Book Four: Air
Chapter One: Appa's Last Days
Appa whined under the strain of the flight, the Flying Bison seemed the have been having some serious trouble carrying himself, let alone others, recently. Aang pretended not to notice, giving him the same cheery encouragement he always had, but inside he was worried; Appa meant so much to him, not only as his friend and his pet, but also as one of his few remaining links to the past... to his childhood. Aang was on his way, as the Avatar, to mediate a petty dispute over land in the Earth Kingdom. Despite Zuko having ordered the Fire Nation military disbanded until further notice and recalled all troops the the homeland, many of the soldiers remained loyal to the ideals of Fire Lord Ozai and chose to remain in control of some of the smaller and in theory unnoticed settlements. His mind should have been on the task at hand, but he couldn't shake the feeling that Appa was ill and needed to rest, so he had decided to detour to Gaoling on his way to the settlement to give him some rest. Although it may have seemed selfish, the twelve year old Avatar reasoned that the renegade soldiers had been AWOL and in control for three months, and that another day or two would make no difference when weighed up against the wellbeing of the last Flying Bison.
Aang pondered places he could stop off and eventually decided that he could probably get away with visiting the Bei Fong estate to see his friend Toph and allowing Appa to rest at the same time, and mentally patted himself on the back for his percieved intelligence on the matter. He had been meditating at the Southern Air Temple for a full week with only Appa for company until he recieved a message deilvered by "Hawky", a Messenger Hawk that had previously been owned by Sokka, now among the legions of messengers in Fire Lord Zuko's service. "Hawky" was the only Messenger Hawk that could successfully find Aang wherever he was in the world, and this was handy, because Aang did like to spontaniously travel, not least because of his role as the Avatar. The message had been quite short and to the point:
TERRA ISLAND STILL UNDER CONTROL OF AWOL SOLDIERS
PLEASE DO WHATEVER YOU CAN
Aang didn't think it strange that it had been May who wrote the letter and not Zuko, after all he was busy in his new role as Fire Lord, and it was well within May's duties as Fire Lady to assist in what were essensially "border disputes". Unfortunately Aang couldn't help but think that Zuko had been kept out of the loop as far as how bad things actually were; he imagined that May had been dealing with the insurrectionists in secret while letting him go about his daily life believing all to be well. The last Airbender smiled at this; thinking of what May was doing to make Zuko's life easier made Aang think of what Katara was doing for him. Following the defeat of Fire Lord Ozai, Katara and Sokka had reunited the Northern and Southern Water Tribes under a shared banner, and had taken over psuedo-leadership as they were hailed as war heroes. It made it more difficult to see Katara when he was travelling, but also meant that he had peace of mind knowing that even though the Earth Kingdom may be having issues dealing with the end of the war, the Water Tribes were safe and prosperous once more. Once the world was in balance, truly in balance, once more, Aang intended to ask for Katara's hand in marriage and to move into the Northern Air Temple so that he can be as close as possible to her while remaining casually contactable by all those who may need his help.
He shook himself from his daydreams; this was no time to be thinking about the future, but rather it was time to worry about what was happening to the world at present. In truth, he knew, that the turmoil the world was suffering now was the expected backlash from the end of the longest war in the Four Nations' history, and that it was inevitable, but also that it would eventually pass. He prayed for that day to come quickly, and wished silently for an end to all the fighting. If he was honest with himself, he never wanted to have to enter the Avatar State again for anything that didn't involve stopping some kind of unavoidable natural disaster or the likes.
It took a lot longer than he was used to when travelling on Appa (but he chose not to comment), but eventually Aang arrived at Gaoling. Rather than hiding Appa as he would have had to do the same time the previous year, he went ahead and landed in the small green behind the Bei Fong mansion, and waited until guards came to inspect the visitor before dismounting and asking casually "Is Toph around?". There was a rumble, like a small localised earthquake starting somewhere nearby, and a moment later a crevice appeared right where Aang was standing, swallowing him whole and closing behind him, leaving only his head aboveground. The sound of bare feet against the earth echoed in the silent courtyard as Toph casually, yet triumphantly, walked over to the shamed Avatar, knelt down, and jabbed him playfully on the nose.
