I don't own A:TLA. It's as simple as that…
Chapter 6: What to Do
A small cloud of dust was kicked up from the hard-packed dirt of the road, as a wagon yoked with ostrich-horses progressed briskly along a popular thoroughfare to Omashu. Pedestrians ambled to the shoulder as it nosily traveled, leading pack mounts and children away with its creaking wheels. The forest was ablaze with leaves of deep red and gold, as the promise of autumn could be felt in the faint chill of the air. Due to its straightforward nature and occasional roadside services, this trade route stayed busy throughout most months, despite the chance of slick, and snowy winters. As the carriage rumbled forth, the helmsman brought the avian beasts of burden to a halt in front of a small restaurant.
Curious travelers and customers stopped, whispered, and watched as the carriage door opened, and a young man in stately Fire Nation garb disembarked. The helmsman brought the wagon team to an adjacent water trough, as two other men in similar Fire Nation attire went about inspecting the stagecoach and examining the surrounding area. The young man who initially exited the carriage strolled up to the counter, as a waitress emerged from the kitchen of the small café. Scrutinizing the modest establishment, the young Fire National drug his finger along a portion of the counter, examining the digit disdainfully.
"I've heard you make some pretty good tea…" He stated smoothly, wiping his hands on the leg of his pants.
"It's an old family recipe, sir…" The young woman replied evenly, yet preemptively exasperated from his high and mighty behavior.
"I… see…" He said, looking around at the small group of patrons. "You seem very busy for a little tea stand…"
"It keeps food on our plates." She answered, eying him with an edge of impertinence.
"Well… I suppose I'll take a pot… for the road." He stated in a low tone, placing a silver piece on the counter, and taking another long look around.
She gave him a strange stare, as she checked he coin with her teeth. He smirked.
"It's for the kettle."
Watching the wagon depart, she cleaned her hands on her apron and examined the money the Fire Nation man left. She flipped the coin once, inwardly marveling at the heft of the silver coin. Smiling despite herself, she put it in a sack beneath the counter, next to an old man sipping tea.
"That was a close one…"
She arched her eyebrow warily as he flashed a cheeky grin.
Silence befell the two, as the young lady wondered why she was at such ease, when a stranger, despite being a customer, asked to be hidden after ordering some tea. To be realistic, he could have taken the day's earnings or done any number of things from his concealed position.
"I don't know what's up with you…though you don't seem like a criminal…" She thought out loud, and casually leaning against the wall of the café and watching commuters pass by.
"That's good, because I'm not."
"So, what's with all the hiding then?" She asked, waving to a couple of regulars as they took their leave.
"Sometimes, one must hide from others, to find oneself…" He declared, taking another sip of tea.
"Hmm." She murmured, unconvinced.
"Besides, you've talked with him. He's a bit of a pain…" He said, standing up and handing her his cup with a bow.
As the sun began to set, Ambassador Iroh of the Fire Nation continued down the road, keenly enjoying his anonymity. Largely unchanged since his brother's defeat eight summers ago, he nevertheless sported a couple of new wrinkles, though he seemed to have picked up his pace in life, instead of slowing down. Clad in simple traveler's robes and a cloak, he mingled unobtrusively with the other merchants and people on the highway. The dwindling daylight brought the temperature down a little, causing some groups and parties to begin setting up camp along the side of the road, leaving the highway for those riding or in a hurry to progress through the night.
…there's no rush, I should enjoy the time I have until they catch up to me… He reasoned, laying out his sleeping fur.
Gathering an armful of twigs and leaves, he placed them in a ring of rocks, rolled up his sleeve, and put his hand in the pile. Making a fist, he ignited the pile of tinder. With a merry campfire going, he wondered how his workaholic nephew was faring in his duties as Fire Lord. While more than honored to attend on his behalf, he thought back to his nephew's stubborn insistence on an escort for his excursion to the Summit of the Four Nations in Omashu, and his less-then-agreeable time spent with the uptight youngsters.
…So young to be so serious… He analyzed with a sigh.
Satisfied with the tea and fried pork dish from his concealed location at the teahouse, he decided to forgo a campfire meal, as he watched the sun give way to warbling lights of various campfires in the increasing night.
Feeling the tug of fatigue, he reduced the fire to a pile of embers with a subtle motion, before retiring to his sleeping fur.
