Weeeeelllllll Here's the next chapter.
Iroh followed the avatar down in the tunnel and lit a small fire in his hand. He had to resist the sigh of pleasure at the warm feeling in his hand. It had been months since he had fire bended and if he had been alone and in a safe place he would have gone through several katas. Iroh's musings were put on hold by Aang clearing his throat. "So…Toph says you give pretty good advice and good tea!"
At the shy look on the young boy's face Iroh smiled. "The key to both is proper aging. What's on your mind?"
Moving his hands around in a circular motion to move dirt out of the way Aang explained what the guru had told him about the Avatar State and letting go. "In order to do it I'd have to let go of the person I love…and I couldn't do it."
An image of Mei Lin came to mind. Iroh should have let her go before their relationship had escalated. But not being with her...he looked at Aang and replied, "Perfection and power are overrated. You were wise to choose happiness and love."
"But what happens if we can't save anyone or beat Azula? What if I'm not powerful enough without the Avatar state?" Aang stopped and looked up at the older man, his eyes filled with worry.
Iroh felt his heart ache for the young boy. The burden of this journey was one that should never have been placed on such small shoulders. Gently he replied, "I don't know the answer." Waving his hand he continued, "Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel. You can't always see the light at the end of it but if you keep moving…." He paused as the Avatar earth bended the last bit of dirt out of the way revealing the crystal cavern. "You will come to a better place."
"I…I'm sorry." Katara wiped the tears from her face and turned around to face Zuko. "I shouldn't have yelled at you before."
Zuko shrugged slightly. "It doesn't matter." Maybe I should have played the mom card before. He thought idly.
Edging closer to him Katara admitted, "It's just that for so long now whenever I imagined the enemy's face I saw your face."
The words hit Zuko hard. Feeling slightly hurt he reached up and touched the scar. "My face? I see." He lowered his hand and hoped that Katara wouldn't notice how her words affected him.
"T-That's not what I meant!" Katara exclaimed in embarrassment. "You're the only person I know who's chased around the world. Your scar doesn't affect you're, ah looks." Zuko looked at the younger girl and was surprised to see her blushing.
Holding back a smile Zuko shrugged. "It's okay." Touching his face again he admitted, "I used to think that this scar marked me. The mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever." He paused, thinking of the decisions he had made in the last few weeks about his life. "But lately I've realized that I'm free to determine my own destiny…even if I'll never be free of the mark."
"Maybe you can be free." Katara said hesitantly. When Zuko looked at her in surprise she reached for a small vial that she had hidden. "I have healing abilities."
Zuko shook his head. "It's a scar. It's past the point of being healed."
The hint of a smile touched Katara's lips as she held up the vial for Zuko to see. "This is water from the Spirit Oasis in the North Pole. Remember that place?" she gave Zuko a pointed look and when he let out a slight huff she continued, "It has special properties so I've been saving it for something important." She reached up and touched Zuko's face. "I don't know if it'll work but…" her voice trailed off.
At the touch of Katara's hand on his face, Zuko felt his mouth dry. This was the first time in all the time he had known the girl that she had made such a move. He stared down at her in surprise, drinking in the way the crystals reflected in her blue eyes. Slowly he reached up and covered her hand with his. Katara gasped slightly but to Zuko's pleasure she didn't move her hand. The young man opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by a familiar voice calling out, "Katara!"
The two teens sprang away from each other just as Aang and Iroh came around the corner. Zuko felt himself being enveloped in a hug by his uncle. With no hesitation he hugged the older man back. Over Iroh's shoulder he noticed the Avatar glaring at him from a similar position in Katara's embrace. Zuko felt some of his old anger and annoyance return. What was this guy's deal? Pulling back from his Uncle he asked, "I don't understand Uncle; what are you doing with the Avatar?"
"Saving you, that's what." Iroh replied dryly. Zuko looked over at the Avatar and gritted his teeth at the smug expression on the younger boy's face. clenching his fists he took a step forward but was stopped by his uncle placing a hand on his shoulder. Sternly Iroh said, " Zuko, it's time we talked." The older man looked over at Katara and Aang. "Go help your other friend's we'll catch up."
Mei Lin followed close behind Sokka and Toph as they walked up the stairs to the palace. Looking at the young man a pleasant memory came to her mind. "When I was a girl I met several warriors from the Southern Water tribe."
