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|Sealing the Rift|
Soaring With Delight.
After what seemed like an age of smooth gliding (which admittedly, though she wouldn't dare tell him, she was beginning to enjoy), an alien sensation reeled in the pit of her stomach.
"Are we going down?" she called over the wind.
"Yes," Aang replied.
When he didn't elaborate, Katara frowned. "Are we landing?" she pressed.
"No." He answered dreamily.
Katara huffed sulkily, annoyed by his vagueness. "Well, will you tell me what's going on?"
"No," said Aang, surprisingly firmly. "That would ruin the surprise. Just relax and enjoy the ride."
Despite her uncertainty, she found it relieving to not to have to worry about something for once. And so, she took Aang's advice, tightening her arms about his shoulders for good measure and settled onto his back.
Slowly, her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, which was not as pitch black as it had first seemed. Pale shapes were now distinguishable, including the glider above her and the boy below. Gathering by the pressing grey about them, Katara figured that they were in the depths of the foggy clouds that ran through the canyon. Peering down from above, she had often wondered what lay underneath them, and with a jolt of excitement she wondered whether tonight she would finally find out.
Sure enough, the grey soup thinned about her, and all of a sudden a thin strip of silver glittered below: a river. It twisted beneath them like a writhing snake as they sped through the canyon, and a gradual growing brightness before them caused Katara to look up. The end of the valley framed the sight before them: the ocean, dark and quiet, its surface sparkling with the reflection of the stars.
Katara couldn't suppress a broad grin, mirrored on Aang's now visible face, peering at her over his shoulder.
"Feel better?" he yelled.
"I-Yeah! I do!" Katara vaguely wondered how he knew of that inner turmoil she'd been experiencing earlier that evening.
He's still my best friend, after all she mused. Of course he would notice.
And Katara wasn't lying: she did feel better! Happy, actually. Happier than she'd been in a long while. "My ears feel a bit funny though," she said.
"Air pressure," he called. "Just hold your breath and pinch your nose!"
Katara obliged, and sure enough her ears cleared with a light pop.
"Good. Alright, hold on tight!"
The ground rushed up to meet them, and the glider closed with a neat snap. For a split second, Katara's elation was interrupted by a stab of panic: they would certainly smash into the ground, what with the break-neck speed at which they'd been travelling. She squeezed Aang's shoulders and winced in anticipation, bracing herself for impact. Time seemed to stand still as she waited for the crunch of their bodies slamming into the rock.
And then came something completely unexpected.
Ever so lightly, her toes touched the earth. Katara's eyes snapped open, and she looked down. Still clinging onto Aang for dear life, their feet were flat on the ground. No broken bones, no life-threatening injuries.
She drew a sharp breath. Airbending. Of course. She scolded herself.
Katara groaned into the back of Aang's tunic, still feeling thoroughly stupid. "What?"
"I, er, I can't really breathe with your arms around my neck like that."
"Huh?" she looked up, and with a start realized the stranglehold she had on the purpling Avatar.
"Oh! Sorry! I'm sorry!" She sprung away from him and stared at the back his head in alarm.
With a choked laugh, Aang turned to face her, rubbing his neck gingerly. "It's okay," he said, his face returning to a healthier color. "I guess it's been a while since you last flew on a glider, huh."
Katara shuffled her feet bashfully. "Well, yes," she admitted, very embarrassed. "And it wasn't dark. And, I kind of had a say in when I'd be thrown off a cliff. I wasn't grabbed from behind."
Aang tittered sheepishly. "Ha ha, yeah...that might have been a bit much..." He glanced at her guiltily.
"But you know," said Katara brightly, edging closer. "That was actually pretty fun, in the end. Just...give me a bit of warning next time, okay?"
Aang grinned. "Sure thing," he said. "Now, have you noticed what we're standing on?"
Katara blinked, and looked at her feet. She was standing in the corner of a large green tile, a square perhaps roughly five paces by five paces. The one on which Aang stood was a bright orange triangle. They were standing on a huge flat surface, surrounded by a high rim of stone. Katara could hear the faint splashing of the sea crashing against the far wall. It was then that she registered the little flecks of seaweed swirling in puddles near her feet.
