The Alchemy of Fire - Arc II: Rubedo
Disclaimer: Mike and Bryan, the show's creators, own Avatar: The Last Airbender, completely. I'm only showing my love of their world by playing in it.
Rating: T for now, just as a precaution. If there are any very violent scenes (and apparently, what I think is violent is really just child's play... ), then I'll be sure to post a warning ahead of the chapter.
A/N - As this story is part of a series, if you haven't already, it would probably be a good idea to read The Alchemy of Fire - Arc I: Nigredo first. :) Otherwise, I'm afraid this story will make very little sense.
To everyone else, my wonderful readers and reviewers, thanks so much for your patience in waiting for me, and I hope you enjoy this second arc. ^_^
Chapter I: Blackened Fire
From reddened ash,
And blackened fire,
Come ready hearts,
To climb the spire -
Of rushing heights,
Of power great,
Of friends and foes,
Of love and hate.
The city of Ba Sing Se was burning.
For one brief, horrible, moment, Toph thought that she'd been hurled violently back in time. Radiant heat seared her face, making the blood rush in her veins. ... that's a lot of fire, isn't it? And she was in the air, she couldn't 'see'...
And then Appa groaned under them, and she remembered. It wasn't her, Sokka, and Suki in a tiny unmanned airship against an entire fleet. It was her, Aang, Momo and Appa against...
"Twinkletoes! What's going on?!"
The city of Ba Sing Se was burning. Aang watched the scene with wide, horrified eyes, his hands slack on the reins. Flame belched from the shells of half-finished houses, the smoke trailing thick and oily through what should have been a clear, beautiful sky. But it wasn't the spoiling of the vista that clenched his heart. It was the symbolism, the hate, and the tiny figures far below, already adding blood to the fuel.
Three old men sitting around a blocky table. One old woman with her hands clawing at the rain. Two young girls dancing through blasts of fire, the first sleek with water and the other sharp as steel. A mask of blackened flesh that crumbled away to reveal a scar. The earth shifting beneath feet to crush someone's bones to powder. The marching of soldiers' feet over soil and rock, inexorable and deadly. The smell of smoke and burning. Fire. Earth. Water. A child screaming. Someone laughing...
Feet were not marching now. Aang could see the chaotic running, the frenzied panic of people scattering like dust in the wind. But only some were fleeing from the inferno. Others, far more, too many, were running towards each other, spilling more red into the world. From their passing, Aang could hear the screaming of the burnt, crushed and dying fill in his ears.
All my fault...
Aang snapped out of his shock as a small, dirty hand clumsily grasped his shoulder. He twisted around to see Toph shaking, her small figure caught halfway between the saddle and Appa's head. Without thinking, he grabbed her fingers and airbended them both back to safety, where her relative sightlessness wouldn't send them toppling to their deaths.
Not that that move in itself didn't provoke a response from his teacher. "Aaaargh! Warn me next time, will you?"
"Sorry," he shook his head, like a man awakening from a sick dream. "It's just... Ba Sing Se is burning."
Toph snorted in disgust. "Look, even the blind girl can tell that! But what's actually happening?"
Aang felt her crisp demand penetrate through the numbness of his disbelief, his horror. He took a deep breath and settled, trying to inject some sense of reality into his voice. "Houses are burning through all three rings, but they're mostly the unfinished ones in the Upper tier. But there are people everywhere in the streets, fighting again."
Toph swore. "Get us down there."
There was nothing else he could say to that. Aang took another deep, shuddering breath, nodded firmly, and lifted himself back to Appa's head. Coiling his hand around his friend's left horn, he closed his eyes and felt the sky bison's fear, mirroring his own.
He swallowed. "Come on, buddy," he murmured, stroking his fur.
Appa paused, hovering in the air, and then went into a spiralling dive. About two meters off from the ground. Aang caught up Toph's hand and leapt. Both landed in unison, sending shivers of earth rumbling through the land, toppling already collapsing houses and engulfing the remains in dirt. And then they were up and running, following the screams, the Avatar's eyes caught by the bursts of human flame, and Toph's feet drawn by the heartbeats of hatred.
Neither of them, however, noticed the people skulking in the dark-lit shadows of the smoke, hesitating only briefly as they saw Aang's arrows before joining the fight.
He had changed.
That was the first thing that Katara realised as the door opened into the Fire Lord's private study. Light spilled forth from the floor length windows, illuminating the two awaiting occupants. Shen Li stood to the side, his hand guiding their entrance, but the form of the firebender in the center was directly in front of her, so naturally she focused on that. Focused, and felt a strange sense of wonder caress her skin.
