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Author Topic: The Real Subject (Avatar: The Last Airbender, PG)  (Read 5857 times)
DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 59



« Reply #50 on: Mar 26, 2019 06:03 pm »

Azula opened her eyes to see herself standing before the window again. But now the sky outside was hued red, the daytime moon replaced by a large, blazing comet. Sozin's Comet, hanging in the air like a leering beast. The sea was a sheet of choppy black waves beneath it.

She turned around, and instead of her hospital bedroom she was greeted with the sight of her large palace dressing room. The cabinets and counter had become her wooden commodes, the vanity with the towel tossed over it vanished for the huge splintered wall mirror.

Azula stepped towards it, staring out at her reflection in the shards that remained. Her gaze ran over her hospital attire, her paled skin and grown-out hair, finally fixing on the amber eyes that echoed the shock and fear that still simmered deep within her.

What's wrong with me? she thought. Why do I still feel this way? Sozin's Comet is over!

She was answered with silence.

Then, light as a feather stroke, she felt a whisper of cold air. It was as if a door had opened somewhere and began to let in a draft. Gradually, the whisper turned into a current, and the cold air began to fill up the room. Azula hugged her arms around herself, suppressing a shudder.

Sozin's Comet is over… she repeated. Sozin's Comet is over… She backed away from the mirror, nearly tripping over her hairbrush, and began to pace around. She willed herself to calm down with all her might. Perhaps it really was all in her head, perhaps those babbling buffoons were right…

She walked towards the window and pushed it open. She poked her head outside, looking around, but felt no wind. The comet was still there, hanging in the sky. And yet the temperature dropped by the second. Soon her skin became covered in goosebumps and she had to clench her jaw to keep it from chattering. Azula let out a breath, watching the air mist out, and rubbed her hands over her arms.

Heavens and elements, why is it… so… cold?!

Azula rubbed faster, scrunching up her face. She hopped from one foot to another, then began to rush around the room, huddling against pillars and into corners in search of the smallest pocket of warmth.

At last, she couldn't take it anymore. Azula inhaled, summoning up all the strength she could muster, and punched a fist at the air. There was a faint rush of energy from her knuckles and the whisper of embers as her firebending activated, but when she opened her eyes, her blood froze in its veins.

Fire had indeed come out. But instead of their usual blue color, the flames were rainbow. Tongues of blue and yellow and purple and green snaked into the air, dancing together and dissipating.

Azula jerked her hand back, fingers slackening.

"What…?"

She punched out another flame, and the same swirly fire escaped. It could have come from a child's drawing - unnaturally bright, sickeningly wispy.

Azula pulled back both hands and looked down at her palms. "What is this? What's wrong with me?"

She backed away from the spot and shot out some more flames, but there was almost no blue in sight - it had been replaced with glimmering spirals. Her latent panic surged. She made fire-whips that slapped the pillars, flame arcs from her feet that grazed the floor, but no matter what she did she couldn't get the foreign colors out.

Azula continued firebending until she was breathless, finally falling to her hands and knees. The clumps of rainbow flames she had scattered everywhere began to grow, eating their way over the room until they became a glowing forest. The commodes began turning to ash, the glass from the mirror melting, the pillars slowly sagging and crumbling at the base.

A sudden glint tugged her gaze upwards, and Azula saw Sozin's Comet appear in the window. It was also multicolored, she noticed. Blue, green, red, and purple flames shone out from its burning tail, while its body glowed white, hot to an immeasurable degree.

At that point, the picture began to blur. The flashing, whispering colors blended together into a whirlpool and faded out for blackness. Moments later Azula felt her closed eyelids tighten together, and opened them to glimpse the plain white ceiling. She was back on her floor mat.

Azula lifted herself up by the elbow. Her bedroom was exactly the way she had left it, though it had grown darker. She turned to look back at the window, and when she saw the sky, her stomach gave a lurch. It was no longer an afternoon blue, but red. The sun had set, the stars scattered in its place. How long had she been lying there? Had no one checked up on her?

Azula stumbled to flip on the ceiling lamp, still rubbing her shoulders from the residual cold. She looked over her hands and saw that they had turned blotchy, the skin under her nails purplish. She rushed to her bed and the wheelchair and began to feel all the metal surfaces.

They felt hot.

"WHAT DID YOU DO?"

Azula burst into the hallway. Her momentum was such that she collided with Nira, who had just come out of the lounge with an empty dinner bowl. The nurse managed to tuck it under her arm in time and caught Azula with her hands.

"Azula, you're up! Is everything all right?"

"Why did you let me sleep?" she demanded.

Nira looked bewildered. "I thought you were meditating!"

"I was freezing! It's all your fault!"

Mira poked out of the lounge in Nira's wake and came up to them. "What's the matter with her?"

"She says it's cold." Nira frowned and felt Azula's skin. "Holy cow-hog, she is cold. Azula, what's wrong? Are you sick?"

Azula pushed away from her. "I'm not sick! You're the ones who shut off the heating! You bunch of selfish bucket-heads, you think you can just do whatever you want in here!"

"What on earth are you talking about?" Mira said. "The heating system has been running the same for days!"

Nira's expression was earnest as well. "We had no idea anything was wrong, Azula, we're sorry!"

Azula stared at them, the waves of her rage rising and falling in rhythm. Then out of the blue, a realization hit. Her eyes widened, pupils narrowing into tiny dots. "It's her."

Mira blinked. "What?"

"It's her! She's here! She's back again!" Azula swiveled around on her heel and sliced a hand at the air. The nurses ducked as an arc of rainbow fire hit the wall.

"Firebending!" Mira shrieked. "She's firebending!"

Azula stumbled away and ran for the back door. Her senses had heightened, every nerve in her body tensing, and all of a sudden she could feel the presence again, hovering over the entire island like a cloud. Her hands collided with the door and fumbled with the knob, then she pushed it open and ran outside.

Shouts and slams came from behind. "She's running away!"

Azula tore through the sand, feet kicking up clumps of it in her wake. She reached the shoreline and began to hurl fireballs at the air. They were still rainbow. Azula snarled and increased her frequency, to the point where the water around her feet began to sizzle. Then she stepped back and switched to making lightning, weaving the bolts through the air and shooting them upwards.

"Go away!" she shouted at the sky. "Get out of me! Leave me alone!"

Seconds later, two bodies rammed into her from behind. Azula was forced down, her chest and face pressing into the sand, and felt the heavy straitjacket drop over her with a whump. It lay atop her like a sheet of soft lead, pinning her to the ground.

Azula fidgeted in vain, clawing at the sand with her nails. A hand felt around for a spot in her neck and jabbed in a needle, and moments later she felt the surging energy inside of her dull down. The serum took her in its familiar hold, and soon Azula slumped down in exhaustion.

Hands wrapped the blanket around her in a cocoon and lifted her onto a stretcher. She was carried inside and deposited onto her bed, where the nurses began to bustle around her. Azula parted her lips and breathed a few final, flimsy flames from her mouth. The illusion had faded as suddenly as it had come - her fire was blue again.

Kira's face appeared overhead, distant and hazy.

"It was her..." Azula moaned out. "She's still here… She's making me… she made my fire..."

Kira gently tilted Azula's head to the side and did something with the needle in her neck. From the other side of the bed, Mira put a hand on her hip. "Looks like that cleansing program worked pretty well, huh?"

Kira turned her face away from the other woman, hanging her head and closing her eyes. "We need to write to Dr. Low."

"But she can't see him like this," Nira said. "Even if he comes back early, she still needs time to recuperate."

"Well she's obviously not recuperating!" Mira retorted. "It's getting worse!"

Azula writhed out against the cocoon. "She was here! She made the air cold! She made my fire change color!"

