Here it is! The stirring (I hope) conclusion to Yes, I am an Animal! This really should have been done two months ago, but a fatal combination of writers block, going back to school and Political Theory Essays comparing Locke and the Platonic ideal of government kept me from finishing this off until yesterday.
Anyway; Thanks to Everybody who reviewed and gave me encouragement, suggestions, and all that other good stuff. And also, Thanks to everybody who read and didn't review; you guys are awesome as well!
Mai tossed her newly acquired knife from hand to hand playfully- or as playfully as someone of her temperament could do anything. Back and forth; back and forth; toss, twirl, catch and toss again. From her place of prominence, seated on the Earth King's throne, the Princess of the Fire Nation tracked the flight path of the curved blade. Her golden irises watched the cold steel rise and fall as the girl seated on the steps beneath her continued to toss the knife.
Mai, clearly, was getting into one of her moods. The little adrenaline whore had obviously not been satisfied by the "diversions" of that afternoon. The princess smirked; Mai was agitated and craving for more action. That was a good thing; the knife wielder was twice as dangerous when she was worked up.
"This waiting around is killing me! I just wish that they'd hurry up and get here so we could do this."
Azula looked upwards at Ty Lee, who was balancing herself on her hands on top of the throne. Well, that was a surprise; the acrobat was not really one to be on edge, though the princess supposed that under present circumstances it was only to be expected. After all, they weren't about to face down just any opponent; they were going to go toe to toe with the avatar.
"Oh my goodness," the princess said, taking the chance to needle her flexible friend.
"Is that a bit of anxiety I hear in your voice Ty Lee?"
Ty Lee just scoffed. "More like pre-performance jitters."
The acrobat flipped out of her handstand, landing daintily on one of the wide arms of the throne.
"Well, I suppose that's to be expected. This is kind of a big deal," Mai- who had been listening the entire time- said from her seat on the steps.
Azula adjusted herself in the throne, throwing her legs over one of the arms of the chair and stretching her arms back over her head. She looked up into the acrobat's wide eyes and smirked confidently.
"Patience ladies; the avatar and his lackeys will get here when they get here. Why, in fact, I'll wager that…"
Azula found herself cut off as part of the wall at the opposite end of the chamber was blown inwards. Mai caught the knife that she had been tossing into the air and stood to her feet, the nervous tension that had been building up for the last hour slowly beginning to seep out of her muscles. Ty Lee hopped from her perch on the throne onto the floor, an eager look on her face. The Princess of the Fire Nation rolled her head towards the hole in the wall where the gigantic double doors that led into the throne chamber should have been and squinted into the billowing dust.
Striding purposefully out of the destruction the small yet somehow still imposing figure of the avatar emerged from the dust, flanked by his Water Tribe allies and the tiny earthbender that had eluded her trap earlier today. The most surprising sight of all for the three Fire Nation girls however was when the trailing figure of the avatar's group came into sight as the dust cleared.
Mai, Ty Lee and Azula shared brief, yet significant, looks with one another. The princess and the knife user in particular focused on the deposed prince. The last image that they had had of the scarred royal had been of him cowering like a wounded bait-dog. All of the life and vitality and hope and fight had been removed from him; his mind and his spirit had been broken. He should have still been curled up in a ball on a dirty cell floor.
But he wasn't. In fact, from the way he walked and held his head up high, he looked very much like the old Zuko; Zuko the fearless fool who never realized when he was beaten.
"We're here to end this Azula," the airbender intoned forcefully.
This declaration was met by sarcastic applause from the Princess of the Fire Nation.
"Well that certainly was an overblown and needlessly dramatic entrance. Though, I must give you credit avatar, you actually arrived here earlier than I expected. And you've managed to rescue all of your friends as well. Points for that."
Azula's cold golden eyes raked across her assembled foes before finally coming to rest on her brother. Her expression- the trademarked callous smirk that she usually wore- was almost instantly replaced by one of disgust.
"And I see you've started collecting strays as well. Hello brother; I see you've finally abandoned what little self-respect you managed to maintain and decided to become a complete turncoat."
The former prince simply maintained his intense glare at his younger sister and said nothing.
"Give up now; nobody has to get hurt," the avatar said.
Azula smirked, scoffing at the very idea that she would ever capitulate, especially to a kid. Avatar or not, that airbender brat needed to be shown his place.
"Dear me, and I was just about to say the same thing to all of you!"
"This isn't a laughing matter princess," the waterbender sneered from her place alongside the avatar. "We've got you outnumbered. There's no way that you can beat us!"
The blue firebender simply rolled her eyes and boosted herself out of the Earth King's uncomfortably stiff throne. She looked down her nose at her assembled adversaries and sighed faux-apologetically.
"Oh, we're hardly outnumbered," Azula said, shaking her head in pity.
She clapped her hands together; at that signal half a dozen Dai Lee agents came sliding down the walls of the throne room and surrounded the opposing group.
"You know, it's become clear to me that none of you have realized the situation that you're in yet," the princess scoffed.
"Well, what can you expect Azula," Mai deadpanned, "we haven't exactly been forthcoming with them, y'know."
"Hmm, I suppose you're right. Do you think we should we enlighten them Mai?"
"I think we should."
Smiling pleasantly, the princess turned around and nodded towards her acrobat friend.
"Boys, open their eyes if you please."
The avatar's group looked at each other warily, the confusion evident on their faces; the banished prince looked significantly more uneasy than his allies. Playful banter was never a good sign with his sister. The Princess of the Fire Nation donned a triumphant smirk that she really had no business wearing. Lee gritted his teeth in rage and fear.
A pair of Dai Lee agents made their way over to the massive shutters that stood behind the Earth King's throne. The gigantic structures stretched eight sky bison's wide and loomed almost all the way up to the ceiling. With a single synchronized movement, the two earthbenders shifted the stone around the shutters and forced them open.
Against the fading light of day the avatar's group was treated to a magnificent view of spacious palatial garden that lay just outside of the royal throne chamber. One of the most ostentatious examples of the wealth of the Earth King, the palatial "garden" was less of a garden and more of a forest that had been uprooted and brought to the middle of the Forbidden City. Exotic trees and plant species from every corner of the kingdom were interspersed together in complex geometric patterns, intercut by white cobblestone paths, clear water streams and decorated with rich marble fountains.
The alarm bells in Lee's head were sounding and he felt his paranoia going into overdrive.
'You crafty little minx; what are you about to pull?'
"What are you trying to show us," Sokka questioned warily, giving voice to the scarred prince's concerns.
"Take a look outside," Azula directed. Turning on her heel, she walked towards the open window and halted at the edge of the giant sill and gazing out of the portal.
"You'll notice that behind the gates of the palatial garden, there's a fairly large building. That, I am told, is the Earth King's private bathhouse. It might be a bit more difficult to see now that the sun is almost down, but it is still quite visible."
Turning back towards the avatar and his allies, Azula continued, a sadistic smile on her face.
"For a building meant for one man's personal usage, it's surprisingly large; large enough, in fact, to hold all of the palace servants and the families of the palace guards. Well, all of the ones that are still alive of course."
The Princess of the Fire Nation practically laughed out loud once she saw the looks of horror appear across the faces of the avatar and his group. It was delicious. She summoned a small blue fireball into her hand and held it out of the window.
"That entire facility is guarded by a deployment of Dai Lee agents. Once I launch this fireball into the sky, those agents are under orders to collapse the entire building, killing everyone inside. If they do not receive a particular signal from me by the Hour of the Elephant-Rat, which by the way is only around ten minutes away, they are under orders to collapse the building, killing everyone inside."
