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|Aang and Emiko|
The South Pole, Two Years Ago
Aang rested along the edge of the ice flow; letting his feet hang over the side. The sun shone brightly today causing both the frozen tundra and frigid ocean to sparkle with an added vibrancy. There was not a cloud in the sky. The wind provided a gentle breeze, just enough to be felt but not enough to chill. Overall the Avatar found it pleasant enough to be able to sit out playing his flute for the past hour without having the slightest desire to seek shelter.
He had left both Appa and Momo at his glacier home and was waiting by the shore alone. Well, not completely alone. Aang chuckled and rubbed the head of a lazy tiger-seal as it slid by him into the water. Quite a few of them had congregated around him as he played as if they were soothed by the melodious tones emitted from his flute. This day truly was calm and peaceful, a real change from the last three years. He was glad to be back home again. He was glad to have a place he could really call home. Aang began playing another song. Today, it was going to happen today.
"Hey Aang, Aang can I ask you something?" The sound of approaching footsteps, muffled in the snow, caused the music to cease. The Avatar turned to see Katara running towards him. Despite the fairly warm weather she was dressed in her light blue fur coat and wearing rugged boots. Her hood was back though allowing Aang to watch her dazzling hair blow freely with the breeze. He turned around and stood up. Several of the tiger-seals hooted and waddled away.
"What is it Katara?" The airbender looked curious as he took a step forward. Katara stopped a few paces away.
"It's my mother's necklace...I can't find it anywhere!" She stammered in a frustrated tone. Angrily she kicked the snow at her feet. It flew up in a mini-explosion that scattered the otherwise calm tranquility of the area. "I must have misplaced it last night after the party. I know though I had it on when I went to your house afterward...I was wondering if I left it there?" The waterbender blushed and looked down at the ground. Aang scratched his head.
"Not that I recall." He admitted. "It's nothing to be embarrassed about, people lose stuff all the time. A lot was happening last night, it was your birthday after all."
"Yeah..." Katara grabbed her arm with her hand and rubbed it nervously. "So you haven't seen it huh? Thanks anyway. I'm going to go check with Sokka, maybe he somehow ended up with it." She started walking away.
"Hey wait up!" Aang called. He tucked his flute inside his tunic and advanced forward. "I know how much that necklace means to you, let me help you find it!"
"No...I don't want this to waste your entire day too." Katara responded, still blushing. Aang caught up with her and put a hand on her shoulder.
"A day spent with you isn't wasted." He said. She smiled tenderly at him, all the while her face continuing to redden. "Besides, if we both look together, we'll find it twice as fast!" With that Aang conjured up an air scooter and, leaping onto it, sped off southward. "Race you to my house!" Katara stood staring for a moment before snapping out of shock.
"Oh no you don't!" She cried happily. Leaping up into the air an ice path rose up with her and, landing on it, she slicked away quickly after the small speck that was the Avatar.
An Liao, Present Day
Monk Quanfar directed the three newcomers to a bench that stood just by the flowing river that cut the floor of An Liao in half. With a second command he bade them be seated, their backs to the swift current. Aang was still having trouble taking all this in. It just didn't seem possible! Air Nomads, more and more of them kept coming out of the homes carved into the rocks, ones he hadn't sensed before. There must be at least five hundred of them. And this place, what a majestic and magical city; it all felt so surreal. Toph and Sokka were moving their mouths now but words had still not yet been recovered. Before either one of them could speak Quanfar opened his mouth.
"You must forgive my apparent rudeness Avatar but I had long ago given up any hope of ever meeting you. I honestly and truthfully believed you died all those years ago when those barbarians burned our homes. Yet here you sit...and I'm not sure how I feel about that." He ran a hand back over his head and looked down at the three. "And as for your friends, Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom I judge from their dress...at least not Fire Nation. If you are here finally Avatar, does that mean you have brought justice upon those who tried to exterminate us?"
"The war's over if that's what you mean." Sokka guessed weakly. His voice soft and faint. Monk Quanfar turned harsh eyes upon him.