"It's a giant bowl," she said slowly, hopping onto the next tile.
Aang shrugged. "Technically yes," he said. "But guess again!"
"Orange and green tiles in a perfect circle..." Her expression brightened. "It's a giant Pai Sho table! Whoa..."
Aang nodded enthusiastically. "The nuns were much better at Pai Sho than the monks were," he sniggered. "Every time Gyatso visited, he always came back in a bad mood. He never won a game here, not once!" Aang settled cross-legged on a stray boulder, one of many that now speckled the tiled surface. "It's said that Avatar Yangchen was the one of the greatest Pai Sho players ever to live, and that she oversaw the building of the table herself. She was pretty smart about it too: to prevent young nuns from skipping out on their duties, she not only built the table way out here by the sea, but the table is only accessible during certain times of the day."
He chuckled as he watched Katara leap from tile to tile, her arms spread for balance. "That's why there's seaweed and rock pools everywhere. The bowl, like you said, fills up with water during high tide."
"What did they use for pieces?" Katara called over her shoulder. "Surely not rocks!"
"No, we used reed baskets, with the symbols painted on top. That way, an airbender could simply...whoosh!" Aang blew a gust of air to emphasize his point. "And move the piece to the next square. They were weighted at the bottom so that they wouldn't blow away in a regular breeze...or if the loser got upset."
Aang got to his feet, and began to hop across the board, mimicking his companion.
Katara laughed. "So where are the pieces now? I mean, you couldn't just leave them to get washed away!"
"There's a cave around here somewhere where we used to keep them." Aang's expression brightened. "Hey, maybe we could play!"
"Do we have time?" She sounded unsure. "I mean, you said the bowl fills up at high tide."
He shrugged in response. "Well, the tiles are still wet, so I guess the tide only just went out. I think we've got two hours at least."
She didn't seem convinced.
"Don't worry!" said Aang reassuringly. "The games don't last that long!"
"Oh, no, I know that, it's just..." She fiddled with a strand of her hair. "I'm, er, not very good at Pai Sho." A sudden gust of air behind her caused Katara to start. She turned, only to find Aang had vanished. She gaped.
"Well," he said slyly, right behind her.
Katara jumped violently.
"Lucky you've got a master Pai Sho player to help you out!"
A bright smile lit her face. "Alright then, Mr. Modest, you're on. Just don't be too surprised if you blow me off the board."
"With Airbending or during the game?"
"Both! Now, you'd better go find those pieces and I'll get to work clearing away these rocks." As she spoke, she pulled the puddles together in a long swirl of water about her arms, and whipped it impressively towards one of the boulders.
The pair gaped as the water splashed against the rock with little effect, pooling once more upon the tiles. Katara stared at her hands.
"Uh..." Aang scratched the back of his head in puzzlement. "What happened?"
Katara sighed in frustration. "There's no moon tonight," she grumbled, glaring at the night sky. "Great."
"That's okay, I'll move the rocks with Earthbending. Why don't you go find the cave?"
"But I don't know where it is!"
Aang pointed to the cliff side. "It's just up there, by that big bit of stone sticking out, on top of that rock that looks like Appa. You'll see it."
"Well, alright." Katara turned on her heel, and jogged across the slippery board. It didn't take her long to reach the rim of the bowl, and she scrambled up a small set of stairs laid into the rock. Handy, she thought, relieved that she didn't have to climb the steep wall. A loud crash behind her caused Katara to jump. She whipped about in alarm.
"Sorry!" Came a faint yell. "I'll throw them over here..."
The shape of the Pai Sho table is a lot easier to see from up here she thought, impressed. It must have taken forever to build!
A tiny orange speck in the middle of the board waved at her, before hoisting another rock into the air with a flourish of his arms.
Katara waved back, grinning to herself as she climbed the last of the steps. Now, looking about, a rock that looks like Appa...
