Did you really think I was going to leave it like that? To answer a few questions, yes, I do intend to do a... well, not so much a sequel, as a continuation. Everybody got their happy endings except for a couple. One stands out head and shoulders, and I think you all know who. This? This is just a teaser. A few words in the right place, setting things up to come.
And to dash your collective hopes against the rocks, I haven't even started writing the next part yet, and don't plan to put fingers to keyboard until at least December. Unless my brain gets the better of me anyway.
And say hello to a new character. You'll be seeing quite a bit of him in the next part of the story.
Aang hopped off of Appa's back, setting foot onto the grounds of the Southern Air Temple. It was strange to see it inhabited again. After the siege of Kad Deid was broken two years ago, many of the refugees, who had fled there from the North Air Temple, took up residence in the South. While they had turned the North into what Aang could only call a blasphemy against his former culture and his former people, the refugees did not bring that same smash and advance mentality with them to this new home. Of course, Aang was a different person now from when he'd first found the Mechanist and his people, on his way to the North Pole.
"Wow! This place is neat!" Ty Lee said, wide eyed and grinning.
"You've never been here before, have you?" Aang asked. She shook her head vigorously. "I'll have to show you the air-ball court some time. I think you'd really enjoy it."
"Look at all the people," Ty Lee said. "Who are they?"
Aang didn't answer her. She'd come a long way since he'd started teaching her back in the Western Air Temple. There was some irony in that if Aang hadn't been the Avatar, she could have been the greatest airbender of her age. Her potential and the rate of her advancement was astonishing. She was still flighty and got distracted at the drop of a pin, but that just underscored her savant nature. But right now, Aang had a mission, one he'd put off for far too long.
Aang moved up the hills, smiling as he heard the grunting of sky bison below. They didn't have airbenders to bond to, but they were comfortable returning to places ingrained in their genetic memory. While sky bison now could be seen in every sky, they congregated at the Air Temples, North, South, and West. There wasn't enough of the East left to attract them, it seemed.
"Go on, Basu, go and play!" Ty Lee said, and her own bison, much more energetic than laid-back Appa bounded over to the others and tackled one of them as it was eating. The two bison started to wrestle on the lower promenade. The sight of it brought back memories Aang thought he'd never see expressed again. It brought a smile to his face. Aang hadn't gone up the path long when he felt a rumbling under his feet. He glanced up the hill, and saw a pair of milky eyes staring down at him. Well, not really staring.
"That was a warning shot, Twinkletoes," Toph shouted. "You could have warned me you were coming. I don't like people sneaking up on me."
"Toph? What are you doing here?" Ty Lee asked, taking the words out of Aang's mouth. "Did you settle with the refugees? Are you still with Teo? I like your hair! How is your mother?"
"Gods, it's like undercutting a dam around you, ain't it?" Toph chuckled. She got to her feet as the two airbenders approached. "My question still stands. What the hell are you doin' here?"
"I could ask the same of you," Aang said.
"Mining," Toph said with a shrug. Aang's brow drew down. "Oh, don't be like that. I'm not undercutting the damned mountain. I just drag metal to the surface and sell it. It ain't easy bein' rich when you've got no money."
"Tell me about it," Ty Lee said. "Remember Fire Fountain..."
"Guys," Aang cut them off before they completely forgot he was there. Two sets of eyes, one of them useless, turned to him. "I'm looking for Teo. I was told he was here."
"Ah, you want Flyboy?" Toph asked. She beckoned for Aang to follow her. "You've been out in the world a bit more than I have in recent months. How are things?"
"The armies in the Earth Kingdoms are quiet," Aang said. "In the first year, there were attacks and guerrilla raids every other week, but now... Something's going on, and I'm don't know what," Aang rubbed his forehead, pushing his hair away. When he met up with Katara, he was going to need to get a haircut. It was an activity both enjoyed, but for different reasons.
"Bumi's in Ba Sing Se," Ty Lee added. "Since there's no Earth King, he's taken over – temporarily he says – as the Steward of the Throne. People seem a bit nervous about him having that much power, but I guess they think it's better than anarchy."
"Yeah, somebody's going to have to nut up and become Earth King one of these days," Toph muttered. "Ain't like Kuei had any heirs. Dude died a virgin."
"We just came here from the South. Gods, you wouldn't believe the changes," Aang said, shaking his head. When he came out of the iceburg, the only civilization on that continent was a disorganized clutch of villages, each its own clan, spread over the ice. Now, there was a city. It lacked the majesty of the North, but they were already bringing in earthbenders from the south, making something lasting. Something permanent. Sokka had been adamant in establishing a house of learning there. Possibly just to shake the world's image of Water Tribesmen as illiterate barbarians. "Hakoda and Jei are now ruling a nation, rather than a village. And there are waterbenders coming out of every snowbank, it seems like."
