10,203 A.A.-Two months until the Summer Solstice
The land below Kid merges smoothly into sea, the crisp sea breeze instantly cooling the air around him. He pats Beelzebub on his neck. "Just a bit further, boy."
The air bison jerks his head and gives a low affirmative grunt.
Kid stretches, looking at the other two passengers on Beelzebub. Liz snores lightly while Patti stares intently at the clouds, squinting in a way that makes him nervous. "Hey, sis," she calls out, not taking her eyes off a particularly fluffy cloud. "I've got a question for you."
On Kid's right, Liz lifts her head, roused from her nap. "Yeah?"
"Doesn't that cloud look like a berry cake to you?"
Liz glances at the cloud in question. "Yeah, I guess it kinda does. Why?"
"Do you think that it tastes like a berry cake would?" She drops the question casually but out of the corner of his eye, Kid sees her tense up. Liz must see the same thing because she lunges toward her sister, yelling, "Patti, no!" at the exact moment that she leaps off Beelzebub's back.
Kid lets out a strangled cry as Liz tries to wrench Beelzebub's reins from his hands. Beelzebub groans bewilderedly, dipping up and down in the air.
"Kid, don't just sit there, do something!" she screeches.
"Let go of the reins and maybe I will!" he yells back.
"No, you let go!"
"Why are you two always fighting?" Patti asks conversationally.
Liz and Kid stop their tug of war over the reins and Beelzebub halts his erratic bobbing, hovering in mid-air. They swivel their heads to look at Patti standing over them, soaking wet but no worse for wear.
"Patti!" Lis hurls herself at her sister. "I thought I lost you!"
"Didn't you remember our new outfits, sis?" Patti pulls herself away and spins in a circle, flapping her arms. "I can fly like a bird now!"
Liz stares down at her red and yellow flight suit. "Oh, right."
Kid turns, seeing one of their escorts fly up to them. The air nomad navigating the bison waves politely at the three but the armed guard does not. He glares at the air above Kid. "Is there a problem here?"
Liz's hands ball into fists but Kid speaks before she does. "No, sir."
"Get a move on then." The guard meets Kid's eyes for half a second and he narrows his eyes in disgust.
"Right away, sir." Kid gives him a smile and flicks Beelzebub's reins. The air nomad and guard fall back into position as they begin to move forward again.
"I don't understand how you can tolerate people like that," Liz gripes. "I'd punch them in the face."
"Then I'd have to punch the entire world in its face," Kid replies calmly. "And you should know violence goes against our code by now."
"We've only been here three years," Liz says. She shoots a glare in the other air bison's direction. "A small slip-up would be more than understandable."
Kid is unamused. "I accepted the world's dislike of me a long time ago."
"The world minus two," Patti interjects from behind them. "We like you, Kiddo."
He smiles. "Thanks, Patti, but what I meant is that if I let every little comment get to me, I'm not going to change the reputation my predecessor left behind." Ahead of them, the island housing the Western Air temple, slowly comes into view. "I have to show people I'm different." He lowers his head in respect. "In the meantime, my personal feelings can't be a factor in my behavior."
"Again!" Kim orders haughtily from where she, Liz and Patti perch on the base of one the giant statues that lines the temple's courtyard. "Don't ever show weakness to your opponent or you'll be doing fire squats until you die." Next to her sit Liz and Patti who watch Kid raptly.
Kid sucks in shallow and quick breaths, doubled over in exhaustion and soaked with sweat from hours of sparring. However, at Kim's words, he straightens immediately and sinks back into his fighting stance.
His opponent, Jackie, sweeps up her long hair in a ponytail and takes up her position opposite of Kid. She wears a concentrated look on her face, fire bubbling from the palms of her hands as she eyes Kid.
He waits for her to move first. Jackie's defensive style is the complement to Kim's aggressive way of fighting; her patience is endless and she is a master of contriving ways of winning simply by sapping all of Kid's energy. Sure enough, the branch of fire she hurtles his way is a safeguarding move veiled as an offensive one. By the time he deflects it and counters with a fire kick, she's already danced over to the other end of courtyard, whipping up a spiraling fire vortex.
He thrusts his hands upward in response, blocking with a wall of fire. He doesn't let the vortex die but instead moves his hands in rapid circles, the fire wall turning into a pair of snapping jaws and grabbing hold of it. He spins the fire a few more times before sending it back at Jackie, who pushes it back again to Kid.
"Are we playing a game of catch now?" Kim calls. "Stop playing around and get serious. I want to see blood."
Liz looks up, alarmed. "I'd really ather not."
Jackie makes a face. "We'll go for figurative blood." She presses her hands together and pulls them apart as the fire is sent back to her, splitting it in half. She twists her wrists once and the fire reforms itself into long whips of flame. Moving nimbly, she lashes forward suddenly, striking the whips at Kid's feet.
As a natural-born airbender, Kid's speed outmatches even Jackie and he dodges the whips with ease. But she is relentless in her attack and as the fight stretches out, he feels himself tiring. A particularly well-aimed whip forces him to jump higher in the air and he lands on his feet more forcefully than usual. He grimaces at the the sharp ache in his ankle and retreats, backpedaling out of the whips' range. Jackie does not follow him, instead reining in the flames so they look like extra fiery limbs. Even though she isn't looking in his direction, he knows she's still monitoring his every move.
Kid studies her closely; the key to breaking through her defenses is taking the fight up close so she doesn't have room to use those flame whips. He nods to himself, knowing he has only one chance to get it right. He goes still and brings his hands together, closing his eyes. He searches deep for that spark he felt when he first learned how to firebend.
It comes to him easily, burning bright in his palms. He lets it build and build until the heat is white hot and then he releases it in a blazing shower of sparks. The light is so bright that Kid can see it as clearly as if he had his eyes open. However, he doesn't need his eyes to see-the vibrations he senses in his feet works just as fine as his eyesight.
Jackie isn't as affected by the light as much as he hoped, immediately cloaking herself with flame to temper the brunt of the attack, but it's enough to catch her off-guard. Kid shoots forward and strikes directly, his fire jab cutting through her defenses.
She stumbles back but she recovers quickly, sending a spurt of flame his way but he slices through it easily and doesn't allow her to twist away from him, keeping no more than a step between them. His only thought is keep her off-balance and he continues his assault of short shots of fire without break.
