Author's Notes (11-16-08): This is a slightly edited and extended version of a story I originally started posting on Avatarspirit. You can find the most current chapters on ASN and eventually I'll be showcasing Book Four fanart on my dA account (any artists out there? ;D). Check out my profile for more information and links!
Credits: Big thanks to my sister, Elin, and Leona for betaing and to the ASN people for their constructive comments and advice - particularly Tophsmygirl (my official pimp) and VoodooWeasel/AvocadoLove.
Disclaimer: Avatar belongs to other people. This story was written for fun, not profit.
"Water, Earth, Fire, Air. We believed we'd saved the world by defeating Ozai and ending the war. But as the dust settled, new conflicts arose. And that was just the beginning...
"One hundred years of war had left the nations torn and divided. It was in Ba Sing Se, the great Earth Kingdom capital, that representatives from the Three Nations gathered to talk of Peace.
"My friends and I were hailed as heroes and we worked tirelessly to help bridge the gaps between our nations. A few weeks had passed since the end of the war but it was impossible to say if our efforts were making a difference…
"And although Aang never talked about it, I could tell he was worried about the future; not just of the nations, but of the Avatar as well. Once he was gone, how would the next Avatar learn airbending? Was the cycle broken?
"As summer drew to a close, we faced the changing winds of fall; the Season of Air, the season of peace... I've come to realize something: No matter what may change, the world will always need the Avatar."
His crutch made a light tapping noise against the stone street as Sokka made his way home to Team Avatar's permanent Ba Sing Se accommodations. After Zuko's coronation, the group had come to visit the newly liberated city. Officially, they were there to open up political ties between the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation. Unofficially, they were there to relax and enjoy Iroh's recently reopened tea shop, the Jasmine Dragon.
Sokka didn't claim to know much about tea, but thoughts of a warm bed or a hot cup of Iroh's finest were the only things keeping him on his feet. He stifled a yawn and caught a friendly yet totally unexpected pat on the shoulder that nearly sent him toppling, unbalanced as he was with one good leg and a single crutch.
"Sorry." Zuko's voice was rough with apology and Sokka couldn't help but find it strange to hear something like compassion coming from his old enemy.
"It's fine," Sokka assured him, regaining his balance. "I'm just tired." Tired was an understatement, but Sokka wasn't about to voice his complaints of the day.
"Me too," Zuko agreed, and something in his tone implied he knew exactly how Sokka was feeling. A semi-awkward silence ensued as the two continued on their way. Zuko cleared his throat. "Don't let today get to you. You're doing great work in there."
"Compliments and apologies?" Sokka teased, deflecting the issue. "Who are you and what did you do with the old Fire Lord?"
"Ha ha," Zuko replied dryly.
"Hey, y'know, don't be afraid to really laugh when something's funny. That was a good joke."
Zuko eyed him skeptically. "It was?"
"Absolutely." Sokka counted off the finer points of comedy with his free hand. "It had perfect timing, perfect execution, perfect inflection, and if you consider the circumstances, what with you being the new Fire Lord and your dad being all evil and..." His crutch struck the edge of a slightly raised block in the path and before Zuko could catch him, he face-planted into the street.
Zuko's burst of laughter was genuine but Sokka wasn't about to congratulate him on a lesson learned.
"Stupid rock!" Sokka kicked back at the offending stone without thinking and spent the next five seconds rolling on his back, gripping his leg and trying to keep his eyes from watering. "Ow ow ow! Stupid, stupid rock! Stupid city full of stupid rocks!"
"Well this is the Earth Kingdom," Zuko laughed. "What do you expect?"
"I expect a little gratitude!" Sokka sat up slowly and held his leg to his chest protectively. "I saved your life, rocks!" He glowered and pointed accusingly at the stones. "If it weren't for me you'd be ash right now."
"I'm sure they're very grateful." Zuko held out his hand. "Can we go now before anyone sees a respected war hero and the Fire Lord acting like a couple of crazy kids?"
