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Story [Avatar: The Last Airbender] One Who Has Eaten the Fruit (Zuko, Azula, Aang, Mai...) Chapter 2: 4/25

Discussion in 'Non Star Wars Fan Fiction' started by Blue Ice Cream, Feb 9, 2013.

  1. Blue Ice Cream

    Blue Ice Cream Jedi Grand Master star 5

    Aug 9, 2006
    Title: One Who Has Eaten the Fruit
    Author: epithree
    Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
    Genre: action, adventure, drama
    Characters: Zuko, Azula, Aang, Mai…
    Timeline: six months post-comet
    Summary: It's been six months since the comet. Aang and Zuko are now a formidable team. When Zuko is summoned to Azula's special unit at the asylum, he discovers an unimaginable truth. The ‘gaang’ must analyze Azula and her behavior to attain precious information.
    Disclaimer: Avatar is not mine. Just bending the air.
    Notes: Enjoy!

    One Who Has Eaten the Fruit by epithree

    Chapter One

    Natural Behavior

    The newest fire lord walked slowly through a dimly lit corridor. Anger had consumed him for the last seven days, but today a strange calm overtook his soul.

    A week of fury that had kept his eyes ablaze was now gone. It had diminished into the simplest of sullen gazes as he looked ahead into the darkness of the adjoining tunnel.

    Wondering which member of the asylum faculty he was going to be dealing with, Zuko turned and entered the dark passage. A cold wind swept around his regal attire, and he noticed flickering torches upon the walls up ahead.

    Zuko's temper had been kept in check ever since his arrival to this place. Now he employed a breathing technique taught to him by the Avatar himself.

    'The Avatar,' Zuko mused. Aang was one of his closest friends. That particular reality still stunned Zuko to the core. Sometimes their unexpected friendship perplexed the fire lord, but he had learned to accept it as an odd truth. After all, the war had ended six months ago, and they were now looked upon as a formidable team.

    Once a feared fire nation prison, this establishment had since been converted into a mental ward. Officially known as the Asylum at Boiling Rock, the facility consisted of a few new wings added to the original jail. Zuko had to memorize the directions to his destination, for he was unfamiliar with the new sector.

    The torchlight flames grew larger each time Zuko exhaled, and then shrunk again soon thereafter. This rhythmic dance of fire helped him to maintain his calmness. It was precisely what he needed as troublesome thoughts invaded his psyche.

    Just five months ago, the infamous prison had been practically cleared out. This was due to the fact that most of the inmates were wrongfully imprisoned by the fire nation. The criminals that remained were shipped out to the earth kingdom, so that the asylum could be established.

    Zuko sighed. The tiny percentage of citizens that needed mental care did not require such a project. The young fire lord had intended for the complex to remain a prison, but he was outvoted by members of the newly formed council. ‘It’s just a glorified jail for keeping the former princess locked away,’ Zuko thought morosely.

    The fire nation wanted to repair its damaged reputation, and the impressive asylum looked good in the public eye. Those appointed to the council wanted the people to know that Zuko’s sibling was getting the care she so desperately needed. The top therapists from each of the nations were assembled to make up the facility’s staff.

    Zuko continued to ponder, and he dwelled upon his decision to come here alone. The doctors had advised him otherwise, suggesting that the Avatar and Mai be present for the crucial meeting.

    Once he had been alerted to the doctors’ wishes, Zuko’s week of anger began. Not only did the fire lord disagree with the staff’s decision, but he also had to deal with Aang and Mai constantly demanding that they be allowed to tag along.

    What added to Zuko’s fury even more was the simple fact that these so-called professionals were considering his sister’s release. She had only been at Boiling Rock for five months. During Zuko’s three visits, he had witnessed no improvement. His presence was to no avail, for she wasn’t getting any better.

    The torchlight glinted off of a metallic door as Zuko reached the end of the long tunnel. A fire nation emblem was etched into the steel. Zuko’s curiosity peaked as he thought about his unfamiliar whereabouts. ‘Strange.’ His previous three visits required a trip to the original jail, which was an area he knew well due to his bold excursion with Sokka. ‘Why is this appointment at the new sector?’ He just didn’t know, so he shook away the musings and knocked at the metal door.

    After the knock’s echo, an eerie silence ruled the tunnel. A minute quickly went by. Zuko knocked again. No response. He went over the memorized directions in his head. This door supposedly led to his sister’s new unit. The instructions were simply to knock, so he did so a third time. After a few seconds, the viewing hole upon the door slid open with a metallic shriek.

    Zuko’s sullen gaze penetrated the golden eyes he was faced with. Those perfect orbs revealed no sign of emotion, even as the fire lord stared into them. A distinct female voice questioned Zuko. “What’s the password?”