He takes his chance when Jackie leaves her center open to swerve out of the way from one of his hits. The fire punch she takes to the chest knocks her off her feet and Jackie lands on the ground with a groan. He holds his posture for a moment, one arm raised over her. Then he drops it, extending his hand out to her. "You're quite the opponent."
Jackie stops rubbing at where Kid hit her in her protective gear. She grins, taking his hand. "As are you."
"I wasn't so impressed." Kim's voice comes from behind them, much closer than before. "But as a new master, I guess your style is going to be a little lackluster at first."
Kid turns, unsure if he should believe his ears. Of all the elements, fire had taken the longest for him to grasp. "Master?" he repeats.
"You heard me." Kim speaks nonchalantly but there's a hint of pride in her tone. Beside Kim, Liz and Patti wear identical expressions of pride. "I don't use that word lightly."
Jackie places a hand on Kid's shoulder. Her face is shiny from the heat and she looks exhausted but her eyes are bright. "There's not much else we can teach you. The only thing that will make you better now is experience."
His throat closes and he bows low. "Thank you, Master Kim. Master Jackie."
"Now you've only got to master the Avatar state," Jackie says cheerfully as he straightens. She frowns at Kid's suddenly glum expression. "What's wrong?"
He swallows hard, happiness dying away. "I've never been able to go into the Avatar state." Kid stares down at the ground, the confession burning him. "No matter how much I've tried. I don't know why."
"Oh," she says awkwardly. "I'm sor-"
"No need to apologize," Kid answers. "It's something I need to work out on my own."
"Or maybe you just need a little push," Patti wonders aloud. "You did need to nearly be crushed by a boulder to learn how to earthbend."
Kim crosses her arms, raising her eyebrows. "I'd certainly be willing to help with that."
"The offer is appreciated but I think I'll have to decline," Kid says hastily, backing away. "Anyways, shouldn't we go inform the elders of my progress?"
Liz's arm wraps around Kid's shoulders. She grins. "I have a better idea. There's a resort across the island, only a couple hours away at most. Why don't we have a little fun for once?"
"That's not a wise idea." He shook his head. "We'll get in trouble."
"But it is a fun one." Kim comes up on his other side. "You spend so much time bouncing from one place to another, I'm sure you never get a chance to unwind."
"It's a necessary precaution," he protests. "Even if I wanted to agree, it's too dangerous leaving the air temple without an escort."
"There has never been a time when any of Asura's followers, or anyone else for that matter, attacked us," Liz counters. "And it's not like we're going far."
Kid feels Patti's breath on his neck as she loops an arm through his. "Come on, Kiddo," she cajoles. "Just this once." He looks helplessly at Jackie, who smiles sheepishly and gives a little shrug. "Gotta get to know the world if you want to be its Avatar, right?"
He waits for another moment before giving in. "Very well." Kid strains to make himself heard over the sudden uproar. "But only a few hours."
"We'll be back before nightfall," Liz promises.
"There you have it," Giriko says gleefully as the golem finishes its transmission. He leaps to his feet. "He's a fully realized Avatar now so let's go get him!"
"Not quite a true Avatar." Mosquito continues to sip his tea. "He still hasn't gone into the Avatar state."
"The chains fix that problem." Giriko veers around. "We should get him now. This is a golden opportunity we have and you want to lie back and enjoy your tea. If you've turned too much into pacifist in your old age, let me handle it."
Mosquito inhales through his nose, the grip on his cup tightening. "If you think about it for a moment instead of jumping around like the brainless fool that you are, my dear boy, I'm sure you'll figure it out."
Giriko's jaw twitches. "The only thing I don't understand is why we're not moving," he growls, gesturing toward his golem. "You heard it. The time is now."
"No, it's not," Mosquito replies, shaking his head. "The last chain has not been found. Until that happens, capturing the Avatar is a ludicrous idea. We would be hunted to the ends of the earth, the other chains would certainly be taken into hiding and all of our work would be wasted."
"I think you're just afraid," Giriko drawls. "That or your judgement is getting shoddy."
Mosquito smiles. "I'm not that one with that horrendous hairstyle."
Giriko's face twists in an ugly sneer. "Watch your mouth, otherwise I'll break your brittle old bones."
Mosquito puts his cup down and rises from his hat, the leaves of the forest above the air temple crunching under his feet. "My dear boy." He steps closer to Giriko. "You would not be wise to pick a fight with me." He jabs his finger at Giriko. "I'm the one in charge here. You do what I say and not the other way around. We don't move until all the pieces are in place. Understood?"
Pure rage crosses over Giriko's face. Then as it quickly as it appears, it vanishes. "Whatever, old man. At least you'll be the one to blame if this blows up in our faces." He snaps at his golem and it comes to life, letting out a series of soft beeps. "Looking at you is ruining my appetite. I'm off to go find some food."
Kid glances at the darkening sky, alone on the beach. With Beelzebub, it hadn't taken too long to get to the other side of the island.
They had touched down on one of the many beaches running along the island's coast just as the sun had begun to sink into the sky. After situating the air bison in a roomy cave with plenty of treats, the group had trekked over to one of the more populated beaches, finding a small fishing village in the midst of some seasonal festival. Slowly, they had peeled off into their own little groups. Jackie had cajoled Kim into joining her into putting on an impromptu fire show for the children that had grouped around her, fascinated by her pink hair as much as the fire.
On the other side of the village, Liz had convinced a group of muscled men to try to best her in a contest of who could hold their breath the longest, happily collecting their money when they lost, while Patti had taken a special joy in dominating the games booths that lined the main street of the village.
To Kid's surprise, no one had recognized him. His tattoos on his arm were covered up by his robes and his only other defining feature, his black hair with three white stripes running through one side, had been covered up by a straw hat Liz had brought. It would be easier for all involved if he could just shave his head and looks like a normal Air nomad but until he entered the Avatar state, that, along with receiving his head tattoo, was something he was not allowed to do.
Kid's hands dig in the sand. Although he refused to say it out loud, he was growing increasingly worried that he was simply an Avatar who couldn't use the Avatar state at all. When he was younger, he had suspected it was because of Avatar Asura's actions. But eventually he had realized that, even though he had inherited the ramifications of Asura's actions, they were two separate people.
