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|Chapter 4: Taku|
Book 2: Fire
Previously on 'The Kyoshi Chronicles'
Momzen and Jin Jin joined Kyoshi in Lake Laogai.
The Kyds have been travelling north to the Fire State, causing memories of the past to surface in Momzen's mind.
Book 2: Fire, Chapter 4: Taku
|"It's your duty to keep her safe."|
|— Fera to Momzen|
Gisgo rolled his shoulders back, slowly stretching the stiff muscles. He had slept over a root all night and it had left his back sore – not that he hadn't had his fair share of uncomfortable sleeps. They all did, every night. But the sleep that had just passed was particularly awkward, and so took Gisgo a few more moments of eye-rubbing and lip-licking to fully wake up.
The others, too, were doing the regular morning routine; rubbing their watering eyes of its night-time crust, unfurling their fingers as a warm tingle trickles down their spine.
Suddenly a boom shook the trees; halting everyone's awakening. Momzen sprang upright from his sleeping position and squealed, launching Tori from his chest. Kyoshi wobbled on her knees, eyes snapping away their glossy film of tiredness, and raised a hunk of earth from the moist ground. Bako had managed to pry one sword from its sheath, and brandished it in both hands toward the nearest bush, Eya looking nervously up at the sky for any more booms that were to come.
There was a pause, as everyone anticipated the next boom. Then Momzen spoke from his sleeping bag, poking his two index fingers together.
"So...that wasn't anyone's stomach?"
Gisgo huffed out an unamused laugh.
"If it were my stomach the whole forest would be cleared," the archer replied, having to focus on the threat at hand and not on his impeding desire for moonpeach pies.
"Guys!" Kyoshi screamed as another boom vibrated through the leaf litter underfoot. "It came from over there!"
Kyoshi, ears alert on the direction from whence the sound came, finished zipping up her dress then clambered up a dirt hill. Morning sun blanketed her eyes, but nevertheless she cocked herself to her feet and once at the crest of the hill sprinted through the woods.
"Don't run to the sound, Kyoshi! Why is it that that's her first idea?" Bako shouted out to the Avatar, chasing after her, kicking up brown leaves in his wake.
Both Eya and Momzen sprawled over to Jin Jin, loading their supplies onto the saddle while Gisgo packed away the bedding. Another rumble thundered the morning, then another, and more.
"Don't worry, we'll just pack everything!" Gisgo shouted sarcastically over the deafening trembles. "And what happened to staying together?"
Once Jin Jin was saddled and loaded the shirshu took off with the three of them on her. Quickly they whizzed past Bako and finally skidded to a stop at Kyoshi.
Kneeling behind a blanket of droopy branches Kyoshi peered through the cracks. Behind the veil she could make out a crowd; the sounds of angry men and their cries of defeat crumbled under the raucous clamour of weapons, earth and crackling fire.
"We're here," Kyoshi whispered, her lips particles apart, eyes focused on the tumbling blur of soldiers.
"What's going on?" Bako had to say loudly, looking confused at his friends.
Kyoshi looked back at him, then at all of them.
"We're in the Fire State."
Coming into a clearing Astrid stopped. A large pile of ashes and metal filled the area and a man in a golden robe was kneeling on the grass and sobbing.
"What's wrong with him?" Naote muttered, unimpressed at the man's high-pitched, pathetic whines.
Astrid thought about it momentarily then walked over to the man.
"You there," she began. "What happened?"
Huan turned around, cheeks streaked with tears, and looked up at the girl. Her face was pale and jaw chiselled strong, and her blood-red clothing intimidating.
"I, nothing," he replied. "Just dropped a torch last night, set the whole thing on fire."
Astrid saw right through his petty lie. Swiftly she grabbed a handful of his collar and raised him up to her face.
"Is that right? I'm an Earth State official, so do you mind telling what really happened here?"
"It was the Avatar," Huan shrieked immediately in a bid to protect his life. "She came here with a firebender to steal my shirshu!"
Mitinari laughed to himself, broad smile hidden under his brow. Naote smiled too. Finally they were getting somewhere. General Hao Lang had lost Kyoshi at sea, but now it seemed like they were close.
"Which way!" Astrid yelled, throwing Huan to the floor.
"North! I'm sure of it! The Fire State border is just a day's walk away from here!" the circus master cried, holding his hands up in front of his face.
"Thank you," Astrid replied bluntly before turning to her two accomplices. "Let's hurry."
Astrid and Mitinari began walking past the ashes, leaving Huan cowering on the ground. Naote, however, paused. This man had just helped them, a lot. His aid could not go by unrewarded. From inside of her shoal Naote procured a small money bag. From it she took three gold pieces.
"Here," she said, dropping the pieces down at Huan. "It's not much, but I want to thank you for helping us."
Huan looked down at the pieces, offended, then back up at the girl.
With a wry frown on his chin he hissed, "Little bitch."
Suddenly Naote squatted down, jabbed two fingers at his shoulder then one in his side, causing the man to fall limply onto his side.
"Fine," she shrugged, picking up the gold pieces. "Go without it. I don't care if you live or you rot."