"That probably wouldn't help our negotiations with the Peace Council," Sokka agreed reluctantly, souring at the thought of pompous nobles, ridiculous demands, and rampant arrogance. He sighed and straightened his leg, wincing as he recalled the events of the day.
"Maybe you should have your sister take a look at it... She really helped with my wounds."
"My leg's healing fine," Sokka informed him curtly. "I could go without the crutch right now if I wanted, but that's not what's on my mind." He leaned back, staring up at the cloudless night sky. The moon was a mere crescent, its light casting a soft glow over the sprawling city. "I messed up today, didn't I?"
Zuko stared up at the moon to avoid making eye-contact, his mouth set in a thin line.
Sokka frowned. "I knew it."
Zuko sighed and sat down in the street, facing him. The moonlight gleamed against the white of his skin, contrasting starkly with the darkness of his scar. "Not everyone was born to be a diplomat. Maybe you should consider yourself lucky?"
"I can whip up a battle plan in five minutes, but ask me to help negotiate peace and I flop. What does that say about me?"
"Hey, my first council meeting wasn't exactly a success." Zuko pointed to his scar. "It takes time."
"I'm not so sure. My whole life I've thought about pretty much three things; food, girls, and defeating the Fire Nation." He paused, rubbing his chin. "Not necessarily in that order."
Zuko shrugged. "How do you think I feel? I'm answering for the crimes of my father and my father's father, and his father before him; one hundred years of cruelty and tyranny..." He stood up and pretended to address the Peace Council. "Hey, Fire Lord Zuko, here. Sorry about the mess."
Sokka snorted appreciatively. "Yeah, that's rough."
"No matter what I say or do, it's not enough to please everyone."
"Well at least you didn't suggest that the nobility of the Three Nations donate half their wealth to rebuilding..."
They both cringed.
"That did not go over well. You might as well have suggested they give up their rights and titles and become normal citizens."
"I was going to," Sokka grumbled. "It's not like it would be such a bad thing. All the division between people is what started the war in the first place. And now we sit around all day arguing about who's got it the worst, and the worst part is, the people who really got hurt by the war don't have anyone there to stand up for them."
"Not true," Zuko said. "They've got us."
"Well, talking isn't getting us anywhere."
Zuko smirked at the irony and held out his hand. "C'mon."
Katara and Suki didn't look up from their game of Pai Sho when Zuko and Sokka returned. Toph was sprawled on the floor with Momo curled up on top of her, both fast asleep.
"Welcome back," Katara said off-handedly, contemplating her next move. Suki had her on the defensive, but she wasn't planning on going down without a fight.
Zuko hung up their councilor robes and leaned Sokka's crutch against the wall while Sokka grunted in reply and limped past their table. Suki watched him go by. "No crutch, tough guy?"
Sokka went to the crude drawing he'd pinned to the wall to commemorate their happy memories of victory. He took it down, crumpling it. Katara tore herself from the game and gave her brother a look of dry amusement. "Well hello there, Mr. Grumpy Pants. Haven't seen you in a while, how you been?"
Toph stirred, upsetting Momo's position. The flying lemur jumped on the table, scattering Suki's captured Pai Sho tiles.
Sokka glared as he continued crumpling his drawing. "You know that euphoria we've all been feeling since Aang defeated Ozai?"
"Mine's gone now."
"Aww." Suki made a game winning move and then gave her undivided attention. "Did something happen?"
"I don't wanna talk about it."
Zuko came over, removing his Fire Lord clip and shaking his hair loose. "He just made a fool of himself in front of the leaders of the free world, no biggie."
Sokka threw up his arms in disgust. "This was all fun at first!"
Katara raised an eyebrow. "You mean when they were holding banquets in our honor every night?"
Katara rolled her eyes.
