Title: Falling in the Water (part 1 of 7)

Author: Kyra Rivers

Rating: PG-13

Warnings: Violence, mild language, allusion to rape, dark themes.

Genre: Horror, Supernatural, Action

Notes: This story takes place during Avatar season 2, sometime after the episode "Bitter Work". Also, I pretty much just assume that the Earth Kingdom equates to China, so all of my original characters will have Chinese names. This story will be Gaang-centric (with extra Toph), and it will also include a few minor OCs. Minor Kataang hints (no more than are already in the series), and uh. Tokka if you squint. Kinda. I can't really see them together at any time in actual canon, to tell the truth, but that doesn't mean I can't allude to it. :) This story can pretty much be assumed to be AU, though it's kinda more like a really dark what-if episode than an actual change to the storyline.

Thanks: I could not possibly have written this story without the help of my friends. Thank you to He Li Wen and Zhou Li Kai (two names that you'll see cameo'd in this story, by the way) for being awesome soundboards, and an extra special thanks to my beta, Countess of Lace, who took time from her two jobs and spent it telling me that I really tend to info-dump way, way too much. ;P You are all amazing. (Also, a quick thank you to my Chinese teacher, Z-laoshi, for giving me the title of this story.)

Summary: Aang makes a mistake. Toph pays the price.


FALLING IN THE WATER

一失足成千古恨

Yishi zu cheng qian gu hen

One wrong step can cause a thousand regrets.

(Falling in the water just once can kill you.)

PART ONE

A glitter in the corner of his eye distracted Aang from the array of vegetables in front of him, and he turned to look at a small stand near the entrance of the market. It wasn't quite as expansive as some of the other booths in the area, but the size belied the amount of people who were currently crowded around it. On display were long golden chains with crystals of varying sizes attached to the end, sparkling different colors in the morning sunlight.

As he looked, Aang heard the old woman behind the display saying, "And they are proven to dispel the spirits, even one so strong as Her, and your daughters will no longer have to be afraid." This proclamation was met with a round of approval from the audience, many of whom were digging through their purses for money as the woman continued.

"Hey, Katara," Aang said, tugging on her blue tunic. She hadn't been paying attention to the woman at all, too focused on sorting out the freshest vegetables to resupply them long enough to make it to the next town. Toph and Sokka had opted out of shopping that day, choosing instead to stay back at the campsite and train. Aang wasn't exactly sure how either of them could train the other, but Sokka had muttered something about mud warriors and reflexes, and he figured that even if Sokka wasn't capable of bending, any kind of training with Toph would at the very least help with speed. Either way, it left Aang and Katara to finish the shopping themselves.

Katara didn't respond to Aang nudging her, intent as she was on the carrots, so Aang tugged again and said louder, "Katara, look, they're talking about some kind of spirit."

"What?" asked Katara, latching onto the last word and turning to look at Aang in mild confusion. She turned away from the produce stand and looked over at the old woman and her jeweled necklaces in time to hear the crowd cheer in approval once again.

"I wonder what they're talking about," Aang suggested casually. Generally speaking, any mention of spirits was good enough for him to be interested, and he knew Katara was likewise curious about all things supernatural, though she sometimes took her superstitions a little far. Toph and Sokka were the more practical pair of the group -- fitting, Aang thought, that the earth-bender and the warrior would be more grounded --, leaving Aang and Katara to pay attention to any of the spiritual aspects of their journey. Aang had always been mildly bemused at how Katara was able to balance her steadfastly practical approach to daily life with such an interest in the spirit world, but had never mentioned it.

"Let's go look," Katara said, leading the way. Being rather small, they were able to squeeze their way past most of the crowd, ducking under the thick arms of a pair of farmers to stand at the front of the crowd, not three feet away from the old woman and her charms.

The woman was old but tall, with a thick waist of one who has worked hard and done well by it in her life. Her eyes were green and piercing as she immediately took in the two new arrivals to the crowd. "You two!" she called out almost instantly, looking first at Aang and then at Katara, eyes narrowing at the latter. "Are you visitors to this area? I know everyone who frequents this market, and you're not among them."

"Aha," Aang began, flushing a bit at being put so abruptly on the spot. He scratched the back of his neck awkwardly, looking anywhere but at the old woman and her sharp stare. "Yeah, we're just buying some supplies for our travels."

Katara came to his rescue, adding, "We saw your necklaces and heard you say something about spirits. What's going on?"

"It's the Wild Woman!" someone in the crowd called out, and the rest concurred worriedly. Another person added in, "We need protection!" and suddenly there was a mess of people chattering, some pleading at the old woman with small bags of money while still others clung to their children nervously and murmured to each other.

