This is my first (and probably pathetic) crack ever at a horror/sci-fi themed fanfic. This fic takes place during "Sokka's Master," and I've tried to structure it like an actual episode of the show.
All characters and settings belong to Brian, Mike, Nickelodeon, and Viacom, except for Huan (happy or joyous in Chinese), Wen (culture, literacy), Shuai (cricket), Gang Fong Fa (strong hive), Hou Fong Fa (hive queen), Qian (a thousand), Mei (plum), Xiang (lucky, fragrant), and He (lotus).
All the honey a bee gathers during its lifetime doesn't sweeten its sting-Italian Proverb.
"Weird stuff happens." Bill Ellis.
The rays of the morning sun shone bright and warm on Katara as the waterbender strolled through Shu Jing's marketplace, holding a half-filled basket of food on her left shoulder. Toph and Aang also accompanied her, the blind earthbender balancing another basket on her crown while the Avatar held a cloth bag in his right hand.
With nothing better to do with their time and aware that Sokka would be spending the day either honing his sword fighting skills in practice bouts with Fat, Piandao's butler, or doing "mental exercises," the rest of the Gaang had decided to go shopping in the village.
Since they were getting somewhat low on money, a cautious Katara made certain that they only bought essentials like rice, bread, or fish whenever possible.
Still, that didn't mean they couldn't indulge in a few luxuries too.
"Hey Katara, look over there," Aang said, pointing at one stall. "That vendor's selling sugarcane. May we get a few sections?" he asked hopefully.
And indeed, the waterbender herself found the idea tempting as she thoughtfully considered the magenta or saffron sections of cane, each one jointed like bamboo and about as long as her forearm. Certainly, Sokka would appreciate one as a gift.
As she began to walk forward to inquire about the price with the woman behind the counter, Toph said wistfully, "Sugarcane is awesome, but what I could really go for is some honey. I haven't had honey for ages."
"Mmm, honey would be very nice," Aang fondly agreed, nodding.
"You kids like honey, huh?" a nearby voice asked from off to their right. Turning, Katara saw that the speaker was a pregnant woman in her mid-thirties, holding a shopping bag similar to Aang's in her left hand, and a fresh catfish on a loop of rope in her right. Standing on her right was an eight-year old boy, his amber eyes regarding them with mild interest as he chewed at a section of jackfruit.
"I'm Huan, and this is my son Wen," she told them with a smile, gray eyes sparkling congenially.
"Ni hao," Wen grinned at them politely before returning his focus to gnawing at the fruit.
"Um, nice to meet you," Katara replied. "I'd bow or something, but that's not really practical at the moment."
"Yeah, we're a bit loaded down for that," Aang grinned wryly.
"I can sympathize," Huan smiled back. "Anyhow, if it's honey you're craving, I'd recommend paying a call to Gang Fong Fa and his wife Hou. They produce all sorts of fabulous honey!"
"Yeah, it's really good!" Wen confirmed, nodding excitedly. "The dandelion and clover are the best!"
"The plum honey is wonderful too," Huan advised.
"Plum honey? And dandelion?" Toph said eagerly, her foggy mint eyes twinkling with delight. "Let's get some!" she enthusiastically asked Katara.
Turning back to Huan, the waterbender asked, "Do you know if the Fong Fa's have a stall where they sell honey?"
"Yes, but they don't come by often. Usually, you have to go directly to their house if you want to buy honey from them."
"Oh," a crestfallen Katara said, slumping. Suddenly that looked rather unfeasible.
"Is their house far from here?" Toph said hopefully.
"Not too terribly far," Huan answered. "It's a little over an hour and a half's walk away."
Katara blanched at the idea. "An hour and a half! I'm not walking that far just for some honey!"
"Come on, Sugar Queen, we regularly walk way longer than that when we're on the road," Toph pointed out.
"And it's not like we have anything important to do right now anyway," Aang added. "Seeing a whole new area of the countryside around here would be fun too."
"Yeah, but we weren't carrying big baskets of food around at the same time, were we?" Katara said brusquely. "Do you seriously want to lug all that weight around in the hot sun for over an hour? I don't."
"Maybe I can help you with that," Huan suggested.
As they walked down the hill, their path becoming increasingly more level, Katara silently expressed thanks for the 30th time that Huan had offered to look after their groceries in their absence. After purchasing everything on her mental list of essentials first, Katara, Toph, and Aang had followed Huan to her house in the village and left their respective baskets and bags in the weaver's entryway.
Wen had chivalrously volunteered to steadfastly stand guard over their purchases while they were gone, protecting against any dogs or siblings that might attempt to swipe a snack.
Huan had provided further reassurance, telling them simply that "A woman's shopping is sacred," and winking knowingly at Katara.
She'd then told them how to get to where Gang and Hou lived. First they had to leave the village and go along the trail beside the river until they saw a rock formation on their right that resembled the head of a hippo cow. Close by would be another trail that came off the main one and led to the right, over a ridge, and then descended into flat, open farm country. There they would find the fields and the farmhouse of the Fong Fa's, and the wonderful honey from their hives.
The waterbender had to admit the trip was a nice diversion. The river running and thundering through the gorge was a majestic, free, wild sight, and the rainbows formed in its spray had been absolutely gorgeous! And she'd agreed with both Aang and Toph, who could sense its shape through her soles, that Hippo Cow Head Rock was a very cool creation of nature.
