The day-long journey from Earth King Toph's base to the ground where Ba Sing Se used to sprawl was quiet and tense. Toph didn't like boats, even though her rebels kept a small supply at Full Moon Bay, so the only way to walk to where Aang and this Long Feng were supposed to be without spending several weeks on the journey was a path known as the Serpent’s Pass.
So named because it was guarded by a giant sea serpent, according to Toph. Mai was all set to laugh, but then she saw the faces of the Earthebenders coming along on the trip, and remembered the Unagi back on Kyoshi Island. So instead she shut up and followed Toph's advice to complete the journey as quietly as possible.
It took a day and a night to travel the whole Pass. It was nothing more than a narrow path that rose up like a fin made of stone from a lake the size of an ocean, becoming so narrow at places that Mai had to press herself up against a wall and shuffle her feet to the side. At one point, the path fell down into the waters, and the only way to cross was a series of small stone platforms that Toph's people had raised in the past, allowing them to leap across one at a time. If the Fire Army ever tried to come this way, it would have to leave its tanks and heavy machinery behind, or else find a way to make them waterproof.
By the time the group reached the mainland again, the ashland had been replaced by clear skies, solid ground, and a giant black monster the size of the whole Capital Caldera that seemed to be attacking something at its feet.
"Ash," Mai cursed.
"What?" Toph put her hands on her hips. "What's going on? I feel tremors coming from where the city used to be."
"That would be the giant monster that's replaced the ashland." Mai tried to stop looking at it, and failed. "I think this Long Feng guy has been very, very bad."
"Oh." Toph snickered. "I get it. You said 'ash' and there's a monster made of ash. Heh."
The dumb joke finally jolted Mai from her shock. "Aang must be over there. We have to go help him!"
Toph nodded. "And we will. But Long Feng's camp is nearby, and I'm not about to go chasing after monsters without knowing what's really going on. Besides, how far away do you figure that thing is?"
Mai blinked. Her knife-throwing training had given her a better head for judging size and distance than most people, and she had immediately pegged the monster as being city-sized. That meant, given how small it was on the horizon, that the distance must be-
Toph nodded again. "Even at my fastest Earth-running, we won't be able to get over there before nightfall. We'll probably arrive too late no matter what, so the best thing we can do know is take a little extra time and make ourselves smart. The key to Earthbending is waiting and listening before striking. And I'm the greatest Earthbender who ever lived."
Mai had a number of profanities and insults ready to describe someone who sat around while a friend was in danger, but the part of her that was so good at hitting moving objects with little bits of metal interceded on Toph's behalf. The little blind Earth King was right, and Mai herself usually fought the same way.
The only reason she was so eager to go against that wisdom now was because she knew Aang was out there, and probably needed her help.
He needed her help because she had failed to return to him.
But this wasn't the first time she had failed him. She had been working to make up for that by being patient and strong, and doing what had to be done.
No reason to stop now.
"Let's go, Your Majesty," she hissed.
Fortunately, the Dai Li camp wasn't far away, and when they arrived, they found its guards all staring at the monster on the horizon with slack jaws. When Toph and her own group of elite Earthbender warriors attacked, the Dai Li didn't even notice until it was time to raise their hands and beg for mercy.
Mai stayed back, letting the professionals handle things until she noticed a big white furry blob in the center of the camp and a girl in pink standing beside it. "Ty Lee!"
"Mai!" Ty Lee ran over and Mai ran to meet her, and they collided hard enough to bounce off each other if they hadn't wrapped their arms around each other's bodies at first contact. "Oh, Mai," Ty Lee sobbed, "it's been awful! I thought you were dead and we met these meanie Dai Li and Azula showed up and I punched her in the face and every time I think about it now I almost throw up and Appa got hurt and Aang went into the ashland with Katara and now there's a monster and I'm pretty sure we're all gonna die!"
Mai wanted to focus on what was important, but one part of that couldn't pass without comment. "You punched Azula in the face?"
Ty Lee whimpered.
Mai couldn't help but agree. "Well, I guess you're never going back to the Fire Nation. Ever."
Ty Lee whimpered again.
"Okay, enough frivolity." Mai pulled out of the hug and looked her friend in the eyes. "We need to know what's going on if we're going to try to save Aang and Katara. Who's in charge, here?"
Ty Lee finally let go of Mai and pointed at a pair of Dai Li agents kneeling on the ground with hands on their heads. "Agent Zhuang is in command, and Agent Laotao is always hanging out with him. I think they're buddies."
Mai turned to where Toph had been spying on them. "You hear that?"
Toph's only answer was a grin. Then she stomped her right foot on the ground, raised her forearms in front of her face, and then twisted them horizontally while she slid her foot in the same direction. A second later, the ground beneath Agent Zhuang and Agent Laotao carried them over so that they were kneeling right in front of Toph.
Agent Zhuang's face twisted into a grimace. "You."
Agent Laotao nodded. "It's her, all right."
Toph clasped her hands behind her back and raised her chin regally. "Hello again, boys. I'm glad to see you in good health. When my people told me that a monster made of ash was doing a jig on Ba Sing Se's grave, I figured all you Dai Li stooges were having your bones ground to dust. Now, I need to speak to your boss, so you go ahead and tell me where Long Feng is, okay?"
The two Dai Li exchanged glances. "He's, uh, not here," Agent Zhuang said.
"What Agent Zhuang means," Agent Laotao added, "is that he was last seen headed in the direction of where the, uh, monster made of ash is currently, uh, jigging."
"Thank you, Agent Laotao."
"My pleasure, Agent Zhuang."
Toph just nodded. "I understand. Since you've both been so polite and helpful, I'm offering my assistance in rescuing your boss."
"That's very nice of you. It's nice of her, isn't it, Agent Laotao?"
"Quite accommodating, Agent Zhuang."
"Thank you, boys. Before I can be of any help, though, I need to know what in the name of the primordial mud your lichen-sucker of a boss was doing over there!"
Even Mai had to cringe at the volume of Toph's shout. Both Zhuang and Laotao paled visibly.
"We found information on the nature of spirit energy," Zhuang said.
"Found them in the Dai Li archives we saved and hid during the city's destruction," Laotao clarified.
"Yes, some of the books Avatar Kyoshi charged the organization to hide from mortal eyes back when she founded the Dai Li."
"In retrospect, that probably applied to the boss as well, wouldn't you say, Agent Zhuang?"
"It's hard to come to any other conclusion right now, Agent Laotao."
"And the boss thought we could use the information to devise a ceremony that would fix the ashland and maybe bring our people back to life. I’m a bit unclear on that last point."
"It was very, very complicated. Had something to do with the white gold the Fire Nation is shipping, a special kind of Earthbending that affects spirit energy, writing from a forbidden language, and a human sacrifice."
"Further retrospect is revealing that none of this sounds particularly safe, does it, Agent Zhuang?"
"I'm abashed about the whole thing, Agent Laotao. I gather that the Avatar feels the same."
"Oh, no doubt, no doubt."
That's when Mai stepped forward. "So Aang is over there. With the monster."
"Quite right, quite right."
Mai turned and headed straight for Appa.
"Wait," Ty Lee called. She came trotting up beside Mai. "I told you, Appa was hurt. Azula got him with her lightning. Katara healed the wounds, but he's still very sick. He can't fly. His heart- his Qi is weak and isn't flowing right."
Mai came to a halt beside the bison. Momo fluttered over from Appa's head and landed on her shoulder to lick her neck. A part of her recognized that she would normally have been grossed out by something like this, but the rest of her was too focused on finding solutions to worry about it. She needed to get to Aang, and a sky bison was the only way to get there before he was likely to die.
Qi problems, huh? Mai looked at Ty Lee. Then she looked at Toph, who was trotting over. Then she looked at Appa.
Appa stared back at her with dull eyes.
Mai stepped forward and patted his nose. "Hey, big guy."
Appa gave a low sniffle.
She crouched beside his head and leaned against him. "Aang needs you. I know you're sick, but Aang needs our help right now."
Appa's eyes shifted.
Mai nodded, and hoped she was guessing right about this. "I know you can't fly. But I have an idea about how to fix that. Fix it enough to maybe save Aang, at least. But it might not work, and even if it does, I think there's a good chance it might kill you."
Mai reached over to pat his nose again. "If it makes you feel better, we're probably all going to be killed by an ash-monster anyway. You know things are bad if people are relying on me for plans, right?"
"So, will you risk it? Aang would be mad if I did this without your permission." Mai could hardly believe she was having this conversation with a pack animal, even an unusually intelligent one, but she didn't make the rules; she just worked here.
Appa closed his eyes, shifted his head, and opened his mouth to give Mai a weak lick.
But she could take that as a 'yes.'
She stood up again and looked to the other girls. "Ty Lee, do you think you can figure out how to do acupuncture on a sky bison? Like you did when Sokka broke his rib?"
Ty Lee blinked. "Um, maybe?"
"Great. Toph, are you a skilled enough Earthbender to make a set of very fine, very pointed sky-bison-sized needles out of rock?"
Toph grinned and put her fists on her hips. "Even if I didn't think so, I'd say yes anyway."
"Okay." Mai sighed. "Sounds like we have the beginning of a terrible, dangerous plan. So, whenever you ladies want to get started?"
Aang was alone.
Alone in all the world.
Alone in an empty temple full of nothing but the dust of his people's remains.
Dimly, he was aware of a voice wafting on the dead air of the Southern Temple's Inner Sanctuary. It was a voice he was pretty sure he didn't like, but he could find no meaning in its repeated questioning of, "Why?"
"Just leave me alone," Aang sobbed. His heart stung at the irony of his request. He would never be anything but alone, now.
"Why did you have to ruin everything?" The voice grew in strength, revealing the sorrow within. "I was going to restore my city. Bring back the people who relied on me for safety and order. Why couldn't you people just go along with it?"
Long Feng. Aang recognized the voice now. Unable to look away from the skeletons of Mother Malu's nuns, half-buried in the corpse-dust of the Sanctuary, Aang snarled, "You're insane! No one can raise the dead again! And you were going to sacrifice my people to do it! If Katara hadn't-"
"It was the only way!" Anger now colored Long Feng's pleas. "A nation for a nation! Ba Sing Se was everything important about the Earth Kingdom, and without it we're all nothing more than human debris! The only way I could find the energy to bring back my city was to have you offer the last of your people in exchange!"
Aang groaned. "I wish I had died with my people." He wasn't sure how the nuns had died even after Katara had rescued them, how their bodies had gotten to the Southern Air Temple, but he was looking at their bones right now. "There's no bringing the dead back. There's just waiting to go back to them."
"I refuse!" Long Feng's voice was so sharp that it jolted Aang, made him jump in place only to discover that he was immobile. But wasn't he in the Sanctuary with the Avatar Statues? Then why did it feel like gravelly hands held him in place? Ignoring Aang's confusion, Long Feng continued, "When the Fire Nation burned Ba Sing Se, I made sure the Dai Li survived! It was my duty! Without us, all the knowledge of the city would have died with it! We survived so that the archives, the university's library, and royal secrets could survive! And I found a way to use it! Without me, Ba Sing Se will remain an ashland until the end of time! I found a way back! And I'll see the city brought back, yet! No matter what it takes! Any sacrifice!"
Aang was losing focus on the dust that was the remains of the monks who had raised him. He felt the pull of that horror, the urge to cling to what he had already lost, but Long Feng's rantings pulled at him, too. The insane words dragged his mind from the Southern Air Temple to another place, a place with open air and a trembling ground and strange restraints that felt like hands made of ash.
"Maybe," Aang said, "we need to let go."
"Never!" Long Feng's scream was ragged, and Aang's throat ached in sympathy. "I am Ba Sing Se's protector, and my whole life has been devoted to peace and order! Without the city, there is no Earth Kingdom! Without the city, there is no order! Order is what separates us from the animals, what creates civilization! I'd sacrifice everything else- a new Air Nation, even the rest of the Earth Kingdom- to bring back the order of my city! If we can't restore order here, how can we bring order- bring peace- to the rest of the world?"
Aang blinked, and instead of the Southern Air Temple, he saw Long Feng lying on the rocky ground in front of him, broken and battered. "Carefully," he answered.
Long Feng snarled, and pushed himself to his feet. His robes were torn and his right arm was twisted at an odd angle, but he forced himself to walk, stumbling forward to Aang. Bits of the stony ground clung to Long Feng's left fist, and he raised it above his head as he lurched forward.
Aang tried to move, to get out of the way, but he found himself held in place by strength even beyond that of chains. He glanced around to find himself being grappled by gaunt figures made of ash, gasping monsters, humanoid beasts whispering that there is no war in Ba Sing Se, creatures that clung to him and kept him from moving forward.
Long Feng swung his fist down towards Aang's face-
-and the end of a well-maintained glider staff swung out of nowhere to smack into the back of Long Feng's head. He dropped like a bag of rocks.
And then Prince Zuko stepped into view, glaring at Aang with one eye. In his right hand, the side opposite his scarred face and eye-patch, he held Aang's glider staff. Aang braced for another attack-
Zuko nodded. "Suki, get him out of there."
It took Aang a second to remember that name, remember the rebel woman from Kyoshi Island who had helped them find the location of Katara's prison, and then he was being pulled free of the monsters holding him. He stumbled into Suki's arms, and looked back at the creatures that had been holding him to find them melting into piles of cinders with whispers that sounded like, "Kyoshi's Chosen..."
Aang blinked again. He was having a hard time making sense of any of this. "What's going on?"
Suki shrugged and helped him stand on his own. "Just go with it. We can figure it out when we're safe."
"Safe?" Aang looked back at Zuko, but the Fire Prince was simply standing there. There was no sign of the other Firebender, the one who had hurt Appa. "No, really, what's going on?"
Zuko's face held no expression. "Avatar, make no mistake. I will bring you to the Fire Nation and fulfill the terms of my banishment. Nothing will stop me. Nothing." He angled the glider-staff so that he was holding it out for Aang to take. "But I will do so honorably, and the dangers here take priority. I won't destroy myself for my mission." He turned away for a moment, and mumbled, "Not again."
Aang hesitated. This was the man who had compelled Mai to trick and betray him, the man who masterminded the attack on the cargo ship that had nearly killed Appa. Zuko was not, clearly, a good person.
But he was better than Long Feng, and if he really wanted to try to make amends, then Aang was happy to let the guy join the fight against the undead city-sized monster made of ash.
Aang reached out and took the staff. "Thanks."
"Thank me by telling me how to set this- this- this whatever right." Zuko motioned above as the last of the ash-monster's rear legs passed over them and stomped down a horizon away.
"Oh." Aang peered into the distance, and beyond the monster's palace-shaped snout, he thought he saw some flickers of motion that might have been Airbender nuns launching wind attacks at the lashing tongue of ash. "Well, Suki seems to have some kind of power over these things, so maybe if I fly her up to the head, we can-" He trailed off as he spotted something else in the distance beyond the monster.
The sky had been cloudless before, but now he thought he saw one little puff moving visibly across the expanse of blue.
Moving against the wind.
"No way," he laughed. The cloud was traveling swiftly, sailing directly on a line that would take it straight to the ash monster. "I don't believe it!" New possibilities occurred to him, and he turned back to Zuko and Suki. "Quick, did you find Katara anywhere? A Water Tribe girl-"
"With her hair in little loopies that hang in front of her face?" Suki pointed off to the side. "We found her being grabbed by the same creatures that had you, and dragged her to safety. That's how we knew I could get you out of your predicament."
"Gotcha! Thanks!" Aang flicked his staff open and leaped into the air. "I'll be back with help! Don't get killed!" He used his Airbending to push the wind into the glider wings, his heart soaring at having his people's most important tool back. He flew low and fast over the ground, not wanting to catch the ash-monster's attention again, heading towards where Katara was laying. He dipped his wings as he flew, making sure that the bright orange color would be visible to the cloud that was now close enough for him to make out as the flying sky-bison it really was.
He flew over Katara and her shining sword, swooping back and forth over her to mark her location, and when he looked back at Appa, he spotted a figure in pink sitting on the bison's head waving frantically.
And beside her, a figure in green with dark flowing hair was waving with more restraint.
The joy bubbled out of him with a laugh as Appa swooped beneath him and touched down beside Katara. Aang swooped around again to cover his friends from the air, and saw a whole group of people in green jumping out of Appa's saddle even as Ty Lee and Mai were carrying Katara aboard. The shortest of the newcomers conferred briefly with one of the others and then shouted, "Hey, Avatar, they tell me you're flying but I'm Earth King Toph and I'm here to kick butt and make friends! We'll talk after I take out the big creepy thing that's shaking the ground! Oh, and I'm taking care of your Water Tribe friends so don't worry and get back in the fight!"
Aang felt himself grinning as Appa rose again and the green newcomers started running towards the monster. The visions he had suffered from were wrong.
He wasn't alone.
Not even close.
He swooped over the shouter- a girl if he wasn't mistaken from this angle- and called back, "There's a Firebenders in an eyepatch who can help, too! Talk with him to find out what to watch out for!"
The girl laughed at the word 'watch,' although Aang couldn't guess why. He figured he could worry about it after all the fighting was done.
As he climbed up into the air alongside Appa, Aang could see Katara in Ty Lee's hands, and the platinum sword in Mai's.
"I have an idea," Mai said as Aang spiraled around Appa on his glider like he was showing off. She turned her attention to Ty Lee. "I've had this sword made of a metal that kills spirit monsters for months now, and I haven't had a chance to use it yet. What do you say we give it a try?"
Ty Lee looked back at Mai, then at the giant creature stomping around like it owned the place. "Um, Mai, I think you're going to need a bigger sword."
"You'd be surprised at the kind of damage that can be done with a relatively small blade. For example, what do you suppose would happen if I pointed this thing forward while you flew Appa right into the base of that gross tongue-thing trying to smash Mother Malu?"
Ty Lee tilted her head from side to side. "Is this one of those science experiment things?"
"Sure, let's go with that. I hypothesize that we're going to do of damage and feel great as a result."
Aang peeled off as Ty Lee steered Appa towards the creature's head. Mai studied her target, noting the gross faces that covered the surface of the massive monster. Was that where the creepy screaming sounds were coming from, the strange groans that there is no war in Ba Sing Se? This was why she would always favor a good, reliable machine over more natural things like perverted twistings of unlife. The only part of it that had any kind of visible logic to it was the head itself, which seemed to be shaped like the Earth Palace, if the drawings she had seen back in the Royal Fire Academy for Girls were at all accurate.
Mai wondered if that was supposed to be symbolic.
Eh, if it was, then she'd have to worry about the symbolism of cutting out its tongue, and she had been more than happy to leave that kind of analysis behind with her school days.
Instead, she climbed forward on Appa's head, held her big, shiny sword out so that the point guided their flight path, and prepared to dive.
Mai normally hated flying, but she couldn't help smirking as Ty Lee steered Appa straight for the base of the tongue. It wasn't every day she got to stab something the size of a city at the speed of free fall.
Then they were passing through the ash for a brief moment that left her coughing, and when she looked back to see what kind of damage she had done, she saw a cloud of cinders wafting on the breeze where the tongue had been connected to the palace-head, and the tongue itself flying through the air and disintegrating as it tumbled to the ground.
Well, she'd call that a successful experiment. She wondered what would happen if they tried the same trick on the monster's big ugly backside-
That's when it swung the palace-head with a squeal like the sky itself shattering, and Mai had to press her hands over her ears to block out the sound of Aang and Zuko and Mother and Father and Tom-Tom and Ty Lee and Sokka and Katara and the whole population of the world accusing her of getting them killed with her poor life choices.
Mai was dimly aware of Ty Lee screaming beside her, shouting something about not being lost forever in a crowd, and even Appa was bellowing so hard that his body was rattling beneath her. As they began sinking from the sky, Mai looked down over the scene below to see everyone else- Aang and the Earthbender rebels and the Airbender nuns and a lone figure in red- all falling to their knees in similar agony.
Distantly, she heard another animal roar, and turned towards the lake- towards the Serpent's Pass she had traveled this morning to come save her friends- to see something snake-like disappear below the waves with a disturbingly large splash.
She hoped that wouldn't come back to bite them.
Sokka had been doing the math all morning and still couldn't get an answer he liked.
He had come out at dawn with a borrowed telescope to climb the wall dividing the waters of Full Moon Bay from King Toph’s main rebel settlement. He hadn't expected to be able to see anything across the gigantic lake that separated his position from the ashland that used to be Ba Sing Se, but couldn't dismiss the chance without trying.
He wound up seeing not an unhelpful brown smear, but an animal-like form moving across the distant landscape.
Except that made no sense, because when he worked out the magnification power of the telescope against the distance to the opposite shores and tried to balance that against the size of the creature in his enhanced vision, the math said he was looking at something the size of the city of Ba Sing Se itself, and that just wasn't possible.
Even Avatar powers that could control the Everstorm and unleash the explosive energy of a volcano weren't enough to animate something that big.
As he worked through the numbers for the tenth time, trying to find where he could have made a mistake, he looked up briefly to give his eyes a rest, and saw something else that was curious.
Straight ahead, on a direct line towards the entrance to the giant cave that covered Full Moon Bay, a long line of foam and mist was cutting across the lake. It was hard to tell from this angle, having no opportunity to triangulate, but Sokka had the distinct impression that something very large was moving very fast from the very far side of the lake in this very direction through the water.
He was sure that if he did the math, that wouldn't make any sense, either.
But he had a bad feeling all the same.
TO BE CONTINUED
Life for All
It made sense to Aang, on a certain level. When this comet came that everyone talked about, the Fire Nation had used its power to destroy the last remnants of resistance. The largest, most powerful city in the world- Ba Sing Se- had been completely wiped from existence, including all its people. The last thing so many millions must have felt before the pain of the fire was sheer terror as they saw their homes burning around them.
The ash that was the only thing left of Ba Sing Se must have still contained the echoes of that fear.
So when the monster that was made up of all those cinders sounded its voice and projected its power against its enemies, it shared that fear with everyone who could hear it.
Except Aang had already been a victim of this little trick, and wasn’t going to be lost in his fear again.
He had been afraid of plenty of things throughout his life, but he found a new definition of the emotion back when he learned he was to be taken away from Monk Gyatso. Being named as the Avatar had isolated Aang from his friends, had taken away his chance to find his place in the world and replaced it with a duty to make war. Only Monk Gyatso, only the man who had been both mentor and hero to Aang, still saw him as a person.
Monk Gyatso had been the last person in the world who still cared about making Aang laugh.
And then Aang learned that he was to be taken away by the Elder Monks, sent away to where Gyatso could no longer be a part of his life. That was the first time he felt real fear.
The second time was when he returned to the Southern Air Temple over a century later, having run away and fallen asleep for a hundred and one years while the Fire Nation ruined the world. He had encountered his people's spirits reborn as hungry Di Fu Ling ghosts. The worst fears of the Elder Monks had come true, all because Aang couldn't handle his own fear over a century ago. And so now, whenever the ash monster stoked the fear in Aang's heart, he found himself back in the Sanctuary Hall, the place where his people's ghosts rose every night to terrorize the living.
But the ash monster wasn't intelligent; it could use the fear Aang already had, but it didn't have the wit to actually trick him. He had been fooled once by this vision already, but emerged from the illusion to find that there were still people willing to support him.
Mother Malu, Sister Matagi, and all the other nuns who had become Airbenders still survived; his nation was born anew. App and Mai had arrived to join the battle, the most and least loyal of his friends uniting to light this dark hour. Even Zuko- the prince who nearly turned Mai against Aang, the Firebender who had chased and terrorized him across the lands and oceans- was now pledging to help set this one bit of the world right.
With every adventure, Aang was discovering more people who wanted him to succeed.
So when the illusion came upon him and he saw that dark chamber full of dust and bones again, that fear the monster of ash wanted him to get lost in, he remembered the people counting on him and shook away the lie.
And he even managed to do it in enough time realize that he was flying his glider straight at the ground and pull out of the dive before dying! Yeah!
Holding onto his glider, Aang unwrapped his legs from around the shaft and kicked down towards the ground, sending a gust of Airbending to splatter against the rocky surface and bounce back up. The paper wings of his glider caught the ricocheting winds and rode them, sending Aang back up into the sky.
Except now a ten-ton sky bison was falling towards him. Appa had been in midair, too, when the ash-monster sang the song of fear.
But that wouldn't be a problem, either.
Aang twisted his body as he retracted the wings of his glider, changing it back into an easy-to-swing staff. Gravity quickly turned his upward momentum into a freefall back to the ground, but in the moment of transition where he hung motionless in the sky, he swung that staff up towards Appa and flicked the wings open again. Held this way, the glider was nothing more than a really big, really effective fan.
In the hands of an Airbender, that effectiveness rose like warm air on a cold day.
Aang swung the big fan with enough force to throw a hurricane wind up at Appa. He had no idea if sky bison could be victims of magic fear attacks in the same way as humans, but the Air Nomads had been herding the animals for centuries beyond count, so one thing he was knew for certain was the exact instinctual reaction a sky bison would have when it found itself unexpectedly riding that kind of wind.
Appa roared, extended all six of his feet out to the side like crude wings, and flapped his big flat tail to stabilize himself. A second later, he was making a rough but safe landing on the ground.
Aang came in for a landing beside Appa's head, and was being licked by a tongue the size of his whole body before he could even retract the wings of his glider. Aang laughed and rubbed Appa's nose. "I'm glad you're safe, buddy. Thanks for coming and bringing Mai."
Appa huffed heavily and lowered himself to lie down. Apparently, he was in no mood to do any more flying.
It was time to see to the passengers, anyway.
Mai and Ty Lee were curled up against each other back in Appa's saddle, both of them staring with unfocused gazes into the sky above. Between and under them, Katara was unconscious in the more ordinary way with her eyes closed and her body limp. Aang reached for Mai first, shaking one of her shoulders and whispering, "Mai? It's me, Aang. You're safe, now."
"Aang is dead." She shook her head, sending her loose hair swaying. "I listened to Zuko and Azula and got him killed. I got everyone killed!"
That was what she saw in her greatest fears? Her pain hurt Aang too much for him to smile, but he felt a pleasant warmth in his chest at the thought that she could care so much. "Mai, it's okay. I'm alive!" He grabbed her hand, so that she could feel his warmth. "Everyone is alive! I think? Well, there's that big monster who wants to kill us, but the last I saw everyone around here was still alive. So please wake up and help us? If you wake up you can- uh- well, I guess you can help us by stabbing it. Please, Mai. I need you."
Mai finally blinked. "I can stab it." She let go of Ty Lee and shook herself. "I can stab it." She blinked again, and her gaze focused on Aang, and then on their clasped hands. "I can stab it. Hey, Aang, how's it going?"
At last, he could smile. "Not bad, considering. I'm really glad you're okay."
"I-" Her eyes fell. "I was pleased to hear that you didn't die in that cave-in."
"Thanks. Can I hug you?"
"Yeah." She didn't even sigh when she said it. "Sure."
And so Aang did.
When the hug ended, he looked down at Ty Lee. "Now we need to wake her up."
Ty Lee was muttering, "All the same, all the same, all the same..."
Mai nodded. "I got this." She leaned over Ty Lee, smacked her backside, and screamed, "Classes started five minutes ago! Why are you still sleeping, student?"