Sokka made a dismissive gesture with his hands. "Whatever. Where's Aang? 'Cuz I'm saddling up Appa and yip yipping outta here tonight. You with me, Momo?" Momo jumped on his head, curling his tail around his forehead like a fuzzy crown.
Katara sighed, used to her brother's antics. "Sokka, relax. You're tired and cranky. Everything will look better in the morning."
"I'm not cranky!"
A gust of wind heralded the arrival of the single most powerful person in the world. An orange blur spiraled through the window and rolled to his feet, staff in hand. Aang tossed off his ceremonial Avatar robes and blew them away with airbending, stripping down to his usual outfit.
Toph yawned. "Nice entrance, Twinkle Toes."
"Gah! I'm sick of Ba Sing Se!" If Aang had had hair, he would have been pulling it in frustration. "Really really sick of it."
Sokka couldn't help but notice Katara's look of genuine concern. She caught Aang's robes before they hit the floor. "What happened, Aang?"
"It's what's NOT happening that's irritating me!"
Sokka rounded on his sister. "See? Even Aang agrees with me."
"Hush Sokka, this is different. Aang probably has good reason to feel the way he does."
"I have good reasons," Sokka replied defensively, "just because I didn't share them."
Aang turned to face the young water tribe warrior. "Sokka... I heard what happened today at the Peace Council."
Sokka gulped. "I can explain..."
"You don't need to. I agree with you. The wealthy people are being unreasonable. There are hundreds and thousands of refugees in the city who want to go home and rebuild their old lives, but the Peace Council is more concerned with stupid stuff like deciding who's going to pay for repairs to the Earth King's Palace. Which is ridiculous since the Earth King is still missing and nobody can even decide who's supposed to be in charge!" Aang finished his rant, huffing. He took a deep calming breath and straightened up. "We're wasting our time here." He turned away from his friends and looked out the window, adding in a slightly softer voice, "I'm wasting my time here."
Katara went toward him, but before she could think of something encouraging to say, Aang jumped in surprise and slid behind her, using her body as a shield.
"Aang, what the...?"
The door opened before she could finish her question. Former liaison and one time bureaucratic leader of Occupied Ba Sing Se, Joo Dee, stepped into their living quarters unannounced and uninvited. Her smile was still the same, even though Long Feng's brainwashing had been largely undone. "Avatar Aang," she addressed Katara, easily spotting the slightly smaller figure of the young monk. "You left so suddenly; we had to postpone the meeting until the morning."
Aang stepped out to face the order-crazed woman. "I'm not going back to your meetings. In fact, we've decided to leave Ba Sing Se." Aang glanced at Katara and when she didn't object he added, "Tomorrow, first light."
Toph sat up, fully awake. "We're leaving? Excellent!"
Sokka put his arm around Suki, grinning smugly and tossing a thumbs-up to Zuko who leaned back against the wall, watching in contemplative silence. Momo jumped from Sokka to Aang, excited.
"You mustn't!" Joo Dee was shocked. "We've been planning the festival in your honor. It would be a great disservice to the Peace Council and the Three Nations' Dignitaries if you were to leave."
"I'm sure you'll think of something appropriate to say to them," Sokka joked.
"But you don't understand. This festival is to commemorate not only the end of the war, but also the rise of the world's newest young leaders."
"We get it." Toph dug in her ear, flicking away a piece of ear wax. "You want to throw us more parties. It's flattering, but there are better uses for our time."
Joo Dee sighed. "I was supposed to keep this a secret until the festival, but you leave me no choice. You see, by popular vote of the Peace Council and representatives of the Three Nations, each of you is to be given a title more befitting your status as Heroes of the New World."
Sokka raised an eyebrow. "Titles? Last I checked it was you people who keep reminding Katara and me that we're just Water Tribe peasants."
"That's exactly the point!" Joo Dee gained momentum and her smile broadened. "Your father has been officially recognized by the Council as Chieftain of the Southern Water Tribe."
