A/N: Here is Chapter Two!
Thank you to those who reviewed, and enjoy!
P.S. You will see a familiar face in this chapter. Can you guess who it is?
The rest of the evening passes in a blur of packing and panicking.
Did he remember to pack his sleeping mat?
Oh, Kyoshi! What if he gets caught?
They don't own a tent, but for an earth bender it can't be too hard to make one.
He'll be killed if he gets caught. Maybe he shouldn't be doing this.
Food. Definitely needs food. Need to sneak some from the kitchen. What about defense? Sure he can bend but maybe he should ask his father for a hunting knife.
His father is counting on him. He has to follow through with this.
Does his family even own a map? Maybe in his father's Meeting Room.
Lost. He is going to get lost. And die. He's going to get lost and then he is going to die.
He hasn't even left yet and he's already failed.
When his father pokes his head in to tell him dinner is ready James can feel beads of sweat running down the back of his neck. His stomach was twisting himself into knots and James is on the verge of talking himself out of this suicidal mission. Charlus raises an eyebrow at him, seeming to know where his thoughts are going. Entering the room fully, Charlus closes the door behind him. "You'll be fine," he whispers, looking through the bag James has sitting on the bed. "There is a map and a knife in the Meeting Room," he closes the bag and shoves it under James' bed, staying crouched over while he mutters. "Act sick at dinner. It will give you an excuse to miss the Meeting tonight. Don't forget to grab food before you leave." Charlus straightens back up and James hears his father's knees crack as he does. Sometime James forgets how old his father is getting.
"Come," Charlus claps a hand on James' shoulder, "dinner awaits." He steers James out of the room, making sure to shut the door behind them, and into the dining room. Where four Fire Nation soldiers and his mother are sitting around a table sparse with food.
"I apologize for the meager meal." His mother is saying while James and his father sit down. "I'm afraid the prices have gone up again."
Looking over what has been laid out James knows he bought more from Mr. Liang this morning, but at his father's look doesn't say anything. That means more food for him to take with him.
"It is no problem, Dorea." Speaks the soldier who had been in his father's office earlier, reaching for a piece of meat.
"I could have sworn the basket the brat came back with was full." Another soldier stage whispers to the one next to him.
"That basket is broken," his mother offers with a smile. "Has to be held from the bottom or else it will fall apart. Afraid it only gives the illusion of being full." The vile soldier relents, tucking into the food laid out before him.
James grabs a few pieces of sliced fruit realizing his mother was sneakier than he ever gave her credit for. She knew this was coming, had to of. That was why she insisted he take the broken basket this morning. If any of the soldiers tried to test her excuse it would fall apart on them. That also explains why the list of food was longer than normal. James had thought part of it was for the Meeting tonight, but it was really food for him to take when he goes.
"Not hungry?" his mother eyes his plate, seeing only the meager serving of fruit sitting on it.
"What?" James glances at his plate then at his mom. "Oh, no, I-" a foot jabs him in the calf. "I-" he remembers his father's excuse for him being absent from the Town Meeting. "I haven't been feeling too well."
His mother frowns, reaching over to rest a hand against his forehead. "You are warm," the hand slides to his cheek. "Maybe you should go lay down."
James nods and rises. "Yeah, yeah, maybe I should." James takes his plate with him, no point in wasting food. Silence follows him out, but James doesn't stay in his room. He drops the plate off on his bed and leaves again, shutting his door loud enough to be heard throughout the house. He waits, standing outside his shut door, for halting conversations to begin again where he left everyone still eating. Once conversation has resumed, and one can always count on Fire Nation soldiers to be loud, James walks to the Meeting Room. His father had said there was a hunting knife and a map, both of which he needs if he wants to survive. James finds the map in the corner, rolled up and pushed out of the way. No one would notice it was missing. The hunting knife is more difficult to find, James' father hid it so the Fire Nation wouldn't find it. He eventually finds it stuck in the soil of a plant in the corner of the room. Wrenching it free, James tucks the knife in his belt, making sure his green tunic top covered the bulge well enough to not be conspicuous. Skirting the table that served as a desk James heads back to his own room, pausing outside the door to make sure everyone was still eating before slipping inside. He tucks the knife and map into his pack, stashing the pack back under his bed, and finishes the fruit from dinner.
Now all that was left to do was wait. He would need to raid the kitchen, but that would have to wait until everyone was at the Town Meeting. Otherwise there was nothing left for him to do.
His mother comes and gives him a tearful farewell. Making him promise to be careful and come back safe. James' father gives him a hug, but doesn't saying anything otherwise.
