-know, Zhao. Prince Iroh is working for the betterment of both the Fire Nation and the world as a whole, so you can be assured that you will be performing honorable service, if that matters to you."

It didn't, of course, but Zhao didn't feel the need to say so. A more relevant concern was that he could still have the glory of capturing the Avatar, the opportunity to finish off Lady Mai, and the chance to run his own operation.

On the other hand, this business of a rendezvous after the Avatar's recovery was too mysterious. Would the Avatar be taken off Zhao's hands and brought back to the Homeland by Iroh as a kind of redemption? Was Zhao being used and discarded? Jeong-Jeong seemed to consider Iroh honorable, and even Zhao had to admit that his master was quite insightful, but he had also proved to be unstable. Was he so desperate for honor after his problems with the war that he was putting too much hope in the Prince Admiral?

Did Zhao have a choice?

As if sensing his thoughts, Jeong-Jeong nodded from across the desk. "You belong to Prince Iroh, now, to use as he wills."

Zhao's Inner Fire flared and he snapped to his feet. "I belong to nobody!"

"Perhaps I misjudged you. Then feel free to disembark from my ship, and find what mercy you can from High Command and Prince Ozai."

Zhao could think of nothing to say to that.

Jeong-Jeong rose to his own feet, and turned to leave. "We should be departing soon. I will observe from the bridge. You may join me, if you wish, as you will be commanding this ship once we reach the Colonial Continent." He stepped out of the cabin, leaving Zhao alone.

Alone, and trapped.

Certainly, Zhao could leave if he wanted. But that would simply be stepping back into the fires of the Caldera's deadly society. He would be dragged before Fire Lord, accused of treason against the Royal Family itself, and subjected to whatever tortures Old Azulon could devise in his senility.

So one path was certain death.

The other path was haunted by a possible loss of glory, but it did offer survival, and that was no small thing. As long as Zhao survived, he could work for advancement. If Iroh wished to take credit for the Avatar's capture, it would rankle, but Zhao could act agreeable, present himself as a good little servant like Jeong-Jeong, and earn Iroh's favor. Surely, Iroh would not forget that when he became Fire Lord. Zhao was no traitor by choice, merely by necessity. If Iroh had any wisdom, he would not recreate the necessity for a loyal, capable Commander- no, Admiral. Maybe even High Admiral, someday.

Zhao felt a little lighter as he made his way to the ship's bridge.

Even by the time he arrived, the vessel was still docked. "We haven't been cleared yet?"

Jeong-Jeong said nothing, but the Captain pointed through the viewport, to the far side of the harbor. "They will light a yellow lamp when they're ready for us, but it's taking far longer than I expected. I notified them of our departure this morning, so this isn't entirely last-minute. Why would-"

Jeong-Jeong said, "It's because everyone manning the lamp station is dead or incapacitated."

Silence descended on the bridge.

Zhao took it upon himself to ask, "How do you know?"

Jeong-Jeong pointed out the viewport, at a solitary figure approaching their dock. "That man walks like a warrior with the ability to slay every person on this ship. And he is coming for us."

Zhao blinked. Someone like that couldn't be an assassin for hire. Such a warrior would have been made a Weapon of the Fire Nation years ago-

Piandao. Also called Piandao Clanless, for being a foundling with no home of his own. Also called Piandao Hundredslayer, for the time he proved there was no such thing as numerical superiority when engaging him in battle.

Ozai's pet murderer.

Zhao's legs went weak, and backed up to lean against the wall to stay upright.

Jeong-Jeong turned on his heel and walked past Zhao, saying, "Set sail as soon as I am off the ship. I will buy you the time you need."

Zhao immediately stood up straight and added, "As Commander of this ship, I confirm the Admiral's orders. Get us out of here!"
Logged

Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #102 on: Mar 14, 2016 06:07 pm »



Beneath the crescent moon, Piandao approached the ship that he had been tipped to and found a single man in Navy armor disembarking to face him.

The torches on the dock shed enough light to reveal the man's identity: Admiral Jeong-Jeong, a staff member at Central Command and Zhao's old Firebending master. It all fit, and meant that Zhao was almost certainly hiding in the ship.

All of that was incidental to Piandao right now. The light of the torches also revealed the way Jeong-Jeong moved, the easy grace in his limbs, the everyday precision that echoed his Firebending style. There was a confidence in Jeong-Jeong's body language that said he did not fear Piandao, and that was perhaps the most revealing.

Jeong-Jeong reached the bottom of the boarding plank and took a Firebending stance.

Piandao stopped well short of his opponent and drew his sword.

The battle began, but neither man moved. Piandao fought only with his mind, focusing on his opponent and analyzing every possible factor and outcome. Jeong-Jeong would be doing the same, with just as much skill (if not more), and Piandao determined the he would be at a disadvantage if he attacked first. Jeong-Jeong would read his movements and intentions and take control of the fight, establishing what could very well prove to be an unassailable defense. He was well known as a Firebending Master of the highest order, and commanded both power and subtlety that could overcome Piandao's skill.

But the ship began pulling away from the dock, and Prince Ozai would not be pleased if Zhao escaped.

Holding back a sigh, Piandao dashed with all his speed and strength, gambling that he could get past his opponent and leap to the departing ship without getting drawn into an exchange. But Jeong-Jeong struck so fast that the air snapped, sliding his left foot out to full extension while punching his left fist in the same direction, sending out dual streams of fire that mixed and rose up into a wall.

And that was no metaphor on Piandao's part- the fire was truly forming a long, tall field of flame that cut off all sight of the ship and the bay and the night sky.

So Piandao fought back another sigh and angled his run to take him right at Jeong-Jeong. The wall proved self-sustaining as Jeong-Jeong moved into another attack, punching a series of fireballs so small and rapid that they might as well have been a single massive bloom. Piandao couldn't stop in time to avoid it, so he surrendered to his own momentum and forced his body into a leaping twist that would carry him just past the edge of the attack. Except his landing area was soon the focus of another firestorm, and he tumbled into a roll that mixed the scrape of the stone ground with the heated sting of fire. Piandao came up to find his clothes aflame, but he could shave with his sword if he were so inclined (and completely uncivilized) so a quick slash was all that was needed to free himself from the burning bits.

The little tatters of flaming clothes had not yet struck the ground when Jeong-Jeong kicked out another wall of flame.

This one was smaller than the first, but effectively divided Piandao's battlefield in half, forcing him towards Jeong-Jeong's right side. The same tactic could be used repeatedly to force Piandao into an increasingly narrow lane that would leave him no room to dodge, so he had to put an end to this immediately, but Jeong-Jeong was simply too fast to approach like this.

So rather than doing it the fair way, Piandao threw his scabbard at Jeong-Jeong's head.

Jeong-Jeong dodged it, of course, but in that split second of distraction, Piandao lunged forward like the winds at the peak of Kunlun Mountain with his sword extended for a stab. A slice would have had a greater chance of connecting, but at this range both were likely to miss, and the stab specifically encouraged Jeong-Jeong to sidestep.

To do that, he had to drop the smaller wall of fire bisecting the battlefield.

And Piandao was ready for that.

Even before Jeong-Jeong began his counterattack, Piandao whipped his sword back into a close guard and shrank into low cross-legged stance. Jeong-Jeong kicked out with flame but this close he could not turn it into a wall before Piandao was springing to the side and slicing in. The blade found nothing to bite into as Jeong-Jeong was already moving. He batted the sword aside on the flat edge with a slap that also left a trail of fire in the air and Piandao shoved with the hilt but Jeong-Jeong spun and punched and kicked and slapped and shoved and punched again and Piandao twisted and crouched and sprang and spun and deflected but whole world became a basket of flame with the paths of Jeong-Jeong's fire tightening and drawing in on Piandao so he centered himself right in the path of the next flaming punch and Jeong-Jeong’s fist shot out with skin tight over the knuckles and fire exploded from it and Piandao could sense nothing but light and heat so he closed his eyes and listened only to the sound of the blood flowing in his own veins and he rose up onto his left leg alone and sliced across the middle of the inferno with all the power in his body and all the efficiency of his deepest reflexes-

-and the blade moved so fast that the wind of its passage yanked the flame along to the side even as it starved the fire of air. Jeong-Jeong might have been surprised at the tactic but Piandao wasn't paying attention because he was drawing his sword back and so he was in a perfect position to fall forward onto his coiled right leg and stab forward with one last lunge.

Steel passed through armor and flesh and heart and flesh and armor again.

Jeong-Jeong's fire faded from the air, leaving the just night and the glow of the stars and crescent moon.

Piandao glanced over his dying opponent’s shoulder and noted that the ship had pulled too far from the docks to reach. Even Lady Caldera Yu Ty Lee wouldn't have been able to make that jump. Piandao had lost.

So he turned his attention to Jeong-Jeong, smoothly extracted his sword from the body, and gently laid the man down on the dock. "You have succeeded, Admiral. Your charge is safely away."

"Service-" Jeong-Jeong labored to breathe, but he did not give up his strength. "Service with honor."

Piandao took Jeong-Jeong's hands in his own. "You have been loyal and diligent for your whole career. Your death is the culmination of an honorable life."

"No-" Jeong-Jeong gasped- "no honor- in war- in killing. They died- died for our- greed. Only- at the end did- did I find honor. Too- too- late…"

And with a wet rattle, Jeong-Jeong breathed his last.

Piandao closed his enemy's eyes, and bowed low to the body.

After a long moment, he rose and flicked the blood off of his sword. The ship was passing through the harbor gates now, and it wouldn't be long before the city guards came to investigate all the disturbances. He recovered his scabbard, pulled his hood over his head, and then ran off into the night. He could make for Upper Harbor City and hide out there until morning. Prince Ozai would have to wait until the sun was in the sky to get a report.

Piandao was not looking forward to that. Zhao had escaped, and there were forces that still apparently supported the egomaniac. Hopefully, Ozai would at least be pleased that Zhao’s immediate backer in the scheme with Zuko, Admiral Chan, had been assassinated, and that Jeong-Jeong had at least paid with his life for Zhao's safety.

If not, Piandao would have to find a new master to serve or die a criminal.

But if Jeong-Jeong was right and there was no honor in killing, then Piandao feared that no matter his master, honorable service was now forever beyond his grasp.



Through his spyglass, Zhao was able to get one last look at his master’s body before the ship passed through the harbor gates and onto open waters. He might have died, but Master Jeong-Jeong had at least given his life for a worthy cause:

Zhao's continued survival.

And now Zhao had an Avatar to catch, and glory to win anew.



Jet could feel his thoughts moving slower than they were supposed to, but he kept himself sane by reminding himself that he knew where he was.

He had originally thought that the Fire Navy had been his captor, back when he first woke up on a big metal ship steaming away from what used to be Crescent Island. Locked in the brig, he had shouted for Smellerbee before he remembered that she was dead, killed by the unstoppable Firebenders girl with the blue flames. He had assumed that the Fire Navy would deposit him in some island prison, and began thinking up ways to escape from a place he hadn't even seen yet.

Then the Firebenders girl had come down to see him, along with a group of big soldiers. Jet had put up a fight, of course, but without his swords he could only do so much, and so had been dragged out of the brig while the Firebender watched.

Jet had been amazed when he was dragged off the ship to find himself at what seemed to be a civilian dock nestled right next to bustling Fire Nation town.

At that point, Jet had done the only thing he could do- what he had been trained to do- look around a lot and memorize landmarks. So he had stayed quiet and concentrated on that as he was dragged to a carriage and locked in the back with the Firebender girl. He had done the same thing when they got to their destination and he had been dragged out to find an abandoned mansion on cliff. He had continued his memorization as he was dragged inside and locked in what had clearly used to be a nicely-sized closet. In the time between his interrogations, he had replayed the memories of what he had seen until he began to dream about them at night.

That's around when Jet's thoughts began slowing. He had eventually figured out that his captors- whoever they represented- were decreasing the amount of water they were giving him. They were dehydrating him. The headaches were the giveaway, and Jet was grateful that he had experienced such effects before. Unfortunately, this insight came only after the Firebender girl had begun the conversations.

Jet knew them to really be interrogations, at first, but as the confusion and headaches got worse, and the girl shared her wine and spoke so pleasantly about all kinds of topics, Jet forgot what was going on. He forgot that he wasn't supposed to talk. He forgot that the Firebender had killed Smellerbee. He forgot Smellerbee was even dead. The worst was that he forgot that the Firebender girl wasn't beautiful, because she wasn't really, because she was Fire Nation.

Then, one day, she was gone, and Jet had been left to wait in his closet day after day, wishing he had more water.

At that point, the dreams began happening while he was awake. The memories of that dock, of the town, of the mansion all floated around him like ghosts, and the Firebender girl danced through the illusions first with Smellerbee in her arms, and then the Avatar, then Sokka, and finally that spy Mai. Sometimes, Jet would hear echoes almost like human voices saying, "We are coming for you," but he would forget as soon as the words reached his ears.

He didn't remember until they actually came for him.

One day, Jet drifted out of one of his waking sleeps to hear shouts and crashes coming from somewhere else in the mansion. There was the ring of metal clashing against metal, and something like a series of splashes, and then silence.

Jet almost forgot about the noises when footsteps sounded outside the door of his closet, and then a blade made of ice smashed through the door, followed by men in blue clothes with skin and eyes just like Sokka's.

The first of the men smiled, and glanced at the others. "It's him."

Jet nodded. He was indeed him, and glad that these nice people realized it. There was just one more matter he needed to clear up: "Thirsty."

The man who had spoken frowned. "They deny you water? And they call us barbarians." He immediately produced a water skin, but rather than giving it to Jet, he ripped off a piece of his own sleeve and soaked it, then offered the wet cloth.

Jet accepted it eagerly, and was soon moistening his mouth and throat by sucking the water right out of the fabric. He continued doing that as the other men pulled him to his feet and helped him stumble out of the closet. The leader was saying as they walked, "We know they took your mask. We'll have to debrief you to see if we can tell what else they got from you, and then you'll have another assignment. As much as you deserve rest, the situation is becoming tense enough that we can't leave a Blue Spirit of your capability out of action for long. The boss still needs you, Jet."

Jet nodded agreeably, and it wasn't until he was out of the mansion that he forgot all about the conversation.

He would not forget it for long.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Colonel_Brian
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« Reply #103 on: Mar 14, 2016 07:29 pm »

Zhao lives!

Pretty good. I wonder what you plan to do with Iroh's character. Is he really looking out for the entire world or does he have some twisted idea of balance? Jeong Jeong seems fond of him, but considering that he's a little messed up in the head, I'm not sure if we are meant to take his word for it.

Zhao is also in top form, he doesn't value any life but his own. Jeong Jeong's sacrifice was only meaningful insofar as it helped keep him in the game a little longer.

What I found interesting about Jeong Jeong's death was what Piandao took from it. I like that Piandao is a little more villainous in this work, but it seems as though he is questioning his career a bit. Piandao doesn't strike me as being the kind of person who would push any doubts he has about his involvement with the Fire Nation's ambitions for long. So let's see what path he'll take after delivering the bad news to Ozai.

Anyway, one thing I'm interested in reading about is what the Fire Lord is up to. What does old Azulon think about all this? His eldest son is described as being in practical rebellion and his youngest is obviously scheming. I'm sure we'll hear more from him in the next act, but his absence is noteworthy, simply because his exact role in this story isn't clear.

Azula is probably going to snap a little. I'm not certain that the conditions are right for her to suffer a breakdown like she did in the show, but she doesn't seem to be taking Mai's betrayal very well, so there's that.

Lastly, Jet made his come back. I don't think he was named during the last chapter, so I forgot he was still alive.
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Loopy
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« Reply #104 on: Mar 28, 2016 06:27 pm »

Lastly, Jet made his come back. I don't think he was named during the last chapter, so I forgot he was still alive.

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The Fortuneteller

Katara woke up and didn't know where she was, so panic momentarily gripped her heart before she remembered that the cage wasn't supposed to be there anymore.

Just like every morning.

She let out an anxious breath and took a moment to reorient herself. She was in a sleeping bag in a tent, somewhere in the Earth Kingdom. Beside her, Sokka was still snoring away in his own sleeping bag, so big and gangly and loud compared to the image of her brother that she had cherished in her mind for a decade. The rhythm of his snuffling helped settle her panicked heart and reminded her that she wasn't alone, that her family hadn't forgotten her. The tent was small enough to be comforting.

Katara could hear Aang and Appa 'conversing' outside, prompting a smile. She still couldn't get over the Avatar being back. Sure, he was just a goofy kid, but he also really sweet, and he wanted more than anything to help people. As far as Katara was concerned, that made him a truly great Avatar- or would, once he learned all four elements. That was important, too. Katara slid out of her own sleeping bag, threw on her outer tunic, and reached for her hat. She knew that Sokka was worried about the hat, and she wanted to be able to go without it for him, but the very thought made her breath quicken. She needed more time, more strength, more experience in the world, and then maybe she could give it a try.

She put the hat on and tied it beneath her chin before making her way out of the tent. As expected, Aang was talking to his sky bison while sharing a breakfast of apples. Momo flew around them both, chasing some of the winged morning-mites that made this green glen their home. Katara kept her focus on the little group and not the big broad sky that sprawled above them.

A quick glance around the campsite revealed that Mai's tent was still sealed up. That didn't surprise Katara. Mai wasn't anywhere near as lazy as Sokka, but she still had a preference for sleeping late, as well as a fairly strong aversion to daylight. Katara had no criticism for that last part, as she couldn't imagine how anyone with skin as light as Mai's didn't sizzle in the bright sun. Still, she also sympathized with Aang, having to deal with two such lazy teenagers by himself for so long.

"Good morning, Katara!" Aang hopped over with a burst of his Airbending and offered an apple as he landed. "Breakfast?"

"Thanks." Katara took a bite and motioned over to the river a short way from their camp. "Ready to get the water?"

"Sure!"

Katara and Aang had made a daily ritual of collecting water every morning with a shared bending exercise. As simple as the task was, they figured that practicing their teamwork was worthwhile, just in case. It had become habit, and now it took barely any effort for them to stream some of the river into the air to snake its way into their biggest pot. They moved as one without having to so much as look at each other, the knowledge of the other's movements coming from feel alone.

By the time they brought the pot over to the campsite, Mai had emerged from her own tent in her green robes and was scowling against the sunlight. Katara made a point of waving and saying, "Good morning!"

Mai blinked back and didn't say anything in what Katara had learned was Mai's way of not showing hostility. Katara helped Aang get the campfire going under the pot, and then went over to the group's other girl. "Excited for today?"

"Probably not. What are we doing today?"

"You know, that spirit festival we heard about?" Katara looked over at Aang to make sure she didn't have the day mixed up, and he took a break from stirring the rice to give a thumb's up. Satisfied, she turned back to Mai. "The one we've been flying towards for two days straight?"

Mai's waved it off and began pulling her loose hair together in preparation of setting it in her usual complicated style. "Yeah, I remember that. I mean stuff I'd be actually excited for."

Katara gave a laugh, not caring if it was actually meant to be a joke. "It's going to be amazing! Those people the other day said that all the best mystics come to the festival, and there's also food and dancing and stories from history-"

"I thought I heard someone mention food," came Sokka's voice from his tent. His head poked its way through the opening. "Is there food?"

"Coming up," Aang said, shooing Momo away from the steaming pot.

Katara turned back to Mai, and found her struggling with making the bun at the back of her head. Katara reached over and helped hold an errant bit in place. "There has to be something about the festival that you're looking forward to!"

Mai sighed as she worked her hair. "It's just going to be a lot superstitious people crowding around acting like fools."

"How can you not be 'superstitious?' You're traveling with the Avatar!" Katara helpfully pointed over to where Aang was scooping rice into everyone's bowls.

Aang, for his part, looked up and smiled. "I am kind of spooky."

Katara nodded in satisfaction. "See?"

Mai made an, "Ugh," sound, finished with her hair by pulling the tails forward to rest on her shoulders, and went over to get her breakfast. "Yes, obviously spirits and monsters and glowing boys in icebergs are all real."

"Don't forget ghosts," Sokka said through a yawn as he took his own bowl of rice. "You Fire Nation types made lots of ghosts."

Mai threw a glare at him, but then let her gaze drop to her boots. "And ghosts." She produced a long knife from somewhere in her sleeve- Katara still had no idea where the other girl kept all those weapons- and used the flat of the blade to scoop some rice into her mouth. "But I just have a tough time believing in all the stupid little superstitions that these kinds of festivals get so worked up about. I'm pretty sure that shooting off fireworks doesn't actually chase away any spirit monsters that might be lurking nearby, and using a broom on Cinder Day won't really bring down eight years of bad luck."

Katara acknowledged the point with a nod even though she didn't think it was entirely right. "But you have to admit that showing reverence for the spirits is worthwhile, and that's what festivals like this are really about."

"No I don't." Mai pointed the knife at Katara in the same kind of casual manner as most people would point a pair of chopsticks. "You have to admit that people manage to pack an awful lot of games and commerce into these festivals for something that's supposedly about a bunch of spirits. Besides, our reason for being here is to find Aang someone who can tell him about energies or something. It's about as reverent as a visit to the Yukuefumei Library."

Katara sighed and went to get her own bowl of rice. "I think we're all going to learn something today. And we'll all be better for it."

The camp was silent for a moment, and then Sokka said, "I'm here for the food."

Katara flicked a grain of rice at him.

They ate the rest of their breakfast in silence, but it wasn't uncomfortable. Katara would have liked it if Mai and Sokka could have more respect for these kinds of things, but that was their cynical personalities at work. Both of them were probably just arguing for the sake of it. Maybe if they spent a decade in a prison, they'd be more inclined to look for the bright things in life.

Not that Katara wished that on either one.

She finished her rice and put her bowl down carefully beside the big pot. "So, Aang, how are we going to find the festival? It would be risky to fly Appa above it."

Aang winked and put his own bowl down. He took an Airbending stance and began moving his arms in broad, slow sweeping motions that made the wind around the campsite pick up. It was a strong wind but a soft one, cushioning Katara like a pile of furs and tugging gently on her hat. It was such a pleasant sensation that she almost missed the other part of it: the faint sound of music- bells and flutes and drums- that was being carried on the wind.

Katara held her hat down and felt a grin growing on her own face. She looked over at Aang to find him returning the expression.

"We just follow our ears," he said.



When Aang found the Valley of the Mountain of Death, it was a complete surprise.

He had led the way as they traced the music back to its source, guiding Katara, Mai and Sokka- Appa and Momo had been left back at the camp with a bushel of apples- over the undulating landscape, around the little cliffs and stone outcroppings. At first, he had stopped every so often to use his Airbending to catch the snatches of tunes on the wind, but soon enough it was audible with no extra effort. Even so, he found himself walking around the side of one outcropping to suddenly find the ground falling steeply below him to reveal a massive gathering in the center of a wide grassy valley, a lone mountain rising beyond it all.

Beneath the gaze of the Mountain of Death, deep in which the bodies of the Kings and Queens of the ancient Earth Kingdom were said to be waiting for the Earth to awaken them once again, the Spirit Festival was in fully swing. Drawn from all the villages in the province and probably all over the Earth Kingdom, a thousand people- maybe more- were sprawled across the length of the valley, filling the air with the sounds of talking and music and chanting. Tents and shelters rose up at what seemed like random points, each one the center of its own uniquely shaped crowd. And the colors were amazing! Most people were wearing green, but tunics of other hues were present in significant numbers, and many people wore accessories or masks or even full costumes that assembled a range of colors second only to the Hanging Flower Gardens of the Eastern Air Temple.

Aang was ready to run on down and join the fun when he noticed something else. Apart from the festival, atop one of the low valley walls on the east side, a large Fire Army camp overlooked the festivities. More armed and armored soldiers than Aang could easily count stood guard at the edges of the camp.

Katara hissed when she noticed them. "Are they going to attack?"

Mai pushed her way to the front of the group, and Aang could see her sharp eyes running over the sight. "No," she eventually said, "they're on alert, but there's not enough activity for an imminent attack. I bet they're here to watch over things and keep the peace."

"Yeah, keep the peace." Sokka snorted. "You mean spy on a big gathering of Earth Kingdom folks and come down on them like a hammer if anything vaguely anti-Fire starts up."

"Basically, yes." Mai straightened her green tunic. "The festival is too big and well known to shut down, but obviously the Fire Nation government here wouldn't be happy with a major cultural thing from the people they conquered."

Aang stepped forward to stand between Sokka and Mai. "Okay, then I'll need to cover my arrow, but as long as everything stays peaceful, it should be no trouble. Right?"

Katara nodded. "Right! We'll keep an eye on the eye the Fire Nation is keeping on the festival."

Sokka blinked. "How many eyes is that?"

"As many as we need!" Katara smirked and tugged her hat.

Aang laughed and pulled out one of the scarfs Mai had given him back on Kyoshi Island. He tied it as a bandana over his shaved head, but didn't worry about the rest of his clothes, what with all colors and costumes already present amongst the crowds. He led everyone down the sloping grass into the valley, and soon the sights and sounds and smells of the festival welcomed them into its fold.

As they worked their way into the flows of people, one man took notice of them and jogged over. On the edge of his vision, Aang caught Mai reaching for a weapon, so he stepped in front of her and turned to greet the man.

He was fairly young and dressed in green, and he was carrying what looked like a bundle of leaves and red berries. "Greetings, travelers! Here, take a dogwood sprig."

Aang accepted one of the little cuttings and took a look. The berries ranged in hue from bright red to an almost purple deepness, and the leaves were orderly little things, smoothly shaped with strong visible veins.

Sokka sniffed at his. "Do we eat these?"

The man laughed as he handed one to Katara. "It won't poison you, friend, but you're supposed to wear it. It will purify you, helping you remain in harmony with the valley."

Aang smiled. Now this was a proper festival. "Hey, I have a question, if you don't mind?"

"Sure." The man handed one of the sprigs to Mai.

"How come the festival is happening now, instead of at the summer solstice?"

The man lost his cheery expression for a moment. "Er, well, yes, that's when the natural world and the spirit world come together, and the festival is about honoring the spirits and keeping the energies of the province balanced. But we like to hold the festival when the spirits are still far away enough that they can sense our good will, but not confuse this all for an invitation, you know?"

Aang wasn't sure he did, but Sokka nodded and said, "I understand completely," so the man smiled once again and moved on to pass out more sprigs.

Aang looked at his own and wondered how he was going to wear it. Maybe if he could find some string, he could tie it and wear it like a necklace-

Mai sighed and snapped her hand up to reveal four long needles between her fingers. "Go ahead, just give them back when we're done here." Everyone accepted one and pinned a sprig to their clothes.

Feeling more spiritually pure already, Aang led the way deeper into the festival. Now that he was in the midst of it, the gathering was revealed as a lot more boisterous than an Air Nomad holiday like Yangchen's Festival. Singers shared songs with an elder sound to them, and bands worked instruments that ranged from works of art to ramshackle things assembled out of junk. There were even little stages where actors put on plays, comedies and dramas and operas and pantomimes. The only thing uniting all these entertainments was the row of sitting mats right in front of the performers, always left empty by the audience.

Aang ignored that stuff for now. He fully intended to find out more and have some fun with the entertainments later, but he wanted to get started on business first. Guru Pathik was a man of rare knowledge, and finding someone who could even begin help Aang in the same way could be a long task. Aang had failed to learn enough in time to save the Guru, and he wasn't going to fail again.

He found a quieter section of the valley where people lounged instead of moving about, and the sound of conversation was more muted. Peace emanated from older men and women in the robes of shamans, and people respectfully listened to their words.

Aang turned to the others. "Let's split up and ask around. Remember, we're trying to find out more about how to bring the world back into balance, but the Guru said it had to do Línghún energy, and the way everything is connected. We need someone who can really each me about that."

Mai added, "And let's not mention that you're the Avatar. Not right away. We want to be sure we don't cause the wrong kind of disruption."

Aang blinked. "What do you mean? Wouldn't any shaman be glad to help the Avatar?"

Mai's eyes shifted, and Aang followed her gaze up and over to the eastern wall of the valley, where the Fire Army watched over everything. "The last thing we need is someone to overhear the wrong word and see what the Fire Nation will pay for a tip."

He hated to admit it, but it was a good point. "All right. But come and get me if you find anything. Okay?"

The other three nodded, and then they all spread out to explore the area.

Aang started his own search, picking out a group listening and asking questions of an old man with a droopy mustache who wore a puffy fur vest. Aang sat at the edge of the gathering and tuned in to a discussion of the physical and spiritual healing properties of properly mixed mud...

Three hours later, Aang was bored out of his skull.

He had heard about mud, had heard about the correct composition of a Tranquility Garden, had heard about proper meditation technique, and had heard lots of stuff about the unsettled nature of the world, but no one here seemed to know about how to really look beyond the physical.

He hoped the others were doing better.


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Loopy
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« Reply #105 on: Mar 28, 2016 06:28 pm »

Katara was taking a break from an ongoing but fairly lacking discussion of how a traveler could actually get into the Spirit World when a girl who was half-pigtails walked up and said, "Excuse me, you wouldn't happen to be from the Water Tribes?"

Katara blinked and turned his attention to the girl. She was a few years younger than Katara and was showing off a gapped-tooth smile that was immediately disarming, so Katara nodded. "I am."

"And are you traveling with the Avatar?"

Katara couldn't stop herself from gasping. "I- Uh- What?"

