Disclaimer: I do NOT own Avatar: The Last Airbender
They fled. They had no idea where they were going but they went anyway. The only things ahead were the dark abyss of night and uncertainty. The apprehension was tangible. Fear could be tasted on each of their tongues. No one knew what the present or future meant for them, all they knew was they couldn't go back. They'd had to leave. So they did.
The five people riding on Appa could get to sympathy, no help anymore. They were hunted, despised by their enemy. The only ones they could have trusted were their friends who were threatened by the enemy, and now, their former comrades in this war were far away, long gone. Why would strangers want to help an oddly-thrown-together group of depressing, lost travelers? Ones who were ruthlessly stalked to no end by a nation that was violent and relentless, now more than ever? A team aside whom trouble seemed to abide like a bee by dangerously sweet honey. Kind-looking passersby were just that - passersby, and amidst a harsh and ageless war, why would a simple civilian want to attract possibly hostile attention?
So the group was back to square one. No one to trust except for those so far away - by miles and by time - that is was futile to expect any sort of help from them. This time, all they had was themselves. All they could count on were their bruised, broken-spirited selves. On second thought, that was worse than square one.
Stars shone brightly on the face of one traveler, trying to illuminate the hope and contentedness that was no longer there. Thousands of tiny lanterns could adorn the sky but it wasn't enough... he knew none could ever take the place of the ever bright moon...
It was gone tonight, and he knew that the hours until daylight would be difficult as it wouldn't be there to give him strength - he looked to the mournful faces around him - and neither was anyone else. He couldn't see two of the faces but he was well aware of their own predicament, one because they were heard by restrained sobs, and the other, because he could not be heard at all. Sokka had tried desperately to be there for his sister but she was too busy trying to be strong for Aang and herself at the time to accept the little sympathy he could offer. He told her they were going through the same thing, but as he left, he realized that something was in fact different. He could tell by the way she told him he had enough problems to worry about, told him that she was better off left alone, with Aang. He'd slowly backed away, her eyes dark and filled with resentment as she continued to tenderly stroke his cheek... very much alone.
That didn't stop him from suffering as well, however. Sokka didn't have to feel her pain to know how much she hurt, or see her tears to know how much she cried. All he had to do was lie there and realize how much her tears of fourteen years resembled the tears of years ago from when she lost her favorite toy, to when their dad had left them, to when their mother had died. Just knowing his sister was hurting reminded him of the horrible experiences they had both had to go through before, and at times, were still going through now.
The pain would never leave them, Sokka discovered through his sister's cries and now his own unsought tears. They just had to learn to move on. He caught a glimpse of Katara trying to revive the body that lay next to her, no longer breathing. Learn to move on, he thought, and gulped. No matter what happens.
Sokka coming to see her was a blurred vision in her mind's eye. Actually, it was most likely blurred to begin with - she had already been crying too hard to see clearly. She appreciated his concern, but she knew nothing would help anytime soon. She had thought, after seeing Aang open his eyes when she used her Spirit Oasis water, that he was healed, and that things could only go up from there. As she soon found out though, the fates would not have that be the case.
Katara had laid her friend's head against her once she had healed his wound. She wrapped her arms around him, holding him close for her comfort as well as his essential warmth. She could feel his steady heartbeat gently throbbing and decreasing as he fell into a deep sleep. She thought of all the events in that hard long day. She needed sleep badly. She sighed as she helplessly wondered who could have possibly known that the almost perfect invasion plan would turn into this? Sadly, Katara let another tear fall as she looked at her friend's motionless face.
And that's when she realized his heartbeat had never stopped slowing down.
Not a single pulse could be felt through his chest. The steady rise and fall of his diaphragm became imperceptible, then nonexistent. Katara panicked. She had healed him hadn't she?
Jumping up, Katara shook Aang's shoulders brusquely. "Aang," she whispered urgently. Nothing. Her tired mind could think of nothing to do and the fear coursing through her veins took the place of every other emotion. She had no water and her rational thought was rapidly fleeing from her as well. What could she do? She had to jolt him out of this; in a fit of nervous frenzy, she slapped him across the face. "Aang!"
