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|The Last Airbender Part One|
Avatar: The Last Airbender
The Last Airbender Book Four: Air
Chapter Eighteen – The Last Airbender Part One: The Avatar's Love
Aang tried to hold Katara steady as he led her to the makeshift infirmary that Toph and her earthbenders had been frantically setting up since their return from Hokusai Point. He had tried to talk her out of coming but his wife would hear none of it. She could barely walk and, despite her claims to the contrary, the Avatar knew how exhausted she was. Her eyelids drooped and her head swayed and bobbed every few moments. However, Katara had needed to see what happened so he had no choice but to oblige her.
"How many... how many are left?" His wife breathed as they passed a group of Fire Nation tents.
"Katara are you sure you don't want to go back, you sound beat." He suggested weakly. The waterbender shook her head resolutely.
"How many, Aang?" She forced him to look at her and the airbender felt what resolve he had crumble in her sapphire eyes. Sighing, he held her hand gently in his and gave it a comforting squeeze.
"Seven." He answered as they continued to amble passed tents. "Mai you already know about, Zuko's tending to her in your grandparents' house. He'll meet us at the infirmary, he wanted to see Matora."
"Matora made it; good." Katara said shakily, more to herself than to Aang. Suddenly she looked up. "And Pakku? Did they take him to Gran Gran too?" The Avatar did not answer immediately.
"The reason Toph is setting up the infirmary is because some of injured could not be moved too far from Appa. Pakku is... moving him that far would have been risky."
"But he made it?" Katara prodded hopefully. "He was one of the seven?" She made him give her another glance but this time he could not hold it.
"Soon there may be six." He replied gravely at length, feeling tears well up under his eyes.
The couple were quiet the rest of the way. Aang kept trying to give Katara small smiles and words of reassurance but everything felt hollow to him. What could he really say to her? Over the past ten years the grizzled old waterbending master had become like family to both of them. Now they might lose him. The Avatar grimaced. This was because he hadn't been fast enough. He should have got there sooner, how many more lives could have been saved if he'd just pushed Appa a little harder or flown himself as would have been the faster way. He should have taken his glider but Katara had needed it, she couldn't move around their home easily otherwise.
Next to him his wife seemed to know he was troubled. She tucked her head warmly against his. Aang sniveled back emotion and kissed her forehead. She always gave him strength.
Ahead of them he could see Duella herding a group of healers from the Northern Water Tribe towards a newly formed cave. The airbender nodded, Toph must have needed to form a shelter that could be warmer than the tents. There was so much snow beneath his feet, stretching down into the earth must have been no easy task. Torches illuminated either side of the cave entrance and there was plenty of light radiating out from within. Emiko was leaning against the wall, just inside of the entrance. At their approaching she looked up briefly before quickly averted her eyes to the floor again.
"Hello Emiko." Katara said in as casual a greeting as she could. "I heard what you did. Thank you. You didn't have to help us." The Air Nomad didn't respond. She appeared to be staring intently at the ground.
"You should go get some rest." The Avatar told her. "You've done enough for one night." Emiko didn't move right away. After several moments, however, she nodded shakily a couple of times before heading off in the direction of the Air Nomad tents.
"I really worry about her." Katara said, watching the young woman depart. "She seems to carry such a burden. I've been trying to get her to open up a little but she won't. It's like she can't."
"I can sort of see where she's coming from." Aang commented. "It isn't easy to be suddenly introduced into a world where things like... like this are happening." He gestured to the cave entrance. "Are you ready to go in?" His wife hesitated slightly before nodding.
"Good or bad, it's something I need to see." She stated, keeping her voice level. Aang nodded in reply.
"Aang! Katara!" Turning around the Avatar saw Zuko making his way towards them. The Firelord looked tired and the airbender noted with some dread that there were patches of dried blood on his robes. However, he did appear to be in fair spirits.
"Zuko!" Katara called. "How's Mai doing? Is she alright?" The Firelord came to a stop before them.
"She's fine." He said gratefully. "They slashed her left side pretty bad but the wound wasn't as deep as I feared. She actually woke up a little while ago but it was only for a few minutes. She's asleep again now."
"I'm glad to hear it." Katara responded sincerely. Aang smiled and nodded, patting Zuko on the shoulder.
"You hear to see Matora?" The Avatar asked. The Firelord nodded.
"I heard he's conscious. I want to find out what happened out there. I want to know how this massacre happened."
"You and me both." The airbender replied darkly. "After you." He gestured into the cave. Zuko nodded and stepped in. Following, Aang took as much of Katara's weight as he could and helped her into the infirmary.
