Whoa now. I'm the world's worst author. I would never make it as a deadline writer. ^_^ I got a new job, my kids started school and Playstation Network is evil crack, what can I say? Late as it may be, I hope you guys enjoy the chapter. It's a bit chunky, hope you don't mind the length. Once again I want to thank my wonderful readers and reviewers! You guys truly make my day with your critiques and enthusiasm. I hope the delay hasn't put a damper on the story's luster. Stay with me, we're just getting warmed up!
Ch. 11 – Rebirth
The chill in the air was atypical of a spring morning. Spring was only days old so the frigid temperature wasn't a complete surprise, but warmth would be sweetly welcomed. The Gaang had spent the last several weeks working outdoors, and the work had been especially hard with cold fingers and toes. Progress was being made though, and everyone had been in good spirits the past few days.
Sokka's schedule had brought them to the village of Guiyang, a town with a large natural port in the southwest Earth Kingdom. When the war ended, retreating Fire Nation soldiers had burned the docks and most of the boats there, limiting the resources the citizens relied on. Since they made most of their money from fishing and exporting goods, it was imperative to the city's survival that the piers were repaired and the boats rebuilt.
The people were especially exuberant when the Gaang arrived in the city the day before, with lots of attention being cast upon Aang. It was almost reminiscent of the day they arrived on Kyoshi Island the previous winter. Aang didn't have to do any airbending tricks to prove anything to the people this time around however; his presence in the town seemed to be impressive enough to them. He reluctantly accepted gifts of food and money from the residents…and even more reluctantly accepted kisses on the cheek from some of the local girls, much to Katara's dismay. She had raised an eyebrow and rolled her eyes as the rest of the Gaang stood a few feet away receiving their own complements and expressions of gratitude from the people. She was quite proud of the restraint she had shown, snuffing out the urge to smack the girls upside the head with water whips.
The thought of actually handing out that punishment made Katara smirk as she sat on the back steps of the house they were staying in, enjoying the sunrise. She and Aang really hadn't been together long enough for her to begin displaying aggressive showings of possession, but the sight of some other girl's lips touching Aang's cheek made her cringe. She knew she had to share her boyfriend with the world, he was the Avatar after all, and his allegiance had to lie with the people before her. Their fledgling relationship would no doubt be shaped by how they handled this division of time for one another and his duty to the people. It would be a delicate balance, but this was something she was used to dealing with, being a waterbender and having mastered the concept of push and pull.
She smiled as her mind wandered to more pleasant thoughts of waterbending with Aang. It was just one of the many connections they shared and was one of her favorite facets of their relationship. They had been so busy recently that they hadn't had time to indulge in one of her favorite pastimes; aside from the fact that it's not exactly fun being all wet when it's freezing outside. She closed her eyes and focused on the sun's warmth upon her cheeks; she couldn't wait for the weather to get warmer. She heard the distinct click of the door closing behind her followed by a quiet shuffling on the porch and her heart fluttered. She didn't have to turn around to know who it was.
"Hey," he greeted in a soft voice. A blanket was draped over her shoulders and she took it into her hands, wrapping herself in it and snuggling into its warmth.
"Hey," she said into the blanket, her voice muffled.
"Whatcha doing? It's freezing out here."
"Watching the sunrise," she answered, looking up at him and smiling, "…and freezing. Thank you."
"You're welcome. Mind if I join you?" Aang sat down before she answered him.
"Of course not," she said, offering the right side of the blanket to him. He pulled it around his shoulders and scooted closer. Katara linked her arm with his and they huddled close together. She hummed contentedly. He was so warm.
"The sunrise is beautiful this morning," he commented, although he was looking at her and not at the colorful display before them.
She nodded in agreement, briefly meeting his eyes, unable to keep a warm blush from coloring her cheeks.
"I uh…I wanted to apologize to you," Aang said.
"For yesterday," he replied, looking at his feet. "When we got here. I didn't know the girls in town were so, um, friendly."
Katara laughed quietly. "That wasn't your fault, Aang," she assured him.
"You're not mad about it?" he asked. The expression in his eyes was apologetic.
"No. What made you think I was mad?"
"The look on your face," Aang said with a smirk.
"Oh," Katara grinned sheepishly. "I was never mad at you, Aang. I guess everyone has their own way of showing their appreciation for what you've done for them. I might not always like it, but it's something I'll get used to." She nudged against him. "You're a pretty popular guy."
Aang chuckled quietly and moved her hand from his arm to lace their fingers together.
"Okay. I just don't want you to think I want that kind of attention from other girls…. Just from you." Aang smiled warmly and the honesty in his words melted her heart. She smiled and kissed his cheek.
"That's good to know," she said, nuzzling her cold nose against his warm cheek. "I wouldn't really be helping your cause if I acted out. I mean; could you really see me freezing one of those floozies upside down to the pier right before high tide?"
Aang chuckled. "Actually, yeah, I could." They both laughed.
"Really, I would never do something like that," Katara said, a little more seriously. "The way the people see you and the things that you're trying to accomplish are far more important than my petty feelings of jealousy. Besides…I trust you." Her eyes flitted upward to meet his. "I believe you mean what you say when you say it. So...I'm not worried about you hurting my feelings."
His expression softened. "I'm glad; because I would never hurt you that way, you know that."
Katara nodded. "I do."
"I care about you, so much Katara," Aang said sincerely. It wasn't exactly what he wanted to say but it would do until the timing was right. "I just want you to be happy."
"I care about you too, Aang," she said, a bright blush upon her cheeks. "…And I never said I wasn't happy."
Aang smiled, his own cheeks feeling warm. "I know. It's just that your feelings are more important to me than theirs could ever be. I know the people are all really appreciative, but I didn't end the war for them. It was my duty, and it was something I had to do to restore balance, but everything I did was for you and our friends and your families. It was hard to get motivated with everyone saying I had to 'go out and save the world'," he said putting his hands up for emphasis. "Here were all these people who expected so much from me, who didn't even know me, and all I could think about was the loss of my people and the huge task ahead and it was overwhelming. But when I told myself I was doing it for you, so your world could be safe…it made my mission more personal, more worthwhile."
Katara looked up at him, searching his expressive eyes and suddenly feeling short of breath. She placed a hand on his cheek and gently kissed his lips.
"You're so selfless," she said finding his hand again and squeezing it slightly. "It wouldn't hurt for you to be selfish every once in a while."
Aang shrugged. "I'll get to at some point."
