Mai stared at her friend in astonishment.

"Zuko's here?"

Ty Lee nodded. "He was with that blind earthbending girl who was traveling with the Avatar."

Mai glanced off to the side, her normally blank face flashing with conflicting emotions.

"But that's not the weirdest thing." Ty Lee said. "His scar was gone."

Mai looked back at Ty Lee sharply. "What?"

"Yeah, it's gone. There was a faint outline where it used to be, but his face is now unmarked."

Mai glanced down, her bangs concealing her eyes. "How…?"

Ty Lee shrugged. "I don't know. All I know is that we're kind of in trouble."

Ty Lee and Mai glanced to the side of the cavern, where they could see Azula having a heated argument with one of the Dai Li agents. After a moment, the Dai Li agent nodded coolly to the Fire Nation Princess, and walked out of sight.

"So, what do we do now?" Ty Lee asked.

Azula scowled. "While the latest setbacks are…unfortunate, we can still move forward with our plan. We'll just have to place greater trust in the Dai Li, as we can't afford to be spotted again by the Earth King's guards."

"So, are we just going to stay in here while they do all the work?" Ty Lee wondered.

"Oh, no." Azula said coldly. "While we must avoid appearing out in the open, we are not going to stand idly by. There are still plenty of things we must do in order to ensure that the Earth Kingdom falls."

Azula stalked away, with Ty Lee shortly following. Mai stayed where she was for a moment, lost in thought, before she slowly began following after her two friends.

Aang breathed deep. He'd mastered almost all of the chakras, and was just about ready to master the Avatar State. This last one presented more difficulties than the others, however. Letting go of his earthly attachments was more difficult than he'd thought it would be, and after several attempts had still failed to allow the cosmic energy to flow in.

Each time, he felt a slight foreboding, as if something, somewhere, was wrong, and he would lose concentration.

Aang turned to face the monk. "Each time I imagine my earthly attachments, something feels…off. Almost like Katara or one of my other friends is in danger."

The monk bowed his head thoughtfully. "As the Avatar, you can forge strong bonds with other people of this world. This will make you more sensitive to their emotions, and can allow you to sense when they are in trouble."

Aang's eyes widened. "So they actually are in trouble?"

The monk shook his head. "As to that, I cannot be sure. Perhaps they are, perhaps they are not. However, if they were in mortal peril, I believe the feeling would be much stronger. In any case, your friends can take care of themselves, can they not?"

Aang hesitated. "Well, yeah, but…"

"Then it would be best for you to keep your attention here. You need to master the Avatar State."

Aang slowly nodded. "You're right. And, the sooner I master the Avatar State, the sooner I can go back to them."

Zuko sat in his cell, his hands pressed against his forehead. It was actually quite large, and there was a tray of food and a wash basin in the corner. But the lack of windows and the iron, locked door reminded him that he was just a prisoner.

There was an air vent on the ceiling in the back corner of the room. Zuko had initially examined it, and tried to make sense of the intricate carvings, but soon gave up and returned to the bunk to wrestle with his thoughts.

After some time had passed, he heard a faint tapping sound. He frowned, and looked to the back of the cell. Unable to determine the source of the noise, he walked over to investigate more closely.


Zuko nearly jumped out of his skin at the unexpected sound. He looked up into the air vent and was startled to see himself looking at the face of his childhood friend, Mai.

She was still wearing the garb of a Kyoshi warrior, but had removed the excessive makeup. At the moment she was staring at Zuko with a mixed look of happiness and uncertainty.

"Mai!" Zuko exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same thing." Mai replied.

Zuko sat down. "Well, it's kind of a long story."

"You and Azula recognized each other, you fought, Azula escaped, and now you're being held prisoner because you're a firebender."

Zuko shrugged. "Well, yeah, I guess that does kind of sum it up." He looked back up at her. "What are you doing here with Azula?"

"She asked me to come with her." Mai replied. "And I agreed, because it was more interesting than staying in Omashu would have been." She looked at him in concern. "Why did you fight her?"

Zuko looked down at the floor. "Well, the last few times I met her, she tried to kill me. I figured, if she'd snuck inside the Earth Kingdom palace, she was going to be up to no good."

Mai hesitated. "But…Azula now thinks that you've sided with the Earth Kingdom."

Zuko gave a small chuckle. "She's not wrong."