Azula looked down on her humbled enemies, practically preening in triumph; she was having entirely too much fun.
"You have only one option left to you. Agree to surrender to me unconditionally and you have my word of honor that the hostages will not be harmed."
'Bitch,' the former prince thought bitterly.
He should have been expecting this; using other people's lives as bargaining chips was a textbook Azula move. The thing he was most worried about, however, was his allies. He ran a quick eye over all of their faces. The waterbender, the earthbender, the Water Tribe warrior, and especially the avatar were all standing rooted in place with various degrees of horror and anger on their faces.
Lee recognized that look; it was the expression of people who had had been forced so far into a corner that none of them could see any way out. The lives of hundreds- thousands- of people were poised upon a blade's edge. Lee could see his allies working things out in their heads; could they fight Azula and prevent her from launching her signal and rescue the hostages before ten minutes were up?
Probably not; in fact, there was very little that they could hope to do to save any of those innocents. Little they could do aside from taking Azula's option.
The scarred vagrant could already see the defeat forming into their faces. They were going to give themselves up and by doing so they were going to damn him along with them in the process. Their noble sacrifice was going to deliver him into the hands of his enemies.
The former prince advanced aggressively, bringing his arms wide around his body, trying to summon as much fire as he could in the few short steps he made towards the throne before launching his flaming plume towards his baby sister.
Lee couldn't see the expression on his sister's face through the flames but if he could, he would have caught the brief flash of shock that passed across her face as she saw the gout of flame rocketing towards her. Never one to be given over to surprise for very long Azula quickly righted herself and placed a booted heel on the windowsill behind her before flipping acrobatically out of the path of her brother's attack.
She managed to launch herself clear of the flames, but the concussion from the impact of the blast was stronger than she had anticipated and ended up sending her farther than she had intended. Quick as a flash, Ty Lee and Mai leaped into the air and caught hold of their out of control friend as she came down into their arms.
Meanwhile, the Dai Lee agents in the room began moving on the small group.
"What do you think you're doing?!"
The waterbender was yelling at Lee; the scarred vagrant listened with only half of an ear. Now that he had managed to stir up the crawler's nest, the avatar and his group had no choice but to fight it out.
"I'll stay and deal with my sister. If you plan on saving those hostages, you had better hurry up," the former prince said as a means of reply.
Katara looked like she wanted to say something but was prevented from doing so by her brother.
"He's right. You, me and Aang can go and stop them from collapsing the bathhouse! Toph!"
"Way ahead of you snoozles," the blind earthbender said, already moving to take the fight to the attacking Dai Lee agents.
The avatar turned on the prince and gave him a bare look.
"You can take her?"
The airbender sighed turning towards the open window, snapping open his glider. He called 'good luck' over his shoulder before gathering a gust of wind beneath his body and propelling himself through the portal and into the twilight.
The Earth rushed by and fell away as the airbender manipulated the air currents that were his birthright and propelled himself into the sky. He had no time to lose this time; he didn't even have time to give Katara or Sokka time to catch up to him. There was no telling if Zuko would be able to hold off Azula and keep her from launching her signal.
The avatar pushed himself through the sky as fast as his powers would allow; Aang was acutely aware of just how far away his destination was and how little time that he had to get there. As the gargantuan bathhouse grew larger in his vision, the airbender began a steep ascent over the roof of the building. Flying higher upwards, Aang abruptly halted his ascent and snapped his glider shut. Falling back towards the Earth head first the avatar began spinning his body like a drill, his small body cutting through the air and leaving a cyclone in his wake.
Punching his fists forward before his head could slam into the stone, Aang felt as the stone of the bathhouse roof crumpled and collapsed beneath his touch. Flipping his body through the air and landing softly on his feet in the center of a mass of terrified people, the young avatar scanned the room.
He had apparently landed in the bathhouse's main chamber in a gigantic pool that had been drained of its water. It was currently teeming with huddled and frightened people who were staring at him in mixed looks of awe and horror. Ignoring the hostages, Aang instead focused on the only other people in the chamber besides him who were on their feet; the Dai Lee agents.
The earthbenders looked just as shocked as everyone else at what had just happened and the avatar wasn't about to give them a chance to regain their senses. Using his powers over the air, Aang brought the tip of the cyclone that he had been trailing behind him in his dive down through the hole he had made in the roof. The Dai Lee agents were quickly thrown from their feet by the gale force winds that had suddenly been unleashed inside of the building.
Aang controlled the in-door storm, flowing smoothly through airbending kata and making sure that he kept the whirling winds from picking up and carrying away any of the hostages; it pushed him to the very limits of his concentration and skill but he somehow managed.
When he had dispatched all of the guards, Aang leaped out of the drained pool and used earthbending to create several large holes in one of the walls.
"EVERYONE RUN AWAY NOW,"
The avatar shouted at the top of his lungs, urging the hostages to get up and run for their lives. While the hundreds climbed over each other to get out, he ignored their stuttered and breathless thanks. There were more in other rooms. He still had to get to them; he still had to hurry!
Boosting himself over the escaping crowed on a bubble of air, Aang selected a random doorway and ran through it. There were more, he had to hurry!
He came upon another room; he dispatched the Dai Lee guards and freed the hostages. No time to rest, there were still more to go. He came upon one more room and dispatched the guards, yelling at the hostages to run for their lives; he couldn't stop. There were still more!
He ran back into the hallway, intent on heading to another room, when he felt the earth tremble beneath his feet. The young airbender could hear the crash and crumble of tumbling stone. A sick, dark aura flooded his Avatar Sense; it was the primal and undeniable anguish of violent death. Aang stopped in the middle of his run and wretched.
Even as the building was coming down around him, falling rubble almost laying open his skull open several times, the airbender couldn't force himself to move.
There was no need to hurry anymore. Sadness and anger tore through the young avatar's body as the collected grief of the murdered hostages flooded over him. He felt his mind slipping away into a white blank and he didn't even try to resist its pull. His mind was filled with one name.
She did this! And she was going to pay!
Recovering from her unexpectedly wild flight, Azula managed to gather herself just in time to witness her prize- the avatar- rocketing out of the throne room window, followed soon after by his two Water Tribe lackeys. For a frustrating moment, the princess thought that they were making their escape and would once again slip through her fingers.
Then she realized that the trio was probably trying to rescue the hostages that were being held by her men in the bathhouse. She still had a chance to bring off the coup of the Earth Kingdom and the capture of the avatar at the same time. But first…
"Mai, Ty Lee! Take two Dai Lee agents and go after the avatar and his lackeys. My brother and I are going to need some alone time."
Complying wordlessly the acrobat and the knife mistress collected a pair of Dai Lee agents and followed the avatar out of the window. Azula watched them leave out of the corner of her eye before turning her full attention towards where her brother was standing, body loose and glaring her down into the ground. The Princess of Fire matched his gaze evenly.
"I have to say, you surprised me Zuzu; don't think that I don't realize what you did by attacking me like that. I admit that I had never even considered that you would condemn thousands of innocent hostages to death, just to confront me. Tell me; when did you grow a backbone?"
"There's no guarantee that I've condemned anyone," her older brother replied, ignoring the cheap shot at his ego.
Azula scoffed. "Oh please… do you really believe that?"
"…..At this point, does it matter," the older of Ozai's children asked, scowling.
Azula looked thoughtful for a second before delivering her own response.
"I suppose not."
As soon as the last word was out of her mouth, the Princess of the Fire Nation flicked a deadly dart of blue flame towards her brother's face, hoping to take him off guard. Her gambit proved ineffective as Zuko leaned his head out of the way and launched a larger fireball low, towards Azula's feet. The flame impacted about a little more than a foot from where she stood.
