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|The Underground City Part Two - An Liao|
"People?" Aang repeated, his tone suggesting that he was not sure he had heard correctly. An icy breeze kicked up out of nowhere and suddenly he felt very cold.
"That's crazy." Sokka said. "You're just messing with us Toph! I mean there can't really be people down in a place like this! Nobody could survive here!" He laughed unconvincingly. "The whole thing is a joke." Around him no one shared the smile. Toph still looked stricken as a statue. Aang felt Katara move closer to him and put his arm defensively around her.
"There's so many..." Toph slowly got out, the words falling from her mouth. "At least a hundred, no more like two hundred. Men, women and children, I can hear them all." She felt the ground again with her hands, greatly increasing her sight. "Oh my gosh, you guys are not going to believe this, but there's a whole city under us!"
"Ummm aren't we already in an underground city?" Suki wondered aloud. Toph dismissed her with a wave of the hand.
"No I mean deeper than us, much deeper. Even with my hands on the ground I can barely feel it! This passage just keeps going down and at the end of it...Twinkle Toes use your feet like I showed you and take a look!" Aang felt unsure that he could comply but tried anyway. Closing his eyes he focused all of his entire chi into his feet. He sensed as the pulses begin to vibrate out into the firm, unyielding earth beneath him. The waves traveled but weakened. He felt the tunnel, Toph had been right there, it did just seem to keep on going down forever then...nothing. The Avatar sighed. It was just too far; he couldn't concentrate well enough to feel things that far away. His eyes opened.
"I'm sorry," He whispered. "I'm just not as good as you, Toph." Katara leaned her head against his in comfort.
"It's okay." She breathed. "You did your best." Aang smiled at her. The grin was returned. His eyes welled with love, no matter what Katara always supported him, she was like a tree he could lean against when fatigued. She was unyielding, and for him unending. Everything that was his whole world stared back at him through beautiful sapphire eyes.
Toph was sifting her hands around through the dirt, her brow furrowed in focus. Finally she stood up. "Well, if you can't see it my way, I guess we'll have to go try and see it yours."
"Wait," Sokka interrupted. "Are you suggesting that we..."
"Yep." Toph stated plainly. "I think we have to go down there." Aang was immediately worried.
"I don't know." He told Toph. "We don't know whose down there and Katara isn't exactly in fighting shape if they're not friendly. It might be too dangerous."
"Aang I'm fine really, don't worry about me." Katara put in. She was once again staring at him. Her hand squeezed his arm.
"But I do worry." He replied. "It's not just you now Katara, we have a baby to worry about too. You know I can't bear the thought of anything bad happening to you." He looked at her and his eyes shown with sincerity. She smiled sweetly at him.
"We don't all have to go down there." Suki suggested.
"Yeah!" Sokka added. "What if you, me and Toph headed down, Aang while Katara and Suki waited here?" The blind earthbender raised an eyebrow.
"A second ago you sounded too scared to take another step and now you're volunteering? Why don't you stay and Suki comes with us?"
"Er – well Suki is more qualified to guard Katara than I am and she's also a faster runner so she can come get us if anything goes wrong and, and well what if Katara has an issue with her pregnancy? You all know I'm useless in those situations and well – "
"I agree." Aang said. Sokka stopped speaking in mid-sentence. The Avatar could sense what Sokka really wanted to say, so he decided to help him out. The Water Tribe youth sighed deeply and shook his shoulders. Aang chuckled and looked to Katara. "We'll go down first and check it out, then once we're sure it's all safe I'll send Sokka back to get you." He looked imploringly at her. Slowly Katara acknowledged and nodded. Aang grinned before glancing up at Suki. "Suki, I am trusting you with my two most sacred treasures in all the world. Think you can look after them for me?" Suki grinned and nodded.
"I can't believe you get to have all the fun." Katara growled in mock anger. She then looked at Aang lovingly. "Remember to take care down there yourself Mr. High-and-Mighty Avatar. You're my most sacred treasure too you know." They kissed lightly.
"I will." Aang whispered softly.
"If this gets any sappier I think I'm going to vomit." Toph stated. Sokka and Suki both laughed. Aang and Katara blushed and withdrew from each other. "Now if you're all done clutching your helpless wife to your manly chest can we get going Twinkle Toes? I'm kinda curious to see what's down here." Aang nodded and moved to take the lead. Sokka and Toph followed and together the three of them began making their way slowly down into the darkened depths of the tunnel.