"My question was directed to the Avatar, do not speak unless spoken to!" Sokka shrunk in his seat. The old man was intimidating. Aang noticed even Toph, who was usually fearless, shook slightly where she sat.
"Please be kinder to my friend." Aang said in a courteous voice.
"That is not an answer to my question." Quanfar's eyes narrowed. "But I can already guess the answer from your face. You don't have the eyes of a man who does what has to be done. You look more like one who does only what he is capable of doing and justifies this with whatever ideology suits him."
"I ended the war and brought peace!" Aang argued defensively.
"Not for us Avatar!" Monk Quanfar cried. "Peace would mean we could leave this sanctuary with certain security, but with the Fire Nation still in existence we are under it's threat. What would stop them from doing what they did over a century ago all over again?"
"I would!" Aang stated firmly. "Besides the new Firelord is my friend and feels nothing but remorse for what happened in the past. He would welcome back the Air Nomads with love and respect!" There was another outbreak of voices, this time considerably louder, when Aang declared this. Several of the Nomads back up while one little girl actually uttered a small scream.
"A friend...of the Fire Nation..." Monk Quanfar ran his hand over his head. "Quite the Avatar indeed you are. You will not find the hero's welcome you may think you deserve here. Nor however, will you find butchery or anger. Stay as our guest Avatar for as long as you like...but only as our guest. Your friends too, so long as they are not members of that most hated nation, are welcome to come and go as they please." Aang stood up, Toph and Sokka followed suit.
"I have some questions about this place...and about you." He said at length. Monk Quanfar appeared evasive.
"What is it you wish to know?" He asked cautiously.
"How did you get here? Who built this place? What keeps those torches lit? Why haven't you ever tried making outside contact? Where's your Council of Elders?" The airbender found himself spitting out the questions faster than he'd meant to. Monk Quanfar allowed a small grin.
"So full of questions." He hissed softly. "I think a tour is what you best need. But the answer to a few is simple. I don't know who built this place, nobody does. Nor do I know how we came to be here. It is a place of safety and security for my people. Now if you have any further inquiry...Emiko, come here!" Quanfar motioned to a young woman standing near the front row. "Emiko will be glad to assist you. I must go meditate on what has occurred. Good day." Monk Quanfar swept his long robes as he turned and, appearing almost as if to glide, vanished away into the city.
Emiko had long black hair that she had allowed to grow long, so that her arrow was nearly hidden from view. Her eyes were light brown like the color of leaves at the beginning of fall. Her face and features were young but Aang felt a weight on her. Shoulders slumped as if crushed by some unseen force and an expression that looked as if it ever rarely smiled. It was too bad. The Avatar thought that, aside from this sadness she was quite an attractive woman. The brown eyes moved up and met his briefly before they quickly turned away.
Aang's two companions had finally found their voices. "I don't like that guy." Toph said flatly.
"Yeah talk about high strung." Sokka added. "Like it would kill him to show a little gratitude."
"That's not why I didn't like him." The blind earthbender continued. She stared vacantly at the spot where Monk Quanfar had been standing. "He was lying. He knows more than he said. I think he knows a lot about who built this place and how all these people came to be here."
"Are you sure?" Aang asked.
"I'm positive." Toph confirmed. "There's something else going on here...and if he won't tell us I guess it's time to do some digging around."
"Sounds like a plan." Sokka complimented. "Maybe some of the other people will be more willing to talk to us."
"Oh...I meant more like actual digging." Toph blushed. "Your idea is good too."
"I'll do that while you two head back up to the surface." Aang decided, looking at Emiko. "I'll follow her and see what I can learn about the city, Toph I need you to go alert the Earth King. He needs to be told."
"And I'll go grab Suki and my sister!" Sokka suggested, as if figuring out the Avatar's plan.
"Yes, I want you to hurry them down here as quickly as possible. I want my wife by my side." Aang stated. "Now go, quickly!" Both Sokka and Toph appeared uneasy to leave him alone but they nodded and turned to go.
