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Book 1: Earth
|"Never forget what you're fighting for"|
|— Rojin to Bako|
An electrifying surge rushed past her and caused her heart to stop, the blood in her veins writhing in agony. Her bones and joints ached. Kyoshi could feel herself coming to but she had no idea where she was or what was going on. People were screaming and the hand that had pulled her down and away from some unknown danger continued to hold hers tightly. She felt something leathery beneath her and was seated onto it. A bumpy ride proceeded as roars of firebending sounded from all around.
"Everything is alright." Kyoshi almost lost her breath. And her eyes were forced suddenly open. She was riding on Jin Jin up a dune to where the Shamo Tribe were waiting, fighting off Dai Li agents. Sitting in front of her was someone she had thought was gone from her life forever. Bako, with his brown hair and broad shoulders, was before her. She couldn't believe it. What was he doing here?
"Wha – how?" She could barely speak.
"I'll explain later," he said as he directed Jin Jin to the top of the dune, and got off to greet Thray and Iza. Kyoshi looked to Momzen who shrugged unknowingly.
"My men are holding the agents off but we need to use a proper formation if we want to do anything," Thray explained, scratching his rough stubble in thought.
"If we can push them back far enough then we can sail a good distance and set up a safe camp," Iza added, joining in on the discussion.
"Then what are we waiting for?" Bako said, turning to face the mass of fighting agents and sandbenders. Kyoshi missed Bako's bravery and willingness and realized at that moment that she regretted leaving him behind at the Serpent's Pass. Thray charged off with Bako, screaming orders at his men, leaving Iza and Momzen to discuss the matter further.
"What are you doing?" Momzen said worriedly, holding Kyoshi in her place as she tried to alit Jin Jin.
"I'm going with them," she replied.
"Kyoshi," Iza began. "You almost died." Again, the air from Kyoshi's lungs was almost sucked out entirely. Her head began to spin and she felt an awful taste in her mouth. For a few moments there was silence as Momzen and Iza watched Kyoshi take the news in. Kyoshi was on the verge of breaking down. She could not comprehend the enormity and extremity of such an event. Her death would mean the end of the world. Guilt – like a heavy and steamrolling plume of sand – flattened her heart and remorse, like an eager friend of guilt, seemed to sneer from the sidelines.
"It's alright Kyoshi," Iza said, breaking the sobs that would eventuate from Kyoshi at any moment. "All that matters is that you're with us now." Kyoshi rubbed her dry eyes of her swelling and overpowering emotions and nodded at the old sandbender. Iza smiled consolingly back before leaving to go and fight.
"Come on," Momzen said as he took Jin Jin's reins and led the two onto a sand sailer.
Bako's sword clashed with a Dai Li agent's armoured wrist. Moving the thin shaft downwards Bako hooked the man's hand with his sword and flipped him down. Thray was shouting inaudible orders from inconclusive distances and masses of unidentifiable men charged through the sand. Through the clouds of sand Bako set his eyes on another agent; focusing acutely like a falcon. He was in his own world – wholly fixated on the one outcome; stopping the Earth State from getting Kyoshi. Behind him the Shamo Tribe benders had formed a line and in his peripherals he saw Thray gesturing for him to come back. He joined the line, ducking quickly to narrowly avoid being hit by a stone glove, and watched the proceeding attack. Almost in complete synchronicity, the sandbenders raised their arms and then lunged forward – stretching out so that the sand beneath their enemies acted like a conveyor belt. Astrid and her army were swept away by the creeping sand controlled by the tribe, allowing time for the men to run to their sand sailers – the women and children already on board – and sail away. Kyoshi hung tight to Jin Jin's saddle as cloaked men jumped onto her ship and began swinging their arms for the boat to move. Others created a sandstorm from behind in order to conceal their route. Never had Kyoshi seen the tribe act so fast, unified and tactfully; she was thoroughly impressed. Beside her Momzen was screaming with joy, his jubilant cackles lost in the whistles of the desert wind. Though partially stunned from the recent news and from the arrival of Bako, Kyoshi was relieved that the confrontation was ended safely.
