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Author Topic: Traitor's Face [AU Adventure, rated T]  (Read 26804 times)
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #175 on: Jun 12, 2017 09:33 pm »

Unlike poor Zuzu, Azula had no problem with just waiting around for something to happen- provided, of course, that she knew something was indeed going to happen.

She was currently kneeling in the foyer of Grandfather's- Fire Lord Azulon's- suite, waiting for her appointment.

She was fairly certain a happening was about to go.

It had been a busy morning. By the time Father was up and ready to receive visitors, Azula had a full presentation (complete with visuals she could hang from a stand) on the various options they had for saving Zuko from himself. As Piandao changed the various maps and blueprints displayed on the stand, Azula had gone through each option for either trying to reach Zenmatsu Island by sunset or organizing some kind of assault using local forces (including itemized lists of costs). Being able to provide such thorough information to Father was its own reward.

And yet Father had chosen none of those options.

"You did an excellent job, Azula. You've obviously put much thought into this, and I'm proud of how hard you've worked to find a way to help your brother," he had said. But there was no pride his face, just a tightness she hated to see. "Yet I'm afraid that even the best of these options seem tenuous, and this Agni Kai isn't an isolated event. If we interfere with haste, we might be putting Zuko in even greater danger. As much as I ache to help him, we'll have to trust in his perseverance and prepare for what comes next."

Azula had wanted to ask, with a deadpan tone, if she should go ahead and assume she'd be an only child by tomorrow, but the look on Father's face had stopped her. He was plainly worried.

And Azula had failed to help.

But Father was strong, and so he had stood up and said, "We have to identify our enemies and break off their ability to influence events. And we need to bring Zuko back here as quickly as possible. That might bring us into conflict with Iroh's forces, so we need to prepare for that, as well. Piandao, we have much to discuss. Azula, you've been up for hours, forced to deal with this stressful situation without guidance, and I apologize for that. You should take a nap. You know you need the proper amount of sleep to stay healthy."

On the one hand, it was nice to have Father acknowledge the sacrifices she had made for Zuzu.

On the other hand, Azula had been dismissed while the grown-ups talked about important matters.

She needed to do something to help. She needed to prove to Father that she could be included. She needed to find a challenge that would force herself to grow as a person, princess, and destroyer.

So, naturally, she had gone straight to make an appointment to see the Fire Lord. And had waited. And waited. And waited. Grandfather was, presumably, a busy man.

The door at the far end of the foyer finally slid open, and Azula looked to find a man walking into the room, followed by the old women Li and Lo. The man wore servant robes, revealing only the skin of his face and hands, but even that much was all covered in blood-red writing. The tattoos were very fine, and Azula recognized on his cheeks a portion of the text of the Nawaphon Hnangsux- specifically, the passage about how all other elements bow to Fire, and even the bones of the earth can melt.

Ah. This would be Mutan of Lower Hu Sin, then.

A Weapon of the Fire Nation and Grandfather's personal advisors. Well, even if she was being screened, at least she was being taken seriously.

The old women kneeled down side-by-side across from Azula, while Mutan took a place standing at attention with his back to the far wall. The Weapon was acting as a guard, then. Azula glanced around the room, and spotted several decorative pieces- a statue here, a vase there, and so on- that could be made of stone, all potential ammunition for an Earthbender. Yes, she was indeed being taken seriously.

Li (or Lo) said, "Princess Azula."

Lo (or Li) said, "What brings you to the Fire Lord?"

Azula smiled. "Oh, I just wanted to talk about this matter with Zuko. It's obvious that Grandfather is behind drawing him into the Agni Kai, but honestly, all these complications are just making trouble for everyone. Wouldn't it be better to reach an accord so we can all get on with our lives?"

Li (or Lo) said, "What makes you think Fire Lord Azulon has anything to do with Zuko's duel?"

Lo (or Li) added, "The Prince has a history of burning in his own fuel."

Ah, a reference to the hilarious 'friendly-fire' incident that got Zuko his scar and ended Father's military career. These sycophants thought themselves so clever. "Please, don't insult me. I'm not here to argue or deliver some kind of formal legal charge. I just wanted to ask what we can do to resolve this without further difficulty. There's little gain in continuing to antagonize each other, especially with so many Weapons involved. Things could easily get out of hand."

Li and Lo didn't so much as glance at each other, but Azula was sure that the twins would be on the same page. One of them (the one on the left) said, "Prince Ozai was the first to make use of Weapons."

The one on the right continued, "He requested the service of Piandao when he resigned from the Fire Army. Checking his ambitions has led to escalation."

Azula snorted. "Please, you act like Father is planning treason." Why bother when Grandfather was so old that a stiff breeze would probably kill him? Considering Uncle's plan for the Avatar, perhaps it even would be a stiff breeze! "He just wants Zuko back, so that we can serve the Fire Nation as the Royal Family is supposed to, compared to traitors like Uncle Iroh."

Li (or Lo) leaned forward. "That is escalation, too. Assembling a stronger faction here in the Capital, using the son who Ozai burned and let be sent away?"

Lo (or Li) leaned back. "Since when does Prince Ozai care for his son? The Fire Lord thinks it a falsehood meant to lead him astray."

Azula concealed her surprise. She didn't know how to answer that. She couldn't explain how Father had changed his mind about Zuko- how Father had changed so much in general since the banishment. He became more verbal, more willing to offer praise for things other than achievement. He became interested in things besides strength and Firebending. And he decided that he wanted Zuko back, safe and welcome.

Or was it just part of Father's plans? According to Piandao, there were things going on that even Azula didn't know. Could-

Could Father's behavior be part of that?

Was he manipulating everyone?

Was he manipulating Azula?

Well, if he was, then he surely had a good reason. Perhaps she wasn't strong or clever enough. She would have to prove herself, or allow herself to be destroyed in the attempt.

It took a moment before Azula was confident enough to speak again. "Then perhaps what is needed here in the palace is some de-escalation. Surely, a path can be negotiated where Zuko can return and the Royal Family as a whole grows in strength."

Li and Lo both narrowed their eyes. The one on the right said, "The return of Zuko would come with a considerable price."

The one on the left added, "The Fire Lord is eager to learn what you have that will entice."

Azula shook her head. "I am not here to work out a deal just yet. But it is good to know that the Fire Lord is open to such-"


The sound of Father's voice jolted her spine like a fizzled attempt at Lightningbending. She froze and tensed, her combat instincts coming into play, but the heavy sound of Father's footsteps behind her cooled her Inner Fire.

Father's hands clamped around her right arm and dragged her out of the room.

He only let go when they were back out in the hall. Azula stumbled to her feet (she would meet the punishment that was sure to come with strength and obedience) and glanced around. There were the Crimson Guards in front of Grandfather's door, of course, and some servants moving around on business. She wished they would all go away.

The guards slid the doors to Grandfather's suite shut as Father whirled on her.

Azula forced herself not to cringe.

Then she saw Father's expression.

He wasn't mad.

He looked terrified.

He pulled her into a hug. "Are you all right? I came as soon as I learned where you were! What were you thinking?"

"I-" Azula blinked. Talking while being hugged felt strange. And she didn't like how the guards and servants could see this. She whispered, "You said we had to prepare for what is going to come next for Zuko. Negotiating an end to hostilities with Gra- Fire Lord Azulon struck me as the most efficient course of action."

Father leaned back so that she could see him smile. "You're such a good sister, trying to take care of Zuko like this, but you shouldn't have risked yourself." He lowered his voice and added, "Those old spider-snakes are monsters. I don't want you anywhere near them."


This was because Father was worried about her?

Did he think Azula so weak?!


Was there more going on than Azula was aware?

More than Father didn't want her to know?

Azula hated having these thoughts.

But she knew she wouldn't be able to serve Father properly until she managed to defeat her doubts. And, in the end, that was all she wanted: to be the best daughter in all of history. "Yes, Father. It will be as you say."

"Good." He finally let her out of the hug, but kept a hand on her back as he guided her back to his own suite in the palace. "I have some thoughts on how we can quickly get Zuko back here, once this business with the Agni Kai is done. I need your opinion on some aspects of the plan. Do you feel up to it?"

"Of course."

She always did everything that her father commanded.


Sometimes, it seemed to Mai like she was the one who always got stuck cleaning up after all the stupid people in her life.


She leaned against one of the columns that formed the colonnade circling Governor Hige's whole mansion, watching the small stream of people headed for the large courtyard at the rear of the grounds. It was there that, in about half an hour, Zuko and Gerel would have their Agni Kai. The sun was dipping towards the horizon, and Hige's guests- the other Outer Island governors and staff members and whoever else was currently freeloading- were trading whispers as they hurried to get a good seat.

At least they weren't smiling. The morons were smart enough to know that there wasn't going to be any good outcome to this particular Agni Kai. Even those who might immediately benefit from having either Zuko or Gerel shamed- or worse- could get rolled over in all the drama that was sure to follow.

Said drama could even include a civil war, just because this was the Fire Nation.

Finally, Mai spotted the person she was waiting for. It wasn't one of her friends, or even one of friend-adjacent allies who were part of this conspiracy of Prince Iroh's. No, those were all helping Zuko get ready in some form or another, right down to King Toph advising him that the key to winning a duel was to win, not lose. Mai had quietly excused herself from that, leaving it in Sokka's more or less capable hands to make sure Zuko was on time. And, yes, Mai was trusting Suki to manage things as well. She may not exactly like the Kyoshi rebel, but Suki was competent enough.

No, Mai was waiting for Heiyaoshi.

And Heiyaoshi was passing by, walking all by herself to the Agni Kai, none of the other Weapons in sight. Gerel, of course, would be preparing for the fight, and it seemed that Bangfei didn't feel the need to hang around with the others all the time. Smart of him.

Mai straightened, went over to fall into step with Heiyaoshi, and said, "If Zuko dies, I'm going to turn you into the world's tackiest pin-cushion."

"Tacky?" Heiyaoshi looked over with a frown. "Black is the sacred color of the Blademasters of Kilauea, the color of volcano glass. Volcanoes are what formed the islands of the whole Homeland. They are our ancestors, in a way."

Mai didn't feel the need to get into a theological argument about how elegant styling and a dash of color could enhance the impact of wearing black and that Heiyaoshi looked a walking ink stain. "I'm serious. Your life is on the line with this Agni Kai."

"And what exactly would that accomplish? There's no need to make this personal. I was just doing my duty as a Weapon of the Fire Nation. I am quite fond of Prince Zuko, but a weapon does not choose how a warrior chooses to use it."

"What makes you think this is personal?" Mai didn't even miss a step. "I am a Weapon, too, and everyone knows I don't care about anything."

Heiyaoshi actually smiled. "Then why warn me? If retaliation against me is your duty, then giving me notice will only make it harder for you. A Blademaster of Kilauea thrives on long-term planning."

Hm. Mai hadn't thought about that.

Her thoughts had been wrapped up in the danger Zuko was in and how she was supposed to feel about it. The whole situation made her angry, but she couldn't identify the reason. Sure, Zuko was a necessary part of this whole conspiracy they were running with Iroh, and Aang believed that it was their best shot at starting to fix the world.

But having that threatened shouldn't make Mai actively angry.

The obvious answer, of course, was that she cared for Zuko on some level. That's why she got started on this whole mess, after all, all the way back in the South Pole. But then she formed a real friendship with Aang and Sokka, and later Suki (kind of) and Katara and now maybe even King Toph. And her reunion with Zuko had been terrible, leaving her disappointed in him and angry at how he'd changed. She could work with him for this scheme as long as he wasn't being a jerk, but she knew that her old attachment to him- whatever it was- was gone.

So why was she angry?

Was caring about people not something you could turn off once you started, even if you didn't particularly want to be a part of their lives anymore?

Ugh, that would be the worst.

Of course, Mai wasn't about to share that with a woman who lied and killed for a living. "I'm telling you so that when you start looking over your shoulder every waking moment to see if I have a line-of-sight on you, your employers will be aware of just what a stupid mistake they made. And I'm telling you now on the off chance you can actually do something to stop this, as useless as you probably are. It's not like I had anything better to do."

"Ah. I hope that on some level I don't disappoint you."

Mai stopped, and let Heiyaoshi continue on to the courtyard. Stands had been erected for the audience to sit and observe, and the center of the space was staked off to form a field of battle. Zhao’s guards were stationed around the courtyard, although there weren’t a lot of them. Zhao was running low on soldiers after the attack of the Disciple of the Third Eye. Would Iroh send more as reinforcements?

Mai felt a wind whip at her clothes. She turned and found Aang coming in for a landing, his glider snapping back into a staff, just outside the colonnade.

He trotted over to her. "Was that Heiyaoshi? The Weapon who sent Zuko to Hira'a?"

Mai nodded.

Aang looked over at the makeshift arena, and then back at Mai. "How come you were talking with her?"

Mai shrugged. "Just preparing for the Agni Kai in my own way."

"Oh. Um, were you threatening her?" Aang actually blushed. "It's just that it seems like something you would do."

Mai felt an absurd urge to smile, but successfully denied it. She didn't want to antagonize Aang like that. "Yeah, I told her I'd kill her if Zuko dies. And yes, I was serious. I don't like when people go after my friends, or friend-adjacent allies. Knives are very good at hurting people back, and I'm very good at knives."

Aang looked back over at where Zuko would soon be fighting an Agni Kai. "I know not everyone thinks life is sacred- or, you know, sacred enough not to sometimes want to kill- but trying to hurt other people can hurt you, too. Look what Prince Zuko has gotten into."

Mai blinked. "But earlier you told him you understood why he had to do it."

"I do. But that doesn't mean I don't wish I could change the way he thinks. I just know I can't. But with you-" He turned to her with eyes that seemed to be softer than even his disarming usual. "I really don't want you to get hurt. And I know you can change if you really want to, even if it's hard and kind of messy."

Wow. Quite the commitment he was asking of her. Mai shrugged. "Well, we're on a path that's going to bring us against lots of different enemies. I have an aversion of getting hurt, myself, but I'd rather it be me getting hurt than my friends. And friend-adjacent allies."

Aang sighed. "Yeah. I understand that, too."

And Mai knew he did. "Come on, let's go give Zuko some last words of tiresome encouragement or whatever he thinks he wants from us."

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #176 on: Jun 12, 2017 09:34 pm »

Zuko kneeled on the northern end of the Agni Kai grounds and prepared himself for a fight. He breathed and focused on the feel of the setting sun on the bare skin of his back and arms. He let the silk bolt resting on his shoulders remind him of his status as a recognized Firebender warrior. He let his sister's words, the talk of strategy and strength she had imparted when training him to fight the Avatar, run through his head.

But mostly, he tried to avoid thinking about how worried his friends and allies had looked when they wished him luck and let him go to his battlefield. Suki could barely even talk, she was so clamped down with (presumably) fear.

But Zuko had to fight this duel. He had to avenge his mother's home village. He had to learn why Lady Gerel had been sent to make war on their Homeland, and who had ordered such a thing.

A gong was struck.

The duel had begun.

Zuko inhaled sharply and moved in a rising spin that brought him fully to his feet and gave him enough power and momentum to snap out a punch that blossomed with flame. It wasn't the most respectful or honorable way to begin a duel, but it was probably his only way to win.

He had a brief glimpse of his opponent before the fire consumed his line of sight, and she had only begun to turn to face him. He noted that her arms- surprisingly solid for such an old woman, but not for a Weapon of the Fire Nation- were still at her sides, and while she was wearing the typical female attire for an Agni Kai, she hadn't taken off her blindfold that blood-red cloth with the character 'Dragon' painted on it.

But for now Zuko could only see the fire, and he quickly slid to his right along the edge of the battlefield, hopeful that with flames between them, Gerel wouldn't be able to sense his body heat-

A fireball like a comet came out of nowhere to explode on the ground at his feet. Zuko jumped away from the riot of sound and light and heat, wondering if the fireball had been crafted to be louder and more explosive so that Gerel could keep track of it, or perhaps flush Zuko out of hiding-



The fire wasn't fading. Gerel must be maintaining it.

A second explosion came from Zuko's other side, filling his world with fire. It was intimidating, but it hadn't come close to hitting him, and although these fires were being maintained as well, he had little to fear from them. Yes, even a Firebender could be burned- his scar and missing eye were proof enough of that- but not if he worked to prevent it. A simple motion was all it would take to assume control of any flames that got too close, and then he could handle them without fear of injury-

-just like Gerel was doing now as she advanced through her screen of flames. Zuko ducked to execute a sweeping kick that would send his own fire at her feet in a bid to turn her approach-

-but Gerel breathed and the flames around him grew, cutting her off from his sight-

-and Zuko was forced to roll clear as the flames shifted, undulating and whipping around unpredictably. Zuko stood back up and raised his arms in preparation to defend himself from the growing flames, but then they suddenly drew back, only to pulse forward again in certain spots, and then those spots retreated back while others flared and the flares whipped around chaotically before dying to let other sources flow into the same space in the air-

The fire undulated around him, and Zuko felt like he was trapped in a bag while unseen enemies on all sides beat on it with fists and sticks. How could anyone be controlling this with any level of precision? It was too chaotic. His whole world was flames and already he could feel them searing the skin on his arms and shoulders and back and chest and-

Gerel burst out of the fire, twisting and ducking to avoid her own conflagration. Zuko quickly punched a fireball at her, but she twirled just enough to avoid it and continued in her approach, moving quickly despite having to avoid the twisting and lashing inferno-

The Avatar.

She was moving almost like the Avatar, quick on her feet and holding her body in a way that let her turn in an instant while still maintaining full control. It wasn't quite Aang's style; Gerel wasn't holding a solid stance, instead almost weaving like a drunk in a way that would have looked sloppy if not for the fact that every movement kept her just out of the dangerous reach of another flame.


She could see. Or something like it.

Zuko realized that she wasn't controlling the conflagration. She had unleashed the full fury and unpredictability of fire, and she was somehow seeing- or- or sensing each bit of the flames, and reacting to them.

He also realized just how in over his head he was here.

As Gerel approached, Zuko decided that his only hope was to end this as quickly as possible. He jumped at Gerel, summoning his Inner Fire to his left foot and snapping out a kick that would-

-Gerel leaned forward, catching his foot with her right hand even before he could build up any flame, and pushed with just enough force to make him land in a backwards stumble-

-a gout of flame lashed at his back, and Zuko couldn't stop himself from crying out-

-an open palm smacked against his head, spinning him around and he couldn't keep his balance and he felt a new heat covering his sweating body-

-flames stabbed at the skin of his bare feet-

-he screamed-

-he fell-

-fire all around him-

-had to find Gerel-

-didn't even know where he himself was on the battlefield-

-too bad he wasn't fighting her in the rain again-

-pain on his arm-

-another whip of fire-

-roll away-


-his hands were in the flames-

-he couldn't win-

-he couldn't survive-

-forfeit the match-

-too busy screaming to find the words-





-someone was screaming, "Enough!"

An explosion of cool air washed over Zuko, dampening his pain for a blissful moment, and he beheld a brief image of a blue glow that was at once searing and comforting, a glow in the shape of an arrow pointing down to two eyes narrowed in anger-

-and then everything went dark.

Aang couldn't not intervene. As soon as he saw Zuko disappear into that storm of flame, and heard the cries of anguish echoing across the courtyard, fear pierced his heart. It was fear for Zuko, yes, and also fear for what Mai would be forced to do if the prince didn't survive. The fear lanced deep enough to carve a path straight into the deepest parts of his self.

And in those deep parts, Aang’s past lives could be found.

It was Avatar Roku who screamed a denial of Zuko's suffering, and in that moment, Aang agreed completely. He didn't want to see anyone hurt, not Zuko or Mai or Sokka or Suki or anyone. Yes, he had struggled with hate for Zuko, when he thought Zuko's sister might have killed Appa, and he remembered all too vividly the ambush on Crescent Island. But even hate wasn't enough for Aang to want someone to get hurt.

He didn't need a plan or any fancy tricks. Roku provided the power, and all Aang had to do was slam his hands together and imagine the winds that used to blanket the Southern Air Temple. With the full force of the Avatars of the past behind it, the result was an explosion or air that knocked everyone in the courtyard to the ground and strangled the fire.

Then Aang leaped out over the battlefield, riding the winds to a landing right beside Zuko. The prince didn't move from the ground, and the skin of his bare torso was red and ragged and wet.

The sight shocked Aang straight out of the Avatar State, and he was left as just the last Airbender, the center of attention at a well-attended Fire Nation death-duel.

The whole courtyard was silent except for Zuko's ragged breathing.

Then Lady Gerel crawled forward, lowering her head into a kowtow. "I accept the Avatar's declaration of the Agni Kai's conclusion. I decline the opportunity to take further action against my challenger."

Aang blinked. That- that was convenient.

He heard footsteps behind him, and turned to see Suki running over to Zuko, leading a man and woman who were carrying bags of supplies. They kneeled around the fallen prince, and as they began to work, Aang realized they were healers. Maybe Zuko would be all right, and they'd avoided disaster and all kinds of bad things! Sure, it wasn't good for Zuko that he had lost, but-

"Is this what we're being asked to support?!" The call was loud and dripping with anger. Aang looked to the audience, and found one man- the governor of Hantaino Island, Aang remembered from the welcoming ceremony and introductions- standing. The old man looked around at the other spectators scattered and knocked down by the wind blast. "Even if we take the Avatar's action as legal, is this who we're to count on to save the Fire Nation? A boy who doesn't have the strength to control his power? A child who will fly into a- a glowing cursed rage whenever one of his friends is hurt?"

Aang shrugged. "Well, who doesn't want to help their friends?"

Apparently, a lot of Fire Nation big-shots, because the various governors, politicians, and important people all looked less than convinced as they untangled themselves from the stands.

One woman in some fancy clothes said, "He couldn't even protect Governor Hige, despite his power! At least we know the limits of the Fire Lord's strength."

Another voice added, "And the Fire Army is exploring those new metals for use in the colonies-"

"My esteemed countrymen," Lord Zhao interrupted, hurrying over from where he had been observing with the guards. He was still straightening his robes as his steady voice carried clearly over the courtyard. "I heartily encourage discussion about the opportunities available to you, but this is not the place. A glorious Agni Kai has been fought here, and as- ah, unorthodox as it may have ended, we should respect that. The governor's staff tells me that dinners will be available to be served in your rooms, soon, and it will be much more comfortable to meet in smaller, more orderly groups. Please, let us retire from this place with respect and decorum."

Aang heard some grumbling from the spectators, but it quickly faded and they all began leaving, filing out of the courtyard and into the colonnade that would lead them back to their rooms. He glanced back and saw that Zuko was being carried away on a stretcher, observed by Lady Gerel, but before Aang returned to his friends, he hurried over to Lord Zhao. "Um, thanks for that. It seemed like it was about to get ugly."

Zhao the Younger approached from behind Aang, and it seemed like he was sneering less than usual. "Yes, Father, that was well done. It seems that you're not completely compromised."

Lord Zhao's face was as expressionless as Mai's usually was. "I have my own ties, but I am still responsible for organizing this gathering, and I will not accept a riot on the field of an Agni Kai. Thank you both for your appreciation, but if I may be so bold as to offer a bit of insight, you have much more important things to worry about."

Commander Zhao nodded. "True. At this rate, we're going to have the leadership of the Fire Nation completely turn against us, and I'd say we're about a week out from the first assassination attempts from the governors. I dread the report I'm going to have to make to my commanding officer."

Aang knew that the younger Zhao was referring to Prince Iroh.

By saving Zuko, had he completely messed up his whole reason for coming to the Fire Nation? To the point that more people were now going to try to kill him and his friends?



Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #177 on: Jun 14, 2017 06:28 am »


Keeper of Azula's Lightning Hands.

Super Sidera Votum


~Assyrian tablet, c.2800 BC
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #178 on: Jun 26, 2017 09:18 pm »

Slippery Paths

"You seem stressed," Iroh says. "Here, have some tea."

The liquid in the cup glows with pale reflected light not unlike the glow of the moon, but it's not really moonlight. The forest all around this little clearing is luminous, the trees themselves glowing like ghosts beneath the stars.

Aang takes the cup, and can't help but smile. "You treat tea like it's the fix for everything."

"Perhaps I do." Iroh takes a sip from his own cup, and his eyes crinkle with amusement. "I will consider other paths when I finally encounter a difficulty that tea can't solve. I'm sure it will happen someday."

Aang wants to laugh, but his latest problems come to mind all too quickly. Instead, he tries the tea, and finds the flavor to have a touch of sweetness that is indeed soothing. "I just don't know what to do. Governor Hige is still unconscious. Last night, Sokka, Mai, and I put together a list of the people who might be friendliest to us, and I'm going to meet with them today to see if I can get them to help me, but everyone seemed really upset with the way I ended Zuko's Agni Kai. I'm scared that I won't be able to talk to them right."

Iroh nods. "The Fire Nation today is a land that puts more weight on action than words. That can be a good thing, but only when actions are interpreted properly. Without that understanding, it becomes a land that just reflects each person's own biases."

"So what can I do?" Aang finishes his tea.

"Well, young Avatar, we are unfortunately left with having to play by the rules of the game we have joined. Certainly, meet with your potential allies, and I hope you find the words that will bring them to your side. But if that doesn't work, then you must find the action that will provide what the rulers of the Fire Nation want to see, but also guide them to a new view of what we want to show them." Iroh sighs, and puts down his tea. "I know; that's not as specific as you would like. I will think on this, and we can talk again when one of finds the answer."

Aang bows his head, and Iroh bows back.

Around them, the light of the ghost-trees reach a new height of brightness-

Aang's eyes struggled open to find the sun shining down on him through a pair of windows. He tried to move, but he was constricted. Was he trapped? Had had gotten lost in the forest? Was he-

No, he had been dreaming. He was in his room in Governor Hige's mansion on Zenmatsu Island, and the sheets of the bed were twisted around him.

Or had he been dreaming? Had that been a real conversation with Prince Iroh in the Spirit World? Iroh said he could reach people through dreams, and it had been in a dream that he had passed on directions for finding Tyro and Haru's secret Earthbending village.

Aang had thought it was neat, when Iroh first revealed that, but now he just felt uncertain. He didn't really like the idea of getting visits in his dreams from uninvited guests. It made it really hard to keep track of what was real.

But it's not like it made much of a difference right now. Aang still had some tough work to do today, and even though he knew what he wanted, he had no idea how to get it.

But then, Air Nomads didn't let a thing like uncertainty stop them. He untangled himself from his sheets and hopped out of bed. The best way to start the day was with food and friends, and as bad as things were right now, he still had both of those right nearby.

Zhao found that running a security detail wasn't much different than captaining a ship. Yes, all of the duties were completely different, but the nature of the jobs were the same- there was always some little task that needed to be completed, he was responsible for everything even when he was asleep, and disaster was always just one whim of nature away.

Also, he understood maybe half the orders he was expected to execute.

Zhao was making his way through breakfast when one of the soldiers under his command- one of the marines assigned by Prince Admiral Iroh to his mission- came into the apartment in Governor Hige’s mansion that Zhao was using as an office. She said, "You wanted to see me, sir?"

Zhao nodded towards the shin-high cage that sat in the corner of the room, as well as the angry creature shuffling around inside of it. "Take that outside somewhere without letting the Avatar or any of his companions see you. Set the creature free, and make sure it doesn't follow you or come back here."

The soldier blinked. "Uh, sir?"

"These are part of a package of orders that came straight from Prince Iroh last night by wire." Zhao polished off the last of his sweet congee. "If necessary, I expect you to give your life to keep the Avatar's group from finding out that we had their lemur in a cage since an obscene hour of the morning."

The soldier bowed. "Sir!" She went over and took the cage by the handle built into the top, prompting the lemur bat-thing within to screech at her, and was soon off on her very important mission.

Zhao had no idea why he had been woken up last night to send some of his soldiers off into the city to buy that cage, or why they had to lure the lemur creature with bits of fruit and trap it while the Avatar slept. But the orders had come from Prince Iroh himself, and considering that they were in response to the report of Prince Zuko's near-disastrous Agni Kai, Zhao felt that it could have been worse.

And, at least, it was now over. Zhao set off to do the morning inspection, and then afterward he should probably make sure that the healer procured for Prince Zuko wasn't a disguised assassin. It would be a bit too humiliating for one of Zhao's most important charges to die because was he was overseeing the temporary capture of a child's pet.

At some point in the night, Zuko had lost his awareness of the pain.

It took him a long time to wake up, but as soon as he started to feel an inkling of awareness, he could not let himself succumb to sleep again. He had to know what was going on. He fought his way back to consciousness, slowly coming into new sensations- soothing coolness against his skin, a sharp but familiar odor, constricting cloths that kept him in place, a whispering whose meaning was just out of reach. At last, he opened his good eye, and looked around.

A man in the robes of a healer was leaning over Zuko, moving hands gripped around small candles over his Qi-lines and whispering a chant. They were in Zuko's room in Governor Hige's mansion. The healer met Zuko's gaze and paused in his chanting to say, "Do not disturb your bandages. I will change them and reapply the ointment later."

Ah, that explained the odor. Zuko was familiar with the Red Ointment used for burns and other injuries. It was made from different mixes of herbs, with the most prominent ingredients giving it a red color. Perhaps if Zuko had taken some more of it with him into his exile-

He nodded his agreement to stay still, and the healer returned to his quiet chanting.

But the exchange was apparently enough to disturb someone. There was a startled movement, and Zuko looked to find Suki waking up in a chair near his bed. Her eyes twitched to take in the scene before settling on Zuko. "Oh. How are you feeling?"

That’s when Zuko realized that he wasn’t wearing his eyepatch. He tensed at the thought of Suki seeing him like this, but then he remembered that she’d seen his empty socket before. It didn’t bother her, apparently. "I’m not hurting. What happened?"

"Avatar Aang saved you. He used his Avatar power to Airbend the flames away, and declared the Agni Kai to be over. Um, you lost, but Gerel submitted to Aang and let you live. So that's good!"

Zuko appreciated her effort, but let his eye drift closed. "I failed. Gerel will never reveal who sent her to Hira'a, now." He had no idea how else to pursue his mother's fate, or to unravel the mystery of why a Weapon of the Fire Nation would be sent to destroy a Spirit Forest. Why risk creating ashlands right here in the Fire Nation? "Well, nothing to do now but continue to help the Avatar. Maybe if I stay watchful, I'll catch something-"

Suki's expression twisted, and Zuko's voice died to let the quiet chanting of the healer fill the space. Something was wrong.

Finally, Suki said, "Aang is going to need help, once you're recovered. They said your burns should heal without scars if you keep them clean and use plenty of ointment, and in a few days you can-"

"What," Zuko interrupted, "is the problem with the Avatar?"

Suki winced. "Saving you- it kind of upset a lot of the Governors. Aang is going to try to meet with some of them today to see if they'll support him, but if things don't go well, he might have to leave the Fire Nation as an enemy."


So Zuko hadn't just failed at finding his mother. He had ruined Uncle's plans as well.

He could have let the mysteries about Mother go. He could have tried to handle it like Azula instead of declaring an Agni Kai.

But no, he couldn't. Not as he was. He knew himself that well, at least.

For once, Mai had gone into a meeting with a bunch of stuffy nobles and administrators with no fear whatsoever of being bored.

That was not the good thing she would have expected before getting caught up in Aang's life.

The others were already gathered when Mai and Aang arrived in the mansion’s dining room. A line of ten people in red silks kneeled in a row on the same side of the table, ages ranging throughout adulthood but all of them wearing an expression of disapproval that reminded Mai of her parents. She wondered briefly what Mother and Father would think of Aang, if they ever met him.

(They’d probably either sell him out to Azulon or else urge Mai to marry him, depending on whose side they were supporting at the moment.)

