"And they have the best rides there!" Aang exclaimed, eyes bright and wide. "They have this great catapult that throws you up into the air—"
Sokka started from his reverie. "Whoa, wait a minute there, Aang, I am not getting onto a ride that would normally be used for smashing up castles," he said.
"Anyhow, aren't we a little behind schedule? This detour is going to delay us at least a day." Katara said as she counted through their meager supplies. At the rate they were traveling, they'd have to stop again to get more food soon.
"Guys, it'll totally be worth it," Aang grinned widely, leaning back against Appa's wide cushioned saddle. He watched the clouds float past, bending a small nearby one into the shape of a duck. "The world can wait for me – I mean, we're still kids. Sure, I'm the Avatar and all that, but there aren't any rules that say I can't have a little bit of fun before I save the world." Aang’s smile shrunk and he suddenly grew morose. He turned over onto his belly and ran his fingers through Appa's thick white fur.
Katara and Sokka glanced sidelong at each other. Their frequent stops to ride exotic animals and visit Aang’s “important” landmarks made the entire journey seem like one long vacation, albeit a dangerous one, with Fire Nation on their trail, spirit realm encounters, cutthroats in their path...
"Anyways, I really wanted you guys to see Ho'Wan Island," Aang said sitting up again. "See, I don't know when I'm gonna get another chance to go once I start doing my Avatar stuff. I was hoping ... it's kind of a special day..." Aang squirmed in his seat, not making eye contact with either sibling.
"What, like some kind of Airbender holiday or somethin'?" Sokka asked.
"Weeelll, not exactly..." Aang hesitated. "It's my birthday."
The siblings stopped short. Of course the boy had a birthday: being an Avatar didn’t mean he hadn’t been born a regular kid. "Aang, why didn't you say something? Of course we'll go to Ho'Wan with you!” Katara smiled at the little monk. “It'll be our treat!”
“Really? Great!” and before Sokka could object to spending good food money on some stupid carnival, Aang leapt onto the great flying bison's shaggy neck, snapped up the reins from Momo’s slack grip, and steered their mount northeast in a wide arc.
“They're heading northeast," Prince Zuko lowered the brass telescope from his good eye and barked orders to the crew to follow.
"Do you think he knows we're following him?" Zuko's stout Uncle Iroh ambled up behind him, daintily sipping a cup of tea.
Zuko watched the almost indiscernible speck in the sky that was the Avatar's bison. He hissed lowly. “Can't say for sure. We've been following them for days now just out of their sight, and they haven't shown any indication that they know we're on their trail.” Zuko gritted his teeth. “Til now.”
“Well, while we're waiting for them to catch on to us, why don't you come below deck and play a game of Pai-sho with me?"
Zuko wasn't listening. "Damn him! What is he thinking? Where is he going?" He dashed a fireball onto the ship's cold steel deck.
"You know what you need?" Iroh said over the lip of his teacup, ignoring his nephew's outburst. "You need to get out. Have some fun. A boy your age should be out playing sports and chasing girls, not planning strategic warfare."
Zuko whirled on his uncle. "I am NOT a boy!" A demonic halo of sparks and embers circled the prince’s head.
"Fine, fine, my mistake..." Iroh waved the ill-made comment off, and mentally settled himself for one of his nephew's long fiery speeches about honour, and how capturing the Avatar would help him regain his rightful place by his father’s side. They always came at moments like these, when Zuko was hot on the trail and frothing over capturing the Avatar.
Iroh lamented. Did his nephew really think his father, Fire Lord Ozai, would just welcome his son back from exile if Prince Zuko made him a present of a small child in chains? Reflecting, he doubted the young prince would have survived the first month of his banishment if he, a decorated general and respected Imperial family member, hadn’t decided to keep an eye on the scarred, spoiled prince. Raw with teenage angst and anguish, exiled from his homeland, and forced to chase a phantom – the long-lost Avatar – the sixteen-year-old prince had needed someone to guide him. Sill needed someone to guide him.
So the Great General Iroh had used his respected veteran status and convinced, bribed, coerced, or blackmailed enough personnel to sign on and man the Fire Prince’s small vessel for the long haul. Of course, the only reason most of the soldiers and crew was there was because they respected – or were afraid of – the Dragon of the West. No sane member of the Fire Nation would associate himself with the shamed, exiled Prince, especially one who ordered everyone around like dogs.
No, forgiveness was not part of Ozai’s personality, Iroh decided. He had never underestimated his brother’s ruthlessness. The horrid burn scar on the left side of his nephew’s face reminded him of that every day. He glanced surreptitiously at his Zuko’s disfigurement, sickly shiny in the morning sun, and waited for the “how I will regain my honour” speech.
But no such tirade came. A strange look was fixed to Zuko's face. The wrinkle in his brow had smoothed over, the jaw wasn’t clenched, and his golden eyes weren’t narrowed to slits. He almost seemed… calm.
“Prince Zuko?” A bead of panic welled in Iroh’s chest, thinking some assassin had taken the prince out with a deadly poison dart he hadn’t yet spotted. “Is everything…?”
“I’m not a boy… but the Avatar is!” Zuko whirled and headed to the upper deck, ascending the steps two at a time. His uncle followed in bewilderment. The prince hastily swept away the odds and ends resting on the pile of maps in the navigation room and pored over their location. At last he stopped and smiled.
“Uncle,” Zuko straightened, smirking ever so slightly. “I think you’re right about having some fun. And I think I know just where to go.”
“There it is!" Aang pointed to a string of islands on the ocean's blue horizon. The large, mountainous centre island winked in the sun, the crown jewel in a strand of glistening emeralds. "Next stop, Ho’Wan Island Carnival!"
As Appa glided towards the island's western end, the three children marveled at the structures they could see peeking out of the lush foliage and hilly terrain. Tall structures of steel and wood sketched out the skeletons of some fantastic-looking rides. Every now and then, they'd catch glimpses of small cable cars or racing pods or little boats zooming by on their rails or tracks or sluices or in freefall. A wonderful aroma of sweets and fried things wafted up from the island, intertwined with the musical chimes of whistles and bells. The closer they got, the wider Aang's eyes grew, the louder Sokka's stomach growled, and the more the three of them grinned.
Katara could see hundreds of people flowing through the carnival grounds, tiny flecks of bright colours weaving between the even more brightly coloured tents. But it wasn't just tents - there was a whole town down there, a permanent fairground for a year-round attraction. She began to wonder about how all the people were coming and going when a boat horn sounded. She looked and saw a massive ferry boat pulling into a dock on the north end of the island. It must have been big enough to carry hundreds of people.
Appa came to rest in a clearing near the edge of the forest. The trio nimbly clambered off and secured their gear while Momo scampered into the trees to forage for lemur fodder, and the giant bison gnawed contentedly on some long grasses.
"You two stay put and stay out of sight," Aang told his animal friends. "We'll be back soon."
The lemur and bison made noises in acknowledgement. Katara wondered how it was that Momo and Appa only understood Aang. When she had asked Momo to bring her water while she and Sokka were both ill, he had brought them everything but water. It must be an Airbender thing, she mused. They were, after all, the only traces left of the long-lost people. Perhaps Aang and the creatures had some kind of mental connection? Then again, birds of a feather, Katara chuckled to herself.
"C'mon Katara!" Sokka called. The boys had started ahead of her at a run. "Can't you smell the fair food?"