A/N: This is set after Avatar's final 4 episodes of Fire so there'll be plenty of spoilers of that specific book if not all of them. However, this fic is now basically an AU ending since they came out with the published graphic novel The Promise which takes place approximately the same time as this fic. Also, in March they're coming out with a graphic novel named The Search that will tell the story on finding Zuko's mother so I'll be boned when that happens. Anywho, let the curtain rise.
Rated T for insurance.
DISCLAIMER: I do not own these characters or the original storyline. All of the credit goes directly to the handsome Michael Dante Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko. I will not earn any money or profit from this piece of work so no lawsuit should befall me. If one did, he/she wouldn't get much anyway, haha.
LADY OF THE FIRE
The sun was setting for another day and the Fire Lord walked his hallways with a strong stride, the extra cloth from his uniform dragging slightly behind him. Though the sun set beautifully, the Fire Lord did not bother to smile at the scene. His mind was filled with bothersome thoughts and the constant face of a beautiful woman with brunette hair fading from his vision. He went to shake the thoughts out of his mind; the heavy royalty emblem atop his head leaned from side to side. With a heavy sigh the Fire Lord began to tread down the halls but stopped when a familiar voice stopped him.
"Off to see your father, Fire Lord Zuko," Mai asked from the doorway. She pushed herself off the detailed frame and uncrossed her arms as she progressed to her lord. She slid one slender hand across the scarred skin and through the tightly tied hair to pull his head down for a welcoming kiss. "That's the fifth time this week."
"I know," Zuko said distantly. He reached up and grasped her hand from behind his head and held it at his side. "But I have to find out where she is. I need to know where my mother is. I have to save her, Mai."
"I know," she said as she leaned in for another kiss. "Just don't overdo it." She reached up and caressed his scorched cheek, sliding her hand across as she walked by. "I'm going to eat then go to bed." And with that, she retreated down the hall to the eating quarters.
Zuko watched as she left, the shadow of a smile on his face. It quickly faded and he started for the prison cells. He was going to get his father to talk. He had to get his father to talk. "I'm coming for you, Mother."
The moon was high in the sky that night and the Southern Water Tribe was a bustle of jubilation. The village had nearly quadrupled in size when the sister tribe had joined their brethren and never seemed so lively. A main hall had been built and everyone was in attendance as they celebrated with entertainment and glorious food from around the world.
A selected few sat on a dais, all sharing stories and jokes among themselves and their people as they joined in the festivities. Then, the room was silenced when Hakoda stood with a smile.
"Everyone," his voice bellowed, "in a few weeks we will be celebrating the first year anniversary of Sozin's Comet and the freedom of the four Nations!" With the inspirational words, the whole crowd cheered. "But today we celebrate the return of an old friend after a year of travels, a friend we could not have survived this war without, a friend that is as dear to all of us as we are to him. I present to you," he continued as he stepped aside, one arm raised to the right of the stage, "Avatar Aang!"
The crowd rose to their feet and whooped as Aang walked to the center of the dais with a grin on his face.
"Uh…hi," he said as he lifted one hand to a small wave to the people of the Southern Water Tribe.
As the crowd cheered a slim figure silently stood next to Aang as he was distracted by the excitement of the people. A tan and gentle hand wrapped around the tattooed hand of the Avatar which made Aang jump in surprise.
"I've missed you," Katara said as she drew her friend into a hug.
With rosy cheeks, Aang gave a friendly smile. "I've missed you too."
"I didn't expect you to be gone for so long," she said after they pulled away.
"Me neither, Katara. Trust me, I would have been here if there wasn't a good reason." He averted his gaze. "Which, I need to talk to you about that reason."
"What is it?" Katara asked as she pulled away a stray hair. Concern was in her round sapphire eyes.
"I can't tell you now. Where's Sokka?" Aang began to look around but stopped when he saw a blur of blue come his way and tackle him to the ground.
"Aang! I've missed you, buddy!"
"Hiya, Sokka," Aang said in a squeak as he blew the bigger boy off of him. "I see you grew out your hair."
"Oh, you noticed," he said with a big grin. The hair that wasn't tied up in the wolftail was now longer and shagged over his ears making him look like a miniature Hakoda.
"And I'm sure he noticed the sauce dripping off your chin as well," Katara said in a giggle as she pointed to the stained spot on Sokka's skin.
"What?!" Sokka rushed to wipe the sauce off in a frenzy. "Is it gone? Is it gone?!"
"Yes, it's gone."
"Oh, good," Sokka said in a sigh. "Hey, wait!" He turned around to the source of the voice. "Very funny, Toph."
The younger girl just smiled. "What? I have to find some source of joy. I can't see a thing on this ice." She shifted her head a bit to the side. "It's good to hear you, Twinkle Toes."
"Hey, Toph. Uh, what are you doing at the South Pole?"
"Well, I got a message from Sokka's messenger hawk saying we were all going to have a celebration. What he didn't say was that the actual celebration was in the Fire Nation several weeks from now so I was stuck here until you showed up." Toph tried to direct her attention towards Sokka but ended up giving the buffet table a glare. "I can't wait to have actual earth and see again."
"Well, EXCUSE me! I thought you'd want to greet Aang with us but I guess I was wrong." Sokka sulked and crossed his arms.
Aang gave a chuckle. "Well, thanks for the thought. It is good to see you all."
"It's great to see you, too," Hakoda said as he bent over the airbender. "Please, have your fill before your travels tomorrow. We even have your favorite: stewed sea prunes." He gave a grin.
"Gee, thanks." Aang gave a silent cringe and turned to his friends for backup.
"Don't worry," Katara said with a cheerful smile. "We have many other options as well."
It was one of the brightest sunrises that morning and Zuko casted a long shadow as he strode up the steps of his kingdom. With a stern face he passed his guards and headed to his room and only stopped when Mai stood in his way.
"You know, it's rude when you don't answer a girl when she calls your name once but you were nice enough to do it three times." She placed her hands on her hips. "What did Ozai tell you?"
"He told me where she is, Mai. I can finally see my mom again." His eyes were so sincere but they quickly turned cold.
"Then, let's go get her. We can both bring Ursa back." She gave a small smile and reached up for Zuko but he pushed her hand back down.
"No. This is something I must do alone. It's too dangerous for you." He brushed past her and opened the door to his room.
"What are you talking about? Do you not remember the Boiling Rock? I could—"
"Please, Mai." Zuko didn't turn to her. "I must do this alone." With that, he closed the doors behind him.
Not many hours passed before Fire Lord Zuko stood in front of his fleet, choosing a battle balloon for easy passage to his destination. He had removed all of his formal clothing and his hair was down from its bun. He held his Fire Lord emblem in his hand.
"Geez, you won't even say goodbye? You're a horrible boyfriend."
Zuko gave a small jump to the sudden outburst. He was so wrapped in thought he didn't even hear Mai walk up behind him. "I'm sorry. It's just—"
"I know, 'have to go alone.' You're like a broken record." She walked up to him and stood at his side. "You know the Avatar's going to be here in a day or two. What do you plan he's going to do when you're not here," Mai said with little interest.
"Tell Aang I'm off to do business in Ba Sing Se and to go ahead with the celebration without me." He tossed a small bag of luggage into the basket and hopped inside. "Here, I want you to hold it for me while I'm gone."
Mai grabbed the emblem out of Zuko's hand. "You knew I'd come for you, huh?" She scoffed, "I didn't know you knew me so well." She gave a depressing sigh. "Will you at least tell me where you're going?" She lifted her gaze off the ground and upward as she followed the basket lifting into the air.
"To believe we'd be able to fly into the Fire Nation without being shot at! It's amazing!" Sokka stood at the edge of Appa's saddle and literally sucked it all in. "Ah, the taste of not-being-shot-at."
"Are you on the cactus juice again?" Toph said with a grin.
"Don't tell me you don't enjoy this." Sokka turned on his heel and sat cross-legged next to his sister.
"I will admit, it's nice," said Katara. "And look how green the land is. It's never looked so welcoming."
"Yeah, it's gorgeous," Toph said with a sour lip.
"I haven't been in the Fire Nation since Zuko's coronation. I wonder if he's changed any," Aang said with a grin as he whipped the reins.
Appa descended from the air and landed in the harbor near the ships where a squad of Fire Nation soldiers stood attended.
"Avatar Aang," said a general as he stepped before the troops, "we have been waiting for you. Please, follow us to the Fire Lord's quarters."
Appa gave a tired growl.
"We even have resting quarters for your sky bison."
The group followed the soldiers back to the royal chambers where they had an audience with Mai and retired general Iroh.
"I really appreciate the kindness, but you don't have to greet us so formally," Aang said with a smile. He looked around the hall and as they neared the end, Aang noticed the Fire Lord's seat empty. "Hey, where's Zuko?"
Iroh gave a sad look to Mai who lowered her head.
"He told me to lie to you and say that he was in the Fire Nation Colonies in Ba Sing Se and to celebrate without him." Mai crossed her arms and sighed before continuing. "He said it was dangerous and didn't want me going. He apparently knows me too well and didn't tell me where he was going since I would have followed him anyway. But it's so dull when he's not here so I want you to go help him and bring him back."
"What are you talking about?" Katara asked as she stepped forward. "Why'd he leave?"
"My nephew went off to find his mother. It seems my brother finally told Fire Lord Zuko where Lady Ursa has been." Iroh stroked his beard as he went into deep thought. "And apparently, Zuko hasn't learned that friends are necessary for excursions like this. I asked Ozai but he refused to tell me where his wife is so I haven't been able to catch up with Zuko myself." Iroh stepped down from the dais and put a hand on Aang's shoulder. "Maybe you can get my brother to talk and go after Fire Lord Zuko for us. There's a reason Ozai wanted my nephew to go alone. I'm afraid it may be too dangerous for just him."
"I understand," Aang said as he lowered his head.
"Wait," Sokka interrupted. "Am I the only one getting déjà vu here?"
"It is pretty ironic that we're the ones chasing him now," Toph said with a smirk.
"Not funny, guys," Katara said as she turned to her brother and friend. "C'mon, Aang. Let's go talk to Ozai."
"No, you guys stay here. I'll go talk to Ozai alone. I'll get him to talk." And with that, Aang brushed past his friends and headed towards the prison cells.
A guard was assisting him through the spiraling halls towards the top floor. A cry of pain and anger could be heard echoing down the halls. Aang cringed at the familiar voice of Azula.
"She's like that non-stop. You just have to endure it. Well, here it is. Be careful." The guard opened the door and motioned for Aang to go inside.
"It's been almost a year," Aang started as he walked inside. He waited for the guard to close the doors before continuing. "I can honestly say it's not good to see you."
The ex-Fire Lord flinched at Aang's voice before slowly turning to face to the 'man' who stole his bending powers. He quickly turned away and lowered his head for his raven hair to cover his face. "What do you want?"
"I'm here to know where Zuko is and you're going to tell me."
"Pah," Ozai snorted, "as if I'd tell you." He turned his head slightly so he could look at the Avatar through his tangled hairs but when he did he quickly regretted it.
Aang's eyes and arrows glowed a bright light and he spoke in a mixed voice. "You're going to tell me or else!" Thankfully, that was all he had to say before the prisoner caved in.
"He's at…" his voice softened to barely a whisper.
His panting could be echoed through the deep halls as Zuko retreated behind another corner, fire bursting passed him. His hand shot up to his aching chest, trying to fill his lungs with breath. "What's wrong with these men? They won't even bother to listen to reason!"
"I found him," cried a soldier as he came running around the corner.
"Darn it!" Zuko pushed himself up onto his stumbling feet and tried to make a run for it. He went to turn another corner but a whole squad of soldiers blocked him off. Before he knew it, Zuko was surrounded. "Listen to me! I'm Fire Lord Zuko, son of retired Fire Lord Ozai and I command you all to step down," he announced, having to break a couple of times to breathe. One hand was held to his pounding chest while the other formed a threatening fist, ready to firebend at any time.
