Author’s note: In which the countdown to the comet begins, Aang pulls a disappearing act… again and everyone’s favourite bounty hunter is back.
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***The Phoenix King***
Fire roared loudly as Zuko and Aang practiced side by side under the strict watch of Lia. Since the play she had taken to overlooking the lessons of the two boys, snapping the occasional correction.
“More ferocious!” she yelled at Aang, when she realized he was holding back on his attacks. His shoulders slumped and he turned to her.
“I’m trying!” he groaned. Zuko noticed the Spirit’s eyes narrowing dangerously and stepped forward.
“Now let me hear you roar like a tiger-dillo!” he ordered the younger boy. Aang nodded and did the move, a half-hearted stream of fire coming out of his mouth.
“That sounded pathetic! I said roar!” Aang frowned at the words of his teacher and repeated the exercise, this time with more fire coming out. Zuko nodded in approval.
“Who wants a nice, cool glass of watermelon juice?” Katara’s voice was heard from the house as she came out with a tray. Aang’s eyes widened in glee.
“Ooo, ooo, me, me, me!” he exclaimed, rushing towards her. He gasped as Zuko lifted him from the back of his robes.
“Hey, your lesson’s not over yet! Get back here,” he ordered.
“Come on, Zuko. Just take a break. What’s the big deal?” Suki called from where she was lounging on the steps of the courtyard. Sokka was leaning next to her, lazily sipping his drink.
“Fine,” Zuko huffed and let go of the airbender who raced towards the juices. With a sigh he followed his student and sat next to Katara. Lia did not bother following.
“I’m going to go train,” she said curtly as she walked off towards the beach.
“Maybe Lia’s right,” Sokka said thoughtfully. “Sitting around the house has made us pretty lazy. But I know just the thing to change that. Beach party!”
Everyone looked at him in surprise. Then Katara shrugged and shared a look with Zuko.
“I suppose it’s okay,” she said. They walked down to the house’s private beach. Lia could be seen at a distance practising some moves that made it look like she was dancing with a fiery partner. With one last concerned look in her direction the teens returned to their party. Katara and Sokka immediately rushed to the water, with Zuko hesitantly following his girlfriend after a while. Suki opted to lay on a towel and sunbath while Aang and Toph played with the sand. The airbender turned to his earthbending teacher.
“Check out my Appa sand sculpture,” he said eagerly. Things between them had been a little awkward since the play and Toph had taken to dealing it by acting as if nothing had happened – and fooling no one in the process –. Now she felt the vibrations carefully.
“Not bad, baldy. But I’ve been working on my sandbending.” She cracked her knuckles. “You’re gonna love this.” She stomped her feet, moving into an earthbending stance. A miniature of Ba Sing Se appeared in front of them. Aang knelt to it and looked in amazement.
“Whoa! Wow, you even made a little Earth King and Bosco.” A little further Sokka was frantically making something out of a wet sand dune.
“Try and top that, Sokka,” Toph dared the older boy. He gave them a smug look before jumping to the side to reveal his atrocious creation.
“Is that a blubbering, blob monster?” Aang asked confused. Sokka looked at him insulted.
“No! It’s Suki.” Aang and Toph looked at him in shock and then burst out laughing. Katara and Zuko, who had just come out of the water raised eyebrows.
“Suki, we’ll all understand if you break up with him over this,” Toph told the Kyoshi Warrior.
“I think it’s sweet,” Suki said awkwardly. Sokka rushed to her and gave her a swift kiss.
“But it doesn’t even look like…” Aang began but was cut off by the sudden sound of fire near them.
They turned to see Lia having created an enormous amount of white flames. Recognising them Zuko rushed, worried to see what they had to reveal.
“General Shinu, your report,” Fire Lord Ozai’s voice was heard. Everyone paled as the image of the Fire Nation throne room was formed. A middle-aged man stood.
“Thank you, sir. Ba Sing Se is still under our control. However, earthbender rebellions have prevented us from achieving total victory in the Earth Kingdom.”
“What is your recommendation?” Ozai said calmly. Katara wrapped her arms around Zuko who looked like he was ready to pass out at the sight of his father.
“Our army is spread too thin but once the eclipse is over and the invasion defeated, we should transfer more domestic forces into the Earth Kingdom.” Another general shook his head.
“The people of the Earth Kingdom are proud and strong. They can endure anything as long as they have hope.”