On board the zeppelin Zuko and Mai were settled into their staterooms. Lu Ten had just been put down for a nap and now the couple were relaxing in their lounge. Zuko stared out of one of the windows while Mai lay swooning on the sofa. The room was upholstered in various shades of green and gold, the colors of Earth Kingdom royalty. A fireplace was imbedded into the wall on one side of the room and all the furniture was aligned facing into the flames. At the moment though it was not lit as sunlight streamed in through the windows. Mai had a bowl of leechi nuts and was munching on them absent-mindedly. Zuko gazed down on the passing landscape with a blank expression on his face.
"How much longer do you think you have before Matora bothers you with a military update of the status of Fire Nation affairs?" Mai asked in an amused tone. Zuko didn't answer her; he just kept staring out the window. "Hey, you're not still thinking about what happened with that Earth Kingdom family are you?" She propped herself up on a pillow and looked at her husband. "Zuko, talk to me." The Firelord turned to face her.
"So many lives were destroyed in that war." He said at last. "My father carved such a deep scar into the land, I'm starting to think it'll never heal." Mai stood up and, setting down the bowl of leechi nuts, crossed over to him. She tenderly wrapped an arm around his shoulder and followed his vision down onto the Earth Kingdom.
"You can't change the past. And you can't keep blaming yourself for it either." She said softly.
"I don't blame myself for the past." Zuko responded. "But the rest of the world still looks at us as if we are the enemy. I just wish I could change that." Mai nodded.
"You will. These things just take time." She reassured him. Zuko looked pensive.
"Lu Ten deserves a father who can deliver him into a fully peaceful world. I will give him that." He said at last. "I will be a better father than the one I had." Mai looked at him shocked.
"Is that what's really bothering you?" She asked. "Zuko, don't be an idiot! Of course you're a better father than your dad was. You have a family who loves you! Gosh I can't believe what a dope you can still be sometimes." She smiled at him as she finished speaking. After a second the gesture was reciprocated.
"Thanks." He said in appreciation. Mai nodded. "I suppose I can be a bit of a moron occasionally." Another nod. "And I have been brooding an awful lot lately." His wife nodded again. "But you don't have to keep agreeing with everything I say!"
"Oh but you're on such a roll." Mai giggled. Zuko punched her playfully in the arm. "Hey, watch it you big –" Suddenly there came an urgent knock on the door. Mai sighed. "I wonder who that could be?" She guessed sarcastically.
"Firelord Zuko!" General Matora's yell came through muffled behind the wood of the door. "Sire, there's a situation developing below the other side of the ship I thought you might want to be made aware of."
"I'll be right there." The Firelord called back. He then looked at his wife. "I won't be gone long." He assured her. "And when I get back we'll go play some fireball ping-pang up in the spa."
"Yeah...and I'll totally kick your butt." Mai put in. Zuko smirked.
"We'll see." He said in a mocking tone as he opened the door and, leaving his wife, stepped out into the hall where General Matora stood patiently waiting. "What is it General?" The Firelord asked.
"Forgive the interruption my Lord." The General repeated. "But I thought you would want to take action. On the other side of the zeppelin there's a little port town and it appears to be under siege from a very serious pirate attack!" Zuko's eyes widened at this startling news.
"Matora, take me to the cockpit of this thing now! We're not leaving those people down there defenseless!" The young Firelord followed his general down the hallway. Maybe Mai was going to have to wait a while after all.
Suki and Katara sat on the steps at the entrance to the tunnel. The pregnant waterbender had a hot pot of soup going and was slowly churning the ingredients with her hand. Both she and Suki were hungry and waiting for the food to cook. The Kyoshi Warrior's eyes kept drifting to the bowl no matter what she tried looking at. Not like there was much else to see. Aang had left them a little fire for torches and to cook the soup but blackness still prevailed around them on all sides. The dark coupled with the stillness and silence of the air made both women slightly uncomfortable and Katara kept darting glances over her shoulder.
"I know why Sokka didn't want me to come." Suki said suddenly. "He hates me. He can't stand being around me. I see it in his eyes all the time." Katara was startled. She hadn't been expecting this sudden outburst.
"I don't think so." She said almost instantly in response. Suki didn't seem to hear though. Tears were appearing around her eyes.
"He should hate me. I abandoned him." She spoke at last. "He said he wanted me with him but I couldn't do it, I couldn't let the big picture go in order to be with the person who mattered the most to me...and now it's over."
"No, no you have it all wrong!" Katara tried to comfort the distraught warrior.
"Do I?" Suki exclaimed. "Just now he switched places with me, choosing instead to follow a tunnel to who-knows-what and I have it wrong? I should be the one going but the only thing he couldn't stand more than dying was letting me be brave instead of him!"
