Chapter VIII:

A Fire Nation Symphony

"Demitar Raya? General Iroh is requesting your company."

The young servant that Raya had grown accustomed to having in the outskirts of her peripheral vision had gently entered the room to deliver the General's message. Raya remained laying on her side, staring absently at the wooden dinosaur toy that had been
brought up from the catacombs of Fire Lords past. The rest of the chest and its contents were delivered to her room the night Zuko had bestowed it upon her, but she had yet to delve any deeper into it.

She found herself reading the letter she opened with her brother's favorite toy over and over again. It felt impossible to move past it. The parchment was creased and wrinkled now from excessive handling and yet every time she read it she felt a fresh
ripple of emotional pain tear through her. It changed the way she felt about a hundred things, and yet she would have to learn to accept what was.

She'd skipped two meditations, breakfast, and now was skipping her training with General Iroh. She had sent word with the young girl, whose name she'd come to learn was Su, letting Iroh know that she had fallen quite ill, and would not be fit enough to
attend their session that day. He seemed to have other plans for the Demitar, however, sick or not. Truthfully she was ill, in a sense, albeit mentally.

"I've already said I won't be joining him today," Raya said blankly. She remained unmoving, her back to the door, and as such to Su.

"Forgive me, Demitar Raya, but he insists. The General said that if you refused, to tell you that he simply wishes to enjoy your company over a cup of tea." Raya finally stirred enough to turn and look at the girl fully. She had her head bowed, and eyes
facing the ground. The level of respect she offered the Demitar often made her uncomfortable, but in this moment Raya was glad that the girl wasn't looking at her.

The Demitar was disheveled, at best. Her hair was unkempt, and she hadn't bothered to change her clothes in the past twenty four hours. Everything had felt fine as she and Zuko left the catacombs that night; more than fine, to be honest. But the moment
they parted ways, she felt something within herself break, and it was as though everything that she was composed of crumbled. She would never let on to Zuko that she had broken down this way; he already thought she couldn't protect herself.

"Fine," Raya finally said as she sat up, and forced herself to move away from the bed. If it were anyone else requesting her presence, the Demitar would have vehemently refused, but there was a special place in her heart for the old general. She passed
her mirror in order to fetch a fresh robe to place over her tunic, along with a pair of clean trousers, and found the image looking back at her a bit haunting. She hadn't slept well in days, as the events that had occurred recently seemed to take
place nearly back to back. Not to mention she was preoccupied with the absence of Kai. Was he okay? Was he even alive? Was his family?

Her eyes reflected her lack of decent sleep and betrayed how tired the Demitar truly felt with the purple half circles adorning her almond shaped eyes. She sighed, absently touching the discoloration. It wasn't until she turned away from the mirror for
her clothing that she found Su standing close to her desk, a hair brush in hand.

"May I assist you with your hair?" the girl asked. Normally Raya would decline, and normally Su wouldn't offer as Raya had made it very clear that the girl was under no obligation to serve her. But it became clear that the servant must have picked up
on her bedraggled state, and the Demitar found herself thankful for the assistance.

"That would be wonderful," Raya admitted as she slipped a fresh crimson robe on over her slender shoulders. The rich reds of the fabric lay against her pale skin like sprays of blood, and reflected off her silk white hair. The sash went easily around
her waist and she knotted it as she had done a thousand times before. Raya then took a seat in the chair that Su stood behind, and let the sensation of the fine bristles massaging her scalp consume her. It had been ages since someone else tended to
her hair, and she let herself enjoy it. Before she knew it, the task was done, and Su was asking her something. It took her a moment to collect herself enough to listen.

"Hm?" Raya asked, opening her eyes. She realized that the girl had done her top knot – perfectly – and was holding a hair ornament.

"Would you like your ornament on or off?" she asked patiently, and Raya paused. She could see the crowned prince's ornament being held delicately by Su in the reflection of her desk mirror. She contemplated the implications of replacing the finely crafted
hair piece to the place where it once rested religiously.

