The coronation of Fire Lord Zuko had been a three day long, blowout affair. An effort in promoting the newfound peace, the event and the subsequent party had been quite a gambit – the Fire Lord's advisors had never been so on edge. Zuko had pooled practically all of the Fire Nation's remaining resources in order to make it a success, betting all his chips on the hope that the other Nations would attend.
The invitations had been sent out and the Royal Court had waited with baited breath for the world's response. At first, it had seemed that Zuko had nearly bankrupted the Nation for no reason. The few responses that had trickled back out of the ocean of invitations had delivered an overwhelming chorus of "No" with only a few of the foreign dignitaries and nobles having the guts to agree.
It had taken Aang publicly promising the world that he would be in attendance and – through very subtly political dialogue that he himself didn't understand but the visiting dignitaries did – assuring them all that he would keep the Fire Lord in his place. Aang had not been told that was what he was saying, but everyone was happy he had said it. The Avatar had promised them all that this was not an attempt to restart a war that had just ended. It was, instead, the first step towards peace.
The RSVPs had flooded the Royal Palace following the Avatar's proclamations, all unanimously agreeing to attend and indicating they were staying for the follow up party. Those who had denied attendance sent another missive, claiming for this reason or that, that they were now able to attend. Zuko's favorite had been the Earth Nation noble who claimed his pet hogmonkey had written the negative response for him. They had all gotten a good laugh from it. Even Toph's parents had agreed to attend after receiving a personal invitation from Toph herself who, after urging from Aang, wished to see them.
The coronation itself had been quick, dry and boring. There had been a lot of applause for the Fire Lord and for the Avatar – and for their friends after the bald monk had insisted they all stand up to share the credit – but everyone in attendance was more than happy to move inside for the festivities. What followed was a weekend of unabashed celebration the likes of which the world had not seen in over a hundred years. Dishes of all shapes, sizes and origins were laid out, entertainment from all over the world had been brought in – and introduced by Aang and his marbles – and the Palace's lower levels were free and open for the public to walk through, examine, sleep in and hang out around. Most importantly, the booze flowed freely and neverendingly. At some point on the second day – well into everyone's third hangover – Aang had offhandedly asked just how much Zuko had spent on the celebration, leading to a pained grimace and another downed drink by the Fire Lord.
Amidst the chaos and fervor of the celebration, Aang had lost track of most of his friends. He knew where Zuko was, usually. The Fire Lord was always front and center of the celebration. But Katara and Sokka had vanished into the ether of alcohol, party guests and bad decisions. The smell of alcohol, the noise of partygoers and the overall atmosphere of the party was enjoyable in the sense of what it represented, but it had long since begun to grate on the last Airbender's nerves.
In the entirety of the Palace, the only ones not drinking – sans the staff who were, admittedly, indulging themselves a little – were the Kyoshi Warriors who had taken up the role of Zuko's guards, Aang, who was a monk and Toph, who was simply too young. Toph had vanished somewhere hours into the first day and the Kyoshi Warriors had been sleeping in shifts for the entirety of the party. The ones on duty now – Suki and Ty Lee – were the only ones he knew well enough to talk to. On duty, though, even the flighty Ty Lee became deadly serious and he had no business interfering with their duties.
It was the third day of the party now and Aang had reached his limit. It was midday and last night's hangover and mistakes were gone, leading everyone to believe it was now perfectly alright to begin today's mistakes. The smell of booze and bad decisions not withstanding, Aang had been doing alright. Upon spotting an overzealous and over affectionate couple in the middle of the ballroom, however, the monk distanced himself from the crowd and slipped away into the mostly empty corridors. He'd be expected back sometime later – he was the Avatar after all – but for now, he needed a break.
Walking down the hall, Aang was hesitant to try any of the doors, knowing full well they could be occupied by sleeping partygoers or…not sleeping partygoers. Aang wasn't eager to walk in on either of them. So he kept walking, further and further out towards the edges of the Palace. He knew the upper levels were off limits to him, let alone to party guests, so there was no point going there, but he figured the farther out he went, the less likely it was that a drunk partygoer had stumbled into the bed.