"Suki had to retire," Ty Lee said sadly. "She won't be doing much fighting anymore. But I think she's happy enough as it is. There's not much fighting left on Kyoshi."
"Mai had a daughter," Aang said. "As I hear it, Zuko fainted dead away during the delivery," Aang laughed again at the mental image. "They called her Yuuki; if she's anything like her mother, it'll be a fitting name."
"Or her father, nowadays."
The three benders finally came to the first building, and somebody leaning into an arch, hammering a board in place, trying to keep the scaffolding that was in place sturdy. "Hey, Teo! Aang's here to see you!"
Aang's eyebrow rose as Teo turned, standing upright. He looked down, his eyes widening. Teo had legs. How did Teo have legs? Teo grabbed a cane and slowly, carefully moved his way closer. Toph patted him on the belly as he walked over. It was probably her equivalent of one of Ty Lee's rib-pulverising hugs... which the airbending student was currently unleashing on the boy. After extracting himself, Aang finally understood how the young man was upright. Those weren't real legs. They were made of wood.
"I see you're noticing Sokka's newest invention?" Teo asked. "Well, not really invention, considering Combustion Man came up with it first."
"That isn't his real name, you know," Ty Lee admonished.
"Whatever. Sokka made it lighter and more... well, usable," Teo smiled easily. "So what do I owe the pleasure?"
"You've always loved the sky," Aang said, walking up to the formerly crippled youth. He placed a hand on Teo's chest and another on his brow. He let energy flow, not tearing out, but adding in. A thud, like a thunderclap without a sound, rippled through those standing nearby. "I give you the sky."
Teo staggered back, slumping against the scaffolding. His eyes were very wide. "What... what did you do?"
"Three students aren't enough. The airbenders have to continue," Aang said, as the last trickles of the universal energy flowed away. "In the last two years, I've only found two people who had both the spark and the drive to become airbenders. You always had the drive, but you lacked the spark. So I gave you the spark. You are an airbender now."
Teo stared at his hands, then thrust them out at the snow on the mountaintop. Nothing happened.
"You'll still need to train," Ty Lee said with a laugh.
In a lot of ways, it wasn't fair having to grow up in the South Water Tribe these days. Ever since Katara's name became known to the world, she had become the standard against which everything the South produced was measured. And everything measured invariably was found wanting. It wasn't fair, but it didn't bother him very much. He had better things to occupy his time.
Like the fact that this Water Tribe bumpkin was now standing before the Fire Lord. Ked bowed low, hoping that his uncouth upbringing wouldn't shine through his skin. "You don't need to bow. I am not my predecessor. I don't demand fear," the Fire Lord said. Ked rose back to his feet. The Fire Lord wasn't excessively tall, still overtopping Ked a bit, but not by as much as the Tribesman would have expected. A beard adorned the line of his jaw, interrupted by a burn scar on his left eye that stretched back over the Fire Lord's ear. The story was that the previous Fire Lord gave him that.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't expecting to meet somebody so..." Ked tried to find the word.
"I don't always let people know where I'm going," the Fire Lord said. "It defeats the purpose of seeing how they act when I'm not around," the ruler broke off, leaning toward Ked. Ked leaned back a bit. "You're younger than I was led to believe."
"I'm old enough," Ked said defensively. "I was trained by both Masters Pakku and Yugoda."
"And you are the healer that was recommended?"
"The finest in the world," Ked said without ego. While the difference in aptitude between he and say, Katara was so vast that it almost couldn't be charted, there was one area in which he excelled above all others, Katara included. If he'd been a woman, everybody would have thought it obvious and appropriate. Because he was a man, if a young man, people thought it odd. "I was Yugoda's finest student, as well as her last. Since this posting doesn't require me to get into brawls, my masters decided that I should spend some time learning practically."
"This is a sensitive subject," the Fire Lord said. "You have only one patient who must be seen. All others are per your discretion and subjugated to the needs of her."
"Who are we talking about?" Ked asked, suspicious. He was a healer. He couldn't just wait hand and foot on one person while everybody else suffered. The Fire Lord opened a room. It was stark; a thin, fire resistant mattress lying on the floor, and a latrine in a corner with a curtain for privacy. There was room for a desk and chair, but this room lacked them. What it had was a cadaverous looking woman staring at a candle flame, her long black hair uncared for, her golden eyes vacant. Ked felt something lurch inside him as he saw her.
"My sister," Fire Lord Zuko said quietly, painfully. "Everybody was terrified that she was plotting, waiting for a chance to escape. But it turned out..." he waved his hand toward the woman. "Once she became like this, nobody believed that anymore," the Fire Lord looked away, but his eyes had become damp. "Is there anything you can do for her?"