No one responded. The nurses continued to converse among themselves, and Azula groaned out in frustration. After some more fidgeting she managed to tug a hand out of the loose straps of the straitjacket. She made a frantic flame from her palm, watching tiny blue flames ignite and fizzle out.

There was a rattle by the counter as someone opened a drawer of bottles. "We're running out of needles," Nira said. "Someone go to storage."

"Didn't we dose her this morning?" Mira asked.

"It obviously wasn't enough. Look at her."

There was a rush of footsteps, then Mira came back with a fresh syringe. She filled it with a bottle of serum and tapped it, preparing it for injection.

Azula flailed away. "No! Get that muck away from me! Stop it!"

Mira fought past Azula's hand and forced the needle into her arm. She stepped back, putting a hand on her hip. Everyone waited while Azula continued to breathe blue flames from her nose and mouth, glaring up at the nurses in fury.

"Why does it seem like it's not working?" Dee asked.

All heads turned to Isla, who was standing at the back. Her eyes were sleepy. "I didn't change anything. The serum's the same as it always was."

"Well then she must be trying to wheedle out of the dosage again!" Mira said.

Azula cut them all off with a scream. "I was just checking to make sure—my—fire—was—still—blue! It had nothing to do with evading the stupid serum!"

"Why wouldn't it be blue?" Kira asked.

"It was rainbow just now!"

Dee pressed her hands to her temples. "That's it. I can't put up with this anymore. Let's stop all the nonsense with the trays and the towels and get down to solving this problem she has with her mother!"

"But she won't talk!" Nira protested. "Every time we so much as mention Ursa, she—"

"STOP IT!" Azula bellowed. "SHE WAS ABOUT TO KILL ME, DON'T YOU DARE CALL HER OVER!"

Nira closed her eyes. "That happens."

Azula continued to fidget, blowing small blue flames out through her mouth. Dee leaned over her. "How much did you give her this morning?"

"A spoonful," Mira said. "Like always."

Dee looked to Isla. "Give her another one."

Isla came over with another syringe and filled it from Mira's bottle. She slid the needle into a vein, and Kira and Dee held Azula in place for two minutes, covering her hands and mouth. But when they stepped back, Azula blew out another puff of air, creating a tongue of blue flame.

"The same thing happened in Dr. Low's office," Kira said. "Did the serum stop working?"

"I don't think so," Isla replied. "Her flames are weaker. It's still suppressing the flow of her chi on some level."

"Could she have adapted to it?" asked Dee.

Isla shook her head. "That's impossible. There's no way she could." She leaned over and began to feel several places on Azula's neck and arm. Almost immediately, her eyes widened. "I see the problem. Her chi flow is so strong I can feel it all the way down this side. There's just too much energy for the serum to handle completely. She'll have to be dosed twice as often now, with at least twice the concentration."

The other nurses balked.

"For how long?" asked Nira.

"At least until Dr. Low comes back." Isla hung her head. "But honestly, I don't know what he can do at this point…"

"Maybe we should call him back earlier," said Mira.

"But he said he's still in Port Xi," Nira responded. "He can't leave until the trays come in."

Dee slapped a hand against her side. "Well, what's more important, some trays or helping Azula out of this? She hasn't been eating from any metal trays and this still happens!"

There was a silence. At last Isla nodded her head. "I'll write to him."



Days passed. Azula lay in her bed, strapped down by the elastic bands, while time moved in an incoherent blur. The little bedside pole with the hanging pouch was back, dripping serum into her right arm. Every so often the nurses would remove it, testing her blood for dosage levels, and left her to rest. Through it all they made visible efforts to calm her down. Nira gave her sweets with her food and sang songs while she brushed Azula's hair. Kira lit candles, and Isla covered her with extra layers of blankets.

But it did nothing. Azula's dreams were fraught with cold mists and frozen oceans. She lashed out into the air with fire, but no matter how hard she tried, the coldness remained outside, the rainbow flames within.

At last, Azula couldn't take it anymore. She fidgeted around in her bed and managed to tug her left arm free of the bands. She ripped out the needle in her right elbow, plugging the spot to stop the bleeding. Then she summoned up her concentration, gathering her energy up in a wave and crashing it past the serum's feeble resistance. She made a flame from her two forefingers and began to saw with it at the bands. The material singed and smoked, and when it grew weak enough Azula pushed her hand through and broke it. She kept going until all of the bands were released and crawled out of bed.

As soon as she ended up on her feet, a wave of dizziness caught up with her, and she had to lower herself to the floor to keep from falling over. Azula crawled towards the window, squinting against the sunlight, blindly reaching for the heating pipes. Her voice escaped her in frayed, desperate notes.

"It's so cold... I can't get warm... Help me, you squabbling, bumbling children's-book nurses!"

She grasped the heating structure with her fingers and began to rummage around, searching for a switch or a knob of any sort.

Then, in the midst of her struggles, a hand lowered itself onto her shoulder.

"Azula."

Azula froze. She turned around, gaze sweeping the room, and locked on the image of Ursa standing over her. Her mother's features were the same as ever - elegant robe, draping sleeves, and long hair. Only now her entire form was hued blue. It was as if someone had drawn her on a piece of colored paper and held her up to the light, making her partially translucent.

Azula was so horrified by the sight that she was rooted to the spot. Meanwhile Ursa leaned closer, till she was kneeling on the floor and her other arm came to wrap around Azula's shoulders in a slight embrace. Her touch was perfectly solid and warm, but her eyes seemed to be staring out at her from somewhere deep and distant. They were slightly squinted, Azula noticed, and filled with tears.

"Azula, my love, I am with you," Ursa said. "All of these illusions will pass. You must be strong. The truth was always what I told you. Your doubts are unfounded."

Her hand reached up and brushed Azula's face.

Tears welled in Azula's eyes as well and her expression contorted. "No! No, you're lying to me! You always lied!"

She started to shove Ursa's hand away. But what ended up moving and grasping Ursa's wrist was a blue, translucent arm, exactly like the woman's own. Azula paused for a breathless second and let go. She opened and flexed her palm, gaze trailing down her arm and onto her chest. The hospital jumpsuit, her hair, and her entire body below had become like Ursa was - dimmed and monotone, revealing the pattern of the floor she sat on.

Azula's heart pounded. "Wha… what's wrong with me? What did you do?"

Ursa continued to stare at her without blinking. "Help me, Azula."

"Go away!" Azula lunged at Ursa and pushed her back. "GO AWAY!"

She jumped to her feet and began to blast flames from her fists. Ursa flinched and ducked away, reaching for Azula again, but Azula pushed her back. She no longer cared about the rainbow color - she simply shot firebending forms until she couldn't any longer, torching everything that threw itself into her vision. All the while hands continued to grasp at her arms with increasing desperation, and Azula continued to slap them away, until the person she was hitting and shoving finally latched onto her with a leaden grip and pulled her down. A waking jolt coursed through Azula's body as she hit the floor, and she blinked her eyes to glimpse a real woman's face looking down at her. But instead of brown hair, hers was black. Instead of amber eyes, gray.

Isla had wrapped Azula in a bear hug as a last resort and clamped her arms against her sides. The blue of Azula's raging flames was reflected in the nurse's face, which had frozen with some striking emotion. But it didn't seem to be fear. Was it understanding?

Azula peered at the woman and felt her jaw clench. Her gaze ran across the room, where the curtains and furniture were burning in her blue flames, and her stomach sank with realization.

Isla's leaden grip loosened and became a gentle hug. Azula felt her eyes well up with tears and began to sob over the nurse's shoulder, and Isla stroked her back. "It's all right. It's all right... It's over."

From the hallway came a chorus of voices and footsteps. "We tried everything, I swear it!" Nira was saying. "We keep giving her double doses of serum, but it doesn't work! She still firebends! We did everything we could, I'm sorry!"