Suddenly, he heaved a deep inhale of air and his pulse was once again normal. Shocked, Katara reached a tentative hand to Aang's red cheek, trying to rub the blood back through it. Wondering what was wrong with her mind, she whispered a small "sorry" in her friend's ear before her voice could crack further.
Katara slowly returned to her former position sitting down and made sure a firm hand could monitor the boy's heart. Unfortunately, she knew what this meant. She recalled the siege from the fire nation that killed her mother - she forced back a sob. Her father had been badly injured also and an elder would stay by his bedside and those of other gravely hurt villagers to make sure someone was there to keep their hearts beating.
Unbidden tears of fatigue fell like lead from her eyes. She normally wasn't one to cry pathetically, but these past few days... and this... this was an exception. Her best friend was a few breaths away from death and it was up to her to keep him alive.
There would be no sleep for her for a very long time.
The emotional cloud that hung over the group was more than a bit suffocating. You didn't have to see anyone's face to know that they were either crying or close to it. Toph had learned long ago to fight for her own causes, no matter what it took, needless to say she wasn't a big fan or practitioner of emotional display - much less the type that involved water constantly dripping out of people's eyes. Yet, amidst all of this, Toph couldn't help but feel burdened by sadness herself, and "fighting for her own causes" seemed futile and pointless, now more than ever.
She remembered her life with her parents and realized the only sadness she had ever felt was the pain of enclosure and imprisonment. Feeling like a caged wild animal was horrible in and of itself, but ever since she had joined the group, she realized there was more to bad feelings than just those she had experienced. They themselves had lost family, ones they loved.
And so, she learned to feel how they felt and finally witnessed firsthand what this war had put everyone through. Sensitivity was something she expected from - yet didn't ask for - from everyone, but until somewhere in recent days, had never found any reason to give back. This in addition to the fact that now, she could experience this pain firsthand was why she blindly climbed down from the albeit small sense of comfort on Appa's back to her two friends laying against his shoulders.
Following Katara's breathing, she safely made it to the other girl's side and sat there waiting for Katara to spark up a few words from her mouth. This was for Katara's benefit, not her own so to make it easier on Toph - because sympathizing was not part of her vocabulary anyway - the other girl had to play an active part in this. She wasn't about to look like a raving schizophrenic by having a one-sided conversation no matter how much it could help Katara.
Toph was concerned. Not an idiot.
After a few moments turned into minutes of silence, Toph frowned. When something was wrong and was bothering her, it was completely unlike Katara to keep her mouth shut for so long. For as long as she could remember, the waterbender had been relatively outspoken and was quick to mention anything nagging at her. Toph had figured that out very early in their relationship. She placed her hand gently on her friend's shoulder to feel her erratic and shaky breaths. Her heartbeat was weak and fast... The poor girl was exhausted and terribly worried. Toph then felt Aang's chest, pushing away Katara's hand, hoping that she would be able to tell Katara that the boy would be okay - however, his pulse was much worse than hers. It threatened to halt at any given point in time and before Toph could do anything more, it did just that. She froze. So much for trying to encourage her friend.
Not a single additional word came out of her mouth before Katara's hand instinctively shot to Aang's neck to feel his pulse. She quickly realized the situation and proceeded to start feeling around for something. Toph couldn't tell what she was doing. She kept her distance, still gripping Aang's shoulder to sense his body's reactions to whatever she was trying to do. It provided her with an inside view of Katara's actions and gave her the ability to tell when Aang's heart would start up again... but by the looks of it, chances of revival were grim. Toph kept her hand from shaking as she vaguely felt Aang's chest contract and relax as if something were constantly freezing and melting. The sensation moved to the left of his chest and did the same. Toph felt nothing improve and she shuddered. This was a real person dying here right in front of her. She was strong but the binding fear of death was stronger. His skin felt cold. She bit her lip. It didn't matter that he was Twinkletoes, he was her friend. And she was dead scared.
