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High Seas is the eighteenth chapter of
Previously in A Tale of Rebels
After invading Wa Castle, Senqok, Zoruka, Shizon, Kabura and Ranju encounter, as hoped for, Noki there. Their stay at the castle, during which Shizon managed to make Noki cry with one of his overreactions, is cut short as Earth Empire troops approach the castle. The six comrades flee Wa Peninsula with a boat, heading for Whaletail Island, as they witness the literal downfall of Wa Castle.
Chapter 18: High Seas
Senqok clung onto the rudder, trying to stabilise it, as if his life would have depended on it - not that it had. The junk's three sails have been struck as to keep them whole in the storm they were voyaging through, and so Shizon, Ranju and Kabura had no choice but to do their best to minimise the mass of water aboard, while attempting not to be thrown overboard. The wind howled, blowing enormous masses of raindrops none of the voyagers had ever experienced before, while also creating waves of greater sizes than any vessels' in the entire world. Kabura made use of her far from perfect waterbending to get water off the ship, Ranju doing the same, or rather, attempting to do so, with her airbending, while Shizon tried to keep up with them with a bucket of his, but even when working together, the three of them were not nearly fast enough to keep the water off the ship, not to speak of getting it off again. Zoruka wasn't able to help in any way, as she was preoccupied with keeping Noki safe - she guided the blind earthbender out of the cabin of theirs, and up to the rudder to keep her from drowning in the water that had already flooded the cabin. Not exactly having the toughest stomach, Noki quickly made her way to the bulwark, and leaned over it to vomit. Right after she had emptied her stomach the wrong direction, a wave reached her and knocked first into Zoruka, and then into Senqok. The Water Tribal was utterly concentrating on keeping the ship on a relatively stable course, and so he was most surprised and shocked when both, Noki and Zoruka, struck him unintentionally, cursing violently under his breath afterwards.
"I'm so sorry, I had no idea- " apologised Noki, being helped up by Zoruka, only to be knocked down by the next wave that the ship struck.
"Oh, well, then please vomit elsewhere! I need to keep us on course, dammit!" shouted Senqok through the rain, the howling wind and the waves' noise, somewhat angrily.
Zoruka only shot the waterbender a reproachful glare as she led Noki away again, intending to seat her at some other elevated position as not to anger Senqok further, and so she simply sat her right across the Water Tribal, before taking a look at her comrades' progress on controlling the waters flooding onto their vessel.
"Hey, why don't you make any progress? I mean, how hard could it be to- " It wasn't one of the companions of hers who cut her off, but rather yet another wave hitting the ship on its larboard side. As she had managed to stand again, she noticed all three of those fighting the waters had ceased to stare at Zoruka unbelievingly, even Ranju.
"Oh, sorry, I must've slept when you explained just how easy this is! Come down here and do that shit yourself!" screamed Shizon at the top of his lungs, sending a bucket at the fellow firebender.
Zoruka narrowed her eyes and leapt into the air to intercept and catch the bucket, however, in the same moment, the biggest wave thus far struck the ship, its waters reaching every last corner of the small vessel, and almost sending its entire crew, Senqok included, off board with its impact and the flood that followed. Zoruka did catch the bucket, and further ascended afterwards, but she knew it was a mistake. In an instant, however, she realised the possibility she had with her current position.
"Out of the fucking way! I'm coming down!" rang her voice, giving her comrades only a few seconds to retreat as she came rushing downwards, slowing her landing only with a blast of fire. At first, all of those present agreed without interaction that this was possibly the worst idea ever, but the fact that the resulting cloud was made of steam and not smoke convinced them otherwise. Within seconds, the vapour began to condense and formed fog, which Ranju and Senqok bent away, only to reveal Zoruka cowering with a fist of hers held against the wooden floor. As the others arrived, ignoring the tempest they struggled to escape, she simply fell to the side, revealing a scorch mark on the wood as she stated, "I've got an idea how to accelerate our little voyage... "
As the Crown Princess picked herself up and slowly walked to the rudder, a question arose amongst the comrades of hers, one that Kabura came to ask, "So? What's your idea?"
"We need the sails. Ranju, you will bend as much air as possible into the sails, and Senqok, and if you want, Kabura too - you just see to it that we get as much water behind us as possible. That ought to get us to a decent speed before long, and out of this damn storm... " stated Zoruka, raindrops beginning to drum against the ship's wood again. Her comrades took looks at one another, their glances wandering from one to the next, for about five minutes. Then, their non-verbally held council had decided.
"As long as you take the rudder... it sounds fine, I guess." spoke Ranju in proxy for the rest, before they hurried to hoist the sails again, to flee this accursed storm once and for all.
"I think... no, it can't be!" The sea was calm, and so Noki was allowed to freely walk around on the ship. To enjoy the light breeze most, she had chosen the bow to stand at. "I feel earth! Nearby! Or something similar anyway... "
The overjoyed exclamations were first responded to by Shizon, who was helping to control the sails. "Oh dear, Noki... " He rolled his eyes, but still genuine concern could be heard in his voice. "Are you sure you don't have hallucinations?"
Noki's expression turned into a rather angry one instantly. "Oh, sorry, I didn't realise I was this non-credible to you." She shouted with a kind of angry sarcasm, not facing him not because she didn't think of it as necessary, but as a form of protest. "I guess we won't need the islet to anchor at then. You sure can keep this ship going through the night."
"Islet? You mean this rock there?" asked Zoruka, who still controlled the rudder, while Senqok, right in front of her, tried to make out their approximate location with a compass, a map and a sextant. "What do you think, Senqok?"
"Hm?" Senqok thought he finally had found out of their location, but then he was interrupted. Quickly, he drew the approximate course they had sailed as well as their location, before looking up from the map, only to be blinded by the setting sun's reflected light. Blinking quickly, he could spot the rocks Zoruka had been talking about, and replied, "Well, we've had a rough day, right? I think this is an excellent spot, but let's not anchor too close to it, for when the low tide returns... "
Meanwhile, Shizon had muttered something under his breath, something Noki came to understand. Following the sound of his footsteps, she quickly covered the distance between her and him, only to inquire him in a stern tone, "What did you just say!?"
