|More from FrodoTheHutt||Positive||None|
|The Man in the Clouds|
He did not need to open his eyes to see her grave; he knew every detail of his surroundings by heart. He sat in the dead center of the garden. Directly behind him rooted an ancient scarlet lotus tree that provided shade with its tangled labyrinth of branches and blossoms. About a yard ahead of him a little stream cut the garden in half, emptying out into a lily pond to his right. A small stone bridge forded the stream and connected the two halves of the garden together. It was on this opposite side, directly across from him that his mother's grave stood. A simple stone with her name carved into it and a small eternal flame marked the site. Zuko never felt that she would have wanted anything fancy. The sound of a footstep echoed behind him.
"Has the Avatar arrived?" Zuko asked flatly without opening his eyes or turning his head. He had given strict orders not to be disturbed until Aang and Katara reached the Palace.
"I do not know about the Avatar but I came to see if you wouldn't mind some company." Came an old, gravely voice that Zuko instantly recognized.
"Uncle?" He uttered in a surprised tone. "You...you can't be here!"
"If the Fire Lord wishes it I will leave." Iroh's voice stated in an indifferent tone. More footsteps filled Zuko's mind.
"No Uncle wait!" He said suddenly.
"Yes Fire Lord?"
"Please don't call me that Uncle." Zuko kept his eyes closed but furrowed his brow in frustration. The footsteps came closer again. Zuko heard a slight shuffling sound as his Uncle sat down in the grass next to him.
"Very well Zuko. I came because I heard something was troubling you. I thought you might need someone to talk to." The grizzled voice expressed concern and Zuko suddenly found himself fighting to keep back tears.
"Does it ever get any easier?" He asked in a whispered tone. "Losing people..."
"Like your Mother?" His Uncle cut him off. "Zuko I hope you do not blame yourself for what happened. There is no way you could have known. Nothing you could have done even if you had. Sometimes in life these things happen. It is inevitable."
"It seems to be happening a lot lately." Zuko replied quickly. His Uncle laughed.
"A lesson learned by every man who lives to see his day." He answered. "There is not one person living who does not experience death in some way. Even a child squashing a roach-fly is becoming familiar with it on some level. In various ways death is the most beautiful aspect of life because without it nothing would have color. Everything is precious in the knowledge it won't last forever."
"But Uncle you're missing the point!" Zuko snapped haughtily. "How can we...how can I go on being sure I'm still doing the right thing if everyone wiser than me dies! How can I stay on the path?" He fought back more tears while his Uncle sighed heavily.
"Zuko...I am surprised at you. Where is this lack of confidence coming from? You have not needed any guidance to maintain your way for quite some time now. You are a strong Firelord. I doubt there are many who could have kept the country together the way you did after your father's imprisonment."
"But that wasn't just me." Zuko muttered, lowering his head. "I had you and the Avatar and our friends to help. I don't know if I could have done it without you." His Uncle sighed again.
"Zuko, being a strong man does not mean being able to defeat all of your problems by yourself. In fact, it is often the stronger man who realizes when he needs help and accepts it."
Zuko clenched his fists. "But I've relied on others...you, for so long. Who will give me advice now?"
"What makes you think I won't be there for you if you needed me?" Iroh asked in a humble tone.
"Because Uncle..." Zuko started, and this time he discovered that he was unable to stop the tears from flowing. "Now you're gone too." He opened his eyes and looked around at the deserted garden, which suddenly felt so empty. A deep sigh escaped his lips as he reached up and wiped the tears off his face with his robe. Several minutes passed where Zuko just stared at the spot where he had imagined his Uncle sitting: a blank patch of grass identical to any other among his surroundings. All the animals' voices had died away. The garden was quiet now, quiet as a tomb.
"Daddy why are you crying? Do you miss Uncle?" Zuko jumped as a small voice cut through the air. Turning he saw his three year old son Lu Ten standing in the entrance to the garden. Behind him his mother leaned against the wall, choosing as usual to remain in the shadows rather than the sunlight. Standing he turned to address the pair, allowing himself to wipe his eyes once more in the process. Zuko smiled at his son. The black haired boy immediately smiled back and ran over to his father, throwing his arms around him in a hug.
"I was missing him but it's not so bad now that you're here." Zuko whispered in a light voice. Mai walked over and hugged him tenderly as well. She relaxed her grip slightly after a few moments and planted a gentle kiss on his lips.
"You're holding up then?" She asked, clearly worried.