The Shamo Tribe continued across the Sing Wong hastily, covering the sailer tracks with sand. It wasn't until the sun was in the west that the tribe stopped and Kyoshi could get off the crowded boat, her hair windswept and strewn heavily with sand. They had found seclusion in between two large dunes, two sandbenders each guarded the crests of the dunes, serving as lookouts for the possible return of Astrid and the Dai Li. Kyoshi got off Jin Jin, her body still numb from what had just occurred, and Momzen and Bako were both at her side tentatively, ready to provide aid.
"I'm fine guys. Really," she told them, shoving away Momzen's hand with her shoulder.
"Kyoshi, we could've lost you," he replied. Tones of argument and also sadness – and perhaps guilt – seemed to mix in his throat, resonating passionately. The three of them sat down on the sand joined, now in a circle, by Iza and Thray.
"If it wasn't for your friend Bako, the Earth State would have won," Iza said softly, her cracked lips curving slightly; a gesture of gratitude towards Bako. Kyoshi looked at the boy. He was her hero. Still, though, she could not believe her luck, nor believe the feat he had accomplished; escaping from the Dai Li and travelling through the Si Wong Desert all on his own.
"Thanks, Bako," she smiled. Bako smiled back, his jaw line tensing.
"Thank you," she repeated, for not enough thanks in the world could tell Bako how much Kyoshi appreciated him at this moment. Something irked her though. While it seemed fate had brought the two of them back together, Kyoshi wanted to know how Bako came to be with them – she needed reassurance of the fact that he was on their side, perhaps he had been tempered with at Lake Laogai and was merely a distraction for an even bigger attack. The idea seemed rash and implausible, but Kyoshi felt it, like a thudding punch in her stomach – she just had to know, or at least watch him tell a story and see if he slipped up or not.
"How'd you even get to us?" she asked, trying not to sound suspicious of his arrival. The others perked up, eager to lend their ears to an anticipated story of excitement and heroism.
"It's sort of a long story," Bako replied, sighing with another smile. Kyoshi shrugged.
"We've got time." She couldn't tell if what he said was his way of avoiding the revelation of his true ambitions or he was hiding some dark actions he undertook on his journey that may be too painful to recount. Either way she beckoned for him to continue. Again Bako sighed and opened his mouth to speak.
"Well," he started, "I guess I'll go from when you guys escaped."
"Where are they going?" Astrid screamed powerfully, punching the stone poles of the cell with her fist. Her smooth skin turned white with pain but she continued to glare at the prisoner who was so rudely turned away.
"Look at me!"
"I don't know," the prisoner coughed. Nor did he care. Bako was sick of worrying about the Avatar and getting into trouble because of her. He sacrificed his comfortable life in Ba Sing Se for Kyoshi and all he got in return was blame and tease. And now there was no going back to his old life. He was an enemy of the State and would forever be an enemy of the State. Astrid, her blue eyes still wide with fury, turned away to face some agents.
"Take him to the mines," she said, the inclination of her voice suggesting she took some pleasure in uttering those words. Bako faced the bounty hunter, concern building up slowly like water to a dam.
"What?" And with that the two agents opened his cell and constricted him with their earthen gloves. They heaved him out with ease and into a carriage, Bako making no attempt to struggle for as of now he had no skerrick of hope left in his body to fuel him. Thrown into the carriage his knees were scuffed and his spirit completely worn away. Perhaps he would serve his time and then be let go to start anew, or maybe if we worked hard and played kind he would be liberated early. Not knowing where he was going or what the future, of which hardship and sadness seemed concrete, held, Bako sat in silence in the cold carriage, awaiting his next punishment. The wall left to him was torn down by earthbending and streams of unforgiving light streamed in as if to thrash at him.
