We’re going to ride elephant koi, he said; We’re going to have a lot of fun, he said.
Renjun rubs up and down Chenle’s arms in a fruitless attempt to warm the shivering boy, who had hurled straight from the ocean and basically barrelled into Renjun's arms after some giant sea cucumber had attempted to eat his ride. In retrospect Renjun probably should have stopped him before he decided to make some overgrown goldfish his new mode of transport.
“Where we’re going you won’t need pants!” Chenle had declared earlier when the trio caught sight of a small Earth Kingdom Island. He’d shrugged the pair he was wearing off and thrown it down Kun’s side with a flourish, then he proceeded to give both Jaemin and Renjun a heart attack by basically jumping off the saddle mid-flight and free-falling hundreds of metres into the sea below. Renjun was going to have to have a little talk with Chenle concerning flight safety. And cardiovascular health. And the dangers of unknown sea life.
“What the hell was that?” Renjun directs the question at Jaemin as his best friend scales down the tree he was perched on and lands on Kun’s saddle. Jaemin peers out at the long shadow in the blue, the elephant koi were long gone by now, and the waves deceptively calm, but he wasn’t about to pretend that Chenle didn’t give all three (five?) of them a fright when he almost turned into fish food.
Very expensive fish food. Jaemin wonders if Avatar meat tasted better than normal humans, maybe more fluffy and spirit-y?
The Avatar in question shakes his head, Renjun doesn’t flinch when cold water bounces off Chenle’s blond curls, “I d-don’t know.” Renjun holds the shivering boy a bit tighter in an attempt to pass his body heat on to him somehow. A sick Airbender really didn’t sound nice to deal with.
Jaemin throws a thick blanket he procured from Kun’s saddle to Renjun, who catches it and drapes it around Chenle. He rifles around the saddle some more before pulling out one of Chenle’s spare pants, and he tosses it at the younger, who cackles when Jaemin's throw hits the mark, Jaemin finds himself smiling in response.
“Let’s not stick around to find out.” Jaemin returns to the matter at hand and decides that he doesn’t want to learn how his companion tastes like, and he probably wouldn’t be able to ask the creature that would sample the goods anyway, “Time to hit the road.”
“Or you could stay awhile.”
Before Jaemin can turn to entertain that suggestion, there was a blur of green, and the world turned black.
Jaemin is considerably unimpressed to open his eyes and find that his world is still black and that he’s bound to a pillar. He is substantially relieved though, to hear Renjun’s quiet, shuddering breaths and feel Chenle squirm next to him, that was one step in the right direction: his friends were alive at least.
“Renjun-hyung? Jaemin-hyung? You’re not hurt right?”
Jaemin can hear the pout in his voice. He marvels at how he's already familiarized with Chenle’s mannerisms. He just knows Chenle probably has his head down, cheeks fluffed out in a pout, and probably is blaming the big fish (and the giant eel, and Kun, and probably the innocent trees, anything but himself) for getting them caught.
At least their kidnappers were not entirely barbaric as to gag them, they were off to a great start.
“They’re not hurt, no, but that can change quite quickly.”
As Jaemin whips his head to the general direction of the voice, his blindfold is torn away. His eyes water at the sudden assault of sunlight, he blinks to clear his vision.
They are tied to a pillar, but their kidnap is a lot more public than he’d expected. What looks to be an entire village stares back at him as he scans his surroundings. The pillar with the three of them is surrounded by dozens of men with painted faces, all decked in full armour and matching wary glares.
He finally puts a face to the voice. The man in front of him looks deceptively young. Even through copious amounts of face paint he can see high cheekbones, full cheeks and slanted eyes, not unlike a cat’s. The man looks shorter than he is, but judging from the way he holds himself Jaemin hazards a guess that he was probably military trained. His body looks strong and lithe, his stance reminds him of a coiled spring, and despite his advantage of height Jaemin doesn’t dare take him on in a fight, he's seen enough warriors to know the man in front of him was definitely one.