"On, please," she finally answered. The girl obliged swiftly, and with a few gentle movements had the ornament fastened into her hair properly.


"This way. Just a bit further," Su said. She had been guiding the Demitar diligently to the place where Iroh was taking tea. Raya had thought perhaps they would be meeting in the old Agni Kai arena, but Su had informed her that was not the case. She supposed
that made sense, seeing as Raya felt in no mood to bend either element at the moment. Her heart was too heavy for airbending; too distracted for fire.

As Raya walked behind the young palace servant, she found her eyes wandering to the rich tapestries that adorned the walls. They hung between every pillar. Every other tapestry had a fire nation symbol stitched in black against crimson; the ones in between
had stitched upon them the characters that read 'Agni'. It was an old god, to be sure, but one that still had a place in the palace. Raya wasn't sure that anyone from the Fire Nation even prayed to Agni anymore, if they prayed at all.

Her mind was momentarily pulled from its onslaught of observation as she stepped through a narrow door and was lead down a set of stone steps into the open air. A high sun baked the palace stone with a ferocity that marked the dying of summer. The sun
always had a few strong days before the fall solstice; as though it would not go without a fight. It was in this way the firebender reflected the nature of the sun. Neither would go quietly, and in their dying burned with the greatest intensity.

The rest of the yard they found themselves in was nothing but stone, and old by the looks of it. It had a worn gray texture that suggested many years of being beaten by the sun's rays, as well as baring the elements. Despite the weathering in the stone
court, the statues that stood beneath stone arches at every wall were still recognizable. Agni in all his greatness was poised and posed at every wall, and characters were carved below and around them describing the God.

"Ah, I am so glad that you have come," Iroh said from across the way. Raya looked over to see the old man sitting on the ground. A large padded pillow upholstered in the rich crimson of the Royal Family, and trimmed with golden rope guarded his rear from
the hard stone beneath. Two unoccupied pillows were placed around a low table that held all the necessities of tea, sans warming plate. The Dragon of the West preferred to warm it himself, as Raya knew well.

She recalled her days with him in Ba Sing Se, and knew how tenderly he looked upon his tea shop. Every aspect of cultivating the perfect cup was taken into consideration by the old general with the utmost care. No detail was overlooked, and firebending
the tea himself allowed him to bring it to the perfect temperature; it gave the greatest control.

She smiled politely and walked over to her old friend. She assembled her hands in the traditional Fire Nation way, and bow to show her respect. "Thank you for having me. I didn't think I wanted to get out of bed until I stepped out that door. The sun
and fresh air are more welcome than I thought," the Demitar said as Iroh gestured for her to have a seat. She folded her legs against the pillow taking care to keep her knees against the lavish padding.

"It is difficult to identify a problem until we step away from it," Iroh said thoughtfully as he studied her tired eyes. "Only then are we free to gain a true perspective."

"I envy your wisdom," Raya said with a kind smile. Iroh was a good and gentle man, and Raya often found herself wondering how he fit into the Royal family of Azula and Ozai, and all the aggressive predecessors. He seemed to be cut from a different cloth
entirely, and while hearing Aang spout wise words to her could make her irritable at times, she never grew tired of hearing them from Iroh. He always knew what to say, and had this innate ability to understand her at a glance; even when she could
hardly understand herself.

"A skill well earned," Iroh said with a light chuckle. His eyes squinted slightly with his smile, giving him the glow of a jolly old man.

"The shrine of Agni," Raya observed then after a moment of silence. "I don't know that I've ever actually seen it, even as a child." She had been many places with in the palace – some against her own will – but this was one that she couldn't recall. She
had read about it during her lessons, and even remembered the intricately detailed drawings that accompanied her readings, but they did no justice to the true place.

"It is a lovely place, and quiet. It's not a well-used shrine these days, but it makes a lovely place to relax and appreciate the raw beauty of how it's withstood the test of time."

"It really is," Raya agreed as Iroh poured her a steaming cup of fresh tea. She took it gratefully and let the sweet aroma waft up into the air around her. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. If only all things in life were this simple and pure.

