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Chapter 15-Easy Prey
Words of Avatar Kuruk:
In the presence of our loved ones, we feel true safety, peace of mind and everlasting solace.
It is in this sanctuary, where we feel most secure, that we are also at our most vulnerable.
We let our guard down.
And as we rest, we become easy prey.
We feel only warmth and love, ignoring our instincts to remain alert and aware to threats.
We ignore these instincts because we believe that in the embrace of someone so close to us, we are untouchable.
Our confidence is so great that we break away for just a moment.
A small, fleeting, insignificant moment.
And in this moment, the Hunter strikes.
Ba Sing Se, inside Team Avatar's home, late evening...
The night's discussion still rolled through their minds as the blackness deepened and they went about their own business. Each and every one of them could recall it, the sudden realization that shone through the shroud of confusion and despair.
"So, do you guys remember how Azula got you?" Aang asked.
Sokka twiddled his thumbs, chewing on his bottom lip. Toph simply shrugged.
"Not really," Sokka muttered. "All I remember was stepping outside."
"Ditto," Toph butted in. "She kinda came out of nowhere, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah..." Aang muttered. "She tends to do that."
"Next thing we knew," Sokka added, "We were waking up in the infirmary the day after she attacked us."
Aang nodded, rubbing his head. "It's time to think about this. Hard. Anything and everything that we know. We HAVE to try and figure this out." He sighed and began. "In all of our past encounters, Azula has always had a motive...something that she was after to benefit herself. This just doesn't make any sense."
"Maybe it's not Azula." Sokka said suddenly.
Aang blinked and Toph simply stared ahead. "What?" they questioned in unison.
"I mean, think about it." The warrior continued. "Like you said, every other time we've come in contact with her, she's had a reason, some purpose to try to end us."
"Well, yeah." Toph commented obviously. "She's insane. Insane people usually try to kill people they don't like."
"Wrong." Aang corrected. "Insane or not, she's always had a reason. After Omashu, she was trying to capture me. In Ba Sing Se, she was trying to end me, and succeeded." The Avatar winced, but continued nonetheless. "At the Western Air Temple, she wanted all of us dead, including Zuko. But now, it's like she's only trying to separate Katara and I. And if she was, then why..." He trailed off, and Sokka looked up.
"Then why would she target Suki?" The warrior finished with a deep hatred in his eyes.
"Because she was our friend." Aang replied simply. "To destroy your enemies, you must first destroy their allies. That's why she targeted Suki. She was family to us, Sokka, and killing her meant one less person to try and stop her."
There was a long pause. Aang blinked. "Unless..."
"What if there's someone else that wants us dead?" Sokka's eyebrows furrowed as he stood and began to pace the room. "What if someone else wants you-" Sokka ended his own sentence early. "No..." He rounded with a shock in his eyes.
"Maybe they don't want YOU dead" the warrior had his arm extended fully, pointing at Aang.
Aang's eyes narrowed in confusion. "You're not making any sense, Sokka-"
"No, no I'm not, and that's the point. Up until now, none of this has made any sense." Sokka shook his head vigorously. "Maybe they don't want YOU dead" he repeated.
"I still don't..." Aang stopped, and his eyes widened. "I understand."
Sokka nodded. "They don't want Aang dead. They want the AVATAR dead."
"Then why did they try to kill me, as Aang, two months ago?" Aang winced as the memory of Katara pulling an arrow out of his chest flashed across his mind.
"They didn't." Sokka said exhasperatedly. "They wounded you so that they could get you out of the way...and so that the rest of US would have to fight them and possibly give our lives to protect you. That's why they made sure to target Katara as well. Azula knew that she loved you, and hurting her would infuriate you." Sokka took a deep breath. "She knew that hurting her would make you lose control."
"And I did." Aang stood and strode to the window, clenching his fists and glaring outside. "They're provoking me" he stated. "They want to anger me so I'll enter the Avatar State...and then they can end the Avatar, instead of just ending me, Aang." He shook his head in despair. "Azula succeeded once. Whoever wants to kill the Avatar Spirit knows that she is more than capable, but she has to fight from the shadows and use people to her advantage."
Toph let out a low growl. "Pretty pathetic if you ask me. What's the point of stalking around in the shadows when you can just fight someone up front and send a message?"
After a few seconds, "What!? It's what I would do!"
"And it's exactly what Azula did as well" a gentle, sad voice issued from the hallway.
Aang's shoulders drooped and Sokka returned to his seat with a sigh.
Katara hopped in and Aang extended an arm to her for support, holding her close as a few stray tears ran down her cheeks.
Sokka rubbed his temples. "It all makes sense now. The firebender rebellions were just a distraction to keep our attention occupied. Azula attacked at the wedding to send a message to all of Ba Sing Se. And from what Katara told me, that's why she didn't end you when she had the chance. You weren't the Avatar. You were Aang. Everyone was there, and now, everyone knows what happened." He looked up sadly. "They know that the Avatar has a weakness, and now, they're going to do everything in their power to exploit that weakness."