A masked soldier courageously stood in front of the rest."If you're the new Fire Lord then show us your emblem." She seemed to be the one in charge.
"…What?" Zuko reached up for his 'crown' and only felt his shaggy hair. "Uh-oh." He didn't even give the others a chance to approach. Fire Lord Zuko threw himself forward onto his hands and spun his legs over him to form a fiery tornado. The soldiers tried to form puffs of fire to cancel out the tornado but Zuko's flame was too strong and true. In that instant, Zuko pushed himself back up to his feet and sprinted past the soldiers but it didn't take long before they were back on his tail. Zuko growled under his breath. "Why won't they listen to me?!" echoed through the halls as he continued through the labyrinth.
"I don't get it," Sokka said, his chin resting on his fist.
Katara looked down at the ocean as they flew over it. "Me neither. Why would Zuko go there? I mean, the whole place is covered in ash."
"Yeah. Everything there is completely burned to the ground. There wasn't a single living being there or I would have seen 'em." Toph was laying down on one of her hands while the other picked between her toes.
"Look, I don't know either but it's the only hint we've got," Aang said as he directed Appa in the right direction.
"Well, yeah, but can we really trust what Ozai has to say for anything? He could have lied and led us in the wrong direction. Remember what Iroh said? Ozai wanted Zuko to go alone for a reason so why would he send us after him?" Sokka's questions seemed endless so Katara cut in before he could continue any longer.
"We can't trust what Ozai has to say but try putting Iroh's words in another sense. If Iroh wanted to get rid of Zuko, why not take us out as well? Think about it."
"But if Ozai lost against Aang, what would make him think something else could defeat the Avatar? Sokka might be right on this one," said Toph.
"Those are all things to consider," Aang said distantly. "But I know Ozai wasn't lying. There was a scary look in his eyes…a look of amusement. He wouldn't have had so much fun in a lie. And there was something he said before I left that made me feel really uneasy."
There was a pause and a pass of glances before Katara spoke up. "What's wrong, Aang? What did Ozai tell you?"
"He said…" Aang lowered his head. "He said that Zuko's probably already dead. He said there are soldiers…soldiers liked 'tamed dragons,' is how he described them: Soldiers that attack anyone who isn't their master."
"Wait, what do you mean?" Sokka asked.
"Are you saying they'll attack anyone who isn't Ozai? But Zuko's the new Fire Lord," Katara popped in.
Toph stopped picking her toes and propped herself up to sit. "Well, if these soldiers still think Ozai is the Fire Lord then—"
"Then Zuko may be in grave danger," Aang interrupted as he whipped the reins to descend on what was once Avatar Roku's homeland.
"This is not good," Zuko said weakly. His vision began to blur and his breath kept catching short. Before he knew it, Zuko was leaning on the wall as a support while trying to escape.
After all the turns he made he didn't know whether he was going the right way or not. And even if he was going the right way he didn't know how to leave anymore. "Uncle warned me about this place before: as a prison with countless halls and trails to knock the strangers off course. But how many halls can there be?!" In an aggravated groan, Zuko rustled his hands through his shaggy hair.
He suddenly grew lightheaded and slid down the wall to crouch down and pull his knees to his chest. It was impossible to tell time down there but it seemed like days had passed and he was extremely tired.
Just when his head began to lob and he started to drift off Zuko heard some footsteps in the distance. He couldn't tell if it was real or the footsteps were nothing more than a hallucination but Zuko decided to play it safe. He pushed himself up back against the wall and began to walk away.
"I'm coming, Mother."
The group walked around the island shore looking for any tracks Zuko might have left only to end in vain. Sokka stood on the island's shore and kicked at a heap of ash, only to get it blown back in his face by the wind.
"Oh, c'mon!" Sokka said and as wiped at his tongue. "Ugh, there's nothing here. That stupid Ozai just lied to you. I say we head back to the Fire Nation and—"
"Wait," Toph interrupted. "There is something here. It's not Zuko, but it wasn't here last time."
"Where is it?" Aang walked up beside her, his eyes filled with determination.
Toph shifted her foot slightly in the ash. "It's over there, between those two mountains." Everyone's gaze followed the direction of her finger. "It feels like a war balloon."
"That has to be Zuko," Katara said as she stepped closer to the group.
"It might be a trap," Sokka argued, wiping the last trail of soot off his face.
"Well, it's worth checking out." Aang opened his glider, using his airbending to expand the blue sails. "Get on Appa and I'll meet you there." Before any of them had a chance to object, Aang hurled himself into the air and glided off towards the mountains. His big gray eyes scanned the scorched land until they caught sight of something red. With a small smile Aang descended and landed in the basket of the deflated balloon. Sure enough, there were fresh footprints in the ashen ground.
"Zuko, where are you?" Aang hopped off the basket and followed the trail with great difficulty. It seemed whoever was here beforehand didn't know where he/she was going. Just as Aang heard the familiar bellow of Appa, he found a large crevasse the footprints led to in the side of the mountain. It was a tight squeeze, but it seemed anyone but his fluffy buddy could follow them in. He poked his head inside and frowned at what he saw below him.
"I don't get it." Everyone gathered around Aang. "I can't feel anything outside of what was once here."
"Perhaps that's clouding your judgment," Katara said as she put an encouraging hand on Toph's shoulder.
"Really? I don't think it's the lack-of-buildings, but more like the lack-of-earth and the pool of lava ten feet below us," Sokka exclaimed after he popped his head into the crevasse over Aang's.
"But where would Zuko go? The tracks end here." Katara read the footprints again and again only to find the crevasse being the destination again and again.
"I guess he used firebending to move the lava around him to get to his destination," Aang replied lightly.
"But, where would he go?" Sokka asked as he shrugged.
"Well, if there's lava, then there's earth holding it in place." Toph took a firm stance. "Give me a minute."
They all stood in silence and watched her until she gave a spark of life. "There's something down there alright. It feels like a giant cube. It feels hollow…but solid at the same time…"
"Thanks, you're helpful," Sokka said in a groan.
"More helpful than you," Katara replied with a smirk.
Aang walked up next to her, a wrinkle forming between his furrowed brows. "I think I know the answer but, how do we get inside?"
"If you thought it was through the lava, then you're correct."
"But how's Aang, going to get down there?" Katara gave a concerning frown. "It's dangerous enough moving one person through lava; how's he gonna get all of us through?"
"It'll be tricky, but if I move one person at a time, it's possible. Toph, you'll be first so you can keep watch down there." Aang took a deep breath. "Let's go get Zuko."
The walls were hot.
Zuko practically stumbled through the halls now, half asleep as he retreated from the guards. He put his hand on the metal wall but quickly regretted it.
The walls were too hot.
"I've been through here already. The walls are still hot from the fights but…the heats died down a lot. If it weren't for the dry air and the lava they'd have cooled down already but…" Zuko held the back of his hand inches from the wall. From what he could tell, it seemed several hours had passed.
Fire Lord Zuko was literally rocking on his heels from exhaustion. He didn't care about how hot the walls were, Zuko was about to lean on them for comfort until he heard a rustling behind him. Before he even thought about it, the youth was running again, not even caring where he was going or the corners he was turning. He was so distracted that he didn't notice the hall he passed with a ladder leading to the entrance. Nor did he notice when the Blind Bandit dropped from the top of the ladder and landed on the hot metal floor.
"You think Appa and Momo will be okay all by themselves?" Katara asked as she watched Aang drop from the entrance with Sokka.
"I'm sure they'll be okay," Sokka started and he strapped his sword around his shoulder. If it wasn't for Toph, he wouldn't have ever found his precious sword again and he will never let it go now. "It's not like there's a war going on or anything."
"What's the layout, Toph?" Aang stepped next to her, concerned about the troubled look on her face.
"I understand why it feels so hollow. This place is nothing but hallway after hallway after hallway. The only rooms are on the bottom floors and that's after passing numerous stairwells. There're large housing units on one floor but below that there's…a large room. It's just a huge room."
Sokka was about to comment on something but Toph continued before he could mutter a word. "But that's not the worst of our problems."
"What is it?" Katara asked while she re-buckled her water pouches to her hip.
"It's Zuko. He was close by but he was being chased. There were tons of soldiers after him."
"How did you know it was him," Sokka inquired.
"Are you kidding? I can tell his footprints better than Twinkle Toes over here." Before anyone could comment she changed the subject. "They chased him away. I'm sure he could have fought them easy enough but there was something about his footing that troubled me."
"Hopefully it's nothing, Aang, but…he seemed to be staggering; troubling through these halls." She shifted her foot across the metal, trying to get a better 'look.'
Aang stepped passed her and started towards the halls. "Where did they go?"
"It's hard to tell with all these halls and it seems like Zuko doesn't even know where he's going." She took a couple steps towards Aang. "But I'm sure we could catch up to him if..."
An echo of footsteps roared through the halls and a small group of soldiers caught sight of Aang and Toph standing in the middle of their sight. The male leading the group pointed a finger. "We have more intruders! Get them!"
"…If they don't stop us first. Run!" Toph turned towards the opposite direction and began to run with the others quickly following suit.
Aang swung his staff, causing a gust of wind to throw the guards off balance before turning the corner after his friends.
"Don't these people know the war's over? And Zuko's the new Fire Lord," Sokka squealed.
"Apparently, they didn't get the memo*," Katara said in a huff.
Turn after turn, they continued to run down the halls. A group of warriors came to stop them a few many times but with a wind gust here and a water whip there they kept the soldiers at bay. Unfortunately, Toph led them into a wrong turn that led to four intervals which had a handful of soldiers charging down each hall towards them.
Aang started to the middle right, Katara taking the middle left. Sokka unsheathed he sword and charged down the far right hall while Toph took the opposite.
As Aang swung his staff and knocked the guards off their feet he announced, "We have to split up!"
"Zuko's still on this floor," Toph stated. She earthbent(?) the meteor matter off her arm and shaped it into a ball and launched it at the woman leading the squad towards her, forcing the consciousness out of her.
Katara grasped a man in her watery grip and threw him into the air, freezing him to the ceiling. "We'll find Zuko faster this way and we'll meet up later."
"YeeeeaaaaRGH!" With his sword held high above his head, Sokka charged towards the man leading his group. It wasn't 'til Sokka was a few feet ahead of him when he realized the soldier was much, much taller and larger than him. The man went to thrust his spear at Sokka's knee but the Water Tribe warrior hopped over it and ran past the man and his squad. "This was a bad idea," he screamed, the last word echoing through the ever-long hallway.
Sokka still held his sword over his head as he turned a right corner, bumping right into another Fire Nation soldier. They both paused for a second to realize whom they bumped into before assaulting one another.
The soldier thrusted his spear forward but Sokka arched backward to avoid it just in time. Sokka circled his arms to regain balance before slicing the spear in two. The Water Tribe warrior stood and vertically swung his sword to the man's shoulder but he dodged it and threw a punch to Sokka's chin. When the boy turned from the blow, he swung the sword with him, smacking the guy in the face with the flat of his sword. When the man fell to the ground, Sokka turned to see the much, much larger man come storming down the hall.
And with that, he ran.
Aang rushed forward, using his airbending to swiftly move through the air around him at an amazing speed. Every time a Fire Nation soldier crossed his path, Aang just swung his staff and blew the man or woman into the wall and knocking them out cold. He didn't care who was in his way or if he was being followed; all Aang cared about was finding Zuko and helping him.
Aang took a glance behind him as he turned a left corner but as he looked forward he ran into something blue and was thrown to the ground. Rubbing his head, the airbender looked to see what he ran into only to see Katara in a similar position.
"Katara, you okay?"
"Yeah," she said as she stood and offered a hand to Aang. "Are you?"
"I'm okay." He gripped her hand and stood. "Without Toph, it's going to be difficult finding Zuko."
"Perhaps, but it is faster this way." Katara gripped her elbow and began to rub it uneasily. "I'm worried about Zuko. He's only a day ahead of us so why would he be having so much trouble?"