The Palace seemed to go on forever, the hallway interminable. More than once it had widened into a larger room that had several branching points that led upstairs, downstairs, sideways, longways, forwards and backwards. Just when he had begun to think he'd have to use his seismic senses to find his way back to where he had come from, Aang hit a wall.
A literal wall. It seemed he had found the edge of the Palace. To his left and right were hallways that he was sure led interminable distances to the corners of the Palace. Aang wasn't interested in them. He chose a door at whim – the second on his right – and stepped inside.
"Hey!" a voice cried out indignantly. "Occupied!"
Aang groaned. How was that possible? He had walked so far!
Wait, he knew that voice. "Toph?" he questioned, stepping further into the room. His eyes adjusted to the light and he saw that he was right. Toph Bei Fong was seated in the middle of the room, her knees drawn up under her chin as she sat at the head of a bed so comically large it made her look like a toddler.
She blindly inclined her head towards the sound of his voice. "Twinkletoes?" she responded. From her position on the bed, she had no contact with the Earth and no way to see him.
"Yeah, it's me," Aang replied. "Can I come in?"
Toph shifted slightly on the bed in answer. That is to say, she lightly moved her body, clearly afraid she would accidentally slide herself off of it, devoid of her sight as she was. Aang closed the door behind him and stepped further into the room. Shrugging off the heavy, ceremonial robes he'd been wearing for the entire weekend, Aang was left only in his Airbender shawl. Lazily, he lit a ball of fire in his hand and held it to the candelabra beside the bed. Allowing the flame in his hand to die, he sat himself on the bed, opposite Toph.
"What are you doing back here?" he questioned.
"Trying to get some peace and quiet," she replied. "There's only so much sober Sokka I can take. I can't take any drunk Sokka. And Sugar Queen? She gets way too confident in her humor when she's drunk."
Aang snorted at her reply. "But why the bed?" he raised an eyebrow. "You hate these things."
Toph blushed lightly. "The…images I'm getting from the other rooms aren't exactly nice," she whispered. "I can't see them up here."
Aang remembered the overzealous couple, blushed and didn't push the issue.
"What about you?" she asked suddenly.
"No, I like beds, they're soft," Aang replied cheekily.
Toph rolled her eyes. "Not what I meant, Twinkles."
Aang chuckled. "Same as you. Zuko's done really well about not talking about his honor but give him enough scotch and he just gets…too poetic."
Toph laughed a loud and genuine laugh at that.
"It's just…too much, you know?" Aang shrugged. "I'm a monk. This kind of excessiveness is…frowned upon."
"Aang, you're the last monk," Toph replied gently. "You're gonna have to get used to breaking some of the rules, you know."
Aang rolled his eyes. "That's what everyone told me about Ozai, too. Look who was right."
"I still think you should have just brained him," Toph said snippily.
They were silent for a time, lost in their own thoughts and more than content to let the quiet reign. It was something he had always liked about Toph. Generally speaking, Aang was a bubbly and happy person. But around Toph, he was able to be more laid back. More relaxed.
"Do you ever think about it?" Toph asked quietly.
Aang rubbed the back of his bald head. "I mean it did kinda end like five days ago so…yeah."
Toph gripped a pillow and threw it in a direction she likely thought was accurate but was, in fact, feet away from the Airbender. Unperturbed, the headstrong girl plowed on. "That's not what I meant, dummy," she snapped. "It's just…we were kids, Aang. You and me, the greatest Earthbender in the world and the Avatar. Two kids who saved the world because no one else would."
"No one else could," he corrected her gently, well aware of the how close to the edge of bitterness she was. That was a long, downward spiral if she fell. "And we weren't the only ones. Katara, Sokka, Zuko, Suki. All of us were kids."
"Sokka and Suki are only a couple years away from being adults," she countered. Then she snorted without any humor behind it. "Sugar Queen's never been a kid in her life and Zuko…Zuko stopped being a kid when his father put that scar on his face. It's just us, Aang. The scared boy who ran away from his destiny and the scared girl who ran away from home. That's not right. You know that, right?"
