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Author Topic: Traitor's Face [AU Adventure, rated T]  (Read 22141 times)
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 31627

I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #225 on: Dec 19, 2017 12:15 am »

Zuko seemed to be making a bad habit of getting blown up.

The first time had been on Crescent Island, when the Avatar had done something in the Fire Temple there that left Zuko at the bottom of a cliff in a very sore state. He had been unconscious for that experience, so he couldn't say how he had survived.

He seemed to be getting better at exploding. This time, he woke up while he was still falling.

As consciousness returned, his senses were overwhelmed with the roaring of wind. No, not wind; the air was still, and he was the one rushing through it. He looked around, hoping to see a sky bison swooping down to catch, but all he saw was smoke and the ground and-

-and the girl whose arm he had a death-grip on.

Suki's eyes were fluttering, and she didn't seem to be awake yet, but her other hand seemed to be clamped around Kirai's belt. Even explosions and unconsciousness couldn't stop either Zuko or Suki from holding on to what was important.

So they were all going to die together.

But Zuko wasn't just going to give up, even in the face of certain death.

As they fell, he pulled Suki and Kirai closer to him, wrapping his arms around them. He also curled his legs and searched for his Inner Fire. If he could aim and unleash a burst of Firebending with the right timing, maybe he could slow their fall enough for Suki and Kirai at least to-

Then through the smoke and darkness, Zuko spotted wings of orange swooping towards him. It was a glider, riding its own set of winds to arc upwards again, revealing a boy hanging from its underside.

A boy with an arrow on his head.

Zuko went ahead and kicked downward, creating a blaze that pushed back against his fall. It jolted his body and strained at his grip on Suki and Kira, but it felt like they were all slowing, at least for a moment, and maybe the Avatar could-

Aang slammed into them with enough force to knock the air right out of Zuko's chest.

He lost track of everything but his own desperate gasps and the girls in his arms. They were tumbling and the wind battered at them and something clamped around Zuko's waist and everything was spinning and he was being yanked all around and Suki moaned and Aang screamed and-

They crashed.

Things gave way as they tumbled and Zuko still couldn't catch his breath and every impact hurt, but that eternity lasted for no more than a few seconds, and then came to painful, thumping stop against a wall.

Zuko finally relaxed his body, but he still couldn't catch his breath. His vision was going dark and-

-and sweet, cool air forced its way in through his nose and he greedily accepted it.

When his breathing was normal again, he turned his head to find Aang lying right next to him, a tattooed hand still poised from whatever Airbending trick it had just performed.

Zuko said, "Thanks."

Aang smiled, winced, and then settled on a feeble grin. "No problem."

So he was back at war. Zuko couldn't say he had missed it.

Mai had spent far too much of her life wondering what she'd do if a little line of light traced its way through the air in her direction. She had gotten to test those possibilities on Zenmatsu, during the Disciple of the Third's attempt to kill her, Aang, and Toph while they were out on an excursion.

It turned out that what she would do was dodge a lot.

Sure enough, when she saw that same ray of light streaking through the sky towards Appa, she reflexively made a tackling leap out of the saddle to where Aang sat on Appa's head. For her trouble, she knocked away the only human in their group who could fly and got herself tangled in the reins.

Apparently, her instincts thought saving Aang was more important than anything else. Stupid instincts.

Her getting caught in the reins, at least, prompted Appa to veer away just before the ray of light became sound and fury and fire, so instead of being reduced to bison-meat hash, the big guy was only (only!) batted out of the sky with the speed and force of an angry dragon. Mai was dragged along for the ride, but she heard familiar screams go whipping past her as (some of?) her friends and at least one lemur were flung out of the saddle.

Appa roared his displeasure and Mai silently agreed. She didn't dare untangle herself because she couldn't fly, and that left her nothing to do but try very hard not to be sick through the tumbling and twisting and swooping and all the other movements.

It all came to an end when they crashed.

It wasn't so much of a crash as a series of crashes, hard impacts against solid objects of some kind that made Appa give out pained grunts. Each one crumbled against his weight and absorbed some of their speed. Mai felt every impact down to her bones, and after an eternity of jolts, there was one last very loud, very final crash and Appa came to a stop. Mai came to her own stop a moment later when the reins she still wrapped around her snapped taut and nearly broke some of her ribs.

Appa moaned.

Mai did, too.

Something nearby fell apart with a clatter.

Then Sokka's voice slurred, "Sacred slush."

"Never," came Toph's voice in something like a pained reply, "again."

Mai blinked to clear her vision and looked around.

Sokka and Toph were indeed both still in the saddle, one of each of their arms practically wrapped around the grip-holes in the side, their other arms wrapped around each other. Between them, Kei Lo and Sage Shyu had been pinned in place.

Zuko, Suki, Momo, and Kirai were all gone. Aang, too.

And around them-

The Grand Temple?

Sure enough, Appa had come to a very disruptive landing in the center of what Mai had always thought of as The Big Room With Lots Of Statues. The floor was buckled beneath them and a lot of the statues seemed to have been knocked over, if not outright demolished. Mai looked up to find a sky-bison-sized hole in the ceiling, and through it, she could see the remains of what had once been the Temple's central Dragonspine Tower. So that's what those other impacts had been.

Mai pulled one of her larger knives out of her belt and began sawing at the reins that were still wrapped around her. "Well, Kei Lo, I have good news for you. We wound up landing at the Temple, after all."

"I changed my mind," he groaned as Sokka and Toph disentangled themselves and let him go.

Toph immediately climbed out of the saddle to the ground. "Never again. I am never leaving the ground again. When I die, have my corpse dipped in lead so that it'll be too heavy for anyone to lift."

Sokka, however, was patting himself down in what seemed to be good humor. "Hey, as far as crashes go, that was one of my better experiences. Last time, I did it without a sky bison, and broke a rib for my trouble. Remember that, Mai?"

She did, having taken that fall with him back in the awful underground sinkhole fortress, but she felt no need to relive that experience. With a grunt of triumph, she cut through the last of Appa's reins and climbed over to the saddle. "Anyone not named Sokka hurt over here?"

Kei Lo looked down at himself as if surprised by what he saw. "I'm going to be bruised all over, but I seem to be okay. Sage Shyu?"

The older man seemed content to just lay in the saddle forever. "I don't believe I have any broken bones, but my hands won't stop shaking."

Mai nodded. "That's just the result of the sheer terror you experienced. It'll pass, eventually." She leaned over to pet Appa's head. "How about you, big guy?"

Appa gave an expressively 'done with this' snort and closed his eyes.

Yeah, Mai figured he had earned the right to sit the rest of this out. He'd make too big a target for this kind of situation. But that left them without an easy way to go looking for their friends. If said friends were even alive.

She looked over at Sokka. "I don't suppose you saw what happened to everyone else?"

He winced and opened his mouth to speak-

And Toph said, "First I think we still need to figure out what's going to happen to us." She pointed across the room, where a whole bunch of Fire Sages, ranging in expressions from angry to confused to cynically unsurprised, were coming into the room.

Mai raised her hands to show that she wasn't holding any of the blades she was famous for. "Sorry about the mess?"

Sokka snorted. "See, you should have said that you were sorry for dropping in like this. Because we fell out of the sky through their roof."

Without making any sudden movements, Mai leaned over and slapped his head.

Azula had surrounded herself in the Informal Dining Room with neat clusters of papers listing blackmail material for various military figures who were probably already dead, a stack for each name. Unsorted and unread papers were piled behind her, almost like the backdrop to a throne.

Father scattered them all when he burst into the room and ran over to wrap his arms around her. "Oh, Azula! Zuko- your brother-"

Azula didn't know what to do. She just let herself be squeezed.

Father pulled back and looked her in the eyes. "Your brother might be dead. The Avatar's sky bison- it- it was shot down by the Disciple."

Azula gave a laugh before she could help herself.

Father blanched and let go of her.

She'd failed him again, hadn't she? That wasn't what he wanted from her. She quickly forced her amusement down and put a solemn expression on her face. "My apologies, Father. I was just amused at the thought that Zuko could be killed so easily. Yes, he's survived an exploding volcano and a monster made from all the ash that is now Ba Sing Se. He crawled across the Colonial Continent for years with nothing but his wits to keep him alive. Unless you saw his body, I would not take his death as certain."

She left out how funny she found it that another incident of 'friendly fire' would be responsible for Zuko's death, after Father's own friendly fire had ruined Zuko's face.

Father took a shuddering breath, and when he spoke again, his voice had lost its strain. "You really think your brother still lives?"

Azula had not said that, but the idea of seeing Father on the verge of tears again made her stomach clench. "I could go out and look for him, if you-"

"No." Father whirled away from her, starting to pace across the room. "I can't risk losing you out there. It's a war zone, and there's so much chaos! I-" He came to a stop and let his shoulders sag. "I've ruined everything. I tried to keep my family safe, and all I've done is endanger everything."

"No! Father!" Azula started to move towards him, but stopped herself short and bowed her head in deference. "You- you're just- under stress. We knew that seizing power could get messy, but we-"

"Who cares about power?" Father closed the gap and grabbed her arms. "I only wanted you and Zuko to be safe, here. All of this was just to defend ourselves against the ones who would use and harm us!"

Azula blinked. But- but didn't they deserve to rule? Wasn't Father the only one with the strength and vision to lead the greatest nation on all the earth? Wasn't she his chosen, the one he was grooming to serve him and inherit all that he built?

She forced a smile on her face. "You must be tired. I got some sleep, but you've been dealing with everything- quite ably, considering the circumstances- since yesterday. I can go look for Zuko, or take command for you-"

"Azula" Father leaned down over her. "Please, I know you want to help, but I will not risk you. You- I- you are my most valuable asset, and not to be thrown away lightly. Do you understand?"

It made logical sense, although the possible fall of a government seemed like the exact place one would want to use one's best asset.

But she always did everything her father commanded.

"Of course, Father. I will get back to work, and I'm sure Zuko will turn up soon."

Everything he commanded.

For now.

The explosions and commotions almost seemed to form their own music, a harmony of violence with its own tune, but Suki refused to submit to that lullaby. She pushed away pain and shock to force her eyes open, and found herself in the middle of a ruins-lined street that could have been a part of any of the world's war-ravaged cities until one looked closer, saw the size of the half-collapsed buildings and the remnants of once-ornate decorations.

Aang was crouched atop one of those buildings, the sky above him still gray with rolling clouds where it wasn't streaked by black smoke. He seemed to be looking around, and then rolled down the slanted roof and hopped his way to Suki's side.

She pushed herself to her feet. "Where are the others?"

Aang shook his head. "I couldn't spot them, and things are so out of balance here that I can't trace my connections to them precisely. Even Appa and Mai. But I can feel that they're alive."

Suki took what comfort she could from that. Hopefully they'd all live long enough to reunite. "And my sister?"

Aang nodded towards something behind her.

Suki turned to find her sister propped up against one of the shattered buildings lining the street, Zuko checking her out by the light of the flames in his left hand.

In the light, Kirai's face and clothes glistened with blood. She met Suki's gaze, and then let her eyes drop down to her lap. "I got sick on myself when I woke up."

Zuko let his flame go out. "No other injuries. Her only hurts have to be inside."

Suki knew that 'hurts' were an understatement. Who knew what their latest adventure had done to Kirai's insides, on top of the damage from the poison? It was possible that even the antidote wouldn't save Kirai, now.

That didn't mean Suki wasn't still going to try.

She had already lost her parents. She had lost the Unagi Gang. She had lost her fellow Kyoshi Rebels. Even the Fire Nation didn't want her as a servant, anymore.

Kirai might very well be the least of the things left in Suki's life, compared to people like Zuko and all her other friends, but she wouldn't give her sister up on someone else's terms. She was done with having things taken from her.

"Come on," she said as she pulled Kirai to her feet. "We can't carry you." She did support her sister, though, as they got moving.

Zuko took the lead. "The palace is this way. We'll avoid the main lanes; that's probably where most of the fighting is happening. When we get to the palace, I'll go out ahead to make sure we won't be attacked."

Kirai coughed again as they walked, and flecks of blood splattered on the street at her feet. "Good job of that so far."

Suki squeezed her eyes shut and fought back against the urge to make a retort. Why couldn't her sister just save her strength for her survival?

Maybe that's what went wrong, all those years ago with the Unagi Gang. Kirai thought that surviving was about lashing out, even at the people who wanted to love or help her. It was like how the Fire Nation saw its path to greatness in forcing its dominion on the rest of the world.

Suki wished she could have traced that to some trauma, some misinterpreted lesson in Kirai's past. But their parents had died because of a stupid accident, and life in the Unagi Gang had been as much about treating each other like family as it had been about defending their neighborhoods from the Fire Nation. There was no excuse.

"Wait," Aang said, coming to a stop. Suki nearly stumbled with Kirai's weight leaning on her, and her sister groaned.

Zuko's body tensed. "What is it?"

Aang closed his eyes. "I feel something. Something not right. It's- it's in the ground."

Kirai grunted. "I'm an Earthbender, and I don't feel anything. Stop wasting time."

Suki looked to Zuko.

He nodded. "Aang learned a lot about Earthbending from King Toph. If he's worried, I'm worried."

Aang's eyes snapped open. "I'm worried!" He pointed with his staff. "Quick, this w-"

And then the building in the opposite direction as he was pointing began collapsing towards them.

Suki yanked Kirai into a run, and Zuko grabbed Kirai's other side to help them along. Aang spun and swung his staff at the wall tilting over them, knocking it back for a critical moment, and they all managed to outrun the debris, although not the cloud of dust.

Aang twirled his staff, and the dust whipped away to reveal a robed man standing atop the ruins of the building. Suki thought he might be sunburned, at first, but then she realized that the redness of his skin was really words tattooed over every inch of his face and hands.

"Weapon Mutan," Zuko bit out.

"Welcome back to the Caldera, Prince Zuko. I am sure your father will be happy to see you, for it is written that Fathers honor the Sons who carry their Flames to new vistas, while Sons must honor their Fathers, for their Flames have been passed down through the generations, and proper Respect must be paid for what is Given."

Suki couldn't keep from looking at Zuko's eyepatch. She didn't think it earned Zuko's father any respect.

Zuko, though, stepped forward with his hands raised in surrender. "I'm trying to get back to my father. This woman here was poisoned, and I've been charged with bringing her to the palace. Please, help get us there."

But this Mutan guy didn't move. "You have the Avatar with you."

Aang smiled. "That's me! Nice to meet you?"

Mutan took a step down from the rubble. "Prince Zuko, what are you doing? Have you not heard? The Avatar's poison has finally reached the heart of the Fire Nation!"

Everyone exchanged glances. Suki began inching off behind Zuko and Aang, but Mutan snapped a fist into the air, and a wall of stone rose up to cut off the entire street.

Mutan continued climbing down towards them. "You brought the Avatar to the Fire Nation and started our decline, and now you bring him to the palace! Don't you understand any of it?"

"I understand that you're committing treason," Zuko growled. "If you won't help us, at least let us pass."

Mutan balled his fists and actually roared. The ground shook beneath them as he said, "Treason?! Everything is treason now! Azulon is dead and we're fighting the start of a civil war!!"

Zuko's jaw dropped. "Grandfather is- is-"

"The rightful flame of the Fire Nation has gone out and it's the Avatar's curse on us!" Mutan threw his fists out, and a large stone flew up from the ruins of the building to streak towards them.

While Zuko and Aang dodged to either side, Suki pulled Kirai into a dive out of the way. They struck the ground hard, and Kirai let out a heavy groan and pulled herself into a shaking ball. Suki could only just kneel at her sister's side, trying to figure out what to do while the sounds of a fight came from behind her.

Then she heard Mutan cry out, "Enough!" The ground shook again, and Suki turned just in time to see him slap both of his hands to the stone at his feet, and for the street between him and Aang to burst up into-

-into a wave of lava.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 31627

I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #226 on: Dec 19, 2017 12:16 am »

Toph could feel people fighting and dying all around her, and every explosion made her stop and cringe.

She couldn't tell the different soldiers apart. Mai claimed that some were 'Crimson Guard' and some were 'Army' and some 'Home Guard,' but they were all just people in Toph's Earth-sense. They all wore armor, all moved quickly through the streets, and they fought and died the same way. Some moved in groups, others alone, and when they encountered an enemy there would be the chaos of a brawl and pulses that faded away.

Sometimes there would be an explosion, an unexpected crack that split the air and rattled the earth and made a whole group of people just go away. Toph thought she hated feeling someone bleed on a stone floor, but something about a life just winking out in an instant made her shudder.

Of course, Sokka had decided that their group needed to take out this 'Sparky Sparky Boom Man.'

Only the Fire Sages had been able to put up an argument. But the thrust of their logic was more along the lines of, "But Prince Ozai is fighting off a rebellion!" and, "People are getting killed out there!"

It was the first point that Toph found more interesting. Finally, they got some real information about what was going on. It was the usual stuff- royals running circles around each other, flunkies switching sides every time the mud bubbled, soldiers told to stand peacefully in places where they were about to be attacked- but it brought the full picture into relief.

"So the guys trying to invade the palace are, nominally, on our side," Mai had whispered to the group while the Fire Sages cleaned up debris. "If they're trying to arrest Ozai, Iroh will become Fire Lord, and we'll have held up our end of Aang's bargain. He gets the throne, and we get a freed Earth Kingdom."

Toph had nodded. "So we storm the palace. Simple. Sokka, tell me why it probably isn't simple."

But Sokka had given a hum that wasn't his usual gloominess. "Aside from the chance of dying, I actually like the idea. Randomly searching the city for our friends isn't going to find them any quicker than randomly fighting around, and making a spectacle of ourselves might even help them find us."

Kei Lo's pulse had been hammering ever since the other Sages had explained what was going on and helped move Shyu away to recover, but he had nevertheless apparently decided to stick around to help. He had joined their little cluster of conspiracy over by Appa. "We need to slip away carefully. If High Sage Xinghao is still at the palace, the Temples are definitely supporting Ozai. They won't like us going off to attack him. And your sky bison doesn't seem up to flying away again."

But Sokka had perked up. "Maybe not towards the trouble, but-" He went over to stand in front of Appa. "Hey, buddy, do you think you can go find Momo? Stay low and keep away from the palace? I bet Momo is hiding somewhere safe, and then we'll come find you when things aren't exploding anymore."

Toph had seen Mai plead with this pack animal before, back at Ba Sing Se, and once again Lady Gloomy reached out to rub Appa's fur and said, "That's a good idea. I know you're strong enough to do it. We'll find Aang for you, okay?"

Appa had given one of its roars, and then flapped its tail to float- slowly, awkwardly- up through the roof and out of sight.

Thankfully, there had been no immediate explosion.

And so Sokka had said, "Okay, time to go invade the people who decided to invade my home!" And so it they left behind the safety of the Temple.

With Mai's help, they stuck to the smaller lanes and covered ground quickly. Toph could sense soldiers before the rest could see them, so she was able to warn when to move and when to hide.

