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Avatar: The Last Airbender
The Last Airbender Book Four: Air
Chapter Fourteen – Toph's Temple
Aang did not sleep well that night. Katara had been unusually quiet and distant both before and after he told her about his and Zuko's meeting with Azula. It distressed the Avatar greatly to see his wife acting so cold towards him. He knew she was unhappy and he wished feverishly for the right words to console her yet nothing came to him. So they both tossed and turned till the stars gave way to morning sun.
As Aang awoke he looked to his right at the sleeping form of his wife. Her back was turned to him. Squinting, the airbender rubbed his eyes. It was still early morning, he could tell by how faintly the light pierced the dark crimson curtains that were drawn across the windows. The chill of the early morning dew could also faintly be detected through the warmth of the torches that hung about them. Part of him wished for simply nothing more than to lie back down and at least make another attempt at sleep. But this was the time he had wanted to get up; this was the time they had to leave.
Looking again at Katara he decided it would be best to let her sleep a little longer. Her pregnancy was taking such a toll on her. Aang knew how exhausted she must be, despite her not showing any signs of fatigue. The Avatar just sat there in bed, allowing himself to merely stare at her. Even though he couldn't see her face she still looked like the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. He could hear the gentleness of her breath as she quietly inhaled and exhaled against her pillow and he watched as her chest rose and fell underneath her robe.
Aang was still watching as she murmured something in a dream-like voice to herself. He thought he caught his name but before he could bend closer to attempt to listen; Katara rolled over, bringing her face in line with his. Luckily her eyes were still closed meaning he hadn't disturbed her. Her face was relaxed and peaceful and still so full of youth. The airbender had to resist the urge to reach out and run his hand along her cheek, but then she might wake up. So beautiful, he thought warmly to himself. His wife was so beautiful...and he had almost lost her.
Tears suddenly welled around his eyes and he wiped them away hastily. This was no time to think about that. It hadn't happened, he had saved her yet in doing so he had allowed the doorway to open on the horrible events that had occurred in Ba Sing Se and were soon to occur on a much larger scale. What if Azula had told the truth and Oguanga really did think he was guilty? The demons would stop at nothing then to kill him. They would level anything and anyone in their path. They were coming for him and he didn't even have the faintest idea who the real killers were in this plot. Again, this was assuming Azula was telling the truth.
Aang put both hands against the sides of his head in frustration. This wasn't fair. He didn't care about himself but Katara! He had failed to protect her from Koh, how could he hope to succeed against an entire army? The Avatar again felt tears upon his face. How many more would suffer because of him? Was this really to be his destiny in life, to draw misery to those he cared for the most? He shook his head remorsefully and sighed. First it was Zuko, then Azula and Ozai, then Koh and now Oguanga. He seemed to draw danger to him like a magnetized monkey-phant. There were times he really hated being the Avatar.
"Why are you crying?" The airbender was suddenly snapped out of his thoughts by the whisper of his wife. He had been so absorbed that he hadn't realized Katara had opened her eyes and was staring right at him. Her radiant blue pupils sparkled and her face was now furrowed with worry. Seeing this only served to send him further over the edge to the point where he could no longer do anything to conceal his flow of grief. Embarrassed, Aang turned away.
"It's nothing...I – I just have something in my...in my eye. That's all." He choked in his gruffest possible voice. Maybe if he sounded confident and strong she'd buy it.
"Dear, you're a miserable liar." Her hand touched the side of his face and turned it back toward her. "What's wrong...you can tell me." Aang stared longing into her eyes.
"I... I... I killed him Katara. Koh. I know he was a monster, I know he deserved it but still – I took a life! And I would have done it again...if I had to redo it I wouldn't change a second. For you I'd do anything but...well, look at what it's brought us! More and more! It never ends! Because of what I did...because of what I did millions of people may die." He closed his eyes. "Yet I wouldn't change it...forget being the Avatar, what kind of person does that make me?" He spat out the last few words angrily. All this self-loathing that he hadn't even realized he'd been carrying seemed to be spilling over. "I can't lose you again Katara, not you. I just can't. But with all that's happening, I don't know if we'll be able to win this time."
