KUNG FOOD FIGHTING
By Kimberly T.
Author's note: This fic was a birthday present to my husband! He's grown fond of the character who became ATLA's longest running joke. In just about every movie and show we've seen in the last few years, if a cartload of vegetables is overturned during an action scene, he rewinds and replays it just so we can cry out together, "My cabbages!" Foodbending was primarily his idea; I just did some world-building around it.
This story starts immediately after the very last time we saw the nameless man known to fandom only as the Cabbage Guy, in "The Tale of Aang" from the episode Tales of Ba Sing Se.
The cabbage merchant stared numbly at the damage the rabbaroo had done to his cartload of cabbages, tears trickling down his cheeks. So many had been eaten, and the rest had been pawed through and drooled on, damaged goods… All his beloved cabbages, ruined!
This was the seventh cartload of cabbages that had been destroyed in only a few months. There was no damage to his cart this time, but that was little to no comfort He'd spent every last coin he'd had on this last crop of cabbages; he was flat broke after having to repair or completely replace six pushcarts as well since last winter. Three carts broken or completely destroyed in Omashu, one smashed by pirates in the port city of Laosing, one lost to the flood in Gaipan, one crushed by overzealous customs officials as he'd entered Ba Sing Se, and now this! He had no more money, no cabbages left for selling to make money… and no hope left at all.
He finally just turned and walked away, down the sloped streets of the Lower Ring and out towards the Great Walls. The Great Inner Wall's gate was open, with the guards posted there all babbling about some animals that had just stampeded through, but he ignored them. Nothing mattered anymore.
He walked slowly past all the commotion in some fields nearby, where children and city folk were standing around in some poor farmer's fields that had been wrecked by earthbending and zoo animals. He felt a flicker of sympathy for the farmers, and wondered briefly how they had earned the wrath of the spirits, to have the Avatar inflicted on them as well. Then he kept on walking, towards the Great Outer Wall in the far distance.
He knew the Fire Nation armies lay beyond that wall, because he'd sneaked past them with the other refugees only a few weeks ago to make his way into Ba Sing Se. But the great city hadn't been a place of refuge for him after all; his troubles had followed him, and found him, and finally broken him. Now his only thought was to got back outside the Great Outer Wall, march right up to a platoon of firebenders, stand in front of them with his arms spread wide and say, "Here I am; kill me! Put me out of my misery!"
But the Great Outer Wall was a long distance away, with many miles of farmland between the inner and outer walls. After a few hours of trudging along, he grew tired enough to step off the simple dirt road and wander over to a lone tree in the middle of a field, and sit down in its shade. He would just rest there for a while, before going on…
But just a minute or two after he sat down beneath the tree, he heard a voice come from the branches above him. The strange, unearthly-sounding voice said, "Finally, you have come to embrace your destiny!"
He looked up to find no one there. But the voice still came from overhead, and now it was saying, "I have sought you out time and time again, but always you turned away from me in pursuit of such mundane goals, despite all the signs the universe gave you that you were meant for a higher purpose. But now, finally, you come to me!"
The more that unearthly voice kept talking, and the more he kept peering up into the branches of the tree, the more he thought he could see… a face of some sort. Far too large to be a human face, and oddly shaped, but something up there reminded him of a face.
Then a shaft of late afternoon sunlight pierced through the branches, and he gasped. The face was made out of plants, mostly fruits and vegetables! It had two radishes for eyes, apples in its cheeks, the lips were made out of green beans, the bulbous nose was made out of a turnip and past the cabbage-leaf ears it had sheaves of wheat hanging down for hair. And the entire head was crowned with a bunch of bananas!
"Wh-wh-what are you?" he finally stammered.
The green lips moved, and the unearthly voice rang out again. "I am Orzo, the Spirit of Food! Patron of the Harvest, Lord of the Forest; spirit of all that is growing and edible!"
The man blinked twice, and then admitted, "Never heard of you."
That awesome face twisted in a truly terrible grimace. "The other Great Spirits get all the worshippers. They claim entire nations for themselves, even though it is I who provide the food in every nation! But you, my follower, are going to change all that. You will change the world!"