Ked moved into the room, inspecting the woman. Her limbs had atrophied from lack of use. She breathed, but it was weak and thready. Her eyes didn't blink nearly often enough. Ked pulled out a thin skin of water and set it aglow on his hand, and pressed it to her brow. He retracted it immediately, feeling as though he'd been zapped.
"I can fix the atrophy of her limbs," Ked said, dismissing her physical state as something he could remedy in about a week. "But her mind? There is chaotic energy in there. I don't know if a science exists which can help her."
"I was afraid you'd say that," the Fire Lord whispered.
"Which is convenient, because I'm starting one," Ked said. The Fire Lord glanced over at him. "What? Expecting Tribesmen to shiver in ignorance and darkness at the poles?"
"That sounds rather like what a friend of mine would say," Fire Lord Zuko said with a small smile. "And with about that same tone, too."
Ked blanched. "I apologize, Fire Lord. I was..."
"If it can help her, you will have any resources you need given to your disposal," the Fire Lord said. He backed away, but gave his sister one last glance. "Please help her. She didn't deserve this."
Mong Ke stared around the room. Once the mightiest nation on the face of this Earth, and now, the only ones who still fought for it were huddled under a tent. Vachir was still with him, as was Ogedai, but Yeh-Lu, the traitorous bitch, decided to opt for the Dark Prince's amnesty. She always was weak. The other faces in the tent were also familiar to Mong Ke. Admirals Lee and Chan, and Liang from the eastern fleet. Generals Deng and Zanpo. Azun was not in attendance. He was probably dead. The man was a fanatic, his mind didn't have room for rational thought. Firemaster Jeong Jeong kept his own council, rather than fighting for room around the table. But there was one face which Mong Ke didn't recognize, one which looked no stranger to combat. It sat silently at the back of the tent.
"We're too spread out," Deng said, running fingers over the tiny map which people had to lean over each other to see. "Our forces are spread all over the face of the planet. If we want to have any chance of a military coup, we'll need to gather them, quietly, to a place where we have influence."
"Even if we do, what have we got? Two airships? A dozen ships?" Liang muttered. "Zuko has a hundred times the ordnance that we do. We should dig into the flank of Great Whales. We've retaken Pohuai stronghold. They would never be able to remove us again. This time we're prepared."
Shinu, of course, had no opinion on that. He stayed silent at the edge of the tent.
"You're all overlooking one important fact," the unknown said from the back. His voice was very deep, used to speaking at a even level and having others strain to hear it. He was not a man to shout, and it showed. Mong Ke didn't know what to make of him.
"And what would that be, outsider?"
"Legitimacy," the newcomer said, moving into the light of the braziers. His head was shaved, but thin strands of mustache and beard trailed from his face. Sharp green eyes overlooked the map. "You might be able to steal out one of Ozai's bastards from his concubines or whores, but the people will never agree to be ruled by one who is so obviously a puppet. And you will need popular support, make no mistake about that."
"What do you know about politics?" Mong Ke asked.
"More than you ever will, soldier," the newcomer said. He pointed at the map. "In Ember, there is still a lot of anti-Zuko sentiment. It is a very pro-Ozai part of the Fire Nation..."
"So we invade Ember," Deng said. The newcomer shot him a look which was so loaded with derision that he'd might as well have reached over and slapped the old man across the face.
"No," he said evenly. "This will not be a swift process. There will be steps. First, we need to foment further discord against the Fire Lord in that region. When we appear, they will welcome us with open arms. It is not the time to be hasty. I've been on the wrong side of a war before. It is not a pleasant experience."
"I don't like your tone."
"I don't like your ignorance," the newcomer said, not backing down an inch. Mong Ke smirked. It was good to see Deng taken down a peg or two, by someone who wasn't overawed by the man's reputation alone. The newcomer bridged his fingers before his mouth. "We will need a symbol. It will have to be immanently and immediately recognizable. We require a known name, a known value. Somebody who has opposed Zuko in the past, somebody whom those in Ember trust."
"And who is that?" Mong Ke asked. The newcomer smirked at him.
"The 'legitimate' Fire Lord, of course," he said. He reached into his sleeve, swiping away the red plaque denoting Zuko's hold on Ember, and replaced it with another. This one was almost identical to the first, it bore the same design, the black, three pointed flame, but its background was electric blue rather than red. "When the time is right, Fire Lord Azula will return."
"She is a broken husk," Deng dismissed.
The newcomer smiled, then, a brutal, unforgiving smile. "So much the better."
Sokka put down his pen, staring out his window into the afternoon at Ba Sing Se. The city was still going about its daily business, as it had during the war, despite the war, and after the war. Unchanging continuity seemed to be something that these people took for granted. Needless to say, Sokka was already infamous with the local constabulary. He looked over to his calendar. In a few days, it would have been a year since he moved to Ba Sing Se. In the last four, he'd spent time talking to the wisest and most educated people on the planet. Months in the Fire Academy. A year in Burning Rock, where he actually worked with Ty Lee's little sister for a time. A year in Kad Deid. Pai Sho and brainstorming with Bumi. Occasional tea with Iroh. Time flew so fast.