His wife put her arms around him and drew him close. "Now you listen to me right now." She said, fighting to keep her voice steady. "What is happening out there, what happened in Ba Sing Se, that has nothing to do with you. It is not your fault. I don't know if what Azula told you is true and frankly I kind of doubt it but regardless, you are not to blame for the demons' presence here."
Aang gulped, still visibly upset. "How can you sound so confident?" He stammered. He suddenly became aware that she was crying too.
"Because I love you," came her reply. "And I know the type of person you are so well. I know that you are incapable of murder. You killed Koh as a last resort, you didn't want to and tried every other way, and you did the right thing. When someone as good as you does the right thing evil doesn't come as a result, not like this. Someone else is to blame for what has happened and not only will we defeat the demon army but we'll make sure the real villains are punished too. You, me, Sokka, Suki, Toph and Zuko, it'll be just like old times again." She clutched him to her. Aang sighed.
"If we really want every chance we have to win..." he began. "We have to bring Azula with us. I don't like it, but she's definitely part of what's going on here and if she's telling the truth we can't afford to ignore her."
"I know." Katara sobbed faintly, her voice full of resentment. "I understand...I may hate it but I understand. Just remember...I've already lost you once too." The Avatar felt his wife's hand gingerly pass the scar on his back. "Never again, Aang."
Zuko was not happy when the airbender told him the decision roughly an hour later. The messenger-hawks already dispatched to the other leaders, the Fire Lord had ordered his servants to load Appa with enough provisions to make the long voyage to the South Pole. Everyone else was currently busy packing their own things, leaving the two to converse quietly in one corner of the entrance to the Palace. Aang had expected Zuko to arrive at the same conclusion he had and was startled and how adamantly his friend opposed the idea.
"Are you out of your bald head?" The Fire Lord hissed. "Taking Azula with us, we didn't you just have me write Oguanga a hawk if you wanted the demon army to know exactly where we're going. Don't forget Aang we need some time for the nations to assemble before we're ready to mount the counteroffensive."
"Yes but what if she's telling the truth?" The Avatar protested.
"What if she's not? I'd say that's the far more likely of the two conclusions wouldn't you? Look she's my sister and I don't want her along. Doesn't that say something?" Zuko pointed out.
"Yes," Aang replied. "I can understand your reasons for not trusting her. But I myself feel that whatever is going on, Azula is an important piece of it. And I'm willing to give her the benefit of a doubt. I believe she was telling the truth."
"Aang..." Zuko began. "She's already successfully killed you once in the past –"
"She had your help for that if I recall." The Avatar cut him off. "You changed Zuko, have faith, maybe your sister has too." He flashed his friend a goofy grin. "You can at least trust me right, so trust my judgment." The Fire Lord looked away and his eyes filled with worry.
"Okay fair enough." He responded at last. "But we have a problem. Mai won't want Lu Ten to be with us and I agree with her on that one. She'll be furious when I tell her Azula's coming, especially last night when I assured her that I didn't buy my sister's act." Zuko sighed and ran a hand down the front of his face. "This isn't going to be fun."
"What isn't going to be fun?" Sokka asked as he and Suki made their way over.
"Aang's just decided Azula's coming with us." The Fire Lord answered back in frustration.
"Oh...that's not going to be fun." Sokka said in amazement. Both he and Suki looked shocked. "Why are we taking her along?"
"Just trust me on it alright?" The airbender replied shortly. He was getting annoyed and wasn't about to repeat himself yet again. "Azula is necessary, I'm not saying we have to trust her, in fact you that's a bad idea, but she needs to come along...I think." He looked at his friends longingly.
"Sure, whatever you say. If you think it's the right thing to do you know I'm with ya on it." Sokka stated calmly. Suki nodded too and smiled before looking at Zuko. After a moment her grin faded.
"What about your son?" She asked. "Is Mai alright with having the two of them together?" Zuko turned suddenly and banged his head into the wall in frustration. "Oh...guess that answers my question." Suki added weakly. There was silence among them for several moments before the Kyoshi Warrior's face brightened again. "Hey, what about sending her and Lu Ten with Matora and the airship fleet. That way he'll be far away from Azula and they'll reach safety that much faster." The Fire Lord's face suddenly brightened from sullen to thoughtful.
