Disclaimer: I, Obviously, Don't Own Avatar or Batman. If you didn't know before, now you do.
Forces Of Nature – Part 1
The days following the incidents both on the way to and on Ember Island were bleak. After the unsettling implications of the situation with the pirates, the depressing events at the theatre and the final insult of Azula's almost effortless escape, morale among the group was lower than it had been in a long while. Even the sun itself refused to shine it seemed, as the sky became engulfed with an endless overcast. Not even the return of an all-too-refreshed-looking Katara and Aang could lift their spirits. All the worse: after hearing the enormity of what they missed, their bright faces faded just the same as all the others.
For Sokka, the days were a monotonous cycle. Mornings and afternoons were spent arguing constantly with the enraged nobility, trying to figure out a response to the pirate threat and counter whatever forces were at work against the Fire Nation. Penguin, at least, was imprisoned within Boiling Rock, but his schemes and posturing felt like a dark omen of something more. Evenings were spent training and trying to spend as many fleeting moments with Suki as he could – in that at least he could say that we was getting a bit of happiness, despite of the current slump.
He knew that the others also tried to keep themselves occupied in their own ways. Suki was the most at peace when she was training, so she spent most of her afternoons either training herself or pushing others to do the same – Sokka, who knew the anger-abating powers of martial arts first hand, often took a few lessons from her himself. And he at least had less reason to worry about his significant other than Zuko did: Mai had taken the events in the theatre especially hard, and now spent near every waking moment either brooding or practicing with her weaponry. She could often be heard to mutter "never be caught unawares again," and had almost totally shut herself off from everyone except Zuko.
Zuko, naturally, had his own troubles. The political and tactical quagmire didn't officially end with the council meetings with him as they did with Sokka. He was swamped, surrounded and downright suffocated by stress bombarding him every minute like a tidal wave, and Sokka respected him all the more for not crumbling beneath it. Still, if not for Iroh helpingh him, he was sure Zuko might have ended up shuting himself off the same as Mai.
The only ones he knew were making do well enough were Aang, Katara and Ty Lee – Aang was often seen practicing his bending, usually with Katara, but rarely did he seem particularly depressed. In fact, if anyone knew how to stay optimistic in a stressful time, it was the Last Airbender: he could find the beauty and fun in anything, and often took Katara with him on sky-high explorations through the surrounding area. Ty-Lee often joined them when not dealing with drill-sergeant Suki, and Sokka found himself wishing he had the time to go along as well – it seemed to do wonders for Katara's worry and Ty-Lee's melancholy.
Meanwhile, he had barely seen Toph at all. He supposed she was training just like the rest of them, but he couldn't imagine where she was doing so. Katara claimed she spent a lot of time in her room as well – very un-Toph like behavior – and when she left her quarters she often simply disappeared. It was all very unsettling, and Sokka hoped she wasn't doing anything rash, like fighting in another underground Pro-Bending Circuit.
In any case, those were the feelings that led to the current day, which after the week it followed seemed more like a miracle than just another morning. The sun was shining, and the wind was just the right kind of cool. The sea, which had become tumultuous and unrelenting, was calm and inviting. It felt again like spring, and the world seemed to come alive.
The public was so happy to have a perfect day after recent news that word of unofficial festivals springing up over town began to reach the palace. Even the council was ecstatic about it, and for the first time since Sokka joined the proceedings the entire group unanimously agreed – there would be no proceedings today, and maybe not tomorrow (the official reason why was something minor and flimsy, Sokka didn't even remember it and he was sure the nobles didn't either).
Aang was naturally completely caught up in the spirit of the perfect day, and invited Katara on a quest to hit all of the street festivals in one day – he quite literally whisked her out of the palace gates the moment she said yes. Ty Lee also planned to join the festivals, but not as an onlooker: she insisted on doing her beloved acrobatic act in the town square for everyone to see, and had even "convinced" (that is, begged with enormous puppy dog eyes until she relented) Suki to be her "ringmaster." But the biggest surprise was Zuko who, taking after Aang's example, took off in the his personal airship with Mai and told them he would be back "whenever."
This left Sokka wandering around the palace grounds by himself: it wasn't yet time for Suki and Ty Lee's show, and apparently they wanted it to be a surprise so he couldn't sit in with them. Not that he minded being alone for a little while, not when he had the promise of a great performance coming up soon and a beautiful morning to for a walk.
To pass the time he strolled around the grounds, taking in the various bits of grandeur that littered the area. He honestly wasn't sure which was more extravagant, the Fire Nation or the Northern Water Tribe, and began to feel homesick for his nice, humble home back in the Southern village. He certainly wouldn't have to deal with political intrigue there, nor all the subterfuge and red tape anyone in this kingdom had to go through to get anything done. But he supposed that why it was here, and not back home, where he needed to be most of all.
While caught up in his thoughts his long stroll found him wandering back into the official outdoor military training areas, and to his incredible surprise he found Toph there practicing her earthbending. It seemed like he hadn't seen her in days – in truth, he probably hadn't.