And with that the girl got up, kicked some ashes into Huan's eyes and stormed off.
"Kyoshi, wait for a second," Bako insisted from the back of the group. "We need a plan."
"The plan's to get to the Fire State," the Avatar replied almost instantly.
Heart beating at a hummingbird pace Kyoshi could feel herself lose control of her muscles. They were so close. In a single sprint they could be officially out of the Earth State – possibly forever. The thought was so tantalising to her. It'd mean she could leave behind all the mistakes she had made; trusting Nero, trusting Pau, leaving Bako, leaving her father. Across that border she could find a fresh start and really start taking the proper steps to becoming the Avatar she was supposed to be at Omashu.
"We can make it if we're quick," she added, eyes fixed on the soldiers beyond the leaves.
"Kyoshi, no," Momzen interjected.
As much as he too would love to be in the Fire State, his home state, they could not afford to run blindly into this obstacle.
"As soon as you set foot onto that battlefield you'll be noticed right away. There are Earth State soldiers everywhere."
"Fire State too!" Kyoshi snapped back to her friends behind her. "If they spot us they'll protect us, they want me on their side."
"She's got you guys there," Gisgo remarked, shrugging.
"It's too risky, we're still in Earth State territory," Bako hissed, trying not to shout too loud in case they were to be uncovered. "We need some sort of plan. Something that doesn't just involve running out towards the enemy!"
Eya, lips curled on each other in thought, opened her small mouth to speak.
"What about a distraction?" she posed, eyebrows raised in doubt.
"We don't want to split each other up," Kyoshi replied immediately.
Eya nodded, now was not the time to separate. Slowly a smile spread on Bako's face, his green eyes lighting up with an idea.
"I know," he started, leaning over at Momzen. "Momzen, head further west and light up a fire. The Earth State will think there are Fire State troops hidden in the forest behind them and they'll come in. This will give us at least some room to make a dash for it. Kyoshi, you're staying on Jin Jin the entire time, she isn't going to stop until she's got you across the border-"
"-Momzen and I will trail behind. Keep each other in sight at all times."
"So I'll go now?" Momzen asked Bako, their apparent leader of the operation.
"Sooner rather than later."
The two nodded at each other, Eya propping Tori onto Jin Jin's saddle before climbing up herself.
"We'll wait for you here while you light the fire." "The fallen leaves will burn easily," Gisgo added as Momzen began his run west. "Make a pile of them to start you off!"
"So this is really happening?" Kyoshi spluttered, butterflies in her stomach, goosebumps chilling her arms.
Suddenly it all felt surreal, everything became icy and slow. Bako cast her a smile, a dimple forming in his red cheeks, his eyes shining brightly into hers.
"We said we'd get you there, didn't we?"
Kyoshi smiled back, blushing, and then clambered onto Jin Jin, snapping back into focus. These next few seconds were going to be crucial. She could not zone out.
Momzen looked back behind him. His friends were but specks against the browned leaves and grey, lichened trunks. He could see Bako wave at him, the others waiting atop Jin Jin. His heart was going a thousand miles a second in his empty stomach, his fingertips cold in the morning air. Running his hands along the ground he pushed up a pile of leaves against a tree. The leaves were crunchy and moist in parts – but they would burn fine. Once the pile was almost as big as him he began collecting thin twigs, placing them over leaves like a tepee, before putting larger ones on top. He did this for two more trees until he had a line of them. Ahead of him were Earth State soldiers, he could just make them out. With a shadowed frown Momzen opened his fists and sprayed the tepees with fire. Black, acrid smoke poured upwards and immediately the branches caught alight. With a few more blasts Momzen set the trees ablaze, cursing under his breath hoping that the plan would work. Suddenly shouts came from the other side of the forest, from the soldiers. They must have noticed.
"Okay!" Momzen shouted to himself, averting his eyes from the fire. "Okay, go! Go!"
He waved at Bako as he sprinted over to him.
"Wait for him to get here," Bako ordered, holding Jin Jin's reins.
"We need to go now!" Gisgo shouted. "It won't take them long to realise it's just a distraction!"
"We're waiting!" Bako snapped.
"Bako!" Kyoshi cried, worried.
The seconds were ticking by; Momzen was getting larger as he neared. His legs hammered the ground, knees chugging at an immense pace, lungs stinging.
"Go! Now!" he screamed once he was close enough.
"Go!" Bako replied, slapping Jin Jin on the side.
Exiting into the clearing the sun blasted onto them, Bako unsheathing his swords. Suddenly the pace had slowed, and all the group could hear were their own heartbeats. In slow motion Jin Jin's powerful legs tore up the grass as she bound past the soldiers. On her Kyoshi circled her arms around her shoulders, rocks and debris swooping past upon instruction and knocking back the oncoming soldiers. Eya punched out streams of turbulent air while Gisgo quickly loaded arrow upon arrow, firing them into the hearts of his enemies. Behind the shirshu Bako ducked from a punch then slashed, spinning back up to knock a man's head in with his handle. Momzen crossed his arms then swooped down. From his motion a large x-shaped mass of fire roared across the grass in front of him.
