Hi all! First up, I got some great fan art from imyergoldfish in instagram. Insta is kind of a butt and I can't seem to link the picture here. But check out the link of an oil painting of "where zuko met the dragon that swims" on imyergoldfish's insta. Thank you, imyergoldfish.
Second of all, hope everyone is doing well in these crazy times. Stay safe out there!
Zuko: I didn't do anything wrong.
Mai: Come on, Zuko. We all know that's a lie.
~ Zuko and Mai, The Boiling Rock: Part 2
Azula regarded the Dai Li agent knelt in front of her.
"Agent Bohai, I am told you are the leading expert in the art of mindbending."
The agent looked up at her, nodded, and when she made a tiny gesture, stood from his respectful kneel. "I oversaw Ba Sing Se's Joo Dee program."
"And the conditioning of the Earth King's guards?"
"Tell me about them," she commanded.
Bohai was silent for a moment. Then, "You wish to use the same technique on your prisoners."
She smiled. "I'm searching for a long-term solution to control the Avatar. There are certain mutilation techniques, of course, but if he is accidentally killed, he will be reborn into the Water Tribes."
She didn't elaborate and he dipped his head, considering all that was unsaid. It was known that the Fire Nation had control of the North Pole since winter. Now that the princess had the Southern Chief's heir under her thumb, it was only a matter of time before the South Pole fell, too. Yet... "There are other tribes out there?"
"Rumors of a swamp people." She flicked her fingers. "I do not care for a one in three chance for the Avatar to be reborn in a territory we do not yet control. This Avatar is only twelve-years-old. He has a long life ahead of him."
It did not escape Bohai's sense of the absurd that the girl was only a few years older than that, but she had the authority, intelligence, and skill of a full adult.
"You wish to mindbend the Avatar," Bohai said again. It wasn't a question. He was still wrapping his head around the simple expediency of it—the brazen ruthlessness. Why hadn't the Dai Li thought of this before? They had the boy within their city for the last month. It took a Fire Princess to show them how to use the tools they already had.
Azula raised an eyebrow as if he were being dim. "Long Feng threatened me with complete personality erasure." She paused. "I am told the Earth King's guards fought to the last man today."
Yes, they had. Twenty Dai Li against four nonbending Earth Kingdom guards, and out of that… fourteen agents were now recovering in the hospital, and some were not expected to last the night.
The former Earth King was now sitting dethroned and bewildered in a cell under Lake Laogai, but it had come at a bitter cost.
Bohai gathered his thoughts for a moment. Normally his superiors didn't care about how the mindbending process was done, only the result. Princess Azula was different in every way. If he was not careful, he could let himself be flattered. "It's less than useless to have a guard who follows any order. King Kuei's private guards were utterly without fear, without care for their own safety and comfort. This is why they fought so effectively. They were bodies waiting for an order, but they were keyed only to one man: Long Feng."
"Imagine a lock to the mind. Only one person holds the key."
Azula nodded. "Continue."
He let out a breath. "After basic conditioning and memory erasure, we rebuild Joo Dees based on a template to make her pleasant, friendly, and utterly loyal to Ba Sing Se. Still, they were always at risk of some slippage back to their original personality. The Earth King's guards were taken one step further. Actually, the discovery is rather ingenious," he added with a bit of pride. "Bring the subject in and out of the deepest state of hypnosis rapidly, before the mind has a chance to rest and reset. It is a physic shock each time. Eventually, the mechanism to return to the original thoughts, memories, and personality snaps. Then the subject can be 'rekeyed' from a blank state."
"And it cannot be undone?"
"No. It is a complete death of the original personality."
She nodded once. "Sokka first. Then, when I am satisfied the process is safe and effective, you will begin on the Avatar."
"Yes, Princess." He knew a dismissal when he heard it and turned to leave.
He stopped and turned back.
Her eerily gold eyes glittered in the low light. "I want them keyed to me."
"Of course, Princess."
"Please—" Zuko said again, grinding the word between his teeth.
"She just needs a little water. She can have my ration."
"She gets her own ration just like everyone else," The Dai Li guard said.
Fire rose in Zuko's throat. He had to work to keep the sparks behind his teeth. "Only after you tie her hands and arms!"
The Dai Li agent looked straight at him. "You should know. The technique to control waterbenders was invented by the Fire Nation."
The fire roared up Zuko's throat, and this time he did not keep it close behind his teeth. The Dai Li agent the door, and the flames brushed harmlessly against steel.
Steel. The entire cell that incased this room made of steel, completely unbendable to any earthbender. Worse, it was a cell meant to contain multiple people—one large barred cage bisecting through the middle with additional bars. It did not take a lot of imagination to see why: So people could watch their friends or family be interrogated, or worse.
Zuko separated on one half of the cell, Katara and Toph in the other.
Azula's Dai Li apparently had a whole prison complex under the lake. They'd been imprisoned down there for over a day.
"I'll be okay," Katara said. She sounded exhausted and she hadn't so much as stirred to stand from her corner of the cell. The cuts from the fight weren't deep, but there were a lot of them.
Toph and Zuko had bound up the worst of them as best they could, but neither were healers and they had no needle and thread. Some of the cuts were deep enough to require stitches. Katara was weak from blood loss and some of the cuts now looked red and puffy around the edges.
"Toph, you hear anything?" Zuko asked.
She shook her head, frustrated. She had the best ears of them all, but had no idea what happened to Aang and Sokka. The guards were less than helpful.
The door that led to the hall slid open. The Dai Li agent had returned and his gaze focused on Zuko. "You," he said. "Put your arms out behind yourself for the cuffs. You're going for a walk."
Zuko's stomach tightened in reflexive fear. Before he could react, Toph planted herself right in front of the bars on her side. "What do you want with him?"
"His girlfriend wants a chat."
"What?" Zuko asked.
"You're not funny," sighed a bored voice. The dark-haired girl, Mai, stepped inside and regarded them all with passive eyes. "And this resistance is boring me."