"You've gotten sloppy, Twinkle Toes."
There was a moment after Toph stood back up where the earth seemed to shift, but it passed as quickly as it came so she paid it no heed and continued to mock.
"I can't believe a shrimp like you actually managed to beat Ozai..."
Aang's face panged with disappointment, and for a moment Toph felt sorry for him, fearing that she had touched a nerve somehow with what she had said, even though there was no truth behind it. But she could feel his heart beating faster in the earth under her feet, not slower as though he were upset. There was a moment of hesitation, and then she understood what was going on. She realised what was happening a moment too late, turning only just in time to see the water from the lake behind her cover her completely and freeze solid around her, locking her shocked expression in place. Aang had swiftly and silently Earthbended the ground away from him enough so that he could move his arms freely, and had then proceeded to bend the water from the lake and freeze it around her before she could act. For all her jeering, the last thing Aang had gotten was sloppy. He jumped out of the hole he was half-buried in and covered it over with a tap of his foot on the ground, then decided to take the time to show Toph how "sloppy" she was. He melted the ice encasing his young friend with a cheery wave of his hand and laughed as the massive body of water fell all around her, soaking her from head to toe and waterlogging the garden almost beyond repair.
The joke over, the two cleaned up and went inside, talking about the time they'd been apart. Toph had done very little in fact; she had come home and taken up teaching the local children how to Earthbend, but other than that she had gone back to being the little girl of the Bei Fong family who spent all of her time couped up indoors. She insisted when quizzed that this had nothing to do with her family's disdain for her travelling around the world without their consent, but rather a choice made by her to get a little "me" time for a while. In truth, it was more of a mixture of the two; when she had come home her parents had told her how proud they were that thier little girl had grown so much... so strong. It was this that made her want to make them happy, so she had done as she had originally been told and made do with her life on the estate. Of course she had no intention of staying there permentantly, but she enjoyed seeing the smiles on her mother and father's faces for the time being, all the same.
Toph could tell that Appa was ill, but she decided not to be the one to bring it up, and instead began talking about all of their distant friends. Katara and Sokka had remained with the North and South Water Tribes respectively, both of them as heads of the tribes in an apparent sense rather than an actual one (both of them being too young to truly lead the tribes in all aspects). Zuko and May were the Fire Lord and Fire Lady, obviously, so time spent with them was rare at best, although if Aang felt like going and visiting he only needed to claim it was on "Avatar Business" and he would cut to the front of his schedule at any time. Suki, Ty Lee, and the other Kyoshi Warriors had returned to the Kyoshi Island to protect it as they always had and to get back to what they considered to be normal life. Toph, clearly, had gone home after the war ended to be with her family. Iroh had returned to Ba Sing Sae to reopen his tea shop, and the other White Lotus members had returned to their "Old People" lives. The conversation made Aang think of Bumi, who he had seen at Zuko's corronation, and he made a mental note to visit as soon as the issue on Terra Island was resolved.
Toph tired of the line of conversation fairly quickly after this and came out and said what she had been holding on to:
"Appa's dying, Aang."
It was matter-of-factly and to anyone but Aang, Katara, or Sokka it would have seemed cold, but it was Toph's way... and most importantly, she was right. Toph knew because she could feel his raspiness and the weakness of his internal organs just as she felt everything else in the ground as she stood nearby to him when Aang had first arrived, and she knew that, since he had ridden on him all the way to the estate, Aang knew the reality as well. He had come to see Toph so she could tell him he was wrong. But he was, unfortunately, all-too right on this account.
"Appa can't die. He's the last of his kind."