Sokka and King Toph had wanted to come along to this meeting, and Mai would have welcomed their practicality, but there was no helping it. Last night, Aang had sent a written request for a conference with the ten governors who he guessed would be the most receptive to Avatar-groveling, and the reply specified that he and his Weapon adviser were welcome to an audience. She supposed that no one wanted to tell a Weapon she wasn't welcome, but bringing along a pair of extra (foreign) advisers probably wouldn't be the best way to kick things off.

When she and Aang had taken their places kneeling on the opposite side of the table from their hoped-for allies, Governor Leiko (the lady who had brought frozen sugar treat delicacies for the big welcoming banquet the other night) began by sliding a piece of paper across to Aang. "These are the names of everyone challenging you to an Agni Kai, Avatar. These include governors, merchants, nobles, and several servants and bodyguard acting as proxies for masters who aren't Firebenders."

Mai, of course, kept her expression blank, but she did start calculating angles on various critical tendons for all of the ten governors on the opposite side of the table.

Aang just blinked. "Um, can you say that again?"

Leiko tapped a single finger on the sheet of paper. "This is actually the easy way of handling things, Avatar. My compatriots and I wanted to give you a fair chance to address our concerns, and what better than testing your attunement to the Great Element?"

Aang leaned back and scrunched his nose. "Um, I can think of all kinds of better ways than challenging me to death duels. Look, the reason I asked to meet with you is because I think we can talk this out. If I could just explain and get us all on the same side, then we could go to the other governors and maybe fix this before anyone gets too mad."

Mai had to suppress a wince. A few days of hanging out in the Fire Nation had apparently not made Aang into a master politician yet, given how he just went and announced his agenda. But then, he had been hanging out with Zuko and Toph, so of course his sense of subtlety would have atrophied. To be honest, Mai herself probably wouldn’t do any better. She'd just sound bored while being blunt, but at least she'd be self-aware about it.

Leiko actually smiled. "That's the hard way you're describing, Avatar, and you'd never convince everyone. But if you win Agni Kai matches against your challengers, then the truth and justness of your actions in Prince Zuko's favor will be unquestionable. And such a display would win you quite a bit of favor."

"But I'm not a Firebender!"

Mai said, "The Avatar means that while he definitely has the ability to Firebend, his training has only just begun and accepting an Agni Kai at this point would be an insult to the challenger."

Aang nodded. "Yeah, that."

Leiko dipped her head in an acknowledgement. "Then we seem to be at an impasse. Lady Gerel might have accepted your interference, but how can we see it as anything but disrespect for our culture? The Fire Nation admires strength, Avatar Aang, and not only did you stop a contest of strength meant to settle issues of honor, you did so on behalf of an ally who shown a considerable lack of strength so far."

Aang's frown reflected how Mai would have reacted, if she were in the habit of wearing her emotions on her face. He said, "But he finished that quest to find me and bring me to the Fire Nation."

"A point in his favor, yes." Leiko looked around at the other governors, and didn't speak again until she had gotten nods from each of them. "However, Prince Zuko was banished in the first place when his cowardice ruined his father's bid to conquer Ba Sing Se. While he was clever in bringing you to the Fire Nation without violence, it's still clearly not what the Fire Lord meant. And now losing this Agni Kai with such a poor showing-"

"Against," Mai interrupted, "a Weapon of the Fire Nation."

Leiko continued, "A show of strength is needed from your faction. The Fire Lord is strong, and he has no compunctions about projecting that strength."

Mai looked over at Aang, and found him staring at the paper with all the names of his challengers. His shoulders sagged, and she didn't miss the moisture accumulating at the corners of his eyes. He must have really thought he could fix this problem just by talking.

But then, he'd only been in the modern Fire Nation for a few days now.

Mai reached out and took the paper away from him. She noted that there were two columns of names. "There are too many challengers here to properly accept any offers. The Avatar needs time to review each name, decide which if any will offer an honorable opportunity to settle this issue, and then prioritize the matches he accepts. I suggest we end this meeting, and the Avatar will send further word when the time is appropriate."

Leiko gave a short bow. "That is reasonable. Thank you for hearing our words."

Mai bowed back. "Thank you for giving us the opportunity to listen." Jerk. She rose and pulled Aang along with her.

She had hoped he would stay quiet until they got back to their rooms, but they were barely out in the hall before he said, "I'm not really going to fight all those people, am I?"

"I don't know. I just said that to get us out of there without insulting those morons." She let go of his arm. "I'm your expert on Fire Nation culture, not a politician."

Aang actually perked up at that. "Maybe we can talk to Zuko about it! Princes are politicians, right? Maybe he'll know a way to get out of fighting. Just because he chose to get into a stupid fight doesn't mean he had to, right?"

Mai decided not to say anything. Let Zuko be the one to disappoint him.


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« Reply #179 on: Jun 26, 2017 09:21 pm »

It was a warm, gloomy, rainy day, and Katara loved it.

A bell clanged to signal a break in the work shift, and Katara closed the latch on the equipment box she had been restocking. Out here on the deck of the Fire Nation warship, light raindrops- so small that instead of falling they were driven sideways by a breeze- tickled the skin of her face and hands. She risked a brief look up at the sky, but there was no emptiness to worry her. A sprawl of gray clouds extended out in all directions, hiding even the position of the sun.

It was fairly light weather, out here on the ocean. Katara still hadn't experienced a true storm yet, but this kind of rain was welcome. Even working, she could practice feeling the water around her, letting her senses extend through her soaked clothes and out to the rain-filled air while she focused on whatever task was at hand. Master Pakku was still training her with the blindfold and the pool, as well as teaching her the Waterbending forms of the Northern Water Tribe, but Katara wasn't going to just rely on him. She wanted this for herself, and would pursue it with all her strength. She would bring the element of water into her heart.

For now, though, it was time to rest.

Katara passed back into the interior of the ship. Since getting out onto the open ocean, they had sailed north on a task for Prince Iroh. With no witnesses around, all of the Waterbenders were now allowed above decks during the day, and Katara had been happy to move to a day shift. Although the moon was a comforting source of power, she didn't want to have to rely on darkness. She wanted to build up the strength to face the bright sky of the day, and maybe go outside one day without a hat on.

Then she would have finally escaped from that cage on Crescent Island.

Plus, Ty Lee much preferred the day shifts, and Katara wanted to accommodate her friend.

Katara reached the stockroom that had been converted into their cabin and opened the door. "Hey, what did you bring to eat today?" Ty Lee was working in the ship's galley, and she had taken to bringing food back to their cabin that they could share while they talked and enjoyed a break from the otherwise all-male crew. Katara was hoping that today there was-

-there was-

-there was a young man standing in the cabin.

Ty Lee was standing next to him, and she whirled in a flutter of her Airbender nun robes to face Katara with wide eyes. "Oh, uh, hi! I didn't know the shift had ended. Um, I, uh, this isn't what it looks like!"

Katara frowned. "Really? Because it looks like you have a stowaway in our cabin who nearly got me killed once. Right, Jet?"

Jet- for it was indeed him- winced. "Your name is Katara, right? I really am sorry for that. If there was any other way to make sure the Avatar got safely off of Crescent Island, I wouldn't have-"

"Don't care," Katara interrupted. Apologies were nice and all, but she very clearly remembered how this guy had drawn swords and blocked her way onto the ship Sokka had brought to Crescent Island, preventing her and all of the other newly-freed Waterbenders from escaping the exploding volcano. Jet had declared that no one would be leaving until the Avatar was safely aboard the ship, and the fact that he had changed his mind when that Firebender girl had attacked and acted as rearguard for their escape didn't make up for the first impression.

At least, not for Katara.

Ty Lee, though, sighed with relief. "Oh, good. I thought you assumed he was my boyfriend or something."

"No, I recognize him."

"He's not my boyfriend, for the record."


"I don't even have a boyfriend."

"I figured."

"I'm not dating anyone."

"Ty Lee-" Katara stepped fully into the cabin and closed the door. "I want a real explanation for this. Please, tell me why Jet is here."

"Sure." Ty Lee smoothed out her robes and shrugged. "It's not much of a story. I noticed that some of the food supplies have been going missing, and I was afraid that it was some cute elephant-rats, and if someone saw them, they'd get tossed overboard or hurt or something. So I went looking the other day in the really deep parts of the ship, and I heard sounds that definitely weren't little feet skittering, so I-"

"So you found a stowaway," Katara cut in.


Jet gave a little laugh. "She gave me a good chase, but it made sense when I realized she's an Airbender." He turned a smile on Ty Lee. "Good thing you're just as kind to Earth Kingdom spies as you are to elephant-rats."

Ty Lee rolled her eyes but smiled. "See, Katara? He's working for that cute King Toph. She sent him to look out for us on our mission, since we don't really know all that much about this Master Pakku guy, so-"

"No, he isn't."

Ty Lee blinked and looked at Katara. "I thought we just met Master Pakku?"

Katara groaned. "I meant that Jet isn't working for King Toph. Well, he was, but she wouldn't have sent him like this in secret. We're probably in more danger with him here than if it was just us."

Jet stepped forward. "Katara, I-"

She snapped an arm out towards him, and all of the water soaked into her clothes and beaded on her hat jumped out into the air and flew towards him. It wasn't a lot of water, but it was enough to knock him back against the wall with the porthole, and as he slipped to the floor, Katara breathed and lowered her hand, freezing the water so that he would be wrapped in a band of ice. He could probably break through it, but it would delay him for a crucial moment if he tried to attack.

Katara put her hands on her hips and leaned over him. "My brother told me all about you. About how you pretended to be a friend, but you were secretly terrorizing Mai in a blue goblin mask. He told me how you were found out and thrown in a brig, but you broke out and killed your former friends so that you could control whether Aang got safely off of Crescent Island. I want to know the real reason you're here."

Ty Lee actually growled as she stepped over to stand beside Katara, glaring down at Jet the whole time. "You were mean to Mai, huh? I don't think I'm your friend anymore."

Katara nodded with satisfaction.

Jet shivered, but managed to put his smile back on. "Look, I won't deny that I've done some hard things. My homeland was conquered by the Fire Nation. Firebenders killed my parents. I've seen people oppressed and tortured and made into slaves. So yes, I've fought back as hard as I can. Your friend Mai was lying to the Avatar at the time, and I was briefed that she was tied with the Fire Nation's Royal Family. I was told that the Avatar might be the world's only hope, so I when I had to choice between hurting some good people or making sure that the last hope survived his mistakes, I made the practical decision. I don't feel good about everything I've done, but I never made those decisions without knowing what they really were."

Katara glanced over at Ty Lee. The other girl's gray eyes and white-gold robes revealed no clue about her Fire Nation origins. Katara had no desire to argue with Jet, not after having lived the last decade of her life in a Fire Nation cage, but she would never trust such an extremist. "None of that explains why you're here."

Jet nodded. "I didn't just come up with the idea of putting on a blue goblin mask. The same people who told me about Mai's background gave me that mask. I was part of a- well, it's basically an Earth Kingdom resistance. Or that's what I thought. The Blue Spirits are warriors who work for a group of wise men called the White Lotus. The master of the White Lotus is a powerful, sacred man. He sends orders to the Blue Spirits in dreams, directing us to preserve balance and save the world from the Fire Nation. He sent me to investigate a hidden village where fugitive Earthbenders were finding shelter, and while I was there he told me that the Avatar would be coming soon, and that I should protect him at all costs."

Katara's jaw was hanging open. Dreams? But from what Aang said, that was how Prince Iroh contacted him! So- so Prince Iroh was the leader of a secret, extremist resistance against the Fire Nation?

Jet continued, "When I was captured by Fire Princess Azula, the White Lotus sent help to rescue me. I was saved by a group of Waterbenders- the same Waterbenders who eventually showed up to help the Avatar at the Ba Sing Se ashland. I was assigned to work with King Toph at the time, but now I wonder if I wasn't just there to watch for the Avatar's arrival again."

Katara stepped back and crossed her arms. "And now what? Aang went to the Fire Nation."

"Yes. I was probably supposed to go with him, but I started taking sleep draughts every night after that Commander Zhao arrived with this whole crazy deal. I didn't want to risk dreaming. If Prince Iroh is the one in charge of the Waterbenders, and he meets with the Avatar in dreams, then he has to be the master of the White Lotus, right? All this time I've-" Jet's face grew tight. "I've been working for the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation."

Ty Lee's eyes went wide, and she started to say something, but Katara quickly held up a hand to stop her from speaking. If she knew Ty Lee, then the other girl was about to let slip something that would give her away as an old friend to the Fire Nation's Royal Family.

Once she was sure Ty Lee got the message, Katara moved her hands outward to melt the ice holding Jet in place, letting the water splash to the floor. "So you snuck aboard to find out what's really going on. Me and Ty Lee being here is a coincidence."

Jet nodded, sitting in his puddle. "Down in the brig, they have that guy who summoned the monster at the Ba Sing Se ashland. Long Feng is his name. Most of the crew doesn’t even know he's aboard. I don't like it when Fire Nation princes are keeping secrets. I want to find out what's going on. I want- I need to find out what I've really being working for all this time."

Long Feng was on this ship?! Master Pakku had to know about it, right? There was a Fire Nation captain and crew, but Pakku was the one getting orders from Iroh and acting in charge. Could the Fire Nation soldiers be hiding it from him? Was there a way Katara could find out? Her first instinct was to go ask Pakku directly-

No. There was no way that was a good idea.

"Okay," Katara said. She looked again at Ty Lee, and while those gray eyes were strong and supportive, they offered no answers. Katara took off her hat and threw it on the bed, and then turned once again to Jet and pointed at him. "I still don't trust you. You are to stay away from me and Ty Lee, or I'll throw you overboard myself. You don't come near us, you don't try to send or leave us messages. If you get caught by the rest of the crew, we'll say we don't know you. If you try to claim anything about us, I'll do whatever it takes to prove that we have nothing to do with you. Do you understand?"

The beginnings of a smile twisted the corner of Jet's lips. "But you're not going to stop me if I behave."

Katara sighed. "For what it's worth, Sokka believed that you really were trying to help Aang, in your own disgusting way. I won't tolerate anything Sokka wouldn't. But maybe you can be useful." She turned to Ty Lee. "Would you please help sneak him out of here? And pretend that elephant-rats really were eating that missing food?"

Ty Lee nodded. "I'm with you."

"Good. Thanks." And they would definitely be speaking more about this later, once they were alone and had the time.

Katara just hoped she was doing the right thing.

It seemed that Sokka and Aang and Mai and all the others needed her sooner than she'd expected.


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« Reply #180 on: Jun 26, 2017 09:22 pm »

Aang walked into Zuko's room and gave his biggest smile. "You're looking pretty good! Aside from all the burn marks, I mean. But they'll probably heal cleanly, so that's fine." Then he remembered the scar on Zuko's face and the missing eye. "Uh, I mean-"

Mai saved him once again by holding a hand out in front of his face. "Aang means that it's nice to see you not dead. And I suppose I agree."

Suki, sitting over by Zuko's bed, groaned. "Don't you ever just relax and act human?"

Aang tensed, afraid that an argument was about to break out, but Mai just said, "This is me relaxed and acting human. I'm pretending when I smile and speak politely."

Suki sighed.

Zuko, lying down with some pillows behind his back to prop him up, made a dismissive gesture. "Well, uh, I'm glad you both came."

"Great!" Aang skipped over to Zuko's bed. "Are you comfortable? Are they giving you good medicine?"

Zuko nodded. "This ointment they're putting on me is very good for burns. It takes away the pain and promotes healing. The bandages just need to be changed a few times a day to prevent infection." He reached his hand up towards his face- towards his eyepatch- but then shook his head and let his hand fall again. "I'm being treated well. And I owe my survival to you, Avatar."

Aang smiled. "Thanks, but we don't know that Lady Gerel really would have killed you. I just didn't want to see you getting hurt."

Zuko pushed himself up so that he his face was level with Aang's. "No, Avatar. Gerel unleashed great power, and there was a good chance I would have been too injured to recover before she even realized it. My life was in real danger, and it was your assistance that ensured my survival." Aang was about to try to brush it off again, but Zuko continued, "After our past conflicts and what I've cost you, that you acted against your own best interests to save me is a great gift. You have an honor worthy of respect, and I regret even more now the way I tried to treat you."

Aang had to break Zuko's gaze, and he twiddled his fingers together out of a need to move around in some way. Zuko's words were really nice, but Aang didn't think they were true. Yeah, he didn't want Zuko to get hurt, but there had been that confrontation he witnessed between Mai and Heiyaoshi, where Mai threatened to kill the other Weapon if Zuko died. And there was Zuko's part in Prince Iroh's plan to set the Fire Nation on the right path. Aang didn't think his own motives could be very pure with all those other concerns in his mind, especially when it was the fear for Mai that had pushed him into the Avatar state.

All he could say was, "That's too much."

Once again, Mai came to his help, stepping over and dropping herself into a free chair. "If anyone wants to return the favor, Aang has officially been handed his own Agni Kais. Everyone offended by his jumping in has issued a challenge."

Zuko blinked. "They can't do that! All those matches for the same offence? That's not right!"

Mai nodded. "But there's no one who was technically in charge of your Agni Kai, so it's a free-for-all. Gerel isn't making a challenge, so she can't represent everyone's problems. This is Governor Hige's mansion and so he owns the Agni Kai grounds, but he's been out of it since the Disciple of the Third Eye tried to blow us up. Lord Zhao is in charge now, I guess, but he's staying out of things. So there's nothing stopping everyone from stepping all over each other to challenge Aang."

That was interesting. Aang rubbed a hand over his scalp as he thought. "So could we get a magistrate or someone to sort everything out?"

Zuko leaned back into his pillows again. "Probably. But then you'd still have to fight at least one Agni Kai, and all of your challengers would get to pick a representative. What if they pick a Master? Gerel probably wouldn't do it, but she's far from the only dangerous Firebender out there."

Mai nodded. "It's classier than I expected of everyone. It's still an assassination attempt, but it's a very neat and legal one. I guess some of them really do like Aang."

Suki snorted. "I'd ask if you're joking, but if Zuko's sister is what these people aspire to be, then I can believe it."

Aang couldn't help but shudder at the thought of the Blue Fire Girl who had thrown lightning at Appa. "With my luck, they might even pick her to fight me."

There was real pain in Zuko's voice as he said, "And she might do it, too. No, we need to find another way around this problem. I'll have to think about it. I don't- I'm not really good with politics like this."

So much for Zuko being a trained politician. Despite all the trouble, Aang couldn't help but smile. "It's almost like we're a bunch of kids in way over heads."

Zuko grimaced. "I'm almost eighteen! I've been of age for a year now!"

Suki smirked. "On Kyoshi Island, we come of age at sixteen. So I might not be quite seventeen yet, but we’ve been adults for the same amount of time. We’re contemporaries."

"Ah," Mai drawled, "the fascinating complexities of international cultures. I don't suppose Aang being a kid will help us with the Agni Kai situation?"

Zuko shook his head.

Mai stood up from her chair. "Well, then, I'm bored. I'll see you all later."

Aang shuffled over to block her path. "You're not upset because you and I are the only kids here, right?"

Mai regarded him with narrowed eyes. "Who says I'm a kid? I don't recall telling you my Dawning Day." Then she brushed past Aang and left.


Mai could be seventeen?

He turned back to Zuko and bowed. "Um, I should go with her. I'm glad you're doing okay. Get better soon!" Then he dashed out after Mai.

She was waiting for him out in the hall, leaning against the wall. "Don't worry, I wasn't leaving you."

"Oh, good." Aang straightened his clothes and did his best to look like he hadn't just been running. "I mean, I knew that."

"I was just teasing you, you know."

"Of course." Aang wasn't sure if that meant she was kidding about being of age, and wasn't sure he wanted to ask. He still wasn't quite thirteen yet, and Air Nomads didn't draw a clear line between childhood and adulthood like the other nations did. Age wasn't as important as earning arrow tattoos, or securing the chance to lead a Reflection Gathering, or having a sky bison partner becoming a parent. Aang had his tattoos, but those other opportunities had been lost with all the other Airbenders. Maybe he could adopt a home and come of age in that culture. He liked the sound of Kyoshi Island making people adults at sixteen-

No, wait, first he had to get through this Agni Kai business. Then he could think about how to twist laws to his benefit in other ways.

Mai poked him. "You okay?"

"Yeah. I just- there's a lot of things that I need to think about."

Mai stared at him as she ran a hand through her hair. "Don't they say that the best way to come up with new ideas is to get your mind off of them for a while?"

"Do they? Monk Gyatso liked to take breaks." Aang frowned as he thought back to how Monk Tashi got mad at Gyatso over a little thing like letting Aang play some Pai Sho after finishing his practice, and High Monk Pasaang even wanted to send Aang away to the Eastern Air Temple over it. "But the other Elders didn't really like that."

"Well, I don't know, I think I just heard it somewhere. Either way, I'm saying we're taking a break right now. I'm going to show you how Ty Lee and I used to have fun when all everyone wanted to talk about was death duels and the fate the world."

Aang blinked. "Those are common topics in the Fire Nation?"

"I don't know." Mai grabbed him and began walking. Aang let himself be pulled along through the mansion hallways. "I didn't really do much listening. Do you want to go have fun before dealing with all this stupidity or not?"

Aang grinned. Yes, he did.

« Last Edit: Jun 26, 2017 09:24 pm by Loopy » Logged

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« Reply #181 on: Jun 26, 2017 09:22 pm »

Mai clamped her legs on the edge of the roof, and stretched backwards so that she was dangling upside-down above the street vendor. Had her hair not been contained in a bandana, it would have been spilling all over the man. While he stirred one of his heated pots, she grabbed several pouches of fire flakes and threw them one at a time up onto the rooftop above her. She did this without sound, the vendor unaware of her presence.

He turned and leaned to work the billow on the cooking fire contained beneath his little stove-stall, and while he was out of sight, Mai grabbed three sticks of sugared fried-dough balls, holding them between the fingers of her left hand. With her right, she reached up past her tied-off shirt to her belt to get enough coins to pay for the stolen food. Before she could quite get them, she heard the vendor moving again, and quickly did an abdomen-crunch to lift herself above his rising head.

Come on-

Come on-

The vendor turned his head and called out to someone, raising his hand in greeting, and Mai took the opportunity to grab the coins. She dropped them into the man's raised hand, and before he could get over his surprise, she pulled herself back up and climbed out of sight onto the rooftop.


She still had the touch.

Standing in front of her on the rooftop, Aang was looking at her with a mix of awe and horror. Like her, ee was dressed incognito as a peasant of Inawaka, his bald head covered with a bandana, but his shining eyes were all Airbender. "And why couldn't you have just climbed down and bought the food the old-fashioned way?"

Mai handed Aang the sticks of fried-dough balls, and then recovered her bags of fire flakes from where she had thrown them. "Because when I did this with Ty Lee, we didn't bother paying. The whole fun of it was the stealing. But you don't like that-"

Aang frowned. "That guy works hard to make and sell that food!"

"And thus my interesting way of making a purchase." Mai got back to her feet, opening one of the fire flake bags, and she had to resist the urge to dust herself off. There would be no point in these clothes, a simple set of pants with worn knees and a short shirt that had seen better days. She had bought the clothes from a servant girl working in Governor Hige's mansion, since she and Aang could hardly go have some real fun down in the harbor city if they were worried about looking nice.

She did take a moment to take off her bandana, though, and let her hair fall loose down her back.

Mai and Aang walked along the rooftops as they ate their snacks. This was what she and Ty Lee had done as kids when they absolutely had to get away from their homes. Up on the rooftops, they had been invisible, separate from everyone else in the Caldera. They had felt that way anyway, Ty Lee with her identical sisters and Mai with the parents who wished she'd been born mute, so bringing the feeling to life was a nice escape. And, of course, if they didn't have a taste for a bit of mischief, they never would have become friends with Azula.

"Hey," Aang said through a mouth full of sugared dough ball, "what's that?"

Mai turned to look down at the street, and found people gathering at a corner. There was some display going on at the center of the crowd, three people in masks and bright clothes moving around-


One of the masked people called out over the buzz of the crowd in a high voice, "The only escape from my realm is a demonstration of skill!" The performer then swished her robe around to evoke the movement of smoke, a clear sign that she was meant to be a ghostly spirit.

One of the other tree performers pointed at her. He wore the mask of a wolf. "Very well! Take on the form of a body, that I might chop it up and feed it to the birds!"

The crowd gave a little cheer at the promise of bloody violence.

Mai threw a glance at Aang. "It's a Spirit Play. A little supernatural drama for the masses."

"No," the Ghost Woman said once the applause died down. "I will not let you sully my form with the wretched steel you stole from the humans! You have brought a friend into my realm, and he will be your undoing. Demonstrate your skill with an Agni Budokai!"

The crowd gave a collective call of, "Oooh."

"No," the Wolf Man groaned. "I will not draw steel against my beloved friend!"

"Don't worry," the friend said. He was wearing a mask that looked like some kind of rodent. "I trust your skill! Let us Agni Budokai!" Then he stuck his thumb in his mouth and made a loud sound like a sky bison breaking wind.

The crowd laughed. Bodily functions were always a popular form of entertainment.

The laughter rose as the two masked men began stabbing at each other with fake swords, the metallic paint on the wooden blades glinting dully in the sunlight. The Rodent Man dodged his companion's blade with exaggerated contortions, but when he stabbed back, the Wolf Man evaded the thrusts with something approaching real skill.

It was an ugly, unprofessional attempt at depicting an Agni Budokai, but this was a Spirit Play on the street, not the Solstice Feature of the Ember Island Players. Ash, even the Players' Late Summer Farce always had better fight choreography.

And even though this was just a Spirit Play, Mai was a bit offended. After what she went through with Ty Lee-

But before the Agni Budokai could reach its conclusion, there was a piercing whistle, and Mai saw a pair of Home Guard soldiers pushing their way through the crowd. The woman in the lead called out, "Let us pass! This is illegal superstition! You're under arrest!"

The crowd began dispersing and the guards picked up their pace, but the actors used the new gaps between the people to make their escape. With a skill that belied their early display, they flipped and jumped and twisted around the fleeing members of their former audience, moving quickly down the street and shedding their cheap costumes.

They might have even made their escape if another pair of Home Guard soldiers weren't coming from the opposite direction to cut them off.

Oh well.

But next to Mai, Aang gasped. "They're going to get caught!"

This again? Saving Zuko yesterday wasn't enough?

But no, it wouldn't be for Aang. He wanted to save everyone, even if it put him in danger.

And while Mai knew she couldn't stop it, she did have it entirely in her power to really mess up anyone who tried to hurt Aang. "Come on." She grabbed his hand and pulled him to the edge of the rooftop. "Kick up some dust to cover me." Still holding onto him, she jumped, and he floated them both down to the ground on a cushion of wind. She let go of his hand and threw herself into the crowd right at the point where the new soldiers were about to tackle the fleeing actors.

Then the winds picked up, and a wave of the dirt and dust and filth that had accumulated on the street across the ages swept over the scene. Mai had just enough time to get a fix on everyone's position before everything was lost in a miniature sandstorm.

She closed her eyes and got to work.

A shove here.

A jab there.

Grab the ankle-

Whoops, she got a handful of foot instead-

Eh, same difference-

Lift and flip-

Duck for a sweeping kick.

And then run like her lovely long hair was on fire.

When the dust settled, the actors were gone and the two soldiers were lying in the street groaning. No one seemed to be taking any notice of Mai, so she began walking along like she hadn't just assaulted members of the Home Guard, and retrieved her last bag of fire flakes from her belt.

She just took her first bite as Aang stepped out of the crowd to walk at her side. "So," he said, "that was fun."

Mai shrugged, but didn't disagree.

"Hey, what's an Agni Budokai? It sounds like an Agni Kai."

Mai couldn't help but think back several years, to black clothes and pounding drums and the smell of fire on steel and Ty Lee's body contorting around her. She popped a few fire flakes into her mouth to distract herself. "They're kind of similar. An Agni Budokai is a- a sort of demonstration."

Aang nodded. "The play used it as a demonstration of skill. They were using swords."

Mai rolled her eyes. "That was junk. A proper Agni Budokai is done with weapons that are on fire. The blades are doused in oil and lit."

Aang's eyes grew wide. "And people have a fight like that?"

"No." She felt her heart speed up at the thought. She had pretended, at the time, not to be concerned, but- "It's not a fight. It's a demonstration. The whole point is to not hurt your partner."

"Ohhhh. So those guys were stabbing at each other and missing on purpose. Um, besides them just acting, I mean."

"Exactly. In a proper Agni Budokai, there's a drummer who calls the movements. Depending on the exact kind of drumming, each participant has to strike in a certain way. A call for a stab, for example, or a diagonal slice. It gets pretty complex. You have to do the strike properly, at the same time your partner does their strike properly, and you can't touch each other with the flaming blades. It gets- it gets pretty close. There are always burns, but as long as there are no cuts, the participants pass."

"Wow. How fast does the drumming go?"

Mai popped the last of her fire flakes into her mouth, and then raised her fists and mimed beating at something fast enough to make her fists into blurs.

"Huh," was all Aang could say to that.

Mai wasn't in the habit of revealing things she didn't need to. She certainly didn't like talking about things that actually scared her. But this was Aang. "I- uh, I was fourteen when I completed an Agni Budokai with Ty Lee."

Aang stopped short in the street. "You what?"

Mai stopped as well. Aang didn't seem inclined to get moving again, so she tossed her empty fire flakes bag to the ground and leaned against the building beside them. "I did an Agni Budokai with Ty Lee. She wanted to complete one for her thirteenth birthday. She was- well, it was a family drama thing for her. She thought we were good enough to do it, so she begged me to help her. It took a lot of practice, but we managed it. Did it in front of all the guests at her sisters' birthday party. I think that's when Bangfei fell in lust with her."

Aang smiled. "Heh. That must have been amazing. But why? You said family drama, but- well, what did it really accomplish? People had to know you were already really good."

Mai snorted. "Oh, they did. But completing the Agni Budokai was what got us made into Weapons of the Fire Nation. Even though we were thirteen and fourteen, we proved we were adult enough to become soldiers. It's like what Zuko said about an Agni Kai, yesterday. People make a big deal about fire being involved. It's how warriors who aren't Firebenders can prove that they embody the spirit of fire or whatever. Ty Lee and I got in there, risked our lives and each other, and managed not to hurt each other. The whole point is to do it with a friend, like in the play, to show what you're willing to risk. And then you show that you're strong enough that it doesn't matter. In other words, anyone who does an Agni Budokai is a jerk, but a jerk who has to be taken seriously."

Aang didn't say anything. His gaze was unfocused, and he didn't seem to be listening.

Mai poked his face. "What is it?"

He blinked, and his gaze focused on her. "What if- what if I did an Agni Budokai? Would that show everyone that they don't have to fight me in an Agni Kai?"

Mai nearly fell over.


Do a performance with flaming weapons where he and a partner all but tried to kill each other? She couldn't picture it. Hadn't she just said this was a thing jerks did? Mai herself was awful enough to risk stabbing Ty Lee, and she had taken a certain perverse pleasure in imagining her parents' reaction if Ty Lee maimed or killed her. Even Ty Lee had a mean streak, using the whole thing to stand out from her sisters and dragging Mai into what amounted to a temper tantrum.

Aang wasn't like that.

And now he was turning his pleading eyes on her.

No, he wasn't a jerk. But he'd risk himself to keep people from getting hurt. If doing this would mean he didn't have to fight an Agni Kai or mess up Prince Iroh's plan-

But he'd be risking someone else, too. And that's when she understood.

Mai kept her face blank. "You think that since I did one, I can do it again."

Aang blinked. "Couldn't you?"

"Of course I can. I was only fourteen at the time. I'm twice as good now." She leaned down so that their noses were almost touching. "You're a good martial artist, Aang, but do you think it's enough to be in the right place when I throw a knife?"

He nodded.

She held onto his gaze without blinking. "And can you swing a burning staff precisely enough to warm my face without cracking my skull?"

He jumped backwards.

He was right. An Agni Budokai would solve their problem. But that was only if they did it right, and did it successfully.