Katara looked at him with glowing admiration. "All I want is for you to be happy. You deserve it more than anyone else."
"I am happy," Aang said as he slipped an arm around her. "…Because of you."
They both smiled and slowly closed the tiny space between them, pressing their lips together and snuggling closer to each other. The kiss was soft and warm, a sharp contrast to the bitter cold of the morning. Katara leaned into him, loving each tender caress of his lips until she felt his tongue softly graze her bottom lip. Surprised, she slightly withdrew from him, placing a couple of inches between his lips and hers. They both smiled tentatively, and then softly came back together. She cupped his cheek with her left hand and he wrapped his arms around her hugging her close to him. The kisses were exploratory, their lips coming together gently with experimental flicks of the tongue and separating for a split second before falling together again. They had never kissed each other this way before, and it sent a shiver up Katara's spine; a really warm shiver, right through to her core. She knew he could feel it too, she wasn't sure how, but she just knew. He would occasionally smile at her in the cutest way between kisses and she found herself unable to keep from smiling back. When they parted, still remaining close, they wrapped the blanket tighter around them and smiled at one another affectionately. Of all the ways she could have imagined beginning the day, this way had to be the sweetest.
"That was…nice," Katara said with a shy smile. She touched her forehead to his and Aang grinned.
"Yeah," he agreed in a whisper. "Can we do it again?" he asked with an inviting brush of his lips over hers.
Katara nodded her affirmation eagerly as he moved to capture her lips once again. They spent half an hour on the porch keeping one another warm and talking softly, sharing kisses and wishing they could spend the entire day like this, just the two of them.
Their lofty mood was instantly deflated when they heard the door open up behind them, bringing them back to reality and shouldering them with responsibility. Katara mentally wished that for one day, it would all go away. Here begins that balancing act.
"Hey guys," Sokka greeted sleepily. "Whatcha doin?"
"What do you want, Sokka?" Katara asked, irritated and ignoring the question. "Get Suki to make your breakfast."
"Um, she is," he answered, taken aback. "Everyone's up and I was thinking we could talk about our plans for the day. Am I interrupting something?"
"It's okay, Sokka," Aang intervened. "We'll be there in a minute."
Sokka shrugged. "Okay."
Aang looked at Katara with a raised eyebrow and a smirk once Sokka retreated into the house and closed the door.
"I know," Katara said, feeling guilty for being so harsh. "Guess I should apologize. It just seems like he's always interrupting."
Aang laughed light-heartedly. "He doesn't mean to, he just always has bad timing. He's right though. I'd love to sit out here with you all day, but we need to get going. We have a meeting with the town's council soon." Aang stood and helped Katara to her feet.
"Okay. I'll go help with breakfast then," Katara said grudgingly as she approached the door.
"Hey," Aang said, catching her hand before she entered the house. "This morning was…nice," he remarked, echoing her earlier sentiments. "Maybe we should try to, um, spend time like this together more often."
"I agree." Katara smiled, kissed his cheek and went into the house.
Aang was thrilled by the idea of getting to spend more 'quality' time with her, but for now he had to focus on the day's agenda, which unfortunately didn't include cuddling with his girlfriend. He looked forward to the day when the world didn't have to call upon him so much, and he could devote all of his attention to her. Despite the pressing matters at hand, he smiled, and went to join the rest of his friends inside where it was significantly warmer.
"You have a visitor," Azula's guard grumbled through the window of her cell door, startling her. "Too bad you can't bathe first," he chuckled to himself. "Let's see how long they can stand to be in the room with you."
Azula's spirits lifted for a brief second. She was dying to hear if the movement she'd set into motion back home had yet yielded any results. She doubted it would be anyone of any importance. Surely they wouldn't let any known member of the Resistance onto the Boiling Rock. They'd be arrested on sight and locked up right along with her. She scowled. It was probably Zuko coming to see if she'd learned her lesson. Maybe she should pretend her months of miserable heat and solitude have cured her so she could get out of this hole.
The chains slackened and she collapsed to the floor, muscles quivering and pain coursing through her body. She pushed herself into a seated position and waited for the ogre to come and unlock her shackles. She refused to look at him as he entered the cell with a restraint wheelchair.
"Upsy Daisy," the man said as he roughly dragged her to her feet. "You don't want to keep your guest waiting, do you? I honestly can't believe anyone would waste a trip on a beautiful day like today to come all the way out here to visit you."
"Beautiful day?" Azula parroted. The thought of the warm sun on her skin made her miss freedom so much.
"Yeah, not that it matters. You're not going outside." The guard unlocked the last of her shackles and turned her around to sit her in the chair.
Azula hung her head as the man strapped her to the chair. She stopped fighting them a long time ago. She hadn't the strength to do so anymore. When they started out of the room, her curiosity got the better of her.
"Who is it? My visitor?"
"Don't know, don't care," the guard spoke harshly. "They don't give me the details, I just fetch the scoundrels on the list."
"It would do you well to not continue to speak to me in such a manner. I won't always be in here and I'm still the Princess, regardless of who is on the throne."
The guard laughed out loud. "Okay, Princess, whatever you say."
Azula dug her nails into the armrests of her chair and silently vowed to have the man burned alive once she was free. He would regret ever treating her like some common criminal. Oh, the day she would get to see him all aflame would certainly be sweet. Pig.
They took a series of elevators to bring her from the depths of the prison. With every floor they raised through, the air felt lighter and less humid. Finally, it felt like she could breathe again. It was the first time she had been brought up to the higher levels since her arrival in the winter. She looked down at her person and became acutely aware of how filthy she appeared in the light. The maroon woolen gown they had her in was blackened with what she guessed was a mixture of soot and dirt. Her fingernails looked horrendous, broken and dirt caked underneath them. She had the same soot and dirt mixture all over her skin and she could smell the oil in her hair, not to mention the obvious odor of having not bathed in such a long time. Her anger sparked again. She had to find a way out of this place.
"Here we are," the guard announced as he wheeled her into a room containing only a steel table and chairs.
No combustibles. What a shame.
The guard wheeled her up to the table and placed the locks on the wheels of her chair, then took up the chains on the floor and linked them through the wheels of the chair to shackle it into place. Without a word, he turned and left her alone in the room, closing the door behind him.