Aang sighed. "I know," he replied. "But it isn't our right to complain. We were given a job and we did it. And we came through. Isn't that what's important?"
"How much of us came through, though?" Toph replied. "I have nightmares, you know."
Aang scooted across the bed. Were it anyone else, he would have taken her hand but that wasn't Toph. He laid a comforting hand on her shoulder and she jumped at the unexpected contact. "That's why I didn't kill him, Toph."
She looked up into his eyes, her clouded gray irises staring sightlessly into his.
"A hundred years of bloodshed and conflict. I spared him because that was the only way for it to be over. A peaceful ending. So that the nightmares could stop."
Toph didn't cry. He could count on one hand the number of times he knew she had. But her face tightened and he felt her lean a bit further into his touch. "You promise?"
"I promise," he smiled and squeezed her shoulder before withdrawing.
Toph rubbed subconsciously at her nose, sniffed once and turned back into the strong woman he knew her to be in an instant.
"Then what are we doing here!?" she demanded. "Honestly a three day party!? That's dramatic even for Zuko."
Aang laughed. "It's over tonight. Then we can…" he trailed off. What did they do? They'd had such a clear path for so long, Aang almost didn't know what to do with himself now that it was gone.
The world was still out of balance – Aang could feel it even now if he focused – but he no longer had an individual to pin that on. Now it was bigger. It was ideals and opinions and culture. His job had just gotten much more complicated.
"I'm going with my parents," Toph said suddenly, drawing him from his thoughts.
"What!?" Aang cried, shocked, eliciting a laugh from the girl.
"Not forever, Twinkletoes, relax," she chided him. "I'll be back to keep you in line soon enough. Your Earthbending still needs some work."
"Are you ever going to not think that?" Aang grumbled.
"Nah," Toph smirked. "What would I do with my time if I didn't have an Avatar to train?"
Aang rubbed at his chin in thought. "Policework?"
"What?" It was Toph's turn for shock.
Aang took his chance to laugh. "I mean, no matter how much we may want it, I doubt any of our lives are going to be that peaceful for a while. Sokka and Katara want to rebuild the South Pole, Zuko has to keep the Fire Nation in line, I'm the Avatar. There's going to be dissenters to deal with. The world needs protecting Toph. Who better to protect it than the greatest Earthbender in the world."
"And don't you forget it," she grumbled. "But I don't know, who even needs a police force?"
Aang shrugged. "I happen to know an Earth King whose private security force was recently revealed as corrupt."
A bright smile lit up Toph's face. "You know, Twinkletoes, that might be the best idea you've ever had."
Aang put on a tone of offense. "You've never been penguin sledding have you?"
They talked for what felt like the rest of the night but was, in fact, just a couple of hours. They discussed plans, possibilities, hopes, dreams, their friends, their enemies and reveled in the company of a best friend. But duty calls as it always does and, reluctantly, Aang stood up from the bed and began to don his robes again.
"Got to go and greet the adoring public?" Toph smirked.
Aang sighed. "I'm the Avatar," he replied. "Me being seen here was the reason everybody came in the first place, remember?"
"That's a big ego, you've got, Aang."
"Well, you know where to find me," Toph dismissed him flippantly.
"You aren't coming back?" Aang inquired.
Toph shrugged. "Come get me when the party is over and the guests are leaving. Sugar Queen convinced Zuko to put on a private dinner just for the six of us after everyone is gone. I'll see you then."
Aang nodded at her, realized she couldn't see it and uttered an embarrassed goodbye before leaving the room.
Far from eager to return to the festivities, Aang did not go back the way he came from. He remembered the route decently well and knew it would not take long to get back to the hub of the party. Besides, this way if he was asked, he could truthfully say he did not know the route. People thought being a monk was all about being a good person, but truthfully it was just about finding cleverer loopholes. Setting off to the right of Toph's room, Aang took the first branch he could find that reasonably led back towards the main room.