Seconds later the bedroom door burst open, and Dr. Low walked in. He was wearing his military uniform and a black traveling cloak, which he was in the process of unclasping. But as soon as he saw the room, his arms fell slack against his sides. His eyes skated over the smoldering mess and landed on Isla and Azula, huddled together at the center of it.

There was a silence. Then he looked askance and let out a breath. "That's going to be another tall order for the builders..."

"I didn't mean to!" Azula cried out. "I was freezing and it was the only way I could warm myself up! I wasn't trying to destroy anything!"

"I'm not blaming you." He took off the cloak and began to walk around the room, sweeping his hands over the fires. The blue flames turned red under his control, and little by little he clapped all of them out. But the damage had been done. The walls and ceiling were charred back and the window blinds had been reduced to rotting pieces of driftwood. The white bookshelf looked like it had been spattered with soil and bitten through by a beast. Her bed was also destroyed, the mattress cleaved nearly in two and the steel parts blackened. Dr. Low tried to pull it away from the wall, but when he grasped the metal bars, they deformed and bent towards him. He gazed down at the two hand-sized arcs he had made, lifting his eyebrows.

"I'll put her in mine," Isla said. "I'll sleep on the bunks."

Dr. Low nodded. "All right."

These words seared at her like knives. Azula grabbed fistfuls of her hair. "No, no, no, no!" Her chest heaved with more sobs and her face contorted.
« Last Edit: Mar 27, 2019 11:27 am by DynaDratina » Logged

DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 59



« Reply #51 on: Mar 26, 2019 06:05 pm »

Isla fetched a broom from somewhere and began to sweep up the ashes. Azula remained on the floor, and through her tears she glimpsed Dr. Low doing something at the sink. He had taken down a glass and was pouring something into it.

She sniffed, managing to croak out a question. "What are you making?"

"It's water." He turned to her and handed her the glass. "Drink."

Azula's eyes refocused, registering the clear liquid. She accepted the water into trembling hands and began to gulp it down. But moments after she drained the cup her dizziness returned. Her heart began to pound and her gaze flew to Dr. Low's face. "I don't know what's happening… I feel so horrible… I've never felt like this before… I feel like I'm going to die…"

"You're fine," said Dr. Low. "This is just what happens when you overexert yourself. Your body needs to recuperate." He pulled over one of the wooden chairs, which had remained relatively undamaged, and set it before her.

Azula sat down, still shaking. "But I've overexerted myself before and it was never like this! I never felt so cold!"

"This isn't just a normal overexertion," Dr. Low said. "The problem is you never fully relaxed from your previous ones. I thought it wasn't the case, but apparently I was wrong. It turns out for all these weeks you've been continuously pouring your energy into your negative emotions, to the point where you're hallucinating. And to make things worse, you then put those negative emotions into your firebending, which causes you to drain your energy at double the rate."

"I don't firebend out of emotions! I firebend because I don't want to freeze to death or be attacked by her!"

Dr. Low rubbed his forehead. "Yes, and that's the problem. Your fear and anguish translate directly to fire. But that's not what firebenders are supposed to do. In order to be a healthy bender, you have to compartmentalize your energy reserves and fuel your bending separately from your emotions. The minute the two become muddled, you're prone to using one to sustain the other and you lose the ability to even sense that you're doing it."

Azula gritted her teeth again and grasped fistfuls of her hair. "I didn't mean to, I told you!"

"It doesn't matter whether you meant to or not; the point is, you've been doing it for over a month. Of course you'll reach a point where you have to stop."

"But what if my chi keeps draining out even when I stop? What if all of it runs dry?"

"It won't. Chi doesn't work that way."

"But I feel it! I feel myself getting weaker!" Her heart sped up in panic again and she gripped the counter with clammy hands. "I don't want to die! It's not fair!"

"You're not going to die, Azula. Drink."

"How do you know?!"

Dr. Low fixed his gaze firmly on her. "I know what dying looks like. That's not what's happening to you. Your body is merely resorting to its fight-or-flight instinct due to your perception of danger. As soon as you relax your breathing and calm down, the feeling will go away."

Azula lowered her head and swallowed. Her throat felt dry, so she gulped down more water. Dr. Low placed a hand on her shoulder and she focused her gaze on her hands, counting her breaths.

One... two...

Slowly the shaken feeling abated. In its place came a wave of lethargy, and Azula slumped against the back of the chair. Dr. Low refilled her glass and handed it to her, kicking away some stray ashes on the floor.

One by one, the other nurses poked their heads in from the hallway. Kira took a few tentative steps inside.

Isla knelt down beside Azula and felt around her neck and arm again. "Her chi is still slightly elevated," she said to Dr. Low. "Her body's still in a bending state."

Azula extended two forefingers and made a flimsy blue flame from them. Isla and Dr. Low looked towards Kira, who held up an empty bottle of serum and swished around the few drops that remained. "That's the last one."

Isla took a breath and nodded. "Then I'll do it physically." She grasped Azula's shoulders and helped her to her feet. "I'm going to block some of your meridians to halt your chi flow."

She began to tap points along Azula's arm, faintly reminding her of Ty-Lee's chi blocking. But Isla was doing it somehow differently, more controlled. The nurse continued tapping up her neck and shoulders, but there were no cramp-like pains after her contact. Instead of a leaden sluggishness sinking into her limbs, Azula merely felt an inner numbing, as if some overflowing fountain inside of her were gradually being plugged. Once Isla finished, Azula stood there for a few seconds, keeping still. Unexpectedly the heaviness in her chest eased and she began to breathe lighter.

Isla looked her over. "Better?"

Azula nodded.

"How long does it take to make the serum?" Mira spoke up.

"Three days," Isla replied.

"Then what are we going to do if it happens again?"

"It won't," Dr. Low said.

The nurses looked at him with uneasy expressions, but no one made a comment. Dr. Low turned for the door and beckoned to Azula. Azula lowered her head and followed. They all led her down the hallway, where Dr. Low opened the door to Isla's room. Isla brought out a set of fresh linens and changed the bed, while the others got her a change of clothes and other necessities.

Once the bedroom was ready, they all filed out, and Dr. Low placed his hands on Azula's shoulders.

"Go to sleep," he said. "Don't think about anything. Everything will be all right."

He left, shutting off the lights. Azula did as she was told and began to change, but even as the minutes passed she could hear movements and voices linger in the hallway. Instead of going to bed, she lowered herself onto the cold floor and pressed her ear against the door. She sat there in the dark for a while, eyes closed, listening to him and Isla talk. Just as she had listened in on a conversation between her parents, on a quiet, fateful afternoon long ago.

"I've done some thinking, but now I'm certain it's for the best," Dr. Low was saying. "I'm going to call him over."

"Are you sure you can trust him with this?" Isla asked. "How much did he tell you about himself?"

"He told me enough. And he said he'd be in Port Xi for a while. From what I see, this is the only way." A pause. "He's explained his research to me in detail already. He'll be able to help."

The hushed conversation Azula had gleaned all those years back hadn't bode well. And some old, vigilant part of her heart sensed that this one wouldn't either.

(End of Chapter 17)
« Last Edit: Mar 26, 2019 06:46 pm by DynaDratina » Logged

DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 59



« Reply #52 on: Apr 14, 2019 10:14 am »

18. Professional Opinion

Two weeks passed before Azula calmed down enough to think clearly. The heaviness in her chest and limbs gradually lifted and her mysterious cold spells ceased. Unfortunately, the building had become a mess. Rags and bottle corks littered the floors, and the nurses stumbled about with their hair and clothes in disarray, gulping down herbal supplements to keep themselves on their feet. Isla's supplies were scattered about every corner, while the examination room in the front looked like a beast had thrown up inside of it, the counter crowded with mixing bowls and powders and pestles lying in puddles.