Sokka shrugged. "Dad's always been the Chief. It's pretty much an honorary title."
"But don't you see? Like the Northern Water Tribe, your tribe has been acknowledged by the other nations. Rule of the South will be passed down your family line for all time."
"Wait." Katara shot a look at her brother, seeing her surprise mirrored on his face. "Are you saying...? Sokka and I are going to be prince and princess of the Southern Water Tribe?"
"That is correct, Princess Katara." Joo Dee inclined her head respectfully. Aang's jaw dropped and the rest of the group stood dumbfounded. "Not to mention, the Bei Fong family has been granted nobility. Your parents will arrive tomorrow for the festivities, Lady Toph."
Toph sputtered, "My parents??"
Sokka recovered from his shock enough to laugh, "Lady Toph, that's a good one."
Toph glared in no particular direction. "Keep laughing, Prince Sokka. At least I had the proper upbringing to pull it off."
"Prince Sokka." Suki squeezed his waist. "I kinda like the sound of it."
Sokka set his jaw stubbornly. "I don't."
Joo Dee turned to appraise him. "You've been given a great honor."
"I've been given nothing."
Joo Dee's smile didn't falter, but something in her expression cooled. "Commander Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors have been assigned the position of Honor Guard for the Peace Council. And of course, Avatar Aang could be given no higher honor and no higher respect than he already enjoys."
Zuko stepped forward from his place against the wall and Joo Dee turned to him slowly.
"Thank you, Administrator. We will remain in Ba Sing Se for one more day. I recommend you rush the preparations for the festival if you want us to attend." It was an obvious dismissal, but Joo Dee only smiled. Zuko narrowed his eyes, the scar tissue pulling at the left side of his face. "You're dismissed."
The woman bowed and backed out of the house, closing the door behind her silently. A collective shudder ran through the group.
"She still gives me the creeps," Sokka said, sliding his arm from around Suki's shoulders and making his way toward the Pai Sho table and the sleeping quarters beyond. He paused, glancing at the game. "Nice, Katara."
Katara sighed. "I know. It's the third game in a row I've lost to Suki."
"Not so." He smirked. "You've got her in three moves."
Suki turned her chair, straddling it and staring at the board intently. "Not possible. I've practically won."
"You wanna put your money where your mouth is, Commander Suki?"
Suki laughed. "You're on, your highness."
Sokka cracked his knuckles and took Katara's seat, Katara crowding close to watch the game. Zuko glanced at Aang, who seemed lost in thought, absently scratching Momo behind the ears. They both had more than enough on their minds, but Zuko had to add one more concern to his growing list. Joo Dee's behavior toward him had been even colder than usual.
The game lasted all of five minutes.
"I don't believe it." Suki blinked in disbelief, impressed in spite of herself. "You've been practicing with General Iroh, haven't you?"
Sokka leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. "And Master Piandao." He yawned and stretched. "Sleepy time." He got to his feet but slipped on one of Momo's scattered tiles, barely catching himself on the edge of the table.
Suki went to his side and slid under his arm. "Ok, see, that's why people with broken legs usually use some sort of support. Like the perfectly good crutch by the door."
"I've got all the support I need right here." He smiled and Suki felt her own knees go weak.
Toph gagged. "Get a room."
"Great idea, Toph." Sokka steered himself and Suki toward the sleeping quarters.
The blind earthbender called after them, "Preferably in a different district!"
Zuko looked at Katara. "I think I just figured out why he doesn't want you to heal him."
The sun had barely risen when Aang awoke to the sound of someone knocking on their front door. Groggy, but not altogether surprised, he opened it to find a small army of personal attendants and the Earth King's royal outfitters.
He rubbed at his eye. "Can I help you?"
The attendants bowed in unison and their supervisor stepped forward. "No, Avatar Aang, we are here to help you." The group pushed past Aang and started setting up.