"Come on," Bako heard an agent say to him, speaking as if he was a filthy criminal. Shoved and pushed Bako was led to a mountainside. The scenery was lacklustre; small and defeated shrubs cowered along the road and continued in dribs and drabs across the dusty hills. Clouds seemed to hover above, uninspired, and shone – so to speak – a grey light across the area. The mine seemed like it had these features in order to wear down the high-spirited and the passionate into something the Earth State desired. The mountainside was pulled open, again by expert earthbending, and Bako was escorted through a weakly lit tunnel and through countless metal doors. After hearing the final door clash shut, the weight of such an enormous and thick gate echoing across the grounds, Bako realised the mountain was open on the inside – sort of like a crater. Deteriorated bodies were digging into the furthest wall while the other walls were covered entirely with a thick sheet of metal. From then on Bako knew escape was impossible. His swords were taken away from him and he was handed a pickaxe. He wanted to say something to the guard – to get them back. Those thin weapons were a part of him; like his very own form of bending. Fighting with them made him feel as if he was just as capable as any bender, it made him feel strong, capable and above all, useful. He could not, however, let the criminals around him see him break. Bako scuffed the grimy floor and moved to the northern wall, hauling the pickaxe over his shoulder as if it to swing it into misfortune only to dig out a pitiful new life; not lustrous or enriching, but rather tedious and dirty. Regret leeched out any happiness he had left and with each swing of the pick Bako became surer of his impending unhappiness.
As the day grew greyer and the sun, already weak from the blanket of cloud, sank over the opened mountain the miners soon finished their duties and were herded into a large, wooden eatery filled with plain tables and seats. Bako took his bowl of green soup from the counter and sat at the first seat he could find. Like the sips he took from his spoon, small, hot bursts would fill his stomach and urge him to revolt and continue for justice, soon cooling and become nothing less than energy to fuel the labouring.
"Is this seat saved for someone?" an old man asked from behind. He was dressed in shabby clothes and his chin, wrinkled and beginning to sag, was mottled with white beard.
"No," Bako replied flatly, turning back around to his flavourless soup.
"Good day today, wasn't it?" the man said, trying, hopeful, to start something of a conversation. Bako almost coughed up his mouthful. He lurched over the table and cackled rudely.
"Yeah," he laughed sarcastically. "One of my best." The old man smiled, amused at the young boys vivacity. Perhaps it lightened the mood.
"I'm Rojin," the old man said, his thin eyes curving up cordially. Bako could tell that this man had been in this mountain mining for a long time, and though he seemed pleasant and optimistic Rojin's character had been weathered away to a point where only optimism could prove a useful distraction from the futility that presented itself.
"Bako. We're not mining anything are we?" Bako muttered, pushing his bowl away and sighing. He knew the mine's true purpose, but wanted words for assurance.
"No," Rojin nodded. "It's just supposed to wear us down." Rojin's thin, brown eyes sank and his smile folded acutely into a frown.
"I've been mining here for twenty years all because I didn't offer my daughter up for inspection when the Earth State was searching for its Avatar," Rojin explained, looking back at some fond memory with a painful nostalgia. It was obvious, to an extent, really, that love acted as some sort of beckoning drive – at least for some, as, when Bako looked around the eatery, many faces showed that love was not on their minds. Bako felt that Rojin's conscription was somehow Kyoshi's fault, and his story only accentuated Bako's anger towards the Avatar.
"Does this place wear you down?" Bako asked, returning the conversation to the original subject so Rojin wouldn't dwell on his sorry past. The old man snapped from his deep thought.
"Well," he smiled, getting up with his empty bowl. "It's the plan. But if you have a reason to get out, and you hold onto it tightly, then they can't take that away from you. Never forget what you're fighting for." Rojin's words resonated with Bako profoundly. And that night when Bako went to sleep in his cell, laying down in the complete darkness, he tried to think of his reason. Perhaps, now that he was not with Kyoshi, his reason to get out was to be with his mother; the woman that offered and sacrificed everything. He missed her hugs. Her embrace, warm and just tight enough to hold in feelings of security and let go the hurt, was everything he needed as child to make things better. Realizing the beauty of his mother he knew returning to her would only complicate things. As a single mother she worried endlessly and worked tirelessly. It was better for her to live just for her, spend just for her and eat just for her. Knowing that he loved her, Bako decided that she was not his reason. His father was definitely not and he quickly moved away from the idea of him, rolling over on his stiff bed and curling into a ball. He imagined his mother hugging him and soon he fell to sleep – a small feeling of happiness, like a passing ship on a starry sea, sending him into a mediocre slumber.