Inside, six well-padded beds had been placed along the far wall. Small mounds had been raised to the right of each, allowing for a healer to sit and work directly over the patient lying underneath. The firelight they had seen outside turned out not to be caused by torches. Aang observed as several firebenders followed around the healers and Toph's people, providing a plentiful source of light wherever it was needed. It took his eyes several seconds to find the blind earthbender. She was standing at the back talking very fast to an elderly woman wearing an unusually bright kimono.
"Mrs. Cai?" He said in an uncertain tone. The old woman turned to them and her face lit up.
"Oh hello my dears! How marvelous to see you all again. Katara, oh you look radiant! I wish I had something to offer you. Ms. Toph, your friends are here!"
"I know, Mrs. Cai." The blind earthbender acknowledged. She came stepping over briskly to meet them. "Hey guys, who are you here to see? I'm afraid most everyone is out; apparently it makes the healing process easier. The only one that is still awake is Matora," she tilted her head back slightly to the bed on the far left. "He insisted on speaking with you, Zuko."
"And is making quite a fuss for someone in his condition!" Mrs. Cai added. "He should be resting but no, he would hear nothing of it. He nearly tore my head off when I tried to get him to take a sleeping draft!"
"Mrs. Cai, would you please find out who these people's families are and inform them of the situation?" Toph asked suddenly.
"Oh – of course Mistress and here I was getting distracted, jabbering like a ninny when there is work to be done!" The old woman started to shuffle off.
"Please tell my Gran about Pakku!" Katara called. Mrs. Cai turned and smiled in acknowledgment before continuing on her way. At his side, Aang could feel the sadness rising in his wife. "I don't understand..." she began. "Where are Jeong Jeong and Haru? Where's Huu? Why are Piandao and Pakku the only White Lotus members I see?" The Avatar hugged his wife.
"I'm afraid these are all who made it." Toph answered shakily. Then she turned her head in Zuko's direction. "Zuko there's something I need to tell you. Duella just informed me before you arrived. It's about Matora."
"What about him?" The Firelord asked.
"She says the healers gave him all they could, that they tried to reverse the damage but it was too severe. He's uh... he'll never be able to use his legs again. He's paralyzed from the waist down."
"Oh." Zuko replied blankly. The Firelord stood motionless for several moments. "He is awake?" He finally mustered, sounding very unsure of his words.
Toph motioned: "Follow me." She said.
Aang was glad to note that the Fire Nation General, although clearly in some pain and discomfort, had color in his face. Matora's expression appeared composed; that of a man who still had all of his wits about him. That was good. They needed him coherent for at least a little while. Upon seeing their arrival the fallen soldier raised an arm in salute.
"Forgive me, Sire, for not standing. They tell me I'm going to be off my feet for quite a while." He croaked hoarsely.
"That's all right old friend. You've earned a rest anyway." Zuko responded, trying to maintain a half smile. Matora snorted.
"I failed the mission. Heavy casualties and we learned nothing, a complete failure; it was like they knew exactly where we were."
"What can you tell us about what happened?" The Firelord asked gently.
Matora adjusted himself on his bed in an effort for comfort. "We had dug in. Everybody was completely out of sight. It was a little after dusk. I had just finished talking to Piandao, he was going to make one final parameter sweep of the island; make sure we were all invisible. Anyway, Piandao leaves and it couldn't have been more than two minutes before the first wave hit. They were riding it like skipping drake-fish. We were all knocked off our feet before we could retaliate...then the sky opened up and there was fire and wind and ice." Matora stopped and coughed several times, clutching his side painfully. Suddenly he reached out and took the Firelord's arm.
"It was him Sire, their king. I've never seen anything like what he can do..." The Fire Nation General coughed again and struggled to catch his breath.
"Rest Matora. That is an order." Zuko said, trying to put humor in his voice.
"Wait!" Katara exclaimed. "What about Pakku? Please, can you tell me what happened to him?" The Fire Nation General nodded.
"He took on five of them when they landed. Actually, he was doing pretty well too... for a while. They may be able to bend all the elements but against our masters they were outclassed. One on one some of us were actually beating them until – until Oguanga came."
"We have few remaining who are as talented as the White Lotus masters but we should have numbers on our side this time." Zuko pointed out. Matora leaned forward.
"Then we have a chance. We can beat them, Sire! They've had surprise on their side both times before but if you take that away... and if something can be done about Oguanga then I think we have a shot!"
"I will fight Oguanga." Aang replied resolutely. He could feel his wife's eyes on him but did not return the look. He already knew what it was saying.
"If you say victory, then victory." Zuko told his friend. "But you won't be awake to help achieve it if you don't sleep. General Matora, you are on a bunk, use it."