"He's probably just exhausted. Remember when we were awake all night? We weren't in the best condition either."
"I guess but—"
She was interrupted when echoes of shouts could be heard from down the hall.
"This way!" Aang grasped Katara by the wrist and led her down a hall before taking a right turn.
Toph charged forward with her head held low. Any soldier who got in her way she just tackled into the wall and wrapped them in a metal sheet. It took plenty of concentration to figure out where she was going but much more to try and track where everyone else was going.
She could feel Sokka's wide strides, as if he were literally running like his life depended on it. It was easy enough finding Aang's light footsteps and he seemed to have teamed back up with Katara in the process.
"But where is Zuko…?" She was so busy trying to find him that she didn't see the woman rushing around the corner.
The soldier swung her arm around and socked Toph right in the chest and caused her to hit the floor. Toph was at a loss for breath and her 'vision' was shaky. It wasn't until it was inches from her face when she saw the large hammer coming down at her. She rolled out of the way, the hammer catching a couple strands of hair as she went. While the woman was recollecting her strength to lift the hammer again, Toph covered herself in metal and rose to her feet. She tackled the woman to the wall and threw the metal off of her and onto the other. She was pinned to the wall a couple feet off the floor.
"Thanks for the welcoming party," Toph said with a grin before continuing on her way.
Sokka continued to charge, no end in sight. He turned his head and kept his eyes on the large man following him as he retreated.
Aang used his airbending to move the air around both him and Katara causing them both to increase their speed by tenfold. They took another right turn and sped forward.
Toph finally found Zuko's rhythm and realized she was heading the wrong direction. She took a left turn and bent the metal beneath to swat her far down a long hallway before making another left turn. She was getting closer.
Zuko was long past his limit when he pushed his body even further. He was about to fall asleep walking but when a fire blast nearly shot him in the head he regained his focus for another minute or two. He took a step forward and swung his other leg around and behind him, shooting a wave of fire to the men following him. Before both his feet were even on the ground Zuko sprinted forward in hope to lose them but they were literally hot on his tail. As they followed him they shot blast after blast barely getting the wall next to him.
Just as Zuko was taking a left turn, he got a fire blast to the back of his left shoulder. He fell forward to the hard floor with a groan but stayed down only a second before rolling back onto his feet. He hugged the wall a moment then pushed himself off into a run yet again. He held onto his shoulder as he stumbled down the hall.
The Fire Lord came to a crossroad. He stepped to go left but for some reason his gut told him to turn right. So, with a wicked spin and a sharp push, Zuko threw himself right. And before he knew it, he smacked right into Sokka just as Toph threw herself on top of them while Aang and Katara tripped over the bunch.
It took Zuko a while to snap out of his haze and realize who was all in the heap he was under.
"Zuko, you're okay," Katara—who was on top of the pile—exclaimed with a smile.
"I knew we'd be able to find you," Toph said as she lay over Sokka.
"Geez, man, you're as hard as a rock." Sokka rubbed at his bruised knee.
Aang gave a friendly smile to his old friend. "It's good to see you again, buddy," he said as he fixed the robe that found itself over his bald head.
"Uh…What are you doing here?"
Aang opened his mouth to reply but the uproar of echoing footsteps caused him to tense in alarm. "They're coming." He made a small ball of air that lifted him and his friends off Zuko whom stayed dumbfounded on the floor. "Here," Aang said, offering a hand.
Zuko remained confused but when he, too, heard the footsteps he accepted the hand gratefully.
Everyone stood back to back and faced the large group of soldiers. In an instant they were surrounded. Zuko could feel Aang's eyes on him but when he glanced over to the Avatar he noticed the younger boy was looking at his shoulder. Zuko shook his head and returned his attention to the men and women in front of him.
Zuko could hear everyone's battle cry as his friends countered but his heart began to flutter and his chest started to ache. Zuko tried to ignore it and force his concentration on breathing. Just as he took a breath to launch a fire blast he grew lightheaded. His vision grew black around the edges and his eyes rolled back. Zuko's knees buckled underneath him and he crashed to the floor. Last thing he heard was someone screaming his name.
Mai walked through the palace halls with a dull look in her eyes. She looked up to the setting sun as she walked into the courtyard and sat in the hot grass. Beautiful shades of oranges, pinks and purples flooded the sky. Mai furrowed her brows and gave a heavy sigh, "How annoying."
"What's annoying," Iroh inquired as he quietly strode up next to her.
"The stupid sunset. Why does it always have to be there?"
Iroh followed her gaze to the magnificent painting in the sky. "If it wasn't there, it'd be hard to appreciate one of nature's beauties. It's there to tell us that even a day as ugly as ours can turn into such a lovely ending." Iroh gave a generous smile, trying his hardest to keep it. "And sometimes," he started, looking back to Mai, "it reminds us of whom we're missing." Iroh put a gentle hand on Mai's tense shoulder. "The sunset teaches us that nothing is gone forever."
"Are you saying," Mai said dryly, "that it coming back every night means that even things we've lost will come back?"
"Of course," Iroh said with a genuine smile. "Everything comes back through time. It's up to us whether or not to recognize that lost one or not."
Mai looked over to the ex-general and thought of his lost son. She again watched the sunset and thought about Zuko's lost mother. "'Everything comes back through time,' huh?"
"Zuko!" Just as Aang was about to attack he saw his friend collapse. Before Zuko hit the floor, Aang airbent(?) a ball of air under the Fire Lord to lighten his fall. "Toph, close the halls!" With a controlled rage, Aang pulled a 360 with the swing of his staff, blowing the men far down the hallways.
In that instant, Toph threw herself at the wall and ripped the metal from it to form a stiff door to the hallway. One after another she got all of them blocked off just before the largest one made his way through. She didn't need to ask what happened. Toph felt Zuko's heart miss a beat or was it two? She took a couple of steps towards her fallen comrade and was about to say something until she heard the others grow frantic over Zuko.
"What happened?" Katara asked, joining Aang beside the fallen Zuko.
"He has a bad burn on his left shoulder," Aang said as he slightly rolled Zuko to his right side to expose the raging wound. "It seems fresh. I think the pain knocked him out." The worry was evident in his young face.
"Woo!" Sokka said in a whistle. "They got him good." He bent over to get a better look. "Is he going to be okay?"
"I can heal him but it won't do much. This is a bad burn. Thankfully, I think I can fix it so it won't scar." She pulled the water out of her bags and coated Zuko's wound with a light glow.
Toph stood dumbfounded. Did they not know about Zuko's weak heart? It'd been like that since last year's Sozin's Comet. She assumed it was from that lightning bolt Katara said Zuko took the hit for. Toph bit her lower lip. He never told them. She couldn't believe it. Was she the only one who knew about it? She wasn't even told directly. She figured it out with her earthbending.
"Is he going to be okay," spoke the Blind Bandit as she neared her small group of friends.
"I think so," Katara said distantly as she continued to heal Zuko's wound. "We just can't move him for a while."
"That was some smart thinking, Aang," Sokka said with a small grin but it soon vanished. He could see the heavy bags under the Fire Lord's eyes. "He must have been running that whole day he was ahead of us."
"It'll be a while before he wakes up." Aang put a gentle hand on Zuko's chest. He could feel the uneven breathing from the older boy. Great concern washed over the Avatar as he watched over his dear friend. "It'll be okay, Zuko. You can rest now." Aang's eyes moved from Zuko's burnt shoulder to his pained face. His voice grew light and his eyes softened. "It'll be okay."
Katara stirred from her sleep and rubbed at her weary eyes. She had been doing her best to heal Zuko since they regrouped and continued for many hours before Sokka dragged her away to sleep. She looked over to see Toph nearly lying up next to Zuko in her sleep. The young earthbender was wide awake, carefully watching over the Fire Lord with a troubled face when Katara drifted off. Aang sat in a meditative stance next to Zuko, his eyes closed. Katara could see the lack of sleep in the bags under the boy's eyes. How long was she out? How long has Aang been awake? Katara's gaze shifted to the rest of their safe haven to see Sokka had moved from his spot and was inspecting the doors Toph had so expertly made. It seemed as though there were many new dents from the soldiers trying to barge through.
Katara stood and moved over to sit next to Aang. "Has anything changed?"
"Not even a twitch," Aang said lightly before opening his eyes. He didn't look at Katara; his eyes caught only on his fallen comrade.
"Aang," Katara started as she put a gentle hand on his, "you need to rest. It's unhealthy."
"Not until Zuko wakes up."
"And then what, Aang? We need you at full strength to get out of here." Aang didn't respond. "You'll need to be completely aware of Zuko when he wakes. Your senses won't be as sharp so you need to rest." She lifted her hand off Aang's clenched one and rested it on his far cheek before turning his gaze to her. "Please."
After a long, long moment, Aang nodded and stood. He turned to open his mouth but Katara cut him off.
"I'll be sure to let you know once he wakes up."
Aang smiled genuinely. "Thank you, Katara," he said as he lied down where Katara woke up before slowly drifting to sleep himself.
The young waterbender pushed her concentration to Zuko and his healing wound. The severity of the wound was mostly gone but Zuko still seemed pale as a ghost and showed no sign of waking. Katara grew greatly concerned. Was there possibly a wound she couldn't see? She pulled the water from Zuko's shoulder and pouched it. She skimmed a hand down his torso feeling for any dampness from blood or any ripped clothing.
"Aang already looked."
Katara jumped and looked up to see her brother sitting down next to her. She was so distracted that she didn't even hear his boots thump their way over. She stared at his pools of sapphire before she caught what he said.
"So, Aang was thinking the same thing?" She drew her hand back and started waterbending again.
"Well, Toph gave him the idea." Sokka sat straight and crossed his arms. He cleared his throat and pitched his voice, "'My gut tells me there's something we're not seeing,' is what she said."
Katara couldn't help but laugh at Sokka's horrible impersonation and the fact that he ended it flexing one arm and running the other hand through his hair with the flick of a wrist, looking nothing like Toph.
"He didn't find anything, did he?"
"No," Sokka said in a sigh. "But Toph was dead set on it."
Katara wasn't paying much attention to her brother, paying more attention to Zuko but something clicked in her head. "Could it be an internal injury?"
"Yeah, like we could just look right inside and take a look."
Katara pouched her water and gently rolled Zuko to his back. Her hands carefully lifted up Zuko's shirt and looked at the scar on his chest. It wasn't reopened. She pulled out a tiny bit of water and carefully ran it down Zuko's body. Nothing felt injured or like it was bleeding. She sighed in relief before pouching her water again. "It seems Toph's gut was wrong." She shifted her long hair behind her shoulder and looked to Sokka. "That's all I can do for now. We'll just have to patch it up and let time heal it now." Katara wanted to frown but just gave a tight-lipped smile.
Sokka gave a brilliant grin. "At least we know that burn's all we have to worry about." He patted Katara on the back. "Just wait until you can rub that into Toph's face later. She'll never believe it!" He then stood to retrieve his Earth Tribe bag and brought it back. Then, Sokka and Katara both treated Zuko's wound silently.
The night was clear with the stars shining brightly in the sky. Zuko walked along the sandy beach alongside Mother. He was watching Azula in front of them tossing rocks at the sea. She didn't seem happy about the play either. Zuko tilted his head upward to look at beautiful Mother who seemed very gleeful about the play. Was there seriously a way she possibly liked it?
"Mother, where's Father?" he asked.
Mother smiled down at him. "He'll be here soon."
Zuko mirrored that smile. His eyes were fixated on Mother's and the beautiful sunrise behind her. He turned around to face the sea, looking at the blue sky and the black sand. He rubbed the sand between his toes as he ran for the water. It felt nice and cool on his bare torso and quickly drenched his swimsuit. Zuko turned and waved to Mother. She looked even more beautiful with her hair down and looked great in her own swimsuit.
"Mother, where's Father?" he shouted.
Mother waved back at him. "He'll be here soon."