    The gold eyes had been enough to confirm it. Zuko didn’t need to hear the voice, for he knew who was standing behind that door. ‘Azula,’ he reflected to himself. Then, his instincts told him to hold the gaze. It was an automatic response. Zuko had been dealing with these staring contests since childhood. His sister always used the tactic to intimidate others, but it never worked against Zuko. He would not allow that to change.

    About half a minute had elapsed when Azula broke the bizarre silence. “I see your demeanor hasn’t changed.” She spoke the sentence plainly.

    “Neither has yours,” Zuko responded, though he could only see her bright eyes. He was completely perplexed as to why Azula had answered the door.

    “Not true,” Azula said, now with some playfulness in her voice. “How do you know I’m not smiling with joy behind here?” She wanted to see Zuko’s entire face in order to read his expression.

    The fire lord answered bluntly. “I just know.” He then proceeded to bang the metal door a few times. “Now open this door.”

    Azula repeated herself. “What’s the password?”

    Now Zuko thought that she just might be wearing a joyous smile. Taunting her brother always brightened Azula’s mood. “That’s enough Azula.” It certainly seemed as if nothing had changed.

    The former princess kept staring, apparently waiting for a password from her brother.

    Zuko banged the door once more, this time harder. The torchlight flames behind him flickered strongly. “Tell me what’s going on. Now.” His recent calmness was starting to dissipate. “Where are your caretakers?”

    Azula ignored the valid question. “Oh well Zuko.” She paused. “No password, no entry.” Alloy shrieked again as the viewing hole was slid shut.

    Her relentless taunting infuriated Zuko. He desperately wanted to bend right through the door. ‘If only Toph was here,’ he thought briefly. Then he charged towards the metal door, but stopped just before contact. He knew it would be to no avail, and injuring himself would not help the situation.

    “Azula!” he yelled. “Open this door!” Once again, he was playing right into Azula’s hands. Then he recalled his breathing exercises. Back at the palace, the gang had been helping Zuko control his temper. Aang’s teachings had proved helpful, so the fire lord dropped into a meditative position and resumed his exercise. The rhythmic breathing caused the nearby torch flames to augment accordingly.

    Now sitting cross-legged upon the surface, Zuko was facing the far side of the tunnel with his eyes shut. It seemed as though his self-control and patience paid off, for he soon heard the metallic sliding noise again.

    He jumped up and peered through the hole again, but golden eyes did not greet him. Zuko saw the face of a man instead. A large percentage of the asylum’s staff members had been introduced to the fire lord, but he did not recognize this person behind the door.

    The man spoke, slowly. “Welcome, fire lord Zuko. The door shall be opened momentarily.” Zuko immediately noticed the monotone nature of the man’s voice. Also, this person used no inflections while speaking, and his face was unreadable.

    ‘This is all very odd,’ Zuko considered. ‘Why would they allow Azula access to the main door?’ Then, he thought about the man’s behavior. The stranger hadn’t shown the slightest hint of a smile.

    Once again calm, Zuko waited patiently to be admitted. He knew that when his temper was flaring, he couldn’t bring himself to wait for anything. Seconds would seem like eons. Aang and Iroh were instrumental when it came to teaching Zuko the virtue of patience. The fire lord began to think about his uncle as he continued to wait.

    Suddenly, deep booming sounds could be heard. Zuko gathered that the door had a complex locking system and that metallic shafts were being slid out of position. He was proven correct as the large door gradually creaked open.

    Peering into the revealed room, Zuko couldn’t see much. It was quite dark for a place that was supposed to lift spirits. However, he noticed the strange man standing at the far side of the chamber with a clipboard in his possession. Dressed in all white, the stranger stood out among the darkness.

    Azula was nowhere to be seen, so Zuko approached the man. Recognizing the man’s outfit as the standard uniform for staff members, he deduced that the stranger must be one of Azula’s new doctors. As Zuko offered his hand for a shake, the metallic door closed with a thunderous clang. However, he did not hear any sounds that would indicate the utilization of the locking mechanism.

    Before he could ponder the situation any further, Zuko accepted the stranger’s hand for a firm shake. “Welcome,” the man greeted again, this time with a smile. “I am Ling. It is an honor to meet you.” All traces of weirdness had left this man for the moment.

    “Hello,” Zuko said, *without* a smile. “I take it you’re a doctor.”

    “Yes,” Ling explained warmly. “I am Azula’s new therapist.”

    The fire lord extended his courtesy. “Nice to meet you.” Then, it was time for business. Zuko wanted answers. “Last week I received a message from doctor Jen Teel requesting my presence here today.”

    Now Ling’s expression changed. “Uh yes,” he sputtered awkwardly. He seemed confused for a moment, but quickly regained his composure. “We’ve been expecting you.”

    “Where are all the others?” Zuko inquired.