“You three have some explaining to do, and if you don’t answer all our questions we’re throwing you all back to the Unagi.”
Appearances mean nothing, Jaemin had learnt, Chenle was the most youthful hundred and sixteen year old ("Sixteen!" Chenle had protested in a deafening shriek "Hyung, I'm just sixteen, I still get acne and I'm not wrinkly yet!" ) he had ever met, and will likely ever meet, but unlike Chenle who is all sunshine and rainbows, the baby-face of this man does nothing to deter the aura of authority he exudes. Jaemin knows not to let his guard down, and judging from how tense Renjun is next to him, Renjun had picked up on it as well.
“Is that what the thing just now is?”
Damn, Chenle didn’t get the memo.
Chenle’s face is glowing with wonder, eyes alight with curiosity as he leans forward in his binds, “I saw a huuuuge eye in the water, and I waved to it! But he tried to eat me… I guess the Usagi doesn’t want to be my friend after all…”
Jaemin doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. In other circumstances he would have cooed and petted Chenle on the head for being adorable, and Renjun would have given him a noogie on his big golden head for entirely missing the point. But if the sheathed swords at the hips of these warriors were any indication, they weren’t here to bond over Chenle’s cute antics.
While the leader in front doesn’t look amused (which, Jaemin respects as a soldier but come on, does he kick puppies in his spare time? How can someone be so stoic?) at the corner of the group Jaemin sees one of the younger looking Warriors suppress a grin. He notes it down in his head. An edge is an edge, he can use a bit of leverage, and if Chenle can move him or maybe deafen everyone with his signature dolphin scream there’s a chance they can get out of this alive.
“Tell us the truth, who are you and what are you doing here? Are you spies from the Fire Nation?” The leader brings his attention back, and before Jaemin can answer sensibly, Chenle interjects.
“No! We’re not spies, um, sir. It’s my fault, sir, I wanted to ride the elephant koi… I’m sorry for coming here… I never thought it would be populated, I wasn’t thinking, really-“
The leader cuts Chenle off by unsheathing his blade and shoving the tip to Chenle’s chest. Jaemin’s heart jolts in his chest as Chenle stutters and stops talking. All the Warriors but the younger one unsheathe their blades, and Jaemin can tell by the heavy breathing next to him that Renjun must be hyperventilating by now.
“And how do we know if you’re not lying? We’ve kept Kangta Island out of the war for so long, we intend to keep it that way.”
Chenle, bless him, brightens again. “Kangta? This island is named for Avatar Kangta? I know him!”
Another Warrior speaks up and scoffs, “Yeah right, and I’m Avatar Boa, you little shrimp! Avatar Kangta passed away four hundred years ago, no normal human can possibly survive for four hundred years! Minseok,” he addresses his leader, “looks like the Unagi will have three more liars to feed on today.”
Chenle frowns, “But he’s me! I’m the Avatar!”
The leader, or Minseok, holds up a hand to stop his subordinate, but Jaemin can hear the displeasure in his voice, “The last Avatar was an Airbender who either died or disappeared following the Fire Nation raid on the Temples, if you had an inch of decency, you would not dare desecrate the memory of the Avatar in front of us.”
Jaemin’s heart jumps out of his throat as the Warrior next to Renjun raises his blade and other Warriors move to mirror the action.
"Hyung!" The young Warrior earlier speaks up from the edge of the group, his voice threaded with nervousness. Jaemin doesn't miss how their leader softens a fraction of a degree, "Hyung, they might be telling the truth, the boy is blond, that's an Air Nomad trait-"
"Hair can be a deception or a wig! We'll know whether or not it's real hair after we take them down!" Minseok's right hand man barks, "Attack!"
At times like this he’s grateful he’s a quick thinker and an even quicker speaker.
“Chenle! Airbend, now!”
