Author's Notes: ARG! I'm having a hard time updating at home. There're so many people, and so few computers. I've been chuggin' along though, and finally I'm squeezing out Chapter 7 (note: I can already forsee a need to edit this...but am too anxious to worry about typos so late tonight). What can I say? I feel the new season looming around the corner, and fear that I'll still be writing this story after it debuts.

I know it's not a sin (writing something out of canon), but watching my story slowly stray from the Avatar universe will probably sadden me to no end. And what's one to do in such a situation?

Drink heavily and blow up their computers, that's what. :D

Hopefully, I'll learn to type more quickly, to avoid such drastic measures.

Anyhoo, thank ya'll again for your awesome reviews. I'm actually finding the ones that point out some of the many plot holes in Taking Action the most amusing (quite literally in the case of Self Possessed :D)...which reminds me...I need to start replying to reviews. I'm horrible at that.

Can someone smell a New Year's resolution?

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I hit the deck the moment I saw that familiar, dangerous glint in Mai's eyes. Inches above my wolf's tail, three sharp blades slice through the air.

"Ooof!"

All air escapes my lungs when I land.

I look up, breathless, to find Suki drawing Mai's attention away with a series of quick jabs. Evading a swift kick to her face, Mai jumps off our little plateau, Suki automatically pursuing.

Toph grabs the back of my shirt, pulling me to my knees.

"Uh...my bad?" She looks chagrined about the whole ordeal.

I would have liked to make a smartass reply, but I can only offer a wheeze and glare. I scramble to my feet to aid the Kyoshi warrior, Toph close behind.

We leap the ten feet down to the fight and are immediately invited to participate by way of some throwing stars. A wave of Toph's hand and a slab of rock shields our exposed bodies.

Okay, so I'm not quite as mad at her anymore.

I run around the slab and toward the circling warrior and assassin. Suki's face is unreadable: undoubtedly, she's thinking back to her previous encounter with the Fire Nation girl...to the friend that was left for dead.

I don't want her fighting alone. It's not that I don't trust her abilities…it's just that I'm getting a violent gut reaction from this particular duel.

I now stand opposite Suki, Mai between us.

She's the meat in the middle of a wicked dance sandwich. Twirling two long daggers expertly, she deflects Suki's fan and my club. Toph isn't trained in any hand-to-hand techniques, being better suited to bending from a distance. Every few seconds Mai's eyes avert to the earthbender, who stands just beyond my shoulder, waiting to assist.

Mai must know she has the lower hand. Sure, she could beat me to a pulp, and her group has already taken Suki down, but even she has to admit that Toph's skills will eventually incapacitate her.

The look in her eyes doesn't convey this worry though. On the contrary, they seem to dance, as if the whole situation amuses her. She knows we won't kill her, having actual respect for human life and all.

But she has no vice with killing. Nor does she have any qualms with cheating.

In one swift motion, her boot kicks sand into Suki's face, and when the Kyoshi warrior's hand inevitably reaches up to clear her vision, the same boot completes its path to her soft stomach.

Suki flies backward with a grunt.

With a gleaming dagger lifted high, Mai moves to eliminate her fallen opponent and even the playing field. A surge of adrenaline courses through my veins at the sight, and with it comes a sudden feeling of bravery.

The dagger arcs down…

My club blocks the deadly motion. This one act expends all the adrenaline-enduced energy my lanky, teenage body has produced.

I back away quickly after...almost cowardly.

Well, not cowardly, per se. Just rationally.

I don't possess Mai's speed. I don't pretend to have her experience in battle. I haven't been trained to demonic perfection in cold, merciless killing.

I would prefer not to engage her one-on-one.

She notes my hesitation immediately and runs forward, slicing left and right. It's all I can do to control my erratic breathing while dodging the deadly swings.

I'm fucking terrified.

The swings appear random and reckless at first glance, but I know Mai better. Everything about her is calculated. Her eyes dart about, taking in her surroundings: the possible threats to her being, and any miniscule opportunity I might allow her to lash out.

She makes the multitasking look easy. I, on the other hand, can only concentrate on keeping my head. Thinking of anything else will most likely lead to losing it.

She won't disengage me, knowing that doing so would leave her open to Toph. As it is, Toph has only been able to throw rocks at Mai whenever the assassin slowed herself enough to be hit. Which unfortunately, isn't often enough. We're in such uncomfortable, close proximity to each other, and Mai is shifting around so quickly, that Toph hasn't risked any other type of attack. I suspect because she's afraid I'll be caught in its affects and left open to one of Mai's wild swings.

