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|More from Wordbender||Action/Adventure||PG||Positive||No update page|
|Calm Before the Storm|
March 5, 2013
Previously in Air
Kio, Captain of the Fire Nation Palace Guard, learned that Ozai had escaped his cell and also discovered several irregularities in the navy's records. Meanwhile, the Gaang took a moment to catch their breath while trying to settle the chaos kicked up by the coup.
Chapter Fifty-Nine: Calm Before the Storm
Zuko glanced to the sky, even though he knew Aang and Katara were nowhere to be seen. They had left early that morning, urging Appa into the air with a cheerful 'Yip-yip.' But their merry demeanor felt faux. Despite Zuko's suspicions about Ozai and the Loyal, Aang had insisted there was an inconvenience he needed to take care of. He had told Zuko not to worry, but he did. If the Avatar was excusing himself from assisting a friend, it was because of more than an 'inconvenience'.
"You're going to scare everyone away with that scowl," Mai said. She looped her arm through his. "Not that I'd mind. People in general annoy me."
He smiled. Though Mai would never admit it, she was trying to cheer him up. She knew he was concerned –about Ozai, the Loyal, and the fact Kuzarr had told them nothing useful. Even the Dai Li –convinced by Ru Yong's methods to spill their guts– didn't know anything past the coronation. Their next stop had been a rendezvous, but they had not been told where or with whom they were meeting.
Clasping Mai's hand, he allowed his racing thoughts to still. There would be time for that later, once they were home. For now, he would enjoy the time with his family and friends on their voyage. "Between my scowl and your cravings, we'll empty the Palace out in a week."
"I still can't believe you're going to have a third kid," Sokka butted in. "Two are a handful; I can't imagine adding another one!"
Suki snickered. "I can."
Sokka scowled at her, but his fuzzy facial hair didn't make him look very threatening.
Flushed with excitement, Ursa bounded over to them. "Does that mean you're going to have another baby, too, Aunt Suki?"
Suki staggered at the thought. "No, sweetie," she said, ignoring the muffled laughs from the others.
Ursa cocked her head, frowning in confusion.
Toph was more than pleased to clear up the misunderstanding. She caught the girl's hand in hers and swung it wide as they skipped down the pier. "She's talking about your Uncle Sokka."
"That's not funny!" Sokka shouted after them.
Ursa tried to stifle her giggles, but it was hard.
Roh-Roh tugged at Sokka's sleeve. "I don't think you're a kid, Uncle Sokka."
Sokka beamed. "Why, thank you, Roh-Roh! You're my new favorite, and you can tell that to all the others." He turned to his wife and stuck his tongue out at her in the most un-childish manner he could manage. "You hear that? Roh-Roh thinks I'm mature."
Roh-Roh scrunched up his nose. "What does 'mature' mean?"
"It means you act like a responsible adult," Suki explained. "And it means you don't stick your tongue out at your wife."
"Oh." Roh-Roh frowned. He looked back up at Sokka. "That's not what I meant at all. Kids can't grow fuzzy beards, and they don't get to play with boomerangs." The boy shrugged, and skipped off down the pier after his sister and Toph.
"I don't play with Mr. Boomerang," Sokka protested.
Haru coughed, politely attempting to cover his laughter, but the consideration was not appreciated by Sokka.
"I told you," the boomerang master explained for the tenth time, "I was trying to balance it on one point to test its weight!"
Haru nodded. "Sure, Sokka. Whatever you say."
"What are you still doing here, anyway?"
Iroh frowned at Sokka in disapproval. "Surely you can make him feel a little more welcome than that."
Sokka huffed. Some days you couldn't please anybody. "I didn't mean it like that. I know you got involved as a special favor to Aang, and since that's over and dealt with..."
"He's with me," Toph said, somehow managing to keep up with the conversation so far down the pier. Even with that much distance they could spot the red blotch that became her face after the words registered in her own ears. She coughed and cleared her throat. "For training, I mean. I'm not finished with him yet."
Sokka opened his mouth; that was still too good an opening to pass up. Before he could speak, Haru jabbed him in the side with his elbow.
Grunting, Sokka pouted at him. "You're getting as bad as Toph!"
Haru flushed in shame. "I know. Sorry."