"M…me?" he swallowed hard. He wanted to protest being called the follower of a spirit he'd never even heard of before now, but he instinctively knew that it was a bad idea to reject any spirit to its face. So instead he asked, "I'm going to change the world? But how? I'm just a cabbage merchant!"
"You were a cabbage merchant," Orzo corrected him sternly. "You will become something far greater, now that you have finally chosen to heed the signs the universe has been putting before you."
"But… what signs?"
He didn't know how it was possible for eyes made of radishes to blink at him, but they did. "Is it not obvious?" the Food Spirit asked. "I speak of all the times the Avatar crossed your path!"
All the times the Avatar…
"It was you?!" he blurted in dismay and growing outrage. "You're the reason why he kept—all my cabbages! My cabbages!"
Abruptly the tree branches moved in front of the face as it retreated into the greenery; he was reminded of a man defensively crossing his arms and looking off in a huff to disguise his feelings of guilt. "You were wasting all your true potential, by contenting yourself with the mere selling of cabbages! And any sensible man would have recognized the signs of the universe's displeasure and sought out a different path for his life, after losing three cartloads in less than three days! But no, you kept on-"
"I loved selling cabbages! It was my life!" He screamed at the top of his lungs, "I love cabbages!"
Orzo's face suddenly appeared in the branches above him again, looming even closer than before. "And do you know why?"
"Why you wrecked my-"
"No, why you love cabbages! Why do you love them so much; enough that you sometimes caressed them, and talked to them, and tucked one into your arms when you slept at night!"
He blushed, wondering how Orzo had found out that last bit, when he'd always been so careful to hide—oh, right, the spirits could see anything. And… why did he love them so much? More than any other cabbage merchant he'd ever met, he knew that for a fact; he'd always been the most successful pushcart merchant around, due to his enthusiasm for his produce, before he'd started running into the Avatar and repeated disasters. "I… I just do, that's all!"
"You love them because they represent your element," Orzo informed him. "Just as a waterbender loves water, and a firebender loves fire. You are linked to your element, just as they are!"
"…Wait, what?" he finally managed, his mind whirling. "In addition to Fire, Water, Earth and Air, there's a fifth element? The element of—of Plants?"
"In ages past, it was called the element of Wood by sages," Orzo said, while somehow making a face made from vegetables look reminiscent and wistful. "But the common folk called it the element of Food, for the benefits that bending it brought to them."
"In ages past?"
"Yes, mortal! Millennia ago, benders of my element worked side-by-side with benders of the other four elements to benefit the lives of the people! But an insane Avatar arose, one that grew jealous because though an Avatar can bend four elements instead of just one, he can never directly bend the fifth. He struck an evil bargain with Koh the Face-Stealer and other malicious spirits, and together they made a terrible trap for my mortal form. They imprisoned me under the Hei Bai Forest, and enchanted that prison to last for as long as the very forest did! I was not released until this last autumn when Fire Nation troops accidentally burned down the entire forest, a catastrophe that would have enraged me just as it did the Hei Bai spirit, if it had not also freed me at last."
Leaves fell from the branches as Orzo shook its vegetative head. "I emerged from my prison to find that I had been forgotten by the entire world, and my element's benders so lost to memory that not even myths of them exist anymore! But I searched the whole world over to find humans who had the potential… and I found you, mortal, as you trudged down am empty valley road, heading for Omashu with a cartload of cabbages."
The face loomed closer still. "But enough of the past. Now we speak of your future! Will you come with me, mortal, and learn to bend the fifth element?"
The radish-eyes rolled in their sockets, a disturbing sight. "Yes, including cabbages."
"All right. …But what do you mean, come with you? You're a tree, with roots and everything!" as he looked down at the tree roots beneath his feet.
And jumped straight back at least six feet when the roots abruptly ripped themselves out of the ground, as Orzo gave a laugh that sounded like a wooden shutter clattering in the wind. Then he screamed like a little girl when a big leafy branch swooped down to wrap around him, the rough bark scraping and tearing his clothes, and hauled him up into the air.