    This time, Ling’s response came quickly. “Oh, they’re tending to the other inmates.” He scribbled something on his clipboard.

    The explanation seemed odd to Zuko. During his previous visits, Azula had a *team* of therapists assigned to her. While Zuko thought up his next question, he noticed that Ling was looking across the room.

    “Why did you allow my sister to answer the main door?” Even as the inquiry came, Ling was still staring over Zuko’s shoulder. ‘What’s behind me?’ the fire lord thought.

    Zuko spun around and examined his surroundings. All he discovered was an immaculate white countertop that ran parallel to the wall, and a few desks.

    Upon turning back to face Ling, the fire lord took notice of the doctor’s discomfort. Zuko had become prolific at sensing anxiety. He shot a wry glance at the man, and tried his question again. “Azula and the main door?”

    Ling was still looking behind Zuko, but he answered anyway. “Ah, yes. Well you see, my lord-“

    “Just call me Zuko.”

    “Oh. Well, Zuko, your sister has made an astounding amount of progress these last few weeks.” It looked like Ling was reading off of cue cards. Zuko thought that the response sounded practiced, perhaps even scripted. Ling continued. “And here at Boiling Rock, we reward progress. Azula has been granted more freedom. She is free to move about this unit as she sees fit.”

    “Really?” Zuko asked, speaking the word slowly and with much doubt.

    “Yes,” was Ling’s plain retort. “I assure you, Zuko, your sister has taken many important steps forward. The road to recovery is a difficult one, but she’s rapidly approaching mental stability.”

    Ling’s gaze was still focused upon the opposite side of the chamber. Zuko would put a stop to this. He had seen enough of the mysterious behavior. “What are you looking at?” the fire lord demanded.

    The doctor did not answer. He nodded towards the opposite side of the room instead. Zuko shook his head. ‘Perhaps this guy truly belongs here,’ he honestly thought. Then, Zuko detected relief emanating from Ling’s countenance.

    “It’s okay,” Ling stated. “You can come out now.” He smiled, and seemed even more relieved than he was the moment before.

    “By Agni,” Zuko exclaimed. “What’s going on here?” He whirled around and stared at the countertop again.

    Then, Azula jumped out from behind the counter. She lifted herself in one swift motion and landed cross-legged upon the flat white surface. Zuko took notice of her grace, and the fact that she was wearing a grin.

    He never knew that his sister was hiding between the far wall and counter, but hid his surprise well. His sullen demeanor revealed nothing. “Were you back there the whole time?” he asked without inflection.

    The former princess seemed insulted, and did not answer. Swaying back and forth playfully upon the countertop, she spoke. “What? No polite greeting?” Azula scoffed. “Well, I refuse to be so rude.” Then, she brought her hands together with her fingertips touching her chin. “Hello, Zuko.” The salutation appeared genuine.

    Zuko just shook his head and stared at his sibling.

    “You’re quite the conversationalist.” Azula allowed her strong legs to drape over the side of the counter. Her grin never disappeared.

    “What were you doing back there?” Zuko tried. He had never been in the mood for her childish frivolities and today was no different.

    She looked at the ceiling innocently. “I just wanted to surprise you.”

    The fire lord exhaled. “Your behavior at the main door was quite enough.”

    “Oh, Zuko, come on now.” She sprawled out lengthwise upon the countertop, kicking her legs in the air. “Don’t be such a grump.” Azula pulled her legs to her stomach. “Do you want to know what the password was?”

    “No,” came his simple response. He looked over at the unlocked door.

    Azula told him anyway. “It was Zuzu.” She spun around on the smooth white surface, her head and feet switching sides.

    “Hilarious.” Zuko said this with no emotion as he continued to examine the metal door. “So why have you been allowed to leave your cell?”

    Now Azula smirked. “We don’t have *cells* here at the new unit,” she asserted as fact. “They’re called rooms.” She went back to sitting cross-legged. “And didn’t Ling tell you? I can explore the unit as I see fit. I’ve been promoted.”

    Zuko frowned at the last word. “This isn’t an occupation, Azula. You’re here to get help.” Then he realized that he had forgotten about Ling. The fire lord took a quick glance behind himself. There was Ling, monitoring the conversation and writing on his clipboard. The doctor looked up every few seconds to stare at Azula.

    “Oh, calm yourself Zuko,” Azula said, expecting his temper to get the best of him. Then she elaborated. “It’s just some positive reinforcement to keep me on the right path.”

    “I don’t think this door should be unlocked.” Zuko folded his arms.

    Another smirk formed across Azula’s face. “Why not? You think a locked door is going to stop me, dum-dum?” She paused and squinted. “You see brother, here at this fine institute, my therapy deals with establishing trust.”

    Zuko was fairly certain that her tone was of a mocking nature. “What about the other inmates?”

