|More from Wordbender||Action/Adventure||PG||Positive||No update page|
|Troubles in Paradise|
September 4, 2012
Previously in Air
Lee has decided to keep an eye on Jen Yi and Haru. The Dynamic Duo, meanwhile, has hit an awkward bump in the road.
Chapter Thirty-Four: Troubles in Paradise
"Is it just me," Lyra asked with a sly, seductive smile, "Or is there trouble in paradise?"
She lounged near Garrow's tent, watching from a distance as a nicely toned young man with impeccable facial hair sparred.
"They obviously had a fight," she went on. "They've barely looked at each other all day."
Jeb did not even glance up from the game of Four Nations he shared with Lee. "Stay out of it, Lyra."
"I wouldn't want to get on Jen Yi's bad side," Lee added.
Lyra pouted, which was perhaps even more attractive than her smile. "She's so intense," she complained. Her eyes remained fixed on Haru. He was practicing his earthbending with such an intense concentration she just knew he was avoiding her admiring gaze. "She's no good for him."
Jeb looked up at his friend, eyes twinkling. "Lee, do you think if I managed to grow some nice whiskers I'd have as many girls drooling over me as Mister Mustache?"
"I don't know," Lee laughed. "They'd have to be some pretty unique whiskers to reel them in."
Jeb chuckled. "Maybe I could grow one from the middle of my chin. A goatee six inches long."
"That would certainly get their attention!"
Lyra glared at them in disgust. "You boys are so clueless," she huffed. "It isn't the mustache that makes Haru such a wonderful man."
Jeb, several years their senior, snorted. "I'm a boy, and he's a man?" he muttered.
"He's so kind and soft-spoken," Lyra went on dreamily. "And quiet."
Neither 'boys' took the bait.
"I guess we're just a couple of ne'er-do-well vagrants then, eh, Lee?"
Lyra flushed, perhaps remembering just how kind Jeb had been a few nights ago when he'd found her bawling her eyes out. He hadn't even laughed when she'd told him it scared her that nothing was happening. He'd let her cry on his shoulder and babble about her sister and how much she missed her until she'd fallen asleep. She woke the next morning in her own cot. Jeb never even brought it up.
Lee nodded. "Loud, ill-mannered rascals," he agreed.
"That's not what I meant," Lyra stammered.
"I bet," Jeb added mischievously, ignoring her, "A mustache would improve my manners."
Both men threw their heads back and laughed.
Lyra rose, livid with frustration and burning with embarrassment. "You're infuriating!"
They watched her stomp off toward the training grounds.
Jeb shook his head. "Girls."
"Your move," Lee reminded.
Haru had to concentrate. He'd decided to spar with other earthbenders since Toph was apparently ignoring him. With some practice on his own, he figured he could keep his senses sharp. He tried to anticipate the movements of his opponents through the vibrations. It wasn't the ideal set-up because these guys were all about visual targeting. They kept Haru on his toes, and being constantly on the move made it nearly impossible to concentrate on the earth.
The teasing didn't help, either.
Haru wasn't the only one to notice his admirer, but he was the only one to ignore her.
"Come on," a bender named Ghi encouraged, "Throw a really big rock at me. Give her a little show."
"We'll make you look good," Wen promised.
Haru felt his face burn. "Can we just ignore her and practice?" he begged.
Cho looked aghast. "And blow such a perfect opportunity?"
They decided that if Haru wasn't going to take advantage of the moment, they certainly would.
"What do you mean?" Haru asked nervously as the five benders converged on him.
"Show us what you've got, Haru," Cho goaded. "And we'll dish out our best. Then Lyra can decide who she really likes."
Haru was about to suggest they leave him out of their little contest. After all, he wasn't even interested in Lyra. He did not have time to point this out, however, as all five attacked simultaneously.
He dodged left as a rock hurtled past. A second missile flew at him. He punched it back at his attackers just before a third rock caught him in the shoulder. The impact spun him around, out of the path of the last two missiles.
To catch his balance, Haru crouched down. He had a vague idea of where his opponents were and he reached into the earth. In one swift movement, Haru pulled. The ground beneath his opponents' feet jerked up in a row of spikes. All five were sent sprawling in the dirt.
Haru shifted his position, waiting for a second onslaught. He felt the benders stagger to their feet but they did not charge.
