The nightmare was long and dull, a thudding of sensations like deep bass drums, striking so slowly that it reverberated through her being. There weren't any particular images that she saw. Only the sensation of fear. Of abandonment. Of confusion and terror. She wanted it to stop. She wanted things to make sense again.
It wasn't an issue of opening her eyes, and dismissing the dream; the dream lingered, long after her eyes could see. It clung to her, demanding that it be the only thing she saw or heard. But slowly, like a curtain being drawn away from a window, it parted. It parted, and she realized that the indistinct shapes she saw constructed a face, and one she knew fairly well. She blinked, slowly. It felt like her eyes had been coated in tar, so much effort was needed.
"...Kori?" she asked. The Tribesman leaned back, sitting on a stool next to a bed, a fatigue in his dark blue eyes, and a fading bruise on his face. "Where am I?"
"Mori-Sakai Sanitarium," he said simply. He gave a shrug. "You were out of it for a few days, Yoj. Had a lot of people scared."
She blinked, then shook her head. "Ozai. I had to find..."
"Dead. Dead long before you even started looking for him," Kori said gently. "It wasn't your fault."
"Wasn't my fault?" she said, bristling. "Then Zhao is still on the Burning Throne?"
"No. Azula," Kori said. She stared at him, poleaxed. "I know. Shocking. But a lot's happened in the last few days. Saved the world, you might say."
"Is she awake?" another voice came from the other side of the door – which lay open to the hall in what had to be a gross violation of sanitarium security procedure. She pushed herself back on the cot that she found herself sitting on, even as Kori tucked the glowing water from his hands into their flasks. "I thought I heard her voice."
Another Tribesman, one she knew and set her teeth into a grit, appeared, stepping into the threshold, looking down at her. He was a middle-aged man, a tribesman with pinned back hair and a beard that followed his jaw and chin. The man who claimed he was her father.
With a snarl, she reached for the fire of the candle, and tore it, expanding it even as she did so, so that she could sent a blast of inferno at him.
Only the candle didn't so much as flicker. Instead, a cup on the table tipped over, and spilled onto the floor. The man gave a step back, his hands up before him. "Hey, it's alright, Hikaoh..."
"My name is Yoji," she snapped. The man nodded.
"I don't care what I have to call you. I just want my daughter back," he said.
"I will never 'go back'," she said. "You... You couldn't protect me."
"It haunted me for years," the man said with a nod, and an expression that showed real and long-standing pain. "I would have given anything to know that you were alright. That you were safe. Even if it was as you are now."
"He's not lying," another voice came, and the middle aged man stepped aside. Yoji's eyes bulged wide, as she saw something utterly impossible. Omo, in the flesh, stepping into the room. "Turns out, not every parent that 'gave their children to the Children' did so willingly."
"No. This can't be possible," she shook her head. Omo sighed, and pulled up at his shirt, exposing his side. Just at the bottom of his ribs, there was an uneven star of scar-tissue, indented at its center.
"Not impossible, just very, very unpleasant," Omo said. He gave a shrug. "On the plus side, I did manage to lead Long Feng's army to an absolutely crushing defeat. I wish I could have seen his face when he ran off with what was left of his army. He's probably back to the East by now."
"W...why didn't you say anything? Why didn't you send a message?" she asked, hurt entering her voice the same way it had the older man's expression.
"I would have, if I could have. But..." he shook his head. "Look, I heard how things went so wrong with Zhao and everything. But we've got a chance to make it right again. We're loyal to the Burning Throne. And the Fire Lord even decided not to have us all executed for... well... trying to assassinate her, so I consider that a noble pursuit."
"I don't... this is..." she held her hands up, trying one final time to summon the flames into them. Nothing. She stifled a sob, but tears still came to her eyes. "I'm not a firebender anymore..."
"That doesn't bother me," Omo said.
"Yoji," the older Tribesman said, his word choice obviously very deliberate. "My name is Hakoda. I know that you feel overwhelmed... but if you ever want to talk to me, to the rest of your family – and you do have a family – we will be there for you. That's the thing about Tribesmen. We always have family, we always have clan, and we always have Tribe," he turned to Kori. "We can still wait if that's what you feel is best."
"No," Kori said. "Might be better for her to get used to this on her own."
"What?" Yoji asked.
"Apparently I've got a mother and a sister living in the southernmost reaches of the planet," Kori said with a neutral shrug. "I figure it might be high-time to actually meet them."
"You're... you're leaving," she said. "To go to them?"
"Call it a vacation," he said. "Agni knows, we all deserve one."
"...what do I do now?" Yoji asked. Omo sat down on the bed beside her, taking her hand in his. Just that feeling... it felt good. He looked into her eyes, and gave a tilted smile.
"That, Yoji, is entirely up to you," he said, to the nodding of two Tribesmen beside him.
The palace was much as Ursa remembered it, but subdued. There was a pall over the entire place, one that reminded her of the quiet terror all had to live with under Azulon. She knew that killing him was the only proper course, after he demanded Azula killed. She was not going to sacrifice her children for an old monster. And in doing, she inadvertently created a younger one. She expected that Zuko would repulse her, feeling scorned for her obviously unequal treatment of the two of them. Instead, he welcomed her back with open arms. She expected that Azula would be dead by now, the way that she was acting last... and instead...
Her daughter was sitting in the center of a 'U' shaped arrangement of tables, well down from the Burning Throne itself, surrounded on all sides by maps, charts, and paperwork. She seemed to flash between them fast enough that the arrangement was probably built around her to keep up with her, rather than her adjusting to it. She didn't even notice Ursa until she was practically right in front of her. And when she did, it was a flick up, registering her with eyes so much like Ursa's own, before giving a nod, and returning to her work.
"...Azula?" Ursa asked.
"Yes, Mother?" she asked.
"...what are you doing?"
"Planning," she said.
"I have several years to put into place an incredible amount of social changes and compromises to prevent civil war or retributive genocide," she answered clearly. The accent which had haunted every word she spoke since she first took her sickness was gone entirely, as though it never was. "This 'deadening' actually works for me for a change. Nobody will have enough passions to be riled into rebellion. At least, not for a while."
"You're not... surprised to see me? Or angry?" Ursa asked. At that, Azula did stop with her scheming, and looked up.
"When you and I spoke last, I was... not myself," Azula said primly.
"What is it?" she asked, impatience starting to eat into her tones. Which sounded more like the Azula that Ursa had known all those years ago.
"Are you alright?" Ursa asked.
"I will manage," she said quietly. Ursa was for a moment confused. Surely she couldn't be taking Ozai's demise so hard...
But then again, Azula was still Ozai's daughter, and unlike her brother, she never tried to deny that fact.
"But that isn't important now. What is, is finding a way to 'end the war' such that nobody wants to immediately start another one," Azula said.
"Azula?" the Avatar said, popping into the room with all the haste of a monsoon wind, a grin on his face... and some brown thing dangling from his arms. "I found Kuchi!"
Her expression brightened just a bit, as the boy whom by all rights should be Azula's enemy let the brown beast down, and it bombed happily toward Azula, before tackling her onto her back, and licking at her face. And Azula... laughed. Ursa just watched it all with the dull confusion of a hammer-struck hippo-cow. The Avatar sidled up beside her, a sunny if tired smile on his face.
"So you're Azula's mom?" he asked. "I'm Aang! I'm the Avatar."
"So you are," Ursa said.
Gravely chuckling came from Ursa's back, and she watched as Iroh and Zuko both entered, the former holding what looked to be a one-year-old girl. So that would be Ozai's marital indiscretion, then? There was a hot sting of betrayal at that. The years before Azula's sickness were hard ones, and the only comfort that she had before the children was in Ozai's idealism. That he could be a better Fire Lord than his father had been. And part of her, even now, still wished that she could have that man back, as he was, in that time. Now, gone forever.
"I thought that it might be best if we all had a nice long talk," Iroh said evenly. "As a family."
Azula finally pushed the brown beast off of her, where it sat, wagging its stub of a tail, tongue hanging out of its mouth, and she gave Iroh a nod. "That would probably be for the best," she said. "Avatar?" Ursa said.
"Yes?" the airbender monk said distractedly.
"Some privacy?" Ursa asked.
"No, he should probably be here for this," Azula said, snapping her fingers and having some aids bring seating for them all. Azula, with the five-point flame of the Fire Lord in her hair. She sat down, and looked to the Avatar, then back to Azula.
"...why?" Ursa asked.
"Long story," Zuko said, rolling his eyes.
A Year Later:
The pall that hung over the South Water Tribe – or rather, The Water Tribe, as there was no longer a 'North' to distinguish itself against – wasn't the same as the one which had blanketed the world. No families were expanding, though that was to be expected; besides a few children conceived before the 'end of the world', and born after it, the South had become a stagnant place. And so too had the world. But the faces staring back at Katara and Sokka were by times familiar, and by times not. Some old familiar faces. Bato and his wife. Ogan and Sedna and pale-skinned, amber eyed Benell. Kori – who was also Ked. But the one who stood at the forefront, the one who had a face flat of emotion and grim of stance, was Gran Gran.
"You were cast out of this place," Kana said gravely. "Your actions brought woe to our people, and you return. What right have you to come here?"
"The right of a child of Niira-Qatouravut," Katara said with equal gravitas.
"And what reason should you be forgiven your transgressions?" Gran Gran asked, her voice as ruthless as the tradition demanded she be. Katara could tell that it hurt her to say what she said, but... she had to say it.
"We have done great service to the Tribe," she said. "We have brought home a broken and scattered people, to make both greater. We have returned the stolen children of the Lost Generation. We have ended the World War."
"We have saved the world," Sokka added, somewhat flippantly to her listing. She shot him a 'would you please shut up!' look, one that he flinched when he realized the importance of what was going on.
"Your father brought the tribes together," Kana said. "The same Fire Nation prince who was the source of your banishment freed the Lost Generation. The Avatar ended the World War."
That was something that Katara hadn't prepared for, but knew was part of the judgment. She sucked cold air through her teeth, then looked her grandmother dead in the eye.
"I have saved the life of the Avatar," she said.
"And so did I," Sokka said with a nod.
There was quiet murmuring through the crowd. Most simply watched, mildly baffled – those from the North had their own traditions, divorced from the South's own. Those who spoke were neighbors and old friends. Old rivals. Kana turned to those behind her. "Does this warrant their return? Have they done enough to erase their debts?"
"Yes," Sedna said immediately. Ogan gave a silent nod, adding his agreement to hers.
"She has saved my own life as well. Without her, I would be a corpse beneath Ba Sing Se," Bato added.
"They have saved all of us," Yue's voice cut through the cold and the wind. She moved to Kana's side. "If they remain banished, then I will join them."
"Then," Kana said, a twinkle coming to her eye, "to prevent a mass-exodus of our Tribesmen, I lift the exile from your people. Welcome to the Water Tribe once more, Katara and Sokka, children of Hakoda. Welcome back, Hik–" Dad immediately let out a chirp, and leaned in on Kana's other side, whispering something into her ear. "Welcome back, Yoji."
The third of them looked pretty miserable, bundled in twice as much clothing as was needed, but then again, so too were most of the other Lost Children. The only reason she looked like she wasn't going to run away was because of the earthbender next to her. "See? That wasn't so bad," Omo said, his baritone holding just a hint of mirth.
"These people are crazy to live somewhere this cold," their sister muttered.
"Yup," Omo agreed. "And it's in the blood, obviously."
With the formalities over, Sokka pelted up to Dad, talking animatedly with both he and their new step-mother. Tanuuit was still every bit as meek as she'd been under Arnook's fist, and Dad didn't force her to be anything else. If she wanted to be in the background, he let her be. It was the same reason that when they got their sister back, she was still Yoji. Whatever it took was good enough.
"So!" Kori said in moderately accented Yqanuac, as he walked forward to Katara's side. "I'm surprised to not see Nila – and thus, surprised to see Yoji as civil as she's being – with you when you came back."
"Yeah," Katara said with a shrug. "They broke up a couple months back."
He gave her a full look at that. "Really? And here I thought it was a match made in a special sort of hell."