Guards pushed Bako into the dirt and threw a pickaxe beside him. The day was bright and hot, meaning the guards were uncomfortable and relentless. Not bothering to rebut with his usual sassiness, Bako moved to the wall and began mining for nothing in particular. Monotonous. Rojin was next to him. The old man, barely able to life the pick above his shoulders, was sweltering and sweat swam down his tired face. His muscles shuddered with each lift.
"Are you alright?" Bako asked. He took the pickaxe from Rojin's hand and let him breathe. Through puffs and wheezes Rojin seemed thankful.
"I'm fine. I've been doing this for twenty years."
"I know," Bako replied. "So you deserve at least one break." Chunks of dirt spat from the wall as multitudes of men beside them dug ceaselessly.
"Hey!" the warden shouted. The warden was in a white tunic stopping at the ankles and a green chest plate. His shoulder-length hair was deep black and his top lip protruded, quivering furiously. The frowning man raised a leg and kicked Rojin hard in the back. The old man, his body frail and unaware, toppled onto the rocky wall with a thud and then onto the ground.
"You can't just stop working!" the warden continued. Bako was incredulous. He knelt down to pick the man up but the warden ordered him not to.
"No! Don't," is what he said. "If one ant stops work the others will follow. Show them sympathy and you have no order. Let him get up himself." Bako watched poor Rojin writhe in pain on the floor. It was a pathetic and awfully saddening sight.
"But he's hurt!" Bako replied, exasperated.
"Too bad," the warden said, his brow rising when he realised Bako was displaying some defiance. "Leave him alone." Ignoring the warden's orders Bako hoisted an arm around his shoulder and pulled Rojin to his feet. The warden's mouth dropped and he fumed like a kettle.
"Are you questioning me?" he boomed. His pointy nose almost pressing against Bako's.
"No," Bako replied, not fearful of letting the man hear his anger. "I'm doing what I think is right."
"And you think what I'm doing is wrong?"
"If you put it like that then I suppose," Bako smiled, huffing a strand of the warden's hair out of his vehement eyes. He stared some more at Bako, hoping he would back down and obey, but, in knowing he wouldn't, the warden turned around and darted off, hoping the other criminals would not think he lost. The guards followed closely behind and the prisoners continued their digging.
"Thank you, Bako," Rojin said, leaning against the rock wall for support. "But you shouldn't be so righteous." Bako almost spluttered.
"But you said to never forget the reason you want to get out," Bako repeated Rojin's words from last night.
"Yes. But contesting the word of the warden won't ever get you out. He's a cruel man, Bako. You shouldn't defy him like that," Rojin seriously advised. Bako rolled his eyes.
"You shouldn't let him push you around like that," Bako replied. As much as the mine was sapping his determination, it seemed Bako's thirst for justice could never be quenched no matter how defeated he felt. Continuing to swing his pick into the wall, Bako watched the warden storm off into the mountain. Something inside him bubbled, stewed; some form of emotion was building inside and he knew it would only be a matter of time until he would have to act upon it.
The next day, as Bako was thrust into the mine yard, the warden was facing his inferiors, shouting demeaning orders at them.
"Faster! We're not going to get the ore if you go at this pace! You're only here because nobody else wants you!" he'd shout, along with other things. Bako ran his fingers through his light brown hair attempting to disperse some of his indignation into the dry air. The warden smiled at him teasingly as Bako strode by and then left, as if he had some important job to do.
"I wonder what's so important he has to race off," Bako coughed cynically as he took a position next to Rojin and began digging into the wall. The ground around him was dirty and covered in small rocks and earthy debris.
"Don't speak like that," Rojin replied. Bako eyed him. The old man was always so sincere – and always understanding of everyone, no matter how mean or cruel.
"Every life has importance," he continued.
"Bako," Rojin interrupted. "The Avatar judges each human equally, good and evil. Why shouldn't we?" Bako faced the dug in wall and smashed it with his pickaxe.
"Because the Avatar does judge people. They blame them for things too," he replied, remembering how Kyoshi blamed him and his ankle – which was, as a matter of fact, still sore, yet walkable – for their capture.