…I hope Zuko finds some time to enjoy his youth while he's out and about…
It was silent save the snap of a twig and the rustle of leaves, as the forest sped past in a pale, moon-lit haze. Traveling nimbly along the tops of the trees, it seemed as if the woods themselves were submitting to the will of an agile individual, as they deftly leapt from branch to branch. When it would seem that there were no available limbs or outcropping of canopy, the figure would gracefully bound to the forest floor. Pausing fleetingly, they then start off again at a brisk pace along the dense undergrowth, hopping over shrubs and upturned roots with confident vaults and somersaults.
When it would seem that overhead conditions improved for continued treetop travel, the acrobatic entity would sprint to the thicket tallest tree, the momentum from their increase in speed allowing for several steps of near-vertical running. As gravity acted upon the climber, they would kick off sharply from the trunk. Twisting in a nearly unperceivable manner had the woodland acrobat ended with two feet on an adjacent tree-trunk. Repeating the motions, the figure ricocheted between the trees, ultimately emerging at the crest of one of the towering oaks.
The fluidity of the maneuvers were suddenly brought to a standstill, as the view from the upper branches of this tree encompassed the better part of the area, showing the path of the river and gentle slope of the valley, visible with the radiance of the low hanging, stark-white moon. The expanse of trees sprawled in all directions, a light wind causing them to sway, like an ocean of dark green.
Absorbing the still and quiet sight for a moment, the agile individual looked around quickly, as they secured their footing. Feeling the slight breeze and straightening their posture, they brazenly leapt from the upper regions of the lofty oak tree.
Plummeting from an unhealthy height, the tumbler seized a young branch at the last minute, using the energy from the drop, body position, and the elasticity of the young tree limb to launch further along amidst the treetops.
Regaining the initial, uninterrupted pace, Ty Lee quickly found herself out of the woods and back to the encampment from where she embarked on her jaunt through the thickly forested area. Slowing her pace to a skipping and childlike gait, she hopped playfully towards the campfire, where a small grouping of men sat eating silently.
"I see you guys are back to moping around, huh?" She stated lightly, putting her hands on her hips, like a mother scolding a group of children.
"There's a lot to be done! If you've got the energy to be down in the dumps, you can do more to keep things moving…" She admonished brightly over her shoulder as she made her way to a conspicuous mass of metal sitting in a corner of the campsite.
Her lecture was met with uneasy silence and weary gazes.
The Avatar sat in his metallic confinement in the cool of the evening. He let his mind drift to progress of Sokka and the Kyoshi warriors.
…Hmm… if they've been captured like me, they shouldn't be hard to find… He reasoned.
…And if so…they're probably unhurt, as they could have easily taken care of me at any moment…besides; Suki and Sokka are smarter than to bite off more than they could chew…
He felt his stomach tighten it the notion of biting and chewing anything, as it had been a better part of a day since he'd been fed. The smell of noodles and dumplings had been wafting in through the openings of his enclosure, tormenting him since dusk.
…Well… maybe now I… can try it again… He thought as readied himself for another fire bending attempt.
"Hey! You awake in there?!"
At the moment he was going to open his eyes, Ty Lee popped her head into the view of the vents.
"Hmm?... Hello again…" Aang answered stiffly, pretending to have been woken up by the cheerful greeting. A concerned look darkened the Fire Nation girl's features.
"You look kind of …hungry… have you eaten?" She asked, tilting her head curiously.
The Avatar didn't answer, but gave her a detached and worn-out look.
Whirling to face the men now milling about encampment, Ty Lee's ash grey eyes narrowed dangerously. Aang, now extremely interested, tried to watch as the young acrobat stomped her way across the camp.
"Okay. Whose job was it to feed the Avatar while I was away?" She inquired, as all traces of mirth vanished from her tone and expression.
The men stammered and looked around, searching for an excuse to give the cross young woman as she tapped her foot in annoyance.
Aang chuckled silently.
…She kind of reminds me of Katara… when she's on a warpath…I guess girls are --
His feelings of nostalgia were instantly and brutally interrupted, as Ty Lee suddenly slammed her fist into the midsection of the nearest person, delivering a heavy, sickening blow to the abdomen. The much larger man, falling to his knees and slumping limply to ground, gasped raggedly for breath.
A stunned silence overtook the encampment, save the crackling of the campfire and shallow, uneven gasps of the wounded man.