A part of the forest was now alight, the tips of the trees exuding smoke and embers. It shone in Momzen's eyes, his body hot and alive. Tears brimmed but as he turned backwards to defend himself with a fiery kick he sucked them up.
Fire State soldiers were nearing slowly. They cried out at the children, brandishing their weapons as a welcome. Kyoshi cried out too, gravelly and broken, tears almost streaming down her cheeks. She held a fist in the air and continued to scream, Eya's airbending attacks sending her hair billowing in matters. They were here, they had made it.
"The Avatar!" the Fire State roared, enveloping the group to protect them.
"The Avatar!" Kyoshi yelled in reply, looking back over her shoulder.
They were protecting her. They loved her. Her break across the border seemed to be a blow to the Earth State. They were retreating west, the fire igniting the hearts of the Fire State men. Kyoshi looked down at Bako as they started to get ushered away from the battlefield. The two smiled at each other before concentrating their gaze ahead.
"Avatar Kyoshi," a soldier began, walking beside Jin Jin with his golden armour shining in the firelight of the burning forest. "It's an honour, truly an honour."
Kyoshi nodded down at the man, chest out, heart pumping heavy blood.
"Believe me, sir," she began politely. "Finally being in the Fire State, the honour is all mine."
Away from the frontline the group was escorted over the hill to a tent. The red cloth was embroidered with black stitching, a large golden dragon sewed upon a crest at the doorway. Jin Jin was saddled and Kyoshi and her friends were asked to enter, Tori perching herself on the Avatar's shoulder, her sharp claws digging in through the dress.
Inside sat a man; muscular and tall, strong and handsome. His dark beard was short and contained a few auburn hairs and his black-brown hair curled across his gritty forehead in a sweaty quiff. His face was scarred and scathed, yet his eyes burned bright brown and his jawline, jagged, gave him a powerful air. His armour was leather-bound and the same dragon insignia was smelted with crimson onto his silver chest-plate. Before him was a map covered with wooden dragon figures and green Earth State insignias – a green circle with a square cut out. He looked up from the map, thick eyebrow cocked, and pursed a curious grin.
"The Avatar," he said, perhaps to himself. "And her friends."
The man got up from his chair and practically leapt over to Kyoshi, shaking her hand with his thick, calloused one.
"If I knew you'd be heading over I would've helped."
"Please," Kyoshi smiled in return. "Your men protected us once we came over. It was more than enough."
"A humble Avatar, I see," the man grinned, taking a goblet of wine from his desk and swigging a gulp. "But you can never have too many allies, right?"
Kyoshi paused, unsure whether to continue with the formalities.
"Well...Yeah, it would have been nice. But we had no other option. You've got to take the risk sometimes."
The man laughed, impressed by the girls gusto.
"Well you don't have to worry about taking risks any longer. You're in the Fire State now, under the safe hands of Lord Hozon, second to his name and Keeper of the East."
Momzen's eyes broadened from the name, the blood rushing from his face.
"Y-you're Lord Hozon?" he stammered, barely keeping a straight face.
"The one and only," Hozon replied with a proud grin. "And you are, my friend?"
"Momzen," the boy coughed. "My parents gave some of your men shelter at their home back when the State War had just started."
Lord Hozon pondered on the memory, recalling a story his men had told him.
"Is that so? Well then, my thanks go to you for that night. Your family was of great aid to us."
Momzen blushed before being overtaken by Kyoshi.
"Excuse me, Lord Hozon, sir," began Kyoshi, Tori purring from Hozon scratching her under the beak. "But about my firebending training. When would be a good time for us to begin?"
Kyoshi wasn't too sure how to go about it and figured being straightforward, perhaps a bit abrupt, was the best option. In response Hozon shook his head then chugged the rest of the goblet.
"Sorry, Avatar. But I won't be training you. There's too much going on here at the border and it's unsafe for you to stay here," the Lord replied, shrugging as he peeked out of the tent at the battlefield. "I'll have a ship arranged to take you to the Capitol tomorrow morning. Right now we'll escort you to our basecamp in Taku."
Again Momzen's ears pricked – this time, though, it brought back some pain.
"Did you say Taku?" the boy repeated anxiously, eyes flitting up at Hozon.
"Yes," replied Hozon, sensing something raw coming from the boy before him. "Is that a problem?"
Momzen's eyes snapped back to the floor as old memories started flooding back into his head. Slowly taking a slither of a breath Momzen gave his answer, meek and untrue.
Hozon nodded then smiled briskly at the group.
"Then we shall head out as soon as possible!"
With everyone going off to prepare for the departure Momzen took to an ordained couch. Hot sweats had begun at his temples and stung somehow like ice.
"Taku," he whispered to himself, feeling the word slip limply from his lips.
Just the mention of Taku had sent him into worry, into discomfort. It was odd. He couldn't pinpoint what he was feeling but Taku meant a lot to him.
It was his hometown.