"That might work..." he began. "It's the only option she'll accept anyway. I know Mai, she's going to hate me for doing this." He sighed at the end of his statement.
"What if I went with her? I could try and calm her down and make sure she understands we're doing what we have to, not what we want to." Suki suggested. Beside her Sokka suddenly looked upset.
"You don't want to come on Appa?" He asked, an underlining of pain in his voice. Suki looked at him reassuringly.
"It'll only be for a few days, I have to get there as soon as possible anyway. The Order was summoned and they'll want everyone there before they plan their strategy." She said, her voice almost sounding like a plea.
"The Order...it always comes back to the Order between us doesn't it." Sokka sulked.
"Sokka..." was all Suki managed to reply. The Water Tribe warrior didn't meet her gaze at first. When he finally did his face initially appeared angry but it almost immediately faded away.
"I know." He said simply at last. "It's something you have to do...and I'm sorry to guilt trip you over it. It's just hard you know, part of me really wants to go with you but...my sister is about to have a baby, could have it any day, and I want to be there when it happens." Suki smiled.
"I understand." She cooed. Sokka looked at her, relieved. Finally, Aang thought, the focus of topic had gotten off of Azula. Yet before he could relax he spotted Toph heading over and instantly grew anxious again. Great, his mind spewed, once more through the fire.
"Hey guys!" Toph called as she approached. "Twinkle-Toes, you have a sec, there's something I want to ask you." The Avatar winced.
"Yes Azula's coming and no it's not up for debate." He put in before she could speak further. He really didn't want to go through this again.
"What? – Oh I know. I could hear you and Fire breath discussing it as I was coming down the hall, my hearing's pretty good you know!" The blind earthbender remarked in a defensive voice. She waved a hand dismissively. "Anyway, that's not why I'm here. I actually have a favor to ask: I know it's really far out of the way but could we head for Gaoling first? I have to make sure my parents are safe."
Aang had expected this; it was one of the many things that had kept him from sleep the night before. Gaoling was in Earth Kingdom land, which, for all he knew, could be overrun by demons. However, given the fact he trusted what Azula said concerning Oguanga's reasons for breaching the barrier in the first place, he rather doubted that the demon forces were interested in occupation. Gaoling was very far from Ba Sing Se as well, separated by an almost impassable range of mountains.
"Yes, we can do that." The Avatar answered calmly. "It will be a short stop though, we can't stay in any place too long. I'm hoping the city will be deserted by the time we get there." The others shot him a glance but he silenced any objections with one of his own. He and Katara had discussed the safety risks thoroughly and his wife had made it clear she would be more than willing if Toph wanted to go.
"Really!" Toph exclaimed happily. Her voice contained a mixture of excitement and surprise. "That's so great. I'm hoping they'll be gone too but just in case I need to know for sure that they left." She started running off back into the Palace. "Just let me grab the rest of my stuff and I'll be ready to go." As she disappeared inside Aang turned back to his friends.
"So we head for Gaoling then, are you sure that's wise? Oguanga and his army could be sitting there just waiting for us." Zuko pointed out. The Avatar nodded.
"I know but I really doubt it, it's not like Oguanga knows about Toph. Besides it's her parents, I can't really say no, can I?" Aang pointed out objectively. The others thought for a minute before nodding their heads in agreement.
"It's at least four days flight from here." Sokka commented.
"Appa can do it in three." The airbender stated confidently.
Three days later, to the Firelord's slight surprise, found Appa descending upon the Earth Kingdom city of Gaoling. They had flown very high for the entire trip; well above the clouds, and the sight of land again was a welcome thing indeed for all of them. During that time Aang and Sokka had rotated saddle duty, the Avatar spending his off time with his wife while the Water Tribe warrior steered the gigantic bison. Zuko, for his part, spent the entire time with Azula. Her arms had been bound tightly behind her back, only to be untied at meal times. This made eating the tensest part of the entire trip.