"You better hold onto me if you want to be able to see." The blind earthbender told Sokka. The Water Tribe warrior nodded and grabbed Toph's hand. Out of the corner of his eye Aang saw just the tiniest blush appear on the young girl's face before they turned and left. Reaching the ledge, Toph shot them up on a platform of rock and within seconds they had vanished into the tunnel. The Avatar grinned lightly to himself before spinning back to Emiko.
"Hi, I'm Aang! Nice to meet you!" He said in as cheerful a tone as he could muster.
"Nice to meet you too Avatar Aang..." The words barely reached Aang's ears. If this woman spoke any softer people would mistake her for a mute! The young woman kept looking away and at the ground, which further muffled her voice. "I am honored to welcome you to An Liao...is there anywhere in particular you'd like to go? The academy perhaps...or the library..." It seemed to the airbender that this woman was constantly trailing off on purpose, as if she'd been conditioned to be reserved.
"Wherever is fine with me." He said, shrugging his shoulders. "I'm just curious to see how exactly you guys survived down here for so long." Emiko nodded.
"We will start with the sifter then..." She turned and beckoned him to follow behind her. Aang was surprised and how quick and agile this girl was. Her voice was so weak yet she moved with great focus and purpose of being. Almost effortlessly she flowed between the Nomads, who were just now resuming their daily routines. Mere seconds had passed and already she had led Aang to a staircase, which ascended to the second floor. Glancing to his right as he walked the Avatar was able to look into the homes and catch glimpses of life down in this city.
The homes of the Air Nomads were simple. Mats and blankets made from some unknown plant decorated the walls of rock inside and there was always at least one torch to provide light. Aang noticed that not all these torches were lit so it seemed possible to turn them off and on at will, either that or they were on some kind of automatic timer. There were tables, chairs and ovens all carved out of the rocks along with beds for sleeping on. All and all everything appeared primitive, but in the good sense. Aang saw flashes of the same freedom; the same easy style of living that had existed so long ago at the Air Temples.
He was happy for these people. His culture was not lost; it had survived here in some form. This place was, beyond any doubt, the last home of the Air Nomads. It just wasn't his home however. It never could be. He already knew where he belonged.
The South Pole, Two Years Ago
Momo chattered and swept around the room. Every time he landed, he rummaged with his hands inside various drawers and shelves. He, Aang and Katara were in the main room of Aang's house, which was built into the side of a glacier of ice. All the furniture was wooden, imported from the Earth Kingdom. Toph had donated it actually to give the Avatar something warm and dry to live with. There was a table, two chairs and many shelves in this room. Aang's staff leaned against the wall in the far right corner. Near it a comprehensive map of the four nations was engraved into the wall, carved into the very ice itself.
Looking up from his shelf of various wooden animal carvings Aang could see Katara growing more and more nervous. They had already searched the other rooms of the house. The only place left after this would be the roof where Appa's stable and his clothesline were located and he highly doubted the necklace was in either of those two places. The waterbender lifted up the fur that covered the table and glanced under it fretfully. Momo had moved over to a windowsill and was scanning the ground.
"It's not here!" Katara sighed as she set the fur down. "And I know for a fact I didn't go on the roof when I was over here last night." She collapsed down onto one of the chairs and rubbed her face with her hands. "I still can't believe I lost it!" She scolded herself.
"Hey it's okay." Aang sat down across from her. "We'll find it soon. We've already checked my entire house, where else do you go in the South Pole?"
"Where else is there?" Katara joked. She put out her hand and took his. "Thanks again for helping me look...you really didn't have to." Aang blushed.
"I totally don't mind." He said. Just then Momo touched down between them and muttered a high few pitch cries. "You've found something Momo?" The Avatar asked, slightly surprised. The lemur took off and flew over to the top shelf where he disappeared briefly from view. Both Aang and Katara watched in anticipation for their friend's upper body to reappear. Finally Momo came back into their vision and in his hands was clutched...a wooly ant.
"Oh...I guess you just found dinner." Katara said sadly up to him. Momo bit off have the ant and held the rest out to her. "No that's okay Momo...you can have it." Aang couldn't stop himself from chuckling as the lemur tended to his prize. Katara had moved her face to the window. "Guess it's lost." She said. "Only a few hours of daylight left, how am I going to find it?"