Matora chuckled weakly. "By your command, Sire." The Fire Nation General lay back and closed his eyes, finally allowing his exhaustion to overtake him. Aang watched as Zuko shook his head and turned away, muttering to himself. He was about to follow when Toph cut him off.
"You guys should go see Pakku, I'll go talk to him." She smiled in a rare, sweet way. Usually Toph liked to reserve her grins for occasions of sarcasm. Aang found it pleasant when he saw it otherwise.
"Sure. Thanks, Toph." He said, patting her on the shoulder.
"No problem, Twinkle Toes."
Aang helped Katara up. He hadn't realized she'd sat down during their talk with Matora. She grinned gratefully as he helped hoist her onto her feet. Then, giving her his staff to lean on, the pair made their way over to the old waterbending master. Pakku was motionless on his bed, with the covers pulled up to under his chin. His face had been heavily swathed with healing water to deal with the massive burn that covered most of it. Bits of his right ear were missing, like sharp stones had chipped it away. Katara almost sank to her knees at the sight of him. She would have, had her husband not forced her up.
"Oh Pakku..." She breathed in a whisper. Bending, Katara gently wiped some dirt from the ashen gray hair. A few minutes passed where the two stood staring down. The Avatar did not know what to say, so he simply held his wife. Finally he could feel her eyes shift to him.
"Aang, I'm going to stay here and try to help." She declared. The airbender shook his head before looking into his wife's azure eyes.
"No, Katara, you need to take care of yourself. There are plenty of other healers here. Pakku will be well looked after. There's nothing you can do for him that they can't."
"I want to stay." She insisted. He sighed and rubbed his forehead.
"I know you do. But who knows when the baby is coming, you need to be well rested, not working your tail off. I know you don't want to stand here and do nothing but –"
"That's all I've been doing for months!" Katara shouted, cutting him off in mid-sentence. "For nearly a year now I've been feeling more and more useless! I'm pregnant. I'm not dead! I can still do things!" Aang was surprised to see tears forming around her eyes.
"Useless? You are never useless." He whispered warmly to her. "You are the most powerful bender I have ever known, Katara. On top of that you also manage to put up with me as my wife and you are a soon-to-be mother. I could never do all the things you do. Useless... I need you more than anyone." He held her gently in his arms. Katara smiled through her tears and looked lovingly at him.
"I need you too, Aang. I'm scared. I don't want you to fight – oh." Katara suddenly clutched at her stomach. Her breath became more ragged and she doubled over.
"Katara, what's wrong?" The airbender grasped his wife's shoulder worriedly. After a moment though his wife straightened up.
"Nothing." She answered, a pained smile across her lips. "I just think somebody is getting a little restless." The Avatar nodded half-knowingly.
"Come on, it's late. Let's go home. We can come and see him again in the morning. I'm sure if anything changes before then, Toph will let us know." He looked at her. She opened her mouth as if to argue before closing it again. Almost reluctantly she nodded.
"All right dear, you win this round." She flashed him a smirk. "But do not think you've won the war."
"What, by all the Spirits, was going through your head?" Monk Quanfar shouted at Emiko inside their tent. The Air Nomad woman recoiled instinctively and lowered her head to the snow in submission. She had expected this. Going with the Avatar and his friends to Hokusai Point had been a mistake; her master was right to be angry with her. Still, it was strange that some part of her felt differently about it. Some part of her was almost glad she had rebelled.
"I'm sorry, Master. I shouldn't have acted so foolishly. I just wanted to – I wanted to..." Quanfar crossed his arms as Emiko struggled to come up with a reason.
"Go on, I am waiting my pupil. Surely you must have some excuse as to why you would go with your enemies out to an area swarming with demons! Did any of them see you?" The last sentence came out in a desperate hiss and her master towered over her. Emiko felt like she was being crushed by him.
"No, Master. It was complete chaos and I was careful. The demons were focused on Aang, Toph and Zuko."
Instantly her teacher went livid. "You use their names now?" He snarled. "You call that Fire Nation monster by name?" He ran his right hand over his left and paced around the tent. "At least they didn't see you. Need I remind you though that my – our entire plan hinges on the demons believing that we are dead! I am worrying about your resolve, Emiko."
"I am committed, Master." Emiko spoke into the snow, still not daring to raise her eyes.
"Then let me hear you say it." Quanfar's voice was like scratched glass. "Say it, Emiko. Say your pledge."
Emiko gulped. "The Avatar is my enemy and a traitor to my people. The surface nations are my enemies and traitors to my people. The Fire Nation are murderers and butchers of my people. The Firelord is a monster and is the bane of my people. What was done cannot be undone, but it can be amended. I demand justice. I will bring justice to my people. I will conquer my enemies, slaughter my butchers and remove the bane of my people. I am an airbender."