"Toph!" He called, and she turned slightly to let him know she acknowledged him – she had of course noticed him already. He always forgot she could do that. "What are you doing out here, I thought you'd be holed up in your secret hideaway again."
She smirked. "Well, it's a nice day so I decided to get out. I am allowed to do that, aren't I? I can feel the sun on my face for once, though I'm not the biggest fan of this wind. Reminds me of trying to deal with twinkletoes' airbending."
"Ah, don't be such a curmudgeon, chum. We've been-"
"Wait… chum?" Toph raised an eyebrow in amusement.
"Yeah, I heard some of the nobles use it. Makes me sound posh, eh?"
Toph was clearly laughing now. "Posh?'
Sokka sagged his shoulders and frowned. "Can we just drop it?" Toph continued to laugh, but at least acknowledged that he was trying to say something important. "I was trying to say that we've been a bit worried about you. Where have you been disappearing off to?"
Toph's laughter died. She looked away evasively. "I've been… working on some new stuff. Practicing, mostly. Nothing to get worried about."
"Then why haven't you been doing it out here – it hasn't been that bad out, has it?"
"Well no, but… to be honest…" Toph grimaced, and looked around herself – a show, as he knew she was really using her earthbending to scan the area. "Sometimes when I practice up here, I feel like I'm being watched. Like someone's spying on me. It's… creepy."
Now it was Sokka's turn to look around nervously. "Really?" He asked. "But who could sneak up on you?"
"Not very many people," she said, though not quite with as much pride as he was used to. "I guess it was probably nerves or my mind playing tricks on me. After everything, I guess I'm a little on edge."
"We all are, Toph. But today's practically a day off. You should relax, like me! I'm going to go off to the zoo to imagine what all the different kinds of meat taste like before Suki and Ty Lee's show. You should do something you really want to do too!"
Toph laughed at the image of Sokka wandering around a zoo drooling like a kid in a candy store, but allowed herself a long thought about what he said. Maybe I could crash a feast or something, or find some mountain to climb. "Yeah, I think I'll do just that, Sokka."
"There we go! Good talk!"
"Yeah, right. 'Chum.'"
"Hey, I thought we agreed to drop it!"
Meanwhile, A Long Ways From The Capital
Farmer Ro Chai, owner of a sizable plot of land and fervent lover of fire-corn, had not yet heard the news of the impromptu vacation the people of the capital were taking that day. It took quite a while for such things to reach his home, far from the center of the Kingdom as he was. Yet the spirit of the day reached him regardless: in an unprecedented move, he let his daughter go down to the river with her friends that morning, instead of forcing her to spend all day with him tending the fields as always.
Even he was joining in the blissful feeling the morning air was giving everyone. Somehow he had ended up leaning under a tree giving his ostrich horse a rest, and daydreaming like he had always chided his daughter for rather than working like he ought to have been. But no matter, he wasn't feeling the urge to stop anytime soon anyways – and a few more minutes never hurt anyone.
Unfortunately, he was proven wrong a few moments later. Somehow, the sturdy tree beneath him disappeared out of nowhere, sending him falling roughly to the ground. He sat up quickly – half-angry, half-confused – and looked wildly about for the reason for his sudden fall.
"What in the heck? How… did that… happen…" He trailed off as he found himself caught in a very different shadow than the one he had been leaning in before: that of an enormous figure, effortlessly holding the entire tree in one hand as if it were nothing.
"This seems like as good enough a line in the sand as any… so to speak." The figure murmured, having apparently not noticed the farmer yet. Ro Chai stumbled back in preparation to run before the figure finally turned his eye on him, but he was too late.
"You!" The figure's voice boomed, and Ro Chai's face went pale with fright. "Take your fastest ostrich-horse and send a message to the Capital. Find the Avatar and his merry band of traitors and runaways. Tell them an old friend wants to have a little reunion, and that if they don't show I'll have to take my disappointment out on this fair countryside. Granted, I'd probably be doing the world a favor after what you Fire Nation sheep got up to for the last hundred years."
"B-but the capital is so far!" Ro Chai protested. "It could take me hours to get there! I-I can't just-"
This was the wrong thing to say. The man snarled in rage and threw his arm up in the direction of Ro Chai's homestead. To Ro Chai's horror, the earth around his home exploded. This livelihood – the entire building – was launched several dozen feet into the air, and shattered into a million shards of wood upon hitting the ground. The animals shrieked and scattered at the sudden activity, and Ro Chai wished dearly that he could do the same.
"DO IT!" He bellowed, and Ro Chai immediately scrambled to his horse, if only to get away from whatever this… thing was. As he readied the beast with plans to run to the river, pick up his daughter and then hightail it to the Capital as fast as it's two legs could carry them, he heard the figure speak one last command behind him:
"And don't tell them what I look like, would you? I want this to be a surprise, for one or two of them in particular…"
Meanwhile, Back At The Capital
The street festivals started out fairly small. A few people going out in the early hours to celebrate the rising sunshine. A few more starting to take their breakfast outside to eat in the morning air. Then people started cooking in earnest and giving out extra treats to their neighbors – and once the restaurants started joining in the crowds swelled and the vendors saw their opportunity to cash in. After that, performers of all shapes and sizes came out of the woodwork, and suddenly the city was erupting in festivals all over.