"The... Wild Woman?" Katara repeated, looking at the old woman with a confused expression. She added, "Are you the shaman of this village? Would you tell us what they mean?"

The old woman nodded sagely, sharp eyes softening in the wake of the villagers' fear. "I am called Lao Mei Ying," she said, "old wife of Lao Zhong, and mother of my missing daughter Xiao Mei. I have kept the story of the Wild Woman alive in this village as a warning to those who travel through the northern woods, especially the merchants and traders who visit and live here."

Katara and Aang exchanged a nervous glance; their campsite was just shy of the woods north of the town, and they had all been within the forest.

"What's the story, old one?" Katara asked politely, after introducing Aang and herself. Around them, the villagers were also listening, though Aang was sure they had all heard the tale before by the way they were nodding and whispering as they waited, as though predicting the story.

"The Wild Woman," Lao Mei Ying said with a low, charged voice, "is a danger to the young maidens of our town." Aang looked sharply at Katara, who didn't seem to have registered the significance of her own presence. The old woman continued, "She is said to have lived long ago when there were bands of warring tribes, and our village was only one of the many. Long ago, this village was home to a great merchant, a crafty and intelligent man who braved the dangers of the woods and warring tribes to bring prosperity to his home. He had a large family, including a beautiful daughter whose virtues were talked about for miles around. She was engaged to a young man from another village who was equally as talented as her father, and who was poised to be the next leader of the village.

"Unfortunately, the man and his son-in-law were not quite as skilled people thought. They were shady dealers, making enemies of the many warring gangs as they stole money from them. The man's daughter knew nothing of her father and fiancée's actions, and took pleasure in what she thought were well-earned goods.

"But their unscrupulous dealings grew too many. Finally, the enemies of the girl's father and fiancée joined together to get revenge on the thieving pair. They attacked the village with torches, burning everything in sight and attacking anyone who dared oppose them. The man and his daughter's fiancée were away at the time, traveling on yet another trip, and so when their enemies stormed the house to find them, they were unsatisfied. Instead, they killed the man's family, even the babes, and stole away his beautiful daughter."

Aang gasped at this revelation, locking eyes with Katara, who looked equally disturbed by the story's turn. The old woman was looking at them both with intense eyes, and all around them the villagers had gone silent, all hanging on Lao Mei Ying's dark words.

"The man and his son-in-law returned," Lao Mei Ying continued, "but it was too late. The villagers told him of his poor daughter, his poor fiancée, and so they ran out to the woods to try and save her. But nothing could be done." The old woman's eyes grew cold and stony, as though remembering something painful, and she said, "The girl had been beaten and left to die in the unforgiving woods, bared and shamed for her father and fiancée's crimes."

"That's horrible," Katara whispered, face pale. Aang tried not to think about the poor girl's fate too deeply, uncomfortable with the darkness that he knew lay in the depths of humanity. He shifted closer to Katara and was comforted when she leaned back against his arm.

"It is said," Lao Mei Ying said quietly, "that the daughter's rage against her father and fiancée was terrible. She hated that they would endanger their own family without any thought or regard; that they would make so many enemies, and that they would be gone when their debt was called upon to be paid. It is said," she repeated, "that the daughter's spirit was so angry that she grew into a wraith called the Wild Woman, who preys on the men who travel through her forest. If a man angers the Wild Woman, she'll make him pay in the only way she knows how: by stealing away his daughter or sister, wife or lover, and killing them herself."

"But only the maidens," called a voice from behind Aang and Katara, an older man with a thick black beard.

"Only the maidens," Lao Mei Ying agreed, her lips pursing unpleasantly. She suddenly looked very lost to Aang, strikingly different from the strength she had displayed earlier, and she said, "The Wild Woman was taken still in her girlhood, and so she only takes those young ladies who are still girls, not yet women."

She paused for a moment as the crowd began to whisper again around them, and added quietly, "My daughter was one of the girls taken. We never found her."

"That's awful. I'm so sorry for you," Katara said, reaching a hand out to touch the old woman's arm. Aang saw the glint of tears in Katara's eyes, in sympathy, and he felt a pang of affection for her.

"It was awful," Lao Mei Ying agreed, "but it was nearly 25 years ago. My husband made the mistake of angering the Wild Woman on one of his travels, and she took her revenge." She stopped and seemed, for a moment, to be dwelling on the past, but soon her eyes sharpened and she said, pointing to Katara, "That's why I noticed you, my dear! You resemble my poor Xiao Mei so strongly. She couldn't have been much older than you when she vanished."

"B-but we haven't angered the Wild Woman!" Aang protested, though he grabbed onto Katara's arm nervously anyway. A soft hand was placed over his briefly, acknowledging the concern, before Katara gently pulled away.