"I noticed your earthbending at the coronation," Suki cut in. "You're pretty good. What exactly is Toph keeping you around for?"
Haru shrugged. He wondered the same thing. An idea whispered in his head –metalbending– but he tried to block it out. Toph didn't teach just anybody metalbending, and he wouldn't have much use for it back home.
"Come on," Sokka goaded. "You don't even have an idea?"
Memories of his dinner spent with the Bei Fongs flashed through his mind and Haru realized he was almost afraid to find out.
The ocean breeze blew gently passed Ursa, ruffling her hair. Breathing deep of the salty air, she smiled. Ursa loved the sea, running through its beach's smooth sands, playing in its warm surf.
They were on their way to the docks to board the naval ship that had brought Jeong Jeong and his men to Ba Sing Se. The Fire Nation warship loomed over the bay, dwarfing the cargo vessels, fishermen's boats and even the freighters. Already the Admiral and his men were on board, and Ursa knew that –as large as it was– between the soldiers, the sailors, and her family, the journey would be cramped.
Normally her family traveled on the royal ship. It should have been in port, because Kuzarr had used it for transportation. But word of the failed coup and Kuzarr's capture must have gotten around fast, because the ship had set sail with the rest of Kuzarr's men before anyone could stop it.
Her father said they didn't have time to send word home and wait for another. Ursa knew why. There will still things lefts to do. Life couldn't go back to normal just yet. Toph, Sokka, Suki, and the others weren't coming along just to 'visit', as they claimed. She knew her father was worried about the Old Man. About Ozai. But he had told her not to worry, so she shook the thought away.
Instead, she thought about Sakura. The thought of her friend –former friend?– filled her with dread and glee. Jeong Jeong had told the Princess everything, but part of Ursa wondered if Sakura could forgive her for the awful things she'd said when Gouitn had caught her.
Roh-Roh bounded up beside her, taking her other hand. "I can't wait to get home."
Ursa beamed at him. "Me neither," she said, squeezing his hand as though she'd never let it go.
Captain Jee awaited the company at the ship's gangplank. He bowed to the Firelord and Lady. "Your Majesties. And General Iroh. Will you be joining us on the voyage?"
Iroh shook his head. "I'm afraid not. My teashop has been suffering since all the excitement began. Besides, my nephew has asked that I represent the Fire Nation in the continuing inquiries and trials surrounding the fuss."
"And the rest?" The Captain eyed each member of the assorted group as they paraded toward him. No one informed him they would be taking additional passengers. He fought to keep his eyebrows level. "Is this –ahem– is this everyone, Your Majesty?"
Zuko nodded. "I believe so." He glanced at the others. "Anyone else coming that I don't know about?"
Haru scuffed his shoe along the planks and Sokka whistled an inconspicuous tune. None of them had technically been invited. Once word got around that Zuko suspected Ozai, his friends unanimously decided facing that possibility wasn't something he should have to do alone. Of course, no one had mentioned it until they set off for the docks that morning.
Toph shrugged. "Guess not."
Haru rubbed at the back of his neck. "Isn't, uh –isn't Poi coming, too?" he asked quietly.
"Why would he?" she demanded. "He doesn't need more training."
Before he could reply, a string of music filled their ears. They were the notes of Sokka's whistling, but expounded through guitar, tambourine and cymbals. Soon, words joined the harmonious melody.
We can sing all day,
And we can dance all night,
We might take a little space, and eat the cook's food,
But at least we can sing you a happy tune,
And we'll all sail off to the horizon in sailor's delight!
Sokka's face scrunched in distaste. "That song is bad." He shuddered. "It reminds of those crazy hippy nomads."
"You mean those hippy nomads?" Ursa pointed down the dock, at a group of colorfully garbed individuals attempting to charm the captain of a cargo vessel. "They look like they're trying to get a ride."
Sokka blanched. He grabbed hold of Suki, dragging her before him like a shield. "Hide me!"
"Sokka!" Suki tried to glance down at him, but he turned her head back out.
"Don't look at me! They might see!"
Mai eyed him as though surveying a mad hyena squirrel in the zoo. "He's finally cracked."
Suki frowned. "Where did you meet crazy, singing, hippy nomads?"
