Story [ATLA] The Book of Primal Illusion

Discussion in 'Non Star Wars Fan Fiction' started by Harpalyce, Sep 4, 2012.

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  1. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    "Watch Avatar: The Last Airbender," they said. "It's really good," they said. "Don't worry, you'll still have time for your Star Wars fanfiction," THEY SAID...

    This is what's been occupying my time when TF.N's official forums were down. (I'm afraid as they went, they dragged away my SW writing muse with them. We'll soon have that fixed!)

    It's also posted on the Avatar Wikia's Fanon Section, with more goodies like official song tracks for each character. My goal is to do a sketchy illustration for every chapter, so I'm going to post the illustrations here too as I can.

    So without further introduction.... let's begin.

    [IMG]
  2. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Widower's Weeds

    ----

    It had been five years since Katara had seen Zuko, and she wasn't especially looking forward to the visit. As she sat next to Sokka on Appa's back, it was hard to focus on the wind whipping in her hair, or the jokes Sokka was swapping with Aang in an attempt to be lighthearted. All it seemed she could notice was the leaden lump in her stomach.
    They hadn't parted on bad terms. Not exactly. The problem was, perhaps, that they hadn't parted on any terms at all. It would be so much easier if she had Zuko's temper to blame, or even her own. Instead the distance was nobody's fault, and that made it much harder.

    Katara had honestly tried to saddle herself with some guilt, as if that would help, but it just kept sliding off like water on a turtle-duck's back. Five years ago she had woken up in the middle of the night by a frantic messenger hawk. She remembered reading the message aloud to Toph, who was endlessly curious, and jokingly demanded that it was her right as Katara's host in Ba Sing Se to know what it was about. She remembered that the handwriting was messy - it was Zuko's, frantic and desperate. Come to the Fire Nation Capital immediately. Please. He would do anything. Something was going very wrong, and he was worried for Mai's sake, and for his child's. Katara remembered months before welcoming the news of a new heir for the Fire Nation with a smile, and some idle offhand conversation with Sokka about how Zuko was going to either be the very best or very worst of fathers.

    Before she and Toph were even packed and scrambling to find transport, another messenger hawk pecked at the window. This time the writing was elegant, neat, and courteous. There was no need to come, and the Firelord deeply appreciated their support. But Queen Mai was dead, and not even the most powerful healing waterbender could bring her back. The Fire Nation only had its new princess to comfort them. It was signed by one of the court officials.

    Katara remembered how excruciatingly quiet it was when she finished reading the letter out to Toph. Then they didn't hurry as much, but still made their way to the city.

    The Fire Nation Capitol looked so strange covered in black banners of mourning, and the entire court had followed suit. Katara had found her way into the palace easily enough. She had even found her way to the Firelord's rooms.

    He hadn't even looked her in the eye - that was the most painful part. She talked at him as he stood with his back turned, looking out one of the wide windows. She had apologized, repeatedly, and asked if there was anything she could do. She had said she was worried about him. It seemed to take him ages to speak, but when he finally did, his voice was hoarse, and Katara remembered his words exactly.

    "I'll be fine. I know what I'm meant for. It doesn't mean that I won't enjoy happiness when it comes, but I can at least deal with this… with dignity. Like a Firelord should."

    She had been so confused. What was he meant for?

    "Suffering."

    The answer was so quiet and casual it threw her. Brain stalling and trying to fumble for a response, she reached out for his shoulder, a comforting gesture even through the elegant pauldrons he was bound to wear as part of his office. But Zuko had merely flinched away like a startled animal.

    Katara had hoped with an odd desperation that he would turn around and yell at her, scream and shout in furious confused anger. It was what she expected from Zuko, and she knew that in such a situation it was probably the catharsis he needed. But he didn't. He merely turned and started to walk briskly to the pack of court officials who seemed to hover by his elbows now, dictating details of the funeral in an oddly flat tone.

    He hadn't even said goodbye.

    The funeral itself was full of grim pomp and circumstance. Katara, officially, was there for Sokka, who was there for Suki, who was there for Ty Lee. The somewhat-ditzy gymnast seemed to do enough sobbing for the entire section of honored attendants. Which was good, because Zuko's eyes remained dry. Katara just saw something that made her even more heartwrenchingly anxious. A look in his eyes - something missing. As if someone had torn away a flame from the end of a match, leaving only the glowing tip to slowly fade. It was the only way Katara could think to describe it…

    She was quietly brooding over it when Sokka poked her roughly in the shoulder and gave a cocky grin. "Hey! Are you still in there?"

    "Hnnh? What? Of course I am. Don't be stupid," she said, dusting herself off with an appropriate amount of bluster. From his seat, Aang laughed, shaking his head.

    "I've been trying to ask you a question for a good five minutes!" Sokka rolled his eyes. "Anyway. Who's going to look better with a beard? Me or Aang?"

    Katara resisted the urge to roll her eyes immediately. "Both of you look utterly ridiculous right now."

    "Hey, I think mine's coming along nicely," Aang half-whined, reaching up to rub the just-beyond-stubble on his chin. "And so is Sokka's. Not as magnificent as mine, but, you know…"

    "Not all of us can be beardbenders I guess! But seriously, I don't know why I didn't do this sooner." Sokka had pulled a dagger from his belt and was now admiring his reflection. This time, Katara couldn't resist rolling her eyes. "Suki loves it. Like seriously, it drives her w-"

    "That's way more than I ever need to know!" Katara pulled a face, clapping her hands over her ears. "I'll just watch for when the city comes into view instead of waiting for you two to tell me!"

    It was oddly soothing seeing the landscape of the Fire Nation roll far beneath them, anyway. She had already noticed when they were stretching their legs earlier that the government buildings, even outposts, hadn't returned to their usual crimson splendor. No, the flags were still black with golden embroidery, flashier than they had been but not as decadent as usual by far. 'Half-mourning', the official had called it. The Firelord may take joy in the Princess Mei Lien, but his heart still carried the sadness of the Queen's death. As it should be.

    Hours later, Katara could see the black-and-gold banners covering the Capital City, and she quietly noted that she was already sick of them.

    ---


    As sunlight filtered through the windows of the Firelord's luxurious room, Katara gave a twitchy frown. Sokka shifted from foot to foot as he stood by one of the windows, and Aang tapped his fingers against his staff.
    "…So? How is h-"

    "Sssht!" Katara's voice was so harsh that both Sokka and Aang jumped and then looked to each other, just about cowering. It was easy to be intimidated in such a room. Even if it was a bedroom, some architect had made sure it was impressive and imposing. Zuko's quiet and modest lack of decoration couldn't get rid of all such planning. The bed in the middle still had a golden flame stretching up above it, a gauzy canopy of red silk stretching down from the very top to the bottom posts of the bed itself. Everything was decorated with heavy tassels and golden embroidery. A room fit for a king. And for a queen.

    There was a reason why it seemed strangely empty, after all. Aang could see the dust that had settled on one of the expansive closet doors - Mai's wardrobe, no doubt. He ran his finger along one of the slats and frowned. No doubt it was driving the servants crazy, but if Zuko hadn't allowed them to even touch it…

    Sokka paced back and forth, making footprints in the plush and ornate rug that stretched over most of the room. Katara nearly snarled, looking as if she was about to hush him, but her eyebrows twitched and she was consumed once again with her work.

    [IMG]

    The water hovering above Zuko's chest glowed softly, and Katara frowned deeply. There was no better healer in the water tribes, but even still, she was struggling. If it wasn't for the fact that he was pale and, more importantly, deeply unconscious, Zuko almost looked… good. Dignified, certainly. A Firelord was expected to be, of course. His black hair had been grown out to his shoulders, pleasantly glossy and spread out on his pillow like a fan. Unlike Sokka and Aang, he seemed to have realized that going cleanshaven for now was a wise idea (though Katara had already healed a few nicks and cuts from where the servants had shaved him while he was unconscious). His physique spoke to the fact that he hadn't let ruling a nation be any excuse to slack off on training. Others would have been a bit thrown off by the burn on his face, or the much newer scar on his chest - but to them - to his friends - it was just another part of him.

    His chest rose steadily and evenly, but almost mechanically. More worrying was the fact that he just wouldn't wake up. Katara had already tried all of the basic tricks she could think of, and had tried tipping one herbal elixir into his mouth, but he still laid there, completely unresponsive.

    Finally Katara sat back, cracking her neck and shaking herself off. "Ugh."

    "How bad is it?" Aang asked this time, making sure to be slightly more polite than Sokka.

    Katara's shoulders rose and then fell in a long sigh. "Bad." With a flick of her wrist, the water that had been hovering over Zuko's chest snaked its way back to the bottle by her hip. "I can feel… so many things have gone wrong. It just doesn't look like it at first." Aang walked over to stand by her, worriedly looking down at both her and Zuko as she continued. "It's definitely poison. And they said it was introduced in his wine at dinner? He didn't ingest much, and it's done all this…" She reached up to rub her eyes with the palms of her hands. "It's not like any other poison I've seen before. Something… it's blocking his chi. I don't think he could bend - " She paused, gesturing at Zuko. "Well, obviously not right now. But not when he wakes up."

    The guards at the door hovered nervously, and a man quietly entered. He looked as if he hadn't gotten a night's sleep in about three days and was definitely showing the wear and tear. "Sirs, ma'am." He bobbed in a quick bow before taking off his helm and holding it under one arm. "My apologies about not reporting to you sooner."

    Sokka gave the man an easygoing smile. "It's fine. So you're, uh…"

    "Lieuten—er." He paused before clearing his throat a little. "Captain Deshi of the Palace Guard. Recently, ah… recently promoted, sir." Deshi cleared his throat again. "We chased down the man identified as the assassin after it became apparent the Firelord had been poisoned, sir."

    Sokka listened before gesturing for the man to continue. "And…?"

    "He was killed in combat, sir." Aang watched quietly, letting Sokka take over as their expert on battle tactics and strategy. But it was obvious to everyone the distress that came over Deshi's face. "Along with Ca- …former Captain Qian and…" He had to stop and gulp again, but Sokka was patient, merely reaching up to stroke the stubbly beginnings of his beard as the Captain spoke. "Nearly fifty of our best men."

    Sokka's fingers stopped mid-stroke on his chin. "Wait. Fif…teen? That's what you meant, right?"

    "No. Forty-seven is the precise count, sir, but they don't expect Shen or Tai to live the night." The Captain's voice shook somewhat, but to his credit, he put his hands behind his back and stood straight with military professionalism even when talking about the slaughter of his friends.

    Aang, Katara and Sokka all looked at each other for a long moment. One man taking out fifty… no wonder the entire palace was nervous and twitchy. The Captain interrupted them by clearing his throat in a way that suggested he was shaken to the point of tears thinking of the current death toll. "He did… he did leave a note, sir. I believe it's actually addressed to you, Avatar Aang, sir."

    Aang immediately frowned, pushing himself off of where he had been leaning on his staff. "Well, I guess if it's for me it'd just be impolite to not read it, right?" His joke didn't go over as well as others had before, but he nodded to the Captain.

    "It's being kept in a room near the security wing, Avatar, sir. We've attempted to read it but it appears to be in some sort of… code. We're not sure. It may be some sort of riddle. Any help would be appreciated, if you can spare it, sir -"

    "Zuko's my friend, Captain. Of course I'll help."

    Sokka leaned out of the doorway somewhat, giving a small smile before leaning on the doorframe. The guards outside still seemed shaken, though to their credit they were doing their jobs with deadly seriousness, polearms up and at the ready. Sokka took a deep breath in before looking up and slouching a bit while starting to talk to himself. "Well, if they're being that sneaky about getting in, it's probably not going to do much good to reinforce any of the battlements or -"

    "Sshh!" Katara's tone was irritated once more. She had broken into a sweat, water swirling above Zuko's chest once again. Apparently whatever damage had been done was going to be hell do undo. Sokka wasn't sympathetic to that, although he did bite his bottom lip as he watched.

    Fortunately, he was distracted by a blur of movement at his feet. The guards scrambled, nearly tripping over themselves, but it was… a little girl?

    The guards had to haul her out by the wide bow of her dress even as she tried to claw her way back in and huffed. Sokka stepped outside the door with the guards, rather curious, closing the door behind him. He could see a fat nursemaid huffing and puffing her way up the hall, trying not to trip and fall on her skirts. "Princess! Princess, you absolutely cannot -"

    The girl just gave a huff, stomping her feet angrily and glaring at the now-closed door with fury that absolutely, positively reminded Sokka of Zuko. He crouched down, hoping to catch her attention. "Princess, huh? So you must be Zuko's daughter… Mei Lien, right?"

    She turned to him and pouted. If there was one thing going in her favor, she was certainly cute. Her black hair was pulled back with some sort of beaded ornament, but her long bangs were nearly in her wide eyes. Even with her face scrunched up in a decidedly disgruntled frown, she was still pretty adorable. Enough for Sokka to grin at her and offer a hand out. "Hey there. I'm Sokka, one of your dad's friends."

    The child looked him over critically and announced: "Your hair looks stupid."

    Sokka's grin dropped into a flat frown. "Well, it's traditional for Water Tribe warriors, and -"

    "Water Tribe hair is stupid," she proclaimed before facing down the door again. "Lemme in, I wanna see Daddy!"

    The nursemaid had finally caught up with her, and the older woman looked distinctly flustered. "Your father needs to rest, Princess, he's been hurt -"

    "But I want to see him! You said I could!" Sokka could see the tears in her eyes now, and suddenly things clicked into place. Well, perhaps being Zuko's daughter was enough to explain the blithe callousness, but this made it make even more sense. This wasn't her normal behavior. This was the start of a tantrum because she was anxious and upset.

    "Not yet, Princess. Maybe tomorrow -"

    "But he has to read to me about the turtle-ducks! He always reads to me about the turtle-ducks! Every single night!"

    "I can read it to you again -"

    "No! You don't do the voices right! You're -" Oh, here it came. The Princess' entire small body shuddered as she drew in a breath that became a bawling scream. "You're stupid and ugly and I hate you!" The nurse was about to splutter some response - and even Sokka felt somehow obligated to try and be a good moral example by saying something - but the girl rushed forward, flinging herself at the door. It had just barely popped open and that was all the leverage she needed. Even as the guards scrambled, she hopped up, flinging herself onto Zuko's bed and clawing her way up. Katara was so startled that both the Firelord and the Princess nearly got doused in water, and she was only able to collect it back to the bottle on her belt in the nick of time.

    There was plenty more water on the way. Princess Mei Lien sat half on her father's shoulder, shaking it, her hands seeming far too tiny in comparison. Her black hair was shook out of its ornate hairstyle and the beads on her hair decorations clattered. Fat tears rolled down her cheeks. "Daddy! Daddy, wake up!" Zuko said nothing - did nothing - remaining perfectly limp and unconscious.

    "I'm so sorry, Lady Katara," the nursemaid whispered, looking genuinely frightened of what Katara's reaction would be.

    "Oh - n-no, it's - it's fine -"

    The nurse had already reached out to grab Mei Lien, hands sturdily reaching around the child's waist. The girl gave a sticky, tearful shriek, clinging hard to Zuko's arm. "Daddy, wake up! Wake up! Why won't you wake up!" She was tearfully screaming even as the nurse dragged her inch by inch. Zuko's arm was limp in her grip, and the nursemaid tried to be soothing, but it was far more powerful seeing his large hand slip through her tiny grip, finger by finger, to fall lifelessly limp on the side of the bed.

    [IMG]

    Eventually Mei Lien was sobbing so hard she couldn't keep her eyes open, tears running from her eyes and sticky snot from her nose as she bawled. But even as the nurse, flanked by the guards, carried her out of the room, the Princess continued to stretch her hands over the nurse's shoulder, desperately still reaching for her father even though her fingers only groped empty air.
    Neither Katara nor Sokka knew anything intelligent to say. They could only watch as the doors closed and the chaos was muffled in the hall, and then became distant. By the time the doors opened again, Katara was trying to heal Zuko inch by inch once more, and Sokka was sitting on a bedside stool twisting his boomerang in his hands.

    "Katara?"

    This time she didn't shush him, instead continuing to work, eyes closed, tone languid and distant. "Yeah, Sokka?"

    "If there's anything I can do… I mean, anything… count me in."

    "I already have."

    "…Good."
  3. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Breadcrumbs

    --

    The summer sunset made sure that the palace gardens were still buzzing even after dinner. Sokka had to admit that one of the main benefits of being an honored guest and personal friend of the Firelord was that the food was a lot better than scrounged trail fare. He was pretty sure he had eaten an entire goose-chicken by himself. And he was completely okay with that. Even if it did mean he waddled a little as he made his way out into the garden.
    Princess Mei Lien was sitting by one of the ponds, obviously sulking. It was a good reminder of why they were here. Sure, Sokka had talked over strategy at dinner, but with proper beds and plenty of rich food it was a little hard to drag himself into believing this was really a crisis. After getting accustomed to danger meaning catnaps on Appa's back and campfire stew of who-knows-what, this all seemed rather lush. And he was absolutely sure that Toph was going to tease him about going soft.


    The turtle-ducks swam in lazy circles in the pond, and the Princess sighed so hard it made her bangs flutter. Sokka slid down to sit beside her, pulling out a bit of a roll from his pocket. Immediately the turtle-ducks started to quack and happily swim over, begging. Silently, he offered half of the roll out to the Princess. The girl sniffed before looking at it, and then at him, and then finally taking it.
    "Nurse says I gotta 'pologize t'you," she said, her tone very small.

    "So I guess my hair's not so stupid after all?"

    "Nah. It's still stupid. It's just that my hair's stupider," the girl said airily, tearing off a small chunk of bread and tossing it to the eager turtle-ducks. Sokka had to keep himself from laughing, but settled on shaking his head. Yep. Definitely Zuko's daughter.

    [IMG]

    "Yeah, well, I guess that's true," he teased lightly before leaning back and tossing another bit of bread to the turtle-ducks. The space seemed right to finally say something, and so he did. "Hey, I know you're worried about your father and everything…"

    She gave another sniff before wiping her nose on her embroidered silk sleeve.

    Sokka had been about to concede to realism and mention the slim possibility that Zuko wouldn't make it, but the pouting sadness on the Princess' face made him quickly reconsider. "You don't have to be so worried. Now that my sister's here, I'm sure he's going to be completely fine." As she looked up at him, her expression immediately brightened.

    "Really!"

    "Yeah, of course." Sokka grinned and gave a little shrug. "She's the absolute best healer." He gestured widely as he spoke. "Just give her a little time and I'm sure that your dad will be back on his feet out feeding the turtle-ducks with you."

    The way her expression changed was almost miraculous, and she shuffled around in the dirt to look at him more properly. Around them the first crickets of the summer night started to chirp, languid fireflies swirling around them in lazy spirals. "You're one of Daddy's friends, right?"

    "Oh, yeah, sure." Sokka looked out of the corner of his eye at her and gave a knowing smile. "We did a bunch of stuff together. There was this one time that he caught me sneaking off in the middle of the night, actually, because I was going to go rescue my father, but he wouldn't let me go alone…"

    Even though Sokka had to occasionally go back and revise bits of the tale to make it seem more comedic and less harsh than actual reality, the Princess sat beside him, brown eyes wide, completely spellbound. It was a rare treat for her to hear a tale about not only her father but also her mother, and Sokka was happy to tell it. More importantly, the whole tale about the escape from Boiling Rock had a happy ending.

    Sokka knew the look of a child in need of a happy ending when he saw it.

    Fortunately her nursemaid seemed to recognize a good thing and let Sokka finish. By the time he was done, the sun had thoroughly set, and only lanterns and the soft glow of moonlight and fireflies illuminated the courtyard garden. Princess Mei Lien was rubbing at her eyes, and she didn't fight when the nurse picked her up and told her that it was time for bed. But Sokka felt oddly triumphant as she waved and sleepily called out "Bye, Mister Sokka!" even as the nurse carried her away.

    The turtle-ducks were settling into their nests, a few still preening as they clustered together sweetly. The night jasmine was blooming, and Sokka looked up to see the moonlight pouring in through a window on a high spire. Perhaps it would make Katara's work a little easier.

    In any case the moon was full enough for Sokka to carry out a little sentimental ritual he had picked up - one that Suki thankfully approved of. Gingerly, he pressed two fingers to his lips in a soft kiss before lifting his hand up to the sky, as if using his fingertips to press a kiss onto the moon as others would a cheek. It had been long enough that it didn't carry such a sting. And Suki was there to temper the sorrow, of course.

    But he still liked to think that maybe Yue was watching - maybe even smiling -

    "Sokka!"

    Aang's voice made him jump, but the other young man was grinning even as he marched into the garden, arms full of scrolls. "You ready to go?"

    Sokka's eyebrows knit in confusion. "We're leaving? But I'm sure Katara hasn't even -"

    "Not everyone, just you and me! Toph's coming in a few days to help guard the palace… and she said something about screaming at Zuko until he woke up."

    "…Yeah, that sounds like Toph. But where are we going?"

    Eagerly, Aang grabbed one of the hanging lanterns with his staff, holding it awkwardly on the tip as he took one of the scrolls from under his arm and unrolled it. Sokka stood, dusting himself off and peering over Aang's shoulder. "The note the assassin left behind was written in this variant alphabet that the Air Nomads use. So it was definitely meant for me to read…" He spread out the map, pointing at it. "Here. We're going to head to the Eastern Air Temple. The note said that the poison used didn't have an antidote - the only known antidote was this type of lotus that used to grow near the Eastern Air Temple - but I know it's still there, I saw it!" He was grinning excitedly now. "So all we have to do is go there and go in this set of caves here to this underground lake where it grows…"

    Sokka chewed on the inside of his cheek, and Aang blinked at him curiously. "What? Something wrong?"

    "No. I guess it just seems too… easy?" He grimaced, scratching at his head.

    Aang shrugged. "I dunno, something being easy for once would be nice."

    "Yeah… but still. Doesn't it seem sort of like a trap to you?"

    "There's only one way to find out. And we'd have to go looking there anyway - it's the only place the lotus grows."

    "Well, I can't disagree with that logic. When are we leaving? In the morning?" Sokka yawned, rubbing the back of his neck.

    "Nope." Aang grinned, pushing a few of the scrolls into Sokka's hands and motioning for him to follow. "We're following right now!"

    "What? But - I mean - have you seen the beds in the guest quarters?" Sokka spluttered desperately even as he followed. "That's bigger than most tents! I'm pretty sure they're all bigger than my house when I was growing up! I could toss some blankets over the bedposts and charge rent! I mean -"

    "The kitchen made us a whole basket of sandwiches. Really good ones, too. And there's another basket of jerky, just for you, if you come along!"

    "…which way is it to Appa's stall again?"
  4. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Selenic Bargain

    ---

    Katara hadn't been quite aware of what happened until she actually woke up with a small groan. Her pillow was... unusually warm. More to the point, she didn't actually remember going to bed that night. She just remembered trying to hurry and use whatever help the moon gave her before it dipped below the horizon once more, and focusing so hard on her healing work that she was incredibly tired, and then... and then...
    She managed to not actually shriek as she jerked her head up, spluttering. Yes, that was... that was Zuko's chest. With some of her drool on it. Had she really...? Yes she had. Quickly, Katara rubbed at her eyes with the palms of her hands. What time was it, anyway? Sunlight was coming through the window, filtering through the gossamer shades, and... the guard posted just inside Zuko's door was definitely staring at her flatly.

