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Chapter 17: Downtime
Zuko welcomed Team Avatar and the Kyoshi Warriors into the main hall of the Fire Nation Royal Palace. "Make yourselves at home. Your quarters are being prepared as we speak, and we have a couple of hours before the real work begins."
"So..." Sokka began, "What is there to do around here?"
Zuko smiled. "Well, you could explore the city, the palace, or for any aspiring sword masters, Piandao might be willing to give you a free lesson."
Sokka's eyes widened as Piandao stepped into view. "Hello, Sokka."
The young man bowed. "Master Piandao."
Zuko scanned the rest of the group. "You have free rein of the Palace and the city; enjoy yourselves while I attend to a few matters."
Piandao sat down cross-legged as each individual went their own way. Sokka approached with an eagerness about his step. "Master, I wish to ask you for further instruction. My training is not yet complete."
The swordmaster smiled. "Very well." He stood slowly, but as the old master reached full height, he whipped his sword out and spun around. "Let us begin."
Yun, Ty Lee, and the other Kyoshi Warriors gathered around to watch. Sokka readied himself but was still driven back by the onslaught of blows. Piandao moved forward, thrusting horizontally, while Sokka attempted to execute attacks of his own. As the master drove his student back towards one of the decorative trees, Sokka came up with a plan.
Piandao lunged forward as Sokka turned; the young warrior barely made it high enough as the blade penetrated the tree. He had run up the plant and back flipped off, landing behind his opponent. Piandao dodged Sokka's forward stroke while trying to dislodge his blade. He was able to rip it out, taking a large chunk from the middle, just as Sokka swung above his head. He ducked and crescent kicked Sokka's sword to the ground and held it there with his foot.
Sokka, realizing his position, did the sensible thing: he ran.
Aang held Katara as they viewed the city from a balcony connected to both of their rooms. "It's such a beautiful city." Katara whispered, stunned at its magnificence.
"Yeah..." Aang replied, staring at Katara, "You are."
Katara grinned. "What was that?"
Aang rubbed the back of his head, blushing, as he tried to cover. "I—er...I meant..." He stopped speaking as Katara leaned in to kiss him."It's okay; I thought it was sweet."
"Heh, heh..." Aang expelled a breath. I'm such a klutz. Desperate for another topic, he began to speak. "The world has changed so much. It almost seems like they don't need me anymore."
Katara raised an eyebrow. "Why is that?"
Aang released his hold on her. "It's just... with the Fire Nation no longer a threat, with the War over, what is my purpose?"
She looked down at the courtyard and shrugged. "That's for you to figure out. But there's nothing wrong with peace; there's nothing wrong with settling down." She turned and smiled.
He felt the heat rising to his cheeks again. "Maybe not. Thanks, Katara."
There was a knock on Aang's door. "Who's there?"
"Sir, Fire Lord Zuko wishes to see you."
"I'll be right there!" He turned to Katara. "You want to come?"
She put her hands on his shoulders. "Why wouldn't I?" She pulled him into her embrace. "Let's go, Mr. Big-Shot Avatar."
Sokka searched for something, anything that would get him out of his current predicament. He then remembered his boomerang. He still had it on his back! He pulled it out and whipped it toward Piandao, immediately sprinting toward him after throwing it. The older man stepped off of his sword in order to dodge the projectile, and Sokka dove, grabbing his sword and righting himself.
Piandao smirked. "That's the way to go! Distract your opponent to regain ground, time, or in some cases, your weapon."
Sokka sent three swift strokes toward his master, but they were only a ploy to enable Sokka to get closer and push Piandao's blade with his own. As his opponent pushed down, instead of going on his back, Sokka slid between Piandao's legs and swiped them out from under him. That couldn't keep the swordmaster down for more than a few seconds, though, and Piandao stood, waiting for Sokka's next move.
"Excellent! Keep me off balance."
Sokka's next few blows alternated between high and low strikes, but no matter what, Piandao could not be moved from his stance.
"Though the art of the sword is fluid, there are times when you must stand your ground!"
Piandao ended the fight by slapping Sokka's sword hand with the flat of his blade, sending the weapon flying. He then sheathed his own sword. "Excellently done, Sokka! You have improved immensely. I am proud to have you as a student."
Sokka bowed. "And I am honored to have you as my master."
Piandao looked over at Yun, and something of an epiphany flashed briefly in his eyes. "I see the blade on your back, but can you use it?"
