AVATAR: The Last Airbender

Book 3: Fire

Chapter 2: Return to Ba Sing Se

"I can't grow hair!" Aang protested.

Sokka gave Aang a doubtful look. "Sure you can," he pointed out. "You just stop shaving."

"You don't understand. It's a vow," Aang explained, his tone slightly pleading. "All the Air Monks of the Northern and Southern temples never grow out their hair. It's a matter of spirituality."

"I'm sure the Great Spirits will understand if you grow hair," Sokka sighed. "Especially since they probably think it's more important that you live long enough to fulfill your destiny."

Aang stuck out his lower lip and pouted, but he didn't make further protest. Sokka looked satisfied. "How's it going, Katara?" he called across the camp.

Katara was wrestling Toph's hair down into a bun. "Honestly," she grumbled, "I have no idea how you get your hair into your hat."

"It's an art form," Toph answered blandly. "… Just shave it off. I don't care."

"I care," Katara answered primly. "If we've got to change our appearances, at least we can look nice." She fingered her own locks, now chopped off to just brush her shoulders. "Now, hold still. I think we can manage this with a few more pins."

&

After that, however, it was a brief waiting game. Aang's hair didn't grow terribly fast, and it took three days for him to sprout what amounted to a closely-shaved buzz cut. "Try eating some fish," Sokka suggested. "Hair grows faster when you eat that. Oh, and red meat. Lots of red meat."

Aang was still rather touchy about being forced to abandon his vow of baldness (Sokka's words), and he didn't even look up from his vegetarian meal. "Just because I'm breaking one vow doesn't mean I'm breaking another one," he responded.

The Earth King was still vaguely delighted with the idea of camping, and he helped Sokka upkeep the camp and collect food. His outer robe was donated to Aang, whose clothes were tattered beyond recovery, and modified to better fit the Airbender by Katara. "We're going to have to buy him some new clothes, though," Katara noted. The shoulders were too wide, and Aang looked rather put-off by them, standing there with the sleeves rolled up four times.

"Why? I think they look great," Toph said.

"Yeah! I—wait a minute," Sokka agreed before realizing that he was in agreement with a blind person. "I hate it when you do that."

In the meantime, Aang was subjected to plenty of training. He was still healing; Katara fretted every time he migrated from his Waterbending practice to his Earthbending practice, since Toph was no easy taskmaster, but he always emerged unscathed. But like when he was separated from Appa, he seemed down, and he spent far more time meditating than usual.

"Aang, Iroh is going to be okay," Katara promised. "Zuko seemed pretty attached to him. Azula's mean, but I don't think she'd … kill him just yet. After all, Zuko just switched back to her side, and she probably wants him to stay there."

"You can't promise that," Aang answered, bending a thin rope of water through the air.

Katara wondered what else was bothering the young Avatar, but she didn't ask.

Finally, a week after the fall of Ba Sing Se, Katara proclaimed Aang to be in good enough shape to attempt the daring rescue of Iroh. She was backed up by Toph, who said Aang's heartbeat was back up to its normal strength. Sokka was raring to go.

"Finally! Took you long enough, Aang," he accused with a fond slap to the back of Aang's head. The Airbender grunted, but smiled.

They were some miles to the north of Ba Sing Se at the moment – outside the outer wall, but at least not surrounded by endless desert. Momo had disappeared for most of a day but returned looking very pleased and very full, settling on Bosco's shoulder. Against all reason, the two had become fast friends.

Aang hugged Appa's forehead before they all climbed on the bison for the flight back to Ba Sing Se. "You all rested up, buddy?"

Appa roared loud and low, and Aang scrambled up to his place on Appa's neck while the rest of the group settled on his back for the (unfortunately) saddle-less ride. "Yip yip," Aang called, and they were flying.

"It's good to see you up on Appa's head again," Katara said gently, smiling at Aang. Aang looked back with an equally gentle smile and sighed. "I'm really lucky," he confided after a moment. "I almost lost … everything." My past lives. The Avatar State. You.