"I'm sorry we're not more entertaining," Katara spat, struggling to sit up. It was the most energetic he'd seen her.
The Dai Li Agent ignored her. His focus was on Zuko. "You can come out easy, or come out hard, but either way, you're coming."
"It's fine," Zuko said, slanting a glare at Mai. "I'm not afraid of her."
At the agent's direction, he turned and stuck his hands behind himself through the bars. Rock cuffs locked his wrists. Then the agent unlocked the cell door, and Zuko was led down a stone corridor. The whole complex under the lake was made of stone.
There were a few cells open. He looked in, hoping to see Aang or Sokka.
Instead, he only saw a man in glasses and fine robes sadly hugging a bear. Then, to his surprise, he was met with the glittering green eyes of Long Feng from behind another cell. Zuko stared at him in shock, and the man stared impassively back.
Then Mai turned a corner and led him to a room with a single flat table and a hard-backed chair on either side. The Dai Li pushed Zuko in with a rough, "You have ten minutes."
She turned. "I'll have as long as I need." Then she shut the door in his face.
Zuko stood to his full height, weary and angry. They regarded each other for a moment, and he noted that Mai's eyes were dark for a Fire Nation girl—almost brown.
"What are you looking at?" he snapped.
"I don't know, Zuko. What am I looking at?" she snapped back, equal fire in her voice. "A Water tribe barbarian? A traitor? What happened to you?"
He glared. How many times had Prince Iroh had asked him the same questions? "I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know?"
"I don't remember."
Her voice was dry. "So the Water Tribes invented mindbending, too?"
His gaze snapped up. "Mind... what?"
She rolled her eyes. "You were always such an idiot." Then she turned away with a mutter, "Or maybe I am."
"Mai," he tried. "It is, Mai, isn't it?"
That was the wrong thing to say. True emotion crossed her face. "I grieved for you. Did you even care?" Then, just as suddenly, the emotion was gone and an impassive mask was put in its place. "You should have stayed dead, Zuko." She turned to the door to go.
And to his shock, she did, turning back.
Zuko spoke quickly. "Whatever was done to me, it was done in the Fire Nation. The Water Tribe took me in, they've only been kind… and look at how I have repaid that kindness." He glanced around meaningfully. "Please, tell me if Sokka and Aang are okay."
She stared at him impassively for a long moment. "They're alive. Azula won't kill the Avatar."
"No, Zuko." Her voice was hard and unyielding. And maybe she heard it too because she drew back. "Some of us didn't get to escape."
Mai jerked the door opened and stopped. Her body stiffened in surprise.
Azula stood on the other side, two of her Dai Li flanking her.
"Mai," she said in a pleasant way that sent a chill up Zuko's spine. "I didn't expect to find you with the traitor. Alone."
In an instant, Mai had blanked her expression. "I wanted to try my hand at interrogation."
She raised an eyebrow. "And?"
"I gave him something to think about."
Zuko looked down. He didn't have to pretend to be sullen and annoyed.
Azula barked a laugh and stepped in. "Then I guess it's my turn." She didn't bother closing the door, and Mai and the Dai Li didn't leave. It was obvious Azula wanted an audience.
Zuko didn't care. He lifted his chin to face her squarely.
"I want to see Sokka and Aang."
"Oh? What makes you think you can make demands of me?"
His heart beat like a jackrabbit-squirrel in his chest, and he was grateful that Katara and Sokka weren't in the room to hear this, but he made himself square his shoulders. He had a couple inches of height on her, and he used it to his fullest. "Because after Azulon's death, Iroh named me Crown Prince."
He didn't know what he expected. It was a wild gambit, torn from a place of desperation. He half expected Azula to laugh, or maybe to hit him.
He didn't expect her eyes to narrow, briefly, as if he had scored a hit.
"It doesn't matter, our dear Uncle is incapacitated. The royal physician says he breathed water during the… unfortunate accident."
"He's alive?" Zuko blurted.
A flash of triumph crossed her face. "He breaths, but that's all. Father has him sequestered in Caldera, displayed like a trophy to anyone who questions his rule." She looked at her fingernails. "Personally, it would be kinder to put him out of his misery."
A wave of confusing relief and anger threatened to swamp him. Mentally, Zuko steadied himself against it. He didn't have time to sort through it now.
"It doesn't matter, Azula. I was his heir. Not Ozai."
She stopped looking at her nails. "Then I'll just have to kill you."
"Or, I can give abdicate it to you, willingly."
He had a flash of weird guilt, knowing that Iroh would be frowning at him if he could hear this. Ruthlessly, he pushed it away. He didn't want the throne. "Let the others go, and undo whatever you've done to Sokka. I'll swear before any Fire Sage to abdicate my birthright to you. A Fire Sage has verified my bloodline once, they can do it again. It will hold weight."
Her gaze snapped to his and he held it.
The moment stretched. He saw her weighing his offer in her mind.
"Please, Azula," he said. "You can have it all. Just let them go."
The last was too much. Something dark shifted within her eyes, and he knew he had lost her.
"No." Azula smiled. "No, Zuzu, here is how it will go: Sokka is my pet. I've grown fond of him, and I'm going to keep him. I will return to the Fire Nation with the Avatar under my control, and with you supporting my place as Crown Princess in public and in private. If you get any bright ideas, or the second you step out of line… Well. The Water Witch would make a great Joo Dee." Her smile widened. "And the blind girl? She can be my royal target practice."
He grit his teeth and had to breathe slowly to keep the fire from erupting out. "Azula, it doesn't have to be this way—"
"Keep talking, Zuzu. You just lost them their meal and water rations for today."
He snapped his mouth shut.
"Excellent. Then I have your agreement?"
He stared at her, burning in rage and resentment, humiliation, hate. Sinew tight in his neck, it took everything in him to nod, once.
He had lost.
"Excellent." She gestured to the Dai Li. In moments his cuffs crumbled to dust. "Come along, Zuzu."