Led through a series of hallways and passing by an interminable amount of doors, Aang soon found himself genuinely at a loss for where to go. If he closed his ears he could hear the entertainment playing off to his right, but any attempts to head in that direction seemed only to steer him farther away from it. He certainly wasn't going to stop and ask directions from any of the occupants of the rooms he had passed. He heard far too many suspect noises coming out of them. It seemed the Royal Palace had turned into a twisting labyrinth that the Avatar was not capable of escaping from. Of course, he could just use his seismic sense to find his way out but where would be the fun in that?
Taking what felt like his hundredth left of the day, Aang found himself wandering into a ballroom. It wasn't the ballroom, of course. That one was big enough to house an army – Aang tried not to think about the fact that it probably had – and hosted the vast majority of the party. This one was smaller and, though Aang would never stretch to call it cozy, more comfortable. A hundred people, give or take, milled about the room.
This seemed to be, if anything, the recovery room. There was food enough to strain the tables and whole fountains of alcohol trickling on the far side but no entertainment and everyone talked just above a whisper. These people were tired and nursing hangovers, but not tired and hungover enough to crawl into a bed.
None of this interested Aang. His eye was drawn, instead, to the far corner. A large Royal Litter was seated in the corner, taking up such a space that two of the tables had to have been moved to accommodate it. It was veiled in flowing pink curtains that were just thin enough to reveal the silhouette of a distinctly feminine form within. Whoever it was, she was slouched and slow, seated in a position very unbecoming of those with the status to sit in such a vehicle. Aang was intrigued, not the least of which because of the woman standing outside of it and peeking in.
Aang approached as she was leaving and called to her somewhat reluctantly. Buried hatchets or not, Mai was a very intimidating woman. The dark-haired girl turned to look at him with an air of postured formality upon hearing her name. Upon realizing it was him, however, Aang witnessed the very subtle array of changes in her stance. Her posture was as ramrod straight as ever, but Aang could see she was leaning more on her hip than she had been and the angle of her sleeves suggested she had slackened the grip she had hidden beneath them. Her eyes were no different – and Aang could never recall a time they had been soft – but her frown lessened ever so slightly as she approached him.
Aang felt a great swell of pride that he was evidently counted among those she could be familiar with. Or, as familiar as Mai got.
"What can I do for you, Avatar?" she asked in the same monotonous tone as always. He suspected she would have that tone in even the direst of situations.
"Aang, please," he requested.
She responded with the barest inclination of her head.
"Who is that?" Aang gestured to the palanquin.
Something dark passed over Mai's eyes as she followed the movement of his hand. Dark and sad but so quick that Aang barely had time to see it, let alone understand it. She turned her attention back to him, her face as inscrutable as ever, and offered him a shrug.
"An old friend," she replied. "I haven't seen her in a while, and I probably won't for a while yet. I wanted to say hello."
"Do I know her?" he asked.
Another shrug and a flash of something else in her eyes. Amusement? "You've met," was the extent of her response.
Aang furrowed his brow at her, unable to decipher the meaning of her words. He shook himself, knowing he would never know the truths of Mai's mind. "Can I see her?"
"If you like," Mai responded in a tone suggesting she thought he shouldn't – or couldn't. "Good luck, though. They only let me see her cause I have the Fire Lord wrapped around my finger."
She gestured to the ornamental hair piece she wore, evidence of her betrothal to Zuko.
Aang quirked a self-assured smile. "Then I think I'll be fine," he said. "I had Zuko wrapped up in me way before you did, after all."
Mai quirked an eyebrow at him, her face unchanging.
Aang deflated. "That…sounded better in my head."
He deflated further. "No," he replied miserably.
The corner of Mai's mouth twitched, the most outward sign of amusement he was going to get. She turned and began to wander off in the direction of what he thought to be the main party. "It was good talking to you, Aang," she called over her shoulder. "Good luck."
Then she turned and disappeared into the crowd, off in the direction of someone else to confuse. Aang shook himself. His friendship with Mai was easily his weirdest and most confusing. Quirking an eyebrow after her, Aang shrugged her odd demeanor off and turned his attention to the sizeable Litter parked in the corner of the room.