"Uh duh, I thought we'd already established this, with my help of course!" Aang stood and took Katara's arm. "Come on, we'll go check your house." The waterbender looked up at him, smiled, and then nodded.
"Okay." She agreed. "Sokka or somebody will be around. We can get some more help if nothing else."
"Sounds like a plan." Aang approved with a grin. Katara stood and together they exited his house. Outside what had been a good, fair day now felt slightly cooler. The wind had picked up and Aang noticed a couple clouds now broke up the endless blue of the sky. It was hardly anything serious however and nothing to worry about. The airbender went first, leading the way now the gradual slope of ice that he used as a staircase to reach his door. When their feet touched the gentle layer of snow a gruff roar sounded above them, causing Aang to look up. Appa's gigantic head stared back down at him with an almost quizzical expression upon its face. "No thanks buddy! I think we'll walk back. You just get some rest okay, you earned it!" The sky bison bellowed again but retreated from sight, most likely going into the naturally built stable Aang had made for him out of snow.
Katara waved farewell to Appa as they started off north toward the village. Snow blew past their feet making the Avatar slightly regret his decision to not wear a jacket. Oh well, there was another way. Focusing his chi, Aang projected a slight radius around both him and Katara. The air temperature rose inside their little bubble to the point where both were comfortable. The young Water Tribe girl was about to remove her jacket when a low-pitched snarl stopped her mid step.
Aang spun to the side. Standing there, silhouetted in the flat landscape, a giant polar-leopard stood with its back raised to them. Massive jaws hung open revealing hungry rows of fangs and teeth. The shiny ebony of its claws reflected in the afternoon sun. The beast was huge, possibly the largest one the airbender had ever seen. Another growl escaped the monster's mouth as it began advancing toward them.
Katara dug her feet into the snow and prepared to fight. "We can take him." She said confidently. Aang looked at her.
"No," He replied quickly. "There's a better way." Without waiting for a reply the Avatar scooped her up in his arms and, leaping into the air, summoned an air scooter directly beneath them. "Hang on tight." He ordered before speeding off into the tundra with the polar-leopard in ho pursuit.
An Liao, Present Day
Aang and Emiko stood inside a room that appeared on the outside like just any other house in the city of An Liao. Yet inside revealed it to be a packing plant of sorts. It was massive; at least four times the size of any of the houses. Numerous types of vegetation grew on all the walls and the Air Nomads were combing over them with what looked to Aang to be a giant cheese grater. The parts of the plants that were scraped off fell to the floor where other Nomads gathered them into baskets and made stacks in the middle of the room.
"Here is the sifter..." Emiko told Aang with a small wave of her arm. "As you can see the plants are harvested and used as our food source, we grate away the tougher parts while keeping the nutrients. All other parts of the plant are either reused as furniture or taken away to be made into cloth and other material. In An Liao we do not waste..."
"You guys don't eat meat? That's great! I'm a vegetarian too!" Aang said happily. He was glad that this particular Air Nomad tradition had survived.
"We do not eat meat because there is no source of meat..." Emiko answered him. "Many of our people are weaker than normal because they lack the correct number of proteins and nourishment. Numerous attempts have been made to fix this problem but so far, none have worked..."
"Oh." Aang said sadly. He looked around at all the people busily working to get food out. "Well at least that's one problem that will go away now that you're reconnected to the surface." Emiko didn't look pleased.
"I'm not sure how many of us are happy about that. It is a change yes, but a scary one..." She told him in very soft words. Her hair hid her face and the Avatar suddenly realized that she was one of those she had just spoken of.
"It's okay." He reached out and placed his hands on her shoulders. "The world is a safe place now, believe me. And Air Nomads belong above ground. Why Appa won't even go under ground at all anymore he hates it so much!" Emiko raised an eyebrow.
"Appa? Who is Appa..." She asked, clearly puzzled.
"My sky bison." Aang replied cheerfully.
