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Author Topic: The Real Subject (Avatar: The Last Airbender, PG)  (Read 8185 times)
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« on: Jan 11, 2017 10:06 am »

Summary: The war is over. Zuko is Fire Lord, Ozai is in jail, and Azula has been quietly sent away. But no one's at peace. Tensions in the Fire Nation reveal a darker scheme to topple Zuko's government. Memories of the absent Ursa seem to whisper that some old business is unfinished. And it involves all four of them.

A/N: This is an Avatar fanfiction I came up with over a year ago. I've been agonizing over this chapter pretty much since day one, and I think it's about time I posted it! To elaborate on the summary, this is a story about the four members of the royal family: Azula, Ozai, Zuko, and Ursa, and what happened to them after the end of the show.

I did read the Search, Promise, and Smoke and Shadow comics, but I wasn't completely satisfied with what they did with these characters and their backstories. Still, I think the comics had something good going on, though they ended up taking it in a direction I wouldn't have gone. So in this story, I included the elements that inspired me and used them in the ways I thought were better. But as for the plot itself, this story does something different from the comics. Mainly, it will be a continuation of the show, but focusing on these four and the time after Sozin's Comet. All the other characters we know and love will also be there, like Aang, Sokka, Katara, etc., and some OCs to color things as well. I hope it'll be something you'll enjoy!






1. Waking Up

It was the end of her world. The blazing trail of Sozin's Comet had faded from the sky, and down below, the last of the flames that remained from the battle were turning into a cloud of smoke that drifted up from the silent plaza. It should have been the site of her coronation, the place where she would have begun her reign as Fire Lord for a long and prosperous lifetime. Now, the wooden columns that surrounded the square were scorched black and the red pavilion roofs had gaping holes from where her fire blasts had hit. And she was lying on the floor, hands chained to a metal drain, her face turned awkwardly towards the blank wall behind her. She had broken down there just moments before in front of her enemies, in a strange combination of fire and tears.

("We can't leave her like this. We have to get her inside.")

("I know. I'll get the Fire Sages. They'll take her back to the palace.")

She had finally been defeated.

("Let it be known that the Fire Prince has won the throne from his sister, the princess. By trial of Agni Kai, he is now the lawful Fire Lord.")

Finally, the thing she had feared above everything else had come true. She was nothing. Her sea of strength was a withering pond, and her stronghold of calm was a fragile mask, one that had shattered the minute she had put it to the test. Her composure had dissolved into a flurry of raging flames, her perfection knocked out by a sequence of falls and fumbles, letting the disease that had lurked inside of her soul seep out and spread through her body. The thing left behind in the aftermath was a shadow, a ravaged shell of hatred and torment.

The monster they had always known her to be.

Now, blinking her wet and reddened eyes, she looked up.

("Wait, what is she doing…?")

Heat radiated from her hands and began to simmer the chains. The metal lit up with an orange glow, then with a tug, she snapped her wrists free. The sense of destiny and purpose with which she had set out to fight was gone. Stumbling to her feet, she turned away from the ruined plaza and ran.

("She's getting away!")

("Stay here, Zuko. We'll pin her down.")

She ran and ran, bursting out into the quiet city and tore through the network of empty streets. She heard the sounds of people rushing after her, but her own breath and footsteps soon drowned them out. The only thing she wanted was to get away, to scramble out of the pit of hell that had engulfed her and get back to sanity. She would run to the end of the continent if she had to. She would plunge to the bottom of the sea. She would do anything, if only it would undo what had happened and bring her back to the person she had been before.

The footsteps grew louder from behind. Someone blasted a jet of water at her feet and tripped her, but she stumbled back into balance and slipped away. She no longer cared whether or not they were gaining on her. Her surroundings were blurring and her thoughts were spinning into a frantic craze. She was in another world.

All they would find from her back in the real one was a broken mirror and a fallen brush. But as for what had happened there, they would never know.

Like a flame, she had ended in a whisper.

("Wait, where did she go? I just lost her!")

("There! On the roof!")

("She's about to jump!")

Flight. Freedom.


And then she was falling.

("Katara! What happened?")

("She tried to jump from one roof to another and she fell. The Fire Sages put her to sleep before she could run away, but she's still hurt.")

("We cannot be certain about her condition, my prince. The run was more dangerous for her than the duel. We will keep her in this trance for as long as we can, but it won't last forever. You must make a choice…")

The voices lingered for a little while longer, growing fainter and deeper. Then they slipped away.


For a long time afterward, there was nothing. Not pain, or sounds, or movement. The storm of emotions that had churned inside her mind began to subside, the memories of battle slowly dwindling until they vanished like a forgotten thought.

Her mind sailed through a progression of dreams. She saw vast forests and rushing rivers, her vision skimming over miles of treetops and sparkling water. She saw tanks chugging through open fields, and groups of faceless soldiers marching beside them, holding up her veiled palanquin. There was the enormous metal drill she had driven to the edge of a city wall, its interior lined with pipes and rivets, eliciting a constant hum as it moved on towards its goal. But she was starting to forget what that goal had been. Names and conversations tumbled through her memory — people to chase, plans to finish — but all of them spun into the same conglomeration of nothingness.

Soon, she felt a sense of exhaustion wash over her, and she imagined how glad she would be to go back to her room and sleep. Take off her rigid shoulder plates and boots, slip on a comfortable robe and ease into her bed, like at the end of a day that had stretched for too long. Her room would be sunny and quiet, for once devoid of servants who always worked so hard to please her, but truthfully took away from the time she wanted to spent by herself. She'd pour her own water for a change, close her own curtains and sleep for as long as she wanted to. Then she'd wake up, and without telling anyone, slip out of her room and walk around the palace alone. She'd withdraw deep inside it, to a place where the halls were empty and still and she could lose herself in the maze of columns and carpets. How often she had done that as a child… peered through open doors, snooped around dusty furniture that stood so patiently awaiting its users. But now she never did anymore. Because she knew that the people who had occupied those rooms were gone. The years had whisked them all away, and as she grew up she had gravitated towards the frontal wings, the ones that glimmered with life and activity. The old places gave her a nervous, musty feeling that she didn't like.

Still, the pull from her mind never quite went away. Her footsteps pattered quietly as she moved through the shadowy corridor, surrounded by looming walls and a long floor streaked with moonlight. She hadn't been in this place for years. It was the inside of a separate house that stood by the palace, where she had lived as a young girl. She passed through the familiar spaces, somber recognition stirring inside her. Finally she reached the end of the hallway and turned, coming to a shorter path that led to a closed door. Her old room. The wall to her left was lined with tall windows, with white curtains that billowed out from a breeze she couldn't feel. They were like ghosts, gracefully undulating, completely silent.

She stood in place for a long time, watching them move. And right then she got the feeling that something was approaching her. She turned around, scanning her surroundings, but didn't see anyone else. And yet before long, the presence seemed to reach her. It grew so tangible that she could feel it hanging in the air like mist and see a watchful gaze reflected in the shine of the decorative vases. And she recognized it… it was the same thing that had been tugging at her mind when she was lying in the rubble, something that had followed her even as her pursuers had fallen behind. And now it was here.

Her breath caught in her throat and she tensed for a confrontation, feeling around the rim of a recognition that she couldn't fully grasp. But before long, her concentration began to slip. The hallway began to dim, the walls and floor fading into the shadows, then they seeped out further to swallow the tables and vases. Soon the entire room vanished, and in its place a reddish-black expanse spread across her vision. Her closed eyelids tightened.

She was lying on her back now, her body spread out over a soft, dense surface. Her arms lay loosely at her sides. She wasn't moving, but it seemed that something beneath her was, producing a smooth, constant whir that sounded like wheels.

"… Everything is ready. You can bring her in…"

"… loosen the cords…?"

"… no, not yet… have to wait a little longer…"

The voices drifted in and out of earshot, accompanied by distant footsteps. But even as she began to distinguish their words, she couldn't recognize the people they belonged to.

She waited for a few more moments, but the sensations didn't change. Instead, they grew clearer, to the point where she could hear a number of bodies shifting around her and could almost feel the rubber wheels gliding along the floor.

At last, she gathered her focus and opened her eyes. The darkness cracked to reveal a slip of white light, followed by some hazy shapes. She started to pull herself up. But instead of a body, she felt a foreign, ten-ton weight budge from its place, triggering flares of dull pain in her joints and muscles. The feeling was so shocking that she immediately let herself go, letting her head sink back into the mold it had made in the pillow. Fear prickled inside of her like an electric spark. That couldn't be hers. It couldn't be her.

Swelling with defiance, she moved again, convinced that something was holding her down and confusing her perception. She tried to kick her legs, but all they could manage was a quiver, like the limbs of a stone sculpture that was crumbling to pieces.

The pang of fear came again, spreading and blossoming into painful sparks.


A quiet rasp rose in her throat.

The coats and boots marched on.

No, no…

She felt her face contort. A warm, bitter wave welled up inside of her, blurring the voices and sounds, then it washed over the world and pulled her under.


The next thing she knew, she was sitting alone in the darkness, face buried in her hands.

"No, no, no, no!"

She repeated the word senselessly, like a child, cringing as hot tears spilled down her face. There was no one there to hear her now, so she let them fall freely, pouring out all her rage and anguish and listening to their wobbly tones resound through the silence.

Then unexpectedly, another voice emerged from the darkness.

"What's wrong?"

It sounded like it belonged to a young boy. She couldn't see him, but he sounded strangely close, hardly an arm's length away from her.

She gave a sniff in response. "I'm dead. I know I am! I was fighting someone back in the city and I lost. They're taking my body away now. They're going to put me in a tomb and burn it!" She covered her eyes again and let out another wail.

But moments later, she heard the boy laugh. "Open your eyes, silly!"

The girl paused through her tears, mouth trembling. She didn't want to believe him, didn't want to respond to the gentle touch of hope he was giving her. And yet, she couldn't push his presence away. The more time that passed, the more tangible it became, to the point where she could sense someone standing over her shoulder. Finally, she did as she was told. She began to blink rapidly, adding to the effort by rubbing her eyes. Gradually, patches of sunlight began to slip through her fingers, and when she lowered her hands from her face, she saw her a watery blue surface shimmering in front of her. It was a small pond. She was sitting at the edge of it, on a bank of ashy black sand, surrounded by a meadow of tall green grass.

The girl blinked in amazement. After a moment, she rose to her feet.

The wheels were gone, the bed was gone, and so was the strange, broken thing that lay on top of it. There weren't any rips or burns in her clothing, and her hair was pulled back neatly from her face, leaving just two front tresses to stir with the breeze. She turned around, and wherever she looked, she saw the same picture — miles and miles of hilly land stretching all the way to the horizon.

Someone grasped her shoulder. "There you go!"

The girl spun around. Two amber eyes met her gaze, and she jumped back in surprise, finally registering her companion in full height. He was boy about seven or eight years of age, though for some reason she was as small as he was. He was dressed in dark red and maroon, his black hair pulled up into a topknot. He smiled at her in relief. "I was getting worried about you. You've been sitting there for hours. I tried waking you up, but it didn't seem like you noticed me."

The girl blinked in confusion. "What... what happened to me? Where am I?"

"Where does it look like?" the boy replied. "You're back where you were before. That must have been one crazy dream you were having, though. I found you sitting here this morning and you were mumbling about all sorts of stuff… something about a phoenix king and the end of the world. Sometimes you'd move a bit, like lift your arms and wave them around funny. Other times you just looked up, like there was someone standing in front of you, but then you turned around to talk to them. You didn't look like you were having a good time."

The girl felt her heartbeat quicken. "So none of that stuff happened? I was just dreaming?"

"Well, it seemed more like a nightmare from my end." The boy gave a nervous chuckle. "But there's never been a Sozin's Comet here, and I've been here forever!"

The girl looked at him blankly. After a moment of silence, she pressed her hands to her temples and shook her head. "No… that's impossible. It can't have been a dream. Everything was so real! Something was chasing me. I felt it watching me in the palace!"

"I was watching you," the boy offered.

But the girl shook her head harder. "No, it was someone else! I'm serious! It was after me and it was about to get me!"

The boy gave a pause. "Well, whatever it was, it can't catch you now. You're officially in the clear." He looked around the empty hills, then cracked a smile. "Heh. In the clear. Get it?"

The girl lowered her hands from her face. She started out at the landscape in frustration, but the emotion began to fade as the silence of the meadow replaced it. Had she been fighting? Now that she thought about it, all she could remember were a few fire blasts and some flurries of color. Then it all blended in with the rivers and the countryside from her dreams, and those were starting to become hazy too. The only things she could feel now were the warmth of the sun and the subtle sink of the soil as she shifted her weight.

The girl looked back at boy, who was watching her with his arms crossed, looking more humored than concerned. "What is this place?" she asked.

"It's my meadow," the boy replied. "I live here. I like it because I can do whatever I want with no one ordering me around." He found a rock on the ground and nudged it around with his shoe.

"Yes, but where is this? Are we in the Fire Nation?"

The boy frowned. "What's that?"

The girl lifted her eyebrows. "The Earth Kingdom?"

"Never heard of it."

"What do you mean?" said the girl. "Don't you know the four nations? The people fighting the war?"

Now the boy's puzzled expression became streaked with disbelief. "What war?"

"The war between the nations! It lasted for a hundred years!"

The boy began to laugh. "That really must have been some dream!"

The girl stood with her mouth hanging open, and when she finally managed to collect herself, she shook her head. "You're weird!"

The boy shrugged. "Well, I'm not the one who was talking to myself."

The girl gave a hmph and turned away. But a few seconds later, she looked back over her shoulder to study him again, while he knelt down and began to draw in the sand with a pointy edge of the rock he had found. For what little he knew of the Fire Nation, the boy looked just like a royal child, with a golden flame clip on his topknot and an elegant trim on his collar. She turned back to him all the way, finally deciding to speak. "Who are you?"
« Last Edit: Oct 15, 2018 05:25 am by Icy_Ashford » Logged

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #1 on: Jan 11, 2017 10:13 am »

The boy drew himself up proudly, laying a hand on his chest. "I'm Quin the Quester," he replied.

"Quin the Quester?" A small smile tugged at the girl's lips, and she lifted a hand to cover it. "Why would you call yourself Quin the Quester?"

"Because that's who I am," the boy said. "I quest for treasure and save kingdoms and unlock mysteries!" He leaned forward into a warrior's lunge and punched forward an arm, almost as if to shoot a flame. Then he straightened, concluding the form by pressing a fist into his palm. "I tried Wen of the Wilds for a bit, but that made me sound like some kind of jungle man who haunts villages." He raised his arms and let his mouth loll open. "Wooooooo!"

The girl gave a full-blown laugh, clutching her stomach.

"So who are you?" the boy asked.

The girl's face fell, and after a moment of silence, she found herself looking away from his eager gaze. "Well, if it was a dream like you said… then I guess it doesn't matter."

Quin considered this. "Oh. Well, that's okay. You don't have to think of a name if you don't want to. I just keep mine because I like to narrate what I do." He brushed some sand from his knees and stepped away from the pond. "But now that you're here, we can be a double team! There's lots to do around here. We can go rock-skimming and rope-jumping and fishing… Then when it's nighttime, we can play Scavenger Hunt. That's when we go around and look for an object. I've always wanted to play Hide and Explode too, but I could never get another person."

The girl frowned. "So there's really no one here but you?"

Quin nodded. "Yep." But then he paused, and tilted his head to the side. "Well, there is the old man. But he's never around for long, so he doesn't count."

"Who's the old man?"

"I don't know," Quin said. "But he likes to take walks around here sometimes. I always see him carrying flowers." He squinted and looked out into the distance. "You actually missed him by a couple minutes. He left when I was still sitting with you. I wanted to follow him that time to see where he'd go, but you seemed more important."

The girl lowered her gaze, feeling both heartened and guilty. "Oh. Well... maybe we'll see him again."

"We should. He always comes about every other day." Quin turned back to her. "But in the meantime, I gotta show you around. This could be your place too. We'll share it together." He paused. "If you're not going anywhere else, I mean."

The girl shrugged, turning out her palms. "I don't think I am."

Quin brightened. "Then come on!"

He reached for her hand, and after a brief hesitation, the girl took it. Almost immediately, she felt a sharp tug and laughed as the boy began to pull her down the hill. The sensations were firm and real, much more real than the broken, disconnected memories of the palace, and as she continued to follow Quin, she felt those things evaporate and vanish. Instead, her perception took in the meadow, which seemed to have no bounds and was completely empty except for them. But occasionally, Quin revealed to her what she thought were signs of human presence. First, there was a Pai Sho set at the top of one of the hills, which the boy said he had found there a long time ago. It was set for two on a flat boulder, but since the boy could never find a playmate, he played a game he called Solo-Sho, which involved moving the pieces in complex sequences to make patterns. The girl sat with him while he explained the game, staring in astonishment at the colorful checkerboard, at the stone slab that was perfectly round, perfectly sized for the game.

Next, Quin took her to a group of large stone disks standing on their sides and showed her how he climbed on top of them and tested his balance. Then he leaned over the edge, peering upside-down through the square hole in the center. "Hey there!" he said.

The girl laughed in response, but as Quin sat up and began to try hopping from one stone to another, she found her gaze lingering on the perfect, identical squares, swearing to herself that they reminded her of something.

Quin continued to lead her through the meadow, following what seemed to be a mental compass. The low-lying hills didn't reveal much else, only more rocks and occasionally some lone clumps of flowers. They came in a palette of colors, from pink to orange to violet, though the majority were white like the clouds. After a while, she and the boy reached another pond. This one was larger than the one where she had been sitting, but had the same black sand forming its banks. Quin meandered over to it and sat down, as if it were a habitual resting point. The girl followed suit, kneeling down by the water. The surface was still as ever and provided a mirror-like reflection of her face.

"Funny I saw you by a pond," Quin murmured. "Sometimes, when I look at them long enough, I see things too. Almost like visions of different places. One I saw a lot was this swamp-forest. It's got all these weird black trees and sandy mounds coming out of the water."

The girl's eyebrows climbed. "How's that possible?"

"It's the water." Quin smiled. "It's got a power of some sort. It keeps a connection." He reached into the pond and began to skim his fingers through the water, making little waves.

The girl continued to sit still, carefully studying her reflection, but beyond it all she saw was the sand bed. She sighed in resignation, then began to tap her chin with her finger. "So, could you actually go to the places you were seeing?"

"I don't know. I've never tried." Quin reclined into the grass and looked up into the sky, squinting slightly. "But even if I could, I wouldn't. This is the only place I want to be."

The girl hugged her knees to her chest. "I remember being somewhere else."



"Where's home for you?"

The girl thought for a moment, but for some reason she couldn't place her finger on it. "I don't know. It's definitely in the regular world, though."

Quin cracked a smile. "The Fire Nation?"


He frowned. "So, what other nations are there?"

"The Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes and the Air Nomads," said the girl. "Each group of people lives together."
"And why were they fighting?"

The girl paused. For a minute, she pictured a red comet streaking across a sky, but then her mind went blank. "I don't remember."

Quin looked at her with a lifted eyebrow, but said nothing and settled back into the grass. After a moment, the girl followed suit, lowering herself down onto her back. The sky was bright and dotted with clouds. But right then, another image came to her mind - red haze, white smoke. And fire. Comet fire.

"... How bad is it?"

"… not sure… need to start the procedure immediately…"

Fear panged inside of her. The voices had sounded from the back of her mind, almost like they were tapping through from another world. And yet, the meadow was still there. She still felt the grass shifting around her and the solidity of the soil beneath her. The girl sat up slowly, looking around. Maybe it had been her imagination…

Beside her, Quin sat up as well. He seemed content as ever and had found a twig to play with. But the girl was uneasy. Once again, she felt the peculiar sense of disorientation, as if half of her mind were somewhere else.

She hardly noticed that she had begun to stare at the pond again, until suddenly, a flash of red appeared on the water's surface. It lasted no more than a second, as if a kite had flown by overhead. But then it came again, this time slow enough so that she could make out a shape. It was a long red sleeve, rimmed with a gold cuff.

She wanted to call Quin over, but she found herself unable to move. All she could do was stare at the reflection of her own eyes, wide and bright amber, and right then, she saw the hazy outline of another face appear. But before it could materialize clearly, she heard a shout.

"It's him!"

The girl jumped, tearing her gaze away from the water, and looked at Quin. The boy was on his feet, jumping up and pointing into the distance. "It's him! It's the old man!"

The girl rushed to his side and scanned the hills. "Where is he?"

Quin let out a sound of frustration. "You just missed him. He went behind that hill. Come on!"

He grabbed her hand and pulled her after him. The girl ran to keep up, frantically searching her surroundings, but couldn't see anyone else. Quin, however, seemed to be following a surefire path. He slipped away from her and got ahead by several yards, but as he reached the top of a hill, he stopped. He stood in place for a while, looking around, then stepped down with a shake of the head and came back to her.

"Nah. We're too late. He's gone." Quin shoulders were drooped in resignation, clearly one he had felt many times before.

The girl looked at him quizzically. "But you just saw him. How can you tell?"

"He disappeared. He was just walking, then he went behind a hill and never came out." The boy sighed. "I guess there's always next time."

The girl frowned. "Why do you want to talk to him so badly?"

"I don't know. I have a feeling that he can tell me something. Or at least hold a decent conversation... I haven't had one in a long time."

"Then why don't you go someplace with more people? Why stay here?"

Quin smiled. "I haven't had much luck with that." His eyes drifted up to the clouds. "See, I wasn't always here. I tried living in a lot of other places, just plain towns and villages. But for some reason, I never felt like I belonged there. People would always sort of pass by me, and they'd never answer me when I talked to them. They hardly even looked at me. Then one day I was standing by a crate of apples watching a merchant with a customer. And one of the apples fell, so the merchant reached out to get it. His hand went right through me. Like I didn't even exist."

The girl lifted her eyebrows. "Wow."

Quin gave a somber smile. "You can imagine that made me angry. So eventually I just gave up and left town. I told myself I wouldn't stop until I got somewhere where I'd never see another person again. I just kept walking and walking, and at one point I started feeling like my feet were climbing up something. And when I looked down, I saw that I was going up a really high slope. And then I got to the top and saw this place." He brushed his hand across some grass, letting them bend beneath his palm. "And here, it's different. I think about everything that happened and it doesn't seem so bad anymore. I don't want to go anywhere else, because I don't need to."

The girl frowned. "It can't always have been like that, though. Don't you remember anything that happened to you before?"

"Not really." Quin paused. "I mean, I guess I must have lived somewhere, but I don't remember where. And I don't remember anybody I might have known. Or could have known, even." He looked off into the distance. "For as long as I've been here, I've never seen another person come around. The old man's the only one who does. That means this place is real to him, just like it is for me. And that has to count for something."

After a moment, the girl set her eyebrows together. "Come on. If he was going in that direction, then he wouldn't just suddenly change his mind. He probably just found a faster way to go." She started forward, then looked over her shoulder to get the boy to follow. After a moment, he did.

The sky began to grow cloudy in the distance. The children kept going, rounding the top of another hill, and when the girl saw what was on the other side of the mount, she gasped.

Laid out at the basin of the hill was an enormous flat field filled with bulbous white flowers. It stretched ahead of them for a great distance, before ceasing abruptly at the foot of an enormous wall made of white stone. The wall seemed like it had been a part of a larger structure before, with a sturdy shell and a square-toothed rim, but ended in a sagging, crumbling ruin on both ends.

The boy's eyes widened. "Whoa."

The girl stared at it in silent shock, speechless.

They carefully descended the hill and waded through the field. The flowers were all identical, bobbing indifferently as the children passed through them. The boy continued to turn his head as he walked, looking back to where they had come from, then back to the wall again.

"Wow. I've never seen this before..." The boy kept going until he was standing right next to the wall, peering up at the rim. The girl followed him, and towards the nearby crumbled edge she noticed a square plot of soil that somebody had evidently been tending to. There were several pots standing together, holding various leafy plants, and garden tools laid out to the side.

"That must be where the old man goes," she said.

"Must be…" Quin agreed.

They went over to the garden together, and Quin knelt down. He picked up one of the pots, which held a purple leafy plant, and turned it around. His face grew somber. "It's not like I don't wonder what it would have been like if I had stayed," he spoke up. "I know that if I lived in the regular world before, I must have had a family. And I'd go looking for them now if I could, but I don't even remember who they are. And it feels like it's been so long that they won't recognize me either." He dropped his voice. "I don't even know if they'd want me back... I mean, I must be the one who left them. And they've probably moved on from me already."

The girl stared into the boy's eyes as he said this. They were a light amber, and seemed older than he was.

It took a good deal of effort to pull away from his gaze, but nevertheless she did, and turned back to face the wall. As her gaze ran over the cracks in the stone face, something in them triggered a disquiet. It started out as a small pang, but soon it swelled into a sharp desperation, like a wave advancing over the shoreline.

"… check complete, condition stable."

"Loosen the cords and we'll begin."

The colors of the world sharpened and outlines blurred. The girl felt her throat close up, and she turned back to the boy, breathless. "What's happening to me?"

The boy's expression clouded. "I don't know." His gaze went to the wall again. "Sometimes I wonder what I'm missing out on, though. I get this feeling that it's something important. And I know I probably didn't even appreciate it while I was there. I just kept obsessing over stupid little things instead of thinking about what really mattered. Because if I had, I'd probably still be there."

The girl kept looking at him, her voice barely a whisper. "What matters?"

The boy lowered his gaze. "I don't know. Just life, I guess. Being with people, talking to them." He looked up at her. "I think it's good that you remember other places. Maybe that means you can still go back to them."

The girl stared at him blankly. She didn't want to go back. She didn't want to remember. All she wanted was to stay in the meadow, but for some reason she kept getting the feeling that something from outside was pulling her away.

She started to lift her hands to her head, but stopped midway and clenched them into fists. She felt a rush of dizziness, then the strange sensation of opening her eyes, though she was perfectly sure they had been open before. The horizon blurred into a hazy stripe. The wall faded behind a bright white light, and when she blinked again, the rest of the meadow was blotted out by shadows. She found herself looking up at a dark ceiling, where a large white lamp hung over her head.

The motion had stopped. The clanks had stopped. The bed was standing still, and she was lying on top of it, wearing what felt like a thin, long curtain. She shuddered, and in response she felt a strip of tightness around her wrists and ankles.

She wasn't in a sarcophagus. She wasn't in a burning room. That might have been comforting before, but now she had no doubt she was somewhere she shouldn't be.

The girl squinted and turned her head to the side. This time, she saw a little more — white coats and arms shifting nearby.

"Get the water ready."

"Disinfecting the other side…"

Hands placed something wet and cold over her stomach. Without a moment's notice, a sharp, brilliant pain erupted from the spot, like a burn from molten magma. She tried to scream, but what came out instead was a low, hoarse moan.

"... waking, she's waking!"

"We can't… her wake up … injuries too severe…"

"… give her more of it…"

A moment later there came a puff of air, and a sweet, heavy scent washed over her. The white light blurred, and she felt a sickening drop as her head lolled to the side.

She fell back into the grass, her back striking a bumpy hill. When she opened her eyes, she found Quin kneeling beside her, eyes wide in concern.

"Hey! Are you okay?" He clasped a hand around her arm and pulled her up. The girl got to her feet, skin still prickling from the memory of the pain.

Quin helped her brush some dirt from her clothes, then backed up to let her collect herself. "That was really strange," he said. "You sort of… froze." He did an imitation of a person seizing up.

The girl shook her head. "Something's wrong. I keep seeing this room…" She rubbed her temples. "They're doing something to me. I think they're trying to…" But she paused, unable to finish. She just looked at the boy, who after a moment offered a smile.

"Hey. It's okay. If anything, you'll just end up back here again."

The girl looked at him. "Do you promise?"

Quin nodded. "Promise."
« Last Edit: Oct 14, 2018 08:06 am by Icy_Ashford » Logged

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #2 on: Jan 11, 2017 10:14 am »

She did not respond. Quin held out his hand again. "Come on. Let's keep going."

She followed him through the grass, limbs heavy and shaky. In that span of time the sky had darkened over their side of the meadow, groups of clouds collecting over the hills. The wind had picked up and was stirring the grass, though beyond the wall it was still sunny.

"Looks like there's going to be a storm soon," Quin said. "We better keep going. We might find a place to wait it out."

The girl followed him past the wall and they came to the top of another large hill. As they rounded the top, the girl saw the meadow plunge down until it became a charred, rocky valley, which lay carved out of the ground like an open wound. The grass there was thin and withered, dotted with gnarled trees. In the distance beyond it stood a small, wrecked plaza. Red pavilion roofs rose up from a large stone square, their surfaces charred and chipped. The walls that surrounded them were dirty and crumbling.

The girl stopped for a moment, her breath catching. "This is the place… this is where I was fighting."

Quin's eyes widened, but he didn't say anything.

They walked up to the entrance of the plaza and passed under the roof of one of the buildings. Without being aware of it, they went in separate directions. The girl saw a storm drain on the ground and trailed off towards it, but when she knelt down to look, she saw that it was dry. She went to a door nearby and tried to open it, but it wouldn't budge. She stepped back out into the open air, examining the two long channels at the center of the arena, which had water splashed around their rims. She approached one of them and peered inside, but instead of a shallow pit she saw a bottomless black hole.

Before the girl could ponder the situation further, something sliced into her mind, arresting her thoughts and tinting her vision red. The hands were back again, dabbing her with something cold that sent painful heat ripping through her skin. The girl doubled over, gritting her teeth. Maybe it would stop. Maybe if she kept still, they would think she died, and go away. Maybe, maybe…

Several more pain flashes followed, each like a jab of fire that scorched her insides. The girl clenched her fists, and when the pain faded, she relaxed with a heavy breath, hanging her head. What had they done to her? What had they reduced her to?

She stifled her breath again, feeling her eyes well with tears. But a moment later, she blinked them away.

"No," she muttered. "No. You're not through with me. I'll show you." She straightened and looked up at the sky. "All of you!"

Another scream split the silence. Hands recoiled away from her.

"Did she just talk?"

"She's supposed to be unconscious. Give her more mist."

"Maybe we should do the bones first?"

"No. These burns are too severe. Some of them have been infected already, and if they aren't healed now, it might become systemic."

"What did she break, again?"

"Wrist, arm, collarbone, ankle… nothing we can't fix. But she must have been pushing herself to the limit. She's overworked, physically and mentally."

"Poor thing. So young…"


"Hold her down! She's convulsing!"

"Get the mist, quickly!"

"She already has too much in her, if we just keep going it'll end sooner—"

"No! We have to treat her like she can wake up at any moment. There's no telling how long the serum will hold out."

Hazy noises in the background. Her eyelids pulled open at different degrees, and she saw a bright lamp floating overhead. She began to fidget, and felt the mattress crinkle beneath her. But before she could do anything else, she felt another puff of scented air, and something swooped down to strap her arms and legs to the bed. Simultaneously, her hands and feet were covered with what felt like heavy leather bags.

She fought unconsciousness as long as she could, feeling the water travel up to her shoulders and neck. The bursts of pain were duller now, but she clenched her fists against them, snarling senseless words. At last, she slackened with exhaustion and sank back as the world faded away.

"She said something again!"

"What was it?"


"Revenge? I don't understand..."

A pause.

"But you know. She almost killed them."


Killed who?

In the back of her mind, the girl spat. How dare those voices talk about her without even referring to her.
She slammed her eyes closed and waited for the plaza to return. Moments later, she saw herself stepping through a tunnel, emerging into full sunlight at the center of the arena. She looked around for the boy, but he was nowhere to be found.

"Quin?" She turned around, scanning the buildings. "Quin! Where are you?"

But the plaza was silent. She stood alone at the center of the arena, beneath the graying sky. Any minute now, the rain would come. Not knowing what else to do, the girl sat down and began to ponder the situation. The people had her captive somehow, and now they were doing something to make her submit to them. But she wouldn't let them. She would stay in the plaza as long as she could, even if it meant being destroyed along with it.

Slowly, she took a breath. "Okay, voices," she said. "It's going to be either you or me."

She sat down and crossed her legs, anchoring herself to the landscape as much as she could. But before long, she felt something slice into her mind again. She grabbed her head in preparation for the pain, but the pain didn't come. What came instead was a presence, one that she recognized, one she became so acutely aware of that it momentarily drowned out the rest of her thoughts.

A long shadow rose up on the ground in front of her, and the girl felt herself freeze. She turned around, feeling the sink of dread, and there it was. Standing behind her, like an apparition, was the presence she had felt in her dream, in the rubble after the battle, in the real palace she had left minutes before it. It was the woman from the mirror. She was wearing a red robe, with long golden cuffs that draped down from the sleeves.