Cautiously, he glanced at Mai, but he got nothing from the other girl.
"Where are we going?" he asked. Did she have a Fire Sage here? Did she want to do this now?
She didn't bother to look at him. "You're going to show me how your little lightning trick works."
A boom rattled the underground prison, shaking the foundation so hard that dust rained down all over the top of Aang's head. He coughed and sneezed hard enough to blow himself back a few inches—as far as the tight chains pulled tight against his arms and legs would allow him.
"Wow," he said. "What was that?"
The girl sitting guard across the room—she had introduced herself as Ty Lee—shrugged. "Sounds like Azula's practicing her lightning bending again. She's very good."
"Oh?" Aang asked cautiously.
"Yup, she's a true prodigy. The Fire Sages declared she was a master at thirteen." Ty Lee came over and brushed some of the dust off of Aang's shoulders and, casually, jabbed him on the left. Instantly, his entire arm went numb.
Aang sighed. "How did you know? I didn't even move my fingers this time."
She grinned brightly at him and wiggled her fingers. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but it looked like she had gray eyes. It had been months since he'd seen someone with gray eyes. Or one-hundred years, depending on how he counted it.
"I can see it in your aura, cutie."
His jaw dropped. "You can see auras?"
"Yup," she said brightly and cartwheeled instead of walked back across the room, ending neatly back in her chair.
"But... it's a really rare gift. The monks said you have to be really spiritually connected to see auras. So why are you helping Princess Azula?"
She cocked her head. "Why wouldn't I help Azula? She's my friend."
"But… I've never heard of anyone from the Fire Nation being able to read auras, or have gray eyes."
"All my sisters have gray eyes." Ty Lee smiled again and stood on one hand, balancing effortlessly on the chair. Not a hint of wind to support her. "No one else can read auras, though."
She's not an air nomad. They're gone.
A small hope he wasn't even aware he had been nursing, died.
He looked down.
At that moment he heard raised voices—angry, cursing, pleading—Sokka's voice through the thick stone wall.
"Sokka!" he called and tried to twist behind him. Really tough to do when he was only able to move his head and neck. "Sokka!"
Suddenly, Sokka's voice cut out as if he had been gagged. One last muffled scream, then nothing.
"Sokka!" Aang looked back to Ty Lee. "What's going on? Is he okay? What are they doing to him?"
She shrugged. "They're breaking his mind."
"It's really spooky. One second he's here and the next..." She widened her eyes and her expression blanked. "But they're not hurting him."
"How can you say that? That's awful."
"No really, I've seen what they did to the Earth Kingdom guards. Their auras go all white, and there's nothing there, but they're still here, you know. Just... poof. Personality all gone and waiting for an order—Oh, don't cry."
Aang couldn't help his tears and he twisted his head away as she came over to wipe his face.
This was his fault. All his fault. It started a hundred years ago when he ran away from the Air Temple, and ended when he didn't learn earthbending. There was stone and dirt all around him in this room, and he couldn't do anything with it. And now his friends were suffering. Katara had been bleeding so bad, and now Sokka... and he didn't even know what was happening to Zuko and Toph.
He might not be an earthbender yet, but some of his past lives were.
He closed his eyes and although it was difficult, shut out the world around him. Every paralyzing poke from Ty Lee, his own discomfort, every time Sokka's outraged yells came through the walls, and once the sound of broken weeping. He focused on meditating. This was the least spiritual place he could think of in the world, but he had to try. Everything was depending on him now, and he refused to fail his friends again.
He opened his eyes and looked up. And up. Then he broke into a wide smile. "Hi, Avatar Kyoshi."
Azula led Zuko, Mai, and several of her Dai Li agents through a few more corridors and into a large, underground courtyard.
With effort, Zuko kept his breathing steady and tried not to look as nervous as he felt. He wasn't exactly sure how he had redirected lightning the first time. Everything had happened so fast during the fight in the North Pole. He had reacted purely by instinct, and it had nearly killed both himself and Azula.
The edges of her lightning scar peeking up over the collar of her shirt was proof of that.
But he had the feeling that refusing was not an option. Azula would find a way to punish Katara and Toph for it.
I could throw lightning back at her, he thought. I might be able to kill her this time. A queasy sensation built in his stomach. He had intentionally burned Zhao and the earthbender threatening Li, but...
... She wasn't the sister of his heart, but she was by blood. Maybe it didn't mean much in the Fire Nation. It did in the Water Tribe.
Azula strode to the other side of the courtyard and waited.
Mai and the Dai Li moved to a safe point on the side of the room, leaving Zuko facing her by himself.
Swallowing bile, Zuko took his favorite stance—one palm down, the other up.
There was a beat.
"Well," Azula said. "What are you waiting for?"
"Um," he said, "Your lightning?"
He had the pleasure of catching her by surprise. "What do you mean?" Then she inhaled sharply. "You didn't generate your own lightning, did you? You…what? Threw my own back at me?" Her gaze sharpened. "That's not possible."
"I guess it is," Zuko said, annoyed.
She considered for a moment. "Fine. Do you want lightning? I'll give you all the lightning you need." Setting her feet, she swept her outstretched fingers in a familiar arc.
Zuko took a breath and tried to settle both his chi and racing heart. Here went nothing. Hopefully, he would be able to pull the same trick twice. He knew he ought to take this chance to shoot it back at her, strike true for the heart. But deep down inside, he wasn't sure if he could.
She's my sister.
She's NOT my sister...
Azula's gaze met his own as she brought two sparking fingers together.
A blue and yellow explosion ripped from between Azula's hands, and she was thrown back several feet and hit the far wall. Her lightning had exploded in her face.
For a second, there was only shocked silence.
"Princess!" one of the Dai Li cried, stepping forward to help.
Azula snarled and waved him off. She stood, singed with her normally perfect hair out of place. Zuko looked into her eyes and saw only a dark, boiling rage.
