Unseemly are the open eyes
That watch the midnight sheep,
That look upon the secret skies
Nor close, abashed, in sleep;
That see the dawn drag in, unbidden,
To birth another day-
Oh, better far their gaze were hidden
Below the decent clay.
"Sight" by Dorothy Parker
The tea shop was everything that Iroh had hoped for and more.
More being a picture tacked onto the wooden wall above one of the exquisitely set tables. It depicted Momo sitting next to Appa on a...tree branch, or... something...
Iroh turned around with a puzzled expression on his face as Sokka appeared beside him, a wide grin on the boy's face.
"Like it?" Sokka asked enthusiastically. "It's Aang and a bug-dove, triumphantly standing on the wall of Ba Sing Sei. So it symbolizes peace, and, ah, the un-conquering!"
Sokka trailed off, undoubtedly distracted by the sight of Suki walking gracefully across the shop with a tray to tea.
Iroh put on his jolliest face. "It's lovely. Why don't you show this picture to Toph?" Iroh had walked quite a few steps away before Sokka got it.
Evening was falling, and the extended Team Avatar had gathered in the tea shop's common room for a leisurely dinner when Toph noticed that Katara and Zuko –Fire Lord Grumpy, to you--were sitting next to one another. She focused on their voices, petulance twisting a smirk across her face. She hadn't expected to feel this way, but...almost everyone had been rather exclusive this afternoon. Sokka and Suki. Zuko and Mai. Katara and Aang. Toph and...laughing at everyone else?
That didn't quite feel right any more.
It didn't even make all that much sense for Zuko to be here. As Fire Lord, he must have plenty of work to do. However, Toph did know all about wanting to shirk boring responsibilities...
"I'm worried about Azula," Zuko was saying in his rough, distinct voice. "She's…crazy, but...I don't think we've seen the last of her."
Katara replied, "Do you know what happened to her, to cause the breakdown? Maybe I could try to heal her."
"I don't think so. Maybe it's worth a try. But…"
Toph heard their clothes shuffle and voices recede just slightly, as Katara and Zuko turned away from her and the others, voices covering their conversation. They moved closer together, chairs scraping quietly across the floor.
Toph wasn't particularly jealous of anybody. But she was a little lonely, and in earthbending competitions or casual conversation, the thing that would always get you noticed was you making fun of someone else. She wasn't going to hurt anyone, just...maybe mess with things a little.
"Look," said Toph, gazing in the direction of the conspirators and making sure that everyone else could hear. "How cute."
Whereas the flame had once been a symbol of power, now, in the deepest levels of a prison, it symbolized only condemnation. Here, two one-time Fire Lords lived, never to see the sun again.
Young Fire Lord Zuko kept to the back of the group as he, Mai, Katara, and Aang confronted Azula. His thoughts were cluttered with business that the highest-ranking Fire Nation officials had lain on him as soon as his coronation; formal apologies, trade arrangements, even questions about how many people he wanted the palace's tables set for, or how he wanted his throne room decorated. He was certainly happy that the war was over, but…peace had its complexities and duties too. Never more than now was he aware of that, as, in one of the few hours he had set aside to simply relax and talk to his friends and his uncle, he headed into the darkness to confront Azula.
Her madness had not abated in the days since her capture. But, lucky for everyone concerned, she wasn't shooting gouts of blue fire any more.
Instead, she seemed to be imitating Ty Lee.
Azula's long legs were propped up against the grimy wall of her cell, and as she twitched her toes she happily patted the ground she lay on. It would have been amusing if she did not, once every few moments, spit lightning deliberately away from herself.
"What if she doesn't take to the healing?" Aang said softly from just outside the bars. "She's totally..." He swirled his fingers around his ears.
Zuko did not know whether he was sad to see his sister like this or not. The very act of calling her his sister was an effort. Whatever sort of family they had once been, he had thrown himself whole-heartily into Aang's mission, and seen Azula, ever since their first battle, as a foe. (He had seen her as a foe as a child, too, but then there had been Ursa to temper her.) Now...she barely looked human.
Katara said, "I think he's right, Aang." She lay a hand on the young airbender's shoulder. "Maybe you should take her bending away and be done with it."
Aang looked down for a moment and sighed. Tired, Zuko thought–tired like a child who had just saved the world. "You're right," Aang said. "We'll try to talk to her afterward."
It almost frightened Zuko how easily, after the final fight of the Fire Nation War, Aang could summon his Avatar powers. Even without the true Avatar State, when Aang walked into Azula's cell flanked by Zuko and Katara with their respective elements ready the airbender looked incredibly secure and confidant, his eyes bright without inhuman glow. Zuko had been told about the energybending, but had never seen it, only its results.
None of us have, he realized. We have only seen the change.
Azula's feet slid down the wall. Slowly she curled in on herself and stood.
Aang did not want to give her a moment to react. His hands found her forehead and the base of her neck. But she slipped away, surprisingly purposefully, surprisingly sane. Aang reached again and she hooked one of his feet out from under him. But Aang summoned air and righted himself, and with all the anger of a thwarted child he lunged toward Azula again.
She let him get close this time. She let him touch her, and let their skins begin to glow. But then, with a vindictive, wily smile that Zuko could see because her turning had brought her within steps of him, she batted Aang's hands away and slipped from beneath them.
The Avatar's unbalance carried him forward, as if the earth had shaken under him. It carried him directly in front of Zuko.
Zuko felt Aang's hands scrabble at his shoulders, and reached for his friend's wrists instinctively, either to help or to push away.
But as soon as they touched, the blue light flooded Zuko and swallowed his soul.
Light pure quiet light energy reaching killing taking paring–!
Zuko felt himself hit the floor with a bone-jarring limpness. Dimly he saw Aang's feet dance across the floor and stop a tiny distance from Azula's. Dimly he saw more blue-and-orange light illuminate the floor. Dimly he heard Azula laugh, and felt a touch on his arm. Katara?
No, thought Zuko. This cannot mean that I've lost my bending too.