Zuko spread out his arms and fell straight back into the water. He laid there, floating underwater with a happy smile until his lungs couldn't take anymore. With his right arm forward, Zuko sprung up to a sitting position on his bed. He looked out his window to the pitch black night. No stars were shining, no moon hung. Zuko looked to his right at Mother who sat at his side.
"Mother, where's Father?" he groaned.
Mother gave a concerned smile. "He'll be here soon."
She dabbed a cool cloth on Zuko's overheated brow and lowered him back under the covers. It was getting warm. Zuko wanted to sit back up but Mother held him down. It was getting hot. Zuko went to say something but Mother pressed her finger to his lips. It was burning. Zuko blinked and the room was caught in a blaze. Mother didn't seem to notice.
"Mother, where's Father?" he whispered.
Mother just looked into Zuko's eyes, not saying a word.
Then, she slowly blew away like ash. Zuko reached for her but in her place stood Father. He quickly retracted his hand and looked up at Father's shaded face. Zuko's eyes widened in fear and his breath caught in his throat. He swallowed hard and finally found his voice.
"Father, where's Mother?"
Father suddenly was gone leaving only Zuko and the burning room. He tried to bend it and make it disappear but he lost his firebending. In a panic, Zuko went to jump from his bed but the sheets wrapped around him and held him down, pulling him to his back. He pulled and pulled, trying to escape but the blankets were holding him tight. All he could see was fire.
He could hear Mother calling but he couldn't see her. Where was she?
The fire crawled towards him and started eating him alive, starting at his shoulder.
Aang looked over his shoulder to the resting Zuko before turning back to his little circle of friends. They had all formed around Sokka as he formulated an escape route. He took out a piece of paper and was trying to figure out the layout of the floor. Toph kept him updated on what routes the Fire Nation soldiers were taking and Sokka would try and plot it down. But with all the mistakes both Toph and Sokka were making it just seemed like one giant blob to Aang.
Katara's attention was long past gone on the plan and was looking over Aang's shoulder to Zuko. She gave a heavy sigh and rubbed at her elbow unconsciously. Aang went to reach for her but his hand was knocked way when Sokka lifted the sheet of paper with a happy shrill.
With Aang's and Katara's full attention now, Sokka placed the paper back down on the floor. "When Zuko wakes up, we're going to all take this route here to the ladder back up to the surface while Toph takes this route and distracts the soldiers."
"What are you talking about, Sokka? We're not just going to leave Toph," Katara protested.
"Of course not," Sokka said in defense. He leaned in close with a hand next to his mouth as he whispered, "It's going to be a metallic Toph."
Katara lifted a brow. "A metallic Toph?"
"Yeah, Toph's going to cover herself in metal and blast herself in that direction but in the bustle she's going to split herself from it." He pointed to a fork in the hallways. "The soldiers are going to chase the metallic duplicate in this direction while Toph runs down this direction. She can see where we're at with her earthbending and we won't leave until she catches up to us." The Water Tribe warrior grinned broadly.
"And if any Fire Nation bullies get in my way," she punched her fist into her hand, "I'll clobber 'em!"
"We can't leave yet."
Everyone turned to Aang.
"Why not," Sokka asked as he hung the paper in front of him. "This plan's fool proof."
"Zuko came here to save his mother. We can't leave without her."
Toph stood with a straight face. "We can't stay here; it's too dangerous." She nodded towards Zuko. "We have to get him out of here."
"No, Aang's right," Katara said as she, too, stood. "We have to save Zuko's mother or else we all came down here for nothing."
"No. Zuko's in no condition—" Toph argued but was halted when Aang stood.
"If a life's in peril it's my duty to help it. I won't leave without Zuko's mother."
"You can't be serious?" Toph gritted her teeth. They're so naive! "You're endangering all of us to save one woman!"
"Of course we are! We'd do the same for you and your mother," Katara said, raising her voice.
"Besides," Aang cut in, "Zuko wouldn't leave without his mother anyway."
Toph clenched her hands into fists. "Then we'll have to drag him out!"
"Uh…guys?" Everyone turned to Sokka with a glare when his squeaky voice interrupted them. He said nothing else from under his paper shield as he pointed a shaky finger to Zuko.
Aang along with everyone else's attention turned to the Fire Lord and grew worried with what they saw.
Zuko was groaning loudly, his body starting to seizure. He was turning his head side to side in an extremely aggressive manner and was shaking tremendously.
"Zuko." Aang was the first at his side with his hand on his friend's forehead.
Toph could feel his pulse racing and knew if he kept going like that he'd have another heart attack. "Hold him down," she said as she moved over, Sokka already on his feet and next to her.
Katara straddled Zuko's chest and had both hands on each of his cheeks. Aang and Sokka grabbed an arm as Toph held his legs still.
"Zuko?" Katara said calmly but her voice didn't wake him. "Zuko!"
"…Mother…!" Then, out of nowhere, Zuko screamed.
Everyone's heart seemed to stop but in that instant Katara pulled her water from its pouch and pressed it to both sides of his temple, a cool glow illuminating from the water.
The screaming died and Zuko's breathing went normal.
Toph sighed in great relief when his heart calmed down and let go of his legs, Aang and Sokka following suit on Zuko's arms.
Iroh sat on the steps of the palace with a warm cup of tea in his hand. He took a sip, enjoying the jasmine on his tongue. The sun was at the highest in the sky and it felt hot in the summer air. He tried his hardest to relax but the thought of Zuko made the tea turn sour for a second. His sharp senses caught movement to his left and he looked over.
Mai walked up next to him, a bored expression on her fair face.
"Ah, lovely day to see such a pretty face, Mai," Iroh said as he invited her to the empty space left on the step.
"I don't get it," Mai said as she sat next to him. "Zuko told me his father banished his mother a long time ago. If he banished her, then what would she be doing in an old military base in the Fire Nation?" She sighed and rested her chin in her hand. "I just don't get it."
Iroh offered her a cup of tea and she held it in her lap.
"My brother is full of surprises. And lies." He took another drink of tea. "It's true that he was originally planning on banishing her. But, she asked for one last request which made him change his mind."
"What was her request?"
"Try and understand first," Iroh started, "that my brother did love Lady Ursa. But he was always ashamed of my nephew."
"Okay…so the request?"
His body hurt. But his heart ached from something other than pain. He couldn't remember what he dreamt of but it hurt. He remembered fire and it licking his shoulder but…what made him want to cry so…? His lids fluttered and a blurry picture entered his vision.
It was fuzzy but he saw her right in front of him. He could see her beautiful brunette hair and her caring smile. He looked for her gorgeous eyes but it was too hazy to find them.
"Not exactly," she said.
Zuko squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. The image cleared revealing not his mother but Katara instead. The girl blushed and stood.
"Katara?" Zuko looked around him and noticed he was surrounded by friends. "What are you guys doing h—agh!" Zuko went to sit up but when he applied pressure to his left arm pain shot through him and he gripped the bandaged shoulder.
"Be careful," Katara warned. She went to press him back down but he pushed away her hand.
"I'm okay." With a groan, Zuko stood to his feet, his hand still holding his shoulder as he looked around. "Why are you here?"
"We came looking for you," Aang said with a smile.
"Yeah, and no thanks to you we nearly lost our heads!" Sokka said with a playful huff.
"And it's a good thing we did," Katara snarled. "Why didn't you ask for help? You know we would have helped you."
Zuko stood shocked and spoke silently. "I-I didn't expect them to attack the Fire Lord. I don't know what my father did to these people but they won't listen to a thing I say…" He looked away. "How'd you find me?"
"You're father told us." Aang stood next to him. "And your uncle warned us about this place. Katara has a point: Why didn't you ask for help? Your uncle said you knew plenty about this place to be prepared for anything."
Zuko was at a loss for words. He looked over to Toph who was being surprisingly quiet. He then looked back to Aang and closed his eyes. "This was something I had to do alone, dangerous or not."
"You're so full of yourself," Katara roared, her hands fists at her side. "Do you really think you'd be better off without us? Look what happened, Zuko! What do you think they would've done if we weren't there?"
Zuko said nothing.
Katara frowned and went in to hug him. "I'm so glad you're okay."
"We all are," Aang said. He was about to put a hand on Zuko's shoulder but stopped himself before pouring salt on the wound.
"Yeah and next time you run off like that," Sokka said as he walked towards him, "we're not looking for you. You're too good at hide and seek."
With wide eyes, Zuko looked down from Katara to Aang over to Sokka and up to Toph who stood with a solemn face. But then, she gave a broad grin.
"Yeah, Zuko. Next time we'll lock you inside instead."
Zuko stood there a moment before gently pushing Katara off him. "You should leave. I have to—"
"We'll help you save your mother," Aang finished.
Zuko looked over to Aang and shook his head. "No, I—"
"Didn't you just hear what we said?" Katara cut in. "We're here to help you."
"And if you dare run off on your own in that condition, I'll make you pay," Toph threatened.
Zuko looked at her curiously. She seemed to be implying more than just his shoulder.
"So," Sokka spoke up, "do you know where she might be?"
Zuko shook his head.
"You came here without knowing?!" In a dramatic heap, Sokka fell flat on his back.
"All I know is that she's on the bottom floor." He shrugged but that only caused pain and he hissed in protest.
"I can lead you there," Toph said.
"You can?" Zuko's eyes filled with desperation.
"But I won't."
"Oh, come on, Toph," Katara said as she turned to the younger girl. "He needs this."
Toph didn't budge.
Zuko looked at her deeply and rested his hand over his heart. She knows. He walked past Katara and over to Toph. He then gave her a hug, making her lose her resolve. "Please…" He whispered soft enough that only she could hear.*
Toph stood there for a long moment before reaching up and hugging Zuko back. "Alright." They parted and looked over to Sokka.
"Okay, we're going to use the same plan but instead we're going to the stairwell." They all circled around him as he showed the 'map' again, which made Zuko frown uneasily at the awful directions. "Toph, instead you're going down this hall while we go down this one. Alright, let's go!"
***COOL MUSIC PLAYING***
A large crash echoed down the halls as Toph blasted a metal door down the hallway for everyone else to follow. She then pulled her metallic door down and around her before blasting herself forward down another hallway. She tackled everyone in her way until she reached the fork at the end of the hall. As planned, she pulled herself out and ran left while the metallic shell pulled right and continued down. Toph ran and heard the soldiers following the metal suit. She couldn't help but smile at her amazing talent.
The group followed close behind the metal door as it pummeled people out of their way. Sokka led the group, reading the map as they went. The door began to lose speed just in time for them to make a right turn. Zuko was running right next to Sokka with Aang and Katara close behind them.
Soldiers heard the crash and ran in their direction. Zuko shot a fire blast at them and sent them flying the opposite direction. They turned left and right one after another, following Sokka's directions right into a dead end.
"Way to go, Sokka," Zuko said as he crossed his arms. "This is the best stairway ever."
"Oh, like you'd do better!" Sokka looked at the map. "Um…let's see…"
Katara and Aang turned around as a handful of soldiers cluttered at the end of the hall.
"Sooner would be better than later, Sokka," Katara rushed.
"You can't rush genius," came Sokka's shaky voice as he tried to figure out a right path.
"C'mon, Sokka," Aang pushed. He drew back his staff ready for an attack.
"This way!" Zuko grabbed Sokka by the back of the shirt and pulled him right.
They continued to run until Toph turned to them from a hallway. She beckoned them to follow her. "You passed it, nimrods!" With sour faces, they followed the female youth until they found a descending stairwell. Sokka went to lead them down but Toph stopped him in his tracks. "Wait." Then, a herd of red came stampeding up the stairs. Team Avatar stepped back until all of the soldiers were at the top of the stairs when Toph lifted the ground from under them and sent them flying down another hallway. "Let's go!" They rushed down the stairs onto the next floor.