Azula's new accommodations weren't in much better condition. Isla's former bedroom-apothecary was now strewn with her clothes and scrolls, as well as the various medical equipment the nurses had salvaged from her ruined bedroom. Her wheelchair stood by the door in ever-present companionship, facing her with its empty seat and straps.

Azula lay in place for a while after waking up, staring in a deadpan at the ceiling. Despite the lack of a serum needle in her arm, her chi flow felt normal, but the memories of the previous days' plight were churning round in her mind, making everything bleak.

On top of that there appeared to be a commotion in the hallway. Azula could hear doors opening and numerous pairs of feet walking up and down her side of the wing. She couldn't parse a meaning from the mix of voices, but several of them were unmistakably male. That meant the ship and the construction crews were back.

She breathed a grumbling sigh and let her head sink farther down into the pillow.

Nothing happened for a good while, then finally the door to her room opened and Isla walked in with a breakfast tray. She too was visibly tired, the subtle circles that had always been there under her eyes now darker and more pronounced. She handed Azula the tray and began to brush through her hair with a comb.

"What's going on?" Azula asked.

"Dr. Low needs to talk to you," Isla replied. "He'll tell you everything."

For some reason the final sentence sounded with an exhausted, almost reluctant finality. Isla didn't say anything else.

Azula finished eating, and Isla untangled all of the knots in her hair and clipped back the jagged pieces. Then she changed Azula into fresh clothes and rolled her out in the wheelchair.

As soon as Azula poked her head into the hallway, she noticed something was off. The ship crews weren't lugging building materials – they were lugging furniture. Two of them were carrying a wooden writing desk, a third a chair, then two others came in with an assembled bookshelf. They were all headed for the back lounge to Azula's left, where other crew members were in the process of carrying out the room's regular furnishings. Over on the other end of the hallway, Mira and Nira were hurriedly mopping the floor, while Kira ran about, calling out directions in her can-do voice.

Azula's gaze stuck to them, frozen, before Isla guided the chair through another turn and they ended up in Dr. Low's room. She set the chair before his empty desk and left. Azula sat there in silence for a while, looking at his tapestry.

At last, familiar footfalls approached and Dr. Low came inside. Azula hung her head, but he sidestepped her without reprimand and sat down.

"All right, Azula. Here is how the matter stands." He folded his hands in front of him. "I mentioned to you before that I deal with concrete things, not mysticism or fortunetelling. But given what's been happening with your hallucinations, there seems to be a strong connection between your bending and your mental state. I think it's best if we consulted someone who specializes in the spiritual side of firebending. Perhaps that might shed some light on how to best heal you. So today, you will meet a new addition to our team."

Azula's eyes pulled open all the way. "What?"

"He is a firebending specialist from the mainland. He will be giving you regular therapy sessions."

Azula closed her hands around the bars of her wheelchair. For the second time in her life, she felt the acute sensation of having a rug pulled out from right beneath her feet. "Then what will you be doing?"

Dr. Low gave a smile. "Don't worry, you're not getting rid of me that easily. I'll still be here, and I'll come to talk to you as I've always done. He'll just be another face to talk to. And his different area of expertise will be able to provide a different angle on your condition."

"I don't want to!" Azula said automatically.

"This is not about what you want. It is about what I deem appropriate for you." Dr. Low rose and took the handles of her chair.

He wheeled her into the hallway, and Azula's gaze swept over the construction crews, who continued hauling material possessions with oblivious diligence. She pounded her hands against the armrests.

"You can't do this!" she shouted. "You can't just do this! No!"

Dr. Low steered her into her old bedroom, where Isla had brought out the wooden table and was preparing tea for two. The room had been put through a speedy cleanup, the ash swept away and the burnt furniture removed. All that remained were the cabinets, counter, and the metal window shutters.

Azula's grip on the armrests remained like iron, and when Dr. Low brought her to a stop facing the empty wooden chair, she cast him a glare of pure loathing. He simply nodded once and left without responding. Isla placed the steaming tea kettle onto the center of the table, then stepped towards the door just as a gray-haired man appeared from the hallway. He was of middling height and had a thin beard, a pair of spectacles perched atop his nose. Azula looked to Isla, who responded with a resigned drop of the gaze and bowed out of the room.

Azula grimaced. She settled back in her chair, arms crossed, pointedly avoiding the man's gaze as he sat down across from her. Up close the fabric of his smock was worn and faded, and one of the wrist cuffs was smudged with ink.

"Hello, Princess Azula."

Azula did not respond. Nor was she particularly affected by the fact that this was the first time in five months that she had been called by her royal title. She found the man seedy at best, repulsive at worst. The glasses made his eyes seem vacant, and though he wasn't quite as old as he had seemed from a distance, his smile was a little too calm, a little too friendly.

The man did not respond to her lack of greeting, but inclined his head. "In case you don't know, I am not a part of this hospital's regular command. I am fairly new. My name is Professor Duan."

Azula scowled.

"I am here to help you."

She had been determined to stretch the silence until he left, but the cordial plainness of the phrase was so irritating to her ears that the words forced themselves out. "I don't want your help."

"Perhaps not at present, but eventually you may," said the man. "Let me tell you a little about myself. I am from a university on the mainland, where I study ancient legends and the bending arts. I have offered my help to Dr. Low as a consultant because I believe you to be a very interesting case."

Azula narrowed her eyes. "Explain."

The man lifted a knowing eyebrow. "You are a firebending prodigy, are you not?"

"Give me some antidote and I'll show you just how much of a prodigy I am!" She lunged forward and dug her nails into the table.

The man merely smiled. "Ah, yes, your chi-suppressant serum. Curious little concoction… Unfortunately I've been told that you are not under any circumstances to be taken off of it. So while I would indeed be very interested in seeing what you can do, I am unfortunately obligated to abide by the policy. You will continue to be administered the serum until you reach a stable mental state, whereupon you will be taught how to safely use your powers."

Azula gritted her teeth. "I can use them just fine. I wouldn't doubt that if I were you."

"I am not doubting your capabilities by any means, Princess. But I do agree with your staff that being reckless with your firebending can lead to unwanted consequences, and one should strive to avoid that as much as possible. Now if you don't mind, I would like to get to the point of why I am here. I am here because I am a specialist of two fields – firebending, as well as of the connection between humans and the spirit world."

"Those have nothing to do with each other."

"It would surprise you to learn, Princess, that they do." The man's eyes found hers and his face became momentarily grave. "I believe you've been having visions of your mother."

Azula grumbled.

"These are very significant visions, and will provide me valuable insight into your mental state if you speak openly and honestly about them."

Azula crossed her arms.

"Would you like to start?"

"Ask me a question," Azula retorted.

The man chuckled. "Well, all right. Does your mother consistently behave herself a certain way every time you see her?"

"Yes."

"And what way is that?"

"Mocking. Taunting."

The Professor wrote this down. "Is your mother a firebender?"

"No."

"Aha, interesting. But does she firebend in your visions?"

"No. I just said, she wasn't a firebender. And they're not visions, she's literally there."

"Well, to be fair, Princess, there was an occasion where you saw yourself bending rainbow flames while they actually remained blue. So what you see during these episodes doesn't necessarily line up with what is happening in reality."

Azula slumped back her head and let her eyelids droop. "So they've told you about that one already."

"Yes, Princess. I asked Dr. Low and the nurses to tell me everything they've gathered about your visions so far."

"Well, I already told you. She didn't firebend in any of my visions."

"Mhm. Thank you very much." The Professor scribbled this down. "Now. What specifically happened in each of these episodes? Do you remember?"