She straightened to her full height. "If you want to do this, I'll help you. We'll need time to practice, but they'll give it to us. If you want to do this, I promise you'll get my very best."

Aang breathed in.

Aang breathed out.

He said, "Do you think I can do it?"

If she said no, this would be the end of it.

But she couldn't lie to him on something this important, not again, not after Crescent Island. "Yeah. Of course you can."

He gave a single, slow nod. "Then I think we're going to do an Agni Budokai together."

Ash. "Well, have fun while you can today. This is going to take lots of learning and practice, if we don't want to get hurt. And if we succeed, we’re going to impress a lot of people. By the time we're done, you're going to be a real man, Avatar Aang."

He blushed.

Better to make a joke of it while they had the chance.

« Last Edit: Jun 26, 2017 09:24 pm by Loopy » Logged

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« Reply #182 on: Jul 10, 2017 09:33 pm »

Fire Dance

Aang hung from his glider and looked down at the courtyard below, his robes flapping in the wind. The various guests of the comatose Governor Hige were gathering at the rear of the mansion, in the same space where Zuko had fought his Agni Kai against Lady Gerel days ago.

Aang spotted Governor Leiko, spokeswoman for the faction that claimed to be on his side, even though their idea of helping him was challenging him to a hundred (more or less) Agni Kai matches. Lord Zhao was also there, talking with his son Commander Zhao, probably trying to ask what this was about so that he could sell the information to his mysterious friends. But the younger Zhao didn't know; Aang had just told him that this gathering would solve their Agni Kai problem and would it be too much trouble to provide security and not betray anyone?

He spotted his friends, standing in a formation at the far side of the courtyard. King Toph and Mai were standing tall like the nobility they were (or claimed to be), while Sokka lurked next to them with Momo on his shoulders. Zuko was still recovering from his Agni Kai inside, Suki acting as his bodyguard.

From this high, Aang only had to shift his gaze to see the center of the mansion, where Appa was resting in the atrium between their guest rooms. Appa lowed loud enough to hear even up this high, and Aang took it as a wish for good luck.

Aang also decided it to take it as the signal to begin the show.

He dove down on his glider, swooping over the heads of the assembly in the courtyard to land just before his friends. The toes of his boots just touched the ground when Toph shifted one of her bare feet and raised a platform of stone beneath him. It continued to rise as he straightened so that he stood taller than anyone else here.

Aang looked out over the gathered Fire Nation leadership and gave them his best Angry Old Monk Glare. "I have called you all here to make an announcement. I will perform an Agni Budokai in two weeks' time with Lady Caldera Yu Mai."

It was King Toph who had come up with the idea for this big show. Last night, after Aang had explained his plan to the others in Prince Zuko's recover room for getting the governors back on his side, Toph had stood up and said, "Yes! We're finally going on the offensive."

Zuko, lying in bed still wrapped in bandages, had frowned. "An Agni Budokai might answer their claims, but they may not want to agree. There's so much politics involved in all this-"

"Exactly," Toph interrupted. She had begun pacing- or more like stalking- across the center of the room. "Politics is just people pushing each other around without actually doing any shoving. So it's time to start pushing back. Aang is the Avatar, so we tell them that the Avatar has decided how this is going to go, and we tell them that anyone who doubts this Agni Booboo thing is a traitor and should be drawn and quartered!"

Sokka had nodded. "Or maybe drowned or something. We can wordsmith it later. But how do we know it will work?"

Toph's smile was all teeth. "Because I wasn't a king until I made everyone bow to me. Trust me, this is what I do. It's all about your character. So make them realize that your character is the toughest tough whoever Tophed. I mean toughed."

Zuko had shrugged. Suki hadn't said anything. Sokka grinned. Momo stole a peach.

It was after Mai nodded that Aang finally said, "Okay."

So now he stood on Toph's platform, planted his staff like a flag, and waited for the first objection to his words.

One of the older governors obliged with, "What about all the Agni Kai challenges that-"

Mai sidestepped so that she was directly in front of the platform and snapped her hand out dramatically. (Sokka had coached her.) "How dare you presume to question the Avatar? Have no respect for the Fire Nation? The Bridge Between Words honors us with an Agni Budokai and you want to talk about matters of procedure? This Weapon of the Fire Nation spits on you!" Then Mai actually spat next to her feet, and it wasn't half bad despite her getting only an hour of spitting lessons from Toph.

Aang tapped his staff on his platform. "I have heard doubts about my actions here in the Fire Nation. As the Avatar, I cannot stand for this, but I will not dishonor any opponents with my untrained Firebending. Let an Agni Budokai prove my worth as an expression of warrior fire. Let Lady Caldera Yu Mai's peril-" His voice dried up, but he quickly continued, "-show my strength."

The crowd was silent.

Then there was movement, and a young man stepped out from the front of the assembly- Bangfei, one of the Weapons of the Fire Nation. He looked up at Aang. "You will adhere to all the laws of the Agni Budokai?"

Aang nodded.

"You will accept all the risks? The fire and the blades and letting the holy drummers hold your fate in their rhythm?"

Aang nodded again.

Bangfei threw his hands into the air. "Brother!" He fell into a kowtow. "I am honored by your actions! Let all see that the test of the warriors who cannot command fire is good enough for one of the most powerful of all Benders!" He kept his head pressed against the ground. "And I know that Lady Mai will be an excellent partner for you. I saw her Agni Budokai with Lady Ty Lee. Never was there a more beautiful display of Fire Nation strength."

Aang glanced at Mai, and she rolled her eyes. Bangfei seemed to be big on anything Ty Lee liked.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Aang saw Lord Zhao approaching. He dipped into a short bow as he said, "I would be happy to make the arrangements, Avatar. The local Fire Temple has the required personnel and materials."

Aang tapped his staff again. "Um, make it so!"

The assembly was chattering now in voices just above whispers.

Then a new figure came out of the crowd, a living shadow that resolved itself into Heiyaoshi, the Weapon who had sent Zuko looking for his mother's village. She bowed towards Aang, bending low at the waist. "Avatar, I thank you for the consideration you give to the test of the Warrior's Meeting. Too often, the Agni Kai is given more honor, but an Agni Budokai is no less important to our culture."

The chattering of the crowd grew louder, but it didn't sound to Aang like it was getting angry. One or both of the Weapons were playing politics again, but now it seemed to be in Aang's favor.

Toph nudged the platform with her foot, making the thing give a shudder that Aang felt in his whole body. She probably wanted him to assert himself again. Should he thank Heiyaoshi? No, Toph didn't thank anyone, and he was supposed to be acting like her. "The Agni Budokai will show my strength. It two weeks, the fire of the Avatar will be clear." That sounded good. Anything talking about being strong and firey seemed to be popular around here.

Governor Leiko finally stepped forward. The voices all quieted as she said, "Very well, Avatar. Let the Agni Budokai show what it will." She gave a nod, and there might have even been the start of a smile on her lips, and then she turned and walked away.

Toph kicked the platform again, and Aang saw Sokka making flying motions with Momo's tail.

Oh, right!

Aang tapped his staff again. "Two weeks!" And then he jumped, spun the staff to summon a wind, and snapped its wings out so he could ride off into the sky.

That went well.


Mai was pleased with how the announcement had gone. Aang had sounded strong, no one yelled at him, and she even managed to spit right on her first try! (So gross.)

Now she had to train Aang for a deadly combat demonstration. No problem.

Alone in her room, she finished changing and ran her hands through her hair. She still hadn't cut it, and there was no way she'd be able to wear even her usual ox-horn buns and twin tails for an Agni Budokai. She'd have to look into some tight stylings that would keep hair of this length out of the way. Or she could just hack it off. For now, she grabbed the bandana she used as a disguise in the city the other day and used it to bind and hide everything.

Finished, Mai grabbed her case of blades and threw aside the curtain concealing her from the shared atrium. Aang was already waiting on Appa's head, and a set of servants were setting down a palanquin beside the gathering, the shades cast aside to show Zuko, still swathed in bandages, sitting with less comfort than Mai would have expected. But then, it would have been a while since he had last ridden in one of those things. Suki hovered nearby looking ready to catch Zuko if he took a tumble.

Aang looked over as Mai approached and went still. Then he jumped off Appa and landed standing, all without taking his eyes off her. So, he had noticed what she was wearing.

Normally, Mai favored loose, flowing robes that could hide her movements and cover an army's worth of sharp metal. However, that would be actively dangerous in an Agni Budokai, what with all the fire and the blades that had to brush against skin. She'd need a proper costume made up, and so for now she was forced to make do with an ensemble that was tight were it wasn't nonexistent and nonexistent where it wasn't tight.

And it probably didn't help that her bare midriff left the burn scar on her side completely visible.

While Aang stared, Mai reached into her case, grabbed a razor, and threw it so it passed close enough to the side of Aang's bald head that the skin immediately reddened with irritation.

Aang squealed and finally looked her in the eyes.

Mai stared him down. "Yes, I'm dressed like I crave attention and spent five minutes thinking about how to get it. But if you're paying the wrong kind of attention to me, one of us is going to get stabbed. You can't look here-" She motioned, and Aang blushed. "-and be swinging a sword or a whatever there safely. Are we clear?"

Aang nodded. "Sorry. I just- sorry."

Mai knew he had harbored a crush on her back when they first left the South Pole, but her betrayal at Crescent Island had taken care of that. She doubted he would ever feel the same way again, but he was a boy at that age, so she supposed that moments like this were to be expected.

Her betrayal must have hurt even more, if he liked her like that, right? She had to keep from grinding her teeth together in anger at herself. Why couldn't she have stopped to really think about what she was doing, back then?

Why hadn't she stopped the think ever, before Crescent Island?

"You're forgiven. Don't do it again. Now, speaking of swords and whatevers, we have to start by picking weapons. I'll be doing knives, of course." Mai reached once again into her case, retrieving the scroll she had borrowed from the mansion's library last night after they had come back from the city. She unfurled and held it so that Aang could see, revealing the drawings of the weapons classes allowed in an Agni Budokai. "Which one will you be using to endanger my life?"

Aang grimaced. "All of these look really sharp."

"That's the idea. Hitting me with a burning stick would hurt, and skin does sizzle when it's cooked, but there's more of a sound if some blood boils away at the same time. It makes for a better spectacle, I suppose."

Aang's blush was all gone now, in favor of a geenish shade. "How about you pick one for me?"

Mai put the scroll down, reached out, and flicked Aang's forehead. "I don't think you've been listening. This is going to be hard, Aang. I need you doing your best. Yes, I've done this before, but I did it by living and breathing knives for a month, on top of all the other training I gave myself since I first picked up half of a broken pair of scissors. You need to be responsible for yourself. I'm trusting you just as much as you're trusting me."

He lowered his head. "Sorry. Maybe we shouldn't do this. I don't- I don't want to hurt you. I wanted to try it because I thought-"

Mai reached out to his chin and raised his gaze again. "You thought we can do it. And I think that, too. I just want you to take this seriously. Okay?"

Aang held out his hands, and Mai gave him the scroll. He looked it over, and then tapped a finger over a staff-like weapon near the bottom. "What's a Monk's Spade?"

It took Mai a moment to recall, and when she did, it was her turn to blush. "Oh, you don't want that."

"Why not?"

Ash, how to explain this? "Uh, that's what we- that is, the Fire Nation- um, according to the history books it's what- well, it's what Air Nation Warriors were supposed to use."

Aang blinked.

Mai pointed down at the drawing. It was essentially a staff, not unlike Aang's glider in its closed form, but at one end was a crescent-shaped set of metal prongs, and at the other was a flat spade-like metal blade. "You can see the martial possibilities, but they taught us that Airbenders would land on windowsills and snag babies and jewelry and stuff with them. We even have a legend about an Air Nomad thief who used a spade to steal the Great Dragon's Sacred Eggs from the heart of the First Fire. And, of course, it's a handy way to desecrate corpses by shoveling ash over them instead of building a proper pyre."

Suki hummed. "According to King Toph's strategy, that might be perfect! It will make you look like a living Fire Nation nightmare!"

Aang winced. "I'm not sure looking like an offensive ghost story will be showing the proper respect for Fire Nation ceremony."

Mai, though, had to admit that Suki had a point. She liked the image of her people fearing Aang. "It's not just an Airbender thing. They started as a tool of the Fire Sages. The spade removes ashes out of hearths, and the prongs can push back the heads of overly-affectionate long-necked dragons. Not that we have dragons anymore."

Suki chuckled. "So Fire Sages were linked to monks, who were linked to Air Nomads, who became evil enemies who lifted babies out of cribs with spades. Or did they use the prongs? I guess it depends on the crib. Quite the twisted history the Fire nation made for itself, there."

Mai shrugged. "I guess. Anyway, the point is that you would be associating yourself with Fire Sages in addition to our propaganda about Air Nomads. Not a bad thing for the Avatar."

Aang smiled. "So there's a duality! The staff is a symbol of both enemies and respected leaders. It's part of Fire Nation society and has been turned against it only not really. It should bring up a lot of mixed emotions."

Huh. Pretty good observation. But then, Aang would know about type of stuff, being a monk. Mai preferred her symbols to be more literal. "If the Monk's Spade is what you're going with, we can let Lord Zhao know and he'll get us some to practice with. For now, you can use your staff."

"Great! What are we doing now?"

"Good old fashioned forms." She took a ready-stance and looked at Aang. After a moment, he realized what was going on and copied her stance. "We need to learn the same physical language. By the end of the day, I expect us to be doing these moves perfectly, simultaneously." She transitioned to the next stance, an defensive posture that still advanced a step, and Aang copied the motion. So far, so good.

One hundred steps and stances to go.

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« Reply #183 on: Jul 10, 2017 09:34 pm »

Aang spent three hours of that first day mimicking and learning Mai's forms. Not only was it physically tiring, but the effort it took to keep his mind purely on business while Mai contorted was also mentally exhausting. She had told him to pay proper attention, though, and for a good reason, so he tried his best for her.

Eventually, she declared that it was time for a lunch break, and Aang let himself collapse beside a bowl of fruit that Sokka had brought out for him.

That's when Zuko began delivering a lecture on the philosophy of Fire, the importance of The Meeting of the Warriors, and how to properly embody the Spirit of Strength. That was way too many capital letters to listen to during lunch.

"Feel the sun on your skin and the heat of the blood in your veins as you move," Zuko said. "You can't produce or control fire yet, but by finding the connection to your own Inner Fire, you can become aware of the fires around you. When Mai throws a flaming knife at you, you won't have to even look at it, because you'll feel it coming before it even leaves her hand."

Despite the heaviness of the subject and Aang's exhaustion, he found himself interested. "That makes sense. I met a Guru-" The memories of that failure took his voice away for a moment, but he promised himself that he wouldn't fail to save any more of his friends. "-and he taught me how to sense things by looking within myself and following the connections I have."

Zuko blinked. "Yeah, that's- that's what I mean. I didn't know it could be done with more than fire. Was this Guru an Airbender?"

Aang shook his head. "I don't think he was a Bender at all."

Sokka called out through a mouth full of rhino jerky, "I do retain skepticism about that guy's supposed magic powers."

Aang frowned. "But he taught me how to do what he did! Kind of. He told Mai that her family and friends were still alive and she didn't kill anyone on Crescent Island! And look, Zuko is here, and that Piandao guy is protecting her family, and-" He was about to say that Ty Lee turned out to be alive, but then remembered that it was still supposed to be a secret. "-and everyone is alive. And he told Katara that her family was waiting near Ba Sing Se, and we found Gran-Gran Kanna and the others there!"

"You knew," Toph squealed, standing up and knocking her own bowl of fruit over. "I thought I was surprising you all with my little Water Tribe! You lied to me! You jerks! Even Lady Caldera Yu Mai with the Airbender-hypnotizing curves lied to me! I've lost my faith in humanity!"

"Hey!" Sokka pointed at her. "I was surprised! Do you think I paid any attention to some weird Fugu making claims about my tribe?"

Mai said, "I just completely forgot."

Toph sniffed. "Very well. I believe you. The Earth King sees all truths."

Suki giggled.

The rest of the afternoon was spent with Mai and her form-drills again, only this time she took up her knives and showed how her every motion could be used to send a blade flying at a training dummy. Once again, Aang worked very hard to pay attention to the right things, and found them fascinating all on their own. He knew Mai's fighting style, of course, but seeing it broken down with nothing obscuring her was a revelation.

Even how Mai fought turned out to be beautiful.

The next day, Aang played the part of a moving training dummy, but she aimed to miss him. It was both terrifying and enchanting, and by the time they broke for lunch again, Aang was seeing the snapping of her arms and the curve of her hip and the roll of her shoulders in all the shapes around him. She was in the arcing waters of the atrium's central fountain and the blades of grass around it and leaves of the potted plants lining the perimeter and the clouds in the sky above.

After lunch, a page from the local fire temple came with the weapons they would use in the Agni Budokai, and they were able to put Zuko's teachings about fire ("A fire-unification theory," Sokka had called it) to the test.

They got a bucket of thick lantern oil from the mansion's servants, and Mai dipped one of the new knives' blades into it. Zuko, now walking around again, snapped his fingers, and the oil ignited.

Mai didn't so much as twitch when the fire came to life so close to her hands.

She moved the knife in slow, wide slices, gave a half-hearted stab, and then twirled it by the handle so that she was holding it in a reverse grip. She quickly angled her arm so that the blade was still pointed up, and Aang realized she was trying to keep the heat and the fire from cooking her hand.

She held out her other hand and nodded at Zuko.

He produced a pair of gloves from a pocket, and slipped one over Mai's free hand. The fingers seemed a smooth fit despite the thick material, but the glove stopped short at the bottom, leaving the base of her palm exposed. Aang wondered what the purpose of the gloves was.

Then Mai flipped the flaming knife into the air in front of her.

What happened next was so fast that it was only by matching the results to the blur of his memories was Aang able to piece it together. Mai had caught the burning knife by the tip with her gloved fingers at a moment when the spinning motion pushed the flames down. The metal would have still been red hot, but she would have barely touched it before she flung it into the fountain.

She nodded as the waters doused the flames, and then went over to retrieve the knife. When she pulled it out, the blade still glistened with blackened lantern oil, but the metal itself seemed unarmed.

Mai smirked. "Still got it."

Wow. That was what she had done with Ty Lee? Juggled red-hot bits of metal while the slightest delay or missed motion would mean grabbing something that would cook her skin clean away?

Aang was growing less enthused with an Agni Budokai by the day. He couldn't endanger Mai like this-

She lifted the Monk's Spade up off the ground with one of her feet and kicked it up in the air so that he could catch it. "Here you go."

He looked over the strange weapon. "Um, are you sure-"

"Yes." She twirled the knife by the handle so that the blade's motion created a gleaming halo around her hand, and her smirk softened into a smile that made Aang's heart hammer. "Believe it or not, that was the fun part."


Aang squared his shoulders. "Okay. But I can practice with mine before we set it on fire, right?"

It wasn't until the fourth day that he felt ready for fire. Thankfully, he had a lot more handle to work with on the Monk's Spade than Mai did with her knives, and soon he was twisting and twirling without fear of the fires being whipped around him.

It was on the fifth day of practice that Aang could see those fires in his mind's eye while his real eyes were closed.

On the sixth morning, he could see the fires on Mai's blades as well.

By the end of the sixth afternoon, he was unconsciously breathing in time with the pulsing flames on both weapons, and Zuko said, "Congratulations, Avatar. You have begun your Firebending journey."

Mai nodded. "Then it's time. Tomorrow, we begin practicing an actual Agni Budokai. Along with still practicing all that other stuff."

If only all the elder monks could see Aang now.

Zhao gestured as he reached the end of the mansion hallway, and his escorts - good guards from his own command - stepped out to take station on either side of the door. Zhao himself didn't slow, putting on a smile as he swept into the room. "Ah, Governor Hige, so good to see you awake again. You've had quite the nap!"

Hige's frown might have been for having his coma of over a week reduced to 'quite the nap,' but more likely it was a result of lingering pain from the head wound beneath his bandages. "Commander Zhao. I admit, I was expecting the Avatar to come first."

Yes, he likely was. That's why Zhao was here. "Perhaps you have not heard, but the Avatar is in training for an Agni Budokai. I'm sure he'll visit later when he hears the news, but I didn't see the need to allow him to be interrupted. I'm sure you understand."

Hige shifted in his bed. He was propped up with all kind of pillows, and the healer kneeling beside him on the floor glanced over to confirm the governor's continue safety. "Perhaps it is better we speak first, Commander. After all, you'll have to supervise the Avatar's exit from my home."

Ah, the tip had been correct. "I am disappointed to hear that, sir, but I understand."

"It was one thing to do a favor for the Fire Princes when it was just a matter of politics. I even had hopes that the Avatar could help the Fire Nation with- in these difficult times. But this? Explosions? Villages nearly being wiped off the map? Rogue Weapons going to war with each other? My life endangered? No, this is too much. The Avatar must leave."

Zhao bowed his head just enough to be respectful. "As I said, sir, I understand. I find the situation appalling." Then he straightened and took on a tall, solid posture that would have done Admiral Jeong-Jeong proud. "However, your concerns are not part of my mission. The Avatar needs to perform this Agni Budokai to accomplish what he came here for. We will be staying, the boy will win the favor of all the politicians here, and then we will move on to the next phase of our journey and leave you in peace."

Hige's eyes went hard behind his glasses. "This is my home. I rule this island for the Fire Lord. You have no authority here, Zhao, and the Avatar can be declared a criminal at my whim. Know your place."

Zhao couldn't help but smirk. Oh, he knew his place, all right. "I can see why you've never risen behind this distant island, Governor. You think you have a position of power, but let me illuminate the situation for you." He clasped his hands behind his back and began pacing. "Admiral Iroh's intelligence networks have determined that you, as befits a man of your position, are heavily, personally invested in the prosperity of Zenmatsu Island. In fact, you own a share of every merchant ship that lands here filled with goods from the colonies. Can you calculate how much it would cost you if every single one of those ships were sunk for pirate activity by elements of Prince Iroh's Northern Fleet?"

"Wha- but-" Hige started to get up, but the healer at his side grabbed him and settled him back onto the pillows. "Those ships have nothing to do with pirates!"

Zhao shrugged. "I'm sure reports will be diligently filed describing the evidence each captain noted when they made the decision to sink the target. Prince Iroh will, of course, review those reports and make a proper, impartial decision on whether the captains under his command acted correctly. Should you question the judgement of the Prince Admiral, you would have the legal option to petition the Fire Lord for intervention. I'm sure that would work out well for you."

Really, it was too easy. Zhao had come close to a position of power in the Capital, and might still get one. Hige was just an old man who had risen as far as he could.

The governor sighed. "And if I let the Avatar stay?"

"Then I have no reason to believe your ships will be accosted. You would continue to profit, your partners would remain placated, and the Avatar will be gone shortly after his Agni Budokai. The Disciple of the Third Eye has not been seen again since the attack that injured you, so I think the risks are clear?"

Hige closed his eyes. "The Avatar can stay. Now get out." He let himself sink back into the pillows.

Zhao gave a quick bow. "Thank you, Governor. Please know that I don't enjoy executing such agendas." Then he turned on his heel and made his exit. The guards at the door fell into step behind him as he emerged into the hall once again.

Zhao grinned. He'd lied about not enjoying it. Providing security was all well and good, but it was always fun to use his real talents.

It wasn't until the taiko drummer arrived that Aang got annoyed with the training. Learning and copying Mai's forms for hours didn't do it, listening to Zuko's attempts to describe the philosophy of fire didn't do it, and juggling flaming weapons didn't do it. But then on the seventh morning, after Aang and Mai completed their stretches, one of the mansion servants led in a young man about Prince Zuko's age with stiff red robes, a shaved head, and an easy smile.

"Greetings, Avatar. I am Kei Lo, an apprentice Inferior Sage from the Inawaka City temple. I am a trained taiko drummer of one year, here to help you with your preparations for the Agni Budokai." Kei Lo bowed deeply to Aang while several servants carried a large drum into the atrium.

Then Kei Lo turned to Mai, and his eyes grew wide at the same time his cheeks flushed. "My lady. Uh, Lady Caldera Yu Mai, it is an honor to meet you." He bowed low again, but his eyes never left Mai.

That's when Aang started to get annoyed. "So, why are you here? You said you're an apprentice? And a- an inferior sage?"

Kei Lo straightened, and after a long moment, managed to drag his eyes away from Mai. "Apologies, Avatar. I am an apprentice, but I will be among the drummers guiding your Agni Budokai. It is my privilege to enable the most important Warrior's Meeting in a century and a half. And don't take the 'inferior' title too seriously. An Inferior isn't a Firebender, but is no less knowledgeable or spiritual than a sage who is."

Mai tossed Aang's his Monk's Spade. "Remember when I said that the drumming dictates how we move? Well, Bongo Boy over here is going to teach you what attack you are expected to perform with each drum pattern. There's a million of them, or something. Then I guess he'll do the drumming for our dry runs?" She looked over at Kei Lo.

He smiled at her. "I will stay here day and night and follow your every command."

Oh, bison dung.

But Aang had promised that he wouldn't get distracted. He needed to pay attention if he was going to complete the Agni Budokai, was going to be the partner that Mai deserved and spare her from harm. Besides, this Kei Lo clown was a stranger. Mai had given up her whole life for Aang. He didn't have to worry about anything!

Kei Lo motioned to the drum that had been set up beside the fountain. "Shall we begin?"

Mai nodded. "We should probably start with a demonstration. I still remember all the moves. (I'll probably be an old lady before I forget, the way I practiced.) Why don't you run through all the sequences, and I'll perform the proper moves for Aang?"

Kei Lo dipped his head. "Your expertise does you credit, my lady." Then he yanked his robe over his head and tossed it aside, revealing that underneath he was wearing just a pair of loose pants. The muscles in his chest bulged as he ran through some quick stretches.

Aang bit back a groan.

At least it wasn't hard to pay attention to Mai. As Kei Lo pounded the massive drum with a pair of sticks the size of his forearms, Mai took up her knives and began to move.

No, she began to dance.

It was a more martial dance than Aang had ever seen, but it was graceful movement commanded by a beat, so he decided that it counted. Kei Lo shouted a command with each change in his pounding: "Strike head left. Strike head right. Circle. Retreat. Reverse strike chest left. Circle. Retreat. Reverse strike chest right." Mai stayed in motion the whole time, precision evident in every action. Her knives flashed in the sunlight and her pale skin glowed. The scar on her side stretched with each contortion, but even that motion had a kind of beauty.

Aang recognized, in the dance moves, the components of the forms that they had been practicing for the last week. He was starting to see how, once he learned the responses to the drummed commands, he'd be able to know where her body would be during every moment of the Agni Budokai.

If he got it right, that is.

Kei Lo shouted, "Finish," and Mai came to a stop and bowed to an invisible partner.

Aang had to clap. "That was amazing! I've never seen a dance like that!"

Kei Lo choked.

Mai's face went as scarlet as her bandana. "Aang. Stop it."

Huh? What did he do? "Did I say something wrong?"

"Just- just don't call it a- a dance, okay? You may have gotten me comfortable with camping and treason and lemurs, but I don't need that kind of talk going around about me."

Aang was even more confused. "I don't get it. What's wrong with dancing? Everyone does it!"

Kei Lo barked a laugh, blushed, and then turned away.

Mai sighed. "Only in the privacy of their rooms, I hope. I mean, sure, I know people in the Earth Kingdom do it. Haru's village had a dance. Probably the colonies are that depraved. But there is no public dancing in the Fire Nation. We have more self-control than that."

Aang blinked. "None? At all? But you have to have festivals-"

"No dancing at festivals."

"But what about purifying dances to calm Spirits?"

"Most stories of Spirits are enemy propaganda, and when we have to do such things, we do martial arts demonstrations to intimidate the Spirits with our strength."

Aang shook his head. "Come on, I know you don't believe this stuff anymore. You've changed and learned about the world!"

Mai lowered he head and rubbed at her eyes. "Yes, I have. For you. And- and I'm satisfied with that. But I can't just throw away everything that I am and become- become- I don't know, Suki or something."

"I know." Aang summoned a wind to help carry him over to her. "I wasn't asking for anything like that. It just looked like a dance, is all. I think you'd enjoy real dancing if you tried it."

Mai smirked. "Do you really?"

Aang thought about it. "No, probably not. Well, maybe if you could offend someone with it."

Her smirk softened. "See? You do know me. Now, let's get back to training. By the end of tomorrow, I want these moves to be reflex for you."

Aang nodded. He was going to be dancing with Mai! Sure, there was going to be fire and blades and danger and political pressure, but it was still a dance with the most beautiful girl in the world.

That made it a little better.

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« Reply #184 on: Jul 10, 2017 09:35 pm »

Heiyaoshi, Weapon of the Fire Nation and Blademaster of Kilauea, stood unmoving in the shadows, and her guests had no idea she was there.

The group of men, their faces wrapped to hide everything but their eyes, had approached the servant entrance of Hige's mansion slowly. They stopped just beyond the light cast by the lantern hanging above the door, peering around for her. She waited until one said, "The note said a woman would be here with our pay. Should we-"

Heiyaoshi stepped out into the light. "The note also said you should move quietly, and announce your presence with a whistle like a toucan-puffin's chirp. The note warned of danger if you were spotted."

The man who spoke bowed his head. "Apologies, mistress. We are here now with the equipment."

Heiyaoshi motioned for them to follow her through the door and into the mansion's servant passages. Although these hirelings deserved punishment, her own efforts to divert servants and waylay Zhao's guards had made up for their failure, and she had no personal need to hurt them. She just wanted this job done efficiently.

She led them down a flight of stairs, into the basement, and then motioned for them to stop. She continued on alone, moving into a dark storage room while drawing her volcano-glass swords, neither action producing any sound. She listened as she let her eyes become used to the darkness. There was no one else here. She was safe.

She used a pair of spark-rocks to light the small lantern hanging from her belt, and waved the masked men into the room. "This is the place. Your device must be unobtrusive."

The man who spoke laid down the sacks that must have contained his equipment. "We were promised pay."

Heiyaoshi took the lantern off her belt, laid it on the ground, and then threw her money-pouch beside it. It remained tied and sealed, but it jangled as it struck the ground, a cascade of golden musicality that made the masked men all lean forward.

Without another word, they got to work.

One began drilling a small hole in the ceiling while the others cleared some large clay pots away from the wall. The drilling continued as the others assembled something involving a billow and several large metal balls that made hollow sounds when touched. As they tightened the last screws on the device, the drilling was completed, and another man came over with a thin tube that he ran into the hole. The group then worked together to hide the length of the tube against the corner of the ceiling, keeping it locked in place with large metal staples. At last, they ran the tube into their contraption, and then moved the displaced clay jars in front of it.

The man who had spoken motioned at the device as he said to Heiyaoshi, "Fill this one. Build up the pressure with the pump. One, two, three, four, five. Turn this valve and the pressure will drive the action. Close the valve again before another go. Do you understand?"

Heiyaoshi nodded. It was simple enough.

She hoped this would be sufficient to sabotage the Agni Budokai. It was a shame that it would probably hurt both the Avatar and Lady Mai, but Heiyaoshi had her orders. Besides, if she didn't stop them, then Fire Lord Azulon would be activating the ninth Weapon of the Fire Nation and setting him or her against the Avatar.

Even the effects of Heiyaoshi's trap here would be better for the poor children than that.

Mai had two kinds of training that were helping her with this. One was, of course, all the preparation she had done for her first Agni Budokai with Ty Lee, years ago. That training had been so intense that Mai still knew all those drum beats and what they meant, never mind the lasting improvement in her blade skills. Even today, her body already knew its business and merely needed to build the proper muscles again.

The other kind of helpful training was the lifelong regime that let her completely control her face.

Because the last thing Aang needed was to see the worry she felt deep in the pit of her stomach.