"Good. You may rise." Quanfar turned his back to her and Emiko stood up, brushing the snow out of her hair. "Remember that oath, Emiko. Remember you are bound to it." He turned and placed a cold hand upon her shoulder. "I love you like you are my own. You are practically a daughter to me. But what is happening now, our vision, understand that it is worth any price. I will do whatever I have to, to insure we have justice. Even if that means removing you from my side." The hand fell away. "We are all expendable, Emiko, remember that. Every last one of us."
The Air Nomad woman nodded, and was surprised that as she did so a droplet of water fell from her face to the floor. Quanfar smiled. "Don't get so worked up. Go now; find something to eat. Soon our work will be over."
Emiko nodded again. She turned and, nearly stumbling several times, left the tent. Outside she found that more tears were accumulating under her eyelids. Wiping them away angrily she tore off through the camp, unsure of where she was going.
Katara felt sore as Aang helped her into her chair inside their home. The baby had been more active than ever on their way back and it was causing a good deal of discomfort. She had done her best to hide it but the sideways glances from her husband had been enough to tell her she wasn't doing a good enough job. Several times he had offered to stop and rest and once even he had offered to carry her. That was embarrassing. Katara sighed and felt the squirming mass inside of her.
"Are you sure you're all right?" The Avatar's concerned tone came from above. Looking up she saw his concerned face as he leaned over her. "The baby's okay right?" She smiled and nodded.
"I don't think it's coming now. Honestly I'm kinda hoping it waits until the end of the week. When I know I'll be alive to take care of it." She made a half-smile. Aang smirked back.
"Honey don't joke, you're not very good at it." He kissed the top of her head lovingly. She returned the gesture with a playful elbow to his side. "Hey!" He exclaimed. "Don't hit the messenger." She laughed before feeling her breathing tighten up a little bit. "Katara?" Her husband had noticed the reaction on her face.
"Yeah I'm – wow, I'm feeling... oh man, this is new." Katara bit down hard on her lip. It felt like shockwaves going through her entire body. Bracing as they hit her, she gripped the chair with her hands and dug in.
"Katara?" Aang was holding the sides of her face in his hands. "What is it?" She looked up at him, and her face was a wash of joy and sorrow.
"Aang, I think I'm having the baby." She watched as his eyes widened. As the rush of all the same fears and terrors that filled her head swirled in his. Then, however they appeared to be washed away as, at first a smile, but then a huge grin broke across his face. He broke into laughter and his whole body started to shake. Suddenly, Katara felt his arms about her and they were locked in an embrace.
"This is... so wonderful." He managed. "Okay, what do you need? I'll get you anything! Blankets! We'll need blankets!" He started running around in excitement. This caused Momo to awaken from his perch and to begin also flying circles, chattering excitedly. Katara couldn't help laughing as she watched. Her husband could still be that bald little kid she'd freed from an iceberg all those years ago. It was good to see him so free, it was like all of it, everything that had been bothering him, had just washed away. Finally, after several moments of running about he appeared to become winded enough to stop and Momo landed on his shoulder. "What do you need?" He asked again breathlessly.
"Some blankets would be nice." Katara chuckled in response before another contraction hit her, causing the laugh to be replaced with a shudder of pain. "And water Aang, go outside and collect some in a bowl. Other than that just, hang in here with me?"
"You got it." Aang was still grinning as he kissed her lightly on the lips. "Be right back." The Avatar took off toward their bedroom while Katara allowed herself to lean back in the chair. She took several deep breaths. The contractions were painful but still far apart; it was not time yet. She gritted her teeth as another one passed through her. Suddenly there came a knocking at the door.
"Who is it?" Katara called.
"Sokka." Her brother replied back. "And I picked up Emiko the wandering Nomad on my way over. I'm here to see Aang. There's been a development, he's going to want to see this."
"Come on in." The pregnant waterbender called, her voice breaking slightly. "We've had a development of our own." The door slid open and the young Water Tribe chieftain entered with his eyebrows raised. Behind him Emiko followed, her head bowed in its usual submissive way. Katara motioned for them to be seated.
"So what's up? You get Aang to eat meat or something?" Sokka edged himself into Aang's chair but did not get settled. It was clear that her brother did not intend to stay long. Emiko, however, merely made herself barely visible against the wall and said nothing. The waterbender felt her face fall temporarily at the sight before another contraction hit her. "Hey are you okay? Come on, my joke wasn't that terrible." The Water Tribe Chief said good-naturedly. His face did not take long to become serious. "Katara?" The abrupt shift in tone caused Emiko to dart her eyes up from her corner. "What's going on?" Sokka's tone had now become grave. He was leaning forward in Aang's chair when the Avatar reentered the room, carrying several blankets in his arms.
