Tian Du stared into his cup of mulled wine, trying to close out the chatter around him. The bar was packed, full to bursting with celebrating men and women, singing and cheering. Prince Zuko had ascended to the throne, and declared an end to the war that had gripped the world for the last one hundred years. The previous Fire Lord, Ozai, had been defeated by the Avatar, and finally peace was settling across the lands.
One hundred years of war, ended over night. That was rich.
Tian sipped at the sweet drink. The war may be over, but the bitter resentment between nations was now rooted deeply in cultures and societies. One hundred years of conflict, of bitter war, could not be washed away with a single declaration, no matter how well-meaning. There would be no open aggression, but Tian knew that the Fire Nation would need to work very hard over many years to regain the trust of the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes. As for the Air Nomads, well… they were all dead, except for the Avatar. So that, at least, wouldn't pose a problem.
And that was another thing. Balance may have been restored for now, but there were no more air benders. The war had concealed this vacuum, such as it were, but Tian couldn't help but think about the repercussions of such genocide. There were four elements, not three. Would the Avatar go in search of air benders now? Rumour had it that he had begun a relationship with a water bender, one of the few remaining from the Southern Water tribe. Would they travel the world together on that flying bison of his, searching out people with traces of talent in the mastery of air manipulation?
The door banged open. The noise in the bar dipped slightly, as some of the patrons turned to look at the intrusion. Others, too far gone on drink, ignored it. A group of men, dressed in the uniforms of Fire Nation officers, strode into the bar, barging past any revellers that were unfortunate enough to stumble into their path. The leader of the group, an older looking man with greying hair and a long, neatly kept beard leaned on the wooden bar.
"Barkeep!" he shouted, glaring at the man currently serving drinks.
"Be right with you, sir," the stout man responded, sliding neatly down to the army officer. "What can I get you?"
"Information," the officer responded, pulling a sheaf of parchment from his tunic. He unfurled it. Tian, trying to look inconspicuous, stole a glance at the parchment. On it was the picture of a young woman, and a name scrawled below it. The angle made it hard to read, nigh on impossible if he didn't want to be noticed looking. The officer continued. "We are looking for this girl. She escaped from a Fire Nation detention centre last night, and we have reason to suspect she is hiding somewhere in your village."
The barkeep looked closely at the parchment, before straightening and shaking his head. "I can't say that I've seen her, I'm afraid."
A lance of flame licked past the bar owner's face, singing his hair. The noise in the bar dropped completely as the officer grabbed the barkeeper's shirt, pulling him across the bar and slamming him down onto the floor. Fire sprang to his fingertips, and he thrust them below the unfortunate proprietor's chin. The flames turned the barkeeper's skin red as sweat trickled down his face.
"Now, let's try this again," the officer said slowly. "Have. You. Seen. Her." It wasn't a question.
Tian sighed. He put his cup down on the bar, and reached for an abandoned mug of tea, the liquid spilled carelessly on the floor. He felt the weight of it. It should do nicely. Tian stood, his stool scraping across the hard wooden floor.
The barkeeper was trying to shrink back into the floor, away from the burning flames that were blistering his skin. Tian stepped behind the crouched officer, and smashed the heavy mug across the back of his head. The man crumpled, falling on top of the terrified bar owner as shards of clay fell beside him.
The other Fire Nation soldiers turned and glared at Tian, orange tongues of flame dancing to life in their palms. Tian ducked sideways as fire flashed past him, the heat scorching the wall behind him as he dodged. The two soldiers unleashed balls of heated fury at him.
Tian dived under a table, and scrambled frantically to get away. Job done, he thought to himself, you've got their attention. Now run like hell.
He could smell the heat in the air as fire burnt the floor inches behind him. The table top above splintered and blackened like coal as it came under assault. Tian leapt up, sprinting straight for the door, barging through the screaming throng of patrons that were trying to flee the bar. The two soldiers were hot on his heels.
The cool air outside was a wonderful relief to the enflamed heat that now blistered inside the bar. Smoke was already starting to curl out of the building's ground floor windows. He could smell the sharp tang of burning lacquered wood. Apparently, the polished bar top had now caught fire. Peeling away from the screaming crowd, Tian ran a short way down the street as balls of flame roared over his head. He ducked down a side street. The sudden darkness of the night engulfed alley blinded him, and he ran headlong into a wall. Tian turned, dazed, as lights danced in front of his eyes. He ducked behind a barrel as the soldiers looked into the darkness. They moved on, unable to see him in the gloom.