"You are troubled, young Demitar. What seems to be on your mind?" Iroh asked, intuitive as always. Raya knew this would be coming, and sighed gently as she looked down into her tea. The tendrils of wispy steam coiled up into the air until they dissipated
into nothing.

"That obvious, huh?" Raya asked with a half-hearted smile.

"You have always had a gentle spirit, and when you are troubled it is written plainly on your face," Iroh said, taking a sip of tea.

"I suppose you're right. I was actually just wishing that all things in life could be as simple as this," she said, gesturing around them. "As simple as a warm day, with good tea and friendly company."

"Those things would not be so enjoyable if all things were that way. It is the complicated nature of life that breaths beauty into the simplicities. What is really troubling you?" Iroh asked, pressing her gently to bring forth the heart of her turmoil.

"Ever since Zuko gave me the chest from Lord Sozin's vault, I've been at odds with myself, and filled with some kind of guilt. I knew, deep down that my mother hadn't abandoned me . . . but there was a time that I thought she had simply stopped trying
and let it be. The truth is she never stopped trying. Never. She wrote me for years, and years, even after I was trapped in the energy sphere that froze Rai Jin and me in time. I can't imagine the strength . . ." Raya's voice broke and she took a
gulp of tea to stave off any unwarranted tears. She had had her fill of weeping as of late.

"Ah yes, I should have known as much. My nephew came to me for advice on the chest not too long ago. We both agreed that it was time for you to have it, though now he fears that he has hurt you in some way –"

"He hasn't!" Raya blurted. She apologized quickly for interrupting the old general before continuing with a more composed air. "I'm glad that he gave it to me, and I'm not upset with him in any way. Quite the opposite, actually," Raya said, her voice
growing light and a crimson blush creeping its way across her pale cheeks. She cleared her throat quickly as she acknowledged the heat, and said, "The demons I fight now are my own. But I'll be alright."

"You are much stronger than you, and many others for that matter, give you credit for."

"I appreciate that. Time can heal the wounds of my past, but I wish I could say it's going to be as easy to face the challenges ahead of me. Zuko thinks that he has to protect me, and I get it – I do – but he's only putting himself more in harm's way.
And I needed to stop this Loyalist movement soon, before he gets hurt. To complicate matters further, my nephew was a part of the Loyalists, and although he saved my life, I can't know if it was of his own conscious or to further the agenda of the
Loyalists. And the cherry on top is that Azula is the ring master of all of it. We are in more danger than we could have imagined . . ." Raya finished, finally lookingup at Iroh. She had a look of apology written on her face as she realized
she had been rambling; transforming the storm of her mind into words upon the air.

Iroh took it with great patience, however, as the Demitar should have known he would.

"It's much better to let these things out into the air; keeping them bottled up can do much more harm than good. My nephew can attest to that," Iroh gave a small chuckle as memories drifted back to him. "As I have told Zuko many times, you are not alone
in this. There will always be help where you choose to seek it."

"Forgive my interruption: Fire Lord Zuko requests permission to join your company," Su said softly from the center of the stone court. Raya looked over and raised a quizzical brow. The Fire Lord was asking their permission? She admired the politeness
of the gesture, albeit unnecessary. The Fire Lord was welcome where ever he may choose to be.

"Of course he is!" Iroh said. Raya gave a nod of approval as well, and in another moment the Fire Lord was walking down to join them. The suns uninhibited rays spread brightly across the royal robes that adorned Zuko. He looked as regal as ever, yet his
posture gave away the fact that he was much more at ease in this company than he was with his advisors and at counsel.

"Uncle, Raya," Zuko greeted them as he took a place upon the last free pillow. Raya took in lines of his face, her eyes lingering on his sharp jaw line. He caught her eye and smiled at her kindly. She returned the smile.

"You are looking well nephew," Iroh said as he took to heating a third cup of tea for the Fire Lord.