"That's quite a lot of thinking, Snoozles. Don't hurt yourself." Toph remarked sarcastically, although she was clearly impressed.
Sokka simply shrugged and let it pass.
"And we STILL don't know who that 'someone' is." Aang retorted. "We need to find them."
"Then that's just what we'll do." Katara murmured fiercely. "And I AM going to help you this time."
"We all are, just like always." Sokka added.
But that was earlier.
The evening had since mellowed, and the overwhelming sense of realization had drained them of energy.
And what better a cure for melancholy than a night out with friends?
"I'm ready." she called as she entered the room.
Aang jumped up. "All right," he straightened his fresh shirt. "We need to meet Mai and Zuko in about a half hour. What should we do until then?"
Katara tapped her chin, bottom lip poking out as she tried to think. "Want to go to Lake Laogi?" she suggested.
"Not enough time," Aang pointed out.
"I have an idea," Toph said. "Why don't you two stare into each other's eyes and give off mushy vibrations? You seem to enjoy that."
Aang threw her a glare.
"I felt that, Twinkletoes," she warned.
"Good," he countered.
"Oh!" Katara suddenly cried, snapping her fingers. "I've got it! We can go see Shen."
"That's where we're going to meet Mai and Zuko," Aang said.
"I know," Katara took his hand, "but we can just go and talk." She added, smiling.
Aang grinned at her. "Always the optimist," he tapped her nose. "All right, we'll go see Shen. See you guys later!" he called to Toph and Sokka. "You can still come if you want."
"You and Sugar Queen have a good time," Toph droned. "I have to go teach my night-class in an hour anyways." She blew a strand of hair before letting it fall again and repeating the action. "Fun fun..."
Aang shrugged. "If you say so. Come on, let's head out."
"Okay," Katara sighed. Aang caught her glancing at Toph and Sokka in frustration. Chuckling, he dragged her out.
"Appa!" he called as they rounded the corner of the house. "Come on, buddy, time to go!"
Appa poked his large head from the barn, bellowing excitedly.
Katara laughed. "I don't think we get him out enough. When we were on the run, he flew all day, every day."
"I know," Aang said, "He gets antsy."
They both crooned and patted Appa. He lowered and closed his eyes appreciatively, enjoying the attention. They laughed when he rolled onto his side, requesting a belly rub. They obligingly scratched his expansive tummy.
"Come on, boy," Aang eventually said, "we need to go."
Appa grunted, rolling back onto his six legs. His pink tongue lolled out in pleasure.
Aang scooped Katara up, jumping onto Appa's big head. Smiling, he kissed her forehead before he set her down.
"I like the idea of being carried everywhere," Katara said.
"If you want me to, I will," Aang told her.
"I know you would," she muttered. Plopping down, she took the reins. "But I'll fly us this time."
"As you wish," Aang huffed as he sat next to her.
"Yip, yip," Katara called, flicking the leather straps. Appa's huge tail slammed to the ground, and they rose into the fading violet sky.
Pulling the reins, Katara tugged Appa in the direction of the Food Palace and gave them a slight flick.
"You're a great driver," Aang murmured, slipping an arm around her shoulders.
"I know," she said lightly, leaning into his arm. "You were my teacher."
"And I thought YOU were the teacher, Sifu Katara," he nudged her playfully.
They fell into silence, listening to the air whistle past them in an eerie lullaby. When Katara shivered, Aang instantly whipped off the outermost layer of his robes and draped it over her.
"Thanks," she muttered, snuggling into the warm fabric. She leaned on him again when he placed his arm back around her, inhaling the scent of the shawl-like robe. It had a unique smell, filled with different flavors. It smelled of freshly turned earth, a beach breeze, and clean water. It was an odd combination, but it was also strangely appealing.
"You smell nice," she mumbled.
"Thanks," he beamed. "You do, too." He swept her hair from her shoulder. "...and, Katara?"
"You just flew right over our stop, love."
Katara leaned over sharply, straining to see where she was. Sure enough, the Food Palace was growing smaller and smaller behind them.
"Shoot..." she muttered. Yanking sharply on the reins, she pulled Appa around in midair.
Aang chuckled, watching her go red.
"Ha, ha," she droned mirthlessly, pushing his smirking face away. "You find that funny, do you? Would you find it so funny if I pushed you off?"
Aang stared at her.
Slowly, a devilish grin spread onto his face, and a flash of trouble sparked into his mischievous eyes.
"Hey, now," Katara said nervously, "I don't like that look...Aang, you're freaking me out."
His grin only spread wider.
Katara got a feeling in the pit of her stomach that he was about to do something drastic. She was opening her mouth to tell him off when her terror came to pass.
