Book Three: Fire
Author's Note: Alright everybody, I know I've been late, but it took the push from Sam to keep on writing. So thanks, Sam, for your review. I had completely forgotten about this fic since then. Anyway, I hope all of you readers out there enjoy this chapter, and REVIEW REVIEW REVIEW! Avatar Season Three comes out in a couple of weeks, but that doesn't mean this fic has to end!
I know I'm evil. The cliff hanger at the end of this chapter should be enough to spark at least SOME response from you couch potatoes. Review, please. Suggestions welcome.
Chapter 7: All is Fair in Love and War
The morning had started out in an awful manner for Sokka. Even the weather, which seemed to be shaking the small shack he and Toph were staying in, appeared to be in a foul mood. Sunlight was barely (if at all) detectable. Simply put, it was a bad day, and it was no secret to Sokka.
Even so, the weather and mood were the least of his worries. Zuko was to come to their shack today and finalize their plans. The Water Tribe boy grew antsy thinking of such a person. He could never come to terms with Zuko. Never in a billion, trillion years. But it was like Toph had said, and her words rang clear and definite in his mind.
Do we have a better option?
No, they did not have a better option. They needed a teacher and a navigator, plus all of the five Earth Kingdom generals were joining them. It was a sweet deal, in retrospect, but nonetheless terrifying.
"Awake already?" a voice asked him. The boy jumped and settled, turning briskly to the young girl in the doorway.
"Toph!" he cried angrily. "Don't...don't do that!"
"You know...sneak around. I have enough on my mind already!"
"Oh...poor, poor Sokka. Didn't you hear me come in?" His companion plopped herself on the old couch and faced the window. "I thought I was loud enough."
"It's raining," Sokka stated simply, as if the pattering and puttering of the rain could drown out any other noise in the world. "Are you ready to...you know...see Zuko?"
"I'm not ready to see anyone. I'm ready to listen to what he's got to say, though. I can't wait to get out of this disgusting motel. How much are we paying, anyway?"
"That lady from the borders gave us about 700 gold pieces. Right here we're paying about one silver piece a night," the boy answered shortly.
"Well, it's probably worth a quarter of that—if anything."
"Toph, would you focus? He's—"
Suddenly there was a loud knock at the door, a kind of angry and urgent knock, as if something great was at stake on the other side.
"He's back!" Toph stated enthusiastically, and ran to the door.
It was obvious that the Fire Nation Prince had been out in the rain for probably a half an hour. His hair stuck to this face like glue, and the short ponytail that he had began to tie up lingered at the base of his neck. Even his royal clothes and armor, which should have withheld a little bit of rain, were soaked. He came in promptly.
"Why are you so wet?" Sokka asked, in a very grave and uninterested tone. "It's not raining that bad. You're going to get the floors all soggy."
"And they're soggy enough," Toph added.
"Never mind that!" the Prince shouted. "I'm here, that's all that matters. We're executing the plan tonight, right? And going up to that bay to see the militia that the Avatar has brought?"
There it was. It had been almost three weeks since Sokka had last seen his sister and Aang. The boy was silent.
"Yeah..." he said after some time. "Yeah...that's it."
"Well? What do you mean 'that's it'? What am I going to do? How am I supposed to get there? My sister has the palace all blocked out! I can't just sneak out anymore. She's got her weird friends watching me almost every night. It's a wonder I could even come out right now!" Zuko began pacing rapidly, his brow glittering with perspiration. This was the first time he had vented these hatreds out to anyone other than his uncle.
"How about you chill, first?" Toph suggested. "You got out today, you can get out tonight."
"It's not that simple," he snapped angrily. "I can't just leave."
Something seemed to erupt in the room as soon as Zuko finished his last sentence. Sokka stood up and grabbed the Prince's arm tightly, swinging the unexpected boy to his face as barbarically as possible. He had had enough of Zuko's complaining and unfaithfulness. The words came out like acid.
"Listen, if you're having doubts about this now, you can just go to hell. I'm not here to babysit you. You have to be sincere, you got that?" Sokka's icy stare met Zuko's fiery one, and the Water Tribe boy wrinkled his brow. "If you're out of this now, you say so now."
The shack was silent. Toph's mouth hung open.
Zuko grabbed his capturer's arm with his free hand and pushed it down. "I'm not out of this yet," he confirmed, using a tone just as sinister as Sokka's. "And I'm not full of it either. I'm just saying that...that if I'm a little late, I have reason to be."
Unlike Sokka's dreary morning many miles away, Aang was experiencing quite the opposite. The sun shimmered high overhead and cast light on everything in view. Even the murky ocean, which had been harsh on the fleet in their travels, glowed with the light of a thousand diamonds. Air passed through freely throughout the ship, and filled Aang with hope.
Whenever he felt this way he could not help thinking of Katara. He knew it was unhealthy, but it was also unstoppable. The emotion bubbled to his mind just as the ocean lapped on their ship. He couldn't help it.
The boy came back from the deck of the ship to the lower sleeping chambers and peeked into the circular window of the room he and Katara were sharing. She hadn't been very fond of the arrangement. Aang snored loudly and boastfully every night, and Katara couldn't really wear what she wanted to wear when the days and the nights were unbearably hot and humid. She envied Aang for the simple pleasure of being able to take his shirt off whenever he wanted to. Likewise, Aang would get up early and Katara usually slept until noon, and Aang envied this lethargic ability. As roommates, they found they were very different people.