"Long story," Sokka said. "Don't let them find me."
"Oh, I remember this story!" Toph cried. "That was when you guys got trapped in the Cave of Two Lovers, right? And you got stuck with those guys and had to fight off wolf bats and badger moles." She clucked her tongue. "You really should have known better, Sokka. Badger moles are even sweeter than Appa."
"Yes, thank you for the recap," Sokka snapped. "Can you grab your boyfriend so we can all file quietly onto the ship before they notice us?"
Haru flushed bright red and all emotion drained from Toph's face.
"Clueless," Suki muttered under her breath.
Sokka nudged Suki forward. "We should be filing quietly on board," he urged. "Why is no one filing?"
A slow grin spread over Toph's face. "You know, Ursa, I've heard these guys are really good singers. They know tons of folk songs and legends, and they're bursting with stories to tell. All they want is an ear to listen."
Ursa's eyes gleamed. "Really?"
Sokka's head poked above Suki's shoulder. "What are you doing? Toph? Toph, stop it!"
"And I hear," Toph continued, ignoring Sokka, "That some of their tales are oral legends, passed down from generations, that have never been written down. Ever."
"Wow," Ursa breathed.
"I wonder if they're headed to the Fire Nation..."
Ursa turned to her parents, hands clasped hopefully. "Could we ask?"
Roh-Roh joined her. "Pretty please?"
With a wail of despair, Sokka dropped to his knees.
Zuko almost burst out laughing at Sokka's antics. He glanced at Mai. She was watching Sokka too, and the corners of her mouth curled upward in amusement.
"I'd do it just to see Sokka's reaction," she said.
Suki giggled. "So would I."
Sokka hunched his shoulders in defeat. "This is about the boyfriend comment, isn't it?"
"Ah," Toph sighed with a grin. "Revenge is so, so sweet."
"It could be worse, Sokka," his wife said, though her tone didn't exactly radiate sympathy. "They could have brought some cactus juice with them."
Toph laughed. She began waving her arms around. "Giant mushroom! Giant mushy friend!"
Sokka's temple pulsed. He scowled at her.
Toph stopped, hands on hips. "You know, if you're scowling at me, I can't see it."
Sokka groaned, slapping his forehead. How could he keep forgetting that?
"Come on, rug rats," Toph said, tugging Ursa and Roh-Roh down the dock. "Let's go ask the hippy nomads if they'd like to be our on-board entertainment."
The nomads had finished their song and now stood posed before the cargo ship's captain, grinning. He didn't look very pleased about the lines of 'taking up room' and 'eating the cook's food.'
"You can't do any work, then?" he demanded.
The nomad's spokesman shook his head and the flower laurel on his brow slipped out of place. "Work is the doorway to bondage. Our souls need to fly unchained." He strummed a few notes on his guitar. "But music lifts the spirit; it sets the heart free."
"Hmm," Toph mused. "An excuse not to work? I think I like these guys."
The captain snorted. "I don't need happy free-hearts cluttering my deck. I need workers!" He turned away, stomping up the gangplank.
The guitarist shrugged, unconcerned. "On to the next ship, then."
He plucked a few more chords, while the woman beside him shook a tambourine, and their larger companion clapped together a pair of tiny cymbals.
They stopped when they spotted Toph, Ursa and Roh-Roh approaching.
"Greetings, wave travelers!" The guitarist called. "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?"
"Yeah, yeah," Toph said dismissively. "Look, you don't know me, but awhile back you ran into my friend Aang–"
"Aang?" the nomad interrupted. He plucked a string while he pondered the name. "Nope, doesn't ring any bells."
"He's the Avatar," Toph said, fighting not to roll her eyes.
The guitarist frowned. He glanced at his companions and they conversed in earnest for a moment. Finally, he turned back to Toph. "We've talked it over and we all agree that we've never met the Avatar. That would certainly be something I'd remember."
"Unforgettable," his tall, rotund friend agreed.
Toph's face twitched. She was beginning to understand why Sokka was so desperate to avoid these guys. Revenge was sweet, but she didn't think even that would wash away the bad taste they put in her mouth.
"Oh, my mistake!" she said cheerfully. She turned away, pulling the children with her. "He must have meant another set of hippy nomads. Sorry to bother you."