"See to it that you don't, young man," commanded the old woman sternly. "You're not too young to be subject to her judgment. Especially recently."

"Recently?" Aang repeated.

"Yeah," the same man from before said. Most of the crowd had dispersed after the telling of the story, recognizing that it would be a bit before the old woman was selling her goods again. Some still remained, all looking rather tense, including the older farmer, his frail-looking wife, and a group of young men just out of their teens. The farmer continued, "The Wild Woman's been unusually active for the past few months, and no one knows why."

"Many people suspect the Wild Woman died during the year of the Snake, same as this year," Lao Mei Ying offered, "She's a danger at all times, but every twelve years during the year of the Snake, it feels as though she seeks out victims, rather than waiting for them to come to her."

"Whatever the reason," the farmer said, "we've had three girls disappear in the past four months. And if the pattern keeps up, we're due for a fourth. Trade has died down because no one dares go through the forest to exchange goods, and everyone's suffering from it. We've managed trade a little by sending some women through the forest instead, but in our village, women traditionally stay home, so very few know anything about the art of trading. We don't have enough female traders to help keep the business up."

"That's why I'm selling these charms," Lao Mei Ying said, holding out one of the necklaces: a pretty blue stone dangled from the end of a golden chain. "After my daughter vanished, I learned some ways to repel spirits. If a maiden wears this charm, she'll be safe from the Wild Woman's touch."

"They work, too," one of the young men exclaimed. "Zhou Li Kai's little sister Ai Li was protected, remember? After her father saw the Wild Woman last autumn."

Lao Mei Ying nodded sagely, looking intently at Aang and Katara. "They are expensive, for the materials I need are rare, but if you have the money to spare, I advise you take a charm for your own protection."

Katara and Aang exchanged a glance, with Aang looking worried and Katara looking apprehensive. Silently communicating, Aang felt his heart drop a little when Katara gave him a subtle head shake, touching her small change purse as if to remind him of their limited funds. Katara turned to the old woman and said politely, "I'm afraid we don't have the means to buy a charm."

Then, struck by inspiration, Aang exclaimed, "But maybe I can help!"

Lao Mei Ying and the other villagers looked confused, though from Katara's expression she knew where was going with this. Placing a hang on Aang's shoulder, she said, "Aang, I don't know if that's a good idea."

"Well, why not?" Aang asked, torn between being pleased that she knew him well enough to guess his intentions and upset that she disagreed with them. "There are girls dying from this evil spirit, and I am the link between our worlds. Maybe I can banish the Wild Woman."

"What do you mean?" Lao Mei Ying asked, her shrewd eyes narrowing. After a moment of scrutiny, she suddenly gasped and said, "Oh!" in a faint, amazed voice.

"What?" the farmer asked, echoed by the others. "What is it?"

"I should have recognized your tattoos," Lao Mei Ying said, looking chagrined. "I have seen pictures of airbender insignia before, but it was a long time ago." Setting down the charm in her hand, the old woman proceeded to honor Aang with a low bow, showing her age in the way that she held onto her back as she stood back up. "Our village is honored to meet you, Avatar."

"The Avatar!" the farmer exclaimed in surprise, following the shaman's lead and offering a bow first to Aang, then to Katara. His wife followed suit, though the young men simply nodded at them, looking mildly disconcerted.

"As the Avatar," Aang said, "I might be able to talk with the Wild Woman and make peace."

"Aang," Katara murmured, looking torn. "I'm not sure--"

Lao Mei Ying interjected, "Oh, you won't have to worry." Snatching the charm from where it lay on the booth, the woman thrust it at Katara, saying, "I will offer you a free charm for your protection. If the Avatar is willing to help out our village, it's the least I can do to ensure that any maidens he's acquainted with will be protected."

"Oh, well -- thank you, but," Katara stammered, accepting the necklace with a hesitant smile, "well, I think Aang has a great idea. We just need to discuss it with the rest of our party before we decide anything."

Aang got the message Katara was sending with her eyes: fighting for the lives of young girls was a great ideal, but anything that would likely involve spirits and fighting needed to be a group decision, not an Avatar one. Especially, Aang thought nervously, with a spirit like this one, who was tied to the earth by rage over something not easily reconciled.

"I understand," Aang said to Katara solemnly. He bowed to Lao Mei Ying and said, "I promise that Katara and I will return tomorrow as soon as we've discussed this, and let you know our decision. I hope that will be all right with you."

Lao Mei Ying's return smile seemed heavy with the hope of potential salvation, and she nodded tensely. "I hope you'll look upon us in favor," she replied formally, bowing again.

Aang smiled back, but as he looked over at Katara, he felt a hint of trepidation for what his decision might result in.