At his cue, a strong waft of wind surrounds their pillar and disarms the Warriors. The currents force the painted men back before knocking them down with a clatter. Jaemin finally lets relief wash over him as Chenle slips past his binds and jumps several dozen metres into the air, bolstered by the wind. The crowd gasps at this display of power and Jaemin silently relishes the stunned expression on Minseok’s face.
When Chenle finally lands gracefully on his feet to stand in front of him and Renjun, he holds out his arms to shield them both, his face is uncharacteristically serious.
“I am the Avatar. I'm a real Air Nomad. I wasn’t lying. I don’t mean to anger any Ignagi, and I definitely would not insult my own past life. Please don’t hurt my friends or I’ll have to fight back.”
The Warriors on the ground look up at him in surprise and awe. Disbelief colours Minseok’s voice “It’s true, You- you! The Avatar is back!”
“Yeah!” Jaemin really needed to ask Chenle sometime where he kept all that eagerness and energy in that small frame of his. Was it the Avatar spirit? Or was Chenle secretly blessed by some Magical Dolphin Spirit of Vitality?
“Now check this out!” Chenle produces three marbles from the pocket in his sleeve, and Airbends to spin them in a parlour trick that neither Renjun nor Jaemin had been very impressed with. The crowd cheers, however, and Chenle preens.
Well at least these people weren’t hard to please.
Chenle captivating the village is great and all, but Jaemin really just wants to get out of their binds. He's losing feeling in his lower arms from how tight the binding is, that's not a good sign at all.
He meets gazes with the unnamed young Warrior, and it's like a switch clicks when the boy's eyes light up in understanding. Without waiting for a cue from Minseok, he strides up to the pillar. With a flick of his wrist, he produces two gleaming golden fans and cuts the rope binding them. Renjun slides to the ground, legs failing from fear and relief. Jaemin scuttles over to give Renjun a hug as he exchanges nods of acknowledgment with the boy.
The young Warrior turns to Chenle, and literally folds himself into half with how deep his bow is.
“Avatar, we're sorry for binding you and your friends, we just wanted to protect our village from danger. If you do stay, we’ll make it up to you. It’s an honour, especially on this island, to serve the Avatar.” His voice trembles with reverence, but when he looks up his eyes are swimming with fascination.
Chenle just gives him a sweet smile, the one that squeezes his eyes into a line oh he’s so cute and pulls him up, Chenle clasps his hands in his small ones, “It’s okay, you freed my friends, that’s what counts! I’m Chenle, I’m not Kangta really, please don’t bow, you don’t owe me anything!”
The boy blinks owlishly, Jaemin stifles a laugh- this boy will probably be next in Chenle’s ever-ongoing mission to befriend the world. True to his guess, Chenle continues, “Stop being formal with me, you look barely older than Renjun-hyung and Jaemin-hyung anyway. Just be comfortable, I want to be your friend instead, what’s your name?”
Minseok’s mouth is definitely open by now, “Mark. My name is Minhyung, but Mark- I’m Mark.” The boy finishes lamely, pink tinting his cheeks.
Even Renjun is holding back snickers as Chenle takes that as a cue to go full on, “Mark-hyung then! Do you like fans? Is that why you use them? Can I see them? It’s really shiny! Is it real gold? Do they bend? OH it’s sharp! Why a fan though? Is it that hot here? If you’re hot you should take off your armour! Or I can take you out to a fly with Kun! Have you met Kun? Do you want to meet Kun? I promise he doesn’t eat people like that Ignani!”
Laughter bubbles at his lips before he can stop it. If it means being able to watch Chenle harass someone else like this, he wouldn’t mind staying a while. Mark answers each and every enquiry with an exasperated sort of fondness, and a smile that tugging at the corner of his lips. Mark is already charmed by Chenle as who he is, rather than the all-powerful Avatar, just as he and Renjun had been.
