This chapter came about because of the expanded timeframe, and I didn't want a few things to come out of nowhere. More at the bottom.
Jee looked around the antechamber. It was long and fairly narrow, like a hallway, but a row of plinths ran up the wall, each bearing a different object. He glanced behind him, to where the Whalesh samurai were guarding the door. Making sure he didn't feel like running off, more likely. He shook his head. While it wasn't his choice to come here, he'd might as well make the most of it.
The first plinth held a mannequin, upon which rested a threadbare Earth Kingdom hanbok. Jee had seen its like many times in his journey through the southern Earth Kingdom, before he settled in Misty Swamp. He looked at it a moment, wondering if his ex-wife was living happily. She'd left him when he was cast out of the military in dishonor. He couldn't fault her. He'd made his mistakes, and he couldn't ask her to pay for them as well. He moved further. Boots, of striped leather. Water Tribe? Strange.
"Don't dawdle," one of the samurai said from the door. But Jee took his time. He had nothing but it, these days. At the least, he got a free and comfortable trip to Kad Deid out of his 'capture'. Next plinth, a gilded iron comb, but the gilt had mostly flaked away. It was strange that objects of such low value would be on display in the heart of the palace. The last plinth, and probably worth the least of all, was a scorched doll that looked like it came from Ba Sing Se. It rested in a glass case, staring out with its little stitched smile even with its blackened cloth.
Jee frowned, looking back up the room. Objects from the remaining nations, but nothing from Great Wales? He turned, and opened the heavy oaken door to the innermost sanctum. Several fires burned heartily, giving the windowless chamber no shortage of light. A figure with long black hair was standing, facing away from him, reading a tome. "You are a hard man to find, Sergeant Jee," the woman said in perfect, barely accented Huojian. "I had never credited you able to hide in a swamp. It's quite unlike your character."
"I do what I must to survive," Jee said. He took a step forward, but he heard a whisper of steel. He turned. The figures he thought statues were bodyguards. He stopped, and kept his hands to his sides. "With whom do I speak?"
"I have a task for you," the woman said, turning around. Her face was concealed by a silver mask, and she carried the book with her chair. It was hardly a throne, but then again, this was hardly a throneroom. Jee scowled. "And I am confident you will accept."
"I am no subject of Great Whales," Jee said.
"You are no subject of the Fire Nation, either," she said. She motioned, and one of the bodyguards moved forward, setting down a table next to Jee. Another set a small chest atop it, then both moved back to the walls. Jee reached over and opened it. Fire Nation gold stared up at him. "It is not payment," the woman said. "It is resources, and there will be as much more as you need."
"I don't understand. What do you want from me?" he asked. The woman turned away, as though pondering. "I don't even know who you are."
"You never were one to keep up with politics," the woman said. She nodded her head. "That must change. I am the Empress of Great Whales. And the task I have for you is monumental in scope, perhaps lethal in danger. According to all sources in the Fire Nation, Sergeant Jee is dead. That gives you an advantage, which you are going to use to prepare."
"For what, Highness?" Jee asked, diplomatically.
"The downfall of Fire Lord Ozai," she said. She stood, and dismissed her guards. They filed out silently. "Sergeant Jee, since I ascended to my position, it has been against the law to make any representation of my image. Any who do so, are executed. That is because there is a price I am not willing to pay for one person recognizing me. That one person is not you. However, if you ever reveal what I am about to show you, even though it would not be your life placed in jeopardy, I promise you, your demise will not come quickly, but quite inevitably," she said.
"As you wish, Highness," Jee said. He didn't understand, but then again, he was a soldier. His was to fight, not to yammer on and walk the poisonous pathways of the mighty. She turned away, and pulled off her silver mask. When she turned again, Jee fell to his knees.
Zuko watched the palace as the balloons rose and landed, disgorging more and more soldiers with every pass. He shook his head; all his life, the sky had always been the unconquered frontier. But now, the Fire Nation had mastered that, too. He walked down the streets. Ba Sing Se was now the greatest city in the Fire Nation. It was hard to get his head around that. As he walked, he flexed his hands, letting that fire swell along his fingertips each time. His fire was back. And he wasn't exactly sure why.
He walked, and the rumble of collapsing stone filtered to his keen ears. All day, the Dai Li had been tearing down all of the walls of Ba Sing Se, letting even more troops file into the city. With the military paralyzed by Azula's coup, there was almost no resistance. Azula had done in three days what Uncle couldn't in two years. And a life had fallen into Zuko's lap. The life he always wanted. Home. Family. Father.
"You're looking grimmer than me," Mai said. He gave a start. He hadn't heard her approaching. Then again, he almost never did. She was very good at being quiet. "I'd have thought you'd be happier."
"So did I," Zuko said. He looked at her, and he could feel that hunger. But he'd changed so much in the last few years. So had she, probably. "It's been a long time."