    "I was just, uh... checking his breathing," Katara stuttered quickly. "For... several hours... um..." Katara winced. "Can we just pretend that you never saw any of that."

    "See what, Lady Katara? I've seen absolutely nothing," the guard said flatly with a nod of agreement. Katara gave a sigh of relief.

    At least today Zuko looked a little healthier. Some color was back in his cheeks, even if she hadn't initially noticed it missing. The way he held himself was less unnaturally limp. But he was still deeply asleep with no sign of waking up soon. Still, progress was progress, even if Katara had woken up with her head throbbing and body aching. And damp. Apparently that happened when you dozed off mid-waterbending...

    The guard still looked flatly unimpressed at Katara, and she couldn't really blame him. By the time she had managed to get both herself and Zuko towelled off - distracted for a good five minutes by how incredibly plush the Firelord's towels were - there was the sound of a scuffle from the closed door. Two voices she recognized. One was a very small falsetto, the other deep and rich like the rumbling boom from a large drum.

    "But I want to see Daddy!"

    "Surely five minutes couldn't hurt... besides, I have something for Master Katara."

    "I'm very sorry, General Iroh, but my orders are very strict and very clear. Nobody is to enter without -"

    By then Katara had made it to the door and she gave both of them a tired smile. Iroh smiled back just as brightly. He was dressed in attire so elegant it didn't suit him - with Zuko indesposed, he was the makeshift ruler of the Fire Nation. That hadn't stopped him from bringing a tray with a pot of rather strong tea. "I had a hunch you might need this, Master Katara."

    "Please, just Katara..." Her tone was still a little nervous. After all, she hadn't had the time to get to know Iroh, not the way Toph had, and largely knew him by reputation. "And thank you. This smells wonderful." The tea was so engrossing that she had barely noticed the blur of color moving by her feet.

    In fact, by the time she turned around, Mei Lien was already scrambling up onto the bed. Thankfully the child was less hysterical. "Daddy, wake up," she fussed, half-whining as she shook his shoulder. "I got all dressed up for court today and everything! Wake up!" The child did indeed look more elegant than yesterday, even if her dress almost seemed to be swallowing her. Fire-red poppies were embroidered in white silk, accented in gold thread, and even her hair was swept up into an elegant coif held in place by a gold filigree ornament with poppy blossoms carved in cinnabar along the edge. She truly looked like a princess.

    [IMG]

    Fortunately Iroh was there to intervene before the child broke down into tears again and ruined the effect. "Mei Lien, he needs his rest. Don't you want a cup of tea?" That caught her attention, and she settled for sitting on the edge of Zuko's bed, kicking her feet. Katara pulled up a chair, as did Iroh, and he went about gracefully serving tea for all of them even as Katara flopped into the elegant chair. Silently, Mei Lien dragged her father's hand over to her, momentarily clutching it like a teddybear before being distracted by the tea.

    After the second cup of the extremely strong tea, Katara had to admit she actually felt vaguely human again. Or at least human enough to realize that she hadn't really said anything. "I'm sorry, uh... thank you for the tea. Is there anything else I can do for you, or -?"

    Iroh held up a hand. "You're already doing more than enough. Truthfully we came to see if there's anything we can do to help you," he said patiently, catching Mei Lien's eye. "More than just tea, of course."

    As if on cue, Katara offered out her empty teacup and Iroh refilled it. "I'm not sure there's much else," she admitted. "I think I understand what the poison's been doing, it's just slow going actually getting it out of his system..." She reached up to rub one of her eyes again.

    "Rest for yourself is important, too," Iroh gently chided with a warm smile.

    "I know, I know. I'll take a nap soon. Best to resume work tonight when there's the full moon, anyway -"

    "Uncle Iroh 'splained things to me!" Mei Lien cut in. "The Moon Spirit helps you do things better, right? How do you give things to the Moon Spirit? 'cause my favourite doll has a dress that's white like the moon and I could give it to the Moon Spirit if that'll help! I tried dropping it in the pond because you can see the moon down in it, but I dunno if that's really a good way to do it -" The princess was half-whining, but there was genuine concern behind it.

    The childish simplicity made Katara smile. The moon helped Katara heal, Zuko needed healing, so Zuko's daughter thought that her favourite toy was a good trade in exchange for some help for Katara. But she reached out, smiling, cutting Mei Lien off. "You don't need to do that." Mei Lien's face fell, and Katara leaned in and dropped her voice a little. "I knew the Moon Spirit, and I think she's very touched that you want to help, but if you gave her your favourite toy, she couldn't come play with you." Well, it was stretching the truth. But from what Katara knew of Yue, probably true. Instead of looking glad that her favourite toy was safe, the princess looked increasingly crestfallen. "But there are still ways you can help me, okay?"

    Iroh watched with a smile. Katara wasn't really used to dealing with children, but at least she could get along decently. "Be good and nice, and come in here and say hi to your dad every day. Can you do that for me?" She asked sweetly.

    Mei Lien pouted. "But being good is boring."

    Katara bit back a laugh. "Well... sometimes it is. But I promise it's what you can do to help the most right now." Mei Lien gave a long sigh as if this was some intolerable cruelty, but then looked rather serious.

    "Mister Sokka said you were the best healer ever. ...You're gonna make sure Daddy's okay, right?"

    Part of her screamed to be honest, but it was quickly drowned out by the rest. "Of course I will," she said cheerfully. "All he needs is a little more rest, and he'll be all better in a few days!" Iroh caught her eye directly, and her smile faltered a little as she went to lift the Princess off the side of the bed.

    Her face immediately lit up in a bright smile, and she went to tug at Iroh's robes. "Uncle Iroh, Uncle Iroh! Daddy's gonna be all better tomorrow! Did you hear!"

    "I heard," he soothed softly before looking up to Katara, his expression more serious. The quiet sadness in his eyes said what he couldn't actually speak in front of Mei Lien, and it questioned Katara directly. Was this just false hope, or a real promise?

    Her smile was a little more washed-out this time, but she reached out to quickly pat Iroh's arm in what she hoped was a soothing manner. "Aang and Sokka are out there right now," she whispered. "And they definitely will make sure that Zuko gets over this." Iroh saw the seriousness in her eyes and smiled, nodding, murmuring a 'thank you'.

    They left but didn't take the pot of tea with them - Katara finished it off, knowing she would still be able to sleep hard all day despite it. The morning light colored the room with a warm glow, and there was a simple pleasure in merely walking in circles on the plush carpet as she took her time with each up of tea. As light caught a red glow by coming through the gossamer curtains, a heavy crimson glow slid over Zuko's face. Katara wasn't sure if it was the sleep deprevation or something more, but she took the time to notice how his face had sharpened with age. He was rather handsome, Katara supposed, if she had to look at that sort of thing objectively anyway. Both of them had definitely improved out of teenage awkwardness. Even as he laid there unconscious, there was still something quietly dignified about him... perhaps a little too dignified. Katara tried not to think about how with his hair neatly spread on the pillow around him and his eyes closed, Zuko looked almost like the corpse of some deceased king lying in state so his citizens could mourn...

    That was likely the reason why she reached out to his temple, gently pulling a strand of his hair out of place. The movement was so tiny she wasn't sure it had actually happened until she stopped and looked at the expression on his face. It had gone from eerily calm to almost a grimace, as if he was fighting against something. Very gingerly, her hand went to his temple again, and he let out a small groan that made her heart leap into her throat. "...Zuko?" Katara crouched by the bed, carefully watching his expression. She hoped to see the snarling pain grow more fierce until he finally opened his eyes. She hoped to see the same unrelenting drive that had always made him claw his way up for one more try.

    Instead something slipped away. He sighed, and his face relaxed. She watched for a few more moments, making sure his breathing stayed even and steady, before getting up and shuffling quietly to the lush guest quarters she had been assigned.

    Maybe when they were teenagers, Zuko had been defined by determination and Katara by hope, but now they were older, and she had the odd sense that both of them knew there were limits to how much ambition and optimism could take them. Katara knew that it was a part of growing up, but as she slid into the silk covers of her wide bed, she couldn't understand why she felt such a sense of loss.
  5. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Parhelion

    ---

    One of the many skills Katara acquired while serving as resident healer in the Southern Water Tribe over the past few years was how to be up, dressed, and on her feet before she was even awake. Now was one of those times. Laying in bed and giving a relieved sigh and drifting to sleep abruptly became walking along one of the wide corridors of the palace.
    "What..." She was sure she was slurring. "What's going on, exactly?"

    "Firelord Zuko -" The guard paused for a moment, and Katara's heart leaped to strangle her in her throat, throbbing painfully before he continued with a joyful tone. "He's awake! You're truly a miracle-worker, Master Katara," the guard gushed. "He actually told us to let you sleep in but Captain Deshi thought it best to inform you."

    "Well, uh... thank you for that." Her head was swimming. Maybe Zuko hadn't lost that fierce and diehard drive quite as much as she suspected. "What time is it, exactly?"

    "Half past noon, Master Katara, ma'am."

    Even as she rubbed her eyes, she nodded. Right when the sun was at its highest... maybe she had done more good last night than she realized. Katara was about to say something more when, abruptly, a colorful streak ran up to her shrieking, aimed right for her knees.

    [IMG]

    It was only due to the guard and a conveniently placed pillar that Katara didn't land completely flat on her back. As it was she still had to contend with the happily squealing Princess. "THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU!" The chant became a dizzy blur of shrieking as Mei Lien clutched Katara's knees so hard it hurt. "Thank you, thank you, thank you-uu-uuu!"
    Huffing and puffing, her nursemaid was hurrying around the corner. "Princess Mei Lien! That is NOT dignified court behavior!"

    Katara laughed a little. "Woah, hey, just slow down a little bit, all right?"

    The girl sprung away, jumping up and down on tiptoe, making the delicate beads hanging off her headdress become tangled. "Daddy's all better! I guess not ALL better, but he's better! I did just like you said and I've been good and I talked to him this morning and it worked!" She was squealing, her amber eyes wide and bright. "Mister Sokka was right! I knew you could fix him!" It was only a few seconds of respite before Mei Lien flung herself at Katara again, happy tears rolling down her fat cheeks.

    "I'm sure he needs to rest more, but - I'm also sure he'll be completely fine," Katara soothed, picking up Mei Lien. The girl promptly took this as an invitation to give her a more proper, near-strangling hug, and Katara weakly offered the princess out to her nursemaid. "That being good thing still applies, okay?" Katara had been expecting a pout, but Mei Lien simply nodded enthusiastically.

    "...and part of being good means going to your lessons," her nursemaid chided, taking the Princess from Katara while mouthing 'I'm so sorry!' and looking chagrined. Katara hoped that her smile communicated well enough that it wasn't a problem. "After you're done, I'm sure the Firelord will read you a story..."

    "D'you think I can make him read t'me about the turtle-ducks lots? To make up for when he's been sleeping?"

    "I don't quite know, Princess. I'm afraid you'll just have to ask him yourself..."

    Katara chuckled and shook her head, and the guard offered her a sympathetic shrug and looked as if he was about to apologise profusely before Katara waved it away. "I guess Zuko really must be feeling better. ...His rooms are this way, right?"

    "Yes they are, Master Katara, I'll escort you the rest of the way. If there's anything else you need..."

    By the time she had made her way down the hall she was smiling. The air of relief in the palace was nearly visible and it was very easy to get caught up in it. Gingerly, she pushed the door open, expecting to find Zuko sitting in bed reading missives from Fire Nation officials. She certainly did not expect to find him standing (somewhat shakily) in front of the largest window in his room, shirtless and barefoot but hair back in a loose topknot that held his crown, gracefully bending into another stretch.

    "Zuko! What do you think you're doing!" Katara hissed furiously. "You should be in bed! Resting! Not -"

    He turned his head just enough to grin lightly at her over his shoulder. "It's good to see you too, Katara." His voice was still rough, and she could tell he was still weak, but the deepness it had gained made a quick blush rush over her cheeks. The fact that a blush even dared to share itself, however momentarily, just made Katara even more irritated. "They're just stretches, I'll be fine."

    Katara threw her hands up in the air, barely restraining herself from making an undignified strangled screa of frustration. "You will NOT be fine! Do you KNOW how bad off you've been the past few days?"

    "And I'm not anymore. Besides, after being in bed for so long..." He leaned forward in a half-lunge with a grunt, and Katara huffed. "I'll go back to resting in a bit."

    "No, you'll go back to resting NOW," she said peevishly. "You're not strong enough to be doing this, and you know it."

    "I seem to be doing just fine, thanks -" Katara cut him off by leaning in and giving one stabbing poke to his shoulder. He hadn't seen it coming, and it threw off his shaky balance so thoroughly that he fell to the ground in an awkward pile of limbs that was thoroughly undignified. Although he tried to shake it off, he was obviously dizzied, shaking his head and looking slightly crosseyed. "...Okay. Point taken. Though there were probably kinder ways to prove that point," he teased lightly.

    "None of them as funny or as dramatic, though." She reached out to help him up, and even then he still struggled to his feet. "You need to rest. And I mean it. Whatever poison they used is something incredibly specific. Aang and Sokka are out looking for the antidote, if it even still exists, but I definitely don't need you up all day undoing the work I spent all night doing..."

    Zuko nodded, looking properly chagrined, and he put a hand to his forehead. "All right, all right. I'll rest after one more thing."

    "No, you're going to rest NOW, not after one more thing," Katara snapped peevishly. "I don't care if it's your favourite stretch, Zuko, I'm serious..." But he didn't pay much attention to her, instead smoothly going into a familiar stance. Even with his body aching and rebellious as it was, the movements were still fluid and graceful out of practice. Katara didn't actually realize what he was going to do until it was too late for her to actually do anything. "DON'T -!"

    What normally would have been a pleasantly large fireball extending from his fist had been reduced to a tiny lick of flame. More importantly, Zuko immediately cried out in pain as if someone had punched him had in the gut. His legs crumpled underneath him and he fell forward, hair sweeping into his face, even the crown dislodged from his topknot to roll on the floor.

    Katara scrambled to kneel beside him. For a few brief and terrifying seconds he didn't seem to even be breathing when she called his name, but eventually his lips did part to give a weak splutter. The whiplash of emotions from relief to terror to relief once more nearly made Katara break down into tears, but she settled for a shaky sigh. The guards had already rushed to help her, which was a relief, because Zuko was out cold once more. Under her direction, they lifted him back up onto the bed; she noted how one picked up his crown with worried reverence and put it back into place.

    There was nothing more for it than to go back to work. Katara had to admit that it made things much easier to have a retinue of servants flitting about her, ready and willing for commands. A basin of fresh, clean water was easy enough, even given to her in a gleaming ceremonial bowl lined in gold and looking as if it had captured some drippings of the sun itself. Tea even came accompanied with several fortifying sandwiches. But even with all the servants nervously flitting around her, there was only so much they could do. Katara still had to be the one to start undoing the damage Zuko had unwittingly caused to himself.

    She shook out her hair, sighing, before reaching over to the bowl and letting a few long ribbons of water snake around her fingertips. "When you wake up," she grumbled, "I swear, I'm punching you in the arm. ...or something."
  6. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    The Right-Turned Conch

    --

    "And then -" Sokka paused only to chew off another bit of jerky from the stick he was holding. "There's this whole wedding colors thing. I didn't even know weddings were supposed to have a theme, but Suki says they do. Why can't weddings just be... wedding-themed?"
    Aang laughed, shaking his head. "There's a lot of questions I can answer as the Avatar, and that is definitely not one of them." Behind them, Appa snorted, settling down into what was one of the old stalls of the Eastern Air Temple. Earth Kingdom refugees, with Aang's permission, had settled into the old Air Temple, much like in the Northern Air Temple. Everyone was looking for a little peace after the long war, and Aang was happy to see the old halls clean and free of creeping vines.

    Appa certainly looked as if he was looking forward to being doted over for a few days. One of the refugees had already brought him a bale of tender hay. Sokka looked at the air bison almost enviously, giving a sigh.

    "Come on, we need to get going," Aang said cheerfully. "I know the passageway, now. There's a shortcut into the cavern chamber through the temple... This should be pretty quick." Sokka frowned, continuing to chew on the meat in his mouth. "You can definitely eat that and walk at the same time."

    "Can't a guy finish his lunch before throwing himself into mortal danger? Again?"

    "You should be really glad Toph didn't hear that, or she'd never shut up about you being a coward looking for excuses!"

    "Faff a bunffah ffiefh!" Sokka spat around a mouthful of jerky before swinging his pack over his shoulder. The girl feeding Appa a few tender shoots of bamboo smiled as they started to walk through the largely empty corridors. A few minutes later, Sokka had finally cleared his mouth enough to speak. "So why is there a tunnel directly to this place, anyway?"

    Aang excitedly held up one of the scrolls. "It's all written down! Apparently there are cave-crawlers all in the caverns here..." As they walked past a large statue of Avatar Yangchen, Sokka couldn't help but slouch a little underneath its stony gaze. "This air temple almost wasn't inhabited because of it. The cave-crawlers only really came out when everyone had settled in."

    "I thought we were here looking for a... lotus?" Sokka frowned as the corridor they were in got narrower and narrower, and darker to the point where Aang had to hold up a hand and do a bit of firebending. Sokka casually dipped the end of his torch into the flame Aang provided, and they continued on.

    "We are! But it's all connected with the cave-crawlers." Aang looked back to give Sokka a bright smile. "That's what the poison probably is – cave-crawler venom. It works directly on how chi flows through the body," he said cheerfully. "The moonstone lotus is able to refocus and unblock the pathways the venom effects."

    Sokka frowned flatly. "So why didn't they just kill all of the cave-crawlers, again?" It was getting distinctly musty, and he was having to stoop. Now they were definitely underground, the air musty and thick. Lichen was clinging to the walls, though much to his relief, it seemed to pick up the light of the torch, glowing back at them in almost a friendly manner. "I mean, a group of chi-blocking cave monsters over an air temple seems like a bad idea..."

    "Avatar Yangchen sorted it out, after many years of the temple housing only older nuns who could defend themselves. It's all about balance," Aang said, smiling. "The air nomads at this temple didn't understand how the two things worked together, both the cave-crawlers and the moonstone lotus. They each depend on each other and counteract each other..." Aang interwove his fingers, holding his hands out in front of him. "It's all about respecting harmony."

    "...I still would have squished them all."

    Now it was pitch-black except for the small pool of light of Sokka's torch. The spots of glowing lichen had thinned out, leaving them to stumble along the slick rock tunnels on their own. A forest of stalagmites and stalactites surrounded a narrow path which had obviously been cleared many years before, but over a hundred years of neglect left it rough and uneven. Sokka's footing slipped and he winced, his toe going over an edge that he couldn't see. The darkness was more than unnerving – it was dangerous.

    "So, uh... how long until we get to this underground pond full of lotuses?"

    "Less than a day."

    Sokka stopped in his tracks to stare at Aang. "Less than a day?"

    Aang shrugged. "I mean, that's a guess. There wasn't anything about needing to pack a lot of food, so we'll probably be there in a few hours!"

    "A few hours of stumbling around in the dark... with chi-blocking critters lurking in the shadows... yeah, I'm starting to see why Appa always prefers staying above-ground."

    Fortunately they fell into a rhythm easily enough. The path led them steadily downwards, but mercifully someone had cut shallow steps on the steep slopes. It had been a solid two years since their last long conversation – both of them had so many duties to attend to now. Paradoxically, it was both far less and far more stressful. Aang wandered from place to place, restlessly tiring of place after place, and Sokka was much the same way, going back and forth from the South Pole to Kyoshi Island.

    Sokka had noticed how the past few years Aang seemed to purposefully avoid the South Pole, and Katara just as purposefully stuck to it, but he politely didn't ask.

    "...and apparently we're even going to have to give little gifts to everyone who comes? That's going to be pretty much everyone in the entire South Pole, and everyone on Kyoshi Island, by the way. I don't even know where we're going to hold it. D'you think when Zuko wakes up I can talk him into hosting it?" Aang laughed, shaking his head as Sokka chattered on. "Seriously! I mean, there's always Ba Sing Se I guess..." Sokka trailed off, and for a moment the conversation lapsed, replaced by only the slick little noises of their boots on the wet stone. "You're going to laugh really hard at this, Aang, but I think this is going to be the scariest thing I've ever done." Sokka gulped. "Lead an offense directly into the Fire Nation capital? Sure. Help defeat all of Firelord Ozai's war balloons? Why not! Marry the woman I love? That's... a problem."

    "Nah, I understand." Aang's voice was perhaps a little softer than Sokka expected. "Sometimes the more you care about somebody, the harder it gets. But you're going to do fine, Sokka." His tone went back to cheerful, and his face back to its usual wide smile. "And I'm going to be there. Promise!"

    "You'd better, we're making sure there's a vegetarian option at the dinner just for yo-" In the darkness, something scuttled by Sokka's feet. "What was that?"

    "Oh, that must be one of the cave-crawlers," Aang said excitedly. "I guess that means we're getting close."

    "We're surrounded by venemous crawly things and you're excited about it! I don't think -" Sokka swung the torch around, his sword already in his other hand. This time the light of the fire caught the source of the scuttling noise, and it froze in its tracks. "...Oh."

    It was tiny – it couldn't have been more than a foot across. Although it did have eight legs, two of them tucked up near its mouth and ending in delicate paws, it was covered in fine fur, and all four of its eyes were a glossy and liquid black. Its tiny, bushy tail and the way it blinked at Sokka made it – he hated to admit it – cute.

    [IMG]

    "See? They're more afraid of us than we are of them." Aang smiled brightly and crouched down, motioning to the cave-crawler. "We're friends. It's okay to go on!" The cave-crawler stared at them for a moment before reaching up with its paws and nervously grooming the fur behind its tiny rodent-like ears and then scurrying way. "There's really nothing to be too worried about, Sokka."
    "I guess you're right," Sokka said, sheathing his sword and breathing a soft sigh of relief. Aang did not share that the description of the cave-crawlers he had found in the archives had not mentioned their possible size.

    A very distant glow started to color the edge of the wall, murkily reflected off of many rocky corridors. It took both of them a few moments to recognize what it was, as pale as the first soft breath of dawn. But it grew steadily stronger, and the corridor widened as they quickly half-jogged down the last long and winding set of stairs. By then the glow was so strong that Sokka didn't even really need to carry the torch. The air was muggy with heat – Sokka didn't know how deep down they were, but it must have been fairly substantial – and simultaneously, they stepped through the last part of the walkway to the large open cavern.

    "...Wow."

    There weren't any other words for it. Above them dripping rock hung in spikes like some ornate chandelier, some of them broken open to reveal sparkling geodes. That was nothing compared to the dazzling light show of the lake itself. The water was still but with a quiet rushing underneath that let Sokka know there was still a strong riptide below the calm surface. Snow-white carp with cloudy, blind eyes swam in lazy circles chasing translucent shrimp. But most impressively, the entire lake seemed to be covered in lotus plants. They drifted on top, a great mass of glowing flowers, so many that after walking in the dark it hurt to look at them all directly. The blossoms were relatively small but all of them shone with a milky, silver light, as if the petals were made of moonlight. There was something gentle and peaceful about it as the light shone up onto the ceiling, refracted by crystals and diffused by the water of the lake, as if they had just stepped into the moon's very realm.

    Sokka couldn't help but think momentarily about how much Yue would have loved to see it.

    "So..." He gulped, only now noticing how his voice had gone a little shaky. "That's what'll heal Zuko?"