"Listen to yourself." Katara soothed. "That doesn't make sense. Sokka wasn't afraid of you being brave...he didn't want you to get hurt." Suki sniffed loudly.
"You really think so?" She asked slowly. The waterbender nodded.
"It's just like how Aang is with me. Sometimes I get really confused and frustrated, especially lately, with how he's always stopping me from doing things. Or when he's walking me through things that are really simple. But I have to remember the reason why he does. See it isn't what it appears. Aang does those things because he loves me. And I know it might be hard to believe, but I think the reason Sokka has been doing the thing's he's done...is because he still loves you." Katara finished and looked at Suki. The other woman's eyes were red and her cheeks were stained but the tears had stopped. The waterbender grinned. "Guys are kind of complicated sometimes." She added, swooping out the soup from its pot into two bowls. "Let that cool."
"I wish he knew I still cared, that I never stopped." Suki stated weakly. "I wanted the big picture to look good so the world would be a safer place for us to live in."
"I'm sure he'll see that in time." Katara responded, putting a hand on Suki's shoulder. The Kyoshi Warrior managed a smile. "Now come on, let's eat."
Zuko and General Matora burst through the door into the cockpit. Two Earth Kingdom engineers turned blank masks but the looks of shock were evident on both the pilot's and the captain's faces.
"Lower this ship now!" The Firelord commanded. The captain scoffed.
"And just who do you think you are giving such an order on board this vessel?" He asked. "From the color of your robes you're obviously Fire Nation. What's the matter, want a closer view of a country that hasn't been charred to a crisp before you return home?"
"Why you impudent chattering hog-monkey!" General Matora shouted. Zuko shot a look sideways at his officer. The man appeared as if about ready to attack.
"Stand down Matora!" The young Firelord delivered decisively, then to the captain he went on: "There is a village being raided by pirates just below us! We have to help them!"
"We are well aware of the situation but unfortunately there is nothing we can do." The captain replied. He seemed slightly afraid of Matora now and was more careful of his tone. "The fact is we are a civilian vehicle, not a warship. We have no boulders or bombs to drop, nothing to fire down for assistance."
"It just so happens that fire is exactly what you have." Zuko answered him coolly. "I know normally this isn't allowed but I will take full responsibility for this ship. For the moment Captain I am taking over, and I am ordering you to lower us until my friend here and I can provide some cover." The captain looked uneasy. He glanced around at his crew.
"You still haven't told me who you are!" He pleaded at last, as if he found he had nothing else to say.
"I am Firelord Zuko and this is my General." Zuko said flatly. The captain's eyes widened.
"Of course, why didn't I recognize it before? The scar!" Matora growled at this comment. The captain immediately stopped himself. Then he straightened up in military salute. "Forgive me Firelord. If your intent is to help those people, of course we will follow your orders. Pilot, take the ship down!" Zuko smiled.
"Come on, quickly to the deck!" He barked at his General. Together the two raced from the room, leaving the command crew standing there speechless. The pair tore down hallways and whipped through open doors. Within minutes they had reached the outer balcony on the other side of the zeppelin. Matora reeled open the door crank and Zuko stepped out into the sunlight.
Almost at once his eyes took in the massacre that was happening below. He could see the pirates charging wildly through the streets; trampling over shops and stalls and gathering up all the food they could get their hands on. Anyone who resisted was quickly struck back. This was bad, really bad. Luckily there was an obvious opening. Drawing his gaze off the town the Firelord observed that the ships had been left unguarded in low water. It looked like the pirates had hauled their boats out so that they wouldn't have to carry the loot as far. Zuko knew what to do.
"General Matora," He signaled at his officer. "You take the ship on the right, I've got the two on the left! Don't stop raining down on them until the main mast breaks!"
"By your command Sire!" Matora bowed and turned to the town.
"Ready...one...two...three fire!" Zuko bellowed. At his words three beams of scorching inferno shot from the balcony of the zeppelin down onto the hapless ships below. The roar of cracking and splintering wood instantly snapped across the landscape as the pirates stood stunned in shock. In seconds all the ships were damaged beyond repair, but that didn't stop the determined sea rats from trying in vain to save their vessels. As they retreated back toward the shore the people who, unknown to Zuko, had come out onto the balcony began to cheer wildly.
"Look at that awesome display, have you ever seen anything like that?" The Firelord heard an old man call.
"It must have been the Avatar! He must have saved those people! Oh all praise the Avatar!" Came another cry.
"No it wasn't the Avatar, it was those two folks from the Fire Nation standing right down there, I saw them shoot the fire with my own eyes!"
