A/N: ...And here's the promised conclusion. I've realised that for this story, I tend to upload a pair of chapters (a single episode) relatively close to each other but I have a big break in between.
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Not long after they finished dinner, Zuko led the Gaang to a large building near the outskirts of town. As Sokka looked up at the name of the shop, he could barely make out the faded characters that spelt out "Pao's Weapon Emporium"
Excited, Sokka clapped his hands in glee. "Shopping! "
Rushing into the store, Sokka ran his hands along the racks of weapons, occasionally reaching in and grabbing a weapon and testing its heft.
"Maybe a little something to reinvigorate my battling." Pulling a nunchaku from the rack, he begins to twirl it experimentally. "Hey, how about these ? Ho-ya! Smack-a-dacka-doo!" Twirling the nunchaku faster and faster, he begins to try and flip them around his body. After a few initial successes, he smacked himself in his face, knocking himself over. In the process, he also managed to knock over a rack of pole weapons.
"Way to go, Snoozles. You're a one-man army, alright." Toph snorted sarcastically, grinning like a crazy badger-mole.
"Hey Katara, what do you think of this?" Katara looks over to Aang, smiling at her brother's antics. She looks and is momentarily shocked. She could barely see Aang through the armour that he had donned. It was all harsh edges and jagged spines, made out of a dark, yet strangely reflective, metal that looked extremely heavy. "Pretty heroic, huh? All I need to complete the outfit is a wind sword.
Shielding her eyes from the lens flare coming off of the armour, Katara asked Aang the logical question. "What's a wind sword ?"
Suddenly, Zuko butted in. "It's a rumoured Air Nomad weapon from back before they were 'enlightened'. It's just a sword handle and hilt that they use to focus their airbending into a condensed blade of air." Seeing the flabbergasted looks on Katara and Aang's faces, he merely shrugged. "What? I was preparing for a fully awakened Air Nomad Avatar who had survived Sozin's comet. I figured that he would have started to use lethal weapons."
Swallowing back her fear, Katara turned to Aang. "Is it... true? Would you have used a lethal weapon?"
Trying to regain Katara's trust, Aang tries to stammer out an answer that pleasing to her. "I mean, what I meant to say was..." As he had been talking, he had tried to move his arms, which had begun to tip the armour. Katara and Zuko reached out to grab him, but Aang pulled his arm away from Zuko and Katara missed him, making him fall to the floor in a mighty crash, toppling another rack of polearms down the aisle, much to Sokka's pleasure.
"Hah! I'm not the only walking disaster area, Toph. Take it back!"
Sheepishly, Aang called from the floor, still encased in his steel cage. "I think that I'll just stick to what I got."
As Sokka tries out various other weapons, including a massive iron club, sai and guandao, Katara and Zuko help Aang out of his armour, with Zuko lecturing the entire time. "That's not how you attach a vambrace! No wonder you could barely move... did you just slap this on in whatever order you picked it up in?"
Hearing Sokka's nearly reverential gasp, everybody turned to see what had caught his eye this time. They see a sword mounted on a wall plaque, raised above the others. A beautifully crafted sword is tucked into an equally well crafted scabbard featuring a design of a dragon. Zuko noticed a subtle lotus flower worked into the hilt of the sword. No.... it's not possible....
Walking right up to the sword, Sokka purrs to himself as he practically pets the sword. "That's what Sokka's talking about. "
From behind the assembled gang, a strong voice rings out. "You have an excellent eye, young man. That's probably the finest blade in this shop." Turning, the Gaang sees the owner of the shop walk up to them. "That there's a Piandao original. Forged from the finest grade steel by the hand of the famous Piandao himself, greatest swordsman and sword smith in the history of recorded Fire Nation history. He actually has a country home not far from here, a big castle up the road from here. Here's there now, actually." Walking away, the shopkeeper goes to help an older gentleman looking at the various spears next to the knocked over rack.
Snapping his fingers, Aang said: "That's it. That's exactly what you've needed all along, Sokka."
Still stroking the sword, Sokka looks distractedly at Aang out of the corner of his eye as he makes to pull the sword off its rack. "A sword?"
"Not the sword…a master. We've all had masters to help us get better. You should see if you can study with Piandao."