Ty Lee bolted upright. "I wasn't sleeping I was just resting my eyes please don't send me for a flogging!" She blinked once and then looked around. "Oh, hi, Mai. What's up? Ooh, Aang's here, too! And we held onto Katara! We're all alive! That's so nice. Are we still fighting on the big ugly thing?"
Aang's smile fell away and he looked back at the battle behind him. The monster was still there, eclipsing the sky and raining cinders from its body to darken the air around it. It had lost none of its massiveness, its legs still looming like ancient towers out of a legend, its roiling body still seemingly bending the very light of day away from it. The surface of the creature was still in constant motion with the faces of the dead of Ba Sing Se who all babbled a grating symphony of sibilant words. The creature's head was still the sharp lines and imposing walls of the Earth Palace, a monument that profaned what it honored.
And yet Aang felt no fear.
The creature was shuddering, quaking with such force that when Aang dropped back down from Appa's saddle to the parched ground, he could feel the vibrations through the soles of his boots. And now that he really listened, he realized that the voices of the ash-faces were all in conflict, a buzzing with no meaning, different from the previous chanting of, "There is no war in Ba Sing Se."
The monster had been hurt when Mai attacked it with the platinum sword like a jouster on her sky bison mount.
It was still confused, now.
"Everyone else probably got hit by that fear-scream, too," he said to the girls. "We need to wake them up before the monster really gets moving again. How's Katara? She wouldn't wake up for me, before."
Up in the saddle, Ty Lee shook her head as she took Katara in her arms. "I can't get her to open her eyes. Her aura is muddy blue with swirls of black. She's locked inside herself until she can find her way back." Ty Lee then leaned over the edge of the saddle and extended a hand to rub Appa's fur. "This big guy isn't doing too well, either. His aura is a filthy gray. I don't think flying over here was very good for him, and then the shock when the monster-thing screamed and made us all afraid-" She shook her head. "I don't think he can fly right now."
Aang's stomach lurched. His friends were alive, but they were wearing themselves out trying to help him. He had to- he had to-
Mai's arms wrapped around his shoulders and she said, "We'll make sure they're okay. But to do that, we need to kill some monsters."
Aang nodded, and fortified himself with a deep breath. "Yeah. And now we need to see about the others. Ty Lee, can you lead Appa away from here? And make sure Katara is okay?"
"Sure! It's not like I can punch a monster the size of a city, anyway. And it doesn't have any aura that I can put into words. At least not any words that don't sound crazy."
Aang nodded his thanks, and then looked up at Mai's face above his own. "Prince Zuko is over there with the Earthbenders. He saved me from Long Feng, and promised to help us against the monster. We're going to have to save him, too."
He felt Mai's body go stiff, and her arms fell away from him. "He's alive?" She made a sound that was half-laugh and half-sigh, and looked to Aang with watery eyes. "I didn't kill him." She took a deep breath, and then her thoughts and emotions were once again hidden behind a blank expression. "I don't suppose you saw his sister? An evil-looking girl with a face like a puma-shark-"
"Who shoots blue fire and lightning," Aang interrupted. "She's the one who hurt Appa. But I didn't see her here."
Mai nodded. "All right, let's go save everyone. How are we doing this?"
Aang felt the urge to grin again. He gave Mai just enough time to start to repeat her question before he put an arm around her waist, yanked her close to him, and used his other hand to flick his glider open.
She did no more than gasp as they launched into the sky with a roar of Airbending, but it was still a sound that made Aang's heart flip.
His heart hadn’t flipped like that for her in a long time.
Zhao watched from the deck of his flagship as a giant green sea-serpent with a head like a dragon launched itself through the waters towards the cave-like indentation that his mission intelligence claimed was Full Moon Bay.
It was just as the recruitment posters said- you could see all kinds of new things in the navy.
If the local group of Earth Rebels as indeed using the cover bay as a base like Prince Iroh's written briefing claimed, then they were about to have a very bad day. It would be so easy for Zhao to claim that he had arrived too late to do anything about the situation. He could let the serpent and the rebels fight until one or the other lost, and then sweep in to wipe out the winner.
But orders were orders, he was being observed by 'allies' he could not intimidate, and he had to protect Iroh's assets.
Zhao turned to one of his aides. "Detach the cruisers to defend the bay against the serpent. They are to protect it and the people within against all dangers. If the rebels themselves attack either cruiser, all crewmen are to surrender and pass on the message that we're here to deliver. Otherwise, they are to maintain position await my further orders." Those weren't orders he would trust most soldiers to obey, but Iroh's chosen had proven themselves to be especially dutiful. Perhaps they would even kill themselves at his command.
The aide, another of those dutiful half-wits, simply nodded and began waving the signal-flags to convey the orders to the pair of vessels riding alongside the flagship. Zhao left the man to the task and began making his way back to the bridge.
He was halfway across the deck when the battle between the cruisers and the sea serpent commenced in earnest with the first volley of flaming tar-balls. It would no doubt be a grand battle for all those involved, but for Zhao it was merely a sideline to the day's historic events.
He hadn't expected his report about the losses of Tiankeng Fortress to be taken well, but Prince Admiral Iroh had completely surprised him by simply sending orders to take command of a task-force being assembled at one of the northern naval bases and make his way to Zhongxin Lake in the heart of the Earth Kingdom to find the Avatar. The ships were fast and heavily armed, and would have looked like one of the small pirate-hunter fleets from the early years of the war if not for some of the 'special warriors' assigned to them. Zhao had looked over the mongrel force and wondered exactly what Iroh expected him to find in the waters beside Ba Sing Se.
He hadn't wondered long, though. It was good to be in command of a fleet again, and he wasn't going to look a freely-given rhino in its mouth after the disaster at Tiankeng. He had the task-force sail up from the inlet at Chameleon Bay, and they made their way for days up to Zhongxin Lake. It was a pleasant cruise, up until the massive black creature appeared on the distant horizon.
Now, Zhao only had to follow the most difficult orders of his life in order to keep from being killed for his failures.
When he arrived on the flagship's bridge, he barked out, "Accelerate to full speed. The cruisers will handle things here, but I'm certain the Avatar will be found where that- that thing is stomping all over the former site of Ba Sing Se. Prepare all weapons, and have the marines and ‘special’ forces ready for immediate deployment."
At least he knew that if he succeeded at this task, he'd go down in history.
Hopefully, it wouldn't as a traitor.
Zuko woke up to the sight of a woman's face above him, a woman with red-rimmed eyes, tangled hair, and dark smears of ash on her face. Her green robes were the worse for wear, and she held a sword of shining metal. For one horrible second, he feared that she was his mother.
Then she said, "You okay? You're the last one to wake up." The voice was the same smoky tone that told him to lick ash back on Crescent Island, and the artificial blankness of her face was visible once he knew to look beyond the surface.
Zuko scrambled to his feet, and he noticed Mai's lips compressing in a subtle grimace. So she hadn't forgotten how she had betrayed him.
No doubt she was here to serve the Avatar. But did she know that they were temporary allies now?
He barely finished the thought when she snapped into motion and stabbed out at him with her sword.
He sidestepped and brought his arms up for some Firebending, wondering briefly if he could actually bring himself to set her aflame despite everything, but she followed through with her thrust even though his body was no longer in her path.
Out of the corner of his eye, Zuko caught a brief glimpse of a figure that was dark and grainy and skeletal, a figure that groped for him even as Mai’s shining blade sliced through its stomach and it melted into filthy dust.
Oh, right. Those things. He turned to find out what he had missed while he was unconscious.
The last Zuko remembered, the Avatar had gone off to meet his sky bison, which had dropped off some reinforcements in green, and then the whole group attacked the ash monster together. They had destroyed the creature's tongue, causing it to roar with the force of an earthquake, and then-
Zuko felt no need to ruminate on the dream he had been having, of once again reliving the day those years ago when he raced to help his Father against the walls of Ba Sing Se and got a fireball in the face for his trouble. If that was all these spirits could throw at him once again, they had no hope of stopping him.
He looked back to Mai and relaxed his guard. “We seem to be on the same side again.”
She lowered her sword so that it no longer angled between them. “Yeah. Is that a problem?”
“You were trying to stop me from going back home.” He hated the way his voice cracked as he said the last word. “I trusted you. I thought you cared about me.”
Her face twitched before returning to its blank state. “I- I seem to have come to care for more people than I ever wanted. But when one of you makes me choose- Aang was more of a friend to me than I deserved. And what you were doing to him, even if it was so that you could go home, was wrong.”
Her could hear the same sentiment behind the words that Suki had said to him when she showed him that the Avatar and the ash monster weren’t on the same said. The difference, though, was that Suki’s intervention had been focused on Zuko. Mai’s was focused on the Avatar- on ‘Aang.’
Was betrayal simply a matter of luck? Of who one happened to get to know first, rather than the call of true spiritual loyalty?
Zuko doubted he’d ever truly know.
He nodded to Mai- an acknowledgement that he heard her words, even if he didn’t truly understand them- and together they turned back to the battle at hand.
The first thing that drew Zuko’s eye was the ash monster looming over him like the Heavenly Dome that the ancients thought covered the flat earth. It took an effort of will to yank his gaze from the gravity of darkness, but when he did, he found the jumble of chaos raging beneath the sky of cinders, a bizarre echo of the battle that had cost him his birthright and an eye.
Mai ran forward to meet it.
The Earthbenders who had been brought on the sky bison were tearing up the terrain in a furious assault, undermining the vast swaths of ground upon which the monster was standing. They took the pieces of rock and, under the direction of an especially short soldier, were launching them at the parts of the monster’s legs that would be supporting the greatest portion of its weight.
Of course, it was barely an inconvenience to a creature the size of a mountain, even one made of gathered ashes. A single massive footstep was enough to move the planet itself, and Zuko's sense of scale was shredded when one of those legs moved the length of a village to come down a mere fireball's throw from him. As he struggled to stay upright against the impact tremor, the surface of the massive leg was revealed to be a collection of screaming faces bulging from the ash. The ground still hadn't stilled when the visages ripped free of the rest of the mass, wriggling in all directions on tails that slowly stretched and bulged into bipedal bodies- more of the skeletal seekers.
Mai and Suki came together to protect the Earthbenders, the former fighting with her strange glistening blade and the latter using nothing but her fists. Both methods proved equally effective at dispelling the seekers.
Flitting across the battlefield were women in robes of white and gold. As Zuko watched came together and began moving as one through a Bending form in a style he didn't recognize. He only realized that they were Airbending- Airbending, when the Airbenders were supposed to be gone- when a filthy tornado suddenly grew out of the ash monster's skin above.
And above it all the Avatar flew, a shape like an arrow, twisting and arcing and throwing sharp crescents of slicing wind.
At the very least they were all keeping the monster busy.
Zuko wanted to do more than keep it busy.
Could the creature be more vulnerable further up, where no one but the Avatar could reach? Perhaps in the palace that served as the head?
Zuko decided to go up there and take a look.
He ran into the thick of the battle, flinging his fists out to send explosive bursts of concussive flame at any skeletal seekers in his path. He ran past Mai and Suki, ran under the group of women Airbenders as they changed positions again, ran out amidst the rising rocks of the Earthbenders. Here, the longer he stayed, the more impossible it would be to avoid getting his head taken off by an errant flying boulder.
So he went ahead and threw himself on top of a big one as it passed by.
He struggled not to close his one good eye as the boulder flew through the air with him on top of it. It spun slowly as it rose towards the monster's belly like a bird rose into the sky, and Zuko had to stay calm and angle his head to keep track of his flight path. His imagination allowed him to picture in detail what would happen if he lost his grip, splattering and smearing on the ground below. But if he was judging the arc correctly- and with only one eye there was a good chance he was completely wrong- and managed to hold on, he and the rock would smash into a body of ash right where one of the front legs met the main form.
It was tough ripping off the shoulder-plates of his armor with one hand while hanging onto a flying, spinning rock with the other, but he had gotten practice at it recently, when the Avatar's berserker companion had thrown him off the stolen cargo ship days ago. Zuko had been forced to quickly shuck his armor or drown, and so he now he knew exactly how to get the shoulder-plates off with enough time to curl his legs beneath him and jump off the rock right before the impact against the ash monster.
The shoulder-plates were sharp enough to dig into the monster's body, slicing through the bulging faces and sinking until the density of the ash stopped them solidly.
The bisected faces kept screaming.
Zuko made himself ignore them as he began climbing, ripping one plate out at a time and using them to ascend.
Why did Spirits always have to be so macabre, anyway?
It was no answer, but something like a response to the thought came when one of the faces above him stretched out from amidst the rest and started growing arms. Zuko had been hoping that he was too insignificant to merit attention, compared to the battle down below.
That might have been a miscalculation.
The bone-like arms of ash snapped down at Zuko and grabbed him. He expected to be thrown out into the air to fall to his death, but instead his attacker simply fell on top of him, pouring down as a surge of cinders that didn't stop. Zuko felt like he was stuck under a waterfall, constantly being battered by the flow of char. He felt his grip on the shoulder-plates weakening, and almost missed the moment when his fingers gave out.
He realized too late that he was falling. He was tumbling down the cliff-side that was the monster's leg in a river of flowing ash, but his perception of it was fading, being replaced instead by memories of the last time he had seen the Fire Lord's throne room.
No, this wasn't real! This was the monster reaching down into his fears and yanking them back up!
Yet the taste of ash in his mouth and the sensation of falling faded, and Zuko was once again looking up at his grandfather on the Burning Throne, one of the very first sights he had taken in with his newly monocular vision. He heard the words proclaiming his shame, of glossing over the source of the fire that had struck his face at Ba Sing Se-
And then there was an impact and Zuko was yanked back into the real world to find himself face-first on the rock ground.
He pushed himself up, feeling new bruises all over his body. He must have tumbled all the way down the monster's tower-like leg, but shouldn't the smaller ash-defenders have come with him, keeping him in those dreams?
Then he noticed the glistening rocks beneath him.
They were brighter than silver, beneath the dust and ash that had accumulated on them. Whiter. And when the spare bits of daylight that managed to make it past the massive monster's body struck the surface of the rocks, they shined like they were pieces of the sun themselves.
He had seen such a metal before.
Mai was fighting with a sword made of it right now-
-a sword that disintegrated the skeletal ash-creatures with a mere touch.
Zuko was starting to understand how he had been freed from his latest nightmare.
He was gathering as much of the metal as he could fit in his arms when the small Earthbender- the one who had been directing the others- came over and said, "What are you doing, Brighteye?"
Zuko didn't know if that was supposed to be an insult, so he ignored it. "This can hurt the monster! We need to get it to all the fighters! Maybe they can throw it. Or we could make some slings!"
The girl (he was pretty sure she was a girl) started smirking at him. "Brighteye, I have a squad of the toughest, most maliciously creative Earthbenders who still haven't given up on the war. I think we can do better than just throwing this stuff."
Zuko gave his own tight little angry smile. "All right. Get them over here and prove yourself right."
If she did, she could insult him all she wanted. And if not, then they were all probably going to die, anyway.
Azula watched as a pathetic little army of humans struggled futilely against the power of the Spirits, and found herself considering how best to disobey her father.
She felt dirty just for considering it.
The disobedience in question was against one of the wisdoms he had shared during an idle moment. Since Zuko's banishment, Father had started making time every day to just to be in Azula's company for a while and talk about whatever topics came up. At first she feared she was being punished in some way, or prepared for a punishment, but as time went on, she had realized that it was genuine.
It had been nice.
During one of those interactions, Father had said, "I hope you understand that you can't fight everything, Azula." He had softened the seemingly insulting words with a smile. "I'd hate for you to get hurt when you could just come home to me."
Those words had been eating Azula since she had allowed Zuko to lead them into this adventure. In the first ashland they had visited, all those months ago, Azula had fallen prey to the Spirits supposedly stalking the place. She had learned that Spirits could not be fought the way she knew, and if she were to be an obedient daughter, then she would simply have to avoid coming into conflict with them.
It was not fear, she had told herself when Zuko was looking to follow the Avatar to Ba Sing Se. It was just healthy caution and pure obedience.
But she had come along, anyway. Zuko thought she was afraid, and she couldn't show less bravery than him. He had gone on to make an alliance with the Avatar, to forgive and accept that traitor Suki, to throw himself into battle against a Spirit of ash so big it could have buried the whole Caldera.
And Azula had stayed behind to watch.
She told herself that it was caution and obedience.
She told herself that it wasn't fear. It couldn't be. She had no fear within her. She was incapable of fear.
But, watching from a safe distance, she couldn't help but think that if this was a foe beyond even her abilities, then what would it do to Zuzu?
Father had told her to bring her brother back, safe and sound.
But Father also told her not to fight things that she couldn't beat.
So Azula watched and considered which disobedience she could best tolerate.
In the distance, at the site of the battle, Azula saw the Earthbenders working together to raise a pointed spire from the stony ground. The Airbenders and mundane warriors surrounded them, forming a defensive wall against the smaller spooks. As the battle closed in around the formation, the Earthbenders all moved in unison, raising the spire even higher to stab up into the belly of the monster above them.
How worthless. This foe couldn't be defeated by blunt trauma, as they had been proving continuously throughout the whole battle.
And yet as Azula watched, the ash monster writhed in what seemed to be pain, its belly exploding into falling dead ash right where the spire had stabbed it.
What had they done? How were they fighting it?
And then some of the ash cleared, and she saw the Earthbenders lowering the stone spire back into the ground. And this time, there was enough sunlight getting through that she could see the tip of the spire shining.
Was that platinum?
Where had they gotten platinum?
Azula stood alone, watching this battle from afar as the Earthbenders raised their spire- their improvised giant spear- up towards the ash monster again.
They were fighting it. They were actually fighting back against a Spirit.
The massive monster danced out of the way of the next attack with the grace of a receding tide, but the tides took hours to fully abandon a beach, and so the spear still caught a part of its body for another char-bleeding puncture. Yet it barely seemed to notice as its movements shook the earth and scattered the whole gathering of enemies beneath it. It looked as though the smaller ash-creatures were taking advantage of the opening, and both Airbenders and Earthbenders fell to their fell touch.
It wasn't a victory yet, it seemed.
But they were fighting it.
Azula considered which of her father's orders she would honor, and also how fast she could get to the battle if she used her Firebending to rocket across the ground.
It was amazing for Aang to see, flying above the battle on his glider. Prince Zuko, a Firebender and an enemy of life, was working with the last rebels of the fallen Earth Kingdom to combine the Fire Nation's platinum with the natural bones of the earth, and together they were battling an undead abomination.
It was also terrible for Aang to see, because every time their giant platinum-tipped rock spike stabbed into the monster, it roared a sound that was pure pain while all the fake faces across its body screamed to a new height of cacophonous torment.
With every stab into the monster's form, Aang could feel reality itself wincing in sympathy.
The platinum wasn't just hurting the monster; it was ripping it apart at the most fundamental level. Aang hadn't felt anything like that before, when Mai was using her platinum sword to fight the smaller monsters, but now he wondered if that was simply because he wasn't sensitive enough to notice a single instance of spirit energy being snuffed out.
He could certainly feel it now.
Every time that giant spike stabbed into the monster's belly, the leftover energy- the Línghún, as Guru Pathik had called it- was being destroyed. And that energy just so happened to be the remaining spirits of hundreds of dead Ba Sing Se residents.
Hundreds destroyed with every stab.
At least, it felt like the Línghún was being destroyed. Aang's whole body ached every time it happened, almost like the spear was tearing into his own form, parting flesh and puncturing his stomach and pulling on every single muscle that radiated from his center. With each of the monster's pained roars, Aang's heart rang like a cracked bell, and he could feel the energy shredding and disappearing. Left behind was nothing less than a gap in the very fabric of the universe itself. There was no movement or transformation; it was just an absence. Aang couldn't help but think that losing a hand would feel the same way.
But could spirit energy- could Línghún- be destroyed? Even by platinum?
Aang shifted his weight to aim his glider towards the monster's head. The ash-reconstruction of the Earth Palace soon filled his vision, and even as the creature hammered at the ground again with its legs in panicked fury, Aang dived down past the fake palace walls. He aimed himself straight for the center of the complex, straight for the roof, and put himself into a corkscrew as he increased his acceleration. The winds responded to him, twirling along with him and becoming an invisible person-sized drill around his body that cut straight through the ash-roof.
Then he was dropping into a world of cinders, retracting his glider's wings to land in a throne room as black as night. It was like being in a land of the dead, a place where no color felt the need to reach out to his eyes because eyes so rarely gazed on this land.
The only light here came in through the hole Aang had drilled, shining down in a stark, harsh shaft that revealed the master of this domain.
Or rather, its prisoner.
Of course, it was yet another being seemingly made from black sands. Its body was lumpen and irregular, and it seemed to have more than its share of limbs. In fact, it had more than its share of heads. Aang pushed back against a queasy feeling as he made himself look at the faces.
One was a person, an unlined face that might have been a young man in life, and the other was animalistic, almost ursine in the shape of its snout and jaw.
"My people," the human head groaned with a voice of rock scraping on sand.
"There is no war in Ba Sing Se," the bear-like head roared with the echo an old horn.
Aang fell to his knees on the floor made of cinders. "Please, stop fighting! My friends are going to destroy you all if you don't stop fighting!"
"My people are dying," the human head wailed.
"There is no war in Ba Sing Se," the bear-like head growled.
"Please!" Aang felt tears well up in his eyes as his body tensed up again in a clear sign of another strike of the spear, and the tears fell to mix with the ash of the floor as he felt more Línghún shred into nothingness.
"There is no war in Ba Sing Se!"
Azula's stomach felt like she had swallowed a small dragon and it was trying to swim its way to freedom, but a princess accepts difficult with honor. She bit down on her own tongue and refused to raise her eyes to the monstrosity of ash that blocked out the whole sky above her head.
She maintained a ready posture, and watched the Earthbenders in the distance.
She had gotten closer while the battle raged on, but still maintained enough separation that none of the others should notice her. No reason to make herself vulnerable to people who would be enemies as soon as this battle was over, after all.
She maintained a ready posture, and continued to watch the Earthbenders.
The little one was rallying some of the others. They had been scattered by the monster's latest stomp of its foot, and many were being grappled by the small ash-skeletons that hadn't stopped coming. The little Earthbender had only been able to summon five of her associates to help her raise the platinum-tipped spire again, and with this few, they were slow to lift it with enough structural integrity not to collapse in on itself.
Azula maintained a ready posture, and watched the tip of the spire rise up towards the monster.
Some of the spire's base collapsed as one of the Earthbenders was taken by ash-grapplers. The spire swayed, but the little Earthbender shifted her stance, and the ground swelled on that side to shore up the foundation.
Azula maintained a ready posture, and tracked the platinum point as it approached the ash above.
She began moving just before it shot upward.
Electricity danced around her body as it plunged in.
Lightning left her fingers as another part of the monster's belly exploded into dead cinders.
The 'cold fire' struck the platinum as reached up into the creature's form.
And that's when the whole monster started lighting up with Azula's electricity.
It was like a storm cloud, a black mass in the sky illuminated by random lights that snaked through the form with enough speed and force to shatter the air itself. Everywhere the lightning traveled, the monster's body turned to black sand in the air and began falling. An unholy chorus of shrieking sounded as the disturbing faces all over the surface of the monster popped like an overripe volcano plum. Ash bled into the air on the wind-currents created by the monster's ponderous thrashing.
This creature, this unholy abomination, this enemy of a vastness beyond comprehension, was dying.
And Azula had been the one to strike the fatal blow.
She couldn't wait to tell Father!
Aang knew it was over when light returned to the world of ash.
It didn't help that he recognized the same kind of electricity that had nearly killed Appa.
It danced up the walls of the macabre throne room, melting them back into the black sands they originally were. It skittered across the floor, making Aang's skin tingle, erasing the facsimile of marble and carpets beneath him. It snaked up to the black throne and wracked the disturbing body that sat upon it, melting the creature with one last mixed cry of, "My people," and, "There is no war in Ba Sing Se!"
And when that would-be King died, the world went with it.
The last thing Aang knew was an explosion of ash, a wave of light that made every Avatar within him shudder in grief, and the sensation of falling through an empty sky.
The last thing Zuko knew was the sight of his sister's lightning, a billion cries that reminded him of the sound he had made when his face was lit on fire in this very spot years ago, and a rain of cinders that drowned the world.
The last thing Mai knew was a dancing light above that reminded her of childhood days spent in the Fire Palace, a crack in the air that was the signature sound of Princess Azula's unique talent for destruction, and a terror that her most dangerous enemy in the world had found her.
The last thing Azula knew was the sight of an incoming wave of sand, and the fear that she had miscalculated and disobeyed her father in two different ways at once.
Earth King Toph didn't see anything, of course, but she could feel the earth's disappointment through her feet just before her mind and body shut down.
Sokka had seen some crazy things since joining up with Aang, but today's sights were no doubt he weirdest yet.
The dark, gigantic monster that was visible through a telescope on the far shores? There was no way it could be as big as Sokka's math said it was, but it was still just an unnatural beast trying to rip the life from the living. Sokka had already seen stuff like that in the Southern Air Temple. And once the thing had melted in the mid-afternoon, it was impossible to tell that it had ever been there at all.
The sea serpent that had fled said Ripping Unnatural Beast to attack Full Moon Bay? Also not unique, since Kyoshi Island had a giant sea creature that behaved in much the same way. When it came down to it, even sea monsters were just big animals that had to eat, and Sokka's people used to hunt such things. Not that he would want to hunt this one, not without a million warriors and some really big spears.
No, the weirdness came when the Fire Navy ships chugged into view to fight the sea monster and protect Full Moon Bay.
Not that the Fire Navy ships themselves were the weirdness. Theoretically, no one on those ships knew they were protecting Earth Rebels.
It was the Waterbender Warriors on the decks that were the weird part-
-weird enough that Sokka willingly went to find Jet to get his opinion.
After a quick detour to the little refugee Water Tribe village to warn Gran-Gran to keep everyone in their huts, Sokka was dragging Jet up to the top of the lookout wall and pointing to where flaming catapults and spears of ice were battering away at the sea monster. "That's not a common sight around here, is it?"
Jet's jaw dropped. "Um, the sea serpent isn't exactly uncommon, but the rest of it is new."
"Oh, good." Sokka tried to take his eyes off the spectacle and couldn't. "It isn't just me."
They watched for a while together, taking turns with the telescope to get better looks, and then Jet said, "I recognize the way those Waterbenders are dressed. They're from the Northern Tribe."
Sokka blinked. "You've been to the North Pole?"
"Just the opposite. My- well, you remember my organization?"
Sokka did indeed. Whatever the mysterious group actually was, he had seen that they liked to wear spooky blue goblin masks and do all kinds of crazy and dangerous and outright stupid things in supposed service to Aang. Instead of saying that in the appropriate withering tone, Sokka just nodded.
"Well, we've had dealings with Northern Waterbenders. But why they would be helping the Fire Navy- unless..."
"The Northern Water Tribe is under the control of Prince Iroh, the crown heir of the Fire Lord. Maybe not all of the Northern Water Tribe is able to resist him."
Sokka's stomach felt hollow. "I'm so glad I brought you up here. You've made me feel so much better about all this weirdness."