Roh-Roh looked confused. "But–"
"We can't help it if they're the wrong people, munchkin," Toph interrupted with feeling. "Let's get back to–"
Ursa ducked under Toph's arm, pried her fingers loose and scurried back to the nomads. "I beg your pardon," the Princess began, her demeanor instantly shifting from fun-loving child to sweet but formal royal. Her shoulders straightened, her back stiffened and her voice took on an additional layer of power. "What she means to say is that you appear to have great knowledge in songs and stories. We would love to hear all that you have to tell, in exchange for passage."
Groaning, Toph slapped her palm to her forehead. Her plan to use Ursa to get the hippies aboard had seemed so brilliant at the time...
"Are you by chance going to the Fire Nation?" the Princess asked.
"Nope," the guitarist said, plucking a dramatic low note on his instrument. "We're going to the Fire Nation."
Toph saw her chance. "Oh, that's too–"
"So are we!" Ursa cried.
The hippies perked up. "Really? Any chance you would like to hear a continuous flow of ancient songs and legendary stories to make the trip more enjoyable?"
Ursa ignored the sharp smack as Toph's hand once again made contact with her forehead. She beamed at them. "We would love that."
"Great! I'm Chong. This is my wife Lilly."
The woman waved. "Hello."
"I'm Moku," the large man offered.
Ursa bowed to them all. "I am Princess Ursa of the Fire Nation, and my brother Prince Iroh. And this is—"
"Introductions really aren't necessary," Toph insisted.
"—Toph Bei Fong."
"Ooooh!" The hippies surged around the earthbender.
"You're Toph Bei Fong?" Lilly gasped. "The legendary Toph Bei Fong?"
Toph smiled. Maybe these people weren't so bad after all. What was Sokka's problem? "Yes. Yes, I am."
"We've heard amazing stories," Moku said.
"We've passed them down," Chong added. "But we would love to hear them right from the source."
"Oh, I think that can be arranged," Toph said, lifting her chin. "Come on, Ursa; let's introduce them to the rest of the gang." She frowned at Chong as they headed back down the pier. "You really don't remember Aang?"
Chong shook his head. "No, Lady Earthbender, I do not."
"What about Katara?" Ursa asked.
The Princess opened her mouth to explain, but Lilly squealed with delight.
"Look!" she cried, pointing. "It's Sokka!"
Too late did Sokka realize he had been spotted.
As one, the nomads launched into a familiar, catchy, impossible-to-get-out-of-your-head tune. Sokka had tried for years to get the horrid song out of his mind, but he could never manage.
Don't let the cave-in get you down
Sokka glared at them, temple pulsing. "Of course they remember me," he growled.
Zuko and the others couldn't hold it in any more. Their laughter filled the bay as the nomads launched into three and four encores of the very short song.
"We sing your song all the time!" Moku cried. "It's a big hit; people love it!"
Sokka's scowl did not lift. "Whoopee."
Chong and his gang were true to their word. As soon as Zuko and the others bid their fond farewells to Iroh –who promised to visit soon– the hippies broke into an appropriate song of tears and smiles, bidding their goodbyes to the Earth Kingdom as they filled the sea air with the sound of music.
With their music and their stories, the hippy nomads lent a festive atmosphere to the warship. They had declined the offer of cabins below in lieu of staking claim to a section of the deck and sleeping under the stars. Captain Jee wasn't thrilled at having tagalongs, let alone ones that crowded his deck. But the nomads took straight to their instruments, keeping the passengers and crew entertained. When Chong could think of no more songs to sing, they would set the instruments aside, and he would treat them to stories they had heard during their travels. When he could remember no more stories, he would take up his guitar again and sing. 'Secret Tunnel' and 'Don't Let the Cave-In Get You Down' appeared to be favorites.
Any soldier or sailor off-duty was welcome to join, some even bringing their own instruments. After the hippies taught them the words, more than one amateur singer joined the cacophony.
It wasn't orthodox of a navy vessel, Jee knew, but morale was high despite the cramped quarters, and the men could certainly use a break after the last intense couple of weeks.
A banquet of food was set out, rich Fire Nation fare. A few found the flavors too intense, or the heat too extreme, but Haru quite enjoyed it.