This had all happened very quickly, mind. The gang only found out what was going on during their own breakfast at the palace, and by that point the festivities were already well underway. This left Aang with the impression that he had already missed out on far too much, which Katara found out the hard way meant he would be pulling her from street to street as fast as he could to compensate. Jesters, dancers and stands with assorted colorful wares sped by in a blur, yet like Aang Katara could somehow absorb everything that was going on – as if his very exuberance was allowing her to share in his wonder with him.
However, unlike the endless ball of energy that was the Avatar, she was starting to get weary of all the sensory overload. As they passed by a fountain nearby to the centre of town, she saw her chance.
"Can we rest a minute, Aang?" She sighed. "There's only so much festival a girl can take in one shot."
Aang immediately froze, a sheepish look plastered over his previously exhilarated face. He rubbed the back of his head and grinned. "Oops… sorry. Guess I got a little carried away there."
Katara smiled back at him as she sat on the edge of the fountain. "It's all right. We never got anything like this back at the Southern Water Tribe."
Aang looked up at the sky, a now wistful… yet strangely content… look gleaming in his eye. "We never had festivals like this in the Air Temples either – don't get me wrong, we had our celebrations – but nothing like this. That's why I've always loved having friends from so many different places. There's only so much you can experience if you stay in one place…"
A moment passed as Aang's words (and an overexcited Momo) drifted through the air. The two sat together enjoying a somewhat quiet instant amid all the revelry – totally unable to keep the contentment off of their faces.
When in a celebration like the one surrounding them, however, a moment like that can never last for long. Within a few minutes the crowds spread out towards the fountain, with the clowns and candy vendors following suit.
"Looks like the party is coming to us," Katara laughed, and Aang's wide grin returned.
"Looks that way."
Among those closest to the fountain was a happy if wobbly and disheveled looking man (for good reason, as he had been partying hardy since the first treats were handed out hours before). He glanced towards the fountain and stumbled towards it, with an unmistakably catlike smirk on his face as he saw who was sitting there.
"Hey all you folks, look!" He slurred slightly, though all in all he sounded remarkably together for a person who had been enjoying himself far more than a person ought to early in the morning. "It's the Avatar!" The herd of festival-folk gasped and turned in excitement at the news: children pushed past their parents to get closer looks, and even the jesters stopped their juggling in order to pay attention.
Katara and Aang froze. It was never easy to predict how the people of the Fire Nation would react to their presence. After all, they had played a major part in overthrowing their old regime and but a year ago most of these people would have cheered for their deaths. Despite the collective cheers during the coronations and speeches, when met on the street some members of the public would react with suspicion and even hostility, and though the people were rallying being Zuko it was rare that the rest of the group would find anywhere near as much support. So, it was not unreasonable to think that their fun morning might have been about to be ruined.
But the wobbly man in front merely grinned and gestured warmly for the kids to stand. "Welcome to the party, Airbender! C'mon, show us how they celebrated things in the Air Kingdom, why don'cha?"
To the young couple's surprise, the rest of the crowd cheered and followed suit, genuinely wanting the two to join in on the fun.
Spurred on by their surprising acceptance, the two sudden guests of honor shared a cheerful, knowing grin - if there was anything Aang loved to do, it was show off to an appreciative crowd.
"Well, if you insist!"
With a flourish Aang suddenly flipped into the air – to the oohs and aahs of the throng of onlookers below – and formed his favorite trick beneath his feet: the air scooter. With a laugh, he sped around and around his audience, who backed up in order to give him some space. Faster, faster and faster he sped. So fast in fact that he began trailing a gust of spiraling wind, which grew greater and greater and size with each lap.
Just before he became an almost total blur, he let out another laugh and spun the gust into enormous – yet harmless – spout of twisting air: a mighty tornado centered around the fountain. The twister knocked Momo, who had been flying overhead, out of the sky and made several members of the crowd dive for cover - though once they were positive they weren't being carried away they only cheered all the louder. And even louder still once Aang started scooting up the whirlwind himself. He climbed higher and higher, so high that the audience had to crane their necks backward to see him (the wobbly man fell over).
Once he reached the very top of the spire all the wind immediately vanished, even the scooter, and cheers turned to gasping silence as Aang went into freefall.
Totally unworried, the master Airbender let himself fall for a few seconds for dramatic effect, before pulling out his glider. The effect was just as he had hoped: the crowd exploded in cheers as he drifted to the ground. Once his feet were square on the ground, he gave a humble bow. "Thank you! Thank you! You're too kind."
From his perch on the ground, the wobbly man clapped dazedly and spurred him on. "C'mon Avatar. Give us another! Give us another!"
Aang looked back at Katara, who had watched the show with a calm and casual amusement, and smirked as an idea caught him.
"Sure, but for my next trick I'll need a volunteer."