"Oh really? I didn't know any of our tribesmen came to the Earth Kingdom." Sokka glanced over his shoulder at Mei Lin.
The older woman smiled. "This was when the war was not as widespread as it was now. It is a pleasure to be in the company of a Warrior and a Master Earth Bender."
"You're not so bad yourself," Toph cut in. "If you're friends with Iroh I guess that makes you a good person."
Sokka rolled his eyes. "Too bad Zuko never got that memo."
Before Mei Lin could ask what he meant, the three of them reached the top of the stairs and Sokka immediately grabbed Toph and motioned for Mei Lin to follow him. The three of them darted around a pillar and Sokka hissed, "That's General How!"
The General had just exited the palace and before he had taken three steps, Dai Li agents had surrounded him. Before the General could react the agents used their stone hands to bring the man down to his knees. Gaping in shock and anger the General yelled, "What's the meaning of this?"
One of the agents leaned forward and said with a slight smile; "You're under house arrest."
As the general was dragged off Sokka exclaimed, "The coup is happening right now! We have to get to the Earth King!" The three of them raced into the palace.
Mei Lin felt nothing but terror as they ran through the halls. The Fire Nation couldn't win this battle; if they did and Ba Sing Se fell then all hope would be lost. Her musings were put on hold as they burst into the throne room. King Kuei sat on his throne with his large pet bear Bosco laying beside him. Two girls stood on either side of the throne dressed in clothes Mei Lin had never seen before.
Sokka breathed out a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness we're in time!"
King Kuei raised an eyebrow at the dusty appearance of the three people before him. "In time for what?" he asked suspiciously.
Before Sokka could reply one of the girls flipped her way over to the trio and stopped close to Sokka. Smiling prettily at him she asked, "Yeah cutie! What are you in time for?"
Looking slightly uncomfortable the young man inched back slightly. "Uhh….I'm kinda involved with Suki…so…." His voice trailed off into a surprised yell as Toph suddenly stamped her foot down and used Earth Bending to send the girl flying.
"They're not real Kyoshi warriors!" Toph yelled as she continued her earth bending.
The other "warrior" sighed and shrugged as the King gasped in surprise. "Sorry to disappoint you." With a quickness that belied her drawl she whipped her arm out and sent several small knives flying towards Sokka. Mei Lin sprang into action and brought up a wall that blocked the deadly weapons. The next few moments were a blur as Toph and Mei used their earth bending to fight and Sokka used boomerang.
The fight came to an abrupt end when the King let out a frightened squeak and they saw Azula holding him threateningly. The young girl smiled and lit up a flame in her hand. "This fight is over."
With their eyes on the King, the trio surrendered. The bubbly girl cartwheeled over to them and with several quick jabs to Toph and Mei Lin. As the Dai Li led them away Mei Lin asked stiffly, "What'd that girl do to us?"
Toph sighed and kicked at the ground. "She chi blocked us. We won't be able to use our bending for awhile."
The Dai Li took them beneath the palace where the prison was located. They were thrown in along with the King. As the doors closed, Mei Lin sighed and touched the floor. "It's metal," she said glumly. With a sigh she settled backwards against the wall of the cell and closed her eyes. How had everything turned into such a mess? Mei's thoughts turned to Iroh and her heart burned with a mixture of anger and longing. She wanted nothing more than to pummel her fists against his chest and demand explanations for the lies. A soft sigh escaped her lips as she thought of the more intimate moments that they had shared together. As furious as she was with Iroh, Mei still felt a desire to be near him.
Toph's voice cut through the silence. "Are there any Dai Li agents around?"
"Uhhh…." Sokka stood up and peered through the bars in the door. "Nope, all clear."
The small girl grinned and cracked her knuckles. Reaching out she grabbed the door and to Mei Lin's shock Toph crumpled the metal together and flung the door aside.
Leaping to her feet Mei Lin gasped out, "How on earth is that even possible?"
A smug smile covered Toph's face. "I'll explain it to you later after we get out of here!
Iroh stood in the chamber trapped by the crystals that encased his body. One moment he had been talking with Zuko and the next Azula had appeared with a group of Dai Li agents and captured him. He stared now at the retreating form of his nephew as he walked towards where Azula had disappeared. The older man's heart clenched with bitter disappoint that his snake of a niece had deceived her brother into walking a path into darkness.