Even though circles ringed his eyes and stooped his shoulders, Zuko emanated a calm, royal presence of power that no other could match. It shaped him, differentiated him from the arrogant bearing she'd once hated, and the abject dejection of the youth she'd grown to become friends with. For a moment, she paused, struck by the crown, the royal robes, the different aura of majestic control and command settled around him like a cloak. This wasn't the boy she remembered. That was her first thought, and yet, as their eyes met and she saw his mouth widen in an infinitesimal smile, she somehow knew that at the base of him, he was the same. The fierce, pugnacious determination that made him Zuko had been left untouched by the trials he'd faced since she'd last seen him, along with the passion he clearly felt for his country, emblazoned like his scar across his face.
But there were other, more subtle signs that dimmed her heart to relief. Zuko's haggardness cut a line across his brow and down his cheeks, accentuating his weary posture. If one gave him only a passing glance, missing the iron of his body and position, one might have thought they could make short work of him. That thought was enough to remind her of Mai's words, long ago, someone tried to kill him...
Suddenly, the relief swelled to an ocean inside her chest, and that was enough to make her forget the crown and the robes and the bearing and propel her forwards with widened arms into a brief, heartfelt hug. Against her cheek, she sensed Zuko catch himself in surprise, and then he returned the hug with a fierceness she hadn't been expecting. When she quickly pulled back, a quizzical eyebrow at such a seemingly uncharacteristic gesture from her physically reticent friend, his golden eyes gleamed back at her.
"You're safe," he rasped, and then shook his head at himself. "Agni... you had us all worried."
The first thing Katara felt was a surprised, warm glow. And then her own anxieties from days back caught up to her, along with the sudden jerk to the string of the soaring sense of freedom she'd managed to cultivate. Unbidden, a flare of annoyance rose in her chest and settled her arms on her hips."What, you didn't think I could look after myself?"
Zuko blinked, and then snorted, and the action was so familiar she instantly felt more at ease. "Don't be an idiot," the Fire Lord scoffed. "If there were anyone in the world I'd trust to save my people in a Fire Nation countryside crawling with rebel soldiers, it'd be you and your brother."
A smirk lifted up the edges of his mouth. "Besides, if you were ever caught, I'm sure the two of you could weasel your way out of there through sheer stubbornness."
"Sheer stubbornness? How about superior bending and strategy?" Katara hmmphed, but the flush of indignation had settled with his words and a real smile danced around her face. Her sense of freedom, of knowing herself expanded comfortably back into her chest. She hadn't known what exactly to expect, but it certainly hadn't been this. This... trust. She'd left with the scathing words of Aang's disappointment scouring her skin, she hadn't expected to return to this. Then again, if she'd arrived back to a group of people who didn't believe she could rely on herself, she would quite probably have turned around and gone back again.
Feeling better, almost buoyant, she couldn't resist pressing ahead. "Besides, as if you can talk," she teased. "Last thing I heard, you survived an assassination attempt by the scrape of your teeth." Her growing grin at his sudden discomfiture hid the real concern behind her voice. "What happened, anyway? You stopped being paranoid for only five seconds?"
Zuko had just opened his mouth to retort, a gleam of pleasure in his eyes at the casual banter, when somebody roughly cleared their throat behind them. The two started, Katara turning to see Mai's calm, unreadable gaze boring through both of them.
"No, he had his back turned," she said coolly, her arms folded up inside ragged sleeves. "And that's what will happen again if we don't find out more soon."
Katara blanched, the giddy relief and joy that had soared inside her a moment ago now ashes in her mouth. "Oh, I'm... sorry."
Smooth as silk, Shen Li glided from where he had been standing by the closed door. "No need to apologise, Lady Katara." He paused, glanced around the room, and quickly strode across it to reach a small golden bell she hadn't noted before. Seconds later, he was murmuring to a servant, and before long, two chairs were pulled up in front of the Fire Lord's desk.
Katara blinked. Shen Li turned back and gestured to the cushioned seats. "Perhaps you should sit down? I'm sure you both have a lot to tell us."
Katara didn't notice the sudden inflection, nor the way Mai stiffened for a moment before moving gracefully to one of the chairs. Instead, she saw Zuko's hand twitch upwards, as if he wanted to facepalm himself for forgetting such simple courtesies. A second later, it fell back by his side in a display of remarkable self-control.
Hiding a smile, Katara followed Mai with a grateful sigh and sat herself down, while Zuko strode gracefully to take his position behind his desk. Shen Li remained standing at Zuko's shoulder, but the difference in positions did nothing to quell the clear questions in both of their eyes, questions only amplified by their mirroring.
