This is Chapter 4: The Returners
Title: Virtually a Princess
Summary: AU Katara is discovering a new virtual reality game that Sokka himself invented. Her relationships with her gaming group is complicated enough already, but with the in-game romance and relationships, reality and the game world is starting to mix. When a rogue hacker invades the system and Sokka disappears, Katara must find a way to seperate the reality from the fiction and find a way rescue her brother with the help of her allies from the game world.
--Virtually a Princess--
++Level 4: The Returners++Katara stumbled away from Axel, her fingers on her lips. She turned a murderous glare on her brother and marched quickly into the forest. She breezed past Jet, hoping he didn’t notice the tears that were welling up in her eyes. She scrubbed her lips with the back of her hand, and she cursed at Sokka in her head.
Her first kiss! To a guy she barely knew! In an online game no less!
She heard Jet’s voice behind her, but she was too confused and mortified to respond.
"Hey, wait." His voice was concerned and held a warning. "Don’t go too far. You’re a lower level than most of us. We don’t want you to get attacked out there on your own."
She heard him following her.
Okay, she told herself. It’s just a game, so it doesn’t count as a real kiss. She told herself that, and it helped ease her stinging feelings. Strangely, the kiss hadn’t been that bad, even if it was fake. She still needed to find a way to soothe her unrest, however. Then she heard it: the sound of rushing water. There was a stream somewhere out of sight hidden behind the trees to her right.
Water. Her element. That would soothe her tumultuous feelings.
With a smile on her face, she raced into the trees, leaping over the obstacles in her way. She heard an exclamation of surprise from Jet, who followed her into the woods. The water was like a siren, and it was calling her deeper into the trees.
She heard Jet shouting to her. After a few moments, far behind, she faintly heard the others in the group rushing through the undergrowth after her, but she only ran faster. After a run that seemed shorter than it actually was, she was almost there, and she knew that the next cluster of trees was all that stood between her and her element.
Katara broke out of the trees, and for a moment, the stronger light of the clearing blinded her. Her eyes quickly adjusted, however, and before her a small stream bubbled happily away from the towering volcano that she could still see over the tops of the trees.
She lifted a trail of water and let it dance around her. Some of the water froze into ice crystals, and the ice caught the sunlight beautifully. For a few moments, surrounded only by the sound of water and engrossed in the process of bending the water around her, she was utterly happy, but the peace didn’t last very long. Almost at the same moment, a monster came thundering out of the underbrush as something in one of the trees swung into Katara, grabbing her roughly by the waist.
Frustrated anger at her rescuer clawed at her, because she was sick and tired of being the character everyone felt the need to save. She heard her rescuer gasp in shock as her foot connected with his shin with enough force that she was dropped in his surprise. Katara hit the ground rolling to lessen the blow before realizing that there wasn’t one. It was odd not feeling pain but still feeling everything else.
Katara shrugged off her thoughts of her rescuer and her lack of pain as she turned her attention to the monster that had attacked her. Nothing like a good fight to work off steam, Katara thought to herself. She smiled as she realized it was only a hogmonkey. Her waterbending could easily deal with this poor creature. Taking a deep stance, she pulled her hands into the air, a trail of water following her fingers. With a twitch of her fingers, the water froze, and a smirk lit her features as she sent a volley of ice at the monstrous creature that was bounding towards her.
The ice struck it and melted back into water as a ‘-20 HP,’ hovered in the air near her opponent. It screeched in anger and pain, but it wasn’t down yet. It charged at her, and although she dodged to her left, the creature managed to barely hit her arm. ‘-15 HP,’ floated in the air near Katara’s head. She growled and sent more ice flying at the screaming hogmonkey. The ice connected with it, a ‘-16 HP,’ floating nearby in the air, but it still had some fight left. It charged at her, and Katara bent some water into small ice daggers. When the hogmonkey was relatively close, and she buried the ice into the animal’s side as it passed her.
It didn’t fade even after the third attack, instead preparing to come at her again. Before it could charge her, however, a strange hooked weapon connected with the monster with a dull thud. ‘-50 HP Just Kill,’ floated near the hogmonkey’s head. It fell to the ground and faded into the air with a final screech.
Katara looked at Jet with eyes still lit with the excitement of the fight. "I could’ve finished it," she said, a fake pout gracing her lips.
Katara lifted an eyebrow and smiled. "Oh, come on. I didn’t hurt you."
"No," he said, walking towards her with a confident swagger that Katara was beginning to recognize as characteristic of Jet. "But if it had happened in real life, I bet you would have."
He stopped near her, and she smiled up at him, teasing challenge in her eyes. "Yeah. Probably so. I can handle myself."
He chuckled again and said, "With that ice, you could be our Shiva. The tough, beautiful Ice Queen." His eyes traveled down her character once. "Except, perhaps, with more clothing."
Katara felt her face heat up slightly. Shiva didn’t have much clothing in any of the Final Fantasy games, and Katara was much too modest for Shiva’s outfits. She met Jet’s amused stare with her own. She opened her mouth to retort, but a shout interrupted their conversation.