The girl stared at the woman in horror. Then a second later, she snarled and shot a blast of blue fire at the apparition. But the flames dissipated as soon as they reached the woman's body, revealing her in the same state as before.

The woman looked at her with tired, saddened eyes. "It's me."

"Go away!" the girl shouted. She shot another blast of fire, then got up without a second thought and ran away. She zipped across the arena, passing the storm drain and hopping from the pavement onto the barren land. Somewhere in the realm beyond, the sounds from the voices and machines began to escalate.

"Finishing up…"

Her surroundings blurred and danced. The girl bit her lip and ran faster.

"Coming along well…"


Stumbling and sputtering, the girl reached the ravaged valley. She looked up and saw the massive slope looming in the distance, a slide of rocks and gravel that lead up to the meadow. There, atop the ledge, she could still see a stripe of sunny green land, and found herself filled with a sudden desperation to reach it. She had to. Maybe, if she did, everything would go back to normal.

Eyes set on her target, the girl quickened her pace. But the slope was too far away. The energy was draining out of her, her body slowing like a failing machine, and the faster she tried to run, the more sluggish her motions became. Soon, she was reduced to a lumbering walk. Then she came to a stop, and stood in place at the center of the valley, teetering. Finally, she collapsed, hands and knees falling into the dirt.

She had lost.

Somewhere far away, a finger brushed her shoulder.

"It's almost over, darling," a woman's voice whispered.

The girl gritted her teeth. Darling. How dare they.

She lifted her head, looking up at the meadow with exhausted eyes. Her mouth trembled. But seconds later, she heard a whisper of wind as someone approached from behind. The girl turned back, and saw the woman from the mirror standing over her, the hem of her robe brushing over the gravel. Her face was somber and worn, like the scorched, diseased land she had come from.

The girl rose to her feet, meeting the woman's gaze with a snarl. "You think I don't know what you're doing!" she said. "You think you've trapped me here. You think you have me pinned. But you're wrong. You can chase me and hunt me all you want, but I'll always get away. I'll fight you to the end."

She lifted her arms out in front of her, bending one at the elbow.

At the same time, the woman reached out with her hand. "Azula…"

The girl smiled at the sound of her name. "Azula!" She bent her arms, sweeping two arcs in the air with her hands, and blasted two jets of blue flames from her fingertips. The fires combined into a single blast that swallowed Ursa whole, then rose and spread into a flat screen that obliterated her view of the plaza. Before the fire could fade, Azula turned around and lowered her fists to her sides, preparing to rocket herself away, but right then she felt the mysterious force from outside begin to tug her upwards. She stole a glance at the sky, sensing the people that were moving around her body. And in a moment's notice, she made her decision.

Azula lifted her arms, bending a tongue of blue flame in the air, and began to spin herself around in a circle. She kept the flames going, letting them gather in strength and volume, until the ring of fire that was forming around her nearly encased her body. At last, Azula stopped herself on her toe, pulling the mass of fire beneath her, and blasted off from the ground with a resounding boom. The force of it sent her rocketing upwards into the air, where she continued to fire flames from her fists and feet, looking up in anticipation as she got closer and closer to the clouds.
Her eyes flew open.

She lifted her head from the pillow, and the first thing she did was open her mouth and shoot a jet of blue flames at the ceiling. But a moment later, the fire was pushed down and spun into a ball, then with a single clap, a pair of hands dissipated them into the air. Simultaneously, several other arms pinned her down to the bed, and moments later, something heavy was wrapped around her like a cocoon, preventing her from moving.

"There. All set and ready to go."

Azula looked down at herself and glimpsed a bed, where the rest of her body was wrapped in a thick, heavy blanket. Someone gripped the bars of the bed and rolled it speedily down a hallway, turning her into another room. It was filled with hazy shapes, who were scurrying around, adjusting equipment and folding sheets. In the middle of a side wall, there was a large empty space. Her bed was wheeled into it and parked.

Overhead, the face of a different woman swam into view, and smiled.

"Well, honey, you gave us quite a fright back there. But fortunately it's all over now. Welcome to your new home."

(End of Chapter 1)
« Last Edit: Oct 14, 2018 08:16 am by Icy_Ashford » Logged

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #3 on: Jan 24, 2017 12:57 pm »

2. Nira, Mira, and Kira

Sometime later, Azula blacked out. She didn't know exactly when; the faces and voices simply began to blur in her mind, turning into some strange conglomeration of image and sound, before finally fading for the darkness of sleep - sleep of the heavy and fuzzy kind, where there were no dreams, and no movement for sheer exhaustion.

She woke up a few times in short bursts, gasping and blinking, her mind surging with scenes of rainstorms and clapping thunder. But she always found herself in the same room, lying on her back, with a blanket pulled up to her neck. The dimmed ceiling lamp gave off a murky orange light, which cast most of her surroundings into shadow, revealing only the silhouettes of cabinets and shelves. Her body seemed ten times heavier than before; where at one point, she remembered struggling to move her legs, now, she could hardly lift a single arm from the bed. But as she continued to fidget around, she discovered a tangible reason - her body was strapped down to the mattress by what felt like dozens of elastic bands, which reached horizontally from one side of the bed to the other, more or less trapping her in a single position.

As her waking periods grew longer, and the room around her clearer, Azula became aware that something was very, very wrong.

She was definitely someplace else. It wasn't in a dream, and it certainly wasn't anywhere in the palace. The bed she was lying in looked more like a metal fruit cart with a mattress tied on top. It had smooth metal bars running along all four sides, and wasn't much wider than she was.

To her right, there was a large stone countertop, which ran along the wall, stopped for the door, then continued a little past the corner. The surface was a smooth and sterile wasteland, with not a stray object in sight. Directly across from her stood an empty bookshelf, pushed against the wall like a white building block. But the worst came when Azula looked to her left and saw the window - a ghastly, gaping, metal sheet stretching almost from floor to ceiling, lined with the vertical grooves of tightly-closed shutters. A pair of curtains hung from a metal bar above it, but though they were currently drawn, the shutters didn't let any light shine through. On the whole, the room looked like an abandoned construction project, or some sort of torture chamber.

It was also astoundingly quiet.

Azula lay still for a long time, pondering the situation. Her head felt tired and clear, as if some powerful gale had blown through and swept away all of her former thoughts. Fragmented memories of a meadow and a boy still drifted up in her mind, but they were already so faded and distant that she had no way of piecing them back together. Meanwhile, her gaze ran across the room's every curve and corner, studying the shelves, the faucet, and the cabinet doors beneath the counter. But nothing came out of her investigation except for more silence.

After a minute, Azula narrowed her eyes. "Guards! Servants!"

No one replied.

Suddenly, a host of memories marched into her mind, and she slammed her eyes closed. She had banished them all. Then she had lost an Agni Kai to - no, no, there was no point in dwelling on that now.

Azula opened her eyes again. She turned her attention to the blanket, and after some thought, she gripped the edge with her teeth and tossed it aside. The sheets folded back to expose the sleeve of a nightgown, and the thick black bands that held her down. She tried to heat them up with firebending, channeling warmth to her skin to make them stretch, but for some reason the heat didn't come. She tried to break free through sheer force of pulling, but the elastic held firm and pulled her back.

With a sigh, Azula let her head plop down on the pillow. After a moment, she sucked in a breath and turned herself as far to the right as she could, craning her neck down to see over the edge of the bed. She was about a leg's height from the floor. She swept her gaze more carefully over the bookshelf, hoping to find something sharp or pointy in its depths, but it was empty.

Azula settled onto her back again and took a breath. There was still one part of her they hadn't covered.

Breathe. Focus.

She inhaled through her nose, preparing to blow fire on the blanket, but when she pushed her breath out through her mouth, nothing came out. Just regular air. Azula took another breath and repeated the cycle, but got the same result. With a groan, she clenched her fists and tried to make fire through her hands, but felt nothing, not even the slightest rise in temperature. She felt a flash of panic.

"No… no!"

Abandoning all composure, she began to writhe and flail, pulling against the bands with all the strength she had.

"No, no, NO!"

The mattress creaked under her fidgets, and the bed began to slide back and forth on its wheels. Before long, she heard a rush of approaching footsteps, and moments later, the door to her room burst open.

"She's awake!"

The lamp on the ceiling flashed and brightened, flooding the entire room with white light. Azula looked up to see three women bunched up in the doorway, one who had her hand on a switch on the wall and the other two who were peering over her shoulders. They were dressed in white kimono shirts and long skirts, all spotless and matching. Azula gritted her teeth at them. "What did you do to me?"

The woman by the light switch stepped forward, clapping a hand over her chest. "I don't believe it! And there don't seem to be any adverse effects from the procedure."

"We'll have to wait for the test results, though," said another, walking in after her.

"I asked you, what did you clunking buffoons do to me?" Azula shouted. "What happened to my firebending?"

"Nothing happened to your firebending," the first woman answered. She came closer to the bed, and with a jolt of surprise, Azula recognized her. She had been the one who had appeared after the dream, smiling and saying that it was all over. The woman's hair was short and wavy, and she had an annoying, dimpled face. Once she had looked Azula over, she pulled the blanket off and began to fold it. Azula jerked upwards, straining against the bands, and managed to lift herself a few inches from the mattress.

"Don't lie to me! I heard you all when you were talking! You did some sort of operation on me, didn't you? You took my firebending away!" Azula exhaled sharply, taking her aim at the woman's face, but no flames came out.

The second woman stepped into view. "Honey, we didn't do anything to you. You have to calm down."

"You call tying me down and locking me up in this filthy shack doing nothing?"

The first woman draped the folded blanket over her arm and placed a hand on the bed. "Listen, sweetheart, just relax. You've been through a lot. We don't want to make the transition too sudden."

"What transition?" Azula shouted. "Tell me where I am!"

"Sssh. It's okay." The woman stroked Azula's arm. "You're in a hospital. The operation you remember was three days ago. You were hurt really bad, and we decided it would be best to keep you asleep while your body healed. Technically, you weren't supposed to wake up this early... we were expecting you to regain awareness by the end of tomorrow. But it's like I say, the body has a mind of its own sometimes!" She chuckled.

Azula looked around. She couldn't think of any place that reminded her less of a hospital. It was more like a bare room with equipment shoved in. The nurses looked out-of-place with their tidy attire, and the light cast a bland, waxy glow over their faces.

"I want to leave," she said at last.

"Honey, you're not going anywhere right now. Conscious or not, you still have to stay in bed for the prescribed time to let your body recover from the procedure."

"What procedure? What did you do to me?"

"We healed you," said the third nurse. She approached from her place by the door, arms crossed. "You were covered in burns and scrapes that got infected, so the first thing the doctor did was clean them and dose you with antibiotics. Then he stabilized your joints and gave you special serums to relax your muscles. Then we cleaned you up and put you to sleep."

The second nurse gave an emphatic nod. "You have to stay in bed until the effects of all the medications wear off," she added.

Azula stared at the women in dumb fury. What made the situation even more frustrating was that her memory was still drawing up a blank. From the time after the Fire Sages captured her, she could remember nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The wavy-haired nurse must have taken Azula's silence for submission, for she smiled. "Just relax for now. We'll give you a few days' rest, then we'll remove the bandages, and when you're completely healed, we'll bring the doctor in and he'll have a word with you."

Azula gritted her teeth. "I'm not going to see your stupid doctor! You're not going to heal me! I am going HOME!" She began to rock back and forth again, but the nurse steadied the bed and pushed Azula down by the shoulders.

"You are home, Azula. Now lie still. We're going to get you cleaned up." She turned away from the bed and walked off.

Azula watched the three women rush in and out of the door, her eyes leering behind jagged strands of hair. She fixed the appearances of the last two, noting the fire-insignia clips adorning their topknots. That meant they were definitely in the Fire Nation. They wouldn't have dared to wear those if they were outside the kingdom.

One of the topknot-nurses went to help Annoying Dimples, wetting a towel in the sink. Meanwhile, the other bent down to open a cabinet, taking out a candle. Humming, she placed it into a shallow plate and lifted a finger to the wick. Azula watched as the nurse lit a small flame with her finger, and right then, a realization flashed in her mind.

Of course. Sozin's Comet.

Azula's heartbeat quickened.

The comet had passed, and everyone's firebending was back to normal. That meant that something had to have happened. The Earth Kingdom should be in ashes. She would hear word from her father any minute.

Annoying Dimples came over to the bed and dabbed Azula's face with a warm towel. After she finished, she handed it off to Topknot One, who washed it out by the sink, then gave it back. Meanwhile, Topknot Two waltzed over and placed her candle on the nightstand to Azula's right.

"Here. I thought you'd enjoy a little aromatherapy." The nurse artfully wafted the air around the candle, pushing a strange, grassy scent into Azula's nose.

Azula flinched away with a scowl. "Why don't you clean this place instead?"

Topknot Two began to laugh. "Oh, you silly!"

Azula began to twist at her binds, but Annoying Dimples held her down and pressed the washcloth to her neck. "Hold still, honey. I'm almost done."

Azula flinched away from the nurse's hand. "I'm not your dear, or your honey, or your darling, you stupid pig! I am the Fire Lord! Daughter of the Phoenix King!"

"Let's not get too ahead of ourselves here," Annoying Dimples said. "You can't work yourself up - you're not allowed. Take it as a mandatory spa-relaxation session. We want you to heal up a bit more before we introduce you to the doctor."

"What doctor?!" Azula shouted. "Where am I? Why aren't you people telling me anything?"

Topknot One winced, and Annoying Dimples braced Azula by the shoulder. "It's all right, honey, it's fine! Everything's fine. You'll find out everything soon enough. For now, we'll start with something simple. I'll tell you my name. Do you want to know that?"


The nurse answered anyway, pressing her hand to her chest. "I'm Kira." She pointed to Topknot One. "That's Mira."

Topknot Two poked her head into Azula's field of vision, tossing a towel over her shoulder. "And I'm Nira!"

"We're your nurses," Kira said. "We're medical professionals, so you can rest assured that you're in good hands."

Mira offered a smile. "And we're from the Fire Nation, just like you."

Azula's growl became a snarl. "WHAT HAPPENED TO MY FATHER?"

Panic flashed in Mira's eyes. "This isn't working. Why don't we just have her sleep for the rest of the period and start everything like we planned?" She looked at Kira, but the other woman shook her head.

"No. She's just a little disoriented. The more time she spends awake, I think, the better. It'll make things much easier on her." Kira looked down at Azula. "Now lie still. We're going to test your blood."

Kira went to the counter to get a metal tray and rolled a stool over to Azula's left. She sat down and carefully pulled Azula's arm out of the bands, lying it on top of them. "Clench your fist, dear… that's it." She took an elastic rope and tied it around the top of Azula's arm, pulling it so tight that it dug into the muscle. Azula watched in horror as the nurse felt her arm with her fingers, finally isolating a small, bulging vein. She wiped the spot with a pad of gauze and took a syringe from the tray. "This won't hurt."

Kira poked the needle through Azula's skin, and Azula felt her entire arm constrict as ruby red liquid spurted into the syringe. Her arm went cold and numb, but at the same time she felt like something was being wrung out from inside of it, and as she watched the blood rise in the container, her heart began to pound.

"You're taking too much!" she shouted. "You're taking too much, you snake!" Azula started to shake her arm in an attempt to dislodge the needle, but Kira held her down.

"No! Goodness, dear, haven't you ever seen blood before? This is how much I'm supposed to be taking. It just looks like a lot, but really it's only a small percentage of your total volume. You have over a gallon more." Kira smiled.

Azula stared back at her, speechless. Once the container had filled to its full capacity, Kira took the needle out and pressed another cotton wad to the spot. She held the syringe out to Mira. "Take this to Isla," she said.

Mira nodded and left the room.

In the meantime, Kira took a wad of sticky tape and tied it around the gauze to hold it down. She looked at Azula, who was pale in the face. "There. Feel better?"

"No!" Azula shrieked. "I'm dizzy! I'm dying, you stupid wood-brain, you took too much blood!"

"Relax." Kira stroked Azula's arm. "A bit of dizziness is normal. It'll go away in a few minutes. Besides, we have to know how much medicine from the operation is still in your body."

"The operation where you took my bending away, you mean?"

Kira sighed. "All right. If you have to know, the reason you can't firebend is because we gave you a chi-suppressant while we were working on you. We didn't want you blasting us with flames while we tried to heal you, after all, so we dosed you with a serum that slowed your energy flow."

Nira, who was wiping the counter with her towel, turned around and nodded. "We couldn't give you too much, because you already had a lot of drugs in you, like the anesthetic and the antibiotics. They were already straining your chi flow as it was, so giving you too much of the serum would have caused a bad reaction."

Azula's breathing grew ragged. In all her life, she had never used more than herbal steam to cure a stuffy nose. "You've poisoned me," she said. "You didn't just strain my chi, you killed it. You killed my firebending!"

Nira laughed. "Don't be silly! We just dosed you a second time, twelve hours after we finished. Besides, you can't kill a person's chi. I mean, it's technically possible, with enough concentrations, but then you'd be dead!"

The nurse's kooky smile was met with silence. Azula looked at her a moment longer, then she grabbed the tray from Kira's lap and flung it at Nira's head. The corner bounced off the nurse's forehead, and she stumbled back with a "Yow!"

"I'll show you dead!" Azula pulled against the elastic bands, clawing at the air with her free arm. But Kira caught her wrist in mid-swipe.

"Relax! Honey, relax! That was some bad phrasing on Nira's part. Of course we don't want you dead!"

Nira, who had stumbled back against the cabinets, failed to keep her balance and slid to the floor. She sat up, blinking comically, then crawled over to the tray and began to pick up the fallen utensils. Azula settled back, but continued to glare at Nira, till the door opened again and another woman poked her head inside.

"The antibiotics have cleared, and there's no infection," the woman said. "There's a little anesthetic left, but since she's awake anyway, I'd say it's fine to do the physical examination."

Kira looked up at the new arrival and smiled. "Thank you, Isla!" She rose from her chair and went somewhere behind Azula's head, rustling wires and clinking locks. A moment later, Kira pushed the bed away from the wall and steered it towards the exit.

On their way to the door, Nira fell into step with them, rubbing her head. "Ouch!" she remarked, glancing at Kira. "Maybe we should get plastic trays instead?"

Azula lay still, looking up at the ceiling. The doorframe slid past, and they entered a narrow gray hallway. After coasting straight for a few seconds, the bed turned again, and they passed into another room, this one much smaller than the first. The only furnishings were a counter and some cabinets that hung on the walls. The window was another steel-clad sheet above the sink.

Mira was already inside, as was the fourth nurse who had appeared moments before. She had lank black hair that hung plain, past her shoulders. She turned around as Azula's bed came to a stop, and the other three nurses gathered around the sides.

Isla took a bottle of purple liquid from the counter and poured it into a syringe. "The serum's ready in case you need it."

"That's okay." Kira looked down at Azula. "We'll be well-behaved, won't we?"

Azula was too listless to respond. The dizziness had passed, but it still felt like a sheet of gauze was wrapped around her mind, making reality seem fuzzy and distant. She watched as Kira unstrapped her right arm and held it up in the air. The nurse bent the elbow and rotated the wrist, then spent a moment feeling the bones. With a nod, she laid it back down and strapped it in. "All clear here."

From the other side of the bed, Nira removed Azula's left arm from the straps and did the same check.

Meanwhile, Isla had turned back to the counter, where she had an assortment of bottles, pipets, and boxes. She took spoons of liquid and pinches of powder and mixed them all in some container that Azula couldn't see. Whenever she opened one of the wall cabinets, Azula would see shelves and shelves of glass bottles, their bellies filled with a rainbow of colors.

"What are you doing?" Azula moaned out. "What's all that for?"

"For you," said Nira. "Now relax your leg. We've gotta make sure your knee's in one piece. It took a pretty hefty bump when you fell from the roof, so we had to put it back together." She unlocked the straps from Azula's left leg and began to lift it.

Azula gritted her teeth. "I'm… not… sick!" She shook away from Nira's grip and kicked at the air. Nira ducked smartly, leaving Mira to get the full force of Azula's foot, which knocked her upside the mouth. Mira fell back, bumping into the counter and sending a rattle through Isla's workstation. Isla braced the surface with her arms. "Careful!"
« Last Edit: Jan 24, 2017 01:00 pm by DynaDratina » Logged

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #4 on: Jan 24, 2017 12:59 pm »

With a grumble, Mira brushed her hair away from her face and pushed herself off. She lifted Azula's leg and continued the check, but this time her grip was harsher and her mouth curled downwards.

Nira moved on to Azula's ribs in the meantime, prodding each bone with her fingers like a professional excavator. Kira stepped over to Azula's other leg and began to test it. Midway, she looked over to Mira. "Mira, don't forget the reflex test."

Mira bobbed her head in a surly nod, then opened a drawer and took out a small wooden mallet. She turned back to Azula, who had begun to retract her leg, and grabbed onto her shin. "Hold still!" She attempted to pull Azula's leg back, and by accident her fingers dug into a large bruise on Azula's calf. Snarling, Azula kicked her heel into Mira's stomach, and the nurse doubled over, staggering back. But before she could collide with the counter, Isla caught her by the shoulders and set her upright.

"Yep. She's definitely recovered…" With a sigh, Isla nudged Mira forward, then turned to slide her mixing bowl into a far corner.

Meanwhile, Kira tapped Azula's right knee with the mallet, then did the same for the left. Once she was done, she and Mira strapped both legs down again.

"Great!" Kira said. "Everything's healed properly. Your bones and muscles are in perfect working condition."

"Does that mean we should take her?" asked Nira.

Mira nodded briskly, arms crossed. "Yes. I think we should. The sooner the better."

But Isla shook her head. "Not a good idea. She should sleep off the anesthetic first, so she'll have a clear mind."

Kira considered this for a moment, then nodded. "All right. I agree with Isla. We'll meet the doctor with fresh heads." She smiled down at Azula. "Okay?"

Azula was silent.

The nurses wheeled her back to the first room and parked her into her former spot. Then they broke apart and began to go about a series of tasks, like soldiers from a cavalry. Mira scrubbed the floor, while Kira stocked the counter with syringes, jars, and boxes. Nira placed a clock on the counter and wound it to read 10:30. A smaller arrow beneath the face pointed to a moon, indicating it was evening. Meanwhile, Isla migrated the contents of the other room, bringing trays of bottles and arranging them in the lower cabinets. She also brought an armful of plastic packets and began to fill them with liquid.

Azula watched it all, dumbfounded. With every bit of the room they brought into order, something inside of her shifted out of place, bringing the tower of her patience closer and closer to collapsing. Where was her father? Where was the Avatar?

Where was anyone?

Her eyes followed the nurses as they gradually finished their jobs, dimming the ceiling lamp to plunge the room into an orange murk. Mira made a few final swipes with her washcloth and slinked away. Nira slid a round wooden table and chair into the corner by the window, then went to catch up with Mira. A ghostly Isla came to insert a needle into Azula's left arm, hanging one of the plastic bags on the hook of a tall pole. Purple liquid began to drip into the tube. Finally, Kira approached and covered Azula with a blanket, pulling the covers up to her neck. The nurse's shadowy face spread into a smile. Right before she left, she paused by the door with her hand over the light switch.

"Sleep, darling."

Azula slept.

Her mind tossed and turned through darkness. She dreamed of her father's airship fleet, taking off from the Royal Plaza into a reddening sky. Herself, standing on a tall observatory and watching, as the zeppelins sailed off into the distance where the sea met the horizon. She should have been with them. She should have gone with her father, but he had left her behind. And now, she was certain that something bad was going to happen.

Hours later, Azula woke up. The hospital room was utterly black, and from the space beneath the closed door, she saw that the hallway was too.

She lay still for a long time, staring up at the ceiling. After a while, she started to take deep breaths, trying to produce a flame, searching for even the smallest stir of heat inside of her. But nothing happened. She might as well have tried to strike a burnt-out match.

Giving a groan, Azula began to pull against the bands again, trying to twist herself into another position as best as she could. She intensified her efforts, and finally managed to heave herself over onto her right side, squashing her right arm beneath her. Her left one was clamped flat against her body, jutting out into the bands, making movement impossible. Azula was stuck looking at the counter, blinking in the darkness, where she could make out the outlines of the lower cabinets. She breathed a sigh.

Maybe her father really had recreated the world, and she was stuck in some residual fragment of the old one, sentenced to eternal purgatory. Was it punishment for her loss? She didn't think so. Ozai had no way of knowing about her duel with Zuko. It had to be something else. Some external force that was alien to them both. Azula thought of the waterbender girl who had been with Zuko, the one who had always traveled with her older brother and the Avatar. She and Zuko had both come on the Avatar's sky bison. That had to mean that the Avatar was somewhere else, possibly fulfilling a second half of a divide-and-conquer strategy.

And that could only mean one thing. If Zuko had gone after her, then the Avatar had to have gone after her father.

Azula blinked a few more times, feeling shock settle in.

Perhaps that was why it was taking so long. Perhaps the battle was already happening, some ten thousand feet above the ground, the Avatar's four elements against her father's solitary mastery. Technically, there was no reason for her father to lose - after all, he had twelve airships full of firebenders backing him up. But some part of her knew that he wouldn't have let them help. If the Avatar confronted him, Ozai would make sure it was a one-on-one match.

Azula shifted her gaze back to the edge of the mattress, feeling a wave of resolve rise up within her. She had faced the Avatar dozens of times. Granted, his bending had improved after each encounter, but even so, a good part of his victories had still been the result of luck. And Ozai was the most powerful person she knew. If there was anyone who could finally put the Avatar in his place, it was him.

It had to be.

What felt like an eternity later, Azula woke up and saw a stripe of light from the crack beneath the door. Minutes later, she heard the sound of hushed footsteps and whispers from the hallway, then the door to her room creaked open.

"Ssh. Come quietly."

The light flickered on to its dimmest setting, revealing the shadowy figures of the three nurses. One of them approached and nudged Azula's shoulder. It was Kira.

"Honey. Are you awake?"

Azula flinched away, and Kira smiled. "Great! We'll turn the lights on, okay?"

Nira slid up the adjustor, and the light went on to full brightness. Kira lifted the blanket away and unstrapped the upper half of Azula's body, allowing her to sit up. At the same time, Mira approached from the right, pushing a strange wheeled chair up to the bed. The contraption was made mostly of metal, with a cushioned seat, armrests, footrests, and two giant rubber wheels on the sides. It also had a strap system of its own, with several thin, black bands for the legs, arms, torso, and neck.

"We'll have you sit here while I make your bed," Kira said. "Isla's going to test your blood again."

She fiddled with some locks on the bottom side of Azula's bed, and one by one, unclasped the straps the held her down. She lifted Azula up from the bed, supporting her beneath the back and knees, and lowered her down into a seated position into the wheelchair. Almost immediately, Mira began to put on the chair's straps, withholding only the arms and the one for Azula's neck. When she was done, she tied a white elastic band around Azula's right arm and felt around for another vein. Finding one, she stuck the needle in and drew a bit of blood.

In the meantime, Isla walked in with a microscope in her arms and set it onto the counter by the sink. She unlocked an overhead cabinet and took out a large mixing bowl, along with several bottles.

Once Mira had gotten the blood and cleaned up the wound, she approached Azula with a comb and began to brush her hair. She tugged through the tangles that had built up over the days and managed to return Azula's hair some of its former sheen. But she couldn't get rid of the jagged fringe, the remnant of the self-haircut Azula had done before the coronation. Mira looked at it in unease, but was forced to let it hang in front of Azula's eyes, partially neat, partially chaotic.

Mira was about to step away, but before she could, Azula reached out and clasped the nurse's wrist.

"This is your last chance," she said. "Tell me where I am and how I got here, or I'll end you."

"No, sweetie, this is your last chance." Mira smiled. "Let go of me, or I'll sedate you!"

Azula lowered her chin and returned the expression. "Try me."

In a sudden motion, Azula yanked Mira forward and butted her head into her stomach, sending the nurse stumbling back. Mira grabbed onto the counter before she could fall, her arm toppling several of Isla's bottles before finally gaining a grip.

Isla dropped her pestle and rushed to sweep the bottles out of the way. "No bumping!"

Mira, who had ended up in a partial squat, primly rose to her full height. Still with her eyes on Azula, she opened one of the nearby drawers and took out a syringe of clear liquid. She put her thumb on the back end, and for a moment, she and Azula looked at each other silently.

Azula began to fumble with the clasps of the leg straps, but couldn't figure out how to unlock them. Sitting up, she grabbed the side wheels of her chair and tried to turn herself away from the counter, but succeeded only in moving forward a few inches. Mira stepped to the side a little, still holding the syringe, but before either of them could make another move, Kira stepped between them.

"All right, that's enough. This is no way to start a new day. Let's just calm down and get on with things. We might even be able to see the doctor soon."

Mira looked at Azula through narrowed eyes, but put the syringe down. Azula smiled.

Kira knelt down beside the wheelchair and began to undo the clasps. "All right. Now we're going to have you change into some new clothes." She turned her head towards Nira, who closed one of the overhead cabinets and came forward with a red garment in her hands. She unfolded it to reveal a jumpsuit, with short sleeves and long pants, and placed a pair of brown shoes onto the floor.

"Cute, aren't they?" said Nira. "And we had everything custom-made, so you won't have to worry about the fit."

Kira removed the rest of the leg straps and lifted Azula to her feet. Immediately, Azula pushed Kira away and dove behind the wheelchair, grasping it by the back handles. She kicked it forward while Kira was still staggering for balance, but the nurse managed to push it away, accidentally sending it rolling in Isla's direction. The chair bumped into Isla's leg, and she teetered over the counter. "Watch out!"

Azula spun around towards the bed and jumped onto it, gripping the bars to swing her legs over to the other side. Nira and Kira raced after her, while Mira hung back, picking up the syringe. In a matter of seconds, Azula reached the shuttered wall, and as Kira drew close, she swung out her leg and kicked the nurse in the chest. But right then, Nira's hand knocked into Azula's back, causing her fall to her hands and knees. Before Azula could get up, Nira grabbed her arms and pulled them behind her back. Mira rushed over with the syringe, but Kira held up an arm to block her.

"No, don't!"

Mira pushed Kira's hand away. "Don't tell me what to do! Move!" She started to move towards Azula, but Kira pulled her back.

"I said, no!" Kira repeated. "Tranquilizer is for emergencies only!"

"And this isn't one?"

Kira sighed, but this time her face noticeably flushed. "No, Mira, believe it or not, it isn't. Maybe you didn't get the message, but we're here to heal her, not-"

But she was cut off at that moment by Azula's loud yell, as she broke away from Nira and lunged at them both. Azula got down on the floor and swung her legs out in an arc, kicking Mira's feet out from beneath her. The nurse fell, the syringe clattering to the floor, and Azula snatched it up.

Gasping, Mira scrambled away towards the shelves, grabbing a tray to shield herself. Nira and Kira froze. Over by the opposite wall, Isla wrapped her arms around her equipment and retreated farther into the corner.

Slowly, Azula began to back away towards the window, holding the syringe out in front of her like a dagger. Nira and Kira approached tentatively, unsure how to best proceed. Finally, Kira made a rapid lunge and snatched the syringe from Azula's hand. She grabbed onto Azula's wrist, and at the same time, Nira grabbed both of Azula's legs and lifted them from the ground, stretching Azula horizontally out between them.

Azula lunged towards Kira, punching the nurse with her free arm, causing her to fling the syringe away instinctively.

There was a loud clatter as the syringe fell onto the counter, and Isla whirled around, slapping her knee. "Are you all insane?"

"No!" Mira pushed herself closer against the cabinets and pointed to Azula. "She is!"

Nira gasped. "Mira!"

But while Nira's head was turned, Azula kicked her feet from the woman's grip and sank to the floor. Then she jerked her other arm free from Kira, but before Azula could stumble away, Kira caught her again and linked both of her hands behind her back. At the same time, Nira slid over on her knees and wrapped her arms around Azula's legs, locking them together in a standing position.

Mira approached with a fresh syringe in hand, smiling. "You want to know why you're here, sweetie? Do you really want to know?"

Azula gritted her teeth and knocked her head back as hard as she could, hitting it into Kira's. Kira's grip loosened, and Azula tore her arms free, grabbing Mira by the hair and shoving her away. As Mira fell back, Azula grabbed the syringe from her hand and jabbed it into Nira's shoulder. Nira flinched away with a yelp and began to wipe away the puddle of tranquilizer that had leaked out from the needle. Behind her, Mira dove back for the open drawer and began to fumble around for another syringe.

From the other side of the room, Isla turned on them. "If you three don't cut it out, I'm going to spray this whole room with sedative!"

