A/N: Warning, Azula being creepifying.
"What's going on?" Suki demanded as the four of them plus one worried lemur headed down the rough road toward Suzuran.
"When you find out, tell me," Sokka said grimly. So far they'd heard at least six versions of what had gone down before the Northern Tribe ship had hoisted anchor. Iroh and Zuko had had a fight. Somebody'd disowned somebody else because of the waterbending - which seemed kind of unlikely given Iroh had married a waterbender. Some kind of evil spirit had swooped up out of the archive, turned all the people on the ship into undead pirates, and swept out to sea cackling about rum...
That old busybody, Katara had been able to set straight with a vivid description of Iroh flinging fire at Zhao's mooks at the North Pole, and a few choice words about Water Tribe pirates that had pinned the old gossip's ears back. But the simple fact she'd had to say it meant things had gone very, very wrong.
So now they were heading to get the closest thing to the truth Sokka thought they'd hear from anybody here. All the while crossing his fingers that this was the right call.
We could still head north and meet up with Dad... no. I believe in Aang. Ozai's going to hit here first.
"We could still fly out and catch Master Pakku to ask," Suki pointed out as they hurried.
"No. That wouldn't look good." Katara shook her head. "We're not just Aang's friends. People see us as speaking for the Avatar. Even when it makes no sense. Aang can tell them he disagrees with us all the time. But right now Aang's... not here. And if we're going to help him when he gets here, we need the people here to believe in him. If there was a fight - Zuko's here. He's the one we have to deal with. And everyone fights better when they trust their chief." She hesitated in her stride, casting a worried look at Toph.
"Trust him, don't trust him," the earthbender grumbled. "Make up your mind. The mountain feels twitchy, but she's not going off."
Pale as Toph was, Sokka knew she had to have been worried about the volcano finally blowing its stack. Which would suck. A lot.
But they'd hit the rock-studded mix of a dock Suzuran was anchored at, and there was just the guy Sokka was looking for. In full, neat uniform, speaking softly to a healer in dark green, and not looking at all like he thought the harbor might geyser up flaming lava any second now. "Captain Jee," Sokka hailed him. "We've been hearing a lot of rumors... um."
"You're not the only one." Amaya looked tired, dark circles under her eyes and a blue shawl over her shoulders, as if she felt the breeze more keenly than they did. "Captain. Iroh swore he discussed this with my nephew."
"It's possible he may have mentioned it," Jee allowed. "In the middle of juggling logistics ledgers, Prince Zuko is likely to say mmph to just about anything. But I feel I must point out, milady, that Langxue is up at the Temple with the gliders, Lt. Teruko is overseeing defensive emplacements, and General Iroh timed his request for when he knew Agent Shirong would be busy coordinating the vent-bending." The captain paused, and lowered his voice. "I know the prince hates to be crowded. And here..." He gestured at a plume of flames rising from the harbor waves. "I thought it would be safe to give him some time to breathe. I'm sorry to say the general probably calculated that I'd do that."
"So he made sure Zuko was alone. Go figure," Toph said impatiently. "What happened?"
"I haven't spoken to the prince directly yet." Gray brows drew down as Jee stared across the water to the harbor mouth. "He's in no shape to talk."
"But from what I did overhear, and what Lt. Sadao told me..." Jee bent his gaze on Sokka. "You believe that Fire Lord Ozai will bring the airship fleet by way of the high wind-road, and strike Dragons' Wings on his way to burn out the Northern Tribe."
"Aang showed us the map," Katara jumped in before Sokka could consider his answer. "He's a master airbender. I know he's right!"
"Prince Zuko agrees with you," Jee nodded. "Unfortunately, General Iroh doesn't." He glanced at Amaya. "To speak in the general's favor, milady, by most tactical considerations he would be right. Heading for the North Pole by way of Onsenzakura would give the Fire Lord a known and trustworthy source of supply, with a relatively short air route to the field of engagement. It makes sense. Especially if - as General Iroh appears to believe - the Fire Lord intends to wipe out the people most likely to harbor the next Avatar."
