A/N: Sorry again for the extremely late update. RL has been quite busy and taxing.
This was a long chapter, so split into two….the second part is coming soon. I promise! :D
God is the Sun and when His rays fall upon your heart, not impeded by the clouds of egoism, the lotus blooms and the petals unfold.
— Sri Sathya Sai Baba
- solar sympathy -
- (part 1) -
Zuko sat—head bowed, dark hair hanging over his eyes—on a large flat rock outside the cave, where Katara had left him to rest after she'd finished healing him. She'd warned him not to overdo anything, and to wait a bit to try to get his strength back, but he was reluctant to sit and do nothing. He wanted to push onwards toward Omashu, and beyond—he wanted to start the training she'd agreed to with him, to learn how to generate lightning; he wanted to find Aang's lost airbenders, if that would help him regain the Avatar State. Maybe there was even someone in the Earth Kingdom who knew something, anything, about Pai Sho and its hidden secret meanings that were whispered back and forth among old, wizened men…
There's just too much to do. No time to be spent sitting around nursing wounds that had already been healed.
He suddenly raised his head as he felt the air around him shift and shimmer, having become familiar with the subtle nuances of the Avatar's approach. "…How are you feeling, Zuko?" Aang asked hesitantly, gray eyes wide with concern.
"Better." He managed a small smile for the airbender's benefit. "Thank you."
Aang gave a heavy sigh that broke into a reassured grin. "That's a relief. I was really worried when I saw you fall, in the cave…"
"I know," Zuko nodded, unwilling to discuss it in detail. It reminded him too much in a parallel way of when he'd seen Katara holding the broken body of the Avatar after his fall under Ba Sing Se—her hair loose and around her face, drenched with her own water, holding Aang to her like her own child and looking back up at him and his sister as though they'd just murdered the world's last great hope...which, at the time, he'd thought he had.
Not exactly a pleasant memory. "I'm just glad Katara got to me in time." He lowered his gold eyes thoughtfully. "She's…really something. It's amazing what she can do."
His last comments seemed to take Aang off guard, and he noticed the airbender's features darken slightly as his eyes shifted downward. "…Yeah, she…she is. Something." Zuko wisely bit his lip and decided not to say anything else on the matter.
Their mutual moment of discomfort was soon broken by farewells going on nearby.
Sokka had finally shaken off his weed-induced stupor and was awkwardly addressing the Nomads, rubbing his head. "Hey, look, Chong, I'm…I feel kind of pig-sheepish about this. I'm sorry that I got so wacky on that moksha weed. I hope I wasn't too much of a burden on everyone, you know, with that whole 'and dieeee' thing in the cave—"
"No hard feelings, ever, man," Chong replied happily, grinning wide. He absently strummed a single chord on the pipa before extending a hand in goodwill. "I'm just glad it got you in tune with the world around you."
"And I'm sorry to hear you guys won't be going to Omashu again with us," Sokka went on, reaching out to amiably shake Chong's hand with a smile, and shrugged. "But…to be honest, I really didn't expect any of you to, either."
Chong pumped his hand with enthusiasm. "Sokka, my man," he said affectionately, "I consider myself fortunate that we've met up twice, already; I hope we meet up yet again on this road called Life. Traveling with you and Master Arrowhead is always an adventure." With that he pulled the Water Tribe boy in for a platypus-bear-sized hug.
"Same here." Sokka grinned, returning the embrace. He watched with a faint smile on his face as Chong and Lily and Moku headed out in an eastern direction of the city, playing their music and dancing happily.
Toph came to stand beside him, and called out to the departing Nomads with a grin: "And watch out for those komodo chickens, will ya?" Chong waved at her without turning.
Katara was already fixing a meager meal with their supplies, and looked up at her brother and Toph as they re-approached the weary group. "Zuko's still too weak to travel," she stated, "so we should make camp down here at the base of the mountain tonight. We can sneak into Omas—New Ozai, first thing tomorrow."
"I'm all right," Zuko made a half-hearted attempt to argue, straightening his spine as he did; she glared sternly at him.
"You need more rest."
"I'm fine, we should get moving, and get up to—"
"…No. You're not."
Aang seemed irritated by the plan, and even less enthused about having to listen to the two of them bicker over Zuko's degree of wellness. "But I need to talk to Bumi," he complained, frowning faintly at the group at large, studiously avoiding the waterbender's eyes. "I need to find out specifically if he knows anything about any Air Nomads that might be hiding anywhere near the city."