“I think you should take their precious hope and the rest of their land, and burn it all to the ground,” Azula said from her seat on Ozai’s right side. The Fire Lord smiled in approval.
“Yes… Yes, you’re right, Azula. Sozin’s Comet is almost upon us and on that day it will endow us with the strength and power of a hundred suns. No bender will stand a chance against us.” General Shinu sat back down.
“What are you suggesting, sir?”
“When the comet last came, my grandfather, Fire Lord Sozin, used it to wipe out the Air Nomads. Now, I will use its power to end the Earth Kingdom. Permanently.” Ozai went on to explain his plan. “From our airships, we will rain fire over their lands. A fire that will destroy everything. And out of the ashes, a new world will be born. A world in which all the lands are Fire Nation and I am the supreme ruler of everything!” Lia stopped the conjuration in disgust and gave Aang a look that spoke volumes. He took a few steps back horrified.
“But…but… I’m not ready. The comet is three days away and I need more time to master firebending.”
“And frankly, your earthbending could still use some work too,” Toph added.
“Honestly, if Aang tries to fight the Fire Lord right now, he’s gonna lose. No offence,” Sokka told the other boy.
“What am I going to do?” Aang asked no one in particular.
“I know you’re scared,” Zuko told him gravely. “And I know that you’re not ready to save the world. But if you don’t defeat the Fire Lord before the comet comes, there won’t be a world to save anymore.”
Aang turned panicky to Lia.
“Why didn’t you tell us about his dad’s crazy plan sooner?” he yelled at Lia.
“I’m not getting updates from the Fire Lord before breakfast,” she snapped back at him. “Be thankful that we have what we have.”
“This is bad.” Aang clutched his head. “This is really, really bad.”
“Aang, you don’t have to do this alone,” Katara said in an attempt to calm him.
“Yeah!” Toph agreed eagerly. “If we all fight the Fire Lord together, we got a shot at taking him down.” Sokka rubbed his hands eagerly.
“Alright! Team Avatar is back!” He started pointing at the various members of the group. “Air! Water! Earth! Fire!” he paused for a second and then grinned in inspiration. “Fan and Sword!”
“Fighting the Fire Lord is going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done together. But I wouldn’t want to do it any other way,” Aang said, smiling confidently again. Katara pulled everyone to a hug, relieved that the tense moment ended. Lia stood back with a ghost of a smile until the waterbender looked up at her.
“Get over here, Lia. Being part of the group also means being part of group hugs,” she said and the Spirit hesitantly obliged.
After lunch Zuko took Aang to the courtyard where Lia trained with him. Aang gulped audibly at the sight of some melted and re-solidified stones. Katara followed them curiously from a distance.
“There’s one technique you need to know before facing my father. How to redirect lightning,” Zuko said seriously, frowning at Aang’s eager face. “If you let the energy in your own body flow, the lightning will follow it. You turn your opponent’s energy against them,” he continued explaining nonetheless, showing the Avatar the movements.
“That’s like waterbending!” Aang exclaimed after studying the movement. The firebender nodded.
“Exactly. My uncle invented this technique himself by studying waterbenders.” Aang started practicing the move, mirroring Zuko.
“So… Have you ever redirected lightning before?”
“Once. Against my father, during the invasion. You guys were already out of the room.”
“What did it feel like?” Aang asked curiously. Zuko dropped his arms.
“Exhilarating. But terrifying,” he said remembering the rush of energy. “You feel so powerful holding that much energy in your body. But you know that you make the wrong move, it’s over.” Aang laughed nervously.
“Well, not over over, right I mean there’s always Katara and a little spirit water action… Am I right?” he turned to the waterbender. Katara raised an eyebrow.
“Actually I used it all up after Azula shot you,” she said dryly. Aang’s face fell again.
“You’ll have to take the Fire Lord’s life. Before he takes yours,” Zuko said grimly.
“Yeah… I’ll just do that,” Aang muttered, following the prince with his eyes as he joined Katara and they moved inside the house.
At sunset Sokka dragged everyone on some rock formations near the house.
“Gather round Team Avatar,” he said creating a scarecrow with a mean-looking, bearded watermelon as a head. “In order to take out the Fire Lord, or in this case, the Melon Lord, our timing has to be perfect.” He knelt to the ground and started sketching a diagram on the dirt. “First, Suki and I will draw his fire. Then, Katara and Zuko charge in with some liquidly hot offence and while the Melon Lord is distracted, Aang swoops in and BAM! He delivers the final blow.”