The fireball hit the floor and exploded with a boom and a flash of bright light; the princess shielded her eyes and retreated a few steps backwards and to her left on instinct. Azula had fought and bested Zuko many times in the past; she expected her brother to come bulling forward to press his advantage, like he always did in situations like this and set herself up to take him from his weak side when he came charging at her.
The Fire Princess unexpectedly found herself having to block a plume of red and orange flames that was speeding towards her torso. Instead of charging forward like she had expected, Zuko had instead opted to retreat and mark her movements. Sidestepping another fireball, the female firebender rushed towards her adversary. Executing a double front flip to build up power she launched a powerful rocket of blue fire from her feet.
Rather than trying to dodge around the enormous fire blast, the former prince opted to meet the attack head on. Standing up to the flame, he thrust both of his fists into the dancing blue mass and ate the attack, earning himself a good scalding on his knuckles. Zuko was able to dissipate the worst of attack but slid back in his tracks from the explosive concussion of the blast, just managing to keep his feet.
Going on the offensive, the former prince summoned two whips made of flame. Raising one of the scorching weapons over his head, Zuko brought it crashing down towards Azula, who was still lying on her backside after her acrobatic attack. She quickly rolled out of the way to avoid the whip, ending up on her belly. The Princess of the Fire Nation sensed more than saw the follow up attack coming and pushed herself into a headstand.
From her inverted position, Azula used her feet to bat away the attack from her brother's whip before lifting her body from a headstand into a handstand. Using her arms, the princess managed to spin her body and whip her legs around her body like a pinwheel, sending jets of flames out from her feet. The attack was weak, but it was strong enough to get her brother to halt his attack and gave her enough time to regain her feet.
Once she had righted herself, Azula wasted no time in recapturing the initiative. Running towards Zuko in a zig-zag pattern, she effortlessly avoided the clumsily launched fireballs he sent her way. In his hasty attempts to escape from his charging sister, the former prince got caught up in his own feet and stumbled. Closing the distance between them, Azula engulfed a handful of fingers in flames, preparing to punish her brother for his mistake; his feet weren't set- he couldn't firebend well enough to hold her off.
A bestial smile spread across her face as she moved in for the kill; she was steps away from delivering her coup de grace when she noticed that her brother bore a predatory leer that matched her very own. Acutely honed survival instincts forcing her body to move before she formed a conscious thought to move, Azula bucked her head. She felt something sharp cut into the top of her forehead and snag into the hair, causing her topknot to become partially undone.
'He threw something at me?!?'
She barely had the time to complete that startled thought before Zuko was on her. But instead of attacking her with the expected firebending assault, her scarred sibling instead attacked her with physical strikes. Azula was taken aback as Zuko launched a barrage of punches aimed at her head and upper body. The lithe firebender barely managed to fend off a knuckle strike to her throat but was powerless to stop the hard strike that her brother sent to her left bicep. As the limb fell limp she was knocked off of her feet when Zuko used a rolling sweep kick to knock her legs out from under her.
The princess hit the ground hard, but defended herself ably, shooting a stream of blue fire at her brother's face from her back; unlike him, she could firebend even when her root was broken. The former prince turned away from the attack while his sister sprang back to her feet and put some distance between the two of them. She flexed her left arm until the pins and needles feeling in it subsided.
With a distinct force of will, the Princess of the Fire Nation managed to calm her breathing and slowed her heart rate down to a less manic level. Ten feet across from her, her older brother did the same thing. Azlua reached up and removed the projectile that was still stuck in her hair. Freeing the object from her tresses, she looked down at the little piece of metal in her hand before quirking an eyebrow at her brother, as if to ask…
The Princess almost missed the slight upturn to the former prince's lip as he shrugged and continued to stare holes into her. Was he… did he find this amusing?
For the first time in her memory, Azula's gaze towards her brother was not tinged with mockery or disgust or condescension, but with genuine wariness. She didn't know what had happened to him over the past few hours to turn him from the blubbering weakling at her feet into… this.
Well, whatever the reason for his improvement, it still didn't put her on the same level as her. She still hadn't started going all out yet but she realized that she might have miscalculated by assuming that Zuko would still be as pathetic as she remembered him being. She realized her mistake; she would stop looking at her brother as sport and start viewing him as a threat.
'Zuko… a threat?'
The Princess shook her head slightly, bemused by the idea. Who would have thought it possible?
Over her brother's shoulder, Azula observed her Dai Lee agents engaging the little earthbender from the avatar's party in battle. The girl in green seemed to be holding her own quite admirably. The princess grimaced on the inside; things were going entirely too well for her enemies. As much as she loved to play with Zuko, the Princess was angling for a much bigger prize and to be frank, she didn't really trust her subordinates to handle something this important without her. If she wanted to have Ba Sing Se and the avatar in her hands, she would have to see to the little airbender's defeat and capture personally. This meant that, unfortunately, her brother would have to die much sooner than she would have preferred.
Seizing the initiative this time, Azula sent a brace of blue fireblasts towards her brother's lower body. Zuko, showing a surprising amount of agility, turned away from the blasts and flipped to the side. The few seconds that he was airborne gave the Princess enough time to form a blue fireball between her palms. Feeding more of her energy into the ball, she charged up her shot until the small ball had grown the size of an ostrich-horse's head.
When she judged it to be sufficiently powerful, Azula launched the blue meteor. Timing her strike so that it would hit Zuko before he had a chance to execute another dodge, the Princess watched as her brother somehow managed to summon a small wall of fire to shield himself from the flames. The former prince could do nothing about the force from the blast, the explosive concussion sending him flying backwards.
Azula took a second or so to enjoy seeing her older sibling skid across the floor before throwing both of her arms to the side; focusing her mind, she forcibly separated the positive and negative energies in her body. Bringing the two opposing charges together, the firebending prodigy felt the cold-blooded fire building up in her torso and calmly directed the lightning out of her body, guiding it towards her hapless sibling.
Azula's witchlike cackle was drowned out by the deafening roar from the bolt that she had just fired.
The former prince of the Fire Nation had seen what Azula was going for before she got off her shot of lightning; he had seen it and been absolutely incapable of doing anything about it. He'd fucked up. It was too late to dodge, too late to roll, too late to do anything except contemplate what death by lightning was going to feel like. Then it occurred to him that he could try to redirect the blast, but the chances of him successfully pulling off that little maneuver were extremely slim.
Iroh had explained the basics of the technique to him one time and he had no actual experience in redirecting a lightning attack. An enormous amount of rage flooded the scarred bender's body; he couldn't just die like this!
Lee felt the lightning slam into him; it was completely unlike anything he had ever felt before. It hurt everywhere at once; his skin, his muscles, even his hair and teeth were ravaged by the electricity. But through the pain, the former prince experienced something strange.
A moment of clarity.
Though he felt his body frying, his mind was working in overdrive. As he was being pushed back in his tracks by the force of the blast, Lee felt his body moving of its own accord. It was as if another presence had taken over his body and was directing his actions, making him guide the lightning into his belly and directing it back up his arm and out of his fingertips, right back at the startled face of his sister.
The ground in front of Azula exploded in a spray of stone and dust as the Princess of the Fire Nation was blown through the air and flung across the floor into an undignified heap.
Azula looked up at her brother, her teeth gritted and her face scrunched into an angry scowl. So, he had finally made her mad. Azula had been trying to kill him before, but now she looked like she planning to KILL him.