"That's your third helping of spicy soufflé!" Toph cried in disbelief.
Haru shrugged. "I've never tasted anything like this." He groaned. "You're not going to go off about me getting fat and try to steal my food again, are you?"
"Nah." Toph grinned. "Go ahead and stuff your face. They don't have food like this in the Earth Kingdom, am I right?" She said, nudging him with her elbow.
"Um...I guess..." Haru frowned at her. Something felt off. She had been uber-friendly to him most of the day. After Sokka's 'boyfriend' tease, Haru had expected he'd get the cold shoulder for a while. Making Sokka miserable with the nomads must have put her in a good mood.
Sokka still hadn't forgiven them. He spent the first several hours hunched up in a far corner, glaring at their exuberance. When the odd, varied orchestra launched into a lively tune, Suki decided she had put up with it long enough.
She tapped her husband on the shoulder. "Until we reach the Fire Nation, I am officially on vacation, and you are going to enjoy yourself, whether you like it or not." She grabbed his arm and pulled him into a dance.
Many others joined the cue to dance. Soldiers and sailors took turns dancing with Ty Lee and Princess Ursa. Someone even asked Toph, though she politely declined. When Corporal Hoo offered his arm to Ming, she laughed at his roguish smile and said she wouldn't be much of a bodyguard if she left her post. The Firelady seemed to disagree; she pushed her into the corporal's waiting arms and they careened onto the makeshift dance floor. After that, the female bodyguards were fair game; even Yuki found herself dragged into the cheerful melee, though she intimidated most of the men, and not just because she stood almost half a head taller.
Haru was content to watch the festivities but Ty Lee bounded from the crowd to catch hold of his hands.
"You should join the fun, Haru!" She looked at Toph. "You don't mind, do you?"
Toph bristled. "Why would I mind?"
Ty Lee beamed, turning back to Haru. "Come on!"
Haru blushed violently. "I don't—I'm not—"
"Oh go on, Stache Man," Toph said between clenched teeth. "They probably don't have shindigs like this back home, do they?"
Haru frowned. "Well, no. But I–"
"Then do as the lady says!"
Toph shoved him into Ty Lee's waiting arms, though the pretty acrobat didn't seem to think it was an involuntary gesture on Haru's part. She winked at him, making him blush harder.
"Sorry, Ty Lee," he stammered, "I don't think this is a good idea. I'm just not very good at–"
But Ty Lee wouldn't take no for an answer. With a broad grin, she dragged him into the chaos of movement, and in the midst of it Haru's clumsy moves almost passed unnoticed. Almost.
Appa soared over the ocean, Momo circling his large friend through the air and occasionally coming to rest on one of his horns with a contented chitter.
Aang glanced over his shoulder, watching the Earth Kingdom fade from sight. He patted the bison's neck. "You can take over for awhile, can't you, buddy?"
Appa lowed in reply. Aang took that as a yes. He leapt from his perch and bounded back to join Katara in the saddle. She nestled into him as they settled back.
They were straight on course for the Western Air Temple. After Katara told him about the... the incident, it didn't take much to convince him it was their best next step. With a little more digging, they even found the name of the nun who had spoken up in Haku's defense. Sister Ama claimed that Haku kept a personal journal that would prove he had not neglected his duties, but such a book was never found. It fell into grand legend for a while, one of the world's great mysteries, until it finally faded into myth and then dropped into obscurity. But Aang was determined to find it. He had to figure this out. If the Avatar Spirit wanted him to learn more about Haku, Aang would do whatever he could.
He remembered kneeling on the library floor, trembling in fury and frustration he couldn't understand.
"Katara...what just happened?"
"Oh, Aang..." Her head sank onto his shoulder, her arms wrapping tight around him. "I don't know. When you found out Avatar Haku wasn't very involved during his time, you lost it."
Aang frowned. "I-I remember reading about Haku, and..." He rubbed his forehead as if that would entice the memories to return. "After that, I just remember thinking he should have known better."
"You said something like that." She nodded, but her hold on him didn't loosen. "You accused him of hiding from the world and neglecting his duties. Then you started talking about the Spirit World and..." The words caught in her throat as a newfound wave of panic set in, but she fought it. Whatever had happened, it was over. This was Aang. Her husband was right here. "You said you needed to look for your wife."