"Obviously," Mai said, rolling her bright grey eyes. Damn it all, why didn't Zuko ever know what to say around women? Mai seemed content to just walk with him, though. He walked, deep in his own thoughts, trying to think of something to say, something to see if he could regain what time had lost. He was interrupted when a voice called to him from a building nearby.
"Lee!" the voice said. "Are you alright? It isn't safe to be out in the streets!"
Mai turned, raising an eyebrow. Zuko's eyes went wide. "Jin?" he asked. She glanced down the street, at the Fire Nation soldiers who marched up the streets, and beckoned the two of them in. When Zuko shrugged, she moved out and grabbed him, dragging him into the building with her, and Mai along with him. "What are you doing?" Zuko asked, annoyed.
"Saving you're life," Jin said. She turned to Mai, and that easy smile of hers crawled onto her face. "Who's your friend?"
"Remember the knife thrower?" Zuko asked. She nodded. "This is Mai."
"Oh! You were in the circus with Lee?" Jin asked. Mai turned to Zuko, with an expression that said 'what have you been telling this woman?'. "I'd like to see it."
"She'd like to see my knife throwing?" Mai asked. Zuko wilted inside. This was going to end poorly. His mind immediately went back to that trick Azula played on them all those years ago. Mai got a bit of a smirk on her face, and took Zuko's hand. "Stand here," she said, putting his back against the wall. She looked about, and found a fish on Jin's butcher block, she draped it over Zuko's head.
"Oh, this is so exciting," Jun said, clapping her hands. Mai just gave Zuko a glance, then cast out her hand, and a heavy knife slammed into the fish, brushing against his hair. Mai then pulled out a second knife, and threw it right next to the first. The head fell off the fish. A third knife, and the tail fell down past Zuko's other ear. "I want to try it!"
Mai had a small smile on her face, and she was staring at Zuko as she pulled out a knife and handed it to Jin. Zuko's eyes went wide. What was she thinking? Mai might be a paragon with the thrown knife, but Jin was just a peasant girl! Jin took the knife eagerly, and hurled it. Zuko had to dive aside so he wasn't stabbed in the face. In the process, he tipped a basin of water onto his head. Mai concealed light chuckling behind a black nailed hand, and Jin looked like she was about to pass out for laughter. Mai moved to Zuko and leaned down.
"Now we're even," she said, then pulled Zuko to his feet.
"Really? Last time, it was an apple, it was on your head, and it was my sister's fault we ended up in that fountain," Zuko muttered. He rubbed his hair. It would probably smell like fish for days. Jin finally laughed herself out, and shook her head.
"I can see why you two were in that circus together," Jin said. Mai just gave Zuko a glance. "You're welcome to stay here until things die down. I don't have any parents to take up space, and I've got a spare room," she smiled brightly. "She's already half prepared dinner for us."
Zuko went into the back room, and began to wring the water out of his shirt. Mai just stood at the door. "It's been a long time," she said. Zuko nodded.
"I waited for you. I fought against my parents. They wanted to marry me off, use me as a political tool," Mai said, grimly. "I told them that whoever they married me to, wouldn't survive the honeymoon."
"That sounds about right," Zuko muttered. So she had become sanguineous in his absence? It shouldn't have surprised him. She was an Azuli woman, after all. But she always said...
"Four years," she said. "Time changes things, you know. It changes people. It takes things away from them. You used to be so righteous. You used to be my Phoenix King. And what are you now?"
"I don't know."
"You were one of the only people I trusted and cared about. And the sad thing is, I feel like I'm starting to lose that," she turned, looking out at Jin in the kitchen. She slid the door closed. "It takes time. To rebuild what we've lost. To get back to where we were before everything changed."
"It won't be easy," Zuko admitted.
"Why not?" Mai asked, turning to him. "Why can't we just skip all of that crap? Why can't we just go back to who we were before everything changed?" she moved to him, running her long, cool fingers along his scarred face, not flinching, not looking away. "Why can't you just hold me right now?"
Zuko felt a nervous smile pull at him. "I don't see why I can't," he said. He pulled Mai close, feeling her breath on his cheek, her heartbeat against his chest. He felt that fire inside him, still burning, still angry, but part of him finally knew peace. Mai was a home. Mai was a purpose. Mai was a destiny. And now, Zuko had all three.
Katara's eyes snapped open, and she tried to bolt to her feet, but she felt herself snared. She let out a clipped yell of shock, feeling that binding, but when she struggled, the bounds upended and dumped her onto the floor. She shook her head. She felt faint. She felt disorientated. She felt like the entire room was swaying. A pounding sounded above.
She crawled toward the only source of light, which crept around the frame of a door. She pushed the door open, trying to steady herself against that swaying sensation. A wooden stairway went upward, vaguely familiar. She staggered up, and began to hear the crashing of waves. The ocean. She saw water surrounding her. Behind, three men were pounding nails into the deck. Men in blue clothes. She tried to focus. Where was she?