Unencumbered by loaded baskets, she'd been able to enjoy and take in their climb up into the pass, and enjoy the splendid view from its crest before moving on.
It was starting to get on towards noon as Katara noticed that they were starting to pass through huge fields of flowers, all the same kind of plant growing and evidently planted together, their blossoms nodding brightly in the hot sunshine. There were expanses of honeysuckle and dandelions and mint and clover.
"Wow," Aang said, impressed. "Huan sure wasn't kidding when she said that Gang owned lots of land."
Equally amazed, Katara nodded, saying "That's for sure. I don't think I've ever seen a farm this big in my life!"
The air was filled with buzzing and droning. Bees were everywhere, living up to their reputation as they buzzed from flower to flower or across the path.
To Katara, who had spent her first 14 years living in a wasteland of snow and ice, insects of any sort were a new thing under the sun, including bees. These Fire Nation honeybees though, were in a whole new league than the ones in the Earth Kingdom.
They were shaped like them, but far bigger than their eastern cousins. Each worker was half the size of Katara's thumb and striped with amber and red-orange.
"Whoa," Toph said, cocking her head. "Those sound like some seriously huge bees. I've never heard a bee around where I live buzz that loud."
Here and there, off in the distance, she could see two or three clusters of hives in each field, supported on what seemed like a platform of broken stone. Each cluster was a grouping of four massive hollow logs, painted white. Each log looked to be as big around as a carriage wheel and as long as a grown man, and was roofed with a convex mat of thatch that Katara figured served to protect each hive from the rain and snow.
"And it looks like they come from some seriously huge hives," Katara commented, not without unease. The fields were full of blossoms and drenched with sunlight, a few puffy clouds sliding through the sky. Nothing seemed innately threatening in the slightest. Yet the waterbender was beginning to get a vaguely eerie feeling, something that made her nape and scalp prickle.
She had no idea why. They were in a group after all, and even without any water at hand to use, Toph and Aang could easily protect her if an enemy somehow appeared-and enemies looked to be pretty scarce at the moment.
Still, she had a curious sense that they were all wading into something uncanny with every stride they took. She couldn't say why she felt that way. Maybe it was simply the fact that they were in the Fire Nation. Maybe it was the openness of the terrain.
Maybe it was the abnormal size of the bees or their shining, emotionless, alien eyes that paradoxically seemed to be watching them. Maybe it was because other than a few butterflies, the bees seemed to be the only other living creatures around.
Or perhaps it had been the advice Huan had given them before they'd set out from her home.
"Now before you three go," she'd said, "I want to let you know that Gang and Hou are very nice, generous, hardworking people, and so are their children. But they are somewhat, well, eccentric too."
"Eccentric? You mean they're a little bit...out there?" Toph had asked, making a few circles near her ear with a pointer finger.
Huan had laughed, replying, "Yes, but not in a bad or scary way. The Fong Fa family has a very, ah, profound relationship with its bees..." she'd said, deliberately letting the sentence wither and die.
"A profound relationship with their bees?" Katara had repeated, raising an eyebrow. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, nothing," Huan had dismissed with a casual smile. "Just be polite and return their hospitality, and you'll be fine. That's all you need to know."
"Well what I want to know right now is what you were just talking about. How can these people have a relationship with insects?"
"It just means they love their bees and treat them well Katara," Aang had said. "That's all."
It had made sense on the surface at least. Certainly, Toph had accepted the Avatar's explanation, which helped greatly. But it had still left the waterbender with a nagging feeling that Huan knew more then she was telling, just like Long Feng.
"You know," she commented, "maybe we should just forget about the honey and go back. Sokka's probably wondering where we are, and it's getting hot too."
Startled, Aang turned to look at her, asking "Go back? Katara, we're less than half an hour's walk from Gang's house. It makes no sense to just turn around and go back to the village when we're already so close!"
"Sugar Queen's nervous about something. I can feel it," Toph said smugly from behind the waterbender.
"I am not!" Katara thoughtlessly denied over her shoulder.
"It's no use lying to me Sugar Queen," Toph laughed. "I know something's got you on edge, doesn't it?"
Defeated, the waterbender sighed. "Okay, I am a little nervous, I'll admit it."
"Why Katara? The only living things I feel around here are some hippo cows. And it's a lovely day out." The blind earthbender stopped then as a thought struck her. "You worried about Snoozles, leaving him alone with Piandao?"
"No, it's not that. Really, I'm not worried about Sokka at all," Katara replied, shaking her head. "He knows how to handle himself just fine without my help."
"Not that you can always tell by looking though," Toph grumbled wryly.
"Is it the bees?" Aang asked, his gray eyes meeting hers under his headband.
Katara lightly bit her lip, nodding before saying "Yeah, kind of. They're just too...big, and I feel like they're watching us or something. Dumb, isn't it?"
"Well, Fire Nation honeybees do grow to a good size," he answered thoughtfully. "And getting stung by one is no fun-Kuzon could've told you all about that," he laughed. "But don't worry Katara. As long as you don't grab one or get too close to their hives or step on one, they won't hurt you."
Feeling substantially relieved, the waterbender asked, "How did Kuzon get stung by one, anyway?"