Which meant that it wasn't a problem with Kid the Avatar but rather Kid the person. Something was wrong with him-there was something in him that was out of order.
Perhaps that's why he hates his hair so much. He pushes himself up, dusts off his clothes and starts heading for the village, more than ready to go back to the temple. At least there, he had a sense of purpose.
He's so lost in his thoughts that he doesn't notice the hole in the sand until he's already tripping.
"Easy, kid." A gloved hand catches him, yanking Kid up. He feels his hat tumble off.
He looks up at the stranger who caught him. With his blond spiky hair and metal piercings in his ears and nose, he hardly looks like one of the villagers. He gives his head a small shake, reminding himself of his manners. "Thank you, sir."
The stranger bends down and picks up Kid's hat, holding it out to him. "That's some interesting hair, kid. Puts mine to shame." His smile looks almost predatory.
"I-yes, family trait," Kid answers awkwardly, taking the hat quickly and putting it back on. He edges away. "Well, thank you again."
To his relief, the stranger turns away, waving a hand. "Don't mention it."
Kid watches as he fades completely into the darkness before coming to his senses. He finds (rather stumbles upon) Jackie and Kim first in a darkened alleyway. The three leave together without saying a word, coming to a silent agreement to never mention what he had seen.
Liz hasn't moved from where she left, only this time Patti is with her and both of them are arm wrestling people twice their size while half the village cheers them on. They leave their admirers only when Kid threatens to go to the temple without them. As they head back to Beelzebub, Liz counts the coins bursting out of the pouch she carries. "Fifty gold pieces, twenty three silver ones and nineteen bronze ones," she cackles. "Not bad at all, sis."
"Can I buy an elephant-bird with that?" Patti asks eagerly. "Or maybe a platypus bear?"
"For several reasons, no," Kid replies. He looks at Liz. "Furthermore, need I remind you Air nomads have no need for things like money? We'll donate it to someone who needs it."
"I'm a person in need," Kim offers.
Jackie smacks her arm. "We are wards of the Fire Lord! We don't need anything."
Liz holds the pouch close to her and looks at it sadly. "I had plans for these coins."
Kid leads the group over the rocks leading to Beelzebub's cave. "One of the tenets of being an Air nomad is to put others before yourself."
"Oh, very well," she grumbles. "I'll find some family who needs it."
Kid's reply is cut off by the the cold shiver that goes through him at the sight of five shadowy figures standing in front of the mouth of the cave. The only human-looking one out of the group takes a few steps towards them.
"Stop right there," Kim orders. Together, she and Jackie move together and they create a circle of fire between themselves and the person. The light off the fire illuminates the stranger's features and a wave of recognition sweeps through Kid.
"What are you doing here?" he asks.
"You know this guy?" Jackie says.
"Hardly," He scrutinizes the man's face. "He was also on the beach."
"Name's Giriko," he says casually, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "I saved you from faceplanting right in the sand, didn't I, Kid?" The grin pasted on the stranger's face stretches even wider. "And you know what they say, one good turn deserves another."
"What do you want?" Liz demands. She and Patti barely give Kid any room to move, all but smothering him.
"It's more of what my boss wants," he answers. "Or rather, who. You see, when your friend fell, his hat came flying off and I just happened to notice his hair is awfully different. Three white lines on one side of a head of black hair. Know who else has that hair?"
He waits a beat before answering himself. "The Avatar."
Liz's voice takes on a steely edge. "You need to leave right now."
"Or we'll make you leave," Patti adds.
"Of course," he says, surprising them all. "I'll happily leave." He points to Kid. "But only if I have him."
Kid squeezes between Liz and Patti, glaring at Giriko. "You're one of the Order of Asura, aren't you?"
Giriko's grin grows twisted. "You might know me as Sawfoot."
Kid hears several hisses of disgust, including his own. He tastes bile in his mouth. "You betrayed your regiment against Asura."
"I was always on Asura's side so as far as I'm concerned, there was no betrayal," Giriko replies, shrugging. "It's your side's fault for not weeding me out." He gestures behind him. "See those golems over there? It was their prototypes that wiped out my side of the army." He takes another step closer. "You should have heard the screams," he says dreamily. "They never stood a chance."
An unnatural rage unfurls in Kid's chest. "You disgust me."
"Hey, no offense, but I don't really care," Giriko says. "But back to business. I want you to come with me. And I assume you want to keep your friends safe. If we go off on your air bison alone, my golems won't hurt your friends." He grins. "I promise."
Fear clenches around Kid's heart. "What have you done to Beelzebub?"
"Oh nothing, nothing at all." Giriko raises his hands. "I wouldn't dream of hurting a hair on your precious animal's head. Now, what do you say?"
"You know if you go off with him, you're not coming back," Liz whispers urgently. "It's five against five, golems or not, we can take them."
Kim nods. "Liz is right, Kid. Don't do it."
Patti's hand latches around Kid's forearm. He looks ahead, beyond Giriko and at the four golems that haven't moved since this standoff started. They aren't that much taller than Giriko and have domed heads, thick arms hanging at their sides. He pulls himself free, taking a deep breath. "Stay here and follow my lead."
"But Kid-" Liz protests.
"I mean it," he says harshly. Without another word, he walks to Giriko until the only thing separating them is the fire. Up close, he can see the barely restrained anger burning in Giriko's eyes. He glances down at his feet, seeing now the blades lining his boots. "So if I go with you, you'll let my friends leave?"
"Without a scratch," he replies instantly.
Kid grits his teeth. "You're a bad liar."
Giriko's expression turns even uglier. "You'll come with me or I'll drag you to Ember Island myself."
Kid senses the microscopic changes in Giriko's stance before he moves, pre-empting his attack with a whip of air. He's nearly blown off his feet, only saved from being thrown into the air by activating the blades in his shoes. "You're gonna regret that," he snarls.
His golems begin to move as he speaks, coming to life with clumsy and awkward movements. A strange ringing fills the air as their movements quicken. The ring of fire surrounding Giriko moves as Jackie and Kim lash out against the two golems lumbering toward them on the right. Meanwhile, Liz whips up a tornado as Patti zips around on a ball of air, drawing the other golems' attention.
