A/N: Another year (give or take a couple months), another chapter. Clearly, I can't keep self-imposed deadlines or promises. I have likely lost 95% of my readers' interest. Not starting a pity-party or fishing for compliments, just stating fact. For those of you who have set an update alert and find this a pleasant surprise, happy birthday (as I'm sure you've had one since my last update).
Chapter 25: Mettle, Fatigue
Someone had their fingers in her hair, rubbing circles on her scalp, and although it felt kind of nice, Toph was not used to waking up that way. Thus, her first instinct was to throw an elbow.
"Ow, dammit! Right in mah teat!" Mijo hissed, yielding the globe of healing water from her control with a splash.
"Sorry," Toph mumbled. Slowly, she recalled where she was, and noted the fact that gravity did not seem to be quite perpendicular to the floor at that moment. "What, did we crash or something?"
"I am afraid so. As the fates would have it, sailing a flying ship shares little in common with steering a tank-train," Ghan answered.
"I reckon we tore the belly off'a this here gas bag. All us went fer a bounce, and ya bumped yer noggin'," Mijo added.
Toph rubbed her head, noting the gritty texture of flakes – either dried blood or dandruff – but no pain. "Is it bad when you hit your head a lot?"
"Reckon so, hun, but I fixed ya right up. Weren't too bad."
Toph nodded. "I could kinda sense where the plateaus were out there. Maybe I should have tried flying this thing after all."
"How-" Ghan started.
Mijo interrupted him. "I gets it! Ya see with yer bendin'!"
"Very astute, Doctor Duh."
Mijo ignored the barb. "I sorta see inside folks when ah heal 'em. Ne'er tried usin' bendin' ta see outside though."
"Okay, creepy," Toph said, tilting her head towards the door. "Now shut up, someone's coming. Get those dozing chumps into a corner."
Mijo and Ghan fell silent and dragged the unconscious bodies of the room's previous occupants into less conspicuous positions. Toph focused both her ears and 'eyes' to the damaged metal door she had wedged back in place, and the halls beyond it. The voices were faint, but steadily growing louder, despite being not more than whispers. She gestured for Ghan and Mijo to hide somewhere, though their options were limited within the confines of the bridge.
They both opted to huddle behind the hub of communication tubes off to one side, which Toph considered almost worthless, but better than standing in the middle of the room. She turned to the wall nearest the door and jumped at it, kipped off a handrail, and touched a metal plate overhead – which she pinched like it was made of merely clay – and used her momentum to flip her body flush to the plane of the ceiling. From there, she was a girl-sized insect, scuttling upside-down until she was just above the doorway. The whispered voices drew ever closer, eventually enough so that Toph could make out the words.
"... understand, how anyone could have boarded the ship, Sir."
"Agent Yong, at the moment, the 'how' does not matter. We must secure the ship and determine if it can still fly."
"It was the Bei Fong girl, I know it."
"Unlikely. Even if her rescuers got to her before she was mortally wounded or devoured, she'd still be recovering. You saw the mess those creatures left behind."
"Then why bother attacking this camp?"
A sigh. "However distasteful this particular approach may be, it serves a purpose. Now focus on the task at hand."
The voices gave way to silence as they rounded the last turn, save for their footsteps, which would have been inaudible were it not for the fact that stone tapping on just about anything but a shag carpet is noisy. How the Dai Li managed to get the jump on anybody wearing rock shoes was beyond her.
A slight grunt of effort. "Door is jammed," whispered Agent Yong.
"No," said the man Toph had dubbed 'Captain Touchy', "it is deformed."
Three consecutive strikes on the door, as loud as basalt hammering on steel can be, dislodged it from the frame, and it fell to the wooden floor with an even louder clatter. Toph felt both agents leap into the room, back to back, before they pivoted in unison towards Mijo and Ghan. The pair in hiding put their hands up, but the agents were already pulling back to strike.
Unfortunately for the agents, they were still standing on a metal door, directly beneath her. Toph released herself from the ceiling and drove her heels between the shoulders of both men, knocking them to their hands and knees. With a twist of her palm against the fallen portal, the agents found their limbs tightly ensconced in steel, in a position that offered neither comfort nor dignity.
"One would think you cabbage slugs would be more likely to look for ambushes from the ceiling," Toph said with a smirk.
"I knew it!" Yong almost screeched. "I'm going to make you wish the canyon crawlers tore you apart, little girl! When I-" the frothing agent found his mouth was suddenly full of black sand, turning his tirade into a coughing fit.
"Why thank you, Altar Boy."
"It was my pleasure to silence him; no gratitude is needed... and stop calling me that."
"Still," Toph gestured to the still hacking agent, "that's worth at least ten thrashings."
"Nine-hundred and eighty-five, then."
A sigh from the other agent. Toph turned to him.
"What's your problem, Captain Touchy?" she asked.