"Well, at least now you won't forget…" She scolded lightheartedly, her words dripping with sweetness as she gathered some of the rations for the prisoner.
The morning was buzzing with activity, as the Kyoshi Warriors went about folding up their tents, preparing food, and inspecting equipment.
Collapsing her tent, Huan hummed brightly to herself. She enjoyed the portion of the morning after breakfast but before any official orders were issued, as it was a little free time while she was still brisk and energetic from a good night's rest. Her belongings were already packed and ready to move, as she hoped to squeeze in a quick bath before the company departed.
"Good Morning Ma'am." She addressed with a bow, as Suki returned from the river, accompanied by another warrior.
"Did you sleep well?" Suki asked, returning the bow.
She nodded, as Suki smiled and took a seat around the cooling coals of the campfire for breakfast.
It had been three days since they'd left from Gaoling, joined by the renowned Earthbending Master Toph Bei Fong, and the group began settling into a comfortable rhythm. Traveling through places she'd only read about, spending time with her sister warriors, and being near her old commander again… she was actually having a great time. She was even starting to enjoy the bracing cold river baths and late night patrols; though the latter regularly dissolved into giggling girl-talk sessions, brought about by their own aggressively shameless gossip-master.
"Speaking of which…" She said out loud, fastening the last tie on her pack.
Making her way across the clearing, she spotted Sokka examining a cache of weapons with another warrior. She caught his gaze and he waved good-naturedly. Fighting every impulse to dive for cover into the nearest tent, she shyly waved back.
Slightly flushed, she knelt at the mouth of Lian's tent. Huan noticed that hers and Ms. Bei Fong's were the only still standing. Sighing, she poked her head in the door flap, accustomed to the endeavor of waking up her comrade.
"Lian…" She called, knowing she wasn't awake to answer. She was greeted with the image of messy mound of clothes and what she hoped was a sleeping fur slightly rising and falling with an occasional bout of snoring.
"Lian… come on… every morning it's the same thing…"
Deciding to address this directly, she buried two hands in the slumbering pile, hoping to find Lian's head, in order to startle her awake. Digging around, her face grew hot when she heard less than appropriate noises from the depths of the pile.
"…Oooh…Yong Pei…come now…I'm not that kind of girl, you know…"
"Huh? What are you…?" Huan wondered, completely mortified and resorting to simply shaking whatever she'd gotten hold of.
"H-hey now…not so rough…I'm a warrior…I could really- -"Lian's sleepy, one-sided tryst ended when she peeked a bedraggled eye out from and opening in the heap.
"Oh…hey…" She yawned.
"Come on. Time to get moving..." Huan said, hastily removing her hands and giving her a disturbed, yet curious look.
"Who's Yong Pei?" She could barely keep the laughter out of her voice.
"Oh…" She chuckled, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. "He's- - Wait a minute, what?!"
Hearing commotion from within a nearby tent, Sokka was reminded to see if Toph was up as well. Putting aside his sharpening stone and the sword he was working on, he walked tentatively to his comrade's earthen tent and knocked lightly on the stony doorway.
"Hey, you up?"
He was answered by the rumble of shifting earth as the shelter slowly sunk into the ground. Sitting up gingerly, she rose and put a hand to her temple, hissing lightly.
"I'm up now…" Came the drowsy response, as the Earthbender yawned and smacked her lips. Her hair was almost humorously disheveled, spiking this way and that, as she stretched and yawned.
"There's some breakfast over by the campfire…" He said, turning around and heading back to his task.
…I guess some things never change…He thought and smiled inwardly as she dug around in her ear with her pinky finger.
"Mmm… rice dumplings…" Toph sighed, as she heard the tell-tale sizzling and inhaled the aroma drifting about.
She rummaged through her pack, retrieving a change of clothes. Strolling across the camp, she took a seat next to Suki, who offered her a dumpling.
"So…what's…on tap for today?" She inquired between bites.
"Well, we've already traveled the lion's share of the way to Omashu…"She paused and took a sip of tea. "There is, however, the mountainous portion remaining."
"I see." Toph noted, washing down the dumplings with some soy milk. Wiping her mouth on her forearm, she stood up, with clothes under one arm and, headed for the river.
"Mind if I join you?" Lian asked, drafting her tea.