"Well, come on," Katara said evenly. "They're both teenagers! And they get on each other's nerves, and they argue constantly... I'm amazed they lasted as long as they did."
"True enough, Katara, true enough," Kori said. He turned to Yoji, who glared at him. "And this must be a shocking experience for you as well."
"Go die," Yoji muttered.
Kori chuckled. "Ah, you never change, do you?" he asked. He looked to Omo. "She giving you any trouble?"
"Not really," Omo said. "Now that you're not around, she's not annoyed nearly as often."
"If you want, you can come to Dad's house any time you want," Katara said, pointing at the Chief's Palace – which was a grandiose title for a pretty simple two-story construction of expensively earthbent soapstone and granite. A lot of buildings were starting to rise up in stone. With so many people in one place, the migratory lifestyle of the South was coming to an end. Yoji gave a nod, before moving back into Omo's proximity. It was obviously one of the only comforts of the familiar that she had right now.
Everything in its time.
With the crowds dispersing, Katara went to her father, who was already waving a momentary farewell to Sokka, who was off to parts unknown. "Dad?" she asked.
"Katara," he said. "It's been too long since you were home, and that's a simple fact."
"Well, we had to earn our way back," Katara said with a roll of her eyes.
"Tradition is part of the Water Tribe. You can't just ignore it because it's inconvenient," Hakoda said. He guided her along the streets with a hand at her back. "So what's going on up in the 'civilized world'? I don't get a lot of news down here."
"Well, Long Feng limped back to Ba Sing Se, which you're probably aware of," Katara said. "Azula's got a lot of... well, a staggering amount of stuff she needs to do. I don't know if she even bothers to sleep these days. And Aang, well... He's practically working himself to death like she is."
"I hope those two would find a way to make it work," Hakoda said with a distant note of happiness in his voice.
"Dad, he's fourteen, and she's sixteen! People don't just 'fall in love' like that," she pointed out.
"I saw the way he looked at her," Hakoda said quietly. "Like there would never be anybody else in the world who would make him whole. I know how that feels Katara. I felt that way about your mother. I don't doubt that one day, she'll see him much the same."
"Then what about," she motioned behind them, to where Tanuuit had vanished completely.
"Different," Dad said. "Different reasons, looking for different things. It's not the same as Kya, and I never expected it would be. She needs somebody to help her shine, and she wants somebody to help heal a wound in her heart," Katara shook her head slightly. "Katara, she's a good person. Just... not very fiery."
"That wasn't for you," she said.
"Ah," he said, motioning ahead, which likely indicated Sokka. "You're worried about him?"
"He's been... different," Katara said. "On edge. Snappy, ever since the thing with Nila."
"I wouldn't blame her," Dad said softly. "She's going through a lot right now with her own family. And losing her brother... it injured her in a way I'm pretty sure she doesn't know how to express."
"Oh, she doesn't lack for ways to express it," Katara said with a laugh. "Usually very loudly, and punctuated with gunshots."
"She'll find her level," Hakoda said. "And what about you? We've done a lot of talking about other people, so what about you?"
"There's not much to say," Katara said. "Still training my waterbending, still trying to teach Aang, when he wasn't busy with everything else. I'm just glad to be home. Have some time to rest."
Hakoda nodded. "That's what a lot of people need right now."
In a dead tree, surrounded by shadows that leaned away out of fear, the chittering of legs sounded, as a great body began to shift and move in the darkness. There was a spark, oily and foul, in the center of that place, where it had come across great distances through a void greater than any that most could imagine. But for Koh... well, he could imagine rather a lot.
"I see what's become of you. And I am honestly surprised. I would have thought you would balk at the critical moment. Instead... you chose to be selfless."
The Face Stealer spoke as his body coiled 'round that spark, that guttered and grew with his words. A face, with a distant almost-smile, blinked into being, as Koh leaned in close. The spark stretched out arms and legs from its mass, the darkness, the oiliness gathering into a pair of black eyes, and a black gap for a mouth. It stared back at Koh. Unafraid.
"I'm... feeling a bit hungry," the corrupted, the diseased spirit said. Its eyes pulsed and flexed, but it was not an expression. If it was, Koh would have taken it. "And I feel like... I should have somebody for dinner."
"You have a new life, Irukandji, God of Terror. What will you do with it?"
Black eyes looked up to Koh's own. The stretching of the maw was something like a smile without being an expression, something like lunacy in something like a face. "Oh, I can't begin to describe. I can't believe I didn't do this sooner! The things I can see, the things I could do! Spectacular! And..."
"And you will not do them here. This place is too wounded. To unsound."
The twisted spirit leaned away from Koh, as he uncoiled, blinking its face into the demonic mask that so unsettled the likes of Avatar 'Aang'. It turned to look at Irukandji in profile. "You can't tell me what to do," Irukandji declared, thrusting out a thunderbolt-finger. "I am greater than..."
"You are diseased, and corrupted. And now, you are an integral part of reality. I find the irony spectacular. I couldn't have planned better."
It continued to uncoil, its back-end chittering up the dead wood, until only its face, its foremost claws remained in sight, outside of those shadows.
"And there are things that you have not seen. People you have not met. Wouldn't you rather... a change of scenery? Wouldn't you rather a change of... pace?"
Irukandji, or what Irukandji had become, gave that not-quite-a-smile once more. "Yes. Yes, I think I'll enjoy that rather immensely," it turned around, lightning snapping off every movement. "I wonder if I can find some nice psychopath to eat. Nobody'll mind if I trim the crazies. And who knows?" it cast a last look over its shoulder, by pressing its features through the back of its head, "I might even find a world where the Avatar doesn't win..."
A Year Later:
There was a headache working its way into the backs of Azula's eyes, which let her know that yes, she had been up for twenty-four hours straight again. The rising sun didn't so much fill her with vigor and vitality, as a sick sensation in her stomach and a disappointed dread of the work that she'd have to face once she woke up from her inevitable spate of unconsciousness. To her credit, she'd done a remarkable amount of legislatory and administrative work in the last two dozen months, her 'free pass' to do the disruptive and anger-riling things while the people around her didn't care about disruption, and didn't have the anger to be riled.
"You should rest," Zuko said, as he gave a stretch, before kneeling down at her side. As Azula's 'heir', he had a lot of work to do as well. Only he, bereft of the monumental responsibilities of her position, actually got to sleep from time to time.
"I'll sleep when I'm dead," Azula muttered.
"You'll die if you don't sleep," Zuko reminded her.
She shook her head, though, kneading her brow as she did. "This is all going to explode once people start caring again. There's got to be something I'm overlooking."
"Zuli, you've done more in two years than Ozai did in six, and you didn't take part in a genocide, so that means you're already a better Fire Lord."
"Heh," she offered. "Don't call me Zuli."
"It's my right as an older brother," Zuko said blithely, a smirk on his face. Now that his hair was pinned up properly, the burns on the side of his face and neck were obvious once more. Once, they were a symbol of shame for him. Now, they were the badges of survival, that he had taken the worst that her father could give and came back fighting. For that reason alone did the Embiar put up with him. "Azula. Go to bed," he said. "I can take care of this."
"Fine," she muttered, getting to her feet and shaking off a moment of dizziness; she'd been in one position for so long that her blood had pretty much pooled, and getting out of it was a bit of a shake to her system. She started to walk toward the passage that ran parallel the Burning Throne – an edifice that hadn't had anybody sit on it in the better part of a year and a half, since her 'official coronation' – and towards the bed-chambers. She only gave a fraction of a mind to reaching her own private rooms. They were rather far away. So she immediately decided that the first unoccupied room that she found, she was going to sleep in it.
She had almost reached the door when the great portal into the Burning Throne Chamber was thrown open with a bang of metal against wood. Azula stopped, turning back, as she heard the rattle of metal armor upon a running man. Woman, actually. The armor was red and gold, the plate of the Children, and the woman within it looked not much older than Azula herself. "Lord Zuko? Where is the Fire Lord?"
"She is indisposed," Zuko said.
"I'm right here, Zuzu," Azula said loudly from her near-escape. "What is it?"
"You gave us an imperative to monitor the city," the Azuli Child said.
"And you were to report to me the first instance of a new pregnancy," Azula prompted, approaching her servant. Many of the Children were shocked that she didn't have them disbanded, or executed, considering their antagonism of her in the past. Azula knew the value of loyal, competent agents. They weren't something to throw away lightly.
"Which honestly I never understood, but..."
"It is a matter of grave international importance," Azula pressed, standing before her agent. "And may I presume...?"
"Yes, Fire Lord," the Child gave a nod and a brief bow. "A tanner in the outer city-limits recently threw a celebration for his wife's first expected child. We've verified from... some unusual sources... that she would be three months pregnant at most."
"Three months," Azula said. She turned to Zuko. "Then that means things are going to start coming flying apart in earnest."
"Azula. Go. To. Bed," Zuko said, pointing.
The Child gave Zuko a confused look. "I don't have time to sleep. Things are returning to normal, and that means I'm out of time. I need..."
"To sleep. And if I have to, I will burn everything on this table so that you have no reason not to," Zuko said, pointing at the almost innumerable reports and orders out-going that she'd spent her hours working on.
"You wouldn't dare," Azula's eyes flashed.
"You know I would," Zuko answered, his arms crossing. Her lips twisted, and then she rolled her eyes.
"Fine. If only to keep you from ruining all my hard work," she muttered, before heading out once more. Sleep would be the last thing on her mind, she predicted. Instead, she had to prepare, now more than ever. There would be recriminations, people baying for blood, for cash, for power. And she had a visit to make to somebody half-way around the world, at this opportune time. Probably not the wisest of decisions, but Agni damn it all, she wanted to see him squirm. She reached the first unoccupied room, and lay herself on the bed without so much as removing her slippers, prepared to spend some time thinking.
It was about thirty seconds before she was asleep.
"Is that paperwork I hear?" a familiar voice pulled Zuko away from his appropriated work, as a familiar face entered. Toph Beifong, large as life. And growing larger, so it seemed. She must have gained almost a foot in the last two years. She was still far shorter than Zuko, but she was certainly... something. She sauntered into the chamber of the Burning Throne as though she owned it – which was to say she walked as she usually did, before plunking herself down on the cut obsidian floors on the other side of the tables. "Zuko, you poor, sad sap. Sittin' here playing with numbers when there are heads to crack."
"You know full well that I'd be cracking heads if it meant that we didn't have to fight another war next week," Zuko said patiently. He held up a sheaf of paper and gave it a rustle for her to hear. "This is doing exactly that. So I do my part."
"Peh," she dismissed with a wave of her hand. "Come on. Your sister won't know if you've goofed off for an hour or two. And besides, you're a frickin' prince! If you can't run off and leave problems for your liege, then what's the point?"
"Toph, I can't just..."
She removed the option by reaching across the table and grabbing his wrist, and physically hauling him past his work, scattering it as he stumbled, until he was being drawn out of the chamber. A few guards rattled weapons, looking mildly confused and concerned, but a shake of Zuko's head had them return to their stations. Toph was a known presence here... and known also were her tendencies.
"Fine. You got me out of the room," Zuko said, passing the paper he'd held to somebody outside, flicking his head back toward the table as a silent order. "I suppose you've been making trouble for the last few months?"
"You know it!" Toph said. "Dropped by Sokka and Twinkletoes up in Yu Dao. Almost started a war. Stopped a war. No biggie," she said.
"How is Sokka doing, these days?" Zuko asked, still being led along by Toph's strong, callused hand.
"Oh yeah, he just broke up with Nila."
"He did that years ago."
She shot a look to Zuko's right, one of strained patience. "No, I mean that he got back together with Nila, then they broke up again," she said.
"...why?" he asked.
"I don't know. It had something to do with an acrobat and an earthbender," she shrugged.
"Acrob... Ty Lee?" he asked.
Toph snapped her fingers. "Yeah! That's the one!" she said. "I hear it was a massive blow-out. Explosions and everything!"
"I wouldn't want to be on Nila's bad-side," Zuko muttered.
"So you're sane, then," Toph said. "Bet ya' a hundred gold Weight that they'll be married in a couple of years."
