Mai surveyed the city of Omashu from the balcony of her bedroom. Signs of the Fire Nation's occupation were everywhere, as many earthen structures were being replaced with metal ones.
The trip back to Omashu had been relatively uneventful, and Ty Lee's antics had kept her from becoming bored. Now that she was here, however, she found herself feeling nervous.
She glanced down at her hands. I told Zuko to meet me here...but now, I don't know what to do. How will he find me? And what do I say to him when he does?
"Good Morning!" Ty Lee said brightly, sidling up to where Mai was standing.
Mai glanced up, carefully concealing her emotions as she did so. "Morning. Did you sleep well?"
"Oh, yes! And I can't wait to explore the city!" Ty Lee gazed out across the balcony. "We didn't really get a chance to look around the last time we were here. I was thinking of checking out the chutes the earthbenders use. Wanna come?"
Mai shook her head. "No, I'm sorry. I have...other plans."
Ty Lee's face crumpled with disappointment. "Oh, okay."
Her face quickly brightened up again. "But we'll do something together tomorrow, okay?"
Mai nodded. "Sure. Whatever."
"Cool! See you later!"
Ty Lee stepped onto the edge of the balcony, and with the skill of a trained acrobat climbed down the wall, quickly descending to the ground, before she headed off into the city.
Mai rolled her eyes. "She could have used the front door."
She turned around, about to head back inside to have some breakfast, when something on the edge of the balcony caught her eye.
Frowning slightly, she walked over and bent down to pick it up.
Her eyes widened as she saw what it was.
It was a small piece of paper, containing a drawing of a circle with a red triangle in the center.
The shock faded from her eyes, and she turned her gaze toward the mountains just outside of Omashu.
She stuffed the paper inside her tunic, and descended down to the first floor.
She gave a brief greeting to her mother, who was feeding her younger brother his breakfast, before heading out the door.
As she passed through the streets, the Fire Nation workers nodded to her respectfully, recognizing her as the daughter of the Governor. The earth kingdom residents had more mixed reactions. Some looked at her with a slight look of disgust, some looked at her with fear, and others looked indifferent, already worn down and acclimated to the Fire Nation's occupation.
Is this really how the rest of the world sees us? Mai wondered. We were always taught that by ruling over other lands, we were spreading the greatness of the Fire Nation to the rest of the world. But it doesn't look as though the rest of the world sees it that way.
She bowed her head. Is this why Zuko changed sides?
Eventually, she came to the edge of the town. Instead of using the gate, she found a lower section of the wall and climbed over. She didn't really want people asking where she was going.
Before long, the city was a fair ways behind her, and she was walking along a path leading into the mountains.
As the walls of rock began to rise around her, she looked around.
I assume this is what his message meant, but where will I find him?
She rounded a corner, and stopped, her heart beating rather quickly.
Zuko stood in front of her, a small smile lighting his face.
"Hello, Mai. I'm glad you got my message."
Mai lifted up the piece of paper. "This was an old code we used to leave for each other when we were kids when we wanted to get out of the city and spend some time alone together. I'm surprised you still remember it."
Zuko rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, those are some fond memories I have, and they helped me get through some of the harder times when I was banished."
Mai found herself feeling unusually happy about this knowledge. It felt good to know that memories of her had helped Zuko in times of trouble.
Mai's face turned more serious.
"I know I offered you and your...new friends help if you came to Omashu, and I am still willing to follow through on that."
Zuko looked at her carefully. "I realize that what you're doing would be considered treason. I don't want to put you in any more danger, so if you'd rather not…"
"You idiot." She scoffed. "Don't worry about that, I can handle danger."
She looked down. "It's just...are you sure this is the right thing to do, Zuko?"
Zuko nodded slowly. "Yes. After everything I've seen, I believe that the Fire Nation can't continue to do what it has been doing. It's not spreading greatness or creating a better world, it's just destroying people's lives."
Zuko pressed a hand against the area where his scar used to be. "I should have realized it, back then."
Mai nodded, understanding what Zuko was saying. "Okay. I...I trust you."