At that, Katara's mouth suddenly went dry. The posture of the men in front of her had settled into sober gravity, and it reminded her exactly what she was dealing with. While she'd been protecting the Fire Nation villagers as the Painted Lady, she had been dealing with individuals, people. But Zuko and Shen Li had been managing an entire nation, and that was enough to give her pause, to make her breathe.
Where to start?
Mai kept her face schooled, calm and clear as the men opposite her waited for some sort of answer. But inside, her thoughts were whirling. She hadn't expected Katara to leap forwards with such guilelessness and embrace her ex, and neither had she expected Zuko's response. Combined with Shen Li's implicit jibe, the events of the last two minutes had her stomach whirling unpleasantly.
She'd never enquired as to Katara and Zuko's relationship, even after she'd noted the former's surprising reaction to her offhand remark about the assassination attempt on the latter. She narrowed her eyes slightly as she surveyed the two of them. She could tell they were just friends. If not for the fact that their body language was casual, not intimate, Katara's words to her on the Fire Nation heath had made the situation fairly clear. But there was a sense of unreserved warmth between them, something that spoke at more, or the possibility of more.
Mai frowned as she realised that that wasn't what was bothering her. No, it was more the nonchalant companionship between them, something that she had never seen nor thought possible from Zuko. The casualness bespoke such a level of trust, respect and openness that old hurt began to shore up inside her, once again confirming her irrevocable verdict of ending their relationship.
Mai bowed her head a little. If he never trusted me like that, saw me like that, then damn it, he never deserved me.
The thought unconsciously raised Mai's chin back into a proud point, straightening her shoulders and hardening her face. She didn't need another reminder of past hurts, not now. Unfortunately, the movement also brought her directly into the gaze of another. With a start, Mai saw her own eyes reflected back in Shen Li's cool glance, and then he arced his eyebrow.
That single move was enough to infuriate her into action. Mai pushed aside what she had just seen and leapt headfirst into the bog. "Katara and I found the rebel army's base shortly after Shen Li left," she reported, her eyes fixed firmly on her ex. Strangely enough, his was the less painful face to focus upon right now, and when she said the name of the other, her monotone deliberately lowered a few more degrees. "We got inside and freed your scouts, but the base itself was empty."
There was a moment of shocked silence, and then both the guard captain and the Fire Lord drew their breaths in a hiss. "Empty?"
Out of the corner of her eye, Mai saw the stricken look on Shen Li's briefly unguarded face. "Empty," she restated. "We even went through into the main command room, but there was nothing there."
Beside her, the waterbender stirred. "It was as if they'd just abandoned it," she added. "But not after doing an incredibly thorough pack-up. We couldn't find any papers, any information, nothing."
Mai saw a slight depression in the curve of Zuko's lips. "And the scouts?"
"We couldn't carry them on the basilisk with us. They're walking back now, though - it should only take them two or three days."
Shen Li uncoiled. "You didn't question them?"
What kind of asinine question was that? Mai scowled as she retorted, not willing to examine whether her irritation was at the question or the asker himself. "Of course we tried. But the head scout, Ling, insisted that he only report to the Fire Lord."
Zuko raised a questioning eyebrow at Shen Li, and Mai couldn't help but see the instinctive familiarity between them. The guard captain nodded with a sigh. "Although standard procedure is that these scouts report to their immediate superiors, I can imagine that if they thought their information was important enough, they'd want to report to you directly. It probably doesn't help that Ling was recently promoted and the rest of his men are freshly graduated, with all the zeal to match."
Katara bit her lip. "I guess we don't have much ourselves," she said apologetically. "But we thought it was important enough that you should know that the army seem to have moved their base. Hopefully... hopefully that means the villages won't be attacked anymore."
Mai couldn't help but shake her head at that, how did this girl survive a war and remain so naive? and across from her, she saw a matching grimness on Zuko's face. "Hopefully," he echoed. "But it's probably more likely that they've moved on to fresher pickings."
To Mai's surprise, shock blossomed across the waterbender's face. Katara opened her mouth, closed it, and then groaned. "Then we've done nothing except leave more of your people open to attack! La, maybe I shouldn't have come back..."
It didn't matter that Mai was thinking something similar, she moved to reply. Our mission was only to gather information. We've done what we can. But before she could, Zuko cut across her instead.
"Nonsense," the Fire Lord said sharply. "If they've left their base, we can't do anything until we figure out where they've gone. And I doubt that the people you saved think that the Painted Lady did nothing."
Katara started. "How did you know about that?" she demanded.
Zuko cast a languid look around the understated opulence of his study, the royal trappings of his status, and smirked. "I am the Fire Lord now, you know. My intelligence networks are unparalleled."