The roots rose up and twisted together to form feet as the trunk split halfway down to form two massive legs. Orzo took slow but utterly unstoppable steps forward, as a mist suddenly swirled up in front of them, in the middle of a field on a sunny day. Man and Tree-Spirity-Thing stepped into the mist…
And when the mist cleared, they were somewhere else entirely; somewhere in the mountains far beyond the walls of Ba Sing Se. "Here we will be undisturbed by events of the war," Orzo said while dropping his passenger to the ground like a sack of potatoes, "so you can begin your training."
They were undisturbed by not only events of the war, but by any other human being, except for one time just a week after their arrival; a traveler named Pu-on Tim came by on an ostrich-horse, holding a wildly inaccurate map and looking hopelessly lost. After the man who'd spent many years wandering the Earth Kingdom set him straight on how to get to Gaoling, Pu-on Tim asked him what he was doing out in the wilderness all by himself.
Orzo had chosen to spend the day rooted and sleeping, or whatever it was Tree-Spirity-Things did when they didn't want to talk to strangers, and didn't respond to knocks on his trunk or discreet halloos up into his branches. So, rather than try to explain his new destiny when he didn't have his immortal mentor or any foodbending skills to show off yet, the former cabbage merchant declared he'd gone off into the wilderness simply to escape his perpetual tormentors.
"The Fire Nation?" Pu-on Tim guessed.
"No, that prankster brat Avatar and his companions!" and he spent the next few hours talking about everything that had befallen him over the last few months, as well as all the gossip about the Avatar, both kind and unkind, that he'd heard from other pushcart merchants. Pu-on Tim kept a wide-eyed expression on his face as he filled scroll after scroll with notes, and departed the next day with all the scrolls secure in his saddlebags.
The months passed, and the Avatar and his friends faced great adversity elsewhere in the world, while the world's newest bender faced challenges he'd never even dreamed of before.
Ba Sing Se was betrayed and fell, due to blows struck from within… on the same day that the former cabbage merchant finally experienced triumph, bent his element for the very first time, by making an apple fall from a tree directly into his waiting palm.
The Avatar woke up to discover he was aboard a captured Fire Nation ship, on the same day the new bender discovered he could pop even the toughest nuts from their shells with a snap of his fingers.
While a music master was sternly explaining to a new pupil that dancing was 'not conducive to a proper learning environment,' an elemental master watched indulgently as his pupil danced a jig of sheer delight, after squeezing all the juice from an orange into a cup without touching it, and without spilling a single drop.
A river spirit thanked a young waterbender for helping her people, on the same day that the Food Spirit said "Well done" with great approval, after observing how a watermelon had grown overnight to twice its former size.
A young man from the Southern Water Tribe forged an incredible sword that could slice through anything, on the same day that a middle-aged man from the Earth Kingdom perfected his technique for making paper-thin slices through any vegetable matter without using blades at all.
A discontented prince destroyed a vacation home with his sister and her friends, at the same time that the new bender finished building a one-room cabin and some furniture out of living trees, and sat down on a moss-stuffed cushion in weary satisfaction.
The seasons passed, and as the long summer finally drew to an end, Orzo told his pupil, "It is time now for you to find your animal companion, and face your last challenge."
"Animal companion? Like a lizard-parrot, or a cockatoodle? But I'm allergic to feathers! That's why I've always pushed my cart myself, instead of using an ostrich-horse."
"Your destined companion does not have feathers, though their kind can glide for short distances," Orzo informed him. "You must seek out a ring-tailed squirreccoon."
"A what? A ring-tailed… I've never heard of them," he admitted.
"They are rare indeed, in this strange new age of yours, but before my imprisonment their population was great and thriving Squirreccoons were the very first benders of my element, making homes in the trees and feasting well on their bounty. Indeed, humans first learned foodbending by watching squirreccoons and mimicking what they could of their techniques! But I searched the world for them after my escape, just as I searched for human benders of my element, and found very few still existed, all living far from human populations."
Orzo sighed, or perhaps it was just the wind rustling through the tree-spirit's leaves. "I fear that they grew too dependent on their ability to make homes and find food through bending, and when I was imprisoned and that ability was lost, their population suffered and withered to nearly extinction. Student, before you can truly be called a master of your element, you must first find a pupil and teach him. This is your first and perhaps greatest challenge: to find and befriend a squirreccoon, and once you have gained its trust, restore to it the forgotten abilities its ancestors once had in abundance."