Why wouldn't they–
Panic gripped Haru, but the thought came too late. Before he could prepare himself or take to his heels, he felt her footsteps behind him.
"Nice job, Haru."
Lee studied the makeshift board carefully. Should he play an earth or a water tile? Just as he was about to decide, Jeb nudged his arm.
When Lee glanced up, his friend was fighting back a grin. Jeb nodded toward the tent just as Jen Yi emerged, stretching.
"Morning, Jen Yi," Lee said, smiling.
Jen Yi grunted.
"Nice day, isn't it?" Jeb added.
"How can you tell?" she demanded.
Jeb laughed. "Good point. Oh," he added, feigning disinterest, "If you're looking for Haru, he's on the training ground."
Lee winced. They should stay out of it. He definitely didn't want to get on this chick's bad side.
"Gee, thanks," Jen Yi bit out between clenched teeth, "But I think I could find him myself."
Lee tried to get Jeb's attention, to get him to back off, but his friend took no notice.
Jeb nodded amicably. "He's with Lyra," he added, almost as an afterthought.
Jen Yi paused. She struggled for a moment between indifference and annoyance. Annoyance finally won. "What did you say?"
"Oh, nothing," Jeb said easily. "I just noticed Lyra heading over there. She really likes her earthbenders."
Lee choked back a laugh. He was not going to give Jen Yi a reason to hate him.
Jen Yi turned her sightless eyes toward the training ground. Lee got the unnerving sensation that somehow she was watching as Haru and the other benders went at one another.
Her frown morphed into an irritated scowl. The veins in her temple pulsed. "Right," she growled, cracking her knuckles. She stomped forward and the earth trembled in her wake.
Lee shuddered. "I wouldn't want to be one of them."
"I hope I'm not interrupting." Lyra's smile was sly. "You seemed to clean the other boys out pretty fast."
Through the earth, Haru could feel the others climbing to their feet behind him. He flushed. "Oh, uh, not really, no," he stammered. If this were a real fight, his opponents would have jumped right back up and clobbered him. The reason they stayed back now was Lyra herself, and Haru had a sneaking suspicion she knew that.
Lyra's smile widened, sweet and seductive.
His hands felt suddenly awkward. At his side, behind his back, clasped together –they seemed bulky and unnecessary however he placed them.
"Don't be so modest, Haru." She fluttered her eyelashes, laughing a delicate laugh that felt like nails raking across his heart.
Haru tried to hide his wince. He let his arms hang limp beside him. "I'm not," he insisted, perspiration beading on his forehead, gathering in pools under his arms. "It wasn't very impressive."
Lyra faltered, uncertain what to do with that. "I find all earthbending impressive."
"Some of it is," Haru agreed quickly. "But most of the time it's just people throwing rocks at each other."
She laughed again. "What's unimpressive about that?"
"Well..." Haru hesitated. What was unimpressive about that? "There's no ingenuity to it. Anybody can stand around throwing rocks at each other, earthbender or not. It's almost like taking advantage of the art."
The words surprised Haru just as much as they surprised Lyra. As he spoke, he forgot the nervous patter of his heart, the girl trying to draw him in with her seductive eyes.
"There are infinite possibilities in earthbending," he went on, "That most benders can't even imagine because they're too determined to pull the biggest rock up first. Even the way you shape a rock can determine –wait, here, I'll show you."
Haru kicked up a sizeable, sphere-shaped clump of earth. He caught it deftly and held it out for her to see. "You wouldn't expect someone to win a fight with this, would you?"
Lyra eyed the rock. She turned her gaze to Haru, trying to figure out his game. "It looks like it could do some damage," she said with a shrug.
The rock drifted, floating in the air between Haru's hands. His fingers tensed. Eyes focused on the rock, Haru concentrated on the twinge in his gut that grounded him to the earth. Loose dirt fell away as the air was squeezed from it. The rock crumbled, but did not fall apart. Haru smoothed it back into a sphere and this time when he held it out to Lyra, the rock was compacted half its size and so dark it was nearly black.
"How about now?" he asked.
Lyra raised an eyebrow. "It's definitely small..." she conceded.
Before the words were out of her mouth, Haru launched the rock at an earthen pillar left over from the tussle. A cloud of dust exploded as the two collided. When the air had cleared, the pillar lay in pieces about the arena, crumpled and demolished.