What a horrible time for Toph to become conservative.

Nevertheless, the earthbender continues to throw stones at the assassin during lulls in attack, offering me short respites...and yet the pace picks up. Something about the way Mai twists and turns gives me the impression that she's leading me. My terror increases with this revelation. Nothing about Mai conspiring can be good.

Has she found some sort of pattern to this dangerous dance?

Not a bad hypothesis. She's clever and fast enough for such a complicated tactic, and try as I might I can't put up enough of an offensive to break whatever pattern she's discovered.

Suddenly her barrage slows and I note her left guard go down slightly. If I hadn't been so anxious to land a strike, I might have stopped to think about how deliberate the move had looked and backed away, but instead I move forward, my club swinging toward her unguarded midsection.

Mai smiles and sidesteps, and that's when I realize that she'd left her back exposed to Toph for just a second too long.

I don't see the rock that crunches into my temple, but from the way my neck snaps back, I'm pretty confident that it's at least the size of a grapefruit.

I guess it could be smaller, depending on its velocity.

Ha.

Funny...I can't feel my legs anymore.

And what's with the purple haze? I'll admit it's kind of relaxing, this haze...but how totally random these dark wisps are, that caress my aching, tired eyes.

I faintly hear girlish giggles, and the sound of waves crashing on a distant shore. Lovely, underwear-clad Suki…

"Whoops."

Toph?...Where?

I don't see her.

The wisps massage my skull, like slender feminine fingers…like Yue's fingers…and they're traveling…down.

My shoulder…my chest…my stomach…

I smile.

How'd I meet such good fortune again?

I hadn't...this can't be right.

This is me blacking out. In the middle of a fight…

…with Mai.

Bad…

BAD!

I fight the tug of blissful unconsciousness –of beautiful Yue-, and when I reopen my eyes a few seconds later, I see Mai standing above me. Actually, I see two Mai's, and two wicked smiles, and four long, biting daggers.

I'd be lying if I told you I'm not peeing just a little at the sight.

But I can't do much more than hold my head from where I lay, dazed. My other hand gropes blindly for the weapon that's escaped my grasp.

Two daggers lift. They, as well as the two Mai's, merge into one before my eyes.

Oh shit. Ohshitohshitohshit

The now single dagger falls to my chest…

Its progression is halted for the second time tonight: this time by a fan.

Mai sighs irritably.

"Will someone just bleed already?"

Suki only grunts in response, her face contorted in pain. Her right arm shakes from where it holds Mai's dagger at bay. She's using her weak arm…the one sprained in her previous encounter with the Fire Nation…the one she'd insisted wasn't hurt seriously enough to justify her being left behind. It betrays her now as it inches closer to her own chest.

Stupid…stupid girl.

Her chest is so much prettier than my own!!

I slowly move to my knees, trying to shake the throb that disorients my mind.

Mai's gaze narrows...

It's only a subtle movement that warns me, but I'm reminded of the other dagger in Mai's possession. My hand moves of its own accord then, pulling my boomerang out of its sheath. In less than a second I'm hugging Suki's legs from behind, barely blocking the sharp weapon meant to puncture her abdomen.

The contours of all people and objects involved are still fuzzy, but I'm lucid enough to understand the desperateness of the situation. The three of us are locked in a deadly embrace: an embrace Mai is close to breaking…

I hug Suki tighter from where I kneel, sweating. The she-warrior shakes, the dagger she holds back with her fan about to slip.

But the embrace forces Mai to stand stock-still, and plant her light feet solidly to the hard earth...

...and Toph's finally able to assist.

Without warning, Mai is being lifted. So engrossed in the possibility of actually inflicting pain, she has neglected to check on Toph, who sends her flying on a slab of rock toward the ceiling of the cavern...the sharp, crystal-infested ceiling of the cavern.

Didn't I just mention a minute ago how my friends and I had too much respect for human life to take it?

I'll just assume Toph had anticipated Mai's ability to escape the perilous situation.

For a moment, the assassin's forever-stoic expression shows the slightest trace of surprise, and then she's jumping…and not a second too soon. The slab crashes into the deadly wall of rock, and I'm letting my boomerang fly. It connects with the assassin's left fist mid-leap, forcing one dagger to escape her grasp. Blood immediately flows from the afflicted knuckle.

I snatch the boomerang upon its return.

Toph and I approach Mai where she's landed, somewhat roughly for someone with such cold grace. She clutches her hot red hand.

"Ow..." Voicing her discomfort, irritation is evident in her eyes.