She sighed. She had tried to avoid admitting it for the sake of her self-pride - her identity. If she wasn't "Toph the Strong", then who was she? She didn't want to be "Toph the Weak, Sweet Little Girl" since she had grown up like that and hated it. She didn't want to go back there, and yet she still cared deeply for her friends. She could be tough, but she was allowed to have feelings - and for her it was a fine boundary to walk.
Pride, to her, meant not looking like a wimp in front of those who know you to be strong. Doing that led to mockery which only led to more tears. She had to stay strong and lately, the need to be that way increased tenfold what with the war and the constant bickering from that horrible city of Ba Sing Se.
Ba Sing Sucks, she muttered mentally.
She'd practically cried in front of Katara that day and she felt pathetic when she thought of her reactions. But where could she draw the line between acting tough and acting hurt so that she could actually be herself? Toph sighed again. It had been a very long day and she must be immensely tired if the Blind Bandit, of all people, was having deep philosophical questions within herself. That was simply not Toph. It did help her figure out a few things though. On some occasions, it was good to be the stubborn, hardened soul that she was, but when around friends, she had to learn that she could relax and let go of an untruthful decorum.
She had never been able to do that in her entire life.
Crying in front of others meant letting them share some of the heavy burdens on your back. For once, she would let others - people she trusted with her life - carry that baggage for a while. In the face of pain, instead of hiding inside as the world screamed for her to do, she would trust those friends with her heart now as well. She could be the girl with feelings that she actually was, before going back to being same old annoying Toph. She no longer fought with the lump in her throat as she helplessly sat back, leaving her two friends with whatever destiny was in store for them. Come to think of it, they were the only two whom she had ever openly cried in front of. They were the only ones who ever saw tears drip from her eyes.
Salty rain licked Toph's cheeks as Aang still sat there with a sobbing brown head laying across his chest.
And they would be again.
He couldn't believe it. He was sitting here, aboard an otherwise extinct flying beast, fleeing from the very city which he ruled. The very city which had fallen, the very city which was now being controlled by enemy hands. It had merely been a day and a night since his happily oblivious world had come crashing down and pulled with it everything along its path. Lately, life had an odd way of swiftly yanking seemingly perfect trust out from underneath him, leaving nothing but a few war-hardened youths to fall back on. Even though they had stormed into his palace and had known him for but several hours, their trust seemed to be the most stable, so allowing him a rock on which to gather his bearings.
Amidst a raging sea of confusion.
As young a king as he was, his younger years were just barely etched into his memory. Courses and classes pervaded day after monotonous day and when something strange seemed to occur, he never asked questions. He had learned not to as this was the way he and every other king before him had been raised. Each question got bigger and bigger, but the nonchalance of the vague answer never changed.
Intimidating figures in low-tipped, pointed hats followed him like a shadow whenever he roamed the palace corridors.
"Can I look in there?"
"Can I go outside?"
"Will you tell me where my parents are?"
And a few days later: "Will they come back?"
Each response unhesitant, detached, without remorse nor scorn. He'd grown up with these feelings, even with his mother and father. Never in his life had he felt any distinct love from them, so it seemed unnecessary to give any in return, it was a fact of life. He had no reason to believe otherwise. He cared about his parents after they had left but it was another fact of life. It was normal. He had absolutely no reason to believe otherwise...
This was what Earth was all about: it was short, blunt, to the point, factual, devoid of hampering emotion. Whenever he asked, he was responded to. Everything was open, nothing was a touchy subject, so he didn't notice the lies or secrecy that revolved around the Earth Palace. He was always satisfied with a straight answer.
Even if those straight answers were always "No."
Childhood had then shifted into adulthood and he learned to leave the question-asking to others... advisors, the Dai Li, and everything worked out fine.
Too fine, he now knew.
