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Author Topic: The Real Subject (Avatar: The Last Airbender, PG)  (Read 3623 times)
DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 44



« Reply #25 on: Aug 08, 2018 07:44 am »

Mo smiled. "Didn't you hear the warden? Ozai's a mystery. Even the prisoners who know he's here don't know exactly where he is. And between you and me, some of these guys are too insane to care. Like this one." He stopped the cart beside another door. "I'll take him. You watch." He took a tray into his hands and pushed open the door. "Breakfast!"

This prisoner was sitting at the front of the cell, so when the light spilled in, Kinchil had no trouble spotting him. His beard and moustache covered so much of his face that he looked like he could have been any age - thirty, or eighty. His blanket was tied around his neck like a cape, and he wore a strange, flat cap that hung askew on his head.

Mo slid the tray up to the bars, and without a moment's delay, the prisoner reached to take a few pieces of meat from the bowl. He bit off what little flesh there was and collected the bones in the center of his palm. Seconds later, there was a soft hiss as a bright yellow flame erupted from his hand. The man squinted and peered into it.

"Dragon-bird spirit, this is Commander Deng! Tell me if my message got through to that rat, General Po!"

Mo's hand closed around the cup of water on the tray. But the man kept staring into the fire in anticipation, and moments later, he smirked.

"Ah, General Po! Dear me, why the unfriendly greeting? If you had taken that advice from me the first time, then you would have won the Battle of the Three Hills!… What was that? Oh, the Fire Lord's orders? The same Fire Lord who told your army to abandon camp at River End and head south, right into the storm at Gar Sai? I warned about that storm a month beforehand! But Fire Lord Azulon insisted that his readings were correct, and now you, my friend, are talking to me from the other side of the world, while the Fire Nation is marred by yet another failure thanks to the Great Sage's… what? I've lost you!" The flame flickered and dimmed. "Hello?" The man leaned closer, till his nose was nearly touching the edge of the dying fire. But the flames continued to grow smaller and redder, and as a last resort he reached in with his other hand and began to stir the bones, completely oblivious to the heat. But despite his efforts, the fire went out, exposing a lump of ash in his palm. The man spat.

"Blast it! These bones burn like leaves." He scattered the ash around him and pushed the tray aside.

"If you don't eat now, you won't get anything else till evening," said Mo.

The man glanced over to him and scowled. "Good! And don't bother coming back until you've got some quality bones, ones that can keep a decent connection!" He turned away from the bars and slouched over his lap.

Mo got up to leave, and once he had closed the door behind him, he looked at Kinchil with a sigh. "That's Commander Deng. He's been here even longer than the warden has. He got put here by Azulon ten years ago, but no one knows why. Poon says he's got his papers somewhere, but he doesn't even think of sending his case to the Fire Lord."

"Why not?" Kinchil asked.

"The guy is certified crazy. He sees spirits and talks to people who've been gone for years as if they're right in the room with him. And he talks about premonitions like the weather. I personally don't care for that kind of stuff, but I know Azulon sure did. I bet Deng just said some things that caused dissent in the army, so Azulon sent him straight to high-security. Then Azulon died, and I guess everyone forgot about him. Zuko might be sympathetic and let Deng go, but really, this is the only place he can go. The only way the warden would let him out is if he goes into exile somewhere, with a bunch of doctors to help bring him back to reality. But I don't think the Fire Nation has places like that."

Mo pushed the cart onward and Kinchil followed. They went around the other cells in the high-security ward, then took the elevator down to the lower floors. Once lunch was over, Mo took Kinchil to the assembly room to prepare for lockdown hours.

In Kinchil's hometown, the prison had been a simple building with fences and shutters. But as his old warden Lao had promised, Capital City was different. In matters of security it was second probably only to the Boiling Rock. It had no need for walls, since the crater rose up over fifty feet around it. The prison tower was built right into the face of the rock, where one of the peaks curved over it and shielded it from the rain. During the course of a day, the shadow of the overhang would shift across the face of the tower and plunge some of the cells into darkness. After a couple hours of studying the prison map in the break room and drawing optical diagrams, Kinchil managed to calculate where the sun would shine at different times of day. He found that the cells on the lower floors got the most light, since the tower jutted out slightly at the base, while the upper cells, most notably the high-security ones, got little.

A few hours before sunset, his first day of duty ended, and Kinchil left the tower building to rest up before his early shift the next morning. He paced around the crater's perimeter, looking up at the sentry guards who stood on the battlements. He saw them casually greeting other guards that passed by, and down below, saw others leading small groups of prisoners away from the courtyard in single-file. Kinchil noted with a slight uneasiness that the prisoners were wearing simple ankle chains and handcuffs. They had never taken prisoners outside in the Fire Fountain prison. For Warden Lao, prisoners and outside air didn't mix. Granted, the Fire Fountain prison was located in the middle of a city street, but even so, Kinchil had always thought it obvious that prisoners shouldn't be trusted to keep the peace when they were being escorted somewhere. One moment they could be complacent, and the next they could hit you with a fistful of fire and run off for freedom.

The other guards had assured Kinchil that everything was fine, that even the Boiling Rock had a courtyard, and that no prisoner would ever be foolish enough to try anything when they were outside. The premises was completely surrounded by walls and patrolled from the outside day and night. Getting out through the tower was impossible with guards on every floor, and if a prisoner did manage to dig through the window side, they would plunge to their deaths into the rocks.

Yet Kinchil still couldn't shake the feeling of unease he got when he thought about the prisoner in Cell 139. Every firebender had a bit of the sun in them, and every day, from precisely eight to eleven o'clock, that prisoner would emerge from his darkness into the light, and crave the fire he'd once been able to control.



...

At the end of that day, having depositing the escaped noble into the city jail and finished several smaller jobs in the city, Captain Lang and his team made their way back to the Royal Police Office. The building stood at the edge of the city, right beside the stone courtyard that surrounded the palace. Once the carriage had pulled up in front of the doors, Captain Lang emerged, followed by the girl and the junior captain. They both followed the captain inside, where he led them to a large file room with groups of bookshelves standing on either side. At the very head of the room was a writing desk, with a Fire Nation tapestry hanging behind it.

"All in a day's work," Lang sighed. He approached the desk and placed down some folders he was carrying. He stepped around to a small file cabinet nearby and began to examine the contents, which consisted of scrolls, letters, and reports. The junior captain gathered up the folders from the desk moments later, and together he and Lang began to arrange them on the shelves. Lang turned to look at the girl, who had come to stand in front of the desk.

"We'll hit a few more places in the lower city tomorrow, Suki. Then you'll be free to rejoin your teammates in the palace."

The girl gave a nod. "Don't worry. My girls are doing fine without me. And really, the Kyoshi Warriors are just a precaution. The Fire Lord never meant for us to take the place of his regular guards anyway."

Captain Lang smiled. "That may be true, but for some reason the regular guards never end up being enough when there's a real threat."

Suki crossed her arms. "Well, I can't argue with that… Though I gotta admit, the Imperial Firebenders try. And they make it somewhat hard to get past them when they do."

A puzzled expression crossed Lang's face. "Wait… you were one of the airship raiders, weren't you? It was either you or another one of your girls. I remember the Fire Lord telling me about it."

Suki smiled. "Yeah, that was me. And two of my friends, Sokka and Toph."

Lang raised his eyebrows. "So three kids took out twelve airships, all fully-armed and staffed?" He gave a laugh. "I don't think I'll ever understand it."

Suki gave a playful tilt of the head. "Did I ever mention that my friend was a metalbender?"

"A what, now?"

"A metalbender," Suki said. "That's what she calls it, anyway. It's a technique she invented. I don't know how it works exactly, but she says she can feel impurities in the metal that were left behind when it was made. And she bended those little bits of earth to deform the airships."

Lang lifted his eyebrows. "Impressive." He filed away the last few folders. "Funny, how things work out... In the police, there's this general consensus that kids have no place in official business. But the Avatar turned out to be a young boy. Our new Fire Lord is a teenager. You Kyoshi girls are hardly any older than he is. And a few days ago, one of his friends showed me up in some strange strategy game that I can't even remember the rules of..."

Suki smiled. "Yep. That's Sokka. He's our little mastermind."

"So how are you kids doing now?"

"We're all pretty good. Sokka and Katara are staying here for a while, while their dad's fleet is still here. Toph left for the Earth Kingdom. She's thinking about starting an earthbending school, but she says she has to fix some family issues first. I'm not sure what she meant by that, but it's gotta be something important."

Captain Lang gave a nod. He reached into the inner pocket of his coat and took out the scroll tube he had taken from Aren. He unrolled it to read the message a final time, then opened one of his desk drawers and placed it into a pile of several others.

After a moment, Suki spoke up. "So... how many of those letters have you guys found, exactly?"

"Three. This one's the fourth."

"Huh. Well, that doesn't seem to be that many..."

Lang breathed a sigh. "It's not about the number, it's about the pattern. The first one got spotted by one of the palace guards, lying crumpled up in the fireplace of a minister we convicted earlier. During the interrogations, he said flat-out that he'd never accept Prince Zuko as Fire Lord or swear loyalty to him. Doing that is technically fine, from the official side of things, but as a consequence you lose your job, possibly your titles, and will generally be looked down upon by the other nobles if you ever have the guts to show your face around them again. But it won't get you in jail, per se. What does get you in jail is evidence that you've taken action to damage to the government. And the minister threatened to take action, so there was really nothing else to do with him but to jail him. We put him in the Rock." Lang paused. "Then we went through his possessions and found the letter. The next two came from the lower city - one was lying in the fireplace of a guest house, and the other was lying right in the middle of a street, face-up. All of them were just within a few days of each other."

Suki frowned. "What does the Fire Lord think about this?"

Lang gave a one-shoulder shrug. "He said to keep an eye out, so I am. We'll probably start showing these to people at the interrogations, too, to see if they know anything about it."

Suki nodded. She turned around to look at the rest of the room, then back at the tapestry above Lang's desk. "So, how long have you been the police captain?"

"Eight years." Lang smiled. "Though there wasn't much to do for the first seven. The old captain called it the laziest public office, since palace security is taken care of by the royal guards, and nothing ever happens in the upper city. There were some scandals in the lower city from time to time, but those were rare too."

Suki's gaze swept across the bookshelves in the distance, where some officers were filing away case files. The junior captain had taken a seat in an chair nearby and was reading a scroll. She turned to Captain Lang, frowning in curiosity. "So does... the police get interrogated too?"

Lang laughed. "What do you think? Of course we do! We were one of the first sectors the Fire Lord looked into, actually, after the military. He wanted to make sure he could have Capital City secure for him. So he went right on in here with his guards and asked to speak with me. First Fire Lord who ever showed up in my office. And the first one who actually offered me tea in my own building... Well, I told him about myself, he told me about himself, and I said right on out that I'd be ready to serve him. A Fire Lord like that is going to get us places. Good places."

Suki smiled. "We think so, too."

A brief silence settled over them, but moments later it was broken as a police officer burst into the room from the distant entrance. Suki, Lang, and the junior captain all turned, watching as the officer approached them with two guards at his side and bowed to Captain Lang.

"Sir. A letter's just come in from Captain Sung in South Chung-Ling," the officer said. "It's marked urgent."

"What does it say?"

The officer unrolled a thick scroll and began to read it. "'Captain Lang. The government interrogations are continuing in our city in accordance with the Fire Lord's instructions and in close cooperation with palace officials. But my team has discovered a development that I fear will bring consequences if it is not dealt with soon. I am afraid we do not have the resources to deal with this ourselves, as I suspect that the problem is not confined to our city alone.

'This past Friday, some of my police were patrolling the downtown and discovered a disturbance on one of the streets. Some civilians had gotten into a fight with a group of guards at the entrance to a pub. My police came to stop the fight, and upon identifying the guards, they found that they were civilians as well, not the pub's employees. They entered the building and found it to be deserted, save for a side room that appeared to be locked from the inside. Behind the door, they heard a conversation, which appeared to be held in a meeting of around ten people.

'From my police's reports, the people were heard to mention Fire Lord Ozai, the Princess Azula, and the names of some other palace officials, in an atmosphere of clear disapproval of the new Fire Lord's rule. Detailed quotes couldn't be made, but all of my police distinctly remember hearing the following statement: "Since the throne can only be passed down in the event of the previous ruler's death or abdication, the fact that Ozai is alive means that the throne is still in his possession. Therefore, the current Fire Lord's rule is illegitimate."

'The speaker at the meeting obtained his listeners' unanimous approval, and concluded by assuring them that plans were underway to 'do what is necessary'.

'These and several other enclosed reports have caused me to believe that there is an underground pro-Ozai movement in South Chung-Ling. I have attached all the documents my team has gathered and I hope that you will be able to work with us to stop this. As of now, we do not know what this group's goal is, but we have no doubt that they are seeking to take action against the government."

The officer finished reading and looked up from the scroll. Captain Lang rubbed his chin. "What else did he include?"

The officer looked down. "Aside from some more testimonies, his team also noticed that certain accused officials emptied their file cabinets before the search teams could get to them, and that certain lower-ranking workers disappeared before they could be interrogated. Sung has evidence that many of them communicated with each other. He also included copies of a letter that he was able to retrieve from some of the officials' private stores. All of the letters described a meeting that would take place on a certain date and time in their city, and it was signed by a person named Tao Yu." He showed Captain Lang the letter, which turned out to be a near copy of the one Aren had been carrying, save for a slight difference in the specification of date and time.

Captain Lang began to pace around the room, clasping his hands behind his back. "Then whoever these people are, they're organized and unified. And given that they have copies of our letter, some of their people must be in our city as well." He turned to the junior captain. "Get the carriage ready. We're going to interrogate that noble."

The junior captain scurried off the way they had come, and moments later, he, Lang, Suki, and some other officers boarded the carriage and set out through the rapidly-darkening evening to the downtown jail. After some questioning, Aren finally confessed that he had been given the letter earlier that day by General Mak. Wasting no time, Lang returned to the upper city, and in a matter of minutes, assembled a squad of policemen and stormed into the villa where the general lived. But inside, they found all the rooms emptied, and the general gone.

(End of Chapter 8 )
« Last Edit: Oct 14, 2018 08:40 am by Icy_Ashford » Logged
DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 44



« Reply #26 on: Aug 08, 2018 07:47 am »

9. Spared

After one week into his new job, Kinchil understood why Warden Poon had needed more help. The prison was like an overcrowded train station in the middle of its midday rush. All of its one-hundred-forty cells were occupied, forcing the kitchens and sanitary crews to work practically nonstop, and the mail room was cluttered with letters from the palace, detailing arrests and releases, which the mail guards would relate to everyone else in the break room, inevitably igniting a stir of gossip as the guards recognized familiar names.

The prisoners were a mix of nobility and nobodies, master fighters and people who could hardly bend down to touch their toes. Poon had divided the firebenders into three classes and immediately assigned Kinchil to the highest. Those were the ones who could distort their metal handcuffs with heat and retaliate with fireballs when other inmates got on their nerves. And unfortunately, those cases were many. After the latest rounds of trials, four more military commanders had been imprisoned, all of whom immediately began to release a long-harbored spite and distaste for one another. On Kinchil's third day, two of them started a fight in the courtyard, leaving char marks on the brick walls and setting several trees on fire. Kinchil had rushed to the scene just as the fight climaxed, with both men firing enormous torrents of flame directly at each other. He hastened to curve the colliding jets upward, making them bend away from each other like snakes and dissipate into the air. Out of dry humor, some of the other prisoners had started clapping.

From conversations with the other guards, Kinchil discovered that he was the newest of many recruits, more than Capital City Prison had had in a long time. Some had come from the jail in the lower city, while others had been transferred from cities nearby. The rest of the guards had been there much longer. Mo, his mentor, had started six years before, and Shen, one of Mo's friends, had come the year after. Capital City had many female guards as well, the most proficient of whom was Ming. She had showed Kinchil a firebending trick when they were on patrol together and helped him wrestle quarreling prisoners to the ground.

Fortunately, Warden Poon never let more than ten prisoners out into the yard at once, so fights were always containable. And he only let them out occasionally, when he deemed they had spent a long enough time in solitary confinement to dull their violent impulses. But other than that, there were no blocks to chip, no machines to build. Prisoners spent the entire day alone in their cages, not seeing anybody else save for the guards who gave them food. And even that was designed to be as minimally stimulating as possible - the guard came, dropped off the tray, then left. Though since there was little to no supervision of the situation, some of the guards liked to take it as an opportunity to play games. Shen liked to place the tray just out of arm's reach to see how the prisoner would improvise to get it. Some of them were left reaching and straining themselves for minutes on end, until they finally shot curses (and sometimes fireballs) at him, while others used their shirts or blankets as a hook to pull the tray over, long past the point where such degradation bothered them. Ming always responded to Shen's boasting with glares, stating that such behavior was only asking for the prisoners to hate him. In her opinion, it was better to treat them fairly, if not earning their respect then at least not stirring up their anger.

As for Kinchil himself, he preferred not to fix what wasn't broken and stuck to the same procedure he had used for his entire career, which was to simply fulfill his obligations as close to the letter as possible. He spoke to the Capital City prisoners plainly and briefly, and never lingered with them for too long a time. And indeed, the surrounding environment did little to stimulate a conversational mood. Beyond the wide spaces and efficient technology of the lower floors, the rest of the prison tower was a network of long, narrow stone passageways. When it rained, water from outside would seep in through some invisible cracks in the stone and leave puddles on the floor for days. It was cold and dark, and no matter how upbeat Kinchil would feel going in, coming back from the upper floors always left him shrouded in a melancholy mood. He longed for the day when he would become like Ito, one of the senior guards, who had long become used to doing food rounds and saw them as a simple routine that could easily be pushed away from one's mind once it was over.

But there was one exception to everybody's rule, and that was the former Fire Lord Ozai. That was the person who made Shen suspicious and scrutinizing, Ming cautious and wary, and Ito strangely contemplative and philosophical.

He had been in the prison for over a month, though the time had passed by without incident. He had had no visitors, save for the very beginning, when Fire Lord Zuko had come to visit, presumably to make a final statement. Since then, Ozai had remained in place. There were a few stories surrounding him, since every guard who saw him liked to color the experience in their own way, from one who claimed to have glimpsed him trying to pry apart the cell bars with his hands, to another who had heard him chanting unintelligibly. But those stories turned out to be mostly fabricated. True to Mo's words, Ozai moved around much less than the other prisoners, and was usually either slumped against the wall or sleeping when Kinchil came to deliver food. But when Ozai was awake, those cold amber eyes would immediately latch onto him, sending a cold jolt down his spine that he could feel even after he left. In just few days, Kinchil had mastered an art which the guards at his old prison bragged about, which was getting in and out of a cell in the space of ten seconds.

But there was one thing that nevertheless pulled his interest towards the high-security floor, and that was the prisoner in Cell 140. Or, as practically everyone called him, Commander Deng. Over the days, he proved to be oblivious to nearly everything that was going on around him, focused instead on his one-way dialogues, which would often be well underway even in the early morning. He hadn't been taken outside in over a year, and had expressed no interest in doing so. According to Mo, the last time Poon had tried sending Deng out for a walk, Deng had started shooting fireballs into the air, shouting abuse at some invisible minister. None of the guards paid him much attention anymore, but Kinchil found himself pausing every so often after lowering the food tray to listen to what Deng was saying. For some reason, the prisoner required a handful of animal bones in order to make the conversations work. For this he kept emergency stockpiles in the dark corners of his cell, which the guards on sanitary rounds long knew not to touch, on pain of a scolding and clap around the ears. On the days when the cooks only made vegetables, Commander Deng spat and berated Kinchil for not having made port for more cargo yet. But when the kitchens served chicken or fish, the Commander would eagerly snatch it up, ignoring everything else on the plate, and moments later place the clean bones into his hand and light a flame from his palm. He would call to the Dragon-bird spirit, who moments later presumably answered, then move on to talking to someone or something on the 'other side'.

After a few more days of talking to General Po, Commander Deng failed to convince him of his point of view and angrily dropped the contact. He spent the rest of the week either sleeping or searching for another conversation partner, contacting what seemed to be numerous other individuals or spirits he seemed to be passing by. He did all of this while peering into the flame in his hand, which would change between deep red, orange, and bright yellow, the lighter shades of which seemed to correlate with a stronger connection. But he never stayed with any of these conversation partners for too long; every time Kinchil saw him, it seemed, he was searching for someone new.

It continued like this into Kinchil's second week, up to the umpteenth morning shift, when he entered the cell to see the prisoner looking well-rested and sitting up, leaning close to a dim orange flame in his hand. Kinchil placed the tray down, just as Deng reached for a bone that lay beside him and tossed it into his palm, causing the fire to hiss and brighten into yellow. The sight had become so commonplace that Kinchil was about to turn to leave, when suddenly the prisoner's voice rang out.

"Hello? Hello! Dragon-bird, by your good graces, let my voice be carried aloft on your wings and soar over the rift between our worlds! Let me speak to the Fire Lord! Fire Lord Azulon!"

Kinchil paused at the door, eyes widening. After a a brief quarrel with himself, he looked back over his shoulder, finally turning around and taking a few steps towards the cage. Commander Deng didn't notice. He was too absorbed in the fire, frowning in contemplation, when suddenly, his face broke out into an ecstatic smile.

"Yes! Fire Lord Azulon! Fire Lord Azu… what?" Deng's smile fell. "He's unreachable? How can that be?" He paused. "I don't understand. I was told he had recently passed... I was certain that he would have crossed over... What do you mean, he's gone? Either he's in the spirit world or in the realm of the departed - it makes no logical sense whatsoever for you to put it like... what?!" Deng gave another pause, expression shocked and befuddled, then moments later he grabbed his head and let out a frustrated groan.

Kinchil's heart began to pound. He stood in place, watching the prisoner stare into the fire. After several minutes of no results, Deng finally gave up, smothered it, and scattered the bones. Before his stay grew prolonged, Kinchil closed the door and pushed the food cart onwards.

It's impossible, Kinchil thought. Azulon's dead. There's no way he could talk to him.

But none of this stopped Deng from trying. As the day wore on, the kitchen received complaints that a certain Number 140 was pushing away vegetable meals, and the guards who came back from lunch and cleanup rounds had scratches and burns on their uniforms from trying to get Deng to stop firebending. The next day, when Kinchil went up to deliver lunch, Deng was still talking, his voice audible even through his cell door.

"Dragon-bird, this is Commander Deng, currently flying over the Misty Forest in the Realm of Ran! I still do not see the storm you told me about. Are you sure that the wind and thunder was coming from your side and not an interference from the mortal world?... Hold on... I see it! I see it! Dragon-bird, I see the clouds hovering right over the Waterfall, but I cannot tell where they're coming from! Are you not able to see beyond them at all? Hello?"

As always, the flame in his palm was silent. But beneath the visor of his cap, the prisoner's eyes were squinted, as if he were straining to hear something going on on the other end. Beside the cell bars was a breakfast tray untouched. Kinchil removed it and replaced it with the new tray, and though this meal included a whole chicken leg, Commander Deng didn't cast it a single glance.

When Kinchil's shift ended that day, he went to the lower city library and got as many books about firebending and the spirit world as possible. But unfortunately, sources of information on the latter were few. This came to Kinchil as no big surprise - even in the distant Fire Fountain City, books on the occult had been kept under tight lock and key, if stocked at all. The only sources that Kinchil could find that explicitly mentioned the spirit world were children's books, but most of their stories' descriptions were vague and conflicting.

There was always the option that Deng was crazy. But still... the yellow fire. Kinchil had heard stories from his family of people who could produce different-color flames, which had always been said to be linked with profound abilities. And for all he had seen in his twenty-five years, he knew that he'd never dismiss anything without looking into it himself first. Someone had gotten their bending taken away, after all. That had to mean that there was something else beyond the things that mainstream firebending teachers taught, abilities or phenomena that were hiding beyond the shroud of everyday life, like ancient secrets waiting to be rediscovered.

...

The next day, Kinchil had the overnight shift. It started at seven o'clock and lasted until three in the morning, which made it both the most complained-about shift among the Capital City guards, but also the most easygoing, since they got more break times and usually had the next day either off or on evening shift. Back at home, Kinchil might have had the urge to unwisely spend his free morning and afternoon roaming around town, but here, in his tiny apartment in the cramped lower city, it was too easy to let himself stay in and focus inwards, conserving his energy. Kinchil spent the daylight hours eating and resting up, then as soon as the shadow on his sundial watch slipped past six, he changed into his uniform and left. It was already dark when he entered the prison tower, which made the light from the indoor lamps seem murkier than in the daytime. Kinchil wound his way through the first floor and entered the male locker room, where Shen was packing up to leave. The guard removed his helmet to reveal dull, flattened hair, and gave a yawn as he rubbed his face.

"Everything good?" Kinchil asked.

Shen sighed and slammed the locker door. "I need to sleep for three days straight. I can't take another day like this..."

"What's wrong?"

"The Commander's at it again."

Kinchil frowned. "You mean he's still trying to reach Azulon?"

Shen shook his head. "I don't even know what he's doing anymore... It's like he's tapped into a whole new level of crazy." He heaved his sack of belongings over his shoulder. "Well, I'm out. Got tomorrow off, too. See you later." He waved his fingers in a parting gesture and left the room.

After placing his things into his locker, Kinchil went to the kitchen to check on the dinner carts. There were three other guards there already, and upon seeing Kinchil, one of them immediately pushed his food cart over to him. "You get the high-security floor today."

Kinchil stopped, watching the cart roll up to him. "Why? What's wrong?"

"Just do it. I've been doing it all day." The guard took off his helmet and hurried out of the room.

Kinchil sighed, but took the cart and went over to the elevator. When he got up to the high-security floor, he found it in a greater clamor than ever before. Deng's voice was booming through the entire corridor, so loudly that Kinchil could distinguish his words: "Badger Spirit! Tell me what's going on down there! The Dragon-bird got lost in the wind and our connection broke! I tried to reach out to her through the sea again, but the waves are surging and I can't hear anything! The storm must have spread through three realms already! Can you confirm? Hello?"

On top of this, there were several other voices rising beneath Deng's, along with the sound of scorching flames. Kinchil threw open the door to Cell 141 to find the Imperial Firebender grimacing in agony, hurling fireballs at the wall. "Oh, brother, shut him up!" The prisoner pressed his hands to the sides of his head and fell to his knees. Another wordless wail came from Deng's cell. "I can't take it anymore! He's being screaming for three days straight! I can't sleep! What is he, crazy?"

"There's nothing we can do," Kinchil said. "He'll stop when he runs out of bones. Just wait it out."

The Imperial Firebender collapsed against the bars of the cage. Kinchil placed down the tray, and the firebender grabbed a bread loaf and tore off a bite. "Hell on Earth…"

Kinchil left the cell, then sucked in a breath and went back towards the previous one. He kicked open the door and found Commander Deng on his feet, holding his flame in both palms, which was burning so hot and bright that sparks were flying in the air around him. Kinchil took a tray in one hand, held the other arm up to bend away the sparks, and inched over towards the bars.

"Dinner!" he shouted. "Take it!"

The prisoner's gaze tore away from the flame, crazed and desperate. "Are they the bones?"

"No, it's soup today-"

"Get out!" he snarled. "Get out, or I'll throw you overboard!"

"You've skipped three meals already! Eat something!"

But Deng had already zoned him out and turned away towards the opposite wall. He continued to shout things into the fire, sounding as if he were caught in the middle of a typhoon. Kinchil departed the cell in a huff, too busy to be nagged by the fact that he was visiting cells in the opposite order, and pushed open the door to the next one. Deng's shouts were muffled here, but still intelligible, though if it was bothering the prisoner inside, he wasn't showing it. Ozai was leaning against the bars of the cage, turned to face the window on the back wall. Kinchil approached quietly and placed down the tray. Ozai didn't move to take it. He sat where he was, and for a moment, Kinchil found himself hanging still as well, soaking up the silence, eyes scanning the blank walls and dusty floor. It really must have felt different, on the other side of the bars... But moments later, his thoughts froze as Ozai shifted in place ever so slightly, and Kinchil quickly scrambled to his feet and left the cell.
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #27 on: Aug 08, 2018 07:50 am »

After finishing the high-security floor, battered throughout by Commander Deng's shouting, Kinchil descended to the first floor for the pre-shift assembly. Here, the doorways were wider, the rooms brighter. After walking for a moment through a plain stone corridor, he reached a large room with a red-carpeted floor and furniture. Here, the guards from the afternoon shift were having tea in the sitting area and playing Pi Sho. Several ones from the night shift were in the dining area further back, getting ready for their turn. Kinchil stepped through the doorway and saw Ming and Mo at a table. He approached them, and they both turned to him.

"Hey there," said Mo.

Kinchil slumped into the free chair beside them. "He's gone obsessed again."

Ming raised her eyebrows. "Who, Commander Deng?"

Kinchil nodded. "He tried to contact Fire Lord Azulon a few days ago, but the dragon-bird spirit told him that Azulon was unreachable. Then something went wrong with their connection and now Deng's trying to fix it." He leaned his chin on his hands. "Now he hardly even eats anymore. Are you sure we can't take him outside or something? Or at least feed him somehow?"

"He'll eat when he's ready," Mo said. "Trust me. He's not so detached from reality that he'll starve himself."

"How do you know?" said Kinchil. "Right now he doesn't seem like he cares about anything except what he's doing. What if he keeps going like this and doesn't realize it until it's too late?"