Despite paying attention to what was going on – or perhaps because she was paying such close attention – it took Katara several seconds to realize she was floating in midair. Later that evening, Aang would joke that the look on her face when she finally did look down and notice the ground wasn't under her feet was the funniest thing he'd seen at the festival by far.
"What? Whoa! Wait! Aang! Put me down!" Aang merely winked and gently carried her around the fountain, making it look as if she were flying.
A rush of cheers came from the children in the crowd. "Cool!" "Wow!" "Awesome." Aang smiled ever wider and playfully caught a glance with his girlfriend, who decided to play along now that the initial surprise had worn off.
As easily as she could do while floating in midair, Katara went through the motions of a few choice waterbending movements. At her call a small trail of water drifted up from the fountain and began to twist and twirl around her as she hovered back and forth. The effect was that of a kind of improvised dance: Katara spun, twirled glided over everyone's heads in a graceful display that almost seemed practiced.
Later (partly to avoid Katara's wrath from his earlier comment) Aang would say it was the most beautiful thing he had seen at the fair by far.
Once Aang had stopped moving her Katara finished her waterbending display by drawing all the water from the fountain and flinging it into the air, where it fell softly to the ground as snow. The crowd oohed again and let out another round of applause – not the least because snow was a great rarity in the Fire Nation.
Aang pulled Katara down to the ground and they both bent into another bow.
"Ah, now that made my day!" Drawled the wobbly man, who promptly passed out.
"Nice act," said a voice behind them – it was Suki, having seen the impromptu show from afar and gone to take a look. "But it's got nothing on what we've got planned."
"So we've heard," Katara smirked, just a hint of a good-natured challenge in her voice.
An excited "wait, there's more?" chimed in from behind them - the wobbly man had apparently promptly un-passed out at the first sign of more entertainment.
"Oh, don't worry." Suki smirked right back, her own competitive side rising to the occasion. "We'll knock your socks off. Come on with me, we're starting in an hour or so."
When they arrived at the stage, Sokka was already there enjoying his exclusive front row seat: in fact, there was a reserved space for each of them. He gave them a little wave and leant back in his chair, looking supremely relaxed.
The stage itself looked amazing. Aang and Katara couldn't help but wonder how it all could have been put together so well, given that Ty Lee had only thought of the idea a few hours before. The wooden platform covered a very large area of the town centre, which made their fountain area look like a tiny soapbox in comparison. And though everything on the stage was hidden by a tall red curtain (Suki had to keep restraining an extremely excited Aang from flying up above it and taking a peek) the undeniable sounds of creaking wood and shifting mechanisms told of a whole plethora of amazing contraptions of some kind inside just waiting to be unleashed upon the awestruck eyes of the waiting, and growing, crowd.
"I almost can't believe it, but this is actually going to be a pretty good show," Suki mused, and Aang and Katara realized with a start that she may have been talking the whole time while they had been gaping at the stage. "At least, for something thrown up in such a short time. Ty Lee really learned a few things at that circus of hers."
A teasing glint returned to Katara's eyes. "Including how to convince people to do anything, it looks like. I wouldn't have figured you for a ringmaster."
Suki merely smiled silently in response.
"Hey guys!" Sokka called out from ahead, apparently having become impatient waiting for the others. "Come on up! The show's starting any minute!"
The group decided this rude interruption was as good a point as any to get a move on and made their way towards the stage, where they split up: Suki flashed them one last grin and went up through the curtains while Aang and Katara took their seats next to Sokka.
There was still some time until the show was set to begin, so they talked for a while to pass the time: Sokka informed Aang and Katara that Toph had gone off to find some entertainment elsewhere, being not particularly interested in a something she wouldn't be able to see. He also told them about Toph's worries about being spied on, which were suitably alarming - but they ultimately filed it away as something they would deal with after their break. After that, the conversation descended into jokes and funny stories. Aang and Katara were partway through telling Sokka about their own little show when Suki finally walked back out through the curtains.
They couldn't help but be surprised: in the short time since they separated, Suki had gotten dressed in a modified, more regal version of her usual Kyoshi Warrior armor – minus the makeup but complete with a distinctive headdress. Apparently, there was a wardrobe on that stage in addition to everything else that seemed to be going on in there: the Kyoshi Warriors never did anything halfway, even things a bit less intense than combat.
The crowd cheered as Suki came to a stand in front of the stage. With but a small glance at her friends, she looked up to the audience with an expression of absolute serenity and grace – though she would later claim to have been extremely nervous (something Sokka would find very funny). After a moment she gave a small bow, both a sign of respect and a signal for the crowd to quiet itself.
"Ladies and Gentlemen of the audience… and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe." She flashed Sokka a playful grin. "We the proud women of the Kyoshi Warriors are honored to bring to you demonstration of culture, swordsmanship, acrobatics and death defying skill. You have experienced all of the fun and excitement that a city-wide festival can provide, but now you will prepare to be amazed, shocked and in awe as-"
There was a wooden crash from far behind the audience. Several members of the crowd craned their necks to try and see what had happened, including the gang, but whatever had caused the sound was too far back to see.
