Thanks to Kira Kyuu for the proofread.
Chapter 27: A New Day
The sun rose on a new day, the sunlight glimmering off the ice and snow, promising better days with its warmth … even if the landscape could be considered anything but welcoming with its below freezing temperatures. Regardless of the sun's promises, the Northern Water Tribe was currently in a sullen mood as it took care of those without a home or shelter as well as the injured. It was shows of kindness and thoughtfulness like that which would make anyone think, even a fire-bender, that the water tribes were just like everyone else. They could be kind, they could be cruel, but they always took care of their own.
Jee, wondering why people were being shifted to other homes to begin with, might have taken time to admire the kindness of the barbarian people, but he had bigger worries. Even pushing the little steamer at full speed, they could not get to the frozen city before sun rise, and they had to waste another hour having Shen look for clothes so the rest of the small team could infiltrate the city as nothing more than hapless water tribesman. Jee still couldn't believe how well Shen pulled off those water tribe clothes … especially since they had been meant for a woman.
"Agni, does he have to flaunt it? It's … disturbing," whispered one aged and scraggly crewman that had come along with the small rescue team; the soldier now was adorn in a fur of blue fabric, scratching at it with every amount of energy he had.
"Perhaps if you stopped scratching yourself so avidly," growled the lieutenant as he glared back at his subordinate, Yong. "Shen has to keep wandering gazes off of us after all."
Yong, scratching at his parka, stalled and gave his superior a sour look as he grumbled, "Well, I'm not use to this fur. I work with metal and engines and blazing hot pipe-work … not scratchy fur."
Jee frowned at his engine-man's words. Right now he didn't need a scene. Instead, they needed to find out what happened to the young prince, not if Yong and the others were enjoying their time as water-barbarians. And yet, just when he was going to hiss some words of discipline, Shen signaled for them to follow.
Lieutenant Jee figured Yong's bad attitude could wait … even though he completely agreed that it was highly disturbing how well Shen flaunted it. Right now he merely wanted all of his men out of this barren wasteland as quickly as possible. He was not ignorant to Shen's shivering nor the pikeman's (Yibito) slightly blue lips. None of them were built for drawn out exposure to the cold … especially if the chill was setting in. True, another fire-bender could warm one of the crewmen until they gone back to the ship, but this was not the time or place to be a fire-bender.
Finally, after giggling (giggling!) with a group of young women that seemed to be carrying fish home for afternoon lunch, Shen lost his fake smile and slowly stalked over to the icy alleyway Jee and the others were currently trying to look inconspicuous in.
"You all look entirely out of place," grumbled Shen as he stepped into the alley, glancing at his fellow countryman, "Especially you, Yong, stop scratching yourself all over. You look like a hog-monkey trying to pick bugs off its back."
Yong stopped scratching and looked ready to defend his honor when Jee step forward and asked in a serious, whispered tone, "And what of Zuko? Have you heard anything?"
Frowning, looking over his shoulder as if he thought someone was watching them, or perhaps to build suspense since the young fire-bender was known for his melodrama, Shen frowned long and hard at the others as if he was about to admit the worse, but suddenly he grinned and blurted out, "He escaped! He got away on his own."
"Really? When? How?" seemed to chime all of the men in the passageway.
Shen's smile, fading into a cringe, shrugged slightly, "Well, sometime yesterday afternoon … after he melted part of the city with a horrific fire-cyclone. Apparently, he activated the Avatar State."
"He what!" cried Jee, his eyes horrified. He actually pulled his hood down and placed a hand over his mouth, his world crumbling down.
If Zuko fully activated the Avatar State then … the Fire Sages must have noticed.
Agni, they knew.
"They know," he whispered.
"Who knows what?" came a deep voice, seal fur boots coming to a halt behind Shen. Everyone in the alley, horrified by the prospect of the Fire Nation actively knowing about the new Avatar, got even more bad news as a scarred water tribesman stalled behind Shen, a half a dozen blue-clad warriors (probably students) behind him.