Eventually, the fight ended and the serpent collapsed back into the now bloody water. Its long body floated lifelessly while the two Fire Navy ships pulled into what looked like a guard position at the mouth of the bay cavern.
Jet had already gotten all the able-bodied rebels ready by then, but they were left waiting for a while. No Firey invaders came in, not even to ask if they could use a bathroom, and certainly no Waterbenders swam over to explain what was going on.
It wasn't until a larger ship arrived, sailing from what seemed to be the far shores where Ba Sing Se used to be, that it was time to receive visitors.
Of course, that was weird, too.
The new ship had a white flag of surrender on top of its bridge tower.
Sokka wondered what else would turn out weird.
For Mai, waking up was like crawling her way up out of a deep hole in the ground and just as exhausting. She had barely opened her eyes to the dim interior of a rustic hut before she felt the need to close them again. Yet, there was a nagging thought that wouldn’t let her given in to that fatigue, and when she focused enough on it, she snapped to full wakefulness.
She remembered the battle against the living ashland of Ba Sing Se, and the fact that her friends and allies might very well all be dead.
Mai sat up on her bedroll to find Sokka's Gran-Gran sitting next to her, tending a smile fire over which a teapot boiled.
Gran-Gran nodded. "Have some tea. It will help you gather your mind."
Well, that was both a good and a bad sign. If Sokka's Gran-Gran was here, Mai was safe and the world hadn't ended. On the other hand, she was being warned to 'gather her mind,' and that was usually the kind of thing you did before hearing about some tragedy.
Mai kept quiet and accepted the teacup when it was handed to her.
Once Mai had finished, Gran-Gran took the cup back and stood up. "Get dressed." She pointed to a pile of clothes- red clothes, retrieved from the depths of Mai's luggage in Appa's saddle. "Everyone is waiting for you." Then Gran-Gran left the hut.
Stranger and stranger.
Mai dressed in her old red clothes but didn't bother doing her hair up in a formal style. It would take too long, and she still wasn’t in the mood to make herself into the ideal Fire Nation heiress. Instead, she tied her hair into a simple knot that gathered it in a tail over her back.
Beneath the clothes were her remaining knives, not even enough to fill half her holsters, and her platinum sword.
Ah, so this was going to be a formal event, then.
She emerged from the hut looking elegant and armed and found everyone was indeed alive.
The night sky and stars were visible through the big hole in the top of the bay cavern, but bonfires lit up the refugee village. People danced around them, or sat around and talked animatedly. Mai saw Earthbenders and warriors and Airbender nuns and Water Tribe refugees all moving around and having what seemed to be a celebration.
She noticed, though, that some of the rebels and Earthbenders were acting as guards, staying aloof from the festivities and holding onto weapons.
Aang, Sokka, and Ty Lee were sitting around the nearest fire with Gran-Gran and the half-breed Water Tribe kids. Appa was lying on his stomach nearby, and Mai saw Momo attacking a pile of fruit up in the saddle. Aang tossed some kind of roasted vegetable to Appa, and then made a pair of marbles spin in midair to the delight of the kids. Sokka and Ty Lee were eating some porridge while they talked, Ty Lee leaning deeply into Sokka's personal space.
They all looked up at Mai as she approached. She hated being the center of attention, so she waved a hand in sardonic greeting. "Hi. What's going on?"
As soon as the last world left her mouth, Aang snapped his feet and was crushing her in a hug. Ty Lee followed half an instant later. Over Aang's bald head, Mai caught a glimpse of Sokka simply standing up and giving her a wave almost as sardonic as her own, but his smile was sloppy and genuine.
It seemed that she had been missed.
Why did she feel so relieved about that?
When the hug ended, Mai noticed that Aang's eyes were bloodshot, and tears were forming at the corners. "Hey," she said, "it's fine. I'm fine. Where's Katara? I need to think her for bringing my sword."
Something flickered across Aang's expression, and she noticed Sokka outright grimacing.
It was Gran-Gran who answered: "Katara is resting. She had a harder time of it than the rest of you."
Well, that sounded ominous. "Sorry I wasn't there for her."
Everyone blinked, but it was Sokka who said, "Why?"
Mai reached into her sleeve and found a razor disc to play with. Ash, she had missed being able to do that. "Because I wasn't good enough to get back out of the sinkhole and help. I've tried my best to be a worthwhile member of this team, since Crescent Island, and I failed to live up that standard."
Aang reached out with both of his hands and stilled the razor disc she was playing with. "It's okay. The fact that you've been trying- that you've wanted to make up for what you did before- is why we're happy to have you. We like you. You're our friend!"
Mai found that she didn't know what to say.
Now that she had what she wanted, she had no idea what to do with it.
Fortunately, she was spared having to use her brain by the arrival of Earth King Toph. "Hey, Lady Caldera Yu Mai is finally done with her beauty sleep? We ready to get to the meeting, now?" Jet and some of her Earthbenders shuffled into view behind her.
Mai looked to Aang. "Meeting?"
He sighed. "Remember the ash-monster?"
Mai nodded her confirmation. She remembered it. She remembered fighting it. She remembered saving Zuko and the terribly awkward conversation he wanted to have before rejoining the fight. She remembered the last-ditch strategy to stab at it with a giant platinum spear. She remembered defeating it before everything went dark.
She remembered Azula's lightning charging the platinum for the killing blow.
Mai looked to Ty Lee, and saw her own worry reflected in her friend's big gray eyes.
Aang went back to the campfire and retrieved his staff from where he had been sitting. "We were- well, rescued and brought back here by a Fire Navy force. In exchange for their help, the commander wants to meet with us for some kind of discussion. With all of us. Including you. As soon as possible. They didn't tell us what it was about. The only thing we know is who the commander is."
Mai kept her face blank. "It doesn't sound like a piece of information that's making you happy."
A ghost of smile flickered across Aang's face. "Not really. It's Commander Zhao."
Well, that explained why she was going to this meeting armed.
Toph stomped a foot that rattled the earth and motioned. "Come on, let's go see what this Zhao Jerk wants so we can kill him and throw his body in the bay."
Well, that sounded like a plan. Mai shook herself loose and fell into step behind the tiny Earth-tyrant. The group walked in silence for a while, and Mai could see the fatigue in everyone's bodies. It wasn't just her, then.
As they made their way through the celebrations, she said to Aang, "I don't suppose you know what happened to Z- Prince Zuko?"
His eyes flickered to her. "Zhao has him, Suki, and someone he called Princess Azula in 'protective custody.' I'm not sure what that really means."
"Me, neither," Mai mumbled. At least Azula wouldn't be at this meeting. But what was going on?
Toph led them through a portal in the lookout wall to the Full Moon Bay itself and the dock that used to be where newcomers to Ba Sing Se would board the ferries.
Now, a Fire Navy command ship was the only craft moored there.
Zhao was on the stone shore, the stars reflected in the waters behind him, standing stiffly at attention with a full honor guard. Mai regretted not sleeping longer if he had been on his feet waiting for her all this time.
Aang caught her small smile and returned the expression before putting on his own blank expression and stepping forward to Zhao. "We're all here. Now what did you want?"
Zhao lowered his gaze and sank to his knees. "Avatar." His voice was stiff and biting, but perfectly polite. "It is my duty to speak in the name of my nation, as directed personally by Prince Admiral Iroh, heir to the throne and Warlord of the North Pole. I- I offer my personal surrender to you, so that we can begin negotiating the cessation of hostilities between the Avatar and my country's military, the end of the Fire Nation's occupation of the Colonial Continent once known as the Earth Kingdom, and the unconditional surrender of the Fire Lord."
Mai couldn't stop herself from swinging to look at Aang again, and found him doing the same. She could only wonder if her own face betrayed the same surprise as his did.
Had she woken up in a new world, or could she possibly still be dreaming?
And how would she ever know the difference?
END OF ACT 2: Fallen to Earth
TO BE CONTINUED SPRING 2017 IN ACT 3: "Baptism By Fire"
I apologize once again for falling behind, I'm not very good at keeping true to my resolutions, but I'm caught up and I hope you get as much pleasure from reading this review as I will writing it.
That was a spectacular finale to a great second Act. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing many plot points coming together, especially those related to Aang's new mission in giving rest to these tormented spirits.
The battle with the ashland was crazy, though I must admit I had difficulty imagining it. Not because of your description, but rather because the gang was fighting a creature the size of a city and I wasn't sure how to depict the fight in my head in an artistically pleasing fashion. Nonetheless, you have a great imagination and you should be proud to have put into writing this exciting battle.
I don't know what the future for this story holds, but I believe Long Feng is still alive, right? He was knocked out, I think, but he didn't die, which means he can still stir up trouble for Aang and the rest of the world.
Additionally, we still don't know if Iroh is a friend or foe. He's been trying to get into contact with Aang for awhile, so I wonder if Aang will start asking the right kinds of questions when they finally meet. Iroh was the old man who told Aang the riddle to find that temple he and the gang went to before leaving for the Fire Temple.
This makes me wonder how much of what has happened is the result of Iroh gently prodding Aang along the path he has outlined for him? I'm probably way off, but there are so many details to remember about this story, that I've probably forgotten the most obvious clues.
Iroh also has enough power to surrender on behalf of his nation. Though that makes me wonder if he weilds that authority legitimately or if he's some sort of loose cannon? Will Azulon accept his son's decision, or will a rift form between the two. Zhao said Iroh was basically in open-rebellion, this suggests to me that the Fire Nation will divide over what course it is to take. Though I hope that the threat of a Spirit-Armageddon prompts those who are unsure about the whole working with the Avatar thing to get their priorities straightened out.
A third possibility is that Zhao is not acting on behalf of Iroh and is trying to ensnare Aang and Mai in a trap by putting them on a ship straight to the Fire Nation. Has anyone considered that?
Anyway, good work. Take your well-deserved rest and I hope to see this story return next year. Though I wonder, is each Act going to be some 200k+ work, or will there be variation in the length of each of these acts?
« Last Edit: Nov 16, 2016 04:05 pm by Colonel_Brian »
A/N: We back.
A/N2: I posted this last week on my other accounts, but I couldn't post here due to computer access issues. I figured I might as well wait a whole week, then, for a nice round number.
The fire was supposed to be for meditative purposes, but Iroh was grateful for its warmth nonetheless.
He had been living at the North Pole for years now, and while as a Master Firebender he was better able to keep himself comfortable than most people, the cold still wore on his old bones. The cure was simple - spending time in front of a comforting blaze, or taking a long bath in steaming water - but he often found himself too busy for such simple pleasures. He had too many responsibilities, and not enough time to just stop and enjoy life. That was too bad. Hopefully, he would be able to retire soon, and focus on the important things.
For now, he leaned towards the fire, and enjoyed the warmth.
No sooner had he closed his eyes than there was a knock on his chamber's door.
Iroh held back a sigh. "You may enter."
The door creaked open with the sound of metal grinding against metal, and then a voice like the warm glow of moonlight on ice said, "My apologies, your highness, but Lu Ten is having another..." Her voice choked off as she tried to evoke the trouble and failed.
Iroh turned to look at her. As ever, Princess Yue was the picture of royal grace, striving admirably to cover the anguish he knew was in her heart. The matter of Lu Ten was a burden on them all, but for the sake of her people and the world as a whole, she constantly found new supplies of strength and endurance within herself.
She was more than worthy of the bond she shared with Lu Ten, but that didn't stop Iroh from regretting it. Still, what was done was done, and if he was to make it right, he had to remain focused.
He wanted to go to Lu Ten, but he knew what would truly help his son, and it could only be found in front of this fire. "I have an important meeting that could start any minute now. Could you see to my son for the time being? I will be along as soon as I can."
Yue said nothing, merely bowing and closing the door.
Iroh knew he could trust her to do what was best.
Alone once more with the fire, Iroh sought a meditative state in which he could purge his worry for his son. It was difficult, for he liked to consider himself a doting father, and that kind of stress would only impede him in this latest task.
It took a clear mind to reach the Spirit World, and for all his visits, Iroh never found the journey to be an easy one.
Aang believed that the world naturally sought a kind of balance, but this was just ridiculous! "Hold on, did I hear that right? You're just giving up and ending the whole war just like that?"
He looked over to Mai, once again dressed in red but with her dark hair hanging behind her in a simple knot. Her eyes were wide, but in an instant she took control of her expression again and put on that blank face she preferred. She nodded to Aang, answering his question for him.
Next Aang looked to 'King' Toph. She was only a year older than Aang, and from what he could figure wasn't actually royalty, but the Earth rebels living with her in Full Moon Bay all regarded her as their leader with something like worshipful loyalty. Being blind, she let her head hang so that she seemed to be staring at the ground, her body tense and her toes digging into the dirt. She must have been using her advanced Earthbending to monitor everyone's bodies, sensing the difference between truths and lies. That must have also let her know that Aang was staring at her, because she swung her head towards him, giving him her unfocused gaze, and offered her own nod.
Lastly, Aang looked to Sokka. Sokka just shrugged.
So Aang stepped forward and planted his staff against the ground in a show of authority. "Then I accept your surrender. So, uh, what now?"
Captain Zhao grimaced and got up off his knees. "Now the negotiations begin. Make no mistake, Avatar; all you've done is accept my
surrender, and that of the forces under my command. I have no authority over anything else, and certainly not the Fire Nation as a whole. Not even my- my commanding officer, Prince Iroh, can claim that. But his highness wants to make a deal with you, and he does command a great deal of political and military power."
Mai snorted. "In other words, Prince Iroh really is the traitor the rumors say. But he wants to be a traitor in our favor."
"Close enough," Zhao sneered.
Well, that wasn't as great as the Fire Nation giving up right now, but it was a lot better than Aang had this morning. "So, what now?"
Zhao motioned to the warship docked behind him, along the pier that Aang had been told once hosted ferries that would take refugees to Ba Sing Se during the war. "Prince Iroh wishes to finalize the details of the agreement as soon as possible. He bid me take you aboard my ship, where you can meet him."
King Toph stepped up so that she was right next to Aang. "Hold on! If Prince Iroh is here, why isn't he the one making the sales pitch? And if you think I'm going to march right onto your little bath-toy where you can launch an ambush as soon as you work up the nerve, you can go soak your head in the latrines."
Well, she wasn't wrong. Aang shifted so that he was standing shoulder to shoulder with the rebel leader. "King Toph makes a good point. I can meet with Prince Iroh here in the camp where we'll all be safe."
Zhao's eyebrows rose, but there was none of his usual scowl on his face. "You question my honor?"
While Aang was trying to figure out how to word his reply, Mai went ahead and said, "Absolutely."
Zhao smirked. "Well, it makes no difference. Prince Iroh is still up at the North Pole, but he has his own methods. Perhaps the Avatar is familiar with them? My instructions say that Prince Iroh will meet you at a neutral location in the Spirit World. Aboard my ship is a room maintained by my Northern Water Tribe allies that offers an enhanced spiritual presence. Within, you can make the journey to the Spirit World under the guidance of a Water Sage and find Prince Iroh."
A Fire Nation prince was using the Spirit World as a conference room?
"And this- this meditation room on your ship is big enough for all of us?"
"Oh, no, not at all. The only ones invited to this meeting are you, Avatar, and your Fire Nation consultant." Zhao's gaze went unquestionably to Mai, and Aang caught a quick glimpse in those eyes of the hatred the captain felt for her. "Also invited are Prince Zuko and Princess Azula. Their participation is necessary for Prince Iroh's plans, and so they will have to support any agreement you all reach."
" Toph screeched, "what about me? I'm the Earth King!"
Zhao turned a cool gaze on her. "The Fire Nation recognizes no one by that title."
"I'll recognize your face
Aang grabbed her to stop her advance and said, "As the Avatar, I, uh, require the participation of, uh, representatives of the Earth Kingdom?"
Sokka grunted. "And what about the Water Tribes? I totally don't recognize Fire Nation authority over my people and lands and stuff!"
Zhao brought a hand up to his forehead. He took a deep breath and once again looked to Aang. "This is not anything official. Prince Iroh wants to speak with you,
Avatar. You can tell everyone about the details later and get their agreement, if you want. But how many of you can meditate deeply enough to enter the Spirit World?"
Aang looked around. Everyone was silent.
Then Mai said, "I'm sure I can't.
Zhao obviously wasn't making an attempt to keep the satisfaction out of his voice. "Then I suppose there's no reason for you to be aboard my ship, despite Iroh's instructions."
Aang reached out and took Mai's hand. "But you can come along as my bodyguard, right? After all, Prince Iroh invited you, and my body would be vulnerable. I trust you to keep me safe."
It saddened him, a little, to see the flicker of surprise in Mai's eyes at his words. But then she squeezed his hand, and his heart fluttered. He really liked how she looked with her dark hair loose like this.
With that settled, Aang looked back to Zhao. "Then I'll meet the prince with my bodyguard to hear his offer and carry it back to my friends. Let's go!"
Zhao didn't look pleased, but he dipped his head and then led the way past the formation of his soldiers and up the ramp to his ship.
Aang hoped he'd be able to handle this.
Mai hoped that she'd worthy of Aang's faith in her.
Yes, she was a Weapon of the Fire Nation, one of nine warriors of the Homeland deemed as effective as a whole army, given privilege and status in exchange for a lifetime of compulsory service to the Fire Lord. However, Mai's skill was with throwing blades, and her style mandated that she have access to plenty of them. After the long night in the Tiankeng Fortress sinkhole, her capture by Long Feng's Dai Li, and then the battle against the ash-monster, she was down to less than a single set. The remains of her Liu Shui
Flowing Water steel blades were all she had left, and if she had to fight an entire warship worth of soldiers, she'd run out quickly.
Then all she'd be left with was her platinum sword and a sour attitude. And neither one would be much good against Firebender armor.
She remained a step behind Aang, easily stepping back into the role of servant and guard, as Zhao and his soldiers guided them to this very spiritual place he promised. As they passed into the interior of the ship, into the cramped metal corridors that echoed with their footsteps, she kept an eye out for threats and catalogued the vulnerabilities she might need to exploit. If anyone tried to hurt Aang, she would already have a path mapped to a debilitating blow.
Nevertheless, she was taken by surprise when they turned a corner to reveal Zuko and Azula approaching from the opposite side of the hallway with their own set of guards.
Mai froze as Azula's eyes focused on her.
She had a single moment in which to experience a wave of nerve-numbing fear before Azula snarled and burst into a run.
Mai stumbled backwards and went for a weapon. Straight knife? Too easy for Azula to dodge. Razor disc? Azula used to like to catch those for practice. Sword? Useless until Azula got close, and then there'd be no defense against Firebending. Nothing would work and Azula was getting close and Mai had to do something
and those golden eyes were promising murder
and throw a blade any
blade hurry hurry hurry hurry
Zuko's cries of, "No, wait," echoed through the hall as some of Zhao's soldiers tried to step into Azula's path and Zhao himself backed away, but there was a blur or motion and a blast of blue light and the soldiers were down and Azula was still approaching.
"Mai," she hissed. "Traitor."
Mai shoved Aang to the ground, pulled a razor disc with each hand, and tried not to lose bladder control.
Azula's hands were burning now, blue flames dancing up the armor on her arms. She growled, raised her fists-
Mai got ready to throw-
Just a little closer-
The air was so hot-
And then a wave of water came in through a doorway on the right to smash into Azula, slamming her into the left wall with enough force to bounce. Instead of obeying gravity, though, the water rose again to surge up into Azula's face like an uppercut, sending the princess reeling backwards, and then it fell back down like a bunch of sandbags to collapse her.
When Azula fell, an old man in blue stepped into the hallway through the door. He was in a Waterbending stance, and it was with a thoroughly withering expression on his bearded face that he said, "Stay down, little girl."
Of course, that was the worst possible thing to say to Azula. She snapped into motion and Mai stumbled backwards again and-
She didn't even see the Waterbender move. One moment he was still, and then the next Mai's view of the fight was obscured by a deluge that wouldn't keep still. The only clues were the sounds of splashing and body armor clanging against the hall and Azula's gurgling cries.
When it was over, Azula was sprawled on the floor, dripping wet and, judging from the blinking, struggling to stay conscious.
Then she dropped motionless.
Mai finally exhaled.
Zhao grunted and said, "If Princess Azula cannot behave herself around the other guests, then I suppose we'll have to host her elsewhere. I trust you have no objections, Prince Zuko?"
Still at the far end of the hall, Zuko sighed and shook his head.
Aang got back to his feet and grabbed Mai's shoulders. "Are you okay? That was- That was close!"
Mai delayed her response until she could muster a bored tone. "Well, I guess that worked out as well as it could have."
She made sure to keep her shaking hands hidden in her sleeves. Weapons of the Fire Nation did not show fear.
Or, at least, that was their mystique.
Zuko wasn't sure whether to be relieved by Azula's removal.
On the one hand, it was Azula.
On the other hand, it left him surrounded by enemies and lacking in allies. Zhao had imprisoned Zuko once before, after the destruction of Crescent Island, and now Zhao seemed to be in command of this strange ship manned by both the Fire Navy and Water Tribals. The Avatar and Mai were being treated as honored guests, both of them allowed to carry weapons, while Suki and now Azula were locked up.
Zuko had woken up in the ship's brig, in a cell of his own, no more than an hour ago. The last thing he remembered was the death of the ash-monster. All of the cinders remaining from the destruction of Ba Sing Se had been raised to form a being of hate destruction the size of a city, and Zuko had helped rebel Earthbenders to fight it with a giant spear of platinum. Even that hadn't been entirely effective, until a bolt of lightning came out of nowhere to electrify the spear as it struck the cloud-like body of ash, and then the force of the resulting explosion had knocked Zuko out.
Defeating the monster was good, but waking up to find himself once again in Zhao's power brought a new set of problems.
Not that he knew it was Zhao, at first. As soon as Zuko realized he was a captive again, he began shouting, demanding to know why he was being imprisoned and where Suki was. She had been there, fighting the monster, supporting Zuko.
And that's when Zhao's face had appeared in the barred viewport of the door to Zuko's cell. "Why, Prince Zuko, whatever is the problem? You haven't been jailed. You're in protective custody. There are rebels and traitors all around, and my orders are to keep you safe."
Zuko had debated whether to just try throwing a fireball right through the bars at his enemy's face, but delayed the need for a decision by saying, "Whose orders? What's going on, Zhao?"
"Things have changed since the last time we met, Prince Zuko." Zhao's smug expression faded. "Your antics left me in a dangerous position, but I've found new allies. Perhaps you're unaware that Prince Iroh has taken an interest in the matter of the Avatar?"
"Uncle?!" Zuko's anger deflated, leaving him cold. "You've communicated with my uncle? Wh- what does he want with the Avatar?"
"Oh, you'll find out soon enough. I meant what I said, that you're in protective custody. Soon, you and your sister will get a chance for a family reunion with Prince Iroh. The Avatar and Lady Mai will be there, too."
"And what about Suki?"
Zhao's eyes had narrowed dangerously at the sound of her name. "Consider her part of your incentive to behave. You can imagine how surprised I was to learn that she survived your little prison break. You must have become quite attached to her during your time together." Zhao sniffed. "Officially, she's charged with the assassination of Admiral Yon Rha. Prince Iroh certainly has no interest in a failed spy, so her fate is entirely in my hands. But if you don't make trouble for me, then perhaps I can overlook the transgressions of so petty a player."
Zuko had clenched his fists together hard enough to feel his nails digging into his palms. He spun away from Zhao, but found the walls of his tiny cell looming over him claustrophobically. He was trapped, in more ways than one, and Suki was being used as a weakness.
Did he care that much about her, that he would go along with Zhao's games?
He still wasn't fully convinced that she was truly on his side, after all. She had stopped him from attacking the Avatar during the ash-monster's rampage, but her logic made sense and she claimed to be doing it for his own good. But then, she was also an effective liar, by her own admission.
In the end, Zuko had decided it didn't matter. There was no point in making a decision about Suki until he knew more about whatever Uncle Iroh intended. So he had compliantly but proudly let Zhao's guards escort him from his cell when the time came, meeting up with Azula to find her under a similar watch.
A short time later, they had caught their first sight of the Avatar and Mai.
And now thanks to Azula's hatred for her former friend, Zuko was once again alone.
At least there was one advantage to Azula's failure to kill the traitor. Although Zuko was fairly sure he would regret it later, he wanted a chance to talk to Mai again. She claimed, in their brief exchange during the battle against the massive ash-monster, that she had betrayed him more out of a desire to protect 'Aang' than to hurt Zuko in any way. He was interested in seeing if she had told the truth, and if she even understood what the truth really was.
Zuko let the guards escort him into the Old Waterbender's room, just behind the Avatar and Mai. He had expected it to be filled with Tribal fetishes and barbarian decorations, yet he found himself walking into the light of blazing fire pans carved into coiling dragons. The smell of cleansing incense filled the room, reminding Zuko of the Great Temple back home in the Fire Nation's capital. In center of the room, a low table covered in candles sat surrounded by flat pillows.
Something hung from the ceiling above the table, a collection of hollow wooden tubes suspended on strings that shifted in the warm air generated by the candle flames so that they clunked together to generate a hollow cascade of soothing background noise.
"Wow," the Avatar breathed, dashing past his guards to reach up and give the clunking thing a brush with his fingers. "A Lungta chime! I haven't heard one of those since- well, I guess it's been over a hundred years."
The old Waterbender came over and bowed at the waist to the Avatar. "I had one of my students carve it according to Prince Iroh's instructions. You may keep it once we're done here, if you like."
Zuko squared his shoulders and looked to the Waterbender. "And who are you, that my Uncle gives you such tasks?"
"I am Pakku, Master Waterbender of the Northern Water Tribe." His face tightened into a scowl that filled the lines of his face with ease. "And I'm here to make sure that you all have your meeting with Prince Iroh. So behave, child."
Zuko felt his inner fire flare at being patronized like that. But he had fought a tiring war against a giant monster yesterday, and today this Pakku had beaten Azula unconscious. Zuko decided he wasn't in the mood for real a fight.
Mai said, "You serve Iroh?"
"I do, young lady, what is necessary. Maybe you should try to understand that, because right now anything you have to say is a waste of everyone's time." Pakku turned to the guards, and Zuko caught a glimpse of Mai holding up a obscene gesture in retaliation. It reminded him of a little girl who would give a rare smile at how such crude antics would upset her own mother. Pakku must not have seen the display, because he simply said to the guards, "You can leave, now."
If Zuko was any judge of body language as conveyed through full Firebender armor, the guards weren't any more thrilled with the old Waterbender than Mai was. Still, they obeyed him and left the room.
"Finally." Pakku went over to the table and sat down on one of the mats. "Go ahead and take your places. I shall be guiding you in your transition to the Spirit World."
Zuko took a kneeling posture on a mat, while on the other side of the table, the Avatar settled into a lotus position.
Mai remained standing.
Pakku shifted his gaze from Zuko to Aang and back again. "I hope you both understand the basics of meditation. Otherwise we'll be here all night."
Zuko just glared at the man, but the Avatar raised his hand and said, "Yessir!"
"Good. This is basically that." Pakku looked back and forth at them. "Well? Are you just going to sit there like lumps on an ice flow, or do you intend to get on with it anytime soon?"