"Katara?" Sokka's voice came from the deck. "Katara!"
"Sokka, where are we?" Katara asked. Her eyes went wide. "Aang! What happened to Aang?"
"Katara, calm down," Sokka said. "Aang's safe. He's in the other room."
"I need to..." she trailed off, feeling a wave of nausea wash over her. "Ugh. I feel awful."
Sokka looked over his shoulder and then sighed. "Katara, you've been asleep for two weeks," he said.
"Where am I?" Katara asked.
"We're in a hidden cove off of Full Moon Bay," Bato said, rising up from his place at the center of the deck. "This ship... well, these ships, technically, are the only part of the fleet which survived. The rest were sunk, and the crews were captured."
Katara moved down the rail, hoping. The last turned. Her hopes were dashed. It wasn't Hakoda. It wasn't Dad. The ship they were sitting on was also obviously two boats which had been kitbashed together, held together with boards and nails. It was a miracle it was still floating. "Where is Aang?" Katara asked. Her balance was beginning to return, now that she knew why the world seemed to sway. It was because it did, the waves bucking the ship in the shallows.
Sokka took Katara to the other stairway down, into what had been the crew compartment of the other ship. Down there, the lamps were lit, but not for any real purpose. Toph was sitting on the floor, a fur wrapped around her filthy pajamas. Next to her, laying in a secure hammock, was Aang. He breathed, but his skin was pale, and cool to the touch. "What's wrong with him?"
"Other than that he got struck by lightning?" Toph asked. "It's like he won't heal. His burn still bleeds every couple of days. He's been like that since Ba Sing Se, when the two of you passed out on Appa."
"I passed out?" Katara asked. Sokka nodded. Of course. When she healed, she felt the Blood Moon empowering her. She felt that strength flowing out of her and into him. She'd almost died. But looking at Aang, his hair beginning to grow in, she knew she'd do the same thing again in a heartbeat.
"Katara, there's more. The Fire Nation now controls the entire East Continent, more or less. Ba Sing Se is completely under their control. And then there's these," Sokka said. He reached into a chest and pulled out some scrolls. She unfurled them, and blazened upon them were the images of Sokka and Katara and Toph, with angry Huojian script next to them. Fire Nation wanted posters. "We're all fugitives, now."
"Does the image look like me?" Toph asked.
"Yup," Sokka said. He turned back to Katara. "I'm sorry, Katara. We have nowhere else to go."
"And Dad?" Katara asked. Sokka just shook his head. Katara lowered herself to the furs next to Aang, and fought against frustrated tears.
Jeong Jeong looked at the Royal Palace as his balloon descended toward its courtyards. Below, the finest warriors in the Fire Nation were gathered, awaiting the highest ranked person outside of Ozai himself. When the balloon settled, Jeong Jeong hopped out, with a dexterity belying his age. "Firemaster Jeong Jeong," a soldier said. "The occupation is moving smoothly... may I ask why you have come?"
"No, you may not," Jeong Jeong said. He began to walk through the soldiers, past the columns of Salamander battletanks that were parked, facing outward. The Palace was still in terrible shape, with the aftermath of the coup still apparent. "Where is Crown Princess Azula?"
"She is in the throneroom, Firemaster," the soldier said. Jeong Jeong dismissed him. He wasn't happy that he'd been sent away from his palatial estate in Sozin City. The only comfort was that Ba Sing Se wasn't much worse. He was annoyed. And he was impatient. "Do you need directions to..."
"Do I look like some ignorant peasant?" Jeong Jeong asked. "I know the way. You are dismissed."
Jeong Jeong shook his head, moving through the grand hallways, some filled with rubble. The palace might have been more quickly repaired had they hired earthbenders to do the work, but Azula had rightly assumed that there could be no trusting the recently conquered peoples to undertake the task. Finally, he went through the door to the throne room. At the far end, Crown Princess Azula was sitting on what used to be the Earth King's throne. Jeong Jeong's eyes narrowed as he saw the Dark Prince near the dais, talking to some minor noble. Of course he managed to survive. Zuko lived to vex Jeong Jeong.
"Crown Princess Azula," Jeong Jeong said. "The Fire Lord sends his regards and congratulations."
"I'm sure he does," Zuko muttered from his spot, leaning against the railing of the stairs. "But that doesn't explain why you've left Sozin City for the first time in a decade."
Jeong Jeong's eyes flashed to Zuko. Zuko just stared back, unflinching. So the boy had grown a backbone, had he? The Firemaster turned back to Azula. "Fire Lord Ozai wishes to personally congratulate both yourself... and your brother... for the successful annexation of Ba Sing Se, and the cessation of the war effort in the East Continent. The Fire Nation is victorious."