Azula's stomach growled. This had better be good; she was missing lunch for this meeting and they most likely would not redeliver her food later. She sat in silence for several minutes, looking around the room and searching for anything she could use to her advantage; something made of paper or wood, something burnable. She looked at the chains bolted to the floor to see if they could be pulled free. She tried rocking the chair to see if the tension would loosen them. Having no success, she looked instead to her chair. The rickety contraption was made of wicker and wood, she smiled…if she could only muster the energy to burn the damned thing. She pulled against the leather wrist restraints and noticed the one binding her right wrist was coming loose slightly. That was her opportunity. No matter the outcome, she had to try to free herself. She pulled hard on the restraint, focusing all of her energy on yanking it free. She heard the wicker pop and her heart leapt. She surveyed the damage and saw that one of the small screws had come loose. She continued pulling up on the strap, the wicker popping and splintering, until she heard footsteps outside the door. She quickly placed her arm over the splintered wood and tried to listen to the voices outside in the hallway. One was the ogre, and the other distinctly female. Confusion set in. Who was that?
The door opened and Azula turned to look behind her. Standing in the doorway with her arms crossed and holding a scroll was Mai. Azula frowned.
"Ugh, what do you want?" Azula asked turning away from her.
"To see how you're doing," Mai responded dryly. "Zuko asked that I come to check up on you."
Azula scoffed. "I've been here for months and you're just now coming to check on me? You don't really care. You should just leave." Azula called out to the guard. "Get me out of here! This visit is over!"
"You have a message," Mai said as she sat in the chair across from Azula. She rolled the scroll across the table. Azula looked at her in disgust.
"Dummy. I can't read it, my hands are bound to this stupid chair."
"So take it back to your cell with you and read it later," Mai spat back.
"They keep me chained to pillars in the center of the room," Azula said. "I won't be able to read it then either."
"I'm not reading it for you. I was only sent to deliver it." Mai looked up at Azula and frowned. "You're a mess."
"Thanks for stating the obvious." Azula looked away.
"You look thin. Are they feeding you?"
"Don't pretend that you're worried about me. Your fake concern will only make me hate you more." Azula glowered at her ex-best friend across the table.
"I was just asking, and to tell you the truth, we do care Azula. You completely lost it when the war ended. You needed help. Putting you in here is for your own good."
"My own good? How dare you? You have no idea what's good for me!" Azula tried to stand and was suddenly reminded of her restraints. She screamed in frustration. "I'm not crazy! Stop treating me like some Spirit-forsaken mental patient!" She yanked against the restraints and the wicker popped. Mai's eyes widened.
Azula continued to rant. "You're the one who needs help! You filthy whore! You disgusting, good-for-nothing leach! You're using my brother to put your family in a position of power! Everyone knows it!" Azula laughed. "You and your family will be out on the streets when he finds out."
"What are you talking about, Azula? I love Zuko! My family has nothing to do with this!" Mai shouted back with equal venom.
"Sure. You love Zuko," Azula mocked. "You don't see him for three years, then all of a sudden you're spread eagle on my father's bed, taking it like a two-bit prostitute."
Mai reddened. "Shut up Azula!"
"Maybe you'll get lucky and your children won't be weak and dull like the two of you. What a joke, your children becoming heirs to the throne of the most powerful nation in the world. If they're anything like either of you the Fire Nation is in serious trouble." Azula shook her hair out of her eyes and stared at Mai. She could see her anger bubbling beneath the surface. Good. Misery loves company.
"Our children will be loved no matter the circumstances, Azula. That's all that matters. And that's exactly what your mother was trying to show you when she was still here."
Azula's eyes widened. "You don't know anything about my mother! She hated me!" She bucked in the chair, trying to loosen her leather bindings. "She was a liar and she was weak! She made Zuko weak! She thought I was crazy too, just like you!" With one final jerk of her arm, the restraint popped free. Her elation was short-lived though, as she quickly found the sleeve of her gown tacked to the back of the chair by four strategically placed darts. She snapped her sight from her arm back to Mai, who was standing with her arm still extended from the quick release of the knives.
"Don't even think about it," Mai said. "They've told me you can't firebend, but I'm not taking any chances." She walked around the table to retrieve the scroll that had rolled from the tabletop onto the floor and placed it back in front of Azula.
"I can firebend! They're lying to you." Azula tried to pull her arm free.
Mai sighed. "Love doesn't make you weak, Azula. It empowers you." She moved toward the door of the room. "Don't you see what the hunger for power has done to you?" Mai asked, putting her hands out to her side and looking about the room. "…What it's done to your father, your family, to the world?"
"Don't go all diplomatic on me, Mai. It wasn't all that long ago that you were helping me in my mission to stop the Avatar, remember?"
"I was bored, Azula. And honestly, it's a lot easier to go along with whatever you say than to dodge lightning bolts for not complying." Mai exhaled sharply and leaned against the wall, crossing her arms over her chest. "I wish you could see that Zuko and Aang are trying to change things for the better, change that will benefit everyone, even you."
Azula glowered. "I don't know which part makes me want to throw up more, you talking about 'change that will benefit even me' or referring to the Avatar on a first-name basis. How do you sleep at night, knowing you're a traitor to your country?"
"Aang is a friend, and I'm not a traitor."
Azula laughed incredulously.
"Ugh, give it up already Azula! Are you really going to let yourself waste away in here by holding on to your hate?" Mai asked as she lifted her weight from the wall and began to pull the door open. "It really is sad that you're unable to love anyone or anything but power over other people. You're going to miss out on so much."
"What, Mai? Please, oh please tell me what I'm going to be missing out on," Azula mocked in faux distress.
Mai paused in the doorway and then turned to face her former friend again, speaking simply.
"Life." She stepped through the door and began to pull it closed. "Goodbye Azula." The sound of the door closing echoed through the room.
When Mai's footsteps faded, Azula screamed out at the top of her lungs. She pulled against the leather straps and rocked the chair violently, wasting energy that she really didn't have to waste. She screamed and cried and fought until the guard burst through the door, putting a sponge soaked in a solution of opium, hemlock and other herbs beneath her nose. Because of her quickened breathing rate, the fumes quickly rendered her unconscious. Azula's head drooped lifelessly over her lap, her right arm still attached to the chair back.
"Wow, she really did a number on you, didn't she?" the guard asked Azula as he removed the chains from the wheel chair. He chuckled to himself as he collected the scroll and wheeled her back to her cell.
"Do you think it's going to work?" Zuko asked his betrothed as they lay in the bed, holding one another and watching the candle light dance upon the walls and ceiling of their bedchamber.
