Water, Earth, Fire, Air. Long ago, the Four Nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished.

A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an Airbender named Aang. And although his Airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he is ready to save anyone.

But I believe that Aang can save the world!

AVATAR: The Last Airbender

Book 3: Fire

Chapter 1: Fallen

"The Earth Kingdom … has fallen."

Aang woke up nestled in Appa's fur. It was a familiar place; it made him feel safe – comforted. He opened his eyes slowly, and a hand came to rest on his forehead.

"You're awake."

"Katara?" Aang asked, his voice hoarse. He cleared his throat. "What happened? Where … are we?" He began to sit up.

"Lay down, Aang, you're still hurt," Katara admonished, pressing back on his shoulders. Aang felt a wave of affection for her, and he frowned slightly. That … wasn't right. He thought he'd …

"We're in the woods," came Sokka's voice, and Aang looked up from his supine position to see the Watertribe member standing over him. "Azula got Ba Sing Se, but at least we got away with our lives."

Some consolation prize, Aang thought, surprisingly bitter. He swallowed back agony at the thought of defeat. "That's not good," he protested. "We need to go back."

"No, we don't," Katara said flatly. Her brow was furrowed. "What we need to do is regroup and recuperate. You nearly died, Aang!"

Aang remembered that, vaguely, but less as death than as a deep, sudden loss – his enlightenment slipping from his fingers, the Avatar State falling away, and then – nothing. "I know," he said sullenly. "But I'm going to get better – and then we need to go back!"

"Aang …"

"If Ba Sing Se fell … what is left in the world except the Fire Nation?" Aang asked softly. He closed his eyes again; was this what it was like to feel ill? He had never been sick, but now he ached as if he'd been beaten with a cane for three days. "The balance …"

"Will be restored," Katara interrupted. "Now, relax and get some rest. We'll figure out what's next when you're better."

Aang nodded vaguely; he heard Appa growl gently in agreement. "All right …"

And with that, he drifted away again into dreams.

&

"To his illustrious majesty, the Fire Lord Ozai," Azula dictated from her throne, "May all the nations bow before you." She smiled coldly. "The great Earth City, Ba Sing Se, now bends to your rule."

Zuko stood behind her and to her left – not her right, he noted, darkly. It was significant. He was no right-hand man to his sister; he was … a pawn, his mind supplied before he shook the thought away.

Banished Prince Zuko had expected to feel pride and elation. He had played a part in the defeat of the great Earth City that not even his uncle could bring down. But he felt as empty as he had his whole life. What had he really done? He had fought by his sister's side only to see the Waterbending peasant escape with the Avatar – or perhaps just the Avatar's body. She had orchestrated Ba Sing Se's downfall; he was just an incidental.

But she said I've restored my own honor, he protested to himself.

My sister always lies. It was his own words that came back to haunt him now.

"The Avatar is at best dead, and at worst incapacitated," Azula continued. "His body was not recovered, but he was struck through the heart."

What awesome bending that had been. Zuko had never seen anything like it; while he had stood in awe of the Avatar State, his sister had seen her chance, and struck the Avatar through the heart with lightning-bending. No one, Zuko reasoned, could have survived that. It at once astonished him and sickened him.

"In light of this, I propose that once the Fire Nation has established its rule here in Ba Sing Se, we should destroy the Water Tribes at the North and South pole, and have their newborns captured. Should the Avatar have been reincarnated, we will raise him as a Fire Nation warlord. He will never stand in our way again."

The Water Tribes were the last remaining bastion against the Fire Nation, Zuko realized. It was only sensible that they be assaulted next. Summer was coming; the North Pole would be in continuous daylight. It would be a slaughter.

"Your humble servant and obedient daughter," Azula concluded. "Send that immediately to the Fire Lord. He'll be most pleased." The scribe at her feet bowed and scrambled away to do her bidding.

"You never mentioned me or Uncle Iroh." Uncle. He thought of his uncle, imprisoned in Ba Sing Se's cells. No matter what Azula said, Zuko knew he had betrayed Iroh. I'm a fool.

"Oh, I'll let that be a pleasant surprise," Azula responded, giving Zuko a considering look. "Father is … stubborn, as you know. I'd rather not be ordered to put you to death, when you could be such an asset to the war. Besides, wouldn't you like to tell him of your accomplishments in person?"