Now, his Grand Secretariat had planned a conspiracy against the Earth Kingdom and the Avatar group's supposed "friends" turned out to be pure enemies. All that was left was a fallen monarchy - not that Kuei's power had ever spread much farther than the walls of his throne room - and a lone group of stragglers with no place to go. The meaning of safety was no longer relying on clandestine sources who kept you from the world, it was actually being independent and thinking for yourself. Being independent, and running... running very far away.
Despair suffocated them, even as brisk wind forced air into their lungs. They would not let it enter, however, it was enough to feel the cold grip tighten around them, they did not need it inside them as well. Hope was lost and death haunted them, ready to strike the weak, and left a coppery taste on their tongues. Fear bound them, and yet the King of Earth felt so free. There was now a new meaning to his life. He would no longer be mollified by negative, unconvincing responses, but had to learn how to fight and to rule. He had never done that before - not that he couldn't, but he'd never before had a need to. He would do it, he still knew how to gain authority, and his optimistic mind only helped further... and all thanks to a bunch of kids that literally showed up on his doorstep. Or barged in, rather.
He looked at them a moment in contemplation. he shook his head as he still could not swallow the extent of their vigor, bravery, and perseverance. Even in the short time he had been in their company, it had been glaringly easy to see their struggles and hurts. They, only children, had been through more than he or any other Earth King could probably ever hope to imagine.
He saw the warrior's solemn resolution and strength. He saw his own citizen's hidden wisdom and resilience. He could feel the waterbender's love and duty toward the Avatar who bound them all together. The Avatar was one person whom he couldn't quite understand, as his struggles seemed all too personal and hidden. Judging by his demeanor and the reactions of his friends, he hadn't been like this for long, but still he didn't dwell on it. The boy had yet to wake up and even as Kuei busied himself with reminiscing thoughts, he couldn't help but wonder... wonder if the world's last hope would vanish beneath his very eyes.
But detachment was still engraved in his nurturing. He cared, as usual, but he could do nothing. It was up to others to change this situation, not up to him. He could only pray that none of this had been in vain, that everything would work out. He slumped, suddenly feeling the weight of concern and deprivation of rapidly depleting adrenaline flood his eyelids. He sat, half awake, against Bosco who lowly groaned in mourning.
"I know Bosco," the king sighed, "I know."
The hopeless air escaped the hearts of no one.
Momo whimpered and curled around Toph's neck. She had returned to her previous position on Appa's back and absently stroked him as she struggled to calm her sleepless mind. Appa let out a cry of pain at seeing his best friend in this state. Sokka comfortingly pet his neck, staying silent.
An anguished voice whispered in the wind and landed on the ears of all, although its speaker had no knowledge it was heard.
"Aang," a broken voice pleaded. "Why must you leave me?"
It haunted them for the rest of the night.
White, glowing eyes were all he could see. Luminescence and power seemed to float and fill the dark abyss. The observer took a step back in fear and for a moment paused - these eyes weren't directed toward him. Yet, he knew he was the reason that this power had been awakened. The reason for all that had happened. The reason that this power would soon overtake anything in its path.
The enraged eyes turned toward him.
His eyes burst open, adjusting to the view before him while catching his lost breath. He did not look around to find himself running, however. Instead, the light of daybreak splayed in through windows on a wall to illuminate the dark green and gold hues in the room. The regal ceiling above his face suddenly reminded him of where he was, and why, and he sighed in relief of the escape of his dream.
"Just a nightmare," he whispered to himself in the silence of early morning.
"What was, Zuzu?"
Zuko's body spun to the, now open, doorway on his left, angrily taking in the figure that leaned on its frame. He was too tired to retort however, and let the remark pass as he replied in subdued irritation. He closed his eyes. "What do you want, Azula?"
She stepped inside, green clothing and plain bun still adorning her body. "Now what kind of a way to greet your sister is that, Prince Zuko?" she said, the words smoothly slipping off of her tongue. Not waiting for any response she continued, "We have a lot of ground to cover today." She laughed mirthlessly. "It hasn't even been a day and Ba Sing Se is already bowing to our feet, isn't that fantastic, Zuko?" Those pathetic citizens. And they'd believed that the Earth Kingdom government was flawless.