"How can you just say that, like it doesn't matter to the world that the Avatar would be..." Katara trailed off, narrowing her eyes at the firebender. "What do you mean, if?"
"We've all heard of the swampbenders by now," Jee shrugged. "If you think fighting on ice is bad, let me tell you, swamps are worse. Everything's wet, your armor rots off you, and there are cat-gators out to eat you every time you turn around. Unless the Fire Lord splits off a division of airships just to deal with the Foggy Swamp on the same day as the North Pole, he knows he won't get all the waterbenders. If, again, he's after the Avatar at all." Jee glanced at the Suzuran's moorings, as if he were completely absorbed in every twist of knotted ropes. "There's always the possibility that-"
"Don't say it!"
Sokka grimaced. "Katara. I know it's awful. And he's tough. But we have to..."
Katara shuddered, deliberately moving her hand away from her waterskin. "Aang's fine. He's just late."
"I hope so," Jee said quietly. "In short - if the clash of the spirits is the most important thing on Fire Lord Ozai's mind, then yes. The general is correct. His approach to the defense of the North would be valid. But I was in command of the Wani when we first encountered the Avatar. I know who was sleeping, and who was burning the midnight oil trying to track down a flying foe. After what we all saw, chasing you into the heart of a hurricane - we know the winds are different high up. And Nara, where they mine sun-damp from the gas, was hit by a horrendous storm only a few years ago. They'd know it too."
Sokka raised a finger; wait, clarify that. "Sun-damp's that gas Teo was talking about when we went up there, right? Lighter than air... which is really, really weird to think about. And you mine it?" He grumbled something even he didn't understand under his breath. "Man, I wish we'd known that before Aang flew off. Maybe it would have helped."
"It still might." Katara had a slightly evil look on her face. "Air can have water in it. Just how damp is this sun-damp?"
"Er... what?" Jee asked warily.
"What's sun-damp do when it's full of water?" Katara clarified. "Like air in a storm?"
"I... honestly have no idea." Jee frowned. "The prince would know more, if any of us do. It was a secret project. Would knowing that really help?"
"Ooo yeah," Sokka muttered, thinking of the last time Katara had pulled out the ice claws. Given he'd seen her pull them out of the air, and master waterbenders like Katara could pull on water they couldn't even see - he didn't know if he should wince, or cackle like Toph in a winning match. Maybe both.
"This is going to be good." Suki shared an evil grin with Katara, before giving Jee her best warrior-leader look. "But you respect General Iroh. Why do you think he's wrong?"
The captain let out a slow breath, considering his answer. "The general is a very spiritual man. He's lost a great deal, and he's dedicated himself to undoing his grandfather's mistakes. He looks toward a future he never expects to live to see; the world made whole, and the Avatar returned." He paused for more thought. "Prince Zuko looks at a future he will have to live in, with the rest of us. If the prince is wrong, our absence from the North Pole will not turn the tide. If the prince is right - we will be all that stands between Ozai and Asagitatsu."
Toph tilted her head back, almost meeting him eye to blind eye. "Shaking in your armor, huh?"
"Not as badly as I will be if the prince is right," Jee admitted. "I wish you'd left with the general, milady."
"The Northern Water Tribe has plenty of healers." Amaya crossed her arms; dark red threads glinting a pattern of thorns along her sleeves. "Iroh and I discussed this weeks ago. I won't stop him from running into a firestorm, and he won't stop me from defending my family." She drew in a shaky breath. "Though after what I felt here... I would have sworn there was a thunderstorm about to unleash hell, the water was that jittery... please tell me we have a good plan for defending the children."
"I believe we do," Jee nodded. "Though we're open to all the help we can get." He looked directly at Katara. "We had the chance to interrogate some of the surviving guards at the coal rig you infiltrated."
Katara raised her chin. "Where you were holding innocent people prisoner."