Getting caught up in the enthusiasm, Katara started nodding. "That's a great idea, Aang. I could've never gotten to where I am without Master Pakku. Everyone needs a teacher, right guys?"
"I learned from badger moles. They don't talk, but they're still good teachers." Toph said, giving Sokka an affectionate punch on the arm.
"And I had Uncle Ir... I mean Uncle." Zuko threw a suspicious look around the shop, to see if anybody had caught his near slip of the tongue. "But don't expect it to be easy. Piandao only takes the most promising of pupils."
"And how would you know?" Aang threw a glare at Zuko. Try and one-up me in front of Katara, will you? I'm just glad that she's forgotten about the whole lethal weapon thing...
A slight flush crept onto Zuko's cheeks as he looked down. "Ummm... no reason. Rumour, you know, I hear a lot of it." Only Katara saw him nervously stroke the handles of the dao blades that he had picked out for himself.
Pulling the sword from the scabbard, Sokka lets loose a low whistle at the fine quality of the blade. "It would be nice to be a master swordfighter. All right, I'll talk to him."
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"I can't believe that Sokka didn't let us come with him. I mean, did he think that we'd embarrass him, or something?" Toph complained, picking at her ear and grinning victoriously as she got some ear wax out and flicked it away. "I mean, come on, I'm one of the Bei Fongs, so I'm practically Earth Kingdom royalty, and Sparky here literally is royalty."
The Gaang (minus Sokka) finds themselves in the country side with little to occupy their time. They're lying down in a circle, flat on their backs as Momo leisurely flies around and Appa takes a nap under a makeshift shelter. Momo finally lands next to Katara, in between her and Zuko, and lies don for a nap. They all fall silent after Toph's question, until finally Aang summons up the courage to say something.
"I'm bored.... What should we do today ?"
"Don't look at me, Twinkle Toes. I'm tapped out. I already picked my toes, twice."
"The first time was for cleaning, but the second time was just for the sweet picking sensation."
"Sokka's been in charge of the schedule. I'm... really not sure what we should be doing."
Picking her nose, Toph joins in:"Plus, it's so hot today."
Trying to get some life back in the group, Aang jokingly asks Toph "how hot is it?"
"I don't know. Real hot "
Sitting up, Katara tries to make a joke. "It's so hot, it's so hot…Momo is shedding like Appa!" Petting Momo, she desperately gropes for loose tufts of hair and flicks them from her fingers. Looking around wildly, she tries to gauge the reaction to her joke. "Huh, huh ?"
Scratching his head, Aang smiles helplessly in her direction. "I guess the jokes don't run in the family."
Throwing up her hands in disgust, Katara harrumphs. "Oh, everyone's a critic." Nobody can see Zuko's small, secret smile at her lame attempt at joking.
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Hours later, the Gaang is all napping when suddenly Toph jumps up and yells at them to wake them up. "Sokka's coming!"
Aang and Katara wake up, gasping and smiling excitedly. Zuko slowly wakes up, surprisingly excited that Sokka's on his way back. He supposed that he had enjoyed the peace and quiet, all too rare in his life, but he could certainly do with a change of pace.
As Sokka walks up the hill, he calls out to the Gaang. "Hey, guys. What are you doing?"
Aang, Katara, and Toph all jump at Sokka and give him a group hug while Zuko hangs back in the shade, smiling at the bonding as he feels a slight twinge of jealousy. He wished that he and Azula could share a bond like that, instead of them being at each other's throats like they are. He's snatched from his musings as the others all start talking at once.
"We missed you so much!"
Aang pulled back for a second. "Quick, Sokka, say something funny."
Giving Aang a sidelong look, Sokka asked; "Funny how?"
As both Aang and Katara laugh heartily, Zuko walks over to them and Sokka asks him and Toph "What's their deal?"
"I don't know. They missed you or something. I didn't care" As Toph turns away blushing and hides behind Zuko, he puts his arm out for Sokka.
"We're just glad that you're back."
"Thanks, Toph. That warms my heart. Anyways, guys, I need some help."
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Not much later, the entire Gaang is pushing the meteorite up the slope to Piandao's estate. While the others are physically pushing, Toph is forcing it uphill with her earthbending, doing the majority of the work. The irony is not lost on Sokka – the smallest member of their team is doing the most work. As the reach the door, Sokka steps out from behind the meteorite and knocks both of the wrought iron door knockers ferociously. Almost immediately, Piandao opens one of the doors and steps out and sees the team assembled around the black rock.