As her eyes pointed toward him in anticipation of an answer, his own flickered to the oriental carpet beneath his feet. "Yeah," he said, distracted. Thoughts of just how they had come about that victory invaded his mind, though he tried to push them away. He had never truly seen the horrors and casualties of war before this. Images of his ashamed uncle, near-dead avatar, and the heartbroken waterbender forced him to acknowledge that he had never quite realized the consequences of the war... That he had never quite realized his decision would ever come to this...
Azula eyed Zuko suspiciously. "Don't worry, brother. When we return home, you will have the honor of capturing Ba Sing Se for your nation. Leave the issue of the Avatar to me." She strode over to Zuko, placing her hand on his shoulder. "Father will be proud to have his rightful heir back in the throne, where he belongs."
Slowly, Zuko nodded. Normally, he wouldn't have even responded. He wouldn't have listened to Azula's words since they had never meant anything before, but it had been three years since he had set foot on his beloved homeland.
And he'd be back in line for the throne... with his honor.
That was all he had ever wanted. He knew that and so did Azula. That was why she confidently backed away from the bed and strolled out of the room, holding in a smile as she pressed the door closed. As soon as the latch clicked, though, her classic smirk appeared on her face once again. She left him to his musings, knowing without a doubt that things would go as expected.
It always amazed her how easy it was to mix truth with lies, how easily swayed one with no dedication was. She marveled over how easy it had been to pull Zuko into her cause -- to fight for her even though she would never dream of doing the same for him. She was aware of the difficulty of keeping him on her side, therefore knew the reason for his hesitation, but that was easily taken care of... she walked down golden halls mulling over her plan.
Saying he never was a traitor... He already was one from his very birth.
Restoring his honor for himself... He never had any honor to restore in the first place.
He still had hope for himself. It lie within a trap, he had no clue that the very redemption that he seeked was venom in and of itself. That was why this would work. Of course they were going back to their beloved nation. There was no doubt in her mind that he would be going back to where he belonged...
Except, where he belonged wouldn't necessarily be the throne.
Silent figures clad in green sneaked in the corners of the end of the hall. The two ornate gates on the far wall gradually opened for the petite girl who continued into the room, a satisfied look on her face. She climbed the steps and casually lounged onto the throne of gold. After brushing a strand of hair from her face, she turned to the man still kneeling on the ground before her, since her momentary interruption to check on her brother.
"Now," she stated. "Where were we?"
Long Feng scanned the writings of a tablet of paper that rested on his knee. "Ah. The issue of the Avatar."
Azula could still feel that crisp satisfaction after striking down the most powerful being on the earth. At first, she admitted, such raw power struck her and that emotion of awe came over her immediate senses... but then logic once again took control. Logic and reason were the only thing you could count on -- feelings just hindered progress. Zuko and that defenseless waterbender cradling a vulnerable body last night were a perfect example of that.
No one had been watching. She had waited, prepared, and struck, and no one had suspected a thing.
The outcome of this was, of course, accounted for; everyone worthwhile knew what happened to an Avatar killed in that all-powerful state. He had not seen the sense in leaving the Fire Nation to their war, so he had paid the price by being the one to break the cycle forever. It was a state induced by feeling, and look where it had brought him now. Airbenders never listened to reason, that was why she had won. It didn't matter what healers could do. She had known exactly what she was doing with that lightning, down to the point of entrance in his heel, and its exit from his back. She knew very well what she had done.
"Yes... the Avatar. Tell the Fire Lord that he will no longer be a problem to us." The man hastily scribbled on the pad.
"But, Princess, " Long Feng frowned and questioned the girl above him, "didn't he and his friends escape?"
"I assure you, they can do nothing without him." Azula continued with baleful pleasure. "It is my great pride to inform the Fire Lord--" Long Feng looked up expectantly.
"--that the Avatar is dead." Azula smiled.
A/N: This is going to be my take on some issues of S3 and just a little of my imagination run wild. Hope you enjoyed! Reviews and criticism are greatly appreciated.