Suki, still rubbing the burning sand from her vision, joins the group.

And because Mai only fights in battles that amuse her –and I get the impression that her own pain doesn't amuse her in the least- she lifts her hands in surrender.

"I don't feel like playing anymore."

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The way she leans into the throne disgusts him.

The leg she lazily dangles over the armrest, for example: just a subtle demonstration of her lack of respect for the Kingdom and people she'd stolen.

And the way she inspects her talon-like nails?: a display of vanity and self interest.

And how her other hand waves dismissively to the music of a Fire Nation march (she'd told the Earth King's Royal Band they had half an hour to perfect it, if they wanted to keep their lives): it was all just a game to her.

Life and death has always been a game to her.

Zuko sits on the steps just below the throne while making these observations, one hand supporting his chin. His whole pose reflects some sort of unknown weight.

Ty Lee marches, bounces, and leaps acrobatically to the music echoing off the walls...her movements as light as a feather, unlike the prince's leaden demeanor.

Mai had dismissed herself earlier in the evening, preferring solitude in the after hours. With a spark of fear in her eyes, Ty Lee had informed the royal siblings that their dark friend performed bloody sacrifices and magic rituals in the dungeon.

Zuko knew that this was what Mai wanted the pink aura'd girl to think. How else was she to be left alone for ten minutes? She required a secluded, quiet place to meditate, and as the prince knew from his childhood, write her poetry…

…the dark kind of poetry.

The cut-your-arms, sweet-kiss-of-death, and unrequited-love, kind of poetry...the cliche kind.

He secretly suspected he was in at least a few of them. Perhaps when he was younger he would have found this flattering…knowing how twisted Mai has become since?

It would give him some interesting nightmares, to be sure.

Zuko frowns. It's not like he doesn't have enough of those already.

Might as well not delay sleep any longer. He'd made a sufficient enough 'appearance' today: gained a few more inches toward gaining his sister's full trust. Making a display of yawning, he hopes it will earn him leave, as it had Mai.

As he'd intended, the yawn catches his sister's attention from the throne.

"Dear brother, does Ty Lee's circus antics not amuse you?"

The sweetness in her voice is poison. He must remember that.

Looking up at her, with a convincingly tired expression, he answers, "No sister. I think I just need some rest. It's been a long week."

It had been a long week. As much as Azula disgusted him, he had to admit her efficiency as a conqueror: a conqueror his father could be proud of.

Zuko shakes the thought a second after it enters his mind. Conquering a kingdom is easy when you have a huge army at your fingertips, and even more importantly, a devoid, empty space where a conscience should be. Azula fits the bill. He does not.

He doesn't have an army, and he's pretty sure he still has a conscience.

Yes…even after the betrayal.

It was bent, and it was warped, but it was there. Despite betraying his Uncle…despite making a deal with evil incarnate…his ends would justify his means.

He would end this war…and probably still go to Hell.

But it would be worth it.

Yes, Azula had the makings of an awesome, terrible conqueror: one that would surely earn her an epithet when written into history…perhaps Azula the Merciless…

In the span of a week, she'd smuggled in a couple thousand Fire Nation troops under the guise of Earth Kingdom soldiers. As was typical of her, she'd scoffed at how easy such an act was to accomplish.

Long Feng had been an idiot to keep the war a secret from the people of Ba Sing Se. Maybe if they'd known, the citizens would have been more suspicious when golden-eyed, black-haired soldiers in green uniforms started appearing out of nowhere in the thousands.

Zuko admitted that Earth Kingdom men could have similar features, but eyes of gold were very unique in this region, not nearly as prominent as in the Fire Nation. So many fiery sets blinking within the walls of Ba Sing Se at one time surely wasn't a coincidence…

…but Azula knew of Long Feng's exploits...knew people were terrified of what happened to those who even thought negatively of Ba Sing Se's rule, let alone question it. They wouldn't dare raise a brow at the multitude of returning soldiers, whom they were told had been deployed for humanitarian causes several years prior, despite the fact that no one could remember any mass deployment ever having taken place, or the fact that no one claimed any familial connection to any of the new troops.

Azula hadn't found the resistance that the Fire Nation had found in Omashu…and she wouldn't allow it to arise anytime soon.

Because Long Feng was the voice of the Earth King anyway, no one would notice the royal's absence before it was too late: and with the Dai Li protecting her palace, and her ever growing army containing the people, Ba Sing Se would be under her complete control in a couple weeks...at most.

She was shooting for a week and a half, really.