They return to camp after finishing the shopping; the villagers had been strange mix of reverent and skeptical as the news that the Avatar might try to dispel the Wild Woman spread, and they received many offers of free food that Katara refused to accept. As it was, they had lighter pockets and heavier satchels as they approached their campsite, arriving just in time to hear Toph shout, "Too slow, Snoozles!" and the unmistakable sound of splattering mud.

"Oh, now that's just not fair!" Sokka whined loudly from somewhere out of sight. He staggered into view moments later, and Katara and Aang both found themselves stopped short by choking laughter. The young warrior was covered from head to toe in mud, his club gripped loosely in one fist while the other hand clutched at his side. He appeared to be exhausted.

Not noticing Aang and Katara, Sokka shouted, "I took out five of your warriors! Five!"

"It only takes one to strike the finishing blow. Next time, take them all out," Toph called back, walking into view from the opposite direction. Following her was what looked like a mockery of a man made entirely of mud, holding a mud-club in its hand. In fact, if Katara looked close enough, she could see a lumpy mud-ponytail sticking out of the mud warrior's head, and that realization only made her giggle more.

Toph grinned vaguely in their direction, saying, "Hey Sweetness, Twinkletoes. How was shopping?"

"It was okay," Aang said once he found the breath to speak, setting down the bag of food next to the tent.

"Well, that's great," Sokka griped irritably, flopping down with a loud grunt. "I'm glad you guys got to have a leisurely trip to town. I just spent the past four hours getting attacked by mud monsters! I feel like I'm going to die!"

"Any chance you could wash off before dying?" Katara asked, smirking at her older brother and snickering anew at the site. She didn't think there was a single part of him that wasn't coated in mud somehow. "You smell," she added, less due to truth and more because it was her job as a little sister to inform him of his stench at least once weekly, if not daily.

"Thanks sis'," came Sokka's expected reaction, a weak moan from the slumped over mud blob that was once her brother. "You're all heart."

"Oh, stop whining," Toph said. She had wandered over to Aang to grab one of his bags, and was currently sorting through some of the food supplies with him. Or, to be more precise, she was holding each item of produce out and collecting any dirt that still clung to it before Aang sorted them by type. She paused for a moment as she spoke to Sokka and, with a sharp tilt of her head, made all of the mud rush off him in a small earth wave.

The mud came together in a circle on the ground, and then it formed up into a three-foot tall imitation of Sokka. It was much more precise than the mud warrior from before, and as Katara watched, she saw Toph move the figure around like it was ranting and raving, waving around its tiny club and attacking the ground with a vengeance. Katara snickered and Aang laughed out loud, and Sokka made a face before declaring regally, "I am going to go bathe now."

He got four steps before pausing. He glared back at them and shouted, "TOPH! Make that thing stop following me!"

The Mud Sokka made a pouting face and sat cross-legged on its mound of dirt. Aang actually fell over with laughter as Sokka stalked off grumbling, and Toph smirked.

"Speaking of mud," Toph said as she dusted off the last potato and waited for Aang to stop laughing, "You and I need to train, Twinks. You've been off shopping all day."

"Okay, sure," Aang agreed amiably, sitting back up and collecting the vegetables all together. He brought them over to Katara, who had begun to set out some fresh dry branches to start the fire. He added, "Actually, Katara and I have something to talk to you and Sokka about, too. It's about this spirit nearby--"

"Save it for dinner," Toph cut him off, waving a hand carelessly. "Sokka's the one who'll want to hear about it anyway, if it's nearby, and it'll be faster to tell both of us together."

"That's probably a good point," Katara agreed. She grabbed a couple carrots and a knife, then gestured to Aang, "You go off and train. I'm okay with making dinner tonight, and it's going to be awhile."

"Good," Toph said before Aang could respond. Katara could see a lingering smirk on her face, and suddenly felt very sympathetic toward Aang. "Today's lesson is gonna be fun."

From the look on Aang's face, he had noticed the smirk too.


"I got this idea when I was helping Sokka train," Toph said as they headed out to the nearest clear valley she could find. It was a bit more difficult to do some of the more intense earth-bending in a forest, being that there were fewer rocks and a lot more plant life to contend with, but Toph couldn't control where they would be on any given day, so she had to make do with what she could. It wasn't that big of a deal, really; the thing with earthbending was that she could teach it nearly anywhere (the North or South poles being the exception, obviously, as ice coated the entire land), and there were always different applications of earth that she could use.

Besides, it made her come up with some creative lessons, which at the least helped keep Aang interested.