Shizon stopped what he had been doing immediately and faced Noki, poking her into the shoulder every time he spoke a word. "I said that I won't let you fool all of us anymore. Not like now, not like at Wa Castle. Not ever!"
"I'm fooling you?" Noki narrowed her unseeing eyes. "Is that so? Oh, sorry then! But I guess you have every right in the world to insult me as you please, right? Of course... Now let me tell you something: the next time you insult me like you did at Wa Castle, it'll have consequences."
Shizon narrowed his eyes and was about to strike Noki, when Kabura hurried to divide the two. "Stop this! We're all tired and we're all a bit embittered and we're all angry because we've been on sea for some days straight without encountering any other humans... There's no use for fight, we need to stick together!"
"No! I won't have this little bitch fooling us again!" Shizon simply pushed Kabura aside and bolted towards Noki.
"So? I won't have this damn fuck insulting me all the time!" Noki ignored the fact she couldn't bend or see on the ship and prepared to strike the firebender.
"NO. YOU. DON'T." A blast of air sent the two almost-combatants flying from each other as Ranju landed, striking with her staff right between the two. "You're both right, to some extent. Shizon, you stop insulting her when you're really insulting her and Noki, you stop fooling him, and all of us, when you're really fooling us. Understood?"
"I won't have everyone order me around anymore!" shouted Shizon, his dual swords risen high above Ranju to strike.
"Finally something we can agree on!" agreed Noki as she charged forward as far as she could.
Shizon struck downwards, surprising Ranju. However, he too was surprised when his swords met another, straight sword. Senqok had come to resolve the conflict, and now was about to duel Shizon, by the looks of it at least. Shizon showed hesitation towards striking the waterbender, which was his mistake. Senqok quickly bent water out of the sea and bound Shizon to a mast with it, freezing him there, doing the same to Noki, who had come charging at the firebender. Then, Zoruka arrived as well, deciding, "Let's just anchor and talk this out to a cup of tea... "
Seeing as they were in no position to demand anything, Shizon and Noki simply nodded. After freeing them from his icy grasp, Senqok hurried to the rudder, and everyone else took their previous positions as they steered towards the rocks that emerged right from the sea, before the anchor secured the ship in its position. Being quick about striking the sails, the band of six soon found themselves in the somewhat dark cabin. As there was not a single piece of furniture on the ship, they sat themselves on the ground in a circle while Zoruka took a teapot, filled it with water, threw a few tea leaves in it, and began heating it with her firebending. All of them were silent as Zoruka arrived several minutes later with a tray with six teacups, which she then distributed. A single candle in the circle's centre was all that lit the room as they all took their careful sips from the steaming hot tea. As everyone had taken one first sip, Kabura decided to break the silence.
"So... " she spoke in a calm and warm tone, "Who shall start?"
Shizon wore an expression of guilt, looking down into his teacup, which he then put down on the floor, before clearing his throat. "I guess that'd be me then... "
"What is it about you insulting Noki?" Despite getting right down to business, Kabura managed to make it sound somewhat friendly.
"It's... it's just that... I'm sorry... " Shizon dared not to look up, not at least until Zoruka, who sat to his left, forced with a glare to do so. He sighed and tried to explain it. "I'm not sure if I know the answer for sure, but I guess... it's in my childhood... You want to hear the story?"
"Anything that brings us closer to the problem's solution... " stated the healer, calm as ever.
"So... let's get this over with... " Shizon sighed once again. "You see, my father was wealthy, very wealthy even, and, well, he died before I was even born. My mother was actually a bit too old to bear children, and died giving birth to me. She had experience with giving birth, in a way, only that only one other time out of a dozen, the child was alive. I had a brother, fifteen years older than me. We were alone, and that wealth we thought to be ours was taken from us. With nothing left, we were forced to live on the streets. My brother was rather egoistic, you know, but for the sake of survival, and also, I think, because he felt pity for me, he banded with me, and we pulled scams and whatnot to survive. He was all the family I ever had, and I loved him. Over time, I think he also started to care for me in that brotherly way... but that was only one side of his. There was more to him, I knew it. Other than me, he'd grown up in father's world, and it seemed to have affected him... He had great goals, and would've done anything to accomplish them. Spirits, he would've sold me for the sake of survival if slavery wouldn't have been outlawed. After he turned twenty-five, however, soldiers began rounding up beggars and alike, and to avoid being caught, my brother inscribed himself in the army. I was ten, and then life changed, if possible, to the worse. I couldn't fool anyone anymore with my scams, I was alone and that was how I had to survive. I never heard of my brother again, except for that he was said to rise through the ranks quickly. That time was hard for me. I was poor, but still rich enough to be robbed, apparently. It was bitter... struggling to keep myself alive but still getting robbed... And then there were all these nobles and those of the bourgeoisie in the streets making fun of us... it were bitter times indeed."
"So... " Instead of Kabura in her role as a mediator, it was Noki who spoke. "You're saying you developed a kind of... hate towards this kind of light-heartedness?"
Shizon nodded. "Yes." He continued explaining, "People who fool around that much don't know how hard life can be."
"Oh, you have no idea... " Noki stated, not in a provoking tone, but rather in a sad one. She then continued in a similar manner as Shizon had before. "I know just all too well how hard life can be. I mean, sure, I grew up as the child of a nobleman and all... I mean, my father IS- er, was of the house that ruled Omashu for centuries, and my mother was of the house that once ruled an ancient kingdom based on Fusang peninsula, so my childhood was slightly different to yours... Well, my mother too died giving birth to me, but she had always been rather... weak, so to say. She didn't die from giving birth, actually, she died from an infection. But anyway, there were complications and I turned out as I did - blind. Well, my father soon realised that to be both a disadvantage and a chance, he WAS from Omashu after all, you know, earthbending and stuff. My blindness wasn't anything that could have darkened my childhood... My childhood was alright, more than that even... It's recent events that made me the way I am... You remember the Battle of the Five Armies? Well... father confronted Yi Ming, and... you know." A few tears rolled down her cheeks as she remembered the fateful day. "He was my only family. I had friends, yes, but there's no one like family... He was all that I had left of it... He WAS." Noki sobbed briefly, then coming to explain at last. "As a matter of fact, all the amusement I have found is in fooling other people... It is just a small escape from the omnipresent pain. It's slowly subsiding now, but... I guess I don't have to tell you how it feels, do I?"