"You can do that tomorrow." Katara punctuated her statement with a forceful stir of the soup she hovered over as it cooked. Aang's fists tightened around the staff of his glider, his mouth turned downwards in frustration.
"No—this is important. I'm going to go talk to him, now!" Before Katara could argue with him further he was sprinting off, flicking open his glider and leaping into the air onto it, gaining altitude quickly.
She startled; just as quickly she jumped to her feet as he took off, and started to run after him. "Aang! Get back here! Don't you fly away from me like th—"
But it was Zuko who stood up to put a reassuring hand on her arm, halting her. "Let him go," he said. "He'll be all right. He can take care of himself." He understood the airbender's impatience, even if he himself would have chosen a different way to express it.
He felt Katara's bare skin briefly jump at the contact—then she was nodding, ducking her head slightly and pulling away from him. "You're right," she admitted. She suddenly looked at him standing beside her, scrutinizing and appraising him carefully, and she set her hands to her hips. "You are feeling better, aren't you."
It wasn't a question. Zuko nodded. "If this means you're reconsidering our plans this evening—"
"I am." She arched her brows. "…But not in the way you're thinking."
Aang's glider held him aloft in the air, high enough that he sailed over the crest of the mountainside where his friends rested at the bottom. He had a birds'-eye view of New Ozai, and with a twinge of disappointment he noted the Fire Nation factory still belching smoke, the stylized flame emblems and crests still adorning the architecture—as well as the stone monument to Ozai still intact at the city's summit.
His features tightened into a frown. It was obvious. Bumi still hasn't made his move. What is he waiting for?
He took a sharp dive on his glider as he spotted a Fire Nation officer in a nearby watchtower, and just barely ducked out of the soldier's line of sight, flattening himself against an adjacent pillar. He heaved a sigh of relief when the officer did a single sweep with a spyglass, and then headed back inside. "That was close," he breathed to himself.
There would be no aerial entrance into the city for him. Aang looked down below him at the lower structure of the outer wall and recalled how they'd gotten in the last time, undetected—the sewer pipe. It was wet and stinky, but luckily with his waterbending he wouldn't get a drop on him.
The thought of waterbending of course made him think of her, and momentarily he felt his expression pulling towards frustrated sadness—until he shook his head to clear it. No. Can't think about that, now. Have to focus.
He coasted down the city's wall to the sewer's entrance, and fished the cap of it off with the staff of his glider, releasing a stream of foul fluid from the pipe in the process. He wrinkled his nose at the unpleasant stench. "…Here goes nothing." Aang held his breath and pressed forward.
The light in the sky was fading by the time he made it up to the city's main sector, and he looked about warily as he emerged from a drainage tunnel. Nearly every single one of the city's original inhabitants had been evacuated after the last time they'd been to Omashu, thanks to Sokka's ingenious idea involving the Pentapox. Now it was only Fire Nation nobles and soldiers residing…and Bumi, if he could find him.
Jumping lithely onto the lower roof of a nearby residence, he tried to get his bearings. The room they'd held Bumi imprisoned in his metal and wood cage—which he could have broken out of himself, if he were Toph, his mind helpfully and fleetingly supplied—had been somewhere nearby, but it had been too many months and he couldn't remember exactly. He would have to go searching building by building for—
His thoughts were interrupted by a familiar voice on the balcony right above him, and again Aang flattened himself against the stone shingles, holding his breath.
"I'm glad to be back here again," the bubbly and perky voice chirped, and he immediately recognized Ty Lee, Azula's acrobatic chi-blocking friend, as the one speaking. He listened. "It feels like old times again, when we were kids; just you and me, right, Mai?"
A bored sigh answered her. "…And Azula. Remember Azula was always there, waiting to pull something on one, or both of us." Mai's voice became slightly louder as she joined Ty Lee on the balcony, and Aang carefully and silently inched away from the scene.
If Mai and Ty Lee were here, it meant Azula wasn't far behind. The notion filled him with a sickening dread, and he could suddenly feel the scar she'd given him on his back erupt in a flash of new pain, like a bright light behind his eyes.
He had to find Bumi. The future of his people depended upon it. He slipped off into the heart of the city.