"He tried to catch one by pinning it down with a leaf," Aang reminisced. "Poor guy didn't realize that the bee's stinger could pierce through it and into his finger. Man, you should've seen the way his hand swelled up!"
"Well we sure wouldn't want one to sting Toph in the face then," Katara teased as she looked over at the blind earthbender. "Her head's swollen enough as it is."
Toph's response was to fold her arms and rudely stick out her tongue before sardonically replying, "You're so funny I forgot to laugh, Sugar Queen."
As they walked on, the waterbender began to see some fenced pastures in which hippo-cows grazed. Some of the great, black and white or red and white omnivorous beasts cropped grass with their blocky, squared lips, while others laid flank to flank in the shade of a belt of maple-oaks, tails constantly swishing back and forth. Their presence comforted her somewhat.
And there were great orchards too, of apple and peach and almond and acacia trees, clearly meant to produce both fruit and gourmet honey. Cricket-cicadas droned and whined in their branches, giving the heat a voice.
Soon they came to a line of tall, very old peach trees, heavy with ripening fruit. Behind them was a solid wooden fence with a gate in it, painted dark red. Beyond was a large garden filled with flowers and growing vegetables, and behind that, a two-story wooden farmhouse with two distinct wings, its roof covered in gray terra-cotta tiles and smoke curling out from a brick chimney.
There was a large barn off to the left of the house, and what seemed to be a stable off to the right.
On a post stood a large yellow sign with black characters that read; "Welcome to Gang and Hou Fong Fa's Honey and Fruit Farm. Try our many choice varieties!"
"This is the place all right," Aang remarked. "Think it would be okay if we just walked in?" he asked her doubtfully, gesturing at the latch.
"I don't know Aang," Katara replied. "Huan did say it was important for us to be polite when we came, and they might not like us just walking up to their farmhouse."
"Or we could just do this," Toph impatiently cut in before yelling out, "Hey there, anybody home? We'd like to buy some honey!"
At the blind earthbender's shout, a boy close to Aang's age stuck his head out of the barn door and regarded them briefly with citron eyes before loping up to the gate as Toph smugly said, "Now that's how you let people know you're here."
"Hey there, I'm Shuai," he greeted, bowing and placing his fist against his begrimed palm. Dressed in simple brown and gray clothing, he wore his hair in a topknot like all Fire Nation boys. "You here to buy honey?"
As the only male member of their trio, Aang bowed and performed the same greeting on Katara and Toph's behalf before replying "Yep. Someone in the village told us how good it is, and we came to get some."
"Excellent!" Shuai grinned happily. "Right this way," he said as he opened the gate and they followed him through.
He seemed nice enough, but just like in the swamp, Katara couldn't help but feel there was something ominous about the farmstead, her eyes roving around as they entered. And that sensation of being watched.
After passing a few sheds, Shuai led them into a stone courtyard, flanked on three sides by the wooden house and its two wings. The upper floor had a U-shaped balcony, fenced off with a palisade of wooden posts about as thick as a man's arm and topped with a railing. In the middle of the courtyard a man was chopping a great peach bough into firewood with an ax, the muscles in his bare arms coiled and his face hidden by a broad, ornately woven bamboo hat as he toiled. Even here, bees buzzed to and fro.
"Hey dad, we've got some visitors!" Shuai announced as they drew near to catch his attention.
Pausing, the man briefly regarded them with soft orange-gold eyes from under the brim of his dou li before standing erect, leaving his ax in the branch.
He had a farmer's physique, lean and hard-muscled, his skin deeply tanned from the sun and looked to be close to forty years old. His cheekbones were prominent and fringed by sideburns, and his nose was slightly hooked. Like his son, he wore simple brown and gray clothes and pants.
"You must be Gang," Katara said as she bowed, making the fist to heel gesture of greeting as Aang and Toph did the same.
"That I am," he replied, giving a thin, pleased smile of appreciation before returning the greeting. His voice had an odd, mildly squeaky quality to it.
Taking off his hat, the beekeeper lightly clasped it to his chest, catching his breath as he gestured at the bough, explaining, "Had a storm pass through three nights ago, and a bolt of lightning hit one of our peach trees. The tree itself will be okay, but this bough-well, I guess Agni wanted to give us more firewood," he shrugged.
"We're not interrupting your work, are we?" Katara asked.
"Not at all," Gang smiled. "It's always a pleasure to have visitors. In fact, we're going to be having lunch shortly. Would you like to join us?"
"That would be awesome," Toph grinned.
"Sounds great. Thank you," Aang smiled.
"We'd love to," Katara said, despite her uncertainty.
"Shuai, go tell your mom to set three extra places," Gang told his son. "And since you've been changing the komodo-chicken coop's straw, make sure you wash up good too."
"Sure dad," he replied before trotting into the house.
Like her husband, Hou Fong Fa was tall and tanned, her build naturally slimmer but still well-toned like Toph's was. She wore her black hair, just beginning to show a few strands of gray, in a high-placed ponytail, with a distinct lock on each side of her triangular face, reminding Katara somewhat of an older On Ji.
Her eyes were a brilliant, gleaming gold that almost reminded the waterbender of Azula's or Zuko's. Hou's however, weren't nearly as harsh, not so penetrating. Still, they contained an air of authority, of command, of confidence and power. They were also large, just like Katara's were.