Mai's eyes widened. "What? How can you say that? How can you turn your back on the Fire Nation?"

"They turned their back on me!" Zuko shouted, standing up and looking directly up into the vent.

For the first time, Mai could see Zuko's face clearly.

"Agni…so it's true. Your scar…"

"Yeah." Zuko said, his hand resting on the place where his scar had been. "It's gone. And who gave me that scar Mai? It was the Fire Nation. And who healed it? The Avatar."

Mai stared, shocked. "The Avatar?"

"Well, one of the Avatar's friends, but still, the Avatar." Zuko amended.

Zuko sat back down. "When I was at home, all I wanted was to do what was best for the Fire Nation. I felt it was my honor to live up to my family's legacy. And my loyalty was repaid with cruelty. I was branded and cast out, and set on an impossible quest."

Mai remained silent, listening carefully to Zuko's words.

"And after chasing the Avatar for so long, and doing some really, really bad things to him and his friends…despite all of that, they helped me." He placed a hand on his forehead. "Agni, I don't know why, but they helped me."

Mai hesitated. "So…you no longer want to be a part of the Fire Nation?"

Zuko shook his head. "I don't know. All I do know is that I can see what the Fire Nation has done to me, and to the world. And…I don't think it's really about spreading the greatness of the Fire Nation. I think it's just an insatiable greed for power, and I don't want to be part of it anymore."

Mai remained silent, contemplating Zuko's radical statement.

After brooding for a moment, Zuko looked up at Mai. "Sorry. I realize I haven't even given you a proper greeting. It's good to see you again Mai, especially after all this time."

Mai's eyes softened, and the hint of a smile came upon her lips. "It is nice to see you again, Zuko. I just wish…"

She trailed off, unable to finish her sentence. For a while, they talked of more neutral topics, reminisced about their childhood, and shared some of their various misadventures throughout the Earth Kingdom.

After talking for a while, Zuko and Mai suddenly stiffened as they heard footsteps approaching the cell.

"You have to go!" Zuko whispered urgently. "Stay with Azula for now. I know what she's capable of, and I don't want you to get hurt."


"Go! I'll be fine." Zuko smiled softly. "I promise I'll see you again."

Mai slowly nodded, then crept away down the passageway she had come.

Sometime later, she managed to make her way back into one of the secret places in the palace still controlled by the Dai Li. She sank down to the floor, her mind racing.

Agni, what do I do?

After seeing that Mai had gone, Zuko drew his attention to the door. After a brief pause, the guard opened the door and looked in.

"You have a visitor."

Zuko looked back down. "Is someone here to interrogate me?"

"Not exactly." Zuko looked up, startled at who he saw standing next to the guard.

"Uncle!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"

"Getting you out of here, of course." Iroh replied.

The guard bowed slightly stiffly towards Iroh. "I apologize for the misunderstanding, sir."

"Oh, think nothing of it." Iroh said dismissively. "You were just doing your duty."

Iroh looked back at his nephew. "Well, come on now, unless you want to stay here."

Belatedly, Zuko got to his feet and followed after his uncle, the guard accompanying them until they exited the hallway.

"But how did you persuade them to let me go?" Zuko asked, feeling slightly bewildered at the sudden turn of events.

Iroh held up a white lotus tile. "Let's just say I have a lot of old friends. Some of them are even inside the Earth Kingdom palace."

Zuko looked temporarily confused, then remembered having seen the tile before.

"So, where are we going now?" Zuko asked.

"To meet with the Earth King and some of the generals." Iroh replied.

"What?" Zuko asked, startled.

Before he could ask more, they entered the Earth King's throne room through one of the side doors.

On the throne sat the king, closely consulted by 3 of the generals, with a battalion of guards keeping watch at the front of the room.

The four men looked up when they saw Iroh and Zuko enter, and the King beckoned them forward.

"So, you managed to find him all right?" One of the generals turned to face Zuko. "I apologize for detaining you, but you must understand, we couldn't take any chances."

Zuko nodded. "I understand."

"We certainly can't take any chances." One of the other generals said gruffly. "Not given the current circumstances."

"From what you have told us, Iroh, princess Azula is an incredibly dangerous person, and has at least two accomplices." The first general continued. "While we certainly hope that they are working alone, we cannot rule out the possibility of them having inside help. We must continue to investigate extensively until we find them. Given the present situation, they may have already fled from the palace, but I have a feeling that they are still here."