    “Oh Zuko, inmate is such a *harsh* word. We prefer to call them patients, or people.” She cocked her head. “I even call some of them friends.”

    “Well? What about the door?” Zuko wasn’t fazed.

    Once again, Azula’s legs dangled at the side of the counter. “Not to worry, brother. No one’s going to escape on my watch.” Her smile returned.

    “Enough nonsense.” The fire lord turned to Ling. “Doctor?”

    “Well, Zuko. Your sister is right. We’ve established trust with all the patients from this wing. They’re all very determined to do well. And good behavior guarantees eventual discharge.” Ling then looked at Azula warmly. “This is why we called you here. Azula is extremely close to being released. A few more demonstrations of independence should complete her rehabilitation.”

    Zuko knew that something was amiss. “How is that even possible? Last time I was here, she was chained to a wall.”

    Azula glared at her brother with those golden eyes, and then nodded towards the therapist. Zuko took no notice, for he was addressing Ling at the moment.

    “See for yourself,” Ling suggested, to Zuko’s surprise. “Azula can take over from here. I have other duties to attend to.” After that, Ling bowed to the fire lord, gave Azula a reassuring look, and left the chamber.

    Zuko was dumbfounded. Ling had just left his sister unsupervised. “What’s the meaning of this?” He demanded an answer from Azula.

    She stretched out again, this time with her stomach against the countertop. Twirling her feet playfully and twiddling her thumbs, Azula explained. “Relax, Zuko. The staff just wants you to see that I can take care of myself.”

    Now Zuko’s hands went to his waist. “I’m not buying this. Last time I was here, you had shown no signs of improvement. Even Jen Teel confirmed that fact.”

    Azula rolled her eyes. “That was over a month ago. And as you can see, things are done differently around here.” Then, she clapped her hands together once and her eyes grew wide. “Now how about a tour of the unit?” Her smile was back again.

    “This is insane.” Zuko was troubled. “You haven’t improved.” He wasn’t about to trust his sister. “What about taunting me at the door?”

    Azula sat up again. “That was just some good-natured sibling fun.”

    Zuko shook his head. “Just start the tour already.”

    Positively glowing, Azula seemed to display an uncharacteristic glee. “Welcome to the Asylum at Boiling Rock,” she verbalized jokingly. “This is the front office of Azula’s unit.” Zuko was regretting this already. “Here is the main counter.” She ran her exquisite hand over the white surface. “It’s where our business is transacted.”

    The fire lord was not amused. “Enough,” he declared. “Now cut it out and get off of there.” Azula actually listened. She finally hopped off the countertop and stood next to Zuko. Though she was dressed in a standard issue plain blue jumpsuit, Azula still stood regally. “Take me to your room.”

    “Sorry,” Azula replied. “That’s not part of the tour.”

    “Azula.” The fire lord gently grabbed her arms. “It’s not a request.”

    She couldn’t remember the last time Zuko had made contact with her. “Okay… fine.” Azula began to lead the way. “Let’s go.”

    Zuko struggled to see the next doorway. “And can we get some of these torches lit? It’s too dark.”

    Leading the way, Azula cocked one of her well-groomed eyebrows. “I’m not allowed to firebend, but you certainly can.”

    “Right,” Zuko mumbled in an unsure tone. The doctors had once told him not to bend in front of Azula. It would add to her temptation. However, he wasn’t about to explore the whole unit without light, so he quickly shot the unlit torches with thin sparks.

    The tiny rays flew from his fingertips with impressive precision. Even though he only had to use a minimal amount of fire, Zuko was relieved that Azula never turned around to witness the display.

    Surprised at Azula’s self-control so far, Zuko spoke. “I have a question for you.”

    Azula kept walking. She expected an inquiry. “What is it?” she asked, pretending to be interested.

    “Since when do you follow rules?”

    ~to be continued
  2. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Jun 29, 2004
    Ooh, what an interesting start. You definitely have me intrigued. The Boiling Rock Asylum just has a . . . chilling vibe to it, and Azula's 'recovery' is nearly as disconcerting as her insanity is. BUT, I look forward to see where you are taking this, you definitely have me hooked. You have Zuko's 'voice' down pat, as well, which is aways a treat to read. =D=

    (And with the editing, there do seem to be times when the system has a mind of its own - you're not the only one who has been getting that error. Whenever I find that the site is giving me grief, I just switch from the Rich Text Editor to the BB Code Editor, and do my coding manually. You can do that by clicking the box in the upper right hand corner of your reply box. For the most part, I don't get the 'not responding' messages that way, and the edits seem to stick better. :))
  3. NYCitygurl

    NYCitygurl Manager Emeritus star 9 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Jul 20, 2002
    Azula is creepy! I'm very much looking forward to the next chapter :D I see a massive migraine in Zuko's future :p

    I haven't tried Mira's trick; I have found that switching browsers works, though. IE is a massive pain, but Firefox seems to do well.
  4. Blue Ice Cream

    Blue Ice Cream Jedi Grand Master star 5

    Aug 9, 2006
    Hi Mira_Jade. :) Thank you so much for the kind response.