"So, when will he arrive?" Azula asked, looking keenly at the aged master. "I don't doubt he would love to stride the paths no Fire Lord has ever walked before."
"He is not coming," Jeong Jeong said. "You are going to him. Both of you. Immediately."
Azula's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"Ozai has called you home. The Avatar is dead, Ba Sing Se in his hands. Your task is done. You will return home via war balloon presently."
"But there is still much to do in Ba Sing Se," Azula said, shaking her head. Jeong Jeong scowled.
"Then delegate. You are a princess, not a page," Jeong Jeong turned to face the Dark Prince. "And you... you got very lucky. But your luck will run out. It always does."
"Gods, what's his problem?" the noble next to Zuko muttered. Jeong Jeong didn't care what the girl thought. All that mattered was the greatness of the Fire Nation. And for the moment, that meant that Zuko was returning home. And there was nothing Jeong Jeong could do about it. For the moment. That would change. He stopped, turning back.
"There were two companions," Jeong Jeong said. "Where is the other?"
"Ty Lee is doing whatever it is she does," Azula said. "It isn't like she has anything to go home to. I don't doubt she's on her way back to her circus at Si Wong by now."
"I see. Good. Avoid unnecessary scandal," Jeong Jeong said. At least somebody in that family had an ounce of political acumen. It might be the only thing saving them when they got home. The Fire Nation was a much more hostile place then when they'd left it.
It was hard sailing. The ship that Sokka, Bato and Ogan pieced together seemed like it was more holes than wood. Appa could barely fit on the deck, and only then because the deck was twice as wide as it was supposed to be near the back. Katara wasn't getting much sleep. Between her concern for Aang and the constant waterbending she had to do to keep the ship from swamping, there wasn't time for rest. They had to get away from Ba Sing Se. They had to do it now.
"Katara!" Bato said, standing at the back of the ship. He pointed behind them. Sokka joined her at the stern, and Sokka passed her a telescope. A massive, black form of a Fire Nation ship. "They're catching up to us. We can't move any faster with the wind in our faces."
"I can bend the tides faster," Katara offered. It was the primary way they were slipping through the waters of Full Moon Bay, her waterbending making them slide down toward the ocean. But it was tiring, and this ship wasn't the smooth, cutting craft that her people were used to piloting. It was a monstrosity of necessity. And besides, Sokka was shaking his head.
"If you did that, you'd probably tear the hulls apart," Sokka said. He hung his head. For just a moment, he looked like a younger, clean shaven Hakoda. "They're going to overtake us. When they do, we're going to fight them. You take Toph and Aang on Appa and get out of here.
"No," Katara said.
"Don't argue this!" Sokka shouted. "You have to save the people you can, and we're the only ones who can stop them, even for a while. When Aang wakes up, he's going to need you and Toph. Me? Not so much."
"I don't like your plan. It sucks," Katara said. She looked back at the black, metal, Fire Nation ship. Despite the fact that they had to have seen the Water Tribe vessel, nobody was manning the catapults. In fact, on closer inspection, there weren't even any catapults on deck. "Bato, turn us around. I think its time we got a new boat."
Sokka stared at Katara, then began to laugh hysterically. She frowned at Bato, who shrugged. "Oh, I've never been more proud than I am right now of my little sister," Sokka said, with a grin.
Bato swung the boat around, its timbers cracking and popping as they went through the sudden maneuver, but Katara didn't care. She just coated the bottom of the boat with a skin of ice, for just this one last voyage. Toph came up out of the holds, rattling the chains she'd wrapped around her arms. Fighting in her pajamas again. It was becoming something of a habit for the blind metalbender. The ship began to loom quite large. Bato batted his club against his palm, nervously. "How exactly are we going to board the deck?" Bato asked. Sokka grinned.
"Who said anything about boarding the deck?" Sokka answered. He turned to Toph. "You up for this?"
"Do platypus bears crap in the woods?" she countered. Katara understood the plan immediately.
"You're going to have to trust me. Timing will need to be perfect," Katara said.
"I trust you about as far as I can fling ya'," Toph said, a grin on her face. Katara pointed back at Ogan.
"Get Aang onto Appa and stay airborne until I call you down," Katara said. She then began to swirl her hands, pulling up from the water. A vast cloud of fog began to swell up, obscuring all vision. Except for Toph's anyway, and hers was what mattered. When she was done, she pulled a thick arm of water up onto deck, and froze the end of it. Toph stepped onto it, and Katara hurled the water forward, through the fog, into the Fire Nation ship.
"And now, I suppose, we wait," Bato said. Appa gave a groan, then there was a whoosh of air. In the distance, Katara could hear the shrieking of metal being torn apart. Then, the ship loomed suddenly out of the fog. Everybody readied themselves, and at the moment the flimsy ship crashed into the iron behemoth, they were all riding a pallet of ice through that breach, into the dim red light of the Fire Nation hold.