"That's amazing!" Lyra cried. "How did you do that?"
Haru shrugged, uncomfortable once again. "It's not really the size that matters," he explained, his flush returning, "It's the strength."
"You certainly have that."
As Lyra moved closer to him, he fought the instinct to bolt. This was a small cavern and the last thing he needed was to make a fool of himself.
She fluttered her eyelashes coyly. "Maybe you could teach me some tricks."
Haru's tongue deserted him as he realized he'd only dug himself a deeper grave. "Oh, um, well..."
Fortunately, they were interrupted before Haru found himself saying or doing anything irreversible. The interruption came in the form of a rock pelted painfully at the back of his head, but he wasn't complaining.
"There you are."
He turned at the sound of Toph's voice, his relief momentarily turning to panic. She hadn't spoken to him all day, since the hermit lizard incident, and he got the feeling he was being punished. For what exactly, he had no idea. When he saw Toph marching toward him with fierce determination, he wondered if she was here to save him or join the gang against him.
"Oh, uh, hi, Jen Yi," he stammered.
Lyra gazed at her coldly. "Jen Yi."
Toph cocked her head, pretending to notice the girl for the first time. "Oh, Lyra? Is that you?"
Lyra rolled her eyes at the obviously feigned ignorance.
"I didn't even see you," Toph went on, her voice so sweet it grated on Haru's ears. "I just came to remind Haru about his practice today."
Haru blinked. "Practice?"
"You told me to remind you," Toph said, shaking her head at his imagined forgetfulness. "You also made me promise not to let you back out."
The faint hope of relief blossoming in Haru's chest quickly turned to dread when he saw the blindfold that Toph offered him.
"I don't break my promises," Toph told him with a saccharine smile.
Haru gulped. "Right...Remind me again what I'm doing today?"
"Testing your abilities," Toph said.
He knew exactly which abilities she was talking about.
Toph laughed, a harsh and merciless sound that was just like her. "Hey boys," she called out to Haru's former opponents still loitering about. "You want to help out Stache Man here with an exercise?"
"Hang on a minute..." Haru protested.
Lyra backed steadily away. "I should get going." She flashed Haru another smile. "It was a nice talk. We should do it again some time."
"Yeah, yeah," Toph snorted, pulling her attention from directing her new accomplices just long enough to wave Lyra away. "Now beat it unless you want your pretty face damaged."
Haru definitely didn't like the sound of that. He glanced around, finding himself fenced in by a ring of opponents, including Toph.
"So, uh, what now?" he gulped. A part of him sincerely wished that this was just an elaborate way to get rid of Lyra. But deep down he knew it was futile.
"Like I said," Toph said with a grin: "Practice. Once you put that blindfold on, these kind gentlemen and I are going to clobber you at random."
She paused to allow her cohorts to get their evil chuckles out of the way.
"Your job," she told Haru, "Is to determine the blows before they get you, and react appropriately."
A chill ran down Haru's spine. He glanced again at his opponents and was not encouraged by the grins they flashed back at him. "Seriously?"
"Forget the rocks," Toph advised; "Remember the earth.
"Now quit whining and put that blindfold on, sissybritches!"
Aang stood alone among the giant protruding tree roots. The tendrils of eerie mist spiraled around him, brushing against his clothes, leaving behind tiny drops of condensation as it kissed his skin. The clammy mist sent a chill up his spine. He glanced about the familiar atmosphere, wondering what had drawn him here.
Was he dreaming? It was possible. Not all his trips to the Spirit World were of his own accord. In early years, Roku would pull him into the supernatural realm to show him things, but not since Aang had learned to navigate the bridge from the mortal world to the spiritual one. Sometimes, though, Aang would dream. Even the Avatar wasn't impervious to nightmares and the worst of them usually brought him here. Perhaps it was the reminiscent echoes of a past life, but Aang's one true horror was the thought of Katara stolen away from him, brought to this place by that spirit.
Something skittered behind him.
Aang whirled round. He saw nothing, nothing but ancient trees and haze. Perhaps it was only his imagination.
His heart raced. He shook his head, closed his eyes. He didn't want to suffer this again, not now. He didn't have time. He had to wake up. Wake up!
He opened his eyes again, hoping to find himself back on the grass plain.