"Today, I want to focus on finding the weak points in rock," Toph explained further. Aang was sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree, his feet just barely touching the ground, but Toph could feel his leg twitching in anticipation. "You're going to use hand-to-hand combat to battle one of my mud warriors -- no bending, I mean it -- and you have to sense the imperfection that I put in there. Once you know where it is, strike it and you'll defeat them. Otherwise, you're gonna get crushed."

"Okay," Aang said, jumping off the trunk. She could feel him nodding by the way his feet rocked a little on the heels, and he said, "Find the flaw and strike. Shouldn't be too difficult."

"Not at first," Toph said. "I'll give you a trial run so you can figure out how to sense the weak point, but after that you're gonna have a time limit. Take too long and you're going to be even muddier than Sokka."

"Gotcha," Aang replied agreeably, watching as Toph summoned a new mud warrior from the ground. This one was shorter than before and looked like a faceless Aang, with long, thin limbs and no hair. Aang snickered at the imitation and then rocked back into an attack position, waiting for an attack.

He was still waiting a minute later, when nothing had yet happened.

"Um, are we starting?" he asked, sounding confused.

"Um, are you forgetting something?" Toph mocked back at him, standing just to the side of the meadow, leaning against a tree. She heard him sigh loudly after a moment's thought, and she grinned, knowing that he remembered. "Blindfold or no go, Twinkletoes. Seeing is for lame Air-benders, not awesome Earth-benders."

Toph couldn't see, but she knew that Aang was making a face at her.

Blindfold on and ready, Aang settled into position again. Without warning, Toph launched her warrior at him, swinging a punch at Aang's abdomen swiftly. Aang leapt backwards, instinctively leaving the ground out of surprise.

"No bending, Twinkletoes!" Toph snapped instantly.

"Sorry!" Aang replied, sounding startled. By the way he landed, she could tell he had fallen back into a flip before landing, and was mildly impressed. Airbenders -- or at the least Aang, who was the only airbender Toph knew -- seemed to have a natural sort of agility. When she wasn't trying to fight against it, it was really fun to observe how instinctive it was for Aang to twist and turn in effective evasive maneuvers.

The instant Aang settled back to the ground, Toph attacked again, sending her warrior out to strike him on the side of the head. This time Aang ducked and struck back, a glancing blow on its flank. The warrior simply spun around in a roundhouse kick, catching Aang in the gut and sending him flying into a nearby tree. Toph had to hand it to Aang: he was up in seconds with nothing more than a grumbled moan to show how much the attack had to have hurt, and was launching himself back at his opponent with impressive speed.

This time he aimed for the mud warrior's knee, to no avail. The two fighters sparred for a while before Toph realized that Aang wasn't doing much more than playing a guessing game. He kept striking at different parts of the warrior, as if to discover the weak point by process of elimination rather than by feeling the earth.

"Twinkletoes!" Toph snapped, and at least Aang had the presence of mind not to be distracted by her yelling at him, because she made her warrior keep attacking. "You need to feel the imperfection, not find it by luck!"

Aang grunted in response, too busy fighting to give a proper response, and she let them continue in relative silence for awhile. Then she felt Aang strike the ground twice sharply with his foot, a move that had become their signal to call a halt to training in case Aang was otherwise too occupied to voice it. She ceased her warrior's movements and asked, "What?"

"I can't feel it," Aang replied. "I keep trying to feel the earth for a problem, but it's moving too fast for me to get a handle on it."

Toph considered Aang's point, then walked over to where the battle had halted. She brought her warrior up to stand straight -- it had been left in a crouch when the battle had stopped -- and gestured to its form as she offered, "You can take off your blindfold for this if you want."

Aang did so, and Toph continued, "Now, the thing about finding flaws is that it's not just an earth-bending move. If you're fighting a real person, the same kind of observation is needed. That's one way that earth-bending can really help, even in a situation where you're not necessarily using it. You can tell from the earth if someone is putting too much weight on one foot or leaning too far into a punch, things like that. If you get really good at seeing with your feet, you can even tell how fast a person's heart is beating and let that tell you how tired your opponent is, that sort of thing."

"But that doesn't work with fighting mud," Aang replied smartly.

"No, but the same concept applies, just in a different way," Toph explained. "If there was more rock around I would have used that, actually, because this technique is primarily based around imperfection in rock. To be honest, finding these flaws in real life will probably be a lot easier than in my training, because unless another Earth-bender attacks you using rock warriors like I am, the rock should be stationary. Still, fighting like this will help you find the flaw quickly.

"The key to this training," Toph continued, "is being able to locate the part of the warrior here," she patted its constructed shoulder, "that feels weaker. It's hard when it's moving, so just try to find it right now."

She felt Aang go still, concentrating.