Toph led them through the labyrinth floor after floor, blasting past whoever was in their path. They were moving along greatly, until Toph felt a flutter in Zuko's heartbeat. As they continued to run, she paid close attention to Zuko's health. His breath was extremely uneven—worse than the other's—and his heart was trying far too hard. If they pressed much further he'd have another attack.
"Let's take a small break," she offered when they reached the middle of a hallway. Toph formed two doors to close the soldiers off and give them room to rest. She bent over with her hands on her knees to catch a breath.
"What are we doing," Zuko growled between breathing. "We can't stop yet!"
"Zuko," Katara huffed, "we need to rest. All of us are exhausted." Her eyes widened in simple surprise when she heard Zuko's stomach groan in hunger. "Food sounds like a good idea, too."
Sokka clomped to the ground in a heavy moan. "Geez, I thought we'd never stop!"
"Goodness, I'm hungry." Aang popped a squat next to Sokka. "Did you bring any food?"
"If he didn't, that'd be one for the records," Toph said as she sat down on the other side of Sokka.
Katara sat next to Aang and offered Zuko to sit down but the boy only stared at them.
"How can you be eating at a time like this? We're surrounded by enemies!"
"Calm down, Zuko," Toph said coldly.
"Yeah, let's eat." Katara beckoned for him again and the Fire Lord reluctantly obeyed.
As Sokka dug in his bag and brought out food after food, they all had their fill and enjoyed light conversation.
"Zuko, may I speak with you a moment," Toph asked as she stood and walked to the far side.
Zuko nodded and followed. When they were out of earshot of the others he asked, "Have you told them?"
"No." Toph crossed her arms. "Why haven't you?"
Zuko released a heavy sigh. "They don't need to know. It'd make no difference anyhow."
"You just don't want 'em to think you're weak."
Zuko gritted his teeth. "And what if I don't? It'd still make no difference." He crossed his arms.
Toph grinned. "Did you forget that I can tell if you're lying?"
"Eh…" Zuko slumped over a tiny bit before straightening again. "So what?"
"I don't think any less of you, Zuko. You know they won't either."
Zuko looked at her with a shocked expression.
"Besides, I can't be the only one watching over you. If I weren't there, you would've had one attack after another. Your friends need to know."
"I can't." Zuko lowered his arms. "Katara would feel horrible if she found out this condition was because of that lightning strike I took for her. I don't want her to regret that I saved her life."
They both stood their silently before Toph began to chuckle. "Alright, I won't say anything. But you better listen and obey me if I tell you to stop, hop, dance or pamper me!"
"What?! Are you bribing me?"
Lee walked through the doors to the infirmary at the many soldiers suffering from third degree burns, bruised bones and whip burns. Lee growled under his breath at his incompetent men and turned to his lieutenant. "Feed them to Shinron," he said before leaving.
Lieutenant Kirin stood at full salute when her brother turned to her. "Wait," she said as she followed. "You can't just rid us of them like that."
"Of course I can," he said without turning. "I'm in charge. These men can't even take out a couple of brats."
"Don't get me wrong, sir, but didn't a Water Tribe boy get past you?" She stopped abruptly when Lee quickly turned around and wrapped a big hand around her throat.
"And correct me if I'm wrong but didn't an Earth Tribe girl get past you? I'm not seeing much reason to not throw you to Shinron myself." He released her, leaving her gasping for air.
"But sir," she gasped, "what if that Fire Tribe boy really is the new Fire Lord? No one's updated us on outside issues for over a year now."
"Ridiculous! Fire Lord Ozai doesn't have a son. And, by rare chance he is the new Fire Lord, then where's his royal emblem to prove it?" Lee turned away from Kirin. "Kill them on sight! And if you fail me again…I won't hesitate on throwing you to Shiron with my own hands."
"Alright, we're about halfway through," Toph said to the group as they finished their meals. "We'll continue until we reach the housing units and we'll rest again there." She slightly shifted her head towards Zuko. "We'll take small breaks here and there but we won't sleep until we get to those units."
"Let's do this," Sokka said as he lifted his bag strap over his head and onto his shoulder.
"Lead the way, Toph," Aang said with a smile.
Katara walked up close to Zuko. "How are you feeling?"
"Huh?" Zuko grew on edge. Toph didn't…?
"Your shoulder," she pointed out.
"Oh!" He gingerly put his hand on the bandaged shoulder. "I'll be fine."
They were interrupted with a horrible scraping as Toph ripped through one of the hallway walls, leaving the metal doors. Everyone tore through the hole and rushed for the stairs.
Again and again they went down stairwell after stairwell taking small breaks when the soldiers were trying to catch up.
"Once we go down these stairs we're to the housing units!"
"Be careful," Aang warned. "There will probably be more soldiers down there than anywhere else in here."
"Wait," Katara cut in. "These people live in absolute solitude. That means they need to store all that food somewhere."
"That's right," Zuko said between breaths. "If we hold out there, then they'll be on the defense."
"I can't feel food," Toph said with a small groan.
"Oh, don't worry about that," Sokka said with a grin. "I'll be able to find that food without trouble!"
Everyone believed it.
Sokka led Team Avatar down the stairs with his club ready and swinging with his battle cry echoing through the surprisingly empty halls. They all paused at the foot of the stairs and looked around.
"Uh…where is everyone?" Sokka took a step forward but Toph stopped him.
"It's a trap," she whispered so only they could hear. "There are still heartbeats right over this whole floor."
"Are you saying," Zuko whispered as he took a step forward, "that there could be trap floors that would drop them to this floor?"
"Or they plan on shooting through the floor?" Katara asked in a hushed voice.
"Toph, can you feel where they're standing exactly?" Aang asked. The younger girl shook her head so Aang walked up next to Sokka and put a hand on his shoulder. "Our lives rest in your hands, Sokka; or your nose in this situation."
With a grim face, Sokka walked forward, his head held high to allow scents to have easy access to his nostrils. He passed by door after door, quickly passing from one to the next muttering things like, "Dirty socks…old showers…stinky shoes," with each room. He turned to one room and Toph went to stop him but he quickly threw himself away from it before she touched him. "Medicine…!"
"The infirmary," Katara assumed.
"That's the only room I feel people in but the heartbeats are slow like their sleeping."
"Shouldn't you have told him that earlier," Zuko hissed.
Toph's only answer was an honest shrug.
Sokka continued on hesitating in front of two rooms before finishing with all the doors. He walked back to the two rooms he hesitated at, which were right across the hall from each other, and pondered over the two. With his chin bedding in his hand, Sokka looked from one door to the next.
Zuko walked up to Sokka and pulled him up by the collar of his shirt*. "Listen, Sokka, if you mess up and by some chance we survive," he leaned in close, "I'll kill you."
Sokka swallowed hard. "It's-uh-this one!" He pointed to the door on the left and wiggled out of Zuko's grip. He led the way to the door and carefully opened it to peek inside but all he saw was fire torching the floor from whatever holes were above in the ceiling. Before anyone else could look inside, Sokka slowly closed the door. "Okay, it's this one!"
"What's wrong with that one," Katara said with a smug as she crossed her arms.
"I had a change of heart."
Aang pulled up a hand to cover his snickering. "Did your instincts go sour?"
With a hidden growl, Sokka threw open the door leading to another empty room. As they all stood shocked in the doorway, the ceiling collapsed and a giant squad dropped down into the room with a man leading the group.
The leading man took a step forward. "Ah," he said in a husky voice through his mask. "You must be the Avatar. My men have complained of an airbender in my halls. Sure enough, there you are right in front of me." He took a step forward but Aang held his staff threateningly so the leader threw up his hands in defense. "It's alright. I just had no idea you were alive. We weren't even updated on that."
Aang said with a glare, "I guess that wasn't all you weren't updated on."
On cue, Zuko stepped forward. "One of those updates being your new Fire Lord. Now do as I say and let us through" he said, swiping his hand to his side. "We will find my mother, Ursa."
"Ursa's your mother, eh?" The man chuckled. "You're well informed. Look, I'm Captain Lee. I'm in charge of this entire organization. Look, sonny, Fire Lord Ozai never told me of any son but I do know he has a daughter so if by some chance we weren't informed of Fire Lord Ozai's death we'd be expecting a Fire Lord Azula. Not some overconfident brat. And let's say by some chance you defeated both Fire Lord Ozai and his daughter, where's the royal emblem to prove it?"
Zuko grunted and swallowed hard. Was his father really so ashamed of him that the entire Cube didn't know of his existence? "Wouldn't only the Fire Lord know of my—Ursa's captivity here?"
"Maybe so," Lee said as he rubbed at his metallic chin. "Alright, let's all go to the surface and talk about this like civilized men."
He said there're soldiers…soldiers liked 'tamed dragons,' is how he described them: Soldiers that attack anyone who isn't their master.
Aang's words rang in everyone's ears. "It's a trap," was on the tip of everyone's tongues. A pound of unease was in the pit of everyone's stomachs. But only the vibrating of sneaky feet could be felt through Toph's feet.
Once the door across the hall slid open and a squad led by a woman came storming after them, Toph bent down and ripped a whole in the thick floor. "Aang, go!"
But just before the Avatar could go through, Zuko leapt down first with Aang following suit.*
Katara and Sokka called for their friends as they stepped towards the hole but a fire blast shot them all away from it.
"Lieutenant Kirin, grab the small one!" Lee ordered as he pointed to Toph. Once she was in his sister's arms and off the ground, Lee gave them small applause. "Rather intelligent, figuring out to go to the food storage but too bad you young brats didn't think ahead like the rest of us." Sokka and Katara started for an attack but were snatched with both arms behind their backs. "We stored the food in the infirmary once you kiddies attacked our lovely fortress here." Captain Lee stood over the hole Zuko and Aang escaped through and threw his head back in a mischievous cackle. "Those fools damned themselves!"
He stepped forward and tilted Sokka's head up by his chin. "I remember you," Lee said, leaning closely in on the younger boy. "Trust me, you won't get away from me this time."
With a growl, Sokka pulled his chin out of the other's hand. "You want a rematch?" He gave a smirk. "If you let me go I'll give you one right here and now."
Sokka's threat was rewarded with a swift punch to the gut that knocked him to his knees.
"Sokka," Katara cried as she wriggled in her captives arms. "Leave him alone!"
Before Sokka could capture his breath Lee patted the boy's head. "Don't worry. You'll get your rematch. In an Agni Kai!"
"Wait a minute," Toph cut in. "You need firebending to perform an Agni Kai and Sokka can't bend anything."
"Well then," Lee said as he turned to the girls. "That will be quite the entertaining match, now won't it?" He then turned away from the remaining members of Team Avatar and started down the hall. "The other two are dead. Lock them up and prepare the halls for our match."
"I was just joking," came Sokka's squeaking voice as he lifted his snot-nosed head.
Zuko was about halfway down the room when he realized how very big a drop it was. He clenched his teeth in great unease when the floor was getting nearer at a surprisingly dangerous rate. His pulled up his knees and crossed his forearms in front of him in preparation for squishnation.* Just when he was inches from the floor, Zuko's falling rate slowed drastically and he landed softly on the soles of his shoes.
"Whew, that was a close one," Aang said as he landed next to Zuko. "You need to be careful, Zuko. You almost became a custard pie on the elder monks' heads." Without a word Zuko turned away but Aang reached for him. "Wait, Zuko!"
"Aang," Zuko said as he brushed Aang's hand off his shoulder without turning. "This is no time for jokes. I need to find…my…mo…ther?"
Both the young boy's attention was caught on the green dragon floating in a sea of lava in front of them. It opened its jaws and its ferocious screech seemed to echo throughout the entire Cube. They looked at each other before looking back to the dragon.
"You've got to be kiddin' me," Aang said as he took a small step back.
"This doesn't make sense," Zuko said as he, too, took a step back. "Uncle said he killed the last dragon to protect the others so how is this dragon here?!"