Shen, eyes going wide, quickly turned around, his breath being pulled in with surprise. He wasn't surprised because the alley had over half a dozen water tribesmen a few feet from skittish battle ready fire-benders, but because his date had somehow found him. Oh joy. He hadn't even been in the city a few hours and the deranged Water Master had already found him! Well, he supposed it wasn't that big of a city, nothing compared to the Fire Nation's capital, but he still had trouble keeping the dread out of his voice.
"Oh Jayendra! I-it's you. I-I haven't seen you since the Moon Festival," choked Shen as he tried to raise his voice an octave or two, praying that the men behind him would catch the hint and try to not be too suspicious. "I-it was a wonderful night. You were such pleasant company and … a great dancer?"
Jayendra, admiring Shen for he was unaware of the nefarious nature the cross dresser really was up to, chuckled, "Well, for being such a good dancer, you sure disappeared quickly afterwards. At first I thought you were hiding from me, because as much as I asked around and looked for you, I could not find a fair-skinned woman named Keemi."
Jee actually choked at this and Yong had to smother a laugh.
Shen, trying to resist the urge to turn around and glare at his countrymen, coughed into his hand and murmured, "Well, you know. I go by lots and lots of nicknames and … ," rubbing his arm as he tried to think of excuses to throw the other off his trail, "I've been so busy doing … women things that I don't get out and about much. You know," thinking fast as he noticed the suspicious glances that were aimed behind him at his fellow crewmen Shen added, "taking care of my father and brothers … and my estranged uncle."
Yong, who was behind Jee, shared a look with the pikeman and leaned over and whispered, "Who do you think the estranged uncle is?"
Yibito, the pikeman, merely gave Yong a look and coughed, "I think you already know."
Jee, ready to stomp on Yong's toes, went still when he noticed that the gaze of every water-bender there was on them. Instead, he offered a strained smile and nodded his head slightly in a greeting.
"Your father and brothers?" said Jayendra in surprise, no longer eyeing the strangers suspiciously behind the woman. Then, not even waiting for Keemi to introduce anyone, the Water Master stepped forward and offered a hand to Jee.
Jee, standing there a moment dumbstruck, finally comprehended that the other wanted to introduce himself and clasped wrists with the water-bender.
Jayendra, taking Jee's reluctance and then willingness to shake as a chance, smiled broadly and murmured to the grey haired fire-bender, "So I have finally met the man himself: the father of the lovely Keemi. You raised her well if I may so myself."
Yong, at this point, couldn't hold it in any longer and fell over as he cackled madly, Yibito glaring down at him.
Jee, as he watch all his men look away from him in order to resist the urge to break down into fits of laughter, frowned and tightened his grip on the water-bender's arm. He couldn't help but ask, partially offended that he apparently looked that old (but at least he wasn't the estranged uncle) why he had to be the father.
"And what made you guess I was her father? We haven't been previously introduced."
Jayendra tightened his grip as well as the shake continued into an awkward length of time. He knew this game. He knew it all too well. The father was testing him, seeing if he was worth his little girl. The Master knew he would have to prove himself and he knew exactly what to say to win the fair female's father over. Introductions first though. Scaly seals, Keemi sure had a lot of brothers. No wonder she was so busy and obviously the youngest!
"I could tell by your protective glare. Only a proud, defensive father would have that kind of glare. She also has your eyes," added Jayendra, noting that they were an odd brown-yellow color. Keemi and family obviously had some Fire Nation in their past with those eyes. Not that he would bring it up in respectable company. Most women hadn't chosen that coupling voluntarily if they were a true water tribe woman. Keemi was a fine water tribe woman though. A real partier and yet seemingly shy at the same time. Personally, he cared very little where the genes came from though the originator was obviously three or four generations back. As long as there was no fire-bending in the blood, he would not judge.