"Yeah...as well as I can." Zuko replied. Then a tugging at his robes caused him to look down. Lu Ten gazed back up at him with excited eyes.
"Daddy you're not going to believe this!" He gasped excitedly. "But there's a man up in the clouds outside! He's on a flying cow!"
Appa roared a greeting as Aang snapped the harness, signaling it was time to land. The Airbender sat on the great horned head with the same goofy grin he had had since childhood. Behind him three people sat relaxed in the saddle. Chief Hakoda leaned against the left side of the saddle, staring down at the scenery below him with a mixed reaction. Aang knew he would never admit to it but the old Water Tribe Chief still carried an underlying feeling of resentment toward the Fire Nation. Not that the Avatar blamed him. Given all that Hakoda had been through in his life well, Aang reached back briefly and touched the scar on the middle of his back; some hurts never really did fully heal.
Across from Hakoda Sokka sat looking over the side with great anticipation in his eyes. When was the last time he had even been to the Fire Nation?
"Hey Sokka," Aang called. "Careful not to lean out too far now. If you fall Appa may not be quick enough to catch you before you hit the ground!" Appa bellowed angrily at the insult to his fitness and Aang patted him quickly on the head. "Just kidding boy, I know you're not old. You're seasoned and spry!" There came a softer growl from beneath him as the bison accepted the compliment.
"Yeah Appa and if you missed it's only because Sokka's head weighed him down too much." Came the playful laugh from the back of the saddle. Aang chuckled and threw a glance back toward his wife. Katara returned the look in a sheepish grin, laughing more now at the lameness of her own joke.
She was propped against some blankets to help keep her comfortable. Her Water Tribe coat, which had been draped over her at take off, now lay discarded to the side. The outfit she currently wore was incredibly light, as the heat had been bothering her increasingly lately. But all that was normal and to be expected in her condition. Reaching forward Katara rested one hand on her enlarged belly and let her other hang off to the side. The baby was expected soon now though the shaman in the village had assured her she had at least another season and that it was still okay to travel. Aang kept smiling as he turned his head back to the front. He still couldn't wrap his head around it. A father, he was going to be a father.
"Wow...clever as always Katara." Sokka said in a drone. Then looking over the side he added. "I still can't believe all this. We're coming down on the Royal Palace of the Fire Nation about to see Zuko and Mai again after all this time and I'm excited to see them!"
"Well sure, why wouldn't you be?" Aang asked.
"Cause remember all those times they tried to capture us? Like for the first however many months we knew them?" Sokka replied back in his usual manner.
"Sokka that was ages ago. Zuko and Mai helped us end that war remember? Without them there is no way we could have done it." Katara chided. "And after that Zuko fought so hard to keep the peace between nations."
"Yeah well I wasn't there for that." Sokka responded haughtily.
"Right...you were too busy playing chief back home to notice what was happening in the rest of the world around you."
"Hey I said you and Aang would be all we needed to send to help the Fire Nation and I was right wasn't I? Besides there was work to be done at home, right dad?" Sokka looked across to Hakoda whom had been keeping silent the whole time. He stared at his son thoughtfully for a moment before opening his mouth.
"Sokka is right Katara. I needed him at my side more than you and Aang did but we were all prepared to assist if things had gotten that far."
"Gotten that far? You mean to civil war?" Demanded Katara becoming annoyed. "By then it would have been way too late to end things quickly and we'd be back in the Hundred Year War right now!"
"Honey please, don't get yourself upset. Think of the baby." Aang pleaded from up front. "It wasn't that bad. And it was over five years ago. Come on now we're landing, let's not have everyone arguing when Zuko needs us." The conversation died away. They all knew he was right. Today was the day of Iroh's funeral and the young Firelord would need all the support they could give him.
They all dismounted quickly. Sokka and Hakoda jumping down while Aang helped Katara down a little slide he had installed on the edge of the saddle. He knew Katara felt slightly humiliated to be in a position of such handicap so he always made it as quick and fun a ride as possible, though not too fast as to risk injury to the baby. Once her feet touched the ground Aang grabbed her arms to stop her from falling back. She rocked once but quickly steadied. Even this pregnant Katara was still very nimble; Aang just didn't want her taking chances.
Once they had finished with that...procedure (Aang decided that was the best way to describe it) all turned to greet Zuko and Mai. The pair were walking out of the royal palace accompanied by...
"Zuko, is that a mini-you?" Sokka asked incredulously as he pointed a finger at Lu Ten. The young toddler immediately halted and dove behind his mother's robes. Zuko chuckled at the reaction.