"Sokka, Emiko, what are you guys doing here?" Aang looked around, beaming at both of them quickly before turning to his wife: "I grabbed everything that I could. What else do you want? Would you like some food? I can whip up some mashed-fruit pie, very high in energy, might be good for the baby. Want one?" Katara smiled and brushed her husband aside. He really was adorable like this.
"I think we have an – " she paused as a contraction hit her. " – announcement to make. Sokka, Emiko, you two are the first to know. It's coming tonight!" She could feel the excitement build in her voice as she relayed the news and, judging from her husband's expression, he was struggling to contain it too. Her brother simply stared at her for a few seconds before she could see the lightning flash across his brain.
"You don't mean... the baby, as in it's baby time?" He inquired, his face breaking into a nervous grin.
"I'm about to become a father!" Aang threw his arms about the young Water Tribe Chieftain and starting jumping up and down. In a few seconds, Sokka was joining him. "I can't believe it! This is so amazing! Holy – I mean man! Wow!" Katara watched as her husband and brother clapped each other on the back. "I'm going to be an uncle! Name it after me, even if it's a girl!"
"Like we'd do that to our child!" She teased back before wincing again. "Now what was it you wanted to tell us about?" Immediately she regretted her words. She could tell from the drop in facial expression that whatever news Sokka had to tell them wasn't good.
"Right..." He breathed, then to her husband he stated bluntly: "One of them is here. It's come with a raft and on the raft are the – are the bodies of those who didn't make it from Hokusai Point... our people anyway. None of us can really tell what it's saying but it seems to want to talk to someone. I figured you should know."
Katara watched as the boy vanished and her husband transformed into the burdened Avatar, readjusting his shoulders so that they more accurately reflected the added weight of the world. "Right. Figures he wants to talk to me, huh?"
"Not sure." Sokka replied. "But you're the person with the most authority. You should try to see why they did this. Why slaughter our men and then bring them back to us?"
"Yeah..." Aang responded darkly. Katara felt her heart sink. She hoped the airbender didn't blame himself for this. Reaching out, she took his hand and gave it a soft squeeze. "I should stay with you." He whispered to her.
"Go and be quick about it. I talked with Gran Gran. This, unfortunately, is going to take a while. You won't miss the big moment if you hurry. I know you have responsibilities." She gave him a knowing half-grin.
"My responsibility is to be by your side." He said. Then, he turned sharply to Emiko. "Watch after my wife while I'm gone, would you please?" The Air Nomad woman said nothing, but nodded. "Let's be as brief about this as possible." Aang spoke next to Sokka.
"You don't have to tell me twice, I intend to be here for this too." The Water Tribe Chief replied. And without another word, the two left the home and ventured out into the windy night air.
Toph had her hands full trying to maintain some sense of order in the medical caves. Most of the patients were thankfully asleep but now the families were arriving and questions were beginning to come and her left and right. She was almost sorry she had sent Mrs. Cai out to inform them. Duella and the others had been a blessing though and most everything seemed to go to them instead. Occasionally the blind earthbender would feel some random person wander up to her, but an acolyte would quickly appear to save the day.
Now she at last had a moment to lean back against the wall and breathe. Stretching her toes, she scanned the room. Everything appeared to be in its proper place. The patients were in their respective beds with small circles of family and friends around them. Suddenly a vacant space caught her attention. One bed, the one nearest the entrance, had no visitors. More interesting than that, she could feel the heart rate of the individual lying upon it. Judging from the speed and constant shifts, this guy was awake.
He was young, late twenties maybe, and in good shape judging from the dense patches of muscle that were dispersed throughout his body. His bones were dense, too dense to be Water Tribe or Fire Nation. This fellow was Earth Kingdom. Toph curiously cocked her head to the side as she tried to get a better reading. His skin was heavily textured, either from tattoos or scars or a combination of both. She sensed the long strands of coarse hair coming off his head, this was the man Suki had pointed out the other day. It had to be.
"It's rude to gawk at someone, you know?" Came a sudden, surprising voice. "Being blind is no excuse." There came a soft rustle as the man adjusted himself on his bed, Toph assumed he was getting a better look at her.
"How did you know I was staring at you?" The blind earthbender asked the wall, her face not angled anywhere near toward the bed.
"Please, just because I got beat by an army of demons doesn't make me an amateur. Anyone with half the sense could feel your fumbling feet from a mile away." Toph felt her face redden. "Oh, she blushes. Now there's some fine color to pretty up that face." The figure on the bed joked before wincing.