James watches out his window while his mother and father leave. Two of the four guards are going with them to the Town Meeting and two are staying behind to make sure James doesn't cause any trouble. Charlus had tried to talk them out of staying by claiming James was too sick to get into any mischief. When the guards refused to be swayed Charlus relented, knowing he would raise suspicions if he kept pushing. For James that meant he now had to sneak to the kitchen, grab some food, and sneak out without raising any kind of alarm.
Ducking away from the window James surveys his room. The guards would be able to see if he was in there by simply looking in the window, he would need to find away to make sure they didn't get suspicious. Grabbing a spare tunic James curls up on his bed, doing his best to look as miserable as he can. It's not too hard with the wolfbats in his stomach making him feel like he was going to throw up. Lying on his bed, James angles his head to where he can see the shadows of the guards outside, elongated by the setting sun, and can monitor how often they look in on him. James knows he is on borrowed time, the Town Meetings only lasts so long. Sooner than he probably should James springs into action. Tucking the tunic under his blanket he attempts to arrange the pillow, blanket, and tunic into a form that vaguely resembles a body, all while praying the guards don't decide to break their pattern and look in on him unexpectedly. If only his hands would quit shaking! Once he has a form he considers passable, James digs his pack out from under his bed and creeps out of his room. The sound of the door shutting behind him feels like a sigh of relief, but the hard part isn't even over.
His mother had left a pack of food out for him, it seems. A cursory glance through it shows more than enough to last him a few days, after that he is on his own. James' pack is to full to fit the food sack, so James lashes it to his belt and prays to all the Avatars it holds. The hardest part is the last part; sneaking out. There is only one door to their house and it has two guards standing outside of it. He could attempt to sneak out a window, but that would mean breaking one and calling more attention to himself. He needs a diversion. Something to draw the guards away long enough for James to run for it. Looking around the kitchen, James swallows hard in an attempt to combat his rising panic. He is running out of time and needs a way out of his house, now. James notices the block of wood his mother uses to sharpen their one kitchen knife and wanders over to pick it up. The wood is thick and weighty, James bounces it in his hand, and it would probably knock one of the guards out if hit hard enough. Why use the wood though? James turns to look at the front door, still balancing the wooden block. He is an earth bender. Surely a rock to the face would have the same effect. James looks back at the wood in his hand. Earth bending is illegal. Does he really want to cause his father more trouble for not only having a runaway son, but having harbored an illegal earth bender. No, James decides, clenching the wood in his hand. He won't do that to his father. Charlus is going to have enough to answer for with James running away, he doesn't need to be arrested on top of that.
He gives the block of wood in his hand a little toss, feeling the firm weight smack into his palm. He needs to be quick or else the guards will raise the alarm and he'll never escape. Rolling his shoulders James ignores the sweat rolling down the back of his neck and strides towards the front door. Pausing in front of it James counts to three, twice. On the second 'three' James throws the door open. He catches the first soldier by surprise, and feeling the block of wood make contact with the mans face makes James stomach twist with nausea. He can feel the man's skin give beneath the wood, can feel the bones of his nose break under his fingers. The first man staggers back. James hadn't taken into account how much of the head those Fire Nation helmets covered. The second guard charges, wooden pike held aloft. James ducks out of the way, his pack bounces off the side of his house throwing James off balance and his food sack slams into his knee. James' knee gives out underneath him reflexively and he tumbles to the ground, barely dodging a trail of fire shot by the now recovered first guard. The first tells the second to go get back up and the second guard runs into town, screaming for back up at the top of his lungs. Damn it.
Springing to his feet James runs for it, praying to any Spirit who might be listening that he will make it to the trees before more soldiers arrive. Fire rains down upon him, blinding him and lighting his way at the same time. He smells smoke but doesn't stop. His legs are uncomfortably warm but he can worry about that later. Right now he has to make the tree line. A pike lands inches from his face, and James turns to see the first guard has returned with back up. So much for sneaking out. Muttering every word his mother pretends he doesn't know, James runs for all he is worth, concerned now that they will chase him into the trees.
He tears through the forest line, branches and brambles catching at his hair, pack, and clothes. He can feel skin being ripped open but still doesn't stop. He keeps running, listening for the sound of being followed but he can't hear anything past the rushing of his blood in his ears and the pounding of his feet on the forest floor. Leaves and twigs crack and snap underfoot, leading anyone who might be following behind to his exact location. Regardless he keeps running. He races around a clearing, no point in putting himself out in the open, and runs until the it hurts to move and the air burns his lungs. Collapsing against a tree James curls himself into a ball, pressing into the roots of the tree behind him hard enough to leave a mark and the pack is lodging itself painfully into the back of his neck. He tries to hold his breath, but the burning in his lungs refuse and James gasps for air as quietly as he can, listening for the sounds of anyone, any soldiers, following behind him. The forest has never been so loud before. Every snap of a twig is a soldier moving closer. Every scuttle of a creature is an animal running from a Fire Nation boot.