It was actually going fairly well when Toph sensed a familiar figure on the roof of a nearby mansion. It was distant, almost at the edge of her Earth-sense on top of a building with little stone in it, but there was a grace and steadiness to its heartbeat that was familiar.

Lady Caldera Yu Gerel was above them.

And even though the figure wasn't positioned to be looking at them, Toph had the distinct impression that she was being watched.

"Hold up." She held out a hand to the others, bringing their little procession to a halt at a street-corner. She felt Mai going for some of the blades beneath her clothes, while Sokka's pulse quickened.

Kei Lo looked around as if expecting something to be on the street with them. "What is it?"

And the darkness that was Toph's vision lightened a bit as though the sun was rising above them.

Betting that it wasn't the sun, she twisted and pumped a foot to send a pulse of earth back at her friends that pushed them out of the way of the firestorm coming down on them. Toph raised her fists at the same time to pull the bricks of the street up to form a shield over herself, but she still felt the heat of the attack nearly singing her skin.

As soon as she felt the heat go away, Toph ripped a chunk of the ground up and sent it sailing towards her attacker.

Or, rather, the building the attacker was standing on. The load-bearing columns stuck out against the flimsier material of the walls, and one particular column in particular was the conduit through which Gerel's movements and vibrations were being carried down to the earth. Toph sent her attack straight at that column, and she was rewarded with a nice cacophony.

"Gimme eyes," she barked.

"A wing of the mansion is collapsing," Sokka immediately answered. "That side of the roof is coming down and- sacred slush someone is sliding down towards us shooting fire!"

Toph could feel the heat. There was a lot of it coming down, and she was reminded of Gerel's Agni Kai against Zuko. Princey-Pants had been overwhelmed with a whole sustained conflagration that, he later theorized, Gerel had been able perceive and navigate with a precision no other living Firebender could manage. It had made sense to Toph, as Gerel had already demonstrated that the blindfold she always wore didn't hamper her perceptions in the slightest. Toph could 'see' with her Earthbending, and there was no reason a Firebender couldn't manage something similar.

But Toph couldn't see Fire, and Gerel wouldn't be able to see Earth.

Should be fun.

"Get out of here," she shrieked as she kicked at the ground right in front of her to rip a tunnel open. Three bodies- Mai, Sokka, and Kei Lo- dashed into the safety of the underground, and Toph followed just far enough to get a roof over her head. Then she stopped and threw her fists forward again, extending the tunnel down another city-block. Her friends kept running.

Toph stayed put.

While the others continued on towards the palace, Toph lifted her arms above her head and began punching the ceiling of her tunnel. The force sent shockwaves all through the street's topside, revealing Gerel in all her stupid physical glory and creating people-sized columns of earth to stab upward, forming a maze of stone. When Toph judged that she had created enough interference, she stomped the tunnel floor and raised one last column to carry herself back to the surface. As she passed through the stone of the street, she drew her arms close, calling the earth to her and fusing it together into full-body armor. Toph covered everything, from her head to her toes, leaving just enough gaps in the stone plates to allow her to move and breath.

The rock felt cool against her body.

But then, that was the point.

Between the obscuring columns of stone and the armor, Toph was betting that she was pretty close to invisible to Gerel.

When Toph reached the surface, she found a blaze of fire waiting for her, and Gerel moving quickly through it in an erratic path. Toph was tempted to try to follow it, to come up from behind, but she knew that Fire didn't stay put like Earth. The paths would be changing by the moment.

So Toph slipped between columns and tried to circle around Gerel, hunting like a pack of wolf-bats running down an isolated baby badgermole, preparing a strong strike to take out a Weapon of the Fire Nation with one blow-

-and Gerel spun and punched out a thin spear of a blazing fireball that broke through columns to strike Toph right in the center of her armored chest.



Gerel heard Toph coming.

Good to remember.

The stone burned against her.

Zuko was having a hard time keeping his mind on the Lavabender who was trying to kill him.

It was just that it was all so wrong. The Caldera, one of the most perfect places in the world in Zuko's memory, was being ruined. It smelled of smoke and soot and fire and violence, akin to the reek of one of the Earth Kingdom's Ashlands. The sight of the ruined buildings could have come from any number of colony villages he had passed through during his exile, places that the Fire Nation had attacked in their efforts to spread peace and civilization.

Now it had all come home, straight to the center of the Fire Nation. Peace and civilization.

And it was all Father's fault, according to Mutan's ranting.

Zuko darted across the cracked courtyard of some abandoned manor, away from a flying rock that was half-melted into glowing lava. It struck the carriage house behind him to immediately set the building's outer walls on fire, and he grabbed at the newborn flames without breaking his strike to toss them back at the Lavabender.

Hopping out of the shelter of the half-crumbled manor behind him, Aang added to the attack with his own fireball and a block of stone he lifted up and sent sailing with a swipe of his staff.

Zuko hoped that Aang had been able to hide Suki and Kirai somewhere safe. Suki was a fantastic warrior, but there was little she could do against lava.

Mutan defended himself by arcing his forearms and pulling columns out from the courtyard to swipe across the path of the attacks. "Prince Ozai delivered us from the Heretics, and it is only by Faith in Fire can we be saved." He let two of the pillars remain standing, and pushed with both hands as if hefting a sandbag, using more power than Zuko had seen in any other Earthbending style. The columns collapsed forward as they melted into lava. "The military and the people have lost their Faith, and only the Fire can restore it in a Baptism of pain and blood."

One pillar groaned as it tipped towards Zuko, and the liquid portion popped and splattered even as he tried to leap clear. The glowing lava sprayed into his path-

The air turned solid at Zuko's side and shoved him to safety.

Zuko skidded across the ground even as Aang dashed past him and spun his staff into a glider. The Avatar flew over the lines of glowing lava that crisscrossed the street and courtyard, but Mutan slapped both of his hands down on the ground at his feet, and the sitting lava boiled and bubbled and the air shimmered with the heat of it. Aang cried out as his glider suddenly sailed upward, dragging him along on a current of hot air.

Mutan gasped out the most humorless laugh that Zuko ever heard. "All other elements are under the dominion of Fire! Water, Earth, and Air all fall before it, and bow in their allegiance to it, for the Fire came before all when it lit the Void and gave Life to the world!"

This was what Father had unleashed on his own people, on his own home. Grandfather was dead (murdered?), the military was in rebellion, and the Capital was burning. The Weapons had been sent out to destroy homes and take lives in Father's name.

Zuko had wanted to come home to discover, for himself, if Father really was capable of burning him on purpose, if the fireball that had taken his eye and half his face had been more than an accident. He thought he would have to look his Father in the face, talk to him, immerse himself in their relationship.

But, really, this was answer enough.

All of it was.

Mother's disappearance.

The way Father had used him as a distraction at the walls of Ba Sing Se without telling him.

What Azula had been raised to be.

The mysteries around the burning of Hira'a.

The poisoning of Suki's sister just to force Zuko to come home.

He knew what he'd see when he finally got back to the palace. He'd see a man capable of attacking his own son in a fit of fury.

Mutan moved like he was shoving again, a fluid motion so unlike either Firebending or Earthbending but with a sluggishness that couldn't be of Water or Air. The ground beneath his hands lit up with an orange glow and erupted into a geyser of lava, and then he pushed down to send the surge flowing out in a spreading wave.

Zuko shook himself from his thoughts again and moved to avoid the latest attack, but as he began to move, he realized he had let himself get boxed in. Half-cooled lava still lay splattered in his path, a mix of runny stone and dancing fire, and when he turned back the other way, he found that a pool of even more lava oozing towards him-

-Mutan's wave was coming down towards Zuko's head-

-he twisted and threw himself back towards that first direction, where the lava was almost solid again, and kicked out with his feet to extend his Inner Fire out to the ground. His boots had barely cleared the ground when the fire struck against the stone and exploded, the shockwave flipping him into a spin through the air.

He tucked his arms and legs in-

-felt the heat of the gooey rock beneath him-

-and his back struck a spot of the courtyard that was only slightly warm. He had never been so happy to crash to the hard, ragged ground.

Aang landed in a crouch beside him.

Zuko scrambled back to his feet. "We're running out of room."

Aang nodded. "Got it."

Mutan was still crouched down, hands against the ground, and the hot glow was continuing to spread out across the whole area.

Aang reared back, inhaled more deeply than Zuko would have expected of that little body, and then leaned forward to exhale a gale at the same time he pushed out with both hands in a kind of undulating motion.

Crystals formed just past Aang's hands and flew out to tinge all of the air beyond. The atmosphere grew chilled, and Zuko found himself instinctively hugging himself at the sudden cold. Aang grinned as the lava in front of them cracked and cooled. "Learned that one from Katara."

Zuko was starting to understand how Waterbenders had thwarted Azula at Crescent Island.

Mutan backed away, his body tensing, but Zuko leaned forward. stoking his Inner Fire and preparing to bring it forward in as many attacks as it could fuel-

-and the ground rose up to trap Zuko's feet and lock him into place.

Aang tried to jump, but his feet were trapped, too.

Zuko heard movement behind him, and looked to find Kirai stumbling out from the ruins of the manor, her arms bent at her side and her legs settling into something almost like a horse stance despite her obvious pain.

She grinned through the dried blood that stained her mouth. "Hey, Lavabender. Prince Ozai wants Zuko and me at the palace. The Avatar is a curse on the world or whatever. I've captured them for you, and request safe passage to the palace." She coughed, and spat on the ground.

All thoughts of Father flew from Zuko's mind.

Betrayal was good at focusing him.


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« Reply #227 on: Dec 19, 2017 12:16 am »

Mai emerged from the dark underground onto the street right in front of her parents' mansion.

She was so surprised by the sight of her home that it was Sokka who had to point out, "Hey, where did Toph go?"

Mai tore her eyes away from the past and looked around, and sure enough, only Sokka and Kei Lo stood behind her. Well, as far as she could figure, there were two possibilities. One was that the Earth King who made up for her blindness with super-Earthbending or something had gotten lost in a straight tunnel. The other was proved true when a light like bonfire burst into being several blocks back in the direction of Toph's escape path.

Right, stupid rearguard action it was, then. She pulled a pair of razor disks from her sleeve. "We need to go back and help her. Gerel is too good even for-"

And then she saw the line of pure light extending from up from the gate of the palace and oh ash she forgot she lived across the street from the Fire Lord and she grabbed Sokka and Kei Lo and dove behind her home's outer wall-

-and then her home blew up.

Suki was sick of her sister hitting her.

She had been watching the fight that Zuko and Aang were waging against the Lavabender, trying to find some way to help them. She wished, for the first time in her life, that she was Mai, detached and deadly and able to throw knives faster than a diving cheetah-hawk.

But Suki was just Suki, and the only thing she had was a terrible sister.

The blow had come out of nowhere, and explosion of pain and darkness right at the base of Suki's skull that sent her into darkness. She never quite lost consciousness, not with the threat of pain to anchor her to reality, and managed to force her eyes back open to find the shattered remains of a rock on the floor around her that looked to be about the size of Kirai's fist.

She crawled back the way Aang had led them before, towards the fight and the heat of lava.

She found Kirai standing just outside a hole in the wall of what seemed to have once been a music room. Beyond her, the Lavabender was walking across a field of black lava-rock, crunching with each step. "You are an Earthbender?"

Suki spotted Zuko slashing at his feet with spikes of fire, chipping away at shackles of stone that held him in place. The rock was too dense and strong to yield, just like an Earthbender could make it with a little effort.

Kirai nodded, her back still to Suki. "An Earthbender who knows that Fire is superior."

Next to Zuko, Aang swung his fist up, but no element responded to his movement. He tried again, the stone covering his own feet rattling a bit, but he remained trapped.

Kirai's fists shook as she kept them tight.

A smile twisted Mutan's tattooed face. "I greet you, Sister. Hold your captives for another moment, and then I will rush you to the palace myself." He threw both of his arms out, and the blackened field of rock in front of him lit up with the heat of lava. It flowed towards Aang-

-Zuko roared defiantly-

-Suki stepped right up to Kirai, grabbed her shoulder to spin her around, and landed a solid palm strike straight into her abdomen.

Suki had not held back. As she always did, she struck as though aiming at a point beyond her target, and Kirai's stomach collapsed against the blow.

A wave of blood burst past Kira's lips.

Her face went pale.

She blinked as though surprised by what she was seeing.

She coughed.

Her eyes went dull.

Kirai fell to the ground at Suki's feet.

It seemed to have taken an eternity, but it was all over before the rock at Aang's feet finally exploded to dust and he leaped above the wave of lava, snapping his glider out to ride the hot air to safety.

Suki turned and caught the shock on the Lavabender's tattooed face.  "Deception? But-" And then Zuko's fireball hit that face, blowing the body back. Good. Zuko and Aang were safe.

Suki looked down.

Kirai wasn't moving. Her eyes stared at nothing. She didn't seem to be breathing. Knowing what she would find, Suki crouched over her sister and checked for a pulse.

There was none.

Suki had just killed her big sister.

She closed Kirai's eyes.

It was the poison that had really done it, of course. Suki was no practitioner of the Death Touch. It had been a blow that, on anyone healthy, would simply stun for several moments and leave a sore stomach for a while longer. But the poison had been eating at Kirai's insides, and Suki's blow had hammered at exactly that weak point.

She wished could say it was an accident.

She hadn't made a conscious choice to kill her sister, but there had been an immediate need to strike hard and fast enough to save the boys, and she had satisfied that need according to her warrior's instincts.

Suki had suffered one last blow and one last betrayal from her sister. But now it was done.

She didn't come back to reality until Zuko's hand came to rest on her shoulder. Aang stood behind him, the Avatar's face reflecting the feelings in Suki's gut.

Zuko nodded at her. "I'm sorry."

She forced herself to stand up, leaving Kirai on the ground. "No, I am. I knew what she was like. We-" She made herself say the truth, "We never should have- should have tried to save her in the first place."

Aang gasped.

But Zuko just looked at her with understanding in his single eye. "My Father will answer for this. I promise."

That, Suki could accept. "Okay. What next?"

Zuko turned to a dark, sharp spire that rose up in the distance. "We go home and end this."


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« Reply #228 on: Jan 02, 2018 04:27 pm »

The Fall of the House of Fire - Part 1

Mai was so sore that she didn't immediately realize she'd been impaled.

She shifted to get off of Sokka and Kei Lo, having ended up on top of them when she yanked them all to safety. There was pain as she moved, but considering that she had been close to the Disciple of the Third Eye's explosions twice now- once when he tried to blow Appa out of the sky, and now he had just destroyed her parents' mansion in an attempt to explode her directly- she couldn't muster up any surprise.

Then she shifted her weight onto her legs and the only thing that kept her from screaming was her inability to catch her breath.

She collapsed to her right, spinning as she fell to land against the outer wall of her parents' mansion. She had tackled Sokka and Kei Lo here to hide from the Disciple, and now it was the only thing left standing on the property, Mai herself included. The mansion had been reduced to a cloud of dark smoke and a few small pieces of wood, some of which were still on fire.

The jagged wooden rod that had impaled Mai straight through her right thigh was, thankfully, not one of the burning ones.

From over the wall, the clank of metal on the stone street echoed. The Disciple was coming.

"Mai?" Sokka got up from the ground, Kei Lo a moment behind him, and when he spotted her, his eyes went wide and he sucked in a breath between his teeth. "Oh, slush, that looks bad!"

Mai examined her wound. The rod was fairly smooth and maybe about as wide as a coin, with its current length a little shorter than her arm, although the sharp jagged end was testament to a larger origin. She could probably slide it out, although it would be both agonizing and a good way to bleed to death. As it was, her dark pants obscured whatever bleeding she was doing.

The Disciple's metal leg again clanged on the street.

"Bad or not, we can't stay here." She tried pushing herself up with her arms, hoping that keeping the weight off her leg would allow her to move. "We need to get-"

The jagged end of rod nudged the ground, and the pain that exploded out across her whole thigh ripped away her strength and left her slumped back against the wall.

Another metal footstep.

When Mai could speak again, she gasped, "On the other hand, I like it here. I grew up in that pile of rubble."

Sokka leaned over to examine the wound.

On her other side, Kei Lo hugged his legs to his chest. "We're going to die here." Sweat was glistening on his shaved head. "Without you, we don't have any way to fight the Disciple."

Sokka snorted. "Don't worry, we're good at running away. I think we can carry Mai along if we cut this rod down."

Mai nearly choked at the thought. "But I'll bleed-"

"Not if we leave the part that's all jammed in your leg. I'll just cut the ends off, so you won't wrench your wound." Sokka pulled his knife out of his belt, and looked to her. "Okay?"

Mai sighed. "Ffffine."

"Um, sorry in advance because this will probably hurt like crazy."

Mai tugged off her left glove as another footstep echoed, and even that much movement created waves of discomfort. She folded the glove over and over. "Even if this goes- ugh- well, I'm not walking anytime soon. And neither of you will- nh- be able to outrun an explosion with my weight on top of you."

Kei Lo perked up. "I can carry you by myself, if something distracts the Disciple."

Sokka blinked. "So that leaves me to set a trap for Sparky Sparky Boom Man's attention." He blinked again. "Well, that's not going to be fun."

Even in pain, Mai could do the math. Kei Lo was just an apprentice Inferior Sage, not a warrior. Sokka was more capable, but he was still talking about making himself a target for a guy who could blow up buildings with a thought.

She looked back at her childhood home, now reduced to a small pile of chopsticks. "This whole situation licks ash."

Sokka nodded again and brandished his knife. "Ready? We need to make this quick."

Another footstep. Good thing the big guy was never in a hurry.

Mai stuck her folded glove between her teeth and bit down on it. "Rddy."

He began sawing.

She had to wrap her arms over her mouth to stifle her shrieks.

By the time it was done, she felt like she had squeezed her eyes dry of tears.

She took her glove out of her mouth and hissed, "Slush, that hurt." Huh, it actually felt good to say. Maybe she'd pick it up. "Slush it, let's get going."

Kei Lo helped her up, and her thigh felt no better, but at least the stick still stabbing all the way through wasn't knocking against anything with its shorter length. It also felt like the area around the wound was wetter. Hopefully, she wasn't losing blood at an especially fatal rate.

Once she was on her feet and leaning against Kei Lo, Sokka gave her one last nod. "If you find Toph or Aang or anybody, feel free to send help. I- uh- well, I'm not so much hoping to win against this guy as not lose, you know?"

Mai understood. Resting her full weight on Kei Lo, unfastened the bolt-launcher she wore on her right wrist and tossed it to Sokka. She followed it up by removing and giving him the other one as well. "I expect those returned in working order."

Sokka didn't say anything, but he did grin as he clipped them on.

Mai nodded to Kei Lo. "Now we can go. There's a servant gate around the other side of the house- er, the ruins, I mean." They got moving, and Mai heard the sound of Water Tribe boots against the street.

Then the air cracked with the sound of an explosion.

Kei Lo kept them moving.

Sokka's voice echoed from down the street, "Have you ever thought about a career in demolitio- yyyyyyikes!" His scream diminished as he apparently ran like the wind.

The air cracked again as Kei Lo dragged Mai along.