Finding a ring-tailed squirreccoon was no easy task, even after Orzo created another mist-portal-thing that took them to a faraway island that he said had the creatures on it. Before they left, the food-bender gathered a small bushel's worth of leechee nuts under Orzo's direction; according to the patron spirit, those tough-shelled nuts had been a staple of the squirreccoon's diet in ages past.
It took nearly two weeks of walking through the island's forests every day and camping in a different area every night, before he finally spotted a creature that matched Orzo's description of a ring-tailed squirreccoon. Sitting on its haunches high up in a tree by a stream, it looked to be just over a foot tall from his perspective. It had dark gray-brown fur that turned into a black mask around its eyes, forepaws that looked more like tiny hands, a bushy black-ringed tail, and odd flaps of skin stretching between its forelegs and hind legs.
The squirreccoon was definitely the biggest creature he had seen on the island so far. He wondered if the reason why they survived here when there were no more of them in the Earth Kingdom, was because there were no natural predators here to harass them as they foraged desperately for food and safe homes they could make without bending. As soon as the squirreccoon noticed him staring at it, it chattered in either fright or challenge, a noise that sounded like bob-bob-bob-bob-bob! Then it jumped right off the branch, stretching its limbs out wide; instead of falling, those wide membranes running down its sides caught the air and it glided on the breeze to another tree.
But Orzo had warned him that would likely happen, and he was prepared to wait it out. He set up camp in a nearby clearing, then spent a minute or so using his bending to unshell a dozen leechee nuts. He walked from the camp to the stream nearby, carefully dropping nuts along the way, then went back to camp and waited. Orzo had said that despite being mostly arboreal, the squirreccoons on this island often came down to streams and ponds to douse the fruits and nuts they ate in water. The spirit surmised that they had learned to do so after losing their bending during his imprisonment; water not only washed the dirt and grime off of their food, but softened some foods enough for their relatively weak jaws and teeth to handle. But coming down from the trees made them vulnerable to predators, which is why squirreccoons in ages past had usually used bending to prepare their food for eating instead
Hours later, the full moon was high in the sky, a fact that the man was grateful for because he didn't dare light a fire and risk frightening any animals away. He'd had to eat his dinner uncooked, but he'd grown used to that while training in foodbending (Orzo seemed to dislike fire, not surprising since the great spirit's mortal form was made of wood.) He heard a faint rustling in the leaves covering the forest floor, then a light pattering of paws, frequently stopping but always coming nearer...
Fifteen minutes later a ring-tailed squirreccoon cautiously padded up to the edge of the camp, a three-legged gait with a leechee nut clasped to its chest with a hand-like paw, and its cheeks bulging with more nuts stuffed in its mouth. The man said nothing, just flipped another leechee nut out of the bushel with his bending, cracked it in midair, and then let it drop to the ground a few feet in front of the squirreccoon. The squirreccoon squeaked in surprise and vanished back into the undergrowth—but not before snatching the nutmeat out of the cracked shell.
Five days later he had less than half of the bushel of nuts left, but the squirreccoon had grown so used to him that it was eating right out of his hands. Two days later, the animal had grown bold enough to climb right up his torso and perch on his shoulder, and it no longer took fright and vanished when he spoke to it. "Watch this," he said softly to his new companion on his shoulder, as he brought his fingers together, then quickly apart, and the leechee nut on the stump in front of them cracked open, the shell falling apart in two halves.
After cracking open a dozen nuts, and giving half of the shelled nutmeat to the squirreccoon while eating the rest himself, he set another leechee nut on the stump and then just sat there, waiting. After a couple of minutes the squirreccoon chattered "Bob-bob-bob!" in his ear, as if asking what he was waiting for. He murmured in response, "Your turn, little guy. Orzo said you can do it; it used to be instinctive for you…"
Finally in impatience, the squirreccoon ran right down his chest and hopped onto the stump, to stare at the nut with beady eyes. It didn't take the leechee nut and scamper away with it; they'd both learned over the last few days that the squirreccoon's teeth just weren't tough or sharp enough to bite through the nut's hard shell. The squirreccoon sat back on its haunches, stared at the nut for several long seconds… and then brought its forepaws together, holding its finger-like digits much the way he had done earlier. Then the paws flashed wide apart—and the leechee nut cracked. "Bob-bob-bob!" the squirreccoon squealed happily as it pounced on the revealed nutmeat.