That same confidence and authority was also reflected in the farmwife's stance and bearing, how she spoke and walked. But Hou was also a gracious and generous hostess, who was more than delighted to share her table with Aang and his companions.
Besides Shuai, Gang and Hou had five other children who joined them in the dining room. There was Xiang, who was soon to be married off, and her sisters, He, who had weak eyesight, Mei, and four year old Yun. Collectively, they called themselves The Sisterhood.
And then there was Hou's latest child, a baby boy about Tom-Tom's age named Qian.
Like their parents, Shuai and his sisters spoke in thin, sibilant voices and had large golden eyes. Frankly, Katara found it kind of creepy, just not normal.
She kept her misgivings to herself however, and joined Aang and Toph at the table.
Lunch was delicious. There were buckwheat noodles, braised koala sheep mutton, flat bread and steamed white bread, with abundant butter and thick cream and soy sauce. Hou encouraged them not to hold back, and they were plenty willing to obey.
And of course, there was the honey. There were several different types of it, each in a small glazed and marked honeypot, and Katara took the time to savor each one's unique flavor.
As she ate and chatted with their hosts, the waterbender couldn't help but notice some obvious signs of the family's wealth laying about here and there. Jewelry. Coins. Beautiful porcelain jars and cups and vases.
That in itself wasn't unexpected. With such a large farm and their well-deserved reputation for choice honey and fruit preserves, it made sense that the Fong Fas were fairly well off for a farming family. Still, it seemed odd that at least some of their valuables were just sitting out in the open and near the door where they could easily be stolen, instead of hidden away deeper inside the house or in chests.
She mentally shrugged. That was none of her business.
Toph was the first to finish, leaning back and sighing with satiated satisfaction as she said, "Thanks for the excellent lunch you guys. It was great, and that honey was the best I've ever tasted in my life! The buckwheat noodles were good too."
"You're very welcome," a pleased Gang replied in that thin voice.
"Do you have a place I can wash up though? My hands are just a bit sticky," the earthbender commented dryly as she held them out, fingers noticeably smeared with honey and cream and butter.
"He, could you show Toph where the well is please?" Gang asked his daughter.
"Sure dad," she nodded, getting to her feet.
Katara watched them leave together and go out a back door into a smaller courtyard, in which a well was just barely visible.
"So," Gang asked, "you said you're just passing on through Shu Jing?"
"That's right," Katara confimed. Choosing her words carefully, not wanting to reveal more information than she could help, she went on, "My brother is studying under Piandao to become more skilled at sword fighting."
"Really?" Shuai gasped in amazement. "That's so awesome!"
Equally impressed, Gang's yellow eyes widened and he grunted as he said "Then your brother must be exceptional if Piandao was willing to accept him as a student, to say nothing of having made a good first impression on him."
Beaming with pride at the compliment towards Sokka, the waterbender responded warmly, "That he is."
"He hasn't accepted a would-be student in what, two years?" Gang pondered as he turned toward his wife. "And Agni knows a lot have come to his door."
"Almost three," Hou specified.
"Do you ever sell honey to him too?" Aang asked.
"Sometimes," Xiang said as Katara took another mouthful of noodles. "He'll send Fat down here on a dragon-moose every other month, and then we'll get-"
Suddenly, Hou silenced her daughter with an upraised hand. Listening casually, she commented, "The Golden Sisterhood is coming."
Totally perplexed, Katara froze, her mouthful of noodles half-chewed, staring at Hou.
Equally baffled, Aang's eyebrows knitted together as he said, "Golden Sisterhood? Huh?"
And then Katara heard the buzzing, and saw one of the great honeybees land on Hou's left shoulder, and then another on her right.
The buzzing and droning rapidly became louder. Turning her head, an electric flash of horror shot through the waterbender's nerves as she saw the entryway fill with the bees, a great cloud of them entering the house!
Katara acted on pure instinct. Snatching Qian from his cradle, she fiercely yanked an equally alarmed Aang to her side, who immediately conjured up a protective wind sphere around them, knocking down chairs and scattering tableware. They knew it was foolish to blow his cover so drastically like this, but there was no choice!
One doesn't think or care at such extreme times though, and together they raced for the back door to collect Toph and get her to safety as well.
Behind them Hu screamed in pure panic, and now the bees began hurling themselves at the wind sphere like pebbles, only to be harmlessly blasted away.
To the waterbender's horror, when she and Aang leapt out the door, Qian shrieking in her arms, she was greeted by the sight of Toph lying on her back in the grass, mouth slackly open, her face and throat already dotted with the huge bees, He standing close by. Worst of all, bees were going right into the earthbender's mouth!
"NO!" Katara shrieked in raw, despairing terror as she raced forward, clutching the baby with one hand while preparing to pull water from the well with the other. Things looked bad for the blind girl, but if Aang could blast the bees away with his airbending and get Toph into this wind sphere, she might still be able to save her with her water healing.
Incredibly, she heard Gang shout from behind them, "Stop Katara, stop!"
"My baby! You bring him back this instant!" Hou commanded. Her voice was a weird blend of savagery and distress.
The waterbender and Aang stopped as one. Katara had no idea why, but she did, and turned. She was stunned and flabbergasted to see Gang and Hou standing in the doorway, untouched by the bees swirling around them as Qian continued to squall bloody murder and writhe against her chest.