"Not to harp on free service," he chided. "But I think they missed a spot when healing me." Toph stifled an involuntary chuckle and made her way over to the stranger's bed. Summoning up a stool of rock, the blind earthbender sat down and once more allowed her feet to stretch out and see.
"Are you in pain? Do you want me to grab someone for you?" She asked, trying to keep her tone nonchalant.
"Am I in pain, yes. Do I want you to get me a healer, no; it's nothing serious. I prefer to let the body do the work itself. I'll be on my feet when I need to be. Right now it is kind of nice to relax for once."
"Relax?" Toph repeated. "How can you relax after what just happened? Our best benders were wiped out! Oguanga and his demon army will be on us soon, by morning I believe. There is a very good chance we will all die then, you do know that don't you?" She could sense the stranger putting up his hand in a calming motion.
"I was there." He stated definitively. "I saw everything that happened. And yes, I know tomorrow will, more than likely, be the end for all of us. But if things are as hopeless as your dramatic shouting suggests then why are you working yourself up over it?"
"I don't understand." The blind earthbender replied, her voice echoing her frustration.
"Have you ever talked to a person right before they were executed? You will never find a being more calm and at peace with the universe. Everything in their mind has surrendered to a state of pacification. They know what will happen and they accept it. But you, you don't sound like you know anything for certain right now and I find some hope in that." The stranger coughed, a deep, gravely reverberation that sounded like boulders grinding together. Toph didn't know what to say. For a moment the two sat in silence, the blind earthbender felt the rays of the moon permeating the outer area of the cave.
"Thank you for sitting by me." The stranger spoke again at length.
"I was bored." The blind earthbender shrugged unconvincingly. "Figured you would be too, lying over here all alone." She felt a shift in his facial features and immediately regretted her choice of words. "I didn't mean it like that." She added quickly.
"Did you notice the tattoos when you were giving me the once over?" The stranger asked suddenly. The blind earthbender blinked in surprise.
"Are you expecting me to be impressed?" She joked. "Bad news for you; the ink doesn't do anything for the blind." The man laughed.
"That's not what I meant but thanks for the tip." He responded dryly. "I was wondering if those feet of yours were precise enough to make out what shapes they formed? Toph shook her head. She could feel the vibrations rippling off the strangers head as he nodded thoughtfully. "Ever heard of the Baonu?" Came the nonchalant question. The blind earthbender smirked.
"A children's story, an order of Earth Kingdom warriors with madness in their blood. Your tattoos are pictures from a kid's book?" She laughed lightheartedly. She felt the edges of the stranger's mouth twitch upward too and after a second he joined her. Once she had stopped laughing, Toph stood up. "I'm going to get some water, would you like some?"
"Yes please, but first I feel like I have been rude long enough, Ms. Bei Fong. High time I introduced myself. I'm Hodder." The blind earthbender made a mock curtsy.
"No need to be so formal, buddy. It's Toph, my parents are the Bei Fongs." She chuckled again as she headed for the water bowl, eager to return to her new friend.
"Aang! Good, Sokka, you found him." Zuko waved the Avatar and Water Tribe Chief over to where he was standing. Hanging slightly behind his brother-in-law, the airbender had been feeling miserable ever since they had left his home. This was not where he should be right now, not when the woman he loved more than life itself was in the process of giving birth to his child. Sokka, by contrast, had appeared ecstatic the whole way down and was now rushing over to the Firelord to give him the news. Looking up, Aang saw that Kuei, Arnook and Suki were all with Zuko. He watched as all four of their flashes lit up into temporary smiles as they peered up to flash him grins. The Firelord patted him on the back and Suki threw her arms around him in an embrace as they all met up.
"That's so wonderful, you and Katara must be overjoyed!" She beamed. "Have you given any thought to what the name will be yet?"
"Give him some room." Zuko put in. "You must have a lot on your mind right now, Dad. Let's get this unpleasantness over with so you can get back to your wife." Aang nodded with relief. Thank the Spirits at least one of his friends understood how he was feeling.
"Where is he?" The Avatar asked.
"Down by the dock where my ships put in this morning." Arnook replied.
"The dock?" Aang raised his eyebrows.
"You'll understand why when you see what he brought with him." Zuko answered darkly. The airbender noticed Suki seemed to cling to Sokka a little tighter at those words. Resolutely he nodded his head and motioned for the others to lead the way.
All through the camp, the group passed by flickering torches and few people huddled around them. Aang allowed his eyes to crisscross back and forth from side to side. By now it was very late, all the children had long since been put to bed. Yet the whispers that accompanied them, the frightened looks, it all reminded the Avatar of his first days as a monk, back when everybody was adjusting to separation from their families. All four nations were united in fear. The news of the disaster at Hokusai had evidently reached their ears.