The girl bowed. "My name is Meng. I was told that there would be a beautiful Water Tribe girl here who could bring the Avatar to my employer."

"Uh, hi, Meng. Uh- and who is your- uh- employer?"

"A fortuneteller from Makapu Village." Meng motioned back towards the busier side of the festival. "She said you could come meet her, if you like."

Katara bit her lip. She could investigate this fortuneteller before putting Aang in danger, but that would mean walking into a trap herself. Maybe she could go get Sokka or Mai- no, there was no need for that. She had her waterskins and was a warrior now. She could handle this. She was strong enough. She needed to be.

Katara pulled her hat down lower. "Lead the way, Meng."

The fortuneteller's tent proved to be one of the plainer in its area, surrounded as it was by stands where people were selling luck charms, incense sticks, and what looked like old coins. The only decoration on the tent was a pair of crossed tree branches tied above the entrance, unusual things with tips that hung like long fingers, almost looking like the reaching tentacles of the shark-squid.

Meng pulled aside the large tent's flap and bowed low. Without hesitation, Katara flicked the caps off her waterskins and walked inside.

"Welcome, child." A smiling old woman sat within, her streaked white and gray hair dully reflecting the glow of the fire in the pan beside her. "No need to be shy, it's just us in here. I am Aunt Wu. Please, sit down."

Katara sat on the waiting mat, shifting her waterskins so that they would be accessible. "Nice to meet you." She eyed Aunt Wu's golden robe. "Your assistant was telling stories about you."

"I know." Aunt Wu sighed. "Fortunetelling has changed, since the end of the war. I used to have to look harder to see ahead, and could only focus on one destiny at a time, but things have changed. The details are all too easy to see, now, and I get visions without even trying. The world is out of balance, and its energy is not flowing properly, so it's flooding all over the place. The Avatar knows this."

Katara decided to risk a nod. "He wants to fix it."

"Of course. And I want to help. The funny thing is that the more destiny someone has, the harder it is to for me to see right now." She winked. "People with lots of destiny tend to let it get all cluttered and mixed up."

Katara smiled. "So how can you help?"

"Oh, I know some tricks. I can reveal some touchpoints to focus the Avatar on a good path. You can bring him to me, and stand by to protect him if you like."

Katara pushed her hat up to get a better view. "I'd like to see your fortunetelling first. If you don't mind! I just- I want to see how it works before I bring him."

"Of course." Aunt Wu reached beside her to an open box with shadowy compartments of various sizes. She produced a bundle of thin sticks from one of them, and held them out. "What would you like to know?"

Katara took the sticks and considered. Maybe Aunt Wu could tell her if she would ever fix herself, if she could ever be able to go back to her Tribe without being a failure. But the more Katara thought about, the more she wasn't sure she actually wanted to know. Maybe she could do something that would be a clue, but wouldn't rule anything out- "Can you tell me who I'll marry?"

Aunt Wu nodded. "Throw the sticks to the ground."

Katara did so, and then looked at the results to see if they were spelling a name or something. Aunt Wu didn't show any reaction, and merely plucked some of the sticks out of the pile and laid them aside. "Again." Katara picked up the remaining sticks and once more tossed them to the dirt. Aunt Wu removed a few more of the sticks and then said, "The Avatar's destiny clouds your own, but I see possibilities. Throw the sticks once more."

Katara did so, and Aunt Wu nodded.

"What is it?"

"The Avatar himself is working his way into your heart. If the Fire Nation girl doesn't give him what he needs, you and he will marry."

Katara was on her feet before she even realized it. "Me and Aang?!" The Avatar?! And wait, what Fire Nation girl? Did Aunt Wu mean Mai? Why would Mai be a problem? Aang and Sokka were both kind of upset at her, and love didn't seem likely even with Mai being sorry. And if Katara was supposed to marry Aang, did that mean she'd never be ready to go back to the Tribe? Or would Aang come with her? He didn't have any people of his own, after all. Would their kids be Airbenders or Waterbenders, or maybe a mix? Why was she already planning out the kids she would have with Aang? What did this really prove about Aunt Wu? Obviously, Katara needed more information. "Thank you. But, um, before I bring Aang, is it okay if I bring someone else?"

Aunt Wu smiled. "You do what you feel you need to, child."



Sokka rested his chin on his knee. "So when you say you saw a group of women flying through the air, you mean- what, exactly?"

The old shaman scooted closer. "I mean I saw them flying. I was passing by the cliff my people call Great-Grandfather's Nose, and naturally I looked up to take in its majesty, when I saw people running at the edge. I was going to shout at them for being stupid and jumping to their deaths, but then the winds picked up, and their clothes were very baggy and flapped in the air, and then they swooped right over my head and went back up in the air, and proceeded to flip and twist through the sky. They were like fish darting through water, except fish don't laugh!"

Sokka nodded like he believed what he was being told. "And then what?"

"Well, I started proclaiming the return of the Air Nomads, of course. The Airbender Avatar has returned, you know, and he must have brought his harem."

"His-" Sokka choked. "His harem?"

"Well, of course. Why else would these all be girls?"

"Are you sure Air Nomads have harems?" Sokka tried to imagine Aang- with all the awkwardness he had displayed around Mai- lounging amidst a gaggle of girls, and found his imagination completely insufficient. "Maybe they're his sisters? Or bison tenders? Or maybe they were Air Nomad ghosts? I've heard that some people are having problems with Air Nomad ghosts."

The shaman ran his hands through his bristling hair. "Nnno, I don't think they were ghosts. The simplest explanation is usually the best, so they're probably his harem."

Sokka once again lowered his chin onto his knee. "Well, I'm certainly not inclined to argue against that logic."

"Ah, you're a smart boy!"

Sokka was about to agree when he felt a tap on his shoulder, and looked up to see a dark-skinned girl whose pigtails stuck out to easily triple her natural width. "Can I help you?"

"I'm Meng. Katara sent me to bring you to her."

A short walk later, Sokka found his sister standing in front of a large tent with willow branches tied above its entrance. As soon as she saw him, she ran over with anxious eyes and grabbed his hands. "Sokka, I'm going to marry Aang!"

"WHAT?!" Sokka clamped down on Katara's hands, the world spinning around him like that time he tried riding a tiger-seal. "No, no you can't! You just got out of prison, and there's lots of people to meet out there-"

"What?" Katara blinked. "No, Sokka, I mean that Aunt Wu predicted I'll marry Aang. She's a fortuneteller."

"Oh." All of the sudden, the world decided to stay still. "Oh, good. Wait, what are you doing with a fortuneteller?"

"Aunt Wu knows we're with Aang, and has information for him. But I wasn't sure if it was okay, so I talked to her first, and she told me a fortune that I'm going to marry Aang if Mai doesn't get him first."

Sokka let go of his sister's hands so that he could properly smack his own forehead. "That's- that's just silly. You don't have anything to worry about from Aang or Mai."

"What about Aunt Wu?"

Sokka turned his gaze to the tent, where Meng was holding the flap open for him and trying not to meet his gaze. "I'm going to find out about that right now." He stalked into the tent and found an old lady sitting on a mat beside a fire pan. "What have you been doing to my sister?"

Aunt Wu motioned to the mat across from her. "Sit down, and we'll talk. I didn't mean to upset her, but she asked for a love fortune."

"Yeah, just an innocent misunderstanding." Sokka remained standing. "The problem is that fortunetelling is just a scam, and now I'm wondering why your scam involves getting my sister all upset and trying to make her fight one of our allies."

"Ah, you're not a believer." Aunt Wu eased herself to her feet and looked at Sokka with narrowed eyes. "Normally, I'd just push you away with some vague prophecy of doom, but I want to prove myself to you. To the Avatar. He and I share a kind of sight, but he doesn't know how to use it like I can. I want to use my gifts to help him, so that he can set the world right."

Sokka crossed his arms over his chest. "Making junk up about my future isn't going to accomplish that."

"I know." Aunt Wu stepped forward, and the light of the fire played across her face in a way that almost made her look like Gran-Gran. "You and I, we're both protectors. You have your tribe, and your grandmother, and those she has taken into her care. You've seen death, and you've seen loss, so you try to stay aloof even as you do everything in your power to help them. When you take someone under your care, you take them as family. That's why you'll protect the Avatar as much as your sister, even if you sometimes tell yourself you can make a choice between them. It's why the Fire Nation girl's betrayal hurt you so much. She was your new sister, and she was a traitor."

Sokka's thoughts had come to a halt in the midst of that whole stupid speech, kind of like what Aang said meditating was like. Sokka's focus was so strong that there was nothing left in him to devote to thought, and that focus was the kind his dead father had taught was the true power of a hunter. "You want to stop talking about me now."

Aunt Wu nodded. "Then let me talk about myself. I live in Makapu Village. The people take care of me, and I take care of them. They find reassurance in my word, even when I don't really tell them anything. So many of them were lost, and I brought them together so that they could be safe. Happy, even. They have no idea what I really do, but they love me all the same. But I can't protect them from what's happening to the world. Only the Avatar can do that. So I help them by helping the Avatar. Helping you. And you can see that. You're observant that way."

Sokka breathed in sharply. He had been focusing during her little speech, watching her face, her eyes, and her movements. He saw the bit of moisture at the edge of her eyes, heard the slight tremble in her voice, noticed the way she worked her hands opened and closed as she talked.

His focus revealed these things, but then he let himself think again and his thoughts wondered if Aunt Wu might not just be a really good actor.

"Wait here," he said. Then he stepped outside to talk to his sister.


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Loopy
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« Reply #106 on: Mar 28, 2016 06:29 pm »

Katara found Mai standing apart from the gatherings around the shamans, staring up at the kites being flown from the edge of the festival. The kites were decorated with faces, and Katara thought she recognized something more like a pixiu amongst the many dragons. "Mai!"

The other girl looked over, and while her face didn't move, her voice was intense as she said, "There you are. You and Sokka just disappeared. Aang went with the parade to the Death Mountain thing."

Katara gave a little bow of repentance. "Sorry, but we found out about this fortuneteller who we think can help Aang! But we're not sure if we should trust her because she revealed that you're going to determine if I marry- well, details aren't important, and then she told Sokka what he says were a lot of the secret thoughts in his head but he's still not sure if she's telling the truth so he didn't actually say so but he implied that he'd feel better if you went to see her and gave us your opinion. So that we know if it's okay to bring Aang."

"Wait, hold on." Mai blinked slowly. "A fortuneteller said that I'm going to marry you?"

Katara could feel her face warming, and she couldn't even talk for a moment. "I- I didn't say that!"

"Well, I wasn't sure, but it sounded-"

"That's not what I meant!"

"If you're sure."

"I am! Okay?"

"Okay."

"Okay." Katara was glad that was settled.

Mai held up a hand. "So how am I keeping you from getting married, then?"

"Oh, for-" Katara decided that the truth couldn't possibly be more embarrassing than this. "She said that if you don't seduce Aang away from me, we'll get married."

"The 'we' being you and Aang, not you and me."

"Yes!"

"Okay. I just want to be clear on all this." Mai's face had remained perfectly calm and perfectly pale the whole time. "So let's check out this scandalous fortuneteller."

Katara was grateful for the chance to turn away and blush in peace. She tugged her hat down and led Mai back to Aunt Wu's tent, where they found Sokka pacing and glaring at Meng. The young girl didn't seem to care and was trying to twist her pigtails into a more traditional position, but she let go when she saw Katara and opened the flap of the tent with a bow.

Katara turned and pointed in the tent. "There!"

Mai folded her hands together in her sleeves and walked into the tent.

Katara turned away from Sokka so that he couldn't see the blush that could still feel on her cheeks. She stood and waited for a while, but it seemed like Mai was taking forever in there.

Katara decided that anything was better than waiting, and so walked over to Meng. "Hi."

"Oh, hi." Meng let go of her pigtails again. "Can I do something for you?"

"No, I'm fine. I was just- well, I was hoping you could distract me for a moment."

"Oh." Meng blinked. "Then do you mind if I ask what you put in your hair?"

"My hair?" Katara flicked her head so that her long braid was visible. She hadn't liked her hair until recently, when it had stopped breaking at every little tug or manipulation. Sokka said it was because she was getting real food now and wasn’t spending all her time in that awful volcano heat. "Nothing, really. My friend lets me use her soap to wash it."

"Oh."

"So, how long have you been working for Aunt Wu?"

Meng thought about it for a moment. "I guess it's been three years now. It's a good job. I get to meet people, and Aunt Wu gives me fortunes whenever I ask."

"Oh, yeah?" Katara decided that it was time for someone else to deal with a little embarrassment. "Anything about romance?"

Meng grinned, showing off the big gap between her front teeth. "She said I'm going to marry a guy who wears glasses and talks with a southeast accent. So I'm still keeping an eye out."

Katara nodded and was going to ask what a southeast accent sounded like, but then she heard the rustle of the tent and turned to see Mai emerging into the sunlight. "What happened? Did she give you a fortune?"

Sokka ran over. "Did she say anything creepy?"

Meng hopped up to look over Katara' shoulder. "Are you going to bring the Avatar now?"

Mai held up a hand and waited for everyone to stop talking. "Aunt Wu is fine. We should bring Aang. He can decide for himself about what she has to say."

Katara was going to ask how Mai could tell, but then Sokka actually pushed her aside and stepped forward to say, "How can you tell?" Katara slapped the back of his head.

Mai ignored it all. "I'm not surprised that you can't see it, but 'Aunt' Wu is a very high-class lady. Half the nobles in the Caldera wish they could be so good. My maternal grandmother is the same way, and women like that- of that age- are always exactly where they want to be, and they have no need whatsoever to lie. Ever. If Aunt Wu is here, then she's not working for the Fire Nation. If she says she has something for Aang, she does."

Meng began applauding, and Katara moved to give the short girl her space before saying, "But can she really tell the future?"

"I don't know and I don't care." Mai stepped away. "Aang can deal with that part. He went with the big funeral procession to the mountain tomb, so I'll go get him. You two watch the tent to make sure it doesn't fly away or something."

Katara watched the other girl walk away, and struggled with a mix of relief that Aunt Wu wasn't an enemy, disappointment that Mai didn't reveal what they had discussed, and continuing anxiety over the surprise love triangle she might still be caught in the middle of. She looked over at Sokka. "So should I be worried that they're already visiting mountain tombs together?"

He groaned. "Please don't tell me you're still taking that thing seriously."

"Well, why not? Mai said Aunt Wu was okay, so even if she's a fake, what reason would she have for lying to me about that?"

"Oh, it's possible she really believes that she has fortunetelling powers." Sokka crossed his arms over his chest. "But if she's so good at that type of thing, why didn't she just intercept Aang directly and avoid this whole mess with us?"

Katara frowned. "But Meng knew who I was and where to find me. So Aunt Wu knew something that only a fortuneteller would."

"Then she's a fake."

Meng snarled, "Hey! Watch it!"

Katara just poked her brother. "But then we go back to what Mai said. You're contradicting yourself."

Sokka pushed her finger away. "Did you ever consider that maybe Mai isn't as trustworthy as you'd like her to be? You've been pretty nice to her considering that her people stole a decade of your life."

Katara only realized that her jaw had dropped when she tried to speak and found that her mouth wasn’t working. "Y- you- you're telling me how I'm supposed to feel about growing up in a cage?! You're so angry at Mai but what did she really do to you? What did any of them do to you? You got to grow up with Gran-Gran, surrounded by your Tribe, and you're the one who gets to decide how I'm supposed to feel about the Fire Nation? You're so full of slush!"

Sokka was backing away, eyes wide, and Katara was glad that he was intimidated. She had forgotten how- how mean her brother could be, and she wasn't going to tolerate him getting meaner.

"I-" His voice cracked, and he quickly turned his back on her. "You're right. Sorry." He trotted off into the flow of the festival crowd.

Oh.

He-

She-

Katara pulled her hat down so that she couldn't see anything. Apparently, Sokka wasn't the only one who had gotten meaner.

She looked over at Meng, who was doing an industrious job of examining a blade of grass and not paying attention to anything else, and then to Aunt Wu's tent. Maybe she could talk to Aunt Wu about this, see if there was a fortune that would tell her where to find Sokka and what she could say to him.

"There! That tent! The sorceress is in there!"

What?

Katara whirled as the crowd pulled back and left her and Meng standing alone beside the tents and stalls of this lane. Even the vendors who had neighbored Aunt Wu's setup were leaving their charms and tokens and money boxes behind. What could-

An ostrich-horse emerged from the receding festival-goers, carrying a living symbol of Earth Kingdom prosperity in its saddle. The rider was a heavy-set man with a long beard, and he might have been mistaken for a mere merchant were it not for the sheen on both his green silk robe and his black wide-brimmed hat. Unlike Katara's hat, the simple conicular type that allowed rain to slide down, this man's hat had a tall cylinder as its main body, giving him an artificial height that was nevertheless quite impressive.

Nevertheless, Katara took a position between the ostrich-horse and Aunt Wu's tent and tensed for a fight.

The man glared at her from beneath the brim of his hat and spurred the bird-steed into an awkward amble that its powerful legs weren't built for, making the ostrich-horse sway with enough force to make the beaded strings hanging from his hat sway in the air. Katara stood her ground and waited to see if this busybody had the guts to run a teenage girl down in the middle of a festival crowd, but he surprised her by turning and saying, "This girl is interfering in a lawful arrest! Take her- take the sorceress- take them all!"

Katara followed his gaze, and hissed when she saw Fire Nation soldiers emerging from the same gap in the crowd, all of them lowering their spears in her direction.

She took in the threat as Meng ran to stand behind her. She could see at least a dozen soldiers, and there might be more behind them in the crowd. Her only chance of fighting them was to reveal herself as a Waterbender, and she didn't have to be an experienced world traveler to know that such a discovery would bring more than just a dozen soldiers.

Still, it was important that Aunt Wu talk to Aang- maybe important enough to be worth Katara's life. It wasn't like she had any real purpose, because-

Katara felt a warm hand on her shoulder, and turned to find Aunt Wu behind her. "It's okay, child. I'll answer the accusation."

Before Katara could decide, the man on the ostrich-horse sneered and said, "You'll all answer at the trial! Arrest them!"

Katara moved to take a Waterbending stance, but the shaft of a spear smacked against her head hard enough to send her hat flying, and through the explosion of pain in her skull she got a brief look of the terrifying openness of the sky before everything went dark.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Colonel_Brian
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« Reply #107 on: Mar 28, 2016 07:15 pm »

Katara's pretty cool. As was that old man who gave Aang that sprig.

Anyway, not much to say here. It's good to see the main cast again. I almost forgot that this story wasn't about Zhao. In addition to that, it was pretty dang funny. Seriously, lots of good jokes. My favorite was Sokka over reacting to Katara's declaration of Aang and her's upcoming marriage. It was pretty sitcom-y.

...and yes, those score cards would be helpful!
« Last Edit: Mar 29, 2016 02:03 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Loopy
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« Reply #108 on: Apr 18, 2016 06:30 pm »

Lucky you, there's more humor and gAang interaction in the latest chapter! I blame the cold medication I was on. Cheesy Next chapter we'll get back to minor characters no one likes.




The True Face of Love

Katara woke up in a cage and smiled, feeling comfortable for the first time in a long while but not knowing why.

Then she realized that she wasn't alone, and remembered that she was supposed to be done with cages.

Katara scrambled to her feet, making Aunt Wu and Meng jump. She found that her hat and waterskins had been taken from her- although the leafy dogwood sprig was still pinned to her tunic with the borrowed combat needle from Mai. Looking out past the metal bars of the cage, she saw that the fabric of a tent cut off all view of the sky, and an armored soldier for the Fire Army stood guard with a spear resting in his hand and a sour expression lounging on his face.

Katara forced herself to relax. "Aunt Wu, can you see how much trouble we're in?"

Meng whimpered, but Aunt Wu met Katara's gaze with steady eyes. "There is a glare on the horizon of the future, but your friends might find their way through it to us."

Katara nodded. There was no question about it for her; the Avatar, whether or not she would really marry him, would come for her.

And if the worst came to pass, she would make sure that she would not live another day of her life in a cage.



The Mountain of Death rose up above Aang, with the music and colors of the festival echoing in the valley behind him.

He whistled to himself as he swept the entrance to the Tomb. The monks had always taught that the while the dead might be dead, they appreciated a clean home just as much as someone with a body and a pulse. In this case, the Royal Tomb within the Mountain was beyond anyone's reach thanks to the lock on its front door; it reminded Aang of the one on the Southern Air Temple's Sanctuary, only instead of tubes designed for Airbending, this lock took the form of a stone puzzle cube that seemed to be missing some pieces. But the fancy tunnel entrance, a tiled vestibule, could still be tidied up and decorated for the festival.

Aang used his borrowed broom to brush away the dirt and dust from the white tiles, moving nimbly around the pillars, snarling statues, and temporarily deactivated death traps. Some of the other festival-goers who had come to the Tomb were putting out gifts for the spirits of the dead monarchs and decorating the vestibule with purifying plants. Incense sticks standing up in pots of pure white sand had been used to line the tunnel, giving the atmosphere a heavy scent that let Aang float down through memories of Air Temples and the festivals of a time of peace.

He paused to straighten the dogwood sprig pinned to his tunic, and when he looked up again, he found Mai ambling towards him. In her green robes, she was ignored by the other tomb-cleaners.

She gave a lethargic wave. "Our Water Tribe siblings found something."

"Great!" Aang had to resist the urge to Airbend in a little dusty celebration. "They found me a teacher?"

"Kind of, sort of." Mai drew close, and in a lower voice said, "They found a Fortuneteller who seems to be the real deal. I talked to her, and I think you should, too. I don't know if she can teach you all the stuff the Guru was talking about, but she can definitely help."

"Wow!" A Fortuneteller! Aang had never met one before, but he had heard of the divination arts passed down through carefully chosen practitioners and sometimes circus performers. "Just let me finish my sweeping and we can go check it out!" He proceeded to do the fastest cleaning job (that didn't involve Airbending) in the history of the world, and then tossed the broom to one of the volunteer overseers (who for some reason was staring and blinking at Aang). "Ready to go!"

They left the tomb and mountain behind and walked together through the grass, back down into the valley. The afternoon sun was providing warmth that seemed to be energizing the festival, and Mai led the way right into the heart of the activity.

Aang tried to keep from hopping ahead of her sedate pace, but it wasn't easy. "So, you said you talked to his fortuneteller?"

Mai nodded. "Her name is Aunt Wu, and she doesn't charge for her fortunes. Sokka and Katara talked to her, as well."

"Ooh, did you all get your fortunes told?"

"I don't know. Katara did, but Sokka won't talk about what Aunt Wu said to him. I mostly just had a conversation about you to feel her out, but I did ask for one quick prophecy."

"What did you ask?" Aang glanced over at her, but she kept her own gaze pointed straight ahead.

"I'd rather not say."

Aang considered that, and a quick thought flitted across his mind that it was dangerous for Mai to have secrets, but then he pushed the notion away. Mai was trying, now. He could trust that. "Okay. So what about Katara's fortune?"

Mai's lips actually quirked into a smile, and she finally turned to meet Aang's eyes. "I could tell you the full story, but I think Katara considers it to be embarrassing. She asked for a romance fortune, basically, and was surprised at the answer."

"Oh." Aang could definitely understand that. The way he had felt around Mai during their search for Katara was vivid enough in his memory that he could feel his cheeks warming even now. "Yeah, I think I won't ask her about it."

"Truly, the Avatar is a font of wisdom." Mai motioned at a large tent just ahead of them. "There's Aunt Wu's setup- but why is no one here?" She glanced around, and her right hand went to the sheathed sword that hung off the back of her belt.

Aang looked around, trying to find either Sokka or Katara, but spotted neither face in the crowd around them.

Mai went over the tent and pulled the entrance flap aside just enough to peek inside, and then stepped away again, her hand clutched tightly on her sword's handle but still not revealing the blade. "No Aunt Wu. Something happened."

Aang's stomach flipped. What could have gone wrong? How could his friends have disappeared? Did he lose them because he wasn't vigilant enough? And had he just lost another teacher before he could even meet her?

No, he wouldn't let that happen. Not again. Aang looked around once more, but instead of looking for the Water Tribe siblings, he was looking for disharmony, for things that weren't quite right. He spotted a man working in a nearby both trying to sell charms for good luck, and couldn't help but notice that the man was keeping his eyes firmly averted from the area around Aunt Wu's tent.

Aang had dashed and hopped over to the booth in an instant. "Please, you have to tell me what happened here."

The seller's eyes went wide and he frowned beneath his mustache, but then he gave a very loud laugh. "Ha, ha! Yes, my friend, I can sell you charm that will make you irresistible to the ladies! <I>After all, that's why you're here, to inspect my wares and buy something. Ha. Why just look at this one, made by the Sisters of the Biao Zi Abbey. Look very closely, young man."

Aang blinked. What was this guy going on about?

The man reached over and pushed Aang's scarf-covered head close to the booth's counter so that his nose was touching the charm, and then the man leaned over so that his own head was right next to Aang's. "Your friends were arrested," he whispered. "The Fire Army arrested the Fortuneteller, and the girl in the hat tried to stand up to them, so they took her and the young assistant as well."

Oh, Aang got it now! He whispered back, "What about a boy with a little scraggly ponytail?"

"I never saw him. He wasn't there during the arrest."

Well, that was either very good news, or terrible news. "And why were they arrested?"

The man raised his head just enough to make what seemed like a very aggressive gesture against his forehead. "That scoundrel Jae Choi put the Fire Army up to it."

"Jae Choi? Who's that?"

"You've never heard?" The man looked up briefly, and then raised his voice again. "Certainly, sir, I can show you something more potent! Ha, ha! This one will get the girls trailing after you like elephant-mice after a piper!" He swapped the charm beneath Aang's nose for another, and then whispered, "He's an administrative noble for this province. Comes from an old, respected family of bureaucrats, but Jae sold us out to the Fire Army and does their bidding, now! He thinks he can buy our forgiveness by paying for all the food for this festival, but he's nothing but a scoundrel! With lots of spears backing him up. But I have to say, the frosted tangguo on the food tables is pretty tasty."

Aang nodded as best he could with his head still being held against the counter. "Thanks."

The man finally let go of Aang's cranium, and then loudly said, "Very well, sir, the charm is yours. Good luck."

Aang blinked, wondering what this part of the act signified, but then a cold hand grabbed his collar and yanked him back up. Aang turned and found Mai staring back at him with dark eyes. "Take your sexy charm and let's go find the Fire Nation camp."



Katara was just getting set to ask the guard about bathroom breaks- both for the opportunity of an escape attempt and a real desire for a bathroom break- when Aunt Wu's accuser stepped into the tent.

Katara recognized him instantly from the earlier confrontation. He no longer had an ostrich-horse beneath him, but the gleaming green robes and wide-brimmed black hat were the same. He was scowling so hard beneath his long beard that it looked painful, and his eyes blazed with fury as he pointed at Aunt Wu and said, "Now the reckoning is at hand!"

The Fire Army captain who stepped into the tent behind him- an older woman with hair that was just starting to turn grayer than her polished armor- snorted with what sounded distinctly like amusement. "Let's not get overly dramatic about this, Jae Choi. State your formal charge against the accused."

The man- Jae Choi- continued to point. "Thank you, Captain Shimofuri. This sorceress, with the help of her nefarious disciples, placed a hex on my son Yeong that has completely taken away his wits."

Katara was going to voice a protest of such a ridiculous idea, but Captain Shimofuri looked over with hard eyes, and the whole thing died in Katara's throat. Shimofuri said, "Let the record state that Jae Choi is making an accusation of malicious sorcery. And how does the accused answer?"

Aunt Wu finally stood up behind Katara. "I am just a humble fortuneteller. Yeong came to me requesting a fortune, and I predicted that he would meet the love of his life at this festival after taking part in one of the purifying dances. I have made several love predictions this week, and so far have had no complaints."

Captain Shimofuri nodded. "And the 'nefarious' disciples?"

Meng held up both of her arms as if surrendering on a battlefield. "I just work here, but Aunt Wu is telling the truth."

Shimofuri looked back at Katara. "And you?"

Katara stood tall and proud. "I'm just a festival-goer, but I couldn't stand by and let Aunt Wu face unjust persecution! I got a love fortune as well, but I haven't done anything unwise."

Shimofuri snorted like she found that funny, but Jae Choi snarled and said, "And what of this love fortune? Has it got you chasing your betters?"

"I’m not chasing anyone!" Katara’s hand clutched into fists at the idea that she couldn’t marry the Avatar because he was somehow her ‘better.’ Not that she was intent on marrying Aang. "It just- it made me realize some things I hadn’t thought about before."

Shimofuri's eyebrows rose, but all she said was, "Let's get back on track. Let the record state that the accused deny all charges."

Katara stepped forward to clutch the bars of the cage. "So, now what?"

"Now," Shimofuri said, "we finish this. The accused are to be put to death at sunset."

Over Meng's squeal, Katara shouted, "How can you do this?! This wasn't a real trial!"

Shimofuri simply nodded. "No, it wasn't. I am the law here, and I want to be done with this. Guards, deal with them."

"Objection!"

All heads turned as someone new entered the tent, someone in a dingy green robe who had her shining black hair done up in ox-horn buns that-

Mai?!