He picked her up and jumped off of Appa.
Her instant reaction was, of course, to scream. They were far above the streets of Ba Sing Se, and now they were falling with increasing speed toward the stony roads. She threw her arms around his neck and held on for dear life. Above the screeching wind she felt and heard his amused laughter.
Katara squeezed her eyes shut and gripped him even tighter. "AANG!" she screamed, "I think I'm going to be sick!"
Aang grinned, rolling his eyes. Using his foot, he kicked out a wave of air which slowed them down significantly. They were no longer falling, but gently floating downward as he maintained the current.
Wonders Beyond This World.
Katara thought her heart would give out at any second from beating so fast. Even when her breathing had returned to normal and the unsettling rush from falling passed, she kept her arms secured around Aang's neck. She went limp after a few moments and muttered, "You are SO going to pay for that."
Aang chuckled. "I know I will...but it was worth it." He kissed the top of her head. She felt his breath catch as he gasped slightly. "You should open your eyes," he whispered. "You're missing out on something really special."
"Not yet," she said firmly, "Too high."
"Nah..." he murmured, "we're actually pretty close. And this is something you really don't want to miss."
Katara sighed. "My arm hurts."
"Well, stop holding me so tightly," he laughed.
"Katara, I'm not going to let you fall," he said softly. "I would never let you fall. Now come on, open your eyes."
She hesitated, eyes still shut. Forcing out a long raspberry between her lips, she loosened her death grip on his neck and let her forehead relax, eyelids slowly rising.
The world stopped around her as she struggled to take in the sight that assaulted her.
The night sky was a deep, rich violet-blue, not dark enough to be called black but not light enough to be described as purple. Her mind strained to find words to describe it at all.
Upon this canvas of violet, thousands...
Millions of stars, too many for even her imagination to count, painted the night. They seemed to shift and swirl, winking in and out of existence, each one begging for her attention before slipping away into the void.
Her eyes darted back and forth before settling on a sight that outshone every one of them.
Directly over their heads, a great rift swiftly sliced its way across the sky, casting a long trail behind it.
A distant comet.
Not the red, hateful, fiery brilliance of Sozin's Comet, but a gentle, comforting blue that glowed against the white of the stars behind it.
"Wow," she breathed, letting her head drop onto his shoulder.
"I know" he rested his head against hers.
She felt as though she could stare into the brilliant sky for the rest of her life.
"Did you plan this?" she questioned breathlessly, letting her gaze fall to his.
"Other than the terrifying drop from Appa?" he chuckled. "No...I had no idea about the comet."
She glanced down. They were close to the multiple buildings now, and Katara could pick out the top of the Food Palace. It was about twenty yards below them.
Aang let them fall a bit faster, landing on the roof with a gentle swish. Carefully setting Katara down, he grinned and said, "See? Not so bad, was it?"
She shrugged. "Only when you slowed us down."
"Yeah, right...you loved it. I can see it in your eyes."
Katara glanced up for a moment before answering. "Yes, actually...I did love it."
"But...will you forgive me for scaring you like that?" he asked, giving her a look that melted her to the bone.
She grinned, slightly light-headed. "For a sight like this?" she gestured up. "There isn't anything TO forgive." Standing on her toes, she pressed her lips against his.
"Thanks..." he murmured against hers. "We should probably go inside now. We've used fifteen of our minutes already."
Katara calmed her racing pulse. "All right."
Aang kissed her again. "Too bad we can't just stay out here...oh, well. Let's go." Picking her up again, he leapt off of the high roof and Appa let out a low growl, lumbering over to them as they landed.
"Thanks buddy," Aang said, rubbing the bison's vast head. His body vibrated with pleased rumbles.
Katara chanced one last look back as the comet slid over the horizon.
Of course, the restaurant was quite a different sight than the night sky.
Instantly, all of the heads turned at the sound of their entrance, and many began to stand.
Katara braced herself, expecting the crowd to engulf them. However, she was surprised when they all stood reverently and began to bow, sinking to the ground to salute their heroes. The chatter died down, soon becoming crystal silence. In a short time, every person was on their hands and knees, bowing in honor of the young couple.
Aang glimpsed at his wife, throwing her a surprised look. She returned it, just as curious he. They stood in the doorway together, wondering when they could step in without being rude.
"Thank you all..." Aang murmured, loud enough for the entire room to hear. "I really don't deserve this."
Suddenly, a booming voice issued from the nearby hallway. "Nonsense!"
Katara smiled when Shen came bounding in, and Aang gently lowered her to her foot. "If you don't deserve his, then I'll be a hogmonkey's uncle." Grinning, he slapped Aang's shoulder with a large, beefy hand. "Glad to see you with the living."
"You too, Shen," Aang said, grasping the big man's forearm in a firm handshake.