After a few moments, she added, "It's not like a scan, Twinkletoes. It's something that you should be observing instinctually when you first feel it with your feet. It's like seeing someone lean heavily on one foot, but its part of the earth. Just feel where the earth feels less compact, like there's some kind of fissure. Rock will be the same. And trust me, most dirt and stone will have more flaws that what I've created here. It's natural for there to be multiple weak points spaced out throughout. You need to find the weakest spot."

Aang gave a soft, "Hmm," in acknowledgement, still focusing his attention on the motionless mud warrior in front of him. A few more seconds passed quietly, and then Aang reached out and brought his hand down in a sharp swipe against the warrior's collarbone. The entire construct dissolved in a mess of dirt clumps.

"Good," Toph confirmed, nodding once. "Now, do that again when you're fighting. Blindfold back on." Without further pause, she re-formed the warrior with a new flaw in place and sent it swinging at Aang.

Aang swung back, rapidly tying his blindfold just afterward, but this time he didn't keep striking at random points. Instead, he parried every blow the mud warrior threw at him and waited, trying to feel out the new weak point in the dirt. Toph could feel his feet dancing around on the ground, light as always, and crossed her arms as she kept up the attack. It was taking him too long.

"You have one minute left, Twinkletoes!" she called out, and could tell by Aang's racing heartbeat that he was starting to panic about not being able to tell where the weak point was. He even started to strike randomly again, but it was too late; after a minute had passed, Toph made the creature explode in a shower of mud, coating Aang generously.

"Blah," Aang said after the explosion of mud, sounding disgusted. "I think I swallowed a worm."

"Too bad," Toph said. "What's your problem now? Did I not baby-step you enough on this process, or what?"

"It was just going too fast," Aang admitted sheepishly, and Toph was pleased to see that he didn't seem any worse for wear in response to her berating him. Katara still worried about Aang's poor feelings and made sure to let Toph know that, but as far as training was concerned, Toph was pretty sure she and Aang had a decent understanding. Toph was allowed to be as dismissive and disdainful as she wished in training, and they both knew that it didn't mean anything outside of training.

"Well, this time you'd better get it," Toph snapped, "or I'll make sure you really do swallow a worm." She summoned up another mud warrior and sent it rushing at Aang.

This time didn't prove to be much better, but as Aang continued to fight and grow rapidly frustrated, Toph began to realize what the problem might be.

"Twinkletoes!" she called out. "You need to think outside the box!" Aang hesitated briefly in his attack, which forced him to duck and do a quick swing kick to get the upper hand. Toph continued, "You're thinking of you opponent like it's a human, but it's not!"

Aang dodged and rolled to the left, and as he came up he asked quickly, "What do you mean?"

"Just because it looks like a person doesn't mean the weak point is going to the same as a human's," Toph explained sharply. "You're not going to find the weak point if you don't look at the whole picture!"

With those words, Aang seemed to give pause, allowing himself to rest a little more heavily on his feet as he considered them. He fought hand-to-hand with the mud warrior, no longer trying as actively to evade the attacks, and after a few moments, he got it. Toph could feel his understanding through her feet by the way he suddenly rolled forward on the balls of his feet and dug his toes into the earth, something that he tended to avoid normally, even while earthbending. With a swift strike, he shattered the mud warrior's right elbow.

His opponent collapsed in front of him lifelessly. Aang shifted, and then bent down toward it in a mocking little bow. Toph resisted the urge to snort, and kept her face impassive as Aang turned to regard her.

She kept silent for a few moments, letting Aang reflect on the lesson. "Good," she said simply, not moving from her spot against the tree. Then she allowed herself to smirk, adding, "Now let's do it ten more times."

"What?" Aang asked, startled, but anything else he wanted to say was cut off by his yelp of surprise as a newly formed mud warrior struck him from behind.


Dinner was well finished by the time Katara and Aang told Toph and Sokka about the situation in town. Toph was skeptical but accepting, agreeing that Aang was probably the only person around who could potentially do something about the spirit long-term. Sokka, however, was a little more defensively minded about the whole matter.

"Look, I feel bad for them," Sokka defended against Katara and Aang's protests, looking apprehensively at the outrage on their faces. "But I'm just thinking about our safety too. This isn't just a little bit of spiritual unrest. The Wild Woman is a wraith. I've heard stories about those, and they're bad. Really bad."

"No one else can help them," Aang argued again, noting Katara nodding along with him out of the corner of his eye. "I'm the Avatar. What's the point of me being the bridge between our worlds if I can't banish bad spirits?"

"He has a point," Toph agreed casually, lying on her back alongside the fire. She was chewing on a stalk of grass thoughtfully as everyone debated around her, choosing not to involve herself unnecessarily. She added, "But Sokka makes a good point too. Why should we risk our lives for this town? The situation sucks, yeah, but they've dealt with it for a long time, and we already have a quest that we need to complete."