"Who's this, Pupil Sokka?"
Suppressing the urge to flinch, Sokka makes a broad gesture at them. "Oh, these are my friends. Just other good Fire Nation folks." Piandao greets them all by bowing to each of them in turn. As he bows to Zuko, Zuko is positive that he sees a spark of recognition. Please let him not remember me... At the slow smile that passes over Piandao's face, however, Zuko knows that he does. To his surprise, however, Piandao says nothing as Sokka continues. "Do you think we can make a sword out of a meteorite?"
Laying a hand on the meteorite, Piandao smiles. "We'll make a sword unlike any other in the world."
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At the end of the day, when the sun was kissing the horizon, Sokka sits in front of Piandao with Katara, Aang, Zuko and Toph behind him. Motioning his butler to come forth with Sokka's sword, he begins to speak.
"Sokka, when you first arrived, you were so unsure. You even seemed down on yourself. But I saw something in you right away. I saw a heart as strong as a lion turtle, and twice as big. And as we trained, it wasn't your skills that impressed me." With a fond smile on his face, he silently chuckles. "No, it certainly wasn't your skills.
As Sokka looked at the ground, trying to hide his shame, Piandao continued. "You showed something beyond that." Unsheathing the sword, the slowly dying sunlight shimmered off of the pristine obsidian blade. "Creativity, versatility, intelligence…these are the traits that define a great swordsman. And these are the traits that define you." Sheathing the sword, he kneels to Sokka's level and hands him the blade. "When you came before me, you told me you didn't know if you were worthy, but I believe that you are more worthy than any man I have ever trained."
Sokka looks up to him to see the elderly swordsman smiling at him with a look of gentle pride in his eyes. Unable to stand it any longer, he bows his head in shame and admits his dark secret. "I'm sorry, Master. You're wrong. I am not worthy. I'm not who you think I am. I'm not from the Fire Nation. I'm from the Southern Water Tribe." Aang, Katara, and Toph all gawk at Sokka with shock and disbelief as Zuko slaps his head with his palm. "I lied so that I could learn swordsmanship from you. I'm sorry." Holding up his still-sheathed blade, Sokka surrenders the masterpiece to him.
Piandao frowns at this, and closes his eyes. "I am sorry as well, pupil." He quickly turns back around and swings his sword at Sokka. Sokka stands and avoids the attack, using his sheathed sword to block a thrust from Piandao. The Gaang gets up to help Sokka, but he holds them back with an upraised palm.
"No, this is my fight, alone." They are all silent as they descend from the summer house and enter a massive courtyard. In the courtyard, there is a ring set up for fighting, and Sokka and Piandao take opposing ends.
Aang, Katara, Toph, and Zuko watch from the upper part of the main building. Sokka takes an offensive stance, holding his blade nearly parallel to the ground near his ear, while Piandao takes a much more relaxed stance, holding his sword in front of him, pointing at the ground. Piandao starts the fight unexpectedly, striking at Sokka a handful of times, gauging his defence. Sokka manages to deflect the blows and manages to throw in a light counter attack. Piandao tries to sweep Sokka's feet out from underneath him with a sweeping strike, but he nimbly jumps over it. Zuko catches Piandao's small smile, but the others miss it, too entranced by the impressive swordsmanship. As the fight continues and eventually leaves the main courtyard, the Gaang is left wondering – Who will win this?
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A few minutes later, Sokka comes running out of the bamboo at the edge of the fighting ring and back towards the marked area, screaming in terror and with Piandao not 10 feet behind him. Taking a look behind him, he notices that his opponent has vanished. Taking a few steps ahead as he turns, he sees Piandao in front of him, who promptly pokes his sword out in front of Sokka, trying to make him run into it. Sokka manages to lean back just in time, the blade coming a fingers width from slicing off his nose.
Stumbling forward, Sokka stabs his sword into the ground to stop his fall. Using his momentum, Sokka swings his sword back around, breaking the surface of the arena and flinging dirt and dust at Piandao. Momentarily blinded, the swordsmaster brings his blade behind him, hand extended in front, protecting his flank as he tilts his head to the side and tries to find his opponent as he blinks the dirt from his eyes. "Very resourceful, Sokka. Using the environment to your advantage. Smart."