And Aang- his head still covered in his borrowed scarf- was standing right behind her, with another spear-carrying guard bringing up the rear. Katara couldn't help but smile. Her friends had come for her! But where was Sokka? Was he still mad at her, after- after those awful things she said to him?

Captain Shimofuri turned to regard the new arrivals. "And you are?"

Mai bowed low. "I am Ty Lee, a humble friend of the accused, here to visit them. I apologize for speaking out of turn, and I mean no disrespect to you or your position, but Fire Lord Azulon's Writs of Colonization clearly state that while Fire Nation forces are empowered to arbitrate conflicts between natives of the colonies, they also specify that the accused have the option to present evidence countering the charges. In his wisdom, the Fire Lord saw that corrupt natives might seek to use the Fire Army to serve their own ends, and so he created laws to allow for a fair hearing."

Shimofuri didn't so much as blink. "I am the law, here."

Mai bowed again. "Yes, Captain. You are the embodiment of the Fire Lord's will here in this region of the colonies."

"Ridiculous!" Jae was growing red in the face, and he moved his heavyset frame to stand in front of Mai. "This filth knows nothing. I am an administrative official for this province, and I demand the sorceress be destroyed!"

Shimofuri stepped forward so that she stood face to face with Jae, and hissed, "You are Earth-born, and have no power to command me. The point the 'filth' makes is correct. In accordance with the Fire Lord's law, I will provide an hour to assemble evidence in defense of the accused, and then render my final judgement. And if you interfere in any way, interfere with Fire Army business, I will have you in a cage. Is that clear?"

Katara could see Jae's eyes moving to take in the guards and their spears, and then he gave a single nod and stormed out of the tent.

Shimofuri looked over at the cage, and then at Mai. "One hour." She turned and followed Jae, leaving the two guards behind.

Aang and Mai immediately made their way over to the cage. Aang was the first to speak. "Are you okay?"

Katara nodded. "Thanks for coming. How did you guys know that stuff?"

Aang shrugged. "I didn't."

They both looked over at Mai. Her eyes briefly flicked towards the guards, and then back to Katara. "My father made me read and memorize all that stuff. He thought it would be useful for his family to know, given- given his latest job. And it almost didn't work."

Aunt Wu stepped forward to join Katara beside the bars of the cage. "Well, things work out as they're supposed to, and I'm very glad that you're here with us now." She looked at Aang. "And I'm very pleased to meet you, as well. I hope we'll be able to talk comfortably, soon."

Katara nodded. "You need to find some evidence to get us out of here. What can we use?"

"The fortune-telling stuff," Mai said. "We can bring it here and show that there's nothing spooky, just sticks and dice and whatever."

Aang shook his head. "I don't think that will be enough. That mean guy is upset about his son and making stuff up, so showing some sticks won't prove anything. We need-" His eyes lit up. "We need to bring the son here! What was his name?"

Katara smiled. "Yeong! Yeong Choi! You can bring him here, and the captain can talk with him and see that he's not under any spell."

Aunt Wu stroked her chin. "That might work. Jae is clearly trying to exploit politics, so having someone from his family and class would be helpful."

Katara looked over at Mai. "And it might be a good idea if you stick around to help us with Fire Nation colony law. To make sure that Jae doesn't try anything before we get his son here."

Mai sighed. "I guess that makes sense."

Meng let out with a, "Yay!" and Katara had to agree that things were looking up.

Then Aang said, "Um, but how do I find this Yeong Choi guy?"

Katara looked at Aunt Wu.

Aunt Wu looked back.

Meng and Mai both sighed simultaneously.

"Maybe I can help with that."

Katara gasped at the sound of that voice; it was a voice she was still growing used to, a voice that she thought she had chased away. It was the voice she didn't deserve to have coming to her aid now, but a voice that nevertheless had come to fill her with light once again. "Sokka!"

Her brother stepped into the tent, accompanied by another spear-carrying guard, and walked over to the cage. "I heard about your arrest, and- and I'm sorry I wasn't there to help."

He was apologizing to her? "No, Sokka, I shouldn't have-"

He held up a hand. "We'll worry about it once we get you out of jail. Again. Hopefully, this time will be a lot less stressful." He looked around at everyone, his gaze lingering on Aang but moving quickly past Aunt Wu. "Now, I heard your plan, and the only way to find the guy you're looking for is with some detective skills. Fortunately, you have a master detective here to help you."

Mai said, "Who?"

Sokka slapped his forehead.



Aang walked out of the Fire Army camp with Sokka at his side, and looked down the slope of the valley to the festival that was still in full swing. It seemed as though even more people had arrived since the morning, and the valley rang with the echoes of their talk and music. "So what's your plan for finding this Yeong guy? If you were hoping to use Appa, the whole thing about sky bison being able to sniff out a hiding monk from above the clouds is just a myth."

Sokka shook his head. "No, I'm thankfully depending on something a little more solid. You said that Jae Choi jerk is one of the big organizers behind the festival and paid for all the food that's being given away, right?"

Aang nodded. "I've seen the food tables. Each one has four groups of plates that represent the four elements. It's different from the stuff the vendors are selling, but-"

"Not important. This guy is responsible for the food, but Choi the Elder is busy harassing old ladies and Water Tribe girls up in the Fire Nation camp. So someone has to be watching over things down here, right? Someone who everyone knows is in charge?

Aang felt a smile growing on his face. "Someone like Yeong Choi!"

"Exactly!" Sokka crossed his arms over his chest. "And I, being an expert in the use and consumption of food, have a plan."

Aang nodded, eager to hear the details. Sokka was the perfect combination of cleverness and loyalty, and no doubt he had figured this whole situation out.

The plan might even work!
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Loopy
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« Reply #109 on: Apr 18, 2016 06:32 pm »



Sokka watched from a distance as Aang approached one of the food tables in the heart of the festival. The crowds were thick, here, but Sokka had been observing things, and the food was refilled just as fast as the plates were being emptied. Obviously, they were in the center of one of the most efficient service networks in the world.

Over at the table, Aang plucked something edible from the 'Air' corner of the display and popped it into his mouth. Sokka kept his eyes focused as Aang chewed, swallowed, and then threw himself to the ground with a loud, "Ooooaaaaoooooaaaaauuuuuggh!"

People immediately backed away while Sokka pushed his way through until he burst out into the small clearing around the table and Aang's body. Aang was clawing at his own throat and twitching around on the ground, and looked for Sokka's nod before turning one of his 'twitches' into a kick that knocked the whole food table over.

Pleased at the din of the crash, Sokka ran over to his friend. "Oh no," he said as loudly as he could. "He's eaten one of the rare leaves of the Igkyak Plant, which are deadly poison but look no different than a sprig of mint!" The crowd murmured with distress, and Sokka spotted a few people with food in their hands carefully inspecting any garnish. No Choi had stepped forward yet, so Sokka continued, "Who prepared this food? We need to know how much Igkyak he might have eaten so that we can prepare an antidote!"

At that point, a young lady dashed out of the crowd in a robe big and long enough to billow out like a sail at the speed of her run. She threw herself to the ground beside Aang, and Sokka saw that she was examining the kid’s throat with hands covered in old burn scars.

"No swelling," the woman said. She pried Aang's jaws open with a healer's confidence and added, "No sign of inflammation here, either." She clamped her scarred right hand down over Aang's nose, and he choked for a moment before reflexively sucking in some air through his mouth. "And you don't have any problem breathing when no one is interfering." She sat back on her knees and crossed her arms over her chest, glaring at both Aang and Sokka. "What's going on here?"

Before Sokka could answer, a man came running out of the crowd wearing the same style of dress as Jae Choi, right down to the shiny outer robe and tall horse-hair hat. He stumbled to a stop and wheezed, "What- (ahh-) is (ugh-) wrong?"

Sokka turned away from the woman's angry expression and looked to the fancy young man. "You're Yeong Choi, right? Your father had my sister arrested because he thinks you're under a curse and I need your help to make sure no one dies."

Yeong just stared.

The healer woman's expression crumbled into confusion. "And you couldn't have just asked around for us?"

From the ground, Aang said, "That was our backup plan."

Sokka nodded. "This one seemed quicker."



A few minutes later, back in the large tents where the food for the free tables was being prepared by an army of cooks, Aang bowed to Yeong and the healer woman. "We're sorry for the deception. We have less than an hour until our friends will be judged and were feeling pretty desperate." Beside him, Sokka bowed as low as he could go.

"I suppose I understand." Yeong waved for them to stand up. "No, I lie, I get why you did something so foolish, but I don't understand why my father had your sister arrested. I don't even know your sister!"

Aang nodded. "But you know Aunt Wu. She gave you a love prediction. And now your dad says that it took away all your wits, or something."

Both Yeong and the scarred healer went still. Finally, Yeong nodded and motioned to the woman. "This is Song. We intend to marry as soon as possible. I was waiting in the particular spot that Aunt Wu suggested, and then Song came up, and-" He looked over at Song, and his face softened. "And-"

Song smiled and stared straight up into Yeong's eyes. "...and..."

Looking at them, Aang couldn't help but crave the same thing. To love someone who completed him, and to be loved in return, had to be the most fulfilling feeling in the world. He could almost imagine something like memories of loves like that, but the faces that came with them were just shadows in the mist of time.

"We get it," Sokka put in. "And the expected happened, and then your father got all upset."

The lovers ended their mutual adoration, and Yeong nodded heavily. "I told him of my desire to take Song as my wife and give her the life she deserves, and he was angry. We had words, and I had to walk away, but I never expected-" He sighed. "With what has he charged Aunt Wu?"

Aang wondered briefly how to word it. "He kind of is accusing her of being an evil sorceress who cursed you."

"Then I must set this right. Take me to the Fire Nation camp."

"Both of us," Song said.

Yeong turned to her with obvious alarm. "But if he commands the Firebenders, you could be in danger!"

Song held up her hands, letting the sleeves of her robe fall away to reveal that the mottled, shining scars extended down to her wrists and beyond. "I have dealt with Firebenders before. I am not afraid."

Yeong looked like he was going to say something, but Aang thought of innocent Aunt Wu dying because of an angry father, of losing the chance to learn what he needed to fix the world for everyone, and of Katara once again being stuck behind a cage because of the Fire Nation's heartlessness. "Well, whoever is going, let's go. We don't have a lot of time!"

Sokka nodded, Yeong sighed, and Song smiled with satisfaction.



Katara was nearly falling asleep listening to Mai teach Meng how to brush her hair a hundred times a day when Aang burst into the tent again with a harried guard on his heels. "We did it!"

Katara jumped to her feet as Sokka came into the tent followed by a man and woman. The woman was wearing short, easily maintained hair and the simple robes of a peasant, but the man bore what Katara was coming to recognize as the clear marks of the nobility for this province. He was even wearing the same hat and facial hair as Jae, although his silk robes were orange, rather than the typical Earth Kingdom green. "Yeong Choi, I presume?"

The man nodded. "I apologize for my father's dishonorable actions. Let us end this farce as soon as possible."

Another guard brought both Captain Shimofuri and Jae into the tent, and Katara was almost starting to be grateful for the cage around her, as it kept people from pressing in around her in the limited space. An open sky was terrifying, but getting crushed in a mob was no fun, either.

Captain Shimofuri looked around at the assemblage. "What am I dealing with now?"

Yeong stepped forward, holding one of Song's scarred hands. "I am the supposedly cursed, witless son, and with me is Song, the woman I intend to marry of my own free will. I have come to demonstrate my sound mind."

Jae lurched forward with a finger pointed right in Song's face. "She is a peasant! A beggar with no means to support herself! She got the sorceress to bewitch my son so that she could live a comfortable life on my money!"

Katara winced at the expression that overtook Song's face. Yeong shoved his father's finger aside as Song said, "I- My hands lack the feeling needed for most healing work, but my love for Yeong is genuine. I would marry him if he had nothing."

"And I love Song!" Yeong turned to Captain Shimofuri, and Katara silently cheered him on. "I only met Song today, but I have quickly learned that she is the most giving, caring person I could ever hope to meet. Her hands were burned trying to treat a sick Firebender long ago, before the war even ended, and she doesn't need my money to survive. She is quite knowledgeable in the ways of healing herbs, even if her fingers cannot feel her patients. I am marrying her because I want to, and no magical force in this world or that of the Spirits could change my feelings."

Jae through his hands into the air. "You see! Listen to his nonsense! The son I raised would never bother with a lowborn with clumsy hands. I raised a practical son!"

"Practical?!" Yeong's face had gone red, just like Katara had seen his father's, before. "Then see how practical you have raised your son!" He tore at his outer robe, pulling it off to reveal the white shirt and pants that had been hidden beneath the orange silk. He folded the robe up, took his hat off and placed it atop the bundle, and held it up in Jae's face. "I disown you, Father. I was silent when our province was surrendered, because you said it the world was changing and I believed you, but now I see what you truly think of our people. Even the lowliest worker supports the nation and gives you the means to live, and that deserves respect. The world is changing, and no matter her station, Song deserves my love. I am grateful to have hers in return, and I would rather marry her and live as a beggar than live in comfort in your house."

"Witchcraft!" Jae shrieked, swatting the robe and hat out of his son's hands. "Witchcraft!"

Katara heard Aunt Wu murmuring, "This could be going better."

Captain Shimofuri punched a hand into the air and a blossom of flame exploded above everyone's heads. "I will have order!" Jae and Yeong both fell silent, and Shimofuri nodded. "Good. What I have seen here is evidence of nothing. Maybe the boy is cursed and maybe he isn't. I don't care anymore. The younger girls can go free, but the Fire Army has an outstanding alert for dangerous Spirits, and there is too much doubt for me to release the fortuneteller. I will be done with this before the sun disappears. Now, all of you get out of my camp!"

Katara was going to argue, to say that the Captain couldn't be done with this- couldn't kill Aunt Wu just on suspicions- but then she noticed Mai reaching into her sleeves, going for a weapon. She was going to fight to free Aunt Wu! Katara tensed and for a moment was looking forward to the chance to show the Fire Nation that it couldn't just take people's lives away like this, but then she realized what she was about to do. Could they really get Aunt Wu out of the middle of the camp? And then what would they do, drag her through the festival while the Fire Army chased them? People would get hurt, and Katara couldn't imagine that Aunt Wu would be very safe.

Katara shook her head, and it was a long, heart-pounding moment before Mai's gaze caught it and she took her empty hands back out of her sleeves.

Then a guard sprang into Katara's view to open the cage and yank her away.



Aang stumbled as the Firebender guard threw him out of the Fire Army's camp, and he heard the impacts of his friend's bodies on the grass and they got the same treatment. Mai, Sokka, Katara (and her hat), Yeong, Song, and even the small girl with the giant pigtails had all been released, but the fortuneteller was still inside.

There was no time to waste! The sun was falling behind the Mountain of Death and the sky was a mix of purples and reds. Aang didn't even wait to check that no one was looking before throwing a gust of air to pop himself back to his feet. "I'll go get Appa, and then we can swoop down and grab Aunt Wu out of there." He spared a quick moment to make sure his friends got the plan.

He found confused stares from Yeong, Song, and the pigtails girl. Mai's expression was blank. Katara was biting her lip, and Sokka shook his head as he stood up and said, "You'll never make it in time. We left Appa pretty far back."

"So, what, you don't even want to try?"

Sokka opened his mouth to say something, but Katara silenced him with a hand on his shoulder. She then stepped over to Aang and looked at him with blue eyes that reflected the first few stars in the sky. "Do you really think you can make it?"

Aang wanted to say yes, that he could cover the distance back to the camp easily with his glider, but then he remembered that he had lost his staff back on Crescent Island. He couldn't stop his eyes from flicking over to Mai, but he quickly looked back to Katara. "We have to do something!"

Yeong said, "I'll rally the people. We can pressure the Captain, show her that we won't stand for this bullying." He grabbed Song's hand, and together they went running back to the festival.

Aang didn't think they'd be any quicker than going back for Appa. Explaining the situation just once would take too much time, never mind trying to spread the word to enough people. There just wasn't a way to speak to everyone all at once, to give them real understanding without wasting words on-

Wait!

"Wait," Aang said. "I have an idea." He looked around. He was too close to the Fire Army camp, so he needed some space. Waving the others along, he ran with a burst of Airbending-enhanced speed across the top of the valley wall. He skidded to a stop once he figured that none of the camp's guards could see what he intended to do, and then sank into a lotus position so that he could meditate. He had slowed his breathing by the time his friends (and the pigtails girl) sprinted over, and he smiled up at them as he closed his eyes. "Everyone at this festival is sharing a kind of connection. I'm going to find it, and use it to send a message."

Sokka scratched his hair. "What kind of connection?"

Aang felt for the dogwood sprig pinned to the front of his tunic. He pulled Mai's needle out and took the little bundle of green leaves and red berries in his cupped hands. "Everyone at the festival is wearing one of these. They're doing it because they all believe that it will purify their spirits. They all believe. Just like me." He put his focus on the feel of the leaves in his hand, on the way they tickled the skin of his palms like the air tickled his nostrils as he breathed in and out. He focused on what that meant to him, on the old feeling of peace that he would find in the gardens of the Southern Air Temple, and on the feeling of being gathered here with so many respectful, spiritual people.

He sank into the flow of the invisible energy that ran through this valley like a river flowing down from the Mountain, and found the other dogwood sprigs floating on that river with the same peace he felt now.

Aang plunged himself into that river.

He inhaled sharply at the sharpness of it, of the feeling of throwing himself into the raging rapids of the valley’s spiritual energy. He tried to reach out towards the other dogwood sprigs, but they bobbed in the flow of energy to create their own currents. It was like trying to swim up a waterfall! He would no sooner touch one than he would go spinning away in a dizzying swirl. There were no strong connections to anchor him, to let him follow a safe path through this world of spiritual energy. He didn't have the strength to do it.

"Can't," he grunted.



To Katara’s ears, it was like Aang spat the word out through clenched teeth. Sweat dripped down from beneath the scarf on his head, and he was clearly fighting to not clench his fists and crush the little dogwood sprig resting in his palms.

Katara knew she had to help. She took the scarf off, revealing the glowing arrow tattoo beneath, and then flipped the cork off of one of her waterskins and streamed some of the liquid out with a hurried finger motion. As she sat down to face Aang, she moved her arms to separate the water in half and pool it around each of her hands, and then raised them so that her palms were on either side of Aang's head. He didn't have any wounds to heal, but Katara tapped into the repairing energies of the water nonetheless, using that power to flare his Qi in the same way she should coax a body to restore itself. His breathing quickly settled, and she could see the tension leaving his muscles.

Katara shut her eyes, took off her hat, and leaned forward until her forehead was resting against his. She concentrated on keeping the healing power of the water going, thinking of Aunt Wu as she did so, of everything the old woman did for people, and how the Fire Nation wanted to kill her for it. She also couldn't help but think of the prophecy Aunt Wu had made, that Katara might someday marry Aang.

Whether or not that happened, the Avatar needed her now.

Aang needed her now.
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Loopy
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« Reply #110 on: Apr 18, 2016 06:32 pm »



Sokka watched Aang and Katara glowing, and couldn't stop himself from pacing. What were they doing? How was this going to help Aunt Wu?

"Relax," Mai said as he paced past her again.

Sokka didn't even look at her. "No."

He heard Mai sigh. He thought that might be a sign of surrender, but then she added, "You know, they make a cute couple, touching heads and glowing together like that."

Finally, Sokka tore his eyes away from the spectacle and looked over at Mai. "Don't. I know you're joking, but I don't do that with you anymore." He didn't wait for her response- if she planned to make any- before turning back to Aang and Katara.

What were they doing? How was this going to help Aunt Wu?

Then Meng called out, "Look!" Sokka turned to find her pointing, and then followed said pointing down towards the valley. The festival was being lit up by torches and candles as the night settled on the gathering, but those lights weren't staying still. They were flowing up the grassy sides of the valley.

The people- almost the entire gathering for the festival- was walking up to the Fire Nation camp.

He glanced back at Aang and Katara, both of them still meditating and glowing, and then over to Mai. "Guard them. I need to see what's happening."

He ran back to the entrance of the Fire Army's encampment and met the first wave of people as they approached the obviously nervous guards, with Yeong and Song at the front of the crowd of almost a thousand people. It was actually the scarred healer who spoke first, saying, "We've come to petition for the release of the Fortuneteller. One of our people is being held here unjustly."

As a single guard went running into the camp, no doubt to find someone with more authority to take the blame for whatever trouble was about to happen, Sokka trotted over to Yeong. "You worked fast."

Yeong tried to smile, but didn't quite manage it. "I barely needed to say anything. The first people I told immediately started moving for the camp, and everyone else just began following. I don't know how word spread so quickly, but I heard the crowd chanting Aunt Wu's name as they marched."

There was some motion amongst the remaining guards, and Sokka turned to see Captain Shimofuri stepping through the line of soldiers with Jae Choi beside her. She held a hand up and a burst of fire came to life in her palm, acting like one of the torches being carried by so many people in the crowd. "What is the meaning of this?!"

Yeong stepped back over and bowed. "Captain, we are here to express the will of the people. We mean no harm and will do no violence, but you are holding one of our people without just cause. We ask for her release."

Sokka saw Shimofuri eying the size of the crowd. Her forces were outnumbered, although Sokka doubted that there were many fighters amongst the festival goers. If it came to a fight, the Fire Army had a good chance of winning. Judging from the Captain's expression, she had done the same math as Sokka, but Jae looked absolutely terrified of the mass of people in front of him.

The captain turned back to Yeong and Song. "I told you, the Fire Army can't risk anything when it comes to Spirit troubles. She must be killed."

"What if," Sokka broke in, "all the people took responsibility for Aunt Wu? They don't want people being cursed, either, and Aunt Wu hasn't done anything to anyone from the Fire Nation."

Jae took a step closer to Captain Shimofuri. "She cursed my son!"

"I," Yeong said, "am not from the Fire Nation. Nor am I cursed."

Song took one of Yeong's hands in her own scarred pair. "We're just in love. Love knows no nation, nor do the spirits. They're risks and blessings for us all. Please, Captain, release Aunt Wu to the custody of her people, and let us solve this peacefully and in friendship."

"You can't," Jae hissed. "I cannot allow it!"

Captain Shimofuri raised the hand that wasn't on fire to her brow. "You just don't know when to shut up, do you? You may be an official, Jae Choi, but until you can get control of your own people, I won't believe that you can make me do anything." She looked out once again at the crowd.

"Aunt Wu," Sokka called out. "Aunt Wu!" Yeong and Song both took up the chant, repeating Aunt Wu's name, and soon it spread amongst the whole gathering. The Fortuneteller's name echoed down through the valley and off the Mountain of Death. Sokka thought it was a pretty neat effect.

Captain Shimofuri turned to one of her guards and said something that Sokka couldn't hear, and then the soldier ran off into the camp.

The chanting had gone on for five more minutes when the guard came back with Aunt Wu. Shimofuri motioned, and all her soldiers stepped back to clear a path for Fortuneteller to the crowd. "I release your elder to you. Make sure she stays out of trouble. Now remove this assembly from my camp or I will consider it to be hostile."

Sokka left Yeong and Song to do all the appropriate bowing while he jogged into the crowd, shouting, "She's free! We did it! Back to the party!"

Not that the festival was really a party, but in Sokka's opinion, this definitely called for one.



A few hours later, Katara stood with Aunt Wu and all her friends while they watched an Earth shaman and a volunteer scribe finalize the marriage between Yeong and Song. The couple kissed, and the crowd around them hoisted their candles and cheered.

Katara raised the brim of her hat and looked to Aunt Wu. "That has to be good advertising."

The answering smile was almost indulgent. "If I charged money for my services, the profit would probably be worth the trouble, but I think I'll keep a low profile for the rest of the festival. Just provide a little help here and there if I see an opportunity." She turned to face Aang, who was once again wearing the scarf over his arrow. "Speaking of which, Avatar, I believe I owe you a talk. And my thanks."

Aang shook his head. "You don't need to thank me. But I was told that you had some helpful information for me..."

Aunt Wu raised a hand to touch his covered forehead. "I know the information you seek, but I can't give that to you. You are delving into the rare lore, from before the world was divided into nations, and few know such things. Even Fortunetellers." Aang's face fell, and Katara's heart stung for him, but Aunt Wu continued, "I can tell you, though, where such knowledge can be found. The Earth Kingdom's greatest cities were older than the Kingdom itself, and much lore was accumulated in their libraries."

Mai broke in with, "Omashu and Ba Sing Se are gone."

Aunt Wu nodded. "But Ba Sing Se itself was too large- too deep- to be wiped out, even by the Fire Nation's power. There are remnants of the city still around, remnants devoted to preserving Ba Sing Se's culture, and that includes the knowledge it accumulated. I tell you, Avatar Aang, to seek Avatar Kyoshi's legacy near the ruins of Ba Sing Se." She turned to Katara. "Seek your Tribe that waits there for you. With them, you will find welcome, and the beginnings of the knowledge you need to save the world."

Sokka crossed his arms over his chest. "That's kind of vague, don't you think?"

Katara elbowed him. "She's telling us what she can."

Aunt Wu turned to Katara. "But your brother is not telling you all that he can."

Katara blinked. What did that mean? "Sokka?"

He said nothing, but Aunt Wu went on, "You had a fight, earlier. I heard it, and now I'm going to be a bit of a busybody. Your brother has known more hardships than you've imagined, Katara, even if he will not speak of them. He keeps those burdens to himself, but don't let him. Talk more to him, and don't be afraid of what you'll learn. It will only bring you closer."

Katara tried to blink back the tears she felt welling up in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Sokka. I didn't- but even if I didn't know, I shouldn't have yelled at you like that. I shouldn't be cruel because of my worries."

"Don't-" He was red in the face and trying to act none of this was a big deal. "Look, don't be sorry. It's all fine. We can- you know- talk. If you want. Sometime."

Katara reached out and hugged him, of course. He endured it for a moment, and then wrapped his arms around her. She couldn't help but smile at that.

She heard Aunt Wu say to Aang, "And we should have a little private talk of our own."

When Katara finally let go of her brother, she looked back over at the wedding celebration. Jae Choi was approaching the newlyweds from amidst the various well-wishers. He handed over a bag and immediately turned to go, never looking back even as Yeong lifted a gold coin out of it.

The little moment went unnoticed amidst the other celebrations.



Aang finally stepped into Aunt Wu's tent, just as all the others had, earlier. It was dark in there, but the fortuneteller lit a little fire in a pan, and it illuminated the space with a warm, living glow.

"So what did you want to talk to me about?" Aang sat down on the guest-mat on the floor.

Aunt Wu settled down on the other mat, beside the fire pan. "An extra fortune that you need to know. I thought you'd want a moment to take it in, by yourself. It's no secret, but it should be up to you as to how to handle it. How you want to share it."

"Okay." That sounded ominous to Aang, but he trusted Aunt Wu. "What is it?"

She took a deep breath and looked him straight in his eyes. "The element of Air has returned to the world."

He had to smile. "Yeah, I kind of noticed. I'm not exactly sleeping in an iceberg, anymore."

She didn't smile back. "The Spirit World is encroaching on the material world, and you've seen how things have been affected. The unsettled dead make their displeasure known. Creatures from legend are making new lives in our modern world. And we've been too long without four nations for the four elements, so a correction has begun."

Aang felt his heart starting to hammer. She couldn't mean- "There- there are new Airbenders?"

Aunt Wu nodded. "It's happening slowly, but not without violence. Not without danger. Nevertheless, this is my fortune for you, Aang: if you go to Ba Sing Se's ruins without the friendship of new Airbenders, all will be lost. And that friendship will be hard for you to give."

Aang reached up to run his hands over his shaved head, but he found the scarf still in place, so he yanked it off before completing the worried gesture. "How- how can I find them? Who are they?"

Aunt Wu shook her head. "That is something you need to discover for yourself. Anything I could tell you would only sabotage what you need to do."

Aang blew out an annoyed breath. Wasn't that just typical?



Katara found Mai sitting a little ways off from the wedding celebration, watching some children making Ghost Lanterns on the valley grass. "So, Mai, did you ever get a fortune for yourself?" She sat down beside the other girl in a way that made it clear that she wouldn't be chased away.

Mai raised a single eyebrow. "Why, looking to get some clarification on whether you and Aang..." She raised a hand and intertwined two of the fingers.

Katara felt her face heat up, but after today, she wasn't going to let a little embarrassment stop her. "Aunt Wu said it wasn't clear. So I'm not going to worry whether or not it will happen. I'm just going to see how things go."

Mai nodded with what could almost have been respect. "Then I'll answer your question. Yes, I did get a fortune."

All at once Katara was reaching out to take Mai's hands in her own. "And?!"

Mai frowned and tried to tug her hands away, but Katara held on. "Well, Sokka wanted me to test the old lady. It was simple: I said that if she could really tell fortunes, she would know what question I wanted to ask without my having to ask it."

Katara blinked. "I guess that logic works."

"It did.” Mai used Katara’s surprise to free her hands. “Aunt Wu told me exactly the question I was thinking of."

"And what was it?"

Mai turned so that Katara could no longer see her face. "I- I wanted to know if I'd ever be forgiven. After Aunt Wu provided the question, I asked for the answer, too."

Katara waited a very generous half a second before saying, "And?!"

Mai turned back to look over at the children, who had risen to run around in the night air and chase each other with their lanterns. "She said yes."

"Yes?"

"The answer to my question was yes."