Azula rubbed an eye with her palm. "Ugh. I don't know. In the first one she appeared in the trees behind the building when I was outside. Then in the evening she came into the craft room and told me everything she thought about me. Which I already knew, but she likes to rub things in my face. Then the third time she pulled me through my bedroom mirror and had me chase after her into a weird forest. When I reached the end she came out of a lake and tried to pull me in. The fourth time she made my fire turn rainbow and then she turned me into one of her – she was all blue and transparent. And she makes everything cold."

She glared down at the man, expecting to see him perplexed and fumbling with his pen, but he was diligently writing, nodding along in heightened interest.

"Anything else?" he said.

"No."

The professor read over his notes – all straight lines and perfectly-printed characters. He ran a finger along his beard. "Mhm. Very interesting, Princess. Very interesting."

Azula scowled and slumped down farther.

"Now," the professor continued. "About your fire. Were you born able to produce blue flames or did the ability develop later on?"

"I got it later."

"At what age?"

"After I turned ten."

"Can you remember anything about how it happened?"

Azula crinkled her nose. "I was doing a firebending routine in the yard. Zuko and my dad were watching me. I had to demonstrate what I mastered every month or so, and my teacher came up with move sequences for me. So I did the routine. All the days I practiced I had red fire, but that day when I did it for real, I ended up making blue fire."

The professor lifted an eyebrow. "Hm. So it happened just like that?"

"I guess."

"That's interesting. What did your teacher say?"

"Nothing. I stopped firebending the minute I noticed it, because I was really surprised. And Dad and Zuko were looking at me funny. But then Master Kunyo just told me to keep going, and at the end he told my dad that I'd mastered an ability that probably no other living firebender knew."

A small smile tugged at the man's mouth. "Indeed, he was right."

Azula rolled her eyes. "Of course he was."

The man seemed to pick up on her tone and tilted his head to the side. "Does that upset you?"

Azula said nothing.

"If it does, I want you to know that there's no reason at all to feel that way. We must celebrate our abilities instead of feeling guilty about them. Or even worse, try to stifle them in an attempt to fit in with other people."

"I don't need you to tell me how I'm supposed to think."

"I'm not trying to impose anything on you, Princess, of course not. What I do think, however, is that a healthier mentality about your firebending will lead to a healthier you."

Azula narrowed her eyes at him. "I'm a master firebender and I can make lightning anytime I want. What makes you think that I have an unhealthy mentality about my firebending?"

"Well, you seem to have a negative reaction when you notice changes in your bending. Your flames turning rainbow being a case in point."

Azula snarled. "Because it's not natural! It was caused by her!"

"The production of colored flames isn't something that can be caused by someone else," the man replied. "Whatever your mother may want, your firebending is most undoubtedly beyond her control."

"That still doesn't explain why they only turned rainbow after she came."

"Perhaps the perception of her presence stirred a reaction of shock inside of you, and that shock caused your mind to produce something drastic. That's the essence of panic. And colored firebending is a perfectly common thing to dream about, just like rivers of milk or cotton clouds. But unlike rivers of milk or cotton clouds, rainbow flames are possible. And there is a difference between the mind making something up and alerting a person of a latent ability."

Azula squinted. "You're saying I can make rainbow flames?"

"Given the previous change in your flame color, I think it's highly likely that you will be."

Azula thought this over, then gave a shrug. "Fine, so I'll have rainbow fire one day. What's that supposed to do for me?"

The professor's eyes widened in surprise and he let out a chuckle. "My word, Princess! Forgive me, this is just my general befuddlement at modern firebending education, but if I had my way with those teachers... oh, boy..." He shook his head. A wave of energy seemed to surge through him, and he reshuffled his papers, straightening himself like a general about to give a speech. "Rainbow flames signal the bender's ability to produce all flavors of fire - from the coolest and most basic red to the hottest blue, all at the same time. It is the highest level of firebending and the sign of true mastery. Lightning is just a side toy for the inventive. Rainbow fire signifies the bender's ability to draw not just from their own chi, but from the chi that inhabits the sun and ultimately derives from the spirit world. It is also the fire of the dragons."

Azula's eyebrows climbed.

"So far you have managed to access one flavor in addition to red - blue fire. Moreover you appear to have done it without any conscious effort. That means it's likely that you have an innate tendency towards attaining this mastery and your visions are trying to alert you to this. In fact, my current theory is that if you work on attaining this ability, then your visions will go away." He bent over his notebook again and rubbed his beard. "But then there's also the factor of the lake in the forest. And the blue apparitions... Very, very intriguing..."

Azula rolled her eyes. "You figure it out. You're the specialist."

The man took a while to write some more things down and think them over. Finally he gave a nod. "So! I've summarized what I've gathered and I will be sharing it with Dr. Low."

Azula lowered her head and felt a bitter scowl pass over her face. "He has no idea what he's doing. And neither do you."

To her surprise, the professor breathed a sigh. "Indeed, nobody in this world does."

Azula looked at him, squinting. "Then why should I listen to you?"

A twinkle appeared in the man's amber eyes. "Clever girl you are, Princess. Very clever. Of course I acknowledge my limitations as a human being, and I am not hypocritical. I do not wish to force you to listen to me. But I hope that you will. After all, we're constantly choosing whom to listen to and whom to disregard in our day-to-day doings. My hope is to convince you that my ideas can be of some worth to you, and that you won't simply discard them as you move on with life."

"Whatever."

"So, we'll call it a day for now, Princess?"

Azula looked away.

The professor seemed to understand that much at least. He rose, gave a parting bow, and left the room.

Azula sat in place for a while, staring at the empty space where her bed used to be. Then came a flash of dark hair as Nira poked her head in. She walked in with careful steps and set down a bowl of colorful vegetable rice onto the table. Azula's gaze trailed up to find hers.

The nurse smiled uncertainly. "So how did it go?"

"I hate him," Azula replied.

Nira's smile dipped down without much resistance. She said nothing.

Time came for physical therapy and Nira rolled Azula into the hall. It was still a mess - the construction crews had now switched to moving wagons filled with boxes, and the wheels were tracking sand all over the floor. The boxes were filled with smaller items: clothes, scrolls, ink sets. Mira and Kira hobbled after them with still more boxes, while Isla and one of the night people pushed in a cart of books.

There was no room in Dee's office anymore, so Azula did her exercises in the craft room, hidden in a corner behind a wooden divider. The other nurses had lunch on the other side in the meantime, and Azula listened to their conversations as they heated up their food and drinks with firebending.

"... And I thought the bunks were cramped before... Now I have to climb to my bed like some kind of animal."

"It's better than having to sleep with those stupid fake plants all around you."

"And of course we'd have to keep dried food in the freaking bathroom."

"Guess that's the guy's definition of 'a few things'."

"Tell me about it..."

Later that day, Azula snuck out of her bedroom and tiptoed down the hallway. The door to the former back lounge stood ajar, revealing what was now a makeshift study. The fake plants and vases had been removed for bookshelves, and the floor was covered with an elegant red carpet.

The writing desk and chair had been placed facing the far window, and the Professor sat there, writing diligently. He was so absorbed in what he was doing that Azula was able to take a few steps inside. She swept her gaze around the walls, which now had strange scrolls hung up, featuring firebending forms and spirit-like creatures. His books were dust-free and organized by topic: spirits, firebending, the spirit world... Already a jumble of them had amassed itself on a worktable to the side, and Azula looked at the open pages, glimpsing pictures of lion-turtle things, misty landscapes filled with boulders, and two circling koi fish.
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #53 on: Apr 14, 2019 10:17 am »



"Lia the Guardian," Zuko repeated. "Keeper of the Rift, daughter of the Moon and Ocean."

He looked up from the book, meeting the gazes of Aang and Suki. The three of them were sitting in one of the palace gardens, in a warm patch of sunlight by the trees. Suki reclined in the grass in her Kyoshi dress, while Aang was perched atop a boulder, both of their faces pensive. Zuko laid down the Book of Spirits face-up for them to see, and Aang cast his gaze upwards in thought.