Her smile was always so cold. Zuko felt confused, and it infuriated him. "It would help," he said in a low voice, "if you supported me."

"Oh, I will, brother," Azula promised. "Because you've supported me."

That did not comfort Zuko.

&

When Aang awoke again, the sky was dark, and he was still – or maybe once again – nestled in Appa's fur. "Mm …" He sat up, this time to no hand on his forehead and no protests. He still felt hurt and beaten, but the aches had faded. How long had he slept? He ran his hand over his head as a test – only the beginnings of fuzz. Ah, no more than a day, then.

He looked down at himself; his tunic, which he had worn with love for so long, was ruined, burned through on one side to expose his chest. My chest … The more he thought about it, the more he remembered. The bolt of pain through his heart-! As if he had been struck by lightning.

I was struck by lightning. Azula.

Aang looked over the little camp: the embers of the fire had burned low. Toph was in her earthbending-constructed tent; Katara and Sokka were wrapped in their sleeping bags, and Aang's own bedroll had been laid out for the Earth King. His pet bear, Bosco, slept beside him. Aang's eyes lingered on Katara.

She was so beautiful, and in sleep so peaceful. Aang rubbed his eyes. He had almost given up his love for Katara to save her, but in the end … he could only conclude that she had saved him.

He had come so close to death, and in the Avatar State. What if he had been killed? The entire world – yes, even the Fire Nation – would have been thrown into chaos. From the guru's teachings, Aang knew that was not just a human imbued with a great spirit: he was the Spirit. The whole world was, but him more so, and if he allowed that to be destroyed … the world's Spirit would be dead as surely as his body would be.

Aang could never let that happen again. It was time to get serious about this war in a way he never had been before.

He was not a Waterbending Master, nor an Earthbending Master, but he was powerful in both now in a way he'd never imagined. But Aang had to encompass all the elements, despite his vow to never Firebend again.

"I've got to have a Firebending Master,"Aang murmured. But … who?

Toph's friend. The old man – Iroh, he thought. He was a Firebender! But what had happened to him?

He resolved to find out in the morning. In the meantime, he would let his friends sleep. Aang, however, couldn't sleep any longer; his mind was too troubled.

Aang slipped off of Appa's leg, and the flying bison shifted, letting out a rumbling moan. "Sorry, Appa," Aang whispered, petting the creature before departing a short way into the woods. There he settled, pressing his fists together firmly and closing his eyes, settling into the lotus position.

This last chakra would be the hardest to release, he knew, but he would have to do it. Katara's fate, as much as anyone else's, depended on his full enlightenment.

&

Long Feng lay in his chambers. He was fortunate, he realized; The Fire Lady Azula could have seen him killed, but instead she had allowed him to continue in his … 'service' to Ba Sing Se. Which of course meant, in his service to her.

He burned with resentment.

For years, he had scraped and plotted his way to the side of the throne. He had been ruler in all but name: the Avatar and his friends had realized it immediately. Long Feng didn't need the title of Earth King to know what kind of power he wielded, and he had been satisfied. Ba Sing Se was unassailable, and he was assured the right to virtually rule until he was old and gray.

But then the Avatar had come and deposed him, and Azula had come and betrayed him. Now, he was little more than a puppet, just as the Earth King had once been his puppet. The Dai Li had been ripped out from underneath him, and the daughter of the Fire Lord was master of all she surveyed.

Oh, how he burned. Long Feng rolled over on his bed and scowled at the wall. On his own, he could do nothing, but he was as trapped as a canary in a cage. If he fled, Azula would kill him. If he stayed, he was a mere pawn. Which was worse?

As a pawn, at least he could perhaps maneuver a bit on his own; if Long Feng was dead, well.

To her face, the Dai Li declared their allegiance, Long Feng thought. But they did the same before the Earth King. Perhaps they are still loyal to me, even if they will not face the Princess directly.

With that hope in mind, Long Feng sat up in his bed and began to plot.

&

The sun rose over the trees, waking Katara. As usual, she was the first to rise amongst their group; Sokka was still snoring, and Toph was hidden in her earthy tent. She rubbed her eyes wearily and rolled over to face –

"Aang?" she whispered. His place on Appa's side was empty.