"Oh, you're not alone... " said Zoruka reassuringly. Her tone changed to a bitter one as she continued. "My father too was killed by Yi Ming... "
"I'm sorry should I offend you, but... why did you work for him afterwards?" The question Zoruka had already heard and answered once now came from Ranju. Shizon too had intended to ask it, but had been to slow.
"Long story... like all of this, right?" The Crown Princess sighed before delivering her story. "I'm of the highest rank of nobility there is, right? Royalty... Well, that might not be entirely true... You see, there are two options... either, my father was dissatisfied with his wife for not bearing any children and legitimised the next best bastard of his he could find, or I'm a legitimate child of his, which is unlikely... Or he just adopted me from wherever, and I'm not related to him at all... Whether it may be, he raised me like a true child of his. I had to follow every damn rule, every damn thing, from reading to sitting, from use of certain expressions to eating, everything was regulated and I had to keep my manners all the time. Within me, the will to rebel grew. Still, my father was the only one that seemed to care for me, even if he only saw me as a tool to preserve or even widen his power, even if I only was there to deliver a male heir. He would've done anything to achieve his goals, and so he did. He sold me to Yi Ming - as the latter's wife. You see, my father was of the dying, or at least severely endangered Liang Dynasty, who were the nominal Fire Lords and long-time allies of Yi Ming. No matter what, my father couldn't hold up General - now, uh, Fire Lord - Kanyzon's series of victories and failed to remain the Fire Lord, and for that failure, Yi Ming killed him. Before my eyes." Her eyes began to tear up, but her voice remained the same. "My father may have been an asshole, but he was, well, all the family I ever had. Yi Ming offered me to be the Grand Secretariat, and I was about to decline, but then he showed me what he'd do to me if I did. Well, let's say I accepted my fate when he threatened to keep me barely alive while continuously slice cutting me... My instinct of survival was stronger than anything else." Zoruka didn't want to meet the others' glances as she looked down, still ashamed of herself. "At least my rebellious spirit wasn't gone, as my defiance at Li Di Ce proved... "
"So he forced you... I see," stated Ranju in her neutral tone, which started to make Kabura wonder.
"Ahem, Ranju... what is it with you and that... " The healer and waterbender-in-training paused in search for the most appropriate vocable. "What is it with you and your recent... indifference?"
"Recent? Ha!" Ranju stared into the flame of the candle that stood in their midst as she spoke, her voice allowing no conclusion about her emotions. "It just intensified... "
"Maybe, but... why? How?" Kabura was obviously confused.
"Oh spirits, here we go with another long story... " warned Ranju with a sarcastic kind of disappointment, resuming her neutral tone soon thereafter anyway. "As everyone I meet can clearly see, I'm an Air Nomad. The males live in the Northern and Southern, us females in the Eastern and Western Air Temples. I was born and grew up in the Eastern Air Temple. Everything was fine, not always completely fine, but most of the time, it was... until we heard of a coup in the Southern Air Temple. The news was delivered by the few who had fled from there. Amongst them was Anyang, by the way... Anyway, some fled the temple, fearing Dalit's cruelty. Dalit was the one who's led the coup in the South, should you wonder. Then, we heard news of similar occurrences in the North and the West as well, and fear began to settle in. Soon, Dalit's followers, soldiers actually, began besieging the Eastern Air Temple. Many fled, many died fleeing, many surrendered, and some even defected to the enemy. Some tried a peaceful approach, as Air Nomads ought to, but they were slaughtered. The few who remained chose Anyang to lead them, and so he did. I - I was seven years old then - had decided for myself to stay there. It was the biggest mistake I have ever made... The siege lasted some weeks, and we faced shortages of food and water, to the point we suffered greater losses to starvation and death from thirst... About one hundred defenders had survived the week or two weeks or how long it lasted. Then, the situation came to a point from where it couldn't get more hopeless. We decided to flee, but in the very same moment, Dalit's forces stormed the Temple and massacred them. Anyang could hide from them and held out the day and managed to search the pile of corpses for live ones who mistakenly were amongst the dead. The only one whom he could find there during the night was me, and so we escaped them. The whole Temple's yard was stained red for months to come, or so it is said... There you have your reason. The Siege of the Eastern Air Temple was what changed me. I saw too much blood when I was far too young for it... I managed to block it out for years, but during my imprisonment, it all came flooding back... Indifference was the only reasonable solution to the constant trauma... "
Silence settled again amongst the companions as Ranju had finished. Senqok took a sip of his tea and cleared his throat, before coughing violently. After he recovered from it, he emptied his teacup in a sip and took the risk of clearing his throat again.
"Well, since we're at sharing old, depressing stories... here we go... " His voice had a bitterly-joyful tone. "Well, as you all know, my father is- well, was the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe. Under his father, our tribe entered a golden age, while our northern brothers suffered famine and alike. So, under my father and his father, our tribe kind of became the more powerful of the Water Tribes, and everyone expected me to become chief one day just as well. I wasn't an only child, and technically speaking, I wasn't necessarily the heir to my father's position, completely aside the overall chief is elected. I had an elder sister, Luna, three years older than me, whom my father raised like a boy, teaching her hunting, fighting and all that, while I simply focussed on my bending. About my mother, well, she died after giving birth... not to me, it would've been a younger brother, had he been born alive... My mother was really worn out after that, both mentally and physically, and so she managed to get sick, and of sickness she then died... But anyway, I still had come to know and to love her, after all, I've had her for seven years. With time, I got over it, or rather, learnt to live with the pain... before then, when I was eleven, my father took out Luna for a hunting trip and he returned alone... I was just barely over the loss of my mum, and then I lost my awesome sister... I had known her longer that mum, and frankly... I had been closer to her as well, so it took me longer to get over it... And once I was over it, my father was pierced with a dozen spears before my eyes... Now I'm alone. I've got no family left... " He sighed as the tears inevitably came. Kabura, who sat to his left, laid her hand on his shoulder, reassuringly, as she smiled at him warmly.
