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|The Boy in the Iceberg Revisited|
April 10, 2012
Previously on Air
General Fong is on the look-out for 'suspicious characters' who fit the description of Aang, Katara and Zuko. Tyro managed to slip out with the aid of the White Lotus to warn the Earth King of Fong's allegiances. As for the others, Aang has an escape plan of his own. One none of them are thrilled about...
Chapter Thirteen: The Boy in the Iceberg Revisited
The three friends stood before the notice board. They had sent Tyro off with a proper goodbye but parted ways before he'd reached the aid of The White Lotus. Now, there was nothing between them and their proposed method of escape. Katara eyed it with misgivings, but Zuko stared at it in utter defeat. The poster fluttered gently in a soft breeze, oblivious to the hope and despair it sowed.
Aang pointed at the bottom corner. "See?" he said encouragingly. "It says New and Improved!"
"I don't think any amount of improvement could make that thing good," Katara declared. She folded her arms and looked away, nose turned up in disgust.
"But look," Aang tried again, "It says, After re-researching his original work as preformed by the Ember Island Players, Puon-Tim is proud to present his new version of 'The Boy in the Iceberg', the critically claimed play of the Avatar's return and the events surrounding it. Now on tour throughout the Earth Kingdom with the Tumultuous Traveling Theater Troupe!"
Zuko snorted. "'Critically' is right! The only reason it didn't get booted off the stage completely was because the Ember Island Players butcher everything and everyone liked the ending."
An uncomfortable cloud hung over the trio.
"Well..." Aang sounded subdued. "At least the sub-title says The True Tale of the Avatar's Return, the End of the War, and the Beginning of a New Era." A cheesy, hopeful grin sprang to his lips. "So there's a good chance you and I don't die at the end of this one!"
Zuko groaned. He would never forget staring at his woefully inadequate demise as pictured by the citizens of the warmongering Fire Nation.
Katara giggled. "...you really should have seen your face..."
Zuko smiled thinly. "I can only laugh about it now because I know it won't happen."
But Zuko wasn't laughing. Katara pressed her lips together. Zuko turned to Aang, a playful glimmer in his eye. "I suppose there's always the chance you're not being played by a girl this time."
Aang scowled. "I was trying to forget about that," he growled.
"What makes you think this will work?" Katara asked.
"Plays always need actors and prop people, right?" Aang said. "And they're a traveling troupe. Look," he pointed at the top of the poster, "It says this is their last performance day."
"You want to get hired," Zuko said, "So they can smuggle us out of the city."
A mischievous glint twinkled in Katara's eyes. "Right under Fong's nose," she concluded.
Aang beamed. "Exactly!"
The three glanced at one another. Unfortunately, this did seem like their best option...
"...I think you just want to make sure he didn't get another chick to play you," Zuko snickered.
It was easy to find the Tumultuous Traveling Troupe. They were camped in a small market square. Colorfully painted wagons arranged to give the illusion of a stage with a backdrop of patched white sheets, while cheap and not very ingenious props attempted to aid the woeful setting.
It was also the area everyone was avoiding.
As they drew near, Aang, Katara, and Zuko could hear loud cries, and poorly spouted lines bellowing across the square. Zuko winced. If possible, it sounded like these guys were even worse than the Ember Island Players.
This only proved to bolster Aang's hope. He was convinced Puon-Tim would hire them if the sounds were any indication of his cast. He stopped a man tying up bags. "Excuse me; I'm looking for Puon-Tim?"
The man stared at Aang as though he had just declared he would like to duel an Agni Kai. He pointed toward the make-believe stage. "Over there" –he snorted– "Directing."
None of them laughed.
He raised an eyebrow. "Ever been in the play business?"
"We're hoping to!" Aang beamed.
The man scanned the trio. He seemed unimpressed and confused. "Good luck," he muttered. "Puon-Tim's the big fat one, waving his arms around. The one the possum chickens are staring at." He promptly ignored them and turned back to his work.
The friends exchanged puzzled looks.
Possum chickens? Zuko mouthed.