"Sokka and Ty Lee?" Zuko asked.
"Sokka and Nila," Toph said.
"But you just said..."
"I know what I said," Toph cut him off, as she barged through the doors that lead into the courtyard. It was a very different place than Zuko remembered from his childhood. For one thing, even now, in the depths of Fire Nation winter, it was still hot, dry, and sunny. The sunlight which had been a so-long-wished-for blessing had also been something of a curse, though; a lot of farm-land tended for a generation was now hopelessly dry, and required expensive irrigation to plant. A lot of farmers walked away from family lands, because they didn't have the money to adapt.
Toph, though, either didn't know about that or didn't care – likely a combination of both – and turned to Zuko, a smile on her face, and a little bit of a blush near the bridge of her nose. "So, now that I've gotten you out of that dungeon..."
"What is it with the two of us and dungeons?" Zuko asked with a distant smile.
"I'm half-way thinking that you like being tied up and beaten," Toph gave a laugh, blind eyes shining.
"Depends who's doing the beating," Zuko said, then stopped. "Wait, I didn't mean..."
"HA!" Toph bellowed. "Ah, there's a reason I like you."
She finally released his hand, but he took absolutely no effort to move away from her, instead closing in behind her, his arms wrapping 'round her belly, drawing her close. She let out a self-conscious little grunt at that, like she didn't want to be seen like this. Too bad. "I missed you," Zuko said. And with a smile cast straight ahead of her, as she had no real need to turn it toward its destination, she answered:
"...I missed you too."
A Year Later:
Long Feng was having a long night. After years of quiet and calm in his city, things were starting to unravel in ways that he could neither predict nor understand. Once placid and controlled citizenry began to complain, to lash out against the people of the Dai Li, as though that weren't directly feeding their own demise. Didn't these people know that the only thing the Dai Li existed for was to keep their lives safe, orderly, and placid?
It was one of many sleepless nights that he'd had, and likely would be only one of several more this week. He stepped out from behind the badgermole baldachin and skirted the throne, preparing to head to the 'royal library'... but something arrested him before he could begin that crossing.
There was somebody sitting in the throne, draped in shadows.
"Who is there?" Long Feng demanded, fists raising, the stone crackling slightly at his feet.
"...There once was a viper and a turtle-duck," a woman's voice said there. "They were trapped on a river-bank, as a forest-fire burned toward them. 'Allow me onto your back and swim me across', asked the viper. But the turtle-duck denied him. 'If I bear you, you will bite me, and we will both die', he said," Long Feng began to look around, scan the room, to see if this was as it appeared – unlikely – or something altogether more strange. "...but the viper swore to the turtle-duck 'the fire will burn me to death if I don't cross this river. I know the doom that awaits if I bite you'. And the turtle-duck accepted that. The viper took to the turtle-duck's back, and the turtle-duck began to swim. But when they reached the center of that river, the viper bit the turtle-duck. As the turtle-duck grew weak, flailed, started to drown, it looked to the viper and asked 'why have you done this? Now we will both die'. And the viper answered it..."
"Because it's my nature," Long Feng finished.
"No," the woman said, and ignited a ball of blue flame above her palm, displaying the visage of Azula... and she wore the regalia of the Fire Lord, as all the reports had indicated, despite his every disbelief. "The viper said 'I can swim'."
Long Feng took a step back. "What are you doing here?" he demanded of the intruder.
"I wouldn't bother calling your Dai Li agents. They have been... momentarily indisposed," Azula said. She rose, keeping that ball of flame above her palm. "You were right, you know? What you said that day. I wasn't a player in your game. That's what happens when you play the game another has set out for you; you're a slave to their rules. So I refuse to play," and a smirk came to bright red lips. "Only now, I play my own game. How does it feel, to be a mere piece on the board?"
"You speak bravely, but you are not in the Fire Nation anymore," Long Feng pointed out. "This... bragging... will not earn you anything, and will probably cost you far more than you know."
"You keep believing that you matter. The age which is coming has no place for you. You can flail and fight all you want, but your words are meaningless, your acts, sad and doomed to fail," she said. "The Earth King is going to have his throne back. You aren't going to be anywhere near when it happens. The future is coming, and you're not in it."
"I make my own future."
"And again with the haughty proclamations," Azula rolled her eyes. "Considering the sheer amount of time I've considered the joy of popping you like a zit, your intransigence i–"
And for an instant, she was gone.
An instant later, she was standing there again, only she had a sheen of sweat and her clothes were singed and ripped. She looked around for a moment, a haunted look to her, before steeling herself and locking eyes with him once more. She cleared her throat, her stance shifting from one of immediate combat to one more refined and overpowering, if with an odd sense of a form of tension that he had a fair notion he wouldn't be able to manipulate hiding behind those eyes. "...is the last thing I want to hear ab– out of you," she said, catching herself as though she'd had to remember what she was talking about. Still, Long Feng was off-put enough to not take that for weakness, but the side effect of something very, very strange. She took a sashaying stride toward him, not in seduction, but of pure and unabashed authority, manifested in feminine form. "But I'm going to be nice. I'm not going to kill you. Instead, I'll just wait until the Avatar comes for you, sooner or later. Because he will. And when he does, you're going to regret the things you did against him."
"So you are his messenger girl?" Long Feng asked, leaning back and away from her.
She gave a condescending smile. "No. Consider me a courier. I deliver messages, and I get paid for it. Of course, you'll be the one paying; I've already extracted my fee," Long Feng glared at her. "Don't be so brusque; it's not like you deserved to have the Earth King's Seal to begin with. And I must say, even if Aang doesn't bother knocking on your door, I think that your days are numbered all the same; there's a fire in the people of Ba Sing Se, one that's been simmering for a long time... and all it needs is some tinder to burst into flames. So I'm giving you a friendly warning. Run. While you still can."
"I will not run from my duty," Long Feng said.
She shrugged. "So be it. Don't say I didn't warn you," she waved behind her as she walked away, her voice sing-song and overly bright.
"Guards. Restrain the Fire Lord and return what was taken," Long Feng ordered. Nothing happened. No agents – who should have been closing in the entire spiel – leaping out of the shadows to capture her. Just the faint slap of her bootheels on the floor as she moved away in her pool of azure light.
"Momentarily. Indisposed," Azula said, continuing to walk. Then, there was a rumbling sound that echoed through the halls, as something massive and furry – six legged – walked into the pool of light at the far end of the hall, where Azula was walking. At its brow was not the Avatar, as Long Feng had presumed, but instead a woman in orange robes, blue tattoo vanishing into her hair. "Right?"
"Yup," the airbender nun – one whom he in retrospect had seen very briefly years before – said with a nod. "Do you think he'll be angry about the hole we made in his roof?"
"What hole?" Long Feng demanded. Azula answered by, just before she reached the beast, tearing lightning into her hands, and casting it at the ceiling at the center of the Earth King's throne room. There was a great crack of rock breaking and falling, an aperture to the outside world appearing there. Azula smirked, and was lifted up on a gust to the bison's back.
"That one," Azula said.
"What happened to your dress?" the nun asked, as the bison let out a grunt and rose off of the floor.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Azula muttered, shaking her head. Then, a symbol of the chaos which had become Long Feng's life, the pair of them rose up, slipping out of that new-minted hole, and vanished into the night.
Forget sleepless nights; Long Feng was in for sleepless months.
Aang was, as he frequently found himself, sleeping with a book in his hands. It was a habit he'd gotten into in the last few years; as one of the two remaining airbenders, he had to preserve their lore, even if within his own mind. Having Malu to take up the slack was a big help, but even just reading the histories of Yangchen, Ilu, Moho, and Vajrapata was like trying to build a mountain one grain of sand at a time. Considering everything else he had to do, the only time he had to read was the scant few minutes he took between when he begrudgingly set aside his duties, and when he fell asleep.
When he woke up, it was to the opening of a door.
There were instincts instilled in him, years before, that snapped the sleep out of his mind in a heartbeat. He spun out of his bed, whipping the book onto the table near the door; if nothing else, it would startle whoever decided they were going to barge in on him at this heinous hour in the morning. He lit a bolt of flame above his hand, to give him a look at who this intruder was.
He stopped dead, when he saw Azula.
And she didn't look in the best of states.
"Azula?" Aang asked, letting his defenses fall. She stood at the door, as though unsure what to do with herself. "Is something wrong?"
"I... I need..." she took a few steps into the room. Her robes were torn and burnt. Had somebody hurt her? The very thought of it set Aang's pacifist blood to a very non-pacifist boil. He kept the fire in his hand, but he simply held the other open. There was a twist in Azula's face, as though she were trying very, very hard not to cry.
She gave up on that, rushing into him, the impact of her dropping the two of them onto his bed. Aang just stared at the ceiling, utterly befuddled, while she started to sob quietly, clutching him very, very close. "It's alright, Azula. You're safe. I've got you."
For some reason, that just made her weep harder. He scooted up, pulling her with him so that the connection between the two of them never broke. He'd be the last to say he was happy about how infrequently the two of them saw each other, of late. And when they did, it was always all business. It burned every time he left; he was leaving the love of his life behind. She was here now, though. He didn't know why. All he knew was that she needed him. That of all the people in the world she could go to, she came to him. She wept, so he held her close. Stroked her hair. Told her that everything was going to be alright.
She didn't say a word for the longest time, simply vented what felt like an entire lifetime's worth of tears. And he might have been right about that, he reckoned. When she finally slowed, not releasing him in the slightest, but her breath evening out, he leaned aside, looking into eyes that couldn't seem to stay on his. "There. Feeling a bit better?"
"This... shouldn't be my life," Azula said quietly.
"I'm supposed to be a broken, used up, discarded wreck of a girl," she said, her voice still carrying the aftershocks of her spell. "Brutalized and... and..."
"Hey. Hey," he said, tipping her chin up so that she would look him in the eye. "What's got that thought in your head? You know that people care about you. You're not alone."
"I just... just got a look at what my life was supposed to look like," she said quietly. Aang was a bit confused by that, only to be made worse when she continued. "So many paths, I could have taken, and in every one of them I'm just..."
"Azula, whatever it is that you saw, it doesn't have to hurt you," Aang said. "You are who you are, who you chose to be," he was truly grasping in the dark, but if there was one thing about reading a lot of old stuff, it was chalk full of wise proverbs and such. "You don't need to be afraid."
"I thought I was alright," Azula said quietly. "But I can't get it out of my head. I'm not supposed to be Fire Lord. Zuko is. I'm not supposed to be free; I'm supposed to be locked away, for everybody's safety. I'm not supposed to have friends, or..."
"Shh," he hushed her. And it was telling of her state that she didn't bristle because of it. "Your uncle told me once that destiny can be a funny thing. So your life could have been different, worse even; why should that matter? Your brother loves and supports you. You have a nation that believes in you. You have the loyalty of some of the best people I've met in my life, and it's loyalty that you earned."
"Then why can't I accept this? Why doesn't it feel real?" she asked.
That broke Aang's heart just a bit. She was so used to things going terribly wrong, that she couldn't believe when they went right. "If it doesn't feel real, then try something else. You have people who love you, Azula. If you can't believe anything else, believe that."
"...love," she repeated. She took a shuddering breath, then looked at him. Gods, but he could lose himself eternal in those eyes. "...do you love me?" she asked, her voice very, very small.
"Desperately," he said, because there was no other answer he could have given. It seemed to strike her like a blow. Tears welled in her eyes once more, but this time, she pulled herself closer, and into a kiss that was years too late as it was. It wasn't the same desperation that she'd shown before the Day of Black Sun, or even the sad parting when he left the Fire Nation. This one had a quieter need.
If she couldn't believe this was her life, then he'd just have to believe it for her. And that meant that he'd have to convince himself, first. When she drew back, she bit her lower lip for a moment, staring at him from an inch away. Then, she pulled herself close to him once more, resting her head against his shoulder. "...I think I love you, too..."
After a few minutes, Azula was asleep, there beside him. Aang was up till the dawn began to break; he couldn't stop grinning.
"This is insane!" Sokka shouted, pulling at his hair.