    "Yeah. I figure we'll take a small bunch with us," Aang said, slinging his pack off of his shoulder. "Just in case. Not that this was a huge ordeal, but better to not make repeat trips, right?" He smiled, easily dropping into a smooth stance and starting to use waterbending to bring the plants over to them directly.

    "Something like that, sure." Sokka extinguished the torch in the calm water, sticking it back in his pack before quietly leaning out and plucking one of the small lotus blossoms. He tucked it behind his ear after staring at it a moment. No, as much as they reminded him of her, there was no way these lotus blossoms could bring a kiss from him to Yue. They would, however, make Suki's eyes sparkle... And the way she would smile when he brought out the bouquet of exotic flowers he had picked for her despite being away on some adventure...

    Aang peered at Sokka for a few moments before shaking his head and poking Sokka in the shoulder with his staff. "Aren't you going to help me with these things? I figure we can at least stuff our packs with them. Maybe if we're lucky a few will even be okay to transplant into another pond..."

    "Oh! Oh, yeah. Of course." Sokka shook his head as if clearing the cobwebs before starting to hack the tangled mat of lotus plants down to a reasonable chunk. "I'm pretty sure Zuko won't mind if we just started playing home decorator and stuck a few in the garden. Well, he might mind, but I don't think his daughter will. D'you know she really likes fireflies? I caught one the other night while telling her a story. She held it in her hand and named it and everything before it flew off. It was pretty much the most adorable thing I've ever se-" Sokka jerked his head up, glaring suspiciously behind him. "Did you hear that?"

    "Hear what?" Aang called back. Of course, he was hip-deep in the lake, trying to pick just the lotus blossoms while Sokka stuffed the plants wholesale into his pack.

    "...I just thought I heard something behind us. Something like -"

    This time the rumble beneath them was far more obvious. It rose up through the lake and Aang had to struggle to regain his balance as he quickly scrambled out of the water. Sokka let the tendrils of lotus slide from his hand onto the floor, the glowing blossoms falling at his feet as he slowly turned to face the ink-black corridor they had just come through.

    "Aang... I've got a bad feeling about this..."
  7. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Noble Truths

    --

    "...and then they all settled into their nests and went to sleep." Zuko let out a long sigh, reaching up to rub at his eyes. "Isn't that what you should be doing, Mei Lien?"
    Princess Mei Lien tipped her head back to look at her father, though as she went too far, she flailed a little and fell onto her back with her legs sticking in the air. "Again! Please, Daddy? Pleasepleaseplease?"

    From where she watched by the door, Katara could see Zuko's expression melt into a smile, and she glowed with pride. At least now Zuko was taking her advice to stay in bed seriously. It probably also helped that she had recruited Mei Lien. Currently the Princess sat half on his chest as he leaned back in the pillows. Even though he was quickly looking exhausted, he was looking much better. Truthfully, under other circumstances, he probably would have enjoyed the respite from court politics and intrigue. And Katara also had to admit there was something very satisfying about watching him and Mei Lien. His love for her was obvious and overwhelming, as if he was trying to make up for his father's cruelty, his mother's insanity, and even Mai's death in sheer devotion. It was a sad rarity to see a royal child so deeply and simply loved.

    Zuko scooped Mei Lien into his arms a little closer before settling back on the pile of pillows once more and repositioning the book he held. Mei Lien tucked her head underneath his chin, smiling as he flipped back to the first page and started to read. "In the very big city of Ba Sing Se, there was a little park, and in this little park was a little pond, and in this little pond lived a little turtle-duck..."

    Katara smiled as she finally pulled away from the doorframe and stretched, rolling her shoulders. It had been a long, hard day, though not as bad as yesterday. Zuko had remained thankfully unconscious after collapsing while tryng to firebend, and even more thankfully the Princess accepted explanations that Zuko needed to rest. But with the sunrise came Katara giving Zuko her most vicious scolding, one that completely ignored him agreeing to rest right until he stridently insisted the fifth time with her. Maybe now Katara could get some proper rest. Toph had come in mere hours ago, so it wasn't as if she was alone in trying to figure this out and defend Zuko, either...

    She had been drifting off into her own thoughts when she was snapped back into the present by a light punch in the arm. Immediately Katara turned, laughing. "Toph! There you are!" Toph grinned back, and the two leaned in to hug each other. "Where've you been?"

    "Having a cup of tea with General Iroh. Well, a cup or seven," she said with a grin.

    "I think he's just Iroh now," Katara said, starting to walk alongside Toph down the wide corridor. "Though... you know, I'm not really sure. I'm surprised that you were able to get him to stop dealing with administrative business, since he's stepping in for a lot of Zuko's duties right now..."

    "Katara, we're talking about the same Iroh here, right?" Toph grinned crookedly. "There's always time for tea and a game of pai sho."

    This made Katara laugh again, and she shook her head. "Okay, okay, forget I said that. You know, it's been a couple of years since I even played a game of pai sho..."

    Toph's grin grew momentarily toothy and almost vicious. "I'll play you before we head to bed. Fifty silver to the winner!"

    "I'm not THAT stupid, Toph!" Katara lightly punched Toph in the arm, laughing.

    "Aw, come on! Pai sho's so much better when something's running on it!"

    Katara rolled her eyes. "Okay. Five copper."

    She expected more of an argument, but Toph just grinned and nodded. "It's a deal!"

    Katara laughed. "Don't tell me you even gamble on your games of pai sho with Iroh..." Toph grimaced slightly. "So how much does he owe you now?"

    Toph put her hand to her mouth as if about to cough and mumbled something into her fingers.

    "What was that?"

    "...I said I... kinda sorta owe him five gold pieces."

    Katara laughed so hard that as they walked past the garden courtyard, the turtle-ducks quacked at her in aggravation for making so much noise. It was another pleasant night, the air heavily perfumed with jasmine, and Katara was glad that things were finally relaxed enough she could enjoy it. In the dimming light of sunset, the fireflies gently glowed, and the colorful lanterns illuminating the garden had already been lit.

    "Seriously though, Toph, thank you for coming. We still have no idea who is even behind this, or -"

    Toph waved a hand. "You wouldn't have been able to keep me away even if you wanted to. I needed some actual proper tea." Katara blinked. "I'm in the Jade Dragon every single day. General Iroh is the only one who knows how to make a proper cup of the stuff," she said, sounding downright fierce in her devotion.

    "Wow, I didn't know you were so... passionate about tea."

    "I became passionate about it about the same time I opened that metal-bending school," Toph grumbled. "Some of the rejects who show up expecting to be handed everything, like it's not any actual work!" She threw up her hands in disgust. "And you wouldn't believe all the people who come to the gates all, ooh, I can't really earthbend, but I should be able to metalbend -" Toph gave a long disgusted sigh. "It's ridiculous!"

    "Okay, now I'm seeing the need for tea," Katara agreed.

    "At least this is going to be a nice vacation." Toph shrugged as if shaking the weight of the stress off her shoulders. "Gotta admit, for a king and everything, Sparky knows how to live. Great cooks, too."

    Katara bit the inside of her cheek a moment before guiltily admitting: "it is a nice getaway... I mean, besides the whole obvious bit where one of our friends was nearly killed and we still don't know who is even wanting him dead when his death could mean the entire world plunged back into war..."

    Toph gave a 'pfft'. "It's probably just one random maniac. If there were some group in Ba Sing Se or even the Earth Kingdom up to something, I'm pretty sure I would have heard at least a hint of it now. So that rules out the Earth Kingdom... I'm guessing that you haven't heard of any crazy movement coming from either of the Water Tribes... and I'm also pretty sure that it wasn't Aang who snuck in here and tried to poison Zuko... so there you go." She shrugged.

    "Yeah, but the assassin was also an earthbender..."

    "I never said that the Earth Kingdom couldn't contribute the lone crazy, I'm just saying he's a lone crazy." Toph shrugged. "So, about that game of pai sho...?"

    Katara looked to the side, back out at the wide garden. She could already imagine how by now Mei Lien was probably asleep, her arms still loosely hugging Zuko's neck as she snuggled up to him, having dozed off mid-book-reading. And she could imagine how Zuko would wave away the servants ready to take the Princess to her own bedroom. She would probably find them in the morning still dozing, father and daughter taking refuge in each other. And perhaps she could let Zuko's own body take over for a few days, and she would spend a lazy day recovering from the exertion of such intensive healing work. Maybe even go to a spa with Toph, just like they did in Ba Sing Se...

    She took in a deep breath, letting the scent of the jasmine seem to soak her very soul. Maybe, just maybe, things would be all right.

    "Sure, Toph. I think that tonight's such a good night I'll even up my wager to two silver..."

    [IMG]
  8. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Epicenter

    --

    The silk sheets weren't the heavy furs Katara was used to, but she had to admit that with a little time she could definitely get used to such luxuries. Toph was right – it was turning out to be a nice little vacation. Given how exhausting it was to try and make some progress healing Zuko every day, Katara was slowly letting herself not feel guilty in the least about it. Perhaps Aang and Sokka would be back soon, though she knew that flying nonstop on Appa to their destination would take a full week. There was plenty of time... plenty of time to relax, plenty of time for long conversations with Toph and with Zuko.
    It seemed like it had been years since she had a decent conversation with Zuko... mostly because it had. She was still used to thinking of him as the determined fighter that it was an odd thing to see him as the stoic Firelord he had become. Clumsy anger had been replaced with dignified grace. The boy who couldn't even tell a joke properly had become the king who always seemed to have the right answer at his lips.

    He still seemed to have trouble looking her directly in the eye. Katara had dismissed it as exhaustion still clinging to his mind, but now she was finally starting to wonder what he was scared she might see.

    But in the meantime there were games of pai sho, and Toph's stories about her metalbending students, and plenty of cups of tea. Anything to distract Zuko so that he wouldn't be tempted to try and hold court in his bedroom and stubbornly resume all of his duties at once. Not everything was so pleasant; he still had missives to send to various officials, tempers to soothe, conflicts to avoid. And as soon as he could get out of bed for any decent length of time, he made a point of thanking the widow of former Captain Qian.

    Even despite the sadness, at heart it was a pleasant respite. And that was why this morning Katara was content to let the sunlight come in the windows as she snuggled a little closer against the pillow and pulled the sheets nearer to her. One foot stuck out of the blankets, and she lazily wiggled her exposed toes in the air. When was the last time she had slept in? It had to be years... there was always one more thing to do, after all. But the servants were so eager to lavish attention on her, especially when they saw how she was helping Zuko, so when Toph joked that she would forgive all of Katara's debts from a few games of pai sho if Katara just slept in for a week solid... well... she wasn't going to argue. Any moment she was sure that a servant was going to walk in the door on light feet, sneaking in with a tray with fresh fruit, sweet-tart pickled plum slices and a rolled omelet, along with a small bowl of porridge drizzled with honey. A truly decadent way to start the day. And then -

    A low rumble came from beneath her, and one of the decorative plaques on the wall clattered. The feet of the bed chattered on the floor like the teeth of a coward in the middle of a battle, and the water in the wide basin on the nightstand trembled as if threatening to splash out of the sides.

    Katara did not think there was any other time she had been so very awake so very quickly.

    The rumbling didn't stop, though it did quiet somewhat. This was no natural earthquake – this was something far worse that made her heartbeat ring hard in her ears. It only got worse as she opened her door and a quick arc of rock sprung up from the floor, barely blocked by the guard outside her door who returned a jet of bright flame. With one smooth motion, the water from the nightstand washbasin was at Katara's fingertips, snapping out into a whip that deflected another rock. The polished marble floor was broken into rocky crags and pock-marked with holes, but the small team of earthbenders at the other end of the hall didn't seem ready to give up, all marching forward in fighting stances... and all wearing dark olive uniforms coupled with bone-white painted masks.

    Bringing his polearm up and panting, the guard posted at her door looked at her, eyes wide. "Master Katara! Please, you need to get to safety -!" He had to pause, knocking away another missile of stone with his blade.

    "What's going on!"

    "I – I don't know! They're everywhere!" The guard barely dodged another flying rock,and suddenly the marble floor beneath them gave way as the earthbending invaders found a gap where stone supports held up stone tiles. Katara screamed and the guard yelped, but quick-thinking as she was she let the whip of water in her hands become a gushing flood that cushioned their blow. The guard spluttered as he staggered to his feet and shook himself off. "Please, Master Katara! You have to get to the eastern tower, it's the most fortified!"

    "And what about you?"

    "I'll be fine!" It was a hurried answer but heartfelt, even if both of them knew it wasn't going to be true. "Go, please! I don't know if they've found the Firelord yet!"

    The stone around them crunched as the trio of earthbenders jumped down, but this time the guard was ready for them, letting out a grunting cry as he spun his polearm in an arc and the blade flashed with fire. It hit one of the earthbenders square in the chest, making her stumble back and finally slump to the ground. Katara hesitated for only a few more seconds before nodding curtly and starting to run, heading for Zuko's chambers.

    [IMG]

    She could look down into the courtyard to see what could only be described as a small army. All of them were in the same sickly olive-green uniform, all of them wore the same stark white mask... though some were painted. Truthfully, Katara didn't take the time to look. This was an invasion. A direct, coordinated attack, one that had taken months if not years to plan, given how they were rising directly out of the floor from hidden tunnels... Toph was in the fray, leading the main force of palace guards, but they were obviously sorely outnumbered. She was still trying to stem the flood and rally those who were still fighting, even as reinforcements poured out of the crater the group had made in the very center of the main hall. Masked fighters were still leaping from ledge to ledge, and one nearly managed to get on the railing of the walkway Katara was running along before a tendril of red-hot glowing metal lashed out to drag him back down. Katara expected a scream. There wasn't one. And there was also no time for Toph and Captain Deshi, fighting side by side, to celebrate that momentary cooperative victory.
    Even as she ran along the hallways and corridors she had to fend off small bands of the earthbenders. Fortunately she had the slim advantage of the fact they all seemed to be going the same way. Often all they knew was the sensation of her water-whip grabbing them before slinging them off the railing edge, or how they stumbled as she locked them in place with ice. There was no such thing as quiet as all the sounds of battle bounced off the walls. Smoke was starting to rise from where mis-aimed and redirected fire blasts had caught the palace itself on fire. The ground shook beneath her. And yet, as she grew closer -

    Katara could tell these were more than mere footsoldiers as she neared Zuko's rooms. This squad, with dark grey circles painted around the eyes of their masks, were obviously more adept earthbenders. Yet one of their rocks still was deflected back to them, and hit one hard enough to make the earthbender shake his head dizzily. The squad leader looked up to see Katara and gestured to the group, and for at least a blessed moment, they retreated, scrambling around the corner.

    Zuko panted, reaching out to steady himself on the wall, but he ended up sliding down onto the floor inch by inch, fingertips catching on the wide windowsill beside him. Katara kept up her sprinting pace even as she watched him slide down. Mei Lien clung desperately to him, hiding behind him and sobbing haplessly. Sweat was clearly visible, glistening on Zuko's shoulders, and his hair hung stringily in his face. He shouldn't have even been out of bed, much less fighting tooth and nail with his swords in his hands...

    "Are you all right!" Katara called out, panting as she skidded to a stop. If anything this made Mei Lien cry harder, clinging to Zuko's arm.

    He raised his head with a small, somewhat bitter laugh. "As much as could be expected, I guess." She offered an arm to help him up, but he stubbornly refused until she grabbed his elbow and dragged him to his feet. Mei Lien scrambled to cling to his leg as he panted, letting one sword drop to the ground as he reached down to affectionately lay a hand on Mei Lien's head.

    Noises down the corridor. The squad was regrouping. With reinforcements.

    "Katara." His voice was rough and unexpectedly serious, and it genuinely startled her when he met her eyes so intensely. "Please – you have to take Mei Lien and get to the eastern tower - "

    "And leave you here alone? There's no way -"

    "Please!" His voice was nearly a shout and it shook with emotion that made her pause. Something intensely vulnerable was there, but he quickly covered it up before she could pry it out with a keen glare. "I'll be right behind you. It's just practical. You can run faster and can waterbend with one hand in a pinch where if I'd be bringing her directly into melee combat."

    Even as Mei Lien sobbed, Katara admitted she couldn't fault that logic. Zuko kneeled down, prying his daughter off of his leg, putting down his swords to grab her gently by the shoulders. "Go with Miss Katara for me, little duckling, okay?"

    "B-buh – but I d-don't – I don't wanna – Daddy!"

    "I know," he soothed gently even as she sobbed so hard she was reduced to hiccups. "I'm coming, too." Gingerly, he leaned in to kiss her on the forehead, lowering his voice to a whisper that he surely thought Katara couldn't hear. The tone his voice took on made her stomach go into a hard knot. "Whatever happens, know that I love you, Mei Lien. And promise me you'll never forget who you are."

    She looked at him with wide brown eyes and nodded, more tears spilling onto her cheeks. And Katara gulped around the lump in her throat and wondered why it sounded so very much like Zuko was telling his daughter goodbye.

    Down the hallway, the marble floor cracked and split, starting to rise in terrifying and jagged spikes. They had reinforcements. There wasn't time to ask Zuko or to argue – his swords were in his hands, and she struggled to scoop Mei Lien into her arms. The child screamed and kicked but she was obviously terrified and as soon as the first daggers of rock whipped past them, she settled for clinging desperately to Katara, mostly tugging on her long hair. A sore scalp was fairly far down on Katara's list of worries, though. Zuko deflected one of the rock spikes, and it hit the blade so hard the sword seemed to sing with vibrations for a few moments.

    "Go! Run!"

    Katara was already starting to dash ahead. The ground crumbled beneath her, and the sounds of the main battle in the courtyard echoed up as she ran to the main tower, spiraling up the walkways before finding a corridor to the eastern block. The fighting was fierce and haphazard – even more so with a screaming child in one arm. Katara ran on instinct, one stance flowing into the next, the water hovering by her side, her constant companion, as ready and willing as it had ever been. With ruthless efficiency, she cleared the way, right until she stumbled to a stop at the large gated doors into the heavily-fortified eastern tower.

    Mei Lien had sobbed herself into exhaustion and when her nursemaid finally came for her with a relieved cry, she went willingly, much to Katara's relief. The guards scrambled around to protect her, standing nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, halberds outstretched to meet any enemy foolish enough to try and make a charge on the eastern tower now.

    "Master Katara -" One bobbed in a small half-bow, the best that he could manage under the circumstances. "Did you find the Firelord?"

    "Yes, he's right behind me!"

    She looked down the corridor, panting, the water hovering just beyond her fingertips. Any moment now. Any moment he would come running. He would surely be staggering, adrenaline rush only going so far. He would collapse as soon as he saw Mei Lien safe, and perhaps she would catch him, but she would surely have days and days of grueling healing work to redo, but she would see he was all right before going to leap into the fray alongside Toph...

    They all anxiously waited. Any moment now, he would round that last corner. Any moment now.

    Nothing came.

    In the far distance the sounds of battle started to fade. Katara wasn't there to see how Toph, as confused as she was, rallied the remaining palace guard, chasing the retreating troops back into their wide entrance hole. Everything was exhausting reverberation, and she knew they were using multiple entrance points, but more to the point, they were retreating. Down in the main entrance hall, Toph was screaming about how it was a victory.

    Meanwhile, Katara just stared down the empty marble corridor as her breath slowed back to normal.

    "But..." Her voice shook far more than she expected, and she didn't understand why. "He was... he was right behind me."

    And Mei Lien's sobbing started anew.
  9. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    The Endless Knot

    ---

    The lotus plants fell from Sokka's hand with a slow, wet thud, and he clutched more tightly at his sword. For an agonizing moment there was stillness and silence before, in the darkness, something opened its mouth wide to reveal rows of spiked fangs oozing venom and its wet tongue rolled out like a shining ribbon as it hissed. Their eyes had gotten used to the brilliant light of the pool of moonstone lotus, and so everything in the shadow of the corridor seemed to be impenetrable blackness.
    But they both definitely saw as the earth rose up around them in jagged spikes aimed to kill.

    Sokka rolled to the side, sword up to hack away a spike jutting towards his face. With a grunting cry, Aang whirled, bringing a massive wave from the lake to meet their attackers headon. The moonstone lotus floated along the crest of the wave before being dashed on the ground, and it was only then that they saw who they were truly fighting.

    Cave-crawlers would have been bad enough. There was no mistaking that the one they had met earlier had to have been some tiny hatchling. These... these were eight-legged monstrosities, covered in bristles with beady black eyes and a hard series of scales protecting their back. More importantly they all had quite a lot of teeth that all looked very sharp, and each delicate paw ended in two vicious-looking sickle-like claws.

    And on the back of each one was a rider in sickly green uniform and plain white mask.

    "...I knew this wasn't going to be easy!" Sokka gritted his teeth as he squared his shoulders, charging at the nearest rider. The water seemed to only give them momentary pause, one of the cave-crawlers pausing to shake its head free of water. Each of the animals shrieked at one another, a howling hiss that reverberated throughout the cave.

    The earth rose around them, cracking and splitting as the earthbenders rode on the cave-crawlers' backs. Aang gritted his teeth, moving smoothly from one stance to another, but the cave-crawlers easily scrambled along whatever earthen fortifications he could think to create and didn't seem to be phased by water. They momentarily froze at a blast of wind but all that Sokka could tell was that it just made them very angry.

    Their riders said nothing in a way that was distinctly eerie.

    More of them were pouring out of the mouth of the opening, claws raised and jaws open wide, the earthbenders on their backs settling into a modified stance in preparation. That didn't stop Sokka from rushing forward, swinging his sword with a grunting cry. The cave-crawler dodged at the last moment and the earthbender on its back nearly pinned Sokka's feet to the ground, but with another firm stroke he jutted the sword into the cave-crawler's hissing mouth. The tip came out between its eyes before he had to lift a foot to kick away the animal and dislodge his sword. There was no time to celebrate, as soon the earthbender rider had slid down off of his dispatched mount. After an intense bout of shared strokes, Sokka finally managed to land a lucky hit, staining the blade of his sword with blood once more.

    [IMG]

    Aang kicked out in a wide arc, a jet of flame seeming to extend out from his toes. This finally seemd to have an effect, hitting one cave-crawler squarely in its face. The animal shrieked and bucked, unable to shake its rider off even in its blind panic, but all of the hair along its body caught fire as quickly and easily as dry tinder. The flame scurried up along to the cave-crawler's back and jumped to its rider's uniform. And yet the rider said nothing. Even as the animal gave unholy shrieks and flipped on its back, its legs curling tightly above it as it burned, the rider did not cry out in pain or for help. That was even more frightening than the small army of masked riders swarming in around them.

    Sokka brought his sword up in another powerful swing, cutting cleanly through the neck of one of the monsters. It thrashed in dying spasms, jaws gnashing, legs giving way and scraping deep furroughs in the dirt. Only seconds more and one of its bretheren was climbing on top of it with a scream that echoed throughout the cave - Sokka was forced to stumble back into the water of the lake.

    "Aang, please tell me you've got a really clever plan!"

    "You're the plans guy!" Aang shouted over the noise of another burst of flame.

    "Not really helpful right now!" Sokka grunted, thrusting his sword out once more. The creature barely dodged in time and snapped at him, ichor and venom making its teeth glisten.

    Aang spared one moment to look behind them before setting his jaw and reaching out for Sokka. "Come on! This way!" As they sloshed deeper into the lake, the water around their knees became more solid, finally forming a wave that bore them to the surface. Sokka flailed desperately to keep his balance, but Aang dragged him along. There was indeed a small cave at the northern side of the lake, and they rushed headlong into it, tumbling to a stop as some of the wave came in with them. It was dark, musty, and cramped, but at least their packs full of lotus blossoms gave them some light.