"I guess that's something we all have in common, in one way or another." Kabura's expression darkened, and her tone followed suit. "As Senqok said, the South surpassed the North at times, and still does. Continuously. And so, many northerners left the North and migrated South in hope for a better life. Now, my family traditionally had a high rank in the North, they had held it for centuries, in terms of power, they came right after the chief. Also, the North is allied to Yi Ming, as we know... That's not exactly welcomed by the people, or rather, there were those who want a strong North in cooperation with Yi Ming and those who want a strong in cooperation with the South. And we all know how things are when one opposes Yi Ming in his own and his vassal countries. My family was close to both sides, close to the pro-Yi Ming in their position as the chief's advisor and close to the anti-Yi Ming in every other way. My father, my mother, my two sisters and two brothers all had clear opinions about the North's path, and about Yi Ming. Which would've been no problem, had the chief not overheard my father talking with my mother about such business. Dad realised that and he intended to flee the North under the cover of the night. We took all our belongings to our boat, and then we were about to set sail, when the chief's guards surrounded the boat, and rained icicles onto it. My father, my mother, my sisters, my brothers - all dead. Their dying and dead bodies were what had me shielded from the icy projectiles. I waited until the next night to set sail, which I then did - in a boat, filled with human blood. My own family's blood. My own family's, who had all sacrificed themselves for me to live. It was pure horror. It made me come to the conclusion never to let anyone down who I claim to be close to. It made me realise the only people who ever matter in life are friends and family... And that I had completely lost the latter... "
Everyone had emptied their teacups by the end of Kabura's story, and handed it back to Zoruka.
"Well, that was... revealing," stated Shizon, "I'm sure we resolved more than just one problem... "
Shizon leaned over the bulwark, staring out at the vast sea that still was between them and their destination. Everything was illuminated by the full moon, its light bathing everything in an eerily bluish shade. Only to add to its eeriness, the light was completely cold, just as moonlight has come to be, and in combination with Shizon's inadequate clothing - his old uniform - and the fact that it was night, Shizon became quite cold. He slumped down against the bulwark, only to then sit leaning against it, staring at the clear night-time sky and breathing fire from time to time to keep himself warm. It was then that he discovered that not all became eerily blue in moonlight. Zoruka approached him in her crimson armour, the colour still clearly recognisable as such.
"It's ugly, isn't it?" stated the Crown Princess to his confusion.
"What do you mean? The sea and the sky both are gorgeous!" Shizon didn't quite understand what his fellow firebender had been referring to.
"I was talking about our childhoods." came Zoruka's reply. She didn't elaborate further yet, leaving time for Shizon to strike.
"Why 'our' childhoods? We've never met when we were children!" The Crown Princess's fellow firebender thought of different things than the Crown Princess did.
"They were very much alike, if you think about it, actually." Zoruka herself had more or less taken Shizon's previous place at watching the calm sea. "Therefore, we ourselves are much alike."
"...and in what way, exactly? I was amongst the poorest of the poorest and you were- you are royalty. How are these two alike in any way?" Shizon still doubted Zoruka's statements, taking the wrong approach to the topic.
"It's about the basics... what you lacked in wealth, I lacked in freedom, and vice versa." Zoruka started explaining. "We both had no real family left, and those who we did have left didn't think of us as any other than tools, yet we cared for them, we loved them. And then, this person was gone from one moment to the other, and here we go... "
Zoruka began thinking of the fateful day at Ba Sing Se, while Shizon palmed his forehead as he realised what approach Zoruka had taken. "You're right, if we look at the... basic layout, we're quite the same, actually... " Shizon then continued his train of thought. "We're also both kind of outcasts, if you think about it... and we both swore to protect someone but failed... "
These words were enough to make Zoruka cry. She had started remembering the fateful night in Li Di Ce that would almost have cost her her left eye. Not knowing any better, Shizon stood up and embraced her tightly, letting her cry on his shoulder. As she sobbed, he ran his fingers along the back of her head, trying to comfort her, as she couldn't help but sob and sob on. Over and over again, her left eye reminded her of her failure in Li Di Ce, and a thorn in her heart reminded her of her father's demise. On and on she cried, while Shizon couldn't help it but smile. It was no vicious smile, it was a warm, genuinely happy smile. He petted her again, and whispered encouraging words to her. She stopped crying for a few seconds and then for good as she managed to pick up Shizon's smile.
"I can't help but think of just how glad I am that we've met." Shizon looked his fellow firebender into the eyes, brushing off the last tears off her cheek, before he quickly added, "Finally someone who truly understands me!"
"I'm glad we met, too... " Zoruka said, grasping Shizon's hand and laying it so he could reach her left eye, the one she once almost lost and almost had died from. "I'm not sure where I would be without you and your friends... " A whole, silent minute passed before she added playfully, "But next time you want to leave me to die, it'll have consequences!"
Equally playfully, Shizon responded, "Yes, your majesty." He, in a serious, then added, "We should probably go to sleep by now... "
Kabura somewhat nervously paced around on the whole ship. She bent water up from the surrounding sea with which she would attempt to harness the power the full moon gave her, to train more advanced forms of bending than those basic ones Senqok had shown her a day earlier. Every time she tried, she failed, not because of lacking talent, but because of lacking basic knowledge and because she had only memorised the forms partially, completely aside Senqok had been improvising most of the time he made use of advanced techniques, and every time she tried, her failure caused her to curse loudly and violently. She cursed violently and loudly enough to cover the footsteps that neared her. This time, the water she had splashed onto the deck's wooden planks would not only not form the ice spears, or ice claws, or any more advanced form, the water would bother to rise at all. Kabura was about to run amok in frustration, when a hand was laid on her shoulder, allegedly the same that also had prevented the water to rise. A quick glance over her shoulder was enough to determine who had interrupted.
"Come on... " spoke he, Senqok, as Kabura slumped down into a kneeling position. "Let's get your mind off this... "
"You want to take my mind off this?" Kabura shot Senqok an enraged glare. "WHAT DO YOU THINK WAS IT WAS DOING!? I DID TAKE MY MIND OFF THIS!"
Just after she had shouted at him, Kabura turned around again and started crying, which made Senqok wonder, "What this are you talking about?"
"Well, small hints: it was brought up today and caused many tears to be shed... " Kabura started sobbing as Senqok realised what she had meant with 'this'.