    I know what you mean about Azula. :D I'm thrilled that you enjoyed this.

    As for the editing, I'm sorry about the odd spacing. Your suggestion is appreciated tremendously. If all else fails, I'll have to brush up on my manual coding. I recently changed browsers, which seemed to help as well. Just out of curiosity, is there a preferred font and size for posting here? I'm guessing Helvetica, size four. Thanks again.
  5. Blue Ice Cream

    Blue Ice Cream Jedi Grand Master star 5

    Aug 9, 2006
    Hi NYCitygurl. :) Thanks for the helpful post.

    Yeah, Azula continues to bother Zuko with precise skill. :D

    Switching browsers seemed to do the trick. You were right about IE and Firefox. The next chapter goes up as soon as I repair the spacing from my first post.
  6. Blue Ice Cream

    Blue Ice Cream Jedi Grand Master star 5

    Aug 9, 2006
    One Who Has Eaten the Fruit by epithree

    Chapter Two

    An Unlikely Pair

    The Avatar sprinted rapidly through a sunny courtyard. He was augmenting his speed by bending the air currents around him. Aang’s usual demeanor of playfulness and cheer had escaped the boy today. Instead, a great deal of anxiety consumed his spirit.

    He approached a pack of nobles who were there to greet him, but Aang had no time for tiresome pleasantries. The boy flew by them, focusing upon his goal. Their regal clothing billowed due to the wind created by Aang. They would not get the honor of meeting the Avatar today.

    Aang exited the courtyard to the north, and made a quick left. Up ahead, he spied a lush garden signifying that he was nearing the royal palace. Today, its beauty went unnoticed by Aang, for he was too wrapped up with nervousness. Another large group of admirers were blocking the pathway to the adjoining garden, which contained a serene pond.

    Just beyond the water-themed garden was the entrance Aang needed to reach. He immediately decided to use his patented air scooter technique to avoid the group of fans. A spherical ball of air was produced instantly. Aang balanced himself upon it, increased its speed, and headed for the crowd.

    At the appropriate moment, Aang levitated the scooter and easily cleared the awestruck admirers. Though anxious, he couldn’t resist smiling as the scooter landed in the next garden. Aang continued to ride his scooter across the pond, causing the water to spray. A family of turtle ducks swam away as he raced by. Once he reached a short scramble of stairs, the ball of air dissipated into nothingness.

    He quickly ascended the stairs and ran to a pair of large doors that were open. This wasn’t the main entrance to the palace, but rather a location where Aang came to meet with Zuko and Mai. Hopefully Mai had explained to the guards inside that the Avatar was expected.

    Aang strode into the royal palace of Fire Lord Zuko with many intrusive thoughts preying upon his mind. To relax, he employed a breathing exercise that he had learned from the monks. Aang had recently taught the technique to Zuko, hoping that it would quash his situational anger.

    ‘The fire lord,’ Aang mused. Zuko was one of his closest friends. The boy still harbored some disbelief when it came to their relationship. Once adversaries, they had since formed a unique bond. Aang never thought Zuko would become his firebending instructor, let alone friend. However, now it was a reality. The world looked upon them as an extraordinary duo.

    Avatar Aang quickly walked through an anteroom that led to the palace’s west wing. Eight guards were there to meet him. The commanding officer spoke. “Avatar, you have been granted passage by Lady Mai.”

    Bowing to the guards, Aang began to think about Mai. He entered the western corridor not knowing what to expect from her. Their relationship was awkwardly complex. Both showed great respect for the other, but they had not become fast friends. During the war, Aang only knew her as brooding and dark. However, her gloomy personality brightened significantly when she was reunited with Zuko at war’s end.

    Soon Aang noticed Mai exiting the nearest palace chamber. Zuko’s girlfriend approached the Avatar in a stoic manner, and he couldn’t read her at all. ‘Hope she’s in a good mood,’ he thought, reaching the halfway point of the west wing. That’s where they met, standing next to an impressive fire nation tapestry.

    Mai felt awkward as well, although she did not show it. She wanted to make a conscious effort to get along with Aang, for she knew that it would mean a great deal to the fire lord. Nevertheless, she had always viewed the Avatar as the reason she wasn’t able to spend much time with her Zuko. Aang was always stealing him away for some mission.

    She spoke first. “You were supposed to be here at noon.” There was no emotion in her voice.