"It's still a nice change to be by ourselves, you know," Ty Lee went on, looking searchingly at her friend and trying her best to decipher her mood, much to Mai's irritation. Ty Lee being Ty Lee, she likely wouldn't shut up until she'd deduced something about someone to her satisfaction. "And isn't it nice to be away from the stuffy old palace grounds, for a while?"
Since Zuko left, you mean, was the unspoken end she was sure should have been at the end of Ty Lee's sentence; nevertheless, Mai found herself agreeing anyway. "…Yeah. It's not bad." At least the air was fresh and clean here, and although her parents were an occasional annoyance, they stayed mostly out of her hair now after Azula had commandeered her services and insulted her father's own governing abilities to his face, shaming him fully in front of his family. There was something terrifying about the Princess that made her cohorts untouchable simply for having been in her presence, as though it had rubbed off on them somehow. Fear had a way of doing that to people.
"Don't forget, we're not here for a vacation, though," she reminded Ty Lee, and the acrobat's large, luminous gray eyes lowered slightly in disappointment as though she'd been scolded. "We've been given orders to be ready for something here, very soon."
"Do you really think Zuko and the Avatar are going to come here? To New Ozai?"
Mai's lips tightened. "I don't know for absolute certain. But it's likely, isn't it, given the fact that we've been sent here? Azula is never without a plan."
"That's right, she's a mastermind!" Ty Lee chirped. "Azula always has the situation covered, for any occasion, doesn't she?"
Mai managed a stiff nod, and not much else.
The next question was quieter and somewhat more hesitant, as though the circus acrobat had actually thought something through—shocking, Mai sneered in her own head—and a puzzle piece didn't fit. "But…what are you going to do if Zuko does come here?"
"…Whatever Azula tells me to." The flatness with which she said it surprised even herself.
"Even if—even if she asks you to do something you don't want to do?" Ty Lee sounded horrified by the prospect.
This time, Mai turned to face her, bristling. The question alone sounded mutinous, and she didn't like having her motives second-guessed. Sure, she'd said no to Azula before—more than once, even. But this was a subject that she knew for a fact the Princess demanded complete loyalty on.
She folded her arms in their long sleeves protectively over her chest, her eyes narrowed. "What exactly does that mean, Ty Lee?"
To her surprise the other girl's eyes were uncharacteristically solemn and serious, and Ty Lee held up her arms in supplication. "I'm—I'm not questioning your allegiances, Mai. Honestly, I'm not." She lowered her hands and looked earnestly at her friend. "I just—I know how you feel about him…" she rubbed her arms uncomfortably, "…and whatever Azula will tell you to do to him, I know it…it won't be good. You know that too, I know you do."
Mai turned away from her, to look again over the balcony. As high up as they were in the governor's mansion, they had a view of nearly the entire city before them, outlined by the orange and gold rays of the setting sun.
What was he doing, right at this moment? Was he even thinking of her? Was he regretting his decision to leave, to abandon his duty, his crown, his family, her? Or did none of that even matter to him, anymore?
I wish I knew, Zuko, she thought, watching the resplendent colors mingling before becoming darker as they settled below the horizon. I wish I knew why you did the stupid thing that you did, because you barely said anything in your letter—and now all I can think about is how you're going the way of the sunlight, sinking lower and lower into the dark until you're gone forever.
Her hand curled itself into a fist at the railing. And I can't follow you that way.
"I am in Azula's service, as you are…and Zuko is a traitor," she remarked coldly, still staring over the balcony; out of the corner of her eye she saw Ty Lee's face crumple with worry. "And whatever Azula asks me to do to a traitor, I'll carry it out. I won't hesitate to do it." She looked sternly at her friend, finally, and kept the chill purposefully in her voice. "You'd be smart not to disobey her, either."
"…Or else she'll do the same to me?"
Mai froze. It was the first time she'd heard Ty Lee say anything of the sort, even remotely, against Azula's sway over them. Mai had backtalked to the Princess's face before, refusing to do certain stupid or mundane tasks, but she realized at that moment that she'd never figured Ty Lee to have quietly grown the seeds of her own little internal rebellion herself. The girl had always seemed too happy-go-lucky, too ditzy and playful to realize just how precarious their situations were. Apparently she'd been wrong to judge.
"Don't worry," Ty Lee went on cryptically, still with that eerily calm, subdued voice, "if something happens…when it happens…I'm not going to let the situation get out of control. I'll handle it. And I'll protect both of us. I'll protect you."