"Lady Katara," Shen said, taking her hand and kissing the top of it.
"Hey, Shen," she laughed, bowing.
"So, what brings you two ten minutes early?" he asked jollily.
Aang shrugged. "We needed something to do. You don't mind, do you?"
Shen laughed. "Goodness, no! I'm just excited to have Mr. and Mrs. Avatar and the Fire Lord and Lady in my little restaurant. Speaking of which, congratulations on your wedding, you two. I was there, but I wasn't able to talk to you."
"Yeah..." Aang muttered. "Nobody really got to do anything."
Shen motioned to the back of the restaurant, saying, "Come and sit. That way these people can get back to eating."
Katara looked around the big man and saw the many people still on the floor. She blushed. "Okay...let's go."
Aang nodded. "The usual place?" he asked Shen.
"Yes," the manager nodded. "That table pretty much belongs to you now. I don't let anyone else sit back there." He winked.
Katara smiled. "You're great, Shen."
"Nah, just doin' my job." Beckoning, he led them back to their table, grunting he sat down and motioned for them to do the same. "So, what's new with Mr. and Mrs. Avatar?"
Aang pulled Katara's chair out, helping her with her crutch. "Nothing, really," he muttered. "I just woke up two days ago, so I don't really know what's new."
"I see," Shen said. "How long were you out, Aang?"
"A week," he answered.
Shen placed his forearms on the table. "Good grief...are you all right now? I about had a heart attack when that knife hit you."
"You were there that long?" Aang asked, surprised.
Shen nodded. "Yep. Wasn't about to let a fight like that pass me up, was I?" he chuckled grimly. "Took out quite a few of those bloody thugs, at least. Wasn't gonna let them take out old Shen, that's for sure."
"Are you a bender?" Aang asked, curious.
Shen nodded, resting back on the tall chair. "Firebender."
"Wow. That means our group of Fire Nation supporters is growing, Aang," she nudged her husband's shoulder.
Shen laughed a big belly laugh. "Don't worry," he chuckled, "the majority of the Fire Nation is devoted to you, Avatar."
"Thanks," Aang smiled.
Suddenly, the low chatter in the other room burst into loud applause and cheers.
"That must be the girls swooning over Zuko," Aang laughed.
"I don't doubt it," Katara said, slipping a hand into his.
Shen hopped up. "I'll bring them back here," he told them, bustling back through the doors.
Aang and Katara stayed quiet, staring at the table. Sighing, Katara leaned on Aang's shoulder. "We should get away soon..." she murmured, closing her eyes.
"I know," Aang told her, squeezing her hand. "We will, but it will probably be a few weeks until we can." Tipping her head back, he looked into her eyes and smiled. "I promise we will. It's just going to be some time before things settle down around here." Leaning forward, he pressed his lips to hers.
"Get a room," came a teasing voice from the doorway.
Katara pulled away and saw Zuko in the entrance with Mai. Rolling her eyes, Katara said, "Come on, Fire Lord; don't pretend like you've never shown emotion in public."
"Oh, yeah, he's quite the marshmallow," Mai teased, nudging his side.
Shen strolled in after them, sliding the door shut.
"Now," he boomed, "what'll it be for my young guests?"
They spent the next several minutes ordering and trying to properly pay Shen. He squarely refused Aang's money, pushing it back again and again. Aang finally gave up in exasperation, throwing his hands up. Shen laughed and left with their orders.
They fell silent, toying with the utensils that decorated the table. Time passed slowly, dragged by with leaden arms. Getting antsy, Katara cleared her throat.
"Our confidence is so great that we break away for just a moment..."
"I'm running to the bathroom," she announced. Turning to Aang, she told him, "Be back in a minute," and kissed his cheek.
"Be careful, please," he murmured, glancing at her arm and leg.
She gave him a reassuring smile before edging out from her chair and hopping out of the room.
She limped to one of the formal workers, asking where the bathroom was. He pointed it out and she thanked him, hopping away. She was making slow progress and it gave many people the opportunity to bombard her with questions. She smiled and answered politely, shaking hands and giving hugs. To her dismay, some people had the same questions that the terrible interviewers had bothered her and Aang with the other day. She pointedly ignored them, trying not to seem angry.
"A small, fleeting, insignificant moment..."
Finally, she reached the long-awaited bathroom. Apologizing to her admirers, she walked in and slid the door shut.
She stood facing the polished wood, sighing in relief. Running her fingers through her hair, she muttered, "This is going to be the death of me some day-"
"...and in this moment, the Hunter strikes."
Suddenly, a cold chill erupted up her spine, and before she could react an icy hand clamped over her mouth.
"If you and your husband want to live, you'll do exactly as I say."
Tears sprung to Katara's eyes as a blue flame-dagger filled her vision.
As always, be sure to check out the rest of the series, more chapters coming soon!
For the collective works of the author, go here.