Katara frowned. "But who's going to forgive you, exactly? For what? And when?"

Mai shrugged. "It doesn't matter. That was the only answer I cared about."

Katara considered that. "You're an odd girl, Mai."

"Yeah."

"But that's fine."

"Yeah."

Katara smiled, and took a brief moment to look up at the stars. The sight sent that spike of panic through her heart, but she adjusted her hat and focused again on the friend beside her and the family nearby.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Loopy
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« Reply #111 on: May 02, 2016 06:16 pm »

Author's Note: Kirai's name and appearance were created by Lavanya Six, based on an idea by me.

Warning: This chapter depicts an explicitly abusive family relationship. It's nowhere near as bad as what Zuko experienced in the original cartoon, for comparison, but it is all 'on-screen' here, so it might affect some people in a more impactful way.




The Sisters of Kyoshi Island

Zuko threw his arm out to send a wave of flame at Suki, but the fire was still in the process of blossoming when she threw herself into a forward roll that carried her under the attack. Zuko shifted his stance and brought his leg back for a snapping side-kick, but instead of striking out, he held his position and used his raised foot to catch Suki by her left shoulder.

He looked down at her and said, "You're dead."

Suki nodded and leaned back. "You're quicker than most of the Firebenders I've fought. I need to learn to take that into account."

The sound of slow clapping echoed through the dojo, and Zuko turned to find Azula observing them. "Well done, Zuzu. I'm glad to see that you've been keeping up with your practice. I just received word that June has finally arrived, and I'm sure she'll be glad to see that all the training she gave you isn’t going to waste." Without waiting for a reply, Azula turned to Suki. "And as for you, if you can't improve your speed and tactical reasoning, then get a weapon. My brother is no master, and I will not tolerate anything less than perfection in my agents."

To Zuko's annoyance, Suki lowered her head to the dojo's floor and said, "Thank you for the suggestion. I know how to use a katana sword-"

"I know the type. It operates on the same principle as a dao saber. Go tell the outpost's commander that I'm requisitioning one for you. Now."

Suki pressed her forehead to the floor again and then scurried away.

Zuko crossed his arms and gave his sister as much of a glare as he could with one eye. "You wanted her to leave us alone."

Azula gave him a sharp little smile that didn't reach her eyes. "My, winning a sparring match and seeing what's going on right in front of your one-eyed face. Today is a good day for you! But yes, after I got word about June, I stopped by the communications office to check for messages. Father sent a wire that the operation to recover Suki's sister has begun. Piandao himself has been tasked with it, which I presume is an excuse to get him out of the Capital for a little while. The operation against Zhao got a little hot, from what Father shared."

Zuko blinked. Since arriving back in the Earth Kingd- the Colonial Continent, they had been staying at a small Fire Army outpost, waiting for June to meet them, and Azula had been sending and receiving telegraph messages several times a day. She hadn't said what they were about, except for one brief aside that Father had moved against Zhao but he had disappeared in response. The only thing she would share about her business was that she was making arrangements and gathering information so that Zuko could finish his hunt for the Avatar.

Zuko wanted to inquire further about the details, but he knew it would be futile. "So why not tell Suki? She'd probably be glad to hear it."

"After Piandao missed getting Zhao, I'm not going to risk getting her hopes up." Azula turned and began stalking out of the dojo. "She'll hear about it once I know that the mission has been completed successfully."

So Piandao had been involved in the play against Zhao? Zuko trotted to catch up with his sister. Her logic about Suki made sense, but as he followed Azula, he noticed that she was walking with an unusual tenseness, and as they emerged from the dojo into the open air of the outpost, he saw that she was stomping with enough force to leave boot-prints in the packed dirt of the ground. Usually, she walked with a grace that let her move without any sign of her passage. "Something else is wrong. You're angry."

Azula stopped short and turned to scowl at him. "Like you?"

"Well, yes." Zuko offered a shrug.

Azula held his gaze for a moment, but then turned and rolled her eyes. "If you must know, Father denied my request to have Mai's family arrested and tortured. His wire said that they still have value as allies, that it would be 'needlessly cruel' to try to hurt Mai through them, and that her brother Tom-Tom was too young to be a target."

Zuko couldn't help but let out a relieved sigh. He had never really gotten to know Mai's parents, but Azula had previously mentioned the little boy who had been born to the family during his exile. "That sounds reasonable."

"I don't want to reasonable. I want to be strong." He watched as Azula clenched and unclenched her fists, and before she stalked off to complete whatever other business she had here in the outpost, she tossed out, "Get ready. We leave in half an hour."

Zuko stood there, considering that. His memories of Father were full of lessons on strength, but did that extend to hurting the innocent families of traitors? Had it extended to Zuko himself, when he failed to do his duty during the siege of Ba Sing Se?

Had Father changed, or were Zuko's memories deceptive?

He would find no answers standing here. Zuko went to get his things together, and then to find Suki. He would be ready to leave at Azula's appointed time, so they could continue the hunt for the Avatar and the only way home.



Piandao found the Imoto Island Navy Base much to his liking. It was a typical naval outpost with docks and coal depots and all the various things that the Fire Nation needed to project its power across the oceans, but what had caught his eye were the training grounds for the Marine soldiers. There was an entire scuttled junk on the shore that was currently being used to practice a boarding action, and one whole corner of the base had been devoted to a mock pirate fortress that was in the process of being mock-attacked.

It looked like fun. Battle was always more amusing when no one was dying.

Sadly, Piandao was not here to have fun.

He followed his escort through into the base, trying to feel comfortable again in his old service armor, and the sword at his side helped with that. The escort took him past the various buildings and piers over to the mock-fortress, where an officer was observing the proceedings. Piandao glanced over at all the activity for a moment to watch a squadron commander lead a team of Firebenders in a rush at the fortress, and turned away just as they were hit with a bag of ink representing the contents of an enemy catapult. The escort led Piandao straight to the observing officer and whispered, "Commander Wairo will see you, now."

Piandao nodded an acknowledgement, then stepped forward and bowed to Wairo. "Sir, Lieutenant Lee reporting, on direct assignment from Central Command."

Wairo turned and regarded Piandao with hands clasped formally behind his back. "Rather old for a Lieutenant, aren't you? Who's your commander?"

"I regret to say that both of those answers are classified, sir." Piandao produced a scroll from his belt and offered it to the commander. "I'm here to retrieve one of your marines for reassignment to Special Operations." He glanced over again at the drill, taking note that amidst the spears, fireballs, and arrows flying through the sky at the fortress, a cabbage-sized rock was also arcing along.

Wairo looked up from the scroll. It was a genuine document, endorsed with one of the rare anonymous imprints given to the highest ranking officers- and royals who had served in the military, such as Prince Ozai- and listed all the relevant details of Piandao's request. "You're here for Lieutenant Kirai? Why?"

"I'm afraid that's classified, too, even from me. I just know her name and number, and that I'm to bring her back to the Capital." Piandao looked over at the mock-battle again, once more picking a flying rock out of the sky.

"I see." Wairo grinned. "You know, I also have some special, classified orders about Lieutenant Kirai."

Piandao nodded. This had always been a possibility, and he had already resolved to make this as clean as possible. "I hope those orders don't conflict with mine, sir?"

"Old and cheeky for a lieutenant. Execute Protocol Sister."

Piandao heard the sound of a knife being pulled from its sheath, and immediately snapped his left arm backwards to smash his elbow into his escort's nose. Even the unsheathed knife clattered to the ground, Piandao was drawing his sword with his right arm in a cut that put a shallow gouge across Wairo's face. As the commander raised his hands to the wound, Piandao kicked him to the ground.

Then he ran straight into the mock-assault on the Fire Nation's imaginary enemies, dodging surprised marines and taking a very particular path that led him in the direction of the source of those two thrown rocks. He took a deep breath and bellowed, "Lieutenant Kirai, report!"

Amidst the charging soldiers, one turned her head in response, and Piandao saw a young woman's face beneath the helmet, a few locks of sweaty black hair plastered to her forehead.

Of course, he had no idea what Kirai was supposed to look like, but Azula's communique had said that she was an Earthbender from Kyoshi Island, and the woman staring at him was unarmed, barefoot, and maintaining a low and solid stance that was completely unsuited for Firebending. Also, the eyes Piandao saw now were a blue color that could almost be green in a certain light- a shade that evoked the islands of the Southern Seas, the stepping stones between the Earth Kingdom and the Southern Water Tribe.

Piandao sheathed his sword just before he reached her, so as not to present himself as a threat. While the other confused marines immediately around her took reluctant defensive stances, he said, "Suki sends greetings. I think your Commanding officer is going to try to kill us both now."

Piandao had just finished the warning when Wairo's voice rang out with, "Lieutenant Kirai, subdue that spy and report to me at once!"

Piandao waited, and Kirai stared back at him with those bluish eyes.



The Past

Half a World Away

Roughly three years before she would meet the deadliest swordsmaster in the world, Kirai had been watching from the shadows as her neighborhood was invaded. In the dark of the night, she didn't even need to seek cover, her dark clothes and facepaint working with her complete lack of movement to make her functionally invisible. When she finally struck, it would be like a shadow itself coming to life.

And she wasn't the only one ready for trouble.

The invasion in question was small in size, just a few carousing swordsmen in red tunics- probably bodyguards from one of the merchants ships come to trade- but soon they would learn that they should have stayed closer to the docks. Parts of the village were able to thrive on the commerce that came from the trading ships and the business offered by the soldiers in the big Navy base, but this particular neighborhood did not see much of that coin. This was the haven for people who couldn't or wouldn't hold a job in the civilized areas, and some visitors thought that gave them the freedom to do what they wanted with the residents.

That's why Kirai and her friends were here. A call like a cranefish's warble had sounded when the invaders had crossed the invisible border to the neighborhood and been echoed across the streets, and now a whistle like a blue jay went out to signal the completion of the defenders’ gathering.

Kirai stepped out into the swordsmen's path, walking with confidence and aiming her worst glare at the invaders. "You made a mistake coming to Unagi territory."

They stopped short, eyes going wide with fear. A day shy of her sixteenth birthday, Kirai knew she didn't normally make for a very imposing figure, but that was what the facepaint was for. The real Unagi had the face of a monster that would have been intimidating even without its massive size, and replicating that appearance with gray and black facepaints could turn even a slight teenage girl into a figure out of a nightmare. And anyone who knew of the monstrous beast in the bay would know it’s ferocity, a quality the Unagi gang was more than happy to evoke.

Of course, even scary facepaint and reputations could only accomplish so much. The swordsmen blinked their way into enough sobriety to realize that their opponent was a single girl to their three. Kirai had been wondering if they would bluster or go straight to violence, and was only mildly surprised to see that they were reaching for their swords.

By the time blades cleared sheathes, the rest of the Unagi gang had stepped out of the shadows.

The swordsmen froze, finding that the dark and formerly lonely lane had sprouted a small army of teenagers, all with faces painted like the island's most dangerous aquatic predator. Kirai saw the swordsmen's eyes widen as they noticed the weapons being brandished by her gang-mates; none of the bits of sharpened metal had started their artificial lives as weapons, but it didn’t take much work to take scraps of worn battleship hulls, broken armor, and shattered windows and give them lethal points.
The swordsmen turned back to Kirai. She grinned at them, then leaned down and sunk her hands into the dirt road as easily as if it was a babbling stream. When she rose and lifted her fists, they were encased in dirt packed hard enough to form some credible spikes.

One of the swordsmen said, "Wait, we can leave-"

But they hadn't yet, so Kirai lunged forward and swung a left hook at him, and even as he was clumsily deflecting the blow with his sword, the rest of the Unagi warriors were closing in with their sharp bits of metal.

Kirai didn't put too much effort into her subsequent assault. The strength of Unagi gang was in its numbers, and as the group's sole Earthbender, she was too valuable to risk. She cautiously boxed at her chosen swordsman, enjoying his fear of her fists, and only pressed forward when another Unagi girl came in at him with a glass shank and drew his attention. The swordsman raised his dao to chop at the interloper, and Kirai took advantage of the moment to first deliver a hammer punch down on his closest shoulder with her right hand, and then she slammed a punch in at his chest with her left, laying him out.

That's when the whistles of the Fire Nation guards sounded.

The attack ended in an instant. Kirai dashed out of the lane, melting back into the shadows. As always, the first rule of concealment in this neighborhood was lack of motion, so as soon as she was safe from the moonlight, she froze and let her makeup and clothes turn her invisible.

Out in the lane, Kirai’s opponent picked himself off the ground, while the swordsman still standing tried to rouse the third, who was lying unmoving in the dirt. Kirai had a good view of pool of blood around the prone man, and she did not expect him to rise again.

The Fire Nation guards who arrived on the scene apparently shared her assessment. "This is what you get," one of the guards said, "for walking into Unagi territory without paying the toll. Idiots." The two survivors began to protest, but the guards grabbed their arms and hurriedly yanked them away, leaving the dead man behind.

Kirai nodded with approval. The guards were not encouraged to linger in this neighborhood, but neither was the Unagi gang in a hurry to start a fight with them. It was a healthy arrangement that kept everyone alive.

Mostly everyone.

Satisfied with whole encounter, Kirai shook the stone off her hands and moved out of her shadow. She passed down an alley that stank of goat-dog, and when she emerged, another Unagi hopped down beside her from a roof and chirped, "Did you see me? I came at that guy like a real Kyoshi Warri-"

Kirai turned and smacked the gray and black facepaint right off the newcomer. She was shorter than Kirai and younger, and her glass shank went flying as she fell, but she was quick, and was scrambling back to her feet before her body had even settled in the dirt.

So Kirai leaned down and planted her heaviest fist in the other girl's stomach, then followed it with a couple of hard kicks at her legs.

This time, the kid had the sense to stay down.

Satisfied, Kirai knelt down next to her sister and laid a comforting hand on her head. "You never pay any attention, Suki. You never saw my attack coming because you were too excited, and you missed how that guy was going to plant his sword in your head because you were too busy trying to be like Gramma's stories of Kyoshi Warriors. You're going to get yourself killed."

Suki scrunched her face in what Kirai recognized as an attempt to keep from crying. "I- I- I-" She drew in a shuddering breath. "I'm sorry. I'll be better. Promise! I just- I-"

"You want to be a real Unagi, and to be Recognized you need to spill blood." Kirai stared down at her sister. "Like I did when I was your age."

Suki nodded.

Kirai rose, and held out a hand. "Stop trying to be other people and start thinking about yourself, or you're going to get yourself killed."

Suki nodded again, and reached up to take Kirai's hand. Once they were both back on their feet, the sisters headed back home.
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Loopy
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« Reply #112 on: May 02, 2016 06:17 pm »



Piandao made himself stand without worry as he stared down Lieutenant Kirai. He watched as her hands tightened into fists, and a warm sea breeze wafted over them.

"Unagi breath," she hissed. Then she quickly dipped down to touch the ground and came up to smack her nearest marine compatriot with a stone fist.

Piandao had his sword back out in an instant and moved it in a loop that deflected three spears trying to stab in at him from different directions. He took advantage of the torque the long weapons offered to shove back at his attackers and twist them off their feet. He was resetting into a classic defense stance when he felt Kirai's back press again his own.

She floated a rock out the ground with both arms and flung it with blurring speed. "You have an exit strategy?"

"Yes." Piandao threw out a sequence of slices that cleared enough room in front of him to stab at a particularly brave attacker, making sure that the blade hit just enough bone to cause blinding pain with minimal damage. "I'll cover you while you make us extended cover."

"Unagi breath," she spat again, and extended her arms out in a long stretch in front of her. She held that stance while Piandao moved in a circle around her, chaining every rapid step he took into blade sequence that protected her from the variety of attempts to kill her. The spears and swords were easy to deal with, as they could be caught and deflected, but the Firebenders were the real trouble, and he had to keep a dedicated eye out for them so that he could strike before they could finish their own attack, pushing hands and feet off target before flame could bloom, and occasionally slicing deep into a limb that he couldn't otherwise reach in time.

He had lost count of his steps when she finally drew her arms in and stamped a foot down hard enough to make the ground explode into a cloud of choking dirt.

Piandao used his free hand to wrap a cloth to cover his nose and mouth, then grabbed Kirai and pulled her along in a run. He couldn't see in the dust cloud, but he had already picked out his escape route, and long ago learned how to pick out opponents by sound alone. While the marines coughed and stumbled, Piandao ran and sliced and stabbed. He made what efforts he could not to deal any fatal blows, and given how long it took cuts to bleed out, he was reasonably sure that he was keeping casualties low.

Kirai, flinging heavy stones as she ran, didn't seem to be making the same effort.



The Past

Half a World Away

Kirai saw the Unagi sentry stir as she and Suki approached Boss Oyaji's Nest, but a quick hand signal was enough to gain entry. She led Suki in through the main entrance, past the foyer where another pair of sentries greeted them with quick hugs and friendly obscene gestures, and then into the Nest proper.

As always when the Unagi gang had taken a life, they were throwing a party.

Someone tossed Kirai a small jug, but she wasn't in the mood, so she passed it on in an underhand throw to an older Unagi, while beside her, Suki caught a biscuit and immediately began nibbling. Kirai settled in against a wall and took in the scene. Most of the Unagis from the skirmish had made their way back by now, and it didn't take long for the last few to arrive. The Nest was a bit crowded with the whole crew here, but it had started its life as a fish warehouse, from back before the Fire Nation had brought its civilization to Kyoshi Island. There was plenty of room, even with the back half of the building given over to living space for the Unagi members with no other home of their own. Kirai and Suki shared a threadbare hammock back there.

As Kirai watched, the Unagi Boss emerged from that half of the Nest, pushing past the curtains that served as the walls for his own 'suite.' The revelry quieted down as Boss Oyaji- the old bearded man who was Master and Father to everyone in the gang- looked around, and when he was sure that he had everyone's attention, he began clapping. "My little eels! You've done well tonight! You protected our friends and family from invaders, and demonstrated the grace and skill that has defined Kyoshi Island since the day our land was sundered from the mainland.

"But even better, I have heard that one of you is ready to be Recognized!"

Excited chatter broke out amongst the Unagis, and Kirai glanced over to see Suki nibbling at her biscuit with distracted intensity.

Boss Oyaji grinned through his beard. "Chijin, step forward and show us your blade!"

A girl around Suki's age stepped out from the crowd, and held up what looked to Kirai like the sharpened shin-plate from a set of Firebender armor. Blood had dried on the metal, but it was still plainly visible in the light of the lanterns as a dull stain on black paint.

Boss Oyaji took the blade from Chijin and held it high above his head, almost as tall as his massive topknot. "This night, Chijin has become a true Unagi. By the blood of our enemies, she binds herself to us as family, and we are in turn bound to her. She has taken the ultimate step in protecting her people, and for that we are eternally grateful. Chijin, your name will be written on The List, and we will chant it in The Litany every Kyoshi Day. A century from now, when we are all dead, the Unagi gang will still be living on, and you will be part of its eternal memory!"

Everyone cheered and hollered, the Unrecognized like Suki loudest of all, and someone began pounding a drum in a celebratory beat. Kirai lost sight of Chijin as a crowd pressed in around her to congratulate her and offer her gifts, but she did catch Suki diving in to the press of bodies to be amongst the first.

Kirai hung back, and soon Boss Oyaji was shuffling over to her. "I heard that you, too, did well tonight, Kirai."

She shrugged. "It's not hard to be brave when I have the Earth beneath my feet and thirty warriors with weapons backing me up."

Oyaji chuckled. "Don't sell yourself short. An Earthbender is in danger from the Fire Nation just for existing. I'm glad you have our protection."

"You mean," Kirai said slowly, "you're glad my parents drowned and I had to go to you to survive?"

"Come, now!" Oyaji leaned forward and put a hand on her shoulder. "You know me better than that. I wish all of our people could live happily and safely. I would be glad if your parents were alive to protect you. By all accounts they were good people, and your mother was the daughter of a Kyoshi Warrior. I have no doubt she would have done right by your gift." He gave her one last pat on the shoulder, and then leaned back again. "Not looking forward to your birthday, are you?"

Kirai didn't even bother to think about. "I don't know. I'll be of age, finally. Sixteen."

"An adult at last." Oyaji nodded. "Free to get travel papers, free to own property, free to marry. I know you don't want to spend your whole life wearing facepaint and fighting. And I don't want to stop you from finding what makes you happy. But consider that you need to be careful. The Fire Nation controls everything here in the Southern Seas, and the war on the mainland isn't going well. Ba Sing Se itself is under siege. And the rounding up of Earthbenders isn't just stories."

Kirai nodded. "I know. I think a lot about what could hurt me."

"That's because you're smart. Here." Oyaji reached for his belt, and took one of the little bags hanging from it. He tossed it to Kirai, and it jingled as it landed in her palms. "Celebrate your birthday. Take a friend or two, or your sister, and go on a jaunt. Maybe enjoy the hot springs up the mountain, or one of the beaches that the Unagi leaves alone."

Kirai held up the bag, weighing it in her hand. "Thanks. I guess I'll set out tomorrow."

"That's right! Enjoy tonight, and then when the sun rises, use your birthday to see what's on your horizon." Oyaji gave her one of the Family Signs, and moved on to join the celebration.

Kirai tied the bag of coins on her belt, and looked up to watch Suki dancing as part of a group in the center of the Nest.



Piandao poked his head through the doorway onto the deck and watched just long enough to get a sense for the pattern, then eased himself back down into the cargo hold.

For a scuttled Earth Kingdom junk on a Fire Navy base, the accommodations were fairly nice. The base personnel must have put real effort into maintaining the ship, even though it would never sail again, but that made sense. The Fire Nation may have already conquered the world, but it would always have enemies, and without a ready supply of real combat, it would have to invest in training. This junk would be valuable for as long as marine soldiers were stationed at this particular Navy base.

For now, Piandao found it valuable as a hiding place. He made his way down into the secondary hold, and found Kirai waiting for him in the deepest shadows. The only light down here came from a crystal Safety Lamp hanging from the ceiling, but the sound of her breathing was enough to reveal her presence. "We have about half an hour," he told her as he sat down against the hull. "Then two of the search teams will converge here and probably do a very thorough search of this ship. I propose that we avoid fighting them and try to sneak around their approach."

Kirai stepped forward to let the furthest edge of the light reach her. "We should leave now. We can make our way up the shore."

Piandao shook his head. "I can guarantee that the shore is already being watched, most likely from the water, and they will have ways to draw attention to our position. I think our best bet is to sneak back through the base to the port town. It has already been searched, and we're both capable of creeping through with minimal violence. Once we're in the town, it will be easy to get to the dock where I have a smuggler on standby, and he can get us safely away."

Kirai didn't say anything for a long moment. "You're not Fire Nation."

"Actually, I am." Piandao smiled. "Retired military, currently a servant to a powerful lord."

"But you're fighting them."

"I'm fighting elements within my nation. It might not seem that way from Kyoshi Island, or even in the lower ranks of the Navy, but the Fire Nation is not entirely united. And, I'm sorry to say, you've wound up in the middle of the whole mess."

Kirai's eyes narrowed. "You mentioned Suki."

"Your sister wants you to be safe. I am in the process of arranging that."

Kirai crossed her arms over her armor. "So my little sister got involved in Fire Nation politics, and now I'm collateral damage. My career with the Navy is over."

Piandao nodded. "If it helps, your sister stands to be well rewarded."

Kirai gave a single, bitter laugh. "It's her methods I worry about."
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Loopy
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« Reply #113 on: May 02, 2016 06:18 pm »



The Past

Half a World Away

The morning after Chijin had been Recognized, Kirai woke up in her hammock to find Suki gone. This wasn't unusual, but today it was inconvenient. Kirai wanted to talk to her before setting out on her birthday trip.

There were some important decisions to make, after all.

Kirai packed everything she owned into a small knapsack- a few sets of clothes, various weapons she had made, the pouch of money Oyaji had given her, and a seashell a three-year-old Suki had given her as a birthday present- and made her way out of the Nest. Some Unagis were hanging around playing a dice game, and another pair was engaging in some light sparring and trading knife-fighting tips, but Kirai ignored them and only stopped to talk to the sentry- today it was Seppun, a boy who Kirai had given his first kiss- at the building's door. "Where's my sister?"

Seppun grimaced. "A girl came around asking for Suki, and they went away together."

Kirai suppressed a groan. "Which girl?"

Seppun shrugged. "Dunno. Looked about the same age. Brown hair and brown eyes. Green clothes. Bare feet."

Kirai's stomach flipped. It sounded like- "Unagi breath." She turned and ran.

Getting out of town wasn't an easy task, thanks to the defensive wall that ringed the entire settlement and the Fire Nation's control of the only gates. There were ways around the problem, some of them even available to the Unagi gang, but Kirai had her own special method. She dashed through the town as fast as could, dodging people and buildings, and sought out a section of the outer wall that she knew would be deserted this time of day. She didn't slow as she approached the tall wooden barrier, but she did transform her run into a flying leap as soon as she came within sight of it. The jump, of course, wasn't enough to take her anywhere close to the height of the wall- it wouldn't even take her as far as the wall itself- but that wasn't the point of the jump. Instead, she focused on her landing, extended her senses down through her bare feet, and commanded the Earth to match her downward motion. It resisted, because it was solid Earth, but it did yield a little bit, cushioning her fall.

Then Kirai raised her arms and showed the Earth how to turn its resistance into reverse motion, and the ground snapped back up to shoot her into the air. She flew up over the wall and down the ground on the other side, landing harder than she wanted but without injury. She got back up and returned to her running as she made her way into the forests that surrounded the wall just as the wall itself surrounded the town.

She found Suki and Sabure exactly where she expected them. "What do you two think you're doing here?!"

Both younger girls startled at her voice, and Sabure immediately stepped back and fell to her knees with her head bowed penitently. Suki remained standing, clutching something. "S- Sabure wanted to show me something! Don't be mad at her, I said it was okay to-"

Kirai cut Suki off with a gesture, and turned to Sabure. "How did you get her past the wall?"

Sabure just bowed her head lower.

Kirai twisted her right foot, and a rock that had been lying amidst the bramble on the ground rose up to float beside her. "You want to try it, Sabure? You finally want an Earthbending duel? Me and you, the last Earthbenders descended from Kyoshi Warriors? Get up and let's go!"

"No!" Suki grabbed Kirai's arm. "Please, she knows a tunnel! She didn't use her Earthbending, we were safe!"

Kirai didn't give in to the temptation to shake Suki off. She kept her gaze down on Sabure. "And where did this tunnel come from? If she didn't dig it, then it's one of the old smuggling tunnels the Kyoshi Warriors kept. You think the Fire Nation would be okay with that?"

"We were safe!" The strain in Suki's voice pulled at Kirai's gaze, and she glanced over to see tears falling down her sister's face. "We made sure no one was watching! Please, don't hurt her!"

Kirai finally shook off Suki's grasp, and then leaned over so that she was even with Sabure's bowed head. "I ever see you around Suki again, I'll kill you. If I can't find you, I'll tell the other Unagis, and one of them will kill you for me. Now get out of here."

Sabure nodded once and scrambled off into a run.

Kirai turned back to Suki. The younger girl was trying to breathe through sobs that wanted to escape from her throat. Kirai heaved a sigh and beckoned. "Come on, let's go home."

Suki followed obediently, and the sisters were silent for a while as they walked back through the forest. Kirai waited until Suki's sobs had subsided to say, "So what did she give you?"

Suki only hesitated a little before revealing the golden piece of metal. She flicked her wrist, and the thing expanded into a full metal war-fan, solidly built and boasting sharpened edges. "It's a real Kyoshi Warrior weapon. Her mom took her to the hidden dojo and let her take something for herself, and she asked if she could take something for me, too. Because Gramma-"

"I know, Gramma was a Kyoshi Warrior." Kirai snorted. "And why did Sabure do that?"

"I-" Suki abruptly stopped walking. "I told her the other day that I'm not sure I'll ever be Recognized."

Kirai stopped and turned to keep her sister in sight. "So she gave you a weapon you can use?"

Suki shook her head. "I- I told her that if I can't be a real Unagi, I don't know if I want to stay in the gang after you leave."

Kirai blinked. "You know?"

Suki nodded. "You don't care all that much about anyone in the gang. I think Boss Oyaji is worried, too. You joined because he gave us a home and food and protection so that we didn't have to beg anymore, but- but you don't care the way everyone else does. And you’re of age, today. You can go anywhere."

Kirai considered that. She had figured Oyaji was doing his 'Father of the Gang' thing by giving her the money, but if Suki was right, then he was sharper than she had expected. But what Suki was saying still didn't entirely make sense. "So what were you planning?"

Suki smiled and held out the fan. "To give this to you. Happy birthday!"

Kirai started to reach for the fan, but then pulled her hands back. "Why?"

"Because if you don't want to be an Unagi anymore, I thought we could be Kyoshi Warriors! Not real ones, but Sabure says there are people who don't like the Fire Nation ruling our island, and they remember and love the Kyoshi Warriors. So if you leave, maybe I- or maybe we could go to them together, if you want, and they could be our new family, and-"

"Our family drowned, Suki." Kirai took the fan and held it out so that the metal caught a shaft of sunlight. "Our stupid parents got their boat fixed by a drunk who ripped them off and they drowned. We're the only family we have left, and no gang, no rebels, no army is going to change that." She sighed, and motioned for Suki to get moving again. "Besides, the old ways are gone. The Fire Nation killed the Avatar and brought their new ways to Kyoshi Island. We're better off in a lot of ways. The only reason they don't just wipe out the Unagis is because they don't know where our hideout is, and we have too much control of the neighborhood for them to try anything."