If Azula was aware of any of the alarm she was raising, she didn't show it. When they had told her she would be tied up she raised no objection, and throughout the entire trip she hadn't spoken a single word to anyone except to occasionally remark upon odd shapes in clouds. The only really alarming episode had occurred one night when Zuko had awoke to find her talking to herself...or rather to an imaginary other person sitting next to her in the saddle. What disturbed him the most was, from what he could hear, it sounded like the other person was Uncle Iroh. She had been whispering so he had been unable to make out most of her words and not long after he had woken up she had fallen silent and looked almost instantly asleep. So far he hadn't mentioned this incident to the others, but as soon as they were reunited with everyone at the South Pole, he intended to bring it up.
As soon as they landed Momo zipped off Appa and took off on a patrol route down one of the streets. Aang helped Katara gingerly down while Zuko carried Azula off. As soon as Toph hit the ground she bent low and touched the cobblestones with her hand. Almost immediately she straightened up.
"There's people here...but not too many. Sounds like a small group praying off that way." She pointed in the direction Momo had flown.
"Do they feel friendly?" Sokka asked nervously. He had his sword drawn and was scanning the empty streets. "Cause I don't know about the rest of you but I am getting seriously creepy vibes from this place."
"What would you expect from a ghost town?" Zuko asked as he led Azula forward. Toph was crouched again, using both hands to enhance her vision. As she stood her face adopted a confused look.
"I really can't tell." She admitted at length. "I don't know if demons feel any different from far away than people do. I mean as far as I can see it is people. I think thirty."
"Thirty," Katara repeated. "What can thirty people still be doing here?" The blind earthbender shrugged her shoulders as Momo reappeared, chattering wildly. The lemur flew around everyone's head before landing on Aang's shoulder.
"I still can't tell, was that a good or bad reaction?" Zuko asked. The Avatar scratched Momo's head.
"I think it was good." He observed. "Usually Momo hides on Appa's back if he's frightened." The airbender whistled and clicked several times causing his shoulder companion to take off and fly numerous spirals in midair before re-alighting back on his perch. Aang chuckled. "Yeah he's definitely not on edge."
"Then let's go before trouble shows up!" Toph called as she ran in the direction Momo had flown earlier. The others started to follow her.
"You better wait here Momo." The Avatar instructed the lemur. "Let us know if anything goes wrong." He turned to Appa. "You too okay big guy?" The bison roared in response. "Yeah I know you can handle yourself but we might need to make a quick getaway, you never know." There was another, more low-pitched, growl. "Alright then, be back soon!" He called as ran to catch up with the others.
Toph was already streaking through the deserted streets. Everything felt so surreal to her. These streets had always swarmed with life in the past, now there wasn't a soul on them. The houses too, normally so full of life, lay vacant and empty. Sokka was right: take away the people and this place became just plain eerie. She chuckled. All those times she had wished growing up to live in a quieter home and now she couldn't stand it. Running up some steps she could feel the people getting closer. Interesting, the blind earthbender thought, they're in the city outskirts. It had been a few years since she'd visited Gaoling but she still knew every cranny of the city by heart.
On her right now were the great greenhouses of Gaoling where some of the most beautiful plants in the Earth Kingdom were said to grow. Toph smirked, she never thought too much of it although some of the flowers did, at least, smell pretty. Now she was coming up on the bridge that led into the more spiritual center of the city. Made sense, these people were certainly praying. She could hear their voices now, rising whispers growing in volume. As she drew closer she began to make out the words and suddenly she stopped in her tracks.
Aang had been moving at a brisk pace to keep up with Toph. The blind earthbender wove her way through the streets with skilled precision, changing direction without losing any speed. It had been hard to match her speed. He was surprised then when she halted so abruptly in the road. That was, until he looked up at what was ahead of them.
"Well there's something you don't see every day." Sokka remarked. Rising above them, carved into the front of a great stone temple, was Toph. Her likeness had been hewn into the very rock itself. To be more specific, it appeared to be a representation of Toph metalbending. The blind earthbender herself was standing directly beneath her gargantuan stone counterpart.
"What is this place?" Katara asked.
"I...have no idea." Toph replied in a whisper. "But there's people inside of it...and I think they're worshiping me!" She took a few steps toward the temple.