"Ah, I see," said Jee, wondering when the water whips were going to come out. Yes, his eyes were not golden but they certainly did reveal his heritage as a fire-bender.
"Regardless, she is a fine young lady … and I couldn't help but notice that her neck is revealed and lacking anything," said Jayendra.
Generally, he wouldn't be so hasty about such a thing having just met Keemi, but she, unlike most of the women in the city, had put up with him for a whole night! Yes, he was on his best behavior (okay, marginally acceptable behavior), but he knew a catch when he saw one. Their difference in an age and his scar didn't seem to bother her either given she went out with him to begin with for the Moon Festival. This girl was nothing but a catch in his book.
Jee looked at the man oddly, his eye brow raising. What in Agni did that mean? Who cared if Shen's neck was revealed (minus a thin band that hid his Adam's apple). It mattered very little to him. For the sun's sake, the man was already wearing a dress and giggling like a woman. If he wanted to reveal his neck, Jee figured the fire-bender was already playing the part, why not go full out with a neck band.
"So, what of it?" asked Jee, wondering if they had insulted one of water barbarians' customs as he continued to shake the other one's wrist.
Jayendra, feeling the others grip tighten, merely nodded and found it best to confess his interest.
"Well … your daughter is lovely and since she does not have a betrothal necklace, I was wondering if I could start courting her to see if we are compatible?" said Jayendra as he threw a warm smile at the surprised Keemi. Poor thing was so red in the face she looked like she was going to die from the surprise of it all.
Shen was anything but surprised. He had only gasped because horror was crawling up the back of his throat along with the thought of: this isn't happening; I will never hear the end of it! Jee, meanwhile, seemed torn between his emotions and merely looked constipated. Shen's old brothers merely stood there is gaping surprise. Yong, having finally rose to his feet from his previous laughing fit, promptly fell over as he started laughing in near hysteria.
Yobito, in the meantime time, noted the troubled look that was spreading on the water-bender's face the longer Yong laughed. Grabbing Yong as if he was trying to raise the other to his feet, Yobito promptly waved the others off as he murmured, "Please don't mind my estranged uncle … he-he's just crazy. I wish you luck with my sister?"
Jee, finally regaining his wits, pulled his hand from the other as he grumbled, "No, I will not allow it. You … are not honorable enough for her."
Shen, who had been holding his breath, silently sighed in relief.
"Oh, I understand," said Jayendra, his smile returning. "You have heard of my reputation. Well, I wish to settle down so do not judge me on that alone, but if you do not think we worthy … what would you say if I proved myself. In fact, I will be leaving the North Pole in day's time to help reclaim the Avatar."
Yong's laughing died almost immediately in his throat and everyone that had been struggling not to laugh suddenly seeming serious. Just want they needed, this nightmare of water-jerks following them around.
Jayendra, the unfortunate fool, took their serious gazes as ones of interest and continued, "You heard me. The Northern Water Tribe will no longer stand idly by. Chief Arnook has allowed a small party of us to go and look for the Avatar. The Avatar's Water, Earth and Air Masters will be with us and we will secure him and start training him. We will save the world from the Fire Nation."
The Water Master, noting the father's wide eyes, could only guess that the other was stunned. Then, nodding to Keemi who seemed to be blushing in surprise (actually it was horror), he slowing started walking away, giving Jee a stern look as he murmured, "I will prove myself honorable and until then…" He grabbed Shen's hand before the other could even protest and offered a small peck on the glove, "I will be dreaming of you and our possible future life together."
Letting go of the cross dresser's hand, he then walked away in grandiose style, not noticing that Shen was frantically rubbing his hand against his parka or that Yong had continued laughing. In fact, once all the water tribesmen were out of ear shot, all the crewmen started laughing, except for Jee. He, glaring at Jayendra's retreating form, could only sigh upset that his men had missed the most important thing about the interaction. Yes, Shen would never live this incident down, but it was far more concerning for the Zuko's future.