"I feel it, Uncle," Zuko replied. "How are you feeling?" he asked then, turning the question to Raya. She had imagined this would come to pass sooner or later since she had shut herself away recently. He was bound to begin wondering what plagued her,
and if he were the cause.

"Better all the time," Raya said, and she meant it.

"I'm glad. I'd hoped . . ." he paused then, and accepted his cup of jasmine from Iroh with a nod of appreciation. Raya watched him patiently and waited for him to continue. "I know it seems trivial," he began again, "but I had hoped you would be my escort
to the annual Fire Symphony."

"They do a lovely rendition of 'Four Seasons,'" Iroh said thoughtfully. "It was always such a pleasure to hear them."

"Will you be going?" Raya asked, surprised that Iroh would pass up a night at the symphony.

"I am an old man now," he said with a grin. "A cup of tea, a walk amongst the palace gardens, and these old bones are ready for bed."

"I see," Raya said. "When is it, again?" She didn't recall anyone mentioning when the thing was to take place.

"Tonight," the Fire Lord said, a bit apologetic.

"Oh, wow," Raya said, her mind racing with all the things she would need to do to get ready. Not to mention, with the chaos that surrounded them it seemed like such an odd thing to do; so mundane. She found herself craving that, however. The boredom she
left behind in Ba Sing Se seemed like it was a lifetime away now, and while she never thought the moment would come, she actually wished for it now. With the gentle and caring Zuko she had rediscovered by her side, there was no more want of excitement.
Aside from the obvious, Raya also found herself wondering it if was safe to attend something so popular outside the palace walls.

"I know, its short notice. And it seems trivial – like I said – at a time like this to go to the symphony. I had meant to ask you a while ago, but I never found the right time, and with everything that's been going on there was no time to ask. I mean,
I thought, it could be a welcome distraction fromeverything. And my advisors said that showing myself outside the palace walls would send a powerful message to the Loyalists that they have no power over me, and –"

"Zuko," Raya said then, stopping the Fire Lords nervous ramble. It was endearing to her that this was something that still occurred. When she had first arrived in the Fire Nation palace, she was sure that any awkwardness the young Fire Lord ever possessed
had been eradicated by the trials of being the ruler of a nation. That did not seem to be the case however, as he found himself clearing his throat, trying to keep his cheeks from reddening at his blunder. "I would love to go."

The relieved smile that touched his lips found its way to her own.


The Fire Symphony was one of the most renowned musical companies in the four nations, and the best the Fire Nation had to offer. Raya wasn't sure she would enjoy herself, as the fear of being out in the public eye as herself made her nervous. As she pulled
on her newest set of robes, however, she found herself harboring a tingle of anticipation.

Zuko assured her that the theater would be heavily protected by his own guard, as well as the Fire Nation common guards. She wasn't sure this would be enough at first, should Azula decide to lead an attack on them while they were out of protection of
the palace walls. The mirror reflected her insecurity as she waited for Su to finish with her hair, and she found her brow furrowing as she took the image in. The Demitar, uncertain, afraid.

'You are a protector of the entire world, with the strength of the Demitar spirit.' She repeated this to herself until she felt as strong as she kept telling herself she was. There was no room for fear of the unknown; she would simply have to face the
challenges before her as they came to pass. She was strong, and smart. There was no more time to let fear continue to tear her down. While Zuko assured her that there would be people there to protect her, she reminded herself that she was the greatest
protector of all. Born and raised to serve the purpose of defending others; it was time to start acting like it. When had she begun to let fear consume her this way?

By the time Su had finished with her hair, the Demitar found herself looking forward to the evening ahead.


"You look beautiful," Zuko said genuinely as he walked with her into the building. Four guards flanked them on either side, and she took note that they entered through a private entrance at the side of the grand theater, instead of through the front with
the rest of the guests.

"You've told me several times already. But thank you," Raya said as she gave him a coy smirk.

"I'll probably tell you ten more times before the night is over," Zuko said as he gave her a small nudge. The affection they could share in public was limited, as the Fire Lord was bound to keep a strong and powerful appearance in the public eye. Even
when he took a wife, they would not make any affectionate gestures outside the palacewalls; even prolonged eye contact was scandalous.