Suki faltered, and her eyes lost their serene look for a brief moment as she gauged whether the interruption would continue. Sokka turned back towards the stage and gave her a clueless shrug, to which she tenuously carried on.
"Er… as I was saying… um… prepare to be shocked and amazed at this: our titanic display of-"
Another sound: a yelp. This time much closer than the last. At this point most of the audience's attention was diverted towards the disturbances, evidently bringing Suki's introduction to a screeching halt. There were murmurs going through the crowd, and many members were rising to get a better view. Farther back, parts of the crowd were separating in order to allow something to pass.
Aang and the others stood up themselves just as the person, or persons, causing the disturbance pushed their way to the front of the crowd.
"HELP! SOMEONE!" It was a frantic older man dragging behind him a similarly frightened young woman, both in rural dress and shouting at the top of their lungs. Just behind them was the owner of the cart they had accidentally knocked over on the way to the stage, though he appeared to be followed out of concern rather than anger.
Both of the strangers looked absolutely haggard and were very out of breath, as through they had been running as they were for miles. Yet despite their obvious state of exhaustion, they seemed energized with fear. Several members of the crowd moved to aid, but the two refused to be led to a seat and continued to thrash towards the stage.
Aang and Sokka shared a glance, silently agreeing between themselves that it was time to get involved. Before they could move, however, they suddenly noticed that Katara was no longer standing next to them.
To their total lack of surprise, she was already at the distressed pair's side trying to help. "Don't worry," she was telling them. "Please. You're among friends. What happened? What do you need?"
"The Avatar!" The old man tone, though quieter with Katara's encouraging, was still noticeably anxious. "We were told we could find him we here, we need to-" His eyes travelled to across the crowd and found Aang's distinctive Airbender tattoos. "You!"
The young woman followed her companion's gaze in wonder. Upon seeing Aang as well, she gasped in awe. "My word! So he is here after all. I never thought I'd-"
It said a lot for the old man's distress that he completely ignored the woman's awe. He thrust himself upon Aang – who was unable to step back in time. He grabbed Aang's shirt and began yelling into his face. "Avatar Aang!" He pleaded. "You must help us! You must!"
Aang flinched, but calmly picked himself out of the man's grasp. "Calm down. I'm here to help. What's the problem?"
"Our home! Our home was destroyed! Blown up!" Several gasps echoed through the crowd. Aang ignored them. His confused expression turned serious. "Wiped out like… like…" He seemed unable to continue for the moment. The young woman took over.
"The one who did this sent my father and I here to find you."
Aang's eyes widened. Behind him, Katara, Sokka and Suki shared a shocked look. "Who? Who sent you."
"A giant of a man…" The old man wailed, still somewhat hysterical. "If he can be called a man. He was more like a monster!"
"He said if we didn't find you and bring you to him, he would tear apart the countryside," his daughter continued. "He could kill our friends. Our family! Please!"
"He wants to meet with me? Who is this guy?"
"Not just you. He said he wanted all of your friends. 'Traitors and runaways,' he called you."
"Traitors and runaways? Interesting…" Sokka put a hand to his chin, suddenly suspicious. There was something off about that last bit of information – something besides the fact that this mysterious person was calling them out.
Meanwhile, the others had failed to notice his mental bowing out of the conversation thanks to the woman and old man redoubling their pleas. "You have to help us! We beg you!" Finally, they could go on any more and broke down in each other's arms.
Aang stepped forward, his voice full caring. "We'll try." He caught their gaze, and the look in his eye – a look that told that his promise was as ironclad as his will – finally calmed. "Now, go to the palace and tell them your story. They'll take care of you. Katara…" He turned to Katara and gave her a weak smile, which she returned. With the kind of reassuring nature one can only get from years of compassion, she helped the suffering family to their feet and led their two new guests toward the palace.
Aang watched her go for a moment, newly downcast and full with more than a little righteous anger. He sighed for the sake of the ruined day and turned to Sokka, who shared his solemn expression.
"Sokka, go get Hawky and send word to Zuko."
Despite himself, Sokka grinned. It was not often that Aang took charge, let alone gave others orders. In fact, he was still a little insecure about that sort of thing – the irony of the Avatar himself being sheepish in authority was staggering. But in this case he seemed to be taking this personally. Sokka knew the feeling: whoever this bad guy was (and he was already mulling over a few theories about that), he was calling them all out on a personal level. What's worse, he was harming people over it. It was hard not to feel grim.
Still, he wouldn't be Sokka without his refreshing wit. "Heh, he is not going to like this one."
"Yeah, I know. But what can we do, right?" With Aang's tone of voice Sokka would have almost thought Aang was being serious, if not for the smile playing on his friend's face. The joke did its job, and Aang's eyes slowly lost their hard edge. He was almost smiling by the time he realized someone was missing. "Also, where's Toph?"
"Somewhere down the base of the mountain, I think."
"Okay. I guess I'll go get her. We'll all meet up at the palace."
"I guess this means the show is off, huh?"
It was only at this point that Aang and Sokka remembered Suki was standing on the stage right behind them. A look of horror and disappointment spread across Aang's face as it suddenly dawned on him what he was going to miss: all that hype, all that excitement, all that hard work and he was going to have to skip it. It was almost more than he could bear!