"I bet that stone version of you isn't as good for conversation." Azula remarked, making everyone around her jump. She looked around. "What? Is there something on me? It better not be a frog-beetle, I hate those things." Zuko sighed.
"No there's no frog-beetle, don't worry." He reassured her. Toph was still moving into the building.
"Hello?" She suddenly called. "Who's in there?" With her superb hearing the blind earthbender caught the praying cease. Silence echoed from within the temple for a few moments. Then the figure of a woman emerged from the entrance of the temple. She squinted at them all in the light till her eyes found Toph, then they bulged. Before anyone in the group could speak she vanished back inside. "Hey wait!" Toph called. She could feel the woman returning to the group inside.
"Maybe they're recluses." Sokka pondered.
"I don't think so." Toph answered in a voice that suggested she hadn't really been listening. She had her head cocked towards the temple entrance. They were coming now, all of them. Their heartbeats had quickened and they were all murmuring excitedly to one another. The blind earthbender still had no idea what to make of the situation. Even as the crowd emerged into the sunlight, she didn't know what to think. The woman who had appeared earlier detached herself from the rest and headed for Toph. When she was only a few paces away she stopped and turned back to the others.
"You see? It is her! Our leader and savior has come to deliver us! Just as we all knew she would!" The woman turned back to Toph and bowed low. "My lady I am Duella and we," she gestured behind her at the rest of the gathering, "are your devoted servants." There was an awkward silence that followed this. Everyone just sort of stared at one another, except for Azula who stared at nothing. Then Sokka started laughing.
"This is so awesome!" He blurted out. "Toph you have your own little fan club!"
"I think these guys might be a bit more devoted than your average fan Sokka." Katara observed, noting how every member of the crowd wore their hair up in exactly the same manner as Toph.
"Yeah...I think they might be more – " Zuko began warily.
"Obsessed?" Azula put in. Her brother shot her an angry look. The Fire Nation Princess, however, merely seemed to drift back into space, oblivious of her captor's withering stare. If her words had offended the crowd they did not show it. Indeed they were still all intently staring at Toph and appeared oblivious to everyone else. The blind earthbender swallowed hard as she thought desperately for something to say.
"I'm your savior?" She at last managed to get out. Duella nodded eagerly.
"It was you Toph was represented Gaoling so nobly in the Hundred Year War and it was you who first mastered the sacred art of metalbending. Your example has inspired us to begin following in your footsteps and, while it has not happened yet, we expect very soon to transcend our abilities regarding this talent as well." The Earth Kingdom woman continued to beam at Toph. "Now that you're here, I'm positive that the secret will at last be ours."
The blind earthbender raised an eyebrow. "You want me to teach you metalbending?" The crowd gasped and Duella fell to the ground on her hands and knees.
"You would do us such a great honor!" Her muffled voice came from the dirt. "We knew you would come in our moment of need. The others have all fled cowardly to the South Pole for a false promise of security but we stayed. We knew you would come to complete our training and with you to lead us, we shall defeat the demon army when it reaches Gaoling."
Aang felt his heart quicken. "Oguanga's coming here?" He demanded.
"That is correct." Duella answered him shortly. "Though you need not fear him. We are now strong enough to repel any threat. Please Lady Toph, come with us into the temple so that our training may begin." Everyone looked at Toph, she could feel their eyes searing into her skin. Once again she found herself wishing so desperately to vanish. Being the leader was Aang's job, not hers, she'd gotten used to following his insight when they traveled together.
"We have to leave. Now." Zuko's voice cut through the air before she could think to say anything. She could not see him but Toph felt it. In all of her friends suddenly their muscles had tightened and their pulses accelerated. They could see something.
"What is it?" She asked.
"The sky..." Katara begin. "Over the mountains, it's becoming so dark."
"The demon army." Sokka stated solemnly, the blind earthbender heard his sword swish through the air silently as he got it out.
"It's time to get out of here, you people need to run. Move to whatever transportation you have and take it. I'll try and slow them down to give you a chance." Aang's staff twirled open into his glider.
"But we don't know how long till they're here, you don't need to stay. Come on, let's go." Katara's voice pleaded. Toph felt sweat appearing on her brow. She couldn't hear anything so if there was an army it must still be far away, that is if demons made sound.