Katara came from the sleeping quarters, dressed in her pajamas and looking half asleep. "Aang, did I hear someone knock?" She blinked and looked at the invasion force setting up a siege in their living room. Their weapons included pins and scissors, bolts of expensive silk fabric, breakfast, and grooming supplies, but somehow it was no less threatening. Katara put her hands on her hips. "Did Sokka order room service again?"
Aang whispered across the room, "I think Joo Dee sent them."
The supervisor bowed low to Katara. "We are here to help you prepare for the festivities, Princess Katara."
Katara blushed and stammered, "Uh, well, um, I guess that's ok."
"The Peace Council wants you to look your best for the Festival. Dignitaries from all over the world have come to pay their respects. It is our honor to assist you this fine day."
"Um, thanks?" Katara looked at Aang who shrugged. He'd become too used to the Earth Kingdom's tendency to overdo ceremony. One more reason he was ready to leave.
The supervisor smiled from Aang to Katara, eerily reminiscent of Joo Dee. There was a distinct possibility that she had been similarly brainwashed. "Are the others still asleep?"
"Well, Zuko and Mai are at General Iroh's place," Aang began.
The woman sniffed haughtily. "I'm sure the Fire Lord has his own retainers." She snapped her fingers and three attendants disappeared down the hallway. Sokka's yelp of surprise would have been funny under any other circumstance. They dragged him out, wrapped in his blanket. Suki came quietly, but Toph had metalbended the lock on her door and the attendant was still pounding, asking her politely to come out.
"Wuz goin' on?" Sokka's early morning eloquence was somewhat lacking. Before Katara could explain he noticed the tray of breakfast food, perking up instantly. "Ooo, bacon." Momo jumped up out of nowhere and joined him stuffing his face.
Suki ruffled his hair affectionately. "Sometimes I'm jealous of your simplicity."
"You gonna let her talk about you like that, Momo?"
Momo chittered away at Suki while Sokka resumed stuffing face. The attendants, obviously unaccustomed to Sokka's eating rituals watched with mild looks of horror and shock.
The supervisor turned to Katara. "Is he planning on doing this at the banquet tonight?"
"I don't think he plans his meals that far ahead."
Aang laughed. "You'd be surprised, Katara."
She slapped her forehead comically. "You're right. What am I saying?" The group shared in a laugh while the attendants' looks of horror deepened. If they thought it couldn't get any worse, they were sadly mistaken when Toph finally made her appearance. Hair wild and covered in dirt, she was every personal groomer's worst nightmare.
They rolled up their sleeves, putting Team Avatar on alert. The supervisor gave her troops an encouraging nod, "Alright ladies, let's get started."
Zuko was still staring in shock. "You guys look... um..." he turned to his girlfriend for help, but Mai was holding back her thoughts. "Good...?"
"Really?" Aang asked, looking down at his ridiculously extravagant new Avatar robes.
"He's lying," Mai replied. "You look like a bunch of circus performers."
"I thought your best friend used to be a circus performer?" Katara asked coolly.
"Then I guess you could consider me an expert."
Sokka threw off his not quite authentic polar bear headdress. The Earth Kingdom had an interesting idea of what traditional Water Tribe apparel looked like, and Sokka was sweating buckets under the bulky layers of fur. "This is getting out of hand. I am NOT jumping through any more of their flaming hoops."
"It's a good thing," Mai said dryly. "You'd probably catch fire."
Zuko was trying to come up with a way to defuse the situation when his uncle arrived with his tea things. Iroh's eyes widened at the sight of them, but he quickly covered his surprise. "My, doesn't everyone look regal? It seems the Earth Kingdom is finally taking you all seriously."
Sokka looked unconvinced. "Is that supposed to be a joke?"
Iroh winked. "It could be. But at the very least, you should all make very strong impressions."