Raya respected the unspoken expectations of her Nation, but wished she had a bit more comfort from the Fire Lord. She had not gone out as herself, tattoos ablaze, until this very night. After everything thathad transpired, she was a bit worried
to display her tattoos. Aang would be hurt to know she felt this way; the tattoos were incredibly important to the air nation, a symbol of mastery and great achievement. To simply wish to hide them away seemed like a slap in the face to the great
Air Nation that once was.

With a deep breath she straightened her shoulders and walked proudly. If she couldn't find it in herself feel strong and proud, she would at least make it look that way.

"Everything alright?" Zuko asked as he took note of her deep breath.

"Never better," she said, though even she was unconvinced by it.

"I've told you over and over, you don't have to be afraid."

She simply nodded as a response, then added, "I'm not."

"You're balcony, Fire Lord Zuko, Demitar Raya," a theater attendant bowed low to them both as he held a large crimson curtain aside for them. Raya bowed her head slightly in thanks and walked out onto the lavish balcony with Zuko at her side. There were
two high backed chairs, upholstered with the national colors. The balcony railing was shined gold that reflected the dim light of the theater like liquid fire. She took a seat then, and looked down over the crowd that gathered below.

A cloud of low mingled voices rumbled up into the air from the seats below. Raya could see that those below were dressed well, and were seated in rows of benches that had no cushions. Other balconies sat level with theirs at intervals along the wall,
but Raya couldn't make out any of the faces seated within them. There was no time to strike up light conversation as the lights dimmed further, making the spot light on the stage the center of attention.

It was then that Zuko took the opportunity to take Raya's hand into his. She looked up at him with light surprise. He didn't look her way, but gave her hand a light squeeze. She smiled. While there were no lights on them, and they were too far away from
anyone else to be made out, it was still an incredibly risky move on his part. All it would take was a guard or an attendant slipping through the curtains to witness their affection. In the Fire Nation, something so simple – so gentle – would be construed
as weakness, and the Fire Lord didn't need any more help with that. The Loyalists were the proof.

Still, she reveled in his touch.

"Ladies and Gentleman of this great nation, it is our humblest wish to bring to you tonight the sounds of the Fire Nation through this Symphony. But before we do, we would like to acknowledge two very important guests in the audience this evening. Fire
Lord Zuko, and Demitar Raya! We are honored by your presence here, and will strive to make this the best performance you've ever seen," a short man on the stage said. He wore a lovely tunic of brown with slashes of crimson adorning parts of it. It
was refreshing to see crimson take a back seat to another color. He was still wearing the colors of Fire Nation pride, but in a way that was new.

No lights were directed toward the pair at their mention, but a loud cheer rang up from below at the mention of their names. Raya smiled almost involuntarily. She had not expected this from the crowd, and it had been a while since she had been greeted
with happy cheers. She had grown so used to being hated by the Loyalists that she had forgotten the rest of the nation was still on her side.

Once the customary opener was finished, the symphony appeared behind a large black curtain. Lines of people were seated in rows of chairs, and in their grasp they held various traditional instruments. The conductor that had greeted them all had his back
to the crowd now, and with a few short taps of the long thinobject he held against the metal stand before him, the music began to flow.

Raya's skin prickled with the rises and falls of the sound. The Demitar had always be a lover of music, but there was something about Fire Nation music that simply sang to her very soul. It caused physical reactions across her skin as goosebumps formed
on her arms. Her breath caught with the crescendos and her face almost mirrored the highs and lows of the music.

The song was climbing then, reaching its peak and Raya held her breath as she waited for the final break in the music, but it never came.

The lights were all cut so swiftly and suddenly that Raya gasped involuntarily. She could feel her eyes stretched wide across her face as they struggled to pick up any amount of light they could. Just then, fire began to erupt below them in short bursts.
It was enough to illuminate the area around her, and she saw Zuko's confused face beside hers. He stood, pulling his hand from hers, and in the same moment two men leapt into the balcony through the curtains.