While Kei Lo struck his taiko drum, Mai stepped past Aang while he did the same, the fire from their burning weapons cooking the air around them. Their trotting took them several paces apart just as Kei Lo changed his tempo, signaling an Airborne Parry. Mai started to spin, tossed one of her burning knives just above her head, completed the rotation, caught knife by its tip with gloved fingers that would be able to take about a second of direct heat before her skin would start to cook, and threw it at Aang.

He was ready, bringing his Monk's Spade up in a diagonal one-handed strike that met her rotating blade in mid-air and reversed its motion back towards her-

-but not as high as she needed to catch it-

Mai hopped out of the way as the burning knife struck the ground right where her feet had just been.

Aang blurted, "Sorry!"

She shook the apology away. Zuko, observing nearby, made a motion and the fire on the knife went out. Kei Lo stopped his drumming.

Aang was at her side in an instant. "Sorry! I <I>can deflect it back for you to catch, but I hit too soon this time and caught the blade on the wrong angle. Next time I'll do better!"

Or, next time he might knock it straight into her face before she could catch it. Or he'd be a second too late and the blade would sink into his chest.

Mai made sure her face didn't reflect her thoughts. "I know you will. You've almost got this."

And he did. There was every chance they would succeed tonight.

But there was also every chance they would get it wrong.

The problem was that there was no certainty. If there had been no chance, Mai wouldn't have any compunction about telling Aang that they couldn't do this. There was just risk, and risk was the whole point of an Agni Budokai. Aang had already decided to accept that risk, and trying to change his mind now wouldn't work. It would put enough doubts in his head, though, that there would be greater chance of tragedy.

Aang worked best when he didn't realize he was in over his head.

Mai resisted the urge to wipe at the sweat on her forehead. That would just move it to her arm, and it was gross no matter where it was. "Why don't we finish for the day? It's almost dinner time, and we're just getting tired, now."

"Yeah, we do need our rest." He twirled his burning Monk's Spade fast enough to generate a wind, the speed of the motion denying air to the fires on the end-blades and smothering them. "Monk Gyatso used to say that it's just as important to replenish our energies as it is to practice our moves. He also said that relaxing the mind could be even better than pushing yourself."

That made sense. It probably wouldn't save their lives, but it made sense.

At least it would be over tomorrow, one way or another. "That sounds good. In fact, we should probably take tomorrow off. We've be practicing for two weeks straight, and we want to be fresh for tomorrow night. Let's take the day and do whatever to get ready."

Aang frowned. "You mean like meditating?"

"Meditating, sleeping, reading a book bad enough to get us mad, beating enemies up to get in the proper mood, whatever."

Aang laughed.

That was that. Their training was complete.

Aang went over to talk to Appa, and Mai started gathering up the various knives she had left lying around. As she bent over, she heard someone approaching, and Mai looked up find Kei Lo smiling at her. With his shaved head and bare chest, he almost looked like an older, Fire Nation-flavored Aang. He said, "I guess you won't need me for anything else, then?"

Mai shook her head. "Thanks for the help. Have a nice life."

He chuckled. "I'll be one of the drummers for you tomorrow night. My master will be leading, so I won't have any input into the signals, but I'll be part of the performance. I'll summon the proper warrior spirits to strengthen you." His cheeks colored. "Not that you'll need it. You obviously have the skill and spirit to do this."

She supposed this was what passed for sweet talk amongst Inferior Sages. "Well, that's nice. And you're very good at drumming."

His face grew even redder, and he bowed at the waist. "Your praise honors me. Good night, then, and good luck! I'll be rooting for you."

Well, with an apprentice drummer rooting for them, they had nothing to worry about. Woo.

As ever, Mai kept her feelings from showing on her face.

And she'd have to keeping doing it until the Agni Budokai tomorrow night.

Aang started the day of the Agni Budokai with meditation. For the first time, he added some candles to the experience, reaching out to feel them in the same way he had been reaching out to the flaming weapons. The candle lights were so small and peaceful in comparison, and he found himself breathing in time with them. He still did not understand the element of fire, but he was aware of it.

The pulsing of the candle almost reminded him of the pulse of the volcano on Crescent Island.

He hoped that wasn't an omen.

He put it out of his mind for the rest of the day. He ate with his friends, talked and did some exercises, took Appa flying to help get his buddy back into shape, meditated again with Zuko, and went for a walk on the mansion's layers of curving rooftops with just Momo for company.

"All of this is just the beginning of the plan to replace Fire Lord Azulon," Aang said to the lemur. "Do you think it's going to get worse, or better?"

Momo just cooed and climbed up to perch on top of Aang's head.

That was either really profound or completely meaningless.

Aang continued on his walk until he noticed the sky start to darken.

It was time.

He jumped off the roof and rode the winds back down to the atrium between his friends' rooms. They were all waiting for him, except for one person.

The curtains of Mai's rooms had already been moved to hide her from sight.

Aang headed into his own rooms and changed into his costume. Or uniform. Kind of both. It was simple enough, just a black fully-body tunic that was tied and pulled tight in the back. The form-fitting tunic would provide only minimal protection from fire, but it would let the flames and blades pass close to him without catching or snagging. The last part was a cloth that tied over his ears and neck to cover the lower half of his face. He wouldn't even be able to mouth any words to Mai; they would have to communicate solely by their eyes and motions.

When he was finished dressing, he emerged to once again find all his friends waiting for him- except Mai.

"She went ahead," Sokka said. "And before we follow, I just want to wish you luck and apologize for not realizing, before we came to the Fire Nation, how useful a Waterbender healer would be when messing with politics. We should have brought Katara along."

Aang shrugged. "Well, now we'll know for the next time we try to reform a militant society."

Sokka grinned and punched Aang's shoulder. "That's what I like to hear. Be safe, brother."

Toph threw a fist into the air. "Now let's go wow all those Fire Nation idiots! Remember, don't respond to pain, and if anyone acknowledges anything besides your flawless victory, kill them as an example to others!"

Aang decided that was a joke and laughed.

Zuko came over and put his hands on Aang's shoulders, looking at him with his intense one-eyed gaze. "Remember, Avatar, that you carry my honor today, too. Don't mess this up."

Suki gave Zuko a soft whack on the side of the head. "What Zuko means is that we all believe in you, otherwise we'd be tackling you to the floor and begging you not to go." She gave him a dazzling smile. "Kyoshi's spirit be with you."

Aang acknowledged that with a nod.

And then it was time to go to the dance.

He took his Monk's Spade and led everyone to the mansion's main dining room. Unlike an Agni Kai, an Agni Budokai was conducted indoors- something about locking in the heat of the performance. All of the guests were gathered, milling about at the edges of the room and leaving a large space in the middle empty. Tall torches had been set up to provide a dim light, leaving the gas lanterns dark and unwanted. A trio of large taiko drums were set up at the edge of that space, and Aang spotted Kei Lo among the trio of bare-chested sages standing ready with their sticks. Kei Lo gave a wave and a smile.

Aang headed for the center of the room. The crowd parted to let him through, familiar faces appearing for brief moments with somber expressions: Governor Hige, Lord Zhao, Commander Zhao, Lady Gerel, Bangfei, Heiyaoshi, Governor Leiko. Then he was past them all, alone in the center with only one other person.

Mai was crouched on the opposite end of the empty space, her head bowed so that she had to only be seeing the floor beneath her. She was wearing a black tunic just like Aang's, and her hair was pulled into a tight bun. Two knives rested on the ground in front of her, but more were sheathed along her arms and legs.

Aang put his Monk's Spade down on the floor and lowered himself into a similar crouch.

It was time.

One of the drums was struck, the sound echoing through the room. The crowd ceased their talk. All was silent.

The drum was struck again.

Aang rose, picking up his Monk's Spade as he did so, and saw Mai doing the same with her knives.

A steady rhythm was being beaten, and on every other beat Aang took a step towards Mai. She approached as well, and for all that her tunic clung so closely to her body, it was her eyes that captivated Aang. They were intensive and bright, appearing almost red in the light of the torches, and they were shining more than they ever had before.

Rather than getting lost in those eyes, Aang found his rhythm in them.

As they grew close, they reached out with their weapons until metal rested against metal. A second drum came in, the pattern calling for a Rising Sun turn, and Aang and Mai circled the center of the room while keeping their weapons pressed together.

The third drum came in, adding a flourish to the beat that called for the Boiling Seas. Aang spun in place as he continued to walk, the motion pulling his Monk's Spade away from the blades of Mai's knives, but she was rotating as well, and soon the weapons were almost in contact again. Just before they met, Aang reversed his spin, still stepping in a circle, as Mai did the same. They continued in that way, spinning and circling, their weapons ever quite touching, until all three drums roared together and then went silent.

Aang ceased his spinning but the room continued to move around him. That wasn't a problem, as he found Mai's glistening eyes before him, and he met her gaze as he twirled his Monk's Spade and then swung so that the sharpened spade was arcing towards her neck.

She deflected the blow with one of her knives, the spark of contact lighting both blades on fire, but Aang was already shifting his staff so that now the crescent blade was now coming at her from the other side, but once again her knife was there to protect her, and once again a spark heralded the arrival of flames.

Aang and Mai stepped back from each other as all three drums sounded again, a harmonious cascade of beats that sent out a deadly call to the dancers.

Aang spun his Monk's Spade in front of him, feeling the heat of the burning blades, and watched as Mai twirled her own knives in each of her hands to create a wreath of fire around them that gave her the appearance of a Firebender.  She held her arms out wide as he raised his staff above his head, and they stepped together until their chests were almost touching, so close that Aang could feel the heat of her body against his despite the flames around them.

Their eyes met, and Aang thought he saw hers crinkle at the corner in a way that might have signified a smile.

Then they both took long steps backward. Mai brought her burning knives forward again and stabbed at Aang, bringing the Agni Budokai into full bloom.


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« Reply #185 on: Jul 21, 2017 02:08 pm »


« Last Edit: Jul 21, 2017 02:58 pm by Spartak » Logged

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« Reply #186 on: Aug 01, 2017 07:14 pm »

Fire Blood

Sokka had to admit, in spite of all the firey Fire Nation fire-ness, Aang looked good out there.

The kid and Mai were doing their dance-fight-thing like professionals (which Sokka supposed Mai technically was), playing like they were trying to kill each other with their knives and Monk’s Spade without actually touching each other with blades or flames. Mai looked like she usually did, except in tighter clothes, as a fighter she was on a whole higher level than Sokka would ever be able to reach. She was his age, but she must have started stabbing people in the cradle, because her every move out there was teaching him what a professional warrior really was.

Aang, though- for all the kid's skill, Sokka had never seen him moving like Mai's equal.

In fact, maybe calling him 'kid' was unfair. The Southern Water Tribe had used the Ice-Dodging trial as a rite of adulthood because it combined danger and responsibility with the skills that all Men Of The Tribe would need in order to provide for their families. (Pretty convenient.) Aang wasn't even fourteen yet, but didn't he have his own responsibilities right now? Hadn't he gotten stuck providing for the whole world? And weren't the necessary skills (amazing fighting moves and an ability to get even Firebender Jerks to listen to him) being demonstrated in the Agni Budokai right now?

And wasn't he also standing as an equal to a certain sarcastic Fire Nation woman?

Well, either way, Aang might be looking all manly out there, but Sokka had his own responsibilities, and they were a bit nastier.

For example, Sokka had been watching the crowd with one eye (which had taken standing at a very precise angle so that he could also see the Agni Budokai), and he just noticed the jerky Weapon of the Fire Nation Heiyaoshi making her way out of the dining room.

That couldn't be good.

It was fortunate that, during the two weeks Aang and Mai had been practicing their little dance, Sokka had be doing his own kind of practicing by talking with Toph about all the various things that could go wrong tonight.

(Hey, everyone needed a hobby, right?)

Sokka searched out his own path through the audience, being careful not to block anyone's sight or step on any sensitive Fire Nation toes. He made his way to the same exit Heiyaoshi had disappeared through, and as he stepped into the hallway, he pulled a certain device from his belt. It was just a little assembly of springs, a couple of gears, and two blocks of wood. When wound up, it would clap the wood pieces together for as long as the spring had tension, no different in function than some kinds of children's toys.

Sokka wasn't playing, though. He spotted Heiyaoshi turning a corner up ahead, and took a moment to move to the nearest door and toss his device into the empty room behind it. It landed on the floor, already clapping, and Sokka closed the door so that no one would hear it.

No one would hear it, but any intimidating blind Earthbender she-kings in the area would feel the vibrations through the solid floor and hopefully come running. It would have been nice if Toph could have been here on station, but it wasn't like Sokka had access to more than one of those kind of Earthbenders, and someone had to watch the mansion's perimeter in case of an outside assault.

(Sometimes it was stressful being able to think like an evil genius.)

Sokka peeked around the next corner to see Heiyaoshi walk through a pair of double doors at the end of this stretch of hallway, going down a flight of stairs. Well. He could follow or wait for King Toph. If he waited, he would have a fighter with him who might actually be able to match a Weapon of the Fire Nation. But he would also be leaving Heiyaoshi alone to do whatever it was that was taking her to the basement during Aang's Agni Budokai.


Sokka skulked over to the stairs and plunged down into the darkness.

The drums thundered on.

The pounding was a continuous, powerful stream that went straight into Mai's ears and was transformed into movement and danger and heat.

She was sweating from head to toe beneath her tights, but that was why they were black. (Or spiritual symbolism or something.) She wouldn't have to worry about anyone knowing how messy the Agni Budokai was getting as she and Aang worked their bodies and weapons together.

The drums thundered on.

Mai and Aang weren't constantly in motion, but it was close enough. The brief moments of stillness were just to build the tension between and around them, moments to draw in a breath or show of their weapons before snapping to the next stance or attack or spin. In those moments, their eyes met and a connection was established from brain to brain and heart to heart and body to body.

Mai recognized the sensation as she once again brought a flaming knife in to stab at Aang. He sidestepped it and pushed with the shaft of his Monk's Spade to knock her arm away as she brought the other in for a slice, but he shifted the staff and blunted that faux-attack as well. Then he flipped backwards, his feet coming up fast and close and he would have kicked her head off if she hadn't already been leaning backwards. Instead, she could feel, though her soaked tights, the wind streaming off the toe of his boots drawing a line of moving air from below her stomach all the way up her chest to her masked face. A few droplets of sweat were drawn up off the exposed bridge of her nose by the pull of the rushing air, and they seemed to float above her in an infinite moment before she snapped back upright and met Aang's gaze again.

The drums thundered on.

They exhaled as one, and Mai saw that Aang's eyes were narrowed in that way that meant he was smiling beneath his own mask. She couldn't help smiling, too, as they let their bodies draw together again for another easy clash of weapons. Her knives took the blows steadily despite the burning oil that covered them. Aang shifted between the spade-like blade at one end of his staff and the twin prongs at the other, both of them burning as well, managing the awkward length with expert ease.

The drums thundered on.

This was the power, the spirit of an Agni Budokai. Mai couldn't even remember why she had been worried about it. Sure, death and horrible injury were a constant danger, but she was doing it with Aang. He was a kid, he was too kind for this cruel world, and he was perpetually in over his head.

But she knew that.

She knew him.

And that was what made an Agni Budokai work.

The drums thundered on.

Weapons clashed. Bodies worked. Mai sweated.

It had been the same when she did an Agni Budokai with Ty Lee, those years ago. As they trusted their lives to each other's skill and put all of themselves on the line in front of everyone they knew, Mai had realized amidst the blades and flames that Ty Lee was the only person in the world she trusted this much, and that trust was returned in full. They had not only survived, their performance got them both declared Weapons of the Fire Nation, people so skilled and dangerous that they needed to become government property for the safety of the Homeland itself.

And now Mai was doing the same thing with Aang.




The drums thundered on.

Knives struck the Monk's Spade. Flaming metal clashed against flaming metal. Blades passed so close that sweat-soaked tights sizzled. She trusted Aang. He trusted her. There was a connection between them every bit as strong as the one she shared with Ty Lee. She had finally admitted that connection, so long ago (it seemed) in the light of Guru Pathik's funeral pyre, admitted that her loyalty to Aang went beyond wanting the Avatar to save the world. But she hadn't named that connection at the time. She couldn't. She still couldn't. Perhaps she never would.

But here, moving with him, clashing weapons with him, sweating with him-

She could feel it.

And she realized she could trust it.


The drums thundered on.

Mai threw herself into a spin towards Aang with arms outstretched and burning blades held out to cut. The fires curved and trailed as she moved and she felt the heat surround and cuddle her, but Aang moved straight into the center, twirling his Monk's Spade from hand to hand to hand to hand. Their bodies passed each other and her knives struck the burning ends of his staff and the spade-blade passed her left hip and the needle-like prongs passed her right hip. Then their motion took Mai and Aang passed each other, never having touched, their steps as intricate as clockwork gears. And yet she had noticed, as they came so close, that she and Aang were breathing in time.

Were their hearts pounding as one, too?

She spun to face him again, but instead of approaching him she flipped one of her knives to catch it by the tip of the burning blade. She held it just long enough to feel the heat through her thick gloves- less than a second, really- and then threw it. It whipped straight at Aang's head, but once again his Monk's Spade was there, rising up in an arc to knock the knife up into the air above him. By then Mai was throwing the second knife, but Aang knew it was coming and was stabbing down with the burning prongs to catch it, only to twist his staff and toss it up to hit the first knife. The collision sent them flying to the ground on either side of him.

They'd never gotten that move right in practice.

Heat and satisfaction pumped through Mai's veins. Her blood sang.

The drums thundered on.

It was almost done. The Taiko drummers- Kei Lo and the other drum-sages from the local temple- were signaling for the start of the finale. Aang raised his staff above his head and twirled it fast enough to create a wind without any Airbending. He seemed so tall.

Mai approached against that wind, drawing the last two of her knives from their sheathes on her calves, lifting her left leg so that she could strike one knife against the hardened heel hard enough to ignite the oiled blade, and then with her next step switching legs to ignite the second blade. She slide the dull edges of the knives against each other as she approached Aang to create a kind of whispering metal music, her blood feeling molten within her veins.

With deliberate steps, she came up close to Aang and began to stalk in a circle around him. She let herself drift to arm's length, keep the burning tip of one knife and then the other pointed at his neck. She could see him laboring to breathe through the heat as he kept twirling his staff above their heads, his mundane wind the only thing keeping her flames from reaching up to touch his chin.

She withdrew her arm as she came up behind him and let herself fall into position against him, back to back, pressed together so that she could feel the firmness of his upright body. She crossed her arms over her chest, positioning the knives to extend out over her elbows.

With the swiftness of the storm Aang halted his staff and snapped it down and around to swing the burning, sharpened spade in at the left side of her stomach. She unfurled her right arm with a timing and angle so that her knife caught and deflected the blow, but Aang was already bringing the staff around to the other side to stab the burning prongs at her stomach on her right.

And in that split second, Mai's mind thought she needed to remember when Zhao slammed a fireball into that spot back on Kyoshi Island, and so supplied a vivid recollection with all the sound and smell and feel and pain.

Mai thought it was very professional of herself to only react with a flinch so small it was almost invisible.

But that flinch meant her arm unfurled at not-quite-the-correct angle, so her knife merely scraped against Aang's burning prongs very hard, and before he could reverse his weapon's direction the tips of penetrated her flesh.

She hissed through her mask, the noise lost in the drumming.

The pain exploded from the wound all through her entire right side, where her punctured muscles and cooked skin screamed almost as loud as the sizzling of her blood and sweat.

The drums thundered on.

But the Agni Budokai was not over yet, so Mai made herself move. As the drummers signaled the final sequence, she snapped a turn that brought tears to her eyes and positioned her body to face Aang. His own eyes were wide with fear.

He knew he had stabbed her.

He was worried about her.

And because Mai trusted Aang with all her being, because she was submerged in the connection they shared, a connection that went deeper than any in her life, she forced herself to curve just a little bit more than this next stance required, drawing extra attention to her feminine contours and the way her soaked tights clung to them. It was agony and grossness, her whole right side roaring as sweat was forced into the charred holes and blood was squeezed out. Good thing these tunics were black.

Mai let the pain embrace her as she winked at Aang like there was nothing wrong and this was an entirely appropriate time to flirt.

If he hadn't already been flushed by the exertion she knew he'd blushing now.

Her playfulness was a lie, but that was part of their connection. Mai was a liar, an honorless protector, a shadow on Aang's brightness. She regretted that, but part of their connection was that he already knew what she was and accepted-


-accepted her anyway.

That was part of their trust, too.

Just like Mai would trust Aang to finish this Agni Budokai quickly and spectacularly so that she could hopefully get help before she did herself permanent damage or bled to death.

The drums thundered on.


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« Reply #187 on: Aug 01, 2017 07:17 pm »

Earth King Toph ran, every slap of her bare feet against the ground lighting the way for her.

The vibrations exploded outward through the ground to define the walls and paths and guards and doors of Governor's Hige's mansion. She plunged into the building, Zhao's security staff keeping out of her way, but she could sense them turning their heads towards her. They knew something was wrong, even though they couldn't feel the clacking of Sokka's little toy.

Good. It was about time those people earned their pay.

Now Toph just needed to figure out where, exactly, they all needed to be.

Sokka's toy was slowing to a stop, but Toph didn't need it anymore. It had called, and she had come. It wouldn't necessarily be in the same spot that Sokka was right now, and as she moved deeper into the mansion she was able to confirm that- the room was empty. She didn't need to walk all the way over to it and open the doors to know it could be safely ignored.

So where was Sokka, then? As Toph slowed, she could feel Aang and Mai doing their sexy-dance thing in the dining room, as well as the excited crowd watching them. The picture Toph was able to put together was precise but sharp, with the drums and the dancing and all the idle foot-shuffling filling out the detail but also threatening to overwhelm her with feedback. She forced herself to concentrate anyway.

During their preparations, Sokka had purposefully sat or stood on hard surfaces as often as he could, and Toph had stayed by his side whenever it wasn't awkward. She had grown to know his particular body-pulse very well. (It was a particularly fun job, because Sokka smelled like love and hotness. Toph felt like she owned Destiny a drink for the favor of assembling Sokka, Aang, and Zuko in her life as such a nice potential Royal Harem.) And as she cast her attention over the assembly in the dining room, Toph couldn't feel her friend.


Where was he?

She extended her attention through the rest of the mansion, finding servants and secret lovers and guards and a lemur and a sky bison and a colony of wood-ants that someone should really remove from that wall and of course plenty of elephant-rats running and rolling and widdling in the kitchen and basement and-

The basement.

There were two people down there right now.




Toph didn't even bother with stairs. She moved towards the dining room, but instead of going in, she swept a foot over the floor and tightened her fists, pulling the stone away to create an opening for herself. She took a moment to sense the exact height of the basement, and then hopped down.

She hated being in freefall.

But the ground came exactly when she expected it.

Toph landed and bent the floor to bounce herself back up into a run towards the figures at the opposite end of the chamber, the resulting vibrations revealing jars and baskets and shelves and some kind of machinery in a far corner. Heiyaoshi stood tense in front of the machinery, pressed so tightly against Sokka that their heartbeats sent vibrations into each other.

Toph also sensed Heiyaoshi's volcano-glass knife being held right under Sokka's chin.

Toph growled, "Stand down, lady. You get one warning. That Water Tribe guy is under my dominion."

Heiyaoshi's heartbeat was steady. "My apologies, your majesty, but I do not take orders from you. But I have no ill will to you or this Tribal, so I see no need to hurt either of you if you don’t interfere with my task." She took a step back towards the machine.

Toph took an equal step forward. "What is that thing?" She focused on it, feeling the confusing assembly of metal parts-

"It's going to pump something upstairs," Sokka gasped, "with a hose pointed at-"

"Shut it." Heiyaoshi moved faster than even Toph could make out. Sokka squealed and his stomach muscles clenched.

Toph hissed, thinking at first that Sokka had been stabbed, but his body's pulse didn't change. He wasn't losing blood. Heiyaoshi must have just jammed the butt of her knife into his stomach.

Toph forced herself to enter the patient and still frame of mind that would let her utterly destroy her opponent. Now that Sokka had told her what to sense for, she could find it. There was a hole in the ceiling, and right above them Aang and Mai (there was something wrong with Mai but she was moving too quickly to tell exactly what) were doing their shimmying. "You're going to kill them?"

"Only injure them, in all likelihood." Heiyaoshi took another step towards the machine. "The hose will spray a fine mist of flammable liquid, and the fire on their weapons will ignite it. It will simply look the Avatar had a compulsive moment of Firebending in the midst of his performance, and it will ruin the Agni Budokai. Many boys on the cusp of manhood have trouble controlling themselves in exciting moments. No one will doubt his failure."

Sokka's slow, awkward swallow with the knife still under his chin summarized the situation very neatly. "Um, exploding mists are probably going to do more than injure my friends."

Heiyaoshi shrugged so slightly that it must have been invisible to anyone who had to rely on eyes. "That depends on how fast a healer can get to them, I suppose. But if you won't stand down, then you will have no chance."

Heiyaoshi's grip tightened on her volcano-glass knife at the same time the muscles in her arm compressed.

Heiyaoshi was about to stab Sokka.

Toph couldn't stop herself from snorting in amusement. A flick of her fingers was all it took to reach out and take full control of the volcano-glass blade. It might have been made in the Fire Nation, but volcano-glass was just earth that had been heated until it was fused and brittle. It, like Sokka, was under her dominion.

She was the Earth King, after all.

The blade hung in the air, locked into place no matter how hard Heiyaoshi grunted and tried to move it. Sokka chuckled. Toph grinned as she pulled the sharp point away from Sokka, wrenching Heiyaoshi's arm in the process.

Then the Weapon of the Fire Nation let go of the knife and shoved Sokka and dived for the machine and reached out for a valve-

As Heiyaoshi's fingers brushed the device, Toph did the only thing she could in that split-second. She extended her influence, finding the other knives and swords made of the glass that were strapped to Heiyaoshi's body, and yanked her arms towards her body. All the volcano-glass blades broke free of their hilts and stabbed deeper into their sheathes-

-through their sheathes-

-into Heiyaoshi's flesh.

And Heiyaoshi gave a strangled cry as her body suddenly became too ripped and full of holes to muster the strength to turn that valve.

Toph was grateful for the stomping boots that burst into the basement chamber and made her flinch out of her state of concentration. She always hated the feel of blood leaking out of a body and pooling on a hard floor. "Who's here?"

"I am," Commander Zhao bellowed. The other new arrivals- soldiers in full armor- moved out of Zhao's way as he dragged someone into the basement. "This is Fire Sage Kagemori, one of the observers sent by the temple. What happened down here?"

Ah, that would explain the sound of rustling robes. Toph nodded her Royal Approval. If Zhao couldn't arrive in time to help, at least he was taking care of the political angle.

Sokka pointed down at where Heiyaoshi was choking and leaking. "She was trying to sabotage the Agni Budokai!"

Sage Kagemori gasped, but Zhao just crouched beside Heiyaoshi and barked, "Whose order? Answer!"

Toph didn't have much hope for a straight answer, and so she was surprised when Heiyaoshi bubbled, -palace- Azulon's- office-"

Toph concentrated again, trying to push past the ickiness to signs that Heiyaoshi might just be scattering dust. "Hard to tell if she's lying, with her injuries. But why-"

Heiyaoshi gave a gurgling little laugh. "-never- wanted- be- weapon-" The last word was so weak it was nearly inaudible, and Toph moved closer so that she could hear better.

She wound up putting one of her bare feet in a pool of warm, sticky liquid that had to be blood.

"-tell- Zuko-" Heiyaoshi choked, coughed, and Toph felt something inside the Weapon's body shift in way that stopped most of the regular pulsing. "-the- nnnninthhhhhhhhhhh-"

Whatever Heiyaoshi was trying to say, it was lost in a wet rattle.

Toph felt Heiyaoshi's lungs shrink one last time and her heart still. Muscles all through the body relaxed one last time. Toph stepped back so that she was no longer standing in the puddle. "I couldn't make that last part out."

Zhao stood up and chuckled. "No matter. We got something valuable." He turned to the sage. "You heard her confession? She was operating under the Fire Lord's orders?"

Toph could feel this Kagemori guy shaking under his robes. "Y- yes, Commander. I- I heard. Is- is there usually this much b- blood?"

Sokka crossed his arms over his chest. "We don't know that she was telling the truth."

Zhao shrugged. "No. But it was the most probable explanation, and it will serve our purposes. Fire Lord Azulon created the Weapons, and they all answer to him, ultimately. One of them interfering with a sacred ritual is scandal enough, never mind a deathbed confession of his involvement. The sages won't have a choice but to call for an investigation. Right, Sage Kagemori?"

"-so much blood-"

Toph couldn't say she really liked politics, but she had learned to use them. If Zhao was right about the Fire Nation's ways, this really might be useful.

For now, though, she didn't have to care. "Come on, Sokka. Aang and Mai finished their booty-bumping, and something doesn't feel right up there." Overhead, Toph could feel the pulse of Mai's body slowing just as Heiyaoshi's had. "We better bring some mud."

She could feel Sokka's nod as they began to run. "Right. Mud. Scenario number forty-seven, as I recall. I am so glad we talked about this stuff."


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« Reply #188 on: Aug 01, 2017 07:18 pm »

Aang had never felt so warm.

There was the heat of the fires and the exertion of the dance, but this warmth went beyond that. It came from within, from his Qi and his heart and his joy.

It was similar to the burning he felt when he had linked with the volcano on Crescent Island, but there was no pain, now. This wasn't a destructive warmth, an explosion of pain and sorrow, but a steady heat of victory and love. It came from within, but it also came from without, from the connection he had with Mai.

They were about to finish the Agni Budokai.

They had been strong and they had been good and they had been beautiful. Even that one mistake hadn't stopped them; Mai must have only been scratched by the prongs of the Monk's Spade, and now there was nothing left to stop them. They had come together and emerged on the other side of a new fusion.

Aang couldn't imagine that Mai would ever be able to fluster him again, not after this.

They stepped to opposite sides of the performance space in time with the hammerings of the Taiko drummers. Aang spun his Monk's Spade from hand to hand to hand and left to right to left. The burning ends of the staff flickered from the movement but didn't die. Behind him, Mai would be twirling her last two knives as she moved to her position. Their timing would have to be just perfect, because they wouldn't have time to even meet each other's eyes before-

Aang reached his spot, spun around, and threw his staff into a spin not unlike the way the old Water Tribe boomerangs flew through the sky. It rose and spun until it passed the middle of the performance space and then fell again in a perfect arch.

It was headed right for Mai.

But Aang couldn't watch her, because she had thrown her knives at him at the same time he tossed his Monk's Spade.

He breathed in, held it, and watched the knives come in at him. The whirled end over end, trailing fire through the air. They weren't quite the blur that Mai could render her projectiles when she really tried, but they were still moving pretty fast.

Good thing Airbenders were fast, too.

But this would be tricky-

-both knives came in at him-

-he snapped his right hand out and wrapped his fingers around the hilt of the knife on that side-

-he felt the heat of the burning blade on his hand-

-no, he hadn't grabbed wrong, it was just the fire warming the air around it-

-the other knife was still coming-

-Aang was over-extended at a bad angle-

-coming in at his heart-

-he ducked as he reached-

-metal and fire above his head-



-fire trailing in the air-




-fingers around the handle-


And Aang was holding the knives in his hands. He started running as soon as she was sure of his grip, heading towards Mai and preparing to stab with both blades-

-she had his staff-

-her grip was wrong-

-her run was unsteady-

-he saw pain in her eyes-

-red droplets were trailed on the floor behind the path of her right foot-

Oh no.

There was no time to stop this. He was running and she was running and their weapons were out and the drums were thundering louder and louder and the crowd was chanting something now and-

Mai swung the staff as her eyes pinched with what must have been a wince.

Aang stabbed as horror plopped into his stomach like a stone

The burning spade stopped just short of Aang's throat.