"You did it! He did it!" he shouted happily to the forest around them while the squirreccoon greedily stuffed its cheeks. "And I taught him that! I did it! I'm a master foodbender!"
Now that his pet had begun learning foodbending, it was time for him to rejoin Orzo and show off his latest triumph. "I think I'll give you a name," he told it affectionately, as it rode on his shoulder while he walked through the forest, heading for the clearing that Orzo had rooted himself in during the search.
"Bob-bob-bob!" the squirreccoon responded, as if agreeing with him.
"But what to name you… how about 'Bob'?" he said aloud.
"Bob?" an inhuman voice echoed from the tree that they were passing—whups, not a tree after all, with Orzo's vegetative face suddenly appearing in the branches.
The squirreccoon shrieked in fright and launched straight off his shoulder, gliding off into the evening sky, and the foodbender dared to berate his deity: "Now look what you've done! It took days for me to get him to come near me at all; what if he never comes back?"
But just a few hours later the squirreccoon did come back, following a trail of leechee nuts and dried mango pieces back to the clearing. By that time, the former cabbage merchant had decided not to call his first pet 'Bob' after all. Instead, he said as he gently stroked the animal's fir, "I'm going to call you Choy Sum."
"You're naming your animal companion and first student… after a type of cabbage," Orzo commented dryly. "Somehow, I'm not surprised."
"It's a nice name!" he said indignantly. "What, do you have a problem with naming creatures at all?"
"No, I do not. Indeed, I think it is high time you were properly named!"
"Huh? But I have a name already; it's-"
"A name fit for a lowly cabbage merchant," Orzo's inhuman voice rolled right over his, "is not a suitable name for the first foodbender in millennia! No, from this day forth, you shall be known as… Aahn Dru! Aahn Dru, the Master Foodbender!"
"Aahn Dru," he said the name slowly, trying it out. "Well, I suppose it's not too bad…"
They spent five more days on the island, with Choy Sum learning more foodbending tricks every day. It frequently left the camp to soar off into the forest, where more of its kind lived; Orzo said that creature was showing off its new techniques for food gathering to the other squirreccoons that lived in the trees. And as the wild squirreccoons learned from their now domesticated cousin, they would pass the bending skills on to their offspring, who would thrive much easier with each generation.
"In just a few years, there will likely be thousands of squirreccoons living on this island, enough that we can bring them back to the mainland of the Earth Kingdom to reestablish them there," Orzo said in satisfaction. "But that is a task for another time; for now, it is time for you to move on to training human pupils," as the great spirit gestured with a leafy branch, and a misty portal swirled into existence once more.
Aahn Dru stepped into the mist, with Choy Sum riding on his shoulders. When the mist cleared they were standing in the middle of a vast field, with a dirt road running nearby and the Great Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se visible in the distance… the exact same spot where he'd first met Orzo and learned of his destiny.
"Now begins your great mission," Orzo said grandly. "You will wander the land, seeking out those with the potential for foodbending, and-"
"Nuh-unh," as Aahn Dru shook his head decisively. "No more wandering for this old man; if they want to learn, they'll come find me, not the other way around."
"What?!" the inhuman voice roared as leaves fluttered with surprise and indignation. "But you spent years of your life wandering from town to town, just selling cabbages!"
"That's right, and what did I get from it? Sore feet! Sore feet, and cartload after cartload of cabbages ruined, and that cursed Avatar kid always crossing my path and wrecking my day!"
It was amazing how a face made of fruits and vegetables could still look utterly flummoxed. "But—but that was different! That was before you found your true destiny!"
"That was before the Avatar came out of hiding. Is that crazy airbending kid still out flying around, and getting into trouble nearly everywhere he goes?"
"Right. So now we're doing this my way," as he turned on his heel and strode for the great city of Ba Sing Se on the horizon. "But don't worry, I've already figured out how to get people to come to me…"
"What are you going to do?" Orzo called after him.
"Open a restaurant!"