"Well. The Avatar is only human. You can't expect them to do everything right," Rojin continued conversing. He was smiling to himself, as if speaking of such matters gave him great contentment and perspective.
"The Avatar needs friends around them to help them figure these things out." Upon hearing this Bako turned to look at Rojin again. It was as if the old man knew Bako's situation – knew his feelings. Bako shrugged; a bid to push away the thoughts that had been surfacing in his mind.
"If I had the chance to work alongside the Avatar," Rojin spoke to himself, like he was fulfilling some beautiful scene in his head. "Well. That'd be my reason right there. It's not very often you get the chance to change the world." Though the heaves of man and swings of picks filled the mountain crater indubitably, the silence of Bako's still pick seemed to surge through the boy's body; affirming his newfound epiphany. He had made a horrible decision. He had acted rash. He had missed his chance.
"Is something wrong?" Rojin asked him. Bako nodded. His body fizzed with a powerful mix of regret and longing – the emotions he felt the other day – and he knew, undoubtedly – nothing could phase it, that he had to go back to Kyoshi.
"I had that chance, Rojin," Bako whispered, almost tearing up with repentance. "I had it and now it's gone!" As he screamed he slammed the pick axe into the wall and a terrible spurt of loose rock tumbled out around his legs. Again, another silence among sound echoed inside the two men. Rojin shuffled closer to Bako's side and, from what Bako could see from his peripherals, he bore a small smile.
"Then you have to get out," the old man murmured, almost all too gravely. Bako rubbed his wetting eyes and breathed in the earthy wind. Rojin was right. Although he gave away his first chance out of anger and frustration, he could get a second one.
"Stop talking!" came the shrieking voice of the warden. A rock pelted onto Bako's head and a throbbing pain occurred at its point of impact. And then it tipped. Bako's tolerance seemed to have overflown gently from its dam, but now the dam had burst and the water crashed in furious waves. He turned around, seemingly without bending his legs, and scowled at the grinning warden.
"I'm sorry. Did that hurt?" the warden pouted. Prisoners along the strip of stone laughed airily to themselves and guard chuckled under their helmets. Thankfully, Bako was not humiliated. He was, instead, given a reason to fight back.
"You think you're so tough," Bako said, hoping he could reel in the warden like a stupid fish. "But really, you're just a scared little bunny." The warden's smile suddenly dropped.
"Do you dare defy me?" he screamed, puffing out his chest to appear larger. "I could take you down in one hit." Bako smiled. His plan had worked.
"Is that a challenge?"
"Is that a challenge?" the warden repeated louder, hoping people would think he initiated the challenge. The man was pathetic.
"Sure. Swords against your earthbending?"
"Get him his swords!" the warden screamed to his guards. About a minute of staring passed and Bako was reunited with his swords. He held them in his hands, relishing their weight and marvelling in their beauty; sharp brush strokes of silver paint with perfect green handles. He bent his knees and raised one sword above his head, the other out in front of his body. The warden copied the stance – the idiot couldn't even take his own position. The warden lifted a chunk of stone from the ground and punched it forward with his other hand. The speeding rock flew over Bako's ducked head and smashed into the mined wall, the miners gasping at the power of its collision. A whizzing noise sounded and Bako, turning around to see another rock coming his way, slashed the sword from his head down clean through it. Two halves, their motion ceased by the cut, fell onto the ground and pattered embarrassingly. The warden groaned and charged towards his skilled foe, firing a barrage of rocks with each step. Bako ran to his left, dodging both the man and his attacks, turning his pelvis and ducking to accurately slice the earthen projectiles. Little clouds of debris and dust exploded from the sword upon contact with the rocks, and each time a cloud appeared the warden's fretting head would appear though them, his teeth gritted and more stones at the ready. Slashing sidewards, Bako's left sword sliced the warden's chest plate, stopping his momentum allowing Bako to make a run for it. Thinking quickly – the thought of Kyoshi still thick on his mind – Bako made for Rojin. Thankfully, the old man was light and Bako could throw him over his shoulder. The warden's face suddenly contorted with fear and absolute rage realising Bako's plan.