Yun glanced at Sokka, who gave him thumbs-up. "Well, I don't have any formal training; I mainly use it as a last resort or to augment my bending." He removed it from his sheath and handed it to Piandao.
The blademaster stroked his goatee. "Interesting, it seems that your sword is made entirely of earth."
Yun nodded. "I made it myself using Earthbending. Over time I was able to compress different sections of it to make it harder than most metal."
Piandao smiled. "Excellent craftsmanship from something unconventional, let us see if it works." He drew his blade and waited.
Yun closed his eyes. I hope I know what I've gotten myself into.
Aang and Katara stepped into the throne room, and Zuko came off of his throne. "You wanted to see me, Zuko?"
"Yeah, I thought, well, since your Firebending still needed some work, that you wouldn't mind some extra training."
Aang gave a half-smile. "Yeah... as fun as that sounds, I'm not exactly sure I want to do anymore Hot Squats."
Zuko chuckled. "That's not up to me. I won't be teaching you."
Aang shook his head. "What?!" He and Katara both asked in unison as Zuko stepped out of the room.
"If the Avatar would have me, I would be honored to teach him." Jeong Jeong stood.
"Master Jeong Jeong!" Aang beamed. "You're my teacher?"
The old Firebender nodded. "If you would have me."
"Of course! I would be honored to learn from you." Aang's face fell. "That is... if you'll forgive me for what happened the last time."
"Avatar Aang, you have shown maturity far beyond your years in the way you chose to defeat Ozai. You are no longer the child that came to me; you are no longer reckless. You are forgiven."
Aang grinned. "Then let's get started!"
Yun couldn't have anticipated the sheer amount of strength and skill coming from someone who looked as old as the man in front of him did. But it was there; Piandao struck with precision and power. Yun Zhen was constantly retreating; he had to think of something. Though he could feel Piandao's steps, his motions were so fluid that he found it incredibly difficult to discern anything from them. His Seismic Sense was enough to anticipate only the generality of his attacks.
The master's attack string ended as Piandao gave Yun a hard shove. As he slid backward, the young Earthbender sunk his feet into the ground, and when he brought them back up, they were covered in earth. He used that in conjunction with the earth under him to slide along the ground, attacking and then immediately moving out of range.
"Yes, use your bending in tandem with your sword, and few will be able to touch you!" Piandao flipped his sword behind his back and waited.
As Yun slid toward him for another pass, he dug his hand into the ground and launched sand at his opponent's face, but Piandao was ready. As the sand came toward him, he spun his sword in an arc, dispersing the attack. He then whipped his sword down and tripped Yun as he slid by.
Yun sat up, rubbing his head, as his opponent sheathed his sword. "You too have the makings of a great swordmaster; you both simply need to keep practicing." He glanced at Yun. "Although it is peculiar that a Fire Nation citizen would also be an Earthbender."
Yun's eyes widened, and Sokka's jaw dropped as he pointed to Yun and back at Piandao. Yun stood. "That's not exactly common knowledge. I'd like to keep it that way."
"Of course, I meant no harm; I am simply curious as to how my younger brother managed to get a girl to marry him."
Yun's heart stopped as Ty Lee shot up and cried out. "What?!"
The guards opened the door to Azula's cell. "You can be assured that no one has been here, Fire Lord Zuko."
"Good." He stepped into the pristine white room. "Hello, Azula."
She turned, smiling. "Oh, hello ZuZu, how is his Fire Lordness these days?"
"Stop with the games, Azula. What are you planning?""The weather has been oh so nice; I wish you could have been here yesterday."
Zuko was losing patience. "What are you up to, Azula? Tell me!"
She skipped from one end of her cell to the other. "My day has been fine; thanks for asking."
Fire jumped to Zuko's hands. "Enough games! I'm about do—!"
"Mother visited the other day."
Zuko's eyes widened, and the flames died as quickly as they'd come. "What?"
"She visited me, oh, about two days ago."
"You're lying. No one has been here."
"Not true." Azula face sported an evil grin. "She came to see me and not you. You're just jealous."
Zuko turned and stormed out of the cell. "You are absolutely certain that no one has been here but me?"
The guard stood at attention. "Yes, Fire Lord."
As he walked down the hall, he couldn't help thinking it. Azula always lies. Azula always lies.
- Yes, I did actually kill a tree in this chapter...
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