And after everything he had been through, what could possibly be waiting for him there? The idea of finding his parents was such a fantasy it almost seemed true. And maybe he'd discover his sister there as well. He tried concentrating on that feeling, on the hope. But for the most part of him, the rational part, he was sure the Taku would have nothing for him but some saddening memories – things he thought were all but forgotten, that were locked away so that he could try to move on.
A man sucked on his cigarette, resting his legs on a seat while his back remained propped up on the bedpost. Moonlight spilled in through a cracked window and the smoke that billowed from his exhale smelt sweetly of tobacco and herbs. Another man was leaning against a cupboard. His chin was scruffy and his singlet was dank with sweat and grime. His arms were scrawny, thinned down to reveal the lean muscle. ''
To Momzen, though, the two soldiers appeared as gods. His wide orange eyes beamed up at them and his cheeky smile broadened across his freshly bathed face. ''
"So you're the protector of this house?" the soldier on the bed asked – flat, tired eyes looking down at the excited kid. ''
"Me and Dad are," the boy replied confidently, puffing out his little chest. ''
The two soldiers laughed, the kid sure was adorable. ''
"Show us your best stance, then," the other added, piping up from his lean. ''
Momzen eyed off the two men. He wanted to impress them, they were so cool. Across a few seconds the child skimmed over everything he knew about stances, shouted, then jumped into an arbitrary position. His fists were down at his hips and a quivering grin had snapped cheek to cheek. Again the soldiers laughed.''
"Pretty good!" the one on the bed applauded, taking another puff of his cigarette. ''
"Yeah," the standing one continued, crouching down to Momzen's level. "But you've got some improvements to do."''
The young Momzen remained statuesque as the soldiers warm hands gently grabbed his wrists. Only his eyes moved, watching adoringly as the soldier changed his form.''
"What you did is an earthbending stance, keeping your arms locked by your hips," the soldier explained while the other puffed and puffed; the herbal smell now strong in Momzen's nose. "You're a firebender. You got to have your hands free. Try this."''
The soldier moved both hands up to shoulder level, and pulled one out a bit in front of the other. ''
"There. Everything else was
perfect," he finished.
"I know," Momzen grinned, a mischievous glint in his eye. ''
"Look at him!" the one on the bed
cackled. "He's a warrior and a genius!"
The soldiers then proceeded to laugh, amused at the kid's fervour.''
"Yah!" Momzen shouted, snapping into the newly-learnt position. "Yah! Hi-yah!"''
The standing soldier turned his attention to the door, taking the cigarette from his friend. ''
"Hey, kid, your mother's calling for you. Go on."''
Momzen blushed then made for the door. ''
"And keep up the good work!"
Exiting into the living room Momzen ogled at his mother.''
"You're embarrassing me in front of the soldiers," he hissed in whisper, hoping the men in his room wouldn't hear him scald his mother. ''
"Am I now?" his mother, Fera, laughed. "You've got toys all over the floor and I need you to pick them up."''
Pausing Momzen caved in; he could never disrespect his mother.''
"But dessert first, Momzen!"
Eyes snapping wide and laughing giddily Momzen shuddered to the dinner table, a large bowl of cream and pudding steaming in a bowl. ''
"Now what do you say?" Fera assured, squeezing her son's cheeks to make his lips puff out like a fish. ''
"Thank you, mum," he mumbled through his fishy lips before digging into the creamy cake. ''
"Torro, pudding's ready!" Fera shouted to her husband. ''
From a room down the hall Torro came, carefully closing the door as silently as possible. ''
"Sorry," he smiled. "Suina finally got to sleep. I didn't want to wake her." ''
Torro kissed his wife on the cheek then sat down at his chair and began at his bowl. Momzen, faced smeared with cream, looked up at his father. ''
"The soldiers taught me how to stand properly."''
Torro and Fera looked at each other and laughed. ''
"You didn't know how to stand before?" Torro humoured. ''
"Nup," the boy replied through slurps, scooping the final crumbs into his mouth. "At least not very well. They can teach me more when I go to bed."''
"Momzen you'll be sleeping in Suina's room," Fera said, taking a mouthful of pudding.''
The boy's eyebrows cocked into shock and disappointment. ''
"What? Why can't I sleep with the soldiers?"''
"They need your bed to sleep in," Fera explained softly to keep the boy from growing more upset. "There's no room in there for a big boy like you."''
"I've set up a mattress on the ground in Suina's room, think of it as a sleepover with your sister," Torro added, smiling a stubbly grin.''
"Suina's a baby, she's no fun!" Momzen argued. ''
Fera's eyes twinkled playfully as she leant in to her son. ''
"Well then, Momzen. Think of it like this. You're Suina's guard tonight; it's your duty to keep her safe. Think you can be her little warrior?"''
Momzen paused, thinking about it briefly, and then corrected his mother. ''
Fera nodded at her mistake.
"Yes. Her big warrior." ''
Momzen blinked, shaking himself out from his head and back into the tent. He never thought he'd be scared of seeing his hometown again.