Kid looks at Giriko, who is still standing in the same spot and looks almost hesitant now. Then he spies Kid watching him and he bares his teeth. "You think that's all I have up my sleeve, Kid?" He raises a hand in the air, his glove sparking. "You have no idea."
A single branch of lightning fills the air. For a moment, nothing happens.
The whirring of the golems reaches Kid's ears before they emerge from the forest, seven in number and much bigger than the golems they're facing off now. Their hands crackle with the same lightning Giriko just wielded.
Kid runs straight at the golems, slicing his hands in an upward slash, sending forth an air blast that does nothing to deter the golems from advancing. He glances behind himself. Jackie and Kim are fighting back to back while Liz and Patti are both managing tornados of their own now. If these golems reach to where they're fighting, then they will lose.
He swings his arms to the side and a jet of water flies from the ocean, hitting one of the larger golems squarely in the chest. It's blasted onto its back but within seconds, it's on its feet again. In the same movement, Kid pulls his arms to himself, calling back the water, and flicking out his wrists. The ice shards that hit the golems do nothing to pierce whatever material they're made out of nor does the burst of flame that Kid strikes at them.
Desperately, Kid slams his foot down and splits the earth. The golems fall like pins into the pit, landing with a crash. He glances back to the other four. The smaller golems lie in pieces and Giriko is nowhere to be seen. He lowers his arms, breathing out a sigh of relief.
It turns into a intake of horror as several grappling hooks shoots out of the hole. Three golems climb out, hardly a scratch on them. They raise their arms, lightning crackling in their palms.
"Kid, get away from there!" Liz appears out of nowhere, grabbing his arm and dragging him backwards. Besides her, Patti sends out a whirlwind, temporarily freezing the golems. From somewhere behind him, Jackie yells, "When did these guys join the party?"
The five bunch together and Kim and Jackie call up a second ring of fire, its heat blazing. It deters the golems but Kid knows it won't hold for long. "We're not going to be able to defeat all of them," he says, looking up and searching for Giriko. He finds him standing on top of the cave, the light from the moon casting a deathly pallor on his face. Giriko does absolutely nothing but wave merrily at Kid.
They stand in the center of circle, the feeling of dread nearly palpable. Just as Kid comes to a decision, Kim speaks. "Well, it's obvious what we have to do, isn't it?"
"There's no way we can defeat them." She looks over at Jackie and something passes between them before she meets Kid's eyes. "But we will be able to hold them off until you escape."
Kid blinks, numbness of resignation to their situation shattered. "No," he says forcefully. "No, I can't let you do that."
"You're not letting us do anything," Jackie says. "This is our choice."
"They'll kill you!"
He feels Patti's hand wrap around his while Liz looks at him, wearing a pained expression. "They're right and you know that."
"No, I don't know." He shakes his head, clenching his eyes together. He's never wished more than that moment that he could use the Avatar state. That he could be powerful enough to take out the golems in a single shot, to annihilate the smirk off Giriko's face. But here he is, a useless Avatar.
"You do," Patti says quietly. "It's the right thing."
He pulls his hand from hers. "Fine." The word tastes disgusting to him.
The rest of the group, however, breathes a sigh of relief. "Head straight for the cave," Jackie says. "We'll give you an opening and make sure nothing touches you."
Liz and Patti ready themselves on the opposite end of the circle but Kid hesitates.
"Go!" Kim snaps. "This is our show now."
Unwillingly, Kid joins Patti and Liz. "They can take care of themselves," Liz says without looking at Kid.
Behind them, Kid can hear Kim and Jackie talking as they stoke the fire into an inferno.
Kim laughs in glee. "I haven't had this much fun in years."
"Are you really sure about that?" Jackie says.
Kim's response is cut off as the fire reaches its crescendo.
"That's our cue, move it, Kiddo!" Patti yanks Kid by the arm and the three sprint forward, jumping over the wrecked golem bodies.
Kid's mouth goes dry as he looks back to the top of the cave and finds Giriko no longer standing there. He struggles to make himself heard over the roar of the fire. "Wait-"
A loud buzzing noise interrupts him and the three scatter before the mouth of the cave, still guarded by flame.
Giriko stands in the exact spot Liz was in barely ten seconds ago. He raises his foot, the blades on his shoe grinding as they spin. "What a shame," he says. "I missed."
The smug expression on his face is wiped off by a blast of wind.
"I didn't," Patti says. She pelts him with balls of air and Giriko lets out a cry as he's lifted off his feet and slams hard into the cave's exterior.
"Come on." Kid grabs Liz and Patti by their wrists and plunges headfirst into the wall of fire, kicking up to create an opening.
They find Beelzebub huddled in a corner at the end of the cave with his face buried in the ground, moaning fearfully. The three jump as one on his back. "Patti, take the reins," Kid commands. "Liz, you clear the debris."
"Debris?" she repeats as they begin to hover. "Wh-"
Kid explains by opening a hole in the roof of the cave, sending a spray of rock into the air.
Patti doesn't waste any time, guiding Beelzebub out of the cave while the bubble of air Liz wraps around them deflects any rubble away from them.
As soon as they are clear of the cave, Kid takes the reins from Patti and steers toward the open ocean, making certain to fly directly over the beach. Liz stops bending. "Kid? The air temple's the other way."
"If Giriko sees us heading there, he's only going to repeat what he just did here over there," Kid replies. "And you see how we fared back there."
"Then where are we going?"
Kid narrows his eyes. "We're getting answers."
Mosquito surveys the wreckage on the beach, barely keeping his composure. He turns to Giriko. "You. Impulsive. Buffoon."
Giriko's scowl deepens. "I had it under control."
"This is under control?" Mosquito gestures to the scattered remains of Giriko's golems save for one and to beach, fire still smoldering in some areas. "Your golem reinforcements destroyed and the Avatar escaped, most likely under even deeper protection now. That's your idea of under control?"
"He didn't run home," Giriko growls. "I saw him flying out to the ocean."
"So now we have no idea where he is?" Mosquito thunders.
"He's headed toward Ember Island."
Mosquito squints at him. "And what makes you so certain of that?"
Giriko examines his gloves, which are thoroughly singed. "I may have let the name slip when I was threatening him. There's no way the brat won't make his way there."