"It's Tau-chi, actually," he responded.
"Oh." Toph blew at her bangs. "That's weird."
Mijo stepped forward. "What're y'all doin' tryin' ta blow up kids and their mommas fer, ya scum-suckin', toad-humpin', stank-gas sonuva filthy crococoon!"
Toph let out a whistle of appreciation. "If I could write, I'd be writing that one down."
"Yes, that was... quite a litany," Ghan added.
"I assume you are asking why we attacked a temporary settlement of no strategic value with overwhelming force," Tau-chi supplied.
"Yeah, except your 'overwhelming force' got its butt kicked," Toph said.
A growl. This one was far better disciplined than his subordinate, but still had a temper. "Indeed. We did not expect you to be in any condition to fight, nor able to reach an aircraft over a hundred feet above you. Not to mention the presence of a firebender, and the Kyoshi Warriors, one of which knew how to-" Tau-chi's rambling was cut off by a splash of water in his face from a now fuming Mijo.
"... and a waterbender." He glanced at Toph. "One who knows how to heal with exceptional skill, evidently." He turned to his partner. "This is precisely why I insist operations have proper intelligence and more subtlety."
"I ain't givin' a pigeon-rat's ass 'bout yer lack of 'intelligence', ya coward. People prolly died down 'ere, and I wanna know why!"
"That was... regrettable. However, if I disclose the nature of my mission, of what benefit would that be to me?"
Yong tried to utter something, but fell into another spell of coughing and spitting.
"Wowwww," Toph drawled, "you guys must keep the tailors of the world rich with how often you turn your coats."
Tau-chi spoke solemnly. "The Dai Li are nothing but mercenaries now. Perhaps they have been for decades, and the Grand Secretariats were – until recently – always the highest bidder."
"Tell them nothing, Captain!" Yong shouted, finally clearing his throat. Ghan promptly batted the man over the head with his ankh, sending his hat to the far side of the room. Yong whimpered and ducked, for what little good it would do him.
"You'll have your own teeth rolling loose on your tongue, if you do not remain silent," Ghan said.
"Alright, Touchy," Toph said. "If you cooperate, I'll put in a good word when you and your buddies get turned over to the Earth King."
"A 'good word' would be unlikely to spare me a death sentence."
"It might from a member of the Bei Fong family, who also happens to be a war hero. You've done some pretty rotten stuff, so that's the best you're going to get from someone whom you've also tried to kill."
Another sigh. "I used to just patrol the lower ring. I brought in thieves, drug dealers, and other outlaws for reconditioning. I never wanted any of this."
"If you regret your choices, the opportunity to atone lies before you now," Ghan said.
Mijo spat. "Ain't much can atone fer that." She gestured out the window, presumably towards the camp.
Tau-chi followed her gesture, and shook his head. "Likely so."
Toph turned to Mijo. "You're not helping!"
Mijo sucked in a breath to reply, but stopped. Boots echoed from the hallway; the rapid footfalls indicated a dead sprint.
Ghan addressed the restrained men. "How many more of your so-called agents are aboard?"
Both remained silent. Toph put a foot on the prone door and slid the agents aside, and in the same motion dropped into a wide stance, ready to launch any bit of scrap in the room at whoever was rushing to meet them. Ghan gathered what remained of his powdered Dai Li gauntlets from his sleeves, forming a small cyclone of grains between his hands. Mijo, to her credit, made a motion that must have resulted in some small amount of water being drawn from thin air, if the trickling and gurgling was any indication.
The footfalls were clearly two pairs of feet by the time they reached the broken doorway to the bridge, and came to an abrupt halt, just as a bubbly voice emitted, "Whoa! Hi Toph!"
The metalbender had to quickly abort her attack, which buckled several sheets of steel around the bridge, and yanked Ghan off his balance as his weapon was torn from his hands and hurled at the feet of the two Kyoshi Warriors who now stood in the threshold.
"Ty Lee? Sheesh, I almost showered you with shrapnel!"
"Well, I'm glad you didn't," the other warrior said.
"Omigosh, it's sooo good to see you!" Ty Lee squealed, and Toph found herself wrapped in a crushing hug within the span of a heartbeat. Which she found uncomfortable for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that she barely knew the girl outside of being on the receiving end of her nerve jabs.
"Uh, yeah... you too... can you let go now?"
Zuko stood with his arms crossed and breathed deeply, trying – albeit in vain – to calm himself, before letting it out in a long exhale. He found himself struck with a sense of deja vu as he watched his breath dissipate in the mild glow of dusk; this was exactly how he felt when leaving Ba Sing Se over a month ago: anxious, frustrated, but with a small spark of hope that things may get better. Of course, things got a lot worse since then, and recycling that thought in his brain only served to set his mood ever further down a dark spiral.
