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Tara: the Last Timebender
Author's note: I've always considered time an element, and I was a little frustrated that the avatar people didn't. This story is my way of bringing them into the Avatar universe, explaining why they weren't in the actual series, and telling the story of an individual timebender. Enjoy!
The pain woke me up. I had a massive headache that was worse than any headache I'd had before then. I froze time, trying to understand what was causing the headache that was roaring in my temples, but there wasn't much change. I couldn't understand what was causing a headache so painful; I only get headaches when I'm in danger, and I couldn't detect anything dangerous nearby. And then I realized; there was nothing and no one nearby. I was completely on my own. I had frozen my immediate area, but no one was in it, otherwise I would be hearing the thoughts of others, seeing through the eyes of others, and hearing what others were hearing. I was alone, and though the silence was good for my headache, no one would be able to protect me if the Fire Nation rebels found me.
My eyes shot open in shock, and I groaned and shut them again as light shone into them, intensifying my headache. I took a few deep breaths, and then I slowly opened them again, trying to figure out where I was.
I was in a small cave, but the opening was large enough for some light to get in, and what little light there was reflected off of the snow and my silver hair, directly into my eyes. Not so good for my headache. Just outside the cave entrance, there was a large pile of snow that had trails in it which indicated I had glanced off the side of the pile and slid into the cave. I tried to remember how I had gotten separated from the group.
We had joined Aang and the others months ago, not long after Fire Lord Ozai had been defeated, and ever since we have been helping put down rebellions from firebenders who still want to follow Ozai's plan and take over the world. But they fight back. We'd become very adept at noticing and avoiding rebel attacks, but this time we'd been half asleep, and by the time we figured out what was happening, it was too late; Appa was hit before we could do anything, and we all flew off in different directions. I'd blacked out as I'd fallen.
And now I was here. Alone. I could go on for a bit about how completely and utterly alone I was and how dangerous that was for me, but then that would just be melodramatic. I mean, I am a big girl and I can take care of myself. I shivered, realizing for the first time that I was cold, and pulled my standard short-sleeved timebender jacket tighter around me. The long-sleeved shirt beneath the jacket was drenched with melted snow, and was no help for warmth. As I shut my eyes again, I heard something. I sat up with a jolt, groaned when my headache intensified, and listened carefully.
Sure enough, I recognized the sounds of battle coming from somewhere in the forest surrounding the cave. Slowly and as quietly as possible, I crawled out of the cave. I was in a clearing surrounded by forest, which made it hard to tell where the sound was coming from. I made a guess and slowly began freezing everything in that direction until I came across several minds. A quick listen to each revealed that it was five firebender rebels and Aang.
I quickly used the connection my timebending created to inform Aang what direction I was in and about how far he would have to go to reach me and then I unfroze him. I attempted to get up and go to where he would be able to see me better, but each step I took made the snow crunch, and to me those crunches were as loud as explosions. Finally I just sat down and waited for him where I was.
I watched the rebels carefully even though they were still frozen as I left the clearing, hiding my footprints so that they wouldn't be able to follow me after Tara unfroze them. Several months of traveling with Tara and her powers still amazed me. Mostly they just confused me, though, because I'm the avatar and even I've never heard of a timebender. And she almost seems to be able to waterbend and earthbend sometimes, but when I asked her about it she said, "All I can do is timebend, nothing else."
When I asked her how timebending allowed her to make chunks of earth and water in the air and send them flying at people, all she did was smile and say, "The world is ever nostalgic."
Cryptic. Very Cryptic.
As I waited for Aang I began to worry. I mean, Aang's not exactly loud, but he's not exactly a master of silence. At all. Which could be problematic, what with my headache and all.
I sighed, deciding that having the Avatar with me would be safer than being alone, and that should ease my headache a bit. So I decided not to worry about it too much. I shut my eyes and began rubbing my temples, willing my headache to stop.
When Aang entered the clearing not long afterward, I stood up to greet him. But, as I stood, I felt sick and then my headache did something I've never known it to do before. I gasped and collapsed as I felt my headache spread. Suddenly my whole body ached. I could feel the pain everywhere; I felt it in my bones, in my legs, my arms, everywhere. I saw Aang run over with a concerned expression, but before he reached me my vision faded to black.
For being two years older than me, Tara was surprisingly light. I carried her back into the cave, where I discovered that my bison whistle had also fallen into the cave. After setting her down, I picked up my bison whistle and blew it, and then I sat down next to Tara. There was nothing to look at in the cave, so I just ended up looking at Tara's (shiny) silver hair. Eventually, I sighed in boredom and picked up a chunk of her hair, marveling at how I could actually see my reflection in her hair. It was strange how her hair was exactly the color of silver, and just like silver when you got close enough to it, you could see your reflection in it. I still found her hair fascinating even after several months.
I vaguely remember hearing the whoosh of air from Aang's bison whistle, and the crunch of the thin snow inside the cave when Aang sat down next to me. When I was finally all the way awake again, I felt Aang holding some of my hair and I smirked.
"Checking for zits, Aang?" I asked dryly, "Have you seriously already hit puberty? What has the world come to with eight-year-olds getting zits?"
Aang hastily dropped my hair and replied, "Ha-ha, you are so funny… not!"
I winced when he shouted "not," and then he started apologizing like crazy. I winced again and then smirked, because I had been right; Aang could not keep quiet.
When the fire hit, Appa jerked and we were thrown off. Katara hit her head on the saddle and was knocked out, so I grabbed her arm and held on tight. Toph and Anya were both doing the same to me (which was surprising, because Anya used to be intent on killing me). The entire way down, Anya was screaming her head off and digging her nails into my arm. I was about ready to punch her by the time we'd landed. But I suppose, as Fire Lord, it might not be diplomatic to punch random citizens of the Fire Nation.