"Where are you guys? Katara! Jet!" Sokka sounded annoyed.
Without taking his eyes from hers, Jet shouted, "Follow the sound of water."
"Should’ve figured," came Sokka’s sarcastic reply.
A few moments later, Sokka and the rest of the gaming party came through the trees, and Jet took a few steps away from her. Sokka made a strange face at his sister before marching over to her.
"You and your magic water," he cried in an exasperated voice. "Let’s get back to the trail. We’d probably be to the first village already if you hadn’t run off like a crazy person."
Katara huffed at her brother and soaked him with a wave from the stream. Sokka made that strange angry sound—a mix between a shout and a groan— in his throat that always amused her. Bubbly laughter came from behind Sokka, though, and Katara looked up to see Tennin approach the soaked boy.
"Your character is even cuter when he’s wet." Tennin laughed again and played with the Sokka’s dripping hair. Sokka’s anger faded into that silly contented look that he usually has around females, but the earth beneath him suddenly shifted. He hit the ground roughly, the water in his hair and clothes creating a small puddle. When Sokka rose to his feet, dirt and muddy patches coated his face, hair, and clothing.
"TOPH!!!" he cried, his voice cracking in exasperated defeat and his noble features twisting into a very Sokka-like expression of distress.
Toph shrugged her shoulders. "Are we going or not?"
Sokka sighed and began the trek back to the trail. Katara watched the rest of the group go ahead of her, and she turned to gaze at the water in the stream longingly. Her character didn’t seem to carrying anything in which she could transport water. Pulling a thin ribbon of water into the air wistfully, she turned to follow the others. She was startled to see that Axel stood at the edge of the forest waiting for her.
He seemed to dither uncertainly a moment when he looked at her before clearing his throat and saying, "You have a spell to conjure water. I helped Sokka with the character maps and the story so…"
Katara, confused, tapped her necklace and peered at the strange spells on her abilities list.
"Which…?" she started to ask.
"Mizu. It means water in an old, formal language of the Fire Nation."
Katara’s eyebrows twisted in confusion. "I didn’t know that the Fire Nation ever had a different language from everyone else."
Axel sputtered for a moment, seeming to look for an appropriate response. "It was only used by the upper class so… not even many people from the Fire Nation know that."
Katara smiled awkwardly at him. "Thanks. For helping me, that is."
"Ah… you’re welcome." He turned and started to disappear into the trees. He stopped and looked at her again. "And I’m sorry. About all the awkwardness."
For some unidentifiable reason to Katara, Axel’s face became frustrated and angry. His voice got louder, more annoyed. "There’s no reason it should be awkward. I mean, it’s just a game, right?!"
He seemed to be talking more to himself that to her, and Katara watched, bemused, as he turned and stomped into the forest with a strange air of offended dignity.
She followed behind him, distractedly watching the retreating back of the boy in front of her.
The monsters in the forest were low level enemies and were easily exterminated by the large party. Going through the forest was fun, and with the many random battles, Katara was thankfully spared from more embarrassment from her brother’s teasing. Leveling up was a slow process, however, and Katara decided that she needed to level up on her own after the others logged off.
They had just defeated a strange group of wolf-like creatures that Katara had never seen before when an arrow struck the ground in front of her.
A low buzz and a familiar voice in her ear was her warning before her limbs were no longer her own. Axel was immediately in front of her, swords drawn. She was surprised when her own character reached for her dagger and took on a rather solid defensive stance.
A group dropped out of the trees, surrounding the party on all sides. Though the members of the group were of various statures, they all wore similar masks and armor.
"Who are you? What are you doing in this part of the forest?" a rough voice snapped. Katara realized it was coming from the apparent leader of the group that stood directly in front of her. This person had wild hair that spiked out in odd directions. The face was mostly obscured by a black mask.
"We are just a simple group of travelers on our way to the capital," Axel said without dropping his aggressive posture.
"Simple travelers, huh? With those kind of weapons?" The wild-haired individual stopped and seemed to consider them. "Well if you’re going to the capital, you’re going to need that kind of weaponry."
Axel’s expression contorted with confusion.
Then Jet’s voice came from behind Katara. "Smellerbee?"
The masked person jerked around to peer at Jet.
"Mamouru?! It’s you!" The mask fell to the ground revealing a girl with wide, round eyes and red markings on her face. The group dropped their aggressive stances as the girl—Smellerbee?—shouted, "Guys, Mamouru’s back!!"
The group lead Katara’s party back to a town hidden in the forest. A lift was lowered and the party was pulled upwards into an amazing hideaway in the treetops.
The words "The Returners" in a flowing elegant calligraphy floated in the air in front of the group before Katara finally regained control of her body.
Katara approached Smellerbee with a smile. The smaller girl turned and smiled back at her.
"Mamouru organized us to help him find the dragon with the jewel in its forehead," Smellerbee said proudly.
"Oh, then what are you doing here now?" Katara asked pleasantly.