But no one listened. Kira rushed towards Azula from behind, and Azula spun around to meet her, delivering a flying kick to her head. As Kira swiveled to the side, Azula bent her knees and sprang into a backwards arc, her body bending in the air as she touched off the floor with her hands and landed on her feet. When she straightened, Azula spun around and swiped her leg at Mira, who leaned out of the way and aimed a punch at Azula's head. Azula blocked the blow and retaliated with her own, and the two entered a rally of jabs and swipes.

From behind, Azula heard footsteps. "That's it." Isla appeared beside them with a spray bottle. Azula swung her fist at her, but Isla ducked away. Mira lunged forward to attack again, but Azula dove past her and slid to the floor, crawling up to the cabinets beneath the counter. Bating her breath, she flung open the doors and began to snatch the bottles from the shelves, flinging them behind her in every direction. Glass shattered off the floor and furniture, and the four nurses hopped around the puddles, trying to shield themselves and catch the flying bottles at the same time.

Azula had just emptied the middle shelf when a pair of hands grabbed her waist and pulled her away. She turned around and saw Nira, who tried to lift her up, but Azula punched her and pushed her away. Mira and Kira's feet pounded over the floor as they rushed to surround Azula in a tide of sweeping skirts. Isla scampered away to shield her workstation. Azula tried to stand, but the three nurses closed around her before she could, piling their heads and arms on top of her and cornering her against the cabinets.

Azula took several breaths, squinting as she tried to see through the mess of legs, shoulders, and hair. They had squished her against the side of the counter, forcing her to sit down on the floor with her arms and legs folded up in front of her. Azula began to writhe around in place, trying to find an opening which she could squeeze herself through, but the nurses adjusted their positions every time, keeping her trapped. But finally, one of them took a slightly wider stance, opening up a large triangle of space near the floor. Azula lowered herself to her hands and knees and quickly crawled through, scrambling away towards the bed, and just as the three nurses turned around in search of her, she whirled around to face them and lunged off the ground with her foot. She gave them the most forceful push she could muster, ramming Nira into Mira into Kira, who fell against each other like dominos, finally crashing with the full force of their momentum into Isla.

There was a peal of breaking glass as Isla fell face-first into her test-tube set, breaking through the rickety metal frame and collapsing with it over the counter. The mixing bowl toppled and slid upturned on her head, spilling herbs and blood all over her shoulders, which dribbled down her uniform as she slid to the floor. Then the bowl slipped off of her head and fell down, followed by several displaced bottles that rolled over the edge of the counter, falling beside her and shattering.

The other nurses froze on their feet and knees, gasping.

Isla sat motionless in the colorful mess for a while, drops of red, green, and blue dripping down her shirt. Her eyes pulled open, sticky from the mask of liquids splattered on her face, and blinked up at the ceiling for a few moments. Then her gaze went down, trailing across the room to find Azula. The girl was doubled over in an awkward fighting stance, arms spread out in the air.

Isla narrowed her eyes. "I think she's ready to see the doctor now."

(End of Chapter 2)

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #5 on: Feb 25, 2017 11:56 am »

3. Captor On Call

One by one, the nurses rose to their feet. Nira and Kira went to Azula and bound her arms behind her back, forcibly lowering her down into the wheelchair. While they held her in place, Mira strapped her in, this time adding the bands that went around Azula's arms and neck. Isla left the room in the meantime and brought back a mop, and began to sweep away the broken glass.
Once the floor and counter were clean again, Kira opened a top cabinet and took out a long wooden box. She opened the lid, revealing a neat row of syringes, which contained more of the mysterious purple liquid. She dabbed the inner crease of Azula's elbow with disinfectant, then poked one of the needles into her vein, pressing on it with her thumb to push the liquid out. Moments later, Azula began to feel heavy, as if the strength were beginning to drain from her muscles. Within a minute she grew weak to such an extent that she had to droop her chin down to her chest.

The voices and motions around her became hazy. Long skirts and rapid feet shuffled in and out of the room, causing a constant buzz of noise that suddenly seemed loud and irritating. One of the nurses made the bed, while another went around with a wastebasket to clear the drawers of old needles and empty bottles. Over time, Azula noticed other faces appear apart from the original four, all of them dressed in the same white uniform, exchanging rapid jargon. At one point, someone took her wheelchair and rolled her into the empty space between the foot of the bed and the bookshelf, turning her to face the window. At the same time, another pair of hands pushed the round wooden table out from its place in the far corner and set it in front of her. It was followed moments later by the sole wooden chair.

Azula leaned her elbow on the table and put up a hand to support her head, but as time wore on, she unknowingly slouched over and became lost in the pattern of her place mat. She wanted to not exist, to disappear, to plunge through a hole in the ground and take as many of the idiot nurses with her as she could. She heard clinks and shuffles as they continued to rush around nearby, like roaches. But she didn't look up, not until she heard the door open, and a male voice enter the verbal exchange.

Azula lifted her head and blinked. There was a series of heavy, unfamiliar footfalls, then seconds later, two feet in boots stepped over to the chair, and a large, maroon-colored shape sat down in front of her.

She found herself looking at a middle-aged man, dressed in a military uniform of moderate rank. His hair was in a typical Fire Nation style - brown, with sideburns and a topknot - though it had started to recede a little at the sides. He looked tired, but nevertheless, he smiled.

"Well, good morning to you."

Azula narrowed her eyes. Morning or evening, it wouldn't have made a difference. The lamplight was as white and stark as ever, and the window shutters were closed with an iron resolve, not letting even the slightest ray of light to slip through.
A nurse approached and placed two steaming cups of tea onto the table, one for Azula, and one for the man, who calmly took his and sipped from it. But before the nurse could leave, he pointed to Azula.

"Unstrap her, please."

Azula tensed her arms. The nurse unclasped the bands on her arms, neck, and stomach, and Azula, thinking this would be her chance to break free, immediately reached for the edge of the table to overturn it. But her arms moved like leaden blocks, and far from lifting the table up, she found she could hardly tighten her grip around it. She couldn't do anything but hunch over her tea, and peer up at the man through her jagged fringe of hair.

The man met her gaze in casual greeting. "I am Doctor Low. You must be Azula."

"Fire Lord Azula!"

"I prefer names," he said. "I find it gives my patients a chance to free themselves from mental constructs and focus on defining who they are as individuals."

Azula narrowed her eyes. "Defining?"

"You are currently in a holistic rehabilitation facility. I am the head doctor. I spent twelve years on the warfront as a healer, but here I also practice my other specialty, which is healing the mind."

Azula felt her heart thump faster. "So that's what this place is…" Her gaze darted across several points in the room, from the cabinets to the curtains, and when she looked back at the doctor, she kindled with rage. "But what do I have to be rehabilitated for? Who put me here? Tell me, and I'll teach them a lesson! I'll teach all of you a lesson you won't forget!"

Dr. Low took another drink from his teacup, then lowered it. "Listen carefully, Azula. I will tell you everything that's happened and why you are here. The world as you know it has ceased to exist. The war is over, and the Avatar has triumphed over Fire Lord Ozai. Fortunately, your father only had time to burn a few miles of uninhabited land, and his fleet of airships didn't reach any major Earth Kingdom settlement. The Avatar's quick intervention spared many innocent lives."

Azula's eyes widened.

"Ozai was passing over the western shore of the Earth Kingdom when the Avatar confronted him. They entered a one-on-one battle, which ended with Avatar Aang taking away Ozai's firebending. Your father now resides in prison under careful watch, much like you, where he will spend the rest of his life indebted to society. You have also been shown mercy, but even though you're not in jail, your situation has changed drastically. You've been placed in a specialized facility that is equipped to return you to a balanced state, both physical and emotional. You were brought here the day after the new Fire Lord was crowned. He has provided for your safety and well-being here for as long as needed, on the grounds that you take your treatment seriously. I am also officially obligated to inform you that by Fire Nation law, you remain a lawful resident of the palace, and retain your royal title, as well as additional dignities accorded to you as the Fire Lord's sister."

Azula's heartbeat quickened further, and she felt herself keel over to the side. A nurse immediately grabbed onto her arm, but Dr. Low waved it away.

"Let her be. It'll take a few days, but she'll adapt."

The hand was withdrawn. Azula was left to set herself straight, gripping the edge of the table for support. She glared at the doctor through narrowed eyes. "That's impossible. What about the armies? We had soldiers all over the Earth Kingdom and in Ba Sing Se! You can't tell me Zuko just got rid of them all!"

"They were ordered to desist, and are on their way home," said Dr. Low. "As for Ba Sing Se, that city was freed by a guerilla army during the comet's passing. After his coronation, Zuko ordered all his remaining divisions to leave the city, and as we speak, the Earth Kingdom government is reassuming control over its territory."

Azula crinkled her nose. "And how do I know you're not lying? Perhaps I've been captured and you're feeding me false information to weaken my morale!"

"A valid point," the doctor replied. "Frankly, I hardly expected you to believe me the first time, so I brought along some evidence." He placed a large linen sack onto the table.

Azula looked at it without touching it. The doctor tapped a finger against the table. "Do you need a nurse to help you open it?"
Azula's face fell into a scowl. She swung her arm out and snatched the package by the strings, pulling it closer. The first thing she took out of it was a scroll, which she unrolled to reveal an ink sketch, stamped by the seal of a palace secretary. It depicted Zuko in royal robes, kneeling in front of the Fire Sages before a crowd of onlookers. The second item was an official poster from the Royal Palace, announcing the crowning of Fire Lord Zuko. The third object was Ozai's Phoenix King headpiece. It was the one he had put on right in front of her before he had departed with his airship fleet. The bronze plates had lost some of their luster, and one of the bird's outspread wings was dented. But it was intact.

Azula turned the helmet over in her hands, too stunned to speak. The doctor inclined his head. "A group of workers picked that up when they were moving the fallen airships. They brought it back with them, probably for a celebration, but I made sure it was saved for you."

After a moment of thought, Azula lifted her gaze. "Hmm. Very persuasive… but I still don't quite feel like you're telling me the truth. If I really am in the Fire Nation like you say, then maybe you could take me to a proper window so I could see for myself. If they've just crowned a new Fire Lord, surely everyone would be celebrating."

Dr. Low gave a laugh. "Don't think I don't know where this is headed. I've raised five children. I know every trick under the sun."
Azula scowled. "I'm not a child! I am Princess Azula, the heir to the throne! Just a few weeks ago you'd have been on your knees before me!"

"And you would not have been hospitalized, nor would you have even guessed that you eventually would be, or that fate would place you under my care. But such is life." The doctor leaned back in his chair.

"But I'm in perfect health!" Azula cried. "Your nurses said so themselves! All my bones are healed! So why am I still here?"
"Your body may be healed, but the general conjecture is that your true wounds lie within."

"The general conjecture?"

"Yes. Mine, my staff's, and your brother's."

Azula paused in puzzlement.

"After your Agni Kai match, Zuko said you lapsed into a state of delirium and began to cry uncontrollably. The Fire Sages were about to come untie you, but you broke the chains yourself and tried to run away. You ended up jumping from the roof of a building and falling almost thirty feet, then when the Fire Sages surrounded you, you made a wheel of fire. If they hadn't suppressed your flames, you would have cremated everything around you. Including yourself."

Azula blew a loose strand of hair away from her face. "Well, why didn't they let me? I'm their enemy, aren't I?"

The doctor's face remained grave. "Your brother does not believe you to be his enemy."

"So? We fought an Agni Kai! He gained the throne while I lost it, and therefore I would have honored his victory by eliminating myself! If he spared me, then he's a coward! Too proud to let himself lose, too weak to finish me off!"

"Your brother is far from weak. You, however, have a long road to recovery ahead of you."

Azula settled back with a grumble. She looked into the doctor's eyes, transmitting as much hatred and coldness through her stare as she could, but his face remained as calm and tired as before.

"Do you have anything to add?"

Azula did not reply.

"In that case, please put away the poison daggers and conserve your energy for something useful. Today and every day hereafter, you will follow a strict regimen consisting of physical therapy and psychological counseling. Meals will be provided three times a day with no exceptions. Be advised that this is not a resort. You are not on vacation; you are here to recover, and we intend on taking you through the course of healing we've planned for you. Whether it's a good or bad experience will be entirely up to you. But I can assure you, you will finish it one way or another." He rose. "I'll stop by every other day to check up on you, and will naturally be there if you should ever call. For now, you'll go with Nira."

Dr. Low lifted his hand, and the nurse reappeared at Azula's side to put the missing straps back into place. Once it was done, Nira grabbed the handles and pushed her out of the room.

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #6 on: Feb 25, 2017 11:58 am »

Nira turned the wheelchair left, and they traveled down the barren gray hallway, passing several closed doors on either end, until they finally stopped before one that stood open, to Azula's left. Unlike her new bedroom, this room lacked the medical equipment and had some comforting touches — bookcases, potted plants, and a Fire Nation tapestry. Near the left wall was a large writing desk, where a woman sat working over a journal. She wore a long white smock, but the clothes underneath were black, signifying that she was a doctor. Her hair was tied back into a functional bun. Behind her, the shutters of her window were slightly open, letting in strips of daylight.

Nira rolled the wheelchair up to the desk, and the woman looked up. "Ah, good. Let's get her out, then."

She motioned to a long examination table that stood along the right wall, with its own set of straps that dangled from the side like tendrils. Nira began to undo the straps on Azula's wheelchair, and as soon as all of them were off, Azula shoved the nurse away and sprang out of the chair. Nira lunged after her, hugging Azula's arms to her sides and pulled her back. Azula fought against her grip, twisting from side to side, trying to use her ankle to knock Nira off-balance. Their cries attracted a rush of footsteps from the hallway, and just as Azula began to succeed in elbowing Nira away, she found herself being overpowered by Mira, Kira, and two others, who grabbed at her arms and legs from various directions. Abandoning all form, Azula began to smack and kick blindly at her surroundings, which actually managed to keep the nurses at bay for a while, before the therapist stepped in and captured her wrists. She clamped Azula's arms to her sides, and with the help of Nira, managed to lay Azula down on the examination table and hook the straps about her body.

Once Azula lay writhing and groaning on her back, the therapist looked down at her and sighed. "You're going to be a tough one, aren't you?"

She reached out to accept a tray of equipment from Nira and rolled a chair over to Azula's side. The therapist shone a small flashlight into Azula's eyes, then opened Azula's mouth to check her tongue. Azula tried to breathe fire again, but once again nothing came out. Furious she began to breathe harder, pushing out the air till she was practically wheezing. The therapist waited patiently for her to finish, and when Azula had exhausted herself, the woman shook her head with a smile.

"We're not as dumb as you think we are, girlie. That serum subdues your firebending completely. Just think of it as us taking a dangerous object out of your possession. You will have it back once you've shown enough progress that will warrant Dr. Low to believe you can wield it properly."

Azula sneered. "I can firebend better than any of you have ever dreamed."

The woman lifted her eyebrows. "A young prodigy? Yes, I can see the signs... Overly-abrasive gestures, obsession with perfection, ignorance of physical limits… Whoever taught you firebending clearly didn't teach you how to take care of the body you produce it with. Many of your muscles are overstretched and your joints overall are unstable, likely because you've been trying to push yourself beyond your natural level of flexibility. You were lucky you didn't dislocate or break anything up until now, what with all the fighting you've been doing. It seems that your training routine at least partially focused on building up your resilience, so I'll admit, things aren't as bad as I thought they were. But even so, your body needs rest. Physical therapy will teach you techniques for relaxation, as well as the proper way to train without injuring yourself. Now I am going to unstrap you and we will begin your preliminary examination."

Nira unclipped the straps, and Azula found that she was once again too weak to lash out. After her brief moment of physical exertion, her body felt even heavier than before. Nira hoisted Azula to her feet without a struggle, like setting a statue upright, while the therapist went to her desk for a clipboard and pen.

The hour passed by in a blur. Azula was prodded and poked, bent and turned, weighed and measured. Each time she tried to pull away, Nira or the therapist would catch her and force her back onto a scale, or beneath a tape measure, or back into an asana. The therapist made Azula go through a series of poses from simple to hard, measuring the angles she could lift each leg in the air and testing the rotation of her shoulders. Nira stood at Azula's side while she did the asanas, supporting her and making adjustments, while the therapist surveyed her with a calculating frown, scribbling neat notes and numbers onto her paper. Unlike everybody who had admired and praised Azula's acrobat-like abilities in the past, the therapist did not seem particularly impressed with the way Azula could twist herself into knots on the floor or hold her entire body aloft with a single hand. Finally, Azula did a handstand scorpion, which was one of the moves she had always prided herself on most, standing on her hands and bending her legs in the air so that her feet rested on the top of her head. The therapist's eyes widened in surprise, but it was less of the awed kind and more of the concerned kind.

After the check-up was over, Azula was strapped back into the wheelchair and rolled on through the hallway. She spun her head around in different directions, glimpsing door after door, all of them opening and closing as nurses rushed back and forth, carrying boxes, towels, and hospital tools. The doors were unevenly spaced, which gave the impression that some rooms were much larger than others, though Azula could never catch a proper glimpse inside of them. Looking behind her, she saw the hallway end in the far distance at a single door, where no one came in or out. Up ahead was the same thing, another dead end, a few doors down from her room. She was quite literally boxed in.

Nira stopped the chair every once in a while to chat with a passing nurse or put on a serious face and exchange serious-sounding information. All the while, Azula sat back in silence, watching everything with a frozen expression of uncertainty.

She had never heard of psychological healing. Sure, she had a concept of mental instability, and had even heard people bring it up, often in conjunction with her grandfather, Azulon. But there were no hard-and-fast theories about what that term really meant. Any medical field that didn't have the funding of the Imperial Medical Society was doomed to consist of a few scattered practitioners in shady parts of town, and was usually associated with spiritualism and quackery, which were definitely not things that were commonly discussed by the nobles. Very rarely did she hear stories of people who were sent off somewhere, specifically to heal something wrong with their minds. Heal a battle injury, yes. Recover from a stressful campaign, yes. But heal a mental illness? The concept was utterly alien to her.

Azula fixed her gaze on the faraway door and gritted her teeth. Where are you, Father?

Moments later, she felt Nira take the handles of the wheelchair again and push her on. Azula was bought back to her bedroom and wheeled up to the round wooden table, where Kira was seated with a scroll and ink pen.

"All right. We're going to examine some scenarios," she said. "I'll read you the situation and you tell me how you would respond." She smiled at Azula. "Ready? Let's start!"

Azula glanced over to the clock on the counter. It was half past noon.

"Let's say you're walking down the street and see a sack of money on the ground," Kira began. "You don't know who it belongs to, and no one else notices it…"

Option one, option two, option three. Azula made her decision without putting too much care into it, and Kira wrote it down. Then she moved on to the next one, telling another small story then reciting another list of actions. The clock ticked through the minutes. Pretty soon, the minutes became hours. Nurses came in and out, and Azula frequently shifted her gaze towards them, lingering on their focused faces and purposeful motions. After thirty or so moral conundrums, Kira finally rolled up the scroll, but instead of leaving, she went to the bookshelf and brought back another one. Now she began to recite puzzles. They ranged from children's riddles to complex mind games, involving logic, numbers, and language. At first, Azula tried to draw out her pauses before answers for as long as possible, to waste as much time thinking as she could, but when that tactic failed, she switched to blurting things out as rapidly as possible, hoping to exhaust Kira's supply of questions. But midway, Kira set the scroll down with a sigh.

"Azula, you're not giving this enough thought," she said. "Here. I'll read it again, and you just think one more time about it."

Azula gritted her teeth. "No!"

"Azula, this isn't an option. I won't move on to the next one until you give me a good answer."

Azula clenched her teeth harder, curling her hands into fists. She began to growl and retaliate, but everything she said was instantly dissipated by a kind smile or patient sigh. Azula's gaze began to grow blank, and the motions of the white-clothed nurses around her seemed to grow more rapid and rhythmic, almost as if they were dancing, spinning around her a web that would ensnare her completely.

Azula's breathing grew rapid. She looked down at the latest card Kira had set down before her, some kind of shape-matching puzzle, and in a burst of rage, she tore the entire deck from the nurse's hands and threw the cards in her face. "Go away!" Azula screamed. "All of you!"

Kira's smile froze and her mouth fell agape. With all the strength she had, Azula pushed her wheelchair away from the table and bumped back against the counter, then turned around and began to fling away every object within her reach - pens, scroll tubes, bottles. The nurses ducked and scampered around, trying to catch the flying objects. Finally, Kira pulled Azula away from the counter and rolled her towards the bed.

"All right, all right, I understand! You're tired. Let's have a rest." She leaned down to Azula, who had grabbed the sides of her head, twisting her fingers through the mass of wiry dark hair. Her breath began to shake, and with a final, feeble snap, Azula's composure broke and she began to wail. Her voice rose up above those of the other nurse's, and she let her chin droop, tears rushing down her face.

Through the blur, she saw Kira back away and usher the other nurses out of the room. "Give her some space, girls. Quickly."

The nurses left, and Azula continued to cry, slamming her hands to her face and succumbing to the quakes of her gasps. She didn't even notice it when they left her alone. She looked at the Phoenix King helmet on top of the bookshelf, at the red blankets and golden articles that were scattered around the white wasteland, and wailed. In hatred, in anger, in helplessness.

Time passed, blurred behind the rush of her tears, then after a while the bitter river once again ran dry. Azula felt her breathing return to normal, though now she had a stuffy nose and a throbbing headache. She sat in silence for a while, then gradually regained enough of her calm to look up and brush her hair away from her face. She turned to look at the clock on the shelf. It was eight in the evening.

Minutes later, the door opened, and Kira silently walked in to place a tray of dinner onto Azula's lap. Azula accepted it without a word or move of the head, and once the nurse was gone, she took the chopsticks and began to eat. The food consisted of rice, vegetables, and meat, all of which tasted unusually bland, but was edible. Once she was done, Azula was left staring down at the empty bowl, dully tapping her fingers against the metal tray. She looked up to the iron shutters on the opposite wall. Kira had drawn the curtains over them, as her way of marking the evening, but Azula could still see the steel peeking out from the bottom hem.

Visited by curiosity, she set the tray onto the counter and pushed on the wheels of her chair, rolling herself over to the window. Azula leaned as far forward as her waistband would allow, drawing her nose up to the narrow crack between the steel board and the wall. She couldn't see anything in that tiny slip of darkness, and all she could hear was the faint sound of rushing wind.

Great. Perfect.

Azula turned around sourly and rolled herself back towards the bed.

Part of her still didn't want to believe Dr. Low's words, but another part of her, however small or reluctant, knew that they were true. She didn't even need his souvenir bag to prove it. There had just been something about that day… something in the dim, red glow of the comet-stricken sky that had signaled a dying world. Even the royal palace, for all its former splendor, seemed to have decayed during the brief time she had occupied it.

Yes, it had been the day of her coronation. But there had been something dreadfully wrong about it - something dreadfully wrong with her - that she had been trying to pinpoint that whole day, but couldn't.

It hadn't been that lady with the cherry bowl. Azula had found that out a few minutes after banishing her, leaving a bowl of cherries on the floor that she couldn't eat, because she couldn't reach. To be sure, that woman's actions could've had morbid consequences given a malicious intent. In fact, any of her servants could have easily taken her down due to their sheer daily proximity to her, so having one fewer of them would do her no harm. But even with that lady gone, Azula's uneasiness hadn't been.

It hadn't been the Dai Li either. Though for a minute there, too, she had thought she'd pinned it. Her elite, prized warriors, whom she had fought for and won in Ba Sing Se, had practically been treated like royal guards during their time in the Fire Nation, even earning recognition from her father. But they were traitors too, for they had betrayed Long Feng, hadn't they? All it would take was for someone more eloquent than her to give them a better offer, and they'd turn against her the same way. But banishing the Dai Li hadn't make her feel any better. Her restlessness only grew, and the more people she shunned from her presence, it felt like she wasn't getting any closer to eliminating the problem, but rather cutting away its extraneous parts, which made the real source stand out in greater prominence. The palace had just been so quiet, and the emptier it got, the quieter it became, and soon Azula felt as if a presence had been lurking somewhere inside of it, hiding in the shadows. Whispering to her.

She had been alone.

All alone.

And somehow, listening to that silence, Azula had known it was her day to fall.

In the past, she had always been able to stifle the tiny, anxious speculations that occasionally arose in her mind: What if my strategic brilliance vanished this very moment but I still had to act like I knew what I was doing? What if I suddenly forgot how to do a flame-wheel in battle and became unable to fight?

Early on, she had treated these musings as entertainment, and could detach herself from them simply by remembering that they could never correspond to reality. But soon, her fantasized scenarios escalated to dangerous situations: What if the Boiling Rock workers cut the line this very moment and my gondola fell into the water? (Never mind, there's another one on the way, I can still go on as planned.) What if I'm losing control of my friends? (She drew her arms back to shoot lightning at Mai, just as the other girl took out a razor blade, her resoluteness for the first time directed against Azula.) What if I can't save myself from falling this time? (She pulled out her hair clip as a last resort and dug it into the wall of the cliff, fighting to keep her hold.)

What if, this time, Zuko's stronger?

(His burst of fire came inches away from her face, the red flare reflected in her eyes, before she snapped to her senses and propelled herself away. Using her own blue flames, flimsy and faltering.)

But at last, one of those scenarios had come true. Zuko was strong, and she was weak. He had come to take his proper place above her, riding the pet of his best friend, with another friend at his side, ready to assist. And now, in the back of her mind, Azula felt strangely envious of the Katara girl for the fact that he had been defending her.

But why? a louder part of her screamed. Why was I so weak?

Azula pressed her hands to the sides of her head, focusing her gaze on the floor. It didn't matter. She couldn't slip up again. She had to get back in form before someone found a hole in her defense. She was the princess. She was the Fire Lord. She was the one who would carry victory.

But no matter how hard she repeated those mantras to herself, the words felt weak and lifeless. Some old part of her mind was crippled, and the best she could do now was brace herself for a few seconds before her focus slipped from her grasp. It was as if a faucet had been turned on in her brain, and was leaking out something she had kept pent up before.

Her power. Her control.

It was streaming away like a river.

Azula sat in place for what felt like forever, listening to her breath, feeling it rise and fall. She glanced over to the bed again, which stood there like an alien contraption, so unlike everything she was used to. Her gaze ran over the straps attached to the mattress, at the metal legs to which the wheels were attached, and she felt a morbid dread mixed with disgust wash over her.
Perhaps, in a way, she really was sick. She was tired and burnt-out, but also, on the inside, shifted. Shifted to some strange new mode, just like the bed, and the nurses, and the room. Shifted the minute Zuko's fire-blast had knocked her off her feet and thrown her across the floor of the arena. Shifted the minute she had looked into the mirror and seen her mother standing behind her.

But what had happened? Why had Ursa come?

Azula thought it over and over, but couldn't get an answer. She pondered the expressions she had seen on Ursa's face, on her tone of voice, and was met again with the strange flood of emotions that had risen so suddenly inside of her at that moment. But now, as she pondered those feelings, something else arose from them. She began to see images of sunlight again, of a green field, with lots of hills and long, swaying grass, like snippets of something that might have once formed a coherent whole. And at last, the memory snapped together. She had been in a meadow. She had woken up there right after her Agni Kai match, finding herself sitting by a pond, with a young boy who called himself Quin the Quester. He had been funny and familiar. But the strangest part was, she had been happy there. For the first time in her life, she had felt utterly at peace, completely relieved of everything her mind had been burdened with. Something about the grass and the sky had seemed to soak it all up, leaving her a clean slate. Just like it had done for the boy.

Azula smiled faintly as she thought of him now. He was probably still there, reclining in the grass, waiting for the old man to appear from behind the hill. How easy it would have been for her to stay with him, to sit by the pond forever instead of going into that plaza. But now, she knew it had been meant that way. She had been destined to visit the boy's realm, then leave. For him, the meadow was home, but for her, it had just been a temporary haven.

And now, it was one she'd never see again.

(End of Chapter 3)

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #7 on: Apr 17, 2017 02:03 pm »

4. Extended Stay

When Azula woke up the next morning, she opened her eyes into darkness and felt her eyelashes brush against a piece of cloth. A scream rose up in her throat, but just as she jerked up to let it out, someone hastily untied a knot at the back of her head and pulled the blindfold off, revealing the brightly-lit bedroom. Nira's face appeared in front of her. "Oops! Sorry, honey. It's past ten in the morning, so we went ahead and turned on the lights. I decided to blindfold you so it wouldn't bother you."

Azula blinked her eyes. Mira stalked by at that moment, carrying a stack of freshly-laundered towels. "We should've just woken her up. She's already late for physical therapy." She placed the towels into a cabinet and left the room.

Nira unstrapped Azula from the bed and removed the IV tubes that were in her arms. Then she lifted Azula to her feet, handed her the red jumpsuit and shoes from the day before, and guided her out of the room by the arm. Kira met them in the hallway, and the two nurses steered Azula to the right, into a small bathroom with a mirror and sink. Nira closed the door, while Kira took the jumpsuit from Azula's hands and started to fold it out.

"All right, honey, let's get you dressed."

But Azula snatched the garment from the nurse's hands. "I can do it myself!" she snarled. "Now if you two lout-heads don't mind."

Nira nodded brightly. "Oh, of course! Come on, Kira, let's give her some space." She quickly stepped out of the bathroom and Kira followed suit. Just before the door closed behind them, Kira poked her head out. "We'll be right here if you need us, honey."

Azula gritted her teeth and pushed the door closed the rest of the way. Enjoying some semblance of imagined privacy, she began to change. The jumpsuit did fit her well, though the color reminded her a little of what the prisoners had worn at the Boiling Rock. Azula slipped on the shoes, grateful at least to be free from touching the cold floor with her bare feet, and left the room.

"I'm done," she announced, harshly biting out the words. Nira and Kira smiled at her.

"Great! Now let's have some breakfast." Kira took her by the arm again and steered her back into the bedroom. She sat Azula down into the wheelchair, ignoring the straps, and placed a tray of rice porridge and vegetables onto her lap. But before giving her the chopsticks, Kira brought forth a bottle of purple liquid and poured some out into a teaspoon. She brought the spoon to Azula's mouth and Azula flinched back.

"What is that?"

"This is the serum that suppresses your firebending," Kira said. "You'll have to take it every morning by spoon now. And don't try to wheedle out of it — either you take it yourself orally, or we start injecting it intravenously again and keep you in straps all day."

Azula grumbled, but took the spoon from Kira and gulped down the liquid. It tasted absolutely like nothing, but the viscous, almost gelatinous texture nearly made her gag. In a matter of seconds after swallowing, Azula felt her pulse quicken, and the familiar, leaden heaviness settle into her limbs. Her heart thumped. "What is this? What are you doing to me?" She looked around at the nurses in alarm. "You're poisoning me!"

"We're not poisoning you," Kira said. "Lethargy is just a side effect. It'll go away in a couple hours, once your body gets accustomed to it. But look on the bright side — at least you have the freedom to move around."

Nira, who had begun to rummage through the bookshelf, looked over her shoulder and nodded. "Yeah, and you won't have to sleep with those annoying straps anymore either. Because we'll use this!" She turned all the way around and showed Azula a pair of handcuffs attached to a long chain. She unlocked them with a small key, and hooked one of the cuffs around the bar of the bed. "Don't worry, this doesn't mean you're our prisoner or anything. It's just a little reminder for you not to run off wild. And trust me, it'll beat having your lungs crushed every night! I actually asked Mira to put me in a bed like this once, just to see what it was like, and I was sore for hours. It was horrible! She did it a bit tight, though; we tried to keep yours as loose as possible, since—"

"Okay!" Kira lowered her arm on Azula's shoulder. "We'd love to chat with you, Nira, but we have to go. Dee's going to get impatient."

Nira nodded and waved. "All right, have fun!"

Kira wheeled Azula out into the hallway at that point, turning right. They coasted past the familiar rows of doors, and due to her more heightened degree of awareness this time, Azula noticed that there was a middle door as well, which would have divided the wing into two sections if it had been closed. She looked ahead at the distant section of the hallway, trying to glean as many of its details as she could, but she only had time to see the same rows of closed doors and dead end before she was turned and wheeled into the physical therapist's room. Dee awaited them behind her desk as before, and once Kira had parked the wheelchair, the therapist hoisted Azula to her feet and guided her towards a floor mat.

"Okay. We're going to start off with relaxation. I want you to lie down, make your body completely flat, and close your eyes. Focus on your breath."

"That should be easy, right?" Kira put in.

Azula gave her a death-glare. But Dee dimmed the lights moments later and sat back behind her desk. "Come on. Let's get started."

Azula lowered herself onto the mat, feeling the leaden weight of her own body pulling her down. Kira did not leave the room, but closed the door and settled into the chair in front of Dee's desk. She crossed her legs and gave a sigh.

"Mm. This should be relaxing!"

"No talking, please," said Dee. "And I want eyes closed," she said to Azula.

