I don't own Avatar. That is all I have to say.
The throne room was a marble and tapestry monstrosity, carved with painstaking precision to echo and magnify whatever voice spoke into it.
A lecture hall, as it were, so that generations of leaders could hear the much-loved sound of their own ramblings. Thus, it was much harder for Zuko to escape Azula's own congratulations, as she stood beside him, a cold, deft hand resting on his shoulder.
He wanted desperately to shrug it off in disgust, but couldn't find the energy to do so.
"You've restored your own honor, Zuko. You chose wisely, down in the caves."
She bore a wicked, oily smile as she continued to speak.
"We've taken control of Ba Sing Se. We have elite soldiers under our command. With a bit of luck, the Avatar is dead, and our troubles are over."
Then, she leaned close, and with that smile in her voice, whispered, "Father will be proud."
Zuko shifted slightly, trying to shake off the strange dread that had been accumulating in his chest like bile.
What a silvery tongue she had: it was like listening to a serpent hissing into his ear.
Or maybe a dragon.
He remembered the dreams he had been plagued by, while he was delusional with fever. Zuko tried not the read terribly deep into whatever drabbles his mind came up with when he was asleep. But he did remember them.
He had seen himself, of all people, there on the Fire Lord's throne. Surrounded by flames, and soldiers who were as willing as their element to devour and destroy. Such power. Such satisfaction.
The blue dragon had whispered to him to rest, to sleep, and let go, as it snaked about in the hot air.
Zuko had not asked.
Azula always lies. Azula always lies…
But there had been a red dragon as well, roaring at him to run, escape, and get out now. Whose voice had that been? The sounds were slightly less memorable. Then everything had fallen away into darkness and crumbled, like everything in his life always did, and the blue dragon had eyed him victoriously with flat, cruel amber orbs.
Like a hunter who had caught her prey… 'Zuko, help!'
"Zuko!" came an agitated snap, which jerked him violently out of his head and back into the Earth King's (former King's, anyway,) throne room. Had Azula still been talking?
"Yes, Azula?" he replied dryly.
"Come. We have serious business to attend to. Maybe we can even get back to chasing your Avatar. That is, of course, if he isn't dead."
She turned with an assassin's silent grace and whisked herself away.
The girl down in the caves, the waterbender from the South Pole, what had she called the boy?
The world's last chance for peace, that was it.
With an unidentified weight resting somewhere in him, Zuko obediently followed.
" Aang, just hold still for a few precious seconds! All I want is to clean this out for you, so stop wiggling."
" Yeah, but it feels like you're rubbing the skin off it! It hurts!" The young boy, Katara had to admit, was handling the pain very well, considering the large burn that now fanned across his back. Good to see he had the moxie to protest and squirm.
The waterbender slipped another cool glove over her hands, and tried for the third time to erase the mark completely. It shrunk some, but didn't vanish.
" Amazing, though," she commented. "It's repaired a lot of itself."
Aang tried to turn around and observe the wound, but Katara persistently jerked him back into position.
"So, some psycho hit you with lightning? That's something to live through. Was it the spirit oasis water that healed it?"
Sokka had worked his way over to them across Appa's back, clinging to the huge bison's fur as they were jolted around on an air current.
Aang nodded as he remembered. Well, actually, truth be told, he didn't remember very much at all, except for seeing the bridge open up before his feet. And the pain as he was falling.
He remembered letting go and falling, but everything else was a blur right now.
" I guess it was Azula that hit him them, huh? I mean, if Scarface could shoot lightning, he'd have turned us into crisps a long time ago."
"Yeah, it was Azula. But Zuko was with her," Katara responded bitterly.
Her eyes narrowed at the thought of the Fire Nation prince.
That two faced, twisted, power-hungry jerk. And what was the real salt in the wound was that, for a short while, she had almost believed him. She had been so shockingly willing to forgive him there in the cave. When she had seen the years of confusion, anger, and hurt in the golden eyes as she laid a hand on the scar of his, she had felt nothing but compassion. That was what Mom had taught, right? To forgive everybody? She had wanted to believe him, really. To believe that evil could be transformed into good.
If even the Fire Nation's prince turned against the war, then there was hope.
And now there was none whatsoever. The last free kingdom on earth had fallen into the clutches of that firebending witch and her lapdog brother.
Katara resisted the urge to spit.
"So, where are we supposed to go now, huh? I told you these things never work out for our little gang." Toph had turned in their direction, glassy green eyes looking almost contemplative.
"Suki. We have to find Suki." Sokka assured firmly.
Aang sighed. Pulling one of Sokka's shirts on to shield his back from the whipping wind, his head popped from the large collar to say: "Sokka, I know you want to find her. But right now we have no idea were she and the other Kyoshi warriors are. I think we should find some place to stay for a while."