It had been a long time since he saw Ty Lee. She was an airbender, and there was only one person in the world who could train her. It wasn't just a sensation that they'd been apart longer than they'd been together. But every morning, Sokka got up, went to his studies, and pushed the missing her out of his mind for a little while. It hurt. He was used to hurt. But if there was one little comfort he had, it was the knowledge that everything he loved came back to him eventually. He reached back and scratched the feathers on Hawky's head. The bird was an example of that rule.
Of course, the photographic camera was still a sticking point. He'd already published a treatise on the nature of benders since he landed in Ba Sing Se, one which was quickly circulating the academic community. But what he really wanted was to understand how he'd done what he'd done to save Aang from Koh. He knew it was possible. All he had to do was figure out the parts that he'd skipped while fashioning the device. He stopped scratching characters and leaned back for a moment. He hadn't seen anybody in Team Avatar for a while, now.
As his mind wandered away from useful activity, he reached over and looked at the last message that he'd gotten from home. Dad had remarried, and the community had little choice but to accept a pair of firebenders into it. Luckily, things had smoothed in recent years. While many had lost family members to the raids a generation ago, many of those voices were falling before the clamor of the young, wanting to see more, experience new things. Water was change, but the South Water Tribe had stayed pretty much the same for almost a thousand years. A shake up was a good thing. Katara and Aang had married, too. There were whispers that Toph had actually found herself a man as well. Sokka would have to see that to believe it.
Sokka reached for his drink, but was stymied. It was just out of reach. With a scowl, he turned back to his page, finishing a few notes. The world was changing. It felt like a lifetime ago that he'd discovered the boy in the iceburg. In a way, it was. Sokka scratched at his beard a bit. Its style was similar to the prop he'd worn when he was in his Wang Fire persona, but less exaggerated. Nobody saw the similarity. It was hilarious in its way. Sokka, distracted, reached for his glass again, and this time, felt it slide into his hand.
That wasn't right.
Sokka stared at the cup like it had tried to stab him. He put the cup a short distance away on the desk, then opened his hand again, reaching for it not just with his hand but with his will.
The cup slid toward him. Sokka blanched.
There was no way.
It wasn't possible.
Science said so!
"And yet there it is," Sokka said glumly. He drank quickly, then sat back, his arms crossed before him, a sour expression on his face. "Isn't that just lovely. I'm a waterbender."
"You're a what?" Ty Lee's voice came from the window. Hawky keened lightly at her familiar voice. She looked just the same as she always did, but more. Her hair was still in its braid, her clothes still revealing and garishly pink. She actually seemed to have developed even more bosom, though, and the swell of her hips put thoughts into Sokka's mind. His expression brightened in an instant, and he leapt up from his desk, dragging her through the window and spinning her up against the wall, his lips pressing into hers. She kissed back just as passionately. "Wow," she said, her eyes unfocused. Her feet were off the floor, such was the difference in their heights. "I should stay away more often."
"If you had, I would have thought you'd forgotten about me. You might not want that. Toph does call me Loverboy, after all," Sokka said throatily, nuzzling against her. He saw something on the back of her neck. A blue stripe. He leaned back. There was no arrow on her brow, but there were on her hands, and on her feet. Sokka gave her a surprised look.
"They seemed appropriate," Ty Lee said, showing off her partial Air Nomad tattoos. She grinned. "It's been a long time."
"Aang says that I've learned all he could teach me," she said, singsong, hinting at something.
"Well that's wonderful," he said, pulling her close to his chest.
"Yes. Now," she said.
"The answer to your questions," Ty Lee said. Sokka thought back, and realized the last questions that he'd asked her. He was in a much more foul mood than he was now. He'd demanded to know if she was ever going to marry him, and if so, when? He'd just gotten his answer. He grinned, and swept her up. She laughed as he spun her about, throwing things off the shelves and knocking over a fragile lamp. He didn't care. He gathered her up to his chest and made toward the door, but as he left, he felt his eyes lock on that cup one more time.
Waterbender. The word seared at his brain like acid. It was almost as though everything he'd ever earned in his life would be obliterated by one act, one accident, one aspect of his being he didn't even want. Once, he envied his sister. But even when he envied her, he didn't want to be her. He knew what he had to do. What had happened, nobody would ever see. Sokka would never be known as a waterbender. Too much rode on it. As far as the world knew... that... never happened.