He knew who she was going to blame. It was hard-gained wisdom he learned a long time ago, even if he didn't have the memories to support it.
"You," she said, her voice dark. She gestured to her waiting Dai Li.
At that moment, Zuko had his shot. But like Azula, he hesitated.
Instead of blasting fire at his frazzled, distracted sister, he turned a vicious fire-lash at the rock gloves speeding through the air toward him.
He managed to knock away a half dozen before one got past a hastily thrown flame shield. It struck him in the gut, and his breath whooshed out. His fire died, and within moments, he was being struck on all sides.
Bright pain exploded in his ribs. He fell, curling in on himself. The rock gloves did not stop coming.
Azula watched in morbid fascination as the stone fists flew from the Dai Li and struck her brother again and again. He had stopped fighting back, now curled up in a ball to protect his vitals.
A few of the agents were shooting her glances, clearly wondering if they should continue.
She stayed silent. Zuko had seen her mistake, a moment of weakness. That was unacceptable.
"Azula." Mai stood next to her, hands in her sleeves. "You're going to kill him."
Interesting, she thought. How much do you still care about him, Mai?
Something dark glittered in Mai's eyes. Where they actual tears? Azula had not been able to make her cry in years.
Nevertheless, she was right.
Azula held up her hand. Instantly, the Dai Li stood back, and the stone fists crumbled to dust.
"Enough," Azula said. "Return him to his cell."
She heard a low groan as they hauled Zuko away, but some strange foreign emotion — was it guilt? — kept her from looking directly at him.
She rubbed her sooty finger-tips against one another, over and over again. She was a master of cold fire but the lightning had been disrupted at the critical moment. Zuko's fault. She fully meant to strike him, but at the last second… she found she couldn't. Her resolve had wavered.
Mai was watching her and Azula had the feeling that her eyes saw too much.
"Clean up the courtyard," she snapped and turned on her heel.
"Where are you going?" Mai asked.
Azula allowed herself a smirk. "To see my favorite prisoner."
She walked quickly back down the hall, past the rows of cells, and ignored the Earth King who hugged his pet bear and called out in confusion to her.
She turned the corner and down the next hall, past the interrogation cells where they kept her brother, the water witch, and the blind earthbender. Past the high secured holding cells where the Avatar was imprisoned, bound and chi-blocked under Ty Lee's guard.
Finally, she reached the door to the mindbending workshop. Her timing was excellent. Sokka was strapped to a chair and seemed to be deep in his latest trance. There were deep circles under his eyes. Sleep deprivation was part of the process.
"Princess," Bohai said, "I was about to send for you."
"How is your progress?"
He nodded in satisfaction. "The foundation for the total mind-wipe has been well-built. The connection to the old personality is nearly sundered. We are ready to begin the keying process."
"Excellent." Feeling much better already, she took a seat in the indicated chair which was set across from Sokka. "Let us begin."
Zuko woke to the sound of Katara calling his name. He lay on cold, unforgiving, metal and knew at once he was back in his cell.
He hurt. His limbs felt bloody from glancing scrapes, sore from bruises everywhere, and there was a sharp terrible pain in his left side every time he breathed in deeply. He grunted and pressed his hand to the spot, wincing. Either broken or cracked ribs.
"I'm awake, he muttered, and turned with difficulty. Both girls sat next to the bars that separated their cell into two. Katara looked drawn and terrible, pale with pain and fright. Toph just looked pissed off.
"Oh, thank the spirits," Katara said. "You haven't woken for hours."
"I'm fine," he said and tried not to show that it took everything in him to sit up.
"I'll be the judge of that." Toph stuck a hand through the bars and gestured impatiently. "Come here."
"Why?" he whined, but scooted closer, trying not to wince too obviously, when she wrapped a steel-hard hand around his wrist. Her sightless eyes narrowed and he got the impression she was reading his pulse.
"Little miss Sugarqueen over here says you look like someone buried you in a rock-a-lanch."
"What did that girl do to you?" Katara growled.
Then he remembered. "It wasn't Mai. It was Azula. She… wanted to know how I redirected lightning back at her at the North Pole… but — something went wrong." He spoke haltingly between shallow sips of air. It also gave him a good excuse not to talk about his offer to give up the crown to Azula.
What had he been thinking?
Even if he did want to be Fire Lord—which he didn't— it wasn't crown to give. He was Water Tribe.
So why did he feel a fresh stab of guilt? Like he had made the wrong decision. Or like Iroh was frowning at him from a place beyond.
"Azula got upset, and her Dai Li… Too many of them." He winced again.
He and Katara exchanged a glance, and the grim thought that passed between them needed no words. If they found a way to escape, neither one could help much in a fight.
Toph's expression darkened. "When I get out of here," she said, "I want to slap all the hats off their stupid dumb heads. With rocks."
Her fingers released Zuko's arm and she made a sharp beckoning yank gesture. Instantly, every speck of dust and grit that had been ingrained in Zuko's robes while he lay getting pummeled by stone fists was ripped away. A small cloud of dust spun, coalesced, and hardened into two tiny pea-sized pebbles in Toph's hand.
Zuko felt his lips curve into a grin. "Sometimes I forget how scary you are."
"Can you do anything with that?" Katara asked breathlessly.
Toph shrugged. "Put someone's eye out, maybe. The more earth I have to work with, the better."
Zuko nodded, then hissed as he breathed in too deeply. "Next time they take me out again… I'll see what I can do."
Katara looked up at him. "Zuko, you are in no shape —"
"I know," he interrupted. "But I don't think Azula will give me a choice." He could hardly take even a half-breath, and if he could not breathe, he could not bend. "Toph, if we get the chance to escape, I think you might have to do the heavy lifting."
In answer, Toph crushed the two small pebbles in her palm. When she opened it again. There was one larger one, strangely elongated. The ends looked as sharp as a dart. "No problem."
They were silent for a few moments.