The sounds of fighting could be heard and Iroh gritted his teeth trying to find a way to escape his bonds; if he could get free it would be simple to take the three agents down. Suddenly one of the agents crumpled to the ground as a giant chunk of earth hit him over the head. The other two turned around defensively but it was too late. Both of them were slammed backwards into the crystals and fell to the ground unconscious.
The crystals holding Iroh crumpled and he turned around in surprise to see Mei Lin behind him. At the sight of her beautiful face joy spread across his chest but it quickly melted away. Mei Lin was covered in a fine sheet of sweat and was breathing heavily. "Were you hurt?" he demanded as he moved over to her.
Mei Lin shook her head. "I should be asking you that," she said looking pointedly at the downed Dai Li agents. She looked back at him and their eyes held for several long moments. Finally she took step back and said softly, "You had better go after your nephew. The coup was successful; we barely managed to free the King."
"You came back for me." Iroh said a smile crossing his face. "That says much about how you truly feel."
"The only thing it says," Mei Lin said with a tremble, "Is that I keep my promises. I said I would help and now I have."
Iroh reached out and easily pulled Mei Lin to him. "Your words say one thing but your face says another entirely." He cupped her cheek. "We will make it through this." He bent his head and kissed her softly. For one long moment Mei Lin stood stiffly against him but the moment passed and her arms came up around his neck.
The intimate moment came to an end and Mei Lin pulled away, an expression of pain on her face. "Iroh we can't…I can't…" she touched her mouth. "I'm still furious with you." She hesitated for a moment before continuing softly, "And I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive you."
"You are lying to yourself and to me," Iroh replied sharply. "If you truly felt this way you would not be here right now."
Anger surged through Mei Lin and without hesitation she slapped him. When he looked at her stunned she yelled, "What would you have me do Iroh? Stand by and watch you die to prove that I am truly furious with you?" When he did not reply she continued angrily, "Should I allow the fact that you and your nephew are Fire Nation cloud my judgment?" with barely a pause she threw her arms up in frustration, causing crystals that were around them to crack. "Yes, I love you. Much more than I could have imagined possible but you lied to me and you were going to continue doing so! I can't put that aside so easily!"
Any response that Iroh would have given her was lost when the ground beneath them rumbled. There was an explosion and the two of them exchanged glances. Without speaking they turned and ran into the direction that it came from.
Every step Zuko took away from his trapped Uncle was both freeing and nerve wracking. Clenching his sweaty fists he thought of the conversation they had just had.
"Zuko, I need to talk with you." His uncle waited for the Avatar and his friend to leave before continuing, "You're not the man you used to be, Zuko." He paused to place his hands on his nephew's shoulders." "you are stronger and wiser and freer than you have ever been. Now you have to the crossroads of your destiny….it is time for you to choose good."
As if a cue had been given Zuko had jumped backwards in surprise as crystals jutted out of the ground and encased his Uncle. Azula's voice, soft and mocking, echoed throughout the cavern. "I expected this kind of treachery from you, Uncle…." Her voice trailed off as she came into view and looked Zuko full in the face. "But you Zuko, PRINCE Zuko, you're a lot of things but you're not a traitor are you?"
Zuko felt his throat dry and he slid into a defensive stance. Azula was lying like she always did…wasn't she. "Release him immediately."
Ignoring his demand Azula continued softly, "It's not too late for you Zuko…you can still redeem yourself."
The young prince felt conflicted. Redemption from everything he had done…Iroh's voice cut through. "The kind of redemption she offers is not for you."
Zuko shook his head, trying to push out the look of disappointment on his Uncle's face when he had walked away. Why couldn't he understand that the only thing Zuko wanted almost as much as his father's approval was to return home? If teaming up with Auzula brought him that then so be it. The tunnel he was walking down opened up into a massive cavern that contained some crumbling buildings, a waterfall and a river.
With no hesitation he jumped down off the ledge he was on and sent a huge stream of flames towards the fighting trio comprised of his sister, Katara and Aang. All three stopped and looked at him in surprise. Zuko moved towards them, his arms up, and his eyes met those of his sister. The decision was cemented and without any hesitation he twisted his body and sent a spew of flames at Aang.