Ked hugged his sister as they parted, and she got back onto the boat. Benell looked totally in place here on Grand Ember. She was his half-sister, child of the Raider who raped his mother; Benell looked more Fire Nation than Water Tribe. That she was a waterbender, and arguably a better one than he was, confused many. Ked had read Sokka Baihu's 'A Treatise on the Elemental Martial Arts', however. A bender was a bender, but what kind of bender depended on what society one grew up in. Benell, raised in the Water Tribes, could be nothing but a waterbender.
Ked looked out of place. His dark skin and eyes a shade of blue approaching purple stood out starkly. He couldn't be mistaken for Azuli nor Embiar, and definitely was out of place around the Sozu. He didn't mind, though. He had a job, one which challenged him. He'd been making significant progress. Physically, at least. That mind was as closed today, after three years, as it had been the day he'd met her.
That didn't mean he was about to give up.
Ked reached for his keys and pushed them into the lock. The door swung without him turning them. Instantly, his senses went onto alert. Sokka might have been basically bullying he and the others when they were children, calling them 'his soldiers', but quite a few of the lessons that he'd taught were actually useful, and stuck. Like knowing when somebody was about to attack you. Ked let the door open slowly, so it wouldn't squeal and announce him. He moved into the room, pulling the tiger-seal fang knife from his belt. A waterbender he may be, but fighting had never been his strong suit. Give him a knife, though, and see what Fire Nation thief could face him.
Ked's eyes flit about the room, corners and corners, up and down. Few people looked up, and that made them easy to catch up. As Ked's eyes swung to where the door had stopped inside, he saw a pair of hands thrusting a bag toward his head. Ked slashed out, tearing the bag open and nicking the man's hands, causing him to fall back with a curse. Another came from around the door, swinging a truncheon. Ked stabbed through the man's forearm, pinning it to the door. Ked pulled the emergency water out of its flask and fashioned it into a pair of spiked gloves, dropping into a low stance.
"Enough," a deep voice said from the shadows of the room. The sound of stone grating against stone sounded, and the would-be kidnappers went silent. Well, except for the pained grunts of the man with the impaled forearm. "You handle yourself well, waterbender."
"You want to see just how well?" Ked asked.
The man who appeared from the darkness was shaven-headed, or possibly naturally bald. A scar reached down one side of his face, an old injury, well-stitched and fading. His eyes were a piercing green, and he had the look of somebody used to reading much from little. Funny thing was, Ked had become much the same. "I don't think that will be necessary, Ked of the South Water Tribe," the man said smoothly. "Forgive my... exuberance. I didn't know if you would be amenable to conversation."
Ked narrowed his eyes. "What do you want?"
"You are the doctor in charge of the care of the princess, correct?" the man asked. Ked didn't let the surprise show on his face. As little as it was known that Azula was in the hospital, it was even less known that he was her doctor. "I take that silence for the affirmative. We have an offer for you."
"What do you want?" Ked asked again. The man finally pulled his arm, knife still inside it, off of the door. Ked turned to him. "You're going to want to see a surgeon about that. I was careful not to hit your arteries, but if you try pulling it out yourself, you might kill yourself."
"You have an assassin's hands," the green eyed man said. "You care for the princess."
"It is my job," Ked admitted, but the phrase had more than one meaning.
"Then I'm going to ask you to continue... doing your job," the man said. "But it will have a change of venue."
"You're taking the princess?" Ked asked. The man raised an eyebrow. "We're not all ignorant savages, you know."
"Indeed," the man said. "I learned that lesson well, the last time one of your people outsmarted me. Will this be a problem?"
Ked's eyes narrowed. "That you're taking her?" the man, who practically screamed Dai Li from the way he stood, nodded. "And I can assume that there's nothing I could do to stop you?" the man nodded again. "Then I don't see much of a choice."
The man smiled then, a dark, poisonous smile. "You are correct. Do your job, Ked. That is all I ask."
The man departed, leaving a pouch of money on the table next to him as he did. Ked stared after. He looked at the money, and at those who departed. He put his water back into its flask. Things were about to get much more complicated in Ked's life. He just knew it.
It was hot. Damned hot. In a lot of ways, it reminded him of home. The sands of Si Wong stretched seemingly endlessly in all directions as the platform began its descent. Sokka's directions had been as good as his word. Zuko would have gone sooner, but things kept popping up, between the restitution arrangements with the other participants in the Weary War and the constant threat of the Ozai loyalists both at home and abroad, it was astounding he even had time to think for himself.
One of the first things that he'd had to do in the palace were to evict Ozai's courtesans. It pained him to do so, especially because quite a few of them had bastards by the former despot, but Jee was adamant that the change over had to be complete. As well, there was a chance that somebody would try using one of those offspring to overthrow Zuko, and having them in the palace only made things more tenuous for him. Not that the six years since he'd become Fire Lord were utterly bereft of joys. Originally, mistresses were only supposed to be used if the Fire Lady couldn't produce an heir. Since Mai had, in the last six years, given two healthy daughters, and a third child being on the way, those worries were quickly silenced.