Honestly, he should have been more worried than he was. This time, it was his turn to smirk while she struggled up from the floor; Lee slowly exhaled a lungful of smoke.
"That all you got?"
"ON YOUR LEFT! DUCK!"
Without stopping to check over her shoulder, Katara immediately dropped into roll upon hearing the warning from her brother. The waterbender felt the breeze of a body passing over her back before hearing the soft impact as that body made contact with the ground. Coming out of her roll, the waterbender popped the cap on her waterskin and sent a vicious low water whip towards the feet of that fucking circus bitch.
Ty Lee, though weighed down by the Kyoshi armor that she still wore, was still to once again elude Katara's best attempts to put her down. Growling out of shear frustration, the waterbender had to work quickly to bring the water back around for another attack; the acrobat, however, proved to be swifter than anticipated. The armored girl quickly closed the distance, outpacing the whip in their race to get to the waterbender first.
"CHANGE," Katara shouted.
Just as Ty Lee got to within spitting distance of the waterbender, Katara felt a rough touch on her back; recognizing the signal she spun and flipped her heels into the air, rolling across the back of her brother and leaving the warrior to deal with the circus freak.
Ty Lee's reflexes had their work cut out for them- snapping her head back just in time to keep warrior's machete from taking off her nose. Landing on her feet with her reformed water whip encircling her body like a serpent, Katara focused her attention on Azula's other main lackey. The knife thrower was flitting back and forth from behind the trees of the Earth King's private forest, discharging a blade every time she changed a hiding place.
The waterbender used a bit of her water to deflect some of the flying projectiles and hopped out of the way of the others. Katara cursed- she and Sokka had gone out of the window to help Aang in freeing the hostages in the bathhouse but had had to deal with being attacked by Mai and Ty Lee. It was clear that neither one of them was going to be able to help the avatar in freeing the hostages but they could help him by taking care of the Terror Twins.
Katara caught a glint of steel coming towards her and instinctively moved her head to the side. She felt as the edge of the projectile sliced into her cheek, leaving a bloody line across her face. The waterbender cursed; to defeat the knife girl, she would need to go into the trees after her- and if she did that, she was just asking to get ambushed.
"Can you handle her alone," she called to Sokka.
"Oh, yeah! No…GAAH!... problem," the winded and bedeviled warrior responded.
Trusting (read: praying) that her brother had things under control, Katara rushed headlong into the stand of trees that she had seen Mai retreat into, keeping her water at the ready hovering around her body. As soon as she entered the trees the waterbender took cover behind the solid trunk of an ancient pine and shifted her water back into its container. She took a moment to settle in and think of her next move.
The light of the sun was almost depleted as the great fireball had almost completed its journey beneath the horizon. The foliage in this part of the royal gardens was surprisingly thick and before long, the entire place would be thrown into total darkness. Katara didn't like the idea of having to fight in the dark; but if she just rushed headlong through the forest, she would just make a very loud and easy target for her enemy. Honestly, Katara wasn't sure what to do.
As it turned out, the waterbender didn't have the luxury of time to figure out what her next move was going to be. From her vantage point in the lower branches of a tree, Mai could just make out the outline of the Water Tribe girl. Flipping a pair of stilettos into her hand, the knife mistress launched them at Katara's head.
The waterbender yelped as the pair of blades lodged themselves in the wood centimeters from her head. Hopping to her feet, Katara traced the trajectory of the daggers and started running in the direction that they had likely come from. Mai cursed- her aim had been thrown off by the darkness. Usually she would have tossed more than two in order to compensate for the poor visibility but she was running low right now after the "activities" of that afternoon.
'Great, now I'll have to do it the hard way.'
Dropping down from the tree, Mai landed and matched the waterbender's charge with one of her own. Ten feet from each other Mai flicked a stiletto from her left hand, aiming to place the slender dagger right between the water bitch's eyes. Katara countered, dodging to one side and responding with a water whip that threatened to knock her enemy's head off of her shoulders. Flopping onto her back Mai pressed a space on the inside of her right thigh, triggering the mechanism on her leg that fired the mini-darts attached to the leg.
Katara had less than a second to register that her whip hadn't hit her enemy when the brace of four darts came at her. Two of them missed her completely; one of them buried itself into her right shoulder. The final one entered into her right eye.
The Water Tribe girl's head swam as the world in front of her eyes exploded into vibrant red. Katara stumbled backwards into the underbrush, her precious water defense splashing to the ground as her concentration was broken. Flipping back up onto her feet, Mai took a few seconds to relax and let some of the tension ease out of her body. She drew her new curved knife from her waist sash before calmly stepping into the underbrush after the wounded waterbender.
Night had finally fallen over Ba Sing Se; with the moonless night, the darkness in the Earth King's private forest/garden was almost complete. While Mai couldn't see more than a few feet in front of her face, her ears were sharp enough to hear all of the racket that the waterbender was making in her frantic attempts to put some distance between them. The knife wielder indulged in a brief smirk of triumph before following the sounds of her prey.
Meanwhile, Katara had managed to beat down the panic that had overtaken her when the dart had entered her eye, but she was still plenty scared. She had been rendered defenseless after losing concentration over her water and there weren't any other sources anywhere around that she could see. Also, her eye was searing with pain, the initial shock of receiving the wound having worn off. The waterbender used an arm to steady herself against a tree, her other hand covered her bloody right eye.
The nerve wracked waterbender's hearing, made hypersensitive by fear, saved her life as she heard a twig snap behind her. Katara, moving more on instinct than design, spun around and dived behind the tree; her movement meant that the knife that would have cleaved through her spine only ended up leaving a shallow cut in her ribs.
She had to think! This bitch was going to kill her! But to be able to fight she needed water and she had nothing! Noth-….
'Wait a sec…'
Knowing that she only had seconds before her enemy came out swinging from the other side of the tree Katara worked her hands; drawing the sweat and blood seeping from her body she was able to amass a small amount of water just as Mai turned the edge of the tree. In a last ditch attempt to stop her enemy Katara used a water-blade, whipping a high pressure arc of water towards the other girl's face.
Unfortunately, Mai saw the move coming and used her arms to shield herself. The blade of water was powerful enough to penetrate the cloth and iron of the Kyoshi gauntlets that she wore and left a pair of deep cuts in her flesh of her forearms, but it wasn't nearly enough to kill her. Resolving to not let her enemy get another shot like that, Mai ate the attack and charged through; closing the distance, the knife user buried her knee into the waterbender's wounded side, laying the younger girl out against a nearby tree.
Moving in for the kill, Mai rushed forward and lifting her blade over her head brought it down on the slumping girl. Katara reached up her own hands and caught the knife-wielder at the wrists, staving off death by centimeters. The two girls stood locked in their embrace, pushing against each other; it was clear to both, however, who the eventual winner of this test of strength would be. Mai smirked as she could feel the Water Tribe girl's resistance beginning to ebb; this would be over any second now.
Katara wasn't listening; she was too busy staring out of her one good eye at the knife. A knife that she recognized as belonging to Soeharto; it was something a Fire Nation bitch had no right having it in her hands. And all at once, Katara felt her breast swell with anger.
"Hope you know, it's nothing personal," the knife-wielder grunted dispassionately.
"Too bad," the waterbender spat back, "because for me, it is!"
Taking a deep breath, Katara inhaled two lungs full of air and exhaled her Breath of Frost. Mai quirked an eyebrow in curiosity; so what if she blew out some frost! It wouldn't do her much good without any water around for her to freeze. The knife-mistress did not realize her mistake until it was much too late.