Tian realised he'd been holding his breath. He let it out in a long sigh, slumping back against the wall. That had been far too close. The war may be over, but tensions were still running high. High enough for some people to be on the edge of fighting and killing, at least.
A noise in the darkness made Tian look up. It had been faint, like a breath, or the quiet breeze through an open window, but it was there. His eyes adjusting to the darkness, Tian peered at the other side of the narrow alley. Just there, a shape, darker than the surrounding alley, could be made out. He stood slowly.
"Come on out," he said softly. "I'm not going to hurt you. It's safe."
At first there was no response, but then a quiet, feminine voice said, "Are those soldiers gone?"
Tian peered out around the corner of the alley, then looked back and nodded.
The dark, huddled from stood. She moved closer to the alley mouth, and into the bright light of the full moon above. Her skin seemed pale in the cold moonlight, her dark eyes glancing about nervously as she swept a stray strand of her long hair out of her face. She must have been around seventeen or eighteen. Tian peered at her for a second.
"You're the girl they're looking for."
She froze, staring at him. "What…I…"
He laughed. "Don't worry, I'm not going to turn you in. For all I care, those Fire Nation dogs can go hunt somewhere else all night." She seemed to stiffen slightly at that, but then she relaxed. He stretched out a hand. "I'm Tian Du. It's nice to meet you."
She hesitated for a moment, glancing at his face, then gently took his hand in hers in greeting. "My name is Fei Zhan."
Tian nodded, retracting his hand. He walked out into the main street, checking again that the soldiers had gone. He motioned to Fei that the coast was clear, and she followed him tentatively out into the street. They walked in the opposite direction the soldiers had gone, back towards the now flaming bar and through the throng of people gathered outside.
"So, why were they after you?" Tian asked. Fei glanced at him, reaching a hand up to sweep away another strand of hair.
"I…" she paused, her lip trembling slightly, before saying "I'd rather not say."
Tian nodded. "Fair enough, that's up to you. What brings you to this forgotten island of the Fire Nation?" Fei again stayed quiet. "Oh, I guess that might tie in to why they're chasing you, huh?" The girl just nodded in response. "Well then, I…" Tian stopped suddenly, his face becoming pale as he stared straight ahead. Fei followed his gaze.
An armed squad of Fire Nation soldiers were marching toward them. Fei's eyes glanced around, looking for a route of retreat. The building around this end of the street were all tightly packed together, no handy alleyways to duck down. Fei looked behind her, to see another group of soldiers at the end of the street, immobile, watching.
One of the soldiers of the first group stepped forward. "Fei Zhan, you are to come with us. You are under arrest. Resist, and your fate will be…" the officer paused, a smile creeping across his face. "Unpleasant."
Fei shrank back, instinctively gripping Tian's arm in fear. He looked at her carefully, judging her, weighing up his options. He could leave her to the tender mercies of the Fire Nation's finest, which would likely be imprisonment, torture, or worse. He mentally shook his head. He couldn't leave her to them. At this point, he didn't care why they wanted her, he wasn't going to let these scum do what they pleased.
"Fei," he whispered, "I'm going to help you escape, but I want an explanation later. Now stay behind me." Fei just nodded.
Tian looked coolly ahead as Fei stepped behind him. "You look like a reasonable man," he began, planting his feet firmly on the ground. "Can't we just discuss this, and then we can all be on our way?"
The officer glared at him. "Shut your mouth, idiot. You have no idea what you're dealing with."
"Neither do you," Tian responded sharply. "I know what you are. You're just a thug, clinging to the old ways of war. I bet you're one of the few officers still loyal to the disgraced Ozai, right?"
"Fire Lord Ozai was a great man, not like his snotling kid Zuko!" the officer roared back.
Great, so he's one of the ones who wants the Fire Nation to go back to glorious war, Tian thought sourly. Of all the luck. Zuko really should have weeded them out before declaring an end to the war…
The officer stepped forward, thrusting his hand out. Flame shot from his palm in a deadly ball, hurtling directly at Tian. Tian grunted, stamping his feet deep into the ground and raised his hands upwards. The street cracked in front of him, and heavy rock rose up in a wall. The fireball burst against the cold stone, streaks of yellow flame flashing either side. He glanced back at Fei, who stared at him wide eyed.