After interrogating anyone he could find whom may have seen his mother, the group had opted to continue on to New Gaipan, which had been constructed up a large hill not more than a half-mile away. Apparently, it was 'not quite as beautiful as the original' Gaipan. Whether his hosts meant such comments to beg forgiveness for their lack of hospitable furnishings, or to beg for aid in order to acquire said furnishings, he did not know, nor did he particularly care. It was just another town to him, each building an unremarkable block with doors and windows.
The girls were relieved to have an opportunity to bathe and enjoy a hot meal, at the very least; himself as well, if he were honest. Over dinner, Zuko felt a tiny nudge of happiness that Mai and Katara seemed to be getting along so well lately. If this mission failed in every other way, at least there would be that 'silver sandwich' to eat from it. Or however that went.
There were just too many things to consider. Mai had been the most successful in gathering information on an escapee that likely was his mother, but he could ill afford to chase down vague clues on Ursa's whereabouts with a rebel union of disenfranchised Fire Nation colonies and northwest Earth Kingdom territories on the cusp of inciting a war for their independence. Not to mention his uncle was being held in Ba Sing Se somewhere by the Dai Li, and his sister was who-knows-where doing who-knows-what, and Aang was still curiously absent.
He felt like a campfire someone was trying to smother with dirt. He'd get dumped on, gasp for air, falter, and flare back up again, only for the next heap to bring him that much closer to being extinguished. But then, that's what happens to all campfires eventually. Either that, or they're doused with water, or left untended until they burn down an entire forest, or...ugh, I am so bad at this philosophy stuff.
Zuko stood on the aft section of the open deck of his diplomatic-cum-stealth airship, the hull, balloons, and ballasts still bedecked in matte black, returning to Ba Sing Se in a situation that did not entirely surprise him, but that he found disappointing just the same. At least Jee had promptly caught up with him after delivering his father to prison at the Boiling Rock, which meant the remainder of the trip to the 'Impenetrable City' would go much faster.
A hand on his shoulder nearly made him jump, but he quickly recognized the slender fingers of his lover. Zuko turned, making his best effort to wipe the despondency from his face, but Mai's obvious concern put that effort to ashes. Katara stood a couple paces behind, staring at the waning moon as it rose into the darkening sky.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Zuko?" Mai asked.
He put his hand over hers. "This was a time-wasting trap from Ozai. If my mother was free and... alive... she would find a way to me." He looked down to the amber and red sea of leaves below. "There's no way we could track her through a forest she fled into almost a year ago."
"Jet's gang used to live here... maybe they would know something?" Katara added uncertainly.
Zuko sighed. "Seems like a long shot."
Katara raised her brow. "Was that... a pun, Zuko?"
"What? Why would I be joking around right now?"
"I don't get it," Mai added.
"Never mind. Sorry," Katara said, returning to staring at the moon.
Zuko leaned backwards against the railing, bracing himself on his hands. "Maybe we can track down the so-called 'Freedom Fighters' later, but for now I feel our efforts are best spent on saving Uncle."
"And what about Taku?" Katara asked.
Zuko scoffed. "Technically, any claim the Fire Nation has to those lands were because we stole them in war. I'm sure the Earth King would be delighted to deal with it, so that's another reason to go to Ba Sing Se, assuming Sokka and Toph successfully brought Kuei back to the throne."
"Zuko," Katara began, her 'mother-voice' doing absolutely nothing but irritating him, "this isn't going to just resolve itself."
"I know that! I just don't know what to do about it!" Zuko shouted.
"Katara, he has a lot on his mind," Mai added with a quiet, yet grave voice. A voice Zuko knew was loaded with warning, but he was not sure Katara would pick up on that.
The waterbender's veil of patience crumbled away in an instant. "Oh, like his mother? Yeah, I have no idea what that's like."
Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose.
"You're being incredibly irresponsible," Katara continued, "you think after declaring 'I don't recognize your sovereignty!' and torching a catapult, they'll stay friendly with you?"
"They attacked us without provocation! And that catapult was property of the Fire Nation anyway!"
"Oh, alright. They took your toys, so your response is to light them on fire?"
"Stop twisting things around!"
"She has a point, Zuko," Mai chimed back in. "Besides, a lot of our food comes from the colonies."
"You're on her side now!?"
Zuko seized Mai's shoulders, looking her straight in the eyes. "Mai, if Katara hadn't been with us, you might have died from a head injury. I have no regrets over destroying a stolen weapon that a bunch of rebels almost killed you with. They should consider themselves lucky that I'm not coming back with an army."
He released Mai, satisfied he got his point across to at least one of the girls. "And Katara, you want a response? In Ba Sing Se, I can get the Council of Five's input on this, and right now I'm thinking a joint effort to put this 'Republic of Taku' in its place. How does that sound?"
"Warmonger-y," Katara said flatly.
"They started it."