After we landed in the middle of a forest, scratched up but otherwise unharmed, Anya and Toph both helped me take care of Katara, but really they had done most of the work because I didn't really know what I was doing. When we saw Appa flying nearby, Anya went to great lengths to flag him down and then picked up Katara, by herself, and brought her over to the small clearing where Appa was landing.
All in all, Anya had been really helpful, and she hadn't tried to kill me even once. It was probably one of the most peaceful experiences we'd had together.
As soon as Appa was visible over the trees, Aang began jumping up and down excitedly and shouting, "Oh, it's Appa! Appa! Here, boy—"
"No, really, Aang? Because I never would have thought that the flying, six-legged ball of fur would be Appa! I guess you definitely needed to shout it before I understood!" I remarked with vicious sarcasm, moving my hands to hold my head. I winced, wishing my headache would stop.
"Sorry," Aang said like a little kid whose feelings were hurt. Oh, wait! He was a little kid with hurt feelings. I sighed.
"'Sokay," I sighed, turning to face away from him. I shivered, pulling my short-sleeved jacket around me tighter. It didn't help much; the melted snow stained its usual light silvery-blue color darker. The also soaked long-sleeved navy blue shirt underneath it wasn't doing anything to help either. I sighed again, turning around to look up at Appa as he approached. He landed only moments later.
As I approached Appa, I noticed that there was a large patch of charred fur and scarred skin on his side, just below the saddle. Worried, I placed my hands inches away from the burned patch and closed my eyes. I imagined Appa's fur as it had been before the fire hit, and willed time to turn back around that patch of skin. When I opened my eyes, the charred patch was gone and Appa looked as good as new. I smiled, climbing into his saddle with Toph, Anya, Katara, and Zuko. Aang hopped up into the saddle and scurried to the reigns while I leaned back and shut my eyes.
"Hold it!" Anya shouted, "Hold everything!"
I winced, but she didn't notice.
"What, Anya?" Aang asked from his perch on Appa's head.
"We don't even know where we're going!" She pointed out (loudly).
"And what do you suggest we do about that? We don't know where the others are," Zuko pointed out, noticeably more quiet than Anya. I sighed and opened my eyes, leaning forward.
"I got it," I said, annoyance coloring my tone; I'd already timebended more than enough for one day, and I definitely didn't need to do any more. Timebending isn't like waterbending or any other bending. It depletes your energy very quickly; and exhaustion isn't really a good battle strategy when you're in enemy territory. I closed my eyes and focused on freezing everything around us, slowly spreading the frozen area farther and farther. Finally, just when I'd thought I couldn't hold out for much longer, I detected Sokka, An Ming, Sonset, and Dai. With a sigh, I let time continue as normal around us and slumped back in the saddle.
"That way," I said tiredly, my hand shaking as I pointed in the direction they had been in. I closed my eyes and the next thing I knew we were landing in another, larger clearing, and the others were all climbing onto Appa's saddle.
"Come on, come on!" I said as I struggled with the lock. I had tried to timebend it open several times, but that wasn't working at all, as some materials are resistant to Timebending unless the bender is an experienced one. The problem was that my aunts had locked me in the closet when they'd seen I was trying to run away. I slammed my body against the lock several times, trying to break open the door. Finally I slumped over and whimpered, listening to the muffled sounds of the screams outside my home. I looked around the closet for something to help me. There were traditional timebender clothes folded on shelves all around me, and the traditional timebender slippers lined up in various sizes along one wall, but there was nothing useful for breaking open the door.
I quickly pulled my pack off of my back and looked through everything I had inside it. There was nothing but some food and traditional timebender clothing, alongside my favorite treasures. I sighed and slumped against the wall as the screams from outside became distinctly louder. I knew that it wouldn't be long before they burned down my home, and I had all but given up hope when the lock snapped open. I hopped up as the door opened to reveal my five friends and my sister.
"Come on, we've gotta go!" my sister, Kari, said insistently.
"How?" I asked. She smiled at me.
I opened my mouth to remind her and the others that it had never been done before, and was believed to be impossible, but then I simply shook my head and stepped out of the closet with my bag and without argument. Kyla, one of my friends, directed everyone to sit in a circle.
"Hold hands, everyone," Kyla directed, "Close your eyes. Imagine a later time where there are no cruel firebenders. Imagine us all being there. Convince the world, convince time, that it's true."
I opened my eyes as the door burst open. A firebender walked in and blasted fire at us, but the room was already looking different, it seemed like we were slowly teleporting someplace else. Regardless, even as our surroundings changed I heard Kyla cry out in pain. With a sudden jerk, I felt my hand separated from my sister's, and it was all I could do to hold on to Kyla's. My surroundings began to spin, and I began to get a headache in my temples.
Finally the spinning stopped and I was surrounded by nothingness. There was nothing in my sight, although I could feel Kyla's hand in mine. Her grip was slack. Worried, I tried to think of something else and I began to think of my aunts. Suddenly, rather than nothingness, I saw firebenders burning my aunts alive.
Horrified, I tried to scream and shut my eyes, but I could do neither, as though I was not watching from my own body. So I thought of something else, of the man who had caused this all; I thought of the Fire Lord. Suddenly I was seeing him instead. I saw him telling his children of a great plot to gain more land, as if it was a great thing, and I despised him. I watched him and his children.
I watched for days, for months, for years. I watched as his children grew older and with horror I realized that there was no end to it. I was doomed to watch whatever or whoever I thought of, perhaps forever. When I grew weary of watching others, I could not simply turn away and do something else; I was forced to watch.