"Bring him back," Hou ordered, her eyes narrowing, even as the bees continued to pelt Aang's wind sphere. "Right now. Or you will regret it, Agni help you!"
"He's okay Katara," Gang frantically assured her. "The Golden Sisterhood doesn't hurt us, and it won't harm him."
"WHAT!" Aang and Katara both shouted in astonishment.
This didn't make a bit of sense. Struggling to comprehend what was going on here, torn between keeping the helpless Qian safe and helping Toph, Katara bit her lip and hurriedly paced back to the threshold of the back door with Aang.
As they drew close, Hou's features softened in-in relief?
And then, the beekeeper's wife tilted back her head and began to make a sound. It was a weird, thin sound, like a whining buzz and the quacking of a turkey duck rolled into one.
Both Katara and Aang had seen some truly extraordinary things since embarking on their great journey. Yet nothing could've prepared them for what the bees did next.
Immediately, the swarm stopped hurling itself against the air sphere and backed off, every single one, and just hovered in the air above them.
Katara gaped, looking from the bees, then to Hou, then back to the bees again. What in Tui's name was going on here?
Somewhat apprehensively, gaze fixated at the cloud of stinging insects above them, Aang lowered his hands and let the barrier disappear as they came up to Hou, who also stepped forward.
Gently taking Qian from Katara's arms, he handed him over to Hou, giving her an appeasing grin as he said, "Um, here's your baby back."
"Thank you," she replied, rather curtly, clasping her son to her chest and comforting him as she regarded Katara with narrowed, suspicious eyes.
"I'm sorry," the waterbender protested. "I honestly thought your baby was in danger!"
"They didn't know mom," Shuai placated on their behalf. "She meant well."
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Aang rushing over the grass towards Toph, hands raised to blow any bees away. Turning on her heel, she too raced over to Toph, who was starting to roll onto her left side and lever herself up with an elbow as the bees took flight and buzzed about her.
"Toph, are you okay?" Katara babbled anxiously. "Please tell me you didn't get stung in the throat!"
"Are you allergic to bee stings at all Toph?" Aang asked with equal desperation. "And if you're having trouble breathing, just lie down and stay calm."
"Whoa, relax Twinkletoes," Toph said in mild surprise, and Katara was grateful to hear her voice come out clear and strong. "I know what it must've looked like, but it wasn't."
"But there were bees covering your head Toph!" Katara shouted. "Your entire head!"
"Did they sting you anywhere?" Aang urgently asked as he examined her neck and forehead for any stingers, parting her hair.
"Enough with the monkey routine Twinkletoes!" she barked, batting his hands away. "I'm just fine!"
"Then what were you doing laying there and letting bees crawl into your mouth?" Katara yelled.
"Not into my mouth, just on to the tip of my tongue," Toph replied. "They were feeding me honey stored in their crops, just like He said they would if you trusted them and didn't swat at them or freak out."
"That's right," He smiled cheerfully. "The Golden Sisterhood won't sting you as long as you don't touch them or make them feel threatened."
Katara could only gape along with Aang, goggling and inarticulately sputtering as she stared at He for a long moment, then a seated Toph, then Hu, and finally the bees filling the house and courtyard before demanding of Gang, her voice infused with agitation and frustration, "Can someone tell us just what is going on here with you and these bees?"
"Is this some sort of trick to try to kill us or force us to reveal who we really are?" Aang snapped, eyebrows knitting in growing anger as he stood in an attack posture. "Well, it worked splendidly, because now you know I'm an airbender-the last one. That's right, the Avatar," he boldly spat.
Shuffling a little, Gang then replied, "No Aang, I assure you it isn't. And we knew you were the Avatar even before you came into our courtyard."
There was a stunned, weighted moment of silence before Toph fractured it with a yell of "WHAT!"
"How could you know such a thing?" Katara asked, completely confused.
"Oh boy," Gang sighed, rubbing his forehead. "How do I explain this? I know this might seem crazy to you folks, but it was the bees that told us so."
"They told you. Uh-huh," Katara said skeptically.
"It's the truth before Agni," Xiang vowed. "They knew by your scent and your aura, and then passed it on to us."
"You see Katara," Hou said, "we of the Fong Fa's have a very special link with our honeybees. Not only do we understand them very well, we also have a spiritual link with them as well, even a mental one if we choose."
"Whoa." Aang said, deeply impressed. "Being the Avatar, I know a thing or two about spiritual communication, but doing it with bees? I'd never have thought that was possible!"
"He was using her link with them to get the bees to feed me just now," Toph chimed in, more to inform her friends than the beekeepers.
He Fong Fa nodded in satisfaction and confirmation, sweetly parting her lips in a grin as she said, "That's right. Even though the bees didn't know Toph or have a bond with her, I told them that she was okay and welcome here-and then asked them to do something that would impress and please her."
"Well, you certainly told me to stay still and not panic multiple times, I know that," Toph said as she dug in her ear. "And that was hard to do, to say the least."
"To say nothing of either being extremely brave or extremely foolhardy," Katara added in rebuke.
"Yes," Gang agreed. "And He, next time you want to show a guest what our bees can do, don't do something that risky again, okay? All it would take is one sting in the mouth."
"Sorry Dad," she said contritely. "I'll make sure they and the Sisterhood know each other a lot better first."