After that, they walked in silence until they came to the wall. With more time and privacy, Kirai put in the effort to slowly raise a set of steps that she and Suki could climb to the top of the wall, and once they were over the other side, she collapsed them back into the dirt. Then she turned and smacked Suki's head.

She kept smacking as Suki fell, and only stopped when Suki couldn't stop herself from crying anymore. "I will kill Sabure if you ever talk to her again."

"I'm sorry," Suki sobbed.

"No, but you will be. Now, I'm leaving on a trip. I want you to stay away from Oyaji's Nest. Don't go back. If you do, I'll- I'll kill Sabure. You hear me? Stay away from the Nest. Sleep over by the wharf, under that slant. If you see an Unagi and get asked why, tell them- tell them you made me mad and I said you're supposed to stay away until I get back from my vacation. Tell them the truth. I'll be back in a few days. Then- then we'll figure out what we're going to do. You and me, together. Family. I'll take us away and find something that will make us happy."

Suki kept sobbing.

Kirai sighed. "Stay away from the Nest." Then she turned and marched away. She already had her knapsack, so she didn't need to go back to the Nest. She made her way back across town, going around Unagi territory, until she reached the dock area. The merchant ships in port made for a buzz of activity as things were loaded and unloaded, and everyone ignored Kirai. That would have changed if she flashed a weapon, or even better, flashed some coins, but the boxes of goods here were too big for her to steal, so she offered neither danger nor opportunity.

She found a bit of pier where she could stand out of the way, and laid her knapsack at her feet. She took a moment to look at the collapsed war-fan, but didn't dare to open it here where a guard or informant could see. To Suki, it represented all the elements of the past that she wanted to believe in, but she was a dumb kid who didn't understand anything.

Kirai wound up and tossed the fan out over the water. It rose until it was lost in the glare of the sun, and then came back down with a quiet plop into the ocean.

Satisfied, Kirai picked up her knapsack and moved on. She had a birthday to celebrate.

She had decided to have her party at the nearest Fire Navy recruitment office.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Loopy
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« Reply #114 on: May 16, 2016 06:40 pm »

Sisterhood's End

Piandao could write a book about sneaking, if he was so inclined. He had done quite a bit of it since entering Prince Ozai's service, and had learned all the tricks of the trade.

For example, he had the goal right now of sneaking back through an entire Fire Navy base, full of people who wanted to kill him, so that he could meet up with his charge- Kirai of Kyoshi Island, sister to Prince Zuko's new ally Suki- by the gate, so that they could disappear into the nearby settlement together and then make their way back to the Capital. Arranging for Kirai herself to get through the base had been a complicated task since she was known here, and so it required all kinds of dangerous things like procuring a disguise, working out the timing of the guard patrols, and identifying back-up routes- the elements most people thought of when they considered the matter of sneaking.

Piandao, on the other hand, had been seen up close by only a few of the base personnel. All he had to do to accomplish effective sneaking was to keep his armor, pick up a bundle of replacement piping that had been lying around, and walk with the unhurried gait of someone counting the hours until shift's end. With a little help from the dark of the night and unimaginative soldiers who suspected too late that their dangerous quarry would be stumbling around with a load of piping in his arms, he reached the gate without having to knock out more than one person at a time.

The trouble began just after he arrived at the expected meeting point.

Piandao hid himself near the stables with a vantage point that gave him a clear view of the gate. This base was no fortress, despite its walls, and the gate was just a pair of large wooden doors- currently closed and mechanically locked- built more to accommodate the orderly passage of freight than to keep people out. There were plenty of torches around to light the area up, and it appeared that about thirty soldiers or so had been posted to bolster the defenses, no doubt because of the dangerous infiltrators lost somewhere on the base grounds, but it was nothing that Piandao couldn't handle. With Kirai's help, he would probably even be able to avoid taking a life.

The problem was that Kirai was not here, yet.

Piandao waited, now in a more classic sneaking mode. When patrollers came by to do another search, he used his light and precise footwork to move silently beyond their vision. Even when he had to duck into the stable, the komodo rhinos didn't so much as sniff at his presence. When the danger passed, he would go back to his little shadowy corner beside the stable and continue his watch of the gate. The night dragged on and Kirai failed appear, but neither was there any kind of activity- messengers, alarms, distant sounds of battle, or even the trembling of the ground- that suggested she might have been captured. It was possible, of course, that she was simply a very slow sneak.

It was also possible that those thirty soldiers posted at the gate were waiting for something.

Piandao drew his sword and stepped out into the main lane. The guards saw him immediately, and readied their weapons. There was no surprise and no panic amongst them.

Piandao walked calmly until the distance between him and assembled guards was a bit more than a fireball's throw. He held his sword out at his side and called, "So you've come to an alternate arrangement."

There was a pause, and then the guards parted to allow Commander Wairo- the ranking office on this base and Commander's Zhao's apparent crony- and Lieutenant Kirai to step forward.

Kirai's face held no expression, but she was once again wearing her Marine armor, except for the helmet that would normally cover her black hair.

Wairo, no longer bleeding from the facial cut that Piandao had given him, said only, "Surrender."

Piandao just raised his sword into a ready position.

Then the fight started.



The Past

Half a World Away

Kirai had walked all the way to Mokuzai Village, up slope from the Port Town where she lived, just to join the Fire Navy.

Boss Oyaji had told her to take a vacation to the hot springs at Kyoshi Island's higher elevations for her birthday, and she had indeed set off on the road that would eventually take her there. However, she had only walked for a few hours before stopping in Mokuzai Village. The little settlement had telegraph station that connected the big Navy base to the Watchtower on the other side of the island. It was busy enough to be continuously staffed, and far away enough from Port Town that no one from the Unagi gang would be around.

The station’s staff, including a set of Marine guards, was more than happy to talk to a local about enlisting. The duty officer for the day brought her into a small workroom with a desk covered in papers and reference books, and the subsequent short interview was everything Kirai expected, simply establishing who she was, that she was of age, and that she did indeed want to sign up to spread the glory of the Fire Nation to unconquered lands. At the end, the officer asked, "Anything else to add?"

That's when Kirai smiled for the first time since approaching the outpost. "Yes, sir. I'm an Earthbender in the Unagi gang that terrorizes Port Town. I can name every single member of the gang, identify them all on sight, describe the habits of the leadership, and direct you to their main base and secondary hideaways."

The officer blinked once, and then sighed. "I think I'm going to need to wire for someone with more authority to handle this, then."

Two hours later, Commander Yon Rha- the highest authority in Kyoshi Island's Navy base and the closest thing they had to a governor here- stepped into the little workroom. "So you're selling out your comrades, little port rat?"

Kirai incline her head deferentially, but remained kneeling. "Yes, sir."

"Indeed?" Yon Rha had a face built for frowning, long and heavily lined, and he was doing so now. "What kind of a deal do you think you can make with this information?"

Kirai shook her head. "No deal. I just want to join the winning side, and do it fully. I want to be a soldier for the Fire Nation, and I want to help defeat its enemies. I can start right here, where I know about a bunch of criminals too small-minded to see that the world has left them behind, and that their actions make them dishonorable rebels."

Yon Rha finally kneeled down at the desk, but not across from Kirai- he went to the desk's side, so that just a single corner separated them. "I'm told that you're an Earthbender. Your kind aren't considered very trustworthy by most in High Command."

"I'm not trustworthy. I'm selling out my people." Kirai met Yon Rha's eyes, and saw her curved, monstrous reflection on their surface. "That's why I'm not demanding anything. I just want to get out of here, away from the people I despise. Send me anywhere in the war where you don't need trustworthy people."

"Even the high seas?" Yon Rha finally grinned, and it was even uglier than his frown. "I've heard that Earthbenders get uncomfortable without dirt under their feet."

Kirai snorted. "Honestly, it will be a relief."

Yon Rha stood up and brushed the knees of his uniform. "Very well. I'll approve your enlistment. But before we ship you off for training, I'll give you a taste of what you say you want. Your first action as a member of the Fire Navy will be to participate in the raid to wipe the stain of the Unagi gang off my island."

It came as no surprise to Kirai. The commander wanted to test her, to make sure she wasn't a spy or saboteur. Someone would be watching her, to make sure of her unhesitating participation in the coming slaughter, to make sure that her complete betrayal of her people. Only once she had the blood of her family on her hands would Kirai be accepted as a true servant of the Fire Nation, and if her new masters were smart, they would make sure the knowledge of her treachery was spread all over the island. Every native daughter of Kyoshi would know that Kirai was a traitor.

Today was Kirai's birthday, and she was getting everything she wanted.



Piandao had failed to kill Commander Zhao, and he was not about to fail another mission. He had no desire to kill his fellow honorable servants of the Homeland, especially not the rank and file of the military, but he had his duty, and even the memory of Admiral Jeong-Jeong's dying words, that there was no honor to be found in the service of death, were not enough to deter him.

And so his sword flew, and his attackers fell.

Arrows and spears and fireballs and blades all came in at him, but none of them found his body. Even in his old service armor, especially in the armor he had been given when he joined the Fire Army, he could move with an efficiency that would be easy for an observer to confuse with inhuman speed. The Fire Army had trained him to fight and use a sword, but now in the higher service of the Royal Family, he turned his skills against men and women who were no different that he had once been.

The slaughter was regretful, and he did not lose himself in it. As the last of the more or less thirty guards fell, Piandao made one last spin and came to a stop in front of Kirai, with his sword pointed at her neck, the tip of the wet blade just a hair from her skin.

Commander Wairo still stood beside her, staring at Piandao with mouth agape. He stammered, "Wh- wh- who-"

Wairo was another servant of the Fire Nation, but he had been entrusted by conspirators with Lieutenant Kirai's posting, and had tried to have Piandao killed earlier on 'special' orders that had no doubt come down from Commander Zhao himself.

A flick of the sword was enough to end Wairo's life, and the blade was back at Kirai's neck before she could move.

Piandao stood there, looking at the girl, and waited. In the distance, an alarm gong was being struck with frantic energy. No doubt every Marine in this base would soon be descending on the gate.

But Piandao's mission was to bring Kirai back to safety, so that her sister Suki would help Prince Zuko capture the Avatar and fulfill the terms of his banishment.

Kirai finally moved, pushing a nervous smile on her face. "Well, that- that was great. Just like I planned. Wairo had no idea I was setting him up for you! So- so let's go?"

Piandao raised his eyebrows at the lie, and did not move his sword.
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Loopy
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« Reply #115 on: May 16, 2016 06:41 pm »



The Past

Half a World Away

Kirai was once again on the hunt amidst the dirt lanes of Port Town, of her home neighborhood, but this time she was wearing armor instead of intimidating facepaint, and now the sun was her ally, not her enemy.

She heard the distinctive sound of a cranefish's warble, but knew that it came from no bird. She had crossed the invisible boundary into Unagi gang territory, and that sound was the signal for all gang members to assemble in defense of their homes.

Kirai clutched the spear she had been issued with one hand, and gave the warning signal with her other hand.

The other soldiers in her new squad all responded with nods, and readied their weapons.

Kirai knew exactly how the next few minutes would go. The Unagis normally liked to give intruders the chance to back down, but against soldiers stalking forward with obvious purpose, the gang wouldn't waste time trying to intimidate the intruders. They would just attack, jumping out from alleys and down from rooftops, throwing rocks and glass and shards of old clay jugs. Powder bombs- handfuls of ground spices wrapped in porous cloth- would get tossed at the intruders' faces. And always the Unagi warriors would be making running strikes, dashing forward to stab at vulnerable places with their shanks and then running away again while others launched an ambush from behind. Kirai had described all of this to the officers in charge of today's operation.

And so when the first Unagis popped out of hiding, the Fire Nation was ready for them.

Teenagers with faces painted in black and gray leaped into battle to find weapons and flames waiting for them. Those hanging back to throw long-range attacks found arrows already descending on their positions. The few warriors who managed to avoid being struck tried to run away only to find another wave of soldiers cutting off escape routes.

It was so quick and chaotic that Kirai didn't have the chance to do anything but hold her spear at ready and keep marching forward with the first wave.

The fighting stretched out along the neighborhood's main lane, and Kirai spotted many of the residents- the older people with no direct ties to the Unagi gang- rushing out of their homes and running for safety. She hadn't seen any homes get damaged so far, but it was still a sensible precaution. The Fire Nation had no interest today in causing trouble for anyone who wasn't harboring an Unagi gang member, but she had always heard that war had a tendency to become sloppy.

The fighting was still going on behind Kirai's wave of soldiers when they reached the old fish warehouse that was Boss Oyaji's Nest.

Even in the daylight, there was nothing to mark it as the home base of the neighborhood gang. However many people might be inside, it stood silent now, its dingy gray walls that might have once covered in paint failing to reflect the sun's glow.

Kirai's fellow soldiers didn't hesitate. Their lieutenant punched a fist out to send a fireball streaking at the building, followed by the squad's other Firebenders. The lieutenant called out, "Ready," and Kirai and the other spearmen raised their weapons, then began running forward at the cry of, "Charge!"

Another volley of fireballs struck the warehouse as Kirai ran, and the building's whole roof was in flame as the first Unagi sentries ran out the entrance to find the spears of the Fire Nation stabbing in at them.

Kirai's spear wound up buried in the chest of Suppun, the boy who she had given his first kiss. His eyes found hers as he let out a gargling scream, and she saw recognition in his expression as she yanked the spearhead free of his body and stabbed at him again.

With the sentries dead, the attack on the Nest became a clean-up action. Gang members were fleeing the burning building, at first through the main entrance and later by crashing through the parts of the outer walls that were most rotten, but none got past the wall of spears. Some were able to stop short of Kirai and the other soldiers, and actually chose to rush back into the warehouse, but that was fine. They would be killed by the smoke and flame.

Boss Oyaji was one of the last to try to escape. He stumbled out of the warehouse’s main entrance with a soot-stained child in each of his arms and the tip of his massive topknot hosting a small flame. He got free of the smoke and immediately crashed to his knees.

By then, Kirai had drifted away from the front of the warehouse, having helped with a pair of Unagi warriors who had leaped out of one of the holes in the building’s wall with a fighting fury. She would have been content to simply watch Oyaji's execution, but the squad's lieutenant looked right at her, and made a chopping motion with a flaming hand.

Kirai nodded. She understood the test she was being asked to complete.

She brought her spear over to Oyaji, paying no attention to the kids he had carried out as they ran from her. The children would either survive or would be caught by other soldiers. It didn't matter either way. She only cared about Oyaji as she took a ready stance in front of him.

He coughed, and then looked up at her. His eyes grew wide as they centered on her face, and he had to fight through another coughing fit to ask, "Why?"

Kirai didn't feel the need to answer. "Was Suki here?"

Oyaji coughed hard enough knock himself over, catching himself on his sooty hands, but he managed to look up again and start to say, "N-"

Kirai didn't need him to finish. She thrust her spear straight into his chest.

With that, the 'battle' at the warehouse was over. Her new comrades all came by to slap her back and tell her what a great job she had done on her first mission for the Fire Nation.

Kirai smiled back at them, thanked them, nodded at their jokes, and listened as they traded stories. Word came from the other squads that the fighting in the streets was done, that only a few of the Unagi attackers had escaped but even now other soldiers were heading for the homes that Kirai had revealed. Some few of the Unagi gang might survive, but they would be too few; the organization was broken.

Kirai endured it until people finally stopped paying attention to her, and then drifted away. Technically, her squad was still guarding the warehouse until it was nothing but a pile of ash, but that hardly required everyone's attention. She stayed close enough to hear her fellow soldiers, but stepped into an alley where she would be out of sight.

Then she leaned on her bloody spear and let out a noise that was half sob and half retch.

She didn't regret what she had done, didn't regret joining the people who had real power, who could give her something more than a life fighting for a poor neighborhood too pathetic to lift itself out of squalor. It was the right decision for her, but that didn't mean she had enjoyed hurting the people she had grown up with.

She was sure, though, that she would get over it.

"Kirai?"

She turned with surprise at the voice, and blinked through tears to find Suki standing at the far end of the alley. Her sister was trembling with her own suppressed sobs, but tears were already streaking her cheeks.

"Kirai, what did you do?"

Her first instinct was to wipe at her eyes with her forearm, but that was covered in armor now, so she had to make do with the back of her hand. "I told you to stay away from Unagi territory."

"What did you do?"

Kirai clutched her spear and made herself stand tall. "I proved myself to the Fire Nation. I'm getting out of this dump."

Suki's lip trembled, and she took a step back.

Kirai took a step forward. "I can't protect you now, so you have to be smart. Stay away from Sabure, and any other Earthbenders. Stay away from anyone who talks about Kyoshi Warriors or Avatars or fighting the Fire Nation." She tightened her grip on her spear, and put a firm growl in her voice as she added, "I won't protect you if you get in trouble with the Fire Nation, so stay safe."

She knew she couldn't trust Suki to do what was smart, so she had to try one last time to frighten her little sister into doing the right thing. People weren't dependable, but the right amount of fear could make anything reliable. And if Suki broke under all that fear- well, it was better than Kirai doing nothing.

Suki finally let out a full sob. Kirai kicked at the ground with one booted foot and used her Earthbending to lift out a small but solid stone that went sailing at her sister. Suki ran away from the poorly aimed attack, and was lost to sight.

Kirai nodded, satisfied, and went back to her new comrades.



Piandao looked across his blade at Kirai's sweaty face, and said, "I'm sorry I can't give you a choice, but your sister only bargained for your safety, not your happiness or autonomy."

"I'm- I'm on your side! I just- I-"

"Please stop talking." Piandao glanced at the gate, which was still locked, and at the rest of the base. No reinforcements had arrived yet, but the alarms were still going, and he could hear cries and movement in the distance. "I need you to dig a gap beneath the gate doors. We can crawl out." He lowered his sword.

"Yes!" Kirai nodded and jogged towards the gate. "I can do that!" She took an Earthbending posture, a low horse stance, and then brought her fists together. She held them that way for just a moment, and then yanked them apart as if she was tearing a scroll in half. The ground between her feet parted into a shallow trench that ran under the gate doors.

Piandao was shoving her into that trench even as the first of the reinforcements were arriving.

They emerged on the other side of the gate half crawling and half skidding and Kirai didn't even stand back up before punching at the trench in a move that collapsed it back into level ground.

That was good. They would now have time to flee while the Marines in the base worked to get the gate open again. It wasn't very much time, but it would be enough.

Piandao raised his sword again and inclined his head at the dark town a short distance away. "We need to get to the docks, to my smuggler friend. You lead the way. I’ll take over when we get there."

Kirai nodded frantically, her eyes never leaving the blade. "Yes, sir. I know a fast route."

And she did, indeed. They didn't encounter any more trouble as they made their escape, and before the sun rose on the horizon, Piandao and Kirai were both safely ensconced in a hidden cargo hold within a ship that was headed out to sea.

Kirai showed no discomfort at the rise and fall of the ocean, so Piandao settled down to clean his sword. This was no intimidating display, but rather just a necessary part of being a warrior. Blades had to be cleaned if they were to be reliable, and no true swordsmaster could tolerate the lack of respect a dirty blade would signify.

Kirai watched him for a while, and then said, "Why me?"

Piandao looked up. "As I said, your sister-"

"I know. I mean, why does Suki want me? You saw what I am. I was never any better to her."

Piandao shrugged and went back to his oiling and wiping. "I couldn't say. I haven't met her myself. Hopefully, her reasoning is rational."

Kirai snorted. "You obviously don't really know Suki."

Piandao acknowledged that with a nod. "I have had no contact with her. All I know of her came from reports. Trusted reports."

"Well, she's a brat." The venom in her voice seared the air. "She does whatever she wants, whenever she wants. She takes without thinking. She's ungrateful, and couldn't follow an order to save her life. Literally. I've done everything I can to keep her safe and happy, and she's never shown the slightest scrap of 'rationality' about any of it. She drove me away and I never looked back."

Piandao responded with a quiet grunt. He had been unimpressed with Kirai's behavior thus far, and most of what she was saying sounded like typical parenthood. Had Kirai tried to raise Suki? Had she taught Suki to be just like her?

Silence reigned for a while, until Kirai spoke again. "And now what's going to happen to me?"

"Well, you've proven duplicitous, so it's possible that my Lord will choose to put you in a prison, somewhere." Piandao glanced over, and saw Kirai blanch. "It won't be comfortable, but you'll certainly be safe, and that's all we're obligated to deliver, according to our agreement with your sister." He paused before adding, "Ideally, we'll be able to find some kind of use for you, one that won't involve actually trusting you but will allow you a manageable degree of freedom. That would be easier for all us, I think, but don't mistake that for weakness. I hope we won't have to keep you in line with fear of my blade, but I am my master's servant, and I will do as I am ordered."

Kirai was silent for a long time after that, but eventually she was overcome by a yawn, and moved to lie down on the floor of the hold. As she closed her eyes, she said, "Suki hates the Fire Nation. Whatever game she's playing, I'm surprised she's working with any of you. You ruined her family's legacy, killed most of her friends, and you took me away from her. All of this could just be her grand scheme for revenge."

Piandao thought that sounded unlikely, but took the assertion under advisement, regardless.



The Past

Half a World Away

Kirai indulged in leaving her feet bare as she watched Kyoshi Island get left behind on her journey to success.

She stood on the deck of one of the Fire Nation's impressive metal warships, an escort craft heading down to the South Pole to help transport the products of the mines down there. There were supposedly pirates who tried to prey on the shipments of ore, but the Fire Navy had no fear of them. The Fire Navy was strong, and had no fear of anything but the storms of the oceans.

Kirai was officially assigned to the ship's crew as an apprentice, to learn sailing as they went about completing their mission. Her training had already begun before the ship even set out, and she had no doubt that she would soon be given a completely crushing workload, but for now she had a moment to look back at her home for what would no doubt be the last time. She had lived her whole life on that island, and her parents had worked and died in these very waters.

Even from a distance, it looked pathetic- a primitive land that had to be dragged kicking and screaming into modern times.

Kirai was taking once last look, about to turn away and get back to work, when she spotted a pair of small figures standing on one of the civilian docks. She squinted against the sunlight, but she already knew who it was just from the postures of the figures. One stood with the discomfort of an Earthbender with no earth beneath her feet, and the other Kirai had known all her life.

Suki and Sabure were seeing her off.

The stood together unmoving, offering no waves or acknowledgement, but it seemed as though each girl was holding something in front of them. Whatever the objects were, they were too small for Kirai to make out from this increasing distance.

Then the ship bobbed up on a larger wave, and both Suki and Sabure disappeared for a moment in twin gleams of golden light.

When the ship lowered again and both girls were once again mostly visible, Kirai had figured out what they were displaying. Suki and Sabure were each holding an unfolded Kyoshi Warrior fan over their chests, risking the wrath of the Fire Nation to make one last act of defiance against Kirai's good sense and practicality.

She shook her head and turned away. If her sister wouldn't do the right thing, if she refused to have a healthy amount of fear, then there was nothing that could be done for her. Kirai would just have to wait to hear about Suki's death, one of these years.

She wouldn't even be sad about it.

After all, everyone else she knew was dead.
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Loopy
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« Reply #116 on: May 16, 2016 06:42 pm »



The Present

Half a World Away

On the third day of their race to find the Avatar, they got word about Suki's sister.

Zuko had wanted to press on and let June's shirshu keep following the Avatar's scent-trail, but Azula was insistent that they detour to a nearby town to spend the night and check in with the local Fire Army outpost to collect her telegraph messages. "It's good that you're so motivated," she had said, "but let your sister take care of you. A good night's sleep in a bed will help prepare you for the coming battles."

Not that she was giving him a choice.

Azula swept into town on her ostrich-horse, stopping at the nicest inn in the area- not that she was pleased with it, but to Zuko it was more than comfortable enough- and emptying the building of all its other guests with flashes of gold and plenty of implied threats. June took it all in stride, as she had during their earlier journey, but Suki observed it all with wide eyes. Zuko was growing worried that Azula's behavior would reflect on him, would give Suki a concept of Fire Royalty colored by Azula's own personal excesses, but couldn't think of anything to do or say about it. Just like during the prison break. Besides, if he did nothing to temper his sister, didn't that reflect on him anyway?

The only relief came when Azula went off to the Army outpost, leaving the rest to get some dinner. The innkeeper brought out a feast to the empty common room with just a little too much eagerness to please, and Zuko's approving nod seemed to do little to set the man at ease. June started in on the food with the same gusto she usually reserved for high-speed travel, but Suki took the time to assure the innkeeper that, "This all looks great and you've been very helpful. Thank you."

The three of them had put a good dent into the food spread out on their table when Azula returned with the kind of unstrained smile that she hadn't shown for a while, her footsteps light and her hands raised in a call for attention. "Well, my family and I have officially kept our side of the bargain: Suki, your sister is safe in the custody of my father's forces."

Zuko looked over to Suki and found her staring down into her bowl of stew. She didn't react in any way, and he wondered if she had heard the pronouncement.

Azula was evidently thinking the same thing. "Did I fail to enunciate? I did say your sister is now safe. I expected you to be pleased. Unless you don't really have the information you claimed-"

"No." Suki took a deep breath, and then stood up and turned to Azula with a matching grin. "Thank you for the news, and your family's efforts. Not that I ever doubted the Royal Fire Family's ability to produce to results! You have my eternal gratitude, Princess, and I am eager to repay my debt with efficiency and honor." She sank to her knees and bowed.

June snorted in clear amusement and went back to her steak.

Azula made Suki wait several heartbeats, and then nodded. "As polite as ever. Well done." She looked around the common room and briefly grimaced. "I've never been one for rustic decor, so I'll take my dinner in my rooms after a bath. Zuzu, tell the innkeeper that I'll have today's special with a bowl of grapes." She made for the suite she had picked out for herself, leaving Suki still on her knees.

As soon as Azula was out of sight, Zuko turned to tell Suki that she could rise again and get back to eating, but he found her already getting to her feet with slumped shoulders and head bowed, her back curved as though she was weighed down by heavy chains. Suki glanced over at her bowl of stew, and then turned away. "It's been a long day. I think I'll turn in early. Goodnight, Prince Zuko, June." She walked away, not taking the hallway that would lead to the rented rooms, but rather the one that would go outside to the stables.

Zuko glanced over at June, but she kept her own attention firmly on her dinner. "I'm not being paid to handle personnel issues," she said as she chewed, "and if she messes with Nyla, she'll just get what she deserves."

That left things to Zuko. He wanted to follow Suki, as something was obviously wrong with her. She had put on a show for Azula, but the way she had moped out to be alone was disturbing. Had she only just fully realized how dangerous it was to be in debt to the Royal Family? Zuko would have thought it to be obvious long before now. Maybe Suki was having second thoughts about going after the Avatar? She claimed to be a double agent, but what proof did he really have of that?

He stuffed the last of his fried fish into his mouth, remembering the years when he had gone days at a time between finding something edible in garbage heaps, and followed after Suki.

The stable was dark on this moonless night, with the only light coming in through the windows being the dull glow of the lanterns, but even with one eye, Zuko didn't have trouble finding Suki. Above the noise of Nyla chomping away at his own dinner in the pen at the back of the building, the sounds of Suki's sobs led him straight to where she was crouched on the hay in an empty stall.

Zuko stopped at the stall's entrance, not sure what to do to make a person stop crying. Azula had never cried after she learned how to throw a proper tantrum, and warriors of the Fire Nation were not encouraged to let their softer emotions overwhelm them.

Suki spared him the need to take the initiative and wiped at her tears before turning to face him. Her features were obscured by darkness, but her eyes and the trail of moisture on her cheeks glinted in the thin light, and the edge of her chin caught just enough illumination to glow like the crescent of a newborn moon. "Can- can I help you, Prince Zuko?"

Zuko decided that he wasn't going to bother with pretense. "What's wrong?"

"Noth-" Suki squeezed her eyes shut for a long moment, but then let out what sounded like a full-body sigh and looked back up at him. "Nothing, really. Just mixed feelings about my sister."

Zuko thought he understood. "She really is safe. My father has considerable resources, and Azula doesn't bother with lies when the truth is easier. We can trust her word, this time."

Suki gave a sniffley laugh. "You're an honest one, Prince Zuko. Thank you for your reassurance."

The tone of her voice revealed the deception. "That wasn't why you were- were upset.

She scrubbed at the tear stains on her face with her forearm. "You're right. Are you going to stand there until I tell you the truth?"

"No." Not that he hadn't considered it. "If you want me to leave, I will."

Suki opened her mouth to say something, but no sound emerged from the darkness of the stall. Then it seemed to Zuko like the shadows were shifting, but it was just Suki rising from her crouch and stepping out to join him in the relative light. Her gaze was aimed firmly at the ground as she whispered, "Don't tell anyone else." She began rubbing her shaking hands together. "I- my sister used to- to pretty much- well, terrorize me. Threaten me. Threaten my friends. Hurt anyone she thought might get in her way. In our way." She looked up at Zuko briefly, and then quickly averted her gaze again. "She'd- she'd hit me." She nodded to herself and repeated, "She'd hit me."