Azula was no better.
While she no longer looked like a breathing corpse, her mind was still gone. He couldn't help but feel responsible for that. Which, if Mai were here, she'd tell him to stop being a soft-hearted idiot, that he'd given her every chance to end things reasonably and peacefully. But still, it was because of that last fight, that battle to the death that she had almost killed him in, that she was in her current state. Zuko leaned around the edge of the dome, and signaled. The platform began to lower, out of the heat and into Wan Shi Tong's library.
The descent was silent, but for the creaking of ropes. Zuko had been adamant that he come himself. His Phoenix Flare had been set aside today, in favor of the double flame headpiece of Roku. Down here, he wasn't the Fire Lord. He was just a man in search of answers. The platform settled onto the overhanging bridge which spanned a gap between a forest of bookshelves. Zuko looked around. It was a sight to behold.
Zuko heard sounds coming toward him, soft pattering on stone. He turned, and his eyes widened a bit before he averted his gaze. A cheerful, long bearded and long haired, utterly naked man was ambling toward him. The man stopped at the edge of the platform and made a small bow, a distant smile on his face.
"Oh, it's such a pleasure to see another man of learning," the man said brightly. "I am Professor Zei, head of anthropology at Ba Sing Se university. I have to tell you, I can't remember the last time I saw another human down here. Such a delight. What are these?"
"How... long have you been down here?" Zuko asked. Zei leaned back, pondering.
"I'm not really sure. Could be a lifetime. I did say I could have spent an eternity down here. I wonder what ever became of the Avatar. Such a wonderful specimen. I want to show him a few things I found down here," Zei said.
Zuko stared at the crazy old man for a long moment. According to Sokka, they'd come to the Library seven years ago. That was quite long enough for somebody to go crazy on their own. But then again, also according to Sokka, he was never that sane to begin with.
"Aang is fine. Where is the master of this library?" Zuko asked.
"Very few humans come to this library actually seeking audience with me," Wan Shi Tong's voice came, as the great owl leaned out from behind a bookshelf. "Especially once I made it known exactly how little I enjoy the presence of mortals."
"It is an honor to meet you," Zuko said diplomatically.
"Spare me your prattle, son of the Fire Lord," Wan Shi Tong said unpleasantly, striding toward him on taloned feet. "What is it that you want? All mortals ever want, with very few notable exceptions, is information on how to destroy their enemies. I will not allow my knowledge to be utilized for that purpose. Not anymore. Speak quickly, or you will find how my displeasure is announced."
Zuko turned, and pulled the spirit scroll from his robes, holding it up to the strigine spirit. Wan Shi Tong stared down at it. "This was taken from you a generation ago. I'm giving it back."
"That is... unexpected," Wan Shi Tong said. Zuko motioned to the pallet behind him. It was loaded to its capacity with obscure and ancient scrolls and tomes of knowledge.
"I also heard that one who came before me destroyed much knowledge. I believe it's only fair that I try to give some of it back," Zuko said. Wan Shi Tong leaned back, calculating.
"You have questions," Wan Shi Tong answered. "But not about warfare. I can answer one of them, mortal, but the other carries deadly consequences, writ into the weave of destiny. If I tell you where to find her, you two shall never meet."
Zuko was both flabbergasted and striken. He'd hoped that Wan Shi Tong would somehow know where his mother was. He'd long ago given up on Ozai. The man was a sadist and he obviously had no more a clue where Ursa was than Zuko did. And worse, he would not speak about... "What about the other question?" Zuko asked. "Since you seem to know what it is I would ask."
"Mortals are easy to read. They have such simple desires," Wan Shi Tong leaned over and glanced at Zei, who was sitting on the pallet, happily reading through the tomes Zuko had brought. "The Lady of Flames rises. You face a trial of grand proportions, mortal. And yours will not be the strength which can see you through. If she does not regain what the sundered king stole from her, I foresee that your rule will be very short indeed."
"I don't understand," Zuko said.
Wan Shi Tong turned his head so that it was facing backwards. Then, turned it back, with the same slow, creepy pace. "She dreams of lightning. She awakens."
The dream was of pain. Screaming. Blood. She was restricted, her arms chained down. Her back was aflame with pain. There were other pains. Shameful pains. She struggled, she fought, but she was weak, hopeless. If only she hadn't... she didn't even know what. The dreams came and went. No, that wasn't true. The dreams came, and they tormented her, until that voice made them go away. In a way, she was beginning to draw an odd sort of comfort from that voice. Even though it lied.
The smell of ozone.