"This is my responsibility, and I don't expect you to understand," Nila said, her tones clipped and hot... which was to say, just about the same as they always were, only with just a touch more vitriol.
"Why do I even bother talking about this?" Sokka muttered, turning away from her and her chalkboard full of madness. Physics and equations, gravity versus velocity, chemical formulas, trying to turn substance into power in the biggest way possible. With a few minor blasphemies against his gods uttered under his breath, he stormed through the doors, crashing them open before him. The people moving through the Royal Fire Academy did so with a now renewed zeal, a student body returned to life after years of listlessly going through the motions. There was lost time, and they wanted to make it up.
"Break up with Nila again?" Zuko asked with a smirk on his face from where he was waiting, just outside the danger-area of the doors. Sokka turned to him, his face writhing.
"She's... Gods, there are days I just want to strangle her!" Sokka said, miming a choke-out as he did.
"This is almost a sad joke at this point," the firebender said as he fell in with Sokka.
"What?" Sokka asked.
"You and her," Zuko gave a nod back behind him.
"I... She... GAH!" Sokka simply didn't have words.
"There's got to be something that brings you back to her. After Ty Lee. After... what was her name? Suki?"
"Yeah... well..." Sokka waved the notion away.
"Things are heating up again," Zuko said. "Have you heard the latest out of Azul?"
"What a mess," Sokka said, shaking his head. "I never thought they'd be able to have a civil war through that... what did Aang call it?"
"A 'Meager'," Zuko said. "I'd be surprised if there's any power-players of the old-guard left in that country by now."
"Any word from Maya?" Sokka asked, as they had to split wide apart and let a gaggle of frankly quite attractive students pass between them. Sokka even turned to walk backward, watching them go; Tenger Etseg be praised for hot weather and skimpy school uniforms.
"Not since the rails got sapped," Zuko said. He shook his head slowly. "Like you said. It's a mess."
"I just hope that the whole 'civil war' thing out there doesn't bleed in here," Sokka said, as the two began a descent toward the atrium that had beams of light reaching down from the hot Embiar sun. He then gave a chuckle. "Man. Can't believe I'm hoping for strength and stability in the Fire Nation. Strange days."
The two continued to press through the student body, which didn't either recognize or care about their passage. It wasn't until they'd passed through the perpetually open doors, out into the sunlight, that Zuko spoke again. "Have you given thought to Azula's idea?"
"Yeah, honestly," Sokka said. "But it seems kinda ridiculous. Putting all the elements in one city? All of our cultures? Just seems like it's a catastrophe waiting to happen."
"She said it worked 'last time'."
"Yeah, well, 'last time' isn't necessarily 'this time'," Sokka pointed out.
"True enough. For one thing, we're already missing a war from her history... obviously since the Earth King doesn't rule in Ba Sing Se," Zuko said. "But the broad strokes are a lot more than most have. And her United Republic? Bringing people together is a good thing. We've had a generation of fear and death, and a lot of people are still showing the scars of it," Zuko self-consciously ran his fingers along the scars on his ear and neck. "...what we need now is a lot of love, and healing."
"All you need is love," Sokka said. "Maybe you should make that into a song."
"Laugh it up, Tribesman," and Sokka did exactly that.
So much so that he managed to catch a glimpse of something flying at the two of them. Sokka shoved Zuko out of the way, and hurled himself away, as the bottle full of burning jelly broke and ignited. There was a cry of terror that rippled through the crowd. Sokka was to his knees quickly, a hand on each of his space-sword and his boomerang.
"Death to the race-traitors!" a call came from the crowd. They parted quickly, revealing a young man, probably no older than Sokka himself, wearing a drab and form-concealing robe, readying another flask of that explosive whatever-it-was. Sokka whipped his boomerang forward, and it cut the distance before intercepting the bottle... which exploded, coating the terrorist in his own flammable concoction. His angry screams quickly changed timbre to terrified, pained screams, as he flailed and ran, quickly inundated in flames.
Sokka caught his returning weapon, and had to drop it immediately, stamping the sticking flames off. "What... the hell... was that?" Sokka asked, in the stunning silence that followed, before the klaxons of approaching constables began to rise.
"Something unforeseen," Zuko said. "Turns out, there's some people angry that we didn't 'win' the World War. Who knew?"
"...remember when things were simple?" Sokka asked.
"You mean when I spent all my time trying to kill you and capture Aang?" Zuko asked, brow raising.
"Yeah. I miss those days."
A Year Later:
"I realize how much hardship that they faced under my father and grandfather's rule, but that doesn't negate the fact that the Fire Nation has suffered as well," Azula said, leaning forward on her seat at the table. She was one of two delegates from the Fire Nation. There'd been three planned – Azul would sooner or later be a factor in Fire Nation politics... if they ever stopped fighting themselves – but at the moment, only the representative from Ember, a grey haired and mutton-chopped man from Fire Fountain City, sat at her side. To her left, was the delegation from the Water Tribe. She didn't know him from a hole in the ground. Husband of the next chief, or something. A few others were with him. Opposite them were the representatives from the Earth Kingdoms. Opposite Azula herself, though... there was the Avatar.
"That doesn't excuse the things which happened under the Fire Lord's rule, and the military is not immune to the consequences of its actions," Aang said evenly. "They want..."
"I don't care what they want!" Azula roared. "I am not going to pay reparations for a war I didn't lose!"
"Fire Lord Azula, restrain yourself!" Aang shouted back at her. "This is a place of diplomacy, not an Agni Kai arena!"
"You could have fooled me!" Azula snapped at him. "There's no point to any of this. Your lackeys," she gestured sternly at the trio from the East, "obviously have their mind made up and you're just going to roll over and agree with them. This is a farce, this is a circus, and I will not have any part of it!"
With that, she rose from her seat and stormed away with such gusto that her swirling robes blew some of the reports off of the table as she went. She cast the doors open to her exodus, and stormed down the hallway, muttering darkly under her breath. She continued that path, stewing and wrathful, until she was out of line-of-sight from the 'congress' which had formed out of the ashes of the war. Then, a glance, up and down the hallway. Nobody was watching her.
So she ducked into a closet. And there, she started to wait.
The time stretched out, as she waited in that confined and dark space. Until there was a slow, light rapping against the door. When it happened, she threw it open fast, so fast that it almost hit the knocker in the face, before she grabbed him by the collar and hauled him inside. While a great portion of the strength she'd cultivated as a young teenager had atrophied into a more 'feminine' threshold, she could still manhandle somebody as spindly as, say, Aang.
"You took long enough," she said, eyes locked on his.
"They wouldn't let me out," he said, those grey eyes practically smoldering as he leaned back on the door, pressing it absolutely shut. "I've been waiting for this..."
"Do yourself a favor, and stop talking," Azula said, her hands at his shoulders, and a very, very warm smirk on her face.
"As you wish, love of my life," Aang said. Azula felt herself melt a little, just hearing that. She didn't stay melted long, though; she was a woman of action. And she was turning him into a man of action himself.
So it was of no surprise to either involved that over the course of the next few seconds, they'd both ripped off each other's clothing.
Consciousness returned slowly, leadenly. Shapes appearing before eyes not entirely able to perceive them. Her limbs felt like they were carved – poorly – out of wood, and when she raised one, to try to wipe the sweat from her brow and more or less punched herself, the simile completed itself.
"Ooooooow," she drawled, the word moving past dry tongue, crackled lips. How could she be both overheating and sweaty, and at the same time so dry?
"Did... did she just make a sound?" a voice came from the indistinct morass around her. High toned. Feminine.
"Probably not," another voice. Familiar. Male.
"No, I'm pretty sure she just moved," the woman said again.
"Maryah, she hasn't so much as twitched for years. I..."
"Why does my tongue hurt?" she finally managed to croak.
"Hisui!" and then there was a face above her. It didn't look familiar, even though the voice was. For one thing, there was a lot more beard on it. "You're... you're awake!"
"I'm really thirsty," Hisui croaked once more. The bearded one vanished, and another face – silvery-eyed, hair glossy black, took it's place. "...Maryah? You look... different."
"It's been a while," the woman said. Something bumped into Hisui's lower lip, pouring something cold and wet in. Water. Oh, how long had it been? She coughed, sputtering her first mouth full out, until her brother helped raise her a bit, so she could drink without drowning. As she blinked, slowly things came into focus, her ability to see restoring after so long doing... well... nothing.
"Did we win?" Hisui asked.
"Yeah. We did," Hai said.
"What are you two talking about?"
"Brother-sister stuff," both managed to say as one, even though one grumbled to do it.
"Why do you have a beard now?" she then asked, after taking another drink.
"Hisui... it's been a while," he said, stressing the last word.
"...couple weeks?" she asked.
"Not... quite," Maryah said. Hisui finally could see things clearly, and thus, she could clearly see that her hands were almost skeletal. So too the arm connected to it. The feet, the legs that poked out the bottom of the blanket could well have belonged to a mummy. "It's been, well, a few years."
"Years?" Hisui asked.
"Yeah," Maryah said. "A few things have changed."
At around that point, Hisui saw what she was talking about. Namely that Maryah had a belly which quite obviously spoke to advanced pregnancy. The atrophied woman stared down there for a moment, then up at Maryah's face. "You're pregnant."
"Marriage can do that to you... if you're not paying attention," she shrugged. This was Hai's home, then. And it was a house just on the precipice of adding one more to it. Her cot was set in a corner of the kitchen, where she could be watched over most of the time. They'd taken care of her for how long?
"Hai? Hai?" she asked. Her brother finally returned, a bowl of something that smelled pretty appetizing. "Tell me something..."
"What is it, Sis?" he asked.
"...why can't I World Eye anymore?" she asked, as she tried to open her sight into the realms beyond.
"...That could take a bit of explaining," Hai said.
"You don't have your own soul anymore," Hai said with a wince. She stared at him. "If the Avatar told the truth, he 'made a deal with the hate-engine', whatever that is, to keep you alive."
"I'm not a shaman anymore?" she asked.
"No. You'll just have to learn from scratch," Hai said.
"And for the record, you now work for Fire Lord Azula," Maryah said. She shrugged. "Who knows, she might even give you your back-pay."
"What happened to Zhao?" Hisui asked with a scowl on her face.
"That's the thing... nobody's really sure," Hai said, frowning for a very different reason. "In the mess after everything went dim, we lost track of him. Haven't heard a damned thing about him in years. Hell with him."
"So everything's alright?" Hisui asked, laying down once more.
She saw the glance that the two of them gave each other.
"Sure is," Hai said.
Even in her weakness, her mental fog, she knew he was lying.
A Year Later:
Every grim prediction that Azula had given him had come true, in one form or another.
He sat in the chair of his home, which was now located in a nondescript part of the Upper Ring, as more suited his station as Regent for the Earth King In Absentia. His mind slowly turned over everything again, for the third time this morning, trying to find the breaking point. The one critical thing which would turn things to his favor. It was somewhere. He just had to find it.
The riots had started almost on cue, after Azula left in the night. He was so certain, back then, that she had left agents of the Avatar and the Fire Nation to foment rebellion and sew discord, but every time he reached the top of a chain of angry citizens, he found nothing – absolutely nothing! – that would connect it to anything outside the walls of Ba Sing Se. Somehow, tens of thousands of formerly loyal and content citizens of his city decided that they preferred open rebellion, independently of each other, and without anybody pulling their strings. His assumption that the vengeful waterbender was the source of these troubles died a sudden death just as the waterbender in question had. Which meant that for all of this madness, there was nobody to blame.
Nobody obvious, anyway.
Long Feng knew that there had to be something he wasn't seeing. All of this, the timing of it, it didn't make sense otherwise. He'd had two and a half years of peace and prosperity after his failed attempt to capitalize on the Day of Black Sun, not so much as a mugging in the streets. He'd called even then that it seemed slightly unusual. Crime could be made low in Ba Sing Se, but this... it was different.
"You're going to cause yourself harm if you keep going on like that," Dun said from the oven, which he slaved over to make lunch. In the distance, the heat was enough to cause thunder to roll on the horizon; heat lightning, the winds and rains somewhere far away.