"Your sister hurt you." Zuko's stomach clenched and he was unusually aware of the way the scar tissue pulled at the healthy skin on his face.

Suki's eyes snapped over to him, and she shook her head. "She wouldn't hit me hard. Well, sometimes it would be hard. But I could get back up if I wanted to. It was just- it was better if I didn't. I'd usually remember that. Then she wouldn't keep- keep- keep hitting me and- and I hated it and hated her!" Suki's fists clenched, but then she let out a breath and let her arms dangle at her sides. "Not really. I love her. I've always loved her. She's my sister. But- but she- and I thought it was my fault- my- my-" Her voice trembled into incoherence. She pushed past Zuko, wiping at her eyes again, and hurried to the stable's door.

Before she could escape, Zuko said, "My father hurt me, too."

Suki stopped halfway out the door and turned back towards him, the light of the torch outside illuminating half her face while leaving the other side in darkness.

Zuko raised a hand to his missing eye and the scar around it. "My father did this to me. And I think he did it on purpose." Suki stared back at him, showing no sign of surprise or acknowledgement, and he felt his cheeks warm at the ridiculousness of his admission. Why had he told her this? "Never mind, just forget about it."

Suki crossed her arms over her chest in a move that seemed half guarded and half like a hug for herself. "Thank you for telling me. You're ashamed, aren't you? You feel like it's your fault it happened, and your fault you can't just leave it behind."

Zuko blinked. Was he? He had never really thought about the pain and discomfort he felt when he remembered. After all, it made sense that memories of having his face lit on fire wouldn't be pleasant, but- but the words she used resonated with him. Ashamed. His fault. Did he really feel that way?

Zuko shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe."

"And you still want to go back home." There was no question in her voice. "To see him again."

Zuko nodded. "I need to know for certain. And- and he's my father. I don't know what happened to my mother, my uncle and cousin went away years ago, Grandfather never really wanted anything to do with us, and Azula- she loves our father. She wants to bring me back. She says he wants me back."

"I've seen what your sister wants for you." Suki let out a soft snort. "I didn't have anyone else, either, now. The Kyoshi rebels are probably gone now. My parents died when we were young, and I trusted Kirai to take care of me, but she- she-" Suki shook her head. "You understand."

"Yes." Zuko walked over to her, and she surprised him by reaching out and clasping his shoulder. "What?"

She smiled. "I'm glad I met you. Whatever else happens."

It was an admission that deserved a response, but Zuko didn't have the words, so he simply nodded. Suki didn't seem to mind, and together they left the darkness of the stable behind and made their way back to the inn.

The team Zuko had assembled- or had been given- hadn't grown at all, but he nevertheless felt like it had become more of a team that it had been before. June was dependable in that she wanted to be paid, and Azula would do whatever Father ordered. And now, at least, he knew that Suki was a real person, someone who suffered from doubts and bad memories.

Someone just like him.

Now they just had to work together find and capture the Avatar, so that he- and Suki- could go home and finally make sense of their lives.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Colonel_Brian
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« Reply #117 on: May 30, 2016 07:38 pm »

I'm a bit behind, but slowly catching up. I just finished Chapter 26, where I left off, and found it enjoyable. My only complaint is that some parts were too touchy feel-y, such as Katara's apology to Sokka after Wu  encourages her to get Sokka to start opening up. I'm not sure if this was an actual flaw or if it's just proof that there's something wrong with me, but it didn't have the intended effect. Though that could just be me.

Everything else was great. I liked Song's return (she was featured in this story before, right?) and found the part where she quickly figures out that Sokka and Aang were faking their ailment very funny. Your follow up on that part was also good. It's great to know that some problems can be solved by asking for directions.  Honorable mention goes to Aang's lady charm working outstandingly  well. That was comedy gold

You've also caught my attention with that part where Aang tries to tap into the spiritual energy of the festival. I might need to re read that part, but perhaps it is more important than it initially seems? Aang is headed for Ba Sing Se and Wu raises the possibility that he can restore the balance by discovering new airbenders, maybe this is related to that?

As far as the endinng is concerned, I liked it a lot. I find your take on Mai very appealing and I am definitely interested in finding out more about her psychology and why she found Wu's reply to her question so comforting. I'm sure you will deliver. So, good luck on tackling that point when you get there.

On to chapter 27.

Aw man, dude! You could have made the perfect Jurassic Park reference right around the part where those soldiers fighting Kirai realized that there were other Unagi warriors off to the side ("clever girl..."). Oh well, there is always next time.

Anyway, there's a lot of obscenities in this chapter ("Unagi breath"), might want to tone that down.

I continue to enjoy your portrayal  of Piandao. He's very clever and has good chemistry with most people he interacts with. Is there something about him that you really like? I ask because you do such a good job writing him, and you give him a lot of cool stuff to do.

You're placement of these flashbacks was pretty well done. I'm not sure if each segment is triggered by some theme or keyword, but they worked quite well.

Your portrayal of Kirai's relationship with Suki was also pretty subtle. It's definitely toxic, but not overtly dramatic.

Finally, I think you have an eye for good dialogue. You've pretty much mastered Azula's voice. I don't think I'm exaggerating. You're on the mark, so way to go.

Chapter 28.

Kirai is the Azula/Ozai to Suki's Zuko's isn't she?

Once again, you write a good Piandao. He's pretty frank and not one who sugar coats things. The part where he answers what Kirai's fate will be upon her reunion with her sister illustrated that pretty well.

Suki and Zuko's conversation was interesting. Once again, I find it strange to be that up front about your emotional pain, but I suppose it had a good pay off. Zuko and Suki have been interacting pretty frequently, so it doesn't come off as unearned. In addition, you captured Zuko's awkward mannerisms, while retaining a respectful attitude toward the subject matter ("my father hurt me too, and I think he did it on purpose").

Wow,  chapter 29 already.

Was the repetition of the word "probably" in regards to Ty Lee's ashes meant to be funny? I feel dirty just for bringing that up, but something about that makes me question if that's what you were going for. With that said, it's good to see the ash lands again. They are one of my favorite locale in this story.

One thing I like about this chapter in particular is the scene with Aang and Gyatso. There is a line in there somewhere where Aang confesses that he really has no idea what he is suppose to even be doing, and that reminds me of my most fondly remembered moments from season one of the original series. In those early episodes, I felt as though the writers really sold the feeling of being gone for a hundred years, by making it so Aang had no game plan or clue how to deal with the many problems he had to face such the Hei Bei attack.

The part with Ty Lee was also good, though I don't like the dynamic as much as you.

Sokka read my mind. God bless that man. Really, he's so right. I don't like this new-fangled haunting. Ghost need to return to their roots and start wearing bed sheets again.

That fight between Mai and Sokka was good. I mean really good. I have difficulty imagining some of Mai's dialogue, but the entire scene feels as though a milestone in the gaang's relationship has been reached, and I look forward in reading where things progress from there.

Surprised that all that negative energy didn't conjure a malicious spirit right then and there, though.
« Last Edit: May 31, 2016 12:59 pm by Colonel_Brian » Logged
Loopy
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« Reply #118 on: May 31, 2016 06:09 pm »

Whoops, I forgot to update this site again. Cheesy So that everyone can see what the Colonel is referring to with the latest reactions...




An Old Wind

Mai sighed, threw a cherry over the side of Appa's saddle into the sky below, and watched as Momo took a flying leap after it. "Are we there yet?"

From his position up on Appa's head, Aang called out, "I'm ignoring you!" Sokka, meanwhile, was ignoring her for real, leaning over his side of the saddle.

Katara adjusted her hat and inched over to Mai. "You know, if you helped us look, we might be able to find it quicker and start the real search."

Mai threw another cherry straight into Momo's return path, idly wishing she could go back to wearing clothes the same color as the fruit. "I've been hanging off this bison and examining landscape for days. I see Earth Kingdom terrain in my dreams, now. And I've decided that this whole task is ridiculous." Momo alighted back in the saddle, licking his lips.

Katara's eyes narrowed. "Negative attitudes aren't going to help us find Great-Grandfather's Nose."

"And what makes you think flying around is going to do it?" Mai tossed her last cherry into the space between her and Katara, and Momo was quick to leap up and snatch it. "All we know is that some old guy from the Gun Dong province told Sokka at the Spirit Festival that he saw a group of flying girls near some cliff his people call 'Great-Grandfather's Nose.' But in case you haven't noticed, provinces are fairly large, and there are lots of cliffs around where Earthbenders live."

"That's why we're asking around! In fact, maybe we should land again and check with the locals. The last time we talked to someone was the day before yesterday."

"That's another thing." Momo crawled up on Mai's shoulder and pawed at her face, but she brushed him away. "For all we know, 'Great-Grandfather's Nose' was named several hundred years ago and the landscape is all different now, so the only people who still call it that all live in a single tiny village that holds tight to stupid traditions and forbids talking to strangers."

Katara opened her mouth to retort, but Sokka got his say in first with, "As much as I hate to admit it, Mai's got a point. It's nice that Aunt Wu clued us in on the return of the Airbenders, but it would have been really nice if she could have given us more information or told us before I walked away from the guy telling stories about flying girls. Seriously, does she think the mysterious routine makes her a better Fortuneteller? Because I think it does the opposite."

Aang floated down into the center of the saddle, a scowl on his face. "Well, does anyone have a better idea?!" He threw his arms out at his sides. “Appa's the one who's been doing all the real work, flying around without any rest and hiding up into the clouds every time we see a sign of the Fire Nation. The least we can all do is keep an eye out for clues!" He turned and aimed a glare at Mai. Momo climbed up on his head to copy the expression.

Mai blinked. She wasn't used to seeing Aang's anger, and especially not directed at her. She drew herself out of her slump and mustered something like a soothing tone in her voice. "Sometimes, doing something just for the sake of doing something is worse than doing nothing. We're occupying ourselves with a losing strategy, and that's stopping us from doing something more effective."

The words didn't seem make any dent in Aang's mood, but Katara crawled over to him and reached out to take his left hand. He looked down at her in surprise, and Momo scampered down their linked arms to settle around Katara's shoulders.

She looked over at Sokka and Mai. "Maybe we need to talk this through. We know the general area where the flying girls were seen. If we can't find the specific cliff they were jumping off, then how else can narrow down our search without drawing too much attention?"

Aang sat down beside her. "Aunt Wu told me that the world is trying to correct the absence of the Air Nomads. That the Spirit World is intruding and things are going crazy. She said Airbenders are returning slow, and- and-"

Mai leaned forward, recognizing the words he was trying to say. "And 'not without violence.' That's what you repeated to us."

Aang nodded.

Sokka crossed his arms over his chest. "And what does that mean? Are the new Airbenders attacking people? Then you'd think there would be more rumors."

Aang sighed. "After what the Fire Nation did to us, it's more like they're the ones attacking any new Airbenders."

Mai hated it, but she knew Aang was right. And even worse, it gave her a new idea for how to go about their search. She didn't want to say anything, but if the Fire Nation had to be stopped from doing anything like that again- if Aang could find his place in the world after her own people had tried to kill his- she had to say something. "Well, if it's Fire Nation violence you want, you're in the right province. There's an ashland around here."

All three of the others- and Momo- blinked at her. Sokka said, "I'm afraid to ask. It sounds terrible."

"It is." Mai forced herself to go on. "Ashlands are areas that got the brunt of the Sozin's Comet Offensive."

Katara sat up straighter. "That's right, you've mentioned those before. When we were leaving Crescent Island."

"Yes. There was a battle in this province against an Earth Kingdom fortress that was protecting a critical pass or something. A tough nut to crack, apparently, especially with Ba Sing Se and Baolei and Omashu keeping the Fire Army busy elsewhere." Mai made sure that no expression reached her face, despite the roiling of her stomach. She didn't want a reminder of what she had revealed on that day, especially given where they were probably headed. "But of course the Comet changed that game. Even small groups could generate enough fire to wipe the fortress off the map and light up everything around it-" Her voice caught, and she let herself stop talking.

That's when Mai realized she was holding a knife, squeezing the handle with all the strength in her fingers.

That was strange. She didn't remember taking it out.

No one seemed to think much of it. Sokka raised his hands and said, "So, that sounds like it's worth investigating. And if we see a cliff shaped like someone’s great-grandfather's nose near there, then all the better."

Aang sighed. "I guess so. We haven't seen an ashland yet, so at least it’s a new place to search. That's just as good as still searching here."

Katara nodded. "Then we're in agreement."

Mai stayed quiet. She never said she was in agreement, but she was the one who had aired the initial complaints, had made the suggestion. She was responsible for what happened now. For what she was going to experience. It would all be self-inflicted.

But then, that seemed to be the way of making decisions and expressing herself.



When Aang first saw the ashland on the horizon- a brownish smudge that got darker as they approached- he misjudged how close they were. He simply couldn't imagine clouds of ash on that scale, and so his perspective was completely off. But they had kept flying towards it only to seem like they were crawling across the sky, for all the distance they seemed to be covering. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that they reached their destination.

At least the cloud wasn't very tall. He pulled on the reins, signaling for a stop, and Appa settled into a hover far above the black winds. Aang looked down at the flying ash and said, "Give me a minute to settle things. Then Appa can bring the rest of you down."

He expected Mai to say something about not wanting to get dirty, but she stayed quiet as she stared over the side of the saddle at the ash.

Katara offered a small smile. "We'll be waiting for you."

Sokka and Momo both waved as he jumped down into the swirling cinders. They were the last thing Aang saw before the world went dark.

He kept his eyes and mouth shut against the storm, but the particles flying through the air still stung at the exposed skin of his head and hands. It was unpleasant, but it made the direction of the winds into something even more tangible than it usually was. Aang reached out and took hold of those winds, using them to turn his fall into a glide, letting his body become just another cinder in the swarm. He could feel the disharmony of this place, of the wrongness that came from all the death it experienced when that infamous comet had come, but even here the wind remained true to its nature, a nature Aang knew too well. It was simple for him to use his own body and Qi to influence that wind, and all he asked it to do was relax for a little while.

Aang's glide turned into a fall again as the air calmed, but the sun did not return to the sky. The ashland was far too big for him to soothe all its winds, but at least this stretch of land would be habitable long enough to search.

Nevertheless, soot bounced up when his feet hit the ground, making him sneeze.

Aang was still wiping his nose when Appa landed with the others. Their arrival kicked up another cloud that soon settled without the wind to sustain it, but Mai, Sokka, and Katara were all coughing as they climbed down from the saddle. Momo flew over and landed atop Aang's head, holding on like it was a matter of life and death. Aang allowed the lemur to stay put. He could still smell the ash on the air, a dirty scent with a dangerous and lively element to it, and he suspected that Momo had it even worse with his sensitive nose and tongue.

"I never imagined it would be this bad," Katara whispered. She was pulling her hat down as low as it could go, and she never moved more than a step away from her brother.

Sokka, for his part, was just looking around with a grim but unsurprised expression. "Well, we'll be able to do a cursory search, but there could be lots of things hiding in all this ash. I'm hoping we're not expecting secret trapdoors or anything trick like that?"

Aang shook his head as much as he could without dislodging Momo. "I don't think anyone is trying to hide anything in here. We're just looking for signs of life."

"Obvious paths out of here, buildings or that fortress Mai was talking about, or-" Sokka stopped talking for a moment as he turned to look back at Appa. "Or maybe even signs of sky bison visits. Hey, you think the whole Return of the Airbenders thing means new sky bison?"

Aang blinked. He hadn't considered that. "I guess it could be possible. Maybe there was a small herd hiding in this area? But- but then it wouldn't really much of a return, would it? The sky bison would just be more exposed after they escaped the fires."

Sokka shrugged. "Who knows what kind of riddle Aunt Wu was trying to tell you? Anyway, we should split up and take a quick look around. If you can't find anything, or if you feel the winds picking up again, meet up back here at Appa and we'll move our search."

Aang nodded. "I'll go this way."

Katara inhaled and exhaled slowly, and then pushed her hat back to clear her vision. "I'll go that way."

"Great." Sokka pointed to his left. "I'll take that route. Mai, figure out what that leaves you." Without waiting for a reply, he walked off. Katara got moving on her own path, and Aang reluctantly got started on his own search.

When he looked back at Mai, she was still standing silently amidst the ash, staring at nothing.



Mai was almost grateful for all the seasickness she had experienced in the last year, and for that time she had to clean out the dusty remains of Air Nomad monsters who used to be people. Those experiences had taught her how to suppress the urge to vomit all over her boots.

One way of coping was telling herself how unlikely it was that any of the soot she was breathing contained any of Ty Lee's ashes.

This ashland was where Ty Lee had died. The remains of the circus group- of the people and animals and wagons and machines- had been found by the Fire Army soldiers after they finished conquering their fortress. They felt so bad about accidentally killing Fire Nation civilians while turning this whole into an inferno that they had even made the effort to identify the circus in question. But not bad enough to actually apologize to anyone.

And now here Mai was, standing in the remains of the trees and grasses and whatever that had burned around her only friend.

She wasn't breathing in any of Ty Lee's ashes right now.

Probably.

Mai made herself move, to walk off in the direction Sokka had indicated with barely concealed loathing, so that she could finish this search and get out of here. She wondered if telling everyone how hard it was to bring them here would earn her any sympathy points, but had no real desire to found out. She didn't want sympathy. Sympathy was messy. Besides, it wasn't like she was breathing in any of Ty Lee's ashes right now, probably.

Mai followed the terrain into something like a gulch, kicking up ash with every step. No water ran through here now, but certainly had at one time. Mai braced herself with a hand against the stone walls, but pulled them back when she felt the filthy sooty texture smeared across her palms. It was silly, of course; none of those cinders had been Ty Lee, probably. Her stomach churned, but she promised herself she wouldn’t vomit.

She made her way through the gulch, stopping only when she heard the sounds of little girls giggling.

Mai whipped around, looking for the source, and found nothing behind her but her own trail through the ash.

Okay, she was just going crazy. That was better than throwing up on her boots.

She resumed walking, and the gulch expanded until the wall on her left fell away to reveal a wide plain. The other wall still stood tall, but no amount of staring made it look like a great-grandfather's nose, so she moved her attention elsewhere, enjoying the sight of the wide spread of ash in front of her and the sounds of distant howling winds.

Then she heard the giggling again.

This time, Mai drew her platinum knife. She had left the platinum sword she had stolen from the Rough Rhinos back with Appa, and was regretting that decision, now.

But no ghosts came. The ash stayed on the ground where Aang had put it.

Mai held the knife in a ready position in front of her as she continued her search. Continued sounds of little girls giggling didn't lead to any attacks or sightings. As unsettling as it was when those giggles turned to sobs, no ghosts presented themselves. And when Mai clearly heard voices mixed with that weeping, she safely concluded that it was all in her head.

After all, she already knew the dialogue:

"Why are you crying?"

"Because I'm going to miss you so much. It's breaking my heart."

"Well, then don't go. Not that I care much either way, but it sounds like you have a preference."

"I'm sorry I'm leaving you, but I have to go. I'm going to wither if I stay here."

"Like I'm withered?"

"Your aura is grey, but you're strong. You're not withered at all."

"Well, I wish my mother shared that opinion."

"I wish you could come with me."

"I'm not coming with you. Running away to join the circus sounds filthy."

"I know. I just wish you could. You're the only thing I'm going to miss."

"Not any of your sisters? Not even the Princess?"

"Not my sisters. And I love Azula, but she's part of what's withering me."

"Hn. Technically, I could kill you for that and would probably be rewarded."

"But you won't. Because you're not withered."

"Ugh. I'm not going to miss you at all when you leave."

"Heh. That's okay. I'll miss you enough for both of us."

As Mai continued her search- ignoring the voices in her head that had somehow become so loud and clear in this place- her eyes grew itchy, but she attributed that to the sooty quality of the air, which didn't include any of Ty Lee's ashes.

Probably.
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« Reply #119 on: May 31, 2016 06:09 pm »



Aang's search took him uphill, and as he climbed, the sky became darker as ash slowly returned to the sky. It wasn't fast enough to worry him, but he wouldn't be able to dawdle on his search.

The whole time, Momo kept clinging to Aang's head.

He reached up to pet the lemur's quivering body, trying to pass on some kind of reassurance, but he had little to give. Since Aunt Wu had told him about the new Airbenders, he couldn't stop his thoughts from flying through all the possibilities. He figured the most likely explanation was that the new Airbenders were simply the descendants of the old, keeping alive the ways and blood of a few Nomads who had escaped Fire Lord Sozin's attack. Still, that didn't explain why the guy Sokka talked to had seen a group of girls. Maybe there were enough new Airbenders that a full society had formed, and a random group of friends had been spotted? That would be nice.

Aang also wondered about Sokka's earlier idea, that the new Airbenders were wild sky bison. The whole Air Nomad culture had grown in tandem with the art of sky-herding, to the point where the humans and bison were both essential parts of it. What would sky bison be like who had never known the friendship of an Airbender? Would Appa even recognize the modern bison as being like him? Could they be actively dangerous to people?

But mostly, Aang wondered what he was supposed to do with these new Airbenders, whatever they turned out to be. Was that how he was supposed to fix the world?

Lost in his thoughts, Aang put a foot down wrong, and his boot failed to find traction on the ash-covered slope. Momo screeched, and Aang slipped and fell face-first into the soot, smacking hard against the rocky ground beneath it all, almost becoming buried in the cinders as he slid a short distance down the hill.

When he picked himself up and spat the ash out of his mouth, he looked up again to find Monk Gyatso standing in front of him.

"Hello, Aang." Gyatso smiled broadly behind his drooping gray mustache. "I've missed you."

Aang blinked. He looked around, searching for some kind of clue as to how hard he had hit his head, but found only the colorless terrain of the ashland. He looked back to the figure in front of him and noticed that ash was clinging to Gyatso's robes as if he was really here. There was no otherworldly blue glow or transparency, and the dull light of the ashland fell on him the same way it did on everything else. "How are you here?"

Gyatso shrugged, and kneeled down in the soot so that he was at eye-level with Aang. "That's a very good question. I'm rather surprised to be here, myself, but let's not worry about it for now. The winds have brought us together for a moment, and I'd like to make the most of it. Now come, give me a hug! It's been so long..."

Aang moved forward without hesitation and threw himself into Gyatso's arms. He recognized the warmth that came through the robes, the unique smell of fruits mixed with old-man-scent, and the feel of the mustache-tips tickling the crown of his bald head. It was really Gyatso, in every meaningful way.

"I'm sorry," Aang said.

"For what?"

"Everything! Running away, getting stuck at the South Pole, letting all this happen-"

"Oh, Aang, I know. I know. I've always known." Gyatso patted Aang's back, and shifted their embrace so that they could look each other in the eyes. "I'm just worried now about how to help you. Why are you here in this terrible place?"

That's when Aang remembered that he had been covered in ash, and the hug had just transferred most of it onto Gyatso' robes. "I- my friends thought we might be able to find the new Airbenders by coming here. I found out- well, I was told- there's supposed to be new Airbenders somewhere, and my friend Sokka heard this rumor from a guy from this province, so we- we tried just searching around for a while, but weren't finding anything so-"

"So you came here." Gyatso craned his head to look around. "Well, it's not a bad place to start. This area is near where an old herding trail ran. Many of our people would have passed overhead in the summer months."

Aang considered that. "So maybe the new Airbenders are sky bison."

"That could be. I wish I could say more, but I'm afraid I've been a bit out of touch, eh?" Gyatso chuckled, and Aang couldn’t help but smile in return. "Although, there are other ways I can help. You're very troubled, Aang. What is the matter? Really?"

"I just-" Aang sighed. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do. About anything. So many bad things have happened while I've been gone, and I don't think I can fix most of them. If I could just find these new Airbenders, I might be able to help them, but if I can't- what if I can't, and the Fire Nation kills them, too? Everything that's happened has been because I was missing, but being here now doesn't mean I can stop more from going wrong! I couldn't save Guru Pathik, I couldn't stop the disasters at the South Pole and Crescent Island, and now- what if I can't save the Air Nomads?"

Gyatso smiled, and placed both of his hands on top of Aang's head. They were warm, and their soothing roughness was a relief compared to the feel of the ash on the wind. "Then you will have set an example for the rest of the world, and maybe in time the winds will change direction for a more favorable journey forward. I believe in you, Aang. I believe in you. Show the people around you the way, and see where the winds carry you."

Gyatso pulled Aang into his arms once more, and Aang sank gratefully into them. He didn't know how Gyatso could be here, didn't know how these words had reached him in this land of ash, but they were what he needed. As he sought out the new Airbenders, he would keep in mind the wisdom of the greatest of the old.

The wind picked up into a heavy gust, pelting Aang with cinders, and he flinched away from the foul sting.

When the wind died again, Gyatso was gone.

Aang rose from the ashes and looked across at empty, brown horizons. He walked around the area, investigating. There were no footsteps, no trails, no signs of approach. Whatever had happened here, it had happened on just that one spot.

Aang turned back to it, and found Momo waiting for him, still swatting soot out of his fur. Apparently, the lemur had dug himself out of wherever he had landed when Aang fell. Aang went back, put Momo back up on his head, and continued on his search of the area, climbing up the hill with renewed determination.



Mai put up with the voices- the whispers, the giggles, the things she and Ty Lee had said to each other that had all just led to death- for as long as she could, and then headed back to meet with the others.

When she saw that Aang, Sokka, and Katara all looked as rattled as she felt, it came as a relief. Either she wasn't the only one going crazy, or this ashland was haunted.

"Voices?" She twirled her platinum knife as she walked over to the gathering beside Appa.

Everyone else stared at her for a moment, and then nodded. Katara hugged herself as she said, "And they weren't saying very nice things about me."

Sokka shuddered. "Why does everything we come across lately have to prove something by stealing our most terrible thoughts and fears from the deepest recesses of our mind and fling them back in our faces? Whatever happened to just going 'OooooOOOoooooh!' to haunt someone? I don't think I like this new-age haunting."

Aang reached up to pet the lemur on his head. "I don't know. I didn't hear the kind of voices you guys did. My experience- it helped me. I don't know where it came from, but it was a good place."

Mai snorted. "Sure, the Avatar gets special treatment. Well, aside from disembodied voices, did anyone find anything, or has this just been a massive waste of time and sanity?"

Sokka pointed back the way he came. "I spotted something in the distance. It was hard to tell, because it was out where the winds were still active, but it looked like there was some kind of building at the top of one of these hills. That by itself wouldn't be too weird, since there's supposed to be a fortress around here, so there's probably all kinds of outposts or waypoints scattered about, but get this- I think I saw lights. Now, whether they're real lights or spooky ghost lights or whatever- that's a good question, but I-"

Mai went ahead and began climbing back into Appa's saddle. "We can debate it while we fly. Let's go."

Everyone followed her lead, and soon Appa had them all airborne. Sokka sat up with Aang on Appa's head, directing their search, and Katara sat at the front of the saddle to listen to them.

Mai, meanwhile, prepared for battle. She checked the blades she had left (after her latest purchasing trip, she was now back up to three full sets, including her Lui Shui steel collection), and decided to load up with extra razor discs in case she had to target something around a corner. Once she had completed that, she took out her platinum sword. Should she take it? The voices everyone had heard- the sounds of her last words with Ty Lee- were a sign that spirits or worse were inhabiting the ashland, but that didn't rule out human bandits from being holed up in the structure Sokka found. She had the platinum knife, so she had a weapon to be used against spirits, but she also had plenty of steel knives, too. Which would be the best choice?

If she brought the platinum sword and saw a ghost of Ty Lee, could she even bring herself to use it?

"I can tie them together so that you can wear both," came Katara's voice.

Mai spun, startled, and realized she had pulled the platinum knife and held it ready to throw.

"Sorry!" Katara held up her hands as if surrendering. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"Did they not teach the concept of minding your own business where you come from?" Mai sheathed the knife and turned back to her supplies. "Idiot."

"I-" Katara's voice went soft. "I'm sorry, but I- it looked like you were having trouble deciding between your swords, so I-"

"Hey," Sokka shouted, "what's going on back there? Is Mai causing trouble?"

"You can mind your business, too, Tribal."

Sokka was stalking back into the saddle in an instant. "What did you call me?"

Mai glared back at him, hiding the regret she felt for using that word. She knew he hated it. She had no good reason to use it. It wasn't even instinct, this time; she had done it on purpose because she wanted to hurt him.

Katara stood up and positioned herself to block Sokka's path. "Hey, no fighting. She's being a jerk, but that's no reason-"

"Oh, I think it's plenty of reason." Sokka let himself be stopped by his sister's shove, but he kept his eyes on Mai. "Maybe she's fine helping us get rid of the royal Fire royals in charge, but bringing back Airbenders is something else. You heard what she called me. She still can't stand anyone who isn't from the Fire Nation."

"What I really can't stand is the way I'm treated around here." Mai stood up and sought for her anger, boring deep into all her feelings of shame and regret and pumping enough heat into them to turn them into hatred and resentment. All of it- every snide thing Sokka had ever said to her, and every pained expression on Aang's face when he thought about how she had betrayed him- blossomed into proof that they would always hate her, and it was an easy thing to hate back. "Yes, I tried to be loyal to the people who raised and trained me. You've made such a big deal out of how I tried to betray you, but you were fine back when you thought the only ones I was betraying were the people you hate! You have no honor. I've been nothing but helpful since Crescent Island, but I still get nothing from attitude from you!"