Kabura's sobbing was beyond any control as she remembered everything, as she had a flashback. Senqok found himself responsible for even bringing it up, and therefore, he felt guilty. Concluding he had no other options to redeem himself, Senqok took Kabura by her shoulders, forced her to her feet and then embraced her. She continued crying into his shoulder, while he whispered, "Let it out... let the anger out, and the pain... "
Kabura began shouting and sobbing at once. Much of what she shouted was incomprehensible to Senqok, but from some of the sentences, what he did understand reminded him of his own story. Not being able to brush it aside, nor to cope with it himself, he simply joined Kabura and started crying, on her shoulder. The two cried for several minutes, until they could no more, but even afterwards, they remained locked in their embrace. No words were needed, for during their sobbing, their grieving, they had come to an agreement, unbeknownst to both, they simply had found each other to be what they had been truly grieving for. Their shared pain had forged them together, like dual swords, they were two halves of a whole. They remained in their embrace for a solid hour, before they broke from each other again. The two looked into each other's eyes and leaned in - only to stop millimetres from each other. Both retreated simultaneously, and then looked in opposite directions to avoid the other seeing them blushing.
"I think that kind of would've been a bit too early for that... " commented Senqok, intentionally looking away from Kabura and scratching the back of his head as he spoke, blushing.
"Agreed." spoke Kabura, too looking away from the one she just had attempted to kiss, blushing just as well. Then, she decided to face Senqok again, though only for a rhetoric question, "Now, shall we get some sleep or not?"
The airbender sat atop the central of the ship's three masts. The light breeze that blew was barely strong enough to create waves, not nearly strong enough to move the ship, so she had no difficulties keeping her balance atop the mast when standing. She glanced around, and saw nothing but water and more of water, alongside of course the black sky with thousands of stars shining bright, but not nearly as bright as the moon that loomed right above her. Despite the fact some of the stars actually shone in reddish shades, the blue tones of the moon and the ocean were by far prevailing over the others, including the ship's brown and tan shades. Even her own skin appeared to have an eerily greyish blue colour as she looked at her hand. The sight was indeed strangely eerie, in a fascinating way, Ranju found. She sat herself and closed her eyes, concentrating only on what she felt coming from above. Pictures of the past came back from her memories, and, as most of the time, that meant nothing good. Somehow, the light, the shades, the feeling of the full moon in this particular kind reminded her of something. She couldn't quite point it out, but then she remembered. It was the same kind of light, of feeling she had experienced in the night Anyang had rescued her and escaped with her from the Eastern Air Temple. Just as all too much from that time, she remembered that night all too well, and the rest of her memories from the weeks preceding that night inevitably came flooding back. With it came the depression that she would never ever see most of her friends amongst her own people again, with it came the reminder of just how easily she could lose her friends, and with those came the pain. It was omnipresent, but that didn't mean it couldn't intensify. It reminded her of how many of her own people were said to have dealt with such pain.
"Of course... Detachment!" she mumbled to herself, shifting into a meditating stance, always intent on keeping her balance. She focussed on nothing but the greatest depths of her consciousness and subconsciousness, and decided to implement something she had learnt a long time ago - the chakras. To achieve detachment, she would have to unlock all seven of them. Much to her surprisal, she remembered all seven of them in the correct order, what they dealt with and what they were blocked with.
Earth chakra... , she thought, ...dealing with survival, blocked by fear... She laid out the greatest fears of hers before her. She opened her eyes again and found herself in a place she had been several times already, facing a scene she had seen in a very similar manner once, never for it to be forgotten. She was sitting amongst the corpses of dozens, hundreds of people. At first she thought it to be a flashback of hers, then she realised that Anyang was amongst the dead ones. Her eyes widened and she wanted to retreat, but when she turned around, she found the corpses of Senqok, Kabura, and Skado, respectively. She wanted to run from all of it, but wherever she turned, she always found her dear ones slain, all of them - and in the middle of it not only her, but also the enemies they were truly fighting - Yi Ming and Dalit. She was afraid, but as she wanted to inch away from the to, she almost lost balance and was reminded that it was merely a vision. She closed her eyes and breathed slowly and deeply, picturing her vision over and over again, until she let go of it, of her fears. She wouldn't let her vision become reality, thus there was no need to be afraid, she decided.
The water chakra... , she spoke imaginarily, ...deals with pleasure and is blocked by guilt. She inhaled deeply. What do I blame myself for? she asked herself over and over again. Looking deeply into herself, she found what she needed to find. Once she opened her eyes, her mind had taken her back to the Eastern Air Temple. She was sitting amongst the dozens and dozens of dead Air Nomads, and to each face, she knew the name and the story. She recognised many of her friends, some of which she had truly loved, in what exact way she only later realised.
"I shouldn't have lived that day... I didn't deserve to live that day... " she mumbled unintentionally, a tear running down her face. "I didn't deserve it! Why did it have to be me!?"
She then realised why her mind had taken her back there. She blamed herself for their deaths, she thought someone else, all of the others should have lived instead of her. More tears ran down her face, and with no way back, she decided to accept it, for the past cannot be altered.
Fire chakra... willpower... shame blocks it. she recounted from what Anyang had once taught her. This time, she instantly knew the answer to the first question, What do I feel ashamed for? The first and only thing that came to her mind was the fact that she was fighting, and, even more importantly, killing. She had broken her sacred Air Nomad vows countless times, and of that she was deeply ashamed. What she had sworn to protect - her people, her culture - was what she herself had ultimately betrayed. Tears of sorrow and of regret followed as she resolutely spoke, "I'll never fight again!"
Then, however, she realised that it contradicted with what she had decided to unlock the first chakra - she had to fight to fulfil her duty. Accepting this fact after she had visualised her every kill was hard, almost impossible. However, as she herself had little to nothing to lose, Ranju accepted her duty to her friends, to her people and to the world.