"Hold on!" Bako screamed at Rojin, who was clinging to the bottom of the boy's brown shirt. Noise, shouts from the guards and cheers from the miners, grew, like a growing snowball, until a din seemed to overpower any sound of wind or sirens or footsteps. Guards charged at Bako from every direction but, still with Rojin on his shoulder and groaning with each lift of his leg, he kicked them down and continued to the metal wall. He raised swords and slashed them into the wall. An awful screeching wrecked through the air as the blades dug into the metal, soon stopping once they were deep enough. Hoping his swords were sharp enough to go in and out of the wall with ease and that they could hold both him and Rojin's weight together, Bako put a foot vertically on the wall. He knew his plan was stupid –if not altogether impossible. But he had to get out. Bako had made mistakes before but giving up his chance with the Avatar was his biggest and most regrettable. He couldn't blame Kyoshi for their imprisonment; she was only getting used to be the Avatar and the whole situation too. And for that, a passion seemed to be engorged in his heart, he had to get out and find her, and help her. Moving as fast as possible and curling his toes inside his leather shoes in a bid to have as much grip on the wall as possible, Bako pulled the swords from their position and slashed higher, hauling himself and Rojin up off the ground. Again and again Bako would swipe the swords into the wall and use his legs to push his torso up until he reached the top. He lurched an arm forward and gripped the brittle earth on the outer side of the crater. Avoiding the stones being bent to him from the guards about one hundred metres below, he climbed out of the mine and onto the face of the mountain, rolling Rojin – who was, at this time, currently exasperated at the boy's feat of strength and determination – onto the ground.
"No time to applaud me," Bako snapped at the old man before he could utter his words of amazement. "We have to get down." The two, legs shaking with excitement, slid down the mountainside hastily yet cautiously; taking care of their footing of which trampled atop such dangerous and fragile terrain. Any crumble of the earth and they would trip up and tumble down the rocky face to their death.
"What are you going to do now?" Bako asked once they had gained sufficient distance from the mountain and stopped amid a dense bower for refuge. They were both panting heavily and a searing sensation tore at their legs and feet.
"I'm going back to my daughter," Rojin replied through great breaths of air. A content smile slowly presented itself between the man's two chapped lips.
"There is not enough gold in the world to repay you, Bako." Rojin's eyes swelled with tears and Bako moved over to put an arm around him.
"Hey. I don't need any repayment," Bako replied, shaking Rojin in order to cheer him up. "I just need to know where Avatar Kyoshi is. If you were an Avatar who had to learn earthbending basics, where would you go?"
"Well that's easy. The Si Wong Desert," Rojin said. "Sand is the most basic form of earth and thus of earthbending."
"Well I guess I head there." Bako stood up. He was terrible at goodbyes.
"It's south of here. But be careful, Bako," Rojin explained, his entire face frowning. "The Si Wong is a harsh place. Make sure you're prepared." Bako turned around to face the dear man.
"You taught me not to give up on my reason." He smiled to himself; an affirmation that he was ready to face anything.
"I'm not going to give up."
"So then I suppose this is goodbye?" Rojin added, his eyes flitting about to avoid contact with Bako's – for he knew that if they did he would break into tears.
"Yeah, I suppose it is," Bako replied, sighing to also hold back his sadness and despondence, but also his feelings of innumerable gratitude. "Thanks for everything."
"Thank you. Thank you for saving me." The two men hugged for a moment, a single drop cascading down Bako's cheek. He wiped it away before Rojin noticed and nodded. He wished the old man would succeed in his endeavours, knowing that they may never meet again.
"Goodbye," Rojin coughed.
"Goodbye." And with that the two turned away from each other and headed their separate ways, eager to fulfil the destinies that lay ahead of them.
The heat. It stung every inch of exposed skin. The sweat. It lined every inch of clothed skin. The sands, brick orange and brightly shining – their shimmer pierced his eyes until they were cut open. His tongue was swollen dry with thirst. He needed to lie down. But if he did the sun would take him and roast him. Scorch him until he was reduced to the sands that seared forever beneath his tired feet. Even in the early morning the sun was hot, and the flatness of the desert meant it could burn everything in sight. The Si Wong was unforgiving. Since leaving Rojin, Bako had spent two days and two nights travelling through temperate scrub and over sandy dunes in search of Kyoshi. But to no avail. It seemed hopeless. Beads of warm perspiration sunk down his forehead and into his eyes, obscuring his already blurry vision. In the distance it seemed that there were buildings. It could have been a mirage playing tricks on him. But he continued to stagger through the burning flats towards the possible asylum.