"They will never stop hunting him, will they?" said the soldier bitterly to himself.
Meanwhile, Zuko, if he could see his hands, was sure his knuckles were white. At this point he couldn't even feel his hands because his grasp was so tight. Flying bison … were absolutely terrifying! He had almost died once when they were ascending and his hand had slipped off the saddle, only to grasp wildly at fur until he found purchase on the belt. He had also almost flown off again when a wild burst of freezing air had hit them. He finally had almost died again when Aang decided to show him a trick. He had not found the trick very amusing. The boy was to always keep his hands on the reins from now on, always.
Sighing, despite the almost falling to his death part (even though Aang assured him that he would catch him), Zuko had to admit that he was feeling somewhat safe now, especially since his mind kept reliving that enlightened moment … when he had air-bended. It was a warm feeling. Not like fire-bending deep in one's gut, but it was a feeling that settled in his lungs, around his heart, light and fluffy. It was nice and Zuko was sure … it was a feeling of freedom.
Too bad he was also freezing and couldn't properly enjoy the feeling though. His inner flame was struggling to just keep him warm and to steam-dry his fur clothing. Agni, he hoped he didn't get sick … or develop the chill. True, he hadn't developed it yet while he was at the North Pole but the water tribe did do a great job keeping him warm despite soaking him in water whenever he tried to escape.
Zuko's teeth chattered at the thought.
Ugh, he really didn't need to get sick right now. He hadn't survived that horrible place with his values at least partially intact to end up dying on the back of a bison in the middle of nowhere.
"Hey Lee?" suddenly interrupted a voice during his brooding. Zuko's eyes automatically went wide as he looked up, thinking the youth had left the steering to the beast, but Aang was just looking back at him with a slightly bemused expression.
"You okay? You aren't going to be sick, are you? Because you look kind of sick. Like puke all over Appa's fur and have it smell nasty until we can give Appa a proper bath kind of sick," continued Aang.
Shaking his head mostly in confusion than in reassurance, Zuko swallowed hard unable to give a proper excuse ... Though part of him knew he refused to open his mouth because he did not want to eject his stomach contents all over Appa's fur and have it smell nasty until they could give Appa a proper bath. Besides, he had bigger worries than losing his lunch … like hypothermia. This wind was freezing.
Calling on his inner fire, Zuko pushed the warm feeling in his lungs away, the feeling of freedom diminishing slightly as he tried to stoke his inner flame.
"Great!" said Aang, chirpy once more. "Because if you were sick we would have to make you some nasty soup and then you'd be all grumpy because you didn't like the taste and then we couldn't go penguin sledding or go see the mammoth Kio fish that I …"
"Wait," interrupted the prince because it was going to end up as one of those conversations if he didn't stop this now. "What about my Uncle? We do not have time of penguins. I need to see my Uncle. I have to make sure … nothing bad happens to him."
Frowning, tilting a little more to his side so that he wasn't talking just over his shoulder, Aang nodded, "Sure, those were just going to be pit stops, but should Appa fly faster? Is there something wrong with your uncle?"
Except the warning the spirits left, thought Zuko bitterly before he shook his head and added, "No, he's just … he worries about me. I don't want him to worry."
Smile returning, Aang nodded, "I understand. So do you have any idea where they are at? We've just been kind of flying south, aimlessly."
The prince shook his head in a forlorn manner. He knew he could send up a fireball flare, but what if the Water Tribe witnessed it first or a Fire Nation ship that wasn't his? So, instead … they were left to fly around, the prince uncertain where his ship and those on it where. For now, all they could do was head to warmer waters.
Regardless, his tone tired, he admitted to the young driver, "I know, but we have to keep moving. It might take a little while … but I'm just ready to go home."
Aang, tilting his head like he was a quizzical bird, looked confused for a moment before he asked, "Home? But it's a boat. How can it be your home?"