Ming put a hand on his shoulder. "Kinchil, relax. I'm not saying be like Warden Poon and spit down on everyone, but you can't let the prisoners get to your head either."

Mo narrowed his eyes at her slyly. "Says the guard who used to sneak General Iroh extra bowls of rice."

Ming's face flushed and she smacked his shoulder. "That was only because I felt bad about how Warden Poon was treating him. And mind you, he was still General Iroh, the Fire Lord's brother. I understand if he broke the law, but he still deserved to be shown respect. He was just pretending to be insane to mess with Poon."

"And now I feel bad for Commander Deng," Kinchil said.

Ming sighed. "I feel sorry for him too, but there's nothing we can do to help him. He lost his mind a long time ago."

But Kinchil shook his head. "I don't think this guy's crazy, Ming. He's got a power. There've always been people who could talk to spirits and make predictions, and sometimes they were treated as the top authorities in their cultures. Azulon himself even acknowledged it. He tried doing a lot of the same things Deng did, and people called him the Great Sage."

Mo shrugged. "Still… Azulon did go a bit crazy towards the end. I mean, he'd shut himself up in his war room for days before battles and ask spirits how to best approach Earth Kingdom cities. Even if all his ministers agreed that something was a bad idea, if a spirit gave Azulon a hint or sign to do it, he'd listen no matter what. Because of him, we lost a lot more people than we should have."

"But he did make predictions that came true," said Kinchil. "He predicted that there would be a storm at Gar Sai just like Deng did, only Deng told the general to wait till it ended, while Azulon told him to attack anyway. Azulon probably just had too much confidence in the spirits' advice, and thought that if he didn't predict a failure, there wouldn't be one."

Ming pondered this, casting her gaze towards the ceiling. "You know, I remember hearing about that Gar Sai storm from one of Azulon's old war advisors. He said Azulon got up from his throne and started saying weird things, like 'I will bring the sun.'"

"And that doesn't sound crazy to you?" said Mo.

Ming shrugged. "Well, something had to make him sure of it."

"Sure that he could literally make the sun break through the clouds?"

Kinchil breathed a sigh. "Look, I'm not saying Azulon didn't make any bad decisions. I'm just saying he believed in the ability, and Deng has that ability."

"Well, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt," Mo said. "But I'll only start believing if Deng actually manages to talk to him. Though that would be a bit creepy... And I can't imagine what Azulon would do if Deng got him angry. He'd probably unleash a firestorm on us from the realm beyond." Mo chuckled. Then he sighed. "Honestly, I just hope Zuko doesn't end up like the last three Fire Lords. They all started out normal, but then every single one of them got caught up by some sort of supernatural ideal."

"Well, Zuko's not a normal Fire Lord," said Ming. "No Fire Lord has ever been through a time like this."

Kinchil nodded his agreement. No Fire Lord had ever had the former Fire Lord alive during his reign. No Fire Lord had ever been imprisoned. And no Fire Lord, as well as Kinchil could remember, had ever had to perform a full-blown cleaning of his government.

The rest of the pre-shift period passed by quietly. They had a final snack and drank some tea to help them stay awake, then they all crowded around the notice board, where Warden Poon tacked a weekly list of assignments for each shift. Kinchil was to stand guard on the third floor, where Poon had just placed a couple of new prisoners. Kinchil went to the equipment room to get a spear, then went back to his locker to get his armor.

He had just finished putting on his helmet and closed the door to his locker when he heard another heavy metal slam, the unmistakable sound of the hallway door sliding open. Hurried footfalls filled the hallway, and Kinchil poked his head out to see a Royal Police official walking up the hallway, tense and directed. One of the hallway guards scurried after him, trying to keep up.

"Sir, I'm telling you, he's had no visitors or any communication since he came here."

"That's still to be determined," the official replied. "His supporters are uniting in three major cities including this one, and as the spearhead of their movement, I can hardly imagine he'd be kept in the dark about it." He headed for the elevator and noticed Kinchil as he passed the lounge. "You. Take me to see Ozai. He's in one of the top-security cells, I believe."

Kinchil tensed. He stepped out of the doorway and cleared his throat. "You need written permission from Warden Poon to visit him. I can't take you unless you have it."

"How about the Fire Lord's?" The official unfurled the scroll in his hands to reveal a signed letter. "This is a warrant that Fire Lord Zuko handed personally to me, the captain of the Royal Police. It gives me permission to inquire any federal agency about matters of national security, and since there's a matter at hand that concerns Ozai, I'm obligated to determine his involvement in it."

Kinchil's eyes ran over the handwritten lines, finally finding the Fire Lord's signature at the bottom. The hall guard peered over his shoulder to read along, then looked up at the police captain with a nod. "All right, then. Follow us."

The hall guard beckoned, and he and Kinchil led the official to the elevator. When they got to the ninth floor, the hall guard led them around the corridor and began to summon other guards from their stations.

"Quick, come on! We're going to Cell 139."

Whispers rose up from the silence. Four other guards joined their group, while the rest who remained at their posts rearranged themselves to make up for the empty space. Soon, Kinchil was surrounded by a sea of plated shoulders and spears, powerless as they carried him to the dreaded door.

The hall guard reached to push it open, and the police captain balked.

"What, no locks?"

The guard shook his head. "No, sir. We don't lock the cell doors, because it's enough to keep the cages locked."

"And if they manage to get out of the cage?"

"That's impossible. The bars run both ways. If a prisoner wanted to get out, they'd have to fit their bodies though a hole the size of a jewelry box."

The police captain narrowed his eyes. "And if they're firebenders?"

"This is military-grade steel. They'd exhaust themselves before they could melt down a single drop."

The captain fell silent, though Kinchil could still feel him brooding, searching for a loophole.

The guard gave a nod in response. "You'll see."

He pushed open the door, and the seven men stepped into the dark, musty room. Kinchil lit a flame in his hands and tossed it onto a shelf near the ceiling, where the flames spread to cast a subtle glow over the room. The light touched the hazy outline of a prisoner slumped against the wall. Seeing them, he stirred from his place ever so slightly, and a face appeared from a curtain of black hair.

The captain stepped forward. "I am Captain Lang of the Royal Police. I have come here to ask you a few questions. For the sake of national security and on pain of further prosecution, you are to answer them with complete honesty. First of all, do you or do you not know the whereabouts of a man named Tao Yu?"

The prisoner did not respond.

"Do not test my patience. I'll ask again — do you or do you not know the whereabouts of a man named Tao Yu?"

But the fury in the captain's words drifted off into silence. The prisoner didn't move a muscle, his gaze trailing past the guards and lingering on the wall above their heads, where the flames flickered quietly.

After several seconds of silence, the captain clenched a fist and stepped forward. But the hall guard held him back by the shoulder.

"It's no use. He doesn't talk to anyone."

The captain moved his shoulder away. "I don't care what he will or won't do on your terms. If I'm here, he talks. And if he doesn't, we'll force him."

The guards tensed, exchanging glances. The captain turned away from the cell to look at them. By accident, his gaze found Kinchil, who reflexively looked away and focused on the back of another guard's head. It was a stupid move, but already one that couldn't be taken back. The captain's eyes widened in surprise.

"I don't believe what I'm seeing," he said. "You're actually afraid of him? Afraid of your own prisoner? He can't even firebend!" The captain punched his fist into the air and produced a burst of orange flame. The fire illuminated the prisoner's face for a brief moment, as he watched impassively.

Kinchil did not move, and neither did the other guards. They stood in a confused clump, meeting the captain's gaze with silence.

The captain pursed his lips, and after a moment, he turned back to them and thrust forward a finger. "Let me tell you something. My family was in the war right from the beginning. Brother, father, uncle, grandfather, everyone. I wasn't much older than many of you were, when I joined. Back then I believed every word people ever told me about fighting - that it would bring me honor, my family honor, and my nation honor. But it was only when I stepped on Earth Kingdom territory myself that I saw what we were doing to the other nations, and how much the war was a pointless, selfish struggle to dominate other people. I realized that the same country that preached honor and dignity to its citizens had no problems whatsoever with taking other people's homes and lives. I realized that the line of rulers I was taught to respect has produced nothing but greedy, power-seeking men for generations. Men caught up in the illusion of their grandeur, willing to sacrifice the well-being of their own people for the sake of pursuing their made-up ideals. Men like him!" The captain pointed a finger into the cell. "Look at him! This is the person who ruined our country's image! This is the person who forced all of you to work for his own gain, throwing away everything that made our nation truly great and turning it into a terror machine! Fire Lord Zuko is doing heroic work by just trying to fix what his ancestors did, but you bunch are afraid of even looking them in the face? Turn around and do it!"

Slowly, one by one, the guards all lowered their gazes to the prisoner. He was looking back at them impassively, as if the entire scene were just a part of some stage performance.

After a few moments, the captain turned back to the hall guard who led their group. "I think the Fire Lord would be pretty disappointed right now, if he saw this. To see that his own subjects don't have an ounce of the strength he has would be very disheartening. I'll say this to you again — we will find a way to make him talk."

The hall guard gave a sigh. "Yes, sir."

The official turned to leave the cell, and the guards followed after him. The hall guard opened the door and held it as the others filed out, then stepped into the hallway himself and let it swing closed behind him.

"I want that thing locked from now on," the captain said, as they started down the hallway. "You will write down the name of every person who asks to visit him and never leave him alone with anybody."

"Yes, sir."

"The guards will be switched up too, so that he doesn't have contact with a single person for too long of a time."

"It'll be done, sir."

Through the small window in the door, the prisoner watched the group of people leave. Slowly, their voices faded down the hallway, and long after he was left alone in the silence, he continued to sit where he was, not doing so much as scoff at the departing figures who had intruded on his presence. He didn't seem at all affected by the fact that this had been his first outside visit in over a month.

And indeed, he wasn't. Because he knew that the essence of those visits would be one and the same. Everything he could ever expect from the world now had been demonstrated to him in a single moment shortly after his arrival, when his son had leaned down towards the bars of his cell and uttered those words:

"Where is my mother?"

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.

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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #28 on: Aug 08, 2018 07:51 am »

...

.

.

.

He didn't know.

He didn't know, and that was the plainest and most profound way Ozai could have expressed it. It was the answer he would have given if he had stood before his entire war council, or if the Avatar had pinned him down on the rocks and threatened to strike him dead with another elemental beam if he lied.

Still, he knew it was an answer that would never satisfy Zuko. So he had simply glowered, fixing his gaze on the floor while he muttered some nonsense about weakness and sentimentality, after which Zuko left, likely never to return. And frankly, Ozai preferred it that way. He never wanted to see his son again, nor anyone else for that matter, save for some guards he could occasionally make shudder with a scowl. He had gone from the threshold of being the architect of a new world, to being barely above par with the prison rats, and that was a fall that would do little to lighten anyone's countenance.

But more importantly, it was a fall he had never expected. It seemed like just minutes ago that he was standing on the platform of that airship, feeling heat kindle within him as Sozin's Comet drew nearer, and an anxious thrill at the thought that the old world would be no more. It had felt more than real. It had felt inevitable. Failure was something he simply hadn't accounted for, not when battling the Avatar, not even when he had started to realize he was losing. Then, in a single wave, six years' worth of plans and ambition had been swept aside like a tower of sand. Something new had emerged from the rubble, but it was something he hadn't created, something so vast that it surpassed his ability to comprehend it. He saw the fires fade, water rush over the cracks in the scorched land, and the comet flee from the sky, carrying away a century of war and sorrow, collecting all of the world Ozai had known into the streak of flames that trailed behind it. And by some twisted turn of the fates, his son had been that world's last goodbye, standing before his cell in the Fire Lord's royal robes, with the golden firecrown to boot.

The question of Ursa would likely bother Zuko for the rest of his life. The fact that his father refused to cooperate was just a tiny stumbling block at the beginning of a long road. He would keep going, he would keep searching, and even if it took him till his dying day, he would find a way to wrench the slightest hint of her whereabouts from the grips of a relentless world. Zuko was many things, but he wasn't a quitter.

("For so long, all I wanted was for you to love me. To accept me. I thought it was my honor that I wanted, but really, I was just trying to please you. You! My father! Who banished me, just for talking out of turn! My father — who challenged me, a thirteen-year-old boy, to an Agni Kai. How can you possibly justify a duel with a child?")

Ozai narrowed his eyes as he looked up at the ceiling now, tracing the patterns of rock that stood out from the shadows. There was a slit in the wall behind him, barely as thick as his arm, that served as the jailer's meager offering of a window. Its function wasn't to provide light (for the darkness was such that even the sun's rays seemed to dissipate in it) but rather to make it possible to tell day from night, so that no matter how raving or degraded he became, he'd still have one bit of certainty to keep him from plunging into total madness.

This small gesture of benevolence made him grimace. He used to wonder why Zuko hadn't just flicked a hand and sent him to the Boiling Rock. The old warden was still in charge, and if the rumors were correct, then he was even stricter and grouchier due to the recent breakout. Sitting in a metal cell for days on end, spending extra time in the Cooler without his firebending to sustain him… the more Ozai had thought about it, the more sense it made that he, the nation's disgrace, should be kept there instead. If Zuko had wanted revenge on him, if he had really wanted to make his father pay for all he had done to him, then he'd have only a bell to ring, or a hawk to send, and everything would be taken care of. But no… after all those years of scorn and hatred and manipulation, all Ozai got was a quiet cell, one that was cool and light at best, dark and damp at worst.

He couldn't make sense of it.

By all accounts, Zuko hated him. He had taken care to make that very clear on the Day of Black Sun, just as his father had always taken care to make clear to him that he despised him, or if not, at least lingered somewhere in the range of 'sorely disappointed'. And suddenly, for the first time in his life, he had gotten his chance for revenge. Ozai had been powerless, his firebending suppressed by the solar eclipse, and was confined to a single room with no security. He wasn't a complete vegetable — he could still fight physically — but against a pair of sharp blades, he knew he wouldn't have lasted long.

By all accounts, Zuko could have killed him.

And for a minute, Ozai had even thought he would. When Zuko had drawn the swords, that tiny, meek boy of the past had suddenly vanished for someone steadfast and powerful, in a change so abrupt that it had caught Ozai off-guard. He was gripped by a strange alarm, and for an instant, he wondered if that really would be the end. And he hadn't been sure how he felt about it. He had sat still as Zuko started talking, all the while drifting in the dark limbo of his thoughts, still tensing with unease whenever Zuko made a sharp gesture.

But soon, the fury in Zuko's words faded, and his speech took a different turn. He began talking about peace and remedying past wrongs. Of Iroh, and of joining the Avatar. Meanwhile, the haze of shock in Ozai's mind had begun to clear, and in its place he felt an old, dormant spite flare up within him, one that had so often been connected with Zuko in the past. (But why?) It started somewhere deep within him and swelled like a slow wave, rising and spreading till it flooded him completely.

He knew what he had to do to keep Zuko in the room, and that was to tell the story. It was the final thing they shared, the last way he could have snapped Zuko out of his resolve and made him lose his focus, even if it was only for a moment.

But in that moment, neither of them were the same.

The sun was dawning on a new world. And as Ozai recounted the events of Ursa's demise, he himself stood beyond them. With every revelation, Zuko's eyes narrowed at his father in growing spite, and in each pause, Ozai felt the moon wane, the sun slowly crawling to the brink of emergence. His time in the old life had ended. If Zuko wanted to break away, then his selfish father would show him just how generous and encouraging he could be.

If Zuko wanted to be an enemy, Ozai thought, then he could be one.











BE ONE!

Ozai lunged from the pedestal, fingers tracing two arcs of lightning through the air, and shot them forward into a massive, brilliant beam that swallowed Zuko whole. But a second later, the bolt swerved away from its target, and Zuko reappeared among a cloud of hissing sparks, which flowed around his body like a river as he directed his arms back at Ozai.

Seconds later, something in front of Ozai exploded, and he was thrown back into the air. He crashed against the tapestry behind him and slid to the ground, and when he looked up, Zuko was gone, leaving only a trail of flames from where the redirected bolt had hit. The guards rushed inside, but Ozai pushed past them all, and went to take command of the city's defense force.

At the time he had been so angry that he could hardly think. From those short minutes, Ozai was certain he had learned everything about his son — that he was a traitor, a liar, and that all his words and actions in the past several weeks had just been a ploy to mask his true face. And that final visit of his was what he had wanted to do since the moment of his return — to declare his upfront, unabashed hatred.

But in reality, it had been something more.

And only now, in the confines of his cell, with the silence back to envelop him, did Ozai realize what it was.

Zuko didn't hate him.

He had simply ceased to care.

He had spent so many years trying to prove himself, that by the time he finally got Ozai's approval, he had been through so much that the teaching of his experiences had stripped his goal of its former allure. They had shown something grand and fearsome to be vapid and hollow, which disillusioned him so much that it left no fuel for hatred. So instead of punishing Ozai, Zuko had discarded him. He locked him up in the Capital City Prison, where he knew it would be easy to keep Ozai in check, and make sure that the crazy man didn't do any more crazy things. By now, Zuko had probably moved on with his life in the every-busy palace, while in a dark, tiny cell nearby, the silence was still echoing from a door that had slammed a month ago.

And now, Ozai knew it couldn't have been any other way.

He could have melted that bunker into a puddle. He could have told Zuko that he had disposed of Ursa personally, or that he had been looming over the boy's bedside just moments before she had come to stop him from fulfilling Azulon's fateful orders. But it wouldn't have made Zuko stay.

So now, as always, Ozai contented himself with having made him go.

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...

The next day, the metal food cart made its way up the ninth-floor hallway. Kinchil pushed open the door to the Phoenix King's cell and slid a lunch tray up to the bars.

A shape stirred in the darkness and a pair of eyes opened to glare at him. They were filled with such anger and revulsion that Kinchil flinched out of reflex, thinking he had done something deeply insulting. The shock ran its course through him as usual, but as he turned to leave it faded for a sullen exhaustion, and he found himself wondering how someone could hold that much loathing inside of them.

But as Kinchil was about to step through the door, something compelled him to stop and take a glance back. The prisoner had moved towards the tray and taken the bowl. The anger had vanished from his face like a mirage, and he was sullenly stirring his soup, clearing the gruel to look at the vegetables.



(End of Chapter 9)
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #29 on: Aug 08, 2018 07:56 am »

10. The Dark

The next morning, Ozai woke up on his back with the thin, rag-like blanket wrapped around him. Sunlight was sifting through the window above, and he heard the hiss of wheels and clang of trays fading down the hallway.

He pushed himself up by the elbow and crawled over to the edge of his cell, looking down at the offerings. Mushy rice and bland-colored vegetables. With a grumble, he took the bowl and settled back onto his mat, hardly an inch from where he had been before.

Once upon a time, he had trained every day. He had practiced firebending for hours longer than his tutors prescribed, gradually matching his brother's talent through sheer discipline. Then he had used those skills to craft a fighting style of his own, supplementing the bending forms with acrobatic moves that others couldn't accomplish, and was satisfied with knowing that he could take on any challenger, even if none came.

Now, Ozai sat slumped against the wall, fiddling with the chopsticks, stretching out the meal for as long as he could to minimize the time he would waste away sleeping. Once he would finish eating, he would look over the bowl and see if there were any markings left by prisoners of the past, and wonder what a coincidence it was that precisely this piece of metal had one day been molded into something he would eat from, and what the metalworker would have thought, had he known.

But just a few minutes later, his thoughts were interrupted by a loud bang. Ozai looked up to see his cell door swing open, spilling a flood of torchlight into the room and revealing the silhouettes of several guards. One of them stepped forward.

"Get up, Thirty-Nine! You're coming with us."

Ozai frowned at the unusual command. The guards had only recently started taking him out for exercise, and even so, they never did it this early in the day. Judging by the stripe of sunlight that glowed on the wall, it was only a few hours after sunrise, whereas his regular time (when it came at all) was in the afternoon. That was when the stripe would vanish, and not long after, a couple of guards would come clunking in to take him away.

But these guards looked different - they were tense and rushed. As they closed in on the cell, Ozai rose to his feet, lowering his gaze mutely as the cage door was opened. One of the guards clasped metal cuffs around his wrists, and two others took him by the arms and led him out. The final guard trailed behind them with a spear in his hand.

Their pomp was admirable, but in vain. Even if he had tried to escape, Ozai knew he wouldn't have gotten far. After five weeks in prison, he had grown lazy and lethargic, and was starting to get unusual reminders about his battle with the Avatar, like small, random aches in his joints, and a back that would pang in protest whenever he twisted it the wrong way. The more time that passed, the more incredible it seemed to him that he had lasted as long as he had, especially after he had triggered that horrid Avatar State.

He could have pestered the guards to provide him with healing, or demand proper-sized food portions, especially during the first few weeks, when the arrangement hadn't seemed completely real. Some of the guards had still feared him then. And none of them had actually seen how the battle had gone, so he could have made his defeat seem as slight and accidental as he wanted. But his heart hadn't been in it.

The guards' footsteps pattered quietly through the hallway, and Ozai followed along, watching their shadows flicker between the torches. After all this time, he still couldn't get used to the numbness he felt when he passed by fire. It was as if the soul in the flames had died, leaving only a surface warmth passing over his skin. There was no connection, no feeling of his life force mingling with that of the fire and becoming one with it. Early on, he had tried to fix himself. He had punched at the air, he had breathed, he had meditated. He had done the most basic firebending forms he knew, the ones taught to fragile children who could hardly make an ember. None of it had worked. The chi in his body was still there, but he had lost his ability to manipulate it.

After a short walk, the guards reached the end of the high-security hallway and turned into a narrower wing, lined with heavy iron doors. They stopped beside one and opened it, revealing a small, brightly-lit room, furnished with a metal table and chairs. Behind the table stood the police captain from the day before. He had his hands behind his back and wore a placid expression. Beside him sat a junior captain, with a blank scroll and quill.

The guards who held Ozai's arms sat him down across from the captain and positioned themselves on either side of his chair. The others left the room, clearing from view to leave the captain at the center of Ozai's vision. The captain frowned in acknowledgment. There were a few metallic whirs as the locks from outside clicked into place, then the captain cleared his throat and placed a long, narrow scroll box onto the table.

"We are going to show you some pictures of people who were in your service," he said. "You are to tell us if you recognize them and say anything else that you know about them."

He removed the lid to reveal a number of scrolls stacked up inside and unrolled one for Ozai to see. It portrait of a man, with early-grayed hair and spiky sideburns.

A catalogue of faces opened in Ozai's mind, six years' worth of plans, meetings, and viewpoints. He thought of playing dumb, of complementing the probably widespread rumors of his physical feebleness with the mental counterpart as well, and puncture a neat hole in whatever plans the captain had for him. At the very least, it would make the interview shorter. But right then, the noble's name resurfaced, and some stubborn part of him made him say it out loud. "Ruon, governor of South Chung-Ling," he answered.

"Is that all?"

"I assure you, being a governor is a great enough responsibility on its own."

The captain paused. "And did he do his job well?"

"Yes."

"Elaborate."

"He was organized," Ozai said. "Loyal. Efficient."

"So, he satisfied you and enjoyed being in your service."

"Had he not, I would not have made him the governor."

"I see." The captain looked down and adjusted the picture on the table. "And what do you know about him, personally?"

"Noble by birth. Family with a long history of service to the palace." With each monotone word Ozai spoke, the junior captain leaned over the scroll and made notes, scratching neat strokes on the paper with his quill. Meanwhile, the picture of Ruon lay on the table, gazing sternly up at the ceiling. His office had probably been ransacked, he himself put to trial. Perhaps his fate was in question that very moment and they were using Ozai's testimony to figure out what to do with him. How brilliant someone must have seemed, suggesting that the old Fire Lord help wipe his own trace from the palace.

After a while, the scratching quill stopped, and the captain looked at Ozai anew. "What about his political career? Was Ruon given high positions by virtue of his birth, or did he have to progress through the ranks?"

"He progressed," Ozai said.

"What work did he do before you appointed him as governor?"

"He assisted the former governor."

"And before that?"

"He was the royal ambassador to South Chung-Ling."

"Before that?"

"An adviser at the palace."

"Before that?"

"An aspiring adviser at the palace."

"Before that?"

"In a crib, presumably."

The scratching quill stopped all of a sudden, and the junior captain looked away, as if stifling a snicker. But the captain didn't flinch. If anything, this seemed to set his sternness even deeper. He began to pace around his side of the table, rubbing his chin.

"Was Ruon ever a member of your elite inner circle?" he finally asked.

"There was no inner circle," Ozai said.

The captain frowned. "But there had to be some nobles you gave more sensitive information to than others."

"Ruon was not one of them."

"Then what about this man?" The captain rummaged through the box and pulled out another scroll. This one showed a noble of similar age, with black hair and a few wrinkles around his eyes. "Ukano, Governor of New Ozai. Is there anything you can tell me about him?"

"Satisfactory," Ozai said. "Obedient. Capable. Loyal.'

The captain laid the sketch down beside Ruon's. "From what I've gathered, Ukano came from a quiet city, fairly distant from the capital. Yet he quickly ascended to political power and gained notoriety through a series of civil accomplishments. And he expressed no concern over the colonization of foreign lands by the Fire Nation. Is that correct?"

"I thought I had made myself clear," Ozai said. "He was the governor of New Ozai. Therefore he supported the existence of New Ozai."

"So he clearly expressed enthusiasm for serving the palace?"

"Yes."

"And he never enjoyed any special privileges or favoritism from you?"

Ozai looked away at the wall. "No."

He didn't bother adding that Ukano was the father of Mai, one of Azula's friends, and that this might have led him to check up on him from time to time and make sure his career was secure. Or that he remembered the girl coming to their courtyard earlier than usual one day, when Zuko approached and said that Azula would arrive soon. The girl had blushed. Zuko hadn't noticed.

(be one, be one, BE one!)

A scowl passed over Ozai's face, and after a moment of more silence, the captain crossed his arms. "I find it hard to believe that there wasn't a single person you trusted more than your other ministers. Not a single person you could name that was more loyal to you than the others."

"You are deluded," Ozai answered. "Loyalty does not come in degrees. One is either loyal, or is not."

The captain gave a shrug. "Then why bother ranking your officials at all? Why not give your secretary the keys to the city?"

"Because a secretary has no need for them. You confuse prestige with duty. I am telling you that there was no prestige, only duty."

At this, the captain's eyebrows climbed. "Then what about your little Phoenix King plan? That seems mighty prestigious, becoming ruler of the world. There had to be some people you were going to promote to help you govern such a large territory." He swept his hand suggestively towards the two portraits. "Or were you just going to do it alone? Did you figure that since you were the Fire Lord, there wasn't any need to bother with everyone else, since they were all insects compared to you?"

Ozai scowled. The captain waited a few moments for a response, and when he didn't get one, he leaned away from the table and continued to pace around. "Fine, then. What about the meetings? Surely you had to collaborate on your plan with somebody."

"Obviously," Ozai said.

"How did the plan come about, then? Did somebody suggest it?"

"I devised it myself. General Shinu reported that the residents of the occupied Earth Kingdom territories were rebelling. Even with Ba Sing Se conquered, the people refused to accept our victory. So I decided that we needed to destroy their hope of rescue."

"And was that the meeting where you formed the whole plan?"

"No. That meeting was the conception. After the Black Sun invasion was defeated, I called several other meetings to turn the plan into a feasible course of action."

"And everybody approved of the plan?"

"Yes."

"Did it ever seem like some people didn't?"

"No."

The captain lifted an eyebrow. "That's very interesting, because under questioning, many of the people who accompanied you on your airships renounced you."

Ozai made no response. They could annex themselves to the undersea kingdom for all he cared. Descend on submarines and live among the fishes. The only thing he wanted now was to go back to his cell, find some comfortable position on his mat, and sleep off the rest of the day. But the captain seemed to be getting more worked up by the minute, walking around his side of the room and peering at Ozai from various angles.

"Did you and your ministers ever come to an agreement that if you failed, some of them would continue the plan on your behalf?" he said.

"No."

The captain looked astonished. "What, so you had no back-ups at all?"

"No."

"Then what were you expecting everyone else to do if you were struck down?"

"I had no reason to speculate."

"So you had no idea that the Avatar was alive?"

"No."

"And did your generals share the same confidence in your plan as you did?"

"Presumably."

"What do you mean, 'presumably'? Did any of them express doubts at your meetings?"

"No."

"So they just sat back and went along with everything you said?"

"No."

"Then explain what they did!"

Ozai jerked his head up at the captain and snarled. "Obviously the plan involved compromises. I had to consult with engineers to construct airships with the necessary capacity. I had to work with my generals to determine the best places to burn the land, the location for our eventual descent, and the procedure for the aftermath. In listening to their ideas and objections I gained a better idea of how to proceed. But nobody questioned the task of burning the Earth Kingdom, because that was what we had come to discuss in the first place — the task of burning the Earth Kingdom."

"Don't play word games with me," the captain said. "I'm not asking you whether they agreed with every little detail of your operation. I'm asking you whether they agreed with the Phoenix plan in principle."

"Presumably," Ozai said through his teeth.

"Based on what?" the captain pressed. "Did the generals agree with all of your plans before?"

"Hardly."

"But which of them were you most like-minded with?"

"Inconsequential."

"To you perhaps, but not to me," the captain said. "Answer."