She was immediately assaulted by the smell of sweat and human bodies. She looked around, adjusting her vision to the sudden low light, and she gave a gasp. This was a prison ship. And all of these prisoners were her people, taken during the Battle of Chameleon Bay. She turned. "Toph!"
"Workin' on it," she said. She tore apart a cage, allowing Tribesmen to crawl out. Sokka and Bato each handed them a spare weapon, and they began to move up through the ship. Katara went with them. This was her ship now. Its owners just didn't know it yet. The Fire Nation soldiers tried to block their way upward, but Bato and Sokka brought them down quickly. The army of familiar faces rose through the ship.
In the tower, a firebender tried to leap out and incinerate Katara. But she just smashed him aside with the water from her flasks. It was always a mistake to attack waterbenders at sea. Often, a fatal mistake. Katara and Sokka moved upward, as the Tribesmen began to flare outward, clearing and securing the rest of the ship. They reached the helm, the highest point of the ship. Katara tried the door, but it was locked. Toph was below, still freeing prisoners, or else, imprisoning defeated enemies. Katara was impatient. She bent the water into a column which assaulted the door, giving it no peace or respite. Iron was strong, but water was insistent, patient, and inevitable. And water always won.
The door tipped off busted hinges, and the siblings entered the room. Three firebenders stood with locked shoulders, waiting to strike. At least, that's what Katara thought, until one of them pitched over, face first. The captain turned to him, then let out a cry of alarm as a wooden stick smashed him in the head. A twist of movement, and the last was pulled off his feat and then chased down by a staff. When all was said and done, three men were down on the deck, the Water Tribe siblings had done nothing but open a door, and Ty Lee was breathing heavily, holding onto Aang's lost glider staff.
"This belongs to you," she said.
"Ty Lee?" Sokka said. "What are you doing here?"
"Giving your family back," she said quietly, She looked down at the unconscious people below. "I am going to find that happy ending, Sokka. Where everybody's happy and everybody lives. It exists. I know it does. And I think you all are the way I'm going to find it."
"I don't know if I can trust you," Katara said darkly. Ty Lee smiled sadly.
"Then I'll have to earn it. Again," she said. And she walked to the door, out onto the balcony, and sat, staring out at the water. Behind them, Katara heard footsteps approaching. Sokka turned first, and when he did, he dropped his club.
"Dad!" he shouted, and he ran forward, giving Hakoda a big hug. "I thought I'd lost you again!"
"And yet here I am again. It seems like the universe just can't keep the two of us apart."
Katara looked away, unable to look at her father. "And yet you keep disappearing," Katara said. Men began to move into the room and remove the captain and his men, now prisoners. "Every time I think I'm going to see you again, something comes up. And it's always me who is left standing on the shores alone, waiting, wondering if I'll ever see you again. And I can't do it anymore. I can't stand not knowing if you're alive or dead, or if you're ever coming back..."
Katara fought tears, but they were coming out anyway. Hakoda turned her toward him. "This isn't about me is it?" Katara bit her lip, looking down to where Appa was landing on the deck, to the limp young man tied to a stretcher being lowered to friendly hands. She looked at her father again, the tears finally breaking free.
"How could you, Dad?" she asked. "I know why you had to leave, and I understand how important it was, but every day I fell asleep, you just disappeared a little more from my life, and it tore me apart. And even though I know why you left, I still felt so angry and abandoned and alone inside," she said, weeping. Hakoda just gathered her into a hug, her head against his shoulder. "I don't want anybody else I love to leave me," she whispered.
"Katara, I love you and your brother more than anything," her father said. "You are my entire world. I swore a long time ago that I would keep you safe. And I will. From anything I can."
"Dad..." Katara said. She wept on his shoulder, and Sokka patted her back. When she'd finally cried herself out, she and her father turned and watched the water from the balcony. To one side, Katara could see Sokka sitting beside the acrobat.
"Thank you," Sokka said to her, looking her in the eyes. "You don't know what this means to us."
Ty Lee looked at him, and a bright smile came to her face. "You see me," she said, with a bittersweet tone. "You're looking at me again. You're looking at Ty Lee."
Azula walked into her father's chambers. He turned to her, a small smile on his face. He held his arms out wide, showing the unusual clothing he was wearing. A coat, made out of the whole skin of a bear. "This was just sent to me from the royal furriers," he said. "Don't I look fantastically barbaric? You might mistake me for some Water Tribesman."
"You called for me, Father?" Azula asked. Ozai nodded, his smirk vanishing. He pulled off the bear skin coat which used to be the Earth King's pet and threw it aside. Something about that didn't sit well with Azula, but she couldn't say what.
"You have done better than I could have imagined," Ozai said, walking to her and cupping her face with a hand. "You managed to capture my traitorous brother and conquer Ba Sing Se in three days. And you even struck down the Avatar himself."