"I doubt it," Mai said flatly. "She's pretty messed up Zuko. Probably beyond repair."
"People said the same thing about me. If it wasn't for Uncle, who knows where I'd be right now."
"Your uncle was able to get through to you because you were already a good person on the inside, Zuko. Azula just isn't. She's just like your father…and grandfather…and great grandfather." Mai sighed. "I would like to see her change. She and I have always been close…even though she was a bully."
Zuko chuckled. "Bully is a nice way of putting it. What's come over you, Mai?"
Mai turned over onto her stomach to look at Zuko. "Seeing her today…it was really sad. She looks awful. And…she has this delusion that I'm using you to put my family in power."
"What? Where did that come from?" Zuko asked in disbelief.
"I don't know. But when I mentioned your mother she freaked out and pulled one of her restraints right out of the arm of the chair. She didn't get much further than that though."
Zuko was intrigued. "What made you mention my mother?"
"Well, she was spouting all these insults, calling me a whore and saying our children would be weak. I just told her that we would love our children no matter what, and that was all that your mother was trying to do when she was here…to love her unconditionally." Mai settled back into the mattress, wrapping her arm around Zuko's waist. "She snapped."
Zuko's heart beat a little faster at the thought of having children with Mai. Sure, they were engaged, and having children was part of marriage, but it was something they had never really discussed before. He could only hope to have the same positive influence over his children that his mother had over him. He smiled, and then he remembered what they were talking about, his smile faded quickly.
"I wish my mother were here," Zuko said in a low voice. "I think she might be able to help her."
"Well for now we'll have to see if this works. Your uncle has a way of breaking through and making someone see the truth."
"She hates Uncle," Zuko said, his voice laden with doubt. "When she finds out he's the one that sent the message she'll burn it."
"She can't firebend," Mai said as casually as if she had mentioned the clouds in the sky.
Zuko pushed himself up onto his elbows, looking down at Mai. "What?"
"I told you she looked awful," Mai began. "She's weak. She doesn't have the energy to make fire." She looked up at Zuko. "It doesn't mean she won't ever be able to again, she just can't right now. As long as she keeps holding onto all that negative energy, I'm not sure she's ever going to get better."
Zuko laid back down, completely shocked. The Firebending Prodigy had lost her flame. It was something he never saw coming. "Maybe we should tell them to change the way she's being held. Maybe put her in a regular cell."
Mai looked at him with wide eyes. "Are you serious? Going easy on her is not going to help her, Zuko. All that would do is allow her to regain her strength and fight the guards. You know how powerful she is. If she comes back here…" she trailed off. "She needs to be where she's at. It's breaking her. Just give it more time."
Zuko's brow creased. "It just seems a little harsh. If she looks as awful as you say-"
"Harsh? Zuko she tried to kill you, she tried to kill Aang and Katara. A few months of isolation is not enough to cure whatever is wrong with her. She's just as angry and driven as she's always been. To lighten her sentence would be a mistake."
"Okay," Zuko conceded. "You're probably right."
Mai scooted closer to him and wrapped an arm around his waist. "The difference between you two is that you have a conscience and she doesn't. You feel compassion for people and she doesn't. I'm just afraid if you go easy on her now that we'll regret it later. You need to toughen up," she said, poking Zuko in the shoulder. "You've always let her get the better of you. She's doing it right now and she's not even here."
Zuko grabbed her hand and kissed her fingertips. "That's why I love you, Mai. You're my voice of reason."
Mai blushed. "I just know how she is, and so do you. The thought of her getting out and coming back here should worry you just as much as it does me. I want to live to see my wedding day, thank you." They snuggled closer.
"I don't think that's going to be an issue," Zuko said as he held her close. Just then, a sound perked his ears. He sat up straight. "Did you hear that?"
Mai sat up beside him and listened. There was a distant crash and shouting came from down the hall. They both sprang from the bed. Zuko grabbed a robe and rushed toward the door.
"Stay here, I'll be right back," he shouted as he rushed out into the antechamber.
"Zuko, wait!" Mai called out as she scrambled into a robe and grabbed her knives and darts. She fumbled with the apparatus nervously and wondered what was going on. She was startled by glass breaking behind her and she dropped the darts. She grabbed for them as they rolled about on the floor and she quickly scooted underneath the bed. Her heart pounded in her ears as she waited to see what was happening. She saw two men leap through the window.
What is going on?
"She's in here somewhere, I just saw her," one of the men said in a deep, hoarse voice. "Look in all the doors, she can't have gone far."
Mai breathed as quietly as she could and waited for both men to be facing away from her. She stealthily crept out from underneath the bed and grabbed her knife sheath. One of the men came from the closet area and spotted her.
"There she-" he began to shout, before one of Mai's knives hit him square in the throat. He fell to the floor, bleeding and gurgling before the other man could turn to see what was happening.
Mai launched another knife in his direction, and he quickly reacted, pulling his broad swords from their sheath and deflecting the knife. Mai launched another, then another, aiming high and low, trying to hit the man in a vital area to take him down. He deflected them all and Mai ran for the door, concealing her last knife within the sleeve of her robe. The man gave chase, snatching her by her hair and putting her in chokehold.
"You're not going anywhere," the man with the hoarse voice said into her ear. He smelled of alcohol and tobacco. Mai nearly gagged.
"The Generals will be pleased with this prize. You're going to make quite the bargaining chip, little lady."
"Let me go!" Mai struggled to shout as the man applied more pressure to her neck. The more she fought him, the fuzzier her vision became. If she passed out, there was no telling what would become of her. How was this happening? Where were the guards? In a defensive move, Mai went limp; giving the impression that she had been choked to sleep. When the man began to release the pressure of the choke, Mai took in a deep breath, spun the knife in her hand and drove it deep into the man's thigh, twisting it and severing his femoral artery. The man screamed out in pain and grabbed for the knife, trying to pull it free.
"Lady Mai!" a handful of guards yelled as they rushed to her aid. Mai began to walk toward them and then turned, flinging a final dart in the man's direction, lodging it in his left shoulder and sending him to the ground, unconscious.
"Are you alright?" The guards asked, as they looked her over. She snatched her arm away from one of them. The bottom of her robe was soaked with the man's blood but she was fine, aside from the trauma of having almost been kidnapped.
"I'm fine, where's Zuko?" Mai asked as she walked away from the guards, all of them looking completely stunned by what they just saw her do.