"And that you ask us first," Hou gravely added.
"You know, before Aang and I met Toph, we met a man in Foggy Swamp who could make vines and other plants actually move and grow by bending the water inside them," Katara told them. "Is that like what you do with the bees?"
"No," Hou said adamantly, shaking her head. "Bending implies control and domination, and we don't do that to our hives. In fact, we couldn't. They're our partners, and do things for us because we ask them to, not because we force them."
"They're even like our pets," Shuai grinned. "And they'll even do tricks if you want them to. Watch this!"
Closing his eyes, he breathed deep and then made the same whining, quacking drone as his mother had.
"What's he doing?" Katara asked as an icy brushstroke made its way down her spine and tensed her back muscles.
"It's called piping," Hou explained. "It's a way that the queens communicate and how some workers will excite the rest of the workers before a hive swarms."
Meanwhile, Shuai extended his left arm, and a single huge worker buzzed down to land on his upraised palm. Katara noticed that his hand was lightly shaking.
And then, instead of flying away or stinging him, the bee did an extraordinary thing.
Stunned, the waterbender watched as the bee then clumsily rolled over, like a trained dog.
"No way," Aang gasped.
Mei giggled as the bee on her brother's hand then did something close to a headstand.
Then the bee flew away as Shuai proudly grinned at them, saying, "Did you see that? Isn't that awesome?"
"Sure is," Katara replied in wonder. "That's-that's incredible!"
"Now I know what Huan meant when she said you people have a profound relationship with your bees," Aang said in amazement.
"And it also explains why there's money and valuable objects stored in fairly obvious areas, even though you live out in the country. Any thief wouldn't be able to get anywhere close to them before the bees did," she shuddered.
"That's right," Gang replied. "And not only do the bees guard our valuables, they guard the barns, stable, and of course, us."
"Yeah," Xiang nodded. "Every night, a big cluster from one of the hives-they rotate you know-will come into the house and stay there until morning."
"And that doesn't worry you at all?" Katara said uneasily.
"No. I know you were terrified just now that the swarm would harm Qian," Gang said, "but he and Yun are safer with the bees than if they had a hyena-mastiff watching over them. If a snake or a bandit ever came into their room-"
"Gang, could you please not mention something like that?" Hou somewhat fretfully demanded.
"Why Hou?" Gang inquired in confusion. "We both know what the sisterhood would do-what they have done. Remember that time when that burglar tried to break into the house while we were visiting my brother Shong for the day? Or when that red tree cobra got into He's room one night when she was five? Oh, and what happened to those three rustlers who tried to make off with our two prize hippo-cattle bulls?"
"I know," Hou droned, "but bees or no bees, I still don't like to think of such a thing as a mother. Can you blame me?"
"Wait, are you saying that the bees stung them all to death? Not to protect their hives or their queen either, but to protect you, and your property?" Toph hurriedly inquired, shocked.
Gang simply gravely nodded, and once more, a horrified chill swept through Katara as she, Aang, and Toph all glanced at each other edgily. What was equally chilling and terrible to contemplate was not only the pain and agony of such a prolonged death, but the sudden, unspoken understanding that Gang and Hou were capable of actually telling the bees to attack someone or something they deemed a danger or nuisance.
And that's why the bees were throwing themselves against Aang's wind sphere, she realized. Hou was upset that I'd just snatched up Qian and was trying to stop me in my tracks by sending the bees after me!
"That's what I call one terrible way to die," Aang groaned, clearly as sickened at the idea as the waterbender felt.
"Ugh, tell me about it," Toph shuddered. "Just as bad as slow slicing or the lead treatment!"
"Two days ago we had a pumapard try to take one of our calves," Hou offhandedly mentioned. "Thanks to the Golden Sisterhood, not only did he fail, but now his hide's drying on the back of the stable."
"We're gonna make it into a jacket for Xiang later," Shuai grinned. "Wanna see it?"
"Um, not exactly," the waterbender replied, fidgeting and gritting her teeth.
It was clear that the Fong Fa's were accommodating and decent people-but also that it was a terrible mistake to get on their bad side, one that you would pay for in the most gruesome of ways.
Hurriedly, desperately changing the grim subject, Katara asked, "You said you people have both a spiritual and mental link to your bees. What's it like, having your mind connected to theirs?"
"It's amazing," Xiang said simply. "Truly extraordinary."
"Well, first of all, the most important thing you need to know to understand what it's like is that a beehive is not just a bunch of individual bees buzzing around," Hou replied. "It's more like a single, beautiful golden creature, where each worker is like one of the cells in the honeycomb or a tree in a forest, small parts coming together to make and strengthen a greater whole, each one serving the greater good."
"Like the banyan grove tree," Aang said thoughtfully.
"As for the queen, she is both the mother and the matriarch of the entire hive," Hou went on, "like I am to my family," she proudly compared, lips curving upward in a pleased smile.
"There's a reason why I call her Queen Bee sometimes," Gang wryly confirmed, making everyone chuckle.
"Any way, not only is each bee in a hive physically part of a greater whole," Hou continued, "but in mind too."
"Like a pebble in a pile of gravel," Toph remarked as the understanding dawned on her.
"Yeah," Aang agreed, eyes sparkling. "You're saying the bees in the hive interact as a unit to form a shared mind!"