Ozai's eyes flashed venomously. The captain set his jaw. "Fine. If you need help, I'll go down the list for you." He unrolled another scroll from the box and read from it. "General Shinu. Why was he was promoted and from what?"

"Former commander of the Pouhai Stronghold, promoted due to competence," Ozai said.

"Shen?"

"Former commander, demonstrated strategic competence in battles."

"Bujing?"

"War minister to Azulon. Kept for his skills and memory."

The captain's eyes lit up. "And wasn't he the general Prince Zuko had a dispute with three years ago, which caused the prince to get banished?"

Ozai gritted his teeth. "Yes."

"And how did Bujing react when Prince Zuko returned?"

"He made no reaction."

"Would he have any reason to detest Prince Zuko's rule now?"

"Ask Bujing."

"I am asking you," the captain said. "If everybody welcomed Prince Zuko to the first meeting, why wasn't he there for the ones after the invasion?"

"He abandoned his allegiance to the cause."

"But he voiced no disagreement when he was at the first meeting?"

"No."

"And nobody commented on Prince Zuko's absence?"

"No."

"Then Prince Zuko must have made a public statement beforehand, saying he wouldn't come."

"He didn't."

"Then how did you find out that he wouldn't be there?"

Ozai clenched his fists. "He abandoned his allegiance to the cause!"

"I already gathered that you knew. I am asking you how!" The captain pounded the table with his fist. By now, the junior officer was biting his lip, writing in frantic shorthand to keep up with the conversation. "Did Prince Zuko expressly say so at any point? Did he confide the information to anybody in the palace? Or could the generals have formed a plot to keep him away from the meetings?"

"Fool!" Ozai shouted.

"Because from what you've told me, that seems like a pretty lax attitude for your generals to have about the Crown Prince," the captain said. "Not to mention, one who was banished for three years, then brought back with no notice and declared a hero."

"Then you have answered your own question," Ozai snapped. "The generals were not surprised at the prince's behavior because the prince was in a position of esteem and could be presumed to know what he was doing."

"And yet, it's still a presumption." The captain narrowed his eyes. "I want to know what your ministers thought of Prince Zuko. Every single one of them. Particularly, I want to know their opinions of him before his banishment."

"Varied," Ozai said.

"What was the one you sought to uphold?"

"I upheld nothing."

"But you observed, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"And what did you observe?"

"Variation."
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 44



« Reply #30 on: Aug 08, 2018 07:58 am »

The junior captain pushed aside a scroll of messy, jagged scrawl and unrolled a new one. He frantically dipped his quill into the ink bottle to begin another page, spilling several drops from the shaking tip. But fortunately, the captain laid a hand on his arm to stop him. "It's fine, you don't have to write anymore." He pulled away the ink bottle and took the clean scroll into his hands. After some thought, he placed them both in front of Ozai. "Unchain his hands, please," he said to the guards. "He's going to write something for me."

There was a moment's delay, then the guards approached Ozai and unchained his wrists. Then they pushed his chair closer towards the table.

"Write down the names of every general present in the meeting where Prince Zuko spoke out," the captain said. "And sign it when you're done."

Ozai cast the captain a glare, then took the quill. He wrote eight names, signed his, then pushed the scroll away.

The captain read the paper over and nodded. "Interesting. Now I have another question for you. When you decided it was time for you to become the Phoenix King, why did you name your daughter the new Fire Lord instead of Prince Zuko?"

"Greater competence," Ozai replied. Then, a moment later, he narrowed his eyes. "And if my memory does not fail me, that decree was made public. How do you expect the new Fire Lord to deal with it?"

"He already dealt with it," the captain said. "He defeated Princess Azula in an Agni Kai during Sozin's Comet."

These words drifted off into the silence, dissolved moments later by the sound of rustling paper. But to Ozai, they seemed to hang in the air, slowly seeping into his mind till they cast a numbing haze over his surroundings.

So. That was why.

He felt something shift inside of him, and he looked down at his hands, blinking slowly. Azula losing was impossible by only a margin less than Zuko winning. For as long as he had watched them, she had always been the sharper one, the quicker one. Add ten years of firebending training and there was simply no comparing Azula's sober, expert skill to Zuko's fledgling rashness. But then, Ozai remembered the boy with the swords. The one who had stood his ground. The one who had blasted him into a wall and left him to smolder in his own flames.

For a moment, Ozai saw himself on the pedestal again, looking up through the fence of fire that burned around him. Then, his stupor dissolved into a grimace and he closed his eyes.

Inevitable. All of it. Since the day he was banished…

But suddenly, a loud bang tore him from his thoughts. "Pay attention!"

Ozai looked up. The captain was staring down at him angrily, a fist curled on the table. "I asked you, did your ministers ever group themselves into factions with the aim of influencing your policy?"

Ozai gritted his teeth. "I do not know."

"Strange, for a Fire Lord! Are you really telling me that you weren't aware of something going on in your own palace?"

Ozai didn't answer.

"I'm waiting."

Ozai sat still.

The captain narrowed his eyes. "What, you don't have any idea? Not even the slightest clue?"

Silence.

The captain remained where he was for a while, boring his gaze into Ozai's. But Ozai didn't flinch. After a minute, the captain leaned away from the table. "So. You really do have nothing to say."

Ozai narrowed his eyes. The man was looking at him with a clouded expression, as if he were pondering something. Finally, after a long silence, the captain gave a slow nod.

"I think I understand…" he said. "That throne was all you had. You dealt with people's issues while you had it, but beyond it, there was no meaning in anything for you. Beyond their functions, people meant nothing. Your country meant nothing. Even your own allies meant nothing." He scooped the scrolls back into the box and closed it. "I'm done here," he said to the guards. "You can take him back to his cell now. Let him finish whatever's left of the life he's been spared." The captain walked away towards the door. Midway, he stopped, fixing his gaze on Ozai a final time. "If there's anything left of it at all."

He turned away and reached to knock on the door.

In a flash, Ozai jumped out of his chair, lunged away from the table, and rammed his fist into the captain's nose. The man swayed back, hands flying to his face, but before he could fall Ozai grabbed him by the collar and punched him again. He had time for one more — a clobber that knocked the man to the floor — before a guard caught his arm and held it back.

"Stop!" The guard started to force Ozai's arms behind his back, but Ozai pulled free and shoved him away. He turned back to the captain and pulled him off the ground, but before he could punch him again, one of the red-sleeved arms shot out and hit him in the jaw. Two hands pushed Ozai back, and he skidded towards the table and collided with the edge. But Ozai pushed himself off, lunging at the captain again and swinging his arm. This time, however, the captain caught his fist and locked his grip around it. Ozai retaliated with the other, but the captain caught that one as well, and they pushed against each other for a while, inching back and forth.

Sucking in a breath, Ozai leaned back, heaving both feet into the air, and kicked the captain in the stomach. The captain flew back, bumping against the wall, and doubled over. Ozai fell to the floor, then quickly crawled away and rose to his feet. The two guards rushed towards him, but Ozai swept out his leg and toppled them. Meanwhile, the junior captain knelt beside the captain and helped him up. The captain lifted his head, revealing a red, livid face, completely devoid of its former composure. As soon as he locked eyes with Ozai, he slipped out of the junior captain's grip and ran forward. Ozai met him in a few strides, and they plunged into a blur of jabs and swipes, striking each other everywhere they could.

The other people in the room were reduced to clumps of noise in the background, fleeing as the men fought with their hands and feet, shoving each other against the table and walls. Just when Ozai would grab hold of the captain's shoulder plates and ram him into the table, the captain would push away from it and knock him into a chair. Soon, the pauses Ozai took between attacks grew longer, and increasingly often he'd find himself drifting off into a strange contemplation, wondering whether he had always felt this sluggish and whether he was imagining how his hands kept getting slapped away before they reached their target. And each time he snapped back to reality, Ozai became aware that he was stepping back, slowly switching from attacking to defending, while the captain's blows came closer and closer to his body. Finally, one of his fists flew out and smacked Ozai square in the face, and Ozai staggered back, shock blooming inside of him. He barely saw it as the captain curled his arm again and prepared to deliver the final blow.

Ozai turned to the side in haste, aiming to step behind the captain and end up behind his shoulder. But his motions were too slow, and hardly a moment after he started the turn, he felt the captain's fist draw close to his head. Out of reflex, Ozai closed his eyes and ducked, spinning around the rest of the way until he had his back to the captain. Taking another breath, he turned around, curling his fist for a retaliating blow. But the captain was gone.

Ozai stared at the empty wall for a moment. Then, something flitted out from beneath one of the torches and struck him in the eye.

His vision went white, then red. Ozai staggered back as if through water, gaze rolling up towards the ceiling. He hardly noticed how he tipped over his own heels, but soon he was already falling, and by the time his mind caught up to his body something sharp and hard stabbed into the side of his head. There was a moment of searing pain, then it let go and he slumped to the floor.

Seconds later, Ozai opened his eyes and found his cheek pressed against the smooth, sandy stones. From somewhere far away, he heard the guards scurrying around.

"Stop it! Now!"

Hands lifted him from the ground. The room swam back into view, glowing and swimming in stars. The junior captain stood in a corner with his scrolls bunched up in his arms. Nearby, the captain was wiping his mouth. The anger had dropped clean from his face, and now he was looking at Ozai in utter bewilderment. Ozai met his gaze with a snarl, and right then, he felt something warm trickle down the side of his face.

He started to murmur something, but a guard turned him away and pushed him through the open door. The second guard took Ozai's other arm moments later, and they led him down the hallway. Ozai marched along, still scowling at the floor. After the sudden rush of energy, he now felt slow and heavy. At one point, he stopped and reeled forward, but the guards pulled him upright.

"Keep moving!"

They descended several flights of stairs, passed through another corridor, and finally reached a long, dimly-lit room. Here, there were several tiny cells spaced along either wall, each containing a single bed. The guards sat Ozai down on one of them, then an elderly healer approached and began to dab the spot of wet pain on Ozai's head. After a moment, Ozai looked down. Blood was dripping from his hair. It had stained his shirt. The doctor was taking more of it with every wad of gauze he pulled away.

The captain's face swam back into Ozai's mind, narrow-eyed and calculating.

All you had. Nothing without it.

Ozai vowed to hate the man until his dying day.

He sat still while the doctor worked, cleaning up the wound then dabbing it with ointment. Finally, he threaded a large needle and began to sew up the cut. When he was done, he laid Ozai down and moved the pillow beneath his head.

"He should stay the night. He can go back to his cell tomorrow."

The guards murmured in agreement. The doctor locked the cell door and pushed his supply cart away into the depths of the room.

Left alone, Ozai lay on his back, listening to the dull throbbing in his head. Painful as it was, it cleared his mind. Soon, his thoughts untangled themselves and settled back into their usual pattern. Koans. Folk stories. Next meal…

Time passed in stillness. Occasionally, there was a rustle of sheets from the other side of the room as a prisoner shifted in one of the beds. Ozai heard murmuring, and often saw the man lift two bandaged hands and tug anxiously at the gauze. Then he'd flip over onto his other side and settle down.

After a few hours, the door to the infirmary opened, and a guard came in with a mop and bucket. It was the man with the long ponytail, the one who often did food rounds on Ozai's floor. The guard strolled towards the back of the room and began to wash the floor in the corner, slowly working his way towards the front cells. As he came close to the other occupied bed, the prisoner suddenly jerked up and reached out to him.

"Bones! Bones, son! I need the bones!"

The guard shook his head. "No. We're not having any meat today or tomorrow. You'll have to wait." He started to mop again, but then he seemed to notice a look of dejection on the prisoner's face and gave a sigh. "Bones are what got you here in the first place. If you keep burning yourself with that fire trick of yours, the warden might make it so that you don't get any meat with bones at all. So calm down." He picked up the bucket and moved on.

As he passed by Ozai's cell, the guard lifted his gaze involuntarily and found Ozai's face. His eyes widened, and he quickly dropped his gaze.

He moved on to clean the floor beneath the worktables that stood near the front, and moments later, the door to the infirmary creaked open again. Another guard poked his head inside.

"Hey, Kinchil. Dinner rounds are starting soon."

The guard with the ponytail nodded. "All right. Just let me finish up." He soaked up the remaining water, wrung out the mop, and lifted the bucket. The other guard stepped inside slightly, and they met near the door.

"I can't believe it," the newcomer murmured. "Two high-security prisoners in one day."

"I know. I heard a few people talking... What exactly happened?"

"Ito said there was a fight. The captain of the Royal Police came to interrogate him again."

"Oh."

The newcomer looked over to the other cell. "What happened to the Commander?"

"He talked with the Dragon-bird spirit too long and burned himself."

The newcomer chuckled dryly. "So he's still trying to contact Azulon, huh?"

"Yep."

Ozai's eyes widened. From behind the door, he heard the newcomer sigh. "Don't worry, you'll get used to it. A few months ago, he got obsessed with connecting to some obscure sage and spent two weeks debating cosmology."

"I wonder what he wants from Azulon so badly, then," the other guard muttered.

"Probably to rub something in his face."

"Heh..."

With that, the guards filed out of the room and let the door fall closed.

Lingering in the resulting silence, Ozai tuned back into his thoughts and became aware that his pulse had quickened. He lifted his head from the pillow and squinted. The other patient was still asleep. But his head was turned towards the torchlight, revealing a mop of brown hair and a tangled beard. Ozai lowered his head back down.

He slept through the rest of the night, and the next morning, the doctor sat him up and dabbed his face with a warm towel. He inspected the stitches, then tied a thick white cloth around Ozai's head. Two guards lifted him up and helped him towards the door.

Ozai walked slowly, and upon nearing the other patient's cell, he squinted and peered inside. Its occupant was awake. He was sitting up and staring pensively at his lap, but as Ozai passed by, he looked up. Despite his degraded state, the man's eyes seemed to gleam. The two of them held contact for a moment, then the man seemed to lose interest and looked away, muttering to himself some more. But his face remained impressed in Ozai's mind, and long after he left the infirmary, Ozai continued to ponder it.

And remembered him.


(End of Chapter 10)
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 44



« Reply #31 on: Sep 19, 2018 02:31 am »

11. Therapy Sessions

The hospital's damage assessment was bleak. Azula's flames had blackened the entire hallway and melted the knobs on most of the doors. The furniture in the back room had been nearly reduced to cinders. There were burns on the ceiling of the room where she had used lightning.

Nevertheless, Dr. Low was surrounded by an air of optimism. He ordered new furniture and changed the locks on all the doors, reducing the number of keys the nurses had to carry. Mira color-coded her keys and melted together the edges of her keychain so that nothing would fall loose. Kira busied herself with keeping everyone on schedule, and Nira helped sort ingredients and stock mixtures for Isla. None of the trio ever bickered with each other or cast Azula an accusing glance again. Someone seemed to have given them a talking-to, and now they simply went about their work, heads bowed in cooperation, ignoring the black and brown torch marks that leered in the background until they were finally painted over by the repair crew.

Thus, over the days, the former storage building was slowly transformed into a passable version of its new self. Azula's routine went on through sounds of construction, her wheelchair pushed past teams of uniformed workers. She watched one morning as the men took down the steel shutters from her window and replaced them with wooden ones, which could be opened anytime with a twist handle on the side. Her window showed a bigger slice of shore than the back one, this time with a few palm trees and stones, and smooth, unmarked gray sand that blurred beneath the waves that lapped in the distance.

Now that she finally saw the hospital place for what it was, the strange dread and intrigue Azula had formerly felt towards it had faded. The locked storage closets really were just locked storage closets, and the shadows that veiled the rooms at night only hid the cobwebs that the overworked nurses hadn't yet gotten to. The more often she was wheeled up and down the hallway, the more Azula realized how small the building really was. On her side, there was her bedroom, a bedroom for the three nurses, a lounge, and the check-up room. On the other side was Dee's office, the other nurse's living quarters, a lounge, a lab for Isla, and Dr. Low's office. The family wing of the palace alone was over three times as big. But Azula no longer felt a longing to return to it.

On the routine side of things, the round of mind-games the nurses had put her through wasn't repeated. Azula spent her occupied time either stacking cards in the therapy room under the supervision of a half-attentive Nira or doing recovery exercises with Dee. What she supposed she liked about the therapist was that she didn't chatter - she simply told Azula what to do, then watched her do it. Once she could get past her slight annoyance at the therapist's bluntness, and the slight aversion to being constantly touched and examined, Azula found that the exercises helped numb her still often-scrambling thoughts. Moreover, the sessions seemed to be progressing into some sort of plan. Dee exercised each muscle group over the days and had her do advanced poses for regular analysis, after which Azula found that some of her former flexibility had gone, but that she was feeling slightly stronger, even with the serum working.

Then, at the beginning of the new week, Isla came in with Azula's breakfast tray. Azula could already tell from afar which of the five or so assortments of food it contained and prepared for another monotone, solitary meal - but instead of handing the tray to her, the nurse pulled out the round wooden table from its place in the corner and set the tray down on one of the place mats. She followed by positioning the single wooden chair down in the spot across from it.

"Dr. Low will be talking with you today," Isla said, looking over her shoulder.

Azula frowned in surprise. "About what?"

"He's going to be giving you regular talk therapy now."

Azula scowled. "Why? Because of what I did? I thought he said himself he didn't blame me!"

Isla shook her head. "No, that's not why. This is just a part of your program. He wants to get to know you better."

Azula gave a hmph. "I bet Zuko told him enough already..." She crossed her arms as Isla wheeled her chair up to the table.

"Just relax," the nurse said over her shoulder. "He really just wants to help."

Azula lifted her head and looked at her. Isla looked back without saying anything, then finally stepped away and went towards the door. Questions and uncertainties began to crop up in Azula's mind, but before she could have time to think them over, Dr. Low walked in himself. He sat down in the chair across from her and placed a small notebook down in front of him. "Good morning."

Azula lifted her eyebrows grimly, then lowered them. "I guess."

Dr. Low gave a small smile. He opened the notebook and began to flip through pages of handwritten text. Azula lifted her chin a little to get a closer look. "Let me guess. A dossier? Tips from Zuko on how to crack me?"

"There are simply what I've written about your schedule, therapies, and medicine doses. They're not that interesting. You can have a look if you want." He slid it over to her.

Azula looked through the pages and saw that it was indeed what he said. "But then how are you going to do therapy on me? You don't even know what happened!"

"I know the gist of it," said Dr. Low. "But I was hoping you'd tell me the rest."

Azula scowled. "Why should I?"

"It will make you feel better."

"Talking to you?"

"Talking to anyone."

"And why should that be you, of all people?"

"Well, you don't seem to have been very open with people in the past. And I'm the one you're stuck with now, so at any rate, I'll have to do." He folded his arms on the table.

Azula pressed her hands to her head. "But why? What does Zuko want from this? And how are you supposed to help me with anything if all you do is talk to me? If I'm sick like everyone says, then it's pointless trying to cure me! I was born like this!"

Dr. Low frowned and sipped his tea. "First of all, not all illnesses are acquired through birth. And second of all, forget that I ever said the words 'hospital' or 'sick' or 'healing'. Nira, Mira, and the others are called nurses because they have training in physical medicine. It's not their job to deal with any other part of your treatment, save for following the instructions I give them. Yes, I told them to give you tests and games that probably seemed silly or pointless to you, since you were capable of reasoning and clear thought. I never doubted that you were - I simply wanted to give you a chance to calm down and orient yourself in your new location. Now that that's past us, I'm going to start doing the real work."

"Which is talking to me?"

"Yes."

"But why? To tell Zuko or something?"

"No, Azula. To hear it in your own words. Zuko isn't in any way involved with what I'm doing here. I won't be sending anything to him except for a general monthly report on how things are going. And if it makes you more comfortable, I'll lock my notes in your room so you'll never have to worry that I'm doing something with them."

Azula put her elbow on the table and grumbled. A quiet shuffle of footsteps made her look up, and she saw Isla come back into the room with a large tray of breakfast items in her hands. She set a cup of tea before each of them, followed by a breakfast plate for Dr. Low. Finally, she added a small bowl of cookies. When she left again, Azula's gaze drifted down to them, and after a moment, she took one of the cookies and bit off a piece of it. "Well, you know what happened," she said. "I lost to Zuko. I guess it made me feel bad." She finished chewing and swallowed. "I'm not used to losing, especially not to him, so I guess that did it for me."

"Was it always like that between you two?" said Dr. Low. "Did you constantly feel like you had to be better than him?"

Azula took a second cookie and bit off half. "I always was better than him. The only competition, really, was him trying to catch up."

Dr. Low wrote some things down. "Did you try to stay better than him?"

"No. I just was."

"In whose eyes?"

Azula shrugged. "Everyone's, I guess. Our dad's. The teachers'. Even Zuko's." She popped the rest of the cookie into her mouth and gulped down some tea.

"Was there anybody who, on the contrary, was more impressed by Zuko, or treated you both the same?"

Azula paused. "Our mom."

She let the word skate off of her tongue simply, but felt a slight uneasiness as Dr. Low made more notes. "And did that bother you?" he asked.

Azula paused again. "Sometimes."

Dr. Low nodded, but he didn't seem to attach any significance to her mentioning of Ursa, and moved on. "Did you feel like you had to keep proving something to the people who expected a lot of you?"

Azula scowled. "Well, of course. You try being the Fire Lord's granddaughter. You have to set an example for your peers by doing well in school, and you have to be at least a decent firebender, otherwise you'd shame pretty much all of your ancestors. If you don't have what it takes to be really great, though, then you have to excel in something else, like martial arts. Because if you laze around all day and don't work on developing any of your skills, you'll make the family look bad. And the Fire Nation too, by extension."

Dr. Low nodded. "So you've always striven to perfect yourself in order to set a good example for other people."

"No, not for anyone else," Azula emphasized. "I did it for me."

"For yourself."

"Yes." Azula crossed her arms. "Just for me. Because I like firebending. I like fighting, I like training, and I like the fact that I'm good at it. I'd never do anything else even if someone gave me a chance to, and I'd never stop working on my skills even if people didn't like me for them."

Dr. Low nodded. "So you felt secure and happy with the role you had to fulfill."

"Yes."

"Did any part of it ever feel forced, or cause you more stress than you would have liked?"

"No. It came naturally," Azula said. "Like I said, I didn't want to do anything else. I'm not your pretty little doll-cuddling, flower-picking child." She cast her gaze off to the side. "I burned flowers and hung them upside-down from my ceiling. They looked prettier that way. But some people thought that was crazy."

"Like Zuko?"

A smile tugged at Azula's lips. "Yeah, like Zuko. And Mom too." She paused again for a moment, then looked away. "But that was their problem."

Dr. Low nodded and made some more notes. "Who taught you to generate lightning?"

Azula suddenly felt a scowl turn down her face. "Why?"

"Well, seeing as it's an ability only a minority of firebenders have been able to master, and that it seems to be rather second-nature to you, I'm interested to know how you came to learn it."

Azula grumbled. "My father. He showed me the technique. Then he had me practice it with Lo and Li. They're two old ladies at the palace. They can't firebend, but they know all about the art, and they even taught my father and uncle when they were younger." She narrowed her eyes at Dr. Low, who was still writing stuff down. "What, do you think it's wrong? Monstrous? Like I'm not supposed to know all these things just because I'm fourteen and overtrained?"

Dr. Low looked at her and frowned. "I never said that. There's nothing wrong with cultivating an ability, if you have an ability and enjoy using it in a beneficial manner. I don't understand where the word 'monstrous' comes into play, but I don't see a reason to use it. In fact, firebending training has to start early, especially if the child has talent, because otherwise they could eventually become too lax about using their powers and hurt themselves or other people." He flipped a page. "For what it's worth, I'm able to generate lightning as well, though I learned it later than you did. I haven't done it in a while, of course, because there's no need for lightning generation in a clinic."

"Hmph."

"Can Zuko generate lightning as well?" Dr. Low continued.

"No," said Azula. "But he says he can redirect it. It's weird… I think he learned it from Uncle Fatso. He did it on me once."

"Do you mean General Iroh?"

"Yeah. Him." Azula grumbled.

"Did your uncle ever try to teach you the technique?"

"No."

"Hm. Why not?"

Azula shrugged a shoulder. "Don't know. Probably because he played favorites. He doted all over Zuko when we were younger and he even left with him on his journey to capture the Avatar. If I'd been the one banished, I'm positive he wouldn't have done the same for me. But I don't care. I don't need him anyway."

"Hm." Dr. Low leaned back. "Well, all right. How about childhood friends? Did you have any when you were living in the palace?"

"Yeah. I was friends with two girls from school, Mai and Ty-Lee." Azula crossed her arms. "But I guess we're enemies now."

"Why?"

"Because they betrayed me."

Dr. Low frowned. "When was this?"

"It was a few weeks before the Comet."

"How long had you been friends before?"

"Since we were six."

Dr. Low lifted an eyebrow. "Then you three must have been close."

Azula shrugged. "I guess. Only Mai and Ty-Lee were closer with each other than they were with me."

"Why do you think so?"

"Because they both stabbed me in the back at the same time and decided to break off from me together!"

Seeing her sudden fury, Dr. Low seemed to decide not to press the issue. "I see," he said. "Well, tell me a bit more about them, then. What were they like in general?"

Azula slumped back in her chair and sighed. "Well, Mai was the quiet girl. She was smart, but she didn't like to flaunt it, which I thought was weird because she was essentially crippling herself in society. But I could tell she was a good person. She didn't say stupid things and she didn't act like she was expecting someone to entertain her all the time. And she could throw daggers really well. It's like she always had her own thing and didn't care what anyone thought of her. She excelled because she knew she had it in her. And that was all that mattered." She paused to look at Dr. Low, who nodded for her to continue. Azula looked askance again. "Ty-Lee was basically the opposite. She was in a matched set with her twin sisters for the first few weeks of school. They were all cliquey and outgoing, and so long as Ty-Lee stayed with them, she practically had approval handed to her on a silver platter. But she couldn't stand it. She wanted to be different. And she was, a little. She could do acrobatic moves really well and wanted to learn how to fight. I taught her a bit of what I knew, and in return she taught me."

So was the friendship an equal give-and-take between all three of you?"

Azula shrugged. "How should I know? I mean, it might have started that way at first. They came to my house and we'd play and stuff. We'd let each other borrow things. Sometimes they'd even invite me over, and we'd meet each other's families." She looked aside, then added, "Mai had a crush on Zuko, too."

Dr. Low lifted his eyebrows. "Did she?"

Azula nodded. "Yeah. It was cute. I caught on to it early on, but Zuko didn't, and Mai didn't think I knew. I'd tease her about it sometimes, but it was just for fun. It didn't hurt her or anything."

"Did Zuko ever find out?"

"Yeah. He was a dum-dum, of course, so it was only after I told him. He kept wondering why Mai would act so strange when he was around. And he told me he kind of liked her too. So I decided to put them both out of their misery one day and got them talking to each other." Azula felt a smile trace up her mouth, but then it paused halfway and she sighed. "Well, then he got banished. Ty-Lee went to join the circus. Mai's family moved to Omashu because my dad made her dad governor. And I started following Dad around meetings and getting a bigger role in the palace. Then one day he gave me a mission to bring Zuko and Iroh back to the Fire Nation. I decided to get Mai and Ty-Lee to go with me, because I realized I'd be able to do it faster with their help."

Dr. Low frowned. "Why did your father want Zuko and Iroh to return?"

Azula shrugged a shoulder. "I don't know. All he said was that Zuko was a failure and Iroh was a traitor. I just assumed he wanted to throw them in prison. What else could he have wanted?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," said Dr. Low. "Did you ever think to question him about it?"

"No, of course not. It was his word, so whatever reason he had for it, it would still have to happen no matter what. I figured I'd just wait and see for myself."

Dr. Low nodded. "So you traveled with Mai and Ty-Lee on a mission to find Zuko and Iroh. How did things go between you three on the road?"

"They went fine, I guess. At first. We did everything as a team together, and they even helped me think of strategies of how to get a hold of Zuko. Then after we spotted the Avatar, Mai even pointed out that maybe we should focus on him more, since Zuko would still be trying to follow him. I doubted it at first, because by then Zuko knew that Dad wasn't really expecting him to come back with the Avatar, but Mai said she had a feeling that Zuko would still keep trying. And she turned out to be right. Then Ty-Lee helped when we pulled the coup on the Earth King by coming up with our Kyoshi Warrior disguises and learning to copy their fighting style. She said it was almost like being back in school plays again. And that made it almost kind of fun." Azula looked off at the wall. "I assumed they liked traveling with me. But apparently they didn't. So even if they wanted to be friends now, I wouldn't want to be theirs."

"But do you still enjoy reflecting on your journey together?" said Dr. Low.

Azula gave another shrug. "It's good to have good things to think back on, even if they'll never happen again." Her eyes traced the painted pattern of flowers and grass that adorned her teacup.

"Well, you shouldn't have an overly-negative outlook on the future, either," said Dr. Low. "Out of the two, it's the only one that's in our hands."

They were silent for a moment, eating their respective breakfasts. Azula gradually ate the rest of the cookies and finished her tea, then looked up at the doctor anew and frowned. "So if you and everyone else came here with me from the Fire Nation, where do you all usually work?"

"I have a clinic in the upper city," said Dr. Low. "Nira, Mira, Kira, Dee, and Isla were on staff there too. Then, when we got the assignment to take care of you, I had the nurses call some of their friends who worked in other places who were up for the job."

"And you did mind therapy there too?"