The Earthbender shrugged and continued towards the river, as Lian dug around for a fresh uniform in her belongings.
Sokka sat down at Suki's side, watching as the young warrior scurried to catch up with the unsighted young woman. Bringing another sword from the supply, he began to sharpen as Suki unrolled a length of parchment; except for the scratching of an ink-stone pen and the occasional shrill scrape of the sharpening stone, a bit of silence hung between them, as other warriors causally prepared to resume their expedition.
"So, how long do you think it'll take for us to reach Omashu?" Sokka said offhandedly, breaking the silence.
Suki didn't look up from her document.
"Hmm…well some of the troops have some training in this terrain as we have. We also have Toph with us. She can only be an asset when we have to cross the more risky areas." She assessed.
The young Water Chief nodded in agreement as he closely inspected the blade. Satisfied, he replaced it in the sheath.
"There; Finished. Hey, Tsumiko…" He called, tossing the sword to a grateful warrior.
"You don't have to do so much, you know…" Suki said, still engrossed in her manuscript.
"You're not their instructor, technically. She pointed out, already guessing at his response.
"Ahh… You know… Things eventually become habits after a while." He drawled, as Tsumiko bowed in return. He peeked over at Suki's open scroll. "What you got there?"
His question caught her bit off-guard.
"Hmm…this? It's a report on the warrior's progress. Usually I send the brass status reports every couple of months. Seeing as I'm already heading to Omashu, I suppose I can just deliver it in person."
"Looks like being a General isn't all pomp and pageantry…" He commented, now reclining against his elbows.
"Well, I have to follow some regulations and such…" She wrinkled her nose a bit and scratched something out on her paper. "…but it's a fair trade for a good amount of jurisdiction around the island."
"Hmm…Okay, I'm going to start saddling up… you guys ready?"
Suki looked around at her company's various stages of progress.
"We can be moving within the hour…" She said, rolling up her parchment.
Lian cursed under breath as she searched among her personal affects in her rucksack.
"Grrr… Where?...no… Did I leave it back in Gaoling after the…hmm…"
"What's missing?" Toph asked, sitting cross-legged in a towel, the bottoms of her feet barely breaking the surface of the water.
"A vial of this great shampoo from Ba Sing Se. My dad sent away for some as an anniversary gift for my mom. She gave me a bit for my trip and…Aha!" She exclaimed, hoisting the glass bottle in the air in triumph. The Blind Bandit grinned at this.
"I thought you Kyoshi Warriors were all about your jobs and face-paint and the like…"
"Hey… Just because I'm a Kyoshi Warrior, it doesn't mean I can't look good doing it… Besides I've graduated the academy, but I haven't been commissioned as an officer yet; so technically I'm not a true warrior yet." She explained, pouring a bit of the shampoo in her palm.
Toph could smell the scent of berries and lilacs as Lian worked the soap into her shoulder-length, chestnut hair.
"Oh…I'm sorry you want to try a bit?" She offered, tossing her the vial.
"Your hair is already pretty shiny, so I guess you could make it smell nice…"
Catching her off guard, the bottle sailed right through Toph's searching hands, landing with a plunk into the water.
"Ohhh…I'm such an idiot…" She stammered, as the awkwardness of the situation quickly dawned on her.
"It's okay…" The Earthbender said with a lopsided grin. "I've got it…"
Drawing her arms outward and to the side, the general area where they bathed slightly rose in elevation revealing the vial on the once river level patch of earth. Retrieving it, Toph motioned again, lowering the ground to its previous level and allowing the water wash over the muddy soil.
"I've seen your Earthbending before, but still…" She trailed off in amazement as Toph let down her hair and began massaging in the fragrant shampoo.
The two lathered, rinsed, and repeated in quiet, until Lian couldn't hold back the questions.
"So…" She started, toweling off her hair. "How do you meet the Commander- - err, Sokka?"
"Heh…" She laughed while pinning back her hair.
"I actually found him sneaking around my house one day. He was friends with this guy who beat me in an Earthbending fight…Later, it turned out that this guy was the Avatar, and I had to teach him Earthbending before a comet- -well, I 'm sure you know the rest…" She finished, tugging her familiar, forest green shirt over her head.
"Uh huh… What was he like back then?" Lian asked, tying the knot in her robe.