Zuko looked at her, an uncertain expression on his face. "Thank you. I'll do my best to make sure that trust isn't misplaced. I'm know I'm not…"
Mai silenced him by leaning forward and kissing him. Zuko stiffened, then relaxed into the kiss, and proceeded to wrap his arms around her.
She broke away from him, her eyes uncharacteristically emotional. "I've missed you."
"Same." He whispered back.
They embraced for a little longer, before breaking apart again.
"So," Mai said, her face once again masking her emotions. "Would it be alright if I met your new friends?"
"Huh?" Zuko said, still slightly dazed. "Oh, yeah sure. They're just over here."
He gestured for her to follow him, and she complied.
They walked a bit further until they were a ways into the mountains. There they came across a series of rocks that appeared to have been sculpted into chairs. Sitting on three of the chairs were Aang, Katara, and Toph. Appa, the large sky bison, was resting a short distance away, his sides heaving up and down in time with his breathing.
"Hello!" Aang said cheerfully, standing up to greet her. "You must be Mai. Zuko's told us a little about you."
Mai nodded. "You must be the Avatar. Your name is Aang, right?"
"Yep, that's me. And this is Katara, that's Toph, and back there is Appa."
Mai turned to face the other two girls, looking slightly uncertain. "Hi. I'm sorry our last few meetings weren't under the best circumstances. Did I hurt you at all?"
Katara shook her head. "No, the only thing that was injured was my pride. And we've forgiven Zuko for chasing us, so there's no reason to hold a grudge against you."
Mai blinked. "Well, that is good to hear, but I'm surprised that you're willing to trust me so easily. How do you know that I'm not lying to you and Zuko to lure you into a trap?"
Toph smirked. "Well, I highly doubt you'd be able to get away with that. My earthbending allows me to sense vibrations, and I can almost always tell when someone is lying. If you were trying to trick us, I would know."
Mai looked at the blind earthbender. "Oh, I see. That makes sense."
Mai peered closely at Toph's face. "What happened to your eye?"
Toph grimaced. "I'd rather not talk about it."
Mai smiled slightly. "Fair enough."
Mai surveyed the four friends. "So, how many people do you need to hide?"
Aang scratched the back of his head. "Well, at the moment, just us."
Mai's eyes widened. "Wait, does that mean there is no one else left?"
Zuko shook his head. "No, we just got here first. Most of them are walking here, while we took a flying bison."
Katara gazed toward Omashu. "We were planning on having most of the army hide out in caves just outside of Omashu, and only the most important people and civilians hiding in the tunnels under Omashu."
Mai nodded. "I see. Well, it's good that we have some time before more of them arrive, as it'll take time to figure out a way to smuggle them into the city, while still keeping communication open with those outside the city. Getting just the four of you in shouldn't be too hard, however."
"Do you think we could get in tonight?" Toph interjected. "It'd be nice to have some shelter after all this camping, and I can easily dig a tunnel to reach the catacombs underneath the city."
Mai nodded reluctantly. "All right. Just let me know where you plan to emerge, as I want to make sure that it's an area that's not being used at the moment."
Zuko rested a hand on Mai's shoulder. "Thank you so much for your help, Mai."
Mai smiled. "You're welcome, Zuko."
For the next few weeks Mai tried to get ready for the arrival of the Earth Kingdom forces, to provide them with a sanctuary that was helpful, but that would remain undiscovered by the Fire Nation.
To that end, she took the reigns of governing Omashu. Her younger brother was suffering from some sort of illness, and Mai convinced her parents to take him back to the Fire Nation to be cared for, insisting that she could handle things while they were away.
With them gone, she lowered the guard around the underground catacombs, and sent many of the Fire Nation soldiers to survey areas to the west of Omashu, allowing them to think that there might be an attack coming from that direction.
As time passed, the earth kingdom army forces began to arrive. Most established hidden bases in the mountains near Omashu, making use of caves created by nature, or making new ones themselves.
Eventually, General How and the Earth King arrived in Omashu.