"I see you've met Shinron," Lee said from the entrance behind them. "That old boy's been here since Fire Lord Sozin ordered our founder to create this place." He looked around admirably before returning his gaze to the boys. "Don't worry, I won't interrupt or anything. I'm just here to check up on you." Lee looked past them to the beast behind them. "Shinron, food." He chuckled as the dragon responded with another screech and then turned and started up the stairs. "I have a Water Tribe warrior to attend to." And with that he disappeared.
"Sokka!" Aang ran after Captain Lee but was stopped by a strike of lightning just inches in front of him.
"I'm okay," he replied before turning back around to the frightened Fire Lord. "He missed."
Zuko sighed in great relief before turning back to Shinron with Aang next to him. "We'll have to beat him before progressing," he stated.
"We'll have to beat him before saving Sokka," Aang corrected.
Zuko stood quietly in response.
The dragon screeched again as it flapped its wings threateningly but it lifted only inches out of the lava with its horribly tattered wings. The cartilage between the bones was nearly completely gone.
"We can redirect the lightning to his heart and kill it."
"No, wait," Aang said as he furrowed his brows. "Look there." He pointed to the revealed shackles at its front legs when it lifted them out of the lava.
"Are you saying we should let it go? So it can kill everyone here? We have the advantage."
"Maybe he'll be so grateful we let him go that he'll let us pass?" Aang said with a hopeful grin.
It quickly vanished when a flash of lightning came rushing between them and caused them both to leap away from it.
"You so sure about that?" Zuko pulled back on his sleeves and stanced himself to attack. "Bring it on, Shinron!"
The dragon screeched and released a bolt of lightning heading straight for Zuko. The Fire Lord pulled the lightning into his fingertips and through his gut. He hesitated only for a second at the thought of the last time he pulled lightning from his sister Azula. He quickly shook the thought out of his mind and jabbed his hand forward aiming for the dragon's heart.
Before Zuko knew it, Aang had dashed towards him and shoved his arm upward towards the ceiling. It blasted a hole right through and upward out of their sights. Zuko shifted on his heels to face his dear friend. "What are you doing!?"
"We can't kill it. It's one of only three dragons left, Zuko! What's wrong with you? You've been so cruel recently. What happened to the Zuko I left a year ago?"
Zuko gritted his teeth. He's right. But Zuko wouldn't admit that. "Is this really the time," he hollered. Another bolt of lightning struck past them.
Aang went to say something but the dragon screeched again before spitting out another lightning bolt. The Avatar dropped his staff before extending his arm and pulling the lightning into his fingers. He felt it rush into his gut before thrusting it out his other hand to the first shackle on the dragon's scaled foot. It cracked before shattering off its now torched skin.
It screeched and shot another bolt to Aang. The Avatar was caught off guard by its sudden rage. Next thing he knew, Aang was launched off his feet when Zuko tackled him to the ground.
Zuko jumped to his feet. "Cool it, Shinron! We know your brothers. There are still two living—" he was cut off when the dragon screeched and slammed its tail to the metal floor. It flapped its wings trying to lift into the air but with the horribly damaged wings and the one shackle still holding it down, it didn't get very far. It fell back to the pool of boiling lava, causing it to splash onto the surrounding floor. The boys took a couple steps back to avoid the fatal fluid. "There's no reasoning with it, Aang."
"You still can't kill it. We have no right to after all it's been through."
"Maybe after all he's been through killing him would be the least we could do."
"No!" They both, now inches away from each other, turned their gazes back to the dragon as it screeched once more and blasted at them again. "Look out," Aang warned as he filled his cheeks with air. He then blew out to Zuko's chest, blasting them both backwards away from the lightning.
They both landed hard and skidded on their backs. Zuko quickly got to his feet in preparation for the next attack and saw that Aang blew himself back to his feet. Zuko prepared himself with one fist behind his head and his hand in front of him, palm out.
"We have to end this, Aang," Zuko spoke up as said airbender finally picked up his staff.
"Zuko, please," Aang begged, walking towards his friend but the lightning bolt was much quicker than he was and it went straight for the Fire Lord who pulled in the lightning and extended his other arm. "Don't kill it!"
Sokka and the girls were held in a small holding cell for only a few minutes before the door swung open and Kirin stood at the doorway. Sokka and Katara worked through instinct and reached for their weapons, Sokka his boomerang and Katara her water, but they were both confiscated. Toph hung from shackles by her ankles and wrists, unable to metalbend.
"I've come to tell you that my brother has a weak left knee," she said within a whisper. "Please, if you knock him down, I will give you back your weapons." She then tossed something towards Katara who evaded it and had it clatter onto the floor. "It's the key to your friend's bindings. When the time is right, release her and prepare for your escape."
"Wait a minute," Sokka said suspiciously. "Why are you helping us?"
Kirin paused before reaching up and removing her helmet. Long brunette hair came tumbling down in thick curls down her back and over her shoulders. Her golden eyes down casted to the floor. "Through our long years of confinement, my brother has grown cold despite the burning hot surroundings." She sighed heavily. "And I have a feeling that boy is really the Fire Lord but…my brother won't even consider it. I want us to be free of this prison and know what it feels like to take a breath of air without concern about a distant war." She held back tears. "Please, I don't want to die down here. I want all of us to be free of this place. Please, I—"
"Alright, alright, we don't need to hear your sob story," Toph cut in. "How can we trust you?"
"I-I just gave you the key a-and…"
"Look, I get it, but you still don't have my trust," Toph said coldly.
Katara and Sokka sat silently on the floor, their gazes averted.
"If you don't trust me, fine." She wiped at her damped eyes and pushed her hair back up before putting on the helmet. "I've done all I can. Please, I don't want to see you die."
Someone's voice could be heard down the hall and Kirin shot her head to the side to see whoever came down the halls. She did a formal bow and stepped back and Captain Lee stood in the doorway. He beckoned for Sokka. "It's time, Water Tribe runt."
Sokka swallowed hard and lifted to his feet. Katara watched him go with big eyes and quietly said his name as the door shut behind him.
Sokka was separated from the Captain and was removed of his shirt and arm wraps, leaving only his shoes and pants, a cloth draped over his shoulders. He began to tremble in absolute fear for the—what'd they call it—Agni Kai? I'm so dead! He was led into a very large room; he didn't even know where this room was or what floor they were on anymore. He was forced to a crouch on one knee, facing the wall. He could hear heavy boots thump-thump-thump behind him. His body was trembling so bad the cloth began to slide off his slouched back.
"Rise," someone said and Sokka slowly lifted himself off his knee and onto his shaking feet. He was so scared he nearly fell over but he was able to accomplish turning around and seeing Captain Lee with his piercing golden eyes and brunette hair tied up in a bun atop his head.
Then, the captain stepped forward and punched, a fire blast shooting from his fist and aimed straight for Sokka's head. Squealing, the Water Tribe warrior spun around it barely avoiding it, his skin turning a light pink on his shoulder just from the pure heat. Sokka stumbled forward and smacked chin first onto the hard metal floor. He groaned slightly and pushed himself up on all fours. He threw himself back to the ground in a roll when he heard the eruption of one fire blast after another. He lost momentum and slowed down and in that moment, he got a blast right to his left hand.
Sokka's scream could be heard throughout the whole floor as he reached for his hand. He struggled to his feet and ran directly for the captain, holding his hand all the while. He kept his attention on Lee's knee. He had to get him down no matter what! He ran forward spinning left and right around fire blasts until he ducked down under one, skidding across the floor with one leg out aimed to the man's knee.
Sokka could hear a crack when his foot and Lee's knee collided. Sokka slid under the falling soldier but the man shot a wave of fire towards the boy. Screaming, Sokka shot himself onto his feet and dived over the wave back onto the floor. When he finally got back on his feet, he looked over in horror at Captain Lee who now stood on his feet as well. I lost my moment! He swallowed hard and his whole body felt like lead. With his body arched, Sokka feared the worst.
Then, a bolt of lightning came up through the floor and shot up through the ceiling and past Sokka's sight. He looked back down to see that the captain was blown off his feet, all of his facial hair burnt off with his chest covered in second-degree burns.
"Lee!" Kirin dropped all her captives' weapons and ran to her brother's side, dropping on her knees to aid her brother. "Oh, Lee!"
Sokka didn't hesitate. He jumped to his feet and ran to the weapons. He didn't even bother putting back on his shirt. He threw the strap of his sword over his shoulder and strapped his boomerang to his hip. He grabbed Katara's water pouches before running to their holding cells only stopping for a second when he heard a horrid screech coming from the hole in the dueling room.
"A dragon?!" Sokka turned towards the source of the sound, fearing the worst for his friends.
He turned back around to his sister's muffled voice through the metal door and opened it to see that Katara had already released Toph of her shackles and they were both ready to go. Sokka tossed Katara her pouches before leading them out of the room.
"This way," Toph said as she pulled Sokka one direction with Katara following.
Sokka looked down at Toph as she led the way, grateful she was grabbing his left forearm rather than his hand. "Wait a minute," he said when he realized where she was leading them. "I just came from there!" Another screech echoed all around them. "And there's a dragon over there!"
"This is the only way to the stairs," Toph said as they continued down the hall. "We have to help Aang and Zuko."
Katara glanced down and noticed her brother's burnt limb. "Sokka, you're hand-!"
She was cut off when they ended down the hall into the dueling room where Kirin still hovered over her wounded brother who was now propped up on his elbows. Kirin looked to them with tearful eyes before looking back to her brother.
A familiar voice could be heard from down the hole before a horrid shriek vibrated through their entire being. Heavy poundings and what seemed like low thunder could be heard from below as the whole floor shook aggressively and was getting louder with every beat of the heart.
Suddenly, a green dragon slithered through the hole, ripping it open even more. Sokka pulled at Toph and the trio took many steps back. The front half barely fit in the room and it looked directly at Captain Lee whom was still lying on the ground only a couple feet away. It licked its thin tongue across its sharp teeth before lashing forward and grasping the siblings in its jaws. Then, it jerked its head upward and threw the two above its head.
"What's she doing?" Toph asked, taking a step forward.
Katara took a step with her. "She's not going to—"
Sokka sped forward with his burnt hand outstretched. "No!"
It was too late. The dragon caught both of the screaming soldiers and swallowed hard. It looked down at Sokka as the boy ran up to it, trying to save the two but he stopped in his tracks when he stole the dragon's attention. It lowered its head only a foot away from Sokka and gave a deep whiff. It smelt the torched skin, saw the horrible burn, and felt the sincere emotions coming from both him and the friends standing behind him. The dragon gave a low growl before launching itself upward and through the hole previously made from the lightning bolt and towards freedom.
"Sokka!" Katara ran up next to her brother and grabbed his good hand. "Did she hurt you?"
"…No," he replied. His eyes were huge in disbelief and were fixated on the dragon's exit.
"Good!" Toph shoved past him and towards the stairs. "Now let's move it and get to Zuko and Aang!" She went to the wall and ripped off a plate of metal. She brought it back and set it right in front of the hole. "Get on; we're taking a short cut."
"Are you kidding? That fall will kill us," Sokka objected.
"Just do it." Toph smirked. "I have a plan."
Zuko stood before the pool of lava and was using his firebending to bend the lava side to side in attempt to make a path through to the door on the other end. He paused only for a millisecond when Aang put a hand on his good shoulder and tried to quiet his harsh breathing.
"You did the right thing, Zuko."
"I know I did, Aang. But it was too risky. That could have gotten us both killed and I would never have saved my mother." Zuko growled behind his teeth and threw his hands down, causing the lava to splash in both directions. "It's all screwed up, Aang!"
The Avatar gave a small frown. "What happened, Zuko? What made you like this? You changed for the better. I don't understand why you would go back to anger when you said so yourself that you didn't want to go back…"
"I know, Aang, it's just—argh!—so confusing." Zuko returned to his firebending. "I was really starting to make a change. I rid of all the corrupted generals and brought in those wishing for peace. I extended our trade out to the other Nations in hope of binding us together. I really thought I was on the right track but then I started speaking to my father, trying to find my mother." Zuko's voice grew soft. "He first said he banished her so I kept asking where he banished her to. All year I kept asking day after day and he would always give me small hints and keeping information from me. It wasn't 'till—geez, how long has it been?"