Aang blinked in surprise. "Princess Yue."
The Moon Spirit, her beautiful face radiating a silver glow, stared gravely back at him. Her translucent form was barely discernable against the white mist. Aang couldn't be sure, but her moonbeam glow seemed dimmer than he remembered.
"Did you bring me here?" he asked.
Princess Yue did not reply for a long moment, simply stared at him. It seemed almost that his words had to travel a long way to reach her, for finally she nodded. "Yes..." In mid-sentence her voice faded, only to return a moment later. "...warn you..."
Aang frowned. "Warn me? Warn me about what?"
Princess Yue returned his frown. She opened her mouth again, but this time no words came out. The frustration shone in her moonlit eyes as she struggled to speak. No sound came. Slowly, Yue raised her right arm. With a white tapering finger she pointed into the distance.
Aang turned to look. His breath caught in his throat. How had he missed that?
Along the distant horizon, but far too close for comfort, the mist was rent in half. A thick crack of blackness stretched across the mist as far as the eye could see; a jagged tear in the seam of the sky. For an instant he hoped it was merely some storm cloud, black as soot, but he knew better. A sense of evil foreboding emanated from that darkness. Even from here he could feel it. It was black, cold –evil. He could feel it seeping into his soul, a well of spilled ink, staining him. Light, warmth, hope –they were nothing.
Aang shivered. He couldn't escape the creeping darkness. He rubbed at it, trying to brush it away. The darkness spread to his hands. It was not merely a color but nothing. It coated his hand, but it was no longer his hand; it was a void patch, not connected to this world or the next. It was nothing, devoid of feeling or sensation. The harder he scrubbed at the darkness, the thicker it coated his hands, while the stain of his soul remained just as black as before.
So dark...so cold... He knew this feeling.
Panicked, he turned back to Yue.
Her expression remained unchanged, eyes still staring at the blemish on the horizon, finger still raised to accuse it. She did not stir or blink; she was frozen in place.
"Yue!" Aang called desperately. He had to pull her back. He needed answers. Was this a dream, or was this –was that evil blackness– real? "Yue!"
Her ethereal form flickered. The white light of her body sparked and her eyes –suddenly fixed on him– widened with terror.
"Can you feel it?" she whispered.
A scream rent the air, the epitome of fear, loneliness and pain. He turned back in time to see the crack inch wider.
Aang's entire being was numb with fear. "What is that?" he demanded. "Where did it come from?"
Yue didn't answer. She stared back at Aang, her wide eyes welling with tears. "Avatar Aang..." Her voice stretched across the distance toward him, weak and strained.
She reached out for him. "Save us!"
Aang gasped for air. His eyes snapped open, but it was no longer Yue that reached for him, only the fading beams of moonlight.
It took a long moment for him to realize the concerned voice was Zuko's. He glanced around, taking in the dark blue of the night sky and the gentle breeze rustling the long grass on the plain.
"Aang, are you alright?"
Aang sat up. Off to the left he saw his friend's silhouette, half-rising from his watch.
"I'm fine," he said quickly.
Zuko hesitated. "Are you sure? You sounded–"
"I'm sure," Aang assured him, shuddering at the memory of his dream. "I'm just having trouble sleeping. Sorry to startle you."
Aang watched until his friend's form sat once more.
"Anything I can do?" Zuko asked softly. "There's a tea Uncle drinks to help him sleep." He reached for his bag. "He probably packed some for me."
Aang shook his head. "Actually...I think I'll meditate for awhile." In the darkness, he frowned at Zuko. "I don't remember deciding to keep a watch," he said. "But do you want me to take over?"
Zuko chuckled bitterly. "It's not so much a watch as an excuse. I haven't been sleeping much, and when I do..." His voice faltered as images from his nightmares flashed back to haunt him.
"I understand. But you still need to rest."
"I will," Zuko promised. Once this is over, I will.
Aang was suspicious, but he didn't argue. "If you want me to take over, just rouse me, okay?"
Aang nodded. He folded his legs and placed his hands. The talismans wouldn't be necessary this time. It wasn't a past life he was looking to consult.
He needed to see the Avatar Spirit.
- The exercise Toph devises for Haru is akin to Luke Skywalker's lightsaber training. Only with malicious intent. Muahaha.
For the collective works of the author, go here.