"As a result," the second general stated. "We must be on guard until the intruders are caught. Two of us will remain with the Earth King at all times, as will you, Iroh. You will help to guard the Earth King, and also remain where we can keep an eye on you. While we trust you, we aren't going to rule out the possibility of treachery from any even slightly questionable source, particularly a firebender.

Iroh took this without offense. "I understand, and I hope that I can demonstrate that not all firebenders are like my brother."

The first general nodded. "Until this matter is closed, we will also have to keep watch on your nephew, prince Zuko, for his safety as much as for our own. Fortunately, we managed to find someone reliable who volunteered to keep an eye on him."

Before Zuko could ask who his guard would be, he felt a painful thump on his arm. Gasping at the unexpected sensation, he turned around to see who had hit him.

"Nice to see you again, firecracker." Toph said with a wide grin.

"…So, after they took you away, I figured I should go and tell your uncle, and that maybe he would know what to do." Toph explained. "I had no idea that he had enough influence to persuade them to let you go."

Zuko nodded. "Well, my uncle is full of surprises."

They had left the Earth throne and were now in one of the side chambers of the palace.

Zuko folded his arms. "So, the Earth king wants you to keep an eye on me?"

Toph shrugged. "Well, yeah. Not that I think it's necessary, but I'm not going to object to spending time with you."

Zuko thought he saw a slight blush on Toph's face as she said it, but he couldn't be sure.

"Anyways," Toph said hurriedly. "we're technically supposed to stay here until the investigation is over, but that sounds really boring. I think we should go exploring."

Zuko looked at Toph with mild surprise. "Exploring, huh? What would we be looking for?"

"Well," Toph said carefully. "I already know of a number of secret passageways and hidden entrances that the guards seem clueless about. I'm hoping we might be able to find where Katara is being kept."

"What?" Zuko exclaimed. "You think she's being kept here?"

"We know that your sister is here. If I had to guess, I'd say that she's collaborating with the Dai Li. They both have reasons they'd like to take out the Earth King, and I find it hard to believe Azula could have managed to get this far without inside help."

Zuko swallowed. "That's not good. How are we going to convince the Earth King that the Dai Li can no longer be trusted?"

"Let's find Katara first." Toph replied. "And then we'll worry about the Dai Li."

"Where do you propose we look first?"

"Follow me." Toph beckoned with her finger.

Katara banged her fist against the side of the cavern wall in frustration. She had been imprisoned for a while now, and was losing track of the time. Had she been there for several days, or only several hours? She couldn't tell anymore, and the isolation was getting to her.

Earlier she'd managed to find a little bit of moisture clinging to the crystals along the walls, and had used her water bending to scoop it all up. But the amount of water was too small to do any good. So she'd drunk it instead, focusing on preserving her strength.

She sank down to the ground, and curled her arms around her knees. She'd consoled herself that someone would surely realize that she was missing, and come looking for her, but that thought offered little comfort now. She was helpless, unable to escape, and all she could do was wait for someone to rescue her, and hope that they came before it was too late.

Katara was startled from her thoughts when the entrance to her prison abruptly slid open. Bracing herself for another interrogation from Azula, she was surprised to find that she was looking at Zuko and Toph.

"There you are!" Toph said happily. "We've been looking all over for you."

Still feeling stunned, Katara stammered. "But, how did you find me?"

"It was all thanks to Toph." Zuko said. "She was able to sense all of these hidden passageways and catacombs. I don't know much about earthbending, but she's really good at it."

"You helped some too." Toph said generously. "You took care of those two Dai Li agents who spotted us. I just hope they aren't found before we can get out of here."

Katara suddenly looked alarmed. "We need to get out of here!"

Zuko looked at her, slightly confused. "Well, yeah, we know that, that's why we came to…"

"You don't understand." Katara said anxiously. "While I was being held in here, I overheard some of the Dai Li agents who were guarding me. There's going to be a coup to overthrow the Earth King and the five generals!"

"What?" Toph exclaimed. "When's it going to happen?"

"This evening at sunset, there's going to be an important meeting in the war room. The Earth King and all of the generals will be there. That's when they're planning to ambush them and take them all out at once, before they know what's up."