The wheels turned in Azula's head. While she had struck him directly with the bolt of lightning, she hadn't recovered the body. She would never believe the Avatar dead unless she sat five days with his corpse. And besides, when she asked Zuzu about it, his answer was a non answer. She looked up at her father. "It was not I who slew the Avatar," Azula lied. "It was my brother, Zuko. You should have seen him. He was like a channel for rage itself."
Ozai rose a brow, but smiled. "That is good. It will weigh well for him. I feared his dishonor would not have been expunged, but this... this tips the scale. One child, the champion who conquered a nation single handed, the other, a warrior who slew the Avatar himself in single combat. That, Azula, is the power of fire."
"Yes, Father," she said. She waited for the other sandal to fall. There was always something not right. Not perfect. She waited, and he smiled, turning away. That was it? She'd done well? Well enough for him to just thank her and walk away? No. This couldn't be right. She was never perfect. So close, but almost perfect was not good enough. What did Father want from her? Why wasn't he telling her? "Is there anything else you want, Father?" Azula asked, keeping her voice steady.
"You've done well, Azula," he said. "Now, tell Zuko that I await him in the Royal Chambers. He must have his due as well."
Azula walked out of the chambers, feeling a bit ill at ease. He thanked her. She'd done well. Perfection? But... No. She hardened a part of herself. If Father said she'd done well, then she'd done well. To second guess herself would be womanish. Worse, it would be like Zuko! And she refused to be like him. But still... She had plans for him. It would just fall to see whether he would be a beneficiary, or a target.
"Orange. What a stupid color," Mai said, looking at the sky.
"It's sunset," Zuko offered. Mai just shook her head.
"I hate orange."
"You hate a lot of things," Zuko pointed out. He smiled as she tucked in closer to him. "You're so beautiful when you hate the world."
DAMN IT! He always managed to say the dumbest thing. She looked at him, shaking her head lightly with a tiny smile. "I don't hate you," she said. The smile on Zuko's face grew a bit.
"I don't hate you, too," He said. She leaned up, and their lips met, briefly. It was a pleasant night, after a pleasant day. More pleasant than he'd expected, to be honest. When he stood before the people at the palace balcony, they cheered for him. The Dark Prince, no longer. Now, he just enjoyed the familiar heat, the press of the sun. Footfalls sounded, dragging Zuko's attention away from his girlfriend. He looked to the path leading to the edge of the caldera in which Sozin City rested. Azula was walking toward him.
"What do you want?" Zuko asked.
"Can I not just have a pleasant conversation with my brother?" Azula asked.
"Was that a rhetorical question?" Zuko answered. Azula looked at Mai, and nodded to the city.
"Mai, I'd like to speak to my brother, alone," she said.
"Why? What are you afraid she'd hear?" Zuko asked.
"It's family business. I'm sure you wouldn't be interested," Azula said. Mai just shrugged, before rising and heading away from the scenic overlook.
"I had to get my house back in order, anyway," Mai said flatly, before departing down the hill.
"What do you want, Azula?" Zuko asked.
"Father wants to speak to you," she said. She inspected her nails idly. "Right now."
"You had to tell me that in person?"
"Perhaps. Or perhaps I wanted to get one last look at you while you still inhabited this earthly shell," Azula smirked. "That is for you to decide. Go to Father. He is not a patient man."
Zuko rose, dusting off his robes, and moved past his sister. It was a long walk down into the city from the overlook, which was sort of the point of his going there. The adulation was fine for a few minutes, but then it just got... tiring. He walked, his hood pulled low, through the streets of Sozin City. The sun had set, and with it, his connection to that strongest font of firebending, by the time he reached the palace.
The Palace was a work of splendor, just as he'd remembered it. Gold and cinnabar and obsidian polished to a mirror sheen. He walked along its corridors, to the Hall of Fire, where the Fire Lord ruled. This one was relatively new; the whole palace had rebuilt in this place during Sozin's time. Before that, the old palace on the other side of the continent had played host to the Fire Lords for twelve hundred years. He opened the doors, walking the black floored chamber, toward the roaring fire in the trough. When Zuko reached the appropriate spot, he supplicated himself.
"You have been away for a very long time, and I can see the weight of your travels has changed you. Hardened you. Steeled you. Good. It has burned away the weakness that resulted in your banishment; you have redeemed yourself as my son," Ozai said. He rose, and walked through the flames, staring down at Zuko. "Welcome home, Zuko. Welcome home, my son."
"Thank you, Father," Zuko said, quietly. Ozai walked down the steps and began to pace to and fro along the path of the flames which still burned.
"I am proud of you," Ozai said. "I am proud of you, because when the moment of truth came, when your loyalty was tested by my treacherous brother, you did the right thing, and captured him. And I am most proud of your most legendary achievement; the slaying of the Avatar."