That was something, at least. At least Ba Sing Se wasn't on the verge of dying of thirst anymore. And all it had cost him was several of his most trusted subordinates, a monumental labor of will, and all of the rest of Long Feng's hair. Ba Sing Se would survive, as it always had. But if the best parts of it died, the beating heart of it... he wasn't going to allow that to happen.
"I know, Dun," Long Feng said softly. The other half of his life just gave a sad look, before returning his attention to the dumplings that were coming along quickly. "There has to be something I can do."
"You have to admit to yourself that you can't do everything. Nobody could. Not even the Avatar," Dun pointed out with a spoon pointed back at him, despite not turning to face him. Long Feng's jaw tightened at that. The Avatar. It'd all started going wrong the moment that impertinent relic of a by-gone era landed inside his city's walls. He had a spike of quite unhelpful anger at simply hearing the word. Wrath and rancor wouldn't help him. He needed to be focused, calm, cool-headed and collected. This was not an opponent he could bludgeon into submission like a worthless street-tough. No, the Avatar, and everything that he had sparked was something which had to be out-thought, rather than out-fought.
Long Feng rose to his feet, and opened the door to the air outside. "Don't leave without dinner. You've done that too many times as is," Dun called after him.
"Of course," he answered back. "...thank you."
Dun simply nodded, and went back to cooking. Long Feng slipped out the door, and took a step aside, before leaning against the wall of his house. The breeze was minimal, just enough to trace along the lines of sweat that were starting to press out. As summers went, this one was quite hot. Hotter than that bizarre one in the year of Black Sun, the year of the Comet, by far. He stared at the clouds in the distance, as they slowly, imperceptibly rolled closer, giving the promise of another douse of rain. What had once been a once-in-a-generation miracle, now happened every other week or so. Strange days.
He kept watching those clouds, listening to the thunder that rumbled so quietly over the distance, inevitable as the storm they preceded. He watched, and he thought. He thought... and things began to line up. His eyes, still locked on those clouds, weren't seeing anything, but a solution started to come about. It was only partial as yet, but it was a start. A few orders to the Secretariats of the Lower Ring, where the riots had prompted the Dai Li to lock down the entire Ring, and it would become a victory with every bit the inevitability of those clouds. Just a few words.
He practically sighed at the relief passing through his mind. It would be work, hard work, and a lot of it, but he could restore Ba Sing Se to what he always wanted it to be; the greatest city on the face of this planet.
The next thing to pass through his mind, unfortunately, was a metal slug traveling slightly faster than the speed of sound.
There was another rumble, almost like thunder, that reached Long Feng a second later, even as he collapsed. There was a sound of something being dropped in the house, and then, a voice. "No... no no no, please no," Dun repeated. "Gods no, don't do this... You can't..."
Looking through a spy-glass from a rooftop in the Middle Ring, just over a mile away, Nila gave a nod as she saw the grey-haired man cradling the still and lifeless body of Long Feng. It had taken her years to learn the science of this weapon to the point that she now had. The physics of it. Windage and drop-over-distance. Just to match the precision of a shot she'd made years ago, by complete accident, not far from here. She took a breath, one that came in slow, and flushed out years worth of anger and insatiable hate. "That was for Ashan, you son of a bitch," she whispered in Altuundili. Then, she picked up her rifle, and prepared for her escape from Ba Sing Se.
It'd be easy. She was friends with an airbender.
"Is it just me, or do we do dungeons, way too much?" Toph asked, as Zuko cut the bonds holding her off of the floor – a condition that Zuko knew from experience hurt like hell. Of the two of them, besides the rope-burns on her wrists, she looked a lot better off than he was. His left eye was almost swollen shut, and he was pretty sure he bit off a bit of his tongue.
"This was your idea," Zuko reminded her.
"Yeah, and you should have told me not to," Toph said, trying to punch him in the gut for back-talking her, but she instead let out a hiss and rubbed at her aching shoulder. "Did you gack the guy at least?"
"Nah, just beat him unconscious and trussed him up for Aang," Zuko answered her, as he gently guided her toward the door, which lay blown open from the outside.
"Wuss," Toph chided.
"We need him alive," Zuko said with a shrug. When they reached the upper floor, where Skanda, once crime-lord based out of Azul and now festering tumor in the newborn Republic City. And it had taken a lot of restraint to simply beat the hell out of him; his fetish for teenaged girls had not diminished as he aged. "...Infiltration, huh?"
"Shut up," Toph shifted her weight against him, making him stumble, before delivering a kick into Skanda's gut. "But for the record, he's working for some guy he calls 'Blue Eyes'. Turns out he's not the top link."
"There's always another one, isn't there?" Zuko shook his head, pushing the door open for her, which caused her to throw a look back in his general direction. The building and street outside it were filled with a swarm of constables who'd come in at Zuko's command for the sting. They were probably still in the process of running down the stragglers that had made a break for it.
"Chief Beifong? Are you alright?" an idealistic young sergeant named Wei asked.
"I'll be fine. Get them to the interrogators; we've got another level on this thing."
"Again?" Wei asked, amber eyes drooping slightly.
"I know. It's like these butt-holes don't know that only good-guys are supposed to organize," she said. Her confident smirk turned flat for a moment. "On the double. I didn't get this post by bein' pretty; people expect me to get some shit done."
"Of course, ma'am," Wei said, before heading off to Zuko-knew-not-where. When he did, Zuko allowed himself to slip his arm around her waist.
"How about we just stay away from dungeons for a little while," Zuko whispered to her ear.
"Yeah. Work hard, play hard," she said. She cleared her throat, and spoke up. "Take over. I'm running this one in."
"Yes, ma'am," somebody called.
"Given any thought to the proposal?" Zuko asked.
"You're killing me, Toph," Zuko said.
"Yeah, well... I'll get hitched when I feel like it," she said.
Zuko shook his head. "You're going to do it. I think I know you by now."
"Psht," she scoffed, before shifting her weight into him again, this time pushing him out of the street and into a slightly darkened alley between two buildings. When they were out of easy-sight, she turned, her own hands circling his neck and hauling him down so that she could plant a kiss on his lips. "Like I said," she said, from less than an inch away, blind eyes shining. "...I'll do it when I wanna."
Two Years Later:
"You do realize this is going to end in disaster?" Azula asked, sitting with her hair done into an impressive array of braids and ringlets. It was a fashion which came in near the end of her longest life, one that had baffled her at the time – grey haired and gap-toothed didn't suit the look – but today? Today she felt like trying it.
"So you keep saying," the Avatar said with a smile on his face. In her opinion, he looked good. Not in the orange robes. Still had some hair, though it was cut far shorter than he'd had it on that fateful day before she left to find her father. It made the beard that was swiftly growing in look a great deal less ridiculous. "Personally? I think they'll just be glad that they don't need to flinch every time the two of us walk into the same room."
"I'm shocked they didn't figure this out," she said.
"Well... you are a very good liar," Aang said with a dopey smile. Which was to say, his most usual expression when the two of them were in private. There came a tapping at the door, which both of them turned toward, though she with a great deal less agility; her hair wasn't the only remarkably intricate thing about her today. There came a creak as the door swung, and revealed a face that neither had seen in a very long time. "...well I'll be."
"I told you I'd be here in time," Maya Azul said. The years had made a hard woman out of her, but it wasn't surprising, considering that she spent half a decade in the center of a civil-war.
"You didn't say anything," Azula countered.
"You don't read your mail, then," Maya said. "Thought you could use some good news, to go with the event."
"Really?" Aang asked, taking his feet.
"You're talking to the second elected leader of a new Azuli republic," Maya spread her arms dramatically.
"What happened to the first?" Aang asked.
"He was in office for six weeks," Maya said with a roll of her eyes. "Then we found out how he got into office, and there was a bit of annoyance amongst the voters."
"Annoyance as in...?" Aang prompted.
"Has anybody found his body yet?" Azula asked.
"Nope," Maya said. She then spun a chair to sit in it, folding up her legs as she did. She looked a lot like she had when she left them all behind, heading to the Far West. Probably a lot of time with minimal nutrition and a lot of sleepless nights stunting her growth, while at the same time giving her wrinkles premature for her actual age. Even Azula had thought that the death of this twisted Montoya Azul would have been an improvement, caused things to shift towards more political sanity. How foolishly optimistic she had been. "So. Getting married to the Avatar."
"I know. Shocking," Azula said.
"Isn't it bad luck to see her before the ceremony?" Maya pointed idly at Azula.
"Not by my tradition," Aang said brightly.
"Then I guess I'm glad that I made it in time," Maya said with a shrug.
"Just in time, in fact," Aang said, tilting his head. "...because I'm pretty sure I can hear the music starting."
"Finally," Azula said with a shake of her head. The beautician finally stopped hovering around her like a fruit-fly and let her stand. The dress was one of opulence and frippery, in Azula's opinion. It was the same dress that Ilah had worn marrying Azulon, and the irony was not lost on the woman who bore the feminization of his name. "Come. Find a place to stand."
"No seats?" Maya asked.
"If you'd shown up several hours ago, you might have been lucky. Instead, well..." Azula said with a sarcastically mocking shrug. Aang moved to her side, and she hooked her arm through his, as the door was opened for the two of them, and they began their 'procession'. Instantly moving to Azula's side of the pair were Ty Lee, in her brightest, happiest pinks, with an enormous grin on her perpetually happy face. Mai, her hair somewhat grown out but nothing like the lives Azula once lived, was in much more somber colors, just beside the acrobat. Par for the course, that. The third, and by far the smallest, was Azula's little half-sister, Hibana. That whore Fujitsuna had the unmitigated gall to name her Tsuru? Well, the beaming seven-year-old was obviously a Hibana, a little sparkle, instead of some woman's tool. The little girl practically radiated, like this whole wedding was for her.
"You are so beautiful," Aang whispered to Azula, as Sokka and Zuko joined at his side.
"Hours of work and a remarkable amount of money," Azula answered back, as they all passed through a second arch-way, and into the great expanse that all of the many, many guests found themselves in.
"You'd be beautiful in rags and filth," he said.
"And you think telling that to your bride during her wedding's a good idea?" Azula asked, her tones cold. Aang winced and leaned slightly away from her, until he saw the smirk at the corner of her mouth. He gave a slightly relieved chuckle, as they approached the Sage who would oversee the union, Iroh at his side representing her 'departed' father.
"You're so mean," Aang said. "And I'm okay with that."
"You'd better be," Azula said. She certainly was.
The two turned, facing each other. He in finery based on but not drawn entirely from his airbender heritage, she in her dress of scarlet. All of her friends, new or old, watching. Her mother, smiling with the look on her face that Azula wouldn't have believed in those anguished years: Pride. Her people, watching just as proudly. The five point-flame in her hair, and it there because she deserved it. All things considered, this was one of the happier days of all the lives she ever lived.
As weddings went, this was a pretty good one, Sokka figured. Aang and Azula were flitting around – well, Azula didn't flit, per se – being the blushing bride and gracious groom, while the others either joined in high-minded conversation with the upper-crust of Fire Nation society, or got completely shit-faced with the rest of them. Sokka had, of course, opted for the latter. "You know..." his older sister, who was definitely more drunk than he was, said with a tone of profoundness, "I still want to kill you some days."
"Do I deserve it?"
"Yup," she said happily, before quaffing again. "Oh... serioustly though. I'm glad that... that I didn't kill you. 'Cause then you wouldn't have invited me to the party, and I wouldn't be having this..."
"I think you've had enough," Omo said, lifting the cup from her hand.
"I will destroy you!" she snapped at him, bristling with all the indignation that a drunk could have. "Wait. I can't destroy you."
"And why not?" the earthbender asked.
"'Cause you're too pretty," she then set into giggling. Sokka could only shake his head. She still refused to go by Hikaoh, but that was her choice. Having their sister back, even if she went by Yoji, that was something that they'd never thought they'd have. And having a giggly assassin for an older sister was somewhat surreal. The last time he'd seen her this drunk was at her own wedding – which she had only begrudgingly invited her siblings and father to – but she had shown much he same character of now once she'd gotten a bottle into her. Omo could only shake his head, a little smile on his face, as he scooped her up. "Whoop! I'm flying!"