"He's, uh, the Fire Lord is downstairs helping to apprehend the intruders," one of the guards stuttered.
"Isn't that where you should be?" Mai asked tartly as she continued toward the main stairs of the palace.
"We were sent to protect you, Lady," another guard spoke as they moved to follow her.
Mai whirled around on them. "Protect me? If you idiots had been doing your jobs this wouldn't have happened!" she shouted in the most forceful voice she could muster, her eyes wide. She rushed down the stairs finding Zuko on his way back into the main foyer, sprinting toward her.
"Mai! Agni what happened to you?" He took her into his arms and then looked her over, noting her blood-soaked clothing. He looked to the guards. "Did you see who did this?"
"I'm fine, Zuko," Mai said, pulling from his embrace.
"The man is still upstairs," one guard said.
"He's bleeding pretty badly," stated another.
"There were two of them," Mai said. "They came through our terrace window. One of them said the Generals wanted to use me as a bargaining chip."
"We got to her as soon as we could, Lord Zuko. But she had already taken them down."
Zuko wasn't at all surprised.
"Just get upstairs and get those men out of our room," Mai said to the guards, as she brushed past them on her way back upstairs.
The scene Zuko found in his bedchamber astounded him: one man dead in their bedroom, and another bleeding profusely from his leg and unconscious outside the bedchamber door. One of the windows leading to the terrace had been broken and glass lay all over the floor. Mai went about the room grabbing clothes, her knives and darts, and a clean robe.
"I can't sleep in here," she said, her voice quivering. "I'm going to take a bath."
Zuko stopped her before she exited the room with a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry Mai."
She looked at him and placed a hand on his chest. "This isn't your fault. If we had more diligent guards around here…" She sighed. "We have to do something about this Zuko."
"I intend to, I promise," he said as he watched her walk away. He knew that this was only a preliminary attack; that whoever planned this intended it as more than a warning and would most likely try to come back. There was much to address in the morning, once the palace's perimeter was secure. Zuko refused to feel helpless, even though he was feeling panicked. They were attacked, in their own bedroom, a room centrally located at the rear of the main wing of the palace, shadowed between the two secondary wings and supposedly impossible to get to without notice of the guards. The two men that attacked Mai had to cross a lengthy courtyard and scale pretty substantial wall to gain access to the terrace. Something wasn't right. Unless all the guards were sleeping, there should have been no way for those men to make it into the palace. He looked to the guards still standing in the antechamber. "Stand guard outside the bathing room, inside and outside the palace."
The guards bowed their heads slightly and moved to follow their order.
When the two intruders were removed from his bedchamber, Zuko changed his clothes and went to gather the royal guard. He found them still loading the assailants into a rhino-drawn metal wagon. He approached Lum, pulling him to the side.
"Is your family safe?" Zuko asked quietly.
"Yes, Lord Zuko," Lum replied, looking over his shoulder toward the wagon. "It appears they are none the wiser. Thank you."
Zuko nodded once and approached Admiral Jee. "Is this all of them?"
"Hm," Jee grumbled as he nodded. "So far. They won't tell us how many of them there were or who sent them."
"It doesn't matter," Zuko said looking into the eyes of the men handcuffed in the wagon. "They'll talk soon enough. But right now, I need all of your assistance."
"Of course, Lord Zuko," Jee said. "What can we do for you?"
"Accompany me around the perimeter of the palace. I want to do a sweep of the entire grounds, and make sure there isn't anyone we've missed."
"Perhaps you should let us take care of that. Those men were here for you, if we run across someone, it could be dangerous," Jee cautioned.
"They attacked Mai. She said one of them mentioned using her as ransom. It's my duty to protect her, and if they wanted to use her to get to me, then I owe it to her to personally make sure the palace is safe." Zuko turned and his guards followed, unsure of what they may run across.
Mai sank into the hot water in the tub, exhaling slowly and trying to release some of her tension. She'd scoured herself in the standing shower before bathing to remove the man's blood from her skin. She felt disgusting with another person's blood on her body and she certainly didn't want to bathe in it. She wondered if the man she stabbed in the leg survived. It was terrible knowing a man died by her hand and she wasn't sure if her karma could ever again be balanced if there had been two. She'd never killed anyone before, and though it was self-defense, she still felt wretched inside. She'd attacked people many times before, but never with the intent to kill. Tears slid slowly over her pale cheeks and she took a deep breath.
"Agni, forgive me."
It was going to be a long night.
She met him in the common area at midnight like they had planned, pillow and blanket in hand. When their eyes met, they smiled at one another, and she sat down on the blanket he'd already laid out on the floor. She tossed her pillow down beside his and they spread the other blanket out, snuggling close to each other beneath it.
"Hey," Katara whispered as she scooted closer, hugging her pillow and wearing a smile laced with anticipation.
"Hey," Aang whispered in return, smiling and pulling her closer to him, keeping a hand on her waist. He'd lit the fire just before she'd come in the room, and he watched as it flickered over her blushing cheeks. "You look so pretty in the firelight."
Katara giggled quietly. "Thanks." The warmth in her cheeks quickly spread up to the tips of her ears. She tucked some stray hair behind her ear. "You've seen me in firelight hundreds of times."
"And I've always thought your were beautiful," he whispered.
Katara's heart raced. She'd thought of so many things she wanted to say to him tonight but now she couldn't think straight. It was all his fault, him and his flirtatious smile.
"So, what do you want to do?" she asked, her feet finding his with playful, tentative contact beneath the blanket, butterflies swirling in her stomach.
"What do you want to do?" he countered, not letting on that the same butterflies were flitting like mad within him.
She put a hand on his chest, scooting yet closer, and then he did something she wasn't expecting. He nudged his left knee between her thighs, making her right leg slide over his. He pulled her closer at her waist, their legs intertwined and their bodies nearly pressed together. Katara's breath caught and Aang's eyes flashed with concern.
"Is this okay?" he asked cautiously.
Katara nodded quickly, "yes."
"Are you sure?"
Katara nodded again and relaxed into his embrace. "I'm sure."
"I just wanted to be closer to you, I wasn't trying to-"
"I know," Katara said, interrupting his explanation. "It just surprised me."
"In a good way or a bad way?"
"In a good way," Katara said in a hushed giggle. Then again, she shouldn't be surprised at all. Aang had never been shy about showing her how he felt about her. It was both exhilarating and unnerving because she was still learning to open up and it was often hard for her to express what she was feeling. She sometimes felt that she was left grasping for the right words while he always effortlessly swept her away.