He started with a single peach, plucked from an orchard that the road passed on the long walk into the city, after spending three hours growing it on the branch into the World's Largest Peach Ever. He traded the melon-sized peach for a small fruit-seller's stand in the shadow of a tower of Fire Nation tanks, and a bushel of regular moon peaches.
By the next day he'd gathered quite a crowd and had his pockets stuffed with coins, from people who were far more interested in the bending tricks he was performing with the peaches than in the fruits themselves. Choy Sum was also a crowd-pleaser, the incredibly rare animal occasionally hopping off his shoulder to demonstrate its own technique for pitting a peach by just touching it. Aahn Dru used the money from that first day's sales to buy more fruits and vegetables (including several cabbages), and two days later had enough money to buy a larger stand and hire someone to take orders. Then he bought a cookbook, and began working two hours less each day, instead spending the time reading the cookbook and planning…
Within six weeks Aahn Dru had set up a prosperous vegetarian restaurant in the Middle Ring, named Lovely Cabbages. Several Upper-Ring noblemen approached him and offered to sponsor him in building a restaurant in the Upper Ring, but he refused; he had promised Orzo that he would teach foodbending to others, and the guards at the Upper Ring Gates would keep out most of his potential students.
Since he didn't set up shop in the ring they resided in, noblemen came down in their carriages and palanquins and unwillingly mingled with the commoners and university students, just for a chance to gawk at the restaurateur who was also the head chef, and who provided entertainment for the patrons with every meal he made. And to notice and wonder about the elegantly lettered sign posted next to the entrance: No Avatars Allowed.
Only a few people who ate at the restaurant actually believed that Aahn Dru had been taught a previously unknown, Fifth bending art by the Spirit of Wood and Food; such an idea went against everything they'd been taught about the elements since they were children. Most people believed that Aahn Dru was actually a stage magician who had decided to use food in his act instead of the more common scarves, coins and dove-bunnies. But even the skeptics had to agree that however he did it, he put on an excellent show, and the food was pretty good too!
Aahn Dru decorated the restaurant with cabbages in every variety; half of them growing in pots here and there, while the rest were purchased stock for meal preparation that he put out fresh every day. And he staffed the restaurant with a headwaiter and full crew of servers, a tea brewer, two sauciers for preparing sauces, and two attendants responsible for keeping the fires going and the grills, stoves and ovens heated at the correct temperatures Aahn Dru needed for his creations.
The stove attendants were both skilled firebenders who'd been in the city when the Order of the White Lotus had liberated it, but had chosen to stay behind and become Earth Kingdom citizens instead of departing during the army's withdrawal. Tsuo had been a cook before being drafted into the Fire Nation Army, and Botan had found love and an Earth Kingdom wife in just the few months between conquest and liberation. Both had humbly begged Aahn Dru to consider them for employment despite their nation of origin, and he'd told them that so long as they weren't related to any pirates or Avatars, they were welcome to apply.
The Lovely Cabbages was open every day from noon to sundown. Aahn Dru had a full staff already, but he still spread the word that he was looking for an assistant chef; an apprentice in foodbending. Those who wished to apply and to learn if they had any talent for foodbending, were welcome to show themselves at the rear entrance to the kitchen every morning between sunrise and noon, to have their talent evaluated.
Nearly every day, young hopefuls showed up at the back door, but nearly all of them went home disappointed. Aahn Dru would hand each one a cabbage and ask them to try to open its leaves with bending instead of peeling, but none of them could do it. Careful questions also revealed that none of them could hear what Aahn Dru had privately dubbed "the Greensong."
Waterbenders sensed their element with a pushing-and-pulling sensation; firebenders could feel the heartbeat of a flame. Aahn Dru had discovered that the very faint but somehow harmonious humming he'd been hearing off and on for most of his life, was from the vegetative world around him as he'd sensed his element without recognizing the fact.
After turning away so many hopefuls, Aahn Dru had begun to think he wouldn't find other benders this way after all, and he'd have to go back on the road like Orzo had expected of him. But only three weeks after opening the restaurant, he found his first apprentice in foodbending! He didn't have to hand out a practice cabbage, either; when the young street urchin named Bron Win showed up on his doorstep, she was timidly holding up an apple that she'd filched from a merchant's stall—without touching it. Aahn Dru gave her two copper coins for paying back the merchant that the hungry child had stolen from, and when she came back from doing so, told her to go wash up at the kitchen sink before starting her first lesson.