One tent they passed had an old woman in front of it. She was frail and thin but had a sturdy frame to her. She was not so weak that she could not survive on her own yet when the airbender passed by her, he could see she was shaking. Her eyes rose for only a moment, but even that was too long for Aang. How could he look any of these people in the eye? It was his fault. All of this, it was his fault. In a horrifying the flash the faces of the Order of the White Lotus loomed in front of him. So many people, they were his friends. He had failed them, such a sad waste of innocent lives.
The airbender suddenly bumped into Kuei, causing the Earth King to lurch forward a step. Aang blinked in surprise. He had been so lost in thought he hadn't realized they'd arrived. Before them loomed the dock. Built from giant frost-oak trees, the docks of the Southern Water Tribe were some of the only wooden structures in the region. Frost-oak had a natural varnish, a layer that repelled the cold and kept it from decaying. Even though the docks were newly rebuilt, the deep color of the wood made them appear very old, older than any of the buildings in the village even. However what drew the Avatar's gaze was not the docks, or even the figure standing out at their farthest point.
In the darkness Aang had to squint to make out the massive raft that the demon had anchored in. It was a large, flat structure, with many small bumps littering its surface. Stepping forward several paces he tried to make it out in greater detail. The bumps were long and very dark in color; however there appeared to be a shimmering texture to them. As he approached the demon, without warning, advanced in his direction, closing the distance between them to a few feet. Aang turned briefly; all of his companions were waiting at the shore. They did not appear to be so much gripped by terror as repulsion.
"You are the Avatar." The demon said bluntly, catching him a little off guard. "Good. I have a message I was bidden to deliver."
"From your master?" The airbender tried to put a bite back into his response. He could not show weakness, not in front of this thing.
"From my Lord Oguanga." The demon confirmed. It bowed as it said his name, as if that in itself was sacred. "I am to return what you have lost and to tell you that you have a day."
"Return? What are you talking about?" The Avatar demanded. The demon motioned behind to raft.
"The bodies of your fallen. We have carefully wrapped them in the artic kelp that grows on your seabed. They should be...respected. You will have a day to mourn. It will give us time to address our own injured. Now is three hours past the midnight of the new day. We shall come at dawn on the morrow. You will have your day. Prepare." It turned to go.
"Wait!" Aang called. The demon stopped. "Why are you doing this?"
"We show our enemies courtesy." The demon replied. Then, more angrily it shot out: "although you have done nothing to deserve it." And with that it was gone, disappearing into the murky depths of the water. The Avatar stood on the dock for a few moments, watching the empty space before him. At length he heard approaching footsteps.
"Uh, what just happened there?" Came Sokka's confused voice.
"You...spoke like one of them." Zuko uttered, his tone relating his bewilderment. The airbender turned around to face his friends.
"That all sounded normal to me." He said. "Couldn't any of you understand it?" They all shook their heads.
"You sounded just like one of them." The Earth King commented, in a tone Aang wasn't sure he was comfortable with. Nobody said more for some time.
"What did it want?" Zuko asked at last.
"They're returning our dead." The Avatar replied, hardly believing his own words. "And giving us a day to mourn them. We have until sunrise tomorrow now to prepare."
"Was that all?" Arnook demanded.
"All?" Aang was struck. "What were you expecting?"
"Not this..." Zuko mused as he strode to the raft. "This is...civil."
"Yeah real nice." Sokka added sarcastically. "Hey they're murderers but at least we get to have funerals."
"He said they needed time to tend their injured too." The thought jumped into Aang's mind and out his mouth.
"Injured?" Suki whispered. "Only injured? Did we kill none of them?" The Avatar brushed past her as he stepped quickly back toward the camp.
"Where are you going?" The Earth King demanded. "These men need to be looked after.
"That's your job tonight." Aang called over his shoulder. "You brought me out here to talk to the demon, I did that. My wife is giving birth. This is the one evening in my life when I cannot be around death."
"But these men have their rights!" Arnook objected.
"See to them then!" The airbender hollered. "But make sure it is all taken care of by noon today, we have work to do."
"Emiko, could you moisten this cloth for me again?" Katara asked. She was sweating and her head felt like it was on fire. If she wasn't in labor, the waterbender would have guessed that a delirious fever was about to come on. Every bit of her body glistened. The moisture caused her hands to stick to the chair as she gripped as contraction after contraction raged through her body. It had been over an hour since Aang had left. Where could he be?
"Would you like something to drink?" The Air Nomad woman asked. She looked disheveled as well. Her hair, usually so tightly woven into a bun, hung lose across her face.