"A sky bison! You actually have a sky bison!" Life seemed to spread through Emiko's features for the first time since they'd been talking. "Monk Quanfar often tells us stories of the sky bison! I can't believe you actually have one! Is he friendly, and big, and fluffy?"
"Yep that pretty much sums up Appa." Aang confirmed. Emiko was genuinely thrilled. "And once you come up you'll get to ride him. Maybe too he can help me re- teach you guys airbending. Sky bison were the original masters after all."
"I'd love that..." Emiko said, her voice fading. "But I don't know how Monk Quanfar would feel about it. He wants us all to be safe. He might forbid it because the Fire Nation still exists..." Aang could sense that Emiko was quickly withdrawing into her shell. Immediately he cast around for something to keep the mood light.
"So how good is this food?" He asked as he reached down and picked up one of the plants. Bringing it up to his face he inhaled its odor. "Mmmm, smells -" The smell reached his senses, instantly he stopped talking. The scent was so strong and sharp that it made his eyes water. He knew he was going to sneeze. Emiko sensed this as well and took the plant from him right before his body lurched forward and a powerful gust of air shot from his lips.
Emiko laughed lightly. "Pungy-squash isn't known for it's sweet smell." She chuckled again. Her laughter was cut short by a large rock dislodging itself from the ceiling. The boulder fell, gravity driving it swiftly at Emiko.
"Look out!" Aang called. He threw himself on her, knocking both of them back, out of the sifter and onto the walkway. He landed on top of her and for a moment the two locked eyes. Then Emiko blushed deeply and squirmed out.
"Uh...thank you..." She said. Her face was still blushing. Aang got up and dusted himself off.
"Hey, no problem. It was probably my sneeze that knocked that rock loose in the first place." He scratched the back of his head and walked over to her. "So, are you going to show me the rest of the city?" Emiko nodded and turned away.
"I'd love to..." She whispered.
The South Pole, Two Years Ago
Aang and Katara sped across the frozen landscape. So far the Avatar had not dared to look back. He still occasionally heard the polar-leopard and knew it must be on their tails. Katara kept summoning mounds of snow to slow its advance.
"How are we doing?" He called over the roar of his air scooter.
"You want the long or the short version?" Katara called back.
"Either or, I'm not picky." The airbender swiveled around a jagged piece of ice that was sticking out of the ground.
"Well long version is I'm hitting it, but only slowing it down. The darn thing just keeps plowing through the snow banks! Wait, it's slowing down...it stopped!" Katara cried happily. "Wait why did it stop?"
"Hang on Katara!" Aang called. They were no longer over smooth snowy surfaces. Instead he appeared to have flown them out right over an ice flow. Sharp shards stuck up every couple of yards and the ground was fiercely unleveled. Even with his reflexes Aang was unsure how much longer he could keep them flying, it was only a matter of time until...
"Ah!" Katara yelled as Aang bashed off of a large chunk of ice and spiraled over the ground. Both her and the Avatar landed hard, causing little slivers of ice to rocket up into the air and clatter out over the surface. The first sensation that greeted the airbender was a sharp stab of pain on his left arm. With a groan he hauled himself up off the ice and looked down. Blood covered the outside of his shirtsleeve, escaping at an alarming rate from a deep open wound near his elbow.
"Katara!" He called out. "Are you okay?" A few feet away the waterbender looked up and spat out some ice.
"A scratch or two but I'm fine." She responded, standing up. Then she glanced at Aang's arm. "Oh my gosh Aang!" She rushed over and knelt down beside him.
"I'm okay." He assured her, rummaging through his coat pockets to make sure he had not lost anything. Katara was running healing waves over the spot where he was injured. Already he could feel the gash healing. But he could not feel something else which was causing him a great deal of distress.
"There." Katara stated finally. "Soon it will just be a small scar, nothing to worry about. Why do you keep fidgeting around so much, you look like you've lost something?"
"Oh...no reason." Aang said dismissively. Katara grinned and knelt down in front of him.