"Yes, Yoji. You're flying," Omo said. "Seriously. She never does this."
"She should do it more often," Sokka raised a cup to her, where she continued to giggle and whisper slurringly into the earthbender's ear. He simply carried her away from the party, where she'd obviously had entirely too much to drink. It was weird. After that first time she sat there, drunk and earnest, they actually managed to start having a family relationship. Tenuous as spiderwebs, sure, but it was still family.
"You know, I should probably take her cue," Zha Yu, who was sharing Sokka's table, said. With a shrug, he continued. "Sul doesn't like when I come home completely drunk. You know how it is."
"No, I really don't," Sokka said. "See you around, Mountain King," he raised his cup, to the departing earthbender. But, by simple chance and coincidence, that would be the final time that Sokka laid eyes upon the Mountain King for the rest of his life. That left Sokka on his own; Kori – who went by Ked only when he was with his parents and sisters – had already broken off chasing after some of the other party-goers, while Katara and her very-soon-to-be husband were in the middle of a knot of middle-aged dignitaries. What kind of world was it that a woman of twenty... Sokka paused, looking at his cup. "...I should probably stop drinking. I can't remember how old Katara is."
"Twenty one... I think," A familiar voice said, causing Sokka's head to spin so fast that he probably pulled something. Luckily, he wasn't in any condition to feel it.
"Nila?" Sokka asked. It was, indeed, her. She was dressed for travel, which was to say, she was covered in grit and wore none of the finery expected of this event. She and Maya were two peas in a pod in that. "What are you doing here?"
"I was invited by the bride," she said, as she handed off a cup to somebody passing her by.
"Yeah, but you never said you'd come," Sokka said.
"No... no I didn't," she said. She took the seat abandoned by Yoji, taking a deep breath, and staring out at the crowds. Her breath smelled faintly of rum. Sokka offered her the cup, which she took. Kind of surprising. "They seem quite happy together, don't they?"
"Please. Nobody's as in love as those two," Sokka said with a wave. "It's almost a little nauseating."
"But does it have a future?" she asked.
"Definitely. He'll never leave her. And she'll kill anybody that tries to get between 'em," Sokka said. He looked to Nila once more. The years had been much kinder to her than they had been to Maya. Nila was still hardly ample of bosom, but that didn't matter, considering what time had done for her backside. He could write a poem about that... But he found himself distracted. Time hadn't changed her drastically. Instead, it had ripened her. Her lips, once thin, now plump. Her nose, once a hatchet, now simply proud and prominent. Her eyes, well, her eyes were always gorgeous.
"You are staring, Tribesman," Nila said, as she drank.
"I can't help it. Y'r something worth staring at," Sokka said.
"You are a boor," Nila said with a shake of her head.
"You ever wonder why we couldn't make it work?" Sokka asked.
"We're too stubborn. Too arrogant. Too smart for our own good. Too fixated on being right," Nila rattled off quickly.
"Yeah..." Sokka agreed. "And still..."
"We're probably going to do it again," Nila said with a nod, and a little smile on her face.
"See, that's our prop–blem," Sokka said, stifling a hiccup. "We're too smart. So how about... how about we do something really, really stupid?"
"Are you out of your mind?" Nila asked. Then she rolled her eyes. "Oh, I know the answer to that."
"Face it," Sokka said, shifting his chair so that it faced hers close enough that their knees touched. "You loved being with me. You were always s-so happy. Even when you were pissed – and you got pissed a lot – you were happy."
"...yes," she said, her eyes sliding shut, tattooed hands pushing lustrous hair away from them. "With nobody else has there been that... what ever that was."
"You see?" Sokka said. "So how about this? Try something dumb. Something really dumb," Sokka said.
She emptied the glass in a single long pull.
"Very well. Let's get married," she said, slamming the goblet down.
"...I was going to say 'get naked and run through the streets', but that's intriguing," Sokka said. Nila instantly looked mortified.
"You weren't..." Nila said, her face darkening with what he'd learned over the years were her very infrequent blushes. She rose, pulling at her clothes, turning away from him. "I should go... I didn't..."
He rose, and caught her, pulling her back to him. When she did, seemingly by instinct, her hands wrapped round his waist and the side of his neck – the burned side, as was her custom. There was a fraction of a second, where the two stared at each other from about a nose's length away from each other. Then, dumb as rocks, drunk as goat-hounds, and crazy as a sun-crazed fox, the two collapsed on each other, with the kiss both knew was coming, but neither had the courage to start.
Not until they were both drunk.
Two Years Later:
Honestly, Zuko couldn't remember the last time he was in this much pain.
Of course, crawling out of a carriage that exploded around him tended to smart a little. He flopped his way away from the ruins, trying to shake the daze from his head. To get his bearings. To defend himself from whatever was about to come at him. He knew an assassination attempt when he saw one, and he had a pretty Agni-damned good look at this one. He'd just shifted to sit, his back to a dead Ostrich-Horse that had been driving the thing, when a thought hit his mind, one he'd been too stunned to think about otherwise.
"...Toph," he said.
Ignoring his battered body, he pushed himself to his feet, and limped through the carnage. The streets had emptied quickly after the blast, but the flames were already licking and consuming the wooden structures of this new-born city. This was going to get worse, no matter if his unknown assailants succeeded or lost. He shoved away searing wood, trying to dig into the carriage. She could still be in there.
"Toph! Come on! Tell me you're alright," Zuko pleaded, as he furiously firebend the heat away from his hands so that he could shift burning wood without so much as gloves. There was a creak, followed by a crash, as a section of the burning cart crumbled. Zuko winced. There was a loud pop, as a chunk of wood he was trying to heave cracked free of its mooring, snapping back and hitting him right in the left eye. He let out a yelp of pain; he'd bent the heat away from his hands. His face was a different matter.
He clutched at his eye for a moment, even as the alarms only now began to sound in the streets of Republic City. He started to kick the wood, to try to reach the inside... He wasn't even sure how he'd gotten out in the first place. "Toph, I'm coming! Please, be alright!"
"Why are you shouting?" a voice like the gift of a benevolent god asked him. He limped around the carriage, to the far side of it. And there she was, sitting in the ruins of a produce stand which had collapsed around her, but she was there. She looked hurt... she was bleeding.
"Toph!" Zuko limped quickly to her and pulled her out of her 'crater'. Her own hands tapped their way along his face for a moment as she was born upward. "You're..."
"I've had worse," Toph muttered. She wasn't particularly pale, so that was something. "Your eye..."
"I've had worse," Zuko echoed. He cupped her face with both raw hands. "Don't ever do that to me again. I don't know what I would have..."
"Zuko, you're panicking. Shut up," Toph said, but kindly. "I'm fine. My leg hurts like shit, but I'm fine."
"I'm... I'm going to kill that son of a bitch," Zuko muttered, eyes burning as they stared into the distance, as though somehow they could lock on the one responsible for this
"You think this was Zhao?" she asked, before hissing as he helped her up.
"Yeah, don't check on the airbender. She's fine too," Malu said, limping out of a door past Toph. Well, door-frame. As she came, she too was bleeding, and was in the process of plucking a shard of glass from her tattooed forearm.
"Good god, are you alright?" Zuko asked. It was a valid question, as she was five-months pregnant.
"Aang's going to want to hear about this," Malu muttered, ignoring such petty concerns as her own physical health. She prodded at a gash on her neck that looked almost like a shallow mirror of the nearly-life-ending wound that Katara had suffered at the hands of Montoya Azul. He'd taken too long to die, that man. Zuko nodded.
"I figured he'd pick a fight. Just not like this," Zuko said.
It was a rare thing to see Aang in a rage.
"How many this time?" he asked, simmering quietly. Unlike his bride, he wasn't given to explosions of anger and wrath. Instead, it bubbled in him. He usually forced it into a form which wasn't destructive, but when he got angry, you could tell. This was beyond anger. Those were the eyes that Katara had seen on him when he talked about that day in Azul.
"Too many," Katara said. "I never thought he'd have so much support."
"It makes sense," Azula said. Ten years ago, Katara would never have believed that she'd see a day when Azula was a calming presence for Aang. But then, she'd never thought she'd see the day when a desperate dictator would rally all of the people that were outraged by the end of the World War, and turned them into a landless army against him personally. "There are few good things I can say about the man, but he knows his politics. He knows how to manipulate people."
"This has to stop. Today, this hour, this minute," Aang said, stabbing the surface of the table with his finger. The thump of it caused the great, brown, furry bulk which was a now fully-grown saber-toothed moose-lion – Kuchi – to turn a black eye toward him, before settling back down into its nap. "If I have to, I'll go out there and..."
"Get yourself killed? Not an option," Azula cut him off. Aang turned to her. "Like I said, he knows how to manipulate people. He knows that you won't stand for people being hurt in your name. He expects you to do the empathetic and rash thing of trying to 'limit the damage' by dealing with him personally. And that is why you are the only person who can't."
"Zuli, this is my responsibility," Aang said.
"It's just as much mine," she said quietly. "I should have killed him a decade ago."
"Well, what are we going to do about it?" Katara asked, drawing both back to the topic at hand. "He's hurt people we care about, and gotten a lot of people angry. He's playing us. Or he's trying to. So what do we do?"
"I don't know," Aang said. There was a long pause. "But I know somebody who might."
Two Years Later:
"Do you remember the promise I made, all those years ago?" Emperor Zeruel asked, as he leaned down at the man who was held to the ground, his hands manacled and his feet fettered. "I swore that I would destroy you for what you'd done to my people. I swore it before God, and by God, I'm going to fulfill it."
The end of Zhao's insurrection had come not with a bang, but with a long series of whimpers. Whimpers that Sativa had personally pulled out of him, one gasp at a time. Piandao had watched as they manufactured Zhao's decline. With so little left for her, Sati took a particular delight in it. It was still sad to the old, one-handed swordsman. Her son's death seemed the straw that broke the eel-hound's back. After that, she and Nila drifted apart completely. And only because Piandao was more stubborn than an earthbender did she not drift apart from him. She was hurting, and she felt adrift. A world at peace – even as tenuous a peace as this – didn't have a place for people so versed in the art of war, and she knew it.
He was probably the only person she had left in her life.
Every morning, he thanked Agni that he didn't find her hanging from the roof-beams.
"I was wrong," Zhao said, his burned eye in the same glower that it always held. "I thought she was trying to win the World War... I was wrong."
"You were wrong in more ways than that," Piandao pointed out. Sativa was just standing there quietly, a distant look in her emerald eyes. Agni's blood, but it looked the same as the thousand-mile gaze that Sharif had worn. He'd only seen it once on the boy, but once was enough. "We had finished, Zhao. The War was over. We were healing! And this? You tore at a healing wound, and for what?"
Zhao didn't have an answer for that.
Zeruel beckoned somebody closer. A common soldier of the Whalesh army. His armor was the same muted grays that pervaded the nation. "Your weapon," he beckoned. The soldier flinched, then hurriedly handed over his spear. Zeruel turned unnaturally orange eyes to the lad. "Your other weapon."
The soldier looked down, to the maul that hung from his hip. It was unadorned, a haft of wood and a metal bludgeon for a head. He pulled it from his belt, and handed it to his liege. Zeruel turned to Zhao once more. "I do this not for my own vengeance, but for the glory of God," he said.
"Do me a favor," Zhao said from where he was, forced down to his knees. "Just shut up and do it."
Piandao took Sativa by the shoulders and turned her away, walking with her into the mists of the early morning shores of Pulse. It was very warm here, not surprising since the Fire Nation was barely a thousand miles north, but it still felt different. What was about to happen, Sati didn't need to see. Not because she hadn't seen the like of it or worse before, but because, honestly, he knew exactly how fragile she was now. She didn't need to see this ending.
"Are you going to be alright, Sati?" Piandao asked.
"...no," she answered. It was like when Sharif died, so died her spirit. Like when he was gone, she stopped believing that she had a place in the world at all.
"It's still not too late to talk to your daughter, to ask for forgiveness," Piandao said.
She slowly shook her head. "She would never give it. The things I said, the things I did to her in her childhood? I failed her in every way. She deserves to hate me. I deserve to be hated."