"Fire Nation, well imagine that. Boy have I been wrong about them!"
"They saved the day!"
"Three cheers for the Fire Nation!" Zuko spun around. The captain had stepped out onto the balcony behind them and was rallying the crowd. "Three cheers for Firelord Zuko!" He exclaimed proudly. As the hoorahs echoed into the sky the Firelord looked past the captain to the shadows of the airship's interior where Mai leaned against the wall smiling, Lu Ten jumping up and down at her feet. Zuko beamed. This day had turned out well.
"Maybe we should go back, I'm getting worried about Katara." Aang said, turning his baldhead from the flame to look back up the tunnel. They had been walking for nearly an hour and so far nothing. Toph had been murmuring, something about that it was beautiful but other than that no conversation had passed before the airbender had opened his mouth.
"Aang don't worry she's with Suki, no one better to look after her." Sokka replied. He was trailing his sword sheath lazily along the wall.
"Yeah, you can't be cuddling every second! Give your wife some space! You're the Avatar for Pete's sake, do Avatar stuff!" Toph exclaimed. "Besides we're almost there. The tunnel ends just after this bend."
"What bend?" Sokka asked. "I don't see any bend. This passage is straight as a stick-yak."
"Guess you just need your eyes checked." Toph joked back. Aang laughed a little but still glanced back again. He didn't know why he always got this riled now when away from Katara. He knew it was over anxiety of the baby but sometimes it felt like more than that. He shook his head as if to clear it. No time to be thinking about that now. He could hear the voices through his feet. Toph had been right; there were people down here, a lot of them.
Then, as suddenly as it had began, the tunnel ended.
"Oh... monkeyfeathers..." Aang exhaled in awe. His fire wasn't big enough to illuminate the subterranean metropolis that lay before them but it didn't need to be. In front of their eyes was a ledge, under it a wide river flowed out away from them. Numerous bridges crossed this river as on opposite sides, built into the walls of rock were houses. It wasn't just one row of houses either; there were staircases up to the next level where there was another row, complete with a fenced balcony to walk on. Above that there was another row, and so on, and so on, up into a black ceiling that resembled the night sky on a cloudy day. Yet beneath that in between the door of every house and spaced at regular intervals near the river were torches, which burned from an unseen source. Aang looked at all this in awe, but this amazing city was not his greatest source of wonder.
"Are those...they couldn't be..." Sokka began.
"What, what about the people?" Toph asked in eager anticipation.
"They look like Air Nomads." Aang croaked back. He was unsure if his voice would fail him. It was true. Over two hundred men, women and children stood on the ground level gazing at them. They wore yellow and orange robes, and standing out front was one who had a wooden medallion with the Air Nomad insignia carved into it. He appeared to be the oldest. The front portion of his head was shaved, displaying a faded blue arrow proudly but a tightly knotted white bun draped down behind him, to about his hips. An aged wooden staff was clutched tightly in his left hand. To Aang, apart from the long hair, this man was the spitting image of Monk Gyatso, except unlike Gyatso this monk was stern and sharp looking.
After a moment of silence Aang grabbed Sokka and Toph and jumped down from the ledge, using his bending to rapidly slow their descent. They touched down in front of the group to a chorus of whispers and chattering. The old monk held up his hand and the group fell silent.
"Who are you?" He asked at last. His voice gritted out through his teeth, sounding much like a very old serpent attempting to speak. Aang took a step forward. Both Sokka and Toph looked too frozen for words.
"My name is Aang. I am the Avatar. I come to you in peace. Please, can someone tell me what this place is?" Again more whispers arose as Aang spoke these words. The monk raised an eyebrow.
"The Avatar huh? From our nation by the looks of it. But this is impossible, you'd have to be much older than me to be the Avatar who abandoned us all those years ago." The monk ran a hand back over his head in thought. "You have to be...but cannot be! There is no other explanation and yet also, no explanation that makes sense either." He stared at Aang intently. "Your youth, how is it possible?" Aang shrugged his shoulders innocently.
"Oh you know...I kinda got trapped in an iceberg for one hundred years. I'm out now though!"
"An iceberg..." The monk repeated. "Right."
"No it's true. My friends can vouch for me. I was trapped in ice for one hundred years but now I'm free and I ended the war, we're all friends now so here I am. Though if you are airbenders I'm surprised to see you. I thought I was the last one." A nerve definitely twitched on the monk's head.
"You are." He said in an angry tone. "That sacred art was lost to my people long ago. Avatar, my name is Monk Quanfar. Welcome to An Liao, the Air Nomad sanctuary."
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