By the time Zuko arrived at the palace, the blasting had moved.

For a while, the sound of the explosions had eclipsed the din of other fighting, and for all the death it portended, it was a helpful thing. Each boom that reverberated from the palace district was an opportunity for Zuko, Suki, and Aang to make a dash to the next bit of cover while their own noise was inaudible. In the quiet moments, they used the sound of swords and Firebending and shouts to identify what areas to avoid.

It took longer, but now that they were no longer rushing to try to save Kirai, they could make a proper effort to avoid the fighting across the Capital. They had even taken the time to scrounge a dao sword for Suki from the detritus of some earlier fight.

But in a few cases where they did encounter an unexpected soldier, no matter whether it was Crimson Guard or Army or Home Guard, they acted together to disable the soldier quickly and quietly.

After Mutan, they no longer trusted anyone to be on their side.

After Kirai, they couldn't.

A last burst of explosions had enabled them to make a long run for the palace district, but all they found when they arrived was more rubble and smoke. The Disciple of the Third Eye wasn't anywhere to be seen, and the sounds of his attacks were coming from elsewhere; he must have been drawn off or forced into a retreat by someone.

That left the Proud March, the massive space between the rest of the city and the palace's outer walls, empty of life. The smooth brick ground was pock-marked from the Disciple's work, but beyond it all, beyond the outer walls, the palace stood undamaged and unblemished.

On the other side of one of the twelve segments of the Proud March, Mai's house was smoking ruins. Zuko wondered if that meant she was no longer of the Caldera clan.

He waved Aang and Suki forward. "Come on. Almost there."

Zuko led them across the Proud March, to the outer walls, to the gate that had been left open. He paused there, crouching at the edge and peeking out to see what waited beyond the walls. He heard the boots on the path before he saw anything, and ducked back as a six-person squad of Crimson Guard jogged out and took positions on the Proud March.

Not seeing any reason to bother the Guards while their backs were turned, Zuko waved Aang and Suki to follow him through the gate. They were able to walk straight up to the palace, and Zuko opened the doors to find two startled Crimson Guards caught mid-step.

He snapped into a Firebending stance.

The Guards took defensive postures.

Suki lifted her sword.

One of the Guards took a step-

"Hold up!" The Avatar put his staff on the ground and raised his hands. "This is Prince Zuko! We're not here to fight!"

The armored helmets turned towards Zuko. He nodded at them. The helmets turned back to Aang, and one Guard said, "You're the Avatar."

"Sure am."

"We weren't told to let you in. And who's this girl?"

Zuko nodded at Suki. "She's with me. My bodyguard."

The Guards turned their helmets to glance at each other, and one said, "I think this is going to be a problem."

Aang lowered his hands. "Are you really going to attack me?"

The Guards were very still. The leader said, "Um-"

Zuko snorted. "I hope you brought back-up, because that's the Avatar. You know, the Bridge Between Worlds, Master of the Four Elements, a thousand lifetimes worth of fighting experience? He completed an Agni Budokai, just to prove he doesn't need any Bending. Do you really want to fight him?"

The two helmets turned to face Aang.

The kid actually grinned and shrugged.

The helmets swiveled back to face each other.

Suki added, "You know, if you wanted to go and ask, maybe things have changed, and it's okay for the Avatar to come in now."

Zuko nodded. "It's likely."

Aang casually leaned against the door. "I don't really want to fight anyone, so I think it's a good idea. And I don't mind waiting."

The two helmets nodded, and then the leader ran back deeper into the palace.

Zuko maintained his stance and waited.

A few minutes later, the Guard returned and said, "It's okay! They can all come in! Piandao's waiting in the hall."

Aang smiled and used his Airbending to pull his staff back into his hands.

Zuko relaxed out of his stance. "Take us to him." As the Guards escorted them through the Hall of Pillars, Zuko leaned towards Aang to whisper, "How did you know that would work?"

The kid shrugged. "I figured it was worth a try. I'm really tired of fighting people I don't need to."

It had been years since Zuko had been in the Hall of Pillars, but after a statement like that, the mood of the whole thing had been ruined.

Not that Zuko could really muster the proper mood. The dark pillars and the carved golden dragons had once consistently impressed him with their majesty and symbolic power, but now he just found it sinister. He had nearly starved during his journeys through the Earth Kingdom, and he had seen more than enough to know that it was hardly an uncommon plight. The war had used- or destroyed- food and supplies for both the colonists and the natives, so there wasn't always enough to go around. The colonists were always favored, in those situations, but some still went hungry or without a home.

And yet this gold all stood here, doing nothing.

Zuko knew that opulent palaces had their purposes, that impressing people with wealth and refinement could stop wars before they started, but what was the point of this excess when they went out to conquer the world anyway, when war had already engulfed their own capital?

Zuko and his friends were led into the main hall to find the remains of an encampment. A few members of the Crimson Guard were scattered around, the injured on pallets and the rest moving around on one task or another. In the center of it all, Piandao Hundredslayer stood speaking with a man in especially ornate Sage robes.

When Piandao saw them, he broke off his conversation and bowed low. "Prince Zuko, welcome home at last. It is very good to see you in fine health. Allow me to offer my sincere apologies for the circumstances." He straightened and produced a glass vial from his belt. The clear liquid within glistened in the light of the lamps. "I was told to give this to Kirai of Kyoshi Island."

The pretty words and polite tone couldn't stop Zuko from clenching his fists as he glanced at Suki. She completed wilted at Piandao's words, and Zuko worried that she wouldn't be able to remain standing. He tried to dismiss the matter with a wave. "That is no longer necessary. And I intend to have words with my father about it."

The Sage scampered back a few steps, but Piandao's expression didn't change as he bowed to Suki. "I am truly sorry for your loss. As far as I know, Kirai served loyally before any of this started, and she was ill-used."

Suki inhaled deeply, and then once again stood like a capable and dangerous warrior. "I don't care what you have to say. I'm here to help end all this awfulness."

Zuko stepped over to stand beside her, and he heard Aang taking up a position behind them. "Where is my Father?"

Piandao inclined his head. "Once again, I must apologize. Prince Ozai is getting some sleep, and left orders that he is not to be disturbed for any reason. In the meantime, I can get you some food and a place to rest for yourselves. We don't have much, but-"

"I don't want food or rest!" He couldn't help recalling his most vivid memory of Piandao, of the last time he saw Mother. Zuko had been out in the rear courtyard of the palace, practicing his Firebending even after the sun had gone down. Mother and Piandao had emerged together in hooded cloaks, no entourage with them, not even a torch to light their path.

When Zuko had tried to find out what was going on, Piandao's tone had remained reasonable as he answered, 'This has nothing to do with you, my Prince. Go back inside, go to bed, and everything will be fine.'

But the next morning, Mother had been gone, and she never came back.

She had said, 'Don't worry yourself about me. Good night, Zuko. I will always protect you.' But it had been a lie. If she was alive, she was far away. Perhaps she had burned with Hira'a. Perhaps Piandao had just stabbed her and left her in a ditch somewhere to rot.

Zuko was not going to let Piandao once again keep him from doing the right thing. He let his Inner Fire flare, and brought flames to life with a snap of his hands. "There's a civil war just outside the palace! I'm going to stop this right now! Where is Father?"

Piandao frowned. "I am sorry, my Prince, but I fear I was not clear. Prince Ozai left orders that he is not to be disturbed. I am overseeing things in his absence, and am responsible for enforcing his orders. The matter is closed."

Around the hall, most of the standing members of the Crimson Guard shifted, centering their weight and taking positions that would allow them to fight at a moment's notice. The rest moved to help the injured out of the room. No doubt they all wanted to be subtle, but a full set of armor could only be so silent. They were preparing for a fight.

Piandao's glanced at the guards, met Zuko's gaze, and shook his head with a smile. "My, everyone is so tense. Please, let's all just relax. We don't want any unpleasantness here in the palace."

"Yes," a voice rang out that sent shivers down Zuko's spine. "Even though a war is raging right outside, we must keep things pleasant, hm? It would be ever so crass to clobber each other right here in the front hall."

Zuko looked up to see Azula striding down the hall's central staircase, rolling her eyes at them all.


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« Reply #229 on: Jan 02, 2018 04:30 pm »

Mai's first instinct, without her own home to offer her shelter, was to head to Ty Lee's place.

Not that anyone would be there. Ty Lee was traipsing around with Katara, somewhere, and her sisters were all back on Ember Island. Their dad's bones were probably lost in a canyon near Omashu. And judging from what she had seen while flying in on Appa, their mom was probably camped out in the Royal Plaza outside the volcano with the rest of the Caldera's evacuees.

But Mai knew the place as well as her own home. She preferred to go to ground on her own turf.

The manor was scorched in places, but still mostly intact. Mai let Kei Lo practically carry her up the front steps, and then leaned on him just long enough to get through the doors into the foyer. Once they were out of sight, she finally let herself collapse, leaning against the closest wall and sliding down to the floor. It was only slightly agonizing, and then she could at last just stay still and rest.

She hoped Sokka wasn't dead. She hadn't heard an explosion in a little while.

Kei Lo sat down beside her. "How's your leg?"

Mai didn't bother looking at it. "I think I impaled it on something. Go find a healer for me."

He blanched. "Um- I- I don't know if- maybe back at the Temple, but-"

Mai groaned. "Oh, knock it off, I was joking. It's how I handle blood-loss."

"Oh." He leaned back against the wall, but his eyes stayed glued to her. "So, uh, what is the plan? Just wait here for someone to find us?"

Mai kept her face blank. "Who would know to look for us here?" She sighed, pulled one of her razors out of her sleeve, and whipped it at a hanging mural on the other side of the foyer that Ty Lee's mom particularly loved. "Slush. We're out of the fight. Not that you were ever in the fight, but there's nothing either of us can do now. The Temple is too far with all the fighting, and we didn't find any sign of Aang or Zuko. Or Suki, either."

Kei Lo was quiet for a moment. "So, we're just hunkering down? Together?"

Mai said, "Slush," again. It was really habit-forming.

"And you're sure no one can find us?"

If only. She could only hope that Aang wasn't depending on her to come and help him.

Kei Lo leaned towards her. "You know, I'm really sorry about this. You probably noticed, but I find you very impressive." His cheeks colored, and he smiled. "And attractive."

Mai blinked. Was this moron really doing this now?

And then Kei Lo leaned towards her-

She had a blade up to his neck before he could blink. "I changed my mind. I'm hunkering down. You're going back to the Temple. Right now."

She never saw his hand move. One moment he was looking at her the way most boys looked at Ty Lee, despite the fact that she was threatening his life. The next, pain exploded from her thigh and she was squealing and dropping her blade as he used one hand to press down on the stick impaling her. Then he was putting his other forearm across her throat and pushing her against the wall and pressing and she couldn't breathe-

She gagged, unable to ask the questions that burned in her chest.

But Kei Lo must have seen them in her eyes, because he shook his head as he choked her. "I would have liked to keep you alive. To court you, even, if there had been the opportunity. But the Avatar saved you from my trap and the knockout vapors back on Sage Guan's ship, and now that the F-" He blinked, his voice failing, and tears ran down his cheeks. "Now that the- the Fire Lord is dead- There's no other choice."

Mai tried to say something, to insult this moron and ask him what he was talking about and scream for help, but all that emerged from her mouth was a rasp. If he had sabotaged their plan to get smuggled aboard Sage Guan's ship, then he was the one ultimately responsible for all her friends who had been hurt today, for Aang if-


Kei Lo sniffled and he looked at her with something like understanding. "Azulon lifted me from darkness, made me his Weapon and gave me a purpose. First to spy on the Sages for him, and then to deal with the Avatar."


The Ninth-

"Now, I- I-" His breath hitched, and then he snarled and twisted her to the ground hard enough to slam the back of her head into the floor.

Reality swam.

She needed to breathe.

Through a ringing in her ears, she heard Kei Lo whisper, "I cannot allow any of the traitors responsible for his death to live. I'm sorry."

The Weapons were all experts in something. Kei Lo was a master of being underestimated-

She tried to squirm free, but she couldn't find the strength. Kei Lo kept his very solid forearm pressed against her throat as his salty tears splashed on her lips.

Darkness swarmed at the edges of her vision.

Slushing ash.

Azula couldn't deny that she loved a dramatic entrance. She took her time coming down the stairs while everyone- Zuko, Piandao, the Avatar, High Sage Xinghao, the leftovers of the Crimson Guard, and even little Suki- stared at her.

The Avatar tilted his head. "And who are you?"

"You don't see the family resemblance?" She grinned at him as she took the last steps. "Maybe if I poked an eye out?" She shut her left eye and made a scowling face.

Over behind his pillar, Xinghao made a choking sound.

Zuko squared his shoulders and glared at her. "What do you want, Azula?"

She walked across the hall and moved her gaze to Piandao, taking her time. She didn't want her guests to think she answered to Zuzu. "I convinced Father to take a nap, but he didn't come back upstairs. So he must be on the first floor. The Throne Room is hardly comfortable, nor is it secure. But I do remember some rooms around here, hidden little alcoves behind the walls where a person can isolate herself in her own world, even if invaders stormed the place."

Piandao said nothing, but his eyes were hardly friendly. But that was okay with her. After Father had agreed to get some rest, Azula had expected to be placed in command, but it was Piandao who remained in charge of the war.

True, Piandao had more military experience than her, but he had been up all night with Father. Azula, on the other hand, had been preparing her whole life for leadership on the battlefield, but was still the one member of the Royal Family who had never been tested in war. She had been called a prodigy in every field of endeavor she tried, lauded as the member of the family with most potential for greatness.

And she was still left to read the spy-notes of a pair of old women who hadn't seen their death coming.

She wasn't even angry with Father. She had failed him, had caused this whole horrible situation. It was understandable why he wouldn't want to make use of her.

It was the fact that he was lying about it that really ate away at Azula.

The lies and secrecy- the frequency with which he banned her from his suite, the way he hid his past dealings with Lady Gerel, the frequent deflections from a real explanation about what had changed for him when Zuko was banished- had been going on since long before Azula messed up with Li and Lo.

She always did everything that her father commanded.

But she was hardly a fanatic. She turned to Zuko and winked.

Then she snapped back and grabbed for Piandao's face with a flaming hand.

Before her palm or any of the fire reached his skin, though, he broke into a blur of motion that somehow smacked her arm aside even as he drew his sword and she stepped backwards and started to sink into a sweeping flame-kick but there was a sound of scraping metal and a flash of reflected light and a coldness at the end of her left arm-

And Azula realized that the blade of Piandao's sword was sticking straight through her left shoulder and cleanly out the other end.

She blinked at it.

He had stabbed her.

Right behind Azula, there was the sound of a drop of liquid on the floor. Probably her blood.

Analysis: no damage to the bone, not enough blood for a major artery to have been cut, and her armor was still intact. A minor wound, except for the fact that she was still skewered. And it was starting to hurt.

Piandao, too, stared at the blade and blinked. His facing turned thoughtful as he no doubt went through the same analysis. Was he surprised? Had he simply acted on pure instinct, her danger too close and fast for him to even think?

The thought warmed her against the cold steal piercing her flesh.

Careful not to shift her body at all, lest the wound be made worse, Azula arched her head and passed her gaze over everyone in the room. "This fool just stabbed a member of the Royal Family. Does anyone have an opinion on that?"

The various members of the Crimson Guard still around all moved in towards Piandao, flames coming to their hands.

Mai was afraid that her last sensations would all be about that rat Kei Lo, that she would die with his voice in her ears and his forearm across her throat and the smell of his sweat in her nose.

So she didn't argue when, as the darkness was about to take her, she heard something like Ty Lee's voice ring out in fury.

Then all the weight on her was removed, including her throat, and she sucked air in desperately as she tried to get up. But everything was still going dark, her head still spinning dizzily, and she felt her body twist as she fell again.

She couldn't have been out for more than a moment, because when she opened her eyes again, Kei Lo was behind her, propping her up and holding a knife- one of her knives, from the feel of the blade's shape- against the skin under her chin.

And in front of her, Ty Lee and Katara stood side-by-side, tensed in attack stances and looking very, very angry.

Suffering from both oxygen deprivation and shock, it took Mai a moment to realize what was going on. "W- wait, am I a hostage?"

Ty Lee's fierce expression twisted into something like a smile. "Well, yeah? Sorry, I should have hit him instead of yelling for him to get off you."

Katara nodded.

Mai luxuriated in the ability to breathe, not at all concerned with the feel of steel on the skin under her chin, even though she had no opportunity to try to pull free. She must have fallen on her left leg when she blinked out for a moment, because it was pinned underneath her. Her right leg throbbed, and she remembered that it still had stick impaling it. "Well, I wasn't expecting you to actually be here, so I forgive you for-"

She dropped the thought and leaned back on Kei Lo, using the leverage he provided to life her butt off the floor as she stretched her left ankle in a certain way. The bolt-launcher around it clicked, and with her leg twisted beneath her, it was perfectly positioned to shoot a small, very sharp stick straight into the guy trying to hide behind her.

Kei Lo made a high-pitched sound, and the knife dropped from his hand.

Mai wondered how he liked being impaled.

She put her weight back down on her left hip and pulled away from him again, flexing one arm so that a razor-disk dropped into her hand and bending the other arm so that she could pull a stiletto from a hidden pouch.

She slashed the razor-disk across Kei Lo's throat, and the finely-sharpened blade slid easily through with a spray of blood.

She jammed the knife into Kei Lo's chest, angling up through his ribs to puncture deep.

Kei Lo fell backwards, hands flying to his throat, and he managed one long, wet wheeze before he quieted and his body slumped over. A red puddle quickly accumulated beneath it.

This Weapon, apparently, wasn't so good when the fighting started.

Mai tried to push herself away, but that shifted her weight back on her right side, and her impaled thigh radiated pure hurt. She bit down on the urge to cry out, and then looked over to Katara. "A- as long as you're here, I could use some Water-healing."

Katara and Ty Lee both blinked in unison, and then moved.

Ty Lee dragged Mai away from Kei Lo's body, into what looked like it might have been a parlor before the ruckus of the war outside the mansion had knocked over all the furniture. Katara followed as she stretched her arms, and some water floated out of the pouch on her back.

Ty Lee laid Mai down and looked her over. "Where are you hurt?"

"The stick in my thigh. Goes all the way through."

Katara bit her lip as she kept the water suspended in the air. "I'm going to start healing, but I'll need the object pulled out before I can finish. Don't worry, I'll fix you up quick so you don't bleed out, but I can't put back the blood you've already lost."

Mai gave the best shrug she could. "Fair enough. I'm the one who left it lying all over the place."

Katara shuddered and looked to Ty Lee. "Keep Mai distracted while I start the healing. When I nod, pull the stick out." She looked back to Mai and shrugged. "It's better if you don't know it's coming."

Mai could only groan at the thought.

Katara moved the water down to Mai's thigh, and it began glowing with that otherworldly light. The pain immediately eased, and Mai very deliberately turned her gaze away to Ty Le. "So, um, how are you two here?"