    There was the sound of claws scrambling behind them. Sokka had barely pulled himself up to stand in the narrow corridor before it was clear one of the riders was nearly on them, the cave-crawler having run along the wall while they traveled by water. Its daggerlike claws were on the edge of the opening when Aang whirled, a strong blast of fire knocking it back before he sealed the opening with some quick earthbending.

    It wouldn't hold for long, but at least it was a moment's respite. They both panted for a moment before Sokka gulped and looked to Aang.

    "So... what now?"

    "I guess we... find another way out." He looked up at the tons of dirt and rock that were above them and grimaced.

    Sokka groaned, and they started limping along the tunnel. "You know, when I was reminiscing about old times, this wasn't really the part I was getting all misty-eyed about."

    "Yeah, yeah, yeah..."

    ---

    Three days later, Sokka groaned as he ran a hand along his forehead to wipe off another bit of sweat. The caves were sweltering, and even though there was plenty of water to be gleaned from the small streams that wormed among the rocks, it was still deeply unpleasant. His feet hurt. His head hurt. And he groaned as he let his head hit the rocky side of the tunnel. "Okay, Aang, I take it back."
    "Take what back?" Aang was poking worriedly at some of the lichen he had scraped off of the wall – and was actually hungry enough to take a bite.

    "The whole fear of commitment thing. I take it back. When I get out of here -" He pointed dramatically to emphasize his point. "I am so ready to marry Suki. Seriously. She is going to get married so hard she won't know what to do with herself. That hard."

    "Uhn-huh."

    "Seriously. Old Sokka? Gone. New Sokka is going to be a quiet-living, very married man. I am going to stay at home and get a job I kinda hate and go to it every single damn day and have fifty million kids. And while I feel my soul being sucked out of my body, I am going to know that it's worth it, because when you show up going 'hey Sokka, hey Sokka, let's go save the world again', I'll just decline because I have this job and all these babies to take care of..."

    "Yeah, but you'll still come with me," Aang said, laughing.

    Sokka pointed at him as if about to refute before letting his hand drop. "You're right," he said miserably. "I'm totally doomed to a life full of heroics." He groaned as he covered his eyes, looking exhausted.

    "Want any of this?" Aang cheerfully offered some of the softly glowing lichen to him. "It's not too bad if you don't think about what you're eating."

    Sokka was sadly hungry enough to actually take it after a moment of staring at Aang. As soon as it hit his tongue, he spluttered. "Ugh! It tastes like dirt." Grumbling a little, he stood. "All right, all right. Enough of a break. The sooner we get out of here, the sooner I can have a proper meal. With steak. Or at least some roast duck..."

    Aang shook his head a little as they started to trudge down the long corridor. There was only one way to go. That at least made it easy without the deliberation, but there was also the constant knowledge that the earthbender riders were right behind them. Aang had definitely taken the time to put in enough roadblocks so that their enemies weren't breathing down their necks, but... they had to keep going.

    "Are we anywhere near the exit?" Sokka half-whined. "I mean... anywhere?"

    "I think so." He frowned a moment, putting his hand out to run against the wall. "It all feels familiar. This is the way Avatar Yangchen definitely went, and it's near the end..." Aang nodded, smiling. "I'm pretty sure that tomorrow night we'll be sleeping... well, not in our own beds, but at least above ground."

    "I'll definitely settle for that. And a proper meal," Sokka sighed. "Something that's not lichen." Somewhere ahead of them, the steady trickle of water was starting to swell through the rock, as if a confluence of hairline cracks in the rock were merging into a stream. The next turn and Sokka's heart leaped – the steady glow of some bright light snuck around the rock. And the sound of water grew stronger until it became a steady rush that ended in a roar. As the corridor opened up into bright light, the waterfall forming a veil that covered the doorway to a large cavern. As soon as Sokka saw it, he burst out into relieved laughter. Surely with light that bright, it had to be an opening to the sky. They could get out – they could finally get out! - and this would all be over, and he could have a proper night's rest and a good meal -

    "Sokka, wait!" He didn't stop to listen to Aang, instead jogging forward, not even minding being soaked by the waterfall as he stepped out onto the slick ledge.

    A raised pathway flowed smoothly out of the corridor, worn stairs cut down into another lake. It looked... vaguely unnatural. It was too smooth at the edges, too precise, and Sokka could see the stairs continued down in the clear water. As he stepped nearer, the ghostly white carp startled and fled underneath the large lilypads that dotted the surface. More moonstone lotus grew on the lake, but this time much larger, blossoms all the way from buds barely larger than his thumb to ones Sokka could probably use as a chair. And something... something was moving the water. Something was lifting it up, and something lifted its dripping head out of the water and hissed so loudly it made Sokka's ears ache.

    "Uh... Aang? I don't think this is the way out...!"
  10. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Fault Lines

    --

    Toph had slowed her pace, but only just barely. Captain Deshi was limping heavily, but tried his best to keep up with her as she marched down the long palace hallway. Tiles had been uprooted, jagged and irregular, but while the palace guards clumsily stumbled Toph knew exactly where to step like some sort of nimble mountain goat. The palace was still trembling a little – Toph could just barely feel it – like a scared child getting over a fright. Those had been powerful earthbenders, and likely they were moving out towards the bay. Actually, Toph suspected they were already gone. The first instinct of the Firelord's generals was to scramble forces in pursuit, and it was more than likely that the earthbenders had simply disguised themselves.
    Of course that would mean they had inside help, but given how smoothly this sneak attack went, Toph had no doubt that something like that had surely happened.

    Ash in the air and heat on her face: one of the tapestries was still smoldering, some Firelord's embroidered conquests reduced to sad embers. Toph marched on. "It's, ah, to the left here, Commander Beifong." Deshi instinctively winced. "I mean... Toph?"

    Her nose twitched slightly as she thought. The past few days of calm had been interspersed with Toph yelling at them to stop calling her Lady Beifong before she punched them clear into the bay. But Commander Beifong... "No, Commander's good, Deshi." It was true, she liked the sound of that.

    The other guards shuffled forward, glancing around anxiously, but Toph merely dragged one foot forward in a circular step, toes brushing against the ashes, and she knew everything they did and more.

    The earthbenders had done an ample job cleaning up after themselves. Neat, efficient. Professional. Toph was almost impressed. Their escape had been through a window, and then out through the tunnel in the gardens. Something that smelled like blood in the air, though only a bit – one of the rocks jutting from the wall was a likely candidate. Toph imagined it clearly: Zuko had been trying to desperately dodge, one tripped him, the other made the brick come out of the wall to hit him in the back of the head. Not a fatal wound, but enough to give him serious pause, enough to give them an opportunity to knock his swords out of his grip. Then in desperation he had lashed out the only way he still could with his swords gone. Scorch mark on the marble opposite wall – another tapestry was burned, but not actually on fire. She took a few steps to the wall and pressed her fingertips gently on the marble. The ash was definitely clinging to it in a pattern...

    He'd burned at least one of them. Good for Firelord Sparky. All those years of fancy living hadn't made him entirely useless.

    His swords stood trapped upright in the marble, like banners planted in some battlefield. More importantly, two things had been very purposefully left behind. One was the Firelord's crown, something Toph had always thought amusingly delicate. But uncrowning a king was a powerful image. Then there was a mask. Toph was certain it was of the same type the fighters had worn, but this seemed a little too perfect, too manufactured...

    "Commander Beifong." Toph felt as Deshi pulled himself to attention after picking up the mask. "There's... a message on the inside of this."

    "Read it to me."

    He did, and Toph's mouth drew into a thin frown.



    At the Eastern tower, things had quickly dissolved into chaos, though a chaos Katara was more accustomed to. Casualties dragged themselves in as best they could. For many there was nothing that could be done except lay out their bodies in a dignified manner. The palace guardsmen had been full of hasty replacements, scared new recruits, and it was only because of Toph that they didn't completely scatter. But people apparently having their necks broken from a hundred paces wasn't good for morale.

    All of the anxious whispers just made it harder for Katara to concentrate. The half-finished portrait of Zuko on the wall made it even worse. It was powerfully different from those around it. All of the other Firelords looked straight up in a commanding way as if gazing out on past conquests. Zuko had apparently requested to be posed looking downwards. It was a deeply humble gesture. Instead of holding sword or flame, she could see where the artist had sketched in firelilies beneath him. Perhaps even sprouting grass – or were those pencil waves? Katara didn't have time for a closer look. For a moment the thought that Zuko chose to have his indelible image for further generations staring quietly at water, something Katara associated so closely with herself, made her... well, not nervous. If anything she felt a blush running across the back of her neck.

    But no time to dwell on that. There was work to do. She could stare later at how Zuko was making his indelible image for future generations to be one of creation and harmony instead of destruction, and wonder why his painted eyes looking serenely, almost yearningly, down into the pond water made her chest ache...

    "Master Katara!" A desperate call over across the room brought her attention fully to the present. Two guards were struggling to bring in a familiar-looking figure, though Katara immediately grimaced sympathetically as she saw his injuries. General Iroh. All of them had been caught off-guard, and it showed. She knew Iroh hadn't gone down without a fight, but now color was draining from the old man's face, and despite his inherent strength he was barely able to stumble along. Katara could see the dark stain of blood from a wound on his torso, flesh and stark white bone showing through the torn cloth. It was rather eerily as if someone had just willed his ribs to snap. A less lucky man probably would have been dead by now. As it was Katara had to jump and skip over other guards laying groaning in pain to make it over to Iroh as his escorts gently lowered him to the floor.

    She saw him cough, a few flecks of blood staining his white beard. Even as his breaths turned rasping he was still trying to give orders. "Li, if they're taking the war balloons, a team with a grappling hook might be able to catch them -" Iroh cut himself off with another heavy cough that made Katara wince. As she came over to crouch beside him, he gave her a tired smile even as he wheezed and held a hand over the wound on his side. "Ah, Sifu Katara. My apologies for this unwelcome intrusion on your vacation."

    [IMG]

    "Just rest and try not to speak," she said worriedly, water already at her fingertips, glowing softly as she pried away his hand from his side. It was bad, but not fatal - not when Katara was there, anyway. Iroh was trying hard to keep up a brave face, but as muscle knitted back together over bone, he gave a heavy grunt of pain followed by a rasping gasp. It wasn't long before Katara had to pull away to take a breather. At least the bleeding had stopped now. The people swarming around them, however, had not.
    "General Iroh -" Another member of the palace guard tossed him a salute. "Sir, I have a message for you – it's urgent -"

    "Master Katara! Commander Beifong needs to speak to you -"

    "How urgent is this message?"

    "Very urgent, General - "

    "I'm sure that with a proper bandage it will heal from hereon out fine on its own, Sifu Katara, no need to expend your energy further – save it for important matters -"

    Katara nearly put her hands over her ears and screamed. As it was, she still snapped at him, voice raising. "Just BE QUIET and let me do what I can!"

    Everyone was fortunately silent for a few long moments, especially Iroh, who had noticed the soft tremble in her voice. It was just more confirmation for what they all knew. Katara was near tears of frustration, and if one of them started crying, it would set off a chain reaction of despair that would leave all of them momentarily helpless. The last thing they needed was to waste time blaming themselves for Zuko's loss. Blame solved nothing. Only action did.

    The guard gave a gulp before speaking again. "General Iroh, sir. I'm afraid this bad news is rather important."

    "Go on," Iroh said with a nod while Katara threw her concentration into her work once more.

    "The... the Princess Azula has escaped, sir. And free of her pressure-point harness that kept her from firebending. I'm afraid all of the guards assigned to her rooms are dead, as well as the servants."

    "I see. And is there evidence...?"

    "Yes, sir. She went with the earthbenders."

    Iroh quietly closed his eyes a moment in thought, bowing his head. Katara had gotten the wound down to a raw-looking patch of scar tissue, and Iroh could breathe freely now. That was good enough, especially when the truth was hanging in the air so starkly to distract her.

    The despair was very tempting to give into, but a shout caught her attention. "Katara!" That was definitely Toph's voice. Already exhausted, Katara pulled herself to her feet. Toph marched at the head of a small formation of palace guards, each of them looking grim. A smooth white mask was in Toph's hand, though she could see a flash of black cradled inside it. Toph frowned as she held it out to Katara. "You need to see this."

    Curiously, Katara took it, holding the smooth mask in her hands. It was cool and oddly textured – not clay or wood, but naturally gleaming white even if she was having a hard time feeling any carving marks. It felt almost like ivory... like bone. The face of it was painted simply, dark grey circles around the eyes with tiny dots for eyebrows perched above them, the lips a brilliant ruby red. But the inside of it... Each brushstroke spoke to the fact that someone trained in calligraphy had written the message, and had intended for it to be read. There was no doubt – this was the calling card they were meant to receive.

    Katara read it out, her voice quiet yet seeming to echo in the tower underneath the humbled gaze of Zuko's unfinished portrait. All of the injured soldiers quieted to listen. Even Mei Lien stopped her crying. All of them looked to her as she spoke.

    "...'All warfare is based on deception, but a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never rise again, nor can the dead be brought back to life.'"

    The silence continued even after Katara finished.

    "A grim riddle," Iroh finally said, breaking the silence. "Toph, Katara... You need to follow them." Katara shook her head, and Iroh cut her off, holding up a hand. "We have healers here."

    "But that leaves the Palace unprotected -"

    Toph interrupted her this time, tone kinder than her usual abrasiveness. "They got what they came for. And Aang and Sokka will be back in a few days, as well." She paused before putting a hand on Katara's arm. "They're already loading up the fastest skiff in the navy for us. We'll hit the mainland just behind them.

    Katara hesitated for only a moment more before catching Iroh's eye. There was a deep sadness there – begging her to go on and do what he could not. It was too intense, and she had to look away, her eyes unfortunately landing on the unfinished portrait of Zuko and how the artist had painted him looking down sadly into the pool at his feet. If anything that was a little worse, and she brought her hand up to try and hide the tears that were threatening to overwhelm her for reasons she wasn't quite able to explain.

    "Fine. Let's... let's get going."
  11. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    The Fish Swimming in Samsara

    ---

    Something underneath the tangle of lotus plants hissed furiously, and as it rose out of the water, Sokka stumbled back to press himself against the wall. It was... big. Water dripped from bristling fur that had been stained with algae. Four eyes were clouded white with cataracts. Sagging wrinkles hung around jagged, yellow teeth. A long red tongue unfurled like a warning banner, and rivers of water coursed downwards as knotty lotus roots and pads clung to the massive creature.
    The cave crawlers that the earthbenders rode had been large. This was much, much larger.

    Sokka gave a heady gulp, starting to inch his way back up the stairs. "Aang? I think... we should just... try our luck with the earthbenders..."

    "Sokka, don't step there!" He called out in a quick warning before jumping down beside him. "That's what's making her upset."

    "...Her?"

    "Yeah. Her." Aang reached out to take Sokka by the arm, leading him away from one of the plants... and, it seemed, directly into the gaze of the massive cave-crawler. It continued hissing, hot breath billowing out onto them like some musty jungle wind, but at least at not quite the same rate. "This is where all of her children are... can't you see them?" Aang kept his voice quiet, pointing towards one of the large plants the animal had lifted up. Now Sokka could just barely make out hundreds of tiny pearls, translucent orange, each with a tiny speck within them. Some were larger, some smaller, but the larger ones did hold specks that seemed distinctly more cave-crawler-like than others.

    He would have stopped to admire their strange beauty, but the hissing cave-crawler leaned in. Sokka winced, turning his head and trying not to breathe in too deeply – the creature's mouth reeked – as Aang flung an arm across him to prevent him from drawing his sword and attacking. It snuffled hard at Aang before finally closing its mouth, giving a murmuring grunt as it retreated back mostly into the water. Only its nose and milky white eyes continued to poke out from underneath the foliage.

    "This is why it's so familiar," Aang murmured excitedly. "This is where Avatar Yangchen came centuries ago to help smooth things over..." He stepped out onto the water, balancing himself half on top of the waves before lightly stepping over to the wide lilly-pads. "Sokka, you watch the doorway."

    "But -"

    "I just need to speak to her," Aang said cheerfully.

    Sokka exasperatedly pointed to the entrance behind the waterfall. "Would you make it quick? We've only got maybe an hour...!"

    "I know! I'll be done before then." He sat crosslegged on top of the animal's head, and it gave a resigned huff. "Just let me talk to her." He shook out his shoulders, a deliberate calm settling onto him. Sokka knew the sort of calm it was. He was stretching out into the spirit world.

    Well, nothing to do but wait. Sokka gave a long sigh, managing to settle down somewhat as he stared down into the clear pond. Blind carp flitted past, and Sokka's stomach rumbled. If one of them just came a little closer -

    "Please don't start a fire. It'll scare her." Aang's eye opened just a tiny bit before he closed it again and slipped further into meditation.

    Somewhat bitterly, he reached over to hack off a lotus root, starting to chew on it. Well, better than lichen, he supposed.

    The cavern was enormous, and this time it was obviously not entirely natural. Perhaps the stairs in the cool water led down to something more – an algae-covered temple, from the glimpses Sokka could catch. Earthbenders had cut ornate designs into the walls that led up to the very top, like inverse steps, the complicated geometric fractals lending an air of sophisticated beauty to the natural setting. There was a small slit – something Sokka could just barely see. Maybe that was sunlight, or even moonlight. He had no idea what time of day it was, and besides, the slim shaft was drowned out by the bright glow of all the moonstone lotus floating in the lake.

    Tiny waves rippled its surface as the mother cave-crawler settled down, her eyes closing to milky slits. Both she and Aang seemed to slip into the same dreaming sort of meditation. Sokka wasn't openly rueful, but it did leave him with an awkward space of time where he didn't quite know what to do. If the earthbenders burst through now, well, with Aang occupied, Sokka knew that realistically he didn't stand a chance against such an elite force...

    Something near his knee chirped, and he blinked, pulling himself out of worried daydreams. A tiny cave-crawler, no bigger than his palm and still wet from the pearly egg it had just crawled out of. He could see its siblings still curled up tightly in the glowing orangey spheres stuck to the underside of one of the larger lotus plants. It chirped at him again, blinking its wide black eyes.

    "You know, for something that grows up to be a monster, you're awfully cute."

    "Chee!" it squeaked. After a moment's thought, he offered out some of the lotus root he had been doggedly trying to chew on. It eagerly took the root from him – despite the fact that the root was as bit as it was – and, manipulating it with its tiny claws, chewed on it in a satisfied manner.

    "Don't think this means you can stay," Sokka warned. "I learned my lesson with Foo-foo Cuddlypoops. No, if your mom gets upset, it's entirely on your head. I'm warning you."

    "Chreep."

    "And I'm not naming you. Definitely not. You name something, you get attached to it. I know that now." Sokka frowned seriously before his expression softened somewhat. "Though you are a really cute furball. ...heh. Furball. If I was going to name you, that'd be a good start. Furball... Furball Deathyfangs. Yeah. That sounds about right."

    The tiny newborn cave-crawler looked up at Sokka sweetly and, holding its snack in its paws, waddled over on its other six feet to plop down right beside Sokka. With one eye on the cavern entrance, Sokka settled back with a sigh. "Might as well relax in the few minutes before certain doom, right?"

    [IMG]

    "Chree."

    Some time later, the tiny cave-crawler had moved to sitting directly on Sokka's knee. "...but the thing is, Furball, is that apparently there are seating arrangements. Placecards and everything. I kinda thought everyone we invited would know how to sit at a table, but no. So now there's this big debate about where Pakku's going to sit, since he married Gran-Gran and all. But I don't even know if Gran-Gran's going to be able to come!" The cave-crawler gave an apparently sympathetic mewling noise. "You see the problem, right? Not that I don't want them there, it's just that there are only so many seats at the head table, and..."

    "You might not want to get too close, Sokka." Aang's voice still had a somewhat dreamy quality to it as he rolled his shoulders in a shrug and seemed to shake the last remnants of the spirit world from his shoulders. "They're most poisonous when they're little."

    "Uh..." Sokka immediately blanched, wiggling his knee a little. "Uh... nice Furball... good Furball... uh... look! Go catch the lotus root! Please?" It gave a trilling chirp and hopped off after the morsel Sokka tossed, and he relaxed a little as he scrambled up to stand. "So, get anything?"

    Aang nodded, smiling. "She's going to help us." In the lake, the cave-crawler mother gave a huffing sigh, making the lilypad on her head flutter. "There's a crack just at the very top here that leads out. Some of the larger cave-crawlers can carry us up there, easy, and if it isn't big enough I can bend it to make it so we both can get through."

    "Great! What are we waiting for?"

    "...She also wants our help." Sokka's face fell as Aang continued. "All the cave-crawlers those earthbenders are riding have been... entranced, she said. The cord for their halters is imbued with something connected to the spirit world... it's complicated, but if we cut that, they won't have to obey orders anymore. With them on our side, it should be pretty easy to clean up those earthbenders," Aang said cheerfully. "We just have to cut off their halters."

    Sokka gulped. "So we just have to cut off the harnesses that are right by their faces. And somehow do it without hurting them too badly. That's, uh..."

    "Should be easy!"

    "Easy... yeah. Easy." Sokka grimaced, drawing his sword. Something was definitely coming up through the tunnel towards them. Several somethings. The calm water of the lake started to ripple as the sound grew louder, the very earth around them shaking. Aang pulled himself into a fighting stance, and behind them, the enormous cave-crawler mother rose from the water enough to start hissing.

    Sokka barely flinched as the tiny cave-crawler he had befriended earlier plopped down from a nearby ledge onto his shoulder, chittering conversationally and casually beginning to groom behind its ears despite the impending danger.

    "...Yeah, yeah. Good luck to you too, Furball Deathyfangs."
  12. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Seismic Risk

    Katara thought that it was representative of all the friction in their friendship that as soon as they stepped off the boat, Katara looked remarkably less at home, but Toph was on all fours in the dirt kissing the ground.
    Well, perhaps not kissing. Not yet, anyway. She had been incredibly insistent that she was not doing any such thing, but instead listening in a way only she could. The small band of Fire Nation soldiers had met up with a larger force, and now all of them were looking uncomfortably desperate. One among them had fortunately decided that it was his job to lead them on a basic sweep of the surrounding area. Already somewhat queasy-looking ostrich horses were being unloaded from some of the ships, and a small flurry of messenger hawks could be seen with dispatches to local officials and the Earth King himself. Toph herself had dictated the letter to the Earth King that the human messenger would bring. After all, to an observer, it would look suspiciously like a small invading force had just landed on the Earth King's shores, and they were definitely in Earth Kingdom territory instead of the loose group of former colonies on their way to becoming a united and neutral republic.

    It was nervewracking enough that Katara tapped her foot out of unconscious nervous habit. Some distance away, crouching in the solid dirt away from the shoreline, Toph grit her teeth. The chatter of the organizing army was bad enough, but Katara didn't know how bad it truly was until the first messenger on ostrich horse trotted by Toph.

    The rider was fortunately able to dodge as Toph gave a strangled, frustrated scream and slammed her fists down, creating a sharp column of earth that sunk down into the ground as quickly as it had risen up. "WILL EVERYONE! JUST! SHUT! UP!"