“Err… what about me?” Toph asked with a confused look.
“For now, you and Lia are the Melon Lord’s forces.”
“So we get to chuck flaming rocks at all of you?” the Spirit asked gleefully.
“Whatever makes the training feel more realistic,” Sokka answered. Toph and Lia shared a look.
“Sweetness!” they said. To Zuko that sounded more threatening than any yell from Azula ever had.
Toph even took it upon herself to make sound effects and evil laughs while Lia created a ring of fire around them. The two girls had gathered a few boulders around them as well and covered them with oil as an extra line of offence. For a moment there was silence and then Sokka signalled at his group to charge. Before he and Suki had time to go very far an army of Fire Nation soldier statues popped from the ground. They evaded them but then flaming boulders started raining down at them. Suki somersaulted over one and Sokka fell flat on his face in front of it. He jumped to his feet.
“Watch it, Toph!” he yelled at the earthbender.
“I am not Toph; I am Melon Lord! Muahahahahaha!” Toph yelled back, clearly having the time of her life. On the other side Lia was having her own fun, raining attacks down her student and his girlfriend, proud that they blocked all of them.
“Now Aang!” Sokka yelled suddenly, seeing the two Melon Lords sufficiently distracted. The airbender launched himself against his enemy, his staff on the ready. He landed in front of the scarecrow and froze. Slowly he lowered his stuff.
“What are you waiting for? Take him out!” Zuko called at him surprised. Aang shook his head.
“I can’t,” he muttered, taking a step back. The gang walked up to him.
“What’s wrong with you?” Sokka asked the younger boy angrily. “If this was the real deal, you’d be shot full of lightning right now.”
“I’m sorry, but it just didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel like myself,” Aang tried to explain. Sokka wordlessly took out his sword and cut the melon in half.
“There,” he said tonelessly. “That’s how it’s done.” Aang’s eyes widened in terror.
Dinner was silent and tense that night until Katara rushed outside with a big smile on her face and a scroll on her hands.
“I have a surprise for everyone!” she announced. Toph looked up.
“I knew it! You did have a secret thing with Haru!”
“What?” Sokka, Zuko and Katara asked at the same time.
“No!” Katara rushed to add at her boyfriend’s direction. “I was looking for cooking pots in the attic and I found this.” She unrolled the scroll to reveal the picture of a baby. “Look at baby Zuko! Isn’t he cute?” Lia snorted with laughter while Zuko frowned. “Oh lighten up, I was just teasing,” Katara said, kissing him lightly on the cheek.
“That’s not me. It’s my father,” he said dryly. The scroll rolled itself as it fell from Katara’s fingers.
“But he looked so sweet and innocent,” Suki said surprised.
“Well that sweet little kid grew up to be a monster. And the worst father in the history of fathers,” Zuko added the last part under his breath.
“But he is still a human being,” Aang said suddenly.
“You’re going to defend him?” Zuko asked incredulously.
“No, I agree with you. Fire Lord Ozai is a horrible person and the world will probably be better off without him. There’s gotta be another way.”
“Like what?” Lia asked dubiously.
“I don’t know,” Aang shrugged. “Maybe we can make some big pots of glue and then I can use gluebending to stick his arms and legs together so he can’t bend anymore.”
“Yeah. Then you can show him his baby pictures and all those happy memories will make him good again,” Zuko added sarcastically while everyone else tried to hide their laughter.
“Do you really think that would work?” Aang asked hopefully.
“No!” Zuko snapped.
“This goes against everything I learned from the monks. I can’t just go around wiping out people I don’t like…”
“Sure, you can. You’re the Avatar. If it’s in the name of keeping balance, I’m pretty sure the Universe will forgive you,” Sokka said cheekily. Lia nodded in agreement.
“This isn’t a joke, Sokka! None of you understands the position I’m in!” Aang burst out.
“Aang, we do understand. It’s just…” Katara tried to calm him down.
“Just what, Katara! What?” Aang interrupted angrily.
“We’re trying to help!” the waterbender raised her voice as well.
“Then when you figure out a way for me to beat the Fire Lord without taking his life, I’d love to hear it!” he stormed off.