It started as a tingle in the cuts on Mai's forearms. Almost immediately that tingle grew into excruciating, stinging pain that raced from her forearms all the way up to the tips of her fingers as the very blood in her veins froze. Her knife slipped from her grasp as her hands fell at her side, the appendages as rigid and useless as the hands on a stone sculpture.
"AAAGGGHH," Mai screamed, tearing herself away from the Water Tribe girl. She stumbled a few steps backwards and stared at her hands in a horrified stupor.
The parts of her flesh that she could see through the cuts in her clothing weren't their usual pale-rosy color. Her skin was blue and waxy; it was flesh more befitting of a frozen corpse than a living human being. Mai looked up in horrified rag at the witch that had done this to her.
"W-what did you do," she coked out, biting down the urge to just scream wordlessly against the pain.
Katara, however, was in no mood to give explanations. Picking Soeharto's knife from where it had fallen on the ground, the waterbender ran forward, the wicked blade's handle cupped in both hands. Throwing her body forward, Katara drove the point of the knife into Mai's midsection. The blade, more by accident than design, slipped in between a space in the Kyoshi armor and pierced soft flesh.
Twin looks of shock passed over the faces of both girls; Mai, not able to register that she had just been skewered by her own weapon. Katara who, now the passion of the moment had passed, was fully able to register what she had done.
Both girls were snapped out of their stupor as Mai quietly hacked up blood onto Katara's face before her eyes rolled back in her head- a telltale tear streaming down her cheek- and she slumped forward onto the waterbender. Katara pushed the motionless body away from her in frightened disgust, the knife coming free as the Fire Nation girl fell onto the ground.
As the adrenaline seeped out of her, Katara immediately grabbed at the vial of water filled from the sacred spring at the North Pole and rushed to the knife-wielder's side. Just as she was about to pop the top of the vial she stopped. And she thought.
A spasm of pain radiated from her eye as she stood to her feet; she tugged gently at the dart that was still buried in the socket and winced when the small projectile wouldn't budge. She'd deal with it later.
She had to find her brother.
Sokka had wished for the day to be over; he had wished for this most royally-fucked-up of all days to just end and allow him to go someplace quiet with a nice comfy bed- complete with a pretty girl or two- and just sleep. Well, once the sun had finally drifted below the horizon, the day had technically ended. His situation hadn't gotten any better; not that he expected that it would, of course, but a man could still dream, couldn't he?
Right now, the Water Tribe warrior was crouched between the forelimbs of a life-sized shrub sculpture of a badger-mole, trying desperately to rub some feeling back into the left side of his body. From his position under the badger-mole's belly, Sokka peeked out into the surrounding darkness, trying to catch sight of his acrobatic enemy. He knew that he was probably wasting his time- the girl jumped from tree to tree like a kite-squirrel- but it cost him nothing to look.
Not seeing anything, the young warrior ducked his head back into the shrubbery and worked one of the few fully functioning components on his body; his brain.
He had known from the moment that he had stepped up to face her; he didn't stand a chance against Ty Lee in a straight up fight. The girl was just too skilled for him to face on a level playing field. So he had tried fighting dirty; he had tried running away and launching sneak attacks; he had tried setting traps. And at the end of all his efforts he had been left without his machete and his knife, his boomerang was Spirit's knew where and half of his body had all of the strength and dexterity of a bowl of jellied eels. Still, he wasn't dead or captured yet, so that was something.
As much as he wanted to look on the bright side, Sokka knew that he couldn't count on backup coming any time soon; Katara still hadn't come back after chasing the creepy girl into the forest and Aang was occupied doing whatever he was doing….
"I really, really, really hate this," the Water Tribe warrior sighed. In order to achieve victory, it looked like he would have to do something stupid…again.
Coming out from under the shrub, Sokka brushed himself off with his working arm and stood out in the middle of the clearing where the lone badger-mole stood.
"ALRIGHTY, I'M NOT GONNA HIDE ANYMORE TY LEE," he shouted at the top of his lungs.
"COME ON OUT! I KNOW YOU'RE AROUND HERE SOMEWHERE! LET'S FINISH THIS, MAN TO MAN- err, WOMAN! SORRY ABOUT THAT LAST PART; I'M NOT SUGGESTING THAT YOU'RE MASCULINE IN ANY WAY, CAUSE, Y'KNOW, YOU'RE NOT! YOU'RE ACTUALLY VERY PRETTY…SO…UM…YEAH."
'What the hell am I doing,' Sokka wondered while smacking himself in the head. Was that a challenge or an awkward attempt at flirting?!
"So, you think I'm pretty, huh?"
Quickly extricating his face from his palm, the half-paralyzed warrior looked up and looked into the bubbly, grinning face of the enemy. The Kyoshi war-paint that had been covering her face had mostly been wiped away and her hair was a frazzled mess, but she still looked as chipper as a walrus-otter that had just found a mate; Sokka was getting pissed off just looking at her.
"Alright, it's time we end this," Sokka declared, before taking up a fighting stance- or at least as close to a fighting stance his half limp body could manage.
"What's your name?"
Sokka blinked. "Um… what?"
The Water Tribe warrior looked at the acrobat, perplexed. What exactly was she trying to get at.
"Well, you know my name but I don't think we've ever been properly introduced. It's not like I can just call you 'avatar's friend' or 'sexy-aura guy' now can I?"
'Wait, I'm sexy-aura guy?'
Sokka gave himself a mental shake, freeing himself of the stray thought. What the hell? Giving out his name at this point would matter anyway.
"My name is Sokka of the Tips, the son of Bato, who was the son of Hodan and warrior of the Southern Water Tribe," the young man stated, declaring his full title and bowing as per the formal customs of his tribe.
"It's a glacier that looks like the horns on a bull-caribou. Y'see when I was young I got lost and… y'know what? It's not important! Your turn."
"Alright Mr. Tips! I am Dame Chan Ty Lee, eighth daughter of the imperious governor of the Mandarin Pavilion and professional circus acrobat!"
The Fire Nation girl punctuated her recitation of her name and title with a wide grin and a thumb up. Sokka chuckled; he couldn't help himself. She was just too cute; he sighed. Well, it was time to get to work.
"Ooookay, now can we end this," he asked, reassuming his admittedly half-assed fighting stance.
"You can't be serious," Ty Lee replied, genuine concern in her voice.
"Sokka, you've got no chance. You'd be better off just giving up; I really don't want to have to hurt you."
"Hey, don't take me so lightly, alright! No woman can handle me," the Water Tribe warrior boasted.
He puffed his chest out a bit more. "I bet you won't be able to last three moves against me."
Ty Lee, understandably, scoffed at the young man's notion. Even at his full capacity, Sokka had proven that he was hardly a match against her in a stand up fight; he was letting his pride get the best of him. But if that's the way he wanted it, then that's the way it was going to be. She would try to go easy on him though.
Sokka, watching closely, waited until he saw the acrobat's body tense up before she sprung towards him. The Water Tribe warrior felt his own adrenaline spike; he knew she was coming to paralyze the still mobile side of his body. Avoiding her first strike was crucial.
Just as he predicted the girl came right at him, darting forward to deliver a flurry of knuckle strikes designed to turn him into a dead fish. Sokka twisted his body so that the girl's hands only hit the already deadened flesh on his left side; he barely felt the impacts. The warrior lowered his shoulder and attempted a rush, only to have Ty Lee flip over his back.
Stumbling, Sokka turned and saw the acrobat was already bounding back towards him. Throwing a strike to his right shoulder, Sokka felt his entire right arm go dead. It didn't matter at this point though, because Ty Lee was finally close enough. Rearing back his head, Sokka used all of the power of his neck muscles as well as his lower body into bringing his exceptionally thick skull crashing down on the acrobat's head.