About six weeks after the restaurant opened, King Kuei himself came down from the palace, in a palanquin amidst a grand procession of guards and courtiers. Another palanquin was borne in the procession, one draped in the red and gold colors of the Fire Nation, and giving truth to the rumors that had filtered down from the Upper Ring that Fire Lord Zuko was in the city for a peace conference.
The two rulers emerged from their palanquins and strode together into the Lovely Cabbages, accompanied inside by enough guards to fill three more tables, while two remained behind to guard the front entrance. The monarchs were also accompanied by a little fellow who wore a hat pulled low over his forehead, and a rather suspicious-looking beard and mustache.
The headwaiter Mikol bowed low as they came in, and most respectfully ushered them to a grand table in the middle of the restaurant. From that table they had an excellent view of the chef's counter, where Aahn Dru did most of the food preparation. Seated on cushions around the table, they were given the strictly vegetarian menu, and informed that of course anything they ordered would be on the house, as it was an inestimable honor to be allowed to serve the royal majesties.
After perusing the menu, King Kuei ordered the day's special, the fried spring onion pancake, and the cabbage, snow pea and shiitake stir-fry. Fire Lord Zuko ordered the braised squash with black bean sauce, and mixed vegetable tempura. The bearded and unnamed young man with them, after staring at the menu with obvious delight and muttering something about how this place would change some friend's mind about meat forever, started to order one of everything—and when the Fire Lord pointedly cleared his throat, changed his mind and just ordered the fried tofu, sweet cabbage salad, and candied pumpkin.
Mikol brought the orders to Aahn Dru, who then called out to his apprentice and companion in the back. Bron Win and Choy Sum were there, washing some vegetables that had been plucked from the soil of an Outer Ring farm and purchased just hours ago. Bron turned from that task to the baskets of already clean vegetables, and with a big smile and quick gestures she sent a winter squash, snow peas, shiitake mushrooms and all the other ingredients arcing through the air towards her teacher.
Aahn Dru deftly caught the vegetables with his bending, added a cabbage from the waiting row nearby, and juggled them all for a few seconds; that was always a crowd-pleaser. Then he sliced the winter squash for braising, shredded the cabbage for the salad, and dunked a variety of small vegetables into the tempura batter, all within seconds and with only occasional touches of his skilled fingers. Meanwhile, the saucier to his right was already preparing a fresh batch of black bean sauce, and Tsuo was already preparing a piping-hot pan for frying the tofu.
"A splendid spectacle!" the Earth King said loudly enough for Aahn Dru to hear, as the foodbender made plucking motions in the air and the tempura-coated vegetables rose up out of the batter to drop into the nearby fryer. "I want you to come and cook for me in the palace! I'm sure that you'd be able to get Bosco to eat his vegetables all the time!"
The cabbage merchant he once had been would have babbled incoherently before fainting dead away at the prospect of working directly for the Earth King. But being mentored in a lost bending art by one of the Great Spirits, tends to change a man's perspective. Aahn Dru paused in his foodbending for only a moment, to bow to the monarch as respectfully as possible without actually kowtowing. "Your majesty honors me beyond words… but it is an honor I must decline, with unbearably heavy regrets."
"No? But why not?" the Earth King whined, looking for all the world like a pouting child being denied sweets by his nanny.
"Before I opened this restaurant, your most imperial majesty, I made an oath to my patron spirit that I would teach the lost art of foodbending to any who come to me and have the ability to learn. But new pupils would not be able to come to me if I was isolated in the depths of your great palace," Aahn Dru explained as he dumped diced onion into the pancake batter on his left, and started the stir-fry to his right.
"Told you he wouldn't go for it," the Fire Lord muttered to his fellow sovereign ruler. "Uncle said he'd been asked to set up shop in the Upper Ring at least four times already, and you know his gossip is never wrong."
"SShhh!" their companion hissed at the two monarchs with utter disregard for their lofty stations, his eyes fixed on Aahn Dru as the chef fixed their dinners. "I'm trying to figure out how he does it!"