"Prisoners you managed to free, with good luck and improvisation," Jee fired back. "They'd given up. You gave them hope and courage, and roused them to fight for what they believed. Are you willing to use that talent here? I know the prince. He doesn't want to fight his father. I know he will. He has to; we're here, and he won't abandon us." The firebender inclined his head to her. "But it's easier to stand fast if you know your companions will stand with you."
For once, Sokka saw his sister actually taken aback. "I don't know," Katara admitted. "I'll... need to think about that."
"You should," Amaya said soberly, drawing her shawl a little tighter. "Helping a battle-fury flow isn't something anyone wants to do lightly. Especially with what's in our waters, if the fires go out." She looked just a little rueful. "Even if I were a strong enough bender to touch so many hearts, I don't have the endurance to maintain the effort. Not now."
Katara started, with that weird adding-it-up look Sokka had last seen before he'd drifted into a feverish haze that had ended with sucking frogs. "Are you...?"
Amaya's smile looked a little tired. "We can discuss it with my scrolls, if you like. I doubt Yugoda had the time to show you some of the finer points of checking a patient."
Jee did one of the fastest double-takes Sokka had seen on a firebender yet, face going almost as gray as his hair. "Milady!"
Amaya's smile brightened. "Don't worry, Captain. I'm no youngster; I know enough not to overdo it."
"Oh, there really are fates worse than death," Jee breathed. "Excuse me, I have catapults to oil..."
"Men," Amaya chuckled, as the captain almost bolted for the gangplank.
"Squeamish," Katara agreed. And smirked at him. "I should tell her about you and the fishhooks."
"It seemed like a good idea!" Sokka glanced between them, feeling like maybe Jee had the right idea. "What are you guys talking about, anyway?"
At guys, both waterbenders broke out laughing again. Sokka looked at Toph and Suki, and spread empty hands. "What'd I say?"
"Got me," Suki muttered, facepaint not thick enough to hide her bewilderment.
"And you share a saddle with Sokka." Amaya got her giggles tamped down, and waved a beckoning hand. "Come along, young Warrior. I think we need to have a talk."
White face dubious, Suki followed the pair toward shore.
Sokka hung back a moment, with the only sane bender in sight. "Why do I think I'm going to regret this?"
Toph looked just as freaked out as he felt. But she cracked her neck, and gave him the Blind Bandit's grin. "I bet we both are. But I'll bet you rock candy Ozai will hate it worse."
"My father will try to destroy this place, you know. It's everything he hates."
Cloth folded over her arm, Xiu paused. Took a second look at the worn-out prince stalking along the rock ledge, and traded a questioning glance with one worried marine. Lt. Teruko shrugged, obviously less than happy. But nothing was on fire. Yet.
Why does that make me even more worried?
Well. Easy answer to that. She'd finished this last piece of work at just the wrong time, and run into Agent Shirong and the rest of the Wens just as they'd been trying to figure out who would be the best person to tell Zuko he still had a family. So she'd volunteered to come up here instead, because if that fight had been even half as bad as some of the ones she'd had with Grandmother, family would just be more salt on the wound. "If you're telling me to run while the running's good, thanks," the weaver shrugged. "But this is Fong all over again. If Asagitatsu goes up, where would I run to?"
"My uncle would say you should try." Gold eyes were haunted. "Who knows. You might get a miracle."
If his voice were any more bitter, she could have used it to tan silk. "You don't believe in miracles, do you?" Xiu said quietly. "You're the one Agni and La picked to face down spirits, and you don't believe they'd help us when we deserve it?"
"If spirits gave us what we deserved, there wouldn't be a Fire Lord." Pale gold cut at her. "Unless you think the world deserves this war."
She didn't know what to say to that. "My family would say we lost faith in the Avatar-"
"Don't. Don't do that to Aang," Zuko bit out. "He's a kid. Sometimes he's a stupid kid. But he tries, he never asked for any of this, and it is not his fault he was frozen in an iceberg for a century while the world went to hell." He knuckled the side of his brow, creasing the dark circles under his eyes. "There's plenty of stuff that is his fault. This war isn't."
And if he was thinking about that, after what everybody agreed had been a downright vicious family fight... "You think your uncle blames the Avatar for the war?"