"You must be the princess that he said he had to help," Smellerbee continued as if Katara hadn’t spoken.
"Yes, well…" Katara looked at her brother who was unsuccessfully trying to suppress his giggles.
"After Mamouru left, we formed ‘The Returners’ to protect the freedom of the people of this country."
Katara realized that this character was a NPC—a non-player character. She felt silly for talking to a NPC as though it were a player, but instead of being embarrassed, she was confused.
"If she’s an NPC, who’s voice acting this character?"
Jet laughed. "I got some of my friends to do some of the voices for us. We didn’t want all the side characters to talk exclusively with text bubbles or electronic voices. These characters are named after my friends."
"Oh, I see."
Smellerbee turned her wide eyes on them one final time and said, "When you’re ready, we’re having a meeting at that center cabin over there." She pointed at the largest tree house in the area before falling still. When Katara walked past Smellerbee, she listened as the girl prattled, "Mamouru organized us to help him find the dragon with the jewel in its forehead." Katara almost laughed. They had amazing virtual technology, but NPCs never changed.
The Returners treetop village was amazing, Katara decided. The group had broken apart and explored alone or in pairs. Katara was exploring alone, and she had found a roof onto which she could climb. She found a small glass ball that claimed to be a vial of Healing Waters. She shoved it into the small bag that now hung at her side that she had purchased from one of the vendors. When she swung down from the building’s roof, she found herself face to face with Axel. In his surprise, he fell onto his backside, and he peered up at her with a strange expression.
He stood and dusted himself off with as much decorum as he could. In a gruff, self-conscious voice, he said, "We’re grouping up at the center house to get the next scene."
He then brushed past her without sparing her a second glance. She shrugged and followed him to the center building.
Almost as soon as she entered the building, the cut scene began, and she found herself sitting at a long table in between Jet and Axel. Smellerbee was at the head of the room, and she began the meeting.
Immediately, Axel said, "You mentioned unrest in the capital. What is going on?"
Smellerbee frowned. "When you disappeared, Emperor, there was a power struggle in the capital since you had no children of your own and the nephew that you appointed as heir is still young. With all the fighting, the capital was in chaos. But then this man came out of nowhere who said he’d been chosen by your mother who now resides in the Heaven as the heir to the throne."
"And the people believed him?" Sokka asked.
"He made some great display of celestial power, and the citizens bowed to him. The capital is controlled by his thugs, and conditions within the city are bad. The city and the surrounding villages are being robbed and ransacked by the new dictator. With no one to protect them, the city and the villages will eventually be destroyed."
"So that’s why you’re here," Toph said. "You’re protecting the nearby villages."
The girl at the head of the room nodded. "Yeah, Mamouru had organized us, and after he got the jewel, he left in search of the other Knights. Soon after we left Mamouru, we found out that the Princess and the Emperor had disappeared a few weeks earlier while we were at sea. The city was in already being torn apart by the new dictator, and we knew that we were powerful enough to make a difference."
"But nothing is going to change unless someone reinstates the real Emperor," Tennin said, her voice stern. Katara found that the tone was odd coming from such a happy, chirpy voice.
"She’s right," Jet said, gazing sadly at Smellerbee. "Something has to be done."
Katara was surprised when she herself began to speak. "We’ll do something about it. We have the real Emperor with us."
All eyes leveled on her, and her face heated up. "I mean… it’s the only thing we can do, right?"
A hand took hers under the table and a booming voice said, "As my last act as Emperor of this land, I shall reinstate my true heir."
Katara glanced up at Axel, and she felt confusion on her face. "You mean…?"
He smiled at her. "My place has always been and will always be by your side, dearest Princess of the Moon, but before I can relinquish my throne to follow you, I need to set my kingdom in order."
Katara nodded at him, a happy warmth spreading through her.
"Then to the capital city we shall go," Aang said just before the patching chip released the characters from their strange song and dance.
--End Level 4--
I know the whole ‘He stole my first kiss’ is oh-so-shojo. Certainly a manga/anime/game cliché but I felt that Katara would be angry about kissing a stranger. The mortification would definitely be worse, though if it were her first kiss.
The ‘old, formal language,’ of the Fire Nation is actually going to be Japanese. Because that’s what I’m taking at my university, and it’s easier than inventing a language. I don’t figure that’s too out of character for the show since so much is in kanji and has so many Asian influences.
I find NPCs fun. I think it’s perfectly ridiculous when they repeat themselves a million times, but the idea that even in the virtual reality world NPCs are still confined to a few key phrases is rather funny to me.
‘The Returners’ is a freedom fighter group in Final Fantasy 6. When I was writing that bit, I was hearing their theme song in my head. Haha. Mixing fandom is fun.
For those who don’t play Final Fantasy, the bit about Shiva will likely not make much sense. She's likely one of my favorite summon creatures/aeons/espers/ect., but when all that stands between you and an embarrassing bit of accidental nudity is a bit of conveniently place ice, you need to put some more clothes on lol
Hope you enjoyed this chapter! ^.^