"He's already a lot smarter than me." He said in a proud tone. "Takes more after his mother."
"Hmm...one way to test that." Sokka mused, scratching his chin. Suddenly Aang felt himself being grabbed and thrust toward Lu Ten. "Hey Zuko Jr., when you look at this man do you want at all to chase and/or capture him?" Lu Ten looked nervous but slowly shook his head. "Wow. That settles it then, definitely does not take after you Zuko." Everyone in the circle had a laugh at this, some more so than others. When he was finished Zuko took Lu Ten's hand and brought him back out for all to see.
"Everyone this is little Lu Ten. Lu Ten, meet Water Tribe Chief Hakoda, Sokka, Katara and Avatar Aang."
"Please, call me Uncle Sokka!" Sokka put in before anyone else could react. At that moment a small winged creature zipped by Aang's ear and landed on Lu Ten's shoulder. The child squealed and the animal immediately took off again, spluttering various noises before touching down upon Katara's head.
"And this is Momo." Katara put in quickly. "Sorry if he scared you, don't worry though, he's harmless." Lu Ten looked at the small creature for several seconds before a smile appeared on his face and he began jumping up and down.
"Momo!" He yelled excitedly. "Want to pet Momo!" The lemur looked quizzically back at the boy. Clearly Momo was very unsure of how to react. Finally he glided over to the still jumping Lu Ten and landed gracefully in the boy's arms. Delighted, the toddler began instantly to pet Momo's head. The adults watched this scene unfold with a smile on each of their faces. It was good to see such innocence existed in the Fire Nation. Finally Aang coughed to signal everyone's attention.
"Zuko I'm sorry about your Uncle." He began remorsefully. "He was a good friend to me, I'm sure this has to be really hard for you."
"Yeah..." Zuko replied. "Thanks Aang. It has been hard, but seeing all of you come together now to show your support and sympathies is very comforting. I know how some of you feel still feel about the stigma of this place." The Firelord seemed to address the last part of his statement to Chief Hakoda. The Water Tribe Chieftain also clearly detected this, for he turned to give a reply.
"You are an ally of the Water Tribe and a close friend of my children. Your loss is treated with a much reverence as the loss of one of our own."
"Thank you Chief Hakoda." Mai cut in before Zuko could reply. "From both of us." Again Aang signaled for attention.
"The sun has just finished clearing the trees. We will have to fly quickly if we're to reach Ba Sing Se in time for the start of the ceremony. Toph and the Order of the White Lotus are already there waiting for us. The Earth King informed me that the entire populace is turning out to pay homage."
"I agree; we should leave." Zuko responded promptly. "Are you sure Appa won't mind taking on more passengers?"
"Nah Appa's fine with it aren't you boy?" Aang asked, throwing a glance back toward the bison. Appa bellowed and lifted his feet in preparation for take off.
"I guess that means time to get back in the saddle." Katara laughed lightly. She was already blushing thinking of how Aang was going to have to airbend her back on.
"Yeah...sorry Katara, maybe we should have just kept you up there." Aang replied as he rubbed the back of his baldhead.
"No it's fine." Katara stopped him short. "I hate being treated differently right now. I'll be glad when I'm back to normal."
"I know but at least you didn't have servants following you around twenty four-seven to make sure you didn't stub your royal toe." Mai put in. "Zuko here must've put on an entire battalion to make sure I didn't have a second of time to myself."
"Hey you two can swap stories on the bison. Let's go people!" Sokka called. He had already hoisted himself up and was waving at them impatiently.
"My somebody's suddenly in a big hurry to get to Ba Sing Se. You think it was because he found out the Order's going to be there. That means a certain Kyoshi Warrior will be there too." Katara teased as she approached Appa.
"Hey Suki and I are just friends now. I haven't even seen her since you got married! Now come on!" Came the angry retorts from atop the bison's saddle. Zuko chuckled and shook his head slowly before turning to Aang.
"You get ready, I have to go see somebody before we leave." Aang nodded knowingly.
"Think she'll come with us?" He asked the young Firelord. Zuko had already starting walking but stopped at the question.
"No." He responded at length. "Not a chance." He then headed up into the palace and vanished from sight.