"Very good!" Hou said approvingly. "They form a collective awareness we call the Golden Sisterhood, and we have the ability to open our own minds to it!"
"How...how long have you been able to do this?" Katara inquired in wonder.
"Our family has been able to do this for at least 180 years," Gang answered.
"Whoa. Is this something we could do too?" Toph asked curiously.
"One can accomplish anything, given luck, practice, and persistence," Hou replied simply. "And since all worker bees are female, I can attest that women and girls have an easier time connecting to the hive mind."
"They're all girls?" the earthbender repeated, clearly pleased by the concept. "Sweetness!" she grinned. "I want to try it!"
"Toph, let me try first," Aang cautioned. "I know you're eager, but you aren't exactly as practiced at making spiritual connections as I am."
"Are you saying I'm not up to the task Twinkletoes?" she barked in mounting fury. "Because if you-"
"Toph, calm down," Katara interceded. "He's just saying he wants to test the waters first before you try it, in case something goes wrong. They are bees after all, and if Hou and Gang are correct, parts of a mind like nothing we're remotely used to. It's safer this way."
"Well okay Sugar Queen," the earthbender conceded. "I guess we can wait for the Avatar Report first before jumping in."
Aang was already sitting on the grass, adopting the lotus posture as he began to meditate, breathing slowly and deeply. Then his eyes abruptly snapped open in astonishment, and he jerked back.
"What did you see?" Katara asked.
"Everything," the airbender said simply, shaking his head in disbelief. "I touched a hive's mind Katara, and it was like seeing through tens of thousands of eyes at once!"
"Throws you for a major loop, doesn't it?" Mei giggled knowingly.
"Oh Spirits yes," Aang agreed. "I saw inside the hive, on the hive, flew though tree branches, crammed myself into the very centers of flowers, saw the faces of other bees right in my own, the garden, and all sorts of other things!"
"What was it like Aang?" Katara enquired. "From the bee's point of view, I mean."
"Weird," he told her. "It's all grainy, for one thing. And everything has this strange purple wash to it. Flowers look especially different," he specified, shaking his head. "There's glowing markings and dark markings on them like lines and big circles that we just can't see. It's incredible!"
"You were seeing the true colors of flowers then," Hou remarked.
"So you weren't seeing in normal human vision?" Toph muttered in disappointment. "If that's the case-well, I've decided I'll pass on getting to know the hive mind then."
"You sure about that Toph?" Katara urged. "This could be your only chance to see if you can connect with this Sisterhood mind!"
"I'm sure Sugar Queen," she insisted. "Besides, now that I think about it, I'm really not sure if my mind could handle the sensory punch. Might scramble my brains or something."
Turning to Hou, Aang asked, "How do you make sense of it all? And how do you ask the bees to do something for you?"
"You get used to it over time," the farmwife shrugged. "It helps to focus on just one small part of the Sisterhood's mind. Eventually, with practice, you can concentrate on the mind of just a single bee."
"And as for asking," Gang commented, "first you have to make the piping sound. It's how you tell the bees to listen, pay attention. Then you just imagine them doing something you want them to do, and send it to that part of the hive's mind."
"Here goes then," Aang said, drawing a shaky breath before closing his eyes.
As Katara watched, his body tensed up and began to quiver-in fear?-before he seemed to get a grip, or at least outwardly.
And then, placing his teeth together, he began to make the piping cry. Compared to Hou's or Shuai's, it was a clumsy, amateurish thing. But it still caught the attention of the thing he'd opened his mind to.
To Katara's amazement, she saw some of the bees begin to peel away from the blossoms in the garden or just arrive out of nowhere, and fly toward him.
They clustered about two chi above the Avatar's head, about a hundred in all, a buzzing, shifting, golden cloud.
And then, opening his eyes and taking another fortifying breath, he said, "I think I'm ready."
He piped again, and the great bees formed a ring in the air around his seated figure, buzzing in a slow circle.
"Great Agni," Hou gasped in awe. "I've never seen someone connect to the Sisterhood and master it that quickly!"
Meanwhile, Katara just gaped as some of the bees then left the circle and gathered on Aang's wrists to form living manacles of amber. She cringed, expecting him to be stung.
And it wasn't like Aang was entirely unafraid either. She could see the apprehension on his face and the way his arms shook.
But the bees did nothing.
Returning to the air, the bees hovered around Aang as he stood up. Then they all gathered tightly together to form a crude character in the air-the first character of Aang's name!
After that incredible display, he then said casually, "All right, you ladies can go," with a little laugh.
And at that, the bees dispersed to continue their duties of honey making and pollen gathering.
Shifting his attention back to the others, his gray eyes were wide with delight as he exclaimed "Wow! That was one of the coolest, coolest things I have ever done!"
"And one of the most extraordinary," the equally impressed waterbender added. "Do you think I could do it?"
"Actually Katara, I don't think that would be a good idea," Aang replied, shaking his head. "For one thing, you and most other people would probably need at least several days of practice to get any good at it. And even at that...well, it's really freaky, especially when you focus on just a bit of a hive."
"You mean the crazy colors and stuff?"
"Not just that. Each bee...alone, she has absolutely no self. There's nothing there."
"Aang, are you saying each individual bee basically has no soul?"
"Yeah," the airbender nodded uneasily. "They don't even exist on their own. They're not whole."