    The ensuing silence was so complete that one could have heard a pin drop. All of the navymen stood at perfect attention, eyes wide, and Katara blinked. Toph, however, gave a sigh of relief before sticking her palms into the dirt again. It was an odd pose, both palms and feet on the ground and her hair on her face, but she was obviously concentrating hard. "...And stop breathing, it's really distracting," she snapped, and the guard next to Katara clapped his hands over his mouth. Toph's sightless eyes glared at the ground for a few more long heartbeats before she grinned. "That's... almost clever. Almost."

    In one smooth motion, she stood, dusting off her hands and pointing at the group of soldiers. "General! Get search parties heading to the south and southeast. Look for cracks that seem to go a decent way down into the bedrock, smokestacks that don't seem to go to anywhere, dry wells... whatever you can find, and make sure to compile information between yourselves. And go into every town with weapons peace-tied, or spirits help you, I'll come punch out your jaws myself." The entire group tossed her a fearful salute before one of the higher ranking officers began to bark out orders.

    Katara blinked rapidly a few moments. "So, are we splitting up, one going with each group, or -"

    "No, you're coming with me." Toph rubbed her hands in glee. "They're sealing up the tunnels directly after they make them, traveling along in a sort of... rolling avalanche, I guess. Any other earthbender would completely miss it."

    "But not you?" Katara grinned a little.

    [IMG]

    "Exactly. Now come on, Sifu Fussybritches." Toph grinned as she grabbed onto Katara's upper arm with what could charitably called a vice-like grip. "Let's go save your boyfriend!"

    It took a long moment for Toph's words to sink in, and Katara was already well on her way to turning a deep red. "Wh-WHAT? He – Zuko is not – absolutely NOT – my boyfrie-aaaaaaaaaahh!"

    She was cut off as the earth dropped out from underneath her. Luckily her first instinct was to grab onto Toph. Soon everything was lost in a dark blur of dirt and rock flying past her face, Toph's feet and hands whipping out in smooth motions to keep the small hurricane of dirt moving. There was definitely the sensation of moving, perhaps faster than Katara could realize, and she constantly felt as if she was about to slip and fall as the rock literally cycled under their feet to propel them along.

    "...Th-This is to get back at me f-for the boat, isn't it!" Katara shrieked over the rumbling din of stone moving around them. Toph didn't answer. She just grinned.

    It seemed like an eternity later when the stone finally gave way to more manicured walls as they burst forth into a proper tunnel. Katara reeled, trying to hold back a wave of nausea. Yes, Toph had definitely done that as some sort of retribution for all the times the earthbender had gagged over the side of a ship. It took her a few minutes to be able to walk straight while meanwhile Toph was marching ahead with merely a roll of her shoulders.

    "Where...?"

    "Shh. Keep your voice down." Toph's voice was a little hoarse, and she paused to find a small canteen of water on her belt and take a gulp. "We're close – I can feel it. Took hours to get here, but this?" She gestured vaguely to the manicured tunnel walls. "Close to the inner sanctum. We'll have Zuko and be out of here in time for dinner. ...well, maybe not dinner, but in time to have some proper steamed buns for breakfast, anyway." She grinned widely – Katara could tell by tone alone - and for a moment, Katara couldn't help but believe her confidence.

    Of course, in the pitch blackness only Toph could see. Katara kept close, fingertips running alongside the pristine stone wall, her other hand on Toph's shoulder. They marched in silence before eventually small glowing gemstones could be seen, giving them some light, and making Katara sigh in relief. The ornate geometric patterns were all regular, rigid, and even, and the glowing mineral cast off a sickly greenish glow. Something about it was distinctly familiar, and it immediately clicked in Katara's mind.

    "Toph..."

    "Shh."

    "I think these people might be the Dai Li, and -"

    "No, really, shh. There's a patrol coming," Toph hissed, reaching out to guide Katara to stand flat back against the wall. With a wave of a hand like someone closing a closet door, the stone wrapped up around them. Katara gritted her teeth, once again enveloped in complete blackness. But Toph could see, flexing her toes against the ground, and soon Katara could just barely make out voices in the distance.

    "...She's so lucky. They tell me it'll be at least two weeks before we're eligible, maybe more," one of them sighed wistfully.

    "I know. But two more weeks, brother, and then a lifetime of peace and power," the other said, tone full of a blissful awe that seemed too perfect. "We all just have to be patient."

    "But couldn't you see it in her eyes? I can't help envying her! Just so... calm."

    "We'll be that perfect soon. Until then, we'll just -"

    He was abruptly cut off as Toph slammed her hands together in front of her and the rock that had been enveloping them jutted out to catch both of the guards. Both were caught so thoroughly off-guard that neither had time to scream as Toph brought rocks down hard over their heads, knocking them out. Katara blinked as her eyes readjusted to the dim light, and Toph motioned to keep her voice down. "Come on. We'll use their uniforms." She was already nimbly untying one man's mask, putting it and his green armor on. Katara swiftly followed suit, making sure that her hip flask of water was still with her.

    She noticed the blood inside the helm she took off of the guard, felt a brief duty to do some sort of healing, and then quietly dismissed it. Likely no good could be done, anyway...

    Within a few minutes they had settled into the sickly olive uniforms, pulling the hoods up and the masks over their faces. Toph motioned for them to move forward, and as they did, the green glow became stronger. One line of designs became two, then four, then eight, until finally half of the wall was taken up with glowing inlay. Odd shadows danced around them in the pallid light, reflecting off of every person's white mask in a way that made them all look like dead puppets being pulled along for some other person's amusement. One of the guards in the long corridor nodded to them, and they nodded back, careful to keep silent.

    It splayed out all around them, hallway leading into hallway. But there definitely was a center point. For one thing, the glow was stronger, almost smothering in its ubiquity. And for another, there was the scream.

    Both of them gave a start as soon as they heard it – a raw sound that echoed through the corridors. Nobody else seemed to mind. But both walked a little faster, Katara firmly willing herself to try and stay calm. It had been a low, masculine roar of pain... it had to be -

    And it was.

    The large, circular room was darker than the rest. One brightly glowing gemstone was set into a track in the wall, lazily going in circles, making the shadows shift and dance. Breathing hard, eyebrows lidded and heavy, Zuko was suspended in the middle, thoroughly bound by shackles at both his ankles and his wrists. From the cuts they had inflicted, he had been fighting hard to free himself. On top of that, a long gash, very fresh, sat on his shoulder... and Katara could see where thin needles of stone had been worked underneath the flesh just to cause him more pain.

    In front of him stood someone in a slightly different uniform, more elaborate and ornate. While most other masks had been plain white, or white with dark circles around the eyes, this figure – this Prophet – had a startling jot of red on the lips of his mask, a solid line in the middle. As they shuffled in, the guards at the door shuffled out, and Katara barely contained a sigh of relief. Apparently it was shift change, and they were right on time.

    The Prophet twitched his fingers and the needles of stone embedded themselves more deeply in Zuko's shoulder, making him give another grunting cry. A slim hand went to the Prophet's red lips, and he tilted his head in apparent thought. "And I was so hoping we were getting somewhere, Firelord. Why do you make this so hard on yourself?"

    Zuko said nothing, letting his head fall forward, his loose hair falling like a curtain around him. It was more than obvious that he was in a lot of pain: his shoulders were shaking, his lip trembled around every breath he took. Pointedly, he didn't look up at the Prophet.

    "We only wish to do what needs to be done, Firelord. Entropy is the natural order of the world. Fighting against it will only bring you pain and turn the tide of destruction inwards. I have tried to be..." The Prophet took in a deep breath, letting it out as a dramatic sigh. "Generous. So generous. Please let nobody say that I didn't give you the chance." He motioned lazily at one of the assistants in the back, who reached out to grab Zuko by the hair, pulling it hard and making Zuko give a grunt of pain as he was forced to look the Prophet in the eye. "Perhaps we just haven't given you proper motivation."

    "If this is going to be..." He paused to wince. "Another lecture on how I should... accept things the way Azula does..."

    "Oh, no. Nothing so crass," the Prophet said smoothly, stepping back. "Merely a reminder that this is not entirely about you." His gloved hands reached out to both Katara's and Toph's shoulders, grip becoming vice-like. "And we are so very glad that you dear ladies could finally join us."

    Katara's mind took a few seconds to catch up, and by then all of the other guards had silently closed ranks around them. Toph's fists clenched. Zuko's eyes went suddenly wide, and for the first time in a very long while, Katara saw his expression change to genuine and desperate terror. There was nothing left to lose so she let a small whisper escape her lips.

    "...Spirits dammit..."
  13. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    The Fourth Ashtamangala

    --

    The world shook, trembled, and then finally – with a growing hiss like steam escaping for a valve – exploded.
    Sokka already had his sword up at the ready, and before the first rider came through the veil of water, he charged. All of the captive cave-crawlers had their mouths gaping open, sharp teeth gleaming in the glow of all the lotuses. The glint from Sokka's sword was nearly blinding. For one terrible moment it seemed like the world stopped, legs scrambling in midair, the masked earthbenders raising their hands in readiness, gleaming droplets of the wave Aang was calling shimmering behind them like some exotic chandelier. But the moment was gone in a rush of furious action as the world lurched forward once more.

    A rush of wet bursting from behind him. As Aang rose the wave up, showing the underside of one of the massive lotus plants, all of the amber eggs hit the air and burst. In the light it looked as if the small cave-crawlers were rushing forward from glowing fire. Sokka had no time to admire it. He didn't know if his first strike was luck, skill, or some combination of the two, but it struck just to the side of one cave-crawler's face, tugging away some of its long whiskers – and slicing through the bridle. It immediately came to a halt, making the ones behind it pause. A sharp rush of air to his left – he was pretty sure Aang cut off a bit of hair that had come free from his ponytail – but more importantly, the blades of air sliced through the bridles of three more riders. Each also ended up with gashes on their cheeks, but the ropes slid off of them, onto the floor. The chamber was echoing with cries of fury, Sokka's ears were ringing, but one of the earthbenders was sliding off and there was no time to think. He barely deflected another round of stone daggers, dodged to the left as a pillar rose from the ground, tumbled – blur of movement over his shoulder -

    Not that he could tell one from the next, but he certainly thought that the charge was led by Furball Deathyfangs. Featherlight, delicate legs grazed on his shoulder, a near-constant stream of tiny cave-crawlers springing upwards. The first one leaped forward to grab at the earthbender, then another, and another – a thousand tiny teeth, a swarm. The masked earthbender flailed and then went stiff, falling backward, but they were not content to let the poison do its work alone.

    Such a small sound, but so multiplied – it made Sokka stop in his tracks. The wet, slick noise. Tiny teeth pulling meat from bone. The earthbender kicked, reached a hand up, and struggled. As the freed adult cave-crawlers struggled away, they turned on their riders, spines cracking. The sound of bones cracking and flesh being pulled away was bad enough, but honestly what terrified Sokka the most was the absence of something.

    None of the earthbenders screamed. None of them pleaded. None of them said a word as they went down to be consumed.

    And just like that, the tide of the battle turned. The dull roar became a rumble as the others fled, and Sokka and Aang both hung back, panting from the exertion of the initial push. Behind them, the mother cave-crawler rose from the water, tossing the limp body of one of the earthbenders up in the air before catching it in her massive jaws and swallowing.

    "Still want that steak?" Aang joked weakly as the tiny infant cave-crawlers settled down to their meals.

    "Yeah... maybe I'll join you and just have a salad," Sokka admitted. They were grown, and he knew they were supposed to be used to this sort of thing by now. Time to put away childish squeamishness. But seeing the intestines of a caribou and of a man were two very different things, even if Sokka managed to casually wash off the blood on his sword in the lake.

    The next few minutes were full of inconsequential chattering as they let the adrenaline seep through them. Two of the adult cave-crawlers waited patiently for them, settling down to groom their ears while Aang and Sokka waded into the water and chopped at the roots of the smaller lotus blossoms. Better to refresh their supplies before they hit the surface. It was also very tempting to make sure that there were fresh ones in their packs so that some gardener could cultivate them on the Firelord's doorstep, and they wouldn't have to go on such a sojourn again. Excitement gave way to relief and before long they were wrestling wet blossoms into their bags and laughing together.

    "You know the best part of all this? That we get to sleep in a proper bed after all of this," Sokka said. "Probably after a good meal. How many days has it even been down here, anyway?"

    Aang shrugged, grinning. "C'mon, I'm sure Zuko will throw us a feast or something when we're back."

    "And I will definitely be ready for steak then." He stood beside one of the cave-crawlers, peering at it. "So, do we just... hold on, or...?"

    "Holding on's a good idea, yeah." Aang vaulted onto the back of one of the creatures, who flinched but didn't seem to mind, accepting him as a rider. Hesitantly, Sokka did much the same, though his touch was much lighter.

    "Uhh... good boy...? ...What's cave-crawler for 'yip yip', d'you thi-aaahhh!"

    Abruptly both of the cave-crawlers jumped up in a sprint. Sokka hung onto the thing's neck for dear life, trying not to think about how close his arms were to the thing's mouth. The creatures nimbly bounced from rock to rock, claws digging into the niches of the elegant geometric carving. Upwards and upwards – the glow underneath them became far more distant, and Sokka tried hard not to think about how far down the lake was now.

    But there was a split above them where he could feel fresh air pouring in, and something far less diffused than the light from the glowing moonstone lotus. It was only a small gap and the cave-crawlers scrambled to stay on, but Aang quickly spread his hands, earthbending it into a manageable exit. The cave-crawlers were reluctant to go further, but it was the boost they both needed to scramble out. Aang went first with a rush of air, ready to help pull Sokka up. The air smelled of trees and far-off night-blooming jasmine and it was an intoxicating brew that Sokka pantingly soaked up as they both stood, glad to finally be above-ground.

    [IMG]

    "Well, that was fun." Sokka stretched, grinning. "Not really the kind of bachelor party I wanted, but it'll do. Now all we need to do is get back to the air temple, and then..." Aang had gone uncharacteristically silent as he pulled himself on top of a nearby hill, looking up at the skyline. "Go force-feed some of these glowing flowers to Zuko, then everything's going to be just fine. Right, Aang?" Sokka frowned at the lack of reply. "Hey, Aang...?"

    Sokka finally noticed the glow on the edge of the horizon.

    It didn't surprise him that the Eastern Air Temple was so far away. His feet certainly told him that they had traveled miles. But the night sky wasn't giving way into dawn. That glow was very specific and focused.

    The Eastern Air Temple was in flames.

    Both of them started off at a sprint, winding through the woods and climbing up the sloping hills. It seemed that Aang quickly got anxiously impatient, and he reached out to firmly grab Sokka's arm, gesturing with the other. The earth rose up underneath them in a steady swell that bore them along on the crest of a wave of rock and soil. Soon they were whipping through the trees with a terrifying speed, Sokka wincing as the branches came close to grazing on his cheeks. He understood the hurry. Appa was there. It was an unspoken rule that you just didn't mess with an avatar's animal companion. Then again, it seemed there were a lot of unspoken rules of proper warfare these masked earthbenders were ignoring.

    Even though a journey of days was completed in hours, they still arrived too late.

    The fires had mostly burned down to ashes, but blasts of air snuffed out the few Aang could still spot. Sokka's sword returned to his hand, though it was useless. This hadn't been a battle. It had been a massacre. Maybe a few had tried to fight back, but all of the refugees were overwhelmingly non-benders. The bodies in the halls had been cut down while fleeing, stone daggers between their shoulderblades. One woman – a mother, from the look of it – had been pinned to the wall. Her tactic had been to try and draw fire, but her children's bodies were only a little way down the hall.

    They were both very quiet even as they hurried, heading for the stalls where they had left Appa. Sokka tried not to think too hard about how muddy the courtyard was. It hadn't rained in days, the dry patches were apparent, and the mud was all curiously reddish and centered around the bodies...

    Fire was still burning in the hall leading to the stables. With something approaching anger, wind whipped around Aang's fingertips, blasting it from flame back into cold ash. Finally there were masked earthbenders among the dead in their drab, sickly green uniforms. As soon as there was a loud and familiar bellow, Aang visibly relaxed. Appa poked his head around the corridor. Perhaps a little of his fur had been singed – and there was blood on it that obviously wasn't his – but... "Appa! You're all right!" Aang rushed forward as if to give the sky bison a hug before he seemed to abruptly stop, sliding into a crouch.

    Sokka saw her only seconds after as he rounded the corner. A small girl, barely a teenager. She looked familiar, somehow. Perhaps he would remember her later as one of the wide-eyed children he had seen once when Aang begged him to go along to one of the 'Avatar fan club' groups in Ba Sing Se, one of the ones so tiny that she clung to her brother's hand the entire time and seemed barely able to stand on her own two feet. But her brown eyes were full of that same admiration, and even though she was laying in a pool of her own blood, she was using her last strength to smile.

    Aang whipped off his short cloak, trying to press it to her wound to stop the bleeding, but it was useless. For all his talents, healing with waterbending was not one of them. "Just hold on, the nearest town's not far, they'll have a healer -"

    "I made sure he was safe, Avatar Aang," she whispered, voice broken and small even as she smiled.

    "Save your strength, you'll need it -"

    "C-can't... can't go anywhere without your s-sky bison..." That same damn grin was on her face.

    It had been years since someone was so happy to die in service of the Avatar. Sokka knew from the look on Aang's face it did not get any easier to see. The girl's body went limp by inches, expression frozen on her face as something in her eyes became dull and distant. Aang guided her to the floor very gently, picking up the short cloak he had wrapped around her wound and unfurling it. He let it fall over her. A shroud was the least he could do. Appa gave a mournful call.

    Sokka would have offered some words of comfort, but he was distracted by the other bodies around them. The irritating white masks had made him grit his teeth from day long. Now there was finally a chance to take one off. As Aang tried to pay whatever final respects he could, Sokka gently lifted the thick leather straps away from the head of one of the earthbenders, and his swordtip cut through it smoothly. The mask rolled to the side, opening like an unlocked door turning on its hinge.

    And Sokka stared.

    Aang stood with grim finality, patted Appa on the nose. Sokka didn't notice. Whatever Aang said came to him so distantly it was as if he was listening through water. It took great effort to convince his tongue to move.

    "Aang... you should... you should see this."

    And Aang walked over, and did.

    There was not a face behind the mask. There was flesh, and eyes, and a mouth, but the face had been stripped away. Black eyes, beetle-like in their gleaming, were set in skin that had lost all identity. No long eyelashes, no eyebrows, no gently slanted eyelids – no eyelids at all, in fact. There was a mouth without lips or anything that would even vaguely identify a person. Opening, perhaps, instead of mouth – just a gaping hole with tendrils of broken flesh still sticking the two together. And it did not have a nose, but just two slits for air. No identity. No face. Nothing behind the mask.

    Aang's jaw set even after they were silent for a very long few moments.

    "Sokka," he finally said, tone quiet. "I think I know who might be partially behind this. And I think we're going to need more than just the two of us. Do you mind a stop by Kyoshi Island to see if Suki will come along?"

    "Not at all."
  14. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Fracture

    [IMG]

    "...Toph?"

    Katara had never heard Zuko's voice so quiet, so vulnerable. It became especially unnerving when his voice began to tremble.

    "K... Katara?"

    Something in his tone bothered her deeply. It stuck in her mind like a fishbone in some nobleman's throat, but now was not the time to cough and gag around it. Now was not time for anything but fighting.


    She dodged back – the space in front of her exploded into rock and dirt. Maybe Toph's line of jagged stone managed to lash out and at least partially free Zuko from his bonds, but there wasn't any time to find out. The masked leader was brutally pushed aside, flung across the room by Toph's earthbending, and Katara had to admit she was more than a little disappointed that he managed to stop before he became a smear on the opposite wall. There was barely enough water in their canteens to make a proper water whip, but it was at least something – the air down here was so damnably dry it was almost like they knew she was coming.

    That also bothered her deeply, but there was no time for that thought, either.


    Mask to her left – she whipped around the water by her fingertips, delivering a solid stunning blow. Toph led the charge, bending even as she ran. "Exit's this way!" Toph called out. Katara didn't object. They would figure out how to get all of them out soon enough, but for right now -

    She barely dodged, the stone spike rushing past her head to bury itself in the glowing panel on the wall. It fractured the light, casting it at odd angles, and in frustration Katara ripped off her mask while smoothly fending off another rush of guards. The narrow hallways bought them a little time, but only just. It was a maze they didn't have a map to, and they had to keep running, blindly rounding corners.


    It would have been much easier if one of the guards had shouted, but they remained completely silent. No words yelled between them, no strategy called out between two groups. It was almost as if they moved of one accord without need for words. "I think -" Toph was panting. "I know the layout – it goes in a circle – maybe." More heavy footsteps down a corridor to the left. One patrol may be down but another was well on its way. With a solid kick, Toph managed to dislodge a door, and they ducked into the closet, trying to catch their breaths.

    "What... what now?"

    "Don't know." Toph gasped. The closet didn't have anything much to offer them – a few long and rusted halberds, but that would at least be something. "If it's a circle..." Toph drew in the air with her finger. "We can double back. Grab Zuko. Get out of her and never have to come back."

    "You sure?"

    "Yeah. Absolutely." It was a risky plan, but it was hard to figure out a plan that wasn't risky at this point. With all the guards bearing down on them, footsteps heavy in the hall, there were few seconds to consider, but they both grabbed the rusted halberds. "If it's sort of like spokes on a wheel, we can split up. Divert them. Meet back up at Zuko then go fight our way out together."

    "Toph, I'm not sure -"

    "C'mon, Fussybritches, we'll be fine. On my count -" She grabbed the rusty halberds, grinning in a way that was perhaps a little too excited, though it was a relief to see her face instead of the masks they had been using moments before. "One, two... THREE!" She yelled, and both of them spun out of the closet, tossing the halberds out. Toph brought her hand out in a wide arc, metalbending sending the blades of the halberds out with deadly accuracy. Even as the weapons slipped through the guts of the patrolmen, pinning one down on the floor, they didn't cry out.

    That bothered Katara in the extreme, though there was no time to do anything about it. Instead they sprinted, leaping over the bodies like gazelles, carefully finding their footing but keeping up an unrelenting pace. The wide arc of the hallway opened up into a large room that gave Katara pause in some inexplicable way, but stairs coiled around the walls, leading up to a catwalk connected it to another room. "Go!" Toph shouted, and Katara had to admit that she had the voice of a natural leader: her feet were obeying Toph before her head knew what she was doing. She kept moving, leaping up the stairs. "We'll meet up through there, keep going! I'll -" Another group of guards rushed into the room, and Toph spun on her feet, reading in a square stance, setting her jaw in a grim smile.

    It fell off her face as hidden pistons in the floor squirted something slick onto the tiles. Toph tried to dodge, ended up slipping – she cursed with a ferocity Katara hadn't heard before. Katara knew she was supposed to be running but she had to pause a moment to look. This patrol was headed by someone in a slightly different mask... someone with a crimson mark on the edge of their eye. She didn't understand the significance until the world went up in flames.

    They leapt as high as the row of stairs she was on, terrifyingly close, and Toph screamed in shrill agony. The oil on her feet was the perfect conduit for the flames, and she stumbled forward, trying to catch herself with her hands. Katara whipped the water around her wrist and instinctively sent it crashing down. It quenched the flames, but Toph was still screaming, blinded in earnest now. There was nothing to do but run. Adrenaline was making her head pound. There had to be some way to make this work – with Zuko's help they could double back, or...

    As she ducked into the next large room, rushing across the catwalk, she slid to a stop. It was a mirror of the previous, but very much occupied. Another squad of guards stared up at her, white faces blank, all dressed alike in their drab uniforms. Their red-lipped leader was there, hands quietly clasped in front of him.