On his ostrich-horse Hozon led a group over crest. The grass was woven through and through with different species; red and browns, green and yellows all knitted together with small pebbles and clay. Beyond the crest sat the town of Taku. Glorious badgermoles were carved into stone at the town's entrance, and the town itself was carved into the slope of a mountain. White, terracotta houses neatly lined the slopes, yet the doors and windows were left open. Drafts and rain had passed through the empty homes, seeking out to decay the foundations – the entire town was deserted.
It was exactly what Momzen's had thought, yet a thousand times worse to see.
"What happened?" Momzen muttered, shocked eyes sinking into their cold sockets, warm tears forming at the back for nobody to see.
Hozon frowned; the story of Taku was not a very nice one.
"Once the battle started at the border the town became unsafe for the people. Many abandoned their homes, while the more passionate lost their lives. The only people that remain are a family up on the mountain," the lord explained, hefty body rocking underneath his steed. "The wife is an herbalist and offers my men some good medicine. Now all this place is good for is shelter for my soldiers. We recuperate here, where it's far enough away from the border and any harm."
"It's a beautiful city," Eya marvelled, eyes bright upon seeing the stone buildings carved right from the mountain-face.
"Yes," Hozon nodded solemnly. "It's a shame it's all gone."
The world greying in his eyes Momzen swallowed, wiping his eyes in order to push back the tears. Once Hozon had given them an abandoned building to sleep in for the night Momzen shuffled off from Jin Jin and onto the familiar ground. He felt connected to the town, as if he was a tree and his roots had bored themselves deep into Taku's soil and cemented themselves there. A chord was strung between him and the city, and thread by thread it was unravelling. His feet began to walk.
"Where are you going?" asked Kyoshi as she unsaddled the shirshu.
"For a walk," Momzen mumbled in reply, voice almost about to break from emotion.
"Well don't get lost!" Kyoshi called out. "We're leaving in the morning, remember?"
Momzen nodded, tearing face unseen from anybody else's view, before taking off down a recognizable street. Days and hours were flooding back to him, haunting him with regrets and mistakes, guilt and grief. It was almost too much to handle.
A spout of fire popped from Momzen's fist, followed by another.''
"Yes!" the twelve-year-old shouted, watching gleefully as his fire fizzled up into the clear sky.''
The sun had started to set over Taku, shimmering almost violet above the sea. The smell of a meaty casserole melted through the air, while the sweet humdrum of crickets clicked in the garden.''
"No fair!" Suina grumbled, shoving her brother but to no avail. "You've got six years ahead of me!"''
"Hey!" Momzen replied, shoving his sister back. "Don't! It's not my fault I'm the best bender in town."''
"No you're not!" Suina cackled. "Mum and dad are, idiot!"''
"Fine," Momzen laughed goofily, poking his tongue out at his little sister. "Third best."''
The boy began his triumphant march inside, his sister following angrily – yet still adoringly – behind. ''
"Then I'm fourth best," Suina added, eyes fixed on Momzen's feet in a bid to follow his footprints. ''
"Whatever," Momzen shrugged.
At the dinner table two other couples sat with Fera and Torro. They were neighbours or family-friends – Momzen had seen them around before. ''
"Oh," Fera blurted upon realising the children were inside. "Kids, adults are talking."''
"What about dinner?" a toothy Momzen asked. ''
"I've got bowls in your room for the two of you," she replied immediately. "Could you guys eat in there for tonight?"''
"Cool!" Suina gawked, stomping off to Momzen's room. ''
"Thank you, sweeties."
Momzen turned for the hallway but then, with a cheeky plan formulating in his big head, the child turned around and planted his back on the wall. Around the corner were the adults, and from there he'd be able to hear everything without being spotted. ''
"Momzen, what are you do-"
"-Shh!" Momzen hissed at his sister, signalling for her to join him in the stealth mission. ''
Nervously Suina tiptoed next to him and flattened her back against the wall. ''
"What are we doing?" she whispered, cheek beginning to fluster. ''
"Just listen," Momzen hushed, turning his head to the corner, ear pricking to the sound of his parents' voices. ''
"This isn't working," one man said. "The Earth State soldiers are getting cocky."''
"The agreement's been working this long," Fera debated. "There are going to be some hiccups, but we've got to stick by it."''
"They'll have the entire town if we don't do something!" came the excited voice of a woman. "We can't let them abuse the power we gave them."''
"They shouldn't have any power!" another man grumbled. "They signed on only for administrative rights."''
"It has been kind of a pain," Torro muttered. "Harvests have been low since they arrived."''
"Then let's do something about it!" the first woman said. "Our lords are across the sea doing nothing; we've got to take action if we want to survive!"''
"Fera, you're really going to sit back while our children are left with almost nothing?"''
There was a pause. Both Momzen and Suina held their breaths, knees shaking under the threat of being caught. ''
"I, I," Fera managed, serious apprehension on her voice. "I don't know. Torro?" ''
"What would we be doing?" Fera's husband asked.''
He was cautious too; his children were always on his mind. Everything in his life was compromised to help them, to give them a good life. But he couldn't think clearly that night. ''
"Just come to one of the meetings," the first man said softly, understanding the parents' cautions. "You'll do that, right?"''