"Exactly," Sokka said, pointing down at Toph. "Just what she said. I mean, it's bad enough that we still have those three Fire nation girls chasing us -- and just because we haven't seen them in awhile doesn't mean they're not still out there - but have you thought about actually fighting the Wild Woman? What if she kills you? This isn't a great time for the world to be without the Avatar again."

"Well, that's not really a problem," Katara admitted quietly. "She doesn't kill men."

"So she could kill you, Katara! Or Toph! That isn't exactly a comfort!"

"She's not going to," Aang said, though he felt yet another pang of worry as he glanced in Katara's direction. He shook it away, not wanting to think of either of his female friends being in danger, insisting, "If I can't talk to her, I should be able to send her back to the spirit world."

"How do you know that?" Sokka asked. "Have you ever banished a spirit before? Have you ever even met a wraith?"

"Have you?" Katara shot back.

"I don't need to meet a wraith to know its bad news!"

"Look," Aang interrupted the beginning fight, his voice both lower and stronger than it normally was. Both siblings turned to look at him, looking mildly surprised, and he said, "I've decided to help these people. I wanted to talk to everyone, but the fact of the matter is, I am the Avatar. If I don't help this town -- if I can't keep the peace here --, then what good am I for the world? I can't just pick and choose where I'm needed."

Sokka seemed to deflate at this statement, and Katara looked rather proud. No one said anything in response, prompting a bit of an awkward silence, but before it became uncomfortable, Toph abruptly sat up and flexed her hands against the ground, frowning.

"Looks like we'll need to stick behind your decision, Twinkletoes," she said, pointing in the direction of the town. "We have company."

Aang turned to look, and though he couldn't hear any people yet, he could make out the flickering light of torches approaching them from between the scattered trees. It was already dark out, making the lights standing out all the stronger, and Aang found himself wondering what could have prompted anyone to come seek them out at this hour. Especially a group of people, he considered, counting the number of torches.

"Let's go meet them," Katara suggested, grabbing onto Toph's wrist and heading toward the woods. Toph allowed herself to be lead, though Aang suspected both she and Katara knew it was more for Katara's safety than her own. Toph didn't have any more trouble "seeing" at night than during the day.

Aang moved to follow them, but was stopped short by Sokka's hand on his shoulder. He tensed, knowing that Sokka was still angry by the way the discussion has turned out, but he turned to look at him straight in the eyes.

"First off," Sokka began, with a serious expression that Aang didn't often see on his face, "I've got your back. I want you to know that."

Aang nodded thankfully, saying, "Thank you, Sokka."

"But," Sokka added, "this doesn't put you in danger, Aang. It puts Katara and Toph in more danger than both of us. My little sister, Aang," Sokka emphasized, and Aang could read the tension in his eyes. "And don't tell Toph I said it, but she's no stronger than the rest of us against a spirit."

"I know," Aang admitted, feeling the reality of the situation weigh down on his shoulders and missing the confidence he had felt only moments before. He laid his hand on Sokka's and gripped it. "I promise I'll banish the Wild Woman. I don't want them to get hurt either."

Sokka held his gaze for a tense, silent moment, then nodded and gave him a half-hearted grin, jerking his head in the direction that Katara and Toph had headed. "C'mon," he said, pulling Aang along by the shoulder. "We should probably see what the issue is."

They headed toward the flickering torchlight, following the dark outlines of Toph and Katara ahead of them. By the time Sokka and Aang arrived at the spot where everyone had stopped, things seemed to have calmed down a bit. Aang could see Lao Mei Ying standing at the head of the group, looking frazzled, with the farmer and his wife looking distraught beside her. A couple other men had come as well, including one of the young men from before, who had been eyeing Lao Mei Ying's charms with interest.

"What happened?" Aang asked as they approached, trying to look wise and stoic. He thought he saw Sokka subtly roll his eyes, and figured the look was working.

"Another girl has been taken," Katara explained, looking worried.

"My precious Li Wen!" the farmer cried out. His face was blotched red with anger and frustration, and he clenched his fist reflexively as he spoke, as if wishing for an opponent to attack. He whirled on the young man from before, shouting, "All because of this street boy--!"

"Honey, stop that!" chastised his wife quietly, though she didn't look at the boy in question.

The aforementioned "street boy" looked horrified and guilty, not daring to look at the man. He explained to Aang, pleadingly, "I bought her a charm! It took all of my savings, but I bought one!"

"Wait," Sokka interrupted, holding up a hand. "What happened, exactly?"

"Chen Dawei angered the Wild Woman," Lao Mei Ying explained, her voice as calm as she could manage to try and quell the rising emotions. "He unfortunately did not stay on the safe pass."