It didn't take her long to locate the huge, bison-shaped lump. She clambered up its side and stood on top of its head. Katara giggled.
"It really does look like Appa!" she exclaimed. "Horns and all!" She proceeded to crane her neck, squinting about in the darkness to locate the pointy bit of rock Aang was talking about. Jutting from the cliff immediately above her she found it: what at first appeared to be merely an overhanging piece of granite was actually an intricately carved stone awning. Evidence of decorative columns that had once supported it lay in rubble ruins on the ground, but the structure proved to be strong enough to hold by itself.
Well, that wasn't too hard, peering into the depths of the cave. It was pitch black. "Hey, Aang?"
"Yeah?" The response was faint.
"It's pretty dark in here, how deep is the cave?"
"How deep is the cave?"
"Hold on, I'm coming..."
Katara turned to see Aang bouncing up the last of the steps. That was fast.
He beamed. "Hey, you found it!"
"Did you finish clearing the table?"
"Sure did!" He snapped his fingers, and a little orange flame appeared in the palm of his hand that instantly lit up the mouth of the cave. Still stone faces of Air Nomad nuns stared blankly back at them. Apparently the entrance wasn't the only elaborate part of the giant Pai Sho cabinet.
Something fluttering on the ground at their feet caught Katara's attention, and she bent down to pick it up: a small yellow rag had been trapped under a large pebble.
The corners were singed.
Katara became aware that Aang's focus had been drawn, same as hers, to the little piece of cloth in her hands. Her eyes widened.
"Oh, I-" Her voice simply ceased to function as Aang wordlessly took the cloth from her fingers. His expression was set and unreadable: he simply looked at the scrap in his hand. Katara bit her lip, watching him warily.
One of the first things she had noticed about the Western Air Temple when they arrived was that it appeared to be untouched, most likely due to its location. Though it had never been brought up in conversation, she believed that Aang too had appreciated the lack of evidence of his people's destruction. In fact, up until now, she had almost forgotten about the massacre that had taken place here a century ago. The Northern Air Temple had been cleared of that proof, as had the Eastern Air Temple, from what she heard. Katara had been worried about the final Temple, and was relieved that it too seemed to lack corpses and Fire Nation symbols. But now, here was proof of the genocide, gently flapping between Aang's fingers: it was staring them right in the face.
The silence was a very uncomfortable one, and Katara was unsure of how he would handle the situation. Will he lose control, like he did at the Southern Air Temple? No, that at least wasn't possible: the Avatar State had been blocked from his grasp. For a guilty moment Katara was thankful for that. It wasn't like Aang to break down and cry, so she doubted that would be the case.
But as he stood there, his eyes boring into his palm, Katara felt that as his friend it was her duty to do something. Anything!
Should she give him a hug? In the past she would have done so without hesitation. Her arms twitched as she half-followed this course of action. But...Katara grimaced as the flood of memories washed down upon her, the flood of...awkwardness.
In a flash their friendship was changed. Different. She didn't know whether hugging Aang would mean the same as it had done before, and if it didn't...
This is stupid!
At last, a little voice in the back of her head cut through her paralysis.
Stop being so selfish!
Katara shook herself, the surge of insecurity having subsided. She stepped forward, fully prepared to give her friend the hug she knew he so desperately needed.
But before she got the chance Aang had pocketed the scrap, and moved into the cave.
Katara froze, her arms half-raised in what she was sure was a very silly-looking position. The moment had passed. Why had she hesitated? Stupid, stupid, stupid-
"Are you coming?" She looked up to see Aang's face, illuminated by the small orange flame, smiling at her.
She gaped. "Uh..."
She blinked. By all accounts, he appeared to have completely forgotten the incident, as if she had simply imagined it. But Katara knew better: the smile was forced, and his voice had a strange, strained quality to it that she had only ever heard during that awful time on the Serpent's Pass.
She wondered whether or not she should press the matter.
"Nothing," she heard herself say. "I'm right behind you."