But that didn't mean that they didn't enjoy each other. Many nights they stayed up and talked—in very low tones of course—about Sokka's genius plan, and the final showdown with the Fire Lord. This lifeline gave Aang courage. The fear of facing the Fire Lord dwindled almost to nothing, and the fact that the Avatar State was temporarily lost to Aang was no big deal anymore. He grew confident as Katara assured him things would turn out alright. He believed her.
The weather and constant sunlight also took their toll on Aang. His hair had grown to a thick, almost uncombable dark mass. And his pale skin, which in time had grown rough from the salty and harsh winds, was now almost as dark as Katara's. Nothing could prevent his arrow from showing through, however, and his bangs were not yet long enough. Katara promised him a complete makeover when he needed one later on.
Now, though, Aang could not find his friend in their sleeping quarters. He turned away from the room's window, only to come nose to nose to the same person he was looking for.
"Oh!" he exclaimed wildly. "Katara! I didn't know you were up." The boy moved back shyly, still smiling, and rubbed the base of his neck.
"That doesn't give you right to spy, Aang," Katara retorted, making a face. "We land today. You know that I couldn't sleep in and miss this."
She has a point, Aang thought. This was the first time in almost three years that Katara would see her father. Aang could tell she had gotten dressed her best, and added a barely traceable amount of effort into her hair and face. Had Aang known what her mother looked like, he would guess they looked the same. For the first time in a very long time, Katara looked...happy.
Aang couldn't help eying his fellow traveler with a twist of emotions. He wondered if his life would be any different if he had known and lived with his father and mother. But he could not say that he loved his parents, whoever they were. They were long gone...their bones dwindled by the passing of time, and their spirits unconceivable.
Suddenly, a dream the boy had just the previous night rattled his memory. In the nightmare, he had seen nothing but explosions and floating bodies and weapons. Aang squinted, and shook his head.
"I know, you're right," the boy stated, deciding that it would be best not to ruin Katara's good day with his silly nuisances. "I was just...checking to...make sure you weren't going to sleep in again."
Katara laughed and slapped Aang on the shoulder. "Whatever you say. Are you ready for the makeup? We can't afford getting too close to the bay and having people recognize you. The Fire Nation could have already infiltrated it. In case we do come close, I don't want you to look like the Avatar."
Aang looked briefly at the darkened skin tone of his arm and ran his other hand through his hair. "I don't think I look like the Avatar now anyway. More like the love child of a light Water Tribe person and something from the Fire Nation." He paused. "Just a cheap imitation."
Katara frowned at his depressing tone. "I know you don't want to do it, but we have to at least try. I could probably make you darker...and comb your hair back into a ponytail...you know, just enough to give you the slightest hint of Fire Nation royalty. The ships are obviously foreign...but you'll look like an invader."
There was no hope in arguing. Within minutes Katara had already fashioned Aang's hair and face, and given him some red pants and dark Water Tribe fishing boots that looked very similar to Sokka's. There were no red shirts or armors on the ship. Aang had to go shirtless for the best impression, which required the use of more makeup to cover the farmer's tan on his chest.
"You look foreign to me!" the girl assured when the deeds were done. "Even I wouldn't know you from far away." Without warning she pulled him into a tight hug, and ruffled some of the hair puffing out of his ponytail.
The boy looked in the mirror, but the reflection was not recognizable. He was silent.
"What do you think?"
Aang turned his head up and down, and made faces at the reflection. "You're right," he finally said. "Even I wouldn't know myself from far away."
The bay came into view, and a heavy silence shook the frames and crews of the small fleet.
She didn't know what had happened.
The last thing she remembered seeing was a fire. Heavy and dark with smoke, rising and spiraling from a ship similar to one she was riding on. She remebered angry voices, and hateful words erupting from herself.
Screams echoed, and the vessel began shaking back and forth. She couldn't see anything. Total darkness engulfed her in the form of water. And suddenly, just as quickly as she had lost sensation, she lost her bending too.
A voice, far away but definite, kept repeating over and over, "Katara, Katara, Katara, Katara, Katara."
"Katara, wake up."
Something cold and hard hit her on the face, on the arms. Someone is on top of her face, screaming, and beating her.
The background was silent now. The confusion gone. She remembered there was something important about this day, but the total memory has left her...perhaps permanently. She frowned.
"She's moving. Katara, Katara, Katara, Katara."
Her thoughts jumbled and turned and ran into each other. Who was so close to her? The sensation from her waist down was gone. What were they doing? Her heartbeat throbbed loudly.
Fear finally broke through this dark and confused state, and exploded in her chest. She didn't want to get hurt or die, and the simple thought of his was enough to reach her internally.
"Katara, please wake up."
"Katara, Katara, Katara."
There are letters and words that do not reach her. The darkness has faded almost completely. She blinked four times, tried to move her feet and realized she could not, and opened her eyes.
Just as she had seen Aang so close to her face this morning, she saw him again now, only with an expression of worry, pain, and hopelessness on his face, and tears in his eyes.