Azula grumbled and closed her eyes.

For a minute or so, she focused on her breaths, but over time her attention shifted further inward to check in with the heaviness. The sensation, which had started out in her muscles, had spread itself out through her entire body and was beginning to thin out. Azula found it slightly easier to move when she discreetly lifted her arms from the ground. But the serum hadn't deactivated - rather, it seemed to have progressed somewhere deeper, and was now slowing down some smooth, continuous flowing of energy inside of her. Hazarding a guess at what was happening, Azula tried to make fire from her hands. The current stirred with a sluggish hum, as if some internal motor were trying to rev itself up, sending some slow, tangible signals to her palms. But the exhaustion rushed back in a matter of seconds and she was forced to stop. Azula could hardly believe it. She was feeling the flow of her chi. The serum was slowing it down to a crawl, but almost as if in compensation, the flow was becoming more and more noticeable to her. For a while, Azula simply lay there, paying attention to it.

A clock ticked away on Dee's desk, and for a long time, the only other noise was the rustle of paper. Azula gradually grew bored and began to daydream, then dozed off and began to dream for real, before suddenly jerking awake, her heart hammering in brief panic. She cracked open an eye. Kira seemed to have fallen asleep, and Dee was still working beneath a shaded desk lamp. Azula lowered her head again. She quietly went through a few more cycles of dozing and wakening, before Dee finally squinted at her table clock and stood up. "All right, that's enough for today. You can get up now. But take it slowly; you might feel dizzy."

Azula rolled herself over onto her side and pushed herself up. She did feel slightly dizzy, but as she stood up, it faded, and she found that she felt a bit more like the earlier-morning version of herself. Kira sat her down into the wheelchair again, thankfully forgoing the straps, and wheeled her out of the room. But instead of taking her back to the bedroom, she turned to the right again, and pushed open a door on the other side of the hallway. This room had the size and furnishings of a classroom, with a large wooden desk in front of a blackboard, some bookshelves, and another plain table in the back. But there was only one writing desk in the center. Kira parked Azula's wheelchair behind it, right next to a group of potted plants along the wall.

Azula scowled. "And what's this supposed to be, gardening class?"

"No. This is where you'll have mind therapy." Kira closed the door and went to the bookshelf near the desk, where she began to look through the folders and boxes. "Dr. Low has recommended that you start slowly, by doing activities that will calm you throughout the day. Even I find that when I'm stressed, it's nice to retreat to a hobby or craft I like to do to help me relax. What kinds of things are you interested in, Azula?"

Azula didn't answer.

Kira opened a box of paper. "Do you like to draw?"

Azula kept silent.

"Or perhaps paint?"

Azula looked away.

Kira sighed. "Maybe this will help. What did you spend most of your time doing on a daily basis when you lived in the palace?"

"I never had time for stupid childish games," Azula snapped. "I was too busy preparing to rule the country!"

"And what kinds of hobbies did you occupy yourself with while you were doing that?" Kira continued. "Did you stitch, perhaps?"

"I firebended! I trained with the best tutors in the Fire Nation!"

"Writing? Collecting?"

"Helping plan strategies for the military!"


"Walking by ranks of soldiers and if their stances were off by the slightest margin, I had the authority to take them out of line and punish them!"

Kira paused, looking down at Azula with pursed lips. Azula smirked back.

Kira sighed. She pulled up a stool and sat down across from Azula's desk, folding her hands in her lap. "All right. So, from what I can tell, you spent most of your time preparing yourself for a life of official duty. There's nothing wrong with that. But that's not all what life is about, right? No matter how demanding your schedule is, you have to make time for yourself. So that's what we're going to do here. Make time for ourselves."

Azula rolled her eyes.

Kira got some paper and a pencil from the shelves and scooted her chair closer to Azula. "All right. We're going to play one of my favorite games. It goes like this: I name an object, and you draw it. Do it however you want. No constraints whatsoever." She placed the paper and pencil in front of Azula and tapped her chin. "Let's see. Draw me a… tree."

Azula just stared at the nurse as if she were a moron, but after a few seconds she realized that Kira was actually serious and wouldn't leave her alone until she got a response. With a frustrated sigh, Azula grabbed the pencil and drew a box-like trunk with reedy branches. She pushed the drawing at Kira.

"Good job!" The nurse smiled and flipped the paper over. "All right, your turn. What do you want me to draw?"

"A map of where we are."

Kira smiled wryly. "That was clever, honey, but it won't fly. I need a concrete object."

Azula crossed her arms. "A statement of my release, then."

Kira pursed her lips. "All right. I'll think of something myself. You tell me what it looks like when I'm done."

She bent over the paper and began to draw. Azula crossed her arms and looked at the blank blackboard.

Right then, the door opened. Azula's eyes immediately flew over to it, and she nearly did a double-take when she saw Dr. Low step into the room. He was holding a clipboard and pen. Kira looked up at him, but he waved for her to continue, and went to sit down at the back table. The doctor placed the clipboard into his lap and began to write something down, his military uniform a splotch of maroon against the bleak wall. He might as well have just come from the palace.

Azula narrowed her eyes at him. "What are you doing here?"

Dr. Low looked up at her, but instead of responding he lowered his gaze to the clipboard again.

"All done!" Kira held up the paper, showing a picture of a basket. "What is this?"

Azula kept her gaze fixed on Dr. Low, who was still looking at his clipboard. She gripped the handles of her wheelchair. "What are you writing? I didn't even do anything, and you're analyzing me already?"

Kira reached for Azula's shoulder. "Come on, honey, focus. The doctor's just here to see how things are going."

"No!" Azula swatted Kira's hand away and looked back at Dr. Low. "I know what you're doing. You're recording my answers so you'll know how to crack me!"

Dr. Low looked up at her again.

"Well it's not going to work!" Azula said. "Because I'm not going to say anything! Not to your stupid nurses, and especially not to you!"

"Azula, please. Concentrate." Kira held up the drawing. "If this doesn't interest you, all you have to do is tell me and we'll do something else."

Azula continued to glare at Dr. Low, seething with anger. The doctor held her gaze, then almost casually dropped it back to the clipboard. Azula dug her nails into the pad of the armrests.

From behind, she heard Kira put the paper down. "Fine. We'll do something else." She scooped up the supplies and went back behind the desk. She searched around the shelves for a bit, then returned with a deck of cards. "This one's a classic. I'm going to show you some pictures, and you're going to say the first word that pops into your head when you see them."

Kira sat down and flipped the first card. The picture was of a random black splotch.

Azula drew back in revulsion. "What?"

"All right. Next!" Kira flipped the card, showing a similar splotch with smeared edges.

Azula snarled. "This is stupid!"

"Say a word, honey. Any word."

"Butterfly-worm!" Azula blurted.

"All right!" Kira flipped the next card. "How about this?"

Azula blinked. "Black!"


"And this?"



"And this?" Kira brought out another card, and for the strangest reason, an image immediately flashed in Azula's mind, making a connection almost too rapid for her to realize. Her mouth opened of its own accord. "Mai—"

But the minute she realized what she was saying, Azula stopped and closed her mouth. She stole a glance at Dr. Low, who paused in his writing moments later and looked up. Azula narrowed her eyes and turned away. "Ink."

Kira lowered the cards. "It seemed like you were about to say May, the fifth month. That's a pretty time of year; does it mean anything special to you?"

Azula slapped the table. "I said this is stupid! "

Kira sighed. "Fine. I'll get another game." She went back to the shelves and put the cards away.

Azula watched the nurse rummage around, and snorted. "Games. Is that really how you heal your patients?"

"Of course," Kira replied. "Relaxation is essential for successful therapy."

"Perhaps I'm not in a hospital at all, and you're just keeping me here to do something with me."

"If by 'do something' you mean heal you, then yes," Kira said. "That's what hospitals are for."

Azula crossed her arms. "What kind of hospital keeps its windows boarded up?"

"The kind that doesn't want its patients to get distracted."

"So you do the same thing for everyone else?"

"Of course."

Azula frowned. "And how many patients are there?"

Kira looked up at the ceiling. "I'm not sure. I don't know the exact number, of course, but there are dozens. And everyone's treated the same."

"And will I get to see any of them?"

"Don't be silly. Your treatment is yours and yours alone. Nobody else should be involved with the process."

"But what if I'm the kind who needs company?"

She heard a chuckle, and whipped her head around to see Dr. Low smiling to himself. He looked up at them for a moment, but lowered his gaze to the clipboard before Azula could look him in the eye.

Moments later, Kira came back to the table. "That's enough," she said flatly. She set down a scroll in front of her. It was filled with mathematics problems. "Solve these. You have one hour. No talking."

Azula narrowed her eyes. But she took the pencil and slid her chair closer to the desk, sitting primly and perfectly, just as she had done in school. Periodically, she looked up at Kira, who nodded for her to keep going. From the side, Dr. Low didn't make another sound. And yet, he was the one who seemed to be getting exactly what he wanted. The more Azula paid attention to him in the corner of her eye, the more prominent he seemed, like a giant dark spider in web of white skirts and smiles that had ensnared her.
« Last Edit: Apr 17, 2017 02:06 pm by DynaDratina » Logged

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #8 on: Apr 17, 2017 02:05 pm »


At the end of the day, Kira wheeled Azula back to her room and left her alone for what she called "mindfulness hour". For once, the activity was appropriate. Azula was indeed mindful, and by the end of the session, she had formed a plan of action. She would get out. She would be free.

When the door opened again, it was Mira carrying a tray of dinner. The nurse tried to act cool when she handed it to Azula, but couldn't resist a wayward, calculating glance before she turned away. Azula immediately caught Mira's gaze, compelling the nurse to keep looking at her, and smiled.

"So. Is this what it's going to be like every day?"

"I don't know what you mean." Mira started to walk away, and Azula leaned forward in her chair.

"I mean, aren't you going to do anything else? Or take me anywhere else?"

Mira stopped in the doorway and turned around, placing a hand on her hip. "Freedom is a privilege. You haven't earned it." With that, she away primly and closed the door.

Azula ate her food in silence. When she was done, she rolled her chair to the counter and put down the tray. Then, she scooted herself behind her bed, peering down at the tangle of wires that fastened it to the wall. During her earlier investigation, she had found that all of them were just simple hooks, which were attached to a metal ring on the wall and kept closed by twist fasteners. Azula bent down and untwisted one of them, which caused the hook to open effortlessly, and let it hang on the ring. She did this for several others, but let the rest be, just in case one of the nurses noticed. Smiling in satisfaction, she sat back down in the wheelchair.

Kira came in a minute later to prepare Azula for bed. She pulled aside the blanket and lowered her down, closing the handcuff around her wrist. "Sleep tight." She smiled, placed the key deep into the bookshelf, and went to turn off the lights. Moments later, the door closed behind her.

As always, she didn't lock it.

Azula waited for a couple of minutes, then crawled up to the front of the bed and felt around for the hooks. She managed to untwist the rest of them, detaching them from the wall and letting them hang loosely from the bottom of the bed. Then she sat up on her knees and pushed off from the wall. The bed rolled smoothly along the floor and stopped at the bookcase with a quiet bump. Azula leaned towards the shelf and searched it with both hands, feeling around for the little silver key. When she found it, she let out a grateful breath and began to pick at the lock until the handcuff popped open. She lowered her feet onto the floor and rolled the bed back into place. Then she reached for the doorknob and pressed her ear against the door. When she didn't hear any sounds coming from the hallway, she opened it.

The hallway was as dark as ever, but a little to her right, there was a slip of light coming from beneath a door on the opposite wall. The light wasn't much, but with her dark-adjusted eyes, Azula could see the outlines of the other doorways around her. She went left, approaching the dividing door, and to her surprise, found that it was closed and locked. Azula went back, carefully tiptoeing past the occupied room, where she could hear the voices of Nira, Mira, and Kira chatting away. She pressed her palms against the dead-end door and tried that knob as well, but it was firmly locked. She breathed a sigh.

The other doors around her were closed as well, the rooms beyond them darkened. There were six of them. The two on either side of her bedroom were storage closets. The one to the left of that was the bathroom. The door on the opposite wall, near the middle boundary, was the check-up room where the nurses had examined her the previous day. That left two rooms unaccounted for - the one that was occupied, and the one to her left, near the dead-end door.
Azula turned to it and tried the knob, and with a swell of relief, she felt it turn. She gently pushed it open.

Inside, she saw a large space, filled with hazy dark blocks of furniture. The room was about the size of her bedroom, but was more generously filled - along with the ever-present counter and cabinets around the door, there were also three narrow beds, a dresser, a vanity, and a writing desk. Azula stood still near the doorway for a moment, and when she had assured herself that there was nobody inside, she went in. She felt the frame of one of the beds, and was surprised to touch wood - real, actual wood, not the metal that hers was made of. The beds were all made and kept neat, likely on Kira's orders to have everything in "Tip-top shape!" Azula practically heard the nurse's voice in her head, and snorted.

She went farther. The silence of the room was pervading, making her every shuffle seem to echo. She went towards the vanity table, glimpsing the shadowy reflection of her head and shoulders in the mirror. As she looked at her own face, trying to discern her features, she felt a faint rush of Déjà vu kindle inside of her. For a minute, she imagined being five again, wandering through the family wing in the dead of night when everyone else was fast asleep. Now that she thought about it, she had always been the peculiar one in the family, always the one to go snooping. Zuko had never done it. Early on, she had always tried to tug him along on her excursions, but he had always refused. Was it because he had been afraid of breaking some fictive, unspoken rule? Or had he been afraid of the palace itself? Of what he might discover there? On her part, Azula had never been afraid... or, rather, she had been, just a little bit, but instead of repelling her, that fear had drawn her in, morphing in some strange way into curiosity. The very things she had feared as a child had lured her, calling to some part of her that she had never fully understood. Even in the daytime, she could vaguely feel the secret inner rooms of the palace calling her, like some great beast waiting with its mouth open. Calling for her to wander in, to be swallowed. And never be seen again.

Azula looked at the reflection of the darkened room, and felt that brief childhood panic stir up inside of her. She again got the feeling that something was there with her, or perhaps that she had dipped herself into some different plane of existence. But before the feeling could get too strong, she tore her gaze from the mirror and stepped away.

She went back into the hallway and took a final look at the dead-end door. Then she tiptoed back to her bedroom, but as she passed the occupied room, she slowed down and pressed her ear against the door. From inside, she heard the clink of silverware, followed by the unmistakable sound of a tin tray being placed onto a table.

"All right, girls, dinner's up," came Kira's voice.

Nearby, someone sighed. "Noodles again?"

It was Nira. There was some movement, then Kira answered. "What were you expecting, Nira, a gourmet menu?" There was a pause. "It's all we have. No one said we'd eat like kings."

Azula could almost imagine Nira dully leaning her cheek against her hand. "No one said we'd be so unprepared either…"

"Don't be so morbid," said Kira. "Everything will come in time. What's important is that we have the essentials."

"I guess…" Nira said. "But I hope Dr. Low calls those construction people back soon. This place has too much steel." There was the shift of a padded seat. "And I can't keep looking at that furnace any more. I know they burned coal here, but gosh, that thing is huge…"

This was followed by a scoff. "Please." Without a second's delay, Azula recognized Mira. "That's the last thing on anybody's mind. They're not going to turn this place into a sanctuary. They're only going to do enough to make her buy it, and if we have to live like cavepeople in the meantime, then that's just the price we have to pay." A sip. "Pay for getting ourselves into this mess…"

Azula's eyes widened. She lowered herself to her knees, bringing her ear close to the gap by the floor.

Moments later, Kira responded. "What's wrong with you, Mira? I thought you wanted to help out."

"Yeah, medically!" Mira replied. "But this psychology stuff is really starting to annoy me. If you ask me, if someone's so sick that there's something wrong with their mind, then they're beyond help. I don't know what Dr. Low's up to, but honestly, I don't think it's going to work. Stuff like this is something you're born with. He needs to just suck up his pride and realize that she can't be kept free."

There was another pause. It was broken by Nira's soft voice. "What do you think is wrong with her?"

Mira seemed to ponder her answer for a while, then finally lowered a glass onto the table. "I think it's just a matter of personality," she said. "Some people are normal, and others have worms in their heads that make them angry at everything. Take two of my friends for example. They both have daughters the same age, around five. One's the sweetest, most lovely girl you could ask for. She's always helping her parents, playing fair with other kids, and never says a mean word to anyone. And she wouldn't hurt a fly. The other one would scream and smack things all over the room when something didn't go her way. No matter how many times people taught her patience and respect for property, it seemed like all of it just went through one ear and out the other. Once when I came to visit, I caught her outside smearing mud over the house wall. I didn't know where my friend was looking, but I obviously couldn't let it slide, so I told her to stop. And she took a fistful of mud and flung it at my skirt. What do you say about that? What kind of person do you think she'll grow up to be?"

"That doesn't have to mean anything, though," said Nira. "It could just be a phase. And kids are emotional by definition; even that good girl probably gets angry."
"Yeah, but there's a difference between normal anger and sick anger," Mira said. "A temper tantrum doesn't have to involve biting other people's hands or using your dolls as mallets. Sometimes you can just look at a kid and see that there's no joy in anything for them; everything's too hot, or too small, or too boring. They don't care about anybody else unless those people are giving them presents. Sometimes the parent can be too slow to step in. And sometimes, the child's temper is just too strong to break. You can usually tell it when you look at a person. And her… I don't know about you, but I think when you see her, you know there's something wrong. For these past few days we've done nothing but help her, and she spits in our faces like we're the scum of the earth. I give her food and she talks back to me." Mira paused, and made a quiet scoffing sound. "And you'd think. A royal child."

Nira gave a hmm. "Well, you can't assume too much about what it's like to be a royal, either."

"I'm not assuming anything, Nira. I'm just telling you what I've experienced with people, and what I can conclude based on those experiences. And I say all that stuff about good discipline is a lie. You're either born with the right sense of how to behave, or you're not. There's just no other explanation." Mira gave a pause. "Now, I don't know if it runs in her family or not. That I can't assume anything about. But whoever her mother was, I almost feel sorry for her. She probably tried her best to control her, but it didn't work." Mira paused again, and seemed to be making a disgusted expression. "You should have seen the way she looked at me. Like I was some kind of monster..."

The other nurses were thoughtfully silent.

Mira seemed to shrug off her cloudiness a moment later, and started again in her regular voice. "I just don't see why we have to be dragged down with her. That's all."

"Then why don't you go back?" asked Nira.

"She can't," Kira cut in. "None of us can. It's security protocol."

"Oh, right, right. That makes sense…"

Kira sighed. "Look, Mira, no one said it would be easy. But we're here already, so we might as well stick with this to the end. Dr. Low will probably have a diagnosis ready soon. Then he'll give us a better idea of what to do."

"Right… So, how does he diagnose people again?" asked Mira. "Does he read the answers she gives for the image test or something?"

"No, I think he looks at how she reacts to the games themselves," Nira said.

"I don't know what he does, girls," Kira replied. "My guess is as good as yours. But I know he knows what he's doing. I've heard him explain his field to people before, back in the upper city, and if there's anyone who should lead a job like this, it's him."

Mira sighed. "Well, I hope you're right..."

They didn't dwell on the subject any more. A moment of silence passed, then Nira made a remark about the mismatched chairs, and their conversation drifted to simple, moronic topics. All the while, Azula remained crouched on her hands and knees, her heart pounding. She kept listening, waiting for them to say something else about her, even the shortest phrase. She ignored the cold floor and the growing pain in her knees, until the sound of footsteps from behind made her jump up. Someone was coming.

Azula started to scramble away, but the feet stopped before they reached the dividing door. Moments later, she heard a knock.

"Dee, do you have a moment?"

The voice of the physical therapist answered. "Isla, is that you? Just a second." From the other side of the hallway, the door to the office swung open.
"Hi, Dee," said Isla. "This might seem silly, but do you have the key to the closet? I think I left mine in the check-up room."

"Of course. Here." There was a metallic jingle, and moments later Azula realized that the middle door was being unlocked. She scampered back to her room and closed the door, just as the one to Dee's wing opened. Isla stopped by one of the narrow closets and unlocked it, pulling a few boxes from the shelves. Then she went into the check-up room. Isla turned on the lights, rummaged around inside, then left. She went back through the dividing door and closed it behind her, and her footsteps retreated into the distance. But she didn't lock it.

Azula waited for the silence to settle in. Then she crept back into the hallway and approached the middle door. She carefully turned the knob, gave it a push, and peered past it. Beyond it, the hallway continued for several doors on either side, a few of which had strips of light in front of them. There was one door open in the distance, casting a square of light on the floor where she could see Isla's shadow moving about. But moments later, the nurse reached out for the doorknob and closed it a little, plunging the wing into darkness.

Azula inched her way forward, keeping close to the darkened rooms. She crept towards Isla's door, which was open by a crack. She peered through it.
Inside, she saw a counter and cabinets, and a narrow bed standing beside the wall. This bed was also regular, made of wood, just like the beds of the other three nurses. Isla had placed the boxes onto a table beside the window, which had a myriad of other mixtures and solutions in various stages of preparation. Moments later, Isla herself stepped into view from the corner and approached the counter, where she laid out a metal frame and began to piece together a new test tube holder. She spent some time adjusting the poles and tightening the screws, then finally managed to get a standing replica of what she had before. Once she was done, she sat down at the mixing table and took one of the many bowls, this one with a pair of chopsticks. She began to eat, looking askance at her shuttered window.

Azula watched the nurse for a little while longer, then decided not to push her luck and kept going. She proceeded up the hallway with bated breath, feeling around the walls for doors as it got darker. Past Isla's, there was only one other room that had its lights on. As Azula approached, she noticed a dark gold bar attached to the door. It read: DR. LOW.

Azula's eyes widened, then she narrowed them and pressed her ear to the door. Inside, she heard the subtle flipping of pages and the clink of a teacup. But nothing else.

She tiptoed away and moved on. Up ahead, there was nothing but darkness. Azula didn't feel any more doors on Dr. Low's side, and one more on Isla's. She kept going, reflexively lifting her hands in front of her, till she felt her palms make contact with the dead-end door. She had reached the other end of the hallway.
She felt around, and her hand closed around the doorknob. It was firmly locked. The door didn't even have a gap on the bottom. Azula turned around and pressed her back to it, glancing out at the hallway in its entirety. For some reason, it seemed much smaller than it should have been.

After waiting another few seconds, Azula started to creep back the way she came. She got through the dividing door unnoticed, slunk past the closets, and slipped back into her bedroom.

She climbed back into her bed, took the key from the bookshelf and locked the handcuff over her right wrist. Then she put the key back on the shelf where it had been before. She had just finished rolling her bed back to its place by the wall when she heard the lounge door open, and the three nurses step out. She quickly jumped under the covers. Someone went up to the dividing door and pushed it open, then paused.

"Wait," said Nira. "Did we lock this when we came here?"

"Of course," said Kira.

"Well, then someone must have opened it."

Mira let out a breath. "Oh great…"

But right then, there was the sound of rushed footsteps, and someone opened the door. "It was me," came Isla's voice. "Relax. I went to get some things from the closet."

"And why didn't you lock the door?" asked Mira.

"I forgot. I was just on my way to lock it now."

"Isla, you can't forget," said Kira. "I know we 're here on this side, but we're not all-powerful. What if Azula got out without us knowing?"

Someone opened the door to Azula's room and peeked inside. "It's okay, she's in there," said Nira, and closed it again.

"Are you sure?" asked Mira. "You should go check."

"She's sleeping."

"Then she won't notice you."

Nira sighed. Azula closed her eyes and hung her handcuffed arm over the side of the bed, keeping still as best as she could. Nira went back into the room and leaned over Azula's shoulder, then turned away and left. "She's asleep. Relax."

Mira and Kira breathed sighs of relief.

"Good," said Kira.

"Are we happy now?" asked Isla. "Crisis avoided?"

The other three nurses were silent.

"Just be careful," Mira mumbled tiredly. "Every time someone loses their keys, she has the chance to grab them and make a run for it."

"Relax," Kira said. "Isla has her keys. She won't lose them again. Period. There's no need to get all hyped up."

"Yeah," Nira said. "And anyway, even if Azula does get out, there's nowhere really to go."

Mira sighed in agreement. "Yeah. I guess."

Whatever that meant, they left it at that.

(End of Chapter 4)

Tamerlan Pahlavi
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Pride above all

« Reply #9 on: May 06, 2017 09:17 am »

Sorry I didn't review this as soon as you updated but I really like it, the tension is building. I like your take on the character and your OCs serve their function rather well. The second half of chapter 4 was particularly interesting, I wonder if she'll manage to escape eventually, under which state of mind and what she'll do after breaking out. It would be nice to see what Zuko thinks of all of this, whether he really believes that this all could help. The conversation between the nurses was interesting and it illustrates the central philosophical dilemma of all stories like this: are people redeemable and to what extent. Also, I'd kinda like to see Azula going back to the wonderland she saw in the earlier chapters, maybe she'll find a way to feel free without having to hallucinate.

Anyway, keep up your good work and I'll keep reading. Writing can be challenging but you provide quality material.


There is no refuge but in audacity. No salvation other than in strength.

"It is better to live one hundred years in wealth than seven days in poverty." - Bob Rock
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #10 on: May 22, 2017 09:54 am »

Hey, there! Sorry I took so long to reply; I actually read your review not too long after you posted it and really appreciated it, but I was so busy that I couldn't compose a reply up until now.

I do my best to strike an even balance between canon characters and OCs, but overall there will be quite a lot of new OCs introduced, so I'm glad to hear I'm off to a good start! Azula will get to see the world outside of her new "home" eventually, though under what circumstances and in which state of mind will be secret for now. You'll also get to find out what Zuko thinks about her situation and what exactly led him to choose this particular arrangement, but keep in mind that Zuko will have lots of other problems of his own to take care of, so he won't always be able to pay perfect attention to what's going on with her...

The meadow in the beginning wasn't just a hallucination - it'll carry meaning later on. And we might be going back there too, though it'll be a long way down the road.

I'm glad the story has made an impression on you so far! Thanks so much for the review, and I hope you'll keep reading!

5. A Tear in the Web

Azula thought about that conversation for a long time. Did the hospital have such good security that she really wouldn't have anywhere to go if she made it out of the wing? Or was the building so vast and convoluted that it was hopeless to navigate if she didn't have a floor plan?

In the end, neither of those options satisfied her. If the place was so heavily guarded, then the nurses wouldn't be so worried about their keys. And if the hospital was so big, then why would the head doctor be living only a few doors down from her, cramped in a tiny hallway next to broom closets?

Azula tried to figure it out, but couldn't. Sleep came to her in short bursts, for her mind was too restless for her to relax. Her thoughts kept churning with possible explanations of the situation, and every time she would begin to doze off, she would suddenly jerk awake with her heart pounding, her eyes scanning the confines of the bedroom with increasing desperation. She was beginning to feel like the walls were closing in on her, the still air slowly tightening a chokehold around her neck.

Nevertheless, her exhaustion finally caught up with her, and after a period of forgetfulness, Azula opened her eyes to find that the room was once again brightly lit. The clock on the bookshelf showed nine hours, and to her right, a nurse with long, plain hair was standing at the sink, washing her hands. It was Isla. Azula blinked wearily as the nurse turned around and approached the bed, wondering if her sleepless night showed on her face. But Isla didn't make any comments. She herself had droopy eyes, and yawned a few times as she removed the handcuff from Azula's wrist and put the key back in its place on the shelf. When Azula had sat up, Isla took a breakfast tray from the counter and placed it in her lap.

She left Azula to do the rest for herself, going back to the counter and examining the contents of the upper cabinets. The upper shelves had towels and bars of soap, while the lower ones were filled with glass medicine bottles. While Azula ate, Isla took down empty ones and collected them in a basket, taking note of them on a personal clipboard. With each cabinet she finished, Isla locked the door with a key that dangled from a stretchy bracelet on her wrist. She glanced at Azula every so often to check up on her, upon which Azula would avert her gaze, then cautiously continue to observe the nurse once she had turned away again. Finally, when Azula's plate was empty, she and Isla met eyes, and without a word, the nurse came to collect the tray. She unlocked an upper cabinet again and took out the bottle of purple serum from last time. She popped off the stopper and poured some of the liquid into a spoon, but accidentally tilted the bottle too far and let a few purple drops dribble onto the floor.

"Ack." With a wince, Isla quickly put the spoon into Azula's mouth and rushed for a towel. She wiped up the spill, regretfully examined the liquid that remained, then placed the bottle back into the cabinet and locked it. She breezed through the rest of the morning routine, brushing Azula's hair and dabbing her face, then took her to the bathroom and handed her a clean jumpsuit. When Azula had changed clothes, Isla eased her into the wheelchair, ignoring the straps, and pushed her into the hallway.

They made the familiar short ride past the middle door and turned into the mind therapy room. At the moment, there was nobody else inside, so Isla pushed Azula behind the lone writing desk in the center, turning her to face the blackboard. Then she left, closing the door behind her.

For a few uneventful moments, Azula stared ahead at the empty teacher's desk, at the neat rows of books and boxes on the bookshelves. Then the door swung open again, revealing Nira, who stepped inside with a hearty wave. "Hi, Azula! It's me and Mira today." She jerked her thumb over her shoulder, just as Mira stepped in after her. Mira let the door fall closed, then pulled over a free chair and sat down beside the door.

Nira went over to the desk in the meantime, setting down a bundle of scrolls she had tucked under her arm. She picked one out from the pile and approached Azula's desk. "All right. So, Kira tells me you're good at math. Why don't we start with a few problems to get your mind running?" Nira unrolled the scroll and placed it down in front of Azula, following with a pencil. The paper was filled with trigonometric problems. "I made these just for you. You'll have an hour to solve them. Give them to me when you're done, and I'll tell you how you did. Good luck!" She winked and went back to the desk.

Azula took the pencil and leaned over the paper. She solved the problems one by one, and once she was done, she primly lifted the page into the air, and Nira went to take it. She sat back down at the desk to check it, and moments later, she gaped. "Wow, great job!" She turned to Mira. "Take a look at this. Not a single mistake!"

Mira went over and took a look at the scroll. "Yeah. Neat form." She glanced at Azula. "You must have been a star in school."

Azula folded her hands in her lap. "Yes. I was."

Mira gave a slow nod. But behind her cool expression, Azula could almost feel the nurse's thoughts churning in a poisonous storm. Now that she knew exactly what Mira thought about her, decoding her facial expressions was almost too easy. She watched the nurse sit back down through narrowed eyes, letting their gazes meet for just a moment, then looked away calmly.

At that point, Nira rolled up the scroll and rose to her feet. "Okay. So since we're all in school-mode today, I think that'll be a good topic to start talking about." She took the wooden stool from nearby and moved it up to Azula's table. Once she had sat down, she held up her hands. "Now, I promise I won't ask you how many times you did your homework right before class, or said you did it when you didn't, or any of that stuff. I just want to get to know your life a bit better." Nira smoothed her skirt and folded her hands in her lap. "So. Being a royal child, I'm guessing you must have had private tutors. Right?"

"Yes," said Azula.

"So, you've never been to a regular school?"

"No, I have."

"Aha! And what school was it?"

"The Fire Nation Academy for Young Ladies."

Nira's eyes widened. "Wow." She looked at Mira and nodded. "Fancy!"

Mira gave a nod to appease Nira, then went back to fiddling with a set of keys she had taken out from her pocket. Nira looked back at Azula. "So. Did you have any friends there?"

"Yes," Azula replied.

"How many?"


"What were their names?"

"Mai and Ty-Lee," Azula said.

Nira nodded. "And what were they like?"

"Lying, backstabbing traitors."

Nira's smile dipped down. "Oh. So… you got into fights?"

Azula shrugged. "You could say that."

Nira twisted a lock of hair around her finger. "Oh. Well, um, I guess that's not good…" She pondered for a moment, then brightened. "How did you meet them?"

"I don't remember."

Nira frowned. "Not even a little?"

"I suppose we were in the same class group," Azula said. "We started talking. How else do you think friends meet?"

Nira shrugged. "Well, I guess they could meet in all sorts of ways. But it's okay if you can't remember. I just want to get a general picture." She tapped her chin. "Now. Did the other girls in your school know you were the princess?"

"Of course."

"And what did they think about that?"

"They respected me," Azula said. "And they feared me. In a good way, I mean. They knew not to mess with me."

"Okay." Nira nodded. "And did you like your relationship with the girls in your school, or do you wish you had done something differently?"

"I don't know what you mean," Azula said.

"Well, do you look back on any moments and think, 'Hey, I really shouldn't have done that', or 'I think I should have treated her differently', or anything like that? Everyone has little regrets like that at some point."

Azula let the nurse's words drift off into silence. "No."

Nira sighed. "Well, that's okay too, if you can't remember."