She said the last words so quietly that Mai wasn't sure she'd heard them correctly. It was on the tip of her tongue to retort quickly that she didn't need protection, from anyone—but before she could speak her mind, Ty Lee had silently turned to go back inside.
Dusk was settling in, blanketing the land with a dark, soft hue. Zuko felt that melancholy stir again in his blood at the setting of the sun, something few firebenders—powerful ones—were privy to. It was a sad sort of feeling, like the strongest spark within him was slipping away, but he'd learned to appreciate it nevertheless. In the morning come sunrise, that spark would return with a vengeance; nighttime meant he had a chance to cool the flame that normally resided in him a bit, giving him the rare opportunity to be introspective. He found that his mind worked faster at night, with more clarity, when it wasn't heated by the daytime rush of blood and fire.
He came upon Katara at a small riverbank a good distance from their main campsite, and looked on curiously as she practiced, unaware of him—she was bending the water from the stream up into swirling spirals that churned in the air. Then, as he watched, she separated them into two and evaporated one into steam. The other spiral condensed until it looked as though the particles had become tiny droplets forming solid ice, suspended in mid-air as if hung there, like shimmering ornaments in the night sky.
"Katara?" he asked hesitantly, loathing the idea of interrupting her and possibly breaking her concentration.
The still-liquid portion of her water sloshed to the ground; the ice crystals fell like shards of glass. "—Oh," she gasped, turning to face him quickly. "I didn't see you there…"
She shook her head. "No, it's all right. I was just…" She faltered a bit in her explanation. "I was trying to combine the cold water droplets with warm water vapor in the air…it's something Aang and I have done together, before." Katara blinked at her own mention of the airbender's name and looked momentarily thoughtful.
Zuko saw something warring in her eyes. Suddenly and inexplicably, he wanted her full attention directed toward him—he wanted to clear the confusion from her face as neatly as wiping steam from a clouded mirror. He made another attempt to draw her interest again.
After all, might as well finish what you started, right?
"It looks…complicated," he offered inelegantly, unsure of what else to say. She brightened and focused on him.
"It's not. It's just all about controlling the temperature of the water…I can't necessarily boil large enough volumes of it as hot as you can," and here Zuko felt the smallest tinge of pride—was she complimenting him?— "but I can control the water droplets in the air if it's warm, and combine them with colder droplets. Of course since it's nighttime now, the air is cooler, so it's a little more difficult…" She trailed off as though in thought, and it occurred to him that she was extremely distracted by something.
Zuko rubbed the back of his head, his discomfort palpable. He felt as though he were still treading on fine ice around the waterbender, or maybe turtleduck eggshells—he was terrified that one wrong move or phrase on his part would turn her against him again, and his last chance at learning from her would be forfeited.
He supposed it was his responsibility to bring the subject up, even though it had been her idea in the first place. "I thought…um…that you wanted to start our training?"
"Oh…you're right. I nearly forgot about it." Katara's eyes cleared to a brilliant blue in the moonlight. There was something in the depths he couldn't identify. "…Maybe it would be best if we started out with a little sparring, you know—so you could see how I use the water for movement." He saw her cast a glance upward at the moon in the sky—halved, not full—and for the first time that night he felt a true pang of apprehension, wondering just how powerful her bending might be.
"…Okay," he replied, somewhat uncertain.
"Let's begin, then." She took her stance, unfolding her arms outward and bending her knees. She waved her arms slowly, pointing two fingers of each hand as they moved through the air…and to the Fire Prince's surprise he saw the water coalesce from the thin air around her, the droplets merging and shimmering as they curled around her forearms and hands.
It was almost like watching his sister conjure lightning. Only less terrifying, he thought. Slightly.
Zuko let his body fall into his own fighting form, still slightly hesitant but determined not to show it. He wasn't sure how sparring would allow him to learn much from her—after all, he would be busy fending off her attacks, rather than keenly observing her bending movements, and he needed to watch more than fight. His single brow fell into a light frown.
She seems awfully serious about this.
Her eyebrows flew up in an arch, the only giveaway he noted before she fell into step and sent a rushing water-whip his way. He dodged it as best he could, throwing his arms up in defense, his fire splaying against the attack and dissipating into steam. Katara gave him about half a breath's rest and quickly chased after it with another one.
The second wave hit him with a force hard enough to knock him off of his feet; he went tumbling across the grass.