"No, just physical medicine." Dr. Low sipped some of his tea. "It was a combination of an urgent walk-in clinic and a regular hospital. I did surgeries, wound healing, fracture healing... the same things I did in the army, in other words. But I had other doctors on staff too, like Dee, and she specialized in physical therapy. The others are running things now, while I'm on leave."
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #32 on: Sep 19, 2018 02:35 am »

"Hmh." Azula leaned her cheek on her fist. "Then where did you do mind healing?"

Dr. Low smiled. "That same place. Though I didn't advertise it. That would've gotten us inspected… and perhaps not that well respected. Mind healing has a connotation for being muddled and shady, but that's simply because the individual experience is hard to generalize, and the process of helping a person through difficult times isn't something you can mechanize like a surgery. So you have every practitioner basically doing it in his or her own way, which makes it hard to unify them and say they have something in common. I understand why the Imperial Academy hasn't recognized it as an official field. I do believe that there is a right and wrong way to go about it, but that's a story for another time. Let it suffice to say that I consider it as a concrete, rather than mystical practice, and I have channels through which I spread word of myself to other people who look at it in the same manner. So, whenever a patient wanted to see me for that specific purpose, they simply came to me and told me."

"Oh."

They sat for a few more moments in silence, then Dr. Low opened his notebook again. "Now, if you don't mind, I just want you to fill me in on the major details of your journey. First you got the assignment from your father to capture Iroh and Zuko. Then you gathered Mai and Ty-Lee and set off to find them. How did you end up encountering the Avatar?"

Azula thought back for a moment. "It was in Omashu. He was with his friends from the Water Tribe. After I saw his arrow, I knew it was him. And I decided that we would try to take him along with Zuko."

"Why?"

"Well, Dad did want the Avatar. So why not kill two birds with one stone?"

Dr. Low nodded. "And then?"

Azula narrated the main points of her journey, from drilling through the wall of Ba Sing Se, to chasing the Avatar's bison, to spying on the Earth King, then bringing Zuko home. Finally, she got all the way up to entering the Boiling Rock.

"That was when they betrayed me," Azula said. "Zuko and his stupid new friends were trying to escape to the edge of the volcano and Mai just stopped the guards from cutting the line!"

"Wait a minute." Dr. Low held up a hand. "One thing at a time. Why were you so certain that Zuko would be in the prison?"

"Because Mai's uncle is the warden. He told her, and she told me."

"And did your father order you to go after Zuko, or did you decide to go there on your own?"

"I did it on my own."

"Why? Did you want to bring Zuko back to the palace?"

Azula scoffed. "No. I would've captured the Avatar and left him there. Or maybe put him in Capital City Prison so he'd be easier to watch over." She caught a strand of jagged hair that had slipped into her eyes and primly flicked it away. "Dad wouldn't have wanted to see him anyway."

"Why not?"

Azula shrugged. "Zuko's a traitor."

"Why?"

Azula did not respond. Dr. Low tapped the table with his finger. "I'm not as disconnected from palace life as you might think. I remember perfectly well how Zuko came home weeks before the Day of Black Sun. He was welcomed as a hero, along with you. Correct me if I'm wrong, but heroes aren't suddenly deemed traitors for no apparent reason." He fixed his gaze on Azula and frowned. "Something happened between Zuko and your father."

"Obviously," Azula murmured.

"What was it?"

Azula looked down, silent for a moment in thought. "I don't know. Zuko probably got scared and blabbed about me being the one who killed the Avatar. Then, of course, the fact that the Avatar never died in the first place probably didn't work to his advantage. But still, it wouldn't have made Dad that mad at him..."

"When did you notice your father was angry?"

"A little while after the eclipse. That's why I think Zuko talked to him sometime then. He had his own bunker, and he knew where Dad was, so he could've easily gotten to him. And with everyone's firebending gone, Zuko probably thought it would be the perfect way of making Dad listen to him. Finally being on equal footing." She rolled her eyes. "But I guess it worked."

"What happened after the eclipse?"

"I left the bunker once the invasion forces started to retreat and helped with the counterattack. Our army captured some prisoners and Dad coordinated all the reinforcements to secure the city. Once the city was clear, I went back to the palace. That was when I noticed Zuko was gone. I asked Dad about it, and he said that it should be of no concern to me, and if I ever brought him here again he'd banish me along with him." Azula gave a sour frown. "That's how mad he was. And you know, he might have even done it. He might've banished me right then and there, if I hadn't gotten away from him before he could."

"So you were afraid he'd follow through with it?"

"Back then, no," Azula said. "But now that I think about it, he probably would have. He could've done it at any point in my life, as soon as I stopped being his perfect little servant." She looked away at the wall in spite.

But Dr. Low's gaze on her was steady. "When a person is angry, they can often do or say things that they don't mean."

Azula looked up darkly. "That's an understatement."

"Nevertheless, it applies. Even to your father."

Azula shook her head. "You're wrong. He always means what he does. He meant it when he banished Zuko the first time and he meant it when he said he'd banish me, and that means I was nothing but a tool for him the whole time!"

"But that would imply that he meant it when he gave you his favor, that he meant it when he took Zuko back, and that all of his contrary reactions were spontaneous and genuine, rather than planned and calculated."

Azula started to retort, but found that she couldn't think of a counterargument. She settled back with a scowl, casting her gaze back to the edge of the table.

Dr. Low inclined his head. "It also means that it applies to other people as well, and that you have to stop searching for a single motive behind the sum of a person's actions throughout their lifetime. You cannot keep thinking that everyone has a secret agenda, against you or otherwise. That includes your friends. People are not one-dimensional caricatures, so it is fruitless to try to outwit them by behaving like one."

Azula let out a breath. "Then why don't you tell me what I should have done, if you're so smart?"

"You should have stopped to think, the moment your friend helped Zuko, why she had done it."

"I did! I asked her why!"

"And what did she say?"

"She said: 'You miscalculated. I love Zuko more than I fear you.'"

Dr. Low turned out his palm. "Then there's your answer. She chose Zuko despite any consequences she'd face for saving him, because she loves him. Love is a natural emotion, one without which life would be inconceivable. She also said that you miscalculated. That means, up to that point, you had been trying got make your friends obey you by using a set of static, predetermined methods, like intimidation or flaunting. Do you deny that?"

Azula grumbled. "No."

"So you recognize on some level that you were doing it. Now, you must recognize why it failed. No matter how well you manipulate your friends' fears or emotions, at some point the rules that you think govern their behavior will simply not be accurate anymore. That is because people change. As they progress through their lives, they find new desires and new loves, which cause them to reinterpret their attitudes and beliefs. While your friends may very well have feared you at one point, something they encountered on their journey with you made them reconsider that fear, or perhaps place something else above it. In your first friend's case, it was love. You, however, failed to see this, and continued trying to cultivate that fear in her, when in all likelihood it was already gone. The Boiling Rock was simply the breaking point of her patience with you, when she decided that she could no longer keep serving you with a clear conscience. Your hold broke on her, not because of some strategic error on your part, but because you were never the one controlling her in the first place and she realized that before you did. Your friends are not battle ships to be steered, and neither are you."

Azula met this with fuming silence, and Dr. Low flipped to a fresh page in his notebook. "Now let's talk about your other friend. How did she betray you?"

"She chi-blocked me as I was about to attack Mai."

"And that surprises you?"

"It infuriates me!"

Dr. Low raised an eyebrow. "A friend stopping two other friends from fighting infuriates you?"

"Mai would have gotten what she deserved! Ty-Lee chose her over me!"

"No, Azula, she chose both of you," said Dr. Low. "She knew that you, the master firebender, could cause a great deal of damage in a fit of rage, so she simply prevented you from doing something that would have spun the situation out of control. The same way, if I may add, that Zuko likely took advantage of the eclipse to avoid a firebending battle with Ozai. He knew that Ozai would react violently to whatever it was he wanted to tell him, so he did the sensible thing and delayed that reaction. From what you've just told me, you understand the same thing about your father, and employed the same tactics by distancing yourself from him when you sensed him to be angered. What Ty-Lee did was essentially the same, though she of course had no other way to stop you than to attack you." Dr. Low crossed his arms. "Now imagine, for a moment, that you had fought Mai and that you won. What would that have proven? Would it have made her agree with you? Not likely. Would it have scared Ty-Lee into silence? Possibly. But intimidation can only work for so long, even if it has genuine power backing it up. Eventually, Ty-Lee would have drifted away from you in the same way, and you would have still ended up losing them both."

By now, Azula's mouth was trembling. "You don't get it!" she blurted. "I'm the princess! I'm not some stupid child in a playground; I live in the real world, and in the real world, your perfect morals get trampled into the dirt! People aren't good - they're liars! They're only on your side for as long as you have something to offer them or can scare them into following you. Otherwise they'd strike you down the minute they get a chance! The only people you can call your family and friends are people who are loyal to you no matter what. If they're not loyal, then they're nothing! And you're nothing, too!"

Dr. Low gave a nod. "You're absolutely right. But you seem to be mistaken about what loyalty means. Loyalty to your friends isn't burning them, nor is it lying to them or manipulating them. I understand that you grew up during a war and I'm not trying to say that the ethics of wartime are the same as the ethics of peace. I was on the front myself, and I can personally attest that there was no way we could have survived if we had bound ourselves to all the typical societal virtues, like cordiality and understanding. There's no room for asking a fallen man if he's all right when his friends are bombarding you with boulders. And if a commander has war prisoners to trade, you can bet he'll want a fellow commander back and not a plain soldier, even though both of them are human beings and their lives are equally valuable. Equality, loyalty, and friendship are bound by that set of universal laws of decency which unfortunately during war are often bent. But that doesn't mean that there isn't a right and wrong situation to bend them, much less does it mean that you should strive to apply that practice to normal life."

Azula listened to him sourly with her eyes narrowed, chin resting in her hand.

Dr. Low took another sip of his tea. "Now... most of those policies about survival and strategy that you're familiar with aren't actually that old. Much of the way in which the Fire Nation military and the nobles think today was introduced to us during the first decade or so after Azulon ascended to the throne. You can imagine he inherited a pretty difficult situation from his father - without Sozin's claim of divine inspiration and without the comet, the only way he could sustain the burden of the war was through sheer military prowess. So Azulon had to cultivate the power of his forces and eliminate all potential threats, no matter how small they may have seemed, like the Southern Water Tribe. In addition to that, he had to ensure that each and every soldier was unquestionably loyal to his country, whether they had the comet on their side or not. That meant enforcing strict conduct codes as well as punishing those who disobeyed them. If just one person messed up or betrayed secrets to the enemy, entire battles could be lost. You, Azula, have been brought up in an environment where this conflict came first, and what more, by a father who was no less than the commander of all the Fire Nation's forces. I have no doubt that Ozai understood Azulon's war ethic and the reasons behind it. But he also, whether consciously or not, carried its black-and-white values over to his family - victory or loss, friend or foe, strength or weakness. And that is evident from one very significant event in your life."

Azula frowned. "What event?"

"The banishment of your brother."

Azula narrowed her eyes. "How was that significant for me?"

Dr. Low lifted an eyebrow. "You watched the Agni Kai, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"And it didn't affect you at all? Not the slightest bit?"

"No."

Dr. Low gave a faint smile. "I find that hard to believe."

Feeling a sudden rage, Azula slapped the table. "It didn't affect me! It didn't, so stop trying to analyze it out of me! It wasn't my fault that Zuko was too full of himself to stay out of that stupid meeting, which by the way Dad didn't even let me watch in on, but I guess he was just jealous of me like he always was and saw it as a chance to get the upper hand on me or something. Then of course, he got exactly what was coming to him after he talked back to that general! It was Zuko's fault!"

"So if you were Ozai, you would have done the exact same thing?"

"Yes!"

"Burned Zuko and banished him?"

"Yes!" Azula crossed her arms. But right then, the lady with the cherry bowl came back into her mind, kneeling and pathetically proffering the fruit into the air. Azula let a moment of silence pass, then rolled her eyes. "Well, maybe I wouldn't banish him. I'd teach him his lesson then give him something useful to do, like manage some metal factory or work for the general he insulted. I mean, we already have a war going on, so why waste your time banishing people when you need every person you can get? I wouldn't have made that big a deal over some brat boy piping up at a war meeting, because that would have made me look bad too, like I had nothing better to think about besides family dramas. And the nobles would all start gossiping about me, when they should be being organized and productive." She glanced at Dr. Low. "Because honestly, after Dad sent Zuko away, the whole palace started talking. People acted like a bomb went off. Some of them didn't like Zuko from the beginning, so they sort of got what they wanted, but even they started getting all quiet and low-key, as if they could be next. I think Dad should've disciplined Zuko even more after that, but instead he took the easy way out and sent him off on his own. So for three years, Zuko used Fire Nation ports, lived off of Fire Nation supplies, and got in the way of people who could do things way more effectively. The least I would have done is give Zuko better resources, so that if by some miraculous chance he found the Avatar, he'd be able to contain him. But Dad's stupid."

Dr. Low gave a chuckle. "Zuko's stupid, Dad's stupid?"

"Everyone's stupid!" Azula spread her arms out at her sides. "I'm the sane one around here!"

"Well, I never said it was unacceptable to have an opinion about things." Dr. Low leafed over the notes he had made, then glanced at the clock. "All right, I think that's enough for today. How about you go to physical therapy now, have lunch, then two hours for a break."

"Sure, whatever."

Dr. Low got up, unlocked an upper storage cabinet, and placed the notebook inside. He turned to Nira, who had turned up in the doorway moments before. "I'll keep this in here, all right?"

Nira nodded. "All righty!"

Dr. Low turned to Azula and gave her a parting nod. "I'll come back in a couple of days and we'll pick up from the Boiling Rock."

Azula followed him with her gaze as he went to the door. "Are you sure you don't want to dissect my brain next?" she called out. "Or screen me for some mental parasite? Or ask me why I decided to hold my cup a certain way to trace its roots back to my childhood?"

A smile spread across Dr. Low's face. "Believe me, with enough time and logic, that last one is possible." He lifted a finger matter-of-factly and left the room.

Azula crossed her arms. In the meantime, Nira approached and began to clear the table. Azula leaned her elbows over the surface and peered down at her emptied teacup in thought. "I don't understand," she muttered. "He asks me to tell him about my experiences, but he ends up telling me more than I tell him. If he already knows so much about what I'm supposed to do, then why does he bother asking what I think?"

"Dr. Low wants to find out what's important to you," Nira responded. "He asks you to give details about your experiences because he wants you to notice certain things about them. I mean, it wouldn't really help you if he just read off a diagnosis and told you what to to think, right?" She took the handlebars of the wheelchair and steered Azula out of the room, entering the hallway.

"Still, it's like he takes every little thing from my life and twists it into some sort of lesson!" Azula said.
« Last Edit: Oct 14, 2018 08:41 am by Icy_Ashford » Logged
DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #33 on: Sep 19, 2018 02:36 am »

"Well, that's the point of therapy. It gets you to think about your past in a different way, so that you can approach your future more constructively."

Azula whirled her head around to face the nurse. "But how was I supposed to know all of that? Everything he said about Mai and Ty-Lee, and why they did what they did? I can't possibly sit down and analyze every minute of my life like that! There just wouldn't be time! And even if I could, what use would it be if in the meantime I'm supposed to be devising a plan for hunting the Avatar or drilling into Ba Sing Se? Is he saying I should have that in mind too, along with my regular plans? It's physically impossible to hold all that stuff in my head!" Azula smacked the side of her head for emphasis.

Nira smiled. "You don't have to hold everything in your head. The point is to let everything come naturally!"

"But what does that mean?"

Nira sighed. "Look, overthinking things isn't going to help either. The session's over, so it's over. Now focus on physical therapy. It'll give your mind a break."

Azula grumbled. Nira wheeled her into Dee's room, where the therapist was sitting behind her desk as always, this time with Isla occupying the nearby chair.

"Hello!" said Nira. "Right on time, I hope."

"Yes, right on time..." said Dee, rising from her chair. Nira pushed Azula's wheelchair farther forward, then left the room. At the same time, Isla rose to her feet, taking a cup of tea she had been drinking.

"Thank you for the recipe," she said to Dee. "I don't think I would have ever really thought to use valerian and saffron together like that."

Dee smiled. "It's not really mine, technically - my aunt copied a few from a tea master's recipe book. I should write to her to ask her if she can hunt them down."

"Mm."

"Then maybe in return you can give me something for insomnia. Maybe it was the long hours, but the past year doing shift work was horrible!"

Isla smiled. "I haven't had a need for that yet, personally, but I'll think of something."

Dee returned the gesture and nodded. "All right, then."

Isla left the room, then Dee began to unclasp Azula's straps with a sigh. "Shame how you can work in the same place as somebody for years and only get to know them after being stuck in a single building with them for over a month..."

Azula gazed at the therapist in curiosity, not saying anything. But Dee quickly phased into her usual rhythm of work, and the next hour passed by in the same businesslike pace. By the time the therapy session ended, Azula was back to the same worked-out, mentally-numbed state as usual. Moments later, Isla came back to take Azula out. She helped her into the wheelchair, locking some of the straps, and drove her through the hallway.

"I'm supposed to get a two-hour break," Azula said.

"I know." Isla rolled her through the doorway and stopped her in the center of the room. She unlocked an upper cabinet and took out a bottle of serum, then spilled out the last spoonful that remained. She gave the spoon to Azula, waited for her to take it, then closed the cabinets again and locked them.

"So what am I supposed to do now?" Azula asked.

"Whatever you like. You can have a nap if you're tired. Or read something. Kira put some more books into the shelves." Isla leaned down and began to undo Azula's clasp locks, pulling the straps away.

Azula didn't move, but looked at the nurse warily.

"I assume you want to move around," Isla said. "But I have to lock the wing. If you need anything, the three of them are in the lounge." She gave a slight turn of the head in the direction of the hallway.

"What's everyone else doing?" Azula asked.

"Dee's writing a research paper. She was working on it back in Capital City. The other nurses are having lunch. I'm making medicine." She said all of this in a flat tone. Azula had no way of telling if she had stressed the last sentence or not.

She began to study the nurse's face, trying to gauge what kind of emotion was lurking beneath it. But Isla looked back without any particular color to her expression. In fact, there wasn't much color to her at all. Her eyes, which Azula had just come to notice, were slate gray. And despite the full daytime, she still looked tired.

Isla held her gaze for a few moments, then finally rose to her feet and backed away towards the door. "Be sure to rest up," she said. With a final nod, she left, and moments later, Azula heard a click as the dividing door was locked. In the silence, she became aware of the faint sounds of chatter and laughter coming from the lounge. After a moment, Azula walked up to the bedroom door and closed it.

Turning around, she spanned her gaze across the empty bedroom, which was clean and bright with daylight. Outside, waves crashed quietly against the distant shore. Unexpectedly, a sense of relaxation began to spread through her, and Azula climbed up into the bed, taking some of the old newspaper scrolls that Dr. Low had brought. She started to skim over them, then moments later, there came another knock on her door. Azula looked up, seeing the door open ever so slightly and Isla poke her head inside. She was carrying a tray.

"I almost forgot your lunch. Here..." She walked up to Azula and proffered the tray with both hands. It was a colorful salad with chunks of meat, a small bowl of fruit on the side.

Azula took the tray and set it into her lap. "Thanks."

Isla nodded in response, her brief smile just for a moment overriding the strange, uncertain way the word had felt after slipping out. Then the nurse left, closing the door quietly, and in the resulting solitude, the cloud of puzzlement that had briefly settled over Azula's mind began to fade. In its wake, it left a strange stillness.

Azula's gaze drifted back to the scrolls she had been reading, which had that portrait of Zuko standing before the crowd, the eleven-year-old Avatar boy at his side.

Strange, how Zuko had managed to gain his friendship after effectively being his enemy. It just went to show that some people by their nature belonged together... stuck together like magnets, a gob of goodness and righteousness. But from what Azula could remember, her bond with Mai and Ty-Lee had formed the same way. So what had changed? Them or her? And why?

Azula tried to think it over, but when she was unable to get a result, she stopped. She looked back down at her tray of food.

Maybe it wasn't even goodness that had bound the Avatar's team, but goals. The Avatar had wanted to stop her father. Zuko had wanted to stop him too. And an alliance had forged a friendship. In her case, goals had ruined it. Her goal of capturing the Avatar hadn't been Mai's and Ty-Lee's. They had stuck with her just... because. And she had mistakenly begun to treat them as if they would pursue her goal as relentlessly as she was. Then, of course, when the time came to put that goal over something else they cared about, they had chosen the latter.

She imagined Zuko in the palace now, surrounded by all of them, ruling together in happiness and harmony. He could have it, she decided. Whatever he and his friends thought about her, whatever conclusions the nurses or Dr. Low would come to draw from her revelations, from now on she would focus only on herself. Her mind, as abnormal and inadequate as it was, was a realm that was completely her own. And there, at least, she could be free.

Azula set the food aside, and after some thought, closed the blinds and got back into bed.

(End of Chapter 11)
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #34 on: Sep 19, 2018 02:43 am »

12. I've Chased Away the Clouds

Storms were common in the summer. Zuko always saw them developing through the large palace windows, in the occasional moments of pause he'd allow himself throughout the day. The morning would start off clear and sunny, then in the afternoon, a mass of gray clouds would collect together over the horizon. Then the sun would recede, the sky would darken, and finally a sheet of rain would drop over the gardens. The storm would last for about an hour, turning everything outside white and gray, the rushing and pattering of the rain whispering out from the silent rooms. Then as easily as it had come, it would fade, leaving only a grayish sheen in the sky and some faint rumbles of thunder in the distance.

He had taken to his new duties as Fire Lord without much worry. There had simply been too much to do during the first weeks after Sozin's Comet to leave time for questioning himself. And by the time he had fallen into something like a new rhythm of life, it had begun to seem second nature, and all the thoughts and concerns that had drifted through his mind gradually sorted themselves into orders of importance. Ending a hundred-year war, after all, took more than a final battle. He had to tie up loose ends, assess the armies' standings, and get the nobles on the mainland to cooperate with the change of policy. Those who didn't had to be detained.

He had ordered the interrogations to begin on the second week of his official reign, once the remaining generals had returned from the battlefield. At the beginning, he had rounded up a small group of people he knew he could trust – guards, police officers, servants. Then he gradually worked his way out, covering all the spheres of palace hierarchy. Every single noble had been questioned for their loyalty to Ozai, and depending on how it went, was either put into prison, or given the opportunity to pledge themselves to him.

Not all of them had. So Zuko had simply laid them off, letting them rebuild their lives somewhere else, and they never bothered him again. New people came in to take their place, and soon enough, Zuko had a new command of subjects – Captain Lang, Warden Poon, Doctor Low… and countless other faces that had been taken from his old life and rearranged into a new mosaic. It was only in those moments when Zuko slowed his pace, detaching his mind for a minute from the constellation of tasks that hung over him, that he realized how much everything had changed.

He was now the sole constant occupant of an enormous palace. He could go wherever he wanted, do whatever he wanted, and repurpose any aspect of his surroundings to his liking. He could spend an entire day lounging atop the war conference table eating fruit if he so pleased. The shadows in the pillared throne room that had seemed to dance and leer over him as a child were no longer frightening. The dozens of tall, looming paintings of Fire Lords in the portrait hall could all be dwarfed by a mural of Savior Zuko's ten-thousand feats on the opposite wall. He had chased away the ghosts, shooed away the storms, and now was free to fill the place with his identity.

Sticking to the tradition, Zuko had ordered his bedroom to be cleared out after the coronation and all his things to be moved to the Fire Lord's chambers. The move had been a short one, for the chambers were located in the same wing of the palace, but nevertheless the difference was staggering. When the servants had opened the doors to the chambers for him for the first time, and Zuko had been greeted by a vast, sprawling space, with a floor of dark wood, red and gold carpets, and windows that reached up to the arching ceiling, he had stood still for a moment in awe.
His servants had cleared away most of Ozai's possessions, but even so, it was clear that the rooms' previous resident had liked to live in plenty. Swords and masks hung from the walls of the front rooms, and the shelves in the study were stuffed with books and scrolls. There were two writing desks, one in the study and a smaller one in the bedchamber, both stocked with parchment, brushes, and ink stones of various sizes.

Of the entire collection, there was only one thing that mystified him – a large painting that hung on the wall directly across from the bed, depicting a vast, sloping terrain, with large rocks cropping up along a dirt path. The picture was hazy and simplistic, most of the landscape obscured by a white mist. Zuko had no way of knowing if his father had put it there, but at any rate, Ozai had kept it.

He had begun his life there in an unceremonious way, using only the spaces he needed, letting his father's possessions gradually get pushed back into the distant corners. He found it easy not to dwell on the fact that he was living where his father once lived, and indeed where all the previous Fire Lords had lived, perhaps the one place in the palace that had intrigued him most. How often his younger self had dreamed about those rooms in wonder, imagined what they looked like, been filled with frustration at never being let inside. Now, they were his – but most importantly, Zuko decided, they were his for a reason. They symbolized the job he had taken up, the job he was resolved to do. Whoever the rooms previous occupants were, whatever they had done or wanted, was a matter of the past. Now was the time for the future. And the future was up to him.

So he had thought, for a time. But as the weeks wore on, and the tasks and events and meetings gradually piled up and started to clash with each other, all of those tiny worries slowly began to catch up to him.

It had started with a weekly council meeting. Zuko had gathered in the throne room with some generals that had recently returned from the Earth Kingdom to discuss the fate of the Fire Nation's colonies. Reports were already widespread that the Earth King had disappeared, which left the enormous country effectively without a leader. Coupled up with the uncovering of the Dai Li conspiracy, the Ba Sing Se palace had descended into chaos. Cities and provinces were beginning to fend for themselves, would-be leaders rising up to assume control of their own territories and declaring autonomy from the rest.

In light of the circumstances, one of Zuko's generals had advised him to tighten his hold on the colonies, lest they too get out of hand or fall to invasion. Still another had suggested that they give them their autonomy, as a symbol of goodwill on the part of the Fire Nation and an affirmation of its policy of peace. No one had dared to say it, but this was to be Zuko's first test. His decision would reveal to the world, and to his people, what kind of ruler he was going to be.

Throughout the meeting, Zuko had sat at the head of the conference table, gaze flickering from one face to another as he listened to the generals' exchange. First one speech would seem convincing to him, then another, then still a third, and then the first general would counter the other two and insist on his own viewpoint. It was only an hour in, when the generals finally fell silent and looked to him, that Zuko realized he hadn't said a single word. Feeling the silence of the room press down upon him, he cleared his throat.

"My Lord, what is your opinion on the matter?" General Mak had asked.

The generals were silent as they waited for Zuko to answer. When Zuko didn't speak, one of them rose to his feet. "It is clear that His Majesty wishes to think over our suggestions some more before making up his mind. Perhaps it would be best if we met again on another day?"

Zuko nodded. "That would be best."

One by one, the generals all bowed to him and filed out. General Mak had lingered behind however, and once the others had left, he approached Zuko.

"Your Majesty, if I may."

"Yes?"

"Indecision will not get us anywhere. The longer we delay, the more we will give off the impression of weak will, which will only make things more difficult in the long run."

Zuko had been too perplexed to reply. The general bowed and took his leave. Only when Zuko was alone again with his thoughts did he realize the meaning of his words, and felt his face flush with shame. Granted, Mak was one of the more critical generals in his command and seemed to have a bleak outlook on things, but this time his words rang particularly true. Why was it taking him so long to decide? Was it really a weakness?

Zuko had returned to his chambers that evening lost in thought.

Weak. Slow. Pathetic.

He lumbered over to the writing desk beside his bed and sat down. He looked at another, smaller table behind him and saw a tray with a teapot and an empty cup. He stared dumbly at the tea set for a moment, as if it were an apparition. He could almost hear his father's laugh echo in the silence.

Tea and failure!

Zuko clenched his fist. He got up and went to the tea set, holding his hand up to the teapot. It was hot. He went to the bell-pull on the wall and tugged it, and moments later, a servant entered the room.

"Fire Lord Zuko! Is there a problem?"

Zuko pointed at the tea set. "Who left that here?"

The servant bowed. "I did, my Lord. I've been doing it for the past few days, ever since Your Majesty told me that he preferred to have tea before bed. I used to put it in the front room, but after seeing it untouched I thought that Your Majesty failed to see it, so I decided to put it in another room this time. Forgive me if I have caused offense."

After a moment, Zuko shook his head. "No, it's not a problem. You've done fine. Thank you."

The servant bowed and left.

Zuko went back to the desk and sat down. He poured himself some tea and pondered while he drank it. The more time he spent as Fire Lord, the more ruling was starting to feel like being attacked by an onslaught of hornets. Leading a country wasn't a sole duty, he realized; it was in fact a delicate game of power balancing and compromising. Every day he had ministers and generals talking to him, requesting his attention, asking if His Majesty would be so kind as to hear their solution for the problem of something-or-other or if His Majesty had an opinion on an idea presented by someone else three days ago. Even when he had been a Fire Prince and still had enough of his father's favor to be able to observe the decision-making process, it had always seemed like the Fire Lord was the only person in charge. The ministers had been present, of course, but it had always seemed like Ozai had played them, pitted them against each other while implementing solutions on his own. Then, when his father's plans had gotten more dangerous, Zuko had started to wonder how much of an opinion the counsellors really had and whether Ozai was just using them as puppets to do what he wanted. It was from the image of such a ruler that Zuko had turned away, vowing never to be like his father, to be something better. But now, Zuko had to admit to himself that his father had made the job look easy.