They found Puon-Tim easily enough. He was responsible for most of the shouting they'd heard. Just as described, he was a fat man, bellowing at his actors in attempts to get them to act. The only hair he had was a tiny mustache, preened to perfection, but all the effort came to naught, as it was too easily lost by the bulging lips beneath. He was brandishing a wrinkled and stained scroll; presumably, the script for The Boy in the Iceberg.
Perhaps even more unsettling than the sight of the frustrated playwright were the possum chickens. There were four of them, squatting in a straight line, directly behind Puon-Tim. Strapped to their heads were small helmets, each sporting a square of parchment. They stared intently at Puon-Tim, never taking their eyes from him. As the director paced, infuriated, back and forth before the stage, their little heads and beady eyes followed him.
For a moment, the friends could only stare at the odd sight.
Puon-Tim paced left; the possum chickens' heads swiveled to follow. The director spotted them out of the corner of his eye, but pointedly ignored them. He jerked back to the right. The possum chickens turned to keep him in sight.
"Stop!" Puon-Tim hollered at his actors. "Do it again! All over! From the top!" he screeched.
In unison, the possum chickens flapped their wings, threw back their heads and squawked. The noise sounded almost exactly like the director's cry.
Aang and Katara clapped hands over their mouths to keep from laughing aloud. Zuko shook his head with a wry chuckle.
Still keeping his back to the possum chickens, Puon-Tim stuffed his fingers in his ears until they settled.
Aang, Katara, and Zuko approached stealthily. As they drew nearer, they could see that the parchments on the possum chickens' heads said something: FAIL.
"Yikes," Aang whispered. "No wonder this guy's in a mood."
Aang cautiously tapped the director on the shoulder. "Excuse me. Mr. Puon-Tim?"
Puon-Tim jumped at the touch. A small shriek escaped him. He whirled on Aang, clutching at his heart. "Who are you?" he demanded. "What do you want?"
The rehearsal onstage froze as the actors turned to see what was happening. Zuko saw the interruption as a miracle.
Aang started to mention the undoubtedly heavy workload, perhaps the shortness of employed hands...but curiosity got the better of him. "What's with the possum chickens?"
Puon-Tim scowled. He glanced at the possum chickens. At the sight of his glowering, beet-red face, the animals burst into their high-pitched screeches once more, flapping their wings frantically. Puon-Tim quickly turned away and they fell silent.
"Infernal madman!" he spluttered.
One of the actors –the one portraying Sokka, by the look of the ridiculous ponytail– rolled his eyes. "Here we go..."
Another, in the role of Katara, slapped her forehead. "Not again!"
"Cursed eccentricity!" Puon-Tim bellowed. "If the old coot didn't like my play, he could have kept it to himself!"
Aang clamped back a bout of laughter. It suddenly made sense; these trained possum chickens had 'mad genius' written all over them.
"King Bumi didn't like your play, huh?" he guessed, trying to sound sympathetic.
Katara was forced to turn her back to hide her expression; Zuko's eyes bulged, and he coughed violently.
Puon-Tim glared at them. "What do you want?" he snarled.
Aang beamed. "To be in the production of The Boy in the Iceberg!"
"No." Puon-Tim turned away.
"Who told you to stop rehearsing?!" the director bellowed at his performers.
They hurriedly resumed. The actress Katara flung a dramatic hand to her brow. "We must never give up hope, Soka!" she declared in broken bits, tone devoid of feeling. No one noticed she mispronounced her brother's name.
"Wait!" the actor Sokka cried. He pointed at nothing on the stage and stared at it in horror. "What's that?!"
"Don't you even want to audition us?" Aang asked meekly.
"All the roles are already cast," Puon-Tim said, waving them away. "Come back next year."
Katara snickered to Zuko, "He thinks it'll run another year?"
Zuko coughed again.
"What about stage hands?" Aang fished desperately. "Prop people? Refreshment servers?"
"No, no, and no!" Puon-Tim cried impatiently. "I don't need anyone! Go away! Don't come back! ...Except for tonight, of course." He flashed a wide smile of crooked teeth. "To see our last performance in Omashu."