Katara's shoulders slumped. "Or very wrong impressions." She pointed at Sokka. "The Southern Water Tribe doesn't wear nearly that many animal skins, and there's no way I'd survive five minutes in the South Pole dressed like this." She held her hands to the side so they could all get a view of her outfit, or rather, her lack of outfit. A few pieces of strategically placed animal hides covered her important parts, and a thin layer of silk fabric covered the rest.
Momo peeked out from behind Aang and mewled mournfully. Aang knew how he was feeling, but he still felt slightly torn. He loosened the collar of his robes, hoping nobody had noticed his blush. "Maybe we can ask Joo Dee to ...?"
Everyone jumped as the woman in questioned seemed to materialize out of thin air.
"Um, we were just talking, and Katara and Sokka think their new outfits give a sort of wrong impression about the Southern Water Tribe."
Joo Dee smiled. "The Royal Outfitters are very good at their job. They accentuate a person's bearing and personality, reflecting your inner greatness in your outer apparel."
Sokka crossed his arms and cocked his head to the side. "Did my inner greatness slaughter all the animals in the South Pole?"
Joo Dee didn't miss a beat. "I'm not sure. Maybe, yes?"
"Then I suppose I just don't have any inner greatness?" Katara commented, her voice not quite as confident as her brother's. "Since, y'know, I don't seem to have any outer apparel."
Joo Dee merely smiled.
Katara tried a different approach. "What we mean to say is; these outfits make us look primitive and savage."
"Your people live in igloos and tents made of animal skins, yes?"
"And you live off the land, correct? Hunting and fishing?"
"I'm not sure I understand the problem." Joo Dee smiled. "The parade starts in one hour, we expect you to be at the assigned meeting place on time." She disappeared as quickly as she came.
"There's a parade?" Zuko asked. "Why haven't I been informed of this?"
"I'm sure they just forgot to tell you," Aang replied. "We did rush their preparations a lot."
Sokka picked up the imitation polar bear headdress in resignation. "I'm so glad Dad isn't here to see this. If I'd known this was what they'd put us through, I would have gone with him when he went home." He sighed and plopped the headdress in place. "Oh well, too late now."
"True," Iroh said, "but it's never too late for a cup of tea. Who wants jasmine?"
The Earth Kingdom pulled out all the stops for the parade. As many doubts as the group had been having about their time in Ba Sing Se, none of them could ignore the intoxicating feeling of excitement in the air. Every day in the city had been a day of celebration since the war ended, but this was the first official appearance Aang and his companions had made to the population at large.
People cheered wildly and waved, throwing flowers and calling out to the young heroes by name; squealing with joy when one of them turned to look.
Aang's blush had become permanent and a smile, wave or display of bending prowess from the young Avatar caused women of all ages to faint and swoon. Most of the time he rode atop Appa's head; the flying bison had been groomed and braided with lace and flowers for the occasion and small children would run forward to tuck their own contributions in his fur as they passed.
Momo zipped through the air, receiving offerings of fruits and nuts from fans on the sidelines.
Katara rode on Appa's back, feeling like some kind of primitive queen of beauty. Men threw white roses to her, and the saddle was nearly overflowing with them. She waved and smiled as people cheered, "Princess Katara, Princess Katara, Princess Katara!" Drums of water had been strapped to Appa for her bending pleasure and Katara made sure the people of Ba Sing Se recognized her for more than her scanty apparel.
Toph might not have been able to see the crowds, but she could feel the energy, the very ground itself humming under her feet. Stories of her metalbending had preceded her and people pushed forward, past the parade security to have her metalbend items into new shapes. According to the cheering crowds and her own inflated ego, she was truly the greatest Earthbending Master ever.
Mounted astride an eight hundred pound armored polar leopard on loan from a private collector of exotic animals, Sokka had abandoned all dignity and restraint, taking to the attention like a fish to water. Brandishing a spear far too valuable ever to be used in actual combat, he flexed and posed for the crowd, rearing the massive polar leopard on its hind legs for added effect. People chanted his name and warriors and soldiers in the crowd drew their weapons in salute as he passed.
Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors flanked the small procession on either side, and stretching before and after them for a mile in both directions were street performers, acrobats, earth and waterbending performers, marching bands, floats, and every kind of portable entertainment imaginable. Merchants sold dolls and images of the young heroes, some even claiming to have locks of hair from Appa or the girls.
The entertainment district of the Middle Ring of Ba Sing Se had been transformed for the Festival and it was here that the procession finally came to a glorious stop, the setting sun as a backdrop. In front of a giant fountain in the middle of an enormous courtyard, Aang and the gang mounted a twenty foot stage to the deafening roar of the crowd.
Joo Dee waited at the top, smiling with her arms wide in greeting. It took five minutes to quiet the crowd, and ten minutes again after Sokka and Toph told the audience to "give it up for Team Avatar."
"Ladies and Gentlemen!" Joo Dee began her speech and a hush fell over the crowd. "Citizens of the Free World!" People cheered and she held her hands up for silence before continuing. "Today we celebrate the end of The One Hundred Year War! Today we celebrate our liberation from the clutches of the Fire Tyrant!" The cheering became hisses and boos at mention of Ozai. "Today I give you the Earth Kingdom's newest heroes!" She gestured behind her, and earthbenders standing in position around the fountain clenched their fists and stomped the ground in unison. A pedestal erupted from the water and giant lifelike statues of each of them formed from the stone as Joo Dee called their names.
"Avatar Aang! Lady Toph Bei Fong of the Upper Houses! Princess Katara and Prince Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe! Commander Suki of the Kyoshi Warriors!"
While the audience went wild, Aang stared at the stone representations of his friends, immortalized for all time. He wasn't sure exactly what he was supposed to be feeling, but he knew it probably wasn't the feeling of growing dread in the pit of his stomach.
Aang turned away from the statue and faced his friends. "Hey guys?"
Toph picked up on Aang's confusion and doubt first, quickly elbowing Sokka in the ribs to pull the young warrior back to his senses. Katara and Suki joined them, huddling close so they could hear Aang over the din.
"Where's Zuko? Shouldn't he be up here with us by now?"
Joo Dee chose that moment to signal the crowd for silence. "And now we start a new tradition! This evening we celebrate the unification of the elements and the great nations they represent! Let it begin!"
A thousand lanterns were lit simultaneously as Earth Kingdom fireworks exploded in the sky. Earthbenders and waterbenders performed amazing feats of synchronized bending while music filled the courtyard. People danced and swayed, the colors of their clothing mingling in a sea of greens, blues, oranges, and yellows.
Joo Dee cried out in exaltation, "The First Annual Festival of Earth, Air, Water and Light!"
The cacophony of the revelers was so great that Aang's outburst went unnoticed by all but those on the stage. Joo Dee seemed unaware of the precarious position she was in, but the rest of the group could tell Aang was angry enough to do something drastic.
"Is something the matter?" Joo Dee's smile was full of innocence and venom.
"I don't know?" Aang yelled. "Maybe we should ask the Light Nation? Oh wait, I guess they aren't HERE right now! What'd you do, lock them up in their houses!?"
"Avatar Aang, what are you talking about?"
"Zuko should be up here on this stage with us right now! He should have a statue on that ridiculous pedestal!"
Joo Dee faked a look of confusion. "Why would we honor the ones who started the war in a Peace Memorial?"
"Zuko didn't start it! Without Zuko I wouldn't have been able to defeat Ozai and your precious city would be burned to the ground!"
"You can't expect us to forget what the Fire Nation did just because one member of their entire nation turned traitor to their evil ways?"
"ONE!?" The wind howled with Aang's anger. "What about Iroh!? What about Mai and Ty Lee!? What about Jeong Jeong and Piandao!? What about all the Fire Nation citizens and soldiers who were caught up in the war just like everyone else!?"
Sokka stabbed his spear into the floor and removed his headdress slowly, dropping it to the ground. His eyes were hard and cold. "You used us."