He halted the flaming knives just short of Mai's heart.

They both trembled as their eyes met and they held their poses.

Mai's eyes were clouded in pain, but her stare was steady and Aang could feel her worry and concern washing over him. He knew his eyes had to be betraying his terror for her and an offer to stop at any moment.

They held their poses.

Another drop of blood fell from Mai’s side, and Aang saw it splash on the floor near a little hole and then drain down into it.

The drums stopped. The chanting stopped.

Silence reigned.

The drums all sounded one last time, a single burst of sound and power that echoed off the walls and ceiling and floor.

Everything went quiet again.

Then the audience burst into applause and cheers.

It was over.

Aang threw the knives aside as Mai completely collapsed and slumped over him. The Monk's Spade fell from her hands, rattling against him, and he even felt the flames brushing his tights until a twitch of his hips sent it clattering to the floor.

"Ash," Mai hissed through her mask.

Aang swallowed. "Where?"

Her eyes squeezed shut for a moment. "The stab."

So it hadn't been a narrowly averted mistake, after all. Aang had shoved burning metal into Mai's body.

He needed to get her out of here. He needed to get help. He needed- he needed a Waterbender, but he didn't have one! He needed-

He needed-


And then Suki was there helping him to keep Mai upright, and Zuko was standing with his back to Aang, saying to the audience, "The Avatar has completed his Agni Budokai! Let all here stand as witnesses and celebrants! He and Lady Mai will speak just as soon as they recover for a moment..."

"Come on," Suki whispered. "This way." She pulled Aang and Mai back to the edge of the dining room, and Aang tore his gaze away from Mai's masked wince to see that they were heading towards a discrete door in the wall that must have been a space for servants.

It proved to be a small little room, but it was large enough for Mai to lie down.

As soon as she did, Aang saw blood starting to pool beneath her the right side of her stomach.

And then Suki yanked his hands so that one was on her shoulder and one was on her leg. "Keep her still. No movement."

Aang did so, feeling Mai's pulse beneath the tights and skin. She trembled, but her eyes crinkled in a smile as glanced at him. "Watch the hands," she coughed, and then gave something that could have been a laugh.

It didn't make Aang feel better. "What do we do?"

Suki stood up and stepped away, and Aang looked over to find her examining the shelves built into the little room's walls. They were lined with jars and what seemed to be bundles of spare chopsticks. "Need to find something to bandage her. Maybe-"

"Good job, everyone," came King Toph's voice, "but you can all relax. I'm here to solve your problems as usual."

Aang snapped his head around to see her stomping into the little servant's supply closet, Sokka following with what looked like a Firebender soldier's helmet full of dirt and a clay jug in his arms. "Toph! Mai's-"

"Yeah, I see. So to speak." She kneeled down beside Aang. "Keep her still, try to enjoy yourself, and don't distract me. Sokka, where's my mud?"

"Coming up!" Sokka was pouring water out of his jug into the helmet, turning the dirt into mud. He mixed it up with his hands a bit and then slammed it down between Toph and Aang. "Fresh and sloppy!"

As Aang watched, Toph scooped some of the mud and slathered it over Mai's wounds. She worked carefully, spreading it thickly and evenly. Then she laid her hands over the mess, sinking her fingers into it.

Mai groaned. "That feels weird."

Toph snorted. "It gets better." She breathed in and breathed out, and then took her muddy fingers up off of Mai again, but began moving her hands in air with the same motions she had used to spread the mud. Despite the lack of physical contact, the mass of mud swished back and forth, its thickness bunching up at one end and flowing back to the other, never spilling out beyond where Toph had set it. It seemed to draw in the light that was spilling through the door, becoming a shadow like out of the deepest cave.

It was Earthbending, but Aang didn't understand the point.

Mai sighed with something like relief.

Finally, Aang said, "What are you doing?"

Toph continued her movement. "Earth-healing. I learned from a shaman who supported me when I stole the kingship."

Earth-healing? Like what Katara did? Earthbenders could heal? Toph could heal people?!

Aang blinked. "You can fix Mai?"

Toph gave a shake of her head. "Earth-healing doesn't work that way. It's not like what those Waterbenders did after we fought the ash-monster. It doesn't put back together what you broke. This will keep Lady Caldera Yu Mai here from losing more blood or doing any more damage to her wound. It will give her strength, but her body will still need to do all the work of repairing itself. Earth-healing just gives you the chance to work your way back and the tools to do it."

"Wow." Maybe Toph really was the greatest Earthbender alive, after all. It made sense that she was King.

They all watched as Toph worked, but it was over quickly. She lowered her hands, and then motioned at the spread of mud. "You can scrape most of that off, now, but leave a coating. It will work like a bandage." She stood up and wiped her hands on her shirt. "Now, I think you and Lady Caldera Yu Mai have a public appearance to make."

Aang helped Mai to her feet, and although she moved slowly and gingerly, she stood without shaking. She leaned on Aang with one arm wrapped around him as she used the other to remove her mask and undo her hair-bun. Her hair fell down on his arm and hand, sweaty and tangled and with none of its usual gloss.

But her eyes were bright and her gaze was steady.

Sokka said, "I think everyone out there is waiting for a quick Avatar speech. Remember, we want them to support Iroh and overthrow their Fire Lord. Heiyaoshi tried to sabotage your dance but she's dead now and Zhao says we can use her to start turning the sages against Azulon. Say something strong and Avatar-y. Don't say, 'um,' at all. Good luck!"

Aang nodded his acknowledgement as he and Mai walked past Sokka, past Toph, past Suki, and out into the dining room. Zuko was standing by the door, and they passed him by as well. The audience- the governors and nobles and merchants and sages and all the important people of Zenmatsu Island- halted their conversations and turned to look at them.

Aang and Mai both. Alone together.

Aang looked back at the people and wondered what to say.

Mai used the arm she had around his shoulders to give him a squeeze.

Aang raised his chin and said, "I have completed the Agni Budokai with Lady Caldera Yu Mai. We did it with the help of all our friends and allies. People of the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, and the Water Tribes all worked together to make this possible. Their work allowed me to channel the fighting fire. I have honored your warriors, your nation, your ways, and your people."

Amidst the crowd, the sages- including Kei Lo- all clapped their hands once and kowtowed. The head sage called out, "The blessings of fire and blood fell upon this Agni Budokai! We confirm its power and rightness."

Aang nodded. "I did this to settle the matter of ending Prince Zuko's Agni Kai."

Governor Leiko bowed at the waist. "No Agni Kai is necessary now. We have seen your attunement with Fire."

Aang breathed out the last of his tension. "Thank you. But that's not the only reason I did this. I want you to believe in the Avatar. I want you to believe in me. And I've come to the Fire Nation to warn you that Fire Lord Azulon's ways are damaging the whole world. I was told that one of his Weapons tried to ruin what I did tonight. I want to bring healing to the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes, and the Fire Nation. I want your support in this, because this healing can only come from all of you. All of your people. And the whole world will have to work together to make sure it works."

He paused for a moment, looking out over the stern faces of the crowd. "Is that okay?"

Governor Leiko was the first to drop to her knees. Other governors soon followed, and then the merchants, and then the nobles. The head sage started to rise back up from his kowtow with a scowl, but then Bangfei and Lady Gerel- the two surviving Weapons of the Fire Nation here tonight- dropped to their knees, and after a glance at them, he slowly followed suit. Finally, Governor Hige awkwardly lowered himself with the help of a servant.

The whole room was kneeling to Aang.

Mai squeezed him again. "You did it."

You turned to look at her, and found her smiling. She was sweaty and her hair hung messily over her face and her smile was strained, but he still had never seen anything more beautiful in his life.

He wanted to kiss her.

Instead, he said, "We did it."

Iroh was awoken in the middle of the night with a wire from the Fire Nation, from Commander Zhao, outlining the events surrounding the Avatar's Agni Budokai. Word of mere success could have waited for morning- or what passed for morning this close to the top of the world- but there were other concerns, concerns about the Fire Lord and the Weapons of the Fire Nation.

One was dead, having betrayed Iroh's father in her last moments. Whether the Fire Lord really had given her the orders, or she was merely working for someone with a more complicated political agenda, it was still a betrayal to the whole concept of the Weapons.

Father would soon learn the perils of essentially enslaving such capable people.

If he cared.

For now, Iroh had his own work to do. This matter could be used to drive a wedge between his father and the Fire Sages, but the Fire Lord had been very good to them, and they would be slow to betray him.

Iroh, though, had an idea for how to help that matter along.

He simply had to push more work onto his nephew and the Avatar.

Sighing, Iroh called for the servants to bring tea as he began composing the telegraph message he would be sending back to the Homeland.


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« Reply #189 on: Aug 01, 2017 07:20 pm »

Mai had to admit that she had never healed so fast from a stabbing. It was only a few days later and she could stretch without worrying about springing a leak.

That this stabbing was so bad it nearly killed her was beside the point. Or proved it better. One of the two.

Either way, she hated that it had happened in the first place.

At least it was finally time to leave Zenmatsu Island behind.

The whole convocation of Outer Island governors had officially ended at breakfast that morning after a boring speech from Lord Zhao, and Mai thought that Governor Hige's own goodbye speech was very nice despite being a fancy way of telling everyone to get out of his house and stop getting him blown up. The various guests were leaving throughout the day and would continue to do so until night fell, in all likelihood. Mai herself still had to pack, and she was pretty sure that King Toph was expecting someone else to handle the clothes strewn all over her own room. Mai resolved to make sure that either the mansion's staff handled it, or Sokka and Suki were left picking up Earthbender underwear. After all, Mai was injured, and shouldn't be straining herself by touching heavy shirts and such, even if she did probably owe the little Earthbender her life.

For now, though, it was time to say goodbye to Aang and Zuko.

The sun was shining down on Hige's personal dock, just like the day those weeks ago when they had arrived on Zenmatsu. Zhao's ship was making its own preparations for departure, as well as King Toph's Royal Second-Hand Steamer.

Aang and Zuko wouldn't be taking either of those, though.

Some of Zhao's soldiers were lifting some packs of supplies up onto Appa's saddle while Zuko glared at them and Suki made concerned goo-goo eyes at him. Aang was keeping Appa calm with nose-rubs and apples while having a conversation with Sokka about something. Perhaps they were arguing about how much meat belonged in a healthy diet. That was their favorite debate.

Mai folded her hands in her sleeves and walked up to them. "So, it's almost time to go, huh?"

Sokka looked at her. Then he looked at Aang. "I'm- um, going to go find Toph so that- she can say goodbye? Yeah, that's a good one. You two have fun."

Mai was tempted to trip him as he walked over in Zuko and Suki's direction. Then she and Sokka both saw that Suki was currently giving Zuko a hug, and Sokka changed direction before she could work up any more malevolent plans for him. Oh, well.

Aang drew her attention back with, "So, you're looking good. Um, you know, I mean with your injury. But you're looking very pretty, too."

She checked his face for a blush, but couldn't find one. Maybe he didn't mean what he had said.

But she doubted that.

Besides, she did probably look pretty. She had done her hair up in that same style as when they had all arrived in the Fire Nation. There was no real reason for it, other than wanting to feel fancy in the wake of the sweaty, bloody Agni Budokai.

The one where she had almost ruined everything with her weakness.

"I'm sorry," she found herself saying.

Aang blinked. "For what?"

Mai considered. "Well, for almost ruining the Agni Budokai, but I guess I'm still sorry for lying to you from the South Pole all the way to Crescent Island, and betraying you to Zuko there, and being so messed up after that, and getting myself captured in that sinkhole, and-"

"Stop!" Aang shook his hands in front of her face, dropping the apple he had been about to give to Appa. Aang ignored the giant tongue that flicked out to snap up the treat, instead locking his gray eyes on Mai. "You don't have anything to apologize for!"

She arched an eyebrow.

He frowned. "Okay, you’re right about most of that, but you already did apologize, I think. And I already forgave you! I mean that you have nothing to apologize for with the Agni Budokai. You finished it even though I stabbed you!"

"You would see it that way." Mai shook her head, sending all her small braided hair-tails floating in the breeze. "But I had told you that we could do it, and I nearly failed. That's worth an apology in my book."

Aang blinked. "Why?"

What kind of a stupid question was that? "Hasn't all the time we just spent in the Fire Nation taught you the answer? We tend to take things far too seriously. Especially things that involve blood."

Aang blinked again. Then he laughed.

Mai let slip a smile. People didn't often laugh at her jokes. "But the truth is that I do keep failing you, and I- is too to trite to say I feel bad about that?"

"Well, I feel bad about stabbing you."

"But I flinched. It was my fault."

Aang tilted his head. "So, what, it's okay for you to not make sense, but I have to? How is that fair?"

Mai's smile grew wider. "That's the kind of thing I would say. It's good that you can think like me, since I'm not going to be around to keep you and Zuko properly depressed about things."

Aang reached out and took her hands in his own. "Is it too 'trite' to say that, after that Agni Budokai, even when we're apart you're still with me? I feel like- like we got closer. Like we- we-"

Mai took pity on him and gave his hands a quick squeeze. "You don't need to say it. That's the point of an Agni Budokai. Some things can only be expressed by actions."

Aang nodded.

Mai eased her hands free of his, and let a razor fall free into her palm so that she could twirl it. "And if something happens to you on this trip, Prince Iroh will have to answer for his actions."

Aang reached out to rub Appa's nose again. "His plan worked out so far. You know, aside from assassins and fire duels. And his wire said he's going to contact me and Zuko again in the Spirit World as soon as we get to the island."

Mai snorted. "I know. But it's not how I like to operate. Besides, wherever he's sending you, you're only going to have Zuko. And Zuko is an idiot."

Aang looked over at where Zuko was gingerly walking up Appa's tail to the saddle. "I'm more worried about you. And the others. You're the ones who are going to be around while all the accusations about Heiyaoshi are made. And Zhao will be starting to work on getting the military on our side-"

Mai turned her smile into a grin and twirled her blade faster. "I'm just sorry Toph was the one who got to take out Heiyaoshi. All that stuff is why I'm staying to look after the others instead of inviting myself on your trip with Zuko. I'm a Weapon of the Fire Nation. Even if I can't do an Agni Budokai right, I can deal with the other Weapons. At least, once I heal, and long enough for you to get back. Then, between the two of us, we can handle all kinds of things, right?"

Aang beamed up at her. "See? You're not a failure."

Mai opened her mouth to object, but stopped herself. He was right. Why was she trying to protest?

Oh, right. She felt bad whenever she failed Aang.

Well, she'd just have to stop doing that, then.

Sokka ambled back over. "I can't find Toph. I'd be worried if she weren't the scariest member of our group right now."

Up in the saddle, Zuko groaned. "We need to get going! I want to arrive before nightfall!"

Aang looked at Mai and shrugged. "I guess we better leave. Give King Toph my regards?"

"Of course. I'll also tell her you think she smells like feet." Aang laughed again, and she brushed at her fringe of hair even though it wasn't long enough to hang over her eyes. "Well, goodbye for now. Don't die."

Mai expected a hug in return.

Instead, Aang stood on the tips of his toes and popped a kiss right on the tip of Mai's nose.


Later, Mai watched Appa fly off, Aang and Zuko and their packs of supplies visible in the saddle. She threw a warning glare to Sokka, whose grin looked far too smug, and then turned to go back to the mansion and pack her things up for their own departure.

Coming back home had made for very interesting times. Mai had a feeling that was a trend that would continue.


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« Reply #190 on: Aug 15, 2017 09:41 pm »

The Platinum Connection

No one had ever actually told Jet that he was the best Blue Spirit, and he knew for a fact that the Fire Nation had at least one warrior who could defeat him without even trying very hard.

(Back when he used to dream, that girl would sometimes show up in his nightmares.)

Still, he was willing to bet that he was the only person alive who had survived as a spy and stowaway on a Fire Nation cruiser for weeks on end. How much longer he would last, though, was an open question.

Jet was once again in the uniform of the Blue Spirits: the black suit that would blend in with the night around him, and eponymous snarling goblin mask. He was hanging from the bottom of a metal walkway connecting two ships come together for a midnight meeting on the open seas. The moon was nearly full, but its light did not reach down her, beneath the bridge, and the sea below was a dark void present only in sound.

On one side of Jet was the Fire Nation cruiser that had been his home since he deserted his assignment as King Toph's spymaster, and on the other side was a civilian vessel of some kind that looked tough enough to put up a real fight. And yet that vessel had been here waiting, within sight of the shoreline, and hadn't tried to run when the cruiser came upon it.

That was when Jet knew he needed to find out what was going on.

And so he had finagled a way onto the underside of the walkway between the ships without being spotted (now that had been a trick), the strength in his arms and legs the only thing keeping him from plunging into the waters below. It was harder than it should have been to hold on, but he hadn't exactly been sleeping and eating right. Still, it had to be done, and he had long ago accepted that punishing the Fire Nation was more important than anything else.

Jet hung on and listened.

An unfamiliar voice said, "The north wind blows cold."

A voice that Jet recognized as belonging to the Fire Nation Captain Wu, his unwilling host for the past weeks, replied, "But we are headed to warmer lands."

Then a third voice chimed in with a grunt. "Oh, good, we established that we're all the right people. Because Fire Nation ships half-crewed by Waterbenders and pirates who sit around waiting to meet them are so common."

Jet knew that one. The complaining of Katara's Waterbending Master, Pakku, was a common sound around the ship.

The first voice said, "I'm not a pirate. You lot hiring me makes me a privateer."

Instead of laughing, Pakku barked, "Ha!" Then he added, "Did the people who hired you give you a stamped paper confirming that?"

The pirate/privateer hesitated for a moment. "No."

"Then you are a pirate. But I haven't been living on this filthy metal ship for three extra weeks because I wanted to argue vocabulary. Do you have the materials?"

The pirate almost sounded hurt as he said, "It's- it's not my fault. The shipping schedules all got changed around. But I got you your platinum, just as ordered. (Am too a privateer.) Just have to give the word to my men to bring it up-"

"My people will get it," the Captain Wu cut in.

The walkway above Jet once again rattled with footsteps, a group moving perfectly in time.

The pirate's voice had a harder edge to it when he spoke again: "Sure, just march over to m'ship without so much as a 'please. ' The money's good, but I'm glad to see the end of this job. Worst pira- er, privateering I've ever done."

Jet wondered about this matter of being a privateer. There was no one left in the world to privateer against; the official remnants of the Earth Kingdom had surrendered after Ba Sing Se was scorched off the map, and even before that didn't have much of a navy. Jet knew that King Toph's rebels didn't have one. And if the Fire Nation was paying pirates to hit ships, why not issue the formal papers?

The only answer, of course, was that it was a secret operation.

And the only group currently shipping platinum was the Fire Navy itself.

Even Long Feng had needed to seize the metal from the Fire Nation for his heretical activities at Ba Sing Se. The Fire Nation was the only group with the science and technology to extract the metal from the earth. Even Earthbenders couldn't separate it from whatever ores it normally came attached to. Sokka had worked in a lab devoted to the matter, and had talked about it front of Jet enough for him to be sure of it.

He needed to see how much platinum was being moved. He eased over and pulled himself up so that he could peek a look up over the edge of the plank.

On the pirate ship, a large crate had been brought up to the main deck and six Fire Nation soldiers were standing around it. A crane from Jet's ship was being maneuvered over to the crate, and while the others stood on guard (presumably against the pirates loitering around the deck), one of the soldiers climbed up to attach the hook to the crate. That one held on as the crate was lifted and slowly swung over to the Fire navy ship.

It didn't look like it was as much platinum as King Toph had taken from Long Feng, but it was still a good amount. If Pakku and the Fire Navy were involved, then this must all be for Prince Iroh- head of the White Lotus order, and so also the commander of the Blue Spirits. What did all of that have to do with stealing platinum from the Fire Nation? Couldn't Prince Iroh just get it through legitimate channels? Did this mean he really was working against his own nation? But then how could the Navy ships under his command be going along with this?

Before Jet could formulate any answers, he heard Pakku say, "Is that all of it?"

"Aye. The rest was just the regular metals, and I was promised I could keep that."

"Yes, fine, whatever. Captain Wu, let's get moving to Temple Base as soon as everything is secured. I've been delayed enough in getting back to the North P-"

"What is that?!"

Jet looked over in the direction of the shout to see Pakku, Wu, and a strange civilian all staring right at him. The civilian- probably the self-proclaimed privateer- was even pointing.


Jet doesn't need to think about what came next. He had trained his whole life to avenge his parents, and the extra lessons imparted by the Blue Spirits made him extra dangerous. But it wasn't just about fighting or maneuvering; part of being a Blue Spirit was knowing how to terrify people.

Jet ran at the assembled captains, knowing that his black-suited body would be almost invisible in the night but also that his grinning goblin mask would shine in the moonlight. He saw them startle at the combination of his speed and image, a moment of surprise that would leave them vulnerable, but not to attack.

Instead, he hit them with noise (flash-powder thrown to the deck of the ship), unpredictability (climbing the side of the crane and jumping off it to land out of sight), and a disappearance into thin air (a quick exit into a ventilation duct most would have thought too small for a man Jet's size). Before they even figured out that he had left, he was below decks, moving along paths that would keep him away from the regular traffic. He was quiet even compared to the rest of the sleeping ship, happy in darkness while most people needed at least a little light to see by.

And so as Pakku, Captain Wu, and the self-proclaimed privateer were no doubt just starting to wonder what they had seen, Jet let himself into the converted stockroom being shared by Katara and Ty Lee.

Both girls were asleep, burrowed together under a shared blanket in the bed they had made out of tarps and netting bundled on top of a series of supply crates. Neither reacted as Jet came in and locked the door behind him, but he was nevertheless careful to keep quiet. With any luck, he could be out and gone without needing to bother them.

If Katara knew he was here, though, she would probably be more than bothered.

Despite how difficult she was being, Jet could admit that he liked the Waterbender. Her brother was a true enemy to the Fire Nation, even if Sokka was too trusting of trash like Lady Caldera Yu Mai. Katara was the same way, someone who had been hurt indescribably by the Fire Nation and wanted to fight back, but still somehow thinking that there were lines that didn't need to be crossed. But Jet didn't doubt their loyalty or their strength. He wished they could have been real friends, instead of allies of convenience.

Katara didn't want to be involved in what Jet was doing here. Didn't want to be contacted or left notes or anything.

But Jet didn't trust that what he had just learned was safe in his head. He needed to find out more. He needed to see what this 'Temple Base' was that the ship's next destination. He needed to know what was being done with the platinum. He needed to find out why Long Feng was being kept a secret prisoner on this ship.

And learning all that would be dangerous.

Jet had no real help he could call upon. There had been no opportunity to get in touch with any other Blue Spirits, and even if there was, Prince Iroh could see into dreams. The Blue Spirits had been trained to meditate so that their experiences would flow into their dreams regularly. Jet had been using a mix of sleeping draughts and his own mix of intense meditation to keep himself from dreaming anything incriminating, but not everyone could do that.

So he'd just have to force Katara to be his ally, whether or not she liked it. It was a shame, but the Fire Nation could not be allowed to win.

But it was okay. Someday, everyone would realize that Jet was a hero, and was doing what was right.

Or they'd all be dead. But then at least he'd have tried.

Pakku thought that it took far too long for the Fire Nation soldiers to search the pirate ship for the- whatever it had been. And they didn't even find anything. Typical.

The pirate captain- whatever his name was- was practically a stewed sea prune by that time. "I'm getting my people and my ship out of here. You- you're being haunted by sea spirits!"

Captain Wu snorted. "There's no such thing as sea spirits."

Pakku quirked an eyebrow at that. Was that really what sailors in the Fire Navy thought? No wonder they needed so much metal and coal to get around. Still, it wasn't his problem. "Then since our intruder couldn't be a spirit, and we've ruled out a rogue pirate spy, it seems we have nothing to worry about. I'm going to bed. Captain Wu, the Waterbenders you requested are on station. I'm sure I can leave you to see our privateer friends off?"

"Yes, Master Pakku."

"Good. Have fun with that." Pakku made his way below decks, to the hold he and the other Waterbenders were using as sleeping quarters. He prepared his hammock as the engine started up again and was about to get in bed when flashes of red light came in through the porthole. He took a quick look, just long enough to confirm that Captain Lee was indeed proceeding to sink the pirate vessel as planned. Flaming balls of pitch were being launched at the former 'privateers,' and when any of the crew tried to jump off to escape the flames, the Waterbendering students he had left on duty raised the ocean to make sure that all hands would be lost.

It was a testament to how long Pakku had been serving under Prince Iroh that the sight didn't keep him awake for very long.

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« Reply #191 on: Aug 15, 2017 09:42 pm »

The shift-warning bell brought Katara out of a restless, dream-filled sleep, and she felt immediately that the ship was speeding along to some new destination. After cruising around on some business for Prince Iroh for a while, were they finally going to the North Pole?

She tried to get out of bed, but found herself weighed down by a certain acrobat from the Fire Nation. Just like every morning. Ty Lee was a cuddler. " I have Waterbending practice. We have to get up."

"Hmmmmmmmmm." Ty Lee sighed, and then her eyes snapped open. "I'm awake!" She started to smile, but then winced. "And something is poking me." She unwrapped her arms from around Katara (who took the opportunity to escape from the bed) and reached beneath her to pull something out of the bed.

Katara tugged her outer tunic on. "What is it?"

"It's a note. Folded very nicely, too. It's-" Ty Lee unwrapped it and read for a moment. "Oh. It's from Jet."

Katara froze. "He signed his name?!"

Ty Lee flopped back down into bed and held out the note.

Thinking thoughts of ice and waterwhips, Katara took it and read. She read about Jet's adventures last night, about the platinum that might Iroh might be stealing from the rest of the Fire Nation, and the Temple Base they were now going to. It turned out that Jet didn't sign his name, merely drawing a picture of an elephant-rat instead. Ty Lee had thought she was hunting food-stealing rats when she had stumbled across him weeks ago.

Jet probably thought he was being very clever.

Katara was going to feed him this note the next chance she got.

Something heavy and warm and smelling of mountain peaches leaned into Katara's back, and Ty Lee's breath tickled at her ear as strong but thin arms snaked over Katara's shoulders. Katara stiffened at the unexpected contact and felt her heart speed up, but then she relaxed again. This was no different than sharing a bed. Ty Lee just liked to be physical, and Katara still wasn't quite used to that.

"Don't start the day angry, Katara. Now is a time for positive energy, and you need to be properly balanced for your Waterbending lesson." Ty Lee moved a hand to tap the center of Katara's chest. "Your power is here. Take it back for yourself."

That tap made Katara's face warm, and it wasn't even a Qi-blocking attack. She crunched the note in her fist, but let her arms drop loose at her sides. Ty Lee was right. Jet was a jerk, but she wasn't going to let this ruin her day. She was learning Waterbending. She was really getting to know her element. This trip was good for her, and Jet hadn't ruined anything yet.

She breathed in and breathed out.

"Okay," she said.

Ty Lee hummed. "I can feel the tension leaving your body. That's good. You are ready, Katara Water Tribe. Go out there and show that cranky old man how they throw water around in the south!"

"They don't. Not anymore. But someday they will again. I'm going to make sure of it." She pushed Jet's note into the hand that Ty Lee had over her heart. "I'm good now. Thanks. Destroy this before anyone sees it. I need to get going."

"Gotcha!" Ty Lee stepped back and moved to get her day-clothes.

Katara retrieved her hat.

She tied it in place as she hurried out to the main deck, where the other students were assembling in the dawn light. Like every morning, they were lined up according to experience, with Kinto all the way up at the far end and Katara at the tail. Her hat blocked out the sight of the heavy, empty sky above, and she risked only a quick look at the horizon to confirm that the ship was indeed racing along as fast as it felt.

Pakku was kneeling in front of them, eating out of a bowl of something steaming with chopsticks. On either side of him was a wooden tub full of water. "Now that everyone is here, we're going to do some sparring today. Quick moves from the Marlin Forms only, I think. Our ship is cutting rather quickly through the water, and I want to see that reflected in your actions. These moves are useful during water-glides, when you need to defend yourselves from anything that can unbalance you."

Kinto raised a hand, which Pakku acknowledged with a nod. "Master, when water-gliding, we have so much water beneath us, and our momentum allows us to attack with great power. Quick defensive moves seem unnecessary."

"Yes, I'm sure they do to someone young and inexperienced. But even though you can attack with power, that leaves you even more vulnerable to unbalancing. Because I'm such a nice old man, I'm not going to make you actually fight while surfing behind the ship. (Maybe tomorrow.) But you can go first right here on the deck, Kinto. Now, we just need to find a sap willing to fight you-"

Katara raised her hand.

The boys all made noises of surprise, but quickly quieted. None of them wanted to fight Kinto.

Pakku snorted. "Oh, this should be interesting. Very well, Katara. Come out here and give us a show."

She stepped out and took a ready stance.

Kinto didn't get out of line yet. "Master, she's- she's-"

"Go on, Kinto, spit it out. I know you're not the brightest but you're perfectly capable of enunciating."

Kinto glanced at Katara. "She's a girl, Master."

"No, really? I don't know how I missed that." Pakku slurped something out of his bowl and swallowed without chewing. "Kinto, either step out and fight or go find a latrine to help clean. Katara knows what she signed up for." He poked into his bowl with his chopsticks and frowned at whatever he saw. "And I'm sure she's nice enough that she won't hurt you too badly."

Katara blinked. Was that- was that a compliment from Master Pakku? Or a challenge? Or both?

Either way, Kinto went red in the face and stepped out across from her. He took a stance, and then moved to pull the water out of the tub on Pakku's left. It hung above his hands, ever moving, the light of the sun undulating through its mass to twinkle against the deck.

Katara pulled the water out of the other tub, letting it form a low half circle around her back and under her arms.

Kinto scowled at her. "If I win, I'm taking a kiss as a prize. But don't worry, I won't tell my betrothed. Wouldn't want her to blame you for bewitching me."

By Pakku's rules, a fight begins when both combatants are armed. So, instead of responding, Katara made the first strike, skipping forward and using a short one-handed slash to shoot a spike of water out. The Marlin Form called for channeling power into small areas of contact, so Katara focused on the tip of her little spear and sped it towards Kinto's chest.

He blocked easily, using a simple Fin Fan splash to blunt the attack. Katara pulled her deflected water back and tried to strike again from a new angle. He blocked that attack, too, taking a step back.

They were simple attacks, and Katara hadn't expected them to get through. Kinto was tough, despite his attitude problem, and was one of the more innovative Waterbenders studying under Pakku. He'd even invented some of his own moves. Katara simply wanted to probe his defenses in this style, and get a feel for the speed of the exchanges.

Spikes and fans and stabs and skips. That was the Marlin form, and with the ship speeding alone beneath them, the wind was buffeting them like Katara imagined the ocean buffeted at a marlin speeding through the waves.

She let all of that sink into her mind, let her thoughts detach and roll over the situation like water rolled over fish scales, let her body start moving to the sway of the world around her.

Kinto stabbed with a spike of his own, but Katara broke it in half with a Scale Curl and then spun her attack up into a Fin Fan splash at his face. He ducked it and pushed back at her with a Thrust Rain, and Katara retreated a couple of skipping steps as she summoned her water together for whatever would come next.

Kinto stabbed, but it was a short feint. Katara didn't react. He tried it again, using the opportunity to move a step forward. She decided to hold her ground.

Then he came in with full force.

The exchanges that followed were faster than Katara was used to fighting, stabs and slashes and bumps and pushes and skipping movements back and forth and round and round. It got frantic at moments, and Kinto never seemed to be bothered by the pace, but she focused on keeping her water controlled and flowing, and she was able to power through.

She retreated again, expecting her opponent to take a moment to plan the next assault, but instead he pressed in at her, forming a pair of liquid spikes- one sprout of water extending from each fist- and alternated stabs in at her.