I watched as Fire Lord after Fire Lord made horrible cruel choices, with rarely a peaceful time between them. I watched as the Fire Lords, for the sake of keeping up a good image, convinced the world that timebenders were only myths, and I watched as the world slowly began to believe them. By the time a few hundred years had gone by, no one even mentioned the mystical and fabled timebenders.
I watched for thousands of years, unable to stop watching and unable to die as I had been intended to long before. It was too much for a child to take, but it was no longer my decision. So I watched. I watched the recurring lifestyles of the Fire Lords as they made mistake after mistake.
All their lives occurred in much the same manner until nearly three thousand years later, three thousand years of nothing but observing that I had been forced to endure, when there was a coup and the Fire Lord was overthrown. I watched as the former Fire Lord fled and was forced to work as a farmer. But to my surprise, he and his family seemed to be kind people, if not a little rough around the edges and unused to hard work.
I began to develop a theory, and as I turned my never-ending gaze towards the new Fire Lord, I believed my suspicions were confirmed. I believed that whether or not someone was a good person, when given too much power, they would end up hungry for more. Those who did remain kind simply had a higher tolerance for power, but given the right amount, they, too, would become hungry for more. And so my view on one with power became similar to my view on an alcoholic.
Just under seven thousand years later, a foolish power-drunk Fire Lord, Sozin, used a comet to start a war, and every Fire Lord since him was as power-hungry as the last. The only person who I had hope for that was next in line was a certain Iroh, who, while a great leader in battle, was a kind man who I believed could handle the power without becoming mad.
But when he set off to take Ba Sing Se, things took a turn for the worse. His son died, and his brother tried to seize power for himself. As punishment for his actions he was sentenced to sacrifice his first-born son, a young boy named Zuko, and he intended to do it. I felt great sympathy for the boy, but it was not like I hadn't seen worse from the Fire Nation. But the boy's mother, eager to protect her son, killed the Fire Lord in order to make her cruel husband Fire Lord and to save her son's life. I watched the son, Zuko, trying to see if his life was worth all the trouble his father would undoubtedly cause, and despite believing he wasn't, I developed a liking for the boy.
I watched him until he was eight years old, when suddenly everything went black. I opened my eyes, gasping at the feeling of seeing through my own eyes, hearing through my own ears, and being in control of my own body. Suddenly I remembered Kyla's hand in mine, and I turned to express my relief at the wait finally being over, but instead I screamed in horror.
Much of Kyla's upper body was scorched and disfigured, and she was not breathing.
I gasped as I woke up from my nightmare, tears streaking from my eyes. I looked around, hoping no one had seen my moment of weakness, and I was relieved to see that everyone was sleeping. I wiped my eyes and then settled back into the saddle, doing my best to fall back asleep.
When I awoke the next day, I hopped off of Appa and fell the short distance to the ground. We'd intended to set up camp in the clearing, but because of the snow on the ground we'd decided it would be warmer to all curl up on Appa for the night.
Appa's a strong creature, but even he couldn't carry us all for long, so we'd flown a short distance from where Sokka and the others had been and landed in a clearing closer to the shore. Today we were going to split up, half of us trekking through the forest, the other half riding Appa to the shore. After that, we were going to have to find a way north to the Earth Kingdom mainland, because for about the tenth time, the boat we had been using had been destroyed. Most likely that would mean half of us sitting in ice boats, and the other half riding Appa. It wasn't exactly something I was looking forward to.
I heard movement behind me and turned around to see Zuko jump off of Appa. Still groggy, he nodded at me before walking off into the woods. I tried not to think of what he was no doubt going back there to do, so I turned my attention to clearing the snow from a single circular spot on the ground. Once it was cleared of snow to the best of my ability, I started finding branches to pile up for a fire.
After I'd piled up the wood, I sat back with a frown; I had no matches, and I was no firebender. I grumbled to myself, ornery that I was going to have to sit and freeze until Zuko came back. I did my best to warm my hands, but they were already getting to the point where I could barely even move them. Finally, I heard the telltale crunch of snow that indicated Zuko was returning. I turned around to see him start to climb back onto Appa.
"Uh-uh, no!" I said rather loudly, jumping up, "You're coming over here and lighting this fire so I don't freeze!"
I pointed a finger at the pile of wood. Zuko looked at me like I was crazy, partly because he was still tired and mostly because, well, I am a little crazy. He walked over and lit up the pieces of wood, which were reluctant to burn.
"Thanks," I said cheerfully, even though I was far from cheerful. I held my hands over the spluttering fire, resisting the urge to complain about how pathetic the fire was. Well, resisting the urge to complain out loud, that is.
Later, after everyone except Sokka (why is he so lazy?) woke up, I finally became impatient with how pathetic our firewood was. I stood up with a sigh.
"I'm going to look for firewood that might actually burn," I announced, starting to walk towards the edge of the woods. When I reached the edge of the clearing, I hesitated.
"Um," I said sheepishly, "Anyone wanna come with me?"
Sonset volunteered, and she was shortly followed by Katara. Anya stood up next.
"Well, if you're so scared, I'll go," she teased. I rolled my eyes sarcastically.
"Oh, well, having you with me makes me feel so much better," I teased right back. We set off in the opposite direction of the shore, towards the heart of the island. We were looking for wood that hadn't been touched by the snow, and the most likely place for that was where the forest was thicker.
We split up when we reached the inactive volcano at the center of the island. The forest was at its thickest there, and it even continued up the volcano for a while. I was focusing on finding the branches of trees that hadn't been touched by the snow, which seemed closer to melting there. Even though my breath still formed clouds in front of me, I could still feel that it was warmer there. I didn't really think about it much as I gathered branches, although I did notice that more and more branches were wet instead of covered in snow and ice.