Mosquito stares at Giriko, rage deflating. "For once, you have shown a stroke of brilliance." He spins on his heel. "Although it was accidental." Minutes pass as he thinks and finally he nods to himself. He turns back to Giriko. "Do you think that you are actually capable of following orders this time?"
Giriko opens his mouth angrily and then he shuts it, nodding.
From his jacket's pocket, Mosquito takes out a map, opening it. He points to a town in the mainland that isn't too far off from where they stand. "The earth chain and his guardian are staying there. Gopher is there as well. Go to him. When they leave, take the earth chain's guardian hostage."
Giriko interrupts. "Why can't we just take the boy then and there?"
"Because you simple-minded twit, how am I supposed to expect you to handle taking the chain's beast as well as the boy when you couldn't even capture a mere child?" Mosquito rolls up the map and holds it out. "Tell Gopher to lead the chain to Ember Island." He glares at Giriko. "And here's the important part: tell him that the earth chain cannot reach the island until right before the solstice. That's the earliest all the chains can be together. Do you understand?"
"I got it, I got it." Giriko snatches the map out of his hand. "Is that it?"
"No," Mosquito says. "After you capture the chain's guardian, take him to the hideout and round up the rest of your golems and have them head for Ember Island. I will give you further instructions as we proceed."
Giriko's eyes are wide. "Are you serious?"
"Do you think I've just been talking for pure enjoyment?" Mosquito grits his teeth. "You've forced our hand. We have no choice but to move now." He removes his top hat. "And now I have a million things to do for the other two chains."
"Wait," Giriko calls as Mosquito climbs on top of his hat. "What do we do with these two?"
Mosquito looks down to where Giriko's pointing, at the two girls that nearly thwarted Giriko's golems. He'd seen their talent when he had came upon the mess Giriko had made. They were powerful benders, exactly what the Order of Asura was looking for.
"Take them with you," Mosquito says after a moment. "They're sure to be fine soldiers one day."
Standing near the bow of the ship, Maka blows on her chapped hands and buries them in Blair's soft fur, raging inwardly at having to been that person who had forgotten something as vital as gloves. This trip to the North Pole had only been planned in advance for months. Of course, Spirit had immediately offered to give her a pair of his or buy her some when they had stopped at port halfway through their trip for supplies but she had resolutely refused and insisted she could do without them.
Those had been easy words to say when she had been basking in the sun's warmth in the Earth Kingdom. Now that they're in the upper echelons of the earth, where the iron cold immediately sinks into any exposed skin, she regrets them sorely.
Not enough to swallow her words and ask her father for help though. Maka juts out her lip and stuffs her hands into her sleeves, staring out at the ocean. It had been nearly three years since her mother had left, stealing away the night of Maka's thirteenth birthday. The letter by her bedside had merely said how much she loved Maka and nothing else.
But she had known. Depending on Spirit to be the husband she wanted him to be had drained away her mother. Overworking herself to be accepted by an unwilling community had broken whatever fight she had left in her. And so it had not been much of a surprise to Maka when she found Spirit, sitting at the kitchen table and staring into space. All she'd said was, "She's gone."
When he had nodded, a strange mix of relief and melancholy had twisted in her heart and she spent the rest of her day in her room with Blair. That was the first and last time she and Spirit talked about Vakirah. Any time he tried to raise the topic afterwards, she would simply fix him with a glare and refuse to speak. Eventually he had taken the hint-her mother became a taboo topic and the wall that had sprang up between them in the wake of Vakirah's absence remained in place.
That Maka put most of the blame on Spirit for it didn't help.
Yet her mother hadn't vanished completely from her life. The first letter that came with the onset of the next trading season had shocked Maka to her very core; her hands had been shaking so hard that she'd hardly been able to read it properly. From then on, letters came from Vakirah on a semi-regular basis, each one postmarked from major cities and ports all over the world. With each new letter, Maka could see more and more of the Vakirah from her childhood returning.
It filled Maka with a hollow happiness. While she didn't fault Vakirah for drawing the line, she desperately wished that line hadn't meant her leaving without her. That it had never been crossed in the first place. That she wasn't alone.
She leans against the railing, enduring the iciness of the ocean spray to distract her from her thoughts. Beside her Blair rises and hums in concern, picking up on Maka's despondency and nudging her hard in the hip. Pulling away from the railing, Maka returns the nudge and kneels down, eye to eye with Blair. "But I'm not alone, am I?"
Blair huffs in her face, enveloping her in her fishy breath.
"Ew, get away from me!" She pushes her away but Blair knocks Maka on her back, practically smothering her with her body. She laughs as Blair licks her face. "Okay, okay, I give up."
"North Pole, dead ahead!"
Maka perks up her head. "We're here?" Blair clambers off her as she pushes herself to her feet.
The ice wall guarding the capital's entrance splits an opening between the mighty ice cliffs lying on either side of the city, snowy tundra stretching beyond the city. If Maka squints, she can see the famous multi-tiered pyramid where the chief's palace as well as the villas of other high-society people are located. Sunlight bounces off the ice and snow, making the capital shimmer like a mirage.
She watches as they sail closer and closer to the city, spellbound. A hand rests on her shoulder. "Beautiful, isn't it?"
She looks up. Spirit gazes at the city for a moment before meeting her eyes. "I'm so glad you finally get to see this."
Her good mood drains away. "Yeah, me too." She shrugs off Spirit's hand and walks away, ignoring him when he calls after her.
Waterbenders appear at the top of the wall when their boat reaches the city's entrance. In one fluid movement, they raise their hands and sweep them down. The center part of the wall sinks down in response and their ship passes through.
A thick layer of ice spans the entire width of the city, divided into equal sections by narrow canals. The two sections directly in front of them appear to serve as a docking area, which appears to be currently populated by at least half of the city. The other sections seem to be its own little village with foot bridges connected to each one weaving the capital city together. At the back lies a wide space lined with buildings on its border that Maka assumes are the training grounds and healing huts. The tiered pyramid she saw from a distance comes last and she can see the ornateness of the villas in greater detail, the huge palace at the top the grandest of all.