"I like being close to you," she said, her voice barely a whisper. Their lips were hovering tantalizingly close to each other's, and feeling his breath on her lips caused her heart to start pounding. They weren't sharing a bed, but a part of her imagination ventured to pretend they were. She wondered what it would be like…if they were a little older and their situation was a lot different. She imagined that he would be so fine all grown up; tall and handsome…and those tattoos…. She reddened from thinking of him in that light, but it was a little hard not to, considering how close they were at the moment and the way he made her feel.
There was a certain level of comfort in being with Aang. She didn't feel pressured or rushed with him the way she used to think she might. He was very respectful of her boundaries and was content to let her come to an understanding of her feelings for him on her own terms. They both knew they had all the time in the world to discover their love for one another and let it grow…if indeed that was where their relationship was heading. It kind of felt that way, and she was more than okay with that at present. She quietly sighed and slipped her arm beneath his and around his torso to hug him close.
He closed his eyes and breathed her in. She was like an uplifting summer wind, the kind of wind that carried you high upon the thermals; effortlessly up and up until you were soaring above the clouds. And as a cold spring rain began to patter the tin roof of the house, he decided it would be okay if the rest of the world just washed away with the rain, leaving the both of them here, warm in front of the fire, forever feeling the way they did right now. He had to be the luckiest guy in the world. He smiled to himself.
She giggled. "What are you thinking about?"
"Clouds," he stated simply, still smiling.
She leaned forward and kissed the tip of his nose. "I like clouds."
He kissed her lips. "Me too." A few moments of silence passed.
"So…what do you think we should do when all of this is over?" Katara asked quietly.
"I don't know," he began thoughtfully. "We could travel. I could show you all my favorite places, and maybe we can find some new favorites." He smiled brightly. "Do you want to do that? Or…I mean, you could go home of course, if you wanted to. I could take you home to see your dad and Gran-Gran."
"I would like that," Katara said, an excited smile lighting up her features.
"To go home?"
"To travel…and to go home to visit of course." Katara sat up, beaming down at him. "Let's do it," Katara said grinning. "I want you to share the whole world with me. You promise?"
He sat up next to her. "I will, I promise," Aang vowed, taking her hand and weaving his fingers between hers. "I'll take you anywhere you want to go, anytime. Just name it."
The prospect thrilled her…anywhere she wanted to go. The thoughts of what they might find, adventures they would have, what they may discover about life, and about each other flashed before her eyes.
"I can't wait," she said leaning closer.
"Me either," he agreed, closing the space between them and sealing his promise with a kiss.
Aang sensed a sudden movement outside the house and broke away from her, turning his head toward the sound and listening more closely.
"Did you hear something?" he asked in a hushed voice.
"No," she said quietly.
"Wait here," he said getting up and moving toward the door.
"Aang, what did you hear?" she asked, rising to her feet as well.
"Someone's out there," he whispered, "right outside the door."
"Don't open it," Katara cautioned. A feeling of anxiety washed over her, causing her hands to tremble.
"I'm not," Aang said, putting his hand flat on the door. "They're leaving. I think they put something on the steps." He moved to the window and moved the drapes aside, looking down the street in both directions. "I don't see them." He went back to the door and opened it, finding a small box sitting on the doorstep.
Katara approached the door cautiously, peering over Aang's shoulder as he bent down to retrieve the box. "What do you think it is?"
"Don't know," Aang said as he came back into the house, looking the box over. It was slender and green and looked somewhat like a box for flowers. Aang's brow furrowed as he opened the box slowly, unsure of what he would find within. He lifted the top and found a piece of paper bound with red silk ribbon.
"A note?" Katara asked. Now she was completely curious.
Aang slid the ribbon off the end of the rolled paper and opened it up. He angled the paper so that it was better illuminated by the fire and began to read.
In the Earth Kingdom, I am known as Meili. I have lived here peacefully for more than six years, but now I feel it is time for me to return home. My family was broken apart by the war and I have not seen my children in many years. In excision from my homeland I have been forced to relinquish contact with my family. I feel that you could be instrumental in restoring contact between my family and me because of your affiliation with Fire Lord Zuko. I respectfully request that you meet me at the seaside caves north of the city. I will reveal more to you at that time.
"Meili?" Katara asked, a confused expression upon her face. "She's in exile from the Fire Nation?"
"Guess so," Aang said, reading over the note one more time.
"And we're supposed to trust her enough to go and meet her in the middle of the night in the cold and rain?"
"Guess so," Aang repeated.
Katara shook her head in disapproval. "I don't trust it. Why would someone deliver a note under cover of darkness if all they wanted to do is talk? Why not just come and talk to you? I don't like this at all. It could be a set up."
"I don't think so. I feel like this is someone who really needs our help." Aang said as he walked to his room to get dressed. "Are you coming with me?" He stopped in his bedroom door and turned to wait for an answer, but she was already headed toward her room. They met at the back door of the small house moments later and headed out into the rain. So much for staying warm in front of the fire.
They flew with Appa to the oceanfront and north along the coastline. Visibility was terribly low, and they squinted against the darkness, trying to spot the caves referenced in the message. Aang spotted a small fire burning in a cave below them and he pointed it out.
"There. See the fire?"
Katara peered over as Aang began to direct Appa toward the beach and a very large cave whose occupant was still concealed by shadows. She looped her arm with his, her hand holding onto his upper arm, and they shared a wary glance just before Appa touched down. They jumped down into the wet sand and began to look around, remaining close to one another. Aang produced a flame in his palm for light as they began to make their way toward the mouth of the cave.
"Hello?" Aang called out, carefully casing the situation, his reflexes on edge. They rounded the corner finding the fire, but no one around it.
"No one's here," Aang said with certainty. Appa groaned from outside, prompting both Aang and Katara to spin around in defensive stances.
"Avatar Aang?" called a soft voice from the entrance of the cave.
Aang lowered his arms when he saw the voice came from a middle-aged woman cloaked in green. Katara quickly glanced at Aang then back to the woman, and she too, relaxed her stance.
"Thank you for coming," the woman said as she approached them. "It seems you travel a little faster than I do. I wasn't expecting you to find the message until morning." She removed her hood when she came into the light and instantly Katara thought for sure she had seen this woman before.
"I'm Meili," she said as she bowed in greeting. "At least, in the Earth Kingdom I'm known as Meili. My family knows me as Ursa…and I am the wife of former Fire Lord Ozai."