Katara bit her lip. "Did you see Aang or Sokka?"
"No," he admitted. "But Mai mentioned something about… mindbending?"
"I've never heard of it," Katara said. "Toph?"
The other girl shrugged. "Something's wrong with the connection between his heart and his brain. That's all I know."
"Of course there is," Zuko snapped. "Sokka would never—" He stopped, trying not to curl in on himself in pain. His ribs were flashing red agony.
"We know," Katara said in a soothing voice she used for hurt children and brothers who wanted to shout at people while having cracked ribs. "Whatever has happened to Sokka, he wouldn't betray us voluntarily."
Zuko nodded and focused on getting air in shallow gasps. Finally, the worst of the pain receded.
"Azula told me Prince Iroh is alive, too," he said.
Katara blinked. "Okay?"
It hit Zuko then that there was so much he had not told her during his weeks at sea. He still wasn't sure how he felt about any of it.
He looked down. "It's just… I'd rather deal with him than Azula."
"I've never met him," Toph said, "But I agree."
Aang followed behind Avatar Kyoshi as she strode through the spirit world. Her strides were long. He had to practically jog to keep up.
"Do you think I'll grow up to be as tall as you?" he asked. "I know you aren't my last life, and we aren't actually related but it seems like things like that should filter down, and—"
Kyoshi stopped in place and he had to windmill his arms to keep from running into her back.
Somehow, in the way of the spirit world, they had crested a hill in the blink of an eye. A lone tree grew nearby, and out in the distance, the three rings of Ba Sing Se lay before them. It looked just as it did in the material world.
"Avatar Aang," Kyoshi said. "Roku has been too soft with you."
"Roku is very wise," Aang said loyally. "And he hasn't been soft at all! He was the one who told me about Sozin's comet, and that I have to learn all four elements before summer ends."
She looked down at him sternly. "And have you?"
Kyoshi turned to gaze out upon the city. It was hard to tell under all the makeup, but Aang thought she looked sad. "This was once the greatest city of art and industry in the world. Now, thanks in large part to my actions, it has become a prison of walls and secrets."
"I trained the original Dai Li."
Aang stared at her, stunned. A tiny "Oh," escaped out.
"Oh," she repeated bitterly. "They were to protect Ba Sing Se's rich cultural heritage. In my quest to provide justice to the grandest city in the world... I gave away too many secrets which should have been kept hidden."
Aang's eyes went wide. "The mindbending?"
Kyoshi grimaced and nodded. "After Chin the Conqueror's war across the Earth Kingdom, many former soldiers were left... disturbed. The mindbending was a technique used by earth mindhealers in very special circumstances to relieve the suffering of those who never returned from the battlefields in their minds." She paused. "It was never meant to subjugate others."
"But it is, now!" Aang said. "They're using it on my friend."
"Yes," Kyoshi said, "And I suspect you will be next."
That didn't alarm Aang as much as the thought of Sokka, Zuko, Toph, or worst of all, Katara, being mindbent into Azula's puppets. "Then you know you have to help me!" Placing his hands together, he bowed deeply. "Please, Avatar Kyoshi. Teach me how to earthbend."
"Avatar Aang." Her voice was firm but kind. "Even if it were possible, your points of chi have been blocked."
Aang slumped. "Then why are you here?"
"Because I must offer you a choice Roku is too kind to offer."
He looked up. "What choice?"
Kyoshi waved a hand. Suddenly the vista of Ba Sing Se was replaced by a more familiar scene: an unending line of Avatars stretching back and back for thousands of years. Roku stood beside him as still as a statue. It was Kyoshi's voice that echoed in his ears.
"To break free of the blocks, you will need the strength of all the Avatars."
"The Avatar State?" Aang asked. "I haven't gone into it since Azula shot me full of lightning. I kind of thought…well." He dug the toe of his shoe into the cloudy ground. "I wasn't sure if I could."
"Your chi has been blocked at a critical point, but with enough strength, it can be briefly bypassed. Aang," she said. "This would take the strength of a thousand lifetimes. You will be out of control."
Instantly, the eyes of every Avatar down the line lit. They turned to regard him, and their faces were distorted and angry.
"I understand." He took a breath. "I don't have a choice."
"So be it," Kyoshi intoned.
Aang did not have time to brace himself. Roku, Kyoshi, and every other lifetime collapsed into him like a spread deck of cards settling back into order. He was smothered by the forces of hundreds of personalities… and still the lifetimes kept coming, piling on their power.
Everything that was Aang was pushed to the side.
In the real world, Avatar Aang's arrow tattoos glowed a white, piercing light so bright it was hard to look at. His glowing eyes distorted and shadowed his face into a primal rage.
He woke and roared fire.
As Azula had promised, there was no meal or water rations provided.
Eventually, Zuko fell into a doze, leaning against the bars. Sitting up was easier to breathe.
He was awoken by a roar — human or animal he could not tell — that literally shook the ground under him like a mini earthquake.
Instantly, Toph was on her feet. "What is that?"
"I don't know."
There was another shudder through the floor, the sound of crashing way down the hall.
Then came the distant sounds of screaming.
Katara made a shocked gasp. Zuko glanced at her and then followed her gaze. Water was starting to trickle under the door. With a sweep of her hands, Katara pulled it to her. She cupped the water and drank greedily. More seeped under the door. With graceful motions, she pulled it into a glove that glowed blue around her hands. Swiftly, she began to heal herself from heal the worst of the cuts.
"Is that water?" Toph asked and then looked up. She paled. "Aren't we supposed to be under a lake?"
Suddenly the door popped open and a wave of cold water sloshed in, instantly drenching them up to their shins. It smelled like mud and swamp. Exactly like lake water.
Outside the door, people screamed and rushed past.
Toph gripped the bars and shook them. "Let us out! Let us out!" What looked like several former prisoners ran by, but no one stopped. Meanwhile, the water level rose swiftly.
"Zuko," Katara barked. "Come here."