Zuko raised his head from where he lay soaking on the wet ground, his wounded eyes betraying him before he masked it and hardened his resolve. So this is how these lessons are going to go, he realized. Fine…so be it, then.
He leapt to his feet—not yet ready to yield—and retook his stance. She was waiting for him. She plucked the air in a gentle motion to him with her fingers, beckoning.
Without thinking he easily took the bait and charged forward, fire flying from his fists. Katara blocked it, her shield spinning, and with her other hand and an exhale of her breath she spread a blanket of thick ice over the earth, effectively trapping his feet. His root was broken; he'd lost his balance. He quickly blew a hot gust of fire over his boots, freeing them. A ribbon of water snaked around one freed leg, grasping it, but he twisted and ducked low, and used his free foot to deliver a fiery kick. The ribbon was broken and he slid into a lunge, prepared to deliver a molten volley of heat in her direction.
But before he could, another jet of water—this time faster, and stronger—knocked him down and pummeled him, yelping in his surprise, into a nearby tree.
Zuko felt ragged as he pulled himself upright. She was stronger than he was at night, and she had the advantage. Somehow he had to remind her that he was on her side.
"…You've gotten…really good," he wheezed, in an attempt to placate her as he ducked between trees trying to evade, eventually stumbling back out into the open. It was a momentary reprieve to catch his breath. Clumsy, Zuko. And then— "Was everyone in the Southern Water Tribe as good as you are?"
He saw her body go rigid, saw the way the blue in her eyes suddenly and completely iced over, and suddenly realized he'd said something stupid. Oh, crap.
"No," she hissed between clenched teeth, "they weren't."
She lunged and sent a cascade of ice blades hurtling at him, her eyes blazing and her lips twisted in a feral snarl. He just had time to throw up a shield of fire against them, but his defensive posture was lacking. He was off-balance.
"Did you forget?" she called out angrily over the roar of his fire. "You were there, when you first came to collect Aang—you saw there was no one left. I had to learn by myself!"
The water from the nearby stream rose in thick ropes, twisting and curling at her whim, and Zuko managed to dodge most of them as they grabbed for his limbs. He ducked and rolled out of their paths, and managed to conjure a fire-whip; for a few precious moments he felt control of the situation returning. But he could feel the strength of her bending increasing in proportion to her anger, and he was tiring. It wasn't long before one of the water-whips seized him and took him down once more, flattening him against the ground.
Panicked, he wracked his brain in an effort to remember what he'd heard about the Southern Tribe as he got to his feet. "There were only women and children, I remember, no men." He winced, teeth chattering from the cold. His tunic was soaked. "—But what happened to the waterbenders?"
"Fire Navy raids," she yelled. "All of them were taken or killed. And I—I was—" Her rage was making it hard for her to speak; her movements spoke for her, arms and hands slicing through the air, the water whipping into a frenzy in her fury. "—I don't have to explain it to you! You should know!"
He goaded her, even as he struggled to defend himself against her onslaught. He wanted to know—he needed to know. "Tell me! All of it!"
"My mother died," she shouted, "she died protecting the last waterbender!"
And with a wave of her arms the flow of the entire river was suddenly redirected, rising and becoming a towering wave that slammed directly into his chest, full force. He went sprawling across the forest floor, gasping.
Either Katara rode the wave she'd created, or she had run faster than he'd thought she could—more likely the former—but immediately after he hit the ground she was atop him, straddling his body with her knees, with a dagger of thick ice in one hand held at his exposed neck.
"It was me!" she hissed into his face, hovering over him with the dagger and ready to run through his jugular at a second's notice. "I was the last one!"
Zuko lay still. He didn't dare breathe fire, much less speak—her eyes were wild with anger, and rife with pain, and he knew both of those well, too well—he could do nothing but simply lie still and surrender, his hands beside his head in supplication. He panted as he felt the cold sharp point of the dagger pressing against the skin of his neck.
Slowly her eyes cleared. Her breath came in gasps as his did, from their combined exertion, and the hand holding the ice blade wavered before it was finally lowered. He watched her eyes carefully. The look in the blue depths melted and changed, little by little, from hate and rage into sorrow and regret.
"Katara…I'm sorry," he whispered.
At his words the ice dagger became liquid, and fell from her hand to slosh wetly over his chest. She leaned away from him, sitting back, and he could no longer see the look in her eyes from the shadows of the trees above them.