As the people bustle to carry out their duties to prepare for the Avatar’s stay, Mark had stayed behind to accompany them with a nod of approval from Minseok.
They learn that Mark, along with the rest of the Kangta Warriors were all non-benders that specialised in combat. They learn that the swords were intimidating, but the Kangta Warrior’s real strength lay in the pair of sleek and sharp golden fans that they carry about. Jaemin later learns that despite the fan’s delicate appearance, he is barely able to hold his own against Mark with his spear before their short duel ends with his weapon on the ground and the sharp edge of an open fan pressed to his jugular. Chenle apparently is also a Very Loud Clapper.
They learn that Mark had lost his parents to a voyage in the sea due to an untimely storm and was practically raised by Minseok and the rest of the Warriors, that he was named Minhyung by his parents, but since he could babble he'd just said Mak, Mak over and over again and the Warriors thought it was a waste not to call him that, by the time he'd grown enough to protest, it had stuck. They learn that he's barely a year older than Renjun and Jaemin, at nineteen, had always felt lonely because of the different life he led from other kids, he longed to venture beyond the blue to see the rest of the world. They find despite Mark is older than all of them, Chenle finds his mannerisms adorable, and Airbends a lot more than usual just to catch Mark's wide-eyed expression.
They also witness that not only is Mark incredibly susceptible to Chenle’s infectious energy, even Minseok, despite his frosty demeanor, is not immune to the young Avatar either. Chenle manages to make Minseok crack a smile when he accidentally blows up the statue of Kangta in the main square when he was trying to impress Mark by using his fans. Mark spends a solid ten laughing and hitting Renjun who was rolling on the floor next to him.
“Bet you seal jerky that Mark will ask to join by the end of the week.” Renjun says quietly to Jaemin, eyes soft with amusement as they watch Chenle tap Kun on the nose to wake the bison up. Kun sneezes, blowing Chenle and Mark into bushes several feet away. They share a laugh as Chenle tries to Airbend to clear both of them of Air Bison snot while convincing Mark to hitch a ride on Kun.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be fun! Way more fun than riding the elephant koi, for one Kun won’t be eaten by the Iguana anytime soon! And his snot can't reach his back, it's the safest place from Bison sneezes!”
Spirits, we're a good 40 yards away, this kid is so loud.
"What about Minseok?"
Renjun scoffs at his question, "Are you kidding me? Minseok practically adopted Chenle in half a day, he's basically given us Mark's hand in marriage."
Jaemin watches Minseok come by, he chuckles and ruffles both Mark's and Chenle's hair, and orders both of them to clean up with a fond smile. He shrugs, true enough.
He contemplates the deal, then meets Renjun’s eyes and grins.
“Give it three days.”
Little did they know it really didn't take three days.
Two days later, the Fire Nation coast guard catches wind of the Avatar’s location. They devastate Kangta Island, and their group is forced to flee.
Mark does join them, but rather than him bidding the village a whole-hearted farewell, it was Minseok pushing all four of them to safety, and Mark reluctantly clambering on Kun.
It takes one look at Mark’s teary eyes as they were flying away before Chenle decides to display his free-fall act again. This time, he rides the Unagi instead of the Koi, and manages to coax water out of the aggressive eel to douse the flames on Kyoshi Island. It earns him a heartfelt hug from Mark, and a huge lecture and long overdue noogie from Renjun.
Jaemin however, can barely manage a smile. Ever observant, he had witnessed a messenger hawk sent off by the coast guard to the general direction of the Fire Nation. If his speculations are right, that letter isn’t going to just stop at the hands of the coast guard’s commanding officer. Chenle’s existence will finally be made known to the rest of the world, and to the Fire Lord himself.
They aren’t covert anymore, the Fire Nation will be sending their full forces to stop them and capture Chenle. It will be a bloody fight to the North.
Jaemin wins the bet in the end and they gain an immeasurable ally in Mark, but the seal jerky is bland and tasteless as he worries it on his tongue.