"We have to get out of here before this whole place floods!" he said.
"I know. Let me heal you, first."
He stood next to the bars that separated them. She put one glowing hand to cracked ribs.
The relief was immediate, but short-lived. She had only a few more seconds to work on him before a new rush of water barreled through the hall and into their room.
Toph cried out as she was swept off her feet and pushed to the other side of the cell. Katara dropped her healing to help her stand, sputtering and coughing. The water rose swiftly. Within seconds, it was up to their waists. Then chest-high.
With a gasp, Katara froze frost around the cell door locks, but the rising water quickly covered it. Katara and Zuko exchanged frantic looks.
"Go!" he said.
She nodded and dived under work on it.
Toph looked like she was starting to panic. Already the water was too deep for her to stand and reach the bottom. She held onto the bars in the middle of the cell. When Zuko scooted closer, she transferred her death grip to him, fingers digging into her shoulder.
He winced. "Hold on," he said grimly.
"What do you think I'm doing?!" she shrilled.
Then, abruptly, the water reached the level of the green-glowing torches in the hall. All light was snuffed out, plunging them into deep darkness.
Hurriedly, Zuko lit fire in the palm of his hand — not easy to do in the wet environment, but he was able to manage.
The metal ceiling of the cell was only about a foot away now.
Katara broke the surface with a gasp. "It's no use. I can't figure out how to break the lock with ice."
She waved her arms in a wide circle. A current tugged at his feet and the temperature of the water plunged as a bubble of ice large enough for them all encased them, cell bars in the middle and all. The bubble cut off at the top, with the edges fixed to the metal ceiling, less than a foot above their heads. Not much of an air pocket.
It wouldn't last three people and a tiny flame for long.
The walls of the ice bubble were partially translucent. Zuko watched dark water swiftly crawl up the other side. Within moments, they were completely underwater.
"What's going on!" Toph demanded, her voice almost shrill.
"Katara's given us an air bubble," Zuko said, but he knew is temporary at best. Even if the air could last, the water inside the ice was too cold to survive long.
"I think the entire lower complex is flooded," Katara said lowly.
Toph blinked released Zuko's arm long enough to touch the ice, and up to the metal ceiling.
For once, she sounded exactly her age as she said, "No one's going to be able to find us, are they?"
Zuko couldn't find it in his heart to answer.
Katara reached through the bars to pull Zuko close. He gripped her back, and after a few seconds, Toph's free hand grabbed onto Katara's shoulder.
They hugged each other for a moment, seeking warmth, and comfort.
The light flickered in Zuko's palm.
"Not long now," agent Bohai said.
Azula was glad. She was hungry and felt the growing need to get out of this dank, dark place and see the sun again. Being underground for long was unnatural for a firebender.
But the process to 'key' her pet to follow her orders above all others was a delicate one. Over the last few hours, the agent had allowed only Azula to bring Sokka abruptly out of his trance-like state and put him back down again at her command.
The last few times, there had been no change from his trance-like state at all. Awake or stuck down in his own mind, it didn't matter. His eyes were blank, his mind receptive to her commands.
Without warning, an unearthly roar filled the outside hallway. Everyone, except for Sokka, stood to their feet.
The door slammed open. Ty Lee rushed in, looking as scared as Azula had ever seen her.
"Azula! It's the Avatar!"
then the world shattered around her.
Something glowing shot past down the hall. A rush of wind followed, so fierce that it threw everyone back.
What glared at them through hot white glowing eyes was not a boy—was not even human. Azula shot a bolt of fire at it, but her flames diminished and nothing in the sudden gale-force wind.
The Avatar chopped one hand down and tons of stone crumbled like tissue paper.
And with, it came the water from the lake above.
The water rushed down in such force, Azula lost her footing and fell, knocking her head painfully against the arm of Sokka's chair.
The world swam in and out of focus — the shrieks of Joo Dees, stern orders from Mai who had somehow come to join them. And crisp commands from Agent Bohai.
"Unlock the prisoner. We need to evacuate before this level is flooded."
Azula did not know why she did what she did next. She watched in distant fascination as the restraining straps receded from Sokka. Then she looked at him and said, "Get us out of here."
The water was rising, but he was Water Tribe. He would know how to deal with this.
Sokka stood. There was no expression on his face: No fear or worry or recognition of his friend—who, by the sounds of it, had moved on and was tearing down the entire underground complex.
He reached out a hand and helped Azula stand. "At once," he said.
"This way!" Bohai yelled. "There's a stairwell to the next level nearby. Hurry!"
The world swam in and out of focus again. Azula was dizzy, and from the hot, tacky sensation on her face, she knew that her scalp was bleeding.
In confusion, she saw Mai hang back and grab one of the master levers that opened up cell doors up and down the block. She pulled it down, and sounds of excited freed prisoners could be heard even above the Avatar's rampage.
I'll remember she did that later, she thought to herself and staggered. But the world was growing black and funny at the edges. It won't help Zuko. Those special cells need to be unlocked by hand…
A strong hand steadied her and gave her the balance she needed. She looked up into Sokka's impassive, steady face, and willed herself to go on.
They climbed the stairwell to the next level. More Dai Li joined them, shoring up the rapidly crumbling stone as they could. But the water was winning.
"What about Zuko?" Ty Lee asked.
Azula looked over her shoulder back from the level they'd come from. It was almost entirely filled with dark water. "He's been killed by the Avatar." She forced herself to look ahead and not at Ty Lee or Mai. "Let's go."
"Zuko," Katara said, her teeth starting to chatter in the ice-cold water. "I can heal your ribs."
He shook his head. "What's the point?"
Already the air had a stuffy quality. This wasn't going to take long.
Toph jerked back. "No," she said. "No, I am not going to die like this!"
"Toph, you need to keep calm. We have to save the air for as long as possible," Katara said.