"Let's see…He liked to hunt and tell jokes, though some of them were really bad." She recalled, smiling reflectively. "He always had a trick or two up his sleeve and could always find trouble, if nothing else."
The younger warrior's reflection grinned foxily as she applied her war-paint in the mirror of the water's surface.
"I bet he was a bit of a lady's man back then, too."
An eyebrow arched over a pale, green eye.
"Actually...I'd say he was more or less clueless when it came to girls…"
The sky was dotted with clouds as a young man walked down a large hallway, the taps of his shoes echoing and filling the otherwise deserted corridor. He stopped at a set of ornate emerald doors. Creaking open the door, he glanced inside, seeing a stack of scrolls obscuring a person seated at a large desk.
Entering, he shut the door and cleared his throat.
"Hmm?... Haru… How are our guests?" A baritone voice inquired.
"They're resting after their voyage..." The young man reported.
"Good… Have the cook start on dinner. Remember to alert the watchmen for our remaining guests."
Haru nodded and took off for the kitchens, leaving Tyro with his scrolls and tomes.
…Ba Sing Se during the closing days of the war...
…While the dethronement of the Earth King by Princess Azula of the Fire Nation and coup instigated by the Dai Li was eventually suppressed, dissidence spread amongst the citizens of the lower ring in the largely chaotic days surrounding the "Day of Black Sun" offensive…
…Seeking compromise between the citizens that lived in the Upper and Middle rings, and the vast majority that dwelling in the Lower Ring and within the Outer Wall, the Earth King sought the guidance of Avatar Aang…
…Three weeks of negotiations ended in a grand restructuring of Ba Sing Se's governing process, cumulating in the willing abdication of certain powers by the Earth King, and a formation of a city-wide Governance forum… It was decided that Forum members from predetermined districts would be selected by the Avatar and the citizens of said districts…
Sighing, Tyro stroked his beard as he rolled the scroll up and placed it in a stack of previously reviewed materials.
"To think such reform has already come to pass… and yet…" He eyed a small pile of reports and accounts from his contacts in Ba Sing Se warily.
"This conference couldn't have come at a more critical time…"
A chilling breeze swept across the trees, as Sokka and his entourage progressed through the quickly thinning forest to the mountainous area surrounding Omashu. The convoy moved briskly, as the quickly dropping temperature held the promise of an unpleasantly nippy trek. Noting the change, Sokka opted to don his penguin-hide hunting jacket. Suki and several Kyoshi warriors brought out light cloaks.
The young water chief could make out the timberline through the trees, as they traveled. A flash of black and green in his peripheral vision reminded him of their newest traveling companion.
"Are you okay? You've been awfully quiet back there…" He asked.
"Huh? Oh…I'm just thinking…" Toph responded, snapping out of her reverie.
As the breeze changed direction, he grew concerned for his hereunto silent comrade, and her penchant for short-sleeved outfits.
"Aren't you cold?"
She shifted in her place on the saddle when she sensed his gaze scrutinize her from over his shoulder.
"N-no, I'm fine…" She lied. He cast the Young Earthbender a skeptical look as he rummaged around in his saddlebag.
"Well, I'll feel better if you put this on…" He insisted,carelessly tossing the thin parka over his head to drape over Toph's head, muffling her protests.
Muttering, she straightened the jacket on her properly, scowling at their difference in size as she popped her head through the collar.
"Thanks!" She chirped brightly, giving the young Southern Tribesman a stout punch to the shoulder in gratitude.
"Anytime…" He hissed, messaging his shoulder blade.
The wind changed direction again, blowing against Sokka and Toph's back as the remaining warriors added more accommodating attire.
"Huh…" Sokka exclaimed, looking around.
"What's up?" The blind young woman asked.
"What's that?…" He said sniffing the air curiously. "...flowers?...Ow!"
She sank her fist into the other shoulder, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
"It's lilacs and berries…Don't you know anything?"
AN: Chapter six! Initially this chapter was going to be huge; about two to three times as long as it is now. Getting down to it though, I felt that the flow was hindered when it was all one chapter. Anyway, during the completion of this chapter, a lot of new Tokka stories have been uploaded. I for one, am thrilled. However, I have to give special consideration to Daughter of Atlas. Her stories are simply amazing. So if you're reading this, you must go and check out her stuff. Well, the next chapter is going to be much more action-packed, so stay tuned and happy holidays!