Zuko raised an eyebrow. "That seems like a really risky move. The coup could easily backfire and result in the Dai Li being exposed and disbanded."

"True," Toph agreed. "but they're running out of time. The Dai Li is already under suspicion, and with this investigation going on, it won't be long before they're exposed anyway."

"What investigation?" Katara asked.

"Well…" Toph began.

"There's no time." Zuko interjected. "We need to get out of here and warn the others about what's going on."

Katara and Toph nodded, and the three of them ran back the way they had come.

As it turned out, they barely made it in time. The meeting was just about to begin when the three young benders burst into the room.

"Your majesty!" Toph cried. "Beware!"

With those words of warning, Toph bent a swath of earth that shifted the ceiling, dislodging and exposing three Dai Li agents who had been hiding out of sight.

There was momentary confusion and panic, but the generals and their guards took defensive positions around the king and summoned up several walls of stone. Meanwhile, Katara, Toph, and Zuko fought and defeated the three agents in short order.

The remaining agents attempted to go through with the coup, but with the element of surprise gone, they were no match for the generals, which included Iroh. Most were defeated very quickly and bound by the king's guards, and the remainder fled.

"Guards!" one of the generals ordered. "Search the palace and arrest every member of the Dai Li."

The guards dispersed at once, splitting off along the various wings of the palace.

After a moment of shocked silence, one of the generals turned to face the three young benders.

"How did you know that was about to happen?" he asked.

"It was thanks to Katara." Toph replied. "We managed to find where the Dai Li had imprisoned her, and she told us that she'd overheard about the coup."

"Is that so?" The general said, turning his eye to Katara, before glancing back at Toph. "Well, we certainly owe you three a great debt. If you hadn't intervened, the coup might have been successful."

Toph grinned, while Katara rubbed the back of her head nervously, and Zuko muttered. "It was nothing."

After some time passed, the guards returned.

"Sir," one of them stepped forward. "We have searched the palace, and about two thirds of the Dai Li are in custody. However, there are still a number of agents that are unaccounted for."

The generals murmured amongst themselves about this news.

"Also, while we were locking the agents up, we made an unpleasant discovery. Long Feng is gone."

Mai stared disinterestedly across the room, her eyes focused on Azula and Long Feng. They were engaged in a shouting match, with a row of Dai Li agents watching them apprehensively.

The coup had been a failure, and with the Dai Li exposed and out of favor with the King, it was only a matter of time before the generals found all of the hidden caverns and disbanded the Dai Li for good.

If it hadn't been for Zuko, Mai thought, we wouldn't have been found out, and the coup probably would have gone through without a hitch.

But…Zuko's my friend. And…what he said…some of it makes sense…

Mai bowed her head, withdrawing into herself.

"…If you think after this disaster I'm going to let you remain in charge, you are sadly mistaken. I don't know why I even put up with you in the first place you royal brat. You're a good for nothing piece of shit, a Fire Nation scum and I…"

Whatever Long Feng planned to say next, nobody ever found out. Her face flushed with anger, Azula reached out and grabbed Long Feng's face with her right hand, her nails digging into his flesh.

The next second, the room exploded with light as the place where Long Feng's face had been was wreathed in flames. The sudden blast killed him so quickly he didn't even have time to register any pain.

The Dai Li agents jumped backwards, their faces pale and twisted with fear. Mai and Ty Lee looked at their friend with a horrified fascination, and looked almost as queasy as the Dai Li agents.

The anger faded from Azula's face, leaving only a look of contempt. She unceremoniously dropped Long Feng's body. The body was unblemished except for the head, which was now a dark black, and gave off the repulsive smell of burning flesh.

Azula turned to face the other Dai Li agents with a cold expression.

"If you and your fellow agents were even remotely competent, that water tribe girl would not have been able to escape, and the coup would have succeeded. But that doesn't matter now. I have one last card to play, one which, if you follow my instructions, will ensure victory. But if you fail to obey my orders, or fail to carry them out again, you will meet with the same fate as him." She gestured at Long Feng's corpse.

Without waiting for a response, she stormed out of the cavern, her two friends hastily following behind her.

Author's Note: Sorry this took so long. I can't promise anything, but I hope to have more frequent updates for the next few chapters.

Edit: Ha, so much for that promise. Oh well. If you're interested in some of the other things I do, look up retrogamer231 on twitter. And if you're not interested, then don't.