Their ship comes smoothly to a stop and the deck comes alive with the bustling of people moving left and right as the gangway is lowered. Maka and Blair meld into the crowd waiting to step off the boat. Her chest constricts in apprehension as she and Blair slowly make their way down the gangway, fully aware that a polar lion walking at her side is an unfathomable idea to most people at best.
Her fingers twitch. It wouldn't be a problem if she could simply tell people who she is, she thinks. But that wasn't possible.
After her chain with Blair had been verified by an Air nomad, a global announcement had gone out from the World Council, the council created by the four nations after Avatar Asura, that a new chain had been discovered. Shortly afterwards, Maka had been visited by an odd man dressed in patched up robes. She'd immediately recognized him as Commander Stein, one of the two people behind the defeat of Avatar Asura. He was nothing like the charismatic leader the books had made him out to be, speaking in riddles and looking at her as if he wished to pick apart her brain.
In the past, he'd explained, being a spirit chain had meant a great responsibility but now it was nothing more than her bond with Blair and a fancy title. The only thing he asked of her was to avoid revealing her identity since the general consensus of spirit chains returning was rather negative.
She had sensed there was more to the story than that but since she was still recovering from Vakirah leaving, she hadn't bothered questioning Stein's logic and agreed.
Maka swallows nervously as she and Blair begin to descend down the gangway, bracing herself for the worst. But while some of the people greeting them widen their eyes in shock when they see Blair with Maka, they make no comment nor ask any questions. She lets herself breathe a sigh of relief when she clears the gangway and cuts through the crowd with no problem.
She wends her way to where the others from the boat gathered, recognizing the Northern tribe's chief, Hartok, by his distinctive bald head. Spirit and the rest of the chiefs from the Southern tribe are already standing next to him and conversing. Next to the chief, she sees his son, Ox, equally as bald save for the lightning shaped spikes on either side of his head.
Choking back a laugh, she swerves as she nearly runs into someone. "Sorry," she mumbles.
"No problem," the stranger answers back.
Maka freezes, heart leaping into her throat. She's heard that voice too many times in her dreams to not recognize it. She snaps her head in the voice's direction, spying a head of white hair as it disappears into the crowd. "Hey!" she calls. She tries to break into a run but the thickening throng of people effectively blocks her way.
Gritting her teeth, she elbows her way through, heading in the direction the stranger went in. She calls out again when the crowd begins to thin. "Hey! You with the white hair!"
His voice comes from somewhere behind her. "Yes?"
Maka whirls around and runs straight into a burly man with an eye patch over one eye. Her hands windmill wildly as she topples forward.
A hand catches her before she falls onto the ground. "You all right there?" the same voice asks.
Maka looks up eagerly, heart hammering against her chest. "Yes, I-" She cuts herself off. The white-haired boy standing in front of her looks strikingly similar to the boy in her dreams but he's not him. He's clearly older than Maka and his eyes are blue rather than red.
And as she listens to it, even his voice has a different cadence to it, she realizes. Her shoulders slump involuntarily.
"Not who you thought I was?" he asks lightly, letting go of her arm.
"I thought you were someone I knew but I guess I just got too caught for a minute there." Maka feels her face heat up. "I'm sorry."
"No harm, no foul." He smiles, revealing a set of perfectly normal teeth and crushing whatever hope Maka had left. "Though I wonder how many people you know with white hair." He gives his own hair a tug. "Not very common." He gestures toward Blair. "Though girls who own polar lions aren't that typical either yet here you are."
Maka returns a nervous smile, unsure how to explain Blair or that the only white-haired boy she knew most likely only existed in her head.
The boy, who was apparently Wes, looks past Maka and grins. "And here comes my little brother Soul to prove me wrong."
At the name, her eyes widen and her hands go lax in shock.
"It's not that hard," says the voice belonging to Wes' brother in a deadpan, right behind them. "Who's this?"
"Hey, Soul. This is-" Wes falters, giving Maka a questioning look.
"Maka," she fills in. She turns around and feels the world grind to a halt as she meets a pair of crimson eyes underneath a head of white hair.
The words fall from her lips like rain. "I know you."
The ballroom of Chief Hartok's palace is beautiful. Chandeliers carved from ice drip down from the ceiling while elegant couples sweep across the dance floor. Four long tables line its border, laden with food.
Maka watches the dancers from where she leans against the staircase's railing on the second floor of the ballroom, which serves as a lounge for those taking a break from the dancing. Right now, she's the only one up here.
In spite of how she felt about her father, she has tried her best to be sociable during the dinner and subsequent dancing. Chief Hartok's son, Ox, had claimed her for most of the dances and proved to be as unfortunate as his hair. The smug air he carried as he spoke about everything as if he knew everything and the way he dismissed her words with a patronizing simper was absolutely insufferable.
She hadn't even been able to enjoy the dancing, having finally met a person who was worse at it than she was. She had seized her chance for revenge when he excused himself for a glass of water after their fifth dance and glued his tongue to the roof of his mouth. She had allowed herself to enjoy the look of sheer panic on his face before disappearing upstairs.
The glow of her victory fades as she spies Wes dancing below. Her face flushes as she looks for his brother, sighing in relief when she doesn't find him. She backs away from the railing and pressing herself against a window to cool her burning face.
Needless to say, Soul hadn't recognized her, looking more than shocked that a complete stranger claimed to know who he was. And Blair hadn't made matters easier by abruptly leaping on Soul and attempting to lick his face off. Maka had been dragging her off of Soul, apologies tripping out of her mouth, when Spirit suddenly appeared. In that moment, she had never been more grateful for his existence. Upon successfully hauling Blair off of Soul, she'd dragged her embarrassment of a cat and father away, brushing off Spirit's questions and leaving two very confused brothers behind.
She had hoped to see neither of them again but clearly the universe had other ideas.
Maka glances toward the ballroom. Then she makes up her mind and unlocks the window-she didn't want to be here and there was no way she was risking running into either brother. The brisk wind snaps at her hands as she climbs onto the ledge with some difficulty, her robes more form-fitting than usual for tonight's welcoming celebration. She swivels her head from side to side, making sure she's alone.
Satisfied, she pulls her arms up and the snow resting in piles at the bottom of the palace rise and reshape themselves into stairs.
She takes them two at a time, running fast to nowhere.