His gaze lingered on her a moment longer, before he continued into the depths of the cave.
Together, We Descend Into the Unknown.
True to her word, Katara remained behind him all the way. He seemed happy enough, babbling about Air Nomad architecture and practices. They would pause by a statue, here and there, while Aang explained to her who they were, and whether or not he knew them.
"...and this is Sister Zhifang. I didn't get a chance to meet her personally, but from what I heard this statue appears to be pretty accurate."
"Really?" asked Katara incredulously. Aang nodded, stifling his laughter. "Wow..."
"Yeah. Air Nomads mostly made fruit pies for charity, but it seems that what few we kept, she, er, found them."
"Found them?" She arched an eyebrow.
"Well... disposed of them, I guess. But I'm sure she had a 'round' personality!" What started as hushed giggles quickly turned into howls of laughter, bouncing wildly about the walls of the cave. Minutes later, Aang wiped a tear from his cheek, still chuckling.
"Boy, I haven't laughed so hard since Toph practiced Earthbending on Sokka!" he said weakly, dropping his shoulder against the wall of the cave in a cloud of dust.
Katara sniggered, and followed suit, but inhaled a lungful of dust. "It's pretty dusty in here," she choked. "I think we should hurry up and find these pieces before the tide comes in."
Aang grunted in agreement, rubbing his nose vigorously. "Good idea," he said breathily, earning a curious glance from Katara. "I think the end of the cave is just u-uh-UH-"
Katara's eyes widened in realization, and she ducked. An explosive sneeze rattled the walls of the Pai Sho cabinet, sending a dusty funnel whirling over Katara's head and out of the mouth of the cave. Once the roaring wind settled, she cracked open an eyelid. The flame had since gone out, and they had been plunged into darkness. Somewhere ahead, Aang sniffed loudly.
"Katara?" he called. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," she said, warily getting to her feet. "That was quite a sneeze." Suddenly the little orange flame illuminated Aang's face once more, hovering eerily in the darkness.
He tittered sheepishly. "Sorry about that... But I think we're near the end of the cave!"
"Oh good!" Katara fumbled through the darkness, getting a grip at last on the Avatar's arm. Quite to her surprise, a trickle of air blew past her cheek. "Was that you?"
"No," replied the Avatar, maneuvering them through the tunnel. "They're just air vents. You know, to keep the air fresh this deep inside the earth? If you walked on top of the cliffs you'd find little holes in the ground. They had them in the deeper caves in the Southern Air Temple. Sometimes winged lemurs would sleep in them. When that happened, the air scouts would have to fly down the mountainside with bells and-"
Suddenly, Katara giggled.
"It's funny...I was just thinking that, somehow, we always end up in caves."
Aang grinned. "Hey, you're right!"
Katara smiled dreamily as she thought about it. Caves were becoming a common haunt for the pair of them. Admittedly, the first time they had been trapped.
Well, that was pretty awful, until- Katara abruptly let go of his arm.
Aang shot her a curious look. "Katara?" he ventured.
Thankfully, she didn't have to answer him: at that point, she stubbed her toe rather hard on the cave wall.
"Hey! This is it!"
"This is what?" asked Katara sullenly, rubbing her toe.
"The back of the cave!"
She looked about in mild interest. "I don't see any baskets."
"That's because they're all stacked about the edges," said Aang brightly. "Here, you'll see..." He expanded the little flame in his palm until the entire chamber was lit in a yellow glow.
But In Our Darkest Moments...
The first thing Katara noticed was the lack of baskets. Instead, perfect rings of little black stones lay about the floor, nested in piles of ash. She glanced at Aang, only to find his eyes wide with horror and fixed on some point above her head.
Katara turned, and immediately felt as if someone had punched her in the stomach.
Arching above them was a giant charred ribcage, which they had unknowingly walked through. A few of the vertebrae had been knocked out of line where they had stepped. A great horned skull with wide black eye sockets grinned at them from their feet, a few tufts of ashen hairs still clinging to the surface.