Ty Lee gasped and clapped her hands together. "Katara and I have been trying to find you! We learned some things about Prince Iroh we really need to tell everyone, but you guys have been on the move and we tracked you to Ember Island and my sisters were really surprised to see me alive- thanks for covering for me- but they said you were going to the Capital so Katara can do this thing to make a boat go faster even than the Navy's motor-wings so we came to find you and maybe provide back-up but everything was all a war and things were exploding and we met some nice soldiers who after I paralyzed them said they saw a flying buffalo get shot out of the sky so we were worried and decided to organize a search but we'd need a meeting place and so I came home but saw some creep trying to take liberties with you so I said, 'Get off her you meanie!' and he-"

"Now," Katara said.

Ty Lee yanked the stick out of Mai's thigh.

Mai screamed as Katara's healing-water flared.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #230 on: Jan 02, 2018 04:31 pm »

Sokka's people were hunters, before the Fire Nation forced them into a ghetto and made them labor for food-tokens.

But somehow Sokka kept ending up as prey.

It had been what some people would call a 'merry chase,' leading Sparky Sparky Boom Boom Man (okay, maybe it was kind of a mouthful) away from the Palace and Mai. When he had taken Mai's wrist-shooty-things (he forgot to ask what they were called), he had imagined a glorious running fight with the big half-metal Weapon Guy, dodging explosions and shooting back sharp sticks that would slowly wear away his opponent's ability to fight.

But it turned out that explosions weren't so easy to dodge. They were big, and even being close to one was enough to knock Sokka off his feet. And, at this point, whole blocks of this stupid Caldera city had crumbled into underground caverns, making travel tricky. It wasn't until he realized he could use the wrist-shooty-things to cause noise in places where he wasn't that his life was no longer in constant imminent peril.

So he would shoot a sharp stick high into the air, angling it (the tension in the cuff's springs was adjustable, and then it was just simple parabolic motion) to land on other side of a street or something with a clatter. Explosion Guy (...eh, not bad, but lacking something) would explode the spot where noise came from, and Sokka would get into position to once again show himself for a quick peek and then hide and prepare to do the whole thing over again.

Good thing Master Ignition (hm, on the right track) was so aggressive.

Except Sokka was running out of sharp sticks in his cuff-shooters.

The left was completely empty, and he had only four sticks in the right.

Then he shot another one into the leaves of a tree leaning over a wall, setting them rustling, and was down to three.

The tree was briefly painted with light and then exploded.

Sokka took off running down the street, looking around to identify hiding spots and access points and distraction-worthy features and-

-and he stepped on a stray bit of rubble that flew out from under his foot to trip him.

Sokka slammed to the street, and Ignition Man's (nnnnnot quite solid enough for such a big muscly guy, but almost there) metal footstep echoed behind him.

Sokka looked back, and found his opponent staring at him. The Ignition Man inhaled-

-Sokka lifted his right arm and decided to aim for an eyeball with his last three sticks-

-and then a team of girls in brightly-colored robes leapt down from the rooftops to surround Ignition Man and beat at him with sticks.

Sokka blinked.

It was the Ty-sisters!

He had no idea how they had gotten here or why, but they were attacking with their all. He had sparred with them, back on Ember Island, and seen one or two at a time demonstrating their fighting style, but none of that had prepared him for the sight of all six fighting as a single unit.

It was like they were in constant communication, one moving in as another faded back, leaping over each other and ducking under each other and constantly staying in motion, while the entire time at least two sisters were stabbing or swinging or spinning their tonfa-sticks into their target. But the girls didn't make a sound as they fought, didn't speak or so much as give a war-cry. The only sounds were the meaty impact of their weapons against flesh and muscle and metal, and the wooshing of their quick movements.

And yet they weren't winning.

Ignition Guy (no, that's a step backwards) was taking all that punishment, even moving fast enough to block some of the worst hits with his metal arm and metal leg, and refusing to succumb. And as Sokka watched, he gave up on trying to exchange blows with the quicker girls. He stood up straight- taking another rain of blows across his body in exchange- looked at a nearby wall, inhaled-

-Sokka scrambled across the street to a heavy-looking piece of rubble that might have once been the head of a dragon statue-

-and the explosion sent the Ty-Sisters flying, but left their bigger opponent nothing but windswept.

Sokka braced himself behind the stone dragon-head, and when he felt the air slowing, he pulled himself up and aimed his cuff-shooter again.

He aimed for an eye-

-Combustion Man (yes, that feels right!) turned to look at him-

-and fired.

But Sokka missed.

The sharp stick struck Combustion Man in the eye-like tattoo on his forehead, sinking only a little bit and sticking out of the guy's head like a tiny horn. A trickle of blood began to run down Combustion Man's face, but he didn't seem to be otherwise inconvenienced. He inhaled-

-Sokka quickly tried to aim for a real eye this time-


-Sokka fired, but the cuff on his wrist gave a hollow click and oh, he had miscounted how many shots were left. He should really stop relying on Mai's cast-offs and get some of his own weapons-

-and then the air in front of Combustion Man cracked a few times before he blew himself up.

Sokka blinked.

Well, that was convenient.

When the smoke cleared, there was no more Combustion Man. And so soon after Sokka had found the right name, too.

Well, he was alive and the enemy wasn't. Everything else was just a minor concern that he would forget as soon as the next life-threatening crisis lumbered along. For now, he figured he should make sure the Ty-Sisters were okay, and then go find Mai and Kei Lo and make sure they hadn't discovered the next bit of trouble on their own.

Of course, the first sister he found was Ty Woo, discernable by the ever-present scowl on her face even as she seemed to be trying to shake away a concussion.

Sokka helped her to her feet. "You okay?"

"I don't know, stupid, does a persistent ringing in my ears mean I'm okay?" She looked around. "What happened to the big freak?"

"I think I accidentally made him blow himself up."

Ty Woo blinked. Then she blinked again. Then she snorted. "Wow. Okay. Good job, Tribal."

Sokka looked around for the other five sisters. Their bright robes stood out against the smoke-stained city. "Thanks. But, um, if it's not too much trouble, could you never call me a 'Tribal' again? I kind of hate it." He glanced at her to make sure she wasn't about to hit him with a tonfa.

Instead, she gave the first genuine smile he had ever seen on her. "No problem. Oh, hey, there's Ty Lin! Let's go help her."

But before they could move, a figure in dark Water Tribe blue ran around the corner at the other end of the street.

It couldn't be.

But Katara's happy cry echoed, and she ran to Sokka.

He ran to meet her.

They met in a hug that nearly knocked the air from Sokka's lungs, but that was okay. He didn't know why his sister was in the middle of this warzone and not learning up at the North Pole, but that was okay, too. After nearly dying on his own, he was gaining allies, and the most important one of all had just arrived.

He started to say, "How-"

But Katara cut him off (of course) with, "Mai and Ty Lee are going to find Toph. Who else do we need to save?"

Good question.

Ever since killing Heiyaoshi, Toph had privately been wondering if the Weapons of the Fire Nation were all they were cracked up to be. Sure, there was the Disciple of the Third Eye doing his thing, and all of the Weapons who Toph had seen in action were really good, but Toph was Toph. She just had to be in their level, if not above most of them.

After all, what could even a Master Firebender do against the Greatest Earthbender Alive?

Ask a stupid question-

Toph skated across the stone street, doing her best to navigate the inferno around her by sound. It wasn't easy, because it seemed like the crackle-roaring was everywhere, but the stone armor that she had over every bit of her body would heat up when she stumbled into the heart of a blaze, and that was a good clue to get out quickly.

With every movement, Toph's chest tugged painfully. Her armor had protected against the fireball that Gerel had hit her with earlier in the fight, but it had warmed the stone up enough to cook skin. And that hadn't been the only fireball to hit. Stiff, agonizing spots and stripes all over Toph's body were a testament to the limited protection that the stone of the street could provide against concussive fire.

Toph skated up to a wall that seemed to be the only thing remaining of a larger building, and then up the wall, adding her momentum to the pull she exerted on the stone, overcoming gravity, and came to a stop on the top. She perched like a bug, free of the worry of fire for a moment, and reached out with her Earth-sense to find her opponent.

Lady Caldera Yu Gerel, Weapon of the Fire Nation, was moving with her usual precision through the shifting maze of fire that covered the entire city block.

There was no sneaking up on Gerel. The fires around her were a great defense. She could hear even subtle shifts in sound despite the roar of her flames, and could sense changes in temperature in any direction. Plus, she was way too fast for an old lady.

So Toph needed to use strategy.

She kept her perch, waiting.


Gerel came to a stop, and Toph could read confusion in her body language, in the tilt of her head and the frown beneath her blindfold.

And then Gerel twisted and shot a fireball behind her. Toph was nowhere near it, and it sailed for a distance before bursting against some statue. Gerel continued throwing flameballs in random directions, obviously trying to spook Toph into revealing herself. The noise was almost deafening.

Toph decided it was time to move.

She kicked her heal against the wall beneath her, crumbling it, and as soon as she sank to the ground, she took a low stance and reached out with her Earthbending. All of the noise was lost in the sounds of Gerel's fireballs. Instead of going for something heavy, something that Gerel could have easily dodged or destroyed, Toph limited her control to the surface of the street, to the smaller bits of rubble strewn around, and to the clay tiles that covered so much of the buildings around here.

Then she pushed her arms forward with all her strength and sent everything flying. She didn't bothering aiming, because it wasn't meant to hit Gerel.

The stuff she was throwing was all the stuff that Gerel's fire was resting on.

And so when Toph threw all that junk, it was like she was throwing a whole section of the inferno away. Specifically, the one between Toph herself and an old lady who deserved a good punch to the jaw.

Before Gerel could replace it, Toph was in motion again, kicking up heavy rocks towards her enemy and punching small walls up from the ground and forward like battering rams. She put enough power in each strike for the rocks to break bone when they landed.

But Gerel moved with a precision and efficiency that could have come from one of the Fire Nation's machines, dodging each and every rock with sometimes just a hair's width to spare, throwing out more fire to light up the street once again with each movement.

Somehow, Gerel could sense Toph's attacks coming.

And Toph realized that she was starting to feel warm in her armor, moving around so much and calling on so much strength. Gerel couldn't see the rocks, but she could sense Toph's body through its heat, and discern all its movements.

And Toph couldn't sense the fire again with all the noise she was making-

Concussive flames impacted against the stone armor over her left arm and popped with enough force to crumple it. Toph was no stranger to pain, but this felt her skin was being ripped free and used to lash her muscles. She immediately tried to stop moving it, but that barely made a difference. The pain wouldn't fade, either, taking up residence like a badgermole in a dry hole.

Toph let her attacks die and stomped with both feet. The street behind her collapsed, revealing one of the tunnels that she had carved earlier, and she hopped down and used her good arm to cover the hole behind her. She let her armor crumbled to dust.

Toph sat down and let a squeal come up from the back of her throat. It didn't help with the pain at all, but it made dealing with it easier, somehow.

And she could deal with anything if she could just win this fight.

She put the palm of her good arm down on the tunnel floor, reaching out with her Earth-sense. Gerel's footsteps above were easy to find, and weren't quite overhead yet. Toph forced herself up and was taking a stance to try to rip the ground out from under that blindfolded jerk's feet, but then Gerel moved, and-

-and a portion of the tunnel ceiling exploded.

Toph cringed through the echoes, but kept her stance. She raised her arms- oh that hurt that hurt that hurt- and seized control of the earth between her and Gerel-

-but there was the oh-so-annoying sound of a massive amount of flying flames and the air in the tunnel immediately grew warm and Gerel was flooding the tunnel with fire!

Toph shifted her stance and stomped for a column to carry her up and clear. Somehow, the air didn't grow any cooler and the sounds of fire didn't diminish, and she realized she had let herself be herded into a trap because Gerel could sustain more flames than any other Firebender.

Toph tried to jump clear, but the roar of the flames shifted, and the air grew hot again, and the column beneath her was hit by something.

Pain exploded in Toph's feet with such force that it barreled up through her body and burst out in a scream that scorched her throat raw.

Her feet were burned.

She landed hard on the street, and this time it wouldn't yield to her. In fact, it was completely dead to her. She could hear things burning and could smell soot and smoke and her own cooked skin, but she couldn't feel anything but pain. She twisted and writhed, trying to find a part of herself uncooked enough to feel the subtle play of vibrations.

But with all her hurts, with pain being the only thing she could feel, Earth King Toph was reduced to what she never wanted to be:

A helpless little blind girl.

But she could only lie on the ground, wheezing for breath with a sound that was far too close to sobbing, and wait for whatever came next. She didn't even realize that Gerel had approached until the old gasbag said, "Were you Fire Nation, I might be content with your defeat. But you claim to be the Earth King."

Toph pointed a finger in the direction of the sound. "I am the Earth King! I worked hard to get those acknowledgements!"

"A little to your left."

Toph adjusted her pointing. "Thanks."

"It is no trouble. But considering what the Fire Nation has suffered today, I think perhaps that the death of the 'Earth King' can only help us."

Toph lowered her arm. "Then stop yapping about it and go ahead. I'm not going to act all scared so you can get your jollies."

Gerel sighed. "It is a shame to lose one who so young and full of vigor. You are a but a small child to one of my years."

Toph snorted. "And like all old people, you're just wasting time like you have too much of it. Hurry it up before you keel over of old age or something."

Gerel did not say anything more. Toph could only hear the old Weapon's breathing slow and grow heavier-

"Stop," a girl's voice rang out.

Toph frowned. Had she heard that voice before?

"Lady Caldera Yu Ty Lee," Gerel said. "I thought you were dead."

Ty Lee- Mai's friend Ty Lee?!

"Not dead," the unexpected Ty Lee called back, "I was just kind of like a deserter. Please don't tell my mom! And please leave King Toph alone. She's really neat and everyone says she's a good person and we need her if there's going to be peace."

Gerel's reply betrayed confusion: "You would risk yourself for a barbarian king? You're too far away to mount an effective attack against me, with your chosen style. I would kill you before you halved the distance."

"I'm not going to fight you," Ty Lee said. Toph wished he could get her Earth-sense to work, because it sounded like the truth, and that couldn't be. "But I'm going to be very upset if you try to hurt Toph."

Toph frowned. What kind of rescue was this?

Gerel's breathing intensified again. "So be it." There was the sound of a small wind that Toph took to be Gerel moving in preparation for more Firebending-

-and another little whistle of air too quick to identify-

-and then Gerel gave a grunt. She huffed out one last breath in a very soggy-sound way, and it was followed by the distinct sound of a body collapsing, a sound Toph knew too well. More bubbly gasps came from Gerel.

And Toph heard Ty Lee say, "Mai, um, I think you hit some important arteries. I think- I think Gerel is dying."

And Toph heard no regret in Mai's reply of, "Oops. Guess my aim is off from all the blood loss."

She didn't need Earthbending to know that wasn't quite the truth.

Gerel stopped making noises.

It was still too painful for Toph to move, so she stayed still and indulged her Royal Right to be carried around by other people. As the other girls came over and helped her up, Ty Lee said, "Katara's going to meet us at my house. She'll heal these burns right up while they're fresh."

Toph nodded her Royal Approval. "Sounds good. But how did Mai sneak up on Gerel? Her Firebending lets her sense heat! Even I couldn't sneak up on her!"

Mai gave a dark chuckle. "Gerel always said my blood ran cold. And I lost a lot of blood tonight. Standing pressed back-to-back with Ty Lee- well, it seemed like a good way to just disappear. When Ty Lee crouched, I had my shot."

"I told Gerel I'd be upset," Ty Lee added.

Despite the pain of her burns, Toph grinned. "Not bad, Lady Caldera Yu Mai. Keep this up, and I may just appoint you as my Royal Bodyguard."


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #231 on: Jan 02, 2018 04:32 pm »

Zuko wasn't quite sure what was happening anymore, that Azula would attack Piandao and force him (on purpose?) to stab her, but he knew that an opportunity had just been handed to him.

Zuko rushed in at Piandao, just a step behind the Crimson Guards. They attacked as a group, sending out flames at maximum range, the best strategy for dealing with a Weapon of the Fire Nation armed only with a sword.

But Piandao whirled and used a one-handed yank on his jian sword to pull it free of Azula's shoulder in an arc that passed through the incoming flames with such speed and force and that the fire was pulled along to merely circle him. When he had completed a full circle, he shoved Azula- who still hadn't even had the opportunity to move- hard into Zuko's path, and used the counter-force to propel himself towards the closest of the Crimson Guards.

As Zuko caught his sister, he heard the sounds of a blade whistling through the air and an echoing cry of pain- several cries- from someone in a full set of armor.

The guards wouldn't last long against the first Weapon of the Fire Nation. The only thing that would save their lives was Piandao's mercy.

But even that mercy wouldn't leave Zuko much time.

He let go of Azula. "Where's Father?"

She wiped at the blood oozing through the neat cut in her shoulder armor. "I don't know which hidden room for certain, but the quietest and most defensible is the one in the gallery hall." She was moving even before she was finished speaking, taking off in a run.

Zuko took off after her, Aang and Suki on either side of him.

As they ran, Aang said, "So, um, how come you don't know where these secret rooms are?"

Zuko grimaced. "Azula loved to go exploring when she was little. Eavesdropping was one of her favorite games."

Suki snorted. "Doesn't surprise me in the least."

They turned a corner, into the wing opposite the one containing the throne room. At the end was the Royal Agni Kai Chamber, an arena reserved solely for when members of the Royal Family wished to settle a dispute away from most of the public. Azula was slowing far short of the entrance to the Chamber. The hallway leading up to it had been made into a gallery of portraits, each one more than five times as tall as a person and depicting a stylized representation of a Fire Lord.

Zuko had always found this place both inspiring and intimidating, an imposing representation of the legacy of the Royal Family and what it could achieve, but today he found it completely sinister. The dark portraits evoked the colors of smoke and embers, a reminder of what had been done to the Capital outside the palace. The legacy of the Royal Family was, at this point, nothing but war. And his father had been its latest contributor.

Azula came to a stop in front of Azulon's portrait, the last portrait in the gallery. She turned her head to throw a smirk at them, but the motion made her wince and shift her shoulder. "Hn. And aren't you all lucky that I didn't waste time playing with toys and turtleducks like Zuzu, here." She walked up to the portrait and over to the column that separated it from Sozin's, and bent down to the base. "It's strange that this switch, of all in the palace, doesn't require Firebending. I wonder what Sozin was thinking when he had it installed."

She leaned over, blocking Zuko's view, and pressed something that made an audible click. Then she rose and gingerly stepped back.

Azulon's image slid forward, and swung like a door on a hinge to reveal a mess of shadows inside, the light of the gallery's hanging lamps not quite reaching beyond the massive portrait.

Zuko raised his hand and was about to summon a flame to see by, but before he could, there was a sound like a gasp, and then a flash of blue light seared his eyes. He blinked his way back to sight, past the after-images that twisted like monsters made of nothing, and then looked up.

His father stepped into the light, eyes wide and jaws slack. "Zuko?"