The air chakra deals with... love. Blocked by what the loss of love causes, grief. The airbender started to remember her lessons with Anyang as well, before she thought of what caused her grief. Her previously calm expression quickly changed to one ravaged by pain and exactly what she intended to let go - grief. She opened her eyes once again, and once again, she found herself in the Eastern Air Temple's yard, sitting amongst the dead. This time, she broke out in tears. She could name each and every of the murdered ones, and could give at least a brief description of them. Then there were her friends, who, much to her horror, were disfigured the most of all. She couldn't help but sob, but then she realised - the love she had experienced for them wasn't gone forever. Her friends, Kabura, Noki, Shizon, Skado, Zoruka, Senqok and Anyang, had substituted those she had found amongst her own people as recipients of her love, even if she didn't always display it. She inhaled deeply as she managed to smile for the first time that day, genuinely happy to have friends like those she had.
The sound chakra is about truth, therefore blocked by lies - the kind we tell ourselves. Not only managed the Air Nomad to recall Anyang's lessons, but also did she now imagine the thoughts spoken in the General's voice. She lowered her head as she opened her eyes again, only to find herself in another of her darkest hour - strapped to a chair during her water torture. She covered her ears, but what she forgot was that it was a vision, and that she had never spoken what she had lied to herself, not that it would've mattered anyway. Indifference towards violence, love and whatnot she had decided not to give a damn about that day starkly contrasted all the choices she had made previously to unlock the chakras. She wouldn't let herself betray the Air Nomad philosophy to a further extent than she already had, and not exactly proud of her choice anyway, she decided to accept she would have to cope with everything that came with renouncing her previous decision. The truth could be ugly, but that was what she needed to accept as well. Accompanied by a sigh, she unlocked the fifth chakra.
The light chakra, next to last in the line, is all about insight, and therefore blocked by - not ignorance! - illusion. The memory of Anyang's lessons made Ranju smile again, especially the remark about ignorance. The greatest illusion of all is division, she further recalled. Her memory ended then, only for her to think of examples herself. Division, she thought, in every kind of way. Separation in terms of time and space are an illusion - if we look into ourselves deeply enough, we can find people we thought to be gone, but we also can find people we have yet to meet, battles we have fought and those we will fight. But... , she spun her thoughts even further, ...the greatest illusion of separation is the separation of the elements and their respective peoples. Only all four elements together make up the whole of the world, and they all have common roots, just as their people. In the end, we're all the same. Without even noticing it, Ranju unlocked the sixth chakra.
Last but not least, the final chakra... oh dear... the thought chakra... deals with... This time, Ranju had her difficulties remembering everything and attempted to laugh it off, to no avail. Then, however, she remembered. ...wibbly-wobbly cosmic energy stuff... and is blocked by earthly attachments. She opened her eyes, noticing that the moon had already passed its zenith, and spoke aloud, "Seriously? This can't be the right one!"
Nonetheless, she decided it was too late to back off now, and thus, she looked into herself again, with the intention of gathering what bound her to this earth. In an instance, her friends appeared before her, all of them, including those gone. "NO!" she shouted. "I WON'T LET THEM GO AGAIN! IF I LET THEM GO, THEY'LL BE GONE FOREVER! NO!"
Shocked, enraged and also confused, Ranju rose from her meditating position and jumped from the mast, landing soft on a bent air cushion, before she walked away to go to bed, only to then enter uneasy sleep.
"Psst... Hey, Senqok... Could I ask you a favour?" The whisperer was Noki. Rather than replying verbally, Senqok struggled to get out of his sleeping bag and walked over to Noki.
"So... what do you need?" asked the waterbender his blind earthbender friend, who rushed to the door and opened, waiting for him to get through. Without a second thought, Senqok rushed through. He led Noki to the bow, which was when she finally answered.
"Well... I need some help, actually... " Noki seemed a bit ashamed, but not the variant regarded 'awkward', she was just slightly genuinely ashamed. "I need your help with... getting over it, with coping... "
"I fully understand... " stated Senqok as Noki climbed on the bow's bulwark using the rigging. With an amazing sense of balance, Noki walked over the bulwark. Senqok lost himself in the sight that presented itself to him westwards, with the full moon in all its glory, already beginning to set, and him spotting a thin band of dark colours, which was non-reflecting. The coast of Whaletail Island, he presumed optimistically. He then was pulled out of his train of thoughts by Noki's voice.
"Senqok?" she spoke, stopping to walk around on the bulwark. She cleared her throat to gain his undivided attention. "So? What do we do?"
"Well, I've got no guarantee that this will work, but I'll try nonetheless... " stated Senqok, then continuing, "I'm not exactly an expert in this, and I haven't done this before... so... well, hugs with close friends work quite well, actually... You know, a shoulder to cry on, and letting your anger out and all... "
"I'm not going to cry," stated Noki resolute. It was this, her resolution about her showing potential weaknesses, that disappointed Senqok about her.
"Crying is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it can be a sign of strength, like when one is dealing with problems such as yours, head-on." He then poked Noki into the chest to emphasise what followed. "Like an earthbender such as you ought to."
Without a second thought, Noki leapt off the bulwark at Senqok, and started recalling the Battle of the Five Armies, that one scene in which her father, General Wei, died, in particular. Not surprisingly, she started crying in no time, and Senqok embraced her closely. She cried into his shoulder and would've let her anger out in a deadly way had enough earth ben around. She cried, while Senqok did his best to comfort her, running his fingers through her hair and delivering encouraging whispers. It was not easy for her to let go, but she remembered her father say once, referring to his already advanced age, Holding onto the past will bring you nothing but pain, fear, grief and anger. A time will come when I'll be gone, and when it does I don't want you to miss me, I don't want you to always think of that you can't spend any more time with me. No, I want you to appreciate the time we spent together, I want you to remember the happy times, not the fact that I'm gone. Her expression of utter sadness, of anger, pain and grief was taken over by a warm smile - like her father had once told her to, and she ceased crying sooner than either of them had anticipated, and Senqok released her from his grip, but she leapt at him, hugging him tightly as a thanks, before letting go of him again, rather involuntarily. Senqok, who the impact of Noki had knocked down, too was fast to rise, only to be surprised by the all too sudden appearance of fog.
"What is going on he- " wondered Senqok aloud, cut off by Noki shushing him.
"Listen closely... " she whispered, as, on top of the sudden appearance of fog, the sound of waves against a ship's hulk could be heard. "There's a second ship."