"Oh… aw, man!"
Suki didn't appear to have heard him. She was in the middle of inspecting her weapons – making sure that they were battle ready - and didn't seem to be paying full attention to either of the boys in front of her. "Just as well, I suppose. This whole thing was a little ridiculous…" She spoke as if it were nothing, but there was a small hint of disappointment there. Very tiny if not undetectable by those who didn't know her, but enough to make it seem as though she may have actually been looking forward to this, despite it being mere entertainment rather than real action.
Aang was immediately struck with guilt. Missing out on fun things every now and then to go save lives was one of the pitfalls of his responsibility as Avatar, he knew. And as a Kyoshi Warrior, it was something Suki was trained from birth for. But whereas Airbenders were taught to find innocence and enjoyment wherever they could, the Kyoshi Warriors were drilled to always be on duty. Now, for what could have been the first time for several of them, they were treating themselves to a vacation. Aang simply couldn't allow a problem centered around him ruin that.
So it was with the upmost sincerity that he insisted she stay. "No way! This show sounds like it's gonna be amazing! Don't shut it down just because of us!"
Suki still looked unconvinced. Aang turned to Sokka for support, only to find that his friend was already far ahead of him – he was halfway up the stage and on a beeline for his girlfriend.
He put his arm around her shoulder and grinned his best grin. "You don't want to disappoint all these people, do you? Don't worry about us, Suki. We'll be okay. We'll be back before you know it."
"Sounds fair to me, I suppose." She smirked, despite herself. "But you might not want to be around when I tell Ty Lee in a minute or so."
Visions of the poor girl's wailing fits when she realized none of her friends would be there to see her hard work flitted through the boys' heads. If they had needed further incentive to leave immediately before, they certainly didn't need it now.
"Duly noted. Let's go!"
Some Time Later
To absolutely no one's surprise, Zuko was in a very foul mood when he returned. Grumbling phrases no one wanted to repeat, he stormed into the palace with a glowering Mai just behind little more than twenty minutes after Sokka sent Hawky for him. He immediately demanded to know what was going on, asking for explanations from Katara, Aang, Sokka and finally the farmer and his daughter themselves, then had a rather raised-voiced agreement with Sokka about how typical it all was that this should happen on the one day they had to themselves. None of them dared to disagree – not that they would have anyway – not even General Ibara, who had shown up somewhat randomly to monitor the situation.
With him in the temper he was, Zuko's audience with the poor farmers felt more like an interrogation than a plea for help. For one mad moment the others even thought he might have the farmers locked up for the night and deal with it the next day, but luckily his cooler head ultimately won out.
After learning all he could from the victims, Zuko assembled a small group of additional bodyguards, nearly threw them into the airship he had been using with Mai and called the group to action with barely a minced word. The ruined farm was a long way from the Capital, but the trip would at least be shorter by air. With his men on the airship and the rest of the gang on Appa, Zuko planned on finishing this as quickly as possible and coming back to his vacation with minimal aggravation.
Mai elected to stay behind and sulk on her own, though Sokka, Aang and Katara were quick to suggest a show in the town centre that she might enjoy – provided she take Momo with her. Meanwhile, Zuko was able to blow off a little bit of his anger by almost-shouting down Ibara's suggestion that he come along.
So it was with a little bit less of a cranky mood that they went on their way – a good thing, since even a faster trip by air was still very long. As the time dragged by and they missed more and more of their time off, some of their tempers started to flare as badly as Zuko's had.
Toph, for instance, was not taking it very well. "Gah! I thought we were done spending hours on the back of sweaty sky bisons!" Appa gave an indignant snort. "No offense, Appa. But I swear, I'm going to boot whoever this is into the ground. I was in the middle of a something good!"
"For the fifth time: we know, Toph." Katara sighed. "We all were."
"I'm a little less concerned with what I'm going to do about the guy as I am about who he is." Aang's voice was muted, as he was looking into the horizon for a sign of their destination. "I mean, who could do this?"
"I've been thinking about that." Sokka said. "Whoever's done this called us out personally, which means either it's some nut who wants to make a name for himself by beating the Avatar-"
"People have tried stranger things," Katara said, thinking of some the strange "fan-mail" Aang had gotten from some of his crazier supporters – as well as some bitter enemies.
"True. But there's also the possibility that it's someone we've met before, out for revenge."
Zuko (who had elected to ride with Appa) finally started paying attention to the conversation: he, like Aang, had been searching the horizon. In his case, he had been making sure his regimen of guards were keeping a safe distance – if this went wrong, he wanted to be the one with the element of surprise for once. "I forget sometimes how many enemies you guys have," he said, apparently thinking out loud.
Sokka shot him a smirk. "What, you think you and your family were the only baddies we've had to deal with in our time?"
Zuko scowled at the idea of being called a "baddie," but didn't press it. "Any ideas who?"
"Actually, yes. Whoever it is called us 'traitors and runaways.' No offense, Zuko, but I'm guessing the 'traitor' is you."