The ice of her scythe burns against Maka's skin but she ignores it, taking a few practice swings against invisible enemies, snow of the ice cliffs she stands on crunching under her feet.
"That's a pretty fancy trick."
Maka yelps, dropping the scythe. She spins around to find Soul standing behind her. She opens her mouth and closes it, hoping it's dark enough that he can't see the embarrassment painted all over her face.
He gestures to the scythe. "I've never seen a waterbender do that before."
"It's something I came up with after seeing one of my friends fight," Maka says, ducking down to pick it up. "Her family are warriors and she's one of the best." She tosses the scythe from one hand to another nervously, sure he's going to bring up their earlier encounter.
His focus, however, is elsewhere. "Your dad is Spirit, isn't he?"
"That's right," she says cautiously.
"He acts a lot differently than your uncle," Soul comments. His expression immediately changes from composed to mortified. "Sorry, I didn't mean to remin-"
"It's okay," Maka interrupts. "It's been a while since the accident."
"If you say so." He runs his hand through his hair, shuffling awkwardly. "Party get boring for you too?"
"In a way." Maka gives Soul a onceover, the dark robes he wears standing out against his skin. "A couple people were being intolerable."
His grin pokes at her. "Enough to freeze their tongue to their mouths?"
She buries her face in her hands. "You saw that?"
"Don't worry, I'm not going to tell," he says, waving a gloved hand. "I've wished I could do that to Ox plenty of times."
She gives him a relieved smile. "You're not a bender then."
Something locks in his expression and then it melts. He nods. "Yeah, neither is Wes."
"And from the way you talk about Ox, it sounds like you know him personally," she guesses, taking a few steps towards him.
"See that over there?" Soul points to a villa in the second tier of the pyramid, second only in grandiosity to the chief's palace. "That's my family's place."
Maka raises her eyebrows. "What do your parents do exactly?"
"Mom works in the trading business and Dad advises the chief," he answers.
"Sounds like they're pretty busy." She glances at him. "You get out much?"
"It's ironic but I'm not really a fan of slowly freezing to death." He shrugs once. "And Wes is home most of the time so it's not like I don't have company."
"But do you have any friends?" She regrets the words as soon as they come out of her mouth. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it that way."
"It's fine," Soul says, coming closer. "And besides Ox, there isn't many people our age around here."
"Well, I could see why you'd prefer to be alone then," Maka quips. She turns serious. "But you know, it still seems lonely."
"I don't really mind being alone," Soul says. He turns to stare at the ocean before shuddering.
"Scared of the ocean?"
He hesitates. "Something like that."
Silence descends between them as Soul continues to gaze at the ocean. Behind him, Maka fidgets before letting the scythe fall back into snow. "I guess I should go now."
Soul turns, eyes focused on her face. For a second, she wants to say that she sees a glimmer of recognition there, running from deeper than their meeting today. He blinks and it's gone. "The party's probably gonna not end for another hour or so. You were here first so I'll go."
"It's all right if you stay," Maka says quickly. She pulls her hand upward, the scythe reforming again. "I'm just going to be practicing." She gives a look out of the corner of her eyes. "Though it might not be as exciting as spying on people."
"I'm just a good observer and parties are the best place to employ my skills," he says, taking a spot on a rock in front of her. "But this is much more interesting."
Maka snorts and begins again with her warm-up. As she gets into the swing of her routine, he calls out a question. "I didn't know the Southern tribe taught their female benders to fight. Even when Asura tried to take over the world, the Southern tribe refused to let them join Commander Stein's army."
Maka misses a step. She couldn't tell him that she used her position as a chain to convince Spirit to allow her to train as a fighter and healer. "Well, the fight with Asura was so far off from the Southern tribe that they didn't see the reason to adapt like the North did," she says carefully, raising the scythe above her head. "Plus, the South wasn't as connected as the Northern tribe was back then. Healers were needed in every village."
She slices it down in a graceful arc and there is a thunk as the ice cuts through the ice and buries itself into the permafrost underneath. She looks up and smiles. "But as you can see, things have started to change."
Maka rubs her hands together as she and Soul walk down the cliffs together, a comfortable silence permeating between them.
Soul glances at her and then down at her hands. "I don't think your hands are supposed to be that color."
"Really? I had no idea," she replies as the path leading back down to the chief's palace narrows sharply. They have to walk so close their shoulders brush against each other with every step.
He waggles a hand at her. "Gloves are things that exist."
"I know, but I forgot mine at home." She sighs and shoves her hands in her sleeves. "I'll buy a pair tomorrow."
"Oh," he says, going quiet. He seems to struggle with himself for a moment and then he takes off his gloves and holds them out to her. "Here, take them."
She protests, "And what about your hands?"
"I wasn't the one holding freezing ice in my hands for the past hour. I'll be fine."
She shakes her head. "I can't."
"You mean you won't," he says, waving the gloves in front of her.
Maka sees fur lining the insides and for an instant, her conviction wavers. She gives her head a vigorous shake. "It's the same difference." She bats his hand away. "It's fine. Tomorrow I'll have my own pair."
"Yes, but does that help you now?" Soul pushes them back toward Maka. "Take them."
She pushes them right back.
"You're about to get frostbite, if you haven't already. Do you really want to get a few fingers amputated because of your stubbornness?" He makes a exaggerated slicing motion with his hand that makes Maka roll her eyes.
"If you think I'm stubborn, you should have met my friend Black Star," she retorts. "He puts a hog-monkey's pigheadedness to shame."
"And obviously, he rubbed off on you or you on him," Soul says crossly. "Just put them on, Maka."
It's the wind that blows right past them, cutting into her hands, that does her in. "Fine," she grumbles. "Give them here."
"A thank you is generally how this works," Soul says, handing them over. Their fingers brush against each other as she takes them and there's no mistaking the spark of recognition Maka sees in Soul's face.
She pulls them on and sighs contentedly, the fur inside the gloves just as soft as it looked. "They're warm. Thanks."
Soul flinches, as if coming out of a trance. He blinks a few times before giving a small smile. "I'm glad you like them."
The path widens but they don't drift away from each other. "Will you be here tomorrow?" Maka asks abruptly.
"Maybe," Soul answers. "Why?"
"So I can return these without my papa finding out," Maka answers. "He won't react well if he finds out they're from a boy."