The trip to Ba Sing Se was an uneventful one. Appa flew straight on through the first day without stopping but on the second the bison was definitely showing signs of fatigue so Aang chose to slow their pace. In total it took slightly over a week for the group to reach the outer walls. All along the trip the group had been talking, swapping stories, Aang liked it. The atmosphere reminded him so much of ten years ago that he felt younger and more childish. He noticed Katara too had more energy and frequently he had to stop his pregnant wife from trying to set up the camp at nights.
"I can handle it Aang, it's just a tent. I used to set them up all the time remember." She scolded him one evening as the sun set through the trees.
"I know Katara, I know." He said soothingly. "But please this one trip let me and Sokka handle it. I know you're still capable but please...do it for me." He brushed a long bug out of her hair and smiled sweetly at her. Katara tried to look angry but he could tell his grin had worked.
"Oh...of all the cheap, underhanded..." She broke into a smirk of her own. "You win this time. But don't think I'll be forgetting this anytime soon."
The day before they had reached the wall Lu Ten saw his first platypus-bear and Aang found himself spending the rest of the afternoon telling the eager boy stories of all the bizarre animals he had encountered during his travels across the globe.
"Just wait till you meet Bosco squirt." Sokka added as they zipped along over the trees. "You'll never see a stranger animal again as long as you live."
Finally the wall was in under them and the group still found themselves unable to contain the expression of awe at the unending city that sprawled before their eyes. Lu Ten, who had never been to Ba Sing Se prior, had the strongest reaction. Aang was seated on the front rim of the saddle holding the reins. As the Earth Kingdom Capitol appeared he felt Katara come up behind him and squeeze his arm. Putting a hand back he ran it through her hair and held her head next to his.
"So many memories..." She whispered faintly under her breath.
"So many friends." Aang finished for her. He turned and kissed her passionately as Appa flew towards the setting sun.
Meanwhile, below Aang and his friends, millions of people began to take to the streets. Some came from work while others stood up calmly and left their homes, all filing out into the streets and heading for the upper levels. A parade-like precession of traffic clogged every ounce of open space as the citizens of Ba Sing Se headed off to Iroh's funeral ceremony. All eyes were straight ahead. Nobody even threw a glance at two shady figures who hung back in a dirty, dark alleyway.
One glance at the pair betrayed them as siblings. It was the eyes. Both people slumped against the alley wall each had an eye of bronze and one of amber. They were brother and sister. The sister was lean and older. Dark ratted hair hung down over her face and covered up patches of grim that were caked on her skin. She only wore one tattered shoe as her other foot lay open and unprotected, covered in cuts from the sharp walkways of the city. Both of their sets of clothes were in shambles.
Despite this her brother still looked imposing. He was malnourished yet still a giant. A towering mass of skin and jagged bone that was joined together by some unknown resolve. A large bump stuck out of the left side of his head, a scar from a brutal fight a few years prior. Not like he needed his head anyway. His sister was the brains of the two.
"Hey Kei," He began in a dull robotic tone. "What do you suppose that is up there?" He raised a sausage-like finger to the sky and pointed. His sister followed.
"It's the Avatar on his flying bison." She replied sullenly. "If he's here it must mean that they'll be starting soon. That also means we'll be starting soon so look alive!"
"...Right." The giant replied. He nodded his head a couple of times as if trying to rattle forwards his memory. His sister noticed and after a couple moments she sighed in frustration.
"Geez Toeru can't you remember anything?" She growled in an impatient snarl.
"I'm sorry Kei, I am trying but I have forgot." Toeru scratched his head. "I knows we are going to rob folks when everyone goes up high but I forget whose we robbing." Kei sighed and tried in vain to wipe away some of the dirt from her face. After a few moments she looked up at the throbbing crowd of people that continued to pass by.
"Once everyone's up at that Fire Nation general's funeral you and I are going to pay a visit to the house of the rich blind woman that just moved in. I heard her family was really loaded out in the country so I'm sure she's got plenty of valuables worth taking."
"Right." Toeru said again, scratching his head. "But wait, I thought I remembered you telling me earlier that she was friends with the Avatar!" He had begun shouting so Kei had to silence him with a raise of her hand. After a second she looked around and, seeing that nobody was paying attention, pulled her brother in closer for a whisper.
"Of course but all of them will be at the ceremony see. Not a soul will be home. Besides, even if she was, she's blind. She'll never see us coming." Kei snickered a bit causing Toeru to start chortling along.
Around them millions of people drifted onward and upward, hundreds of feet up to the upper levels where the Avatar and his friends were just touching down. Dusk had fallen on Ba Sing Se.
For the collective works of the author, go here.