"Lia the Rift Guardian..." Aang tapped his chin. "I've never heard of her. To tell you the truth, the monks never really taught me a lot about the different kinds of spirits. I only learned what I know from Roku. He told me about Koh, and Koh told me about Tui and La. But I never knew they had a daughter."

"And all this stuff about the rift sounds weird," said Suki. "I had no idea things worked that way."

"Neither did I," Zuko replied. "But then again, I don't know a whole lot of people who've been to the spirit world. My uncle has, but he never really talked about it..." He looked to Aang.

The boy tilted his head to the side. "Well, I don't remember crossing any seas when I went to the spirit world. I guess every time I went, I sort of just... popped in. But what that sage said makes sense to me. I know that Tui and La were the first spirits to cross over. So they had to have built a bridge of some sort to keep the connection between the worlds."

Suki leaned over to examine the page again. "It doesn't look like a Water Tribe drawing, though. It looks like…"

"A Fire Nation drawing," Zuko finished. "That's because it is. But it's ancient - Lia must have been a cultural object hundreds of years ago. Well, then eventually the Fire Nation lost touch with its spiritual roots, so it's obvious why no one would know now."

"So the ancient people of the Fire Nation worshipped a waterbender spirit?" Suki said. "That almost sounds... strange."

"But it makes sense," Zuko said. "The rift's everywhere, and from what Khufu told me, Lia was known to have been sighted in all four nations. So it's reasonable that different cultures would have a concept of her."

Aang's face brightened. "And it's not like Tui and La only influence waterbenders either. The Moon and Ocean are important for the rest of the world just as much."

Suki pondered this. The peaceful silence of the palace garden settled back in for a few moments, only the chirping of birds and rustling of tree branches sounding from up above. The book lay open in the grass in the meantime, and Zuko looked back down at the drawing of the spirit, sinking into thought.

"The only thing is, I'm positive I've heard her name before. But can't for the life of me figure out where." He rubbed his temples. "Lia…"

"Did you read it in a book?" Suki asked.

"No, no, I heard it… Someone was saying it…" Zuko shook his head. "Anyway, Khufu said that if the rift continues to thin, then there'll be consequences. Either she'll get angry, or rogue spirits might break through into our realm, and it won't be pretty for us either way."

"What did he mean by rogue spirits?"

"He means the dark spirits," Zuko said. "Basically, the spirit world is divided into two realms - the realm of darkness and the realm of light. Light is the one that everyone sees when they first cross over. It represents order and harmony. The dark realm represents chaos. So the spirits that live there have the nature to disrupt harmony instead of preserving it. And when there's lots of chaos in the mortal world, they become stronger. They start invading the realm of the regular spirits, and from there it's only a short journey to the rift, where they can start worming their way through to the material world. The thinner the rift is, the less of a protection we have against them. And unfortunately the rift hasn't thickened a bit since the last solstice. It's getting thinner."

Suki winced.

"But why?" asked Aang.

"The sages said it's because of the war," Zuko said. "And honestly, I think they're right. War's about as chaotic as you can get, and ours lasted for a whole century. We might've stopped things from getting worse by ending it, but think about how much energy the dark spirits have gotten already."

Aang hopped down from the boulder. "Then we have to do something about it. I'll go into the Spirit World and ask what's going on. Maybe I'll even be able to talk to Lia."

Zuko hung his head. "Actually, there might be a problem with that."

"Why?"

"Khufu said she's malevolent."

Aang's eyebrows shot up. "Malevolent?!"

Suki looked perplexed as well. "But she's a guardian of balance. Doesn't that mean she's concerned with, well, good stuff?"

Zuko sighed. "That's the thing. Her job is to keep the rift in balance, and she doesn't hesitate to eliminate anything she thinks is harmful to it. If she sees someone doing something that defies order, or even trespassing in a place where they don't belong, she sucks them into the spirit world and traps them there forever. She's been known to cause weather disasters to punish people, and there are even records in the Catacombs of how entire villages starved out because her storms ruined their harvests. She doesn't like talking to people, and she's even a bit distant from other spirits."

Aang and Suki balked.

"But I thought Tui and La were good," Suki said. "If she's their daughter, wouldn't she have good in her too?"

Aang seemed troubled as well. "Yeah, that can't be true. She's probably just upset that the boundary is constantly being violated. I mean, the war lasted for a hundred years and it threw the world completely off-balance. I'm sure we can get her to see that things can change."

"I hope so," said Zuko.

Suki took the book into her hands and thumbed back to the introductory page. "Who's Atem Ra, anyway?"

"The first Fire Lord," Zuko replied. "He was the leader of the Fire Sages, then he united the warring peoples of the islands and founded the empire."

Suki's eyebrows climbed. "Whoa. Your family goes back all that time?"

"Well, it wasn't just my family. There were different dynasties." Zuko scratched his head as he thought back. "But I'm pretty sure my family's related to him directly… I remember one of Azulon's ministers saying something."

"Huh. That's interesting."

Meanwhile, Aang strode away from them and sought out at patch of grass in the sun. "I'll meditate and see if I can talk to Lia."

"Are you sure it's a good idea?" Zuko said.

Aang smiled. "Hey. I've been crossing back and forth from the spirit world for thousands of years. Maybe she can trap regular people, but she can't trap me."

Suki gave a thumbs-up. "That's the spirit."

Aang stopped beside a nondescript spot and sat down. He closed his eyes, pressing his fists together so that his arrow tattoos connected, and his body went still.

Zuko and Suki both drew closer to him out of reflex, though Zuko knew there was little they could do to help him. Once Aang's mind was unhinged, his body was left an unfeeling, unhearing sculpture. Nor was there any way of telling what was happening to him in the other realm – one moment Aang could be sitting calmly, and the next he could open his eyes in the Avatar State and rise up with a giant black fish-monster.

They sat there in the grass for a while. Suki began to peel apart a grass blade, and Zuko sat with his legs crossed, chin resting on his fist, still casting glances at Aang.

Minutes passed in silence, and Zuko started to make himself comfortable, but then out of the blue Aang's eyes flew open and the boy jumped to his feet. "AAAAH!"

Zuko was up in an instant, hands flying into a firebending pose. "What is it? What happened?"

Aang rattled his head from side to side as if to clear a storm of hornets. Suki had drawn a fan in panic as well, but Aang looked more weirded out than mortally terrified. "It was crazy! I've never seen anything like it before!"

"Was it Lia?" Suki asked.

"No, they were spirits! Everywhere! I could hardly take a step - they all kept bumping into me and jumping up trees and... Eeehhh!" Aang shuddered as his gaze went to a tree branch, but it was only a bird preening its feathers. He began to dust off his shirt. "A bunch of them even started jumping up me, and they were all screaming at me, 'Run, run!'"

Zuko and Suki exchanged bewildered glances.

Aang grasped the sides of his head and began to pace around. He plopped back down onto the boulder, laying his glider across his lap. "It was so weird. They all felt… genuinely panicked about something. And there were so many of them. It's like they were all trying to get away from the same thing."

"What could they possibly be trying to run away from?" asked Zuko. 'What would scare a spirit?"

Suki turned out her palms. "A bigger spirit?"

Aang lowered his head. "Or something that threatens their livelihood. Seriously threatens it."

Zuko was silent.

"I think whatever the Sages are saying is right," Aang said. "Something's in the realm of light that shouldn't be. And if we don't do something about it, it could affect the mortal world."

"But what are we supposed to do?" asked Suki.

"We have to find Lia. It's the only way."

"How?"

Aang pondered this. "I know that most spirits have a preferred dwelling... Maybe there's a place where Lia lives normally when she's not traveling or hunting people."