Azula felt her eyes snap open. Her head hurt the first few moments, and she clutched at her face for a moment. It was as though she had been sleeping for weeks. A pounding headache assaulted her. She looked at her hands. They didn't look right. The fingers were longer than she remembered, and the fingernails entirely too short. Without really thinking about it, Azula began to worry a nail between her teeth as she looked around.
The room was tiny. She had closets bigger than this at the palace. The bed under her was thin and uncomfortable. The latrine only had a curtain for privacy. Prison? Azula got to her feet. It took more effort than she expected. She felt extremely weak, like she'd been resting far too long. There was no mirror here. But there were also no chains. A try of the door handle found that the door wasn't even locked. What sort of prison was this?
She stepped away from the door for a moment, running her hands through her hair. It was longer than she remembered. This probably reached the back of her knees. How long had she been asleep? She glanced around. There was nothing she could use in this room. The only thing she had was her white robe. She quickly looked down her collar. No undergarments, even. She stopped, staring at her own chest. It didn't look right.
Her head quickly came up as somebody entered her room, looking in a hurry. His skin was dark, but he wore Fire Nation clothing and had a Fire Nation hair style. When he turned, and his eyes were almost purple, she was already lashing out, pinning him to the wall with a forearm, and igniting a lancet of blue fire from two fingertips. At least that still worked.
"You made a mistake coming alone," somebody said. Azula scowled. That wasn't her voice. It couldn't be.
"I'm not alone," the Tribesman said, with remarkable calm. "I was just... surprised... to see you active."
"Surprised?" that other voice said again. Azula chastised herself. She wanted the words to come out, and they came out sounding the way that they did. This was her voice, even if it was a bit unfamiliar. Maybe she'd taken some hearing damage during her Agni Kai against... "Zuko. Where is that treasonous liar?"
"How are you even awake?" the Tribesman asked. He shook his head. "You know what? It doesn't matter. My name is Ked, and I am your doctor."
"I don't need a doctor."
"Not anymore, perhaps," Ked admitted. "But you do need somebody to help you."
"I don't need your help," Azula said, letting the fire move closer to his eyes. She was shocked when he didn't seem very intimidated. He was either utterly dense or possessed incredible nerves.
"Yes, you do," Ked said. "The world has changed, Lady Azula. You've spent the last six years in a catatonic psychosis."
Azula's eyes narrowed. "You're lying."
"Why would I?" Ked asked. "In about five minutes, people are going to come here and collect you. They expect you to be helpless. I don't know what they'll do if they see you... like this."
"Who?" Azula demanded. "Give me names!"
"I don't know names," Ked said just as loudly back. He scowled. "The most powerful one was an earthbender. Green eyes, deep voice, bald, scar running down his face. Ba Sing Se accent."
"Long Feng," Azula said. So he wasn't dead after all. When she said the name, Ked's eyebrow rose. "What do you want with me?"
"I am your doctor. I want you to be well," Ked said. And more importantly, he wasn't lying. "And I hope you're a good liar, Lady Azula, because I have no idea how we're going to get out of this with you... upright."
Azula smirked, that smirk that only Azula in all the world could manage. "Oh, I'm considered a very good liar," the wheels turned inside Azula's mind, and a plan came to be in very short order. It was good to have clarity again. Wait, when had she ever lost clarity?
Azula released this Ked and moved back to her pallet. She sat down on the floor, her back to the corner. "You are going to 'attend' me. If you betray me, I will kill you, even if it means that Long Feng kills me in return. Are we clear?"
"Perfectly, Lady Azula."
"It's Fire Lord," Azula said.
"I'm sorry, but it isn't," Ked said. His apology sounded genuine. Azula heard people's voices moving closer, and she decided not to challenge her physician this day. She let all of her emotion drain away from her features, leaving her face an expressionless mask. Ked turned as the door banged open, and Azula made sure that she stared at nothing.
Still, she recognized those who had come for her. Ked leaned in, water around his hands glowing, as he cupped her cheek. He had better not move it anywhere else, or else he'd lose a hand. Long Feng stared down, contempt and amusement on his face. Behind him was Firemaster Jeong Jeong. So that was why she smelled lightning. Oddly, he had bandages covering one eye and cheek. Reddened bandages.
"Is she capable of moving?" Long Feng asked. Ked turned to him.
"Yes. It'll be tricky, but I think I can keep her stable. Just don't do anything... dangerous."
"I never thought I would see the Princess in this condition," Jeong Jeong said, contempt in his voice. Azula had to try very hard not to lash out and incinerate the old man where he stood. "Still, she will be useful. We have waited long enough. Tribesman, bring her."
Ked leaned past her, and scooped her up. She let her cheek fall against his shoulder, and stared at the side of his neck. He'd better not be enjoying laying hands on her royal person. If he was... In her peripheral vision, she watched as she was hauled through the hospital, while people wearing what looked like the armor of an Imperial Firebender, but electric blue rather than red, roamed the halls aggressively. This was something she would have to learn more about. Ked believed he was telling the truth when he said she was... catatonic for six years. It couldn't be that long, of course. He had to be mistaken. But still, politics waited for nobody.