"I think Uncle thinks he can find somebody to blame," Zuko snarled. "Because if it's somebody's fault, then everything that happens means something, and he can make it right with one heroic sacrifice-" Fists clenched, fiery daggers blazing for one brief instant. "I wish I could believe in spirit-tales. The way Uncle does. But even when he fought a haima-jiao to save Aunt Amaya, he thought that was the will of the spirits, too."
"But..." The protest died on her lips, as Xiu tried to fit together what she felt with what she knew. "The Great Spirits are different."
"The Great Spirits are more powerful." Zuko gave her a frustrated look. "That doesn't make them different. Agni favors the Fire Nation; Guanyin favors Earth. Tui and La watch out for Water. The Autumn Lord still looks after people who listen to the wind. But they're still spirits, and they want what they want. Deserve has nothing to do with it." His shoulders slumped. "I'm not a hero. I'm not even a good nephew. Just a great name too stubborn to lie down and die. I'm probably not even good at that, I could be wrong..."
Teruko cleared her throat.
"Well, I could be," Zuko grumbled. "I'm wrong a lot."
Aha. Here we go, Xiu thought. "So what if you are?"
Zuko's eyes were bleak as the Great Divide. "Then I left him to face Fire Lord Ozai alone."
Okay, fate worse than death. Get him thinking. "Oh, sure," Xiu said bluntly. "Alone. With all those waterbenders up at the North Pole, including that Master Pakku. Captain Jee says the guy's known for waterspouts. And the Southern Water Tribe fleet; what's left of it, anyway. And all those Earth Army guys they managed to sneak out of the Fire Nation. Really, really alone." She swallowed, and got ready to duck. "And if he's wrong, then he left you alone."
The quiet answer prickled the hairs on the back of Xiu's neck. "You know," she echoed blankly. "But-"
"That's how it always is," Zuko said, still quiet.
Which was the same I hurt, go figure, moving on, she saw in the mirror. After dealing with Grandmother. "Yeah," Xiu sighed. "Fighting with family sucks." She shook her head, and shook out embroidered silk. No wonder the Wen family had asked for the old-fashioned firethorn design. If anybody needed protection from the sickness-spirits that snuck in when people got depressed, this prince did. "Not everybody leaves, you know. And even if you're angry at someone - that doesn't mean you don't love them." She held out the robe. "Somebody said the lord of Dragons' Wings should have some good robes. Not the ones that got hit by lightning."
For a moment he just blinked at her, like she'd slapped him with an ice-octopus. Shifted his shoulders, and shrugged. As if it really, really didn't matter. Really. "I liked those robes," Zuko grumped, reaching out to feel the thick silk. "One present, courtesy of Azula."
"Present?" Xiu choked.
"Proof I could take the toughest bending the Fire Princess could throw at me, and walk away alive," Zuko smirked at her. "That's a heck of a present."
And he's smiling? "Next time, just ask for some rock candy," Xiu managed.
"Heh." Zuko sighed, looking at least a little less like he was about to bite nails in two. "Well, at least nobody's dead yet." He stared at the horizon, as if he expected airships to sail into view on wings of thunder. "In my family, that's never a sure thing."
Mai glanced out the window of the house Ty Lee's sort-of-relatives had scrounged for them, taking in the deceptive peace of the caldera below. There was the palace, and there was the arena, and the plan Azula proposed to seize it all was enough to make her hands shake.
Deliberately, she stilled them. And held up the latest ledger. "Hostages we're returning to their families."
"Great names smart enough to see where my father is leading our nation, but not as lucky as Byakko." Seated by the wall, Azula stroked a file along her nails, honing them to a clean edge. "They won't all join us. They might never join us. But they'll know I could have taken their people by main force. And I didn't." She smiled, eyes distant with calculations of interest and influence. "If Long Feng had given the Dai Li a choice, he wouldn't have lost them."
Mai nodded, and turned the page. "Hostages we're hanging onto."