Zuko's thoughts switched into gear and he mechanically moved to pick up the book. "I'll see what else the Catacombs have. The sages and I are trying to get back all the spiritual books that got banned during my father's reign. Maybe we'll find one that's helpful."

Aang gave a nod. "All right. I'll do some thinking too. I bet one of my past lives knows something."

"Come to think of it, I could write to Sokka too," Suki said. "Maybe one of his tribe's elders knows about Lia. And if they have any scrolls, he and Katara could bring them when they come back."

Zuko blinked dumbly for a moment, not processing what she had said. "Come back? But they've hardly been in the South Pole for three months. Why would they leave again so soon?"

Suki balked. Aang put his hands on his hips and leaned forward playfully. "Did his Fire Majesty forget his birthday?"

The realization hit Zuko like a slap. His shoulders drooped and he let out a laugh. "Oh. Right. Three weeks..."

"Something tells me you need a break, Mr. Fire Lord," said Suki.

Zuko waved a hand in dismissal, a smile breaking through his expression. "Yeah, yeah, I get it." He stepped back towards the stone pathway. "I'll see you guys later."

Suki and Aang were still looking at him with a mix of humor and concern. Zuko tucked the book under his arm, then with a final parting wave to them, he headed back into the palace.

...

His feet carried him through the middle wings, past halls of dusty bedchambers and studies and down the hall of Fire Lord portraits. All the while his thoughts churned, the ever-present task list in his mind amending with new information, priorities reshuffling.

Zuko had nearly reached the exit when he glimpsed someone standing behind the row of pillars. It was a black-haired girl in a dark red dress. Recognizing her, Zuko lifted his eyes in surprise and slowed to a stop. "Mai?"

Mai turned around, and at the sight of Zuko her mouth spread into a smile. "Zuko." She approached and wrapped her arms around his shoulders.

"What are you doing here?" Zuko asked. "I thought you'd only be coming next week."

"Well, now that my dad works here, I guess I have an excuse." She smiled slyly and stroked back a strand of hair that had come loose from his topknot. "You gave him a really nice office. I can tell he's happy."

"Not tired like before?"

"No. He's doing a lot better." Then Mai's face fell somewhat and she leaned her head against his shoulder. "Apparently he's been talking to a lot of nobles from South Chung-Ling. Now he suddenly wants to send Tom-Tom to school there."

Zuko lifted an eyebrow in puzzlement. "Not to Capital City anymore?"

Mai shook her head. "Nope."

"Why?"

"I don't know, something about it being the new it-school for politics."

Zuko lifted her chin with his hand and jokingly narrowed his eyes at her. "Oh, I see, so the Royal Fire Academy for Boys isn't good enough anymore?"

But Mai remained pensive and breathed a sigh. "It's just he way he is when he gets obsessed with work. He gets a bunch of nonsense into his head and starts telling us about the 'right' way to do things, even down to how we live our lives. When he doesn't work so much it's not bad. But when he has a lot to do, especially when he starts spending time with those palace people all day, it's like he becomes a completely different person."

Zuko's gaze lingered on her in curiosity. Mai brushed it off moments later with a shake of the head. "But whatever. Mom'll talk him out of it. I definitely don't want Tom-Tom in a different city all by himself."

Zuko couldn't resist a smirk. "And here I remember you saying you wished whatever eagle-stork had dropped him off would take him back."

This caused Mai to chuckle. "Well, that was when he was on my bad side. He made it off."

"Lucky kid."

They stood in silence for a moment, Zuko hugging Mai close and Mai reclining on him in contentment. Zuko's gaze skimmed over the portraits. "It's weird how there are only fifty here," he remarked. "There've been many more Fire Lords than that."

Mai yawned. "They all look the same to me. One angry old guy after the other."

Zuko turned her around slightly and pointed at a painting to the left. "That was Fire Lord Zoren. He was the twelfth. And there were four in between here that got torn down." He pointed to the space between him and the next one.

"Why?" Mai asked.

"Well, early Fire Lords had the habit of burning portraits and relics from rivaling dynasties. Historical preservation really only came about with Lan, the forty-sixth." Zuko pointed to a spot farther back. "So basically, the six hundred or so years before him that the empire existed are ashes. Six hundred years of the palace's history, just gone."

Mai met his gaze and traced a hand along his collar. "Zuko, why does it matter? You're Fire Lord now. Stuff that happened six hundred years ago probably doesn't have anything to do with today anyway. Think of the future."

Zuko looked down at the book that was still tucked under his elbow. "I don't think it's possible to go into the future if you're ignorant of your past. Keeping the past locked up or burning it isn't the answer. And I made myself a vow as Fire Lord that I'd never do that."

"But you can't be obsessed about the past either. You've been spending every day in those catacombs. It's not healthy."

"It's my job, Mai," Zuko said.

Something glinted behind Mai's eyes as she narrowed them. "Zuko, I watched my dad work a job like that for years and it turned him into a shadow of himself. I don't want the same thing happening to you."

Zuko was unable to respond. A part of him knew she was right... but another knew he couldn't afford to listen.

He adjusted his grip on the Book of Spirits and stepped away. "It won't happen. You'll have to trust me."

Mai said nothing.

Zuko approached her again and kissed her on the cheek. "I'll see you later."

Mai pressed a gloved hand to the spot, holding it there. She lifted her gaze to Zuko, then turned and walked off without a word.

Zuko continued out of the portrait hall and exited from the front of the palace. He went to the Dragonbone Catacombs, where he exchanged nods with Khufu, greeted some other sages, and went into his study.

What no one noticed was a junior sage slip out of the Catacombs moments later and set off towards the palace.

...
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DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #54 on: Apr 14, 2019 10:18 am »

The office of the Fire Lord's grand secretary was located in the frontmost wing. It was a large room dominated by red and gold, with carved trimmings on the ceiling and a hanging candle lamp. Five tall windows along the wall provided daylight, while Ukano sat at his glossed wooden desk, stamping the palace's official announcements and decrees with his seal. His new clothes also told of a higher standing, robes made of fine silk and a small flame clip adorning his topknot. An official ink portrait of Zuko hung on the wall behind him.

Ukano worked for several minutes, rolling papers up into tubes and binding them with wax seals. Then came a knock on his door and his servant entered.

"Sir, there's a visitor for you."

"Send him in," Ukano said.

The servant withdrew and brought in an elderly Fire Sage. The man walked to the center of Ukano's carpet and bowed. "Your Excellency."

Ukano's eyebrows lifted in surprise. He waved the servant out and fixed his gaze on the man, clad in solid red robes and a tall hat. "Fire Sage. Is something the matter?"

The man took a few tentative steps forward. "My name is Sao, Your Excellency. Something… something of importance to me within the palace has been misplaced and it is my wish to see the wrong righted again."

A chill settled into Ukano at the sound of those familiar words. His hand itched towards a stray piece of string and he looked the sage in the eye. "It is indeed regretful that much is still undetermined within the palace. Is your issue a kind that can be resolved by waiting?"

The sage shook his head. "I believe I've waited too long already. I require a man of letters. If we could speak in private, I would be endlessly grateful."

That was the final phrase. Ukano's tension dissipated and he rose from his seat. "Come."

He spread out his arm and guided the sage through a back door, which led to a private inner chamber. This room was furnished more modestly and was well out of earshot.

Ukano motioned the sage towards the couch and locked the door.

"You are the first such visitor I have gotten in this post," Ukano said. He took a seat close by in an armchair. "I trust you have looked out for your safety?"

"I have, Your Excellency. The Fire Lord spends his days and nights in the Dragonbone Catacombs and I left just a few minutes after he arrived."

"I hope you know that's not enough. We may have increased in number, but we're far from strong in the capital. And now that I've received this position, I have to exercise even more caution."