"Beats being called a 'baddie,' I suppose."
"Most people ought to know by now that you turned your back on your evil family," he continued, "so that doesn't tell us anything. What's really weird is 'runaways.' There's no doubt in my mind that that's our own Toph." Toph grinned and bowed as well as she could without losing her balance.
Aang, who had only really tagged along on the relevant adventure, needed a little memory jogging. "That's her name from the wanted posters, right?"
Toph puffed out her chest. "Not quite as cool as 'The Blind Bandit,' but yeah. It's still a better nickname than any of yours."
Aang played along, giving a fake pout that he forgot the others wouldn't be able to see. "Yeah… why don't I have a cool nickname like that?"
Katara rolled her eyes. "What, and The Avatar isn't-"
"Ahem!" Sokka cleared his throat with a pompous air. Katara and Toph rolled their eyes, but quieted down anyway. "As I was saying, that probably means Toph, but not many people would know to call her that. The fact that she ran away from home isn't common knowledge, and those wanted posters went largely ignored by most. So, who would know both that Zuko is a traitor and about those wanted posters?"
Katara immediately caught on to what he was saying. "You're thinking Combustion Man." It wasn't a question. Aang didn't turn around or speak, but he went rigid at the name and the hard look returned to his eyes. Toph, meanwhile, went into an exaggerated facepalm – and really did lose her balance this time.
"The mercenary who made things blow up?" She groaned. "I really hate that guy."
"I've told you guys already. That's not his name, it's-"
"-yeah, yeah Zuko. We all know not to hurt his feelings and call him names. But… yeah, that fits. He showed up when Katara and I were thrown in jail, and he was there when Zuko switched sides…"
"Plus, who else could effortlessly blow up a whole house?"
Aang finally spoke, though his voice was suddenly still and quiet. "And here I thought he was gone for good…"
Sokka took it upon himself to point out what everyone was thinking. "If he's not, he's probably been gearing for revenge this whole time. Which is bad of all of us…"
"And means this is another problem I've brought on top of your heads. I-"
A chorus of rolled eyes echoed in response. "Zuko," Sokka said, once again voicing more or less what everyone was thinking… if voicing it in a particularly rough way. "If you apologize again I swear I'll have Toph throw you off Appa."
"And I'm pretty sure I can do it, even if I'm hundreds of feet away from any Earth."
This sparked a much needed round of laughter.
It took an hour longer to reach the area the farmer indicated, which came to some distance to Appa. It was quite far: the family lived on a countryside to the South – farmland, obviously – with not much but fields for miles around it. This was a plus: there were sparse settlements nearby, but no cities full of people who could get hurt if something went bad (a nice change of pace, they thought).
It took a little more doing to find the farmer's homestead, but only ten minutes later they had come across it. It was unmistakable: like a blast zone. The ground was splintered into a crater where the house used to be. The fields nearby were torn and ruined. Unearthed trees littered its edge, and closer in slivers of shredded wood lay strewn this way and that. A house had definitely stood there… and it had definitely been wiped from the face of the earth recently.
The person responsible was making no effort to hide himself. There, where the destruction was strongest, sat a large figure. Very large – easily twice the width of an average man and much taller besides. He just sat there, drumming his hands on the ground impatiently. It seemed… off. The gang wondered if perhaps he had seen them coming, and was putting on a show of calm for their benefit. Or perhaps he simply did not care, but was just as eager as they were to get this over with.
Either way, it was time to get answers.
Zuko motioned for his men to keep their distance, just in case. Aang took Appa in low for a landing – close enough for everyone to hop out on their own: if things went bad, Aang didn't want Appa getting hurt. Besides not bearing to see his lifelong friend injured, the less his attention was taken from whoever it was who brought them here the easier this would be.
"We're here," he said simply. They had landed behind the figure, who made no effort to turn around. "So you can stop harming these innocent people and do what you came here to do. Whatever you want us for, it's time to settle it."
Toph took her cue to pound her fists together in a "beatdown" motion. "And by settle it," she said. "We mean… wait." She froze, eyes wide. She reached out to sense their opponent through the earth. It was strange and distorted, but she knew that feeling.
"You're good, but you can't take all of us," Sokka spoke with a bravado likely meant to throw the person he thought was Combustion Man off – because he surely remembered how hard it was to deal with him before. It did not appear to be working. "Remember who beat you down before! And after we trashed you we took down the Fire Lord. Your old boss. Fear us, jerk!"
"Granted, we barely survived…" Zuko quipped. Sokka ignored him.
Sokka… that's not…"
Toph's token attempt to stop him also went unheard – mainly because she was making no real effort to be heard. She was too busy trying to stop herself from losing her temper.
"So turn around, Combustion Man – or whatever your name is – and see if you can use your little explodey tricks on us again."
The figure stood. The figure turned. The rest of the gang gasped. It was not Combustion Man at all.
"What the devil are you talking about?" Said a monstrous Xin-Fu, a sinister grin stretching the ends of his face despite his confusion.