Kinto didn't even seem to be aiming for anything, and at this speed Katara couldn't tell which of the blows might be a danger. She spread her water out into two Fin Fan splashes and worked to keep the shields between her and the attacks, curling her waist to move her whole upper body, but that left her completely on the defensive. Kinto stabbed with one arm and tried to duck beneath her shield to bring the other arm up, and Katara had to back away again to bring her shields into line.

Kinto kept pace with her, always moving forward, always backing her to the ship's railing, always stabbing, always focused-

-always unbalanced.

Katara stopped with a squeak of boots on the deck and extended her legs into a low jump forward. She threw her shields ahead and let go of her control of most of the water, retaining only just enough to form a short spike in front of her right hand. She had to reach down with her left hand to keep herself from falling flat on her face on the deck, so low was she, but as Kinto slashed apart the shields she had thrown at him, she came in at him at knee-level and raised her water-spike for a jab. She aimed-

-aimed a little higher, because it wouldn't do to embarrass him too much-

-and slammed a hit straight into his stomach. Her water-spike was dense and stable enough that pushed his gut in deep, and then she spun around him and rose to stand tall and take a stance.

She watched as Kinto sank to his knees, his back to her, completely vulnerable. She could have struck again, if she wanted.

It took her a moment to realize that meant she'd won.

She'd won!


Then Kinto spun, his hands clutching at the air and swirling in circles. There was no water responding to his motions, and Katara had just enough time to wonder what he was doing before her stomach flipped and hardened and swirled and gurgled and bubbled and expanded and popped.

One moment she was ready to violently vomit and the next she felt like she had to rush to the bathroom and then was back to wanting to throw up and back again.

All of the sudden she was aware that she was on a ship that was bobbing on an ocean that wouldn't keep still. The world spun around her. Down didn't seem like such a simple matter anymore.


He was doing something to her.

Something like Master Hama had come up with.

Katara sank to her knees and swallowed against another urge to spew her stomach's contents all over the deck. She had to do something. If she could take out Kinto-

And then her stomach was no longer moving. Katara swallowed and wondered if she should try moving, but there came a wind against her face and the sound of a water whip snapping, and-

Her hat was gone.

The sky was above her, big and blue and pressing down with the weight of the world. It was so much more massive than the world below it, stretching up into an infinity from which anything could come to hurt her.

Katara tried to scramble back to shelter, but as soon as she rose the deck somehow wobbled like rubber and she fell again and everything was being destroyed and pressed by the sky-

A jacket plopped down over her head and blinded her to everything.

The jacket smelled like Master Pakku.

And then she heard him barking, "Kinto, were either of those last two moves from the Marlin Form?"

"Master," Kinto started to say.

"<I>Answer me."

"N- no, master."

"So, are you stupid? Did you not understand when I said I only wanted to see quick moves from the Marlin Form? Or do you think you know better than me? Should I write home and tell them there's a new Grand Master of the Northern Water Tribe?"

"N- no, master, I-"

"Oh, just shut up. We all know what this was about and I'm just going to get angrier if I hear any more of your stupidity. Get out of here. You're done for the day. Tell the shift officer that you're shoveling coal for the next two shifts. And I will be checking."


"I said shut up, Kinto. That means you keep your mouth closed and get out of here."

The only thing Katara heard after that was the sound of boots on the deck. Then something was being pressed into her arms.

Her hat! The string she used to tie it to her head was snapped, but the hat seemed okay. She lifted the jacket off her head just enough to make space, put the hat on, and then fully removed the jacket.

Master Pakku was standing above her. The sky was thankfully out of view.

She bowed her head. "Thank you, master."

He took the jacket back. "Your stomach?"

Katara frowned. She stood up slowly, her legs still shaking, but she forced herself to straighten. Her stomach gurgled and she had to swallow again to make sure there would be no unpleasantness. "O- okay. What did he do?"

Pakku scowled. "Something I should have discouraged more. Anyway, get out of here. You're in no condition to train anymore."

Katara inhaled as the start to a spirited protest, but then her stomach gurgled again and she had to snap her mouth shut.

Maybe Pakku was right.

Katara nodded and turned to go.

Pakku called after her, "Tell the duty officer to give you some inside work."

Katara turned back to look at him, nearly toppling over. She couldn't go back to her cabin?

Pakku's face had no expression. "I said you're in no condition to train, not that I'm giving you a day off. Get moving, then. I do have other students who merit a little of my attention today."

Yeah, she didn't know why she expected anything else from him. She was 'just' a girl to him, even if he had agreed to teach her, and she was still so broken that she couldn't look at the sky. She gave him a nod and turned to go find the duty officer.

Although maybe she'd head to the rear of the ship first to throw up over the railing.

Jet had taken to sleeping in a torpedo shell. The space within was large enough to stretch out and hidden from view, better than some places he had slept in before. And the likelihood of the weapon being armed and put into battle was slim, considering that half of the ship's crew were Northern Waterbenders.

It had been for use against the Northern Tribe that torpedoes had been invented by Prince Iroh's fleet, something that could be dropped in the water and propelled by mechanical means to damage ships and icebergs down where even Waterbenders had to make a special effort to reach. According to the histories Jet had been taught by the White Lotus, torpedoes had been much more effective than flaming projectiles thrown through the sky.

The irony of torpedo's presence still left a bitter taste in Jet's mouth, even after all these weeks.

Still, he knew how to make use of his environment.

He slept the day away in the usual fit of thin and watery dreams that left him confused and on edge when he woke up, but that was fine. Dreaming of this ship, or of Katara and Ty Lee, or even pirates and Waterbending Masters and platinum, would be dangerous. Prince Iroh might be searching for Jet, spying on his dreams. Better to lose rest than give things away that easily.

Jet only emerged from his hiding place when the bell heralding the night shift clanged. He could hide better at night, could use the darkness to disappear from anyone who spotted him. And if he couldn't, then he knew for a fact that the Blue Spirit mask was more frightening at night.

He snuck through the ship, keeping to the least used passages, where he'd never have to pass by more than one of the crew at a time. They were so secure in the safety of their ship that they never questioned the shadows, never counted them to make sure that they didn't grow unexpectedly. Perhaps, after all these weeks, they had even grown use to the extra shadows that Jet's darkly-clad body appeared to be.

He moved through his usual routine, stealing some food and supplies, taking care of his few needs, and then squeezing up through some of the ventilation ducts up to the outside of the ship. After that, it was just a matter of finding a perch away from ground-level eyes and enjoying the sea breeze. It was cold tonight; from what Jet had gleaned on previous nights, they were sailing the waters north of the Earth Kingdom. It wasn't cold enough for ice or snow, though, so the Waterbenders must not be going home yet.

Still, Jet wished he had brought a blanket. His suit was thick, but not as warm as a coat.

Several hours later, the engine shifted. Slowed. The coast was easily visible in the light of the full moon, rocky and comforting in the way the lands of the Earth Kingdom always were. The ship turned towards the coast, and Jet looked to see if they were heading towards a dock of some kind.

If they were, it was displaying no lights.

Perhaps they were going to be sending a landing craft to a beach?

But no, as the ship fully oriented and got closer to the coast, Jet could see that a river- no, a canal, complete with gate- lay ahead of them, shimmering in the moonlight. The ship must have been displaying some kind of signal light, because as it approached, the gate was opened, and it was allowed to pass unhindered.

The ship moved on through the night. Jet dozed off a few times, but never to the point of dreaming. Perhaps it was good that he hadn't brought a blanket. Several times he was brought out of his sleep by the ship coming to a stop, and opened his eyes beneath his mask to find the ship at a lock that a team of Waterbenders was quickly filling. Soon the ship would be on its way again, traveling up the canal at a higher elevation.

He was jolted out of a half-sleep when the ship turned off its engines completely, coming in to what had to be an artificial bay. The landscape all around was mountainous, massive rocks pushing up out of the earth to spear the sky. In the moonlight, Jet could see that snow was indeed gathering at the highest peaks, shining white like beacons against the dark rock.

Was 'Temple Base' a mining operation of some kind, then? That canal was long, and to get it this far into mountains would have required both Earthbenders and Waterbenders.

And then the ship finished docking, and lights across the compound snapped on. They were harsh and steady, different from the gas and crystal torches that the Fire Nation usually favored.

And they continued up the nearest mountain.

From his perch, Jet could see a cable-car station at the far end of the complex, the thick wires leading up in the same direction as the lights. They must have been shining from atop the support towers, all the way up to the snow-capped peak of the mountain. No doubt a telegraph system was using the same path to communicate between the complex down here and whatever was up at the top.

Jet had a inkling where the platinum was headed.

He watched as the ship's crew began readying the crane on the main deck, and newcomers on the dock brought over a wheeled pallet.

Perhaps it was time for Jet to disembark.

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #192 on: Aug 15, 2017 09:43 pm »

Despite how tiring the day was, between whatever Kinto had done to her stomach and the full shift of work on top of that, Katara was having trouble sleeping. Every time she drifted off, she found herself beneath a sky that curved to erase the ground under her feet, leaving her alone in a heavy void.

She'd snap awake each time, jolting so hard that Ty Lee would wake up, too.

Thankfully, the other girl wouldn't say anything. She'd just snuggle back in and soon they would both be asleep again.

Except now Katara's latest crash into wakefulness left her thinking that something was missing, and it took her a moment to realize that the ship's engine wasn't running.

They'd stopped.

Katara untangled her legs from Ty Lee's and got out of bed. She went over to the porthole for a look outside. The full moon was shining down on some kind of dock, where supplies were being loaded onto the ship. So just another quick stop on the way to the North Pole, then.

Unless this was the 'Temple Base' Jet had mentioned in his note. The place to where Prince Iroh's stolen platinum was being delivered.

Maybe what Katara needed was some fresh air.

She threw on a tunic, and then went back to the bed to lean over Ty Lee. "I'm going topside for a bit."

Ty Lee wrinkled her nose, rubbed her cheek against the pillow, and murmured, "Okay that's nice love you g'night." All without opening her eyes.

Chuckling, Katara grabbed her hat and headed out.

When she got to the main deck, she found Master Pakku waiting for her.

No, not for her. He was staring up at the full moon, seemingly unconcerned with the activity on the dock. But when she stepped out into the silver light, his gaze snapped over to her. "You shouldn't be out here."

Katara dipped her head. "Sorry. I just wanted some fresh air."

"Well, get it tomorrow. This deck is restricted right now."

Katara took a step back, as to leave, but only that one step. "Why? I thought we were all allies."

"We are." Pakku rolled his eyes. "But we're not all friends, and just because everyone is working together doesn't mean they want all their secrets our in the open." He stepped towards her, making a shooing motion.

What was she, an unwanted polar bear-dog? "But it's nothing that's going to hurt Aang, right?"

Pakku blanched at the name. "N- no, nothing like that."

Katara put her fists on her hips. "You're lying."

"Watch what you say to me, you little-"

"You're lying to Kanna's grand-daughter."

Pakku groaned and grabbed his forehead. "Katara, this really does not concern you. Go back to your cabin and stay there. You don't want to anger Prince Iroh and jeopardize this little alliance he and the Avatar have cooked up."

Katara took a step forward. "If it's that bad, then maybe this is something I should see. Please, Master Pakku. I- I don't think you're a bad person. You're my Gran-Gran's friend and you've helped me when you could have just ignored me. (You're kind of a sexist jerk, but I think you're okay with that.) I just want you to tell me what the problem is."

Pakku stared at her for a moment, and then gave a little clap. "Very nice speech, girl. The problem, since you ask so nicely, is that you're up where you're not supposed to be. Get out of here, or tomorrow I'll have you take Kinto's place shoveling coal for two shifts in a row. Is that clear enough for you to understand?"

Katara looked him in the eyes.

She was used to Pakku's sarcasm, his rudeness, and his regular refusal to display anything even approaching empathy.

She wasn't used to seeing his eyes crinkled with fear.

He was afraid.

Not of her.

But something.

Katara bowed low at the waist. "Yes, master. My apologies, master."

And then she headed back inside.

She went straight to her cabin and shut the door. A peek out the porthole revealed a pallet of crates being brought down to the docks. So they were still working. She had a little time, then.

Katara went over to the bed and reached out to shake Ty Lee. "Wake up."


"Ty Lee, you have to wake up. It's important."


"I need you."

Ty Lee stretched and finally opened her eyes. "G'morning?"

Katara shook her head. "It's still night. But you need to get up and get dressed."

Ty Lee blinked.

She blinked again.

She sat up and threw the blanket off. "What's going on?"

"We're leaving." Then Katara turned to pack.

The guards were too alert for Jet to get off the ship while the platinum was being offloaded. He had to remain crouched in a shadow under the ship's exhaust chimneys while soldiers patrolled.

It wasn't until they brought Long Feng out that everyone was distracted enough to for Jet to run down one of the mooring lines.

Long Feng, who abandoned Ba Sing Se. Long Feng, who turned its ghosts into a threat to the whole world.

Jet would very much like to meet him.

He normally wouldn't have known Long Feng well enough to tell that the figure brought out with a bag over his head and big fur-lined boots on his feet was indeed the former director of the Dai Li, but the smell that filled the air around the procession of prisoner and guards was more than recognizable. Jet had encountered the smell during his investigations into ship's secret low-level brig. It was a thick stench that reminded Jet of a battlefield, of the odors that arose when human bodies were opened up and left to ripen.

At the same time, it was different. Weaker.

Whatever his captors had been doing to him, Long Feng was no corpse.


The guards hustled their prisoner through the small base, clearly heading for the cable-car station. Jet followed in the shadows, paralleling the steady march of his prey with progress that came in fits and starts between the glances of the soldiers. He even reached the station first; Long Feng was a slow walker, and this was no high-security prison.

Then all Jet had to do was climb to the top of the station, and position himself to slip onto the roof of the cable-car as it began its journey up the mountain.

He even had time to grab a small tarp to serve as a blanket.

Fortunately, the trip was faster that Jet had expected. The Fire Nation must have invested in some heavy machinery for this place. But then, the shipment of platinum had preceded Long Feng to the cable-car station. If they were moving large batches of metal up the mountain, they had to be able to handle massive weights. Benders would have had to be involved in the construction, as well as technologies that Jet couldn't even guess at.

And he definitely didn't like that those large quantities of platinum were being sent to the same isolated location as a rogue Earthbender who had tried to use that very metal to raise the dead.

The air grew colder as the car climbed, but not debilitating. With his makeshift blanket, Jet was able to retain feeling in his fingers and toes all the way to their destination. He hid behind the cable-hook as the car was carried into the station, and then slipped down the opposite side as Long Feng was brought out.

Jet made his own way out of the station, looking to explore, and emerged through a maintenance door into a world of contrasts.

There were buildings up here, on the top of the mountain. In the bright glow of the full moon, he could even see similar structures on other nearby peaks. They were all tall, reaching structures- even the smallest of them- seeming to favor vertical space over horizontal. It made sense, given the lack of room up here on the mountain tops, and also how long these buildings had to have been here. They were old, clearly, and had long ago become one with the mountains.

Could this-

Wait, 'Temple Base?'


Jet had a feeling that he had stumbled across the Northern Temple of the Air Nomads.

Now that he knew what to look for, he could see the depiction of air swirls and wind currents in the decorations on all the buildings, and of course an Airbender wouldn't have any trouble with paths that incorporated large amounts of empty vertical space. He wondered what that Ty Lee girl would make of it all, given that she had to be Earth Kingdom in origin. Jet thought the construction was beautiful.

It made the contrasts with the new construction even more infuriating.

For the Air Temples had not been left as they were. Piping ran all over the place, bolted to the outsides of the buildings, and then passing through holes punched right through the ancient walls. Black, heavy smokes wafted up from exhaust vents, rising up out of shattered domes, to stain streaks across the star-covered sky. In the light of the moon, Jet couldn't tell what color of the decorative highlights on the temples, but he definitely saw that all of them were darkened.

He ran a finger over one wall. His glove came away with soot and oily residue.

It wasn't enough that the Fire Nation had wiped out the Air Nomads, or stolen their temples, but they had to destroy and pervert it all, too.

And people wondered why Jet would do anything to hurt them.

At least there weren't many guards. They probably figured that anyone who was up here had to belong. And for all he knew, everyone up here knew each other and would instantly spot a strange face. Best to stay to the shadows, where he belonged.

He made his way to one of the buildings that still had lights on at this hour. The entrance didn't even have a door to keep anyone out, but Jet opted to enter through a second-story window. He climbed in to find himself on a spiraling ramp jutting out from the wall in what seemed like a- an art gallery, maybe? Some kind of web-like lattice work made from metal rods was hanging from the ceiling in the empty center space, while an opening in the center let in the moonlight. The web pieces shimmered, and Jet realized that they weren't just metal- they were platinum.

Something was making chirping sounds in the space above, but Jet focused on the voices echoing from below, ducking back from the railing to avoid being seen.

"The structure is definitely directing the energies," a man said, "but this is far from the exit output we were hoping for."

"I'm measuring only a 40% increase from the previous trial," a second man chimed in.

"Yes, not nearly enough. I theorize that the shape of the structure is critical, and we're not very close to the optimum arrangement right now."

"It's a sound idea."

"But how to find the optimum structure? Trial and error would be far too inefficient with this many pieces."

"Before we left the lab there was the word about the new shipment of platinum being brought up. They were also supposed to be bringing a criminal with some knowledge, as well as his library."

"A proper consultant would be better than a captive, but a 'library' sounds promising. Well, let's write up this latest data, and then we can see what new things have been brought to us."

There were the sounds of footsteps, and Jet risked moving forward to peek over the railing. The two men were down on the ground floor, carrying some kind of equipment to the door. The chirping above grew louder.

He looked again at the arrangement of platinum. What was going on up here? What 'energies?' What were they hoping to get from Long Feng and the Dai Li's archives?

Down below, the echoing footsteps disappeared through the door.

That's when something screamed.

It was a high-pitched inhuman voice, startling Jet so bad he nearly knocked his own mask off reaching for his weapons. He had the hook-swords out even as the scream was dying, but couldn't tell where the attack might be coming from. The echoes were fouling up his sense of direction-

More chirps came from above

Jet finally looked up.

With the only light coming from moon and the opening the ceiling, he had missed it before, but now the movement let him make out the bodies. He counted five, dark lumps clinging at various points on the platinum web.

Jet had no idea why they were there, or what they were.

They weren't human, certainly. They had two arms and two legs, but not the right shape at all. And while he knew he was far from an expert on the full range of animal life in the world, he found it strange that nothing about the creatures seemed familiar. The smooth skin, the oddly-jointed limbs, the coloration: it all seemed to be a random jumble of traits with no survival logic behind it.

Maybe they weren't real animals at all.

As one of the creatures let out another short scream (Mating call? Communication? Warning about an intruder?) Jet decided that he had seen enough of this place.

He needed to see what else was going on here at 'Temple Base,' and then he'd need to find a way to get that information to the Avatar.


He had a feeling it was going to be very important.


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« Reply #193 on: Aug 28, 2017 09:51 pm »

The Mask of the Blue Spirit

Ty Lee wished she knew who she was fighting.

Not that it was going to stop her.

She jumped through the open doorway into the Communications Center, lashing out with a fist even before her feet touched the floor. She struck the right arm of the technician who had been sitting at the control console, making the limb drop uselessly. The man started to make a noise, chin wobbling as his jaw dropped, but Ty Lee slammed a palm-strike straight into his solar plexus and the force of the blow went straight through the chest-plate of his armor to silence him. Then she grabbed his numb arm, yanked him out of his seat, and threw him across the room to crash into the other technician who was only just getting out of her chair.

A cartwheel brought Ty Lee over to the pair, more fists put more limbs out of commission, and then one after another she put them in choke holds that put pressure on a very specific spot on their necks.

Ty Lee knew all about the human neck. There were parts that made it very easy to kill.

But Ty Lee didn't want to kill anyone, so she held down just long enough to put her victims to sleep. That left her as the only person left conscious in the Communications Center of Prince Iroh's secret base-thingy.

She wasn't wearing her abbey-robes for the first time in weeks; she was once again an operational Weapon-class citizen of the Fire Nation. And she had no idea if she was fighting loyal servants of her Homeland or people who were traitors- traitors like she was. But maybe in a different way.

Katara peeked through the doorway, still wearing her hat. "All done?"

They had come straight from Master Pakku's ship, Katara's Waterbending allowing them to sneak out and into this weird hidden outpost. Ty Lee had been more than happy to be the muscle in this partnership. She leaned back against the wall, put a hand on her hip, and winked at Katara. "It's just you and me, now." It felt good to be back in her circus outfit.

Katara's cheeks colored, but she said, "Just the way I like it," and hurried into the room.

Ty Lee giggled. Katara was quicker with that kind of thing than Sokka. Oh, he was fast and clever when he was bantering with Mai and Toph, or coming up with ways to outsmart Commander Zhao, but he got flustered when Ty Lee acted all friendly with him. Katara was like Mai, never intimidated even when scandalized, and unlike Mai, Katara was actually played nice. She must have been much better socialized than Mai.

Then Ty Lee remembered that Katara had grown up in a cage in a Waterbender prison for the last decade of her life after seeing her parents murdered, had been locked away by Ty Lee's nation because of who Katara might have grown up to be.

Just like the Fire Nation would probably do to Ty Lee, now, for the crime of waking up one day and being able to command Air.

She decided that she didn't feel much like winking at anyone right now.

Instead, she went over to join the other girl at one of the room's desks. Katara had spread out a bunch of maps and lists and stuff. All the writing made Ty Lee's head spin, but it looked important. "Ooh, what's all this?"

Katara motioned at one of the maps. "Look, they've marked all these places with numbers. And this paper has those same numbers on it, and under each one is a list. See, this number is here in the south of the Earth Kingdom, and the list that goes with it says, 'Primordial Mud, Books, Rune Tiles.' And then next to it all is a date from about a year ago. The rest are the same, lists of stuff and then a date."

Ty Lee was impressed. She had been taught that Tribals were all illiterate and couldn't understand complicated stuff, but Katara had been in prison for a decade and still was just diving into this wordy recordkeeping. "So what does that all mean?"

Katara shook her head. "I don't know. But Iroh's people are tracking something here. The latest is-" Katara's voice trailed off as she flipped through some of the papers. "Ah, here we go! It says, 'Platinum,' and gives a weight. Then there's, 'Prisoner TB1 - Long Feng,' and, 'Books.' And the date- is tomorrow? Oh, it's past midnight. It's today. This must be what our ship brought."

"Jet told us about Long Feng. And his note told us about the platinum. He was right. Prince Iroh had all this stuff brought here without telling us."

Katara pulled her hat back a little, letting the light of the lamps reach her sparkling blue eyes. (Ty Lee really liked the look of blue eyes. They went with Katara's blue aura, and contrasted beautifully with the orange that had developed at the edges since she started learning under Master Pakku.) "All of these items might have Spiritual natures. There are a bunch of entries for platinum and books, as well as tiles and items that I'd expect to see in a temple or being used by a sage. Aang said that Prince Iroh wanted to restore balance to the world. Maybe this is part of that? But then why would Master Pakku want to hide that from me?"

"I dunno." Ty Lee made herself think about it. She hated sneaky secret-keeping, but she was from the Fire Nation. She hated it even while she was always up to her neck in it and even did it herself. "Prince Iroh liked to learn about all kinds of things, including the other nations. But learning and collecting are one kind of thing, and that Long Feng guy is another really bad thing. He's stuck in a cycle of hurting people because he can't admit that he hurt himself. That's how he wound up making that ash-monster. And Pakku was keeping Long Feng a secret, the same way I used to dance in secret."

Katara blinked. "Why would you dance in secret? Dancing is a part of life."

"Well, yeah, outside the Fire Nation. But at home, it was considered disruptive, lewd behavior." It was one of the things that had driven Ty Lee to leave her family and friends behind. If Azula had ever caught her dancing- "So why would Long Feng be Prince Iroh's secret dancing?"

Katara's lips twisted in something like a smile. "That's a much better question than it sounds."

Ty Lee's aura went bright pink. "Thanks!"

"Come on, we need to learn more."

Jet didn't like how this place kept surprising him, even when it was in his favor.

Prince Iroh's occupation force wasn't large enough to fill the Air Nomads' old temples. Jet's explorations had uncovered quiet dormitories and strange laboratories (both of them occupied by men who accumulated aprons, magnifying glasses, and journals in startling quantities), overstuffed libraries and museums of inscrutable equipment, none of it quite fitting its space and so leaving plenty of room for shadows and sneaking. He had been able to bypass guards and the strange academics who talked of platinum and energies. He had passed small temples with platinum doors, and within were things that made noises Jet didn't recognize. Then there was the cave like a tomb, filled with long boxes with symbols on them made with melted platinum; some of those boxes had rattled as Jet came close.

It was a disturbing little trip to the large metal shed into which Long Feng had been dragged.

There was only one way in or out of the small building. An armored Firebender stood on guard in front of the door. Jet wouldn't be able to remain unseen if he wanted to see the Earth-Traitor. At best, he might be able to take the guard out quietly, and then the next shift would discover what happened. Then there'd be mud and blood on the ceiling, as his parents used to say.

Jet approached out of the darkness of the night, allowing his Blue Spirit mask to catch the light of the full moon, and waited for the guard to be struck by fear.

Instead, she bowed. "I didn't realize one of you was here. Do you need to see the prisoner?"

It took Jet a moment to figure out what 'one of you' meant. Spies? Traitors? Earth Kingdom?

Then he realized she was talking about his mask. He was a Blue Spirit, a warrior serving the Order of the White Lotus.

Even as his heart grew colder, Jet pushed his mask up off his face and smiled. "Yeah. New orders. Looks like I'm not going to be getting much sleep tonight."

The guards snorted as she pulled her keys off her belt and turned to the door. "And with three sweet hours until dawn, too. I don't understand the rush. We could have brought up the prisoner and the new supplies in the morning."

Jet shrugged. "It's more, 'Hurry up and wait.' Like always."

The guard gave a passionate grunt in reply, and yanked the door open. "Knock when you're done."

He gave her one last gracious smile and pulled his mask back down as he stepped into the little prison.

He stayed still as the door closed again behind him, cutting off all but a small square of moonlight filtering in through a barred opening in the ceiling. It revealed a single room, bisected by a line of ceiling-to-floor bars. Long Feng sat chained to the floor on the far side of the room.

The former Director of Ba Sing Se's Dai Li uncurled and looked up to reveal a thin, lined face. He seemed to have aged since Jet last spied on him, a few weeks ago. "Who are you?"

Jet stepped into the square of moonlight, and this time his mask got the expected gasp of surprise. He kept his voice low and put a growl into it as he said, "Why are you here, Long Feng of Ba Sing Se?"

"Me? But I-"

Jet whipped one of his hook-swords out from its holder and pointed the curve of the blade at Long Feng's face. "The dogs of the Fire Nation are perverting the dwellings of the Air Nomads, and seek to add their crimes to yours. Why have they brought you here?"

"I- I don't-"

"I have passed through shadow and air to find you," Jet whispered, putting honey back into his thorny voice. "I can remove you from your cages. Just tell me what they want from you."

Long Feng sat up straighter. "You'll get me out of here? Through iron bars?"

"I am an enemy of the Fire Nation, and yet here I am. There are Spirits and there are humans, but some of us walk the space between the two."

The words were pretty in their deceptiveness, taught to Jet by those who gave him his first Blue Spirit mask. Long Feng had been locked up and tortured for weeks away from the feel of earth; Jet saw the desperation in his eyes and smelled it in the room's funk. Sure enough, Long Feng started to speak, fought his way through a sudden coughing fit, and then managed, "They asked me about death. About how to reach beyond it."

"Beyond death?"

"I sought to bring Ba Sing Se back, and almost succeeded. They wanted to know the- the principles behind what I did. Where I learned how to manipulate the energy of those who have passed. Which books I read. How I figured out the properties of platinum."

Jet said nothing, did not so much as nod. He was remembering the sight of that ash monster on the horizon, of the animated remains of an entire city of people, lashing out mindlessly. (An entire city of his people, killed by the Fire Nation and denied proper rest.) He was also remembering how, sometimes, a Blue Spirit mission might be assigned that included a stop to pick up some rare scroll or artifact in a temple and pass it on to a White Lotus contact.

He remembered the creatures he had seen on the platinum web, remembered the body-sized boxes sealed with platinum characters.

Jet forced himself to consider two viewpoints. It was possible that Iroh was assembling materials to keep them out of the hands of people like Long Feng. Perhaps there was even a way to make use of those things- of Long Feng's knowledge- to do good.

But then why not tell the Avatar? Why keep Long Feng a secret from Katara?

The other way of looking at things was that Prince Iroh was from the Fire Nation, and so of course he was evil, and none of this was good. Did the Fire Nation have enough dead to raise as weapons? No. The Earth Kingdom certainly did. The Earth Kingdom had a lot of dead, especially after the Comet and the Ashlands.

Jet could only imagine the energies that had once been part of his parents, ripped from the scorched ground that had once been their homes. And then to be commanded by a Fire Nation Prince (even if he was a traitor to his nation) who had never lost anyone or anything, sitting up there at the top of the world-

Jet knew exactly what to do about it.

He stepped towards Long Feng, and in his spooky Blue Spirit voice, he intoned, "You have given me what I wanted. Now I will set you free."

Long Feng crawled towards the bars, to the very limits of his chains, and grabbed on to haul himself to his feet. He straightened, regaining some of what must have been his old Ba Sing Se dignity, and raised his head-

-just as Jet flipped one of his hook-swords out from its holder and whipped the dagger on the hilt through the bars and across Long Feng's neck.

Long Feng's eyes went wide and his mouth opened, but Jet was already moving, clamping a hand down on the other man. After he returned the hook sword to its holder, he brought his other hand into play, locking Long Feng in place with no means of making a sound.

It took a long time to die by a slit throat. It was relatively noisy and messy.

But Jet had experience in keeping it quiet enough and not getting much blood on himself.

Long Feng jerked. He trembled. He slapped weakly. He slowed. He slumped. He leaked.

He died.

His spirit would go on through the reincarnation cycle, but his knowledge would be lost forever.

When Jet knocked on the door, the guard didn't so much as glance into the little prison. "Get what you wanted out of him?"

Jet slid his mask up and smiled as he stepped back outside into the chilled air and bright moonlight. "Not really." He felt jumpy, as he always did after a kill, but he could feel an extra tension in his limbs. He was a traitor to the Blue Spirits now, a side all his own in this conflict for the fate of the world. "But I got what I needed. That's good enough in this business."

The guard laughed, and Jet made himself wink at her as he walked away.

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« Reply #194 on: Aug 28, 2017 09:52 pm »

Katara's blood was singing.

She was sneaking through a Fire Nation base controlled by Aang's most important ally. She had just cut ties with the Waterbending Master who was teaching her to finally feel her element in her spirit. The moon was full in the sky, putting her at maximum Waterbending strength. She had a daring, complicated, deadly, strangely kind friend at her side. The fate of the world might be depending on what Katara was able to figure out here.

And yet she felt none of the usual pressure or smallness as she lifted her gaze up to the mountains that towered above her and the Fire Nation outpost. There was a twinge of anxiety in her stomach, the same twinge she got whenever she contemplated the sky, but it was not holding her back from looking at the snow-capped peaks and the full moon above them.

Her blood was singing. She was on the hunt, just like a normal member of the Water Tribe, and she knew she could handle all of this. She had to handle it.

She and Ty Lee had left the Communications Center behind to investigate the rest of the base. Unfortunately, they hadn't found any more information about what Prince Iroh was doing here. There were warehouses and stacks of standard supplies and facilities for the people on station here. There weren’t even a lot of guards or security; it had been simple for Katara and Ty Lee to stay out of sight.

However, there was a cable-car station and a line that ran straight up a mountain. No doubt that was where the good stuff was.

Too bad Katara had no idea how she could get up there.

Ty Lee must have sensed Katara's doubts, lurking with her beside one of the warehouses. "Do you want to go back to Master Pakku's ship? There's been no alarm, so they can't know we left."