    On his knees, in the center, was Zuko. He was still bound in chains, still bleeding from the shoulder, and two of the guards were holding his hair back. Others were holding him down. More importantly, at least three swords were at his throat.

    "Ah, Master Katara. Please think about your next step carefully."

    She was already halfway down a stair, and paused, balance shaky. There was no more water to be had – it had gone to extinguish that threatening Toph. Perhaps she would be able to resort to Bloodbending, but such a group all at once...

    One of the swords pressed a little closer at Zuko's neck. He grunted as a thin line of blood was drawn from the tender skin.

    Their leader stepped forward. "First, we must introduce ourselves properly, yes? Only hospitable. You may call me the Prophet, Master Katara, for that is what I am. Now you can properly understand..." He gestured lazily to Zuko as he was forced to kneel on the stone floor, trapped in-between all of the steel. "If you take a step further, I will have them slit the Firelord's throat. All of them, in fact. A great many cuts, even for a master healer, wouldn't you say?" There was a smile underneath that mask that she couldn't see. "But if you come quietly, both of you will live. A very generous offer."

    Zuko gulped, adam's apple bobbing underneath one of the swords. "Katara -" His voice was hoarse, but earnest. "Please – go -" He nearly gagged with one of the swords digging in close. "Run!" He was desperately pleading. It was the begging tone that made her look deeply in his amber eyes.

    Katara thought they hadn't broken him, not yet, but the look in his eyes was that of someone who had given up. A stranger instead of the stubborn youth Katara had known. There was only one thing to do – only one possible course of action.

    Very carefully, she lifted her hands over her head, sliding down to kneel. Even as Zuko continued to call out for her to run, she let the guards grab her upper arms, and let the iron shackles be bound on her wrists. In the other room, she could hear the guards binding Toph even as she screamed and shouted profanities. The Prophet's smooth voice was full of a triumphant glow.

    "Thank you for your cooperation, Master Katara. We do so look forward to working with you."
  15. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Emotional Liability

    --

    Sokka was glad his mind was preoccupied, otherwise he was fairly sure that he would have started an international incident by now.
    His thoughts hadn't stopped churning since they hit Kyoshi Island. Suki's face had been grim beneath her makeup and it didn't take long for them to figure out why the Kyoshi Warriors were mustering with such stern expressions. Things had gone horribly, horribly wrong while they were away. Actually, that was a bit of an understatement.

    Appa had chafed underneath the weight somewhat, but was now being thoroughly pampered. The Kyoshi Warriors were providing crucial reinforcements around the Imperial Palace – not that there were many of them, but it was more a figurehead than anything else. It was half practicality and half politics and all of it was making Sokka's temper shorter by the minute. Of course, with their uniforms and stark makeup, the Kyoshi Warriors were a powerful symbol that the Earth Kingdom stood with the Fire Nation. Already things were tense despite overwhelming evidence that the Earth King had not sanctioned or known about such attacks, and Sokka didn't entirely blame them, seeing how the Palace was still in a miserable state. A few highly adept Earthbenders had come with them, but one entire wing was on the brink of collapse, and the very foundation around the main hall had been shattered. It was an architect's nightmare. Sokka was fairly sure he had seen an architect sobbing haplessly into his sleeves, actually. Or maybe it was just a brother or father of one of the many lost soldiers. Hard to tell.

    Already Suki had gathered together the remaining recruits for a training exercise, and they had barely been on the ground for a full four hours. But those that remained were painfully young and inexperienced. Aang quietly explained the situation to Suki, and it became clearer in Sokka's mind: all of the palace guard was so young because only the newer recruits did not have strong ties to Ozai's regime. Every older guard so close to the Firelord had to be carefully tested and vetted, and even then, Captain Deshi was the youngest of his rank in the entire Fire Nation armed forces.

    Sokka could feel the tension in the air as the nobility filtered through the broken palace. He understood placing a high value on stocicism in the face of danger, but it was absurd how many of them seemed to not care that their Firelord had been first poisoned and now kidnapped. Some of them even sounded glad. Anyone could see that there were plenty waiting in the corners of the room for the news that Zuko was dead so that they could swiftly usurp the throne from his daughter. There had already been the unpleasant bitterness in the air when Zuko took the throne, a threat of civil war, but now the stench was just growing stronger.

    At least nobody had outright tried to kill Mei Lien yet, Sokka thought grimly. Taking a bite out of the silver sandwich and all that.

    He was furious, but there was nobody to specifically lay blame on. General Iroh was trying his damndest to keep the nobility in line, and for the most part succeeding, even if he could barely walk. And Captain Deshi looked so close to a nervous breakdown that at least three different members of the Kyoshi Warriors had decided he needed to be hugged... but what else could they truly do for a man so worn down by writing letters to grieving families and trying to take in the sudden influx of fresh hew faces in their ranks?

    ...and when had all of the new recruits suddenly become so young, anyway?

    At least Sokka had those thoughts to preoccupy him. Otherwise it was fairly certain that the two nobles standing nearby would have been chucked into the wide pond below the decorative bridge a long time ago.

    Maybe it was because Sokka gave some vague grunt when preoccupied with his own thoughts, but the nobleman had latched onto him and now would not stop talking. His admittedly very pretty daughter standing beside him didn't even help, because she was so pretty it became tacky again. Also because she was busy fishing out a flower petal from inbetween her ample cleavage. Then sniffing her finger to check on her own boob-sweat. Not that charming.

    "...simply a disgrace that our dear Firelord is wasting the prime of his life like this," the noble blustered. "Not kidnapped, of course. But alone! There hasn't been any shame in the title for decades – Imperial concubines are a well-respected tradition!" Sokka winced. Now he was actually half-listening, if only to remember his quiet shame when, just before Zuko's coronation, he had spent time ogling all of the very beautiful women moving out of the palace only to be told by Zuko that they were his father's whores and they most certainly would not be coming back (nor would they even look in his direction if they could help it). Apparently having a small harem was one of the supposed perks of being Firelord. "It took us months – months! - to even be invited to the Imperial Palace, and now this..." The noble sighed and shook his head as if this was a personal inconvenience for him. "But I'm sure with your influence, Master Sokka, this trip wouldn't be in vain...?"

    Oh spirits, he'd said Sokka's name. Now they were both looking at him expectantly, and he gave a nervous grin. "I'm guessing you're about to ask me for a favor."

    "Oh, an exceedingly minor one," the nobleman gushed. "Just that you could convince General Iroh to let us stay until the Firelord returns! I'm sure that once he sees my precious Anyu, he will certainly be smitten." The girl fluttered her eyelashes at him coquettishly. "And the Firelord deserves to be surrounded with beautiful things, of course, to cultivate tranquility and wisdom in the mind – what better than to start with a beautiful girl to cure his loneliness?"

    Sokka stared at them flatly. The girl's wide brown eyes flicked away for half a moment; there was something distinctly bovine about them, as if she clearly wasn't interested in doing much thinking for herself at all. But her gaze was caught by a small blur of color across the gardens. Sokka recognized the sound of the crying: Mei Lien.

    And the hopeful concubine muttered something underneath her breath about ' that wretched child'.

    "You know, I don't think you're going to be his type. At all."

    The two stared at him in shock at being so bluntly turned away. Color drained from the nobleman's face as his obvious attempt to grab more power failed. "Well... I'm sure that perhaps even you are enchanted by my daughter? I suppose she must seem rather exotic -"

    "I'm engaged. And she's also not my type." Sokka, to his credit, kept up a bland smile. "Follow General Iroh's orders, and get out of the palace." A moment's pause. "Or I'll chase you out myself. Your choice."

    The nobleman huffed something about 'water tribe savages' and they both stormed off, noses in the air. It was finally a moment of peace, and Sokka bowed his head, sighing as he braced himself against the railing of the small bridge. At least the extensive gardens were largely untouched. Blossoms hung on trees, mimosa ferns starting to curl their leaves for their nightly sleep. In a small terrace nearby, a gamelan ensemble had spread out their instruments and started to practice. The soft chiming building into complex melodies was relaxing, even if it was incongrouous to the rest of their surroundings.

    Sokka's head hurt. He let it drop into his hands, rubbed at his eyes, finally stood tall with a sigh. There were too many things clattering around in it, to the point of making him dizzy. Mostly there was frustration and bitterness, and nobody to direct it to, and that was clouding his thoughts. So many problems that he couldn't fix.

    Well, maybe he could fix one.

    Princess Mei Lien had lodged herself in a tree, and her nursemaid stood at the bottom, looking near tears. "Please, Princess, come down!"

    "No!" She sobbed, giving the tree a kick. A flutter of cherry blossoms fell to the ground, and the nurse looked increasingly vexed. Sokka ambled over, watching the two as the nurse pleaded and cajoled and the princess steadfastly remained up in the tree. As he put a hand on the nurse's shoulder, she flinched and nearly screamed – Sokka didn't blame her in the least for being so twitchy – but he gave her a quick, reassuring smile.

    "It's okay. I think I've got this."

    Even as Mei Lien snuffled and sobbed quietly into the sleeves of her elegant dress, Sokka hoisted himself up, pulling himself onto the first branch, then another, then another. After a day of riding quietly on Appa's back and then pacing in-between meetings, the physical exertion was a relief. The small girl barely even looked up as he sat nearby, opting instead to bury her head in her sleeves as she cried.

    "Hey, Princess."

    She glanced up just enough to see him and gave a sticky sniff. "Hi." It was hard to tell if she really said the word at all, or merely curled her lips around it.

    Sokka chewed on the inside of his cheek. Well, he hadn't really thought about what to say next. 'What's wrong' sounded far too condescending. Of course Sokka knew what was wrong. Mei Lien's home was half in rubble, her grand-uncle was severely injured, and her father was in enemy hands. It was hard to think of an upside to that, especially if you were five years old and your world was rather small.

    "You can go 'way now," Mei Lien whispered a little more loudly, saving Sokka from having to try and continue the conversation alone.

    "What was that?"

    "I said go 'way," she whined, hugging her knees. "I don't wanna talk."

    "I was just going to watch the sunset," Sokka said innocently.

    She raised her head, staring him down almost accusingly. "No, you're trying to get me to talk," Mei Lien huffed. "I just wanna be up here. You don't need to – to -" The child drew in a hiccupy breath. "T-try and teach me how to fight b-because it won't matter! I wasn't even brave enough to help Daddy!" Her voice rose to a chrescendo, and then finally broke into ugly sobs.

    So that, out of everything, was what bothered her the most. Sokka understood far more than he would have liked to, and tried not to think about how he had been so convinced that if he had just been a little quicker, a little braver, a little stronger, he could have done something to help save his mother...

    "You're plenty brave."

    "N-no I'm not!"

    [IMG]

    "Yeah, you are." Maybe it was the sad tone of his voice that caught her attention, but she looked up. "One of the bravest things somebody can do is keep on going." This momentarily silenced her, or at least brought her sobbing down to a dulled and muffled weeping as she tried to figure out what he meant. But Sokka quickly put on a smile, extending a hand out to her. "And anyway, I've got something super important that I could use your help on. Super important, and you're just the person for the job." That definitely caught her attention, and Sokka couldn't help hamming it up a bit as he leaned in and dropped his voice to a stage whisper. "Avatar Aang's sky bison is really tired, and sore, and lonely, and I think you're just the person to help me cheer him up. Will you come feed him some treats while I work on brushing out all his fur?"

    Princess Mei Lien bit her lip for a moment before mumbling a very quiet "okay".

    The late summer sunset was nearly finished by the time they were anywhere near done. Sokka had only brushed out half of Appa's long coat, but this still managed to produce a lump of shed fur enough for Mei Lien to hide in. Most of the time she spent petting Appa's forehead, initial reservations melting away with Appa's first friendly lick. She still sniffed every so often as if her nose wouldn't let her forget about how she had been crying, but for at least a little while, she was merely a happy little girl.

    Suki wandered up to stand hip to hip with him as Mei Lien sleepily waved goodbye, her nursemaid carrying her off to go tuck her into bed. All of them looked exhausted. Suki had spent long, hard hours drilling the new palace guards, trying to figure out how to defend the new points of weakness, and she showed it, her hair coming down out of its elegant headpiece. But her arm reached around Sokka's waist, and he returned the gesture, smiling as he squeezed her hip.

    "I didn't know you were so good with kids," Suki teased softly. "Keep that up and you'll make me want to have, oh, about fifty of them."

    "Fifty?" He raised an eyebrow, grinning. "Can I talk you down to around thirty?"

    "Mmm... okay, you've convinced me." For a moment they simply smiled at each other before leaning in for a well-deserved, long kiss. Whatever else may happen, they had each other, and that was a considerable comfort.

    ...even if Suki did promptly swat him over the head for that grope he managed to sneak in.

    And the sun snuck a little lower in the sky.

    It was sunset in earnest by the time Ty Lee was truly free from her duties. As a personal friend of the former queen and a Fire Nation citizen by birth, she held an odd status in the Kyoshi Warriors, ending up as the liaison between the two groups all day. It was exhausting work, of course, but a job Ty Lee was happy to do. It was good to be useful, it was even better to be needed. But now she was very tired. She had washed off all of the traditional makeup. She had hung up her Kyoshi Warrior uniform so that it could air out overnight. She had taken her hair down out of the headpiece and braided it simply like she used to do. And now she was wearing a simple dress as she shuffled out into and past the palace gardens.

    The dress had been Mai's. Ty Lee guessed it fit well enough. She was so used to hand-me-downs in her overly large family, anyway, that it didn't make all that much of a difference. It was a simple and beautiful thing, dipped many times in different dyes; pale orange-peach tickled her feet, gradually moving through blues until midnight darkness sat around her shoulders. A perfect mirror of the sunset going on behind her. Ty Lee thought she probably would have been very striking, if anyone was around to see her, but nobody was. In the crook of her arm she held a large bunch of flowers, and in her hands, a small fruit tart.

    The Royal Cemetery was a fairly good walk while still being on Palace grounds. It was an opportunity to shuffle along through all the flowers and take her time. Ty Lee always thought that flowers seemed so much like nature smiling at her, so she smiled back, beaming in her usual enthusiasm. But her smile started to slip off her face as she entered the gate to the Royal Cemetery, and walked down the elegant edged pathway to her destination. She knew the characters well, but she still reached out to touch the gold letters spelling out the name on the elegant black obelisk of a headstone. Instead she propped the flowers up in their holder and noted that there was already a fresh bunch there (no doubt Firelord's orders, still being kept) and then crouched down.

    "Hi, Mai."

    She smiled at the black obsidian and her reflection smiled back at her. "I met your daughter today! Well, I met her again now that she can say hi and remember me, I guess. She's so pretty, Mai. And she's just like you!" Ty Lee laughed a little, looking at the fruit tart she had been carrying. "See, I wasn't even able to get this tart before she took a great big piece of it for herself. Oh, and her hair's grown out so long and pretty! She even wears it with bangs in the front -" Ty Lee gestured excitedly to her own forehead. "She looks so much like you, Mai."

    Ty Lee paused before giving a little sniff. "Things are... things are pretty bad right now," she admitted, her voice going quiet before she laughed again, this time far more sadly. "I guess that's how you know it's really bad. Didn't you say that once? That when I start saying it's bad it's time to panic, or something? Well... yeah. Something. Anyway, I'm not panicking." She drew in a deep breath and smiled. "I'm going to do all I can to put things right! I'll have the new palace guard whipped into shape in no time. And I bet these – whoever they are who have taken Zuko – I bet they've never seen any chi-blocking attacks before. It'll be easy. So you don't need to worry."

    She paused and looked down at the fruit tart in her hands. Originally her plan had been to have a bit of a snack, as if Mai was really there to eat with her. But now all Ty Lee could do was set it down at the base of the headstone, withdrawing her hands and tucking them in her sleeves. The very distant sound of the gamelan ensemble echoed out over the gardens, the ringing notes oddly mournful now that the sun was retreating below the horizon. The air was stagnant and heavy with the scent of jasmine and roses. Ty Lee hadn't brought incense, just the fruit tart. She liked to think she knew Mai well enough that she would find the sweet custard and fresh fruit more appealing.

    Ty Lee hated it when she cried. She hated it with a passion. She knew it made her face go red and scrunch up, and she knew it made snot run from her nose, and she knew she gave a terrible little whine when she sobbed and tried to take in a breath. Most importantly crying wasn't a happy thing to do, and Ty Lee always tried so hard to be the joyful. Being gloomy was Mai's thing, after all, and she had done it so stylishly. Ty Lee had been there to be quick with a smile and a joke to make the rest of them smile, too. That was what she did. And if she couldn't even make herself smile, what was the use of that?

    Her lip trembled dangerously and she tried looking anywhere else, but the tears were already forming in her eyes, and as she glanced at Mai's name on the headstone they spilled out onto her cheeks. She choked back a sob in a snuffling manner and held a sleeve up to her mouth as if to keep each cry in.

    "I miss you," she finally admitted, voice going squeaky as it broke. "I miss you a lot, Mai, even if you thought I was annoying or – or stupid, I don't know. It's just hard being here, around everything, I guess."

    She frowned, failing to choke back another sob. "Everyone forgets that you were my friend, too."

    Kyoshi Island had never seemed like the appropriate place to cry about Mai's death. Maybe the others noticed how Ty Lee got quiet at the same time every year, but she had tried so hard to let those tears stay on Fire Nation soil. Around the other Kyoshi Warriors she had to bring smiles and laughter, because that was her proof that they all tolerated this weird Fire Nation girl. Maybe they even liked her, and that sense of belonging was something Ty Lee craved so badly it hurt.

    But with the Imperial Palace in the distance, and the shadows of the cemetery all blending in to one another, and the wind carrying familiar scents and tunes of home, Ty Lee bowed her head and let herself sob.
  16. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Endoskeleton

    --

    Toph let her head drop for a few moments before gritting her teeth and letting a long breath out between pursed lips.
    This hadn't gone as well as she expected.

    That was an expertly made trap. She had to give them credit for that. With the oil spouts and the firebender, it was perfectly tailored to her. Surely it would have been effective for others, as well, but right now her hands ached and her feet tingled in furious pain.

    There was some small comfort in that she was given ample opportunity to showcase one of her new talents that had come with adulthood. Toph counted, among her many accomplishments, making a grizzled pirate faint dead away from shock at the force and fury of her cursing. So far these guards weren't taking any of the bait, no matter how long she had gone on about what she was going to do to their mothers. Still, it felt good. And it gave her something to do. She could tell they were pushing her sturdy wooden crate along, and they had been doing so for hours. Inland, maybe? It was nearly impossible to tell, and she had lost almost all sense of direction, as if being underground wasn't bad enough. Usually she was able to at least have a vague sense of where north was – a dull tingle on the edge of her senses for the magnetic poles. But now...

    She had forgotten how terrifying it was to be truly blind.

    Rocks and earth still spoke to her, but dully, dimly, and painfully. There would be several days of painful blisters and then likely far many more of tender skin. She couldn't afford to be frightened. Maybe days and days from now she would cradle a cup of tea Iroh made for her and take in a deep breath of the steam and allow herself to admit how much she hated the reminder of what being blind meant for everyone else. But right now...

    Toph aimed another jackrabbitlike kick at the side of the box, giving a half-scream of irritation that quickly became a rush of cursing. Oh, she'd misjudged that kick. Splinters. Definitely splinters. She could feel each molecule. And yet the wall of the crate hadn't even begun to crack. Something was bracing it... Toph let her head fall back in irritation, feeling her throat begin to constrict a little. No. Absolutely no time for tears. She had done all her crying long before.

    [IMG]

    Finally there were voices outside. After hours of oppressive silence, it was a relief. "...Yes, sir. We'll execute these orders immediately, sir." A pause. "Bow, you idiot. Respect your betters!"

    "Yeah! Respect your betters!" Toph barked out. "And since I'm far better than you are, let me out of here!"

    One of the guards snickered underneath his breath. "Hey, give me the scroll."

    "You can read it just fine where you are. Stop talking back or both of us will never be proper disciples." A sigh. Toph gritted her teeth, content to momentarily listen. "Huh. We're just supposed to keep her, then. She won't break until the others do, apparently."

    "Which cell, sir?"

    "Toss her in with the old hag. Maybe the cold will help her shatter." Both of them laughed. Toph frowned deeply, trying to roll to the side to hear better. But the crate tilted and shifted, throwing her off-balance, and she gave a strangled grunt of anger. The murmured banter between the two guards was lost to her before she felt the crate hitting the ground again, sliding along. Cold started to seep into the crate through the slats. "How are we going to play this?"

    "Just like letting a wild armadillo-lion out, I'd imagine. Loosen it up and let her finish breaking out the rest of the way once we're safely on the other side of the bars." They laughed grimly. Her cheek was pressed up against the wood – she could feel the vibrations of some reinforcements snapping away, leaving just the panel of wood between her and freedom. A hasty retreat – the sound of cell doors rattling shut. Toph let another huff roll out of her. Something outside shifted, the soft whisper of cloth. Toph didn't let that stop her, and she aimed another solid punch, driving splinters into her hands but cracking the wood in a satisfying manner.

    "Do... you need help?" A new voice – an older woman's – very small, rough in a way that suggested she was out of practice speaking at someone directly. Toph didn't answer, not when she was a few more punches away from freeing herself. Bloody knuckles were an acceptable sacrifice for self-reliance.

    "Hnngh!" Another, then another, then fresh cold air came through the crack. The panel splintered apart and Toph rolled out. The other woman skittered away from her in a frightened rush. The room was near-freezing – Toph's mind immediately leapt to Zuko and Sokka's narration of their time at the Boiling Rock, in the special cell reserved for firebenders. So the old woman must be a firebender. Very likely, anyway. But that meant that the floor was pleasantly chilly, and she immediately gave a long sigh of relief, pressing her palms and soles of her feet onto the stone.

    The other woman's voice again, very small and quiet. "Are you all right, dear?"

    "Toph! My name is Toph Beifong!" She snapped in instinctive anger before catching herself. It had been years since she had been called 'dear', and it was almost always followed by one of her parents ranting about how she was small, tiny, defenseless and weak and being amazed at all she had done despite this when, really, it didn't feel like she had done itdespite anything. But... that word had been said with genuine soft concern. If she had anger, she should spend it against their captors. Not another captive. "S... sorry. I'm sorry."

    "It's quite all right. I'm sure you have plenty of reason to be angry." Fear. This woman was afraid of Toph. Damn. Not what she had intended at all.

    Toph took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, lifting her aching hands up. "No, I was... out of line. Let me try this again. ...I'm Toph Beifong." A long pause. Usually people gave a gasp or an interested little noise at this, but she didn't. Perhaps she had been in here for longer than Toph expected. "And you...?"

    "Guifu. At least, that's what they've all gotten used to calling me around here," she said, voice soft and sad. Toph frowned. She knew the term. It usually was reserved, mockingly, for the old women begging for pennies on the gates to the upper reaches of each city. On its face, it meant a rich old woman, but the term had become far more sly and cruel over the years.

    "It's... good to meet you then, Giufu."

    "Likewise." Her voice remained very soft. "I can help you with the splinters on your hands, if you like...?"

    "Thank you." The older woman's hands were surprisingly soft, even if dry, and her long fingers were distinctly delicate. "And I'm sorry – again. I'll be a better conversation partner once my hands stop hurting quite so badly." Toph gritted her teeth as another pinprick came from her palm, yet another splinter out.

    "Your name – Beifong – you're from the Earth Kingdom?" A soft and quiet attempt to start conversation. Toph went with it.