The sage inclined his head. "I understand, Your Excellency. I come to you humbly with full knowledge of your collective's policies and of the importance of your endeavor."

Ukano laid a hand on his shoulder. "Then speak, my friend."

The sage fixed his gaze on the ceiling trimmings for a while, expression uneasy. At last he took a breath. "Your Excellency, there has been a heavy weight on my conscience ever since the coronation. I have scourged the histories and decrees within the Dragonbone Catacombs, and not once has there been a Fire Lord who had not ascended due to the previous ruler's death or abdication. Zuko has broken the heavenly law spoken by the first Fire Lord. He does not have the divine mandate to rule, and I fear that if this state of affairs is allowed to continue, the Fire Nation will face punishment from the cosmic forces."

"You are absolutely right," Ukano replied. "And I assure you, you are far from the only person who's come to this conclusion."

"Something must be done, Your Excellency, but I am completely at a loss for a solution. And I dare not express my views to my fellows – the Great Sage Khufu and the others have sworn themselves to Zuko. Investigating his legitimacy is the last thing on their minds."

"Yes, that is the plight of the palace worker," Ukano said. "Being discreet while at the same time trying to imbue your companions with the truth. But don't be hard on yourself. Even for us the realization was a gradual one, and it definitely couldn't have been reached by the efforts of only one man."

He rose to pace around, and the Fire Sage followed him with his gaze.

"The problem is that the law became… complicated after Ozai named himself the Phoenix King," Ukano said. "It was a move that had no precedent in the empire's history. His goal was to remake the Earth Kingdom into a Fire Nation territory, following with the Water Tribes. These territories would be governed by sub-rulers who would stand on equal ground and report to him, the supreme monarch. Importantly, Princess Azula would have stepped up to become the next Fire Lord. But the princess was never crowned. Nor was Ozai's world monarchy ever created. Therefore, in the purely objective eye of the law, Ozai retains the title of Fire Lord to this day. The person Zuko should have defeated in an Agni Kai for the throne is Ozai."

The sage nodded. "Indeed, Your Excellency."

"Unfortunately, the populace is drunk on peace," Ukano continued. "They either blindly accept the rhetoric that Zuko and the Avatar spoonfeed to them, or they fulfill this pseudo-Fire-Lord's wishes out of a sense of helplessness. If the circumstances were less dire, my fellows and I would simply make a peaceful demand that Zuko challenge Ozai publicly and settle the matter once and for all. If the boy wishes to ascend, let him do so with honor, not through trickery. But conveniently, the Avatar took Ozai's firebending. Almost too conveniently."

The sage's eyes widened. "Are you suggesting that the Avatar and Zuko plotted all of this in advance?"

"I am almost certain of it. Moreover, Zuko has disposed of Princess Azula. He says she has been sent away, but no one knows where. If she is alive, then we have no information about what condition she is in, and if she were to be killed, then no one would ever find out. Meanwhile Zuko is repopulating the imperial court as fast as he can and imposing his policies over the entire continent."

"The policy of peace, you mean?"

"Not just peace - repayment. 'Restoration of harmony', as he calls it. Simply put, it's a program where the Fire Nation lends out its money and material resources to help the other nations restore themselves."

The sage rested his chin on his knuckles as he thought this over.

"The logical question to ask is where do these compensations stop?" Ukano said. "How much of our food and labor is to be exported to the rest of the world before we can be left to our own devices with a clear conscience? Unfortunately, Zuko hasn't given an answer. But the Avatar has – the Avatar has stated that an essential aspect of restoring balance is for the people of the four nations to work together again, as they were meant to do for all of eternity. In other words, the Fire Nation is to be the world's handmaiden and provider permanently, so that it will be reduced from a sovereign state to a cog in a global machine. The world empire will still be created, only it will be one controlled by the Avatar."

The Fire Sage frowned. "But surely peace is a good thing! And the Fire Nation has wrongs to right, prisoners to release. Surely we can do that without forsaking the Fire Nation's autonomy."

"You are right. But our Fire Lord and the Avatar believe that we cannot. Now, I'm no enemy to peace - in fact few among us are. But I am an enemy of turning our nation into the world's servant, and an enemy to a Fire Lord who would unconditionally do what the Avatar tells him, even if it defies the will and wellbeing of his people. He parades around the capital and poses before average citizens with his friends as if he's not even one of us. Everywhere he goes he has that Air Nomad at his side and echoes everything he says."

"And this process he calls harmony restoration, is it already underway?"

"I'm afraid so. Currently Fire Nation forces are shipping food and supplies to help rebuild the Southern Water Tribe. But they are not simply helping the tribesmen get back on their feet, no. They are offering to bring tribesmen to the Fire Nation to work, letting them settle in Fire Nation towns, and even giving them our ships and air balloons for free as a means of transportation. The same thing is happening with cities on the coasts of the Earth Kingdom. I've had to sign and seal many of the official announcements myself. The effects for now are small, but in a few years, it will be too late to stop them. And I shudder to think what will happen when the Earth Kingdom chooses a new monarch – likely he or she will make even more demands of us, and this puppet Fire Lord will bow to them."

"What action are your fellows planning to take?"

"A sufficient measure would have been imprisonment... But in that case, the Avatar would most likely release him and begin the cycle anew. So there is only one possible answer." Ukano looked the sage in the eye. "We must kill Zuko."

There was a pause, then the sage lowered his head. "It is no light matter to speak of… But I concede. I see no other way."

Ukano rose from the couch and paced away, momentarily becoming a silhouette as he faced the window.

"But whom do you have in mind for a replacement?" the sage continued. "The throne cannot be empty, not even for a day!"

"The general consensus right now is Ozai," Ukano answered. "And in my opinion, that's our only choice. We must restore our rightful Fire Lord to his place and ask him how we ought to proceed from there."

The sage nodded, almost to himself. "I suppose that is wisest. Having a nonbender as a Fire Lord is less than ideal, but so long as Ozai lives and does not crown an appointed successor, the throne is rightfully his."

"Not to mention, he is a capable ruler," Ukano said. "He always dealt well with difficult situations and knew how to place the right people into the right positions. Perhaps he will even appoint the princess to rule in his stead, and then we will be able to focus our energies on finding her. But we must hear Ozai's word first. Without it, all other voices are meaningless."

"Indeed."

Ukano went to a desk that stood by the wall and opened a drawer. He unlocked a secret bottom compartment, taking out a clean scroll and a stamp.

"I will give you a paper with my mark," he said. "The flyers have been compromised, so we aren't making any more of them. But my fellows have told me that we've amassed enough allies already. I will write to my friend in South Chung-Ling. He has survived the interrogations as well and will inform me when it is time to take action."

Ukano wrote the sage's name, signed his, and stamped the paper. He handed the scroll to the sage.

"For now, return to your post, Sage Sao. Be at peace, for you are setting the Fire Nation on the right path."

The sage inclined his head. Ukano guided him out and saw him off with a cordial bow.

Once he was left alone, he withdrew to the private room again and penned a letter, using a ciphered code only he and a second person knew.

Esteemed Tao Yu,

I now have sufficient authority and trust of the Rogue Dragon at my disposal. All rally meetings within the vicinity of the Capital have been a success and I have given the order for our allies to hibernate until the season to strike is upon us.

Attached I have included the list of some new recruits that have approached me in the previous month. Please hand them to our friend General M so that he may take them under his protection.

May the great Fire Spirit give you continuing energy and fortune.

Tao Ran.


He sealed the letter and sent it off with his private messenger hawk.

Days later he got the reply.

Esteemed Tao Ran,

All is well. The beginning stage is complete. I am now preparing for my journey to Capital City.

As we met all those months ago that evening during the Autumn Festival, we shall meet again on the upcoming Holiday.

Ever your friend,

Tao Yu.


(End of Chapter 18.)
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