The two quickly shut the door behind them after they had stormed into the shared cabin, waking everyone sleeping inside.
"Get up! There's a ship nearing!" shouted Senqok, waving his arms around as to signall the others to hurry, before he realised there was no light in the cabin.
"Why the hurry? I mean, can't we get some more minutes?" mumbled Shizon before he turned around and muttered curses under his breath.
"Yeah, can't we- " The speaker, Ranju, had to yawn. " -just have our sleep?"
"I didn't have any the whole night! And if we get just some more minutes, we'll get to sleep forever." Senqok didn't lower his voice, nor did he calm down. Zoruka was the first to rise, and lit a fire so everyone but Noki could see something, and also to force the others to rise from their rest as well.
"Sleep forever? Sounds great to me." Shizon completely retreated into his sleeping bag so no light could reach him.
"We'll be dead, fool." This time, Zoruka spoke. She dragged Shizon out of his sleeping bag, and was about to approach Ranju, until she took notice that she, alike Kabura, was already on her feet, hurrying to arm herself. "Now come on, do you want to go back from where we broke you out?"
Shizon was instantly wide awake upon the mention of his imprisonment, and grasped his dual swords. However, that didn't mean he was satisfied with the provided information. "One question... Why does it automatically mean that we're going to die just because another ship is near?"
"Well, do you think the Earth Empire is blind enough not notice four- er, five of its most valuable prisoners attempting to flee the country?" Kabura loaded her crossbow and afterwards put a quiver on while explaining. "They noticed one of us almost cracked - you - and now think they can actually get information out of us, what do you think!?"
"But we're not in their waters, are we?" Shizon quickly inspected his swords' edges, deciding they could take at least one more fight.
"Oh, do you really think the bloody Empire gives a damn about other countries' territory and waters?" asked Kabura rhetorically as she readied herself to storm out and fight with both, her crossbow and her crude waterbending.
Shizon accepted the explanation and too readied himself for a charge, just as all his comrades, safe for Noki, did. The blind earthbender asked, "So, while you're having your fun outside, what shall I do?"
Ranju thought for a moment and was the first to answer. "You could try locating earth on the ship to counter the attackers."
Noki nodded, and extended her arms, which began tremble before she retracted them again. Then, she put them up, several brownish objects crashing through the thick wooden floor as to follow her arms' motion. Despite their shattered nature, everyone present still was able to recognise the objects.
"Noki, since when can you bend ceramics?" inquired Ranju, taken aback as Noki further shattered the fictile containers, and covered the cabin's floor with a layer of it, easily reaching a thickness of about ten centimetres.
"Well, since always!" replied the earthbender as she sent more and more pottery vessels from the ship's belly into the cabin, intending to use them as weapons. "Well, duh, you know, it isn't called 'earthenware' for nothing!" Her comrades only nodded, and noticing they hesitated to go outside, she then added, "Go! I'll hold the line here, should it be necessary!"
The door opened and all five of them stormed outside at once. The ship that had neared them was indeed attacking them, as four grappling hooks were shot from ballistae to pull their small junk nearer the attacking ship, which was about twice the size and had three iron-clad superstructures. The five of them quickly found themselves quite outnumbered and somewhat cornered, as twenty sailors, of which nation they couldn't determine, arrived quickly after one another. Unsheathing their swords, drawing their bows' strings, aiming their crossbows, and readying themselves to strike with their spears, halberds, guan daos and alike, the attackers surrounded the five defenders in the centre of the ship, that was, until Ranju leapt up, and sore upwards with her glider, forcing the bowmen and arbalists amongst the attackers to shoot, which made it possible for her companions to strike. Working together, Senqok and Kabura sent a wave aboard to knock the attackers over, before five more of them arrived. Quick, precise fire-jabs of Zoruka's to sever the ropes holding the two ships together were the answer so that no more could arrive. Ranju landed, and knocked the new arrivals as well as those of the first attackers who had already gotten up again over once again, before the remaining ones charged at her, which Senqok, Shizon and Kabura answered. Kabura's crossbow bolts nailed three attackers to the bulwark, while Shizon's and Senqok's quick sword swipes and slices quickly disarmed the other five ones that charged at Ranju, icicles sent by Senqok with the intention of killing them merely nailing them to the floor. Meanwhile, Zoruka struggled to fight four spearmen who truly had mastered their weapon, swinging them around as if they were some airbenders trying to keep themselves aloft. Zoruka's movements resembled more the ones of an airbender than of a firebender at that point, as she avoided and evaded far more than following the firebending principle of "offence is the best defence". Ranju, however, came to her rescue with a strong air swipe, one that knocked two of the spearmen against the wall, and thus sent them into unconsciousness, and blew the other two away, before Ranju herself had to deal with several attackers on her own, jumping over them with the help of both, her glider and the mast right before her, and created an air funnel to knock the attackers, a dozen in number, over, which was meant to give her companions time to deal with them, however, they were unable to do so. Both Ranju and Zoruka paused involuntarily as two of the attackers, one archer clad in the robes of an ordinary peasant, and a woman wielding a kind of dual swords dressed in official-looking robes, successfully fought Senqok, Shizon and Kabura at once, and even as Zoruka joined them, it changed little. Ranju, however, stood there, petrified, as yet another array of attackers arrived, jumping over to the companions' ship and using the rigging to get down safely. All of sudden, Ranju was grabbed by her collar, and two blades, the likes of which she had seen once already, were pressed against her throat by the woman who had made it possible for the tide to turn against them.
"Resistance is futile! I've got one of yours! Surrender and- " spoke the woman, who appeared to be shorter than even Noki. Had this not been the life-threatening hostage situation it was, Ranju was quite sure Shizon would've made fun of the woman.
"NEVER!" shouted Senqok, as he charged forward with his sword risen to strike the attacker, however she used Ranju as a living shield, but still employed her two swords for defence. "Wait... are those jaw blades?"
"They quite are... " The woman gritted her teeth as Senqok's sword was pushing her back, despite all the effort she made to stand her ground. Her two dao-sized jaw blades pushed against the steel of Senqok's jian, but Senqok mustered more strength and finally made the else rather agile woman topple over and fall on her back, making it possible for Ranju to escape, and creating enough diversion for the others to flee the scene just as well. They were quicker than they ever thought they could be to get beyond the door that they thought would save them. A crossbow bolt that had missed its target had punctured it, and by pushing it out, Shizon created a peephole.