As I continued along, I suddenly stumbled upon a spot that had no snow; it was just one large puddle. Confused, I looked towards the center of the semicircular puddle, and saw the entrance to a cave. Curious, I shifted the firewood to my right arm and walked towards the cave entrance, starting a ball of fire in my left hand for light. I took a few steps into the cave and saw that the end seemed to be nowhere in sight. A took a couple more steps and noticed that the cave was at a downward incline, sometimes steep, and sometimes sloping down more gently. I smiled to myself and walked back to the entrance to the cave, setting my armful of wood down in a pile next to the mouth of the cave.
"Hey, guys, check this out!" I called excitedly.
"Hey, guys, check this out!" I heard Anya call. I sighed and turned towards where her voice had come from. I started to move in that direction, keeping my eyes on the ground so that I wouldn't trip on tree roots and branches, when suddenly the snow at my feet was gone, replaced by water.
"What the…" I muttered, looking up to see Anya standing in front of a cave entrance. Katara and Sonset arrived just after I did.
"Isn't it cool?" Anya asked, a fire starting in her palm as she turned around and started walking into the cave.
"Come on," she called over her shoulder, quickening her pace.
"Anya, wait, isn't this a bad idea?" I called after her. She didn't stop, and she was already deep into the cave. I grumbled to myself as I set my pile of wood down next to hers and rushed after her. Sonset then made the decision to do the same, and finally Katara followed last, reluctantly and after some hesitation.
The air in the cave was warm, and the deeper we went into the cave, the stuffier it got. After a bit I was panting, because it was feeling harder and harder to breath in the stuffy air. Suddenly, a thought occurred to me. Would an inactive volcano really be that warm? The thought made me nervous.
"Uh, guys?" I started, "I think we should go back—"
I felt something hit the back of my head hard, and I blacked out.
I woke up slowly and groaned as I felt the back of my head aching. I moved a hand to hold the area where it hurt, and I winced at the sudden burst of sharp pain when my hand brushed it. On top of that, I could feel a bump forming. I shifted uncomfortably; I was sitting stiffly in a rigid metal chair. I tried to look at my surroundings, but it was pitch black, and the only thing that was distinguishable was a streak of flickering light that indicated a door that had a fire on the other side.
Even after being asleep, I was still panting, as it was even hotter and stuffier wherever I was. I stood up, trying to walk towards the door, but I swayed and fell, barely getting my hands out beneath me to catch my fall. I cried out in surprise and pulled my hands off of the floor as I felt how hot it was. It hadn't harmed me, but it had been hot to the point where it was extremely uncomfortable.
I pulled myself back to my feet and managed to stay on them as I stumbled to the door. I felt along the door until I found the doorknob and I tried to open it, but it was locked. I fell to my knees, suddenly realizing how exhausted I was and leaned against the door, which was also uncomfortably hot.
"Hello?" I called out, my voice weak, "Is there anyone out there?"
There was no response.
"Can anyone hear me?" I tried again, forcing my voice to sound stronger, "Where am I?"
Again there was no response. I felt even more of my energy drain as I realized how hopeless it was. I weakly placed a hand on the door above the lock and tried to timebend it open, but it was hard to concentrate through the usual headache in my temples and the ache from the wound on the back of my head, so all that I had accomplished was the draining of more of my energy.
"Oh, Anya, what have you gotten us into?" I sighed exhaustedly before getting up to fumble around for the chair. When I finally found it, I sat back down wearily and allowed myself to fall back asleep.
When I awoke again I felt even weaker, and as I tried to stand I once more fell to my hands and knees, only this time I couldn't pull myself back up. I leaned back against the chair and tried to think of a way out of the situation, but my thoughts were sluggish. Suddenly it occurred to me that I could have a concussion.
Worried, I placed my hand on the back of my head, wincing at the pain that followed, and did my best to focus through the haze of my mind. Slowly, I managed to focus enough to heal the wound, but even as I felt the pain go away, my eyelids closed of their own free will and I fell back asleep.
Just as Tara started to voice her opinion about wanting to leave, four firebenders leapt out of the darkness. The first two managed to knock Tara and Sonset out, the third managing to grab onto Katara. The fourth leapt at me, and I extinguished the fire in my palm as I countered. In the absolute darkness, the rebel and I fought hand to hand, the only clues on when to attack and when to dodge being the whistling of the air as the other attacked. Only occasionally did we blast fire at each other, and through the random light I could see out of the corner of my eyes Katara breaking free of her attacker. They fought until the firebender managed to evaporate her water, and then she made a split-second decision to run back towards the entrance to get help. By the time the next flash of fire illuminated the scene, her assailant had caught up to her and was dragging her back by her braid, and, enraged, I turned to help her.
But I had made a dangerous mistake; I'd turned my back on my opponent. He landed a harsh blow on the back of my head and knocked me out.
The next thing I knew I was waking up with a gasp. I was bound in ropes from head to toe, but I knew better than to let that stop me. With a sudden burst of anger, I breathed fire, burning off the ropes closest to my head. I was able to wriggle my way out of the rest of the ropes from there, and I stood up with a devilish grin.
"I'll show them just who they're messing with," I muttered to myself to myself darkly. I blasted a continual stream of fire at the door, watching with delight as it began to turn brighter and brighter shades of orange before it finally began to melt off its hinges. When the door finally fell into a pile of sludge on the ground, a terrified young man who seemed to be the guard ran up to the opening and slipped into a nervous bending stance.
"Don't move or I'll—"
Just as I slid into my bending stance, a square of earth shot up from beneath him and slammed him into the ceiling before quickly retracting. The rebel bender's limp form landed with a thud and I stepped out of my cell. I peered farther down the dimly lit hallway and spotted Toph grinning at the far end.