"Are you alright?" he asked. She just nodded. He smiled at her, then turned back to the task at hand.
Muscles straining, Tian thrust his hands deep inside the rock wall. Roaring with effort, he lifted the great rock, and hurled it at the fire bender. The soldiers scattered as the boulder dropped amongst them, kicking up clouds of dust and dirt. The officer screamed profanities as he hurled more fireballs at Tian, which were blocked by more walls of rock. Tian grit his teeth, and stamped down hard. A huge crack spread up the street, opening into a crevice. One unfortunate soldier fell in, and became trapped up to his waist.
A solider leapt forward, aiming a fiery punch at Tian's heart. The earth bender leant back as the flaming fist passed just over his head, the heat singing his face. He kicked out, catching the masked soldier in the stomach, sending him staggering. Tian straightened quickly. A column of stone rose from the ground in front of him, and he placed his palm flat against the top. He thrust forward, sending a thin disc of solid rock spinning through the air. The fire bender smashed it aside, screaming in anger. Tian launched disc after disc at him, each one knocked aside. He finally punched forward hard, sending the entire column of stone toppling onto the soldier and pinning him to the ground.
Tian turned quickly, remembering the rest of the soldiers and their officer. His eyes widened in horror as a huge torrent of flame streaked toward him, a whirling vortex of flickering heat. Tian hunched his shoulder, pouring every ounce of his energy into calling up thick wall of rock. It speared ten feet into the air, just as the deadly flame collided with it. Stone blacked and cracked as the unrelenting heat poured against it like liquid. Tian groaned, sweating, as he struggled to raise more earth and stone. The heat was searing the air. He could feel it burning in his lungs.
His brown hair was matted to his head with sweat. Tian grunted with exertion, pushing his palms against the rock. He grunted, his feet crunching down into the street as he started walking forwards. "Stay close!" he grunted urgently to Fei. She was glancing fearfully at him, casting looks back down the street at the fire benders advancing behind them. They were taking their time, aware of the fearsome power of the earth bender ahead.
Fire and flame burst against the moving wall of stone as Tian strained harder, advancing closer to the fire benders ahead. With a huge heave, he sent the solid rock crashing forwards, knocking them aside. He panted heavily, turning to Fei.
"Come on, let's go!" he cried, grabbing her wrist and pulling her along.
"Stupid fool!" a harsh voice screamed. Tian turned, seeing the officer running at him, a dagger of flame jutting from his fist.
Tian crossed his arms in front of himself as earth swept up his legs and over his body, encasing him in armour of living rock. The dagger of flame flickered to embers as the officer's fist crunched into Tian's stone covered chest. Knuckles cracked, and the officer cried out as Tian smashed a heavy fist against his head, sending the fire bender sailing into a wall. The rest of the soldiers, already weary and bruised from the minor earthquake and two giant rocks pounding them, decided to stay where they were.
The rock armour dropped away from Tian's body. "I think we should leave before they change their minds," he said quietly to Fei.
They ran quickly along the street, heading for the harbour, not daring to look back. Tian looked around desperately, and then spotted what he was looking for. Fei followed him as he ran down a wooden pier, stopping at a fishing boat.
"Get on!" he urged as he began untying the mooring lines.
Fei leapt onto the boat. The wooden deck creaked beneath her weight. Tian finished loosening the lines, and pushed the boat out into the harbour proper. He set to work unfurling the small, triangular sail, and steered the boat out to sea, and away from the town.
As the small boat sailed out into the night, Tian felt weary. He hadn't had to do earth bending like that for a while. His muscles ached, and his lungs burned. He sat heavily on the single wooden bench on the boat, breathing deeply. Tian looked at Fei, smiling.
"You keep the most interesting company," he said.
She smiled in response, then glanced back at the town receding in the distance. The inn was apparently still burning, casting a dull orange hue into the night sky behind them. "Thank you," she said softly.
Tian nodded. "You're welcome. Now go get some sleep. You can take the cabin," he said, indicating the low-roofed structure at the end of the boat. Fei smiled at him again, and ducked into the cabin and out of sight.
Tian sighed wearily, and shuddered to himself. The fight with the fire benders had been a scary ordeal. Now the adrenaline was wearing off, he felt cold and empty and sick. He stared up at the full moon, suddenly wishing he was home.
But home was very, very far away.