Sokka nervously raises his sword defensively. He then slowly tries to sneak away, careful not to make any noises that would give away his location. Unfortunately, Sokka steps on the only twig left on Piandao's impeccable grounds, snapping it. Piandao turns his head towards Sokka when he hears it. He twirls his sword around into an offensive position and charges forward. Sokka takes a step back as Piandao closes in and stabs at him. Sokka barely manages to parry the attack, and Piandao catches Sokka's blade with his own, twirling his blade around the jet black sword twice before throwing it wide, embedding it into the ground.
Piandao swings his arm in a huge arc that looks like a finishing move, and Sokka closes his eyes, not wanting to see his death on the blade of this surprisingly honourable Fire Nation warrior. Sokka is surprised, however, when instead of a slicing sensation, he feels a jarring impact as he's knocked onto his butt. Opening his eyes, he sees Piandao's steel blade quivering in place between his eyeballs, not two inches from his skin. Team Avatar all jump down to Sokka's defence and rush towards him. Piandao, however, suddenly pulls his blade from its position near Sokka's face and points it at them.
"Excellent work, Sokka." Piandao says with the faintest traces of pride in his voice. As Sokka looks at the man with a guarded look, the older man motions to his butler. A swirl of displaced air whooshed by the team as Piandao's scabbard came flying from the shadows. Without sparing it a glance, and stil blinded by the dirt, he adjusts his sword and the sheath flies on with no difficulty. With a grin, Piandao looks at the team and smiles. "I think I'm a little old to be fighting the Avatar, wouldn't you say?"
The team all take relaxed stances and look him in shock as Zuko shakes in head. "How did you know?" Aang asks, his jaw nearly touching the ground.
Laughing, Piandao takes the cloth that his butler brought out and wipes at his eyes as Sokka stands up. "Oh, I've been around a while. You pick things up, don't you, Prince Zuko?" As the group slowly realised that he had known who they were all along, he continued. "Of course, I knew from the beginning that Sokka was Water Tribe. You might want to think of a better Fire Nation cover name, by the way. Try 'Lee' There's a million of them in the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdoms."
Flabbergasted, Katara managed to close her mouth long enough to speak: "But why would you agree to train someone from the Water Tribes? We're your enemy!"
"Silly girl" he chided gently. "The way of the sword doesn't belong to any one nation. Knowledge of the arts belongs to us all." Grabbing Sokka's sword, he hands it back to him. "Sokka, you must continue your training on your own. If you stay on this path, I am sure that that one day you will become a master that will rival the greatest swordsmen of any age."
As the Gaang is leaving through the doors, Zuko finally noticed what had been bugging him this entire time. There was Lotus flowers everywhere. Subtly carved into the walls, floors.... there was even a massive one on the door! Sokka stopped for a second to give Toph a hunk of the meteorite, and as she started paying with it, they could hear a voice calling to them from the main house. The butler came running up to them, and he handed Zuko and Sokka a small package each. "The Master wanted you to have these, as something to remember him by."
Opening his bag, Sokka took out a small, hexagonal tile. Flipping it around, he noticed a White Lotus on it. "It's a Pai Sho tile."
As he looked to Zuko, he saw him holding his own matching tile, as well as a small, sheathed dagger. Looking at Zuko, he could see Zuko's smile that told him that he knew what the deal was with the tile. Before he could ask, however, Zuko unsheathed his dagger, and gasps came from all around. It was a beautifully embellished dagger, with a jet-black blade. Inlaid in silver were characters spelling out "Piandao". As Zuko turned the blade over in his hands, the group could see an actual smile appear on his face. The other side was inlaid with silver as well, except the description was different. This time, they spelt out: "Destiny is a funny thing"
Closing A/N: ...And so, Zuko's got his swords back. In case I implied that he already had them... you never read that (please? :p). The dagger is epic, and, of course, I couldn't resist making Zuko a member of the White Lotus. I mean, Sokka knows NOTHING about it, and Piandao gave it to him. I don't really like this half of the chapter, so I may do a re-write later on. As always, Reviews are amazing. Until next time, Densharr out.