Aang froze, his body stiffening in her embrace. "I—" He swallowed hard. "I said that?"
Katara nodded, hugging him tighter.
Instinctively, Aang held her close, stroked her hair, whispered how sorry he was and how much he loved her. But his brain churned, trying to put the pieces together.
Aang turned to his wife now, slipping his hand through hers. Her gaze fixed on the fluffy clouds as they rose from the horizon, loomed ahead, and finally faded over her shoulder.
"Katara, I think I might know what happened."
Haru stretched, his muscles surprisingly sore after the dancing. He didn't think he had danced for very long, but the strain on his limbs told him otherwise. But Toph was right; it had actually been fun, once he managed to ignore the panic invoked by dancing with any of the women.
"What are we doing down here?" He was a little nervous. As soon as he'd stepped away from the dance –particularly from his frequent partner Ty Lee– Toph seized him by the arm and dragged him away from the festivities, down into the belly of the ship. He could hear the faint sounds of music and laughter from above.
"Just because we've got some singers on board doesn't mean it should distract you from your lessons," Toph declared.
"Okay..." He frowned. "Not to sound pig-headed, but what is there left for me to learn?"
Toph snorted. "Plenty, Stache Man. But most importantly—" Clenching her fists, she yanked back, cleanly peeling a layer of metal from the wall. "—metalbending."
Haru stared at her.
"What? No 'thank you'? No 'I can't believe it, this is the best day of my life'? Not just anybody gets to learn these skills, you know."
Regaining his composure, Haru cleared his throat. "O-of course. I mean, yes, thank you, I just...well..."
Toph sighed. She punched out, knocking the metal back into place. "Spit it out!"
"Do you really think I'm the best choice?" He flinched as soon as the words were out, expecting a harsh rebuttal. "I'm mean, it's not like I'll have a great impact on society or I can answer your every beck and call when you need help or—"
"Look, Haru," she cut in. "Metalbending isn't some kind of sport. I don't teach people so they can flaunt it."
She fell silent, though her brow clouded in thought. As she considered how best to answer the question, she absently ran her toes over the metal floor, feeling the vibrations form vague pictures in her mind.
"Metalbending just needs to be shared, and that isn't always easy. I can't just pick and choose who I teach it to; it's more complicated than that. There are strict requirements for skill, natural talent and desire that are necessary to learn it. There are only a few dozen people alive that I think even have a chance at bending metal, let alone mastering it. Outside of that, I still have to decide whether the candidates meet the intelligence requirements."
Haru frowned. "Intelligence?"
Toph smirked. "I have to make sure they won't be stupid enough to share it with just anyone. Metalbending could do real damage if it fell into the wrong hands, so my protégés have to ensure that it doesn't.
"You might be a good candidate. I've studied you while you've trained," she explained, circling him like a buzzard vulture. "And I'm pretty sure you meet most of the requirements. Thanks to my tutelage, you now have the necessary skill. You've displayed some impressive talent, even if you can't also utilize them with desire."
Pride blossomed in Haru's chest. Was this Toph, complimenting him?
"What you lack–" Toph snapped, and Haru's shoulders sank a little. "–is grit. That's something you still need to work on. To metalbend you have to be tougher than 'tough', and let's face it, Stache Man, you're a push-over. Metalbenders have to know what they want, and they have to have the determination to get it, no matter what. Metalbenders don't back down! Your gut–" She jabbed two fingers into his midsection– "Is flammy. It needs to be stone-hard with willpower and determination. If you want to metalbend, Haru, you're going to have to control it, to show it who's boss. You have to be assertive, and if you can't do that, I'll tell you right now, you won't be able to budge so much as a bolt, no matter how hard you try."
Haru's face warmed with shame.
A long moment passed, the admonishing words echoing through the metal chamber until they finally faded away.
"You do have one advantage over most of my other lily-livers," Toph admitted grudgingly, "And that's patience. You can wait and listen, and that's the main reason I want to teach you this skill. You pointed out that Poi's got talent, and I told you that he was rash and impetuous. Now I'm going to tell you why.