On stage, another character burst over the patched, almost-white background. Her foot caught and she stumbled. The director moaned loudly, and the actress amended by finishing with a somersault.
"Hello, everybody!" she giggled. "I'm the Avatar!"
"We have to get into that Troupe!" Aang fumed.
Zuko and Katara were still laughing. Momo fluttered over their heads, adding his own chitters to the laughter.
"This is serious, guys!" Aang cried. "It could be our only way out!"
They only howled louder.
Aang turned his back on his friends, stroking his chin. He grinned evilly. "And I think I know exactly how to do it..."
"This is your big plan?" Zuko asked, unimpressed.
Aang crouched low on the rooftop. "I'm going to prove to him I can play a better Avatar." The three were lying in wait on one of the roofs next to the stage. Aang's plan was nowhere near genius in its pure stupidity.
Katara snickered. "You mean, better than a girl?"
Aang reddened. "Yes, better than a girl!" he snapped. "After all, who better to play the Avatar than the Avatar?"
"I'm out of here," Zuko said, retreating.
Zuko snickered. "Are you kidding? I'm getting a better view!"
Katara hurried after him.
Aang scowled, his temple pulsing in annoyance.
"From the top!" Puon-Tim bellowed again, accompanied by the chorus of screeching possum-chickens.
Aang waited patiently. He had to time this perfectly...
"What's that?!" the actor-Sokka cried in fake amazement.
As a prop man revealed the weak flame of a lantern to signify the 'blinding light' within the white sheet 'iceberg', Aang made his move.
Before the actress-Aang could make her appearance, the real one landed on the stage. Throwing his arms out welcomingly, with a big grin, he cried, "Hello, everybody! I'm the Avatar!"
Puon-Tim's eyes bulged. His face burned scarlet. "Get off my stage!"
"But don't you think I make a much better Avatar?" Aang insisted.
"No!" snapped Puon-Tim. "You have bad form, you're the wrong size, no one would believe you could fly, you clearly can't act and you don't even look like the Avatar!"
"But...but..." Aang spluttered.
Katara buried her face to hide her laughter.
Puon-Tim shook with rage. "Guards!" he hollered. "Guards!"
Zuko leapt onto the 'stage' and seized Aang by the collar. "Come on," he said, "That's enough fun for one day."
"Stop!" Puon-Tim cried, the rage suddenly drained from his voice. "Wait!"
Zuko stopped in surprise.
Puon-Tim was staring at him in awe. "You're perfect!"
Zuko didn't like the sound of that.
"You must play my Zuko!"
Katara couldn't hold it in any longer; she burst into helpless laughter and soon Aang joined her. Zuko glared at them.
"You're absolutely perfect for the part!" Puon-Tim insisted. He scrambled up onto the stage, his stubby legs floundering in the air until they found holds. He circled Zuko, examining him so intently he didn't even notice the possum chickens erupt in mocking squawks every time they spotted his face.
A young man came running out of the wagon, waving his arms. He was garbed in an exotic costume version of a Fire Nation uniform. "But I'm Prince Zuko!" he wailed.
Puon-Tim whirled on him. "Now you're an understudy!" he snapped.
Three Omashu guards raced into the thespian chaos. "Did someone call?" they demanded.
"Go away!" Puon-Tim hollered at them. "False alarm!"
But the soldiers spotted Zuko and Aang. They pointed accusingly at them. "Are these two with you, sir?"
Aang nodded emphatically, but there was panic in his eyes.
The guards started forward in triumph.
Puon-Tim glanced between the guards and the two friends. "Why, uh, yes!" he cried. "These are two of my actors."
The guards faltered. "Uh...actors, sir?"
"Yes," Puon-Tim snapped. "Actors! And you're interrupting a very important rehearsal! Our last performance is tonight! Go away!"
The guards exchanged looks.
"Did you pick them up here in Omashu?" one man braved. "They look like some suspicious characters General Fong warned us about."
Puon-Tim raised his eyebrow. "Suspicious characters?" he asked, probing Aang and Zuko with a considering eye.
Aang smiled weakly at him.