"I was late!" Chen Dawei protested, though from his expression it was clear he knew this excuse was flimsy. "It would have taken too long to get to market by the regular path and the produce would have all rotted, and I just thought--"

"Oh, blast what you thought!" snarled the farmer angrily. "Because of you, my daughter was taken by the Wild Woman! All because you had the nerve to try and court her, without my permission, I might add!"

"I bought her a charm!" Chen Dawei protested again. "I did! She must have taken it off to bathe or something."

"Did she know what it was for?" Katara asked.

"Of course!" Chen Dawei said. "He Li Wen was worried about it too, when I told her that I had seen the image of the Wild Woman in the forest, but we both -- well, I mean, the spirit never spoke to me. She just--" and at this juncture, the boy shivered, looking nervously into the dark forest around them. "She just glared at me," he finished weakly.

"That's all the Wild Woman needs to do," Lao Mei Ying said sadly, eyes distant. "She herself got no more warning."

"Whatever her methods," the farmer said, "my little girl is out there! Avatar," he pleaded, turning toward Aang and looking him straight in the eyes, "please tell me that you've decided to help us! Please tell me you can save my daughter!"

Aang hesitated at the sudden plea, brow furrowing, and Lao Mei Ying took this to be confusion. She stepped forward and explained, "The Wild Woman does not kill her victims immediately. Generally, it could take between two to three days."

What wasn't voiced was the ominous reality that hung over everyone's head: it could take between two to three days for the missing girl to suffer and die.

Aang swallowed, trying to quell the foul feeling in his stomach at the thought of such a fate. He solidified his stance on the earth and felt a bit more confident as he said, "I'll go to find your daughter, sir. And I'll do my best to banish this spirit."

"Thank you," the farmer said gratefully, falling down to his knees in front of Aang. Startled by this action, which was shortly echoed by the farmer's wife, Aang froze, meeting eyes with Katara awkwardly. She shrugged back at him, though Aang got the impression she was amused by his disconcertion.

"One problem," Sokka said from his place behind Aang, calling the attention of the crowd toward him. "Do you guys know where she is?"

Silence followed the statement, and Lao Mei Ying admitted, "It's always different. The Wild Woman claims the entire forest as her own, and some girls are never found at all."

"There's no way he could search the entire forest!" Chen Dawei bemoaned, looking distraught. The farmer and his wife had gone still at Aang's feet, worry clear on their faces, and Aang bit his lip nervously. He looked at Katara again, who stared back with a helpless expression. Aang looked up at the sky, considering; perhaps with Appa, he could send out a search party one way while he took his glider the other -- but no, it was too dark and the trees were too thick, they wouldn't be able to see through --

"I can find her," Toph's voice said from nearby, where she was standing a ways away from the group. She flexed her feet into the soft earth, frowning a bit and concentrating. Then she nodded, "Yeah, I should be able to. I'll need everyone to stop moving around, though."

Aang, Sokka and Katara all obediently stopped moving, knowing Toph's strong abilities with earthbending, but the rest of the crowd was less accommodating. Only moments after Toph began to focus her energy -- crouching down to put both hands on the ground as well, for extra power --, Chen Dawei stepped over to Sokka and whispered loudly, "What is she doing? Is she try--"

"I said to stop moving!" Toph commanded with a sharp tone. "And that includes moving your mouth!"

Chen Dawei went rigid in surprise, clearly intimidated by the tiny earthbender. Aang, Sokka and Katara all exchanged amused glances. Everyone else in the group took heed of Toph's short temper and kept still, watching with interest as she dug her fingers and toes into the ground and knelt there motionlessly.

A few long moments later, Toph began to nod reflexively, and Aang was reminded of how the monks looked in the Air Temples when they were deep in meditation. Then Toph abruptly stood up, nodded once more decisively, and pointed without turning her head to the south west. "She's there," Toph confirmed, "about a mile away, by a stream. Still alive, too. I was able to sense her fighting."

"Oh," the farmer's wife said faintly, looking torn between being relief and terror.

"Let's go," Aang said, nodding at Katara and Sokka. He looked back at the rest of the party and said, "It'd be better to involve as few people as we can. We can find your daughter and bring her back."

"Thank you," Lao Mei Ying said solemnly, bowing to the four of them. The rest of the villagers made to speak as well, but Aang waved their comments away, knowing that time was of the essence.

He looked at Toph, saying, "Lead the way," knowing that unless Toph could feel the earth, finding He Li Wen would be next to impossible, even with Toph's spoken directions. Sokka and Katara fell in beside him and followed as Toph took off into the woods.


END PART 1
WORD COUNT: approx. 7,600

Reviewing is love! 3