"The Fire Lord is the epitome of maturity."
"And what would you do? What would you be doing if you had to run a country, and someone in your family was being held by rogue secret police, and another person in your family is in prison after inciting a civil war, and another member of your family escaped from a mental ward, and part of your country split off with part of another country, and is fighting against that other country... and uggggh just saying it out loud is giving me a headache!"
"Lord Zuko-" Jee's voice came from the cabin door.
The captain was momentarily shocked, but it faded quickly. No doubt he had seen a hundred of Zuko's outbursts in the past, especially during his exile. "Uh, excuse the interruption, but I have some correspondence from the Civil Council."
"Leave it in my quarters, Captain."
Zuko turned back to Katara. "We'll continue this discussion later," he issued imperiously, just to annoy her. Judging by the scream she tamped down in her throat as he walked away, it worked. A petty victory, he could admit to himself, but at that moment he did not care.
Despite its relative newness, Zuko navigated the interior of his airship with ease. Most of the Navy's designs followed a regimented scheme of corridors, bulkheads, cabins, and holds that applied to all ships, simply scaled to size, so that soldiers and sailors transferred from one vessel to another could easily adjust to their new assignment. It seemed the Royal Flight Corps (anything to avoid using the word 'air') followed the same engineering concepts. Of course, it also helped that his airship was even smaller than the frigate on which he spent most of his exile.
Zuko arrived at his quarters, just opposite the door to the bridge, as Jee was leaving.
"Lord Zuko, if I may-"
"Not now, Jee. And no disturbances. Please."
"...as you command."
He closed the steel bulkhead door quietly as he slipped into his quarters. On a such a small, aerial vessel, it served as both his office and his bedroom. He and Mai shared a small but comfortable mattress on a hinged shelf, which was currently folded up and fastened to the wall. A dressing screen, which Mai occasionally used either out of habit or to tease him, cordoned off a tiny corner of the room, while a writing desk and chair, with modest (for royalty) gold trim, occupied the opposite corner. A compact bureau was tucked flush to the wall near the door, which held a few vanity items, meditation candles, and spare clothes.
By the standards of Fire Lords, the room was absolutely austere. Zuko felt even the basic, if gilded, items were a bit much. Save the fancy items for the palace. But he had to remind himself that this was a diplomatic ship, not a war machine, and if his room looked like a barracks, it would probably send the wrong message somehow.
A tapestry bearing the insignia of the Fire Nation hung from the far wall, although instead of the black flame over a red background, the emblem was a deep blue at the base and gold through the rest, like a candle or torch flame. It had been a suggestion from Mai, rather surprisingly, considering her alleged disdain for bright colors. She said it made their national symbol less menacing. Zuko was inclined to agree, though he had drawn the line when Ty Lee suggested he also replace the blood red background with pink. Of course, replacing all their flags and banners would be a waste of funds, so the banner hanging in this room was the only one that existed. He'd phase it in over time.
Zuko turned his attention to the bundle of correspondence waiting on his desk. A report from General Tien indicated things were quiet, almost unnervingly so, in the homeland. The Civil Council was keeping things in order, and although the old commander of the 41st admitted on numerous occasions that he did not like or trust Admiral Liang (the old man was, after all, one of Ozai's council members who had approved using the 41st as bait, if simply by remaining silent at the time), it seemed he was forming a grudging respect for the admiral after his decisive actions during the battle with the insurgent fleet.
Another message came from Jeong Jeong, which simply read: "Thank you." It seemed his decision to send the self-hating firebender to Ran and Shao had been a good one. A more detailed note from Piandao explained that while Jeong Jeong worked through his deep, spiritual crisis, the swordsman officially opened up diplomatic ties with the Sun Warriors. It was not entirely unexpected, as the warning that had fallen from the sky during his awkward dinner with Mai's family had also been undoubtedly an invitation, though he was not sure if sending a proxy would have been well-received.
Piandao was a charming and trustworthy man, however, so he had little doubt things would go over smoothly. Perhaps more importantly, he and Jeong Jeong scouted out Qin's hidden airbase and factory, only to find it deserted and stripped of just about anything valuable, much like Bujing's base had been (although thankfully, minus any ambushes). It was likely that the few men left behind to mind the base went into hiding once they received word of the insurgency's defeat, although the pattern was a bit troubling. Zuko would not be surprised to find the remnants igniting a long and bloody guerrilla war along the outer islands. He did not even want to think about that.
The final scroll was from a most unexpected source: Kyoshi Island. Oyaji, the elder and de facto governor of the island, wrote a simple thanks for the reparation funds and repair crews Zuko had sent to the island some time ago. It had been one of his first official actions as Fire Lord; he figured if he wanted to make things right, he may as well start with his own personal mistakes and work from there. He was about to roll up the note and call it a night when he caught a post-script written on the very bottom of the parchment.