Katara shook her head. "I need to know what's going on, here. Aang needs to know. If I go back, I'll just be putting myself back in Pakku's and Iroh's control. They'll keep me away from any real information."

"Okay." Ty Lee looked back at the line that ran up the mountain. "But I don't know how we're going to get up there. I don't know how to work one of those things, and even if we fight out way onto one of the cars, they'll just stop the thing that makes them go. Maybe even cut the line. I have enough balance to run up a cord that thick, but not one that goes up that steep."

Katara crouched back further into the shadow cast by the warehouse against the moonlight. "What do we already know? We've seen the list of materials Iroh is collecting here. We know he brought Long Feng and platinum. Jet told us that he runs the Blue Spirits through this 'White Lotus' group. Why do all of that, but keep it from us?" Katara thought back to what Aang had explained about his meeting with Iroh, back in King Toph's hidden base. "He said his son is sick with- with some kind of curse or hex. He told Aang that he thinks the only way to save his son is to restore balance to the world. But what does that have to do with all this? He's taking things from temples in the Earth Kingdom."

Ty Lee sat down beside Katara. "I didn't really know Prince Iroh. Yeah, I met him a few times. I liked him because he was friendly and funny, and he even did a few magic tricks for me! His son, Prince Lu Ten, was kind of like him, but instead of jokes and magic tricks he liked to show off his Firebending. Lu Ten paid more attention to Mai, though, what with their betrothal. I think he kind of took it as a challenge to impress her in some way. But Iroh really thought it was funny how excited I'd get by his magic tricks."

Katara couldn't say that really helped her figure anything out. "So Prince Iroh liked magic tricks? Are you saying-"

"No, I'm just trying to explain. Iroh was nice and fun and seemed interesting, but I could also see his aura. He wasn't faking who he was, or anything, but his aura showed another part of him. It was like Azula. Both of them had a- a kind of cold place inside. Cold and smart. Azula could figure out how to get exactly what she wanted, no matter who she hurt, and then she'd do it. And hurt people. Everyone said Prince Iroh was the greatest conqueror since Sozin, and I think that's how he did it. He had a side behind being friendly and funny that could be like Azula."

Katara nodded. This was making more sense. "Is that why you left the Fire Nation? Because people were like that?"

Ty Lee frowned. "No. I- I didn't like it, but I was still friends with Azula. It's just that everyone- well, everyone but Mai- acted like they wanted to be part of some machine. They wanted to be parts, not people. And the only thing the machine did was fight a war. I never really cared about the war. I thought it was fine if people in other nations wanted to dance and not build modern technology and live in mud. I thought it might be fun to live in mud for a while. And when they made me a Weapon of the Fire Nation- Azula said I might have to be sent to fight. And I knew if I didn't she'd- she'd-" Ty Lee shut her eyes. "Azula didn't like it when people didn't do what she said. And no one understood that I didn't want to be a part in a machine. Except Mai. So I decided to go to the colonies on an 'educational tour' and joined a circus."

Katara smiled. "I've never seen a circus. I've heard about them-"

Ty Lee’s eyes snapped open. "No! You'd love it, with the animals and the big tent and the jugglers! And of course the acrobats! Maybe I can bring you out on the high-wire! That's it, as soon as we're done being spies, I have to take you to a circus!"

"Deal. But first, we have to finish being spies." Katara stood up, looking again at the cable-car station. A car was coming down from the mountain. She'd be interested in seeing who got off. It might just be more soldiers carrying supplies, but it might be another clue as to what Prince Iroh had up there on that mountain. "Come on; let's see what we can see."

Jet put a swagger in his step as he walked into the Air Temple's cable-car station. His Blue Spirit mask was hanging from the front his belt, hopefully acting as a badge to show his belonging.

A group of soldiers- Jet counted five- were standing in front of a docked cable-car. One of them was talking to man in the uniform of a technician, and they all turned to look as Jet's boots clacked against the stone floor.

The technician blinked and opened his mouth to say something, but Jet pretended he didn't notice and said, "Hey, has that ship left yet? The one with the Waterbenders?"

The technician blinked, shut his mouth, and blinked again. "Uh, no?"

Jet put on a smile. "Great. I'm hoping to hitch a ride. I wasn't particularly looking forward to hanging around until someone finally rustles up some transportation to my next assignment. You running a car down now?"

The lead soldier crossed his arms. "We were just heading down to investigate why the telegraph station down there isn't responding."

Jet didn't need to fake the frown that came to his face. "Why wouldn't it be responding?"

"Yeah, that's the question, isn't it? Maybe an equipment failure, or maybe something else. Who are you again?"

"Hong Shen," Jet lied, using the name of a fellow Blue Spirit he met years ago. Hong Sheng was dead now, so he likely wouldn't object. "You want some help? I could use the exercise."

His heart pounded. He had never quite calmed down after killing Long Feng, and if he couldn't make this bluff work, he had no idea how else he'd get down from the mountain.

And he had a time limit.

After leaving Long Feng's body in its cell, Jet had headed back to the main Air Temple complex. He continued his explorations, checking out the buildings that still had lights on inside, and happened across something like a library. The building itself seemed more like a prayer space, but free-standing metal shelves had been set up and crammed with books of all shapes and sizes. In the middle of the space, a massive crate had been left open containing even more books, and Jet had spotted stenciling on the side that listed a number and the words, 'Books - Ba Sing Se.'

This was Long Feng's seized research into death.

Jet had known what he had to do. Taking advantage of the solitude, he used a candle and some string from his own supplies and rigged them in the crate so that candle would be suspended over the books until the string fully caught flame and snapped. Then the candle would fall onto the books and destroy them with the Fire Nation's own element.

The only reason he hadn't gone ahead and burned them right there was the other thing he had discovered in that library.

Hanging on a wall was a massive map of the southern Earth Kingdom, and on that map was what, to Jet's trained eye, looked like a full invasion plan.

It was focused on a spot near Dang Bay, halfway between Chin Village and the Si Wong Desert. Jet didn't know of any real civilization out there (not that a backwards place like Chin qualified as especially civilized, but at least it had roads), yet the map nevertheless showed routes and movements for a massive influx of soldiers and equipment. Points were even marked as a timetable, listing a range of days for how long it should take to reach each point. Tanks and companies of soldiers and supply lines and massive equipment-movers were all represented, a formula for taking and holding a major city.

But there was nothing out there. There had never been anything out there. That bit of the Earth Kingdom was mostly wilderness, the ground being too soft and wet to build anything important. There wasn't even a major port nearby, since other spots on the coast offered easier paths to civilization.

Still, it was Earth Kingdom, and from the looks of it, Prince Iroh was planning an invasion.

It shouldn't even be necessary. The Fire Nation had conquered everything, renaming the proud Earth Kingdom as the 'Colonial Continent.' The Avatar was even working to help make Iroh into the Fire Lord, and then the plan was for Iroh to set the Earth Kingdom free.

So this invasion plan looked a lot like a complete betrayal.

Jet had known that it was up to him to spread the truth.

He had cut the map, with all its specific information, down from the wall. Fortunately, the crate with Long Feng's library still had its protective supplies intact, so Jet was able to roll and wrap the map so that even a quick dunking in water wouldn't damage it, and press it between two slats of wood. Then, with the map nestled between his hook swords, and the candle set up to burn the books in about a quarter of an hour, he made his way straight for the cable-car station.

Now, the lead soldier stared him down.

Jet was used to lying, to acting, and made sure that his nervousness didn't show. The knowledge that the whole Earth Kingdom was in danger, his home that his parents had died for, was pushed to the back of his mind. Instead, he focused on imaginary feelings of boredom, of a desire to get on a certain ship before it departed. He pretended to be another grunt running around on orders, his greatest ambition to be on his way and not have to wait around for incompetent higher-ups to finally arrange for him to be where he needed to be.

The soldier shrugged. "Come on, then. You guys are usually good in a fight."

Jet smirked. "Thanks. You won't be disappointed." Then he followed the soldiers into the cable-car.

The group sat in a cluster together at the front of the car, and Jet took a seat that was neither far away nor too close. He stretched his legs out and lowered his eyelids until they would look closed but still leave him a sliver through which he could watch his fellow passengers.

In retrospect, he probably should have tried to sneak on top of the cable-car again. But no, if they were on alert now because of that problem with their telegraph station, the staff down below would probably be watching the car's arrival closely.

The car was shifted onto the cable, and they were on their way.

The trip was fairly quiet. A few of the soldiers exchanged remarks, but there was a tenseness that kept conversations brief and low. Jet knew he was probably under suspicion, but that was fine. As long as he could get down off the mountain, he could fight his way free and disappear. These soldiers couldn't even comprehend the kind of training he'd had. Training bought and paid for by Prince Iroh.

Jet felt sick at the thought of all the help he'd given the man. Had the Blue Spirits always just been a tool of a rogue warlord? Had the White Lotus been corrupted?

Was the Avatar even as important as Jet had been led to believe?

Jet couldn't help but remember his first meeting with Aang, and how he'd been given the mission to remove the kid from Lady Caldera Yu Mai's influence. The threat had seemed obvious at the time, but had it really just been a political war between Fire Nation factions?

Jet's eyes closed completely for a moment, and he forced them back open. It had been a long night. Maybe he'd better chew a stim-leaf before he had to go back into action.

But if he did that, he doubted he'd be able to keep his hands from shaking. That made stabbing harder.

Eventually, they reached the bottom of the mountain. The cable-car station was a beacon in the early morning darkness. Jet wondered if, beyond the mountains that closed in on this valley, the sun was starting to rise. The full moon was still large in the sky.

The car jolted to a halt.

All of the soldiers stood up.

Jet did as well. "What happened?"

The leader looked out the front window. "They're sending a flash signal. Looks like someone finally woke up down here. Hmmmm, they're saying something about-" He cut himself off abruptly and continued to watch a blinking light on the roof of the station.

Jet quietly shifted into a subtle combat stance and moved so that he was standing right behind to the five soldiers.

The leader was tense. Jet saw him move his arms as though to assume a guard position, but then he halted the motion and held his arms stiffly at his side. "Well," he said, "we're stuck here for a moment. They had to shut down the lift. Engine trouble of some kind. We should all just relax."

"Sure." Jet slipped his Blue Spirit mask off his belt. "I guess I'm not going to make my boat."

The leader turned, and his face twitched.

Jet met his eyes.

Then Jet shoved the two closest soldiers with all his strength, toppling them over into the other three and sending the whole group to the floor of the car. In a moment his mask was on his face and his hook swords were in his hands. The blades were already whistling through the air as the lead soldier tried to rise up and properly join the fight.

He didn't succeed. None of the soldiers did.

Jet's training had included a lot about avoiding a fair fight.

Once all five soldiers were dispatched, Jet took a moment to catch his breath. It had been a long, long night. He could fight a Weapon of the Fire Nation one-on-one, but not without real rest.

And as that beautiful Fire Princess had proved on Crescent Island, there were some enemies he couldn't fight even at the top of his game.

He used the crescent-bladed guards on his swords to smash one of the car's windows, and then he climbed out and dropped to the ground. It wasn't a short fall, but he tucked and rolled on landing and managed to come out of it without any broken bones. That carried him down the last of the mountain slope and towards the Fire Nation outpost.

The whine of an alarm horn filled the early-morning air.

He had been watched.

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« Reply #195 on: Aug 28, 2017 09:53 pm »

Ty Lee's aura flared with a bright yellow as she saw the masked figure drop from the cable-car. She had seen masks like that in the scary plays her sisters had liked to go to as kids, and it wasn't hard to connect the sight to Jet and Katara's references to the Blue Spirits. As a horn sounded an alert, Ty Lee realized that Jet had been playing the same spy-game that the girls had been all night, and now he had just gotten himself in big trouble.

Sounds of clanking armor and running boots rose up from somewhere nearby. Ty Lee pressed herself up against the dark wall of the warehouse and looked to Katara. "What do we do?"

Katara blinked. "That's Jet! He- he-"

"He's going to get to have to fight," Ty Lee interrupted. "Do we help, or are we okay with him maybe dying?"

Katara blinked again. "What? But- but- we-"

Ty Lee turned, put her hands on Katara's shoulders, and leaned over until their faces were almost touching. "Jet just got caught. We can either help him and fight our way out, or sneak away and stay hidden. I don't know where we even are, so if we fight, we'll probably be run down and captured or killed."

Katara blinked a third time.

Ty Lee nodded. "I know about these things. We probably have to let Jet die."

Katara inhaled.

Katara exhaled.

Then Katara met Ty Lee's gaze with hard blue eyes that made Ty Lee’s aura flare bright pink. "I can get us out of here. And we need to find out what's going on for Aang. Jet probably knows something. I hate it, but we need him."

Katara's expression was grim and solid and fierce, but there was no meanness to it. No joy at the fight that was about to happen. Just a crystal blue glower that matched an aura swirled with courage and positivity.


Ty Lee didn't need to say anything more. She smiled, winked, and leaped out into the road beside the warehouse, where a bunch of Firebenders were coming in at a run. They were heading towards where Jet was stumbling to his feet out of his tumble, and Ty Lee was once again striking while she waited for her cute little feet to touch the ground. Her arrow-fists found the weak spots between the armor plates and it was just a matter of tap-tap-tap-tappity-tap and the Firebenders were all down.

Katara rushed over to Jet, helping him stand, so Ty Lee spun around in a circle and checked the scene out. Oops, more soldiers were coming, people with spears and swords and the bare-fists that promised Firebending.

And behind all those Fire Nation soldiers was a wave of men in blue clothes.

Yeah, Ty Lee didn't particularly want to hang out here.

She stuck around only long enough to put the fear of cute pink acrobats into the first wave-

(Twist around the spears and flip over plumes of fire and sidestep, sidestep, sidestep the chopping swords until she could punch and pound and tap the spots that would send explosions of pain through limbs that would be chased by icy numbness and a body that would no longer do what it was told as Qi was disrupted from its holy flow.)

-and then cartwheeled away to follow Katara and Jet down another lane and deeper into the base.

Katara didn't like the way Jet couldn't keep up with her. She kept an arm around his shoulders and pushed him along towards the dock.

"Kat- Katara," he wheezed.

"Save your breath." She yanked him around a corner and down another lane, hoping this would take them away from more soldiers.

"Tell- Aang," Jet gasped. "Invasion. Map."

"What?" She pulled him around another corner, and saw the moonlight rippling in the distance.

The bay!

Then Jet was shoving something into her hands. "Get this- (huh) to Aang."

"What?" Katara looked down. She was holding a pair of wooden slats with something pressed between them. "What?"

"Aang needs to see that."

Oh- kay. Katara tucked it behind the water-skins she was wearing on her back. "Come on, the bay is-" She started running as she talked again, but then stopped short as she saw that the way ahead was blocked.

Kinto was standing in the center of the lane, and Master Pakku looked on from the side.


Katara stepped away from Jet and pulled some water from a skin on her back. Kinto was better than her, so she had to-

Jet threw a hook sword straight at Kinto's face.

Kinto slapped it out of the air with an arc of his own water, but Katara was already running at him, picturing the Marlin Form in her mind. Kinto was better than her, but if she could-

Kinto spotted her and transformed his block into an attack that pushed a stream of water at her like an arrow from a bow.

Katara ducked-

-Kinto was better than her-

-Katara slid forward as she summoned a spike of water over each fist-

-but even the best Waterbenders needed their legs to move.

As she slid in against him, she slammed her fists into the sides of his knees. The water-spikes didn't penetrate his flesh, but they did knock the vulnerable joints in ways they weren't meant to bend.

Kinto's knees cracked, and he screamed and dropped.

Katara stood up.

Then Kinto reached up towards her with a grasping hand (not again!) and her stomach felt like it was under attack from itself. It bloated and shrank and fizzled and rose up and Katara vomited explosively.

The force of it dropped her to the ground, and she twisted reflexively to try to ease the pain radiating from her stomach.


Not again!

Kinto had hit her with this before. He could somehow Waterbend the fluids in her stomach. Master Hama had theorized something like this, only she-

Katara heaved, her stomach trying to rebel but not having anything more to offer. Just like her.

Jet ran over to where Katara and the strange Waterbender were both on the ground. Katara was curled up next to a pool of her vomit, while her opponent was splayed out on the ground nearby, his knees no longer supporting his weight. But that wasn't stopping him from working some kind of Waterbending on her with a reaching hand.

Jet drew his swords. His first strike sliced deep into the Waterbender's extended arm, and the second was aimed for the head-

-but the Waterbender snapped his other hand out and a whip of water lashed across Jet's vision. The yanking feel was the only clue he had that his swords had been ripped from his hands, and he knew it was because he was too tired, too weak after everything else.

But then there was a blur of pink, and the Waterbender moved his waterwhip to lash at the new target, but Ty Lee raised a hand and a sudden wind sliced the liquid stream in half. She fell towards the Waterbender with fists raised, and Jet decided that this was a good opportunity to take care of business. He went over to Katara to find her gagging, but he ignored that and turned her over to reveal the flat wooden package with the stolen map stuffed behind her water-skins.

A moment later Jet was running towards the bay with his prize, leaving the girls behind.

The mission came first.

Jet looked across the dock and saw the Fire Nation ship he had come in on, but he would no longer be welcome there. Now that they had seen him, they'd search every corner until they found him. But past the larger ship, he saw a metal skiff tied up. That might be enough to get away, if the canal wasn't too heavily guarded and they-

Jet felt a line of cold move through his chest from back to front, and his legs turned to jelly. He stumbled and felt his arms go weak, so he wrapped them around the wooden package to keep it from slipping from his grasp. It was hard to breath, now, and the cold-

-the cold-

Jet looked down to see a thin spear of ice stabbing out through his chest.

A drop of blood fell from the tip.


Jet’s vision swam. Was it the Waterbender? He tried to focus, to turn and look, and- no, not the one who had fought Katara. Pakku was standing behind Jet in a Waterbending stance. He nodded at Jet, and swirled his arms.

Jet tried to move, to roll or at least duck, but his body didn't respond. He just knelt there, and a wave of water slammed into him. It pushed him and carried him and he went flying off the pier into the bay and fell beneath the surface.

Jet struggled, trying to paddle, not realizing he'd forgotten his stolen package until it floated away from him. He paddled some more, but it wasn't working. He was sinking steadily. It was like the water was pushing him down.

The water was pushing him down.

He couldn't get out of this one. He had no more tricks.

He would only survive if Katara and Ty Lee managed to defeat a Master Waterbender and save him.

Katara, who he had nearly left behind to die on Crescent Island in his single-minded mission to help the Avatar.

Ty Lee, who seemed to accept him until she learned about how he had terrorized Mai.

Well, Jet had made the best choices he could, based on the information he had at the time. And he had done his part to get new information to the Avatar, so that the Fire Nation wouldn't complete its victory.

The last of Jet’s air bubbled out from his mouth, pushing his mask away. It rose up to follow the map’s package, even as the very bay itself pushed Jet down even further.

His whole chest was cold now. The ice spear that ran through it wasn't helping him float at all.

The waters grew dark around him.

He closed his eyes and decided to finally get some rest.

He'd have to trust that his allies knew what they were doing.

Jet’s fight was done.

Katara had finally managed to stop heaving by the time Ty Lee helped her to her feet. She glanced over towards Kinto, and saw him lying on the ground in a familiar limp-limbed spread. He also had a nasty cut on one arm that was bleeding profusely.

A part of Katara hoped he lost a fatal amount of blood.

The rest of her just didn't care anymore.

Ty Lee helped her towards the bay, and Katara swallowed and made herself walk on her own. "I'm fine. You keep an eye out for an ambush."

Ty Lee stopped short. "You mean like him?" She pointed ahead.

Katara raised her gaze to find Master Pakku standing in their path, all the way on the pier.

Behind him, in the water, Jet's body was floating face down in a circle of red.

Pakku held up the package that Jet had given, and then stolen back. "The Blue Spirit is dead. I have what he stole. Obviously, you can't be my student any more, but there's no need for more unpleasantness." He flung the package out into the bay, and it spun and sailed until it splashed down out of sight. "I will take you to the North Pole, and will have Prince Iroh arrange a simple house arrest. Naturally, things will get worse if you persist in causing trouble."

Ty Lee dashed at him. Katara ran after her, eager to see what a Weapon of the Fire Nation would be able to do against that cranky old man.

Pakku twirled and threw his arms out, and the whole bay seemed to answer it response. It pulsed out from beneath Jet's body to rise and surge past Pakku, a tidal wave of force. Ty Lee leaped above it, but the wave curled to follow her. As Katara brought together her own water to turn into an ice shield, Ty Lee used a burst of Airbending to push herself over towards the wall. Katara couldn’t move under the assault of the bay-water, but Ty Lee kicked off of the wall to change direction away from the lapping waves. Yet the water continued to follow her, Pakku guiding it with one hand while the other kept a steady blast of water hammering at Katara’s shield, and when Ty Lee landed on the ground again, she wound up caught in a whirlpool of force.

Katara dropped her shield, taking a hard hit to her already fragile stomach, and tried to seize control of the waves, but they ignored her will and motions. Ty Lee was tossed and slammed against the sides of the nearby buildings, and when the water receded, she just moaned and slumped on the ground.

Katara turned to look again at Master Pakku. He was guiding the waves back over to him, and brought the water to swirl around his feet and rise up in a thin spout that lifted him into the air.

Katara forced herself to look up at him, even though the sky and the stars and the full moon were stretched out behind him in her vision. Her hands shook, but she made herself look.

He glared down at her, stern and disapproving. He didn't need to say anything. His challenge was evident.

Katara reached up for her hat and pulled it off.

She threw it aside.

Pakku's eyebrows rose.

Katara glanced over at Kinto. He was still on the ground. Katara's stomach still hurt and gurgled.

But if he could strike at someone in their own body-

Katara remembered what Master Hama had thought up, on one of many lonely stretches in the dungeons of Crescent Island.

Katara breathed in and breathed out. She raised her hands and reached for the greatest source of water in Master Pakku's body.

His blood.

She looked into the sky, let the fear it inspired in her set her heart hammering and her own blood singing. She felt a pulse within that mirrored the movement of the tides and the drifting of the rain. She felt that same pulse in Master Pakku, and just like she could control the tides and the rain, she could control that pulse. First she took control of her own pulse, settling her stomach and putting strength back in her limbs.

Then she reached out, and Master Pakku's whole body went stiff.

He cried out as his waterspout died beneath him.

Katara kept her arms outstretched, palms held vertically to keep Pakku from falling, and slowly lowered them. She could feel his body hanging on the flows of blood that were in her control, feel the squeezing of his veins and arteries, feel the squishy organs over which the blood permeated. That Katara thought she could taste that blood had to her imagination, the thick smell in her nostrils a waking nightmare.

Above, the full moon shone on.

Katara lowered Pakku to the ground until his feet touched the pier.

Then she kept going.

Pakku was pushed down further, pressed as if by a weight until he was spread across the ground in a tangled echo of Kinto. Katara walked over to her former Master, keeping him on the ground, keeping the man who had taught her and bullied her down while she stood tall above him. She could see his trembling, see the expression of agony on his face. This was hurting him.

He should have thought of that before he drowned Jet.

Not that Jet deserved life more than any other, and perhaps less than most, but tonight he had been on Katara's side.

She pushed a hand out sharply, and Pakku gasped and started to go limp.

Only when she felt him fully stop resisting did she let go of his blood.

Only when she saw that he was still breathing did she let out her own gasp of gratitude.

"Wow," came Ty Lee's voice. "I didn't know you could do that."

Katara shuddered, trying to get rid of the ugly sticky feeling in her veins. "I didn't know for sure until just now. My first Master, Hama of the South, thought up Bloodbending when we were in prison." But Master Hama hadn't realized how much it would violate, Katara was sure- both the victim, and the perpetrator. "Come on, we need to get out of here. Are we being followed?"

Ty Lee shrugged as they both ran out onto the pier. "I took care of some of the soldiers and Waterbenders who were chasing us, but the rest ran away and will probably be coming after us when they're feeling brave again?"

A spear crashed onto the pier just ahead of them, and cries sounded from the down the lane to surrender.

Ty Lee smiled. "See! I was right!"

Katara glanced around. Pakku's ship was moored here, but beyond it was a smaller skiff- another metal monstrosity of the Fire Nation, but it would float.

A fireball crashed nearby and the battle cries grew closer, but Katara spared one last glance at Jet's body. It was still floating, face down. The amount of blood in the water wasn't survivable.

But she noticed something else floating near him, and at first thought it might be the package he had died to retrieve. She used a hand to summon a tendril of water as she started running towards the skiff. She coiled the tendril in and caught what it had retrieved, and the feel of wood against her skin made her think, for a moment, that she had won.

But no, it was just Jet’s Blue Spirit mask.

Katara and Ty Lee reached the skiff before the rest of the soldiers were able to catch them, and Katara didn't even both looking at the controls of the engine. She raised her hands, took an arrow stance, and pushed up against the pier, surging the water of the bay with such force that the mooring line snapped and the skiff shot out like a stone from a sling. Ty Lee took the wheel, and Katara provided the propulsion.

It was only after they were well on their way down Prince Iroh's canal that Ty Lee took a break, and noticed the folded, thick material stuff in behind Katara's water-skins.

They unwrapped and unfolded it to find a map of the Southern Earth Kingdom, with markings laying out the details of a new invasion.

Jet hadn't taken it from her. He had used the wooden package as a decoy.

He had always been good at misdirection, and getting people to do what he wanted for an overall good cause.

Katara could acknowledge that much, at least.

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« Reply #196 on: Aug 28, 2017 09:54 pm »

Of course, even after dealing with a secret rendezvous, a rogue Blue Spirit, a stolen incriminating map, and a student who decided to quit by way of torturing him with a heretofore unknown application of Waterbending, Pakku couldn't even get some sleep without duty intruding.

Instead of dreams and darkness, Pakku found himself kneeling in the Spirit World.

On the other side of a low table, Prince Iroh was preparing tea.

Ah, it was going to be one of those talks.

"I hear," Iroh said, as he stirred the powdered tea into the pot, "that you have had a busy night."

Pakku snorted. "It's good to know that the Fire Nation's telegraph network is as efficient as ever. Was there anything for which you needed more detail, or did you just want to harass me a little?"

Iroh sniffed at the steam emerging from the top of his pot. "It’s good that the trap with the candle was found in time to save Long Feng’s books, but that map is a very dangerous thing to see out of context. If it does indeed make its way to the Avatar, then he might not go through with our agreement. And I wouldn't blame him!"

Pakku rolled his eyes. "Well, I'm sure your friendship will survive. He'll appreciate how understanding you are, no doubt."

Iroh chuckled, and poured two cups of tea. He placed one in front of Pakku, and then lifted his own for a taste. "Ah, delicious. I think you should return to the North Pole. There are things that will have to be done, now, in the colonies, but that would be a waste of your talents. Come back home."

Pakku inclined his head in acknowledgement. He made no move to touch the tea.

Iroh, however, was halfway through his own cup. "It is interesting that your own student was able to defeat you, is it not? Especially considering her handicaps."

Pakku felt his lip quirk in the start of a smile. Ah, here it comes. "Very interesting, indeed."

"I wonder, Master Pakku, if you have any defense of your performance."

Now, he did smile. "The girl might have only been my student for little more than a month, and a girl on top of that, but I can honestly say I'm more proud of her than any of my other students. Whether she becomes a hero or a monster, her accomplishments will be legendary."

Iroh nodded. "Anything else? About any part of your failed attempt to prevent this disaster?"

Pakku shrugged. "I gave it my best shot."

Iroh stared at him, his gaze searching. This was not merely Prince Iroh any more, or even the Admiral who had conquered the North Pole. This was the Dragon that lurked beneath the man.

Pakku lowered his gaze and finally took a sip from his teacup. It was good, as always, but nothing worth obsessing over. He preferred something fermented, and more than a little hairy.

Iroh sighed. "I see. Well, I can hardly ask more of you than your best."

"That's what I'm counting on." Pakku knocked back the last of his tea. "Now, did you need anything else, or can an old man finally get some rest?"

"Your student, the one who is injured. Will he lose the hand?"

"I could not possibly care less. Even if he does, I'm not going to let him slack in his training."

"Yes, I would expect no less of you. Very well, Master Pakku. I will see you back in the North, soon."

The Spirit World faded, and Pakku drifted into a numbing darkness, followed by an old dream in which Kanna- young once again- lit into him over some disagreement that the dream failed to specify.

It was one of Pakku's favorites.


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« Reply #197 on: Sep 12, 2017 06:19 pm »

Ashes to Ashes

Zuko stared out over the ocean, at the darkness on the horizon, and adjusted his eyepatch against the wind.

He'd meant to get a glass eyeball to fill the empty socket, but even though he'd been back in the Fire Nation for weeks, things had been too busy, too tense. Vanity had been completely driven from his mind.

It wasn't as easy to lose track of other concerns.

He still had no idea what to do about the mystery of her mother, of her mysterious origins as a peasant and her disappearance during his childhood. The Weapon Heiyaoshi, who had seemed to know something, was dead. Of course, she was hardly the only source of information; Father would have to know, and Uncle had to have witnessed some of that history, too, right?

Except, instead of being on his way home, he was being sent out on another of Uncle's errands. And Uncle hadn't even bothered to talk to him.

Zuko turned to his companion on this trip. Well, his human companion. "You're sure you can get back into the Spirit World to talk to my Uncle?"

Avatar Aang, seated next to Zuko on Appa's head and holding the reins as they all flew over the ocean, gave a wide grin. "Yeah! I've done it accidentally a few times already. When I'm sleeping, I just dream my way into a meeting with Prince Iroh. Has he ever contacted you that way?"

Zuko waved the point away. "We're out here by ourselves. If you can't talk to him, we'll have to fly back to Zenmatsu or somewhere else with a telegraph station. That will delay us by a few more days again."

"Okay, but I just said it'll be fine."

Zuko didn't feel inspired to answer with anything more than a grunt.

Aang leaned over towards him. "Why so grouchy? This time yesterday, we were all worried about the Agni Budokai. Now we have the governors of the Outer Islands backing us, our friends are on their way to handle more of the politics stuff for us, and we're setting out on an adventure!"

"Some adventure. We don't know where we're going or what we're going to do when we get there. I'd rather be on my way home."

"And," Aang continued with a bright voice, "you got a hug from Suki and I kissed Mai!"

Zuko needed a moment before he could switch his mental processes onto this new trick. "You kissed Mai?"

The Avatar, the Last Airbender and the Bridge Between Worlds, actually giggled. "Yeah! Right on the tip of her nose!"

Oh, for First Fire's sake- "I'm very happy for you."


Zuko decided that he was done with this conversation. How was he supposed to ruminate on his troubles when this stupid kid just wanted to talk about girls? "I'm going to check the supplies. If we run out before we finish with this 'adventure,' we might have to leave to resupply and that will-"

"-delay us by a few more days again," Aang finished. "Yeah, I got it."

Zuko crawled back to Appa's saddle, where several large packs were tied down. Without other passengers, and seeming to have recovered from Azula's lightning bolt, the sky bison could carry a good amount of supplies.

Of course, this amount of supplies made Zuko's inspection a pointless exercise, but if it would get him away from a giggling twelve-year-old, he was fine wasting his time. Zuko checked the ropes, to make sure they were tight and secure, and then moved on to confirm that the lid of one of the crates was properly sealed to keep out moisture-

As soon as Zuko touched the lid, it slid right off and let the light of the setting sun into the crate.

Zuko blinked down at a slim teenage girl, half-buried in bags of rice and seemingly staring past his head with milky eyes.

King Toph?!

She frowned. "You can see me, can't you? I can hear your teeth grinding. More than usual."

Zuko couldn't bring himself to speak. She- she had stowed away and- and- and had to have displaced some of their supplies, and- and-

Toph winced. "You're going to crack a tooth, Princey." She shoved the sacks off of her and crawled out of the crate, almost falling into Zuko's lap. "Hey, Avatar Aang! Looking good over there! Not that I'd know!" She waved in a direction that was almost correct.