"Sati, please, don't talk like that," Piandao said. She turned a look to him. Focusing on him, just for a moment. Then, she sighed, and nodded. He wished she wouldn't. He wished she would tear a strip up one side of him and down the other, like she used to when he pushed her too far. He wished that she hadn't lost her son.
He wished she hadn't lost her family. Gently, he pulled her close, walking down the shores of Pulse. They had never married, the two of them. They simply didn't have enough left in them to make it official. But still, he loved her as much as the first day he woke beside her. And in her wounded way, she did as well. Which was the reason he never found her hanging from the roof-beams.
Two wounded soldiers walked into the morning mists, while an Emperor beat a man to death with a hammer in the distance behind them.
"Well, he looks like he's in a good mood," Malu said, as her twins bawled and stared around with wide-eyed interest, respectively. She managed to carry both with her without an inkling of discomfort or difficulty, a feat which left Katara, a mother only once, somewhat jealous. Her own little girl was a handful and a half at the best of times. And at the worst, they tended to find her on the top branch of the nearest tree, despite being scarcely more than two years old.
"That shouldn't come as any surprise," Katara answered.
"You're talking over my head again," Azula said, her annoyance plain. "And of course he is happy. He's going to be a father."
"It seems like everybody's getting that way," Katara said.
"Except Zuko and Toph," Malu said. She frowned for a moment. "Wait, are they married yet?"
"Of course," Katara said with a wave of her hand. "Although seeing Toph around him is a weird kind of adorable-disgusting sensation. She could do so much better."
Azula and Malu shared a look, one of conspiracy, that Katara couldn't unravel. The former rose to her feet, warding Katara away with a look when she moved to help. It was a look which clearly said 'I can do this on my own, I'm not an invalid'. Strange how she was so able to read those looks. And sad, how the man who'd been her first teacher in deeply vocal glances was already a year in the ground. She never even learned the laconic archer's real name. Azula smoothed her robes as she stood. They all turned, looking out over Ba Sing Se, which had a cacophony in its streets, but for a change, it wasn't one of rage and rebellion. Instead, there was open celebration throughout all of the three Rings. The Earth King sat once more upon his throne, and for a people so intertwined with their traditions as the Easterners, that was a cause for celebration.
She'd lost track of how many drunk nobles she'd seen in the last hour, tottering through the gardens of the Earth King.
"I never thought I'd ever see this sight," Azula said quietly, gazing out upon the gardens of the Royal Palace. Out on the grounds, mocking and teasing the nobles, sat Sokka and Nila. When Nila noticed she was being observed, she gave a friendly wave, which Azula returned. Throughout everything, those two had become fast, if odd, friends. "Strange days."
"Not strange," Malu said. "I think we've all earned a bit of peace and quiet."
"We earned peace and quiet when we saved the world," Azula pointed out as she turned from the window, a finger raised. "Now, we're owed interest."
Katara turned, to head back into the building which the three mothers or mothers-to-be all shared. The party continued inside as it had out, with people wheeling through the great dining hall that lay below their raised hallway. There were a lot of faces that Katara knew well, down there. And there were a few faces that she knew weren't there. That wouldn't be there. Faces like Iroh, or Bumi, or Zha Yu. Even Momo. But that was time. It didn't care how much you'd done, how big your name was, when its tally was due in full.
"And there he is," Azula said, a warmth in her voice that a younger Katara would have been shocked to hear. Aang was indeed below; not drinking as so many others were, but instead performing for their delight. Katara had to laugh at him, beaming like a fool, as he made being the Avatar into the ultimate party trick. Everybody was caught up in his excitement. Yue, for one, was laughing so hard she was crying a little. There was a little smile on Azula's face, one that was almost afraid of itself. Not surprising, considering what she'd been through.
"Yeah. Can't keep his excitement to himself," Malu said. Her eyes widened. "Speaking of, have you gotten any leeway in reclaiming the North?"
"Speaking of? That's got to be the worst segue I've ever heard," Katara laughed, but the laughs didn't last. "No. No, I can't even find people who want to go back up there. It'll probably be abandoned within a couple decades."
"Wow. That's really sad," Malu said, comforting the bawling child while keeping the happy one able to intently gaze across the whole wide room.
"It happens," Katara said. The permanent loss of the North Water Tribe 'just happens'. The loss of the Four Great Cities 'just happens'. Then again, they could have lost a lot more. She was about to speak again when there was a crash below, as a number of delicate objects which had been spinning on bowls of air slipped the Avatar's grasp, because he'd finally looked up.
"Azula!" he called up to her. "Flame of my life, what are you doing up there away from the party?"
Whatever answer she was going to give was cut off by him bounding up to their higher level in a single airbending-enhanced leap, one that landed his feet right before hears, so that he had the choice of either flattening her, or doing as he did, and twisting her into a kiss that left her bowed back and her eyes going a little dopey. When he finally drew her back up, and her attention returned, she turned a golden eye toward Katara, in silent warning that if she told anybody about Azula's even momentary dopiness, there would be blood to pay. "Wow," Azula said.
"I love you so much," Aang whispered into the side of her neck.
"Of course you do," Azula said. Then, she leaned up, whispering something into his ear that, by the din below, Katara couldn't hear at all. But she had a pretty good idea what the firebender said.
Two Years Later:
Tzu Zi was weeping... but for once, that wasn't a bad thing. She and Rai Li were standing on that shore, shoes sinking into golden sands, but as instructed, remaining well back from the surf. Mostly because the fluid that lapped at these shores definitely was not water. The two of them looked out, into the fog that lay over the Sea of Souls, where the two of them had been brought. There was something ragged here, in Nila's mind. Like the dangling end of a rope that had snapped so long before. She still knew her way through the Spirit World, even though it was now nothing like how it was in her youth. Almost like the knowledge of it grew as the realm did.
Little did she know that it was actually the opposite.
"I don't see anybody," Sokka said, where he stood next to her.
"You wouldn't," Nila said. "I know this place; you can only see the memories of those that you remember. It is an odd feedback loop."
"Really?" Sokka asked, from his place directly at her side. He looked out to the waters, and slowly, his expression became agape. "...Mom?"
"So now you see?" Nila asked. Sokka just stared, before breaking that and turning to her, and offering her a silent nod. "Ever since this place returned... I keep coming here."
Sokka sighed, his head hanging. He pulled Nila a little closer to him, which was slightly awkward, because her stomach kept getting in the way. And here she thought herself so smart, only to have herself dealing with a hyperactive son, and then an unborn infant – twins, she was reliably warned – on the way! As much as the two of them were smart, they tended toward great idiocy, sometimes. "You're looking for him, aren't you."
Nila felt tears running down her cheeks, despite not wanting them to. Pregnancy also made for mood swings that even she knew were irrational and insane, while she was having them. But right now? Now she was fairly certain that she deserved a good cry.
"He is gone," Nila said, as Sokka pressed a kiss onto her forehead. "He is gone as though he never were. There are not even memories of him. Not even..."
"Hey. Nila, hey," he said. "We still remember him," he turned her away from the Sea of Souls, toward the forest which began back from it. There was something haunting about this forest, though. It looked like a fire had raged through not long ago; the trees seemed... burnt. "Everybody will remember Sharif Badesh bin Seema din Nassar. They will remember what he gave. He is always going to be with us."
"Sophistry," she muttered.
"Yeah, well," Sokka said with a roll of his eyes. "If nothing else... you'll always be able to remember him for what he was, instead of what he wasn't."
"An uncommon observation from you," Nila noted, even as she tried to kill a snivel, only to have it break free and run amok.
"I'm an uncommon man," he said. He glanced behind them. "Should we bring them with us?"
"No," Nila said. "Let them have some time with their father. They deserve it."
"An uncommon observation from you," Sokka mirrored.
"I am an uncommon woman," she parroted back, before a smile split her lips a bit, and he lowered a kiss onto them. The two walked through the Burnt Forest, away from the Sea of Souls. Toward where Malu waited at the gates. Back toward the real world.
"Booooooored," Hibana said from the table. Her jaw was propped on the heel of her hand, and she had a glassy expression as she succeeded well at not being interested in anything that the Fire Temple had to offer, from its shining golden towers to its ancient architecture. But then, Hibana was a teenager, and teenagers, as a rule, didn't care about history.
"Hiba, show some respect," Aang said quietly.
"I'm so boooored!" Hibana complained. "There's nothing to do here!"
"There's plenty to do here," the Avatar said. "You could talk to the sages. Learn about the old days, or you could..."
"You know what I'm hearing? Blah blah old stuff blah blah creaky old guys blah boring," Hibana sing-songed in exactly the manner Azula used to when she was being sarcastic. Now, since he'd gotten to know her a bit better, and she just had to keep things interesting, she'd moved on to other cues. She leaned toward him. "Come o-o-o-on! I'm supposed to be on Ember Island right now with all of my frie-e-e-e-e-nds! Jia's dad got a new house and we were going to have a party!"
"This is important to your sister," Aang said. Hibana turned away, her arms crossing before her chest with a level of indignation that only a teenager could reliably produce.
"Well, it's still stupid and boring," she muttered.
Aang sighed, shaking his head. There were impossible feats like ending the existential threat of Imbalance, and then there were impossible feats, like getting Azula's teenaged sister to be rational. He turned away from her, and beckoned to one of the passing scribes. The middle-aged man – how strange it was that so many of the people in positions of authority who deferred to him were still older than him, the Avatar mused – shuffled over to him. "Keep the princess out of trouble... if you can. I've got to have a word with my wife."
"Of course, Avatar," the scribe said. Aang then moved past him, out the doors toward the back of the complex. There was a hermitage built right into this place, this once-Storm King architecture overtaken by the Fire Nation. The last decade had been quite kind to places like this. It was renewed in a way that some places like the city once called Summavut definitely didn't share. That was a sore point to him; the city which was once the spiritual heart of the North was now barren, even its Fire Nation miners having abandoned it. Likely, it wouldn't see civilization again... ever. Too many ghosts.
The land behind was covered in sparse grass, for the simple reason of their altitude. It didn't reach high, barely rustling past his ankles, as he approached the building in the farthest reaches of the monastery. He could see his wife, the love of his life, outside it, looking in. Tuckered out and sprawled over her shoulder was their daughter, their little miracle. Of the lot of them, the only pair who hadn't had a child yet were Zuko and Toph; Sokka and Nila's little boy was barely a day younger than little Miko. The girl looked dead asleep. Her mother on the other hand... she just stared into the hut.
"Are you going to be alright?" Aang asked her, slipping his arm around her waist. Azula's eyes were a little reddened, as though she'd spent the last hour trying not to cry. It was plain why. Within the hut was a gaunt and emaciated man, his head shaven, his jaw clean. He sat on the floor, his legs curled up under him, and he stared blankly into the distance as his mouth recited mantras. The only thing which set him apart from any of a hundred other Sages was the red streak of burned flesh that reached toward his elbow, and the two missing fingers from his hand.
"Maybe," Azula said. "Some days... I wish he could recognize me. Even with what that would mean."
Aang nodded. Thirteen years had transformed the once Fire Lord Ozai just as it had everybody else. Once the most powerful and feared man in the world, now a hermit monk with no name living in the humblest of rooms at the back of a temple. It wasn't until the first time that Azula had brought Aang to see him that he truly believed her, that he was a changed man. Changed, but not necessarily for the better. He'd retreated into himself, and there was no sign that he would ever leave.
He didn't want to think about what he'd have to do if that old Ozai awoke. It would probably break Azula's heart.
"See, Miko? That's your grandfather, there," Azula said. But the girl over her shoulder was completely pooped, and not offering so much as a mumble. Azula shook her head slowly, leaning in to Aang for a level of comfort that she obviously needed. She was still an absolute inferno when she wanted to be, but when it was just the two of them, she let herself be just Azula. Just the girl from the iceberg. The girl who led an army against a malevolent god, despite near-certainty that it would get her killed. The girl he fell in love with. "We should go. Leave him to his prayers."
"If it hurts so much, maybe you shouldn't come back next year," Aang said. Azula shook her head.