"I'd guess a few days," Aang said quietly, allowing his friend to vent.
"I finally figured it all out. That my father didn't banish my mother out of the Fire Nation but simply banished her here, a forgotten military base back from when my great grandfather was in reign." Zuko's progress through the lava grew slow. "I grew cold to everyone; to my men, to my people…to Mai. I started forgetting all we were fighting for a year ago and only cared about getting my mother back. Back home and free."
A loud crash could be heard from behind and they both twisted around to see who was coming next. Then, a source of water from above came pouring down and launching back up to catch a sheet of metal that had fallen from through the hole.
"Aang, Zuko!" Katara jumped off the metal sheet while simultaneously pulling the water into her pouches while still in midair. Once she landed and capped her pouches, Katara sprinted for the boys and embraced them both. "Thank goodness you're both okay."
The two boys looked at each other over Katara's back, a blush on both their cheeks. "Uh…Katara?"
She realized how long she'd been hugging them and quickly pulled away with red cheeks. "S-sorry," she said.
"How did you beat her?" Sokka stepped up next to his sister.
Aang cocked his head. "Beat who?"
"That dragon," Katara stated. "She was huge!"
"Shinron?" Zuko rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "We let him go."
"That was a she," Toph corrected as she stood on Katara's other side.
Zuko gave a confused look. "I thought Shinron was a he? How do you know?"
"We girls just know these things," Katara said with a smirk as she crossed her arms.
"Yeah," Toph continued, "I'm blind and I knew she was a girl."
Aang and Zuko stood still for a moment and Sokka just gave a shrug.
"Aw, whatever," Zuko said, waving it off. He turned back around to face the pool of lava again. "I need to get to my mother." Zuko threw his hands up into the air. "Part like the Red Sea*!" he yelled as he threw his hands back down, causing the lava to break right down the middle and crash to the left and right. A small path was formed through the lava and Zuko stood there amazed by his own power.
"Uh, Zuko?" Aang stretched his neck forward and was near talking in Zuko's ear. "What's the red sea?"
"I don't know," Zuko said as he shook his head. "I just thought it sounded cool and it worked."
"Heh," Aang's nose twitched with amusement. "Cool."
Zuko led the way through the small path until they finally got across the pool of lava. Zuko stopped his bending and the lava fell back into place with a smooth flow. They walked up onto the platform toward the door at the very end. With the smallest of hesitation, Zuko swung open the door.
The room was bright. The team had to shield their eyes until they could adjust and look at what's inside. Zuko's eyes were the first to finally see what was in front of them. He wasn't sure what would be in this room, some holding cells, one large dungeon, or maybe a simple passage to another room, hopefully maybe a suite of some kind but…a tomb was not what he would have imagined.
Before them sat a large clump of amber and embalmed inside was Lady Ursa of the Fire Nation smiling beautifully with closed eyes and her hands crossed over in front of her heart.
Zuko's breath increased erratically. "M…Mother-er…?" He took a hesitant step forward with one hand outstretched. "Mother?!"
His friends gasped behind him. "That's your mother?" Katara asked.
Toph could feel the rush of Zuko's heartbeat and she bit her lip in concern. "Zuko, I wouldn't," she warned as she reached for him but he had already rabbit.
Before he could stop himself, Zuko slammed against the amber coffin and began pounding on it desperately. "Mother! Mother!" As he kept slamming on the stone, fire began to erupt from his hands and spark against the amber. "Mother?! MOTHER!"
"Stop him!" Toph ran past Aang and started for Zuko. "Or he's going to have a heart attack!"
"A heart attack?!" Katara's eyes widened in concern and she was stuck where she stood. At a distance she saw Aang, Toph and Sokka try and pull Zuko away from his encased mother but to no avail. Zuko kept punching and pounding at the stone as if they weren't even there. She saw the small sparks when his fists collided with the amber and her mind shot back a year ago. Lightning coming straight for her, nowhere to go and nothing to do to stop it, but something was thrown in front of it, stopping it in its tracks. She could hear a yell as the object fell to the ground and that's when she realized it was Zuko. Zuko had risked his life for hers! He lay on the ground, twitching from the electricity that had flown into him. He had absorbed all of it…and suffered because of her. A new scar was placed upon his torso, just inches below the heart. "Could I have…?"
Zuko's voice rang in her ears and Katara snapped out of her trance. She looked up and saw that everyone's efforts were in vain. Zuko wouldn't stop and the stone was beginning to melt with every punch, every swing. Katara looked over to see that Toph's face was a deep grim. She then began to analyze the Fire Lord's movements. His right arm was still just as relentless but his left began to slow down drastically. It could have been the burn on his shoulder but Katara had a feeling it was because the lack of flow in the blood to his arm. She could only think of one way to stop him.
"Mother! No—please! Mother!" Zuko pounded again and again at the stone, not even noticing the sparks or the blasts of fire erupted with each blow. All he could think about—all he cared about was getting to his mother and getting her out of her prison.
"Zuko, you must stop this!" Aang tried pulling on his arm but when Zuko pulled it back to smack the stone again the Avatar was wacked in the face for about the tenth time and thrown to the floor.
"Dang it, Zuko" Sokka screamed as he tried to pull at Zuko's waste in attempt to drag him away but when Zuko when to punch his elbow came back and jabbed Sokka in the chest, causing the Water Tribe warrior to lose his breath and fall to the floor.
"Zuko," Toph said between her teeth. "I said stop, Zuko! You're going to kill yourself like this!" She was pulling at Zuko's left arm knowing full and well she was stretching out his bad shoulder. She didn't care, a screwed up shoulder was better than a lost life. She thought she was making progress until she felt Zuko's heart miss one beat and then another. She bit at her lips from worry and continued to hold his arm with all her might no matter how many strikes she took from Zuko in the process.
Zuko looked through the stone straight to his mother. He saw her opening her eyes and smiling brightly. He saw her opening her arms and hugging him to her. He saw her move her lips and say his name. But for some reason he couldn't feel her—couldn't reach her. He kept punching and kicking until he could get past whatever wall was keeping them apart. His chest began to hurt but he didn't care. Zuko continued to press forward even when his head grew light and his vision grew dark. But then, he felt his whole body stop without him telling it to. He told himself to press forward but his limbs twitched in halt with a mind of their own. He didn't know what was happening but he grew scared. Without his body he couldn't reach his mother and he'd never free her. "No…"
Sokka sat behind Zuko, there to catch him when he fell backwards, unconscious. He looked back to his sister who dropped her arms to her sides, still standing in the doorway. He turned back to look between Aang and Toph, not sure what to do with the older boy lying in his lap.
"Katara, we need you to get his blood flowing correctly through his heart. If we don't do this quick he could have permanent damage to his heart or brain." Toph pulled Zuko out of Sokka's lap and set him aside close to the wall. "Can you do that?" She didn't even bother turning to the girl as she ran up next to her, falling to her knees.
"I can try," Katara said simply as she began bloodbending.
"And yes," Toph started. "This is your fault." She stood and began walking away. "And you better not worry. That's why he didn't tell you about this."
Katara stopped for a second with her eyes wide. "She's right…" She looked down to Zuko's pained expression. "I'm so sorry, Zuko." She gently wiped one hand under his bangs and over his fevered brow. "I'll try and help you through this. We'll get your mother out." Then she continued with her bloodbending.
"Will he be okay?" Sokka asked when Toph stood next to him.
"I'll let you know when his heartbeat's returned to normal." She shifted her foot slightly and cocked her head over towards Zuko. "But it's hard to say right now." She then cocked her head towards Aang who was closely observing the amber Fire Lady Ursa was held in. "Can you get her out?"
"Maybe…" Aang gently rubbed an arrowed hand across the smooth stone. "It'll take a lot of time to get through all of this though."
"Time, eh?" Sokka pulled out his Water Tribe club and charged towards the stone. "How about we just break through it!" He held the weapon above his head and swung it down with a mighty force.
The bulb at the end of the stick struck hard and formed a great crack inside the stone. It extended past the dent Zuko made and headed straight for Ursa's smiling face.
"No," Toph cried as she shifted her foot and stopped the crack just inches from contact. "Are you stupid or something?!"
"What?" Sokka asked from his position now sitting on the ground. The hard strike caused vibrations through his weapon and into his body until he lost balance and fell on his rear. "We need to get her out of there. Why don't we break through?"
"Because her body's very fragile right now. I need to get her out without disturbing the body physically. We have to take it nice and slow," Aang soothed, gingerly touching his hand across the crack in the stone.
"Well, maybe I can give you a short cut," Toph said with a grin. She shifted her feet apart and slowly lifted her hands, palms up. Sokka's crack grew and surrounded Ursa until near the whole thing was covered in cracks and shattered to the floor. Ursa stood untouched with a foot of amber surrounding her entire body. "That should be a little easier. Earthbending is aggressive and rough so you'll have to do the rest on your own using your other elements." With that, she turned around and walked over to Zuko before sitting down at his side.
"Do you really think she's alive?" Sokka looked at the lovely women with doubt. "She's been in there for a long time now."
"Well, I lived in an iceberg for a hundred years so why can't she in stone?" Aang gave an amused smile with a quirked brow. "Besides, I'm the Avatar. If I can, I'll help her spiritually. Look, her body's completely reserved so why not?" He gave a small sigh before looking over to Zuko. "I hope I can help him. He's been through so much."
Sokka followed Aang's gaze and his shoulders gave a small slump. "Yes he has." He turned back to Aang. "Good luck."
The Avatar went to work starting with fire. He slowly melted away the amber and immediately cooling it down by blowing cool air at his work. Aang slowly worked all around her until there was only a skin layer left of amber surrounding her. He started with her hand, careful to apply the right heat and cooling it quickly enough as to not burn the fragile skin. Finally, he was able to expose the back of the overlapping hand. Aang hesitantly touched a finger to her skin.
Sokka had awoken from his small nap during Aang's work and carefully watched when the Avatar reached skin. "Is there body heat?" he asked eagerly.
Aang's brows furrowed and he gave a heavy sigh.
Zuko sat at Ember Island's beach, bare feet in the sand feeling the waves lick his toes. He was leaning forward with his arms atop his knees and watching far off into the distance at the setting sun. As soon as it set it rose again and set again just as quickly. With each passing day Zuko's skin grew brittle and his sight weakened. His gorgeous brunette hair slowly sprouted grey and his already weakened heart began to beat slower and slower. But still he waited every day for dear Mother to return.
Behind him, Ember Island lies in ruin. Mai was long forgotten in his wait and his Nation was long ignored. But still he waited.
Mother will be home soon.
"Zuko. Zuko, can you hear me?"
He could hear someone trying to communicate with him but his old ears had clogged and he heard many false voices. Zuko pulled his knees into his chest and buried his face in his hands.
Mother will be home soon.
"Zuko, please wake up."
The voice was persistent like many others before it. Zuko shook his head in attempt to make it fade away. He concentrated on the sound of the sea and it washing up onto the shore. He no longer felt the water brushing his feet and he felt a twinge of loneliness.
Mother will be home soon.
That's what he kept telling himself. She has to be home soon. If not, what had he been waiting all this time for? She wouldn't leave him here like this.
His heart began to slow and his body grew exhausted. In his heart he wanted her to come home but in his mind he knew…he knew he'd never see Mother again. He saw the sun set for the last time and in his failing vision he saw Father walking towards him on the water, emerging from the sun. The redden sky fell down upon his body and framed his broad shoulders. The golden sun shrunk and took shape into the Fire Lord emblem in his bun. Black oozed from the night sky and flowed into his empty eyes.
Zuko couldn't take the sight anymore. He stood and turned his back to Father but as he stepped to walk away his foot slipped in the sand. He fell back, arms out wide and towards the water. He closed his eyes and thought of Mother and how he'd never see her again.