    "Yes, I am. And an earthbender. And metalbender," she almost gloated. "Whenever I get out of here, I swear to all the spirits that these people, whoever they are, will pay. And – I'm sorry."

    "It's understandable to be angry in our situation, Miss Beifong."

    "Just... Toph. Toph is fine." A sharp wince – another splinter gone. The quiet rustle of cloth. Toph focused on taking in another breath and letting it out. The cold was starting to get to her, now. Pinpricks and needles working their way into her fingertips and the tip of her nose. This was going to get aggravating very quickly. "How long have you been here, if you don't mind me asking?"

    "A very long time," Guifu said softly. "But my complaining isn't very good conversation. Please, tell me about yourself. Or what has happened in the world. The guards got tired of talking to me long ago."

    Well. She had taken off a scarf, or something to that effect, and was now quietly wrapping Toph's hands up in them. There was the sound of cloth being delicately ripped. It was rough muslin made softer by years and years of use, threadbare but at least no longer scratchy. And although there was no soothing salve, it was at least something to keep her knuckles from bleeding onto the icy stone. "I suppose they haven't told you even about Avatar Aang bringing peace between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom?"

    Guifu's hand halted, and Toph cursed how blind the burns made her. If she had been able to see – or feel, rather – she would have noticed the older woman's shock by how her heartbeat suddenly jumped in pace, or how her expression changed. But with the burns obscuring her senses all Toph knew was that she wasn't alone in the small, cold cell. "No... no, they haven't. There's truly peace? Even with Firelord Ozai's rule?" Something very delicate in her voice – a strained sort of hope.

    "Oh, Ozai was deposed a long time ago. Aang took away his firebending, in fact," she said, perhaps a little smugly. "I was there. Well, not right there. But I got to enjoy the look on his face afterwards." The cloth was helping. The cold was helping. And if there was someone else in here with her, that meant that the guards had dropped an ally right into her lap. "His son Zuko was crowned Firelord shortly after."

    Guifu's hands paused again. "If I could beg a favor of you – could you please... tell me a bit about what has happened?" That fragile hope in her voice again, mixed with an odd desperation.

    "I'm always happy to brag about myself," Toph said slyly. "I guess I should start at the beginning, though. I got dragged into this mess about the time I was defending my title as a earthbender champion... the Blind Bandit, y'know... I thought of the name myself, but anyway. Just when I was about to celebrate my victory, this little bald twerp enters the ring..."

    And she continued.

    By the time she had gotten to the defeat of Phoenix King Ozai, her hands and feet were long since bandaged, and they were even interrupted by a guard tossing two bowls of quickly-cooling, thin gruel into the cell before Toph got to the end. "...and so now I'm here, I suppose. Not for long. And what about you, Guifu?"

    With her hands and feet firmly resting on the floor, Toph could almost sense the sad smile with her usual clarity. "Nothing much of any importance."

    "Well, you must have done something before you were tossed in here."

    She was quiet for a moment. "I had a family. I don't anymore. It's not a spectacular or exciting story, I assure you." A long sigh rolled out of her. "But if I remember any funny stories, I'll be sure to let you know."

    "You, ah... you don't have to. Didn't mean to pry." Social graces had never really been Toph's strong suit – she greeted people with punches, so what did they expect, really? But this was a more delicate situation than even she was used to. "What are the bars made of to this cell? Metal? Because if it's metal -"

    "They're reinforced with metal, I believe," Guifu said. "But they're... ivory. Or bone." Her voice grew even smaller. "The guards here train for years to learn how to bend it. I didn't think it was even possible until I saw one of them do as such."

    "People said it was impossible to bend metal, too." Toph grunted as she stood up, going to delicately feel the bars of their prison. Firm and slightly porous to the touch, though so reinforced that it was rigid and unyielding. "How many years do they have to train?"

    "I'm not sure. A lifetime, it seems like. They're all earthbenders, but -"

    A wolfish, wide grin crossed Toph's face. "Well, let's see. I figured out the impossible in an afternoon, so..." Every touch hurt, but it brought with it dearly-needed information as she gripped the bars.

    "Give me about three days. That sounds about right. Three days... absolute maximum."
  17. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    The Marrow of the Matter

    "You... should have run."
    It had taken Zuko a few very long minutes to actually manage to struggle out the words. The guards had stared Katara down for what seemed like ages before, finally, more of them dragged Zuko in. He was obviously exhausted, but was still struggling weakly against their grip. At the last moment he turned his head to spit in one of their masked faces – a desperate and primal gesture of defiance. Then they flung him into the cell catacorner to her own, and she could barely see him where he had slumped up against the nearest wall to her.

    "I was expecting a warmer hello," Katara grumbled, snapping out of anxiousness. "And I'm not leaving without you, either." She tried to press herself against the bars, reaching out for him. "Come on. Give me your hand."

    His answer was cut off in a series of rough, desperate coughs. Katara's voice grew a little more strained. "Zuko, give me your hand. It'll make it easier for me to heal what I can."

    "...No."

    "What do you mean, no?" There was more anger in her voice than she realized.

    "It's what they want." His voice was rough. "They're keeping you here... just to keep me alive. Let me go -"

    "What? No! I won't -"

    "Then you'll be... free to go." Another few deep breaths. He was in pain – that much was obvious. Katara's mouth drew in a thin frown. "Soundest strategy."

    "I think you're forgetting that we can still escape. Now give me your hand!"

    Silence.

    She stretched her hand out through the bars, groping for him. Her fingers stretched over the cold stone. He didn't answer immediately, so Katara let her voice become soft and pleading. "Zuko, this... isn't you. I don't know who you are anymore." No malice or accusation, just an observation. "Because the Zuko that I know – that I met – never gave up for anything, or anyone. Not even when success seemed impossible. ...Not even when I chewed him out again and again about how much I didn't trust him."

    This brought forth a short gasp of a laugh.

    "And besides, if you end up dying on me, I swear I'll get Aang to go into the spirit world and find you – Air Nomad philosophy has a lot to say about the sanctity of life, but it's a little fuzzier about the sanctity of kneecaps." Another soft laugh. Katara let her voice grow quieter and kinder. "Give me your hand, Zuko." Her fingertips stretched out towards him again. With great effort, he managed to snake his hand across the floor, out between the bars to grasp her own. The physical contact made it easier to at least do what she could for him – to clean up the abrasions, heal over the cuts, maybe coax the bruises into something less painful. And it was a relief to feel his heartbeat thudding at the pulse-point of his wrist. Perhaps even if his mind seemed ready to give up, his body was still fighting.

    "We'll figure out how to get out of here tomorrow," she whispered, knowing that the masked guards were still staring her down. "There has to be a way. I know there must be. And I'm not going back to Mei Lien and your uncle to tell them that you're gone." She squeezed Zuko's hand lightly, barely even aware of the action until he squeezed back. "Just... hold on until I can figure this out."

    She cleared her mind, taking a deep breath, leaving no room in her mind for words. Water flowed throughout the body, taking the same paths as chi, in organized lines. Never mind that in Zuko's case those organized lines currently made about as much sense as a pile of cooked noodles rolled into a tangled ball. But there were at least some rough edges she could correct immediately. Some good she could do.

    Instinctively, her grip on his fingers grew tighter even as his hand went progressively limp in relaxation.

    "Katara?" His voice was still rough, but at least now not as despondent or weak. "...Thank you."

    She couldn't do more than give a vague hum in reply, but he knew what she meant.

    [IMG]

    --

    [IMG]

    The temple was buried deep in the jungle, overgrown and half-ruined. All of the other temples had been carefully censored by the Fire Sages to remove any mention of Avatar Roku, save for the very briefest murals. So Suki could see the appeal of this place. This temple would have been old even to Roku. Instead its murals, worn down in stone, stood humbled by time and moss. They still told the story of the fire Avatar before Roku – Zahira the Shining.

    Suki liked her already. After all, Zahira had favored fighting fans, same as Kyoshi. It made her feel a little more at home.

    Under other circumstances, Suki would have appreciated the peacefulness of the place. Perhaps she didn't have Aang's spiritual sense, but there was something in the air here that made it seem like the wall between the physical and spirit world was a little thinner than usual. All of the animals of the jungle were busy calling to one another, each trill and howl and cry weaving into a tapestry of vibrant sounds. The few Fire Sages who still lived near the ruins – a mostly-defunct order of all women – were good cooks, and had promised their visitors a good dinner. Under other circumstances, Suki would have put her feet up and relaxed and been content to let Aang sort out the problems of the spirit world while she enjoyed the peace the physical realm provided.

    But the dispatch that had come this morning was still in Sokka's hands and he hadn't let go of it since. He had fought with Aang – a rarity – before the Avatar convinced him that they simply couldn't go charging in blind against such an enemy, not when he had such a worrisome hunch that the kernel of this corruption was in the spirit world and would not respond to all the sword slashes Sokka could manage. Sokka had even been snappish to Suki as he paced in tight circles and then stomped into the ruins to try to find a bit of peace. She knew him well enough now to gauge about when he would have cooled off, even if she still wore a quiet frown on her face.

    Sokka was there among the overgrown remains of a wall that had long since fallen, in the shade of where some very determined tree had grown up, over, and into the remaining wall and archway. In the distance, Aang was perched on the remaining intact tower, already deep in meditations – Suki could see the light glow of his tattoos as he made his way around the spirit world. The four goat-dragon heads carved into the sides of the tower remained on seemingly vigilant guard for his safety. Still, Suki was glad she had done another looping patrol over the area of the ruins.

    And Sokka still had the letter in his hands.

    He glanced up at her momentarily, hearing her footsteps, but his gaze was quickly dragged back down to the letter. She saw him pinch his nose in frustration as he laid it out over his thighs. Silently, she placed a hand on his shoulder, crouching down by him.

    "It's been three days, Suki."

    "I know."

    His voice was constricted in furious worry. "Three days since anyone has seen Katara. Or Toph. Or even a hint of them."

    Suki gently squeezed his shoulder. "I'm sure they're fine, Sokka. We've all been through worse. And besides, they're not alone out there – they have each other. I think a waterbending master and an earthbending master can look out for themselves." She tried to give him a cheerful smile, but he wasn't buying it, not even looking up at her. Instead his expression remained rather gloomy in worry.

    Gingerly, Suki sat down beside him properly, tucking her heels underneath her to sit on her knees. "Here. This just came by messenger hawk." He immediately perked up, and she internally winced – perhaps the wrong phrasing. "It's from the palace, not from Katara. But I thought it would cheer you up a little nonetheless."

    She had already broken the wax seal, and the letter itself was an intensely dry affair from Captain Deshi about the state of the palace's security. With such heavy repairs needing to be made, already Iroh was considering going on the move – especially since it was feasible to constantly go from port to port in a small and agile section of the royal navy. A moving target was harder to hit. But there was also a second part to the letter.

    Sokka frowned a little in confusion before a slow smile spread over his face. A child's clumsy attempt to make some sort of picture. Her tutor had obviously attempted to get her to paint some feminine and graceful cherry blossoms before the entire picture veered off into something completely different. It was certainly very colorful, but mostly Sokka could spot the turtle-duck whose feathers looked suspiciously like his hair. The artist's signature took up a good third of the piece, but Sokka didn't mind.

    "I didn't realize you looked so much like a turtle-duck, Sokka."

    "Well... Mei Lien does think my hair looks pretty stupid," he finally joked, a genuine smile coming over his face.

    At least they could be slightly more cheerful while they waited for Aang.
  18. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Parley to Parlay

    --

    Aang had long since learned that navigating the spirit world was not about physical endurance, but about willpower. It did mirror the physical in its own ghostly way, but once you knew how to do so, it was easy to let your feet slip over hundreds of miles with every step. Likely there was some part of a forest in the Earth Kingdom that housed a cave very similar to the one he had mentally marked as his destination, but Aang was in no hurry to pay Koh such a visit.
    Koh's realm was certainly dramatic as ever. The thick, swampy air was nearly smothering, and in the distance, some great creature stalked among the rocky spires. The faceless blue-nosed curly-tailed monkey stared him down, ghosting his steps along the path. Now that he was older and wiser, Aang recognized the thing for what it was – one of Koh's spies. It scampered up into the trees and disappeared.

    He was not expecting to meet someone on the path, but she was there nonetheless. The only polite thing to do was bow. "Avatar Kyoshi."

    "Avatar Aang." She inclined her head along with her fan before seeming to almost hide behind it as she spoke. Her eyes were cold and distant, and the breeze from her fan barely made the tassels on her headdress bob – but that was all the movement her face truly held. "This is a dangerous path you have chosen."

    "I know." He drew in a deep breath through his nose before offering her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "But it's the only path I can truly see to take. There's something very... wrong underneath all of this. And I think Koh is responsible."

    She did not smile – or frown, or raise an eyebrow. "Very well. But remember..." Her fan pointed towards him, almost accusingly. "Here you risk not only yourself, but the Avatar Spirit as well."

    "...I understand."

    Kyoshi did not reply, instead snapping her fan shut and turning her back to him. A few more steps and she dissolved into the mist. Aang frowned at his own fear starting to creep into his throat. Something about this visit was far more dangerous... or maybe he was just not as naiive as he had been before. Or perhaps that was not Kyoshi at all, but instead a trickster spirit sent to plant doubt in his mind.

    No use analyzing it when he had somewhere to be.

    The steps were just as worn as Aang remembered, leading down into a shadowy cavern. He concentrated on feeling each muscle in his face go slack, leaving his expression as truly neutral as possible. Something skittered in the darkness – many pairs of clawlike feet -

    "Koh."

    A grinning face on a centipede-like monstrous body leered at him. "So lovely to see you again, Avatar Aang. I wasn't expecting another visit from you so soon. After all..." The black and grey mask disappeared with a wink to be replaced by the face of a beautiful woman, her long brown hair unfurling and drifting as if to frame her pleasant countenance. "I already have one Avatar's water tribe beauty in my collection. I don't need another quite so soon." Koh twisted the woman's lips into a cruel smile before her face disappeared, replaced with the one stolen from the monkey outside. "Oh, my apologies. I forgot. She isn't yours any longer, now, is she?"

    Aang's hands clenched into fists, but as he took another deep breath, he let them relax and slacken. "I'm not here to speak of Katara. I want to know what you've done."

    "What I've done?" Koh clucked his tongue. "So accusing! Perhaps you merely need a friendlier face to talk to." A slick sound, and another face came to replace the monkey's. Cocky smile, tousled brown hair, sharp eyebrows, a sprig of some plant between his teeth... But something was terribly off. It was Jet's face, but his eyes had clouded over, and the flesh had started to decay. A maggot burst from his cheek, starting to crawl across to his eye. The smell of rot was thick on Koh's breath. "Here. Surely this is much better."

    Aang said nothing for a few long moments, focusing on keeping his face neutral. He couldn't help a bit of emotion filtering into his voice, making his tone oddly strangled and tense. "What have you done, and why do you have Jet's face?"

    "You're mistaken, Avatar. I've done nothing. This..." One of Koh's centipede-like legs went to tap Jet's face, brushing away the maggot. "Was a gift. People are so quick to say I steal faces when, in fact, I never do anything so crass. I am merely given them... by people who violate the rules of the game." Koh twisted Jet's face to show a cruel grin.

    "Koh... my friends are being attacked by faceless assassins." It was hard to say such words while keeping his face perfectly calm, but Aang managed. "I can only think of one spirit responsible."

    "Responsibility is such a slippery thing," Koh cooed. "But I have done nothing, Avatar. Nothing directly." Another wolfish, fanged smile. "At most I have acted as, oh... an official. A lawyer, if you will."

    "I'm here to make sure the attacks stop, Koh." He was grateful when Koh writhingly turned from him – Aang took the moment to bite his lip in frustration before returning his expression to slack and neutral once more.

    "I certainly cannot do that."

    "Why not?"

    Koh laughed. "I merely arranged for the contract to be written. I did not sign it – I cannot break it. I just happen to get... my cut, if you will." Jet's face retreated to be replaced with another, and another, and another – a steady multitude of stern and scarred faces, surely soldiers and criminals. "For the details, you will have to ask those who actually made the promises. And please..." A dark laugh rumbled from deep within him and echoed. "Don't think about doing anything as crass as trying to kill me. That will do absolutely nothing for your problem... and will likely end badly for you."

    Aang's nostrils barely flared, but he kept his eyebrows from furrowing. "So you won't help me?"

    "I never said that, either, Avatar." Koh grinned, skittering around the walls of the cave. A shaft of light cut through the darkness as the rock on a far wall lifted itself up. "If you are... truly intent on breaking this contract... there is your path. A dangerous one, of course. But there it is. And, even as a personal favor, I will wash my hands of this," Koh said, sounding almost amused. "I cannot refuse gifts, of course. That would simply be in bad taste. But I can promise no further involvement."

    There was a cold glint in Koh's eyes – no matter which face he wore – but now it was more apparent than ever. Kyoshi's warning sprung to mind. This helpfulness was no coincidence.

    But it was still the only path to the answers Aang needed.

    He bowed low to Koh, murmuring his thanks, before slipping out of the cave and back into the dim and diffused light. Thick jungle grew around him, and the ground was muddy underneath his feet.

    "Oh, and Avatar..." Koh's voice called to him, over his shoulder. "Good luck." A sing-song, mocking tone. Aang hadn't expected anything less, but it made him glad when the rock door to Koh's cave shut behind him and he finally felt he could frown in peace.

    And so he walked.

    The firmament of the Spirit World was something Aang knew innately in his bones. And now, something was off. Something was twisted. He could feel it, and it was setting his teeth on edge, making his shoulders tense. Off in the dense green forest some spirit animal gave a call, and something answered - the guardians of this jungle, perhaps?

    More importantly there was someone familiar in-between the trees, and Aang rushed forward.

    [IMG]

    He knew Zuko's face, even after all these years. It was hard to ignore the burn. Unlike the rest of the world around him - well, the spirit world, anyway - the way he appeared was slippery and delicate as if it didn't quite belong. More importantly it was damn surreal. A ghost of a chain was set into a hook in the forest floor, and led up to a thick collar that had been clamped on his neck. His long hair drifted around his face, caught in the water, and he groped helplessly upwards towards the treetops. He gasped, bubbles escaping his nose.

    "Zuko!"

    He wasn't real enough, wasn't solid enough for Aang to do anything. Instead he watched the Firelord's face move from desperation to a quiet and dull acceptance before the light behind his eyes was extinguished. Although Aang was in the middle of a forest, he understood the vision, and his heart clenched; he tried to reach to try and pull Zuko back, but there was nothing. Maybe it was too dispirited for the spirit world. Maybe it was somehow too real for the spirit world. Aang didn't know.

    He did know that the spirit - vision - whatever he wanted to call it… He did know that Zuko's face relaxed and gained an oddly waxy tone, the dull sightless and cloudy stare of a bloated corpse drifting in the water. Fish seemed to filter down from the trees to nibble at his fingertips and expose bone.

    Aang had to take a deep breath, calming himself, before reaching out again. Zuko's corpse drifted in front of him, still bobbing as if in water, chained there, but now his wrist was solid enough to hold onto - even if it was oddly slippery and soft. As he felt it, Aang stood a little straighter, and tried not to think about the consequences of Zuko slipping farther into the spirit world. Unless - it was a fierce and sudden hope -

    "Who are you?" The Avatar demanded quietly.

    At first the thing didn't respond, but instead turned his face, the invisible water swirling around him whipping his hair around him like writhing snakes. A fish came to nibble on his cheek even though the flesh had already begun to rot away. His voice was very familiar, though softer than Aang had perhaps ever heard before, and monotone.

    "I am Firelord Zuko. Don't you recognize me?"

    That was not the answer Aang was hoping for. The words were what he expected, but the tone was far too genuine. "What are you doing here? Your nation needs you -"

    "It will survive. Its people are strong." His eyes had completely clouded over, now, and a fish took another bite from his cheek, exposing bone. "This is a consequence for my weakness, Aang. They will find another, stronger, leader."

    "If not them, then - well – your daughter needs you!"

    "She will have Iroh. Perhaps Sokka, Katara. Perhaps even you. She will have a family of people who understand what it means to have a father instead of just a tyrant."

    There was something about the air, Aang couldn't understand it - something bitter and buzzing that made his head hurt. That same twisted feeling. A foundation built out of shifting sand. He couldn't think straight and a disgruntled growl came out of the back of his throat before he barked out the first desperate appeal that came to mind.

    "Then fight this for honor's sake, Zuko! I know you're stronger than this! I know you wouldn't give in to the dishonor of defeat so easily!"

    Zuko stared at him sightlessly. Another unseen current whipped ribbons of his black hair into his face.

    "Honor is a game for the living, Avatar. Surely you know that."

    "The Zuko I know wouldn't say such a thing." That buzzing in his head was only getting stronger. He couldn't think straight, but he had to keep trying to find something, some way to get through to Zuko. "And if you're not him… who areyou?"

    "I am Zuko, child of Ozai, son of Ursa, brother of Azula, nephew of Iroh, husband of Mai, father of Mei Lien." He recited in a monotone, as if by rote, before something finally seemed to change in his expression. Just a tiny twitch of an eyebrow to bring it out of exhausted acceptance. Maybe just a tiny glint in his eyes of amber-gold instead of pale milky death. "But… if you find out who I am, please tell me. I would very much like to know."

    "Zuko -" Aang called out his name even as the grip on his wrist became more and more ephemeral. "Zuko!" He was sure it echoed somehow in the spirit world, loud enough to be easily heard. But Zuko's hand drifting lifelessly in the unseen water was the last thing to go, dissolving like jaggery in tea, away from the spirit world back to… somewhere else.

    Aang stood in the forest clearing watching the fireflies for a few long moments before moving on and quietly hoping that the somewhere Zuko had slipped back to was the land of the living instead of something far worse.
  19. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    All Bets Are Off

    --

    Things were wrong in this forest. Terribly, terribly wrong.
    The Spirit World had its own rules in play, and Aang knew this more than anyone. But the landscape around him shifted and swayed as if only barely tethered to where he could reach out to it. This was a dangerous path, and he knew that from the gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach. One misstep and this would not be a happy ending for anyone, least of all him.

    But with the same damned certainty, he knew that the only way out was forward. Koh's cave had disappeared, melting away like salt in hot water, and now he was left with the churning landscape around him. The ground beneath his feet was spongey – on the edge of a marshland or swamp, surely – and the trees had shifted from proud oaks to mangroves with stately natural buttresses framing their thick trunks.

    One step, and then the next. Bit by bit. Aang had to remind himself through the haze in his mind that he could do this. It was the only way out to reality once more – and beside that compelling reason, he still had no answers to who was ultimately out for Zuko's blood. So he continued shuffling along in the amorphous grey-green forest.

    A rattle of jewelry to his left.

    Aang stood up straight, clutching his staff a little more tightly. He paused to look over his shoulder, then to his front again – and he jumped.

    He wasn't alone.

    [IMG]

    The demon's face was quite beautiful, if you ignored how her red lips had been pulled apart in a snaggletoothed grin by her sharp fangs. Her hair was pulled back elegantly and many heavy gold necklaces hung off of her jagged, reptilian neck. The rest of her body was equally ornamented, jewels and gold shining while being framed on a rough and twisted body, crusty skin stretched over sharp bones. The necklaces hanging around down by her withered and pendulous breasts made her body seem all the more grotesque, and her long talon-like fingers clawed the air eagerly. Immediately she was close, far too close for comfort, and Aang stiffened.