"No…I'm sorry," she whispered hesitantly, and his ears strained to hear her quieted voice. "It's not you, is it? I shouldn't have—" She lifted herself from his chest and moved quickly away, putting as much space between them as possible.
Zuko waited for a beat before raising himself on his elbows to regard her standing over him. She was obviously ashamed she'd lost her temper so violently, but because of it he felt he understood her, now—at least, better than he had before. She'd been carrying the emotional burden of what had happened to her mother for so long, like a river dammed up inside of her; it had only been a matter of time before it would burst.
Her words under Ba Sing Se came to him again, unbidden. It's just…whenever I would imagine the face of the enemy, it was…your face I saw.
His single brow furrowed with determination as he recalled it. I'll make her see me as more than just the enemy, even if it means I have to prove it to her over and over again.
"…We'll call it quits for tonight," Katara was mumbling, "we can continue this tomorrow night…I'm really sor—"
She stopped, confused.
Zuko rose to his feet, still weary but with renewed purpose. He took a deep breath and exhaled heavily, steaming his clothes dry.
"Let's continue," he told her, holding her gaze. His voice was firm.
Katara hesitated, before nodding and retaking her fighting stance.
It was still dark, the night pitch-black around him, as Aang leapt gracefully from building to building. As he did, he called out for his friend in a harsh whisper: "…Bumi?...Bumi!..."
A wheezy, cracked voice spoke up from one of the dark, abandoned warehouses adjacent to him. "…Over here, Aang! Ehehehehe!"
"Bumi!" The airbender's voice was joyful at seeing him again, despite the fact that the Earth King was still imprisoned. Aang landed his glider with a flourish before the large metal cage.
"Bumi, I can't believe you're still here, and shackled up like this," he lamented, "but don't worry! I found an earthbending teacher—and she's so strong that she can even bend metal!" He grinned widely. "So don't worry, okay? We're going to get you out of here, as soon as poss—"
"Aang!" Bumi interrupted impatiently, his craggy brows furrowing on his head. "Didn't you remember what I told you, the last time you were here? About Neutral Jing?"
Aang's posture deflated, and he looked stricken. "Yes, I remember, but—"
"Then you know why I haven't done anything yet to free myself! I'm still waiting and listening for the right moment to strike, and it hasn't happened yet!"
The airbender was visibly upset. "But how long are you going to wait?" he demanded. "Don't you want to get out? You can't just sit in here forever! Your city needs you—the inhabitants of Omashu want to return home! And we need to defeat the Fire Nation in any way we ca—"
"All in good time, my friend." Bumi's cackling laughter and snorting reverberated through the empty warehouse.
"But…Bumi," Aang protested, "there's something else you have to help me with, and it's the other reason I came back to see you so soon."
The fuzzy white caterpillars above the old man's eyes lifted. "Oh?..."
"The survivors of the Western Air Temple," the young monk explained. "There were surviving Airbenders, from one hundred years ago, and a scroll that I found linked them to Omashu." Aang's voice turned anxious and pleading as he saw the Earth King duck his head slightly. "Please! You have to tell me where their descendents are! How can I get in touch with them?"
Bumi was uncharacteristically serious. "I'm…I'm sorry, Aang. I don't know anything about such Airbenders." He raised his eyes again to regard the Avatar. "I've never heard anything about survivors from the last Fire Nation raid."
Aang's face fell in surprise and dismay. "What? …But…but that can't be," he whispered, disbelieving, "I saw one of them. I saw a girl who was an Airbender!"
Bumi shrugged, as well as he could in his iron cage.
Aang his staff fall to the floor and he slumped to a sitting position on the ground before his friend, lowering his head. "…But now she's gone. And I can't find them. I was sure they were here…I was sure you knew something about them that could help me find them." He sighed, dejectedly, and dropped his head into his hands. "…What am I going to do now?..."
"Hmmm." The old Earth King rolled his eyes as if in thought. "Well, since we're not doing anything at the moment and have nowhere to be, why don't we just have a little chat?" He gave Aang a scraggly-toothed grin. "Why don't you fill me in on what's been going on in the world, in my absence?"
From between his fingers Aang peered up at Bumi, exasperated.
Zuko crashed head-first into his sleeping bag hours later, with an exhausted groan.
He was never going to get any proper training in waterbending techniques this way. Having Katara pummel him to within an inch of his life was not going to make him learn anything, except finding out exactly how much punishment at the hands of a waterbender he could take. She's going to kill me.