It read: Some villagers spotted the Avatar's bison flying due south-east a few days ago. Anything we should know about?
After his informal, bellowing introduction to the island yesterday, Aang received an official message from a rather beefy kithsman, indicating that he was 'cleared to access the common areas of the island', provided he was under proper escort. He still felt all the procedure was a bit silly and superfluous, but if he were to prove he was not a threat to their hidden sanctuary, he had best show a gesture of goodwill and play by their rules.
His first request had been to ask for somewhere he could sleep. Then he proceeded to rest, as it turned out, for about twelve hours. He thought it odd that he felt so exhausted, as if he had not slept in days, but perhaps it was another side-effect of the poison (which he'd gladly take over the itching). Another explanation may have been that punching through the 'safe' corridor in the Great Whorl's storm-wall had taken more out of him than he thought. Regardless, even after a frankly ridiculous amount of rest, he still felt a bit groggy.
It was around midday, and Aang had requested Iioru be his escort, but he was informed the man was still 'being debriefed'. As a second choice, he asked for Wen, whom he found to be pleasant company at the very least. This unfortunately meant that Digo was assigned to him again as well, in addition to two more men of an even more surly disposition than Digo, which Aang was less than thrilled about. He did not have the energy to drill through the anti-social armor of another pair of airbender soldiers.
He was still wrapping his mind around the concept of airbender soldiers. Digo and Wen carried their glider-glaives. The other pair may not have been carrying weapons that he could see, but they were wearing some kind of armor (leather, he assumed with a twinge of sadness) and it did not seem to impede their airbender-light strides in any noticeable way. More than likely, all four of them had blowguns, and were ready to try and sedate him at a moments notice.
But, he put on a smile and tried not to let all that bother him. Scratching at his ribs, he turned to Wen, who walked on his left, and asked, "So, what's this area?"
Wen gestured weakly at the collection of buildings along the wide walkway. "Scholar's T-t-terrace."
"It's where the young receive their education, Avatar Aang," Digo added. "And where those who dedicate themselves to research and learning do their work."
"Oh. That sounds... interesting," Aang offered, weakly. He liked school, but something told him he would be unlikely to incite any secret dance parties here.
"M-my brother and I used to go t-to th-that building, r-right over there," Wen added, pointing to a drab building up a short flight of stairs.
"So, is there some kind of ancient library here?" Aang asked.
Aang noted the slight halt in the otherwise perfect rhythm of the armored airbenders' stride.
"Where did you hear that?" Digo asked.
"Oh, I just figured, some of these buildings look really old."
"That, they are. I'm not certain-"
"Hey, do you hear that?" Aang interrupted, catching the unmistakable sound of children at play on the wind.
"H-hear what?" Wen asked.
"Sounds like... laughter."
"Ah, yes, it must be recess for the younger children," Digo said.
"Oh, great! Let's say hello!" Aang said with a smile.
"I don't think that's-" Digo started, but Aang had already hopped onto his air-scooter and quickly rounded the corner of the nearest schoolhouse, which no doubt annoyed his handlers. The sooner they realize holding me is impossible, the better.
He nearly barreled over a cluster of girls playing some kind of game with a hoop, but a last-second swerve just mussed up their hair and sent the hoop spinning rapidly around the waist of one of the girls instead. With a quick apology, he dismounted from his scooter.
They were young, or at least not any older than him, all dressed in gray, brown, or indigo robes. A few of them looked angry, but those expressions quickly transformed into a bit of confusion as they took in his appearance. The girl with the hoop was at least smiling, opting to continue the toy's orbit around her body with a sway of her hips, hardly even noticing the four men once they caught up with the Avatar.
"Please stop doing that, Avatar Aang," Digo sighed, exasperatedly.
The hoop clattered to the stone. Inwardly, Aang groaned. He actually missed the adoring fans or the firebenders attacking him on sight at this point. The terrified fawn-hare routine was like a punch in the gut every time.
Except, one of them was blushing at him. That was an improvement. Reminded him of-
Katara. She must be worried sick by now... she'll be so mad when I see her next. Like scary-mad, when that one vein in her forehead starts to pulse out and-
"You are not to leave our sight, Avatar," one of the armored men said.
"Then you'd better be a little faster," Aang replied with a smirk. "I apologize for ruining your game ladies, I just wanted to say hello to the students."
"Oh, that's okay... Avatar," the blushing girl said.
With a smile and a wave, Aang continued following the source of the noise to the back of the building at a brisk pace, where he was pleasantly surprised to see a full five-on-five game of airball in action, being played by children that were only a few years younger than himself.
At least, at first glance, it appeared to be airball, until he noticed that the wooden posts were sitting in a pool of water, which was unusual. The posts themselves were wider, shorter, spaced farther apart, and coiled with rope. The ball appeared to be solid, instead of the traditional wicker-weave of an airball, and yet somehow still bouncy. The goals were about the only part of the court that was exactly the same.