Katara got to her feet and stretched, worry settling in the pit of her stomach. Aang was in no condition to move! Where could he have possibly gone? Or had he been captured?

No, of course not, she admonished herself. Princess Azula probably thinks Aang is dead. I thought Aang was dead!

She started walking out of the camp, curious as to where Aang could have gone. She found him almost immediately, to her instant relief; he was in the lotus position, facing the rising sun.

His clothing was tattered, but still … he looked oddly majestic; with the sun reflecting off his skin, he seemed almost to glow as if in the Avatar state. But when she came closer, she could see his scarred and reddened skin from where Azula's blow had hit him, and she remembered he was all too human.

"Hi, Katara."

Katara startled slightly when Aang spoke, his voice low. He didn't move from his meditative position.

"Um … hi, Aang," Katara answered softly. "Should I go?"

"No." The Avatar's voice was firm. "It's all right." Finally, he lifted his head, his hands dropping. "Good morning." He smiled gently at her.

Katara sat down beside him. "How are you feeling?"

"It still hurts." Aang rubbed his chest absently. "But not nearly as badly as last night." Again he offered that little cute smile. "I'm going to get better. You saved my life, didn't you, Katara?"

Katara blushed slightly. "It was the spiritual water Master Pakku gave me," she informed him. "It restored you."

"Wow," Aang whispered in wonder, scraping a hand over his head.

Katara was silent for a moment. "So, what're you doing over here?"

Aang shrugged slightly, leaning back on his arms and unfolding his legs from the lotus position. "Just meditating. I needed to clear my mind. I … I don't really remember what happened after the Dai Li came in."

That wasn't what Aang had intended to say, and Katara could tell, but she didn't press the issue. "Well, you entered the Avatar state … and then Azula hit you with lightning. You … fell." Katara closed her eyes in remembrance. "I managed to catch you, but it was Iroh – you know, Zuko's uncle – that saved us both. He came in and held off the Dai Li and Azula and Zuko until I could escape."

Aang let out a breath as if he he'd been holding it, and the tree leaved some ten feet away rustled. "Oh." He looked down. "That's awful. So he was captured?"

"Probably," Katara said sorrowfully. "I didn't have time to save him, too."

"That's awful," Aang repeated. He lifted his eyes to Katara. "I was hoping he could be my Firebending Master."

Katara's eyes widened slightly, but then she nodded. It was a logical choice, when she thought about it. The man was kind and gentle, and a master Firebender. "I'm sorry, Aang."

"Nah." Aang waved his hand half-heartedly. "It's not just that. He helped us, and now he's captured by Azula. She'll kill him."

Katara bit her lip. "That's probably true," she admitted, sickened by the thought.

"We can't let that happen," Aang said with conviction.

"Aang, there's nothing we can do now. Going back to Ba Sing Se is too dangerous! With Zuko and Azula … not to mention the Dai Li. We'd never even get to the palace, much less manage to save Iroh!"

"No." Aang's eyes were hard now in a way that Katara had rarely known. "I won't let him be executed or whatever. He helped us and now we are going to help him." Then he abruptly smiled. "Come on, Katara, we managed to take down all the Dai Li last time! And if all of us were fighting Azula and Zuko, we'd have a good chance of taking her on!"

"You're forgetting Ty Lee and Mai," Katara pointed out. "Between the four of them …"

"Aang, no."

Katara and Aang both looked up at the new voice: it was Sokka, with a serious expression on his face. "We're not going back to Ba Sing Se."

Aang's eyes widened. "But Iroh," he pleaded, only to be met with Sokka's shaking head.

"No, no way! Look at you – you're nowhere near healed from yesterday! And there's probably orders to kill us on sight in the city," Sokka pointed out. "There's no way we're going to Ba Sing Se …" and then a slight twinkle came into his eye. "… yet."

Aang's eyes lit up. "Sokka!"

Katara shot to her feet. "Sokka!"

"Ow, ow! Katara, too loud!" Sokka clutched his ears. "Come on, Katara, we have to go back. Aang is the Avatar. He's got to learn all four elements, right? And we're not wasting the summer on trying to find Jeong Jeong again. With a good plan – and I am the Plan Guy – we can totally get in there, save the old guy, and get out." He paused. "I mean, we took down a giant drill from the inside! How much harder can this be?"