Aang's jaw dropped and Katara covered her mouth, gasping.
"You're Zuko's mother!" Katara said in astonishment.
"I am," Ursa conceded.
Aang was still standing by, speechless. He bowed, his hands clasped in front of him. "It's an honor to meet you."
Ursa smiled. "Likewise." The group settled in next to the fire.
"I want to begin by saying thank you for what you've done. Not just here in the Earth Kingdom, but for your help with my son. I'm so grateful he didn't lose himself in his struggles, and also that he had his uncle and all of you to show him the way."
"Zuko found his way on his own," Aang said, refusing to take any credit. "It actually took us a while to trust him…"
"…But we couldn't have completed our mission without him," Katara finished for him, smiling. "We're honored to have him as a friend."
"I'm so happy to hear that," Ursa said, tears misting her eyes. She wanted to ask them so many questions. There were so many things she wanted to know and she could probably sit and listen to stories of their journey all night, but it was already late and she wanted to get right to the point.
"There could be some difficulty in getting back into the country if I were to try on my own. When a citizen is banished, they are to be kept outside of boundaries and national waters by force. Reentry without the proper clearance is severely punished, which, was the way before power changed hands, but I don't dare test the borders alone even though Zuko is in power now. I understand my people are quite stubborn, and those loyal to my husband will still enforce his laws."
"I can escort you to the palace," Aang said without a second thought. "I just…don't know if it can be right away. We have…obligations to fulfill that could keep us tied up for a while."
"I understand." Ursa said with a sad smile. "I know you are very busy. I didn't expect it to happen right away. But when you are making a trip across the ocean, I would like to come along."
"Absolutely," Aang said brightly. "Until then, maybe you could try sending Zuko a message using your Earth Kingdom name, just so he knows you've found us and that you'll be coming home."
"It's not that easy. Each piece of correspondence received for the Fire Lord, especially from outside the Fire Nation, is perused before it ever reaches his hands. I'm not sure my message would make it through," Ursa said.
"We could write him for you," Katara suggested. "Or…we could write to Mai," she said looking at Aang with a smile and then looking back to Ursa. "They wouldn't check her messages would they?"
"No, I don't think they would," Ursa said, mirroring Katara's smile.
"What would you want us to tell him? We could try and arrange a meeting," Aang offered.
"I don't know if that's a good idea right now. There's a lot of unrest in my homeland. It wouldn't be wise to call Zuko away when our people need him there."
"You're probably right," Aang admitted, a little crestfallen. He quickly recovered. "He's going to be so excited to know you've found us! When we were in the Fire Nation he asked me to help him find you. For the longest time, he thought you were…well, he thought you were-"
"He thought you had been killed," Katara clarified. "Until his father told him during the solar eclipse that you had been banished for treason."
"He thought I was dead?" Ursa asked, clearly confused. "Oh, Zuko," she said in a sigh, covering her mouth as tears began to roll down her cheeks. "Why did they let him go on believing that?"
Aang and Katara looked at each other sadly as she cried, each at a loss for words. Katara reached over and placed a hand on Ursa's shoulder.
"He knows the truth now," she assured. "He's been very hopeful that he would be able to find you once things in the Fire Nation were more stable."
Ursa nodded, trying to regain her composure and wiping her tears away. "Have you heard anything about Azula? I know there was a power struggle between them, and I know you were there," she said looking at Katara. "Where is she now?"
"I'm not sure," Katara said uncertainly. "She broke down after the battle, she…" Katara trailed off.
"They did have her in a hospital, last we heard," Aang said. "We haven't been in contact with Zuko in a few months, so we aren't exactly sure how she's doing."
"Oh." Ursa watched as the flames before them flared and flickered. How she longed to regain the years she'd spent away from her children, to restore their youth and carry them away from all the harmful influences that had so negatively shaped their lives. If only she could have raised them away from those influences and given them the childhood she had always envisioned for them. And even as the thought entered her mind she could almost hear Iroh's voice, reminding her that life will always take the necessary paths to lead you to your destiny.
"Where is Iroh?" Ursa asked optimistically. "Is he with Zuko?"
"Iroh is living in Ba Sing Se," Aang said. "He seems pretty happy there. I'm not sure he has any intention of returning to your homeland."
"Oh. I thought sure he would be beside Zuko through these trying times, but I think I can understand why he's not. He wants Zuko to find his own path," Ursa smiled to herself. "Always the teacher."
The wind picked up outside the mouth of the cave, howling eerily and driving the rain in horizontal sheets. The three of them took quick notice as the fire swirled and embers flew toward the cave's ceiling.
"Perhaps we should start heading back. It doesn't seem the weather is going to improve." Ursa stood and pulled her hood up over her head. Aang and Katara stood as well.
"We can carry you back into town," Aang suggested. "These aren't any conditions for you to be walking in."
"I would appreciate that," Ursa said, taking another look at the heavy rain outside and shuddering. "If it's not too much trouble."
"No trouble at all," Aang said as he led the way toward Appa. He stopped short of the threshold of the cave and turned to Ursa. "It may be several months before we can travel to the Fire Nation unless it's an emergency, but I promise as soon as we can make the trip we will contact you."
"I would be eternally grateful for that, Avatar Aang, truly." Ursa clasped her hands and bowed her head. "To be reunited with my children-" her voice faltered as her eyes misted over.
"I'd be honored," Aang said placing a hand on her shoulder. "And please, it's just Aang."
"Very well, Aang, and, thank you." Ursa smiled gratefully and followed them out into the storm, getting a boost from Aang and Katara onto Appa's back. She settled herself down onto the soft padding of the saddle, holding onto the side tightly. Katara used waterbending to shield them from the rain as they flew off into the stormy night and back toward Guiyang.
Azula awoke with a pounding headache. Memories, or dreams, she wasn't quite sure, of what had taken place the day before looped over and over in her head like a bad play. She sat up in the bed, placing a hand on her forehead and groaned.