"Clan heads I wouldn't trust as far as the Avatar's pet could throw them." Azula's face darkened. "Some of them are profiting too much from a war to see any possible value in peace. Others think we can't lose. So they won't bother to plan for what happens if we can."
She just had to poke the dragon, Mai realized. She couldn't resist. "The Avatar didn't do so well the last time he was here."
"The Fire Navy didn't do so well the last time they went North," Azula shot back, eyes half-lidded with lazy amusement. "Father will win, or he'll lose. If he loses, the Fire Nation is mine by right. If he wins - the initiative I've shown in taking the capital he left undefended demonstrates that I am the proper heir."
Mai kept her face still, seeing that faint flash of hurt in gold eyes. "And if he decides it's not initiative, it's treachery?"
"Then we have a civil war." Azula's face went cold, and her voice had a hard edge. "Bad as that would be, it might save us all."
Mai thought that over, turning a globe of the world in her mind. "You think the Fire Nation will miss the Avatar. Again."
"I think that Admiral Zhao wasn't stupid, and my brother was more determined than Father ever admitted." Azula tapped a nail against the arm of her chair, testing the point. "Father's more likely to kill the airbender than capture him. In which case, we're likely to get a Water Tribe Avatar raining ice down on our heads. But not right away. They'll have to find her. Train her. Mold her. If we've torn ourselves to pieces in the meantime - the Water Tribes hate heat, and the Earth Kingdom hates water. And Water likes to see its enemies suffer. If the only reports they have of us are how we're killing each other, they'll stand back and let us do it." Gold eyes narrowed. "Those of us who survive will be stronger. And more... we'll know how to wait."
It made a vicious kind of sense. Still... "That won't stop them from sending troops in to help us kill each other off," Mai pointed out.
"Oh, I hope they try." Azula's smile could have cut glass. "There's nothing as easy to tear apart as allies who hate each other. And they will hate each other, Mai. Without the strength of our navy to rule the seas, pirates will spread and multiply. They'll raid and loot wherever and whoever has treasures to be stolen. Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes - by the time the next Avatar is recognized, they'll hate each other more than they could ever hate us. Let them try to meddle in our domains. They'll be double-crossing each other within days." She flexed her fingers, nails gleaming. "And if by some chance they don't... I'm sure we can find ways to make it look as though they did."
Mai almost put the ledger down. Thought better of it. "You're looking forward to this."
"I'd rather look forward to winning." Azula frowned. "But Zuko's a horrible liar. If he says this Face-Stealer spirit wants all humans dead, he believes it. Better a live guerilla than a dead great name." She shrugged. "And speaking of spirits..."
Mai turned another page. "Fire Sages who can be bribed or intimidated for your declaration."
"Far too many, for the health of our nation." Azula's eyes narrowed. "After we're done with them... I wonder how many we can persuade to look into reports of man-eating warehouses?"
Mai shivered. That was an old, scary legend. "Somebody's reported a man-eating warehouse?"
Well. That was an answer right there.
Azula leaned back in her chair, setting her file aside as she watched Mai's reaction. "I have to admit, I've been meaning to ask. You don't approve of all my methods, or my plans. So why are you still here?"
Now we come to it. Mai closed the ledger. "Two reasons," she said clearly. "First, after what you did to set me up with Zuko, your idea of a good boyfriend sucks. I'm going to make sure you end up with a guy who really is strong enough to be your consort." She paused, deliberately. "And who's not my brother."
Azula had drawn back on herself, fixing her with an unnerving stare. "Consort?" Lips pulled back from white teeth, before she forced them into a vicious smile. "My own mother thought I was a monster. Do you really think she'd ever want to see my children?"
"You were a monster," Mai acknowledged. "You don't have to be one now." She shrugged, thick cloth sleeves rustling as if they were innocent fabric, never giving away the senbon strapped inside. "And just because you have them, doesn't mean you have to raise them. Foster them out, with people whose loyalty you hold. That way you can do your job as the Fire Lord, then sweep in at the end of the day and terrify them into doing their homework." She let a hint of a smile glimmer on her face. "You know you'd like that."