"Aang, you're not a very good liar...and besides you know you can't keep secrets from me. Just tell me, what is it you've...my mother's necklace!" She eyes had drifted upward and now they were looking past the Avatar. In a flash Katara had dashed over but before she could grab it Aang snatched it up. "Hey what are you doing?" She cried. Aang said nothing but just looked at her. A second passed before the truth dawned on Katara. "Have you had that all day?" She asked suddenly.
The airbender nodded and grinned sheepishly. "Last night, after the party, I kind of held onto it after you'd taken it off." He admitted. The waterbender's eyes bulged.
"What? Why? Why would you do that?" She asked incredulously. Aang stood up directly in front of her.
"I'm sorry, today didn't happen completely like how I'd planned it. We weren't supposed to end up out here. I kind of didn't factor in the polar-leopard. I had a much better spot set up by the water. It was on a hill and there was going to be the setting sun and I'd even had panda-lilies brought in and everything. I hope you can forgive me for doing this out here instead." He knelt down in front of her.
"Do what out here? Aang, what are you talking about?" Katara's tone and manner had completely changed; all traces of anger were gone. Now her voice was a mixture of wonder, terror and excitement. The Avatar held out the necklace.
"Katara," He began. "I love you. For so long I've wanted to give you something, a symbol, to express that love but no matter what I thought of, it didn't seem appropriate. I didn't want to give you something that would force you to stop wearing your mother's necklace...but I did want to give you something to show just how much you mean to me. So I came up with this plan. I'm sorry for taking your mother's necklace and not giving it back to you earlier. I hope you'll forgive me. But I'm offering it to you now with only one request: Katara, will you marry me?"
For what seemed an eternity Aang didn't dare look up. When he did, when he'd finally mustered the courage; he found that Katara was looking at him through tears...and that she was smiling.
"Aang..." She managed to gasp. She reached out and took the necklace, hooking it back around her neck. All her effort seemed to be going into maintaining her composure. "Of course I'll marry you!" She blurted out at last and lunged forward, tackling him to the ground and embracing him in a deep kiss. Another eternity passed before the two separated. Katara lay on top of Aang, gazing down on him tenderly. Tears were still dripping from her wondrous sapphire eyes. "I love you so much!" She whispered, and kissed him again.
An Liao, Present Day
They were near the upper levels now. Aang had noticed a real change in Emiko's mood as the tour had progressed. After the sifter they had gone to the Pai Sho room, and from there on into the library. Many people had stopped and exchanged hellos and other pleasant greetings. All during this time the Air Nomad woman had grown increasingly warmer toward the Avatar, her voice more strong. Aang still couldn't get over how happy the people seemed to be here in their lives. He would have gone insane had he been forced underground. It wasn't until they were approaching the temple that the answer was revealed to him.
"Tell me about the sun..." Emiko asked in a shy voice. "What's it like?" The airbender was stunned. Of course, they did not miss the freedom that was life aboveground because they had never been above ground. "It must be a really big torch to light the whole world like that..." Emiko wondered aloud.
"Well it's more of a ball of fire than a torch," Aang tried to explain.
"I see..." Emiko went on. "And it just sits there on top of a mountain..." The Avatar laughed.
"No no, nothing like that. The sun moves through the sky. Same with the wind and the clouds." He explained.
"Wow..." Emiko exhaled. "Maybe you could show me that some time!"
"Sure, that'd be great." Aang agreed. Emiko blushed slightly and turned away.
"Ah! We're here. The temple where Monk Quanfar takes us to worship..." Emiko seemed caught off guard by where they were, like she had been paying attention to something else. Aang looked to their left. A staircase preceded the entrance to this room and there was a torch on either side of the doorway. This place certainly gave off the air of importance. "It is here we go to be thankful...and to meditate." Emiko went on. "Right this way..."
Aang followed her up the stairs and through the door. Inside was a very brightly lit room. Torches were upon every corner of the wall. Large mats covered the floor. And in the middle, resting against the back wall was –
Aang drew in all the air around him sharply in both fear and surprise. A large statue of Oguanga glared menacingly down up him. Eyes the size of his head fixed his face with an imposing stare. Underneath the statue, Monk Quanfar rose and turned around.
"Welcome Avatar." He said coolly. "How do you like the city?"
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