After all this time, all this effort, all the anticipation and recriminations and righteous yearnings, Zuko didn't know what to say or do. His limbs were frozen and his stomach was clenched; he felt like the only thing he could do right now was throw up. This was Father, the man he had tried to be for so long, the man who might- no who did- light his face on fire simply for not being good enough in unfair circumstances.

Zuko had been sent by his father to lead what turned out to be a distraction against the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se, retreating when he realized that his supposed mission could not be completed. Once he realized what was really going on, he had rushed to help Father's own assault, and for his trouble had lost an eye and half his face.

Zuko finally found his tongue. "Did you really do it to punish me for failing to provide the distraction you wanted, or did you just hate me?"

Father stopped short, wincing. "Zuko-" He reached out.

Zuko's stomach clenched again, radiating pain, and he stepped back-

Suki yanked her salvaged sword from its sheath and held it out between him and Father. "Keep your distance, Prince Ozai."

Father looked at her, almost uncomprehending, and then sagged and nodded. "I understand. I can offer no defense for what I did. I can't even explain it. It is all completely beyond my understanding."

That's it?!

That was all Father had to say about it?

Zuko ripped the eyepatch off his face, revealing the empty eye-socket to everyone. "Are you really going to look at the damage you've done and just shrug it away? Don't you have any honor?"

Father shook his head. "I admit that it is my fault. You never did anything to deserve such hurt and betrayal. But I cannot explain it. I will never be able to understand it." He looked up, meeting Zuko's gaze, and blinked tears from his eyes. "If you need to find meaning in it, know that it is what changed everything for me. I only want to protect you, now. You and your sister."

Zuko didn't know what to say. He wanted to rage and sob and hurl more accusations. But his Inner Fire was cold in the face of this- this- this unbelievable contrition. How could Father say and mean these things while standing at the center of a civil war he had engineered?

He heard Azula mutter, "That was anticlimactic."

At the end of the hall, the sound of hurried footsteps echoed, and then Piandao turned the corner at a run. His sword was drawn and colored with something dark and wet, but the man himself seemed completely unharmed. He slowed when he saw everyone standing around, and was nearly struck by a man in sage robes- no, the robes of the High Sage, so this must be Xinghao.

Piandao bowed. "My Prince, I can only offer my apologies for the disturbance. And- and for Azula's injury, though she did attack me first. But I should have found more control."

Father blinked, and then looked to Azula. He must have seen the dark red stain on her shoulder plates, the neat little cut in the armor where Piandao's sword had stabbed straight through.

And then Zuko saw the father he recognized.

Father's face twisted, jaw clenching and eyes flaring. He whirled on Piandao, raising fists so tight that the knuckles were bone white. "You stabbed my baby girl- !"

Piandao remained bowing.

Xinghao backed away.

Zuko expected to see the same fires that had nearly killed him, but instead Father pulled a knife from his belt, stalking towards Piandao, foots falling heavy on the hard ground. He raised the knife-

-Zuko spotted the Avatar trotting up behind Father as if playing a prank of some kind-

-and Aang reached around and yanked Ozai's beard.


Then there was the same flash of blue light that had presaged Father's appearance.

And the truth was revealed.

Aang had thought he was suffering from some kind of double-vision.

When that portrait of Azulon was slid open, that flash of blue light had nearly knocked him off his feet. It wasn't a normal light, nothing that even the brightest crystal or hottest lantern could produce. It was a light that had form, had taste and smell and thickness, a light that didn't belong in this world.

It wasn't just light; it was life. And it revealed a shadow.

The shadow had seemed super-imposed on Prince Ozai. As he walked and moved, as he spoke with Zuko, the shadow moved with him, reproducing every gesture and shift exactly.

Aang wondered, at first, if the flash of light had affected his sight, like staring at the sun for too long.

Then he noticed the ghost with five faces.

While the shadow fell on Ozai from the front, the ghost loomed up behind him. It was tree-like, as tall as the portraits of the Fire Lords, with a crown of branches. Between each wooden spike, an eye-less face poked out. But for all that it lacked eyes and seemed to be looking in many directions at once, it was looming, leaning over Ozai, completely focused on the prince.

Then it noticed Aang.

As Ozai wailed apologies to Zuko, the ghost opened its mouths, and they spoke in sequence:

"This one-"

"-took my gift-"

"-and burned my forest. Avenge me-"

"-Avatar. Take back-"

"-the face-"

"-it asked of me."

Take back the face?

And Aang saw it. There was no source-less shadow being cast on Ozai. The shadow was within Ozai, an actor in a costume, and like any actor playing an inhuman part on a stage, this one wore a mask. It was a living mask, a crafting of energy that channeled a real person, but it was a mask all the same.

So Aang stepped forward with all the lightness of an Airbender and yanked at the mask by its false beard.

It resisted his grip, but the ghost came down upon Aang and melted into his body. He could feel the ghost's essence flowing through his Qi lines, and his tattoos began glowing with the power. He found himself speaking with both his own voice and the reality-ripping sound of the ghost: "Defiler! The Forgetful Valley- my home- burned on your command! Hira'a, your home, burned on your command! You are no longer worthy of the gifts of the Mother of Faces!"

Aang pulled again at Ozai's beard, but it was like when he first tried Earthbending, as resistant to him as a rock a thousand times his own weight. He closed his eyes- seeing the same light that had been emanating from his tattoos now splashing against the back of his eyelids- and reached into his Qi to become one with the ghost. The Mother of Faces.

And Ozai's face came off in Aang's hands.

He opened his eyes to find that standing in Ozai's place was a woman, small enough that her robes now hung awkwardly on her frame. Her face was lined from years of suffering, dark hair streaked inconsistently with gray and white.

"Justice," hissed the Mother of Faces in Aang's mind, and then she fled from his body. In her place, there was the weakness of mortality, a weakness that was his normal existence but now felt like weights hanging from his limbs. A wooden mask fell from his hands to clatter to the floor, and then he collapsed, darkness swirling in at him.

Before he fell into the emptiness of sleep, he heard Zuko hiss, "Mom?!" and Azula screech, "No!!"

Azula was a genius. She knew this, had proven it, and even her failures didn't change the fact that she was operating on a level beyond that of everyone else.

But she couldn't make this add up.

Father was Mother. Mother was Father. Father had crafted Azula to be perfect. Mother thought Azula was a monster. Father knew Azula to be a failure. Mother said she loved Azula. But Father was Mother, and Mother was Father. Mother had been the one speaking the words all this time. Father had never said he loved Azula, and Azula never failed him.

But hadn't Azula failed him, by letting Mother wear his face?

Mother had been the one saying that Azula was loved, all this time.

What did Father even think of Azula? Was Father even real? Had he ever been real?

It had been Mother all this time.

But it couldn't have been. Mother had never liked Azula. Mother hated strength and power and pain and everything that was necessary to thrive. Mother hated Father, and Father had been the one who really made Azula. Mother favored Zuko-


Father had wanted Zuko back. Father had sent Azula to bring him back. They had worked so hard, taken control of the entire Fire Nation, to get Zuko back. It had all been for Zuko.

But Father said he loved Azula, and Father was Mother.

Was it a lie?

But Mother was a terrible liar.

That was why Father wasn't really Father. Why there were secrets, why his actions made no sense, why Azula had never quite been able to understand.

So if Father had said that he wanted to keep Azula safe, and Father was Mother, and it had never made sense, and Mother was a bad liar, and Mother was Father, then-

But Mother didn't love Azula. Mother thought Azula was a monster.

But Mother was Father.

Azula tried. She really did. She put all her mental power into trying to get it all to work-

But her thoughts were a sparrowkeet in a storm, and she was swept away in the winds.

She could only stare, blinking, as Mother turned away from Zuko, running back to the secret room behind Azulon's portrait. Mother had her hands over her face, as if she could hide who she was. Silly Mother. Zuko finally moved, reaching out, but Mother disappeared into shadow, and the portrait slid back to block the way. Azula knew how to open it again, but she couldn't make herself act. She wasn't sure she wanted to. She wasn't sure she wanted to breathe. She'd have to figure that out after she finished trying to figure out why Mother was Father and Father was Mother.

If she could.

The enormity of the task was like a crown on her head, or perhaps a chain around her feet, and she sank to the floor, or maybe both and neither. She would have to figure it out after she worked out how Mother was Father and Father was Mother.

She knew one thing for certain- she was a fool, a failure, and neither Mother nor Father could want her.

She heard herself moan as she slid into a slump, and then she just-

-just went away.


Maybe she'd never come back.

Bye-bye, mom.


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« Reply #232 on: Jan 02, 2018 04:33 pm »

High Sage Xinghao was only starting to grasp the enormity of the mistakes he'd made, but he hadn't gotten this far in life by wallowing in failure.

He knew what he had to do.

While everyone else tried to break their way into the secret room behind the portrait, Xinghao slipped away back to the front hall of the palace. He didn't know all of the building's secrets, and he was sure there were a few even in his own Grand Temple that had been lost to the ages, but that was fine. He knew enough to be aware of the nature of architectural sneakiness. That little room behind the portrait wasn't just a place to hide or store things. It was right next to the Fire Lord's personal Agni Kai arena; what good would it be to a nearby Fire Lord if he could only trap himself inside?

It was part of a network.

And a woman who had made heretical deals with Spirits and managed to masquerade for years as her husband-

Well, a woman like that was no ordinary fool.

Xinghao passed through the front hall and made straight for the stairs, ignoring the armored, bloody bodies of the last of the Crimson Guard lying around. At this point, even Piandao's handiwork was a minor concern. Xinghao climbed the stairs, passing into areas where no one but the Royal Family and their personal servants were allowed, but there was no one to enforce that isolation now. Xinghao hurried as he emerged on the top floor, the floor with the private Royal Residences, and peeked around until he found the suite he was looking for.

Princess Ursa- for it was her, returned from wherever she had disappeared to- was crouched in Prince Ozai's parlor, holding her head in her hands and staying as still as the Princess Azula had been when Xinghao had taken his leave.

He cleared his throat.

Ursa looked up. Her eyes narrowed as they focused on him, and all weakness left her body.

Xinghao found himself cringing. "Iroh will be Fire Lord. He'll have us all killed."

Ursa stood up. "I will not allow my children to be harmed."

Xinghao wondered what she was really saying. Did she still have a way to fight Iroh? Thinking about it- "Did you kill Azulon?"

Ursa shook her head. "It really was natural. If he hadn't died- I- it's all gone so wrong-"

"It went wrong when you made a deal with a monster." Xinghao couldn't help but laugh at his own wording. "Or when I did. But surely you killed Prince Ozai?"

Ursa's hands clenched into small, tight fists. "He deserved it! Did you see Zuko's face? What kind of a monster can do that to his own son? He died quicker than he deserved, and I've hidden his ashes so that his Po spirit will never know peace!"

Xinghao took a step back. Princess Ursa was no Firebender, but the venom in her voice made her seem capable of anything.

But then, they were steeped in evidence of that, weren't they?

"Could- could what you used against Ozai- perhaps against Iroh-" Xinghao couldn't put his plan into words, because in truth he had no plan. Killing Iroh would just put the crown on Lu Ten's head, and if they killed Lu Ten, Zuko couldn't inherit unless Ozai's whereabouts could be explained to the military. And the Avatar had taken the- well, whatever it was that let Princess Ursa appear to be her husband.

Xinghao had to lean against the doorframe to keep himself upright. "We're ruined. There's no way out for any of us."

For a long moment, there was no reply.

Then Princess Ursa drew herself up into the very picture of Royalty, despite her low birth. "We managed to make a deal before, Xinghao. It was you who wanted to put me on the throne, remember? I can make another deal, if it will protect my children."

Another deal? "How do I know I can trust you?"

Ursa smirked at him. "Because you're going to be the hero of the Fire Nation who cast an evil Spirit out of the corpse of Princess Ursa. The valley near my hometown was known to be a haunted place. No one will doubt your commitment when you yourself burn my body. And in exchange, you will protect my children from Fire Lord Iroh and Prince Lu Ten. Whatever you have to-" She abruptly stopped talking, and her gaze lost focus.

Xinghao risked stepping closer. "What is it? A complication?"

Ursa turned to him. "No. A strategy. Zuko and Azula will be neither a threat nor an asset to Iroh if they're removed from the Burning Throne's succession. And the High Sage can arrange such a thing, yes?"

Xinghao couldn't stop a giggle from escaping. "After claiming that their mother's corpse was possessed by a Spirit that ate and impersonated their father? I'm not sure anyone would ever accept them as Fire Lord."

Ursa nodded. "So they will live. And, frankly, I think they will be better off without the throne."

Xinghao nodded back. "So, uh, how are we going to do this? Whose corpse will we be using as yours?"

Ursa turned to look at a cabinet on the other side of the room. "Oh, we'll be using mine. Just give me a moment. You can come to collect my body with witnesses. Bring the Avatar to confirm everything."

Her corpse? But-

She was willing to die to protect her brats?

But then, she had put every other life on the line, at one point or another. Her own was the only one left to her.

Xinghao would have preferred to avoid the Avatar, but the boy had seen through Ursa's disguise, and so could provide credible testimony to Iroh. "I'll do as you say. We can make things neat. I'll claim you killed Azulon and schemed to destroy the Fire Nation. We'll display your body at Azulon's funeral, hold it as soon as possible, and I and all the sages will confirm Iroh as the next Fire Lord before the people. Zuko and Azula will be disavowed and banished, and given safe passage out of the Fire Nation."

Ursa sighed, and moved towards the cabinet. "It is a pleasure dealing with you once again, High Sage. I just wish I had a chance to say goodbye to my children." She produced a key from her sleeve, and unlocked the doors. Within, on one shelf, were glass vials filled with liquids of various colors. A lower shelf supported bowls and bottles containing plant clippings. "Now, if I could have a moment to myself?"

Xinghao hurried out, already thinking of the details for defeating an evil spirit-

He nearly tripped when he encountered Prince Zuko on the stairs.

Zuko hadn't known what to do.

Father- Mother- he didn't know what was going on.

Azula was just sitting on the floor, staring at nothing.

Aang was out cold and Suki was trying to wake him up.

And Piandao-

"What," Zuko had said as they tried to find the switch Azula had used to open the hidden door behind the painting, "do you know about this?"

Piandao had, for the first time Zuko could remember, looked sick. "Very, very little, my Prince. I- I thought it was Ozai all this time-"

"You were the last one to see her." Zuko huffed, and smashed a flaming fist against Azulon's portrait, scorching it. "I saw you take her away and no one would even mention her after that!"

Piandao had closed his eyes. "The one time I went against my orders. Your parents' relationship had- deteriorated. Princess Ursa had defied him one too many times, trying to keep you and Azula from being trained for war. She accused Ozai of trying to use you two as pawns to try to make himself look better than Iroh. Ozai told me to take her somewhere outside of the Caldera and kill her."

Zuko would have liked to be horrified at that, but he accepted it as sadly in character for the father he was finally letting himself know. "That's when I saw you."

"Yes. And after leading a condemned woman past her innocent son, I couldn't kill her. I took her out of the Caldera, and told her to go to the colonies. To take a new name. To become someone else." Piandao had shaken his head. "It seems almost tasteless to say I didn't expect her to take me literally."

Instead, she had gone home. To Hira'a. To the 'Forgotten Valley,' no doubt somewhere in the forest around the village that had been burned down by Gerel. To that Spirit that Aang had channeled. Zuko could even claim to himself that he had any idea what kind of a person his mother was, that she could come up with such a plan and then- and then murder Father, pretend to be him for years. All of this that had happened in the Capital- the manipulations, the poisoning of Kirai, the death of Grandfather.

Was his mother any better than his father?

But Mother, at least, hadn't hurt Zuko. There was no doubt in his mind of her love. He couldn't fathom what had driven his father’s actions, but Mother's- had it all been for love?

With that thought, Zuko realized where she was. She wasn't hiding in a secret room. She hadn't hid when Piandao told her to. She had tricked everyone, had come back to the palace to protect her children.

He ran out of the hall, leaving Suki's calls for him to echo unanswered, and ran for the palace's tower. He wasn't sure where to look exactly, but he knew his mother had to be somewhere.

Then he ran into Xinghao, coming down the stairs from the residential floor.

The High Sage nearly tripped, and his mouth worked soundlessly for a moment before bursting out with, "I tried to stop her! She insisted she had to protect her children, and-"

Zuko grabbed the man by his ridiculous robes. "Where?"

Xinghao swallowed. "Ozai's suite."

Zuko ran with all his speed.

But he was still too late.

He burst through the doors of his father's old residence to find Mother sinking into a couch with a moan, a golden goblet falling from her hands to spill a splash of crimson wine to the floor.

Zuko was at her side in an instant.

She blinked her eyes until they focused on him, and then she smiled. "Zuko. I'm glad I could see you, one more time."

One more- "Wh- what did you do?"

She nodded at the goblet. "My mother was an herbalist. I'm g-" She coughed, and her eyes fluttered. "Good at poison. I'm so sorry for everything. I made many mistakes. And now I've agreed to pay for them. Iroh won't have to hurt you, once I'm gone."



He looked around, trying to find a way out of this. "Is there an antidote? I- I just found you, and- and I don't care about mistakes! I've made mistakes! I've- I-"

She raised her hands to cup his cheeks. "We all have. And I know you'll try to do better." Her breathing grew heavier, and she closed her eyes. "I know you can do better. You- you never give up." Her hands fell away from his face, and she was lost to a short coughing fit.

No! This couldn't be happening! None of this could be happening!

But he couldn't find the strength to fight it. He didn't know how to fight it. He rested his head down on his mother's shoulder. "Where do I go from here?"

Mother's lips curved into something like a smile. "Help your sister. I- I know your father did a- a horrible thing to you, b- but sh- she really had- had the worst of it. And draw str- strength fr- from your friends. They're very tough. I- I couldn't stop them." Her face twisted, almost as if in pain.

Zuko raised his head. "Are you okay? Does it hurt?"

She breathed in and out, so slowly. "I m- mixed it well." She breathed in and out again, and her voice came as a whisper, "As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle-" She trailed off.

Zuko's heart burned. "Mother? Mom?"

Her eyes opened, and focused on him. "Look out for your sister." Her body relaxed, and she took in another breath. Her words came out like a sigh: "Everything I've done, I did to protect my children."

Her eyes closed.

She did not draw another breath.

Zuko held his mother's body as it grew cold, tears running down from his one eye. He felt like he wanted to cry, but couldn't find the strength.

Piandao made a point to find the magical mask, the strange creation of a Spirit that had let a Princess masquerade as her husband. He found it in the Royal Gallery, where the Avatar had dropped it.

It was such a simple thing, to see it lying on the floor. It seemed to be an opera mask, wooden in construction and painted in a stylized imitation of Prince Ozai's face. It might have looked comical, in the right lighting.

Yet it had nearly destroyed the Fire Nation. And the Homeland's survival wasn't even guaranteed, yet.

Piandao drew his sword and stabbed straight through the mask.

It withered to dust before he could even pull the blade up out of the floor.

And then Piandao took his leave from the palace and decided to retire from the Weapons of the Fire Nation.

