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Chapter 14: Adjustments
"The Fire Nation?" Yoriko glanced down at her feet and began to chew on her lower lip. "Why do I have to go to the Fire Nation?"
Sukan knelt down and lifted her chin while Fire Lady Saitei, Moro, and Shen stood around the bench. "What's wrong, Honey?"
"It's just...will I ever get to come back to Republic City?"
Shen nodded. "Of course, Yoriko, it's only going to be for a couple of days."
She sighed. "But...why?"
"You're a Firebender first," Saitei said, "and I'm going to be your instructor. We won't start training for some time, but it would be beneficial for you to be familiar with Caldera City."
Sukan smiled warmly. "It'll be alright, Yoriko. If you want, I can come with you."
The Avatar's expression brightened. "Sure!"
"Then we'll make preparations for the journey," Saitei said.
"You can stay with me at my apartment until we leave tomorrow morning," Sukan said, "if that's alright with you."
The girl's head bobbed up and down. "Yeah, that'll be great!"
The man in the owl mask set his gaze on the open journal in his hands and flipped through it as he sat cross-legged in front of the portal that would take him back to the physical world, the human world. His encounter with Wan Shi Tong was brief and violent, and he was certain that the spirit would be unlikely to forget it. However, he guessed his toxin hadn't fully worn off yet, and the Spirit of Knowledge had no way of knowing where he was.
As he thumbed through the journal, he frowned.
"So...why are you worth so much?" he asked. "What do you hold within that my employers want so badly?"
He cocked his head as he kept reading. The author of the journal kept referring to the Order of the White Lotus as ineffectual; Xai Bau seemed to desire communion with the spirits.
His eyes widened; this was truly it. He had finally found it. "It isn't exactly what I'd imagined, but it exists." He closed the journal; he would examine it further before handing it over, just to be safe.
He stood and stretched before coming through the portal. His boots sunk ever so slightly into the snow, and his cloak wrapped around him as a gust of wind came from his right. As the cloak flowed over his right arm, he let the journal slide into the knapsack the hung from the opposite shoulder. The loose end of his cloak on the left side flapped, revealing the glint of half a dozen small throwing knives.
"We were beginning to wonder if you had all died in that library," the voice said. It came from above him, on a nearby roof of a single-story building. Four men and three women stood on the roof; their red armor nearly overshadowed by dark cloaks, much like his own. His tunic, however, was a dull gray and as such did not match theirs.
"Mr. Shu and Mr. Yao did not survive," he said, "Wan Shi Tong killed them both; he nearly killed me."
"Unfortunate," the man in the middle replied. "Did you at least find the item?"
The man in the owl mask cocked his head. "What is it?"
"The journal," replied one of the other men, with a hint of desperation, "did you get the journal?"
"What, if I may ask, is so important about this journal that two men had to die for it?"
One of the women pulled a segmented staff from a sheath on her back. "You don't get to ask questions! Do you have the book or not?"
The man in the owl mask sighed. "I'm afraid I was unable to recover it. Wan Shi Tong was...persistent."
"I see," the man in the middle said. "Then we have nothing more to discuss. Kill him."
Six of them dropped down to meet him. The woman with the staff landed first and waved her hand over the weapon. The segments loosened, allowing a longer, more whip-like weapon to take its place.
"A Metalbender," the man in the owl mask mused.
The other five, he noticed, were benders as well. Two of them used air to slow their descent, and another charged lightning on his fingertips. The woman farthest from him slid her foot forward and twisted, turning the ground before her into lava.
Though the mask obscured the view of his face, his eyes widened. "That's new."
The final man, large and imposing, stood slightly forward and to her left. The man in the owl mask knew something was off when he didn't take a fighting stance like the rest. Instead, he inhaled deeply, and a projectile—a spark—flew from his forehead. It popped and crackled as it sailed toward their masked foe.
And then it exploded.
Nana sat on the steps leading up to City Hall; though no snow fell, the air was plenty cold. As she wrapped her white cloak tighter over her shoulders, her ears caught the sounds of boots hitting the snow covered stone. The Airbender frowned.
"Lyre keeps telling me to listen to what you have to say, Jing," she said. "For her sake, I'll hear you out."
"Nana, I don't...I don't consider what I'm about to tell you an excuse, okay?"
She sighed and clenched her fists. "Makes two of us. How could you...how could we have that kind of a moment, that kind of a connection, and then you go and say that I don't matter?!"
He sat down next to her, and when she scooted over closer to one of the pillars, he gritted his teeth. "Damn it, I didn't mean that! I was...manipulated by a spirit named Karuta so that he could fight a private war with Izanagi." He glanced at her. "I would never say that you didn't matter."
"But you did," she replied tersely.
"Think about it, Nana! Even if, for some crazy reason, I didn't think it was working out between us, would I really go and say something that cruel?"