"But you didn't," Katara said. She rested a hand on Aang's shoulder.

&

Zuko was in mental agony.

It was a somewhat beautiful thing to behold, Azula thought. Her older brother, supposedly 'destined' to take the crown from the Fire Lord upon his death, was a weakling.

It wasn't precisely that he was a weakling in body, but rather, a weakling in his heart. Some would have said Azula was heartless, but that wasn't true. She was just firm. She knew what she wanted, and no one could stand between her and her goals. Dear Zuzu, however, didn't know what he wanted, or even, really, what others wanted of him.

Azula knew, for instance, that Zuko could have – should have, really – been a powerful Firebender, perhaps even Azula's equal. But he was only average – and not for lack of potential. He had shown some impressive techniques down in that cave. No; Zuko's Firebending was weak because he was weak himself, torn between his uncle and his father.

And oh, what a beautiful thing it was to watch Zuzu slowly breaking himself down to nothing.

But as entertaining as this was, Azula needed her older brother to firm up. The trouble was deciding just how to go about that. Uncle Iroh should have been executed for treason by now, for instance, but Zuzu was just too attached to him for that. However, Uncle would never support Zuko's decision to rejoin the Fire Nation, which meant that every time Zuko spoke with Uncle, any work she had done to build him up would be undone.

It was an interesting quandary, and one with an equally interesting solution which had just now formed in her mind.

"Zuzu …" Azula began over dinner, "You know that I'd do anything for you, don't you?"

Zuko looked up, startled. The evidence of his cowardice glinted in the candlelight. "Really, sister." It was somewhere between hopeful and mocking.

Azula waved her hand dismissively. "Take our uncle, for example. You do accept that he's betrayed the Fire Nation, don't you?"

Zuko nodded after a moment, glancing away. He looked pained. Azula hid a smirk.

"I know how attached you are to him. I understand, really. He's the only person who stayed with you when Father ordered me to have you imprisoned," Azula continued. "And that, dear brother, is why I haven't had him executed yet."

Zuko went slightly pale, and he lowered his hands. Azula saw his teeth grit and could imagine his fists clenched in his lap. "Yes. About that."

Azula cut him off. "I know you don't want him killed, Zuzu. I won't execute him, I promise. But it's only a matter of time before Father arrives, and I don't know what he'll do. He's not as … merciful as I am." Not that she didn't know that Zuko knew about his father's 'mercy', but it was always good to remind him why he was here, now, rather than at the helm of his father's army.

Zuko drew a deep breath and let it out. "Father …" he said slowly. He breathed out a faint tendril of smoke. What are you thinking, Zuzu? Azula wondered. That since it's father's brother, he wouldn't do it? Hah. You of all people know better, Zuko. He stole the throne from Uncle, and he'd gladly steal his life as well.

"If he tried to have Uncle killed …" Zuko's voice hardened. "I won't allow it."

Oho! Azula marveled at the bite in Zuko's words. So the housecat has fangs after all. "You'd face Father over that?" she asked.

Zuko glared up at her. "He's all I have left."

Azula scoffed. "That may have been true last week, but now, the Fire Nation's force is at your disposal. I've promised you that, haven't I?" Of course, it was only with her say-so, but the illusion of power was something Zuko had always enjoyed. "You have me." She tried to sound hurt, but she wasn't very good at it.

Zuko snorted softly, but his lips curled upwards in something like a smile. "Hmph. Of course, sister."

Azula felt a moment of frustration. That response was unusually hard to read. Was Zuko really as wrapped around her little finger as she wanted to think? "In any case," she continued, pretending to dismiss his reply, "I have an idea to save Uncle's life."

Now that had Zuko's attention. "Really," he said, raising his single eyebrow doubtfully. "You'd do that for me?"