But this was not nearly the worst of it.
Leaning upon either side of the great ribs were two identical, smaller replicas of the skeleton. Two more sad little skulls littered the floor, each with two tell-tale bumps upon their temples promising magnificent horns like that of their parent.
They would never have the chance to show: the Fire Nation had made sure of that.
"Air bison..." said Katara weakly, "They hid in here when..." Her throat tightened painfully, and she swallowed. Tearing her eyes from the miserable sight, her gaze was drawn to suspicious black stars spreading from the air vents in the ceiling above. "The soldiers must have found the vents, and..."
Her hands flew to her mouth in horror.
Katara could picture it in terrible clarity.
A mother bison herding her calves into shelter, hidden far from the carnage of the Firebenders laying waste to the Temple. A Fire Nation ship gliding down the river from the sea, one of many. Noticing the clay circles in the sides of the cliff, they would have easily guessed what they were, and figured that it lead to a place of shelter.
The little family had been roasted alive.
Beside her Aang stood perfectly still, his eyes jerking from the mother's skull to the calves' skeletons.
Katara drew a shuddering breath, watching him. Her vision swam as a few stray tears spilled down her cheeks, unchecked. But the last airbender remained stiff as a poker.
She waited until she could wait no longer.
Suddenly, there came a huge gust of wind. Katara yelped, flinging her arms in front of her face.
Her heart throbbed painfully in her chest: the Avatar State?
She wouldn't have been surprised, if only she hadn't known it was impossible. Then, it was pitch black: she heard the slapping of feet on rock growing fainter and fainter until the sound vanished altogether. Breathing heavily, she lowered her arms and opened her eyes.
She gingerly spread her arms before her, fumbling around in the darkness. "Aang!" Panic stabbed at her belly. Her fingers brushed something smooth: she gripped it. It had a sickeningly familiar curve to it.
A rib. She shrieked, stumbling backwards. Her back hit the wall, and she blindly clutched at her skirt.
She was alone.
She had to get out.
...They Give Us A Comforting Light
The air felt tight and heavy, pressing in on her from all sides as she stumbled through the dark. Her eyes were wide open, but she couldn't see a thing. Katara could almost feel the ghosts of the bison swirling around her, once gentle creatures turned to sinister shades seeking revenge upon any and all who disturbed their resting place. It would have been an understatement to say she was terrified. How long had it been since he'd ran? A moment ago she was sure it had been mere seconds, but what if it had been hours? Days? She wouldn't know. How could he leave her?
Forget her in a place like this?
Don't be so selfish, she thought miserably No wonder he ran, and how can I blame him? Poor Aang... She hoped he was alright.
Now the silence seemed to eat away at her ears. She picked up quiet noises, the sources of which she could only guess at: the wind moaning through the vents, the bones creaking far behind her. The shuffling of her feet seemed impossibly loud, and she winced with each step. Every one of her senses was on red alert, made worse by the fact that she could see and smell nothing.
The tunnel seemed to go on forever: had it been that long when they had walked in?
Maybe, she thought with a jolt of panic, I took a wrong turn? No, that's ridiculous. There had been no turn offs. Were there?
And then, she walked straight into somebody.
They both shrieked in surprise, but Katara continued to struggle long after the other had stopped.
The evil apparition had her by the shoulders.
"Katara! Katara, stop! Please stop, it's me! It's me!"
She froze. "Aang?"
The figure sniffed in affirmation. "Katara," his voice cracked slightly. "I'm really sorry, I didn't...I shouldn't have...I..."
Whatever Aang was going to say turned into nothing more than a croak of surprise as Katara lunged forward and drew him into a tight hug. He responded by gingerly wrapping his arms about her waist, dropping his head onto her shoulder.
After a long, drawn out silence, it was Katara who finally spoke. "Like I said," she murmured. "I was never any good at Pai Sho. I don't really want to play anymore."
Aang smiled against her neck and closed his eyes.
As always, be sure to check out the rest of the series, hope you enjoy it!
For the collective works of the author, go here.