He had other things he needed to do, and it was time he gave his service to a true cause.


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« Reply #233 on: Jan 02, 2018 04:39 pm »

At one time, according to Air Nomad lore, Airbender monks had been paid by the people of the other nations to take corpses to proper burial grounds. In any age when even the biggest roads were unreliable, and civilization clung to just a few safe enclaves, Airbenders were the only ones who could ensure that unbalanced ghosts didn't spring up wherever a life was lost exploring.

Aang never expected to take up that duty for Zuko's mother.

And he certainly couldn't understand Zuko not wanting to go with him. If it had been Monk Gyatso-

"I need to take care of my sister," Zuko had simply said. They had laid Princess Azula on her bed in her room. She continued to act as though asleep, but her eyes were wide open.

Suki had stayed behind, too. But Aang had expected that.

And so it was just Aang, High Sage Xinghao, and the body of Princess Ursa on a cart that descended into a series of caverns below the palace. The High Sage said that secret passages ran all through the volcano, but many of their entrances were lost. If Aang had known, he never would have needed to fly in on Appa, wouldn't have lost all his friends somewhere in this warzone. Now, at least, he could use his Earthbending to rip a hole right there in the palace, and quickly found a route that Xinghao said would take them were they needed to go.

They traveled beneath the city, until Xinghao said they had reached Grand Temple. They took a set of stone stairs up again, where they picked up a dozen more Fire Sages, an additional cart of supplies, and the body of Fire Lord Azulon.

One of the Sages had spoken to Xinghao, and the High Sage had turned to Aang with something that was almost a smile. "It seems we have some good news, Avatar. Your friends and your sky bison landed here in the Temple, and all were unharmed before they departed. Unfortunately, the palace was their destination, and we certainly didn't see them there, but my sages also heard that the war is over. The supporters of Iroh are asking for a truce to begin further negotiations."

Aang had frowned in his confusion. "But Iroh is going to be Fire Lord. We know that already."

"Ah, but they don't. You and I are the ones carrying the news of what happened in the palace. I'm sure they'll be happy to learn that they won, anyway, but it's good that they want to make peace even before they know of their victory."

Aang supposed he should be glad that someone wanted to stop the fighting. Maybe soon he could find his friends. But after so many had already died-

He was relieved when they finally emerged into daylight, at the gate at the foot of the Capital Volcano. The sun had finally broken through the clouds, lighting up the noon hour a bit.

But the sky was still tinged with the soot of the war that had been fought in the Caldera.

Most of the Fire Sages ran ahead with their carts of supplies, while a group of men in the armor of the Fire Nation's military came forward to meet them. Before they could introduce themselves, a young man in what seemed like beach clothes stepped out from their midst and bowed.

Aang thought he recognized this person. "You're- um, Bangfei, right? A Weapon of the Fire Nation?"

He nodded. "I'm glad to see that you survived, Avatar. Do you know how many of my- uh, fellow Weapons are still around?"

Aang could only shrug. "I'm sure Mai is still alive. But the Caldera is such a mess-" He couldn't finish the thought.

Bangfei sighed. "Well, I hope I've been able to help. The original leaders of the military here- High General Bujing, General Mak, and Admiral Lee- all died during the fighting. I- well, I disabled their successors until a group could take command who wanted to make peace."

That brought a smile to Aang's face. "Then it sounds like you're not much of a 'Weapon' anymore."

"Does it?" Bangfei looked dubious. "Weapons can make peace in addition to war. We just only hope it's a peace that lasts. But, unfortunately, I won't be able to stay and help with that. I have- um, duties that take me elsewhere."

And so Aang had bowed. "Thank you for your help, and good journeys."

"Don't thank me, Avatar," had said as he turned away. "I've done just as much evil as good, if there's even a difference anymore." And then he ran into the 'Lower Harbor City,' on the other side of the gate, quickly disappearing from view.

By the time Aang and Xinghao reached the Royal Plaza- the huge forum between the harbor docks and the Capital settlements where he had seen the citizens gathered like refugees- a large funeral pyre was set up on a tall, makeshift stage. Aang just had to stand there as the bodies of Azulon and Ursa were put in place, and gongs called for the attention of the people.

He continued to stand there as Xinghao recited the list of crimes being attributed to Princess Ursa, and nodded his head when Xinghao named Iroh as the new Fire Lord.

Aang could only hope that this was all worth it.

He would make sure, though, that Iroh kept his word about freeing the Earth Kingdom and restoring balance to the world.

It seemed like hours passed as Xinghao spoke, but finally it was time to light the pyre.

Aang looked away.

The people in the Royal Plaza bowed.

And then, impossibly, the roar of a sky bison and the trill of a winged lemur rang through the air.

Aang looked up and saw them flying in towards the stage, maybe drawn by the smoke of the pyre. "Appa!" He spun his staff and flicked out the wings, summoning a wind to take him up to his friends.

Below, the crowd gasped.

Aang swooped up into a loop that took him directly over Appa's saddle, and then closed his staff to drop right into it. Momo came in for his own landing on his shoulder, and Aang leaned over the side of the saddle so that he could pet both of his furry friends at the same time. "I'm glad you guys are safe. And if you are- do you know where Mai and the others are?"

Appa gave a neutral lowing. Momo started cleaning himself.

But with the relief of knowing that Appa was okay, Aang had an idea about what he could do. He crossed his legs into a lotus position, closed his eyes, and reached into himself.

Then he reached out.

The energies of the Caldera had been a mess, a storm of darkness and pain and confusion, keeping Aang from tracing any connections, even his own. But now, sitting atop Appa, he could push out with his spiritual senses to feel a sense of positivity below him. It was the people. The citizens of the Capital, gathered at the funeral of their Fire Lord.

Some measure of peace had been restored to them, and Aang rode it into the maelstrom of their home, the Caldera itself, and pushed through the stink of wrongful death to trace his connections. It led to a specific mansion, and continued on- slowly- towards the palace. He found Mai, and Sokka, and Katara, and Toph, and Ty Lee, and others who had come to help.

They were tired and hurt and darkened by the deeds they had been forced to do, but they were pushing on towards the palace in the hope of finding him there.

He intended to make that certain. "Appa, yip-yip!"

As Appa turned back towards the volcano, Aang spotted a familiar Fire Navy ship pulling into the harbor.

Zhao had finally arrived. But he could wait.

By the time Mai got Katara and the others to the palace, it seemed to be all over. The palace was still standing, everything was quiet, and no one seemed to be home.

Well, there were the dead Crimson Guard bodies in the front hall. That was creepy. And bloody. But Mai had already seen a lot of blood today. She had even shed quite a bit of it, both her own blood and that of her enemies.

She had taken to war quite easily, once she herself came close to death. She knew she was already responsible for many Fire Nation deaths, in all her adventures with Aang, but today she had killed individually. She had killed people she knew. She had killed people who were just doing the same job she had once done.

And she wasn't even really bothered by it.

Would Aang be?

They continued their search for some clue of their friends, and by the time they reached the Throne Room and Sokka set himself down to lounge on the Burning Throne (that wasn't currently burning), Mai had decided on a course of action. "You guys all wait here. I'll check the upper floors."

Ty Lee, of course, said, "No! You'll need back-up!"

But Mai didn't have time to spare her friend's feelings. "And what if we find Azula, and she sees that you're alive?"

Everyone- Ty Lee, her sisters, Sokka, Katara, and Toph- all winced at the thought.

"Exactly." Mai took out the same razor disk she had used to slit Kei Lo's throat and twirled it on a finger. "I'm in a mood for settling debts. Just protect everyone here, and come find me if anyone shows up who I actually want to see."

So she had climbed the stairs into residential floors alone.

And for all that build-up, all she found was Suki pacing outside Azula's bedroom. "Mai!"

"Suki." She endured an unexpected hug. "Where's your jerk sister?"

It was apparently the wrong question. Suki's expression fell like a dead body as she stepped back again, and it was a moment before she spoke. "Zuko's in there with Azula. You're in no danger. You should see them."

Mai could hear what was unsaid.

She left Suki behind and went into Azula's suite.

She found Zuko and his sister in the bedroom. Azula was lying on her back on the bed, hands folded on her stomach and eyes staring straight up at the ceiling. Zuko sat at her side, and he didn't notice Mai until she poked him.

He turned and blinked at her. He was missing his eyepatch, and the darkness of his empty socket matched the shadows around the room. "Mai! And the others?"

"Sokka and Toph are fine. Katara and Ty Lee and her sisters showed up to help us. They're all downstairs." She looked at Azula, and waved a hand in front of her old friend's face. There was no reaction. "What happened?"

Zuko shook his head. "I don't even know where to start. I- We- we learned things about our parents. Terrible things. And now both of them are dead."

"Dead?" Mai sighed. Today was a day for the demise of enemies, it seemed. Well, except for one. She looked back at Azula. The princess seemed so- so wrong just lying there like that. Mai had seen Azula sleep, but this- with the open eyes-

Azula was trapped in her own mind. And Mai couldn't imagine a scarier place to be.

She leaned back again. "It would almost be a mercy to kill her."

Zuko stood. "I'm not going to let anyone hurt her. My m- I promised to protect her."

"Then have fun with that. This is too depressing for me." She gave Zuko enough of a smile to hopefully let him know that she was (partially) joking, and made her way out of Azula's lair.

She stepped into the hall to find Suki talking with Aang, and she was so relieved to find him unharmed that time seemed to stop for an eternity before he ran over and lifted her in a hug.


Now they could call it a victory.

Standing at the city gate, Zhao couldn't say he was pleased to find that the Caldera had been half-reduced to rubble, but he hadn't been present for any of the unpleasantness and things had finished with Iroh declared Fire Lord and both the military and the Fire Sages falling in line, so he decided to count it as a victory anyway.

Any war he survived was a victory, in his book. Achieving his objective was really just a bonus.

But, as any military man knew, the end of the war didn't mean the end of the work.

He turned to his aide. "Well, I suppose it's time to open the contingency orders." He handed a key over. "Go back to the ship, and retrieve the papers in the lockbox in my cabin. Bring them to me at the telegraph station here. It will look better if our routing codes include the Caldera."

The aide bowed. "Yes, sir!"

Zhao turned back to the city as the aide ran off. Most of those orders were smaller matters, things Zhao had prepared under Iroh's supervision, for Iroh to certify and approve, to begin the transition away from Azulon's cult of personality. It was better to put them into motion as soon as possible, along with the word of Azulon's death. The Avatar had helped begin the work by getting the Governors on Iroh's side, and now with the Fire Sage's support, the work could begin on the populace.

As for the Avatar himself, those prepared orders included him, too.

Iroh wanted the Avatar up at the North Pole as soon as possible. If the boy resisted, then he and his friends were to be made aware that Lady Mai's brother was in a hidden, secure location and in good health for the time being.

Of course, Iroh wouldn't be here for the immediate reaction to that news. Zhao, on the other hand-

Well, the path to power always led to difficulties. And if one Fire Lord could be brought down in a matter of months, a second shouldn't be too hard.

Zhao smiled.

Some time later, on the island of Zenmatsu, in a village still recovering from an attempt by the Disciple of the Third Eye to assassinate Avatar Aang and Lady Caldera Yu Mai, the people had gathered to hear the latest news.

It was being delivered by a contingent of the Home Guard- one big man to read the news so that the whole gathering could hear, and two dozen more in case peace needed to be reestablished. The speaker was currently silent, waiting- as per his orders- for the crowd to process the news of the death of Fire Lord Azulon.

It was a long wait.

Eventually, the noise dulled enough for the big man to continue, "Fire Lord Iroh, chosen of Azulon and hero of the Homeland, has declared a period of mourning. During this time, we will show respect for his father's passing by not bowing to the portrait of any Fire Lord, symbolizing his absence from our lives. Additionally, to symbolize one last gift from the ruler who gave us dominion over the world, portraits of Azulon can be brought to any Guard station and traded for a family-portion of fresh meat. May the Fire Lord's flame ever burn!"

Every member of the crowd bowed at the proclamation, and a new Fire Nation continued to be born, village by village, person by person.

END OF ACT 3: Baptism by Fire

TO BE CONTINUED SPRING 2018 IN ACT 4: "Spirit Purer Than Snow"

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #234 on: Jan 03, 2018 06:03 am »

and Sokka was giving himself approving nods.

Oh Christ I'm dying.

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« Reply #235 on: Feb 26, 2018 10:37 pm »

Merciful Spirits.

Keeper of Azula's Lightning Hands.

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« Reply #236 on: Jun 18, 2018 06:32 pm »

A/N: Heyo! I'm told that some popular song or another has the lyrics, "Look who's back, back again," and I am totally feeling that right now! Woo! Also, Traitor's Face has a TVTropes page now! Yippee!

On a more serious note, this is Act 4 of 5, and so things are really going to start coming together. Buckle up, and reread the previous ten pages if you have to. Tongue

Ash and Aftermaths

"I do hope you'll pardon the intrusion," says the giant bug with the Noh-mask for a face. The voice echoes through reality itself.

Mai gives a noncommittal grunt to cover the tempest within.

She has never had the slightest fondness for insects, and certainly does not enjoy the sight of such a massive one clicking and curling around her little spot in the dark cave. Her first instinct is to lash out with her weapons, to put on the indifferent lack of expression that is her battle-face and start putting sharp bits of metal where they'd do the most harm. But the bug is speaking politely, and the firmness of Mother's hand has conditioned Mai how to respond to politeness.

"Perhaps you could tell me where we are?" She knows she looks the same exchanging greetings as she does shedding blood, so there's nothing to prevent her from making the transition at any moment. "And why you are calling on me?"

The creature smiles at her as it arcs to bring its white face even with her own. "Our location is a matter of some ambiguity; there is no firm border between the Spirit World and dreams." The face drifts only a bit as it talks, despite the body climbing the cave walls until it is hanging from above. The whole time, the face never stops staring at her. "As for why I'm here, I suppose we can call it professional interest, but the truth is that I wanted to meet you. I've heard so much about you and the Avatar, and you seem quite different from the kind of company he normally keeps."

"In what way?" It is entirely possible that she is being insulted.

"Well, most importantly, none of the others have been able to converse with me even this long." Then the bug-flesh around its face blinks like an eye, and now its face is that of a Water Tribe woman, hair sweeping through the air as though caressed by a breeze. "You are indeed a precious little girl."

Mai cannot feel any breeze. "Am I supposed to find that flattering?"

She recognizes the bug's action as a threat of some kind, although she does not understand the exact danger. Perhaps she should attack, put a blade somewhere around the face. She reaches into her sleeve for a knife-

-and discovers that the sleeve itself is made of knives.

She hadn't realized it until now, but the entirety of her clothes are interlocking blades - razors and carvers and needles and broad flat stabbers - that ripple and shift like cloth. Only the darkness of this cave keeps her from shining. Only her natural stiffness prevents her from slicing all her skin off with a casual movement.

Mai sinks deeper into stillness. She could be a statue. Or dead. Mother would be so proud.

The bug laughs, skittering along the ceiling so that it circles her even as it continues to face her. Just before it passes beyond the edge of her vision, there is another blinking shift, but it is gone before she can see the new face. "How far does your confidence extend, I wonder? Can you hide your feelings for the fall of your nation? Can you hold back a smile while your Avatar seeks your pleasure? Do you refuse to shed tears, in the loneliest stretch of the night, when you remember that you've betrayed everyone and everything which ever cared for you?"

The bug's face moves back into sight, having circled around her, and now she sees that it has the visage of a blue dragon. The snout extends almost to brush Mai's nose, and she can see the hairs on its chin undulating like the sea.

Her gown of knives is cold against her skin. "I don't see how any of that is your business."

"Oh, but it is. Traitors are what I do, you see. An Avatar who betrays her duty. A soldier who deserts his nation. A bird that pushes its eggs out of its nest. Even a warrior who purposefully chips away at the pride of his Tribe for a laugh. I am an answer to those things. Not necessarily a good answer, granted, but sometimes the only answer there can be." The dragon face opens its mouth wide to reveal an array of teeth that reminds Mai of her personal arsenal. "Allegiance is part of identity, the greatest gift of all. It should not be thrown away so carelessly."

"So you're just another slave to the cosmic bureaucracy?" Mai pulls her hands into her metal sleeves, and runs her fingers over sharp edges until she finds a loose razor. "You're trying too hard to be frightening for me to believe that."

The bug laughs, the dragon face making the sound into a roar that shakes the whole world. "Well, I never said I don't enjoy it. You get used to it."

Mai is practiced at hiding her disgust, and slides into it without a thought. "Then try not to have too much fun with my punishment. It would be unbecoming of a classy bug like yourself." The razor she's been working with a finger seems looser, now. Perhaps if she can get it free, she can show this talkative insect what she enjoys about her own job-

"Now, who ever said that you're the one to be punished?" The face shifts again, now to an old woman whose hair has been shaved from the front of her head to reveal a blue arrow. "The Abdicated Avatar has made some fairly drastic mistakes, you know."

The razor flips free of the rest of the network, but before Mai can grab it, the net of blades starts to unravel, every slicer and carver and needle and broad flat stabber. The cold settles even deeper into her flesh- but no, there is nothing into which it can settle. Her flesh falls with the blades.

At least the metal is sharp enough that she feels no pain.

And so she is able to keep an indifferent lack of expression as she dies in front of the creepy bug.

The face of the Noh mask returns to the bug, and it gives her a nod. "Well done, Lady Caldera Yu Mai. I hope we see each other soon."

The creature rushes at her-

Mai snapped awake, slapping at her sheets, her sleep-sluggish mind convinced that a giant bug was sitting on top of her. In short order, she realized she was waging a war that no one else had shown up to.

Then she saw the opulent, moonlit room around her, and remembered where she was.

What had happened.

What she had done.

She was in the mansion belonging to Ty Lee's family, in the bedroom of Ty Lee's mother. The woman herself was, if she was alive, somewhere in the refugee camp that had sprung up in the Royal Plaza when a small civil war popped up in the Caldera yesterday. The mansion itself was serving as a hostel for Mai's friends, allies, and benign acquaintances, but thanks to her In with the owners, she herself had been given the rare treat of a massive room all to herself.

She wondered if anyone else was jumping awake from nightmares tonight.

But then, none of the others had just murdered enemies who had once been coworkers, with or without a good reason.

Mai laid down and tried to go back to sleep. It was a while before her pulse returned to normal.


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« Reply #237 on: Jun 18, 2018 06:34 pm »

When the morning came, Aang still thought the air smelled of smoke and death.

His nose just wouldn't get used to it. The scent was an alien invader to the breezes that floated in from the sea, a taint that wouldn't go away but he couldn't accept as normal.

He hadn't slept well, and as soon as the dawn came, he had stepped outside to look over the devastation to the Fire Nation capital. Now, from the roof of the home of Ty Lee's family, with Momo on his shoulder, he turned his gaze over the splintered remains of vast mansions, over whole little neighborhoods fallen into old caverns, over roads melted and cooled by lava flows into chaotic lines like a sand garden raked by wild lemurs. Smoke still hung over the Royal Caldera; there must have been fires still burning somewhere. The light of the dawn sun was rendered thick and yellow, nearly concealing the soldiers and engineers who were still working to assess the damage and danger.