    Aang blushed ever so slightly, placing a hand on the back of his neck. “Um yeah. I know.” There was a brief pause. “Sorry about that. There were some pressing matters I had to attend to.” He let out an embarrassed chuckle. “Anyway, we’re going at dusk, right?”

    “I’m afraid not,” Mai responded. She exhaled and her shoulders slumped a bit.

    Aang actually detected slight emotion from the girl. She seemed distraught. “Aren’t we meeting Zuko at the throne room?” he asked.

    Mai hesitated. She wasn’t sure if Aang wanted to hear this. “Zuko’s gone,” Mai explained, looking at the immaculate palace floor.

    “What?” Aang was confused. “We were supposed to meet him and head to the asylum together.” He scratched his bald head.

    “I know,” Mai said. Her eyes narrowed, and now Aang could tell she was angry about something.

    “I don’t get it Mai.” The Avatar knew something was amiss. “Zuko said that the appointment wasn’t until nightfall.”

    Mai seemed a bit anxious now. “Exactly!” She had no choice. It was time to tell Aang. “That’s what Zuko *told* us.”

    As Mai’s anger returned, Aang began to catch on. “No! He didn’t.”

    “I’m afraid so,” she revealed. “He left this morning, at dawn.” The worried girl interlocked her fingers.

    “Oh no! But he said the meeting was at dusk!” Aang exclaimed, a bit worked up now. He put his fingertips to his eyebrows and rubbed.

    “Well, obviously he didn’t want us to come.” Mai placed her fists upon her elegant waist. “We should have seen this coming anyway,” she added. “Zuko fought us about it all week.”

    Now Aang’s anxiety about visiting the asylum disappeared. It was replaced by anger towards Zuko. “This can’t be happening.” Shaking his head, he looked at Mai with a hard glance. “Why didn’t you stop him?”

    Mai was a bit insulted, for she would never have allowed Zuko to attend the meeting alone. “Because I didn’t know!” came her heated response. She stared at Aang.

    “But you said he left this morning.” Aang spoke the words more calmly now. He hadn’t meant to sound so accusatory to Mai.

    The girl reached into her silk clothes and pulled out a letter. “Here.” She handed it to the Avatar. “I found this in Zuko’s private study just before you arrived.”

    Aang took the parchment and read it fast. “This is the note Zuko received last week by messenger hawk. It’s from doctor Jen Teel.” Then the Avatar’s fears were confirmed. “The meeting *was* at dawn,” Aang muttered quietly, feeling dejected. He whacked the letter with the back of his hand.

    Mai stated the obvious. “He lied to us.” She became stoic and unreadable again.

    Pounding the wall with his fist, Aang let out some of his anger. “Zuko!” He stared at the marble floor. “Why does he have to be such a hothead? He should have *wanted* us there!”

    “Don’t be so dramatic, Aang,” Mai offered up with no emotion. “He was just trying to protect us.”

    Now it was Aang’s turn to be peeved. Mai certainly knew how to be blatant. “Dramatic? The meeting was about Azula’s release! Don’t you think our opinions matter?” He thrust the letter back towards Mai, and went on. “Here! It says so right in the letter. Doctor Jen Teel personally suggested that you and I be there!”

    Mai said nothing.

    Aang explained himself further. “We were supposed to determine if Azula was ready as a group. Now it’s just Zuko and the therapists! What if they influence his decision?”

    “Zuko won’t let that happen.” Mai spoke her mind again. “You saw how angry he was. Just the mention of Azula’s release made him burn with rage. I had to deal with him all week!”

    “Azula has only been in therapy for six months,” Aang reminded the girl. “The monks taught me to believe in second chances, but it’s just too soon. I don’t want her out of there yet… do you?”

    “Um, let’s see,” Mai responded sardonically. “Do I want them to release the monster that locked me away?” She paused for effect. “I just don’t know.”

    Aang ignored her sarcasm. “All I know is that Azula had shown no signs of improvement. Now they’re actually considering her release. There’s something very suspicious about that.” He sighed. “We really needed to be there.”

    “Well,” Mai uttered. “There’s nothing we can do now.” She shifted her gaze to the ornate tapestry. “Believe me, if they do release Azula, I don’t want her alone with Zuko.”

    “I’m glad you agree… clearly she can’t be trusted.” Aang continued to ponder the situation. “There’s got to be something we can do.” He scrunched his cheeks with one hand as he thought.

    Mai looked at the boy. “I’m sorry Aang, but if the meeting was at dawn, then I’m sure the decision has already been made.” She spoke more warmly now.

    Suddenly, Aang’s eyes widened. He was struck by a realization. “Wait a minute! The meeting was this morning.” The Avatar posed a question. “So why isn’t Zuko back yet?”

    Mai appeared unaffected by the inquiry. “I don’t know.” Then, she added some information. “Last time we visited, Zuko and I were there for almost a full day.”