"You let yourselves be used," Joo Dee retorted, smile forgotten. "Foolish children. You don't know how the world works. You're better off listening to the advice of your elders and doing what you're told."
Sokka took an angry step toward her, pointing his finger in accusation but his words got stuck in his throat. He slowly curled his fingers into a fist and lowered his hand.
Joo Dee laughed as he backed down. "You know I'm right, don't you? Maybe you're really not as simple as the Peace Council has come to believe?"
Sokka flinched and turned away. "We're done here." He started limping toward the stairs and Suki quickly caught up to him, taking his elbow. Toph shook her head in frustration before following in their wake.
Katara stayed behind. "Aang, c'mon."
Aang stood his ground, trembling with repressed rage. There were so many things they could say to Joo Dee to put her in her place, but Katara had learned enough about Earth Kingdom politics to know that it would have no effect. Sokka was right, they had to walk away. The celebration went on around them, the people oblivious to the power struggle happening on stage.
"We don't want to make a spectacle," Katara reminded Aang. "Things are bad enough already."
"I can't leave it like this..."
"Aang, you have to."
"No, Katara, I can't." His eyes were still locked with Joo Dee's and it was to her that he spoke next. "I am the Avatar, and by my nature I am Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. This festival is a mockery, and since there aren't any other firebenders here to stand up for themselves, I'll have to do it myself."
A single trickle of sweat betrayed Joo Dee's nervousness. "You wouldn't dare."
Aang grinned and his eyes seemed to glow with inner fire as the wind picked up, swirling around him. "Actually, I would." He floated into the air, his extravagant robes shredding. The people finally took notice. The crowd cheered, expecting some kind of Avatar show.
They got their wish.
"Ladies and Gentlemen!" Aang's voice cut through the noise and seemed to echo through the courtyard and beyond. "There will be a slight change to tonight's festivities!" He focused his energy, reaching inside himself to the source of life and heat. "I know you're all still afraid of the Fire Nation! I know it's hard to forgive and forget! But the war is over, and now it's time to learn to live together in Peace and Friendship!" He held his hands out from his body to either side, palms facing down toward the line of lanterns encircling the courtyard.
"Light is FIRE!"
He pulled his arms in and then pushed them up into the air, calling on the flames inside each of the lanterns. They roared to life, burning through the wood and paper, transforming themselves into raging torches. Aang reached out, fueling the flames with his energy. The fires burned higher, twisting and dancing around Aang as he rose into the sky.
"Fire is LIFE!"
Aang launched himself straight at the ground like a comet, slamming into the fountain and shooting a spray of water over everyone within fifty feet. Upon impact a new statue burst forth from the pedestal. Fire Lord Zuko, standing tall and proud, joined his friends and allies in stone-hewn immortality.
Joo Dee entered the dimly lit meeting chamber and glanced around the room at the shadowy figures. She swallowed nervously before taking a seat at the table.
"How was the festival?"
"As you predicted," Joo Dee replied. "The Avatar couldn't stay quiet."
"Excellent. And the Bei Fong's?"
"They've been informed of recent events, and they completely agree: The Avatar and his friends aren't the right crowd for their daughter to be associated with. They plan on speaking to her tonight."
One of the figures scoffed. "I still don't understand what the point of all this is. Where I'm from, we deal with our problems directly."
"You weren't here," the first man explained patiently, "so you may not have heard the story of how the Avatar took down the Fire Nation's Great Drill before it could breech the Outer Wall."
"Is this going to be a long story?"
"A short one. The clever little group decided to attack the massive construct from the inside, hitting key points before delivering a final devastating blow."
"And we care because?"
The general spoke up. "Because we're doing the same thing. They won't see the danger until it's too late."
His companion nodded in agreement and added, "It is all part of the plan."
The first man placed his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers. "The Avatar's greatest strength is his friends. Take them away, and he's nothing."