The children themselves were a motley group, five on each side. Some were clearly airbenders, others used some kind of paddle wrapped in cloth. What came as something of a surprise to him was the two children using neither: one swatted at the ball with a crude, short water whip, and the other wielded something that appeared to be a bulbous bat of mud.
"Is that kid... an earthbender?" Aang asked to no one in particular.
"Yes. Is that a problem, young Avatar?" a woman said.
Aang nearly jumped into the overhang of the roof of the schoolhouse. It was rare that someone got near him undetected, even other airbenders. This old lady moved like a ghost. "Uh, no, of course not. I'm an earthbender too, after all."
The woman smiled mildly. She was short, wrinkled, and had gray hair as old women often did, but she maintained a dignified, upright posture, hands hidden in the sleeves of her somewhat faded orange robes. Her hair was long, fastened in a simple knot with pins, and her eyes were a dark brown, as sharp as a woman's half her age. Aang's experience with old ladies put him immediately on guard: he figured at best she was a stern crone like Kanna, and at worst she was a crazy old bat like Hama.
"We have some earth and water children in every class. Not nearly as numerous as airbenders, but it speaks to our ancestry on this little island. Young ones are imaginative and resourceful, especially with their games, and this variation on airball is already decades old. They call it bobbleball."
"I always thought so. Ah, but how I forget my manners. I am Headmistress Yingma. I'm responsible for the education of the middle grade youth on the island, at least for the time being."
"Children about your age, and little younger. Well, a lot younger, if the rumors are to be believed."
Aang nodded, his attention mostly on the game. He spotted the little girl from yesterday, Ti, darting from post to post like a living fireball, laughing loudly all the while. One of her classmates passed her the ball, which she redirected with an airbending roundhouse kick to drive through the scoring ring, just over the shoulder of a bewildered classmate. Aang could not help but cheer.
Ti spotted him immediately. "Oh, Aang! Hi! Did you see that!"
"I sure did!" Aang shouted back. "You're pretty good!"
She turned to one of her classmates, a stocky boy with a scowl on his face, the earthbender he had noticed before. "See, told you I was friends with the Avatar!"
The boy rolled his eyes and stuck out his tongue. "Whatever. He looks like a weirdo, like you."
"I'm not a weirdo! I'm a... piece-a-fist... like my mommy!"
"Weirdo." The chubby boy snorted.
Ti slapped him off his post with an airbending burst, and he promptly fell into the water.
"Ti!" Yingma sighed. "Get down here. You know you should not use your bending to harm a classmate."
"He fell! Not my fault he's clumsy!"
"She fouled me, she has to sit out until the next point!" screeched the boy as he crawled onto a post and began to climb. Ti only stuck her tongue out at him in response.
Aang chuckled to himself. Some pacifist.
"Ti. Do not make me summon your mother," Yingma said.
That seemed to snap the girl out of her defiant attitude. "Yes, Heady Yingma," Ti murmured, as she hopped down to land.
"Heady?" Aang asked, stifling a laugh.
"Ti has a certain way with words, as many children her age do."
"She's talented," Aang said, as he watched her land as if she were no heavier than a feather.
"Yes," Yingma agreed. "She also lacks discipline. A combination often used to describe you around that age, Avatar."
Aang tilted his head and regarded the old woman with a raised brow. "Me?"
"Our ancestors carried what records and relics they could. Some were ancient tomes, some were journals. A certain Elder Monk Tashi had little good to say about you."
Aang frowned. "Great. Of all the opinions of me to carry forward over a hundred years, it had to be his."
Yingma waved her hand in dismissal. "It is but one man's opinion. You have grown much since then, have you not?"
He frowned. "More than I thought possible, in a year."
"Hardship has a way of accelerating adulthood."
Aang sighed. "Yeah... Iioru tells me that a lot of people hate me here, for not being the Avatar our people needed."
"You were twelve."
"Now you're thirteen, and ended a war by defeating a tyrant master bender when he was at his most powerful. Four elements or not, that is a miraculous achievement."
"Quit your sulking. It is unbecoming, and you must set an example."
Aang looked up, first at Yingma (who reminded him of a stern Sister Io, now) and then at the children whom had mostly stopped their game to stare at him. Digo and Wen eyed him with annoyance and curiosity, respectively, while the stoic guards in armor remained as inscrutable as ever. Ti skipped over, poorly masking a smirk with an attempt to appear repentant.
"Sorry, Heady Yingma."
"You should be apologizing to Poji, not me."
"For now, you may sit quietly and meditate for the remainder of recess."
"No arguing, young lady. If you wish to follow in the path of your mother, you must learn to hold your temper. It's just a game, after all."
The small girl looked poised to protest further, but walked away to the shade of the building before she dropped down into a sloppy lotus position and closed her eyes.