"What happened?" she said out loud as if someone were listening. Then it hit her. Her eyes flew open wide and she looked around, taking in her new surroundings. She was still in a cell, but not the one she had been in before. It was a bigger cell, and a much more comfortable one, if there was such a thing. There was nothing in the room but a toilet and wash bin and the bed she was sitting on. She lay back down, suddenly feeling light-headed. She felt terribly disorientated and wanted to yell for that foul guard to demand to know what was going on, but she'd rather not see his face at the moment. She ran her hands over her face and into her hair, which she noticed was clean. She sat back up and looked down at her body. Gone was the rough tweed sack she had been wearing since her arrival on The Rock, replaced with a softer brown cotton tunic and pants. Her skin and nails were clean and free of the muck she'd remembered seeing there before. The sun shone on her blanket, warming her legs, and she realized that for the first time in months, she could see sunshine. She smiled and gingerly lifted herself from the mattress, walking over to where the window was. She stood in the sun's light, letting it warm her cheeks and fill her spirit with an energy she hadn't felt in what seemed like forever.
"Sweet Agni, I thought I'd never see the sun again." She breathed deep, inhaling the sun's life-giving energy and allowing it to warm her core. It felt absolutely beautiful. She laughed to herself, feeling ridiculous for wallowing in something so simple. She moved back to the bed, lying down with her head at the foot of it so the sun was still on her face. She didn't feel she had the energy to keep standing though she wanted to stay in front of the small grated window. She needed food; she was so hungry she felt nauseated. She felt as if she looked like a walking pile of bones, skinny and pathetic, and wondered how she'd lost so much weight so quickly. She noted footsteps approaching and sat up, anticipating her guard's intrusion on her privacy.
After the jingle of keys and the metallic clang of the locking mechanism, her door swung open to reveal a female nurse, thankfully bearing a tray of food.
"Spirits, Princess, you're awake!" the nurse exclaimed. "Oh, blessed Spirits we thought we were losing you." The nurse placed the tray on a ledge beneath the window on the cell door and came over to Azula, placing a hand on her forehead, then taking her wrist and checking her pulse. Azula pulled her arm away.
"Stop fussing over me and give me my food," she demanded. "I'm starving. When was the last time you brought me something to eat? You could be fired for treating royalty this way."
"I'm sorry Princess, but you've been asleep for nearly three weeks now. You'd slipped into a deep sleep after your episode and we feared you weren't going to come out of it."
"Three weeks?" Azula asked incredulously. "That's impossible. I just saw Mai yesterday."
"I'm afraid you're mistaken, Princess," the nurse explained. "You've been in our care for quite some time now."
Azula looked at her wrists, which she remembered had been cut and scarred from the shackles she had been wearing. The marks were nearly healed. Her heart began to beat faster. The nurse must have noticed the panicked look in her eyes because she immediately got Azula a glass of water.
"Here, Princess. Please, just relax. We're going to be taking care of you now. The Fire Lord has ordered you not be placed back in your original cell."
"He's been here, Princess. After he heard of your failing health he visited you. He was quite concerned." The nurse pulled Azula's covers back up to her waist and retrieved the tray of food, placing it in her lap. There was Komodo chicken with a sweet sauce, brown rice, vegetables, a spring roll and fruit juice. A far cry from what she had been eating previously. Azula began eating with gusto.
"I'm sorry," Azula said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "You can leave me to my meal."
The nurse smiled. "That's a good sign, Princess. The Fire Lord will be pleased to hear of your improvement."
Azula began to eat again, not noticing that the nurse had left the room until her tray was completely empty. She pushed it away, holding her now bulging stomach and laid back. Perhaps she'd eaten too much too quickly. Her eyes began to feel as heavy as her belly did, and sleep quickly claimed her.
The sun was set by the time she woke again; to find her room illuminated by lanterns hanging near the cell door. She stretched her arms out above her head, groaning as each muscle flexed and then relaxed. Her hand brushed something beneath her pillow and she grabbed it, holding it in front of her to inspect the object. It was a scroll, and the wooden end of it bore the symbol of the Earth Kingdom. Curious, she furrowed her brow and began to unroll it, finding a message that she immediately noticed was signed by her Uncle Iroh. A mixture of emotions flooded her center and she dropped the scroll to her lap, unsure of what to think. What in the world could he want? Her defiant nature wanted to toss the scroll into the toilet, but then again, she kind of wanted to see what he had to say. She picked up the message and began to read.
"My dear Azula,"
She laughed. Yeah right.
"I understand that our relationship has not always been of a loving nature, but I also want you to understand that even at your darkest, I have always had love for you. As my niece I have always wanted what was best for you, and I truly hope that you have used your time in prison to reflect on where you are in life, and what you would like to get out of life. You are an incredibly intelligent person and it would bring me such joy to see you use that intelligence for good. There are many positive things that you could accomplish if you simply choose to direct your energy toward positive goals…"
"My goals were positive," she remarked with her lip curled up in a disapproving sneer.
"…You were exposed to things as a young child that you should have never been subjected to. No child should ever have to display cruelty and violence in order to gain their father's approval. It took Zuko such a long time to learn that your father's way was not always the right way. Though, in time, he learned to follow his own path, and I know you have the strength of spirit to do the same. It has always been my belief that people must be conditioned to hate, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite; and if someone can learn to hate, they can also be taught to love. It is my hope for you Azula that you learn to love, to save yourself from the dark path that you are on. I will be here for you, just as I was for your brother. All you have to do is reach out."
Azula scowled. So Uncle wanted to teach her to love. It was completely absurd. She had no interest in undertaking a series of lessons to repair the damage done to her psyche as a child. It was too late. She tossed the scroll to the floor and drew her knees up to her chest, crossing her arms over them and dropping her head. She breathed slowly and deeply with her eyes closed, wondering why her uncle's words actually made sense, and wondered even more why she suddenly felt so lonely. Here she was, a banished Princess, with no friends, and no allies.
Mai rushed toward the conference room with a letter in her hand. Zuko was meeting with his top generals regarding the latest intelligence gathered on the Resistance, and she knew it was a bad time, but this news couldn't wait. She burst through the mahogany double doors before the guards could stop her, causing all in attendance to look up sharply.
"Mai?" Zuko said, standing. "Is everything okay?"
She approached him and pressed the letter into his hand. "It's a letter from Katara."
"Katara?" Zuko echoed, looking at the parchment in his hand. "Are they okay? Is Aang alright?"
Mai beamed brightly. "Yes." She came closer to him, covering his hands with her own. "Zuko…they've found your mother."
It felt as if the air was sucked out of the room as everyone gasped in unison. The color drained from Zuko's face and his vision blurred as tears began to flood his eyes.
...Continues in Ch. 12- In Bloom...
"People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." - A beautiful quote from Nelson Mandela that immediately made me think of Azula when I read it. I wanted to weave it in here somehow.