A resounding crack rang out through the forest as head met harder head. Ty Lee stumbled backwards drunkenly, her eyes rolling around in her head as her brain rattled about the confines of her skull. Sokka, only mildly dazed, shook himself back into awareness. Rearing back again, the warrior brought his head crashing down onto the shorter girl's face.
This time Ty Lee's eyes crossed and she toppled over backwards, unconscious and with blood seeping out of her bent nose. Standing over her limp form, Sokka looked down on the Fire Nation girl, and only relaxed when he was sure that she was really not going to be getting up any time soon. The feeling in his left side was starting to come back and he lifted his hand to wipe the sweat off of his brow, belatedly realizing that what was trickling down his head was blood, not sweat.
Sighing, Sokka directed his eyes upward into the night sky and was surprised to see a bright light streaking across the sky.
That was obviously Aang, and if he was in the Avatar State, then the situation with the hostages obviously hadn't worked out for the best. Looking back down at the motionless form of Ty Lee, Sokka walked over to her and placed one of his boots to her neck, intent on crushing her larynx. After standing there for a few second, boot at the ready, the young warrior sighed heavily in frustration and pulled his foot away. He knew that it was stupid to leave a dangerous enemy alive but….
It would have been so much easier if she had been an evil bitch like her friends! Turning on his heel, he quickly left the clearing. He had to find his sister.
The most obvious thing to do would be to head for the place where they had first gotten separated. Hurrying along one of the footpaths that cut through the palatial gardens, Sokka continued to shout for his sister.
"KATARA! KATARA! CAN YOU HEAR ME?"
"SOKKA? I'M OVER HERE; CAN YOU FOLLOW THE SOUND OF MY VOICE?"
"YEAH; JUST STAY WHERE YOU ARE!"
Running through a nearby copse of exotic fruit trees the Water Tribe warrior saw his sister leaning over an ornate marble bird bath, coaxing a small spout of water out of the top.
"You okay there sis," Sokka asked breathlessly.
Katara paused for a moment before looking up at him; Sokka almost gagged when he saw the dart.
"I've been better," she replied, trying to crack a smile but failing painfully at it.
Sokka rushed over to her side. Taking his baby sister's face in his hands, he examined the wound.
"I've been trying to pull it out, but it won't budge. I can't heal it as long as this thing is in here," Katara said.
She also couldn't get it out because the pain was excruciating, but her brother didn't need to know that.
"The head's probably barbed," the warrior mumbled, mostly to himself. "I'll get it out for you; just keep that water ready."
Squaring his sister up against one of the trees, the warrior grabbed a firm hold of the dart with one hand and her shoulder with the other.
"You know that when I yank this out…the eye's probably coming with it, right?"
Katara shrugged as nonchalantly as she could; she had figured as much, but it wasn't like the thing could stay in there.
"On three," he asked. She nodded, already preparing to bend the water to heal the wound.
"Whoa, whoa, easy there," Sokka said, holding his sister upright as her knees buckled from the shock of having her eye plucked out.
Katara usually wasn't one for foul language but under the circumstances, the young warrior felt that her statement was more than appropriate. Miraculously, the waterbender had managed to maintain control over the water still encasing her hand. Without wasting any time Katara placed the soothing liquid over the gaping wound in her face and sighed in relief as the pain began to finally subside. She could feel her healing powers working, but she could also feel the emptiness in the space where an eye should have been. Waterbending was good for closing wounds, but it couldn't grow back body parts that were lost.
"Well…I know who's getting a set of designer eye patches for her birthday."
Katara snorted out a surprised laugh and punched her brother in his arm.
"A little too soon to be making jokes Sokka."
Her older brother smiled and shrugged. "Hey, it got that depressed look off of your face."
Katara smiled back; it faltered when she remembered what she was carrying in her waistband. Pulling Soeharto's knife out of her belt, she wordlessly handed it to Sokka. The waterbender watched as shock, then sadness, and then anger flashed across her brother's face before his features settled into a neutral expression.
"That girl- the one with the knives- she had it," Katara explained. "I'm sorry Sokka."
"We can be sorry later," the warrior replied more sharply than he had intended.
"I saw Aang flying back to the palace and he was in the Avatar State. We've got to get to him before something bad happens."
Tearing a strip of cloth from her garment and tying the piece tightly around her now empty eye socket, Katara caught her second wind and hopped to her feet. She fished Appa's bison whistle out of her clothes.
The monster of a fireball that was screaming towards lee was much too big for him to avoid; he'd have to eat this hit.
He seemed to be doing that a lot in this fight.
Protecting his vital areas, the scarred firebender stood up to the blast as best he could but still eventually found himself taking leave of his feet and being propelled violently through a window. Landing hard on the pavement outside, Lee managed to keep his head from knocking against the stones and rolled onto his feet. As soon as he was upright, he picked a direction and took off running. His sister was going to be right behind him.
Clearing the windowsill with a leap, the Princess of the Fire Nation spotted her brother making a break for it and ran after him. Looking over his shoulder, the former prince saw his little sister coming up fast on his tail. Stopping abruptly, Lee turned and let fly with a fire blast from his foot.
Azula, unable to simply come to a stop and change direction, maintained her momentum and hopped over the attack- making the difficult maneuver look like child's play. Lee had been able to hold his own so far in this battle, but his sister was just a better firebender than him. At first he had been able to make up for the gaps in their skill through a combination of unorthodox moves, dirty tactics and his sister's constant underestimation of his abilities.
Landing on her feet, the princess began returning fire.
Lee nimbly dodged around the blue tendrils of flame. Swerving around the attacks, the scarred bender advanced and fired blasts back. Shooting a fire blast at the ground to Azula's left side; Lee forced her to start retreating to her right. Seeing an opportunity, Lee sent a lash of flames over her head and into the small stands of trees on either side of her. Bringing his palms together, Lee willed the flames cackling in the branches downwards to engulf his sister.
Azula was mildly surprised at the attack from above but reacted to it handily. Spinning her body at a high rate the Princess of Fire manipulated the flames into an orbit around her body before expelling them from her body. She smiled wickedly at her brother.
"Nice try Zuzu, but you'll have to do better than that."
The former prince felt his frustration mounting but forced it back down before it got out of control. When he got frustrated, he made stupid mistakes that his sister would undoubtedly capitalize on. That was how it had always worked in the past; Azula would get under his skin, he would get mad, his form would get sloppy and she would defeat him without breaking a sweat. He would end up beating himself more often than not.
Lee dropped back down into his ready position; if his sister wanted to talk, then he would let her talk. Azula- who looked slightly annoyed that her brother refused to be baited- squared herself up and sent twin blasts of flame from her fingertips which were met by carefully aimed attacks from the former prince. Dodging her brother's attempts to kill her, Azula retreated further back into the shrubbery. Lee moved to close the distance between then when he found his path suddenly blocked off by two pillars of earth that had suddenly chosen to arise out of the ground.
Barely managing to avoid being squashed by the dirt masses, Lee spun and saw two Dai Lee agents coming towards him from different angles. Cursing, the firebender sent a blast of flames to the closer one coming in on his right. The agent dodged then, with a short hop, sent a miniature wave of dirt hurtling towards former prince.
Before Lee could react, the wave of earth coming towards him met and broke against a wall of earth that arose in front of him. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the distraction, Azula broke from her position by the trees and began running towards the wall that encircled the perimeter of the Forbidden City. The Dai Lee agent who had coming in on Lee's left- a tall monster of a man- suddenly broke off his run and began following in wake of the princess.