Zuko's eyes widened, but since he was facing the floor, Ozai couldn't have noticed. "What have you heard?" Zuko asked, testing. A small smile came to Father's face.
"Azula told me everything," he said. "When you faced the Avatar, you weathered his assaults and struck him down at the peak of his power. She said that she was impressed by what you had done at the critical moment."
"Thank you, Father," Zuko repeated. Azula was doing something. He remembered the nights he'd lay awake, chanting to himself his mantra against her cruelties. Azula always lies. Azula always lies. Azula always lies... "If that is all, I am fatigued, and wish to retire."
"Retire, my son," Ozai said, walking back into the flames. "You have restored your honor, and you have restored my faith in you."
Zuko rose, and walked away from the throne. Azula was planning something. He just didn't know what. He moved through the hallways, up to where Azula used to sleep. The room was empty, and also blasted and coated in soot. Zuko shook his head. Then he remembered something she'd said a while ago, the direction she'd left. He began to retrace his steps, and walked the halls again. It didn't take Zuko long to find where she'd taken to sleeping. Ursa's chambers. Mom's room.
"Why did you do it?" Zuko demanded as he cleared the door. Azula's head turned to him from under the sheets.
"You're going to have to be a bit more specific," Azula said. She shifted, swinging her bare legs over the edge of the bed. "Can't this wait until morning?"
"Why did you tell Father that I killed the Avatar?" Zuko pressed. Azula rose, stretching. She was wearing only a sleeping robe. She slunk toward him in a manner which made Zuko extremely uncomfortable. She smiled at him. It was not a sisterly smile.
"I told him because you seemed so worried that Father wouldn't restore your honor, just because you hadn't captured the Avatar," Azula walked past him, trailing her fingertips along his shoulder. Zuko went tense, wary. "I figured that if I gave you the credit, Father would give you the accolades you so richly deserve, and you would finally have your precious honor back."
"But why?" Zuko asked. Azula turned, running her fingernails across her exposed collarbone. This was really creeping Zuko out.
"Call it a generous gesture, from sister to brother," she said, a smile on her face. Again, it was not a filial smile. Was she trying to act this way?
"You're lying," Zuko said, unnerved. She shrugged, the robe slipping down a bit from her shoulder.
"If you say so," she said. She walked past him, back to the bed.
"You have an ulterior motive for this, I know it," Zuko said. "I just can't figure out what it is."
Azula leaned against her bedpost, smiling. "What ulterior motive could I have? And besides, what possible harm could there come from letting everybody think that you killed the Avatar?" she asked. Zuko glanced away. "Unless you think that he isn't dead. Because if he wasn't, all of that honor and accolade would suddenly turn to shame."
She smiled, then pulled herself back into bed. "Sleep well, Zuzu," she said, pulling the blanket back over her. Zuko quickly turned away. Two thoughts occurred to Zuko, and neither one was pleasant. Either his sister just tried to knowingly seduce him, which was horrifying in its own way, or else she seduced him without even knowing she was doing it. And the latter was actually scarier than the former. He walked away, knowing that he would get precious little sleep this night. Could the Avatar be alive? Could he risk it?
Toph stood on the deck of the ship they'd stolen, feeling the vibrations reaching through the metal. She could see everything that happened on this ship. She could see the Fire Nation soldiers in the hold. She could see Sokka talking to his father in the galley. She could see every one of the Water Tribesmen. She could see Katara walking up to her. It was good to be able to see. It meant she didn't get anywhere near as sick as last time.
"You look pensive," Katara said.
"I literally have no idea how you look," Toph responded. She turned, feeling those latest arrivals who were still moving in the tower. "Do you have any idea where we're going? Because my sight has a very definite boundary out here."
Katara sighed. "There's only two places that are still free of the Fire Nation," she said. "The Poles, and Great Whales. If we go to the Poles, we'd be safe, but..."
"But we wouldn't be able to do anything from there?"
"Yeah," Katara said. She hung her head. "I guess that means we've only got one option. Great Whales."
"I hope you speak the language," Toph said. Katara looked at her. "Oh wait, you don't. Just like you don't speak Huojian. You're really going to have to do something about that."
"Because we've got no army. We've only got a couple of Tribesmen and a bunch of wacky tinkerers to mount an invasion. That means, we're going to have to do this quietly," Toph said. "We're going to need to get to the heart of their nation without them knowing we're there. If you can't talk their language, they'll spot you a mile away."
"So what? I need to learn the Fire Tongue?" she asked.
"Couldn't hurt. Loverboy already's got a firm grip on it," she said. She tilted her head. An unusual sensation was coming toward her. It was part metal and part wood. "Katara, is there a wagon on this ship?"
"Teo!" Katara said, bounding up and moving toward the odd sound. Toph rose, and saw Katara embracing somebody in a strange, wheeled chair. "What are you doing here?"