"The woman seems to be their leader, they just called her 'captain' or something... maybe they're pirates in league with the Empire, off to collect the bounty for us... " the firebender theorised from what he could tell from looking through the tiny hole in the door's wood. "She's recovered... and heading our way." He turned around to face Noki. "Noki, I want you to hit her against the door so it closes, once she's through of course. As for the others - no light, no sound, not a sign we're here until the door's closed again. How's that sound?"
The others, safe for Noki, had already retreated to the wall around the door, and shushed him. Less than half a minute later, the door opened and the woman stepped through. She only saw Noki, whom she, as all too many, mistook for a blind and helpless little girl. She smiled as she approached her, that was, until a pot hit her in the stomach and threw her against the door, closing it and knocking her head against the door. Almost immediately, Zoruka and Shizon bent flames to hover above their palms, while Senqok positioned himself right before the woman. Most other people would've been knocked out, some even fatally injured, but this particular woman was rather tough. She was dizzy, yes, but that was all. Her hands had almost reached her jaw blades, before Senqok had risen her so their eyes were at the same height, and pressed his sword against her throat. He narrowed his eyes.
"Why do you attack us? We have nothing of value!" he demanded, then repeating it, increasing the pressure of his sword's edge just a little bit to emphasise his damnd for an answer. "WHY ATTACK US!?"
"You... all of you... are the value." the woman replied, meeting Senqok's demanding glare with a defiant one of her own. Upon the sound of her voice and the sight of her eyes, however, Senqok was rather shocked. Her blue eyes told him something the dual jaw blades should've already done.
"No... no way... It can't be... It just can't be!" he lowered his sword and staggered backwards, his expression now one of disbelief. Curious, the woman examined Senqok, before her eyes widened as well.
"There's no bloody way this can be true." she spoke resolutely, yet knowing otherwise. "Is it really you?"
"I don't know... " muttered Senqok as he moved closer to the woman, she mirroring the action. The two examined each other, before both started to first smile, and then laugh wholeheartedly as they threw their arms around each other, laughing tears. Those around eyed the event rather surprised as the two embraced each other firmly, Kabura's expression too featuring an ever so slight trace of envy and jealousy.
"Senqok... so good to see you again!" exclaimed the woman, as she pressed Senqok even closer, if possible.
"Luna... you're alive! And- please... you're choking me!" Senqok too laughed tears, relieved, before his expression briefly morphed into one resembling a fish on land, attempting to breathe. The woman, Luna, loosened her grip a bit, and so he resumed his genuinely happy expression.
"What do you mean- " The two finally let go of each other, now only standing in front of each other. Luna's expression too had changed, from a happy one to a worried and confused one. " -'you're alive'? What happened?"
Senqok's look darkened, until all joy was gone from it. "You know, first the blizzard you got lost in... you went missing in... and then... and then... "
No matter what, it was odd to see someone Senqok's age cry. The tears he shed were by far none of happiness, and so Kabura deemed it to be her duty to help him. She hurried to embrace him, whispering into his ear, "It's alright... you already opened up once, you already accepted the past. It's alright... if you don't want to- "
"No. I want to tell it myself." spoke Senqok resolutely through his tears, Kabura retreating back to her place. Senqok laid a hand on Luna's shoulder, and then stated, "Dad's dead... he died in the Battle of the Five Armies."
It now was Senqok who had to be shoulder to cry on as he embraced Luna once more, so she could cry it out. After about half an hour, Luna had ceased crying, and could only utter, "Thanks, Senqok... "
He smiled warmly despite the tears he had shed, and so did she, in the moment they parted once again. They turned to the companions, and Senqok found it was time to introduce Luna to the others.
"People, this is Luna, my sister, three years older than me and better than me at pretty much everything except- " he began, cut off by Luna herself.
"You know, I only am a nonbender so you can feel better about yourself." she joked, allowing her brother to continue afterwards.
"-yeah, waterbending. Anyway, Luna, these are Noki of Omashu, daugther of General Wei, the founder of the Liberation Alliance, Kabura of the Northern Water Tribe, well, yeah... Ranju of the Eastern Air Temple, pupil to General Anyang and the only airbender in the Alliance besides him, Shizon of the Fire Nation, uh, hm... and of course Crown Princess Zoruka of the Fire Nation, daughter of the late Fire Lord Tokai and heir to the Fire Nation." he explained, lacking truly relevant information he could summarise, much to the two's dislike. Luna seemed to just have realised something upon the mention of all the names.
"So you are the people Anyang pleaded me to fetch! Of course, it all makes sense now!" she exclaimed, more talking to herself than to anyone else. Senqok and pretty much everyone else raised their eyebrows.
"Anyang?" asked Kabura rather confused, voicing the question that everyone had on their minds.
"Yeah, he's one of my Generals on Whaletail Island now, and even though I'm his superior as the Lord Protector- " started Luna her explanation, before being cut off by Noki.
"Wait. Could you please repeat what you said about... " Noki thought about what Luna had just uttered, and then decided, " ...everything, basically?"
Luna rolled her eyes before making an offer, "Come to Whaletail Island, and I'll explain everything on the way and there. Or ask Anyang once we're there, he knows most of it, too."
The five seeing ones of the companions glanced around, their glances wandering from one to the other, before all finally stared at Noki, who seemed to share their decision. "It's where we were going anyway... "
Luna nodded with a warm smile on her lips before opening the door again, ordering her sailors, "Set up the chambers for our... resistive guest. We're going home!"
Notes and Trivia
- Zoruka's proposal of escaping the storm was heavily influenced by the Gaang's way to dodge several rocks in Bato of the Water Tribe.
- Guess what time it is! The Beach time! Time for characters' background stories and character development! ...or not, that depends...
- The phrase-thingy wibbly-wobbly was taken from Doctor Who. I think.
- This chapter was meant to be something to fill the space between the departure from the mainland and the arrival on Whaletail Island, plus adding character development. Now look at it.
- Luna is, as most of you might or might not know, the Latin term for "moon".
For the collective works of the author, go here.