Suddenly, an arrow flew into the restaurant through one of the shuttered windows. The Fire Lord must have glimpsed its flight out of the corner of his eye, or perhaps he'd just been expecting some sort of trouble to happen, because he shouted "Down!" while ducking. The arrow whizzed right through the spot where his head had been, at the same time that the bearded fellow made a high-pitched yelp and flung up an arm—and the arrow somehow arced sharply upwards, to impact into the ceiling above their table.
But that was not the end of the threat. There had been a thin glass tube tied to the arrow's shaft, and the tube shattered on impact; a noxious-looking cloud of gas roiled outwards and down onto the royals' table. After somehow deflecting the arrow, the bearded companion had stared right at Aahn Dru with a frightened and oddly guilty expression, and missed the gas pouring down until it was too late.
Aahn Dru and his restaurant staff all hastily backpedaled to get far away from the cloud of gas, while the guards rushed towards it to rescue their sovereign rulers. When the cloud dispersed a minute or so later, the scene revealed everyone at the royals' table and most of the guards sprawled out cold on the floor and cushions.
Which is when the restaurant's front entrance burst open, and a man strode in with twin bloodied blades and a murderous expression, flanked by two others with their weapons drawn and ready. At the sight of the Earth King and Fire Lord both unconscious, he struck a swaggering, darkly gloating pose as he began ranting about Fire Nation evil, Earth Kingdom corruption and the new order that was about to be ushered in.
But Aahn Dru had already heard and seen enough. When he'd been just a lowly cabbage merchant, he'd always done his best to flee from conflict before it could do harm to either him or his precious produce. But after months of being hounded by the Avatar and disaster wherever he went, right up to the day he was grabbed by a walking tree and hauled off to learn his destiny, he'd decided that he'd had enough of running away from trouble.
He took two steps forward from the rear of the restaurant, keeping his hands low but reaching outwards with his bending as he spoke. "You gentlemen look hungry," he said smoothly to the attackers. "Why don't you try… MY CABBAGES!"
He thrust his hands forward as he shouted, and all the dozens of cabbages that had been lining the shelves on the restaurant walls flew at the attackers. Half of the cabbages hit them with bruising force, knocking two of them right over, while the other half came apart, shedding leaves that began spinning around the attackers in a green tornado. Then the cloud of cabbage leaves rushed inwards, to thickly coat the terrorists from head to toe, leaving two of them lying on the floor looking like green-wrapped mummies with only their dumfounded faces exposed.
But the terrorists' leader had only been knocked to his knees instead of to the floor in the first assault, and he put on a truly awesome display of swordsmanship as he rose back to his feet, blades whipping about and shredding the cabbage leaves before they could bind him. He glared at Aahn Dru as he snarled, "The only thing I'm hungry for is justice, you old traitor; not any of the slop you'd feed to the likes of those royal scum!"
Aahn Dru just glared back at the leader as his hands fell to his side but his left hand moved slightly, rubbing his thumb against his fingers. "My delicious food is hardly 'slop', young man. But it's no wonder you're not hungry for it. I can sense that you've eaten quite recently; a healthy lunch of rice and vegetables."
The young man's eyes went wide as tea saucers as he abruptly dropped one of his swords to clap his hand over his mouth, while Aahn Dru continued coldly, "How unfortunate that your recent meal is disagreeing with you."
Even before he finished speaking, the terrorist was doubled over and vomiting. The young man dropped his other blade and fell to hands and knees to continue helplessly spewing his guts out, and put up no resistance at all when Aahn Dru wrapped him up with more cabbage leaves.
Bron Win timidly stepped up to Aahn Dru's side to stare at the downed assailants with wide frightened eyes, particularly their leader. She whispered, "Sifu, are you going to make me learn… how to do that?"
"Not if you've no desire to learn it, child," he told her kindly. "Truthfully, I've no desire to teach it, either; our gifts are meant to be used to help others, not to harm and control them."
Then he clapped his hands briskly to his staff. "Mikol, go out and find some healers, and everyone else, fetch some cold water and see if it will revive our guests. And someone step outside and look up and around for a brat wearing yellow or orange, carrying a glider-staff; with this much trouble hitting us all at once, the Avatar's got to be nearby!"