"Like where?! The Fire Nation is everywhere! We're fugitives from the whole stupid world, and you expect someone to just take us in?" Toph was clearly at the end of her short fuse.
Sokka ignored her, and had now turned on Aang with an accusatory finger.
" Of course you think that! Like you care about Suki or how I feel! You just want to look out for yourself because you're the Avatar!"
Aang looked like Sokka had struck him for a moment, but then his face hardened, and he shouted back hoarsely, "How can you say that? All I've ever done is try to..."
"Oh, SHADDUP the two of you! You sound like a pair of squabbling hog monkeys, you know that?"
"Well then you think of something, Little Miss Optimist... Instead of just sitting back and criticizing everybody!" Sokka was furious now, and Toph's eyes widened marginally at the edge his voice had.
Katara watched as her "family" started ripping itself into pieces. A soft sigh came from behind her, and she turned to face the dethroned monarch. He had curled up against Bosco like a lost little boy.
"This is all my doing."
Katara's shoulders slumped, not exactly in the mood to be giving pep talks, but she slid over beside him and tried to put on a good face.
It took a second to find the right words.
"Don't blame yourself, your Highness. It's the Fire Nation you should worry about right now."
"Don't address me that way. What am I king of, anymore? Call me by my real name: no one's done that since I was a boy."
Katara silently agreed. The decadent robes now looked extremely out of place on him, along with all the gold and precious stones garnishing his limbs. The Earth King spoke a second later,
"My name is Kuei."
That was really all Katara had to say.
A silence fell on everybody. Clearly Sokka, Aang and Toph had ended their fight in an exhausted draw, and everyone was sitting with their backs to each other and sour expressions on their faces.
Katara floundered for something to say, and briefly wondered where Appa was flying off to. His pace had slowed considerably, but they were still making a steady path across the night sky, unlit by stars that hid behind the clouds. What are you going to do now, Katara? You've just lost. Lost She met Aang's wide gray eyes momentarily, then looked down to busy herself with her mother's necklace. Something felt different between herself and the young airbender, but she couldn't place it.
"What happened to him?" Toph suddenly dared to inquire.
"Who?" Sokka asked, with more steel in his voice than he probably meant it to have.
"My friend. The uncle, the firebender."
Katara frowned once again. She actually had no idea what had become of Iron….Irang…..Iroh! That was it. Zuko had come to Azula's aid alone, and the last thing she had seen was the old man guarding her against the sibling's assaults.
" Go! I'll hold them off as long as I can!"
Katara's thoughts turned to the worst, knowing full well of Azula's heartless ways and Zuko's…well, he had really seemed to care about his uncle.
That time in the abandoned village had been shocking, to see him so distraught. "I don't know," the waterbender responded. "He's probably been imprisoned."
Toph hung her head.
Abruptly, the air bison came to a stop, and hovered in mid-air. Aang had pulled the reins tight, but sat quietly for a few moments while everyone looked at him. He shifted his gaze over to Toph, and then nodded as though to confirm something. Then he turned them around, and Appa began flying back.
"What are you doing?! The point is to get away from Ba Sing Se! Away is thhhaaat way!" Sokka gestured frantically, attempting to snatch the reins from the airbender's firm grip. They were going back into the belly of the beast?
Sokka shot Katara a help-me-out look.
"We can't just abandon him. He helped us, and they're probably gonna kill him if we don't do something."
Aang's tone was resolved. There would be no convincing him otherwise, but Sokka would try.
"He's Fire Nation! What are we supposed to do, just swoop into the palace, break in past all the guards and demand him?"
Toph laughed. That was exactly what they had done not a week ago.
Aang looked back at the Water Tribe warrior. "I'm not leaving anyone else behind! I'm tired of having to abandon everybody and just run away like a coward!!"
"Yeah, but try and think logically, Aang. You're hurt, Katara's…"
"In," she interrupted.
"What? No way am I letting my little sister just waltz into some enemy fortress all by herself."
"Oh, she won't go by herself. I'm in too…. He is my friend, after all."
Toph was almost happy now. She always was, in anticipation of a life-threatening situation. "We'll need a plan. That's your job, right Meathead?"
"No! I'm not contributing to this kamikaze stupidity. You turn Appa around right now, forget about the old guy, and just let Azula…" Sokka paused, blinking, and realizing how cruel his words sounded
What would Dad think? Would Dad ever leave someone behind? No, not in a million years.
Sokka looked over at his sister's large blue eyes. Darn it, she knew him inside out. Katara was smiling expectantly, awaiting what she knew his response would be. Sokka whacked his forehead and sighed in resignation.
"Alright, alright, how does this sound…"
Hope you like it so far!