Summoning up every ounce of "Avatar Superiority" he could muster, Aang walked up to the palanquin and addressed the guards.
"Excuse me?" he attracted their stone like attention. "What's your name?"
He inwardly cringed. That had fallen apart fast. He had meant to command them to stand aside and let him see whoever was inside. Aang had never been good at giving orders. He was too friendly.
They were wearing full face masks so Aang couldn't see their expression, but the tilt of their heads inferred they were looking at him rather incredulously.
There were four all together – one at each corner of the Litter. The one who addressed him was the tallest and stockiest and his armor looked the most weathered. He was clearly the most experienced of them. For a moment, Aang wondered if he had ever fought this man without knowing it but he shook himself of the thought.
"Po," he replied curtly.
"And your friend?" Aang smiled at the man to his right. His stance was not as firm and his posture not as rigid. Clearly a rookie.
"Private," Po answered for him.
"Private…?" Aang trailed off, fishing for the answer.
Po fixed him with a firm glare from behind his mask. "Private," he intoned again.
"Right," Aang replied. "Uh, I'm Aang."
"We know," Po replied, now having returned to his rigid stance and forward field of view.
"Um…yeah. Listen, I was hoping I could say hello to whoever it is you're guarding?" Aang requested in a much smaller voice than he had hoped to use.
"I'm afraid that's not possible," Po told him strictly. "We have strict orders from Fire Lord Zuko not to let anyone –,"
"Commander!" the Private interrupted for the first time, breaking stance and adopting a very nervous stance in its stead. "Don't you know who this is? This is the Avatar!"
"And we have our orders," Commander Po replied in a voice that brooked no argument.
The Private, however, felt like arguing. "We let the Fire Lady see her!"
"The Fire Lady Elect," Po corrected, true emotion slithering through the first crack in his façade. "And of course we did. She's the Fire Lady Elect!"
"This is the Avatar!" the Private responded as if that explained everything.
Emboldened by the young Private's opinion of him and believing he had at least one supporter here, Aang reentered the conversation.
"The Fire Lord's a good friend of mine, Commander," he assured the older man. "I promise, if he gives you any trouble about this, I'll smooth it over."
Aang imagined that had come across intensely unimpressive. The Commander was probably wearing a look of disinterest behind his mask. Mai had probably not even bothered actually talking to the men. A snap of her fingers and glance of her disinterested eyes and they had probably parted like a sea. That just wasn't Aang unfortunately.
Nonetheless, the Commander released a deep sigh and stepped aside. The Private did likewise and Aang was allowed access to the Litter. He really was surprised. He didn't think he'd manage it.
Aang grasped tightly to the curtain – it was thicker and heavier than he had thought – and pulled it back. Whatever he had been expecting, it had not been this and he couldn't help the gasp that escaped him.
The Crown Princess Azula had seen better days.
Slouched against one of the posts holding up the roof of the Litter, she was wrapped up in a loose-fitting straitjacket. Her eyes were open, and her mouth was working, her lips mumbling some incoherent string of random syllables. The once vibrant and sharp gold of her eyes were clouded over and dull. Her hair was frayed, unkempt and jaggedly cut at different lengths.
Aang's eyes roamed over her entire form, soaking in the myriad details that counted towards a very bad whole. This was Azula? The Crown Princess of the Fire Nation who had tracked them across the world and brought them more grief than her honor obsessed older brother had ever dreamed? The Firebending prodigy? The conqueror of Ba Sing Se? The woman who killed the Avatar? How was this possible?
When he had last seen Azula, she had been fire and fury and cold rage. She brought an army to the Western Air Temple in that airship of hers and then not used it, single handedly bringing destruction to the ancestral home of his people and forcing he and his friends to retreat. Every bit the prodigy, every bit the villain, Zuko had nearly lost his life attempting to stall her and even being thrown off an airship and into an abyss hadn't stopped her.
How had that woman, a woman Aang strangely respected for her skill if nothing else, become this?
"What happened to you?" Aang asked, not realizing he had spoken aloud.
"Life," the Commander responded.