After finishing his tea, then spending the next hour switching between reading a book and writing a journal entry, Zuko finally gave up trying to occupy himself and went to sleep. Once he had extinguished all the lamps and surrendered himself to the quiet darkness, Zuko was washed over with a morbid feeling. Here he was, in the rooms that had belonged to his father, that had belonged to his father's father, his father's father's father, and countless other fathers that had come before that. He was their rightful owner, and yet he still felt like a child, who had decided to sneak into his dad's study one day and snoop through his papers. The fact that he had an entire country on his shoulders now was almost too absurd to think about. How could he think about a country, when he could hardly keep his own court in order? As the general had said, he was weak.

Zuko had lain still for several hours on his back without sleeping, just staring at the ceiling and thinking about his dilemma. The memories of his first few days on the throne now seemed both incredible and unreal – how had been so sure of himself, so determined to right Ozai's wrongs. But now, the more he thought about it, the more he realized that there was still a part of him deep down that held to the same irrational imagining he had had as a child, that of his father as some all-powerful, otherworldly figure, who always knew what to do and had the final say as to what was right and wrong. It still seemed like at any moment, in the clear light of day, Ozai could come walking into the room, his steely gaze boring into Zuko's own, and say: "Boy, what have you done?"

Actually, there were few times when his father hadn't seemed angry. It seemed to be Ozai's natural state of being, just like sneakiness was Azula's and kindness was his mother's. And more often than not, Ozai's anger was directed at Zuko. Why didn't he understand the basic firebending forms? He went where when he was supposed to be preparing for his lessons? And each time, those narrowed, amber eyes would bore into Zuko's own, and draw from him a hundred pleas for forgiveness. That was why, in the moments when his father was happy, it would seem like the sun had broken through the dark clouds and illuminated everything. The whole world seemed brighter.

But as Zuko had grown older, those moments for some reason became rarer, and even when they came, they masked a dangerous shiftiness. After his mother had gone, Zuko had, for a moment, fallen into complete despair. He had been stuck with his father now, and he wasn't sure if he liked it.
Zuko busied himself with these thoughts so much that he hardly got any sleep, and so the next day he dragged himself through the palace like a zombie. Retreating to his father's room with his father's mocking laugh in his mind was only making it worse, and for a while Zuko could only sit and despair at the prospect of another sleepless night. But then, suddenly, an idea occurred to him. Of course he couldn't stop thinking about his father – he was sleeping in the man's chambers! So that night, Zuko gathered up some of his things, made sure the servants didn't see him, and snuck into his old bedroom. He made the brief trek through the family wing, found the door at the end of the hallway, and unlocked it.

The bedroom was practically untouched since the day he had left it on the Day of Black Sun. Servants had come to clean it up, but all the old furniture was still there, the bed made and orderly. Zuko threw back the covers and lay down, already starting to feel more like himself.

He lowered his head onto the pillow, pulled the blanket over his shoulder, and closed his eyes.

There, he told himself. Sleep.







(just like Mother)



"Ah!"

Zuko's eyes flew open. The sound of Azula's laugh and the image of his mother falling into a dark void vanished from his mind and were replaced by the dark, quiet bedroom. Hardly two hours had passed. The faint moonlight was still streaming through the curtains, just as before.

Zuko sat up, waiting for his hammering heartbeat to subside. He had dreamed of the two dragons again, one red and one blue, encircling him on his throne. Only this time both of them had gone rogue on him and were about to pounce and devour him. He was reminded of the dreams he had had in Ba Sing Se, during the onslaught of that mysterious illness he had triggered when he had freed Appa from the Dai Li's prison. Thankfully his dreams had never been as hectic since, though some elements from them still recurred.

Particularly one.

"Zuko, help me!"

He saw Ursa reaching out to him again as she had done minutes ago, her face marked with fear, before the darkness swallowed her up. And once again, a reel of old memories marched into his mind… Dad's going to kill you… Everything I've done I've done to protect you… His father standing with his back to him, unresponsive… Where was Mom? No one knows… Yet a voice inside of him had been crying out. His father had done something to her. His father had gotten rid of her!

Zuko leaned back into the pillows, folding his hands over his stomach. He knew that wasn't true now. Ozai hadn't killed her. But Ursa had killed Azulon. Ozai had known about it, and afterwards had sent her away.

Ursa was alive.

Had been then, at any rate.

What had happened to her after she had left the palace, though, Zuko didn't know. He couldn't, not with so little resources. But there was no use in speculating. When the time came, Zuko resolved, he would start a search for her. Even if the effort proved fruitless, the fact that he had made an effort would give him some measure of peace. But that time wasn't now.

Zuko blinked, letting his gaze pan across the darkness. The bed was positioned right in front of the door, where if Zuko opened it, he would see the old hallway of the family wing, with the tall windows and long white curtains. Dimly he realized that this was right where she had woken him up all those years ago, before leaving down the hallway and vanishing.

He stared at the door in the darkness, pondering her shadowy figure in his mind while his gaze was fixed on the barely-visible patterns in the wood. And right then, he felt a subtle, almost reactional stir of fear inside him, as if a ghostly hand had brushed over his neck. Zuko shuddered, his gaze darting to the bed canopy, to the ceiling, to the empty shelves and drawers that stood on the sterile floor like skeletons, and for some reason he got the acute feeling that he had wandered into the lair of some beast.

And the beast was watching him.

Zuko's heart accelerated again, and in a jolt, he sprang out of the bed, turning around, clenching his fists in preparation to blast fire. He stepped away from the bed and kept turning, surveying the room, then when he had assured himself that there was nobody else there, he pulled his cloak around him and left.

Zuko hurried down the hallway, trying to drown out the sound of his footsteps and the echo that made it seem like someone was following him. He gave the tall white curtains a quick glance, then made a sharp turn to the main hallway that led back to the Fire Lord's chambers. He snuck past the servant's room and made his way back to his new bedroom, closing the door. He sank against it, catching his breath, allowing the silence to settle back in.

Zuko approached his bed and sank into the covers, staring out at the strange, misty painting on the wall.

"Your mother did vicious, treasonous things that night. She knew the consequences and accepted them. For her treason, she was banished."

"Where's Mom?" "No one knows. Oh, and last night, Grandpa passed away." "You're sick, Azula. And I want my knife back!"

"Who's going to make me? Mom?"


As the minutes passed and Zuko mentally settled himself into his surroundings, the panicked craze that had taken over him earlier began to seem silly. He couldn't keep running from bad memories like a child. Otherwise he really would stay one forever. But he couldn't let that happen; he had to move forward.

After that night, Zuko slept solely in his new bedchamber and forcefully pushed out all of his doubts to the contrary. If anything, new scenery would keep his mind fixed on current events, which would help him function. The old memories would still probably haunt him for some time, but perhaps if he worked long enough and acclimatized himself to being the palace's owner, they would go away on their own.
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #35 on: Sep 19, 2018 02:46 am »



Thus, three weeks passed.

The interrogations proceeded through the ranks of Zuko's government, resulting in some officials being kept, others let go, a few others arrested. Captain Lang uncovered a sizable band of dissenters, and though it was far from the first one, it seemed to be at least more organized than the rest. The captain had shown Zuko a letter that provided clues as to their next meeting and Zuko had instructed him to keep tabs on it.

And so on the morning of the third day of the tenth month, nearly two months after his coronation, Zuko emerged into the throne room ready for another day of work. He was exhausted, for he had spent most of the previous night reading some treatises that had been lying around in his study, but thanks to some early morning tea, his head was clear and sharp.

He took his seat on the throne, waiting for the first of the day's appointments to arrive. He was expecting several that day, in no particular order: the Kyoshi warriors, the police, some generals, and Captain Lang, who would be delivering a report about the progress of the week's investigations.

Zuko had the room to himself for a while before a two palace guards opened the golden doors and bowed. "Captain Lang is here to deliver his report, Your Majesty."

Zuko nodded. "You can let him in."

The guards disappeared through the doors, then they opened again for Captain Lang. The man strode forward in his determined, predator-like walk, his arms swinging at his sides. He was holding a packet of ten scrolls tied together with a string. The captain approached the throne and bowed, and when the he lifted his head, Zuko noted with surprise that he had a black eye and several bruises on his face.

"Did your interrogations go all right, Captain?" Zuko asked.

Captain Lang lifted his hand and brushed his swollen nose. "Yes, my Lord. Some of the detainees just got out of hand..." He sniffed and proffered the package. "I have the transcripts of all the interviews we've done this week. The dissenter band seems to be more organized than we thought. Three days ago we arrested a noble named Aren who tried to find out about their next meeting. He received a flyer from General Mak."

Zuko's eyebrows climbed. "General Mak?"

"Yes, my Lord." Lang paused. "That would make it the sixth flyer we've found, adding in another one that Captain Sung sent over from South Chung-Ling. We're still not sure how Mak came to have this one. Maybe he confiscated it from someone and gave it to Aren thinking that Aren wanted to report it, or maybe he's connected to Tao Yu and wanted to lure Aren to the meeting."

Zuko locked his hands together and rested his chin on his knuckles. The last time he had seen General Mak had been at a council meeting the previous week. He hadn't spoken to the general personally that time, but Mak had delivered a report about the progress of the demilitarization plan and voiced his opinion on some related issues, as had the other generals. Everything had been as normal.

"Did you get to speak to Mak as well?" Zuko asked.

"No, my Lord," Lang replied. "We entered his house the same evening we interrogated Aren, but there was no one home. Mak appears to have left the city."

This news hit Zuko like a punch in the stomach. "He's gone?"

"Yes, my Lord."

Zuko leaned on the armrest, tapping a finger against his knee. "That's… strange. And he never took official leave from me either."

Lang nodded. "We're currently trying to track him down. We're interrogating people who know him and work with him. I'll get the transcripts to you later, but from what my officers are telling me so far, no one knows where he went. But we did search the other generals' offices again, and we haven't found any more flyers. All of them said that they didn't even know Mak had gone anywhere. So if he is connected, then it's likely he's operating alone here."

"Well, that's good to hear," said Zuko. "Could I see the transcripts?"

"Of course, my Lord." Lang handed the package to a nearby servant and the servant handed the scrolls to Zuko.

As Zuko lowered the package into his lap, Captain Lang bowed his head a little and pursed his lips. "I also… transgressed from your instructions, my Lord. Yesterday morning I went to interrogate Ozai."

Zuko's eyes widened. "You went to interrogate my father? Why?"

"I wanted to get an idea of how much he knew about what was going on. I knew it would've been a stretch to assume that he started the whole operation, but I wanted to see if perhaps he was counting on somebody to make a change for him." The captain reached up to wipe his nose again, then cast his gaze off to the side. "But it was no use. He doesn't know anything. He's in the dark as completely as can be."

Zuko looked down at the scrolls. "Do you have a transcript of the conversation?"

"Yes, my Lord. It's the one with gold string."

Zuko opened the indicated scroll and looked over the lines of handwriting. He blinked in amazement, but there they were, his father's words. He read through several pages of what appeared to be a curt, toneless exchange, then stared for some time at the last line: Variation. After that, there was another scroll with the names of six generals, followed by Ozai's signature.

Zuko rubbed his temple. "I see what you mean. I think it's safe to consider him disassociated for now, but I'll let the guards know to keep a close eye on him. Thank you for taking the initiative."

Captain Lang inclined his head.

"In the meantime, keep working with Captain Sung. Try to see if there were any other cities that got the letters and use the carriers to trace the source. Maybe Mak is trying to make it to one of the other places where the group is stationed."

"Yes, my Lord."

"Is that all?"

"Yes."

"Thank you. You may go."

The captain rose and bowed. Once he was gone, Zuko looked to the guards by the door. "You may bring in whoever's waiting."

The guards brought in the group of people waiting outside the throne room, and two Kyoshi Warriors walked in. It was Suki and Ty-Lee, looking quite identical with their face paint and green dresses. Mai followed behind in her customary dark-maroon robes, strands of her ink-black hair draped over her shoulders.

Suki walked up to the throne first and bowed. "Good morning, Fire Lord Zuko!"

The other two girls followed her gesture.

"And to you too," Zuko said. "How does everything look?"

"Well, my girls say the palace is pretty secure," said Suki. "None of the people coming in or out today were up to anything, if that's something you were worried about."

Zuko smiled. Thankfully, it wasn't. By now, it was reasonably likely that no one would attempt to orchestrate an outright assassination in broad daylight. That was what had worried Captain Lang most in the beginning, so he had enacted stringent security measures with guards escorting all palace visitors and the Imperial Firebenders following Zuko around everywhere. But with the progress of the interrogations and the addition of the Kyoshi Warriors to the palace guards, Lang had relaxed.

"Chasing criminals around town really feels like old times," Ty-Lee remarked, rising up and down on her toes with her hands on her hips. "We've been tracking down the people who know that general guy, but so far we haven't gotten anyone else who had a flyer." She bent backwards into a bridge pose. "But Suki and I did catch a guy who tried to steal a lady's rice cakes right from her window!"

Suki laughed. "Yeah, that was one crazy robber. You should've seen it – this lady had a bunch of rice cakes on a table and he just swung down on a rope and took them all. Then he tried to escape by the street, but, well, we caught him. He had to bring the cakes back."

Ty-Lee stood upright again and giggled. Despite his clouded mood, Zuko felt a laugh escape him as well.

"I guess the fact that no one else here has those flyers is a good sign," Mai said. "And if the guy left, then he obviously felt that he wouldn't be safe here."

"Yeah, you've got a point," said Suki. "Though Lang's still pretty worried. He'll probably keep me and Ty-Lee on for another few weeks, or at least until we find out what happened to General Mak."

"Not a problem with me!" Ty-Lee said.

Suki nudged her playfully. "Yeah, but the whole reason we came here was to guard the Fire Lord."

Zuko smiled. "It's okay, Suki, I understand. Captain Lang and I talked it over and it's absolutely no problem." He paused. "Besides, I hear you guys are helping the police out quite a lot. They've learned some good moves from you."

Suki winked. "Well, it's not all our moves."

Ty-Lee began to punch the air with her fists. "Chi-blocking is actually really easy to get the hang of. All you have to do is demonstrate it for someone a few times and they'll learn it."

"Well don't teach it to the whole world," said Mai. "Otherwise you'll have nothing to surprise your opponents with."

"I'm not teaching it to the whole world, I'm just doing it for my friends!" Ty-Lee glanced at Mai and tilted her head to the side. "I could teach you too, if you want."

"Thanks, but I think I'm good with what I've got." Mai lifted one of her metal daggers from her pocket and smiled. She looked over to Zuko. "It might be good for you to learn, though, Zuko. It might come in handy."

Zuko smiled. "Yeah, probably." Needless to say, a Fire Lord had to keep his firebending and fighting skills in form, though lately he hadn't had much time to practice. Still, a brief session shooting flames into thin air did help alleviate his nerves.

Suki stepped forward. "Anyways, Zuko, I just wanted to let you know that I'll get more of my girls on overnight duty. I think it's a good idea, given what's happened."

Zuko nodded. "Thanks Suki, I appreciate it."

Suki smiled and bowed, Ty-Lee following suit.

The two Kyoshi Warriors left, continuing their conversation, their voices and laughter fading down the hall. Mai stayed, and when the servants had closed the doors behind them, she approached the throne and gave Zuko a smile. She came around beside him and laid a hand on his arm.

"You seem down," she said.

Zuko covered a yawn with his hand. "I haven't been sleeping these past few days."

"What time have you been going to bed?"

"Past midnight each day."

Mai tilted her head to the side. "Try going earlier."

"I can't. Either I have something to do, or letters to write… or I try to go to sleep early and I can't fall asleep." Zuko leaned his head on his hand. "It's a losing situation no matter what."

"Why do you need so much time to write letters?" Mai asked.

Zuko sighed. Most of the letters he received were only half a scroll long, but for some reason his replies took up entire pages. On top of that, he felt the constant need to perfect everything, going through two drafts and meticulously rereading his writing to make sure he sounded professional and not like an idiot. But he didn't want to tell Mai that. So he simply shook his head. "They give me a lot to think about."

Mai nodded and shifted her gaze away from him, at the same time coming to sit on the arm of the throne and leaning against his shoulder. Her slow manner of speaking and lengthy pauses were calming, and despite her silence Zuko knew she was always in tune with what he was feeling. When he could, he invited her over to stay at the palace for entire days, and they would spend hours alone eating and talking, walking arm-in-arm in the garden, making jokes about palace life and overly-fancy nobles like they didn't have a care in the world. He'd always feel a pang of sadness when he watched the palanquin bearers take her away again, back to her own house, leaving him back with his thoughts. Zuko was starting to contemplate inviting Mai to live with him permanently, but wasn't sure how her family would react. And he was afraid of distracting himself too much by her presence, so their interactions had to be kept to a few times a week.

"So how are things at home?" Zuko asked, after a few moments.

"Well, my parents have settled back into their house," Mai replied. "Tom-Tom's almost ready to go to school, so they're busy with him. They want to send him to the young boys' school. The one you went to."

Zuko smiled.

Mai's gaze went up towards the ceiling. "My mother can't stop talking about it. She's buying him clothes, making sure he knows all his characters…" A rare hint of a smile crept up her face.

"I should come visit someday," Zuko said.

"That would be great. She loves you." Mai's smile lingered, but a moment later, it dipped. "My dad's been really busy lately. He's always going off somewhere in the evenings to do extra work." She looked at him. "Is it something for you?"

Zuko frowned. "Actually, he hasn't sworn his loyalty to me yet. I don't think he's even been called in for questioning. So he's not working in the palace."

"Oh. Well I guess he must be getting ready to talk to you. I know he wants to improve his image. Going down as the governor of New Ozai probably wouldn't be much of an honor."

Zuko chuckled faintly. "Yeah… How about I'll come talk to him myself, sometime this week? I'm sure we can get it over with pretty quickly. Then he can start working here."

Mai smiled. "That'd be great."

They sat together in an amiable silence. After a moment Zuko glanced at Mai again. "Remember that weekend we were on beach? On Ember Island?"

Mai gave a quiet laugh. "Yeah. I remember we were both mad at each other over something stupid."

"Yeah, I thought you liked that one guy at the party just because he said hello to us."

Mai nodded. "And I was annoyed and angry all day, and you kept trying to cheer me up. So you bought me ice cream and dropped it on my leg."

"Ha!"

They both burst into laughter, their voices producing light, happy echoes. Zuko scooted forward on the seat and wrapped an arm around her. "We should go back one day. Me, you, Ty-Lee, Suki, Aang, and everyone. It'll be just like old times. Only better."

Mai's eyes were still twinkling. She gave a slow nod. "I'd like that."

Just then, another knock came, and one of the golden doors swung open. "My Lord, Generals Song and Shinu are here!" said a guard.

Zuko quickly leaned away from Mai and nodded. "Okay. Tell them I'll be right with them."

He waited for the guard to leave, then stood up with Mai and grasped her hands. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Mai squeezed his hands in return. "See you tomorrow."

She wrapped her arms around Zuko's neck in a hug. They pulled apart, then Mai placed a hand on his cheek and kissed him briefly. Finally, she stepped down from the pedestal and left through a side hallway. Zuko sat down and called for the servant to bring in the next group.



The round of meetings lasted until the early evening, after which the palace emptied again. Zuko took a break for dinner, enjoying the silent company of the servants and guards, then afterwards, he stepped out onto the top balcony of the palace to await his final guest of the evening. The sky had dimmed to a shade of deep blue, with hints of purple near the horizon. Zuko looked out into the empty stone square that surrounded the palace, then at the sleepy city beyond it, a collection of little lights from streetlamps and houses. How strange it felt. He saw so many people during the day, but all of them were just passing through, coming and going to finally return to a separate place of belonging. In the end, he was the only one here.

Zuko waited at the balcony, leaning with his back on the handrail, feeling the cool breeze on his face. Then after a few minutes, he saw a tiny dot appear on the horizon. It grew larger to reveal a streamlined, winged form, and the figure of a boy clutching on to the contraption from below. Once he saw his friend's eyes, Zuko smiled and waved.

Aang did a graceful upward turn, tracing an arc in the air and landing on his feet on the balcony. Momo dove down in a similar fashion moments later, landing first on the boy's shoulder then scampering down to the floor. Aang folded up his staff and placed it aside, bowing to Zuko with a smile. "Your Majesty!"

Zuko waved his hand. "Knock it off. You can still call me Zuko."

The eleven-year-old Avatar bowed again, in comical, not-quite-graceful motions he had picked up from watching the nobles. "As you wish, Fire Lord, Your Fireness!"

Zuko felt a laugh escape him. At the same time, Momo spread out his wings and flew up to Zuko's arm, and Zuko reached into his pocket and tossed him a large berry. The winged lemur caught it and gratefully gobbled it up, settling down on the railing.

Zuko approached the railing and leaned over it, facing the city. Aang came to stand beside him. He had grown taller since the coronation, his head now above Zuko's shoulder. There was also a look of peace and contemplation in his eyes, a subtle, yet telling development from the boy Zuko had first come to know over a year ago.

A moment of silence passed between them as they both looked at the distant sea of lights. Finally, Zuko spoke. "So how was it?"

Aang let out a breath. "I did what you asked. Appa and I flew over the Earth Kingdom for a few days after we dropped Toph off at her hometown. People are happy that the war is over, but Ba Sing Se really is as bad as your ministers are saying."

Zuko frowned. "Where is the Earth King?"

Aang's expression clouded. "I don't know. He left Ba Sing Se with us after the coup, then when we reached the outskirts he disguised himself as a villager and went off with his bear. He said he wanted to tour the world. But I don't know where he went or where he was during Sozin's comet. I asked people everywhere I could, but none of them ever saw a guy with a bear. I don't even know if he's alive or not."

"Well, if he is, he'll either have to reclaim the throne or sit back and let someone else take over."

"And it better be someone responsible, otherwise we could get another Long Feng on our hands," Aang added.

Zuko bobbed his head in a nod. "The only problem is, how will we know?"

A silence settled in. Aang turned to look at him. "Zuko, I'm sure it'll be fine. If King Kuei is alive, he won't turn his back on his people. He'll make sure he gets back to Ba Sing Se and retakes the throne. And if he's not… well, then we'll just have to wait and see how the people of the Earth Kingdom work it out for themselves. I don't think we should try to use force to get them to fix their government faster. The end of the war and the Dai Li is a probably lot to take in for them."
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #36 on: Sep 19, 2018 02:47 am »

Zuko sighed. "That's what I think too. But I don't have the luxury to wait. I have a whole country waiting on my word now. And we have colonies in the Earth Kingdom. They're a symbol of a century of war and oppression… but they're ours. I'd give them their independence in a heartbeat, but another general said that would be like turning my back on my own people. There are Fire Nation citizens there who were born there, and families that have both earthbenders and firebenders and consider themselves part of both countries." Zuko crossed his arms and looked down at the floor. "It would almost be easier if Kuei didn't come back. Then I could use the chaos in Ba Sing Se as an excuse to keep order in the colonies. But if he does… then he might want them back. And everyone here will expect me to defend them. But I don't know what to do."

Aang looked at him. "Just take it slowly, Zuko. Get as much information as you can, then follow what your heart says is right."

Zuko looked at Aang, who met his gaze steadily, gray eyes pensive. On the one hand, Aang's words sounded hopeful and self-explanatory… but already, to a different part of his mind, they were empty. Following one's heart, he now knew, was just a fancy way of saying that one applied their own judgment at the expense of someone else's. And Zuko's judgment was conflicted. Bizarrely, the only way he could calm the chorus of arguing voices in his mind seemed to be to add even more to their fold, to expose himself to even more opinions to make it likelier that the solution he constructed would please the greatest number of people. But whatever decision he made in the end, it would still be derived from other people's opinions – affirming some, discarding others.

What else was there to appeal to?

...

That night, Zuko took a different route to the family wing. The thought was that the more routes he memorized, the more comfortable he'd be walking about on his own. He had already procured a builder's map of the palace for himself and studied it in his free time. It was outdated by a decade or so and probably left out a lot of extra passageways and rooms that had been added on by his father, but he could fill those in himself when he discovered them.

Zuko continued down a series of long, empty corridors, and finally reached the end of one and made the available turn to the right. This led him to a wider hallway that would connect to the one leading to the library, then to the private wing.

But as Zuko passed the library, he noticed something and stopped. There was a red-clad figure inside, an old man approaching a shelf with a book in his hands. He was wearing a tall, spiked hat that matched the ruby color of his robes, the traditional head garment of the Fire Sages.

Zuko approached the doorway, just as the sage placed the book onto the shelf and noticed him. It one of the four who had crowned him, with a long gray beard.

The sage turned to Zuko fully and bowed. "Fire Lord Zuko."

Zuko pressed his hands together in a symbol of respect as well and stepped into the room. "Sage Khufu. Are you still up at this hour?"

"Yes, Your Majesty. I just wanted to replace a book of astronomical charts I had taken for copying. The other sages and I are currently working on improvements and organizational matters in the temple."

A smile traced Zuko's face. "Interesting. I guess I'm not the only one reorganizing, then."

The sage smiled as well and inclined his head. "Yes, Your Majesty, we have received word of your endeavor to clear the palace of its old burdens. Our revisions are in a similar spirit, though they are more concerned with how we will record and communicate information in the future."

"Really? Hm. So, what are you planning on doing?"

"Well, Your Majesty, much of what is stored in the Dragonbone Catacombs is incomplete. Many of our books and scrolls have been loaned out in years past and lost, sometimes even within the palace itself. In addition we have some things that we feel would be beneficial to make available to others. We would like to cooperate more closely with you and the palace officials to make sure that nothing is lost or suppressed."

Zuko nodded. "Of course. That sounds like a great idea." He looked at the bookshelf. "So... you were copying those charts, huh?"

"Yes, Your Majesty. I worked for two weeks, observing the night sky for reference."

Zuko's eyebrows climbed. "You stayed up for all those nights?"

Khufu smiled. "It's not as great a feat as it seems. I've become used to the nocturnal lifestyle over the years."

"Wish there was a way I could do that. Maybe then I could last through the whole day..."

The sage's eyes twinkled. "One is either the sun or the moon, alas one cannot be both."

Zuko stood with the sage in silence for a moment, then a thought occurred to him. "You know, I've hardly ever seen the Fire Sages around the palace. You're always here for ceremonies and weddings, but you never just walk around like the other nobles or the Imperial Firebenders. I know you serve the Avatar, but what is it exactly that you do here?"

"We do tend to keep to ourselves, Your Majesty. No doubt you've observed that as Crown Prince. It was not always that way; in the past the Fire Lord always conferred with the Fire Sages, and many had them present during council meetings. The practice waxed and waned, but the tradition was finally broken by Fire Lord Sozin. His style of rule was carried on in spirit by Fire Lord Azulon and Fire Lord Ozai." Khufu eyed Zuko in good humor. "What happens in your reign, though, is entirely up to you, Your Majesty."

Zuko smiled slightly. "Well, I've been a tradition-breaker so far." He crossed his arms. "But it seems strange that Azulon would shun you. Wasn't he spiritual? From what I remember, he was really into divining things." And making people suffer for it, he added mentally.

Khufu bowed his head. "It is a long and complicated tale you ask for, young Fire Lord. Longer than a single night can tell. But perhaps I can tell it, at a later time." He paused and looked up after a moment. "Your Majesty, there was a matter that the sages wanted to bring before you. We were planning on requesting your presence at the temple at a later date, but since you are here and express interest, perhaps you would like to accompany me now?"

Knowing he had only a dim prospect of falling asleep for the next three hours, Zuko nodded. "My pleasure."

He followed Khufu outside the palace, to the temple positioned just north of it. It was a low-lying building with a pointed, stacked pagoda roof similar in design to the palace's. Torches illuminated the stone walkway that led up to the entrance.

A pair of Fire Sages greeted them at the entrance. Khufu nodded to them, and they proceeded inside. Zuko had been in the temple before, when he had quested for Sozin's past under the guidance of his uncle. The sages had simply lurked in the shadows then, and Zuko had perceived them almost as ghosts, the temple's silent, perpetual inhabitants. But now, as he looked around at them, he began to notice the things they were doing. One sage stood by a narrow window and was looking out at the sky, scrawling a diagram onto a piece of paper. Another one sat at a table in a room, arranging what looked like leaves and sticks in various patterns on a table. Three simply stood together in a corner with their backs turned, looking down at a burning flame.

Khufu led him not to the catacombs this time, but up a stairway to a long, low room. Six sages were gathered inside, their faces illuminated by flickering torches that lined the walls. At the head of the room, atop a pedestal that resembled an altar, was a large mechanical contraption made of gold. In the center was a pair of scales, holding two orbs on either side. One was white like a star and the other black and glimmering. Beneath the scale's arms was a large clear compartment that contained a thin, burning flame. As Zuko stepped closer, he noticed that the white and black orbs were slightly out of balance, the dark one dipped an inch lower. One sage was measuring the angle of the incline.

Zuko followed Khufu to the center of the room, where all the sages noticed him and bowed. Zuko looked around at them, then at the contraption. "What is that?"