"Will he also disinfect for cooties?"
"Of course not." Maka smacks his arm lightly. "Probably."
Soul snickers and then sobers. "Don't come if you just want to return them. I won't take them," he says. "Consider it a welcoming gift."
Maka purses her lips, deciding not to fight it. "And if I came for other reasons?"
The palace looms in front of them as they step off the path. Maka glances at Soul and is surprised to see a light blush spreading across his face. "Soul?"
He clears his throat. "Yeah, that's fine."
"So you'll be there?"
At that moment, Spirit's voice rings out from somewhere within the palace, wailing Maka's name.
"Why can't he act dignified for once in his life?" Maka grits her teeth while Soul laughs again. "I'd better stop him before he embarrasses himself any further." She lifts her hands and a staircase of snow molds itself to a wall. "Good night, Soul."
Maka pauses on the first stair. Soul wears a conflicted look on his face. "Earlier today. How did you know me?"
Her face reddens. "You just looked like someone I knew. I did the same thing with your brother. Obviously, I was wrong on both counts."
"No, you sounded too sure of yourself," he says, crossing his arms.
"It was just a simple mistake," she insists.
Maka fights with herself for several moments. She stares at the space just above his head. "You're going to think it's weird."
"Have you taken a good look at me?" he said, grinning. "I try to judge weird differently than most people."
"Fair point," she relents. She fixes him with a look. "But you have to promise not to laugh."
"Okay." She takes a deep breath. "I've seen you in my dreams."
True to his word, Soul doesn't laugh, expression unchanged. Then he says, "Well, that's the first time I've had that line used on me."
"It's the truth!" The snowball she hurls at him hits him squarely in the chest. She adds hotly, "And if I was lying, I would have used a much better line than that!"
"I-" Maka flounders, mind going blank. "Just better ones." She crosses her arms. "Anyways, that's not where I meant to go with this conversation."
"You're right," Soul says. "So what happened in these dreams of yours?" He raises his hands up hastily as she whips up another snowball. "I don't mean anything else by that!"
Maka lets the snowball fall with a splat. "You came towards the end and you were always doing the same thing," Maka replies. She hesitates.
"And that was?" Soul presses.
Spirit calls her name again, sounding even more like an elephant-seal than before. She begins walking up the steps backwards and doesn't speak until she's at the top of the stairs. "You were riding a dragon."
She spins around and opens the window. "Good night, Soul."
It's not until she's drifting off into sleep later that night, Blair's purring body right beside that Maka realizes that the loneliness she's felt since her mother left has slightly loosened its grip on her heart.
As she jogs up the path to the ice cliffs early the next morning, Blair at her side, Maka realizes that she had never gotten a real answer from Soul on whether they'd be meeting or not.
If he's there, fine, she thinks. And if he's not, then that's also fine. Still, her heart drops to her stomach when she rounds the last corner and she finds no one waiting for her. Blair breaks away from her to bound happily in the snow. "It's fine," she says, watching Blair sprint across the tundra. "It's completely fine."
"There is nothing fine about waking up this early."
Maka's eyes widen and she turns around.
Soul wears an expression of utter discontent, huddling in robes of dark blue. His snowy hair is much more messier than it was for yesterday's feast. He squints at her sleepily. "Why the long face?"
She smiles sheepishly. "When I didn't see you, I thought you decided not to come."
"The sun literally rose minutes ago." He stifles back a yawn. "I should still be sleeping."
She tilts her head to one side. "Then how are you here?"
"Serendipity." Soul lets out an "umph" as Blair takes notice of his presence and crashes into him, barely keeping his balance. "My room has a window with a pretty good view of the path to the cliffs. And Wes decided it was the perfect time to try out his new violin. I saw you heading up here and decided I better not make a fool of myself." He eyes her while futilely attempting to keep Blair from licking his face. "I hope you brought breakfast because I'm missing it."
Maka laughs. "I'm sure if you ask nicely, Blair will catch you something. She's already treating you like one of her cubs."
Free shivers in the darkness of the cave he's calling home now. Of all the chains he could have tracked and he was forced to track the one who lived where you started to freeze if you stood in one place for too long. He plucks at the eye patch he was forced to wear over his cursed eye. It annoyed him to no end but not wearing would cause more problems than irritation. As it was it had been a close call when the chain had nearly ran into him earlier. Luckily, the girl had seemed more occupied with other things than taking notice of him.
He starts to arrange the wood he stole earlier into a fire pit, cursing the cold occasionally. One thousand years he'd spent in that spirit jail but at least it had been warm. In fact, the more he thinks about the more he thinks that coming to this world had been the worst decision he'd ever made. As soon as he stepped into this world, it had been a constant string of bad luck. First, his benefactor had been imprisoned in the same jail he helped Free escape from in a cruel twist of irony. Then he spent thirteen years on the run, having to take orders from an old man who didn't even reach his waist.
And now this. Slowly freezing to death while tracking a teenage girl.
"Fancy seeing you here."
Free starts and jerks around. He recognizes the silver hair peeking out from under the intruder's hood. "Eruka?"
She rubbed her arms, drawing closer. "Unfortunately."
"I thought you were with Gopher," Free says.
"Mosquito sent a parrot-frog for me. I'm going to be playing messenger between him and everyone else for a while," she says with a grimace. "Listening to his voice almost makes me miss Medusa." She rounds her shoulders. "Anyways, there's been a change in plans."
He frowns. "The last time I spoke to Mosquito, he said that everything was going smoothly and that absolutely no deviations were allowed."
"Yes, but that was before Giriko acted out on another one of impulses today," she answers. "Only this one affects us all. Everything's been sped up."
This news pleases Free. "If that means getting out of this frozen wasteland sooner than I thought then I may just have to thank Giriko myself."
"You'll get your chance," Eruka says wryly. "He's coming for you and the girl in a month."
She nods. "We're not waiting anymore. Summer solstice is the day of reckoning now."
"But that's only two months away." He furrows his brow. "Will Asura be free by then?"
"That's on the Gorgon sisters." Eruka shrugs. "I personally don't care one way or another. After the solstice, I'll be free from having to do anyone's dirty work and be far far away from here."
He raises an imaginary glass. "Cheers."