"Sorry! A couple of them got away from me; these guys were better than I thought."
Lee looked over to see the blind earthbender jogging towards him; the firebender noticed that she was winded and had a few bruises, but otherwise looked no worse for wear. She cocked her head in the direction that the Dai Lee agent and Azula had run off in.
"Is that Princess Psycho running away?! We've got to get after her before she bugs out!"
Toph immediately followed after; reluctantly, Lee followed. The scarred firebender knew better than to think that his sister was trying to escape. She was letting them see her back so that they would stick their necks out; and she would be there to cut them. Still, just leaving her to her own devices would be stupid.
Reaching the wall, Azula had her Dai Lee agent create a platform of earth for them to stand on and had him start moving that platform up the stone wall. Reaching the wall a few seconds after Azula and her agent had already left; Toph and Lee copied the maneuver and sped up the wall after them. Looking up at their quarry, the scarred firebender cursed as he saw several blue fireballs arcing down towards them.
"Watch out," he warned.
Ignoring the snarky comment, Lee moved to defend the earthbender, shielding her from the falling flames. He wasn't able to return fire before they reached the top of the wall. Hopping off of the platform and onto the battlement Lee and Toph stood across from their adversaries. Azula- dwarfed by the earthbender that stood behind her but still appearing to be the greater of the two- stood with a neutral expression on her face and stared at her opposite numbers.
"You know, you've really surprised me today Zuko."
She narrowed her eyes. "All those years in barbarian lands have turned you into a real annoyance."
"I've only become what I've needed to become," the former prince spat back. "And I've got our father to thank for that."
Lee spoke the word father as if it left some foul aftertaste in his mouth. Azula shook her head and 'tut, tutted' sarcastically.
"Really Zuzu, have you no shame? To speak such a way about your own flesh and blood; you truly are the lowest of the low!"
Lee laughed. It was a harsh, mirthless, bestial sound; more like the barking of a hound than something that could come from the throat of a man.
"Ozai should be proud! I've become the son he's always wanted; you should count yourself lucky. If I had been like this from the very beginning then dad would never have needed you."
The neutral look on Azula's face slipped, replaced by anger as the quick temper that was her family's birthright flared. Lee quirked an eyebrow at her reaction; he had had no idea that that little dig he had made would have such an effect.
"Take care of the spare," Azula said through gritted teeth.
Behind his sister's body, Lee saw the giant earthbender going through an earthbending form. The firebender squared himself up to receive whatever attack the Dai Lee agent was going to throw, but was surprised to hear the masonry behind him imploding. Looking behind him, Lee was treated to the sight of seeing a very surprised blind earthbender falling through the air. Turning back around, he was just quick enough to catch Azula's rush.
While the Dai Lee agent jumped off of the battlement after Toph, the Princess of Fire advanced. Performing a front flip to add some power to her attack, she shot a blast of blue flames from her feet. Lee, now familiar with the move, immediately rolled out of the way. The scarred firebender's maneuver only took himself half as far as he anticipated as he found himself rolling into the raised wall of the battlement. It was then that Lee realized why Azula had gone to so much trouble to him up here.
"Not so easy to dodge around up here, isn't it big brother."
Damn her! She'd turned the environment to her advantage; they were squared off against one another in what was effectively a traditional Agni Kai. No wild dodging, no running away; just a straight up test of power.
From his low position the former prince performed a leg sweep and sent a lash of flame at his sister's legs before hopping up on his feet and sending a flame from his fist. Instead of dodging around the attacks, Azula stood rooted in place and received the attacks, dissipating both. Taking an aggressive step forward, the princess went on the attack. Using pinpoint attacks, Azula sent a series of fire blasts towards her brother feet and other extremities.
Unable to properly block attacks coming in at such a low angle and unable to dodge to effectively due to the lack of space on the battlement, Lee was forced to dissipate the flames dancing around his ankles as best he could while attempting to counterattack. Though able to dispel some of the flames he could feel his toes and shins burning as his clothes and boots began to catch fire.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Lee ran forward. Encasing both fists in flames, the former prince bulled his way through fireblast after fireblast. Though he was burned, he never faltered in his stride, pure desperation fueling his resilience. It was all or nothing now. In a test of firebending strength, there was no way he could defeat Azula; she was just more powerful than he was. But physically, he was still superior. If he could just get his hands on her, get close enough so that her superior firebending skill and power wouldn't matter….
Rearing back with both hands and putting as much power as he could into the strike, Lee brought twin hammers of flame down on Azula. There was a flash of light and for a moment the scarred firebender found himself blinded before being hit by an awful wave of heat and fire before being thrown backwards and slamming onto the ground, his head snapping back against the stone of the battlement.
Azula blinked several times to clear the stars from her eyes. Her palms were smoking and her hair, singed and frazzled, hung about her shoulders as she looked down at her leveled opponent.
Lee watched through bleary eyes as she strolled over to the edge of the battlement and looked out into the city, barely sparing a glance at his halting attempts to get back on his feet. Azula looked up into the sky, as if searching for something. Then she began to laugh; summoning a fireball, she shot it into the air to watch it burst in a brilliant blue explosion.
"Well would you look at that, they're right on time!"
From his back, the scarred firebender looked up into the sky to see what his sister was so happy about. At first he couldn't see anything, but then as he looked closer he made out the form of dozens of war balloons hovering over the palace. The scarred firebender watched in steadily growing horror as lines were thrown over the sides of every balloon and squads of Fire Nation troopers began sliding down. Lee had no doubt that they would be swarming over the palace grounds like red ants that had just had their colony kicked over.
"I have to say Zuzu, you were very impressive," the Princess of the Fire Nation said breathlessly.
"I'm not just saying that either, by the way. But then, you know that I am not one to give out compliments easily. You actually came close to winning a few times. But…"
She turned and smiled down at him; her grin was the picture of innocence, but Lee could see the sadism hiding just beneath the surface. She walked over to him and lightly placed a boot on his chest.
"…the fact remains that you didn't win, brother and that you can never win against me."
Lee wanted nothing more at that second than to tear her to pieces with his bare hands. There she stood, smugly looking down on him. He was a bug to her; an insect to be squashed at her leisure. If only he had the power to move his body; if only the burning in his muscles could subside just a little bit. If only…if only….if only….if….only!
"Do you want to know the reason why you can never win against me Zuzu? Here let me show you."
Reaching down, Azula grabbed a handful of Lee's hair and yanked the defeated firebender upright. Pulling him to his feet the princess turned his head towards the city.
"Look out there Zuko. Tell me, what do you see?"
Even in his half dazed state, the former prince's eyes widened. He saw Ba Sing Se…. and it was burning! ALL of Ba Sing Se, everywhere his eyes turned; there were fires everywhere. Why? What was going on? What did she do?
"You see? The reason why I win is because I have the wisdom to see past my own nose, Zuzu. When I took over the Palace and killed the Earth Kingdom generals, what do you think is the first thing I did? I sent some Dai Lee to open the walls and let our army in! I thought ahead; I made a plan and I executed it, the same way I was able to lure you up onto this wall. I play to my advantage, but you? You never learned how to do that; you were always so focused on what was right in front of you, you never thought about anyone sneaking up from behind. If by some miracle you had defeated me, you could have had a chance of getting away. But that slim chance is gone now; there is no way that you can get out of this palace alive now."
She was right. Lee couldn't even try and deny the fact he was trapped. He could do nothing while Azula was here watching over him; if he tried it would just give her the last excuse she needed to kill him. The only reason he wasn't already a corpse was because of Azula's pathological need to gloat over her enemies.