"Yes please, there should be a jug of herbal elixir hanging from the ceiling somewhere. Momo can show you where it is." Katara had yet to try the special remedy her grandmother had made her and honestly had mixed feelings about it. There came several small thuds and a cluttering sound as Emiko searched for the drink. Momo did his best to help and soon the two returned holding a clay beaker. The waterbender sighed and drunk the liquid, instantly glad she did so. It was like dumping cool water over her, just the thing she needed to feel a bit more comfortable. Looking up she could see the Air Nomad woman watching her with anxiety.
"I'm alright. You look tired though; you should drink something. We have nice fresh water pretty much everywhere. One of the advantages of living in a glacier." Emiko gave her a strange look. "Go on. Help yourself I insist. You are my friend, if you are going to suffer through this labor with me I want you to be comfortable." Emiko kept looking at her. Katara felt herself blush. "Do I have something on my face?" That snapped the other woman out of it.
"No!" She cried. "It's just – what you said there – you're in pain, I see it on your face yet – you called me – wanted me to – friend?" The Air Nomad spoke the word as though she had never heard it before. Katara raised her eyebrows.
"I can understand if you don't want to be, not after Aang and I put you through all of this."
"Not want to be. Of course I'd be. You've put me through nothing." The waterbender was surprised to see tears welling on the other woman's cheeks.
"Hey, Emiko it's alright. I hope I didn't upset you." This seemed to be the wrong thing to say as it made the Air Nomad cry harder.
"I am unfit to be in your home. I am not worthy of your friendship. Even after..." Emiko broke off. She stopped and wiped her eyes. "Forgive me, that was improper. I shouldn't have –"
"Emiko is something wrong?" Katara asked. She was getting the feeling more and more that there was something that the Air Nomad really wanted to tell her, tell all of them. But she couldn't put her finger on what it might be. She couldn't think on it long as more pain flashed inside her head. "Where is Aang?" She whispered to herself."
Emiko shook her head. "No, nothing is wrong. I'm just... I never expected to meet people like you up here." She said simply. "But this night isn't about me, it is about you. Need anything?"
"Nothing for now thanks. And I'm glad there's nothing wrong. Got enough big problems as it is, right?" Katara tried to smile.
"Have you thought of names?" Emiko asked, sitting beside the pregnant waterbender.
"Yes. Last month Aang and I came up with ten. We decided not to pick from them until we saw the child for ourselves. I came up with three girl names and two boy ones. He did the opposite."
"Are you nervous?" The Air Nomad asked.
"I'm a healer." Katara replied. "My body can take – aagh!" She cried out as a particularly powerful contraction hit her.
"Katara!" Came the voice she was longing to hear. Her husband stood in the doorway and was, in an instant, by her side. "Are you okay, I heard you scream!"
"Fine, Aang." She breathed back. "Especially with Emiko here to help me." She watched as the Avatar turned to the Air Nomad and hugged her.
"Thank you for watching over her for me." He said gratefully. Emiko looked as if she might cry again but managed to stop it. Instead she rose.
"I should go now." She replied shortly.
"Nonsense, stay and watch the moment. You'll be good company and you'll make sure I don't badger my wife to death." The airbender suggested. Katara watched Emiko's face; many emotions were flickering underneath the surface. At length she sat back down.
"Alright." She said simply and stayed. The hours drifted by as the sun rose upon the tundra. Many people came and went. Zuko, Toph and Suki all stopped in while Sokka simply arrived and refused to leave. Eventually, as the sun neared noon and the time drew near, Aang created air currents powerful enough to lift Katara from her chair and glide her gracefully to their bed. Kanna then appeared to help with the actual delivery, first reporting that Pakku was still alive and in increasingly stable condition.
As the moment occurred everyone was in the main room waiting, Zuko had even helped Mai out of bed and stood holding her in one arm and Lu Ten with the other. The only four people in the bedroom were Aang, Kanna, Emiko and, of course, Katara. Four soon became six as two lovely twin girls: Aara and Nuene came into the world. As everyone gathered to see the infants that Katara cradled in her arms, she watched as Aang drew his wooden flute and, nodding to each other, they began the duet of the first lullaby:
"Look back to the days past
When peace made one land one all
Our song was sung, a voice!
A voice melts snow and thaws frost
Ah but one land nevermore...
We sing, rejoice
We tell the tales
We laugh and cry
We love one more day...
Our nation split to two
A frozen brother, sister
To the north and the south
The ice cracks so middle deep!
Yet in the void, new life waits...
We sing, rejoice
We tell the tales
We laugh and cry
We love one more day..."
They all heard the song, even Azula, who had no business hearing it. It caused her to rise in her room and dance while her guards looked on, simply puzzled.
To be Continued...
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