The Avatar turned with confusion all over his face. "King Toph?!"


Zuko shook his head in the hope that the situation would prove to be a dream that he could wake up and dispel, but King Toph remained seated beside him in Appa's saddle. She was wearing a worn green tunic underneath a vest that might once have been yellow, a far cry from the fancy way of dressing that he had seen from her before.

Zuko gave her his best one-eyed glare, and then remembered that she wouldn't be able to see it. "Seriously, what are you doing here?"

Toph rested her head against his arm. "I decided that Mai and Sokka and Zhao could handle all the political stuff. They're not stupid and they cheat, so they can manage without me for a few days. I'm only on this whole trip to make sure Prince Iroh frees the Earth Kingdom like he promised. You and the Avatar over there are on some super-secret mission for your uncle, so I decided to go along to keep an eye on you. (Figuratively. I'm blind.)"

Zuko shouldered Toph off of him as Aang said, "So why didn't you just ask to come along in the first place?"

"Because Iroh wanted just you two to go, so I knew you'd argue with me. This way, I get what I want, and all I had to do was focus on the smell of dry rice until my stomach stopped flipping. That's strategy." Toph's smile faded, and she sat back against the crate she had been hiding in. "Besides, you've been neglecting your Earthbending training."

Aang winced, and Zuko finally found a conversational thread that didn't make him want to either jump off the sky bison or throw one of his companions. "I didn't know the Avatar had started learning to Earthbend."

Toph snorted. "Yeah, that's the problem."

Aang fully turned to face them both, letting go of Appa's reins. "I've started! I- I've been meditating on the stuff Toph told me before we set out for the Fire Nation! We haven't really had time for anything else."

Toph nodded. "That's true, and that's why I'm here. The whole thing with the Agni Budokai forced you spend a lot of time focusing on Fire, even if you've only just started Bending it. But the Avatar is supposed to learn all the elements so that you'll understand and know every nation. How am I supposed to trust that you'll do right by my Earth Kingdom if you can't even flick a pebble?"

Zuko blinked his way through his surprise. That almost sounded wise. "She has a point. The Earth Kingdom is vast and rich in cultures. I traveled it for years and still haven't seen everything it offers, or all its kinds of people."

Toph sat up suddenly. "Oh, you've been! Ever stopped by Gaoling?"

Zuko felt his cheeks warm. "I- I'm not sure. I wasn't- I, uh, was focused on finding a safe place to sleep and something to eat."

"Oh." Toph leaned back again. "Well, I'd apologize for not welcoming you, but your family wrecked everything, so I don't care."

Zuko was just glad she wasn't trying to kill him for it.

Aang took the reins and settled back in his place on Appa's head. "So, are you from Gaoling, your Majesty?"

"Yup. It's just ash, now."

Zuko winced. "Sorry."

Aang sighed. "My home is gone, too. I'm sorry I can't see yours, Toph. Maybe you can tell us about it?"

Toph frowned. "No, I can't."

"Okay, I understand. If you don't want to talk-"

"No, I mean I can't. I only ever 'saw' it in the middle of the night, when I snuck out of my parents' mansion. They didn't like me going out where I could get hurt. Or going out anywhere. Or telling the world about me at all. They were kind of over-protective." Toph barked a laugh that made Zuko feel like he had swallowed a lump of coal. "It's funny; they locked me away so that I'd be safe at home, and the only reason I'm alive is because I broke out. My parents died in that mansion when it burned down." Her voice went low, almost lost in the wind. "I would have, too, if I'd stayed."

Aang looked over to Zuko. "Could you take the reins for a moment?"

Zuko shrugged and crawled up to Appa's head. After turning over the reins, the Avatar hopped over to Toph, sat down beside her, and wrapped his arms around her in a hug.

Toph snorted again. "You're a real softie, Avatar Aang."

Zuko turned his one-eyed gaze to the horizon ahead. This wasn't anything he should be watching. His grandfather had done this to these kids, and he knew his sympathies would be inappropriate. Zuko still had a home to go back to, even if it wasn't soon enough for his liking. But these kids could win everything they wanted from this whole enterprise, and they'd still be left without their homes or any family.

Zuko felt ashamed, for the first time, that he merely had to work hard and overcome impossible odds to get what he wanted.

Appa flew on.

Ahead, an island came into view, rising up above the ocean with jungles and the corpses of old volcanos.

Toph couldn't jump down off Appa fast enough, once they had landed. She only had a vague idea of the distance to the ground, based on the sky bison's standing height, but she still threw herself out of the saddle with no hesitation.

She'd never been so happy to feel loose, mushy sand beneath her bare feet. "Ahhhhh, there it is! Sweet, supportive earth!" She laid down on it, grasping some sand in her hands and letting the grains run through her fingers. Then, on a whim, she planted her face in the sand and rubbed it around a bit. If this was more solid ground, she could have used her Earthbending to leave an impression of her face here, the Earth King's mark on Fire Nation soil. But this was sand, and she'd never been very good at working with sand.


She grasped a handful, everything but a small amount slipping through her grip, and sought out Avatar Aang's little light feet on the beach. It was hard, as sand didn't carry vibrations the way soil or stone did, and Aang somehow managed to walk without letting his full weight come into play. But she could hear Appa thrumming happily and there was a sound of skin rubbing a bison-snout. Toph focused as hard as she could and found a blur that might have been a twelve-year-old (give or take a century) Avatar.

She beaned him with the sand.

"Hey!" There was more annoyance in his voice than pain. "What was that for?"

Toph picked up some more sand, lifting them so that the grains all fell out in a rain down on her head. "It's earth, and it stings when someone throws it at you, but it's all loose and shifty. Maybe an Airbender can do something with it easier than a rock-solid Bender like me!"

"Oh!" She felt Aang’s weight decrease to the point where he completely disappeared from her Earth-sense, but his voice was loud and easy to pinpoint. "That sounds good! What do I do?"

Toph stood up as a weight landed on the other side of Appa, and she heard a grunt from Zuko. He felt heavier than he should have, so he must have been holding one of their supply boxes. Good to know that the Prince didn't mind handling his own luggage. Toph usually avoided doing her own packing and hauling, but that was because people still had trouble thinking of her as the Earth King, so she needed to be as snobby as possible to reinforce her station.

Aang was still invisible to her, so she said, "First of all, stop floating!"

"Oh. Sorry." There was something near where the voice had come from that might have been Twinkletoes over there standing still like a normal person. "Now what?"

Toph took a low horse-stance, her legs wide apart and her knees bent to keep her close to the ground. "Earthbending requires a solid stance. If you come over here and try to shove me down, you'll fall over before I move at all." She brought her arms in close to her sides, elbows bent, and then used every muscle in her arm, shoulder, and waist to snap a fist out that would have shattered granite. "Earthbending requires strength."

Some of the sand in front of her burst forward like a traveling geyser, but Toph felt it start to die a short distance away, and it was lost to her senses before all the grains even settled back down.

Aang, though, burst out with, "Wow!"

Toph shrugged, still in her stance. "That was pretty pathetic, actually. Like I said, sand is weird. But that initial movement is easier than moving a pebble."

Then Zuko's voice sounded from back in Appa's saddle. "It's interesting that Earthbending comes from strength. I used to think I had to build muscle to be a good Firebender, but my sister taught me that Fire comes from our breath. And I discovered that its power comes from my inner strength."

Toph rose up from her horse-stance, straightening her legs and brushing a foot across the sand in a circle. "Breath and inner strength are nice, but that's probably because your fire isn't born until you make it. The earth has been here for longer than people or Spirits, and it's got all the strength anyone could ever need. You gotta show it who's boss if you want it to listen to you."

"Um, King Toph?" Aang's voice sounded like it was ready to retreat on a moment's notice. "I've been punching the whole time you and Zuko have been talking, and no sand is moving."

Toph headed over to him. As she got closer, his body resolved in her Earth-sense, but she still needed to put her hands on him to really evaluate his horse-stance. She felt up his feet, his legs, got close enough to his crotch to make him squeal, and then patted his back. "Well, your stance could be a little wider and lower. Here." She slapped her hands down on his shoulders and pushed him down.

He made another squealy sound.

Toph nodded her approval. "Better. Try it now."

The only thing she detected was the whistling of air over a small fist. Sure, maybe her Earth-sense wasn't good enough to feel a few grains of sand moving a little bit of distance, but she doubted she was missing anything like that. "It's not working, is it?"

Aang groaned. "I broke my Avatar Spirit, didn't I? I bet it was something on Crescent Island! I lost my Airbending for a little while there, and now I can't Earthbend?"

"You didn't break you Avatar Spirit," Zuko barked. "You've been Airbending and Waterbending all this time, and I witnessed you communing with the fires in the Agni Budokai. Here, straighten up a little and hold out a hand. Steady your breathing, and feel the way it carries energy through your body."

What was Prince Busybody trying to do?

Aang's breathing was loud. "Okay, I feel it. Air Nomads know all about how our breath feeds our bodies. Now what?"

"Now," Zuko said, "when you punch, exhale- and summon your energies into your fist in the same way your lungs expel the bad air from your body. Connect to those energies the same way you connected to the flames during the Agni Budokai, and you will find your own fire."

Zuko was horning in on Toph's lesson! She opened her mouth to say something that would completely destroy his masculine security-

-and then Toph heard a quiet sound of combustion. Her non-sight lightened, and she felt a new heat waft over her skin.

Aang laughed. "I did it! I'm a Firebender!"

"See," Zuko said. "Your Avatar Spirit isn't broken. You're just terrible at Earthbending."

The fire winked out.

Zuko cleared his throat. "I mean, uh, it's just not going as well? Maybe Toph isn't teaching you right."

Aang didn't say anything.

Toph let the silence hang around for a moment. "Well, that might be true."

Then she darted over towards the source of Zuko's voice and shoved him with all her strength. He cried out as he crashed to the ground and skidded across the sand, all of it hard enough for Toph to feel without a problem.

Then she straightened and brushed some sand off her clothes. "I'm going to take a bathroom break. You two losers better have camp set up by the time I'm back."

She couldn't stop her hands from forming fists as she stomped off.

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« Reply #198 on: Sep 12, 2017 06:20 pm »

Iroh looks older than ever as he gazes out over the sea of mists. "Have you heard of the Sun Warriors?"

Aang shakes his head, but doesn't think too hard about it. He's too intrigued by the sight of the stars above and the clouds below. It's a sight that reminds him of the Air Temples, but the mountain peaks here don't stay still. They seem to float on the gray mists, drifting to eclipse some constellations even as they reveal others. Perhaps the peak that Aang and Iroh are standing on right now is bobbing in the same way.

Iroh chuckles. "I expected not. The Fire Nation has been very selective about its own history since Sozin's time. Some parts are forgotten while others are blown out of all proportion. The Sun Warriors were the first civilization on the Fire Islands, before the ancient Explorers came. The Sun Warriors lived in harmony with dragons, and so also became the first Firebenders. While much of Fire Nation culture came from the Explorers, we trace many of our philosophies to the Sun Warriors. My father's name is even derived from their language, and so my niece's is as well."

Aang turns away from the cloud sea and its island peaks to look at Iroh. "Even the Air Nomads have- had only a few legends about the Explorers. What happened to the Sun Warriors?" He knows they cannot be alive now, not if he has never heard of them. And he knows too well what the Fire Nation does with civilizations that do not fit in its view of the world.

But Iroh smiles. "They hid. Although their great kingdoms are gone, a few tribes managed to survive in the wilderness of the Fire Nation. There, they preserve the true philosophy of Firebending. I was fortunate to find them, and am honored to carry their secret." He motions to Aang. "And I think it is an honor you should share with me."

"Wow! Yes, I would be honored! How do I find them?"

"They will find you, young Avatar. I have kept up communications with them, and you are already camped on the shores of their island. When the sun rises, they will be there. And they will share something with you that should help with our plan to lead the Fire Nation back to balance. In exchange, there is a matter with which you could perhaps help them."

Aang likes the sound of that. He closes his eyes and breathes in the cool air, air more pure here than he even remembers of the Air Temples. It fills his body and blows over his skin, and he almost feels cradled, as though he's lying on Appa's tail-

Aang stretched and opened his eyes to find the sun rising above the ocean. Not an ocean of clouds, but a real one, with water that reflected the orange light of the newborn sun. Even the white fur of Appa's tail, all around Aang, glowed with the dawn.

Then Aang noticed that a guy in face-paint and a big feathered headdress was sitting cross-legged right beside Appa's tail.

"Waaah!" Aang hopped to his feet and used a wind to keep himself afloat long enough to strike a fighting stance. "Who are you?"

The man raised his eyebrows. It looked harsh with his deep red face-paint, and the heavy gold around his neck added to the projection of power. "I am Chief Alba, for as long as the sun shines on me. I believe I am expected?"


Oh, the Sun Warriors!

Aang relaxed. "Yeah! Uh, good morning! Prince Iroh said you'd be coming. I just wasn't expecting you to be so soon."

Chief Alba smiled as he stood up. His clothes were evocative of the Fire Nation in their red color, but his tunic was left open in the front to reveal his bare chest and long loincloth. His arms, though, were almost completely covered in bands of real gold. "Sun Warriors like to get an early start on things. I take it you are the Avatar?"

"My name is Aang." He brought his hands together and bowed low at the waist. "It's an honor to meet you and learn about the Sun Warriors. And the big guy is Appa, my animal guide. He's a sky-bison."

Alba bowed to Aang, and then again to Appa. "On behalf of the Sun Warriors, I welcome the Avatar and his guide to our l-"

His words were cut off by a battle cry and the sound of Firebending. Aang whipped his head around to see Prince Zuko popping up from his sleeping bag with a fist extended and flames flying out towards a thin man with a mostly shaved head.

The man brought his hands up and almost caught the flames, and then twisted his arms down to dissipate the light and heat.

By then, Aang had already run over to grab Zuko. "Hold up, these are friends! They're Sun Warriors! They're who your uncle wanted us to meet!"

Zuko blinked. He wasn't wearing his eyepatch, making for a disconcerting sight. "Sun Warriors? But- but they've been gone for- for thousands of years!"

The man who Zuko had attacked smirked. "Are you sure? Did you check?"

Zuko's jaw clenched, and Aang got ready to stop another Firebending attack, but the prince just rose from his sleeping bag and crossed his arms. "So now what?"

"Now we get Toph up!" Aang looked over to where she had made her little earth-tent last night, further up where the sand was more packed, but didn’t see it.

Instead, he found Toph sitting down with more of the Sun Warriors around her, saying something as she gestured wildly.

Chief Alba came up beside Aang. "Yes, we have already met the Earth King. She detected us as soon as we arrived, and we exchanged introductions. I must say, I expected the Earth Kingdom's ruler to be a Bender, but I never imagined anyone could have such power and control to use it as a substitute for yes. The child is impressive."

Aang could easily agree with that. Too bad he was proving to be such a disappointing student to her. "So, uh, since we're all acquainted now, Iroh said that there was something I could maybe help you with?"

Alba glanced over at Zuko, and then back to Aang. "I certainly hope so. But that's what I want to see."

See? "See how?"

"If the Avatar cannot even sense- or find- the problem, then how can I hope for you to fix it?"

Oh. He was saying that Aang had to take a test.

Aang hated tests.

Alba offered a smile. "I will help you, though. I do want you to succeed."

Aang smiled back. "Oh, well, thanks! That's really refreshing. Ever since I got to the Fire Nation, it's been nothing but people challenging me to death duels. And that's when they don't just send assassins."

"Huh." Alba nodded. "That does sound like what I'd expect of them. All I want you to do is trace the connection between me and my Sun Warriors, and the darkness that has come upon us."

Oh. Like Guru Pathik had taught. "I can do that. Um, give me a minute, though?"

Alba sat back down, his legs crossed.

Zuko shuffled over. "What are you doing?"

"Ah, yeah, you haven't been hanging out with us for that long." Aang shrugged. "I can kind of sense the spiritual connections between people and things. It's part of how I can Bridge Worlds, like Avatars are supposed to do. Don't worry, it's nothing too spooky. Even Sokka is okay with it."

Zuko stared like he wasn't sure if he was being made fun of.

Aang figured a demonstration was the best response. He kneeled right in front of Chief Alba and closed his eyes, clearing his mind and trying to focus as he breathed in and out. Alba was a stranger, and Aang wasn't sure how to begin to find the connection. Maybe he should ask to hold one of the chief's hands? Or they could Firebend together, somehow?

Then a pair of little hands came to rest on Aang's shoulders, and Toph's voice drifted into his ears: "Everyone breathes, everyone has a heartbeat. This sand makes it hard to feel, but everyone makes vibrations that go down into the earth. Maybe I couldn't teach you to move grains of sand yesterday, but they're still shaking with the vibrations of all of us. Put your hands in the sand and feel for the vibrations of the guy right in front of you."

Aang figured it was worth a try. He leaned forward and pushed both of his hands into the sand, sliding them into the cool, damp ground until they were covered to the wrists.

"Back up," he heard Toph saying. "Give them some room."

Aang breathed, and focused on his hands. On the sand that pressed against them. He sought movement.

He failed to find any.

"Vibrations," Toph called out from further away. "They flow out with every movement."

"Perhaps," Alba said, "this will help." Aang heard the man stand up, and then felt extra warmth in the dawn air. There was the sound of combustion.

The Sun Warrior Chief was going through a Firebending drill.

And Aang could feel that in the sand. Could feel the pressing of feet against the beach, the shifting of weight. He focused on the movements as conveyed by the sand and the heat of the flames above him, and let that enter the quiet space in his mind at the center of all his meditations.

That's how he found the connection. It linked the chief to the other Sun Warriors around, and to a place a short distance away. Two places, actually. Both high above the ground, but one much higher than the other.

Both were cold.

Aang opened his eyes. "I know where we're going."

Zuko wished he could have seen this all with two eyes, even if the place wasn't in its best state.

Chief Alba and the other Sun Warriors were leading him, Aang, and Toph into what remained of their civilization. It was a massive complex of ziggurats, plazas, statues, and city-buildings, all of it carved from ancient sunbaked stone. Zuko knew it had to be thousands of years old- there were places where the jungle had encroached that looked as twisted and ancient as any forest Zuko had seen. And yet it was all so precisely formed, the stone cut and arranged in ways that even modern architects would have struggled to achieve, at least those that weren't Earthbenders.

But it was all so empty. The place sprawled like a city, but there were no people in the streets, no lights in the buildings.

At least King Toph seemed to be in a better mood, this morning. As Aang led them through the maze of stone streets of the ancient complex, Toph grinned so innocently that the expression seemed alien on her face. "I gotta say, this place is amazing. The stonework is impressive enough, but then all that stuff you built inside it- Wow!"

Zuko frowned. Inside? "What does she mean?"

Aang stopped before a gate. "We need to go through here."

Chief Alba nodded, and stepped towards the gate, to a fist-sized receptacle built into the door. "We have ways of keeping intruders out of our temples. Be glad you are our invited guests, or some of the spots you walked over would have opened up into pits of spikes."

Aang's eyes went wide and Toph's grin turned sharp, but Zuko couldn't say he was surprised. They were the Sun Warriors, after all, so no doubt they were very good at defending themselves. "And that's a Firebending lock there? Fire Temples still use them."

Alba's eyes narrowed. "Keep in mind, Prince Zuko, who the Sun Warriors would want to keep out. We have no problems with Earthbenders or Waterbenders here. There's nothing that would even interest them. Your Fire 'Nation' is the only people in the world who could be a threat to us- who would want to take our treasures or destroy our wisdom."

Zuko didn't know what to say to that. He had no objections, but it pained him that, even here, the Fire Nation was in conflict with itself. He didn't think of the Sun Warriors as something separate but the feeling was apparently not mutual.

Toph slapped his arm. "You're learning a lot of new things today, Princey-Pants. I guess you're a better student than I am a teacher, huh?"

Zuko pushed her away. He hadn't meant to insult her, last night, when he blurted out that she might be a bad Earthbending teacher. He had just been trying to keep the Avatar from getting into a self-defeating mood. But feeling bad about saying something stupid didn't mean he was going to take her disrespect.

Over by the gate, Chief Alba fished into a pouch that hung from his belt and produced a carved orange crystal. It reflected the light of the sun brightly enough to make Zuko squint, but he did see Alba set the jewel into the gate's receptacle. What would that do? There could be a button in the back of the hole, but Zuko hadn't seen any signs of such a thing, and that wouldn't be a very good security system.

The crystal went dull, the light leaving it, and the gate began grinding open.

What could-

"Come," Alba said. "This is our most sacred temple."

The ziggurat beyond the gate was the tallest Zuko had seen yet, with a massive set of stairs going up the front. It was too bad they had left Appa to find his own breakfast at the edge of the jungle.

Alba moved towards the stairs, but the other Sun Warriors remained standing.

Aang looked back at them. "You’re not coming?"

The warrior who Zuko had (accidentally) attacked that morning- Ham Ghao- crossed his arms over his bare chest and looked at the ground. "Just because you're taking a tour doesn't mean we need to subject ourselves to what's up there."

Alba didn't so much as glance back. "It is too painful a sight for them."

Zuko exchanged a glance with Aang. The kid looked appropriately apprehensive as they started up the stairs.

Even Toph was quiet when they came to the top of the ziggurat. There was just a single structure up here, open to the air on three sides, with the pointed, golden roof held up by columns. The lone wall was carved with a flame-shaped alcove in the center, but the space was empty. To Zuko, it felt a little cold, just as Aang had said.

Toph's voice low enough to almost be a whisper. "The space goes down. Deep. All the way below the surface. But- but something doesn't feel right."

Chief Alba nodded. "This used to be where we maintained the Eternal Fire. But it went out, and soon our greatest seers were contacted by Prince Iroh in a dream. He told us that the Fire Nation had won its war against the rest of the world using the Agni Comet, and everything had fallen out of balance."

Aang stepped towards the empty hearth, almost as though he was listening for something. "And what was the Eternal Flame?"

"The Sire of all Flames. When humanity lived in cold and darkness, the dragons gave it to the first Sun Warriors as a gift, and we have kept it burning since then. To have it go out-" Alba's words choked off.

Zuko could scarcely believe what he was hearing. "The First Fire?! You- you've had it all this time? Here?" It was becoming harder to breathe. "I- I don't believe it. And it's gone out?"

The First Fire. The gift from the dragons that had allowed humanity to rise above other creatures, to stand against aggressive Spirits, to shape and build and explore and defend. Just as a person was given life by his or her Inner Fire, the Fire Nation had been given life by that old gift. It was the heart of civilization, second only to the sun itself.

How could he feel such a deep loss for something that he hadn't even known still existed until after it was gone?

Zuko had to sit down. He glanced at Aang and Toph, worried at the weakness he was showing in front of them, knowing that they couldn't understand what he was feeling-

Except neither one seemed confused. Aang was merely leaning on his staff, eyes wet and sympathetic, while Toph had her head lowered so that her hair covered her eyes. She even reached out and patted his head.

Zuko remembered the conversation that Aang and Toph had shared the previous day, about losing their homes to the Fire Nation.

Of course they understood what Zuko was feeling.

Maybe he was just beginning to understand them.

Zuko forced himself back to his feet. "I don't think this is something that the Avatar can fix. The First Fire can't just be- be brought back!"

Aang shifted his staff in his hands. "Yeah. My Firebending would just make my own fire. Ooh, unless my Avatar Spirit can travel back in time!"

Everyone was quiet for a moment.

Chief Alba said, "I don't think so. But this isn't what I wanted your help with. This is just one of the symptoms of the state of the world. There is another symptom you may be able to relieve. Or, at least, Prince Iroh thought it worth a try."

Zuko crossed his arms over his chest. "My uncle is wise. And we'll do whatever we can." But hopefully the only solution wouldn't be to somehow go into the past. The state of the world was proof enough of the impossibility.

Alba nodded. "Avatar, do you know where you need to go next?"

Aang turned away from the hearth to look out across the city. "It was another high place. Higher than this. But I don't see- Oh. Now I do." He pointed.

Zuko followed the gesture to find the dual-peaked mountain that rose up beside the city.

"Yes," said Alba. "We have a long hike, yet."

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #199 on: Sep 12, 2017 06:22 pm »

Aang finally felt his heart lighten a bit as Chief Alba led them towards the mountain. It stood just outside the city, and although it loomed above everything else, it was no more than a day's climb, the sides conquerable with nothing more than a good pair of boots. The strangest part was the two peaks it had, one larger than the other with a deep gap between them. They almost reminded Aang of a dragon's claws.

That wasn't what had Aang feeling better, though. To get to the top of the mountain, they had to pass through the part of the city where the Sun Warriors still lived.

Before they saw anything, they heard it, sounds of life carried by the humid breeze. Aang smiled at the sounds of chanting, of voice raised together in harmony. He didn't recognize the words, and so couldn't tell if it was a simple working song or a hymn born from belief and reverence. Chief Alba brought the group through another gate, this one left open, and beyond that was the last section of the city before the paths up the mountain. Aang looked around as he passed into the neighborhood of smaller buildings, excited to see-


It was a funeral.

Or, at least, some kind of mourning ritual. White linens hung from walls and poles and roofs, while people of all ages and sizes lined the streets and chanted. They were passing bowls of black powder around, each person taking some in hand and scattering it on either their head or feet.

"Ash," Zuko hissed. "They're covering themselves in ash."

Toph sniffed at the air. "Fresh ashes, too. What's that mean?"

Zuko shook his head. "I don't know. Ashes are considered to be filthy garbage in the Fire Nation."

Aang was surprised at Zuko's lack of knowledge. But before he could offer the explanation he remembered from his visits with Kuzon, over a hundred years ago, Ham Ghao spoke up again. "The Fire Nation has forgotten about ashes? What are your people doing out there in your fancy cities? Ashes are what are left after there's nothing left to burn. They are the physical substance of death itself."

Chief Alba added, "My people are mourning their own deaths."

Aang blinked. "Your people are dying? But you all look healthy enough to me!"

Alba shook his head. "It is not the physical form that is the problem. The Sun Warrior culture is about to lose something at its very heart, and even if we survive in body, it will be the end of us. Death of the body will be a comfort."

Aang traded a worried look with Zuko. Toph, of course, didn't meet his gaze.

Finally, Zuko said, "Why would the Fire Nation no longer know the meaning of ashes? That seems like a weird thing to forget, considering it's in half our vulgarities."

Toph perked up. "Did you count them? Is it really half?"

Alba stroked his short beard. "In my discussions with Iroh, I learned about the modern ways of the Fire Nation. I'm sure there are sages in some of your temples who know the truth, but the power of death is no longer a matter for symbols. The people of the Fire Nation live with death every day. The armies deal it out to whole cultures. Everyone knows someone who has died violently. The modern Fire Nation prefers blood as a sign of mortality." He gave a shrug of his heavy shoulders. "Let's get moving. We need to climb the mountain, and it will take us most of the day."

They passed through the neighborhood funeral, down streets dressed up in whites as the people dirtied themselves with the stains of black ashes. The whole time they chanted, and now Aang could hear the mourning in it, the acknowledgement of a passing.

His heart was no longer light as he set foot on the mountain.

Zuko was grateful for the climb.

It kept his body occupied, and gave him something to focus on that was simple. He made the climb into a kind of moving meditation, but unlike normal meditation- which he had always had problems doing right- the climb was a task that he could measure and complete. He had to get to the top of the mountain, and every step carried him forward towards that goal. So long as he was moving up, he could put his mind into a detached rest.

Chief Alba hadn't been exaggerating about it taking most of the day. They were only halfway up when the sun was directly overhead, at which point Alba called for a rest. The Sun Warriors all kneeled right there on the mountain slope, held out their hands to summon a ball of fire in each palm, and turned their faces up directly towards the light of the sun. Eyes closed, they chanted together, something faster and much livelier than the mourning song. That lasted for a few minutes, and then they let their fires fade and broke out something to eat from their knapsacks.

Zuko accepted bread from Ham Ghao, and thought himself fairly restrained for simply glaring in response the man's taunt of, "Do you have this in the Fire Nation, or did your people forget how to bake, too?"

Toph had laughed.

As annoying as it was, it was preferable to the noises the group encountered as they continued their journey through the afternoon. Screeches of a kind Zuko didn't recognize echoed over the mountain slopes. "What are those?"

Toph craned her head. "Nothing I know. And I don't feel anything on the ground but us. So I'm guessing birds of some kind?"

Ham Ghao spat on the ground. "They're not birds. They're parasites, and I'm not surprised an Earthbender can't feel them."

"Parasites," Aang repeated. "How does a mountain have parasites?"

Ham Ghao shook his head. "The chief wants you to see for yourself. But energies flow whether or not they are in balance. The balance only determines what can draw strength from them."

Zuko sought his Inner Fire. "And is that strength a threat to us?"

Ham Ghao's face was a sneer. "Don't worry, despoiler. We take care of the dead, no matter where they come from. Nothing up here can hurt you anymore."

Zuko wasn't sure he could trust that, but nothing attacked them as they continued their climb.

The sun was setting when they finally reached the top of the mountain.

Alba had not led them directly to one of the two peaks. They had only reached the bottom of the gap between the points when they found a courtyard of smooth stone painted to evoke a blazing sun. A long set of stairs led up and then divided to reach to twin caves, one in each of the peaks.

Alba gestured to the stairs. "We are here. This is where the greatest secret of the Sun Warriors can be found. For now." He turned to look at the rest of the group, his face a scowl beneath his face-paint. "Know that we do not share this lightly. Avatar, your disappearance was a failure to uphold your responsibilities towards the world. Prince Zuko, your family has destroyed so much and hurt so many. And King Toph-"

She put her hands on her hips.

Alba shrugged. "We don't like to let outsiders up here. It's nothing personal."

Toph smirked. "It's good."

Zuko swallowed his own discomfort with the reminder that his family couldn't even show love to its own members. "Do you want our help or not? Let's get on with this."

Aang took a deep breath and nodded. "I'm ready."

"Then come," Alba said. He led the way to the stairs, and then turned to follow the right path. "We shall visit this one, first."

As they passed into the cave, they were assaulted by a distinctly sulfurous smell, so thick it nearly made Zuko gag. He recognized it as typical of volcanoes, but he didn't feel the same heat that normally came with active spots. Perhaps there was some deep vent with no escape except through this shaft.

Then Toph gasped. "Wow."

Aang turned to her. "What?"

She blinked, and then shook her head. "As the tubby man said, you need to see it. I'm not going to ruin the surprise."

"It's not far, now," Alba said.

He was right. Compared to the climb up the mountain, it was just a short walk down a sloping path to the dragon's lair.

For that's what Zuko saw when the group emerged into a massive cave.

The dragon's red scales reflected the light that filtered in through a shaft in the ceiling, casting a moving glow that flowed across the rounded walls as the dragon shifted its body to meet their stares. Zuko could tell that it was massive, probably even taller than the Fire Palace at full extension, and its whiskery head had the unmistakable look of age, of the same constant presence as the ruins of the city at the base of the mountain.

That age was also visible in the dragon's clouded eyes.

The whole group was frozen by its gaze, and for a moment Zuko's heart was stabbed by the fear that the dragon would burn them, or maybe just catch them all up in its massive jaws, but then it just snorted and lowered its head down to the floor near its head. The dragon rumbled, a sound almost like a groan beneath the echoing volume. It coiled further on itself, crushing its own wings in the search for comfort, its arms and legs left to poke limply up into the air.

Zuko said, "Something is wrong with it."

He caught Toph's wince, and she turned away from everyone else.

Chief Alba just nodded. "It is the same with the dragon who lives in the other cave. They are the last dragons in the world, the Masters who have guided the Sun Warriors for generations as we refined and passed on our Firebending ways. They are Ran and Shaw, older than time.

"And they are dying."


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