The Royal Fire Palace was one of the few buildings left unmarred, one of the few with visible signs of life. Even at this early hour, Fire Sages stood holding sacred torches in the places where yesterday there had been armored guards. Supposedly, they were purifying the place from the influence of 'the Witch Princess' Ursa.

Zuko was in there, despite the rumors about magic curses, with his sister. (Perhaps she would wake up today. But Aang had never seen anyone sleep with their eyes open like that.) The prince had made it clear, yesterday, that he wasn't interested in the company of his allies right now.

It was just as well. The new Fire Lord was up at the North Pole, at the center of an empire of his own making. No one knew if he intended to return to the Fire Nation. Aang hoped so, but Katara had said, before everyone pretty much collapsed from exhaustion yesterday, that she had her own news about Iroh. She hadn't said it in a happy voice.

Well, the new day was here. Time to find out what was going on.

Aang floated himself down from the roof, sending Momo fluttering away. Aang made a quick stop at the small stable on the property to confirm that Appa was still sleeping, and then went back into the mansion.

He found Ty Lee's sisters already assembled in the foyer. They looked nothing like Air Nomads - they had hair, for one, even if they wore it shorter than most women - but the uniformity of their appearances reminded Aang of being back in a Temple. He bowed to them. "Good morning!"

They all bowed as one. When they rose, the sister in green (whichever one she was; only Mai and Ty Lee herself could tell them apart) said, "Good morning, Avatar. The others are up, and Ty Lin and Ty Woo have prepared some breakfast. It's just breads and preserved sausages, I'm afraid. No servants showed up with the fresh fruit delivery. But, well, there was a war yesterday."

Aang could only nod. "Breads are fine, and Sokka will love the sausages. Thank you for sheltering us." He had been grateful to find that Mai, Katara, and the others had set up a camp here. Zuko didn't want anyone else in the palace. The Fire Nation military were only barely tolerating his presence and definitely didn't want his company.

It was sad to be in a ravaged city, especially the gilded capital of the Fire Nation, but - even in one of the few undamaged structures - it was the best option right now.

He found his friends gathered in the dining room.

Mai. The most amazing girl in the world, one of the last Weapons of the Fire Nation. She was dressed in fine Fire Nation reds, no doubt with all her blades just out of sight, but her hair was simply tied back in a sloppy bundle. Aang considered it a rare treat to see her relaxing her usual elegance, and hoped it wasn't a sign of trouble. Ty Lee was sitting next to her and didn't seem worried at all, chatting excitedly despite the early hour. That was good, even if Aang still wasn't quite sure what he thought of Ty Lee, yet.

Sokka. The boy from the Water Tribe was as happy as he could get in the mornings, chomping away at a dish of komodo sausages. He was sitting close to his sister, their shoulders touching, and Aang had no doubt that having her back was part of the good mood.

Katara herself wasn't wearing the hat she usually took everywhere, but Aang realized that this might be the first time he had ever seen her indoors in a real building. She smiled at her brother's sloppy eating, but there was something holding her back from fully relaxing.

Aang was sure it was the matter that had them all meeting this morning.

Toph. The Earth King, recognized ruler of the Earth Kingdom resistance against Fire Nation rule, was grinning over the crumbs left on her own plate. Next to her, Suki, their rebel ally from an island in the Southern Seas, was saying, "I'm not sure there's still a rebellion on Kyoshi that I can pledge to your service-" Suki alone of the gathering was dressed in black. Everyone else wore the colors of their nation.

Aang walked into the room, and Katara immediately waved to him. He waved back, grabbed a sweet-roll from the side table, and sat at the table (that Ty Lee's family ate their meals in chairs showed their wealth) between her and Mai. "Hey, everyone."

Mai flashed a smile. Sokka said something that was lost in his chewing. Toph pulled her finger out of her nose and flicked it in his vague direction. Ty Lee raised both hands and said, "Hi, I hope you remember me, I'm Ty Lee and I'm an Airbender, too!"

They were all his friends, more or less. Aang felt lighter just being near them.

Katara reached out to him. "It's so great to see you again, Aang. I-" She withdrew her hand before he could take it. "I wish it was for better reasons."

Aang nodded. "Thank you. We're all listening, now. You can go ahead, if you're ready."

Katara gave him a flicker of a smile, and with the scrape of her chair, moved to stand at the head of the table. "Iroh promised us that if we helped him become Fire Lord, he would restore the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes. He- he would free us. But Ty Lee and I discovered evidence that he might have lied. Jet died to get it to us, and we crossed the world to bring it here to you."

Jet was dead? Aang made a sign for peaceful rest, despite everything. Jet had been so awful to Mai, but she really had been planning to betray them at the time, but Jet's methods had just led to more trouble, but- It was confusing. And if Jet died to help them-

Aang could at least be grateful for it.

And Katara went on to detail the full extent of Iroh's actions.

Her Waterbending master, Pakku, had worked with pirates to steal platinum from the Fire Navy. That platinum was going to a secret military installation in the former Northern Air Temple. Long Feng, the guy who had used a forbidden (evil!) ceremony to turn the Ashland that used to be Ba Sing Se into a giant monster, had been secretly taken to that base. From the temple, Jet stole a map detailing an invasion of the Earth Kingdom, and was killed for it just after passing it to Katara.

The whole time, Aang's stomach grew heavier, even though he had barely touched his sweet-bread. The tension rolled throughout his whole body, and several times he had to force himself to unclench his hands. How could Iroh do this to them? He had seemed so nice! And he really was worried about his sick son! Even Zuko believed him! This was- This-

And to be perverting an Air Temple like that! "I can't believe it! I said I'd help him and he's using an Air Temple to hurt more people?!"

Ty Lee shifted in her seat. "Um, we're- uh, not sure why he was at the Air Temple, exactly."

The words reached him, but he couldn't think what she meant by them. There was a pain rising from deep within him that filled his head with heat and noise. Why did this keep happening to him?! It was like he couldn't trust anyone! People smiled at him and promised to help but they did nothing but stack lie on top of lie and treat him like a fool and use him for their own selfishness!

Suki sat up in her chair. "He has to be hiding this from the rest of the Fire Nation. No one would think to look in an Air Temple."

Aang shook his head. It was getting so hot in here. "I should have. They belonged to my people. They still should." The air was thick and heavy, like it was being pulled down-


Beneath the city.

Something was down there. Something alive. Something old. Something hot.

Something that found an echo within Aang. He had to move, had to stand up and use the fountain of energy within to keep it from burning him up. "Why didn't I visit the rest of the temples? Why didn't I make sure they were all right?" The heat was crawling through him, through his chest and arms and legs and head. It came from within and without, his heart and the depths of the city.

"I've just-" It was an old heat, somehow. Older than Aang, even though he knew it was part of him. But some parts of him were older than he was. "I've been running around doing all the wrong things. This is my fault."

Sokka's reply was muffled, almost lost in the roaring in Aang's head, as he said something about the visit to the Southern Air Temple not being encouraging.

And Sokka was right. The monsters they had found there- things that had started as the disrespected bodies of Aang's people, of the friends he had known and loved-

Aang panted for breath, finding the air too hot to nourish him. Why wasn't anyone else having trouble? He reached out for answers-

-reached beneath the city-

-where the heat echoed his call.

He could breathe again if he just wiped out this city. The Capital of the Fire Nation. A yoke on a volcano, a civilization capping an expression of the fury of the earth itself. The volcano was alive, but it had not erupted in so long, had been forced to idle while the people lived above it. They had done something. Aang could feel the yoke, a twisting of energy that kept the lava and fumes benign.

He could untwist it. He could free the volcano. He could let it do what had wanted to do for so long.

The Caldera, sitting atop all the heat, was empty, but there were people in the smaller cities at the volcano's base. The heat would spread if Aang unleashed it. The volcano-

-the volcano could explode-

-just like on Crescent Island-

-and he would feel-

Cool hands touched his shoulders.

Aang snapped his gaze up and found himself looking at Mai.

The heat was sapped away from his body as if by a breeze, but Aang felt no movement of air. "Mai? Why-" The tension in the air was gone, but he could still feel the distant solidity of the volcano's yoke. What was it, and how had it come to be? "What happened?"

She pressed the back of her hands against his cheeks. "Are you okay?"

"Me? But- Yeah, I'm fine. Why?"

"Well, you were kind of getting flushed, and then you started to glow."

Aang jerked out of her reach. He'd gone into the Avatar State! He'd almost- his friends- all those people near the volcano-

Mai turned his head so that he was looking in her eyes again. "We'll make this right." Her stare was as sharp and cool as one of her knives, yet Aang could recognize the life in it. The color of her eyes was usually so hard to tell, hiding somewhere between gray and gold and brown, but now they glistened like the metal of her knives. "I'm sorry this happened. That we didn't help you see it. But we'll make this right."

And then Sokka was beside him. "This isn't your fault, Aang. This is what fighting looks like. It's nasty. We do the best we can, and our enemies do the same. But we have to make sure we keep fighting them. That's- that's what we all signed up for. Because of you. Mai and I will help you fight. We all will."

Aang caught Mai throwing a glance at Sokka that wasn't entirely friendly, but then Toph called out from the table, "Yeah! Freedom through violent uprising!"

Aang could only smile at everyone's concern. He took a deep breath, held it long enough to make himself one with the air, and then let it out with all of his negativity. "Thanks. But maybe there's some hope that we don't have to fight. Even in all the warfare yesterday, Zuko and I found a moment where we were able to solve a problem peacefully. We can hope for something like that, but- you know, be ready in case we have to fight."

Over at the table, Ty Lee and Suki were helping Katara to unfurl a map that covered its whole width. Katara slapped her hand down on a drawing of a Fire Nation warship. "This is how we start. This is what Jet gave me. This is what he died to protect."

Sokka immediately trotted over to it, and Aang threw a grin at Mai that she returned with a roll of her eyes. Sokka really liked maps.

He looked like he had just gotten a gift as he said, "Ooh, it's the southern Earth Kingdom. I've seen enough maps to know that. But I'm not familiar with the area that's at the center of all the ominous arrows. Hey, Toph, do you recognize what Iroh seems to be planning to invade?"

The little Earth King gave a big smile. "Absolutely! It looks like Fire Lord Iroh is coordinating an assault of the big gaping empty space between your big ears!"

"Right. Blind. Forgot. I beg your majesty's forgiveness?" Sokka's face reddened.

"Good one, Toph!" Aang chuckled as he came over with the others, already feeling better, and looked down at the map. He found that he was familiar with the shape of the land beneath the arrows and listings. "Hey, I've passed by this area a few times, back when- before. I think it's forests and swamps and wetlands. Barely any people there." Even as he said it, he wondered if it was true.

Sokka frowned. "Those are some pretty fat arrows drawn in. Fat arrows are never good. And all these listed forces! That's more soldiers and war machinery than they had at the South Pole. This is a real, major invasion. Like when the war was going hot. No one invades random bits of empty swampland for no reason. Maybe Iroh has another super-secret base? But no, why invade his own base? Are we sure this is real?"

Ty Lee glanced at Katara, and then nodded. "It's real. They fought too hard to stop us."

Mai said, "I believe them. Aside from trusting Ty Lee, Iroh cracked the North Pole after over half a century of other people's failures. He does things like attack places that no one expects and then somehow use that to win a battle. It's why he's always been popular with army types."

Toph shifted in her chair to put her feet up on the table. They landed on one of the larger arrows on the map. "Sounds like you're not going to figure anything out by staring at a paper, and part of my kingdom is in real danger."

Aang need a moment to understand what she was saying. "You want to go there?"

Sokka stroked his chin. "It's a good idea. This is all valuable information for confronting Iroh, but the most effective way of putting Katara's warning to use is probably to stick an army of Earth rebels in place to counter these plans before they begin. Then when we talk to the new Fire Lord, we can be all, 'Oops, we're in the way of your army. How clumsy of us!' And then hopefully he continues being a guy who likes plans and favorable odds, and holds back from whatever he's doing, instead of throwing an army at us and hoping for the best. That won't be fun for anyone."

Aang could see the logic in it. Appa was well enough again to make the journey across the ocean, back to the Earth Kingdom.  Iroh was supposed to free the whole continent, and had even said to Aang that he expected it to help with whatever was wrong with his son, Lu Ten.

But if that had all been lies, then going back to the Earth Kingdom to help Toph with the fighting might be the best path. Sticking around the Fire Nation wouldn't accomplish anything, not with Iroh up at the North Pole, and going that far and leaving the Earth Kingdom on its own was dangerous. Especially with those 'telegraph' lines that let them send orders faster than even a sky bison could fly.

Confronting Iroh might have to wait for the next time he visited Aang in a dream.

He looked around at his friends. "It sounds like we have the start of a plan. We need to see what will happen as Iroh begins his rule as Fire Lord, but we should start getting ready to leave for the Earth Kingdom."

And then Suki said, "I'm not sure I can go with you guys."

Everyone looked to her. She had moved to stand over against a wall, and she was gazing down at her feet, not meeting anyone else's eyes.

Aang's immediate thought was that this had something to do with her sister. His second was that it might have to do with Prince Zuko.

Then one of the Ty Sisters walked in, bowed, and said, "Commander Zhao is here to see you."

Aang had just enough time to frown when the man himself walked in, grinning in his Fire Navy armor.

He didn't even bow his head before saying, "Well, I see that you've all survived yesterday's unpleasantness. That makes my job easier. I am collecting the Fire Nation's remaining figures of authority to bring them to the North Pole for Prince Iroh's crowning as Fire Lord." He looked straight at Aang. "That includes the Avatar, the Earth King, and Lady Caldera Yu Mai. We will be leaving tomorrow. It's time to deliver on the deal you all made."


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« Reply #238 on: Jun 18, 2018 06:36 pm »

Zuko kneeled in the corner of Azula's bedroom, behind the obscuring screen, and tried to summon fire in his joined hands. He breathed, in and out and in and out, seeking the element within, and sent his energies without.

A little flame, like that of a candle, uncurled between his palms. It did nothing against the shadows here behind the screen.

He hadn't lost his Firebending. And yet this was the largest flame he could produce right now.

"I am finished," came the old voice from beyond the screen, and Zuko let the flame wink out. He rose and stepped from behind the screen to find the old Sage woman pulling a blanket up to cover his sister. "I applied some ointment and changed the bandages of the Princess Azula's wound, but it seems well. Piandao Clanless made a clean cut. I also lit some Purity Candles, in case your mother put a hex on the child."

Zuko felt heat flare in his chest, even if he couldn't release it. "Just get out of here!"

The Sage bowed, and then glided out of the room.

And so Zuko was once again left alone with Azula.

He looked over at his sister, lying flat on her back in the bed, just as she had since Zuko brought her here following Fa-


Azula had been this way since yesterday, when the Avatar uncovered the truth of their parents. Breathing but not moving, making no sound. The only difference was that, at some point during the night, she had opened her eyes to stare vacantly at the ceiling.

Zuko liked that less than when she wouldn't wake up.

And they both had twenty-four hours, from dawn to dawn, to find a way out of the Fire Nation and a destination to head towards. Those were the terms of their banishment, earned by the actions of their mother.

At least this time Zuko was being banished for a good reason.

High Sage Xinghao stepped into the room, his hands folded in his sleeves. "If you keep shouting like that, you'll have the other Sages convinced that you're cursed, as well."

Zuko snorted. "Let them light as many candles as they want, as long as they stay out of my way. Why are you here?"

"Commander Zhao dropped by, representing your uncle."

Zuko's fists clenched. Of all the times to be without his Firebending- "I don't want to see him."

"Then you're fortunate, because apparently he didn't want to see you, either." Xinghao unfolded his hands from his sleeves to reveal a small wooden chest. "He delivered this, a gift of gold from Fire Lord Iroh and a message. You can read it yourself, but the sentiments are condolences on your mother and father, a promise that you will be protected in lands of Fire Nation influence, thanks for your help dealing with the Avatar, and confirmation that the deal will be honored."

Zuko closed his single eye. So Uncle wouldn't be intervening in Zuko's new banishment. He was surprised to find that he didn't feel anything in reaction to the news. Uncle was up in the North Pole, and even this latest message didn't say if he'd be coming back. Mother and Father- there was no family left here in the Fire Nation, not with Azula banished as well. Really, aside from the rush, the banishment was no inconvenience to Zuko.

Father was long dead, and there would be no confrontation over the fire he threw at Zuko at Ba Sing Se. Mother had returned from the shadows only to poison herself, leaving Zuko wondering if any of what he knew about her was true. It turned out that, after working so hard to end his first banishment, there was never a real home he could return to.

He didn't feel a need to make a new one, either.

He just wanted to stay safe and alive.

And honoring his last promise to Mother. No matter what she had turned out to be, he believed that she had loved him. His little sister needed his help, now. It didn't matter what Azula was like, how much they had conflicted. She was literally the only family Zuko had left, and right now she couldn't protect herself. Even his supposed friends were more loyal to the Avatar. And it was the Avatar who had started Mother on the path to poison.

There was maybe one person left who might offer Zuko a connection.

He looked to Xinghao. "The Sages will watch over Azula for today?"

The High Sage shrugged. "It is our pleasure to make sure you are able to leave as soon as possible. Keeping the princess here is part of that, especially given how closely she worked with your Fa- M- given everything."

Zuko nodded. He didn't care why, so long as it was done. He had to go talk to someone, and then find a way off this forsaken, worthless rock.

A way out of the Fire Nation, one last time.

While everyone else got into a big argument with Zhao, Mai sat down at the table with Katara's stolen map and took out a hinge-blade to play with. Normally, she'd be all up for telling Zhao where to put his 'invitation' to Iroh's crowning and exactly how deep, but that seemed like a waste of good anger.

The map revealed no new insights to her quick glance, so she and looked over to Suki. "You're not signing on for this next adventure, huh?"

Suki had also declined the opportunity to vent on Zhao and was leaning on the table, her chin propped up on her hands. "I only stayed away from home this long because of my sister. I hope you all succeed and free the Earth Kingdom and- and restore balance. But Kyoshi Island needs me."

The argument was getting loud. Katara's voice was among the loudest.

Mai ignored it for now and nodded. "And we don't."

Suki gave her a look.

Mai returned a single shoulder's shrug worth of an apology. "No offense. You've been a help, even when I wanted to knock some of your teeth out. But I think we're past the point where leg-breakers like you and me can make much of a difference."

Suki raised her head. "But you do more than that. You and Aang- he obviously needs you. Just now, I think you saved the whole Fire Nation capital by calming him down."

Mai didn't quite know what to say to that. She certainly didn't feel helpful, saving the Capital or not. She was the one who had let things get to this point. It seemed like Iroh had tricked them all, and she was very much annoyed at herself for missing it. Aang, sure; he wanted to trust anyone. Mai was supposed to be savvy and cynical, and unlike Sokka she had grown up where betrayal was something everything did for fun. Not that she expected to be able to play on Iroh and Azula's level, but recognizing her own limitations was no comfort when Aang was so upset about it.