"No," Azula said, more firmly. "I mean I don't have any regrets. I'm fine with everything I did, and I wouldn't change a thing even if you made me go back a hundred times."

Nira lifted an eyebrow. "So you're completely happy with how everything went?"


"And nothing ever upset you?"


Nira lifted her eyebrows and nodded. "Wow." She glanced at Mira for confirmation, then looked back at Azula. "Then you're one happy camper. I was going to spill the beans about how I accidentally locked everyone out of the craft room when I was seven. The art teacher never trusted anyone with her keys, but I was one of her favorite students, and that day she made an exception for me and asked me to get a few more brushes from the storage room. And that room had a really tricky lock, one of those strange kinds that lock themselves the minute the door falls closed, and there was only one key to it. And when I was on my way back with the supplies, I realized that I left the keys in the room! So I had to fess up to what I did in front of everyone. That still bugs me sometimes!" Nira giggled. "Maybe I should be the one in therapy..."

Behind her, Mira shook her head, then turned her attention back to her lap. She had taken out a second key ring from her pocket, this one with four keys attached to the loop, and was examining it. The first ring, which held only three, dangled from her finger. "Speaking of keys, did you see my Number Four anywhere?" she said.

Nira frowned. "No. Did you drop it?"

Mira looked at the three keys again, each of which, Azula now saw, had a red number painted on the side. "That or I labeled these wrong. One was for our bedroom, Two was for my storage box, Three for the lounge…"

"What's Four for?"

"The supply closets in the hallway."

"I could always open them for you if you want. Why do you need them?"

"Because Kira told me to wash the floor on this side. But I'm not doing it until I find my key and get a new key ring, because this one is piece of crap." Mira slid the three keys along the loop until they popped out of a loose end in the coil. "See? I try to take one out, and all the others keep slipping!"

Nira nodded. "All right, I'll help you when we're done. But we gotta finish this talk first." She looked at Azula again and smoothed her skirt. "Okay… So, another question." Nira began to tap her chin. "Hmm… Okay, I can't think of any. Do you want to try one, Mira?"

Mira thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Who was your favorite teacher?"

Azula scanned her memory for a name. "Mrs. Song, the calligraphy teacher."

"What did you like about her?"

Azula spent the next minute detailing the qualities of a teacher she hardly remembered. Naturally, this led Nira to ask about her other teachers, then about her private tutors, which spiraled into a sequence of various other moronic answer prompts, like a teacher's strangest personality quirk, the funniest thing that had ever happened in class, or the most impossible homework assignment she had ever received. Azula fabricated her responses from bits of memories, telling stories that never happened just to deflect the questions. It wasn't as if they could fact-check her, anyway.

The session lasted for two hours, and by the time Nira finally wheeled her out of the room, Azula's head was aching. She wasn't sure how long she could keep this up. If each day the nurses would squeeze her brain like this, soon her replies would start contradicting themselves, and that would lead to more questions. That or she'd have to keep constant tabs on what she said, planning her future responses in advance, and in her current state Azula knew she wouldn't be able to manage it. The pressure would build up inside of her again, her mind would snap, she'd come crashing down, and the nurses would start the whole thing over. She couldn't fake her way out of this. Nor would the silent treatment work on them for long. So that left only one option - get out.

Azula thought back to the nurses' nighttime conversation. Clearly, there was something more to the hospital building than what they were telling her. They were putting on a guise, and though Azula wasn't exactly sure what they were covering up, she had the feeling it was nothing good. The hospital wasn't in Capital City, so it was likely somewhere in the central Fire Nation, deep in the countryside where it would be much easier to run a secret operation. Azula knew that Zuko couldn't have built this entire building himself; he simply wouldn't have had the time. And Kira had said that Dr. Low ran some sort of practice in the Capital City... so perhaps, this hospital had existed before, and was his secret affiliation, a place where he and doctors like him did mystical, psychological experiments on people the government deemed dangerous. And by using some old palace contacts, Zuko was able to get in touch with him. Of course, he'd find it the perfect place to put her, the evil, crazy princess. Now the question was, who else was there with her? Kira had said there were dozens of other patients... so perhaps there were dozens of other wings exactly like hers, each with their own team of moronic, smiling nurses, all swarming around one isolated individual, led by one person who called themselves the head doctor. If Azula could see one of the other patients, even for the shortest moment, even if the nurses caught her and strapped her to her bed for a week, that would be enough to calm her down. It would give her a foothold. It would mean that she was ahead of Dr. Low and the others, even if it was only by the smallest step.

Posts merged to maximize the character limit ~ Icy
« Last Edit: Jun 17, 2017 09:45 am by Icy_Ashford » Logged

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« Reply #11 on: May 22, 2017 09:56 am »

Azula thought about all of this as Nira wheeled her into the physical therapy room. She vaguely watched the nurse leave, still immersed in speculation. But hardly a second later, her attention was diverted by Dee, who rose from her desk and scooted the wheelchair inside.

"Come in, come in." Dee closed the door behind her. Azula looked up, and to her surprise noticed Isla, who was standing beside the therapist's desk.

Dee grasped Azula's wrists and raised her arms out in front of her. "Keep them in the air for me. Do they feel heavy?"


Dee turned to Isla. "I want to give her a little bit of antidote. She needs to work on strength today."

Isla nodded. "Coming right up." She left the room, bringing back a bottle of green paste, and gave Azula a spoonful. The mixture tasted like grass and chunks of sand. Azula spent several seconds chewing it, like a cow, before she finally swallowed it. The taste made her shudder. But after a minute, some of her exhaustion lifted, and she began to stretch.

Dee gave a nod. "Very good." She took Azula by the shoulder and helped her to her feet.

"We'll have to dose her immediately after you're done, though," Isla said. "Otherwise the antidote will keep on working, and she could start firebending."

"Don't worry, this shouldn't take longer than half an hour." Dee placed Azula onto the mat and rolled over a medicine ball. "Now. You're going to take this in both hands and touch the floor with it from one side to the other. Don't lift your legs."

She laid Azula down on her back and showed her the motion. Azula began to move the ball from side to side, taking a rest after every tenth round as Dee had instructed. But occasionally, she took a peek at the two women, who had lapsed into light conversation in the meantime. In particular, Azula focused on Isla. She remembered seeing her bedroom, which had seemed more like a workroom, filled to the brim with mixtures and test tubes. So far, she was the only one Azula had seen to restock a bottle or fiddle with a medicine pouch. Isla was clearly the one who made the serum, so it was very likely the she made the other things as well. Perhaps that was why she was always more efficient and less upbeat than the other three. She was focused, which made her less chatty, but also more forgetful. That was why she had forgotten to lock that middle door the previous night. She was the one who carried the entire burden of making the medicines, so if any of them were lost... then Isla would have to make more.

Azula began to draft a plan in her mind, thinking in short bursts between motions. Once she finished with the medicine ball, Dee made her do several more exercises, and when the therapy session finally ended, Isla wheeled Azula back to her room for quiet hour. On their way down the hallway, they passed Mira and Nira, who were both holding sets of keys and having a heated discussion.

"I don't understand, why can't it just be one key for everything? Why does Dr. Low have to make things so complicated?"

"It's not that hard, Mira, look - I painted colored dots on mine so I could remember them. My storage one is red, the cabinet keys are blue…"

Isla passed them by, and once she had parked Azula's chair beside the bed, she left the room. Azula scanned the surfaces nearby, and with a flutter of her heart, she saw Mira's other key ring resting deep on a shelf in the bookcase. Coming in from the front of the room, Isla hadn't seen it.

Meanwhile, from the hallway, Azula heard Isla approach the other nurses. "Will one of you dose her with the serum? I have to run to the storage room," she said.

"Yeah, sure, just a moment!" said Nira. But neither of them moved from their place.

Azula waited for a few more seconds to make sure that no one was coming, then sprang out of her wheelchair and grabbed the keys. Then she tiptoed to the cabinets above the counter and began to test the lock. The keys were numbered five through eight, and on Key Number Six, the lock turned. Azula pocketed the keys and tugged on the door, but to her surprise, it didn't budge. Instead of unlocking the door, she had locked it. Azula inserted the key again, and this time opened the door, revealing shelves of colorful bottles, some with glued-on labels, all neatly turned to face the user. She scooped them up by the handful, removed the corks, and began to pour their contents into the sink. A smile traced its way up her face as she watched the colorful liquids swirl down the drain and disappear.

She was in the process of emptying the final shelf when the door swung open. Mira stepped inside, and when she saw the mass of empty bottles on the counter, she screamed. "KIRAAAA!"

Two more heads clunked into her - Nira's and Kira's, and the latter slapped her palms against her chest. "No!" She grabbed Azula and pushed her into the wheelchair, frantically locking the straps around Azula's legs and waist. "Get Isla. Now."

Mira spun around on her heel and left the room. Moments later, she came back with Isla in hot pursuit, and when Isla saw what had happened, her face went as white as a sheet. "You… how…" She lifted one of the empty bottles with a shaking hand, sloshing around a final droplet of orange liquid. Then she looked up, scanning each face in the room, finally settling on Kira's. "How did she unlock the cabinets?"

Kira frowned. "I'm not sure. I know I locked them last night before I left."

Mira quietly clamped her hands over her mouth. But no one noticed. Instead, Kira looked at Azula.

Azula shrugged, putting on a dazed, clueless expression. "They were open when I got here. I thought it would be fun."

Kira gave an exhausted sigh and looked at the other nurses. "Which one of you forgot to lock the cabinets?"

For a moment, the room was silent. Finally, Mira dropped her hands to her sides. "Okay, okay, it was me! I opened them because I wanted to get some rags to wash the floor, but then my keys slipped off my other key ring, so I left the room to get a new one. It's not like I'm supposed to lock all the cabinets again if I'm only leaving for a few seconds, am I?"

"Yes!" Isla shouted. She turned to Mira, eyes blazing in rage and despair. "Or, am I not understanding something? Are her sedatives and sleeping medication somehow less important to you than your broom closets? Do you think serum and tranquilizer just rain down from the sky?"

Mira was taken aback. "No, of course not! It's just - it's just that I forgot because I was frustrated." She paused, collecting herself. "I wanted to make sure it would never happen again, and I knew that Azula was supposed to be in therapy with you and Dee, so I didn't suppose that I had to lock the doors right away. I would have gotten a new key ring and gone right back in the room to do it!"

"Are you sure?" Isla said. "Something tells me you'd have rather gone back to your room and complained about it! Then sat around in the lounge all day and waited till it was time for lunch, and spent another day doing nothing while other people took care of everything for you!"

By now, Nira was biting her lip, nervously tapping her fingers together. "But… but, it's not that bad, right? I mean it's not like Azula needs all that medicine now. You still have time to make more…"

"Yeah, I'll just go ahead and make more!" Isla said. "While you three sit around filing your nails, I'll stay up all night stewing bases and sifting powder. Or maybe one of you want to take my place for a change? Instead of whining all day that Dr. Low won't make everything better for you -" she glared at Mira, "- complaining about your keys, and how stupid all this psychology stuff is, why don't you actually try doing the job he told you to do?"

Mira blinked in shock. "What? What are you talking about? I do my job!" She looked at Nira. "Tell me I don't do my job!"

"Neither of you do your job!" Isla cut in. "You two act like you're in school! You act like if you wheel your patient into room one, room two, do a talk for a few minutes, do some exercises later, then everything will be fine! I suppose she's supposed to heal herself, then, for the rest of the day while you spend your time gossiping? Or were you just waiting for Dr. Low to start his therapy sessions with her and take the load off your schedules?"

By now the room was dead silent. Mira's cheeks had flushed red, and Nira's head was bowed. From beside Azula, Kira gave a sigh. "All right, Isla, I understand you're upset-"

"Upset?" Isla glanced at Kira. "My, has it finally gotten to you?" She turned around and scooped all the emptied bottles into her arms. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be in the storage room. But don't expect me to have anything ready by tomorrow. I'm not a miracle worker..." She pushed the door aside with her foot and stormed out.

Once she was gone, Nira looked up. "Wow. I never knew she could get that angry…"

Mira scowled, still pink in the face. "Hmph. It's not like she never forgot to lock anything..." Grumbling, the nurse strolled out without another word.

Nira was left standing by the door uncertainly, and Kira sighed, placing a hand on the back of Azula's wheelchair. "You can go, Nira. I'll take it from here."

Nira nodded and left the room.

Left alone with Azula, Kira closed the door and knelt down in front of her. She sat up so that their faces were level, and waited until Azula was looking right into her eyes. "You have to stop doing this, honey," she said. "We're here to help you. Everything we're doing here, everything we have here, is for your own good. Dr. Low already told you that the war is over. There's nothing left to fight over. If there's still some enemy running around in your imagination, or some battle you feel you have to finish, then you'd best let it go. If you want to go home, then congratulations, because you're already here. There is absolutely nothing for you to be doing anywhere else. Your brother has given Dr. Low a royal decree that you aren't to leave this hospital until you regain all of your physical and mental faculties. Which, if you keep on sabotaging your treatment, won't be for a long time."

With that, Kira stood up. She left the room, and once the door fell closed behind her, Azula uncrossed her arms. She reached into her pocket, looked down at Mira's second set of keys in her palm, and smiled.

Azula lowered her hand down to the leg straps and felt around for one of the locks. The energy that had slowly been building up inside of her since the physical therapy session had now intensified to a tangible flow. She gathered up her focus, felt the mysterious stir of the chi-current inside of her, which this time produced a familiar hum of heat that radiated to her palm. The tiny lock began to melt, and with a click, she pulled the strap free of the deformed metal.

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« Reply #12 on: May 22, 2017 09:57 am »

She did this to all the others, moving up from her legs to her torso, until finally, all of the straps had drooped to the floor. Azula pushed herself to her feet, and for the first time in weeks, walked away in freedom.

She left the bedroom, tiptoed past the closets and lounge, and slipped through the middle door that hung ajar by a few inches. She passed the therapy rooms and the other doors in the second wing, quickening her pace to the door at the very end of the hallway. She tried Mira's keys on the lock, but none of them worked. Whispering a curse, she glanced over her shoulder. People had begun to move behind the middle door.

She stepped back from the door and approached the nearest one, to her left. She pressed her ear against it, but heard nothing inside. Azula began to try the lock, and on the third key, the door popped open.

Bating her breath, Azula peeked inside. She saw a gray sunlit wall, but there appeared to be no moving shadows, so she slipped inside and closed the door behind her. The floor was made of cold stone, and there were large steel air filters on the ceiling. Farther in, there were a few tea tables and bookshelves, which didn't look one bit at home with their carved wooden frames.

Azula continued to walk in small steps. At the very end, the room swerved off and led into another one that she couldn't fully see. But the deeper in she went, the more she began to distinguish the sound of rushing wind - the same sound she had heard when she had listened at her window. She passed more mismatched decorations as she went along - a carpet, a table, some vases atop an empty bookshelf. All the while, her eyes followed the rays of light on the floor until she finally found their source - a large window on a far wall. It was covered by a set of curtains, and nothing else.

Slowly, Azula approached it. The sound of rushing wind grew louder, as did the beating of her heart. She took long, slow steps, until finally, she reached for the curtains and pulled them open. A flood of bright, golden sunlight spilled into the room. The amber in her eyes lit up, her pupils contracted, and her dull hair stood out in sudden, shining contrast to her paled face. And finally she realized that the sounds she had taken to be wind hadn't been wind at all.

They were waves.

Azula found herself staring out at a vast open sea, which stretched out in every direction and went on towards the horizon without speck of land in sight.

Breath quickening, Azula turned and ran on, following the sequence of large, doorless rooms. Soon, the scattered furniture and decorations ceased entirely, leaving vast barren spaces whose walls were lined with steel pipes, gaping chutes, and large ventilators. Small, square windows were dispersed every now and then on the wall to her right, revealing the same sea, the same empty sky. At the very end of the wing was a final empty space, hardly even a room, headed by a large rectangular window with no curtains. Azula stopped before it, again met by the shoreline, where calm waves were lapping just a short distance from the building. They were framed by a stripe of spotless gray sand.

From somewhere far away, a door closed.

"Wait, where's my other key ring?" said Mira.


"What do you mean?" Nira replied.

"I thought I had it with me."

"I think you left it in Azula's room. Check there."

A pause.

"What in the world… what happened to the wheelchair?"


Doors began to slam. Azula took a few steps away from the window, feeling her surroundings spin and blur as the cold claws of realization tightened around her. All of a sudden, the faraway door to the hidden room banged open. A horde of people rushed inside, following Azula's trail, finally spilling into the room she was standing in. Azula turned around, hardly aware of her own shaking, meeting a tide of white uniforms and widened eyes. Her face contorted.


One of the nurses stepped towards her and reached out. "Azula!"

But it was too late. Azula punched her fist forward with all the fury she could muster, and the emotion materialized in a blast of bright blue fire. The nurses screamed and scattered to opposite sides of the room. Azula launched another blast, and some of them countered it, throwing up shields of red flame that mixed in with the blue and dissipated. From the flurry of smoke, Kira stepped forward, arms poised in a firebending form. "Everyone corner her! Isla, get some tranquilizing mist."

Isla ducked out of the room and ran away, just in time as Azula released another blast at the nurses who were still standing by the door. She punched fire at the walls, trying to pin down the scampering figures, countering the feeble spurts of their flames with torrents of her own. She no longer registered their faces or what they were saying behind the screams. At that moment she was back in the Agni Kai arena, her flames surging with the rhythm of her emotions, her mind blocked of everything save for the attacks of her opponents and her own roaring fire. The temperature in the room spiked, the air became so thick with smoke that even she began to have trouble breathing, but she continued to take in the heat, sucking it in with every breath and channeling it back out through her hands. An onslaught of red fire blasts came to her from various corners of the room, and Azula spun a cocoon of blue flames around herself to block them. Then before the fires could fade, she leaned forward and rocketed herself out of the room. She skated for a few seconds over the floor, then landed on her feet and began to run back in the direction of the hallway. She scorched everything in her sight as she went - the walls, the floor, the furniture - leaving behind black char marks and melted edges.

She reached the hallway in a cloud of smoke, footsteps pounding from behind her. Doors began to swing open on all sides, but they were immediately closed in defense as Azula hurled a large flame whip at the floor. Some nurses caught up with her and tried to attack, kicking her in the back and trying to grasp her arms. Dee the therapist sprang out from the side and began to tap at her shoulders, trying to chi block her, but Azula hit her with a blazing blue fist, making her fall back, throwing up a veil of red flames just in time to shield herself.

Azula ran on, throwing flares and comet-balls in every direction, grabbing the melted knobs of doors and wrenching them open. There was another broom closet. A shower room. A barrack-like wing with lots of bunk beds. The nurses tried to pull her away from the rooms at first, but gradually they began to cow away from her attacks, first falling behind her then desperately trying to catch up. Blurred with tears and smoke, Azula's gaze locked on the dead-end door on the other side of the hallway. She rocketed herself towards it, shooting forward at such speed that she collided with the door and fell to her knees. She removed Mira's set of keys from the pocket of her jumpsuit and began to try the lock. On the third key, the lock turned, and Azula pulled open the door.

The room that opened itself up before her was large, empty, and gray, with square windows lining the opposite wall. There was a small hallway swerving off to the right, leading to a place Azula couldn't see. Sounds of calm conversation and footsteps rose up from somewhere beyond it, gradually growing louder and drawing close. Moments later, Dr. Low stepped into view, one hand calmly tucked behind his back, the other raised to his chin as he talked something over with a man who walked beside him, a simple construction worker. Upon seeing Azula, both of them stopped. Dr. Low frowned in surprise, then as a rush of footsteps approached Azula from behind, his eyes widened.

Shaking and sobbing, Azula stepped towards him. "I'm going to kill you!"

She extended two forefingers on both hands and began to arc them through the air, creating a burst of electric sparks that weaved into long threads in the air. Sounds of electricity hummed and crackled as the threads grew into bolts, making her hair stand up and illuminating the doctor's frozen face. Azula weaved the bolts faster, gradually getting the lightning poised for the striking point.

From behind, there was a series of muffled sounds as someone pushed their way through the crowd. "I have the mist - oh dear Raava!"

But Isla's exclamation came too late. Azula lifted an arm and shot forward the bolt, letting the lightning course through the path she had made in her body. But right before the bolt escaped, her head split open with pain, a wave so strong that her eyes widened and she gave a cry. Reflexively, Azula's hands flew to her head, and instead of shooting its target, the lightning retracted, surrounding her in a cage and disappearing. Azula's knees gave way, and right then the world she had managed to hold still for those few seconds came crashing down on her. The tide of nurses rushed forward to sweep around her, blocking the ceiling light with their heads, their voices swarming around her in a chorus. In their midst she saw the hazy maroon shape of Dr. Low appear over her, relaying rapid instructions. All the while Azula lay curled up on the floor, clutching her hammering head, tears streaming down her face.

At that moment, a familiar voice spoke out from somewhere far away.

"I love you, Azula. I do."

A hot, bitter wave ripped through her, this time in her chest, and the tears began to gush with greater intensity. Azula's moans became screams. "No! Go away! GET AWAY FROM ME!"

But this time, she couldn't suppress it. The woman from the dream swam into her mind, flooding her with her presence, firing up the old places of pain and anger that formed the deep, ravaged wound inside of her. It rose up around her like a valley - filled with gnarled thoughts, splintered memories, cracked by the sheer force of the anger she had hurled at them. She sank deeper and deeper into its depths, while the real world blurred behind a flood of tears, then suddenly a heavy blanket dropped over her and everything went black.

(End of Chapter 5)
« Last Edit: Oct 14, 2018 08:16 am by Icy_Ashford » Logged

Tamerlan Pahlavi
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Pride above all

« Reply #13 on: Jun 13, 2017 01:00 pm »

Hey, I didn't get a response from you on the PM in a long time so I thought you forgot all about it or were just really busy. I stumbled upon the fanfic board just a day ago. Sorry it didn't occur to me to check earlier.

Hope you haven't become discouraged because it's still really good and quite enjoyable to read. The sudden mid-fight breakdown at the end of chapter five was quite a nice touch. Must have been quite a shock for Azula to find out she's trapped in the middle of nowhere. I guess the accommodation for the staff isn't too good either otherwise they wouldn't bicker and complain so much. Guess our "hero" will find a way to exploit it in some way. She's making it really hard for the staff to trust her, doesn't she Cheesy Anyway, would be interesting to find out more about the head doctor, his past and approach to his patients and if there are any more on the island. Maybe Azula is a test subject of sorts for that institution. Makes me curious as to what inspired the title of your story.

I'll definitely read more. Don't be afraid to give me a heads up. I might be working or commuting most of the day but I can make time for something I really like, and I like your writing Smiley

There is no refuge but in audacity. No salvation other than in strength.

"It is better to live one hundred years in wealth than seven days in poverty." - Bob Rock
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« Reply #14 on: Jun 17, 2017 04:28 am »

I haven't forgotten about your PM, and I'm so sorry it's taken me so long to reply! I finally have some free time on my hands, so I'll do it right now after this reply and post the next chapter. Smiley

You're right in observing that the accommodation isn't very good for the staff either, and I tried to show a bit of the squalor they have to live in during Azula's sneaking about. You'll get to see how the whole thing unravels very soon, though in the next chapter will be taking a bit of an excursion... into the past. The doctor and nurses will be sticking around in the spotlight for a while, so we'll definitely get to learn more about them. At this point, the nurses don't really trust her, but the doctor might find a way to get through to her.

As for the title of the story... hehe. That wasn't what inspired it, though it's somewhat close. I won't go into detail about that, though, because the original version of this story had a slightly narrower focus plot-wise, and that original inspiration would no longer be accurate to the story as it is now. But the reason I kept the title was because it grew to have meaning in the current version, one that will gradually become clear. Think of the different possible ways in which the word 'subject' can be used and you'll be thinking in the right direction.

Thanks for the review! Again, I'm really sorry for the delays, both story-wise and reply-wise, but you don't have to worry that I'll ever be giving up on this story!

6. Mother

The first person to call Azula evil had been her brother, Zuko. But one had to put the situation in context. Azula had been three, Zuko four. Even at that age, Azula had begun to show an unusual proficiency in firebending, though at that point its only manifestation was an ability to sustain flames for long periods of time. Her hands, as people remarked, were like little candles. She would press the thumb and forefingers of each hand together into a wick and make flames for fun, sometimes throwing them up into the air and watching them dissipate. When she realized that fire left burn marks on wood, she began to scorch the walls and floor of her room to create various designs and drawings. And she's always give a sullen sigh when Ursa or the servants reprimanded her for it.

The only other firebender she could spend a sufficient amount of time with was Zuko, so Azula would always pester him to play with her. Zuko would tolerate her for an hour or so, but then their games would always disintegrate into the same scenario – Azula igniting flames with her hands and chasing Zuko around the house. She badly wanted to play Agni Kai with him, because she heard it involved firebending, but Zuko scowled and said that she had no idea what she was talking about.

"It's a duel, Azula. Not a game."

"Then duel me!" Azula said. "Come on, Zuzu! Let's see who can make the biggest fire!"

Zuko didn't always comply with her requests, saying he had more important things to do like read or study. But he ran when she chased him, and to her, that was enough. Though what Azula really wanted was for Zuko to stop running one day and turn around to play with her.

Once, while she was chasing him around the tree by turtle duck pond, Azula thought of a way to get Zuko's attention and fired a small flame at his back. She had meant to do it lightly, but Zuko still yowled and fell down. Azula came to a stop beside him, thinking that her plan had worked, but when Zuko stood up, he was blushing and fuming.

"You're evil, Azula," he said. And with that, he stomped away.

Something had emptied inside of her right then, and Azula began to wonder if she had been playing the villain the whole time. But after a moment, she pushed the worry aside. If she had to be the villain, then she would enjoy it. And then it wouldn't matter what Zuko thought about her.

Azula would enjoy being evil, which meant that she would keep chasing Zuko around the yard, only this time just to have him run from her, keep making secret drawings on her walls despite Ursa telling her not to, and cross her arms when her servants reprimanded her instead of hanging her head. She pretended that they didn't know what they were talking about, that they simply didn't care to try to understand her.

Still, at certain points, she'd get tired of it. She'd want to just sit around calmly and have Zuko show her things of his own accord, telling her about what he was learning from his tutors. She'd want Ursa to look at something she wrote and see a warm smile on her face, not just because she had done it on paper this time. She didn't want to have to shoot flames to get people's attention.


Posts merged to maximize the character limit. ~ Icy
« Last Edit: Jun 17, 2017 09:42 am by Icy_Ashford » Logged

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« Reply #15 on: Jun 17, 2017 04:32 am »

By the time Azula turned five, her parents decided to send her to a Fire Nation school instead of keeping her in the palace with private instructors. They had done the same for Zuko a couple years prior, in order to expose him more to society and get him to start making a name for himself among the sons of the other nobles. After considering several options for Azula, Ursa and Ozai finally settled on the Fire Nation Academy for Young Ladies. It was elite, meaning that Azula would be surrounded by girls who could be considered her peers. It was prestigious, meaning that she would be taught by the best and brightest teachers in the Fire Nation. And it was located right in the upper city, so she could walk home at the end of the day and take her firebending lessons in the courtyard. Those were the only private-taught lessons she'd have left, for Ozai would never entrust them to anyone he didn't personally appoint.

Azula had always enjoyed her private lessons, most of all the feeling of connection and closeness she had attained with her tutors. They had been like her guardians. They spent time alone with her for hours, guiding her on countless journeys through history and literature, arts and science. They were all specialists in their fields, and despite having similarly taught many other children in the past, they set on educating her as if she were their only student. They carefully honed her ability to think and create, challenging her and correcting her, as if she were a developing artwork being molded into a masterpiece. She had been somewhat downcast to see them leave, and wasn't sure that she would ever get the same intimate feeling in a classroom. But on the upside, the prospect of meeting other girls her age brought her the excitement of novelty.

As the days went by leading up to the start of school, Azula spent more and more time looking over outfits from her closet and going through the blank scrolls in her writing desk, wondering how she would look next to the other girls and how her abilities would compare to theirs. Finally, on the first day of school, she and Ursa got up early, left the palace on foot, and set out into the calm, sunny streets of Capital City. They had left their customary headpieces at home and had opted for more reserved clothing, and now walked hand-in-hand like any normal mother and daughter.

Even in simplicity, Ursa possessed a lightness and elegance that was almost otherworldly. She wasn't a firebender, and yet she radiated life, imbibing it into every space she occupied. She couldn't stand on her hands, but on her feet she seemed as graceful as an acrobat. She probably couldn't defend herself against a horde of attackers, but the world would mourn if she got hurt.

With her father, Azula felt safe and coveted, comforted by the strong, protective aura that his presence gave off. But with her mother, she felt vulnerable and small, like a tiny bug squinting up at the brilliant sun. She could fell its warmth around her, treasured its presence, and yet was awed at how it could care for something so little.

Azula was walking at her mother's side now, keeping a tight grip on her hand, actively scanning her surroundings.

"So what's the building supposed to look like?" she asked. "Is it big?"

Ursa, who was looking around as well, replied a moment later. "Well, I haven't seen it myself, but from what the scouts told me, it's built for about five hundred girls."

Azula's mouth fell open. "Five hundred?"

Ursa smiled. "Well, imagine if about a fourth of the number of people at the Fire Lord's birthday gala had daughters your age. That's how many girls will be in your level group. And then those level groups are divided into about three class groups that take all their classes together. So, for most of the time it'll be you and maybe fifteen other girls."

Azula nodded. "Okay. I guess fifteen doesn't sound as bad... Was that what your school was like, too?"

Ursa gave a moment's pause. "Hm. Well, sort of. My class group was about twenty kids, me included. But we lived in a very small town, so that was the only class group for kids our age. We ended up getting very close."

"Will I get close to the girls in my class too?"

"Of course! Just give it some time, and you'll see how much all of them have to offer in terms of companionship, and how much you have to offer too. Remember - you're more than just the princess. You're also a girl like everyone else, so don't be afraid to just talk about your interests or your life if you want to. Don't worry about ranks."

Azula nodded. "Yeah, I won't. And anyway, it sounds like being in school will be a lot more interesting than being cooped up in the palace all day. I could talk about that."

Ursa laughed. "That could be a start."

They continued walking straight down the road, until Azula noticed a large, pointed roof emerge from behind a row of trees. Ursa quickened her pace, and together they veered onto a stone-paved path that led into a spacious courtyard. Up ahead, a large building greeted them atop a platform, with clean white walls, shuttered windows, and a pagoda roof with raised eaves.

"Here we are!" Ursa said. "We might even be a little early... Let's take a peek inside."

They ascended the steps to the building, where Ursa lifted one of the gold door knockers and struck it against the wood a few times. Moments later, one of the doors opened and a man in robes stepped out and bowed to them.

"Welcome. My name is Gao. I am the schoolmaster."

"Hello, Master Gao. My daughter is registered." Ursa reached into an inner pocket of her robe and pulled out a scroll.

The schoolmaster unfurled it to read the papers inside and bowed again. "Ah, yes. It is an honor, Princess Ursa. Then he turned to Azula and inclined his head. "Princess Azula, you are the first arrival this morning. The other girls should be arriving in a few minutes. In the meantime, you may make yourself comfortable."

He opened the door wider, leading them into a sumptuously-decorated entrance room. It had a carpet, vases, and several benches along the walls. But there wasn't a single student or parent inside.

Azula and Ursa stopped somewhere in the middle of the room, and Master Gao was about to leave through a door in the back. But Azula stepped after him.

"Wait, Master Gao?"

The master turned back to her. "Yes?"

"Don't tell anyone I'm the princess," Azula said, after a moment of thought. "And don't bow to me. I'll tell them myself."

"Of course."

He gave a small final bow and left, and once the two of them were alone, Ursa knelt down to face Azula.

"I'll come for you in the afternoon, so you can tell me how everything went." She placed her hands on Azula's shoulders and kissed her on the nose. "I love you."

Azula started to look down, but something in her mother's smile tugged her gaze back up and coaxed a sheepish smile out of her. She met Ursa in a quick hug. "I love you too. I'll see you!"

Ursa smiled warmly and stood up. She walked away towards the entrance door, gave a final little wave, and started back down the steps.
Left alone, Azula took a seat on one of the side benches and waited, hands in her lap, for the other girls to start coming in. The first ones arrived one or two at a time, flanked by one or both parents, and went through a similar process of showing a registration form to Master Gao. Soon, the other girls began to occupy the benches around Azula. Some of them sat together, obviously familiar with each other already, but others sat like she was doing now, cautious and alone. Azula calmed her anxiousness through observation, discreetly studying each girl's face and demeanor, trying to predict which of them she might end up friends with.