"This is the Rift Scale, Your Majesty," said Khufu. "It was built by the first Fire Lord. It shows the harmonic state of the two realms that make up the spirit world. The white orb represents the Realm of Light, and the black one represents the Realm of Darkness. Both must always be in balance. The flame at the center indicates the strength of convergence between the spirit world and the material world. When the flame is strong and bright, the rift is thick, and when it is thin and slight like it is now, the rift is thin."

Zuko blinked in confusion. "The... rift?" he repeated. "What's the rift?"

"The rift is the space that separates the material world from the spirit world," Khufu explained. "It is that due to which both worlds retain their individual properties and do not collapse onto each other. The rift grows thin and thick depending on various processes in our world and the spirit world, most notably the motion of the moon. During full moon, the rift thins, and the two realms come close to converging. During new moon, it thickens, and the realms drift farther apart."

Zuko nodded slowly, frowning as he processed this. "I've heard about that... isn't that what makes waterbenders more powerful at night during the full moon? And firebenders during the day?"

"Yes, Your Majesty," a second sage replied. "Additionally, the state of the rift is affected by the solstices. Currently we are nearing the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year, and also the point when the rift is naturally at its thinnest. This is a particularly eventful time in nature, as the spirit world draws close and benders receive a greater flow of energy. This is unconscious to most people, but the perceptive may be able to sense it."

Khufu strode over to the feeble flame. "All of these changes to the rift are cyclical and natural, Your Majesty. The boundary thins, then restores itself, always staying within a safe threshold. But due to the events of the war, the rift has thinned to a point dangerously below its norm. A century of violence, particularly the obliteration of the Air Nomads as well as the subsequent loss of millions of other lives, has stirred up analogous chaos within the spirit world. The dark spirits have become more active, and as a result, their realm has started to encroach upon the Realm of Light." He pointed to the black stone, which was currently heavier than the white one. "The dark spirits represent chaos and destruction. When they break into the home of the light spirits, they approach the rift and begin to eat away at it, in an effort to disrupt the equilibrium. Though the imbalance is currently small, subtle motions stir bigger ones. And events in the spirit world mirror those in the material world. Which means…"

"Which means that if there's chaos in the spirit world, there's chaos in our world too," Zuko finished.

Khufu nodded. "Precisely. So you see that what humanity sows becomes what it reaps. For a century we have sowed war and sorrow, and I fear that if we do not take action soon, we will get war and sorrow in return, but this time it will come from the world beyond." He turned back to the contraption. "In the past, Fire Lords were aware of this mirror-like connection between our world and the spirit world. As I am sure you know, Your Majesty, the Fire Lord was originally a Fire Sage himself. He was our leader, the Great Sage."

"Yes, I know," Zuko said. "And after that, the Fire Lord became independent. That's why you're the Great Sage now."

"Yes. But it was still the policy of the Fire Lords thereafter to adhere to our practice – to attain spiritual enlightenment and bring the spirits' peace to earth. This is indeed what the first of the monarchs tried to do. But as the centuries wore on, this tradition was forgotten. The Fire Lord grew secular, the role of the Sages reduced to ceremony. After all, we consider ourselves loyal first and foremost to the law of the spirits, which is often spoken through the voice of the Avatar. Many Fire Lords did not like this, as they interpreted it as meaning that we were not loyal to them."

A third sage spoke up. "But we believe that you, above all others, have seen the importance of preserving the balance of the two worlds. You have seen the consequences of the war firsthand, and you have trained and fought alongside the Avatar. Much like you both, we want to prevent any such conflict from happening again. Modern Fire Lords have loved to speak of balance, but very few of them understood what this actually means. Even Azulon did not, and I'm afraid your father continued in his vein. Now the people of the Fire Nation are all but disconnected from their spiritual ties, which is a dangerous situation for a people to be in. We call upon you, as Fire Lord, to help us fix what was broken and maintain the two worlds' equilibrium. We offer you guidance, as well as our loyalty, and in return we ask that you keep these matters in mind during your rule."

Zuko looked at the sage and gave a nod. "I will. I promise."

The Fire Sages all bowed to him, standing on either side of the Rift Scale with its ever-burning flame, and Zuko felt a strange feeling of gravity. He was suddenly reminded of the eternal flame that the Sun Warriors had kept, whose purpose and history he could now only guess at. As one, the sages turned back and looked at the two orbs, and Zuko approached as well, taking the center place.

People had often called Azulon the Great Sage, always in a mocking tone, laughing at his lunacy and poor judgment. But for all the stories and rumors, Zuko now wondered if perhaps the thing that Azulon had tried to live by was the same thing that Uncle Iroh did. It wasn't a knowledge, it seemed, but more like a wisdom. A sight. A way to perceive something out there that was beyond opinion, a truth that one had to discover.

And for a minute, Zuko stood transfixed, simply looking at the flame, like the Fire Sages must have done for countless centuries. They all stood facing the fire with their eyes closed and were feeling it, listening to it. And Zuko stood there and listened too, pretending he was one of them, imagining, bizarrely, that the flame could whisper something to him.

(End of Chapter 12)
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #37 on: Sep 19, 2018 02:51 am »

13. The Doom of Silence

Commander Deng wasn't his real name.

People had started to call him that after his promotion, but Ozai remembered him as Razu Yan. The man had seemed to come out of nowhere – or, that is, from whichever metaphorical reservoir it was where destiny harbored the Fire Nation's future elite and endowed them with the right combination of luck and talent before sending them off on glorious paths towards their futures. It was a reservoir that Ozai himself had never been so blessed to belong to, but there was no use dwelling on that now. For much of his life, he had observed the war from the sidelines. While Iroh had been away in the Earth Kingdom, pitting raw power and determination in a face-to-face grapple with the foe, life back at home was a tangle of plans, calculations, and hierarchies.

Razu Yan came from an old noble family, one that had produced a good number of admirals and generals in the past and was regarded on its own as respectable within the palace. But so did many others in the Fire Nation military, so there was nothing that inherently set him apart from the plethora of other faces that passed through the register. Yan had had a standard career, first starting off as a navy lieutenant then eventually being promoted to captain. He was named commander after winning an argument with another captain over the best strategic position of the navy's Southern Sea fleet, which would soon begin the raids on the Southern Water Tribe. After weeks of fruitless arguing, the captains had taken their dispute to Fire Lord Azulon, who by then had acquired the custom of sprinkling powder into a flame and whispering incantations, then sending the armies on a massive campaign to take the next city.

The hearing was held before Azulon's war council, the generals gathered at the long table and a crowd of miscellaneous other nobles seated along the walls. And among them, Ozai himself. He had snuck into the council room without permission, but also technically without prohibition, which was enough for his twenty-six-year-old self to forsake skulking around in his rooms. He figured that as a prince, he should at least be able to partake in the administrative side of the war, though of course, by then, the 'partaking' was an illusion: Azulon had long begun to work solo. He was sitting on his throne at the head of the large room, looking on at them from the pedestal, the golden bowl of soil and leaves which had become his sole trusted advisor sitting at his feet. Ozai had taken the seat closest to the door, somewhat out of Azulon's sight, but with a plain view of the conference table, where Captain Razu Yan and Captain Yon Rha stated their points of view.

Yon Rha had researched the dangerous icebergs and currents near the Southern Pole and warned that the Water tribesmen would be able to wreck the Fire Nation's ships by manipulating the tides. Therefore, he argued that they should take down all of the Water Tribe's ships from afar using catapults. Razu had scoffed at this, saying that the tides moved in conjunction with the harmonic laws of the spiritual realm and that the only ones who could control their flow were the Moon and Ocean spirits. Therefore, they should instead observe the functioning of the tides and position their ships in such a way so that the tides would work in their favor, taking them to the continent's vulnerable places where the Water tribesmen wouldn't expect them.

Azulon had praised Razu Yan without hesitation. "Captain Yan is guided by the sight of the spirits," he had said. "Captain Rha appears to have confused himself."

Razu Yan's plan was put into action, and the first raid on the Southern Water Tribe was a success. Subsequent ones became easier as the number of waterbenders dwindled, so Yon Rha was made head of a newly-formed fleet that would specialize in southern raids to keep the tribesmen in check. Meanwhile, Razu Yan rose to become a naval commander, taking part in more important campaigns directed against the Northern Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom navy, some of which lasted for entire years. Whenever Yan returned to his home port, he was always surrounded by a crowd of crewmen and naval officials, who conversed with him seemingly nonstop and showed the same interest and involvement in his ideas, regardless of rank.

Then, a short while later, one of Yan's campaigns went awry. His fleet of seven ships, which had been tasked with delivering supplies to armies in the southern Earth Kingdom, encountered a particularly fearsome storm in the Southern Sea that threw them off-course. Their correspondence ceased, and after several rescue voyages in the subsequent months returned no details about their fate, the fleet was reported lost. Then suddenly, five months later, the seven-ship fleet sailed through the Great Gates of Azulon in the clear of day, the crews alive and well, the commander standing proudly at the bow of his flagship.

After that, Yan started to call himself Commander Deng. He wore his hair short with no topknots or adornments, as well as the full beard and mustache that other officers usually shaved clean after a long journey. His subordinates held him to be a savior, spreading the story of how he had guided them out of sure peril to anyone who would listen.

Apparently, a short while after the storm, the ships' steering systems had begun to malfunction, and as a result they had drifted away from their intended course. Though they attempted to send pleas for help, their messenger hawks would keep coming back the same day, confused and exhausted. Soon, even the compasses stopped working, the needles spinning around erratically, until finally the ships entered a section of ocean filled with thick white fog. Days and nights passed, but the fog did not abate, and the currents slowed to a standstill. With no wind or sails, the ships were left to drift about like iron toys. The crews resorted to living off of their cargo and warming themselves with firebending, while the lighting flickered on and off and the loudspeakers crackled with static.

Commander Yan had spent the weeks pacing about the deck in contemplation, until finally one day he locked himself up in his cabin and did not emerge. The crew and captains of the other ships feared that this would be the end, but then one morning, Yan suddenly burst out and announced that he knew exactly where to steer. The crews activated the engines using the remaining fuel and steered while Yan directed them. Within a day, the fog around them cleared, the currents picked up, and they were back in familiar waters heading towards the Fire Nation.

The story that Deng had managed to contact a spirit who had told him the proper course wasn't accepted by everyone back at home, though this was what the entire fleet insisted upon without exception. The words 'spirit' and 'prediction' had become nearly pejorative by then, as more and more officials realized that Azulon's obsession with involving spirits in the war was making them lose. But now, for the first time, the nobles had example of a success. Ministers who were skeptical of Azulon's policies found themselves interested in Deng's detailed explanations of the spiritual realm and how it influenced the goings-on of the material world. Deng's popularity grew, and soon his inner circle began to attract higher-level officials, even some of Azulon's own advisors. Thus, Deng's ideas about spiritual laws and human destiny gradually trickled into Azulon's war room.

The Fire Lord hadn't been pleased.

The only destiny, as far as Azulon was concerned, was the destiny of eternal greatness that awaited him and all the people of the Fire Nation. It was a destiny that had been written into history, uncovered by his old ancestor, the Fire Sage who had risen to become the first Fire Lord. He had consolidated the empire, but had failed to do much beyond that, and legend had it that ever since then, the world had been waiting for the emperor who would finally finish the job. It was the goal that Azulon relentlessly pursued, and he desperately contacted spirits to glean every hint of the way there that he could.

But in Deng's view, the world submitted to a higher law, which was the law of harmonic cycles. These cycles were what governed the unfolding of events within the spiritual world and the material world, which fed off of each other and influenced each other. Moreover the cycles were predetermined and thus impossible for humans to control. In order to live in peace, humanity must instead attune itself to them, divine the pattern the two realms were following and use it to guide their actions. But if humanity transgressed – if just one group of people tried to turn the course of events in a different direction – then there would be dire consequences.

Deng spent the remainder of his career on the Fire Nation mainland, making every effort to divine the harmonic laws and alert the army when they made a wrong move in his eyes. A good number of officials were reluctant to take advice from another would-be sage, but those who sympathized with Deng and examined his recommendations argued that they were in fact strategically sound, and at any rate far better than what the Fire Lord insisted on.

Thus the generals began to fall into disputes, causing delays and sidetracks during war council meetings, as well as an unprecedented resistance to Azulon's choices of action. After uncovering Deng as the source of the opposing ideas, Azulon demoted him. He stripped him of all his military ranks and nobleman's privileges, stopping short of banishing him, likely so that the rest of the court could witness his ruination in detail. But the prescribed ruination never came. Quite to the contrary, Deng grew more erratic and convinced than ever, and was kept in the loop by his many military contacts who visited him in his residence. Admirals and generals continued to consult with him, and Deng continued to travel and make statements, many of which spread to the common people by word of mouth.

The breaking point came during the battle of Gar Sai. This was a large port city on the southern Earth Kingdom shore, and taking it would give the Fire Nation a safe place to transfer large numbers of forces to prepare for their eventual campaign to Ba Sing Se. However, Azulon's spirit guides had warned him of a powerful typhoon that would soon sweep through the area, spelling doom for any attacking army that went there. Commander Deng divined the same thing and suggested that the Fire Nation wait it out in their safe location at River End, a settlement farther inland. But Azulon had been struck by a peculiar sense of destiny and claimed that he would let the storm wreck the Earth Kingdom army then bring out the sun for his own. This would supposedly fulfill some ancient prophecy and bring about a new age for their empire.

Azulon stuck to this plan with an iron resolve, but as the months leading up to the voyage shrunk into weeks, Deng's persuasions began to stir the other officials' doubts. As Azulon's fleet of ships began to approach the Earth Kingdom, several captains and crews finally began an uprising, firing at the other ships and attempting to turn around. But they were outnumbered, and with Azulon's imperial flagship in the lead, they were quickly crushed. Once Deng was isolated as the source of their inspiration, he was immediately seized on the mainland and imprisoned.

To no one's surprise, Azulon's trick on the battlefield failed. No firebender could command the sun, much less direct its strength to a focused point. And so on the day the two armies clashed, the Fire Nation was left to fight with the earthbenders through cold rain and howling winds. The Fire Nation still pulled through, since Azulon's strategic capabilities were still intact, but the victory cost them much more than it should have. As fanatical and outlandish as he had seemed, Commander Deng had been right. And Ozai remembered wondering why his father hadn't listened. How much better a Fire Lord he would have made.

And now, of course, here he was.

Ozai breathed a sigh of the stale prison air, bringing a moment of sound to the silence.

At the very least, he hadn't fallen into the same trap as Azulon. Whatever anyone said about his ruling capabilities, he hadn't blindly followed some spirit's guidance to help him win the war. The Phoenix King plan had come about after Ba Sing Se had already been conquered, which had practically assured him of the Fire Nation's victory. He remembered how his head had spun from the surrealness of the moment. After a hundred years, he was the Fire Lord to see the end of the war. He was the one who had secured Sozin's long-sought victory. There was no more need for defenses or battle plans; he only had to decide what he would do with the world he had won. No longer would he have to follow the rules of some long-lost legends or prophecies – he could make his own. His mind had… galloped.

And now, of course, here he was.

Ozai sighed again.

He remembered how the children had lifted him up and placed him on the floor of the airship, tying together his wrists and ankles. How they had handed him over to the prison guards, who had replaced the ropes with chains. They had had to hold him up by the arms, for he had been too limp to walk.

They had brought him to the prison crater and sent the others to deliver the urgent message to the warden. And upon entering the tower, Ozai saw Poon waiting there. Not so long ago, the warden had been a supporter. He had bowed deeply when he was told that he would have to guard Iroh and had expressed his regret that the Fire Lord's brother should have fallen to such disgrace. Now, he simply stood with his arms crossed as the guards relayed Fire Lord Zuko's instructions to him. Ozai was placed into the high-security cell and Poon locked the door. The warden looked at him for a final moment through the bars, eyes narrowed, then he shook his head and left with his guards.

Ozai had lost Poon's respect then. It was absurd to the point of being comical – the Fire Lord who had become Phoenix King then quickly switched from helping his nation to spooning all the power and benefits into his own plate. Then he had singlehandedly brought down ruin on himself and on his entire operation, leaving workers like Poon with empty hands. And disillusionment. The people would want a real ruler now, one who would help them and their country attain true prosperity. Ozai wasn't that person anymore. And he didn't want to be. He was just a shadow, a bandaged-up vestige of his former self. While the world moved on, he was left in the past. He had sealed himself in their memories.

Just like Commander Deng, he'd never be anything else.

...

Two weeks passed since the police captain's interrogation. No one else came to talk to him. The doctor removed the gauze and stitches from Ozai's wound and did some final disinfection, then sent him back to his cell. The incident was never mentioned again, though it seemed to have had a repercussion on the guards. The girl looked at him with a troubled expression, the wisecracker in puzzlement. The guard with the ponytail didn't even look at him at all.

It also began to get colder. In the mornings there would be a noticeable chill hanging in the air, and in the afternoons the patches of sunlight that crept across his cell would no longer be as warm to the touch as they had been before. Floating chunks of meat began to appear in his soup instead of vegetables.

Thankfully it never snowed in the Fire Nation, but it did get cold enough for the palace residents to keep a fire going in their rooms. Ozai wondered how he would fare through the coming winter now that he couldn't firebend anymore. Perhaps they'd give him more blankets. Or maybe they'd flick their hands and let him shiver. He could imagine that.

But for all its allotted leeway, the Fire Nation prison system wasn't inhumane. It was governed by laws, and that meant that even traitorous wastes of oxygen like him were allowed basic dignities, like being taken for the occasional walk. Nevertheless, Ozai was surprised when one morning after breakfast the guards came in and announced that he was due for his routine half hour. So instead of sitting away another morning, Ozai ended up in the empty prison courtyard.

The courtyard was located on the adjacent side of the crater, a large, oblong space enclosed by a low stone wall. Inside it was paved with cobblestones and bordered at the far end by a garden of trees and grass, as well as shrubs and flowers that thrived in the rich volcanic soil. Despite the crater walls that reached overhead, Ozai could still feel a breeze occasionally stir the thinning tree crowns, making the clumps of fallen leaves scatter. Autumn was receding; soon the trees would be bare.

The yard was empty except for him, the only other people in the vicinity being the guards stationed at the entrance and the one escorting him. They had unbound Ozai's hands but left his ankle chains on, so he couldn't take too big of a step. Ozai paced around, his hands behind his back, as if he were on a regular stroll in the palace gardens. Occasionally, he heard footsteps and the clink of a spear from the guard who trailed behind him. Kinchil was his name. He knew all their names now.

Ozai walked to the edge of the paved area, stopping at the edge of the grass. He looked up at the trees, then higher at the black crater wall, where the sky hung overhead, gray but light. The chill in the air brought a shiver to his back, making everything light up with a strange, lucid clarity. Ozai stood like this for a long time, watching the clouds. From behind, he heard the spear clink again and turned slightly to see that the guard had leaned against it, looking up at the sky as well.

Poor youth, Ozai thought. To willingly confine himself to a place like this, in the prime of his life. But it probably felt different on the other side of the bars. The guard was part of a team, after all. He had friends. A purpose.

Ozai blinked and spanned his gaze across the entire compound, lingering on the white prison tower, buried in the crater like a giant elephant tusk. Would this really be it now? Would he really die like this? After all the hectic crises of his life, the last of it would pass in the utter stillness and emptiness of a cell. Or perhaps some final drama would stir up around him a few decades down the road and Zuko would simply have him executed.

And he wouldn't have admonished Zuko one bit for it.

Ozai let out a slow sigh. He watched a bird fly past the crater and found himself in thought. After Zuko had defeated Azula, where had he taken her? Assuming that the battle hadn't been to the death… but if it had, then wouldn't the police captain have told him? Rubbed it in his face between punches? The man was a high-ranking noble, so surely he had to know what had happened. There was always the option that he had simply wanted to keep Ozai guessing, but Ozai preferred to think that Zuko had simply put Azula into another prison and wanted to keep a secret where. And at any rate… some part of him still clung to the belief that Zuko wouldn't have killed her. Even if he had had the power to.

Ozai thought over the issue some more, but finally he dropped it. Even if he did guess right, he would never know. He wouldn't know anything about them anymore, so he might as well stop thinking about them. The fact that they were all genetically related to each other meant as good as nothing now. Zuko's real family were his friends, the people who had been there with him during the trials of his life.
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #38 on: Sep 19, 2018 02:54 am »

With the exception, perhaps, of one person. Ursa. She hadn't been there for a fairly large portion of his life, but Zuko would still search for her. Perhaps, one day, he really would find her. Would Zuko tell him if he did? Probably not. Would Ursa even want to come see him? Ozai wasn't sure she would. The only evidence he had of her current attitude towards him was the ambiguous tone of their final conversation, almost ten years ago.

Back then, he had been certain it had been for the best. Banishing her before Azulon's death announcement would remove suspicion from her, and collaterally, from him. The public would think she was an adulteress, sure. Or that he had found a new lover. But never that she was a co-conspirator in a murder, because for all anyone knew, she hadn't even been in the palace when Azulon had passed. Ozai's original plan had been for Ursa to leave, then a couple days later to slip Azulon the poison in his nighttime tea. Then he would enter Azulon's chambers again the next morning, pretend to discover his father's death, and ascend to the throne double-stricken by tragedy. Unfortunate, but not entirely unusual. He'd stage an investigation, announce the execution of some imaginary noble, then, a year or so into his reign, Ursa could come back. They could have staged a make-up or an official pardoning. With him as Fire Lord, anything would have been possible.

But no... he had never heard from Ursa again. If her whereabouts were unknown to Zuko, then to Ozai they were an absolute enigma. Had she really never had the urge to write to him? Or, if she hated him in the extreme, even to sneak a glimpse of her children? It simply didn't make sense.

The thing Zuko didn't know was that long before he would start searching for his mother, Ozai had searched. He had sent people to the surrounding cities, to the countryside, even to her hometown of Hira'a. No one had found a single trace. All that was left of her in the old village was a boarded-up house. Now, Zuko was about to repeat the process. Ozai wasn't sure how far he would get. Because from all the evidence he had gathered, from all he knew of her and from what had happened to them in their youth, Ozai could come to only one conclusion.

Ursa had entirely vanished from their world.



That same day, ten miles off the coast of the Fire Nation, another morning routine was starting. Azula opened her eyes and looked over to the closed wooden blinds on her window, stripes of light seeping through their gaps. She yawned and stretched, grateful in the back of her mind that the nurses had finally stopped strapping her in. What Kira had said about getting used to the serum seemed to have held water as well, for Azula no longer felt as lightheaded upon waking as she had before.

She hopped off the bed and twisted open the blinds, letting sunlight flood into the bedroom. Moments later, the door opened and Isla stepped in with a breakfast tray. The nurse brought the round wooden table to the center of the room and set the tray down, along with teacups and silverware.

"Got a new shipment today," Isla said, giving a brief smile.

Azula approached the table and saw that the tray had a bowl of cinnamon rice porridge, apples, and two eggs. Her eyebrows climbed. "Wow."

Isla added the usual bottle of serum to the assortment, and while Azula sat down to eat, she began to busy herself with the bed. "I'm going to change your sheets and blanket," Isla said. "The weather reports from the mainland say it's going to start getting colder this week. We'll have to bundle up." She gathered up the bedsheets into a ball. "The crews are working on the vent system too, so maybe we'll be able to bring some heat in here directly soon."

Azula lifted an eyebrow sardonically. "No firebending, huh?"

"Nope," Isla returned.

"In the palace, we had fireplaces," Azula drawled on, munching on an apple slice. "You could keep the fire there so that you didn't have to use bending all the time."

Isla's gaze flickered to the tiny air ducts on the ceiling. "For that you need a ventilation system... Unfortunately the builders haven't finished remodeling ours yet. When they do, we can start keeping a fire in the lounge and warm everything up through there." Her gray eyes flickered down to Azula again.

Azula scraped out a few more spoonfuls of porridge and swallowed them down. "So what am I doing today?"

"Talking to Dr. Low and physical therapy," Isla replied.

"What's everyone else doing?"

Isla gave a shrug. "Cooking, cleaning, eating. Nothing extraordinary, really. I have some bases to stew –"

"Did I really pour out that much?" Azula snapped.

Isla shook her head briskly. "No, no, it has nothing to do with that. It's just that I have to keep a steady supply going. You do use the medicine, after all. And some things I have to start in advance because they have to sit for a long time."

"Oh." The sudden flare of annoyance receded. Azula simply looked at Isla in silence, and the nurse looked at her, holding the bedsheets and blanket in her arms. After a moment, a frown creased Azula's forehead. "So is that all you do all day? Brew serums?"

"Not all day," Isla said. "I read, too. I sit outside."

Azula felt a flicker of forlornness. "Why don't I get to go outside?"

Isla's gaze trailed to the window. "Well, before it was for obvious reasons…"

"I'm not trying to escape!"

"– but then there's also the factor of the serum!" the nurse rushed to explain. "It might not seem like much when you're inside, but when you're in the sun the rays act to stimulate your chi and prime you for firebending. And since your chi is already being taxed by the serum, the sun's stimulation will send your body into overdrive mode and you'll suffer extreme exhaustion." She lowered her chin, her gaze now matter-of-fact. "The plan right now is to first get your neuromuscular condition back into balance, and then start doing bending exercises that will help you maintain that balance when using fire." Isla paused, and seeing the ever-increasing incredulity creeping into Azula's scowl, she pursed her lips and sighed. "But if you want… we could take you out in the evenings. In the wheelchair."

Azula smoothed her expression and gave a prim lift of the eyebrows. "That would sure be nice."

A smile played on the edges of Isla's mouth. "Good. Then I'll let Dr. Low know, I guess." She stepped back and turned for the door.

But before she could leave, Azula held up her teacup. "Hey, what kind of tea is this? It's good."

Isla stopped, looking over. "Oh, it's Ceylon and dried mango…" But right then she seemed to notice something and trailed off. Frowning, she stepped towards the table, and when her gaze fell on the teapot she gave a gasp, drawing back. "Oh no." Isla threw the bedsheets back onto the bed. "I'm so sorry. I accidentally gave you mine. The pots look so similar…"

Azula, who had taken another swallow of the tea in the meantime, did a frantic double-take and examined her almost-empty teacup with a scowl. "Why, is it bad?"

Isla was biting her lip, a strange flush creeping through her pale face. "No, no… It's just a special mixture I make for myself. Saffron and valerian. Dee gave me the recipe. You and can drink it if you want to, of course, it's nothing bad, it's just…"

Azula shrugged and pushed the teapot over to her. "Well, drink it, if it's yours! There's still a lot in there, I only drank one cup."

Isla looped her fingers through the teapot and rather nervously lifted it up. She nodded. "Yes… okay. At any rate, Kira brewed more of the mango, so there would be enough for you and the doctor."

Azula swept out her palm. "There you go."

Isla stepped back. She looked at the bedsheets and began to awkwardly gather them up with one arm. A question passed through Azula's mind and she leaned out of her chair. "What's saffron and valerian for?"

Isla turned towards the door in profile. "I get tired a lot," she said. "It's my fault. I do it to myself."

For some reason Azula felt a flicker of annoyance and confusion at this. "Well, then don't."

Isla looked back at her and flashed a ghost of a smile. "If that were easy, I suspect Dr. Low wouldn't have much to do…" With the, she turned and went out the door.

She came back a minute later with the right tea and set the pot down at the center of the table. She poured Azula a cup, took away her empty breakfast tray, and swiftly departed. In the fleeting moments while she walked away Azula vaguely wondered what her statement had meant, but failed to assemble the proper words in time to ask her. Before long, Isla was gone and she was left alone again.

But a few minutes later, another beat of footsteps approached, and Dr. Low himself walked in, right on schedule. He had abandoned his military uniform and instead wore a snow white smock over black clothes, which he had taken to doing over the weeks. Now he looked just like a doctor on the mainland. He greeted her with a smile. "Good morning, Azula."

"Hi," Azula returned.

His presence no longer stirred any sort of reaction within her. She had gone from trying to judge an ulterior motive, to being resentful, to not caring, to being reluctantly curious, and sometimes hints of all four still colored her thoughts. Now she was just tired. She had come to think of him as a journal of sorts, one in which she jotted down her thoughts then handed off somewhere for judgment. Of course, he was the one judging her in the end, but Azula found she no longer cared.

Dr. Low got his notebook from the locked cabinet as usual and sat down at the table. He took a minute to make himself comfortable, sipping his tea and thumbing through the notebook. "So," he began. "You've been telling me a lot about your school lately. The Royal Fire Academy for Girls… And so far it seems like you've had a lot of mixed emotions about it." He looked up at her for confirmation.

Azula nodded, slurping some of the mango tea and savoring the new tangy flavor. "Yep."

"You were happy to have your tutors to yourself, but on the other hand you were excited to meet girls your age. And so you did. You met Mai and Ty-Lee, some other girls, and even a few of their families."

"Yup."

Dr. Low rubbed his chin in contemplation. "What had been happening at home in the meantime? Specifically, what was going on in your family, when you were five, six?"

Azula paused in drinking and rested her chin in her hand. "Well, we were all pretty okay. I don't remember anything bad from then, at least nothing that was in the open. My parents were okay with each other, too. Dad hadn't been Fire Lord yet, so he didn't have a lot to do. In the summers he and Mom would take us to Ember Island. It was a little tradition they had, even before we were born. They never said why, though; we just did it. And I really liked it. But then we stopped."

A smile glimmered on Dr. Low's face. "Ah, Ember Island. Very nice. I've gone a few times myself."