For two slow heartbeats, Azula was silent. "Foster them. Like onmitsu."
"Why not?" Mai focused her will into keeping her voice steady. Azula was better now. More stable, and a lot more likely to think twice before she lit someone on fire. But Lady Ursa was still a delicate subject. "You shouldn't put them with onmitsu. They'll be strong in Fire. They'll need someone who can be loyal to them. But if you're afraid you'd hurt them-"
"I would." Azula's voice was quiet, as she glanced aside. "You know I would. I hurt everything around me."
"My parents say that part of being a good governor is knowing what you can't do. Find that out, and then find people who can do it. And take them into your service to do it right." Mai inclined her head; governor's daughter to crown princess. "Have heirs to follow you. Train them. But if you think you'd hurt them," the way you were hurt, "then you're not a monster. A monster wouldn't care." She shrugged; Ty Lee would have bounced over and given Azula a hug, but the airbender was off helping Dai Li charm some of Azula's first cautious supporters. A friendly ear would have to do. "Loyalty. Love. They're not a fuzzy-headed idiot on the beach preening over his girlfriend. They're about giving the people important to you what they need. Give your heirs that. Tell them why later."
Azula's gaze flicked to hers, then slid aside. "What if... staying away doesn't make a difference?"
They both knew it was possible. Even likely. The line of Sozin was brilliant, ruthless, and cruel. And more than a little mad.
Mai took a deep breath, and stood straight. "Then we go kidnap a water-healer to help them," she said flatly. "Zuko told you there would always be somewhere you could go for help. Drop a coded message in the right place, and I bet he'd be willing to go missing for a few days."
"He would, wouldn't he?" Azula shook her head with fond exasperation. "You said, two reasons."
Better be honest. "I hate being bored," Mai stated. "I'd rather stare down flames than be bored. It kills me, like no wind kills Ty Lee." She raised her eyebrows. "Life around you is a lot of things, but it's never boring."
A knock at the chamber door, and Agent Bolin slipped into the room. "Princess." He offered a scroll. "Delun didn't decode it, but he says it came by way of Foggy Swamp."
"Foggy Swamp?" Mai frowned as Azula took the scroll. "We don't have agents there."
"We don't," Azula agreed, eyeing the scroll from all angles before she touched the wax. "But Grandfather does."
One sharp nail sliced away the wax. Azula unrolled the first few inches, reading-
Cold. Not a really bad cold, not when he could move air to keep him as toasty as he wanted. But ever since he'd learned to waterbend, cold had been something Aang noticed. Like a rising thermal, or cracks in hanging stone.
He walked through snow-white Northern Tribe streets, trying not to notice how many people were looking at him. Maybe if he just kept walking, he'd get where he needed to go without people asking too many questions. Though it was going to be a couple days yet before the Comet and he could really use a snack-
"Avatar Aang." Chief Arnook's hair was streaked with gray that hadn't been there a few months ago. "Our coast-watchers have reported Southern Tribe boats headed for our city. What's going on?"
Fire Lord Ozai's not the real enemy. "I need to talk to your shamans," Aang said, wishing he still had an airstaff to cling to. "And then... I need to visit the Spirit Oasis."
A/N: It's a well-known fact that abusers and violent offenders were generally abused themselves. See the evening news on any particularly gruesome crime, and sooner or later the talking heads will explore the perpetrator's "deprived childhood". What's less well-known is the facts assembled by sociologists and psychologists determined to look at all abused children, not just the ones that end up in court. What they've found, you probably won't hear on the news, because it's just not bloody enough.
About three-quarters of abuse victims go on to never abuse anyone.
Three out of four. People who come from the most horrible backgrounds, the worst traumas one human being can inflict on another. Made even more horrific because the abuse was perpetrated by people they should have trusted. And yet these survivors pick themselves up, and go on, and refuse to do unto others what was done unto them.
A lot of them do have problems, and they know it. While they might not go to the lengths Mai's suggesting here, getting help as a parent, if you're scared, is not a bad idea at all.