"Metalbending is all about listening, Haru. You can get by in earthbending with brute force, but in metal the earth is buried so deep inside, you have to strain to find it, you have to hear it calling out to you before you can even touch it."
As she spoke, her voice fluctuated with power. Usually, Toph shouted and bellowed in her instructing, but now her words resounded with confidence and clarity. They washed over Haru, filling him with a wonder he had never considered before.
Could he really do it? She spoke of listening –straining to hear the metal calling to him– and his muscles bunched as he bent his concentration to do just that. He almost imagined he could—
The floor beneath him twisted, sending him flat on his butt.
"Are you listening to me, Stache Man?" Toph demanded, her old brutal demeanor returning.
Haru rubbed at his hip with a sheepish smile. "Sorry," he said. "I was trying to feel the metal."
To his surprise, Toph laughed. Not an evil chortle, but a good-natured chuckle. "It will be awhile before you can hear anything, protégé."
"What do I do? How can I hear it?"
Toph's smile broadened. She slammed her heel into the floor, sending a tremor through the metal. "You keep listening."
While the stern bustled with activity, only the Captain and a few of the on-shift crew habited the bow. Zuko found the silence a welcome reprieve.
"You sent for me, Captain?"
Jee bowed. "Yes, Your Majesty. You have a message from the Palace." The Captain handed him the small scroll and waited at attention while Zuko unrolled it. The dragon hawk messenger perched on the rail, tethered, awaiting a reply.
It was a short message from the Captain of the Palace Guard, and the news weighed on Zuko.
"Is everything all right, Your Majesty?" Jee asked softly. He marveled for an instant how, on his first command under the scarred royal, he never would have asked such a personal question. He wouldn't have cared.
Zuko sighed, putting the scroll away. "As well as can be expected."
Katara's hand had gone cold in his. Aang laid his other atop it, rubbing the warmth back into it.
"Kuruk was the Avatar before Kyoshi," he began softly. "For the most part, he was pretty self-absorbed. I understand he was talented, but he really liked to impress people more than help them. It wasn't like Roku's time, when Sozin was gearing up for war, or Kyoshi's when Ba Sing Se was on the verge of upheaval. He decided to let the world take care of itself."
Aang fell quiet. Katara's fingers in his felt more important than anything. He looked at her and found those spectacular brown eyes gazing back at him.
His voice cracked as he continued. "He fell in love."
Katara chuckled. "Isn't that usually a good thing?"
Aang didn't reply, but he found he couldn't bring himself to take his eyes from her. "Kuruk didn't take on his role as the Avatar. That wasn't how it was meant to be. It upset the balance. So the spirits decided to punish him."
The sparkle faded from Katara's eyes. "How?"
"At their wedding, Koh the Face Stealer appeared. He stole Kuruk's bride and dragged her into the Spirit World."
The wind tugging at her hair turned icy cold. Katara shivered. He had mentioned the Face Stealer before, but she didn't know much about him. Aang didn't like to talk about that particular experience. "That's awful. But he got her back, didn't he?"
Her hand clasped tight to his, begging that this story had a happy ending. Aang thought about lying, but after everything that had happened –and everything he'd already kept from her– he couldn't bring himself to do it.
"Every solstice, Kuruk would venture into the Spirit World to track down Koh. He never found him. He's been looking for Ummi ever since."
Katara blinked. "Ummi? You said that name before, that night—"
Aang nodded. "I know."
Katara shivered again, and this time it had nothing to do with the cold. "Aang. What's going on?"
He turned his gaze toward the horizon. "The feeling I had, when it got really intense, I started having these weird visions. Only they weren't really visions. More like memories. But memories of things I'd never done. They were always triggered by something that I was going through. After I lost contact with the Avatar Spirit, they stopped. I thought I was finally finished with them, but..."
"But then Iroh heard you threaten Fong," Katara continued as his voice trailed off. "And you started talking about Ummi."
Aang nodded. "And I couldn't remember doing either."
"Do you think you're reliving those same memories, you're just blocking them out?"
"I didn't put it together until the University," he said, shaking his head. "When the darkness took over the Avatar Spirit, I fell through my memories. I watched them all play out before me. But mine weren't the only ones. There were so many others that I didn't recognize, but Katara, I knew what some of them were, not because I lived them, but because I'd heard about them. From Roku, and Kyoshi."