Torro and Fera looked into each other's' eyes. In them they could see pieces of their children, yet in them they could also see a fighting spirit. Something had to be done. In synchronicity the two turned toward their friends and gave them their reply. ''
The doorframe stood still, menacing in its unwavering stoicism. The windows had become blurred with age, flecks of moss patched across the glass. A cold wind blew past, filling the town with only its single sound – a distant, empty whistle. A thousand happy memories flashed by, ghostly trails of his family wafting past a frozen Momzen.
"Home," he squeaked.
Mucous had built up in his mouth from crying and his eyes ached.
"Hello?" he tried.
Stepping over the outbreak of weeds Momzen got to the door. He took hold of the doorknob, an instant jolt of nostalgia strangling his heart. How many times had he touched this door knob? To open it and find his loving family inside. Part of him was sure it would be the same now. He'd open the door and find his parents and sister all healthy and safe. They'd rush up to him, thought he was gone forever, and everything would go back they way it was. The rusted handle bolted the door shut and Momzen had to shoulder the door a few times to crack it open.
Inside the house was dark and dank. It was horrible. Momzen could barely breathe. It was left exactly the same as he left it. Dinner had grown mould and been eaten in some parts, yet the table was still set and the book Momzen's father was reading that night was still open.
It was too much. With an iron ball cast deep in his stomach Momzen trembled, feeling the weight of his guilt and sorrow finally amass on top of him. He just wanted them back. He just wanted a family again. Despondent tears flowed to Momzen's eyes and over his gasping lips. Suddenly he collapsed to the floor with a pain-filled shriek, his fingertips clawing at the floorboards for the missing piece of his heart.
"Wh," Momzen sobbed, "I, I'm so sorry."
Scrunching his face Momzen pressed it down to the floor and heaved the air in through his nose. The scent of his house, sweet yet salty – or meaty, brought back his biggest regret. It played out almost in front of him like a haunting theatre. It had only happened months ago, yet the pain somehow felt eternal; like it was engraved in his genetics.
The night was warm. Momzen laid on his bed, head up against the wall. At his bedside was a candle, the small orange flame flickering tenderly. Fixated on a book a small, pink smile remained still on the boy's chin. Suina was somewhere in the house – probably playing with a doll. Momzen could hear his parents in the main room, Fera washing the dishes while Torro dried them. Like a rolling wave Momzen's lungs rose gently, up and down steadily.
A knock came from the front door. Momzen ignored it, knowing someone else would get it. And they did. ''''
"Are you Torro?" Momzen got from the peripheries of his hearing. ''''
There was a quiet shuffle and then Momzen couldn't make out the rest of the conversation – not that he was at all trying to listen in. ''''
Suddenly a thud came and then a scream. ''''
Instantly Momzen lurched himself up from the bed, throwing the book to the floor.''
"Fera, go!" shouted his father.
"Ah!" his mother screamed, the fear thick in her voice. ''''
Momzen turned the corner and bowled himself into Suina's room.''''
"Suina! Where are you?" he screamed as the ground shook below him. ''''
Slowly a tuft of braided, black hair rose from behind the girl's bed. Momzen jumped onto her as another thunderous crash boomed from the main room.''''
"Mummy! Dad!" Suina cried, ivory cheeks now flustered hot red. ''''
"Earth State!" Momzen hissed.
"Go! Run!" shouted an unseen Fera, voice muffled by the struggle.''''
"Come on!" said the boy, sniffing back his fear and locking hand's with his sister. ''''
Pulling the small girl up from the floor Momzen marched out to the hallway.''''
"Torro and Fera, you're under arrest," Momzen made out over the din. "For rebelled attack against the Earth State border."''''
From the silence that came the firebender froze unintentionally. ''
"No," he whispered, pupils dilating, orange eyes widening. ''
He was too late. He could hear their muffled voices, their pleas scratching up their throats and out into the night sky. ''
"No!" the boy screamed now.
Picking up where he left off he shoved his sister back down the hallway and too the front door.''
"Mum! Dad!" he screamed, seeing their squirming figures be thrown into a carriage. "Stop!"''
Without thinking Momzen lurched an arc of fire from his fist. The crimson wave tumbled through the black sky, burning the stars with his desperation, then was stomped out by a slab of earth. Amid the blur before him Momzen was kicked down by a man and collapsed back inside.''
"No!" he shouted, wincing from the throbbing pain in his gut, eyes full of tears. ''
Above him an Earth State soldier loomed, a disgusted frown smeared along his stubble. ''
"Be a good boy now," he snickered before hitching himself to the carriage and gesturing for the drivers to go.''
"No!" repeated Momzen as he scrambled to his feet and made an attempt to chase his detained parents. ''
But it was futile. The kick he had
sustained had left him weak and the shock had sent his heart almost into
cardiac arrest. Dust and rubble had settled on the ground, as neighbours peered
through their curtained windows at the crouching teenager. With thoughts and
fears running through his head Momzen lifted his shaken body up from the ground
and marched solemnly back to his house. Suina was waiting at the door, a doll
tucked under her arm.