Blow after blow was trading between the two forces. Rocks crumbled as water and fire smashed their way through the area. Zuko was so focused on the battle that he barely noticed when the chamber was filled with Dai Li agents. Zuko stared into Aangs face and shoved away the shame that he felt at the look on the younger boy's face. Aang seemed to steel himself and with a quick movement was enveloped in a protective rock.
Time seemed to stand still. Suddenly the rock erupted and Aang rose up from it in the avatar state. Zuko felt his breathing quicken as he remembered the last time he had seen the avatar like this at the North Pole. They would nev…Zuko's thoughts froze when a blast of lightening split across the room and slammed into the back of the Avatar. Aang cried out as he fell out of the Avatar state and tumbled down to the ground. Katara let out a cry as she water bended the river and a huge wave rose up to catch the falling boy. She raced over to his still body and cradled him in her arms. Tears dripped down her face as she looked up and her eyes met those of Zuko.
This was how it was supposed to be Zuko thought faintly as he and Azula advanced forward. He has to die so I can reclaim my honor and my life. Gritting his teeth he took another step forward but was forced to retreat when a huge wave of fire erupted between him and Katara. Shocked Zuko turned his head and saw his Uncle and Mei Lin jumping down from the ledge. Uncle…
Mei Lin threw her arms out and the ground shook as a crack ripped the ground knocking over several of the Dai Li who were advancing. She followed close behind Iroh as he threw himself before a young woman who was clinging to the Avatar's body. Mei Lin's heart clenched at the sight but she focused on the task at hand. Iroh sent several blasts of fire towards his nephew and niece and Mei Lin used her earth bending to upend several more Dai Li.
Looking over his shoulder towards the girl Iroh shouted, "You've got to get out of here!"
"We'll hold them off," Mei Lin added as she raised her arms to create a protective rock barrier between the Avatar and the Dai Li. She gritted her teeth as she felt the Dai Li try to use their bending to bring down her wall. The strain was too much and she felt her legs give out beneath her. Mei Lin fell to ground on her knees and, breathing heavily, she felt Iroh's hand touch her shoulder. It was over. Mei winced as she felt a twinge of pain in her chest. A cold sweat broke out across her forehead as the Dai Li advanced towards her and Iroh. As they grabbed onto her Mei Lin felt the pain blossom across her chest and unable to bear it her eyes slid closed and she fell unconscious.
Azula sat in the Earth Kings throne, legs crossed and a smug smile on her face. How easy it had been to come here and destroy Ba Sing Se. How her Uncle had failed to accomplish that simple task years before was beyond reason. Azula's self satisfied musings were interrupted when Ty Lee, cart wheeling, and Mai entered the throne room.
Ty Lee stopped in front of the throne and with a bubbly and almost infectious grin she chirped, "Heya Azula! We're nearly packed and ready to go home."
"About time," Mai complained as she seated herself on the stairs before the throne. "This place is nearly as bad as Omashu."
"Aww it's not so bad," Ty Lee replied as she went into a handstand. "They have yummy food here."
Arching her eyebrow Azula smirked and replied, "Who cares about this washed up city? I did what my esteemed Uncle and loving Zuzu could not."
"Where is your brother?" Mai asked. As if realizing she asked too quickly she hastily added, "And your…uncle."
Tucking away Mai's flustered actions for later use, Azula waved her hand and said flatly, "You know Zuzu; even though we've won he's probably brooding in his room contemplating his life choices. As for Uncle he's rotting in one of the cells bellow."
With a heartfelt sigh Ty Lee asked, "Is his girlfriend with him?" without waiting for a reply she gushed on, "Don't you think its sooooo romantic that he finally found someone? I always thought your Uncle seemed rather lonely."
"Ah, yes, the little earth peasant whore that my Uncle was dallying with." Azula said with a slight frown. "Clearly she must be punished for assuming that she could just waltz in and take a position with the royal family." The words had barely left her mouth when the frown turned into one of her trademarked smirks. "Mai, do you still keep in touch with your Uncle Ming?"
Mai gave a bored sigh. "My mother's brother? He's been trying to get me to go visit him for months."
Sliding languidly off of the throne Azula stretched and ordered, "Send your dear uncle a message and inform him to make room for a very special prisoner. I'd do it myself, but," she paused to shrug. "I have a newly conquered city to gloat over."
I don't think I have anything to add other than don't worry it'll get better...eventually.