"Dad decided that fighting for a place we couldn't defend wasn't worth the risk," Teo said. "He took all of the orphans and families and put them on boats to Kad Deid. It might not be much, but Great Whales isn't at war with the Fire Nation."
"Not yet," Katara said. "Give them a month."
"Anyway," Teo said, turning back to Katara. "Dad decided to see if there was any way he could help, and he sought you out. Do you want to hear how?"
"Is it technical?" Katara asked.
"Then you should probably tell it to my brother," Katara said. "He'd appreciate it more."
"Will do, Frequent Flier," Teo said. Katara took a step back, and waved toward Toph.
"Teo, this is Toph. She's Aang's earthbending master."
"She's an earthbender?" Teo said. Toph got ready to scowl, but he shrugged. "Cool. Don't see enough women earthbending, these days."
"I'm not just an earthbender. I'm the greatest earthbender in the world!" Toph said.
"What's with your eyes?" Teo asked.
"She's blind," Katara whispered.
"Don't say it like its a bad thing," Toph chastised. She turned to Teo. "I can see everything going on in this boat with my feet alone. So tell me, what's with 'Frequent Flier'?"
"Katara and I used to fly together at the Northern Air Temple," Teo said.
"'Fly together'?" Toph asked, giving Katara a nudge. "And I thought you were all googoo for Twinkletoes."
"Toph," Katara's voice had an angry edge, so Toph backed off. She knew not to mess with an angry waterbender at sea. That way lead to a swift drowning.
"Fine. You should go get your brother. I think he'd like to talk to Teo," Toph said. Katara stared at Toph for a moment, then went toward the tower, where Sokka was. Toph turned back to the boy. "What's up with your chair?"
"I've got no legs," Teo said plainly. She reached over and patted his lap, and moved downward. He was right. His legs ended at the knees. "It hasn't stopped me," he continued. "Much the same way your blindness hasn't stopped you. I may not have legs, but I can move around with my chair. I can even fly, if the winds are right."
"That's pretty awesome," Toph said, She sat on the deck, dangling her legs over where the gangplank would have been. Teo just parked himself next to her. She glanced up at him. "Soooooo..." she said. "Wanna make out?"
Teo turned toward her, slowly. "Do I wanna what?"
Toph turned back toward the sea, quickly. "Nothing."
Teo chuckled. "You know, I think I'm going to enjoy this voyage."
Avatar, Book 2: Children of Earth – The End.
So there you go. Book two is done, and everything's in place for book three. Lots of hints at things to come if you can read into them the right way and/or have an inside track into my twisted mind. But that's something which will slowly come about in the next book.
Quite unlike what I usually do, I'll be leaving this one here for as long as I can to answer any questions that pop up about things that appeared in Children of Earth. Since this thing went up in a matter of a month, it didn't have time to attract as much of a wide base of readership while it was still updating, so there's a good chance that questions might go unanswered simply because the boot time has lapsed and I can no longer update this. Without further ado, a Q&A session
Kuei is dead. Sad, I know, but he had to be for something well down the line. I did feel bad about Bosco, though. Ozai is a mean, mean man. It'll take a while for this one to come through, but there is a storyline requiring the Earth King's absence, one that couldn't be had by him wandering around in sandles and a sackcloth robe.
Calling Sokka Sparky in chapter 18 was, to be honest, a goof. But it's a goof I'm going to hold on to: Toph has already shown once that she'll reassign nicknames as she feels like it.
Also pointed out was that much of what was changed regarded motivation. That's really kind of important to me. I was building a psychology for these characters. Hell, I even managed to figure out why Toph was a borderline kleptomaniac, although that won't be explored until part way through Children of Fire (whenever I start putting it up. University has a way of getting in the way of things). I needed the tragedy not to be that Zuko didn't defect in Book Two, because it would be impossible for him at this point. The real tragedy comes in book three, and not for him. Why was I putting so much impetus on motivation? Because I needed for it to be plausible that Ty Lee would be part of the Gaang for the entire of Children of Fire. Only because of the groundwork of the last two books would that be possible. Especially once things get past the Invasion. It might be a personal preference, but I have never believed that people are inherently good or evil. It all comes down to the situations one faces, and the choices one makes. That's why I can't help but feel sorry for Azula, but feel Ozai didn't get a twinkling of what he deserved.
So, Children of Fire comes out soon, getting inside people's heads. Playing politics, dancing, accidentally creating THE HERO OF THE FIRE NATION, past lives, and a royal family tearing itself apart. Fun stuff. Stay tuned. It just gets bumpier from here.
EDIT: This just in. Book Three: Children of Fire is launched. Get 'er while she's hot. Heh. Fire puns.
Leave a review with questions you'd like answered about Children of Earth
Or just my praise. I kid.