Breathing hot air into his hands, Zuko's teeth chattering before he softly smiled, a real almost sad kind of smile, "Because … it's important to me. It's safe. It's … just a place where everyone I care for is. It's just home and I'm ready to go back to it."
Frowning, Aang realized he wanted to ask of Lee's father and mother or if he had any siblings. How could a ship full of soldiers be a home? But it then occurred to the little air-bender that he really didn't know Lee very well, he didn't even know if Zuko was a last name, but smiling to himself Aang promised he would learn more about his friend.
Nodding at the thought, Aang merely chuckled in agreement, "Then we are going home! The only question is … which way is home? Ummm … Appa says this way!"
Zuko, trying to ignore the fact that a giant bison had just chosen their intended direction, dared to look over at the great expanse. Yes, he was again reminded how high they were up, but at least they were heading in another direction than that horrible ice city. The North Pole had been a daunting experience, but as much as it pained him to admit it … he just couldn't pretend that he wasn't the Avatar anymore. He was the Avatar. He was the bridge to the Spirit World. And the only question now was … what was he supposed to do about it?
Closing his eyes, the expanse of the ocean fading behind black eye lids, he exhaled and slowly opened his eyes. Time would tell he supposed. Time would tell.
Elsewhere, far from brooding Avatars and irritating little air-benders and fire-benders dressed as water tribesmen and women, sat a dark princess in a dark chair in a darkened room having dark thoughts. She was not the type of princess one would naturally think of when they would think of the world's princesses. Most would think of something on the lines of Yue: kind, good natured, and a beacon for the people.
This princess was not anything like the northern ice princess. In fact, if Yue had an opposite in almost every way, it would be this girl, this girl dressed in red with a deep inner madness always rumbling and tumbling right below the surface. And this princess, anything but friendly company, was named Azula and she was in the process of her most cherished daily ritual. Her hair was being slowly combed back with a gold comb, every strand in its place and everything in order. Everything was as she wanted it to be. Not a single thing was out of place!
Closing her eyes, she called on her inner fire to chase off the chill that was settling in her bones. She decided she would enjoy this even if the servant's hand was shaking. It was one of her few pleasures. She loved her hair to be silky and soft and perfect … just like her mother's.
Eyes snapping open in surprise, Azula frowned at the thought and immediately crushed it. She was not a weak woman like her mother. She was strong. She would be more than that frail, ember-dyed female. She would be more than a mere wife.
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched a servant come toward her, head down with a scroll in hand. Slowly, she opened it, and raised a brow as a cruel smile played at her lips, "Zuzu still hasn't come for his yearly allowance and dearest Uncle hasn't taken anything from his royal accounts either. Oh, most troubling."
She faked a frown for a moment if only to seem troubled, smiling once more as she dwelt on the idea, "Oh, poor Zuzu, did you meet your end in the grimy deep? It's been so long since anyone has seen you or your ship."
Rolling the scroll back up, she looked at the messenger and stated in a sultry tone, "Send out a message. See if anyone has seen that ship of his. If my brother is dead … I want a properly funeral. I might even pretend to cry."
Then, in a mocking tone that spoke volumes of what she really wanted, the female purred, "And then I can officially claim my right as crown heir."
Paw07: Someone said they were a shameless Shen/Jayendra fan now so I decided to continue the joke for them. Aang was just being adorable as usually (I really need a plushy of him). As for the last scene … well, she had to show up some time.
Also, Book 1: Air is now complete! Yay me! Now it's time for Book 2: Water. Since the poll is now complete, it seems we shall be having a mega story though I will label the next chapter as Book 2 so people know that I'm technically starting the next book. Also, review. I technically finished a book. I want some love especially from you creepers that watch the story but have never reviewed once. I see that watch number up there, it doesn't match the review number at all. I would then put an emo-glare here but I'm too inept to know what one looks like. Later.