"Didn't I tell you? I'll help you, just as you've helped me," Azula reassured him. She sipped her tea. "It's simple, really. I'll announce his execution, but instead, we'll have him smuggled out of Ba Sing Se." Her lips curled. "Everyone wins. Uncle will survive, Father will think he's dead, and when you assume your rightful position as the Fire Lord, you can have Uncle at your side again."

Zuko considered this visibly. "… it's a good plan, but I don't know that Uncle will go along with it."

If their beloved uncle had any idea what Azula really planned to do with him, he definitely wouldn't go with it. Ah well, it wasn't as if she hadn't planned for this contingency. "Then you should see to it personally," she replied, hoping that would also help put to rest any additional fears Zuko may have had. "We'll send him someplace remote – an island, perhaps, with a contingent of guards to take care of him. He'll have the best care. It may be exile, but he'll live like a king," Azula lied smoothly.

Zuko's lips twitched. "If there's tea involved, he may agree to that," he said.

Azula was slightly surprised by the statement, and she didn't hide it. "Did you … just make a joke, brother?"

Zuko looked up at her. "What? I can't be funny?" he asked, deadpan, before sipping his own tea with a guilty look for the cup he held in his hands. "… I'll talk to him," he promised. "Maybe he'll listen."

Oh, that couldn't be allowed. Zuko couldn't talk to Iroh about this plan before Azula implemented it. "No, don't be silly." Azula interrupted with slight vehemence. "Since when has Uncle ever agreed to do the best thing for himself?" She almost made a biting comment about his decision to accompany his banished nephew, but thought better of it at the last second. "His opinion isn't needed. We're saving his life, Zuko. He'll be grateful in the end, even if he isn't now." She couldn't have the ex-General picking up on her motives, after all.

Zuko gave Azula a long, considering look, and then his eyes dropped again. "If you say so, sister."

Azula couldn't help but think it felt so good to hear that word – 'sister' – on his lips with such naïve trust.

&

"I know this is going to make you nervous, Aang," Katara was saying, "But we've got to leave Appa here, outside of Ba Sing Se."

They were perhaps half a day's walk from the outer walls of the greatest, and formerly unconquerable, city of the Earth Nation, but still flying over the last of the forests. Aang rubbed Appa's fur; Momo was sitting on his shoulder, eating berry nuts thoughtfully. Katara and the rest were seated comfortably, considering that the bison was flying at a slow speed.

"If we stop here, how are we going to get in?" the Earth King wanted to know.

"We could tunnel in!" Sokka suggested cheerfully. Toph scowled.

"Stupid! It's not a problem for me, but that'd take days! Besides, there's an entire army of Earthbenders in there."

"That's true, Sokka," Katara agreed worriedly. "A ground attack might be exactly what they'd expect."

"What about the sky, then?" Aang suggested, pushing up his sleeves for the umpteenth time. "If we fly high enough, the guards won't be able to see us!"

"But we have to land eventually!" Katara protested. "We'll be spotted then."

Sokka leaned over Appa's back, peering at the ground below them. "Hey, I have another idea."

"What now?" Katara sighed, poking her brother in the side to make him yelp. "Walk right in the front gate!?"

Sokka glared at her, then pointed down at the road they were following, which was populated by a small stream of travelers. "Actually, yeah," he said. "That's exactly what I was thinking."

&

They landed in a small clearing in the woods. "What do you suppose those people are traveling to Ba Sing Se for? Surely they know it's a Fire Nation conquest now," Katara complained.

"Not necessarily," the Earth King replied. He looked slightly embarrassed. "As you know, I had never left the palace before these last two weeks. My face was … not well known." He paused. "Should Azula want to contain Ba Sing Se and keep it peaceful, she would simply have to assume the title of the Earth King. If the Dai Li are loyal to her, they will keep her in power quietly."

"Until the Fire Nation army comes and destroys Ba Sing Se," Sokka hissed bitterly.