Katara stopped Sokka from approaching again. "Guys, stop it, you're-"

"Oh," Sokka interrupted, "so you think that playing nice for a little while means we forget what you tried to do to us? I'm never going to forget. Once Fire Nation slime, always Fire Nation slime."

"Slime?" Mai stepped forward to find one of Katara's hands shoving her back as well, but she didn't mind. She pulled her steel sword from it sheath and held it so that the flat of the blade was battered by the wind of their flight. "Come on, Sokka, show me how I'm slime. You always wanted to be a warrior, right? Then let's go right now. The pride of the South versus the Fire Traitor. Just you and me settling things up."

"Hey!" Katara let go of her brother and grabbed Mai's sword hand. "What do you think you're doing?"

"I'm-"

Mai didn't have time to finish before a tornado suddenly sprang up in Appa's saddle, a tornado that came with hands and feet that struck at her. She was swept off her feet by a kick at the same time a precise palm strike to her arm made her hand open spasmodically and drop the sword. As she fell back to the floor of the saddle, she heard Sokka cry out as well, and Katara gasped with surprise.

Then Mai landed on her butt and the winds died.

Aang was standing in the center of the little violent gathering, holding Mai's sword in a reverse grip with distaste evident on his face. When he spoke, his voice was flat but hard: "This is wrong."

"Ugh," Sokka groaned. Mai was surprised to see that he was lying on his back as well. "What the slush, Aang? She started it."

"Both of you were looking for a fight. Both of you were wrong." Aang looked over to Katara, standing by the edge of the saddle and clutching her hat. "Could you take Appa's reins? These ash-winds are making him nervous. Oh, and take this for me?" He held out the sword, the blade pointed straight down at the saddle.

"Sure." Katara took the sword with slow care, keeping the blade pointed down in a reverse grip, and then hurried away like she was retreating.

Aang looked over to Mai, and for the first time, she realized that he had eyes the color of old ash. "What are you doing, Mai? You don't really want to fight anyone."

Mai knew he was right, but admitting it seemed like the worst possible thing she could do at the moment. "Maybe I just feel like a fight. You ever get the urge to take that staff you used to have and crack someone's head with it?"

Aang's brow tightened with confusion. "No. That's not a normal thing. Not for me and not for you."

"I-" Mai tried to think of a retort, but the best she could come up with was, "Maybe you don't know me as well as you think you do."

She heard Sokka snort, but Aang just shrugged and said, "I know you a little bit, at least. I know that you hate showing people how you really feel. So if you're trying to seem like you're angry now, then it's because you're feeling something else, and you don't trust yourself to hide it from us."

Mai, for once, couldn't keep her surprise from her expression. Her jaw dropped as she realized that Aang was right and she had been completely wrong about herself. The feelings of shame and embarrassment struck her hard enough to leave her lightheaded, and she burned with anger at herself for actually pulling a sword on the people she wanted to forgive her. She raised her hands to cover her face. "Don't look at me."

She heard Aang step over and crouch down beside her. "Mai, you don't have to look at us, but we need to know what's going on. You've done too much to keep hiding it."

Mai was going to tell him to lick ash, but her breathing was growing heavier as she fought back sobs, and she didn't trust herself to try to tap into that fake anger again. She forced herself to do a meditation exercise, ignoring the shudders that came from the sobs that tried to escape from her, and managed to bite out, "She died down there."

"Who?"

"My-" More breathing. She shut her eyes against the sight of her own ash-stained hands. "My friend. Ty Lee. The circus girl." Her only friend in the world. The one person who had come close to understanding Mai as a person. The single oddball throughout all of the Fire Nation who Mai could appreciate. "She burned down there."

"The one who- Ohhhhhh. I see." She heard Aang get back up again. "We just arrived. I need to calm the winds again. If you can, then we could use help investigating. If not, stay with Appa and Momo." She heard him stepping away over the sound of her own breathing, and thought she was finally done, but then he added, "You should apologize to Sokka and Katara. When you can. Come on, Sokka."

The boys both left Mai cowering in the back of the saddle, and she finally gave up the fight. As the sounds of the winds calmed, she cried completely without noise, her hands never exposing her face.
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« Reply #120 on: May 31, 2016 06:10 pm »



Sokka and Katara were quiet, but neither one hesitated as Aang led them across the ash.

With the winds calm, the building Sokka had spotted was easy to discern, if not its purpose. The main structure was wide and stood several stories, its ornate pagoda roof rising into the brown sky. An empty courtyard surrounded the building, enclosed by four walls with massive dunes of ash piled up against them. Aang had left Appa- with Mai and Momo in his saddle- by the sole gate in the walls, directly opposite the building.

He looked at the doors, and noted that they were held closed with a beam of wood slotted on the inside.

"And I saw lights before," Sokka said, "but the building is dark now. Either we dropped in at a bad time, or someone is expecting us. Probably both."

Katara tilted her hat back to look at the locked doors, and then shifted her waterskins forward and popped their corks. "Probably both."

Aang waved them along. "Come on, let's check out the building." Nothing reacted to their approach, but they found the doors locked. Aang cupped his hands and used his Airbending to enhance the volume of his voice: "Hello! We're not going to hurt anyone! We just have some questions!"

No reply came.

Sokka sighed. "Well, we tried the nice way. Let's bust the doors open."

"Sokka!" Katara shook her head at her brother. "Not so fast." She turned to the doors and shouted, "We can help! We can take you out of the ashland, or bring you supplies! It's going to be okay!"

Still no reply.

Aang shrugged. "Bust open the doors?"

Sokka nodded. "Bust open the doors!"

Katara sighed. "Okay, bust open the doors."

Aang kicked out, using a burst of Airbending to bust open the doors. They swung apart and smacked into the walls with loud crashes, and pieces of the wooden beam that had been holding them closed clattered further into the shadowy hall.

Aang led the others in. The hall was large but plain, with no furniture or decoration to suggest what kind of building this might have been. The place was filthy with ash, of course, but there were no dunes or piles, so this place couldn't have regularly been open to the outside air.

More worrying were the scorch marks on the white walls.

Sokka walked over to one and ran his finger over it. "Hm, not quite fresh, but not old either. I'd say it's been about... uh, a few weeks? Maybe?"

Katara pushed her hat off, letting it hang behind her from her neck. "So the lights you saw weren't Firebending."

"Well, not combat Firebending, anyway."

Aang listened to the exchange with half an ear, giving most of his focus to the flow of the air through this building. It was odd, not quite unmoving, but not even the whisper of a breeze, either. It was almost- "I don't mean to get anyone worried, but does anyone else feel like we're being hunted?"

The Water Tribe siblings turned to him with wide eyes, and Sokka said, "You mean that tense-eared, skin-prickling sensation where you can tell that someone is just behind you but you also know that if you turn around you won't see anything, and making any kind of move will probably just lead to being ambushed?"

"Yeah, that."

"Well I didn't until you said something." He and Katara stepped so that they were standing back to back. "Ugh, I hate this spooky stuff."

Aang quickly trotted over so that he formed a triangle with the siblings, their backs all together and each one facing in a different direction. "Let's be careful while we explore."

So they moved as one into the hallways of the building, finding empty room after empty room stained with ash and scorch marks. They had to rely on their lanterns for light, as the windows had all been covered with thick paper, and the resulting shadows did not set Aang at ease. The air still had that odd quality, although every now and then it moved with a whisper that almost but didn't quite actually make a sound. After one such instance, Aang said, "Hey, guys?"

"Yeah?"

"Yes?"

"Did either of you see anything just now?"

"Nope."

"Sorry."

"Okay."

It was far too much like the Fire Temple on Crescent Island. Where he had been hunted by a Fire Prince, and betrayed by Mai.

By the time they reached the shrine room, Aang could feel sweat dripping down his head. The room was somewhere deep in the back of the building, and the shrine itself- or rather, the remnants of a shrine that was barely recognizable beneath several scorch marks- stood in the center of the longest wall. A single square mat lay askew before the shrine.

He once again the half-felt, half-heard the air move around him. "Guys, I'm really starting to feel like we're not alone in h-"

He was cut off when something dropped from the ceiling on top of them, the sound of its movement all roaring and snapping and screeching. Aang cried out as something struck his back and knocked him to the floor, but his ability to make noise came to an end when he struck the ground hard enough to knock the air right out of his lungs.

He could only lay there gasping as he listened to the pained cry of his friends.

TO BE CONTINUED
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« Reply #121 on: Jun 20, 2016 08:21 pm »

A New Wind

Mai wasn't sure what she was more embarrassed about- getting herself mad and pulling a sword on the people she was trying to be friends with, or breaking down and crying where they could see her.

Either way, Mai found herself sitting alone in Appa's saddle in the middle of an ashland feeling very silly.

She took her hands away from her face and looked at the world around her. The winds were dead, and the dunes of ash- almost certainly not any of Ty Lee's- rested across the grounds of the complex around Appa. Tall walls cut off the rest of her view of the world, enclosing the grounds and leaving the several-story building at the far end as the lone interesting feature. Well, Mai was always looking for things of interest, and chasing after Aang, Sokka, and Katara was better than sitting here bored and silly. She would eventually have to face them. Might as well get it out of the way and die of embarrassment sooner rather than later. She grabbed her platinum sword and hung it from the back of her belt.

Momo chittered at her as she climbed down from the saddle, but didn't follow. Appa, too, looked at her as she left him behind, but she turned to meet her with his wide gaze. Those massive eyes aligned on her with real weight. They were deep, full of moist warmth even in the ashland, and large enough for her to see her reflection, to see her own blank face atop the green smear of her clothes.

She gave a small smile, to see how it looked on her, and Appa snorted with enough force to push the ashes in front of him.

Then she made her way over to the dark building and plunged into mystery.

She could see, through the dim daylight that came in through the front doors, that the place was filthy. Ash was, of course, everywhere. More surprising were the scorch marks on the white walls. There were several different hallways and rooms branching off from the vestibule, and no sign of which path the others had taken. She stood alone, hand going for the handle of her sword, and tried to decide her course.

Then a cry echoed from deeper in the building, and Mai recognized the voice as Aang's. She dashed off in her closest guess as to the source, getting further encouragement from the distinct sounds of Sokka's aggressive roaring and the splats of Katara's Waterbending impacting against something. They were soon all drowned out by the howling of moving air, and Mai found herself running against a headwind that almost felt solid. It was a useful sign that she wasn’t about to run into a wall, as she was losing more of the sunlight with every step, and she had already accumulated enough embarrassment for the day without running headfirst into a wall.

Instead, she plunged into a dark room and ran headfirst into the enemy.

Mai had no sooner impacted than a storm of blows rained down on her. Her hands flew up in defense, but the hits were not especially powerful, and that was the enemy's downfall. As Azula had once said, more warriors had died from flinching than any real tactical errors, and so Mai's combat training had included lessons on overriding such reflexes. Even as something smacked her across the face with only enough force to sting, she held onto a sliver of focus and drew her platinum sword in a motion that became a full aggressive slash at her opponent.

The enemy retreated into a chaotic world of shadow and harsh crystal light before the blade found purchase in anything. The others’ lanterns had apparently been dropped and left to roll on the floor, and Mai so got only a glimpse of a dark, nebulous shape before it passed beyond the moving green light. The sounds of the enemy's movements were more distinct, snaps and an unsettling noise that was half roar and half howl, but as Mai raised her sword in a defensive position, she realized that there was something familiar in the cacophony.

The 'snapping' was the sound of long cloth- most likely robes- moving so quickly that they were cracking like whips.

Mai knew that noise well. Her sleeves cracked the same way whenever she threw a knife with enough force a rip someone off their feet.

That's when she realized what she was fighting, and how to win.

Mai dropped her sword and went for her blades, for her needles and razor discs, and unleashed her swarm of metal in the direction of the sounds. The first volley would close off one avenue of escape, the second would block another, and the final volley would strike right at the enemy itself. Or, rather, those final blades would be hitting the exact bits of the robe that had been creating the snapping sounds, giving away their position in the dark.

The blades disappeared into the darkness and a moment later the shadows stopped moving. Mai waited just long enough to confirm that the fight was over. "Is everyone alive in here?"

"Probably," came Sokka's stained voice.

Some of the green light stabilized and rose to reveal Katara holding one of the lanterns up. "I lost my hat in here and my heart is racing, but I'm okay. Aang?"

Aang was sitting on the floor, wheezing but making a gesture that he was okay. He must have had the wind knocked out of him during the fight, ironically.

Sokka crawled into the light, one hand dragging himself forward while the other clutched his left knee. "I'm going to be limping for a while, but all my blood is where it's supposed to be."

"Good." Mai drew a pair of stilettos and pointed them in the direction where the enemy was still pinned. "Let's see what I caught."

The boys got to their feet, Aang's breathing finally settling as he picked up the other lantern. Sokka leaned on Katara, and they all approached the enemy.

It was almost anticlimactic when the light fell on an old woman pinned to the wall by her voluminous golden robes. Mai's blades had found every free corner of clothing, including the oversized sleeves and even some of the long bits of white hair that had escaped from the woman's bun. Their captive looked back at them with hard eyes and said, "I won’t let you take me. None of you should be here!"

Mai shifted her knives so that the blades would catch the light. "Well, that's one opinion."

Aang's eyes flickered to her before looking back to the old woman. "We're sorry for trespassing, but we're here to help. I'm the Avatar, and I-"

"The Avatar?!" The woman leaned forward as much as she could with Mai's blades still firmly pinning her to the wall, squinting in the lantern's illumination. "The Airbender child?"

Aang pointed the big, obvious arrow on his head. "That's me!"

"The Avatar!" The old woman's eyes darted across the rest of them, and then seemed to continue darting to take in things that weren't there. "The Avatar, here. Is it true? No, it doesn't matter, the Avatar doesn't have to be real." She centered her gaze on Aang again and bowed her head. "My apologies, Avatar I did not get a clear look at you before I attacked. I should have greeted you in peace. I am Mother Malu, master of this abbey, and it is an honor to meet you. I hope you will find me of The Gift bestowed upon me by fate." She raised her gaze again and frowned deeply. "Can you tell me if you're all real?"

Mai blinked. "The knives holding you against the wall aren't proof enough?"

"Oh, if only you had seen the dreams, but can your evil eyes even behold such things?" Mai was going to ask what made eyes evil, but Malu continued rambling, "The dreams. I've had such horrible dreams. Dreams that were real, dreams that weren't real, dreams that I dreamed weren't real but really were." She abruptly turned to glare at Mai. "You're trying to trick me. You just want me to think you're real, but you're-" She gasped. "You're the voices, aren't you?"

"Voices?" Mai took a step back. She could deal with old lady ambushers, and had enough platinum that she was reasonable sure she could fight a spirit monster, but this old Malu lady seemed to be cracked, and how was that supposed to be handled?

"From outside! The horrible voices that say horrible things!" Malu looked over at the others, a growl entering her voice. "Let me go! Leave and let me go! I do not recognize your power! Go find peace in the grave and leave the living alone!"

"Oh, hey, calm down, the voices are something else entirely." Sokka held up his hands with palms outwards, at least as well as he could with one arm still hooked around Katara's shoulders. "We met the voices outside. They're jerks. We can take you away from the voices. To where the sun shines."

"How long," Katara said, "have you been here?"

Malu blinked. She looked around, blinking at each one of them. "Since the fires. They destroyed everything! The abbey and the girls survived, but everyone else-" She swung her gaze to Mai, and there was a glint in her eyes that were far too evocative of Azula on a bad day; there was a detachment to the gaze that kept it from seeing the world in front of it. "So many died! We did our best to help, especially after we discovered the Gift. I sent some of the girls out to find help, but-" She turned Katara. "The ashes rose. And then the ghosts came. We couldn't-" She snapped over to stare at Sokka, who yelped. "We were trapped! Trapped until the Firebenders came! There was so much screaming, so much it drowned out the voices, so much-" Malu looked over at Aang (who immediately grabbed the closest of Mai's arms with enough force to yank her down to his height) and finished, "Now I'm alone, alone in the dark, and you're not real! Get out! Geeeeeeet out!"

They all backed away from her continued screaming, and Mai freed herself from Aang's clutches before he cut off all the circulation in her favorite arm. "So, this is what happens to someone locked up alone for a while in the middle of an ashland. Let's not experience it firsthand."

Katara shook her head. "We can't leave her here like this."

"We can't?" Sokka motioned back over at Malu. "We could free her from Mai's knives, then leave her here."

"Sokka!"

"Sorry."

Mai ignored the sibling act and kept her attention on Aang. Even in the light of his lantern, he was clearly worried, and there was conflict behind his eyes as he said, "I- I think there's more going on. When she attacked us, she was- I don't know, but I felt- something. In the air. I think she was- well, I think she was kind of Airbending."

Airbending? This old crackpot was the new Air Nation that Aunt Wu had sent them to find?

Mai sighed. "Nothing is ever easy, is it?"



Aang had to keep going over it in his mind to make sure he hadn't imagined it. He had been startled by Mother Malu's initial attack, and then getting the breath knocked out of him had been distracting, but at the very edge of his perceptions it had seemed like the air in the room wasn't moving naturally. As his ability to breathe returned and Mai had arrived to save them (that had been good timing), he had become more conscious of the strangeness, of the way Mother Malu had been able to move as though her body was lighter than it really was.

"There has to be something we can do for her. She's- she's one of my people, now."

They were silent in the light of the lanterns until Katara spoke: "My Waterbending might be able to heal her."

Sokka's head jerked up. "I forgot you could magically fix stuff! Why am I leaning on you and limping when you can just magic my knee?"

"I'll get to you when we have some time, Sokka." Katara looked back over to Aang, but then averted her eyes. "It's not easy, but water-healing can work on minds, as well. Kind of. Old Master Anibik- the healing master with us in Crescent Island- told me a little about it, but- well, I didn't ask much about mind-sicknesses. And it doesn't fix everything, it strengthens the mind so that it can start sorting itself out. Mother Malu will have to want to be healed. To use the clarity I'll be giving her."

"I think we have to try." Aang reached to take her free hand. He meant it to be reassuring, to show his confidence in her abilities, but he couldn't deny that it felt good to have her support as well. "Thank you."

Katara smiled and turned away from him. "Of course. But someone is going to have to hold Sokka up for me."

With a flash of reflected light, Mai returned her knives to wherever she kept them. "I can handle that. But first, I have something I need to say to all of you. About before."

Aang observed her face, and the way it was completely devoid of expression. "Go on."

She brought her hands together in formation that looked familiar, but then she hastily moved them so that she simply held her right fist in her left palm in the universal sign of respect. She bowed at the waist, lowering her head until it was nearly at the floor and her face was hidden from sight.

Mai's voice rose in an echo from the floor: "I'm sorry. I was stupid and did a terrible thing. I insulted without cause for the purpose of picking a fight, and threatened your lives like an uncultured criminal. I feel shame for my actions and regret them all. I will accept any punishment or censure in order to restore what little honor I possess."

Aang was going to forgive her right there, touched by the Fire Nation's typical excessive show of remorse, but Sokka spoke first with, "Will you accept having your weapons taken away?"

Wait, what?

Katara tilted her head. "What if we have to fight?"

Sokka nodded. "Then she can have them back whenever we're in danger. She's a good fighter, but she's shown she's not responsible enough to be walking around with an arsenal under her clothes and a collection of swords lying around. Unless she has a real need for them, she doesn't get to touch her knives and needles and junk."

Mai remained bowing, and her head bobbed once. "I accept with humble gratitude."

Sokka nodded. "Then it's fine. Thanks for the apology and stuff."

Aang couldn't believe this. They were really going to do this? "We're really going to do this?"

Katara ran a hand over her hair, and Aang was reminded that she had yet to retrieve her hat. "Maybe it's for the best. Until she's feeling better." She looked away from him.

Mai straightened, and her newly revealed face betrayed nothing. "Then it might be a long wait. Let's see about the crazy lady, now."
Logged

Loopy
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« Reply #122 on: Jun 20, 2016 08:22 pm »



Mother Malu groaned and yanked her arms, but the wall would not let go of her. Those ghost children, those intruders, had done something to her, and now she was stuck against the wall. Their voices were beautiful and their faces chased away the voices, but they had called upon the wall to trap her and now she was stuck. It was the one with the evil eyes and the hair like sleep who had waved her hand and commanded the stars of death to glitter in the darkness and fly about casting the spells of doom.

Tears sprang to Malu's eyes. She missed her girls. Her dutiful girls, so full of life and balance. If anyone deserved the Gift it was them. But they were gone, taken by the Firebenders. Malu had failed them, failed to free them, failed to bring help. She knew she wasn't right, that her thoughts flew like ash on the winds, that not all the voices were real, but what could she-

Healing.

What?

Malu focused, trying to find the thread of the thought amidst the chaos. Someone was speaking to her. It was the voices! They were back! Back to kill her! She looked up and saw the faces of the children, the intruders, and the one with the evil eyes was standing in the back with glistening stars from the night sky in her hands! Malu drew back, pressing herself against the wall that held her and wouldn't let go.

Healing. The voices were talking about healing.

Malu focused again, and realized that the youngest one, the one with the arrow on his head- the Avatar! The true Airbender! He was speaking to her.

She forced herself to listen, to look at his moving lips in the light of his lantern. "What did you say?"

"We want to try to heal you. Will you let us?"

"Heal me?" Malu wanted healing, yes. But the whispers started again, saying that she would never be restored, that she had lived too long in the dark and the ash and the failure. They spoke of how unworthy she was of the Gift, how she defiled the world just by possessing the Gift and so had to suffer for her presumption. "Noooooo. Please, no."

"We think we can. Will you let us try?"

Malu shook her head, getting caught up in the motion and letting her whole body sway with it, pulling at the grip of the wall that wouldn't let go of her.

"Please? You’ll feel a lot better. And we think it's the only way to learn what happened here. We want to help, so we need to know what really happened to- to the new Air Nation."

Malu froze. Air Nation? There was no Air Nation, just the Gift. The Gift and Malu's lack of worth. But the girls! The girls were taken by the Firebenders, maybe because of the Gift, and Malu couldn't save them. But the new voice was the Avatar! He could do it! "Yes! Do it! Save them!"

"Them?"

"Save them! Do what you must!" Malu looked at him, and put her whole strength into it. "I will help you save them!"

"Well," said the one with the evil eyes, "sounds like she's in."

The boy in blue added, "Or as 'in' as she can get."

"I guess." The Avatar moved to Malu's left and took her hand in both of his. He was so warm, and his touch was the greatest thing Malu had felt since she returned to the abbey. "My friend is going to do some Waterbending for you, now. Just stay calm."

Malu clutched his hands. So warm. So nice.

The girl with the soft eyes, wearing blue like the other boy, stepped in front of Malu and raised her hands. They were covered in water, water that flew like the ash outside, but this water stayed on the hands and glowed blue with a light that overwhelmed Malu's vision. She dreamed that she was drowning, and the voices said she was going to die, but the Avatar's hands kept hold of her own, and she heard him trying to say something. A coolness flowed into Malu's skull as if the flying glowing water had streamed in through her ears to push her brain out of her body and replace it with a lump of ice.

But the coldness that erupted deep within Malu's skull settled some of her fear, as she realized that she was breathing and thinking, so she couldn't be drowning or having her mind washed away.

But with that clarity came the memories.

The fires.

The burned bodies.

The heat, the choking heat.

The smell of the dead.

The new breeze. The feel of changing fates. The lights in the dreams.

The Gift.

The girls' joy.

The hope.

The rising ash. The voices.

The call for help.

The Firebenders.

The screams, the fear, the return of the stench of burning.

The march across the ash.

The fear. The confusion.

The escape.

The long return.

The exhaustion, the dreams, the voices, the ghosts, the darkness, the solitude.

All of it returned at once, sharps as knives and black as night. Malu's brain felt like it was burning, boiling, expanding in her skull and hammering to break free. Surely the glowing water was being boiled around her head! Her blood must be turning to steam and whistling out through her ears!

The thought of it was enough to make the dream real, and Malu screamed.



The scream made Aang jump as high as he could go without letting go of Mother Malu's hand, and when he landed, he realized that he had dropped his lantern again. "What's going on?"

Katara had hopped back, and the water was lying in twin puddles on the ground. She was breathing hard and looked to Aang with wide eyes. "It- I'm not strong enough. There's so much- so much confusion!"

Mother Malu had stopped screaming now, and she hung limp from Mai's knives while muttering about ashes.

Aang let go of her hand and let his gaze fall to the lantern lying beside his boots. "So we can't help her."

"I can't," Katara said. "But maybe you can."

Aang's head snapped up. "What? But I can't heal! You have to be a- a-"

Katara nodded. "A Waterbender."

Sokka scratched his chin. "Technically, the Avatar is a Waterbender. But can all Waterbenders heal? I've never been clear on that."

"Master Anibik said that there are degrees of natural talent, but we can all commune with water in the way that's the root of the healing power." She looked to Aang again. "You don't have to do it alone. I can direct everything; you just need to put more energy into it. Make up for- for the strength we need." She straightened, and moved her arms to summon more water out of the skins that hung from her back. The liquid streamed up to cover her hands, and she stepped forward to hold them out on either side of Mother Malu's head. "Now place your hands over mine. Let the water take them in."

Mother Malu didn't react to any of the activity as Aang stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Katara and placed his hands on the backs of hers. The water flowed as he pressed his palms against her skin, and Katara exhalation sent the liquid surging to engulf his hands.

It was cold.

"You need to feed the water," Katara whispered. "Water wants to heal. It cleans and cools us naturally, and washes out our wounds. Remember how it felt the last time you satisfied your thirst with a cold drink. Focus on that as you extend your Waterbending and let the water drink from your Qi as it needs. I'm going to start now."

Aang closed his eyes and remembered the taste of the water that came from the cold springs near the Southern Air Temple, the water he'd drink after a long day of Airbending practice. He meditated on that, on the healing atmosphere of his old home, and let the liquid on his hands become one with his being. The darkness behind his eyelids lit up with what must have been the light of the water coming to life, and he could feel Katara directing the energy in the liquid with a subtlety and gentleness that amazed him. He felt the flow of his life-force surge and fought to keep his breathing steady, turning his focus deeper inward with that memory to guide him, silently asking Gyatso and Roku for help. He felt the heat of Malu's mind pushing back, and shared the coolness of the mountain water of his childhood.

It was like drinking that spring water again.

A sharp, sucking gasp brought Aang back to reality. His eyes flew open to find Mother Malu once again straining against the knives that pinned her and staring with wide eyes. Katara stepped back and the water exploded out to soak Aang's sleeves, but he didn't have time to worry about that before Mother Malu swing her face right up to his and hissed, "I remember! The Gift, Avatar! It was Airbending! I saw them taken to the hole in the ground, to the Tiankeng Fortress! Save them, Avatar! But beware- beware the- the traitor..."

Then she closed her eyes and collapsed.

"Mother Malu!" He tried to hold her up, supporting her underneath her arms, and Katara pushed through to do a quick examination. "Is she okay?"

"She's breathing, and seems healthy. She might just be exhausted." Katara looked over to him with a shrug. "I've never done healing like that before, and her mind was under a lot of strain that we tried to fix quickly. She needs time. Then- then we'll see."

Aang nodded. "Let's get her out of here. The winds outside will be returning soon."

"And," Sokka added, "we have another clue to investigate. This Tiankeng Fortress."

"Ugh." They all turned to Mai. "I know that name. I'll explain once we're airborne, but you're not going to like what I have to say."

Sokka snorted. "When do we ever?"

Aang tried to tell himself that he was too busy freeing Mother Malu to respond, but the truth was that any opportunity to say something had passed by without his ever figuring out what he should actually say.



The ash was starting to swirl when Mai helped carry Malu outside and ease her up into Appa's saddle. They were all no sooner flying up above the reaching of the coming storm of cinders than Mai found Sokka's expectant gaze on her. Sighing, she began drawing her blades out of their various pouches and hiding place and piling them up in front of her. The last weapon she relinquished was her platinum sword, placing it atop the mound of knives.

Then she turned to the supply packs stacked up at the rear of the saddle to fish out her backup sets and steel sword. They all went into the pile as well.

Sokka looked it all over. "You didn't keep one, did you?"

"What would the point of that be? There's no danger up here, and I can't do much with just one blade." Mai scooted back and indulged in a spine-folding slouch that would have killed her mother to see.

"Maybe Katara should search you."

Over on the side of the saddle, crouched over Malu's comatose body on self-appointed nurse duty, Katara rolled her eyes beneath her recovered hat. "I'm not searching anyone. If Mai says she's disarmed, then we're accepting her word."

Sokka grunted. "Do we have time for you to heal my knee, now?"

Katara turned away again. "I'll get to it later."

Mai almost wished Katara had performed a search. She didn't think she could possibly feel more humiliated at this point, having her knives taken away like she was an irresponsible child, and it was an accurate enough comparison. Proving her compliance wouldn't be a bad thing, and she really had held nothing back. She wanted to erase her stupidity. She wanted to have the danger she represented- pulling weapons on her allies with no real provocation- forgotten. More than anything, right now, Mai just wanted to stop being Mai.

And, really, she was almost there. She had given up her family, given up her nation, given up her red clothes, and now just gave up her knives. What did she have left, besides her name?

Hoping that no one was looking at her, she reached for the twist of hair on the back of her head and began undoing it. With that foundation gone, her ox-horn buns and twin tails quickly fell into a plain cascade of black tresses. She pulled it all together and twisted it behind her into a short, ugly knot that hung to her shoulders.