Zuko heard Mai's annoyed snort, but he didn't feel bothered much himself. This was just how teachers worked. It actually made him less worried about Pakku's qualifications. So he closed his eyes and steadied his breathing, inhaling deeply through his nose. The air tickled his nostrils and the smell of the incense filled his perception.
"Good," Pakku's voice came. "Focus on the energies in this room. I have purified it, washing away the detritus of life and leaving it full of clean spiritual energy. Feel the heat of the fires around us. They pulse with the same energy that fills this room. The fires warm the air, transferring energy, and the air in turn moves around us and through us. It moves the chimes above our heads." Pakku's speech had achieved a kind of rhythm, like a spoken song, growing quieter until he was whispering. "Breathe in the air. Let it fill you. You contain the energies, and as your body converts the heat and air into life, you become one with the energies. You are the energies."
Zuko was also one with the flames. He could not see them with his eyes closed, but he could feel them pulsing in time with his breathing, emanating the same warmth as his blood.
"I feel," the Avatar said, "connected."
"Yes." Pakku's voice had lost all its hardness, honeyed with real satisfaction. "We are all connected. Connected to things we cannot even perceive. We three are connected now, and I am beginning my journey to the Spirit World. Focus on the energies around you, and I will show the path along them to another plane of existence. Breathe. Focus. Feel the energies around you, within you. Feel the Spirit World around you, within you."
Zuko had never been lighter. For the first time in five years, he did not feel his scar pulling at the skin of his face. His body had faded, leaving just his heat and his energies flowing in a shape that might have been human, if the concept of 'human' still had meaning to him. Something was drawing him, leading his energies into a flow like a river, a river of such vastness that it could have washed away the entire world.
Then there was a flare like he had been struck by lightning, but since he had no body, there was no pain. There was just energy, charging him and powering him and making him greater than he had ever been before.
So charged, Zuko opened his eyes, and found himself kneeling not in a room on a battleship, but on a waxy green surface that stretched out to his left. He looked around, and found that he was on something the size of the deck of a Fire Nation warship.
And where the green surface ended, clouds and empty sky beckoned.
Zuko started to stand, but an old, familiar voice said, "Relax, nephew. We are quite safe here. My apologies for the drama of the view, but I felt that an elevated perspective would help with our discussions."
Zuko turned to his right, and found his Uncle Iroh sitting comfortably and smiling, completing the diamond formation Pakku and the Avatar, with himself at the head.
For Katara, there was little difference between sleep and wakefulness.
When she was awake, she sat in an unlit hut, surrounded by round walls and a low ceiling, covered in complete darkness. Outside, the Water Tribe village of the 'Middle Pole' was having a late night celebration, judging from the sounds, but that might as well have been happening in the Spirit World as far as Katara was concerned. She sat in the center of her borrowed hut, hugging her legs to her body, listening to the echoes of her own breathing in the small space.
When she was asleep, she had no dreams. There was just darkness, nothingness.
And when she awoke again, the darkness was still there.
It was comforting in its consistency. There was no sky here, no chance of being forced to confront that massive emptiness above. Normally, she was content when indoors, even in larger rooms. As long as there was a roof over her head, like in that horrible Fire Nation prison where she had grown up, her anxiety remained dormant. Outside, her large cone-hat was enough to let her get by, as long as she kept the brim low in her vision and didn't look up.
Now, Katara wasn't sure if she'd ever be able to leave this hut again.
She had been the first to stand against that ash-monster, mustering all her courage against its massive size that reminded her how large the sky must be to cover such a thing. But then the monster had attacked in an unexpected way, assaulting her not with physical power, but with pure fear. It had revealed the true vastness, the true emptiness, of the sky that covered an entire world, and her mind just wasn't large enough, wasn't strong enough, to handle it.
She didn't think she'd ever be able to handle it.
She might have been drifting off to sleep again, or perhaps just floating through the nothingness that was her current waking world, when she heard a sound behind her. The cloth that hung over the hut's entrance was shifting, and there were footsteps on the hut's wooden floor.
A warm hand came to rest on Katara's back, and Ty Lee said, "Hey, are you hungry?"
Katara didn't reply.
Of course, that was no problem for Ty Lee. "I brought you some stew. I don't know what's in it but it's pretty good. You can actually chew the meat, which isn't always possible with a lot of the stews out there. When I was with the circus, traveling around, I had some pretty bad stews. But this one is good. No kick to it, but good."
Ty Lee's hand moved over Katara's back, rubbing it gently. "Your grandma is outside. She's been waiting for you. She'll wait some more, if you don't want to talk to anyone yet, but I just thought you should know that she's still waiting."
Katara winced in the dark. Gran-Gran had been there when Katara woke up again after the ash-monster was defeated, the grandmother she lost as a child when the Fire Nation imprisoned her, but the vision of that super-sky was still fresh in her mind, and she had screamed until the lights had been put out and she was left alone in the hut.
Katara had called out her apologies, later, but she wasn't sure if anyone heard her.
Ty Lee said, "Your stew is getting cold."
Katara squeezed her eyes shut as if that could somehow block out the sound of that sweet voice. "Why did you come in here?"
"Oh, wow, you're talking!" Katara felt Ty Lee's hand patting her back. "I didn't think you'd talk to me!"
"Then why did you come in?"
"To bring you stew and talk to you. I just didn't think you'd say anything back. Mai doesn't always like to say things back to me, and she loves me. (She's never said it but I know it's true.) So, are you feeling better?"
Katara started to shake her head, before she remembered the darkness. "No."
"Oh." Ty Lee shifted so that she was sitting beside Katara, their legs touching, and then a warm bowl came to rest in Katara's lap. It must have been the stew. "Well, while you eat, I'll tell you what things are like outside so that you won't be surprised when you're ready. Okay?"
Katara said nothing. But with the bowl of stew right in front of her, smelling like a childhood memory, she decided that it wouldn't hurt to let Ty Lee keep talking. The darkness was still here, as well as the walls and the ceiling.
"Okay," Ty Lee decided. "Well, the really noticeable thing is that we're underground. We're in this big cave that has its own bay! The water goes out to a giant lake, and on the other side is Ba Sing Se. The cave's ceiling is really high, high enough that there isn't any echo, but it's still kind of creepy to me. There's an opening in the center of it, though, and you can see some of the stars through it, but not the moon." Ty Lee suddenly gasped. "I don't even know if the moon is out tonight!"
Katara smiled in the darkness.
Ty Lee continued, "So that Fire Nation ship that rescued us turned out to have Captain Zhao on it. I hate him. But he says he's surrendering and Prince Iroh sent him to figure out how to end the war or something, so Aang and Mai went aboard to talk. I was afraid for them, but I left because Zhao said that Zuko and Azula are aboard, too."
Katara raised her head. "They're the Firebenders who attacked us. When we stole the platinum shipment and you-" Katara felt the smile come back. "And you saved Aang and me and threw them both overboard."
Ty Lee was quiet for a while after that. "Yeah. Thinking about it still scares me. Azula still scares me. But- but what you said on that ship, about how you keeping going even though you're afraid of the sky, that helped me get up and fight. Even if it was in disguise."
"Is that what you really came in here to tell me?" Katara sighed. "That I've lost my courage?"
"No. We're just talking. And I don't think you lost your courage at all. But if you wanted to step outside and yell 'I'm not afraid of you!' at the sky, and it was because you were inspired by how I punched Azula in the face instead of shivering and throwing up, then that would make me happy."
Katara lifted the bowl of stew and sipped at it. It tasted just like she remembered, back when she was a little girl living with her family in their ancestral lands. "Well, you didn't see me out there. I got so scared I just shut down."
"No," Ty Lee drawled. "But I can see you now."
"No you can't."
"No, I can't. But I can see your aura. (Yes, even in the dark.) You have a lot of silver and fear, but that's not your only color. There's blue, too. And even dark red."
"What do those mean?" Katara finished the last of the stew, and put the bowl down on the floor.
"That you're a caring person, and that you're a lot stronger than you think." There was the sound of the bowl scraping on the floor; Ty Lee must have taken it. "You're going to be okay, Katara. And it will make a lot of people very happy."
Katara could hear Ty Lee get up, and then the sound of the cloth over the hut's entrance shifting. She was alone in the dark again.
But, it seemed, she was shining with her own colored light.
It took Aang a long moment to realize where he was.
He knew from the start that it was the Spirit World. Master Pakku had helped bring them all here, and it was amazing! The air was alive in ways that even the winds floating down off the Axis Mundi into the Southern Air Temple weren't. That was the first clue, the air so bright and singing that they could only be deep in the sky. But the amazing part was that they weren't on a tower, or a mountain, or even flying on a dragon or sky bison.
No, the waxy green surface they were sitting on was the giveaway. It reminded Aang of the fronds of the dalmods in the tropic regions, when he used to visit his friend Kuzon in the Fire Nation.
They were seated on a giant leaf, stiff and strong enough to hold them up even as it extended out across a vast sky. Aang looked around when he reached this revelation, and discovered that the gray smear that extended behind Zuko was not a cloud, as he originally thought, but the trunk of a massive tree.
Aang couldn't stop smiling about it. "This place is great!"
The old man who Aang could only assume was Iroh smiled back. "It is one of my favorite places to visit. But beware, Avatar! I see you straining to remain sitting, but this is no place for running around, or even flying. We cannot bend in the Spirit World. Our bodies are not present, and it's debatable whether there are even elements to command! Things are different here, but special in their own way."
Aang was going to ask further questions about that, but Master Pakku spoke up with, "If you don't need me, Grand Lotus, there are things I need to see to back in the material world. I trust you're capable of handling this by yourself?"
"Yes, that is fine. Thank you for your efforts, Pakku."
"Oh, sure, whatever my prince commands." And on that sour note, Pakku faded like a dream.
Aang blinked. "I guess you guys aren't friends, then."
"Well, I conquered his home. I have tried to do right by Northern Water Tribe, but even my greatest efforts can only accomplish so much."
Zuko burst out with, "Is that what you've been doing all this time? Playing with the Tribals? You've been out of touch for years, except to break Lu Ten's engagement to Mai!"
Aang cleared his throat. "They don't like to be called that. Tribals, I mean."
Zuko looked to him, a one-eyed glare crinkled with confusion. Then Zuko shook his head and turned back to Iroh. "Uncle, please, what is this all about? Why didn't you come home when you were called? Why are you working with Zhao?"
So Zuko didn't know? Aang took a deep breath and prepared to find out exactly how cranky this particular Firebender could get. "Zhao surrendered to me, and said that Prince Iroh wanted to end the war and free the other nations."
Zuko's one eye went wide, and he whipped around to give his uncle a pleading look. "That can't be true!"
Iroh inclined his head towards Aang. "He is right. That is indeed my offer. I've tried to discuss this with you before, Avatar Aang, but getting in touch with you has been difficult. I am isolated at the North Pole, but have learned how to communicate with my associates here in the Spirit World, or for those who can't reach it, through dreams."
"Dreams?" Aang searched through his memory, and found an answer in the image of an old man serving tea. "Hey, I remember! I had a dream that told me how to find the secret Earthbender village! Someone served me tea and gave me a bunch of rhyming clues. That was you?!"
Iroh nodded. "I am glad I was able to assist you. Unfortunately, contacting you has proved difficult since then, or I would have coordinated more closely with you before this rather abrupt encounter. Surely, it would have made connecting you with the new Airbender nuns much easier. I'm afraid much of the difficulty was the result of miscommunications, for which I take full responsibility."
Aang leaned back, trying to make sense of it. "Miscommunication? But- Zhao! Zhao's working for you now, and- you had him capture the nuns?!" Was this guy an enemy after all? And Aang couldn't Airbend here! But if Mai could at least protect his body, maybe he could-
"No, not capture!" Iroh held up his hands as if surrendering. "That just goes to show the problem. I heard of the plight of the nuns. Their Mother Malu is a Grand Lotus of a group called the White Lotus, just as I am. I tried to send help, and then protect the Airbenders from people like this Long Feng who might try to hurt them. You, unfortunately, stumbled across the situation before I could find a solution, and the Fire Army responded with their typical hostility. Please, Avatar Aang, I never intended for anyone to get hurt. The nuns were safe and unharmed when you found them, were they not?"
Aang had to admit that it was true. Even from Ty Lee's description, the prison was standard enough until the attack on the sinkhole fortress created danger. It wasn't like how Katara and the Southern Waterbenders were kept imprisoned.
On the other hand, it was an underground fortress that almost killed Aang and his friends.
While Aang was silent, Zuko stood up and stomped away from the gathering, shaking the giant leaf beneath them. "I can't believe this, Uncle! You've been committing treason! Making a deal with the Avatar? He's our enemy! He's trying to destroy everything we've built!"
Iroh, amazingly, nodded. "There are greater concerns than the Fire Nation's glory, nephew. We are destroying the world, and it is in everyone's best interest to help restore it."
Zuko dropped his head into his hands. Aang could sympathize, finding this all just as confusing. Eventually, Zuko looked up and said, "I'm not a fool. I know that many colonists suffer. I've walked the Earth Kingdom. We were taught that the Fire Nation is bringing civilization and prosperity to the savages of the world, but I've learned how that's come with violence. But to give it all up, now- what would be left to fix? The best course is to improve the Fire Nation's rule, make it more generous and less violent!"
Hearing those excuses, Aang found himself grateful for his friendship with Mai. He hadn't quite realized it at the time, but when she was lying to him, pretending to be his friend even as she tried to serve Zuko, she was also learning how wrong she had been about the Fire Nation, and unconsciously teaching Aang how to deal with it. "Prince Zuko, that sounds good when you say it, but is it even possible? Do you know what soldiers do when they think they're better than the people they've conquered? This isn't something that can be fixed by ordering people to be nicer to each other."
Zuko's glare hardened again. "The Fire Nation has more honor than you give it credit for! Maybe- maybe there are people- important people who lack honor- but there are good people, too!"
Aang nodded. "I know. I'm friends with Mai. That's how I've learned that a lot of people struggle with what's honorable to them. She's like family to me now, but she's not perfect. None of us are. And the Fire Nation created the ashlands."
Zuko flinched at that last word.
"The Avatar's wisdom is far greater than the appearance of his age," Iroh intoned. "You've reached right to the heart of the matter, Avatar Aang. Thank you! The ashlands are proof that the Fire Nation's evil has gone beyond how it treats the people it claims to rule. We have hurt the world itself, and the consequences for that are dire. Zhao told me about what you fought on the remains of Ba Sing Se. Yes, that was the work of this Long Feng, but the darkness was already there for him to use. The Fire Nation cannot settle spirits with generous rule, or restore the balance by training our soldiers to be nicer. We broke things, perhaps irrevocably, and all we can do now is step away and hope that by focusing on our own balance, we can help the rest of the world heal."
Zuko shook his head. "Uncle, where is this coming from? You've been up at the North Pole all this time? Are these things the Tr- the Water Tribe people have told you?"
"They tried." Iroh sighed and seemed to deflate where he sat. "I failed to listen, at first. Like you, nephew, I could not reconcile everything I thought I knew with this wisdom. But-" Iroh took a deep, shuddering breath. "But I have come to believe that the only way to save my son is to heal the world. To restore the kind of balance I refused to believe in."
Aang felt the pain in those words like a physical force emanating from Iroh. The grief in his voice was a cold, wrenching thing.
Zuko must have felt it, too, for he lost his defensive posture and leaned towards his uncle. "Lu Ten? What's happened to him?"
Pakku opened his eyes to find himself back in the material world, in the meditation room aboard that blowhard Zhao's ship, being stared at by the sallow-faced knife-girl from the Fire Nation. "It's not a woman's place to eye people like that."
She showed no expression, but Pakku had experience enough to see the tenseness in the way she stood there, pretending to be so proper. It was a tenseness that could easily transform into violence.
But Pakku wasn't worried, because he knew that transformation was far too slow to be a danger to him.
Remembering that this Mai wasn't worth the time or annoyance, he stood up and straightened his coat. "I have things to see to. Your friends will wake up when their conference with Prince Iroh is at an end. Don't touch them."
To his retreating back, he heard the girl mutter, "Don't hurry back on my account."
Pakku left the room, noted the Firebender guards at the door as expected, and brushed past them to head to the main deck. Despite the amount of time he had spent on this metal monstrosity of a boat, sailing all the way down from the North Pole on Iroh's orders, he still wasn't used to the way his footsteps echoed in the metal halls. At least, as long as the ship was docked, the unholy thrum of the engine was silenced. That had been the most off-putting part.
No, scratch that. As Pakku emerged out onto the ship's deck and found Commander Zhao conferring with some of his officers, he realized that the true worst part was dealing with racist conquering monsters like Sideburns over there.
Still, Pakku knew what he had to do. Not letting his disgust show on his face, he went over to Zhao, waited to be acknowledged, and said, "I'm going ashore to inspect the refugees from the Southern Water Tribe."
Zhao nodded. "If you wish."
Pakku started to move.
"But before you do-"
Pakku stopped and looked back.
Zhao continued, "Our unplanned prisoner is awake now. Did you want to see to him before going ashore?"
Pakku grinded his teeth together, a bad habit he intended to break one of these days when the world stopped aggravating him so much. (In other words: never.) "Of course, Commander. Thank you for informing me."
Fortunately, Pakku wasn't required to bow to Zhao before turning his back.
Pakku himself had informed Iroh of the unplanned prisoner, and alone had received the specific instructions on what was required. Zhao, for all his posturing, was still just Iroh's lackey in the Fire Navy, and only knew that the prisoner had to be kept secret from the other guests.
It didn't bear thinking about, what a person such as Zhao would do with more information.
As he left the main deck, Pakku looked around and spotted one of his more skilled students, Kinto, on guard duty. Pakku didn't like the young man at all, but he was a powerful Waterbender, and his specific flaws would come in use with this task. Pakku waved Kinto over, and led his student back into the ship's interior. "Kinto, I have a job for you. Stand up straight and listen for instructions, okay?"
"Of course, Master Pakku."
They passed through hallways lit by depressing red lanterns, dodging around Firebenders in their disgusting armor. No one stopped Pakku as he made his way to the brig, past the general holding cells, past the more secure rooms where the Fire Princess was sleeping off her stupidity and the so-called 'Kyoshi Warrior' was stewing in her ineffectiveness.
There was a lone cell at the end of the row, separated from the others, and the viewport in the door had a sliding cover so that all sound from within could be cut off.
Pakku waited while the guards unlatched the door, and then went in with Kinto.
Sitting in a corner of the cell, hunched pathetically, the man called Long Feng failed to look up at his visitors.
Pakku clasped his hands behind his back. "This is your situation. You are trapped on a Fire Navy vessel. Your men have been captured by this Queen Toph Bei Fong or whatever she calls herself, and I'm told that she's already dispatched some of her people to seize your bases and any books they find. The Airbender women are under Bei Fong's protection, as well. The Avatar is meeting now with Prince Iroh to forge an alliance. Put simply, your life is a disaster."
Long Feng finally looked up.
Pakku nodded at him. "No one off this ship knows that you're alive. No one on this ship cares. And so you will tell me all you know about the ceremony and mysticism that allowed you turn the ash of Ba Sing Se into an autonomous creature. All the information in those books you smuggled out of Ba Sing Se. All the lore Avatar Kyoshi had forbidden people from reading."
Long Feng snorted. "Or?"
Pakku stepped forward and leaned over to look Long Feng directly in the eyes. "I am not without sympathy for your situation. My homeland is under occupation of the Fire Nation, too. But resistance is not an option for me. I'm not going to try to trick you into confiding with me. You're probably a better liar than I'll ever be. So this is going to be simple. Kinto here is one of my best students, capable of such fine Waterbending that he can manipulate the fluids in a person's stomach. You can imagine the types of sensations he's capable of inflicting."
Long Feng's lips pressed together. He seemed to know what he was in for.
Pakku stepped back to the far side of the cell. "Go ahead and start talking whenever you want. Kinto, practice your worst skills until he tells me what I want to know."
Kinto, the degenerate, actually grinned as he stepped forward.
Pakku bit back on a sigh. It was depressing, becoming a man that disgusted himself.
Zuko stood tall on a giant leaf in the Spirit World while Uncle Iroh sat at his feet and blinked away tears.
He had never felt more lost.
Uncle wanted to give up everything the Fire Nation had achieved, and now Lu Ten might be sick?
Zuko had hoped that he could maybe find his home again, if he managed to end his exile. But this-
This was change. Change, it seemed, could not be denied.
Uncle Iroh finally calmed enough to say. "Something terrible has happened to your cousin. He has a- an affliction, one of a spiritual nature. I've tried everything to save him! I've researched the obscure knowledge of all the nations on earth, to no avail! That is why I haven't come home, nephew, even after the Fire Lord commanded it. I could not bring Lu Ten home with me, and I will not abandon my son."
Avatar Aang ran a hand over his tattooed head. "Maybe I can help with that? I've been learning about fixing spiritual energies and-"
"Thank, Avatar, but let us be frank- you are a novice, yet. There is no shame in that! But you still have much to learn. The White Lotus group I spoke of is a kind of philosophy club. It began, ages ago, with a devotion to the game of Pai Sho, connecting players across the world, but it has since become a network devoted to the free exchange of ideas and philosophy. I used it to communicate with sages and shamans and wise men across the world! If they could not help me, who can?"
Zuko started to say, "Grandf-" Then he remembered his place. "The Fire Lord and his Sages-"
"The Fire Lord would not help, nephew even if he knew." Uncle gave a bitter laugh that sounded alien in his voice. "My father has grown bitter and unloving. I know, in my heart, that he would have me abandon Lu Ten. That is why I have no compunctions about opposing him to set everything right." Uncle turned to look at the Avatar with a hardness that made his earlier tears almost seem like a dream. "That is why I have reached out to you. You know what drives me, now. You and I both need my father, Fire Lord Azulon, removed from the Flaming Throne. Help me do it, and I will take up the crown and end all hostilities with the rest of the world. I will give back the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes. I will provide what resources and gold are needed to help the healing.
"And in doing so, I will save the life of my son."
The Avatar rose to his feet and started hopping from foot to foot. It made him look even more like a child in Zuko's eyes. "I'm in! Where do we start?"
Uncle Iroh smiled. "We let my nephew drag you back to the Fire Nation to fulfill the terms of his banishment. Then you just need to organize a coup amongst the entire Homeland's leadership!"
Zuko spun to face the Avatar.
The Avatar blinked back at him.
Zuko looked back to his uncle, who grinned with that mischievous look in his eyes that could herald either a silly magic trick or a devastating tactical maneuver.
Then he and the Avatar both said, "Come again?"
TO BE CONTINUED
Gatherings and Scatterings
Azula returned to consciousness, slowly and painfully, to find the Kyoshi Warrior girl leaning over her.
Her first thought was to go ahead and kill Suki right there for the crime of gazing upon a Princess of the Fire Nation without permission, but before she could work up the energy for a good heart-boiling flame, she remembered what had happened.
Mai was on Zhao's ship!
With the Avatar.
Azula groaned as it came back- her attempt to kill Mai right there in the ship's corridors, the delicious look of terror in the traitor's eyes, and then the short and soggy battle with the mysterious Waterbender who had come out of nowhere to deny Azula her vengeance.
Azula squeezed her eyes shut. She had failed. She had failed to kill Mai, and failed to be aware enough of her surroundings to avoid the Waterbender's ambush. That he had gone on to beat her unconscious without her being able to so much as attempt a counterattack spoke to his skill, but he should have never gotten that first shot.
Less than perfect was less than acceptable.
And Azula had just proven herself less than perfect.
She wondered what Father would think when he found out, but quickly shut that line of thought down. She needed to be able to function, to make up for her mistake. She couldn't do that while directing her thoughts along such a dangerous road.
Azula sat up and opened her eyes again. Suki was crouching nearby, just out of reach. (Smart of her.) They were in a cell in the ship's brig, just like the one Azula had woken up in after the victory against the Ash Monster of Ba Sing Se, but before she had been. "Why are you here?"
Suki's gave a one-shoulder shrug. "The guards wanted to make sure you were okay after that beating, but didn't care to risk their lives to make sure. I guess I'm considered expendable."
Hm. "And where's Zuko?"
"Still wherever they were taking you both. I haven't been told much."
No, Suki wouldn't have been. And Azula herself was now dis-invited from whatever this 'reunion' with Uncle was. How convenient that Zuzu was the only one there besides enemies and traitors.
Azula was not very familiar with Father's brother. He had been away for much of her life, pursuing his campaigns against the Tribals. During his visits, he had been a charming and charismatic presence in Grandfather’s court and quite beloved by Mother and Zuko, but Father had never seemed pleased with Iroh, so Azula kept her distance even though she liked his jokes. She had been looking forward to Mai's marriage to Lu Ten if just to get a spy close to that branch of the family and see what information came to light.
But then Uncle had planted his flag at the North Pole and stayed there for years, eventually canceling the betrothal.
Now he was back, and taking an interest in the matter of the Avatar.
Yes, it had been a mistake for Azula to throw herself into an attack on Mai. But a single mistake didn't mean she was going to lose what might be a new war. Not when Father's greatest rival was involved.
Aang couldn't deny the feeling that he had been in conversations like this before.
Monk Gyatso had always had a great sense of humor, along with a really clever mind, and when he got in a mood, he could turn conversation itself into an exciting game! Those times, Aang would never know what Gyatso would say next, what outlandish assertion would come from a seemingly innocuous lead-in. It was lots of fun, especially when one of the stuffy monks like Tashi got roped in. Aang saw it as another sign of Gyatso's specific wisdom of a sense of humor combined with knowing people.
Iroh's suggestion, though, left Aang wondering if the old prince might not be all there. "If I let Zuko throw me in jail, how am I supposed to convince anyone to launch a coup against the Fire Lord?"
Next to Aang, Zuko crossed his arms. "Good question."
"Yes, perhaps there has been a misunderstanding." The glint in Iroh's eyes was a perfect match for the look Gyatso had whenever he was being clever. He remained sitting, completely comfortable on the giant leaf high in the sky that was his chosen meeting place. "I didn't mean that Zuko should throw anyone in a prison. That would indeed be quite unpleasant! I've reviewed the proclamation about your banishment, Zuko, and the terms only say that you need to 'capture' the Avatar and bring him back to the Fire Nation. Avatar Aang, if you surrender to Zuko, just as Zhao did to you, there will be no need for violence or imprisonment. In fact, Zuko can grant your parole so that you will not be uncomfortable. "
He turned to his nephew and continued, "Certainly, Zuko, it would be no dishonor to you if, instead of bringing the Avatar back in chains, you arrived in the Homeland with him in peace, both of you ready to discuss how the Fire Nation can begin healing the world. Zhao will arrange things, and you both can safely set foot on Fire Nation soil within a week!"
Aang smiled as the Gyatso-like playfulness of the plan became clear. "Yeah, it's all just about words, right? We use the right words and behave, and they won't be able to do anything about it!"
Zuko made a disgusted sound from the back of his throat. "That's foolishness! Do you two really think that word games will stop Grandfather from having the Avatar tossed into the Caldera's Prison Tower? Or that I won't be seen as weak and pathetic for allowing our greatest enemy to wander around free?"