"Mum and dad had to go?" she mumbled, thin, shiny eyebrows crooked up with worry. "I didn't get to say goodbye."''
Momzen hauled his sister inside, not bothering to shut the door, and then began to pack a bag full of food and maps. ''
"We're not going to say goodbye," Suina's brother insisted as he shoved more and more things into the bag. "Come on, we're going."''
Suina looked up at his brother, tears now forming in her eyes. ''
"But Momzen it's dark out there and I'm scared."''
Momzen bent down and rested his hand gently on Suina's shoulder. If only he could tell her how scared he was too. But he had to be the brave one. His parents were out there, and close.''
"If we leave now, we'll get to see mum and dad sooner," Momzen smiled. "Besides, you can take your dolly and you've got me. The third-best firebender in town."
"The best in town now!" Suina laughed.
Momzen laughed too, before looking out at the wilderness that surrounded Taku. He had no idea where to start or what to do – all he was sure of was that he needed his parents back. He didn't want to be the disturbed boy on the street with no parents, it wasn't going to end in tragedy.
"Hopefully not for long."
Momzen crouched on the grass. He could hear Lord Hozon recount stories to his friends, the soldiers laughing to as they reminisced about funny incidences at war. The evening was mild and as the sun set over the ocean ahead a moody purple bled across the cloudless sky. Momzen's eyes remained transfixed on the blinding water as blebs and trickles of memories continued to play in his head. It had exhausted him. His eyes ached from crying inside his old house and his heart was taught from the sorrow. He was not ready to say goodbye, or to even accept that they could all be gone. Suina could still be out there in the wilderness, his parents could be taking refuge somewhere under different aliases. He just wanted to believe it, wanted to know what had happened to them.
The firebender, startled at the voice, craned his neck over his shoulder. Bako looked down at him, concerned. He could see in the firebender's eyes a mass of tears and the frown he bore on his face was unsettling. It wasn't usually Bako's idea to pry, but he had never seen his friends so off.
"Is everything alright?" he added, sitting down beside his friend.
"You miss your family?" Momzen managed, again taking to stare at the ocean.
Bako shuffled uncomfortably. He never talked much about how he felt, but nevertheless he replied.
"I guess. I miss my mum," the boy said, raising his eyebrows as he thought. "Not really my dad."
There was a pause as the two boys looked out at the water, Momzen sighing, Bako staying still. "Do you?" Bako asked finally.
A little sob came from Momzen's quivering lip as he tried hard to stopping his eyes from watering.
"Yeah," he croaked. "A lot."
"Well that's normal," Bako assured his friend, seizing up upon seeing the boy cry. "That's completely normal."
"I don't even know where they are!" Momzen cried as tears dribbled down his face.
Bako glared at his friend, as if the tears were some sort of horrible scar.
"I just want to know if they're alright, or what happened."
Bako, unsure what to say exactly, opened his mouth, paused, then started again to speak.
"What if the answer you get isn't the one you want?"
Bako gulped, averting his eyes from Momzen toward the orange ocean. The firebender shook his head sternly, sniffing his wet nose.
"No. I don't care," Momzen replied. "I need to know. I just, I can't pretend-"
"-It's alright," interrupted Bako, smiling at his friend. "I understand, and I'm not going to stop you. If this is what you think you need, then you have to go and find them."
For a moment the two boys looked into each other, happy that they had become such good friends over the course of their travels. Momzen had not entirely realised it, but Bako was sort of like an older brother to him; looking after him, humouring his jokes, contesting him. And he was grateful that Bako understood.
"It's Kyoshi that'll need convincing," Bako added.
Momzen looked down at the grass. Convincing Kyoshi; it was going to be near impossible to explain.
"Oh yeah," he mumbled, eyes aching as night began to fall. "That's not going to be easy."
The morning was brisk. Sunlight, but an eggshell-white snakeskin upon a veneer of blue, waned in over the mountainside town. It was barely light out with only a few squawks from gulls getting the early-bird meals down by the rock pools. Hozon and his men hauled supplies and luggage onto the ship as Momzen stood awkwardly at the end of the wharf with his pack at his feet.
He watched Kyoshi load things onto the ship. Her eyes reflected the early light, and excitement beamed from them. A focused, eager smile was broad on her lips and her deep brown hair was tied back into a ponytail for her to see. The ship was grander than she had thought it would be. Large, clean sails knocked against each other in the wind, and the timber glistened from its varnish. Carved at the bow was the fierce face of a dragon, teeth and wild eyes mosaicked with small, black stones.
"So have you got any remedies for seasickness?" Gisgo asked, glumly eyeing off the ship. "I'm not even on and I'm already rocking."
Hozon laughed from up on the deck then tucked his shirt into his pants.
"If you start feeling sick just tuck your shirt in like this," he explained. "That way if you feel like throwing up you can do it into your shirt and not on the floor."
Again the lord let out a hearty laugh before making his way onto the wharf. Kyoshi, noticing Momzen's things still at his feet and wondering why he hadn't loaded his stuff on yet, skipped happily over to him.