Katara slapped her hand to her forehead. "You know what? Whatever. I'm going back to fix breakfast." She stomped past Sokka in a fury, ignoring Aang's confused 'Katara?' behind her, but as she approached the center of camp, her shoulders slumped.

She couldn't tell Sokka and Aang – Aang especially – how frightened she'd been. Aang had been all but dead in her arms, and it was only the grace of the Spirits that had saved him. She had been so certain it was all over …

And even forgetting that. Katara's eyes narrowed as she re-stoked the fire. If she faced Zuko again, she couldn't guarantee her own fury would remain checked. She had been so certain the Firebending prince had changed, and then he had horribly betrayed all of them. He had struck a blow so low she was sickened.

She suspected she might actually kill him if they met again.

&

"Uncle?"

Azula wasn't one overly given to kindness or mercy, but she yielded in the face of Zuko's confusion. She had given the old man a relatively comfortable cell, with a pallet and regular, full meals. She would not, after all, allow Zuko to become so disgusted with himself that he truly changed sides.

Iroh looked up from his breakfast at the sound of Zuko's approaching voice. His eyes narrowed. His nephew …

He had not seen the boy since his betrayal in the caves. Although experience had allowed the Firebender to harness his own temper – so much so that it was almost unbelievable that he was family to the Fire Lord – it still boiled beneath the surface.

Iroh couldn't have cared less what happened to himself. He was an old man, and there was only one great adventure still awaiting him; he did not fear it. But what Zuko had done to the Avatar! That was inexcusable. He had been so sure that his nephew had changed! But when presented with the ultimate choice, he had failed. He had chosen the destiny his family offered rather than the destiny he chose for himself.

And now he came to Iroh's cell. Iroh drew a deep, calming breath, drawing in the scent of his tea, and let it back out through his nose. It was good that Zuko came to his cell – it meant that his heart still wavered. Iroh's teachings had not been utterly for naught.

"Uncle?" Zuko repeated, appearing in front of Iroh. "Uncle, how are you?"

Iroh tried to decide how to handle this. A jovial matter merely made Zuko angry, and Iroh could sense his distress. It was best to leverage that. "As well as can be expected," he said neutrally, "considering that I am in the prison of the great Earth Kingdom."

Zuko stood silently for a moment. His hair was still unruly; he had not yet cut it to the traditional style of a Firebending Prince. Another good sign. "I am sorry, Uncle," he said softly, his head bowed.

Iroh lifted his head then, to meet Zuko's eyes. "You are sorry?" he cried, setting down his tea, allowing some of his inner flames come to the surface. "After all I taught you, this is what you do!? I am ashamed of you."

Zuko's eyes widened. Obviously chastisement had not been what he expected. But then his eyes narrowed. "What was I supposed to do, Uncle!?" he demanded, flinging a hand behind him. "The Avatar was right there! I almost had him! It was you that stopped me!"

Iroh remained seated. "No, Zuko. I did not stop you. I did not have to stop you. Tell me, was it you who bent the lightning that struck the Avatar through the heart!? In what way did you have the Avatar?"

Zuko was once again struck silent, and Iroh pressed on. "Your sister had the Avatar. Suppose, in fact, it had been you that brought down that boy. Would you have received credit? No! Azula would have snatched it for herself! You know she is deceptive and treacherous, and yet yesterday, you stood by her side.

"I tell you again, Zuko: you stood at a crossroad last night, and you chose the path your family has set for you – the same family that banished you and sought to arrest you. I only hope that you truly believe in what you are doing." And with that, Iroh sat back again, picking up his tea to sip it once more.

Zuko stood with his fists clenched, wound up to yell at his dear uncle the way he had so many times in the past. But then, slowly, he deflated. "I don't know what I expected," the prince said in a low, almost contemptuous voice.

"Nor do I." Iroh looked at Zuko from under his eyebrows. "Because I cannot offer comfort for you now. I can no longer be your crutch or moral compass." He paused. "And soon, you will be more on your own than ever."

Zuko frowned. "Why?"

Iroh almost laughed. Almost. He refrained, for Zuko's sake; the boy was still fragile, and while he needed to be shattered, this would not be the way. "You cannot seriously expect that Azula will let me live for long. I have faced her directly. Your sister will have me executed for treason – and rightly so."