    “Oh.” Aang spoke softly. A moment later, his hands clenched into fists. “I still don’t like it,” he elucidated firmly. “I’m going to find him.” The Avatar began to head for the exit.

    Rushing after him, Mai called out. “Aang!” She caught up. “The original plan was to visit the asylum together. You shouldn’t go alone.” The boy was surprised by her concern. “Where’s Katara?”

    Aang was even more stunned that Mai remembered his girlfriend’s name. “She’s back at the earth kingdom, helping Zuko’s uncle with his tea shop.” Taking Katara along was not an option. “I have to leave now,” he explained. “Appa is waiting just outside the royal estate. He can get me to Boiling Rock by nightfall.”

    “Your sky bison?” Mai had once hunted for the beast with Azula and Ty Lee. She wasn’t very fond of the creature.

    Evidently, Mai knew more about Aang than he realized. “That’s right… my bison.” He headed for the anteroom again. “I have to go now.”

    Mai ran over to Aang once more. “Then I’m coming with you.” She placed one of her strong hands on Aang’s shoulder.

    The boy spun around to see her face. Mai’s statement had sounded sincere. “You’re coming?” This was unexpected. “But Zuko told me you hate to fly.”

    “I’ll manage,” she assured. Aang noticed the tiniest of smiles tugging at the corner of her mouth. “I’m not letting you go alone. Besides, I really need to give Zuko a piece of my mind.”

    “Okay… thanks Mai.” Aang knew that doctor Jen Teel had requested her presence at well. Plus, Mai was the foremost authority on all things Azula. Bringing her along could only help. “Good luck taking on Zuko,” the Avatar joked in a playful manner. He let out a soft chuckle.

    Mai responded. “Well, we’re both mad at Zuko. Now we can team up on him.” Her smile grew ever so slightly.

    Aang returned a much larger smile. “Sure.” He laughed. “Now let’s go!” The Avatar was still anxious about the possibility of seeing Azula, but at least he’d have company for the journey.

    Turning around, Mai grabbed Aang by the arm. “I’ll lead you to your bison. We’ll take Zuko’s route, just in case he’s already on his way back.” They ran by the tapestry and headed for the palace’s main chamber. “Let’s leave through the main exit and cut across the eastern garden. There shouldn’t be any noblemen to bother you in that area.”

    Mai had already made two helpful decisions. Aang was impressed. As they entered the main chamber however, they noticed a group of nobles near the giant exit doors.

    “Just follow me,” Mai whispered. “We’ll duck into the throne room until they leave.” Darting left, they entered the much larger northern wing, which housed the fire lord’s throne room. Directly opposite of the main exits, this third wing would give them a perfect vantage point.

    Once known as the war room, the elaborate chamber was guarded by a dozen men. Aang expected the guards to stop them, but the commanding officer granted Mai access immediately. “Lady Mai,” the guard acknowledged. The Avatar hadn’t realized the magnitude of Mai’s power.

    “How long until they leave?” Aang asked while gazing at the fire-themed moldings of the throne room. “We have to get going.”

    Peeping out the elaborate doorway, Mai whispered an answer to Aang. “The nobles should head for the east wing in a moment. Then we’ll have a clear path out of the palace.”

    “So is this where Zuko makes all his decisions?” Aang took notice of numerous black pillars, each supported by an intricate gold base. “I mean the decisions he makes without me,” he added.

    “Not all of them,” Mai explicated quietly. “Zuko doesn’t spend much time here. The throne reminds him of Ozai.” She continued to spy on the noblemen.

    Aang looked deep into the chamber and stared at the lavishly covered throne. “Oh.” It sat on a high platform surrounded by flames. The Avatar thought about fire lord Ozai and all of the atrocities he planned in that very chair. Behind the throne was a portrait of a dragon breathing fire.

    “Occasionally he comes here to formulate strategies with his civilian advisors, or the new council.” Mai noticed the nobles heading for the east wing. “Ironically Ozai used to consult with the military here.”

    After examining the black tiled floor, Aang shook away his musings of the former fire lord. “Is it time yet?”

    “They’re on the move,” Mai said. “Get ready.”

    As soon as the noblemen entered the smaller eastern corridor, Aang and Mai left the throne room. They ran past the guards and headed for the palace’s main exit.

    Upon reaching the enormous double doors, Mai was addressed by another palace guard. “Lady Mai.” She and Aang raced out the exit and into the main garden.

    Mai had been correct. The pathway to the eastern garden was unoccupied. That being the case, it only took seven minutes for them to reach the royal estate’s great wall.

    “That staircase leads into the wall.” Mai pointed to a nearby stairwell surrounded by bushes. “Let’s go.”

    “You mean enter the wall?” Aang asked.

    “Yeah,” Mai plainly answered. “Then we can exit into the courtyard where Appa is. I know the way.”