Nearby, he could hear the sounds of rustling and movement—someone was awake and moving about, but as worn out as he was, he had no energy left to raise his head.
"Hey, Hotpants," the whisper came, in a girl's voice sweet as hot-spun lemongrass sugar candy. Toph. "We know you were practicing with Katara, this whole time…you're really not much of a night person, are you?"
Without lifting his head, he replied into his pillow. "…She's going to kill me."
"Don't tell me you're tired? Don't you feel like doing a little more sparring~?"
He gave a broken moan into his pillow as part of his answer, and there was a chorus of snickers in response. "…Leave me alone," he whined. The sun was coming up in a few hours, and he with it, and his very bones ached with fatigue.
"So Zuko, you feel like doing some sword training, right now?" Sokka asked, prompting a round of giggling from the earthbender. "I really think I need some help with it. Like, hours of it. Of course this means I'd like to start out by having you just stand there, without weapons, and I'll come at you with the space sword, and you can just tell me if I'm doing the stances correctly, or if I need help with my form—"
"Please," the Prince mumbled, "stop…no more…I have to get to sleep…" The girlish snickering and giggling persisted.
"I'd also like to start practicing kickboxing," Sokka deadpanned seriously, and this time Toph couldn't hold back her guffaws. "But I don't have a punching bag. I wanna know if it's cool with you if I try it out on you, you know, just a few kicks—"
Zuko's groan turned into a growl as he flipped the pillow over and cocooned his head in it. It was going to be a long—short—rest of the night.
Hours later, Bumi and Aang were still deep in conversation.
"So, your energy is blocked in the seventh chakra, after you were hit by the Princess's lightning?" the king asked, twisting his jaw thoughtfully. "That's the chakra of earthly attachment, I believe, isn't it?"
"…Yes." Aang's eyes were downcast. "I tried to release it, but…" An image of Katara swam in his vision; he recalled the moment with Guru Pahtik, when he was asked to let go of her. He saw her bending her element, laughing as it danced and swirled around her, and he bit his lip in shame and frustration and bowed his head. "I just couldn't."
"So you haven't been able to activate the Avatar State again either, because of it?" Bumi questioned, his face belying his concern.
"No, I haven't."
"Aang, I'm sure you don't need me to tell you how serious this problem of yours is," Bumi said gravely. "If you cannot release your earthly attachments, you cannot unblock your seventh chakra. And if you can't unblock your seventh chakra, you can't hope to defeat Fire Lord Ozai—"
"—I know," the airbender responded testily, his brow furrowed. "I've been trying to figure out how to do it, but it's—it's too hard!" He ground his fists as he looked up again at the Earth King. "Isn't there a way I can still activate the Avatar State without giving up my earthly attachments? I mean, it can't be as cut and dry as that…the other Avatars were attached to—to things too, right? There's got to be a way to have both…"
"Aang," Bumi said in a stern voice, and the Avatar stopped. "You still haven't taken my advice. This is, again, about Neutral Jing. Too often in our lives we become focused on trying to get our own way, pushing our own will, that we forget to slow down and wait for an answer to be revealed. Too often, by attempting to make hasty decisions, we forget that our choices will have consequences. If you try and force something too hard to bend to your will, it will only end for you in disaster and defeat."
"Sometimes we need to wait and listen for our next move. Sometimes, we need to pay more attention to the state of the world around us…and then we will have the knowledge revealed to us as to how to handle the situation."
Raising his eyes again to meet Bumi's, Aang seemed calmer, more centered. "So…you think I should just wait, before I do anything?"
Bumi nodded from his metal prison. "Your answers will be revealed to you in time, Avatar Aang. In the meantime…oooh, the sun is finally coming up," he noted, turning his eyes to the nearby window to witness the sunrise. "It's about time! Perhaps it's a good time to work a little more on your earthbending, don'tcha think? I've been itching to see just how much you've learned from this new teacher of yours that you've spoken so much of!"
And with that, two large boulders of rock came bursting through the wall of the warehouse, crushing the metal cage he was imprisoned in at the corners. The iron frame bent and creaked, and the metal fell apart around him like harmless planks of wood.
"Bumi?" Aang cried in surprise, leaping to his feet. "What—what are you doing?"
King Bumi stood before him, shirtless, flexing his arms and hands after disuse and loosening the kinks in his neck. "What am I doing?" he repeated, giggling and snorting, "I'm taking back my city!"