Zuko's hands slammed against the bars, which glowed hot with Firebending. "How can you say that so calmly!?" he cried. "I won't allow it!"

"You will stop Azula?" Iroh asked with raised eyebrows. "How? You are just her plaything."

Zuko's breathing was harsh; the bars under his hands cooled slowly. He turned away.

"I won't allow it," he said again, before stalking away.

"Zuko, don't be a fool!" Iroh called after him, but his nephew was gone.

Iroh closed his eyes and prayed that he had not lost Zuko as surely as he had lost his own son.

&

When the Sokka-dubbed Aang GAang sat down to breakfast, it was solemn. Katara had calmed from her infuriated state, but there didn't seem to be much to say. Aang seemed chastised and down; Sokka, too. Toph was never one to make conversation, and the Earth King seemed to pick up on all their moods - after remarking that he had never been camping before, brightly, and receiving blank stares, that is.

When they were just finishing up, Toph finally spoke up. "So what now?" she asked in her petulant voice.

"We're not sure," Katara began, but Sokka spoke over her.

"We're going to get Aang a Firebending Master."

Toph's eyes widened slightly, although she did not lift her head. She rarely did. "Where?"

"Your friend," Aang said quietly. "The Fire Nation guy, Iroh."

Katara sighed aloud. "Aang …"

"Katara," Sokka interjected, "do you know where to find Jeong Jeong? I didn't think so. Now, do you seriously propose we spend weeks searching for a guy who wants to stay hidden, while the Darkest Day passes us by?"

"We are not going back to Ba Sing Se!" Katara nearly shrieked.

"For once, I'm with Sugar Cup," Toph added. "We barely escaped there as it is."

"But Iroh is going to die!"

This was Aang, and his raised voice made everyone pause. He glared at all of them. "I know I'm hurt, and I know I almost died, but I'm not dead. I'm not talking about taking on Azula and Zuko head-on, I'm talking about sneaking in and saving Iroh! We're not leaving him there!"

Katara looked sorrowful, but Toph spoke up before her. "And how do you propose we do that?"

Sokka jumped in here. "Earthbending! We can tunnel in, get Iroh, and tunnel out, and no one will be the wiser. We'll just have to knock out a few Dai Li, and with Toph's metalbending, we won't even need a key. Bam! The old guy is free, and we're back in business!"

"But we don't even know where in Ba Sing Se Iroh is being held!" Katara pointed out.

"It's probably the palace cells. I mean, Lake Laogai was destroyed, so where else would he be?" Sokka shrugged.

"And we know where those are located … how?" Katara reminded him sharply.

"Actually," began the Earth King, but Sokka was hot for this now.

"Toph can feel anything under the earth. She could probably find Iroh even if he was a hundred feet underground."

"I have to be close enough to do that," Toph reminded him, "And I don't think we can get that close without the Dai Li spotting us."

"Excuse me," the Earth King said.

"But if we tunnel close enough …"

"In what direction? And what if the palace cells aren't underground!?"

"Excuse me!" the Earth King exclaimed.

Everyone stopped talking and looked at the deposed king, who cleared his throat delicately with a slight blush.

"Well, now that I have your attention … there is a man who lives in the Inner Circle. His ancestor was the man who designed the Palace. I imagine that if anyone has a map that could tell us how to get to the cells, it would be him." He smiled.

Aang beamed at the news. "That's exactly what we need!"

"But there's no way we can get to the Inner Circle without being spotted," Katara protested. "This is the same problem we had before."

"Yet," Sokka intoned, his eyes bright. "Sure, the Dai Li would totally recognize us – but that's mostly Aang's fault. He's got that huge blue arrow on his head that no one can miss."

"Hey!" Aang protested, rubbing the tattoo in question.

"But we just need to sneak in for a few hours at most," Sokka continued. "And by that time …" he reached up and let out his customary ponytail, letting his hair fall around his face. "We'll be unrecognizable."

"We will be?" Katara asked nervously.

"Yep." Sokka's smile turned slightly sad. "Sister dear … it's time for a haircut."

Tbc

Tah-dah! Season 3 of A:TLA as I would write it. Hopefully it will give some small number of people something to enjoy while we wait for the real Season Three.

Vikki