"Yes, nephew, I do." With a grunt, Iroh stood up and walked past both Zuko and Aang near to the edge of the leaf-platform. He looked out over the blue sky, the wind tousling some of the stray hairs in his beard. "And the reason is politics. That's where the coup comes in. According to my contacts back in the Homeland, there is a growing discontent with my father's rule. The military leadership knows about the rampaging spirits in the Earth Kingdom and the platinum weapons that are coming too slowly to deal with the problem. The generals worry that the Fire Lord will blame them for the failures."
Aang nodded. He had stopped a team of Fire Nation hunters using platinum weapons to hunt a peaceful spirit. It had been difficult, and it had resulted in the death of Guru Pathik, but even that had taken the Fire Nation three train-tanks and an elite squad. (He was glad his friends had wrecked those tanks.)
Iroh continued, "Meanwhile, the governors are resentful of the way my father continues to consolidate power in the Capital. They find themselves in competition for less and less influence, and are aware that working together would get them more than fighting each other. Both parties are looking for a chance to stand against the Fire Lord, and will be more than happy to let our ruse play out, especially if the most deadly force in the world is siding with them."
Aang kept nodding along until Iroh stopped talking and turned around. Aang waited for the next part, to hear what deadly force he would have to deal with, but instead the old prince just looked at him.
Then Aang realized that Zuko was looking at him, too.
They were both looking at 'the Avatar.'
"Wait, me? I'm the deadly force?"
Iroh chuckled. "You are obviously a gentle soul, young Avatar, but news of the South Pole and Crescent Island has traveled far."
"That didn't stop all the Firebenders I've met from trying to roast me!"
Zuko nodded. "I've grown up hearing about how Avatar Roku was weak and a traitor, and the Air Nomads honorless opportunists who tried to force their weak ways on the rest of the world."
What?! "That's what they say about us? All because we don't want to run around hurting people and taking whatever looks good?"
Iroh sighed. "That's better than what is taught in our schools, that the Fire Nation was forced to strike preemptively to protect ourselves from a rampaging Air Nation Army."
Aang's stomach started hurting. "You teach kids that?! No wonder everything is so messed up!"
Zuko shook his head. "I didn't know that about the schools. We're lying to our own children now?"
"Now you see, nephew, why fixing the state of the world is not simply a matter of holding our soldiers to a higher standard. And yes, Avatar Aang, you will need to earn your full rightful authority. But fear is a kind of respect, or close enough for our purposes, and the Fire Nation fears you. If you come in peace, offering both solutions and a strength that can be shared, then you have a chance of convincing the leadership to withdraw their support from Azulon and transfer it to me. Especially with a victorious Prince of the Fire Nation from the Ozai faction on your side, and a Weapon of the Fire Nation behind you both."
Aang thought about it. Iroh made it sound so logical, but he'd have to walk into the Fire Nation and meet with these politicians before he'd know whether it was all true. But if it wasn't, did it matter? Was there any other way for him to start working on the damage that had been done in his hundred-year absence?
He'd saved the Southern Waterbenders when he helped rescue Katara, protected a pixiu spirit, found new Airbenders, and put a stop to Long Feng's desecrations. Those were all good things, things that improved the world.
But was it enough? He couldn't keep protecting all those people while going on to help everyone else. Even the Airbender nuns had been hurt again while he was distracted.
Aang was ready to agree to Iroh's plan.
Then Zuko said, "Uncle, are you out of your mind?!"
After his 'interrogation' session with Long Feng, Pakku needed some air.
Not that any amount of breathing would make this whole mess of a situation into something acceptable.
But at least now Pakku was free to pursue his more personal mission. He made his way out of the brig of Zhao's ship, leaving Kinto to clean up Long Feng's cell. Rather than heading back up to the main deck, where he would almost certainly run into Zhao and those ridiculous sideburns again, Pakku instead headed to the rear deck, nodded an acknowledgement to the Firebender guard stationed there, and then sent the man into a panic by heaving himself over the rail.
As he fell, Pakku summoned the waters of the bay to come up and meet him, freezing beneath his feet and turning his fall into a pleasant surfing. He rode the ice board over to the pier, where he came ashore and passed through dock facilities and emerged into a village of tents and skin huts.
So this was where the fugitives of the Southern Tribe were living, eh? It looked like a dump.
Torches lit up the darkness, and there were more people about than Pakku would have expected this many hours past midnight, considering that there were no Waterbenders in the South, but whatever event had been going on seemed to be dying down. Some men were putting away musical instruments and cleaning up the remains of bonfires, while women gathered up the detritus of a feast and the children who had fallen asleep right there on the ground.
Two figures made their way down the lane towards Pakku, attempting to sneak around in that universal way that children thought would render them invisible but did no such thing. Pakku didn't have offspring of his own, but he had students, which was almost as bad. As they tried to sneak past him, he stepped into their path. "You two."
They halted in the light of the torches, stiffening.
The taller one was a girl, and having lived under Fire Nation rule for years now, Pakku recognized what her pale yellow eyes signified. The shorter one was a boy with skin as light as the Knife Woman's and hair tied up in something that aspired to be a Warrior's Wolf Tail.
Still, whatever their origins, they might be able to answer Pakku's question. "You two. Maybe you can help me. I'm searching for someone." He looked to the boy. "Do you know Kanna?"
The boy blinked up at him.
The girl said, "Hello, sir. Are you one of the Waterbenders who came from the North on the Fire Nation ship? My name is Shila, and this is Naklin."
Hm. Water Tribe names. Pakku kept his gaze on the boy. "Well, child, are you going to answer my question? Do you know Kanna? Did she live at the South Pole? Eh?" The boy was quiet. "Is she still there? Do you talk at all?"
The girl- Shila- said, "Who's asking?"
So this was what the Southern Tribe was coming to. "I am Pakku, High Master of the Northern Waterbenders. Are you going to answer my question or do you just like making trouble for your betters?"
"Some of the people are saying you Northerners are traitors for working with the Fire Nation." Shila gave him a smile that was a little too sweet. "Why are you asking about Kanna?"
Ah, a clever one. Yugoda, the Healing Master, was clever, too. Pakku didn't much like Yugoda. "Kanna is- an old friend of mine. She left the North Pole a long time ago. According to Fire Nation census data, someone by that name was living at the South Pole. I want to see if it's the same Kanna I used to know."
He also wanted to verify the data in the Fire Nation's census records, that when the Southern Tribe were consolidated in the mining ghetto, a Kanna was part of a household with her married offspring and grandchildren. But he was hardly going to tell that to a yellow-eyed, impertinent girl.
Shila tapped her chin as she made a show of thinking. "And how do I know Kanna wants you to know about her?"
Okay, that was it. "Listen, you little-"
"<I>Shila! Naklin! It's past your bedtime! Why are you still running around?"
The children stiffened at the sound of their names, but Pakku barely noticed. His joints had locked up, too, upon hearing that voice. It had aged, quite a bit, and it had been something like sixty years since he had last heard it, but there was a core tone and manner of speaking that he would always recognize.
After all, he had been in love with that voice.
He might still be.
An old woman shuffled into the light of the torches, and Pakku saw his betrothed for the first time since she ran away from him, sixty years ago. Kanna. Here. Now.
She still wore her hair in loops.
He stood there, having no idea what to say or what to do, as she sent the children back to her hut. They called her "Gran-Gran." The boy and girl ran off, leaving Kanna there alone. With him.
She turned in the torchlight and looked at him. "Pakku."
She recognized him. The only thing he could think to do in reply was nod.
"So." She smiled in that special way of hers, a smile that didn't convey any happiness, but rather proclaimed her defiance in the face of something both exasperating and well within her ability to handle. "You found me."
Pakku nodded. Finally, he thought to say, "How are you?"
Well, that was a spectacularly stupid opening.
Zuko hadn't meant to shout quite so loud and- well, furiously, but Uncle Iroh barely even blinked as he replied, "You have an objection, nephew?"
Zuko breathed in and out, trying to find his center, but still ending up feeling a bit cockeyed. "How can you expect me to stand next to the Avatar and- and cheer him on as he talks about deposing Grandfather? This is treason! I'll be exiled again!"
Uncle reached out and put his hands on Zuko's shoulders. It was something he had done before, but back then, Uncle Iroh had to crouch. Now, Zuko had to look down to meet his uncle's gaze.
"Zuko, I know this might be difficult to accept, but you never should have been exiled in the first place. You acted honorably at Ba Sing Se, and served as well as anyone could be expected in the situation. It is not your fault."
Zuko tried to pull away, but Uncle Iroh held firmly onto his shoulders. He didn't even know why he was trying to retreat! After his vision in that ashland, when he walked through a living recollection of his failure at Ba Sing Se and saw what might have been his father deliberately throwing fire at his face, Zuko had finally acknowledged his doubts about the official ruling of accidental friendly fire. But to have Uncle just- just say it like that-
"Zuko, the Fire Lord was wrong to banish you. He cast you out when you were at your lowest, knowingly giving you an impossible task as the condition for your return. He should have embraced you after your injury, but instead he considered you a sign of his own failure to raise two victorious children. He blamed you for Ozai's failings, which he knew also belonged to him. Yes, it would be treason to work against the man. But if you do not commit treason, you will never be safe under his rule."
"But- but Father wants me back!" Zuko closed his good eye, shutting away the pleading face of his uncle. "He even sent Azula to help me, and she has. In her own way. If it wasn't safe for me, why would Father- why would he-" Zuko, for some reason, couldn't find a way to ask the question.
Uncle Iroh let go of him. "I do not know what my brother has planned. All my contacts claim that Ozai has changed since your banishment, keeping to himself in his chambers and acting through a Weapon of the Fire Nation to protect his interests. Zhao theorized that Ozai was committing treason himself, working with the Fire Nation's enemies, including the Avatar."
The Avatar squeaked, "Me?!" Zuko opened his eye to look at the boy, and found surprise all over his face. "But I don’t know any of those people!"
Uncle nodded. "It's clearly not true, but Ozai's actions were mysterious enough that Zhao was able to convince military High Command that it was likely to be true. Zuko, you may have to help overthrow the Fire Lord just to save your father."
Zuko had to sit down. He sank roughly to the ground, forgetting that he only had a giant leaf between him and the empty sky until his hands were laying on the waxy surface.
How was he supposed to sort this out? He had seen the signs, when Azula rescued him from Zhao's high seas prison, that the Fire Nation was at war with itself, but he had never considered that the problem was so pervasive. Father and Uncle might both be separately plotting to bring down Grandfather? The military was plotting to bring down Father? Zhao could switch sides at will and find power and influence?
What had happened to the Fire Nation while he was gone?
Or was it always like this, and he had never noticed?
Could this be why Mai had betrayed him? She had seen the destructive in-fighting, and how Zuko had landed at the center of it? Is that why the Avatar, in his youthful innocence, meant more to her?
Zuko also recalled how Suki wouldn't let him attack the Avatar, during the rampage of the ash monster, because he had failed to see that it wasn't Aang's doing. She had been trying to prevent him from making a mistake, in pursuing the task Grandfather had given him, and she had been right.
Zuko looked up to his Uncle. "I'm going to need to convince Azula of this, too."
Beside him, the Avatar blinked. "Does this mean that you're in? You'll help me?"
Zuko stood up. "If you help me end my exile, and give me your word of honor that you will deal fairly with my family and people, then yes, I will help you."
Uncle raised his arms and put one hand on Zuko's back and the other on the Avatar's. "You two will have the opportunity to get to know each other quite well as you work. I think it will be good for you both!"
Zuko let his silence speak for him.
Pakku perhaps did not think this all the way through.
He knew, when he decided to go looking for Kanna, that the odds of finding her were low. She could have died, with all the troubles down at the South Pole, and even if she hadn't, only a small portion of the Southern Tribe had escaped from the Fire Nation to be here with the Earth Rebels. He had expected to merely find news of Kanna, or something more like rumors.
Now he was walking beside her in the moonlight. Or the reflection of the moonlight in a filthy cave.
"The Southern ways were agreeable," she was saying, finishing the tale of her journey down from the North Pole, "and so I decided to stay. It was a familiar life, but I had more freedom than I ever would have back home."
Pakku could only nod. "And that freedom was to choose your own marriage." Sixty years ago, he had decided that Kanna was the woman he wanted as his wife. Their friendship had made it seem a natural choice, he had thought, and so put in his request to the Council and their families, and began carving the betrothal necklace.
In retrospect, he supposed he should have asked her, first. Or at some point. Any point.
Definitely before she left.
Kanna said, "I made friends with a Waterbender woman, too. A warrior. The first of many friends. People down there were more- more interesting, I suppose. Happier. They didn't just live life in stolen moments."
Before Iroh had come along, Pakku doubted that he would have understood that. Now, he was all too familiar with it. He did his duty, lived the life that was assigned to him, for a greater good that was sometimes hard to see.
Years ago, he might have been offended by that Waterbender warrior woman who befriended Kanna.
Now, he envied her.
Still, Pakku was man enough to not want to talk about it. "And that g- uh, Shila? She is your granddaughter?"
Kanna glanced at him, a small smile on her lips. "Not by blood, no. But I take care of her, and she has learned some things from me. How to talk to arrogant old men, for one."
Pakku laughed. "I should have known."
"I do have a blood granddaughter, though. She's a Waterbender. She was- was taken from us, as a child. The rest of my family was killed, and I was left only with my sad little grandson. But he tracked his sister down, dragging the Avatar along with him, and saved her. All of this- leaving the tribe, settling here with the Earth King girl- came from my grandchildren's actions." Kanna stopped beside a hut, where a girl in pink was standing on her hands beside curtain-covered entrance in what seemed to be some kind of meditation. "Katara, my granddaughter, is inside. She fought in the battle today, and has not come out since she woke up. I think the battle wearied her of life."
Hm. More damage by the Fire Nation. True, it was that degenerate Long Feng who had summoned the monster, but it always came back to the Fire Nation. The Firebenders had burned down Ba Sing Se, and the Firebenders had taken this Katara from her home in the first place.
But trying to trace the fault back too far could be dangerous. Pakku had been the one to drive Kanna away, long before the Fire Nation had done any of that.
Kanna was saying, "I must remain here in case she comes out. I only left to find the other children. I'm sorry, Pakku, that I can't spend more time with you, but I need to-"
"Perhaps I can help," he found himself saying. "I have been training Waterbender warriors for decades, and fought the Fire Nation before they hammered us down. I know a little something about warriors who grow weary of life. I expect there's little difference whether the warrior is a man or a woman."
Kanna just blinked at him.
He said, "With your permission, of course."
She gave a slow nod.
While the girl in pink righted herself and watched, Pakku went over to the hut's entrance and kneeled front of the curtained entrance. "Hello, Katara. I am Pakku, the High Waterbending Master of the Northern Tribe. It is my honor to meet you. I think I might be able to offer you some helpful knowledge. Do you know the 'Refreshing Drink' meditation?"
Eventually, a voice from within the hut- the voice of a girl who couldn't have even been as old as Princess Yue- responded with a, "No."
"Well, then, would you like to learn? I can teach it from right out here."
"Excellent. The 'Refreshing Drink' is a way of centering the mind that restores the part of our spirit that has been strained by the trials of life. We begin, as with all meditations, with the proper breathing..."
Mai missed the moment when Aang and Zuko both returned to the material world. She had been too worried about them to be bored, but she was still left with nothing to do while watching over their bodies, so she wound up pacing the fire-lit room's perimeter, thinking about what would happen to her if the Colonial Continent was handed over to King Toph. Would Mai stay an exile? Would she be expected to return? What did post-war life look like for an Avatar, anyway?
Lost in thought, she had no idea that the boys had woken up until Aang suddenly said, "Wow!"
Fortunately, no one saw her startle at the noise. Azula must have left her jumpy. "Are you both okay?"
Zuko said nothing.
Aang, though, grinned at her like Tom-Tom did the time he figured out how to get the lid off the cookie jar open by himself. "I'm better than okay! Prince Iroh figured it all out for us! With his help, we're really going to do it! We're going to go to the Fire Nation, all together, and make him a good Fire Lord who will help us fix everything."
Mai looked at Zuko.
He nodded, although he wouldn't meet her gaze with his good eye.
Mai wasn't quite sure how to react. Go back to the Fire Nation and dive straight into a succession struggle?
Well, whatever it was, it certainly wouldn't be boring.
As she considered this new information, she knocked on the chamber’s door to summon a guard. The armored Firebenders led them back through the corridors of the ship up to the main deck.
Of course, Zhao was waiting for them. "Avatar, Prince Zuko, I hope your meeting with Prince Iroh was productive."
Aang was about to pipe up again, but Mai cut him off with, "The Avatar has been given things to think about. We'll be taking our leave, now."
Zhao shrugged in his armor. "Of course, you need to discuss the matter with your rebel allies. Take as long as you need. I have orders to wait until your party is healed and rested to take you back to the Fire Nation. It will take some weeks to fully arrange your homecoming, anyway."
Aang took a step back, bringing him so close to Mai that they were almost touching. "You're coming with us?"
"Of course. Prince Iroh has tasked me with guarding and transporting you for the duration of your time in the Homeland. I will also be able to serve as your military consultant, if your pet Weapon isn't up to the task."
Well, this deal just got better all the time, didn't it?
Zhao turned to Zuko. "As for you, your highness, your safety is still at risk around these rebels. I'll have you taken back to your sister and servant girl. Perhaps we can find some nicer accommodations than those cells, now that we've all on the same side."
Zuko glared, but followed as one of the guards led him away.
As Mai and Aang fell in behind their own escort, she leaned forward and whispered to him, "Are you sure about all of this? That we can trust Iroh if he's using people like Zhao?"
Aang looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "His plan sounds better than I could have ever hoped for. Even Zuko agreed. And Iroh seemed like such a nice guy. Very wise! He reminded me of Monk Gyatso. I think we can trust him."
Mai thought back to her own family's dealing with Iroh. " I had a betrothal agreement with his son, and he didn't have a problem breaking it."
"But he said his son was sick. That's part of why he wants to help me save the Fire Nation!"
"Well," Mai said as they left their guards behind and stepped off the gangplank, watching their friends rush over to them, "just remember that people can change their minds."
But then, wasn’t she the ultimate reminder of that?
Katara had been alone in the dark.
Now, she was alone in her own in her very own river.
She was deep in this Master Pakku's meditation, having followed his words to a place of peace. The first time she had reached it, she had been so surprised that she lost her tranquility and had to start over. It wasn't that she had never felt such peace before; she had touched it every time she used Healing to help her friends, taking the essence of their Qi and strengthening it to fix wounds and troubled minds.
She realized now that those experiences had been a shadow of something else- the sensation of healing her own troubles, deep within herself.
And it had all been done without water.
It turned out that the true water- the spirit of water- was inside of her heart and veins and mind and body. Master Hama had taught her of the water that existed throughout the external world, even the air, but Master Pakku had showed her that water existed beyond the world as well.
This was the true path to mastery, she could feel.
It was like the Firebender girl had said, during the fight on the cargo ship: "You're as much a stranger to your element as you are to the sky." Katara had trained in a cage in a place where water couldn't exist. She had copied the movements of a master who could only rely on the memory of being a Waterbender. But this meditation had found a place where she and Water were one, a place every bit as large as the sky, but providing strength instead of fear
Katara opened her eyes and stood up in the dark hut.
It was time to leave.
She emerged from the darkness of the hut and out in the light of stars and torches. Ty Lee was there, squealing with pleasure and bouncing on her feet. Gran-Gran was there, too, looking at Katara with warm eyes straight out of the memories that provided strength in the heart of Crescent Island. Standing beside Gran-Gran were two adorable children who looked at Katara like she was the Moon Spirit itself stepping down from the sky.
And in the center of them all was an old man who could only be Pakku.
Katara bowed low. "Thank you."
Pakku acknowledged her with a nod. "It’s my pleasure to assist anyone who fought against that abomination today. That Long Feng has only started getting what he deserves."
Katara decided to push past that point. "You’re obviously a great Waterbending Master."
"Yes, well, I-"
"What else can you teach me?"
Pakku blinked. "Teach you? But I- well, I’ve only taught men, but- I’m leaving tomorrow on another errand for Prince Iroh. "
Katara looked at Ty Lee, and saw nothing but unconditional support. She looked to Gran-Gran, who gave a nod and a smile that Katara recognized from looking at her own reflection in water. She looked back to Pakku and said, "I can work with that."
Aang finished his explanation with, "And so as soon as Zuko's 'capture' of me is acknowledged, we'll go to the Fire Nation to confirm it, and then we'll just start subverting the government and deposing the Fire Lord and stuff. Once that's done, Iroh will do everything he's promised."
No one spoke.
Aang looked around the little space, which he had been told used to be a filing office back when Full Moon Bay was working ferry service. Now, it was Earth King Toph's 'throne room,' and she was holding court from atop a crate with the sigil of the Earth Kingdom painted on it.
Around her, torches illuminated the faces of the other rebels she had gathered, including Jet (who apparently was not only alive, but working for King Toph. Sokka had sympathized with Aang's surprise). Sokka, his old friend Bato, and several other Water Tribe men were also present. None of them looked particularly pleased.
Mai stood at Aang's side, silent but steady. He was really glad she was here.
Finally, Jet snorted. "You really believe all that mud, don't you?"
"He does." King Toph patted her feet against the ground.
Jet stepped forward into the center of the 'court,' just out of reach of Aang. "This is obviously a trap. Surrounding the Avatar with the enemy is dangerous enough, but then sending the group straight into the Fire Nation? This Prince Iroh clearly doesn't think too much of our intelligence."
Aang shook his head. "But he's wise enough to travel to the Spirit World, and Mai confirmed that he's been considered a problem in the Fire Nation for years now. If it's a trap, he would have had to be planning it since before I returned."
Bato said, "Or he could simply be clever enough to make use of the situation at hand."
"I understand everyone's caution, but come on; can we just walk away from this?" Aang stepped forward so that he was standing ahead of Jet and held his staff out so that everyone could see the Air Nomad craftsmanship. He was so glad to have it back, like a piece of him had been restored to life. "I didn't agree to put myself completely in danger. Zhao's just our escort, so I'm not going to be traveling in a jail or anything. And even in the Fire Nation itself, I can fly away whenever I want on Appa and be back in the Earth Kingdom in a day. Yeah, it's probably really dangerous, but what's our other option? Say no thanks and then keep on fighting a war that was already lost?"
Sokka nodded. "This is crazy and stupid and probably a trap, but on the other hand, things have been crazy and stupid since Aang showed up. And I don't trust Aang to know when to cut the fishing line on this, but if I go with him, I can keep an eye out and be the practical part of the group."
"Excuse me?" Mai quirked and eyebrow and put a hand on her hip. "You're the practical one?"
"And Mai can check my work because she's practical, too," Sokka amended. "I think it's worth a shot, because otherwise I'm all out of ideas about how to liberate the rest of the Southern Water Tribe and stuff. And I'm not too proud to admit that I'm curious about what's going on here. I only got a glimpse when I was Zhao's prisoner in Tiankeng, but the Fire Nation does seem to have some internal factions slapping at each other. Even if we just walk away with a better look at that, it's probably worth giving things a shot."
Aang couldn't stop from grinning. He had expected Sokka to be a lot more negative about this. Getting the other boy's support meant a lot.
Mai and Sokka both were back to helping Aang together, and it felt like coming home again.
King Toph stood up from her crate-throne. "No matter what, this whole thing has put a serious crimp in my style. I had this whole hidden base and a sweet rebellion going on, but now there's a Fire Nation warship in my bay and apparently some Prince Admiral at the top of the world knows all about it."
Aang noticed Jet's gaze go down to his feet.
Toph inclined her head towards Jet for a moment, and then straightened and put her hands on her hips. "It sounds like the Avatar is going to do this. I don't know about Master and Lady Practicality over there, but I do know I can tell when anyone is lying. Plus, if this Prince Iroh really is playing by the rules, then the Earth King should definitely be a part of whatever talking is going to happen. I need to make sure that the Earth Kingdom is liberated in my name, after all. So while the rest of you set up a new base and get ready to make life hard for Fire Nation occupiers again, I'll go along on the Avatar's field trip and add my own considerable wisdom and general greatness to the proceedings."
Jet gaped at her. "You're seriously going to go along with this? Just like that?"
"Yup, just like that!" Aang laughed as Toph grinned in Jet's general direction. "Besides, I fought alongside that Prince Zuko guy out there against the ash monster. I like the tempo of his heart. As long as he's involved, I think keeping my feet on him will be very educational."
Mai snorted. "I'm sure Zuko will love that."
"See, Lady Caldera Yu Mai knows that's up! So, anyone have anything smart to say before I get stubborn about this?"
The Earth rebels- except for Jet- all fell to their knees and began bowing to their king. Jet let his shoulders slump and didn't say anything.
Aang looked over at the Water Tribe group, and caught Bato and Sokka exchanging glances. Finally, Bato said, "Then the Southern Water Tribe will support the Avatar, as well. Perhaps by working with Iroh we will learn more about our brothers in the North. Of course, we'll need to get Kanna's approval as well."
Sokka groaned. "I'm the only delegate person here who has to get permission from his Gran-Gran, aren't I?"
Aang walked over and put an arm around Sokka's shoulders. "Don't worry. Zuko needs to get his little sister's permission before he can do anything."
Zuko had finished his account of the meeting with Uncle several minutes ago.
Azula still hadn't said anything.
They, along with Suki, were in a cabin now, having been let out of the brig by Zhao. It wasn't a very large room and had no furnishings, but it offered more space than a cell and certainly smelled better. Zuko and Azula were kneeling in the cabin's center, while Suki leaned next to the door, almost as if she was serving as a guard.
Zuko leaned forward. "Azula-"
"I'll have to go along with whoever Zhao is sending to make the report, of course," she interrupted. She stood up, turned to face on the blank walls, and tapped her chin. "I'll verify that everything is correct, and then go on ahead of you to give a direct explanation to Father. Before I leave, I'll need the full itinerary for you and the Avatar. That way, I'll know where I can meet you even if we aren't able to get in contact with you again."
Zuko blinked. "Wait, you're just going along with this? No arguments? No calling me stupid for trusting Uncle?"
Azula turned to regard him with something like surprise. "What good would that do? Whatever game Uncle is playing, this will still get us what we want. Father sent me to help end your banishment and bring you back, and this will accomplish that. The very first step of this plan accomplishes it, and then it doesn't matter what else happens."
Suki said, "So you trust Zhao to ferry your brother to victory?"
Azula's lip curved into a smile. "Good question, but yes, I do. According to the reports from home, Zhao was very much in disgrace in the aftermath of our little jailbreak. Finding haven in Uncle's service accounts for how he still lives, and he won't jeopardize that. He'll have no friends left if he does. As for Zhao's competence, well, that's why I'm going along to make sure the report of Zuzu's 'triumph' is filed correctly."
Zuko let out a heavy breath. It was a relief not to have to argue with Azula. Even when he was right, he tended to lose debates with her, although some of that was due to her resorting to physical violence when she couldn't otherwise convince him. It also made him feel better about the whole situation, but he still felt compelled to ask, "And what about deposing Grandfather and giving back the Earth Kingdom? You will accept that?"