As the minutes went by, the room became filled with voices and became a storm of pink, red, and maroon clothing. Girls began to come in by the dozen, and soon nearly every bench had two or three occupants. For some reason, Azula's managed to stay free for a while, until at one point, she heard a faint rustle and creak of wood as someone sat down.

She looked over her shoulder to glimpse the new arrival. The girl had light brown hair that skimmed her shoulders, partially tied back in a low half-bun. She wore a brown vest over a pink sleeved shirt, a skirt, and simple, round shoes. She was currently focused on a scroll in her lap, casually tapping her toes on the floor.

Azula took a closer look at the text she was reading. It was a school brochure, something that looked like it was meant for a parent. A moment later, the girl noticed her reading and smiled.

"Hello," Azula offered.

The girl looked up at her. "Hi," she replied, kindly. She rolled the scroll up and let it rest in her lap. "I'm Kyla. What's your name?"


"It's nice to meet you, Azula."

"Its nice to meet you, too." A brief silence settled in, and Azula looked down at the scroll. "I see you had a pamphlet there. I don't think I've ever seen it before. Where did you get it?"

"Oh. They mail these out to girls who don't live around here. I live in Shu Cheng, a few miles north."

Azula nodded. She had never seen the city, but knew it was one of the closest ones to the capital crater. But strangely, she couldn't remember hearing of any nobles who had houses there. "So are your parents there right now?" she asked.

"My mom is. She's taking care of our store. But my dad works in the lower city here sometimes, and he's rented an apartment for us while classes are in session."

"Is that why they wanted you to come here?"

"Well, that's how he found out about it. But I got in on merit. They had teachers from here come and give me exams, and at the end they said I could go here."

Azula nodded. "Impressive."

"And yourself?"

"My dad's a palace noble," Azula said. "We have a house here, and this was the closest school."

Kyla smiled. "That's great!"

As they waited for the remainder of the arrivals, Azula pondered the girl she had just met. So she didn't come from a noble family, but she did have a certain solidarity about her, like the kind of person who didn't suck up to fame and riches. And though she likely wasn't very affluent, she did appear to be bright.

Azula took a moment to look around at the other girls. All of the benches were filled up by now, so many had taken to standing at the center of the room. One group that caught her eye was a septuplet of girls who appeared to be sisters, all with long, braided brown hair and similar, mainly-pink outfits. As she observed them, she realized to her surprise that they weren't just sisters, but identical twins. They all had copies of the same round face and eyes, not differing even in height. They didn't seem interested in anybody else around them, and were talking amongst each other with bubbly giggles in between. After a few minutes, Azula tore her attention away from them and back to Kyla, who had opened her scroll in the meantime and had resumed reading.

At last, Master Gao came out from his corner to the center of the room, and a line of three teachers emerged from the back door to stand beside him. The room gradually grew quiet, and when everyone had fixed their gazes on them, the teachers stepped out one by one with scrolls in their hands and read off the names of the girls who were to leave with them. The first woman took around twenty, who got into a line and followed her through the door. Then the second teacher stepped forward and called another twenty girls from their confused clump, including three of the twins, who instantly vocalized their sadness and regret, embracing with their sisters before parting. That left about twenty girls. Not wasting time, the third teacher simply stepped towards them and nodded.

"All right, the rest of you with me."

Azula and Kyla exchanged glances.

"Would you like to sit together?" asked Kyla.

Azula smiled. "Sure!"

She got up and hurried to the front of the line, taking the very first spot. Kyla stepped behind her, and once the other girls had assembled as well, they followed the woman into a hallway. She brought them into a small, orderly classroom, with wooden pair desks and a large green chalkboard. Azula immediately went to the front desk in the center row and sat down. Thankfully, Kyla didn't seem to mind the choice and sat next to her. The other tables gradually filled up, and finally, the woman closed the door.

The first lesson of the day was math. Azula found that her preparation with the tutors had been more than enough; many of the algebraic and geometric problems Mrs. Wang gave them for their initial assessment seemed like review. Kyla also seemed to be solving them well, and though she did get a few problems wrong, she immediately raised her hand and asked for clarification. After they finished correcting their work, they spent an hour doing drills, before Mrs. Wang left and Mrs. Song came in to start calligraphy.

Finally, after three lessons in the same room, it was time for lunch break. Azula and Kyla got their food from the buffet and sat down at one of the long tables, choosing spots near the middle of the room. One table behind them, the clique of seven twins all sat together, wearing various expressions of humor and delight on their identical faces. Azula watched them for a moment, mystified at how such a degree of similarity could be possible. It was actually a bit comical. But the longer she observed them, the more she found herself becoming attune to their subtle individual differences and quirks. She noticed that one of them had a slightly wider smile than her neighbor, while another gestured actively with her hands when she talked. A third was the tiniest bit shorter than the others.

At one point, another one of the twins rose from her seat and took a few steps back from the table. "Watch, Lo! This is how you do it." She lifted her hands over her head and leaned down to the floor, then a moment later her legs were hovering vertically in the air, feet bending down and touching her head. Azula nearly gaped in surprise at the fact that she would attempt a handstand in a cafeteria, but the girl didn't fall. She began to walk, moving her hands almost as if they were in fact her feet, her actual feet hovering over her head like the tail of a scorpion. She drew close to the edge of the table, right as another girl left the food line with her tray and made her way in the same direction. She had ink-black hair and wore a similarly-black vest over a red dress, and was currently looking at something in her tray. Moments later, the two of them bumped together, the acrobat's feet kicking the daydreamer in the head, and the contents of the girl's tray splattering all over her clothes.

The black-haired girl could do nothing but gape, her now-empty tray hanging loosely from her hand. The acrobat immediately got out of the pose and stood upright, and when she saw what she had done, she clamped her hands over her mouth. "Oh no! I'm so sorry!"

The black-haired girl clenched her jaw. "Why don't you watch where you're going?"

"I will, I will!" The girl picked up an apple that had fallen to the floor and put it back onto the tray. "Don't be so mad, okay?"

"I'll be what I want to be, thanks." The black-haired girl brushed the brown-haired girl's hand away and went back to the food line, fuming.

Kyla, who had also been watching the scene, met Azula's gaze. "That was mean."

"No, it was just stupid," Azula said. "They should have both watched where they were going."

Kyla shrugged. The two of them ate in silence for another minute, then Kyla looked up at her anew. "So, are you a firebender?"

Azula's lips spread into a smile. "Yes." She made a small red flame from her palm, then absorbed it. "Are you?"

Kyla smiled too. "Yeah. It's weird, because neither of my parents were. They had one of my neighbors back in Shu Cheng teach me some basics, but I didn't have a good tutor."

"You should get one while you're here," Azula said. "I have Master Kunyo. He's one of the best in the city. The upper city."

Azula's smile had widened without her realizing it. Kyla responded with a conversational nod. "That's great!"

Azula rested her arms on the table and continued. "I've been practicing fire rings for the past few weeks. That's when you spin your flames into a big loop and keep it going for as long as you can. It's supposed to build up your endurance for moves that require more power. Now I can make mine as tall as I am and hold it up for an entire minute. Master Kunyo says that's really good - it means I'm ready for more advanced forms, so next week he'll start teaching me flame whips."

Kyla took a sip of juice from her cup and nodded.

"So what can you do?" Azula asked.

Kyla shrugged. "Just make fire, I guess. I can melt wax and toss little fireballs from one hand to the other. It's almost like I'm juggling."

"Do you know any forms?"


"Really? Well, you'll have to learn eventually. There are different levels of firebending, and the forms of each level are sort of like the gateway to mastering the moves on that level."

Kyla lifted an eyebrow. "There are levels for firebending?"

Azula nodded. "Of course! There's the first level, which is when you manipulate an external source of fire in your environment, and the second level, which is when you produce your own fire. It's important to distinguish, because each one requires you to utilize your chi in a different way. The second level has lots of its own subdivisions too, because there are different ways you can produce fire."

Kyla considered this for a moment, finally frowning. "That sounds complicated."

"I could teach you about it if you want," Azula offered. "I could show you all the forms I know. We could even practice together. I have a courtyard that's pretty big, and it's the perfect place to train."

Kyla gave a one-shoulder shrug. "Well, okay, sure!"

They sank back into silence. Azula started to wonder what else she could say. But Kyla didn't seem particularly moved by the conversation topic; she seemed content to just sit there and look around at things. In the back of her mind, Azula pondered saying more about her other tutors, perhaps slowly hinting at who she was so that Kyla would be curious enough to draw conclusions. Getting the girl interested in her wouldn't be hard - Azula was sure that from one palanquin ride, Kyla would flip out and cling to her for the rest of the school year like a perfect sidekick. But for some reason, the prospect bored her. After all, there were only so many wonders of royal life she could unveil before Kyla's commoner eyes before she ran out, and was stuck sitting silently with the girl just as she was doing now.

When it was time for the next class, she and Kyla took away their trays and followed their class group to the art room. The teacher had set up easels and paint sets for each person, and their first assignment was free-form. Azula took one of the easels at the front again, and Kyla sat at the one next to her. Azula found that she was better at drawing too, but Kyla diligently kept at it with her unpracticed hand, drawing tropical flowers and beaches, not paying anyone else any mind.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #16 on: Jun 17, 2017 04:33 am »

Azula and Kyla stuck together until the end of the school day, which was marked by four bangs of a gong at two o'clock. The departures were staggered by age group; the girls in the oldest level group left first, signaled by one strike, the second-oldest half an hour later, signaled by two strikes, and so on. The courtyard was almost completely empty when Azula and Kyla stepped out, the girls from the other classes pouring out alongside them. Kyla squinted at the entrance gates and suddenly perked up. "Oh! There's my dad!" Kyla lifted her arm and waved, and Azula followed her gaze to see a man waving back at her near the entrance. She couldn't make out much of him, just similar brown hair and a smiling face. He gestured for Kyla to come over.

"He took a break from work to pick me up," Kyla explained. "We have to hurry."

Azula nodded. "Okay. Bye!"


Kyla ran off. Feeling for some reason freer, Azula slowed her pace, looking around at the other girls. Some of them collected around the benches, others proceeded through the gates to walk home alone. After standing in place for a moment, she continued along the path towards the exit, starting on a session of contemplation. She was just about to step out onto the street when someone ran up from behind and took her hand. Azula whirled around, surprised to such a degree that it took her a moment to recognize her mother within the dark red cloak.


Ursa lowered her hood to her shoulders, revealing her long brown hair and topknot. "Azula! Didn't you see me? I was sitting right on that bench by the two trees." She pointed back to a spot beside the building.

Azula looked askance. "Oh. I guess I wasn't paying attention... I forgot you were going to pick me up."

"That's all right." Ursa smiled and put an arm around Azula's shoulder. "So, how was your day?"

Azula shrugged. "It was okay."

"Did you make any friends?"

"One. Her name's Kyla. She was the one I was walking with, if you saw. She left with her dad just now."

Ursa smiled. "That's wonderful! What is she like?"

"Well, she's from Shu Cheng. She's a firebender. And she likes reading."

"Maybe you could invite her over sometime. You could show her the palace library."

Azula smiled. "Yeah, she'd probably love that."

Ursa looked down at the wrapped-up scroll Azula was holding. "What have you got there?"

"Oh. It's just something I drew for art class." Azula unrolled it and showed Ursa the drawing. The teacher had told them they could draw anything they wanted, as long as it was 'naturalistic'. But she hadn't known what to draw, so in the end she settled for the thing she knew best - a Fire Nation noble.

Ursa took it to examine it closer and lifted her eyebrows. "Wow. This is very good, Azula. You really have a talent for faces."

"You think so?"

"Mhm! I think we might've cancelled with your art tutor a bit too soon."

"I did draw a few people with her a while ago," Azula said. "I could show you if you want."

Ursa gave her a strange look, surprised yet smiling. "I'll always want to see what you make, darling. All you have to do is call me over!"

Azula smiled. "Yeah. I know." Ursa gave her back the scroll and she rolled it up again, taking Ursa's hand in the other. They left the school property and made their way down the streets, backtracking along the path they had walked that morning. A silence settled over them as they walked, only now Azula noticed how it didn't make her feel desperate to fill it up as it had with Kyla. It was a feeling Azula didn't expect, since she and Ursa spent relatively little time alone together. In fact, it had always seemed that Ursa spent more time with Zuko, which Azula had always surmised was because Zuko was the firstborn, the one she had known longer. But maybe that didn't matter. She was still her daughter, after all.

"So, was the food all right?" Ursa asked, a minute later. For some reason she had taken an interest in what kinds of meals would be served in each of the prospective schools, even sending the scouts to tour the kitchens.

Azula nodded. "Yeah, the food was great. I asked the cooks, and they said they used only the freshest, most seasonal vegetables, just like you wanted."

"Wonderful. You know, you don't know how lucky you are to have your school serve food. Everyone in my school either brought their own lunch or waited till they got home."



"That sounds like a lot of work to have to make your lunch every morning! What kind of school was it?"

"Well, it wasn't an all-girls school like this one. It had both boys and girls in one classroom."

"What was it called?"

Ursa gave a shrug. "I guess it wasn't really called anything. It was just 'school' to us."


Another silence settled over them, and Azula began to ponder Ursa's words. It had always seemed strange, imagining her mother as a child. From the few scattered stories Ursa had told her and Zuko, her childhood seemed to have passed like a long summer day, a haze of friendships, conversations, and adventures. And though Azula could still remember a few of those anecdotes, for some reason she never remembered hearing Ursa mention the name of her hometown or the names of her parents. In truth, it seemed almost illogical to think that she had even had them, had ever been anything other than the singular, gracefully-robed figure beside her.

After a moment, Ursa looked down at her again. "So did you tell Kyla you were the princess?"

"No." Azula briefly cast her glance off to the side. "I don't want people to like me just for my title. I want them to care for who I am as a person. But if I tell them I'm the princess, that's all they'll think about when they talk to me."

"Well, it doesn't have to be that way, necessarily. If someone's a friend worth having, then they'll value you for who you are from the beginning. And they won't change their opinion if you reveal your status." Ursa paused. "But for what it's worth, I think you made the right decision."


Ursa smiled. "Yes. It shows the girls that you're that kind of person too."

Azula smiled in return, and for the first time since morning, she felt uplifted.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #17 on: Jun 17, 2017 04:36 am »

The next morning, Azula and Ursa left the palace for the second day of school. The process was similar to the first one - Ursa parted with her in the front room and Azula proceeded to her first classroom, sitting down at the same front table, where Kyla arrived a minute later. Then, a few hours later, the class got up for lunch, and Kyla and Azula went to the food line. Kyla made a passing remark about a firebending move she had recently tried to copy from a scroll, albeit unsuccessfully. Azula, who had mastered the move some months ago, began to explain her own method and her theories about why it hadn't worked for Kyla. She was cut off by the server when their turn in line came, and after Kyla had gotten her food, Azula approached her and continued.

"As I was saying, after I did it the second time, I realized that the key was to focus on timing your inhalations and exhalations with the rhythm of each fire blast. I did it the next day for Master Kunyo and he said that it came out perfectly."

But Kyla lifted a hand, looking exhausted. "It's okay, Azula, really. I was just trying to do it for fun."

Azula paused, nevertheless feeling the end of her unfinished sentence pushing its way out. "But I was just saying, if you had worked on retraining your breath first like I did, then - "

Kyla sighed again, this time impatiently. "Azula, it's okay. I get that it was easy for you and everything, but first of all, I'm not the one with a master tutor and second, I'm not trying to become a master fighter. I'm just doing it for fun."

Azula narrowed her eyes. "You can't do stuff like that for fun. You have to take it seriously."

"Well, I did it for fun."

"You can't."

Kyla lifted her eyebrows, as if in affront. "Yes, Azula. I can."

Azula kept looking at Kyla, suddenly feeling an inexplicable rise of anger mixed with frustration. She lifted her nose. "Well then you'll never be good at it."

Kyla frowned. "Says who?"

"Every professional firebender in history."

"Well, I told you, I'm not trying to be a professional."

Azula grumbled. But she was at a loss for what else to say, so she simply muttered a "Whatever," and followed Kyla to the table. The girls sat across from each other, Azula maintaining a stolid silence, but moments later it was broken as another girl appeared over Kyla's shoulder. "Hi Kyla!"

Kyla glanced at the new arrival and smiled. "Oh, hi, Ji-Lan! This is my friend, Azula."

The girl smiled. "Hi Azula!"

Azula greeted the girl, who proceeded to sit down next to Kyla. Apparently, they had met while walking to school that morning. Ji-Lan lived in the lower city and got in on merit as well. The two of them began to talk, and as if by magic, their few initial words ignited a spark of conversation. First they talked about their houses, then a play that had recently been put on in one of the lower-city theaters, which somehow both of them had seen, albeit on two separate days. Azula listened to them, playing with her chopsticks, while the girls spoke practically without pause.

"By the end of the first act, I knew something about the merchant was off," said Ji-Lan. "There was just no way he could have known all of those things if he hadn't been in on the plan."

"Yeah, I had a feeling like that too, but it took me a bit longer to come around to believing it," Kyla replied. Then she lowered her voice. "Also, I thought the actor who played him was really cute."

Ji-Lan lifted her eyebrows. "Really? So did I!"

Kyla clapped her hands together and the two girls began to giggle, blushing.

"I like plays," Azula spoke up. "My parents take us to see Love Amongst Dragons every year. We go to Ember Island on vacation."

Ji-Lan looked at her. "Ember Island? Nice!"

"Where is that?" asked Kyla.

"It's off the northwestern coast," said Azula.

"It's a really popular resort," Ji-Lan added. "The Fire Lord even owns a house there."

Azula smiled slightly. Technically, it wasn't Azulon's house; it had been built by her father and was occupied mainly by them, though it was still considered property of the entire royal household. She was debating on whether or not to point this out, but the girls kept talking.

"So, the people who take vacations there are mostly nobles?" Kyla asked.

"Well, not really," Ji-Lan continued. "I mean, there are a lot of nobles, but there are plenty of regular people, too. They even have umbrellas and chairs that you can rent out and use for a whole day if you don't have your own."

"Wow! Maybe I should get my parents to go sometime."

"Yeah, totally!"

Soon after, the lunch break ended. Kyla and Ji-Lan stood up with their trays, and although they waited for Azula to join them near the exit, she found it much too easy to hang back and listen to them talk. Then Ji-Lan left to go with another class group, and Kyla returned to Azula's side. The entrancing spell broke, and the silence returned, and they spent the rest of their classes together exchanging their usual sparse words.

The next day, Azula decided to do something before her alliance with Kyla could cement into a routine. She sat at a desk two rows back in their morning classroom, hoping it would pass as a casual change of seating. The other girls didn't seem to mind and rearranged themselves around her, but when Kyla arrived a few minutes later, she looked at Azula in puzzlement. "Why are you sitting there?"

"I think I see better here," Azula said.

"Oh. Well, okay. I'll stay at the front then, if that's all right with you."

"No problem!"

Azula watched Kyla sit down at the front, sighing inwardly. The remark about her vision was a lie, of course; she desperately wanted to be at the front, for it was where she could concentrate the best. Instead, another girl took Azula's old spot, and Azula ended up being joined by one of the twins, who immediately turned herself around towards her two sisters and began to whisper. The black-haired girl who had gotten her clothes ruined arrived shortly after, taking the table in front of Azula. Not casting so much as a wayward glance, she opened a book and began to read. The twins kept chatting, their voices growing loud, until finally, the black-haired girl turned around to them.

"Could you be a little quieter? I'm trying to read!"

The twin who was sitting next to Azula scowled. "You're not supposed to be reading in here! This is math class."

But the other twin bit her lip. "Come on, Lo, she could be right. The teacher will come in soon. We shouldn't get too loud."

"Whatever, Lee."

Azula had to smile. Lo and Li were two old ladies at the palace, known despite their lack of bending abilities as masters of the firebending art. She turned around, wanting to get a closer look at the girls. They were identical, but Lee's braid was a bit longer. Suddenly, Azula's mind made a connection - Lee was the same girl who had done that cartwheel. Even as Azula observed her now, she noticed that Lee seemed different from her sister. She was sitting with a better posture and her motions were more fluid and relaxed.

That day, at recess hour, Azula sought out Lee and found her for once alone, doing some balancing poses beneath a tree. After a moment of inward debate, Azula finally gathered up her willpower and approached her. "Hi. Would you mind showing me how you did that handstand? That scorpion pose in the cafeteria?"

Lee's face brightened. "Would I?" She clasped her hands together in elation then stepped back a few paces. "All right, here it comes!" She did the move, lightly and effortlessly, and when she landed back on her feet and drew herself upright, Azula smiled.

"You're very good!"

Lee smiled back. "Thanks!" She looked over her shoulder. "My sisters think I'm overdoing it. But I keep trying to teach them."

"You're Lee, right?" Azula ventured. "I heard you and your sisters talking in calligraphy class. Her name was Lo?"

The girl smiled. "Almost. I'm Ty-Lee. My sister is Ty-Lo. But we call each other Lo and Lee sometimes because it's shorter. What's your name?"


"A-zu-la." Ty-Lee brightened. "Hey, just like Fire Lord Azulon!"

Azula smiled. "That's right."

Ty-Lee tilted her head. "I wish my parents were creative like that. They had seven chances to come up with something nice, but they seem to like keeping things simple."

"What are your other sisters called?"

"Well, there's Ty-Min, Ty-Lin, and Ty-Wu, but they went to the other class group. Here it's just me, Ty-Lo, Ty-Lan, and Ty-La." She shrugged. "I'm the second youngest. Ty-La was born a minute after me."

Azula covered a smile with her hand. "Wow. That's a big family. I just have an older brother."

Ty-Lee smiled. "I wish I had a brother." A moment later, she crinkled her nose comically. "Not six of them, though!"

Both girls burst into laughter.

At that point, one of the teachers banged a gong four times to call everyone back to class.

Ty-Lee turned. "You're in art class with me, aren't you? Let's sit together!"

"Sure!" Azula said.

They went into drawing class, where the teacher had set up easels for pairs of two. Azula and Ty-Lee collaborated on a drawing of a wacky platypus-bear. Azula gave him Fire Lord Azulon's hair and beard, and Ty-Lee added a pink dress and a polka-dotted tail. They could hardly contain their giggles. The teacher passed by them and pressed a finger to her lips, which only made them giggle harder.

Meanwhile, the teacher continued towards the back of the room and stopped beside the black-haired girl, who sat alone. "It appears you don't have a partner." She looked at the class list. "Ah, I see. Min is out sick, so tomorrow you'll be paired with someone else. Or do you want to join a group now?"

"No, thank you," the girl answered. "I'm fine."

Recognizing her voice, Azula looked askance and watched the girl paint for a moment. Once it was time to leave class, the teacher walked around the easels and gave everyone a grade. The paintings were mostly basic and sloppy, and received mediocre '2's or '3's. But as the class left the room, Azula passed by the dark-haired girl's easel and looked at her drawing, which had been marked with the number '5', the highest possible. She had drawn a roaring dragon, with glistening scales and a rippling snarl.

Beside her, Ty-Lee gave a quiet gasp. "Wow. That's really good."

Azula nodded in agreement.


The next day, Azula sat with Ty-Lee during their morning lessons and met with her during the recess hour. Ty-Lee didn't pester her with questions about her status, but on the other hand took a great interest in miscellaneous details from Azula's life. She smiled in a sisterly way when Azula told her about her own gymnastic training and laughed when Azula described the habits of their resident turtle duck family. In turn, Azula found out that Ty-Lee was the daughter of a businessman whose ancestor was notable for a service to the Fire Lord. Her father now managed a circuit of factories, from which he earned a fortune. Ty-Lee had the habit of bending over backwards and standing on in a bridge pose as she talked, or rolling up her legs and planting her feet onto her head when she was lying on her stomach. Even Azula, who was normally praised by her trainers for being flexible, couldn't quite manage to copy her. But instead of rubbing it in Azula's face, Ty-Lee encouraged her to try and praised what she could do.

When Ty-Lee was with her sisters, however, she was absorbed into a posse of pink clothes and brown hair. The sisters all seemed to want to stick together and expected Ty-Lee to do the same. And although Azula could tell that Ty-Lee was trying distance herself from them by developing her unique ability, habit was a hard thing to break. One day, after school, Ty-Lee called all of them over in the front yard and introduced them to Azula. Up close, the resemblance between the girls was almost unearthly. Six copies of Ty-Lee stood beside her, wearing identical smiles.

"I'm Ty-Lan," said the first one.

"I'm Ty-Wu!"

On and on it went, until the last girl finally declared: "And I'm Ty-La."

They surrounded Ty-Lee like a bouquet of identical flowers, momentarily making her vanish. Had Azula not known which one Ty-Lee was, she wouldn't have been able to tell. And right as Azula looked at her, Ty-Lee's smile faded somewhat into resigned acceptance, as if to say: Well, I guess this is how it is.

Unexpectedly, Azula felt a stir of empathy inside of her. She had never thought of herself as a wallflower, but suddenly she remembered all of those times she had been alone, or walking with Ursa and Zuko, or swallowed in a sea of nobles at some royal celebration. Her uncle and cousin always enjoyed everyone's recognition first, including the Fire Lord's, while her father stood back, just Azulon's second son and not much else. Technically, in royal terms, she wasn't all that high up. Often, during bad days, she even felt like nothing at all. But if Ty-Lee had the strength to do something about it, why couldn't she?


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #18 on: Jun 17, 2017 04:37 am »

Three weeks passed. Azula continued to hang out with Ty-Lee during free periods and sit with Kyla at lunch. They did this out of pure habit, though the more time that passed, the clearer it became to Azula that she and Kyla had nothing in common. She spent her recess hours and afternoons with Ty-Lee, while Kyla had found herself a group of other girls with whom she did the same. So now, Azula's conversations with Kyla touched upon lessons, teachers, then went dry. Soon, Kyla's new friends started drifting over to their lunch table, and Azula increasingly found herself falling passively silent, listening to a bunch of meaningless chatter about books, pets, and happy home lives. At one point, Azula looked over her shoulder and found the dark-haired girl sitting in her usual lonely place by the window. Ever since Azula had seen the dragon she drew, she had begun to harbor an interest for her. At first, the girl had seemed antisocial and withdrawn - a detrimental and unappealing combination. But now, Azula was starting to wonder if it was just an illusion. Maybe she was just in the wrong company for her true colors to show.

During the next day's lunch hour, Kyla, Ji-Lan, and the other girls entered a stimulating conversation that began even as they left the food line. They seemed sufficiently occupied, so Azula discreetly stepped away from them and made her way to the place where the quiet girl sat. She put down her plate and waited. Sure enough, when more people started coming back from the food line, the girl appeared. But when she noticed Azula, she stopped. All other areas were crowded and noisy, so she finally gave in and sat down on the opposite side, a few seats away. The gesture made Azula smile.

The girl began to eat, and Azula let the silence stretch for a while before turning to her. "I don't bite, you know. You may sit by me. If you want to avoid people, then school isn't really a good place to do it."

The girl regarded her with uninterested eyes. "Maybe I'm not trying to avoid people. Maybe I just don't feel a need to follow them around everywhere."

Azula briefly looked askance at Kyla's table. "I wish I could be like that."

The girl scowled. "What, were you'd hoping I'd teach you or something?"

"No. I was just saying."

The girl was silent for a moment. "Then why did you suddenly decide to move from there to here? Did you want to check to see if I could speak, or ask me why I'm so mad all the time?"

Her sudden rise in anger made Azula frown. "No. I'm just trying to meet new people."

The girl shook her head. "Look, I know who I want to be friends with and who I don't. I don't need you to pity me."

"I wasn't pitying you," Azula said. Then she paused. "Well, okay, maybe I was, a little. But that's only because I know that I could have used a friend on my first day here. And I noticed that you didn't have any."

"Well, maybe that's the way I want it."


The girl lifted her head. "Because I don't even want to be here!" she blurted. "How would you feel if your parents made every single decision for you your whole life and just sent you off whenever they felt like to make you into someone they want you to be? This place is just an extension of that. Everyone here's all perfect and nice and and we're supposed to come out of here as proper young ladies, but that's not who I am! And I'm not going to try to be."

"You don't have to," Azula said. "You should just be you and make other people respect you for it." She gave a moment's pause. "And to be honest, I wasn't so sure about going here either, at first. My parents wanted to expose me more to society because they felt like I was too cooped up in the house."

The girl sucked up some noodles from her bowl, lifting an eyebrow. "Did you have private tutors or something?"

"Yeah. I had to give them up to come here. But I didn't want to at first. With them, it was like I had them to myself, and I could tell they cared about me. But here, the teachers probably see dozens of girls every day. And then every year the class groups change, and the old girls are replaced with new ones."

The girl snorted. "Yeah. It's like a factory."

The image that came to mind was so becoming to the situation that Azula laughed aloud. "No kidding!"

"The factory of mass manner production."

Azula giggled. A pause fell over them. "Where did you learn to draw?" she asked.

The girl looked up. "Huh?"

"Where did you learn to draw? Ty-Lee and I saw the dragon you drew. It was really good."

"Oh. Thanks, I guess. But I never learned or anything. I just draw as a hobby." She paused. "Is Ty-Lee the acrobat girl?"

"Yeah. She's sorry she kicked you."

"It's okay. I hated that vest, anyway. My mom forced me to wear it because she was practically in love with it. Then she got a big surprise when I came home." The girl smiled. "I'm Mai, by the way."

"I'm Azula."

After a moment, Mai rose with her tray and sat down across from Azula. They continued to eat, silently. Right then, lunch period ended, and everyone started getting up to go to recess. Azula and Mai trailed towards the exit, when suddenly, Ty-Lee came up to them.

"Hey Azula, are you ready to do those moves now?"

Azula smiled. "Yeah, let's go!"

Ty-Lee glanced at Mai. "Oh. Hey there."


"I'm Ty-Lee. Sorry about the whole pushing thing!"

"I'm Mai. And it's okay." She gave a small smile.

Ty-Lee clapped her hands together. "Great! Um, so Azula and I were just going to do some acrobatics. Want to join us?"

"Sure. I think I'll just watch, though. I'm not really a sports person."

"All right, whatever you want!"

The three of them went outside, hurrying over to the shady spot beneath Ty-Lee's tree. Azula showed Ty-Lee the moves she had learned from her trainers, and in return Ty-Lee showed her poses she had made up on her own, which resulted in a silly scene of flips, handstands, and upside-down faces. Mai sat in the grass and watched them for a while, her face now alive with interest and humor. At one point, Ty-Lee stood upright and glanced up at some flowers that were blooming on the branches. She tapped Azula on the shoulder.

"Hey, let's try to climb up and pick one of those!"


"I bet I can get there first!" Ty-Lee immediately rushed over to the tree and pulled herself up to the first branch. Azula was about to follow her, but suddenly she heard a metallic ching and saw something fall down in the corner of her eye. She turned, and saw Mai standing up, a fallen branch with a flower lying at her feet.

Ty-Lee looked over to Mai a moment later, blinking in puzzlement. "Huh?"

"Beat you to it." Mai smirked. She picked up the leafy branch and showed it to them.

"How did you do that?" asked Azula.

"I used this." Mai picked up something shiny from the ground. Azula saw that it was a small razor, round and thin, with jagged edges.

Ty-Lee looked at it with widened eyes. "Whoa!"

"Is that another hobby of yours?" Azula asked.

"Yep. Staring at a blank wall all day is better when you can throw stuff at it."

Azula giggled. "I used to draw on my walls with firebending."

Mai laughed. "Nice!"

"It made Mom and the servants really angry. But then I started doing it just to annoy them."

Mai pocketed the razor. "See, I'd throw these to annoy my parents too, but then they'd freak out and send me to correctional school. So I just do it when I'm alone." She looked at Ty-Lee. "You're probably the center of attention at home, though."

Ty-Lee sighed. "Not really. There are seven of us, so my parents don't really notice the small stuff anymore. But that's okay. Just being able to do this is enough for me." She got down into a bridge pose and peeked out at them from between her arms. "Hi!"

Azula and Mai giggled.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #19 on: Jun 17, 2017 04:40 am »

Several days passed, and each of them seemed to reveal something new about the two girls, solidifying Azula's earlier intuition of kinship with them. In turn, it seemed like they had the same feeling about her, which was all the more surprising since Azula had never strained herself to achieve it. Despite their different upbringings, she, Mai, and Ty-Lee had all shared some similar experiences, including being a part of noble families. And though Azula was never pressed to broach the topic of royalty, she didn't feel like she was hiding anything about her identity anymore. With them, Azula felt for the first time like she had equals, and it wasn't the demeaning feeling she had long ago thought it would be. It felt nice, and it felt right, just like the friendships from her mother's old stories had seemed. Soon, Azula began to look forward to each new school day, sometimes even choosing to walk home without Ursa, instead spending extra time with Mai and Ty-Lee wandering the school territory.