A stray note. A C instead of a B flat.

Azula's eyes snap open. Ty Lee stops bouncing mid-handstand. The music abruptly screeches to a stop, one woodwind musician in the corner near panic.

"You!" Azula spots the weakness immediately -she has an unnatural ability to spot them- "How dare you desecrate the superior nation's song of triumph! And after I give you the honor of playing it?!"

The man, who looks to be in his fifties, faces her beseechingly, "I'm so very sorry! I-I have been playing for four hours straight...my fingers...they ache!"

"And not even the decency to call me by my title..."

His eyes widen, "Your majes-!"

Zuko jumps when the lightening bolt sears across the room. The rest of the musicians cry out in terror from around their companion.

"Azula!" His angry growl draws her attention.

She clicks disapprovingly, "Oh don't tell me you actually care about some old man."

At these words, Zuko tries to regain a face of impassiveness, though he is sure his wild eyes will betray him. This is simply another test.

If it isn't a game to his sister, then it's surely a test.

Things like this will happen, he reminds himself silently. If he wants to fulfill his destiny: if he wants to ensure he will be in the position to change the world for the better, he needs to find an ally with evil.

"No...I just hate for our time honored marching song to come to an end. It was only one note..."

Azula appears to consider his words, "Perhaps you're right Zuzu. I'm such a stickler for perfection, aren't I?"

She addresses the horrified musicians, "I suppose the rest of you may take leave. And would one of you mind getting him?" she points to the wide-eyed corpse.

That done, she turns back to her brother, "Better?"

A sigh, "Yes sister...I think I'll also retire."

"Awwwww..." Ty Lee whimpers before doing a flip, "You're no fun! I could go for hours still!"

The scarred young man regards the acrobat for a moment, wondering when death had become such a thing of normalcy for the happy-go-lucky girl. It's just another reminder, one of many witnessed by the prince, of how his sister tainted everything she touched.

"My apologies. Good night."

The princess strides to him then, eveloping him in a quick hug, claws slinking across his back.

She taints everything she touches.

He feels her strangely cool breath mere centimeters from his ear.

"Good night, dear brother. Sweet dreams."

It's all he can do not to shiver.

The coldness clings to him long after, while walking down a corridor half way to his bedroom, and then his legs take a detour toward the kitchens...in a section of the palace not so far from the dungeon.

And although some indescribable feeling has caused him to avoid drawing anywhere close to his Uncle this past week, his heavy heart suddenly beckons for a cup of warm jasmine tea.

He won't refuse the urge any longer.

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There's a consensual anxiousness in the group as we continue our mission…and in my case there's also a mind splitting headache, as well as a lovely violet color to go with the goose-egg slowly swelling on the right side of my forehead.

When the complaints inevitably flow from my mouth –most of them directed at the root of the cause of my suffering, Toph- the young earthbender simply compliments how the particular shade of purple goes so well with my eyes.

I'm somewhat placated…until I realize that Toph can't see...for the hundredth time in our friendship.

Then I just pout.

I've been skeptical about going on after the incident with Mai, and not because of my own personal affliction.

Yes...even after Suki had knocked Mai out, and Toph had imprisoned her in a box of rock (the little Katara voice in my brain had forced me to remind Toph about air holes, to which she'd grudgingly complied).

Ever since I thought up this plot, I've known that the safety of myself and my companions relied on my being able to abort the plan should anything go awry.

It's safe to assume that almost being skewered by Azula's right hand qualifies.

I use my shirt to wipe the tiny trickle of blood squeezing out of the swelling bump on my temple. My mind races with paranoia.

I'm positively baffled that anyone of actual importance, like Mai, had been in the dungeon at all. Everyone knows that dungeons only hold criminals and dimwitted guards... Who else could we encounter? Are we prepared to take on something more that what I'd originally anticipated?

Was I wrong…was freeing Iroh worth seeing Suki's face in pain?

Toph and Suki look to me determinately. From their expressions, I know my face must be painted in doubt.

Vaguely, I hear Toph apologizing for acting rashly: she promises to practice patience and follow orders from this point on.

Knowing Toph, she'll try, but I can't hold her to such an unreasonable promise. Practicing patience and obedience doesn't suit her. I raise a brow in her direction, clearly replying, 'Yeah right'.

Suki touches my shoulder. I try not to make eye contact, but I'm not able to shake the hand that turns my cheek. Her puffy, sand-stung eyes are pleading.

"Please tell me we didn't go through all that for nothing."

It's embarrassing how soft I am.

I nod.

The group presses on.