    "Avatar! How wonderful! How delightful!" Her voice was a pleasant purr, even speaking around the fangs in her mouth. "I so rarely get visitors." The demon's neck twisted around, her face inches from her own.

    "I'm... only passing through." Aang put on a very thin smile. "Please, spirit. I have to get back to help one of my friends..."

    "Surely you can stop for a chat." She smiled, her mouth impossibly full of razor-sharp teeth. "There are so many interesting things to talk about, aren't there, Avatar? Such as Katara, and how she has slipped away from you."

    Aang's eyes narrowed, and a frown crossed his face. For a moment he stared down the demon before trying to push his way aside, but she laughed, quickly following. "Slipped, I say, perhaps I should say stolen? You realize the person you are here to save is, right now, stealing her from you." Aang gritted his teeth. "Long, meaningful glances – slow, lingering touches..." One of her talons grazed the back of his neck in mockery of what Katara had once done for him (or perhaps more accurately what he had perpetually hoped for). "Oh, he's a fine thief. I'm sure she has already told herself how she wants a man, and not just a boy."

    That gave Aang a moment's pause. "I'm just... trying to get through," he repeated softly.

    And she laughed. It was an unrelentingly cruel sound, and she moved closer, keeping pace with him on birdlike feet as he tried to walk forward and ignore her. "It's such a pity. You know, Avatar, she could have been yours."

    "...I know."

    "Yours forever. She could have seen how you loved her, and known that was good enough. After all, isn't she blessed? To be loved by the Avatar? What a cruel and silly creature, to not take that gift." The demon licked her lips.

    Aang stopped in his tracks, taking in and letting out a slow breath. Be polite, be steadfast, keep moving. He forced a smile onto his face. "I'm sorry, I don't think I know your name, spirit."

    The question seemed to throw her off-guard, but only for a moment. "There are some who call me Rakshasi, Avatar."

    "Rakshasi." He bowed lightly. "I am sorry that I do not have time to talk further. But I need to keep moving. If you would step aside..."

    She immediately broke out into wheezy laughter. Her breath stank, hitting his face, hot and rancid. "Surely you have time for a few words, Avatar?"

    "...No, actually. I don't."

    "Well then, we can walk and talk, just as we have been." That impossibly toothy, predatory smile crossed her face again. "Don't you think it's selfish of him?"

    "Who?" He had been trying to ignore everything, but feigned ignorance was a kneejerk reaction.

    "Don't play coy, Avatar, you know exactly who he is. He has already had a wife! He has a daughter – a family – while you are alone. Surely if he were truly your friend, he would see that inequality and not wish to perpetuate such a slight against you." Her words dripped into his ears like honey, her tone low and intimate in its soft purr. It was intoxicating in its own strange way. "And yet he is stealing her. He is reaching for her and expecting more than just friendship. Soon they will be in each other's arms, and you will be nothing more than a nagging memory to them both."

    The lump of anxiousness in the pit of his stomach started to burn in smouldering anger.

    "She is your birthright, Avatar," the demon whispered to him. "Your birthright. All you need to do is find her, take her, make her into -"

    "No."

    The demon recoiled as he took in a deep breath and let it out. He was at the edge of... something, now. Another link in the chain, another stretch on the path. But he was nearing the edge of Rakshasi's influence. Deep breath – in – out – it pulled the fire out of his thoughts to where he could examine it, ponder it, make sense of it.

    His heart ached.

    "I... I love Katara for who she is, Rakshasi. Not who anyone wants to make her to be. And she is not my birthright. She is her own person."

    The words were heavy and slow, but he managed to say them. The demon gave a long and irritated hiss before recoiling, her expression shifting to something truly horrible. Finally, it seemed his footsteps had been loosened, and instead of having to drag his feet to walk, he bolted forward. Rakshasi's voice rose as she started screaming at him, but soon it melted away, dissolving into the scenery of her realm.

    And then he was somewhere else.

    Aang took a moment to bend over and catch his breath, bracing his hands on his knees as he did. It was oddly exhausting, but at least it was progress. He shifted his staff from one hand to the other, tossing it back and forth a few times to limber up, before moving onwards.

    This patch of mystical forest seemed far too quiet. A small stone path cut through a shallow pond, mangrove trees and the swamp stretching out to either side. But the water was perfectly, unnaturally still. Mirrorlike. Dead. No fish underneath and no insects scurrying on top. Fireflies usually went in lazy circles around him when he walked through the spirit world, but everything here was silent.

    The rocks of the path were pleasantly hot, as if they had been warmed all day by the sun, and now the sensation was seeping up through the soles of his boots. Soothing, almost, if he could ignore everything else. It was easier, now, to take one step after the next, to keep on going.

    Easier until the hand was on his shoulder.

    Aang stiffened and shivered. The spirit's breath was icy on his cheek, and a pale hand covered in a white robe reached around to grab his chest. "Onyro..." She cooed, her voice as soft and penetrating as a thin cold wind through a door. "Onyro... Listen to Onyro, Avatar."

    He gulped, gritting his teeth. "Let me go, please."

    [IMG]

    "Listen to Onyro," she sighed in his ear. Her fingers were like ice, painfully cold even through the white of her robes. Blood dripped heavily from the edge, as if her long sleeves had been dragged through filth and gore. "These are things you need to hear..."

    His feet suddenly weren't cooperating, as if encased in ice. With a grunt, he tried to move forward, but the rest of his body seemed to have gone slack and heavy, veins filled with sullen lead instead of willing blood. It was hard to even turn his head. He only caught a glimpse of a face hidden behind a curtain of long, black hair. For a brief moment it reminded him, terrifyingly, of Mai, but the smirk of her red lips was far too cruel and her skin far too pale. The spirit was all pure white and stark red, with only the jet black of her hair out of the pattern.

    "Avatar... Onryo has so many things to tell... so many things to ask..." Her voice was a silken purr. "Do you really trust them with one another, Avatar?"

    He frowned more deeply. "What are you talking about? I just – all I want is to move on -"

    "Zuko. Katara. Listen to Onryo." Her gore-splattered sleeve waved out to him, and mist rose from the unnaturally still pond, congealing into the loose forms of his two friends. But both of their gazes were cold and cruel. Katara smirked before going to pull Zuko into an embrace, their lips immediately locking in a showy, sloppy display of lust. "Does this not... bother you?"

    Aang gritted his teeth, sucking in a breath and letting it out through pursed lips. "Yes. But... it shouldn't." His heart ached and he closed his eyes to try and block out the sight, even if Katara's moan and Zuko's low growling purr assaulted his ears while coupled with the slick sound of passionate kissing. "They're my friends. I... I respect them enough to let them live their own lives." Why was his voice shaking at that?

    "Do you trust them," the spirit sighed, "to do such a thing?"

    "It doesn't depend on me trusting them or not. I don't control them – and I shouldn't -"

    "I asked... do you trust them." The word was hissed, now, curling into his ear, sneaking into his thoughts like water settling into the crevices between pebbles. "All it takes is one moment of weakness. One moment. You have seen him angry..." Zuko's smoky, whispy form pulled away, his fingers accented by licks of flame. "So very angry. So full of hate."

    "He's changed. He's become a better person." Aang tried to speak with confidence, but his voice was shaking. "And I'm proud to have helped him become a better person." But the ghostly form of Zuko was snarling, ready to strike, flames turning to lightning. Katara was cowering, screaming. "Please –stop -"

    "You need to see this," the spirit purred. "You need to watch. Watch. Look. See how she is so afraid? Watch, Aang. It will only take one moment. She will fall to the ground with her heart still and her breath frozen in her throat, and he will think himself right, even if just for an instant." The scene played out in front of him, and Aang tried to look away, but he found himself transfixed. "Or more cruelly, a burn. Perhaps it will graze her cheek. The flame will make them match. Then she will spend the rest of her life..." The ghostly vision of Katara was standing again, but dead somehow, lifeless in a way that made Aang want to immediately burst into tears. "Fearing him. Fearing him like he feared his father."

    "...No. No, he wouldn't do that. I don't – I don't think he would." His voice was shaking in earnest now. Why couldn't he look away? Even when he closed his eyes, the figures were still there, taunting him. Katara in flames. Katara writhing in the grip of an electric shock. Her screaming. Her begging. The soulless fear taking over her eyes. That was not the only horror. He saw Zuko snarl and lash out, backsliding into hatred and cruelty. Or worse, momentary anger becoming regret. Zuko crumbling from the inside-out. Destroying himself out of sorrow and horror. There was only one way that would end.

    "I wonder if he'll use a rope," the spirit whispered, "Or a knife. I hear the Fire Nation palace is already so decorated in red. What's a little more crimson?" He tried to block out the image, but there it was, no matter what he did – Zuko in an ornate bathtub, his favourite dagger from Iroh beside him, the blade's inscription full of blood. A small red river from his wrists to the side of the bathtub to finally pool on the floor.

    "Stop – stop showing me this," Aang choked out. "That isn't how it's going to go. That's not how it's going to happen." Perhaps if he said it firmly enough, he could fully believe it.

    The spirit cooed, gesturing out with her bloodstained sleeve. "Oh, of course. That's only one possibility, Avatar. There are so many other things that could go wrong. Perhaps... Perhaps the girl rolls over in the night, fresh from a nightmare... sees a shadow coming to her bedside... and in that moment all she can see is this a man who leads the monsters she has always hated..." The mist swayed and swirled until Katara was there, wide-eyed with furious fear. "And the bowl of water by the bed is so close, and all it takes is a thought, a flick of the wrist..."

    The fog shifted again, following the arc of ghostly Katara's spikes of ice. Daggerlike, they embedded themselves in Zuko's chest. For a moment he looked down out of confusion, utterly dumbfounded. Not an enemy. Just a husband bringing his wife some tea to soothe her. Aang could not turn away as he saw the tears rising in Zuko's eyes. Blood on the Firelord's mouth. He dropped to his knees. Katara screamed. There was nothing even the best healer could do.

    "At the funeral," Onryo whispered, "she will come to you. She will come with her robes gleaming, and the light of the pyre caught in her hair. She will come as divine retribution and ask you..." The spirit's voice mingled with Katara's. "Why didn't you stop us, Aang? If you had just said something... done something..."

    "STOP!"

    Aang was not really the type to be inclined to shouting. But his scream was so desperate and sincere that the spirit seemed to be ripped apart by its force. Suddenly he was alone, only the thick fog hanging like a shroud over the eerily still lake. Aang panted. His chest ached – his heart hurt – his shoulders trembled - the odd intersections of emotional and physical anguish. But his feet were free to move again. Shakily, he lifted his foot, then set it down again. One step forward.

    A whisper to his left. He looked – the mist had gained a pattern, now, another scene all of the various ways Katara and Zuko could destroy each other. He tried to turn away, and there was another, and another. He was surrounded by misery and anguish.

    Why didn't you stop us, why didn't you stop us, the trees sighed. Why didn't you save us from ourselves?

    He took another step, and then another. It was hard to watch such things, and now he was surrounded by them. He would be until he was much farther on the path, out of Onryo's grip for good.

    But the only way was forward, so he took it.
  20. Harpalyce Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jun 19, 2010
    star 3
    Trial by Fire

    --

    [IMG]

    He dreamt of water.

    It wasn't uncommon for him to dream of things that flummoxed him. And it was natural that water was confusing. His element was fire, after all. And he still struggled with the intricacies of it. A nice challenge. Kept his mind sharp. But water? He couldn't understand it. Especially how different it could be to him. Odd, since he was familiar with how flame could both cause searing agony and yet was needed for life, burning in a person like a fire in a hearth.

    He had endured what seemed like ages of black water tossing him back and forth, into the metal grate, dragging him under, riptides clawing at him, leaving him battered and exhausted until the waves had crashed over his head and drawn in close like a smothering blanket. He had remembered looking up and his limbs feeling distant and weak and being unable to do anything but drift.

    Now the water was no longer oppressive. It was light, clear, glimmering. Instead of swamping over his head in merciless waves, it merely pushed him along. It was warmer, now. Gentle. Lifting him up instead of dragging him down. The buoyant sea water was polite enough to only lap at the very edges of his mouth, as soft as kisses. He did not understand how this and what had been inflicted on him before were the same element, but they were.

    The vague sensation of being pushed towards something. Shore? Maybe. Warmth. Safety. He knew that innately. Maybe the water whispered it to him.

    Slowly, his golden eyes opened, and he focused, squinting. Katara's face, locked in a quiet frown, and the soft shimmer of water hovering above him. Warmth, again. Something soft on his cheek. It took him a moment to realize that his head was in her lap, and the gentle heat was from her thigh. His body still felt distant in a distinctly strange way – he took a moment to curl his hands into loose fists before letting them relax once more. A long huff of a sigh rolled out of him, but it took a few more minutes for him to try and get his lips to cooperate. As it was, he still slurred as he spoke. "...Katara?"

    She jumped a little, and immediately stiffened, but didn't shove him away. It seemed she was the one who had placed him there, anyway. Easier for her to work. Her lips parted, as if about to say something, but only a small sound of sheer relief made its way past her teeth.

    Spirits, did his head hurt. But he had to ask. "Did I...?"

    "Yes," she said curtly, but even her laconic response didn't completely hide how her voice was shaking. "Mostly." Katara cleared her throat. "In any case, save your strength. Don't talk."

    Neither of them were all that sure it would really help, but wrestling out an appropriate response seemed like an impossible task. Even if Zuko hadn't gotten to finish his question of '

    'did I die', he wasn't really expecting that answer. One expected death to be permanent. One also expected death to be an all-or-nothing deal. Being only mostly dead made very little sense. Maybe when he was back at court he would ask the scholars and philosophers to figure it out for him. Yes, that was an excellent plan... and it had always been one of Mai's favourite things to do, to set out an impossible question and ask them to explain it... watch them flounder and sweat until they caught the barest hint of a smile and relaxed, finally in on the joke...

    The darkness was waiting for him again. This time he relaxed, drifting off to something closer to true sleep than before.



    A few hours later, Katara braced her feet against the bars of the prison cell and gave another huff. It was rather hard to stare down someone behind a mask, but she was managing quite all right. And she certainly wasn't letting go of his cape.

    "Just let me have it, and I'll let go!"

    The guard stared back at her, mute behind his mask. His cape was wrapped halfway around him, the edge firmly in Katara's grip. With a grunt, she tried to pull it further, but there was no satisfying snap of cloth beginning to tear.

    Behind her, Zuko was thankfully asleep – truly asleep, and not just unconscious. She would likely have to tease him later about his habit of sleeping like a hibernating armadillo-bear. Probably some Firebender habit. Or maybe just a Zuko habit. Spirits knew the few times she had gotten up before him, sneaking around in the predawn light back when they , he was inevitably curled into a ball, huffing and snorting as he put in the most effort into sleeping Katara had ever seen. But now he was shivering lightly in his sleep, bruised shoulders twitching instinctively. If Katara had a cloak, she would have given him it, but she merely had her plain dress. The guards, however, did have suitably comfortable-looking cloaks...

    But this one wasn't budging. "Come on," Katara whined. "It's not like you even really need it!" The guard said nothing, did nothing, and she huffed while glaring at him. She was twisting around the cloth, trying to get a better grip, when a voice came from down the hall and startled her.

    "I'm sure we can arrange such a trade, Master Katara."

    She jumped, scrambling back from the bars of the cell. Instinctive fury made her frown, nearly snarling, as the Prophet glided into the room. A full company of guards followed him, and one stepped forward, key to the cell at the ready.

    "I've already told you, I don't want whatever deal you're trying to offer," Katara snapped boldly.

    "After you so generously demonstrated bloodbending for us earlier? A shame." His voice was a low purr.

    Katara's eyes narrowed. It was a gamble, but there was a thread of something familiar in the Prophet's voice. "I'm – I'm not afraid of you," she blurted quickly. "I know exactly who you are, Long Feng."

    The sudden chill in the room that followed stabbed straight into Katara's gut. The mere silence was enough to let her know she was off the mark, but the Prophet's thready laughter made her skin crawl in earnest. "You flatter me, Master Katara!" He cooed behind his mask. "But I am merely a servant of the Master, as all Prophets are."

    She gulped softly around the knot in her throat.

    "Surely you did not think I was the most important? I am merely a delegate. Though I am sincerely pleased to receive such a compliment, of course. This is but one spoke of the Burning Wheel, Master Katara. But I suppose in repayment for such an honor, however misguided..." He waved a gloved hand, and the guard that Katara had been staring down earlier shrugged off his cloak, tossing the now-free end into the bars of the cell.

    Katara scrambled back, holding the cloak close to herself. Behind her, Zuko shakily raised himself up onto his elbows. The guards flooded the small cell, pressing in around them, and two of them roughly grabbed Zuko and pulled him to his feet. He let out a sharp grunt – Katara could see from the expression on his face that they had, at the very least, managed to dig their fingers into fresh bruises, if not actually twist his shoulder. He staggered and swayed, momentarily breathless.

    "We'll take what's ours now, if you please." The Prophet gestured, beckoning the guards forward.

    For a desperate moment Katara tried to think of some way to fight back, but the air was painfully dry. It was likely part of another ploy to goad her into using bloodbending, and the idea infuriated her. And her stomach twisted in worry. "Zuko -"

    He gave a pale, thin smile. She barely managed to catch it through the crowd of guards. "Don't worry, I'll be fine." The way his voice was rough and hoarse didn't really help her confidence.

    "Don't you dare -"

    "Give up? I won't." The cell door slammed behind him, and he looked back over his shoulder even as guards pinned him in on all sides. "Aang's already given me a good lecture about that."

    Before she could ask him what he meant, they half-dragged him down the hall, the Prophet leading the columns of guards. Katara gripped at the bars of the cell, shaking them in useless desperation, before sliding down to sit on the cold stone. The cloak was of no use at all against the cold.



    And time slipped by once more, sucked out from under her like a retreating wave at the shore pulling away sand from underneath her feet. She paced in her anger, even resorting to slowly cutting at the metal bars of the cell. Even if she barely made a dent, it was still something to do. Something to keep her mind off of the ever-present worry.

    When the Prophet appeared once more, she greeted him with sullen silence and a stern glare. But he smiled behind the mask.

    "Master Katara. Would you care to join me?"

    "I don't suppose I have the right to say no," she observed dryly.

    "No." The cell door rattled open, guards stepping in to drag her to her feet. "You very much don't."

    She was not in the mood to even attempt conversation. Instead she glared at the Prophet's back the entire time while they shoved her down corridor after corridor. The pale light cast oddly diffused shadows, seeming to drain away all color and leaving behind only sickly chartreuse. Everything was silent except for footsteps.

    The hall they finally shoved her into had obviously been built for assemblies. Although it was flat, it was impressively large, and a row of dimly lit green panels stretched out across the floor. The Prophet strode ahead of the group, leaving two of the guards to hold Katara. Their grip was like iron on her arms, fingertips deftly managing to find pressure points that made her arms ache and start to go numb. Not as effective as Ty Lee's chi-blocking, but something similar enough to make her aggravated.

    In the middle of the hall was an elegantly embroidered blanket, gold on red, and on it were two impressive dao swords. The sheath was nearly as elaborately decorated as the cloth. Good quality construction, likely well-balanced. With all of the firey emblems, it was clear that the swords were only intended for one person – Firelord Zuko himself. But they had been made by someone who didn't know him well enough to see how he kept his own swords utilitarian and plain.

    And the two swords waited.

    Katara frowned deeply, a question almost at her lips, eyebrows furrowing, but a commotion from the other end of the room interrupted her. A grunting cry – definitely Zuko. He struggled every inch of the way, hair wild in his face, eyes wide. If anything it seemed like they had been easy on him for the past few days; there was a certain color back in his face, and he did seem much more energetic... even if he did have to stop and catch his breath, letting the guards hold him firmly. He seemed much more ready to snap at the Prophet, scowling.

    The masked leader stepped in-between them – Zuko and one end, Katara at the other, and the Prophet in the middle, by the elegant swords. "Thank you ever so much for your patience," he purred smoothly. "I would have liked to do this with a bit more... finesse. But the Master wants results, and quickly."

    "What – what are you even talking about?" Zuko spat, tone full of anger. He narrowed his eyes at the swords by the Prophet's feet. "If you're expecting me to use those... foranything..."

    "The Firelord would turn his nose up at such a gift?" The Prophet tutted. "How very ill-mannered of you. But I do not expect. I know."

    Even while the guards tightened their grip on Katara, the other group abruptly pulled back from Zuko. He swayed a moment, glaring at them warily, before turning back to look at the Prophet and the swords. For a breathless moment, it was a twisted power game, the Prophet daring Zuko to prove him right and snatch the swords up.

    Then the Prophet spoke.

    "Firelord Zuko... your attention, please." His voice was smooth as silk. Zuko glared, almost snarling – but only for a moment. The Prophet chose his words carefully, though in a sing-song tone, reciting from rote. "All warfare is based on deception..." Zuko froze, amber eyes going wide, face going slack as if all emotion was steadily drained from him, only to be replaced with something... something else. "But a kingdom that has once been destroyed..."

    Zuko's voice was flat as he started to chant along, finishing the phrase. "...can never rise again, nor can the dead be brought back to life."

    Katara's heart thudded wildly in her throat. Her fingers were numb, but she tried to desperately get away from the guards holding her in place anyway. Zuko dragged a foot forward, his head dropping as he walked forward. He pitched and swayed in a wholly unnatural way, limp with jerking movements as if being controlled by a novice puppeteer.

    "...Zuko?" Her voice was trembling madly, now. "Zuko, what are you doing..."

    The metal of the swords gave a cold rasp at he dragged them up from the stone floor. It settled into a screech with every footstep, hunched enough that the tips of the swords dug into the tiles and kicked up sparks in his wake.

    Katara knew that walk.

    "Zuko –please -"

    [IMG]

    It was the same stumbling she had seen Jet do, after his invitation to Lake Logai. Moments before his death. This was all some bad parody of Ba Sing Se – the earthbending guards, the same tactics, the unearthly green glow – but somehow more serious, as if all the bloodshed from before had been a mere game played by children. Now they were adults, and it was time to suffer like adults.

    He took another step forward.

    No. Not quite the same as Jet. More like Azula, drunk on hubris, stumbling forward with her hair in her eyes and cruel laughter on her lips. The same drag and then turn of the heel. Just like his sister.

    Her arms were as numb as her mind was. Talk was cheap, but her mind was desperately scrambling to find some solution. The air was painfully dry – bloodbending was her only choice, but he had already been through so much torture, and she was relatively inexperienced in that art – the terrible possibility of crushing him to death made her tremble – and more importantly, if this was some gambit to force her into bloodbending again – which one, exactly, were they trying to turn -?

    Closer, now. She couldn't see his face, his expression obscured by his hair, hanging in front like a messy makeshift curtain.

    "Zuko – look at me –look at me! This isn't you – you have to look at me, focus on where you are, on who I am – you have to fight this - "

    He was breathing heavily, dragging in gasps and letting them go through gritted teeth. Perhaps he was fighting. But he was still moving forward. Katara desperately tried to struggle in the grip of the guards, feet kicking at the stone floor, but they lifted her up just enough to find no traction. She could see the way his shoulders trembled, now.

    Closer.

    The twin glint of sword blades lashing out -

    "Zuko!"
  21. NYCitygurl NSWFF Manager

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jul 20, 2002
    star 9
    Wow! I just read the first chapter, and I"m loving this! You're a great writer, and I'm so glad you've decided to turn your attention to ATLA :D
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