Azula was so absorbed in her newfound delight that she paid attention to little else. Then, one day, when she was about to leave the front yard to walk home, she felt a tap on her shoulder. Azula turned around, and to her surprise, she saw Kyla standing there. Her arms were casually crossed, but her face clouded with its familiar puzzled frown.

"Hi, can I talk to you?"

Azula hesitated for a moment, feeling a sensation of dread that she couldn't explain. "Yes?"

"Are you mad at me or something?" Kyla asked. "It seems like you're avoiding me. A few weeks ago you just took off during lunch and now you always sit with that quiet girl."

Azula frowned. "So? I'm meeting new people. You're doing the same thing."

"No I'm not. Because when I meet a new friend, I don't just toss the old ones out the window."

Azula looked at her. Silence flooded in, then she spoke up, though quieter. "What makes you think I'm doing that to you?"

"Well, you never say hi to me," Kyla continued. "You don't even look at me when I pass by you, even when I wave to you. You laughed when I spilled paint on my skirt in art class."

"Everyone did," Azula said. "It was funny. It doesn't mean anything."

"I wouldn't have laughed at you if it happened to you," Kyla said. "Anyways, that's not the point. My point is, you basically act like you don't even want to know me anymore."

Azula didn't respond. In fact, this was somewhat true, but she had just been unsure of how to say it. With Kyla, everything was boring. She had constantly felt like she had spent her life being interested in the wrong things: firebending, training, politics. And she loved explaining these things to people, telling them tidbits of what she was thinking or learning, which Kyla and the others seemed to interpret as lecturing. It made Azula angry, though she couldn't articulate the reason. All she knew was that with them, she had felt chained to the ground, when in reality she wanted desperately to fly.

"I didn't hear an answer," Kyla said.

"To what?"

"Do you want to be my friend or not?"

Kyla's hands were on her hips. Azula fell into a long pause, staring at her in disbelief. The question seemed so petty. And yet, the girl was serious. Azula weighed her options, and finally decided to keep it simple, so as not to get tangled up in the mess any further.

"No," she said.

The effect wasn't what Azula had been expecting. Kyla lifted her eyebrows and blinked, as if slapped, then lifted her chin. "Fine, then. Goodbye." She whipped her head around and stormed away.

Azula went home with her mind in knots. She had told the girl the truth. Wasn't that better than lying? Or did the rules of society dictate that you had to sugarcoat everything, even if you risked implying something you didn't mean? Azula never imagined that she could be in such a situation. She was a Fire Nation princess. If anyone knew etiquette, it was her.

So why had her efforts with Kyla crumbled?

Azula thought it over for hours, then finally, at the end of the day, she ran to Ursa's room and told her what had happened.

Ursa responded with a frown. "Do you enjoy spending time with her?"

"No!" Azula blurted. "She's boring! I'm not interested in the things she is, and sometimes it seems like she doesn't care about anything I have to say! Mai and Ty-Lee are much better!"

"Then why force yourself to spend time with Kyla?"

"That's what I tried to tell her!" Azula said.

Ursa gave a smile. "Well, then you probably just put it a little too bluntly. Being a friend to someone doesn't have to mean spending every second with them or sharing all of their interests. It could just mean saying hello or having a short conversation every now and then. Then, if you two really have nothing in common, you'll drift apart on your own. No hurt feelings."

Azula crossed her arms. "Well, too bad I didn't know that before. Now she thinks I'm mean."

Ursa leaned over and cupped her hands around Azula's face. "Well, you and I both know that that's not true. You're my strong, willful girl, and you know what you want. If she ever gives you any trouble, just take it in stride and respond to her calmly." She lowered her chin matter-of-factly. "An apology could also help."

Azula kept looking at Ursa and smiled. They sat together for a few more minutes in the spacious bedroom, until one of her mother's servants came and asked if she was ready to go to bed. But Ursa said she would wait for a little while, then walked Azula back to her own room first.


Azula took Ursa's advice and began to think about how she would apologize to Kyla. She decided that she would approach as gracefully as her mother would, like a true princess, being the sun that cast rays of peace to its surroundings. And from that point on, the entire school would exist in harmony.

She didn't want to risk a failure due to Kyla's temper, so she decided to wait a few days until she reasoned Kyla had cooled down. Then, the next week, she mustered up her resolve and set out for school, assembling the right words in her mind.

The front yard of the building was crowded with students, and Kyla was standing off to the side, encircled by her friends. When she met eyes with Azula, she primly turned away. Azula smiled it off and continued walking, imagining light emanating from her silhouette and brightening everything around her. She approached Mai, who was standing by the closed doors, and began to talk to her. Nearby, Ty-Lee was standing with her posse of sisters and waved to them in greeting.

"Why doesn't she hang out more with us?" Mai wondered. "It's like she's glued to them."

"It's okay, don't be mad at her," said Azula. "She's probably just trying to make it up to them because she spends so much time with us now. Think about it - they've been together for their entire lives, and now she suddenly got friends of her own. That's probably jarring for them."

Mai considered this and nodded. "Huh. Well, I definitely wouldn't have thought of that... But I guess it makes sense." She smiled a little. "Though if it were me, I think I'd go crazy."

Azula shrugged. "Well, everyone's different."

In class, Azula sat near Mai and Ty-Lee, and at lunch, the three of them went to their new official table by the window. Mai had brought a deck of cards, and after a quick game with Ty-Lee, the three of them began to stack them into whimsical towers. Azula peered over her shoulder to Kyla's table, and after a moment, she rose from her seat a little. But after a pause, she sat back down. No, it still didn't feel right... Kyla's expression still seemed like it could be harboring anger. Azula thought of getting Mai and Ty-Lee to back her up, and began to deliberate the pros and cons of that, falling quiet while the two girls talked. Then, Ty-Lee started telling a funny story, and Azula became occupied with listening to her. Then lunch ended.

Three more days passed, then the week ended, and by the time Azula came back the next school day, she reasoned that by now, it was too late. She had already spent too much time mulling it over, and suddenly apologizing now, out of the blue, would seem random and idiotic. Finally, Azula decided to simply let things blow over on their own, and show Kyla her benevolence in other ways. That way, Kyla could see that even though Azula had chosen different people as friends, she was still kind and considerate to everyone.

For one thing, Azula had noticed at one point that Kyla had trouble drawing animals. So one day in art class, she took her pencil to Kyla's easel and did a quick sketch of an ostrich-horse. "Look, this is how you do it. You want the shading to make it look like there's a natural source of light."

Kyla moved her easel away. "Well, I don't care. I do them like this."

Azula sighed and went back to her own.

On another day, during music lessons, she and Kyla were both assigned to the group of horn players for a rendition of the national anthem. Azula showed them all a breath trick she had learned from a palace music man that he used to play louder. In response, Kyla sighed.

"We're not supposed to play loud," she said. "We'll drown out everyone else."

"Yeah, but then the teacher will see how well we can play and give us better marks," Azula said. "We'll be the best music group."

"Well this isn't a competition. This is teamwork, in case that term isn't familiar to you."

The hostility in her tone made Azula freeze for a moment. But a few other girls began to try her described technique and marvel at the results, which brought the smile back to her face. Convinced that Kyla only needed some time to warm up, Azula continued to give her little nudges here and there. She began to talk about firebending during recess, showing the other benders the moves she had mastered and getting them to try them out. She offered everyone assistance during math classes, explaining the solutions in detail, ignoring Kyla's and Ji-Lan's roll of the eyes and comments that the class already had a teacher and didn't need another one.

Finally, in a hardly-noticeable final jump, they reached the last week before winter recess. As a parting tradition, the teachers organized a field day for the lowest level group. They split each class group into two teams and had them all compete against each other in a series of games. By a brilliant stroke of luck, Azula's team consisted of Mai, Ty-Lee, Kyla, and four other girls. Together, they went around the classrooms and courtyards for various activities. Ty-Lee excelled at the obstacle course, Mai at dart-throwing. But the last and best game was something called Shipwreck, and was played in the grassy back field. Each of the six teams started on one edge of the playing field and was given the same assortment of objects - a jumprope, a floor mat, a chair, and other miscellanies, all of which were presumed to be buoyant, remnants of a splintered and sinking Fire Nation ship. The grass of the field was considered to be the sea, and the goal of the game was to transport everybody and all the objects to the other side of the field without setting foot on the grass. The team that got to the other end first won.

Azula had never played the game before, but fell in love with it instantly. She felt a surge of inspiration and desire, and while Kyla and the other girls calmly examined the objects and began to mumble ideas, she began to calculate a strategy. Finally she approached them and cut off their developing conversation, holding out her hands.

"All right, this is how we'll do it," she said. "We take the floor mat and put everyone on it holding all the objects. Then one person takes the chair and puts it as far forward as she can. Then someone hands her the jump rope and she tosses it forward and steps onto it. Then we all leave the floor mat one by one and-"

"Wait, I have a different idea," said one of the girls. "I think we should all get on the mat, with each person throwing one of the items forward, and then we all find something to stand or sit on while one of us moves the mat."

"But that's slower," Azula said. "We'd be wasting time deciding who goes where, and then we'd have to find a way to collect everything without stepping on the grass. My way's better."

"Well, we should give both a chance," said the girl.

Azula shook her head impatiently and went to pick up the mat. "No, we can't! Look, two of the teams started already! If we don't hurry, we won't be able to gain enough ground on them!"

Kyla slapped her hands to her head. "Oh for the heavens' sake, will you stop? Just stop! It's just a game! It's not the end of the world if we lose! Stop bossing us around!"

Azula frowned at her. "So you'd rather lose?"

Kyla curled her hands into fists. "Who cares? Why can't we just play? Why does everything have to be about winning or losing for you?"

"The teachers said this game was a race. In case that term isn't familiar to you. It means that we have to try to be the first team to reach the finish line. Otherwise we won't be following directions!"

Kyla scoffed. "Yeah, I see how you 'follow directions'! Miss Master Firebender and master math student and best artist and top-of-the-class genius. You want to be the best at everything and you want all the teachers' praise, while the rest of us follow your every move like your perfect little minions. You're a control freak. You're like a machine!"

Shock coursed through Azula like a jolt of lightning. For the first time in her life, she felt a strange sensation, as if the words had smacked into her face and seeped through her skin. She was sure she could even feel a sting in her cheeks. For a frightening moment she couldn't make a sound, but then finally she managed to stir herself into speech. "I'm not a machine," she said.

"Yes you are!" said Kyla. "You're a selfish little analyzer machine who wants the world to pat her on the head and do nothing but tell her how perfect she is. Well, sorry to break it to you, but no one cares! Believe it or not, but the rest of us don't care how awesome you think you are and we don't need to win all the time like you do. We're perfectly happy with the way we are, because we're human."

A girl beside her nodded. "And we don't need you to nag us all the time like you're our mother or something. Just grow up."

Azula stood there, staring at the group of girls, unable to do anything else but take in the emotions on all of their faces - anger, annoyance, impatience - which suddenly stood out so clear and stark to her that it seemed like they would flood her like a tidal wave. But right then, Ty-Lee stepped forward. "Azula is not a machine, and she's not nagging you! She's just trying to help us win because it's a game. It's a strategy game, and if we're not working on developing our strategy skills, then we're not really doing anything, are we? You should be happy that Azula tries to help. She's a thinker, and that's what sets her apart. She's unique. And I'm unique too!" Ty-Lee pointed to Mai. "Mai's unique too!"

Mai narrowed her eyes at the girls. "Just because someone's not the person you want them to be doesn't mean they're any worse than you. Hate to break it to you, but we're not all perfect little flower girls and we don't want to be."

Azula couldn't speak. Mai, Ty-Lee, and the other girls just stood there in place, staring each other down. Then suddenly, from somewhere far away, people began to cheer. A team of girls had reached the finish line and was jumping around and clapping, celebrating their victory. The teachers congratulated them, and everyone else began to turn their equipment in and disperse. Kyla turned away, gathering up some of their team's articles, and walked off. The other girls followed behind, leaving Azula, Mai, and Ty-Lee alone. The two girls stood at her either side, then turned around to leave in the opposite direction. Azula went with them, and it was only when they reached the building that she found her voice.

"Thanks," she said to them.

Ty-Lee gave her a hearty clap on the shoulder. "No problem!"

"I never liked them, to be honest," said Mai. "They're so full of themselves."

They walked out into the courtyard and approached the gates. Azula took a while to think something over, then turned around to them and stopped. "I'm not going to be at school tomorrow. I have to do some stuff with my mom. But wait for me here after classes get out and I'll come pick you up. We can all go play at my house."

Ty-Lee nodded. "Sure! My parents probably won't even notice I'm gone."

Mai nodded too. "I can probably get out of doing more music lessons." She stuck out her tongue. "Boring."

Azula smiled. "Okay. Then wait for me." She clasped each of their hands, and went off.

When she got home, she went to her mother's room and told her what she was planning. Ursa responded with a sly smile. They would make it their little secret.

The next afternoon, both of them got into a palanquin and had the procession of bearers escort them to the school. They reached the building with the courtyard already full with younger students. Some of the girls looked askance as the large veiled palanquin made its way to them, and reacted with gasps and whispers, tapping their friends' shoulders. The procession reached the gates and the palanquin was lowered to the ground.

One of the guards ran forward. "Make way! Make way for Princess Ursa and Princess Azula!"

The pink curtains were pulled open. Azula stepped out of the palanquin in royal dress, her mother following closely behind, and they walked out amid the bowing guards. The girls in the courtyard gaped. The teachers who stood at the sides watched with stoic faces, their hands folded in front of them. Azula walked forward, till two faces stood out to her from the crowd — one, a peppy girl with a long braid, the other, a calm, pale, black-haired girl. She walked up to them and stopped.

"Mai and Ty-Lee, it would honor me if you would come visit my house and spend the afternoon with me. The servants have finished gardening and we'll have the courtyard all to ourselves."

The girls' eyes glimmered. Slowly, Mai linked her hands together and bowed, and Ty-Lee followed suit. Then, smiling, Azula turned her back to them and held out her arms. The girls linked theirs through hers, and together they walked in a trio to the palanquin, none of them looking back.


Azula revealing herself as the princess caused a ripple through the community of girls. For the rest of their years there, she, Mai, and Ty-Lee occupied their own personal bubble, where no one else's words or opinions could touch them. Ty-Lee's sisters remained on the sidelines, observing in awe, happy that she had befriended someone like Azula. Other girls flocked to them, of course, but it was always at a respectful distance. Kyla did not make any more comments towards Azula, though it was clear that her opinions hadn't changed. Only now, Azula found that she no longer cared. She had sifted two best friends from the confused clump - Mai, the quiet, artistic girl who could throw daggers, and Ty-Lee, the bubbly acrobat with a kind confidence. Over the months, their bond only tightened, and pretty soon, the three of them became inseparable. Azula had friends who liked her for the person she was. And that, she realized, was all she had ever needed.

(End of Chapter 6)
« Last Edit: Oct 14, 2018 08:39 am by Icy_Ashford » Logged

Tamerlan Pahlavi
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Pride above all

« Reply #20 on: Jul 04, 2017 04:29 pm »

Sorry, I got around to reading your latest chapters just yesterday but I can definitely say I'm still your biggest fan. This detour to her past was really cute, though kind of bittersweet when you look at it in retrospect. The start of darkness was hinted quite interestingly and well. We can already see her perfectionism and her budding conflict with Zuko. It's quite fascinating to see how some of her traits that would later mark her as a neurotic and evil person started from something rather innocent and innocuous. No hint of straight up sadism yet but I'm very keen to find out how you will show its development.

I liked how you didn't make her befriend Mai and Ty Lee on the very first day but built up into it. The two of them seem rather happy around her, for now. It will be interesting to see how it goes. There was a period of separation in the show between them graduating the academy and later meeting up to hunt down Zuko and the Avatar. Could be that Mai and Ty Lee remember her as less awful then she was by the time of the show and came to resent her only during it.

Anyway, it's a great work and a great inspiration for my own writing. I hope I'm giving you the encouragement to go on Smiley

There is no refuge but in audacity. No salvation other than in strength.

"It is better to live one hundred years in wealth than seven days in poverty." - Bob Rock
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #21 on: May 12, 2018 10:13 am »

Tamerlan Pahlavi: I'm so sorry for spacing out for so long (it's been almost a year, what the heck xP). I'm glad you liked the way I wrote Azula's backstory; it was a tricky chapter to write. I was in fact trying to get at the idea that Azula's friendship with Mai and Ty-Lee started out as something genuine, since their behavior on the show doesn't really match that of two girls who had been coerced/frightened into being her friend. Their betrayal was also shown to have had an emotional effect on Azula, so she had to have genuinely cared about having them as friends, even if by then the desire was clouded by a desire to control them.

This will be the last lengthy flashback for a while, though, so I'll be hinting at the development of their relationship more through dialogue and plot progression.

I'm glad my work is inspiring for you, and I wish you the best of luck on your own projects (which I'll have to check out myself too, since I finally have a good amount of free time on my hands).

For now, here's the next chapter!

7. Drifting Unhinged

After what seemed like forever, Azula opened her eyes. Bright lamplight streamed into her vision, and after a moment she recognized the plain white ceiling of the bedroom. She was lying in bed again, her arms folded over her chest, with a new, tan-colored blanket wrapped around her body. At first, it seemed like she had somehow accidentally contorted herself this way, but as she tried to move her arms and legs, she found that the blanket didn't let her. The fabric was strangely heavy and unyielding, encasing her in a firm cocoon. On top of that, the familiar black bands of the bed were pulled taut over it, holding her firmly down.

A brief, dull headache pulsed through her confusion, and after a moment, Azula remembered what had happened. She was alone. She was on an island, possibly thousands of miles away from the mainland, surrounded by a random team of careless nurses, under the care of some doctor who likely didn't even intend to practice medicine. Their function was to guard her. To contain her.

Azula laid her head back down on the pillow, slamming her eyes shut. Those memories from her old school days were still surfacing in her mind, joined by dozens of later ones, all perfectly preserved like insects in amber. She could still see everyone's faces, remember the exact tone of their voices, as if they were standing right in front of her again.

"Yes, you are! You're a selfish little analyzer machine.."

"What is wrong with that child?"

"Guess you wouldn't understand, would you? Because you're just so perfect…"

All of it amounted to the same thing.

She had been a ruin all along, just using her imagined perfection to cover it up. She had played a constant game of striving and self-bettering, thinking that she was building up some sort of tower of strength inside of herself, while in reality, she had just been piling up a mound of sand. She might have thought that she had been making progress, that all of those training sessions and fights were like stepping stones on the way to her goal, but all they had done was distract her from the truth.

They had been right. Every single one of them. Looking inside of herself, Azula could feel no other desire than to get revenge on the world, to make everyone that had ever caused her pain suffer ten times more. If she had been sent back in time that very moment, she would have rocketed out of the palace in front of Ursa's eyes and never come back. She would have slapped Kyla in the face. She would have given Mai the cold shoulder at the Boiling Rock and dismissed her and Ty-Lee from her service without wasting a single fire blast on them. That was what they deserved. But now that Azula thought about it, she realized that even if she had never confronted Mai and Ty-Lee about their betrayal directly, it would still have only been a matter of time before they realized who she really was. Was it really an accident that everyone she had ever been close to eventually formed the same opinion about her?

Azula knew it wasn't. She had just been the last person to realize it. She had always had problems… she hadn't even been able to say "I love you" to Ursa properly - directly - back when the other daughters had spewed the phrase like babbling brooks. Perhaps that was one of the things that had led Ursa to her conclusion. Along with everyone else. Maybe she really did belong in a mental hospital... then, in that case Zuko had demonstrated the greatest feat of forward thinking in history. She was a machine, and a defunct one at that.

Azula sighed and turned her head to the side. After a moment, her gaze alighted on the Phoenix King helmet that stood on the bookshelf, glinting under the ceiling light. She looked at it for a moment, tracing the outline of the bird's wings, lingering on the plates of pure gold that adorned the metal frame, which was already starting to collect dust.

At least she hadn't been the only one to take the fall. Something greater had ended that day — something she had just been unfortunate enough to take part in. No matter what, there would still be no more palaces, no more personal servants, no more plans and missions to constantly think about. And not just for her, but for many others. Not the least of them her father.

Azula could still picture him standing before her that final time, face smiling and serene, yet his eyes firm with resolve. Then he had said that thing, that one short sentence that had mysteriously caused her escalating despair to calm, her defenses to briefly disarm.

"It is a special job that I can only entrust to you."

But had he really meant it? Hadn't she felt it, the moment he had put on that helmet, that he had always intended to do things alone? When it came down to it, she had been little more than a tool for him, doing the grunt work while he sat around in the palace and reaped all the benefits. He always summoned her formally, praised her publicly, and in the increasingly rare occasions that they they were alone, the talk was all goals, strategies, achievements. And now, suddenly, all of his boasting of her during galas and public meetings was starting to seem like the flaunting of some hawk breeder who had crossed the perfect specimen. He had used her, just like she had used other people, because she had had a power that he needed. Azula scowled in spite. Her father probably thought her every bit of the monster that Ursa had. But instead of flinching away from her abnormalities in disgust, he had nurtured them. Cultivated them. Then in the end he had discarded her. And she had fallen.

Azula drew in a breath, feeling her eyes well with tears. But she wouldn't cry. Not for him. Not for anyone, ever again.


After an uneventful span of time, a quiet wooden creak pierced the silence. Azula's gaze glumly drifted over to the entrance, just as the door to the bedroom drifted open, revealing Isla carrying a tray of food. The nurse pulled a chair over to Azula's bedside and sat down, digging a spoon into a steaming bowl of rice. She scooped some out, blew on it, then brought it to Azula's mouth. Azula silently turned her head away.

Isla's hand followed her, but Azula turned away again, and after a few more rounds of chase, Isla finally gave up and slapped the spoon down in exasperation. "Fine. Starve." She put the tray back onto the counter and left the room.

A minute later, she returned with a number of IV bags filled with purple serum. She removed the empty fluid bag from the bedside pole and replaced it with a fresh one, then checked the various tubes and wires that were snaking out like vines from under the neck of the cocoon-blanket. Then she began to dust the counter and cabinets, opening and closing doors, then moved on to wiping the floor.

When the room was finally spotless, Isla came back to the counter and picked up the tray again. "Have you made up your mind yet?"

Azula looked away darkly.

The nurse came closer and sat down. "Come on. Eat." She scooped up some rice and brought the spoon to Azula's mouth. Azula silently accepted it and began to chew lethargically. She made the first swallow, then Isla gave her the second spoon, and she swallowed that one too. For the third one, however, Azula moved her mouth away.

Isla sighed. "What's wrong?"

Azula grumbled. "Tying me up. Feeding me like an animal."

"You've been put in the straitjacket for your own protection," Isla said. "The longer you keep having these outbursts, the more you'll be kept like this in the future. So for your sake, please, open your mouth."

She brought the spoon forward again, and Azula snatched it out of her hand with her teeth and flung it to the floor. "I said, no!"

Isla narrowed her eyes. "Fine." She left the room. A few moments later, she came back with another bag in her hands, this one larger and filled with clear liquid. "You get liquid nutrients, then." She snapped on a pair of rubber gloves, dabbed Azula's neck with a wet gauze pad, and without warning, stuck a large, sharp needle into her neck. Azula gave a yelp, flinching as she felt something long and sharp pierce through the muscle, entering some deep and vital location where it caused a burning pain. Azula began to squirm, and when Isla stepped back, she snarled.

"Come near me again and I'll tear you to shreds!" Azula swung her head from side-to-side, but with the rest of her body trapped by the cocoon, she couldn't do much besides rock herself around. Face still impassive, Isla leaned down to a lower cabinet and took out a small, C-shaped pillow, which she promptly fitted around Azula's neck. The pillow was thick and firm, and braced her head so that she couldn't move it in either direction. Isla fixed it into place, leaned down to pick up the fallen spoon from under the bed, then left the room.

Azula imagined how pathetic she must have looked and welled with hatred. She began to breathe rapidly again, trying to shoot fire from her mouth, not caring if she burned the blanket and herself with it. But as always, nothing came out.

She continued to fidget, pushing against the straitjacket to the point of exhaustion. After several minutes of getting nowhere, her strength finally broke and she settled down, catching her breath. She lay still for a few minutes, staring up at the ceiling. The pain from the needle had gone, but she could still feel it lodged inside of her, protruding out, connecting her to the pouch of nutrients that hung overhead.

They had made her a cripple. A sick, pathetic, raging vegetable. The stronger Azula's anger grew, the more she could sense the humiliation that was bubbling up beneath it. Humiliation before her own self.


Time crept by in silence. With no solid food, the nurses hardly had to come into Azula's room at all. When they did, it was always Dee and Isla, tiptoeing in to check up on all the equipment she was hooked up to and whispering medical jargon under their breaths. Then they would walk away, not casting her a spare glance. In the evening, a hand would poke in and shut off the lights, then disappear. For the rest of the time, the building was dead silent. No chatter, no movement, and only occasionally the sound of a closing door from far away.

Well, that's the end of that, Azula figured. If anything, at least she had put an end to the charade and exposed their operation for what it was. She wondered what Zuko would do when they told him. He'd probably order them to keep watching over her, since there was probably no other place that could be considered secure enough to house her. But this time there would be no more therapy, no more kind fake smiles or playing nice. Azula was fine with that. Brutal honesty and harsh reality were rules she preferred to play by. She figured she'd still try to escape again someday, once she figured out a way to orient herself and cross the sea. Then she'd go to live in some faraway place where no one recognized her. That way, at least, she'd deprive them of the satisfaction of shaping her future. Whatever it could possibly be.


Days came and went. At first, Azula tried to keep track of them, but she lost count at four. Waking life was starting to blend in too much with her dreams, and since there was nothing remarkable about the silent, unchanging bedroom, Azula preferred to spend as much time asleep as possible. Life in one position had a way of pulling a person in. Apparently it wasn't an accident after all that her physical trainers had told her when she was young to keep moving, to not let herself laze around. By now, her body had stopped wanting to move of its own accord.

But it wasn't as if she'd need to move, anyway. She had already razed everyone's villages, stormed through all the cities, wrecked enough of everyone's plans. And she had witnessed all the general highlights of a life. Childhood, labor, friends, family... All of those experiences had played out before her like the swiftly-changing sets of a theater production. And now, all of those people and backdrops from the old times were gone, replaced by the final stage life had to offer her - a blank nothing. And she didn't care anymore how she'd spend the rest of it. Although the nurses would probably do everything at the bare minimum now, they'd still attend to her basic needs. Maybe, then, she would in fact stay here, feeding off of their labor, just so that she wouldn't have to bother about getting food and lodging for herself. Crossing the sea would take a long time. And even if she did manage to find land, there was no guarantee that it would be hospitable. Hunting was hard. Building her own house too much work. There was the option of finding some forest-dweller and forcing them to abandon their home for her, but the prospect of ever dealing with another person sickened her. If she was such a monster, such a machine, then why should she bother barging into the regular people's lives? Why not let them live in peace, in their perfect little world of love and friendship?

No, she didn't regret what she had said to Ursa... all of those things were for fools. Deceptive lies, told only by people who already enjoyed those things. But she knew the truth... And that, at the very least, would be something to be thankful for.


The lights went off a few hours later, and after several hours of confused dreams, Azula opened her eyes to find the room still dark. She was debating whether or not to drift off again, when suddenly, she heard the sound of advancing footsteps. The door opened, and the lights flickered on, revealing Isla. This time, though, she was followed by Kira, who dutifully followed her to Azula's bedside. Together, they unstrapped the cocoon, unbuckled the tiny straps that held the straitjacket together, and removed it to reveal Azula's plain red jumpsuit, along with all the IV tubes hooked up to her arms. One by one, they removed the needles, bandaged the wounds, and helped her into a seated position. Kira poured out some purple serum into a spoon and slipped it into Azula's mouth. At the same time, Isla pulled out the round wooden table from the corner and set it at the center of the room. That had to mean that Dr. Low was visiting.

Azula's heartbeat quickened. Kira rolled up the wheelchair to the side of the bed and seated Azula into it, strapping her up to the torso. Finally, she rolled her up to the table.

Isla brought the tea a few moments later, setting one cup in front of Azula and the other in front of the empty chair. Then she placed down the sugar and silverware, and once the table was ready, she went to wait by the door. Moments later, Dr. Low walked in. Azula lowered her gaze to the placemat, which she dully picked at with her nails, until Dr. Low had sat down across from her and she could no longer prolong the dread of looking up at him. He hadn't changed a bit. Same military uniform, same hair, same lines in his face. If he had ever come seconds away from dying by her hands of electric shock, then he wasn't showing it.

The doctor arranged his silverware to his liking, then leaned back in his chair. "How are you feeling, Azula?"

Azula looked away, chin leaned against her fists. "Fine."

Dr. Low crushed a cube of sugar into his tea and took a sip. Azula looked away from him. For a long time, they sat in silence. Azula wasn't sure if he'd demand her to speak; she wasn't even sure if she'd be able to find any words to say. But strangely, Dr. Low did nothing. He sat like a lonely statue, as if enveloped by the same fog she felt around herself.

Soon, the silence became unsettling. Azula turned to her tea, first playing around with the leaves, then lifting the cup for a series of slow sips. The tea was a blend of citrus fruits with a slight touch of ginger. After memories of water and vegetable mush, it was refreshing.

Azula finished the entire cup, before she finally heard a stir as Dr. Low shifted his position.

"I owe you an apology."

Azula blinked and looked up at him. "What?"

"I should have found a better way to introduce you to the situation. I underestimated the effect such a transition would have on you. I don't blame you for your reaction, and I admit it was partially my fault."

Azula stared at the doctor without speaking. Something in the fog shifted, but she was too weary to contemplate what it could mean. After a moment, she simply averted her gaze and went back to slouching.
« Last Edit: Oct 14, 2018 08:39 am by Icy_Ashford » Logged

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #22 on: May 12, 2018 10:13 am »

Dr. Low gave a small smile. "Now that you know that much of the story, I might as well tell you the rest. You are indeed on an island, one that's located about fifty miles off the southwestern coast of the Fire Nation. It's rather small, so it has just this building, a dock for supply ships, and some nature. That being said, your brother did order you to be placed here. After withdrawing his armies from the battle zones, the first thing he did was examine the staff he had at home and search for people who would be able to take care of you. He didn't want to risk placing you in a regular hospital with other patients, so he decided to find an isolated location that would be both safe and functional. At that point he had already chosen me as head of the command, so together we investigated a bit and found this place." He cast his gaze towards the shuttered window. "This building used to be a storage site for a metal factory. It was built during your father's reign, so it's not that old. But after a few years the production moved to a different location, and this place has stood empty ever since. We knew we had to renovate it, but with you still in the palace and on the verge of waking up from the Sages' trance at any moment, we had to act quickly. So I took you, the staff, and all the vital equipment aboard a ship and sailed over here. When we reached shore, I had the crews install the basics - shutters on the windows, new floor, and everything else we'd need right away, while more refined construction would continue in the future."

Azula's forehead crinkled as she scowled. "And was it really hard to tell me that the first time around?"

Dr. Low chuckled. "On the first day you had enough to think about, I'm sure. But more to the point, yes. I made my fair share of mistakes. For one thing, I should have immediately told you that you were on an island. But I thought that simply saying this was a hospital would be better, since it wouldn't make you feel like you were alone."

Azula grumbled. "Well that's exactly how it did make me feel. And why lie? I am alone."

"No, you're not."

"Yes I am. You're all on Zuko's side. He sent you here because he knew you'd be following his orders, which is to keep me out of everyone's way."

"Zuko is not your enemy. That hasn't changed since the first time we spoke. And even if it were a matter of who's on who's side, his orders aren't to keep you out of the way. They are to help you get better." He paused. "And if you don't believe that I truly want you to get better, then consider the situation. We eat here, we sleep here, and we live here, just like you do. We devote our time to you, much like your servants did when you were younger, the only difference being that our goal is to lift you from a bad state. That isn't something a lot of people would sign up for. Not because of you, but because it's a strenuous undertaking in itself, much like being a member of staff at the palace is. Not everyone who applied for that kind of job would even be accepted for it, as you can probably imagine." Dr. Low folded his hands on the table matter-of-factly. All the nurses had left the room, but Isla was still there, leaning against the cabinets and gazing off into a distant corner.

Azula scoffed. "And if I never get better?"

Dr. Low furrowed his brow. "You are fourteen years old," he said. "Forget everything else for a moment, and think about how young that is. You've traveled all over the world, where many girls your age are still thinking about the day they'll marry and leave their parents' houses. You've seen what it's like to govern, to play power games, and to bear a reputation. Those are things that people three times your age struggle with. Dealing with all of that in such early youth, then having it taken away from you just as the world as you know it changes forever, is hard to cope with. But life goes on. Yes, things might be different now, but that doesn't mean that you have to let those circumstances push you in a direction you don't want to go. If anything, you should look back at what happened and see it as evidence that the world really is only what you make of it. Your life is, too."