In front of her, Shen Li coughed, and Mai raised her own cynical eyebrow. Under both of their looks, the Fire Lord's smirk faltered into a grudging sigh. "Although in this case, it was an old farmer named Pauzon, one of the first wave of refugees."
Katara sat up in her seat, exhaustion forgotten. "Pauzon? Long white beard, piercing eyes, Painted Lady medallion?"
"Uh, yeah..." Zuko's eyes were distant as he matched the memory in his mind. "You know him?"
Again, Mai was struck by just how much emotion Katara could convey through those deep blue eyes. "Oh yes. He was in the first village the soldiers attacked while I was there." Her mouth compressed, throwing shadows into the room. "I talked to him the night before it was burned to the ground."
She paused, and the darkness faded. "I'm glad he made it here and now he's safe."
Shen Li and Zuko exchanged a look. "'Safe' might be the wrong word to describe the city at the moment," Zuko said slowly. "There's been a number of riots. After the last one, there were quite a few injured."
Mai almost saw Katara's heart fall out of the bottom of her chest. "They're not accepting you?"
It was more of a statement than a question, but Shen Li answered anyway. "Some," he confirmed. "Most of the aristocracy are not outwardly rebellious yet. Zuko keeping his father's Ministers has a lot to do with that - it makes them feel like their voices are still being heard. But much of the middle and working class were fed propaganda."
Katara furrowed her brow. "Surely you can just re-educate them."
Mai cast her a faintly incredulous look, and the waterbender flushed. "Look, I know it's not quite as simple as that. Still, the premise is there, isn't it? Let them know what actually happened and they can be the judge of you themselves."
Zuko shrugged uneasily. "Actually, I have commissioned a play," he said slowly, doubtfully. "Do you remember the Ember Island Players?"
By instinct, Mai looked questioningly at Shen Li. The blankness on his face told her he had as little clue as she. But Katara was leaning backwards, a look of disgust on her face. "You'd better not say what I think you're going to say, otherwise I might just have to waterwhip you back to the land of the intelligent."
Zuko held up a hand. "Hey, hear me out," he said, mildly affronted. "Look, I might not have the tactics of Sokka, but I'm not that stupid."
Katara's brow smoothed. "Sokka... where is he, anyway?" she laughed, half-knowingly, half-resignedly. "I expected him to come running as soon as I stepped into the Palace, ready to berate me back to the South Pole."
This time, Zuko did let his head sink into his hands a little. "Agni," he muttered. "I keep forgetting how much you've missed."
Katara looked at him sharply. "What do you mean?"
The tinge of apprehension in her voice was enough to sit him upright again. "Sokka's fine," he reassured. "He's just not here at the moment - there was trouble in the North Pole with Chief Arnook, so I asked him and Suki to try and sort it out."
"Trouble?" Katara's eyes narrowed, and Mai decided to stop being surprised at the depth of feeling the waterbender could show. "What kind of trouble? You do remember that Sokka's leg is still broken, right?"
"That's part of the reason I sent him," Zuko said. "Think about it. A city full of healers - he'll be sure to get lots of good care. Not to mention, the trouble seems to be with the tribes pressuring Chief Arnook for revenge. I think your brother should be able to handle it fine without needing to pull out a sword."
At her unconvinced look, he gentled his voice. "Come on, Katara. Sokka can look after himself. Besides, he has Suki with him."
Katara bit her lip, and Mai saw the moment that she decided to let it go. "Fair enough," she finally acknowledged. "It's just that... I'd hoped he could have rested more. That things wouldn't have fallen down around our ears so quickly." She clenched her fists under the table. "I can't believe Chief Arnook would... but I guess..."
Mai pursed her lips. She too hadn't realised quite how much the waterbender needed to be brought up to speed. "Before you ask, the Avatar and the earthbender have also left," she said dryly. "Zuko's soldiers in Ba Sing Se were having trouble."
Shen Li smiled mirthlessly. "And even here, the court intrigues have been... worrying, to say the least. I'm afraid that you've returned to a still very much divided world."
Katara shook her head, but this time there was no shock on her face, only a tantalising mixture of anger and something else. "I can't believe this."
Zuko grimaced. "It's not all bad news." At their looks, he scowled. "I'd say that finding two Southern Water Tribe waterbenders alive counts as something."
Katara's eyes went huge. "Two Southern Water Tribe waterbenders... alive?"
Zuko nodded, but it was Shen Li who spoke. "I was surprised as you are, Lady Katara. But the Fire Nation records didn't lie. They'd survived prison for over thirty years."