Author's Note: This chapter was a bit of a hassle. Not because I wasn't sure how it should go, but more because I couldn't decide how to cut it. After this, it's another set of very quick events in succession - unless I can think of some very inventive padding, this is going to be but two parts long, but at the same time I'd rather some of those events were cut in a certain way, which I gave up because that would make the second part feel too short. Also, who the giant was initially not supposed to be suspenseful at all, it just kind of happened that way as I was writing. So... I was wondering whether I should save his identity for the next chapter or not. I eventually decided it would work out better if I did it here (which villain he is I suppose will be saved for when he actually takes up the name).
While writing this story (this whole story) I'd forgotten two things - what the environment of the Fire Nation actually looked like (I also forgot the capital was on an inactive volcano/mountain), and Momo. So I added a little bit of that in there (the Momo stuff pretty much last minute).
The part about the festival was initially supposed to be much shorter, consisting only of Sokka doing stuff, running into Toph and meeting Aang and Katara at the show. But then I realized I was cutting out Aang and Katara from the story, so... that whole section popped up. The Wobbly Man is supposed to be one of those funny little characters like Foaming Mouth Guy, so don't read too much into it.
Also, here's a part I couldn't really figure out in terms of putting it into the story - what Toph was doing during the festival:
Meanwhile, All The Way Down The Mountain:
"Come one, come all to the race of the century!" Called out a man with a funny hat and charismatic voice. There was already a crowd gathered to the area, and as more filed in to see what the fuss was about he tipped his hat and flashed a grin. "We have here the newest and most spectacular development since the Flame Engine! Situated by rail, this amazing vehicle will make transport issues a thing of the past - no longer will we have to walk or ride an animal to get where we need to go, no! With this, the same technology to that which fuels the military's war machines, you will be whisked to where you want to go with nary a fuss or a problem!"
He gestured towards a huge, bulky device with large pistons and motors fastened all over it. It sat upon a rail which snaked around the mountain and off into the distance, then returned back from the other side. As the audience turned to look at them, the team of Firebenders operating the steam-powered dynamo waved excitedly.
"Today, we plan to prove to you just how amazing our little invention here can be! This afternoon I ran into the one and only Toph Bei Fong - widely accepted as the greatest Earthbender in the world, if not in all of history!" The tiny girl standing next to the gigantic engine puffed out her chest. "I told her about our experiment here - with the permission of the Fire Lord, we're running our Flame Powered Transport all the way around the mountain and back! But Bei Fong here seems to think that going through the mountain would be far faster than traveling around it. She seems to think she could beat or machine for speed any day. We couldn't help but make a wager out of it, and since there's all sorts of fun going on today we decided to make a presentation out of it!"
The crowd cheered, eager to see this amazing race unfold before them. The both the announcer and Toph grinned - this was exactly the reaction they wanted to see. "Don't worry, folks!" The announcer continued. "We've chosen a path that we are sure will be perfectly safe both for the geology of the mountain and for our volunteer competitor here! Are you ready, Miss Bei Fong?"
Toph gave a shout and raised her fist. The crowd bellowed in response.
"Are you ready, team?"
The team of Firebenders gave shouts and hoots of their own, seemingly trying to gain a louder response from the crowd than Bei Fong. It worked to perfection.
It was at that exact moment that a Sky Bison flew in through the air and landed near the track. From atop it disembarked a tattooed boy who could only be the Avatar. He ran over to Toph Bei Fong and had a very animated conversation with her. The crowd couldn't catch much of it, but there was something about "an emergency" and how he needed Toph to help. Bei Fong seemed to disagree, and stubbornly turned back towards the mountain. The Avatar, apparently feeling the situation he had was a bit more serious, apologized loudly and claimed he would explain later, then picked a surprised and furious Toph up with a gust of wind and gently deposited her on the Sky Bison's back. As he leapt up to the reins and took off they could see Bei Fong punch him hard on the shoulder - which almost made them crash - and then they were gone.
A moment passed.
"Well... this is unfortunate." The announcer said. "We seem to have lost our competitor. Heh..." As sheepish as he sounded, he looked even more panicked. Without his star he was going to lose the crowd! "Do any other Earthbenders happen to be in the vicinity? Please?" His hopes rose as he saw someone he thought might have been familiar standing in the crowd. "You! Sir!" The person in question started in surprise, not realizing he was being referred to. "I've been to the palace once or twice, haven't I seen you with the Earth King before?"
The person glared, and the announcer thought for a second that maybe he had made a mistake. Perhaps that information was not necessarily supposed to be widely known. Nevertheless, the man responded after a moment. "Yes..."
The announcer didn't miss a tick. "Are you an Earthbender?"
"A good one?"
The man puffed out his chest just like Bei Fong had a few minutes ago. "One of the best."
"Excellent. What's your name, young man?"
"Chon Qo Ban."
"How'd you like to race my machine and make a lot of money?"
Chon grinned. "You know what? I think I can do that."
And that was it. A cool scene, but one that might have taken away from the flow of the story. So... I cut it out. I'm still going to refer to it once in passing a little later though, so don't think it didn't happen.
See you next time.