"That is impressive," Digo whispered, "Ti heeds almost no one."
"Ti is strong-willed," Yingma said, "but she respects female authority figures, such as myself and her mother."
"She seems to like Avatar Aang."
"I'm afraid her reasoning became clear when she excitedly explained to her classmates how he had been a woman for roughly half his incarnations."
Wen snickered. Even Digo cracked a smile, which Aang took to be a good sign, despite being at his expense. Not that he had a problem with his female incarnations, but it was difficult to reconcile with his current maleness.
"What about her father?" Aang asked, eager to change the subject.
"Died, in an accident," Digo said, flatly.
"As indicated in the official investigative report, yes," Yingma replied.
"You disagree with that conclusion, Headmistress Yingma?" asked one of the new guards, the second time either had spoken all day.
Yingma turned on the guard, and gave him a chilling look completely at odds with her previous, matronly serenity. "Everyone knows I dispute it, and most see fit to label me paranoid or insane. A master waterbender somehow drowns in the offshore calms, and I'm the madwoman? Bah!"
"This is not an acceptable topic of discussion to have in front of an honored guest, Headmistress," the other stoic guard said. Aang did not even want to learn their names, now. They made Digo's attitude appear positively charming.
"And what will you do, Guardian? Demote me to lemur-trainer? Arrange for an unlikely accident to occur? I do not fear you, or your thinly veiled threats."
A long silence prevailed, and the children, although likely out of earshot, had abandoned even the pretense of their game to stare at the adults. The guardsmen did not appear to be on the precipice of violence, but Wen began to fidget with his glider, and Digo did that white-knuckle grip thing he did when agitated. The headmistress, barbed words aside, did not make any threatening gestures. He could not tell if a brawl was about to commence, and if so, how to prevent it.
"So," he drawled in, winging it with a change of topic, "you have people of earth and water in this islands ancestry… what about… fire?"
Evidently that was either a brilliant diversion or an incredibly stupid thing to say. Digo's expression turned furious in an instant. "Are you insane?"
"No fire-filth shall ever step foot on this island," growled one of the guardians.
"How easily we all forget that there was one firebender who sacrificed himself during Sozin's Comet to help protect our people," Yingma said.
"One man succumbing to guilt is hardly redeeming an entire culture of murderers," the other guardian said.
"Avatar Aang is a firebender."
Okay old lady, stop poking the buzzard-wasp nest.
Both guards turned their eyes on him. "A fact we are well aware of."
"Headmistress Yingma!" cried out one of the children, to which Aang was eternally grateful. "Can Ti come play with us again? The teams are uneven!" Apparently they had become bored of watching, and the reminder of innocent witnesses served to dispel the hostility between the adults.
"I'm afraid not, dear. Ti is meditating until the next class."
The children erupted into cheers or complaints.
"But it's not fair!"
"Power play all the way!"
"I'll play!" Aang replied. Anything to get away from all that negative energy.
The kids looked at each other, some excited, some wary.
"I don't think that'd be fair, Mister Avatar," a meek boy, the waterbender, muttered.
"I'll only use airbending, and I'll play with just one hand and one foot!"
The earthbender kid, Poji, laughed. "Okay, that's something I want to see!"
Aang grinned and boosted himself up to a wooden pillar. The kids on the opposing team, with the exception of Poji, looked uncomfortable. Which was to be expected… not only was he older and bigger, but he was also the Avatar. On the other hand, how could he resist such a fun-looking game? Of course he could not, especially if it was an offshoot from airball.
As promised, Aang grabbed his left foot with his left hand and held position like a flamingoose. He probably still had an enormous advantage over the children even with the handicap, but he'd just play a few minutes and move on with his 'tour'.
"So, what are the rules?"
One kid tossed him a strip of white cloth, then took a deep breath. "Blue bands against white bands," he said, tapping the white cloth on his arm. "You can't hold the ball, you gotta bobble it with air, water, clay, a paddle, or your body, unless you're the goalie; you can't touch other players with bending or your body; the pool is out of bounds, and the edges are boundary lines too; if you fall in the water, climb back up to the top of the post before you can hit the ball again; get the ball in their ring; that's basically it."
"Wow, that kid's an airbender for sure," Aang said, tying the cloth to his left arm.
"Ready?" Poji asked with a smirk.
"Ready!" Aang answered.
A kid behind Poji was holding the ball, and on Poji's 'forward' gesture, he popped it into the air between the two teams. Another of Poji's teammates leapt between two pillars and tried to knock the ball low, presumably to Poji, but her wild swipe of airbending sent it directly at Aang instead. In response, he arrested the ball's momentum with a quick, vertical rush of air, but discovered the ball ricocheted with a lot more force than he expected. What is this stuff?