"Hey, Anya," she called cheerfully, "We should probably get going. From what I can tell, Dai just found Sonset, Aang is almost to Katara, and Zuko's the closest one to finding Tara, so we'd better find the others and tell them that everyone's found. Knowing Sokka, he'll get lost down here if we don't go get him."
"Yeah," I agreed, "That sounds about right for him."
I woke up like that, on the floor, but, while my mind was working faster, I still felt weak. I tried to stand up from my uncomfortable spot on the floor, but, even using the chair behind me, I couldn't stand.
How long have I been down here? I wondered. How long has it been since I've had food or water?
I dragged myself to the door and rested my head against it. My whole body felt shaky and weak.
"Hello?" I called feebly. My eyes felt heavy, and it was becoming harder and harder to keep them open.
"Hello? Can anyone hear me?"
I closed my eyes, starting to give up, when I remembered being slumped against the closet door as a child, having lost nearly all hope and I recognized how similar the situations were. I suddenly resolved not to let myself quit again. I was not going to lose hope; I was not going to give up.
"Hey!" I called in a slightly louder and stronger voice, "Let me out!"
I banged weakly on the door, and then began slamming my fist into it harder. I wasn't going to give up, I wasn't going to give up, I was not going to give up! I repeated the thought silently to myself each time my fist hit the door.
"You have to feed me or something!" I called out belligerently. I had survived for thousands of years since I had been supposed to die and I was not going to let myself die there.
"Let me out!" I managed to scream in rage, my fist slamming into the door so hard it hurt. I felt adrenaline pumping through me and I was getting angrier and angrier by the moment. Suddenly, I perked up as I heard footsteps in the hallway outside the door. I did my best to stand up, and just barely managed to pull myself up before the door flew open. Suddenly there was light from somewhere outside the room that was so unexpected that it blinded me. I shut my eyes and threw my hand in front of my face. Before my eyes became accustomed to the light, I heard a man's voice grumble, "Shut up!"
Suddenly I was roughly shoved back and couldn't catch myself before I landed painfully in the metal chair. I gasped as the headache in my temples flared so excruciatingly that I could barely refrain from passing out. Suddenly a hand grabbed my shoulder violently just as my eyes finally adjusted.
"How about I teach you some manners?" growled the young firebender rebel who was gripping my shoulder so tightly it hurt. He chuckled darkly as he lit up a fire in his hand.
"I have to warn you," he smiled cruelly, "This is going to hurt."
I did my best to keep myself from shaking as the guard brought the flame close to my face. I pulled away as much as I could with his viselike grip painfully clenching my shoulder. He started to bring the fire closer to me again and I started to panic.
"Let me go!" I cried, nearly breaking free of his grip. With an angry grunt he shoved me back into the chair and moved his hand from my shoulder to my neck. He squeezed my neck so hard that I could barely breathe and reduced the fire in his other hand to a thin stream of bright fire.
"Shut up and quit struggling!" he barked, "That's exactly what put you into this mess, anyways!"
I began to struggle harder, nearly hyperventilating from panic. I pulled my head as far away from the flame as I could, but still he brought it closer until I could feel it burning my skin. I bit down hard on my tongue, desperate not to give him the satisfaction of hearing me scream.
Finally the searing pain was too much and I let out a tortured cry. The guard laughed cruelly and I suddenly picked up the sound of footsteps banging down the hall. The guard let go of me and turned to face the door just as Zuko stopped in the hallway just outside the door and slipped into a bending stance.
"Well, well," the rebel sneered, "If it isn't the brand new Fire Lord. Just so you know, you suck."
Now, I probably could have just let them fight it out, but I was impatient to get somewhere where I could actually breathe, and I wasn't exactly excited about the fact that a stray ball of fire could maim me quite painfully. So, instead, I focused on summoning up all the strength that I had left. I stood up and gripped the back of the chair, swinging it upwards and straight into the back of the rogue firebender. He fell over with a grunt and his head fell against the floor with a loud slam that didn't sound comfortable at all.
I tried to take a step forward but all I accomplished was the loss of what little balance I had managed to maintain. I swayed, and Zuko caught me just as I started to fall.
"Can you walk?" he asked.
He sighed and bent down to pick me up. He began to carry me out into the hallway in a somewhat annoyed manner.
"Well, this is humiliating," I muttered quietly. Zuko didn't respond, and we walked the rest of the way in silence. When we finally reached the entrance of the cave, I heard Anya gasp sharply.
"Oh, no!" she cried out, running over as Zuko set me down just outside of the wet puddle surrounding the cave entrance.
"Tara, I'm so sorry, this is all my fault!"
"Yes, yes it is," I said in a feeble attempt at humor. I winced, placing my hand over the scar on my cheek. I focused on healing it, and after I finally managed to focus the last of my strength on the scar, I leaned back against a tree behind me.
"Is everyone here?" Zuko asked, and, as if in response, an angry looking Katara stormed out of the cave entrance followed by Aang. Her braid was messed up, and she was furiously undoing it so that she could fix it. Sonset was already napping, and looked to be in much better health than I was. Toph nodded in response to his question.
"Yep, the others went to bring Appa."
Anya kept apologizing until I finally waved my hand dismissively and said, "Anya, it's fine. I'm fine. On top of that, I'm alive, and I don't blame you. Well, I don't completely blame you."
My second attempt at humor also failed, so as she continued apologizing I snapped, "Anya, it was a joke. I'm exhausted, I haven't eaten in who knows how long, and I don't want or need to hear your apologies. Everything's okay, including me, and, assuming I even blamed you in the first place, I forgive you. Are we done here?"
I'd been harsher than was necessary, but I'd achieved my goal. Anya nodded solemnly and backed off, and I closed my eyes. An Ming gently shook me awake when Appa landed later, and practically everyone was helping pull me or push me up onto Appa. It was actually really embarrassing that I really needed that much help, but I appreciated it anyways.