Azula walked into the throne room, hastily removing the scowl she had been wearing. She approached the flames at the front of the room with caution.
"Welcome back, my daughter. How was your journey?"
"It was fine." Azula said stiffly. "Though too long for my liking, as there is still work to be done."
The Firelord inclined his head. "You take your duty very seriously. You are a fine heir to the throne and a loyal servant of the Fire Nation. Now, tell me, what all has transpired since you overtook Ba Sing Se?"
Azula breathed in. "I was in the process of tracking down the Avatar. Along the way, I managed to find my worthless brother and some of his new friends. We defeated them, but unfortunately the Avatar showed up, and took us down."
She looked to the floor. "Based on what I saw, it appears that he has mastered the Avatar State. Nonetheless, this does not forgive my inability to capture him. I am sorry for my failure, father."
The Firelord remained silent for a moment, before raising his hand and lowering the intensity of the flames.
"There is no need to be sorry, Azula. Our ancestor, Sozin, was more powerful than either of us, and even he could not defeat a fully realized Avatar. The fact that you have brought us this information is invaluable in and of itself."
The Firelord stood up. "I need to speak with the Fire Sages. The few scattered forces of the earth kingdom pose no threat to us on their own, but if they have the might of the Avatar on their side, they could still disrupt our victory. We need to prepare our own countermeasures, as the enemy is clearly planning something."
Azula frowned, then gasped. "Countermeasures? Do you mean...that?"
The Firelord nodded. "I do. I know it is dangerous, and if things go wrong, it could destroy us. But I see no other choice. If it just came down to our armies, I am confident we could crush the remaining resistance with no trouble. But a fully realized Avatar would be more dangerous than ten armies put together. Consequently, the only way we can stop him is if we have a comparable power on our side."
Azula looked down. "And you are prepared to accept the risks?"
"Yes. We have not come this far to fail now. In the unlikely event that the process kills me, I trust you to look after our nation."
"But of course, father." Azula said, a small smile creeping onto her face.
"It's good to see that you're alright." Katara said. "I can only imagine how difficult your journey must have been."
"It actually wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be." General How replied. "We did our best to remain discreet, and it seems to have worked. From what little news we were able to obtain, the Fire Nation seems convinced that they've won, and hasn't really bothered with tracking us down. There have been a number of uprisings in earth kingdom villages along the coast, so their attention has been focused on them instead of us."
"Well, at least that's one thing in our favor." Katara said, though she felt sad when she contemplated the lives that must have been lost to draw the Fire Nation's attention away from them.
General How coughed. "So, it appears that most of our forces have arrived, though General Iroh isn't here yet. Has there been any other news?"
"The only thing we've heard lately is that the Water Tribe warriors will be arriving in a few days." Katara smiled. "It'll be good to see my brother and father again."
"Hmmm, that's good. We need all of the allies we can get at this point."
How leaned forward. "And, is the Avatar with us now?"
Katara nodded. "Yes, he is. And he's mastered the Avatar State."
How looked surprised. "Really? I wasn't expecting that, given how young he is. That's very good news. With him on our side, we may actually have a chance of winning."
How stood up. "I'd just about given up hope. I thought our journey to Omashu was just giving us something to do, a futile effort to distract us from the inevitable. But things are actually starting to look promising. Even if we don't succeed, we'll still give them a fight that they will remember."
"Still," Katara said. "We have to try our best to win, because I don't even want to think about what would happen if we don't."
"True. Well, I need to get back to my men. Let me know if you learn of any more news up there."
Several days later, Katara, Zuko, and several Earth Kingdom soldiers were standing in a tunnel. It was a ways out from Omashu, and was the rendezvous point where they were going to meet up with the Water Tribe.
"They did get the message, didn't they?" Zuko asked.
"Yes, of course they did. Just be patient." Katara admonished him.
Zuko shifted. "I just hate all this waiting. I'd rather get it over with."
"What do you mean?" Katara asked, frowning.
"Well, I'm the prince of the enemy. Even if I switched sides, I doubt they'll want to see me. And why would they?"