"Wow, that's a seriously creepy thought," Toph commented.
"Yeah, I'm not sure I want to make contact with a group mind like that anymore," a fidgeting Katara agreed. "And anyway, our original purpose was to buy some honey."
"You won't be going and telling everyone that the Avatar, 'enemy of the glorious Fire Nation,' is here after we leave, will you?" Aang warily inquired of the Fong Fas as he shared a tense, worried glance with the waterbender.
"We're no squealers," Gang assured him with a congenial smile.
"He's not lying either," Toph confirmed.
"That's right," Hou chimed in. "Not everyone in the Fire Nation is blinkered to the function you serve as a restorer and maintainer of balance, Avatar Aang," she told him, lips curving in a smile both supportive and wise.
"And as beekeepers, we know all about balance and partnerships," Gang added. "We protect and house our bees, move their hives to different places on the farm, and they protect us and our stock too. They take nectar and pollen from the flower, but also help it make love to other blooms as they fly between them to produce fruit and nuts. The bees teach about working together, giving and taking in equal measure."
"Giving and taking in equal measure," Aang pondered thoughtfully. "That's a great attitude to have actually."
"Mmm-hmm," Gang slowly nodded in agreement.
"You really do love your bees, don't you?" Toph remarked in wonder. "Like dogs!"
"Deeply," Shuai admitted. "And even though it's part of the arrangement, to say nothing of how we make our living, I don't think you guys can ever truly know how bad it makes us feel when the time comes to use our Firebending to make smoke, flush them out of the log with it, and then relieve them of their wax and honey."
"Oh, I think I can imagine," Toph replied.
"They get very upset and traumatized about it," Xiang said regretfully. "But like my brother said, it's just part of the deal."
"Sorry to change the subject," her mother cut in, "but let's put our bees out of mind for the moment and give these nice kids what they really came for."
Turning, she told them, "We keep the honey jars in a room on this floor, in the right wing. Follow me."
With Aang in the lead and Toph trailing behind, the waterbender did just that.
Seated in rows on shelves or tables, the honey was sold in glazed pots that ranged in size from as big as a melon to as small as a man's fist. There were also candles, soaps, and other products made of beeswax, but Katara had no interest in those.
Ultimately she bought four of the fist-sized pots, one of clover honey, one of acacia, and one of plum blossom for their group, as well as a pot of mint honey as a gift for Piandao in return for training Sokka.
They then bid farewell to the Fong Fas, this extraordinary and eerie family of beekeepers, bowing and thanking them for the honey, for the nice lunch, and the enlightening experience they'd had.
The farmers and their progeny had bid them good luck on their continued journey and had accompanied them to the front gate to see the trio off.
After bowing one last time, Katara and her companions had parted from them and begun walking away down the dirt road, stopping once to exchange a final wave and shout of "Goodbye! Pleased to meet you!" with the family.
Even after the farmhouse was out of sight, the Fong Fas continued to accompany them.
Like striped lumps of polished amber, perhaps 300 members of the Golden Sisterhood swirled about the, and to Katara at least, it seemed like they were laughing, a squeaking, good natured sound.
It was only when they began to approach the boundary of the Fong Fa's land that the swarm began to disperse.
Before they did though, the bees did one last mind boggling thing that stopped the waterbender, Toph, and Aang dead in their tracks, eyes wide and mouths hanging open as they turned toward each other.
"Did you...did you just hear what I thought I heard guys?" Toph said slowly.
"I think I heard the bees actually say something," Katara responded.
"Me too," the airbender confirmed. "It was faint and screechy, but I swear I heard them say, 'It was a delight to have met you, Avatar!'"
"Yeah, and it wasn't one of the Fong Fa's voices either Twinkletoes!"
After this main chapter, there will be an epilouge involving Piandao.
You can see a good picture of a dou li, the hat Gang was wearing, here: servlet/themonkeyking/the-3882/BAMBOO-FARMERS-HAT-Hand/Detail
Honeybee queens produce a quacking, tooting sound called piping both shortly before leaving their cells and for a brief time after breaking free. Queens that have been bred also pipe for a bit after being released into a hive. It's thought to be a way of attracting support from the workers while also intimidating other virgin queens in the hive, letting them know that she's more than willing to engage them for the crown. And as mentioned, just before a hive swarms to seek out a new home, some workers will pipe as they rush about to get their sisters excited and ready for the big move. In the Avatarverse though, I have piping serve another function as well for the queen.
The willingness shown by the bees to protect the Fong Fa farmstead is even more amazing when you consider that a honeybee dies after stinging, thanks to the massive internal bleeding caused by having her venom sack ripped out of her backside.
A pumapard is a real creature, a hybrid between a cougar and a leopard. You can see photos at a site called Messybeast. I only made them bigger for this fic.
Both slow slicing, or lingchi, and the lead treatment were ghastly forms of capital punishment in ancient China. In the first, the condemned would be lashed to a wooden post or frame, given a bunch of opium to get them all stoned, and then-well, the name of the method speaks for itself. As for what Toph called the lead treatment, it involved making the person eat lead. Liquid lead.
Finally, the reason why the swarm came into the farmhouse without any of the family piping was partly because the bees smelt the honey, and partly because they were just entering the house to check things out together, like a dog wandering into some random room in his master's house.