"Yeah, a lot of the nobles do."

"So what did you like about those trips?"

Azula shrugged a shoulder. "I guess just how being there made us feel. We were all together and we saw each other every day. We did everything like a team." Her gaze flickered over to the window and to the ocean behind the blinds.

No, it had been more than that… it had been that odd, pervading sense of peace that had always seemed to come over her, that sense that everything was all right and that all the things she had worried about in the palace were as small as grains of sand. There had been a large meadow of grass near the shore that they had walked through, and she had loved diving through the knee-length blades as a child, playing chase games with Zuko and feeling him playfully push and pinch her while she hobbled through the hills and tried to catch him. Ursa and Ozai had walked behind them, smiles on their faces, and right then it had seemed like everything bad between the four of them had evaporated, all those little whispers and snide remarks washed away and forgotten. They were just a family, like all the others surrounding them.

"… Azula?"

Azula blinked, her surroundings coming back into focus at the sound of Dr. Low's voice. "Huh?"

"You were talking about why you liked the island?" said Dr. Low.

Azula gathered her thoughts again and gave a nod. "Oh. Yeah, well, it's like I was saying. We just spent some time together and it was nice because there wasn't any stress like there was at the palace. One year Uncle even joined us. He was jealous because we were having so much fun without him. He brought along Cousin Lu Ten too."

Dr. Low nodded, his gaze attentive.

"That was the last year I saw him," Azula continued. "Lu Ten, I mean. After that he went to the army. Well, then a few months later, the Ba Sing Se invasion started." Her gaze flickered to the lower cabinets. "He died fighting. Uncle didn't really say what happened in his letter, but I found out later. They'd breached the wall and he gave the order for Lu Ten's division to batter the city's inner defenses with everything they had, and they did. Lu Ten fought right in the front lines. But then they started to bring back bodies and Lu Ten was one of them. Uncle had him buried there. I thought that was stupid – he should've been brought back to the Fire Nation, not left to rot in enemy territory." Azula crossed her arms. "But he never really cared about any of that stuff."

"What stuff?" asked Dr. Low.

"Just stuff that you're supposed to do. Like bring a dead soldier back to his rightful home where his family is. Or stay and conquer the city your son died fighting for instead of quitting and leaving." Azula scowled. "I thought that was really selfish of him."

Dr. Low studied her. "You mentioned a while ago that your uncle played favorites. How was your relationship with him overall?"

Azula shrugged. "I didn't like him when I was a kid. Still don't."

"Why not?"

Azula crinkled her nose in displeasure. "He was just... airheaded. It was like he half didn't care about what was going on around him. I mean, I could tell he could do a lot and he obviously wasn't stupid, but it just seemed like because of that he thought he was too good for the world." She lowered her gaze. "For a whole month after he came back from Ba Sing Se, he spent all his time sitting in some temple crying over Lu Ten, while everyone else back home was scrambling to try to fix his mess. He didn't even care that his men were completely demoralized after fighting so hard and being let down like that, or that we lost our once-in-a-lifetime chance to get the upper hand. But heavens forbid someone tried to tell him all that and snap some sense into him, because he's mourning." She scowled. "Zuko loved to say that."

Dr. Low wrote this down. "Was Zuko close to Iroh?"

Azula nodded. "Yeah. A lot closer than I was. Iroh always doted on Zuko more when we were younger, but then after Lu Ten died, the both of them sort of... clung to each other. It was weird." She paused. "Well, then Uncle went with Zuko when Zuko got banished. I guess that really speaks for itself. I know he definitely wouldn't have gone with me if I'd been banished."

Dr. Low nodded and continued to jot things down.

"But the thing with Zuko is that he made it seem like I didn't even care about Lu Ten, which wasn't true," Azula went on. "I did care. But I was logical about it."

"People mourn in different ways," said Dr. Low. "It's usually not a good idea to assume that someone isn't feeling the same thing you are if they're not exhibiting the same behaviors as you."

"Well, Zuko did."

Dr. Low smiled. "Well, Zuko's not a professional psychologist."

Azula let out a sigh and settled back in the chair. "Yup, sure isn't."

"Now, how was your relationship with Lu Ten?" Dr. Low asked.

Azula pondered. "We didn't really have one," she said, after a bit. "He did go to Ember Island with us a couple times, but I was really little back then so I hardly remember. But I do remember him showing me how to play Pai Sho once, when we were older. I always thought it was a stupid game. But he made it seem fun."

"Is it a relationship you wish had been stronger?"

Azula shrugged. "I guess. In a perfect world." She played idly with the teaspoon, watching her strokes make little waves in the cup.

It was strange. Even now, she could still remember that odd sense of emptiness she had felt upon learning of her cousin's passing, that moment in the garden when Ursa had received the letter. Azula had been far from a stranger to the topics of war and death; she had read dozens of memoirs and poems in school and had seen countless sketches of battles both modern and ancient. She knew the sacrifices they involved, and had noticed how certain nobles would withdraw for entire weeks after battles, mourning over lost friends and family. But the Royal Family – her family – had always seemed untouchable. Until one day, it wasn't. The vague shadow she had remembered brushing shoulders with her on a palanquin or holding his hand out to her was now gone, removed from space. And the thought had been almost too wild to come to grips with.

But then, after everyone paid their respects, life went on. Letting Lu Ten fade into the past had been easy, because he had been part of a conglomeration of so many other things with which she had been forced to do the same. Games, fun, adventure… Zuko might have perhaps had a richer relationship with their cousin than she did in virtue of being older, but all it could have amounted to were a few more hours spent together on the beach or bonding in the palace as eldest sons. Sure, those were probably fond memories, but they didn't mean that Zuko should have counted as being closer to Lu Ten than she was. Nor did it explain why Iroh had suddenly started doting on Zuko after the battle and treating him as if he were Lu Ten. Sure, Zuko was a boy and Azula was a girl, but…
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #39 on: Sep 19, 2018 02:57 am »

Her gaze slid up to Dr. Low again, who had been sipping tea in the meantime. He seemed to have noticed her lapse into thought but had evidently decided to let her think it through. Now, as Azula held his gaze, he gave an amiable nod. "How about your relationship with your grandfather, Azulon?" he continued.

Azula thought back again, tilting her head up towards the ceiling. "It was okay," she said. "My firebending teacher would always take me to him at the end of the week to show him what I'd been practicing. But Grandpa wasn't really close with anyone, I don't think. He didn't see eye-to-eye with Dad on a lot of things either, so he ignored the rest of us even more because of that. At least, I think that's why."

Dr. Low nodded. He sat back and looked over his notes. "So, we have your father, your mother, your brother, your uncle, Lu Ten, and your grandfather. And Mai and Ty-Lee." He looked up. "Those were the people who played the biggest roles in your life. Is that right?"

Azula nodded. "Yeah." She paused. "And I guess I never really had a good relationship with any of them in the end."

"We can't expect to have an ideal relationship with every single person we come across," Dr. Low said. "You might be worried that you didn't have what people traditionally call a normal relationship with most of your family members, but that can stem from the fact that your family isn't a normal family – it's the royal family of the Fire Nation. That puts stress and constraint on everyone, and everyone reacts to it in different ways. But from what you've told me about how you met Mai and Ty-Lee, it seems like you had a perfectly normal friendship with them, although it experienced a break, as many friendships do." The doctor pursed his lips. "Though, if I'm understanding things correctly, your first problem with your peers came with this girl... Kyla?"

Azula looked down with a grumble. "Yeah."

"Did you ever see her after that school year ended?"

Azula leaned her head on her hand. "Well, the next year we got shuffled into different class groups. The school does that every year. Once, Ty-Lee even got separated from Mai and me, so we had to make plans to spend more time together. But I never had a class with Kyla again. Then everyone finished school, and we all went off to different places. I have no idea where she is now." She paused, crumpling her napkin. "I just wish I'd said something back to her then. Even pushed her, or something. I just stood there like a fool. So now she probably remembers me as the little machine girl who suffered a breakdown."

"And you remember her as the girl who called you a machine," Dr. Low said.

"Yes."

"Because it hurt your feelings."

Azula scowled. "Yes! It did!"

Dr. Low gave a shrug. "Well, then you're not."



Late that evening, the sky had darkened purple over Capital City, the last of the sunset retreating in a red splotch to the west. Zuko was sitting at Mai's dining table, feeling the cool breeze blowing from the windows.

They had finished their dinner over an hour ago, and now two of them sat playing chess, their earlier conversation faded for a concentrated silence. After some thought, Mai made a move, taking one of his figures. Zuko scrunched his face up in frustration and began to recalculate his strategy. Right then, Mai's mother appeared beside them with a pot of fresh tea.

"More tea, Fire Lord?" Michi smiled down at him warmly.

"Thank you." Zuko proffered his teacup. Michi filled his and Mai's, then focused her attention back on Tom-Tom, who was sitting on a mat by the nearby couch, flipping through a character-learning primer and practicing brush strokes.

Zuko still remembered how odd it had been when Mai had told him that she now had a little brother. Zuko had just gotten back to the Fire Nation after his three-year banishment, and the boy had been only two. Tom-Tom had been curious and playful, and could only babble out a couple words at a time. Now, the boy was talking more coherently and using longer sentences. Michi and Ukano had already registered him at the Fire Nation School for Young Boys, where he would begin his preliminary education there the following year, right after his fourth birthday.

Mai's attitude towards him also seemed to have mellowed out during the elapsed time – where before she had usually talked about him with cringes or expression of annoyance on her face, now she had begun to take on the duties of a big sister, teaching him how to paint and hold a pencil. Zuko had noticed that her demeanor had lightened as well; oftentimes there was a faint radiance lingering in her expression, even when she wasn't smiling outright. It made her look beautiful.

Presently, however, her face had adopted its focused look, gloved fingers tapping on the surface of the table in the spirit of good-natured competitiveness. She took Zuko's knight and smiled. "Ha! That's two knights and a rook. All mine."

"Urgh!" Zuko ran his fingers through his hair. "You know, I think I actually like Pai Sho better."

Mai laughed. "Come on, loser, don't be like that. What matters is you have fun."

Zuko glanced at her through narrowed eyes, smirking. "You're the worst."

Mai winked. "I know."

In the meantime, Tom-Tom was lying on his stomach, his tongue between his teeth as he scrawled some complicated character. Finally he finished and lifted the book for Michi to see. "Look, Mommy! I did it!"

Michi took the sketchpad and smiled. "That's wonderful, darling."

Mai cast Zuko a glance and shook her head, smiling as well. "Kid's a show-off," she muttered. "He followed all the teachers around when we went to visit and tried to copy what they were writing."

"Seems like he'll be a smart kid," Zuko remarked.

"Yeah, I'm gonna know all the characters in the books!" Tom-Tom called out.

"Tom-Tom, that's no way to address a Fire Lord!" Michi chided, giving her son's hair a playful tousle.

Tom-Tom's head jerked in Zuko's direction and his mouth spread into a smile. "Oh. Sorry, Fire Lord!" He stood up and gave an awkward bow, brush still in hand.

"Forgiven, young boy," Zuko responded. "Wait till your friends hear you had tea with me."

Tom-Tom laughed and jumped on his toes. "Yeah, I'm telling everyone! Fire Lord Zuko is my best friend!" He put his brush down, looking at all the dried splotches of black ink that had smudged his fingers, and went to wash his hands. Then he skipped up to their table and leaned over the chessboard. "So who's winning?"

"Mai is," Zuko said.

"Whoa, Mai, you're winning against the Fire Lord? That's impossible!"

Mai playfully pushed his shoulder away with a gloved hand. "Fire Lord doesn't equal chessmaster, smart one. Besides, I'm allowed to beat him." She looked at the board again and made another move. "Why don't you go practice those extra characters? Who knows, words like 'antiquity' and 'tranquil' might come in handy."

A dignified, purposeful expression crossed the boy's face. "I think they will. I'll bet you."

"Two copper pieces," Mai said, holding out her palm.

"Done!" Tom-Tom slapped her palm and went back to his mat. He lowered himself onto his stomach again, dipping the brush into the ink bottle, and set about his work.

Zuko met Mai's gaze again and she breathed a sigh. "If I'd been so happy about school, my parents would've probably been the happiest people on Earth."

He gave a laugh. "Hah. I bet." He paused to make a move. "Come to think of it, I was pretty much the same way as your brother. I loved school."

"Boys tend understand how important it is," Michi spoke up, sipping her tea. "Unfortunately for girls, that's not always the case." She cast Mai a motherly, matter-of-fact glance.

Mai sighed. "Well, you can't say I turned out horribly, Mom, wouldn't you agree?"

"Oh, of course. But still, for someone my age, the way kids are raised today is like a walk in the meadow. Back when I was in school, we would all be lined up at the start of the day – girls and boys – and if someone wasn't dressed according to school policy, they'd be sent home."

"Sounds like a prison," Mai remarked.

Michi chuckled. "Well, of course there were lots of strict policies. Hard work and respect were practically non-negotiable. And synonymous with Fire Lord Azulon's name." She gave a smile and tilt of the head in Zuko's direction.

Zuko, who had just picked up a figure, found himself pausing in thought, his gaze lingering on her.

"But it wasn't all like that, though," Michi continued. "At the end of each term we had a big dance. The boys and girls would pair up and rehearse traditional Fire Nation dances to perform in front of the staff and parents. It was a tradition left over from Sozin's time, though nearly all the schools phased it out eventually. Ours was one of the few still doing it. Incidentally, that's how I met your father, Mai."

Mai cringed and turned to look over her shoulder at her. "You two bonded over dancing? Man, that is the sappiest thing I've ever heard."

Michi sighed, nodding along to her daughter's sardonic tone. "Yes, yes, call it however many names you want, but dance is a powerful thing. Through movement you express emotion. And through emotion you discover other people. And if you're dancing with the right person, then I'll have you know the experience is quite pleasant."

Mai looked back and Zuko and widened her eyes, her classic help-me expression. Zuko laughed. But at the same time, he felt an unmistakable curiosity stir in the back of his mind. His gaze shifted back to Michi, who was still watching them, her lips pursed with a pitying sort of humor. "You kids today just don't understand what you lost," she said. "We'd already lost a lot, my generation, but at least we got to experience some of it."

"Some cheesy courtship dances?" Mai said.

"It wasn't just about courtship, it was about celebrating love and life." Michi stood up, setting her tea set aside, and spread out the long skirt of her robe. She took a few swift steps forward, putting one foot before the other and spinning around. She traced a graceful path like this across the floor, arms lifted as if to grace a partner's shoulders, but at a midway point she seemed to forget the rest and hesitated, looking down at a hovering foot as if unsure where to place it. At last she gave up and dropped her arms to her sides. "Ah, I don't even remember the steps. It's called the Ember Waltz. It was such a beautiful dance..." Shaking her head, Mai's mother came back to the sofa and sat down. "If Ukano were here, he could show you... He was very good at it."

A frown creased Mai's forehead and she looked out the window. "Speaking of Dad, where is he? It's already dusk."

"He told me he'd have a lot to do in his office," Michi said.

"Did you tell him Zuko was coming?"

"Of course."

Mai exhaled. She leaned her head against her fist and angrily moved one of her chess pieces. "Well, that's pretty rude of him. Not coming to see the Fire Lord when he comes to visit him in his own house."

"Mai, I'm sure he's not doing this of his own free will. You know very well he has a lot of people to get in touch with, especially with all these interrogations going on."

"Whatever," Mai replied. Her voice had grown strangely curt, though as the seconds ticked by in silence Zuko couldn't gather up enough certainty to ask.

Another fresh breeze blew through, this one noticeably colder. Zuko gave a slight shiver. He looked out at the sky and saw that the red had vanished, and that nearly all the other houses in the vicinity had lit their lanterns.

He debated with himself for a few moments, then at last he rose from his seat. "As a matter of fact… I think I should get going." He looked at Mai and her mother, the both of them gazing up at him as well. "How about I just summon your husband to the palace, Michi. We can have a talk in an official setting. I think that would even be better."

Mai nodded. "Yeah, I guess that would work."

Michi rose and bowed. "Thank you for your company, then, Zuko. You'll always be a friend in this house."

Zuko inclined his head to her as well. "Thank you."

"Say goodbye to the Fire Lord, Tom-Tom!" Michi called.

From the corner, Tom-Tom got to his feet and skipped over to them. He stopped before Zuko and gave a deep bow. "Guhbye, Fire Lord!"

Zuko smiled and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Bye, Tom-Tom. Be good to your sister."

The boy nodded. "I will."

Michi led Zuko to the door and Mai followed behind him. Midway she tugged on Zuko's arm and stopped him, turning him back around to face her. She looped her arms around his neck, a smile lifting her features.

"Well, I'll see you soon."

"Definitely." Zuko leaned forward and kissed her.

Michi stepped aside to let him through the door. Tom-Tom came up moments later, and the family of three stood by the doorstep as Zuko made his way to the palanquin waiting by the street.

"Back to the palace, then, my Lord?" one of the bearers asked.

Zuko gave a nod. "Yes."

The bearers opened the veils for him and he stepped inside, taking a seat on the padded chair. He peeked back out at Mai's family, who waved to him in unison. Then the white veils closed around him and blurred them behind a sheen of gray. The palanquin began to move, traveling down the road and distancing itself from the house. Mai, Michi, and Tom-Tom continued to wave for a bit, then once Zuko had begun to disappear into the distance they stopped and huddled together for a while, casually talking about something. The light from their cozy kitchen reappeared briefly as they opened the door to go back inside, then it swung closed behind them. That left only a tiny square window, burning a pale white just like all the others. Then gradually the house shrunk into the distance, its light vanishing among all the others and finally swallowed up by a scrim of trees.

Zuko sighed and looked down. Meanwhile, the shadow of the large black palace slowly drew nearer.

(End of Chapter 13)
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #40 on: Oct 19, 2018 01:37 pm »

14. The Visitor


The summer of Sozin's Comet had faded to autumn, and now autumn was fading to winter. A stillness and silence hung over the ocean, the caws of the native gulls absent as they migrated away to warmer coasts. The glass of Azula's windows became cold to the touch in the mornings, sometimes even misting up after a long night with the heating system running. The construction crew had designed a network of pipes that ran through each room, circulating water from a central tank that someone from the night staff would keep warm. The tubes were arranged into a large, compact coil, which was mounted on the corner of Azula's bedroom as well as in all the others.

The effect was astounding. Heat emanated from the metal coils in waves and pervaded through her bedroom, as if there were an actual fireplace without the firebending. Though they weren't perfect – apparently Nira had accidentally scalded herself after leaning on one – and all the rooms had to be the same temperature. But all the staff agreed that they were a miracle, even more so having been entirely improvised on the part of the builders. Never before had Fire Nation ingenuity been put to such a test, Dr. Low joked with them, being put through so many impromptu engineering jobs on such short notice.

And it was all because of her, Azula mused to herself. Because she couldn't firebend, and because everyone else had to keep firebending to a minimum for the sake of safety. It had been quite a long time since she had seen those familiar blue flames spring up from her palms, though oddly the thought didn't stir much emotion inside her. Lately she was finding that thoughts of firebending always came with thoughts of battling, either attacking or defending, and mostly always losing. Her old self would have probably revolted at the prospect of going without it for such a long time. But the joke was on her old self – she didn't miss it.

Still, there were other things that came with being a firebender that she couldn't ignore. Little moments of realization during the recession of summer that the daylight was no longer as warm as before, and the subtle feeling of incompleteness that she always felt in the evenings as the days shortened. Warm weather came and went for a while as it always did, but now the battle was ending and winter was emerging dominant.

While it never snowed in the Fire Nation, it did get cold enough to chill buildings and keep everyone away from the beaches. In her childhood, Azula had always loved to lean by windows to see the Imperial Firebenders marching along the palace walkways, lighting all the torches. The turtle ducks in their backyard pond would go into hibernation and leave the garden still and silent. Azulon always called his lengthiest meetings on frigid days so that he and his ministers had an excuse to stay in the throne room, his customary fire curtain blazing before the pedestal.

The school recess would also start around that point, and Azula would find herself with entire weeks of free time leading up to the new year. Much of it she spent with Mai and Ty-Lee, who would come over to the villa and play games in her room while she kept the fireplace going. In those times Azula felt an almost motherlike responsibility and affection for them, the nonbenders. When warmth no longer came from the sun, fire became something to share.

Before Azula knew it, it was already the beginning of December. She woke up one morning to Nira's chipper face spread into a toothy grin. "Happy second quarter!"

Azula blinked away the residual daze of sleep and squinted. "What?"

"It's the first day of the twelfth month!" Nira said. "That means you've been here for four three months already. One whole quarter! Time just flies by, doesn't it?" She stepped back towards a cart of bottles she had brought in with her. "It also means we gotta start taking extra care of our skin. The cold can really dry you out, and all this indoor heating makes it even worse. So I wanted to give you a facial!"

Azula scowled. "How about giving me some food?"

Nira laughed. "Oh, don't worry, already five steps ahead of you!" She produced the breakfast tray from the cart and placed it into Azula's lap.

Azula groggily began to shovel the porridge into her mouth and chew it down. She hadn't gotten much sleep, and the lack of light coming from the blinds foretold an overcast day.

Nira continued to make her mixture in the meantime, tossing powders and liquids into a small mortar and singing a tune. "Winter, spring… summer and fall… Winter, spring… summer and fall… four seasons… fo-our lo-oves…"

Azula watched as her pestle turned the mixture turned into a thick, gooey cream. "This is a masque for your face," Nira explained. "It goes right over your eyes and mouth, then you leave it on for half an hour while it moisturizes you."

"What about therapy?"

"No therapy today!" Nira replied. "Dr. Low's out by the dock accepting last shipment for the year, so everyone else is just doing housekeeping. That means you get the day off too!"

At that moment Mira walked in. "Ventilation time," she announced flatly, and heaved open the window. Azula was greeted by a sudden blast of cold wind and nearly dropped her spoon.

"Aah!" Nira hugged her arms against her chest and shivered. "Mira, close it!"

"We have to ventilate the whole building. Doctor's orders." Mira walked away towards the door then stopped. "By the way, there's Fire Flakes now."

Nira s eyes glimmered. "Yes! Finally!" She clapped her hands together in elation.

Azula lifted an eyebrow quizzically and Nira turned to her, all smiles. "I put in a request for Dr. Low. Now we've got enough Fire Flakes for a whole two months!"

Azula merely grumbled, pulling the blanket higher over herself and leaning over the warm tray. Once she finished eating, Nira removed the empty plates and set down a bowl of hot water in their place. She steamed Azula's face for a minute then dipped a brush into the mixture. "All right, just relax!"

Nira began to apply the masque, dripping a strikingly thick, cool substance onto Azula's face. It was almost like a liquid, seeping into the crevices around her closed eyes and covering her mouth. Azula was left reclining in her bed, unable to speak or see, her hands clutching the metal bars.

Nira's motions were reduced to faint rustles and clangs in the vicinity. "Feels great, huh? These are all the rage in Capital City right now. I know you can get them done at the royal palace, too – I have a friend who used to be a servant over there and she says the stuff they did there was just exquisite, you'd be walking on cloud nine the whole day… But obviously she couldn't share their procedures, and when she retired she had to swear an oath that she wouldn't reveal any of their secrets. That's how exclusive they are! You're a lucky girl!"

Azula's hands were slowly tightening into fists around the metal bars of the bed. Perhaps because of Nira's voice, perhaps because of a desire for light, but despite her initial calm, some surge of panic had sparked inside of her. The sounds and voices in the room reduced to a blur. The growing desire to open her eyes grew into a tangible discomfort, then to pain.

At last, she could no longer resist. Azula opened her eyes, but felt a sticky shell hold them down, and a scream rose up inside her throat. Suddenly feeling deprived of air, she began to claw at the thick coating with her hands, and finally she tore it off of her eyes and mouth and let out a yell.

Nira and Mira both jumped in surprise, bumping against another body, which turned out to be Isla holding a stack of towels. Azula stared out at the three nurses, white substance caked over her face with jagged openings for her eyes and mouth.

Nira rushed over. "My goodness! What happened? What's wrong?"

The panic faded as suddenly as it had come. Azula simply sat there with a deadpan gaze, her breaths ragged in her ears.

Nira's eyes flashed with understanding. She bit her lip. "Oh… you must have gotten nervous…"

Mira scowled. "You stupid wood-brain, Nira! You can't just do that to people! Especially her!"

Normally her tone would have set Azula on the offensive, but for once Mira's irritation appeared to be well-placed. Nira wiped the residue from her face with a wet cloth, wincing. "Sorry, sorry! I didn't know that bothered you, Azula, next time I won't cover your eyes, okay?"

Azula merely sank back into her pillows, grateful for the return of a steady heartbeat.

Isla continued putting away the towels in the meantime, and Mira put her hands on her hips. "Anyway," Mira began again, "the storage people just told me they need help with the food supplies. It's either you and me and the night crew, or we or we take over Kira's and Dee's job and mop all the floors."

"What am I going to do?" Azula called out. "Sit here all day?"

The three nurses looked at her.

"Dr. Low said you could go to the craft room," Mira said. "Paint, or something." She looked to Isla for confirmation.
But Azula crossed her arms. "I don't want to sit in the craft room. I want to go outside."

Nira and Mira exchanged a glance, then looked to Isla. "Is she… allowed during the day now?"

Isla cast a glance to the window, squinting her eyes. "It'll be fine. I'll take her."

Mira gave a shrug. "Well, all right."

Nira finished cleaning up her cart, then the two of them left the room. Isla pulled the wheelchair out from the corner. She helped Azula into it, and as she fastened the single torso band, Azula scowled.

"So how long do I have to keep using this thing? Aren't you people trying to make me normal?"

"Of course," Isla replied.

"Then why can't I at least walk like a normal person?"

"It's just a formal precaution," Isla said. "Besides, you're still on a regular serum dose. It'll conserve your energy."

Azula crossed her arms. "But Nira said this was a milestone, didn't she? If today's so special, then why don't you do something different for a change?"

"Well, we are doing something different. We're giving everyone a day off." Isla stepped out of the room, then came back with a large blanket. "Here." She unfolded it and dropped it around Azua's shoulders.

Azula shifted under the heavy weight, feeling herself relax against the back of the chair. She tugged the blanket closer around herself as Isla wheeled her to the front entrance room, rolling her down the ramp into open air.
The morning was gray and stormy, the sun hidden beneath a sheet of clouds. The sea whipped under a restless breeze, instantly flooding Azula's nostrils with the smell of marine salt.

The island's lone dock lay up ahead, where a Fire Nation cargo ship was berthed, its crew walking about the deck and down the ramp. A figure in a maroon military uniform stood watching them from a distance. It was Dr. Low. He had his back to the building, his topknot and shoulder plates cutting a shadowy silhouette against the sea.

The wheels of Azula chair sank into the sand and her body tremored with the motions as Isla rolled her over the shifty surface. They approached Dr. Low, and he turned around to notice them. He smiled.

"Hello, Isla." His gaze trailed down to find Azula. "Enjoying the outside air?"

"I only asked!" Azula shouted instantly. "I'm not trying to escape!"

Dr. Low lifted up a hand in humored surrender. "I just wanted to know if you were enjoying the air."

"Nice kind gesture on your part, since you were the one keeping me inside for almost four months straight!"

There was a pause, then Isla gave a tired smile. "Good morning, Dr. Low."

His smile acquired a warm humor. He turned back to face the ship, and Azula felt the flare of tension inside of her gradually unwind again as they watched the crew. They were unloading crates in teams and stacking them in small wagons that waited near the dock.

"Were those two dozen boxes of herbs enough?" Dr. Low spoke up.

Isla gave a nod. "Yes, thankfully… Did you get enough acupuncture needles?"

"That I did." Dr. Low breathed a sigh. "No matter how ingenious you are, some things you have to do the old-fashioned way. When I was a student I tried to engineer a way to sterilize them with firebending. I ended up melting my whole supply."

Isla chuckled. "We're all ambitious early on."

"That's for sure."

Another silence.

"Nira's ecstatic about the Fire Flakes," Isla added a moment later. "She's in the lounge with the first box as we speak."

Dr. Low laughed. "We'll have to ration them out until next year, then." He paused. "The ships don't come during the winter because most of the western docks close."

Azula realized those words were directed to her. She blinked in response. "Oh."

Another minute passed by. Azula watched as four men carried down a large, flat package draped in canvas. It took all of them to carry it from the pier and across the sand. She squinted. "What's that supposed to be?"

She was answered moments later by a flap of fabric, as a gust of wind tossed some of the canvas back to reveal a large landscape painting.

"Just some finishing touches," said Dr. Low. "Then it'll be home away from home."

Azula was silent. She watched the men as they carried the painting inside, then glanced back at the ship as the crew hauled still more things to the dock – chairs, shelves, lanterns. All the while the waves hissed in the distance and the wind continued to blow, the cold mostly kept at bay by the blanket around her shoulders. Isla still had her hands on the chair's handlebars, though there was no slope and no danger of Azula rolling away. Dr. Low had stepped back a little to be next to them, and now the both of them were standing still on either side of her, looking out at the sea. Suddenly, Azula was struck by a strange sense of emptiness. How far had they come to be here? What had they left behind?

Finally, after several minutes, Dr. Low took a step towards the dock. "Well, you two go on ahead. I'll go help out."
Isla gave a nod. She pulled on the handlebars again and wheeled Azula onwards.