I was handed some of the seal jerky that Sokka had insisted on grabbing the last time we'd visited the southern water tribe and I wolfed it down hungrily. I don't actually like seal jerky that much, but it was one of the few foods we had that didn't require cooking.
I snatched my canteen from where I had left it in Appa's saddle and gulped it all down in four swallows. I wiped my mouth and leaned back into the saddle to go back asleep. I tried to figure out how long it had been since I had eaten. Considering that the sun was just setting, I figured that I had only been down there for the day. I had been too tired to bother with eating the night before, and I had been waiting until the fire was warm enough to adequately cook a meal in the morning. I figured I'd probably been underground for eight hours, and it had probably been eighteen hours before that since the last time I'd eaten, that meant that I hadn't eaten in about twenty-six hours. No wonder I was so starving.
When Appa landed by the shore we started another fire and cooked some soup, this time not even caring about how the weak fire caused the soup to take longer to cook. I eagerly ate three helpings and then filled my canteen with melted snow.
Sokka, Dai, Toph, Aang, and Zuko all climbed onto Appa, leaving Anya, Katara, An Ming, Sonset, and I to go to shore in ice boats. Katara and Sonset fashioned the water into boat shapes and then froze them, and Katara, An Ming and I climbed into one boat while Anya and Sonset boarded the other. No one spoke much as Katara and Sonset propelled the boats through the water towards the Earth Kingdom mainland.
The boats, being made of ice and all, were, well, freezing, but, even as cold as I was, it felt refreshing after being in the stuffy underground tunnels of a volcano. However, it took a while for us to reach the mainland, and by the time we did, the cold boats no longer felt good, they just made me uncomfortably cold. As soon as the boats touched the shore, I jumped out with my bag, my teeth chattering.
Appa had reached the shore ahead of us, and the others had all already climbed off of him. Just as we began to walk over, I noticed an Earth Kingdom messenger scurrying over to Zuko. After he took the scroll from the messenger and opened it, I saw his face tighten. The farther he got into the letter, the more stressed he looked. No one else seemed to notice, but when I reached him, I asked, "What does it say?"
The others all turned and looked also, and Zuko finished reading and rolled up the scroll. His expression was grim, and I knew I wasn't going to like his reply.
"It says Azula has escaped from her asylum."
There was a collective gasp around the group when he delivered the news. Katara and Zuko shared an unhappy look, and I remembered that they had been the two that took Azula down in the first place. With an uncomfortable expression, Zuko added, “I suppose that it’s been too long since I’ve checked up on the state of the Fire Nation.”
Originally, Zuko was supposed to personally assist Aang and them in putting down firebender rebellions as a political message; it was to show exactly where he stood on his father’s plan. However, that was just supposed to last for a year, and then he was to return to the Fire Nation and focus only on ruling his nation from then on.
That year ended not too long ago, after we’d joined them, and he had gone back… but that didn’t last long. After spending his whole life out hunting the avatar, staying in a palace without much freedom to roam wasn’t easy, and he was back out with us after only a month. It caused a huge fight between him and Mai, and that was almost definitely the reason he didn’t want to go back.
“Oh, when he goes back to the Fire Nation, can we split up and go get Suki?” Sokka asked eagerly, already over the bad news, “We’re already so close to Kyoshi Island!”
“I guess we could split up,” Aang decided, “I could take Sokka to Kyoshi Island and Zuko could take a boat back to the Fire Nation. So who’s going with who?”
“‘With whom,’ you mean,” I corrected, and Aang shot me a withering look. An Ming and Dai immediately volunteered to go to Kyoshi Island; they never missed out on a chance to see the Kyoshi warriors. Anya, of course, said that there was no way she would go back to the Fire Nation, and there might have been a few curse words involved. Toph decided she would go with Aang after that, leaving just Katara, Sonset, and me to decide.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to help find Azula,” Katara said fiercely.
“Well, there’s already six people on Appa, and that’s pushing his weight limit already, so I guess I’ll go with Zuko,” I decided. I would have added that I hadn’t seen Mai in a while and that that was something I wanted to do, but, well, sore subject.
“I guess I’m going with Tara, then,” Sonset decided. Zuko nodded and went off to speak with the nearest of the new Fire Nation embassies and ask for a boat back to the Fire Nation. The rest of us debated looking around the town for a bit before deciding that it was already late and it would be better to just sleep, so we followed Zuko to the embassy, and reserved some of the rooms that all the new embassies had set aside for special occasions. Zuko, of course, got their best little room all to himself, but the rest of us all had to share rooms.
When we entered the courtyard, Sokka and Aang eagerly headed for the three-bedroom building that they had all to themselves, while all the girls walked unhappily to the one building we all had to share. And the buildings weren’t big, either; you walked into the little entrance room, which also served as a kitchen and dining room, and then there were three doors, each leading to a tiny bedroom. In each tiny bedroom, they crammed in two beds, and the only thing the rooms really had going for them was that each room had its own bathroom and closet. Toph walked in, did her earthbending equivalent of looking around, and grinned.
“I am so glad I decided I’d rather sleep in an earth tent in the courtyard,” she said smugly, and I shot her a look, which was obviously lost on her, and then we all started deciding who would sleep in what room. Dai and An Ming took the room that branched off to the right, the two waterbenders took the room on the left, and Anya and I took the room at the back.
After settling into our rooms, everyone went to bed, except for me. First, I grabbed an extra blanket from my closet and walked out into my courtyard towards where Toph was staying in her earth tent. Just as I was about to knock on the rock slab covering the entrance to her tent, it retracted into the ground.