“Aang, don’t walk away from this.” Katara stood up, ready to follow him when Zuko stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.
“Let him go. He needs time to sort it out by himself,” he said calmly, pulling the angry girl to an embrace. They walked back to where the others were still sitting. Zuko could have sworn he heard Lia muttered something along the lines of “spoiled brat.”
The next morning they were loading Appa, having decided to move off of the island and make their way to the capital.
“Okay, that’s everything,” Sokka said, dusting his hands.
“No, it’s not,” Toph said from her seat on the steps. “Where’s Aang?” Everyone looked around, surprised to notice that the airbender was indeed absent. They rushed back to the house to look for him. Eventually they ended up at the balcony surprised to see the airbender’s staff but not him.
“He left his staff. That’s so strange,” Sokka said confused.
“Aang’s not in the house. Let’s check the beach,” Zuko offered before leading the way.
“Look! There’s his footprints.” Sokka pointed at the sandy trail. It finished at the edge of the water.
“So… He went for a midnight swim and never came back?” Suki asked.
“Maybe he was captured,” Katara speculated. Sokka shook his head.
“I don’t think so. There’s no sign of a struggle.”
“I bet he ran away again,” Toph said crossing her arms.
“Ah-uh. He left behind his glider and Appa,” Sokka said again. Toph shot him an exasperated look.
“Then what do you think happened to him oh sloozey one?”
“It’s pretty obvious. Aang mysteriously disappears before an important battle? He’s definitely on a Spirit World journey!”
“But if he was, wouldn’t his body still be here?” Zuko asked confused. Sokka’s shoulders slumped.
“Oh yeah, forgot about that.”
“Then he’s gotta be somewhere on Ember Island. Let’s split up and look for him,” Katara said, making her way towards Zuko, only to be cut off by Toph.
“I’m going with Zuko!” he raised an eyebrow in Katara’s fuming direction. “What? We want to get work done here!”
An hour later everyone had returned to the house disappointed. Sokka jumped off Appa.
“Judging by the looks on your faces, I’m guessing you guys didn’t find Aang either.”
“No. It’s like he just… disappeared,” Zuko said, getting worried. Toph suddenly sat up.
“Hey, wait a minute; has anyone noticed that Momo’s missing too?” Sokka paled.
“Oh no!” he said hysterically. “I knew it was only a matter of time. Appa ate Momo!” he rushed to Appa, opened his mouth and leaned in. “Momo, I’m coming for ya, buddy!”
“Sokka, Appa didn’t eat Momo. He’s probably with Aang,” Katara said calmly. Sokka’s dramatics were the last thing they needed now.
“That’s just what Appa wants you to think.” Sokka snapped, still inside the bison’s mouth. Zuko rolled his eyes.
“Get out of the bison’s mouth, Sokka. We have a real problem here. Aang is nowhere to be found and the comet is only two days away.”
“What should we do Zuko?” Katara asked him, her eyes, along with Suki’s and Toph’s trained on him.
“I don’t know,” Zuko admitted standing up. He noticed the stares. “Why are you all looking at me?”
“Well, you are kind of the expert on tracking Aang,” Lia said from where she was leaning against Appa. Zuko sighed and moved towards Appa.
“Get on,” he ordered everyone, taking the reins. After a few minutes of flying, Sokka looked over his map confused.
“Zuko, I don’t want to tell you how to do your job but why are we heading towards the Earth Kingdom? There’s no way Aang’s there.” Zuko looked back from Appa’s head.
“Just trust me,” he said darkly.
They landed on a forest and Zuko took the lead again, walking towards a small building.
“And the reason you brought us to a seedy Earth Kingdom tavern is what now?” Katara asked wearily as they opened the door. Zuko’s eyes swept the room and pointed at a woman near the middle.
“June,” he said simply.
“Oh yeah, that weird bounty hunter with the giant mole,” Sokka said. Suki looked at him confused.
“Mole? Her skin is flawless,” she said. Sokka shook his head.
“No, she has this giant mole creature she rides around on,” he explained, shuddering at the memory of the numb feeling.
“Her shirshu,” Zuko elaborated. “It’s the only animal that can track Aang’s scent anywhere in the world. It’s the one shot we have of finding him.”
Toph had been observing both the conversation and the fight that had been going on inside the tavern. She smirked.
“I don’t know who this June lady is but I like her.”