Thankfully what Bako saw was not a mirage. It was, in fact, a small town. Two sandy streets separated the settlement into four parts; of clumped-together shacks reduced to shambles from long use and the Si Wong's impenetrable force. He made his way, just barely, to the local inn. The heat seemed to be inescapable, because even indoors and in shade it stung and seared relentlessly. The small bar was crowded; tables packed with weary travellers regretting the day they decided to turn a new leaf and go on a soul-searching journey, and also with citizens – their skin scratched and teased and their enduring, burning spirits almost hissing upon each gulp of water the men and women relished. Water. That's what Bako needed. The old barman, his brow bushy and frowning, seemed to realise that Bako was near to fainting from exhaustion and gave him a large glass of water on the house, looking around so that the other patrons wouldn't notice and grow angry. Bako nodded his thanks and moved to a seat.
He shared his table with three others. A group – they all seemed to know each other – that appeared too travelled and hard done-by. One man was bearded and bear-shaped and groaned as he moved in his seat. The other man was incredibly weedy and never made eyes with his friends, instead looking around the inn as if nobody could be trusted. The third member of the shady troupe was a girl, about Bako's age. She had large, brown eyes and her thin lips, like gentle strokes of pink paint, quivered. Her hair lapped down, just passing her shoulders, in light brown waves, dappled with shades of red and blonde. It wasn't until he realised that they were all staring at him that Bako knew they wanted him to face the other way and not eavesdrop on their conversation. He did the former but, however, continued to listen in – tired and bored he was satisfied with some, hopefully, easy entertainment.
"Naote, are you listening?" the fat man said quietly.
"Yes," the girl replied, her voice melodic and soft. Naote was her name then.
"Are you sure we should be speaking about this in here?" the weedy man asked, the sound of his hands rubbing together cautiously could be heard. Bako perked up, taking a sip from his cool glass to appear ordinary and uninvolved.
"It's fine. These people have had their spirits worn away. They're defeated inside." Bako looked around the room. As much as the man's words were horrible, they were horribly true. These people, or the next generation, were destined to live in poverty and hardship, not knowing any better and not having any hope – or even need for that unfortunate matter – to search for anything better. Born into a shanty that would have no effect on the fate of the world and would may as well be dust, whispering across the desert forever.
"We know the Avatar has been sighted with the Shamo Tribe," the man continued. Bako spluttered and then tried to breathe again to appear unaffected. He didn't dare turn around; he could practically feel their stares stabbing the back of his skull.
"And now that we've got the tribe's position we can snag the Avatar and sell her back to the Earth State. We'll be swimming in gold, I tell ya!" he piped up, almost drooling at the thought of such reward. So these people were lowly bandits who thought a large sum of money was going to change their lives. Perhaps it would benefit them, they did seem poor. Albeit the intentions of the group, Bako had to join them on their search for the Avatar – he wouldn't get another opportunity like that one. He turned around and put on a confident grin.
"Do you think you have room for another person in your search for the Avatar?" he asked self-assuredly. The weedy man almost fell off his seat from terror. Naote's tanned fists clenched on the table. Obviously they were not used to opening themselves up to others, nor sharing – be it secrets or money.
"What's it to you?" the fat man said, nudging at Bako's direction.
"What's it to you?" Bako repeated. "Everyone has their reasons." The group continued to scowl at him, untrusting.
"What if I said I'd take none of the reward?" He knew he was losing them.
"I'd think you're mad."
"I just want to see the Avatar. That's all," he made up, trying to come off as frank. "I'll just see her face and leave you to your plans." The two men turned to each other and stared. Though they did not speak and their faces didn't move they were talking things over in some way. Naote, however, watched Bako, squinting suspiciously. He smiled back nervously. With any luck they'd buy it.