"Shut it, Sugarqueen," Toph snapped. "You might be ready to throw in the towel, but I'm not." Then, to Zuko surprise, she reached up to feel along ceiling of their enclosure, as if looking for divots or imperfections.
"Can you…" Zuko couldn't finish the sentence. He wasn't ready to die either, but hope could burn as easily as a wild flame.
She didn't answer directly. "I'll need both hands. Help prop me up so I don't sink under."
Zuko exchanged an amazed look with Katara. Each took handfuls of her tunic and helped hold Toph so she could use both hands to feel at the ceiling. It was a strain on his partially healed ribs, but he was determined to bear it. Still…
"Toph," Zuko said after a few moments. "It's all metal. How—"
"You shut it, too, Sparky," she said. "I'm concentrating. Then she struck the metal with her flat, open palm, causing a bone thumping sound to echo through the small space.
Zuko and Katara watched for a few minutes as she struck the ceiling again and again, at different points. Each strike was more wild and random.
She's panicking, Zuko thought, his fragile hope dimming. Whatever she was looking for, she's not finding it.
Spirits, he didn't want to die like this. In the cold and the dark, listening to Katara and Toph gasp for air beside him.
He hoped Sokka and Aang made out okay, at least.
Toph struck again and again, grimacing each time. It had to hurt.
Finally, with a full-on punch that looked hard enough to break bone, she cocked her head. Paused. Then she struck upward, landing the hit with the backs of her hands.
A slow, shark-like smile grew over her face.
"What—" Katara started.
Toph punched once more. The ceiling dented.
Zuko was so surprised, he accidentally dipped the hand holding the flame underwater. They were briefly plunged into darkness until he shook his hand free of water drops and relit the flame.
By then, Toph had made three other dents.
"How did you do that?" Zuko demanded.
"Metal is made of earth," she grunted, "and I am the best earthbender of all time." Then she shoved clawed hands straight upward through metal ceiling.
With a metallic screech that set all their teeth on edge, she tore a strip aside. There was a wall solid rock above which had anchored the ceiling, but that was nothing to an earthbender. Hooking fingernails in, she tore edges of the metal plate down to create a wider hole.
"T-Toph," Katara said through chattering teeth. "That's amazing!"
"I know." Then she turned gripped the bars that separated Zuko's half of the cell from their own. Straining, she widened the gap enough for him to slip through.
"Okay, how do we do this?" Zuko asked, looking up at the hole.
"I'll break the ice," Katara said. "The water will come in, but will lift us at the same time. Toph, can you widen the tunnel as we go?"
Toph cracked her knuckles. "No problem, but you're going to have to help me swim."
Katara looked at Zuko. "I'll need to see what I'm doing."
Then his job was to be the light source. He had enough breath control for that. "On the count of three," he said.
They counted together. "One… two… three!"
With a swift chopping motion, Katara broke the shell of ice that had surrounded them.
Dark, but considerably warmer swept in. Using the tops of the bars as handholds, Katara and Zuko helped Toph float high enough so she could reach up and bend rock out of the way.
The scramble through the tunnel was a half swim, half climb.
Zuko's ribs screamed but he grit his teeth and gave any extra breath to the wavering flame in his hands. Meanwhile, Katara controlled the force of the water so it lifted them but didn't swamp over their head.
They popped up through the tunnel like a slow-motion cork.
"Wait!" Toph cried.
Katara bent the water back into submission. "What's wrong?"
With a frown, Toph felt the ceiling. "There's a huge weight over us. It's pressing the soil flat."
"The lake," Zuko said grimly.
"Hold on to me," Katara said. "I'll bring us up."
Zuko looped his arms around her shoulders, and Toph clung onto the Zuko's waist.
Katara took a deep breath. "Okay, Toph. Now."
With a punch upward, Toph broke the ceiling.
Water and immense pressure crashed down on them. If it wasn't for Katara as hasty waterbending, all the air would have been crushed from their lungs. As it was, it was all Zuko could do to hold as they shot upward on a current of Katara's making. Up and up towards a nebulous wavering light of the sun.
They broke the surface and Katara changed her current into a wave that pushed them to a muddy bank not too far away.
The climbed out, Zuko and Toph gasping and coughing.
Katara was the first back on her feet. "Aang!" she called, a sob in her voice, "Sokka!"
For all the destruction underground, the surface of the lake was calm and still. A few objects floated upon the top. Zuko squinted and realized with a flash of shock that they were green conical hats of the Dai Li.
There was movement off on a distant outcropping of the shore, not too far away: The man and his bear, both looking bedraggled, fleeing to the woods. At least a few of the prisoners had got out before the lower levels flooded.
With an explosion, something erupted out of the lake. A giant white ball— no, a sphere of air with the tiny silhouette of a human encased inside.
"Aang!" Katara yelled.
With effort, Zuko stood. "That's not Aang."
As if in answer, another otherworldly roar echoed across the water. It was the crash of water, the howl of wind, crackle of fire, and crunching rock.
It was as if all the elements were screaming.
Something from the spirit world. Zuko didn't think. He grabbed Katara and pulled her back to the edge of the water.
No, but she was already moving — No, the edge of the water was receding. Whips of fire crackled from the wind sphere to dancing along the top of the water.
It was like no fire Zuko had never seen before— so hot, it was white. The flames sizzled across the water like oil atop a spitting pan. Instantly, the lake erupted in vapors which the Avatar pushed up to the sky.
He's vaporizing the lake, Zuko realized in horror. He had no idea such a thing was possible—but apparently, the Avatar's rampage was focused on everything to do with Lake Laogai.
Thick slate-gray clouds boiled overhead on what had been a sunny day. The atmosphere took up the vapor and more—it felt like the air itself was groaning with the effort. The winds kicked up out of nowhere, howling, buffeting them so hard that Zuko staggered.
He fell hard and it felt like he tore some of what Katara had fixed. Toph knelt by his side as he fought to regain breath.
Meanwhile, Aang's rampage went on: Trees, on the other side of what had been the lakeshore but was now becoming a muddy hole, were tossed aside like sticks.