Aang was petting Appa. "Don't let yourself get kidnapped this time," he told his bison. "If anyone tries to take you, just fly away. I know we'll find each other again." Appa growled his acknowledgement.

"So Sokka," Toph spoke. "Your brilliant plan is to just join this caravan or whatever and walk into Ba Sing Se, then."

"Yeah, pretty much," Sokka agreed.

Toph snorted. "Dressed like that?"

Sokka looked down at his dusty, well-worn clothes. "Well, why not? I mean … hey! It's not like you know what I'm wearing!"

Katara put a hand on her brother's shoulder. "Actually, Sokka, she's got a good point. We are dressed like Watertribe members, and that might be enough of a tipoff for the Dai Li, even if we do have different haircuts." She sighed. "We need better disguises … like Aang. I'd hardly recognize him."

Aang's hair covered most of his tattoo, and his overlong sleeves covered his hands, but there was still a blue arrow poking out of the front of his hairline. He'd donned his usual conical hat to cover it, and he looked almost comical with his huge tunic. "Recognize who?" he asked, just coming into the conversation.

Everyone except Toph looked at Aang. "Never mind," Katara said simply.

"But where are we going to get new clothes?" Sokka asked plaintively.

Toph smiled, not lifting her head. She reached into her sleeve and produced her namesake ticket, the pass that had gotten them places when money wouldn't. "How much do you think this is worth?" she asked. "New clothes for everyone, maybe?"

&

"Your lunch, sir."

Long Feng accepted the food at his private table proudly, and the Dai Li that had brought it fell silent, his face schooled to perfect blankness. There was silence as the Cultural Minister ate primly, with the attitude of a king.

"And how is Lady Azula today?" Long Feng asked as he sipped his tea.

"As well as ever," the Dai Li said, not turning his head. He paused for a moment. "She is … invulnerable."

Long Feng's eyes widened slightly. Ah. The Code. It had been a long time since Long Feng had needed to use it, but now was an excellent time to bring it back. A bit of smugness slipped into his voice. "Then you attend to her carefully," he said.

"As always, sir. As do we to you."

It was a warning – a split in the ranks. Some still considered Long Feng their leader, but others would follow Azula – whether out of fear or loyalty, it was impossible to tell. Long Feng narrowed his eyes. "She is shrewd."

"But those who haven't met her almost think she is a legend," the Dai Li continued.

Anyone who hasn't met her face-to-face considers me their leader! Long Feng nearly crowed in triumph, but he schooled himself to a gentle cough. It meant that he still controlled the information about Ba Sing Se that came to her ears. He still had power.

"Oh, she is most certainly one. An amazing legend – the first to ever conquer Ba Sing Se." Long Feng wiped his lips with a napkin. "And we will serve her faithfully." Or not.

&

It turned out that a linens merchant was part of the long parade into Ba Sing Se, and he was entirely too happy to accept Toph's namesake in exchange for a bundle of classic Earth Kingdom clothing. Soon the entire group was decked out in simple but well-woven common clothing – even the Earth King – and were on the long march to the outer walls.

Bosco and Momo were left behind with Appa – the flying lemur had become known as 'The Avatar's Pet' over the course of their initial stay in the city, and a real bear was uncommon enough that Sokka thought it would be unwise to have him along. (Well, the real reason was that Bosco wasn't that smart, and Sokka was already sick of him.)

"Are you sure it's all right that you sold the Bei Fong name?" Katara asked worriedly. "That ticket's been so helpful …"

"It's fine," Toph said firmly. "I got kidnapped in Ba Sing Se, remember? That means that Mother and Father are still looking for me. Using that card is a great way to track us."

"In more ways than one," Sokka grumbled.

"Oh, look, the guards!" The Earth King exclaimed. "We're almost there if we can see the guards." And indeed, by sundown the wall loomed above them, so tall it was hard to see the top.

"What if they ask for our names?" Aang wanted to know.