She pursed her lips. "But...you said it. Straight to my face." She slammed her fist against the pillar. And grimaced. "Ow..."
"I keep trying to tell you, I wasn't myself!" He leaned toward her. "I don't know what else to tell you, Nana; I'm sorry!"
"If it wasn't you, why are you even apologizing?"
Jing swallowed, and the words that came out of his mouth left in a choked whisper. "I wasn't strong enough to stop him, to maintain control." He buried his face in his hands. "I pushed everyone I loved in my life away because I didn't have the strength to fight his influence!"
Nana stood abruptly, all the while massaging her aching hand. "That's...I wish I could believe you, Jing. I can't."
"You keep saying that," he said.
"'You can't.' That's what you've been saying this whole time. All I want to know Nana...why don't you believe me?" He glanced up at her, and his coal black eyes with their white irises made her wince. He'd been changed; he'd been—
"Spirits..." she breathed, her own eyes widening. "What did he do to you?" Nana sat back down slowly. "It's hard...almost impossible....to separate what you said then to you now. I keep trying; I want to believe that...that I do matter to you. I want to believe that you still..." She wiped the tears from her eyes without uttering a sound.
Jing furrowed his brow. "I will do anything to prove it, Nana. You do matter to me; I lo—"
She held up a hand. "Don't say it, not yet. I'm...not ready. Just," she sighed. "I want to know exactly what happened to you over this past year. I need to know for sure..."
He nodded. "Yeah, I can do that."
The Airbender leaned against the pillar. Spirits...
The man in the owl mask hit the ground rolling in order to cushion his landing. The strap of his knapsack snapped as he rolled, and the bag slid away from him. He didn't have time to worry about it, though.
A combustion-bender. Hell.
His employer had brought the best, so he would give his. Debris from the smoking hole in the ground rained down on his head, and he gripped a small rock in his left hand as he flipped to his feet. He pulled a dagger free from its sheath with his right as the Metalbender's staff tore through the smoke and kicked up snow to his right.
The attack dissipated the smoke enough for her to see, and he lunged as she pulled her staff back. If he got in close, the combustion-bender likely wouldn't use his attack. As he got within an arm's length away from her, she pulled all of the segments of her staff close and released the grip of her left hand. With that free hand, she tugged in his direction. The dagger pulled in his grip, and he let it carry him closer before letting go. The weapon flew into her grip, but he was on top of her now. Before she could react, he slammed the small stone into her temple. Blood spurted from the wound in her head as she crumpled to the snow-covered ground.
Once she was out of the way, he noticed the others moving. The entire exchange hadn't taken more than a few seconds, but they were already coming at him again.
The two Airbenders used the air currents to their advantage, speeding toward him, but that didn't stop him from noticing the combustion-bender inhale again. In a flash, he whipped the stone toward him while kicking off of the ground toward his two newest attackers. The stone struck true just as the spark formed, and the resulting explosion knocked the large man, the Lavabender, and the Firebender on their backs.
He didn't have time to check if they were down permanently, as the Airbenders were on him. One formed a sideways air-blade by swinging his left hand, while the other kicked out a small air blast aimed at his shins. In response, he kicked off of the ground and twirled, straight as an arrow, between the two attacks. His arms were crossed over his chest until he passed through the gap; then he let the movement of his body guide his right hand as he struck the first attacker's jaw. Meanwhile, he used his legs to try and knock the other one over, as well, but the Airbender jumped backward, narrowly avoiding him.
Once again, he hit the ground rolling, but this time, he managed to grip one of the smaller knives in his cloak and fling it toward his still-moving foe. The weapon sunk into her throat, and she went down gurgling. Even as one Airbender fell, the other was getting to his feet.
Any slower, and I'd have been dead a long time ago.
Before the first attacker could get his bearings, the man in the owl mask scrambled toward him, the snow nearly causing him to slip. This gave the remaining Airbender time to let out one blast of concentrated air. However, he spun around the attack and brought a hard right hook to the man's cheek. It cracked beneath his fist, but he didn't directly follow the momentum of the attack. Instead, as his foe was reeling, he clapped both hands against either ear. His foe didn't even have time to cry out, as he landed a blow to his opponent's windpipe before finally taking his very legs out from under him with a stomp-kick to his knee.
As the Airbender hit the snow face-first, lightning arced past his head, singing the hood of his cloak. Fortunately for him, this attacker had a fresh burn that covered most of his face, courtesy of the earlier explosion, and it seemed to impede him. The Lavabender was still down, likely unconscious, and the combustion-bender...
A smoking stump resided where his head used to be.
Can't waste this.
He lunged for the Firebender, but an instantaneous ringing in his ears brought him to the ground. A shrill whistle burned so loudly in his eardrums that he almost didn't notice the warm blood rolling down from his ears and nose.
