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Hymn of Valor

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After returning from the theater, everyone found themselves drifting from the beach house into the central courtyard. Sokka and Suki were splitting a cantabanana under the stars. Aang, hanging off the tiled roof, wanted the fresh air. Katara practiced her waterbending every night to wind down. Toph just wasn't tired. Zuko didn't want to be alone.

No one admitted they needed some time for the echoes of the audience's cheering to fade before they would be able to sleep. They did, however, approach the topic from a ninety degree angle: by mocking the play.

"They got my uniform's colors wrong," Suki said. "It's not like Avatar Kyoshi isn't well known."

Toph pointed out, "The actress playing you was a good lookalike, though."

Sokka nodded. "That's true!"

Toph waited.

When no one gave her the satisfactory response, she crossed her arms with a huff.

"Y'know," Aang said, feet dangling off an archway, "I bet we could easily tell better stories than that play."

Everyone agreed they could.

So a campfire was started and the friends gathered 'round to each share their own story. Since it was Zuko's father's house they were illegally squatting in, the prince was given the first turn.

Zuko faced his audience across the fire pit. Against the firelight, ominous shadows flickered across the rough texture of his scarred face. "A long time ago," he began, "before even the ancient walls of Ba Sing Se had been raised up, the children of fire faced a great disaster. Our homeland, once a lush continent guarded from Ice Kingdom raiders by the tyrant Sun Warriors, began to drown as the tide slowly rose... and never retreated."

"Oh wow," Toph said flatly. "Water. Scary."

Zuko shot her a dirty look only to remember such a gesture was pointless with her. "And by rose, I meant it kept rising. The people fled to the mountainsides, which in time became islands as the ocean waters chased after them. The Sun Warriors and their king-priests were cast down by the people for failing to protect them from the water spirits, who had melted the endless ice fields of the waterbenders' empire in a bid to drown the children of fire."

Sokka perked up. "We had an empire?"

"A cruel, merciless empire that covered the entire northern hemisphere."

"Niiiice."

Zuko pressed on, "As the people divided into a hundred islands and a hundred tiny kingdoms, it was the Fire Sages, priests who had turned their back on the old ways of human sacrifice and slavery, who traveled from island to island, carrying the flame of firebending and teaching the art.

"One day, two Fire Sages met halfway across a long, narrow bridge that straddled a thousand foot canyon. Neither man could pass the other, so for one man to pass the other would have to walk back the way they came. Both sages had urgent business that couldn't afford to be delayed, for both sages had given their word that they would be at certain places on a certain time. To turn back would be to break their honored word. So, to solve their dilemma, the two sages agreed to a duel. This is the origin of the agni kai."

Aang raised his hand. "Question!"

"Yes?"

"Why didn't one sage just, y'know, kneel down and let the other sage climb over him?"

"...Um...because it wouldn't be dignified?"

"Or," Sokka said, gesturing with two palms moving flat against each other, "why didn't they just kinda suck in their breath and slide past each other if the bridge was so narrow?"

Zuko fidgeted. "Same answer."

Suki asked, "And if they fought a firebender's duel, why didn't the bridge burn down and collapse and kill them both?"

"IT WAS A STONE BRIDGE, OKAY?"

"Meep," went Suki.

Sokka protectively put his arm over her shoulders and snuggled. "Well you should have said it was a stone bridge in the first place."

"Zuko's campfire story sucks," Toph declared. "All in favor that he never tells another one?"

There was a chorus of "ayes".

"All opposed?"

Zuko stood up. "Hey, well, nuts to you too!" He stalked off back into the beach house.

Sokka's stomach rumbled. "Mmm. I could go for some nuts."

Aang punched the air. "TO THE KITCHEN!"