The ball went straight to Poji in the end, who bounced off its energy until he could casually bobble it on his asymmetric clay bat, which was now shaped more like an ovoid dinner plate. His team of blue-banded classmates advanced on the pillars, while his own team fanned out to claim pillars in their path.
A flick of water from the waterbender on his team knocked the ball away from Poji and against a post. Another of his teammates dove down, this one with one of those cloth-wrapped bats, and swatted it back towards Aang before splashing in the pool. This time, he shaped the air into more of a scoop than a wall, and managed to control the ball enough to begin bouncing it on his head, as he himself bounced on one foot. One of the girls giggled.
The ball flexed with each contact, and as Poji began to swing his clay plate into something more whip-like, Aang bowed down and swung his head to bump the ball to another teammate, whom had been quietly hopping forward on the outermost pillars. With a whoop, the boy received the ball on a cushion of air and bobbled it along as he advanced beyond the entire opposing team's line.
As they turned to defend, Aang made a one-legged leap, assisted with airbending, to rocket over the entire line of children, landing gracefully on a pillar just to the far side of their goalie. The goalie nervously watched Aang, and Aang smiled back, still balancing on one foot. With the distraction he provided, the child with the ball punched hard with his bending, driving it towards the goal ring.
The goalie turned towards the distinct noise the ball made when struck, catching a bit of it with his forearm, which was enough to have it bounce off the edge of the goal ring, and directly into Aang's face. It stung a bit, and it was enough to throw him off balance. He missed the edge of the post and promptly fell into the water.
When he surfaced, it was to laughing and cheers, mostly.
"He got lucky."
"A goal is a goal, Poji!"
"Haha, right in his face!"
"In your face, in your face!"
"Did you see him jump?"
"Alright, class, time to get back inside," Yingma shouted over the din. The response was of course a chorus of complaints, but the children obeyed. Aang swam to the edge of the pool and lifted himself out.
"En-en-en… enjoy yours-self, Avatar?" Wen asked.
"You looked ridiculous," Digo added, not quite with a straight face.
"It was fun; we should play some time!" Aang said, as he gestured down to bend the water off him.
He tried again.
"What are you doing?" Digo asked, raising his brow.
"Oh, heh, nothing. Just pulled a muscle I think, trying to stretch it out," Aang replied, vainly attempting to maintain a smile while panic welled up from his stomach.
"Well, dry off, there were other places you wished to see, correct?"
"Yep, sure thing." Aang pressed his fists together and used airbending to force the water from his clothes, and it worked normally, much to the annoyance of Digo. Wen laughed. The dour guards stared at him from a small distance. Ti waved enthusiastically as Yingma ushered her children back into the schoolhouse. The sun was bright, too bright, and that lighthouse, far up the little mountain of the island, was like another sun by itself. Bird calls were shrill to him, no matter how soft the melody. The ocean breeze gave him goosebumps. Aang felt like the world was spinning.
Absently, he followed his tour guides through a residential area. Occasionally, Wen or Digo would provide some comment, and he'd reply with something generic, but the entire time, with each step, he tried to feel the earth. Each step, he failed. The earth ignored him. It was just the ground again, that thing he walked on when he was not flying.
They went to a small bakery for lunch. He touched the walls, crafted of stone, and felt nothing. When he washed down his bread and cheese with great gulps of water, almost choking on it, he tried to play with the few drops that splashed onto the table. Not so much as a wiggle. Wen and Digo asked if he was okay. He nodded, said he felt tired, and asked to be brought back to his room, which was really a cell in disguise, but he did not care.
In his room, he tried to light a lantern with firebending. Nothing. No fire, no spark, not even a bit of warmth. He exhaled heavily, ruffling curtains across the room, and took some small comfort in his native element not abandoning him. What is happening to me?
Fighting back his urge to run screaming to Appa, he sat down to meditate, calling on his past lives. Surely one of them must have an explanation.
They too, were silent.
A/N: Ok, time for serious business. I'm honestly not sure if I should continue this. Obviously, my own enthusiasm has waned. I feel like I've written myself into a corner with certain characters and some aspects of the plot.
Should I push through with my original notes, even if it turns out bad? Maybe ignore my obsessive urge to proofread my own work to death, until I don't even want to touch it anymore? Should I start over and change some things, perhaps draw the story to a close with Ozai's recapture and leave some threads loose? Should I pronounce it dead, on grounds of recognizing the sunk cost fallacy, and start something new?
I feel like I was overly ambitious with this one, and should not have tried to continue every loose plot thread of the original series simultaneously.
I do appreciate the folks that have periodically liked/followed this story and/or left a review. I'm surprised that there's still a trickle of new followers every couple of weeks (although this started only a couple months ago, to my recollection). That said, I haven't written a thing in a year, and my current hypothesis is that I should move onto something original and completely new, instead of allowing this old project to be a barrier or an excuse to stop. What do you think?