She couldn't protect him from the threats he faced now. She was just a goon with a knife (well, okay, lots of knives), and Aang didn't need that. There was no one she could stab to make things better. Not even Zhao, as fun as that would be. There weren't any little cultural tricks like the Agni Budokai that could fix things.

Mai indulged in another sigh and began twirling her knife around a finger. "Well, whoopee, I guess I earned my pay for the day. But what about you and Zuko?"

Suki went very still. "What about him?"

"You were working for him back in the Earth Kingdom, right? He's being exiled, now, so-" Mai waved her spinning knife in what could be either a threat or a vague admission of confusion, depending on her mood.

Suki's eyes went to the map. "I-"

And that's when Zhao said, "Enough of this! Either you all come to the North Pole and show your support for Iroh, or Lady Caldera Yu Mai will never see her brother again!"

In the ensuing silence, Mai snapped her knife closed.

She looked over to Zhao.

She rose from her seat.

She said, "What?"

Aang, Sokka, Katara, Ty Lee, and even Toph were all backing away from Zhao. All of them (minus Toph) were looking at her with uncertain eyes. And Zhao stood at their center, his face red with anger, slowly putting a smirk on display.

He flashed his teeth at her. "We have Tomoshibi. He is safe, and in a secure location. One I don't know right now, and the information has been kept limited, for obvious reasons. Forces under my command took him from your parents on Ember Island. Once the Avatar arrives at the North Pole, the Fire Lord will have the boy returned to your parents."


He had been taken?

She'd just seen him on Ember Island, when her parents had drawn her from the safety of the Ty Sisters' home there so that Azula could set a trap for her. Mother and Father had given their loyalty to the Ozai faction, while she had been working for Iroh. Just business, nothing personal, just setting our daughter up for a killer princess. And now Ozai - or Ursa, whoever had been really in charge on that side - was dead, and Iroh was in full control.

Iroh's betrayals weren't limited to international politics, it seemed. But Mai was sure that he would characterize it as perfectly benign as long as she did as she was asked. After all, that's how Azula would honey it.

Mai kept her face blank and said, "Keep him. I never cared for that little leech. My parents will just have to get over it or get a replacement."

Aang, Sokka, and Katara were all aghast.

Only Ty Lee and Toph didn't react to her words. But then, they each had their own kind of faster-than-thought insights into the matter.

Zhao shook his head. "I could almost believe you. But that decision isn't mine. My orders from Iroh explicitly say to consider any such responses from you to be a bluff. And even if you don't care, I'm sure the kind-hearted Avatar could never let the family of such a close friend suffer."

Mai glanced at Aang. He no longer looked like she'd just insulted Appa, but he was still upset. Not that she needed to see him to know that Zhao was right.

"Whatever," she said, cutting off anyone else from chiming in, and sat again at the table.

"Exactly." Zhao clasped his hands behind his back. "Now, tomorrow I will have a ship here to take the Avatar, the Earth King, and Caldera Yu Mai to the North Pole with the other attendees for the coronation. No others are invited. So long as everyone behaves, Caldera Yu Tomoshibi will not be harmed, and once the Avatar has fulfilled his side of the bargain to Fire Lord Iroh, I will order the release of-"

That's when Mai lost patience, flipped her hinge-blade back out, and threw it.

"-the boy-" Zhao trailed off as he realized what had just happened.

His topknot tumbled down from the top of his head to drop into the hands he hastily brought up.

He looked down at the little bundle of gray hair, and then at Mai.

She kept her expression blank and met his gaze. "Oops, that was clumsy of me. Good thing I didn't hit anything vital."

"You-" He took a step forward, and everyone moved to block his path.

Mai waved them off as she leaned back in her chair. "Go ahead, Commander. Explain to the Fire Lord that I can't attend his coronation because you set me on fire. Or just annoy me more to see how far I'm going to take this. Hey, why not mess me up enough that the Avatar will destroy the Fire Nation? You know, like he did Crescent Island."

Aang blinked. "I-"

Sokka cut him off with a laugh. "Well, yeah, I mean, if we care enough about Mai to actually let ourselves be blackmailed with an evil Fire Nation toddler, we care enough to be touchy about her safety. That's what Iroh's counting on, right? I guess either he wasn't bright enough to see how we could turn things around, or he doesn't care about his toady, here."

Toph snorted. "I know which one I'm going with."

Zhao looked around at everyone. Aang. Sokka. Toph. Katara. Ty Lee (who was growling).

His fist closed in on his amputated topknot. "Tomorrow at dawn. At the docks." Then he spun on his heel and marched out.

Everyone was gathered around Mai in an instant. Ty Lee even hugged her.

As if she could feel better about letting them down yet again.

It was King Toph who brought sanity back to the proceedings by saying, "So I'm guessing this changes our plans a little."

It was the lemur that clued Zuko in to the location of the Avatar and his allies. The creature was fluttering above the mansion that belonged to Ty Lee's family, and the emptiness of the ravaged Caldera made spotting such a little thing easy.

It was the only thing moving in the sky, the only thing making a sound.

He was brought up short by the women fighting in the mansion's courtyard. It took him a moment to realize that they were sparring with their tonfa sticks, not really trying to hurt each other. It was another few moments before he saw that they all had Ty Lee's face.

By then, they had noticed him.

Now, what were their names? Azula had never befriended them the way she had Ty Lee, so Zuko's contact with them was infrequent and usually at a distance. He was pretty sure all their names started with 'Ty,' but-

They saved him by bowing together. The one on the far left, wearing green, said, "Welcome, Prince Zuko. You just missed Commander Zhao."

Zuko scowled. "No, I didn't. I came for another reason."

The green Ty Sister nodded. "The Avatar is in conference with his friends. Shall I bring you in, or do you wish to be announced, first?"

Zuko knew he should go inside, should talk to everyone. But-

The Avatar was the one who had unmasked Mother. Zuko knew the truth needed to come out, but-

"I- I just need to talk to Suki. Maybe I could wait here?"

The Ty Sisters all stared at him. One smirked, but then the rest broke into smiles that he didn't like at all.

The one in green nodded. "I'll ask her to come down. Just a moment, please."

Zuko nodded as she dashed for the mansion. He turned away from the grins of the other sisters, and reached for the thin object tucked into his belt to confirm that it was still there. His stomach was tight, and he had to suppress the urge to pace.

It was forever and too soon when the green Ty Sister returned with Suki.

For the first time since coming to the Fire Nation, she wasn't wearing the unmarked scout uniform that had allowed her to pass as part of his official retinue. Instead, she was covered in a plain black robe.

Seeing the question on his face, Suki said, "Black is how people on Kyoshi Island show mourning."

Ah. The Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom both favored white for that, but black was a somber color and, from what Suki had described, the people of Kyoshi Island would favor more practical ceremonies. It was hard to keep clothes white.

Zuko dipped his head. "You- are you- okay?" He realized something, and his face warmed. "I- I'm sorry, but with everything- yesterday- your sister- your sister's body- did you-"

The Ty Sister in green cleared her throat and trotted away to join the others.

"It was gone when I went looking for it." Suki's gaze fell to the ground. "The army had been clearing the bodies that could be reached. She must have received a basic Fire Nation mass funeral. She might even have liked that."

Suki's sister Kirai had been poisoned in a ploy to bring Zuko back here. And it had been his own mother who had masterminded it.

Zuko decided the best thing was to just push on with the matter. "I'm leaving. Azula and I have been banished from the Homeland. I'm not really sorry to go."

Suki nodded. "I heard. From Aang. I tried to talk to you yesterday, but-"

But Zuko hadn't really been in a state to notice. "Sorry. We've all had a-" How to possibly describe it? "-rough time?"

Suki snorted. "Yeah. We have." She looked up again. "So where will you go?"

Zuko swallowed. This was it. "I- uh, I was wondering where you're going. I know- the Avatar- but Azula still won't move, and- and none of the servant girls will come, and-"

"You want me to be Azula's caretaker?" Suki's brows drew together. "She's the one who poisoned Kirai!"

Zuko hadn't really thought about that. "I didn't just want that. I- I'm not going to have anyone else, and I thought you- you-"

Suki sighed. "Zuko, I'm going back to Kyoshi Island. Alone."



Suki turned to look at the spire of the Fire Palace. "All of my life, I've been pulled in two directions. Sometimes more than two. I've had to balance helping these people with helping those people, but helping one always meant risking the other. All my life! Kirai or my old friends. The freedom of Kyoshi Island or the safety of Fire Nation tyranny. Kyoshi Island or the rest of the world. Zhao or the Avatar. You or the Avatar! My sister or my new friends!"

Zuko understood all too well. "I'm sorry for my part of that. I didn't mean-"

"I know, Zuko. I'm not blaming you." She finally looked to him again. "I'm the one who tried to make it all work. I lied to everyone and did whatever it took and in the end your family still killed my sister. And now there's nothing forcing me to be pulled like that anymore. I need to go home and figure out what's left. And figure out what I can- want- to do. And it's better for all of us if you're not a part of that." Her lip quirked. "I don't think you'd like it if I decide I want to strangle Azula."

Zuko would honor Mother's last request to look after Azula. But- "She'd deserve it. I think lots of people would want to strangle her. But I- I have my duty." And he had his answer. Suki- her time in his life had come to an end.

Zuko brought his hands together in the sign of respect, and bowed low at the waist. "Thank you for everything you've done for me. And my deepest apologies for everything my family and I have done to you."

Suki lowered her own head. "Thank you. I wish you luck."

Zuko knew he'd need it, but how much luck would he have without a friend like Suki? He reached to his belt and took out the object he'd brought from the palace. "Here, this is my gift to you. One of the secret passages we found yesterday contained- um, trophies, and- according to the label, this- this belongs to you. Er, your people, I mean." He held it out, and the gold glinted in the sun.

Suki blinked. "Is that-" She took it from him, and with a click, she unfolded the metal war fan. "Oh. Zuko."

"I know it's not much, but I wanted to give at least something back to you. It's the least of what you deserve. And-" He tried to marshal his words, to find the combination that would give Suki the relief that she was owed, but he knew that this was one failure he would just have to accept. "And no one could have balanced everything that you were forced to. But you did better than anyone else could have. I'll always be grateful to have met you."

She raised the fan to her face, covering it as she rubbed at her eyes. "Me, too. Thank you."

Zuko instinctively raised his hands to reach out to her, but then remembered himself. He gave one last nod.

And then he turned and left.

She remained standing behind her fan.

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #239 on: Jun 18, 2018 06:38 pm »

Zhao was still furious by the time he got down to the Capital Harbor. He clutched his severed topknot during the whole rickshaw ride to the Royal Plaza, imagining all the various things he'd do to Lady Mai if Iroh hadn't ordered him to leave the children alone-

And then the rickshaw got to the gate to the Royal Plaza, and the guard on station bowed to him. "Commander, sir! Your soldiers left a message for you." She offered a scroll.

Zhao took it without getting out of the rickshaw and unrolled it to read.

And a smile returned to his face.


It seemed he would be able to clean up an unexpected loose end. And it would be quite the poetic way to end this latest visit to the Capital.

He nodded to the guard, and she passed his rickshaw through the gate into the Royal Plaza, so named for the size and grandeur that made it an ideal place for the Fire Lord to address his people. Normally, though, the massive space was used to unload and search cargo brought through the Capital Harbor. It could also serve as an important part of the Caldera's defense, the long space functioning as a killing box for the turrets that stood vigil all along the plaza's walls.

Today, though, it was a camp for mewling refugees, the nobles who had fled the fighting in the Caldera.

As his rickshaw skirted the edge of the plaza, following a path defined by guards lined up to keep civilians away, Zhao kept his eyes off the former elite who were getting a taste of the peasant lifestyle. Some soldiers, acting on the instructions Iroh had wired sometime during the night, were passing out relief supplies. Military engineers were even now up in the Caldera to determine what areas, if any, were safe for habitation, but at least some nobles were about to lose the status of a residence within sight of the palace. Perhaps they would go to other islands, or maybe Upper and Lower Harbor Cities would be joined at the base of the volcano by another, more upscale settlement.

No matter the outcome, none of it was Zhao's concern, and he no longer had a need to curry the nobility's favor. He took his orders personally from the Fire Lord, now. Perhaps, if the Caldera could be rebuilt, he would be awarded a manor near the palace. All his gambles had paid off.

He squeezed his fist around his severed topknot.

Mostly paid off.

His mood darkened again until he passed through the plaza, leaving the refugees behind, and reached the command tent set up by his personal marines near where his flagship was docked. He tucked his topknot into his belt as he stepped inside.

He found his father kneeling on the floor in the center of the tent, a map of the Capital hanging behind him. A guard stood on each side of Zhao the Elder.

Zhao the Younger kept his expression professional. "Lord Zhao. I take you haven't heard the news?"

"Commander Zhao. I can only assume that Prince Ozai has come to some misfortune, and so soon after Azulon's passing." Father looked especially old and tired today. His face, so similar to Zhao's own, was a dire future that had been safely avoided. "I can't imagine what else might cause this misunderstanding."

Zhao barked a laugh. "Misunderstanding? You were Prince Ozai's agent while the Avatar and Prince Zuko were on Zenmatsu Island. Ozai - or the person we thought was Ozai at the time - killed Fire Lord Azulon, among other treasonous activities. Your arrival in the Capital today is highly suspicious, wouldn't you say?"

Father blinked. "Ozai was not Ozai? What madness is this?"

Zhao could only shake his head. "I scarcely credit the stories I've heard, myself, but the Avatar and High Sage agree. The magical imposter is dead, at any rate. Iroh is Fire Lord. And I am a leading figure of security in the Capital, now."

"Are you?" Father's eyes narrowed. "Then you have the power to resolve this."

"I do." Zhao stepped over to the old man and leaned to look down on him. "You undermined me on Zenmatsu. You chose Ozai over me."

Father shrugged. "I acted out of my friendship to Piandao, more than anything. But I merely conveyed information, and I gave you fair warning about it."

Zhao snorted and straightened again. "Is that how you excuse it?"

"What is to excuse?" Father finally got to his feet, earning the guards' renewed attention, but he merely stood so that he was looking Zhao clear in the eyes. "Don't pretend what I did was a real betrayal. I merely acted in accordance with my position, trading influence like anyone else. Like I taught you to do, although you never really picked up on the necessary restraint. My connections benefitted you, in the past. You can hardly take offense when they also extracted a price."

Zhao ran a hand over his head, the absence of his topknot feeling so alien. "You're right, Father. I never took any of it personally. But you're also right that I've never been as restrained as you. Which is why you lost, and I am now ridding myself of an impediment who backed the wrong prince."

He turned and head for the tent's exit.

Father called out, "Zhao!"

Commander Zhao turned to glance at the guards. "Lord Zhao is hereby guilty of treasonous actions. Under my authority, he is to be executed."

And then he stepped out into the sunlight.

Within the tent, Father gave a cry, and then there was silence.

Zhao would need to have his hair trimmed, if he was to look as good as possible when he arrived in the North Pole for Iroh's coronation. He'd have to see to that, before the departure tomorrow morning.

Aang opened his eyes, letting the soothing cool presence of Mai shrink back from being the whole of his world to resting in the body of the young lady in front of him. They were alone on a balcony in the mansion of Ty Lee's family, hiding from the sun in the shade of an overhang.

He looked right in Mai's eyes, now a dull gold in the shadow. "I couldn't find your brother."

She face didn't change, but she did sigh. "My connection to him isn't strong enough."

Aang wanted to deny it, to affirm that she had to love her brother enough to trace the connection to Tom-Tom's location. Even the slightest bond should have been enough to at least get a direction, a path to follow in the same what that the Guru Pathik had taught. But he had traced his own rushing connection to Mai, and then tried to follow her ribbons of influence to where Zhao might have hidden her brother away.

And he couldn't find anything.

Yes, Mai was connected to him, and Sokka, and Ty Lee, and Katara, and Toph. Those glowing paths went right to the other rooms in the mansion. He had followed a path down to the courtyard to Suki, and a jagged, fraying path to the Fire Palace, to a small dying ember of a presence. He followed another path down out of the Caldera, to Zuko's bundle of frustration and need.

And two little shreds led to the refugee camp at the base of the Caldera, twin pinpricks of panic. Mai's parents, probably.

And yet nothing to her brother.

Aang shook his head. "I don't think you can be less connected to him than your parents. There's something wrong, here."

"Something or nothing, it doesn't matter. We're stuck in Iroh's trap." She stood up, and somewhere in the motion she produced a needle that she began twisting between her fingers. "I can't provide what we need, and now Zhao- Iroh- whoever has us on the end of a leash." She looked to Aang, and he could see something in her eyes that wrenched at his heart. "I- you- you don't know Tom-Tom-" She mumbled her next few words and bit her lip.

She couldn't bring herself to say them.

She couldn't tell him to forget about her, and her brother, to do what was necessary.

Aang could only smile at that. "I'll save him. I want to save him. Helping people is what I do. And I really like helping you."

At one time, he might have felt too vulnerable to admit such a thing, but after all they'd been through, he could say it with pride.

Mai nodded, but her gaze fell. She still wasn't happy, and he could understand why.

But maybe he could cheer her up-

"And I think I know what's going on," he continued. "It's not that you don't have a connection to your brother. Remember what Katara told us? Iroh took Long Feng, and he's stealing platinum from the Fire Navy."

Mai's eyes snapped up. "You think he's hiding Tom-Tom with platinum?"

Aang shrugged. "It makes sense. The Guru told us that platinum is something not connected to any element, and it disrupts spiritual energy like the Línghún. Maybe it can block the energy of our connections enough to keep me from sensing it."

Mai was twirling her needle again, fast. "So how do we get around that?"

"Uh-" Aang could only shrug. "I, uh, don't know. I mean, I can't imagine that Zhao put your brother in an airtight platinum box, so maybe there's some way to find a trace of energy, but I was trying really hard just now, so-"

Mai stilled her needle and twisted it to grasp in a fist. "So unless you get some kind of new lesson from a convenient mentor, or an upgraded spiritual engine or something, there's no..."

She was no doubt saying something very pessimistic and witty, but Aang had stopped listening.

Upgraded spiritual engine?


"An upgrade, huh?" Aang looked over to Mai, and then out across the city. This balcony wasn't very high, but with the damage to the city, there was enough of a view for him to make out the broken towers of the Capital Fire Temple.

And he remembered what happened earlier in the day, when his feelings of betrayal had resonated with the power of the volcano beneath their feet, as well as the 'yoke' that stifled its energies and kept it from erupting.

Instead of letting volcano and snowstorms draw strength from him, maybe it could be the other way around.

"I think I have an idea." But he'd need everyone's help to do it. As usual.

He turned back to Mai, and found her clutching her needle between two fingers. She met his eyes, and raised a questioning eyebrow.

He shrugged. "We better get the others. This is going to take one of those crazy plans we always wind up barely making work."

"Oh." Mai snorted. "One of those."

Still, Aang liked to think that it meant they were back on track.


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