"Give it some time." Katara said. "They'll come around. And if they don't, I'll knock some sense into them."
Zuko chuckled nervously. "I'm not sure that would…"
He paused. "Wait, I think I see some light coming from the other end."
Katara and the Earth Kingdom soldiers focused their attention forward. The lights came closer and closer, until they came into view and were revealed to be a group of people carrying torches.
At the head of the group stood a tall, middle aged man wearing the garb of the Water Tribe.
"Dad." Katara breathed.
She remained still for a moment, then all at once began running toward her father.
Hakoda handed his torch to Bato, and embraced his daughter.
"I've missed you." He whispered.
Sokka walked up and set his hand on Katara's shoulder. "Good to see you're all right, little sister."
Katara smiled. "Likewise. Was the voyage all right?"
"Oh, it was fine, if a bit long."
Katara was startled to hear the voice. "Suki?"
"Yeah." Suki grabbed Sokka's hand. "Despite how big the world is, I still managed to find this idiot again."
"Hey, shut up." Sokka said, but there was unmistakable affection in the look he gave Suki.
Katara pushed her surprise aside. "Well, it's good to see that you're okay."
She gestured for Zuko to come forward, and he reluctantly walked toward the group.
"This is someone very important that I would like you to meet. He's been an important ally and a good friend. This is Zuko, prince of the Fire Nation."
The men began to mutter amongst themselves, while Hakoda looked at Zuko with scrutiny.
"Hmm. I was surprised to hear that someone from the Fire Nation would defect, let alone someone as high up as the Fire Lord's son. But seeing as Katara trusts you, I will accept you as an ally."
Hakoda extended a hand. "Thank you for looking after my daughter."
Zuko blinked, then accepted the handshake. "Oh, it was no trouble at all, sir."
Zuko turned to see who had spoken, and was astonished at who he saw.
"I remember you." Jet said, frowning slightly. "I thought your name was Lee."
Jin, who was standing next to Jet, looked at Zuko with a shocked expression. "Lee?"
Jet turned to look at her. "Wait, you know him?"
Jin fiddled with her hair. "Sort of."
Zuko awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck. "You see, we, uh…"
"We went on a few dates." Jin said. "Back in Ba Sing Se."
"Oh." Jet said. "I see…"
"It wasn't anything serious." Jin protested. She turned to face Zuko. "Oh, not that you're not a nice person. It's just, well, I didn't even know your real name at the time."
Zuko shook his head. "It's okay, Jin. Sorry I lied about who I really was, but given the circumstances, I had no choice."
Jet peered at Zuko carefully. "So, who would've thought that I'd randomly run into the prince of the Fire Nation."
Zuko returned the gaze. "Well, you did seem to figure out that I was from the Fire Nation."
Jet glanced down. "Yeah, um, sorry about trying to get you arrested. I've just had bad experiences with firebenders."
Zuko chuckled. "Yeah, so have I." His hand rested unconsciously on the spot where his scar used to be.
Jet noticed the gesture. "Wait, didn't you used to have a scar there? Where did it go?"
Zuko dropped his hand. "Long story. Anyways, despite who I am, I hope we'll be able to work together to stop my Father."
Jet shrugged. "Well, I promised Sokka I'd give you the benefit of the doubt, and seeing how we've met before, that shouldn't be too hard. Just don't go switching sides again, all right?"
Zuko smiled slightly. "Wouldn't dream of it."
Katara looked seriously at Jet. "You can trust him, Jet. He's proven himself time and time again to us, and if you can't trust us, who can you trust?"
Jet nodded. "I suppose you're right. Speaking of which, where are the others?"
"Aang is currently engaged in some advanced earthbending training with Toph and Bumi." Katara explained. "And we didn't want to have too many people this far outside the city, as larger groups are easier to track."
Hakoda stepped forward. "We'd better save most of our talk for when we get back to the city. Even though we're underground, we're still rather exposed at the moment."
Sokka nodded. "Right."
Hakoda turned his gaze toward Zuko. "But first, I think there's someone you'd like to see. I've gotten to know her very well over the last few weeks, and she's very eager to see you."