"Make one up." This was Toph, who somehow, without even lifting her head, gave the impression of shooting daggers with her eyes at Katara. "And this time I'm picking my own name."

"And that is?" Katara wanted to know.

"Daishi." Toph smirked under her bangs. "You can be named Shazi."

Katara rolled her eyes. "No thanks. How about Shannu?"

"I think that suits you, Katara," Aang said sheepishly.

"I'll be Shi—" Sokka started, but Katara cut him off with a laugh.

"Shifei," she said pleasantly, giggling a little at Sokka's following pout. "And Aang can be Youyi."

"What about me?" the Earth King asked.

The four children looked at him with slight incredulousness. "Well … what's your real name, to start out?" Aang asked. "We never found out."

"Oh, of course! How could I have forgotten." It had been so long since the Earth King had been referred to as anything other than his title (or some pronoun thereof) that he hadn't even thought to mention it. "It's Taizi, which was rather literal at the time, of course …"

"That might be a little suspicious," Katara suggested. "How about Ping?"

The dethroned king considered this. "Ping … yes, Ping seems like a good name. That's fine."

But when they got to the gate, the guards merely waved them through without a word or question.

Sokka scowled. "Wow, to think I'd forgotten: there is no war in Ba Sing Se." He wiggled his fingers in a spooky manner. "I think the irony is killing me slowly."

"Come on, it's nearly dark," Aang answered cheerily. "We've only got one chance to sneak into the inner circle, right?"

"How do we get there?" Katara wanted to know.

Toph's hand was on the ground. She pointed upwards with her other hand. "Remember the train that took us through the city?" she asked. "It's coming this way."

Aang glanced around. The train traveled on an elevated track over the lower walls of Ba Sing Se; it was at least twenty feet up. But there were no immediately evident Dai Li around. "We're gonna catch that train," he declared. He grasped Katara and the Earth King around the waist, causing both to blink in surprise. "Toph, you get Sokka up there!" And with that, he leapt upwards, bending the air to propel him to a height of thirty feet.

The train-slash-trolley dashed underneath them. Aang landed on its roof more gently than a flying lemur (and he would know) and put Katara and the King down – just in time to catch Sokka being thrust at him. "Oomph!"

"Augh!"

Toph's feet hit the trolley with considerably more force than Aang's had, and the earthen platform she had used to bring herself and Sokka to the train's level crumbled behind them. Aang beamed from behind Sokka. "Great! We're almost there."

"We'll have to get off before the stop in the inner circle," Katara pointed out. "Or we'll be caught."

"And Aang?" Sokka snapped, rapping the small Airbender on the head. "That's the last time you Airbend in the city, got it!?"

Aang smiled sheepishly. "Got it. But no one saw us, I'm sure of it," he added confidently.

Aang was wrong.

Tbc

Notes: In the middle of this chapter, the Gaang has a conversation about names. The reason the names are such a big deal is because of what they each mean:

Daishi - Great Master

Shazi - fool

Shannu - Beautiful woman (Xiannu)

Shi - right

Shifei - right and wrong (aka good and evil)

Youyi - friendship

Taizi - Prince

Ping - ... I have no idea, but the name amuses me.

Next chapter: The Traitor

Aang and his friends go to rescue Iroh from the palace dungeons, but it's never that simple, is it?

Hope you all are enjoying the story! For the cover image for this 'Book', go here: http:// ww w. deviantart .com /deviation /45023395/ . It's drawn by yours truly, so, um, it's not very good, but it may give you some idea of what the Gaang looks like now.

Thanks to everyone who reviewed the last chapter: Blonde-Existentialist, nadia, Sword on Fire, IGAF-kun, sammiann226, Lady Lunas, requim17, Aphraxus, Cloud-123, pokey, sakunade, and Indigo44. Thank you for your suggestions and praise; you helped me write this next chapter.

Reviews adored and greatly appreciated!