The look Azula gave him was void of expression. "That's why I need to talk with Father as soon as possible. Grandfather is a weak old fool who is clinging to power only because no one has tried to take it from him. And as for the Colonial Continent, I've had unpleasant encounters with two of the ashlands. If the whole place is descending into ruin, better to cut our losses after we've taken everything of value. But Father will know best about it. I will explain everything to him, and then do what he commands. I always do everything that he commands."
Zuko frowned at her words. So he was really going back to the Fire Nation. His banishment was really coming to an end. He would have to face Father- have to find out the truth of what happened between them at Ba Sing Se.
And in doing so, he might find himself in the middle of a war between all the factions of the Royal Family.
Zuko had come to hate the whole concept of 'factions.'
Still, he stood up and said, "Thank you, Azula. We don't always get along, but without your help I never would have gotten back home."
She eyed him as if he was speaking a foreign language, and then turned to point to Suki. "You."
Suki blinked. "Me?"
"Yes, you. While I'm gone, Zuzu is your responsibility. I don't expect any trouble, but I'm giving you the task of doing whatever is necessary to get Zuko back to the Fire Nation in accordance with Uncle's plan. Hurt who must, destroy who you must, and give Zuzu all the hugs he needs to keep his spirits up long enough to finish this task. You will also guard him alone back in the Homeland. Don’t trust any other security, unless I provide introductions. If anything goes wrong, I will personally burn your sister alive over the course of a full day, and then I will make it my whole purpose in life to hunt you down and do the same to you. Are we clear?"
Suki actually bowed. "Always."
Zuko couldn't believe this.
No, wait, he could. His sister’s default attitude was a mix of patronizing and threatening. "Azula, you're repeating yourself. Suki has served us loyally, and will hardly do anything to endanger the chance to free her homeland."
The smile Suki turned on him was positively brilliant. "Thanks, Zuko."
"Oh, uh, you're welcome."
Azula threw her hands up in the air and rolled her eyes. "Yes, fine, being nice to the servants is a wonderful thing. You two can keep grinning at each other if you want, but I'm retiring for the night. I have much to plan before Zhao sends out the runners with his report in the morning, and I would like to think I'm entitled to a few hours of healthy sleep before the sun rises." She went over to the door and grabbed the handle, but then hesitated for a moment. "I also need to figure out how to kill Mai somewhere in all of this."
Before Zuko could respond, his sister wrenched the door open and walked out.
Sokka was the only member of the group who hadn't enjoyed a spirit-energy-explosion-induced nap the day before, but he nevertheless got himself up at dawn to watch Aang formally surrender himself to Prince Zuko.
They did it on the pier beside Zhao's ship, in the dim light of the morning sun filtered down through the hole in the cavern's ceiling. As soon as the formal words were spoken (Sokka didn't really listen to them), Zhao sent a signal to one of the ships in his task force to start the journey to the nearest Fire Nation dispatch outpost. There, it would be reported that Prince Zuko had fulfilled the terms of his banishment and was bringing the Avatar back to the Fire Nation.
Sokka fought back a yawn. Nothing to do now but let his broken rib heal and get ready to march right into the nest of the worst predators the world had ever produced. Maybe he'd go back to bed and get in a few hours of sleep. He needed his rest, after all, if his rib was going to mend itself back together. He ambled back into the Middle Pole, enjoying the sight of his people starting their day with all the chores they used to do before the Fire Nation forced them into that ghetto-
And as he came up on a particular tent, he saw Katara and Ty Lee stretching in the glow of the morning sun.
"Katara! You're okay!"
She looked over at his exclamation, and smiled as he ran over and wrapped her in a (gentle, so as not to irritate his broken rib) hug. The squeeze she gave him back was both strong and also mindful of his injury, just as a little sister's hug should be.
He put a hand on her head and said, "I knew you wouldn't down for long. You're stronger than any stupid city-sized abomination of unlife!"
"Thanks, Sokka. I can tell you really mean that." Katara let go of him, and threw a glance at her stretching partner. "Ty Lee, could you give us a minute?"
"Thanks." Katara linked her arm into Sokka's and began leading him down the lane. "I can't take all the credit for myself. Ty Lee gave me a talk that really helped. And then Master Pakku came.
Sokka didn't like the sound of that. "Yeah, I recognize the name. He saved Mai from that Princess Azula, but he's one of the Northern Waterbenders who came with Zhao? Did you find out what their deal was?"
Katara shook her head. "We didn't talk about it. I just know that Master Pakku was an old friend of Gran-Gran's, before she left the Northern Water Tribe."
What?! Gran-Gran wasn't born in the South? "I didn't know that! So we're half Northern? Or, wait, a quarter Northern? Does this mean we don't get to go ice-dodging someday?"
"Focus, Sokka. The point is that Master Pakku taught me a Waterbender meditation that really helped me. Master Hama was a good teacher, but Pakku showed how water is reflected in life and-"
Sokka stopped following her for a while after that, as she went into her Waterbending mumbo-jumbo. He knew there was something to it, especially if Pakku was good enough to impress even Mai with his fighting, but it wasn't anything he ever expected to understand, or even work on him. There were lots of tricks for focusing the mind, and what Katara was talking about was the kind of thing for less rational thought processes.
When she finished, he said, "So you picked up a few tricks, then? That's good. That will help when we go with Aang. I have a feeling we're going to need every trick in the book, and a few others that the guys who wrote the books left out so that they'd have some surprises for all the people who read the books."
Katara was conspicuously quiet. They came to the end of the village, and she stopped walking and turned so that she was facing Sokka directly. "I'm not going to the Fire Nation with you guys."
Sokka wasn't even disappointed. "I understand. It's going to be dangerous, and honestly, I think it's good if you stay with Gran-Gran and help with the relocation. King Toph says she has some backup ideas for new hideouts, and-"
"No, I mean there's something else I need to do. Gran-Gran and I convinced Pakku to take me with him when he leaves, so that he can train me."
Sokka saw the hard look in his sister's eyes, and so clamped down on the outraged cry he wanted to unleash. "Okay, so, um, have you thought this through? Those guys are working for the Fire Nation-"
"For the same Prince who Aang is making a deal with to end the war!"
"-and we don't really know anything about what's going on at the North Pole-"
"And this will be a good way to find out!"
"-and this could be very dangerous-"
"So is marching into the Fire Nation to overthrow the Fire Lord!"
"-and I don't like the idea of you being all by yourself with no backup."
Katara opened her mouth to retort, but then closed it again, finally yielding to Sokka's wisdom.
And then Ty Lee' voice came out of nowhere with, "I can go with her!"
Sokka spun to find the Fire Nation acrobat standing behind him.
Katara groaned. "I said I needed a minute with my brother!"
"Yeah, and we took a break from stretching for a minute so you two could talk." Ty Lee frowned. "Wait, did you mean you wanted a minute alone? Sorry! But anyway, I can come with you on your training mission and look out for you!"
Sokka shook his head. "But Mai was expecting you to go to the Fire Nation with her!"
Ty Lee practically wilted. "Yeah, um, I heard about that thing with Azula on Zhao's ship. Azula doesn't know I'm alive, and as much as I want to support Mai, I think it's better for both of us if Azula doesn't find out about me."
Katara grabbed Sokka's right hand in her both of hers. "It's not a bad idea! I want to go train so that I can help you guys! I can't be everything you need if I'm not a proper Waterbender, but I think Pakku can help that. When I'm ready to come back and help, Ty Lee the dangerous Weapon of the Fire Nation will be there with me, right?"
"Right! I love coming back and helping people!" Ty Lee grabbed Sokka's other hand in hers and held up near her heart.
Sokka shut his eyes against the twin pairs of glistening eyes beseeching him. He hated it when people had rational answers to his objections, and the fact that Ty Lee was one of the deadliest warriors in the world didn't exactly leave him much of an argument to stand on. "The group is breaking up, isn't it?"
"Only for a little bit," Katara said. "We're not losing each other again. We're just going where we need to."
"Hn." Sokka sighed. "Ty Lee, could let go of my hand, please?"
Freed, Sokka pulled his sister in for another hug. "Show them how strong we are in the South, okay?"
"Only if you show the Fire Nation how strong the rest of the world is."
"Of course!" Sokka could only hope that the demonstration wouldn’t come from the Fire Nation figuring out what it took to finally destroy all of its enemies once and for all.
But then, he liked to consider all the possibilities.
TO BE CONTINUED
Mai had abandoned the color red, had forsaken status and power and in-fighting and boredom and the life she had known. She had become what her friends, what Aang and Sokka and Katara, wanted her to be. She had tried to transform into someone they could like, because she had chosen to make them her whole world.
She should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.
Mai had spent much of the voyage to the Fire Nation in her cabin, of course, letting the thrum of the ship's engine ward against sea sickness. It was a much better voyage than her last, but then, this time she wasn't planning on betraying anyone when she got to her destination. Also, there was no Jet to attack, accuse, and generally harass her. That was doing wonders for her stomach, it turned out.
On the other hand, the fact that Jet had disappeared sometime during the preparations for the journey to the Fire Nation probably wasn't a good sign.
Aang had officially surrendered to Zuko and accepted Iroh's plan weeks ago, prompting a flurry of activity for everyone as they prepared to subvert the government of the most powerful nation on the planet and also guard against possible betrayal. King Toph had overseen the relocation of her rebellion to somewhere that Iroh (hopefully) wouldn't know about. In her spare time, Toph also tried to assemble a properly kingly wardrobe so that she would actually look like royalty when she arrived in the Fire Nation. Mai, naturally, got hijacked into helping with that and wound up giving up most of her own current wardrobe, or at least the nicer bits, to turn into green robes and capes that would flow over the smaller girl. It might not have passed as the height of fashion in Ba Sing Se, but the city was now ash, and anyway Toph liked keeping a bit of roughness in her look.
Mai, for her own part, had been gifted with a brand new wardrobe of red and black silks, along with a fresh supply of the finest Yu Dao blades, by Prince Iroh care of Commander Zhao. The explanation for the gift was that she needed to look like a true Weapon of the Fire Nation when standing at Aang's side, and she knew it was true. When she was alone, she sometimes ran a hand over the new clothes and just looked at them. She had been wearing green since she betrayed Zuko and sided with Aang on Crescent Island. Was the restoration of her old colors just artifice, or symbolic of something within her?
Thinking about such a stupid thing distracted her from her sea-sickness, in any event.
With her arrival in the Fire Nation imminent, it was time to once again embrace the colors of blood and night.
She started with the blades, of course, strapping a full set to her skin. She didn't know if it was any more likely for a betrayal to happen today than other time, but polite society in the Fire Nation expected warriors to be fully armed, so it was a fashionable as well as practical choice. Then came the clothes, fine silks that would be more breathable in the Fire Nation’s heat and humidity than the more roughly spun clothes of the Earth Kingdom peasantry. As she dressed, Mai couldn’t help brushing her fingers over the burn scar on the right side of her abdomen, a little reminder of what she had been, what she chose to become, and that Zhao packed a mean fireball.
Then, for the first time since the discovery of the new Airbenders, Mai also chose to do her hair up in her old style, with the twin tails and ox-horn buns. As she worked, though, she realized that she had let her hair grow longer than usual. Trimming it wouldn't be hard for her, not even with a razor disc in her off hand, but she hesitated. Maybe it was time to do something a bit more grown-up.
Mai repurposed a few of her needles, using them to create an intricate bun that hung tightly from the back of her head. A waterfall of hair was left to hang from the bun down to the middle of her back. In front, she braided a series of thin tails to frame her face in wisps that would catch the wind. One loose swatch of hair was left to hang down the middle as though it had escaped its original place, as diagonal and sharp as an assassin's knife, stopping just short of her eyes for what she hoped would be a dangerous look.
Mai couldn't help but wonder what her mother would think, if Mother was even still alive.
Well, time to find out.
Moving slowly so as not to risk her stomach with the ship’s bobbing, she made her way up to the main deck.
Mai had forgotten the name of the scrounged vessel that was taking her back home. No one had wanted to sail with Zhao, but Toph had a solution. The Southern Water Tribe refugees had escaped the South Pole in a cargo ship stolen from the Fire Nation, and they had managed to crew it far enough to get to the Earth Kingdom. Bato eventually found a not-entirely-legitimate 'merchant' who could use such a thing, and so a trade was made for something smaller and more innocuous. Mai had recognized it as a kind of civilian steamer designed in the Earth Kingdom. The Water Tribe refugees still had the ship when they joined up with Toph's group, and the self-proclaimed Earth King had hidden it near Full Moon Bay for future use.
Mai had to admit that it made for nicer travel than a Fire Nation warship. Not as much rusty metal, for one.
She emerged onto the main deck into the light of the sun and immediately had to stop, shut her eyes, and grip the nearest railing while the ship bobbed on that stupid, annoying ocean someone had decided to put between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. When she decided that she wasn't going to throw up, she opened her eyes again and found her friends gathered up at the ship's prow.
The most noticeable, of course, was Appa. The sky bison lowed happily when he saw her, and Mai gave the big guy an acknowledging wave. She hadn't seen him much over the course of the voyage, having spent most of it in her cabin cursing the tides. He seemed in good health and spirits now, but he still hadn't flown since the battle against the ash monster at Ba Sing Se. Aang had thought it best to let Appa rest, after all the exertion of that event. Mai had been told that the big guy was struck by Azula's lightning just she had needed his help to save Aang from the ash monster, and so after a quick round of bison-sized acupuncture they had flown to the rescue. It had been a terrible strain on Appa, and even a parting healing session from Katara had merely gotten the bison on track to healing, not fully fixed his internal energies.
Hopefully, they wouldn't need a quick escape from a Fire Nation ambush any time soon.
Mai stopped just short of the reach of Appa's tongue, and realized that her other friends were unusually silent. She turned to find Aang staring at her with his jaw hanging open. "Um, you okay?"
Aang's face went red and he snapped his mouth shut.
Sokka was smirking at Aang, but Mai noticed that his eyes kept snapping over to her face. "So, you dolled yourself up for the homecoming?"
"Oh, this?" Mai brushed at the fringe of hair over her eyes and shook her head so that the tails would float on the breeze. Aang cleared his throat and even Sokka watched her carefully. So this was what it was like to be Ty Lee! "If I'm going to be executed for treason, it won't be while I'm looking like an elephant-rat fresh from the gutter. What do you think, Aang?"
It was a little mean, she knew, but his face was so red! Besides, he probably needed to learn not to get flustered like this if he was going to convince the Fire Nation to overthrow its lord.
"You're amazing," Aang breathed, and Mai felt her own cheeks warm. There was no denying that he meant it, not with so much feeling in his voice. She had expected him to stammer and say something about her looking 'nice.' Someday she’d have to look into how to deal with this Genuine Emotion business.
For his part, Aang was no slouch, either. Instead of his usual Air Nomad duds, he was resplendent in a golden robe, another piece supplied by Prince Iroh. She looked Aang up and down, confirming that he wasn't rumpled at all for his big Fire Nation debut, and said, "Thanks." Determined to win this exchange, she reached out and brushed the fingers of her right hand over his smooth, shaved head. "You're looking pretty grown up, yourself."
Aang's back went rigid, and Sokka laughed. It was fun being Ty Lee! Mai would have to try it more often, if she survived the day’s events.
A quick glance confirmed that Sokka hadn't managed to wrinkle his new clothes yet. His tribe-mates in Full Moon Bay had joined together and worked hard to sew him a wardrobe fit for an ambassador before they had to leave, and hadn't done a bad job, if you liked blue and beads. At least they hadn't given him anything with fur to wear in the Fire Nation heat.
Together, the three of them were very pretty revolutionaries, all dressed up and ready to overthrow a tyrant.
That's when Momo came in for a landing on the front of Mai's robes and stuck one of her hair-tails in his mouth. "Momo, no, that's not food!"
At least it got Aang laughing.
They watched from the prow as their ship approached Zenmatsu Island. Zhao's flagship was visible ahead of them, and Mai's sharp eyes detected another pair of observers on that deck. It was hard to tell, but judging from the heights, it might have been a certain Fire Prince and his 'bodyguard.'
Zuko couldn't take his good eye off the sight of Zenmatsu Island steadily growing larger on the horizon, even when Suki came up to join him on the deck. "I'm finally going home."
Only Suki could have understood what he was really saying. She put a hand on his shoulder, drawing his gaze, and said, "Are you feeling up to this?" She had no official status, despite serving as his bodyguard, and so was given a uniform to forestall any questions. She had passed on a full set of armor, instead taking the guise of a marine light scout, although without any insignia of rank or allegiance. Her auburn hair was a good compliment to the dark reds of the uniform, but her blue eyes were a startling contrast. "I can sneak into the engine room and sabotage something if you want some more time?"
She was probably joking, but Zuko was still tempted to take her up on the offer.
There hadn't been time for worrying up to now. Things had been so busy since he 'captured' the Avatar. Zhao had provided, with Uncle's supervision, everything Zuko had needed, including a new set of royal gold-trimmed armor, but that didn't make it a trustworthy situation. Zuko had double-checked everything, even the clothes. He wouldn't put it past Zhao to order a thread pulled so that he lost a sleeve at a critical moment. He had also redoubled his training, having put aside his routine during the height of the Avatar Chase.
Zuko was acting paranoid, yes, but the was sure Azula would approve. He was being sent to help overthrow the Fire Lord, to work against his own family. That danger alone merited the most extreme caution, never mind what it said about the nature of the Fire Nation itself. If even Zuko could be turned against his own Grandfather, who could be turned against Zuko?
But training was all his efforts had proved to be so far. There had been no double-cross, and now he was about to return to the Fire Nation once again.
Zhao hadn't started the voyage until confirmation of his report about the Avatar's surrender was transmitted and provisional permission was given for Zuko to bring the prize back for verification. That permission was enough for the blockade around Fire Nation waters, still in place since Crescent Island's destruction, to permit Zuko entry.
Now it was time to see what the reaction would be on the soil of the Fire Nation itself.
As Zuko stared at the island, now so close, he heard footsteps on the deck behind him. "It won't be long now, Prince Zuko," Zhao's voice came. "The dock we'll be using belongs to the local Governor. There's a Navy base on this island as well, meant to resupply any of our ships that just made the crossing from the Colonial Continent, along with quite a few civilian ports, but we've been directed to bypass all of that. We're to be received in style, it seems."
Zuko wondered if that was meant to be a warning of some kind. Zenmatsu Island was one of the most eastern of the inhabited Outer Islands that formed the tail of the chain trailing Capital Island. He didn't know the governor or even much about the island other than its place on a map. He presumed that it contained mostly peasantry and the kind of light industry they were responsible for operating across the Fire Nation. Maybe it was simply the governor's duty by default to confirm Zuko's capture of the Avatar.
"Don't worry," Zhao said as he turned and marched back towards the command tower. "I plan to satisfy your esteemed uncle, and that means keeping you alive."
"See that it does, Zhao." But of course the man wasn't listening.
Suki poked Zuko in the side. "I'll be looking out for you, too. Just remember, you have to get through this to get what you really want. And you can do it."
It was a good reminder. Yes, Zuko wanted to go home again, to once again live in the heat of the sunlight in the Fire Nation, but that wasn't what had kept him alive through those years of crawling across the Earth Kingdom. 'Home' wasn't just the Fire Nation. It was the Capital, and the palace. It was the people who had once been his family.
It was Father.
Would Father be there, waiting for Zuko's arrival?
Zuko remained at the prow as the ship came in close to Zenmatsu Island, Suki at his side. It seemed to be a large, lush island from the view of its coasts, although more given to cliffs than beaches. Several large, solitary peaks rose up in the distance, emerging from what seemed to be tropical forests that sprawled over changing elevations. He watched as they passed the Navy base, as well as the civilian ports that seemed to give life to lively settlements. He didn't see any of the smoke that usually heralded the larger factories, so perhaps this was a more rural island.
However, there was nothing rural about their destination right now. The governor's mansion was built to overlook the island's largest port-city. A larger bay was given over to public docks, but the mansion itself was set on a smaller, artificially round bay where a private port was kept behind a manned gate. Zuko was able to observe it all up close as Zhao's ship steamed into the larger bay and then kept going into the smaller one as the gate opened before them.
When a tug came out to pull the ship up to the governor's dock, Zuko finally left his place and got ready to disembark. He supposed it must have taken some time for it all to happen, with the Avatar's ship having to be tugged into place as well, but time didn't seem to gain a hold on him. He thought about all the fanfare that had been assembled when he left to lay siege to Ba Sing Se, and how it had been a bright and humid day just like this one. He made himself go through a breathing exercise, but was startled out of it when Suki grabbed his right hand in both of hers.
"This is real," she said. Her blue eyes were intense as she commanded his one-eyed gaze. "You're coming home because you were strong and wise enough to make it happen. None of this would have happened if you hadn't survived things that would have killed most people, and made the right choices when it really mattered."
Well, he supposed that was one way to look at it. A way he liked, to be honest.
He kept that in mind as a wind brought the Avatar flying over on his glider. Aang landed beside Zuko and smoothed his golden robes. "Ready?"
Zuko nodded. He put his hands on the Avatar's shoulders, and guided the boy down the gangplank. And, in doing so, he set foot back in the Fire Nation proper- not an outpost or prison but a real island where people lived- for the first time in years. Perhaps he imagined the jolt of energy that ran up through his body as soon as his foot came down on the platform, a jolt that fed his Inner Fire and made his blood sing in his veins.
It was only when the jolt faded that Zuko could focus his eyes on the gathering in front of him, of the men and women wearing fine robes, of the soldiers standing in honor formation around the gathering.
One old man stepped forward. "Prince Zuko. Have you brought the Avatar to us, by your own hand?"
Zuko squared his shoulders, feeling the weight of the armor on his body. "I have."
The old man looked to Aang.
"That's me!" The kid raised a hand and waved, giving life to a breeze that tousled the old man’s beard.
The man did not react. He looked back to Zuko and bowed at the waist. "Then, as was appointed to me by order of the Fire Lord, I officially confirm the fulfillment of the terms of your banishment. Welcome home, your highness."
Zuko had to shut his eye, lest the tears escape.
Uh, oh. Aang didn't realize Zuko was going to cry. To deflect attention away from the prince, he said to the straightening old man, "So, I'm Aang! Pleased to me you!"
"Likewise, Avatar. I am Lord Zhao, the facilitator for this little gathering." He motioned to the people standing behind him. "I formerly served as-"
"Wait," Aang interrupted, "Lord Zhao, as in-"
"Hello, Father." Commander Zhao had come down the gangplank, and his voice seemed like it was coming from straight behind Aang. "I must say, you're leading a very active retirement."
Fortunately, Aang was able to keep himself from jumping in surprise. It tended to intimidate people when Airbenders startled by leaping clear into the sky. "Ah, so you guys are related. That's, um, great?"
"Thank you, young Avatar." Lord Zhao offered a bland kind of smile, and then looked back to the younger Zhao. "I'm pleased to see you survived your visit to the Capital, my son. There was any number of worrying rumors going around. When I heard of your successful mission to aid Prince Zuko, I knew I had to come see you and offer my congratulations. Fortunately, the Fire Palace needed a respected representative to verify the claims and organize this little gathering." He looked back to Aang. "For now, Avatar, I've arranged a proper welcome for you. Afterward, you can settle into your guest quarters in Governor Hige's estate, and then there will be a dinner reception where you can tell your story and properly get to know everyone. For now-"
"For now," Aang took over, "a respectful exchange of names and exhibition of the Fire Nation's strength is enough. I've experienced a Fire Nation welcome ceremony before."
"Excellent! Then let's proceed." Lord Zhao stepped away and motioned to the soldiers who had been standing in formation around the gathering. They all wore Firebender armor, and as one, they snapped fists into the air and created a canopy of flame.
Lord Zhao called out above the roaring of the fire, "The Homeland welcomes Avatar Aang and Prince Zuko. Let us receive them with honor!"
Somewhere behind the soldiers, banners were raised bearing the sigil of the Fire Nation, and a group of singers began a chant that Aang recognized as an ancient military song about the final battle between the Agni Warrior and the Dragon Empire. When the chanting reached a crescendo, the fire roared almost in tune with the voices, and then both the song and flames faded at the same moment. The fires didn't entirely dissipate, though, merely settling down as floating globes above each soldier's fist.
At that point, the first of the nobles stepped forward. He came up to Aang and Zuko and bowed at the waist. "Avatar! And my Prince, I offer you hospitality. I am Governor Hige, and as long as you are my guests, everything that I own is yours! May the Fire Nation's power last ten thousand years!"
Aang recognized the basic sentiment from the time when Monk Gyatso first brought him to the Fire Nation and he made friends with a boy named Kuzon, but one of the words of the greeting had changed. Last time, the speaker had said, "May the Fire Nation's people last ten thousand years!"
Nevertheless, Aang and Zuko both bowed to the man.
It took a while to get through the whole line of people, each one offering an introduction and some sentiment of welcome. Aang did his best to memorize all the names and hoped he wouldn't be quizzed on them later.
The last three people in the line weren't like the others. There was a young man and a young woman, and an old lady behind them. The man wore a poncho that hid his arms, and seemed to Aang to be especially light on his feet as he approached. The younger woman wore a fitted tunic as black as her dull hanging hair, and Aang spotted a number of sheathed long knives and small swords strapped over her body; there wasn’t as many blades as Mai wore, but these weren’t for throwing. Probably.
The old lady was the most normal, with her silver hair wrapped high atop her head and held in place with thick white pins, wearing fine robes that would have fit in with the rest of the gathering if it wasn't for the large maroon blindfold tied over her eyes and nose. In the very center of the blindfold, there was a symbol painted in gold- the character for 'Dragon.'
Obviously, these three were warriors.
Before any of them could get close, Aang's view was suddenly blocked by what turned out to be Mai. She must have disembarked from King Toph’s ship during the ceremony. Her body was tense, and she had allowed her sleeves to fully cover her hands in what Aang had learned was a sign she was clutching weapons.
The three warriors all stopped, but showed no sign of being offended or even disconcerted.
"Lady Caldera Yu Mai," the old woman said with a nod. "I'd recognize those cold veins anywhere. Please, introduce us to your charges. Then we have a bit of business to take care of. Non-violent business."
Mai glanced back at Aang, and although her face was blank, he thought he could see some real tenseness around her eyes. Still, she stepped aside just enough to restore Aang's view of the warriors. "Aang, Zuko, these are my colleagues. The man is Bangfei, ninety-point practitioner of Dim Mak. Next to him is Heiyaoshi, a Blademaster of Kilauea. And last is Lady Caldera Yu Gerel, known by the title 'The Seeing Dragon.' They are highly respected within the Fire Nation."
Aang wasn't sure what that meant, but thankfully, Zuko seemed to have a tendency to blurt things out loud, and said, "They're Weapons."
No wonder Mai was worried about them.
Aang bowed his head to them. "You three must be very accomplished. I greet you in peace."
Zuko gave his own silent nod.
The Weapons all bowed. Lady Gerel smiled beneath her blindfold. "Your blood runs warm, Avatar. I hope our weather agrees with you. Bangfei, say what you need to say. Everyone is waiting for us."