"Somebody has to look after him," she said quietly. Aang just nodded. He pulled her a little closer. "I suppose you've picked out a name already?"
"I've got a few in mind," Aang said. She wasn't showing it at all, but she was probably a few months pregnant. "Do you realize you never told me what I named my children? You know, back in your past life."
"And I never will," Azula said. Aang smiled a bit.
"If it's a girl, we should call it Aimei," Aang said.
"And if it's a boy?" Azula asked. She then pointed sternly at him. "And we're not calling him 'Bumi'."
"...Tenzin's a good name for a boy," Aang said, staring straight ahead. He didn't notice, but Azula almost face-palmed at that. "Come on. Your sister is losing her mind."
She gave a distant laugh. "Probably," she said. He turned her away from the door, toward that courtyard which led back to the main complex. "Aang?"
"Yes, Zuli?" he asked.
"I love you," she said, her hand squeezing his where it lay at her side.
He still smiled when she said it, even to this day.
And that's it, ladies and gentlemen. From odd beginnings, to calamitous lows, and finally back to soaring heights. But looking back, if I'd known then what I know now, I'd have entitled this work 'The Point of Balance'. Ah, well; too late for that now, eh? This story began because I had one scene that I wanted to write; Aang and Azula trapped together on the way to Omashu. From that, everything else came. In terms of ambition, this work was pretty much my pinnacle, until my enthusiasm latched on to Avatar of Victory (which believe me, will be quite a bit bigger when it's done). This was also the first time that I actually structured my story before beginning to write it. And even then, there were curveballs.
The first curveball came in the form of Malu. When I introduced her into the narrative, it was going to be more a 'fighting from within', and 'dying with dignity' story on her behalf, one only hinted at when she and Aang clashed. But when I threw her at Sharif for the first time, I knew that she was going to have to have a much bigger part to play in my story. So instead, she joins Team Desert, and all follows after it. With that upgrade of narrative purpose, I had to hit the gas on the enemy as well. I'd originally pictured it as something utterly unthinking, a dumb brute that destroyed things accidentally wherever it went. But, then I started writing chapter 19, and the way things evolved... It surprised even me, honestly. I don't know how she was recieved in the grand scheme of things, but in terms of how her narrative arc came about (by complete accident), I'm fairly happy with it.
Now, a point of some contention with some readers (particularly newcomers) is and always will be the inclusion of original characters. The big ones that debuted in this story were the Badesh Siblings and the Mountain King. A funny thing is, while I was accused of using the Mountain King as a pseudo-self-insert, the truth is, I didn't base him on me. There is one character who has a lot of me in... her. Nila? Save for the whole 'being male' thing, when I was a teenager, I was her. Or to be more accurate, I was 'season one' her. In her, I got to take a look at the kind of asshole I used to be... Hopefully used to, some days its hard to tell... and give my head a shake. The evolution in her character is much the same as my evolution in writing style. It started out rough (I didn't even start thinking with her 'accent' until the second book), and refined as it went until it was something which could have stood on its own in just about any setting. She's really smart, really arrogant, and frequently enough really wrong. Like I was, when I was a dumb teenager.
That's not to say there isn't some of myself in Sharif as well. Sharif represents my greatest terror; losing the use of my mind. Besides stuff involving the eyeball, there is nothing which wigs me out harder. The second scene I had planned for this was Sharif's sacrifice, him holding back the dark while dramatic music swelled. Needless to say, I knew from the onset that he was a dead man. I just hope I did the dead-man justice.
In terms of world-building, this one takes my cake. I've put more thought into how this world works than any other. Hell, I even ran through some of the histories of Eastern empires and kingdoms to get a grasp of how those cycles operate. It was because of that by which I realized that the Creators had no concept of time. While Avatar can certainly be lauded for not having a status quo, and allowing technology to actually advance, they don't seem to understand that ten thousand years is a really long time. That's twice as much time as you need to get from Ancient Egypt to today. If you want ten thousand years of human civilization which comes to a head in the Roaring 20's, then you need at least one massive Reset. Thus, the Monolith. That got me thinking about what airbenders would have to do under the control of earthbenders, which in turn gave birth to the idea of the Storm Kings. Three thousand years of history is admittedly quite a bit as well, but it's a great deal more palatable than ten thousand.
Which brings us to the Spirit World. My image for a bleak and dying Spirit World came first and foremost from the Russian game, Turgor. It had a sort of breathtaking, tragic beauty to the places you went. You could tell that they once held life... but then it just went away, one drip at a time. I wanted that sort of aesthetic for the realm I created. But forgive me if this sounds a bit conceited, but I'm fairly certain that I have a more nuanced Spirit World than does canon, and mine intruded on the series even as I watched it in the form of headcanon. There's just so much that you can do with spirits, and it's a criminally underused plot device in this show/other fics.
Finally, the flagship pairing of this story. Aang and Azula. Azula and Aang. The pacifist monk, and the mildly sociopathic princess. As far as crack-pairings go, this one is right at the top of the heap, and typically for one reason; there's no reconciliation between the characters and the relationship they could have. Fics jump straight past the aspects which evolve a meaningful relationship, in favor of a more 'hey there, I tried to kill you a few times. Want to exchange spit?' type of interaction. Thus why despite being tagged an Aangzula story, it took fifty (count 'em, 50) chapters before they first kissed. Relationships, romantic in particular, are hard. They take time. Making an Azula which could pair with an Aang typically makes an idiot or a doormat out of Azula. In reverse... well, most instances of the reverse, Aang's in chains when the relationship starts, and he tends to stay there. I might be off-base, but my understanding of Azula is a person who has absolutely no threshold for error, and she knows it. If she isn't perfect, she's discarded. That kind of stress would break anyone. Any Azula that could be in a healthy relationship - yes, healthy is a key word, there - would have to come to terms with that, and find a means of confidence based inside herself, rather than what mommy and daddy think of her. In a phrase, she needed to grow as a person before anything could work. That's why it took years between them recognizing mutual attraction, to making something out of it.
This isn't a 'happily ever after' story. There is no 'ever after'. There's only an 'and then the really hard work started'. Not to say it wasn't worth it, though. They earned a happy ending, and only by undoing the end of the world.
One final thing: Nila's real name? My semi-canonical answer to that is 'Veronica-Elizabeth'. Yeah. No wonder she goes by Nila.
A Lifetime Later:
She couldn't stop crying.
The sobs tore at her lungs, reaching in with frigid fingers and raking them all the way up her throat. It hurt to cry, and she couldn't stop crying. Tears that leaked from her eyes froze on her cheeks; another pain amongst many right now. Everything was wrong. Everything that she'd ever tried to fight for, tried to be... it was gone. Stolen away from her. Ripped out of her.
Tui La, this was like being spiritually raped.
She kept sobbing, as bright blue eyes – darkened perhaps by suffering – looked ahead of her. Two paces, then the precipice. She knew that there were hard, jagged rocks at the bottom of it, and a long time to fall before she reached them. She couldn't go on like this. With her being tied in knots and denied to her. She was a failure. A failure as a friend, a failure as a student, and a failure as the Avatar.
Now the only thing that she could hopefully not-fail at, would be letting the mantel of Avatar go to somebody new, before she wasted any time with it. With a shuddering breath, Korra pressed her eyes shut, trying to ignore the pain. She also tried to ignore the niggling doubts in her mind. What would this do to Mako? Or worse, to Bolin? If nothing else, she wouldn't have to suffer the accusing glare of Asami anymore. She tried to save him. She really, really did. But Amon... but Noatak... Hiroshi saved Tenzin and the others, and Korra couldn't even return the favor. By the gods, wasn't there anything she could do right?
She could hear crunching in the snow nearby. Then, hissing and popping, as though somebody had started a fire. "Go away, Tenzin," Korra said, without looking up. "I just want to be alone."
"Nope, I'm pretty sure you didn't," a woman's voice said to her. It almost sounded like Mom... Korra turned blue and angry eyes toward that sound... only to have them gawk open wide. Because there were two people squatted beside a fire, which was slowly melting the snow around it. One of them was a middle aged Tribal woman whom she'd never seen before, but at the same time looked extremely familiar.
The other was Avatar Aang.
"But... He locked my bending away," Korra said, taking her feet. The woman shrugged, and pointed to Aang.
"A wise man..." she began.
"Thank you," Aang said brightly, smiling toward her.
"...once told me," the woman continued, "that our times of deepest despair, we are ready for the greatest of change. And right then? What you were doing right now? Well, you've opened the floodgates."
"Wh...who are you?" Korra asked. The woman rose, cracking her knuckles, popping her neck, and rolling her shoulders...
Exactly like Korra would.
"And right there, she figured it out," This impossible older Korra said, cracking a grin. "Man, I'm smarter than I think I am."
"How is this possible?" Korra asked.
"Long story," Korra waved past her... to where every Avatar was arrayed behind they two, stretching past the ice, past the horizon. Into infinity. "But things are about to change."
It smashed through her with the force of a hurricane, lifting her from her feet as her vision became limned with white. Her arms moved of their own volition, and the snow swept up in a great band with them. The stone rumbled and the crags lifted and shifted. Flame was streamed out of the fire, flowing around her as a serpent.
She was in the Avatar State.
She was bending all the elements. She was whole.
She settled into her boots, feeling a bit dizzy. The Avatars were gone... save one. Her older self, only now she appeared as a blue-tinted specter. "I... What are you?"
"You. In about thirty years, plus some really stupid decisions," the older Korra said. She looped her arm 'round the younger Korra's shoulders, and began to guide her back toward where Tenzin and Lin and all the others who survived were waiting. "So I'm going to change some things. Like not letting Raava, and all the Avatars before me, get destroyed. And not letting that whole bloodbender witch-hunt go on as long as it did. Figure I'd like to live to see my own grandchildren for a change. What's wrong? You look like you're about to fall over."
Korra blinked away her comically stunned expression, with the deluge of unknowable facts simply washing over her as water over a turtleduck's back. "I'm... My Avatar Spirit mentor is... me? How is that possible?"
"It involves traveling universes, an asshole spirit who made good, and a lot of 'impossible' stuff," the older Korra raised a finger in a very academic way. "For example: I'm stunned that Mako and Bolin are even alive; where I come from, they were Azula's grandkids. You know, instead of Ursa and Wei and Jinora and Ikki and Meelo and Rohan and Iroh and Zai and... Well, there are a lot of them this time. I guess destiny just doesn't sweat the small stuff. Like genealogy. Or causation..."
"That's... okay," Korra said, warding her future self from rambling further, and confusing her all the more. She kept walking, one set of feet crunching through the snow. Then, a thought occurred to her."So... you know my future?" Korra asked.
"Something like it. Not quite the same. My Hiroshi was a dink, my Katara – and Aang for that matter – got killed by Azula..."
"Wait, what? Aang's wife? The woman who let me live in her house for two years? His wife murdered him."
"I know! It's crazy! Buuuut, she was a lot angrier than your Azula. Like I said. Different." she said with a laugh. "I mean, 'cause of that whole 'Yue surviving and having a scad of grandkids' thing, you're never going to have to worry about Unalaq and your creepy cousins – you do still have creepy cousins, right?" to which the younger Korra could only numbly nod. They might be family, but Eska and Desna were, indeed, creepy. "Hell, they might even be on your side for a change! Oh, but damn. That means no 'Nuktuk'... Sooooo, you're going with Bolin? Pretty good choice. A little wild, but a great guy when his head isn't in the clouds... or up his own ass – don't let his ego get away from him, it ain't pretty," Older Korra said, before giving her younger self a nudge. "And gotta say, you dodged a bullet on Mako. Hate to say it, and I love the guy, but that man is walking heartbreak."
"...good to know?" the younger Korra said. She did make a note of it. Bolin could be a bit... excessive, in some ways.
"But enough of that," the older Korra said. The shade of the impossible Avatar – her own incarnation standing before her – clapped her hands onto the younger's shoulders, an iron-hard grasp as every single mote of mirth departed with such speed and thoroughness that the younger was somewhat alarmed by the older's sudden solemnity.
"We need to talk about Vaatu."