Aang spoke with such conviction, even though he knew it wasn't true; Appa had been old, the boy didn't know how old, when he was frozen in the iceberg with him. One hundred years in an iceberg hadn't done much to dull Aang's personality or harmed Momo, but silently, it had taken its toll on Appa's large body. Over the past year and a half Appa had gone through a lot, and at last it looked like the Flying Bison, having given and given and given all the time he was needed by the Four Nations to look after the adolescent Avatar, was ready to rest. Questions raced through Aangs mind, from the downright selfish, to the genuinely confused. What would the world do without Flying Bisons, the original Airbenders? How would Aang get around without him? What would Momo do without his companion and how will he react when he realises he's dead? Why was the world so unfair? He voiced none of these questions, and instead just bowed his head to Toph as a sign of thanks for the somewhat down to earth approach she had taken with his denial, turned, and walked off into the gardens of Toph's family's estate to be alone for a while. Toph let him go, deciding instead to go and be with Appa, sure that he didn't actually have very long left at all, and somewhat worried that Aang would still be in pieces when he eventually did die.
The Avatar found himself sitting at the far southeastern corner of the estate among the trees, out of sight of the guards, Toph, and her family... crying quietly to himself. Even with the knowledge that he had all of his friends to hand if he needed them, that he could call on any of his past lives for guideance at any time, he could not stand the thought of loosing Appa, nor could he accept that it was going to happen. He'd seen alot of death in the year and a half that had passed since he was found in the iceberg at the South Pole, but never so close to home as this; it scared him more than anything had, perhaps even more than the time he found out he was the Avatar one hundred years previously. He sat there for a while, and was just beginning to get a hold on his feelings when he heard a roar; the roar of an angry, injured Flying Bison, and was pulled to his feet entirely by instinct, paying no heed to what may have made his pet and his friend to cause such a noise, only to the journey from where Aang was to where Appa was.
He covered the distance in a single jump, but it took him a moment to realise what was going on. A moment too long. There were in excess of twenty ex-Fire Nation soldiers standing around Appa, standing in stances that showed their hostility. The message was clear; if Aang moved a muscle, his pet would pay for it. The Avatar had no intention of antagonising the group, and simply raised his hands into the air in submission, and waited patiently as the apparent leader walked over and examined him.
"So this is the Avatar..." The woman had blonde hair and beautiful yet cold features, and reminded Aang scarily of Azula in the aura she gave off. Aang gave her a look that seemed to scream "Why are you doing this", and as if in answer to his unasked question, she put lowered herself to his level, put her head against his next to his ear, and whispered:
"The girl and the beast are our insurance that you won't be coming to Terra anytime soon." She pulled away and smiled at him before adding, louder: "I'm sure you realise what will happen if you feel some great need to interfere..." To illustrate her point she pulled a throwing knife from her belt, waved her hand over it to cover it in flames, and threw it at the Bei Fong guard closest to Appa. The knife hit the unexpecting guard right in the jugular vein and he was dead before he even hit the ground, as the flames roared over him to finish the job the blade began. Without stopping to guage the boy's reaction to this, the woman gestured to the soldiers to move away, two of them riding the now-shackled Flying Bison out of the estate, and with Toph nowhere to be seen. Many of the soldiers simply jumped away, propelled by fire as if they were flying, but the woman instead chose to casually walk out of the front gate, blasting the wrought iron gates off the hinges with an effortless wave of her arm that tore them down them with concussive flames. She turned to the stunned Avatar and waved, offering another smile and a goodbye before disappearing with the others:
"See you around, Kiddo."
Aang dropped to his knees; he was at even more of a loss now than before, and had no idea what he could do to make it right. Who was the woman leading the troops and why did she remind him so much of Azula, Zuko's insane younger sister? How had the soldiers known where he would be? How could he now possibly get Toph and Appa back all alone, when their lives were at stake if he intervened? What was the young Avatar to do...?
To Be Continued...
Next Time, Chapter Two: A Mother's Love
Zuko, the new Fire Lord, finds himself before his father, Ozai, asking him about his mother's banishment. Where will this line of questioning lead him? Meanwhile, Aang does everything he can think of to save Toph and Appa without endangering their lives...
To be honest I'm not too happy with this; it sounded better in my head. Hopefully things will improve as this continues. I have the whole story mapped out, but it's all subject to change, so I'll probably come back over the next few weeks and change bits and pieces as I go. Hope people like it more than I do!