"You know if you don't get your things on now you'll have to keep it on deck," she laughed. "But, hey, if you want all your stuff to be wet go for it."
Momzen responded with a weak laugh, nervously shifting his gaze to the floor. Immediately Kyoshi could tell something was wrong. Dread suddenly enveloped her.
"What's going on?"
Suddenly Momzen brought his eyes back to Kyoshi's. They were full of tears and chewing on his lip the boy shrugged. He didn't know what to say, or how to say goodbye. How could he even start? It was the Avatar, Kyoshi. She meant so much to him. Slowly Kyoshi's eyes became watery too and a frown started to morph from her smile. She was waiting for an explanation
"I can't go," Momzen sighed, blinking the tears away.
"No," croaked Kyoshi immediately. "Why?"
Momzen smiled, feeling a cold tear teeter on his nose.
"I have something I need to do here. And I can't get it wrong this time."
Swiftly Gisgo swung on his footing and joined Momzen at the end of the wharf.
"Well if Momzen's not going, I won't either," he started, scowling up at the ship. "I'm more of a mainland guy anyway."
"What?" Kyoshi moaned, turning around to face Bako, Eya and the animals. "Who else is leaving me?"
Momzen took Kyoshi's hand and squeezed it, turning her around to face him.
"It's just us, Kyoshi," he reassured her. "And I'm so sorry."
He swallowed down a lump before another stream of tears gushed down his cheeks.
"You've given me so much. You inspire me, you gave me hope. And most of all you gave me a family...And I, I don't know how I can even start to repay you."
Kyoshi sniffed, unsure what entirely what was going on, and smiled at her sad friend.
"Just make sure this isn't the last time we see each other," she said. "Because you've given me more than you think."
Momzen laughed then winked at the Avatar.
"I can promise that."
In synchronicity the two lunged onto each other and embraced, hearing the faint sobs from the other.
"Be careful," Kyoshi whispered.
"You too," Momzen replied.
As Kyoshi stepped back from Momzen Jin Jin suddenly came from behind and forcefully nuzzled her head into Momzen's armpit. She knew what was happening, and it pained her to see her friend go.
"Jin Jin," Momzen laughed as he tried to stabilising himself under her weight. "Jin Jin it's alright."
The shirshu disagreed, moaning her disapproval into her friend's warm gut, trying to get as much of his smell into her memory as possible. She didn't want to forget about him.
"We'll see each other soon," the firebender said gently. "But Kyoshi needs you more than I do."
Looking back up at the ship Jin Jin could see Tori console a wailing Kyoshi. Recognising that her friend was right, and that Kyoshi was indeed the one that needed her most, Jin Jin turned her back on Momzen and headed up to the deck with Eya.
Finally Bako came up to his friend. When the two started out they didn't really see eye to eye but now, as Bako tried painfully hard to hold everything back, the two realised that they were truly great friends and a good team. Crisply the two scrummed into a hug and patted each other's' backs.
"You take care of them, all right?" Momzen said, a stern tone genuine in his voice.
Bako stopped, unsure what to say. He had never really taken an order from Momzen, or really took much of what he had to say seriously. But between them something passed. They both recognised that a war was going on, and that out there was danger. It was Bako's duty to keep the Avatar safe, his one responsibility. It just suddenly felt surreal.
"Yeah," Bako mumbled, nodding stiffly.
For some reason he felt afraid, more afraid than he had ever felt. But he had to push that away. Momzen wouldn't be there anymore to cut the tension with a joke, they wouldn't have his firepower anymore to help them. Without Momzen, without Gisgo, Bako had to be the man in charge. But he wasn't even sure if he was ready.
"Yeah, they'll be fine."
Momzen smiled, apparently convinced.
"Good," he said before looking up at Kyoshi.
Her cheeks were red and stained with tears and Jin Jin had her head nested under the girl's arm, a sad expression on her snout.
"You guys are great!" Momzen shouted as the boat began to leave the wharf.
As the boat made its way along the wharf, Kyoshi moved down to the stern to see Momzen off to the very end.
"Don't you dare forget about us!" she shouted out to his shrinking figure.
"I won't even think of it!" the firebender shouted back, waving his arms with Gisgo and Lord Hozon beside him.
"I love you!" Kyoshi screamed finally, hearing Momzen reply the same only muffled out by their distance.
As Taku became smaller and smaller Kyoshi turned to face what remained of her group. What lay ahead for them in the Fire State capitol now that their only Fire State member was gone? And more importantly, what lay ahead for Momzen on the mainland? What could have possibly made him decide to leave? Was it to do with her, or something from his past? Whatever it was the long trip to the Fire State would give Kyoshi something the abrupt farewell could not provide. Closure.
Which was something Momzen had wanted ever since he had left Taku, and would still be searching for the next time he left. But with friends like Kyoshi, Jin Jin and Bako in his heart, Momzen was sure he could bury his many hatchets and finally face his regrets.
- This chapter won the Fanonbending Fanon Writing Contest round 4, on the prompt of "closure." I got this pretty template:
|This user won Round 4 of the writing contest with their chapter!|
For the collective works of the author, go here.