He heard the faintest voice as the Firebender staggered toward him. "...kill you..."
He tried to push himself off of the ground, but he felt a boot on his back.
"Stand down, Aizu," the same man who had questioned him about the book was speaking now, but he couldn't turn his head to look in his direction. "He has been neutralized."
"He killed them, Taiko!" the Firebender, Aizu, cried hoarsely. "They're all dead."
"Not all. One other still lives; your wife is still alive. Just unconscious."
The man in the owl mask felt his body being turned over, and he was soon staring up at the man who'd brought him down.
"What did you do to me...?"
The cloaked man, Taiko, twirled a small flute-like device in his fingers. "This is a leftover from Petrine's militarization of our people. Quite effective, but you were either smart enough or lucky enough that you were always too close to my own people to use it effectively. Until, that is, you killed my two students." Taiko knelt down, pressing his knee into his chest. "Now, why did you lie about not having Xai Bau's journal?"
Sukan inserted her key into the door of her apartment. The door creaked open, and she glanced at Yoriko, who stood back with Moro Kenshi. The girl's left foot tapped the ground in a nervous gesture.
"Welcome to my humble home, Yoriko," Sukan said as she smiled. "I hope you don't think it's too small."
The young Avatar stepped past the threshold of the door and took in the accommodations. There was a small table in the dining room, a kitchen, and a small living area with a couch and another chair.
"It's a little small," Yoriko replied. "But my house isn't really that much bigger." She grinned. "I like it!"
Moro knelt and set a bag on the ground. "Well, I'll let you get settled in. We put your things in this bag for now. When we get back from the Fire Nation, we can get the rest of whatever you need from your house, okay?"
Yoriko nodded. "M'kay!"
The Waterbender stood and approached Sukan. "Shen and I don't live too far away, and our number is in the bag. We've also got designated people to watch over you both tonight. They've rented out one of the vacancies down the hall temporarily."
"They let you do that?" Sukan asked.
"The expenses aren't an issue, and seeing as we might want to have someplace close by, we've signed on for a couple of months."
Moro nodded. "At any rate, I'll get out of your hair." She glanced over at Yoriko, who had taken to staring out of the window across from the couch. "We'll leave for the Fire Nation tomorrow; get a good night's rest."
As the door closed, Sukan sighed. What have I gotten myself into? She glanced back at Yoriko, who was still staring out the window.
"The snow is so pretty," she said. "It's falling so slow."
"Yeah, it is," Sukan replied. She leaned on the back of the couch. "Whaddya say we get ready for bed, Sweetie? Do you want to sleep on the bed or—"
"Mommy used to help me build snowmen if there was enough snow. And Daddy would come out and tell us to come inside. He told us it was cold, and we should come in and drink some hot tea." Yoriko turned and slid down until she was seated on the floor. "Mommy loved White Dragon tea."
Sukan frowned. "I'm sorry, Yoriko..."
The young Avatar cocked her head. "Why?"
"I couldn't get there in time. It's my job and—"
She looked at Yoriko. "Yeah, Sweetie?"
To her surprise, Yoriko was smiling, despite the fact that her eyes were watering. "Don't be sad. Mommy and Daddy would be happy you saved me."
But I didn't. The Order did that...
She struggled to keep her own tears at bay. This girl was being strong, and she wasn't going to let her down again. "Thank you, Yoriko."
"I guess it's time to go to sleep, huh?"
"We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow," Sukan said. "Let's get you settled in. You can sleep in my bed; I'll be fine on the couch."
Yoriko shook her head. "Nah...I'm okay out here."
Sukan smiled. "Yoriko, can you please do as I ask? I want you to be as comfortable as possible."
"But you'll have to sleep on the couch."
Her smile disappeared. "I've done it a couple of times, Honey; I'll be fine."
She nodded. "Good. Now, do you need any help—?"
The little girl shook her head. "Nope. I can brush my teeth and stuff."
"Alright, then I'll wait until you're settled in before I go to sleep. If you need anything during the night, don't hesitate to wake me up, okay?"
She inclined her head. "Okay."
"You let him go!" Aizu cried as he slammed his fist against the table. "Why in Koh's name would you let him go?!"
Taiko leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table in front of him. "Calm, Aizu," he said as he glanced around. Gazes from others in the bar began to gravitate toward them. "We don't need a scene. Your wife—"
"—is not my only concern." His voice lowered to a growl. "You gave him the book, and you let him get away with killing four of us!"
"He won't get away with it, but it would be a shame to waste his skills by simply killing him. I let him have the book because it was curiosity that led him to try and take it from us in the first place. If Xai Bau's words move him, we'll have another convert to our cause."
Aizu sat back in his chair and folded his arms, all the while turning his face so that Taiko got a good look at the burns. "I don't like it; he's too good. And you still haven't put me at ease regarding his punishment."