James lays against the roots of the tree until his breathing is back under control and his lungs don't feel like swallowed fire. The stitch in his side still hurts and he's lost all feeling from his knees down, but if he was being followed he would have heard the soldiers by now. Looking towards the sky James looks for the stars his father taught him to read since he was little, hoping to find out what direction he needs to be heading in. Rather than a sky full of stars James sees nothing but a canopy of dark green verging on black. Going straight a head it is then.
Uncurling from his ball, a move the stitch in his side violently and painfully protests, James props himself up on his arm and takes in his surroundings. Black, he sees black interspersed with sparks of green and hints of brown, but otherwise black. The sun, it seems, had finished setting while he'd been resting and now there was no light at all.
Thankfully that's an easy fix. All he needs to do is dig through his pack and find the….Spark….Rocks. Avatar Kyoshi, he forgot the Spark Rocks. How else is he supposed to light a fire? There are plenty of sticks to use as torches, he can feel a few under his thigh, but he has no way to light them. Great. Of ALL the things he could forget, he forgot the Spark Rocks. James lets his elbow give out and he collapses back to the ground with a thump. His head hits a root and he uses the pain as an excuse to lay their a little while longer. He can't stay here, not this close to town. He doesn't know if the soldiers will come looking for him in the morning but he can't risk it. He has to put as much distance as he can between him and home before morning. Even if that means stumbling through the woods at night. Yay.
Swallowing the fear he doesn't want to admit is there, James pushes himself to his feet. There is a feeling of cold numbness in his legs followed by the sensation of thousands of tiny sharp needles poking themselves into his skin. He pats at his legs for a moment, shaking them out until the pins stop and his legs don't threaten to give out from under him. He notices absently the bottom of his pants are burned black.
The metaphorical first step is the easiest. The second step James stubs his toe and he knows it is going to be a long night. Closing his eyes James reaches his hands out in front of him and listens. He is an earth bender for Avatar Kyoshi's sake. A walk through a dark wood shouldn't be able to defeat him. He starts again.
The journey is slow and every time James gains a bit of confidence from not having tripped over a root, a stray tree branch thwaps him in the face. These woods have it out for him, he can just feel it. He walks for what feels like hours. He doesn't know that for sure, since he has no way of telling time, but he does know he has covered a good amount of distance. Surely these woods can't be going on for too much longer. The sound of voices reach him and James opens his eyes. He sees a flicker of light. It is too far away to see what the light is, but to James in these dark woods it is a beacon of hope that the end is nye.
James speeds up, wanting to reach the light as fast as he can, a mistake that causes him to trip over a stray root and land flat on his face. Laying face down in the dirt James can feel his abused nose throbbing. This really is not his night. He props himself on his elbows and looks towards where the light is coming from. Shadows dance on the trees, flickering in and out to music James can not hear. Fire.
Fire Nation Soldiers.
Lying prone on the forest floor James thinks through his options while shifting to make sure he isn't smashing his food. It could be soldiers. The whole town knows he ran and James doesn't doubt the surrounding Fire Nation soldiers know by now as well. They could be waiting for him on the other side of the woods hoping to catch him. But, another thought creeps in, could they have moved that fast? The soldiers have access to quicker transportation that's true, but they would have to go to the closest town to gather help, and that seems like an awful lot of trouble to catch a runaway.
It could be people too, James can't help but hope. People who ran just like him and are stopping for the night. They might even be heading in the same direction he is, maybe he could tag along. It would be nice to not have to travel by himself the whole way.
The sound of voices continues to reach him; shouting, loud voices. No way that can be Fire Nation then. The sound is almost fun, like a party or a game; the ruckus of children chasing each other. The Fire Nation doesn't believe in fun and the sound gives James hope he isn't walking straight into a trap.
Pushing himself to his feet, James uses the shadows from the light to help find his way around the roots, sticks, and brambles he's been tripping over all night. He slows when he gets closer, using the trees as a cover until he decides whether or not to show himself. Pressing himself against the tree in front of him, James peeks around to see what is going on.
In font of him is a small clearing full of children. There is no other way to describe them since none of them look even close to James' age. There is a whole gang of them, some in the trees with torches, some on the ground circling around something. Almost every one of them seems to have a weapon of some kind. James sees bows and arrows and he sees pointy sticks the boys in the trees wave as they cheer on whatever is happening on the ground. The boys on the ground seem to be using slingshots. James can see the stones flying and he can hear them hitting whatever is in the middle of that circle. One of the boys in front of James shifts to the side and James is able to see what everyone is focusing on.