Azula was taken outside in the night, and deposited into the back of a carriage. Ked moved in beside her, shouting something to the driver in that impenetrable language of his, before the carriage lurched to motion and Ked ducked back in. With no eyes on her, Azula stretched, feeling her muscles. Weak. Atrophied, perhaps, but not six years worth. She would have been naught but a skeleton after that long.
"What is your angle in this?" Azula asked.
"I need an angle?" Ked asked with a smirk. Azula scowled.
"Everybody has an angle. Everybody uses everybody else. That's the way the world works. I use you to avoid Long Feng's attention while I get stronger. What do you use me for?"
"I don't suppose you would believe me if I said I have no intention of manipulating you to my ends," Ked said. She gave him a wan smile. He seemed to know her quite well. "You are just going to have to trust, and I know that it isn't easy for you, that whereas Long Feng wants you weak, I want you strong, and that I have reasons for it that will benefit both of us."
"Are you offering an alliance?" Azula asked.
"More like a partnership," Ked said. "You need me to keep Long Feng ignorant. I'm happy to oblige."
"If I don't like the cost you exact, I promise you won't enjoy the consequences," Azula said quietly. Ked actually smiled at that. He was either ignorant, or extremely confident. It didn't do well to assume the former.
"I don't set my prices very high, you'll find," Ked said. "But for now, we've got all the time we need. Get stronger Lady Azula. I'll keep you safe."
He was lying of course. He didn't think he was, but nobody wanted to keep her safe. She was a monster. Everybody turned against her sooner or later. But still, one less thing to worry about now was important. If – if – she was six years behind the times, it would take her time to catch up. Azula set her mind to motion. The world would see the daughter of Fire return. And it would be glorious.
To Be Continued
The War of Flames
Let me make this clear. Azula isn't fixed. She's merely functioning again. Considering the shit that she's trying to deal with (read, deny to herself that actually happened), it's astounding they didn't find her swinging from a light-fixture one morning. The next story is mostly hers, but it'll be following the viewpoints of a portion of the old cast as well. Zuko of course would be busy, being Fire Lord and all. So would Aang, being the Avatar and trying to build a new airbending nation. The greatest difficulty inherent in this project is not only knowing what Azula would look like if she were mentally healthy, but also, how to get her there without betraying her character and making her into something she's not.
She needs to rebuild herself, but she doesn't even know that it's possible, let alone how to do it. She still believes her father. And as Ursa said to her, Ozai always lies. For Azula, coming to understand the relationship she actually had with her mother (as opposed to the one she thinks she did), and finally accepting what Ozai did to her (which she utterly refuses to think about) are two of the major roadblocks to becoming the person I think she could have always been. I have always held that without Ozai, Azula would have been Fire Lord, and she would have deserved it. As evidence by another source, I reference "The World Without the War", another AU fic, where Azula was saved from her father's poisonous influence, and stands firmly on the side of the angels.
If Y'all got questions, ask them. I won't spoil the plot of the War of Flames, but I can answer pretty much anything else.
Firehealing: As I see it, Firebenders and Waterbenders are actually what happens when you take an energybender and split it in half. Waterbenders control energy outside themselves, firebenders, inside. Ergo it would make sense that both could heal, but in very different fashions. Waterhealing (with some exceptions) is a slow process, which takes its energy from (and thus can deplete the strength of) the person being healed. The waterhealer provides structure and support, while the victim's own energy heals the wounds at an accelerated rate, or else are allowed to heal when naturally they would be unable to. Firehealing takes a different approach. Instead of giving support and guidance for the victim's energy to heal himself, firehealing pipes the healer's life energy into the victim, very rapidly repairing damage, but with less precision. Thus, firehealing is dangerous to the healer, not the victim. While waterhealing seldom leaves scars, firehealing always does. Certain events (full moon, Blood Moon, being as good a healer as Ked) allow waterhealers to use the water to implant their energy into a waterhealing attempt, giving the best of both worlds, if at a cost of vastly increased risk to the healer; Waterhealers aren't experienced... ordinarily... in controlling their own energy. They're a lot more likely to suffer harm from overdoing their healing than a similarly powerful and skilled firehealer would be.
No. I haven't read Embers. Read its TVTropes page, though. I can see where one would draw comparisons.
EDIT: Forgot something sort-of important. Also, starting to write War of the Flames. You might see the first chapters after Christmas. Part 4 of the Children of War is coming. Just be patient.
EDIT 2: Might be a bit after Christmas. Progress on the War of Flames is much slower than I would have liked. Still. Progress. Five chapters in.