"Alright. You can come," the fat man said. Naote turned and scowled at him, getting a laugh as a reply.
"Thank you," Bako chuckled as he gulped the rest of his water. The group got up, exited the inn and took their bags and supplies with them – lugging hordes of food and utensils on their backs. Together, with an air unease, they made for the Avatar hoping the Si Wong and its flaming breath would not get in between them and their desires.
Rojin's words, or more so his philosophy, echoed in Bako's head as he followed Naote's footsteps. Don't give up. He whispered it to himself through gritted teeth as rivers of sweat would glaze his heated body. Clangs of pots and containers and spatulas and knives rang throughout the dry air; short-lived from the warmth.
"What made you come to the desert?" Bako asked Naote, breaking the silence that came with such labour.
"I was born just off it," she replied over quick puffs. "No reason."
"So you come here often?" Naote shrugged. To her the desert was nothing more than exercise. She'd come and gone again and again. The topic was trivial.
"I think," Bako continued, huffing and panting. "I think, as much as this place kills you, it really is beautiful. It's amazing, don't you think?" Perhaps he was trying too hard to be friendly – he was hoping to make himself to be part of the gang. Naote shrugged again. The girl wasn't much of talker, he decided, and so he lowered his head and continued to watch the sand underfoot and follow the faint prints of Naote's feet.
The group continued through the day until the sun was directly above them, brilliantly sweltering it golden rays upon the earth. The fat man stopped and knelt down into the hot sand of a dune and peered over its peak.
"Look," he whispered to his companions. "Is that her?" The other three crept up and gazed over, laying eyes on the Shamo Tribe campsite. Dai Li agents were fighting with sandbenders and suddenly a tent went ablaze and, from what Bako could make out, Kyoshi and Momzen tumbled out of it. Unexpectedly his heart jolted and his arms and legs became weak. His breath was sucked out of him by some surprising force and tears almost built up in his eyes. He couldn't believe it. It was as if the spirits were on his side and had heard his prayers.
"Kyoshi," he whispered. The others heard and looked at him.
"Is it the Avatar?" Naote asked, looking intensely at Bako. He nodded and the weedy man almost cried out in joy.
"This is it guys. We're gonna be rich!" the fat man cheered, shaking excitedly. Bako then realised that Kyoshi, who was presently fighting Astrid, was in even more danger. These crooks were going to capture her and sell her back to the Earth State. His journey would mean nothing if that were to happen. Thinking fast he whipped a chain from the weedy man's bag and lashed out its entire length. The criminals turned around, immediately understanding the boy's betrayal. Naote lunged forward, ready to punch but Bako skidded and wrapped the chain around the weedy man first. Continuing along the top of the dune Bako whipped the chain once more and constricted the fat man. Hot on his tail Naote pounced. Hearing her scream Bako jumped up and twisted his body to land behind her. He then ran around, binding her with the other two and tightened it as much as possible. They kicked and struggled but the chain was tight enough to hold them in and Bako smiled at them, pleased that it was so easy.
"You're a liar!" the fat man boomed, the weedy man writhing in anger beside him. "You rotten liar!" Bako shrugged and turned around, leaving the criminals behind in the hot sand, making his way to the friends he so dearly missed. All of a sudden Jin Jin jumped onto him. She seemed terrified and in a state of worry and stress.
"What is it Jin Jin?" he shouted, trying to get the beast off. "Jin Jin! What is it?" The shirshu got off and gestured to the campsite. In the valley Kyoshi was surrounded by a sandstorm, her eyes glowing. Next to her was Astrid who was building up jagged bolts of blue lightning. Bako knew immediately that Kyoshi was going to die. He jumped onto Jin Jin, his heart pumping deafeningly in his head, and led her to Kyoshi. The wind coming from the Avatar was strong but Jin Jin pushed through and Bako stood upwards with all his might and took hold of Kyoshi's hand. He hardly recognised the feel of it. It was different – she'd been earthbending and travelling; it seemed as if she had moved on from him. Nevertheless he pulled his friend down as thunderous lightning surged past, crackling, cutting through the air like forks of crystal. He lay her down and held her tight, wanting to never let her go again.
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