Katara suddenly blanched, as if a bucket of cold water had been thrown in her face. "One of them wasn't called Hama, was she?"
The strains of Sokka's twisted tale echoed in Zuko's ears. "No, they were sisters called Kata and Kama," he took a breath and remembered. "Kata went with Sokka to the North, but the other, Kama, stayed behind because she wanted to meet you."
Confusion coloured Katara's cheeks. "Me? Why me?"
A moment passed between them, and Mai suddenly felt as if she wasn't in the same room, as if she was merely observing Katara and Zuko through glass. The gold of Zuko's eyes mellowed to warm amber.
"Why do you think?" he asked softly, but the words left unsaid were the more powerful. "You helped end the war."
Mai unconsciously held her breath. And then Katara sighed, and the volumes of what had been left unspoken faded away to mist.
"At the moment, it really doesn't feel like it's ended."
The ice of the North was cold, but the chill couldn't penetrate the burning ache already pressed around Sokka's heart. The Water Tribe warrior watched as Kata and Hama disembarked, the latter imperious enough to completely ignore him, the former sending him a wary smile before following her friend. He couldn't help but suppress a shudder at their passing. As they left his sights and entered the streets of the city, he turned away to survey the rest of the crew.
The red of Zuko's Fire Nation soldiers flashed bright against the snow. Sokka snorted and pulled his hood up over his head, effectively shadowing his face if he stood at the right angles against the glare of the sun. Arnook's gondola should be here soon, he thought. Best to get everything ready.
He turned, ready to go down to his room and collect the odds and ends he'd already packed. But before he could even move two steps, an achingly familiar face interrupted his vision, and Sokka swallowed.
Suki was white. White, red, black... all the colours of her Kyoshi warrior facepaint obscuring any traces of feeling or scars of tears that might have told him anything or everything. Sokka felt his heart jerk at the memory of what had happened only minutes ago, when he'd moved too late.
"If you could choose, Sokka, would you choose me?"
Much, much too late.
The Water tribe warrior closed his eyes briefly. But there was no reprieve. Moments later, her voice cut through the wind, and he resignedly opened his eyes again.
Suki's voice was clipped, cold, and Sokka's heart sank even more. He'd never heard this from her. When they'd first met, her mocking laughter had been infused with both amusement and warmth, and even when they'd fought before, the underlying care that bound them together had never been far away from the surface. Now, she was like dark ice he couldn't see underneath.
She stood straight, like a soldier. Like the Captain of the Kyoshi warriors. "What's your plan for the mission?" she asked crisply. "I saw you whispering to the waterbender before he left. I know you have one. And I need to know if we're going to complete this mission."
So cold, so businesslike. Sokka forged a shield out of his own hurt, raised his chin, and gazed straight back at her.
"Infiltration," he layered his lazy arrogance on thick, shrugged his shoulders like he didn't give a damn. "We're going to have to blend in as much as we can, so I'd suggest you remove the facepaint and get into some Water Tribe gear."
He didn't really need to add the next words. In fact, they were stupid. Self-inflicting. But things like that had never stopped Sokka when he was hurt, angry and confused. "I told you the Northern Tribes don't like strong women, especially not those that can fight."
Instantly he regretted it, but then, he couldn't pull back the words even as they hung, frozen in the air. Suki's eyes darkened, and something dangerous glinted from their depths.
"So you need a weak, helpless, defenceless girl?" she snapped. "I guess you won't be needing me then!"
And twice in one day, one hour, Sokka watched her walk away. And hated himself for not saying anything, or at least, not the right thing.
I'll always need you.
He opened his mouth. "Suki... please."
He wasn't sure whether to feel a brief surge of hope when she stopped. So, she was still willing to listen, he could still say the right words, he could still make everything better...
She turned, and her eyes were still cold, and the words that had been in his throat froze.
Sokka coughed. "Please," he said, but this time there was no real pleading in his voice. Because if she was going to play Suki, Captain of the Kyoshi warriors, he was damn well going to play Sokka, dread wolf of the Southern Water Tribe.
Their eyes locked. "For the mission," he said.
He knew enough, just enough, of the traditions she had managed to teach him, to understand how hard it was for her to jerk her head in a sharp nod.
"For the mission," she replied, a bitter twist to her lips. And when she came back up from below the decks without her paint and wrapped in blue, Sokka only hoped that it would be worth it.
For the mission.
He gazed at the jewel of the North spread out before him, the glare of the sun off the glaciers, the beauty of the sparkling structures. And he remembered what lay in store for them; the vengeful Water Tribe, a tired Chief Arnook, and his old foe, Hahn.
For the mission, wherever it may take us.