"Look out," he said quickly as he blocked a few of the blows from one of the attackers. Flames shot from the Fire Lords hands, as a short fight ensued between them. Raya moved to help him before the other figure moved toward her threateningly. Zuko was
distracted enough by the man advancing on Raya to let himself be taken off guard. Two more masked figures grasped the Fire Lord from behind.

He struggled against the two men that had him and looked toward Raya, his face hard.

"Go!" he shouted to her. Go? She couldn't leave him to his fate. She stepped towards them as two more pairs of hands grasped for the Demitar. She avoided letting them grab her by the arms, but they had a tight hold of her sleeves. She struggled backwards
to free herself, and tried to make out the faces of her foes. She didn't need to guess who was behind this attack, but every face was masked; the rest of their bodies covered in black body suits.

"Zuko!" she shouted as he wrenched against the attackers again. Flames erupted from his clenched fists like daggers, but before he could as much as twist from their grasp, someone knocked him out from behind with a swift chi block at the base of his skull.

"Let's go, we're running out of time!" one of the masked offenders hissed. The two on Raya lunged for her, and yanked her sleeves at the same time. She bristled and with two open palms blew them backwards with a gale of wind. The force tore her robe,
and she could feel the places where it split. She shrugged the fabric off quickly, knowing it would only be a hindrance from here. As the two figures got to their feet, Raya realized that the other two had managed to wrestle Zuko away.

In a panic she made to race through the curtains, but was stopped by great bursts of flame.

"I don't think so, Demitar," one of them said in a low rumble. She felt her jaw clench and a great power welled up inside her. "You're coming with us."

"I don't think so," Raya mocked before she took a frebending stance. 'Zuko . . .' she thought desperately. 'I don't have time for this.' As she watched them move for her she back flipped over the balcony and into the chaos below, using a cushion of air
to land.

People were screaming, running, and firebending all around her. She held out a hand of emerald flame to try to light a definite path out of the theater, but realized it was a dead giveaway to her position. If her brilliant white hair and bare arms baring
blue tattoos weren't already enough, she wasn't going to add her green flame to it; a beacon to her location.

She used the short bursts of light to cut a path through the commotion on the floor.

"Well, what are you waiting for!?" one of the men shouted from above.

"Leave her, we have the Fire Lord. She'll come for him," a low cold voice hissed from the balcony above.

Raya pushed her way through throngs of bodies, all desperate to leave the theater. She used her airbending to jump over some of the masses, and finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she burst through the main entrance of the theater; out into the
street she stumbled, looking from left to right quickly to gain her barings.

"Zuko!" she called out desperately as people pushed around her on either side. A heavy rain had begun to fall, and the streets beneath her feet ran with dusty water. She pushed on to her right, where she remembered entering the building to try to see
if that was the same way they had taken Zuko out of the building. She rounded the corner in time to see a few eel hounds darting off behind the building and out of sight.

'No,' she thought, willing herself to run faster. Rai Jin was too far, and even with her air bending, she wouldn't be able to keep up. She had to stop them . . . She rounded the corner that revealed the back of the building and saw that the eel hounds
were almost out of sight already. Two emerald flames erupted from her hands, but neither went far enough. Before she could conjure up what to do next, they were gone.

The Demitar was alone on the street behind the theater, her clothes soaked through with the rain. The dirt path behind the theater was quickly becoming a trough of sticky mud she found as she sank to her knees in it. The cries of panicked citizens could
be heard still from the front of the theater, through the crashing of the rain, coupled with the roaring in her ears seemed to cut her off from it all.

She stared blankly off at the direction the eel hounds had gone, and wondered suddenly at who was making that awful crying sound. It didn't take long for her to realize it was her own sobs that punctuated the silence of her mind. The whole world came
rushing back in on her in a moment, and she pulled her hands up to her face.

Rain and tears mingled on her cheeks, sliding down to drop from her chin and into the mud.