The man, Bangfei, turned to Mai and clasped his hands in front of him. "Lady Mai, I know I am very late with this, but I wanted to express my sympathies for the loss of Lady Ty Lee. Business kept me away from the Capital for a while, and then you had gone to the South Pole, but I always carried the loss in the fires of my heart and know you must still feel the same pain. Ty Lee was such a special girl. Truly, the world is a darker place without her. Please, if there's anything I can ever do to help you in her memory, don't hesitate to tell me. I am at your service." He bowed from the waist again, going low enough to demonstrate considerable flexibility, and held it for a long moment.
Zuko blurted out, "Wait, Ty Lee is dead? No one told me!"
Aang caught Mai glancing at him. Ty Lee wasn't dead, having instead become an Airbender and helping Aang just before the battle at Ba Sing Se. She was now accompanying Katara on her journey with the Northern Waterbender Master, Pakku. Ty Lee had asked everyone to keep her survival a secret from Zuko and his sister Azula, out of fear of what they would do to her.
Bangfei turned a glare on Zuko that even gave Aang a chill, but then the Weapon relaxed. "She mourned for your banishment, Prince Zuko. Her heart was so very warm, that way. I'm sure it would have delighted her to hear of your restoration." Then he moved to return to the rest of the gathering, Heiyaoshi falling into step behind him.
Lady Gerel did not depart with the other two. She turned her head in Mai's direction as though she could see through the blindfold. "Your family is alive in the Capital, and under Piandao's protection. Whatever this business was, you have safely come out of it. With luck, what comes next will not require escalated involvement."
Aang finally saw Mai relax as she said, "Thank you. I, too, would like to avoid escalation."
Lady Gerel nodded and turned to go. Despite the blindfold, she did not seem to have any trouble making her own way back to the rest of the assembly.
Aang suppressed a shudder. "What was that about?"
It was Zuko who answered first with, "Lady Gerel was saying that she hopes she and the other Weapons won't have to fight anyone over what we're doing. But it was also a warning that she and the others are here in their official capacity as Weapons and might be ordered to act. Other Weapons are probably being recalled and placed on stand-by, too."
Mai brought her hands together within her sleeves. "Pretty much. The Fire Lord might even take back the Weapons whose service he'd gifted to other people. Like how Piandao works for Prince Ozai, Zuko's father, so he's the one really protecting my family. If Ozai changes his mind about me, or the Fire Lord takes back Piandao's service, then my family is in danger from the most deadly Weapon of them all."
Zuko started to say, "My father wouldn't-"
He let the rest of the thought die on his tongue.
Aang didn't need an explanation for what that meant. "And that bit with Bangfei talking about your friend Ty Lee?"
Mai snorted. "Oh, he was hot for her since he first noticed girls. I heard that when he got the news of her death, he mourned her by painting a life-size full-body portrait. Ty Lee never really liked him, though. They both fought with the Dim Mak style, and she disagreed with his particular use of it."
"I can't believe Ty Lee is gone," Zuko said. "How did it happen?"
Aang wasn't sure how to reply.
Mai, of course, kept her face blank under Zuko's questioning gaze. "I'll tell you later. It looks like the Zhao family is coming back."
Aang looked, and sure enough, Lord Zhao and Commander Zhao were both approaching. The older man smiled when he reached them and said, "Well, I'm sure you were properly honored by everyone's attentions. Come, Governor Hige's mansion awaits us, and I'm sure you're eager to rest after your journey and standing around in this heat."
Aang shrugged. "Oh, Airbenders can regulate our own body temperatures with our breathing, so I'm fine. But I bet my friends will be glad to get off the ship and relax, like you said. Is there enough room for my sky bison Appa? He's pretty big and eats a lot, but he'll be well behaved in any stable as long as it's nice and roomy."
Aang was a bit worried about how long it took Lord Zhao to say something. "Your what?"
The younger Zhao snickered. "That's what I said. The Avatar has a sky bison, Father, and I suppose it’s your duty to organize his accommodations."
The news spread. A network of metal wires that spanned the whole world, built with patience and ingenuity by the Fire Nation to spread its word across the lands it had stolen and subjugated, blazed with electric life. Across the globe, one message was given over-riding priority and passed from station to station to echo far and wide:
"AVATAR MET. ZUKO CONFIRMED."
Those four simple words heralded a major shift in the fate of the world. Some people read them and simply shrugged, thinking it just another development in Fire Nation politics, nothing that would make a difference to the common soldier. After all, weren't the royals always competing and enacting all kinds of drama? Prince Zuko's banishment hadn't affected anything important, and while the Avatar's return was certainly a bit of a game-changer, his playing politics with some young prince was hardly anything compared to the destruction of a volcano island.
Wiser minds understood, however, that major changes usually start as more innocuous maneuvers. Even something simple can have a major impact, if it occurs in the right place.
The news was that the Avatar had come to the Fire Nation and changed the dynamic of the family that currently ran the entire world.
And that news was received with the most trepidation by the Fire Palace itself.
At one time, the most important room in the palace- the figurative center of the entire world- had been the throne room. It had been there that the Fire Lords, first Sozin and then his son Azulon, held court and issued the commands that fueled the Fire Nation's war of conquest. Now, however, the throne room was dark and cold. The 'Burning Throne' was no longer lit with even the weakest flame; that was now a mere act of theater reserved for increasingly rare public spectacle. The Fire Lord currently spent most of his time in his private rooms, and his court had shrunk appropriately.
In fact, his 'court' was now limited to two people.
The old sisters Li and Lo received the wired news of Zuko's confirmation in their office. At one point, the office had been Fire Lord Azulon's receiving parlor, but he had retreated into the back rooms of his apartment years ago, and Li and Lo had converted the parlor to be their watch-house. No one could see the Fire Lord without passing through their domain.
Li put down the paper that had been carried straight from the communication hub. "So Prince Zuko indeed made good on his claim."
Lo picked the paper up, gazing at the words that she didn't really need to read. "But the question remains as to his true aim."
Li retrieved a blank form from the office's cabinet and brought it over to her desk. She kneeled over it, spread the paper out flat, and began filling it in with deft strokes of an inked brush. "That alone strengthens Ozai considerably, and if has truly forged an alliance with the Avatar, there will be no denying his will in the Homeland."
Lo kneeled on the other side of the desk, confirming her sister's work. "Yet I still cannot see Ozai's true purpose. He hides in his rooms and shows his face only when called. If he has any great plan, it is built on a foundation of sand."
"And then, of course, there is the matter of Iroh."
"Whether he has any involvement is something we cannot know."
The two sisters met each other's eyes. When they spoke again, it was only to confirm the decisions they had already made.
Li said, "We will play for the factors that neither Prince has yet won."
Lo said, "The Fire Sages and the peasantry give support only to Azulon."
"Favor will be shown to the Sages, giving them influence long lost to Iroh in a past political game."
"And further pressure will be placed on the people so that Azulon is the sole recognized royal name."
"And our Weapon at the site," they intoned simultaneously, "will continue with our plan."
The sisters nodded and rose up as one. Together, they brought the form into the private rooms of Fire Lord Azulon.
As expected, they found him propped up in his bed, staring at nothing.
"Fire Lord," the sister said.
Azulon blinked once, and then again. His eyes searched the opulent surroundings, not focusing until he found Li and Lo standing in the bedroom's doorway. He stared until he recognized them, and then sat up a little straighter. As old and weak as he might be, the sisters knew that it wasn't in his character to show weakness even in front of his most trusted agents.
And trusted agents they were. Through sheer dint of longevity, they were his most loyal servants, making his will into fact and protecting him from those with the gall to actually try to siphon power from their Fire Lord.
"My clever ones," Azulon mumbled. That was what he called them. It was possible he had forgotten their names, and they knew for a fact that he always had trouble telling them apart, but Li and Lo were satisfied with the title. In their youth they had commanded beauty that made them famous across the whole Homeland, as adults they became feared as a fighting duo who could defeat almost any opponent. (Had the title existed back then, they might have been made Weapons of the Fire Nation.) As their backs bent and their skin wrinkled, they had shifted their domain into the realm of politics, strengthening Azulon's influence at a time when his mind and body began weakening.
Whether they used kisses, weapons, money, law, blackmail, or whispers in the right places, the consistent source of the sisters' success was their capacity for strategy and analysis. Clever ones, indeed.
There were only two minds Li and Lo feared as rivals, but Prince Iroh had holed himself up at the North Pole and Princess Azula would never see beyond her father's pettiness.
Li slipped the form she had just filled out on the tray in front of Azulon. "This just needs your mark, my lord. The end of Prince Zuko's banishment has been confirmed and requires your final approval."
Lo stepped up to the other side of Azulon's bed. "And as thanks to the Way of the Flame for strengthening and restoring a member of the Royal Family, we have prepared an edict to grant new land and funds to the Fire Sages, with which they will build glorious temples worthy of your greatness."
"Greatness," Azulon mumbled, staring blankly at the paper in front of him.
Li edged closer to him. "You are wise to strengthen the Fire Sages at this time, Fire Lord. The people should show their appreciation for your wisdom."
Lo brought her voice down to a whisper. "This edict will also create a new monthly celebration. On Azulon Day, all citizens will be required to take time off from work to visit a Fire Temple, make an offering to the flames, and meditate on your wisdom."
"Hail Fire Lord Azulon," the sisters hissed together.
Azulon continued staring at the paper. Li put an inked brush into his right hand, and Lo guided it to the proper place on the form.
"Zuko." Azulon's voice rose in volume as he said his grandson's name. "Zuko came back? It was- a sorrow- what happened. Sent him away- to hide- Ozai's shame." The Fire Lord blinked. "Zuko is back? Good." His hand moved, and he made a sloppy mark at the bottom of the form.
"Excellent, my lord," Li said. "We will have this put into effect at once."
"All hail Fire Lord Azulon," Lo added.
Azulon smiled as his eyes lost focus once more.
Princess Azula, namesake of the Fire Lord, had not even changed out of her sleeveless training tunic before going to see her father.
There was no practical reason for her choice. The delay required for her to change and wipe her face would have been minimal, but it was a delay she had decided there was no need to tolerate. The news she was delivering might be the key that prompted Father to share his latest wisdom.
Azula was always eager to receive her father's wisdom.
As always, she paused before the guarded door of the suite and waited while one of the ex-soldiers announced her presence with a knock on the door. She always tolerated the procedure, but today it only added to her anxiety. Nevertheless, she kept firm control of her impatience and made sure she showed no sign of anything but the utmost respect.
The door opened, and Father appeared before her, as delighted as ever to find her waiting for him. "Azula! Did you cut your training short to come see me?" He led the way into his rooms.
"It was no trouble, Father." Technically, she had indeed cut her training session off for this visit, but that was only because she had spent the last weeks doing nothing but training while she waited for something to happen. It had taken a week to oversee Zhao's initial report about the Avatar's 'capture' and then get back to the palace to give a direct accounting to Father.
Father, understandably, needed time to consider the news. Time that had now stretched to over a week.
It wasn't that Azula was being critical of her father. She would never do such a thing! But he had been so happy when she told him of Zuko's imminent return- he had pulled her into his arms and told her what a perfect daughter and sister she was. Father had said how proud he was of her, surviving everything she did and working so hard to keep Zuko safe.
Azula had scarcely known how to respond. She could only state her thanks for the praise over and over, and she didn't stop smiling the whole time.
Father always praised her successes, of course, but since Zuko's banishment, his acknowledgements had become so intense. Azula still hadn't quite learned how to deal with it, even after all these years. It wasn’t at all like dealing with Ty Lee’s shallow enthusiasm.
As they passed into the parlor, Father said, "Would you like something to drink? It's important to take care of yourself with how hard you work."
"I'm fine, Father. I bring news of Zuko. He successfully arrived on Zenmatsu Island, and Grandfather acknowledged the end of the banishment along with two concerning riders." She described the gift of land and money to the Fire Sages, as well as the establishment of Azulon Day. "Does that affect our plans?"
She watched as Father leaned back in his seat and pondered the news.
She watched as Father's expression grew concerned.
That, too, was something new since Zuko's banishment. Before, Father was not given to displays of the weaker emotions. He would show pleasure and amusement, disgust and anger, but never sadness or worry. Yet, when Azula had recounted her adventures in the Colonial Continent with Zuko and Suki, of what had happened on Crescent Island and in the Ba Sing Se ashland, she had seen his face blanch and contort in fear.
Fear for his children.
She didn't know what to think of that, didn't know how to reconcile the strength she knew her father had with such unguarded displays.
She didn't know how to feel that he cared so much, felt so deeply for her that having her safe in front of him was no balm against stories of past dangers.
Fortunately, Father finally spoke and spared Azula from her own thoughts: "I'm so happy about Zuko's return, but I'm very concerned about what has brought it about. Iroh is playing a game of some kind, and now your grandfather is pushing back against him. That's what this business with the Sages is about."
Azula leaned forward. Were they going to get involved as a third faction?
Father continued, "I would be content to let them tear each other apart, but Iroh saw fit to drag Zuko into things. Neither he nor Azulon will show any sense of boundaries as their conflict escalates."
Azula nodded. "What do you want me to do? I am yours to command."
Father blinked. "Command? No, Azula, I respect you enough to let you decide your own actions. However, if you would be so kind, there are some ways in which I could use your help. You, and our other servants..."
Sokka couldn't say he was crazy about hanging out in the Fire Nation, relying only on a promise of safety from a bunch of people who cheered for world domination, but he had to admit that the rooms in Governor Hige's mansion were pretty nice.
Aang's whole party- Mai and Toph's crew and Zuko and Suki- had all been given apartments that opened out into a shared atrium open to the summer sky. The whole complex was light and spacious with big open windows and more pillows than anyone on this planet had any right to. The atrium was even big enough for Appa to stay there, sparing Zhao the Older further work, and had a large fountain in the center where Momo was currently trying to catch the decorative fish.
Clearly, it was an evil trap to get them all to lower their guard.
"So there are three one-person armies hanging around watching us," Sokka summarized, Aang having just finished his account of meeting the Weapons. He was sprawled on a piece of furniture in Aang's quarters that he suspected was a divan, with Aang and Mai and Toph all standing around him. "Speaking of watching, I bet there are spy holes all over these rooms."
Toph went, "Hmmm." She stomped a foot against the ground and tilted her head from side to side. "There are passages between the walls where people could listen, but there's no one there, now. We should have any important discussions in the courtyard, or else get that lemur to practice its singing while you whisper."
Sokka was impressed; that was a good idea for using Momo. "See, King Toph knows what's up. Don't let these Fire Nation masterminds fool you. They're born evil."
Mai sighed. "Thanks. But except for that last part, you're not wrong. The good news, though, is that if they intended to bump us off no matter what, they wouldn't have revealed that there are other Weapons here. It's just a reminder to behave, and we don't even know from whom. Tonight at dinner, we should start feeling people out. Look to see who reacts to what, and listen for comments that aren't necessarily directed at you. In fact, we should probably do more listening than talking tonight in general. Except, of course, for our Avatar."
"Yeah," Aang said. "Lord Zhao said tonight I get to tell 'my story.' I guess that means everything that's led up to this point, except for the parts where Prince Iroh sent me here to convince everyone to overthrow the Fire Lord."
Sokka nodded and tried to sit up, and only almost fell off the divan. "Yeah, leave all the stuff about convincing people to commit treason for the third date."
Toph laughed at that, but no one else. She might be a bit pushy and had a little bit of a god-complex, but at least she had a good sense of humor.
With that, the little gathering broke up so that everyone could get ready for the dinner. Sokka headed back to his own rooms across the courtyard. As he passed the fountain, Momo held up one of the evil Fire Nation fish he had just caught- a fish that was probably a spy of some kind, come to think of it- and Sokka waved his approval.
When he reached his rooms, he almost didn't notice Suki waiting for him. She was tucked on his own divan, just like he had been in Aang's apartment.
"Hi," she said.
Sokka stopped well short of her. She was no longer wearing that Fire Nation uniform, having changed into more casual clothes colored in neutral browns and golds, but he knew that all enemies didn't necessarily wear uniforms. "Hi, yourself."
She sat up off the divan much more gracefully than he himself had managed. "We haven't really had a chance to talk since Ba Sing Se. I was in 'protective custody' on Zhao's ship with Zuko, and-"
"Yeah," Sokka interrupted. "Apparently you've being doing a lot with Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation."
Suki nodded. "That's what I figured you'd want to talk about."
Sokka stepped fully into the room and leaned against one of the pillars. "Why me? Why not Aang or Mai?"
"I figured you'd be the one best able to understand. And honestly I've always kind of disliked Mai. She's a jerk."
Sokka shrugged. That much was true, at least. "And what is it that I'm supposed to understand? Because I'm not really sure there's a good explanation for a Kyoshi rebel to end up bodyguarding the Fire Nation prince who was trying to catch the Avatar."
"Really? I thought that would be the easiest part to get. I guess I should start by admitting that I was the double agent in the Kyoshi rebels."
Sokka blinked. He hadn't been expecting that. "So, it wasn't just Mai who- you-"
"Not quite. I didn't blow the operation to find your sister's records. And that's because I was also a triple agent keeping the Fire Nation from discovering anything of real use to them."
Sokka felt himself slump. It was going to be one of those stories.
Suki continued, "I got maneuvered into a corner and framed for something else by Zhao after you guys left, and playing along seemed like the best chance. It kept me alive and put me in a good position to sabotage what I could. I wound up working with Zuko after he was arrested by Zhao, too. And what better place for a servant of Kyoshi than next to the guy who was the biggest danger to the Avatar? I even convinced Zuko to help fight that monster at Ba Sing Se instead of attacking Aang."
Sokka had to admit that the logic held up. "So what are you still doing, playing his bodyguard and marching around in a Fire Nation uniform?"
Suki winced. "Yeah, that's the bit I expected to be difficult."
"And would you believe that I'm- kind of- um, friends with Zuko?"
Sokka considered that. He didn't like the idea of Suki being friends with a Fire Nation prince, even if they were allies for now. It felt like she was basically saying that she preferred Zuko to- to where she really belonged. "You know, Aang and Mai first ran into Zuko on Crescent Island. Where they were keeping my sister in a room so hot it burned all the moisture away. She looked half-mummified when I freed her. Zuko had been waiting there for us, and he attacked Aang. Hunted him and beat him up."
Suki stood up and put her hands on her hips. "Really? And how did Zuko know you were going to there?" She blinked an innocent, completely artificial manner.
Through gritted teeth, Sokka said, "Mai told him because she was working for the Fire Nation at the time. But you knew that."
Suki shrugged. "When I heard, it certainly didn't improve my opinion of her. But I did understand her. Lying, pretending to betray her old friends while planning to betray her new ones, constantly worrying that she'd just end up hurting everyone? I found myself relating."
"So you're saying you're Mai's- what, inverse? I'm not even sure if that's a good thing."
"No, because she betrayed Zuko, eventually. I haven't betrayed you or Aang. I won't let Zuko hurt you guys, either, because you're all my friends. And to demonstrate, I have a warning to pass on. Zuko's sister is the one you have to watch out for. She likes hurting people, and she's decided that Mai has to die for what she did at Crescent Island."
"And, what, Zuko was too busy to let his old friend know about that? Or is this his roundabout way of getting back at her?"
"I-" Suki turned away. "I think he just can't deal with it." Then she raised her gaze again. "And I trust that letting you know is doing what he would really want. I do intend to tell him."
Sokka looked her in her big blue eyes. "It took me a while to forgive Mai."
"Yeah, I'd imagine."
"And it definitely changed how I think of her. Knowing that she's capable of doing those kinds of things, even if she wound up hurting herself and regretting it all."
Suki nodded, but there was no hiding the slump of her shoulders. "A liar is a difficult person to have as a friend."
"Yeah." Sokka sighed. "But I'm not picky about friends so long as they don't want to kill me. If you need any help with Zuko-"
"I know I can count on you. All of you." Suki held out a hand.
Sokka walked over and clasped his own hand over her wrist, and she gripped his in turn. By Water Tribe tradition, they were now bound by trust and friendship. "So let's make sure our buddies aren't poisoned tonight at dinner."
"I don't think the Fire Nation is very into poison."
"Have you tried their food? It's spicy enough to count."
TO BE CONTINUED
Sight Beyond Sight
Katara awoke to the sound of a lazy bell.
She rolled out of the narrow bed and heard Ty Lee immediately spread out to cover the freed space, but the loss of territory was secondary to the sight outside the porthole on the opposite wall. The room was would have been spacious if not for the crates stuffed along the walls, but it had been a supply room before Master Pakku agreed to take on two female crew members. The rest of the crew, Fire Navy and Northern Waterbenders both (men all), were packed into their own long hammock-filled room, but Pakku's sexism at least made him quickly agree to give Katara and Ty Lee their own space.
They probably could have made two 'beds' out of the crates and tarps in the supply room, but neither girl trusted the lock on the door, and sharing a bed was an easy way to watch over each other while sleeping.
As Katara dodged around creates to get to the porthole, she had to admit that she also liked sleeping with Ty Lee. Having another warm body pressed against her was a gentle reminder that she wasn't still in a cage on Crescent Island. She hadn't woken up with any panic attacks since they started sharing. In fact, she was probably feeling the least amount of anxiety since the encounter with Aunt Wu.
Also, Ty Lee smelled like mountain peaches. That was nice.
But Katara still wore her hat when outside.
She looked through the porthole and her smile grew wider. Glowing with the light of the setting sun, the open ocean sprawled to the horizon.
The ship was finally on its way.
Which meant her proper training was about to begin!
Katara set about dressing and tying her hair while Ty Lee sat up in bed and yawned. Katara couldn't help saying, "What happened to that bright and peppy morning girl who was part of our group after we got you out of that sinkhole?"
Ty Lee gave a tired laugh. "She's bright and peppy when the sun is coming up and our natural energies are on the rise. Getting up like this when the sun is setting is weird."
Katara pulled her hair-loopies into place and grabbed her hat. "You could switch shifts, you know. It's okay."
Ty Lee hopped up and shook her head hard enough to send her loose hair flying. "No way! I came on this trip to watch over you and support you! I can't do that if I'm snoring and twisting and dreaming of pink elephant-rats on parade while you're out there hoisting anchors. Or whatever Pakku has you doing."
Katara had actually been doing quite a bit around the ship. Pakku’s ship- or, rather, Zhao’s ship that Pakku was in charge of- had left Toph's base at Full Moon Bay weeks ago and began making its way down the riverway across the Earth Kingdom. Pakku had directed his Waterbenders to aid the Fire Navy crew, and especially had kept Katara busy helping with all aspects of the ship's function. She had tied lines, tightened clamps in the engine room, swabbed the deck, fetched charts for the bridge crew, fried fish in the galley, and helped fix a bilge pump.
"You need to create a greater affinity for your element," Master Pakku had said, "and missed the life on the seas that is the legacy of our Tribes. I want to experience as much of crewing a ship as you can get before we reach the ocean."
Of course, this was a Fire Nation warship, and sometimes Katara's hands shook as she moved through the warm, metal, lamp-lit interior. The engine room especially reminded her of the prison on Crescent Island. While the metal ceilings cut off the view of the sky, she was not any more comfortable than she was flying on Appa.
That's why sleeping with Ty Lee was so helpful. Not waking up each morning expecting a cage around her was a great source of strength.
"Well," Katara said, "I really appreciate your being here. I know you probably would have preferred to be with Mai or the other Airbenders-"
Ty Lee stepped over and pulled Katara in a hug. "I prefer to be where my aura is pinkest and I'm making a positive difference in the world." She pulled back and looked Katara right in the eyes. "My aura wouldn't be pink if I had to worry about Azula, and you're my friend. We didn't grow up together like I did with Mai, but you're still a friend and I love all my friends."
Katara could only giggle. She wasn't sure if she deserved that kind of devotion from someone she only knew for less than two months, or what to make of Ty Lee having grown up in the Fire Nation, but Ty Lee's cheer was all too contagious. "I- uh- thanks."
"Of course. Now, you go up and see Master Grumpy Pants. I'll be up for the next crew shift as soon as I have myself looking like a proper Mysterious Airbender Nun." Ty Lee winked and skipped over to where she kept her robes. Katara wasn’t sure why Ty Lee was playing up her Airbending instead of her Fire Nation upbringing, or even the circus background that she had seemed so proud of, but she had a feeling the explanation only made sense to Ty Lee.
"Yeah. Um, see you later!" Katara hurried off to her Waterbending lessons.
And it was great knowing that this room would be a safe place to return to at the end of the shift.
Katara made her way with familiarity up to the main deck, where the next shift would start. She found herself moving through the halls of the ship along with other Waterbenders, all part of Master Pakku's crew from the North Pole. The night crew shift was mostly made up of these Waterbenders, both because their Bending was more powerful at night and because anyone observing the ship was less likely to notice the strange crew without the sun shining down.
As usual, Master Pakku was already waiting on the deck when Katara and the others emerged. He stood looking out past the ship's prow at the open ocean.
Katara pulled her hat down to block out the sky and took her own look around. The ocean was compelling, but she couldn't ignore Chameleon Bay at the ship's stern or the Fire Nation base that had been built over the bay. Part of what had lengthened the journey was waiting to be allowed to sail through the checkpoint that managed the flow of traffic and shipments into the colonies.
When she reached Pakku- her sifu- she bowed low. "Good evening, Master."
"Hm." Pakku didn't even bother looking at her. "So, are you ready to do some real training?"
"Yes, sir. But I have done real training before. Master Hama taught me Waterbending forms."
Pakku acknowledged that with a nod. "And he did a good job. Your forms, aside from the lack of sophistication inherent in the Southern style, aren't completely terrible. When I said real training, I meant in comparison to the scut work you've been doing."
"Master Hama is a woman."
"-oh." Pakku finally turned to look at her. "Well, let's get on with it, yes? Come with me." He led Katara back towards the bridge tower, but not into it. He took a narrow path around the central structure to the aft deck.
Katara stopped short when she saw what was waiting there. There was a large well in the center of the deck where a trebuchet could be set up. The machinery had been emptied from the space, though, and some of Master Pakku's students were using their Waterbending to stream a ribbon of ocean into a waist-deep pool.
Katara blinked. "What is this? A bath?"
Pakku snorted. "Some of the crew could use one. But no, it's where you're going to be doing your training. You'll be Waterbending in the water. Appropriate, yes?"
"Uh, I don't have to take my clothes off, do I?"
Pakku's sour expression was a heartening answer all its own, but he also said, "I would very much prefer if you didn't. Now, come."
Without even taking off his own jacket, he hopped down into the water, sending ripples through the pool. The students finished their Waterbending, and took stances of attention all around it.
Okay, then. If this was real Waterbending training, then Katara was ready. She went over and jumped into the pool, immediately feeling the water soaking into her leggings and tunic. The water was a bit cool compared to the warmth of the twilight, but not uncomfortable.
When she waded over to Pakku, he reached into a pocket and pulled out a thick bolt of blue cloth. He soaked it in the water, saturating it, and then brought it out again and squeezed the excess liquid out, leaving it wrinkled and damp. "Tie this around your eyes."
"What?" He wanted to blindfold her? "I just close my eyes to meditate."