Another burst of fire, more vapor, and the sky darkened almost to night. It began to rain.
"This isn't Aang!" Katara yelled over the screaming wind. "He's lost in the Avatar State. I have to help him!"
"No—!" Zuko started, but he couldn't get to his feet, much less stop her.
Turning, Katara charged across the shrinking lake, ice billowing out on every footstep.
The rain became a downpour. Toph cursed and stomped, earthbending a rocky overhang to shelter them from the worst of it.
Clutching his ribs, Zuko grimaced. "I have to go after her."
"How?" Toph asked bluntly. "My feet can't see over the water, and by the way the storm sounds, your eyes won't work either."
She was right. Between the vapor and the now raging downpour, Zuko couldn't see more than a few ship lengths over the lake. There was no sign of Aang, or Katara.
"Do your feet see Sokka?" he asked. "Can you tell if he made it to one of the other shorelines?"
She paused, then shook her head. "The rain is messing that up, too." Then she said, lower. "I hate the water."
He glanced at her then did a quick double-take. She was crouched down, her hands wrapped around her knees, looking as small and scared as he'd ever seen her. More miserable even than that time they were run out of the Earth Kingdom village.
And he remembered the only times he had seen her truly frightened had been when she had almost drowned.
"Katara was right," he said. "What you did back there was amazing. You can bend metal, Toph. No one will ever be able to hold you captive again."
She didn't answer, and for a moment he thought he had gone too far. Then her arms tightened around her legs.
"I heard the jail in Gaoling had wooden cells."
"Wood." He snorted. "You're friends with a firebender. You don't have to worry about wooden cells."
She jerked as if startled. Then, a slow smile spread over her face. She punched his shoulder in one of the few places that didn't have a bruise.
He still yelped, and she laughed.
Zuko never learned what exactly Katara said to calm Aang down, but a long fifteen minutes later, Katara emerged through the rain and fog, supporting a half-unconscious Aang on her shoulder.
They sat him under the mostly dry overhang. By that time, Zuko had gotten his breath back enough to go gather close by twigs. Katara removed the water from the wood and he lit them into a crackling fire.
"Stay here and guard Aang," he said grimly to the girls. "I'm going to find Sokka."
"Don't bother," Toph said and pointed out into the rain.
Within a few seconds, a new figure resolved itself.
Zuko's heart leapt and then sank again. It wasn't Sokka. It was…
"Long Feng!" Instantly, Zuko was on his feet, complaining ribs brushed aside in the face of his rage. Flames jumped from the little fire to ring his hands. "What do you want?"
Long Feng looked bedraggled, with his hair pulled out of his queue and plastered to the side of his face and neck. He gave Zuko a hard, disgusted look. Then his gaze he turned to the unconscious Aang. He snorted. "I underestimated the power of the Avatar. My only consolation is that the Fire Princess did the same."
"Where's Sokka! What did you do to do him?" Katara demanded. With two gestures, the rainwater puddling on the ground froze and twisted upward to razor-sharp ice-knives.
"Yeah," Toph said, clenching one fist to her chest in threat. "And you better not lie."
Long Feng gave them a look as if they were the unreasonable ones. "The last I saw of the boy, he was rescuing his new master. If the Princess has any sense, she would have fled back to the palace to re-consolidate power."
Then Sokka was alive, but… "What did you do to him!" Zuko repeated.
"He has been… subjected to a technique the Dai Li use to wipe the mind clean of unsuitable thoughts."
"Can it be undone?" Katara asked.
At this, Long Feng hesitated. "To my knowledge, not successfully."
She drew herself up. "I am a waterbending healer."
He shook his head and said nothing.
"Why are you here?" came a weak voice.
All gazes fell to Aang who was stirring, looking completely worn out. "You aren't our friend. You aren't here to help us."
Long Feng licked his lips nervously. Then, stopping over the ice-knives sticking out of the ground, he sank to his knees and bowed fully, forehead touching the floor. "Avatar Aang, I beseech you for aid. Until now, Ba Sing Se is the last stronghold in the Earth Kingdom against the Fire Nation. I beg of you, on behalf of the Earth King, please help us."
"You don't deserve his help," Zuko said harshly.
"No, but I plead for it anyway."
"Of course will help… Aang said in a breathy voice. "But I have to learn fire and earth. Kyoshi said…" And he trailed off, gray gaze unfocused.
Long fang rose to his knees. "If there is any way I can assist the Avatar—"
"You've done enough," Zuko snarled. "Get out of here."
Long Feng frowned. "If the Avatar dismisses me—"
Zuko's temper completely snapped. "LEAVE!" he roared, flinging a wave of golden fire. The flames sizzled and died in the heavy rain, but Long Feng had scrambled back out into the rain.
Long Feng looked from one to another, from Katara's hard gaze to Toph's blank but steady face. Finally, at Aang's exhausted nod, he turned on his heel and limped away.
"I'm sorry," Zuko said, sagging.
"No, you were right." Aang's voice grew stronger. He struggled to sit up. "I don't want the help that he could give us."
"You okay, now?" Toph asked to Aang.
"Yeah… Kyoshi tried to warn me. It was so much. So much power… It wasn't me." He put a hand to his head and looked unsteady for a moment. Then he dropped it. "I meant what I said. I have to learn earth and fire as soon as I can, so I can help Sokka… and Ba Sing Se… and everyone. The whole world."
"When you fight, people get hurt," Toph said. "This Avatar state thing? You gotta learn how to control it, too."
"I know." He looked down.
Zuko watched him grimly. There was so much weight on Aang's shoulders. "It sounds like Sokka's with Azula." He took a breath. "She'll be just as vulnerable as the other firebenders on the Day of the Black Sun."
"Didn't you tell us that was weeks away?" Katara asked.
"Yes." The word tasted like ash. He looked at everyone in turn, then down at Aang. "We'll have that much time to prepare."