“Yeah?” Toph asked, sitting cross-legged on the ground, her right elbow propped up on her knee and her head resting on her right fist. I held the blanket out and announced, “Blanket delivery!”
She reached out with her free hand until she felt it in her hand and then took it from me. She held it in her lap for a second before saying, “You didn’t need to do that.”
I smiled and cocked my head to the side before replying, “Yeah, kiddo, I did.”
She grimaced at the nickname, but was otherwise content, and I turned back and started towards the building. I heard Toph say a quiet thanks before I heard the sound of the rock slab sliding back into place. As soon as I got back inside, I headed straight for the little kitchen area and looked at what kinds of food they had.
Just as I finished making a sandwich from some of the various foods, there was a quiet knock on the door. I set down my sandwich before walking across the room to open it. It was Zuko. Before I could invite him in, he said, “Hey, could you tell the others that they’ll have a boat available for us first thing in the morning tomorrow?”
“Great, thanks. I’m gonna go to bed,” he said tiredly, turning away and heading towards the larger building with only one bedroom that he got all to himself. I glowered at the building for a second, angry that I was stuck sharing a room and all the guys got their own, before turning around and walking back to Sonset and Katara’s room. I opened the door quietly, hoping I wasn’t gonna have to wake them up, and was relieved to see them propped up on their elbows, talking to each other.
“Oh, great, you’re up,” I said happily, “Zuko just stopped by and wanted me to tell you that the boat to the Fire Nation will be ready first thing in the morning.”
They both nodded and I went back out into the main room to eat my sandwich. When I finished eating, I went back into my room and climbed into bed.
After burying Kyla all by my self, I tentatively walked through the woods that had once been my home, seeing no sign that we had ever been there. The houses, the shops, the buildings, all of them, gone.
Then again, I thought to myself, did you expect anything different from the Fire Nation?
But even knowing that I should have expected it didn’t ease the pain of knowing that my home was gone. Suddenly, I stumbled upon the outskirts of a village. A Fire Nation village built on land that was not theirs. But it was theirs, then. It had been for nearly ten thousand years. Shaking, from anger or horror at what had been done to my people, I wasn’t sure, I backed away from the village, and ran until I reached a port.
I looked around, wary of all the Fire Nation soldiers guarding the port, and of all the civilians using it. Finally, I slipped onto a small fishing boat and hid under a pile of ropes surrounded by a few barrels. I didn’t know where the boat was going, or where I wanted to go, but I did know that I wanted to get away from the Fire Nation.
I stayed there, curled up under a pile of ropes and cringing every time one of the crew came near me, for the rest of that whole day. Some time late into the night, I noticed the Earth Kingdom mainland to the boat’s right. I didn’t even hesitate before jumping off and swimming as fast as I could to shore.
I finally climbed out of the water and, teeth chattering, sat on the sand just out of the waves, watching the Fire Nation fishing boat sail away. I sat there, shivering, not sure what to do next, until I heard a gasp. I turned around to see a young woman looking at me.
“Hey, are you okay? Where’s your mom?” she asked, making her way over to me.
“My mom and dad died when I was little,” I replied, and then blinked; the sound of my own voice after so long seemed foreign and unknown.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry,” she said, kneeling down next to me, “Don’t you have anyone?”
I shook my head.
“I had my aunts, but the Fire Nation—”
I cut off, not wanting to continue. She nodded sympathetically.
“They’ve hurt a lot of us,” she said somberly, “Come on, you’re freezing. We’ll get you in front of a nice warm fire, okay?”
She stood up and offered me her hand, and I slowly pulled myself up and took it. She led me by the hand through her village and stopped in front of a small building. She opened the door and motioned for me to go in. She shut the door behind us after I went in, and then she went over to rekindle the fire dying in her hearth.
“Just sit right there, kiddo, and I’ll go get you a blanket,” she said, motioning to a spot in front of the fireplace. As I sat down, wrapping my arms around myself, a girl who was probably about five years old walked out of the other room.
“Jia, you’re supposed to be asleep!” the woman chided.
“Who’s that?” the girl, Jia, asked curiously, ignoring the woman and pointing at me.
“I’m Tara,” I replied. She got this excited expression on her face and threw her hands up in the air ecstatically.
“Nice to meet you, Tara! I’m Jia,” she remarked excitedly and then ran around to behind the woman.
“And this is my mom!” she said, pointing at the woman. The woman chuckled and kneeled down to my level and extended her hand.
“Nice to meet you, Tara. My name’s Toph,” she said as I shook her hand.
I awoke with a contented smile on my face. I sat up slowly, looking around the tiny room. Anya was still asleep, and judging from the light in the window, that was because it was still very early in the morning. I got up and went into the small bathroom. The sight of the bathtub made me so excited I couldn’t stop smiling; I wasn’t even sure when the last time I’d taken a bath had been.
As I soaked in the warm water, I replayed that day I’d first met Jia and Toph.
“Jia and I have been living here together for a couple years,” Toph remarked, making a soup on the stove. Jia was sitting next to me, staring at me curiously.
“Jia’s real mother died when she was just a baby, and only a couple years later her father was arrested for being an earthbender,” she told me, pulling the soup off of the stove, “That’s when I took her in. And I’ve raised her ever since.”
Toph gave Jia a loving smile before turning back to pouring the hot soup into three bowls. Finally, whatever was bothering Jia became too much.
“What’s wrong with your hair?” she blurted, cocking her head to the side.
“Jia, nothing’s wrong with it!” Toph scolded, bringing Jia’s and my bowls over, “But I’m curious, too; silver hair and eyes, that’s pretty special. What’s the story?”
I bit my lip and brought a hand up to my wet silver hair. I wasn’t sure if I could tell the truth, if they would even believe me if I did.