"We're not going anywhere." Duella's voice cut in confidently. "If you all want to follow the cowardly tendencies of the others than go. There are still a few ships anchored along the river that will take you to the South Pole. It's time for us to prove our worth just like Toph did in the Hundred Year War!"
"That's suicide!" Aang shouted. "I am the Avatar and I am telling you to retreat! If you want to fight than do it at the South Pole where you'll have a chance to actually win!"
"Avatar? Rumor tells that this plague is your doing. Be gone from us! Come Toph, we must ready for battle." Duella extended a hand toward the blind earthbender. Toph abruptly stepped back.
"Are you people crazy?" She screamed. "Ba Sing Se with all it's warriors, some of whom were a heck of a lot tougher than any of you idiots, was destroyed in minutes! How do you expect to stop an entire army by yourselves? You think I'm invincible or something, that I'm some good luck charm to lead you to victory? Well I'm not, okay! I didn't come here for you, I didn't even know any of you even existed until a few moments ago!" Toph felt tears approaching her face.
"You just don't get it." She said at length. "I'm not some super powered being. That's Aang, you want someone to follow, someone to believe in, try him! He's the reason we won the Hundred Year War, not me! I would have been scorched by Ozai just like everyone else!"
"I'm just a person looking for her parents. I've lost too much recently to lose them to. That's why I came here...I'm just a person." Toph stopped talking. She was shaking, surprised by her sudden outburst. Judging from what she could feel of everybody else they were surprised too. For a few minutes nobody said anything, then Sokka came up a put a hand on her shoulder. The blind earthbender wanted to punch him but suddenly found herself hugging him instead as she cried.
"It's okay Toph...it's okay." He whispered gently to her. Aang and Katara were suddenly around her too, the four of them joining in a giant embrace.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence." The airbender said, trying to lighten the mood. Toph sniffed and chuckled.
"You're welcome." She replied.
"Wow..." Duella began. "Humble as well as powerful. You truly are an inspiration to us all Lady Toph. Now more than ever we wish to stand beside you in battle." The blind earthbender groaned.
"Than do me a favor...I'll train you all in metalbending and I will lead you, but at the South Pole. That's where the battle will be." She separated from Sokka and the others to look in the direction of the crowd. "I don't know why any of you think so much of me but I appreciate the support. However I cannot let you throw away your lives like this. Follow me to the boats, together we'll make our way to the South Pole."
"You wish to lead us...in retreat?" Duella asked; sounding confused.
"Yes," Toph sighed. "I do." Seconds of silence ticked by. Then, one of the crowd suddenly shouted:
"To the boats!" There was a great thunder of feet as the thirty blew past Toph and the others in the direction of the harbor. Only Duella remained.
"Thank you Lady Toph. We will work hard to make you proud!" She swore. "But let us go, the sky goes darker and we have many miles to sail before we reach the South Pole."
"Ergh..." Toph made a face. "Sailing...right. I'll be with you in a moment. Get down there and prepare the ships for departure." Duella bowed and scurried off after the others. The blind earthbender turned to her friends.
"Well, you'd better get back to Appa." She said. "I guess I'll meet up with you guys later. If you get there first, tell my parents that I'm safe and that I'll be there soon." She hugged each in turn, pausing when she got to Azula. "Are you really on our side?" The Fire Nation Princess looked at her with vacant eyes.
"Are you on mine?" Came the response. Toph sighed. She really had a bad feeling about this.
"They're going to drive you nuts, you know that." Sokka commented. "Being praised as a spirit 24-7, man I do not envy you."
"Yeah sounds horrible." Katara joked. Toph smirked.
"I can handle them, good luck handling her." She cocked her head toward Azula. Then before she could stall for another good-bye the blind earthbender took off down the path to the harbor. As she ran she thought of the coming days and the training she'd be doing. It would take at least the rest of the week to reach the South Pole, longer than that probably. Maybe fate had given her a golden opportunity; she would turn these followers of hers into a real force to be reckoned with. Then, when the time came, she would avenge Ce Jian and all those others who fell at the claws of Oguanga and his demons. She would show them why she was the greatest earthbender that ever lived.
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