Pakku shook his head. "We're not meditating right now. I could teach some new mental exercises that could help you- and I will be doing that later, so don't think you're off that particular hook. For now, we’re going to address the fac that while you already know Waterbending forms, you're not truly feeling your element. Working on a ship will help you grow into the lifestyle, but that's a slow process. This will be much more immediate. You won't be able to see the water, so to Bend it you will need to feel it. To sense my position and movements, you'll need to get the water that surrounds us both to tell you. Now, does that satisfy your precocious curiosity, or are you ready to believe that a Waterbending Master might have a few tricks up his sleeve for teaching students of unusual backgrounds?"
Wow, what a cranky old man. No wonder Gran-Gran ran away from this guy. "I am ready, Master." She held up her hand.
Rather than giving her the blindfold, Pakku leaned forward and wrapped it around her head. He tied it tightly in the back, completing cutting off Katara's vision and blocking out all light.
Then he yanked her hat off.
"You don't need that," his voice came. "Do you?"
Katara frowned. She couldn't see anything, never mind the sky. It was like being back in that unlit hut in King Toph's cavern base. There was just darkness all around her, and the embrace of the water up to her waist. "No, I guess I don't. Okay. Now what?"
"Now," his voice came from farther away, "find me. Splash me. Hit me with a water-whip. Anything that will demonstrate that you can sense my position in the pool."
Katara began concentrating.
Toph had long ago decided that it was good to be Earth King.
Here she was, in the Fire Nation itself, attending a fancy party of politicians and military jerks and even a few elite assassins- all people who would have cheered when her country and home and parents burned. If any of them had bumped into Toph back in the Earth Kingdom, where she had worn properly filthy clothes instead of these fancy layers of silk, they would have called her a rebel and tried to set her on fire. ('Tried' being the operative word, as all those traumatized soldiers outside of Gaoling's burning ruins would probably be all too eager to confirm.)
Now, seated at a place of honor at Governor Hige's big-butt dinner table, Toph knocked back some of the tasty fruity beverage she had been served and slammed the emptied cup down on the table.
Immediately, a servant leaned towards her. "More sparkberry juice, your majesty?"
Toph sniffed and held her head high. "More would please me."
As her cup was refilled, all the Fire Nation jerks around her whispered happily about how the Earth King herself ("King?" some asked, but others shushed them and in one amusing case smacked his friend upside the head) was enjoying a local product, about what an honor it was for them and their island.
Yep, it was good to be king.
The party was an hour in, and so far no one had died, which made it a pretty tame party as far as Toph was concerned. But this was mainly for Aang and this Prince Zuko guy, and both of them struck her as pretty tame when they weren't fighting giant ash monsters. But then, that was the whole point of this little jaunt- to turn the Fire Nation tame by way of regime change. And to do that, they had to play nice and convince all these jerks to overthrow the Fire Lord in favor of his supposedly better son.
And if that didn't work, Toph was willing to consider an act or two of regicide. After all, these people wouldn't be shy about trying to kill her in a less formal setting.
They wouldn't succeed, but they'd still try, the poor little dunderheads.
Toph shifted on her palanquin (thoughtfully provided by Governor Hige for her royal use tonight) so that she could place her feet flat on the floor. She extended her Earth-sense through the ground, blocking out the sound of the conversations but letting the vibrations of the chatting and laughing and grunting and chewing define the world for her.
At the head of the table, Avatar Aang was seated with Prince Zuko, Lady Caldera Yu Mai, Suki, Lord Zhao, and Governor Hige. Aang was talking about a holiday that the Air Nomads used to celebrate with a big feast. Toph felt sorry for the kid; she knew what it was like to not have a home to return to, anymore. True, she hadn't actually liked returning to that home back when she had it, but she had always expected it to be there. Now that it wasn't, now that Gaoling and the Earth Rumble and the Bei Fong estate and- and they were gone, the world didn't feel quite right.
Aang probably felt that way, too.
But at least he didn’t have to struggle to get people to acknowledge him. He was an Airbender and a Waterbender, and Toph had even started him on some Earthbending training during their preparations for this trip. His abilities were proof enough that he was the Avatar. Toph, on the other hand, had been faced with more of a struggle after Gaoling. She had only her passport and her cowardly Earthbending teacher with which to convince people that she was really the Bei Fong heir, and never mind the hoops she had been force to jump through to steal the title of Earth King.
Still, Aang was a good kid, so she didn’t throw that kind of thing in his face.
Shifting the focus of her Earth-sense, Toph also picked the rest of her allies at the dinner table- Sokka and her Earthbenders and even Commander Zhao. They were less chatty, doing more listening than talking. Of course, they couldn't listen as well as Toph, but they couldn't help that.
Toph also picked out another trio down at the far end of the table. She hadn't been ashore for that Welcoming Ceremony where these three people had made themselves known to Aang and Mai, but it didn’t taken long to find them here. Of everyone in the room, those three people walked with the most grace, the most efficiency. Mai alone in the entire assembly matched their poise.
So it wasn't exactly a stretch to peg these three yahoos as Weapons of the Fire Nation.
(What a dumb title.)
Toph could feel the tension in their bodies as they ate. They weren't friends with each other, even though they were sticking together as a group. The old woman- Lady Caldera Yu Gerel, Mai had called her- had to be the one in charge, or else the most dangerous. The other two- Bangfei was the guy with light feet and Heiyaoshi was the girl with steel weighing her limbs down- kept looking at Gerel, either taking cues from her or making sure that she hadn't moved when they weren't paying attention.
What Toph found especially notable, though, was that Gerel never looked at anything.
Aang had said that she wore a blindfold, but Toph hadn't immediately accepted that as a sign of blindness. She remembered how, as a little girl, one of the healers working for her parents had blindfolded her on the theory that it would let her eyes rest and eventually 'recover' the ability to see that she had 'lost' when she was born. (The idiot was fired six months later.) Also, Mom had once talked about how some cloth was thin enough that people could see through it. There was any number of reasons Gerel could be wearing a blindfold, from health reasons to trickery.
But she didn't look around. She didn't face people who spoke to her. She didn't angle her head for a better view of something.
So, blind or not, Gerel was acting like she didn't use her eyes. Did she rely on hearing? Or some other trick?
Mai said that Gerel was a Firebender.
As Toph let that one roll around in her head, servants came forward to take everyone's dishes away. Toph felt Governor Hige stand up, and a second later he announced, "Avatar Aang will now tell his tale of how he faced adversity and dishonorable forces to come visit our glorious Homeland. Give him your honorable attention, and as you do, please enjoy these frozen sugar treats, a delicacy from Dezato Island brought to us by Governor Amai."
The room briefly became noisy again- and Toph felt all kinds of vibrations lighting up the earth- as servants placed desserts in front of every guest and everyone else leaned back and got ready for storytime.
Everyone except the Weapons.
The girl, Heiyaoshi, stood up. Gerel must have noticed (without moving her head), as Toph heard her voice echo through the floor with, "You don't wish to hear this?"
Toph strained to hear Heiyaoshi's response: "I was briefed on current events. I'm more interested in a different perspective."
And then she began walking directly towards-
Heiyaoshi was approaching Prince Zuko.
Aang began with, "Um, it's been nice to meet you all. I, uh, guess that my 'story' began at the Southern Air Temple..."
It didn't escape Toph that Twinkletoes there wouldn't be able to do a big storytime thing and pay attention to what Zuko was doing at the same time. As for the others, fancy Lady Mai might have a blindspot (heh) for her old friend, Sokka probably wasn't close enough to hear a whispered conversation, and who know what that Suki girl was all about?
Toph might just have to do some Earthbending-enhanced eavesdropping on their Fire Nation ally.
It might be good to be King, but it was even better to be Toph Bei Fong.
When Zuko caught the feminine shadow approaching him out of the corner of his right eye, he thought that it was Mai, but a quick glance confirmed that she was still sitting next to Aang ready to poke the kid if he started to say something that shouldn't be announced to a group of Fire Nation governors.
And if Suki was still seated at his left (guarding the side where he was missing an eye), then this newcomer was no friend-
He turned, inhaling in preparation for possible Firebending, and found Heiyaoshi the Weapon of the Fire Nation approaching. Like Mai, she was pale-skinned and dark-haired, and her dark tunic almost hid the black long sheathes strapped to her. But Heiyaoshi was displaying a toothy little grin, and her eyes were shining. "Prince Zuko. Would you honor me with permission to join you?"
Her voice was low and scratchy, almost breathless, not the confident tone he would have expected of a woman with swords strapped to her forearms, thighs, and back. Combined with her unstyled hair, left to hang straight and black to her shoulders, it made her seem younger than Zuko knew she had to be.
She was being polite, and so far he had no reason to suspect her of being an imminent danger to him. He nodded.
She kneeled at his side, brushing some of her hair out of her eyes so that she could look up at him. "Thank you." She kept her voice down, no doubt to avoid disturbing Aang. "Are you enjoying your stay here on Zenmatsu Island?"
She was close enough that Zuko wouldn't have even had to reach to grab one of the pair of swords on her back. He whispered, "Governor Hige has been most welcoming. I am eager to return to the Capital, though."
"Yes, I expect that you are." She glanced over at Aang, who was stumbling over an explanation of his adventures at the South Pole without mentioning Zhao's antagonism, and then looked back over to Zuko with a smile and a face that was growing red. "I- I am very glad that you have returned to the Homeland, Prince Zuko. We have never met, but you have always been rather special to me. You and your sister, I mean."
Zuko found that an odd thing to say. "Why? I was hardly an object of fame before- before my failures at Ba Sing Se." He had come to wonder if he really had failed at that battle, but he was hardly going to contradict the official story to someone he barely knew.
She brought her hands together and stretched her arms down, lowering her gaze for a long moment. Was- was this Weapon of the Fire Nation shy?
Eventually, she looked back up at Zuko. "I had not yet been given a rank when you were banished, but I still kept track of the Royal Family. You are all so important to the Fire Nation! And Zenmatsu Island is my home, so knowing that you- you and your sister, of course- came from Zenmatsu blood captured my interest. It made me realize that a simple warrior girl from the western-most island could still accomplish something worthy of the highest recognition. I became a Weapon thanks to your example."
Zuko shook his head, trying to make sense of that. Aang was talking about ghosts in the Southern Air Temple, but Zuko couldn't escape the absurdity of what this woman was telling him. "I'm not of Zenmatsu blood! I- you just said I'm of the Royal Family-"
She blinked. "You don't know?"
He leaned closer to her. "Know what?"
"Prince Zuko, I- you- did you not know that your mother was born on Zenmatsu?"
Zuko flinched away from her. His mother was born on this very island?! But no, that couldn't be! Zenmatsu had both minor nobility and wealthy merchant families who profited from the trade from the colonies, yes, but there was no way that someone from such stock could have married one of the Fire Lord's sons! Mother would have had to be from the Capital itself, or perhaps one of the Grand Clans of the Inner Islands. She couldn't-
He leaned close enough to Heiyaoshi (close enough that he could smell the sharp licorice scent of her perfume) and hissed, "What was her name?"
Heiyaoshi's face colored again. "U- Princess Ursa. But before she was a princess, she was Ursa of Hira'a, a little village near the island's center."
His mother was a peasant?!
No, it could be.
He recalled the last time he had seen her, in the rear courtyard of the Fire Palace. He had been out past sundown, practicing his Firebending away from Azula, meditating in the shadows and trying to maintain a little flame in his hands, when Piandao and Mother passed by him. They were both wearing hooded robes, and hadn't noticed him until he called out. He had asked where his father's 'bodyguard' was taking his mother, but all Piandao had said was, "This has nothing to do with you, my Prince. Go back inside, go to bed, and everything will be fine."
Mother had added, "Don't worry yourself about me. Good night, Zuko. I will always protect you."
That was the last Zuko ever saw of her.
He had asked what happened, of course. He hadn't been given any answers, of course. Father had simply remained silent; Piandao always said his honor would not allow him to speak of his duties; Azula would deflect and taunt him about something else, and Zuko eventually decided that she didn't know either.
If there was something he could learn about Mother in this Hira'a-
Zuko knelt down beside Heiyaoshi and took her hands in his own. Her face went even redder, but Zuko ignored that and said, "Where is this village?"
King Toph focused on Heiyaoshi's body as she and Zuko began whispering about the location of this peasant village. Toph could feel the hammering of the Weapon's heart and the noise of her breathing through the floor; there was no lie in her and no detachment, either. Her body was a storm of anxiety and excitement. Zuko was quickly becoming the same way, although there was more control in him.
How strange that a sword-wielding Weapon of the Fire Nation was more emotional than an angsty, angry, pouty Firebender.
While Aang finished the story about how the ashlands in the Earth Kingdom were a sign that the whole world was in danger, Toph turned her focus back over to that oldest of the Weapons, the old lady Gerel in the blindfold.
Gerel, for the first time all night, had turned her head. Her covered face was pointed directly at Zuko and Heiyaoshi.
Then Gerel turned so that she would have been facing Toph, if she could see through the blindfold, and smiled.
Katara panted as water dripped down from her soaked blindfold and ran in rivulets down her face. They clung to her jawline and crawled down to her chin, where they came together into fat droplets and fell down into the pool. Each impact sent tiny ripples across the surface.
She could almost imagine that she could feel those ripples through her saturated clothes.
Just like she believed that she could feel the ripples coming off Master Pakku's movement on the other side of the pool.
Too bad she'd been thinking that for the last hour and still hadn't managed to hit him with a waterwhip.
Feeling those ripples wasn't easy. Water, it turned out, was movement. Yes, she had known that before, known that Waterbending was about push and pull and redirection, but she hadn't before experienced how much movement was there. The ocean moved in accordance with the call of the moon, on which the Fire Nation warship bobbed, and the water in the pool itself swirled around as a result of it all. The pool itself was influenced slightly by the moon, as well, and by the wind that caressed the water's surface, by the gravitational pull of the earth deep below the ocean, and even by the beat of Katara's heart and the thrumming of her body as she breathed in and out.
Water was the element that was most affected by the world's forces, and water wasn't afraid to hide that. Yet it was the most durable of all elements, because none of those forces could destroy it.
Another drop of water ran from the blindfold down the bridge of Katara's nose and hung there on the tip.
She snapped into motion, pulling a bit of water from the pool and shifting to send it snapping out as a whip towards what she thought was a source of ripples in the pool.
There was a masculine cry of pain.
But it wasn't Master Pakku.
The laughter that followed belonged to him, though.
"You came close to putting Sitwook out of commission for a while," Pakku said, referring to one of his students who had been filling the pool before Katara arrived. His voice was coming from somewhere behind Katara. "Next time, a little less force would be fine. You just need to tag me, not knock my head off."
Katara wiped at the drip of water on her nose. "Well, Sitwook shouldn't have been in the pool if he didn't want to get hurt. I had to strike fast to make sure you didn't dodge."
Sitwook groaned wordlessly.
"He's right," Pakku said. "He wasn't in the pool."
"Then what was I aiming at?"
"Well, I can hardly answer that question, can I? I'm a Waterbender Master, not a mind-reader. Still, you were obviously listening to the water, so you did well enough with the exercise. We'll try again tomorrow. For now, I think it's time we had a group exhibition of the basic forms, and then maybe some sparring before we get to our chores on the ship." There was the sound of a body pulling itself out of the water, and Katara focused on the massive chaotic rush of liquid that surged forward to fill the space Pakku had just vacated and then was pummeled by the water that fell back in from his skin and clothes. "You can take off your blindfold, now." And then something soft and wide landed on her head- her hat!
Katara took the blindfold off to find that night had fully fallen. A red lamp attached to the bridge tower shed light on the rear deck, and she could see the other students abandoning their circular arrangement around the pool. They had been standing like an honor guard around the space, and Sitwook happened to be the one standing where she was facing. Two of the other boys were helping him walk away. Pakku was already heading back around the tower to the main deck.
Before she got out of the pool, Katara waded forward. She was sure she had felt the ripples in this direction. Pakku thought it was enough that she had tried and failed, but she hated the thought that she was such a bad Waterbender that she couldn't at least accomplish something tonight. She wanted to be good enough- good enough to deserve her rescue, good enough for her tribe, good enough to help Aang- and maybe be something more. If she was so bad at this-
She halted in place and gasped.
A little dragonfly, almost invisible in the dim light of the lap, was resting on the surface of the water.
It was right between where she and Sitwook had been standing when she struck.
When Aang and all his friends got back to their rooms, they all instinctively assembled in the atrium at the center. Mai, Sokka, Toph, Zuko, and Suki all came out and sat down around the fountain where Appa and Momo were lounging.
Aang summoned a wind and used it to hop up on Appa's head and gave the big guy a two-handed rub right on his arrow. "That party went great! They had lots of vegetarian food for me and everyone was so friendly! Governor Hige even said he'd take me on a tour of some nearby villages tomorrow so I can meet regular Fire Nation people."
"I-" Sokka stared to say, but Momo fluttered over and landed on his chest, immediately reaching towards the front pockets. Sokka squealed, "Hey, what are you- I was saving those for later!" Momo jumped to the ground with one arm wrapped around what looked like a bunch of fried dough balls, already chewing one. Sokka growled, but then slumped and turned his attention back to Aang. "I was going to say that I kind of agree with you. Everyone clapped after your story, so I guess they didn't object to the overall save-the-world-and-let's-be-happy message."
Mai yawned. "Well, don't read too much into that. For a nation of world-conquering jerks, we're very good at being polite at parties. But yeah, as boring as it all was, things could have gone badly and didn't, so I guess it's a victory or something."
Aang nodded. If even Mai couldn't say anything worse than 'boring,' then things were pretty good! He looked over to Zuko and said, "Do you want to come with me on the tour tomorrow?"
Zuko seemed surprised to be addressed, his eye widening momentarily. "Um, no. I should- um, there are some letters I need to write. I should do that. Tomorrow."
"Oh. Okay." Aang looked over to Toph. "How about you?"
"Sure, why not?" She raised a hand to point directly at Zuko. "Also, Princey-Pants just lied to you. He can't come because he's going to find his mom's village near the center of the island."
Before Aang could even blink, Zuko was on his feet and stomping towards Toph, growling, "Why you little-"
Suki was the first to react, hopping up and stepping in Zuko's way. The prince didn't stop until he collided with her, but Suki held her ground and wound up pretty much holding Zuko in place.
Aang slid down from Appa's head. "Your mother lives on this island?"
Zuko continued to glare at Toph. "I don't have to explain anything to you people. I'll do my part in Uncle's plan, and that's all you need to know."
Mai stood up as well, walking over to stand in Zuko's path right behind Suki. "Zuko, what's this about your mother? I thought she- I thought that she was gone."
Zuko turned his glare on her for a moment, and then bit out, "I just learned that Mother may have been born on this island. In a village called Hira'a. I am going to investigate that claim tomorrow, and I won't let any of you stop me."
Aang considered that. "We need to talk to all these governors, to see if we can get them to support Prince Iroh's coup, but I guess we can do without you for a few days. If you need to look into this to be at peace, then it's best for you to go as soon as possible." An idea struck him, and he turned to look at Appa. "Hey, buddy, do you want to take Zuko to this village? You won't have to fly very fast or in any danger, and you can take breaks whenever you need to."
Appa gave an assenting grunt and sniffled.
"Great! Thanks! This will really help us." Aang reached and gave Appa’s nose a pat.
"What?" Zuko finally stepped back from Suki, looking at Aang with clear confusion. "You're just going to let me take your sky bison?"
Aang shrugged. "Well, Appa is okay with it, so sure! I figured Suki is going with you, and she saw how to hold the reins when we were on Kyoshi Island." A thought occurred to him. "You're not scared of Appa, are you?"
Zuko shook his head. "I've never flown before, but he seemed friendly enough on Crescent Island."
Wait, what? "You met Appa on Crescent Island?! After you- after-" Images of their confrontation in that abandoned temple flood through Aang’s memory. It hadn’t given him a good impression of the prince, but he and Mai had never found out what happened to Zuko after Aang was consumed by the Avatar State.
It hadn’t been a good night for anyone.
Zuko nodded. "When I woke up after the volcano's eruption, I was down on the shores of the island. Your sky bison flew over to investigate me, and I- I told him you were probably up in the ruins of the temple and pointed the way. I wasn't sure if he'd understand me, but- well-" Zuko trailed off as Appa shuffled over to him and gave him a big lick.
Aang felt a smile growing. Anyone who was nice to Appa couldn't be all bad! He was feeling better and better about this whole plan! "Then it's settled! Even taking breaks, Appa will get you to Hira'a and back faster than any carriage, and then we can get back to convincing the governors."
Zuko tried to wipe the bison spit off his armor, while Suki stepped back with a giggle so that she was standing next to Mai. Zuko flung some of the gooey saliva to the ground and nodded to Aang. "Thank you, Avatar."
"Sure, no problem!"
Toph snorted. "See, that wasn't so hard. Now let's talk about how you're obviously being baited by that Heiyaoshi weapon-girl with Mai's fashion sense."
Aang blinked. "Baited?"
Suki blinked. "Heiyaoshi?"
Mai blinked. "My fashion sense? That trash wears all black and can barely be bothered to comb her hair!"
Zuko swung and almost started stomping towards Toph again, but Suki and Mai were still in his way. "Do you have a problem, little girl?"
Toph cracked her knuckles. "You may address me as 'your majesty.' And I ain't got a problem, Princey-Pants. I'm just looking out for you. Maybe you're not savvy enough to have picked this up yet, but when a girl is all smiles and practically crawls into your lap while whispering long-forgotten facts about mysterious moms, then she's out to get you. Or she's weird."
Sokka barked a laugh. "Zuko, I didn't realize you had such unique tastes! No wonder Mai ditched you."
Aang grinned, too. "That's a good one."
Suki, however, didn't seem to see the humor. She crossed her arms and threw a look at Toph. "She wasn't in his lap!"
Toph, of course, couldn’t see it, but she was grinning anyway.
Then Mai stepped away, bringing her hands together in her sleeves and looking up at the moon. "Heiyaoshi is a Blademaster of Kilauea. That has a whole lot of boring meaning behind it, but the important point is that they all use short swords made of volcano glass because it's invisible in the night. They're good fighters, but they have this whole philosophy about fighting with more than just outright combat. It's possible that Heiyaoshi is looking to play politics, here. Or I guess she could be trying to seduce Zuko; stranger things have happened. Hn, stranger things have happened to me in the last six months."
Aang wind-hopped over to take Mai's place between Zuko and Toph, just in case, and said, "So we should be careful, but I still think Zuko needs to go see this Hira'a village. Maybe Heiyaoshi's plan is to just try to drive us apart, so the best thing we can do is work together and be honest with each other."
Toph nodded. "That's exactly what I was trying to do. I like you, Twinkletoes."
Sokka cleared his throat, drawing everyone's attention. "I hate to be the one to have to say it, but Heiyaoshi's whole plan could just be to draw Zuko away to kill him. She could be lying about this village on this island-"
"She was telling the truth about that, at least," Toph interrupted.
"-and even if she's not, Zuko will still be vulnerable out away from the rest of us, even with Appa. And Suki, I guess?"
Suki crossed her arms. "You can't keep me away."
"So if a freaky Weapon of the Fire Nation attacks you?"
Mai said, "Then Suki and Zuko will both die."
Both Suki and Zuko went, "Hey!"
Mai shrugged. "She's a Blademaster of Kilauea. I'm not going to lie to make you feel better."
Zuko sighed. "I won't let myself be drawn into a battle, then. If we're attacked, we'll let the sky bison get us to safety, and then figure out another way to investigate Hira'a. My I can contact Azula or F-" He broke off, and then finished with, "We can figure something out when the need arises."
Aang nodded. He couldn't imagine what kind of family Zuko must have, that he couldn't even rely on his dad or sister to help him figure out why his mother disappeared. And why would his mother even be missing the first place? While what he had seen so far of the Fire Nation itself hadn't been bad, there was obviously something very wrong with the people who ran it.
Maybe that could help convince the island governors here to turn against their Fire Lord.
For now, Aang just said, "So, who wants to be the one to tell the Zhao's not to expect to see Zuko for a few days?"
Sokka's hand immediately went into the air as he called, "Not it!"
Zhao's first morning back in the Fire Nation dawned clear and warm, another auspicious sign that had him almost believing that the whole enterprise wouldn't end up in flame and death.
But so long as it ended it flame and death for Zhao's enemies, he could probably deal with that, too.
And, he had to admit, this assignment had been fairly easy so far. The Avatar and Prince Zuko had been in the Fire Nation overnight and so far no one had tried to kill them, a very positive sign. And while he would have to continue worrying about such things- one of Zhao's first tasks this morning was to issue orders for the Avatar's military escort for the tour with Governor Hige- he was at least able to do so in a luxurious guest suite in a sprawling mansion.
There were worse things.
And then, as Zhao was writing out those escort orders, one of the worse things arrived in the form of a page who announced, "Lord Zhao to see you, sir."
Yes, there were worse things.
Zhao rose from his desk and nodded. "Send him in."
Father stepped into the office with his usual placid gait. "Commander Zhao, thank you for seeing me."
"Lord Zhao, what can I do for you?"
Father kept his voice light as he said, "I was just informed that Prince Zuko is no longer on the premises. Is there a problem?"
"No." Prince Zuko was always a problem, but that was hardly Father's business. And at least the Prince had sent the strange Water Tribe boy to inform Zhao of this whole thing. "But thank you for asking."
Of course, Father wouldn't leave it at that. "Might I inquire as to where the prince is going? It is my responsibility to organize this summit, after all, and even you have to admit that it is odd for one of the guests of honor to simply go missing."
"I suppose I do." Zhao certainly hadn't been happy when the Water Tribe boy showed up last night with news of Zuko's excursion to Hira'a, but then he had realized that serving Admiral Iroh loyally didn't mean he necessarily had to succeed at keeping Zuko alive. He only had to try. "However, it is a Royal affair, and not one that will threaten this gathering. Prince Zuko will be back soon, and the Avatar intends to continue with the planned itinerary."
"I see." Father ambled closer as he stroked his long beard. "And since it is a Royal matter, no doubt Prince Ozai would be informed, or else keenly interested."
Prince Ozai? "Lord Zhao, are you saying that you might receive inquiries from Prince Ozai? I thought you were chosen to oversee this event because you're a neutral party."
Father shrugged. "I am neutral enough, not favoring any of our guests over the others. But if you are insinuating that I am exclusively forwarding Ozai's agenda, you are wrong. I have received no inquiries yet and will not seek to spread information that I am not asked for. But I have many old friends to whom I owe some favors, and I like to be able to accommodate them when I can."
Zhao took a deep breath, trying to cultivate some of that self-control that Jeong-Jeong had always tried to teach him. Yet he couldn't help but remember how Father had been in the Capital when Zhao had arrived, back when he was plotting to accuse Ozai of treason and use Zuko's naiveté as proof. Father had even been in possession of a misrouted write meant for Zhao? Or was it misrouted after all?
That sneaky old coot.
Zhao's voice was hard as he said, "Then tell your old friends that if they want to know, they'll have to hunt down Prince Zuko himself. Now, if you'll excuse me, I do have more important things to do this morning than listen to you whine about your curiosity."
Father bowed silently, and let the page lead him out.
Well. So much for an easy assignment.
TO BE CONTINUED