“I—” I started, hesitating. I tried to decide what to do.
“My—my aunts think I was blessed by a spirit when I was a baby,” I lied finally, looking down at the ground.
“Well, that’s pretty cool,” she remarked, believing me, “Listen, do you want to stay here? You don’t have any place to go.”
I blinked, not expecting that, and nodded.
“I’d love to, very much,” I replied. She smiled kindly at me.
“Great, I’ll get a bed set up for you,” She said, getting up and bringing her soup with her into the other room. I happily took another spoonful of the warm soup and then
Jia threw her arms around me.
“This is gonna be so awesome! We’re gonna be like sisters!” her excitement and Toph’s kindness made me happier than I’d been in almost ten thousand years.
A sharp knock at the bathroom door snapped me out of the memory.
“Hurry up, Tara; you’re not the only one who needs a bath!” Anya yelled. I quickly got out of the bathtub and dried, pulling on my traditional timebender clothes as quickly as possible. I hurried into our room, where Anya stood, glowering at me.
“Oh, calm down, I’m out!” I hissed, but I was too content to sound even a little intimidating. She smiled and went into the bathroom and shut the door behind her, and I went out to the main room, wringing my hair out as I went. I investigated the food supply a little more before making myself breakfast and sitting down to eat it.
When I finished my breakfast, I stood up and walked over to the window. I looked out at the earth tent belonging to the little earthbender who shared the same name as the woman who had raised me, and a contented smile formed on my face.
“Whatcha staring at?” I started when Anya asked the question; I hadn’t heard her come in.
“Nothing,” I replied, sitting down in one of the chairs. Anya shrugged and began looking through the food. Finally, I sighed, making a decision I’d never made before.
“So… the woman who raised me from the time I was six…”
Anya looked up quickly from the can of ground and roasted tiger-worm meat that she had been staring at disgustedly. Her eyes were wide with interest as she set down the can full of the repulsive meat and came over to sit across from me.
“Her name was Toph,” I finished.
“Wow, really? No wonder you’re so nice to Toph,” Anya replied, “She has the same name as your mom.”
I started to shake my head, ready to point out that she hadn’t been my mom, but she cut me off before I could say anything.
“Well, the woman who raised you, but that’s close enough to a mom, right?”
After a pause, I nodded. Anya continued staring at me, wide-eyed, and I began to feel like telling her had been the wrong decision. I shifted uncomfortably, not looking at Anya. Finally, she asked, “Do you ever visit her, or check up on her??”
It was just the kind of question I’d been dreading. I bit my lip, not sure how I wanted phrase my response, wondering just how much I wanted to tell her. Luckily, before I needed to answer, Dai and An Ming came in from their room, laughing.
“Morning,” An Ming greeted, coming over to sit next to me while Dai walked over to the kitchen area, “I’ve assigned Dai to kitchen duty. She’s going to be our personal chef for breakfast!”
“I still think rock beats water,” Dai grumbled, somewhat sullenly.
“Well, in real life, sure, but in the game Rock Water Fire, water covers rock, rock smashes out fire, and fire evaporates water. I called water, so I win!” An Ming replied with a grin. Dai stuck her tongue out at her. Just then, Sonset walked in, making the tiny room start to feel a little claustrophobic.
“Hey, Sonset. I’ve been forced into being the cook for today, so if there’s anything you want, just tell me,” Dai greeted.
“What?” Sonset asked angrily, “What’s wrong with you people? You can’t put an earthbender in charge of cooking once we’ve finally got a real kitchen!”
“Hey, I take offense to that!” An Ming protested. Dai crossed her arms.
Sonset rolled her eyes.
“I wasn’t saying it to be mean, it’s just that it’s true,” she started, “Do you even get how central of a component water is to cooking? Water and fire; those are the only two elements that should be involved in cooking. You don’t rub mud into food; you add water and heat. Now shoo!”
She began shooing Dai, who held her hands up in the air in surrender and backed away from the kitchen. After crossing her arms and staring at Sonset for a few seconds, she shrugged and smiled.
“Whatever, as long as I get out of cooking duty,” she said as she came over to sit next to Anya. Sonset asked us all what we wanted to eat, and after getting Anya, An Ming, and Dai’s orders, she got busy making breakfast for everyone. The delicious smells wafting through the room were making me upset that I’d already made breakfast for myself, and I was quickly becoming jealous of the others’ breakfasts. Especially after Sonset finished all the dishes and placed them in front of the others, at which point I was forced to watch them eat their extremely delicious-smelling breakfasts.
When everyone was almost done with their eating, Katara walked into the crowded room, her hair damp, just as someone knocked on the door. Katara, being the only one standing, went to get it. She opened it to reveal a couple of young low-level Earth Kingdom soldiers standing just outside.
“Good morning, ma’am,” said the one who looked a little older, “We’re here to tell you that the ship to the Fire Nation is ready, and to escort you there.”
Katara thanked them, waterbended the excess water out of her hair, and went to the kitchen area to wrap some leopard-cow jerky in wax paper. Sonset and I both went into our rooms to grab our bags, and then we came back out into the main room, Sonset also holding Katara’s bag.
“Thanks, ” Katara said, taking her bag from Sonset. The two soldiers, who had gone to sit at the table, stood up. Dai waved goodbye to them flirtatiously, and they both blushed furiously. I knew that Dai was doing her best not to burst out laughing; her ‘flirting’ was just a way of teasing them and most of the other soldiers that usually escort us around. She, well, most of us, actually, would prefer it if we were left alone; we can handle ourselves, after all. In fact, just as I had expected, as soon as the group left the building and I shut the door behind us, I heard the muffled sound of the girls inside cracking up, probably thinking about the expressions on the guards’ faces.