Azula narrowed her eyes and placed her chin in her palm. "You said you had five children?"

"Well, they're not so much children anymore. My youngest is nineteen, my oldest is twenty-eight."

"And what do they do?"

"One's training to be a doctor. Two of my other sons are in the military. One daughter's interested in engineering, and the other's finishing school."

Azula frowned. "How did you do that? Raise them all, I mean. No one in my family ever had that many. You really only need one heir, maybe a backup in case something happens to the oldest. If you have a third kid, the most you can do is send him off to learn a skill somewhere, because he'll probably never get the throne anyway. I can't see how you can even have time for so many."

Dr. Low smiled and gave a little shrug. "Well, when you're a parent, you start seeing things differently."

Azula somehow doubted that was true.

But she didn't say anything, and after a few minutes Dr. Low finished his tea with her watching in silence. Finally Isla came to clear the cups, and Dr. Low gave a smile. "Thank you, Isla."

Isla smiled as well and nodded. "My pleasure."

She was about to leave, but Dr. Low turned around to her. "Would you also stop by my office? There are some papers on my desk."

"Bring them, you mean?"


Isla left the room, and a minute later she came back with several scrolls in her hands. Dr. Low rose from the table. "Well, I'll leave you alone for now," he said to Azula. "I'll tell the nurses you won't have to do any therapy or exercises for a few days. I think we all owe each other a little break..." He turned to Isla and accepted the scrolls from her. He looked them over a final time, then placed them before Azula. "These might be of interest to you. They were in my office. Just newspapers from last week, when the latest shipment of supplies came from the mainland."

Azula looked at the scrolls, and after a moment, reached towards them. They were newsletters and leaflets from Capital City, along with some from western coastal towns. She unfurled each one in turn, looking at the headings.

"War Over, Avatar Returns..."

"Fire Lord's Crowning Met with Joy and Tears..."

"Capital City Holding a Festival, Eighth month, Fifth Day..."

She looked back up at Dr. Low, who was still standing there. "It's not much, but it'll help you feel connected," he said. "I can give you more in the future if you'd like."

Azula nodded in silence.

"I've also been talking with the construction crew about a new set of windows and better air circulation. Yesterday they sent me a hawk saying that they're still gathering the materials for shipment. So I suppose now's as good a time as ever to add a few more repairs to the list..." He smiled a little to himself, then with a parting nod, he turned to leave. Isla rolled Azula's wheelchair back towards the bed then moved the table and chair back to their place by the wall.

She took a few steps towards the door, then stopped and turned to Azula. "Do you want me to open the blinds?"

Azula crossed her arms, averting her gaze towards the floor. Nevertheless, Isla approached the window and pulled back the curtains, revealing the metal shutters. She fiddled with some devices high up in the frame, and moments later, the blinds opened up, letting in a flood of afternoon light. She left the room.

Once she was gone, Azula slowly looked up at the square of light on the floor. Her gaze drifted over to the window, where through the blinds, she saw the vast open sea, a carpet of calm, rippling waves. She grabbed the wheels of the chair and rolled herself up to the window, then put her elbows on the armrests and watched. Minutes later, she heard a faint caw, and in the distance, saw a red messenger hawk take off into the sky, a letter strapped to its back. The bird flapped its wings to adjust itself to the air currents, caught a favorable wind, and soared off towards the horizon.

(End of Chapter 7)
« Last Edit: Oct 14, 2018 08:40 am by Icy_Ashford » Logged

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #23 on: Aug 08, 2018 07:41 am »

8. The Lion Turtle in the Room

The hawk soared through what was left of the sunset, gliding past streaks of red and orange, then was silhouetted briefly as it shot past the sinking sun. Soon, the halo of light vanished from the horizon, and the sky began to dim, taking on gradually-darkening shades of purple and blue. Before long, night embraced the sea completely, and the bird's wings flapped silently over the calm, dark waves.

After a while, a long, dim shadow appeared on the horizon, growing steadily bigger as the hawk approached it. It revealed itself to be a shoreline, flat and rocky, leading up to a small, sparse forest. Locking its eyes on a destination, the bird swerved down, gliding right into the thick of the trees, and passed the remainder of the night on one of the branches. Then, hours later, the sun came up. Morning dawned on the Fire Nation in a glorious burst, casting a gleam on the waters, lighting miles of beaches, illuminating sprawling grasslands and volcanic mountains.

The hawk took off again, soaring past the remainder of the small island, passing through a sequence of several more that grouped into the distinct shape of an archipelago. Finally, with the sun directly overhead, the bird reached the main landmass. After some patches of forest and steadily-climbing hills, the land sloped up to form the largest peak yet - a massive, dormant volcano, whose wide rim was opened to revealed a dense city of pointed rooftops. The hawk swerved down again, plunging like a red comet into a conglomeration of streets and buildings, isolating a large, black building in the center as its target. The royal palace was notable even from aerial view, separated from the city by enormous walls and encircled by a stone promenade.

As the hawk continued to descend, the spots of color and movement within the palace walls shaped themselves into a delicate plot of buildings and walkways. The hawk was soon joined by several others, all of which had come from various directions, and now collected themselves into a single flock with the same destination in mind - a large walled garden filled with low-rising trees.

The hawks arrived in a tide of screeches and flapping wings. They dispersed themselves among the trees at whim, preening their feathers, and moments later a palace worker in uniform approached them with a basket. He held out seeds for each bird to eat, then plucked the letter or scroll from its back pouch and placed it into the basket. When he had tended to all the new arrivals, he went back to a small pavilion near the entrance, where a similarly-dressed woman was placing previous scrolls onto shelves.

"What've we got this time?" she asked.

The man approached the table beside her and began to look through his scrolls. "A few letters to the Fire Lord and some reports for the city office."

"All right," the woman replied. "We'll deliver the Fire Lord's in a few hours. He's at a war meeting right now."

The mailman looked at her with a frown. "A war meeting?"

After a brief pause, woman realized what she had said and slapped her forehead. "Oh, sorry! I meant a regular meeting." She shook her head. "It's hardly been a month. I still can't get over the fact that the war's actually over."

The man smiled. "I think a lot of people feel that way."

The woman smiled in return, but instead of rising up all the way, her expression soon curved into a matter-of-fact look. "Well... I think the quicker we get used to it, the better."

The man nodded. They finished sorting all of that morning's post together, then with their baskets in hand, went back to work.


At that moment, inside the royal palace, a crowd of nobles was gathered before the closed doors of the throne room. Royal ministers and military officers congregated in tight groups, dressed in maroon uniforms with streamlined shoulder plates and tall collars. Many of them had swords strapped to their waists, still not wholly forgetful of the days of battles. Their conversations mingled in the air while they waited for the meeting to begin.

As the minutes went by, a few final arrivals entered the chamber and drifted off into circles of acquaintances. But one man hung back after stepping through the entrance, eyes sweeping the room, searching for something that he clearly couldn't find. After a brief hesitation, he began to wade through the sea of people, who casually stepped aside for him, revealing glimpses of servants roaming about with refreshments.

At last, the man's gaze locked on a long food table standing beside the wall. A man in a general's uniform was currently taking a drink from one of the glasses, gazing around the room impassively.

Recognizing him, the newcomer quickened his pace, and as he approached, the official turned to look at him.

"General Mak." The newcomer pressed his fists together and bowed.

The general nodded. "Good to see you, Aren."

Straightening, the newcomer looked around the room again, as if it was only from this spot that he could finally survey the entire scene properly. "Are the rumors true? Have we really cleared all our troops from the Earth Kingdom?"

The general sighed. "Nothing's true until it comes from the Fire Lord's mouth. That's the first thing you have to remember about the royal palace. But yes. All of the southwest is clear and Ba Sing Se has been left to its own devices. I'm expecting it'll take another few months to round up the people in the north and east, but by the end of this year, everyone will be home."

The man processed this and gave a slow nod. "So that's it. After a hundred years of war, it's peace. Just like that."

But to his surprise, General Mak shook his head. "This isn't peace. It's a cease-fire. Our army might be retreating, but we still have people stationed in the colonies, as well as naval fleets patrolling former battle zones. Even the Fire Lord knows it's not safe to withdraw everyone, at least not until the Earth Kingdom government gets itself on its feet. Just because we say the war's over doesn't mean the regular people will believe it." Here he paused, looking over to the enormous closed doors that led to the throne room. They were adorned by a pattern of solid gold flames that danced up their sides, reflecting the glow of the lanterns overhead. "For most people, he's still Fire Lord Ozai's son," Mak muttered. "And what he does in the next couple years will seal our country's place in the new world. Whether he admits it to himself or not."

The two men stood in silence for a moment, looking at the doors. Then the young man turned to the general, eyes slightly narrowed. "Do you know who he is?"

Mak did not ask for clarification. He simply shook his head. "No. I don't."

"But you can put me in touch with him?"

The general nodded.


Mak took a breath. "You'll have to go to the meeting yourself. There's no other way; correspondence is too risky. The ones who were in his circle from the beginning received the information by mouth and passed the invitations on to others. I have a copy in my office that I can give to you. But that's as much as I can do. I'm charged with looking out for their secrecy, so I can't put names to faces."

All of a sudden, the doors to the throne room swung open, and a pair of imperial guards stepped into the waiting chamber.

"Announcing the commencement of the meeting, Fire Lord Zuko presiding! Ministers, please take your seats."

A chorus of voices filled the room as the nobles began to move towards the door. General Mak cast a quick glance to his companion. "No more of this. Meet me outside the palace gates once the meeting is over."

Aren nodded, and the general turned to enter the throne room.

The meeting lasted for three hours. After it was over, the quiet halls of the palace once again filled with a tide of uniforms and conversation. The nobles spilled out into the circular stone promenade that surrounded the palace grounds, some continuing towards the city, and others lingering to talk by the gates.

Aren emerged from the same exit moments later and went to stand in an empty spot by the outside wall. He kept an eye on the officials leaving the palace, until finally, he saw General Mak among them. The general approached him, clapped a hand over his shoulder as if in greeting, then discreetly slipped a scroll beneath his arm.

"Here's the invitation. It'll be your ticket to attend the meeting," the general muttered. "Keep it safe and don't show it to anyone."

Aren nodded. He waited until Mak had gone back into the palace, then slowly set off on foot for the city.

Unbeknownst to him, a two-horse carriage that had been standing near the gates budged from its place at the same time. The ostrich-horses veered onto the roadway beside Aren, hanging back at a leisurely pace.

Aren followed the curve of the road until he was back in the upper city, a spacious grid of streets where street carts and pedestrians moved to and fro among rows of orderly buildings. He kept going, oblivious to the subtle clopping of hooves that was growing steadily louder behind him, making several turns until he left the busy shopping district. He had just approached a one-way turn onto another road, this one leading to a residential area, when suddenly, he heard the crack of a whip behind him.

Aren spun around, and saw a large royal carriage come up behind him, its windows covered by thick fabric and the edges of its roof adorned with wrought-golden flames. A uniformed official poked his head out of the side door.

"You! Stop!"

It was the royal police.

Abandoning all composure, Aren turned away and broke into a run. He raced down to the end of the street, but instead of going towards the residences, he went the other way and slipped in between two buildings. The carriage driver cracked his whip again and the ostrich-horses sped forward.

The nobleman raced back to the shopping district, skirting around the street traffic and other pedestrians, one hand slammed over the side of his coat where Mak's letter was hidden. The police carriage sped after him, disregarding all courtesy of transportation, easily fitting through the large gaps between buildings and trees. No matter how many turns the noble made, every time he looked over his shoulder he saw the ostrich-horses in hot pursuit, their feet pounding loudly on the stone pavement. Finally, he slowed to a stop, and as the ostrich-horses approached him, he turned and shot a burst of flame at them from his fist. The animals cried out and turned away, veering the cart to the side, and with several more punches of fire, Aren scorched the wheels and yoke.

He had just started to back away when the carriage's door burst open, and a team of six royal guards spilled out. They chased after him, punching flames into the air, and Aren broke into a run again.

He raced through the streets without any sort of plan now, cutting off carts and foot traffic, sporadically looking back and shooting jets of flames at the ground. But the red-clad guards kept good pace, cutting him off at various turns, forcing him to flee the roadways and cut across private lots. Finally, Aren reached a dead-end alleyway and started to turn, when suddenly, a lean figure in a long green dress jumped out from between two trees and cut him off. Two fists jabbed him in the ribs and shoulders, and the man slumped to the ground like a broken puppet. The scroll fell out of his coat, plopping to the ground. The attacker bent down to pick it up, then straightened to reveal short brown hair and a painted face.

Moments later, the police cart approached from the opposite direction, blackened in several places, but unharmed. The group of royal policemen followed after it. The cart came to a stop beside the girl, and moments later, an official emerged and descended the steps of the carriage. His hair was tied into a topknot and he wore a police captain's uniform, a variation of military dress with matching woven designs on the shoulder plates and collar.

The captain accepted the scroll from the girl and took a placid look at the noble, who lay exhausted on the road. The guards rushed over to lift him up, but he was only able to rise to his knees and hang limply from their grip.

The captain cracked a smile, crossing his arms. "Boy. I don't think I've seen someone run with such fervor for a while. Made for quite a bit of fun, I gotta say. But word of advice, lad - if you're being tailed by the cops, firebending's a no-no. That gives us the right to use fire in return. But if you hold it back, see, then you've got the benefit of the doubt, and we can only scorch the stuff around you." He gave a sigh. "Always gotta teach the kids..."

The noble made no response. The captain watched him silently for another moment, then turned back to the girl, furrowing his brow in curiosity. "So. Chi blocking, eh?"

The girl smiled. "He'll be good for half an hour. After that, though, he might start shooting fireballs at you, so I'd be careful."

"Oh, don't worry. This shouldn't take long." The captain turned back to the nobleman, who was hanging powerlessly in the guards' clutches, watching them through narrowed eyes. The captain unrolled the scroll and began to read it.

To my brothers and sisters,

We take pride in the legacy of our fathers. We uphold the noble heritage of the Fire Nation and await the day when its destiny will be realized. My wish is that we will see each other soon, so let us gather on the fringes of our city on the ninth moon, fifth day, twenty-third hour.

May the sun never set on our kingdom,

Tao Yu

"So, this is the letter that's taking the city by storm." The captain tilted his head. "I honestly thought it would be more imaginative. People usually give their little mafias names, like the Dissenters Division or Breaker Brigade. Or are you guys the type who think on the fly?"

The nobleman cast away his gaze. "I don't know what you're talking about. There have been patriotic conventions going on all over the country. You can't say having one more is unusual, can you?"

"I suppose not," the captain said. "What I do find unusual is that a patriotic convention should have to take place at night, in the outskirts of town, and be hidden from the Royal Police so meticulously that its members lock their invitations in boxes."

The nobleman scowled.

The captain rolled up the scroll. "I'm going to give you five seconds to tell me everyone else who's involved in your little reading club, or I'll send you to the Boiling Rock. They'll get the information out of you."

He waited, but the nobleman didn't respond.

"Two seconds." The captain tapped the edge of the scroll against his palm. "Four seconds."

The nobleman did not speak.

The captain waved to the policemen. "Boiling Rock it is. Take him away."

The policemen hoisted the nobleman to his feet, and right then he gave a wince. "I don't know!" he blurted. "I don't know who they are! No one does!"

The captain narrowed his eyes at him. "You're telling me you got a letter from someone you don't even know?"


"And you're doing what he's telling you to do? That has to mean you know what he wants, then. What is it?"

The nobleman started to answer, but bit it back. He shook his head at the pavement. "I don't know! I was just… I was just curious!"

The captain shook his head. "Take him."

"No!" The nobleman fought against the guards' grip as they pulled him back. They dragged him across the sidewalk, and his yelps gradually faded behind the closing carriage door.

Left alone with the captain, the girl crossed her arms. "You know, there's something I don't understand. During the coronation, everyone was happy. Everyone cheered when they heard Zuko say that the war was over. So what's with all these vandals running around?"

The captain smiled. "The people you saw at the coronation stand for roughly a third of our population. Those are the educated people, the traveled ones, the ones who disagreed with the war of their own accord. Or they're the average ones, the people who lived their entire lives with the conflict in the background. But think about everyone else. The people who got laid off from their factories because we don't need any more airships. The men from poor families hoping to earn money by going to war, who just found out that we're demilitarizing. People whose businesses are collapsing and know that the government will start taxing them to pay the Earth Kingdom compensation. Those are the people causing trouble. Peace is uprooting as many lives as it's saving, so we'll be running into a lot more of this in the next few months. But it's just a phase. In a year or so, everyone will learn to start living normally again, and it'll start to cool down."

"I hope so." The girl crossed her arms. After a moment, she looked back towards the carriage. "Do you really send everyone you catch to the Boiling Rock?"

The captain shrugged. "The Rock makes people talk. Even if you're not being kept in it. Just the thought of being put in the Cooler is enough to get your average street criminal to confess."

A smile crossed the girl's face. "Can't argue with that. I spent over a month there myself."


"Yep. They separated me from the other Kyoshi Warriors because I was their leader." She pursed her lips. "That wasn't the best time of my life. Sitting in a tiny cell all day really changes your outlook on the world."

The captain smiled. "Huh. I bet..." His gaze drifted down to the scroll again, and he opened it, taking a moment to read it over. Gradually, his face adopted a look of puzzlement. "You know, I've seen a lot of things these past few weeks. Gang logos carved into posts, flyers on doors... But this letter is downright strange. Look at the wood." He held the scroll out for the girl to inspect. The wood of the tube was polished smooth, and when he placed it into her hands, she weighed it carefully.

"It's heavy," she remarked.

"And the calligraphy is perfect," the captain said. "It looks like it could've come from the palace itself."

The girl began to read the scroll. "'Fringes of our city?' That's a bit vague. It's almost like this Tao Yu person expected his readers to know what he was talking about."

"Which means that he wasn't intending to spread it to just anyone - he wanted to give it to people who already knew about the meeting beforehand."

The girl lowered the scroll. "So this isn't a membership invitation. It's a call to action."

She raised her head, and the two stared at each other in silence. A moment later, the junior captain who had been tending to the carriage approached them. "Captain Lang. We've locked him in, sir. But he's restless. He's starting to say things about underground groups and government opposition."

Captain Lang gave a nod. "Take him to the city jail for now. Tell him if he cooperates with us, we'll keep him there instead of the Rock."

The junior captain nodded. He went back to the carriage, and the captain and the girl followed. Once everyone had boarded, the driver cracked a whip, and the carriage sped off down the street.

Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #24 on: Aug 08, 2018 07:43 am »

Beyond the rim of the Capital City Crater, down the steep slope of rocks and grass, the land shed its coat of vegetation and sprawled out into a barren, rocky desert. Nor far from the main mountain, a smaller, hollow crater rose up over the terrain, lazily curving up to end at a jagged rim. A lone traveler was currently making his way towards it, crossing the stretch of no-man's-land that separated it from the city. He had long black hair tied into a ponytail and wore a dark red uniform with arm cuffs and shin guards. A helmet was tucked beneath his arm. Often, he squinted up at the sky, then blinked and looked around at the empty landscape around him.

The land that surrounded the crater was a circle of bald rock. To the man's left, some of the grass was still growing, and in the distance, he could see several smaller peaks hiding clusters of buildings. Then, beyond that, the land took a gradual plunge and exposed the distant shoreline, where water sparkled in the daylight. As he walked, his gaze shifted between the unique scene to the helmet in his hands. It was made of bronze, and had little flaps around the forehead and sides. He tilted them back and forth, casting their shine around.

The man continued towards the crater at a leisurely pace, until he reached the beginning of the upward slope, where he saw the tips of white towers peeking over the natural rock. Each tower had a guard station built on top of it, attended by people in dress similar to his. At this point, the man glanced down at his wristwatch, which resembled a miniature sundial, and glanced up at the sky a few times to correct his position for a measurement. Once he saw the time, however, he immediately gasped, and quickened his pace towards the crater.

He ascended the slope, and upon reaching the rim, he walked up to one of the watch stations and approached the guard.

"Excuse me, I'm here to see the warden. I'm starting work today." The man took out a small paper from his pocket and handed it to the guard.

The guard gave the paper a quick once-over and yawned. "So. Fresh meat."

"That's usually what we say about prisoners," the newcomer remarked.

The guard smiled. "Aren't we all, though?"

He beckoned and led the newcomer into the watchtower, where they descended a windowless spiral staircase to the bottom of the crater. Stepping out into the open air again, the newcomer looked up and saw that the walls of the crater had risen up around them, blocking sight of everything save for a round splotch of sky, like the view from inside the mouth of a beast. Various accommodations had been built into the stone, including a walkway and a courtyard. But the thing that attracted the eye was a white stone tower built right into the face of the crater, its belly round and bulging, dotted with windows.

The guard gave him the paper back, and the newcomer set off for the tower at the same agitated pace. As he approached the tower, he unfolded the paper and scanned the message for the tenth time that day: Warden Poon. Room 20. Eight o'clock.

He approached the doors to the tower, where another helmeted guard awaited him. After reading the paper, he motioned the newcomer inside, leading him into the tower's entrance room. The room was bare and completely devoid of human tampering, save for a halfheartedly-flattened floor and small windows. A narrow doorway stood at the opposite wall, from which a third guard appeared moments later. Unlike the previous two, he had his helmet in his hands, revealing a plain, short hairstyle.

He approached the newcomer, giving a smile. "Hey. You're the new guy, right?"

The newcomer nodded. "Yeah. My name's Kinchil. It's nice to meet you."

"Likewise. I'm Mo." The guard took Kinchil's hand and shook it. "The Warden's already expecting you, so we'll head on over."

Kinchil nodded again. "All right. I'll follow you."

Mo beckoned and turned to lead the way. They entered a bare hallway, which was bathed in an orange hue by electric ceiling lamps. They made a few twists and turns, until finally Mo slowed to a stop beside a door. It was made of metal and had an inscription carved into the face: WARDEN.

Mo knocked. Moments later came a gruff reply. "Come in!"

The guard opened the door, revealing a small, windowless office room. It had a several metal bookshelves stocked with boxes and a writing desk at the center, where a man was sitting. He had a large, muscular build and gray hair, though it seemed like anyone who called him Grandpa would have their teeth knocked out. His hands were currently employed holding a scroll, however, which he was reading as the guards entered.

Mo closed the door behind them, and when the man looked up, he stepped forward. "Warden Poon, I have the new guard here." The guard motioned for Kinchil to approach the desk, which he did, stopping before the warden and bowing.

Poon nodded. "So. Kinchil, is it?'

"Yes sir."

"That's an unusual name. Where are you from?"

"My family lives up north, close to Fire Fountain City. That's where-"

"Yes, that's where you worked before. No need to fill me in, Warden Lao told me everything already." Poon rolled up his scroll and placed it aside. "He gave a good review of your performance, but he also said you that have a tendency to… overthink things."

Kinchil maintained eye contact with the warden, but shifted his weight ever so slightly.

"Now, I don't believe in starting off easy or giving people chances," said Poon. "There's a job that needs to be done in this place, and if you can't do what that job demands, I send you back. As I'm sure you've heard, Fire Lord Zuko is doing a full-blown cleaning of the government. His goal is to weed out anyone who might still be loyal to the old ways. This puts a strain on us, because over the next few months, prisoners will be coming and going like ship passengers. People who are free now could be locked up, and people you're feeding today could be out on the streets with you tomorrow. It'll be a mess, and when there's a mess in the system, the prisoners get rowdy." Poon reached for a thick folder at his side and opened it. "That's why I need more people patrolling the building. I know you're a good firebender, so eventually I might station you outside, but for now I need you with the prisoners. You'll be feeding them and watching over them whenever they're out of their cells, for exercise and whatnot. They're a lonely bunch, so there'll always be someone who'll try to pick a fight for the heck of it or try to convince you that they're innocent because they've got no one else to talk to. But none of that stuff should concern you. Your job is to make sure the place is running smoothly. Do you understand?"

Kinchil nodded. "Yes sir."

"Good. If you have any other questions, you can ask Mo. He'll be your mentor for the first week, and once the lunch break is over, he'll show you around. For now, read this." Poon handed him another scroll, which Kinchil unfolded to reveal a map of the prison. "This is the layout of all nine floors, with a diagram of the cells, stairways, and major exit points. Put it into your locker and don't ever take it outside our walls. You can use it as much as you want when you're in here; just use your common sense and don't have it sticking out of your pocket when you're with the prisoners. We've had to move them around a few times in the past because of that."

"I won't, sir."

"Other than that, Mo will explain everything. In a minute you'll leave and start giving the crowd lunch. I have Ming and Ito covering the firebenders, so you'll be doing the nonbenders. They won't do anything to you, as long as you don't stick your fingers in the cages." Poon chuckled. Seeing Kinchil's eyes widen, the warden glanced over to Mo. "Ah, he understands." Smiling, the warden looked back at the new guard. "You know who our VIP is, then?"

Kinchil nodded stiffly. "Phoe—Fi… Ozai."

Warden Poon gave a full-blown laugh, clutching his belly. "We call him the Phoenix King around here. I might as well tell you about him; it'll spare you some awkward questions in the lounge. He's our…" the warden squinted up at the ceiling philosophically, "… our lion turtle in the room. You know what a lion turtle is, don't you?"

"The biggest animal in the world," Kinchil replied. "But they're not real. Or… at least, they were, but they died out centuries ago."

"That's right," said Poon. "And imagine you walked into a big room with lots of people, where there's a lion turtle standing right in the middle. Not moving, not talking, just standing there and looking down at everyone. Would you point it out to somebody?"

Kinchil nodded. "Of course, sir."

Poon lifted an eyebrow. "Are you sure? Even if no one's looking at it? Even if no one mentions it? Lion turtles are extinct, remember. They're not supposed to be standing in rooms, and if you do so much as lift your finger at it, people will say you're crazy. Even if they see it as clearly as you do."

Kinchil thought this over and frowned. "I'm not sure I follow that logic, sir."

"Imagine you live in a country that's been at war for an entire century," said Poon. "The war was started by one ruler, then continued by his son, and by the son of that son. This third ruler gets crowned during a pretty low point - the nation's just lost an important battle and let itself be kicked out by the enemy with its tail tucked between its legs. This sends the world a message of unusual weakness, and has the potential to stir up a counterattack. But the new ruler acts quickly to prevent this. In his five years on the throne, he shows that he's a good commander, and in spite of some bad moments, he manages to get back the position of advantage. Eventually he achieves a victory that's so decisive that it practically wins him the war. The only thing left for him to do is impose it on the rest of the world. So, he comes up with a plan to crush all resistance to his armies in a single swipe. But right before he can, he's struck down by a particularly powerful individual, and the whole thing comes to a standstill. The challenger doesn't kill the ruler, but allows the circumstances to remain mysterious enough for most of the world to think that he died. He and the ruler's successor understand that the world needs closure. They understand that the only way people will accept the new peace is for a criminal to be permanently disposed of. Publicly, the new ruler doesn't confirm or deny what happened. The official word is that the past ruler's power is completely broken, which most people take anyway to mean that he's dead. But in fact, that old ruler is sitting in a prison cell, holding a blanket, being fed three times a day. The only thing that's gone is his firebending." Warden Poon smiled. "The prison staff know, of course. So do the people high up in the new government. Some of them want to move on from the old ruler, so they act like he doesn't exist. Others still think he should be the one on the throne, but since they don't want to get arrested, they don't mention him either. No one talks about him, but everyone's thinking about him. He's hanging over everyone's heads, like a giant lion turtle in the room. The subject of a silent conversation."

Kinchil looked at the warden in amazement and understanding. "Ah…"

"Your job here is to keep that silence," Poon concluded. "Do your job and let people imagine the rest for themselves. If anyone in town asks you what happened to Ozai, say you're bound to secrecy. If some lowlife here begs to know if we have the Phoenix King, tell them to mind their own business. If they want to, they'll find out on their own. Prisoners love to gossip."

Kinchil nodded. "Yes, sir."

"And as for Ozai himself?" Poon shrugged. "He's just a man who lost. He was a good Fire Lord, I won't deny it. Patriotic, decisive. He was the leader our country needed. But if they put him back on that throne tomorrow, he'd banish the entire continent's population and go back to wallowing." The warden crossed his arms. "Why don't you see for yourself? I can tell you're curious. He's in Cell 139, on the ninth floor. Mo can take you up, and you can get some practice with the other high-security prisoners too, while you're at it. Meet the lion turtle and you'll be an official part of informed society." The warden smiled at his joke, and went back to reading his scroll.

Mo led Kinchil out of the office, and from there, Kinchil followed him down the hall to the kitchens. Past the sounds of clanging trays and hissing water, Mo stopped before a door and pushed it open, revealing a room full of metal carts. They had multiple shelves, all of which were stocked with the same assortment of food: a bowl of meat, bread, and water. Mo took the nearest cart by the handle and steered it out of the room, leading Kinchil further down the hallway till they reached an accordion door.

"We only have three elevators in the whole prison," Mo explained. "It's because the tower's really old, and they couldn't find a way to fit any more. Technically we're only supposed to use them for floors six and up, but sometimes the other guards steal them to make food rounds easier. I hope this one's free…" He pulled the handle to the side, and the door folded back to reveal a wrought-iron screen. Through the diamond-shaped holes, Kinchil saw a shallow, box-like space. Mo smiled and pulled it open.

The elevator had just enough room to fit the two of them with the food cart in between. Once Mo had closed both doors, he turned to a small speaker on the wall and pressed the button beneath it.

"Ninth floor, please!" he said.

Someone's voice replied moments later: "On it."

Kinchil heard the sound of turning gears, and the elevator began to ascend. They climbed for a few seconds until the elevator screeched to a stop, and Mo slid open the doors to reveal a long, dim hallway. The left wall was paved with smooth, straight blocks, while the wall to the right was rough and unrefined, like a cave's. The murky lighting came from bowls of fire mounted on the jagged surface. Mo pushed the cart forward, and Kinchil followed him all the way to the end, where they made a turn and entered another section. Here, wooden doors were spaced along the left, with no locks or numbers.

"This is where we keep the dangerous ones," Mo whispered. "It doesn't look like much, but the cells are spaced wider, and the walls are backed with steel, in case anyone tries to pick their way out." He stopped the cart at a nondescript door and turned to Kinchil with a smile. "Are you ready?" He reached for the door and pushed it open.

The firelight spilled into a dark, silent room, touching the bars of a steel cage that stood against the back wall. The emotion slid from Mo's face like dirt under rain as he took a tray from the cart.

"Breakfast," he said.

He handed Kinchil the tray, and Kinchil went inside, kneeling down to the bars of the cell. He couldn't see anything beyond them, and for a moment, succeeded in convincing himself that there was no one inside. He put down the tray.

Right then, a shape stirred in the shadows. There was a rustle as something crawled up to the bars, and before Kinchil could react, a pair of amber eyes lit up in the torchlight just inches away from his face. Kinchil felt an almost tangible zap, as if someone had sent a current of lightning down his spine, and fell back onto his hands. Those weren't the eyes of defeat. They were alive and furious, like two pools of magma seconds away from eruption.

Kinchil slid himself away from the bars, then rose to his feet and left the room, hoping that the shadows masked his expression of shock. He didn't look back to see how Ozai had reacted. He immediately closed the door behind him and went back to the cart.

Mo pushed it onward, and once they were far enough from Ozai's cell, he turned to Kinchil. "So, what do you think?"

Kinchil let out a breath. "Is his firebending really gone?"

"Yep. The Fire Sages confirmed it. Whatever Avatar Aang did to him, his bending is gone and never coming back."

Kinchil lowered his head. "It doesn't seem like it."

Mo nodded. "I know what you mean. But you'll get used to it. Over time you'll start seeing him as just another prisoner." They were silent for a moment, as the metal wheels rolled noisily over the stones. "And hey, if you think about it, he's even less of a problem than some of the other people here. He can't bend, for one thing, and that fight with the Avatar really did a number on his strength. The worst he can really do is glare at you. But some of the firebenders in here, those can get nasty. We've got the leader of a raider fleet in here, and an Imperial Firebender."

"What did they get the Imperial Firebender for?"

"I don't know. A lot of them were on Ozai's airships, though, so they were probably the first ones to get interrogated. I guess he still supports Ozai's plan to take over the world."

Kinchil's eyes flashed with alarm. "And you don't think that putting the old Fire Lord on the same floor as his followers is a bad idea?"

« Last Edit: Aug 08, 2018 07:45 am by DynaDratina » Logged

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