Zuko frowned. Who could he be talking about? He said it's a she, so it must be a girl I used to know. But Mai and Ty Lee are back in Omashu, so who…?
Hakoda stepped to the side, and Zuko froze.
Before him stood a woman that he hadn't seen for years, someone that he'd almost given up all hope of ever seeing again. He'd thought she was dead, and had found nothing to disprove his supposition.
Yet here she was, the one person in the world he was most eager to see.
"Mom?" Zuko whispered hoarsely.
Ursa smiled. "I've missed you so much, Zuko."
Zuko slowly walked toward his mother, his expression dazed, as though he was convinced that he was dreaming. But as he came closer, his pace picked up, and before long he was running until he'd reached her. They threw their arms around each other, and for the moment they were aware only of each other.
Jet smiled at the reunion, though his smile was tinged with sadness, as he knew that he'd never get to see his own mother again, at least in this world. Sensing his feelings, Jin gave his hand an encouraging squeeze.
"That's Zuko's mother?" Katara leaned over to whisper the question in Sokka's ear.
"Yeah." He replied. "She was one of the refugees we rescued before we headed here. She went by the name Saru, and she and Dad grew close. Turns out her real name is Ursa, and she was banished from the Fire Nation a few years before Zuko was."
"Huh." Katara said. "Zuko said that he wasn't sure what had happened to her."
"Unlike Zuko's banishment, I guess her banishment was kept fairly quiet." Sokka explained.
Katara smiled. "They look so happy." She glanced down. "I just wish…"
Sokka nodded. "Yeah, I miss Mom too. But we still have Dad."
"Yeah." Katara said. Her eyes widened. "Wait, you said that Dad and Zuko's mom grew close, does that mean…?"
"It does." Sokka sighed. "I guess you could say they're a couple now. About a week ago I walked in on them when they were kissing. Needless to say, that was a bit awkward."
Katara scratched her head. "While I'm happy for them, that does feel a bit weird. So, if they do end up getting together, Zuko would become our step brother."
Sokka groaned. "Don't remind me."
"Oh shut up." Katara admonished. "I've been traveling with Zuko for the past few weeks, and he's not a bad person at all, he's just got a confused past. Still…" She shook her head, unsure of what to say.
Hakoda watched the reunion between mother and child. He'd have to bring them back to reality soon, and get everyone heading toward the city before long. But for now, he could allow them to enjoy the moment.
He glanced at his two children, and smiled.
Author's Note: I know you guys will be disappointed to hear this, but I'm probably going to take a longer hiatus on this story. Part of the reason it took me this long to update was, well, the busyness of life in general.
But a bigger reason has been a lack of motivation. I know all of you are enjoying this story, and you've been the reason I've found the will to keep it going. But I still think that what the show did was better, and I still don't think any AU I come up with here will come close to the original. Consequently, I've found it harder and harder to keep going.
At the moment, I've started working on a story for Fullmetal Alchemist, and I've found it easier to maintain enthusiasm for that story because it's an AU that combines elements from both series and creates what is (hopefully) the best of both worlds, instead of just exploring a slightly random what-if scenario. So, for the near future, that's what I will be focusing on, and I recommend you check that out if you're a fan of Fullmetal Alchemist, as I plan to upload the first chapter on New Years Day.
To be clear, I'm not going to abandon this story, but I just need some time away from it right now. I'm afraid if I keep going like I've been doing, the quality of the story may suffer. I don't want that, and I'm sure you don't either.
Still, in case it's a long while before I update again, or in case I get hit by a car tomorrow and never update again, I thought I'd end this chapter on a happy note, as I think the characters deserve a break. Thank you all for reading and enjoying my story, and have a Merry Christmas! (Or Happy Holidays! Or whatever)
Edit: So, yeah, that ended up being a longer hiatus than I was planning, but it will soon come to an end if all goes according to plan.
Made a slight edit, fixed the part where I said Zuko would be their brother in-law to step brother, as the former is incorrect.