Mother won't return home.
Just as his body was about to crash into the merciless waves, it turned black and began to engulf him. But before he was completely consumed…*
"Zuko? Zuko, wake up. Please, wake up."
The soothing voice came through and woke him from his fading dream. A blurry image of brunette hair and amber eyes welcomed him but he wouldn't fall for the illusion again. He pushed the feminine hand off his cheek and moved his head to the side.
"Katara," he said weakly.
"Guess again, my dearest," came her reply.
Zuko's eyes shot open and he looked up at his mother. Her name crossed his lips and he reached forward to embrace her cheek in his palm. She leaned into the hand with her eyes closed and wrapped her hand over his. Zuko's eyes began to swell as tears rolled down over his cheeks and onto the metal floor beneath him. She looked exactly the same as when she left that cold night. She hadn't aged at all and still looked just as beautiful as he remembered.
Through uneven breaths, Zuko finally muttered, "Mother?"
"That's right, my darling," she said in a whisper. She brushed her thumb across his trembling lips and caressed his scarred tissue. "You've grown so much. And you've been through much more than I can imagine. What happened to my little Zuko?"
"It's a long story, Mother." He tore his eyes from her and looked to Aang. He didn't know why but he knew it was him who saved his mother. "I wouldn't have done it without my friends." He smiled through his tears. But then he couldn't hold it anymore. He fought against his body's pain and launched himself into his mother's arms. "I've missed you so much!"
Ursa held him with strong arms and let him cry into her shoulder. She patted at his back gingerly and let her own tears of happiness flow. "I'll never leave your side again, my love."
They held each other for a very long time until Toph politely interrupted them.
"I don't want to ruin this reunion but we're kinda stuck in a cave here. You guys can be all cutesy and lovey-dovey when we get outta here."
"She's right," Ursa said as she stood, helping Zuko up along with her. "Let's go home."
Zuko nodded with a bright smile.
"Yeah," Sokka said with high spirits. "And now that Captain Lee is dead we should get out of here easy enough."
"Wait, you killed Captain Lee?" Zuko asked as he blinked.
"I didn't. That dragon, Shiron did. Ate him right up…"
"…along with his sister," Katara said rather upset.
"Whatever, who cares!" Toph grew a brilliant smile. "Let's all go home. I don't know about you but I do not smell all that great and I would love to go home so I don't have to be surrounded by you smelly things either."
They all looked at her with hidden chuckles. Then, they all decided to ascend up the stairs and Zuko gave his mother the shorthand version of his adventures since she'd left. She was particularly upset when she discovered it was Ozai who gave his own son that horrid scar on his delicate face. He explained his struggles trying to capture Aang and how they eventually became friends. He told how he was able to bring peace among the four Nations.
Mai strode through the palace halls in an angry huff. She couldn't believe Ozai would do such a thing because Ursa requested to see her son again!
"I was never told where my brother locked away Fire Lady Ursa but I do know that when he heard that she just wanted to see nothing but her son in the future, he decided to hold her captive here in the Fire Nation until, one day, Zuko would go and find her. To believe he would send her to such a dreaded place our great uncle Rubix made so long ago…"
Iroh's voice rang in her ears and she couldn't take it anymore. Zuko had been gone for four days now without any contact. She knew of his bad condition—she and Iroh were very aware without him telling them—and she feared greatly of his health. The sun was setting on the fourth day and she stopped in the hall to look at it between the pillars.
Everything will come back through time.
Would she have to wait forever to meet Zuko again? Perhaps in another form? The idea made her furious and she started to grind her teeth.
"I won't wait any longer!" She stormed through the halls and headed straight for the launching grounds. "The Avatar hasn't come back and I've gotten no word from both him and Zuko." She was about to leap into a battle balloon when she saw Iroh pulling out a small bag from another balloon. "General Iroh?"
"Ex-general Iroh," he corrected as he turned around to greet her with a smile. "It seems birds of a feather flock together."
"You're going after Zuko, too?" She crossed her arms.
"I was until I heard something. A distinct sound I haven't heard in about a year but something I'm very familiar with." He threw the bag over his shoulder, holding it by a thin string.
"What are you talking about?" Her face went grim with disinterest.
"Well, why don't you take a look for yourself?"
Mai must have given a confused look because he pointed behind her with a wide grin. She turned around and could see in the red sun a black dot that grew bigger by the second. The dot took shape into a flying bison. And the only flying bison Mai knew was Avatar Aang's Appa. With a small smile, Mai ran. She ran and ran until her chest burned but all that was in her sights was that shape and then she could hear the lowing of the flying bison and it only made her smile more. There wasn't any proof Zuko was on Appa but Mai had a feeling and she was letting it consume her.
Mai saw Appa land at the docks and she quickened her pace. She saw the Avatar float off, followed by the Earth Nation girl, then the Water Nation siblings, then an older woman Mai didn't recognize, then…
"Zuko!" She threw herself in his arms just as he turned to her voice.
"Mai—!?" He was silenced when she gave him a swift smack across the face.
"Why didn't you take me with you? I was worried ill!" She gave a deep sigh and relaxed herself. "Are you okay?"
"Not exactly," Zuko said in a whisper. He raised his hand to rest over his heart and looked over to Mai then to Katara. "A year ago when I took that bolt of lightning for Katara I took some hefty damage. She was able to fix me up real good but some of the current passed through to my heart." He looked past Katara to Toph. "I didn't think it'd be much of an issue with peace between the four Nations now but if I'm not careful I can have a heart attack." Zuko turned his head around to look at Aang and Sokka standing behind him. "I didn't want to mention it to anyone because I didn't want to be a nuisance but it seems I caused more trouble that way."
He didn't know what else to say and he grew deadly silent as he looked back to Mai.
After a moment, a vain popped in the back of Mai's skull and she threw he hands out. "We already knew that, stupid!" With an aggravated grunt she crossed her arms and closed her eyes. "What took you so long?"
With a bright grin Aang said, "Well, we would have been here a couple hours earlier but Zuko's mother was really hesitant about riding on Appa. We thought it best not to have Zuko driving the war balloon back so we all rode on Appa." Aang gave Appa a good scratch behind his ear and Momo came gliding down giving a soft landing atop Aang's bald head.
Mai's attention was lost from Aang and was transferred to the woman standing a foot behind Zuko. Mai felt as though she was looking at a ghost brought to life. She looked exactly the same as when Mai last saw her so many years ago.
"Lady Ursa," she breathed. After a moment she gave a respectful bow. "Welcome home."
The last days of the week passed and the day of Sozin's Comet arrived. The Fire Nation was full of cheer with flying banners and fireworks. Many stands served foods from every Nation and the land was filled with reds, greens, and blues from other Nations. Even Zuko and his friends were among the people during the faithful day and stood in the royal halls at sunset. For the first time, Mai gave a big smile at the sight of the setting sun.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" she asked as she leaned up against Zuko.
"That's different," he said with wide eyes. "When did you stop hating the world?" he chuckled.
"I guess…some words of wisdom changed me…" she said, grinning.
"Zuko," came a familiar voice which made the Fire Lord turn around.
"'It's good to see you. How long's it been, a year?' That's what I wanted to ask when we landed on your docks. Since then I haven't had a chance to so I'm saying it here."
Zuko smiled. "It's good to see you, too, Aang. What have you been doing all year?"
"I've been on a journey to find lost airbenders among the Nations. I have a strong feeling I'll find one soon. I will rebirth my Nation." Aang gave a brilliant smile.
"Zuko," came another familiar voice from behind Aang.
"I just wanted to say something…about what happened a year ago." She held her hands in front of her, cheeks red. "I wanted to say…thank you."
"Hey, Zuko," came yet another voice from behind Katara.
"Sokka? Toph? And Suki?"
Sokka had shaved the sides of his head back to normal after the turn out of the Agni Kai when a good portion of his hair was fringed and his left hand bandaged up. He was trying to enjoy an un-fried dough shaped like Aang that was sagging between his fingers while he was being dragged by Toph with Suki following close behind.
Toph stopped with a strong stance and pointed in Zuko's direction. "It's time for you to live up to your bribe!"
"My bribe?" Zuko thought for a second and then formed a deep frown. "What is it?"
"I want to ride one of those carrying things!" she said proudly with her fists on her hips.
"Is that all? But you won't be able to see on that thing," he stated, confused.
"Don't care! We don't have those where I'm from and I've always wanted to ride one. So you better let me," she threatened, pointing at him, "or I'll tell everyone your secret."
"Eh?" She was there when I told everyone so why does it matter now? Is she trying to dig my grave or something?! Zuko could do nothing but grin. "Alright."
Everyone turned to see Ursa enter from another hall with Iroh at her side. They were both smiling at the Fire Lord and his dear friends.
"Mother." It's already been a few days but every time he saw her he couldn't help but be overjoyed.
Ursa and Iroh walked over and stood behind Zuko. Mai moved from him and stood next to Aang and Katara. Then, all the candles died and the sky grew bright with the explosions of fireworks one after another. Standing in the middle stood Zuko in front with his mother and uncle behind him and his friends on either side. They all watched pleasantly with smiles on all their faces.
Ursa wrapped her arms around her son from behind and hugged him close. "I'm just so happy you finally found your way," she whispered into his ear.
The words rang a bell and reminded him of Uncle Iroh. Tears rolled down Zuko's cheeks as he thought about his true family being back together again. He reached up and rested his hands on hers placed over his slowly beating heart.
"I missed you, Mother."
Book Three Ended.
A/N: Finally! It took me MUCH longer than planned to finish just this oneshot. Too bad I couldn't get a better writer for this—it's a huge disappointment to me. This is probably one of my worst writings so I'm sorry for that. I apologize for any typos I might have, I'm my own beta so it's hard to catch them all. Anyway, thank you all for reading this. There're a lot of secret messages in this story and I'm wondering if any of you will be able to find all of them. Aw, geez I sound like there will be a lot of readers, haha. Well, thank you, even if there's only one. Again, off topic-sorry! ^^; This will probably be my last Avatar the Last Airbender fanfic. You don't have to kill me to prevent other bad fanfics if this wasn't to your liking. As you may be able to tell, I left some marks in the fic for some personal notes I would like to share.
"Apparently, they didn't get the memo*," - I don't think they had memo's in Avatar but it sounded a lot better than, "Apparently, they didn't get the messenger hawk."
Zuko looked at her deeply and rested his hand over his heart. She knows. He walked past Katara and over to Toph. He then gave her a hug, making her lose her resolve. "Please…" He whispered soft enough that only she could hear.* - This may seem out of character but I did this to show just how desperate Zuko really is about his mother.
Zuko walked up to Sokka and pulled him up by the collar of his shirt*. – Sokka's shirt doesn't really have a collar but I couldn't think of much else to say. What, Zuko walked up to Sokka and pulled him up by the head hole of his shirt? That sounds horrible!
He pulled up his knees and crossed his forearms in front of him in preparation for squishnation.* - It's obvious that's not a real word but I really couldn't think of anything else to say but I definitely wanted squish somewhere in there. Make-believe words rock, bwa ha-ha!
Zuko threw his hands up into the air. "Part like the Red Sea*!" - I'm fairly sure there is no Red Sea in Avatar nor is there any existence of Moses and God in this fictional world thus I tried my hardest not to use biblical references but I had to put this one in honor of a dear friend of mine.
Sokka pulled out his Water Tribe club* - I really don't know what to call that blue orb on a stick. I tried really hard to get a proper term for it but I obviously failed until a reader suggested 'club' instead of the previous 'hammer.'
Just as his body was about to crash into the merciless waves, it turned black and began to engulf him. But before he was completely consumed…* - There're theories that if someone doesn't wake up from a falling dream then they'll die. I used this to show how close to death Zuko really was.
Thank you all so, so, SO much for reading this. I'm very honored! *Bows.* I don't like to request reviews but I would like them. Even flames are necessary; they're just harsh criticism to me. Um…I hope I said everything I want to.