She bet Mother wouldn't even recognize her, now.

"I think we're clear of the ashland now. I need to know where we're going," Aang said from his usual position on Appa's head with Momo. He turned around, and blinked in obvious surprise when he saw Mai. "Um-"

"Tiankeng Fortress," she cut him off. "Simultaneous proof of both the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom's complete stupidity."

Sokka looked up from her knives for the first time since she turned them over. If he noticed her hair, he made no sign. "Okay, you have my interest."

Aang climbed up into the saddle and sat down beside Malu's still form. Momo scampered over to Mai and pawed at her head, but she brushed him away and continued, "The Fire Nation built fortresses wherever it conquered territory, right? Well, in one particular place, the ground was too geologically unstable to dig deep enough to put the long metal walls they use to keep Earthbenders from just tunneling into the base. So, naturally, they picked a massive sinkhole in the area, covered the whole floor with metal plates, and built the fortress at the bottom of a mile-deep hole in the ground. They constructed a whole system of ramps along the walls of the sinkhole, and a complicated system of cranes to move supplies and equipment in and out."

Aang's head tilted from side to side as he took it all in. "So Earthbenders filled the hole on them, right?"

"No. That's why both sides are stupid. The Fire Nation built a fortress at the bottom of a giant hole in the ground, costing more than any other single Fire Nation military installation in history, and then the Earth Kingdom forces failed time after time to do anything about it. Last I heard, the fortress was still there, and it had become the favorite post-war conversation piece of politically-minded nobles. They liked to argue whether it's too expensive to keep running, now that there's no rebel resistance."

Katara looked out into the distance. "And now they're holding the new Airbenders there."

Aang stood up. "We have to help them."

It was like if he kept saying it, it would just happen. Mai sighed. "Yeah, I figured. I'll tell you how to get there, but getting in is going to need another one of our crazy, clever infiltration plans."

Sokka groaned. "How many high-security Fire Nation bases will this be us breaking into, now? Three? Four?"

Katara sat up, her expression perky for the first time since they had brought Malu aboard. "I've never broken into a Fire Nation base with you guys. I broke out of one, but that's not really the same."

"It's not a fun as it sounds," Sokka said.

Mai pushed Momo away from another attempt to investigate her hair. "Maybe this one will be less dangerous, and you won't have to give me my knives back today."
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Loopy
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« Reply #123 on: Jun 20, 2016 08:23 pm »



A while later, Aang looked down from his perch on Appa's head at Tiankeng Fortress. The sinkhole was wide and deep enough to be easily visible, even from this height, but he couldn't spot the fortress that was supposedly at the bottom. The area around the hole had been scorched free of vegetation down to bare rock and replaced by tree-sized metal spikes sunk into the ground and angled outward like rays from a dark sun. Catapults and trebuchets were scattered throughout the artificial forest, and a complicated structure of platforms and cranes had been constructed on the rim and even right over the hole. Past those, Aang could make out ramps spiraling down the sides of the space that- if his sense of scale was right- were wide enough for three full-grown sky bison to traverse side-by-side. Smoke billowed out from pipes conveying the foul air from deep within the hole, further muddying the view.

Plus, the soldiers and tanks moving around all over the place were pretty distracting.

Aang looked back up at his friends. "Sokka, give Mai all her knives back."

"I don't care how many knives I have or how we're dressed," Mai said, still staring down at the sinkhole, "we are not going in the front door this time."

Katara backed away from the view, her face a little green to Aang's eyes. "So, clever plans, right? You guys do that? How do we make one?"

"Earthbending!" Aang turned at Sokka's exclamation to find the other boy pointing a finger at him. "Maybe you can get us in? Not through the metal floor, obviously, but even getting us around that mess down there would be really helpful."

"Sorry." Aang hated to think back at it, but if he was going to save his new people, he had to reveal the details of what had happened at the Southern Air Temple to his friends. "When we fought the- the monsters in the Temple, I was in the Avatar State. It wasn't- wasn't me doing that Earthbending, it was Avatar Kyoshi working through me. She knows Earthbending, but for me, it's just, it's like a distant memory that I know happened, but I don't know any of the details. Sorry."

"It's okay, Aang," Katara said immediately. "Mai, do you have any ideas?"

Aang looked over at their Fire Nation compatriot, and couldn't help but wonder once again about why she wasn't wearing her normal fancy hairstyle. She had agreed to Sokka's demand about giving up her weapons, and he in turn seemed to be treating her just as he had been for a while now, but the fact that she had changed her hair worried Aang. She was always so fastidious about keeping clean and well-groomed, and the fact that she had made a deliberate effort to undo that image had to be a sign of something. He could only hope it wasn't a bad sign.

Mai just shrugged. "This is the first time I've seen the fortress for myself. Maybe we can watch long enough to see where their supplies are coming from, and smuggle ourselves in somehow, but that could take a while, and if we were discovered, they'd go ahead and shoot us out of the sky. Do you see how that siege weaponry is set up? It's all aimed up. The enemy they consider most likely to attack is coming in close and high at the sinkhole." She looked around at everyone. "They know we're coming. They might be watching for us."

Aang's stomach clenched. This was getting worse by the second. "Well, then let's get somewhere safe while we think about how we're going to do this." He snapped Appa's reins and steered in a wide loop that would them descend out of the sight of the base.

Once they were on the ground, everyone disembarked from Appa. The ground here was hard and rocky, but the feel of it had been softened by mosses and a vibrant community of crawling and climbing vines. There was a moist smell in the air, and Aang tried to enjoy the novelty after a day of wandering ashlands.

While Katara finally healed Sokka's knee, they talked about ideas for getting into the sinkhole.

"Can you just drop down in a freefall," Sokka asked at one point, "and then Airbend yourself to a safe landing once you're through the defenses?"

Aang had been forced to shake his head. "I'm not sure I can cushion myself at those speeds without my glider. Anyway, without a good view, I could crash into something before I even know it's there."

They made a few more tries on Mai's idea of smuggling themselves in with a supply delivery, but nothing came of any of those conversations. Sokka speculated about building some kind of machine vehicle specialized for getting them through the defenses, but Mai testily poked holes in that idea until they had both fallen into sullen silence.

Once they ran out of concepts to discuss, everyone began seeking distance. Sokka walked around and poked his foot into the largest clumps of vines for reasons Aang couldn't guess. Mai's hands disappeared into her sleeves, but then Aang heard her sigh and her hands reappeared holding nothing. She then marched off to a spot far away enough that the expression on her face (or lack of it) was lost to sight, and sat down.

Katara checked on Mother Malu again in Appa's saddle, and afterward went over to a nearby stream to refill her waterskins. Momo followed her over and lapped from the creek.

In the silence, Aang could no longer enjoy the moist air. Now it just felt like oppressive humidity. He went back to Appa and rubbed his old friend's massive nose. "How about you, buddy? Feeling okay?"

Appa responded with his resonant lowing, and there was a dark tone in it that perfectly summarized how Aang felt. The new Airbenders were beyond their reach, and it was starting to feel like this great team that had carried him so far was starting to malfunction. In the past, even when they were afraid or frustrated, they had still moved forward with energy and perseverance (or at least stubbornness).

Maybe they were thinking about this fortress the wrong way. Maybe it wasn't about how they should be getting in, but rather getting the Airbenders out. If Aang attacked the fortress directly, tried to bring out the Avatar State, then he might create enough damage and distraction for the Airbenders to make their own escape up from the sinkhole, and since they were the first of the new nation and he was just the last of the old, then risking his life that way would probably be worth it even if he d-

"I got it!"

Aang spun to see Katara standing up beside the creek and pushing her hat back to reveal a broad smile. "What did you get?"

"Our way in! There's lots of water in this area, and it runs underground. This creek disappears over there, and the water has to be going somewhere."

Sokka stepped over. "That's right, that's probably what created the sinkhole. The water running underground wore away the support until everything collapsed."

Aang blinked. "We can't flood the sinkhole. That would drown everyone!"

"Oh, no, I didn't want that," Katara said quickly, coming over to put her hands on his shoulders. "Since we don't have any Earthbenders, we can use the water to just wear away a path underground. Just a small tunnel for us to use to get in. And then we let the water drain away underground."

Aang looked to Sokka, who shrugged. "The theory works, but I don't know enough about your Waterbending to say if you can do it. We’re talking precise work, and you'll be guessing about your end point- you won't be able to see into the sinkhole to tell where your tunnel will end up."

Aang nodded. "Still, it might be our best option. And we can give it a try without risking anything. If we can't Bend the water enough, or if we can't figure out where our tunnel is going, we just stop and try something else. The Fire Nation shouldn't realize what’s going on."

Katara pointed back at the stream. "We can start there, so some of the work will be done for us."

Aang looked up at the sky. It had turned red as the sun met the horizon, and night would be on them soon. It had been a long day and they could use some rest, but on the other hand, night would be the best time to work on this. And from what Master Hama had said, Waterbending was strong under the moon, so that would give them another advantage. "I think we should try it."

Katara nodded, and Sokka raised his hands in surrender as he said, "It's your call. I'm for anything that will work."

Appa pushed forward to lick at Aang, making him laugh, and even Momo chittered with what sounded like excitement. This might really do it!

"I'm going to need my weapons, then," came the last voice. They all turned to find that Mai had joined them. As usual, her face gave nothing away. "If the Waterbenders are going to be making a tunnel into the unknown, then we'll need our best warrior ready and waiting to jump out and deal with whatever is on the other end. And as wet as I'm sure it's going to be, that means me. Right?"

Aang looked to Sokka.

His shoulders slumped, and he nodded.

With that, it was time to get to work. Aang and Katara started things off by the creek, taking arrow stances on either side of it and swaying their arms in sync over the flowing water, becoming one with its movement and energy. As they breathed, Aang and Katara exerted their control, putting more power and slowness into their forward arm motions, letting the backward motions just become quick resets, and the stream accordingly began flowing faster and with more pressure. Then Aang and Katara began walking forward, letting their arrow stances carry them as far as they could bend their knees before actually taking each step. The creek's pressure increased accordingly, and by the time they reached its end, it had worn away a large enough hole in the stone ground that Aang could probably squeeze through it with minimal discomfort.

He wasn't heading down there just yet, though. He and Katara remained standing on opposite sides of the hole and shifted their arm motions so that they went up and down rather than side to side. It was harder without being able to see the water they were Bending, but Aang could feel the push and pull of it in the darkness below the ground, and he found himself closing his eyes so that he could let the sensation become his whole reality. The stone of the underground was strong and unyielding, but the water had flowed against it for more years than the Fire Nation had maintained their sinkhole fortress, and so foundations crumbled against the wet pressure, and a new underground river began to flow.

Hours later, Aang and Katara both crawled underground, lanterns hanging from their belts, and dropped into knee-high water to continue building their underground path.

Of course, stone did not yield without time. The only reason they were able to make measurable progress at all was because there were already natural chambers and openings throughout the stone, thanks to the water already here. The hard work really came from breaking down the walls between the bubbles in the stone (Sokka’s knowledge of mines was helpful in making sure they didn’t collapse everything), and with each new breach, Aang had the chance to breathe ancient air flavored with both stone dust and water.

As time wore on, Aang's muscles became fatigued. He and Katara began taking shifts, one working while the other rested, and Sokka and Mai rigged up a rope ladder so that they could climb up out through the creek's enlarged drain and have a snack- even a nap- up where it was warm and dry.

They worked all through the night. When the sun rose, they all retired to the camp Sokka had set up and passed the day away in something like the coma that Mother Malu was still in.

Work resumed on the second night, and they kept at their driving pace. Aang had to rely on Sokka to visit Appa and Momo for him. Katara got some extra-long breaks to take care of Mother Malu with Mai's help. The old woman still showed no sign of when she might wake up.

The time all blurred together until Sokka put his ear up against the wall at the end of their tunnel- a check he made regularly- and held up his hand. "I think we're there. I hear activity that's not wet."

Aang heaved a sigh of relief.



Mai thankfully didn’t have to argue to wait for the third night to make the final breach. Everyone slept through the day again, and then rose with the moon to get ready to make war.

Mai was loaded up with a full set of throwing blades again, and had her steal sword in its place at the back of her waist. It felt so good to be weighed down by sharp metal again, but she told herself not to get used to feeling.

Then, in silence, Aang led the way down into their secret 'tunnel.'

Great. Back into soggy land.

The water was still knee-high throughout the tunnel, but there was no staying dry even above that line. The water foamed and splashed as it rolled down the meandering path and struck the uneven walls. Mai might have only gotten a brief look at the mines at the South Pole, but even she could tell that this tunnel was far less professional in structure. It had a natural feel to it that gave it a frightening quality.

She was soaked from head to toe by the time she reached the end of the tunnel, her clothes clinging and her boots spongy. It was just as well she had given up her usual hairstyle, because there was no way her ox-horn buns could have survived this environment. Mai splashed after Aang towards another green crystal light, but Katara ran ahead of them and took a position where she could do her Water-dancing. The water that had been draining from a whole at the tunnel’s end slowed and began rising at a pace that Katara seemed to have under control. Sokka splashed over to stand beside her, seemingly unbothered at being thoroughly soaked. But then, he was a Water Tribe.

"Okay," Aang said. "Katara's going to maintain the draining, and I'm going to use my Waterbending to slice through the wall. Mai goes first, then Sokka. Katara and I will settle the water and then join you. We figure out things from there."

Sokka pulled his knives- the ones Mai had given him at the start of their journey- from his belt. "You know, it's probably too late to bring this up, but it just occurred to me that our plan after this point is distressingly vague."

Everyone ignored him, of course. Aang splashed over to the last wall, took a Waterbending stance, and raised a thick ribbon of liquid out of their artificial river to slice at the wall up and down like the saw of a lumber mill. But while water was an effective power-source for pumping a metal blade fast enough to make short work of wood, stone wasn't so cooperative. Everyone winced as the sound echoed shrilly throughout the tunnel, and Aang sped up his movements to put more strength into his cutting.

Faster than Mai had expected, the wall burst open.

She dashed forward with a splash and dove through the opening with arms out in front of her so that she could turn her landing into a roll. She hit the ground but failed to find traction, slipping and sliding forward across what she realized was a metal floor.

She came to a stop when she crashed into a pile of wooden boxes, getting a good battering from the weight and hard corners, and then something else smacked into her from behind, something softer than a crate, and Sokka's cry of pain made her realize that he had taken the same tumble she had.

The clatter of their crash sounded impossibly loud to her, but then it continued even after everything had finished tumbling, and she realized that something else was causing the noise. She pushed a box off of her, crawled around Sokka's body, and looked around. Her eyes adjusted to the red glow of Fire Nation lamps, and she figured out which shadow was the entrance to the tunnel just in time to see the stone wall around it collapse with a sound that was both wet and crunchy.

Mai was assaulted by both a wave of water and a heavy sprinkling of rock dust, and after she wiped the resulting gunk out of her eyes, she found that the only thing left of their tunnel was the obvious outside of a cave-in.

Aang and Katara were either trapped, or already buried in their grave.

She and Sokka were trapped in a fortress sinkhole.

And she could hear voices, shouts of "What's going on over there?" that promised imminent investigation.

Mai decided that Sokka was right. Their plan had been far too vague.

TO BE CONTINUED
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Loopy
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!


« Reply #124 on: Jul 04, 2016 03:28 pm »

Old Friends

Zhao's career had gone down a hole.

Literally.

He looked out through the window of his temporary office at the interior of the world's largest sinkhole, and the Fire Nation outpost- Tiankeng Fortress- that had been constructed within it. The office itself was in one of the many towers extending up from the fortress proper at the base of the sinkhole, an architectural strategy necessitated by the enclosed location. Tonight, Zhao could see little activity aside from the regular patrols, but nevertheless the torches and lanterns throughout the space were all lit, filling the underground with crimson-tinted light. The complex network of ramps and scaffolding were shaded like bloody bones, making the sinkhole into their crude grave. It was far from the best view in the Colonial Continent, but Zhao was not here for sightseeing.

There was a knock on the office door, and Zhao looked up from his desk and barked, "Come." An aide appeared in the doorway with a stack of papers. "Those are the latest communications?"

The aide nodded, and deposited them on the desk. Zhao started going through them, but didn't see the routing codes he had been hoping for on any of them. "Nothing about our special guest, then. Dismissed."

The aide bowed and retreated, and Zhao got on with reading the latest news.

He was disappointed at not getting the orders he was hoping for, but he would not let that hold him back. Other than the one complication presented by that guest, his mission was proceeding well. He had been surprised, all those weeks ago, at the specific orders waiting for him when he landed on the Colonial Continent after his escape from the Fire Nation, but they had all been well within his abilities. He had learned about desert survival during an observational assignment to the Si Wong Desert years ago, and so he had been able to lead an assault force into the local ashland with little trouble. His soldiers had assaulted the abbey they found exactly where they supposed to with skill and precision, capturing the denizens without losses.

That most of the residents of the abbey were actually Airbenders- further proof of Zhao's theory that resistance to Fire Nation rule was more secret and dangerous than anyone suspected- was even better.  Now, the prisoners were all secured here in Tiankeng Fortress, ready for the next phase of the plan as soon as Zhao received reliable intelligence on the Avatar's location. If the orders Zhao had requested didn’t arrive before then, he could always leave his complicated guest behind in the care of the Tiankeng's regular commander and let Prince Iroh worry about the resulting political complications. After all, that was what royalty was supposed to do.

With that in mind, Zhao began the dreary task of reading the latest reports about the Avatar's possible movements. It was now believed that one of the Avatar's suspected companions- a young Water Tribe man who had disappeared from the South Pole during the uprising there- was present at an incident between Fire Nation authorities and local citizens taking place during a major cultural festival. It was centered on some scandal involving a Colonial Bureaucrat which didn't interest Zhao at all, but if the Avatar really had been at the festival, then according to the maps, that would have placed him somewhere in the-

A gong rang out through the main body of the sinkhole, and kept ringing in a pattern that meant there were intruders somewhere on the fortress grounds. Could someone have really gotten through all the outer defenses and into the sinkhole itself? Had some Earthbenders rebels gotten delusions of grandeur?

Zhao got up and ran for the window, searching the red gloom for signs of activity. He spotted several squads of soldiers running along the ramp system, converging on a reinforced loading platform at about the sinkhole's halfway point. There seemed to be some activity on the platform, a fight between guards and someone in green, someone who seemed to move well and fought with a sword and-

-and-

-throwing blades-

-and-

-Zhao’s jaw dropped. Lady Caldera Yu Mai herself was in the fortress. The Avatar might be with her, somewhere.

Zhao's surprise turned into a grin. All his enemies were trapped here with him. He hurried out of his office and said to the first aide he could find, "Put the base on full lockdown. Seal off the entrance to the sinkhole completely. Nothing is to get out."

Then, without waiting for an acknowledgement, he ran off to take command of the defense. The glory of this capture would be his!



Sokka couldn't make himself move. He sat there, completely soaked from the Secret Waterbent Tunnel, unable to even shiver. His whole reality was transfixed by the sight of all the piled stone against the sinkhole wall, formerly the hole he had jumped through with Mai, and now was-

-was-

His little sister had been in there. Aang had been in there. They had still been in there when it came down.

Sokka knew about cave-ins. They were a danger in the South Pole mines, and they were always fatal for anyone caught in them. No one could survive having a mountain dropped on them, not without Earthbending, and Aang said he didn't know how to do it. There hadn't been time for him to start that crazy glowing thing and call on Kyoshi or whoever the kid relied on for all his rock-moving needs. So Aang had to be dead. Katara had to be dead.

They were dead.

Sokka had gotten them killed. He hadn’t seen the danger, and so they had died.

He could only stare at their final resting place while chaos happened around him. Mai had extricated herself from the pile of boxes they had crashed into together and gone see about something she must have found interesting. There was a sound like an alarm going on in the background, and noise that could have been a fight nearby, but it was all muted in Sokka's ears. The world around him was nothing compared to the sick feeling spreading throughout his whole chest at the thought that he had freed his sister from a cage just to get her crushed to death in a grave of rock and water.

The red light of the sinkhole's lanterns even colored the stone like blood. That was appropriate, Sokka supposed. Gross, but appropriate.

He couldn't stop himself from picturing his little sister's flattened body.

Then cold hands grabbed his shirt and yanked him up so that his vision was filled with Mai's face. Like him, she was soaked, and drops of water streamed down from her hair across her blank expression. They almost looked like tears, but Sokka knew Mai would never cry for anyone not from the Fire Nation.

"Get up," she hissed. "More soldiers are coming."

Sokka hated Mai. She really wanted to do a whole fighting'n'running routine now, with Katara and Aang dead? Why bother fighting at all? She probably just liked fighting. This was a big game for her.

She shook him hard enough to rattle the thoughts in his head. "Get up. I'm not going to let you die here."

"Why bother?" Sokka tried to push her away, but his arms were weak, and they collapsed against her tensed muscles.

"Because I can't think of anything else to do right now!" She let go of him, and Sokka dropped back to the metal floor. Mai wiped at her face and flicked the water onto the ground. "Aang has powers I don't understand, so he might be alive and might have saved Katara. And I'm pretty sure that without you, I'm going to die. But you don't care, do you?" Her eyes flicked to the side, and she turned around and drew knives. Sokka noticed that her clothes were torn in places and even sported singing at the end of one sleeve. How much fighting had she already done?

Sokka moved his gaze back to the collapsed cave. His little sister was dead in there.

But she had come here because she wanted to fix the world. Fix it for Gran-Gran, and the Tribe, and even people she didn't know. Aang wanted to fix it for everyone, even the Fire Nation. They were weird that way. The only reason Sokka had ever risked anything was to save the people he already liked. He knew he couldn't save the world, and wasn't inclined to try, especially not now.

But he could help Mai, supposedly, according to her very biased opinion. Katara and Aang liked Mai for some reason. They'd hate it if he let her die. Especially if she was right, and they might still be alive. Could they be alive? Mai had seen all the same freaky Avatar stuff he had, and more besides. She had been in that volcano with him when it exploded. Was she just being optimistic, or did she really know something that Sokka didn’t?

Wait, what was he saying? Mai being optimistic?

So it was just a matter of deciding if he trusted her judgement. Did he have enough respect for that stuck-up, selfish, crazy, manipulator of a woman?

Sokka breathed in, and breathed out again. Yes, he did respect her. Just barely, but it was enough. Fine, then. Time to go to work.

Sokka pushed all thoughts of the cave-in behind that Wall in his mind, where he kept all those things that were far too heavy to think about. If he let them out, they would weigh him down until he couldn't move, couldn't find a reason to move, couldn't do anything. Behind the Wall were the deaths of his parents, the separation from his Tribe, and all the ways he had helped the Fire Nation back before he found his courage thanks to- thanks to Aang and Mai.

With the cave-in solidly behind the Wall, Sokka stood up, and turned to fight.

He barely had time to straighten before he saw the edge of the saber blade coming down towards his head.

He twisted out of the way with a battle cry of, "Aaaaaaghhhhwatchwhereyou'reswingingthat," and shoved at the soldier who was trying to kill him. The guy stumbled back and bounced against a rope railing, and a second shove sent the guy over the railing to fall screaming into a massive abyss.

With that sorted, Sokka decided that it was time to check out his surroundings.

Everything was covered in that ugly red light, but the situation was pretty clear. An alarm gong was indeed being hammered with frantic energy, and Sokka seemed to be stuck on a platform halfway down the sinkhole that was- judging from the number of soldiers approaching on ramps and bridges and ladders- a pretty popular place. Mai was moving back and forth between the connecting ramps, using her sword and knives and even some well-placed kicks to keep the soldiers from flooding in.

And she was losing.

Some attackers got past her while she fought their compatriots, and came in at her with chops of sabers and thrusts of spears and Sokka screamed as he ran at one and tackled the guy to the ground. The soldier had armor and a spear, but neither of those was exactly the best stuff to bring to a brawl, so Sokka twisted and shoved and wrestled and yanked and suddenly found himself stumbling backwards with a spear in his hand. His opponent got up and took a step forward and Sokka panicked and shoved the spear straight into the soldier's gut, but then he realized he was holding the weapon backwards and so had done nothing but poked his opponent hard with a stick. Turning it around again would take too much time, so he thrust it again, this time right into the soldier's nose with shattering strength and when the guy went down Sokka took a moment to check out the situation again.

It seemed that several other soldiers had started paying him a whole lot of attention. But that meant they weren't focusing on Mai, and she was one of those Weapon of the Fire Nation things. Sokka expected her to clear the area of enemies any second now, filling the air with flying knives and sprays of blood. He would enjoy seeing it.

Instead, Mai ran to him, grabbed his arm, and yanked him along to the far end of the platform.

Sokka blinked as he stumbled. "Why are we running?"

"We're retreating," Mai grunted as she came to the platform's edge. A slash of her sword cut through the rope railing, and then she pointed it into the air. "Not running."

Sokka followed the line of her sword to a large cargo-hook dangling out in the open air just beyond the platform.

Oh.

He glanced over and found her looking just as unenthusiastic as he felt about it. "Who goes first?"

In response, she spun around and threw herself into battle with the soldiers who had been about to kill them. Well, okay, that was a pretty clear answer. Sokka discarded his stolen spear over the edge of the platform and backed up as much as he could without intruding on Mai's rear-guarding. Then he took a running leap off the platform, screaming, "Ohhhhhh sluuuuuuuuuuuush I haaaaaate thiiiiiiiiiis," as he flew through the air.

He slammed into the hook of the crook and grabbed on with all the strength in his as the momentum of his jump transformed into a violent swinging. He barely had enough time to start to feel sick when the hook jolted again and the swinging got even more violent. He looked up to find Mai clutching the rope above him.

A fireball flew past Sokka's head. "So, uh, what next?"

Mai wrapped her arms around the rope and kicked out with both of her legs into the air in front of her. The move generated enough force to set the rope swinging even further, and when it reached the highest point, she twisted to the side and kicked again.

They swung back again, but now did so in an arc that took them away from the platform full of soldiers- an unpleasantly fast arc. Sokka swallowed heavily and held the hook like his life depended on it, which of course it did because he and Mai were terrible at the whole Planning thing.

Amidst the wind of their travel and the constant sounding of the alarm gongs, she called out, "Find us a spot to land."

"Me?"

"You have a better view."

"Ugh." Sokka made himself look down and focus through the twisting motion. He had to find something below them, but not so far below that they would die on impact. Nor could he find something past where their momentum could carry them. And, ideally, there wouldn't be a whole mess of soldiers waiting for them. That didn't leave a whole lot of options, but- "There! Drop in three- two- onenow!"

He and Mai let go of the rope at the same time, and Sokka felt like he was falling for an eternity before he crashed down on the open-air elevator platform he had picked out, although he knew it couldn't have even been a whole second. Mai landed on top of him, and the combined force of their impact set the elevator wobbling like stormy seas. They slid towards the closest edge together, but were stopped by the rope railing.

Good thing the Fire Nation valued safety so much.

Sokka pushed Mai off his back, dumping her on the platform beside him. "You're heavier than usual."

"I wear a sword now. And I’m soaking wet." She clutched the rope railing and swallowed heavily. That's right; she got seasick, didn't she? Well, that would be the perfect addition to this whole experience. "We need to find a way off this thing."

"Sure, fine." Sokka stood up and glanced around, trying to find some way to control the elevator but not seeing anything. He hoped they weren't stuck here. He looked up to see where they was hanging from, but he was immediately distracted by the spears and arrows and fireballs all dropping down towards them.

He eyeballed a few kinematic calculations related to projectile motion of the incoming objects and realized that the elevator platform was at the center of far too many vectors, and there was nothing that could be done about it. So he took the only option open to him: he jumped on top of Mai, threw his arms around her so that they wouldn't get separated, and pressed them both down to the floor into the smallest shape they could manage.

With his vision filled by Mai's hair, Sokka could only listen as those spears and arrows and fireballs struck the elevator platform around them. He felt the warmth of flames passing over and around him even through his soaked shirt, and while some of it abated quickly, there was a lingering heat that had to be bad news.

Sokka looked up and found that spears and arrows lodged into the wooden platform were burning and threatening to spread their flame, but more importantly, the large ropes keeping the whole elevator suspended were also on fire. Slush. He had nothing to put the fires out with, nothing to replace the ropes with, no way to fly, no way to magically summon Appa from outside the sinkhole, and was fresh out of favors owed to him by gravity-controlling Spirits.

He was still trying to figure out what to do when the ropes broke and the whole elevator dropped out beneath him. He didn't even have time to start a good scream.

He could only hold onto Mai in a death grip- and she was returning the favor- as they fell. The drop lasted long enough to almost feel like flying, but then he crashed into something hard enough to make his body blaze with pain, but somehow he was still falling and there was another crash and Mai cried out as she took the brunt of that one and more falling then Sokka hit something hard and color exploded in front of his closed eyes and breathing was suddenly impossible and he was rolling across something hard too fast to stop and then more open air and one last hard impact that brought him to a halt so jarring that the world just plain went away for a moment.

Reality came back and he gasped for air, but his chest was burning and half of what he was trying to breathe turned out to be Mai’s hair. Was she even alive?

There was a loud, ominous creaking of wood.

Then whatever they were laying on collapsed for another short fall and this time when the world went away, it stayed gone for a good long time.
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