There is a person in the middle of that circle! It is a boy who looks in the flickering fire light to be about James' age. He is tan from spending too much time in the sun and is wearing a green tunic and pants similar to James'. He has shoulder length black hair but that is all James can make out. James' surprise quickly turns to an anger that boils in the pit of his stomach. Whatever this person has done to deserve such treatment, James doesn't care, but ganging up on someone in such a way is wrong.
The person in the middle seems to be holding his own. He bats away the stones flying at him, but doesn't see to be fighting back. Every time the boy in the middle sees an opening in the surrounding circle he dives for it, but never quite makes it before the attacking boys lunge again. Whoever the middle person is he is refusing to fight back, and that is enough for James to come to a decision. Pushing off the tree he has been hiding behind, James lunges out into the circle of light.
"Hey," he cries, running towards the circle of boys. "What are you doing? Leave him alone."
One of the boys from the circle steps up in front of him. "Are you going to stop us?" The boy waves his hand as if shooing James away. "This is between us and the thief, not some stranger who lives in the woods."
James stares down at the boy mildly stupefied. The boy speaking to him looks to be maybe ten, and that is being generous. Who is he to tell James to go away? Rolling his eyes, James crosses his arms across his chest. "I refuse. Thief or not this is no way to treat someone." He points to the boy in the middle of the circle. "Let him go."
The boy James is trying to save scoffs and crosses his arms, stones still flying at him from all directions. "Some hero you are. I don't need you to save me. So why don't you listen to the little brat and leave us to it." His hand snaps out and he catches a stone flying towards his face. Turning towards James he glares and chucks it in James' general direction.
James ignores the ungrateful idiot, the stone misses by a long shot, and keeps an eye on the boys high up in the trees. If it comes down to fighting he doesn't want to accidentally knock any of them down. A fall from that height could seriously injure them. The maybe-ten kid in front if James prods him with a stick James hadn't seen him pick up. "You heard the thief, go, before you're in the same position he is."
James looks down at the boy again, raising an eyebrow. This kid was seriously starting to piss him off. Rolling his eyes and giving a put-upon sigh, James widens his stance. His feet slide until they are shoulder width apart, he brings his elbows in and leaves his fists pointing out in front of him. The stance is a classic earth bending stance, the Horse stance, and James can see from the various reactions that the kids recognize this too. The ungrateful idiot in the middle of the circle eyes James in confusion, maybe the boy has never seen an earth bender before.
"Last chance," James speaks, crouching lower in his stance. There is a brief stalemate. The various boys eye him and James eyes them back. He doesn't want to hurt the little rats but he will fight if he has too.
"Fine," the boy in front of James says, and turns to the circle of boys. "Let the thief go. The little bit of food he failed to steal isn't worth this."
To James' shock and confusion the circle of boys listen. Is this six-to-ten year old the leader? Seriously? Regardless James holds his stance, watching the circle open to let the ungrateful idiot in the middle out. The ungrateful idiot sneers at James and then stomps away into the woods without a backwards glance.
"You're welcome!" James calls mockingly to the boy's retreating back.
"Well?" the boy in front of James speaks, drawing his attention again. "Are you leaving or what?"
James relaxes his stance, "Who are you guys anyway? And what did that boy do to deserve being attacked?"
"We," the little boy puffs out his chest, "are the Freedom Fighters. We fight the Fire Nation where ever they may be and take back the Earth Kingdom. And that man," the boy points in the direction the ungrateful idiot had stomped off in, "tried to steal some of our food, so he had to be punished."
James blinks in confusion, seems a bit harsh to him. "Do you live in these woods?"
The boy in front of James crosses his little arms. "No, we were just passing through when that man tried to steal from us. We had to leave our old home when our leader left us to go to Ba Sing Se."
"Leader?" James can't help but ask. This boy wasn't their leader? Then why did he seem to be making the decisions?
The little boy nods. "He left after some girl traveling with the Avatar convinced him he could do better things with his life. As if anything is better than fighting off the Fire Nation." The boys in the clearing cheer as if the statement had been a rallying cry. Whoops and hollers fill the air, echoing around the clearing until the sound is ringing in James' ears.
"So do you boys know the way out of here?" He asks, and his hope sinks when the little boy sniffs and turns away. "As if we'd help the person who sided with a thief. You can find your own way, earth bender."
James sighs heavily and pushes his way through the boys, following the path of the ungrateful idiot who had stomped away earlier. These woods had to end at some point.
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