"What are you saying, Aang?"
"I'm not sure," he whispered. "I think..." He rubbed his brow. "When the Avatar Spirit left me, I thought that meant I was just me, but what if I wasn't the only one disconnected from it? What if every one of my past lives was disconnected, too?"
Cold terror gripped her soul. "Aang..."
"The Avatar's Spirit is gone, but I think it left everything else behind in me. All of my past lives, all of their memories, everything mortal about the Avatar —I think it's still inside of me. And I think it's too much."
"How is that even possible?" she asked.
"I don't know," he admitted. "But a few weeks ago I didn't think it was possible to contact the Spirit of the Avatar, much less lose it. If I was holding all of my past lives in my head, if they were leaking out... It would explain everything."
Katara gripped his hand between hers. "Maybe not," she insisted, forcing herself to sound optimistic. "Maybe they're just the flashbacks—"
"I didn't recognize you, Katara!" Aang cried. "That wasn't a flashback. I wasn't remembering Kuruk; I became him. I had no idea who you were. Look me in the eye and tell me that was really me."
She didn't reply. She couldn't.
A long moment passed before Aang spoke again.
"I'm scared, Katara. I'm scared that my real memories will get lost." He reached up to stroke her cheek. "I'm scared that I'll forget you."
Tears glistened in Katara's eyes. The same thought circled in her mind, threatening to tear her apart. She fought the impulse to break down and cry. Instead, she looped her arms around his neck and kissed him. "Then I'll keep reminding you."
Six had gathered to hear her. Whether the others were too stubborn or lost in the darkness, no one knew.
"I don't like this plan of yours," one spirit growled, the tentacles on his boar-like face writhing in displeasure. "Entrusting all this to a mortal? It is rash and foolish! What do you possibly expect him to do?"
The Moon Spirit straightened her shoulders, her lips pressed in a harsh line. "He may be mortal, but he is still the Avatar," she reminded him.
The boar spirit snorted. "There is little difference."
The monkey spirit Enma lashed his tail. "Do not forget, Muki. The Avatar once proved very useful."
Muki averted his eyes, momentarily cowed. When none of the other spirits came to his defense, he harrumphed. "That was a very long time ago, Enma. And you know more than anyone it didn't end well."
"Your loss was nothing compared to others," Enma snapped, baring his sharp teeth.
Muki curled his lip, his tusks appearing to thicken and elongate. "You've become too trusting, Enma." He turned to Yue. "As for you, Moon Spirit," he said, the title slipping from his lips on a wave of sarcasm. "I think you are still tainted by your former existence. For your sake this plan of yours had better work. Your precious Avatar doesn't seem to be holding up so far."
The glow of moonlight surrounding the former Water Tribe princess intensified, making Muki flinch. "Aang will succeed."
"For all our sakes," another spirit added firmly. Her presence was felt, more than seen, identified only by a slight shimmer in the air. Only her impossibly round eyes were visible, glaring out at Muki as the darkness around them quivered.
- I had a complete brain-dead moment when I first wrote this. Somehow, I got it in my head that Aang had lost his airbending ability on top of everything else. Good thing I caught that, huh?
- "You're my favorite. Don't tell the others." –You may have heard this saying before. I first read it on a Piece of Flair my brother sent me. The effect was kind of ruined when I learned he sent it to every other member of my family as well. Of course, I think the others were just red herrings so he wouldn't cause a stir.
- JEE! I always loved Jee, since the episode 'The Storm'. I was extremely disappointed he never popped back into the series, even at the end. I have a feeling he now sees Zuko in an entirely different light.
- How did Toph know that Sokka waved his arms around while cackling about giant mushrooms? She couldn't see in the sand when that happened.
- True! But the way I figure it, this scene is re-enacted quite frequently to needle Sokka, and Toph would have picked it up from there.
- A memorable M*A*S*H moment is recognized in this chapter:
- "Nice desk, Henry."
- "Bet you can't guess what it's made out of."
- "Nope. It's oak."
- I dug it up on an etymology site, but 'Ama' is part of a longer name found in a category I can't remember, but it means 'sky' or has something to do with it. I think.
- In Hinduism, Muka was the name of a boar-like demon.
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