They rode through the rest of the expanse in front of the building and rounded the left corner. Here the windows of Azula's bedroom, Dee's and Isla's offices, and the lounge balcony peered out at the water, spaced apart by a plain expanse of gray steel wall. The waves lapped only a short distance away, the foamy water filling in the tracks of the chair's wheels and Isla's footprints.

Azula's gaze skimmed over the ground yet to be covered, finding a clump of tall, needly trees in the distance. "So do you all take walks around here?"

"Me, not often," Isla responded. "Mira and Nira do laps, but I guess I'm the type who likes to stay put." She looked over her shoulder at the dock. "And it's easier to reach the back storage room from the other side. The trees make it hard to roll wagons."

Azula's gaze lingered on them, at the rugged barks and the tangle of shadows and branches between them that hid the rest of the shore from view. "I don't like them," she said.

"Why not?"

"They look weird. Barren." Wrong, she added mentally, but the word didn't make it out.

Isla made a curious hmm sound. "Well, I don't suppose they get a lot of nutrients. They have to be able to withstand the salt in the water, too." She stopped the wheelchair to get a better look at them. She picked up a few fallen needles from the ground and examined them in her palm.

In the meantime, Azula sank into her own thoughts. Her gaze trailed over to the back door, blank and stolidly closed. "Have you ever been creeped out by a place?" she found herself saying aloud.

"What do you mean?" Isla said. "Just frightened of it, or disgusted by it?"

"I guess both… But at the same time you feel like you can't stop yourself from going there, or thinking about it."
Isla pondered. "Well, in a way, I suppose... When I was little I was scared of the forest that bordered our village to the south. I thought it was haunted by evil spirits." She laughed a little. "But eventually I got over it."

"Is it weird to want to check out a place that's scary?" Azula asked.

"I'm not sure. Have you had that feeling before?"

"All the time. When I was a kid. And I still do."

"You have fears?"

"No, it's not exactly a fear, it's… I don't know. This feeling that something's off. And it bugs you, but it pulls you in." Azula looked up at the nurse, at her pale skin and gray eyes against the dark green trees behind them.

Isla pursed her lips into a sympathetic smile. "Well, if it bugs you constantly, then it's probably just your mind messing with you. There's really no reason to fear something if the source of danger is long gone." She paused. "I know it's not easy, though."

Azula bobbed her head in a nod.

"What places creeped you out, specifically?"

"This one," Azula said flatly.
« Last Edit: Oct 26, 2018 06:32 am by DynaDratina » Logged
DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #41 on: Oct 19, 2018 01:39 pm »

Isla chuckled. "I'm sorry about that. Really."

"Also the old house we lived in before Dad became Fire Lord," Azula went on. "It only started creeping me out after we'd moved, though. Then the palace started creeping me out. It's really big and you can actually get lost if you're not familiar with it."

"Hm." Isla gave this some thought. "Did it… bother you often?"

Azula breathed a sigh. "I don't know. I mean, I guess not often, but it still did sometimes. It's not that I avoided it. I was scared, but that made me interested. I explored it. It's like I couldn't help it."

"Well, if it's of any comfort to you, I'd probably feel nervous living in such a big place, too. Maybe exploration is just how you deal with fear of the unknown. It seems like a reasonable reaction."

"I… guess." But for some reason, Azula felt unfulfilled at this. Isla kept pushing her chair, and Azula continued to mull over her words, but then suddenly a flicker of color tore her out of her thoughts.

At first she thought it was something in Isla's hair, but when her gaze alighted on the trees, it came again. A red flash, like a flap of clothing, shimmering out from the shadows.

Her hands flew to the chair wheels. "Stop!"

Isla jerked the chair to a halt and rushed over to her. "What's wrong?"

"There's someone there." Azula pointed out.

Isla whipped her head around. "Where?"

"In the trees. They were wearing something red."

Isla frowned and took a few steps towards the trees. "I don't see anything. Maybe it was one of the ship crew?"
Azula shook her head briskly. "No. It can't be them. They were wearing a robe." Her gaze lingered on the spot. A gust of wind blew through the branches and made the leaves rustle. Behind them, just faintly, she could still make out a shape.

Her heart began to accelerate. Isla stood only a few yards away, right in their line of sight, though the nurse didn't seem to have noticed them. Azula pounded her fist against the armrests of her chair. "They're right there! They're looking right at you!"

Isla swiveled from the trees to Azula, turning up the palms of her hands. "What do you want me to do?"
"We have to go see! It could be someone trying to attack me!"

Isla furrowed her brow. "Then it's certainly a good idea to go back inside." She went back to take the handlebars, but Azula grabbed her arm.

"No! I want to find them! If anything, you should be able to defend yourself!"

"I'm not a bender," Isla said.

The words hit Azula like a smack and she blinked in bewilderment. "Then how did they even let you work here?!"

"Well, I'm surrounded by a team of firebenders, so I'm not that unprotected," Isla responded. "Also I'm probably one of only a handful of people in the Fire Nation who knows how to brew your serum, so it was either me or no one." She took the wheelchair and turned Azula towards the direction of the dock. "Come on. If you're starting to see things, we'd better get back inside."

Azula looked back at the trees. The branches were still stirring, but the shape she had seen in them before was gone. She gritted her teeth. "I'm telling you, I saw someone there! Why don't you believe me?"

Isla sighed. "First of all, because I didn't see anything myself, and second of all because you're clearly in a state of anxiety. And I'm certainly not taking you into strange woods." She pushed Azula of towards the building.

Azula rode along in dissatisfaction, nails digging into the pads of the armrests. Her head and shoulders had frozen; she couldn't bring herself to look back at those trees, yet the memory of that red flash still lingered in her mind. And it was coupled with a chill that had crawled up her spine, the aftereffect of the touch of a very tangible presence.


It was cool and quiet in the ninth-floor hallway as Kinchil pushed open the door. He rolled in the metal food cart with an expert's fluidity, whistling to himself as he rounded the corner towards the high-security cells. It was a peaceful morning for a change; there was no whooping or hollering, no fights in the lower cells, or fireballs being shot at walls. The mayhem of his first month on the job had gradually faded for the menial, and much more comforting rhythm of task lists.

Kinchil tackled each cell in turn, gradually coming to Cell 137. Commander Deng was sitting in his cage, all healed up, a bright-yellow flame lit in his palm. Ever since the Azulon incident he had grown more cranky and contemplative, and towards the end of calendar autumn he had spent more time sleeping than talking. Now he sat with his elbow on his knee, chin on his fist, staring into space with a profoundly bored expression.

"Hm… I see… And how long have you been living without a face? Interesting…Yes, I empathize with the fact that it makes life difficult. Have you tried asking Koh to give it back? No, I have never spoken with him before, I have no idea how he would take such a request, but I presume that it's worth it at least to attempt… No, I will not ask him for you! I have matters of my own to attend to here! My fleet is currently sailing through doldrums and I must divine the flow of the tides so that I can coordinate our escape... What? No, the word is fleet! F-L-E-E-T! A command of ships! Oh, for Agni's sake, those big metal things that humans use to travel across water!" There was a pause, then Deng's shoulders sank and a despairing look fell over his face. "Yes, the big floating bananas… What?! No, we do not harvest them from trees! Oh, Sacred Flame of Ra… That's it, I have to be on my way now. Goodbye."

He hastened to stir the bones in his palm, making the flame dim ever so slightly before it brightened back to yellow.

"Dragon-bird, I am severing the line now… wait, what? Wolf Spirit? You again? Don't you usually roam around the other side of the swamp-forest?... Then how did I end up here?... No, I will have you know it is not my fault – some harmonic motion in the realm is causing me to lose grip on my location and drift off into random territories. Believe me, I've been in the Swamp Forest enough! I'll be going now. No, I do not know what is causing the motion! Good day!"

Deng scowled and stirred the bones some more, evidently in an effort to cut the line. But no matter how he tried to turn the flame red, it would keep brightening to yellow seemingly of its own accord. Finally he clapped his hand over it and put it out.

Deng tossed the burnt bones aside and sat in the darkness for a moment. He adjusted the tie of his blanket-cape and turned around, finally peering out of his cage just as Kinchil knelt down with the breakfast tray.

"No one good today, huh?" Kinchil said.

Commander Deng spat to the side. "Nothing. Not a single intelligent conversation."

Kinchil did a double-take. He hadn't expected Deng to reply, but was even more surprised at how clear and calm the man's voice sounded. "So… who did you talk to, then?" he ventured.

"A bunch of random passersby yearning for attention. Just now it was some idiot curly-tailed blue-nose monkey who got his face stolen by Koh. Apparently he got lost and wandered into his cave by accident." Commander Deng rolled his eyes. He leaned against the nearby wall and lay his hands over his stomach. "I will take the food now."

Kinchil set down the tray beside him. Commander Deng scooted over to it and began to eat, not with his usual frantic pace, but this time neatly and almost normally.

"So… how do you do that, anyway?" Kinchil asked.

"Do what?"

"That fire trick."

Deng scrunched up his face into a frown. "What fire trick? Lighting a flame?" He made a flame from his palm, this one a basic red.

"No, I mean the talking to spirits thing. If that's what you're doing."

Deng blinked now, looking puzzled. "Of course I'm talking to spirits. Also to people who have settled in the spirit world after departing this one. And it has nothing to do with fire – fire is simply the forger of the connection between me and them."

"Why do you need the bones, then?"

"Because bones contain chi, left over from the animal's life. They have tendrils of connection to the animal's departed spirit, and by sending my chi through them, for example by firebending, I can ride those connections towards the rift and cross it. Plants can technically be used to the same effect, but they burn out too quickly and the chi in them escapes. That's why I prefer bones." He leaned back over his plate and kept eating.

Not knowing if he himself was stupid or if Deng was just speaking tongues, Kinchil spoke up. "What's the rift?"

"The rift between the two worlds," Deng replied. When Kinchil said nothing, he lifted an eyebrow as if talking to someone very dense. "The rift that separates the spirit world from the physical world?"

Kinchil shook his head. "I've never heard of that."

Deng scowled and looked up to study him more fully. "What is it you deckhands do in your free time? Do you really just sit in the galley all day and talk about origami? Has nothing you've experienced on any of your voyages even slightly caused you to be interested in the way the world around you works?"

Kinchil found himself placing his hands against his chest in self-defense. "But I am interested! I'm asking you!"

"That's Commander to you, boy!"

Kinchil flinched, taken off-guard by the strict gleam in the man's eye. He clasped his hands together as deferentially as he could and inclined his head. "Commander. Please, tell me about the spirit world."

Deng breathed a long sigh, eyes rolling up to the ceiling now in annoyance. "How do you think it's possible that two realms governed by such different laws are able to interact with each other without destroying each other? Why is it that whenever a spirit materializes here, our whole world doesn't immediately get annihilated by some supernatural explosion? Or do you think our worlds just hover next to each other like little soap bubbles?"

Kinchil shook his head. "Uh… no, Commander."

"Correct. Because the two worlds are immersed in a common space of both matter and energy known as the rift. The rift is what separates the two realms in essence, while also providing a medium through which beings from either one may cross over into the other. And it is watched over by the guardian spirit, Lia."

"The Dragon-bird spirit?"

"No, the Dragon-bird spirit is an acquaintance of mine who meets me at the rift and guides me though the spirit world. I still don't know all of its ins and outs, so her help is an unquestionable asset. Lia is the guardian of the rift itself. It's her job to make sure the rift stays within its natural threshold of density and that the two realms do not become dangerously close to converging."

Kinchil processed this. "What would… happen if they did?"

"If they converged? A mess." Deng sucked a fish bone clean. "The spirit world is governed by pure energy, the physical world by material laws. Energy controls matter, so we'd be living in the spirits' world essentially. So the rift must be there to maintain equilibrium. Still, whenever a being crosses from one realm to another, they create a temporary hole in it. You grasp a connection, like I've just explained, and you send your chi through it, like I do with firebending."

"Oh…" Kinchil tilted his head to the side, now tapping his chin in curiosity. "So, could you use the other elements too?"

"Of course. One can just as easily cross the rift using earth, air, or water. Water, in particular."

"Why water?"

Commander Deng glared at him again. "Haven't you been listening? The rift itself is water! The realms are immersed in it – the rift is like the sea and the two realms are like two warships that drift side-by-side at varying distances to keep from crashing into each other! The rift was created by the Moon and Ocean spirits when they forged the first bond by crossing over to the mortal world. Lia is their daughter and she was tasked with maintaining it. Then of course that bond was strengthened when the first human waterbenders began to watch the Moon and Ocean's behavior and learned how to synchronize the ebb and flow of their chi with the ebb and flow of the tides, while in the meantime firebenders learned from the dragons, earthbenders from badger-moles, and so on and so forth. The mechanics of that are much more complicated and I have no time to start going into detail now, so let it suffice to say that certain spirits forged the rift by making themselves mortal and humans strengthened it by connecting their chi with the original spiritual sources of bending." Deng downed a big gulp of his water. "That's your lesson for today. Maybe now instead of whiling away all your shifts staring blankly off into space, you'll actually start thinking about the world beyond the tip of your nose."

Kinchil leaned his elbows in his lap. He looked at his sundial watch, useless in the darkness, running his fingers over the glyphs that adorned the armband. "I always knew that bending came from something spiritual… I have an ancestor who was a shaman and we have a copy of a firebending scroll he wrote hundreds of years ago. He talked about how firebending was linked to breath and life… But I've never really learned anything about the spirit world."

Deng made a sound of conversational pity, still chewing his food.

"So why did you want to talk to them this time? Uh, Commander?"

Deng picked out another fish bone from his mouth and spat it away. "I had less say in the matter than I would have liked. I wanted to connect to Fire Sage Amaron to follow up on a debate we were having, but once I entered the spirits' realm, I found that my connection was far too strong. Usually when I search for one I can pass by the realms I do not want. But now, during the solstice, my presence is so anchored wherever I go that my arrival ends up being sensed by every single bored sorry soul in the vicinity. At this rate, I'll probably be noticed by Koh himself…"
He sank into a pondering silence. He turned his attention back to the pile of burnt bones and ignited them again on the floor. This flame too turned yellow, and he looked at it for a long time.

"What I do not understand is what that storm meant… The Badger Spirit said that there was a brief surge of energy surrounding some sort of meadow. But I've never seen a meadow anywhere in the Spirit World before. At least not like he described..." He scratched his head.

Kinchil sat there for a while longer, but it seemed that Commander Deng's brief period of lucidity was beginning to wane. He was staring into the flame, his gaze growing glassy and distant.

"Uh… Don't forget to eat this time," Kinchil said.

Commander Deng waved a hand at him in dismissal. "Go, go! I'm busy."
« Last Edit: Oct 26, 2018 06:14 am by DynaDratina » Logged
DynaDratina
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« Reply #42 on: Oct 19, 2018 01:41 pm »


The next morning, Azula woke up in her bedroom, opening her eyes to see her room brightly-lit. It wasn't Isla washing her hands by the sink this time, but Mira. The nurse's short hair swished around her shoulders as she turned around with the breakfast tray. Azula merely looked back at her.

"Where's Isla?"

"She's sick." Mira placed the tray onto Azula's lap and added the bottle of serum. "Come on, you don't want to be late for physical therapy."

She started to walk away, but Azula grabbed her sleeve. "Why isn't she here? Tell me where she is!"

Mira pried Azula's hand away. "I just told you, she's sick. She needs to be alone for a few days."

Azula's heart began to hammer again. "I don't believe you!" she said. "The assassin took her! He's trying to get at me, so now he's going to abduct you one by one and squeeze the information out of you! He wants me dead!"

Mira's eyes bulged in horror. "Assassin?! What in the world are you talking about?"

"The assassin!" Azula jerked forward. "The assassin who was in the forest! I saw him yesterday!"

She started to point towards the window but Mira caught her wrist. "Okay, calm down! Stop!" She lowered Azula's arm. "What are you talking about? Why would there be an assassin here?"

"He's here for me!" Azula shouted. "He took Isla! Now he's going to take the rest of you!" She started to lift her arms again and Mira pushed her back. The more she tried to steady Azula by the shoulders, the more Azula fought to break free of her grip, until it looked like Azula was convulsing from some sort of seizure.

Moments later Nira and Kira ran inside.

"What's going on? What's wrong with her?"

"Nothing! Let go of me!" Azula broke free of Mira's grip. She tossed the blanket aside and vaulted over the side of the bed, falling into the floor. She scrambled to her feet and got into a fighting stance.

The nurses instantly tensed. Nira stepped forward, lifting her hands. "Stop! We know what you're about to do!"
Azula jumped back onto the bed and hopped over the other side. But the three nurses rushed after her, drawing her back towards the window.

Azula held up her fists and snarled. "Get out of my way!" she shouted. "Now, or I'll knock out all three of you!"
"Call Dr. Low," Mira said.

Nira ran off. Mira and Kira moved to fill her vacant space, inching towards Azula with their hands held up protectively in front of them.

"Azula, we don't want to hurt you," Kira said. "Just get into the wheelchair and everything will be all right."
"No!" Azula shouted. "Everything is not going to be all right! All of you stupid klutzes are going to get kidnapped and I'll be the only one left!"

Kira continued to advance on her, Mira pulling the wheelchair from behind. In a swift motion, Kira lunged. Azula barely had time to dive aside before the nurse grabbed hold of her arm, and she twisted and kicked in an attempt to break free. Mira took her by the shoulders, trying to force her into the chair, and Azula began to scream, flailing and butting her head like a raging bull-rhino.

There was a rush of footsteps as Dr. Low entered the room, Nira and Dee behind him.

Azula's gaze darted towards him, and she lunged free of Mira and Kira's grip. "What happened to Isla?" she shouted. "She's gone, isn't she? They took her!"

Dr. Low steadied her by the shoulders. "Azula, calm down. Isla isn't gone. I spoke to her hardly a minute ago. She's in bed with a bad headache and needs rest."

"You can't fool me! Nurses don't get sick!"

Dr. Low sighed. He motioned Mira and Kira away and guided Azula to her bed himself. "No regimen today," he said to them. "These past few weeks must have gotten to her head. We were too quick with the second stage."

The nurses stood in silence, then one by one, they left. Dr. Low motioned Azula towards the bed and waited for her to climb in. Once they were alone, he pulled up a chair beside her and crossed his arms.

"All right, Azula. Tell me everything that's going on and where this fear of yours came from."

Azula pushed herself up into a seated position. "I saw someone in the woods near the back." She jabbed her finger in the direction of the far door. "Out by the back of the building there was this small forest, and Isla was pushing my wheelchair by it and I saw someone in the shadows. I told her to stop and look, but she didn't believe me. She said she didn't see anyone. But I did!"

"Did you see anything in particular, or was it just a shadow?"

Azula pressed her lips together, thinking back. "Just a shadow… But it was definitely a person. They were wearing red robes and they were peeking out from the trees."

"Did they do anything else?"

"No. But I felt like they were watching me. First I saw their sleeve, then when I turned to look at them I saw their robe! If it were a hallucination, they would have been gone when I looked back, right? But they were there!"

Dr. Low cast his gaze off to the side, expression clouding. "I was afraid of this… I knew I should have told Isla to take you inside immediately. This is my fault, again."

"No!" Azula gripped the bar of the bed in horror. "No, no, no! It wasn't a mistake, I saw them with my own two eyes! Why doesn't anyone believe me?" She clenched her jaws, and for a startling moment, she felt a bitter heat rise to her face. Her vision blurred and trembled as tears began to spill from her eyes. "I hate you!" she rasped. "I hate you, you don't know what you're doing, you don't care that there's an assassin out there who's trying to kill me! That's probably exactly what Zuko wants. He wants me locked up in some crazy shack with idiot staff who won't give a gopher-bear's tail if I'm murdered!"

Dr. Low leaned closer and put a hand on the bar. "Azula, that isn't true. You're completely safe. There is nobody on this island except for us and you, and there is no way anybody else could get here from the mainland unless they boarded a cargo ship or swam fifty miles through freezing water. The first option is impossible because those ships are checked at their home port, several times during the voyage, and again before stopping here. The second option, well, you figure out for yourself."

"It could have been a waterbender!" Azula said. "Or an airben… I mean, the Avatar come to finish me off!"

Dr. Low shook his head. "Even if it were, they would have to know first of all where this island is, and second of all that you are even being kept here. I assure you that besides us, the only other person who knows your location is your mother."

Azula's face froze. A chill crept up her spine, so strong that it must have made the hairs on her head stand on edge, like sea-snakes. "What?"

Dr. Low frowned. "I said, the only person who knows your location besides us is your brother."

"Oh." Right then, Azula realized she was gripping the bar of the bed so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. She hastened to loosen her grip, but Dr. Low had already noticed. He fixed his gaze on her.

"Something is bothering you, Azula. And you're not telling me what it is."

"I'm telling you everything!" Azula said.

Dr. Low sighed. She knew he didn't believe her, and that she wasn't doing a good job of convincing him. But nevertheless, he switched the subject.

"Have you ever had similar experiences before?"

"Similar to what?"

"Seeing things that scared or upset you."

Yes. You saw your mother standing behind you in the mirror.

Azula wavered for a moment, then held fast. "No."

Dr. Low rubbed his forehead. "The reason I'm asking is that I've had a fair number of patients come to me in the past for hallucinations. According to their reports, their visions peaked around certain times of the year, this being one of them. It's currently the second day of December, which means there are only a couple weeks left till the winter solstice."

"So?"

"Well, the solstices are generally very tumultuous times in nature. Human beings are a part of nature, even though our industrial cities and towering metal ships can make us think otherwise, and we're not immune to the changes that go on in the natural cycle. It could very well be a common seasonal thing affecting you. Though, with your emotional instability, a simple disposition could manifest itself into something that appears to be a crisis."

"But why the solstice?"

"There are theories. Some say that it's because the spirit world and the physical world come closer to converging. Now, I'm not a specialist on the supernatural, I deal with the concrete, and personally I think that those explanations don't get to the root of the problem. When a person's hallucinations cause them pain and grief, it's because there's a preexisting problem within them that's triggering the pain. I'm trying to find out what that problem is for you."

Azula lowered her gaze. "I'm upset because there's an assassin!"

"Well, for reasons already discussed, that fear is unfounded." Dr. Low rose from his seat. "I'll leave you alone now. Try to relax. Forget about the regimen, forget about your exercises, and get as much rest as you can. I'll have the night crew sweep the island just in case." He closed the shutters and left, closing the door behind him.

Azula sat there for almost an hour, straining her ears. Beyond her door she heard only sporadic footfalls and muffled conversation. Some people had gone outside, the light of their flames faintly visible from the shutters, but the minutes stretched and they didn't seem to be finding anything. Azula clenched her jaw and tightened her grip around the blanket, hearing only the beating of her heart.

Thump, thump. Thump, thump.

At one point her door opened and Kira poked her head in.

"We checked the island, Azula. There's no one here."

Azula gave no response. She turned away and pretended to read a scroll, but when the nurse left she looked back up at the window, frustration and foreboding churning inside her.


Night fell. Azula sat alone in the mind therapy room with a Pai Sho set in front of her. The room and hallway were dark, only a solitary light shining down above the empty teacher's desk. Azula hated the darkness, but for some reason her mind kept refusing her urges to do something about it. Her body kept itself glued to the chair, her hands in a permanent cycle of placing down tiles one after the other and moving them. All the while there was a dark hallway just outside her door, and a deserted hospital building surrounding her, for the nurses and Dr. Low had all gone home.

But no, she wasn't alone. The building was alive again – in fact, it had been alive the whole time; she had just allowed other things to take her mind off of it. But now the giant beast had stirred. And she was sitting in its jaws, being watched.

Azula did her best to focus her mind on the tiles. She was trying to remember the rules for Solo-Sho, moving the pieces back and forth in an attempt to reconstruct the patterns. Then suddenly, there came a rush of cold air.

Azula looked up to see a thick gray mist flow into the room, gathering into a cloud in front of the teacher's desk. The mist condensed and materialized into a figure. A face appeared, as did long brown hair and draping red robes, and in a matter of moments Azula found herself face-to-face with Ursa.

"Hello Azula."

Azula froze in her chair. For a frightening moment she couldn't move or breathe. All she could do was lean back, pushing herself as far away from the woman as the tiny desk would allow. "It was you," she said. Then, louder: "How did you get in here?"

Ursa gave a nonchalant shrug. "It wasn't hard. I just followed one of those nurses of yours through the door. Poor silly girl didn't even notice."

Azula snarled. "What are you doing here?"

"I didn't want to miss my own daughter's hospitalization." Ursa's lips curved up in a smile.

By now Azula's frantically pounding heart had retreated into the background as her thoughts became colored with their familiar scorn and annoyance. "Well, unfortunately you're a bit late to the party. I've been here for three months already. Or did it take you that long to swim across the sea?"

"I didn't swim, you silly cat-rabbit, I flew," Ursa replied. "On the Avatar's sky bison. We're great friends." She gave a sentimental smile, which was at the same time subtly venomous. Azula gripped the edges of her chair and gritted her teeth in rage.

"You made a big mistake coming here. You've isolated yourself in a locked building with a master firebender. And you're defenseless."

She glared at Ursa as darkly as she could muster. But for some reason the darkness Azula summoned up was just barely managing to contend with the darkness that emanated from the figure, from her.

Ursa took in her words like a pretty poem, smiling. She sauntered closer. "Oh, but am I?"

She continued to advance towards Azula's desk until she was leaning over it. The cloud of cold air that surrounded her enveloped Azula as well, and before she could do anything, one of Ursa's claw-like hands gripped her under the chin and tilted up her face. She was left to look into her mother's eyes, light amber and slightly narrowed in detached pity. Their gaze traced her jagged fringe of hair.

"A shame… You always had such beautiful hair. I was certain you were going to be the perfect daughter. Patient, kind, obedient… But no, you turned out to be something I would never want in any family. Instead of a daughter, I got a monster. A little young blue-fired dragon."

She dropped Azula's chin with a resigned sigh and stepped away.

Rage and hurt flared up inside Azula as she bored her stare into her mother's back. "You're right," Azula said. "I am a dragon. And not the kind that loves like in your stupid play." She stole a glance at the candle on the table, which was casting a shadow on a sundial. The hour of the serum's dosage had passed.

Energy stirred within her, and in a snap, Azula shot out of the chair and punched a blast of blue fire into the air. Ursa whirled around and disappeared right when the flames hit.

Azula left the room, hands poised in her lightningbending form, scanning the hallway through narrowed eyes.

A second later, the red glimmer reappeared before the back door. Azula's gaze darted to the spot just as Ursa slipped outside, and she ran after her. Azula stumbled through the open door into a cool, damp night. The full moon beamed brightly overhead, casting a glow over the sea and the thick grass that had appeared all over the shore.

Ursa kept running away, and Azula saw that the thin collection of trees that she had taken to be the island's only wildlife was actually a forest of hundreds – thick, enormous and green with nothing but shadows in their depths. Ursa ran towards them, then just before going through she turned back to Azula and gave a wink.

Her heart hammering, Azula drove in. She jumped over bushes and slapped away branches with her hands, no longer aware of where she was going. At long last a glow of light appeared ahead and she stumbled out into a clearing.

She gasped.

A huge lake lay out before her in the moonlight. It was perfectly round, the water's surface flat and glassy blue.
"Azula…" came a voice. It was emanating from the water itself, somewhere beneath the surface.

Azula gulped. She tentatively approached the lake and knelt down. Her breaths became terrified, her eyes widened, and her voice grew squeaky and choked like a child's.

"Quin…?" she bit out.

But it wasn't Quin. A flash of red appeared on the water again, just like it had in the meadow. Azula leaned over it, but instead of her reflection, she saw the face of Ursa. Her mother's eyes looked straight into her own, her expression now frozen and mask-like.

"Azula… I'm right here… Come to me…"


Azula gritted her teeth.

No.


She stumbled back, rising to her feet, feeling rage and hurt swell up again inside her. "NO!"

She shot a beam of lightning at the reflection, and the lake exploded. The light from her attack shot upwards in a brilliant burst, the droplets of water turning into hundreds of shards of glass that cut through her skin and tore her to shreds…

Azula shot up from her bed with a scream. Red stars danced across her vision, and moments after they cleared, she came to her senses. She was in her bedroom.

There was a clamor of footsteps and Nira burst inside. She flicked on the lights. "Azula! What's wrong? What happened?"

Azula blinked several times. She shook her head. "Nothing… It was a dream."

The young nurse sank against the doorframe in relief. "Oh, thank goodness! You sounded like you were getting eaten alive!"

"Yeah, that's exactly what was happening!"

Nira tilted her head and tapped her chin. "Hm. I wonder why that happened. Did you eat something that didn't agree with you?"

Azula felt a customary flare of annoyance. "I don't know!"

But beneath that her heart was still beating, and the sound of her calmed breaths was creating a subtle swell of relief inside of her. The relief of simply existing.

The silence stretched, and after a few moments Nira pursed her lips. "Do you want anything? A glass of water, maybe?"

Azula shook her head. "I'm fine. I'm going to sleep." She settled back into bed and pulled the blanket over herself.

"Well, all right, if you're sure…" Nira stepped back towards the door and turned off the lights. "Sleep tight!" The door closed with a quiet thud.

Azula lay there for what felt like an eternity, staring up at the ceiling.

(End of Chapter 14)
« Last Edit: Oct 20, 2018 04:12 am by DynaDratina » Logged
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