    The Avatar was truly impressed. Mai could boss around fire nation guards *and* navigate through the clandestine tunnels of the wall. As much as Aang wanted to explore the secret corridors, he opted for a simpler idea.

    “No need, Mai.” The boy pulled a bison whistle out of his outer tunic. “We’re close enough now. I’ll just call Appa with my trusty whistle.”

    Aang blew the small wooden instrument. Mai was surprised when she heard Appa grunt from beyond the high wall, for the white whistle had made no sound.

    The Avatar attempted to enlighten Mai. “Only sky bison can hear the whistle,” he told her. His simple statement was true. The device produced sound wave pitches that were too intense for Mai to hear. Appa, however, could recognize the transmitted reverberations and pinpoint the location of their origin.

    And sure enough, Appa appeared just above the great wall of the royal estate. He hovered there a moment, scanning the area for Aang. Once Appa saw the boy with Mai, he immediately flew towards them.

    Landing gracefully next to Aang and Mai, Appa let out a satisfied grumble. The Avatar ran up Appa’s large tail in an instant. Sitting in his usual spot upon the beast, Aang grabbed the reins and prepared to steer.

    “Oops,” he exclaimed. Aang was so used to the gang mounting Appa quickly that he had forgotten to assist Mai. The girl stood next to the flying bison, looking up at the huge saddle.
    The Avatar had never known Mai to be timid. However, she made no attempt to climb aboard Appa. She appeared to be overwhelmed by the bison’s presence.

    “It’s okay… just take my hand,” Aang offered. “Toph used to be afraid too. Now she rides Appa all the time.”

    Mai glowered up at the Avatar icily. “I’m not scared,” she declared extra slow, accentuating all three words.

    “Oh,” Aang replied. “Sorry.” Then, he grabbed her soft hand and pulled her up to the saddle. The Avatar changed the subject. “We should have a great view of the capital when we take off. The sky is really clear today.”

    Now a passenger, Mai looked at Aang with a forced smile. “Thanks for the help Aang, but I’ll be fine. Really.” She grabbed the saddle tightly as Aang returned to his usual spot.

    “Ready?” the boy asked.

    Mai’s stomach tingled from anxiousness. “As ready as I’ll ever be.” She nodded bravely.

    “Yip-yip.” Aang spoke the standard command casually, and his flying bison took flight.

    Appa and his passengers, Aang and Mai, cleared the great wall instantly. Taking to the skies, they left the fire nation royal palace far behind them. Mai took one last look at the beautiful estate, noticing the triple eaves of the main tower.

    Soon, the entire crater that houses the palace could be seen. Then, all of Caldera City revealed itself as they flew higher. Heading north, they would leave the fire nation capital and cross the sea to Boiling Rock.

    “Keep an eye out for Zuko’s ship,” Aang yelled above the winds. “He might be on his way back already.”

    Mai hid her discomfort well, and yelled back. “No problem.” She wasn’t afraid of heights, but she never felt comfortable around large animals.

    Once they reached the shoreline, Aang lowered Appa’s altitude and the winds let up. “Are you okay back there?”

    “Just fine.” Mai watched the fire nation capital appear smaller as they progressed. Soon it would disappear beyond the horizon.

    The Avatar turned around. “Um… Mai.” His hand went to his neck. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for getting all worked up back at the palace.” He rubbed his forehead with his arm. “I guess I’m just worried about Zuko.”

    With minimal emotion, Mai spoke. “You don’t have to apologize. I’m not the easiest person to get along with.” She paused. “I shouldn’t have called you dramatic. I’m sorry.”

    “It’s okay.” Aang smiled. “Well that’s all cleared up. Now we can focus on teaming up against Zuko.” He laughed.

    Mai allowed a brief smile. Then, her demeanor became somber. “Aang?”

    The Avatar waited for her to continue.

    “Where could he be?” Mai seemed far more concerned now. “I don’t fear Azula,” she stated vehemently, “but I don’t trust her either.”

    A serious expression formed across Aang’s face. “Don’t worry.” He tightened his grip on the reins. “We’ll find him.”

    ~to be continued
  7. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Jun 29, 2004
    I am happy to have helped! And that's a great tip about the browsers - I just switched mine too, and it helped. There's a handy list of BB codes [link=]here[/link], too, if you are interested. :D I'm not sure about the font and size, actually, I just use the default the site provides. :p

    Now, for the chapter! :D

    I liked seeing Mai and Aang's relationship here - her discomfort around him, and Aang getting used to Mai's personality both seemed to be spot on. It was sweet to see both of them doing their best to get along for Zuko. You have a great pace with your writing and your dialogue flows wonderfully. I can't wait to see Aang and Mai catch up with Zuko. :)

    This was another wonderful update, I enjoyed it very much! =D=