"I will determine his skills myself—"
"What's to determine? He killed four of our best. If you hadn't had that damned whistle, who knows if we could've beaten him."
Taiko shook his head. "You miss the point. He alone can replace those four, given the proper motivation, and we might finally be able to make a move that would do Xai Bau proud."
"So we're expendable?" he asked. "Good to know."
"We're all expendable, Aizu, every single one of us," Taiko replied. "Don't forget: I lost my two brightest students to the Owl. The point is—"
"You've given him a codename? Are you serious?!"
"You're getting loud again, Aizu. Calm down. The point is that we've always known the risk. Zaheer, P'Li, Ming Hua, and Ghazan rotted in prison for their failure, and we must be prepared to do likewise, if not worse."
"I get that much. What I don't get is accepting this murderer as a member of our organization."
Taiko smiled sadly. "He is exactly what we need. Trust me, if I could've afforded to, I would've killed him on the spot. But if we can bring him in as an ally to our cause, even the Order of the White Lotus wouldn't be able to stop us."
Aizu's frown deepened. "You'd better be right about this. I won't go down because you made a bad call."
"I have as much to lose as you do. You and your wife have bet your lives on this, and I have bet mine, among other things. He will see it our way; it's the only avenue for his curiosity to take him."
Yoriko opened her eyes, and she was surrounded by red-tinted shadows. A heavy fog rolled around her as she stood. She heard the whispers as if they were right in her ear, but they didn't make any sense.
"Where...where am I?" she asked.
She turned around at the sound of a familiar voice.
"Sure, Sweetie, go ahead and try it."
Daddy...why do I hear...
Her eyes widened as she saw her parents walking side by side with...
As they continued to move, she noticed a dark blue blur glide past her, but before she could get a good look at whatever it was, a cloaked form materialized in front of her parents.
"Interesting. You've already got a handle on Firebending, at six years of age."
Yoriko's eyes widened. No...he can't be here....this can't be real! Izanagi was gone; her parents were— "Mommy, Daddy, run! Get away from him!" She couldn't help it; she needed to warn them. "He'll kill you!"
She looked on in horror as they ignored her cries, and a feminine voice called out to her from the shadows.
"Maybe it's time for you to protect them, Yoriko."
The young Avatar shrank back. "Who...who are you?"
Her parents and Izanagi froze, and Yoriko saw her representation turn, eyes glowing orange.
"You could save them here and now."
Yoriko trembled, and tears came to her eyes. "Who...who are you? I can't..."
"Then you will watch them die again."
The scene before her played out, and she couldn't turn away as Izanagi wrapped his fingers around her daddy's throat.
"No...Daddy," she pleaded, "please..."
Sukan's eyes snapped open. The room was dark, and when she rolled over on her side, she noticed that the moonlight barely shown through the cracks in the blinds.
Not even morning yet...why am I awake?
Then she heard Yoriko's voice.
"Run! Get away from him!"
Her hand was instantly wrapped around the grip of the pistol on the table, and her feet hit the floor. She moved as quickly and quietly as possible, and upon reaching the door, pushed it open slowly. When Sukan entered the room, she realized that Yoriko was tossing around in her sleep. The light from the moon fell through the curtain over the window and illuminated the fitfully sleeping form of the young Avatar.
She sighed. "Good...nothing's wr—"
Sukan could see the glint of tears on her face, and she lightly laid the pistol on the dresser before sitting down on the bed beside the little girl. The officer gently placed her hand on Yoriko's shoulder.
"Yoriko...Honey...wake up," she whispered.
The Avatar's eyes snapped open, and Sukan gasped when she realized that they were glowing. But as soon as Yoriko began to push herself up, the glow faded, eliciting a sigh of relief from the officer.
"O-o-officer Sukan...?" Yoriko rubbed her eyes and sniffled. "What...what's going on?"
"You were having a nightmare, I think."
Yoriko's eyes widened. "My...I saw Mommy and Daddy." The young Avatar curled into a ball. "I saw them—he killed them again..."
"It was just a dream, Sweetie."
Yoriko bit her lip and shook her head; thick tears soaked into the sheets as she began to sob.
In that moment, Sukan scooted closer and wrapped her arms around Yoriko. "Sh...it's okay. It's going to be okay..."
Both of them just sat on the bed for several minutes, as Yoriko continued to cry. Eventually, Sukan reached down and brushed the Avatar's hair out of her eyes. Yoriko glanced up at her and sniffled.
"Hey, do you want me to make us some tea?" Sukan asked.
Yoriko nodded. "Uh-huh."
"Alright, then, let's go into the kitchen, okay?"
- This chapter had a heavy emphasis on Yoriko and this new character. Hope you enjoyed it!
- Sukan's becoming one of my favorite characters now. :)
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