Stopping to catch her breath after her monologue, the triumphant princess let go of her brother and left him to slump bonelessly against the battlement, the full weight of his defeat crashing down on him. Azula, content for the moment to let him wallow in his failure, signaled to her troops on the ground. As soon as someone came to collect her brother, she could get back to the business of rounding up the avatar and his little band of misfits. Zuko had made her waste enough time as it was; hopefully, Mai and Ty Lee had managed to dispatch the little airbender and his allies.
Azula's train of thought was broken by a resounding crash from down below them.
Going over to the edge of the battlement the Princess of the Fire Nation was shocked to see that two of her war balloons had crashed and were now little more than smoking wrecks on the ground below. She looked up and saw that more and more were dropping as…something was tearing through them with a vengeance. Squinting against the darkness Azula cursed under her breath; it was the avatar! Her beautiful war balloons were being torn asunder by that airbender brat and her men looked powerless to stop him.
She would have to take care of this herself. Splitting the positive and negative energies of her body, Azula took careful aim and fired. The burnt ozone smell of a fresh lightning strike filled Lee's nostrils. He watched as the deadly arc of electricity left his sister's fingertips and streaked across the sky to strike the enraged avatar… in the shoulder!
Lee, who was able to shakily push himself onto his feet heard his sister curse foully as the monstrously powerful airbender suddenly turned his fury in the direction of the attack. Without preamble the possessed avatar sped towards them, maelstrom force winds whipping around his body. Both the princess and the prince dropped low to avoid Aang as he flew past overhead; despite these both of them were nearly pulled from the battlements by the fierce winds swirling around the avatar's body.
Barely stopping herself from being pulled over the edge of the battlements, Azula blew an errant strand of hair out of her face and watched the avatar fly into the distance and bank around clearly intent on making another run over them.
As the avatar was making his way back around, Azula concentrated on shaping the lightning in her body; she would wait for the airbender to pass over them once again so that she could shoot him while he was over the palace grounds where her troops could secure the body. Her concentration was flawless; she was not going to miss this time.
Unfortunately for the princess, her flawless concentration was focused on the wrong person. Out of the corner of her eye, Azula saw the tongue of flame.
She should have killed that pest outright! Turning on her brother, she saw as he forced his burned and battered body into one final attack. Azula cursed in rage; she couldn't firebend until she had expelled the lightning from her body. She'd have to waste this shot on Zuko or else he would kill her.
"WHY DO YOU INSIST ON GETTING IN THE WAY?!"
She pointed her fingers directly at his hear, fully intending to kill him as quickly as possible. Before the lightning could leave her fingers however, her hand was enveloped by his.
The former prince felt the lightning running through his body once again; it felt different this time- less painful, more energizing. The fire siblings stared into each other's golden eyes; Azula's taunting- as if to say…
'Well, what're you going to do?'
Lee literally had less than a second to figure that out. If he redirected the lightning that he had absorbed back at Azula at this range, they would both be killed. As attractive as the prospect of a fried Azula was to him, Lee was in no hurry to die just yet. If he shot it away from them both, he would give her an opening to shove a fireball through his chest; under that plan he would be the only one to die. In that half second, the former prince came to his decision.
Letting the lightning surge up from his belly, Lee pointed his fingers and shot out a bolt of lightning towards the flying avatar.
Azula watched in confusion as the lightning struck the glowing airbender in the upper body. The light of the Avatar State faltered as the wounded avatar descended slowly before finally failing and falling freely towards the ground.
The shock was frozen on Azula's face, her motionless lips voicing a silent question.
Former prince enlightened her.
"You're a big picture person, right?" Lee said. "So in the big picture, which one of us is more important to your goals; me or him?"
She smirked; he should have known betterr than to try and bluff with her. "You've killed him; I don't have to rush to recover a corpse."
"You can't be sure about that," he stated back. "My aim was never as flawless as yours, but you know that I'm pretty good. Trust me, he's alive!"
Azula's features twisted into a hate filled scowl and Lee knew his words had struck a nerve. She was going over things in her mind. The avatar had fallen outside of the wall and currently, she was the closest one to the body; but if she wanted to claim it she would have to let Zuko go. She could try killing him first, but her brother wouldn't go down without a fight and she didn't have time for a fight right now.
Lee let go of her hand and took a step back.
"So, what are you going to do," he asked dispassionately.
Azula hesitated; for a moment Lee was afraid that she would try to attack him- she definitely looked like she wanted to. After a few more tense moments and a hate-filled glare, she turned around and headed for the stairs.
The yell ripped through Katara's throat as she saw the lightning strike the little airbender.
"HOLD ON," Sokka yelled, whipping the reigns on Appa and sending the giant bison into a nosedive, desperately trying to reach the boy on the ground before the enemy could get their hands on him.
"What! What happened," Toph yelled from her place in the saddle; the water siblings had managed to pick her up out of a group of Fire Nation troopers when they were flying by on Appa.
"He's been hit, Aangs been hit!"
"Azula," Sokka said coldly. "It had to be; nobody else we know can use lightning!"
"It doesn't matter who did it," Katara snapped. "We have to get to him and make sure he's alright!"
"We will," Sokka snapped back while maneuvering the bison in for a landing.
The giant creature came down and skidded to a stop next to its master. Wasting no time, Katara and Toph hopped off Appa's back. Picking up the avatar's limp body from the ground the two girls manhandled the airbender up the bison's tail and into the saddle.
As Ba Sing Se fell away beneath them, Katara popped to top off of the vial around her neck and used it on the angry red wound on Aang's body. A single, silent stream of tears streaked down one side of face.
"How could this have happened," the waterbender questioned, giving voice to the question that was on all of their minds.
How could things have gone so wrong?
Sokka looked down upon the impenetrable city; so much for the impenetrable part. It was all burning to the ground now. He couldn't watch it; he turned his eyes away and focused on flying Appa as far away from the place as possible. This city and the Earth Kingdom had fallen.
"So…what are we going to do now," Toph asked.
No one could answer her.
The sun, bright and cheerful, rose over the devastation that the Fire Nation had wrought across the grand city of Ba Sing Se. The fires that had been started by the invading army had cut a horrific swathe across the face of the city; all three rings- so separated in times of peace- had been made equal in times of war. They had all been laid bare by the merciless flames.
The Lower Ring, however, had been hit the worst. The combination of massive amounts of people living on top of each other in flimsy wood and paper tenements had made for a truly epic loss of life. The horrific scent of burned human skin and hair hung heavy in the air and filled the hooded refugee's nostrils. The people of this ring- those that were still able to walk- roamed the streets in a daze, scrounging through the debris, looking for food, valuables, and loved ones that they had lost in the blaze of the previous night.
He watched them impassively. His heart didn't move; his hand didn't shake. He knew the truth; this is what the Fire Nation did to the world. This is what his father did to the world.
This was what he was going to do to their world.
He could see it now; the setting would be different, but the scene would be the same. He would bring the horrors that he had experienced to their doorsteps. He would tear down all of the great works of the House of Sozin and pull them all down to where he was standing. The monster in his heart crowed with joy at the thought.
It would be magnificent.
Aaaannnnddd.... that's my warped take on the end of Book II. I hope I didn't turn anybody off with how long it was, but this chapter kind of took on a life of it's own after a while. Now that this is done, I'm going to take a little break, maybe write a few short stories, and then return with Book III.
Questions will be answered! Even more questions will arise! Stay on the lookout!
One Love, SlimJames