"No," Puon-Tim declared. "These two have been with me since the beginning. This fine young man is my Zuko," he said, gesturing at Zuko. "And this," he turned to Aang and frowned.
Aang beamed helpfully.
Puon-Tim waved dismissively. "He's just a minor character."
"Well...if you're sure, sir..." Reluctantly and disappointed that there was no exciting emergency in need of their attention, the guards retreated.
Zuko waited until they were gone before he spoke. "Look," he said. "Thanks for helping us, but I really don't think I should play your Zuko."
"What?" Aang hissed, jabbing him in the rib.
Puon-Tim grinned evilly. "Oh, I wasn't helping you."
Zuko frowned. "What?"
"You are going to play my Zuko, young man," Puon-Tim told him, matter-of-factly.
Zuko tried to protest.
"Or" –the director's malignant grin grew– "I could call the guards back."
Zuko scowled, but he said nothing. What could he say?
Puon-Tim clapped his hands gleefully, like a child with a new shiny toy. "Wonderful!" He thrust his worn and stained copy of the script into Zuko's hands. "You can read it on the way," he said as he bustled off toward the wagons.
Zuko held the script as if it were possessed. "On the way to where?"
"Well," the director said with knowing smile, "I assume you want to put distance between you and Omashu, for whatever reasons you have."
"I thought the show had one more performance," Katara said.
Puon-Tim scoffed. "These ruffians don't deserve it! They don't appreciate true art!"
Aang gestured at himself and Katara. "So what are we going to do?"
"Oh, I don't know," Puon-Tim said tiredly. "I suppose I could find some minor role for you to fill, or something."
Zuko, Aang, and Katara were given an entire wagon to themselves for accommodation. Unfortunately, it was the prop wagon, and there was barely any room for Momo's tiny body, let alone the three of them.
Zuko waded through the piles of junk. He pulled himself onto the top of a shelf for a seat, forced to lean forward to avoid the swaying legs of the four-person Appa costume hanging from the ceiling. Aang sprawled atop the badly painted wooden backgrounds. They'd left Katara with the only semi-cleared corner and she sat there, legs pulled tight to her chest. Momo was the only one to find a near comfortable seat; he crawled into a box and curled into a ball inside of a hat.
Aang glanced around numbly. "Well, this is fun."
"At least you don't have to be in the stupid play," Zuko growled.
"At least you get to be yourself," Aang pointed out.
Zuko growled again. Yeah, because that was a role he relished.
"Maybe we're looking at this the wrong way," Katara suggested meekly, shifting to avoid a metal rod prodding the small of her back. "Perhaps this is an opportunity to look back at your life and see how far you've come."
"In the badly portrayed scenes of an unrealistic play supposedly based off of our lives?" Zuko demanded.
Katara shrugged. "Okay. So there's no bright side."
The wagon halted.
Aang sat up. A little too far, forgetting the ceiling was right above him. He winced, rubbing his head. "We must be at Fong's checkpoint outside the gates."
They strained to hear the muffled voices outside.
"Do you have any fresh fruits or vegetables with you?" someone asked gruffly.
"No," came the playwright's jovial, sing-song reply.
"Take on anyone new during your stay?"
The three friends held their breaths.
"Not a soul!" Puon-Tim cried happily.
"All right, then," came the bored reply. "Move it along."
They were silent a moment, exchanging looks, hoping their luck would hold.
"...Did that seem too easy?" Zuko asked finally.
Katara laughed. "Are you kidding? They're probably back there congratulating themselves that they're finally rid of Puon-Tim and his play!"
- This is one of those funny-adventure-chapters-that-help-lighten-the-mood. Hope everyone gets a good chuckle out of it. ;)
- Oh, the possum chickens! These are the result of a Dare I accepted that fateful NaNoWriMo when I wrote the first draft of 'Air'. It was far too perfect for this chapter to pass up.
- No one noticed she mispronounced her brother's name. -This is not actually a jab at 'The Last Airbender'. (The movie had not yet been released at the time this chapter was written.) I just thought it would be typical and amusing. ;)
For the collective works of the author, go here.